NBA Power Rankings: Thunder on top, but it’s close

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To be honest, you could have ranked the top three in this week’s PBT NBA Power Rankings and been fine. I’m giving the top spot to the Thunder this week because I think they’d beat the Clippers or Spurs in a seven game series right now. But not easily.

source:  1. Thunder (26-7, Last week ranked No. 2). They move up despite a sloppy loss to the Nets midweek. Their defense has been a little better of late which keeps them winning most nights. OKC has 10 of their next 12 on the road including an interesting game Friday night when they travel to L.A. to face Lakers.

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2. Clippers (27-8, LW 1). The win streak ended, but a back-to-back set of wins over the Lakers and Warriors show they aren’t going anywhere. If Chris Paul is not in your MVP conversations you are doing it wrong.

 

source:  3. Spurs (27-9, LW 3). Their offense has improved the last few weeks and that helps them continue to just rack up wins (except against the Knicks). Interesting games against the Lakers and Grizzlies this week, two dangerous but struggling teams who should be a little desperate against the Spurs.

 

source:  4. Heat (23-9, LW 4). They are on the road for their next six, but it is the end of the trip next week that gets interesting: Utah, Golden State then the Los Angeles Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back on national television.

 

source:  5. Knicks (23-10, LW 6). As Howard Beck of the New York Times said on the PBT Podcast, we’ve all stopped talking about how old the Knicks bench is but the next month — especially with Raymond Felton out — is when those old legs will get tested.

 

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6. Warriors (22-11, LW 5). Teams are no longer looking past the Warriors — notice how pissed the Clippers were after losing to them. Of course, the Clippers then took it out on them in a return match on Saturday. Not an easy week ahead with the Grizzlies, Blazers and Nuggets on the docket.

 

source:  7. Bulls (18-13, LW 9). We’re going to forgive them the ugly loss to the Bobcats, especially after the win over Miami on Friday. Note to a lot of teams: Notice how you can stay in games and win despite an inconsistent offense when you defend hard every night.

 

source:  8. Nuggets (20-16, LW 10). Still have 12 of next 14 at home and this week the only game they shouldn’t run away with is Golden State. Look for the Nuggets to make a push up the rankings in the coming weeks.

 

source:  9. Grizzlies (21-10, LW 8). Like the Bulls they continue to defend, but their offense has become so bad the last 10 games it hasn’t been enough some nights. They are scoring 96.6 points per 100 possessions the last 10 games, 29th in the NBA.

 

source:  10. Pacers (20-14, LW 11). Indiana went 3-1 last week and they are starting to figure out how to win without Danny Granger. It’s not pretty but they are figuring it out. If they get a healthy Granger back and some semblance of the good Roy Hibbert (who has gone missing), they become a dangerous team again.

 

source:  11. Hawks (20-12, LW 7). Some ugly losses last week — by one point to Detroit, by a lot more to Boston — and you have to wonder is this a glitch in a strong season, or a team with a hot start coming back to earth.

 

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12. Rockets (20-14, LW 14). They are on a hot streak — Jeremy Lin and James Harden are figuring out how to play together and the offense is off and running. Houston is going to be tested by a series of road games this month (10 of next 14) but they look like a playoff team.

 

source:  13. Nets (19-15, LW 15). P.J. Carlisimo is almost certain to be the coach the rest of this season — as Howard Beck of the New York Times said in the PBT Podcast, even if you bring in Phil Jackson you don’t install the triangle mid season. Carlisimo has the offense clicking again — sixth best in the NBA over the last five games — but their defense still stinks.

 

source:  14. Trail Blazers (18-15, LW 17). They beat the Knicks, Grizzlies and Timberwolves last week — that’s the kind of week playoff teams have. And Portland looks like it could be one, but they can’t have many slip ups in a deep, deep West.

 

source:  15. Bucks (16-16, LW 12). They were 0-3 last week and with five of their next seven on the road. Look for the Bucks to come back to the pack a little.

 

source:  16. Jazz (17-18, LW 18). They are an unimpressive 4-6 in their last 10 games and the reason is the offense, which has dipped four points per 100 possessions in that span from their season average.

 

source:  17. Celtics (16-17, LW 19). Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Talk about Avery Bradley being back, winning a couple games and a five-game home stand coming up. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins. Stop talking about DeMarcus Cousins.

