Greg Popovich

PBT NBA Power Rankings: Spurs set the bar while Pacers fall like a rock

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Not much change at the top — the Spurs and Clippers remain at the top and while there is a little shuffling below them it’s still all the same teams. Well, except the Pacers who are crashing harder than Justin Bieber’s career.

 
source:  1. Spurs (60-17, Last week No. 1). The loss to the Thunder shows what makes this an interesting playoffs for the Western Conference — it’s all about match ups. Oklahoma City gives San Antonio trouble, although I don’t read too much into a road loss on the second night of a back-to-back (which is why the Spurs stay on top of the rankings).The Spurs are the NBA’s first 60-win team and have set the bar for everyone else — if you want to win an NBA title you need to be better than San Antonio.

 
source:  2. Clippers (55-23, LW 2). Health is the prevailing question in L.A., with key bench contributors Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger likely out until the playoffs begin. With a likely looming first round series against Golden State (and potential second round vs. OKC), the Clippers need Glen Davis focused (and playing for his next contract), plus a healthy Crawford and Granger to advance.

 
source:  3. Heat (53-23, LW No. 5). LeBron James said he wants to play every Heat game down the stretch, but if Miami beats Indiana in their showdown Friday night and can lock up the No. 1 seed in the East, look for Erik Spoelstra to give him a game or two off.

 
source:  4. Thunder (55-21, LW 3).. Interesting potential playoff preview Wednesday when the Thunder and Clippers meet — if things follow form that would be the second round matchup. Speaking of matchup problems for teams, the Thunder likely would prefer not to see the Suns in the first round — Phoenix’s style puts up points on OKC. (The Thunder are 3-1 vs. Memphis and 1-2 vs. Dallas.)

 
source:  5. Rockets (51-25, LW 4). Sunday’s come from behind win is huge for a team trying to hold on to home court advantage in the first round. What really matters is getting Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley back healthy — they shouldn’t rush back for the regular season but they are needed likely against Portland in the first round.

 
source:  6. Warriors (48-29, LW 8). The players seem unfazed by the assistant coach turmoil going on around this team and just keep picking up key wins. They continue to play good defense nightly — particularly when Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut are both on the court. It’s that defense as much as the jump shooting that makes them dangerous in the postseason.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (50-28, LW 13). Playing better since LaMarcus Aldridge’s return (shocking!) they are just 1.5 games back of Golden State for the fifth playoff seed in the West — the two teams play Friday night in a showdown that could determine the slot. Five seed likely gets Rockets, six the Clippers. Both tough, but Houston is more vulnerable.

 
source:  8. Suns (46-31, LW 10). Tough stretch of games started with a loss to Clippers but then wins over Portland and Oklahoma City. Four of final five are on the road (starting with the Spurs) but this team just keeps on winning. Big games Saturday vs. Mavericks then April 14 vs. Grizzlies.

 
source:  9. Bulls (45-32, LW 12). If they met today I’d pick the Bulls to beat the Pacers in the second round of the playoffs. A lot of things can change by then but the Bulls just keep winning with their defense and Joakim Noah as the focal point of the offense. They know who they are, which is more than you can say for the Pacers right now.

 
source:  10. Raptors (45-32, LW 13). While nobody south of the border was paying attention the Raptors have won 6-of-7 — they are going to win the Atlantic Division. Holding off the Bulls for the three seed will be more difficult, but a soft schedule this week (Sixers, Knicks, Pistons) will help.

 
source:  11. Mavericks (47-31, LW 11). They have a 1.5 game lead on nine seed Memphis, which is a nice cushion late in the playoff chase, but with games this week against the Spurs and Suns they need to play more like the team we saw against the Clippers last Tuesday than the couple of sloppy wins since.

 
source:  12. Grizzlies (43-29, LW 9).  Five games left and they control their own fate — the Heat are tough on Wednesday but after that the Sixers and Lakers are beatable. Then they close against the Suns and Mavericks and that could decide it all.

 
source:  13. Pacers (52-21, LW 6). Oh how the mighty have fallen. Their offense always had a small margin for error and a little more stagnation and a little more guys seeming to think about their numbers has hurt them. Plus they are just missing shots they used to make. C.J. Watson should return this week and they could use that point guard to help organize the offense.

 
source:  14. Nets (42-34, LW 14). Kevin Garnett could return this week and along with Andrei Kirilenko that should help a Nets defense that has been a mess of late. Like against the Knicks last week. They are likely the five seed and if they face Toronto in the first round they could advance to the second round, which is the least you could ask considering what Prokhorov is paying for this roster.

