Who can knock off Miami? NBA playoff power rankings

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If you want to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy — the one that goes to the NBA champions each June — you’re going to have to pry it out of Miami’s cold, dead hands.

Good luck. They are the defending champs. They had the best regular season record in the NBA despite coasting to start the season. They have the best player on the planet in LeBron James. They defend. They have strong role players that fit the system.

Miami is the clear favorite to win the title going into the NBA playoffs this weekend.

So who can beat them? Let’s rank the other 15 teams based on their ability to knock off the Heat.

1. Spurs (58 wins, No. 2 seed in West). If you’re talking about the team with the best chance to dethrone the Heat, the Spurs leapfrog the Thunder to the top spot. There are a few reasons for this — the Spurs have the veterans who will not be rattled by the stage, and they have the size to pound the Heat inside. Most importantly, their system — the ball movement and the player movement off the ball — is the best way to diffuse the Heat’s pressure defense.

San Antonio may well not even make it to the finals, however. They are older, a little banged up (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are not fully healthy) and the Thunder give them all sorts of matchup issues. But if they can get to the Finals it could be interesting.

2. Thunder (60 wins, No. 1 seed in the West). While the holes in their game have been more evident lately, sometimes we overlook this is still a very good basketball team. They defend well and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook they can score on anybody. Their style of play hasn’t fared well against the Heat — they need better ball movement under pressure — but any team with Westbrook and Durant has a shot.

3. Grizzlies (56 wins, No. 5 seed in the West). Memphis is a dark-horse favorite to come out of the West because they defend well and because they have arguably the best front line in the NBA with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. To beat the Heat you need to defend and pound them inside, two things the Grizzlies can do. The question is in the back court where Mike Conley would struggle against the Heat’s pressure defense for sure. The Heat would be big favorites, but they have a puncher’s chance.

4. Knicks (54 wins, No. 2 seed in the East). The Knicks have had success against the Heat in the regular season, but I’m not a believer in regular season games being predictors of playoff success. The Knicks can score and they would get up points on the Heat, but under pressure will they keep up the ball movement they had during their win streak? And I’m not sold their defense is consistent enough. But they have a puncher’s chance and they will be able to get in the ring with the Heat in the conference finals if they play the way they are capable.

5. Clippers (56 wins, No. 4 seed in West). Chris Paul is the gest point guard in the game and the Clippers have as athletic a front line as there is in the Association with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The questions for the Clippers — both in the playoffs as a whole and in a hypothetical matchup with the Heat — are the two we’ve had about this team since the start of the season: 1) Will they get enough out of DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the court? 2) How well will they defend? Not well enough, I fear.

6. Pacers (49 wins, No. 3 seed in the East). A couple months ago, when you talked about teams that might be the second best in the East and challenge the Heat you talked about Indiana. Their defense is good enough — with potential Defensive Player of the Year Roy Hibbert on the back line they have the best defense in the NBA. They have the size inside with Roy Hibbert and the length to challenge the Heat. But they don’t score enough, and the question is do they score enough to even get to the conference finals?

7. Nuggets (57 wins, No. 3 seed in West). If they were healthy — with Danilo Gallinari, with Kenneth Faried, with Ty Lawson at 100 percent — they’d be higher on this list. They are a favorite dark horse among pundits because of their unselfish play, but in a matchup with Miami their up-and-down style would get them in trouble.

8. Bulls (45 wins, No. 5 seed in East). They are gritty, they will bang you inside and be physical, they have the kind of size in the paint that bothers the Heat with Joakim Noah. It is possible the Bulls will get a shot at the Heat (if the Bulls can beat the Nets in the first round), but without Derrick Rose they are just not going to create and score enough points to win that series.

9. Nets (49 wins, No 4 seed in East). Deron Williams has looked like his old Utah-level self the past month or two, and Brook Lopez is the best scoring center in the league. But the Nets very average defense might have them in trouble in the first round against the Bulls, let alone against the Heat (who they would see in the second round if they get by Chicago)

10. Celtics (41 wins, No. 7 seed in East). The Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs — they defend very well still when Kevin Garnett is on the court. Paul Pierce knows how to score. Jeff Green scores sometimes. They are a gritty, grinding team that will not go easily but will go. Very likely to the Knicks in the first round.

