Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry (30) and Kevin Durant, right, celebrate in the final minutes of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017, in Oakland, Calif. Golden State won 127-119. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings Week 13: At halfway point it’s the Warriors in West, Cavs out East

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We are at the midway point of the NBA season, which means things like the mid-season awards will be coming from us in the next couple days (a post on Tuesday, plus a podcast breaking them down). It’s also the midpoint of the rankings, and not shockingly the Warriors are on top and the top five teams have four we were pretty sure would be there before the season started.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (34-6, Last Week No. 4). The Warriors have outscored opponents by 11.6 per 100 possessions this season, the best net rating in the NBA. Last season when they won 73 games, their net rating was that same 11.6. Of course, regular season accomplishments are not how this team will be judged, which is why Monday’s rematch (and Finals preview) with Cleveland matters more than other regular season games. Expect a lot of Stephen Curry/Kevin Durant pick-and-rolls this time around.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (31-9, LW 1). The Spurs have had their stumbles recently, but their three most recent losses were by a combined seven points. What keeps them in games is the third best defense in the NBA and that they are the best three-point shooting team in the league (41.5 percent as a team). Fun showdown Saturday when they take on the Cavaliers on the first of the NBA’s big Saturday night showdowns.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (32-11, LW 2). Montrezl Harrell has turned into a player — in the 15 games since Clint Capela went down he has averaged 14.2 points a game. He’s been solid. When you take as many threes as the Rockets — 48.1 percent of their shot attempts are threes in January — there are nights they just don’t fall and the team struggles. For example, the loss last week to Memphis when they shot 24.4 percent three. They face Memphis again this week, as well as Golden State.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (29-10, LW 3). They are 3-2 on the road trip through the West, but the big game is Monday night in Golden State. Kyle Korver scored 18 against the Kings, the majority of his touches coming curling off screens, he is starting to find a comfort level in the offense (particularly with the LeBron and the bench line). One other big game this week, they host San Antonio in the first of the NBA’s big Saturday Night showdown games.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (28-14, LW 10). Winners of six in a row (they have yet to lose in 2017), this team is playing well again and they should be getting Blake Griffin back relatively soon. Yes, they are beating below .500 teams (save Memphis) and have a home heavy schedule, but what good teams do is beat the teams below them. Chris Paul is averaging 17.8 points and 12.3 assists per game since his return, and the Clippers are destroying teams when he is on the court.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (27-13, LW 6). They knocked off Boston last week to reclaim the “second best team in the East” mantle (for at least a while). Still, this team’s issues at the power forward spot have been blown wide open with Patrick Patterson out, and that’s the reason to expect them to be active at the trade deadline. Kyrie Irving will start at one of the All-Star Eastern Conference guard spots, but who gets the other one: Kyle Lowry deserves it, but can he beat out the hot (and also deserving) Isaiah Thomas?

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (25-15, LW 5). The Celtics are 12-3 in their last 15, and Isaiah Thomas is averaging 31 points a game in that stretch. He has become as dangerous a clutch player as their is in the league right now (just ask the Hawks). This is a good team, but here is the concern — they have yet to beat any of the teams you see ranked above them here (0-8). That includes a loss to Toronto last week.

 
Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (26-16, LW 11). They have the best defense in the NBA through half a season, and it is anchored by Rudy Gobert, the leading candidate through Defensive Player of the Year. This team is 18.2 points per 100 better when George Hill is on the court and he has been healthy lately, but the basketball gods cannot ease up on Utah as now Rodney Hood has a knee issue (no structural damage, which is good news considering how it looked at the time).

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (25-17, LW 8). Enes Kanter has been putting up impressive numbers off the bench lately — 20.6 points per game his last five, 18.4 his last 10 — and has injected himself into a very crowded Sixth Man of the Year conversation. The Thunder are 4-4 through their brutal January schedule so far, with four more road games coming up (Clippers and Warriors this week, then Jazz, and Pelicans next week).

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (25-18, LW 7). They remain the team nobody wants to see in the postseason, and they are 4-0 this season against the Rockets and Warriors. And they face the Rockets again this week. The Grizzlies have a top four defense but are 24th in offense — they run pick-and-rolls 30 percent of the time and score well when the ball handler shoots, but once the passing starts the percentages dip because they don’t have the spot up shooters to make a defense pay.

 
Hawks small icon 11. Hawks (23-17 LW 9). They have pulled Paul Millsap off the trade market, which means they are making a run at the playoffs. They are considering bringing in Gary Neal as a veteran shooter to fill some of Kyle Carver’s minutes (along with Mike Dunleavy, who played well off the bench for them last week). If they are going to get the four seed in the East, they need wins in games like the ones against Detroit and Chicago this week.

