NBA Power Rankings: Heat slip, Bulls charge into top spot

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Miami tripped up out West and the Bulls ran over them on the way to the top of PBT’s weekly power rankings. Meanwhile, jump on the Sixers bandwagon while you can.

1. Bulls (12-2, last week ranked No. 2). Five wins in a row and their next five games are against teams under .500, so the streak will keep going… well, if Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton get healthy.

2. Thunder (11-2, LW 4). They keep winning — six in a row now — but there should be concerns about their defense. They are 24th in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 102.2 points per 100 possessions (the league average is 100). It was better against the Knicks Saturday. Monday night Kendrick Perkins returns to the Gah-den for the first time since the trade.

3. 76ers (9-3, LW 9). Beat the Pacers and while they lost to the Knicks at the Garden that was the third night of a back-to-back-to-back. They still have the best point differential (per 100 possessions) in the league. They look legit but have played the softest schedule in the NBA so far. If you’re not sold, well, we will learn more about Philly this week with the Nuggets, Hawks and Heat on the schedule.

4. Spurs (9-4, LW 7). Manu who? They are 9-0 at home and 0-4 on the road, which means the Miami/Orlando back-to-back road games this week may not work out for them.

5. Pacers (9-3, LW 5). Lost a key game to Philadelphia Monday but turned around with wins over Atlanta and Boston. Still questions about if they can consistently beat quality teams, but for now they are beating the teams on the schedule, which is all you can ask. Eventually (like starting next Sunday) the schedule gets tough.

6. Clippers (6-3, LW 10). The question has always been “how well will they defend?” At home right now, pretty well. Just ask the Heat and Lakers. They have played fewer games than any NBA team, a very old-schedule start to the season, but that is about to change.

7. Nuggets (8-5, LW 8). Beat Miami handily and came back on the Knicks in the Garden —they looked legit in those games, then Paul Millsap abused the Nuggets front line late on Sunday and we wonder.

8. Heat (8-4, LW 1). Three straight losses on a West Coast swing is shrugged off for most teams but a sudden crises for the Heat. Well, maybe not in the locker room. Little first hand note: after loosing to the Clippers last Wednesday the Heat’s locker room was surprisingly unconcerned — they thought they played aggressive but the shots just didn’t fall. Next five games are at home.

9. Hawks (9-4, LW 6). The Al Horford injury is devastating for this team (although they earned a couple nice wins this week without him), and they have a lot of road game coming up the second half of the month. Bad combo.

10. Lakers (9-5, LW 11). Winners of five straight until they lost to the Clippers Saturday. The Lakers have won these games with great defense and average offense, despite Kobe scoring 40+ in four straight (Lakers fans, go look at the numbers before you curse my name). Brutal schedule this week: Dallas, Miami and Orlando back-to-back, then the upstarts in Indiana.

11. Magic (8-3, LW 12). Went 3-0 on a West Coast swing — and may we never have to see a full game of hack-a-Howard again — but they haven’t played the toughest schedule yet (save Portland). That changes this week with the Knicks, Lakers and Spurs on the schedule.

12. Blazers (7-5, LW 3). They beat the Clippers Tuesday but went 1-3 on the week against a tough schedule — the Blazers statistically have had the second toughest schedule in the league so far, only Houston is worse. That schedule masks how good this team is.

13. Jazz (8-4, LW 16). Went 2-1 last week and the only loss was to the Lakers in OT. They are playing well and look like a team that could hold on to a playoff spot in the West, but there is not a lot of margin for error.

14. Mavericks (8-5, LW 15). Beat Boston on Wednesday and blew out some bad teams. The Mavericks are starting to get it together but that will be tested on the road this week. By the way, Jason Kidd hit his first two-point basket of the season in the Mavs 13th game.

15. Knicks (6-6, LW 14). They beat Philly on Wednesday but here’s what should concern Knicks fans — this team is .500 against the second softest schedule in the NBA (via ESPN’s strength of schedule tracker). Things are going to get tougher.

16. Cavaliers (6-6, LW 18). Kyrie Irving is playing well and that is why this team is .500. They have got a piece to build with in him. Tough stretch coming up with Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

17. Celtics (4-7, LW 13). Things are bleak — they went 0-3 against Dallas, Chicago and Indiana. Good teams all, but a good Celtics team would win at least one of those. The Celtics wins are against the Nets, Pistons and Wizards (twice). Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have been average.

18. Grizzlies (5-6, LW 19). Credit them for showing some grit without Zach Randolph and getting some wins. Not sure they can keep it up, but they deserve the props.

19. Rockets (5-7, LW 22). Another team that may be a little better than their record indicates, and they went 3-1 last week including a nice win in Portland. If Samuel Dalembert can give them more on defense the playoffs are not out of the question.

20. Suns (4-8, LW 17). On a four-game losing streak and they are out on the road for four this week. Steve Nash is good but these are the same old Suns who need jumpers to fall to win, and that will always be inconsistent.

21. Timberwolves (4-8, LW 20). I want to rank them higher. I do. They are fun to watch and they have the point differential of a .500 team. But they keep losing (1-3 last week). I’m not moving a team up because of style or stats, you still got to win games.

22. Bucks (4-7, LW 21). They are 4-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. I suppose the good news is they have more home games coming up, but if they are serious about the playoffs they have to start winning away from the Bradley Center.

23. Warriors (3-7, LW 24). In the middle of a stretch of games against the East, but they did get a quality win against the Heat. That shows the potential, and they have gotten good play from Monta Ellis and David Lee. But the defense still stinks.

24. Hornets (3-9, LW 26). Nice win against Denver this week, but the Hornets started 2-0 and have been a mess ever since.

25. Kings (4-9, LW 25). Their point differential should have them in the bottom five, but they beat the Raptors this week so they get to hold their spot. That 60-point game against Dallas was UGLY.

26. Raptors (4-9, LW 23). They gave the Wizards their only win, which leads to a fall down the rankings in these parts. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for turning the Raptors into an average defensive team — that’s an accomplishment with the roster he was given.

27. Pistons (3-9, LW 28). There is a bright spot in Detroit (and not just the sweet new locker room) — Greg Monroe is playing well at center. For a rebuilding team finding a guy in the middle is a huge boost.

28. Nets (3-10, LW 29). Deron Williams is playing better and MarShon Brooks has provided some nice scoring (14.2 per game). That’s about it for bright spots here. If they can’t get Dwight Howard in a trade then it really gets ugly.

29 Bobcats (2-10, LW 27). Kemba Walker got a start and is at least a little spark, but right now this team needs big games from Byron Mullens to win. Enough said.

30. Wizards (1-11, LW 30). It’s never too early to start dreaming about what Anthony Davis looks like in place of Andray Blatche in the starting lineup for the Wizards next year.

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.