PBT NBA Power Rankings: San Antonio slides into top slot

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Another season, another year of the Spurs just making teams pay with their execution. Portland is flying up the rankings, on the other end Utah continues to anchor the bottom.

 
source:  1. Spurs (9-1, Last Week No. 2). The winners of seven in a row, they move into the top spot as they appear the machine-like Spurs we’ve come to know and love. However, there is one thing of concern out there — Tim Duncan is averaging 12 points a game on 39.4 percent shooting.

 
source:  2. Pacers (9-1, LW 1). The hot start this season — the Bulls ended their undefeated run Saturday night — will be put to the test as 8 of their next 11 games are on the road. Plus, when the calendar turns to Dec. 1 things get very difficult.

 
source:  3. Heat (7-3, LW 6). LeBron James is shooting 62 percent from three this season. Because he wasn’t already a nearly impossible cover. Miami has won three in a row and have a pretty easy week (Atlanta then a home-and-home with Orlando) so if they are focused they could extend that streak. But that’s a big “if” with this team right now.

 
source:  4. Trail Blazers (8-2, LW 9). Winners of six in a row, they are doing it with the third best offense in the NBA — they are hitting their shots and being a force on the offensive glass. But they may be leaning a little too heavily on their starters right now.

 
source:  5. Warriors (7-3, LW 5). There are no statement games in November, but you had to like the way Golden State played Oklahoma City last week — with Andre Iguodala they have a guy who can make life more difficult for Kevin Durant (5-of-13 in that game). Interesting tests this week against Memphis and Portland, but both are at home where Golden State is 5-0.

 
source:  6. Clippers (7-3, LW 7). The defense is showing signs of improvement — in their last five games they have allowed 103.8 points per 100 possessions (its 106.1 on the season). Chris Paul has been a stud with double-digit points and assists in every game — think he likes having shooter

 
source:  7. Thunder (6-3, LW 3). As we said with the GSW, there are no statement games in November, but losses last week to the Clippers and Warriors are a reminder this team has some work to do if it plans on winning the West. They get the Clippers at home this Thursday night, we’ll see if the Clippers size is an issue again.

 
source:  8. Timberwolves (7-4, LW 4). Minnesota’s defense and Kevin Love rightfully are getting a lot of credit early, but Kevin Martin has been key — 24.4 points per game, creates his own shot and is hitting 47.4 percent from three to space the floor. Minny came back to earth a little with a .500 week (2-2) but this is still a great start.

 
source:  9. Rockets (7-4, LW 10). With Greg Smith out for at least this week — which is fortunate, when his sprained knee happened it looked worse — the Rockets need Asik to be a professional, suck it up and play hard off the bench. That helps his trade value, too.

 
source:  10. Bulls (5-3, LW 14). Here is a hopeful sign for Chicago — they are +13.3 points per 100 possessions in their last five games. That’s a good indicator that both the defense is clicking and the offense is starting to figure itself out. Friday night Damian Lillard faces the Derrick Rose for the first time, that should be fun.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (6-4, LW 11). Odds Mark Cuban keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t take a backhanded dig at Dwight Howard before the Rockets come to town Friday? I’d say about 1 in 10.

 
source:  12. Hawks (6-4, LW 16). They got Lou Williams back last week, which should bring some scoring spark to what was already the seventh best offense in the NBA. He and Jeff Teague (averaging 19 and 9 this season) form a good point guard duo.

 
source:  13. Grizzlies (5-5, LW 13). They have won a couple in a row over the Lakers and Kings, looking like a team that got its defense back and was finding a groove. We’ll see. Big tests this week against the Clippers, Warriors and Spurs.

 
source:  14. Suns (5-4, LW 8). They keep playing close games — every one of their games has been within five points in the final five minutes. That’s fun to watch, and while that’s not how you win sustainably it’s better than we expected from them preseason.

 
source:  15. Bobcats (5-5, LW 17). Steve Clifford has them playing solid defense — if they could keep Al Jefferson in the lineup for more than a couple games without an injury they could win a few more. Another team that has issues but is better than expected and can sustain solid play.

 
source:  16. 76ers (5-6, LW 12). They have lost six of eight and are fading back to the pack — except there is nobody in the Atlantic playing well enough to catch them, so they are still in first. The bigger concern being Michael Carter Williams having missed three games with a foot injury.

 
source:  17. Pelicans (4-6, LW 15). Ryan Anderson returned from his toe injury Saturday night and put up a quick 26 points. It’s easy to see why Rockets fans covet him but this outing showed why New Orleans needs him to space the floor, too.

 
source:  18. Lakers (5-7, LW 26). Yes, yes, Kobe Bryant is back practicing with the team. We heard. The more surprising news is that the Lakers defense has been average (17th in NBA in points per possession), which is better than expected.

 
source:  19. Nuggets (4-5, LW 29). After a slow start to the season they went 3-1 last week — coincidence it happened with JaVale McGee sidelined? Tough week ahead with Oklahoma City then a Chicago/Dallas back-to-back.

 
source:  20. Nets (3-6, LW 18). We said before the season injuries would matter a lot to this team, so the fact that Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez were all out against the Clippers Saturday is not a good sign. This team needs time on the court with its stars to figure out some chemistry issues.

 
source:  21. Magic (4-6, LW 20). Arron Afflalo is off to a fast start this season is averaging 21.7 points per game and hitting 50 percent of his threes — which in Orlando means he is trade bait. Tough home-and-home with Miami this week.

