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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets back up to second, Cavaliers keep sliding

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Houston is getting healthy and is back to winning, so they move back up to the No. 2 slot in our weekly rankings (Golden State is still on top, even after the loss to Houston, still can’t move them down yet). Cleveland keeps on falling down the rankings, and Boston slides to fifth.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (38-10 Last Week No. 1). The Warriors usually strong defense has been unimpressive of late, giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions over the past 10 games, 19th in the league in that stretch (more than 5 per 100 worse than their top five defense for the season). It cost them against the Rockets, but it’s more of a focus and effort thing they will correct when it matters. Four Warriors made the All-Star Game for the second straight season, the first time that has ever happened. The Warriors meet Boston on Saturday night, is that a Finals preview?

 
Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (33-12, LW 5). James Harden is back after missing just 7 games with his hamstring issue (which is good for his MVP case, especially as LeBron’s Cavaliers struggle). He and Chris Paul led the Rockets to a confidence-boosting win against the Warriors Saturday, and now the Rockets are 18-0 when Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela are all in the starting lineup together. This is the team with the best chance at knocking off the Warriors in a 7-game series.

 
3. Timberwolves (31-18, LW 3). A sign how much Minnesota has improved this season: The win over the Clippers Monday gave them as many wins this season as they had all of last season (31). Minnesota beat the Raptors without All-Star and MVP candidate Jimmy Butler, a good sign for the growth of the team, but the loss to Houston was a reminder they still have a ways to go to really contend. The win in L.A. was the start of 5-of-6 on the road. Congrats to Karl-Anthony Towns on his first All-Star nod.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (31-14, LW 4). DeMar DeRozan is a deserving All-Star starter (he had my vote), now Kyle Lowry is headed to Los Angeles with him (and he dropped 40 on Minnesota on Saturday. Despite having a couple of All-Stars, the Raptors offense has had some stumbles of late, but a soft part of the schedule coming up should help them. After the game in Atlanta Wednesday night, the Raptors have 8-of-10 at home.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (34-14, LW 2). This has been a debate amongst league watchers: Who is more important to Boston, Al Horford or Kyrie Irving? There was a good case to make for Horford because of his defense and high IQ execution, but without Irving they were blown out by the Bulls and Sixers. Then Irving returns, drops 40, and the Celtics still lose (their offense continues to stumble). None of that may answer the question Irving vs. Horford question, but both men are All-Stars. The Celtics have lost four in a row now after a close road loss to the Lakers Tuesday.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (31-18, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard remains out, and now Tony Parker is out of the starting lineup with Dejounte Murray given the starting point guard job (even though the starting lineup statistically has been better with Parker this season, and Patty Mills starting when Leonard returns may well be the best lineup). The Spurs offense had been in a little slump until they went against the Cavaliers’ “defense” Tuesday night and put up 114 (doing it without Pau Gasol in the lineup, too).

 
Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (27-20 LW 8).. Really interesting note from Ben Dowsett of Basketball Insiders: When Russell Westbrook gets a triple-double, the Thunder win about 80% of their games, better than the historical average of about 75% . When Westbrook takes 25+ shots and gets a triple-double, the Thunder win about 75% of the time, way up from the historical average of about 55%. Paul George has the right to feel snubbed about the All-Star game. Carmelo Anthony should score his 25,000th point this week, maybe Thursday vs. Washington.

 
Heat small icon 8. Heat (27-20, LW 9). Miami now has 18 wins this season in games that were within five points in the final two minutes of play, the most in the NBA. That’s a tough way to live, but their comeback against the Hornets over the weekend may be the best comeback win of the season (check it out below). The Heat went 2-3 on a five-game road trip, but because the Cavaliers are collapsing they are just ?? games out of the three seed.

 
Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (25-21, LW 13). Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are both starting in the All-Star Game, and that seems to bode well for them staying together past this season (which is what most sources around the league expect). Cousins had a game for the ages against the Bulls, but Jrue Holiday remains the bellwether for this team — when he is playing well and closing games, this is a much more dangerous team. They need the outside to go with the inside. Holiday has played well of late, and the Pelicans have won 5-of-6.

