NBA Power Rankings: Finals rematch Thursday could be finals preview

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Finally, here are the delayed regular Monday PBT NBA power rankings.

We said this a lot during the NBA finals last year — if we see the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder face off in three of the next five NBA finals it shouldn’t be a shock. This season looks more and more like that rematch could be a reality, which makes their Thursday night showdown interesting.

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1. Thunder (39-12, last week ranked No. 2). They have the best offense in the NBA this season and that has started to really kick into gear this week scoring 110 points or more in four straight games (before Sunday, when they took their foot off the gas against the hapless Suns). They have won four in a row and while the schedule wasn’t tough they beat up their opponents.

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2. Heat (34-14, LW 3). Winners of five in a row and that includes beating Houston and both Los Angeles teams last week. LeBron James lately has started to make a real MVP push — 30.2 points a game on 68.4 percent shooting overall and 56.3 percent shooting in his last five games going into Sunday.

source:  3. Spurs (40-12, LW No. 1). They have gone 12-1 recently but the impressive part is they have done it for stretches without Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. People just take for granted how good Tony Parker is — he is injecting himself into the MVP conversation — but they over look Tiago Splitter who has been solid in the paint.

source:  4. Nuggets (33-19, LW 6). They had won 9 in a row until a thrilling 3OT loss in Boston. While part of that run is because of the heavy home schedule part of it is that this is a good team that is a tough matchup because of their athleticism. Tougher stretch on the road started with a 3OT loss to Boston Sunday and the Raptors and Nets next on the road heading into the break.

source:  5. Clippers (36-17 LW 4). They didn’t play that well during their Grammy road trip, going 3-4 (with one more game Monday night in Philly) but the return of Chris Paul and what he did to the Knicks reminds you how much they missed him.

source:  6. Knicks (32-17, LW 5). After a five game win streak the Knicks dropped two of three including a loss to the Clippers. What helps the older legs of the Knicks bench is rest and they have one game this week, Wednesday (at home vs. Raptors) then they are off for a week.

source:  7. Pacers (31-20, LW 11). They won all three games of the NBA’s lone back-to-back-to-back last week. More and more I think this is the team that could be the biggest threat to the Heat in the East. But that’s not going to happen if Roy Hibbert doesn’t start to play like his old self, he’s still off his game.

source:  8. Bulls (30-20, LW 9). Here is the Derrick Rose update, courtesy Aggrey Sam of CSNChicago.com from our PBT Podcast: He is taking full contact in practice but has not participated in any 5-on-5 drills, which is more a matter of the Bulls not having practice time to run that lately. He’ll be back pretty soon after the All-Star game, but no date is set.

source:  9. Grizzlies (31-18, LW 10). They are a .500 team of late, 3-3 after the Rudy Gay trade. They are still trying to find their way. They have a chance in the next four games against under .500 teams to put together a few wins and find that groove.

source:  10. Celtics (27-23, LW 17). Count me among those impressed — Boston has gone 7-0 since Rajon Rondo went down. Their defense has been better, they are moving the ball and moving without the ball better, their bench guys are stepping up. Heck, they beat the Heat in this streak. But things get tough after the All-Star Game with a West Coast Road trip.

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11. Nets (29-22, LW 8). This team got the coach change bump of energy — they played harder for P.J. Carlesimo. For a while. But lately that energy is gone and the result is half-run sets followed by isolations late in the shot clock on offense. That will doom them.

source:  12. Rockets (28-24, LW 15). Nice wins last week over the Trail Blazers and the Warriors (although the Golden State will want some revenge for that one). James Harden is starting to look like an elite player you can build a franchise around.

source:  13. Warriors (30-21, LW 7). The schedule got tough and the Warriors dropped four in a row — they are playing better this year but their defense is holding them back from being close to elite. Really looking forward to the rematch with Houston on Tuesday.

source:  14. Jazz (28-24, LW 14). Two straight losses over the weekend and you have to wonder how much the trade rumors swirling around Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and this team will start to impact their play. They are not on solid playoff footing ground, with the Lakers 4 games back and Portland 2.5 back.

source:  15. Hawks (27-22, LW 12). Everyone talks about them moving Josh Smith (and they may, but not for Kris Humphries, sorry Nets fans) but the Hawks have Seven other expiring deals on their roster look for them to move someone like Kyle Korver or Anthony Morrow.

source:  16. Bucks (25-24, LW 13). Lost three in a row and just 4-6 in last 10. Suddenly we are seeing a lot of Samuel Dalembert on the court, which feels like a trade showcase (and he responded with a 35 point game).

source:  17. Trail Blazers (25-26, LW 16). They have dropped three in a row (including one to the Magic who had lost a dozen in a row before that) and have two more road games before the break — at Miami then a back-to-back at New Orleans. They are only 2.5 games out of the playoffs but they need to start picking up wins. Fast.

