PBT NBA Power Rankings: Heat on the top, Sixers fall to very bottom

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We have a new team at the top and the bottom of PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings. Miami’s defense is back and propelled them to a couple wins that have them back on top of the chart. It has taken some sustained losing — a real effort — on the part of a Sixers team that started fast, but Philly is finally on the bottom of the rankings. Where they seemed to strive to be.
source:  1. Heat (40-14, Last Week No. 2). The only people really concerned about LeBron James’ broken nose are the people who want to put him in Space Jam 2. What should catch the attention of the other contenders in the NBA is the way the Heat defended in beating the Thunder (and Bulls) — when they are focused on D Miami is hard for anyone to beat.

source:  2. Pacers (42-13, LW 4). Soft schedule this week (Lakers, Buck, Celtics, Jazz) which is exactly what a team needs as it tries to fit Evan Turner into the sixth man role. Turner can be a big upgrade for them but he’s going to have to play within the system in way he did not in Philly (where he could run and gun to his heart’s content).

source:  3. Thunder (43-14, LW 2).. There is a whole lot of “see, the Thunder aren’t as good with Westbrook” crap after he came back and the Thunder dropped two in a row. First off, Miami played one of its best game of the year and the Thunder lost to the Clippers because of their defense, not Westbrook. Second, you need to wait 10-15 games then see how the Thunder look. With the losses they are still 21-6 when he plays with Durant. Things are fine in OKC.

source:  4. Spurs (40-16, LW No. 6). They went 6-3 on the rodeo road trip and they did some of that damage without Tony Parker — Patty Mills stepped up with monster games after the All-Star break. Don’t sleep on how well this team survives injuries. Now the Spurs are at home and look to be locking down a top three seed in the West, likely top two. Again.

source:  5. Rockets (38-18, LW 3). They have still won 9 of 10 and have done it some improved defense but mostly a whole lot of offense. When James Harden was asked All-Star Weekend if this team was a contender he sounded like a guy not yet fully sold as he talked about growing and learning. I think they have more learning to do come the playoffs.

 
source:  6. Clippers (38-20, LW 10). After watching the Clippers get ground down by Memphis then beating Oklahoma City thanks to their offense (nobody played good defense that game) I still have this question: Will the Clippers get out of the first round? Glen Davis will help in that regards, he is a huge upgrade over Ryan Hollins, currently the first big off the bench.

source:  7. Trail Blazers (38-18, LW 7). LaMarcus Aldridge being out with a groin strain is the first time a Portland starter has had to miss a game this season. They picked up a nice comeback win over Minnesota without him thanks in part to a big game from Thomas Robinson (and Wesley Mathews’ points in the fourth quarter).

source:  8. Grizzlies (31-24, LW 9).  They picked up a quality win over the Los Angeles Clippers last week now this week they have another interesting test against the Thunder.What really matters is beating teams like the Lakers and Cavaliers (both on the schedule this week) so they can climb past Dallas or someone else who stumbles and get the eighth seed (right now Memphis is the nine seed, on the outside looking in.

source:  9. Suns (33-22, LW 10). That we are still talking about these Suns as a playoff team when they haven’t had Eric Bledsoe for going on two months is why Jeff Hornacek is your leading Coach of the Year candidate. That award usually goes to the guy whose team most exceeded expectations, and that’s the Suns.

source:  10. Warriors (34-22, LW 11). They have put together a nice three-game win streak and continue to play quality defense even without Andrew Bogut. They make a swing through the Eastern Conference (Detroit, Chicago, New York and Toronto) and those are the kinds of games a team just 2.5 games from falling out of the playoffs has to win (at least most of them).

source:  11. Mavericks (34-23, LW 8). They keep winning but have done it mostly against a pretty soft schedule. Things get more interesting coming up this week with the scrappy Bulls and Spurs. Plus Memphis is just two games back and looming to knock Dallas out of the playoffs. They need more key wins.

source:  12. Bulls (29-25, LW 13). Winners of five in a row, including over the Nets and Raptors — that makes Chicago this weeks “third best team in the East.” That the Bulls sans Rose and Deng are playing like this is a tribute to Tom Thibodeau’s culture, and another sign of where the East really stands.