 
Wizards small icon 10. Wizards (26-21, LW 7). Bradley Beal is headed to his first-ever All-Star Game, where he will be joined by John Wall. Despite that the Wizards continue to play down to lesser opponents — they got blown out by Charlotte a week ago, then lost to the Mavericks by 23 Monday (the only win in there was a come-from-behind against Detroit). The Wizards are 1-2 on a current road trip, with 8-of-11 on the road still ahead of them.

Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (24-22 LW 10). Jason Kidd is out as coach — and that was the right move, no matter how much the players loved him. This team was not progressing, particularly on defense. Well see if interim coach Joe Prunty can turn that around, but it’s a tall task. Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out a couple of games as the Bucks are managing his knee issues, trying to keep them from becoming anything serious (the knee issue was known and Kidd played Antetokounmpo a lot of heavy minutes, something else that caused friction between Kidd and the front office).

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (25-22, LW 11). Victor Oladipo is headed to his first All-Star Game, the first of many accolades to come his way this season the way he is playing (we may have half a season left, but he has Most Improved Player all but sewn up). The Pacers went a solid 3-2 on a road trip out west, and now have 6-of-8 at home and the chance to pad their record (and solidify their playoff spot) with a soft part of the schedule ahead.

 
Cavaliers small icon 13. Cavaliers (27-19 LW 12). LeBron reaching the 30,000 point threshold is historic, but it doesn’t change the team’s current situation, having lost 6-of-7 after falling to the shorthanded Spir. The Cavaliers have the point differential of a team that should be 23-23. Cleveland is one of the most active teams in talks at the trade deadline, and they have been linked to George Hill, DeAndre Jordan, and Lou Williams among others. Cleveland is trying to reshape its roster, but don’t expect them to give up that Brooklyn pick in the process.

 
Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (22-21, LW 15). Joel Ebmiid is head to his first All-Star next month, a well deserved honor (plus the game is more fun with him in it). The Sixers have won 7-of-9, but that only got them up to the eighth seed in the East and now the schedule gets tougher — they are going to need All-Star Embiid to hold on to that playoff spot.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (25-22, LW 17). Damian Lillard got back into the All-Star Game this year and it’s well deserved. He also sat down with owner Paul Allen and wanted to talk the future of the franchise — he wants to win more and contend, but the Blazers have a lot of big contracts and kind of are what they are right now. Allen and GM Neil Olshey want to be active at the trade deadline, but there may not be a deal out there that works for them in a tight market.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (23-23 LW 14). Lou Williams has good reason to feel snubbed, he is having a career-best season and is the main reason the Clippers are in the playoff hunt in the West. That may not be enough to keep him in Los Angeles past the trade deadline — he is more likely to be moved than DeAndre Jordan, although the Clippers are still going to want a player or pick of real quality to make a move. Owner Steve Ballmer isn’t going to blow this thing up and tank (he would have done that this summer if he wanted to) so to get a Clipper player in a trade it’s going to have to be legit. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Pistons small icon 17. Pistons (22-23, LW 16). Andre Drummond was the odd-man out in the Eastern All-Star frontcourt, and he has every right to be ticked (I would have had him in my reserves). However, teams that win get players in the All-Star Game and the Pistons have lost 5 in a row and are 2-8 since the start of January to fall out of the postseason. Stan Van Gundy is looking for help at the trade deadline, but a motivated Drummond may be the best thing for this team.

