NBA Power Rankings: Chicago is our kind of town

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It’s our penultimate rankings, the Bulls have solidified themselves at the top and Minnesota is trying hard to make sure they finish the season on the bottom. Or not trying, as the case may be.

1. Bulls (56-20, LW #2). The East is theirs, barring a total collapse, and they are just one back of San Antonio in the loss column for the best overall. Their last couple games without Joakim Noah have not really been impressive wins, if you’re looking to nit-pick.

2. Lakers (55-21, LW #1). The loss Sunday to Denver was really the Lakers second sloppy game in a row, Utah just couldn’t make them pay for it. Also, the Lakers last two losses came in part because of key tip ins over Lamar Odom while Andrew Bynum sat.

3. Heat (54-23, LW #3). The last two weeks LeBron James has been a beast and looked like — dare we say it? — an MVP. Sunday’s game in Boston could be interesting for LeBron and the Heat, with real potential seeding implications.

4. Thunder (50-26, LW #4). Serge Ibaka has averaged 12.4 points and 9.1 rebounds a game the last 10 for the Thunder. But they had to watch Denver Sunday and realize it is going to be a tough first round.

5. Nuggets (47-29), LW #9). Tuesday night they take on Oklahoma City in a first-round playoff preview. The Lakers got the message bout the Nuggets being for real Sunday. Not only has their defense gotten better since the trade, their offense has improved and is now No. 1 in the NBA.

6. Celtics (53-23, LW #8). Boston fans are saying Shaquille O’Neal looked good in the five-and-a-half minutes he played before he got hurt again. Small sample size alert there. They need Shaq, Jermaine and Krstic all to be right by the second round or things will be tough.

7. Spurs (58-19, Last Week #7). They snapped their six-game losing streak and looked good Sunday, but against the Suns without Steve Nash. So we’ll want to see them do it again before we believe they are back.

8. Blazers (45-32, LW #10). Dallas should not be scared of the Blazers in the first round because Dallas lost to them Sunday. They should be scared because the Blazers have been one of the better teams in the league the past month.

9. Mavericks (53-24, LW #5). Three game losing streak drops them down but the last two were on the end of the longest road trip of the year on a back-to-back, so don’t read too much into it.

10. Grizzlies (44-33, LW #11). Winners of four straight and they may well push up to the seven seed in the West, which would mean the Lakers in the first round. That is a team they can challenge.

11. Magic (48-29, LW #6). Losing to Atlanta because Jason Collins played well? Getting out rebounded by Toronto? Orlando has a few issues to work out and about 10 days to do it. They will get those Hawks and Jason Collins in the first round.

12. Rockets (41-36, LW #13). They are 8-2 in their last 10 but just can’t get over the hump and into the playoffs out West. If this was the East, they’d be the six seed.

13. Sixers (40-37, LW #12). We’ve been saying they can scare one of the East elite in the first round, but only if Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams get healthy.

14. Hawks (44-33, LW #14). The win over Orlando this week was not a sign they will beat the Magic in a seven game series. But it was key for the Hawks confidence to make it a tough series, not the sweep it was last year. Jason Collins allows them to single-cover Dwight Howard, the key to beating Orlando.

15. Hornets (43-33, LW #15). Carl Landry has picked up the offensive slack pretty well, but the Hornets are inconsistent with defense and rebounding. Still, they would have to totally collapse to miss the playoffs.

16. Suns (37-39, LW #16). Without Steve Nash this team is pretty hard to watch.

17. Pacers (35-43, LW #21). They had won three in a row before Sunday but still have the Bobcats right behind them for that last spot in the West. Indiana has the tiebreaker, if they can just go 2-2 in their final four they should make it in. Then get crushed by the Bulls.

18. Knicks (38-38, LW #18). Sure, they’re stumbling, but Carmelo Anthony got to be on Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street this week. So it’s all good.

19. Bobcats (32-44, LW #19). They are two games back, just one the loss column. Problem is, Indiana has the tiebreaker so they can’t just catch them, they have to pass. Then Charlotte lost to the Wizards Sunday at home and that is one they may regret if they miss the playoffs.

20. Warriors (33-44, LW #20). Numerous rumblings that Keith Smart is in a lot of trouble. He may have been in trouble since he signed that one-year contract last summer.

21. Bucks (31-45, LW #23). One point losses to both Indiana and Charlotte did in their playoff dreams. And both were sloppy finishes at the end, the Bucks could have had them.

22. Jazz (36-41, LW #17). They have lost eight straight and have gone to heavy rookie rotations for the rest of the season.

23. Clippers (30-47, LW #22). You see flashes of this team and what it could grow into next years and in coming seasons. Next season can they be consistent?

24. Kings (22-54, LW #24). They are 5-2 in their last seven (both losses to Denver) and Tyreke Evans is back and playing well. They will love that in Anaheim.

