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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain locked on top, race to the bottom interesting

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Not much movement at the top of the power rankings, the Rockets are playing well and most of the other top teams seem to have a case of senioritis looking ahead to the All-Star break. The more interesting race may be to the bottom, where the Suns and Nets are losing, the Knicks have dropped seven straight, and the taking for lottery position is about to go full force.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (43-13, Last Week No. 1). Houston is a run-and-gun Mike D’Antoni team, right? Not really, or at least not as much as people think. The Rockets are ninth in the NBA in pace and 14th in the NBA in the percentage of offense started in transition. The Rockets are very efficient when they get in transition, scoring a league best 129.5 points per 100 transition possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass), but they don’t run like people think. The Rockets have won nine in a row, they remain tied with the Warriors in the loss column in the race for the No. 1 seed and home court throughout the playoffs.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (44-13 LW 2). Whoever is doing the coaching for Golden State (Steve Kerr, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee), he/they seems to have awakened their dormant bench of the past month or so. Which is good, because they may need to fill in for Draymond Green soon — he has a league-leading 14 technical fouls this season, two more and he gets an automatic one-game suspension. One sign of when the Warriors start to buckle down and focus again heading into the playoffs — their dreadful transition defense will improve. Right now it is one of the worst in the league.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (40-16, LW 3). Winners of six in a row — and the first five each by at least 15 points. The Raptors are in an impressive stretch and look like they could be the class of the East, but they will need to prove it in the playoffs. The Raptors are the top seed in the East as you read this — which could really matter come the playoffs. If Cleveland really has turned things around, the Cavs will still be the 3 seed (six games back of Boston/Toronto), meaning whoever finishes as the two seed gets them in the second round. Finish first, the path to the conference finals is cleaner.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (40-18, LW 4). Losers of 3-of-4, including ugly losses to the other top teams in the East Toronto and Cleveland. (The Celtics would have lost four in a row if the Wizards had played a little cleaner and Markieff Morris hadn’t fouled late.) The real reason for concern is the defense has been 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse in their last five games, going from best in the league to pedestrian. The offense remains just okay as it has much of the season, they need an elite defense to make up for it. This is likely just a blip, but something to watch.

 
5. Timberwolves (35-25, LW 5). That midseason stretch of good defense may have been a mirage — in their last 10 games the Timberwolves have given up a sieve-like 113.4 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA for that stretch. Their transition defense continues to be the big issue. Rumors persist that Tom Thibodeau wants to pick up Derrick Rose off the buyout market, but I can’t see a good reason to do that. There are better options for point guard depth out there.

Bucks small icon 6. Bucks (32-24 LW 7). When Joe Prunty took over as head coach, his first move was to change the defensive schemes to something simpler and more traditional that his players could execute consistently — and in those 10 games the Bucks have allowed less than a point per possession and gone 8-2. Over that same time the Bucks have had a pedestrian offense (18th in the league) and while injuries (Malcolm Brogdon) are part of that the team needs to step up, starting with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (35-24, LW 6). The Spurs have shaken up the starting lineup, inserting Davis Bertans and moving Pau Gasol to a sixth man role. The reason is that with Dejounte Murray starting at the point but not having an outside shot, the Spurs needed better floor spacing. They have gotten it, the offense has looked better with this new lineup. The Spurs are 1-3 at the start of their Rodeo road trip and it continues past the All-Star break through Feb. 25 in Cleveland.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (32-24, LW 8). Washington has won 6-of-8 since John Wall went down, with the two losses to elite defensive teams (Boston and Philly). With Tim Fraizer also out injured, the Wizards need to pick up a point guard on the buyout market to provide some depth behind Tomas Satoransky (who has played well and moved the ball with Wall out). Expect a move soon.