 
Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (24-23, LW 18). Denver got a quality win Monday night over Portland — it looks like those two and the Los Angeles Clippers will battle it out for the final two playoff spots in the West (OKC is set and New Orleans looks like it will get in). All three teams are looking around at the trade deadline, but the Nuggets have one huge advantage — they will get Paul Millsap back. That can’t happen soon enough. Denver is 1-1 on their current homestand and have 6-of-7 at home where the team needs to rack up wins.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (19-26, LW 21). Kemba Walker doesn’t want to be traded out of Charlotte, and Michael Jordan doesn’t want to move him (his comments cooled that market), but the Hornets are at least open to the idea. That said, it’s going to take a really good offer to make this work, something that would jumpstart the rebuild in Charlotte. That may be more likely to come this summer as opposed to at the deadline. Starting Saturday the Hornets hit the road for 7-of-8.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (21-27, LW 19). Kristaps Porzingis has deservedly made his first All-Star Game, but will his team get him to his first playoff game? A hot early start in New York (thanks to a home-heavy schedule) raised hopes, but the Knicks are 3-9 in their last 12 and 2-3 on this road trip, with 4-of-5 on the road still ahead (welcome to the Grammys trip, ask the Lakers/Clippers about it). Fivethirtheight.com has the Knicks with an 11 percent chance to make the playoffs and that feels about right, they have 3.5 games to make up to get there.

 
Grizzlies small icon 21. Grizzlies (17-29, LW 25). Memphis has won 4-of-5 during a home-heavy part of the schedule because they are getting help from guys not named Gasol or Evans for a change. Monday night against Philly it was Mario Chalmers with 18 off the bench. Wayne Selden had 31 points against the Pelicans (in a Memphis loss), and Dillon Brooks has played better of late. Keep an eye on the Tyreke Evans trade rumors as the deadline nears, he’s the one guy who could well get moved to a playoff team. Great tribute to Zach Randolph on his return, well done Memphis.

 
Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (18-29 LW 26). Kyle Kuzma continues to put up numbers — he had 17 of his 28 in the fourth quarter against Boston Tuesday, just taking over that game for a stretch. He can be more efficient, and he can be a lot better defensively, but the Lakers have a keeper in Kuz. The Lakers have won three in a row and 7-of-9, doing it without Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for much of that.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (18-29 LW 20).. The Bulls are 3-1 since Zach LaVine returned. Rookie Lauri Markkanen is on pace to break Damian Lillard’s record for most threes in a season by a rookie (185), but it’s going to be close. It’s still expected around the league they will move Nicola Mitotic before the deadline, but the first-round pick hey want has yet to materialize so they could just hold onto him (the Bulls are 15-8 since his return).

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (16-31 LW 23). Rookie Dennis Smith Jr. has found his second wind and is averaging 20.2 points and 5.2 assists per game over his last five. Smith also is headed to the All-Star Weekend Dunk Contest where the explosive leaper has a real chance. Dallas (like Brooklyn) has become the team where they play hard, push teams that go up against them, and can pull the upset if teams don’t take them seriously. They’re scrapy.

 
Jazz small icon 25. Jazz (19-28, LW 22). Rudy Gobert is back, but with the Jazz five games out of the playoffs it’s probably too little, too late. Utah quietly has been one of the more active teams as the trade deadline approaches, look for them to make moves as sellers (Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors, and other role players are available). Any move will not be about this season but putting guys in place to help the Gobert/Donovan Mitchell core in future years.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (18-30, LW 24). D’Angelo Russell has looked expectedly rusty since his return, but Spencer Dinwiddie behind him continues to have a breakout season (his floater beat the Pistons’ Sunday, and he almost hit a three at the buzzer to beat the Thunder on Tuesday). The Nets are playing better defense but that’s not translating to consistent wins because they just don’t have players who can generate quality shots and points consistently.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (14-32, LW 28). What have the Hawks done well this season? They are creating turnovers, forcing them on 16.8% of their opponents non-garbage time possessions, second best in the NBA (stat via Cleaning the Glass). Not that it matters when they are terrible on the defensive glass (worst in the NBA) and don’t defend shooters well, leaving the team with the 26th ranked defense in the league. They are 3-2 on their current homestand with 4-of-5 at home still ahead.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (17-30, LW 27). Devin Booker is ticked he didn’t make the All-Star team, and he’s put up good numbers — 25 points per game, 38.2 percent from three, a PER of 19.2 — but the West is stupid deep with guards and some guys are going to get snubbed every year. The fact that he’s the best player on a bad team doesn’t help his cause, but he is a future All-Star. Booker and the Suns have been jacking up more threes the past couple of weeks, which makes them dangerous on any given night.

