NBA Power Rankings: Rose or no Rose, Bulls back on top

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In our penultimate power rankings, the Bulls grab the top spot. They have been the best team in the league in the regular season, but there remain questions about them in the playoffs.

1. Bulls (45-14, last week ranked number 1). Huge win over the Heat last week — a little for the standings but a lot for their psyche. They benched the rusty Derrick Rose in OT and beat a Heat team that really wanted it. Nice boost of confidence for the Bulls, but they meet the Heat again Thursday and that story could be different. And by the time these teams meet in the Eastern Conference finals they will be different again.

2. Thunder (44-16, LW 4). This was the season we expected the Thunder to take strides forward to be contenders and at times they look like that. Then there are other times they look like they still have a lot of lessons to learn (see their loss to the Clippers). We will find out come the playoffs.

3. Spurs (42-16, LW 1). They remain one game back of the Thunder for the top seed in the West, but while the Thunder need that spot the Spurs couldn’t care less. With a back-to-back-to-back this week (Lakers are middle game Tuesday) expect some Spurs stars to sit.

4. Heat (41-17, LW 2). The Heat’s big three knocked down shots in a win over the Knicks. That’s nice. They need to get some of the role players knocking down outside looks or the lane is going to clog up for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the playoffs, and that will spell trouble.

5. Celtics (35-25, LW 5). Big game Friday in Atlanta, winning could determine home court in the first round. In a big game, how much more do you trust the Celtics more than the Hawks? Exactly.

6. Pacers (38-22, LW 9). We keep talking about how everyone wants to avoid the 7/8 seeds in the East because they don’t want the Heat or Bulls in the first round. But anyone who thinks the Pacers are a pushover at the 3 seed is mistaken — this is a good team who was won 8 of their last 9. Frank Vogel needs some coach of the year votes.

7. Lakers (39-22, LW 7). These wins with Kobe Bryant sitting (they are 4-1) could benefit the Lakers come the playoffs — they are being forced to use their size and skill advantage up front to win, not rely on hero ball. If they integrate Kobe into this they are a better team, if they revert to their old selves they will be out in the second round.

8. Clippers (37-23 LW 8). Blake Griffin told me last week the Clippers run of great play has been based on them playing better defense, which they then convert to some easy transition points that gets them going. Yes, that and Chris Paul killing it in the fourth.

9. Grizzlies (35-25, LW 6). They may have lost to the Spurs this week, but they remain the team nobody wants to face in the first round — the Clippers and Lakers are fighting to win the Pacific and avoid them. Really soft schedule the rest of the way for Memphis.

10. Hawks (35-24, LW 10). They laid an egg Sunday and lost to Toronto, now they need to beat the Celtics Friday to have a shot at home court in the first round against those same Celtics.

11. Mavericks (34-26, LW 12). They have played well the last week… do you want Nowitzki and the defending champs in first round. They may be beatable but they will not be an easy out.

12. Knicks (31-29, LW 11). They got their key win over the Bucks in Milwaukee — they are not going to fall out of the playoffs now. The question is, can they make up three games on a Magic team in free fall? If so, they get the red hot Pacers instead of the more athletic and deeper Heat in the first round.

13. Nuggets (33-27, LW 16). They won the first game of a home-and-home against Houston, which was key to them holding a playoff spot. Win the second game of that set and they will get a lovely gift basket from the Suns.

14. Rockets (32-28, LW 13). Monday night game against Denver is huge — win and they have the tiebreaker over Denver, lose and they are in a real dogfight with Phoenix the final week.

15. 76ers (31-28, LW 18). Where they land in the playoffs could well be set up by the back-to-back-to-back they have that starts Monday in Orlando. Win that game and they can dream of the six seed.

16. Suns (31-29, LW 15). Scrappy team that will just not go away… kind of like that point guard of theirs. One game back of the Rockets (with five to play) but the Suns have the tiebreaker.

17. Jazz (31-30, LW 17). Soft schedule to finish out the season — four of five at home — but they are going to need some help to make up the two games and catch the Rockets now.

18. Magic (34-25, LW 14). This is the team everyone wants to play in the first round now. Even if Dwight Howard comes back (and I don’t expect it) he and the Magic will not be 100 percent. They have six games left and are going to lose a lot of them but will not fall out of the playoffs.

19. Bucks (29-31, LW 19). They had their chance, at home with the lead against the Knicks, and they missed their final five shots while J.R. Smith knocked down his. They have to make up 2.5 games in less than two weeks, it’s not likely.

20. Blazers (28-32, LW 20). Wes Mathews has played well with more minutes. So, there’s that for a bright side.

21. Pistons (22-37, LW 22). They had a real chance to beat the Bulls Sunday, which could have dramatically lowered their lottery odds. Tough to be a fan of these teams where you know losing might be best long term but you can’t just root for it.

22. Raptors (22-39, LW 24). They beat Boston and Atlanta over the weekend. Dwane Casey is not going to get any Coach of the Year votes, but he’s done a fantastic job considering the roster and injuries.

23. Timberwolves (25-36, LW 21). They are falling apart at the end of the season, with all their best players sidelined with injuries. So, another spring has come to Minnesota.

24. Nets (22-39, LW 25). Of course Gerald Wallace is out injured, he’s a Net now.

25. Hornets (18-42, LW 27). Finally, good stable ownership that will not move the team. And the best news is Dell Demps and Monty Williams will get to keep their jobs. Oh, and they have a three game winning streak now.

26. Warriors (22-37, LW 23). With David Lee shut down for the season they are in full tank mode — if they get to one of the seven worst records in the game they get to keep their pick this draft. (They are 9th worst right now.)

27. Kings (20-41, LW 26). The fans of Sacramento deserve better than this. Better than this team, better than this ownership, better than their team moving.

28. Cavaliers (20-38, LW 28). They got blown out by a Magic team about to start pulling guys out of the stands to fill out the roster. Well done.

29. Wizards (14-46, LW 29). Kevin Seraphin needs to be part of the future. Whatever that future is.

30. Bobcats (7-51, LW 30). They have lost 16 in a row and that may not describe how bad they are. The Bobcats still need one more win this season to avoid the worst winning percentage in NBA history.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.