NBA Power Rankings: Oh-oh Thunder road, oh Thunder road

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A lot of the preseason talk in the West focused on the Lakers… and it still does. And too often it ends with “and the Thunder are still contenders, too.” No, the Thunder are the defending Western Conference champs, the team to beat in that conference and they look pretty good right now. Thank you very much.

source:  1. Thunder (16-4, Last week ranked No. 2). Winners of eight in a row after Monday night including some quality victories last week against the Nets and Lakers. Are the Lakers still considered a quality win? Well it was the Pacers win that impressed me — putting up an offensive rating of 115.3 (points per 100 possessions) against what had been the best defense in the NBA. The Thunder are rolling.

 

source:  2. Spurs (17-4, LW 3). For the past few years, the Spurs have evolved into an offensive team that played enough defense to win games (a lot of games). But this season the Spurs are back to their old ways with the sixth best defense in the NBA (98.2 points per 100 possessions).

 

source:  3. Knicks (15-5, LW 5). Going 2-1 this week without Carmelo Anthony (until Sunday), including a big win over Miami in Miami was impressive. New York is going to ride the train of threes as long as they keep falling. Trail Blazers fans had to watch Raymond Felton in that Heat game and throw things at the television, he didn’t give them games like that last season.

 

source:  4. Clippers (13-6, LW 6). They are the winners of six in a row — and for the last three games the starters have not set foot on the floor in the fourth quarter. The Clippers remain the best and still by far least talked about team in Los Angeles.

 

source:  5. Grizzlies (14-4, LW 4). Not their best week, needing overtime to beat the Suns and losing to the Hawks (who are playing well, to be fair). The Grizzlies remain an elite defensive team and that is keeping them in games, and they are beating the teams they are supposed to beat (they don’t have bad losses) so we’re not worried.

 

source:  6. Heat (13-5, LW 1). Last week I said they might be finding their defensive footing. I would like to officially take that back. Their defense was bad in losses to the Knicks and Wizards, and they really were just a hot shooting team in their one win last week. They get a rematch with the Wizards Saturday.

 

source:  7. Hawks (12-5, LW 8). Quality wins this week over the Grizzlies and Nuggets, with the Heat on tap for Monday. While you weren’t looking they have been a strong defensive team this season behind Josh Smith and Al Horford.

 

source:  8. Warriors (13-7, LW 11). Here’s a shocker — if you put a bunch of guys who can shoot together on a team they are going to score points. For the season their point differential suggests they should be a .500 team but in the past five games their offense has found a groove. They have started a seven-game road trip 3-0.

 

source:  9. Celtics (11-9, LW 10). Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but they have started to play really good defense in Boston the past couple weeks. That’s the first building block. And Doc Rivers is not building for February, he’s looking at May and beyond.

 

source:  10. 76ers (11-9, LW 9). They did well, getting an Evan Turner game winner and splitting a home-and-home with Boston, but they get some tests this week with the Bulls, Pacers and Lakers. And with the Laker game, expect a plethora of Bynum stories. There still is no timeline for his return.

 

source:  11. Bulls (11-8, LW 13). Don’t put too much into the rumors of Rose’s recovery, he’s doing well but he is still more than a month away from playing in games, probably longer. But they are doing okay without him. Winners of three straight, they have a tough stretch ahead — Clippers, 76ers, Nets, Grizzlies, Celtics and Knicks are the next six.

 

source:  12. Bucks (9-9, LW 12). One of the many inconsistent teams in the middle of the pack in the NBA — they lost to the Hornets (in an ugly fashion) then beat the Nets later in the week. It’s like that every week with the Bucks, it feels.

 

source:  13. Nets (11-8, LW 7). Losers of four straight and, dare we say it, their defense is terrible without Brook Lopez in the lineup? It’s true, which suggests maybe the Mayans were right and we should all be stacking up on canned goods for the shelter. Rematch with the Knicks this week.

 

source:  14. Jazz (12-10, LW 15). They split with the Los Angeles teams this week, losing to the good one and beating the struggling one. The Jazz are what we thought they are — a good, hard working, balanced team. One that faces the Spurs and Grizzlies this week, so good luck.

 

source:  15. Mavericks (10-10, LW 17). O.J. Mayo was a 36.4 percent three-point shooter the past two seasons, but this year he is knocking down 52.3 percent of his looks from deep. And he is taking 5.6 threes a game. I keep expecting this bubble to burst but we are 20 games in now.

