NBA Power Rankings: Top spot now Thunderstruck

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The top three teams remain the same, just trading places, because they are the three best teams in the league right now. But all three also have long road trips coming up, which should test them.

1. Thunder (16-3, last week ranked No. 3). They are “only” fifth in point-per-possession differential in the league, but yet they just keep on winning. That said it gets tough now with a series of road games coming up, starting with a fun one against the Clippers Monday night. Wednesday we’ll see if Dirk Nowitzki is scared of the Thunder after he plays them.

2. Heat (15-5, LW 4). They got Dwyane Wade back and they got a quality win over the Bulls on Sunday. Lots of road games against lesser teams coming up, do the Heat lose focus and drop a couple?

3. Bulls (17-5, LW 1). Close loss to the Heat and they were without Luol Deng. Their next two weeks are on the road, so expect some challenges (and if this season is any indication, an ugly loss or two, everybody gets them now).

4. 76ers (14-6, LW 5). So far this season they have played the weakest schedule (opponents have a 43.6 winning percentage) but this week sees the Magic, Bulls and Heat lined up. Now we find out how good the 76ers really are. But they will miss Spencer Hawes.

5. Clippers (11-6, LW 9). They fell to the Lakers, showing they still have issues with end-game execution. Like all young teams learning to win. But they got a good win in Denver Sunday. And so far this season they have played the toughest schedule in the league, things get easier. Well, after Monday when they play the Thunder.

6. Nuggets (14-6, LW 2). Kind of unfair to move them down four spots in a week where they continued a six-game winning streak until their loss Sunday to the Clippers. Life and rankings are harsh like that — they simply are not better than the teams above them.

7. Hawks (15-6, LW 8). They just keep winning, even if it takes a miracle play by Joe Johnson at the buzzer to top the Pistons. Interesting game against the 76ers this week, but getting Philly on the second night of a back-to-back after Miami bodes well for Atlanta.

8. Pacers (13-6, LW 6). The schedule got tough and while they got a nice win against the Bulls they fell to Boston and split with Orlando. Which sounds about right, capable of very good nights but mostly a 4-5-6 seed in the East.

9. Mavericks (13-8, LW 16). They got a good win over the Spurs and now they have Dirk Nowitzki back (even though he shot 5-14 Sunday). This team has found its footing and is good. But Nowitzki should be scared of the Thunder, who they face this week.

10. Spurs (12-9, LW 10). They need to rack up some wins this week (Saturday against the Thunder?) because next week looms the start of the rodeo road trip.

11. Rockets (12-8, LW 14). They have a depth of good role players and in this condensed season that wins them a lot of games. It may not be a system as suited to the playoffs, but they are at least on pace to make it in.

12. Magic (12-8, LW 7). Two ugly losses to the Celtics, scoring 56 one game and blowing a 27 point lead in the other. Then an ugly loss to the Pacers Sunday. You can say Dwight Howard should lead them out of this, but will the other players follow a guy with one foot out the door?

13. Blazers (12-8, LW 15). Fantastic at home (9-1) but pretty weak on the road. Good news is they have a string of games at home starting later in the week.

14. Lakers (12-9, LW 13). They are 2-8 on the road this season, which is bad news for them as the Grammys force them out of Staples Center the next couple of weeks. Their defense carried them early but it has been unimpressive the last few games, which you know is driving Mike Brown crazy.

15. Jazz (11-7, LW 11). If the playoffs started today, the Jazz would be in as the five seed. Sure, two games separate the three seed from the 10 seed in the West, but did anyone expect the Jazz to be in this position before the season?

16. Grizzlies (10-9, LW 12). We should drop them just for those horrid TAMS throwback uniforms, but we do it more for the three straight losses. Their offense is starting to show how much they miss Zach Randolph.

