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?

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor).

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more focus than they brought against the Timberwolves, because unlike Minnesota those teams will make Houston pay a steep price.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top. Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.