NBA Power Rankings: Finals rematch Thursday could be finals preview

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Finally, here are the delayed regular Monday PBT NBA power rankings.

We said this a lot during the NBA finals last year — if we see the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder face off in three of the next five NBA finals it shouldn’t be a shock. This season looks more and more like that rematch could be a reality, which makes their Thursday night showdown interesting.

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1. Thunder (39-12, last week ranked No. 2). They have the best offense in the NBA this season and that has started to really kick into gear this week scoring 110 points or more in four straight games (before Sunday, when they took their foot off the gas against the hapless Suns). They have won four in a row and while the schedule wasn’t tough they beat up their opponents.

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2. Heat (34-14, LW 3). Winners of five in a row and that includes beating Houston and both Los Angeles teams last week. LeBron James lately has started to make a real MVP push — 30.2 points a game on 68.4 percent shooting overall and 56.3 percent shooting in his last five games going into Sunday.

source:  3. Spurs (40-12, LW No. 1). They have gone 12-1 recently but the impressive part is they have done it for stretches without Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. People just take for granted how good Tony Parker is — he is injecting himself into the MVP conversation — but they over look Tiago Splitter who has been solid in the paint.

source:  4. Nuggets (33-19, LW 6). They had won 9 in a row until a thrilling 3OT loss in Boston. While part of that run is because of the heavy home schedule part of it is that this is a good team that is a tough matchup because of their athleticism. Tougher stretch on the road started with a 3OT loss to Boston Sunday and the Raptors and Nets next on the road heading into the break.

source:  5. Clippers (36-17 LW 4). They didn’t play that well during their Grammy road trip, going 3-4 (with one more game Monday night in Philly) but the return of Chris Paul and what he did to the Knicks reminds you how much they missed him.

source:  6. Knicks (32-17, LW 5). After a five game win streak the Knicks dropped two of three including a loss to the Clippers. What helps the older legs of the Knicks bench is rest and they have one game this week, Wednesday (at home vs. Raptors) then they are off for a week.

source:  7. Pacers (31-20, LW 11). They won all three games of the NBA’s lone back-to-back-to-back last week. More and more I think this is the team that could be the biggest threat to the Heat in the East. But that’s not going to happen if Roy Hibbert doesn’t start to play like his old self, he’s still off his game.

source:  8. Bulls (30-20, LW 9). Here is the Derrick Rose update, courtesy Aggrey Sam of CSNChicago.com from our PBT Podcast: He is taking full contact in practice but has not participated in any 5-on-5 drills, which is more a matter of the Bulls not having practice time to run that lately. He’ll be back pretty soon after the All-Star game, but no date is set.

source:  9. Grizzlies (31-18, LW 10). They are a .500 team of late, 3-3 after the Rudy Gay trade. They are still trying to find their way. They have a chance in the next four games against under .500 teams to put together a few wins and find that groove.

source:  10. Celtics (27-23, LW 17). Count me among those impressed — Boston has gone 7-0 since Rajon Rondo went down. Their defense has been better, they are moving the ball and moving without the ball better, their bench guys are stepping up. Heck, they beat the Heat in this streak. But things get tough after the All-Star Game with a West Coast Road trip.

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11. Nets (29-22, LW 8). This team got the coach change bump of energy — they played harder for P.J. Carlesimo. For a while. But lately that energy is gone and the result is half-run sets followed by isolations late in the shot clock on offense. That will doom them.

source:  12. Rockets (28-24, LW 15). Nice wins last week over the Trail Blazers and the Warriors (although the Golden State will want some revenge for that one). James Harden is starting to look like an elite player you can build a franchise around.

source:  13. Warriors (30-21, LW 7). The schedule got tough and the Warriors dropped four in a row — they are playing better this year but their defense is holding them back from being close to elite. Really looking forward to the rematch with Houston on Tuesday.

source:  14. Jazz (28-24, LW 14). Two straight losses over the weekend and you have to wonder how much the trade rumors swirling around Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and this team will start to impact their play. They are not on solid playoff footing ground, with the Lakers 4 games back and Portland 2.5 back.

source:  15. Hawks (27-22, LW 12). Everyone talks about them moving Josh Smith (and they may, but not for Kris Humphries, sorry Nets fans) but the Hawks have Seven other expiring deals on their roster look for them to move someone like Kyle Korver or Anthony Morrow.

source:  16. Bucks (25-24, LW 13). Lost three in a row and just 4-6 in last 10. Suddenly we are seeing a lot of Samuel Dalembert on the court, which feels like a trade showcase (and he responded with a 35 point game).

source:  17. Trail Blazers (25-26, LW 16). They have dropped three in a row (including one to the Magic who had lost a dozen in a row before that) and have two more road games before the break — at Miami then a back-to-back at New Orleans. They are only 2.5 games out of the playoffs but they need to start picking up wins. Fast.

source:  18. Lakers (24-28, LW 18). They went 4-3 on their seven game Grammy road trip, which isn’t bad but isn’t great. They need wins. Just to have fun with math, the Rockets and Jazz are on pace for 44 wins, the Lakers need to go 20-10 the rest of the way to get to 44.

source:  19. Mavericks (22-28, LW 20). They are playing better, 9-5 in their last 14, but if they are going to grow beards until they reach .500 they may be tripping over them first.

source:  20. 76ers (22-27, LW 19). And the Andrew Bynum wait continues — they are shopping Evan Turner around (or at least gauging interest in him) but how do you evaluate this team without Bynum in the lineup?

source:  21. Cavaliers (16-35, LW 23). They have been a good offensive team of late, which is mostly due to the fact that Kyrie Irving is awesome, but Tristan Thompson has played much better of late as well.

source:  22. Pistons (20-32, LW 21). No Andre Drummond for four to six weeks just makes me sad.

source:  23. Wizards (14-35, LW 26). Washington beat three playoff teams last week (Clippers, Knicks, Nets), and are 10-7 in about the last month. If they had Wall from the start of the season they are a playoff team, but alas…

source:  24. Raptors (18-32, LW 22). I think their playoff dreams are dead. Part of it is that Boston went on a win streak without Rondo rather than fall back to the pack, but the Raptors keep losing and remain 3 games below .500 and 7 out of the final playoff spot in the East. They are not making up that ground.

source:  25. Hornets (17-33, LW 25). Eric Gordon is just bad about half the time for this team and his body language is that of a guy trapped in a place he hates. Does he just simply not like being in New Orleans that much?

source:  26. Kings (19-33, LW 27). If you don’t think fans make a difference, you should have heard them during the Kings 10-point fourth quarter comeback on the Rockets Sunday. Problem is the other owners don’t care about that, they care about money going into their pockets. That’s where Seattle is not easy to beat.

source:  27. Timberwolves (18-29, LW 24). Three straight losses and Minnesota is now just 4-17 since New Years day. Injuries are a big part of that, this team has seemed cursed by the basketball gods.

source:  28. Suns (17-34, LW 28). The Suns are really active on the trade market, clearly willing to take on some salary for the right quality player. When you look at their roster they need more quality players.

source:  29. Magic (15-36, LW 30). The losing streak has reached 12 before the Trail Blazers obliged with a terrible defensive effort to end it. Wherever J.J. Redick lands after the trade deadline will be a better situation.

source:  30. Bobcats (11-39, LW 29). They have dropped seven in a row and their roster is so bad that sending out Ben Gordon for the slumping Kris Humphries would be an upgrade.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
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Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse changed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments. That comes with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation – it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — but they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing and then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

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For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
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If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.