17. Celtics (9-10, LW 20). Won four in a row before running into the Cavs on Sunday, all with Rondo out and Paul Pierce playing the role of point guard and play maker. Apparently the Fountain of Youth was not located in Florida but rather outside the Union Oyster House in Faneuil Hall.

18. Timberwolves (9-11, LW 18). Good wins against the Spurs and Mavericks last week, but they are going to need much more of that to climb back into the Western Conference playoff race (they are currently 2.5 games out of the last spot).

19. Cavaliers (8-11, LW 22). Kyrie Irving is a stud. Make no mistake. But this team is young and can beat the Celtics one game and lose to the Wizards in another.

20. Bucks (8-11, LW 19). The Andrew Bogut injury is a setback for this team. They were in the mix for one of the last playoff spots in the East, but hoard to see them holding on to that now. That said, they went 2-2 against a brutal schedule last week.

21. Suns (7-12, LW 17). Surprisingly, it’s their offense that has been terrible, not just their defense.

22. Raptors (7-14, LW 29). They found a way to win without Andrea Bargnani — go small. It worked against the Nets Sunday, although that is the Nets so lets see what happens this week.

23. Nets (7-14, LW 25). They went 4-2 for a stretch, largely because Deron Williams has awoken his inner beast and took over. He almost beat the 76ers by himself Wednesday.

24. Knicks (7-13, LW 21). New York is 1-9 in its last 10 and that win came against the lowly Bobcats. No Baron Davis expected this week. Even when he comes back, asking him to turn this offense back together is asking too much.

25. Warriors (6-12, LW 24). With Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis they have a shooter’s chance every night to outscore opponents and get the win, but their defense is awful. Hence the record.

26. Kings (6-14, LW 23). You know things are rough for this team when Jimmer Fredette airballs a three in Utah with the game on the line.

27. Wizards (4-16, LW 28). They’re not good, but they are better than the Bobcats (beat them twice last week).

28. Hornets (4-16, LW 30). I don’t think the Chris Kaman trade talk is going to hurt this team one-tenth as much as just not having Eric Gordon in the lineup does.

29. Pistons (4-17, LW 26). A Lawrence Frank team that is terrible at defense (only the Nets give up more points per possession). You know that is eating a hole in his stomach. Soft schedule the next couple weeks, so maybe they can move up.

30. Bobcats (3-18, LW 27). Losers of eight in a row, they played and lost to the Wizards last week. Twice. And what might be worse is the Wizards were clear and away the better, more talented team in those contests. On the bright side, I like Kemba Walker’s play. But that’s the only bright side.

Watch Zion score 35 leading Pelicans to statement win over Suns

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zion Williamson apologized for his 360-degree, one-handed slam dunk that angered the Phoenix Suns at the end of a game that the New Orleans Pelicans were already going to win.

Still, the crowd-pleasing play symbolized Williamson’s potential to rise above the disappointments of previous seasons and live up to the extraordinary hype that followed him into the NBA.

The dunk contest-style jam capped a season-high 35-point performance for Williamson, and the Pelicans beat the Suns 128-117 on Friday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Western Conference.

“That was a little out of character for me,” Williamson said of the game-ending dunk, after which players and coaches from both teams swarmed around one another angrily as officials frantically stepped in to separate them.

“I got carried away a little bit. I admit that,” Williamson said. “But I was in that locker room when my brothers were down because the Suns sent us home (from the playoffs) last year. That’s a tough moment to be a part of. So, in that moment got carried away. I admit that.”

Williamson missed all of last season – his third in the NBA – with a foot injury and came into this campaign having missed more games in his career than he’d played. Lately, he’s resembled a dynamo, averaging 29.5 points during a six-game Pelicans winning streak – all while New Orleans star forward Brandon Ingram has been out with a foot injury.

Jose Alvarado came off the bench to add 20 points for New Orleans, which had to hold on in the opener of a two-game series after the Suns hit 15 of their 22 made 3-pointers in the second half to erase a 16-point Pelicans lead.

