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NBA Power Rankings: Thunder move up to second spot

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Some shifting around near the top as the Thunder go up, the Heat drop down and the Spurs hold steady. So do the Bobcats at the bottom. It’s not March Madness, but it is March setting up for a run to the playoffs.

1. Bulls (40-10, last week ranked number 1). With an undefeated week playing with Derrick Rose the Bulls become the first team to mathematically clinch a playoff berth. Big game Sunday when they face the Thunder, but only interesting if Rose plays.

2. Thunder (37-12, LW 4). The best offense in the NBA this season and it showed in an impressive win over Heat on Sunday. Tough tests ahead with the Lakers Thursday, the Bulls Sunday and the Heat again the following week.

3. Spurs (33-14, LW 3). Three games in three nights and the Spurs sweep them all, including wins over Dallas and Philadelphia. Not bad at all. If Manu Ginobili is healthy these Spurs can make it all the way to the Western Conference finals (remember they were without him in loss to Grizzlies last season). And the Spurs are a matchup problem for Thunder.

4. Heat (35-12, LW 2). They are coasting and not looking very impressive doing it of late. They are not building good habits toward the playoffs right now. We know they have another gear or two, the question is can they find it?

5. Lakers (30-19, LW 5). They are still trying to figure out who they are with Ramon Sessions in the lineup. Of course, for Lakers fans that kind of experimentation leads to a crisis mode. Too early to worry. Big test coming Thursday against the Thunder.

6. Magic (31-18, LW 6). They’ve got a relatively soft schedule to close out the season, which likely means they are going to be your three seed in the East.

7. Hawks (30-20, LW 9). Does anybody really fear the Hawks come the playoffs? They have won five of seven and have been one of the hotter teams of late, but they still just don’t strike fear into anyone. Mostly because their offense is average.

8. Mavericks (28-22, LW 10). The Lamar Odom situation in Dallas is getting worse by the day — he got a DNP-CD against San Antonio then played poorly against Houston. Mark Cuban said they were not going to buy him out, but they may have to sit him a lot.

9. Pacers (28-19, LW 14). Nice wins over the Clippers and the Bucks last week, two teams trying to stay in the playoff race. For the Pacers now it’s all about scoreboard watching and seeing who they face in the first round.

10. Clippers (27-21 LW 8). Vinny Del Negro watch is on, but it can only be a serious watch if you think owner Donald Sterling would be willing to pay for two head coaches at once. I’m not convinced. Four straight games at home could help Vinny’s cause this week.

11. Grizzlies (26-21, LW 7). Three straight losses — including to the Kings and struggling Blazers — until they picked up a nice win over the Lakers Sunday night. Still think they are struggling to fit Zach Randolph back in the rotation. Did you notice Gilbert Arenas got a DNP-CD against the Lakers?

12. 76ers (27-22, LW 11). They beat the Celtics and still hold on to that valuable Atlantic Division lead (meaning the four seed and avoiding the Heat and Bulls in the first round) but with a lot of road games to close out the season (11 of 17) they are by no means a lock at that spot.

13. Jazz (26-23, LW 16). Six wins in a row until they ran into the Hawks and four overtimes. Then they have to fry to New Jersey for another game Monday? If they win that I’ll be really impressed.

14. Celtics (25-22, LW 15). They are just half a game back of the 76ers again for that top spot in the Atlantic, but they have a much harder schedule the rest of the way. How hard to they push for that crown vs. resting for the playoffs?

15. Suns (25-24, LW 13). If I were Houston — the current 8 seed in the West — and I were worried about one team catching me, right now it would be the Suns.

16. Nuggets (26-23, LW 12). It’s going to be a hard slog the rest of the way with Rudy Fernandez out and right how Danilo Gallinari out as well. Plus, you know, trading Nene away for JaVale McGee. I don’t see them making the playoffs.

17. Knicks (24-25, LW 18). Key game Monday night against the Bucks. They are 5-1 in the Mike Woodson era but the schedule gets harder and they may have to go a stretch without Amare Stoudemire who is having back issues.

18. Bucks (22-26, LW 17). They are scoring a lot of points with the Monta Ellis/Brandon Jennings back court, but can they play enough defense to catch the Knicks for the final playoff spout in the East? They need that game Monday in New York.

19. Rockets (26-23, LW 19). If this team could get Kyle Lowry back from his bacterial infection I’d like their chances better to stay in the playoffs. That said, is there a team that gets as much out of the talent it has on the roster than Houston?

20. Timberwolves (24-26, LW 20). Kevin Love is in full on beast mode — three games last week he had at least 30 points and 14 rebounds.

21. Blazers (23-26, LW 21). They have started out 3-3 under interim coach Kaleb Canales. Apparently their young coach thinks they are supposed to be winning, not tanking. He didn’t get the memo.

