PBT NBA Power Rankings: At season midway Pacers, Portland on top (not exactly Stern’s dream finals)

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We’re at the midway point in the NBA season and the Indiana Pacers sit on top of the ProBasketballTalk NBA power rankings — we knew they’d be good but they have been better in the regular season than expected. Portland is second, and that is a surprise, but also a team on a win streak. Milwaukee still has the bottom spot locked down.

 
source:  1. Pacers (32-7, Last Week No. 1). Indiana should have three players in the All-Star Game (Paul George will be voted in by the fans, expect Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson to be picked by the coaches as reserves) plus Frank Vogel will coach. Getting hard to play the “nobody respects us” card in Indy.

 
source:  2. Trail Blazers (31-9, LW 5). They have won five in a row, including the last two on the road in San Antonio and Dallas. They have again done it with their offense playing at an elite level, plus now their defense has been average (which is a step up). Terry Stotts could end up as the All-Star coach (job goes to coach of team with the best record in West on Feb. 2 other than Spurs, as Gregg Popovich did it last year).

 
source:  3 Spurs (32-9, LW No. 2). The Spurs are 18-1 against teams under .500 this season but 1-8 against the Blazers, Rockets, Thunder, Clippers and Pacers. It’s hard to judge a veteran team like this during the season, but even Manu Ginobili has had questions about their level of play. The Thunder and Heat are on the docket this week.

 
source:  4. Thunder (31-10, LW 6). Huge comeback win in Houston, then Kevin Durant drops 54 on Golden State — they are 7-5 and playing pretty well without Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant has scored 30 points or more in seven straight games, which is how it’s going to have to be for now, but the nine assists Sunday was a sign he could get some help from teammates.

 
source:  5. Heat (29-11, LW 4). They went 2-3 on their current road trip (which ends Monday in Atlanta) and maybe the biggest issue is they are shooting just 31 percent from three in those five games. “Space and pace” as an offense only works if you knock down the shots to create space. Also, the defense has slipped in those games — Miami’s defense is based on athleticism and aggressiveness, take their foot off the gas and anyone can get points on them.

 
source:  6. Clippers (28-14, LW 7). They are 5-2 without Chris Paul and while only one win was over a .500 team (the amazing shootout with Dallas) the fact is they are holding their ground with their best player out. So far. They are on their Grammy road trip this week and next.

 
source:  7. Warriors (26-16, LW 3). On PBT Extra CSNBayArea.com’s Warriors insider Monte Poole said to consider the Jordan Crawford trade the first move by Golden State, not the only one. They love their starting five but need depth — Stephen Curry has played more minutes than any other point guard in the league.

 
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8. Rockets (27-15, LW 8). GM Daryl Morey told Sports Illustrated he thinks they have the first two pieces of a championship roster — James Harden and Dwight Howard — but lacks the No. 3 piece. Chandler Parsons is offended.

 
source:  9. Mavericks (24-18, LW 9). They gave up 129 to the Clippers, 107 to the Suns then 127 to Portland last week — Dallas needs to tighten up its defense. On a side note, Mark Cuban tells really good Dirk Nowitzki stories.

 
source:  10. Grizzlies (20-19, LW 16). Winners of five in a row and now with Marc Gasol back in the rotation — and not so coincidentally their defense is impressive again — they look like a team that will grab one of the final playoff spots in the West. Then be a brutally tough out for whoever lands them.

 
source:  11. Suns (23-17, LW 13). They have lost four of six, but it was great to see Channing Frye break out for 30 against Denver on Sunday. Sure, Denver defenders left him alone like he had the Hantavirus, still he hit the shots. This is a guy who missed a season with a serious heart condition, it’s good to see him on the court and playing well.

 
source:  12. Raptors (20-19, LW 10). If the Raptors can’t hold off the Nets or otherwise lose the East, they should look back at Sunday’s loss to the struggling Lakers as a game they gave away. Toronto was up 19 in the first half, 16 in the third quarter, and found a way to lose. That and the loss to Boston were not pretty last week.

 
source:  13. Timberwolves (19-21, LW 12). They have lost six of nine and were reduced to the moral victory of “we played hard at the end of the game” after loss to Toronto. We keep saying “they are better than their record” but at some point Bill Parcells is right — “you are what your record says you are.”