11. Warriors (45-35, No. 6 seed in West). Hey, you make the playoffs for only the second time in a couple decades, enjoy that. You should also enjoy having Stephen Curry and his sweet stroke on the team, and how this is a young and up-and-coming team. There’s a lot to like. But young up-and-coming teams learn hard lessons come the playoffs.

12. Rockets (45 wins, No. 8 seed in West). Kevin McHale deserves a lot of credit for melding a lot of new parts into a team that really works and plays to its strengths in Houston. James Harden has proved he can be a superstar that carries a team, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik have stepped up into key roles. But their running style plays right into the hands of OKC in the first round, and while it will be fun they will be toast.

13. Lakers (45 wins, No. 7 seed in West). Lakers fans got what they wanted — a matchup with the Spurs. And as the Spurs are banged up the Lakers have a better chance than they would against OKC. But the Lakers are not a serious threat to anyone because their defense just isn’t good enough — the Spurs will expose it in the first round and carve it up (sorry Lakers fans, this will not be the flat Spurs team of last Sunday you get to face). Dwight Howard has stepped up in the paint but Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks will find a lot less space to operate and be comfortable.

14. Hawks (44 wins, No. 6 seed in East). Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks. They have a strong front line with Al Horford and Josh Smith but they have never been a serious threat with that core and this year teams hoped to face them rather than the Bulls. They will not beat the Pacers, let alone the Heat.

15. Bucks (38 wins, No. 8 seed in East). They get Miami in the first round. There are some people in Milwaukee who think the Bucks have some real matchup advantages with the Heat. They also brew a lot of beer in Milwaukee. These two things are related.

Celtics interim coach Mazzulla to coach Team Giannis in All-Star Game

New York Knicks (120) Vs. Boston Celtics (117) At TD Garden (OT)
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One way to remove the “interim” tag from your coaching resume is to earn the right to coach in the All-Star Game.

Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzula and his staff will coach Team Giannis in the All-Star Game this season. It became official when the 76ers fell to the Magic on Tuesday night, ensuring the Celtics would have the best record in the East by the cut-off date this Sunday.

The Celtics are 36-15 and in first place in the Eastern Conference, even though they have lost 3-of-4 (and needed overtime and a bad no-call on a LeBron James potential game-winner to get that victory). They have a top-five offense and defense in the league and have looked like the team to beat since the start of the season, even if they have had a few injuries and looked bored with the regular season of late.

Mazzulla deserves credit for helping the team move past former coach Ime Udoka was suspended due to an improper affair with a franchise employee. It could have been a distraction that blew up the Boston season, but he got them focused beyond that, and with that could get some Coach of the Year votes (in a crowded field).

First, however, he has to coach the All-Star Game.

Are Pistons going to hold on to Bojan Bodanovic into next season?

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons
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For much of the run-up to the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic has been one of the best and most discussed players available. The 6’8″ wing who can knock down 3s and do some secondary shot creation could help a lot of teams.

One of those is the Pistons, who want to take a big step forward next season. Bogdanovic told Michael Scotto of Hoops Hype the front office spoke to him, and it doesn’t sound like he will get traded.

“Having conversations with the club, Troy [Weaver, general manager] and the owners, they assured me that we’re going to be great next year,” Bogdanovic said. “We have a lot of cap space to sign great players. We’re going to have a high pick again, so that’s going to help us a lot. We have a great young group of guys. When Cade [Cunningham] went down, that kind of hurt us big time. We were thinking that maybe we’d be fighting for the play-in tournament, but when he went down, he was our main guy. All of our offensive strategies were connected to him. When he went down, our season, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs without him.”