CJ McCollum had 18 points for the Pelicans, who have won six straight and 11 of 13, and afterward questioned the Suns’ indignance over Williamson’s dunk.

“They got to get back on defense if they don’t want us to dunk the ball,” McCollum said.

Before Pelicans coach Willie Green took his first head coaching job in New Orleans, he was Suns coach Monty Williams’ assistant, and they remain close friends.

Both coaches downplayed the heated exchanges.

“That stuff doesn’t bother me at all, man,” Williams said. “It’s part of basketball. It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was a bunch of guys out there yelling and screaming and not even pushing. Just everybody trying to stand their ground.”

Green, who briefly had to be held back by assistant coaches, called it, “Just a little brush up. Nothing major.”

But Phoenix guard Cameron Payne explained why the Suns reacted angrily.

“There was just no sportsmanship and we don’t really like that,” Payne said. “We do the right thing. I felt like they should’ve done the right thing and they didn’t. We didn’t take it well.”

Larry Nance Jr. had 17 points and nine rebounds for New Orleans, while Jonas Valanciunas overcame a 4-of-16 shooting night to finish with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Deandre Ayton had 25 points and 14 rebounds, and Chris Paul added 24 points for the Suns (16-10), who lost for the fourth time in five games to fall 1 1/2 games behind New Orleans (17-8) atop the Western Conference.

“This is not us,” Williams said. “We’re just giving up way too many points in the paint and in general. … I’ve got to get the guys in the game that are going to be physical and smart enough to handle the pressure that they give you in the paint.”

New Orleans led 85-69 when Naji Marshall hit the first of his two 3s in the second half, but Devin Booker and Damion Lee responded with back-to-back 3s and the Suns kept chipping away with accurate perimeter shooting.

Torrey Craig‘s 3 tied it at 105 and Payne’s deep 3 put Phoenix back in front 108-107.

But McCollum responded with a 3 and Williamson intercepted Booker’s pass and bolted the other way for a forceful one-handed dunk with 3:59 left. New Orleans did not trail again.

The game was a rematch of the first round of last season’s playoffs, which Phoenix won. Intensity was high and the crowd engaged from the outset, heartily booing Paul as he handled the ball on the opening possession.

“There’s tension there all the time,” Alvarado said. “Every game we play them is going to be physical, really locked in. . It’s always going to be a playoff game to us because we’re never going to let that go until we eliminate them.”

Alvarado scored 13 points in his first six minutes after coming off the bench, hitting three from deep in that stretch and also going 1-on-1 along the baseline against the 11-inch-taller Jock Landale and spun in a layup.

76ers blow 9-point lead in final :34 seconds, then hang on to beat Lakers in OT

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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It was almost a legendary comeback win for the Lakers — and a legendary blown lead for the 76ers.

Philadelphia had the game in hand, up 18 in the fourth quarter, and while Los Angeles staged the start of a comeback the 76ers were still up by nine inside :45 seconds. And yet…

The 76ers took care of business in overtime — aided by the Lakers settling too much and going 0-of-5 outside the paint but also 1-of-5 in the paint in the extra frame — and picked up the 133-122 win.

In a battle of two teams that have been inconsistent all season, they lived up to that billing – both teams had huge lapses and stretches of impressive play. It led to streaks, including the wild final minutes.

Joel Embiid started out hot scoring 13 of the Sixers’ first 15 points and finishing the night with 38 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 12 rebounds.

James Harden looked better than his first game back and finished with 28 points and 12 assists.

However, Philly’s breakout star of the night was DeAnthony Melton, who grew up a Clippers fan and said he wanted to take it to the Lakers — he scored 33 points with eight made 3-pointers.

Anthony Davis finished with 31 points and 12 rebounds for the night. Austin Reaves came off the bench and hit 4-of-6 from 3 on his way to 25 points, while LeBron James had 23 points on 9-of-22 shooting.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.