NBA Power Rankings: Heat, Thunder on top, it feels like 2011

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It’s early in the season, very early, but there are moments it feels line the NBA finals come June could be a rematch of last year — Miami vs. Oklahoma City. And that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Right now those two teams are on top of the PBT power rankings.

source:  1. Heat (12-3, last week ranked No. 3). The Heat are back on top, and on a six-game winning streak, because they are starting to find their defensive stride again. The last two games they have held their opponent below the league average in points per possession, and as a team they are taking the long view of getting the defense to click.

 

source:  2. Thunder (14-4, LW 4). Winners of five in a row, in part because Russell Westbrook is not as one dimensional as you think and has been a real playmaker for them. Good tests this week against the Nets and Lakers.

 

source:  3. Spurs (14-4, LW 2). They went 5-1 on a tough six game road trip, and the one loss really pissed David Stern off. Then they came back and handled the Grizzlies. Would you be shocked if they were the top seed in the West this season? I wouldn’t.

 

source:  4. Grizzlies (12-3, last week ranked No. 1). They were 3-1 last week, the loss coming to a motivated Spurs team out to stick up for their coach after Stern’s fine (and while the Spurs stars were rested the Griz were on a back-to-back). They have the best defense in the land and a pretty soft schedule this week (Hawks are the big challenge).

 

source:  5. Nets (11-5, LW 8). Deron Williams is struggling with his shot — 39.9 percent on the season — but he will not blame his sprained wrist. The Nets offense has been bailed out by the suddenly hot Jerry Stackhouse, who loves the corner three and has 15 from beyond the arc this season. BTW, nice win over the Knicks.

 

source:  6. Knicks (12-4, LW 6). They are defending their house and are now 7-0 at Madison Square Garden. We will see how much the bone bruise in Raymond Felton’s hand bothers him, because with Jason Kidd out also it becomes the Pablo Prigioni show.

 

source:  7. Clippers (10-6, LW 5). Chauncey Billups is back and although he has played limited minutes in those games it seems to have settled their offense down and they put up 100 points in those games (after missing that mark in four of the previous five). Jamal Crawford may be finding his groove again, too. Which is good for all of us.

 

source:  8. Hawks (9-5, LW 7). They won six in a row but did it against soft competition (save for the Clippers win). We’ll learn a lot more from them with teams like Denver, Miami and Memphis coming up.

 

source:  9. 76ers (10-7, LW 9). Like the Hawks above them, this is a team that has played hard and won but done it against a soft schedule. That changes now, starting with a home-and-home against Boston.

 

source:  10. Celtics (9-8, LW 11). I’m not with Doc Rivers, I don’t think the Celtics are soft… well, maybe their bench is. They started out with a 17-0 run against the Bucks and by halftime it was a one-point lead. And they went on to lose. Jeff Green had a couple nice games with Rajon Rondo out, but remains enigmatic.

 

source:  11. Warriors (10-6, LW 17). This is a team with the points per possession differential of a .500 team and I keep waiting for them to revert, and they just keep on finding a way to win. Carl Landry is quietly having a strong season, as is David Lee. When those two are paired the Warriors lineups are stronger.

 

source:  12. Bucks (8-7, LW 13). Quality wins last week over Boston and Chicago, plus they got a triple-double (with blocks) out of Larry Sanders. The jury is still out on the Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings pairing but it just doesn’t seem to be lightning in a bottle (they don’t defend well).

 

source:  13. Bulls (8-7, LW 15). That loss to the Bucks — ahead by 27 only to lose — is a real stinger. That said, they are still in the mix to win the Central division (without that Rose guy) and they have some winnable games this week (Cavaliers, Pistons) before some real tests in the middle of the month (Knicks, Clippers, Nets, Grizzlies).

 

source:  14. Lakers (8-9, LW 10). The NBA’s most inconsistent team. Why so inconsistent? Los Angeles is running an offense based on smart, strong point guard play and they run out Darius Morris and Chris Duhon playing the point. Combine that with some horrible mental vacations on defense and you get up and down. Lots of road games coming up this week.

