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.

Jimmy Butler has surgery on right meniscus, no timetable for return

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The playoff picture in the Western Conference became much more opaque after Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler went down with a knee injury earlier in the week.

Reports out of Minnesota was that Butler had suffered a right meniscus injury, ducking what many had feared was an ACL tear. According to the team, Butler had successful surgery on his right meniscus this weekend.

As of Sunday morning they did not have a timetable for his return.

Via Twitter:

Minnesota currently stands third in the West but they will have a hard time fending off the rest of the playoff hopeful teams below them without their star player.

For his part, Butler is hoping he will be back in time for the playoffs. Early reports were that the team was thinking his recovery had a 4-to-6 week timeline, but again nothing has been set. Meniscus recovery times vary greatly depending on the issue at hand and the procedure done, neither of which we have details on at this time.

The Timberwolves have the 15th most difficult strength of schedule ahead of them according to Tankathon.com, with games against major Western Conference opponents ahead of them as well as bottom-dwellers like the Memphis Grizzlies.

Minnesota has been a good story all season long. No doubt many will bring up Tom Thibodeau’s workload once again with Butler injured, something compounded by Butler apparently requesting to rest during the 2018 All-Star Game.

Wolves fans have been waiting a long time for this. They don’t deserve this kind of punishment at this late a date, but the Basketball Gods are cruel and unceasingly unforgiving.

Isaiah Thomas on Cavaliers trade to Lakers: “They were in panic mode”

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It seems Isaiah Thomas is a thorn in the side of many in the NBA these days. The Los Angeles Lakers point guard reportedly was the source of some locker room conflict while he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, although it appears that Dwyane Wade was the first to lead the charge against Kevin Love in the infamous player rap session.

Thomas is now a member of the Lakers after being part of the worst section of the season in Cleveland. The Cavaliers, with their revamped roster, have just one loss since the trade deadline. LeBron James & Co. have moved on, and Thomas appears set for free agency this summer and yet another team.

A move for the Cavaliers seemed inevitable, even if the return for Kyrie Irving from Boston — conveyed through consequent trades — was less than ideal. Meanwhile Thomas, who didn’t appear to enjoy his time in Ohio, has now said that he was surprised Dan Gilbert’s team bailed on him so quickly.

Via ESPN:

“I didn’t think they would pull the trigger that fast, 15 games,” Thomas told ESPN’s E:60 in an interview that will air March 11. “But again, it’s a business. And the Cavs were, I mean, they were in panic mode. We were losing — a lot. And I think they felt like they needed to make a move, and they, they basically cleared house.”

Thomas went on to say that he didn’t think he had enough time to find a rhythm not only coming back from a hip injury but on a new team in a new system. Thomas also mentioned that he harbored no ill feelings toward the Cavaliers.

We’ll see if that’s the case when the Lakers take on Cleveland on March 11 in LA.

Coach Tyronn Lue says not to expect LeBron James to have “rest” games

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LeBron James has not missed one Cleveland Cavaliers game this season. At age 33 in his 15th NBA season, LeBron is fourth in the league in total minutes played, third in the league in minutes per game at 37, and is top 10 in the NBA in usage rate.

Don’t expect that to change.

LeBron doesn’t want to take games off — he even dominated the All-Star Game — and do you really think Lue is going to force him to sit while the Cavaliers try to adapt to a radical roster shakeup at the trade deadline? From Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

“I just think being the leader of this team, I don’t think he thinks he can take games off, because, you know, guys being hurt and going through a rough patch, and now new guys coming in,” Lue said before the Cavs’ 112-89 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday. “So, I think he’s trying to lead and lead by example … I think we still got to be smart about the situation, but [the training staff] say he feels good.”

LeBron said this last month and things have not changed.

“I told you I want to play every game,” James said. “If my health continues as it is right now, then that’s what it is.”

While “load management” is a buzzword around the NBA — one ignored in Minnesota — LeBron has responded to his increased workload with an MVP level season. LeBron is averaging 26.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 8.9 assists per game, is shooting 35.9 percent from three, and has the highest value over replacement player in the league. (His less energized play in January likely cost him any real shot at his fifth MVP.) With the league emphasizing not resting players — particularly in nationally televised games, which the Cavaliers have a lot of — LeBron is not getting much if any rest. He wants to play in a full 82.

The only concern is will he wear down. LeBron is going to have to dominate in the playoffs for the Cavaliers to come out of the East. How much gas will LeBron have in the tank come May? There’s a reason Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and a lot of other elite coaches give players a night off. That’s not going to happen with LeBron, at least not likely in a meaningful way.

Consider it something to file away and remember if the Cavaliers and LeBron look a step slower in the postseason.

Watch Kyrie Irving drop 31 on Knicks in Celtics’ win

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NEW YORK (AP) — Kyrie Irving had 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, leading the Boston Celtics over the New York Knicks 121-112 on Saturday for their second victory in two nights since the All-Star break.

Irving scored 15 points in a dazzling third quarter and then helped the Celtics finish it off with his passing in the fourth, highlighted by a behind-the-back dish to Jaylen Brown for a dunk that made it 115-106.

Brown had 24 points for the Celtics, who went into the break with three straight losses but came back with a victory in Detroit on Friday.

Trey Burke scored 26 points off the bench for the second straight game for the Knicks, but they couldn’t win this one after beating Orlando on Thursday to end an eight-game skid.

Irving was just 1 for 6 behind the arc in the first half but showed no lack of confidence in the third. He scored 14 straight Boston points, hitting four 3-pointers and pushing the ball right at the Knicks.

His last 3-pointer in that spurt gave the Celtics a 10-point lead, but the Knicks chipped away while he rested and it was a two-point game by the time he returned with 8:14 remaining.

Irving soon made another 3, and passed to Al Horford for a 3 that pushed the lead back to double digits.

Horford finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.