New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith celebrates as he faces the crowd after making a shot against the Dallas Mavericks in the third quarter of their NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York

NBA Power Rankings: The Knicks are on top? The Knicks are on top.

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Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks on top of the PBT Power Rankings? Well, that’s it, you need to stock up on canned goods, bottles of water and flashlight batteries because the end is neigh. But no denying, they have earned it the past two weeks.

source:  1. Knicks (4-0, last week ranked No. 3). Through a couple weeks, they are playing some of the best defense in the NBA. They have the second best offense. They are finding different ways to win. They are sharing the ball and Carmelo Anthony is defending. This is a legitimate start, but it will be put to the test this week against the Spurs and Grizzlies.

source:  2. Spurs (6-1, LW 2). They are playing like the Spurs do every regular season. What did you expect? The one thing of note is that Tim Duncan (18.9 points and 9.7 rebounds a game) is off to a monster start this season.

source:  3. Grizzlies (5-1, LW 7). They were 4-0 last week including knocking off the Heat — Memphis’ front line is particularly suited to be a bad matchup for Miami. People are looking past Memphis right now, a team playing very good defense and getting solid offense. Tough week ahead with the Thunder and Knicks on the radar.

source:  4. Heat (5-2, LW 1). The Heat aren’t going to be that worried about the loss to Memphis — when Wayne Ellington hits 7 threes the basketball gods have conspired against you. But the Heat’s defense has not been very good this season against anyone. That tightened up last season as things went along, but it’s something to watch.

source:  5. Thunder (5-2, LW 6). Kevin Martin is working out just fine as a shooter, thank you very much, hitting 50.7 percent overall and 53.1 percent from three. You get a lot of open looks on the Thunder.

source:  6. Clippers (5-2, LW 4). The question with the Clippers has been can they play consistent defense — and they have been pretty good so far this season. But the next two weeks includes games against the Heat, Spurs, Thunder and Nets. That defense will get tested now.

source:

7. Bulls (4-2, LW 9). The Bulls are what we expected — as good a defensive team as there is in the NBA. It’s winning them a lot of games. The offense has been good enough, we’ll see if they can keep it up.

source:  8. 76ers (4-2, LW 12). No Andrew Bynum until mid to late December. At best. So this combination of athletic defense with just enough offense will have to be it for a while.

source:  9. Nuggets (4-3, LW 19). After a slow start they went 4-0 last week, with good defense leading to them getting out on the fast break. Where they are very tough to stop. We will see which team, Jekyll or Hyde, shows up this week.

source:  10. Celtics (3-3, LW 8). You can see the foundation is there — Rajon Rondo is leading the offense, Kevin Garnett the defense — but so far the building looks shaky. It’s a long season, but this is not what you hope for with a veteran core.

source:  11. Lakers (3-4, LW 14). Mike D’Antoni. This is going to be interesting. It was against a couple of weak teams, but the Lakers have won two in a row once Bernie Bickerstaff let them freelance and just have fun within the offense. Which is kind of what D’Antoni would do.

source:  12. Mavericks (4-3, LW 13). Not a good loss to the Bobcats Saturday (are there any good losses to the Bobcats?). Blame the Mavs defense, which has been awful.

source:  13. Timberwolves (4-2, LW 18). What did we say going into the season — if they can keep their head above water until they get Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio back they are in great shape. So far, the head is well above water, even if they have yet to beat a team playing very well.

source:  14. Nets (3-2, LW 10). Joe Johnson is shooting 36 percent so far this season, and if one thing should be worrying Nets fans this season that might be it. At some point his game is going to regress, but this would be earlier than expected. Also, winning both games of a home-and-home against the Magic impresses nobody.

source:  15. Bucks (3-2, LW 11). Mike Dunleavy has been playing very well off the bench — 12.2 points per game on 53.7 percent shooting. So has Larry Sanders (12 PPG on 65.8 percent shooting). We all saw that coming, right?

