PBT NBA Power Rankings: Miami putting its foot down on the gas

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The PBT power rankings have returned with not a lot of change from last week — Miami, Indiana, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the top four (in whatever order you wish) then there is a gap to the Clippers, Rockets and teams trying to knock on that door. Meanwhile the Sixers look like they really might go 0-36 to end the season.


 
source:  1. Heat (42-14, Last Week No. 1). Miami is 9-1 in its last 10 games and, just as it did last season, is starting to find its focus and a groove as the playoffs near. They are just 2.5 games back of Indiana in race for top in the East, and LeBron is back in the conversation with Kevin Durant for MVP. But they really could have used Caron Butler (or Danny Granger).

 
source:  2. Pacers (46-13, LW 2). Evan Turner is still trying to find his groove — he shot 8-of-14 vs. Boston then 2-of-9 vs. Utah. He needs to find it fast. Last week’s soft schedule is gone as this week it is the Warriors, plus on the road to face the Bobcats, Rockets and Mavericks.

 
source:  3. Spurs (43-16, LW No. 4). San Antonio is starting to get healthy — Sunday night even Tony Parker was back and he looked surprisingly sharp in the win over Dallas. Interesting showdown this week vs. Miami, but with a lot of home games the next couple weeks look for them to make a run at OKC and the best record in the West.

 
source:  4. Thunder (45-15, LW 3).. After a couple rough games as he tried to shake the rust off, Russell Westbrook shot 11-of-13 on Sunday. That’s good, the Thunder are going to need a lot of offense with Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha now out until about the start of the playoffs. Steven Adams and Perry Jones are now starters in OKC.

 
source:  5. Clippers (41-20, LW 6). The addition of Danny Granger drew a lot of attention this week, and while he’s an upgrade over Antwan Jamison he is not a massive upgrade over Jared Dudley (Dudley has shot better from every spot on the court this season). Glen Davis is the real buyout season steal — he is a massive upgrade over Ryan Hollins and will get as many minutes as he can handle. Is that enough of an upgrade to have the Clips in the Spurs/Thunder class?

 
source:  6. Rockets (40-19, LW 5). In their last five games the Rockets have lost to the Warriors and Clippers, beaten the Suns. On the schedule this week is Miami, Indiana and Portland (and at Orlando, where Howard remains infamous). Next week it’s the Thunder. Bulls and Heat again. We’re about to see just how good Houston really is right now.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (41-18, LW 7). Winners of five in a row without LaMarcus Aldridge — that is big, I don’t care if the schedule was pretty soft in that stretch. This is how they hold on to a top 4 seed. The streak could reach 7 hosting the Lakers and Hawks, but then it’s a tough Texas road swing.

 
source:  8. Grizzlies (33-25, LW 8).  So maybe Dave Joerger can coach just fine once you give him a healthy roster with a few more offensive options. Memphis is hot and just 1.5 games back of the eighth-seed Suns, but they are going to have to win on a heavy road schedule the rest of the way to fully close that gap, including three games this week.

 
source:  9. Bulls (33-26, LW 12). Key to the Bulls hot play recently is that Joakim Noah is giving them offense — he had a triple-double Sunday and the Bulls have broken 100 in four straight games. They have won 9-of-10 but have big tests vs. Memphis, Miami this week.

 
source:  10. Warriors (36-24, LW 10). They are 2-2 so far on a six-game road trip with the Pacers and Celtics remaining on the docket. So 3-3 looks possible. I thought Steve Blake was a great deadline move by the Warriors but he’s been pretty meh so far, still trying to find his way in their systems.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (36-25, LW 11). Vince Carter has gone retro with a fun little scoring run of late — at least 15 in each of the last five games — but the loss to the Spurs on Sunday was a reminder that as constructed this is a third tier team in the West. Very likely they are a one-and-done playoff matchup, and if the Grizzlies are the eight seed teams would much rather face Dallas.

 
source:  12. Suns (35-24, LW 9). This is a tough week on the schedule — Clippers, Thunder and Warriors — but after that they have a softer schedule than the Grizzlies who are chasing them (Memphis spends a lot more time on the road). The Suns might steal one this week with Goran Dragic back and sparking their offense again.

