NBA Power Rankings: Spurs advancing, Heat still on top

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I’m beginning to wonder: Will the Eastern Conference Finals be the real NBA finals this year? Feels that way some days.

1. Heat (21-7, last week ranked 1)
The Magic and Knicks combined to shoot 85 threes against the Heat in two nights. The Heat’s defensive energy does that to teams, makes them settle (although those two squads don’t need much encouragement to launch bombs all night). Miami gets Milwaukee again this week, they are 0-2 against them this season.

2. Bulls (23-7, LW 2). They looked good on a nine-game road trip, except for Derrick Rose’s back. Tom Thibodeau has an old-school “if you’re well enough to play you can play a lot” mentality that does not mesh well with a condensed schedule and a deep playoff run.

3. Clippers (17-8, LW 3). Quality wins at Orlando and Philly last week as they are 4-1 on the Grammy road trip (with at Dallas Monday being the final game of it), but this team’s defense without Chauncey Billups will be their Achilese heel.

4. Thunder (21-6, LW 4). They won some thrilling games on the road this week — at Golden State and Portland — but the more I see their end of game execution, the more I wonder if they can do better in the playoffs.

5. Spurs (19-9, LW 7). Winners of seven in a row (including in Philly) and they get Manu Ginobili back on their rodeo road trip. They are looking like a team that can make a run in the playoffs, but they looked like that last year so we’re hesitant.

6. 76ers (19-9, LW 5).
Beat the Lakers thanks to Lou Williams (who can be their late game go-to guy), but fell to the Clippers and Spurs — in a stretch against seven quality teams over two weeks they go 4-3. They are legit, but a notch below elite.

7. Mavericks (17-11, LW 14). They have been playing well of late (three wins in a row) but let’s see how they do against this week’s gauntlet of Clippers, Nuggets, Sixers and Knicks.

8. Pacers (17-10, LW 6).
They have lost four of five as the completion has gotten tougher. This week it’s a back-to-back-to-back that starts with the Heat but has winnable games against the Cavs and Nets to follow.

9. Hawks (18-10, LW 9). They are 5-9 against teams over .500. 13-1 against the teams under .500. This is why nobody buys into the Hawks as serious contenders in the East. That said, Josh Smith has All-Star numbers.

10. Nuggets (16-12, LW 8). They have struggled in recent weeks, losing seven of nine, but did get a nice win against the Pacers over the weekend. They miss Danilo Gallinari.

11. Magic (17-11, LW 10).
Nice win against the Miami Heat as the three ball fell, but nobody thinks that is a viable long-term strategy come the playoffs. All-Star Weekend in Orlando is going to be interesting, Dwight Howard better prepare a whole new line of answers for dodging trade questions.

12. Lakers (16-12, LW 11). The Lakers go 3-3 on their Grammy road trip, but the unimpressive losses in New York and Philadelphia (and having to get Kobe Bryant heroics in Toronto to pull out a win) leaves a lot of questions. The main one: How can a veteran, championship team look so disorganized at the ends of games? The answer to that question is not Gilbert Arenas, however.

13. Rockets (16-12, LW 17). Kevin Martin is tearing it up and they get quality wins last week against Denver and Portland. The question is this: How do the Rockets get from being a good team without a star to an elite contender? No easy answer there.

14. Celtics (15-12, LW 12). Tough loss to the Lakers highlights the weakness of this team against real size inside (insert Kendrick Perkins lament here). Their wins behind great play from Rajon Rondo show what they can be.

15. Knicks (13-15, LW 21). Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Baron Davis who? Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin. Oh, and they get Carmelo Anthomy and Amare Stoudemire back this week. Jeremy Lin.

16. Blazers (15-13, LW 13). Two losses at home last week, they had had just one all season before that. They keep losing a lot of close games, and you expect that scale to balance out at some point.

17. Jazz (14-12, LW 15). Al Jefferson had a great game against the Grizzlies on Sunday night (21 points, 15 rebounds), he may be slightly undersized at the five but his ability to get his shot off against a bigger defender is impressive.

