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.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford returns Wednesday after 21-game absence

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets coach Steve Clifford returned to practice Tuesday following a 21-game absence due to headaches caused by sleep deprivation. He will coach the Hornets on the bench Wednesday night against the Wizards.

Clifford said Tuesday when he began experiencing intense headaches back in early December it scared him so bad he decided to take a medical leave of absence. Medical tests revealed nothing wrong internally, but Clifford said doctors told him he needed to dramatically change his lifestyle and work habits – and get more sleep.

Clifford, who last coached Charlotte on Dec. 1, says he feels rested and plans to delegate more to his assistant coaches moving forward.

The 56-year-old Clifford returns to the sideline Wednesday when Charlotte hosts Washington, the start of a five-game homestand for the struggling Hornets (17-25).

Charlotte was 9-12 under associate head coach Stephen Silas during Clifford’s absence.

 

Jonathan Isaac in sermon: I invited my Magic teammates to hear me preach, but none came

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Jonathan Isaac hasn’t played in a few weeks due an ankle injury.

But the Magic rookie hasn’t stayed out of the spotlight.

He delivered a sermon Sunday at his church, which put the speech online. In the talk, he mentioned his teammates.

Isaac:

I invited my teammates. Right? I invited my teammates, and that was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do yet. None of them came, but I took the step, and I invited them. When Doc told me, “You should invite your teammates,” I was frozen. I froze. I said, “What? I’m the rookie. I’m the youngest person on the team. I can’t tell them that I’m about to preach. What? They don’t serve the lord. What are they going to think of me? What are they going to say about me? What are they going to say behind my back?” I want to be a part of this team. I want them to love me, truly. I typed the message up, and I deleted it. I typed it, and I deleted it. I typed it, and I deleted it. And finally, I was like, “You know what? This isn’t about me. I’ve got to take myself out of the equation. I’ve got to do what god is telling me to do.”

The Lando:

This is interesting on a couple levels.

I think it’s generally worth knowing what drives players. Religion is clearly an important part of Isaac’s life. That has anchored many athletes, but it can also create a burden, as Dwight Howard discussed.

Religion can also unite teams – or divide them. While coaching the Magic, Doc Rivers – himself very religious – ended team prayers once he noticed Muslim player Tariq Abdul-Wahad appear uncomfortable during the Christian prayers. A former teammate said David Robinson caused a rift in the Spurs’ locker room due to his proselytizing.

There’s also something to be said for teammates backing each other. Attending Isaac’s church for a day can be about supporting him, not adhering to his religion.

Of course, his teammates are under no obligation to attend. They’re co-workers, not necessarily friends. Maybe they just didn’t want to spend there free time with Isaac. Maybe they were busy. Maybe they felt uncomfortable going to church. There’s a whole range of possible reasons for each teammate, the way it affects team dynamics – on and off the court – varying accordingly.

Based on his sermon and follow-up statement, Isaac is going about this the right way. It can be nerve-wracking to ask people to join in something. That can be a meaningful experience in and of itself.

For the Magic, this provides another lens for which to assess their chemistry and camaraderie.

Three Things to Know: Anthony Davis gives Celtics fans 45 reasons to drool over him more

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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. And we didn’t even get to 

1) Anthony Davis shows why Celtics’ fans drool over him, drops 45 in Pelicans win. There are executives and fans with 29 NBA teams who covet Anthony Davis and fantasize about would look like in their uniform. It’s just that Boston fans and executives are the loudest and least subtle about it. That despite the fact that Davis — a top-five NBA player who makes an impact at both ends of the floor — has three years on his contract after this one (the last one a player option) and the Pelicans are not trading him for the foreseeable future because they are not stupid (the feeling around the league is the Pelicans will re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer and go all-in with that combo). That didn’t stop Boston media from peppering Davis with questions Tuesday that basically amounted to little more than “so, just how badly do you want to come here and when can we expect you?” Davis dodged them all. As he should.

