NBA Power Rankings: Bulls on top after quarter of season

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Believe it or not, we are about a quarter of the way through the condensed NBA season already. And with that, these rankings are starting to take some solid shape. Which is bad news for Celtics and Knicks fans. But it’s all good in Chicago.

1. Bulls (15-3, last week ranked No. 1). If Derrick Rose had to miss a stretch of games, this soft part of the schedule was the time. They are 4-1 without him (and he should be back Monday night). Things change at the end of this week — starting Saturday they are on a nine-game road trip.

2. Nuggets (12-5, LW 7). Winners of four in a row on an East Coast swing, highlighted by Danilo Gallinari (37 points, 11 boards) outplaying Carmelo Anthony in New York. They are doing it by getting shots at the rim — Denver takes 44.3 percent of its shots within five feet of the rim, by far the highest percentage in the league (as noted by John Schuhmann at NBA.com). The League average is around 32 percent.

3. Thunder (13-3, LW 2). They had a pretty good week, but when your one loss is to the Wizards you fall around here. They are playing well defensively of late, which is starting with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka.

4. Heat (11-5, LW 8). They have been winning without Dwyane Wade — they beat the Spurs by 22, the Lakers by 11 and the Sixers by 21. That doesn’t mean they are better without him, it means that Miami is playing like LeBron James’ old Cavaliers teams but with better shooters. And those teams did win a lot of regular season games. Plus, the Heat are at home.

5. 76ers (11-5, LW 3). Losses this week to Denver and Miami means you can end the talk about them being elite — I don’t think they are title contenders — but you can’t question if they are good. The Sixers are home against some beatable teams this week, look for some convincing wins.

6. Pacers (11-4, LW 5). The victory over the Lakers Sunday was a signature win for a team that has been doubted by some. If not for a dreadful quarter against the Kings, they could be 3-0 on a tough West coast swing. That said, Orlando and Chicago on the docket this week, still a lot of tests for this team

7. Magic (11-4, LW 11). Beat the Knicks and Lakers (where Dwight Howard dominated Andrew Bynum) last week but lost to the Spurs. This week they have Boston twice (that used to be a scary game, lately not so much) and the Pacers.

8. Hawks (12-5, LW 9). Credit them for playing well with Al Horford down — they are 5-1 and playing surprisingly good defense. Still think it’s a mirage but so far the results are impressive.

9. Clippers (9-5, LW 6). They are 3-2 without Chris Paul, which has been respectable. The one team getting a lot of rest from the schedule makers so far this young season gets it again this week. Big rematch with the Lakers Wednesday night.

10. Spurs (10-7, LW 4). Beat Orlando on the road but some ugly losses in addition. I like the idea of giving Tim Duncan a night off, as Popovich did Saturday. Spurs have struggled on the road and four of the next five are away from the Alamo Dome.

11. Jazz (10-5, LW 13). They are 9-2 in their last 11, pushing Tyrone Corbin into the discussion for coach of the year with Doug Collins and Frank Vogel (that award always goes to the coach whose team most overachieved). The team is doing all the little things right.

12. Grizzlies (9-6, LW 18). Four straight wins (one over the Bulls) as they are figuring it out without Zach Randolph. That said, brutal next 10 games so we’ll see what they are made of.

13. Lakers (10-8, LW 10). Went 1-3 last week but the losses were all to good teams (Miami, Orlando and Indiana), which is what you get when you are still trying to figure out who you are on offense. What happened to the twin-tower offense idea? Gasol is getting pushed out.

14. Rockets (9-7, LW 19). Winners of six in a row, and you can thank Samuel Dalembert for much of that. He has been a great pickup.

15. Blazers (9-7, LW 12). They have struggled to win on the road and went 2-4 on an East Coast Swing (but are back home this week). They have a back-to-back-to-back this week, just for fun.

16. Mavericks (10-7, LW 14). Dallas is calling it a conditioning camp that will keep Dirk Nowitzki out for four games, but if his knee was fine you can bet he would be playing.

