Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns

PBT NBA Power Rankings: Golden State climbing rankings fast

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The top two teams in the East are the top two teams on PBT’s Power Rankings, but with their current nine-game win streak Golden State has moved in as the top ranked team in the West. If they keep defending like this they are legitimate contenders come playoff time.

 
source:  1. Pacers (27-6, Last Week No. 2). Indiana’s offense has taken a little dip lately, scoring just 98 points per 100 possessions their last five games (down four from their season average and 25th in the NBA in that stretch). But they are still 4-1 in those five thanks to that league-best defense and some scoring off the bench from Danny Granger. They have a rematch with Toronto, the one loss in those five games, on Tuesday.

 
source:  2. Heat (26-8, LW 3). Miami should put together a little run of wins — while they head out on a six-game road trip only one of their next 9 games is against a team over .500 and that is the Hawks, now without Al Horford. Then again, if one elite team is going to take some nights off in there and lose a couple to lesser teams, it’s Miami.

 
source:  3. Warriors (23-13, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the last five of those on the road. They are doing it with defense thanks to the return of Andre Iguodala — GSW has the third best defense in the NBA over their last five games. Streak could continue with Bucks, Nets and Celtics on the docket this week.

 
source:  4. Spurs (26-8, LW No. 5). Won four of last five during home-heavy part of schedule and they are doing it with offense — they have an offensive rating of 115.9 points per 100 possessions last five games (107.4 on season) with a true shooting percentage of 59.5 percent.

 
source:  5. Thunder (27-7, LW 1). It took Kevin Durant going off for 48 (23 in fourth quarter) for them to get a their first win this week without Russell Westbrook (beating Minnesota, the next win over Boston came much easier). It’s going to take more Durant and some big Reggie Jackson nights to keep them afloat at top of West until Westbrook’s mid-February return.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (26-8, LW 4). They have gone 2-3 in their last five and while they have gotten to the line a little less and not been quite as strong on the boards, the reality is they have lost the kind of close games they have won much of the season. Those kinds of wins tend to even out over time.

 
source:  7. Clippers (23-13, LW 7). Route at hands of Spurs shows what life without Chris Paul could be like — even with relatively soft schedule L.A. is not same without him. This stretch of roughly 20 games with out Paul will cost them in the final NBA standings, making a playoff run that much harder.

 
source:  8. Rockets (22-13, LW 8). Maybe “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” but the up-and-down rockets sure could use some, as the only thing they seem to do consistently is have rough fourth quarters and lose because of them. Houston heads out on a four game road trip starting this week.

 
source:  9. Suns (20-12, LW 9). Teams that give a consistent effort on defense tend to win but even so this could be a tough couple weeks for the Suns — they head out on a five-game road trip without Eric Bledsoe, who has a sprained knee.

 
source:  10. Raptors (16-16, LW 14). It took a good fourth quarter from LeBron to end a five-game Toronto win streak on Sunday. They are now 9-4 since Rudy Gay was traded away — they are your third best team in the East. GM Masai Ujiri also realizes third in this east is fool’s gold this season and will make moves thinking long term.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (19-15, LW 10). Time for some fun with math: It’s likely going to take about 47 wins to make the playoffs in the West, for Dallas to get there they need to go 28-20 the rest of the way. You think they can do that? I’m not sold the Mavs, the current eight seed in the West, can hold off teams like Minnesota and Denver the rest of the season.

 
source:  12. Hawks (18-16, LW 11). They have gone 2-3 without Al Horford but they haven’t played terribly (they almost knocked off Golden State, it took an Andre Iguodala game winner to save the Warriors). In this east the Hawks may be able to hang around close to .500 and still make the playoffs pretty comfortably.

 
source:  13. Timberwolves (16-17, LW 12). Seven times Minnesota has had a .500 record this season, and seven times they have lost the next game. I keep expecting this team to string together a series of wins and I keep being disappointed. But it will happen. Eventually.

 
source:  14. Pelicans (15-17, LW 15). Another team that might put together a run, but it’s not likely with both Jason Smith and now Ryan Anderson out — they need those big guys up front. Does Anthony Davis stand a chance of making the All-Star team with the game in New Orleans?

 
source:  15. Wizards (14-17, LW 13). There are moments you think this could be the third best team in the East — especially when Nene is on the court and active — but those moments are fleeting. They have lost three in a row and now have four of their next five on the road.

 
source:  16. Nuggets (16-17, LW 16). Andre Miller isn’t in the rotation and he is on the trade block — Miller can be strong willed but he’s also a rock-solid veteran on the court. That Brian Shaw isn’t using or getting along with him should raise eyebrows.

