PBT NBA Power Rankings: At the quarter pole Portland takes the lead

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The general rule of thumb is 20 games into the season you can start to really trust the stats and the trends — in which case it’s good to be a Portland Trail Blazers fan. They move into the top slot with their recent wins over Indiana and OKC.

source:  1. Trail Blazers (17-4, Last Week No. 4). They are doing it with the best offense in the NBA. It’s okay to be a jump shooting team if you hit them, and the Blazers knock them down — they are hitting 42.7 percent on corner threes as a team this season and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc overall.

source:  2. Thunder (15-4, LW 4). Kevin Durant seemed to take things personally against Paul George this weekend — a side of Durant we don’t get to see very often. I liked it. Still not reading too much into the margin of victory over a clearly tired Pacers team.

source:  3. Pacers (18-3, LW 1). Indiana would really love to thank the schedule makers for their Clipper/Blazers then Spurs/Thunder back-to-backs last week. Indy lost both back ends but I’m not faulting them much for it. Showdown Tuesday with Miami.

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4. Spurs (15-4, LW No. 5). In case you ever wondered what Tiago Splitter means to this team, I hope you watched the loss to the Pacers Saturday night: San Antonio was up 35-22 when Splitter was removed for the game (calf issues) and the Pacers went on a 84-45 run. His defense is key and he’s out at least a couple more games.

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5. Heat (16-5, LW 2). They lost a couple games last week to teams with big front lines (Detroit and Chicago) but the Heat still feels like a team just kind of coasting, waiting for what matters. And they got their revenge on Detroit Sunday.

source:  6. Rockets (15-7, LW 6). On paper the Rockets look strong — elite offense and the fourth best net rating of points per possession in the league — but then you watch them play and they don’t pass the eye test at the same level. There is a lack of consistency night to night, which led Dwight Howard expressing frustration.

source:  7. Nuggets (12-8, LW 8). A scout speaking to ESPN’s Marc Stein said something we noticed: This team became a lot better when JaVale McGee went down injured. Denver tried to play inside-out with McGee, now they are just running and it works much better.

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8. Mavericks (13-8, LW 11). Winners of three in a row including over Portland last week (where Indiana and OKC lost). The simple fact is this is a playoff team in the West and one that will be a tough matchup for whoever lands them in the first round.

source:  9. Clippers (13-8, LW 7). They fell to Atlanta and Cleveland on the road last week — how is a team this good 3-5 against the East so far? L.A. continue its East Coast swing this week but with winnable games (Philly, Boston, Brooklyn and Washington).

source:  10. Warriors (12-9, LW 9). Nice 27-point come from behind win against the Raptors last week, but the fact they were down that much points to how much their defense misses Andre Iguodala. Rough stretch of games against the West coming up.

source:  11. Suns (11-9, LW 10). Eric Bledsoe is back in the lineup, which is good news, but now this far into the season we can just say that Jeff Hornacek has to come up in any coach-of-the-year conversations. His team is playing well at both ends.

source:  12. Hawks (11-10, LW 15). This is the third best team in the East right now, which just makes me hope nobody on Miami or Indiana gets hurt because we need that Eastern Conference Finals. Congratulations to Kyle Korver for breaking the consecutive games hitting a three record at 90.

source:  13. Timberwolves (9-11, LW 12). Look for them to string together some wins now after going through a rough patch in the schedule (and going all the way to Mexico City to have a game cancelled). This team is better than its record shows (they have the point differential of a 12-8 team)

source:  14. Lakers (10-10, LW 13). Kobe is back but there is a lot of work to do to get any offensive flow going — L.A.’s starters looked hesitant with Kobe controlling the offense. They have to try and shake off Kobe’s rust against the Suns, then a Thunder/Bobcats back-to-back on the road this week.

source:  15. Pistons (10-10, LW 22). Road wins against both Miami and Chicago show just how dangerous this team can be when it hits its threes (they shot 54.3 percent from beyond the arc in those games). Also, Andre Drummond is just a beast.

source:  16. Wizards (9-10, LW 17). John Wall is playing well, but simply the deeper they have to go into their bench in any game the worse they look. Good tests this week with Denver, Atlanta and the Clippers on the docket.

source:  17. Pelicans (9-10, LW 14). Without Anthony Davis the Pelicans defense has been terrible, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions. Remember, they went out and got Greg Stiemsma to give them depth up front but he is injured as well, so it’s a lot of gunning Ryan Anderson.

source:  18. Grizzlies (9-10, LW 16). The big issue is simply health — Marc Gasol is out and Zach Randolph is hobbling. But it doesn’t help that Jerryd Bayless couldn’t throw a pea in the ocean right now (to borrow an old Chick Hearn line).