18. Timberwolves (13-15, LW 16). The Kevin Love suspension really hurt this team, their offense drops off the map when he is out. That said, they are just 2 games out of the eighth playoff spot in the West. Ricky Rubio did a good job on Jeremy Lin this week, he is a clever defender as well.

19. Grizzlies (14-14, LW 18). For the love of all things holy, don’t ever wear those Tams uniforms again. Please. My retinas are begging you.

20. Suns (12-15, LW 22).
They went 3-1 last week because Steve Nash is carrying them on his 38-year-old shoulders.

21. Bucks (12-15, LW 19). I got a couple tweets asking me what is up with Stephen Jackson. That would take a lot more than 140 characters, suffice to say he’s not playing well and the Bucks are a bad fit. It’s a mess. This week the Bucks get the Heat who may be looking for revenge.

22. Cavaliers (10-16, LW 20). The Anderson Varejao injury is a blow, because I don’t think Antawn Jamison can keep playing this well over a long stretch.

23. Kings (10-17, LW 24). They have won four of their last six, including a victory over the Thunder, but now they head out for an East Coast road swing. Kings fans deserve a team and a stadium that suits them.

24. Warriors (9-14, LW 23). They are outscoring teams — their defense is still terrible but they have won five of their last eight because Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are playing together better than they ever have.

25. Pistons (8-21, LW 27). They are actually winning games against other bad teams. That doesn’t make them a good team. And no, sorry Detroit, but Hibbert deserved the All-Star nod over Greg Monroe (who has been good, I’ll grant you that).

26. Raptors (9-20 LW 25). The biggest question over the next few months — can the strike a deal to trade Jose Calderon? You think it’s simple, until you realize he makes $10.5 million next year.

27. Nets (8-21, LW 26).
Worst. Defense. Ever. (Not really kidding.)

28. Wizards (6-22, LW 28).
There was a stretch on Sunday, for about 12 minutes over two quarters in the second half, where you saw what Wall could be (and with him the Wizards). It’s a flash, but it’s one of the few this year. So, there’s your positive note.

29. Hornets (4-23, LW 29). They have lost 23 of 25 and blew an 18 point lead to the Kings this week. And until they find an owner, that’s not even their biggest problem.

30. Bobcats (3-24, LW 30).
The losing streak is up to 14 and if we could move them lower we would. Maybe below Kentucky and Syracuse.

Lakers headed to second straight Summer League title game

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Josh Hart scored 37 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 112-109 double-overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday in the semifinals of the NBA Summer League.

Los Angeles advanced to the championship game for a second straight year after winning the 2017 title behind game MVP Kyle Kuzma and league MVP Lonzo Ball.

The Lakers will play Portland, which knocked off Memphis in the other semi-final.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes made the play of the game when he snatched a loose ball and fed Jeff Ayres with a pretty touch pass under the basket with 45 seconds left in the second overtime. Rathan-Mayes followed Ayres’ lay-in with a slashing lay-up to put the Lakers up 110-106 with 22 seconds left.

Cleveland’s Billy Preston missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Svi Mykhailiuk scored 31 points for the Lakers (6-0), while Ayres added 20.

Collin Sexton led the Cavaliers with 27 points, while Jamel Artis and John Holland each scored 17.

Trailing 105-102 in the first overtime after Sexton made a short jumper, Rathan-Mayes buried a 3-pointer to tie the score. Hart made it 106-105 by hitting the second of two free throws with 5.7 seconds remaining. Sexton did the same at the other end, splitting two free throws and tying it at 106 with 3.3 seconds left.

The Cavaliers (5-2) erased an early 11-point deficit and tied the score at 95, when Vladimir Brodziansky buried a 3-pointer with 2:00 left in regulation.

After Mykhailiuk made one of two free throws to give the Lakers a 96-95 lead with a little more than a minute left, Hart grabbed a defensive rebound and at the other end dished to Mykhailiuk, who hit a running jumper just above the free throw line to push the lead to 98-95.