source:  16. Pacers (3-4, LW 5). No Danny Granger for a while now, so where is the offense going to come from? We’re looking at you, Roy Hibbert and Paul George.

source:  17. Hawks (2-3, LW 22). Larry Drew’s seat could start to get warm in Atlanta after a slow start. And GM Danny Ferry doesn’t hesitate to make moves. And Ferry’s old coach in Cleveland Mike Brown is suddenly available. Not saying anything, just listing some coincidences.

source:  18. Rockets (3-3, LW 17). Harden has to adjust now and so far he hasn’t — after a fast start the defenses have started to target him (he shot 31 percent last week) and he has to create for others now. Of course, it’s easier when you create then dish the rock to Kevin Durant.

source:  19. Jazz (3-4, LW 20). Undefeated at home, winless on the road — ladies and gentlemen, your 2011-12… er, 2012-13 Utah Jazz.

source:  20. Hornets (3-2, LW 23). How much does Anthony Davis mean to this team? He missed two games and came back to drop 23 points, 11 boards and five blocks on the Bobcats. Lots of road games the next two weeks for the young Hornets, that’s a big test.

source:  21. Warriors (3-4, LW 15). They were 1-3 last week and will be without Andrew Bogut for a little while. Not ideal. The offense has to pick up the slack but so far it has been brick city for Golden State.

source:  22. Blazers (2-4 LW 16). They were 0-3 last week and you can blame a porous defense more than LaMarcus Aldridge shooting too many jump shots (even though he is).

source:  23. Suns (3-4, LW 27). They had a nice gutty comeback against Cleveland, which you can do against their bench. But this week they get the Nuggets, Bulls, Lakers and Heat. Ouch.

source:  24. Bobcats (2-3, LW 26). Is anyone noticing just how good Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is? Well, they are in Dallas, he just dropped 25 points and 12 rebounds on them Saturday. And the Bobcats won. They are not the worst team in the NBA this season.

source:  25. Cavaliers (2-5, LW 24). It’s about finding pieces to build around long term — we know Kyrie Irving is that, and Dion Waiters is showing something this young season. We knew Anderson Varejao was solid and could play. The bench, however, is a disaster.

source:  26. Kings (2-4, LW 28). The NBA suspended their entire front line — DeMarcus Cousins for going after a Spurs announcer and Thomas Robinson for elbowing Jonas Jerebko in the throat — and both were about against the massive Lakers front line. Well done, Kings.

source:  27. Magic (2-4, LW 21). After a fast 2-0 start they have been a mess. Watch a game and you see new coach Jacque Vaughn looking for anything that works, experimenting with all kinds of lineups.

source:  28. Raptors (1-5, LW 25). Last week they were 0-3 and now Kyle Lowry is injured. More frustrating is the fact they played hard on defense last season, where this season not so much.

source:  29. Wizards (0-5, LW 30). Their defense is the worst in the NBA and it’s not getting better anytime soon with the news Nene’s foot bothered him when he tried to increase his workload.

source:  30. Pistons (0-7, LW 29). With a likely loss to Oklahoma City Monday night the Pistons will be off to the worst start in franchise history. They play Orlando this week, so there is a chance they could finally get a win.

LeBron on Cavs’ three-game losing streak: “We got to get out of the honeymoon stage”

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James wipes his face as he looks down after guard Kyrie Irving missed a shot during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Chicago. The Bulls won 111-105. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Associated Press
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For a team that is 13-5 and atop the Eastern Conference standings, the Cleveland Cavaliers haven’t been their intimidating selves consistently this season. There have been flashes during a 13-2 start, but mostly they win on talent, or when they flip the switch for a half, but they haven’t looked like a tested team working on building good habits through the first quarter of the NBA season. They have an elite offense, but their defense is surrendering 105.1 points per 100 possessions, 20th in the league.

