PBT NBA Power Rankings: Even without Westbrook Thunder take top spot

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It’s legitimate to question how well Oklahoma City will fair in the roughly 27 games they will play without Russell Westbrook, but so far so good and that slides the to the top of the last power rankings of 2013.

source:  1. Thunder (25-5, Last Week No. 2). They won all their games last week, but that’s not the story. With Russell Westbrook out until around the All-Star break Kevin Durant will be trying to keep the Thunder near the top of the standings. The good news is 15 of the estimated 27 games Westbrook will miss are against teams below .500. However, if they slip from a top seed to three or four (a real possibility) they make their playoff run that much more difficult.

 
source:  2. Pacers (24-5, LW 4). They lead the NBA in net point difference — they outscore their opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions. The reason remains a defense that is 4.1 points per 100 better than anyone in the league. Plus Lance Stephenson is playing well creating shots for others.

 
source:  3. Heat (23-7, LW 3). They have lost seven games this season, six of them to teams below .500. I think that says plenty about their focus night-to-night, or lack thereof. The one team above .500 to defeat them? Indiana.

 
source:  4. Trail Blazers (24-6, LW 1). They continue to win games with the best offense in the NBA — like the comeback win over the Clippers, another dramatic victory that makes this team entertaining to watch. But in their last 10 games they have given up 107.2 points per 100 possessions on defense, 26th in the NBA in that span. They will not win when it matters without better defense.

 
source:  5. Spurs (24-7, LW No. 6). Look for the Spurs to go on a little run. Why? Nine of their next 11 games are at home, and six of those are against teams with records below. 500. Also, while you weren’t paying attention to the Spurs, Manu Ginobili has played well.

 
source:  6. Warriors (18-13, LW 9). Here’s why I think Golden State could be more dangerous in the playoffs than Portland — since the return of Andre Iguodala they have played the second best defense in the NBA. You know they will score, if they defend they are dangerous.

 
source:  7. Clippers (21-12, LW 5). Don’t be shocked if they go after Andrew Bynum. The Clippers biggest need is depth up front and even with all his issues if the Clips could get Bynum to play 15 minutes a night off the bench he’s an upgrade over Ryan Hollins.

 
source:  8. Rockets (21-12, LW 8). They just completed a brutal stretch of the schedule — 7 games in 10 days. It showed in the loss to OKC Sunday night. Houston looked tired and slow. They have just three games in the next 11 and no team over .500.

 
source:  9. Suns (18-11, LW 7). Maybe the best showdown of the week is on their schedule — Eric Bledsoe takes on the Clippers. The Suns have won 9 of their last 11 and are fully capable of beating the Clippers behind Bledsoe.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (17-13, LW 12). Dallas is an entertaining team, one with a strong offense behind Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, which usually is enough to make up for their defense. If they can improve the D just a little they would look more secure as a playoff team.

 
source:  11. Hawks (17-14, LW 11). Huge blow with the loss of Al Horford for maybe the rest of the regular season. Last time this happened to him (on the other side) he was out four months, which would have him back about when the playoffs start.

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (15-15, LW 13). Still keep waiting for this team to make a run and for their record to catch up with their point differential (+2.2 per 100 possessions, which suggests a 19-11 record). Win over Dallas Monday would help there against a team also in the bottom of the West playoff mix.

 
source:  13. Wizards (13-14, LW 14). My favorite stat of the week, courtesy my man Dan Feldman: Bradley Beal shoots 45 percent overall when Marcin Gortat is on the floor with him, 31 percent when Gortat sits. Beal’s three-point percentage jumps 9 percent also. Good screens matter.

 
source:  14. Raptors (13-15, LW 18). Your Atlantic Division leaders helped secure that position with a home-and-home sweep of the Knicks. Toronto is now 7-3 following the trade and you can argue they are the third best team in the East following the Horford injury.

 
source:  15. Pelicans (13-15, LW 19). I’m not sure Jason Smith is the long-term answer, but this team looks better with him next to Anthony Davis. Also, Tyreke Evans has averaged more than 20 points a game this past week.

 
source:  16. Nuggets (14-15, LW 10). They have lost six in a row and fallen out of the playoff picture in the West, but look for them to bounce back with six of their next seven at home. They need to make a little run here as the deep West is unforgiving to losing streaks.

 
source:  17. Bobcats (14-17, LW 16). Their defense has carried them this far and when it lapses even a little coach Steve Clifford is calling them out on it. Tough West Coast road swing that includes Clippers and Trail Blazers on tap this week.

 
source:  18. Lakers (13-18, LW 15). They have lost five in a row and Pau Gasol can’t shake an upper respiratory infection to get back on the court — and he looks like he’s giving 75 percent when he does. He is not helping his next contract get any bigger right now.

