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Week 12 NBA Power Rankings: As always, the Spurs are an efficient regular season machine

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In a seven-game series, I would still take Golden State (with their flaws) or Cleveland to beat San Antonio or Houston, but in the regular season those latter two teams are hotter and move to the top of the food chain for a week. Also, Boston could move past Toronto in the standings — they already have in these rankings — with a win Tuesday when the teams meet.

 
Spurs small icon 1. Spurs (30-7, Last Week No. 3). Winners of four in a row and seven of their last eight, the Spurs defense is back (allowing less than a point per possession in their last 10 games) and with it they have outscored opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions in their last 10 (best in the NBA). The Spurs have another interesting find in Davis Bertrans, who was a draft-and-stash throw in as part of the Kawhi Leonard/George Hill trade who dropped 21 last week and has played solidly in a bench role for the team.

 
Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (30-9, LW 4). Winners of eight in a row, that includes a game where Russell Westbrook puts up the bigger stat line but James Harden led the Rockets to the win (which sums up the MVP race to this point). Not that Harden’s stat lines are not eye catching — he has 10 triple-doubles himself this season and 10 straight 20/10 games. With Clint Cappela still out with a broken leg, Montrezl Harrell has stepped up with some big games, including 28 points on 12-for-13 shooting Sunday.

 
Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (28-8, LW 1). Adding Kyle Korver helps in the short term (until March or so) when J.R. Smith returns, but this was really a move about games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals — Tyronn Lue has a dangerous new weapon. Credit GM David Griffin for going all-in — you have 32-year-old LeBron James, things don’t get more “win now.” The Cavs have started 2-0 on a six-game road trip through the West that concludes next Monday with a rematch at Golden State.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (31-6, LW 2). How much should we read into the issue with the Warriors going a little too much Kevin Durant isolation in crunch time? Or that ugly fourth-quarter collapse against Memphis last Friday? It’s January, so not much, but what makes this team dangerous in the clutch was teams can’t guard everyone, and they are stocked with shooters — go isolation and the defense doesn’t have to (the same way). If the Warriors fall into the iso habit (with KD, Stephen Curry, or anyone) in crunch time they will pay for it.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (23-14, LW 6). Winners of four in a row, although Utah was the only team over .500 in that stretch (and the Celtic defense has not impressed in the last 10 games). Isaiah Thomas is in a tough spot with the other top point guards in the East — somebody is going to get left out of the All-Star Game. So Thomas is doing his best to make sure it’s not him: He’s averaged 34.8 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting in his last five, hitting 58.5 percent from three in that stretch.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (24-13, LW 5). Toronto’s defense, which helped carry them early on (along with their elite backcourt) has faltered of late. So has the entire Raptors team, dropping five of seven against a tough schedule, while Boston has feasted on a softer one. The Raptors get the chance to re-establish their status as second best in the East Tuesday when the Celtics come to town (lose and they fall to third in the East).

 
Grizzlies small icon 7. Grizzlies (23-16, LW 7). With their defense slipping a little of late (and the offense picking up) the Grizzlies have become less consistent — they lost to both Los Angeles teams (the Clippers were without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul), then turned around and beat the Warriors in a thrilling overtime game. Good tests with teams they are battling for playoff positioning this week on the road in Oklahoma City and Houston.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (22-16, LW 8). Here is Westbrook’s MVP case in a nutshell: They are 14-3 when he has a triple-double, 8-13 when he doesn’t. He has to carry the offensive load and be efficient for this team to have a chance. The Thunder had lost three in a row against a tough January schedule until another Westbrook triple-double and a win against Denver Saturday. Seven of their next eight games are on the road.

 
Hawks small icon 9. Hawks (21-16 LW 12). Winners of seven in a row thanks to fantastic defensive play, but how hard will the Kyle Korver loss hit them? And how will they deal with the sword hanging over their head in the form of impending Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha trades? Did this win streak build up enough of a cushion to keep them in the playoffs when those trades come down? Plenty of questions in Atlanta, but they are just three games from falling out of the playoffs right now in the crowded East.

