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NBA Power Rankings Week 15: The Wizards are climbing fast, and they are legit

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The very top of the rankings remains stable, but the Wizards are climbing fast — and this isn’t a hot streak, they are healthy and legit. Also rising fast is Miami, where Eric Spoelstra could put himself in the mix for magician, er, coach of the second half of the season.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (41-7, Last Week No. 1). They are 14-2 in the last 16 games and still have the No. 1 ranked offense and defense in the NBA. Stephen Curry has stepped back onto center stage, averaging 28.6 points, 6.6 assists per game in the last five. The next big question for Steve Kerr? If he deploys his four All-Stars in one lineup as promised — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — then who is the fifth player? And will Green try to recruit him?

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (36-11, LW 2). San Antonio when focused is very good, see the win over Toronto this week (and Cleveland last week) as examples, but then they drop two in a row to the Pelicans and Mavericks (the Spurs have lost two in a row just four times in the past two seasons). The losses are not going to drop them in these rankings (in part because the best teams behind them have stumbled as well), but they are 4.5 games back of the Warriors now and will not catch them.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (35-16, LW 3). James Harden is just ridiculous, scoring 51 points against the Sixers Friday to notch his second 50-point triple double of the season, the first player ever to that. They have gone 4-5 in their last nine, but now have 8 of 10 at home and seven of those games are against teams below .500, look for them to get right.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (32-14, LW 4). I feel like I should hashtag every story lately about Cleveland with #eliteteamproblems. Could they use another playmaker/backup point guard to match up with the Warriors? Sure. It also will help when J.R. Smith returns. Did they have a mid-season swoon? Yes, but so what? This team is still the clear class of the East and is on a path to return to the Finals. However, in the short term five of their next six are on the road.

 
Wizards small icon 5. Wizards (27-20, LW 10). This team is for real. They are 8-2 with the second-best net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games (Golden State) — and that includes knocking off Boston last week. More than that they are doing it over time, the Wizards are 21-9 since Dec. 1. They maybe the five seed, but they are just two games back of the two-seed Celtics and in that mix. Expect the wins to keep coming with the Knicks, Lakers, and Pelicans at home this week.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (29-18, LW 8). While Celtics fans — and Danny Ainge — are on the hunt for the next big trade, this team has slid into second place in the Eastern Conference. They can cement that standing by beating the Raptors Wednesday night at the Garden in an interesting showdown — lose that game and the Raptors have the tiebreaker between the teams. Boston has four at home this week before spending most of the rest of the month on the road.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (30-19, LW 8). They faced three West playoff teams last week (as of today) — Thunder, Grizzlies, Nuggets — and lost all of them. Utah has dropped five in a row against West playoff teams. That said, as the Clippers stumble without Chris Paul the Jazz are primed to grab the four seed and hold it (Utah is just half a game back), giving them home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

 
Hawks small icon 8. Hawks (28-20 LW 6). The Hawks don’t win the easy way, they had the dramatic comeback win against the Bulls and the 4OT game against the Knicks last week. However, they also had ugly losses to the Clippers (without CP3 or Griffin) and falling by 26 to the Wizards. Atlanta has the net rating of a .500 team and to me it feels like the Hawks are performing over their heads, meaning the likely regress to the mean at some point.

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (28-20, LW 11). We will see if they can sustain this ranking without Enes Kanter, he was playing well for them off the bench before taking his frustrations out on a chair and fracturing his arm. Look for more run for Joffrey Lauvergne. OKC has gone 7-7 through a rough January schedule (with one game left in the month, vs. San Antonio) and then the schedule eases a little. Westbrook has 24 triple-doubles this season but his efficiency has slipped — he’s shooting 38.7 percent overall and 29.2 percent in his last 10 games.

 
Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (29-19, LW 7). Finally snapped their five-game losing streak by beating the Bucks, then turned around and lost to Magic on Sunday. If your a Raptors fan looking for bright spots at least DeMar DeRozan seemed to snap out of his slump on Sunday. Key game against Boston this week, win and they secure the tiebreaker with that team. Also, Kyle Lowry on the jumbotron was one of the best moments of the last week.

