Miami Heat's James prepares to make a shot against Milwaukee Bucks during their NBA game in Milwaukee

NBA Power Rankings: Heat on top, Clippers climbing

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Miami moves back into the top spot — but the Clippers have now cracked the top three, which had been the domain of the Heat, Bulls and Thunder for a while. Oh, and the Bobcats still suck.

1. Heat (18-6, last week ranked No. 2). They’ve had a few uninspired wins (like Sunday against the Raptors) but they keep winning. Also, they beat the Sixers Friday with a burst that reminded us just how good they can be converting defense to offense, and how hard they will be to beat in the playoffs. Unless they get the Bucks in the first round. Six game road trip starts Wednesday.

2. Bulls (20-6, LW 3). Luol Deng is back and they missed him — so Tom Thibodeau welcomed him back with 41 minutes. Chicago is out of the friendly confines of the United Center for a nine-game trip.

3. Clippers (14-7, LW 5). Beat the Thunder convincingly Monday, and while that may have been an off night for OKC the Clippers are starting to look like a threat to come out of the West. Especially with Kenyon Martin in the fold providing needed depth up front (sorry Brian Cook). Still a lot of questions come the playoffs, but right now they are hot.

4. Thunder (18-5, LW 1). They may still be the team to beat in the West, but here is some cause for concern — Chris Paul and Tony Parker abused their perimeter defense last week. We’ve got questions, other teams think the Thunder can be beat.

5. 76ers (17-7, LW 4). Lost to the Heat, but beat the Magic, Bulls and Hawks — they are getting tested and passing. More tests on the way this week with the Lakers, Clippers and Spurs all coming to town.

6. Pacers (16-7, LW 8). Paul George is emerging as a young star to watch, and not just for the dunks. Lots of quality wins for this team — road wins against the Lakers, Bulls, Mavericks and more. Tough games this week on the road at Atlanta and Memphis

7. Spurs (16-9, LW 10). Tony Parker has been tearing it up the last week and they expect to get Manu Ginobili back during the Rodeo road trip (which is underway).

8. Nuggets (15-9, LW 6). Beat the Clippers, lost to the Lakers and fell to the Trail Blazers on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back. Still one of the most fun teams to watch in the league.

9. Hawks (16-8, LW 7). The Hawks are crushing the teams they should beat (13-0 against teams below .500) and getting good defense from Josh Smith. Still, tough games ahead against teams over .500, so we reserve judgment.

10. Magic (15-9, LW 12). Split games against the two good teams on the schedule last week (lost to Philly, beat Indy). How they do the next month is about how good they are at ignoring the Dwight Howard rumors, as they will only get louder.

11. Lakers (14-10, LW 14). Split a tough back-to-back (Denver then Utah) to start the Grammy road trip that has them on the road for a couple weeks. Big games this week — at Philly, Boston and New York. Are the Lakers big three of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol enough (because after that the drop off is steep)?

12. Celtics (13-10, LW 17). They have won eight of their last nine and now have gotten Rajon Rondo back. Suddenly they look like one of those teams the elite want to avoid in the East.

13. Blazers (14-10, LW 13). Beat Utah at home, lost to the Kings on the road. This is just a Jekyll and Hyde team inside or outside the Rose Garden — 11-1 at home, 3-9 on the road.

14. Mavericks (14-11, LW 9). Dirk Nowitzki may finally be finding his footing with a couple good games near the end of the week. Still, this is a hot and cold team that could beat or lose to anyone on any given night. Not consistent like last season.

15. Jazz (13-9, LW 15). Quality win against the Lakers Saturday night (even if the old legs of LA were on a back-to-back). Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson have made a formidable front line. They are on the road a lot leading up to the All-Star Game, we’ll see how they do with that test.

16. Timberwolves (12-12, LW 18). They are only 1.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West, and they are playing well. But they will have to get by two games this week without Kevin Love, who used Luis Scola as a doormat.

17. Rockets (13-11, LW 11). A lot of road games against the teams ahead of them in the West between now and the All-Star game. This would be a good time to make a push and secure one of those spots, but instead they are slumping.

18. Grizzlies (12-12, LW 16). Held their own last week in a tough stretch of games. If they can just hold close to a playoff spot (1.5 games out) until Zach Randolph gets back they have a shot.

19. Bucks (10-13, LW 20). What they are hoping for is to grab the 7 or 8 seed and get the Heat in the first round (they beat Miami twice in recent weeks). Stephen Jackson was supposed to carry the offense, but they are +7.2 per 48 minutes when he sits. So he’s been sitting a lot.

20. Cavaliers (9-13, LW 19). Kyrie Irving is the story, but Anderson Varejao has been fantastic the past couple weeks. The phone will start ringing with trade offers for the Brazilian, but will the Cavs be listening? Maybe not.

21. Knicks (9-15, LW 24). That lost Friday against Boston hurt — New York had a healthy lead and let it get away when Boston tightened their defense in the second half. Jeremy Lin gets the start — he’s nobody’s savior but his style of play (attacking) is what New York needs at the point.

22. Suns (9-14, LW 21). Good to see Michael Redd back out on the court and playing well. That story will be overshadowed by the annual “will they trade Steve Nash” rumors that are ready to kick into high gear.

23. Warriors (8-13, LW 25). For a team with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry this team is shockingly dull to watch.