source:  13. Raptors (30-25, LW 12). Kyle Lowry stayed put at the deadline, the Raptors continue to play quality defense and now the target is not just making the playoffs but winning the Atlantic, having home court in the first round and advancing to the second. With the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way winning the division is very doable.

source:  14. Nets (26-28, LW 14). Lost in much of the Jason Collins talk — the Nets could use his skill set. Collins is a good post defender, sets strong screens and is strong on the boards. In certain match ups the Nets need those skills, they can still be a bit soft.

source:  15. Wizards (28-28, LW 15). If they lose Nene for the rest of the season it’s not good — Washington’s defense was +6.7 per 100 possessions better when he was on the court. When Nene, Marcin Gortat and John Wall played together the Wizards outscored opponents by +10.1 per 100 possessions and had an elite defense. Without that hard to see them advancing past the first round.

source:  16. Bobcats (27-30, LW 19). The sweep of a home-and-home with Detroit this week was huge for solidifying a playoff spot in the East. The win over Memphis was a big step that direction, too. Now though a tough week on the road at San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

source:  17. Timberwolves (27-29, LW 18). This team really misses the offense that Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic bring — they need to scoring from those two to beat good teams because the Timberwolves are not a good defensive team. At all. Which is why they will miss the playoffs (they can’t make up 6.5 games at this point).

source:  18. Hawks (26-29, LW 16). This is a team falling fast, snapping their eight-game losing streak against the Knicks but with All-Star Paul Millsap out (at least a couple more games with a knee bruise) you have to wonder if they can hold off the Pistons (3.5 games back) or Cleveland (5 back).

source:  19. Pelicans (23-32, LW 17). New Orleans was an amazing host for the All-Star weekend of festivities. I may have gained 20 pounds with all I ate. But the team may be eating to get over the three close losses last week, including letting the Knicks win and letting Nene beat them with a dunk.

source:  20. Pistons (23-33, LW 20). Had a chance to get in the playoff mix and instead got blown out in both ends of a home-and-home against Charlotte (they have now dropped four of five overall). Detroit could still get back in the playoff mix (Atlanta is banged up and sliding) but Detroit is going to have to defend a whole lot better than they are right now to make that happen. Not sure John Loyer can get them to do that.

source:  21. Cavaliers (22-34, LW 23). They were hot winning eight straight, and they look better with Jarrett Jack in the starting lineup, but when they ran into Toronto and Washington last week they lost. Cleveland needs some key wins to keep the playoff dream alive, and they have Toronto, Oklahoma City and Memphis on the schedule this week.

source:  22. Nuggets (25-29, LW 21). Brian Shaw consistently talks about the energy and will to compete that he doesn’t see in his Nuggets. He’s right. But it’s not as easy to get that out of a team as Phil Jackson made it look (Frank Vogel as well). Denver has won on of its last eight and has two against Portland this week.

source:  23. Knicks (21-35, LW 22). The idea of giving up the one decent trade chip they have in Iman Shumpert to land a short-term, modest upgrade at the point in Darren Collison was never a good idea. But now that they are waiving Metta World Peace it seems this is a team waiving the white flag on this season. That would be the smart thing to do, but what will Carmelo Anthony think?

source:  24. Kings (19-36, LW 26). They don’t have a big three in Sacramento, they have an “only three” — Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins accounted for 92 of the Kings 109 points on Sunday. Those three can play, the rest of the roster needs a lot of work. (And spare me the Jimmer Fredette talk, the Kings couldn’t get a second round pick for him at the deadline.)

source:  25. Lakers (19-36, LW 28). They are terrible but they are entertaining — Summer League sensation Kent Bazemore got 33 minutes on Sunday. Throw in Kendall Marshall with the free-flowing Mike D’Antoni system and you have a fun team to watch… usually watch lose, but at least it’s fun.

source:  26. Magic (17-40, LW 27). Glen Davis is gone via buyout, which means they can just make Tobias Harris the four full time and not have to showcase Big Baby. The Magic are a pretty good team at home lately but have a 15-game road losing streak.

source:  27. Celtics (19-38, LW 24). Check out Celtics blogs and you see a lot of talk about the players in the upcoming draft and available in free agency. As it should be. This fan base needs the Red Sox in Spring Training ASAP so they can focus on a quality roster for a while.

