NBA power rankings

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James_game2.jpgOur weekly NBA rankings, where we start to see teams get ready for the playoffs. Or try to improve their lottery position. Either way.

1. Cavaliers (56-15) Seven game win streak, best record in the NBA, and they get Big Z back this week. The only intrigue left for the last few weeks of the season is to see what team they get to destroy in the first round.

2. Magic (49-21) Rashard Lewis gets called out for not living up to his $18.5 million, he goes out and drops 24 and 11 on the Heat. And that’s the team’s big problem?

3. Lakers (52-18) LA has to get prepared for the playoffs without Andrew Bynum (he’ll be back next month). Had to do that the last two years, and they went to the Finals.

4. Nuggets (47-23) Injury questions about along the front line (not to mention the coach), and Denver’s next five games include Boston, Orlando and Dallas. Rockies-like mountains for this team to climb.

5. Mavericks (46-23) If Rodrigue Beaubois were a rookie on a lesser team, where he got a lot of burn, his name would pop up in Rookie of the Year conversations.

6. Hawks (45-24) Monday night game against the streaking Bucks, then on Wednesday they face Orlando. Atlanta has big playoff aspirations, these are the types of teams they need to beat in the playoffs.

7. Bucks (38-30) They are 14-2 since they traded for John Salmons. How much will they pay to keep him around this summer?  

8. Suns (44-26) Four wins in a row, and the last one against Portland was the kind of ground it out win the Suns will need in the playoffs.

9. Celtics (45-24) Four wins in a row and those old legs have looked fresh the last week. Can that really last into the playoffs? Boston fans gave a little extra in the church offering plate yesterday hoping to make it so.

10. Thunder (42-26) They dropped a game to the Pacers? Ugh. The mistake of a young team. Which we forget these Thunder are.

11. Jazz (45-25) The last five has seen wins against the bottom feeders — Washington, Minnesota and a CP3less New Orleans — but losses to Oklahoma City and Phoenix. They need to beat some good teams before the playoffs.

12. Spurs (41-27) Loss to Hawks Sunday, next four games are Thunder, Lakers, Cavaliers and Celtics. Tough road for a team trying to stay out of the eight seed.

13. Blazers (42-29) Go ahead and say they are only beating teams below .500 lately — I will because they are — but the fact is they are still beating them.

14. Heat (36-34) Teams at the top of the East all want to avoid Dwyane Wade in the first round — they know they can win the series, but he will make it harder than it has to be.

15. Rockets (36-32) The Aaron Brooks/Kevin Martin backcourt is already one of the most dynamic in the NBA. All they need is a powerhouse center and… oh yea. Yao.

16. Grizzlies (37-33) Heavy stretch of road games to end the season, but with this team that may be the best thing.

17. Bobcats (35-34) Don’t look at the team on the court the last week, look at that shiny new owner we’ve got.

18. Raptors (34-34) I’d say they were desperately holding on to the final playoff spot in the East, except everybody below them is crumbling.

19. Hornets (33-38) This week the Chris Paul and Darren Collison share the ball experiment begins. That should be interesting.

20. Kings (24-46) Big sigh of relief that Tyreke Evans will not miss the rest of the season. He’s the only thing making this team watchable (of course, they beat the Clippers without him).

21. Bulls (32-37) On paper, an enticing team for free agents. If said free agents watched them play this week, not so much.

22. Pacers (24-46) The Pacers with a couple of wins this week. It helps when Danny Granger drops 29. Still does not make this team watchable.

23. Sixers (24-46) Playing out the string, and having to do it against playoff teams. The next few weeks will be ugly.

24. Knicks (25-45) They are .500 in their last four games. Take the small victories, Knicks fans.

25. Clippers (26-44) I bought a cool San Diego Clippers throwback T-shirt this week. That’s about the only interesting news I have on this team.

26. Warriors (19-50) Warriors fans don’t care about these rankings, the team is for sale. That is the only ray of hope this franchise had.

27. Pistons (23-47) At least Stuckey is healthy because this team is not.

28. Wizards (21-47) Eleven losses in a row now, time to get to the end of the season and hit the reset button.

29. Timberwolves (14-56) Saw them in person against LA… they are that bad. But they are still trying for Kurt Rambis, most of the time.

30. Nets (7-62) I want to move you out of last, I really do. Just give me a win to do it with.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.