NBA Power Rankings: Streakers go to front of the line

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Obviously the Heat are undefeated in their last 10 games, but in the East the Brooklyn Nets are the only team with a better than .500 record in their last 10 games. Which is why after the Heat the next five spots on this list come from the Western Conference.

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1. Heat (54-14, last week ranked No. 1). And the train keeps a rollin… Sure, the Heat have needed comebacks against lesser teams to get the streak to 26 straight wins, but they keep withstanding the best punch of opponents. Good showdown at San Antonio Sunday.

source:  2. Nuggets (49-22, LW 4). The win streak is at 15 and this has not been because of a cupcake schedule — they’ve got wins over the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, Grizzlies, Bulls and the Thunder twice now in that 15. Denver is no fluke. Big showdown with the Spurs on Wednesday.

source:  3. Spurs (53-16, LW 2). Tony Parker is back and they keep on racking up wins. The theory among some is that the Spurs have the best shot at Miami out of the West (because of their ball movement and movement off the ball), that gets tested Sunday. Tough week for the Spurs with the Nuggets and Clippers also on the schedule.

source:  4. Grizzlies (47-22, LW 5). They get a quality win over the Thunder (so they move ahead of them in the rankings). Memphis is in a real struggle with Denver and the L.A. Clippers to get the three seed and avoid the 4 vs. 5 first round playoff series between two of these teams — that series will be brutally hard, no matter which two it is.

source:  5. Thunder (52-19, LW 3). Losses to the Nuggets and Grizzlies last week drop them back. As I’ve posted before, those games don’t mean Denver or Memphis can beat OKC in a seven game series, but it means those teams think they have a chance. And that is huge.

source:  6. Clippers (48-22, LW 6). When the season started the questions were: Is the Clippers defense good enough? Will DeAndre Jordan give them what they need in the paint in key moments? As we head toward the playoffs, I still am not sold on either of those, but they can start to change my mind on a four-game road trip this week.

source:  7. Pacers (43-27, LW 8). That loss to the Bulls last week was disheartening — Indy needs to find some offense. Tyler Hansbrough tried to carry the load with David West out (he averaged 15.3 and 10.8 boards in his starts) but it’s not the same. Tough Texas two step at Houston and Dallas this week.

source:  8. Nets (41-29, LW 10). They had a good week, beating Dallas on the road and almost knocking off the Clippers (damn that Chris Paul). They are the only playoff team in the East other than the Heat playing well right now, but will that continue on a Western road swing this week?

source:  9. Knicks (42-26, LW 12). Watching them of late, it wouldn’t shock me to see the Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals or ousted in the first round again. Anything is possible. Two games against Boston this week, should be an interesting measuring stick.

source:  10. Rockets (39-31, LW 11). That win against the Jazz last Wednesday didn’t seal a playoff spot but came pretty close to it. They just need to keep getting some wins and they are in, but it won’t be easy with the Pacers, Grizzlies and Clippers scheduled this week.

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11. Lakers (36-34, LW 7). Soft schedule last week — only Phoenix and Washington on the schedule — and they lost both. If Utah wasn’t a mess the Lakers would be in trouble. Four game road trip this week will be big for their playoff dreams.

source:  12. Celtics (36-33, LW 9). They have lost four in a row and now will be without Kevin Garnett for one game and maybe as many as four or five more. Their defense is average at best with him out. They need to hold off the Bucks, you don’t want the 8 seed in the East and the Heat in the first round.

source:  13. Warriors (40-31, LW 15). Another ankle problem for Stephen Curry. Ugh. He tweaked it Saturday night. That might overshadow the fact the Warriors have played better defense of late.

source:  14. Hawks (39-31, LW 13). A couple nice wins over the Bucks last week has them half a game ahead of Chicago for the five seed in the East. But the uninspiring Hawks are on the road against the Pacers and Celtics this week as the race for seeding in the East goes on.

source:  15. Bulls (38-31, LW 14). Lost to the Nuggets (doesn’t everyone?) but that was a big win over the Pacers last weekend. I know Derrick Rose wants to be 100 percent upon his return, but soon he needs to say he is in or out this season, this thing has become a distraction.

source:  16. Mavericks (33-36, LW 18). They are tied with the reeling Jazz, just two games back of the Lakers. Their next five games are against playoff teams — Clippers, Pacers, and Bulls this week — if they can stay with the Lakers through this stretch they might have a shot at the end of the season.

source:  17. Bucks (34-35, LW 16). I’m throwing Larry Sanders out of this power rankings, just because it’s the trendy thing to do.

source:  18. Trail Blazers (33-36, LW 19). They are three games back of the Lakers for the last playoff spot in the West. They have to make that up and leapfrog two teams, hard to see that happening with the .500 ball they have played of late.

source:  19. Wizards (25-44, LW 20). They are one of three Eastern Conference teams that are better than .500 in their last 10 games (Miami, Brooklyn). Waiting until next season is not fun for fans, but the Wizards should be a playoff team if healthy.

source:  20. Jazz (34-35, LW 17). The Lakers stumbled this week but the Jazz couldn’t do anything about it, losing to the Rockets, Spurs and Mavericks. They remain two games back of the Lakers they need to find some wins. Fast. Lucky for them their schedule lightens up.

source:  21. Timberwolves (24-43, LW 23). Kevin Love wants to come back for some of the final games of the season. He shouldn’t bother. There’s no reason to and a few more Ping-Ping balls doesn’t hurt Minnesota. Save it for next season.

source:  22. Kings (25-45, LW 25). Only one question matters: Do the Kings have six games left in Sleep Train Arena or are there many more seasons? Bet on that all being decided before the Board of Governor’s meeting April 18, the votes will be counted before the owners step in that room.

source:  23. Hornets (24-46, LW 27). As noted by Marc Stein at ESPN: Anthony Davis is averaging 15.1 points on 52 percent shooting plus 9.5 rebounds a game since the All-Star break.

source:  24. Suns (23-48, LW 24). The one bright spot has been Goran Dragic, who dropped 31 points and 11 assists on the Nets Sunday night. He can play and has value, both with the Suns and as potential trade fodder.

source:  25. 76ers (26-42, LW 26). That loss in Denver was just crushing, but they bounced back the next night with a win in Sacramento. Which is something positive. Sixers fans need something positive.

source:  26. Raptors (26-44, LW 21). Lost four in a row and it looks like they might shut Rudy Gay down for the year because of his back (what’s the point in playing him?). By the way, I’m far from sold on Gay and DeMar DeRozan as a combo.

source:  27. Cavaliers (22-47, LW 22). Lost five in a row, although it is the Miami loss that will sting (blowing a 27 point lead to the hated one). And I still think there is little to no chance LeBron returns there in 2014.

source:  28. Bobcats (16-53, LW 30). They won twice last week, so they move out of the cellar here, but they still will have the best lottery odds, which is what they really want. So, Nerlens Noel or Ben McLemore?

source:  29. Pistons (24-47, LW 28). They are 1-9 in their last 10 and until Andre Drummond returns this team is just hard to watch.

source:  30. Magic (18-52, LW 29). They have lost six in a row and now Orlando will be without leading scorer Arron Afflalo for the rest of the season and Nikola Vucevic for a while. Plus, they get the Heat Monday. So, fun times in Orlando.

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.