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Power Rankings: Just how far will the Cavaliers fall?

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The Blake Griffin trade, plus injuries to Kevin Love and DeMarcus Cousins, have shaken up the NBA, but their impact is just starting to be felt in the power rankings. Golden State and Houston are cruising on top, while the Cavaliers have fallen to 14th and that that may not be rock bottom

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (40-11 Last Week No. 1). Teams playing the Warriors work hard to chase all those shooters off the three-point line, as they should. The problem is both Klay Thompson (43.1%) and Stephen Curry (41.2%) are shooting very well on threes off the dribble — they still make defenders pay for crowding them out at the arc with a little bit of movement. Well, not the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, when the Warriors had their worst loss of the season. I pity the Kings, who are up next on the schedule after the Warriors rest up and Kerr yells at them.

 
Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (36-13, LW 2). Houston is defending well again (or at least back to their season average) and are 12th in the NBA on that end of the floor in their last 1o games. Not coincidentally, Luc Mbah a Moute came back in that stretch, they are much better defenders with him on the floor. More big tests this week for the Rockets with the Spurs (Thursday) and the Cavaliers (Saturday), the week after the Rockets finally lost a game where James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all played.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (34-15, LW 4). Kyle Lowry didn’t make the All-Star game for his first eight seasons in the league, but is now back for his second straight. The only other NBA player ever not to be named an All-Star the first eight seasons then make it? Chauncey Billups. That’s good company. The Raptors have started 2-1 in a home-heavy stretch of the schedule (7-of-10 in the Air Canada Centre).

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (36-15, LW 5). Boston is active on the trade market, looking to add a little more depth and scoring at the deadline. Their bench has had some rough games, and now they second-unit leader Marcus Smart is going to miss time because he hates the pictures on the walls in hotels. I’ve been told they have interest in Tyreke Evans, but they are looking at more than just him. This isn’t a major move, just a team looking for more depth to get through the second half of the season.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (30-21 LW 7).. They had won eight in a row until Tuesday, but things are going to get difficult for the Thunder now. Andre Roberson being out for the season is a big blow — the team’s defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. He and Paul George made a strong pair of switchable defensive wings that could help get stops — the kind of wings you need against the Warriors in the playoffs.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (34-19, LW 6). San Antonio has won 4-of-5, and while it’s fair to say they’ve done it scoring points against struggling defenses (such as Cleveland) the wins still count the same. And they are doing it without Kawhi Leonard (plus LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have missed time). Light week on the schedule before the Spurs head out on their annual “rodeo road trip.”

 
7. Timberwolves (32-22, LW 3). You could see what Jimmy Butler means to this team on defense when he was out for four games. For the season the Timberwolves are a whopping 11 points per 100 possessions worse when Butler is off the court. Minnesota has lost 4-of-5 and are home to some challenging tests this week with the Bucks and Pelicans.

 
Heat small icon 8. Heat (29-21, LW 9). They’re the best team without an All-Star, and it seems a little unfair that a team knocking on the door of passing the stumbling Cavaliers in the standings doesn’t have an All-Star. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is right, Eric Spoelstra is the Miami All-Star — he’s had wildly shifting lineups all season, a record in close games that seems unsustainable (they are a league-best 22-11 in games within five points in the final five minutes of a game), yet they keep on getting it done.

Bucks small icon 9. Bucks (27-22 LW 11). Milwaukee is 4-0 under interim coach Joe Prunty, although he walked into a soft part of the schedule. That starts to change with 5-of-6 coming up on the road, including stops in Minnesota and Miami. Jabari Parker makes his return to the lineup Friday night against the Knicks, and hopefully soon we can see what a fully healthy and functional Bucks team will look like.

