NBA Power Rankings: Chicago finishes regular season as No. 1

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Our final rankings make for an interesting playoff comparison — the top three come in as the hottest teams going into the playoffs, but the next three more veteran squads. Who do you take when it really matters? (We lean to the second three, but the Bulls may prove us wrong. Again.)

1. Bulls (60-20, Last Week #1). They have won with a much-heralded defense, but their offense has improved as the season has worn on. Derrick Rose can still slash and score, but his decision-making has improved across the board. Make no mistake, they are legit.

2. Heat (56-24, LW #3). The win against Boston was a confidence booster and more importantly likely means Miami is the two seed, but how much of a playoff preview that remains in doubt. Now comes the time we finally get answers to our Heat questions… well, maybe in the second round.

3. Thunder (54-26, LW #4). They come into the playoffs hot and confident, having won 18 of 22. There is a different vibe in the Thunder locker room this season — this team is trying to scowl like Perkins now. Kevin Durant said they are better prepared for the playoffs than a year ago.

4. Spurs (61-19, Last Week #7). The Spurs offense is back in its groove, but Tuesday night in Los Angeles look for Gregg Popovich to sit his stars. He does not want the Lakers falling to the four seed, which could still happen.

5. Lakers (55-25, LW #2). So the Lakers played great ball and set themselves up as the two seed winning 17 of 18, but once the pressure was off they sleepwalked through a five-game losing streak. How is this different than the Lakers we’ve seen the last three years? Now that their backs are against the wall and they have to win to secure the two seed, watch them play well again.

6. Celtics (55-25, LW #6). It’s all about Shaq — if he’s healthy they are a serious contender. If not, they are vulnerable in the second round and every one after. He gives them a big body in the paint, rebounding and scoring from the post they need.

7. Blazers (47-33, LW #8). Huge game Tuesday night against Memphis. Win and they likely are the six seed, which could mean Dallas. That’s the one in the top four of the West all the bottom four teams would like to face.

8. Nuggets (49-31), LW #5). They lost twice to the Thunder this week, reminding everyone what they really want starting in the first round next weekend is Dallas to slip to the four seed.

9. Mavericks (55-25, LW #9). Once again this is a good team — 11 straight 50-win seasons for the franchise — that scares nobody heading into the playoffs.

10. Grizzlies (46-34, LW #10). Great note from John Schuhmann at NBA.com: Memphis is 2-2 against the Spurs and Lakers, 3-1 against the Mavericks and Thunder. This is a team that could pull an upset.

11. Magic (50-30, LW #11). Dwight Howard will finish the season averaging more than 23 points and 14 rebounds per game. Last person to do that (via ESPN’s Marc Stein): Hakeem Olajuwon. I’d have him higher, but if he’s not in the top three on your MVP ballot, you’re doing it wrong.

12. Hornets (46-34, LW #15). Chris Paul was held scoreless Sunday, while in another game Kwame Brown was 9-of-10 shooting. We live in a bizzaro world.

13. Knicks (42-38, LW #18). They have won seven in a row, have gotten big games out of Carmelo Anthony and will get Amar’e Stoudemire back for the playoffs. That should be good enough to push Boston to six games. Maybe.

14. Sixers (41-39, LW #13). The Sixers really miss, and really need back, Lou Williams. And they need Elton Brand and Iggy healthy. With all those things they can push the Heat a little. (They can get the six seed from the Knicks if NY loses its last two and Philly wins out.)

15. Hawks (44-36, LW #14). Losers of four in a row. And they are counting on Jason Collins to be their playoff key against the Magic. If you are counting on a Collins twin to save you….

16. Rockets (42-38, LW #13). The best team not to make the playoffs. Easily.

17. Pacers (37-44, LW #17). Can they win even one game against the Bulls? They won one in the regular season when Roy Hibbert went off, so… yea, probably not.

18. Suns (38-42, LW #16). One very interesting offseason ahead — it is time to rebuild, but that would mean trading Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Does Phoenix ownership and management have the stomach for that?

19. Warriors (35-45, LW #20). The good news is Monta Ellis is out of the hospital. That was a nasty fall. The bad news is what happens to Keith Smart. He is in trouble. Fair or not.

20. Bucks (33-47, LW #21). The most injured team in the NBA this season (they lost most man games and most minutes played by regulars). If they were healthy, if Andrew Bogut’s elbow gets right, could they have beat out the Hawks for the five seed?

21. Bobcats (32-48, LW #19). Lost six in a row and went from fighting for a playoff spot to out of it entirely. Michael Jordan has said the right thing — they can’t live in the middle they may need to get worse to get better. Short term pain and try to draft for long-term gain.

