Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin and Chris Paul run off the bench to celebrate a basket against the Toronto Raptors during their NBA basketball game in Los Angeles

NBA Power Rankings: Right now, Clippers are second best in West

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What we see in December is not always a great predictor of what we see in the playoffs, but the Clippers look very good lately. Better than their more talked about roommate in Los Angeles.

source:  1. Thunder (19-4, Last week ranked No. 1). They are the winners of 10 in a row. I still think they lost some playmaking they will miss with the James Harden trade, but that is balanced out with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant coming back this season better players than they were. Durant is shooting 54 percent during the Thunder winning streak. Looking forward to the Christmas Day rematch with Miami.

 

source:  2. Clippers (17-6, LW 4). Winners of nine in a row and playing as well as anyone in the land right now — over their last 10 games the Clippers have the second best defense and seventh best offense in the NBA. Also, Lamar Odom is playing well as he rounds into shape. Soft schedule this week (Pistons, Hornets, Kings, Suns).

 

source:  3. Knicks (18-5, LW 3). Winners of four in a row (including against the Nets, who they see again this week) and they have the best offense in the land. But the Knicks defense isn’t what it was last season — 17th in league overall (in points per possession allowed) and they have struggled with the pick and roll as well as guys in isolation. Need to clean that up as the season wears on. Stoudemire may return to practice this week.

 

source:  4. Heat (15-6, LW 6). They are 11-2 at home (with a home heavy early schedule) and three of their next four are at home, ending with a Christmas Day finals rematch with the Thunder. Then they head out on the road where they are a .500 team.

 

source:  5. Spurs (19-6, LW 2). While their defense has been good this season, they have struggled to contain speedy point guards in the pick and roll (doesn’t everyone?) and their rotations to shooters have been a step slow (shot up shooters hitting 43.7 percent overall 39.8 percent from three, that is bottom 10 in the league for San Antonio). You expect the Spurs will clean that up.

 

source:  6. Warriors (16-8, LW 8). They went 6-1 on a seven game road trip beating the Heat and Hawks — they have made their “look at me” statement. And don’t forget, this is a team that gets Andrew Bogut back and if he is near his old self that gives them a very good defensive center to add to the mix.

 

source:  7. Grizzlies (15-6, LW 5). They are returning to earth as their offense slipped recently — in their last five games they are shooting 40 percent as a team. Not sure John Hollinger can help that — there are serious questions about his lateral quickness — but he is still a fantastic front office hire.

 

source:  8. Hawks (14-7, LW 7). They lost to the Heat and Warriors last week, following their pattern of struggling against better teams. Thunder, Sixers and Bulls on the schedule this week to provide some tests.

 

source:  9. Bulls (13-9, LW 11). Quality wins last week over the Knicks, Nets and 76ers (only loss was to the Clippers). They have four straight road wins. Tom Thibodeau has this team playing hard, defending, but at some point he does need to worry about Luol Deng and Joakim Noah each playing more than 40 minutes a game (they are 1-2 in the league in minutes per game).

 

source:  10. Celtics (12-11, LW 9). Avery Bradley returned to practice Monday, which is good news. However, he is not going to help their offense, which has really been the weak link in recent weeks and the end of the court they need to get going. Start by cutting down the turnovers.

 

source:  11. Bucks (12-10, LW 12). They had an ugly loss to the Clippers, but that happens when your starting backcourt shoots 7-of-27. That remains the key in Milwaukee — when just one of Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis gets going they can win games, but if both are off they flounder.

 

source:  12. Nets (13-10, LW 13). They are 1-1 with the Knicks now, with another game ahead this week. In the PBT podcast speaking with New York local and Nets legend Kenny Anderson he said that he thinks New York is now and for a long time will be a Knicks town where the Nets can carve out a niche.

 

source:  13. Nuggets (13-12, LW 17). They were 3-1 last week and I’d like to think they are starting to play good defense, get out and run and they are going to find their groove. One reason to be bullish on their future — they have played 14 road games and 7 at home.

 

source:  14. Timberwolves (12-9, LW 18). Three straight wins and when they got Ricky Rubio back they looked like a different team Saturday. I’d say this is where they start to go on a winning streak but this week’s schedule includes the Heat, Thunder and Knicks.

 

source:  15. Jazz (13-12, LW 14). They beat the Spurs but lost to the Grizzlies last week, which isn’t bad. The ugly loss to the Suns, that is bad. They remain a bottom 10 defensive team in the league so inconsistency is what you get.

