PBT NBA Power Rankings: Thunder stay on top, Bucks stay on bottom

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More and more I think Adam Silver’s first NBA Finals as commissioner will feature Indiana and Oklahoma City — which would be good basketball but not exactly Super Bowl ratings. Things can change, but those are the two best teams right now.

 
source:  1 Thunder (41-12, Last Week No. 1). We gave been praising Kevin Durant for his play with Russell Westbrook out, but lets not ignore Serge Ibaka — he is averaging 19.3 points a game on 65.7 percent shooting, plus pulling down 8 boards a game in his last 10. Really fun showdown Tuesday at Portland.

 
source:  2. Pacers (39-11, LW 2). They were winners of five in a row including an OT victory over the Trail Blazers before they decided to take the second half off Sunday against Orlando. Lance Stephenson will use his All-Star snub (I would have picked him, but he was a bubble guy) as fuel the rest of the season, but he has to keep playing within himself and not try to do too much.

 
source:  3. Heat (35-14, LW 3). They feel pretty locked into the second seed in the East — 3.5 back of the Pacers, 9.5 games ahead of the three seed Raptors. With that lack of motivation they still seem to coast and do things like drop games to the Jazz. Last season they snapped out of it and won 27 in a row, this team doesn’t look like a team with that kind of run in them.

 
source:  4. Rockets (34-17, LW 9). Winners of five in a row, and that includes victories over the Spurs and Suns. The real fuel of the run is an offense scoring 112.1 points per 100 possessions (third best in the NBA for that stretch) thanks to Dwight Howard and James Harden going on scoring streaks.

 
source:  5. Spurs (37-14, LW No. 10). Tim Duncan is not playing in the All-Star Game this year, and that is the league’s coaches gift to him — he certainly deserved a spot but it is known he wanted the weekend off. He got it. By the way, injuries or not the Spurs are 3-1 on the rodeo road trip so far.

 
source:  6. Clippers (36-18, LW 5). They got Chris Paul back Sunday night and the offense exploded (thanks in large part to the Sixers “defense”). Now come the two big questions: Can they build on the impressive play of Blake Griffin and the offense while CP3 was out? Can they improve their defensive consistency to a level that has them challenging the Thunder?

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (36-15, LW 8). They are 5-5 in their last 10 and that includes losses to the Thunder, Warriors, Grizzlies and Pacers (although they did go to OT with Indy on the road). Read into that what you wish. The tough schedule continues this week with the Thunder then the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back.

 
source:  8. Suns (30-20, LW 7). Goran Dragic is the biggest All-Star snub in the West, no doubt, and he showed it with a 34 points, 10 assists game against the Warriors. But in the end the NBA is about marketing and Kobe’s spot went to New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (the game is in New Orleans).

 
source:  9. Mavericks (31-21, LW 11). Winners of five in a row, they have moved up to a tie for the sixth seed in the deep West (tied with Phoenix). This race down the stretch for the final spots in the West will be one to watch — three games separate the six and nine seeds in the conference

 
source:  10. Grizzlies (27-23, LW 6). They simply did not look good in their last few games (a 1-3 week), Saturday night they set a record earning only one free throw all game. Which is really all about how much they miss Mike Conley.

 
source:  11. Warriors (30-21, LW 4). You think they are an offensive force, but they score 103.7 points per 100 possessions, which is 15th in the NBA. Middle of the pack. Average. In their last 10 games its 103 per 100. The defense and some spot shooting carries this team but they need to get more easy baskets and rely less on the jumper.

 
source:  12. Raptors (26-24, LW 12). In an ideal world, Kyle Lowry would have been an All-Star for Toronto. It’s not an ideal world. The Raptors went 2-3 on a tough road swing through the Western Conference but now are home for 8-of-10.

 
source:  13. Wizards (25-25, LW 14). How does the team that beat the Thunder and Blazers let Cleveland do whatever they want to them on offense? Tough couple games before the All-Star break, at Memphis and at hot Houston.

 
source:  14. Nets (23-26, LW 16). They have won 3-of-4 thanks to their radically improved defense (allowing just 97 points per 100 possessions in their last five games) but the real test for this team comes after the All-Star break when they head out on a seven-game road trip. They can win or lose the Atlantic Division in that stretch.