source:  18. Lakers (24-28, LW 18). They went 4-3 on their seven game Grammy road trip, which isn’t bad but isn’t great. They need wins. Just to have fun with math, the Rockets and Jazz are on pace for 44 wins, the Lakers need to go 20-10 the rest of the way to get to 44.

source:  19. Mavericks (22-28, LW 20). They are playing better, 9-5 in their last 14, but if they are going to grow beards until they reach .500 they may be tripping over them first.

source:  20. 76ers (22-27, LW 19). And the Andrew Bynum wait continues — they are shopping Evan Turner around (or at least gauging interest in him) but how do you evaluate this team without Bynum in the lineup?

source:  21. Cavaliers (16-35, LW 23). They have been a good offensive team of late, which is mostly due to the fact that Kyrie Irving is awesome, but Tristan Thompson has played much better of late as well.

source:  22. Pistons (20-32, LW 21). No Andre Drummond for four to six weeks just makes me sad.

source:  23. Wizards (14-35, LW 26). Washington beat three playoff teams last week (Clippers, Knicks, Nets), and are 10-7 in about the last month. If they had Wall from the start of the season they are a playoff team, but alas…

source:  24. Raptors (18-32, LW 22). I think their playoff dreams are dead. Part of it is that Boston went on a win streak without Rondo rather than fall back to the pack, but the Raptors keep losing and remain 3 games below .500 and 7 out of the final playoff spot in the East. They are not making up that ground.

source:  25. Hornets (17-33, LW 25). Eric Gordon is just bad about half the time for this team and his body language is that of a guy trapped in a place he hates. Does he just simply not like being in New Orleans that much?

source:  26. Kings (19-33, LW 27). If you don’t think fans make a difference, you should have heard them during the Kings 10-point fourth quarter comeback on the Rockets Sunday. Problem is the other owners don’t care about that, they care about money going into their pockets. That’s where Seattle is not easy to beat.

source:  27. Timberwolves (18-29, LW 24). Three straight losses and Minnesota is now just 4-17 since New Years day. Injuries are a big part of that, this team has seemed cursed by the basketball gods.

source:  28. Suns (17-34, LW 28). The Suns are really active on the trade market, clearly willing to take on some salary for the right quality player. When you look at their roster they need more quality players.

source:  29. Magic (15-36, LW 30). The losing streak has reached 12 before the Trail Blazers obliged with a terrible defensive effort to end it. Wherever J.J. Redick lands after the trade deadline will be a better situation.

source:  30. Bobcats (11-39, LW 29). They have dropped seven in a row and their roster is so bad that sending out Ben Gordon for the slumping Kris Humphries would be an upgrade.

Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Clint Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”

Bulls’ Kris Dunn breaks teeth on dunk landing (video)

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Kris Dunn struggled in the first three quarters of the Bulls’ 119-112 loss to the Warriors last night. Then, he and Chicago played better in the fourth quarter.

Yet, that was the worst period for Dunn – because this happened.

Bulls:

Ouch.

Dennis Rodman checks into rehab after DUI arrest

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The agent for former NBA star Dennis Rodman says the Hall of Famer has checked into an alcohol rehabilitation center after a weekend DUI arrest.

Rodman’s agent, Darren Prince, tells The Associated Press that Rodman checked into Turning Point Rehabilitation Center in Paterson, New Jersey, on Wednesday to deal with his longtime struggle with alcoholism.

Rodman was arrested in Southern California late Saturday on suspicion of DUI after being pulled over for a traffic violation. Newport Beach police say Rodman failed field sobriety and breath tests.

This is Rodman’s second time in rehab. He spent three weeks at Turning Point in 2014 after returning from North Korea, where he organized an exhibition basketball game involving retired NBA players for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Rodman said he needed to decompress from the trip.

Three Things to Know: Two game suspension for Ariza, Green, without punch being thrown

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) NBA suspends Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green two games for Clippers’ locker room incident.
The NBA wanted to send a clear message: Try to enter another team’s locker room and you will pay the price. Literally. Players who do this will lose multiple game checks with a suspension. I get that — a locker room brawl has the potential to erupt into something very ugly. (James Harden and Chris Paul were not suspended because the league found them to be in more of a peacemaker role, not being the aggressors.)

However, what about guys who throw actual punches in games? On the court. That gets less of a suspension? The NBA’s suspension criteria is off.

