NBA Power Rankings: Streaking Heat, Spurs land on top

7 Comments

Miami has looked dominant the last week, while Tony Parker may be the best player in basketball the last two weeks so the Spurs climb. At the bottom, things look familiar.

1. Heat (24-7, last week ranked 1). They became the third team in the NBA to sweep a back-to-back-to-back (Bulls, Thunder), but they did it absolutely dominating their opponents — six wins in a row, all by double digits. Bill Clinton came to them on Sunday, but keep playing like this and they will be going to the president. Heat play the Knicks Thursday, that should be fun.

2. Spurs (22-9, LW 5). Winners of 10 in a row. This is the opposite of you’re father’s Spurs — they are winning with offense. We all marveled at Jeremy Lin dropping the game winner on Toronto, but Jose Calderon pushed Lin around most of that game — Tony Parker came in the next night and put up 34 points and 14 assists on Calderon. Can they keep it up with Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter out?

4. Thunder (24-7, LW 4). What a display by Kevin Durant (51) and Russell Westbrook (40) on Sunday. They are 7-3 in their last 10, outscoring opponents by an average of 6.6 per game. Should be fun Thursday night when they take on the Lakers.

4. Bulls (25-8, LW 2). They are treading water without Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton, which is about all you can ask. Chicago almost fell further after that ugly effort against the Nets.

5. Mavericks (20-12, LW 7). Brutal schedule last week and they came out looking good with wins over the 76ers, Clippers and Nuggets (the lone loss was to Linsanity on Sunday). When Dirk Nowitzki is clicking this whole offense comes together.

6. Clippers (19-10 LW 3). You will not see Chris Paul make mistakes at the end of games often, like he did against Dallas. But you wonder if in the playoffs when all the games are tight how much they will  miss Chauncey Billups.

7. Magic (20-12, LW 11). They keep on winning mostly, but the Sunday loss to Miami shows how far this team is from elite. As the Dwight Howard rumors ramp up heading into the All-Star Weekend, will it start to weigh on this team?

8. 76ers (20-12, LW 6). They have lost five of seven as the schedule has turned hard and their guard play has struggled.

9. Lakers (18-13, LW 12). Veteran teams are supposed to be able to ignore and play through trade rumors, but the Lakers struggle with it (especially on the road). The drop off on this team after their three stars is dramatic.

10. Pacers (19-12, LW 8). Five losses in a row, but that turned around thanks to the patsies that are the Nets and Bobcats. With the Hornets and the Bobcats left before the break, they could find their footing after the All-Star Game.

11. Knicks (16-16, LW 15). Jeremy Lin bounced back from his off game and had spearheaded a quality win over the Mavs Sunday. With J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony they have the talent to be the third best team in the East, but can they bring it all together and keep playing good defense?

12. Grizzlies (18-14, LW 19). Four straight wins, including over the Nuggets and Rockets. They have played well without Zach Randolph and will be a lower seed to be feared come the playoffs. Just like last year (ask the Spurs).

13. Rockets (18-14, LW 13). Good wins over Oklahoma City and Utah, but fell to Memphis and Minnesota last week, been that kind of up and down your for the Rockets. They are a playoff team and Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for that.

14. Hawks (19-12, LW 9). They are doing better than expected without Al Horford thanks to great play from All-Star snub Josh Smith. But will they make a move at the trade deadline to improve their playoff chances? History says no.

15. Nuggets (17-15, LW 10). They have lost seven of their last 10 and fallen out of the playoffs in the West. Their defense has gone missing. That said, the return of Wilson Chandler would be a big boost (he is meeting with them Monday).

16. Blazers (17-15, LW 16). Getting LaMarcus Aldridge back should help, and it should help open things up for the unhappy Raymond Felton. But the Blazers are fighting it right now.

17. Celtics (15-15, LW 14). They are a .500 team defined by an inconsistent offense. Doc Rivers is desperately searching for the right combination, but the only answer may be a time machine.

18. Timberwolves (16-16, LW 18). Nikola Pekovic has been a beast of late — 18.8 points per game on 63.1 percent shooting, plus 10.4 rebounds per game. Paired with Love that is a powerful front line.

19. Jazz (15-15, LW 17). This team is rivaling the Lakers (and the couple teams at the bottom of this ranking) for worst point guard play in the league. Devin Harris and Earl Watson are not getting it done. Al Jefferson is.

20. Suns (13-19, LW 20). The trade rumors are going to start ramping up again around Steve Nash for the first three weeks. Could he and Jeremy Lin co-exist in New York?

21. Cavaliers (12-17, LW 21). A couple nice wins last week over Indiana and Sacramento, showing there is some young promise in Cleveland. And can we stop talking about LeBron coming back now? Thanks.

22. Pistons (11-22, LW 25). Don’t look now, but they are 7-3 in their last 10 and getting good play from Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey. It’s a process, but there are signs of hope.

