NBA Power Rankings: It’s Miami then everyone else

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Not much change at the top of the rankings this week, the Heat can’t seem to lose (the only real shift was the Clippers jumping the Pacers after beating them). The interesting question going forward is how far will the Spurs tumble without Tony Parker for a month. And if they tumble here, do they give back 3 games to the Thunder in the race for the top seed out West?

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1. Heat (43-14, last week ranked No. 1). LeBron was ridiculous in February and this becomes the problem trying to stop the Heat in the playoffs — if you fully commit to taking him out of the game Dwyane Wade (playing very well) or Chris Bosh will beat you. Are you better off with the “Jordan rules” idea of letting LeBron get his and shutting everyone else down?

 
source:  2. Spurs (47-14, LW 2). Let the record reflect the Spurs had a 3 game lead over the second-seed Thunder and 3.5 over the Clippers when Tony Parker went down for a month with a sprained ankle. The Spurs have a way of still winning despite injuries, (they are 4-1 without Parker this season) but it is going to be tough to not slide back in the standings this time.

 
source:  3. Thunder (43-16, LW 3). If you are the Thunder, are you not thinking you need to use Sunday’s win over the Clippers as a springboard to chase down the Spurs for the top seed in the West. And maybe the best overall record. That is one loud home court the Thunder have and it would be handy in the playoffs.

 
source:  4. Clippers (43-19 LW 5). They won four in a row — including a quality win last week in Indiana — then fought back to make it a close game before losing to the Thunder on Sunday. Still, it’s becoming clear they are a step back of the Spurs and Thunder out West.

 
source:  5. Pacers (38-22, LW 4). David West was the reason the Pacers beat the Bulls Sunday, he’s the reason the Pacers beat a lot of teams this year. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Pacers have to pay the man. They need him. Indy’s Roy Hibbert also starting to find his groove.

 
source:  6. Nuggets (38-22, LW 7). Winners of four in a row, including a quality one over the Thunder last Friday. They could have a first-round matchup with the Grizzlies in the playoffs, which would be a fascinating contrast of styles.

 
source:  7. Grizzlies (39-19, LW 6). They have won nine of 10 and their loss in that stretch is to the Heat. They have played much better after the Rudy Gay trade, but that could slow now with Zach Randolph banged up a little. Ed Davis, opportunity is knocking.

 
source:  8. Knicks (35-21, LW 8). The Knicks are about to enter a brutally tough month of their schedule, including the second night of a back-to-back, fourth game in five days Thursday at Oklahoma City. It’s going to be tough to retake the two seed against this schedule.

 
source:  9. Rockets (33-28, LW 9). I love that coach Kevin McHale is still experimenting with his roster, taking lightly-used rookie Donatas Motiejunas and starting him to give better floor spacing. And it works. The Rockets are a team in progress but they are making progress.

 
source:  10. Bulls (34-26, LW 10). The Bulls are 4-6 in their last 10 and that is all about the lack of offensive spark — they traded their depth away last summer and that comes at a price. We all just continue to wait patiently for Derrick Rose to feel ready to go.

 
source:  11. Nets (34-26, LW 11). The Nets are not a bad team — not a contender, not top three in the East even, but good. We say that so you don’t get fooled by the next three weeks when the Nets feast on a schedule heavy with lottery teams and they start to look better than they are.