Just a quick recap of what happened Monday night at Staples Center: It got to be a very chippy game between the Rockets and Clippers. It had been an emotional game from the start with Chris Paul’s return against his former team — an organization he ripped a couple of times since leaving. On the court Blake Griffin bumped into Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and those two exchanged heated words. Ariza ripped Griffin’s leg tights during a play with a foul. Austin Rivers – out for the game and wearing a suit on the sidelines – was incredibly vocal (remember Paul called out nepotism between Austin and Doc) and Ariza responded, which led to another argument with Griffin. After the game, Ariza and Gerald Green tried to use a not-really-secret tunnel behind the locker rooms (where players often meet after games to talk) to try to enter the Clippers locker room and confront Rivers. There was a lot of yelling and insulting, but no punches were thrown.

My quick thoughts, in bullet points:

• I get wanting to send the “you can’t enter the opposing locker room looking to fight” message, but does that really warrant a larger suspension than guys who throw actual punches while on the floor? Serge Ibaka and James Johnson each got one game suspensions for throwing punches in full view of the cameras, so the video could be re-shown on every highlight package coast-to-coast for 24 hours. That seems soft if you get two games for yelling at a locker room door.

• If it’s two games for Ariza and Green, how many does Aaron Afflalo get for his wild haymaker punch attempt the other day? Does he get less than Ariza/Green because Nemanja Bjelica has some Floyd Mayweather in him and knew how to duck the punch?

• Nothing for Griffin running into D’Antoni? Watch the video and it’s pretty evident to me Griffin intentionally tried to brush back the Rockets’ coach — something Mark Jackson pointed out in the broadcast Wednesday Griffin has done before. However, Griffin gets off scot-free in this. Was D’Antoni out of the coach’s box? Yes. But if that’s the enforcement rule then every coach since Phil Jackson didn’t get out of his chair can be run into because they all go out of the box and venture near (or in many cases) the court. Where D’Antoni stood was not the least bit uncommon. Griffin got lucky.

2) Those Clippers won again Wednesday, beating the Nuggets and shaking up both the West playoff race and the trade deadline. Lost in all this: The Clippers are playing good basketball right now. Wednesday night they beat the Denver Nuggets 109-104 behind 20 points from Griffin and 17 from Lou Williams, who is playing well enough coaches have to consider him for the All-Star Game next month in Staples. That’s six wins in a row for Los Angeles and if the playoffs started today they would be in. Doc Rivers has to get some consideration for Coach of the Year considering where he has this team despite losing CP3 and then a rash of injuries.

The best race to watch the second half of this season is for the final three playoff slots in the West: As of Thursday morning the Pelicans, Clippers and the Trail Blazers are all tied with records of 23-21, and the Nuggets are just half-a-game back at 23-22. (Oklahoma City is just 1.5 games ahead of the tied three, but it feels unlikely they get caught; Utah is 4.5 games behind Denver, but with the injuries to the Jazz it’s hard to imagine them making up the ground.) Using its algorithm, fivethirtyeight.com says the Clippers (78 percent chance), Pelicans (77 percent) and Nuggets (73 percent) will get in, while the Trail Blazers have just a 57 percent chance of beating one of those teams out. Over at Cleaning the Glass, Ben Falk projects the Pelicans in the sixth slot at 45 wins, Denver with 43, and the Clippers and Blazers each with 42 (he has the Clippers just slightly ahead in projected wins). The reality is much more boring: The teams among those four that can stay the healthiest the second half of the season will get in.

Unless there is a trade. The Clippers have been listening to offers for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams (but reportedly so far have been unimpressed with what other teams are pitching). We can talk about what team president Lawrence Frank wants to do, but in reality this is an ownership-level question: Do Steve Ballmer want to hold on to two of his three best players and make a run at a bottom three seed in the playoffs because he just wants to win, or does he approve getting a jump-start on the rebuild with whatever assets they can land in this deal. Fans love to say “blow it up” but Ballmer and the Clippers could have done that last summer when CP3 forced a trade, they didn’t. So now they’re going to do it at the deadline when they could get less back in deals? Plus, does Ballmer want to try to get approvals for his new arena while his team struggles on the court?

3) Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely. Again. Ugh. Kawhi Leonard has played in just nine NBA games this season. He didn’t return from a quad injury (which he played through last season and bothered him through the summer) until Dec. 12. He was rounding into form when he had to sit for a few games due to an injured shoulder, then on the day he was rumored to be re-entering the lineup the Spurs announced he is out again indefinitely with the same quad injury. The reports were the Spurs expect this to be shorter than the last time he was out, but there is no timetable.

With LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level and the Spurs being the Spurs and not beating themselves, they will be fine in the regular season. They are projected to win about 50 games, and they will make the playoffs as the three or four seed.

However, in the playoffs they need a fully-functioning Leonard to be a real threat to anyone. The Spurs need his defense and his athleticism, they are too old and slow without him and that can get exposed in a series. If Leonard is still out as we get into March, then it’s time to be concerned. Until then, the Spurs are just going to Spur — for example beating the Nets 100-95 Wednesday behind 34 from Aldridge.