PBT Power Rankings: Tell me again how the Spurs are too old….

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With a number of top teams stumbling — Oklahoma City, Miami, Indiana — it is the Spurs who have gotten healthy and looked good going 6-0 since the end of the rodeo trip. The West now dominates the top of the rankings, the Sixers are looking to set records at the bottom.

source:  1. Spurs (46-16, Last week No. 3). They get fully healthy and have rattled off six wins in a row since the end of the rodeo road tip, including a signature win over Miami. In their last five games San Antonio’s offense is 4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average, their defense 2 points per 100 better. Bottom line, they look like the contender Spurs again and the only question is whether they can continue to defend this well.

source:  2. Clippers (44-20, LW 5). Which team has the highest net efficiency rating (differential between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions)? The Clippers and Thunder are tied at +7.7 per 100. That stat is also a very good indicator of who wins in the playoffs, although the Clippers inflated that number with some blowouts. They have won seven in a row, but the differential number suggests they are at least knocking on that door of contender status.

source:  3. Rockets (44-19, LW 6). We said the Rockets would get tested this week. Well, they beat the Heat, Pacers and Trail Blazers. That’s pretty much acing your test. More to come with the Thunder, Bulls and Heat on the road this week, but the fact is Houston has looked like a legit contender the past week. James Harden averaged 30.3 ppg in those three big wins last week. He’s pretty good.

source:  4. Heat (43-17, LW No. 1). LeBron James had tough shooting nights against the Spurs and Bulls, and that has a lot less to do with what jersey he was wearing and a lot more to do with Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard being in his jersey. He got some help from Wade but Heat need more help, and more LeBron attacking and not settling for jumpers.

source:  5. Thunder (46-17, LW 4).. Two losses this week to the Lakers and Suns, two teams that try to beat you with their guard play and tempo. It’s not an accident both of those Thunder losses came with Thabo Sefalosha sidelined, they need him back and they need generally improved perimeter defense. Good test Tuesday against a hot Rockets team.

source:  6. Pacers (46-17, LW 2). Why the slump? In their last 5 games they have allowed 111.6 points per 100 possessions — 16 more than their season average. This team does not have the offense to cover its defense taking a night off. Despite slump they officially clinched a playoff berth last week.

source:  7. Bulls (35-28, LW 9). Bulls fans want Joakim Noah to get some MVP votes, and while he’s not getting one of the top two spots on the ballot, his play leading the Bulls this season has to merit consideration for the fourth or fifth slot on the ballot. The Bulls showed against the Heat Sunday why nobody wants to play them in the postseason.

source:  8. Warriors (40-24, LW 10). Of the four teams fighting for one of the final playoff spots in the West they are in the best position — the softest schedule and the most home games. When their jumpers fall they can beat anyone, as they did with the Pacers (10-of-20 from three), when they don’t they can fall to anyone.

source:  9. Grizzlies (36-26, LW 8).  As we broke down last week, it really comes down to the Grizzlies needing to get past the Suns in the West — and they have, the two teams are tied now with 20 games to go. To get the playoff spot Memphis needs some big wins on the road — after Portland Tuesday 4-of-5 and 10-of-14 are away from the good barbecue or Memphis.

source:  10. Mavericks (37-26, LW 11). They are just one game ahead of the Grizzlies and Suns, which is why that wins over Portland and Indiana mattered (and the loss to Denver hurt). They have a heavy home schedule the rest of the way, which bodes well for them making the playoffs.

source:  11. Suns (36-26, LW 12). They lost to the Clippers and Warriors but picked up a big win over the Thunder. They are tied with Memphis and have a tough schedule ahead — 3-of-4 on the road this week including at the Clippers — and they need to find a way to get wins because the Grizzlies are hot.

source:  12. Trail Blazers (42-20, LW 7). The road losses to Dallas and Houston were tough last week, but you can explain those… that loss at home to the Lakers? Not a good sign. Tough road stretch this week at the Grizzlies and Spurs.

source:  13. Wizards (33-29, LW 13). Don’t look now, but the Wizards have played good defense since the All-Star Break. Combine that with nights of hot shooting — hello Trevor Ariza — and a soft schedule and you get wins. More interesting tests this week against the Heat and Nets.

source:  14. Raptors (34-26, LW 14). While we talk about how well the Wizards, Nets and Bulls are playing they are all looking up at a Raptors team that is 8-2 in their last 10 and has the easiest schedule the rest of the way out. Hard to see the Nets making up four games and taking the Atlantic from them, but the Bulls are one game back for the three seed. Nets, Grizzlies and Suns on the docket this week, which should be a good test.

source:  15. Nets (31-30, LW 16). Kevin Garnett is barely playing right now — the Nets are down to two of the six All-Stars they had before the season — yet they keep on winning. If they have any dreams of an Atlantic Division crown they need to beat Toronto this week, then a couple big games against Heat and Wizards on the road will be tests.

