Toronto Raptors vs Indiana Pacers

PBT NBA Power Rankings: New York teams rising but Pacers on top still

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Here are the weekly PBT power rankings, with some improving teams out of New York. For you fans in Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Minnesota and Memphis — teams with dreams of the Western Conference playoffs — know that the pace right now is 47-48 wins just to get the 8 seed. Plan accordingly.

 
source:  1. Pacers (29-7, Last Week No. 1). They continue to win thanks to that lock-down defense, but the Pacers seem to be coasting through the middle of the season. Paul George seems off and they have an offensive rating of 95.1 (points per 100 possessions) in their last five games, six below their season average. It’s not just the Heat that drags a little.

 
source:  2. Spurs (29-8, LW No. 4). Winners of three in a row as they continue to execute like no other team in the league nightly. That said, buzz around the league is they are aggressive in the trade market, a sign management thinks they need more to really contend this season.

 
source:  3. Warriors (25-14, LW 3). If you think their run is over (9-1 in the last 10) think again — they have 14 games left before the All-Star Break and 10 are at home. Interesting test for them at Oklahoma City this week.

 
source:  4. Heat (27-10, LW 2). Miami should put together a little run through this soft part of the schedule, then they go and lose both ends of a back-to-back in the boroughs of New York. With all due respect to the improved play of those teams, this is really about a banged up (starters out) and not very focused Heat team.

 
source:  5. Trail Blazers (28-9, LW 6). In case you didn’t see his quote, reserve guard Mo Williams needs to be a Top Chef judge: “With our team, we have a makeup of individuals that do something really, really good and when we mesh together, it’s like gumbo. That’s the best example I can give you of our team. Some teams have a dish where you got your steak, potatoes and asparagus. We’re gumbo. Without one of the ingredients, the gumbo just doesn’t taste well. But when everything is in that pot, it’s just like grandma did it.”

 
source:  6. Thunder (28-9, LW 5). Oklahoma City is now 5-4 since the Westbrook injury. Kevin Durant is doing his best to hold them afloat — in those nine games he is averaging 34.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists a night — but it’s not enough. The question remains how much this hurts their seeding come the playoffs (they are currently tied with Portland for the 2/3 seed).

 
source:  7. Clippers (26-13, LW 7). They have won three in a row without Chris Paul (3-1 overall so far without him) and while those wins were all over sub .500 teams they are wins. The Clips will take it. They are home Wednesday then out for the Grammy road trip with seven in a row away from LA.

 
source:  8. Rockets (24-14, LW 8). It’s still hard to get a feel for just how good this team really is — some nights they look elite, then there are games like Friday against the Hawks. The real number that might concern me as a Rockets fan — they are just 13-11 against the West.

 
source:  9. Mavericks (22-16, LW 11). If the Dallas Mavericks — currently the eight seed in the West with a two-game cushion over Denver and Minnesota lurking — squeaks into the playoffs by a game or two, we will look back and point at the two end-of-game no calls they got (Shawn Marion fouling Kevin Love then this weekend Monta Ellis fouling Austin Rivers) and wonder.

 
source:  10. Raptors (18-17, LW 14). Apparently the Rudy Gay trade was win-win. He’s shooting lights-out since moving to Sacramento but the Raptors are now 12-5 without him. The tanking plan is off in Toronto, where they stand a legitimate shot at winning the division, hosting a playoff series and advancing to the second round.

 
source:  11. Hawks (20-18, LW 12). Just one game this week, against the Nets in London. We’ll see how they do across the pond, at home they are playing very well right now with wins over Houston and Indiana in Phillips Arena last week.

 
source:  12. Timberwolves (18-19, LW 13). Minnesota is now 0-10 in games decided by 4 or fewer points this season. Some of that is bad luck and things will even out, but some of that is late game execution issues this team needs to resolve. Fast if they have playoff dreams.

 
source:  13. Suns (21-15, LW 9). They have hit a rough patch and it’s only going to get rougher with Eric Bledsoe out for an extended period of time with a knee injury (he should be back in 4-6 weeks). They have a 2 game cushion over Denver and 3.5 over the Timberwolves.

 
source:  14. Nuggets (19-17, LW 16). Is there a streakier team in the NBA? They have won five in a row after losing eight in a row, plus there was a seven game win streak earlier in the season. With this run they are two games out of the playoffs in the West.

 
source:  15. Bulls (17-18, LW 18). No Derrick Rose, no Luol Deng, and yet the Bulls have won five in a row and they are knocking on the door of .500 again — and with nothing but below .500 teams on the docket this week they could crash through that ceiling.

 
source:  16. Grizzlies (17-19, LW 17). Marc Gasol is set to return to full practice this week — and play in games not long after that — which means the 17-19 Grizzlies could be poised to make a push for the postseason (they are currently four games out of the eight seed in the West).

