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NBA Power Rankings Week 23: Can Spurs, Rockets knock Warriors out of top spot this week?

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There’s only a few weeks left n the NBA season, and if someone is going to knock Golden State out of the top spot it’s going to happen this week — the Warriors play the Spurs once and the Rockets twice. As for now, Golden State remains the team on top, while both Boston and Washington slide past Cleveland.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (59-14, Last Week No. 1). And people were worried about this team because… why? Golden State is winners of seven in a row, and Kevin Durant seems to be on track to be back before the regular season ends. This week they will get tested: back-to-back at Houston and San Antonio, then Houston and Washington back at Oracle. If they stumble, the door opens for San Antonio to get the No. 1 seed, but don’t bet on it as Golden State’s schedule softens after this week. Also, just a reminder Andre Iguodala can do this.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (56-16, LW 3). Winners of four in a row, and this becomes the third straight season the Spurs have beat all other 29 teams in the NBA at least once in the regular season. No other team in NBA history has done that. If the Spurs don’t beat the Warriors Wednesday and close that gap for the No. 1 seed this week (and even if they do) expect Gregg Popovich to make sure his stars get rested heading into the playoffs.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (51-22, LW 4). If you are making a case for James Harden for MVP based on his efficiency and ability to lift his team up, Sunday’s win over the Thunder should be Exhibit 1A (it also was an easy win for Houston in what may well have been a first-round playoff preview). That said, Harden is playing through a sore wrist, and this week the Rockets have the Warriors twice, plus a desperate Portland team trying to make the playoffs. Houston will need MVP Harden to keep winning (and he may get a night off to rest that wrist).

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-26, LW 7). In one week they beat the Wizard and the surging Heat, the Celtics have won 8-of-10 and are now tied with Cleveland for the best record in the East. Know that the Celtics have a much softer schedule the rest of the way than the Cavs. Al Horford has stepped it up since the All-Star break and in March is averaging 15.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. How high will Brad Stevens finish in Coach of the Year voting?

 
Wizards small icon 5. Wizards (45-28, LW 8). Quality win over the Cavaliers Saturday in Cleveland, and while I may not be sold they beat the Cavs in a seven-game series they deserve acknowledgment for what they did. The Cleveland win was the first game of six-of-seven on the road, and they have a gauntlet of the West ahead on this trip with the Clippers, Jazz, and Warriors. That’s a problem because Toronto is winning again and is just one game back of Washington in the race for the three seed (and avoiding Cleveland in the second round).

 
Cavaliers small icon 6. Cavaliers (47-25, LW 2). They have lost three-of-five, and their defense is 29th in the NBA in the month of March, which has let Boston tie them for the best record in the East (and Cleveland has a tougher schedule the rest of the way. Yet, most observers around the league (including coaches/scouts) expect the Cavs to flip the switch come the playoffs. Tyrone Lue says he has a plan to fix the defense in the postseason, but it feels like the plan on both ends come the playoffs is “unleash angry LeBron James.” By the way, that’s a really good plan.

 
Raptors small icon 7. Raptors (44-29, LW 10). Winners of five in a row and that has them back in the mix for the three seed (the Raptors are just one game back of the Wizards and have an easier schedule the rest of the way). The Raptors have gone 11-5 without Kyle Lowry thanks to an improved defense and a lot o DeMar DeRozan, and this team looks dangerous in the postseason.

 
Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (44-31, LW 9). Every time you think this team is making strides, they turn around and do something like that ugly loss on their home court to the Kings on Sunday. That said, the win over the Jazz this week and a very soft schedule the rest of the way should have the Clippers getting home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs against Utah (that series is almost a lock). The question is, which Clippers team shows up for the playoffs? Or will that vary night to night?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (41-31, LW 5). More than just an MVP showdown, the Thunder/Rockets game Sunday was a likely first-round playoff matchup — and that should worry Thunder fans as their team got crushed. That said, OKC likes to play a physical style of defense and they may be able to get away with more on that front in the postseason. Interesting Friday night game vs. Spurs, what will Westbrook do when Kawhi Leonard locks in on him?

