NBA Power Rankings: The streak is dead, the Heat not so much…

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Only two more power rankings after this, so we are starting to turn our view toward the playoffs. Which still feel like the Heat then everyone else.

source:  1. Heat (58-15, last week ranked No. 1). A gutty performance by the Chicago Bulls ended the Heat win streak at 27. But that was a one-time performance, not something the Bulls could replicate. It would make a great NCAA Tournament upset. The question is who is going to beat the Heat four out of seven games? Anyone?

source:  2. Thunder (54-20, LW 5). We know what the Thunder are going to get from Kevin Durant every night. Same with Russell Westbrook. The question heading into the playoffs is what about Kevin Martin? He needs to start showing up every night — beginning Thursday in the big showdown with the Spurs.

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3. Spurs (55-18, LW 3). They will be without Manu Ginobili for a few weeks and maybe even the start of the playoffs due to a hamstring injury. The loss Sunday to a shorthanded Heat shows how much they would miss him come the postseason against an elite team. Short-term question is can they hold on to top spot in West?

source:  4. Pacers (47-27, LW 7). Won four games in a row including a tough Texas two step at Houston and Dallas last week, which gives them seven wins in their last eight. They are finding a playoff groove, too. Big tests against the Clippers and Thunder this week.

source:  5. Knicks (46-26, LW 9). They have an eight-game win streak that comes as they go with a lot of two point-guard lineups (which they used a lot at the start of the Season with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd). Looks like they may get Tyson Chandler back for the Heat showdown on Tuesday.

source:  6. Nuggets (50-24, LW 2). The stumbled after the Hornets snapped their winning streak but they can’t stumble much longer — they have a half game lead over Memphis (tied in the loss column) and one game over the Clippers (a game back in losses) in the fight for the three seed. Get the three spot and it is much easier for them to advance out of the first round.

source:  7. Grizzlies (49-24, LW 4). Marc Gasol is back but this is a team that needs to find it’s playoff groove — they are 5-5 in their last 10. Zach Randolph has been scoring less and they haven’t been great on the road. This week they have three road games including the Blazers and Lakers.

source:  8. Clippers (49-25, LW 6). They went 1-3 on a road trip last week and are another team you watch going to the playoffs and think they are good but not playing at their peak. Do you think Vinny Del Negro can give them the Xs and Os they need (especially when Chris Paul sits)? Can he inspire them?

source:  9. Nets (42-31, LW 8). The Nets are 4-3 on a big road trip that ends Wednesday in Cleveland. Looks more and more like they will host Chicago or Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs — series that wouldn’t shock me if they went either way.

source:  10. Rockets (40-33, LW 10). They went 2-2 in a brutal week (beat Spurs and Clippers, lost to Pacers and Grizzlies) and now look like a playoff lock with some softer games ahead. This is a team that still needs some pieces, but this season has been a nice first step forward.

source:  11. Warriors (42-32, LW 13). For some franchises, just making the NBA playoffs isn’t enough. Golden State isn’t there yet. Breaking out of the shadow of the Cohen era, this is going to be big. The Warriors are 7-3 in their last 10, and while inconsistent at times (you see the loss to the Kings?) just getting into the dance is something to celebrate.

source:  12. Celtics (38-35, LW 12). If they are going to be the seven seed in the East — which looks likely — who do you think they would rather face: New York or Indiana? I’m rooting for the Knicks matchup, but just because that’s a more feisty rivalry.

source:  13. Hawks (41-33, LW 14). Coach Larry Drew ripped Josh Smith’s shot selection last week. What took him so long?

source:  14. Bulls (40-32, LW 15). They ended the Heat’s win streak and have won four-of-five without Joakim Noah in the lineup. They are not going to go far in the playoffs, but they will not be an easy out.

source:  15. Mavericks (36-37, LW 16). If they can get to .500 Tuesday night with a win over the Lakers it will mean much more than just getting to shave the beards, it will be a huge boost for their playoffs hopes. And the good news is the Lakers are just retiring Shaquille O’Neal’s number, they don’t have to play against him.

source:  16. Jazz (38-36, LW 20). They have won four in a row and they hold on to the eighth playoff spot in the West. They have five of their remaining eight at home and four are against current playoff teams.

source:  17. Lakers (38-36, LW 11). Their battle for the playoffs is really up hill now — while they have seven of their last eight at home but six games remain against West playoff teams. As it has been all season with the Lakers, it comes down to their defense. Which remains shaky and isn’t helped by Metta World Peace being out.

source:  18. Bucks (35-37, LW 17). Their hopes of catching Boston for the seven seed in the East — and avoiding Miami in the first round — have died with some average play in recent weeks. So they should revel in making the playoffs before what will be a tumultuous offseason.

source:  19. Wizards (27-46, LW 19). The Wizards have set a goal to end the season — close the three-game gap they are behind the 76ers and finish with the nine seed. And it’s pretty reasonable.

source:  20. 76ers (30-43, LW 25). They still officially say they can still catch the Bucks for the eight seed and make the playoffs. I still officially say my next car can be a Maserati Spyder convertible. About the same odds.

source:  21. Trail Blazers (33-40, LW 18). Some teams look like they have folded the tents and are just playing out the string. Portland would be in that category, having dropped four in a row.

source:  22. Timberwolves (26-46, LW 21). Stat of the season for the Wolves, courtesy John Schuhmann at NBA.com: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic and Ricky Rubio have played a total of 13 minutes together this season. Over three games. And you wonder why they are 20 games below .500.

source:  23. Kings (27-47, LW 22). Despite the turmoil around the team off the court (which could come to a head this week in New York when the two sides pitch deals to a committee of owners) the Kings have played fairly well since the All-Star break.

source:  24. Hornets (26-48, LW 23). Not only did they snap the Nuggets 15-game win streak, they did it without Eric Gordon and Greivis Vasquez. There are moments you can see hope with this team.

source:  25. Raptors (27-46, LW 26). The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft — Andrew Wiggins — is Canadian. Just trying to give Toronto basketball fans north of the border some positive news.

source:  26. Suns (23-51, LW 24). They have lost six in a row and dropped to the bottom of the West, with a big off-season shakeup seeming likely. The only “good” news is the bottom of the West still has a lot of teams below them in the East.

source:  27. Pistons (24-50, LW 29). Andre Drummond is back. Usually I would say don’t rush a guy back but any time he can get on the court next to Greg Monroe just helps build for the future. It’s a good thing.

source:  28. Cavaliers (22-50, LW 27). Well, they got Kyrie Irving back. Not that it helped them get a win — their losing streak is now up to eight.

source:  29. Bobcats (17-56, LW 28). Not even the recent strong play of Gerald Henderson can help them much with three games against Eastern Conference playoff teams this week.

source:  30. Magic (19-55, LW 30). They are on the road for four games this week and they are 8-28 on the season away from Orlando. So, this should go well.

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.