 
Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (28-21, LW 12). This team continues to just kind of float along down the river, going 5-5 in their last 10 with two wins over the Jazz and one against the Raptors, but falling to the Trail Blazers and Bulls in there. This team can beat anybody or lose to anybody on any given night. The Grizzlies are two games into a six-game road trip but the good news is that as that ends the schedule softens up for them for a while.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (25-22, LW 14).. C.J. Miles has been put in the starting lineup and the Pacers have rattled off three wins in a row (including over Houston), making them look mildly more secure in the playoff chase (four games up on the nine-seed Pistons). The other reason for the hot streak? All-Star Paul George has played phenomenally, he carries this team.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (30-18, LW 9). As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann on twitter, the surprising thing is that with Chris Paul out the Clippers get dramatically worse on defense — in the dozen games he missed this season they have allowed 115.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s a bigger issue than the offense. Oh, and trading for Carmelo Anthony is not going to help their defense. The Clippers have six of their next seven on the road, and the one home game is Golden State on Thursday night.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (21-25, LW 17). They have the best offense in the NBA over their last 10 games, scoring 116.9 points per 100 possessions. That has propelled them to a 7-3 record in that stretch and has them holding on to the eight seed (by 1.5 games over Portland so far). That offense gets tested this week by the Spurs and Grizzlies. Nikola Jokic wasn’t going to make the cut as an All-Star this season, but next year could be a different story — other teams are starting to have to game plan for him.

 
Bulls small icon 15. Bulls (24-25, LW 15). Did Sunday’s win over Philadelphia mean Chicago has put all the ugliness of internal squabbling — Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler calling out their younger teammates’ effort, Rajon Rondo calling out Wade and Butler’s leadership, and a team meeting — behind them? We will find out as the Bulls head out on a tough six-game road trip that this week has them in Houston and Oklahoma City.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (21-28, LW 20).. Evan Turner is in the starting lineup and Portland has played well with him paired alongside Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Not that it was enough to beat a shorthanded Warriors team on Sunday. Portland needs wins, three games back of the eight seed Nuggets in the loss column. Also, Lillard reached and impressive milestone last week.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (23-21, LW 13). They are 4-10 in January and have lost four in a row. Worse yet, they have lost seven in a row on the road and now head out on a tough three-game road trip (Blazers, Warriors, Jazz). Kemba Walker is a deserving All-Star, but the man needs some help if this team is to hold on to (or improve on) the eighth seed, and he’s not getting it.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (17-29, LW 18). Joel Embiid, we miss you, get back on the court quickly please (I think he’ll be the first replacement in the East if injury forced someone to drop out of the All-Star game). Sixers fans see the recent run of success, their team only five games out of the playoffs, and have started to dream… sorry, but I think that dream is dead. Although not to the point of it being impossible, which alone is a credit to how far this team has come.

 
Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (21-26, LW 16). This team has come apart on the defensive end of the floor, which is why they are on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That starts with Andre Drummond, who should be a better rim protector than he has been this season. We know Reggie Jackson is not being traded for Ricky Rubio, the question is will he be traded for anyone else (probably not at the deadline, but you never know).

 
Heat small icon 20. Heat (18-30, LW 27). Winners of seven in a row, and that includes knocking off the Warriors and Rockets. Eric Spoelstra is doing it with smoke and mirrors, starting with getting this team to play great defense. Plus the coach is getting some strong backcourt play from Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters.