It’s been worse the last four games. The Cavaliers had to come from behind to beat the Sixers, then got blown out by the Bucks and Clippers. Friday night, Cleveland lost to Chicago, giving the Cavs a three-game losing streak, and LeBron James had enough. He sent a message to his team through the media (from the Associated Press):

“We got to get out of the honeymoon stage,” James said. “You got to play the game, the right way. We’ve got to battle every night like we ain’t won nothing. Last year is last year. After ring night is over with, now it’s a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over. It’s time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint) is ridiculous. We’ve got to man up. Everybody.”

The Cavaliers would be far from the first team to have a championship hangover, and considering the five-decade title drought in Cleveland before that win we should have expected one of those “I can’t get off the couch, I’m just going to lay here and watch golf all day” kind of hangovers. As Gregg Popovich has said before, its human nature to let up after a big win.

However, the blowout loss at the hands of the Clippers Thursday — the only title contending team the Cavs have faced this season — should be a wake-up call. The fact is the Cavaliers are still playing well enough to beat everyone in the East, but their real tests come in the form of the Warriors/Clippers/Spurs out West. Right now it’s hard to picture the inconsistent defense of the Cavaliers lifting them past any of those teams in four out of seven games.

LeBron has been to six-straight Finals for a reason — he does not let up. And he’s going to have to shake this team out of its malaise to get them back to an elite standing.

It’s also the first week of December. It’s we’re having this same conversation the last week of March about the Cavaliers then it’s okay to start looking for the panic button in Cleveland. For now, trust LeBron to be the leader this team needs. Calling them out was just step one.

 

James Harden scores 20 in Rockets’ runaway win over Denver 128-110

Houston Rockets guard James Harden brings the ball upcourt against the Denver Nuggets in the first half of an NBA basketball game late Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Associated Press
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DENVER (AP) — James Harden scored 20 points and the Houston Rockets led from start to finish in beating the Denver Nuggets 128-110 on Friday night.

Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson had 18 points each and Sam Dekkar added 17 points for Houston, which completed an impressive road back-to-back sweep that began with its 132-127 win over Golden State in double overtime on Thursday.

Wilson Chandler had 24 points to lead the Nuggets, who saw their three-game winning streak against the Rockets come to an end. The Nuggets have lost four of their last five and fell to 3-7 this season at home, the high-altitude venue they once routinely dominated.

Up by 10 points at halftime, the Rockets took a 99-84 lead into the fourth quarter and kept the pressure on the rest of the way as part of a sharpshooting display that included converting 17 of 37 3-point attempts against a listless Nuggets defense. Denver made 9 of 30 from beyond the arc.

The Rockets took a 73-63 halftime lead over the Nuggets, who allowed a season high in points over the first two quarters by an opponent.

Houston led by as many as 15 points in the first half, hitting nine 3 pointers, including four by Anderson, to gain early separation with its highest scoring output over the first two quarters this season.

The lack of defensive urgency by Denver was epitomized by Gordon’s fastbreak layup at the halftime buzzer as he drove the length of the court virtually uncontested in the final 3 seconds of the period.

TIP-INS

Rockets: F Trevor Ariza left the game in the final minutes with a leg injury, apparently after coming down awkwardly while going for a rebound. … Houston has made at least 10 3-pointers in 19 consecutive games, the longest streak of its kind in league history. … Houston’s previous high for first-half points was 71 against the Los Angeles Lakers on Oct. 26. … Houston is 7-2 on the road since beginning the season 2-3.

Nuggets: C Nikola Jokic missed the game because of a sore left wrist. … G Gary Harris remains sidelined with a right foot injury. … G Will Barton returned from an ankle injury that sidelined him for the previous two games.

 

Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade lead Bulls to 111-105 win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, front left, talks with Chicago Bulls' Dwyane Wade before an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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CHICAGO (AP) — LeBron James wasn’t holding back.