 
Wizards small icon 12. Wizards (20-19, LW 16). Bradley Beal’s play has lifted these Wizards up to a playoff level team at the halfway point, the only questions are can they stay healthy, and can they sustain any success. The Wizards are 3-0 so far in a stretch where they have 5-of-7 at home (plus they picked up a road win in Milwaukee in there). Portland and Memphis round out the homestead this week.

 
Bucks small icon 13. Bucks (20-19, LW 14). The fans are getting a few things right with their All-Star votes (no, Dwyane Wade starting is not one of them) — they are putting Giannis Antetokounmpo in as a starter in the East. He should be. He’s going to win Most Improved Player because is making leaps as long as his strides, but we want him in the All-Star Game for plays like this.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (20-19, LW 12).. Dropped the one game they played last week, to Denver in London, and it was everything Pacers this season: They had won five in a row, Paul George was playing well, then the entire team came out like they’d had a few too many Guinness while in London. The inconsistency of this team is maddening, but a soft schedule this week (Pelicans, Kings, Lakers) could get them back on track.

 
Bulls small icon 15. Bulls (21-21, LW 13).
Busy five games in seven nights week for Chicago, with two back-to-backs (getting Washington and Memphis on those second nights).

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (18-24, LW 19). The win over the Cavaliers last week was a reminder that this team is much better when Al-Farouq Aminu is on the court (they need his defense). That said, so long as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are their undersized backcourt, defense is going to be a challenge for this team. The improved play of late from this team has them looking like the team that gets the eight seed in the West, which they should be when you look at their competition.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (20-20, LW 15). They are 1-6 in their last seven and the problem has been on the defensive end, allowing 113 points a game. This is not good for Steve Clifford’s sleep patterns. The Hornets have five in a row at home starting on Wednesday, they need to use that stretch to turn the losing streak around or they could be on the outside looking in come the playoffs.

 
Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (16-25, LW 21). They have been a force defensively the past few weeks — allowing just 98.7 points per 100 possessions in their last 10, best in the NBA — which has them just 1.5 games back of Portland for the final playoff slot in the West. Of all the teams chasing the Blazers the Pelicans may be the most likely to be a threat. If they can sustain this defense. Somebody knocking down a jumper would help as well.

 
Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (19-24, LW 18). Reggie Jackson has played much better the past 10 games, averaging 19 points a night in that stretch (and shooting 40 percent from three in his last five). Still the team struggles are simple, in the last 15 games their defense has been terrible, allowing 111.2 points per 100 (27th in the NBA). Also, Andre Drummond and the starters just are not meshing like expected — the Pistons are outscored by 7.6 points per 100 possessions with Drummond and Tobias Harris on the floor together, and by 9.9 when Drummond and Jackson are paired.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (18-23 LW 17). The drama has returned to New York. They have lost 10-of-12. Derrick Rose went AWOL and is clashing with Jeff Hornacek. Carmelo Anthony trade rumors are starting up (it would be vintage Phil Jackson to push Anthony out of town with it looking like ‘Melo’s idea). Hornacek is changing up the starting lineup, putting Ron Baker in over Courtney Lee. Atlanta, Boston, and Washington are the kinds of games playoff teams win — or at least are competitive in — and can the Knicks do that?

 
Kings small icon 21. Kings (16-24, LW 20). Sacramento is 1-5 so far in a make-or-break seven game homestand and have trailed by at least 14 points in every game. The bad news is now things are about to get tough — after a Wednesday date with the Blazers the Kings head out on an eight game road trip that could bury them. If you want a silver lining, Anthony Tolliver has played well since being made a starter.

 
timberwolves small icon 22. Timberwolves (14-27, LW 26). They are 4-6 in their last 10 games but have been playing better than that — they had won three in a row until stumbling against Dallas Sunday. In those three wins, Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 28.7 points, 15.3 rebounds and 3 blocks a game. There are moments you see the flashes from this team, but they lack the glue that brings the roster together, and like many young teams they lack consistency.

 
Nuggets small icon 23. Nuggets (15-23, LW 24). They needed the trip to London, having lost five in a row before getting there the Nuggets routed the Pacers behind another quality game from Nikola Jokic (22 and 10). His scoring makes his fantastic passing that much more dangerous. Tough schedule ahead for Denver with five games this week and the Spurs and Clippers among them.

 
Magic small icon 24. Magic (17-25 LW 22). This is the team I’m most interested to watch at the trade deadline — last summer Scott Skiles moved on in part because he didn’t like the roster, and Frank Vogel has moved Nikola Vucevic in and out of the starting lineup. They have a front-court logjam and the only questions are what pieces are they willing to move, and at what price. Anyone not named Aaron Gordon should be available.

