John Lucas III, Carlos Boozer

NBA Power Rankings: Suns are rising, Spurs climb too.

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Trade deadline moves aren’t changing the top of the rankings much, but we will see Portland and some other teams fall in the coming weeks. And we don’t know what the Nets are thinking either, so don’t ask.

1. Bulls (37-10, last week ranked number 1). They beat the Heat without Derrick Rose in the lineup, which was really more about how the Heat approached the game than a playoff preview. Still, the Bulls keep winning without Rose — getting guys like John Lucas III to step up — and you wonder what that will mean come May.

2. Heat (33-11, LW 2). Welcome to the dog days of the season, when the Heat have seemed to lose focus some nights. Bet they are up for their showdown with the Thunder next Sunday.

3. Spurs (29-14, LW 4). They slide ahead of the Thunder after beating them — in OKC — last Friday. But the Stephen Jackson trade was about cash savings down the line (particularly luxury tax savings) not winning now. Still not convinced that and a lack of size in the paint doesn’t come back to bite them come the playoffs.

4. Thunder (33-11, LW 3). They play like a young team — a couple good games then just a clunker thrown in every once in a while. Do they need a personality like Derek Fisher in the locker room to help them get over the hump? By the way, they really don’t want to see San Antonio in the playoffs, tough matchup for them.

5. Lakers (28-17, LW 6). Best home record in the league (even with the loss to the Jazz Sunday). They got a point guard in Ramon Session who is what they need — Mike Brown is bringing him along slowly but by the postseason Sessions will be the PG playing the key moments for this team. Would you be shocked to see them in the Western Conference Finals? Neither would I.

6. Magic (29-17, LW 5). They get to keep Dwight Howard through the playoffs, but when he doesn’t sign an extension this summer the same circus is coming back to town next year.

7. Grizzlies (25-18, LW 7). Zach Randolph is back, which is going to mean an adjustment period. But nobody wants these guys in the first round of the playoffs. Or the second.

8. Clippers (26-18 LW 9). They just went 3-3 on their homestand, which is not making them look like legit contenders yet. There are questions about how they perform at the ends of games, but with the ball in Chris Paul’s hands they are still dangerous.

9. Hawks (26-19, LW 10). Joe Johnson has been hot since returning from injury and as they keep the lineup in tact this is a pretty good team. Not better than any of the past few years, but a pretty good team.

10. Mavericks (26-20, LW 13). The won three in a row last week, including beating the Spurs, and they have gotten a nice little bump from Rodrigue Beaubois. But they feel like the Hawks — they don’t scare you in the playoffs.

11. 76ers (25-20, LW 8). Huge week for the 76ers — it looked like they had taken control of the Atlantic Division again a couple weeks ago, but their lead is down to 1 game and the Knicks and Celtics are on the schedule this week. You want to win the Atlantic and get the four seed to make sure you avoid Chicago and Miami in the first round.

12. Nuggets (25-20, LW 11). JaVale McGee watch is on — he’s got talent but now he has to play disciplined on the court and fit in a veteran locker room off it. Not sure if he can do it, not sure how George Karl will react to all this.

13. Suns (23-22, LW 18). Not sure there are many teams playing better than the Suns the last few weeks — they are just half a game out of the last playoff spot in the West. Consider it one last run with Steve Nash before he bolts town this summer.

14. Pacers (25-18, LW 12). They lost to the Knicks twice last week, but got a nice win over Philadelphia and beat up on Portland like everyone else. For them it all comes down to who is their first round playoff matchup (they get to avoid the Bulls and Heat, so they have a chance.

15. Celtics (23-21, LW 14). They decide to keep the Big Three together for one more playoff run — then the tired old legs showed and they got blown out by the Kings on the road. Nostalgia is nice but it doesn’t win.

16. Jazz (23-22, LW 17). They, the Rockets and Suns are in a fight for that last playoff spot in the West and are within half a game of each other. The Jazz just won two in a row without Al Jefferson, one of those against the Lakers on the road. That’s gritty.

17. Bucks (20-24, LW 19). They have won five straight, made a nice move to upgrade the offense at the deadline and they have a pretty soft schedule the rest of the way out. They are just half a game back of the Knicks for the last playoff spot in the East and the Knicks should be worried.