 
Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (29-28, LW 17). Winners of 10 in a row and they have been the best team in the NBA over that stretch. The biggest surprise is that the frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert is working again — the Jazz are +26.2 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together during this streak. Not sure if that’s sustainable. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress during the streak taking over games late, Ricky Rubio has found a comfort level in Quin Snyder’s system and next to Mitchell, and Joe Ingles can’t miss. With a softer schedule the rest of the way than other teams in the fight for playoffs, fivethirtyeight.com says they have a 90 percent chance of making the postseason.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (34-22 LW 19). They are 2-0 with the new-look lineup, and while it’s just two games the fact that LeBron James looks energized again, that the athleticism on defense is paying off, and that the bench looks good are all very good signs the Cavs are on the right track. After the All-Star break Tyronn Lue will get a few practices with his new team, which is needed. It’s too early to buy in on the Cavaliers again, but I like what I’ve seen in the test drive so far.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (32-26 LW 9).. Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony returned to the rotation Tuesday night vs. Cleveland but it didn’t help, and the Thunder are 2-6 in their last eight. Without Andre Roberson in those games their elite defense has fallen to the middle of the pack (15th in the NBA in those 8) and they continue to look for a fifth man in the starting and closing rotation. Also in those eight games, the team’s offense has fallen to bottom 10 in the league. This still feels like a team better built for the postseason, but the hole they have dug themselves will make that a struggle.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (31-26, LW 12). Denver quietly made a really smart move at the trade deadline, swapping out Emmanuel Mudiay for Devin Harris — Harris has fit right in and helped (he had 17 vs. Phoenix). The win over the Spurs Tuesday night mattered because for Denver the playoffs start now — they are the current six-seed in the West, but just two games up on the nine-seed Clippers (and three on the 10 seed and climbing Jazz). Denver needs victories now.

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (29-25, LW 16). Adding Marco Belinelli after his buyout from the Hawks was a good pickup, he provides shooting and wing depth this team could use. The Sixers have won eight in a row at home now, but have 8-of-10 on the road were they are 12-15 this season. The Sixers need to keep racking up wins to keep Detroit at arms length and stay in the postseason, but the Sixers have the second toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (30-25, LW 10). Indiana is 6-1 in games decided by three points or less this season, which is a little bit lucky but has helped keep them afloat and out of too much danger of missing the postseason. Although the bigger reason this team remains solidly in the postseason is the play of Victor Oladipo, the team has gone 13-6 since his return from injury.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (29-26 LW 14). DeAndre Jordan remained a Clipper past the trade deadline, despite a lot of teams calling about his availability (if the Clippers moved him they did not want to take on long-term salary coming back, and that became a sticking point). Whether he remains a Clipper after summer free agency is another question, he told our own Dan Feldman he’s not sure how much the team wants him, and you can bet other teams will work hard to recruit him.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (31-26, LW 13). The Trail Blazers offense was hot for a while, then has cooled off (despite a 50 spot from Damian Lillard) but the ups-and-downs are expected in an offense where the pick-and-roll ball handler or a guy in isolation take 30.3 percent of the shots (this team does not move the ball well, which can lead to contests against good defenses). Fun matchup Wednesday night when the Blazers face the Warriors: Lillard and C.J. McCollum vs. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (30-26, LW 15). New Orleans is 3-5 since DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season, and not surprisingly it is the offensive end of the court where they miss him most. Since the injury, the Pelicans have scored just 101.6 points per 100 possessions, way down from the 108.3 rating they had before. The Pels defense has been okay, but it can’t cover up that much lack of scoring. Of the five teams battling for the final three playoff spots in the West, the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Pelicans have the toughest remaining schedules, New Orleans needs to find some buckets to stay in the postseason.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (30-27, LW 11). Dwyane Wade is back home in Miami, and that boost stopped a five-game skid. Wade is not an efficient scorer anymore, but he is an improved playmaker who can serve as sort of a defacto backup point guard, plus he can make some timely plays on both ends of the court. Expect him to keep coming off the bench but to get some crunch time minutes as well.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (27-29, LW 18). The Blake Griffin honeymoon is over as the Pistons have lost three straight and remain 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the East. If you really want to be picky, every game Griffin has won with the Piston came when the opponent was on the second game of a back-to-back. Overall the Pistons have been +6.5 points per 100 with Griffin on the court this season, but in the last three games, the Griffin and Andre Drummond pairing has been -14.4 per 100. Stan Van Gundy is looking forward to having some practices with his team at the end of the All-Star break.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (23-32 LW 21). Isaiah Thomas has a chance with the Lakers to improve his stock heading into his summer free agency — stock that took a serious hit in the past year with his injury, play in Cleveland, and his disruption of that locker room. Thomas had 22 points in his Lakers debut off the bench, and while his defense is still terrible if he can show he can still put up numbers he helps his cause this summer (either as a key ball handler on a lesser team or a sixth man on a good one).

