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PBT NBA Power Rankings: Spurs finish season on top

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It’s the final power rankings of the season from ProBasketballTalk and the Spurs are going to finish the season on the top. Since Tony Parker got back healthy the Spurs have been a force, but the No. 2 Thunder present real matchup problems for San Antonio come the playoffs. Of course, the Thunder’s road to any potential showdown is brutal. Heck, the whole Western Conference playoffs will be brutal.

 
source:  1. Spurs (62-18, Last week No. 1). You simply have to marvel at this franchise — 17 straight playoff trips and 16 years of at least 50 wins (excluding the 50-game lockout season of ’98-99). Coming into this season we wondered if the painful loss in the finals would hold them back. We wondered if Father Time would overtake the core guys. No and no. This team is once again a legitimate title contender.

 
source:  2. Thunder (58-22, LW 4).. They are No. 2 on this list but I still think they come out of the West into the Finals — their length on defense allows them to recover and contest more shots than anyone and it bothers the Spurs. However, to get to the Spurs they will have to face Memphis or Dallas (and Memphis wants OKC over San Antonio) then likely the Clippers. Thats a hard road.

 
source:  3. Clippers (56-24, LW 2). This looks like a team finally defending, a team finally on the cusp of contending, but they will draw a brutal first round matchup with Golden State. Beat them and you likely land OKC in the second round. Ouch. The three Clipper perimeter players recently battling injury — J.R. Redick, Jamal Crawford and Danny Granger — all need to be back and playing well for the Clippers to have a chance to advance beyond that.

 
source:  4. Heat (54-26, LW No. 3). When focused for a big game, say against Indiana, they bring their defense back to life and look like a contender. But against everyone else they still look like they are going through the motions. That said, there is no team from the East playing well enough right now to beat them in a seven game series. (Indiana is the only one that can, sorry Brooklyn not happening.)

 
source:  5. Rockets (53-27, LW 5). Interesting first round showdown with Portland looming, both teams put up a lot of points on the other when they faced off this season. Patrick Beverley will be key for a Rockets team that will need to harass and slow down Damian Lillard. On the flip side, James Harden should have a strong series against Portland’s inconsistent defense.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (53-28, LW 7). Portland is 8-1 since LaMarcus Aldridge returned and the big win at home over Golden State Sunday (maybe the most entertaining game of the season) shows they will not go quietly in the first round. However, their defense is going to have to be improved and consistent to slow down the Rockets offense.

 
source:  7. Bulls (47-33, LW 9). Sunday’s surprising loss to the Knicks lets Toronto control its own destiny for the third seed, which could mean a first round matchup against Brooklyn for Chicago. That would be brutal. The Bulls beat the Nets last year in the playoffs but the Nets have added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and some other talent since then. The Bulls run since the All-Star break — without Derrick Rose or Luol Deng — has been one of the most amazing parts of the NBA season.

 
source:  8. Warriors (49-31, LW 6). With soft closeouts against Minnesota and Denver it’s likely the Warriors finish with at least 50 wins — the last time they did that was 1994, when Don Nelson coached them, Latrell Sprewell led the team in scoring and Chris Webber was a rookie. Bad news is they likely land the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs and that is a bad draw for a Warriors team that has struggled to beat the Clippers in Los Angeles.

 
source:  9. Mavericks (49-32, LW 11). They are in the playoffs after Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki owned the second half Saturday and the Mavs beat the Suns. However their seeding is still up in the air. Those two guys will put up points in the playoffs, but will Dallas defend well enough to win more than one game in the postseason?

 
source:  10. Grizzlies (47-32, LW 12).  They still need to beat either Phoenix Monday or Dallas Wednesday to secure a playoff spot. They very likely will, then will be a physical, tough out for whoever draws them in the first round.

 
source:  11. Pacers (54-26, LW 13). We saw a flash of this team potentially returning to form Sunday at home beating the Thunder. Indy also won at home a few weeks ago against the Heat — that’s why home court matters. But this team is 20-20 on the road this season and they will not last long in the playoffs without some key road wins. Fortunately, they likely draw the Hawks in the first round, which is like a nice tuneup round, a sparring match to get ready for the main events.

 
source:  12. Suns (47-33, LW 8). The reason Jeff Hornacek is Coach of the Year in my book is the amazing development of players under him – Goran Dragic and Gerald Green could get votes for most improved player, Markieff Morris will get some votes for Sixth Man of the Year (and deservedly so). The Suns need to beat the Grizzlies Monday night then hope Dallas beats Memphis on Wednesday to get into the playoffs. It’s a longshot, but I’m saying there’s a chance.

 
source:  13. Raptors (47-33, LW 10). They control their own playoff destiny — beat the Bucks Monday and the Knicks Wednesday and the Raptors are the three seed, likely getting Washington in the first round. Which means they could make the second round of the playoffs, a huge accomplishment for this franchise. This team is solid on both ends of the floor and look for Kyle Lowry to have a monster playoffs (just have a feeling).

 
source:  14. Nets (43-36, LW 14). Maybe the most interesting and hardest to read team entering the playoffs. They have had stretches of strong play but have been a little sloppy of late, they have veterans with playoff experience but ones Father Time is starting to win the race with. If they land Chicago in the first round that is brutal.