 
source:  22. Pistons (3-6, LW 19). After seeing them in person Sunday night, it’s really stunning just how bad the Josh Smith/Andre Drummond/Greg Monroe combo is on defense. Our man DJ Foster broke it down well. As teams go small and space the floor around the league, how long will Detroit go with this big experiment if it doesn’t work?

 
source:  23. Cavaliers (4-7, LW 21). Lots of drama with a team meeting last week and some questions about how sick Dion Waiters really is, the only thing that got them a win was Kyrie Irving going off against Washington. This team feels like it could spiral down from here.

 
source:  24. Celtics (4-7, LW 22). With no Rajon Rondo to stabilize things this is what you get — four losses in a row, then four wins, then three losses. Very inconsistent. Like Jeff Green. They also are giving up a league high 17.3 points a game on opponent second chance points.

 
source:  25. Knicks (3-6, LW 13). Normally you’d say a team that is about to play five of their next six on the road is facing a challenge, but as the Knicks are 1-5 at Madison Square Garden maybe what this squad needs is a road trip. Words can’t express how much they miss Tyson Chandler.

 
source:  26. Raptors (1-3, LW 24). Rudy Gay missed 26 shots in a game last week and is still shooting 38 percent on the season. However, if you’re thinking, “they should trade him” realize they replace him with DeMar DeRozan, who is shooting just 40 percent on the year.

 
source:  27. Wizards (2-7, LW 25). They have lost four in a row and the offense is struggling, which is why Randy Wittman watch is still going on. That said, they have faced one of the toughest schedules in the NBA this season, which doesn’t help.

 
source:  28. Kings (2-7, LW 28). The Kings’ starters have been so bad that Sunday coach Mike Malone benched the lot of them 4:22 into the third quarter and went with his bench the rest of the way against Portland — and it almost worked. Lots of big issues to solve here.

 
source:  29. Bucks (2-7, LW 27). They have lost five in a row, but to be fair Milwaukee has been injury ravaged — four of their five starters are banged up right now, leaving O.J. Mayo to carry the load.

 
source:  30. Jazz (1-10, LW 30). Hey, they got a win last week with a nice comeback against New Orleans. Derrick Favors had 18 rebounds in a game. So there’s that. The Jazz have the worst offense and the 26th ranked defense in the NBA so far this season.

Close-knit Pacers’ bond gets tested with season on the line

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers have been winning together, losing together and fighting together all season.

Now they need to demonstrate their resilience once more as they try to save their season by rebounding from an emotional loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Nobody thought we’d be in this situation,” Victor Oladipo said, referring to the playoffs. “It’s important for us to stick together now because we’ve seen where it can go, where it can take us and it’s great.”

The immediate problem is recent history doesn’t bode well for the underdog Pacers, who trail 3-2 with Game 5 set for Friday in Indianapolis.

Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, winning four games by a record low 16 total points. James has won 10 straight close-out games and has never lost a first-round series. Indiana, meanwhile, is trying to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

But the Pacers don’t care about stats, projections or conventional wisdom – as they’ve proven repeatedly this season.

Following last summer’s Paul George trade, Indiana seemed bound for the draft lottery. Instead, general manager Kevin Pritchard cobbled together a rare combination of proven, often overlooked veterans, emerging stars, good shooters and willing defenders.

It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Indiana won 48 games, six more than it did with George last season, and is a win away from forcing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game.

Cleveland has learned one lesson the hard way: The fifth-seeded Pacers won’t go away. They won 12 times after facing double-digit deficits and eight times after trailing by 15 or more during the regular season.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise Indiana has erased double-digit deficits in four straight game and wound up taking the lead or having a chance to win late in all four in this series.

“That team does not quit,” James said, moments after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Cleveland a 98-95 win to salvage a win Wednesday after Pacers wiped out a 12-point second half to deficit to tie the score in the final minute.

Playing hard until the final buzzer has become the norm for these Pacers.

And they’re savoring every precious second, too.

Nate McMillan recently called this one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s had as a head coach because he knows what he’ll get every day – energy from Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, steadiness from Darren Collison and Corey Joseph, leadership from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic and an eagerness to develop from Myles Turner and other young players.

With each player embracing their role, the Pacers have formed a cohesive bond.

Six players actually approached Pritchard before the trade deadline and pleaded with the GM not to make any moves because they wanted to close out this season together. Pritchard said it a first for him, and kept the team intact.

“It kind of is like a college team bond,” said Young, one of the six players who approached Pritchard. “Typically you have a lot of NBA teams that don’t bond as well as you do in college when you’re living with each other and you’re around each other all the time. You know in the NBA, you spend time with your family, things like that.

“This team we all hang out together, we go to dinner together on the road. We do everything together.”

The difference has shown.

After enduring an early and sometimes uneven learning curve early this season, the Pacers finally got in sync in early January and played better than anyone, perhaps even McMillan or Pritchard could have anticipated.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the regular season, they went 29-15 and allowed 101.3 points per game and didn’t lose more than two in a row.

They moved up three spots in the Eastern Conference postseason pecking order and headed into their latest round against James having won three of the four regular-season matchups. The Pacers even routed the Cavs on their home court in Game 1.

Since then, though, the series has been all-out slugfest and James has gotten the knockout blow in three times.

Now, with their season on the line, the Pacers need to provide a unified front one more time Friday night just to keep this season alive.

They’re ready.

“Sure, we’ve still got something to prove. No one believes we can beat Cleveland,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s about trust in what we’ve got in each other.”

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.