 
Knicks small icon 21. Knicks (21-28 LW 21). The Knicks have had more drama the past week than a Real Housewives episode, all of it starting because Phil Jackson has come to the realization most Knicks fans did last summer that Kristaps Porzingis is the future, and they should try to move Carmelo Anthony. That said, Anthony has played well of late and doesn’t deserve to be booed (save that for the rest of the roster around him). My guess is that Anthony is not moved at the deadline, unless Jackson is willing to take back a ridiculously poor deal. This summer might be a different story.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (19-29, LW 22). They beat the Cavaliers and Spurs last week, which helps keep their playoff dreams afloat somewhat (they are 3.5 games back of the eight seed). It helps that nobody in the West seems to want the eight seed, but the Pelicans need to start racking up wins. Which will be difficult heading out on road to Toronto, Detroit, and Washington this week.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (17-30, LW 24). Dallas needed shooting in the lineup, they started Seth Curry and have gone 6-3 since then — Curry has averaged 15.1 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from three in his recent starts. With a good draft pick this year, Wesley Matthews staying healthy (he’s played well of late) and Harrison Barnes continuing to grow in his new role, you can see a path back to the playoffs for this team next year. Especially if they can land a couple quality free agents this summer.

 
Kings small icon 24. Kings (19-28, LW 25). They picked up three road wins last week, but with this streaky team it’s difficult to read much into that. The guy to start watching in Sacramento is Malachi Richardson, the rookie out of Syracuse, who has started to look like a solid NBA wing — the guy the kings hoped Ben McLemore would be. Richardson has bumped McLemore from the rotation.

 
Bucks small icon 25. Bucks (21-26, LW 19). They have lost eight of nine. A large part of that is Giannis Antetokounmpo — a deserving All-Star starter — but it’s also that this team’s defense isn’t great, particularly out at the arc, and so they never pull away and games tend to be close and dramatic. They sit 1.5 games out of the playoffs but strike me as the team most likely to climb back into the mix once they get Kris Middleton back in February.

 
timberwolves small icon 26. Timberwolves (18-29, LW 23). They have won eight of their last 10, and with seven of their next nine games at home you can’t count them out of the playoff chase quite yet (they are 3.5 games back of eight seed Denver). Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have played well, but it is an improved and now solid defense that has them at least still in the playoffs conversation.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (19-30 LW 28). This team’s odd-fitting roster looks even worse with shooters like Evan Fournier and Jodie Meeks out injured. Also, Bismack Biyombo got a homecoming win in Toronto last week. The most interesting news around the team is all the trade interest in Nikola Vucevic, who seems destined to be out the door before the Feb. 23 trade deadline, although don’t we think that every year? Maybe this year it happens, it would help unclog the front court in Orlando.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (15-32, LW 26). The backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Harris is really clicking for the Suns, and Bledsoe was a legitimate candidate to be an All-Star reserve (he was done in by how bad the team has been). Of course, all the nice offensive play is moot when you can’t get a stop, and the Suns are 27th in the NBA in January (and 25th for the season) on the defensive end of the court.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (16-34, LW 29). Intending to or not, the Lakers are making a push to keep their pick this season (it is top three protected, otherwise it goes to the Sixers). Thanks to recent runs by Dallas and Philly, the Lakers have the third-worst record in the NBA. The progress seen from the team’s young stars earlier in the season has faded over the team’s recent stretch, for example Brandon Ingram is shooting 8.7 percent over the team’s last three games. The real offseason question in Los Angeles: Does Jim Buss keep his job?

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (9-38, LW 30). Teams have scored at least 100 points against them in 23 straight games. Granted, they play at the fastest pace in the league (104 possessions per game) so that has a lot to do with it, but still 23 straight. You want something positive? Um… Caris LeVert might develop into a rotation player. That’s all I got.

Lakers/Suns have minor skirmish, Lonzo Ball just walks away

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If you’re on the court when your team gets in an NBA “fight” — what the rest of us would call a shoving match where nobody really wants to throw a punch — should you run into the fray and help your teammates?

Friday night, with just more than three minutes to go in Phoenix’s eventual win, the Suns called a timeout, and Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got in one of those silly shoving matches. Players from both teams raced into the fray to protect their teammate/break it up.

The Suns’ rookie Josh Jackson picked up a technical for his role racing in and escalating the matter.

Watch the video again, and you’ll see Lakers’ rookie Lonzo Ball just walk away from it all and head to the bench.

