Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings Week 25: Warriors, Spurs, Rockets top final ranking of NBA season

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This is the final NBA Power Rankings of the season, a fun exercise that is ultimately moot because the NBA has a playoff system and is too smart to use polls to pick which teams are in it. Meaning yes, these are moot, but it’s still an entertaining exercise (there’s just no reason freak out about then).

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (66-14, Last Week No. 1). Golden State went 15-4 with Kevin Durant out, and they are now 1-0 with him back (no Stephen Curry in that game). Because we as fans want drama and unpredictability, we keep looking for reasons to doubt the Warriors — how healthy is Durant? Will he return mess up the flow of their offense? — when we all know the reality: This is the best team in the NBA, and if they stay healthy it’s hard to see anyone beating them four out of seven. The road to the title goes through Oracle.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (61-19, LW 2). Despite being locked in as the No. 2 seed in the West, Gregg Popovich said he’s not resting anyone the final couple games of the season (they got to rest, and they have days off between games). I’ll believe it when I see it. Once again, a great defense (best in the NBA) drives the Spurs and will drive them deep into the playoffs as well. Kawhi Leonard had a season good enough to win the MVP award almost any other year, but he seems destined to come in third this time around — then in the playoffs show everyone that was probably too low.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (54-26, LW 4). Going into the season, I said the Houston Rockets would go as far as their defense would take them. We knew the offense would be elite (second best in NBA), but the Rockets improved on defense, too, and finished 15th in the league. There’s a reason Mike D’Antoni should win Coach of the Year, but I would have Daryl Morey as executive of the year, too, for giving D’Antoni a team that fits his style of play (something the Lakers and Knicks failed to do).

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (49-31, LW 6). Maybe this is ranking them a little too high, but Los Angeles is hitting it’s stride at the right time — they have won 9 of 11 and have the second best net rating in the NBA over their last 10 games. Maybe a little health, a little luck, and knowing this could be the final run for the Blake Griffin/Chris Paul era of the Clippers could propel this team to a deep playoff run. Then again, they get the Warriors in the second round.

 
Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (51-28, LW 9). Wednesday night they look like the unquestioned and unquestionable best team in the East, thrashing the Celtics. Then they drop back-to-back games to Atlanta and look terrible doing it. It’s easy to question this team’s lack of focus of late, its lack of depth up front (the Andrew Bogut injury was a setback), the fact they’re a little less versatile than a season ago, but who you going to pick to beat them four out of seven in the East?

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (50-31, LW 5). Kyle Lowry is back, if shaking off a little rust, and with that Toronto may be the team best suited to beat both Boston in the second round and threaten the Cavaliers in the conference finals. Toronto has size up front with Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, versatility, and great guard play. The Raptors took the Cavaliers six games last season, added Ibaka (who is an upgrade for them at the four), and just feel like we are sleeping on how dangerous they might be.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (51-29, LW 3). They are tied with the Cavaliers and have a real shot at the No. 1 seed in the East with two games left to play. That is a huge credit to Brad Stevens and what he’s done getting the most out of this team, and to the improvement Isaiah Thomas has shown this year. That said, the way they lost to the Cavaliers and Hawks last week raises questions about how deep this team can go in the playoffs.

 
Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (49-31, LW 7). It’s hard to see them getting home court in the first round because, although they are tied with the Clippers, Los Angeles owns the tie breaker and the Jazz finish the season against the Warriors and Spurs. Without home court, it’s going to be difficult for the Jazz to beat the Clippers. That said, this season has been a big step forward for Utah — now can they keep Gordon Hayward this summer as he hits free agency?

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (48-32, LW 8). Washington is locked into the four seed in the East, which likely means starting against the Hawks (although that is not set). Washington should advance out of the first round but they have been a terrible defensive team since the All-Star break, third worst in the NBA, and if they don’t turn that around their playoff run will be much shorter than they hoped or planned.

