NBA Power Rankings: Who forgot to tell Spurs they are old?

11 Comments

Can you picture a San Antonio vs. Miami finals? It’s not that hard, if you try.

1. Spurs (40-14, last week ranked number 2). Eleven wins in a row and they are percentage points ahead of the Thunder (and one ahead of them in the loss column). Are they title contenders? They have four rings with this core, have the best coach in the league and are a matchup problem for the Thunder. I still wonder about them against the big front lines of the Lakers or Grizzlies, but with a healthy Manu Ginobili it’s close. The Spurs need everything to go perfectly, but that’s what we said about the Mavericks last year.

2. Heat (40-15, LW 4). They redeemed themselves with a quality win against the Thunder, then right after came out and laid an egg against Memphis. As he has all season, LeBron keeps putting up big numbers when Dwyane Wade sits. Big tests this week with the Celtics, Bulls and Knicks on the docket.

3. Bulls (43-14, LW 3). They got Derrick Rose back with a few weeks to work off the rust before the playoffs start. Perfect. Their only question is who they want to see in the first round more: Sixers, Bucks or Knicks?

4. Thunder (40-15, LW 1). Tough week of games last week and the Thunder drop three straight. Sometimes they still look like a young team learning how to win.

5. Celtics (32-24, LW 7). The Celtics defense has been stifling, and they are getting enough offense to get the wins. A player of Ray Allen’s stature coming off the bench would be a problem in some locker rooms, but not this one.

6. Grizzlies (32-23, LW 10). This is the team nobody in the West wants to face in the first round — and they are still not fully hitting their stride (Zach Randolph could play better). Huge showdown with the Spurs Thursday, that will be fun.

7. Lakers (35-22, LW 5). They won the game they needed to win against the Clippers, but if Kobe Bryant is in a walking boot too long they might give those gains back. That said, no doubt some rest for Kobe is a good idea at this point, whether it’s forced by an injury or not.

8. Clippers (34-22 LW 6). If the playoffs started today, they would get Memphis in the first round. Blake Griffin vs. the Memphis front line — that would be fun to watch. Griffin is creating some bad blood wherever he goes (which made that game against the Lakers fun).

9. Pacers (34-22, LW 12). Nice wins against the Thunder and Hawks last week… then they get smoked by Boston. In the wins their offense seems to be clicking, they are going to need that if they have plans of advancing in the playoffs.

10. Hawks (34-23, LW 11). They continue to beat the teams they should, we’ll see how they do with Boston and Orlando on the docket this week.

11. Knicks (29-27, LW 13). They keep finding ways to win for Mike Woodson — Tyson Chandler keeping balls alive and tipping them out to Carmelo Anthony for key threes. But they remain just a game ahead of the nine seed Bucks — big showdown Wednesday with Milwaukee.

12. Mavericks (31-26, LW 8). Lamar Odom is gone and that’s the smart move by the organization, but he was not the root of all they offensive and defensive problems. This is not the title contender they were last year, a deal Cuban made before the season to get cap space.

13. Rockets (31-25, LW 16). If the playoffs started today the Rockets would face the Lakers — and Los Angeles has a recent history of struggling to contain quick point guards. Like Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic. Plus Courtney Lee is balling of late.

14. Magic (33-23, LW 9). Combine the public “Dwightmare” with Dwight Howard’s ongoing back issues (he is out Monday night) and this has become the team everybody in the East wants to see in the first round of the playoffs. Didn’t think that would be the case back in early February.

15. Suns (29-27, LW 18). Michael Redd, who everyone had pretty much written off, is back and contributing. If the Suns’ warlocks, er, training staff can keep Steve Nash’s back healthy they may just make the playoffs.

16. Nuggets (30-26, LW 15). If they are going to hold on to their playoff spot the five-game stretch starting Friday will determine it — Lakers, home-and-home with the Rockets, Clippers, then Suns.

17. Jazz (29-27, LW 17). They are barely holding on to their playoff hopes, and they have the Spurs, Rockets and Grizzlies this week. They need some big wins to keep those playoff hopes alive.

18. 76ers (29-27, LW 14). Is anybody falling faster and harder than these guys? Early in the season they were the model of team play and defense, now they are close to falling out of the playoffs. A soft schedule this week could be a boost.

19. Bucks (28-28, LW 19). This week will tell the tale with Milwaukee — they have a Wednesday showdown with the Knicks, although they are more likely to catch plummeting Philly or Orlando.

20. Blazers (27-30, LW 21). Got a fantastic home win over Dallas last week — this is the kind of team that can rise up and beat anybody. They can be your spoiler.

21. Timberwolves (25-32, LW 20). Michael Beasley is back. That should fix everything. (To be fair, he was good in his one game back. Still.)

22. Pistons (21-35, LW 22). With Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe you’d like to think they have a base to build on for the future, but this is a roster that still needs a lot of work to move forward.

23. Warriors (22-33, LW 25). They are 4-12 since the trade of Monta Ellis, but remember they only get to keep their lottery pick if it is one of the top three.

24. Raptors (20-36, LW 26). Andrea Bargnani was back… and then out again with the same calf the second half of last game. With him they have a decent offense and you can see glimmers of hope. Without him, it’s the DeMar DeRozan show.

25. Nets (20-37, LW 23). They have had some nice little wins of late, and in the East where teams need wins this is not a pushover — Deron Williams can change any game.

26. Kings (19-37, LW 24). As bad as things have been on the court, if this city loses the team at the Board of Governors this week it will be a true disaster. Can the other owners really reward the Maloofs for their behavior in this stadium situation?

27. Hornets (15-41, LW 28). Eric Gordon is back, Jarrett Jack is out. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

28. Cavaliers (18-35, LW 27). With Kyrie Irving out this team may have a top 4 pick in the draft to pair with their young point guard next season. But don’t say they are tanking.

29. Wizards (12-44, LW 29). This team wasn’t good with Nene in the lineup, they are painful without him.

30. Bobcats (7-47, LW 30). If they get one more win before the season ends they will avoid having the worst winning percentage in the history of the league. That’s quite a lofty goal but one they can reach.

PBT Extra: If Portland is going to turn series around it starts with Damian Lillard

Leave a comment

This was the year the Trail Blazers were going to break through. They were defending better as a team. There was some depth on offense. And Damian Lillard was playing at a level that will get him on many voters’ MVP ballots.

Instead, they are down 0-2 to Anthony Davis and New Orleans, having dropped both games at home to open the series. Portland is on the verge of being bounced in the first round for the third time in four years.

If Portland is going to turn this series around, it starts with Lillard, something I discuss in this latest PBT Extra. C.J. McCollum needs to get more buckets, Jusuf Nurkic needs to contribute more on both ends, but for Portland it all begins and ends with Lillard and it’s on him to start the turnaround.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith
Leave a comment

James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

Getty Images
1 Comment

Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.