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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.

Gregg Popovich calls national-anthem protests courageous, perfectly explains their importance

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 20:  Head coach Gregg Popovich of the 2017-20 USA National Team looks on during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 20, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Many have slammed Colin Kaepernick – who has been kneeling for the national anthem in protest of police brutality of blacks in America – and the demonstrators he has inspired for disrespecting our military.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who served in the Air Force,won’t let them get away with that.

Popovich, via Melissa Rohlin of the San Antonio Express-News:

“I absolutely understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and I respect their courage for what they’ve done. The question is whether it will do any good or not because it seems that change really seems to happen through political pressure, no matter how you look at it. Whether it’s Dr. [Martin Luther] King getting large groups together and boycotting buses, or what’s happened in Carolina with the NBA and other organizations pulling events to make it known what’s going on. But I think the important thing that Kaepernick and others have done is to keep it in the conversation. When’s the last time you heard the name Michael Brown? With our 24/7 news, things seem to drift. We’re all trying to just exist and survive.

“It’s easier for white people because we haven’t lived that experience. It’s difficult for many white people to understand the day-to-day feeling that many black people have to deal with.  It’s not just a rogue policeman, or a policeman exerting too much force or power, when we know that most of the police are just trying to do their job, which is very difficult. I’d be scared to death if I was a policeman and I stopped a car. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. And part of that in our country is exacerbated by the preponderance of guns that other countries don’t have to deal with. It gets very complicated.

“At this point, when somebody like Kaepernick brings attention to this, and others who have, it makes people have to face the issue because it’s too easy to let it go because it’s not their daily experience. If it’s not your daily experience, you don’t understand it. I didn’t talk to my kids about how to act in front of a policeman when you get stopped. I didn’t have to do that. All of my black friends have done that. There’s something that’s wrong about that, and we all know that. What’s the solution? Nobody has figured it out. But for sure, the conversation has to stay fresh, it has to stay continuous, it has to be persistent, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that happens in our communities.”

This hits the nail on the head.

Too many Americans are ignorant of what it’s like to be black in this country. Kaepernick shined a giant spotlight on the issue, getting people talking and learning. Because of Kaepernick, LeBron James was asked about his anthem plans, and he shared his – too familiar to blacks – fear of his son getting pulled over. Because LeBron holds such a large platform, his concerns are being considered and analyzed by people who ignored this pressing issue.

Meanwhile, Kaepernick continues to be vilified by many, some of whom are using the cover of the military to denounce Kaepernick’s cause. Popovich isn’t here for that.

Courageous is the word I keep coming back to on Kaepernick. He is courageous for risking his reputation to promote a greater good.

And it’s working. People are having this conversations. For the precise reason Popovich said, they must continue.

Klay Thompson clarifies ‘I’m not sacrificing’ remark on Warriors signing Kevin Durant

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors drives against Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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After the Warriors signed Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson said:

“I feel kind of disrespected that people keep using the term sacrifice to describe me and describe us,” Thompson told The Vertical. “We all want to see each other do well. But I’m not sacrificing [expletive], because my game isn’t changing. I’m still going to try to get buckets, hit shots, come off screens. I want to win and have a fun time every game we play.

After that comment drew so much attention, Thompson is clarifying it.

Thompson, via Monte Poole of CSN Bay Area:

“When you acquire the talent we did this off season, “ he began, “I don’t think that’s a sacrifice at all. I think that we are in an amazing position to do things that haven’t been done here.

“So I’m not talking about points per game or minutes or shots, I’m really not sacrificing anything because you don’t sacrifice when you acquire a player like Kevin Durant and get people like David West. I think we really got stronger, which is hard to imagine because we had such a great year last year.

“That’s what I meant by that, though.”

That’s how I took his comment initially.

However, I’m still not sure Thompson fully understands what it’ll require to play with Durant, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, who is also accustomed to having the ball in his hands. Thompson might think taking fewer shots to win more is not sacrificing, but it’s another thing to actually go through it.

Will Thompson feel the same way if he’s shooting less and it’s not immediately resulting in wins? Will he feel the same way if he’s shooting less and that takes him out of rhythm?

It’s helpful Thompson is entering the season with the right attitude, but that’s only step one of many.

GM David Griffin: Cavaliers have made J.R. Smith ‘incredibly competitive and aggressive offer’

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers acknowledges the crowd during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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We’ve now reached the “negotiate through the media” stage of J.R. Smith‘s free agency.

Everyone expects Smith to re-sign with the Cavaliers, but training camp opened without a deal. Reportedly, discussions are somewhere between $10 million and $15 million annually with contract length a roadblock.

Cavs general manager David Griffin, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“As we have stated and coach has previously stated, we think very highly of J.R. and we love him as a member of our team, as a member of our locker room,” General Manager David Griffin said. “He was essential to our success and for that reason we have made an incredibly competitive and aggressive offer in re-signing him.”

I bet Smith’s agent, Rich Paul, would say his contract demands are perfectly reasonable, too.

The Cavaliers want to maximize chemistry as the they defend their title, and that means getting Smith signed as quickly as possible. But they also want to avoid paying Smith a large salary – and taking a big luxury-tax hit – as he declines into his 30s.

Something will eventually give, but first, Griffin is telling the world ending the stalemate is in Smith’s court – though not revealing the exact offer(s) to be judged publicly. We’ll see how Smith and Paul respond.

Report: Derrick Rose more concerned about rape allegation than he’s publicly revealing

FILE - In this June 24, 2016, file photo, New York Knicks' Derrick Rose speaks during a news conference at Madison Square Garden in New York. Phil Jackson made a risky move when he traded for the injury-prone Rose in June, and now the Knicks face the possibility of their point guard's involvement in a rape trial in California during his first preseason with the team.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
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Phil Jackson said the Knicks aren’t concerned about the civil and potentially criminal rape allegations Derrick Rose is facing. Rose doesn’t sound concerned, either.

But is Rose just putting on a front?

Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports:

For now, the Knicks wait – and hope. Hope that the civil suit is resolved quickly. Hope that Rose – who has been troubled by the uncertainty of his legal entanglements more than he is letting on, sources familiar with Rose told The Vertical – is able to block out the distractions and build on the progress he made last season.

Rose should be concerned. Whatever happened that night, the specter of criminal prosecution and/or civil judgment against him are daunting outcomes. He can try to put that aside and focus on basketball, but this is a major event in his life.