Kurt Helin

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce (34) hugs guard teammate Chris Paul (3) in the final minutes in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers in New Orleans, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. The Clippers won 95-89. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
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PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Clippers climb with win streak, Knicks rising too

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I’ve used this annalogy before: To me the Clippers feel like the Cincinnati Bengals (minus the mental meltdowns, I hope). They can have a fantastic regular season — they have won nine in a row as of this writing – but their success this season will be completely judged in the postseason. Can they get out of the second round? I’m not sold, but they have climbed to fourth in these power rankings. As for the other end, the bottom teams remain the same, but Charlotte is suddenly trying to join them.

 
source:  1. Warriors (35-2, last week No. 1). They have won six in a row and their offense continues to hum along (110.4 points per 100 in their last 10 games). This is how Stephen Curry described the Warriors’ ball-sharing offense to me this week: “For the most part we don’t call many plays. That flow is, we have a pretty good high IQ for whatever lineup is out there, and usually the ball finds the right spot and the right person and we trust them to make it.”

 
source:  2. Spurs (32-6, LW 2). Winners of seven in a row and besting teams by 17 points per 100 possessions in their last 10 (tops in the league). The Spurs have had the easiest schedule in the NBA so far this season, having not had games against other top contenders, but that starts to change this week when they face the Cavaliers Thursday in a must-watch game.

 
source:  3. Cavaliers (26-9, LW 4). One guy who has benefitted from the return of Kyrie Irving is J.R. Smith, who is getting more and better looks from three and shooting 41.9 percent from there since Irving’s return. Great test this week against the three Texas teams, highlighted by the Spurs on Thursday night.

 
source:  4. Clippers (25-13, LW 5). Winners of nine in a row, eight of those without Blake Griffin, and in their last 10 they are scoring 110.4 points per 100 possessions (tied for third best in the NBA with Golden State). Without Griffin, the Clippers are doing it with more of a spread pick-and-roll in which Chris Paul (and J.J. Redick) are thriving.

 
source:  5. Thunder (26-12 LW 3). OKC has been fun to watch the past couple weeks because their games become shootouts — they are scoring a league-best 113.5 points per 100 possessions in their last 10, but are allowing 106.2, 22nd in the league. For example, see Damian Lillard going off for 17 points in the final 3:07 to beat OKC Sunday. The OKC bench in particular has struggled defensively. That said, they are still 7-3 in their last 10.

 
source:  6. Bulls (22-13, LW 6). Joakim Noah is healthy and returns Monday night, but that poses some challenges for coach Fred Holberg. First, statistically this team is best with Nikola Mitotic at the four, so you don’t want to chop his minutes at that spot. Second, Bobby Portis has been fantastic with Noah out, you don’t want to have him barely seeing the court either. It’s not going to be simple.

 
source:  7. Raptors (24-15, LW 9). Every team would like some mid-season rest, some days off right now, and the Raptors get it — they have just one game this week. It’s against Orlando in London (the light week is needed otherwise jet lag would cost them games). Toronto has won three in a row. And Raptor fans, stop freaking out about DeMarr DeRozan, he’s going to stay in Toronto (so long as they pay him the going rate).

 
source:  8. Mavericks (22-16, LW 11). When we’re talking about the things Dallas did right to build this surprisingly good team, make sure to put “got a lot of high IQ players” way up on the list. Then ignore the JaVale McGee signing. Brutal schedule this week: Cleveland, at Oklahoma City, at Chicago, at San Antonio.

 
source:  9. Hawks (23-15, LW 8). Impressive win over the Bulls last week, but like its starting lineup the Hawks are inconsistent night to night. The Hawks are getting good guard play out of Kent Bazemore (47.1 percent from three this season) and of late from Tim Hardaway Jr. off the bench.

 
source:  10. Pacers (21-16, LW 10). Holding on to leads has become a bit of an issue — the Pacers had double-digit leads over Miami and Houston last week and blew both. The return of George Hill didn’t change that. And as good as he has played, Dan Feldman and I don’t think Paul George is in the MVP conversation, as discussed in our latest podcast.

