NBA Power Rankings: Bulls, Heat own top two spots. Again.

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The trade deadline could really shake up the power rankings… but probably not.

1. Bulls (34-9, last week ranked number 1). The Bulls keep winning while they are banged up — Joakim Noah is back Monday for the Knicks but Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton are out. Those wins are really impressive. But the big showdown Wednesday with the Heat may well show how much Chicago needs everyone healthy.

2. Heat (31-9, LW 3). Here’s what is missing in the “is LeBron James” clutch debate — it really doesn’t matter in the regular season. The best teams don’t win a lot of close games, they win a lot of blowout games. Showdown with the Bulls Wednesday.

3. Thunder (32-9, LW 2). While the rest of the nation will be bemoaning how their brackets fell apart Friday night, I’ll be watching Thunder vs. Spurs. Want to see how the up-and-down Thunder respond to the challenge.

4. Spurs (26-13, LW 6). They didn’t play any defense against the Clippers on Friday and it is games like that one, which makes me wonder about this team in the playoffs. Enjoy that Dallas/Oklahoma City back-to-back this week. Fun times!

5. Magic (27-15, LW 7). Can we please get past the trade deadline so we can focus on how this is a good Magic team that will get crushed in the second round of the playoffs? In July we can get back to focusing on where Dwight Howard will play again.

6. Lakers (25-16, LW 5). At home they are dangerous (18-2), on the road they are a danger to themselves (7-14). They are not a title contender right now, but let us see what the trade deadline brings (it’s time to cough up one of those two first round picks for a point guard).

7. Grizzlies (24-16, LW 9). The real news is that they should get Zach Randolph back this week — which will mean another readjustment period, but this makes them so much more dangerous in the post season. He may be back Tuesday for the Lakers.

8. 76ers (25-17, LW 14). A week ago we thought Boston or New York would pass them for the lead in the Atlantic, but the Sixers went out and beat them both last week. The Celtics are now three games back. Philly needs to hold on to that division crown and the four seed, avoiding the Heat or Bulls in the first round.

9. Clippers (23-16 LW 4). They picked up a quality win Friday in San Antonio — their first win ever in the AT&T Center — but dropped three other games including to the Warriors Sunday at home. They need to stop falling behind early. As for the trade deadline, I get the need for a veteran at the two guard spot but the Clips shouldn’t overpay — think long-term, do not mess up future seasons for this one.

10. Hawks (24-17, LW 11). If the Hawks move Josh Smith it needs to be part of a bigger plan to rebuild this team into a contender. Do you trust the Hawks management to do that? Besides, how to you rebuild with Joe Johnson’s contract on the book anyway? The Hawks went 4-2 with Smith down injured, by the way.

11. Nuggets (23-18, LW 12). The Nuggets have played well since the All-Star break, their two losses both came on a final possession. But they are going to miss Ty Lawson this week, he’s out with a sprained ankle.

12. Pacers (23-15, LW 8). Tough schedule last week — Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic — led to four losses. It gets a little better this week but not a ton — Trail Blazers, 76ers and two against the Knicks. These are the kind of games the Pacers need to win if they are to prove they really belong.

13. Mavericks (23-20, LW 10). They are 2-7 in their last nine and falling fast. But sure Mr. Cuban, this team is better than last year’s.

14. Celtics (21-19, LW 15). Come Thursday afternoon, will there still be a big three in Boston? Weird to think not, but it is time for changes.

15. Rockets (22-20, LW 13). Another team falling fast after having to play a lot of games on the road. Now no Klye Lowry for 2-4 weeks due to a bacterial infection and holding on to that 8 seed in the West will be a real challenge.

16. Timberwolves (21-21, LW 16). Ugh. Just ugh. No Ricky Rubio for the rest of the season means they are relying on Luke Ridnour to get them into the playoffs. So, ugh.

17. Jazz (19-21, LW 18). They keep beating teams they should beat — Cleveland and Charlotte last week — but the schedule is not going to make it easy on them. Lots of tough games ahead.

18. Suns (19-21, LW 19). Not only are the Suns not going to trade Steve Nash at the deadline, they are just two games out of a playoff spot in the West now. They can make a push for it.

19. Bucks (17-24, LW 23). Ersan Ilyasova was the best player in the NBA last week. You read that right. He scored 89 points in three games on 72 percent shooting. You read that right, too. They are making a playoff push, but it’s a real uphill climb

20. Blazers (20-21, LW 20). They got blown out by the Celtics and Timberwolves, can they turn it around this week against the Pacers and Knicks? It’s sad to see how far this team has fallen after a promising start to the season.