The Pistons reportedly have set the price for Bogdanovic at an unprotected first-round pick, which is very steep. This may simply be a case of Detroit being willing to keep Bogdanovic around if nobody wants to meet that price. They did just extend him for two years, $39.1 million and he would be the kind of professional veteran that is good to have in the locker room around a younger team.

Bogdanovic, for his part, would rather not hear the rumors.

“I heard the rumors, but I’m trying to stay away from those conversations,” Bogdanovic said. “I don’t even have any social media like Twitter. I don’t read much about that. It’s not in my control. It’s about the franchises. I’m just going to try and stay focused and play as best I can. Then, we’ll see what’s going to happen at the end of the trade deadline.”

The rumors are not going anywhere, they will stick around through the trade deadline. Bogdanovic may as well.

Report: Mavericks looking for another star at trade deadline. Good luck with that.

Toronto Raptors v Sacramento Kings
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Two things are true. First, the painted-over mural was right, the Dallas Mavericks desperately need a second star to go next to Luka Dončić. Second, they have backed themselves into a corner without the trade assets or cap space to easily make that happen.

It may be a longshot, but the Mavericks are open to trading anyone but Dončić to find that second star at the deadline, Callie Caplan of the Dallas Morning News reminds us.

It shouldn’t be a surprise Dallas is open to this, of course they are.

The challenges start with, what star is available? The best player maybe on the market right now is John Collins or Bojan Bogdanovic, and while both would help the Mavericks neither is changing the team’s fortunes the way they would hope.

If Toronto decides to become sellers things get interesting. However, as of the latest reports, they are on the fence and telling teams they are waiting to decide what they will do at the deadline (sell, stand pat, or become buyers). Fred VanVleet could be available, and would essentially be a Jalen Brunson replacement, certainly a step up from where the Mavericks are currently. However, the Clippers and others could drive up the asking price, plus the Mavericks would have to step up and pay him this summer, VanVleet is expected to opt out of his $22.8 million contract. O.G. Anunoby would be a great fit next to Dončić, but he is not a star, he is more of a high-level role player.

Pascal Siakam could be that second star next to Dončić, a 6’8″ wing who can finish at the rim, shoot 3s, and would be a great secondary shot creator. It’s a good fit. Siakam is not an elite defender — Dallas would want some 3&D guys added to the roster — but he would be the kind of addition Dallas needs.

Dallas can offer its three first-round picks starting in 2024, but is some combination of those picks and Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., Christian Wood and Dorian Finney-Smith going to entice the Raptors? They will look for a massive package for Siakam and likely see better offers than Dallas can construct.

It may not be easy to pull off, and likely will wait until the offseason (at the earliest), but know the Mavericks are serious about a second star.

Knicks reportedly very interested in Anunoby, if Raptors make him available

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
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The Toronto Raptors are the one team that could move this trade deadline from a dud to shaking up the playoff race. There are 29 other GMs waiting to see what Massai Ujiri will do, and when they called, they’ve been told “the franchise will make a decision about being a buyer or seller – or standing pat – near deadline day,” reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

If Toronto does decide to trade a player beyond the expected Gary Trent Jr., then the Knicks want to be at the front of the line for defensive wing O.G. Anunoby, Charania reports.

The Knicks and Suns are among the interested suitors in Raptors forward O.G. Anunoby, sources say. New York has shown a willingness to offer multiple first-round picks for Anunoby, according to those sources. The Suns, meanwhile, have control of all of their first-round picks — eight in total —through 2030. SNY first reported the Knicks’ interest last week.

There would be a lot of teams in line for Anunoby, but he is a very Thibodeau-style player — an All-Defensive Team level wing stopper who can finish and is averaging 16.9 points per game — so you can see where the interest comes from. Anunoby also is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million. While the demand for wings in general is lower this trade season — point guards and centers are more in demand — a lot of teams could use a player the quality of Anunoby. Including the Knicks.

Getting him won’t be cheap — two unprotected first-round picks (or lightly protected) with matching salary would be the price range.

All of that is moot if the Raptors don’t make him available, which is what everyone is waiting to see.