 
source:  19. Pistons (14-18, LW 17). That Mo Cheeks is calling out Josh Smith and benching him is a sign to me he has reached the “let’s try some gimmicks” stage of getting this to work. Pistons remain -6.6 per 100 possessions when Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe share the court and the defense with all of them is terrible.

 
source:  20. Grizzlies (13-16, LW 20). Marc Gasol is getting close to returning and as he does Memphis has to make up 3.5 games and jump four teams just to get into the playoffs in the West. Doable, but far from easy.

 
source:  21. Celtics (13-17, LW 21). They are getting solid play from guys all around — Jared Sullinger and Jordan Crawford (even after he came back to earth) had strong Decembers. Still wonder what this roster will look like Feb. 21 (day after trade deadline).

 
source:  22. Bulls (11-17, LW 25). Luol Deng is close to returning, it could even be Monday night for Chicago. What Christmas Day showed is that unlike other teams beset by injuries and slow starts, the Bulls will still play hard.

 
source:  23. Nets (10-20, LW 23). Jason Kidd is calling them out and that seemed to help the effort a little. Kidd’s issues still fall to management — they put a first-time, no experience head coach in charge of a team with a very short window to be competitive.

 
source:  24. Kings (9-20, LW 26). They beat the Miami Heat, and while that is partially on the Heat (read their ranking above) it shows that there really is potential in this core group. They have four of their next six against the dregs of the East, it’s a chance to string some wins together.

 
source:  25. Cavaliers (10-20, LW 22). They have lost four in a row and now will have the Andrew Bynum rumors and distraction front and center for the next week as they try to trade him, and failing have to decide whether to waive him or just pay him $6 million to be a trade chip this summer.

 
source:  26. Knicks (9-21, LW 24). That sweep of a home-and-home over the weekend at the hands of the Raptors was a punch to the gut. James Dolan said there were no trades or coaching changes coming, we’ll take him at his word. Even if you do fire Woodson, getting a quality replacement into that zoo will not be easy.

 
source:  27. Magic (9-20, LW 28). Arron Afflalo has scored 20 straight points in six straight games, and while that is not is not going to get him into the All-Star Game (sorry Arron) is should up his trade value at the deadline. A lot of teams could use him.

 
source:
28. Jazz (9-24, LW 27). Trey Burke is looking good as he finds his way in the NBA. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he has the Damian Lillard style ability to get off his shot or find the right guy. Utah has something here.

 
source:  29. 76ers (9-21, LW 29). Sunday night’s win over the Lakers snapped a 13-game road losing streak, so we’ll forgive Evan Turner for the exclamation point dunk when he should have dribbled it out. They stay on the road against the West this season.

 
source:  30. Bucks (6-24, LW 30). Just as we were starting to see the Larry Sanders, John Henson combo would do together the Bucks have lost Henson for two weeks with an ankle injury. That’s just not fair.

Kevin Durant on Giannis Antetokounmpo: “I would tell him to play for himself”

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Kevin Durant was once the big star in a little city. The former Oklahoma City Thunder star now plays for the Golden State Warriors, and has a championship ring to his name after making a switch in 2016.

So Durant has at least some experience similar to that of Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak is currently leading the charge for the Bucks against the Boston Celtics in the first round, and he’s seen as the future in Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo signed a 4-year, $100 million contract in the summer of 2016, so presumably he’ll be in Wisconsin for some time.

Meanwhile, Durant had some advice for Antetokounmpo, should he ask for it. In a feature on ESPN, Durant was quoted as saying he felt Antetokounmpo should be sure to have fun, and to play for himself.

Via ESPN:

What I would say to him, I would tell him to play for himself,” Durant said. “Because he’s the one out there putting in the work, he’s the one out there getting up in the morning staying committed to the game. Obviously [the comments about staying put] sounds good to the fans in Milwaukee and to the ownership, because he cares so much about wanting to please them and play well for them, and I get it. But his career is about him; it’s about whatever he wants to do and however he feels is right for him. And what type of basketball does he want to play? He’s not going to stay in Milwaukee if he’s not having fun playing the game.

That’s some pretty good advice, although factors surrounding Antetokounmpo will likely weigh the same as they did on Durant in OKC. The Bucks presumably need a new coach once their season ends. They’re currently helmed by interim coach Joe Prunty, who took over when Jason Kidd was fired earlier this year.

The Bucks also need to fill out their roster and find a way to stay healthy. The Thunder famously had roster issues (read: the James Harden trade) and eventually the lack of playoff success drove Durant to switch teams.

Milwaukee doesn’t seem close to that kind of juncture, although eventually things will flip for the young Bucks and fans and management will expect some kind of production in the postseason.