 
source:  13. Wizards (31-28, LW 15). Winners of six in a row including dramatic triple-overtime win over Raptors — doing it recently without Nene is even more impressive. The John Wall/Marcin Gortat pairing had some rough patches to start, but they have looked pretty good recently.

 
source:  14. Raptors (33-26, LW 13). DeMar DeRozan has scored 30 points or more in three straight games and averaged better than 26 points a game in February. What was impressive Sunday when he did it against Golden State was DeRozan was getting his shots within the flow of the offense. The ball is not sticking, there isn’t too much isolation. That bodes well for the future.

source:  15. Timberwolves (29-29, LW 17). They got Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin back on Saturday, which will certainly aid their dreams of a late playoff push. Problem is that to catch the pace the 8-seed Suns are on Minnesota will have to go about 19-5 the rest of the way. That’s asking a lot.

 
source:  16. Nets (28-29, LW 14). If they want to climb up to a top four seed and have home court in the first round they need to make up four games on Toronto or Chicago — which means beating the Bulls Monday night would be big.

 
source:  17. Bobcats (27-32, LW 16). Rough stretch for Charlotte with the Spurs and Thunder last week then the Heat and Pacers to open this week. They let Ben Gordon go but because he wouldn’t take a low-enough buyout to make them happy they waived him March 2, a day too late for him to land on a playoff roster this season. Agents notice that kind of thing and it doesn’t help the Bobcats come free agency.

 
source:  18. Cavaliers (24-37, LW 21). They have 3.5 games to make up on the struggling Hawks to climb into the final playoff spot in the East — Kyrie Irving clearly wants it as he got his first ever triple-double last week (against the Jazz). The Hawks have the easier schedule remaining so the Cavs need wins like this week against the Bobcats and Knicks.

 
source:  19. Hawks (26-32, LW 18). They are 1-9 in their last 10 games and are barely holding on to the final playoff spot in the East. Things don’t get easier this week on a West Coast road swing with the Trail Blazers, Warriors and Clippers on the docket. The Hawks really miss Paul Millsap and his return in the coming week or two would be a huge boost.

 
source:  20. Pistons (23-36, LW 20). No, it does’t took like Isiah Thomas is coming in to be GM of the Pistons, which is good news for fans of the franchise but bad news for us bloggers (Thomas would be a headline machine). The Pistons are just hard to watch because their defense is so bad. So very bad.

 
source:  21. Lakers (20-39, LW 25). The Lakers beat the Kings last week, making them not the worst team in the West. Much to the disappointment of a fan base now fully in tank mode (for a year). As we might have expected, MarShon Brooks fits pretty well in the free-wheeling Mike D’Antoni offense.

 
source:  22. Nuggets (25-33, LW 22). They are 2-10 in their last dozen games, and both wins were against the Bucks. Ouch. Ty Lawson being out just left this team rudderless on the court and there is nothing Brian Shaw can do about it.

 
source:  23. Kings (20-39, LW 24). DeMarcus Cousins got suspended one game last week for punching Patrick Beverley in the stomach, plus he picked up another technical (his 15th this season) and is one away from an automatic suspension. If Cousins wants to know why he doesn’t make Team USA this summer for the World Championships, moments like this are it.

 
source:  24. Jazz (21-38, LW 28). Maybe they caught Indiana on an off-night, but the Jazz picked up a moral victory against the Pacers last week. Of course, it was another loss in the standings. Trey Burke has had his ups and downs this season, but he’d still be third on my ROY ballot right now.

 
source:  25. Pelicans (23-36, LW 19). Losers of seven in a row but that could change this week with a soft schedule (Kings, Lakers, Bucks). Jrue Holiday is now out for the season as well as injuries have just decimated what could have been an interesting team.