 

source:  15. Jazz (9-9, LW 16). There is no good time for Derrick Favors to go down but this is about as close as it gets — Jazz are a dramatically better team at home and have four of their next five in Salt Lake City.

 

source:  16. Rockets (8-8, LW 21). They are 2-7 against the Western Conference but 6-1 when they face the East. One other fun little fact, they are playing at the fastest pace in the NBA right now.

 

source:  17. Mavericks (8-9, LW 14). Derek Fisher is not the answer, as his 1-8 shooting night Saturday showed. Dallas is 2-6 on the road this season and six of their next seven are away from Dallas. Meaning a real test for the team that has no certain idea when Dirk Nowitzki might return to the lineup.

 

source:  18. Nuggets (8-9, LW 12). This was a team expected to run everyone into the ground, but they are playing at just the eighth fastest pace in the league and are 23rd in points scored per possession in transition. They don’t have a good running game right now.

 

source:  19. Timberwolves (7-8, LW 19). Ricky Rubio is back practicing, which is great news and fits with the timeline of him returning mid-December. In the interim, they need Kevin Love to shoot better (37 percent since he returned to action).

 

source:  20. Bobcats (7-8, LW 18). Three straight losses against tougher competition, including an ugly thrashing at the hands of the Thunder where they looked like last-season’s Bobcats. The feel good story may be ending with the Knicks, Bucks and Spurs up this week (as well as the Blazers).

 

source:  21. Pacers (8-9, LW 22). They got a quality win against the Lakers last week (although pretty soon we are going to stop saying that about beating LA). David West has been playing well of late, but they miss Danny Granger’s shot creation.

 

source:  22. Trail Blazers (7-10, LW 20). They lost to the Wizards and the Pistons, then needed a dramatic Nicolas Batum three to beat the Cavaliers. This is not a very good team. Sorry. Nice pieces but not a good team.

 

source:  23. Suns (7-10, LW 23). After watching him against the Knicks Sunday, you have to wonder how long before Alvin Gentry just starts slashing Michael Beasley’s minutes. Dramatically. He guns on offense, hurts them on defense.

 

source:  24. Pistons (5-13, LW 26). Don’t tell anyone, but they have gone 5-5 in their last 10 games. They remain a dreadful road team (1-10) but at the Palace they will make you work for it.

 

source:  25. Magic (6-10, LW 24). There is no real revenge for Dwight Howard, but that win Sunday night sure tasted good to Magic fans. As it should.

 

source:  26. Raptors (4-13, LW 27). They are 1-9 on the road this season and their next five games are a West Coast swing that includes the Nuggets, Jazz and Clippers. Have fun with that.

 

source:  27. Hornets (4-11, LW 28). They are going to have to go at least another week without Anthony Davis and they have to figure out how to defend without him. With Davis in the lineup they allowed opponents 103.1 points per 100 possessions, that has jumped way up to 110.5 in the past five games.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (4-13, LW 29). No Kyrie Irving. Not even Dion Waiters to be a gunner. All Cavaliers fans have right now is Anderson Varejao trade rumors.

 

source:  29. Kings (4-12, LW 25). You look at where the Kings are now, where they have been for the past few years, and you’d think an owner would clean house starting with the GM and working down into the roster. But Geoff Petrie in entrenched as GM. The Kings marketing team can start planning another lottery party for fans now.

 

source:  30. Wizards (1-13, LW 30). Nene was back, now he’s gone (but may be back this week). Randy Wittman’s mom wants to know when John Wall is coming back and there are no answers. It’s going to be a long season in the nation’s capital.

Despite rough start, Celtics’ Jaylen Brown is convinced he’s an NBA starter

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Last April and May, Jaylen Brown was a breakout starter on a Boston team that made the Eastern Conference Finals, where he dropped 30 points one night and averaged 18 points a game, getting 14.8 shot attempts per game, and he had the ball in his hands a lot in the postseason. He had a playoff PER of 16, above the league average.

This regular season Brown and the Celtics have not been the same. With the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward Brown’s role shrunk, he’s playing five fewer minutes a game, his scoring is down to 12.5 points per game, he’s shooting less than 30 percent from three (when he was close to 40 percent a year ago), his PER is down to 11.1 (well below the league average), and the Celtics’ offense is 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he is on the court. Brown has been pushed back to a bench role, with Marcus Smart starting.