21. Knicks (18-23, LW 17). Five losses in a row, and it keeps coming back to the same thing for me: Who are the Knicks? What kind of team are they trying to be? That question is aimed more at management than the players.

22. Pistons (15-26, LW 22). They looked terrible a week ago and then won three in a row this week. Not sure what to make of them other than they play like a young team, inconsistently. They have nine of their next 10 on the road, going to make it tough to make that playoff push some fans are dreaming of.

23. Warriors (17-21, LW 21). They beat the Mavericks and Clippers last week, but Stephen Curry tweaked his ankle again. It’s hard to see them vaulting up into the playoffs, but not impossible

24. Cavaliers (16-23, LW 26). They are just one game back of the final playoff spot in the East. If they made it in, that would be a huge accomplishment (we’re not even going to get into Cavs vs. Heat playoff talk yet).

25. Kings (14-26, LW 27). The surge of point guard Isaiah Thomas makes you wonder what the Kings will do long term with Tyreke Evans?

26. Nets (14-28, LW 24). Just watch clips of this dunk over and over and over.

27. Raptors (13-28, LW 25). Andrea Bargnani is back, which can cost this team some ping-pong balls in the lottery… well, unless they keep playing defense like they have recently.

28. Hornets (10-31, LW 28). Expect them to make some moves at the trade deadline — despite what Mike Dunleavy may want I expect Chris Kaman will get moved.

29. Wizards (9-30, LW 29). How has this team beaten the Lakers and Thunder this season?

30. Bobcats (5-34, LW 30). Bobcats fans will be scouting the NCAA Tournament more than watching their own team this week. With good reason.

Kevin Durant coming up ‘big’ for Warriors

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DETROIT – Soft. Scared. Cupcake.

Kevin Durant can’t help but hear his detractors.

“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”

That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.

Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.

Durant just didn’t play like it.

He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.

Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.

When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.

Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.

His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).

“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”

The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.

Many of his post touches come on split cuts, an action Kerr popularized in Golden State. A player – often Andrew Bogut when Kerr first implemented the play – posts up while a teammate screens for another teammate on the perimeter. Most teams would kill to have a shooter like Durant set or receive the screen. But the Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to do that. So, Durant serves as the post man, surveying the screen carnage and occasionally just taking matters into his own hands. This video from Eric Apricot of Golden State of Mind excellently shows a few variations:

Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:

Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:

“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”

Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.

But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.

It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.

The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.

Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.

His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.

Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.

“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.

“Maybe even a five,” I said.

“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”

Listen to what LeBron James told Lonzo Ball on court (video)

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LeBron Jameson-court conversation with Lonzo Ball after the Cavaliers beat the Lakers last night quickly became a fascination.

With LeBron-to-the-Lakers rumorsfueled by Ball himself – swirling, did LeBron tip his plans for free agency?

Here’s what LeBron said after the game:

LeBron:

I don’t see the reaction, because I don’t get involved in it. I don’t do it to get a reaction.

I do it because he’s said over and over since he was growing up and who he modeled his game after. And who was his favorite player? And it was me, and I was humbled by that. So me wishing him a happy birthday was kind of a salute back to him.

I see all the stupid noise that happens, and I can’t buy a place in L.A. I can’t live in L.A. It’s funny noise. But I don’t get involved in it, because when I post things, I don’t look at comments. I’m so far removed of the white noise and the noise doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me.

Were you mentoring Ball or giving him advice? LeBron:

None of y’all business.

Unfortunately for LeBron, a microphone picked up most of the conversation (hat tip: reddit user IT-3):

LeBron, best I can tell:

Find your zone and just stay f—ing locked in. The media is going to ask you what I told you right now. Tell them nothing. Just be aggressive every single day.

It’s white noise to you. That’s all it is. Alright? Let’s go.

LeBron was never going to say something controversial in front of all those cameras. He knows better, especially after attention drawn by his on-court conversation with Dwyane Wade a few years ago.

Unsurprisingly, LeBron’s words directly to Ball mirror what he told the media after the game. There’s no secret plot here – just someone who has been in the spotlight for years trying to help someone going through it now.

Who needs good form? Hawks fan nails halfcourt shot for $10k (video)

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Former Hawks owner Bruce Levenson didn’t want guys like this shooting this shot.

I’m so glad this fan got the opportunity. This was Atlanta’s biggest highlight while losing to the Pistons — and John Collins had a nice dunk over Luke Kennard:

Kevin Durant kisses fan hit by ball (video)

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Kevin Durant‘s final line in the Warriors’ win over the Mavericks: 36 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks… and one kiss.

He has done this before.