 
source:  15. Bobcats (41-39, LW 16). That this team made the leap it did this year and made the playoffs is a credit to three men: Coach Steve Clifford for getting this group to play good team defense; GM Rich Cho for maybe the move of the summer picking up the next guy on the lat; finally Al Jefferson for a season that will land him on an All-NBA team.

 
source:  16. Wizards (42-38, LW 15). You want a sleeper playoff team in the East? With Nene on the court the Wizards have a very good defense — allowing 99 points per 100 possessions — and their offense plays with more confidence. They will not be an easy out, and if they land Toronto in the first round the Wizards have to feel they have a real shot at advancing.

source:  17 . Timberwolves (40-39, LW 18). Hey, look over here at Gorgui Dieng and how well the rookie is playing with Nicola Pekovic out — don’t look over there at another year without the playoffs. Minnesota’s point differential of +2.9 is better than the Bulls, Suns, Grizzlies and Mavericks, but Minny could not win close games and it cost them.

 
source:  18. Hawks (37-43, LW 17). That they held on to playoff spot without Al Horford for much of the season is a testament to what GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer are starting to build there. Still a long way to go and the best they can do in the first round is win one game, but it’s something to build on.

 
source:  19. Nuggets (36-44, LW 22). Kenneth Faried really started to show off the development of his game the second half of the season — just in time to talk contract extension (he is eligible this summer). He and Ty Lawson played well down the stretch (when Lawson was healthy). Next season if they can stay healthy and get Danilo Gallinari back things get interesting.

 
source:  20. Knicks (35-45, LW 19). Carmelo Anthony made a valiant effort this season, and I expect he will not be going anywhere this summer. But Phil Jackson has a mandate to make changes yet almost no flexibility — nobody sane is taking on Andrea Bargnani’s deal — which will make this a very interesting summer in New York.

 
source:  21. Cavaliers (32-49, LW 20). They will offer Kyrie Irving a max extension this summer and he will sign it and stick around — the only question is does he ask for an opt-out after three seasons. Two other big questions for the Cavs this summer: Who gets the GM job and how much does said GM offer Luol Deng to stick around?

 
source:  22. Kings (28-53, LW 21). Ownership is committed to DeMarcus Cousins as a building block, but what about Rudy Gay? Gay has a $19.3 million million option for next season he may pick up, but hinted he may opt out for a longer deal and some security. If he does opt out, how much and how long a deal would the Kings offer Gay?

 
source:  23. Pelicans (32-48, LW 23). This is the team I most expect to make a leap next season — Anthony Davis is exploding and if they can keep Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and the rest healthy this is a playoff team. However their lottery pick this year goes to Philly (top 5 protected).

 
source:  24. Pistons (29-51, LW 25). Joe Dumars is out as GM after his Josh Smith/Brandon Jennings gamble failed. It will be interesting to see which way owner Tom Gores goes with finding a replacement — spend money on a name or bring in one of the up-and-coming generation if front office people? Whoever takes over has to pick a coach and clean up a real mess of an ill-fitting roster.

 
source:  25. Magic (23-56 LW 24). The youth movement continues in Orlando this summer — they will have their own pick, at least top six, plus the higher of the Knicks or Nuggets picks (Denver gets the other one). They have a few nice young players like Victor Oladipo but it’s going to take years to develop all these players into something.

 
source:  26. Celtics (25-55, LW 29). Maybe he was never fully healthy, but the Celtics did not get better once Rajon Rondo returned to the team. That leads to the “keep him or trade him?” question Danny Ainge has been on the fence about for years. This summer could be the time he really does pull the trigger on a Rondo trade.

 
source:  27. Lakers (25-55, LW 26). Can you imagine the uproar and the calls of a fix if the Lakers win the NBA Draft lottery? It would blow the frozen envelope theory out of the top spot in NBA lottery conspiracies. Fair or not. By the way, the Lakers last Top 5 pick? James Worthy. That worked out fairly well.

 
source:  28. Jazz (24-56, LW 28). What kind of money teams are going to offer restricted free agent Gordon Hayward this summer will be one of the best subplots of the off-season. Hayward has a lot of fans in NBA front offices but he’s really a No. 2/3 guy on a good team, how much are you willing to overpay to poach a guy like that out of Utah?

 
source:  29. 76ers (17-63, LW 27). What they learned this season is that Michael Carter-Williams is a keeper, someone who can be a starter/rotation guy on a good team. Now they get to add two lottery picks to that (the Sixers have the Pelicans’ pick, unless it is in the top five). If you’re going to tank for draft picks, you had better nail those picks, Sam Hinkie.

 
source:  30. Bucks (14-63, LW 30). They didn’t plan to tank, it just worked out that way. The more interesting move this summer is the apparently impending sale of the team — who is buying and how much are they willing to put into a new arena to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee?

Byron Scott expected to start D’Angelo Russell after All-Star break, but hasn’t talked to him about it

Byron Scott D'Angelo Russell
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Communication.