 
source:  11. Heat (22-15, LW 7). Chris Bosh has been phenomenal of late — 23.6 points per game in his last 10 and shooting 46.3 percent from three in that time (plus grabbing 7.7 rebounds a game). Challenging week ahead on the road (where the Heat have been a .500 team): At the Warriors, Clippers and Thunder (and Nuggets, too).

 
source:  12. Grizzlies (21-18, LW 15). They were so shorthanded last week that Tony Allen had to play some point guard — the fact they got some wins despite that is impressive. Zach Randolph has accepted his role off the bench and started to dominate some second units out there, giving the Grizzlies a boost.

 
source:  13. Pistons (21-16, LW 16). Andre Drummond is quietly having a very strong defensive season — he is protecting the paint, bodying up bigs, and making sure opponents possessions end after one shot. He’s not going to win DPOY, but he should get mentioned for the third spot on ballot (behind Kawhi and Draymond, who are 1-2). Tough week ahead for the Pistons with the Spurs, Grizzlies and Warriors scheduled.

 
source:  14. Celtics (19-18, LW 12). Last year’s draft pick Jordan Mickey has spent most of the season in the D-League, but he has impressed scouts down there. Wonder if he will get a chance with the big club, which has struggled of late dropping 5-of-6 and slid out of the playoffs into the ninth seed.

 
source:  15. Rockets (19-19, LW 19). Three-game winning streak (two against the Jazz, but they still count the same) and Houston is back up to .500. They get Ty Lawson back from suspension this week, but the way Trevor Ariza has played of late coach Bickerstaff may want to consider his minutes distribution.

 
source:  16. Magic (20-18, LW 13). This team’s offense doesn’t run as smoothly without Elfrid Payton and it shows with him out injured — the Magic have dropped 5-of-6. They get some rest with only one game on the schedule this week, against Toronto in London.

 
source:  17. Wizards (16-19, LW 17). Bradley Beal is getting closer to a return to the court, and they could use his playmaking, but the Wizards offense has been 6.7 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court this season. John Wall has turned the ball over much more lately, leading to a very inconsistent team.

 
source:  18. Knicks (19-20, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony is sharing the rock and trusting teammates the past couple weeks like we haven’t seen since, well, probably the Olympics. It’s a good sign for this team. Last week New York passed last season’s win total of 17, and if they can beat Boston Monday they climb to .500 (and the playoffs are not out of reach).

 
source:  19. Jazz (17-20, LW 18). The good news is Rudy Gobert is finally back. The bad news is Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood are still out (not to mention Alec Burks and Dante Exum). Still, Gobert solidifies the defense and gives them a shot in games, such as the win against Miami Sunday.

 
source:  20. Kings (15-22, LW 22). If the price tag for bringing in John Calipari is 10-years, $120 million, you’d have to think the Kings are out of that running. But there still feels like a push and pull between the players on the roster and what coach George Karl (and presumably owner Vivek Ranadive) want from their team. So they struggle even as Cousins puts up insane numbers.

 
source:  21. Trail Blazers (16-24, LW 21). Damian Lillard went off for 17 points in the final 3:07 Sunday night to spark a win over Oklahoma City — he and C.J. McCollum make this team dangerous any given night. Portland is 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the West, but with a soft schedule coming up this is the time to make a push to join the dance.

 
source:  22. Hornets (17-20, LW 14). Losers of seven in a row, which not-so-coincidentally is when Al Jefferson went out injured. Throw in Nicolas Batum missing the last four and things get ugly in Charlotte. Steve Clifford has done a great job coaching this team, but he can’t cover this talent gap. Charlotte is now 11th in the East, 2.5 games out of the eight seed.

 
source:  23. Pelicans (11-25, LW 23). We said this last week but it’s worth repeating: The Pelicans had the league’s toughest schedule up to this point, but January gets much easier for them. I’m not sure they can make up the 5.5 games to get back in the playoff hunt, but we should start to see more wins.