source:  16 . Timberwolves (31-31, LW 15). When the Timberwolves get their starting five on the court — Ricky Rubio, Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic — they are +11.7 per 48 minutes. Get into their bench and it’s a mess. That’s not good enough to make the playoffs in the West, and Minnesota is all but mathematically out of that race.

source:  17. Bobcats (29-34, LW 17). They probably can’t do it, but the goal in Charlotte has to be to make up the three games on the Nets and get out of the seven seed in the first round to avoid Miami/Indiana. That said, the way Charlotte defends they will make one of the big two work for the first round playoff win.

source:  18. Nuggets (27-35, LW 22). Ty Lawson is back and not so coincidentally the Nuggets are playing much better ball — they are playing at a much faster pace and are scoring 18 points per 100 possessions better. Basically they are an offensive team that tries to outscore you and just might, which makes them fun to watch if nothing else.

source:  19. Kings (22-40, LW 23). After their last game coach Mike Malone ripped his team for “selfish play” and DeMarcus Cousins (28 and 20 in that contest) agreed. This is a team of guys mostly playing for their next contract and it’s not is Sacramento. Still, on any give night this team is very dangerous.

source:  20. Knicks (24-40, LW 26). Winners of three in a row… no, the playoffs are not happening (they are not making up the 3.5 games back they are now). Phil Jackson, that looks like it’s happening and for all the potential pitfalls if he can just provide the franchise some direction it helps. Until Dolan jumps in to “help” again.

source:  21. Lakers (22-42, LW 21). Let me echo what @jonesonNBA was saying on twitter after the Lakers beat the Thunder Sunday — go ahead and slam Mike D’Antoni if you want, but look around the league at how much his coaching system has influenced other teams. If you don’t think you can win a title that way, I suggest you go back and watch the Heat again.

source:  22. Pelicans (26-37, LW 25). Anthony Davis just continues to put up monster numbers — 32 and 17 against the Nuggets. You know what we media types actually root for? Teams to be good in cities where we like to visit and spend time. Along those lines I am looking forward to the Pelicans taking big leaps forward in the coming years.

source:  23. Cavaliers (24-40, LW 18). Losers of four in a row and now the schedule gets tough — Phoenix, Golden State and the Clippers start a run of 10 against the NBA’s top 10. This stretch always made a late playoff push by the Cavaliers unlikely. Sorry Dan, it was the truth before the Luol Deng trade.

source:  24. Hawks (26-35, LW 19). Losers of six in a row, if the Pistons weren’t terrible the Hawks would be out of the playoffs by now. Yet the worst news of the week was the end of Kyle Korver’s streak of games with a made three, dead at an NBA record 127.

source:  25. Pistons (24-39, LW 20). They have lost three in a row and just looked terrible doing it. NBA Irony of the week: Brandon Jennings says the rest of the Pistons do not hold themselves accountable.

source:  26. Jazz (22-41, LW 24). They would have gone winless on a just-completed six game road trip through the East, but they lucked out with the final game of the trip in Philly. Trey Burke continues to learn hard lessons about adjusting to life in the NBA, but that’s what this season is for in Salt Lake City.

source:  27. Celtics (21-41, LW 28). Spoiler alert — Boston knocked off Brooklyn and Detroit last week, not exactly helping the playoff hopes for those teams (Nets of moving up, Pistons of just making it). This week the Pacers, Knicks and Suns are up on the Celtics spoiler list.

source:  28. Magic (19-45, LW 27). Their offense is playing decently, which is a surprise since pretty much everyone you can name and a few guys you can’t are out.

source:  29. Bucks (12-50, LW 29). All the losing is clearly wearing on the Bucks, as Ersan Ilyasova and O.J. Mayo were suspended last week for throwing punches in games. At least they are showing a little fight.

source:  30. 76ers (15-47, LW 30). They have winnable games against the Knicks and Kings to start the week, then after that things get difficult. Lose those to and an NBA record 27 consecutive losses is a real possibility.

PBT Extra: Rockets vs. Spurs far more than Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden

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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden. Two MVP candidates matching up in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

However, the San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets is much more than that.

It’s a battle of pace. It’s a chess match between two of the best coaches in the game. It’s about which team’s role players are going to step up.

I talk about all of that in this latest PBT Extra. Plus, of course, when Leonard will guard Harden.

How to start your Saturday night: Watching 15 minutes of best plays from NBA season

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There are no NBA playoff games Saturday night, the first night since the start of the postseason there hasn’t been one game. Don’t worry, there are two games on Sunday, including Game 7 between the Jazz and Clippers.

But if you need a Saturday night fix, this will have to do: 15 minutes of the best plays from last season, as compiled by NBA.com.

Go ahead, watch it. You’ve got nothing better to do.

 

Paul Millsap says the expected, he will “most likely” opt out of contract

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This is ranked right next to “overeating can lead to weight gain” on the list of surprising things, but we will dutifully report it anyway:

Paul Millsap is going to opt out and officially become a free agent this summer.