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19. Celtics (10-12, LW 23). They went 3-0 last week — Rajon Rondo who? It looks like after Christmas at best and likely after New Year’s Day before they get their All-Star point guard back. Even so, are they the favorites in the Atlantic now?

source:  20. Bulls (8-10, LW 18). 1-2, Since Derrick Rose went down the Bulls defense has simply not been good… until they faced the Heat, then they looked like the Bulls we remember. If they find that consistently they are a playoff team in the East.

source:  21. Bobcats (9-11, LW 19). That the Bobcats are beating the other struggling teams in the East and would be the 7 seed if the playoffs started today speaks to the job Steve Clifford has done. But the schedule starts to get a lot tougher the next couple weeks.

source:  22. Raptors (7-12, LW 20). Rudy Gay is gone but with him out Sunday night Toronto played at a faster pace, used a lot more pick-and-rolls and their floor spacing was better. This was not supposed to be a trade that made Toronto better, but I wonder if it might be.

source:  23. Cavaliers (7-13, LW 26). They are 6-3 at home but 1-10 on the road this season. And those road losses often have been ugly — like Kyrie Irving 0-of-9 shooting ugly. The Cavs are in the running for the most disappointing team in the league.

source:  24. 76ers (7-14, LW 25). The skin infection on Michael Carter-Williams’ knee is going to keep him out Monday for sure and likely a few more games after that. They are still playing at the fastest pace in the league (which is a bad fit with their terrible defense).

source:  25. Magic (6-14, LW 21). Orlando has lost 9-of-11 games and have had a bottom five offense and defense during that stretch. Which is not good. Obviously.

source:  26. Knicks (5-13, LW 29). We saw the Knicks we expected this season against the Nets Thursday — moving the ball, raining threes — then on Sunday they reverted to their new form. Good news that Tyson Chandler returned to practice, they need him.

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27. Nets (6-14, LW 24). No, Jason Kidd is not in immanent danger of losing his job, Nets management want to see what he can do with a healthy roster. With Paul Pierce and Deron Williams do back this week, Kidd will have to start producing some wins (and he needs to turn that defense around, which may be the hardest part).

source:  28. Kings (5-13, LW 27). I get why they made the trade for Rudy Gay — not a bad roll of the dice that didn’t cost much — but after watching him fail to consistently feed Jonas Valanciunas in the post (even on nights the big man had a mismatch to exploit) it’s hard for me to see Gay and DeMarcus Cousins working out well.

source:  29. Jazz (4-18, LW 28). Trey Burke has helped the offense. But when I watch Gordon Hayward I can’t help but wonder how good he would look as the second or third option on a quality team (he’s not a No. 1 guy).

source:  30. Bucks (4-16, LW 30). So if you combine a high lottery pick with John Henson (who has looked better lately) and Larry Sanders you have… hope?

Both conference finals reach Game 7 for first time in 39 years

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Jimmy Carter was in the White House. Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team had just defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State team to win the NCAA Tournament. “Apocalypse Now” and “Alien” had just been released into the theaters. Van Halen II had just hit your local record store, in both vinyl and cassette tape form. “Three’s Company” was the hottest show on television and “The Dukes of Hazzard” had just made its debut.

It was May 1979, and that was the last time that both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals went to a Game 7.

Until this year, that is. Sunday night LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will head to Boston for a Game 7 to try and return to the NBA Finals (it would be LeBron’s eighth straight trip to the Finals). Monday night, Houston will try to hold on at home in a Game 7 without Chris Paul and advance past the offensive onslaught of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors.

In 1979, it was a very different NBA — there was no three-point line (that started next season, and even then few players took the shot, it was not something they grew up practicing). The shorts were a lot shorter. The Jazz were in New Orleans, the Kings in Kansas City, the Clippers in San Diego, and there was a Seattle SuperSonics team.

A very good Seattle team — they beat the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals. The Sonics were led by the backcourt of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson, with Jack Sikma as the big man inside providing balance. Seattle won the first two games of the series at home, then the Suns — led by Paul Westphal and Walter Davis — tied the series holding home court in games three and four. Phoenix stole Game 5 in Seattle, but the Sonics returned the favor with a dramatic 106-105 Game 6 win in Phoenix. Game 7 went to Seattle 114-110.