18. Knicks (21-24, LW 21). After three straight wins under Mike Woodson, I’m getting tweets from Knicks fans about how they can beat the Heat or Bulls in the first round. No, no you can’t. But expect some more wins as they have a pretty soft schedule for the next week.

19. Rockets (24-22, LW 15). They have that last playoff spot in the West as of this writing, but with the way the Suns and Jazz are playing it’s going to be hard to keep it.

20. Timberwolves (22-24, LW 16). They want to be in that last playoff spot in the West conversation, but they are going to have to get hot — and is that going to happen with Rubio out? Not likely.

21. Blazers (21-23, LW 20). They have not thrown in the towel on this season yet — eight of their next 10 are at the Rose Garden and they could put together a little run. Either way, I like what they did. If you have to rebuild on the fly, it should look a lot like that (except for finding someone to take Raymond Felton).

22. Warriors (18-24, LW 23). They are not going far this year and they have rolled the dice on the long-term health of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry going forward. I don’t love those odds, and I don’t like that they added a lot of salary at the deadline either.

23. Pistons (16-29, LW 22). No moves at the deadline, not even shipping out Will Bynum somewhere. Well, at least there is Greg Monroe to build around, and Rodney Stuckey has played well of late.

24. Kings (16-29, LW 25). This team is going to play poorly most times out then every once in a while give you a fantastic game (like the blowout of the Celtics). That’s what they are now.

25. Cavaliers (16-26, LW 24). They have the soon to be Rookie of the Year in Kyrie Irving and a couple first round picks coming up. That’s how you rebuild, but there are some not pretty games mixed in.

26. Nets (15-31, LW 26). They should be better the rest of this season with Gerald Wallace. But when Wallace and Deron Williams leave this summer and they don’t have their first round pick it’s going to look a lot darker.

27. Raptors (15-30, LW 27). The may have Andrea Bargnani back, but they lost to the Nets and Bobcats last week. They are lucky to be this high.

28. Hornets (11-34, LW 28). They got a new lease deal in place for the arena, so they at least pick up a meaningful off the court win last week. Should have found a way to move Chris Kaman for assets at the deadline.

29. Wizards (10-34, LW 29). Getting Nene for JaVale McGee is a great move for this team in the locker room. Need to change the culture. Still, a long, long way to go here.

30. Bobcats (7-36, LW 30). Two wins last week? Sure, it’s the Nets and Raptors, but they still count as wins. They are close to getting out of the cellar in these standings.

Karl-Anthony Towns beats out Isaiah Thomas to take Skills Challenge title

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 09:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves reacts after hitting a basket against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on November 9, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — In a new twist to the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the NBA made the decision this year to add big men to a competition that has traditionally focused on point guards. The new wrinkle created new layers of intrigue, an unusual amount of controversy and, ultimately, a new champion: Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns.

C.J. McCollum beat out Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and Isaiah Thomas took care of Emmanuel Mudiay. In something of an upset, Towns handled Draymond Green, who is the NBA’s leader in triple-doubles.

The other matchup in the first round came with some controversy: DeMarcus Cousins missed all three attempts at the chest pass into the ring but moved on in the obstacle course and ultimately defeated Anthony Davis. This led to widespread criticism on social media for Cousins being allowed to advance without completing all the drills.

But Towns beat out Cousins in the semifinals, thereby preventing a nightmare scenario where a winner might have to have an asterisk next to his title.

Thomas beat McCollum in the guards’ semifinals. McCollum lost his dribble early on in the round and never really recovered.

The final round between Towns and Thomas went down to the wire, but Towns’ three-pointer went down first, giving him the title.

 

Russell Westbrook on Lakers speculation: “Nah, I like where I am now”

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — No matter what Russell Westbrook does, he cannot escape the rumors that have followed him for years. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college basketball at UCLA—so, it’s only logical that when he hits free agency in the summer of 2017, he’ll look to sign with the Lakers, right?

Westbrook did his best to shut that down on Saturday after practice with the Western Conference All-Stars.