 
source:  15. Hawks (25-24, LW 13). They have lost three in a row and 10 of their next 13 are on the road (including the Bulls and Raptors this week). The Hawks continue to play solid defense but their offense in the post Al Horford era is a mess.

 
source:  16. Bulls (25-25, LW 15). The NBA’s grittiest team continues to do its thing — they are 11-7 since the Luol Deng trade. They just grind you down with defense and Joakim Noah is at the heart of that, he deserves headlines for things other than cursing at officials.

 
source:  17. Pelicans (22-28, LW 21). While others were deserving also make no mistake — Anthony Davis deserves to be an All-Star. He is putting up numbers, but the Pelicans offense can only go so far with Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson sidelined.

 
source:  18. Timberwolves (24-27, LW 17). They have dropped five of six and the reason is injuries — Nikola Pekovic is out, Kevin Martin is out and the Wolves are just banged up. The All-Star break couldn’t come at a better time for them.

 
source:  19. Nuggets (24-25, LW 18). The defense really misses JaVale McGee (he’s not perfect but he’s better than J.J. Hickson on that end) and now the offense is going to miss Ty Lawson for at least a few games with a broken rib. For his sake, let’s hope Andre Miller gets traded at the deadline.

 
source:  20. Bobcats (22-29, LW 20). Steve Clifford drew up a simple defensive system, one that could use the slower-footed Al Jefferson in the paint, and everyone has bought in, making Charlotte the sixth best defense in the league. That is how you build a foundation for a franchise going forward.

 
source:  21. Pistons (21-29, LW 22). Mo cheeks is out but there is no coach that was going to win as much as Joe Dumars expected with this roster — the big three of Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe don’t mess well together and Brandon Jennings at the point is, well, Brandon Jennings. Keep an eye on Monroe at the trade deadline.

 
source:  22. Knicks (20-31, LW 19). Carmelo Anthony’s shooting percentage by quarter: 1st 51 percent, 2nd 46.4 percent, third 44.8 percent, fourth 37.3 percent. What this shows me is the load the Knicks are asking Anthony to carry offensively every game is just wearing him down.

 
source:  23. Celtics (18-34, LW 25). If you were going to bet on one team to make a move at the trade deadline, smart money would go on Boston or Orlando. Teams are interested in guys like Brandon Bass, a veteran that can be pugged in at the four or five, start or play off the bench, and be solid.

 
source:  24. Kings (17-34, LW 27). They remain the one team in the NBA most capable of beating anyone or losing to anyone on a given night. Nice wins last week over Chicago and Toronto, then they fell to Washington and Boston.

 
source:  25. Magic (16-37, LW 28). They have won three in a row, the last of those an impressive come-from-behind victory over the Pacers Sunday. Rookie Victor Oladipo sparked it with a hot fourth quarter — his relentless aggressive, hard play is a good piece of the future for this franchise.

 
source:  26. Lakers (18-32, LW 29). Kendall Marshall is averaging 21.3 points per game created by assists since he joined the Lakers, that would be second best in the NBA for the season (trailing only Chris Paul). Even with all the other point guards healthy Mike D’Antoni needs to play this kid.

 
source:  27. Jazz (17-33, LW 23). Another team that could be selling at the deadline — Richard Jefferson has played well of late and could be caching the eye or teams looking for veteran with help. Marvin Williams has been solid, too.

 
source:  28. Cavaliers (17-33, LW 26). Chris Grant got fired and you have the feeling if Mike Brown hadn’t just gotten a five-year deal he might have been gone, too. This is an organization in need of a culture change and that takes time and a GM with a real plan.

 
source:  29. 76ers (15-37, LW 24). That loss to the Clippers Sunday night — by 45 points and it wasn’t that close — almost dropped Philly into the bottom slot in the power rankings. All this losing just has to wear on coach Brett Brown.

 
source:  30. Bucks (9-41, LW 30). The future in Milwaukee is Giannis Antetokounmpo and he will be in the Skills Challenge All-Star Saturday night. Focus on that and not the fact the Bucks haven’t won back-to-back games all season.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

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Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

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Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”

 

Heat have work cut out vs. surging Sixers

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MIAMI (AP) — Philadelphia 76ers reserve guard Justin Anderson scored six points on Thursday, but he played a major role nonetheless in a 128-108 playoff win over the Miami Heat.