 
Sixers small icon 25. 76ers (12-26, LW 28). They had won three in a row for the first time in three seasons until Saturday, and still they have won five of seven. I want to see Joel Embiid in the All-Star Game — yes, I know about the minutes restrictions and all the time he missed, but in an exhibition that should be about entertainment, Embiid needs to be front and center. (As an aside, if you’re basing you HOF voting on ASG appearances, you’re doing it wrong.) Right now, this team is just fun to watch.

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Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (13-27, LW 25). This is the best Dirk Nowitzki has played all season, and not coincidentally it’s the best Mavs have looked all season as well (though they are not going to get up to .500 this season, first time they will fall below that line since Marc Cuban bought the team). It’s still strange to see all the Dirk sets we’ve seen run over the past decade now run for Harrison Barnes (who continues to score well in isolation but is a work in progress on the playmaking part of the game).

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (13-27, LW 27). Devin Booker would like the Suns to play more games south of the border — he had 78 points in the two games in Mexico City. Those games included a quality win over the Spurs. It’s welcome back to reality north of the border with the Jazz, Cavaliers and Raptors all on the schedule this week.

 
Lakers small icon 28. Lakers (15-30, LW 23). They have lost four games in a row, and it’s all about the defense — they remain a mess on that end. Also, note to Lakers fans: Yes, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram are up-and-down this season, that’s what happens to young players learning on the job. It’s part of development. Don’t blow things out of proportion, look at the overall arc of where they are headed. Russell said he just started a game-day routine, that’s a step toward being a pro. That’s what matters. In other words, listen to Aaron Rodgers and R-E-L-A-X.

 
Heat small icon 29. Heat (11-20, LW 29). They were 1-5 on a recent road trip and the only question remaining around this team is how aggressive Pat Riley is moving guys around at the trade deadline. This is a point-guard heavy draft so if the Heat want to roll the dice a little they may be able to get a good package for Goran Dragic. If not, they are tanking just fine with him then can trade him on draft night.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (8-32, LW 30). Losers of 10 in a row, and before you use the word “tank” remember Boston has their pick next draft unprotected. Jeremy Lin told a Chinese television network he hopes to be back in the next couple of weeks. Looking for a bright spot? Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has been playing better of late.

Utah’s Rodney Hood hyperextends knee, to be re-evaluated Sunday (VIDEO)

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That looks scary. Hopefully, it’s not serious.

It was late in the fourth quarter or Utah’s eventual win over Orlando Sunday night when Rudy Gobert rejected a Nikola Vucevic shot with enough authority to start a fast break the other way. Rodney Hood was leading the way, attacked the rim, stepped on the foot of Jodie Meeks, and he went down awkwardly.

He hyperextended his knee. Here is the latest, via Jody Genessey of the Deseret News.

Hood starts at the two for Utah and has averaged 14 points a game for the Jazz this season. The team is 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. If he is out for any length of time, it will mean more run for Koe Ingles and Alec Burks.

Utah’s Joe Johnson hits buzzer beater from opposite three-point line (VIDEO)

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Now that’s a buzzer beater.

Utah’s Joe Johnson drained a 70-foot three pointer from the opposite three-point line Friday night, just beating the third quarter clock. Barely.

This was one of the signs everything was going right for the Jazz, who picked up the 110-77 win over the Pistons.

Report: LeBron James increasingly frustrated with how he’s officiated

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 10:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks to a referee during the first half against the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 10, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is difficult to officiate.

He’s stronger and faster than his opponents, so he both initiates and receives more contact than most players. He’s this era’s Shaquille O’Neal, who dealt with similar issues.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said during the Finals that referees haven’t found the right balance – and apparently LeBron agrees.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Cavaliers superstar LeBron James has become increasingly frustrated with the way he has been officiated this season, multiple team sources told ESPN following Cleveland’s 100-92 loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday.

Much of James’ detest comes from the fact that the vast majority of his shots come from within the paint — as 12 of his 20 did on Tuesday — yet, according to multiple sources, he feels contact is ignored, whereas players who thrive more on jump shots than drives have been rewarded with big nights at the line.

Add it up and there is a perception by James, according to multiple sources, that he doesn’t get officiated the same way as many of his All-NBA-level peers.

This leak is LeBron, or someone on his behalf, lobbying for a more favorable whistle. Will it work? He does have outsized influence on the league.

By the way, the call that had reportedly LeBron particularly irate came when he heard Jazz coach Quin Snyder call for Shelvin Mack to intentionally foul LeBron – and it still got no call:

Uncalled intentional fouls are not unique to LeBron, and they expose a deficiency in the entire system. Referees can’t see everything on the court. Perhaps, larger officiating crews would help. Leveraging technology to call things like three-second violations and out of bounds could also free human referees to watch for more discretionary calls. But when players aren’t always whistled when intentionally hacking, something is wrong.

