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NBA Power Rankings Week 23: Can Spurs, Rockets knock Warriors out of top spot this week?

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There’s only a few weeks left n the NBA season, and if someone is going to knock Golden State out of the top spot it’s going to happen this week — the Warriors play the Spurs once and the Rockets twice. As for now, Golden State remains the team on top, while both Boston and Washington slide past Cleveland.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (59-14, Last Week No. 1). And people were worried about this team because… why? Golden State is winners of seven in a row, and Kevin Durant seems to be on track to be back before the regular season ends. This week they will get tested: back-to-back at Houston and San Antonio, then Houston and Washington back at Oracle. If they stumble, the door opens for San Antonio to get the No. 1 seed, but don’t bet on it as Golden State’s schedule softens after this week. Also, just a reminder Andre Iguodala can do this.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (56-16, LW 3). Winners of four in a row, and this becomes the third straight season the Spurs have beat all other 29 teams in the NBA at least once in the regular season. No other team in NBA history has done that. If the Spurs don’t beat the Warriors Wednesday and close that gap for the No. 1 seed this week (and even if they do) expect Gregg Popovich to make sure his stars get rested heading into the playoffs.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (51-22, LW 4). If you are making a case for James Harden for MVP based on his efficiency and ability to lift his team up, Sunday’s win over the Thunder should be Exhibit 1A (it also was an easy win for Houston in what may well have been a first-round playoff preview). That said, Harden is playing through a sore wrist, and this week the Rockets have the Warriors twice, plus a desperate Portland team trying to make the playoffs. Houston will need MVP Harden to keep winning (and he may get a night off to rest that wrist).

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-26, LW 7). In one week they beat the Wizard and the surging Heat, the Celtics have won 8-of-10 and are now tied with Cleveland for the best record in the East. Know that the Celtics have a much softer schedule the rest of the way than the Cavs. Al Horford has stepped it up since the All-Star break and in March is averaging 15.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. How high will Brad Stevens finish in Coach of the Year voting?

 
Wizards small icon 5. Wizards (45-28, LW 8). Quality win over the Cavaliers Saturday in Cleveland, and while I may not be sold they beat the Cavs in a seven-game series they deserve acknowledgment for what they did. The Cleveland win was the first game of six-of-seven on the road, and they have a gauntlet of the West ahead on this trip with the Clippers, Jazz, and Warriors. That’s a problem because Toronto is winning again and is just one game back of Washington in the race for the three seed (and avoiding Cleveland in the second round).

 
Cavaliers small icon 6. Cavaliers (47-25, LW 2). They have lost three-of-five, and their defense is 29th in the NBA in the month of March, which has let Boston tie them for the best record in the East (and Cleveland has a tougher schedule the rest of the way. Yet, most observers around the league (including coaches/scouts) expect the Cavs to flip the switch come the playoffs. Tyrone Lue says he has a plan to fix the defense in the postseason, but it feels like the plan on both ends come the playoffs is “unleash angry LeBron James.” By the way, that’s a really good plan.

 
Raptors small icon 7. Raptors (44-29, LW 10). Winners of five in a row and that has them back in the mix for the three seed (the Raptors are just one game back of the Wizards and have an easier schedule the rest of the way). The Raptors have gone 11-5 without Kyle Lowry thanks to an improved defense and a lot o DeMar DeRozan, and this team looks dangerous in the postseason.

 
Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (44-31, LW 9). Every time you think this team is making strides, they turn around and do something like that ugly loss on their home court to the Kings on Sunday. That said, the win over the Jazz this week and a very soft schedule the rest of the way should have the Clippers getting home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs against Utah (that series is almost a lock). The question is, which Clippers team shows up for the playoffs? Or will that vary night to night?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (41-31, LW 5). More than just an MVP showdown, the Thunder/Rockets game Sunday was a likely first-round playoff matchup — and that should worry Thunder fans as their team got crushed. That said, OKC likes to play a physical style of defense and they may be able to get away with more on that front in the postseason. Interesting Friday night game vs. Spurs, what will Westbrook do when Kawhi Leonard locks in on him?