Mostly, Brown is just frustrated.

Brown opened up about that to Jackie MacMullan of ESPN.

Opposing teams have privately used words such as “disjointed” and “detached” to describe him… The question “What’s wrong with Jaylen Brown?” became a leaguewide referendum.

“It’s probably been the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with so far in my career,” Brown says. “Just coming from a position where you had so much responsibility, and now that responsibility is lessened. Expectations have been raised, but your responsibility goes down, so it’s hard to reach those expectations when you aren’t being asked to do as much.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s going to continue to be a challenge. It’s all about your mindset, so that’s what I’m focusing on.”

Brown said he remains convinced he’s a starter in this league, and on this team, and will prove it.

What Brown is going through is part of what had Boston off to a rough 10-10 start this season — guys were struggling to adjust to new roles. It wasn’t just plug and play with Irving and Hayward like many assumed it would be. And it wasn’t only Brown, Terry Rozier reportedly has been frustrated with his reduced role, while Hayward’s larger role had to be scaled back because he was not physically ready.

Brown’s drop off just seemed the steepest.

The Celtics’ locker room leaders — Irving and Smart — are trying to reach Brown with some tough love, trying to push him and “demand greatness,” but with limited success. Brown continues to struggle, and is doing so in the summer before the Celtics can offer him a new contract (more likely he will be headed to restricted free agency in a couple of years).

Much like the Celtics, it’s not an easy fix for Brown (although Boston has started to find a groove, winning six in a row through the soft part of the schedule). His adjustment is mental as much as physical, he feels he earned the right last season to have more responsibility, not less. That sacrifice is the challenge of playing on a contending team, where everyone needs to take steps for the good of the team that are not always in their best interests. Brown and Boston have been slow to come around on that.

But Brown is trying. And he still believes in himself.

“So here’s my reality: I’m an NBA player on the Boston Celtics, a team that has a chance to compete for the NBA championship. Nothing else really matters.”

PBT Podcast: Zion Williamson and the rest, an early NBA Draft breakdown

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Zion Williamson is a force of nature, an athletic freak that has become must-watch television and silenced the doubters about his game.

Before the season, scouts questioned his shot and fit, but his play for Duke so far has moved him past teammate R.J. Barrett on everybody’s draft board into the consensus No. 1 pick. The shine has really come off Barrett early this season for a guy averaging 24 points a game, Cam Reddish may be the second Blue Devil taken in next June’s draft.

Rob Dauster of NBC Sports joins me to talk Duke’s trio of superstars, plus other names to watch in this coming draft, such as Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, Oregon’s 7’2″ Bol Bol (maybe the most divisive player in the draft), Kevin Porter out of USC and many others.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Gregg Popovich passes Pat Riley, now fourth on the all-time coaching wins list

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Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.

His resume can stack up next to anyone’s: the sustained excellence of 20 seasons of 50+ wins which has given him a .686 win percentage, the five NBA titles, and maybe most impressive of all is small-market San Antonio into an NBA franchise that was feared on the court and modeled off it.

And, of course, there are all the wins — 1,211 of them to be exact after the Spurs knocked off the struggling Suns Tuesday night.

That win moved Popovich past Pat Riley into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list.

Popovich needs just 10 more wins to tie Utah legend Jerry Sloan for third on the list, something that will happen well before the All-Star break.

Will he coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at the top of the coaching-wins leaderboard (it would take more than 100 additional wins)? Only Popovich knows that, although the speculation around the NBA is probably not (many expect him to retire after the 2019-20 season, although nobody knows for sure).

Whatever happens, Popovich’s place on the all-time wins list just adds to a Hall of Fame legacy.

Three Things to Know: If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard it went poorly

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LOS ANGELES — Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Today we come straight from Staples Center.