Giannis Antetokounmpo beats Celtics with late-game tip-in, series goes 2-2 (VIDEO)

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It was an exciting finish in Milwaukee on Sunday, where the Bucks took home a win on their home court to level the series against the Boston Celtics, 2-2.

The game came down to the wire, with 2016-17 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon giving the Bucks the lead after a corner 3-pointer with just 33.5 seconds left. The Celtics responded with a sideline out of bounds play that resulted in Al Horford tying the game with free throws.

On their final possession, the Bucks again went to Brogdon, who missed on a layup driving to the left side of the floor. Luckily, Giannis Antetokounmpo was there to follow with the tip-in with just five seconds left.

Via ESPN:

Boston was unable to convert on a final play, and Milwaukee grabbed the win, 104-102.

Game 5 will be in Boston on Tuesday.

Report: Ime Udoka, Ettore Messina, David Fizdale to interview for Hornets job

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The Charlotte Hornets have a new GM in Mitch Kupchak. Upon taking the helm, Kupchak made short work of firing head coach Steve Clifford.

Now, the Hornets need a new coach and they have quite a few names to choose from.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Hornets will be interviewing current San Antonio Spurs assistants Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina along with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale.

Via Twitter:

All three have extensive coaching experience under their belts. Udoka played in the NBA for seven seasons and has been an assistant coach in San Antonio since 2012.

Messina is a four-time Euroleague champion as a coach, and a two-time winner of the Euroleague Coach of the Year award. He’s coached abroad and in the U.S. since 1989, and he’s been with the Spurs since 2014.

Fizdale coached the Grizzlies for two seasons. Before that he was a longtime assistant coach with the Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra.

Hornets star Kemba Walker said that who the team chose as GM would influence his decision to re-sign after 2018-19. Walker loved Clifford, so who Charlotte picks as coach could carry significant weight with Walker as well.

LeBron James, Cavaliers hope to even series with Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James has been in this playoff position before, just not in the first round.

With Cleveland down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James was asked if Game 4 in Indianapolis Sunday was a must win.

“It’s the postseason,” said James, who is 10-0 in his career in first-round playoff series with Cleveland and Miami. “Every game is a must win. You want to come in and play well and win no matter what. No matter if you have home-court advantage or if you’re starting on the road, that’s the mindset you have to have. I felt like (Friday) was a must win. We didn’t win, obviously, but it’s the same mindset on Sunday.”

James, who scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and delivered eight assists in a 92-90 road loss Friday night, rejected what he felt were reporters’ attempts to ask if the other players needed to do more.

“You guys think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus? I’m not about that,” James said. “Guys just, we have to be better, including myself. Had six turnovers (Friday). I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I had made some better plays in the third quarter, the lead doesn’t skip.”

The Pacers cut a 17-point halftime deficit to six points in the third quarter and finally took their first lead in the fourth quarter.

“We know we all gotta play better as a collective group, no matter who it is,” James said. “We got production to start the game and in the second half there wasn’t much production. We still had a chance to win. We’ve got to regroup and figure how we can be better in Game 4.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers were limited because George Hill‘s back “locked up” in the second half. Hill played only nine minutes in the second half, scoring two of his 13 points. Lue used James and Jordan Clarkson rather than backup point guard Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter. If Hill can’t go Sunday, Lue said he will likely start Calderon.

Hill had an MRI on Saturday, but the results weren’t back. He is listed as questionable for Game 4 with back spasms. Hill was hurt during Game 1 when Trevor Booker set a back screen and felt stiffness before Game 2, but played 20 minutes.

For the Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic was the difference maker, scoring 15 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. Bogdanovic struggled shooting the first two games of the series.

Bogdanovic, who made 7 of 9 3-pointers, kept his focus after two quick fouls in the first quarter and had to leave briefly in the fourth when he picked up his fifth foul. The seven 3-pointers tied a franchise playoff record, also held by Reggie Miller twice, Chuck Person and Paul George.

“I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but in the second half I started hitting shots and started feeling (much) better and I think a did a great job (Friday night),” the Croatian forward said.

Bogdanovic said he was most pleased with his defense against James.

“Everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense,” he said. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense, but I am working hard at trying to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

Bogdanovic said he tries to push James so he catches the ball far from the basket.

“Against those type of players you just try to stay aggressive on them,” Bogdanovic said.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was impressed with his ability to produce both ways.

“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” McMillan said. “But offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”

The Pacers came back to win eight times during the regular season after being down 15 or more points.

“We’ve been resilient,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “We made an adjustment in the second half and it helped us. But it’s only one game; I’m looking forward to Sunday.”