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (44-29, LW 6). They have lost four of five, but the loss to the Clippers Saturday was the biggest blow. While LA is a game back for the four seed and home court in the first round, the Clips have a much easier schedule the rest of the way. For that apparent Jazz/Clips first round series, Utah needs Derrick Favors back and contributing. Los Angeles will use more Marreese Speights because he can draw Rudy Gobert away from the basket, Favors can help counter that for Utah.

 
Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (37-36, LW 14). Atlanta, Indiana, and Milwaukee are all tied for the 5-6-7 seeds in the East with nine games left to play. The Hawks have a mildly easier schedule but the Bucks are playing much better right now than either of those two teams, having won 11-of-14. In the last 14 games, the Bucks have had a top-10 defense, and that has sustained them night to night — the Bucks have won 17 in a row when holding their opponent under 100 points.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (35-38, LW 12). Miami is clinging to a half-game lead over the Bulls for the final playoff slot in the West, but if the Heat are going to keep that they need to rack up wins in their next five games, because the team’s final four are brutal (and Chicago has a much easier schedule). This week the Heat are at Detroit, have a home-and-home with the Knicks, then host the Nuggets. The Heat need consistency from Goran Dragic, he needs to take charge with Dion Waiters out.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (35-38, LW 15). They are tied for the eighth seed in the West having gone 11-3 in March, with the second-best net rating and seventh best defense in the NBA in that stretch. The Blazers are tied with the Nuggets for the eighth seed and the two teams play Tuesday, but Portland has a much softer schedule the rest of the way. Making the playoffs begins to salvage what has been a disappointing season in Portland (they still have some questions to answer this summer, regardless.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (35-38, LW 16). Denver beats Cleveland, then turns around and gets blown out at home by New Orleans. Their offense led by Nikola Jokic is good, but they don’t get stops and that leads to the inconsistency. Huge game Tuesday night against Portland: The two teams are tied for the eighth seed but Denver’s schedule the rest of the way is much tougher so the Tuesday game becomes almost must win for the Nuggets.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (40-33, LW 11). I like the new starting lineup with Vince Carter at the three, but this team has lost three in a row and needs to get healthy (both Tony Allen and Marc Gasol missed time this week). Memphis seems destined for the seven seed at this point, if they are going to give the Spurs (probably, maybe the Warriors) a push,Memphis needs to get healthy for the postseason.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (36-36, LW 17).. Another inconsistent team trying to hold on to a playoff slot. Tied for 5-6-7 in the East, they have a tough week ahead but a soft enough schedule overall they should get in as the six or seven. The Indiana bench has been a problem all season long and the ankle injury to Al Jefferson is not going to help matters down the stretch.

 
Bulls small icon 17. Bulls (35-39, LW 20). They are just half a game back of the Heat for the eighth seed and have a much softer schedule the rest of the way, so you’d like to say they will get in. Then they turn around and lose to the Sixers, and we all are reminded this is not a good team, so don’t count on anything. Nikola Mitotic is coming on as the season winds down, averaging 14.2 points and shooting 39.2 percent from three in March, all of which just seems very Bulls. Also, Jimmy Butler dished out 14 assists in a game this week.

 
Hawks small icon 18. Hawks (37-36 LW 13). Losers of seven in a row, as injuries to Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore have taken their toll — the lack of depth has been a serious issue of late, the bench is a problem. While the Hawks are tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East right now, they are just 2.5 games ahead of Chicago in the nine seed, and if any team looks like they could slide out of the playoffs in the final weeks of the season, it’s Atlanta right now.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (34-39, LW 18). . If they have any playoff dreams left, they have to beat the Heat on Tuesday night (Detroit is just a game back of Miami, but it feels like it should be much more). Ish Smith is starting at point guard for Stan Van Gundy, but that didn’t solve the problems as Detroit lost to Chicago and Orlando last week once the change was made. Talk about a team that really needs to access where it is and how it is structured this off-season, few teams have been as disappointing as Detroit this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (31-41, LW 19). The Mavericks’ next loss will officially end their 16-season streak of being .500 or better. That streak started when Mark Cuban took over as owner and speaks to the job he has done as owner turning what had been one of the worst franchises in the NBA around. On the court the final weeks of the season, Rick Carlisle is experimenting with lineups to see what works, which is interesting to watch.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (33-40, LW 23). The Hornets have questions to answer this summer, but not as many as you may think. This team has outscored opponents by one point per 100 possessions this year, or put another way the Hornets are +66 for the season. Basketball-Reference.com says their record should be 39-34 right now, which would have them solidly in the playoffs as the five seed. No team has been as unlucky this season as Charlotte. Also, Kemba Walker had an overlooked 31 points Sunday.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (31-42, LW 21). How has Anthony Davis performed since DeMarcus Cousins came on board? His numbers are almost identical, if anything Davis is shooting a little more efficiently (watch his highlights below). Assuming the Pelicans can re-sign Cousins (as is expected around the league), those two will work out their offensive challenges this summer (the Pelicans are already playing good defense with them). The question is who is coaching in New Orleans next season?