 
source:  24. Nuggets (14-24, LW 27). Emmanuel Mudiay returned to the court Monday, and the Nuggets picked up a win (although the rookie looked understandably rusty after missing 14 games). It’s good he’s back because it’s time to see how he fits with the Nuggets’ other interesting young pieces— big men Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. There is a core there to build around.

 
source:  25. Bucks (15-24, LW 24). It’s been a disappointing season, but this team still shows flashes that remind you overall they seem to be on the right track. For example, there was the win last week against Dallas. Still, no playoffs for this team this year and GM John Hammond needs to go find some shooters this summer.

source:  26. Timberwolves (12-26,LW 25). It seems hard to talk about the promising young core of a team that has dropped 10-of-11, but as Dan Feldman and I discussed in the latest PBT Podcast Karl-Anthony Towns is the clear leader for Rookie of the Year, just like Andrew Wiggins the season before. This team desperately needs shooting to give Towns and Wiggins some space to operate.

 
source:  27. Nets (10-27, LW 26). The Nets have fired Lionel Hollins and Billy King, which leaves a lot of challenging long-term questions in the air, but in the short term Tony Brown will be tasked with getting the Nets to suck less. It will be interesting to see who gets shopped at the deadline (besides Joe Johnson, no other team will bite on that contract). Can the Nets get quality in return for Thaddeus Young?

 
<source:  28. Suns (13-26, LW 29). They picked up a win over plumeting Charlotte, and Brooklyn kindly took over the title of “most dysfunctional franchise” from them, so things seem a little quieter. The Suns’ perimeter defense is a mess without Eric Bledsoe, and Tyson Chandler isn’t young and healthy enough to clean up that mess anymore in the paint — teams are putting up numbers on the Suns.

 
source:  29. Lakers (8-31, LW 28). I’ll have whatever Lou Williams is having, he’s had a couple huge games including dropping a career-high 44 last week. The better news is that coach Byron Scott has been letting the young Lakers in need of development play more in the fourth quarter.

 
source:  30. 76ers (4-36, LW 30). Stat of the week: In nine games, Ish Smith had garnered 22 assists to Jahlil Okafor, which is more than any other Sixers guard has done all season. We’re even starting to see signs of Okafor and Nerlens Noel playing better together. Consider that your silver lining for the day.

PBT Podcast: MVP, other mid-season awards talk with Dan Feldman

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry flashes 1 finger after scoring a three point shot against the Sacramento Kings late in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif.  The Warriors won 128-116.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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We can all agree on this: Through the first half of the season, Stephen Curry has been the NBA’s clear MVP. While we’re at it, even most Knicks fans would agree that Karl-Anthony Towns should beat out Kristaps Porzingis for Rookie of the Year.

But some of the other categories — Coach of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year in particular — are far less clear. In this latest PBT podcast Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman break down all the awards from the first half of the NBA season, not just the winners but who is in contention.

Of course, there’s also some discussion of whatever the heck is going on in Brooklyn.

You can listen to the podcast below, you can listen and subscribe via iTunes, download it directly here, or you can check out our new PBT Podcast homepage, which has the most recent episodes available. If you have the Stitcher app, you can listen there as well.

Lakers GM Kupchak backs Byron Scott’s tough-love development style

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Their minutes — and spots in the starting rotation — get jerked around, and usually the young players are left in the dark as to why. The Lakers are an 8-31 team often leaning on veterans late in games as if racking up more wins is the priority. This has led to tension between the coach and the players he is supposed to be grooming to be the next generation.

Lakers’ coach Byron Scott has gone with some tough-love tactics — or just old and outdated if you’re not a fan — in trying to develop Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. Scott as told Randle to stop pouting when he’s taken out of games (I thought you’d that a player doesn’t want to be taken out). It’s led to a lot of criticism of Scott and how the Lakers are going about building their future.

But not from the one man who matters, Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak. Here is what Kupchak told Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times.

“If you asked our young players, I think there would be a mutual respect, as you might expect maybe between a parent and a child,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak told The Times on Sunday before the Lakers lost a slow-speed chase to the Utah Jazz, 86-74.

“In other words, I’m going to love you, I’m going to bring you along, but every now and then, I’ve got to teach you the right way to do things….

