Kevin Durant

PBT NBA Power Rankings: Durant powers Thunder to top slot

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No Russell Westbrook yet Kevin Durant has pushed the Thunder to the top of the West and the top of PBT’s weekly power rankings. Still strange to see the Celtics and Lakers near the bottom of the poll, but it’s where they belong this season.


 
source:  1. Thunder (35-10, LW 4). Kevin Durant is making is MVP push and carrying the Thunder to seven straight wins. Without Russell Westbrook. They are doing it on both ends, a top three offense and defense the last five games. That seven-game streak includes beating the Rockets, Warriors, Blazers and Spurs. Bottom line, this team is the standard in the West — if another squad wants to go to the Finals they need to be better than the Thunder.

 
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2. Heat (32-12, LW 5). They have been going through a malaise of late but with the Spurs in town they showed that they can still flip the switch and play like a contender. Especially when Chris Bosh is on. Now they get another real test with the Thunder on Wednesday (Miami has won six straight against OKC).

 
source:  3. Pacers (34-9, Last Week No. 1). The Pacers have hit a little mid-season lull on a tough West road swing. They picked up a nice win over Golden State but lost to the Suns, needed overtime to beat the Kings and fell to Denver. Every team has slumps, but with Indiana’s focus on getting the No. 1 seed (the remain 2.5 games ahead of the Heat) don’t expect it to last long.

 
source:  4. Clippers (31-15, LW 6). Los Angeles has gone 4-2 on the Grammy road trip (with a winnable game left in Milwaukee) and done it without Chris Paul. Their offense has been on fire. This stretch was when the Clippers could have struggled and fallen back, that they didn’t is a good sign about this team’s growth.

 
source:  5. Warriors (27-18, LW 7). Stephen Curry deserves to be an All-Star starter and he showed it with 38 points and the dagger to beat Portland. That made up for the loss to Indiana earlier in the week that showed Golden State the benchmark for contending. Fun game against the Clippers coming up this week.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (33-12, LW 2). Yes, LaMarcus Aldridge should have been voted in an All-Star starter if we were going by talent and how they played the first half of the season. But the fan ASG vote is a popularity contest. Aldridge needs a good playoff run by the Blazers this season and some more Trail Blazers game on national television to raise his profile.

 
source:  7. Spurs (33-11, LW No. 3). The Spurs are now 1-10 against the league’s teams playing better than .600 ball (Indiana, Oklahoma City, Portland, the Clippers, Houston and now Miami) and 32-1 against the rest of the league. It doesn’t help that they will be without Kawhi Leonard for a few weeks.

 
source:  8. Grizzlies (22-20, LW 10). They are fast climbing in the West, taking both ends of a home-and-home from Houston and doing it with their trademark defensive toughness. Courtney Lee has been a great fit, averaging 16.9 points a game since arriving from Boston.

 
source:  9. Rockets (29-17, LW 8). Dwight Howard and Darryl Morey can blame whatever they wish for Howard not being an All-Star starter, we all know it is a symptom of what happened to his reputation. The way he fixes it is wins, playoff wins. A lot of them. Just as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did.

 
source:  10. Suns (25-18, LW 11). They are 2-1 at the start of an eight-game run against teams from the Eastern Conference. After a 2-4 stretch against the West a chance to get healthy against the Leastern Conference is welcomes, but there will be tough road games in that stretch (at Indiana for one).

 
source:  11. Nets (19-22, LW 17). They win this week’s “third best team in the East” trophy (doesn’t that title change weekly?). They have won five in a row and 10-of-11 since going small, but there are real tests this week against the Raptors, Thunder and Pacers.

 
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12. Mavericks (26-20, LW 9). Dallas is in a fight for the last playoff spot in the West — they are the eight seed, half a game back of Phoenix and just 2 games ahead of surging Memphis (they are tied in the loss column) and 2.5 games up Denver, 3.5 on Minnesota. They need a run of wins to solidify their spot.

 
source:  13. Nuggets (22-21, LW 14). Quality win over the Indiana Pacers and again a lot of it has to do with their bench — when Timofey Mozgov plays well inside and Nate Robinson hits his shots this is a hard team to beat. But you can’t count on it consistently.

 
source:  14. Bulls (22-21, LW 15). Derrick Rose who? Luol Deng who? After an initial stumble when their point guard went down, they are 10-3 since the calendar flipped over to 2014. We might try to talk about that and not Carmelo Anthony. Tough West Coast road swing starts this week for the Bulls, who will be happy for the warm weather if nothing else.