That has led to criticism of the rookie from some Lakers’ fans, who see a guy who didn’t rush in to protect his teammates — that’s seen as part of the sports locker room culture. A “band of brothers” or “us against the world” mentality. Ball, frankly, gave a more mature answer than that.

Ball is right, nothing was going to come of this. It was meaningless posturing. Walking away was the mature move.

However, the question is how is this perceived in the Lakers’ locker room? Do the players care that Ball shrugged and walked away? Do they think he needed to race in and try to look tough like everyone else? That can impact his standing on the team — as a guy Magic Johnson brought in to be a leader — more than anything.

Also, with all his shooting woes, is this the first sign of some Lakers fans starting to turn on Lonzo? It’s a little early for that.

Harrison Barnes offers advice for Dennis Smith Jr., Julius Randle

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For a guy in just his sixth NBA season, Harrison Barnes has seen a lot.

He has seen the mountaintop, having won a ring as a role player for the Golden State Warriors. He’s also has felt the devastation of being on a team that historically blew a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. He’s been a high school phenom — unfairly compared to Kobe Bryant — and a high draft pick (No. 7), he understands the pressures that come with all that. He’s played (and plays) with superstar future Hall of Famers. And he’s been the guy pushed aside by a team, despite playing well, to make room for one of those superstar players — the harsh business reality of the NBA.

Barnes is learning something new this season in Dallas — how to deal with losing. He never dealt with it before — not high school, AAU, college at North Carolina — but the Dallas Mavericks are 2-14, and while they struggled last year it was nothing like this.

“It’s been difficult,” Barnes told NBC Sports about the start of the season, “but I’ve definitely seen a lot of highs, seen a lot of lows, I’m just trying to get better and lead my team to some wins.”

With all that experience, Barnes was brought in to be a leader in Dallas, and he’s worked to do that on and off the court. Off the court, he has met with local high school players and donated gear he wears — Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves — to those programs. 

On the court this year, he’s tried to blend his game with rookie Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavs see as the future at the point guard spot.

“Playing with Dennis has been great,” Barnes said. “He’s got a lot of tools that will help him be a great guy in the league for a long time. So the transition, in terms of playing together and developing chemistry, hasn’t been hard at all. I think he’s very mature beyond his years, and that makes it easy.”

As a leader, his advice to Smith Jr. has just been to not hold back, trust his instincts.

“My advice is to always be aggressive in your decision making,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s ‘should I pass?’ or ‘should I shoot?’ should I do this or should I do that, whatever it is, be aggressive. Because right now as a team, we’re in a little bit of a rut, we just need energy. Whatever it may be, even if you’re making the wrong play or the wrong decision, do it with conviction so there’s some inertia and the rest of us can feed off it.”

With the young high school players around Dallas his advice is similar — go for what you want on and off the court, give it your all — but he adds with them they need to protect their bodies in an increasingly physical game.

“Today I was able to go to Lincoln High School, meet with the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, and I was able to donate some Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves to the young kid, and talk to them about protecting your body when you’re out there,” Barnes said. “The game is becoming more physical and more competitive at a younger age, and the best ability is availability.”

If there’s one guy in the NBA who can relate to Barnes’ path, it might be the Lakers’ Julius Randle.

The fourth-year big has been up and down but has gotten better every season and shown promise with the Lakers, putting up 11.4 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting this season (both career highs, although his jumper still needs work), plus grabbing 6.7 rebounds, but mostly he brings energy and physical, strong defense  in just 20 minutes a game off the bench. He has transformed his body, gotten leaner but stronger, and has done a good job filling a role for Los Angeles as a physical, defensive player in a league going small and getting skinnier

Randle is coming up on the end of his rookie contract next summer and is due a payday, he thought he was part of the franchise’s future, yet he is likely the odd man out in Los Angeles as the Lakers chase big name free agents. Randle’s name is a staple of trade talks (about moving Luol Deng and his contract).

Harrison Barnes can relate. He was swept out of Golden State to make room for that team’s successful run at Kevin Durant.