 
Pelicans small icon 10. Pelicans (27-23, LW 9). What a punch to the gut. DeMarcus Cousins is out for the season with a ruptured Achilles (not coincidentally after a stretch of very heavy use by Alvin Gentry), and that leaves the Pelicans and Anthony Davis trying to hang on to a playoff slot. Which is not going to be easy, as a home loss to Sacramento Tuesday night showed. New Orleans should still be good when Anthony Davis is on the court (especially with Jrue Holiday playing well), but the question is how bad does it get when he rests? The Pelicans wanted to rent Nicola Mitotic but he wants to get paid his $12.5 million next year if traded, so the sides could not reach a deal.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (28-23, LW 12). Call it the former Thunder connection: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have a great pick-and-roll chemistry. When the Pacers were losing to the Magic on Saturday, Indiana started to lean heavily on that combination and it helped spark a comeback win. Indiana has started off 2-0 on a stretch of 5-of-6 at home, a chance for them to cement a little playoff security with wins.

 
Wizards small icon 12. Wizards (28-22, LW 10). The Wizards have been 6.2 points per 100 possessions better with Wall on the court, and they have been outscored by 1.8 per 100 with him sitting. Now Wall is out for a knee operation for 6-8 weeks (another clean-up), and combine that with the fact 16 of Washington’s next 20 games are against teams currently in the playoffs and there is a serious potential for a slide down the standings (and these rankings). Expect to see a lot more Thomas Satoransky and Tim Frazier, but they are no John Wall.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (28-22, LW 15). Terry Stotts sounded a little frustrated before his team beat the Clippers Tuesday — early in the season the defense was good but the offense stumbled, now the offense has found a groove again (111.4 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games, fourth in the NBA) but the defense has slid back to bottom 10. As the Blazers fight for playoff position, they need both on the same night to lock down their spot.

 
Cavaliers small icon 14. Cavaliers (29-20 LW 13). Just when it looked like they might turn things around, Kevin Love breaks his left hand and that will need surgery to repair. He’s out 6-8 weeks, and that messes up not only the rotations and leaves the Cavaliers scrambling for more scoring, but it makes it harder for the Cavs to trade Channing Frye or Tristan Thompson (unless another big man comes back in the deal). Big game against Miami Wednesday for third place in the East.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (24-23, LW 14). In a sign of how far the Sixers have come this season, they swept the season series from the San Antonio Spurs — for the past six years it was the Spurs who did the sweeping. Ben Simmons and some Sixers fans have been campaigning for the rookie to be put on the All-Star team as a reserve (he hadn’t been as of this writing), but he’s faded some after a fast start and that likely hurt him on the coaches’ ballots (which is what Adam Silver generally goes on when he picks).

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (26-25, LW 18). With the Pelicans and Clippers both losing key parts to their team this week, the Nuggets should be able to hold on to a playoff slot in the West — but things are not that simple. They have dropped two in a row to Boston and San Antonio, and the rough stretch of the schedule continues with the Thunder and Warriors this week, the Rockets and Spurs next week. Denver needs to find some wins in there and lock down its spot.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (25-25 LW 16). The Blake Griffin trade left the Los Angeles locker room stunned, and with the sense that the trading is not done — don’t be shocked if the Clippers move one or both of DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams before the Feb. 8 deadline. While this is the right basketball move in a cold world, Griffin forever changed the Clippers franchise from the inside by his talent and work ethic — he made a joke of a team be more professional to keep up with him (back in the Donald Sterling years). They should still retire his number someday.

 
Knicks small icon 18. Knicks (23-28, LW 20). Kristaps Porzingis shot an impressive 47.4% from three in January, but he shot just 39.5% in the paint for the month and only 46.7% at the rim. He and the Knicks need more consistency. The Knicks also need better defense — which was nearly non-existent on a recent 7-game road trip (where the Knicks went 3-4). While the Knicks may dream of the playoffs, they likely need to go about 22-9 the rest of the way to get to where the Sixers and Pacers will be.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (23-26, LW 17). Stan Van Gundy has swung for the fences — or at least for the playoffs — with his move to trade for Blake Griffin. When healthy Griffin is an All-Star level player — to pair with Andre Drummond who is now an All-Star in the East — but his massive contract will make it hard to put enough pieces around the two bigs to make this a truly dangerous team. But, the move should help sell tickets in the new downtown arena.

