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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.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

Clippers win likely playoff preview 108-95 over Jazz

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jamal Crawford scored 28 points off the bench, and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Utah Jazz 108-95 on Saturday to clinch a playoff berth for the sixth straight year.

The Clippers trail the Jazz by a half-game in their race for the No. 4 playoff seed in the West. The teams are likely to face in the first round of the postseason.

Blake Griffin added 15 points and DeAndre Jordan had 15 rebounds for the Clippers.

Rudy Gobert had 26 points and 14 rebounds for Utah, and reserve Joe Johnson added 17 points. The Jazz have dropped four of five.

Utah rallied in the third, putting together a 20-6 spurt to trim Los Angeles’ lead to 72-70 heading into the final period. Gobert had nine points and Johnson scored seven during the run that included 10 straight points for the Jazz over one stretch.

Chris Paul and Crawford both got technicals while the Clippers struggled to score and defend.

But Los Angeles turned things around in the fourth, scoring the first eight points for an 80-70 lead. Crawford had 17 points in the quarter, scoring six in a row to push the Clippers’ lead to 103-84. He was 9 of 9 at the free-throw line for the game.

The Clippers grabbed control early on, shooting 52 percent in the first quarter while building a 15-point lead.

The Jazz got within seven to start the second before the Clippers restored their 15-point margin and eventually led 49-41 at halftime.

Utah’s top two scorers, Gordon Hayward and George Hill, struggled. Hayward, who averages 22 points, had 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Hill, who averages 17.1, had nine points while shooting 4 of 11.

TIP-INS

Jazz: Gobert was coming off a career-high 35-point, 15-rebound performance against the Knicks on Tuesday. … G Sheldon Mack missed his 11th straight game with a left ankle sprain. … F/C Derrick Favors remains out with a left knee bone contusion.

Clippers: Their six-year playoff run is the longest in franchise history. … They have won 18 of 20 against the Jazz dating to Feb. 1, 2012. … They won the season series 3-1.

 

More NBA basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: Paul George wants to play with Gordon Hayward

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Paul George called this “one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve been a part of.” He bemoaned the Pacers’ place as “the little brother of the league.” He pushed back against Indiana fans booing their own team. He expressed frustration about being kept in the dark on trade discussions before the deadline. Just last week, he told Zach Lowe of ESPN the Pacers lack an identity.

This all ought to strike fear into the Pacers, with George headed toward free agency in 2018 and Lakers rumors swirling.

How does Indiana convince George to stay?

One possibility: Signing Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, who has a player option after this season.

Lowe:

George would love to play with hometown boy Gordon Hayward, according to sources

My best guess: George doesn’t have a particular affinity for Hayward, but just wants a better supporting cast, and Hayward – who was born and grew up in Indiana and played at Butler – appears more attainable than other stars.

But the Jazz are better than the Pacers and can offer more money. If he makes an All-NBA team, Hayward might not hit the market at all. If he does become a free agent, the Celtics – with former Butler coach Brad Stevens – loom as a bigger threat to poach the forward.

This is an extreme longshot and only raises more questions about what the Pacers can actually do to keep their superstar.

Three Things We Learned Wednesday: LeBron says Cavs lack toughness, or are they bored?

Associated Press
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The NCAA Tournament gets back underway Thursday, but the NBA ball just keeps rolling along. Here are the big takeaways from Wednesday.

1) LeBron James says Cavaliers lack toughness. Is there trouble or are they just bored with the regular season?
Here is the unquestioned fact: The Denver Nuggets trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night, 126-113. There are a number of factors in this, starting with Denver is playing better than people think — the Nuggets are the fifth best team in the NBA since the All-Star break, outscoring teams by 5.6 points per 100 possessions. Jamal Murray is emerging as the ball handling guard of the future for this team, Gary Harris is a sniper, and they have solid veterans such as Jameer Nelson and Wilson Chandler. But at the heart of it all is Nikola Jokic, who is for real. Watch what he does to LeBron James here.

Yes, Cleveland had to go play at altitude in the middle of a long road trip. Still…

What is going on with the Cavaliers?

Opponents have outscored them by 0.9 points per 100 since the All-Star break, and the Cavs are playing terrible defense (second worst in the NBA since the break). Asked in Denver after the loss what is wrong with the Cavs, LeBron said the team lacked toughness, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It ain’t about a group. It’s about individuals,” James said… “We’ve got to be more, just do more. It ain’t about no group. You can’t preach toughness. You’ve got to have it.”

“Personally? I had opportunities where I could have been better,” James said before firing back with a rebuttal. “Um, one thing about it: I always bring toughness to the game. I know that. That’s for sure.”

LeBron is clearly challenging his team to get serious on both ends and to start getting in playoff mode.

To me, the Cavaliers look bored. As in the real season starts in a couple of weeks with the playoffs, and they feel they can flip the switch then, but right now the regular season feels like a tedious slog. That’s what it looked like in Denver. Before that, I watched the Cavaliers in person against the Lakers Sunday, and LeBron James played well enough all game, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were getting theirs, but the team lacked any urgency, and it showed on defense. The tanking Lakers hung around. Then, LeBron seemed to say “screw this” and for a five-minute span took charge of the game, looking every bit the best player on the planet, the rest of the Cavaliers quickly fell in line, Cleveland took control of the game, and they coasted from there to the win.

That was against the Lakers, the worst team in the NBA since the All-Star break and a team playing youth everywhere. Denver is legit right now, they are playing well, and the Cavs couldn’t just flip the switch on Wednesday. Jokic and Mason Plumlee led the way as the Nuggets scored 70 points in the paint.

It’s still hard to picture any team in the East beating Cleveland. However, they have not spent the regular season building good habits to fall back on when the eventual challenge comes in the playoffs. There’s been a lot of comparisons to the 2000-01 Lakers, a defending championship team that battled injuries and didn’t impress in the regular season, looked bored on defense, then flipped the switch in the playoffs and went 16-1 on the way to the title. Maybe. But teams that flip the switch are the exception, not the rule.

The bored Cavaliers are playing a dangerous game, but will it haunt them before June? Can any team in the East make them pay?

2) The Knicks have no answer for Rudy Gobert, Jazz thump Knicks. Rudy Gobert is a defensive powerhouse of a big man, the best rim protector in the game and a man on his way to winning Defensive Player of the Year. That was a problem for the Knicks on Wednesday night. A bigger problem — they couldn’t stop him on offense around the rim. Gobert at 35 points on 13-of-14 shooting, with 11 offensive rebounds. The Knicks went small for stretches (with Kristaps Porzingis, but he isn’t strong enough to handle Gobert), other times Willy Hernangomez tried but could not slow Gobert, and the French big man feasted. Check out Gobert’s shot chart.

Or, just watch what he did to the Knicks.

The Knicks started hot in this game behind vintage Derrick Rose for a quarter, but they can’t sustain that kind of play against a quality team. Utah is a quality team (I think they can beat the Clippers in the first round), and the foundation of that is in the middle.

3) Russell Westbrook notches 35th triple-double with perfect shooting, Thunder attack the rim and get the win. Let us formally acknowledge that Russell Westbrook is very, very good at basketball. He had 18 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds, and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field. That would be the first perfect shooting triple-double in NBA history. How’s that for adding to the MVP resume.

As for the game, the Thunder attacked the paint and the Sixers had no answers. OKC won 122–97, scoring 76 points while knocking down just four 3-pointers.