NBA Power Rankings: Spurs advancing, Heat still on top

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I’m beginning to wonder: Will the Eastern Conference Finals be the real NBA finals this year? Feels that way some days.

1. Heat (21-7, last week ranked 1)
The Magic and Knicks combined to shoot 85 threes against the Heat in two nights. The Heat’s defensive energy does that to teams, makes them settle (although those two squads don’t need much encouragement to launch bombs all night). Miami gets Milwaukee again this week, they are 0-2 against them this season.

2. Bulls (23-7, LW 2). They looked good on a nine-game road trip, except for Derrick Rose’s back. Tom Thibodeau has an old-school “if you’re well enough to play you can play a lot” mentality that does not mesh well with a condensed schedule and a deep playoff run.

3. Clippers (17-8, LW 3). Quality wins at Orlando and Philly last week as they are 4-1 on the Grammy road trip (with at Dallas Monday being the final game of it), but this team’s defense without Chauncey Billups will be their Achilese heel.

4. Thunder (21-6, LW 4). They won some thrilling games on the road this week — at Golden State and Portland — but the more I see their end of game execution, the more I wonder if they can do better in the playoffs.

5. Spurs (19-9, LW 7). Winners of seven in a row (including in Philly) and they get Manu Ginobili back on their rodeo road trip. They are looking like a team that can make a run in the playoffs, but they looked like that last year so we’re hesitant.

6. 76ers (19-9, LW 5).
Beat the Lakers thanks to Lou Williams (who can be their late game go-to guy), but fell to the Clippers and Spurs — in a stretch against seven quality teams over two weeks they go 4-3. They are legit, but a notch below elite.

7. Mavericks (17-11, LW 14). They have been playing well of late (three wins in a row) but let’s see how they do against this week’s gauntlet of Clippers, Nuggets, Sixers and Knicks.

8. Pacers (17-10, LW 6).
They have lost four of five as the completion has gotten tougher. This week it’s a back-to-back-to-back that starts with the Heat but has winnable games against the Cavs and Nets to follow.

9. Hawks (18-10, LW 9). They are 5-9 against teams over .500. 13-1 against the teams under .500. This is why nobody buys into the Hawks as serious contenders in the East. That said, Josh Smith has All-Star numbers.

10. Nuggets (16-12, LW 8). They have struggled in recent weeks, losing seven of nine, but did get a nice win against the Pacers over the weekend. They miss Danilo Gallinari.

11. Magic (17-11, LW 10).
Nice win against the Miami Heat as the three ball fell, but nobody thinks that is a viable long-term strategy come the playoffs. All-Star Weekend in Orlando is going to be interesting, Dwight Howard better prepare a whole new line of answers for dodging trade questions.

12. Lakers (16-12, LW 11). The Lakers go 3-3 on their Grammy road trip, but the unimpressive losses in New York and Philadelphia (and having to get Kobe Bryant heroics in Toronto to pull out a win) leaves a lot of questions. The main one: How can a veteran, championship team look so disorganized at the ends of games? The answer to that question is not Gilbert Arenas, however.

13. Rockets (16-12, LW 17). Kevin Martin is tearing it up and they get quality wins last week against Denver and Portland. The question is this: How do the Rockets get from being a good team without a star to an elite contender? No easy answer there.

14. Celtics (15-12, LW 12). Tough loss to the Lakers highlights the weakness of this team against real size inside (insert Kendrick Perkins lament here). Their wins behind great play from Rajon Rondo show what they can be.

15. Knicks (13-15, LW 21). Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Baron Davis who? Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Oh, and they get Carmelo Anthomy and Amare Stoudemire back this week. Jeremy Lin.

16. Blazers (15-13, LW 13). Two losses at home last week, they had had just one all season before that. They keep losing a lot of close games, and you expect that scale to balance out at some point.

17. Jazz (14-12, LW 15). Al Jefferson had a great game against the Grizzlies on Sunday night (21 points, 15 rebounds), he may be slightly undersized at the five but his ability to get his shot off against a bigger defender is impressive.

18. Timberwolves (13-15, LW 16). The Kevin Love suspension really hurt this team, their offense drops off the map when he is out. That said, they are just 2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West. Ricky Rubio did a good job on Jeremy Lin this week, he is a clever defender as well.

19. Grizzlies (14-14, LW 18). For the love of all things holy, don’t ever wear those Tams uniforms again. Please. My retinas are begging you.