 
source:  17. Nets (15-22, LW 22). They have won five in a row so is the light week — one game against the Hawks in London — a blessing or a curse? On one hand, all the older bodies on this team could use the light week of rest. On the other, they had momentum and now they will be sitting around a lot this week getting cold.

 
source:  18. Knicks (14-22, LW 23). The Knicks are 5-1 in their last six, including beating the Heat, and among the many reasons (Iman Shumpert’s improved play, better ball movement from Carmelo Anthony) we need to point out that Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton are showing some chemistry together. Stoudemire had 35 points over the weekend and he and ‘Melo have played well together, thank you very much.

 
source:  19. Wizards (14-17, LW 15). They have 10 home games between now and the All-Star break, which would be awesome except they are 7-9 at the very leaky Verizon Center. Need to turn that around, but they still look like a lock playoff team in the unimpressive East.

 
source:  20. Pelicans (15-21, LW 14). The loss of both Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson to injury has taken its toll on this team. Now we will see how they deal with trade rumors as we’re going to hear a lot of Eric Gordon stuff over the next six weeks.

 
source:  21. Pistons (16-22, LW 20). That was a quality win over the Suns (thank you Josh Smith) but games like the two they have this week — Utah and Washington — are the kind they need to win if they plan to hold their playoff spot in the East. They Pistons are the seven seed, just one game up on the 9/10 seed Bobcats and Knicks.

 
source:  22. Kings (13-22, LW 26). They are 7-8 since Rudy Gay arrived and on a three game win streak. The reason is their offense: Through the first 20 games the Kings averaged 101.8 points per 100 possessions, that has jumped to 109.7 in the last 10 games (fifth best in the NBA during that stretch).

 
source:  23. Bobcats (15-23, LW 21). Charlotte has gone 2-8 in their last 10 games, which has dropped them out of a playoff spot even in the East. The once-stout defense has been the issue, but getting Michael Carter-Gilchrist back this week should be a boost on that end.

 
source:  24. Cavaliers (13-24, LW 28). They looked improved for the first two games with Luol Deng in the lineup then they suffered the worst NBA loss of the season — 44 points — at the hands of the Kings. Making the playoffs is still the goal and they are just two games out of a spot, but I wonder if Deng will be able to make enough of a difference

 
source:  25. Lakers (14-23, LW 19). Kobe Bryant could be back Jan. 28, when the Lakers return from their Grammy road trip, Mike D’Antoni said. What would be best for the Lakers franchise at this point would be for Kobe to take a lot more time off and let this ship sink a little lower (and pick up more lottery Ping-Pong balls). But who in the organization has the stones to tell Kobe that? (They wouldn’t anyway.)

 
source:  26. 76ers (12-25, LW 25). They lost four straight games, and not exactly against powerhouse teams. Sixers fans probably got more out of watching college ball this weekend, trying to figure out Julius Randle and how he might fit in the mix.

 
source:  27. Jazz (12-26, LW 27). When they put together the end-of-season highlight video for the rebuilding Jazz, last week’s win over Oklahoma with Gordon Hayward’s 37 points will get discussed plenty. Not much else to focus on.

 
source:  28. Celtics (13-25, LW 24). The fact that Rajon Rondo could be back in the next couple weeks doesn’t take much of the sting out of the recent eight-game losing streak. Be interesting to see which veterans get shipped out at the deadline.

 
source:  29. Magic (10-23, LW 29). They lost seven straight and have struggled mightily without Nikola Vucevic, who will remain out for a bit with a concussion. On the bright side, Victor Oladipo has looked better lately.

 
source:  30. Bucks (7-26, LW 30). Larry Sanders, what are you thinking? Can’t blame Bucks fans if they have tunnel vision on Giannis Antetokounmpo right now.

John Stockton working with Bucks point guards at training camp

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 30:  John Stockton #12 of the Utah Jazz dribbles in Game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sacramento Kings during the 2003 NBA Playoffs at Arco Arena on April 30, 2003 in Sacramento, California.  The Kings won 111-91.  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: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks are coached by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, Jason Kidd. But Kidd invited another legend of the position to camp to work with his point guards. John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, was at Bucks practice on Thursday working with Michael Carter-Williams, Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Not a bad person to learn from, especially since the Bucks have one of the weakest point-guard positions in the league.

Blake Griffin says he’s working on improving his three-point shot

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots a jumper over Serge Ibaka #9 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a 100-99 loss to the Thunder at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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2016-17 is going to be a big year for Blake Griffin. He missed much of last season with a quad injury and a broken hand stemming from a punching incident, and he has the ability to opt out of his contract next summer. When Griffin was healthy, he was his usual All-Star self for the Clippers, but he played just 35 games. He’s healthy now, at the start of training camp, and he says he wants to improve his three-point shot.