It was Anderson who worked on the psyche of teammate Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ All-Star center who returned after missing 10 straight games because of a concussion and left-eye injury.

“Justin was hyping me up on the bench, telling me I’m one of the best players in the league and that I have to take over,” said Embiid, who wore a mask during the game. “I liked that.”

Embiid, with that added boost of confidence, produced 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 30 minutes. He missed his first five shots from the floor and then made five of his next six, including three 3-pointers.

In addition, Embiid made 10 of 15 free throws, wrapping up his highly successful NBA playoff debut.

On Saturday afternoon, the teams will meet again at AmericanAirlines Arena in a first-round series the Heat trails 2-1.

Certainly, the Heat will try to corral Embiid, but Miami gave its own star center, Hassan Whiteside, just 13 minutes on Thursday, in part because of foul trouble.

Whiteside produced just five points, two rebounds and one block. He made his only shots from the field, but his four fouls helped to keep him off the court.

“I want to get more minutes,” said Whiteside, who led the NBA with 3.7 blocks in 2015-2016 and with 14.1 rebounds last season. “Even with the fouls, I could’ve been out there. I would not have fouled out.”

This season, Whiteside is averaging 14.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. But, on average, his minutes per game are down seven minutes from last season and even more in the playoffs.

Whiteside said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra “wants me to just be in a corner and set picks.”

Spoelstra, meanwhile, said “it’s part of my job to figure out how he can get to his strengths and make an impact on defense and rebounding.”

Aside from the two centers, the other big story line in this series revolves around the 76ers, a young team that won 18 of its past 19 games. After years of horrendous records amid a major teardown and rebuild effort, the 76ers have looked like the best team in the league during the past month.

They didn’t just beat the Heat on Thursday — they ran them over, making 18 of 34 3-pointers (52.9 percent). They also shot 50.6 percent overall and were plus-eight on rebounds and plus-14 on paint points.

Ben Simmons, the 76ers’ star point guard, nearly had a triple-double with 19 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and seven assists.

JJ Redick, one of the top shooters in the league, scored just 10 points, but 76ers teammates Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli each scored 21 points and each hit four 3-pointers to help the offense flow.

Miami was led by 23 points and eight assists from point guard Goran Dragic. Heat reserve forward Justise Winslow scored a season-high 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. But Miami’s top three shooting guards — Tyler Johnson, Dwyane Wade and Wayne Ellington — combined for just 21 points.

The game’s biggest factor was Embiid, who had been listed as unlikely to play until Thursday afternoon, when he was cleared by doctors.

Embiid had a 7-0 run in the fourth quarter, which continued a trend. In Philadelphia’s two wins in this series, they have outscored the Heat by 31 and 21 points, respectively.

Anderson said Embiid has been a team player throughout.

“One of the things (Embiid) told me during (Thursday’s) game was to tell Coach that he didn’t want any plays run for him,” Anderson said. “He just wanted to play within the scheme.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk

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For the first time this series Friday night, the Bucks looked like the more talented team.

That got them a comfortable win at home against the Celtics and set up a huge Game 4 on Sunday, with the Celtics still up 2-1 in the series. This looked more like the Bucks team that some of us picked to win the series, the team with the long and superior athletes unleashed on defense to challenge everything Boston tried. Milwaukee also got a big game out of Thon Maker at the five, which helped spread the floor because he’s a threat from three (as a team, the Bucks were 16-of-33 from deep) that the Celtics had to cover. That opens up driving lanes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo took advantage of those lanes laid waste to Aron Baynes with this dunk.

🛫 THE GREEK FREAK TAKES FLIGHT! 🛬

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Damn. That’s not fair.

🇬🇷💥

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Game 4 is Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee… and let’s just say I’m not betting Baynes will be able to turn the tables and put the Greek Freak in a poster.