PBT NBA Power Rankings: Pacers, Heat and a lot from out West at the top

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The Eastern Conference has two elite teams — Indiana and Miami — and they are on top of the PBT Power Rankings for this week. Then you don’t see another team from the East until No. 12, which speaks to the depth of the West and the drop off after the East elite.

 
source:  1. Pacers (16-1, Last Week No. 2). Statistically the best way to predict playoff success? How many points you outscore your opponents by per 100 possessions. Indiana now leads the NBA in that category at XX. We’ll see how that holds up on their tough West Coast road swing this week, but they won the first game of it against the Clippers.

 
source:  2. Heat (13-3, LW 3). They have won 10 in a row and getting it done with defense — they held three consecutive opponents under 40 percent shooting last week (before the last team you’d expect, the Bobcats, snapped that Sunday shooting 46 percent).

 
source:  3. Trail Blazers (14-3, LW 4). This is currently your No. 1 seed in the West. Count me in the group that doesn’t think Portland can sustain this (not with the 21st ranked defense in the NBA) but this fast start gives them a cushion in a very deep Western Conference.

 
source:  4. Thunder (11-3, LW 5). OCK has won seven in a row and beaten good teams in the process. Don’t let his dramatic game winner fool you, Russell Westbrook is still struggling with his shot (he was 9-of-24 outside that shot in the win). The good news for Thunder fans is he’s struggling to finish in close and that skill will return.

 
source:  5. Spurs (14-3, LW No. 1). Marco Belinelli is the latest in the long line of smart player pickups by the Spurs as they just know how to get players that fit their system. Belinelli leads the NBA in three point percentage at 56.5 percent this season.

 
source:  6. Rockets (13-5, LW 8). Good teams win despite injuries, and the Rockets have done it with Jeremy Lin and James Harden missing time. The Rockets offense is still elite but a better sign for Houston fans is the defense has improved recently.

 
source:  7. Clippers (12-6, LW 6). The J.J. Redick loss will hurt, Willie Green is a big drop off. Despite this Clippers are going to be a top four seed and one of the best teams in the West this season, but their postseason success may hinge on the front office strengthening the bench near the trade deadline.

 
source:  8. Nuggets (9-6, LW 16). Two things are fueling Denver’s hot streak lately. First, Ty Lawson is playing at an elite point guard level, he is just a joy to watch lately. Second, the Nuggets started the season defending the pick-and-roll with aggressive hedging and they were getting burned, now they are switching and it works better for their athletes (not great, but better).

 
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9. Warriors (10-8, LW 9). They’ve struggled since Andre Iguodala went down and Matt Moore of CBSSports.com tweeted the reason: “Warriors pre-Iguodala injury: 97.4 defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), 4th best. Four games since: 106.2, 20th best.”

 
source:  10. Suns (9-8, LW 18). I’m as stunned as anyone to see them crack the Top 10, but they are outscoring opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions. Channing Frye has shaken off the rust and his shooting from three is spacing the floor and sparking the offense.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (10-8, LW 7). They have lost 4-of-5 and looked a little ragged doing it. Blame the six back-to-backs they have already faced if you want (it didn’t help) but they are going to have to suck it up with another one this week (home to Charlotte then on the road at New Orleans).

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (9-10, LW 10). Before you think there is something really wrong with Minnesota, look at the schedule where they have played through a rough stretch. They are outscoring opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions, but had some tough losses. That will even out.

 
source:  13. Lakers (9-9, LW 17). They may get Kobe Bryant back as early as Friday night. That’s good for them, but expect a few bumps in the road as they insert a new No. 1 option into an offense that has shared the ball well.

 
source:  14. Pelicans (8-8, LW 15). Anthony Davis breaking his hand is brutal news, both for this team — he is their best player — and because he was going to be a focal point for the All-Star Game in New Orleans this year. Hope he is back soon.

 
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15. Hawks (9-9, LW 11). They are actually getting outscored by their opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions. They have lost 4-of-5 and Jeff Teague has struggled with his shot — those two things together are not a coincidence.

 
source:  16. Grizzlies (8-8, LW 12). Odd trend for Memphis — won five in a row on the road, lost four in a row at home. Still just a team trying to tread water until Marc Gasol returns, and it doesn’t help that Zach Randolph has been injured as well.

 
source:  17. Wizards (8-9, LW 22). If good teams find a way to win despite injuries, well, the Wizards have won six of eight despite missing Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza for stretches. The goal is the playoffs and they have bounced back from a slow start to be the five seed as of Monday.

