Miami Heat's James celebrates win over Atlanta Hawks with Bosh and Allen during their NBA basketball game in Atlanta

NBA Power Rankings: Heat, Thunder on top, it feels like 2011

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It’s early in the season, very early, but there are moments it feels line the NBA finals come June could be a rematch of last year — Miami vs. Oklahoma City. And that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Right now those two teams are on top of the PBT power rankings.

source:  1. Heat (12-3, last week ranked No. 3). The Heat are back on top, and on a six-game winning streak, because they are starting to find their defensive stride again. The last two games they have held their opponent below the league average in points per possession, and as a team they are taking the long view of getting the defense to click.

 

source:  2. Thunder (14-4, LW 4). Winners of five in a row, in part because Russell Westbrook is not as one dimensional as you think and has been a real playmaker for them. Good tests this week against the Nets and Lakers.

 

source:  3. Spurs (14-4, LW 2). They went 5-1 on a tough six game road trip, and the one loss really pissed David Stern off. Then they came back and handled the Grizzlies. Would you be shocked if they were the top seed in the West this season? I wouldn’t.

 

source:  4. Grizzlies (12-3, last week ranked No. 1). They were 3-1 last week, the loss coming to a motivated Spurs team out to stick up for their coach after Stern’s fine (and while the Spurs stars were rested the Griz were on a back-to-back). They have the best defense in the land and a pretty soft schedule this week (Hawks are the big challenge).

 

source:  5. Nets (11-5, LW 8). Deron Williams is struggling with his shot — 39.9 percent on the season — but he will not blame his sprained wrist. The Nets offense has been bailed out by the suddenly hot Jerry Stackhouse, who loves the corner three and has 15 from beyond the arc this season. BTW, nice win over the Knicks.

 

source:  6. Knicks (12-4, LW 6). They are defending their house and are now 7-0 at Madison Square Garden. We will see how much the bone bruise in Raymond Felton’s hand bothers him, because with Jason Kidd out also it becomes the Pablo Prigioni show.

 

source:  7. Clippers (10-6, LW 5). Chauncey Billups is back and although he has played limited minutes in those games it seems to have settled their offense down and they put up 100 points in those games (after missing that mark in four of the previous five). Jamal Crawford may be finding his groove again, too. Which is good for all of us.

 

source:  8. Hawks (9-5, LW 7). They won six in a row but did it against soft competition (save for the Clippers win). We’ll learn a lot more from them with teams like Denver, Miami and Memphis coming up.

 

source:  9. 76ers (10-7, LW 9). Like the Hawks above them, this is a team that has played hard and won but done it against a soft schedule. That changes now, starting with a home-and-home against Boston.

 

source:  10. Celtics (9-8, LW 11). I’m not with Doc Rivers, I don’t think the Celtics are soft… well, maybe their bench is. They started out with a 17-0 run against the Bucks and by halftime it was a one-point lead. And they went on to lose. Jeff Green had a couple nice games with Rajon Rondo out, but remains enigmatic.

 

source:  11. Warriors (10-6, LW 17). This is a team with the points per possession differential of a .500 team and I keep waiting for them to revert, and they just keep on finding a way to win. Carl Landry is quietly having a strong season, as is David Lee. When those two are paired the Warriors lineups are stronger.

 

source:  12. Bucks (8-7, LW 13). Quality wins last week over Boston and Chicago, plus they got a triple-double (with blocks) out of Larry Sanders. The jury is still out on the Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings pairing but it just doesn’t seem to be lightning in a bottle (they don’t defend well).

 

source:  13. Bulls (8-7, LW 15). That loss to the Bucks — ahead by 27 only to lose — is a real stinger. That said, they are still in the mix to win the Central division (without that Rose guy) and they have some winnable games this week (Cavaliers, Pistons) before some real tests in the middle of the month (Knicks, Clippers, Nets, Grizzlies).