 
Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (25-14, LW 13). Winners of four in a row, three of those have come with Chris Paul back and Los Angeles is looking like one of the top four teams in the West again. Expect LA to shoot back up these rankings the next couple of weeks as they have a five-game homestead with only one of those teams over .500 (OKC).

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (23-15, LW 9). For their win over the Timberwolves Saturday, the Jazz were completely healthy for the first time this season — both Alec Burks and George Hill were in the rotation. They may be able to get on a little run with six of their next eight at home, although Cleveland comes to town Tuesday and that’s not going to be easy.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (20-18, LW 15).. Winners of five in a row, they get a little rest this week flying to London for their one game, against Denver. Jeff Teague has played better, but the other key is the Paul George and Myles Turner combination: Indiana is +6.5 per 100 possessions on the season when those two are on the court together, but that is up to +22.1 in the last five games.

 
Bulls small icon 13. Bulls (19-18, LW 18). Three impressive wins last week including Cleveland and Toronto — all thanks to Jimmy Butler being on an incredible hot streak. That included Butler scoring 14 in the fourth against the Cavaliers, which has Chicago fans saying he should get mentioned in MVP talk. Busy five games in seven nights week for Chicago, with two back-to-backs (getting Washington and Memphis on those second nights).

 
Bucks small icon 14. Bucks (18-18, LW 11). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second in the Eastern All-Star fan voting for the front court, and as the NBA is accounting for misspellings of his last name on ballots his totals should jump. He seems a lock. Rookie Malcolm Brogdon has been an absolute find — he’s shooting 41 percent from three, can work off the ball, can defend, and give Jason Kidd lineup options.They split a close home-and-home with the Knicks, then dropped a game to the Wizards.

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (20-18, LW 10). Charlotte’s top-10 defense for the season has been bottom 10 in the league in the last 10 games, with a slump on the defensive glass being part of the issue. Nicolas Batum missing some time with a sore knee isn’t going to help that cause. They almost picked up a win against Detroit thanks to Marco Belinelli’s brilliance, but fell just a half-second short

 
Wizards small icon 16. Wizards (18-18, LW 14). John Wall has been fantastic of late — he was the NBA’s Player of the Week last week — and the Wizards caught a break Sunday getting to face the Bucks without the Greek Freak (due to flu). Now they have five games in a row at home, a chance to solidify a playoff position in the crowded bottom half of the East.

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (17-20 LW 16). Derrick Rose has looked the best he has in years this season, but he’s not the old Rose anymore: The Knicks are now 1-12 when Derrick Rose takes 17 FGA or more (hat tip @bball_ref) Kristaps Porzing is frustrated with this team’s inconsistency — as he should be, this team has lost seven of eight. Games against the Bulls and Raptors this week, the kind of games where they could use a win to get back in the playoff picture.

 
Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (18-21, LW 23). In November, the Detroit Pistons allowed 103 points per 100 possessions on defense. In December they were giving up 105.1 — and the decline is picking up speed. In their last five games, the Pistons are allowing 111 points per 100. In spite of that, Detroit has won two straight games by one point, not pretty but the Pistons will take it.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (16-23, LW 22). This team should be the best of the bunch battling for the final playoff slot in the West, what with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but they keep taking steps back. Look for them to be active on the trade market looking for defensive help (particularly a defensive big). Tough back-to-back this week, first the improving Lakers on Tuesday (LA is just two games back of them in the playoff chase) then Golden State the next night.

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (15-22, LW 21). They have started off 0-3 at home on a seven-game homestead that is key if this team is serious about making the playoffs (when it ends they head out on the road for eight straight). As an aside, the Kings interest in a Paul Milsap trade has one major flaw — he’s a free agent this summer? Do the Kings really think they can re-sign him?