 
Sixers small icon 23. 76ers (27-45, LW 24). In his last 10 games, Dario Saric is averaging 20.2 points a game, shooting 38 percent from three, and pulling down seven rebounds a game. He has been fantastic since the All-Star break, but is that enough to get him past teammate Joel Embiid for Rookie of the Year? It’s going to be close and how Saric plays in the final nine games of the season could have a lot to do with it (as does how voters feel about giving Embiid the award despite him playing in just 31 games).

 
timberwolves small icon 24. Timberwolves (28-44, LW 22). Losers of six in a row, that has sealed the Wolves fate, they will be golfing in mid-April again and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. Fans are forced to say “wait until next year” but that may be the truth based on how Minnesota has played defense since the All-Star break. Still, this team is battling expectations and those will continue to rise this off-season.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (27-46 LW 28). They have won three-of-four, Elfrid Payton is racking up triple-doubles (against Detroit last week), and there are still flashes of hope in Orlando. Coach Frank Vogel has gone into experimentation phase, such as trying Mario Hezonja at the four. Which is what the coach should be doing on this team at this point. See what works so he can talk about it with the next GM.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (28-45, LW 26). Buddy Heild was putting on a show, scoring 11 of the Kings 22 points in a close-out run that had Sacramento beating the L.A. Clippers Sunday. He’s showing promise, but needs to spend the summer working on his handles and willingness to drive the lane, he needs to be more than just a spot-up guy for the Kings.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (27-46 LW 25). Plenty of drama in New York to end the season, with Joakim Noah getting 20 games for using a banned substance. While all the talk has been about a focus on the triangle offense, the Knicks problems remain they are a terrible defensive team, and that is more about the makeup of the roster than the coaching staff or the system. It’s going to be a very interesting summer in New York.

 
Nets small icon 28. Nets (16-57, LW 29). They have seven wins in March and have now won back-to-back games this season. The wins may keep on coming, the Nets have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. Relax Celtics fans, they are still going to have the worst record in the NBA for the season, but the wins speak both a little to health and some to the culture coach Kenny Atkinson is starting to build.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (22-51, LW 27). Devin Booker goes off for 70 and is a needed distraction from a seven game losing streak that has them pressing the Lakers for the bottom spot in the West. I’ve got no problem with the time outs and fouls at the end of the game to get Booker to 70, Earl Watson said it best: If Jae Crowder and the Celtics didn’t like it, go out and stop them.

 
Lakers small icon 30. Lakers (21-52, LW 30). We all know the Lakers keep their pick if it’s in the top three; otherwise it goes to the Sixers (part of the Steve Nash trade). Let’s just lay out the odds: As it stands now with the second-worst record in the league, the Lakers have a 56 percent chance of keeping that pick. However, slumping Phoenix is within a game of the Lakers, if those two tie the Lakers odds go down to 51 percent. If the Lakers pass the Suns in the standings (and have the third-worst record in the league) the odds of keeping the pick drop to like 45 percent. So, tanking.

