NBA Power Rankings: Blazers climb, Heat on top of mountain

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Lots of big moves up and down as the rankings start to shake themselves out a little. In college football they should hold off doing polls through those early weeks because said polls impact the postseason, but as the NBA has a playoff to determine who is best let’s dive in.

1. Heat (5-0, last week ranked No. 1). They have yet to lose but it took two last-second shots by Dwyane Wade to secure wins this week against teams Miami should crush. The bar is set high for this team. But at least LeBron James is engaged now.

2. Thunder (5-0, LW 3). It’s never really too early to start a “James Harden for Sixth Man of the Year” campaign. Like the Heat, they needed a ridiculous game winner — theirs from Kevin Durant — to stay undefeated this week.

3. Bulls (4-1, LW 2). They started the season on a tough West Coast road swing and had one off night. Good start for a team with room to improve still. Rip Hamilton is starting to find a groove and his hamstring injury doesn’t appear to be serious.

4. Spurs (3-1, LW 10). Big jump because, like last year, they look strong in the regular season. Manu Ginobili is playing like a beast. All their wins have been by at least 13 points.

5. Blazers (3-1, LW 11). Another climber as they have been impressive, especially on defense, at least until they ran into the Clippers Sunday. They are deep and that will help a lot in this condensed season.

6. Magic (4-1, LW 15). The pattern follows — they lost to OKC opening day because they have someone who can single cover Dwight Howard in the post. They consistently beat lesser teams that can’t do that. They are a good offensive squad.

7. Hawks (3-1, LW 14). They move way up as they are got off to a fast start against the Nets (twice) and Wizards, but now reality hits as they have two games each upcoming against the Heat and Bulls.

8. Pacers (3-1, LW 17). Sort of the same as the Hawks, they’re beating bad teams but soon they start to run into better squads (Heat and Celtics this week). However, the Pacers are better than people think and they are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.

9. Lakers (3-3, LW 6). They went .500 in four games without Andrew Bynum, which included a back-to-back-to-back. That’s not bad. But somebody besides Kobe Bryant has to pick up the offensive load.

10. Nuggets (3-2, LW 12). If not for a missed layup they could have swept the Lakers, but still a sweep not all bad. Al Harrington is playing well with 15.4 points per game.

11. Knicks (2-2, LW 4). If you’re going to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach, knowing his system, shouldn’t you try to build a team that fits it? Not in New York, apparently. The good news is they got their West Coast trip out of the way early.

12. Celtics (2-3, LW 7). After an 0-3 start they have gotten healthy on a couple struggling teams (and have the Wizards again Monday night). And they got Paul Pierce back, which helps.

13. Clippers (2-2, LW 5). Great offense (that rarely turns the ball over) but until they played Portland Sunday they had not been good at all on defense. If they can start to defend consistently they will be scary.

14. Bucks (2-1, LW 18). Good start will be tested on five-game road trip out West (including a back-to-back against the Lakers and Clippers).

15. 76ers (2-2, LW 13). Their two wins were blowouts, their two losses close ones. Small sample size but this is a team to watch as they may be better than their .500 record indicates.

16. Rockets (2-2, LW 16). Kyle Lowry is playing like an All-Star. Tough week with Lakers, Clippers and OKC on the schedule.

17. Warriors (2-2, LW 21). Inconsistent — beat the Bulls, get blown out by 28 by the Sixers — and they have had Stephen Curry injured and Monta Ellis out for personal reasons. Still can’t get a read on this team other than they play hard for Mark Jackson.

18. Hornets (2-2, LW 27). Impressive win over Boston but they got smacked by a not very good Suns team. Credit Monty Williams for getting them to play over their heads.

19. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 9). They had a tough schedule to start the season and have had to navigate it without Mike Conley. But this brings back to reality the contender talk — this team isn’t the Thunder or other elite teams in the West. Not consistently, not yet.

20. Mavericks (1-4, LW 8). Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavs start, “One win over Toronto doesn’t really make the world great.” Yup. There are a lot of issues, including Lamar Odom admitting he is out of shape.

21. Suns (1-3, LW 19). Steve Nash is playing through some bruised ribs, which is slowing his game. Signing Michael Redd was a shot in the dark, but this squad might as well take those shots right now.

22. Timberwolves (1-3, LW 25). They beat Dallas and their three losses are to the Heat, Thunder and an underrated Bucks team. They are better than their record shows. Rick Adelman is going to have this team paying pretty well by the end of the season, just watch.

23. Cavaliers (2-2, LW 29). If the playoffs started today, the Cavaliers would be the eighth seed in the West (we put that in here because it might be the last week we get to write that). Anderson Varejao is looking healthy and playing well — so expect the trade rumors to ramp up soon.

24. Jazz (1-3, LW 20). They are back for games in the friendly confines of Salt Lake City this week, where they are still tough to beat.

25. Raptors (1-3, LW 28). Tough loss to Orlando Sunday, they let that one get away. Same old Raptors this season, pretty good offense but their defense is terrible.

26. Bobcats (1-3, LW 30). That second game against the Heat — a blowout loss — was more indicative or reality in Charlotte. Kemba Walker scoring 11.5 point per game will inject himself into the Rookie of the Year talk.

27. Kings (1-3, LW 22). What a mess of a franchise right now. The problem for management is what to do with Paul Westphal — cut him now or at the end of the season? If you fire him now you let the players win that power struggle and that might come back to haunt you.

28. Pistons (1-3, LW 24). They are the Pacers lone loss, and they are getting solid play from Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerbko. But the stylings of Ben Gordon still drive this offense.

29. Nets (1-4, LW 26). Looking for a positive… Mashon Brooks has had some nice games and is averaging 12.2 per contest. That’s about it for a team shooting 38 percent for the season.

30. Wizards (0-4, LW 23). Flip Saunders is on the hot seat and can’t fill out a lineup card. The Wizard’s offense is a disaster — this team should run every chance it gets yet the pace is 13th in the league. I expected a breakout year from John Wall and again he looks average this season.

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.