 
Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (22-28, LW 25). Joe Ingles leads the NBA in three-point shooting percentage off the dribble hitting 48.3% — that’s an incredibly valuable skill as teams chase shooters off the arc more. Utah’s playoff dreams are not dead (not with what has happened to the Clippers and Pelicans), but they will still need to go at least 21-9 or better the rest of the way to make the cut. That’s a tall order.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (20-29, LW 19). It doesn’t look like the Hornets will be sellers at this trade deadline, but the questions about whether to hang on or move Kemba Walker and some bad contracts to start a rebuild will continue into the summer. Charlotte seems to have found a little more of an offensive groove again with Steve Clifford back on the sidelines — they’re taking and making more threes — which is going to get them wins.

 
Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (18-31, LW 21). Mike Conley will have surgery on his heel he has tried to avoid and is now done for the entire season, which is the smart thing (get him right for next season). Tyreke Evans will almost certainly be moved at the trade deadline, Memphis is simply holding out for the best deal (they are demanding a first-round pick, which teams have yet to cough up). Rookie Ivan Rabb is getting more run late, and with the Grizzlies out of the playoff picture that should continue as they try to develop him.

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (19-30 LW 22). No timeline yet on exactly when Lonzo Ball will return to the lineup (or if he can play in the Rising Stars game All-Star weekend, although the Lakers would like him to since it’s at Staples Center.) Still the Lakers are showing development and some grit, getting wins over Indiana and Boston before heading out for 8-of-10 on the road (they have started that stretch 1-1).

 
Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (18-32 LW 23).. The bubble has burst on the Bulls hot streak, having now lost 4-of-5 and about to head out on the road for three more games. Rookie Lauri Markkanen has been part of that, shooting just 21.6% from three over his last five games. The Bulls are still working to move Nikola Mitotic before the deadline, but he’s not going to approve a trade where the new team doesn’t pick up his $12.5 million option for next season (he can do that because he will lose his Bird rights) and it’s unlikely a team will do that. New Orleans wouldn’t.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (16-35 LW 24). Another week, another milestone: Dirk Nowitzki is on the verge of being only the sixth player in NBA history to play 50,000 regular season minutes, which is an impressive feat. We will remember the future Hall of Famer for his one-legged fadeaway and being the best shooting big man, and best European, ever in the NBA, but he has been tough, and durable, as well.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (16-34, LW 29). Sacramento went a respectable 3-3 on a six-game road trip through the South, and they showed again that if they can get a lead they can hold it — the Kings are 10-2 when leading after three quarters this season. Good news that coach Dave Joerger has been given a clean bill of healthy to return to the sidelines after his dizzy spell on the court recently. He probably will be on the bench again Friday, or at least this weekend.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (18-33, LW 26). D’Angelo Russell has been back for five games now but he’s still looking rusty and off, shooting just 28.6% overall and 22.2% from three. He’s also been turning the ball over about twice as often as he’s made an assist. Some rust is expected, but he’s not playing in a way that will make Brooklyn want to give him an extension this summer. Expect them to pick up his option, play his fourth season, and then become a restricted free agent.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (15-35, LW 27). When I watched a young Dennis Schroder fresh out of Germany at his first Summer League, I thought “he’s going to be a great defender, I just hope his offense comes along. His offenses did, but he’s not put in the effort on defense — the Hawks are 9.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him off the court this season. That has to be driving Mike Budenholzer crazy.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (17-34, LW 28). The Suns have moved Devin Booker over to the starting point guard role now — he has the ball in his hands. Booker has put up points (31 against the Rockets) but he’s not consistent at getting teammates involved, and he needs a much better defensive guard next to him or the plan will be exploited. With where the Suns are this season, this is exactly what they should be experimenting with.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (14-35, LW 30). Orlando is willing to be a seller at the trade deadline, but will there be any buyers for Evan Fournier or Elfrid Payton. A lot of teams — maybe 29 other ones — could use the shooting Fournier brings, but his salary is going to make a few teams back off. Orlando is certainly a team to watch as we move toward the Feb. 8 deadline.

Instead of desired playoff appearance, Jazz might have found better prize in hotshot rookie Donovan Mitchell

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DETROIT – Donovan Mitchell inspires confidence.