23. Bucks (13-18, LW 21). They need to get Stephen Jackson off the roster, the tension around the team is palpable, but nobody wants to take on the $10 million he is owed next year and give up anything of value.

24. Warriors (11-17, LW 24). There is no team in the bottom 10 here that is more fun to watch or more dangerous on any given night because Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry can just win games when hot.

25. Kings (10-21, LW 23). DeMarcus Cousins’ made two great plays against the Cavaliers down the stretch Sunday to give his team a chance, but he balanced it out with a dumb foul that gave the Cavaliers a chance. Story of his career so far. But it wasn’t as bad as Tyreke Evans’ reach in that cost them the game. Isaiah Thomas has been a find.

26. Nets (9-24, LW 27). Brook Lopez is back and that should help the Nets defense a little. It’s not going to help the rebounding, however.

27. Hornets (7-23, LW 29). A three game winning streak, including handing Jeremy Lin his only loss. Pardon us if we are not on the bandwagon yet.

28. Raptors (9-23 LW 26). They lost to the Bobcats. With that, they should consider this ranking generous. What happened to their defense that was at one point this season respectable?

29. Wizards (7-24, LW 28). Washington is statistically the worst defensive rebounding team in the league. That with a very long front line. Just sayin’.

30. Bobcats (4-26, LW 30).
The losing streak is over at 16! But the way they played Sunday against the Pacers shows you why they remain on the bottom.

What does Boston do without Gordon Hayward? Five things to watch

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Gordon Hayward’s injury sucked the air out of Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday night. Cavaliers fans were buzzing, gave Hayward a standing ovation as he was carted off the court, and never got back to booing Kyrie Irving with the same venom, as it seemed petty after what had just happened.

Hayward is in Boston, will soon have surgery to fix things, and start a long road of recovery.

What do the Celtics do the rest of the season? (Or, until he gets back if you want to be an optimistic Celtics’ fan.) How much does this hurt Boston?

• Long-term, not too much changes. That comes with the caveat: So long as Hayward is able to recover and be himself again. With Danny Ainge at the helm, the Celtics have always taken the long view. They have not been in a rush to challenge LeBron James and the Cavaliers for East supremacy this season, thinking more about next season and beyond. That doesn’t change now. By next season Hayward should be back and healthy (*knocking on wood*) and the plan does not change.

• Welcome to the Kyrie Irving show. Boston’s offense could resemble last season’s “turn Isaiah Thomas loose” offense at times because the Celtics are back to having one primary shot creator. Hayward was going to be the glue guy who could be a secondary shot creator, a guy who would keep the ball moving, and the new guy used to playing in Brad Steven’s motion offense. Now, it’s the Kyrie show.

Stevens will try to get Irving and the team to buy into his motion offense (Irving did move well off the ball in the opener) but last season there was a lot of IT isolation plays, and we may see that at points with Irving (one of the games’ best iso shot creators). Irving had 22 points and 10 assists in the loss opening night, and he got them in the flow of the offense without stopping the ball to go isolation. He’s going to be asked to continue to do that and put up similar numbers or better, and to take the clutch shots for this team.

• Small Ball lineups. With or without Hayward, this was always part of the plan — have Al Horford at center, Irving at the point, and a bunch of 6’6” to 6’9” interchangable wings, play fast and shoot threes (count Marcus Morris in that group when he returns). The goal was to space the floor and create driving lanes for Irving and Hayward, but the plan still works for Irving.

It didn’t work ideally late in the opener, but LeBron James and the Cavaliers create unique challenges no other team in the East does. (Jaylen Brown played hard and had a great game, but he can’t stop LeBron down low late in games, only a couple of players in the entire league stand a chance at that.) The real question for the Celtics’ small ball lineup is they have to knock down their threes or defenses will sag off. Brown was 2-of-9, Marcus Smart 0-of-4, and as a team the Celtics shot 25 percent from three for the game. That has to improve for the small ball lineups to thrive.

• Can they get enough stops? This was the biggest question about the Celtics before one of their better wing defenders on the roster went down. They don’t have a classic rim protector (Aron Baynes did a little of that off the bench, but he’s mostly a big body) and their defenders tend to be either young and inexperienced or disinterested.

Boston’s defense wasn’t going to be that good before, but how big a step back they take in wins after the Hayward injury will be more about defense than offense. Boston will miss Hayward on this end of the court.

• Young players get a lot of run, team gets to evaluate roster. Just how good is Jayson Tatum, who can make tough, contested shots but needs to find a way to get easy buckets, too? How big a step can Jaylen Brown take? Has Marcus Smart developed to the point the Celtics will pay to keep him next summer? What kind of player can Semi Ojeleye develop into?