What would Barnes tell Randle?

“My advice is to focus on what is going to be the best for you,” Barnes said. “Focus on where you can grow as a player, get better, where you would thrive in. Whether or not he ends up in the same place or a different place, just make sure you’re in a situation where you can grow. That’s the most important thing because a lot of things are going to be out of his control, who decides to go where and that type of stuff, but as long as he focuses on getting better with his craft that’s the one thing he can control.”

That’s what Barnes did a couple seasons ago, and he ended up in Dallas with a big contract, a big opportunity, and a chance to be a leader. He’s trying to do that on a team transitioning out of the Dirk Nowitzki era, but it hasn’t been easy.

And it’s come with some harsh new lessons. Like dealing with losing. One Barnes and the Mavericks want to move past as quickly as they can.

Watch LeBron James score 39 to lead comeback win over Clippers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James knows about the narrative bouncing around the NBA that Cleveland can be dethroned in the East.

He’s ignoring it, and slowly changing it.

“You know I could care less what people say,” James said. “I’m so far beyond that. I don’t care what people say.”

Just to make sure everyone understood him, James asked his two sons waiting for him in Cleveland’s locker room to chime in on whether he was concerned about outside voices.

The boys had dad’s back.

James had another of those games that he only seems capable of, scoring 39 points with 14 rebounds in 46 minutes as the Cavaliers continued to improve from a shaky start with their fourth straight win, 118-113 in overtime on Friday night over the skidding Los Angeles Clippers, who dropped their seventh in a row.

Kevin Love scored 25 and drained a pair of 3-pointers in OT, when the Cavs, who didn’t take the lead until the first minute of the extra session, outscored the Clippers 13-8.

Dwyane Wade gave Cleveland a huge spark, scoring 23 points with 11 rebounds in 37 minutes. The Cavs’ win wasn’t eye-pleasing, but it was another step in the right direction for the three-time defending conference champions, who went 3-1 on a just-completed road trip.

On Thursday night, James said he watched Boston beat Golden State to improve to 14-2, a stunning start that has prompted discussion about Cleveland’s vulnerability.

James dismissed any concern about the Celtics’ early burst.

“I’ve got too much to worry about around here right now trying to get our ship going in the right direction,” he said.

The Clippers’ ship is taking on water fast. Los Angeles has lost nine of 10 since a 4-0 start.

Blake Griffin scored 23 and DeAndre Jordan had 20 points and 22 rebounds for Los Angeles, which didn’t give up the lead until the first minute of overtime. The Clippers had chances to put the Cavs away in regulation, but they didn’t execute down the stretch and then had defensive breakdowns in overtime.

“They made some big 3s,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You have to give them credit. That’s why they’ve been in a lot of Finals.”

The Cavs spent all night chasing the Clippers and caught them at 105-all when Love grabbed an offensive rebound and fed James, who dropped an uncontested 3-pointer with 47 seconds left.

Griffin missed tough shots on consecutive possessions, giving Cleveland one last chance in regulation but James missed an off-balance left-hander just before the horn.

James made a free throw to open OT – he went 1 of 5 at the line – and give Cleveland its first lead. Then, after Love made his two 3s, James sealed the Cavs’ fifth win in six games with a jumper.

“Well defended,” Rivers said. “It’s LeBron James.”

 

Anthony Davis leaves game with concussion, likely to miss time

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Anthony Davis has had a couple concussions during his NBA career, one of the several ailments that have kept him off the court for stretches the past few seasons.

Now Davis has suffered his third concussion since being in the league. Davis left the Pelicans’ game against the Nuggets in the third quarter after getting a concussion when trying to guard Nikola Jokic. There is no timetable for his return, he will enter the league’s concussion protocol and need to be cleared by a league neurologist before he can return to the court. After the game New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry didn’t have any details.

The play itself looked fairly innocent — there was no intent by Jokic.

Davis spent a couple of minutes on the ground after the play, his hands over his face, before going to the locker room.

Davis is averaging 25.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game this season.