NBA Power Rankings: Western Conference dominates top spots

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We enter 2013 off a week where the two best teams in the East — Miami and New York — looked sloppy while the teams at the top of the Western Conference looked strong and took over the top spots in the weekly rankings.

source:  1. Clippers (25-6, Last week ranked No. 1). The win streak is at 17 in a row and if you’re asking me when it will end my guess is Wednesday, the second night of a back-to-back when the Clippers have to face a good Golden State team. They have the Warriors twice plus the Lakers on deck.

 

source:  2. Thunder (23-6, LW 2). The Christmas Day loss to Miami shows the Thunder where they need to get, but don’t read too much into a December game. Soft part of the schedule ahead with five straight very winnable games coming up for OKC.

 

source:  3. Spurs (24-8, LW 5). I don’t think people realize just how well Tiago Splitter is playing right now, he seems to have figured out how to play next to Tim Duncan. So Gregg Popovich is trusting him. He’s very efficient, with a PER of 20.2.

 

source:  4. Heat (20-8, LW 3). Sloppy lost weekend where they fell to Detroit (after leading by 17) and the Bucks. We’re going to see that this year from the defending champions, stretches where they take a mental vacation. It doesn’t mean much big picture.

 

source:  5. Warriors (21-10, LW 7). They are 11-2 against the Eastern Conference with wins over Miami and Atlanta, but both the losses are to Orlando. Golden State is in rest mode with two games in nine days, but both against the streaking Clippers.

 

source:  6. Knicks (21-9, LW 4). The next month is going to be a real test for New York — no Raymond Felton at the point and they soon will try to integrate Amare Stoudemire back into the rotation. They can come out of this stronger, but the best tests are not easy.

 

source:  7. Hawks (19-9, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, including quality wins over the Bulls and Pacers in that stretch. Their offense is going well with Lou Williams starting, taking over the Joe Johnson role. (Think Hawks fans are enjoying watching the Nets fall apart?)

 

source:  8. Grizzlies (19-8, LW 6). They are struggling of late because their offense is a mess — 29th in the NBA in the last 10 games (ranked in points by possession at NBA.com). Their defense is still strong but in their win over Denver Saturday they scored just 82 points.

 

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9. Bulls (16-12, LW 9). Derrick Rose is back practicing with the team but not doing anything involving contact. Target for his return is still after the All-Star break. Who the Bulls did get back is Richard Hamilton and Rip is good for their defense.

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10. Nuggets (17-15, LW 10). Want to place a bet on the team with the best record in January? Bet Denver, which after a lot of road games to start the season is home for 15 of their next 18.

 

source:  11. Pacers (17-13, LW 11). Third worst offense in the NBA, second best defense. That is enough to win more games than you lose, but they need Danny Granger back and Roy Hibbert to come out of his funk.

 

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12. Bucks (16-13, LW 12). Picked up a quality win over the Heat but then turned around a lost to the Pistons and Cavaliers. Another good defense, weak offense team but the Bucks are just more up and down than the Pacers.

 

source:  13. Lakers (15-15, LW 16). Winners of six of their last seven, and the only loss in there was the second night of a back-to-back in Denver. Still, Dwight Howard’s play looks a step slow. Give Pau Gasol credit for trying to do what Mike D’Antoni wants and being more of a stretch four.

 

source:  14. Rockets (16-14, LW 17). They lost a couple in a row at the end of the week but still look like a team starting to figure out who they are and how they can win games with this roster. James Harden should be an All-Star. Not so much with Jeremy Lin (although he has played better of late).

 

source:  15. Nets (16-14, LW 13). The Nets are 2-0 under P.J. Carlesimo, although that really has a lot more to playing the Bobcats and Cavaliers than it does the coaching. Carlisimo wants the job and knows winning a lot of games is the only chance he has.

 

source:  16. Timberwolves (14-13, LW 14). They have won six of their last 10 and I keep waiting for them to go on a little tear, but with six of their next eight on the road and no gimmies in the lot (don’t sell the Hornets at home short) I may be waiting a little longer. They have not found their groove.

 

source:  17. Trail Blazers (15-14, LW 19). The Damian Lillard show is about to go out on the road the next week with stops in New York, Memphis and Minnesota — all tough wins. But if the Blazers are serious about the playoffs those are the kinds of wins they need to be picked up.