1) If the Clippers were trying to impress Kawhi Leonard Tuesday, it went poorly. When the discussion turns to speculation about where Kawhi Leonard could be playing next season, the Los Angeles Clippers are high on the list. He grew up in Southern California and wants to return there, sources say he doesn’t want to play with LeBron on the Lakers, and the Clippers have been surprisingly impressive this season but are a team without a true superstar that is looking to add one (or two, the Clippers reportedly want to add both Leonard and Kevin Durant).

Not that the notoriously media-shy Leonard cares about the speculation.

“I don’t buy into reading media, don’t have no social media, so just focus on what’s in front of me,” Leonard said before his Raptors took on the Clippers Tuesday night without him (due to a tweaked hip). “At that time it’s either my family or playing basketball.”

If the Clippers — or any team — is going to impress and entice Leonard, it’s not going to be with a well-crafted marketing plan to grow his brand (the people advising Leonard on the other hand…). Leonard presents the image of being focused only on what happens on the court.

That’s where the Clippers fell short Tuesday.

Actually, “fell short” is putting it kindly. The Clippers got thumped by 24 on their home court, their worst loss of the season. Playing without its superstar, Toronto looked like a team much closer to the NBA’s elite in terms of talent and execution than Los Angeles. The Raptors won 123-99 in a game that was not in doubt from early in the third quarter on.

“I think we just played bad,” Clippers’ guard Tyrone Wallace said, summing it up well. “We just had a rough night, we didn’t play well defensively.”

That was the starkest contrast: While the Clippers looked like a dazed team on the second night of a back-to-back (and without Lou Williams, who will miss a couple of weeks with a tweaked hamstring), the Raptors’ defenders were on a string — they switched, they rotated, they even threw in a zone for a few plays and the Clippers could not adapt fast enough.

Toronto turned the stops into shots in transition and the Clippers were not getting back or handling their scrambling defense well. Serge Ibaka feasted on the Clippers with 25 points.

However, the best news for the Raptors was the “return” of the real Kyle Lowry, who had 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting to break out of his slump (he had shot 8-of-42 over his previous five games).

Whatever Leonard decides to do this summer — stay in Toronto, come to Los Angeles, or choose from the 28 other teams that will be knocking on his door — the decision will not be based on the outcome of one December game. However, if the Clippers were trying to show off an impressive young core Leonard could join and elevate, this was not the effort that they needed.

Toronto, on the other hand, looked exactly like a team with an impressive young core. One Leonard is already elevating to the top of the East.

2) The good Rockets show up — especially the bench players — and Houston knocks off Portland. About once every week or so I watch a Rockets game and think, “they can get it together and turn this around.” Not turn around to the level they expected entering the season — they are not going to be a threat to the Warriors with this current roster — but there are nights they look like a playoff team and better than their sub-.500 record.

Tuesday was one of those nights, mostly thanks to hot play off the bench. Houston’s second unit outscored Portland’s 37-13, and they were the group that blew the game open at the end of the third and into the fourth. Danuel House and Gerald Green combined for 25 points, shooing 4-of-7 from three and 64.3 percent overall, and they had nine rebounds. Houston was +22 when they were on the court together.

James Harden had 29 points (which Chris Paul continued to struggle, with 11 points on 12 shots).

While the Rockets looked better, Portland struggled. There was too much isolation, not enough ball movement, and Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum took 53 percent of the team’s shots. The Trail Blazers were predictable, and that made the struggling Rockets defense look good.

I’ve seen too many good games followed by bad ones from Houston to suggest the Rockets have turned the corner, so let’s just say the good Rockets showed up for one night. We’ll see who shows up Thursday night against the Lakers.

3) Gregg Popovich passes Pat Riley, moves into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list. When it is all said and done, Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the best coaches in NBA history. The sustained excellence, the five rings, turning small-market San Antonio into an NBA franchise to be feared on the court and modeled off it, all will be part of his legacy.

So will all the wins he’s racked up — 1,211 of them after the Spurs win over the struggling Suns Tuesday night. That moved Popovich past Pat Riley into fourth on the all-time coaching wins list.

Popovich is just 10 wins shy of tying Jerry Sloan for third, something that will happen in the coming months. I don’t know if he’s going to coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at the top of that leaderboard (it would take more than 100 additional wins), but Popovich’s win total just adds to his legacy and place in history.