 

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16. Lakers (11-14, LW 16). The Lakers have two wins in a row on the road, which this season actually passes for something they should celebrate. What they really should celebrate is the return of Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, both of which could come this week.

 

source:  17. Pacers (13-11, LW 19). They have a three game winning streak as Paul George seems to be finding his footing as the offensive leader of this team. If he can keep playing like this when Danny Granger returns we may have something.

 

source:  18. 76ers (12-12, LW 10). Three losses last week to the Bulls, Pacers and Lakers, but the bigger loss was Jrue Holiday to a foot injury — without him and Andrew Bynum they are lost on offense. Immediate concern is 10 of their next 11 are on the road.

 

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19. Rockets (11-11, LW 20). They have lost seven straight on the road as they head into Madison Square Garden Monday night. One thing that became clear after Jeremy Lin’s 38-point outburst against the Spurs with James Harden out — Lin still can’t find his place in the offense working off the ball a little when Harden is in the game.

 

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20. Trail Blazers (11-12, LW 21). They continue to get nights of individual brilliance from guys — Nicolas Batum with the 5×5 on Sunday, some huge nights from Damian Lillard as he tries to lock up Rookie of the Year in December. Sometimes that translates to wins. Sometimes not.

 

source:  21. Mavericks (11-13, LW 15). They have lost three straight games and a peak at the schedule suggests that may continue — they play the Spurs twice, Heat, Grizzlies, Thunder and Nuggets to close out 2012. Thanks for that, schedule makers.

 

source:  22. Magic (10-13, LW 22). Don’t tell anyone, but coach Jacque Vaughn has them playing really good defense lately. That’s how they beat the Warriors this week when the Heat couldn’t.

 

source:  23. Suns (9-15, LW 26). They beat the Jazz and Grizzlies last week — they are not going to just roll over after a seven-game losing streak. Phoenix is 7-5 at home and four of their next five are there.

 

source:  24. Pistons (7-19, LW 23). They have a four-game losing streak. What can I say Piston fans but try to find hope in the flashes of good play from Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight. There is the start of a better future there.

 

source:  25. Raptors (6-19, LW 27). Raptors fans are angry and Bryan Colangelo seems to be the target. Which makes sense, do you see a plan with how they are building? That said, a couple come-from behind wins at home last week should pump the fans up a little.

source:  26. Kings (7-15, LW 24). They got tested on the road last week and went 0-3. And they were all pretty ugly, blowout losses. Throw in the DeMarcus Cousins suspension and they are lucky to be this high in the rankings.

 

source:  27. Cavaliers (5-20, LW 29). Everything changes with Kyrie Irving back in the lineup — his performances don’t always mean wins but it means the Cavs will be competitive most nights. Which is a change from when he was out.

 

source:  28. Hornets (5-17, LW 28). Getting Anthony Davis back isn’t the answer, they have lost six in a row. What’s troublesome is their usually porous defense was better the last couple games and they still lost because the offense collapsed.

 

source:  29. Wizards (3-18, LW 30). Passing up James Harden? Really? John Wall can start “ramping up” his workouts, but in the mean time they keep finding a way to win a game a week, which is better than the…

 

source:  30. Bobcats (7-16, LW 25). They have lost 11 games in a row and now head out on a West Coast road trip that includes the Lakers, Nuggets and red-hot Warriors. Not good at all. Their defense is just dreadful.

LeBron James first player to reach six straight finals in 50 years

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It speaks to an incredible level of talent — talent that was honed in countless hours in the gym.

It speaks to an amazing durability.

It speaks to leadership.

LeBron James has a long resume of accomplishments — two titles, four MVPs, and he hasn’t missed an All-Star Game or an All-NBA team for a decade — but he reached one of his more impressive milestones in leading the Cavaliers past the Raptors to the NBA Finals on Friday night.

LeBron has reached six straight NBA Finals.

He’s the first player to do so in 50 years.

The last guys to do this were Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy and other members of the 1950s-60s Celtics dynasty. Nobody since has done it — not Magic, Bird, Jordan, Wilt or the rest.

Yes, it helps cement LeBron’s legacy as one of the all-time greats, but more than that it’s something we need to step back and appreciate. These were all LeBron-led teams — he has been the leader on and off the court, setting the tone. That requires incredible talent and skill on the court, plus knowing how to make those guys better not just drag them along on your coat tails. It also takes incredible physical durability. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

“There’s only one LeBron James,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his team was eliminated by James and company. “He makes a difference on whatever team he plays on.”