 

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18. Jazz (15-17, LW 17). The home and home against the Clippers emphasized the home-road difference with this team — they could have won that at home with a couple breaks or a couple calls, but they couldn’t stay that close on the road. They are 9-4 in Salt Lake City, 6-13 outside it.

 

source:  19. Celtics (14-16, LW 15). Doc Rivers made an interesting point — previous Celtics teams played good defense all the time and didn’t let a stretch of bad offense hurt the other end of the floor. This team falls apart on defense when it has a bad offensive stretch.

 

source:  20. 76ers (13-15, LW 20). They are 1-3 on their road trip with a nice win in Memphis but little else to show. This week it gets tougher with the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs all on the road.

 

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21. Raptors (11-20, LW 23). They are 7-3 in their last 10 games because they have exploded on offense — 5.4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average the last 10 games and 8.8 better over their last five. DeMar DeRozan has put up points but it’s been the bench with guys like Alan Anderson and lately Kyle Lowry that have been key.

 

source:  22. Pistons (11-22, LW 25). Nice wins last week over the Heat and Bucks have them climbing up the rankings. You can credit Will Bynum with the Heat win as he was huge, but it was more of a team effort over the Bucks.

 

source:  23. Magic (12-18, LW 21). They have lost five in a row since Glen Davis went down with a shoulder injury. That’s no coincidence, they miss what Big Baby did on both ends, but particularly on the defensive side.

 

source:  24. Kings (11-19, LW 26). The owner Maloof brothers overruled their own front office and put DeMarcus Cousins back on the active roster. If you think those same owners will roll over and sign off to trade Cousins you will be sorely disappointed.

 

source:  25. Mavericks (12-19, LW 24). Getting Dirk Nowitzki back was not the answer, they have lost five in a row. Coach Rick Carlisle is so frustrated he’s threatening to suspend players, but it’s not like he’s got a deep roster of good replacements.

 

source:  26. Suns (11-20, LW 22). They are the losers of five in a row and the reason is they play no defense. They might outscore you now and again if someone gets hot, but they can’t stop anyone. They have the Thunder, Jazz and Grizzlies on the schedule this week.

 

source:  27. Hornets (7-23, LW 28). They looked so much better, so much more creative when Eric Gordon got back on the floor — through all the injuries and free agency fanfare people forgot this guy can flat out play. He and Anthony Davis will form a very good pick-and-roll duo by next season.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (7-25, LW 27). They have certainly looked a lot better since Kyrie Irving’s return, but certainly not like a playoff team. Look for them to be sellers at the trade deadline with Anderson Varejao and C.J. Miles.

 

source:  29. Wizards (4-24, LW 29). The Wizards have turned to Shelvin Mack at the point… what more can I say.

 

source:  30. Bobcats (7-23, LW 30). The losing streak is up to 18 games with no clear end in sight. In case you’re curious I looked it up and the NBA’s longest losing streak ever is 26 (Cavaliers just two years ago, how could you forget?).

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”

Report: Kawhi Leonard to return to San Antonio around exit interviews. Then…

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Nobody is sure how the Kawhi Leonard situation is going to play out with the Spurs. As is the nature of the NBA, the GMs of other teams are starting to circle the Spurs like vultures, on the chance that this time Gregg Popovich cannot smooth out the relationship with his star player and needs to trade him. Leonard spent the playoffs away from the team, working out and talking to doctors in New York while “his group” shielded him from attempts from San Antonio to reach out.

Now has come the time for the sides to talk, and that will happen soon reports Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News.

What happens during and after that meeting is anyone’s guess.

The Spurs will only move Leonard as a last resort, and they have two things on their side. First, Gregg Popovich, who has maintained a healthy relationship with his star pupil through all of this. LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he wanted to be traded last summer, and over the course of some dinner meetings and self-reflection, Popovich was able to both keep Aldridge in the fold and put him in positions to be an All-NBA level player this season. The key is that both sides were willing to talk with an open mind, are Leonard and his advisors open to that?

