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.

 
source:
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.)

Watch Raptors fans give Vince Carter a standing ovation in Toronto (VIDEO)

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Vince Carter is 40 years old and playing in what could possibly be his final NBA season. The Sacramento Kings guard started his career with the Toronto Raptors, and on Sunday he played what could possibly be his final game at the Air Canada Centre.

And so, when Carter was subbed out late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the folks in Toronto did what came naturally: they cheered.

The whole thing was pretty great to watch, and a real testament to how Carter is viewed by fans in Toronto.

Via Twitter:

Carter scored just four points in 25 minutes for Sacramento, going 2-of-5 from the field while adding three blocks, two assists, a rebound and a steal.

The Raptors got the win over the Kings, 108-93.

Report: Isaiah Thomas looking at first week of January for return to Cavs

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Just when we though Isaiah Thomas had fallen off the collective radar of the NBA, he squeaks right back in.

Thomas, who the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired in a trade this summer for Kyrie Irving, has yet to play a game due to a nagging hip injury. That injury caused some back-and-forth squabbling between Cleveland and the Boston Celtics, but things got sorted and the teams went on their way.

Irving has been spectacular of course, helping to lead the Celtics to a record of 25-7 in the absence of Gordon Hayward, good enough for the top slot in the Eastern Conference.

Now, it appears that Thomas is ahead of schedule and will be ready to help the Cavaliers fight for that spot come early January. According to Yahoo! Sports’ Shams Charania, Thomas and Cleveland want him to be playing the first week of the new year.

Via Twitter:

Of course, we’ve heard this before. The team has said this season that Thomas would play in January. Then the line moved and the Cavaliers thought he would play in December. It’s now moved back to January, but reports are more firm as we’re closer to the expected date and Thomas is playing in 4-on-4 drills. The great news is this honed return date seems to directly target the second game of 2018 for the Cavaliers, which is conveniently against the Celtics.

No doubt Thomas will be jonesing to take on his former team, where he certainly would have preferred to stay after a stellar season in 2016-17. Still, Thomas has been in good spirits — he gets to play with LeBron James for goodness sake — and the Jan. 3 game will be one to watch.

If Thomas can’t make it for that January matchup, the next opportunity he will have to beat Boston will be on Feb. 11.

DeMarcus Cousins thinks refs are giving him techs off reputation alone

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New Orleans Pelicans big man DeMarcus Cousins is a fiery personality on the court, often arguing foul calls at length despite no official in NBA history reversing a call directly after player complaint.

Crafty veterans — your LeBron Jameses and your Chris Pauls — slowly and pointedly chatter with officials as a means to influence their subconscious leaning on calls (and to protect them against earning techs when they do decide to straight up yell at refs).

Cousins hasn’t used that kind of angling to success in his career, instead going hard at referees with some consistency. Cousins has tried to change that approach this season, but instead has found that his prior actions have earned him a reputation the Pelicans forward believes doesn’t befit his actions in 2017-18.

Speaking to The Undefeated’s Marc Spears, Cousins said that despite letting more calls go and changing his candor, NBA refs are not responding proportionately.

Via The Undefeated:

I am going out of my way. I am going over and beyond,” Cousins said. “I am coming in saying, ‘We can’t do this, this and this …’ Even calls I know I should be arguing, I’m letting go. And they’re still like … it’s a one-sided thing. Everything is changing from one end. But with them, it’s like, ‘We are not letting go of the past. You are who you are. You’re getting a tech.’

“So, when it comes to me getting a tech for saying, ‘Good call, referee …,’ vets and coaches tell me to butter them up. Switch it up a little bit. Do a little reverse psychology. Tell them it’s a good call. And you still getting a tech for it? They’re not trying to make it work. They’re stuck in their ways, and it is so obvious.”

Cousins added that he believes foes are taking advantage of his troubles.

“Now it’s to the point where teams are saying, ‘Yeah, just go over there and beat the s— out of him.’ I don’t get calls, and I’m not protected like other players are,” he said.

It’s interesting to see that Cousins has at least tried to change things up, and indeed acknowledges that he should be trying to work with the officials rather than antagonize them.

Still, we’re not sure what the tone of his “good call” comments are toward the refs. Are they sarcastic? Or are they contrite? You can see how one might earn Cousins a tech from an official — who seem to be particularly sensitive this season — and the other might endear you to them.

James Harden is playing with a bruised right knee

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James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Houston Rockets are on a 13-game winning streak. They have a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. But it’s not all rosy in Space City.

Harden suffered a bruised right knee against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, and almost had to sit out the Rockets’ win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters after the win over the Bucks, Harden said that he was in some pain but a doctor told him he would be able to play and that he would not make the condition worse.

Via ESPN:

“I wasn’t feeling well at all, but the doc came in and just told me that there’s going to be pain for a bit, but you can play through it,” Harden said. “It can’t get worse, but it’s going to be pretty painful until obviously you give it some time. Once he said that, I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”

“I wasn’t moving like I usually move, but we won,” said Harden.

If Harden wasn’t feeling well, it sure didn’t show. He had 31 points, although on 8-of-21 shooting against Milwaukee. Chris Paul chipped in with 25 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

It doesn’t sound like Harden will be missing a game any time soon, which is par for the course for him. He’s played in a minimum of 89 percent of his team’s regular season games since entering the league in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are blasting their way into 2018. They play the Warriors next on January 4.