“Every coach chooses to bring along young players differently,” Kupchak said. “Some coaches will not play rookies at all. Some will give them more leeway than others. They’re young players and they’re playing big minutes.”

The Lakers are expected to keep Scott as coach through the end of the season, then as Kobe Bryant walks away and turns the page the Lakers likely will do the same with Scott. A new coach will be asked to usher in the next era of Lakers basketball (whatever it may look like). With that in mind, you can’t expect the ultimate company man in Kupchak to undermine a coach that will be around for another four months. At least.

I’ve been quick to criticize Scott for how he’s handled the young Lakers this season, but on the court things are improving.

Scott has trusted the youth in the fourth quarter recently — he let the young Lakers learn on the job in comebacks against Oklahoma City and from 27 down against Sacramento (both rallies ultimately fell short). Playing them at the ends of games is a start. The Lakers need more of this kind of thing, both from Scott and whoever replaces him next summer.

But for now, Scott is the man in Los Angeles, and his GM has his back.

Five Takeaways from NBA Sunday: Damian Lillard scores 17 in final 3:07 to beat OKC

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard shoots over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
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RIP David Bowie. There’s nothing else to say. Here’s what you need to know from a busy Sunday around the Association.

1) Damian Lillard goes off in fourth, Portland beats Oklahoma City. Damian Lillard had a good game up to that point, 14 points on 4-of-12 shooting, nine assists, seven rebounds, but the Thunder were up by eight and seemingly in control of the game. 

Then Lillard went off. He scored 17 points in the final 3:06, including five 3-pointers (all six of his shots were threes). Meanwhile, Kevin Durant didn’t get off a shot, and Russell Westbrook only had one (KD finished with 28 points, Westbrook 25). 

Portland went on a 20-7 run to end the game and got the win 115-110, snapping their three-game losing streak. Lillard finished with 31.

2) Nets owner can’t fire himself, so he fires coach Lionel Hollins and demotes GM Billy King. The Brooklyn Nets were a mess on Saturday and it was hard to think of ways to make it worse short-term. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov found one. He fired coach Lionel Hollins and “reassigned” GM Billy King (whose new duties involve helping find his replacement — if you didn’t trust him with the job, why trust him with helping to replace himself?). Assistant coach Tony Brown takes over as the interim head coach, the GM chair remains vacant (six weeks before the trade deadline). 

Yes, Hollins’ old-school ways were a poor fit for both the current roster and the rebuilding process ahead. And yes, the litany of bad decisions by Billy King mean he was deserving of being let go. But the real blame for the mess that are the Nets right now starts with owner Mikhail Prokhorov. He pushed King to assemble a contender on the fly (so they could open the Barclays Center and compete with the Knicks in the NYC market), but Brooklyn didn’t have a superstar so the plan was destined to fail. The result was lopsided trades for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, among other moves, that stripped the Nets of draft picks and young players. The Nets won one playoff series for all that trouble, are a moribund franchise, and the blame has to start with the owner who set and pushed for the ill-fated direction. The rebuild is going to have to be a slow process because of the lack of picks. I’m not sure John Calipari would want to step into this mess.

3) Kristaps Porzingis is throwing it down, the Knicks are entertaining and winning. The Knicks have become entertaining to watch, and they are racking up wins — two things that before the season we did not expect. Sunday was a perfect example, with Carmelo Anthony scoring 24 but also trusting teammates and dishing out eight assists (the trust of his teammates has grown over recent weeks). Porzingis had 15 points and the dunk of the game. Lance Thomas continued his surprise season with 13 off the bench. The Knicks are a fun team to watch — and their 19 wins this season are two more than they had all of last season. You can see a bright future in New York — and you can see a big time free agent looking at the foundation laid there and thinking “this is where I want to play.”