“Nah,” Westbrook said. “I like where I am now. Oklahoma City is a great place for me.”

Westbrook admitted that he grew up a Lakers fan, but said he never thought of playing there as a kid.

“I never thought I’d play in the NBA,” he said. “I was just watching them.”

Westbrook has another full season to go before his contract with the Thunder is up, so it’s going to be a while before there’s any resolution here. A lot, of course, will depend on what Kevin Durant does this summer.

If Durant sticks around and the Thunder make another deep playoff run next season, it becomes more likely that Westbrook will stay. But if Durant goes somewhere else, there’s a good chance Westbrook follows suit. For now, all they can do is deflect the speculation that will be there no matter what they say.

Gregg Popovich says he thinks more about Warriors than any team he ever faced

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Gregg Popovich and his Spurs have gone up against some powerhouse teams in the past 17 years. There were the Shaq/Kobe Bryant Lakers, Steve Nash and the seven-seconds-or-less Suns, The Kobe/Pau Gasol Lakers, LeBron James‘ Miami Heat teams, and the list goes on.

But nobody has given him more to think about than Stephen Curry and the Warriors.

That’s what he said on ESPN Radio Friday, as reported by Marc Stein of ESPN.

“I’ve spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I’ve ever thought about in my whole career,” Popovich told ESPN Radio on Friday. “Because they are really fun. I’d go buy a ticket and go watch them play. And when I see them move the ball, I get very envious. When I see them shoot uncontested shots more than anybody else in the league, it’s inspiring. It’s just great basketball.

“So I’m actually enjoying them very much. You try to solve them, but they’re in a sense unsolvable because it’s a particular mix of talent that they have. It’s not just that Steph [Curry] can make shots or that Klay can make shots or that Draymond Green is versatile. Everybody on the court can pass, catch and shoot. And they all get it.”

When you think about those legendary teams Popovich faced, they may have been a little less mentally taxing to gameplan for. The Shaq/Kobe Lakers ran the triangle (an offense Popovich was familiar with), but most of what made them great was exceptional talent — two future Hall of Famers at their peaks. The Spurs tried to bully the Suns, and then they developed a motion offense that eventually shredded the Heat.

The Warriors are different, and Popovich gets to a fundamental problem in defeating them:

“They’re talented. But they’re also very, very smart.”

That’s what’s hard to plan for — smart players and smart teams adjust, and the Warriors by design loaded their roster with high IQ guys. If you adjust, they counter. And for the last season-and-a-half, that has worked brilliantly.

LeBron James on Kevin Love trade rumors: “They’re false”

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TORONTO — The rumors were out there: the Boston Celtics were interested in Kevin Love and were talking trade with Cleveland.

LeBron James would have none of that.

“It’s false,” LeBron said of the rumors when speaking to the media after the Eastern Conference’s All-Star Game practice Saturday. “It’s the only thing I can look at it and say it’s false. That’s the last thing guys are worried about right now are trade talks from our team.”

That echoed what Carmelo Anthony said. The buzz around Toronto (where the NBA has gathered for All-Star Weekend) that there wasn’t a lot of to the talks and if there was any momentum has stalled out.

Still, there will be talks, and there will be plenty of Cavaliers trade rumors in the run-up to the Feb. 18 trade deadline. Cleveland could use some shooting from the wing and quality depth to provide versatility going up against Golden State or San Antonio in the Finals.

LeBron just wants to make sure the talks don’t impact the locker room.

“One thing about this business is you can only control what you can control. Things that you can’t control, you can’t let it bother you, and I’ve learned that over the years,” LeBron said. “There is so much that goes on in professional sports that if you just focus on what you can control, everything else will take care of itself.”

The Love rumors likely will continue to flare up this week, but they are not going to move him unless another team makes a Godfather offer.

The Cavaliers have been 10.1 points per 100 possessions better this season when Love is on the court compared to off it (and their defense does get marginally better when he plays). When Love, LeBron, and Kyrie Irving are on the court together the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. Those are massive numbers.

The Cavaliers are a win-now team, if you’re going to break up part of that trio it has to be for something that makes the team demonstrably better. And that kind of superstar trade is rare at the February deadline anymore.