 
source:  14. Nuggets (20-20, LW 14). Look for some changes to the bench rotations as coach Brian Shaw is frustrated with the defense with his subs are in. For example, Phoenix went on a 9-1 run late in the first quarter when Nate Robinson entered the contest (and never surrendered that lead). I’d suggest more Andre Miller, but Shaw burned that bridge.

 
source:  15. Bulls (19-20, LW 15). Jimmy Butler played more than 60 minutes in the Bulls 3OT win over Orlando, and look at their rotations and you see the starters getting heavy minutes again. But if the Bulls want to win, what choice does Tom Thibodeau really have?

 
source:  16. Wizards (19-20, LW 19). Needing wins — because the order of the day is to make the playoffs — and with a stretch of home games to get them, coach Randy Wittman has tightened things up with an 8-man rotation. It’ got them a win over Miami but they can’t keep up these minutes long term (not with the injury history of some guys in that locker room.)

 
source:  17. Nets (16-22, LW 17). Deron Williams returns Monday and it gets interesting — can the small ball lineup with Kevin Garnett quarterbacking the defense and Paul Pierce as an offensive fulcrum continue to work? Winnable games this week if it does (Dallas is the only above .500 team on the schedule).

 
source:  18. Hawks (20-19, LW 11). Only one game last week, in London, but it wasn’t a pretty one as the Nets rolled them. They have lost five of seven and without Al Horford the rest of the season it’s hard to see how that trend changes dramatically.

 
source:  19. Bobcats (17-25, LW 23). This is a team that seemed like it could make a playoff push behind the return of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who brought their defense back to life. But losing Kemba Walker for a couple weeks with a sprained ankle is a real blow.

 
source:  20. Cavaliers (15-25, LW 24). In the five games since Luol Deng came on board the Cavaliers starters are averaging 118 points per 100 possessions — that is a ridiculously good number (stat via our old friend Matt Moore). Deng makes his home debut for the Cavs Monday against Dallas.

 
source:  21. Pistons (17-23, LW 21). Rasheed Wallace is drilling Andre Drummond before tames on post moves, working on improving him on the block. But right now, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith get far, far more low block touches than Drummond because they are more polished. Still, the big man needs to get fed more.

 
source:  22. Knicks (15-25, LW 18). If the Knicks were going to make a push now would be the time — seven straight home games, only one against a team over .500 (Miami). But can the Knicks really good enough to beat the Nets and Bobcats this week? Not if they don’t start to defend better.

 
source:  23. Lakers (16-25, LW 25). The Lakers are 2-1 on their Grammy trip, they held a team meeting after getting spanked by the Suns and won two straight, including a win in Toronto. Not sure it’s sustainable, but when these Lakers knock down shots they are fun to watch.

 
source:  24. Kings (14-25, LW 22). Friday night when the Pacers come to town the Kings are going to have a “Google Glass” game with some cheerleaders, announcers and during warm-ups players wearing Google Glass, then those images can be broadcast through the arena. Should be interesting.

 
source:  25. Jazz (14-28, LW 27). They remain a .500 team of late, having gone 5-5 in their last 10, and did the last five games without Gordon Hayward. Don’t tell anyone, but right now the Jazz are a good offensive team that can just flat out outscored you.

 
source:  26. Pelicans (15-24, LW 20). For a team that made big moves in the off-season and had dreams of being in the playoff hunt this season, the Pelicans are 7.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West and 2.5 games ahead of Utah for the worst record in the West.

 
source:  27. 76ers (13-27, LW 26). As expected preseason this is a terrible team, which means the most interesting thing will be he Thaddeus Young trade rumors that are going to increase as we move closer to the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

 
source:  28. Magic (11-30, LW 29). Well, they beat Boston, so the losing streak is over. That’s one positive. Aside that, like the Sixers the most interesting thing the next few weeks is to watch the trade offers role in for Glen Davis and others.

 
source:  29. Celtics (14-28, LW 28). Rajon Rondo is back, and considering the time off he has looked good in his first couple games. That said, the Celtics are 2-14 in their last 16 games and even Rondo cannot stem that kind of tide.

 
source:  30. Bucks (7-33, LW 30). They have yet to win a game in 2014. Just play a lot of John Henson and Larry Sanders together, let them develop chemistry and just take your lumps as you move toward getting some good lottery odds. (Maybe the number of quality bigs at the top of this draft can get Sanders to start playing like his job is in jeopardy.)

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.