 
source:  15. Raptors (22-21, LW 12). Big showdown Monday night with the streaking Brooklyn Nets — the Atlantic Division crown (such as it is) will come down to these two teams. If the Raptors start to slide does the price team is asking for Kyle Lowry in a trade slide down as well?

 
source:  16. Hawks (23-20, LW 18). They have not fallen apart as predicted, Atlanta is 7-7 since Al Horford has went down. They remain the three seed in the East and look like a playoff team. Paul Millsap has made a good All-Star case but we’ll if it’s enough to get the coaches to vote for him as a reserve. He’s on the bubble.

 
source:  17. Timberwolves (21-22, LW 13). Finally Minnesota picked up their first win of the season by 5 or fewer points this week, beating Golden State by one on Friday night. They still remain one game below .500 and are 0-10 when trying to crack that barrier. We’ll see if they can get over the hump with the Bulls, Pelicans, Grizzlies and Hawks up on the docket this week.

 
source:  18. Wizards (21-22, LW 16). Washington is the six seed in the East but don’t be shocked if their record and standing take a hit the next couple weeks as between now and the All-Star break six of their next eight are against the top six in the West.

 
source:  19. Knicks (17-27, LW 22). Carmelo Anthony went off for a historic 97 points over two games at Madison Square Garden and the Knicks picked up a couple wins. That is how the Knicks have to win right now — just outscoring teams — because their defense is a mess.

 
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20. Bobcats (19-27, LW 19). When their defense is clicking they can beat anyone, as we saw in wins over the Raptors and Clippers last week. But that defense is not consistent anymore, hasn’t been for a month, and you saw the other side of it when Carmelo Anthony went off for 62.

 
source:  21. Pelicans (18-25, LW 26). Anthony Davis put up a huge line — 22 points, 19 rebounds, 7 blocks — in a “consider me for the All-Star reserves” kind of game Sunday. But New Orleans has won three of four more because of play from the guards, including steadier performances from Austin Rivers.

 
source:  22. Cavaliers (16-27, LW 20). They had the most embarrassing play of last week, when with a chance to tie the game late they couldn’t even get the ball inbounds. Even with Luol Deng it’s going to be a real fight for this team to even make the playoffs in the East.

 
source:  23. Kings (15-27, LW 24). Losing both Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins to ankle issues, when both had been playing so well, is just the basketball gods being unfair to Sacramento. The good news is both are expected to return this week.

 
source:  24. Jazz (15-29, LW 25). Gordon Hayward is Utah’s leading scorer at 17.3 points a game, with a true shooting percentage just above the league averaged at 54.8 percent. He’s got a PER of 17.9 and a big fan club in front office’s around the league. The question: How much will he be offered as a restricted free agent this summer?

 
source:  25. Pistons (17-26, LW 21). In case you need more evidence that the defense is the issue: The Pistons are on a four-game losing streak but scored more than 100 points in each of those losses. Mo Cheeks benched Andre Drummond for a half because of his defense.

 
source:  26. 76ers (14-30, LW 27). Despite the struggles of the Sixers offense of late (look at the points per possession numbers) Michael Carter-Williams is still my Rookie of the Year with what he is doing in Philly. The only other guys in the race are Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo.

 
source:  27. Magic (12-33, LW 28). After missing the start of the season with an ankle injury Tobias Harris has found his groove again — he’s averaged 17.7 points and 9.7 rebounds his last 10 games. That includes dropping 28 and 20 on the Lakers’ “defense” last week.

 
source:  28. Lakers (16-29, LW 23). Kobe Bryant may not want to play in the All-Star Game but if he comes back before Feb. 16 he’s not going to have no choice. The question now is when he will return. The Lakers went 2-5 on the Grammy road trip, now get the Pacers as a welcome home present.

 
source:  29. Celtics (15-31, LW 29). Jeff Green put up 39 against the Wizards, just as a teasing reminder of what he can do some nights. Then he went back into his shell for the rest of the week. So frustrating.

 
source:  30. Bucks (8-35, LW 30). The Bucks picked up a win last week when Caron Butler went off for 30 points. He says he wants to re-sign in Milwaukee, but do the rebuilding Bucks want to spend on a veteran this summer?

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.