Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings Week 21: While other top teams stumble, Spurs just keep winning

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Lots of teams near the top stumbling, except for the Spurs who are as banged up as any team but just keep on winning. Because they’re the Spurs. For the first time in a long time, we have a team in the East ranked ahead of the Cavaliers, although I’ll admit that’s not done with a lot of confidence.

 
Spurs small icon 1. Spurs (51-14, Last Week No. 1). After trouncing the Warriors Saturday night (in an unwatchable game), the Spurs are just half a game out of the top seed in the West. While to man the Spurs say that they are not chasing the seed, they should — the path through the first two rounds in the West is noticeably easier for the one seed than the two (not to mention having any potential game sevens at home). That said, what the Spurs really need is to get healthy, and they should get Tony Parker (back) and Kawhi Leonard (concussion) back this week. LaMarcus Aldridge (heart issue) will be a little longer.

 
Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (46-21, LW 3). Before the season I said Houston would go as far as their defense would take them — since Jan. 1 they are 11th in the NBA in defense. Not lock down, but when you have an elite offense above average can be good enough and may well get them deep into the playoffs. It also helps that James Harden has 16 triple-doubles this season and 31 games where he scored 30 or more. Interesting game for them Saturday night in the second game of a back-to-back (after New Orleans).

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (52-14, Last Week No. 2). “There’s been no panic in our locker room or around our team,” Stephen Curry told NBCSports.com Monday when asked about the recent losing streak. “We know who we are, we know what we’re capable of. The ultimate goal is winning a championship and you’re not going to do that in game 65 or 67 or what not, so it’s not to get wrapped up in what we think is a normal NBA experience.” The schedule will help, they are finally home after a tough road trip and now face a soft schedule at home for a stretch.

 
Wizards small icon 4. Wizards (41-24, LW 6). They have gone 4-0 on a West Coast road trip putting up at least 123 points in every game (even if they needed the referees missing a call in Portland to do it). Washington has won five in a row and seven of eight, moving them into the two seed in the East, and I can’t see them falling out of the top three. They are the first team in NBA history to start the season 2-8 and come back to be better than 15 games over .500.

 
Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (43-22, LW 4). It didn’t get the publicity (or have the miles traveled) of the Warriors recent road swing, but the Cavaliers had seven games in 12 days through a tough patch of the schedule, and they went 2-5 in there. They are 6-6 since the Kevin Love injury, if you’re counting. The loss of Andrew Bogut to a broken tibia was a blow, Cleveland is rolling the dice that Larry Sanders can regain some of his old form to help out down the stretch and into the postseason.

 
Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (41-25, LW 7). There seems to be a sense of urgency around Utah with this team — Gordon Hayward and George Hill will be free agents this summer and will draw interest (as will Joe Ingles, who fits what Utah does well). Does a second-round playoff run make it more likely they stay? The Jazz are currently the four seed, one game up on the Clippers for home court in the first round, which makes Monday’s game between the sides huge.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (42-25, LW 5). They went 2-3 on a tough five-game road trip, then recovered once they got home by smacking around the Bulls. Fivethirtyeight.com says the Celtics have a 43 percent chance of getting the No. 1 seed, compared to 42 percent for the Cavaliers because Cleveland has a tougher schedule down the stretch (Washington is at 15 percent). I think the Celtics blew their chances when their bench decided to do the wave, killing their Karma.

 
Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (40-26, LW 11). Los Angeles has won four-of-five through a tough road stretch, doing it by playing better defense (which is what they did well when they were hot to start the season). The Clipper are not going to catch the Rockets for the three seed (5.5 games back), but they are just one game back of the Jazz for the four seed and home court in the first round, and those two teams play Monday night (in Utah).

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (38-28, LW 9). The dream in Toronto is to get back up to the three seed (read: avoid Cleveland in the second round) but that seems highly unlikely being 3.5 games back of both the Wizards and Celtics with 16 to play. The bigger problem is in the rearview mirror — Atlanta is just one game back of Toronto for the four seed, and home court in the first round. The Raptors have gone 5-4 without Kyle Lowry, 2-3 on a recent road trip, but they need to find some wins or their playoff road gets that much harder.

