PBT Power Rankings: Streaking Spurs on top, streaking Sixers on bottom

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San Antonio is playing the best ball in the NBA right now, having won 13 games in a row and looking like contenders since getting healthy. What that means come the playoffs remains to be seen, but right now they are setting the bar in the NBA. So are the Sixers, but not in a good way….
source:  1. Spurs (53-16, Last week No. 1). They have a 13-game winning streak (and face the Sixers next… so count on 14) and will go into the playoffs setting the bar for consistency and execution in the West. They are the favorites. My only question is athleticism — would peak play from the Clippers or Thunder be too much for them to handle (as it was for Spurs in 2012)?
source:  2. Clippers (49-21, LW 2). Their one loss in their last 13 gems was the second night of a back-to-back at altitude at Denver — that’s a schedule maker’s loss. The chemistry between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is at an all-time high now and that (along with much better defense) has been key to the Clippers moving up to contender status.
source:  3. Thunder (51-18, LW 5).. Fortunately the scare with Russell Westbrook’s knee turned out to be nothing, They are two games back of San Antonio but have a soft schedule this week (save for at Dallas) where they can make up some ground. Then things get much tougher for them.
source:  4. Rockets (47-22, LW 7). Houston is right to be cautious with Dwight Howard returning from his ankle injury — he has played fantastic ball since the All-Star break and they need him healthy come the playoffs, not with a lingering issue. The Rockets keep winning without Howard because James Harden has sparked the offense in his absence (they scored 124, 129 and 118 in their last three. Big showdown with the Clippers Saturday.
source:  5. Pacers (51-19, LW 3). This has been a .500 team the last 10 games (12-8 their last 20) and Paul George has looked tired, missing from three and not finishing in the lane. Worse than that, since the All-Star break they are 1-4 against teams over .500 and their defense hasn’t been the same. Like the Heat, the advantage they have is in the East they get a playoff round to use as a tune up.
source:  6. Heat (47-21, LW No. 4). They are 3-4 in their last seven and now are three games back of Indiana for the top seed in the East… is it time to let that go as a goal? LeBron James expressed frustration with their play and they have been worse on both ends of the court, but the lack of pressure defense and good help rotations has been the biggest issue.
source:  7. Bulls (39-31, LW 6). They remain half a game back of the Raptors for the three seed, but after the Pacers and Trail Blazers this week their schedule gets easier with just two teams over .500 the rest of the way (Washington, Minnesota).
source:  8. Grizzlies (41-28, LW 8).  When Marc Gasol was leaving the arena in a walking boot Friday night there was legitimate reason for concern, but he bounced back and played Saturday in the win over Indiana. They are on pace for 49 wins, yet have just half a game lead over Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the West — that conference is just brutal.
source:  9. Warriors (44-27, LW 9). Harrison Barnes simply has regressed this season, particularly of late — he started three games this week with Andre Iguodala out and shot 2-of-19. Barnes has a world of athleticism but has become a passive jump shooter rather than a guy who attacks, draws contact and puts pressure on a defense. If things don’t change Mark Jackson will have to limit his run come the playoffs.
source:  10. Suns (41-29, LW 11). They are in a fight with Memphis and Dallas for the final playoff spots in the West — when the music stops one of those teams will be without a chair. This week the schedule is relatively soft (at Hawks, at Wizards, Knicks, at Lakers) then they have tough games the rest of the way. They need to bank some wins this week.
source:  11. Nets (37-31, LW 15). That they continue to win (four in a row) without Kevin Garnett is impressive. Mason Plumlee is playing well and the Nets are showing the kind of resilience they didn’t last season (when the shorthanded Bulls knocked them out of the first round of the playoffs). Like I said, it’s been impressive and Jason Kidd deserves some credit here. But they still need KG back for the playoffs.
source:  12. Mavericks (42-29, LW 10). They lost two overtime games last week (Timberwolves and Nets) and now things get interesting with the Thunder and Clippers coming to Dallas this week. Dallas is just half a game ahead of the 9 seed Suns, they are just half a game from falling out of the playoffs. They need some big wins.
source:  13. Trail Blazers (45-25, LW 12). Not sure when we will see LaMarcus Aldridge back, the Trail Blazers want him to practice before he plays but with five games this week there will not be a full practice for the team. So, no timetable yet. Five of their next six games are on the road (and the one home game is a tough one against Memphis).
source:  14. Hawks (31-36, LW 19). They have a three game cushion over the Knicks and are four up in the loss column, but this week’s Hawks schedule should give the Knicks some hope — Suns, at Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, at Wizards. If the Hawks can just go 2-2 it likely is asking too much for New York to catch up.
source:  15. Raptors (39-30, LW 14). Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan led a big comeback against the Hawks on sunday, and with that the Raptors seemed to gain momentum going into a soft part of the schedule this week. The Raptors remain just half a game ahead of the surging Bulls for the three seed and it will be hard to hold Chicago off.
source:  16. Knicks (29-41, LW 18). The hole they dug themselves was so big that even an eight-game winning streak (which included a win over the Pacers) couldn’t help them climb all the way out of it. Now they head out on a West Coast road trip where they have to rack up wins against good teams (and the Lakers) to have any shot at the postseason.
source:  17. Nuggets (32-38, LW 20). They look like they would have been a playoff team if Ty Lawson could have stayed healthy — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Heat and Clippers. However losing J.J. Hickson for the rest of the season is a blow.
source:  18. Wizards (36-34, LW 13). Their defense has been terrible of late (which is bad news with the hot Suns on the schedule of late) and it makes me think more and more they will make the playoffs but be one and done. Unless everything changes when Nene returns.
source:  19. Bobcats (34-36, LW 16). Michael Kidd-Gillchrist just has been a let down this year — he did not fix is jump shot in the least and he relies on it too much rather than attacking the rim. He’s become a good defender that fits what Charlotte is doing, but he can’t make a real impact being a big drain on the other end of the court.