24. Kings (8-15, LW 26). Marcus Thornton is back and playing well, and the Kings have looked relatively solid the past week. We’ll see if that holds up.

25. Raptors (8-17, LW 22). Sunday’s loss to the Heat showed how much this team misses Andrea Bargnani — they fought hard but lacked the offensive firepower to get a win.

26. Nets (8-17, LW 23). Their defense was torn apart by Jeremy Lin and Nikola Pekovic on back-to-back nights over the weekend. That should tell you everything you need to know.

27. Pistons (6-20, LW 29).
Winners of two and a row, so stand back. Still surprised to see a Lawrence Frank coached team 29th in the league in defensive efficiency.

28. Wizards (4-20, LW 27). Do they look any better than they did under Flip Saunders? And no, a couple wins over Charlotte don’t improve things.

29. Hornets (4-20, LW 28). Note to David Stern: You can drive a hard bargain when you are trading an asset like Chris Paul; Chris Kaman is another matter entirely.

30. Bobcats (3-21, LW 30). Losers of 11 straight, two of their losses last week were by more than 30. And now they enter one of their toughest weeks. Good luck!

J.B. Bickerstaff calls Rockets ‘broken team,’ ‘fragmented bunch’

Houston Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff rubs his head in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Houston. The Wizards won 123-122. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been unafraid to sharply assess his team.

But after last night’s loss to the Trail Blazers – Houston’s third straight defeat and sixth in eight games – Bickerstaff kicked up the rhetoric even further.

Bickerstaff, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

“We’re broken,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s that simple. We’re a broken team, and we all need to use this break to figure out how we’re going to impact change. If we don’t want to impact change, then we need to be made aware of that, too, and we’ll go in a different direction.

“We can’t continue to go out and play this way. It’s easy to see it’s a fragmented bunch. You can’t win that way.”

This is why Dwight Howard is on the trade block. The Rockets are so incohesive, there’s no simple solution in sight. This increasingly looks like a lost season for Houston, which should emphasize future planning – like dealing Howard, who can become an unrestricted free agent at age 30 this summer.

Yet, the Rockets are just a half game from playoff position. They obviously dreamed much bigger when the season began, but at this point, merely making the postseason should qualify as a success.

It’s Bickerstaff’s job to get them there, no matter how unlikely. He has certainly shown little fear in trying, whether it’s giving these quotes or pulling all five starters simultaneously shortly into a game. He’s trying to put his mark on this team.

The players just aren’t responding, not more than periodically, at least. From James Harden down, nobody plays with the requisite focus and energy.

Nothing in Bickerstaff’s assessment is surprising. It’s just surprising he said it so bluntly publicly.

Then again, that’s nothing compared to what veteran Houston guard Jason Terry said. Eric Ringering of 750 The Game:

https://twitter.com/ringering45/status/697664478993756164

Devin Booker to replace Nerlens Noel in Rising Stars at All-Star Weeekend

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker reacts after hitting a 3-point shot against the San Antonio Spurs during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
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Sixers big man Nerlens Noel — who has looked much improved this season once Ish Smith was feeding him the rock on offense — sat out the Sixers game Wednesday night due to tendonitis in his right knee. After he missed his rookie season with knee issues, you can understand why the Sixers want him to be cautious.

Noel is going to sit out All-Star Weekend as well — he had been scheduled to play in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night, but he is going to sit that out and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns will take his place, the league has announced (Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic broke that story).

Booker has been one of the few bright spots for the Suns this season, averaging 10.6 points a game and shooting 40.3 percent from three.

He will play for the USA in the World vs. USA format of the Rising Stars Challenge (the former rookie/sophomore game, featuring first and second year players).

With Emmanuel Mudiay replacing Patrick Beverley, NBA reveals Skills Challenge bracket

Houston Rockets' Patrick Beverley (2) knocks the ball away from Denver Nuggets' Emmanuel Mudiay (0) in the first half of a NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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Out: Defending champion Patrick Beverley.

In: Emmanuel Mudiay Emmanuel Mudiay.

The NBA confirmed the Rockets guard would miss the Skills Challenge and that Mudiay would replace him. The league also release the bracket:

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My picks:

Quarterfinals

Semifinals

  • Isaiah Thomas over C.J. McCollum
  • Anthony Davis over Draymond Green

Final

  • Isaiah Thomas over Anthony Davis

NBA suspends Hassan Whiteside for elbowing Boban Marjanovic’s head

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Hassan Whiteside lost his cool and elbowed Boban Marjanovic in the head Tuesday.

The Heat center received a flagrant 2 and an ejection, and now he’s getting the rest of his punishment.

NBA release:

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has been suspended one game without pay for throwing an elbow and making contact with the head of San Antonio Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

The incident, for which Whiteside was assessed a Flagrant 2 and ejected, occurred with 9:35 remaining in the fourth quarter of the Spurs’ 119-101 win over the Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena on Feb. 9.

Whiteside will serve his suspension when Miami plays the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 19 at Philips Arena.

The suspension will cost Whiteside $8,921. As a result, the Heat – in line to become the first team in NBA history to pay the repeater luxury-tax rate – trim their impending tax bill by $24,534.

More importantly for Whiteside, this will be a strike against him for teams considering offering him a big contract in free agency this summer.