 

source:  16. Lakers (9-12, LW 14). What the slow start almost ensures is that the Lakers will have no home court advantage come the playoffs. The Thunder, Spurs and Grizzlies are out of their reach, and they are 5.5 games back of a good Clippers team in the Pacific. The Lakers are back out on the road for four more this week and they may or may not get Pau Gasol and Steve Nash to help them at some point.

 

source:  17. Nuggets (10-11, LW 18). They have faced a tough schedule (although the Clippers and Hornets have had it worse) but that does not excuse the bad turnovers late in a couple games last week by Ty Lawson. This is another middle of the pack NBA team we keep expecting to get it and go on a run.

 

source:  18. Timberwolves (9-9, LW 19). They expect to get Ricky Rubio back this week, which will be a huge boost to a struggling offense. Once they start putting up points again look for them to shoot up the rankings and the standings.

 

source:  19. Pacers (10-11, LW 21). The drop off with this team when the bench enters the game is just hard to watch. They continue to play good defense as a team (save the Oklahoma City game) but the offense is passable at best with the starters then nosedives with the bench play.

 

source:  20. Rockets (9-10, LW 16). We are just happy to see Kevin McHale back on the sidelines with this squad. Hopefully he can help even out another up and down team, one that beat the Lakers and the Jazz then lost to Spurs and Mavericks in their last four.

 

source:  21. Trail Blazers (8-12, LW 22). If you’re a Trail Blazers fan and you watch the play of Raymond Felton in New York or Jamal Crawford in Los Angeles this season, you just have to be pissed.

 

source:  22. Magic (8-12, LW 25). The gutted Magic have gone 3-2 on their road trip and are playing hard for Jacque Vaughn. They are the eighth best defensive team in the NBA without what’s his name in the paint blocking shots.

 

source:  23. Pistons (7-15, LW 24). Detroit’s offense is 12.7 points better per 100 possessions at home compared to on the road. Which is good news for the Sixers and Nets as the Pistons travel there this week.

 

source:  24. Kings (7-12, LW 29). The Kings are on a three game winning streak, but that will get tested on the road this week at Dallas, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City.

 

source:  25. Bobcats (7-12, LW 20). They are the losers of seven in a row, and the reason is they can’t defend. In their last five games they have given up 116.1 points per 100 possessions, the worst team in the NBA during that stretch (using the NBA’s own stats page).

 

source:  26. Suns (7-15, LW 23). They also have lost seven in a row, including one to the Magic on Sunday night they though was winnable. The two games this week are Memphis and Utah, although they are at home (and Utah can struggle on the road).

 

source:  27. Raptors (4-17, LW 26). They are a terrible road team and this West Coast swing has them losing and looking for answers. I look at the roster and still don’t see a grand plan from GM Bryan Colangelo.

 

source:  28. Hornets (5-14, LW 27). I want to cut them some slack — they have been without Anthony Davis for a long stretch and have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far. But their problems go well beyond that.

 

source:  29. Cavaliers (4-17, LW 28). Losers of five straight but they get Kyrie Irving back Tuesday night. And they bring him back against a Lakers team that has terrible defense at the point guard position.\

 

source:  3 30. Wizards (2-15, LW 30). Sorry, even a win over the Heat can’t get them out of the cellar… although if not for a Festus Ezeli block they would have beat the Warriors and moved up. They are close to getting out of this jail. Oh, and still no John Wall timeline.

Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis headline NBA All-Defensive teams

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It can be one of the most challenging selections to make on the ballot — NBA All-Defensive Teams.

The reason is all the variables: What kind of system was the player in? What were they asked to do within that system? Were they asked to cover a lot for lesser defenders on the court with them?

The votes are in, and it is Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis at the top with the most points. Just as interestingly, six players made All-Defense for the first time.

Here is the voting breakdown. Voters had to choose one center, two forwards, and two guards for each team.

FIRST TEAM (player, team, total points, first team votes)

Rudy Gobert, Utah, 192 (94)
Anthony Davis, New Orleans, 163 (73)
Robert Covington, Philadelphia, 90 (27)
Victor Oladipo, Indiana, 136 (58)
Jrue Holiday, New Orleans, 105 (39)

SECOND TEAM (player, team, total points, first team votes)

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia, 90 (4)
Draymond Green, Golden State, 86 (26)
Al Horford, Boston, 85 (24)
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio, 80 (32)
Jimmy Butler, Minnesota, 79 (20)

Just missing the cut were:
Chris Paul, Houston, 74 (20); Paul George, Oklahoma City, 69 (22); Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee, 43 (15); Kevin Durant, Golden State, 31 (7); Klay Thompson, Golden State, 24 (8); Josh Richardson, Miami, 22 (3); Marcus Smart, Boston, 18 (5); Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City, 17 (3).