Chris Paul watched him play at a spring camp and told Mitchell, who was leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior season, to declare for the NBA draft. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey threatened to fire anyone who revealed how good Mitchell looked in a pre-draft workout then traded up to pick the guard No. 13. After Gordon Hayward left Utah for the Celtics in free agency and early injuries set in, Jazz coach Quin Snyder made the rookie his go-to player. Fans flocked to Mitchell for his high-flying dunks, bold pull-up 3-pointers and monster scoring games.

Between his athleticism, smooth shooting stroke and 6-foot-10 wingspan on a 6-foot-3 body, Mitchell oozed promise. His future was undeniably bright.

But, in a distinction too few made, his present was underwhelming. Mitchell’s high-scoring nights were celebrated, but his too-frequent duds were ignored. He posted big point totals out of volume far more than efficiency. At Thanksgiving, his true shooting percentage was a dreadful 46.8, well below league average of 55.6.

Mitchell didn’t step back, though. In fact, he increased his offensive load. And he’s growing up right before our eyes. His true shooting percentage since Thanksgiving is 59.0, a sparkling mark considering his high usage.

“At the end of the day, I’m a rookie,” Mitchell said. “If I miss shots, it’s to be expected. None of this was supposed to happen.”

Not based on Mitchell’s reluctance to leave Louisville. Not based on his projection – mid-to-late first round – once he finally turned pro. Not based on where he actually got picked, No. 13.

But, by now, Mitchell has already established himself as a hyped player.

Most rookies who averaged 18 points per game won Rookie of the Year. Mitchell is averaging 19.1. He might not catch the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who appeared to be running away with the award earlier in the season, but Mitchell’s candidacy should be taken seriously.

Not that Mitchell is giving it much thought.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, make a playoff push,” Mitchell said. “I think if I focus on that one award, it’s kind of selfish on my part to be like, ‘Alright, this is why I’m playing.’ We have bigger things in mind.”

And that’s the rub.

Teams rarely win while relying so much on rookies. Sometimes, that’s because the only way to get a rookie worth giving the ball to so much is tankingg for a high pick. Regardless of that rookie’s talent, it can take years to build back up after stripping the roster to tank.

Utah sure didn’t do that, winning 51 games and a playoff series last season. The Jazz are still a veteran team, the NBA’s eighth-oldest weighted by playing time despite the 21-year-old Mitchell nearly leading them in minutes. They were built to win now with Hayward, and his departure threw the entire franchise for a loop.

Those are big shoes for Mitchell to fill, and he’s doing an admirable job – in context.

Mitchell shoots 16.1 times per game. The only team in the last 20 years to make the playoffs with a rookie taking at least 15 shots per game: Carmelo Anthony‘s Nuggets in 2004. Even at just 20-28, Utah has the best record of any team since with a 15-shot-per-game rookie:

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It’s especially hard to win when that go-to rookie is a guard. Putting the ball in a young player’s hands that often is just asking for trouble. The last team to make the playoffs with a guard shooting 15 times per game was Mitch Richmond’s Warriors in 1989. Restrict it to point guards, and the last team was Ernie DiGregorio’s Buffalo Braves in 1974.

Mitchell’s position is hazy.

He starts with Ricky Rubio, a clear point guard. But Mitchell spends so much time as the lead ball-handler, as he can use a variety of moves to create his own shot. The Jazz also try to get him going plenty off the ball by running him off screens. He’s dangerous as a spot-up shooter.

Mitchell is nearly peerless in the breadth and depth of his scoring.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (9.9 attempts per game) and efficiency (49.3 effective field-goal percentage) on shots off multiple dribbles: LeBron James, Victor Oladipo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Lou Williams, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, D'Angelo Russell, C.J. McCollum, Kemba Walker, DeMar DeRozan.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (3.6 attempts per game) and efficiency (66.5 effective field-goal percentage) on catch-and-shoots: Clint Capela, Buddy Hield, Mirza Teletovic, DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Kevin Durant, Reggie Bullock, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Enes Kanter, Tyler Zeller, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Trey Lyles, Hassan Whiteside, Jamil Wilson, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, Dwight Powell, Julius Randle.

If you notice, the only player on both lists is LeBron.