Three Things We Learned Sunday: Westbrook, Harden showdown leaves MVP race same as it ever was

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How many teams did you get right in your Final Four bracket? For the record, I have one (North Carolina). Which is why I was watching a lot more NBA on Sunday than NCAA (that and it’s my job). Here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) Russell Westbrook gets 36th triple-double. James Harden lifts Rockets victory. The MVP race is the same as it ever was. If you wanted to make a case for Russell Westbrook as MVP, he gave you reason on Sunday in a showdown with James Harden and the Rockets. Westbrook dropped his 36th triple-double of the season with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists, and the Rockets could not stop him.

Harden put up numbers — 22 points on 15 shots, plus 12 assists — but his team got the win because he got help: 31 from Lou Williams, 24 from Trevor Ariza, and 24 from Eric Gordon. Williams had 18 points in the first half. As a team, the Rockets shot 63.3 percent overall and 51.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Harden has better teammates around him, but he is orchestrating them beautifully, he’s more efficient, and he’s lifting his team to higher heights. Westbrook is almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder offense by putting up historic numbers.

This game offered no clarity in the MVP race. In one of the closest, most interesting award races in years, your pick for MVP depends on how you want to define the award and its criteria. (And we’re not even getting into the legitimate case that can be made for Kawhi Leonard here. LeBron James is in the mix, too, although the recent stumbles of the Cavaliers may hurt his case.) We know where the Rockets organization stands.

Sunday’s Thunder/Rockets just an MVP showdown, it was a potential first round playoff matchup. On that front, the Rockets led by as many 25, and while the Rockets made a late push to get the lead down to single digits in the final couple minutes, but the Thunder couldn’t get stops, and the result was never really in doubt. It’s hard to see a playoff series going much differently, the Thunder just don’t defend well enough to slow Houston.

2) Celtics beat Heat, move into tie with Cavaliers for top record in the East. Boston just keeps on grinding, keeps on making enough plays, and keeps on winning. So much so that with a hard-fought win over the Heat on Sunday Boston finds itself tied with Cleveland for the top seed in the East (Boston has one more win, Cleveland has one fewer loss).

Boston may well finish on top, it has an easier schedule to close out the season. However, the big game — and what will determine who has the tiebreaker between the two — comes when the Celtics and Cavaliers play on April 5.

The Celtics got the win because they made crucial shots down the stretch, like this driving floater by Isaiah Thomas (who finished the night with 30 points).

Then Al Horford‘s block sealed the 112-108 victory.

For Miami, even with the loss they sit as the eight seed in the East, the final playoff spot, but Chicago is just half a game back, and the Pistons one game back. While the race could go any direction, the Bulls have the softest schedule the rest of the way of any of those three teams.

3) Blazers win, Nuggets lose, teams now tied for the eighth seed in the West. The race to be the team destroyed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round out West is heating up — Denver and Portland are now tied for the eight seed.

On Sunday, Denver had a sloppy loss at home as New Orleans came to town without DeMarcus Cousins, and yet Anthony Davis dropped 31 and the Pelicans won.

Portland got 22 from Damian Lillard and pulled away in the third quarter to beat the hapless Lakers, 97-81.

Denver and Portland play Tuesday night in what will be a huge game in that race.

Blazers beat Lakers 97-81, tie Denver for final spot in West

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 22 points and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers 97-81 on Sunday night to pull even with Denver in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Both the Blazers and Nuggets are 35-38 with nine games left in the regular season. They play each other Tuesday in Portland.

Denver lost at home to the New Orleans Pelicans earlier Sunday night.

Portland took control by outscoring the Lakers 37-24 in the third quarter and led by as many as 26 points. Los Angeles shot 39 percent from the field and was outrebounded 61-42.

Allen Crabbe added 18 points off the bench for the Blazers, and Noah Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds.

D'Angelo Russell led the Lakers with 22 points, and reserve Tyler Ennis scored 14.

Portland led 40-32 at the break after an unsightly half in which the teams took turns struggling from the field. At halftime, both were shooting exactly 32.6 percent.

The Lakers won their previous game against the Timberwolves but have won consecutive games only once since mid-November.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Shot 62.4 percent against Minnesota on Saturday, their best mark since hitting 64.1 percent on March 12, 2003. Coming into Sunday, they had shot 50.6 percent over their last five games.