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (14-24, LW 17). Anthony Davis is trying to carry this team, he has four straight games of at least 20 points and 15 rebounds, but it’s not working, they have lost three straight. That said, they are still in the playoff hunt in the West, but they spend the week on the road where they are 4-13 on the season. New Orleans needs some road wins to make the postseason.

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (16-23 LW 19). Coach Frank Vogel on the team’s struggles: “We’ve just got to feel the game out better. When we’re too perimeter orated and the shots aren’t falling full cover, we’ve got to drive the basketball more and get it inside and not settle. This team doesn’t pass the ball instinctually very well.”

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (15-26, LW 28). The Lakers have won three of four and moved within two games of the eight seed, and Lakers fans should thank D’Angelo Russell for that. He said that at the urging of Luke Walton he has developed a routine — for game days, for practice days, etc. — and that has helped him feel more comfortable, allowing him to be more aggressive. In his last five games, he’s averaged 20.8 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting from three, plus 5.2 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.4 turnovers a night. More than that, he just looks comfortable and confident running the offense.

 
Nuggets small icon 24. Nuggets (14-23, LW 20). It was a brutal week on the schedule — Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder — but they were tied just a week ago for the eight seed with the Kings, lost to them, and the losing streak is up to five. Denver has fallen to dead last in the NBA in defense this season, allowing 110.2 points per 100 possessions. Just one game this week, against the Pacers in London.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (11-26, LW 25). There have been moments the past couple weeks, as this team gets healthy, that it seems Dallas might start to figure it all out. Then they get slapped around by Phoenix. The Mavericks get the chance for a little revenge against the Suns this week, but the game is being played in Mexico City.

 
timberwolves small icon 26. Timberwolves (11-26, LW 24). Remember last season when the complaint about the Timberwolves was they didn’t know how to close out games. Well, as John Schuhmann of NBA.com notes, this year Minnesota is 5-15 in games within five points in the final five minutes. Also in classic Tom Thibodeau fashion, Andrew Wiggins is fourth in the NBA in total minutes played, Zach LaVine is sixth, and Karl-Anthony Towns is 12th.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (12-26, LW 29). They had won two in a row then made the Cavaliers work for the win Sunday night, all good signs. Eric Bledsoe is having an All-Star kind of season averaging 20.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.8 rebounds a game, it just may be tough to get a nod from the coaches because of the depth of the guards in the conference and the Suns’ struggles.

 
Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (10-25, LW 27). More fodder for the Joel Embiid’s ROY campaign: He is first player in NBA history have six-straight games of 20 points or more in fewer than 30 minutes (via Elias). With the win over the Nets Sunday, the Sixers are now 4-4 on the road in their last eight (they won just three games on the road all of last season). Not a coincidence Nerlens Noel is playing more and the defense looks better.

 
Heat small icon 29. Heat (11-28, LW 26). Justise Winslow is out for the season, and while he certainly was struggling with his jumper he defended well and the Heat were 4.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court. They are 2-11 in their last 13, 1-3 on the current road trip with games in Golden State and Milwaukee remaining.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (8-28, LW 30). Losers of six in a row, and they recently had a stretch of 7-in-10 at home and went 0-7 at Barclays. Still no timetable on Jeremy Lin’s return as the Nets are being cautious. In a “rearranging a the deck chairs on the Titanic” move, the Nets have released Anthony Bennett so they can sign Quincy Acy.

Report: Ime Udoka, Ettore Messina, David Fizdale to interview for Hornets job

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The Charlotte Hornets have a new GM in Mitch Kupchak. Upon taking the helm, Kupchak made short work of firing head coach Steve Clifford.

Now, the Hornets need a new coach and they have quite a few names to choose from.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Hornets will be interviewing current San Antonio Spurs assistants Ime Udoka and Ettore Messina along with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale.

Via Twitter:

All three have extensive coaching experience under their belts. Udoka played in the NBA for seven seasons and has been an assistant coach in San Antonio since 2012.