The six first-timers on the All-Defensive Teams are Covington, Oladipo, Holiday, Embiid, Murray, and Butler.

The fact that two Pelicans — Holiday and Davis — made All-Defense but the team was just average defensively speaks to what they were trying to cover up on that roster much of the season.

Forward was particularly deep and difficult to choose this season. On my final (official) ballot I had Antetokounmpo on the squad, but that meant leaving off Green (who is unquestionably an elite defender when he wants to be, but was up and down during the regular season with his focus on that end). The injuries to Andre Roberson and Kawhi Leonard took some of the pressure off at forward and let a deserving Horford in the club, but it was still a deep field.

Guard was a challenge as well, with CP3 being deserving (he was on my ballot) and Klay Thompson being the perennial “I wanted to put him on the team but…” guy.

Clint Capela with the Rockets had a fantastic defensive season, but with Gobert and Embiid filling the center spot that’s a tough field to crack.

Celtics hope return home can slow LeBron, Cavs in Game 5

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BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics expected to see a different LeBron James in Cleveland after the Cavaliers fell into a 2-0 hole to open the Eastern Conference finals

Two games and back-to-back wins later, James has reminded everyone exactly why he’s been to seven straight NBA finals.

Boston will be back in the embrace of its raucous fans at TD Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday. But a team that has thrived on youth this postseason suddenly looks disoriented without a go-to player and opposite a more veteran squad that has found a new attitude thanks to the fuel being provided by its biggest star.

“My teammates are putting me in position and wanting me to be in attack mode and trusting me to put our guys in position to be successful,” James said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the collective group, and I’m one of the byproducts of that.”

While the Cavs are certainly feeling rejuvenated, coach Tyronn Lue said it hasn’t changed their sense of urgency.

“We still gotta play,” Lue said. “We have veteran guys who have been there and know what it takes, but this is a young team, a good team that’s playing at home so experience is not going to be a factor. We have to come in there and have the same mentality that we had in Game 3 and 4.”

Two games ago, the numbers seemed all on the Celtics’ side.

They had moved to 9-0 at home during these playoffs and taken 2-0 series lead, which has been a magic number for a franchise yet to surrender such an advantage during its storied history (37-0). Over the last 96 minutes, Boston has been outscored by 39 points, has dropped to 1-6 on the road and is suddenly facing a must-win game to maintain home-court advantage.

Coach Brad Stevens said at the start of the playoffs that he believed there was value in the greenness of a young group that had several players getting their first taste of postseason basketball. He was proven right with Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum all thriving as first-time postseason starters.

Their success had the cumulative effect of masking the absences of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Now, the lack of an alpha like Irving capable of creating his own shot is sticking out with every 40-point game James produces.

Al Horford, Boston’s only healthy All-Star, was never a dominant scorer, but more of a facilitator who worked well in a finely tuned system.

Horford started off the series strong but his scoring and assist numbers have declined over the last two games.

Lue’s move to reinsert Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup in Game 2 is a huge reason.

Thompson has not only helped things move better on the offensive end for Cleveland, he’s combined with Larry Nance to make things difficult on Horford. Horford had just four shots and seven points in 30 minutes in Game 3. He scored 15 points in Game 4 but was just 5-of-13 from the field with one assist.

If the Celtics are going to get back to the by-committee style that got them here, it must begin with his leadership. To that end, Horford said they’ll focus on correcting their issues, but also won’t dwell on them.

“As a group, we’re excited to be back, going back home,” he said. “Obviously we understand the challenge of it. We can’t think about the past. We just have to worry about this opportunity. We have a Game 5 at home, and we have to make the most of it.”

Cleveland is hoping James’ once quiet supporting cast continues its surge in Boston.

Kevin Love just missed his third straight double-double in Game 4 and sharpshooters JR Smith and Kyle Korver were 12 of 19 from the 3-point line in Games 3 and 4.

Korver’s efforts have stood out.

At 37 years old he was all over the court scoring in Game 4, diving for loose balls and collecting three blocks. While he anticipated being sore from all the activity, Korver said playing “fun basketball” is still propelling a guy looking for his first ring after appearing in 124 playoff games for five different teams during his 15-year career.

