NBA Power Rankings: Bulls grab top spot by the horns

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The top three are pretty much set, it’s just a matter of who is playing the best among them at this moment. Right now it’s Chicago. The bottom three are pretty much locked in, too, but the Bobcats have really grabbed hold of the last spot and made it their own.

1. Bulls (31-8, last week ranked number 3). Four games, four wins since the All-Star break — and that is with Rip Hamilton not really finding his footing yet since his return. Everybody already looking forward to a week from Wednesday when the Bulls face the Heat again.

2. Thunder (29-8, LW 2). They continue to close out games well despite pretty stagnant late game play calling. Why? They play great defense at the end of games (read Zach Lowe at SI). Their Achilles heel is turnovers, that’s what cost them against the Hawks in their one loss since the All-Star break.

3. Heat (28-9, LW 1). Back-to-back losses to the Lakers and Jazz — both teams with strong front lines playing the Heat without Chris Bosh. He matters a lot more to the Heat then people realize, and the drop-off after him is steep. As for LeBron James, he’s the one guy in the league who gets criticized for passing to an open teammate.

4. Clippers (22-13 LW 6). Hard-fought overtime win Sunday against a Rockets team that is tougher than everyone realizes. Expect a lot more games like that in the coming weeks — their March schedule is brutal. They are on the road this week and have a tough one Friday at San Antonio.

5. Lakers (23-14, LW 8). The Lakers got a signature win over the Heat on Sunday, a game where they really used their assets to exploit Miami inside. Kobe Bryant is shooting 54 percent since Dwyane Wade broke his nose — he says he’s not going to wear the mask any longer than he has to, but the way he is shooting he may want to consider going Rip Hamilton.

6. Spurs (25-12, LW 4). Tough losses to good teams in Chicago and Denver this week. Another test coming Friday against the Clippers. For a while it looked like this team could beat anyone, but do you really buy that when the playoffs get here.

7. Magic (24-14, LW 7). Lost to the Thunder last week… really, does anybody care about their games the next two weeks? Until the deadline the league is on Dwight watch.

8. Pacers (23-12, LW 9). Six wins in a row, but they continue to beat the league’s weak teams. This week the schedule is Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic. If you want to say you are upper echelon, talk to us after that gauntlet.

9. Grizzlies (22-15, LW 12). Won 10-12, but most of that at home. When they get Zach Randolph back and integrated, watch out. Who wants this team in the first round of the playoffs? (If the playoffs started today it would be a Lakers/Grizzlies first round, which would be a fascinating battle of bigs.)

10. Mavericks (22-16, LW 5). They had a five-game losing streak before Dirk Nowitzki went off for 40 and stopped it Saturday. Lamar Odom is back and says he is sorry for how things are gone, but the Mavs need actions to speak louder than words.

11. Hawks (22-15, LW 14). Impressive win over the Thunder last week. They have three games in four nights this week, and that is the kind of situation where a lack of mental focus can hurt a team. So, bad news for the Hawks.

12. Nuggets (21-17, LW 16). Nice wins over Portland, San Antonio and Houston last week. They are in the same boat as Houston — one of the last playoff spots in the west with Minnesota just two games back — but with a soft schedule this week they can start to create some distance.

13. Rockets (21-17, LW 11). Lost to Utah, Denver and the Clippers last week and now seven of their next eight are on the road. Right now they are the seven seed in the West but Minnesota is lurking two games back.

14. 76ers (22-16, LW 10). Flying under the trade deadline radar is Andres Nocioni — don’t be shocked if he gets moved.

15. Celtics (19-17, LW 18). Four wins in a row last week out of the All-Star break — this team is dangerous when rested. Some teams struggle when trade rumors swirl, but this veteran group should be able to play through it.

16. Timberwolves (19-19, LW 17). They are in the playoff mix (just two games out) but are going to have to fight to keep that spot — Clippers, Lakers and Blazers this week, then they head out on a lengthy road trip.

