NBA Power Rankings: Hot hot Heat move back to top spot

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It looks like the Miami Heat have started to get focused and in the West it is the Spurs, Thunder and everyone else. The rest of the league has less than two months to state their case that they can knock one of those big three off.

source:  1. Heat (40-14, last week ranked No. 2). Winners of 11 in a row including beating the Bulls and Thunder easily on the road. Might be time for the rest of the league to worry. In their last 10 games the Heat are scoring 116.9 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 98.9 — best offense in the NBA and fifth best defense in that stretch. And can we stop with the Dwyane Wade is done crap?

 
source:  2. Spurs (44-13, LW 3). They went 7-2 on the Rodeo road trip. Impressive. A scout told me recently he thinks the Spurs are better suited to defeat the Heat in the finals than the Thunder. Problem is they will have a hard time getting past the Thunder. Tony Parker deserves to be in the MVP conversation — third in that conversation, but in it.

 
source:  3. Thunder (41-15, LW 1). They are 2-3 in last five and their defense has been up and down — the Thunder allowed James Harden to score 45 on them but Sunday night held the Bulls to 29.1 percent shooting. We’ll see if that gets consistent with games at Denver and at the Clippers this week.

 
source:  4. Pacers (35-21, LW 7). They have won four in a row (by more than 27 points on average), 8-of-10 and they got Danny Granger back this week (even if he struggled in his debut). They have the size and defense to be the team that challenges the Heat out of the East, but they need Roy Hibbert to be his old self.

 
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5. Clippers (40-18 LW 5). After getting undressed by the Heat and Spurs in recent weeks, the question becomes “are the Clippers really contenders?” As always the question is defense and DeAndre Jordan, and both were wanting against the elite.

 
source:  6. Grizzlies (37-18, LW 9). Rudy Gay who? They have won seven in a row and their offense is scoring 108.4 points a game in their last 10 (before Sunday night). Tayshaun Prince is averaging 9.2 points a game in that stretch and making some good defensive plays. Big test vs. Heat on Friday.

 
source:  7. Nuggets (35-22, LW 4). Their record has flattened out as the home-heavy portion of the schedule went away and they have won just two of their last five. They need to knock down threes and space the floor better against the Lakers and Thunder this week to pick up wins.

 
source:  8. Knicks (33-20, LW 6). They had lost four in a row before getting healthy against a Sixers team on a downward spiral Sunday. New York needs to find it’s defensive groove again in the next six weeks or these playoffs are going to look a lot like the last several.

 
source:  9. Rockets (31-27, LW 12). They are 6-4 in their last 10 with wins over the Thunder and Nets — the Rockets are not giving away that last playoff spot. The Lakers are playing better but they are going to have to catch the Rockets or Jazz, neither team is falling far back to them.

 
source:  10. Bulls (32-23, LW 8). The most points they have scored in their last three games is 72 points. It’s a credit to Derrick Rose and the organization that nobody is panicking and forcing him to return to the court before he is ready. They need to look at the big picture. But Reggie Rose wasn’t wrong in saying they could have used another scorer at the trade deadline.

 
source:  11. Nets (33-24, LW 11). It wasn’t for lack of effort by Billy King at the trade deadline, but nobody is taking the HBAP offer (Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and a pick). This team is what it is headed to playoffs, and that could be one-and-done.

 
source:  12. Jazz (31-25, LW 14). They said they didn’t get an offer they liked at the deadline for Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Now they will lose at least one this summer for nothing. But with both big men in house they have a chance to make the playoffs despite a tougher schedule than the Rockets or Lakers the rest of the way.

 
source:  13. Warriors (32-23, LW 13). It’s got to be the sleeves! The Warriors had dropped six in a row until they put on the sleeves and beat the Spurs. They are too far ahead to fall back to the Lakers now, but without Andrew Bogut they need to start finding a playoff groove.

 
source:  14. Lakers (28-29, LW 18). Won 8-of-11 and are playing with an identity, which is letting them win games they lost earlier in the season. The only question now is can they sustain a pace that helps them catch the Jazz or Rockets — they have to catch them neither is coming that far back.