From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

“I want to be someone who shoots from there confidently, for sure,” Griffin said after Thursday’s practice at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. “A lot of us power forwards, our strength is inside or our versatility. You look at the best power forwards, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus (Aldridge), Draymond (Green) … they can all shoot but they can all put the ball on the floor and they can all score inside. I don’t necessarily think falling in love with the 3-point shot is a good idea, but shooting it confidently from there is great.”

Not only has Griffin not hit his threes in his career (his overall mark from beyond the arc is an awful 27.1 percent) but he doesn’t take very many of them. The most threes he’s ever shot in a season is 44 in 2013-14, and he hit 12 of them. Griffin is only 27, so he’s theoretically not done improving as a player, but it’s hard to imagine a dramatic jump this far along when that hasn’t been a part of his game at all to this point.

 

Steve Kerr endorses shorter preseason to limit back-to-backs

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors speaks to members of the media after being defeated by the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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There are too many preseason games. The NBA has its reasons for playing them — namely, to allow for games in non-NBA markets — and sometimes they can be valuable for teams to experiment with rotations. But most teams play seven or eight preseason games, which is unnecessary. Warriors coach Steve Kerr agrees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Connor Letourneau:

“I kind of like the idea that’s been tossed around the last couple summers to start the regular season a little earlier, maybe a week early,” Kerr said Thursday afternoon after Warriors practice. “Play five exhibition games instead of eight. I kind of like that, just so you have fewer back-to-backs in the regular season.”

The NBA has floated the idea in the past of cutting the number of preseason games in order to stretch out the regular season, thereby lessening the burden of travel and back-to-backs. The NBA has made an effort this season to cut down on back-to-backs, and this would be a logical way to do that.

Hornets’ Batum won’t let big contract affect how he plays

MIAMI, FL - APRIL 20: Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets drives on Joe Johnson #2 of the Miami Heat  during game two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena on April 20, 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) Nicolas Batum said he isn’t planning to alter how he plays the game after signing a five-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

And that’s just fine with coach Steve Clifford.

Clifford said Batum doesn’t need to put additional pressure on himself to score just because he’s now the highest-paid player in Hornets history. He told him to play how he plays.

“You don’t change the nature of how you play. I think guys get messed up with that,” Clifford said. “… I don’t think you try to reinvent yourself because the money changed. We gave him the money because he played so well. In my opinion he was an All-Star-caliber player last season when healthy.”

Batum was acquired in a trade with Portland before last season and turned out to be a gem for Charlotte, which won 48 games and tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Batum averaged a career-high 14.9 points and 5.6 assists while becoming one of the team’s top three go-to options.

Batum said he’s learned from experience that it’s not worth putting pressure on himself just because he signed a big contract.

He did in that 2012 after inking a four-year, $46 million deal to remain with the Portland Trail Blazers. While he still played well, he said it was pointless.

“I was a young guy at the time and I didn’t know what to expect,” Batum said. “Now I know. I know what I have to go through right now. I know what the views of the media and the public will be. I know that, and I’m good with it.”

For Batum, pressure no longer enters the equation because the Hornets trust him and believe in him.

“It’s more relief than pressure,” Batum said.

The Hornets made re-signing him their No. 1 priority, offering the Frenchman a huge deal about an hour into the free-agency signing period. Batum also received several offers from other teams shortly after the deadline, which he called flattering.

The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Batum enters the season as Charlotte’s best all-around player and a favorite among teammates.

“Guys are so much more comfortable when he’s out there on the floor because he makes it so much easier at both ends,” forward Marvin Williams said.

Williams said there’s a naturalness to Batum’s game, and he’s incredibly unselfish – he’s always looking for the better shot option.

“He likes to make the assist, and he likes to get everyone involved,” Williams said. “I think that is why so many people like playing with him. It’s why I love playing with him.”

And why Clifford views him as irreplaceable.

When Batum went down in the second half of last season with an ankle injury, the Hornets struggled to find their rhythm.

“He’s not a numbers guy to me,” Clifford said. “People can say, `Well, he’s making this or he’s making that (much money),’ but if he plays at the level he played at last year when he was healthy, we have a chance to be a really good team.”

The Hornets continue to work on 5-on-5 scrimmages extensively during practice as Clifford gets a feel for his team.

But there were several key players missing on Thursday.

Point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and center Cody Zeller (knee) remained out of practice while rehabbing from injuries. Guard Jeremy Lamb did not practice after stepping on a basketball and twisting his ankle, while Brian Roberts was held out after injuring his hamstring when he slipped on some water on the court. Clifford said he hopes to have Lamb and Roberts back in a few days.