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (23-33, LW 20). The Hornets didn’t trade Kemba Walker at the deadline, as expected, but they should revisit that during the summer when the offers may improve. Charlotte did take a flier on Willy Hernangomez at the deadline, and while it adds some salary long term it’s a good flier on a guy who showed promise as a rookie then got squeezed in the New York rotations this season. On Saturday, while you’re settling in to watch the Dunk Contest, remember to wish Michael Jordan a happy 55th birthday.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (20-36 LW 29).. After trading out Nikola Mitotic, the Bulls took an interesting flier at the deadline taking on Noah Vonleh. He didn’t impress much in Portland but he was marginally better this season (he started a dozen games for them) and there is potential. Zach LaVine has impressed more and more of late, including the game-winning steal and dunk vs. Orlando on Monday.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (18-38, LW 25). And somewhere Scott Skiles smiles — the Magic decided to move on from Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline. They didn’t get much back but it was still the right move, it was time. Orlando continues to play well on offense — they are 10th in the NBA in that category over their last 10 games. The problem is they give up almost as many buckets as they score, leading to a 4-6 record in those games.

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (18-40 LW 23). Dennis Smith Jr. continues to show flashes but struggle with efficiency, he scoring 15.5 points per game in his last 10 but is shooting just 36.1 percent overall and 27.7 percent from three in that stretch. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki dropped 22 on the Lakers and even had a dunk (his first of the season).

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (18-37, LW 24). Tyreke Evans is still in Memphis after the trade deadline in one of the most bizarre deadline non-moves we have seen. Memphis’ GM tried to spin this was better for the team, but the reality is no team was going to give him the first he wanted, so now rather than two second-round pick (or a second and Emmanuel Mudiay, a deal that was on the table) the Grizzlies are going to watch him walk this summer for nothing. Will they revisit the Marc Gasol trade idea this summer?

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (23-35, LW 22). They have lost seven in a row and are pushing their way higher into the draft lottery. I like the trade deadline gamble on Emmanuel Mudiay, a big point guard who could be a backup down the line, and maybe play next to Frank Ntilikina. The Knicks aren’t going anywhere (this season or probably next after the Kristaps Porzingis ACL injury) so taking gambles and trying to develop players is what they should do.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (18-40, LW 28). Dewayne Dedmon is back in the rotation, and Mike Budenholzer is going deep into that rotation to get a good look at the players they have as the Hawks start to work out who can be part of the rebuild long-term. Atlanta has won 3-of-6, which normally one would say is a good thing but in a tight race for lottery position, the Hawks wins cost them the best lottery odds in the past week.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-38, LW 26). The Kings moved on from George Hill at the deadline, and they got a second-round pick for it. The real key for the Kings is what they do with that and their other picks — the Kings have either missed on or been unable to properly develop players over the past decade, and that has held them back. Sure, they nailed DeMarcus Cousins, and this is not about Georgios Papagiannis (who they waived), rather it’s about not regularly turning first-round picks into solid rotation players they can hold onto at an affordable price. That’s how teams get built, and the Kings need to get there to turn this ship around.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (19-39, LW 27). Getting a second-round pick for Tyler Zeller was a good move for the Nets. Losers of six in a row, that only serves to make Cavaliers fans happy as they control the Brooklyn pick (and they value it enough that Cleveland would not give it up at the trade deadline despite a roster overhaul). Allen Crabbe has shown some signs of life in the last two weeks, a good thing as he is near the top of the “most disappointing player in the NBA this season” list.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-40, LW 30). Losers of six in a row and 11-of-12, the Suns are now tied for the worst record in the NBA (and a chance for the top spot in the draft lottery). I like the flier on Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline, they want a point guard to put next to Devin Booker eventually, and while Payton may not be it they didn’t give up much and Payton has potential if he could find his shot.

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.