25. Pistons (26-50, LW #25). The infighting between the coaches and players has been allowed to go on to long without some intervention from above. The team sale dragging out is hurting this team badly.

26. Wizards (20-56, LW #29). Two road wins in one week after having just one all season before that. Jordan Crawford is putting up numbers and trying to make the most of his chances.

27. Raptors (21-55, LW #27). They beat Orlando and made a game of it with Chicago in one week. That’s a good week in Toronto this season.

28. Nets (23-53, LW #26). They have lost six straight — Utah fans are loving it. (Remember, Utah got the Nets pick in the Deron Williams trade.)

29. Cavaliers (15-61, LW #28). Savor that win over the Heat.

30. Timberwolves (17-60, LW #30). Losers of 10 in a row and just one game ahead of Cleveland in the loss column in the race for the most Ping-Pong balls. Kevin Love has not even been a factor for them lately, between injuries and his play.

James Harden struggles, Rockets still beat Jazz 104-101 for 3-0 series lead

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — James Harden never worried.

In fact, he didn’t know he had missed his first 15 shots.

Through it all, he never changed the attacking style that made him the NBA’s leading scorer.

Harden overcame a poor shooting performance and scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Houston Rockets to a 104-101 win Saturday over the Utah Jazz for a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series.

“Keep shooting. Keep being aggressive,” Harden said of his only thoughts. “My job is to go out there and produce. Be aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing changes.”

Not much has worked against Harden for the Jazz, and even when they thought they had him trapped, they weren’t able to control The Beard for a full game.

“You’re going to give something up. The best thing you can do with him is just try to make it hard on him. Even when you do that, there’s times where he’s going to make plays,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.

The Jazz didn’t take it easy on Harden, and took every opportunity to knock him down, even when it sent him to the line. For one of the rare times this season, Harden passed up some shots. But he did take them – and make them – when they counted most.

Though the victory was hardly a thing of beauty, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni was grateful for the way it went down.

“Sooner or later we have to win games on defense. We did this time,” D’Antoni said of his team which is known for Harden’s lethal 3-point attack but has drastically improved on the defensive end since mid-season.

Harden made a 3-pointer and added two free throws with 42.4 seconds left to give the Rockets a 101-97 lead. After Donovan Mitchell made two free throws, Harden missed another 3-point attempt, but P.J. Tucker, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, grabbed the rebound, was fouled, making one of two free throws.

Chris Paul said: “You trust (Tucker) to make those plays. … He’s going to do anything and everything to help the team win.”

Mitchell had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but like so many of his shots in the hard-fought contest, it was off the mark.

Game 4 of the best-of-seven Western Conference series is Monday night in Utah.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well and we still won. That just gives us more confidence,” said Harden, who was 3-for-20 shooting with 10 assists. He was 14 for 16 from the line.

Paul scored 18 points and Clint Capela had 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Rockets, who shot 38.4 percent from the field and 67.6 percent from the line.

Mitchell scored 34 points, but struggled shooting, too, making just 9 of his 27 attempts. Derrick Favors had 13 for the Jazz.

Royce O'Neale, who played tenacious defense on Harden, made a 3-pointer for Utah’s last lead at 89-88. In fact, the Jazz led most of the game, but never by more than eight.

The Rockets made their move in the fourth quarter.

Gerald Green made back-to-back 3-pointers and Harden added a pair of free throws with 8:33 remaining put the Rockets up 84-80.

After two slow starts in Houston, the Jazz came out energized with a deafening crowd hanging on every basket. Utah led 11-3 and Harden picked up two fouls in the first 94 seconds, but stayed on the court. He couldn’t find his rhythm until the stretch run.

The Rockets have made no secret they are keying on Mitchell and Ingles to take away their playmaking and make other Utah players beat them. So far, no one else has made them pay.

Mitchell vowed to be more aggressive and apologized for being a “no show” early in the series. He re-introduced himself to the series in an exuberant show of shot-making and open emotion after big plays. But it didn’t last.

“I just started missing shots,” Mitchell said. “I can’t miss 16 shots (after the first quarter). That’s my role and I can’t miss makeable shots.”

Prior to Saturday’s big game, Mitchell was shooting 32.6% and had more turnovers (nine) than assists (six). After his hot start, Mitchell missed 11 straight field goal attempts but never stopped attacking.

Harden was missing 3-pointers and floaters, including two that were rejected by Rudy Gobert early in the game, and didn’t convert one until his emphatic fast-break dunk with 7:34 to play. But then he made a step-back 3-pointer to give Houston its largest lead at 89-83.

The leading MVP candidate did get to the line – something the Jazz have tried desperately to avoid.

Gobert had 10 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots.

 

Deep and dominant Bucks give Pistons longest playoff-game losing streak of all-time

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
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DETROIT – Giannis Antetokounmpo finished dressing, sat in front of his locker and looked up.

Usually, that’s the signal a player is ready to begin his postgame interview.

The swarm of reporters in the visiting locker room barely even turned his direction.