There’s going to be more data, more minutes, more eyeball tests to answer these questions now. Brown led the Celtics with 25 points in the opener, and Tatum scored all 14 of his points in the second half. Those were promising stars, but the tests for these young Celtics stars will be season long.

Smart is the biggest question in that list, and he’s going to get the biggest minutes bump with Hayward out. He’s a restricted free agent next summer and is playing for his paycheck now. He’s going to be one guy to watch on this team.

Fake Klay Thompson almost steals show in Golden State

Getty Images
1 Comment

Klay Thompson was everywhere Tuesday night for the Warriors.

He had 16 points, knocked down four threes, and had six boards. He was also chillin’ in the stands enjoying the game.

Well, that was “fake” Klay Thompson in the seats — fully decked out in a Golden State uniform and sitting almost right behind the team bench at Oracle — but the cameras loved him.

Heck, “fake Klay” even had a take on real Klay’s first-half performance.

I wonder if I can get fake Klay to sign my toaster?

76ers’ Markelle Fultz to make NBA debut close to home in Washington

Getty Images
Leave a comment

WASHINGTON (AP) — Markelle Fultz gets to start the next chapter of his career in a familiar setting.

The No. 1 pick in the draft will make his NBA debut for the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night at the Washington Wizards, about a half-hour from home. Fultz grew up in nearby Upper Marlboro, Maryland, in Prince George’s County and played at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and will have many friends, family members and former coaches in attendance.

“Being able to have his first game in his backyard, I’m so happy for him,” said Keith Williams, Fultz’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor. “It’s perfect. It couldn’t have worked out better.”

Not wanting to throw Fultz “into the fire,” Sixers coach Brett Brown is easing the 19-year-old in by bringing him off the bench after missing portions of the preseason with shoulder and knee injuries. Fultz will be just the third top pick since 2003 to be active and not start his season opener, joining Anthony Bennett and Andrea Bargnani.

Fultz said he’s OK with the decision to come off the bench and considers opening in Washington “almost the best thing that could happen” to him. Expectations are high on the University of Washington product, so starting in his backyard is a substantial positive for Fultz, who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore and came back to become a blue chip prospect.

“The world’s going to spin pretty quickly here,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “Sometimes things are going to seem like they’re a blur to him. Him being able to get started on that journey here in front of a lot of people that supported him and looked up to him I think is a great thing.”

Fultz will face 2010 top pick John Wall, and Williams hopes Fultz doesn’t feel too many jitters in his first pro game. Because Brown said Fultz “didn’t play” enough in the preseason, perhaps getting to come off the bench eases some of the pressure.

“At the end of the day, I want to do whatever I got to do to help my team win, so if that’s coming off the bench, I’m fine with that,” Fultz said. “Just contribute in any ways I can.”

Fultz is joining a young Philadelphia team featuring Joel Embiid and 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, who will also be making his NBA debut after missing all of last season with a foot injury. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Fultz is expected to share the ball-handling duties with Simmons, and there’s plenty of intrigue about how he’ll handle the jump.

“I know he’s a strong, athletic point guard that brings a lot of toughness to the game,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “I like what I’ve seen so far, regardless of limited playing time. But he has great size. He has great size, and you can’t teach that. He’s a strong point guard that’s going to have a bright future.”

Williams thinks Fultz, if given opportunities, could average 18 to 20 points a game as a rookie. After seeing Fultz think the game beyond his age, Jones has high expectations for him.

“He’s capable of being one of the best guards in the NBA,” Jones said. “Every year he’s going to get better and better and better. I know that’s his goal, and I’ve learned through the years to never bet against him. I know that he wants to be the best player he possibly can be, and with each passing month of this season, his rookie year, he’s going to push himself to that.”

 

LeBron James on boos Kyrie Irving faced: “It was nothing”

Getty Images
1 Comment

LeBron James knows about being booed by Cleveland fans — there was more venom thrown his way upon his return to Cleveland after bolting for Miami than Jack Tatum at a Steelers’ or Patriots’ fans bar.

He heard the boos rained down upon Kyrie Irving, upon return to Cleveland after forcing his way off the Cavaliers, and LeBron shrugged. Here is a video of his comments.

“That was nothing. What do you want me to say? I’ve experienced big boos before. That was like a pat on the back. It could never… I love our fans to death. That was nothing.”

To be fair to Cavaliers fans, the gruesome Gordon Hayward injury sucked the air out of the building and made booing someone for changing teams seem petty. The energy in the building was understandably never the same after that.

But even before the injury, this wasn’t the same level of hatred that had been reserved for LeBron before in Cleveland. In part because LeBron handled his exit poorly (not that Irving was smooth, but there were no television shows to broadcast the decision) and LeBron was the native son seen as deserting his family. It was different.

Kyrie Irving had 22 points but, with LeBron guarding him, missed a three-pointer to tie the game, and the Cavaliers won 102-99.