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?

Anthony Davis rattles rim with dunk on Juan Hernangomez (video)

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A sweet-shooting stretch four, Juan Hernangomez has a bright future in the NBA.

It’s not because of his rim protection.

Video Breakdown: How to ICE the pick-and-roll on defense

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NBA teams can defend the pick-and-roll game in many ways, but one of the most common is called ICE. This method sometimes goes by the name of Blue, Down, or Black, and it is ubiquitous as way to defend in the most popular offensive action in the modern NBA.

The basic idea is that the screener’s defender — usually a big man — stays parallel to the baseline and below the screen itself. The goal is to force the dribbler east to west, and to defend the paint while allowing for a lower percentage long range jumper.

The dribbler’s defender — usually a guard or a wing — fights over the top and pressures the shooter from above, ensuring that he cannot take a 3-pointer.

ICE pick-and-roll coverage has two main goals:

  1. Stop the ball handler and force the offense to move to another action.
  2. Stop a shot in the paint or at the 3-point line.

This varies from other kinds of pick-and-roll defense, including the hedge, the show, and the blitz. We’ll cover those in future videos, but you can get a little taste of them in a defensive glossary video I’ve done previously.

Meanwhile, get the full breakdown on ICE pick-and-roll coverage with the video breakdown above.

Rockets’ Patrick Beverley says players “disrespecting game” by resting when healthy

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Former Bulls guard turned agent and podcaster B.J. Armstrong said on our podcast last week that no, players didn’t have DNP-rest days back when he played — but he added that might well have been different if they had the information on injuries that today’s teams and players have. He said they got tired, they got banged up, and they played through it. You can call that tough, but it likely took time, maybe years, off their career.

Houston’s Patrick Beverley is from that old-school mentality and said players are disrespecting the game if they don’t get out there when healthy. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I think that’s bulls—,” Beverley said after the Rockets’ 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. “I think that’s a disgrace to this league. I think that fans deserve better.

“I could care less about coaches asking players to rest or not. It’s up to you to play or not, and if you don’t, you’re disrespecting the game. And I don’t believe in disrespecting the game, because there was a time where I wasn’t playing in the NBA and I was trying to get here. So me resting, I feel like, is disrespecting me, disrespecting the name on the front of the jersey and disrespecting the name on the back of the jersey.”

It’s the coaches and the organizations telling players to rest, it’s rarely the players themselves, and the teams are doing it because they want their guys at their peak come the playoffs. If the goal is winning a title in June (or at least going deep into May) then not wearing guys down matters.

Everyone has their opinions on it, Gregg Popovich did a good job trying to explain the nuances, but the simple fact is player rest games are not going away. They did it back in Armstrong’s day too, they just called a sore ankle or back rather than rest. What helps lessen games stars have off is building more rest and days off into the schedule, which the NBA is trying to do. But that’s a challenge that will continue to be discussed.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.