But Sexton answered with a 3-pointer to tie the score with 26 seconds left. Hart missed a 3-pointer with 3.0 seconds left, and Sexton missed one from long range at the buzzer.

The Lakers went on an 18-2 run to take a 28-17 lead led by Mykhailiuk, who was 4-for-4 from long-range in the first quarter. Los Angeles shot 50 percent (9 of 18) in the opening period and was 5 for 9 (55 percent) from beyond the 3-point line.

Hart took over in the second quarter, scoring 10 of his 14 first-half points to help the Lakers take a 50-47 lead at halftime.

USA Basketball to host World Cup qualifier vs. Uruguay on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) — USA Basketball’s quest to qualify for next year’s FIBA World Cup will resume Sept. 14 in Las Vegas, where the Americans will face Uruguay.

That will be the first U.S. game in the second qualifying round for next year’s world championships in China.

Like the first round, the U.S. will continue being coached by Jeff Van Gundy and will have a roster made up primarily of G League players. The Americans went 5-1 in the first round.

The U.S. and Uruguay are among 12 teams from the Americas zone vying for seven World Cup spots. The others are Argentina, Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States is a heavy favorite to qualify, then will send NBA players to China for the World Championships (there is a workout for some of those players coming up in Las Vegas in a week).

Second-round qualifying ends in late February. The World Cup begins in August 2019.

Mavericks sign second-round pick Jalen Brunson to first-rounder style contract

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Dallas is excited about the potential of Jalen Brunson.

The point guard who led Villanova to a national championship last April fell to the 33rd pick in the draft last June, high in the second round, and Dallas traded up a spot to get him from Atlanta. The Mavericks were ecstatic, and to the surprise of nobody they have reached terms on a contract with him.

What is a bit of a surprise is the Mavericks gave him a first-rounder style contract — four years with some guaranteed money for the first three of them — reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

At Summer League in Las Vegas Brunson showed the qualities that Dallas liked in him — he’s a high IQ player with polish, and he’s a pass-first floor general — but his weaknesses were also exposed. He has to shoot better (23 percent in Summer League) and his defense needs to improve.

Both of those can happen, Summer League is more of a chance for teams to benchmark players than make decisions about them. Brunson reportedly has a great work ethic, he can figure the NBA game out.

Dallas is betting that he will.

Kemba Walker: “As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it”

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Kemba Walker is an All-Star level point guard who is heading into a contract season — he is a free agent in 2019. Walker is also a New York native, born in the Bronx he attended Rice High School in Harlem.

Combine all that with the fact both the Knicks and Nets will have enough cap space for a max (or more than one max) contract next summer, and you’ve got yourself a rumor.

One Walker shot down talking to Michael Scotto of The Athletic.

“As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it,” Walker replied. “I’m a Hornet, and I’m planning on being a Hornet for a long time, so, yeah, I’m not sure about that (New York).”

Walker has said many times he wants to stay in Charlotte (providing they pay the market rate and are trying to compete).

That said, this is the NBA, so never say never.

A lot of NBA teams have been poised, waiting to see if new Hornets’ GM Mitch Kupchak — with the approval of Michael Jordan — decided to go full rebuild and trade Walker this summer. He has not, talking only about keeping this squad together. The Hornets are a solid team with Walker and Nicolas Batum leading the way, one that could make the playoffs in the East if things break right for new coach James Borrego. However, they will not be anywhere near contenders and if things don’t fall their way they may well miss the playoffs next season. Again. The Hornets also are not a bad team, meaning they are not going to get a high pick (without some lottery luck). They are stuck in the NBA’s middle ground, a place most GMs want to avoid.

Trading Walker could jump-start the rebuild in Charlotte, but the Hornets don’t seem to be going that direction. Yet. This summer they signed Tony Parker, Malik Monk looked good in Summer League, and they got Dwight Howard out of the locker room. They say they are a team poised to make a playoff push.

If that push falls apart early in Charlotte, watch and see if their plans change. And what that could mean for Walker. And the Knicks.

However, as of now, Walker wants to remain a Hornet, and they want to keep him. Which crowds New York out of the picture.