“There’s not many of us `03 class guys still around,” James said of Korver. “I feel like we’re just cut from a different cloth because we’ve been around for so long. We have this work ethic and you see him every day putting in the work, putting his mind, his body into it. It’s not about his age.”

 

Report: Timberwolves would dump Thibodeau before trading Karl-Anthony Towns

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In the NBA, when it comes down to a struggle between an elite player and the coach/GM, who wins? The player. A top 10 NBA player is much harder to get than a coach. If you don’t believe it’s the player go ask David Fizdale or Kevin McHale or Paul Westhead or.. I could fill up the entire NBC server with instances, you get the point.

As the tension between Karl-Anthony Towns and coach/GM Tom Thibodeau has bubbled to the surface in Minnesota, some teams have called up Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to check on KAT’s availability in a trade.

But would the Timberwolves really trade Towns? If one side is going to lose this battle, it’s Thibodeau, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said on The Russillo Show (hat tip Uproxx).

“I think their owner would trade management/the coach before he would trade Karl-Anthony Towns. I don’t think they would allow that. I just don’t believe they’d allow that kind of decision. And I don’t know that they’d want to trade him… he’s Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re not moving him, Towns is eligible for his extension this summer. You know Jimmy Butler… it’s more of a question of Andrew Wiggins. That to me would be, if someone was going to get moved — and I’m not saying anyone’s going to get moved — I think Andrew Wiggins is the one you’re going to look at first. Because you don’t have to make a decision on Towns and Jimmy Butler and one of those guys having to take less on an extension, because you can’t have three [max] guys.”

To be clear, Thibodeau isn’t going anywhere this summer (unless he makes some kind of a power play move, like trying to trade Towns). The Timberwolves improved by 16 games last season and made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 — that was a step forward. Maybe not as big of one as some wanted/expected, but it wasn’t the kind of season that gets a coach/GM fired.

There’s also an odd dynamic in this with Jimmy Butler — he is Thibodeau’s guy. Butler has his back, and he can be a free agent in a couple of years, so if Minnesota wants to keep him then keeping the coach matters.

As for trading Wiggins, that is something to keep an eye on. Even if it’s not likely. After a disappointing 2017-18 season, there has been buzz around the league about the Timberwolves testing the market for Wiggins. The problem is Wiggins’ five-year, $148 million fully guaranteed contract kicks in next season — few teams want to take that on. To move Wiggins, Minnesota will have to take back bad contracts and/or send out sweeteners with him. Demand will not be high, despite Wiggins’ potential.

As Wojnarowski noted, both Butler and Towns have new contract coming up in the next couple of seasons, and both are clear max players. It puts Minnesota in a tight spot with the cap. They will be looking for some relief.

Just remember, if it comes down to Thibodeau or Towns, the player always wins. Especially a young, on-the-rise player.

Boston vs. Houston Finals? In 2-2 series, team with home court wins 80% of time

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Game 1 of the NBA Finals will see the Boston Celtics at the Houston Rockets starting May 31.

Or, at least that’s what the historic odds favor.

Most fans (and media/analysts) expect the Finals will still be Cleveland vs. Golden State, those are the two proven teams. However, as our own Dan Feldman noted, historically in a 2-2 series the team with two home games wins four out of five times.

Tuesday night, Houston looked every bit the kind of team that can stand up to the defending champion Warriors. Down 10 entering the fourth quarter, Houston’s improved ball-pressure defense wore down a Golden State team and took Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson (and in the fourth Stephen Curry) out of their rhythm. The Warriors couldn’t get the shots they wanted, didn’t get to the rim, went 0-of-6 from three and 3-of-18 overall in the fourth quarter. They looked like they were replaying the final games of the 2016 NBA Finals again (just with Durant). Meanwhile, Chris Paul was efficient and James Harden made plays that got Houston the comeback win. It was the kind of victory that can define a championship run.

Still, they need two more wins against a Warriors team that is loaded with All-Stars and has been to three straight Finals for a reason. Golden State believes it has another gear, now it needs to find it.

Out East, Boston heads home for Wednesday night’s game — the Celtics are 9-0 in the postseason and 22.4 points per 100 possessions better than on the road. Boston’s young role players have just been vastly superior on the parquet on both ends of the court. Plus, while the Cavaliers won Game 4, the Celtics won the last three quarters and seemed to find some defensive setups and plays that work for them.

Cleveland, however, has LeBron James.

Finally, we’ve got the kind of playoff drama we have wanted out of these conference finals.