 
source:  17. Grizzlies (15-18, LW 20). Playing the same math game we did with Dallas (and assuming you need 47 wins to make the playoffs in the West) Memphis will need to go 32-17 the rest of the way to get in the postseason dance. They have the Spurs, Suns and Thunder at home as three of their next four, those are the kinds of games they need to win.

 
source:  18. Bulls (14-18, LW 22). Chicago is looking like the Bulls we remember without Rose — they have won five of their last seven by just playing grinding defense and finding enough offense from somewhere. Having Luol Deng back helps their offense a lot.

 
source:  19. Lakers (14-20, LW 18). Kendall Marshall is showing he can finally shoot in his latest chance with Lakers. In his first five games this season he shot 58.3 percent from three and finished 7-of-8 in the paint. If he can keep up anything in that ballpark the Lakers got a little steal with him.

 
source:  20. Pistons (14-19, LW 18). Detroit has lost six of its last seven and point guard Brandon Jennings called it an emergency. They are currently the eight seed in the East but Boston will get Rajon Rondo back and Brooklyn is playing better… it’s not an emergency in Detroit but it’s not pretty at all.

 
source:  21. Bobcats (15-20, LW 17). They went 1-4 on a rough West Coast road swing where their previously stout defense gave up at least 103 points in four of the five games (more than 110 in three of those). You know that Steve Clifford is not happy with that.

 
source:  22. Nets (12-21, LW 23). They have won two in a row going small, with Paul Pierce at the four. Whatever works. There’s some real tests to this little run on the schedule this week — Miami, Golden State and Toronto.

 
source:  23. Knicks (11-22, LW 26). They went 2-1 on a road trip through Texas — it might have been 3-0 if J.R. Smith makes a better decision. Not bad at all. In those three games the Knicks got key buckets out of Iman Shumpert, who has emerged lately as a quality offensive option. But please, ignore all that and talk about ridiculous trade rumors.

 
source:  24. Celtics (13-20, LW 21). Brandon Bass told PBT that you can learn more from a tough season than a good one, and he is trying to teach the young players on the team how to be professional through a rough season. Boston has lost seven of eight, that’s a lot of teachable moments for Bass.

 
source:  25. 76ers (12-21, LW 29). Four wins in a row, all on a road swing against the West — they beat the Lakers, Nuggets, Kings and Blazers. With Michael Carter-Williams in the lineup this team is decent (and he’s not going to miss time after that collision in Portland). By the way, look for the Thaddeus Young trade talk to heat up (Phoenix could be destination).

 
source:  26. Kings (10-22, LW 24). This team teases you with wins over Miami and Houston, then turns around and can’t beat the Sixers or Bobcats. Rumor is the Kings are looking to be big players at the trade deadline, kind of an anti-Maloof strategy.

 
source:  27. Jazz (11-25, LW 28). This is a 5-5 team in their last 10 games as they get some good play from Trey Burke, plus Enes Kanter has stepped up his game. If Richard Jefferson isn’t traded for Andrew Bynum to Cleveland he could land somewhere else at the deadline.

 
source:  28. Cavaliers (11-23, LW 25). No matter where Andrew Bynum ends up by the end of this week, we have another question about the Cavaliers: Could Pau Gasol really have lifted them into the playoffs? Even in the East I’m not sold he’s enough on this roster.

 
source:  29. Magic (10-23, LW 27). They head out on a five-game West Coast road swing this week, which could get ugly. Arron Afflalo is upping his trade value, and trade talk is maybe the only kind of interesting Magic talk right now.

 
source:
30. Bucks (7-26, LW 30). Larry Sanders was the guy getting hyped this summer — a new $44 million deal and he was going to be a franchise cornerstone. Now he has missed games after an injury suffered in a bar fight and he is arguing with teammates like Gary Neal. That’s not good. At all.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) reacts against the Atlanta Hawks in the first half in Game 1 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.

Larry Bird on Frank Vogel’s future with Pacers: “I don’t know what’s going to happen”

MIAMI, FL - MAY 24:  Team President Larry Bird of the Indiana Pacers looks on against the Miami Heat during Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on May 24, 2014 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Larry Bird wanted the Pacers to play smaller and faster this season. The Pacers started the season doing that, but they weren’t defending consistently and not winning enough (dropping 7-of-11 through one stretch in December), so coach Frank Vogel started to play bigger and slower. It worked well enough for the Pacers to make the playoffs and go seven games deep in the first round against the Raptors.

Team president Larry Bird isn’t happy — he doesn’t like that Vogel changed the team’s style. For that reason, it’s unclear if Vogel — whose contract is up — will be back with the Pacers next season. Here is what Bird told Greg Doyle of the Indianapolis Star.

Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird said Monday he hasn’t decided whether to bring back coach Frank Vogel for a seventh season, telling IndyStar: “It’s no secret — I want us to score more points…

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bird said….

“Frank’s a great guy. He’s going to be fine no matter what happens. If he’s back, he’ll be fine here. If he’s not, he’s not. We’ll see.”

If Vogel were allowed to walk away, a host of other teams would line up to pay him. Houston would be an interesting fit (although that franchise reportedly has its sights set on Jeff Van Gundy).

Here’s the question Bird and team owner Herb Simon need to answer: If not Vogel, who do you have that’s better? Think about the coaches still on the market, who is better than Vogel?

Vogel gets his teams to defend like few other coaches in the league (the Pacers were third in the league in defensive rating this season with a largely overhauled roster), and that is the foundation of any winning team. Force an “offensive coordinator” assistant on Vogel if you want, but to give up one of the better young coaches in the NBA would be a mistake by the Pacers.

And if you want to play smaller and faster, get — and in the case of Solomon Hill try to keep — players who fit that style. Right now the Pacers roster is not constructed to be great that way.

Hornets future unclear with 4 starters becoming free agents

MIAMI, FL - MAY 01: Kemba Walker #15 of the Charlotte Hornets takes the floor during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on May 1, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – The Charlotte Hornets have a major decision ahead of them this offseason – keep the core group from a team that tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference or revamp the roster by adding new pieces.

With four starters set to become free agents and only seven players under contract next season, the Hornets have the flexibility to make major changes if they so choose.

Coach Steve Clifford said Monday he’d prefer to coach the same group again, but acknowledged it might be difficult to re-sign everyone given the NBA salary cap.

Much of the Hornets future could be predicated on what happens with unrestricted free agent Nicolas Batum, whom Clifford acknowledged will be the team’s No. 1 priority in free agency. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points along with 6.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the Hornets during the regular season, although his production was limited in the postseason due to a foot injury. The Hornets lost in seven games to the Miami Heat on Sunday.

Batum could command a max contract this offseason due to the increase in the NBA salary cap. And while it is debatable if he’s worth that much, Clifford knows he’s a valuable cog in the starting lineup.

When asked if he wants to return next year, Batum said, “Why not?,” saying this past season was one of the most enjoyable of his eight-year NBA career. He liked the freedom Clifford gave him and the idea of being one of first two options on offense.

“I want to talk to (the Hornets) first, for sure,” Batum said of free agency. “July 1 will be a crazy day, but will Charlotte be my first call? Yes.”

However, Batum indicated he only wants to return if the Hornets make an effort to bring back the nucleus of this year’s team.

He said the chemistry of this year’s Hornets team was outstanding, on and off the court.

Along with Batum, three others starters – Courtney Lee, Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson – are also unrestricted free agents. Backup Jeremy Lin is almost certainly going to opt out of the final year of his contract given he has outperformed the $2 million salary he’s set to make in 2016-17.

“If you asked me would I be interested in coming back, there’s no question in my mind – it’s a resounding yes,” Lin said. “I would be very interested in coming back.”

Lee, Williams and Jefferson also indicated their desire to return to the Hornets as well, but it remains unclear if general manager Rich Cho can – or even wants to – bring everyone back for another run at the playoffs or if he’ll look in a different direction to upgrade.

Cho is expected to meet with the media later this week.

“I feel like any time, especially in pro sports, when you keep a group of guys together for three or four years, whatever the case may be, you can do some really good things,” Williams said.

A look at what the Hornets face this offseason:

BIGGEST NEED: Rebounding. The Hornets rebounded well in the regular season, but Clifford said the team’s struggles on the glass in Games 6 and 7 against the Heat was a big reason it was ousted from the playoffs.

GOOD NEWS: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed all but seven games due to shoulder injuries, is expected back next season. The former No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft is considered the team’s top defensive player.

BAD NEWS: By virtue of making the playoffs, the Hornets don’t have a lottery pick and may not have a chance to find the dominant offensive player that Clifford so desperately covets in the draft.

TOUGH ENDING: Kemba Walker said while losing to Miami in Game 7 was disappointing, the season is “one to be proud of.” Walked add, “At one point we were 17-20 and then we finished the season with 48 wins. I don’t think anybody expected that. Nobody even thought we would make the playoffs, so for us to force a Game 7 against a really good team like Miami.”

ZELLER AT CENTER: The Hornets plan to stick with Cody Zeller at center next season – instead of power forward – but Clifford said he still wants the 7-footer to work on his outside shot.