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


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.

Five NBA Draft prospects/teams to watch in the Sweet 16

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Just like me and everyone else, your bracket is busted. That was not the only thing to go belly up in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament — so were a lot of the top-tier draft picks. Arizona’s Deandre Ayton didn’t see the second game of the weekend. Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges of Michigan State join the long list of players and teams stymied by Syracuse’s zone. Mohamed Bamba. Out. Michael Porter Jr.? Out. Trae Young? Out.

That doesn’t mean there are not guys NBA fans should be watching the round of 16 starting Thursday night. There are likely lottery picks playing, not to mention guys down the board who will be playing in the NBA next season.

Here are five things for NBA fans to watch in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

1) Battle of the zone defenses and lottery prospects: Duke vs. Syracuse. The Blue Devils are the most loaded team left in the tournament… forget that, they were the most loaded team in the tournament, period. If you’re a fan of a team in the midst of the tankapaloza going on at the bottom of the NBA standings right now, this is your game.

Duke’s big man Marvin Bagley III is likely going to be taken between No. 3-5 come June, and he is worth keeping an eye on. He’s a phenomenal athlete who can get buckets — he had 22 points in each of the first two Tournament games and shot a combined 18-of-24, he is an incredible finisher around the rim — plus is a beast on the boards (16 in the two games). Scouts and teams that liked him all season at Duke saw more of the same in the first two rounds, he helped his stock (if that’s possible)

Next to Bagley on Duke’s dominant front like is the more polished Wendell Carter Jr. (a likely top 10 pick), who had 24 points on 15 shots through two games of the tournament. This is a game where against the Syracuse zone Carter’s passing — big-to-big to Bagley, or kicked out to guys like Grayson Allen — will both matter to the team and show something to scouts. Allen is a likely late-first/early second round pick who can help his cause by showing how he can shoot over the top of that zone.

For Syracuse, Tyus Battle needs to show he can make good decisions with the ball in his hands — he’s been inconsistent with that all season. He passes the eye test as a 6’6” NBA guard, but his decision making needs to be better and Duke will test that. Battle is a late first/early second kind of guy who needs to get a team to fall in love with him.

The fact both of these teams play so much zone will turn off NBA scouts — it’s the right basketball move for both Duke and Syracuse, but it masks the defensive flaws the top prospects on both teams have. And there are defensive questions about all three of those guys.

2) It’s the NCAA Tournament, of course you should be watching Kentucky. Two things are inevitable this time of year: John Calipari will find something to complain about so he can say everyone is against him; and Kentucky will be loaded with NBA prospects.

Kentucky’s guys to watch when they take on Kansas State starts with back-of-the-lottery/mid-teens pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, their smooth point guard. He was impressive with 46 points on 15-of-25 shooting in the first two tournament games (which is good, the consistency of his jumper was a question mark for scouts), although he did not show much of a stroke from three (2-of-2). His hesitation moves and smart game look like something that will translate to the NBA.

Then there’s Kevin Knox on the wing, who also should go in the lottery. He had 25 points on 16 shots in a strong game against Davidson in the first round, and what teams like are his defense and versatility. Combo forwards are in demand in the NBA.

Also keep on eye on Hamidou Diallo, a likely second-round pick.

3) Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, and Villanova will get a test from West Virginia. At this point in the season, scouts/GMs have opinions largely formed about players, but they want to watch them play one more time and want to see them tested. West Virginia should do that for the two Villanova prospects

Mikal Bridges is the kind of long, athletic defender that teams are looking for, plus he can knock down threes — he is 8-of-14 from deep so far in the tournament. He dropped 23 on a good Alabama team, and he looks like the kind of switchable wing role player at the NBA level a lot of teams are searching for.

The bigger test is for likely second-round pick Jalen Brunson — the guard struggled at points vs. Collin Sexton, and now goes up against a strong defender in Jevon Carter (a possible second-round pick himself). Brunson can help his cause with a good game here.