Lakers: Rookie forward Brandon Ingram, who started the previous 19 games and averaged 12.1 points on 48.4 percent shooting, did not play because of right patellar tendinitis. Said coach Luke Walton: “He was out there warming up and it’s not right.” Corey Brewer got his first start for the Lakers.

 

Damian Lillard dismisses playoff expectations as pressure, says it insults regular people

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The Portland Trail Blazers have had a disappointing season thus far. The team is just 34-38 before their game with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, and they’re battling it out for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs with the Denver Nuggets.

This comes as after expectations rose greatly following the 2015-16 campaign which saw the Blazers finish 44-38, good enough for the No. 5 spot in the West.

Portland has looked better after trading Mason Plumlee to Denver in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic, but it might be too little too late. Meanwhile, team leader Damian Lillard isn’t bowing to the idea that last season’s good fortune raised the bar so much that it put undue pressure on his team.

Speaking with Sporting News, Lillard said he thinks the idea is really more about pressure vs. challenges.

Via SN:

Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man, who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don’t get me wrong — there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people.

Look at the Wizards, they were kind of on the same wave as us. Didn’t even make the playoffs while we did. Now this year they’re the second-best team in the East. The adversity made them better. It can make us better, too. What I come from and my background made me who I am. As comfortable as I am with the good times, I’m also comfortable in adversity. Yeah, I might feel some type of way when somebody comes for me or says my name. But when it’s all said and done, it ain’t gonna rock me.

This is interesting to hear an NBA player say out loud. One, because I’m not sure I entirely believe it. You can have pressure without it having to be something that threatens your overall wellbeing.

Then again, maybe we’re arguing linguistics here. There’s definitely a different emotion from, say, trying to make sure you make rent and aren’t evicted to the street vs. trying to make the NBA playoffs. If one emotion is being defined as pressure, it makes sense to call the other a challenge.

It’s also interesting to hear an NBA player speak in those kinds of terms. There are a few guys around the league who seem to be relatively grounded and give out quotes like this from time-to-time. The absurdity of the NBA — playing games, making millions, and having folks worship you — would easily bend reality for most of us.

In any case, the challenge of making the playoffs for Portland is not going to be an easy one to overcome. Going into Sunday’s matchup with the Lakers, the Trail Blazers are a game behind Denver for the final spot.

Portland will face Denver on Tuesday, March 28 in perhaps their most important game of the season.

Rumor: Nets will target Pistons’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this summer

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This much we know: The Brooklyn Nets are going to have $33 million or so in cap space this coming summer. Last summer when the team had space, Nets GM Sean Marks tried to poach restricted free agents Tyler Johnson away from Miami and Allen Crabbe out of Portland (both clubs matched).

Who will the Nets target this summer? Otto Porter? Mason Plumlee? Kelly Olynyk?

Put the Pistons’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at the top of the list, according to a report in the New York Post.

Both scouts and former teammates told The Post that Caldwell-Pope, who had 19 points and four rebounds in a 98-96 loss to the Nets Tuesday, has become the most important piece on a Pistons roster that features All-Star Andre Drummond, and young standouts Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris. That’s why Brooklyn is expected to make the two-way wing a top priority this summer….

Caldwell-Pope, 24, will be a restricted free agent, after he demanded more than $20 million annually and no deal was reached. The Vertical reported Detroit doesn’t want to give him a max contract, but it may not have a choice. The Post has confirmed the Nets’ interest and ESPN intimated they would go that high to get him.

“I’m impressed,’’ Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said when asked about Caldwell-Pope. “I love how he competes, how he competes on the defensive end. That’s really the essence of what I see when I watch him play. He plays with force, he competes on the defensive end.”

Next year’s salary cap is expected to be $102 million, with a luxury tax line of $122 million. The Pistons already have $94 million in guaranteed contracts on the books. While they can shift some money around (trading Reggie Jackson and his $16 million comes to mind), adding $20 million or more to the payroll right now takes them into the luxury tax area. Which means if the Nets come in with a big offer, the Pistons have some thinking to do.

That said, the Pistons almost certainly match. Caldwell-Pope is too key to what they do.

A lot of players in Caldwell-Pope’s position would have taken the security of the Pistons’ offer, but he bet on himself and this summer it’s going to pay off.