Like LeBron and many other players, Mitchell chose his jersey number to honor Michael Jordan. But Mitchell chose No. 45, not Jordan’s more famous No. 23. Jordan wore No. 45 during his stint in baseball, Mitchell’s favorite sport growing up, then briefly during his first comeback with the Bulls, which happened before Mitchell was even born. Why not pick No. 23 like everybody else honoring Jordan wears?

“Because that’s what everybody else does,” Mitchell said. “I try to be different. I’m not like everybody else.”

Mitchell isn’t blazing a completely new trail, though. His combination of usage percentage (28.7) and true shooting percentage (54.6) is amazing for a rookie, but one other first-year player already did it:

Jordan.

By putting himself in that elite company, Mitchell isn’t having his role reduced – no matter what growing pains the Jazz must endure.

“He’s our best offensive player,” Snyder said. “So, he’s going to get responsibility. From my standpoint, there’s not a timeline.”

Mitchell plays and talks like someone whose self-confidence matches the belief everyone else has in him. So, why was he leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior – not even sophomore – season until Paul told him otherwise? As Mitchell explains, he was too shocked by the idea of competing against players like LeBron and Durant for his confidence even to set in.

So, when did shock wear off?

“It really hasn’t, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “It’s game by game. It’s kind of crazy to me, the entire thing.”

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.

Chris Paul scores 33, Rockets topple Warriors 116-108

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden felt closer to normal after struggling in his first game back from a hamstring injury, and the Houston Rockets got a big game from Chris Paul to down the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.

Paul scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, Harden bested Stephen Curry twice in the final seconds and the Rockets held off the Warriors 116-108 to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

The victory gives Houston a 2-1 series advantage over Golden State after the reigning NBA champions had won the series the previous three seasons.

“Obviously they’re a championship caliber team for the past four years … and that’s what we’re trying to build our way up to,” Harden said.

Harden stepped back from Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left, then blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt after a timeout.

Harden finished with 22 points. Paul added two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

“It’s been a good streak, disappointing end to it,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we didn’t deserve to win tonight. We played pretty poorly, did a lot of things to hurt ourselves and we’re playing a great team. Can’t get away with it.”

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the performance of the 32-year-old Paul .

“The guy is a winner, he’s been a winner, he’s going to win,” D’Antoni said.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts and 6 of 20 overall. It was just the sixth time in his career that he’d attempted 20 or more shots while making six or fewer.

“It was just one of those nights where I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor,” he said. “So I’ve got to take that responsibility for that one. It was pretty bad.”

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half.

It was Harden’s second game back after missing seven with a strained hamstring. He was in a much better rhythm than in his return Thursday night, when he scored a season-low 10 points. He had eight assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday.

The Rockets got the victory despite missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, who were both serving the second game of a two-game suspension for an altercation with the Clippers. Clint Capela added 18 points for Houston on a night when top reserve Eric Gordon went 0 for 9 from 3-point range and finished with just six points.

Golden State led by four before Houston went on a 9-2 run, with the first five points from Paul, to take a 109-106 lead with about three minutes left.

 

Reunited with Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza embracing role as Rockets’ glue guy

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith
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Chris Paul and Trevor Ariza went out for dinner together Dec. 8, 2011. They were back in Paul’s condo when the star point guard was thrown headfirst into one of the NBA’s biggest controversies.

New Orleans agreed to trade Paul to the Lakers, but the league – which was operating the New Orleans franchise while it was for sale – vetoed the deal.

“It was crazy,” Paul said.

Paul and Ariza, then New Orleans teammates, have reunited with the Rockets. This time, Ariza might have more than a front-row seat to Paul’s saga. Ariza could be a central character in the story.

Of course, Paul came to Houston to escape the Clippers, team up with James Harden and try to win a championship. But Paul also said his friendship with Ariza “had a whole lot to do with it.”

Three Rockets starters – Paul, Ariza and Clint Capela – will be free agents next summer. Paul is the obvious priority, and general manager Daryl Morey said Capela, who will be restricted, “couldn’t price himself out” of Houston.