 
source:  26. Knicks (21-38, LW 23). Carmelo Anthony is frustrated, but how much money is he willing to leave on the table to go to a contender? If the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer and dump Taj Gibson’s salary they will be able to offer ‘Melo within a couple million of what the Knicks can, but if I were Chicago I’d keep Gibson and try to get ‘Melo to take closer to $14 million (depending on other moves, but like $8 million less than the Knicks). See how bad he really wants to win.

 
source:  27. Magic (19-43, LW 26). Victor Oladipo has not looked good of late, but Tobias Harris is healthy and had 31 on Sunday, reminding us that he was a real steal a year ago and will be part of the future being built down there. Oladipo will too, but he needs seasoning.

 
source:  28. Celtics (20-40, LW 27). Rajon Rondo’s birthday AWOL wasn’t really that big a deal. That said he has looked pretty good when playing of late and that is likely going to spark a lot more Rondo trade talk this July.

 
source:  29. Bucks (11-47, LW 29). They didn’t just beat Philly last Monday, they destroyed them. Dominated them. Which really says more about the Sixers than anything, but the Bucks played the Pacers better than you would think last week and this week the schedule is soft enough we could see another win.

 
source:  30. 76ers (15-45, LW 30). Coach Brett Brown said he isn’t sure his team can win another game this season — they lost to the Bucks and Magic last week. I’m not sure I can watch another Sixers game this season, it’s that ugly.

Ben Simmons earns triple-double, Sixers own fourth to win Game 4 vs. Heat, take 3-1 lead

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Joel Embiid’s biggest battle in Game 4 was with his mask — he hates that thing. A couple of times Saturday he tried to sneak into the game with it off, only to force Brett Brown to be the parent and threaten to bench him if he didn’t put it on immediately (winning Game 4 is not worth risking permanent eye/vision damage). Embiid was also battling his offensive game at times, still looking a little rusty.

More importantly, Embiid was also battling the Heat in the paint — when he was in the game Miami struggled to get good looks inside, allowing Sixers defenders to more aggressively challenge shooters on the wings.

That — and Ben Simmons’ triple-double — sparked a comeback from 12 late in the third as the Sixers held on to take Game 4 106-102, and that gives Philly a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 5.

Simmons is the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to post a triple-double in the playoffs, with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

This was the nail in the coffin of the Heat’s season — if the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times, shoot 7-of-31 from three and still win on the road, the Heat are overmatched.

For much of the game, Miami did not look overmatched in the least and this looked like a game they could win.

Miami brought the defense in this game, and they did it by getting physical and using their length to force turnovers — through three quarters the Sixers had turned the ball over on 28.2 percent of their possessions, more than one in four trips down the court. Miami also did a better job contesting threes in this game, and the Sixers struggled from there all game (22.6 percent from deep).

The physicality led to a chippy game.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

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Miami led by a dozen late in the third, but Philadelphia closed the third on a run and carried over to the fourth, a 14-0 run that put the Heat in front as they found their defense. Ersan Ilyasova was key in that stretch with a driving and-one and the next time down the court a three, two plays that changed the momentum of the game.

All series long, the Sixers have been the better team down the stretch — which is unexpected for a young team taking on a more veteran squad. Now that we’re four games in, this is a thing.

In Game 4, the Sixers kept running “horns” sets and the Heat seemed to have no answers. Then late with the game on the line Miami had a couple of terrible defensive breakdowns, one allowing Simmons a clear path to the basket without help rotations that led to a dunk, and the other was Hassan Whiteside not going out to challenge J.J. Redick in the corner and letting him have a clean look (Redick’s foot was on the line so the expected three was a two, but still).

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid owned the paint on defense. When he sat for a little fourth quarter rest, Brett Brown went to the “Ben Simmons and shooters” lineup that was so effective through the final eight games of the season for them when Embiid was out, and that worked. The Sixers kept executing and getting the shots they wanted, the Heat kept hoping Dwyane Wade would bail them out again. He couldn’t, despite a strong 25 point game. Miami also shot itself in the foot going 13-of-25 from the free throw line for the game.

Redick had 24 for the Sixers, while Embiid had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Goran Dragic had 20 points for Miami, and James Johnson added 15.

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.”