 
source:  15. Wizards (40-37, LW 15). Nene is back practicing and is expected to return to the Sixers lineup this week — that makes Washington a far, far more dangerous team. They need to pick up a couple wins down the stretch to keep the six seed, the Bobcats are just one game behind them.

 
source:  16. Bobcats (39-38, LW 18). Winners of four in a row, which has secured them a playoff spot, and as of right now they are above .500. Make sure your remember that and coach Steve Clifford when filling out your Coach of the Year ballots (he’s not going to win but should get mentioned).

 
source:  17. Hawks (34-42, LW 21). Quality offensive outings against the Pacers and Cavaliers have given them a two-game cushion over a banged-up Knicks team — they are in the driver’s seat to make the playoffs, with only two of their remaining six on the road and half the games against teams below .500.

source:  18 . Timberwolves (38-38, LW 16). They pulled out a thrilling come-from-behind close win over the Heat last weekend — if they had pulled out some close ones earlier in the season we’d have them in our playoffs mix. But alas, the discussion moves on to Kevin Love in the off-season.

 
source:  19. Knicks (33-45, LW 17). Carmelo Anthony is doing his best to play through a shoulder injury but this team just isn’t good enough to win games against quality teams without him. Problem is, they are two games back of Atlanta and there are nothing but quality teams left on the schedule — at Toronto, Chicago, at Brooklyn, Toronto. They need a lot of help from the Hawks to make he postseason now.

 
source:  20. Cavaliers (31-47, LW 19). Kyrie can say whatever he wants about his future and the speculation surrounding it, his contract negotiations this summer will tell you all you need to know — will he take a full five year deal with the Cavaliers or will he ask for an opt out after three? And if he does ask, how will the Cavaliers organization handle it?

 
source:  21. Kings (27-50, LW 23). They have five straight 50-loss seasons (not counting the lockout year… but they weren’t exactly impressive that season either). I love the energy Vivek Ranadive is bringing as Sacramento owner, but it shows you how hard it can be to turn an entire franchise around.

 
source:  22. Nuggets (33-44, LW 22). Easily the craziest play of last week was Brian Shaw drawing up a play for a game winning three for Timofey Mozgov — he is a career 20% shooter from three who has taken 18 threes all season (hitting four). I have no idea why.

 
source:  23. Pelicans (32-45, LW 20). They have lost five in a row and have a brutal closing stretch of games — Suns, Thunder twice and Rockets twice. But hey, they have Anthony Davis.

 
source:  24. Magic (22-55 LW 25). The team is not for sale, the DeVos family wants you to know. That’s swell. But this is still a massive rebuilding project in its early stages, this is a team that needs a little lottery luck this year.

 
source:  25. Pistons (28-49, LW 28). It’s unlikely to happen — they likely will have a 3.5% shot at it — but if the Pistons won the NBA Draft lottery and Joe Dumars was kept, do you think he would draft Joel Embiid then refuse to trade Josh Smith, Andre Drummond or Greg Monroe?

 
source:  26. Lakers (25-52, LW 24). Unless they win out — and they are not going to win out — this will be the worst Lakers team in the history of the franchise since it moved to Los Angeles. What’s more there are just not reasonable quick turnaround scenarios out there — it’s going to take a few years at least to rebuild the Lakers.

 
source:  27. 76ers (16-57, LW 27). Two wins in a couple weeks means the Bucks will finish with the worst record in the NBA, not the Sixers. By the way, Michael Carter-Williams has secured himself the Rookie of the Year trophy, with Victor Oladipo second. Despite Oladipo’s play of late.

 
source:  28. Jazz (24-53, LW 29). Is Tyron Corbin capable of developing players at the level the Jazz need him to during this rebuild? His contract is up at the end of the season and this is a very patient Utah ownership that doesn’t like change, but they need to ask that question.

 
source:  29. Celtics (23-54, LW 26). They are 1-13 in their last 14 games and last weekend lost to both the Sixers and the Pistons. That is some terrible basketball. There’s a lot of rebuilding to do in Boston and I don’t know that Rajon Rondo wants to stick around for all of it.

 
source:  30. Bucks (14-63, LW 30). This team has the worst record in the history of the Bucks franchise — and what hurts is they didn’t go into this season trying to tank. The O.J. Mayo signing has been a disaster and Larry Sanders’ season has gone up in a puff of smoke. Hey but they’ll have the highest lottery odds. So they got that going for them, which is nice.

Thunder get off to fast start, survive wild ending to win 98-97, even series with Spurs

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, center, scramble with San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, right, for a loose ball as time expires in the second half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. Oklahoma City won 98-97. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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When the playoffs are all over, and all the confetti has fallen at the parade celebrating the 2016 NBA champion, we are still going to be talking about this game. The Spurs and Warriors gave us everything — great shooting, leads and comebacks, and a wild, controversial ending.