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (44-29, LW 6). They have lost four of five, but the loss to the Clippers Saturday was the biggest blow. While LA is a game back for the four seed and home court in the first round, the Clips have a much easier schedule the rest of the way. For that apparent Jazz/Clips first round series, Utah needs Derrick Favors back and contributing. Los Angeles will use more Marreese Speights because he can draw Rudy Gobert away from the basket, Favors can help counter that for Utah.

 
Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (37-36, LW 14). Atlanta, Indiana, and Milwaukee are all tied for the 5-6-7 seeds in the East with nine games left to play. The Hawks have a mildly easier schedule but the Bucks are playing much better right now than either of those two teams, having won 11-of-14. In the last 14 games, the Bucks have had a top-10 defense, and that has sustained them night to night — the Bucks have won 17 in a row when holding their opponent under 100 points.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (35-38, LW 12). Miami is clinging to a half-game lead over the Bulls for the final playoff slot in the West, but if the Heat are going to keep that they need to rack up wins in their next five games, because the team’s final four are brutal (and Chicago has a much easier schedule). This week the Heat are at Detroit, have a home-and-home with the Knicks, then host the Nuggets. The Heat need consistency from Goran Dragic, he needs to take charge with Dion Waiters out.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (35-38, LW 15). They are tied for the eighth seed in the West having gone 11-3 in March, with the second-best net rating and seventh best defense in the NBA in that stretch. The Blazers are tied with the Nuggets for the eighth seed and the two teams play Tuesday, but Portland has a much softer schedule the rest of the way. Making the playoffs begins to salvage what has been a disappointing season in Portland (they still have some questions to answer this summer, regardless.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (35-38, LW 16). Denver beats Cleveland, then turns around and gets blown out at home by New Orleans. Their offense led by Nikola Jokic is good, but they don’t get stops and that leads to the inconsistency. Huge game Tuesday night against Portland: The two teams are tied for the eighth seed but Denver’s schedule the rest of the way is much tougher so the Tuesday game becomes almost must win for the Nuggets.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (40-33, LW 11). I like the new starting lineup with Vince Carter at the three, but this team has lost three in a row and needs to get healthy (both Tony Allen and Marc Gasol missed time this week). Memphis seems destined for the seven seed at this point, if they are going to give the Spurs (probably, maybe the Warriors) a push,Memphis needs to get healthy for the postseason.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (36-36, LW 17).. Another inconsistent team trying to hold on to a playoff slot. Tied for 5-6-7 in the East, they have a tough week ahead but a soft enough schedule overall they should get in as the six or seven. The Indiana bench has been a problem all season long and the ankle injury to Al Jefferson is not going to help matters down the stretch.

 
Bulls small icon 17. Bulls (35-39, LW 20). They are just half a game back of the Heat for the eighth seed and have a much softer schedule the rest of the way, so you’d like to say they will get in. Then they turn around and lose to the Sixers, and we all are reminded this is not a good team, so don’t count on anything. Nikola Mitotic is coming on as the season winds down, averaging 14.2 points and shooting 39.2 percent from three in March, all of which just seems very Bulls. Also, Jimmy Butler dished out 14 assists in a game this week.