 
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15. Hawks (31-23, LW 15).
Josh Smith surprisingly remains a Hawk at the deadline, so the Al Horford and Smith front line is going to make one more run at it in the playoffs. Not a very long run, but a run.

 
source:  16. Celtics (29-27, LW 10). They are 1-3 on a tough post All-Star Game with a West Coast Road trip, with the lone win coming against what’s left in Phoenix. The trip ends Monday with the brutal Utah Jazz at altitude on the second night of a back-to-back.

 
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17. Bucks (26-28, LW 16).
They have dropped 9 of their last 11 and while J.J. Redick is an upgrade at the guard spot he’s not a game changer. Having a guy who likes to work off the ball paired with Brandon Jennings and/or Monta Ellis is not exactly going to solve a lot of problems. And he’s a free agent this summer.

 
source:  18. Mavericks (25-30, LW 19). That was pretty much a must-win game Sunday in terms of the Mavericks making the playoffs, so thanks a lot Mark Cuban for adding the fuel to Kobe fire for that game. My next question is will they go after Josh Smith this summer, and if yes at what price?

 
source:  19. Cavaliers (18-37, LW 21). They had won two in a row before giving the Heat plenty of fight on Sunday. Talking with Cavaliers players at All-Star weekend it is clear they are an optimistic group about the future.

 
source:  20. Raptors (23-33, LW 24). They are four games out of a playoff spot in the West. They would need an implosion by the Bucks (not likely) or the Celtics (less likely) to get in. Which makes their game at Milwaukee this wee huge for them, a must win to have any chance.

 
source:  21. 76ers (22-32, LW 20). They have lost five in a row and any playoff dreams have gone up in a puff of smoke. The only question now is how many games does Andrew Bynum play and can you make any real reads about the team going forward with him in that time?

 
source:  22. Pistons (22-36, LW 22). Rough week with the Pistons blowing a lead to the Grizzlies then facing the Pacers twice. That doesn’t mean you can haul off and punch Tyler Hansbrough. You listening Will Bynum?

 
source:  23. Wizards (17-37, LW 23). Their five-man starting unit — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster, Emeka Okafor and Nene — are playing well together. They want to keep Webster as a free agent this summer but he could get too expensive for their blood.

 
source:  24. Trail Blazers (25-30, LW 17). Lost seven in a row (before Wesley Mathews got them a win over the Celtics Sunday) and with the Lakers and Mavericks surging it’s hard to see this team coming back and make the playoffs.

 
source:  25. Timberwolves (20-32, LW 27). Ricky Rubio is starting to look more and more like his old self and now Kevin Love says he should be back the second half of March. So for 15 games or so we may get to see the playoff team we thought we’d get all season. Damn injuries.

 
source:  26. Hornets (20-37, LW 25). The Hornets had lost three in a row before beating the Kings on Sunday. Anthony Davis has averaged 15.6 points and 8.8 rebounds a game his last five.

 
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27. Kings (19-38, LW 26). They have lost five in a row and with all anybody can talk about being off-the-court, team sale issues it’s hard to see where this team is going to find focus and start playing well.

 
source:  28. Suns (18-39, LW 28). Expect there to be a house cleaning in the front office this summer in Phoenix. Lon Babby is likely out as GM (you sign then anoint Michael Beasley despite the red flags, you get what’s coming to you) and with him Lindsey Hunter will be out.


 
source:  29. Bobcats (13-43, LW 30).
The Bobcats are 6-21 on the road and they will be on the road all this week. They are well on their way to having the most Ping-Pong balls in the lottery for a second straight year. The only team that could catch them….

 
source:  30. Magic (15-41, LW 29). Orlando got a win at the trade deadline — they were going to lose J.J. Redick so they got some nice prospects in Tobias Harris and Doron Lamb. That will not help the win on the court this season, however.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

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In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.