Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

Warriors rout Clippers 115-98 for 7th straight win over LA

Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, left, tries to go up for a shot as Los Angeles Clippers guard Alan Anderson defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Warriors won 115-98. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Klay Thompson scored 24 points, Draymond Green added 22 points and the Golden State Warriors routed the Clippers 115-98 on Wednesday night for their seventh straight win over Los Angeles.

Stephen Curry had 19 points for Golden State, and Kevin Durant, who came averaging a team-best 27.0 points, was held to 16 on 5-of-17 shooting.

Curry failed to make a 3-pointer for just the second time this season, going 0 of 8. The Warriors were 7 of 30 from long range.

Jamal Crawford scored 21 points for the Clippers, who have lost five of seven. Four of their seven overall losses have come at home.

Giannis Antetokounmpo gets triple-double, Bucks beat Blazers 115-107

Portland Trail Blazers' Allen Crabbe fouls Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 115-107. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo is emerging as a dynamic player and precocious leader – and at 22 years old, he’s already closing in on one of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s franchise records.

Antetokounmpo got his second triple-double of the season to lead the Milwaukee Bucks over the Portland Trail Blazers 115-107 on Wednesday night.

Antetokounmpo had 15 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his seventh career triple-double – second-most with the franchise behind Abdul-Jabbar’s eight. Antetokounmpo is the only NBA player averaging at least 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals this season.

“Maybe it wasn’t a fluid game for Giannis, but this is what he does,” Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd said. “He fills up the stat sheet. … He is a winner and he helped his team find a way to win tonight by getting other guys involved. That is the maturity of a 22-year-old, that you can see a leader is growing right in front of us.”

Jabari Parker added 27 points for Milwaukee, which rebounded from a one-point home loss to San Antonio on Monday to win for the fifth time in six games.

“The team is rolling right now, feeling good,” Antetokounmpo said. “Jabari is a beast right now.”

The Bucks entered holding opponents to a NBA-best .311 shooting percentage from 3-point range, but Portland drilled 17 of them on 40 attempts – both season highs.

Damian Lillard made five and scored a team-high 30 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists.

C.J. McCollum added 23 points, including four 3-pointers, as the Blazers continued a nine-game stretch of playing eight times on the road.

“That’s one of the things we do,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “We shoot a lot of 3s when we move the ball.”

Milwaukee led 101-90 with 5:27 left after two free throws from Antetokounmpo, but then Portland hit three straight 3s in 56 seconds to trim the deficit to two.

The Bucks responded with the next three baskets to take a 107-99 lead after a jumper from Parker with 2:03 to go.

Another 3 from Allen Crabbe trimmed the margin to 109-105 with 56 seconds remaining, but that is as close as Portland got.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: The team’s 12 3-pointers in the first half tied the franchise high. The last time it had that many was 2002. … Mason Plumlee became the fastest Portland player to tally 150 rebounds and 100 assists (23 games) since Scottie Pippen in 1999-2000 (22 games).

Bucks: Jason Terry played his 1,300th career game. … Antetokounmpo was called for a 10-second violation when attempting a free-throw in the third quarter. … Miles Plumlee, the older brother of Mason, sat out for the third straight contest.

ONE WAY TO LOSE

Portland had eight of its 15 turnovers in the final quarter, including three in a stretch of 1:13 midway through the frame.

“I don’t know if I’d say it was sloppy,” Stotts said. “Not all turnovers are sloppy. (Crabbe) stepped out of bounds – that’s a turnover. We had a 24-second shot clock (violation) – that’s a turnover. But I was probably more concerned with some of our shots.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT

Kidd, when asked about Lillard’s play: “He is one of the top guards in the world,” he said. “His range is once he gets past half court.”

MONROE SCORING AGAIN

Greg Monroe had 15 points – one shy of his season high. Since a two-point game at Brooklyn on Thursday night, he is averaging 12.3 points per game in three outings.

 

Lou Williams hits halfcourt buzzer-beater (video)

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Yeah, the Lakers lost to the Rockets, 134-95, Wednesday. But consider how lopsided that margin would’ve been without Lou Williams‘ halfcourt buzzer-beater.

And if this headline looks familiar, it is.

LeBron James, Cavaliers do water-bottle challenge on bench during blowout win over Knicks (video)

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, and Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson entertain themselves by flipping a water bottle trying to get it to land on it's flat bottom during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. The Cavaliers defeated the Knicks 126-94, and most starters left the game for the bench at the end of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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LeBron James did his part – scoring 25 points (on just 10 shots!), dishing seven assists and grabbing six rebounds – to give the Cavaliers an insurmountable lead over the Knicks through three quarters. So, he didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.

As Cleveland put the finishing touches on its 126-94 win, boredom set it. LeBron and a few of his teammates tried to flip a water bottle and have it land upright on the floor. LeBron even dove onto the court to pull the bottle back in after an errant flip!

No, Phil Jackson should not have used the word “posse” to describe LeBron’s business associates and friends. But this is the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever seen – and I love it.