 
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12. Lakers (30-30, LW 14). They are a .500 team again and as of Monday morning just 2.5 games out of the playoffs after winning 13-of-17. The playoffs are within reach, but they have to keep winning at least two thirds of their games to make it work. Tough start to week at Oklahoma City.

 
source:  13. Jazz (32-27, LW 12). If the Lakers are going to catch the Jazz it could happen in the next three weeks — Utah’s schedule gets road heavy (six of eight) and playoff team heavy (eight of next 10). How they play in that stretch may determine where they are in late April (Oklahoma City of golfing).

 
source:  14. Celtics (31-27, LW 16). Really good tests coming up for the Celtics — at Indiana, home to Atlanta then back out on the road at Oklahoma City. It’s going to be interesting to see who Boston faces in the first round of the playoffs, they will be a tough out.

 
source:  15. Hawks (33-24, LW 15). Every time I watch this team in a late-game situation against a good team — take the Lakers on Sunday night for example — I’m left to wonder, “Does this team even get out of the first round?”

 
source:  16. Bucks (29-28, LW 17). Right now there is a fun little competition as Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick try not to be the guy on the bench at the end of the game. The Bucks are a playoff team but head out on a tough West Coast road swing this week.

 
source:  17. Warriors (33-27, LW 13). Losers of four in a row and seven of their last 10, the Warriors have picked a tough time to slump. They are the six seed in the West now and 3.5 games up on the 9 seed Lakers.

 
source:  18. Mavericks (26-33, LW 18). Two losses last week where they had leads and gave them up — those are the kind of games they had to start winning and just haven’t. So they are looking up at the playoffs. We’ll see if they can keep the Rockets under 130 on Wednesday in a rematch.

 
source:  19. Cavaliers (20-39, LW 19). I’ll admit I was concerned Dion Waiters was just going to develop into a gunner in this league, but with Kyrie Irving sidelined he’s been dishing out assists and looking the part of playmaker. He is going to be better than I thought draft night.

 
source:  20. Trail Blazers (27-31, LW 24). As their focus goes from making the playoffs to the summer, the question I wonder about is if LaMarcus Aldridge can be the recruiter the Blazers can use to go with that cap space they have

 
source:  21. Wizards (19-39, LW 23). In his last five games, Bradley Beal is averaging 20 points a game and is taking better than half his shots from three, where he is hitting 45.5 percent in that stretch. Plus, I could swear in crunch time Sunday I saw John Wall knock down some key jumpers.

 
source:  22. Raptors (23-37, LW 20). Toronto has lost four in a row. Rudy Gay is scoring 20.5 points a game but is shooting just 38.7 percent as a Raptor — Toronto’s fans, that is who Rudy Gay is. He gets you points, but don’t expect any level of consistent efficiency.

 
source:  23. 76ers (23-34, LW 21). If Andrew Bynum doesn’t play this season — and do you really think he will? — the question is how much does he get offered this summer? My guess, at least two years at $13 million per with team options for future years. Big men are at a premium.

 
source:  24. Pistons (23-39, LW 22). They have lost five of their last six and with Andre Drummond out they aren’t nearly as much fun to watch. The question is do they want to keep Jose Calderon after this season and if so how much are they willing to pay to do so.

 
source:  25. Suns (21-39, LW 28). They have won three in a row including a stunning win last week over the Spurs. Not so coincidentally, Jermaine O’Neal has played well the past couple weeks.

 
source:  26. Hornets (21-39, LW 26). Jason Smith is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Anthony Davis has a bone bruise in his shoulder area and is out a while. So, good time to see New Orleans and their weak defense on your schedule.

 
source:  27. Timberwolves (20-36, LW 25). Losers of five in a row and now both Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko are battling injuries that could have them sidelined a while. On the bright side, more Ping-Pong balls for the lottery.

 
source:  28. Kings (20-40, LW 27). You have to say this much for Sacramento — their city management has put together a good offer that will challenge the league’s other owners to make a tough decision on where this team plays next season. We’ll see if that’s enough.

 
source:  29. Magic (16-44, LW 30). Each of their last three opponents have shot at least 53 percent for the game. The plan all along was to get worse to get better, so, congratulations on fulfilling the plan.

 
source:  30. Bobcats (13-46, LW 29). They lost to the Clippers last week and it was expected. They lost big to the Jazz, who were without Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. But they are back on the bottom because they got just crushed by the Kings. It was an ugly week in Charlotte.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”