4) Hey Nuggets/Clippers/Lakers/Pistons fans, take the time to check out Texas A&M’s Robert Williams, he might be your late lottery guy. If anyone helped their cause in the NCAA’s first two rounds, it was A&M’s Williams, who played a key role in the Aggies upset of North Carolina with his 13 boards and strong play inside. The question never has been “does he have the talent?” but rather “will he bring it every night?” Williams showed everyone against North Carolina what he looks like when he can bring it, and you could see where he would be dangerous in the NBA where more skilled players around him will open up the floor and give him more space to operate. Think a poor man’s Clint Capela. Can he show he will bring it consistently on a big stage?

5) Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith had a strong first weekend, but he will get a test from Purdue’s Vincent Edwards and Carsen Edwards. Smith has plenty of talent and it showed against Florida in the first weekend — 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, and strong defense.

Smith may be in the mold of a guy where some will say “he needs another year in college to develop” but after 28 points on 21 shots through the first two rounds of the tournament, the potential second-half-of-the-first-round may well come out and get paid to develop. He will get another chance to show how much he has developed against a quality Purdue team.

Between his clutch FTs, LeBron James goes out of his way to high-five Raptors G Fred VanVleet (video)

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

High-fiving the opponent between his free throws is a wellestablished trick to break concentration.

LeBron James turned the tables in the Cavaliers’ win over the Raptors last night.

Toronto guard Fred VanVleet brushed hands with LeBron between a pair of late LeBron free throws. Unfazed, LeBron turned around and got a crisp high-five from VanVleet:

LeBron made both free throws.

No matter how much better the Raptors have been than Cleveland this season, LeBron wants the mental edge. He led the Cavs to playoff-series wins over Toronto the last two years, and this only increases perception he’s in complete control when these teams meet.

Three Things to Know: Nothing but takeaways from Cavaliers beating Raptors

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Today we’re doing things a little differently, despite some other interesting games — Dwight Howard dropping 30-and-30, the genuine concern about Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s ankle, and the Pelicans beating the Pacers because Anthony Davis is ridiculous — we are going to focus on the likely Eastern Conference Finals matchup of Toronto at Cleveland, which the Cavaliers won 132-129.

What we are not taking away from this is a prediction of a playoff matchup between these two teams. Forget the fact that regular season meetings are crappy predictors of playoff series in general, here are three other issues: 1) Toronto was on the second night of a back-to-back and it was their fifth game in seven days, which factored into their poor defense and late fade; 2) Cleveland is going to be healthier and have different guys in the rotation come the playoffs; 3) If Dwane Casey or Larry Drew/Tyronn Lue have a tactic they think could be a great weapon against the other side, no chance they break it out for long in a late-season game — they will save it for the playoffs. Sort of like to NFL teams playing each other in week 16 when they know they could meet in the playoffs. We didn’t see the best of either side.

That said, let’s get on to the real three things.

1) The biggest factor in the Eastern Conference remains LeBron James and his level of play. There are questions about how well the new-look Raptors will carry over to the playoffs. There are more questions (at least in my mind) about how well this Cavaliers roster can defend, even when healthy. All that said, this game was a reminder of one simple fact:

LeBron James can lift a team to the NBA Finals almost by himself — he’s been to seven straight Finals for a reason. He is the force of nature, he’s still playing at an MVP-level (at age 33 in his 15th season), and he took over this game with 35 points, 17 assists, and zero turnovers.

LeBron shot 62 percent from three on the night, had 14 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter alone, and was the difference in this game. OG Anunoby is the guy the Raptors will likely lean on in the playoffs to make LeBron work for his buckets, but he looked like a guys still working his way back from injury (and like a rookie with tired legs late in the season), it was Pascal Siakam who did the best of any Raptor (LeBron was 4-of-10 with Siakam guarding him on the night). That’s something we would see in the postseason, but nobody really had an impact, and the Raptors need to figure out how to make LeBron work harder for his buckets.