 
Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (37-29, LW 11). To me, this is the best Russell Westbrook MVP argument: OKC is 26-6 when Westbrook has a triple-double this season, 11-23 when he falls short. Does he chase them a bit at times? Sure, but he’s in a position to do so and if he isn’t the Thunder usually lose. Coach Billy Donovan made a smart move finally putting Taj Gibson in the starting lineup, and the Thunder are 2-0 since that happened.

 
Hawks small icon 11. Hawks (37-29 LW 12). Paul Millsap had scored at least 20 points in five straight games before the Memphis game Saturday (16 points). That an an improved defense (not counting the ugliness Monday against the Warriors) has the Hawks winning three straight and within striking distance — one game — of the four-seed Raptors. Can they keep it up against quality opponents this weak in the shorthanded Spurs, the Grizzlies, and the Trail Blazers.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (32-33, LW 17). When this team defends they are very dangerous, and during their current six-game winning streak they are defending (second best in the NBA in that stretch). This moved them into the eight seed and the playoffs in the East, but the test to whether they can hold on to that spot gets serious this week with a six-game road trip through the West (eight of the next 10 Bucks games are on the road, and they are 12-17 away from home this season).

 
Heat small icon 13. Heat (32-35, LW 13). They are in a home heavy stretch of the schedule and are taking advantage of it, having won for in a row before heading on the road Sunday and falling to Indiana (second night of a back-to-back). Five more home games coming up, and Miami has won 13 of their last 14 at home, but they need the wins because a tough road trip looms after it. Hopefully Goran Dragic’s eye will be well enough to have him playing this week.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (34-32, LW 15).. Since the All-Star break, C.J. Miles has played well and been a consistent force on an inconsistent team, averaging 12.4 points per game and shooting 42 percent from three. The six-seed Pacers are just one game up on the seven seed Pistons, meaning Indiana needs some wins this week in games against the Knicks, Hornets, and Rockets.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (33-33, LW 14). Reggie Jackson is playing well, Tobias Harris is back in the starting lineup, and the Pistons are back to .500 having won four of five. That has them as the seven seed, and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 2/3rds chance to make the playoffs, but with just three games separating the six and 10 seeds in the East the Pistons are far from safe. Tough week ahead with the Cavaliers, Jazz, and Raptors on the schedule.

 
Grizzlies small icon 16. Grizzlies (36-30, LW 10). Losers of five in a row and while they have been terrible on both sides of the ball it is the defense — allowing 117.5 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, worst in the NBA — that is the most shocking. Heck, they lost to the Nets. They still seem safe for the playoffs, 6.5 games ahead of the nine seed, but six of their next eight games are on the road (and the two home ones are the hot Bucks, then the Spurs). The Grizzlies may be destined for the seven seed.

 
Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (31-35, LW 18). The Nuggets need Nikola Jokic to stay healthy (he missed two games due to an illness) because they have just a 1.5 game cushion over Portland and they need wins now — five of their next seven are at home, then could a tough five game roadie that starts with the Blazers. How much Jokic means to Denver was obvious when he put up 21 on Boston in his return, helping the Nuggets to a key win.

 
Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (28-36, LW 19). They have won five-of-six, and that one loss was a controversial one to the Wizards at home. At the heart of their run has been the play of Jusuf Nurkic, who has fit better than Mason Plumlee did because Nurkic is a better shooter, he rolls hard to the basket, and he’s a better pure post threat than his predecessor. Nurkic is doing things he didn’t show us — or wasn’t given the chance to show us — in Denver. And Portland got a first round pick with him in the trade, so it’s a full on steal for them.

 
Mavericks small icon 19. Mavericks (25-36, LW 20). While we were all rightfully dazzled by Dirk Nowitzki reaching the 30,000 point plateau, we may have missed that Dallas is playing well. They are 6-3 since the All-Star break and are outscoring teams by 5 points per 100 possessions in that time. They have four games on the road through the East coming up, including the Raptors and Wizards this week.

 
timberwolves small icon 20. Timberwolves (27-38, LW 21). This has been a sneaky good team in their last 10 games, outscoring opponents by 6.4 points per 100 in that stretch, going 6-4, and beating the Warriors, Clippers, and Jazz. They are doing it because Tom Thibodeau’s constant yelling seems to have sunk in and Minnesota is playing the kind of impressive defense we expected from them all season (second best in the NBA since the All-Star break).