Tuesday night Davis gave Celtics fans a first-hand reminder why they want him so badly — he dropped 45 on the Celtics and led the Pelicans to a big win in the Boston Garden (his second 45+ point game, he did the same thing to the Knicks Saturday).

After a performance like that, Celtics fans would even be willing to trade Terry Rozier for Davis. Well, some of them would, not all. Some would construct a trade around Daniel Theis and think it was a fair swap.

Davis had help in this one, and not just from DeMarcus Cousins (who had 19 points and 15 rebounds). Jrue Holiday had 23 points, seven assists, and played fantastic defense on Kyrie Irving down the stretch (Irving had 27 points, but on 8-of-24 shooting). Davis, Cousins, and Holiday all had key buckets in the overtime session.

This win puts the Pelicans three games over .500 for only the second time this season, and now they head into a soft week in the schedule where (if focused) they should be able to pad their record a little. They need to. While right now the Pelicans are the six seed in the West, they are just one game ahead of the nine-seed Clippers — the race for the playoffs is on. New Orleans needs every win it can get.

2) Aaron Afflalo throws a punch (and misses) at Nemanja Bjelica, both men were ejected in actual, almost, NBA fight. Orlando’s Afflalo and Minnesota’s Bjelica had been going at it for a while in this game — both had already picked up a technical and things were getting chippy. Then midway through the second quarter, as the two men went for a rebound on a Jamal Crawford jumper, Bjelica just ran headlong into Afflalo as the Magic player looked like he was pass blocking.

That’s when a fight broke out and Afflalo threw a haymaker, which didn’t connect, then Bjelica gets him in a headlock.

Both men were ejected. Obviously.

That’s a lot closer to a fight than whatever happened in the secret tunnels of Staples Center between the Rockets and Clippers.

Afflalo is getting suspended for this — his punch was wild and didn’t connect, but that was a punch. Bjelica may miss a game or two as well for his role.

Orlando went on to upset the Timberwolves behind 32 points from Evan Fournier, snapping a five-game Minnesota win streak.

3) Nikola Jokic had a monster night, dropping 29 points and grabbing 18 boards. This year, the center position for the All-NBA teams feels wide open. (The league still makes people pick a center for this award, which is outdated for today’s game, but that’s the rules.) Joel Embiid is in the conversation for one of those slots (so long as he plays enough games), as is DeMarcus Cousins. LaMarcus Aldridge plays more center than power forward now and has to be mentioned. So does Karl-Anthony Towns, who has started to finally focus more on the defensive end.

Just don’t sleep on Nikola Jokic.

Denver’s best player had maybe his best game of the season Tuesday night, carving up Dallas to the tune of 29 points, 18 rebounds, and seven assists. Dallas threw a variety of defenders at him and it just didn’t matter.

Much like was mentioned with the Pelicans above, the Nuggets need to rack up wins. Just 1.5 games separates Oklahoma City at the five seed and the L.A. Clippers at the seven seed. Five teams for four spots. There’s half a season to go, and injuries will likely ultimately determine who is in and who is out, but Denver can’t afford to look past anyone, and scrappy teams like Dallas can be a tough out. This was a good win for the Nuggets on Tuesday, and Jokic is why they have it.

Watch Anthony Davis score 42 points in OT win over Celtics (VIDEO)

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New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is on a bit of a tear.

Davis scored 48 points to go along with 17 rebounds on Sunday as the Pelicans beat the New York Knicks at MSG. Then on Tuesday night, Davis again went for 40+, scorching the Boston Celtics at TD Garden to the tune of 45 points, this time with 16 rebounds.

Alongside DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, Davis was the deciding factor in Tuesday’s game, helping to get early buckets in the extra time period.

The final result was impressive, and good news for the Pelicans as they continue to solidify their playoff position going into the All-Star break.

Watch the full highlights from Davis’ scoring outbreak in the video above.