Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook celebrates with small forward Kevin Durant during their NBA basketball game against Chicago Bulls in Oklahoma City

NBA Power Rankings: Top spot now Thunderstruck

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There can’t be any question about the Thunder in the top spot after the last 8 days, but there are questions about the Heat and the Bulls in the East. And the Celtics and Spurs as spoilers.

1. Thunder (40-12, last week ranked number 2). They beat the Heat, Bulls and Lakers in the last 8 days. Any other questions? Big test again this week as they get a rematch with the Heat, but I think the questions about who is coming out of the West have been answered. Unless it is the…

2. Spurs (36-14, LW 3). Winners of seven in a row now and the question is “are they legit contenders?” I still think they struggle in the playoffs if they have to face one of the big scoring front lines (the Grizzlies and Lakers) but you can be sure the Thunder would like to avoid them.

3. Bulls (42-12, LW 1). Despite the ugly loss to the Thunder there can’t be any complaints about how this team has performed without Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton. Miami isn’t putting any pressure on them to rush Rose back, but you still want him to return about six games or so before the playoffs to shake off all the rust and get in some game-speed action.

4. Heat (37-13, LW 4). Ugh. They are 1-7 on the road against playoff teams since the All-Star break. Is it because they are bored right now in the dog days of the season, or are they fundamentally flawed? They get a chance to redeem themselves against the Thunder this week, at home where they play well, and they also have the Grizzlies and Celtics coming up at home, too.

5. Lakers (33-20, LW 5). Getting thumped by the Thunder last week shows the gap between them and the Thunder right now, but even in their wins last week the Lakers look tired. The Lakers starters have been okay but the bench is a mess and will get tested more with Bynum out. Heading into the playoffs Mike Brown needs to get his key guys some rest. Key contest against the Clippers Wednesday.

6. Clippers (31-21 LW 10). Five straight wins has quieted the Vinny Del Negro talk — and they have looked good, especially Chris Paul of late. But all of the wins came at home. If they want to win the Pacific Division they need to beat the Lakers Wednesday, they also could use to beat Dallas Monday on the road. Good tests to see if this team is really a contender.

7. Celtics (30-22, LW 14). Impressive win against the Heat Sunday, but also had quality wins last week against Houston and Minnesota. They are going to win the Atlantic Division, which means avoiding the Heat or Bulls out of gate.

8. Mavericks (30-23, LW 8). They have had one of the toughest schedules in the league since the break — a lot of good teams and having to face them on little rest. Dirk Nowitzki has found his groove again, scoring more than 20 points consistently now.

9. Magic (32-20, LW 6). They looked pretty bad without Dwight Howard (out with back spasms) and they will continue to until he returns (day-to-day). They are built around him at both ends of the floor.

10. Grizzlies (28-22, LW 11). Right now it shapes up to be a Lakers vs. Grizzlies first round matchup — which would be epic. And the rest of the West is rooting for that because nobody wants to take on either of these front lines in the first round, let them battle it out amongst themselves.

11. Hawks (31-23, LW 7). Losses to Chicago and Philadelphia last week have you questioning this squad once the playoffs start. Pretty soft schedule from here on out is the good news for them.

12. Pacers (31-21, LW 9). They beat the Heat and lost to the Nets last week. So yes, they tend to be a bit up and down.

13. Knicks (27-26, LW 17). Without Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire the focus will be on Carmelo Anthony, but the Knicks have been winning thanks to defense. Tyson Chandler is this team’s MVP.

14. 76ers (29-23, LW 12). Does anyone really think they are going to catch up to Boston for the Atlantic Division crown? No, nott since they finish this season mostly on the road. Which means they are going to draw Miami or Chicago in the first round.

15. Nuggets (28-24, LW 16). They handed the Bulls and Magic a loss last week and have gone from a team looking like they were sliding out of the playoffs to a team clutching one of the final spots. If they make the playoffs with this roster and all these injuries George Karl deserves a raise.

16. Rockets (28-25, LW 19). Houston plays Phoenix and Utah one more time each, both at home. Win those and they likely make it in. Goran Dragic hits the free agent market this summer and a lot of teams will be lined up to snatch him away.

17. Jazz (27-26, LW 13). Three tough losses last week, that could come back to haunt them. They need some quality wins, like Wednesday at Portland.

18. Suns (25-26 LW 15). No Grant Hill for a while (even though he is trying to get back) and now they head out on the road for seven of their last eight. That said, lots of games left against Denver, Houston and Utah — Phoenix’s fate is in it’s own hands.

19. Bucks (24-28, LW 18). Despite the loss in New York last week this team still has a shot at the playoffs, 2.5 games back of the Knicks. But they need to clean up on an upcoming home stand, and they need to find a way to get Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis clicking at the same time. (Good luck with that.)

20. Timberwolves (25-29, LW 20). Kevin Love is not your MVP but his effort to keep the Wolves in the playoff hunt deserves your admiration.

21. Blazers (24-28, LW 21). They started out just terribly after the All-Star Break but have turned it around some of late thanks to… J.J. Hickson? In part. He’s shooting 65 percent since coming to Portland.

22. Pistons (19-33, LW 25). They are the best of the NBA’s bad teams. That and $4 gets you a latte at Starbucks.

23. Nets (19-35, LW 26). Three wins in a row and Deron Williams is playing well. Portland fans would like to thank you for not tanking.

24. Kings (18-34, LW 23). No team has improved more statistically from before the All-Star break to after it, in part thanks to the entertaining three guard combo of Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans.

25. Warriors (20-31, LW 22). They are doing a good job of tanking without actually looking like they are tanking — they hang close in games then just find a way to lose.

26. Raptors (18-35, LW 27). Don’t tell anyone, but the Raptors are playing fairly well on offense since Andrea Bargnani is playing well.

27. Cavaliers (17-33, LW 24). There is going to be either and 8.8 percent or 6.3 percent chance that the Cavaliers win the NBA lottery again (maybe even higher, if they keep tanking like they have been going 1-10 of late). Anthony Davis next to Kyrie Irving could be a lot of fun to watch.

28. Hornets (13-40, LW 28). When are they going to announce the sale of this team as official, anyway? I’m not asking for me, Mark Cuban wants to know.

29. Wizards (12-40, LW 29). If Nene were healthy they’d be a lot better… which is actually bad for draft reasons. So it’s all going to plan.

30. Bobcats (7-43, LW 30). Some radio talk show host in your town will start to make a case about how the Bobcats should take Thomas Robinson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or somebody else ahead of Anthony Davis. That person is full of crap. The Bobcats just hope they get stuck with that choice.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.