 
Hawks small icon 18. Hawks (37-36 LW 13). Losers of seven in a row, as injuries to Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore have taken their toll — the lack of depth has been a serious issue of late, the bench is a problem. While the Hawks are tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East right now, they are just 2.5 games ahead of Chicago in the nine seed, and if any team looks like they could slide out of the playoffs in the final weeks of the season, it’s Atlanta right now.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (34-39, LW 18). . If they have any playoff dreams left, they have to beat the Heat on Tuesday night (Detroit is just a game back of Miami, but it feels like it should be much more). Ish Smith is starting at point guard for Stan Van Gundy, but that didn’t solve the problems as Detroit lost to Chicago and Orlando last week once the change was made. Talk about a team that really needs to access where it is and how it is structured this off-season, few teams have been as disappointing as Detroit this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (31-41, LW 19). The Mavericks’ next loss will officially end their 16-season streak of being .500 or better. That streak started when Mark Cuban took over as owner and speaks to the job he has done as owner turning what had been one of the worst franchises in the NBA around. On the court the final weeks of the season, Rick Carlisle is experimenting with lineups to see what works, which is interesting to watch.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (33-40, LW 23). The Hornets have questions to answer this summer, but not as many as you may think. This team has outscored opponents by one point per 100 possessions this year, or put another way the Hornets are +66 for the season. Basketball-Reference.com says their record should be 39-34 right now, which would have them solidly in the playoffs as the five seed. No team has been as unlucky this season as Charlotte. Also, Kemba Walker had an overlooked 31 points Sunday.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (31-42, LW 21). How has Anthony Davis performed since DeMarcus Cousins came on board? His numbers are almost identical, if anything Davis is shooting a little more efficiently (watch his highlights below). Assuming the Pelicans can re-sign Cousins (as is expected around the league), those two will work out their offensive challenges this summer (the Pelicans are already playing good defense with them). The question is who is coaching in New Orleans next season?

 
Sixers small icon 23. 76ers (27-45, LW 24). In his last 10 games, Dario Saric is averaging 20.2 points a game, shooting 38 percent from three, and pulling down seven rebounds a game. He has been fantastic since the All-Star break, but is that enough to get him past teammate Joel Embiid for Rookie of the Year? It’s going to be close and how Saric plays in the final nine games of the season could have a lot to do with it (as does how voters feel about giving Embiid the award despite him playing in just 31 games).

 
timberwolves small icon 24. Timberwolves (28-44, LW 22). Losers of six in a row, that has sealed the Wolves fate, they will be golfing in mid-April again and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. Fans are forced to say “wait until next year” but that may be the truth based on how Minnesota has played defense since the All-Star break. Still, this team is battling expectations and those will continue to rise this off-season.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (27-46 LW 28). They have won three-of-four, Elfrid Payton is racking up triple-doubles (against Detroit last week), and there are still flashes of hope in Orlando. Coach Frank Vogel has gone into experimentation phase, such as trying Mario Hezonja at the four. Which is what the coach should be doing on this team at this point. See what works so he can talk about it with the next GM.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (28-45, LW 26). Buddy Heild was putting on a show, scoring 11 of the Kings 22 points in a close-out run that had Sacramento beating the L.A. Clippers Sunday. He’s showing promise, but needs to spend the summer working on his handles and willingness to drive the lane, he needs to be more than just a spot-up guy for the Kings.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (27-46 LW 25). Plenty of drama in New York to end the season, with Joakim Noah getting 20 games for using a banned substance. While all the talk has been about a focus on the triangle offense, the Knicks problems remain they are a terrible defensive team, and that is more about the makeup of the roster than the coaching staff or the system. It’s going to be a very interesting summer in New York.

 
Nets small icon 28. Nets (16-57, LW 29). They have seven wins in March and have now won back-to-back games this season. The wins may keep on coming, the Nets have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. Relax Celtics fans, they are still going to have the worst record in the NBA for the season, but the wins speak both a little to health and some to the culture coach Kenny Atkinson is starting to build.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (22-51, LW 27). Devin Booker goes off for 70 and is a needed distraction from a seven game losing streak that has them pressing the Lakers for the bottom spot in the West. I’ve got no problem with the time outs and fouls at the end of the game to get Booker to 70, Earl Watson said it best: If Jae Crowder and the Celtics didn’t like it, go out and stop them.