 
Kings small icon 29. Kings (14-33, LW 29). They won the battle of “who is on the bottom of the rankings” Tuesday knocking off the Magic. The Kings had given a little more run to George Hill until Tuesday, a sign they wanted to show the Cavaliers (and anyone else interested) he is healthy and ready to play. George is certainly available via trade, but the Kings don’t just want salary back, they want a pick to help their future.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (14-33, LW 30). It’s hard to have Orlando still in the bottom spot after they beat the Timberwolves and Celtics recently (plus put a scare into Cleveland), but they lost Tuesday to the team that was going to slide into last, so here we are. Another team with a lot of players who could be moved at the trade deadline, and they’re talking, but another team that is not just going to give talent away, they want something of value in return, and that may not be there.

Big nights for Ben Simmons (32 points), Joel Embiid good sign for Sixers

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It was a dramatic win — because Philadelphia’s two best players stepped up.

Down one with eight seconds left and Chicago having the ball, Joel Embiid forced a turnover, Ben Simmons scooped up the ball and was fouled, then drained a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds to play and the Sixers got their sixth straight victory, 116-115.

It wasn’t just that play. Simmons had a career-high 32 points, along with 11 assists and eight rebounds, while Joel Embiid had 30 points and 13 rebounds. Coach Brett Brown said after the game the pair carried Philly on the night — and the Sixers are going to need more of that to end their playoff drought.

Check out their highlights above.

Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook was clutch; Curry was vintage Curry

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The NBA is back, and every day around the league there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook rescues Thunder with game-winner vs. Kings. It wasn’t just averaging a triple-double for a season, when it came time to vote for MVP last season one of the reasons Russell Westbrook came out on top was how clutch he had been. He hadn’t just willed his team into games they probably should have lost, he got them the wins — in the final three minutes of games within three points last season (something that happened 32 times for the Thunder), Westbrook averaged 4.4 points scored (best in the NBA of anyone who played in more than five such games) and shot 38.7 percent from three.

That Westbrook was back on Thursday. With the game tied 107-107 and one second left, the Thunder ran an out-of-bounds play where Westbrook got surprisingly open coming off a double screen and had room for a clean look catch-and-shoot three. Do we need to tell you what happened?

OKC needs the wins for playoff seeding through its final 22 games — the Thunder are now just 1.5 games out of being the three seed in the West, or 2.5 games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. The West is that bunched up. They should make the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com gives them an 89 percent chance of being in) but where they fall will determine how tough a run through the playoffs they will face.

2) Stephen Curry was hitting Stephen Curry shots, drops 44 on Clippers. If Stephen Curry’s shot chart looks like this, it’s going to be a long night for the opposition.

Curry had 44 points on 19 shots and just could not seem to miss, even nailing a buzzer-beater from the center-court logo.

Credit the Clippers here, who put up points (22 from Tobias Harris) and made this a contest, falling 134-127. Los Angeles is fighting for a spot in the playoffs (they are currently one game back of New Orleans for the eight spot) and have found ways all season despite a rash of injuries and Blake Griffin being traded. They should be appreciated for their play this season. There’s just not much you can do when Curry and the Warriors are going off.

3) New look Cavaliers suffer first loss, fall to Wizards. The newfound energy was there in Cleveland. LeBron James was playing at an MVP level. The versatility of the new-look Cavaliers roster was on full display.

Cleveland just couldn’t shoot Thursday night. To be more specific, Cavaliers not named LeBron James (32 points on 18 shots) couldn’t buy a bucket. Cleveland was 8-of-35 from three and in the final nine minutes of the game the non-LeBrons were 0-of-10 shooting. The Wizards went small and were +17 with that lineup as the Cavs had no answers (the lineup was Bradley Beal, Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris). The Wizards got the win 110-103.