When we talk about Lakers’ coach Byron Scott’s questioned player development skills with young players Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and particularly D'Angelo Russell, it is his old-school lack of communication that comes into question. It’s what is different from what Gregg Popovich or Quin Snyder or other guys developing strong young players have done. From the outside (we’re not in practices/film sessions), we see Scott was not letting Russell play through mistakes — feeling that was rewarding bad behavior — but then not doing a good job communicating what the player is doing wrong.

This comment from Scott, via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, sums it up perfectly.

Scott plans to start Russell after NBA All-Star weekend (Feb. 12-14). But Scott said the two have not talked about that issue.

“He’s not old enough for me to have a meeting and discuss, ‘What do you think?’” Scott said.

I would say you should have that meeting — it’s called a teachable moment. “What do you think? Well here is what I see that is different.”

Part of what is going on with Scott and Russell is the concern from some in the Lakers’ camp that Russell is a little too full of himself, that his ego is too big, and it could become a problem. So they are trying to take him down a peg. I would say that for a smart player — and Russell is that — the game is humbling and will take care of the ego issue. But you’ve got to give him run to develop him.

Play him, and then communicate with him. It’s a system that does worth with modern players.

Nikola Vucevic hits fade-away game winner for Magic against Hawks

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The Hawks almost came back and won this — Atlanta went on an 8-0 run in the final minutes to tie the game at 94-94 with Orlando. The Magic had one last chance with 2.2 seconds left.

Nikola Vucevic nailed it.

Can’t blame Al Horford‘s defense on this one, he pushed Vucevic out and contested the shot. But in a make-or-miss league Vucevic nailed the game winner, Orlando wins 96-94.

If that looks familiar, Vucevic knocked down pretty much the same shot against the Lakers earlier this season.

LeBron James on Super Bowl: “Got to go with the Carolina Panthers”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, right, embraces Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James after the Cavaliers defeated the Charlotte Hornets in an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 27, 2015 in Charlotte, N.C. The Cavaliers won 95-90. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
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We know Stephen Curry — who spent many of his formative years in Charlotte and still thinks of the city as his hometown — is all in on the Carolina Panthers today against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 30.

On this, he and LeBron James agree.

LeBron sounded like the politically cautious, image-conscious version of himself at the start of this quote from Uninterrupted on Facebook, but as he gets going, you can quickly see who he wants in this game (hat tip Eye on Basketball).

“I don’t know if I quite got a prediction but I definitely want to see a great Super Bowl,” James said in the video. “But if it was a life and death situation and I had to choose one team and one player, I got to go with Killah Cam. Got to go with the Carolina Panthers, they’ve been playing the most consistent football all year round. Both offensively, defensively and special teams. Got to go with Cam and one of my boys plays for them too as well, Ted Ginn Jr., that’s been showing out all year as well.

“No disrespect to the Broncos. I love their team. They got the legend at quarterback, they got that defense that’s out of control. They got some receivers that be balling out as well. They’re really well coached as well and that’s the reason they are in the Super Bowl. But I’m rolling with the Carolina Panthers today.”

A lot of NBA players like the way Cam Newton plays — with exuberance, wearing his heart on his sleeve, dancing and celebrating. That’s how Curry and LeBron and other NBA players want to play their game, and they feel reined in by the league. They relate to Cam Newton and the ridiculous role model/celebration debate.

We’ll see how much celebrating the Denver defense lets Newton do.

Kevin Durant on Warriors, Spurs: “We’re not scared of neither one of those teams”

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder while facing the Golden State Warriors on February 6, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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We’d seen this movie before. Against the San Antonio Spurs. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Golden State Warriors offensive machine got cranked up, dropped 73 on Oklahoma City in the first half, led by 14 at the break, and it was about to turn into another rout, and another statement win for the Warriors.

Except the Thunder came back. OKC held Golden State to just 18 third quarter points and got the lead down to two points — the Thunder pushed the Warriors away from the things they like to do (Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll) and made life difficult for them. It was a fantastic performance for OKC, even if Golden State still prevailed with a 116-108 win.

After the game Durant would have none of any moral victory talk — even though it was — and he said the Thunder were not intimidated by the Warriors or anyone else, via Royce Young of Oklahoma City.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Durant said of the comeback. “When we get down, we’re supposed to tie the game up. No moral victories in here…

“Man, we’re not scared of neither one of those teams,” Durant said, including the Spurs. “We’re going to play our game. Nobody in this locker room is scared. We gotta play ’em. If we want to get to where we want to get to, we gotta play ’em. We’re not ducking nobody.”

The NBA isn’t professional boxing; nobody gets to duck anybody.

But a Thunder team searching for respect gained a measure Saturday night. The Thunder picture themselves contenders and for much of the season listened to talking heads (myself included) say the Warriors and Spurs are in a different class. Saturday night was a step in showing that they belonged. There are still questions about how Golden State or San Antonio could exploit players such as Dion Waiters or Enes Kanter is a seven-game series, but the Thunder have two of the league’s top five players — they can beat and hang with anyone.

They have a shot at a title.

If Durant believes that, it would impact his decision this summer, but that is another discussion.