Put simply, the Eastern Conference is all about LeBron James. Still. And it will remain so until further notice.

2) Which one of these teams will defend better come the playoffs? The Cleveland Cavaliers gave up 79 first-half points and allowed the Raptors a 135.8 offensive rating on the night (points per 100 possessions). Kyle Lowry put it this way after the game, “Disgraceful display of defense by us. We’ve got to be better than that.” The Cavaliers had an offensive rating of 140.4 (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

Neither team defended well. If this was an Eastern Conference playoff preview, the team that improves their defense the most between now and then will come out on top.

Toronto has defended better all season — they are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating — but it didn’t show Wednesday. Maybe it was the back-to-back, fifth-game-in-seven-days that took their legs out from under them, particularly for the older Serge Ibaka who had an off night on both ends. (Tired legs also would explain the lack of transition points by the Raptors on the night, they needed those easy buckets). Maybe it’s the fact nobody has a good answer for LeBron. Maybe a lot of things, but the Raptors need to do better defensively in a playoff series or the outcome will be the same.

The Cavaliers lack cohesion on defense, and while they will get better defenders back from injury — Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr. — that is not going to speed up the team getting used to each other on that end. Cleveland has to have better energy, they need to close out on shooters better (the Raptors got open looks late on kickouts, they missed injured C.J. Miles), and they just need more efforts like veteran Jose Calderon gave (it was a good night for him). Cleveland has time to get its defenders on the same page, but not a lot of it.

3) Is Toronto’s bench going to matter as much in the playoffs? Toronto’s bench unit has been key to their success all season — the Raptors took a double-digit lead in the second quarter thanks to their bench (who has done that to teams all season long). The Raptors lineup of Jakab Poeltl, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright was +6 in 10 minutes Wednesday. The Lowry plus bench unit has killed teams all season long.

Will it matter in the playoffs?

Right now coaches are going nine or 10 deep in their rotations, and the Raptors depth matters in that situation — their bench can beat your bench. It happened against the Cavaliers. However, come the playoffs the minutes that went to guys nine and 10 in the rotation go to guys one and two — the bench tightens way up, and the best players get more minutes. A deep bench doesn’t have the same impact.

What that bench will provide Casey in the playoffs is options — if Anunoby is struggling against LeBron bring in Siakam — but it’s not the same as the regular season. I love that in big games recently against the Thunder and Cavaliers Casey is still playing around with his lineups for stretches — now is the time to experiment. Now is the time to get guys used to playing with each other. That way, come the playoffs, Casey can throw the combination out there that he thinks works and there will be familiarity.

But the Raptors will need more from their starters in the playoffs because the bench will not have the same impact.

Dwight Howard posts just second 30-30 game in last 36 years

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Dwight Howard never played for the Nets. He almost got traded to Brooklyn by the Magic, but the deal never happened.

Which puts a dent in Dennis Schroder‘s theory Howard gets up for games against only his former teams.

Howard dominated Brooklyn for 32 points and 30 rebounds in the Hornets’ 111-105 win tonight. That’s just the second 30-30 game in the last 36 years, Kevin Love notching the other in 2010.

All 30-30 games since Wilt Chamberlain, who had a ton:

  • Dwight Howard (Charlotte Hornets, 3/21/2018): 32 points, 30 rebounds
  • Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves, 11/12/2010): 31 points, 31 rebounds
  • Moses Malone (Houston Rockets, 2/11/1982): 38 points, 32 rebounds
  • Swen Nater (Milwaukee Bucks, 12/19/1976): 30 points, 33 rebounds
  • Elvin Hayes (Capital Bullets, 11/17/1973): 43 points, 32 rebounds

Howard helped Charlotte erase a 23-point second-half deficit and a 10-point deficit with four minutes left. The Hornets are playing out a lost season, and Brooklyn has looked overmatched most of the year, particularly at center. But no matter the situation, Howard says he still feels super-sized expectations.

Tonight, he exceeded them by leaps and bounds.