Cleveland’s superstar had plenty to say after the Cavaliers gave up 78 points in the paint on the way to another loss. The condensed version was this: It’s time to start playing like a championship team again.

Jimmy Butler scored 26 points, Dwyane Wade had 24 and the Chicago Bulls beat James and the slumping Cavaliers 111-105 on Friday night.

Taj Gibson added a season-high 23 points and 11 rebounds for Chicago. Rajon Rondo had 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds as the balanced Bulls handed the Cavaliers their third straight loss.

“We got to get out of the honeymoon stage,” James said. “You got to play the game, the right way. We’ve got to battle every night like we ain’t won nothing. Last year is last year. After ring night is over with, now it’s a new season and everybody is gunning for us every night and we have to understand that. The honeymoon stage is over. It’s time to play some real ball and be physical, especially in the trenches. Giving up 78 points (in the paint) is ridiculous. We’ve got to man up. Everybody.”

James manned up to the tune of 27 points and 13 assists, a championship-level performance on a night when he showed up dressed as a World Series champion: He arrived at the arena in a Cubs uniform to honor a World Series bet with buddy Wade.

Kyrie Irving added 20 points and eight assists, but the Cavaliers matched their longest losing streak in a year.

Chicago dominated Cleveland 78-60 in the paint, outrebounded the Cavaliers 49-33 and came out on top despite shooting 3 of 18 on 3-pointers. It was a big turnaround for the Bulls coming off a loss to the Lakers.

“I think we know what we’re capable of if we play basketball the right way and do what we’re supposed to do,” Butler said.

DOWN THE STRETCH

The Bulls used a strong third quarter to turn a one-point halftime deficit into an 88-80 lead. And they withstood several pushes in the fourth to knock off the defending NBA champions.

Kevin Love nailed a 3 to cut the lead to 103-99 with about 4 minutes left, but the Bulls hung on.

Wade drove for a layup to make it 107-101 with 2:39 remaining. Nikola Mirotic then stole the ball from James, leading to a putback basket for Wade.

Mirotic came up with another big play when he blocked a 3 by Irving with 1:11 left to cause a shot-clock violation.

KING CUB

James clearly wasn’t thrilled about having to wear a Chicago Cubs uniform after he rooted hard for his hometown Cleveland Indians in the World Series. But he was a man of his word, honoring the wager he made with Wade, his good friend and former Miami Heat teammate.

James wore a No. 23 Cubs jersey with his last name stitched across the back, a Cubs hat partially covered by a Cubbie-blue hoodie, pinstripe pants and long baseball socks. James’ uniform even had the 2016 World Series champions shoulder patch.

“I actually thought he looked good,” said Wade, who was waiting for James when he arrived at the arena and took a picture of his ex-teammate. “He actually did look like a baseball player.”

The two hugged before tipoff and had some playful moments during the game.

James patted Wade on the backside as they ran down the court together after he hit a tough fadeaway jumper over his pal in the third quarter. Wade returned the favor after burying a 3 in James’ face moments later.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: G/F Mike Dunleavy Jr. missed his second consecutive game because of a concussion.

Bulls: Rondo’s triple-double was his first with the Bulls and the 29th of his career. … Butler has 12 straight games with 20 or more points. … With the Bulls playing four times in five days, coach Fred Hoiberg said Wade won’t travel to Dallas for Saturday’s game. … Hoiberg said F Doug McDermott (concussion) could be cleared for contact shortly and might practice with the D-League’s Windy City Bulls.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard sink game winner to lift Spurs past Wizards

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: the Spurs ramped up their defense and execution in the third quarter, with their bench sparking a run that gave them the lead, then they held on and got the game-winning shot from their star on a clever play.

LaMarcus Aldridge set the screen that freed up Manu Ginobili to be the playmaker, then set another that got Kawhi Leonard a clean look at the game winner. Aldridge had 19 points on the night, but it’s those things that do not show up in the box score that gets the Spurs wins.

Plus, they just make shots under pressure.