“No media?” Antetokounmpo asked rhetorically as he feigned leaving. “OK.”

That the MVP favorite was an afterthought in the Bucks’ 119-103 Game 3 win over the Pistons on Saturday is a tribute to Milwaukee’s strength as a team. Four Bucks outscored Antetokounmpo as Milwaukee again crushed Detroit to take a 3-0 series lead.

All 132 teams up 3-0 in a best-of-seven series have won the series – most of them by sweep. The Bucks – who haven’t won a playoff series in the previous 17 years – can close this one in Game 4 Monday.

“It’s going to be a nice feeling, winning my first playoff series,” Antetokounmpo said after sitting back down. “And it’s going to be a nice feeling, the team getting out of the first round. And it’s going to be keep going. Whoever we play in the second round, I know it’s far away from here – six, seven days away – but whoever we play, we’re going to try to win.”

Forgive Antetokounmpo for looking ahead. Even for a team up 3-0, Milwaukee has looked particularly dominant.

The Bucks have outscored Detroit by 72 points so far – the second-largest margin through three games of a best-of-seven series. Here are the biggest combined margins through three games of all series (game scores in parentheses):

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Antetokounmpo (14 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, five fouls, four turnovers,) just never got got in a groove. The Bucks even got outscored by seven points with Antetokounmpo on the floor.

But Khris Middleton (20 points), Brook Lopez (19 points), Eric Bledsoe (19 points), Ersan Ilyasova (15 points), Nikola Mirotic (12 points) and George Hill (11 points) stepped up. The Bucks were +23 without Antetokounmpo – one of their best-ever marks while the superstar sat.

“It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said.

For the Pistons, it wasn’t all about Blake Griffin.

Detroit’s best and most important player surprisingly played through knee pain that sidelined him the first two games. Griffin (27 points and six assists) had his moments, but he was clearly hobbled. Though the Pistons’ offense flowed far better with Griffin, their defense remains no match for the Bucks’ elite attack. Especially with Griffin slowed.

In a skid dating back to 2008, the Pistons have now tied the Knicks (2001-2012) for longest playoff-game losing streak at 13 games.

Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson are the only current Pistons who played in a 2016 sweep to the Cavaliers. Nearly everything – arena, ownership, front office coaching staff, players – has changed since a 2009 sweep to Cleveland, which was preceded by dropping the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals the year prior against the Celtics.

But this record now falls on the franchise.

Here are the longest playoff-game losing streaks of all time:

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With a deep supporting cast he truly seems to enjoy and a win, it was easy for Antetokounmpo to brush off his lackluster game.

“Hey, there’s going to be nights like this,” Antetokounmpo said.

For Detroit, a lot of them.

Nuggets beat Spurs 117-103 to tie series at 2-2

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 29 points and 12 rebounds, Jamal Murray added 24 points and the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 117-103 on Saturday night, rebounding from a flat performance tie the first-round series at two games apiece.

LaMarcus Aldridge had 24 points and nine rebounds for San Antonio. DeMar DeRozan added 19 points before he was ejected with five minutes remaining after arguing with an official over an offensive foul.

Game 5 is Tuesday night in Denver.

The Nuggets were more aggressive and physical after a deflating Game 3 loss, just as Denver coach Michael Malone had hoped.

“I want to see some emotion. I want to see some fire. I want to see some passion,” Malone said prior to the game.

Malone was able to stir that fire with a couple of changes after Derrick White‘s 36-point outing in San Antonio’s Game 3 victory.

Torrey Craig started over a struggling Will Barton and was charged with defending White to open the game, with Murray switching to Forbes. The moves proved beneficial, if not at first.

White was limited to eight points on 3-for-8 shooting after going 15 for 21 on Thursday. Craig finished with 18 points, going 5 for 7 on 3-pointers. Barton finished with 12 points and made all three of his 3-point attempts.

Down by 12 points in the first quarter, Denver outscored San Antonio 69-45 in the second and third.

Aldridge had 13 points in the opening quarter, shooting 5 for 9. His final points of the quarter came when he grabbed a miss by Marco Belineli and slammed it back in. Denver rallied in the second, with Jokic and Murray combining for 15 points as the Nuggets outscored 34-22.

The Spurs stopped driving to the basket and the Nuggets began making their 3-pointers.

Denver finished 15-for-31 on 3-pointers.

 

Trail Blazers’ Maurice Harkless fined $15,000 for throwing headband into stands

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Nobody wants your sweat.

I guess that’s the message the league was trying to send Portland’s Maurice Harkless, who was fined $15,000 by the league office for “throwing” his Ninja-style headband into the crowd near the end of Portland’s Friday night loss to Oklahoma City.

“Throwing” is a strong word for the light toss he made, not that the officials cared, Harkless was given a technical and ejected at the time for the move.

Harkless was fired up as he and Russell Westbrook had been jawing at each other before the ejection.