 
Lakers small icon 30. Lakers (21-52, LW 30). We all know the Lakers keep their pick if it’s in the top three; otherwise it goes to the Sixers (part of the Steve Nash trade). Let’s just lay out the odds: As it stands now with the second-worst record in the league, the Lakers have a 56 percent chance of keeping that pick. However, slumping Phoenix is within a game of the Lakers, if those two tie the Lakers odds go down to 51 percent. If the Lakers pass the Suns in the standings (and have the third-worst record in the league) the odds of keeping the pick drop to like 45 percent. So, tanking.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on LeBron James’ heavy workload: ‘Next, he might play 48 minutes’

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) Except for his backpedaling hairline, LeBron James shows no visible signs of age.

At 32, still in his prime, and still at the top of his game, he’s defying time.

“Benjamin Button,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue called him, referring to the fictional character who ages backward.

LeBenjamin?

Following a regular season in which he averaged more minutes per game (37.8) than any player, James logged 43.7 per game during Cleveland’s tougher-than-it-looked sweep over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. And as James and the defending champions await either Toronto or Milwaukee in the second round, James is taking advantage of the down time.

Not that he might need it.

Lue spent much of the season defending his use of James, who in all honesty is really the one in control of when he sits or doesn’t. At this point, Lue has given up worrying about resting the superstar.

“I don’t understand why people make a big deal out of his minutes,” Lue said Wednesday. “He had a week off before the series started. We won four straight games and then he had a week off again. So next he might play 48 minutes. … Bron today just said he feels worse when he doesn’t play.”

James wasn’t available for interviews as the team gathered for the first time in two days at Cleveland Clinic Courts, and it’s likely that he won’t speak to the media until the Cavs have a second-round opponent.

But as has been the case for months, James’ playing time was one of the prime topics presented to Lue, who believes that the four-time MVP’s heavy workload during the regular season is what enables him to play at such high levels in the postseason.

Consider that James averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists, shot 54 percent from the field, went 9 of 20 on 3-pointers and led the Cavaliers to the biggest second-half comeback in league history during the series against Indiana, and it’s easy to see why Lue wants to move past the minutes chatter.

“With him playing the minutes he played during the course of the regular season, it has helped him in the playoffs,” Lue said. “Now he is able to play those 42, 43 minutes. Because he’s used to it. His body can take it, so, I’m not worried about what outside people say.”

Unlike the regular season, when brutal travel schedules, back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four nights can wear players down, the postseason allows for recovery. Lue also thinks too many teams are allowing outside pressures to influence how they use players.

“Teams are suffering,” he said, “because they listen to what the media is saying about guys playing minutes” and “some teams should play some guys more minutes, and it would’ve been different (playoff) series.”

James has ramped up his minutes nearly every postseason. Now in his 12th playoffs, he averaged 39.1 minutes last year and has only twice averaged less than 40 per game.

Lue trusts that the three-time champion knows how far to push himself without reaching his breaking point.

“He knows his body better than anyone,” Lue said. “He said he feels great and he feels worse when he doesn’t play, so we’ll see how that works out.”

As for the rest of the Cavaliers, Wednesday included some competition in the team’s weight room on an aerobic conditioning machine while the team’s in-house DJ from Quicken Loans Arena spun music. After the vigorous workouts, yoga mats were dragged onto the court and the facility’s lights were dimmed for some stretching and decompression.

Namaste, NBA-style.

The Cavs had a similar, one-week break between the first and second rounds last season. Kyrie Irving said it’s imperative to make the most of it.

“The mental preparation and physical preparation starts now and hasn’t stopped,” he said. “Took a brief day off or two and now just get back to work and get ready for whichever team we’re getting ready for. The work never stops.”

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

NBA fines Rockets owner Leslie Alexander $100,000 for confronting referee

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Rockets owner Leslie Alexander got up from his courtside seat, walked down the sideline and talked to referee Bill Kennedy during Houston’s Game 5 win over the Thunder.

It took less than a day for an investigation to yield the predictable result.

NBA release:

Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander has been fined $100,000 for confronting a referee during live game action, it was announced today by Byron Spruell, President, NBA League Operations.