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (31-35, LW 15). Losers of five in a row, they have fallen out of the playoffs in the East and it’s hard to see them bouncing back into it with their inconsistent play. That’s especially true if Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade don’t start knocking down shots — they have been cold of late, as evidenced by their combined 6-of-22 shooting against the Celtics Sunday.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (29-37, LW 22). Cody Zeller is back in the lineup and the Hornets are playing better, so suddenly the ceiling is the roof for Charlotte. They are 3.5 games out of the playoffs with fewer than 20 games left, which means they need to rack up wins and this week they face the Bulls, Pacers, and Wizards.

 
Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (26-40, LW 23). Anthony Davis was going off for 42 on Saturday night and leading the Pelicans to a big OT win over Charlotte, and DeMarcus Cousins got a good view of it from the bench. Alvin Gentry went with what was working, but speaks to the Pelicans not having figured it out yet. When Davis and Cousins are on the court together the Pelicans have been outscored by 6.5 points per 48 minutes.

 
Suns small icon 24. Suns (22-45, LW 25). The Suns are worth watching right now. First because their games are tight and Devin Booker can be a late-game killer (just ask the Mavericks). Also, because you never know when the gorilla might just dive out onto the court.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (26-41 LW 24). We are coming up this week on the three year anniversary of Phil Jackson being handed the key to the Knicks and saying he had a plan to turn things around. PJ is back to trying to install the triangle, but the bigger problems have been him giving Joakim Noah and anchor of a contract, then turning a situation where he might have been able to find a new home for Carmelo Anthony into an adversarial confrontation where ‘Melo didn’t want to appear forced out of town. It’s going to be an interesting summer in NYC.

 
Sixers small icon 26. 76ers (24-42, LW 26). Is Dario Saric the Rookie of the Year? Joel Embiid is still the frontrunner, but because he only played in 31 games voters are looking around and Saric has now posted at least 19 points in 11 straight games (he had 29 against the Lakers Sunday). If this streak keeps up, he vaults into the conversation, if he’s not already there.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (24-43 LW 28). The Magic look relatively better of late, in large part because Terrence Ross at the three and Aaron Gordon at the four are far more natural fits than what was going on when they still had to shoehorn Serge Ibaka into the lineup. Along with those forwards, Elfrid Payton has looked better of late, including picking up his fifth career triple-double at the expense of the Chicago Bulls (Orlando split a home-and-home with them).

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (25-41, LW 27). Losers of eight in a row, they will keep their pick this season (top 10 protected). One of their picks last season was Skal Labissiere, who was heralded coming to Kentucky but got off to a slow start there. With Cousins gone, Labissiere has been given a little leash and has shown some real flashes of that potential. I liked what I saw from him at Summer League, I think he could develop into something for the Kings.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (20-45, LW 29). The most interesting thing out of the press conference introducing Rob Pelinka as general manager was when he was asked if the current Lakers young core was championship material. Both he and Magic Johnson were tepid in their response and had a real wait-and-see attitude. The Lakers shouldn’t fully abandon their plan to grow that core (especially since it seems more likely they keep their pick in this draft) but don’t be surprised if some of that “core” is moved in favor of players the new front office likes better.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (12-53, LW 30). They are going to finish with the worst record in the NBA (much to the joy of Boston Celtics fans), but the Nets are close to moving out of the bottom of these rankings having won three of their last seven. That included beating the Knicks on Biggie night in Brooklyn, can they return the favor on the road this week?

Heat’s Justise Winslow fined $15,000 for stepping on Embiid’s mask

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NEW YORK (AP) Miami’s Justise Winslow has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for attempting to damage Philadelphia center Joel Embiid‘s facemask during Game 3 of their playoff series.

Winslow intentionally stepped on Embiid’s mask after it had fallen onto the court with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter of the 76ers’ 128-108 victory on Thursday night.

The NBA cited Winslow for unsportsmanlike conduct in announcing the penalty Friday.

Embiid was wearing the mask for the first time after returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken orbital bone around his left eye.

Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday.

Defense found: Bucks overwhelm Celtics for 116-92 win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Milwaukee Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Boston Celtics 116-92 on Friday night, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.

Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.

Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.

Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.

Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum‘s 3-pointer.

The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory even with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.

Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home for Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie.