 
Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (46-34, LW 10). Russell Westbrook has made his MVP cast in recent weeks, not as much with the triple-doubles as with his clutch play leading the Thunder to comeback wins, such as scoring the final 13 points against the Nuggets Sunday. Oklahoma City will face Houston in the first round, and while the focus will be on Westbrook vs. Harden the real challenge for OKC will be depth and finding a second shot creator and scorer.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (40-40, LW 11). Portland has gotten into the playoffs, aided by Damian Lillard going off for 59 points on the Jazz last week. He’s going to have to have another game like that for the Trail Blazers to steal a game from the Warriors in the first round. That said, there should be fireworks as this is a matchup of the teams with the two best point differentials since the All-Star break.

 
Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (41-38, LW 12). The Bucks may have stumbled a bit getting there in recent weeks, they are in the playoffs. While I love to watch their gambling, aggressive style of defense, it strikes me as a system that can and will get exploited in the playoffs by any of the top four teams. That said, who is not excited to see playoff Giannis Antetokounmpo?

 
Grizzlies small icon 13. Grizzlies (43-37, LW 14). Once again we get the Spurs and Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, although this time Memphis will have a healthy Mike Conley and he’s the best point guard in this series. Marc Gasol is the best center in this series. This was a series the Spurs wanted to avoid because of the physicality, but it’s one that will be difficult for the Grizzlies to stretch beyond five because of their lack of depth and some rough matchups.

 
Hawks small icon 14. Hawks (42-38 LW 20). Last week they swept a home-and-home from the Cavaliers where Atlanta had none of their regular starters for the first game them came from 26 points down in the fourth to win the second. Insane. One more win, against Charlotte or Indiana this week, and the Hawks get the five seed and a shot at John Wall and the Wizards in the first round.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (40-40, LW 16).. They look bound for the postseason after beating Toronto and Milwaukee last week (although a spot is not locked up), and they are doing it on the strength of Paul George playing his best ball of the season — 33 points and nine rebounds a game, plus shooting 44 percent from three in his last five games. The Pacers also have gotten some timely defense. Indiana will have some decisions to make this summer if Paul George does not make an All-NBA team (he’s on the bubble), but for now they can enjoy the playoffs.

 
Bulls small icon 16. Bulls (39-41, LW 13). The Bulls had one of the easiest schedules in the NBA down the stretch, have the tiebreaker with the Heat and Pacers, and yet may not make the playoffs because they do things like lose to the Brooklyn Nets. Chicago can’t get out of its own way, but with home games against Orlando and Brooklyn it’s still hard to think the Bulls will miss the postseason. Talk about a team that has some serious decisions to make this summer, Chicago tops the list and it starts with “what kind of team are they trying to build?”

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (39-41, LW 15). They have gone 5-6 without Dion Waiters (ankle) and in that stretch have gone from everybody’s favorite playoff Cinderella to a team that may well miss out on the dance altogether. Tough games against Washington and Cleveland this week don’t help their cause. Even if they miss the playoffs, EriK Spoelstra is going to get some Coach of the Year votes.

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (38-42, LW 19). Westbrook being Westbrook eliminated Denver from the playoffs this year, but it was still a successful season for the Nuggets — they have found a star (Nikola Jokic) and a guard of the future (Jamal Murray), plus have established a style and culture. Now they need to add some defenders to the roster and this team could become something special going forward

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (36-44, LW 18). While their defense took a step back, this was still the most unlucky team in the NBA this year, they had the point differential of a 42-38 team, but some ugly losses have them on the outside looking in at the playoffs. That shouldn’t undersell what a fantastic season Kemba Walker had, he took huge steps forward with his game and carried this team’s offense all season long.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (36-43, LW 21). . Road wins in Memphis and Houston last week remind us what a disappointing season this has been for a Pistons team that everyone expected to take a step forward off a playoff trip last season. But Andre Drummond was flat, Reggie Jackson started the season injured and seemed to regress, and Stan Van Gundy goes into the summer with some serious questions about what his team should look like next season, particularly in the backcourt.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (33-47, LW 17). One of the most interesting teams to watch this summer, the only thing we know for sure is there will be changes. Maybe to the front office and GM Dell Demps. Maybe to Alvin Gentry as coach. Certainly to the roster — can they re-sign DeMarcus Cousins? Putting aside the question of if Anthony Davis and Cousins can play together (it’s still too early to tell) this team desperately needs help on the wings, guys who can shoot threes and defend a little.