Messina is a four-time Euroleague champion as a coach, and a two-time winner of the Euroleague Coach of the Year award. He’s coached abroad and in the U.S. since 1989, and he’s been with the Spurs since 2014.

Fizdale coached the Grizzlies for two seasons. Before that he was a longtime assistant coach with the Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra.

Hornets star Kemba Walker said that who the team chose as GM would influence his decision to re-sign after 2018-19. Walker loved Clifford, so who Charlotte picks as coach could carry significant weight with Walker as well.

LeBron James, Cavaliers hope to even series with Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — LeBron James has been in this playoff position before, just not in the first round.

With Cleveland down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James was asked if Game 4 in Indianapolis Sunday was a must win.

“It’s the postseason,” said James, who is 10-0 in his career in first-round playoff series with Cleveland and Miami. “Every game is a must win. You want to come in and play well and win no matter what. No matter if you have home-court advantage or if you’re starting on the road, that’s the mindset you have to have. I felt like (Friday) was a must win. We didn’t win, obviously, but it’s the same mindset on Sunday.”

James, who scored 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and delivered eight assists in a 92-90 road loss Friday night, rejected what he felt were reporters’ attempts to ask if the other players needed to do more.

“You guys think I’m going to throw my teammates under the bus? I’m not about that,” James said. “Guys just, we have to be better, including myself. Had six turnovers (Friday). I was horrible in the third quarter, couldn’t make a shot. If I had made some better plays in the third quarter, the lead doesn’t skip.”

The Pacers cut a 17-point halftime deficit to six points in the third quarter and finally took their first lead in the fourth quarter.

“We know we all gotta play better as a collective group, no matter who it is,” James said. “We got production to start the game and in the second half there wasn’t much production. We still had a chance to win. We’ve got to regroup and figure how we can be better in Game 4.”

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavaliers were limited because George Hill‘s back “locked up” in the second half. Hill played only nine minutes in the second half, scoring two of his 13 points. Lue used James and Jordan Clarkson rather than backup point guard Jose Calderon in the fourth quarter. If Hill can’t go Sunday, Lue said he will likely start Calderon.

Hill had an MRI on Saturday, but the results weren’t back. He is listed as questionable for Game 4 with back spasms. Hill was hurt during Game 1 when Trevor Booker set a back screen and felt stiffness before Game 2, but played 20 minutes.

For the Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic was the difference maker, scoring 15 of his team-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. Bogdanovic struggled shooting the first two games of the series.

Bogdanovic, who made 7 of 9 3-pointers, kept his focus after two quick fouls in the first quarter and had to leave briefly in the fourth when he picked up his fifth foul. The seven 3-pointers tied a franchise playoff record, also held by Reggie Miller twice, Chuck Person and Paul George.

“I thought it was going to be another poor performance from myself, but in the second half I started hitting shots and started feeling (much) better and I think a did a great job (Friday night),” the Croatian forward said.

Bogdanovic said he was most pleased with his defense against James.

“Everybody thought before this season that I cannot play defense,” he said. “I don’t say that I am playing great defense, but I am working hard at trying to make it tough for each offensive player that I am guarding.”

Bogdanovic said he tries to push James so he catches the ball far from the basket.

“Against those type of players you just try to stay aggressive on them,” Bogdanovic said.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan was impressed with his ability to produce both ways.

“You’re taking a pounding if you’re on the defensive end of the floor if you’re guarding LeBron,” McMillan said. “But offensively he found some energy. He got some good looks and he knocked them down.”

The Pacers came back to win eight times during the regular season after being down 15 or more points.

“We’ve been resilient,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “We made an adjustment in the second half and it helped us. But it’s only one game; I’m looking forward to Sunday.”

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders. In fact, I would argue most of it is not.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts vs. the roster he has to coach?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did. The question for Blazers management is, if not Stotts then who is next? Who are they getting that’s better?

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.