17. Suns (6-9, LW 20). Marcin Gortat has had seven straight double-doubles, and he can thank Steve Nash for some of that. Imagine what Nash could do with a real athletic big like Amare Stoudemire… oh, yea.

18. Timberwolves (7-9, LW 21). They have become everybody’s second favorite team to watch this year, they put on a show with Ricky Rubio and had a great comeback against the Clippers. Of course, this week everyone will be watching to see what happens with Kevin Love and his contract extension.

19. Bucks (6-9, LW 22). Quality win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, as they made the game ugly just like Scott Skiles likes. Brutal rest of the week schedule: Hawks, Rockets, Bulls and Lakers.

20. Celtics (6-9, LW 17). Danny Ainge said he wants to wait and see how this team responds before he thinks about breaking it up. Two games against the Magic and one against the Pacers should paint a picture. Not that Ainge is going to find a great market for his veterans. Three of this team’s six wins are over the Wizards.

21. Knicks (6-10, LW 15). Six straight losses, so finally Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are going to sit down and talk. That seems prudent. Baron Davis is the big hope for this team, and anyone who has watched him the last few years should be nervous about that.

22. Cavaliers (6-9, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is winning me over, the guy can score and has a great left hand around the basket. That said, this team still has a long, long way to go.

23. Kings (6-11, LW 25). They have some wins — including one against the Pacers — but when this team loses (especially on the road) it really gets blown out.

24. Warriors (5-10, LW 23). If they are going to make Mark Jackson look good on his statement this team is better than last year’s, it will start this week on a six-game homestand.

25. Nets (5-12, LW 28). Teams are destroying the Nets from three point range… well, they are destroying them from everywhere. Brook Lopez would help a little, but not as much as Dwight Howard.

26. Pistons (4-13, LW 27). Rodney Stuckey is starting and they beat the Blazers this week, so that’s your bright spots.

27 Bobcats (3-14, LW 29). They are one of five teams really trying to lay claim to the coveted “worst in the league” title. They play the Wizards twice this week and have the chance to prove they suck less.

28. Wizards (2-13, LW 30). The win over the Thunder was surprising, but they followed it up with a good effort in a couple losses. That’s enough to move out of the cellar. For now.

29. Raptors (4-13, LW 26). Eight straight losses after starting 4-5. Now they head out on a West Coast swing. Not a good combo.

30. Hornets (3-13, LW 24). They have lost seven in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10, and they may lose Eric Gordon for an extended period. That will land you looking up at the rest of the league. If you want a bright spout, they have had close losses, so go ahead and feel good about that.

Report: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

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Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.

Larry Brown once told Trevor Ariza to never shoot

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Larry Brown is a legendary basketball coach, but he’s also been known to ascribe to a certain style. Brown’s regimen has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, and likewise Brown has been overly attached to players which he likes.

For Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza, Brown’s staunch attitude almost ruined his career.

Ariza was a second-year player with the New York Knicks during the lone season Brown coached in the Big Apple in 2005-06. The UCLA product didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line in college or during his rookie season, so when Brown came to town he told Ariza to stop shooting from beyond the arc entirely.

Seriously.

Via Dan Woike and the LA Times:

More than a decade ago when Ariza was a second-year player, his coach with the New York Knicks, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, thought Ariza shouldn’t shoot from the perimeter. Like ever.

“He told me not to even look at the basket or shoot the ball,” said Ariza, 32. “I was definitely afraid to shoot. I just wouldn’t. I would not shoot.”

Woike’s story is pretty incredible, and goes on to detail how Ariza’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers reignited his career and his confidence to shoot the ball. That’s obviously crucial for the Houston Rockets who need Ariza docked in the corner as Chris Paul and James Harden run pick-and-rolls and isolate.

Stories like this always sound wild, if only because they’re contextually being compared to completely different eras. Ariza was drafted in 2004, and has seen three different eras of NBA basketball (Iverson era, point guard PNR era, 3-point era) pass by during his time.

Larry Brown’s in the Hall of Fame but he whiffed on this one.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: II did a s–t job defensively against LeBron’

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The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.