 
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18. Bulls (7-8, LW 13). They went 1-5 on the circus road trip. The Bulls can be a playoff team in the East if they defend the way they are capable, but right now they are not playing like a Tom Thibodeau team on that end.

 
source:  19. Bobcats (8-10, LW 14). There are no moral victories in the NBA, but Charlotte looked pretty good in their loss to Miami Sunday. Charlotte forced the Heat into jump shots (just in the fourth quarter Miami hit them) and their offense wasn’t terrible. That’s way more than we expected to start the season.

 
source:  20. Raptors (6-10, LW 19). They have lost three games in a row but still lead the Atlantic Division. Which really speaks to the Atlantic Division right now. Tough week ahead on a West Coast swing that includes Golden State, Phoenix and the Lakers.

 
source:  21. Magic (6-10, LW 24). Victor Oladipo seems to be finding a groove averaging 14.8 points on 48 percent shooting the past five games. That includes wins over the Hawks and Sixers last week.

 
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22. Pistons (7-10, LW 20). While nobody was looking Rodney Stuckey has been the Pistons’ best backcourt player — he’s averaged 21.6 points a game on 53.9 percent shooting his last five games.

 
source:  23. Celtics (7-12, LW 23). Jordan Crawford has been playing well, as evidenced by his triple-double last week. But can they beat Milwaukee — the Bucks have just three wins this season and two are against Boston. They play again this week.

 
source:  24. Nets (5-12, LW 27). Hey Jason Kidd, if got a clever idea like spilling Coke on the court to get a timeout, save it for games that matter (like late in the season or playoffs). Brooklyn will now be without Paul Pierce for a month, to add to their injury woes.

 
source:  25. 76ers (6-12, LW 21). Michael-Carter Williams remains the brightest hope for the future on this team, but Evan Turner is averaging 21 points a game and is having by far his best season as a pro.

 
source:  26. Cavaliers (5-12, LW 28). There was an Andrew Bynum sighting over the weekend — 20 points, 10 rebounds on Saturday. Is he finding his groove as he gets healthier and in shame, or was this just a fluke? Magic 8 Ball says ask again next week.

 
source:  27. Kings (4-11, LW 25). It will be interesting to see if the new coach and new chance change things for Derrick Williams. — he’s going to get a real shot and play the three is Sacramento. In his Kings debut Friday he had 12 points on 13 shots (inefficient scoring was one of the issues in Minnesota).

 
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28. Jazz (3-15, LW 30). Jeremy Evans, the human pogo stick, is starting to show a little of his much-discussed potential on the court lately, and Trey Burke is back and playing well at the point. Things are not as bleak as a couple weeks ago.

 
source:  29. Knicks (3-13, LW 26). Nine straight losses. Carmelo Anthony is pressing and nobody else is stepping up to help him consistently, but the bigger issue remains the defense. It’s stunning how much Tyson Chandler means to this team (and it’s stunning how management built a team where Tyson Chandler meant so much).

 
source:  30. Bucks (3-13, LW 29). They picked up a win last week over the Celtics thanks to a hot O.J. Mayo (22 points). Two of the Bucks three wins are against the Celtics and they are on the schedule again this week.

PBT Extra: If Portland is going to turn series around it starts with Damian Lillard

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This was the year the Trail Blazers were going to break through. They were defending better as a team. There was some depth on offense. And Damian Lillard was playing at a level that will get him on many voters’ MVP ballots.

Instead, they are down 0-2 to Anthony Davis and New Orleans, having dropped both games at home to open the series. Portland is on the verge of being bounced in the first round for the third time in four years.

If Portland is going to turn this series around, it starts with Lillard, something I discuss in this latest PBT Extra. C.J. McCollum needs to get more buckets, Jusuf Nurkic needs to contribute more on both ends, but for Portland it all begins and ends with Lillard and it’s on him to start the turnaround.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.