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.

Paul George says he “Didn’t know I was gonna be traded”

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As I have pointed out before here on NBC Sports, I really do love watching NBA marketing unfold in front of me. Some of it — like Kobe Bryant’s weird post career legacy massaging — is downright impressive.

Other instances are not quite as sly.

Enter newest Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George and his latest sponsored Instagram post.

In a recent video posted to his page, George put up a training montage set to an Eminem song that was essentially an advertisement for the gym and trainer he had been working with over the summer. The gym’s own page also features several of these videos. So far, pretty common stuff.

That is, until you read the Instagram caption and see what George had to say about his training. Let’s see if you can spot the issue.

Screenshot via Instagram:

Of course, the issue here is that George essentially took away the leverage the Indiana Pacers would have had if his trade request hadn’t somehow been made public. Repeatedly.

George knew he was going to get traded because Indiana had no choice but to trade him. Saying otherwise is a hilarious and transparent attempt to reshape recent history.

This is perhaps my favorite result of the platitudes drilled into the heads of players by team PR guys and agent media training. That is, when you talk nonsense for so long and during each and every interview — we just dug deep, it’s a game of inches, you have to want it more — sometimes you just don’t know when to stop trying to spin the story in your direction. Especially because the mantra of media training is to be boring and try say nothing, which is hard if you have something to prove or an opinion to change.

Between this and Kevin Durant openly admitting to having a burner Twitter account (which no doubt sparked a flurry of emails and calls between agents and their clients) this is shaping up to be one of the best NBA seasons in recent memories and that’s just from a new media standpoint.

Gordon Hayward says Isaiah Thomas “ultimately helped win me over”

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Gordon Hayward is now a member of the Boston Celtics, and we are all excited to see how the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference last season checks out with a newly revamped roster.

Of course, Boston has been the subject of much media attention after signing Hayward and trading Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. I think there should be some skepticism about how quickly Boston will be able to put things together, but this is a team of former and current All-Stars so they will likely be at least a Top 4 team out East.

Meanwhile, Hayward has written a new blog post on his personal website about the summer, taking on such subjects as the move to Massachusetts, video games, and what to expect this season.

One of the more interesting things that Hayward wrote about was just how much of an influence Thomas had in his decision to come to Boston. Hayward addresses Thomas’ influence in a section dedicated to him finding out about the trade to Cleveland.

Via GordonHayward20.life:

He didn’t just help recruit me to Boston—he was a big piece of that recruitment. He had talked a lot about city and how it was different to be a Celtic. He talked about the intensity of playing in the Eastern Conference Finals, playing at the Garden in the playoffs, and how much fun it was, and how much fun he had playing in Boston.

All of that ultimately helped win me over. And by the time of the trade, I had already started to build a little bit of a relationship with him.

The rest of Hayward’s post was about the subjects mentioned above, but it ended by saying that he understands the history of the organization and that he feels like he has not reached his full potential just yet.

Obviously, in signing him this season that’s exactly what the Celtics and Danny Ainge are hoping.

NBA implementing ‘Zaza Pachulia,’ ‘James Harden’ rules

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NEW YORK (AP) — NBA referees will be able to call flagrant or technical fouls on defenders who dangerously close on jump shooters without allowing them space to land, as Zaza Pachulia did on the play that injured Spurs star Kawhi Leonard in last season’s playoffs.

Officials will also make sure jump shooters are in their upward shooting motion when determining if a perimeter foul is worthy of free throws, which could cut down on James Harden‘s attempts after he swings his arms into contact.

Leonard sprained his ankle when Pachulia slid his foot under Leonard’s in Game 1 of Golden State’s victory in the Western Conference finals. After calling a foul, officials will now be able to look at replay to determine if the defender recklessly positioned his foot in an unnatural way, which could trigger an upgrade to a flagrant, or a technical if there was no contact but an apparent attempt to injure.

“It’s 100 percent for the safety of the players,” NBA senior vice president of replay and referee operations Joe Borgia said Thursday.

The NBA had made the freedom to land a point of emphasis for officials a few years ago, because of the risk of injuries. But the play got renewed attention during the playoffs because of Leonard’s injury, and also one in which Washington forward Markieff Morris landed on Al Horford‘s foot in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal, knocking him out of a game the Celtics rallied to win.

Officials can still rule the play a common foul if they did not see a dangerous or unnatural attempt by the defender upon review. Borgia said Pachulia’s foul would have been deemed a flagrant.

With the fouls on the perimeter shots – often coming when the offensive player has come off a screen and quickly attempts to launch a shot as his defender tries to catch up – officials will focus on the sequencing of the play. The player with the ball must already be in his shooting motion when contact is made, rather than gathering the ball to shoot such as on a drive to the basket.

“We saw it as a major trend in the NBA so we had to almost back up and say, `Well, wait a minute, this is going to be a trend, so let’s catch up to it,”‘ NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell said.

Report: Cavaliers signing Kendrick Perkins

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Kendrick Perkins spent fewer than four months with the Cavaliers, including the 2015 playoffs. But nearly a year later after Cleveland let Perkins walk in free agency, LeBron James was still bemoaning Perkins’ absence.

Are the Cavs righting a wrong?

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Kendrick Perkins joined the Cavaliers at LeBron James’ minicamp in Santa Barbara, Calif., and will come to training camp next week, sources told cleveland.com.

The Cavs now have 18 players with standard contracts, and 15 – the regular-season limit – have guaranteed salaries. I doubt Cleveland wants to waive the two without guaranteed salaries, Kay Felder and Edy Tavares, either.

In other words, Perkins is a longshot to stick into the regular season.

Perkins was washed up when with the Cavaliers two years ago. The 32-year-old who sat out last season hasn’t produced on the court in several years. He’s tough and well-liked in the locker room, which might give him a chance of sneaking onto the regular-season roster.

But the Cavs should focus on developing toughness and chemistry among their rotation players. Perkins is just a crutch, most likely one who’ll be yanked away by cut-down day a few weeks from now.