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….

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.