Atlanta’s owner as well as Mike Budenholzer, the coach and head of basketball operations, have both said they plan to do whatever it takes to re-sign Millsap with the Hawks. Millsap didn’t sound like someone eager to leave after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs Friday.

“It’s been great. I’m looking to expand this and see where the franchise can go. These last four years has been great. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Even with both sides singing Kumbaya, keeping Millsap in Atlanta likely means a five-year contract at or near the max, which for a 32-year-old player means the Hawks would regret the last year or two of that deal.

Not that the Hawks have much of a choice here, they have to come in big and keep him. For one, they can’t afford to lose Al Horford and then Millsap for nothing in back-to-back years. If they were going down the rebuilding road, they needed to trade Millsap at the deadline (or last summer) to make sure they got something in return. Atlanta explored trade options at the deadline, but then pulled back (rumored to be because of an edict from ownership, which didn’t want to see the team blown up after the Kyle Korver trade).

By not making that trade the Hawks signaled their intention to remain a good team — a 43-win team this season that got them the five seed — with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, one that draws well at an arena that historically has not been that full, and see if they can add on. They strike me as a team that will win between 42-50 games a year and be middle of the pack in the East for the next few years, unless they can find a way to add an elite player (which is incredibly difficult).

But if the Hawks can’t re-sign Millsap, then the plan gets blown up. So expect them to come in with a big offer come July 1.

Milwaukee Bucks eager to build after strong finish to season

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. (AP) — With the sting of their frantic but failed Game 6 comeback effort still fresh in their minds, the Milwaukee Bucks returned to their practice facility Friday morning to pack their things and head their separate ways.

The Bucks consider themselves a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, a belief no doubt reinforced by a furious 14-4 run late in the season that propelled them to sixth place in the East and solidified by a strong, though inconsistent, effort against Toronto in the playoffs.

“We thought we were the better team,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We thought we could beat the Raptors and go to the second round. We feel like we got the Raptors’ attention so hopefully next year … we can go deeper in the playoffs.”

To get to that next step, which includes gaining home-court advantage and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2001, a lot of work needs to be done. Milwaukee needs Antetokounmpo to continue his rapid development, but will be looking to young additions like Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks’ two picks in last year’s draft, to refine their bodies and their games this summer.

Maker was one of the biggest surprises in the league. The 15th overall pick was a relative unknown and figured, at the outset, to be a draft-and-develop pick. Instead, he made a strong impression on the coaching staff with his commitment to defense and made opposing teams panic with his ability to shoot the 3 and wound up starting all six playoff games.

“It was amazing,” Maker said. “Unexpected. I thought I was just going to be on `Project: Build Maker’ and build my body but that’s (what I’m doing) this summer now. I thought that’s what this year was going to be about but everything turned around. I worked hard and it turned out to be way more than I expected. I don’t like the end results – it could have been way better – but you live with the results and you learn.”

Brogdon might have been an even bigger surprise. He was Milwaukee’s second-round pick and began the season on the bench behind free agent acquisition Matthew Dellavedova. But he, too, put in the work and by season’s end, was not only the starting point guard but a key piece of the Bucks’ core.

“I think it’s strong,” Brogdon said of Milwaukee’s nucleus. “I think it’s going to be one of the strongest in the NBA, as long as we’re able to stay together and as long as we’re able to stay healthy. I think we’re going to be one of the best teams in the NBA.”

The Bucks have been in this position before. They were considered a team on the rise in 2010, when they forced the Hawks to seven games but stumbled the next season and didn’t return to the postseason until sneaking into the eighth spot in 2013.

Two years later, Milwaukee was thought to be a sleeper after the Bucks finished .500 in Kidd’s first season at the helm, but again they faltered the next season and missed the playoffs.

Maintaining the momentum will be a major focus as preparations begin for the next season.

“My first year we had seven or eight free agents, so we knew that wasn’t going to be the same team,” forward John Henson said. “(The) second year we had a new coach, more free agents.

My third year coach Kidd coming in, we knew there was going to be some stability. He’s had the same core guys and this is what happens; not have a letdown like we did the year before.”

Milwaukee should benefit with some roster stability. The team’s young core appears set in place with Antetokounmpo, Henson and Khris Middleton locked into long-term contracts, as are Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic.

Tony Snell, who went on to start 80 games after being acquired late in training camp, is a restricted free agent. Greg Monroe, who became one of the league’s best sixth men, holds a player option for next season.

The Bucks will likely be open to bringing back veteran guard Jason Terry for a 19th season, too.

“I think that’s how you become a team that doesn’t regress next year – keeping some of the pieces together,” Henson said.

General manager John Hammond also faces a tough question with Jabari Parker, who will miss at least the first half of the 2017-18 season after tearing his ACL in February. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft is eligible for a contract extension this summer and was in line to earn something close to the $100 million Milwaukee gave Antetokounmpo last year.