The interaction occurred with 0:13 remaining in the first quarter of the Rockets’ 105-99 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on April 25 at Toyota Center.

Per Patricia Bender’s database, this is the NBA’s largest fine in nearly two years. The NBA fined the Clippers $250,000 in 2015 for setting up DeAndre Jordan with an endorsement deal while trying to lure him back in free agency.

The NBA rightfully keeps owners on a tight leash. Unlike players, coaches and referees, who have their own unions, the league office represents the owners. So when one crosses the line – Alexander trampled over it – the hammer comes down hard. It’s an example to keep everyone else in line, and owners know they come out way ahead in this arrangement. Alexander might not like the punishment, but he benefits from owning a share of a league that so strongly dissuades such behavior.

David Stern: ‘Shame on the Brooklyn Nets’

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Brooklyn rested Brook Lopez, Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker for its final game this season, which had huge playoff implications. Not for the Nets, of course. They were long eliminated from postseason contention.

But the Bulls beat Brooklyn to reach the playoffs over the Heat, who also won that night.

Miami fans were obviously ticked, and they have company in former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Stern, via Sam Amick of USA Today:

“I have no idea what was in the mind of the executives of the Brooklyn Nets — none — when they rested their starting players,” Stern, who still holds the title of Commissioner Emeritus, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday on the NBA A to Z podcast. “If you’re playing in a game of consequence, that has an impact, which is as good as it gets (you should play your players). Here we are, the Brooklyn Nets are out of the running. They have the lowest record in the sport. But they have an opportunity to weigh in on the final game with respect to Chicago. And they sit their starters? Really? It’s inexcusable in my view. I don’t think the Commissioner maybe can, or even should, do anything about it. But shame on the Brooklyn Nets. They broke the (pact with fans).”

The resting dilemma takes slightly different forms when it involves a team like Brooklyn rather than a certain playoff team, but the underlying conflict remains the same:

The team is better off resting its players.

The NBA is worse off, at least in the short term.

The league was robbed of an important competitive game that could’ve drawn higher ratings. The Nets had just beaten Chicago a days prior, but that was with major contributions from Lopez and Lin. Without them, Brooklyn had little chance and lost by 39.

The Nets weren’t playing for anything, not even a higher draft pick. They owe their first-rounder to the Celtics and already clinched the worst record anyway. Brooklyn was better off resting those veterans at the end of a long regular season.

There’s no easy answer. If the NBA bans resting, teams will sit players and assign to minor or made-up injuries. If the league shortens the season, it will lose revenue.

The best solution is to improve at the margins – provide more rest days (which the league will do next season) and schedule nationally televised games outside of grueling stretches of the schedule. That’s obviously no silver bullet, though. Bulls-Nets wasn’t nationally televised, and Brooklyn had the day off before and the entire offseason off after.

Another potential solution: Shaming teams into playing their top players. Stern is giving that one a go.

NBA looking into Rockets’ owner interacting with referee during game

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Like every Rockets fan — and, let’s be honest, every fan of every team — Leslie Alexander is convinced the referees were screwing over his Rockets.

Except that Alexander is the owner of the Rockets.

And he approached a referee during game play.

The NBA is understandably investigating this, as reported by the Houston Chronicle.

The NBA said an investigation “is underway” into Rockets’ owner Leslie Alexander’s getting up from his courtside seat to have a few words with official Bill Kennedy in the first half.

Alexander appeared to say something to Kennedy during a Thunder possession before returning to his seat. Alexander declined to give any detail beyond he was “upset … really upset.” Rockets guard James Harden said he didn’t see his owner get up. “He did that?” a surprised Harden said after the game. “He’s the coolest guy. I would have helped him.”

The NBA doesn’t let players or coaches cross a line when talking to officials, but they are at least allowed to interact and discuss calls with a ref during a game. It’s something else entirely for an owner to get in the ear of an official during game play.

I’d expect Alexander will see a fine for this.

Whatever he thought of the officiating, the Rockets won to advance on to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.