22. Warriors (20-27, LW 22). Part of the thinking behind the Monta Ellis trade was to get more run for Klay Thompson, and he scored in double digits every game this week, has looked solid and is growing into an NBA two-guard before our eyes.

23. Kings (17-31, LW 24). Picked up a nice win over Memphis last week. And we like Isaiah Thomas. And we like Keith Smart. So, that’s three nice things (and you thought I couldn’t get to three).

24. Cavaliers (17-29, LW 25). They are talking about bringing Antawn Jamison back next season. At age 35. We need to discuss the concept of rebuilding with them again.

25. Pistons (16-32, LW 23). They have lost five in a row (Rodney Stuckey is injured, coincidence?) but to get beat by JaVale McGee making a smart play is just bad luck. And painful.

26. Nets (16-34, LW 26). Well, they got a win over the Bobcats last week. And just one more month until they are born to run out of the swamps of Jersey.

27. Raptors (16-33, LW 27). Don’t tell anyone, but the Raptors are playing pretty good defense again. Dwane Casey is a good coach if they give him some talent.

28. Hornets (12-36, LW 28). New Orleans threw a wild party in the French Quarter after they beat Chris Paul and his Clippers last week… wait, you mean it’s like that there every night?

29. Wizards (11-37, LW 29). The sign of how much better they are with Nene in the lineup is how bad they were with him gone against Boston Sunday.

30. Bobcats (7-39, LW 30). Dreaming of Anthony Davis….

Report: Jimmy Butler telling people he will be back for playoffs

Associated Press
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We don’t know a lot about Jimmy Butler‘s meniscus injury (other than that it’s not an ACL injury as feared). Because of that, it’s impossible to put a timeline on his return. We don’t know what kind of surgery he likely needs — a traditional meniscus partial removal takes six weeks or so to get a player back on the court (but is harder on the knee long-term as cushioning in it is removed, Dwyane Wade had this), but a repair could take three months or more before he is back on the court. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said this pregame Saturday:

However, Butler himself is telling people he will be back for the playoffs.

Is that the optimism of a fierce competitor? Players are often the worst judge of their ability to return from injury.

Or, does he know that a meniscus repair is out of the question with his injury, that a partial removal is the only option (as is true in some cases)? That has a speedier return that could have him back for the playoffs.

In the short-term, Minnesota is going to need a lot more out of Andrew Wiggins, and they need to play a lot better team defense, to hold on to a playoff slot in the West. The Timberwolves have been -8.3 per 100 possessions without Butler this season, but went 2-2 in the four games he missed. Minnesota is currently the four seed in the West at 36-26, but just three games from falling out of the postseason in a crowded conference.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.

 

Lonzo Ball rusty in return, likes playing with Isaiah Thomas

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball took the pass and set his feet at the arc. Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr. gave him space, so Ball put up the shot — and drained it.

And Staples Center erupted.

Lonzo Ball returned to the Lakers for the first time in 15 games following an MCL sprain. He was up and down (3-of-8 shooting) as to be expected, but had nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists in 17 minutes. (He will not play Saturday in a back-to-back in Sacramento.)

“I feel pretty good, only played 17 minutes so nothing crazy out there…” Ball said. “I could feel (his MCL), but the doc says I can get no worse. Just sliding a little bit, especially going right. Other than that it was OK.”

“I thought he looked good, I thought his shot looked good,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, noting that he could have played Ball a little more under the minutes restriction.

Ball had three three-pointers on the night (3-of-6 from three). His shooting motion isn’t any quicker or less quirky, but he’s gotten much better and knowing when he has the room to get it off. When his feet are set and he has room, he can knock it down.

His ability to push the pace, find teammates and pick up the pace is a welcome return to the Lakers.

Ball fit in well as part of a blowout win over a Dallas team that, to use coach Rick Carlisle’s words, “played without any force.” The final was 124-102 and it was never really in doubt for Los Angeles. The Mavs looked like a team tanking, not that their owner would ever tell them to… oh, wait. Carlise and the Mavs are not trying to lose, but this is a time when Dallas needs to get a look at its players about to be free agents — Nerlens Noel, Doug McDermott, Yogi Ferrell — and young players to see who will be part of the future. The question is how to best utilize them.

“You got to trust your gut in a lot of instances,” Carlisle said of how to evaluate his young players. “It’s not rocket science, certain things become obvious. But it’s important to compete.

Luke Walton is doing the exact same thing and he liked how his team competed. He tried something different playing Ball and Isaiah Thomas together for stretches.

“I liked it a lot,” Ball said of being on the court with IT. “Two playmakers on the court, I think we benefit from it. Look forward to playing with him all the time.”

The two were -6 when on the court in a game the Lakers won in a blowout. Still, expect to see more of that and some other odd combos the rest of the way.

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