What ultimately matters is the Thunder bounced back from a rough first game, were aggressive from the start and raced out to that early lead using their transition offense. Then a team that blew a lot of leads this season hung on through multiple Spurs comebacks and ultimately got a 98-97 win behind 29 points from Russell Westbrook and 28 from Kevin Durant (who played well at the four spot much of the night). The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Oklahoma City.

All the controversy at the end doesn’t change that fact, or that the Thunder did some things much better in Game 2.

The Thunder have had moments like this throughout the season, where they defended better, got transition points, and Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter (or someone else) would step up and make plays — but they didn’t sustain that high level of play for very long. They still won 55 games because Durant and Westbrook are talented, but we will see if they can sustain a “beat the Spurs” level of play for most of the next couple weeks.

San Antonio helped out by having their offense not as sharp, and just missing shots — the Spurs started 2-of-15 from the field and finished the game shooting just 26.1 percent from three. The missed shots allowed the Thunder to get out in transition more and get the easy buckets that fuel their offense.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about, this is:

Those final 13 seconds, when the Spurs were down 1 and the Thunder were trying to inbound the ball, is the topic of the day. The referees swallowed their whistles to the point that a rugby scrum broke out.

The most discussed part of the play was the inbound — Dion Waiters reaches across the boundary line to shove Manu Ginobili back, which is a clear foul and a change of possessions. Ginobili had stepped on the end line, which could have been ruled a technical but was not as egregious as Waiters’ blatant foul. There were a host of other fouls in those final seconds: Kawhi Leonard grabbing Westbrook’s jersey, a Spurs fan grabbing Steven Adams when he fell out of bounds and not letting him back in the play, and Ibaka hacking LaMarcus Aldridge in the final seconds.

But that’s not what decided the game. The Spurs made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of clean looks before that, things they needed at the end. Aldridge had 41 points, and Leonard added 12. However, Tim Duncan was 1-of-8, and Tony Parker was 3-of-9 — those guys are not the top offensive options anymore, but the Spurs need them to be efficient. The hustling Thunder defense had something to do with this, but that doesn’t change that the Spurs need more from these two key players.

The Thunder offense worked not because they shared the ball — as per usual, it happens only in spurts — but because Westbrook and Durant hit their shots, and because they got transition buckets.

If they can do that for a couple more games at home, they will be in command of this series. But it’s not going to be simple or easy.

Referees miss Dion Waiters push off, multiple other calls in final seconds of Thunder’s win over San Antonio

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Manu Ginobili said it perfectly after the game: This one play, this one sequence is not why the Spurs lost Game 2 of their series against the Thunder.

However, I can’t remember a time the referees swallowed their whistles on so many calls in the final seconds of a game.

Oklahoma City was up one with 13.5 seconds left (after Serge Ibaka made a silly foul on LaMarcus Aldridge shooting a three), the Thunder just needed to inbound the ball, get fouled and hit their free throws. But it wasn’t that easy.

First and most notably, Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball and pushed off on Manu Ginobili guarding the inbound play. That’s a foul, or a technical depending upon which rule you want to apply. But the Spurs should have had the ball out of bounds, the referees just missed that one and both Chris Webber on the call and the TNT Inside the NBA crew harped on that one. They were right.

The officials admitted as much, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Ken Mauer, lead referee from tonight’s game: “On the floor we did not see a foul on the play. However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play we’ve never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play.”

The question Thunder fans are asking: Why wasn’t Ginobili called for stepping on the out of bounds line? In the final two minutes that’s a technical (the rule book says it’s a foul if he “crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line,” Ginobili has a toe on the line). Also Leonard had Russell Westbrook‘s jersey through that entire inbounds play.

Waiters did throw a leaping inbound pass as Ginobili stumbled backwards, and he threw it to Durant — who was held as he went for the ball by Danny Green. That should have been a foul call (although Waiters’ inbound foul would have nullified it if that call had been made).

The Spurs get the ball in a scramble for the rock and end up kicking out to Patty Mills for a corner three (not sure that was the best shot), but he missed. In the rebound scramble there could have been a few calls, but the most obvious was Ibaka hacking Aldridge trying to get a putback. It was another clear foul.

All that obscured some great plays — Ginobili with the no-look, behind the head pass to Mills in the corner, or Steven Adams with an amazing closeout to get a piece of Mills’ shot, to name a couple.

I get it, the referees don’t want to decide the game with their whistle, but when it turns into a rugby scrum there should be calls, and the referees shouldn’t be afraid to make them.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.