Second, the Spurs have the ultimate hammer — the $219 million designated veteran extension (the contract James Harden and Russell Westbrook signed this year). Put that on the table and Leonard will sign it. The question is will the Spurs put it out there? Probably not if Leonard makes it clear he doesn’t want to be in San Antonio any longer. That’s when the trade talks start to gain traction.

But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Let the meetings play out first.

Back home, Thunder try to avoid elimination against Jazz

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma City was built this offseason around three All-Stars with the hopes of contending for the Western Conference crown.

The Utah Jazz started the year 18-26 without center Rudy Gobert. However, Gobert returned and the Jazz rolled off 11 straight wins into Valentine’s Day with the help of a surprise rookie of the year contender.

One more win and the Jazz will reach the second round for the second straight year. They’ll send the Thunder home with a second straight first-round exit — despite Oklahoma City’s overhauled, star-studded roster.

After losing the first game on the road, Utah won decisively in each of the past three games, including a 17-point victory in Game 4 — a game the Thunder called a must-win in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the playoffs, it’s gonna be war,” Utah point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a triple-double in Game 3, told the Salt Lake Tribune after Utah’s 113-96 victory in Game 4. “We know that it’s gonna be another war next game. We just have to be tough but at the same time, mentally ready for that.”

Game 5 is set for 9:30 p.m. EST Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who averaged 20 points per game during the regular season, has averaged 27.6 points during the past three games — taking his play to another level to lead a balanced Jazz attack that has five players averaging in double figures. Mitchell, who was the 13th overall pick in last year’s draft, has scored 110 points through the first four games, the most by a rookie in his first four games since Michael Jordan’s 117 in 1985, according to nba.com.

“To be honest, a lot of this is surreal. I’m just taking it game-by-game and not really getting caught up in the big picture,” Mitchell told the Salt Lake City Tribune. “Just focusing on game-by-game. My teammates have helped me out a lot as far as that goes. But we’re playing together.”

Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook picked up four fouls before halftime in Game 4 and was fined $10,000 for an altercation with Gobert late in the game. Luckily for the Thunder, he was not suspended following his altercation with the Utah center.

Westbrook’s foul trouble has hardly been the Thunder’s biggest issue.

Oklahoma City was inconsistent much of the year, but it has had to contend with shooting woes from offseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, who has hit just 25 percent of his 3-pointers in the first four games of the playoffs.

“We gotta win, nothing to it,” Anthony said after the Game 4 loss. “We’ve just gotta win. We can sit here and say what we gotta do, or what we didn’t do or what we did do, but it comes down to having the will to win that game Wednesday and forcing a Game 6 back in Utah.”

Winning in Utah won’t to be easy, where the Jazz have won six straight. Oklahoma City has to get back to Salt Lake City first and stave off elimination. But Utah hasn’t lost three straight games since Gobert’s return to the lineup in mid-January.

“Every game’s been physical,” Gobert said to reporters. “We just got to watch the tape, see how much better we can get and get ready to play basketball.”

Any end to one-and-done rule remains a couple of years away

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Condoleezza Rice and the Commission on College Basketball released their much-anticipated report and…

Yawn.

We’ll see how much the NCAA wishes to police itself and ban coaches caught cheating from the sport, or to do anything that would stem the flow of money from shoe companies and boosters into college hoops. Will the NCAA make an organizational shift to focus less on enforcement and more on involvement with players before they get to college?

One thing the report wants is an end to the one-and-done rule with the NBA, and it issues some veiled threats about getting back together and coming up with new recommendations if the NBA and its players’ union does not act within a year. Yawn. The NBA will continue to work toward this at its own pace, as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN notes.

Allowing guys to go back to college if not drafted — even if they had an agent — is a good step.

The NBA will move at its own pace with reforms to its draft rules, and we are still years away from that (if the owners can be herded into a consensus in the first place). This commission’s report changes none of that, and without the NBA and players’ union’s cooperation the commission can’t accomplish some of its goals anyway.

The NBA is moving toward ending one-and-done, NBA commissioner Adam Silver had said they were waiting on this report to take the next steps down that road. With the assistance of the NCAA, the league could move to something more akin to the baseball model (players can be drafted out of high school to the NBA, but if they go to college they have to stay two or three seasons). However, this remains years away. For now, players such as Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III will continue to be one-and-dones. Nobody likes it, but it is the rule for now.