I can feel the typing in the comment section already: “But he’s 2-4 in the Finals, Jordan was 6-0” or “But he’s done it in a weak East” or “He keeps just jumping teams to where he has the most help.” It’s all just sad. Because LeBron James is the first NBA superstar of the social media age he faces a volume of criticism that past stars did not. It’s not that LeBron hasn’t brought some criticism on himself, but there is a need to tear him down that the mythologized Jordan never dealt with. We savored Jordan at the time; LeBron has never gotten that. Jordan took 13 NBA teams to the playoffs, six made the Finals; LeBron has taken 11 and seven are in the Finals. The thing is, it’s difficult to compare across eras in the NBA:

All of this is not to say LeBron’s record is better than Jordan’s, you and your buddies can debate that while sitting on bar stools until last call, but LeBron has been on an epic run through the peak of his career the likes we haven’t seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of the game, you should appreciate that, not try to tear it down (as if Jordan’s legacy somehow needs protecting).

What LeBron has done is a stunning accomplishment. If you’re in the same sentence with the legendary Russell Celtics teams, you’re doing something right.

Warriors/Thunder Game 6: Four things to watch as Oklahoma City tries to close out series

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors react in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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For the Thunder, it is a chance for validation and an opportunity to get the ring Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook, and the rest of them) crave. For the Warriors, it is their biggest test of the last two seasons. Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City, here are four things to watch.

1) Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson need to play better for the Thunder. After a couple of series where Waiters suddenly has been reborn as a quality NBA player who is the third playmaker the Thunder need, and after Andre Roberson dropped a career playoff high of 17 points the game before, both were MIA in Game 5. Roberson was 2-of-5 shooting and had as many points as fouls (six). Waiters didn’t hit a shot all night. This was tied to the Thunder returning to the bad habits of too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking on the world and OKC not enough ball movement in the halfcourt. The Scott Brooks Thunder of the past few seasons showed up in Game 5, if the Thunder fall back to those bad habits again, they will lose again.

I expect the Thunder to treat this like their Game 7 and play much better. They will have a real sense of urgency; their defense will again be energized. The question becomes can the Warriors match it?

2) Can Andrew Bogut keep the Thunder from scoring in the paint?
In Game 5, the Thunder were 8-of-18 shooting in the restricted area, and 7-of-19 in the rest of the paint. That’s not going to get it done. A lot of that was the impact Bogut had in the paint — plus he got help, the Warriors switched pick-and-rolls more, they packed the paint more and took away driving lanes. It all worked, in part because Bogut and Draymond Green played with much better energy than in previous games. Steve Kerr said he didn’t play Bogut as many minutes in the first four games due to foul trouble, he has to trust the veteran to play through fouls in this game. The Warriors have simply been better with him on the court this series and they need close to 30 minutes from him this game.

Tied to Bogut’s play…

3) Golden State defense needs to show up on the road. As noted above, the Warriors went back to a more traditional defense in Game 5 — they started guarding Roberson (rather than having a big “guard” and ignore him to protect the paint), they switched, they stayed home in the paint, and they just trusted each other and played their system better. It was a marked improvement. However, they did it at home — now they need to do it on the road, where Green, in particular, has been more prone to mistakes and frustration.

One key here worth emphasizing is the Warriors got back to switching most pick-and-rolls — that’s what they did all season, that’s part of why the “death lineup” is so successful defensively, yet in this series they increasingly went away from it (in part because of how they guarded Roberson). Switching is part of who the Warriors are, and while it will create some mismatches teams don’t want to stray too far from their core identity.

4) Stephen Curry needs to be MVP level Curry. Draymond Green needs to be his All-NBA self.
I’m not saying the same thing about Durant and Westbrook because I have no doubt they will show up with urgency in their games Saturday night. However, Curry and Draymond have been shadows of themselves in the two previous games in Oklahoma City, and if that happens again only one team is flying back to the Bay Area postgame.

Curry finished his drives a little better in Game 5, and at moments he blew by bigs switched onto him off of picks, something we have seen far less of this series than during the season. Green played well defensively in Game 5, he hit the boards hard, but he made some head-scratching offensive decisions. If the Warriors are going to force a Game 7, those two guys have to be elite in this game. The Warriors best players must lead. It’s that simple.

Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.