Video Breakdown: How James Harden leads the NBA in assists

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James Harden is stacking assists like they’re pancakes for the Houston Rockets this year, and perhaps the only player standing between him and the 2017 NBA MVP is Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook. While both have penchant for triple-doubles, it’s Harden’s passing that has taken an eye-popping leap this year and deserves closer examination.

Harden’s per-100 possession passing statistics have gone up about 60 percent over his last two years in Houston, and he’s now averaging nearly 12 dimes per-game as he distributes proportionally to Houston’s rim-rolling big men and myriad 3-point shooters. That’s incredible considering his usage rate has not notably increased.

So how has Harden done this, how has his passing affected the Rockets offense, and is there any possible way to stop him?

Find out by watching this week’s NBA Playbook in the video above or by reading the text version below.

Gravity

It’s no secret Harden is a monster on drives and on the pick-and-roll, and his ability to penetrate and draw defenders around him has been a big part of his success this season.

Houston runs this double screen pick-and-roll play that has a lot of options on it. You’ve got two screeners here at the top, with one set to pop to the arc and one ready to dive hard to the lane.

As Harden rounds the pick, you’ve got all three defenders sliding and looking at Harden. Clint Capela’s body angle shows he’s just going straight for the bucket, and because both Harden and Ryan Anderson are shooters, the Cavaliers decide to play up toward the arc and leave the paint unguarded.

Film study reveals Harden often likes to pass to the corner opposite the direction of his drive. As Harden dribbles on this play, not only does he draw multiple defenders as before, but as Nene takes a purposefully wide roll angle to the hoop, that draws down the defending guard to help out. Eric Gordon is then left with enough space to get himself a 3-pointer.

Transition

Mike D’Antoni’s system has encouraged Harden to get the ball early and make a decision, sometimes passing at the half court line or even earlier.

Here are a couple examples where Harden receives the ball, then makes a decision strikingly early to get the ball out to either Anderson or Trevor Ariza. Teams need to pressure Harden when he’s the main recipient of a defensive rebound, lest he hit his teammates filling the wings.

It’s difficult to guard, happens often, and it’s something to understand about this Rockets offense as it relates to Harden’s success passing.

Rim runners like Capela have a mandate to run as hard as they can and in transition and to the bucket. Likewise, Houston’s shooters have a mandate to get to the wings as fast as they can in transition and go up almost immediately with their shot.

Forward Shooting

Anderson and Ariza have been critical to Harden’s success this year, and some of the plays Houston runs for these two are super fun.

We saw this dive play get Capela a bucket earlier in the video, but the Rockets also use it to get 3-pointers. Here against the Cavaliers, Houston is running it on the sideline, with Capela and Anderson again as the screeners.

Capela dives to the lane and this time takes Tristan Thompson with him — remember last time Cleveland played it high — and LeBron and JR Smith have to stop Harden’s drive to his strong side.

Anderson has to do is fade to the arc.

This is another set the Rockets run with frequency, with a double screen to the corner by the two posts as Ariza comes to the arc. The secondary action comes when Capela then screens down for Anderson as he pops to the 3-point line.

How to Stop Harden

Like with Westbrook, there haven’t been many teams that have been able to stop Harden. However, the Rockets have had a couple of losses where Harden hasn’t notched too many assists, and teams have helped slow Harden’s passing by doing three things:

  • Played extremely soft ICE on the pick and roll with non-shooting Rockets big men, sealing off Harden’s passing lane to the roller.
  • Kept their forwards from digging off Houston’s 3-point shooting front court players.
  • Closed on shooters multiple feet beyond the 3-point line, higher than you’d expect.

For example, in the following two videos, watch the outside defenders stick to Houston’s 3-point shooters to force Harden to try to finish at the rim:

In both plays by the Spurs and the Jazz, none of the wing defenders help to dig down, instead staying on the 3-point shooters on the arc. Some of them don’t even step foot inside the paint, and in fact against Utah Gordon Hayward actually moves slightly toward his own player as Harden drives.

They’d rather give up a well-contested shot at the rim with the two primary defenders than help and leave Houston’s shooters open. They’re betting on themselves being able to stop him with multiple defenders down low than have 3-point attempts go up without pressure.

Put that together with guys like LaMarcus Aldridge closing out hard, playing way higher than he normally would, and you’ve got a way to cull some of Harden’s assists.

But, let’s be honest: not really.

Like with Russell Westbrook, not many teams have been able to stop James Harden. The man is a passing machine, and it will be difficult to chose between him and Russ for the MVP this year.