Cleveland can chalk this up to an off night, and it was. It was also a reminder of why this Cleveland team isn’t as good as a year ago — they don’t have a reliable second shot creator and scorer who can just get buckets and lift the team up. Kyrie Irving is an elite scorer, but he’s in Boston. George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and the new guys are not on that level. Some nights that will be an issue.

The Wizards are now 8-2 since John Wall went down and are scoring 4.2 points per 100 possessions above their season average in that stretch. The ball is moving and the players are moving off it, Beal has been brilliant, Satoransky has stepped up, and the Wizards are securing their spot in the top half of the East. When Wall returns he has to figure out how to fit in with this offensive style, not come in and dominate it with the ball in his hands.

The Wizards need more wins like this as they enter a tough stretch of their schedule (14 of the next 16 are against teams currently in the playoffs).

Russell Westbrook hits game-winning 3-pointer to beat Kings (VIDEO)

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Welp, looks like Russell Westbrook is re-energized after All-Star Weekend.

As the first night of games after the break got underway on Thursday night, it was Westbrook who gave us a jolt as he helped the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Sacramento Kings on the road.

With just a second to go, Sacramento’s Justin Jackson had tied the game up at 107-107. This came after Vince Carter pulled up confidently from nearly 30 feet out, missing badly. Sacramento missed another follow, and then Jackson put home the final try.

Via Twitter:

That left the Thunder to advance the ball with just one second left.

Oklahoma City ran a simple play with Westbrook running near-to-far across the arc from the inbounder, eventually settling at the top of the 3-point line.

He let it fly, and that allowed OKC to come away with a win, 110-107.

Bulls find way to lose despite being up by 5 with 35 seconds left

AP
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CHICAGO (AP) Ben Simmons scored 32 points, making two free throws with 5.6 seconds left to complete Philadelphia’s rally from five points down in the final minute, and the 76ers beat the Chicago Bulls 116-115 on Thursday night.

Joel Embiid had 30 points and 13 rebounds, and Simmons added 11 assists and seven rebounds as Philadelphia won its sixth straight and snapped a four-game road losing streak.

Bobby Portis had a career-high 38 points and Zach LaVine added 23 for the Bulls, who were 18 for 34 on 3-pointers.

Chicago had a 115-114 lead and the ball with 8 seconds to go before Embiid deflected an inbounds pass to create a turnover. Simmons came up with the ball near half court and was fouled by Denzel Valentine. He made both free throws.

Portis had a chance for a game winner, but his short attempt – with Embiid defending – just missed.

The 76ers raced to a 25-7 lead midway through the first quarter before Portis got hot and Chicago started making 3s.

Philadelphia’s lead was down to 33-29 at the end of the quarter and the Bulls busted out for 40 points in the second to take a 69-67 halftime lead. Chicago was 9 of 12 on 3-pointers in the quarter, including 4 for 5 by Portis.

The 76ers were up by five early in the fourth before Portis scored six straight points – on a 3-pointer and a three-point play – to put the Bulls on top 101-100. A few minutes later, Portis dunked over Embiid to stretch the lead to 111-106 with just over four minutes to play.

LaVine hit a 3-pointer to make it 115-110 with 1:02 left.

TIP INS

76ers: C Embiid has nine straight double-doubles . Simmons has six triple-doubles this season, which ties him with Wilt Chamberlain (three times) and Billy Cunningham for most in a season in team history.

Bulls: To look at some younger players during the final 25 games, C Robin Lopez and G/F Justin Holiday were removed from the starting lineup. Both were inactive on Thursday as Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba (21 points) started; Also, Cameron Payne – who played in his first game on Thursday – will replace Jerian Grant as the backup point guard.

“It really is hard,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s hard for Robin, it’s hard for Justin and it’s hard for Jerian, who’s probably making as big a sacrifice as anybody.”

UP NEXT

76ers: Host Orlando on Saturday.

Bulls: Visit Minnesota Saturday night.