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.

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.