The Rockets already have nearly $76 million in 2018-19 and more than $85 million in 2019-20 committed to just five players (Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Nene). New owner Tilman Fertitta has expressed limitations on paying the luxury tax.

So, where does that leave Ariza? And perhaps more importantly, how would whether or not Houston re-signs Ariza affect Paul?

“Trev, like I said, is a good friend of mine. We talk about any and everything,” Paul said. “But, when that decision comes, I’m sure we both will make the best decision that’s best for my family and best for his family.”

If the Rockets discard Ariza to to sign another of Paul’s friends, LeBron James, it probably wouldn’t be a problem. Really, worldly veterans like Paul and Ariza would likely understand if Houston lets Ariza walk even without replacing him with LeBron.

But how much risk do the Rockets want to take? Would they chance losing their big acquisition after only one season? Remember, they were reportedly reluctant to deal Ariza in a package for a third star last summer because of his Paul connection.

That bond is already showing this season.

When Paul’s new teammates questioned Ariza after the trade about Paul’s’ personality, Ariza assured them Paul, though extremely competitive, is a “real nice dude.” Houston is outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when Paul and Ariza share the court. And in Paul’s highly charged return to L.A., no Rocket answered the emotion of the night more than Ariza, who got ejected then reportedly led a post-game charge into the Clippers locker room, drawing a two-game suspension.

His point guard might be (re)new(ed), but Ariza still has the same overall job description – steady, unheralded contributor.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time,” Ariza said.

His production is in line with Ryan Anderson’s and Eric Gordon’s. But Anderson’s salary nearly triples Ariza’s, and Gordon – who also earns more money – gets the plaudits of being reigning Sixth Man of the Year because he comes off the bench.

Ariza’s modest windfall: comfort. In his fourth straight year with the Rockets, this stint in Houston has been his longest anywhere.

A second-round pick in 2004, Ariza shuffled between the Knicks, Magic and Lakers. He excelled in the 2009 playoffs, helping the Lakers win the title in a contract year. But the Lakers let him walk to sign Ron Artest (who later changed his name to Metta World Peace) – a particular disappointment for Ariza, who grew up in Los Angeles. So, Ariza agreed to terms with the Rockets for nearly $34 million over five years. But in his only season with an above-average usage, Ariza underwhelmed, and Houston traded him to New Orleans, where he teamed with Paul. In cost-cutting mode after Paul, New Orleans sent Ariza to the Wizards. He parlayed a career year in Washington into a four-year, $32 million contract with the Rockets in 2014.

Along the way, Ariza developed a 3-point shot that wasn’t at all on his résumé his first few seasons. He picked up tricks of the trade defensively. And he displayed professionalism and a strong work ethic.

He isn’t an elite outside shooter, but he shoots well enough to provide clearly efficient scoring and floor-spacing. He isn’t an elite defender, but he can credibly guard all five positions. Important and perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his game, he maintains his two-way effectiveness over long stretches.

Only Ariza, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons rate as above average both offensively and defensively by ESPN’s real plus-minus while playing 35 minutes per game.

The 32-year-old Ariza is easily the oldest of that group. He keeps in excellent shape, playing 36.2 minutes per game, an age-playing time combination matched by only LeBron James, whose workload has been deeply dissected.

While Luc Mbah a Moute was injured and before Houston signed Gerald Green, Ariza played more than 41 minutes in six straight games last month.

“I’m real aware that we’re playing him too many minutes,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But he says, ‘Coach, I’m fine. It doesn’t bother me.’ During the game, he’s never winded.'”

Ariza’s steadiness is historic considering how he entered the league. Since the NBA instituted a two-round draft in 1989, he ranks eighth among second-rounders in career games:

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Ariza says he has always focused competing against the man in front of him, not caring about where he was drafted or contract status.

That approach has taken Ariza a long way in his 14-year career. He has earned a healthy living playing basketball and respect from teammates and coaches – but not job security.

He’s key to the Rockets’ present and future, but with his contract expiring, that can mean a number of outcomes.

“It’s there. You know it’s there,” Ariza said. “But you that’s not what I put all my focus into.

“I’m just going to go out and play my game and do my job, and whatever happens happens.”