source:  20 . Timberwolves (34-34, LW 17). Everything you need to know about why Minnesota is going to be outside the playoffs rather than in them could be seen last week — they had a 22 point lead against Dallas and needed overtime and a big Kevin Love shot to win; they had a 22 point lead against the Suns and lost.
source:  21. Pelicans (29-40, LW 24). Anthony Davis is playing like a beast — in his last five games he’s averaged 33.8 points on 59.6 percent shooting, plus grabbing 12.4 rebounds and blocking 2.2 shots a game. He’s a top 10 player in the NBA right now, the only question is where he is on that scale. And how soon before he is in LeBron James/Kevin Durant territory.
source:  22. Cavaliers (27-44, LW 21). Jarrett Jack is the man — he was Kyrie-like leading the Cavs back against the Knicks Sunday. The Cavs have made a real habit of falling behind and storming back lately, which you can take as good or bad depending on how you want to spin it.
source:  23. Kings (24-45, LW 22). They are the No. 7 pick in the NBA draft as of right now (depending on the lottery) but have a lot of games left against the tough West, don’t be shocked if they climb a little higher on the draft ladder as the season winds down.
source:  24. Pistons (25-44, LW 23). We remain on lottery watch — if they finish in the top 8 in the draft they keep their pick, 9 or higher and it goes to Charlotte. Right now they are 8th but just one game “ahead” of Cleveland. It’s time to full on tank in Detroit to keep that pick, and watching Josh Smith’s play last week he seems on board with it.
source:  25. Celtics (23-47, LW 26). They lost every road game against teams from the West this season — 0-15. That said they did beat the Miami Heat again last week, getting a big jump shooting night from Avery Bradley, so there is that sign of hope.
source:  26. Jazz (23-47, LW 27). Interesting draft question for Utah: As of right now they have the No. 4 pick, Assuming Wiggins, Embiid and Parker are off the board, would Utah take Marcus Smart or Dante Exum even though they already have Trey Burke and he has shown signs of life, or would they take someone more like Julius Randall?
source:  27. Lakers (23-46, LW 25). Jordan Hill showed up big in the win over Orlando Sunday, which had some Lakers fans wondering why he doesn’t play more. But he also missed the team photo last week. Let’s just say I’m not sure he is part of the team’s future plans.
source:  28. Magic (19-51, LW 28). They have lost nine in a row and what’s brutal is their schedule the rest of the way — they only have two games left against non-playoff teams. With all those losses not sure Victor Oladipo is playing well enough to take the ROY award away from Michael Carter-Williams.
source:  29. Bucks (13-56, LW 29). They have lost seven in a row and all you can really say for them is they put up points and put up a fight before losing because they can’t get a stop. They have the Clippers and Heat on the schedule this week, which will not end well.
source:  30. 76ers (15-55, LW 30). Up to 24 losses in a row and the next two games are at San Antonio and at Houston — they will get to 26 straight, which ties the league record. The showdown is Saturday at home, a chance to break the streak against the Pistons. Question is, if they lose 27 in a row will Sixers fans (all in for the tanking) cheer it on?

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

Associated Press
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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.”