 

source:  18. Timberwolves (15-15, LW 16). The basketball gods are taking out their vengeance on Kevin Love and Minnesota — Love will be out another month plus with a broken finger in his shooting hand. If they make the playoffs after all this Rick Adelman should get coach of the year talk.

 

source:  19. 76ers (15-20, LW 20). They got a road win against the Lakers (doesn’t count as a quality win anymore). Jrue Holiday needs to have a strong couple of weeks if he wants to impress voters and make the All-Star Game (he could).

 

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20. Lakers (15-18, LW 13). They have lost three in a row and we have chronicled how bad their defense is. We’ve also written about how they need wins to stay in the playoff hunt, but the schedule for them this week is at Houston, at San Antonio and then hosting Oklahoma City. Rough patch.

 

source:  21. Kings (13-21, LW 24). Their offense has been a force for the past few weeks and that is winning them games — four of their last six. Now they get Tyreke Evans back and they have a five-game home stand. It’s a chance to build on that. Also, everyone please stop with the DeMarcus Cousins trade rumors. He’s not going anywhere.

 

source:  22. Pistons (13-23, LW 22). Andre Drummond is not going to win rookie of the year. But four years from now he may well be the second best player out of this draft class (still think Anthony Davis is No. 1) and some GMs are going to have to answer questions about passing on him.

 

source:  23. Raptors (12-21, LW 21). Coach Dwane Casey said that Ed Davis may well keep his starting job even after Andrea Bargnani returns — that’s the right move. The easy run of the schedule is over but good on the Raptors for playing better in that stretch.

 

source:  24. Mavericks (13-21, LW 25). Dirk Nowitzki is frustrated. He should be, look at that record. I still think Mark Cuban will eventually land a big star via free agency, but if he can do that during Dirk’s title window is another question.

 

source:  25. Magic (12-21, LW 23). They have yet to win a game since Glen Davis went down, 0-8. That says less about Davis and more about the drop off to the people behind him.

 

source:  26. Suns (12-23, LW 26). Suns fans need to read our own Brett Pollakoff talking to the Suns players about what a mess their offense has become.

 

source:  27. Hornets (8-25, LW 27). Eric Gordon has given this team a little spark, but remember that this is rebuilding process. Anthony Davis is up and down and it’s going to take him time to learn to defend on this level.

 

source:  28. Cavaliers (8-27, LW 28). Kyrie Irving had a 30-point game plus a game winner last week. Tristan Thompson has been solid with Anderson Varejao out. There, that’s it. That’s all the positive Cavs news I can think of.

 

source:  29. Bobcats (8-24, LW 30). They finally snapped the losing streak at 18, in fact they won two games last week. Both on the road. They are not going to finish with the worst record in the NBA this year, and that’s a start.

 

source:  30. Wizards (4-27, LW 29). They may get John Wall back in the next couple of weeks, that will help their anemic offense. However, even that may not stop Wizards fans from watching college basketball now, scouting Cody Zeller and Shabazz Muhammad.

Nikola Jokic announces he will play for Serbia in World Cup

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This year’s World Cup is going to be stacked with elite NBA players. It usually is a big draw, but this World Cup brings a couple additional things to the table. First, it’s part of the Olympic qualifying process for the 2020 games in Tokyo.

More importantly for players, the World Cup is in China. That is a fast-growing basketball shoe and apparel market and that will push Nike, Adidas, Reebok and any other shoe brand you can think of to “encourage” their stars to go. For example, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons will be playing for Australia.

Nikola Jokic will be one of those stars. The Denver Nuggets center told the Serbian state news agency, via ESPN.

“I am very pleased with everything I did in the NBA this season. I had a great year in which I performed at the All-Star Game and was selected [to the All-NBA first team]. For me, the cherry on top of this whole season would be a medal with the national team.”

Jokic and Serbia may be the USA’s biggest threat in that tournament, this is the team that picked up the silver medal in the last Olympics. Jokic is a better player than he was a few years ago and the team has a long list of quality players including Bogdan Bogdanovic, Milos Teodosic, and Boban Marjanovic.

The World Cup tips off Aug. 31 in China, right up against the start of NBA training camps.

 

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.