20. Suns (12-15, LW 22).
They went 3-1 last week because Steve Nash is carrying them on his 38-year-old shoulders.

21. Bucks (12-15, LW 19). I got a couple tweets asking me what is up with Stephen Jackson. That would take a lot more than 140 characters, suffice to say he’s not playing well and the Bucks are a bad fit. It’s a mess. This week the Bucks get the Heat who may be looking for revenge.

22. Cavaliers (10-16, LW 20). The Anderson Varejao injury is a blow, because I don’t think Antawn Jamison can keep playing this well over a long stretch.

23. Kings (10-17, LW 24). They have won four of their last six, including a victory over the Thunder, but now they head out for an East Coast road swing. Kings fans deserve a team and a stadium that suits them.

24. Warriors (9-14, LW 23). They are outscoring teams — their defense is still terrible but they have won five of their last eight because Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are playing together better than they ever have.

25. Pistons (8-21, LW 27). They are actually winning games against other bad teams. That doesn’t make them a good team. And no, sorry Detroit, but Hibbert deserved the All-Star nod over Greg Monroe (who has been good, I’ll grant you that).

26. Raptors (9-20 LW 25). The biggest question over the next few months — can the strike a deal to trade Jose Calderon? You think it’s simple, until you realize he makes $10.5 million next year.

27. Nets (8-21, LW 26).
Worst. Defense. Ever. (Not really kidding.)

28. Wizards (6-22, LW 28).
There was a stretch on Sunday, for about 12 minutes over two quarters in the second half, where you saw what Wall could be (and with him the Wizards). It’s a flash, but it’s one of the few this year. So, there’s your positive note.

29. Hornets (4-23, LW 29). They have lost 23 of 25 and blew an 18 point lead to the Kings this week. And until they find an owner, that’s not even their biggest problem.

30. Bobcats (3-24, LW 30).
The losing streak is up to 14 and if we could move them lower we would. Maybe below Kentucky and Syracuse.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelican Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.

Another wing down? Celtics’ Marcus Smart likely out vs. Sixers

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The horrific, probably season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward has left the Celtics with a shortage of players on the wing.

Going up against Philadelphia Friday night, that might be getting worse, reports A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

Looking at the pictures, I doubt Smart plays.

As noted, Smart said he hurt both ankles in the second night of a back-to-back against Milwaukee, the left one in a collision with teammate Jaylen Brown. Smart started that game and played 32 minutes. That’s a lot of time to go to lesser players.

If he’s out Friday, that likely means either Terry Rozier or Abdel Nader get the start, and both are going to see a healthy bump in minutes. Whatever happens, the Celtics would miss Smart in a game where they need to defend Ben Simmons on the wing.

What happened to Willy Hernangomez’s minutes with Knicks?

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When talking about the Knicks’ young core going forward, Willy Hernangomez was one of the names that got mentioned by the front office (alongside players such asFrank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr.). The Knicks are crowded at the center spot — Enes Kanter got the start in the opener Thursday night, and Kristaps Porzingis should get minutes there (it’s ultimately going to be his NBA position), and this isn’t even mentioning Joakim Noah — but Hernangomez looked like a developing young player who needed some run.

He got just 3:46 minutes in the opener, and that was during fourth quarter garbage time. Kyle O'Quinn got nearly 22 off the bench at the five. That follows a preseason where Hernangomez saw his minutes drop seemingly game-to-game.

What gives? Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News asked the same question.

“We have a lot of bigs,” Hornacek said. “(O’Quinn) and Enes earned the minutes in training camp. Willy’s not far behind. He’s got to keep working. When you got that many bigs, you can’t play them all. The other guys earned the minutes. I told all three of them it doesn’t matter if you’re in the rotation or out of rotation. If you’re in it, you’ve got to earn it to keep it.”

“I can score. It’s not difficult for me. I think the coach wants to see my effort on defense. That’s why I have to keep working hard everyday,” said Hernangomez, who is also Kristaps Porzingis’ best friend on the Knicks.

Without question, Hernangomez needs to work on his defense, but then again this is a Knicks team starting Kanter so it’s obviously not a requirement.

Hornacek needs to find a balance here — it’s early in the season, he wants to win games, he wants to put his best foot forward. But the Knicks are not a playoff team this season, and they are in the player development business. That means Hernangomez — as well as rookie point guard Ntilikina — need to get minutes, need to be thrown to the wolves a little, and need to learn from their mistakes. Hornacek needs to be coaching for a few years down the line… the problem is he knows he may not have this job that far down the line, so he’s coaching to get wins now.