17. Knicks (18-19, LW 13). They are the eighth seed in the East, but Milwaukee is four games back so they likely can hold on to a playoff spot baring a total collapse. However, they are three games back of Atlanta at the six seed, and you really don’t want the Heat or Bulls in the first round.

18. Jazz (17-19, LW 19).
They are showcasing Devin Harris for a potential trade — and he’s looked pretty good, including the game winner over the Heat on Friday.

19. Suns (17-20, LW 20). Three straight games where the Suns have rallied from more than 20 points back to win. We’re all watching for Steve Nash trade rumors, but right now it looks like they keep him.

20. Blazers (18-19, LW 15). Jamal Crawford trade rumors are going to engulf this team for the next two weeks, we’ll see how they deal with it. Right now they are not dealing well with much of anything well.

21. Warriors (14-19, LW 22). Their offense is just wildly inconsistent, which makes them a team that can beat anyone or lose to anyone on any given night. But they are entertaining while they do it.

22. Pistons (12-26, LW 23). They have dropped four of five and have looked pretty terrible doing it.

23. Bucks (14-23, LW 24).
If they are going to make a playoff run they need to get very hot right now. That’s not going to happen, by the way.

24. Nets (12-26, LW 26).
They have won three of five since Brook Lopez came back, with two of those wins over Dallas and New York. Of course, Lopez rolled his ankle and may miss a few games, so it will be back to the same old Nets for a while.

25. Raptors (12-25, LW 27).
Here is how Raptors fans need to look at the season — next year they get Jonas Valanciunas and whoever they draft this year to come in to camp. It’s like two lottery picks in one.

26. Cavaliers (13-22, LW 21). They lost to the Wizards this week. They are lucky to be this high.

27. Kings (12-25, LW 25). Hey, they got a new arena deal. We’re just going to keep talking about that (and that they plan to bring back coach Keith Smart next season).

28. Hornets (9-28, LW 28). They are showcasing Chris Kaman for a trade and he is looking good — 16.5 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game since his return. Like the kind of player the Hornets should have been playing earlier.

29. Wizards (8-28, LW 29). Randy Wittman is trying to put his foot down and instill some discipline (like by benching JaVale McGee). Good luck with that.

30. Bobcats (4-30, LW 30). Nice decision not to double Deron Williams off the pick-and-roll on Sunday. How did that work out for you?

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.

Stephen Curry back in full practice mode for Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry resumed full practice with contact and could play for the defending champion Golden State Warriors as soon as Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night against New Orleans.

Curry looked strong as he practiced Thursday wearing a protective brace over his sprained left knee, which has sidelined him since the injury March 23 – the same day he returned from a six-game absence because of a hurt right ankle.

Coach Steve Kerr is calling Curry questionable for Saturday. That could change if the two-time NBA MVP still feels fine Friday and is fine after one more day of full practice before the Pelicans visit Oracle Arena to begin the best-of-seven series.

“Steph practiced at 100 percent, he did everything, he looked good,” Kerr said. “What we have to do is see how his body responds the rest of the day, put him through another practice tomorrow. I think he needs to string together two good days but it was very positive today. … I think it’s been coming along pretty well. When we were in San Antonio and I was asked a question about how he was doing, I think I was able to give an answer, `He’s doing great but we haven’t ramped him up yet.’ I think today was an important day because it’s the first time he’s actually gone live action and he was allowed to go through practice. And he appears fine.”

Curry went through his usual shooting work with Kevin Durant from various spots after practice, cutting and exhibiting his fancy footwork and dribbling skills. The Warriors have played well without their floor leader, eliminating the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the first-round series with a 99-91 win Tuesday night.

The Pelicans will present a different, faster pace for the Warriors, so getting Curry back to push the ball and direct the offense would be important. Andre Iguodala, the 2015 NBA Finals MVP, started in the first round in his place while Quinn Cook handled point guard duties late in the regular season with Curry out.

“We’re excited. I know he’s very eager to play,” said Klay Thompson. “He’s a competitor, so sitting out I know kills him. We can’t wait for him to get back whenever that is.”

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