22. Pistons (29-51, LW #25). Tom Gores. That is your hope for the future, Pistons fans. The ship at least has a rudder now.

23. Kings (24-56, LW #24). Just for the record, we’re not as high on Marcus Thornton as everyone else — a high volume, low efficiency scorer. Not that the Kings shouldn’t bring him back, but don’t overpay. The other Cousins — DeMarcus — is the future.

24. Jazz (37-43, LW #22). They will have three lottery picks in this draft. Smart planning, it just may not be the best year to have all those picks.

25. Wizards (22-58, LW #26). There were big steps — Wall got better and they traded the Gilbert Arenas contract (that still amazes me). Still a lot of roster changes needed, but they took steps in the right direction this season.

26. Clippers (31-50, LW #23). Another team poised for a leap forward next season, a team on the right path if they keep making smart moves. But can the combo of Vinny Del Negro and owner Donald Sterling be counted on for more smart moves?

27. Raptors (22-58, LW #27). A bright spot? Ed Davis started to play better late in the season. The ownership change needs to happen, that will help more than anything.

28. Nets (24-56, LW #28). They got the star point guard, but if they can’t recruit some more names — and get a more rounded game out of Brook Lopez — they could lose that new star guard.

29. Cavaliers (17-63, LW #29). Lots of rebuilding to do here, but winning the lottery and getting Kyrie Irving would help.

30. Timberwolves (17-63, LW #30). They have lost 13 in a row to close the season trying to get Kyrie Irving, too. So they can add him to Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn and Luke Ridnour.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.

NBA lays out ground rules for family, friends to enter restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — NBA players could have some family members or close friends inside the season-restart bubble with them by the end of the month.

And that raises the possibility of having a real, albeit small, cheering section for some playoff games.

The league detailed the policies for guest arrivals to teams on Wednesday in a memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. The opportunity to bring guests into the bubble at Walt Disney World will be only for teams advancing to the second round of the playoffs, and the earliest any guest could satisfy quarantine rules and be reunited with a player is Aug. 31.

In most cases, players would be limited to four guests. The league told teams that any guests would have to be either family members, “longtime close personal friends with whom a player has an established, pre-existing, and known personal relationship,” private security staff and established family childcare providers.

Those who wouldn’t be allowed into the bubble: “trainers, physical or massage therapists, personal chefs, hair/apparel stylists, tattoo artists, and current/prospective business partners, and certified agents (other than family members), among others,” the memo said.

Also not allowed, according to the league: casual acquaintances, friends by association, anyone the player has not previously met in person or is “known by the player only through social media or an intermediary.”

ESPN first reported on the contents of the memo.

Players have made no secret about how difficult it is to be away from their families and close friends inside the bubble. Some players have needed to leave the bubble for family emergencies; others, such as Boston’s Gordon Hayward, have said they will leave for the pending birth of children. Hayward and his wife are expecting their fourth child next month.

“I miss the hell out of my family,” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James said last week. “My wife, my kids, my mother, and so on, and so on. So, it’s a huge challenge.”

The Phoenix Suns have had friends and family at games — in the form of a pregame video that introduces starters before the games that are classified as Suns’ home contests. The video was trending Tuesday when the Suns released a copy on their social media channels, and many NBA players such as James and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry raved about the gesture.

“We say family a lot,” Suns coach Monty Williams. “It was a surprise to all of us the first time we saw it, to see your families organize that kind of intro. It’s unique.”

Exceptions to the four-person limit could apply in cases where the player has up to four of his minor children coming to the bubble. But in all cases, the same policies for others in the bubble — such as adhering to strict standards before traveling to the Orlando area, then quarantining before being allowed to enter the campus, plus submitting to daily testing and mandatory wearing of face coverings — would apply to guests as well.

Guests would also have to remain in the bubble, meaning the adjacent Disney World theme parks would be off-limits. The league said programming and entertainment for kids would be available, such as games, swimming pools and bicycles.

Players would also get one ticket authorizing entry for one adult to each of that team’s playoff games after guest arrivals, so basically for the second round and beyond. That ticket would also allow an adult to bring a child — provided the child is 2-foot-8 or shorter — to those games as well, if “the child remains seated with … the adult to whom the ticket was issued, maintains at least six feet of distance from any other individual, and wears a face covering.”

That would be the first opportunity for players to hear actual cheers from people inside a game arena since the season shut down on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Games during the restart have had a fan presence, but only on 17-foot-high video boards that surround the game courts.

The league said it would seek ways to add seating and potentially give players more than just the one ticket per game.

Teams will also be allowed to add staff to the bubble, with a requirement being an on-campus person to serve as a liaison between the guests, teams and NBA league office.

Damian Lillard motivated at restart by death of cousin, playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Damian Lillard has no shortage of motivation.