 
timberwolves small icon 22. Timberwolves (31-48, LW 23). After watching him in person Sunday night, it’s going to be two seasons tops before you can’t keep Karl-Anthony Towns off the All-NBA teams. He’s got to get better defensively, but he’s that good. Outside of Towns and Andrew Wiggins, the rest of the Minnesota roster has all the focus of a bunch of school-age kids three days before summer vacation right now, at least that’s how it looked to me at the Lakers’ game Sunday.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (32-47, LW 22). Tuesday night at home the Mavericks will honor former Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo by having him in uniform and on the bench for the teams’s final home game of the season. Insert your own joke here about Romo getting inured in warmups and not being able to play. Dirk Nowitzki will be back for one more season, but Dallas needs to be looking for the next star to go with Harrison Barnes, who had a strong season.

 
Kings small icon 24. Kings (31-28, LW 25). This is the 11th season in a row the Kings have missed the playoffs, and after the Cousins trade it’s hard to see them making for a few more years either. While maybe Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere have shown a little promise of late, Sacramento needs to add picks and start adding talent to this roster. Dave Joerger can coach, but the franchise needs to be patient and draft/trade for young talent. Do we really trust Vlade Divac to do that? Does ownership?

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (30-51 LW 26). It’s not going to be simple to trade a guy who will make $26 million and has a no-trade clause, but it’s hard to see the Carmelo Anthony era in New York lasting past this season. Both sides are ready to move on. The Knicks also likely move on from Derrick Rose. The triangle offense will be in, but that means going out and getting specific players to run it, not just use stopgap measures.

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (28-52 LW 28). The leaked whiteboard images got a little overblown, yes it was sloppy to allow it but there was nothing on that board that most teams don’t have on their brainstorming boards. That said, no GM is on a hotter seat than Rob Hennigan in Orlando (think of the Serge Ibaka trades alone and you see why), and with a front office change would certainly come some roster changes. Going to be an interesting summer in Orlando.

 
Lakers small icon 27. Lakers (24-55, LW 29). Winners of four in a row to end the season, they now have a less than 50/50 chance of keeping their first-round pick (if it is top three they keep it, four or later and it goes to Philly).I’m not sure if D’Angelo Russell is part of the long-term future in Los Angeles, but his shot to beat the Timberwolves Sunday was certainly one of the highlights of the Los Angeles season.

 
Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (28-52, LW 24). For a team finishing this poorly, they took a lot of strides forward this season — we know Joel Embiid can be a franchise player (if healthy), Dario Saric can put up points, and the team defended and played hard all season. They get Ben Simmons healthy next season, they will have new players (their first-round pick, plus the Lakers’ pick if it falls outside the top three), and next year it feels like this team can make another big step forward.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (20-60, LW 27). While they finish with the worst record in the league, the Nets quietly went 11-13 after the All-Star break and played pretty well. Part of it was Jeremy Lin getting healthy and providing some offensive spark, but credit coach Kenny Atkinson for getting this team to not just roll over, and this was a good offensive team after the break. They have a lot of money this summer, look for them to try and poach some restricted free agents with big offers (as they tried to do last summer with Allen Crabbe, for example).

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (23-57, LW 30). The Suns went with the youth movement late in the season to see what they’ve got, but what they really have are questions about veterans: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, and Jared Dudley are all under contract for at least two more years — they all need to be shopped. Maybe Bledsoe stays to partner with Devin Booker in the backcourt, but this roster needs an overhaul and a direction.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.