source:  28. Jazz (19-36, LW 25). Trey Burke looked good at first when he finally got back and healthy, but the league has figured out he can’t shoot and that’s an issue. He is shooting 28.3 percent from three in his last 10 games and 33.8 percent overall. He’s also shooting just 46.2 percent in the restricted area and 40 percent in the paint overall. He can’t finish. That is the summer goal.

source:  29. Bucks (10-45, LW 30). They picked up a win over Orlando and that was enough to move them out of last in these power rankings in a very long time. Don’t worry, they have still lost 12-of-14, they will still have more ping-pong balls than anyone, but right now they play harder and better than one team.

source:  30. 76ers (15-41, LW 29). Their 10-game losing streak got them here, but they can bounce out of the cellar next week if they can win the big Monday night “showdown” with the Bucks. Somebody will win that game, it’s in the NBA rulebook.

Close-knit Pacers’ bond gets tested with season on the line

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers have been winning together, losing together and fighting together all season.

Now they need to demonstrate their resilience once more as they try to save their season by rebounding from an emotional loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Nobody thought we’d be in this situation,” Victor Oladipo said, referring to the playoffs. “It’s important for us to stick together now because we’ve seen where it can go, where it can take us and it’s great.”

The immediate problem is recent history doesn’t bode well for the underdog Pacers, who trail 3-2 with Game 5 set for Friday in Indianapolis.

Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, winning four games by a record low 16 total points. James has won 10 straight close-out games and has never lost a first-round series. Indiana, meanwhile, is trying to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

But the Pacers don’t care about stats, projections or conventional wisdom – as they’ve proven repeatedly this season.

Following last summer’s Paul George trade, Indiana seemed bound for the draft lottery. Instead, general manager Kevin Pritchard cobbled together a rare combination of proven, often overlooked veterans, emerging stars, good shooters and willing defenders.

It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Indiana won 48 games, six more than it did with George last season, and is a win away from forcing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game.

Cleveland has learned one lesson the hard way: The fifth-seeded Pacers won’t go away. They won 12 times after facing double-digit deficits and eight times after trailing by 15 or more during the regular season.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise Indiana has erased double-digit deficits in four straight game and wound up taking the lead or having a chance to win late in all four in this series.

“That team does not quit,” James said, moments after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Cleveland a 98-95 win to salvage a win Wednesday after Pacers wiped out a 12-point second half to deficit to tie the score in the final minute.

Playing hard until the final buzzer has become the norm for these Pacers.

And they’re savoring every precious second, too.

Nate McMillan recently called this one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s had as a head coach because he knows what he’ll get every day – energy from Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, steadiness from Darren Collison and Corey Joseph, leadership from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic and an eagerness to develop from Myles Turner and other young players.

With each player embracing their role, the Pacers have formed a cohesive bond.

Six players actually approached Pritchard before the trade deadline and pleaded with the GM not to make any moves because they wanted to close out this season together. Pritchard said it a first for him, and kept the team intact.

“It kind of is like a college team bond,” said Young, one of the six players who approached Pritchard. “Typically you have a lot of NBA teams that don’t bond as well as you do in college when you’re living with each other and you’re around each other all the time. You know in the NBA, you spend time with your family, things like that.

“This team we all hang out together, we go to dinner together on the road. We do everything together.”

The difference has shown.

After enduring an early and sometimes uneven learning curve early this season, the Pacers finally got in sync in early January and played better than anyone, perhaps even McMillan or Pritchard could have anticipated.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the regular season, they went 29-15 and allowed 101.3 points per game and didn’t lose more than two in a row.

They moved up three spots in the Eastern Conference postseason pecking order and headed into their latest round against James having won three of the four regular-season matchups. The Pacers even routed the Cavs on their home court in Game 1.

Since then, though, the series has been all-out slugfest and James has gotten the knockout blow in three times.

Now, with their season on the line, the Pacers need to provide a unified front one more time Friday night just to keep this season alive.

They’re ready.

“Sure, we’ve still got something to prove. No one believes we can beat Cleveland,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s about trust in what we’ve got in each other.”

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.