There’s the painful kind, the kind that comes from dealing with the death three months ago of a cousin who was very close to him. There’s the made-up variety, stemming from the belief he shared Tuesday night that people who cover the league don’t respect his work. There’s the silly stuff, like a back-and-forth on social media with other NBA players.

And then there’s probably the biggest sort — his want to get the Portland Trail Blazers back to the playoffs.

He topped a 51-point performance on Sunday by offering a 61-point performance on Tuesday, doing all that with the Blazers’ postseason fate still not secure and knowing that any loss would put a sizable dent in those playoff hopes. He’s the 12th player in NBA history to have consecutive 50-point games, and just the second — joining only Wilt Chamberlain — to have three 60-point games in a season.

“Couldn’t have been a better time for that type of game,” Lillard said Tuesday, after he helped the Blazers beat Dallas and move pass Memphis into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. “So, like I said, it’s a pleasure and honor to be company with Wilt. And hopefully, you know, it can continue.”

This is where the Blazers are: Win Thursday’s seeding-game finale against nothing-to-play-for Brooklyn, and they’re in the West play-in series that starts on Saturday as the No. 8 seed. Lose Thursday, and nothing is guaranteed.

And Lillard, even with those stakes, is putting on the best show in the bubble.

“If we lose this game, we might not make it to the playoffs,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said Tuesday night. “So, the magnitude of this game, even though it’s in an empty gym and in a bubble … this was the season was on the line.”

The three-point win Tuesday had some help from above, Lillard said.

He took a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter from somewhere between 35 and 40 feet away, felt it was good when it left his hand, then saw it hit the back of the rim and bounce straight up — way, way, way up — in the air.

Lillard’s cousin and chef, Brandon Johnson, died suddenly and unexpectedly in May. Chef B, they called him. Lillard knelt over his body and prayed moments after Johnson died. Blazers teammate CJ McCollum, who was also close with Johnson, came over soon afterward. Lillard and McCollum sat and cried together. And in the bubble, Chef B is in their mind.

“I just tried to continue what I feel like he would want me to do,” Lillard said.

Back to that 3-pointer. A shot from that far away, moving with that much energy, typically doesn’t hit the rim and bounce straight up. They tend to bounce outward. Not this one. It went up, up, up and fell for three points.

A reminder: The Blazers beat the Mavericks by three points.

“Rest in peace, Chef B,” Lillard said. “I think that was him dropping that in.”

Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony said he knew that 3-pointer, as he watched the ball go up and then in, was special.

“I probably said about 20 please, like please-please-please-please-please like repeatedly,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t meant for us to lose when that shot went in. It just wasn’t meant for us to lose.”

When the night was done, when the last of the 61 points had hit the books, Lillard said he shouted “put some respect on my name” to the media area, because as he put it “those were the people who usually have something to say or put out whatever they put out.”

In the bubble, there’s pretty much only been marveling, for good reason.

Lillard got into a bit of a social-media beef a few days ago, after the Los Angeles Clippers’ Patrick Beverley and Paul George reveled in how he missed two late free throws in what became a Portland loss. That fired him up, too — in the two games since, he’s 33 for 34 from the line, those shots all critical given how close the games were.

The NBA said Tuesday that there will be an All-Seeding Games team and MVP selected by reporters and broadcasters who are covering the restart. Lillard is pretty much a lock to be a strong candidate.

Those awards will be handed out Saturday before Game 1 of the West play-in series. He didn’t come here to be on that award list. He came here for the playoffs, and thanks to him, the Blazers are now in the driver’s seat for a chance to play the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1.

And that will deliver even more motivation.

Report: Paul George reached out to Damian Lillard to clear the air

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NBA players talk a lot of smack. The Clippers’ Patrick Beverley is a constant stream of it.

Both Beverley and Paul George got into it with Damian Lillard in the Clippers recent win over the Trail Blazers (when Lillard missed some clutch free throws). That spilled over to Instagram after the game when Lillard called out George for switching teams so often.

However, it got nasty when family and friends got involved. George’s girlfriend Daniela Rajic and Lillard’s sister, La’nae, went at each other on social media — La’nae Lillard called Rajic a stripper, Rajic called La’Nae a cow.

All that prompted George to call Lillard and clear the air, Chris Haynes of TNT said during the Blazers broadcast Tuesday.

Lillard and George have a history that goes back to last playoffs and what Lillard did to that Thunder. That beef is still around.

Players are generally pretty good about leaving the game on the court, and while it spills over to social media now and again it’s just an extension of the game. Family members tend to throw gas on those fires. That happened here.

Lillard used all that fuel — he has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) since that Clippers’ game. In doing so, he pushed Portland to two wins and the eighth seed in the West.