 

source:  14. Lakers (8-9, LW 10). The NBA’s most inconsistent team. Why so inconsistent? Los Angeles is running an offense based on smart, strong point guard play and they run out Darius Morris and Chris Duhon playing the point. Combine that with some horrible mental vacations on defense and you get up and down. Lots of road games coming up this week.

 

source:  15. Jazz (9-9, LW 16). There is no good time for Derrick Favors to go down but this is about as close as it gets — Jazz are a dramatically better team at home and have four of their next five in Salt Lake City.

 

source:  16. Rockets (8-8, LW 21). They are 2-7 against the Western Conference but 6-1 when they face the East. One other fun little fact, they are playing at the fastest pace in the NBA right now.

 

source:  17. Mavericks (8-9, LW 14). Derek Fisher is not the answer, as his 1-8 shooting night Saturday showed. Dallas is 2-6 on the road this season and six of their next seven are away from Dallas. Meaning a real test for the team that has no certain idea when Dirk Nowitzki might return to the lineup.

 

source:  18. Nuggets (8-9, LW 12). This was a team expected to run everyone into the ground, but they are playing at just the eighth fastest pace in the league and are 23rd in points scored per possession in transition. They don’t have a good running game right now.

 

source:  19. Timberwolves (7-8, LW 19). Ricky Rubio is back practicing, which is great news and fits with the timeline of him returning mid-December. In the interim, they need Kevin Love to shoot better (37 percent since he returned to action).

 

source:  20. Bobcats (7-8, LW 18). Three straight losses against tougher competition, including an ugly thrashing at the hands of the Thunder where they looked like last-season’s Bobcats. The feel good story may be ending with the Knicks, Bucks and Spurs up this week (as well as the Blazers).

 

source:  21. Pacers (8-9, LW 22). They got a quality win against the Lakers last week (although pretty soon we are going to stop saying that about beating LA). David West has been playing well of late, but they miss Danny Granger’s shot creation.

 

source:  22. Trail Blazers (7-10, LW 20). They lost to the Wizards and the Pistons, then needed a dramatic Nicolas Batum three to beat the Cavaliers. This is not a very good team. Sorry. Nice pieces but not a good team.

 

source:  23. Suns (7-10, LW 23). After watching him against the Knicks Sunday, you have to wonder how long before Alvin Gentry just starts slashing Michael Beasley’s minutes. Dramatically. He guns on offense, hurts them on defense.

 

source:  24. Pistons (5-13, LW 26). Don’t tell anyone, but they have gone 5-5 in their last 10 games. They remain a dreadful road team (1-10) but at the Palace they will make you work for it.

 

source:  25. Magic (6-10, LW 24). There is no real revenge for Dwight Howard, but that win Sunday night sure tasted good to Magic fans. As it should.

 

source:  26. Raptors (4-13, LW 27). They are 1-9 on the road this season and their next five games are a West Coast swing that includes the Nuggets, Jazz and Clippers. Have fun with that.

 

source:  27. Hornets (4-11, LW 28). They are going to have to go at least another week without Anthony Davis and they have to figure out how to defend without him. With Davis in the lineup they allowed opponents 103.1 points per 100 possessions, that has jumped way up to 110.5 in the past five games.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (4-13, LW 29). No Kyrie Irving. Not even Dion Waiters to be a gunner. All Cavaliers fans have right now is Anderson Varejao trade rumors.

 

source:  29. Kings (4-12, LW 25). You look at where the Kings are now, where they have been for the past few years, and you’d think an owner would clean house starting with the GM and working down into the roster. But Geoff Petrie in entrenched as GM. The Kings marketing team can start planning another lottery party for fans now.

 

source:  30. Wizards (1-13, LW 30). Nene was back, now he’s gone (but may be back this week). Randy Wittman’s mom wants to know when John Wall is coming back and there are no answers. It’s going to be a long season in the nation’s capital.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.