4) Don’t look now, but the Los Angeles Clippers have won nine in a row. It wasn’t easy or pretty — it took overtime against a Pelicans team playing without Anthony Davis — but the Los Angeles Clippers have won nine in a row. Seven of those with Blake Griffin sidelined. In those nine games, the Clipper offense is scoring 111.2 points per 100 possessions, and they have a net rating of +13 per 100 (second best in that stretch to the Spurs). The Clippers have started to find their groove. Still, this team feels like the Cincinati Bengals to me — they can be as hot as they want in the regular season, it’s getting out of the second round of the playoffs that will be the way they are judged and remembered. But right now, they are as hot as any team in the NBA.

5) Emmanuel Mudiay returns, Nuggets get win. Denver coach Mike Malone didn’t exactly ease Mudiay back into the fold — he played 39 minutes after missing a month. The rookie was understandably rusty (11 points on 15 shots, six assists but four turnovers) but it worked as the Nuggets beat the slumping Hornets 95-92.

It’s good to see Mudiay back on the court because the Nuggets have so many interesting young pieces and we need to see how they all fit together.  Nikola Jokic started at the five for Denver and they ran the offense through him at the elbow (he has six first quarter assists), but behind him they have the young Jusuf Nurkic as well (he is just a physical beast). Both Jokic and Nurkic show promise but also seem rushed (as young players often do) and just need more seasoning. But those two with the growing Mudiay start to form an interesting foundation in Denver for the future.

Trevor Ariza scores 24, Rockets rally to beat Pacers 107-103 in OT

Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza (1) scores past New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, in New Orleans. The Pelicans won 110-108. (AP Photo/Jonathan Bachman)
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HOUSTON (AP) — Trevor Ariza scored a season-high 24 points and Corey Brewer hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in overtime to give the Houston Rockets a 107-103 win over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday night.

The Pacers scored the first six points of overtime before Houston scored the next six to tie it at 99 with about 2 minutes left.

Monta Ellis made two baskets after that to put the Pacers up twice, but each time Houston responded with a 3-pointer. Ariza hit the first one and Brewer made the second to make it 105-103 with 40.9 seconds left.

Ariza added a dunk with 2 seconds left to secure Houston’s third straight victory.

The Rockets trailed by 12 midway through the fourth quarter before rallying to tie it with 17.1 seconds left on a 3 by Ariza. The Pacers had a chance to win in regulation, but Ellis missed a jump shot at the buzzer.

Paul George had just four points in the first half before scoring 14 of his 20 in a 27-point third quarter to help Indiana build a big lead before Houston came back in the fourth.

James Harden had 21 points and Dwight Howard added 21 points and 17 rebounds for his fifth straight double-double in his return after missing Thursday’s game with soreness in his lower back.

The Pacers’ lead was 12 before the Rockets used a 12-1 run to get to 89-88 with about 3 minutes left.

The Pacers had a 13-point lead entering the fourth and were up by 12 after a one-handed dunk by Jordan Hill with about 6 1/2 minutes left.

Indiana led by three at halftime and scored the first five points of the second half to make it 55-48. Houston got a 3-pointer from Patrick Beverley followed by a hook shot from Howard to get within two, but Indiana padded the lead with a 14-6 spurt to make it 69-59.

George made two 3-pointers in that span, and Lavoy Allen and Ian Mahinmi added four points each for the Pacers. The Rockets scored all their points in that stretch on free throws as they went almost 6 minutes without a field goal.

Harden finally ended the drought with a layup with less than 3 minutes left in the third. He made a 3-pointer after a dunk by George to cut the lead to 71-64.

George wasn’t done with his work in the quarter as that dunk was the first of eight straight points he scored to end the period and make it 77-64. The stretch was highlighted by his last points in the third when he made an off-balance jumper as he was fouled by Harden and hit the free throw.

The Pacers trailed by four in the second quarter before using an 11-2 run to take a 50-45 lead just before halftime. Harden hit a 3-pointer just before the quarter ended to cut it to 50-48 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Pacers: Indiana had 18 turnovers after committing a season-high 25 in its previous game. … Ellis had a season-high 13 assists.

Rockets: G Ty Lawson served the second of a three-game suspension for driving under the influence last July. … F/C Donatas Motiejunas missed his fourth straight game with back soreness. … C Clint Capela had three steals to give him at least three in two straight games after doing so only twice in his first 35 games this season.