“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”

Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, used its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.

The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.

Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.

Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.

“Good win, lots of positives tonight. Quick turnaround … so we’ll have to do it again on Sunday,” Prunty said.

 

Wizards show some fight, top Raps 122-103, get series to 2-1

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WASHINGTON (AP) — All of about 2 1/2 minutes into the game, Washington forward Markieff Morris and Toronto’s OG Anunoby needed to be separated after a near-fight that drew in other players.

Early in the third quarter Friday night, Raptors guard Kyle Lowry was called for a flagrant foul when he swiped a hand across Bradley Beal‘s forehead as the Wizards guard went in for a breakaway layup. Later in that period, things really came close to spiraling out of control, but John Wall‘s bodyguard interceded when Washington’s All-Star jawed with Toronto’s Serge Ibaka.

As that scene unfolded on the court, spectators directed “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants at the opponents from Canada, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” blared over the arena’s speakers. Amid all the ruckus, Beal and Wall kept their heads and helped the Wizards pull further and further away for a 122-103 victory.

What was once a dull, lopsided series is suddenly quite interesting.

Beal heeded his coach’s plea to “do his job” by scoring 21 of his 28 points in the first half, Wall delivered 28 points and 14 assists, and the eighth-seeded Wizards cut their Eastern Conference first-round playoff deficit to 2-1.

“We’re not going out to try to box every game,” Beal said, before describing Morris as “a bully with a smile.”

Added Beal: “We came out tonight with an edge about ourselves.”

After letting the Raptors grab the first 2-0 series lead in franchise history, the Wizards came home and checked off every box coach Scott Brooks presented. They got Beal more involved after he made only three shots in Game 2; they actually led after the first quarter, 30-29; they produced 19 turnovers that led to 28 points.

“They came out and punched us,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “And we allowed them to.”

He meant that figuratively, of course, but the choice of words sure seemed apt.

The Raptors did appear to take the worse of the physical nature of the game.

DeMar DeRozan, who led Toronto with 23 points, wore a Band-Aid under his right eye afterward. Reserve Pascal Siakam held a bag of ice over a cut on his lip that required three stitches.

“Ain’t nobody fighting out here,” said Lowry, who had 19 points and eight assists. “I mean, it got physical, but ain’t nobody fighting. It’s a heated moment, but that’s the game of basketball.”

Each team boasts a pair of elite, All-Star guards. This time, Washington’s pair came out on top.

The start initially had the look of “Here we go again,” as Toronto moved ahead 27-18. The Raptors, after all, outscored Washington by an average of 11 points in the first period over Games 1 and 2. But this time, Washington responded with a 12-point run capped by Beal’s 3 with under a minute left.

Beal scored 12 in the quarter a day after he, Wall and Brooks met to discuss ways to get Beal more involved in the offense. Entering Friday, Beal was averaging only 14 points in the playoffs, well below his 22.6 average during the regular season.

“We need both our guys to step up,” Brooks said about Beal and Wall. “It was good tonight.”

 

Pacers erase 17-point deficit to take 2-1 lead over Cavs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 points, leading the Indiana Pacers back from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 92-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night for a 2-1 lead in their first-round series.

Cleveland was 39-0 during the regular season when leading after three quarters and kept that perfect mark intact with a Game 2 win.

The incredible second-half charge came exactly one year after Indiana blew a 26-point halftime lead in a historic playoff collapse against the Cavs.

This time, the Pacers delivered a devastating blow to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs – on a night LeBron Jones joined Michael Jordan as the only players in playoff history to record 100 double-doubles. James finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Cleveland from losing its first game this season after leading following the third quarter.

The biggest reason for the collapse: Bogdanovic.

After charging back with striking distance, he completed a four-point play to finally give the Pacers an 81-77 lead with 6:10 left. Bogdanovic followed that with another to make it as seven-point game.

Then James answered with the next seven to tie it.

Bogdanovic came right back with a layup and another 3 before Thaddeus Young scored to give the Pacers a 91-84 cushion with 53 seconds left.

James knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to four, and the Cavs got another 3 from Kevin Love with 7 seconds left to make it 91-90.

Darren Collison made 1 of 2 free throws with 5 seconds left, giving Cleveland one more chance. But J.R. Smith‘s long desperation heave came up short..