In the Eastern Conference, it was the Washington Bullets and the San Antonio Spurs (yes, the Spurs used to be in the East). Those Spurs, led by George “Ice Man” Gervin (who averaged 31 points a game in the WCF), went into Washington and stole Game 1. After the Spurs held home court in Games 3 and 4, they had a commanding 3-1 series lead. That’s when Washington — led by Bob Dandridge and Elvin Hayes — got on a roll and won the final three games, and it was Dandridge who hit the game-winner with eight seconds left to seal Game 7.

The Finals didn’t live up to quite the same hype, with the Sonics downing the Bullets in five games. It was the Sonics’ lone NBA title.

Three things to watch in Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers Game 7

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One game. Winner moves on to the NBA Finals, loser can book early tee times starting Monday.

It’s a dramatic Game 7 between Boston and Cleveland for the Eastern Conference crown. In a series that has swung wildly in favor of whoever was the home team that night, the season comes down to one game for these two team. At this point, there are no more real adjustments — both teams, both coaches know what to expect from the other side. It’s about poise. It’s about keeping your head. It’s about what role player will step up big (as one always seems to do in quirky Game 7s).

Here are three things to keep an eye on in this game.

1) LeBron James. He’s the best player on the court, the best of his generation, and with the Cavs it all starts with him — he can’t be just merely good for the Cavaliers to win, he has to be superhuman. Which is what we’ve come to expect — he had 46 points in 46 minutes of play in Game 6 and that’s going to be needed again.

It’s worth watching early on to see if the tweak to his knee suffered in Game 6 has any impact — he scored 12 points after it in that game, but it’s possible it tightened up after his body cooled down. Does LeBron have the same lift and explosiveness? Either way, he’s going to make plays. From the Celtics’ perspective, they just need to make him work hard for them.

There are a lot of players who get tight and shrink from Game 7s. Not LeBron — for his career he has averaged 34.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.1 assists in Game 7s. The last five times he’s been in a Game 7, LeBron’s teams have won (his last Game 7 loss was to the Celtics in 2008). Bottom line, if there’s one thing we know will happen in this game, it’s LeBron will be great. That, alone, is not enough to get the Cavaliers a win, which leads us too….

2) With Kevin Love out, will any other role players step up for the Cavaliers? Love has been the second best offensive player for the Cavaliers in the postseason, but they can survive his loss — this is a better defensive team without him (3.1 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court in this series) and the offense often sees better ball movement and flow.

Cleveland’s veterans need to step up in this pressure situation, and that starts with George Hill — he is the bellwether for this team, the second ball handler and shot creator they need. When he plays well, when he is playing downhill and attacking off picks as he did in Game 6, they win. Hill was aggressive, got into the paint, and from there is both a scorer and a distributor in the last game in Cleveland. He has not been the same guy on the road, what does he have to do to be that guy again?

“I have to focus and try to do the same things that I prepared today to take into Sunday,” Hill said after Game 6. “It sounds funny, but I had to go find my Chipotle barbacoa. That’s my pregame meal, so I’m up two games — well, the three games here, that’s what I ate before the game. I’m for sure going to find a Chipotle in Boston, I’ll tell you that.”

Beyond Hill and his barbacoa, Jeff Green is getting the start with Hill out — he is a streaky player, but the good Green would go a long way to helping the Cavs in this one. Kyle Korver needs to find space and knock down threes, the good J.R. Smith needs to show up (that version of him missed a lot of time this series, he’s been dreadful for several games), and Tristan Thompson needs to get some offensive rebounds. LeBron is going to do his thing, but the man can only do so much, he needs help.

3) Are the Celtics’ young stars ready for this pressure and this moment? Boston is at home, where they are a different team and an undefeated 10-0 this season. Boston is also the younger team that bounces back faster, something that matters because this is the third game in five days for these teams (great scheduling, NBA… ugh). The Celtics deserve to be the favorite, but the question that has hung over them all playoffs still looms for this game:

Is Boston ready for this stage and this level of pressure?

“I’ve tried my best all year to try and not talk about their age,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Game 6. “It’s not about that. They’re really good basketball players. They’re really committed to each other. We all have a job to do and that’s go out and try to play the best we can. That’s regardless, Game 7, Game 1, a game in November, whatever the case may be… We need to be ready to play. We will be ready to play.”

The Celtics have already played a Game 7 in this postseason, handily beating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. That, however, is a much smaller stage. They need to do Sunday what they did in that first Game 7 — the win starts on the defensive end, making LeBron work for his buckets and not letting the supporting cast get rolling. Then, with the stops and turnovers, use those young legs to get out in transition and get a few easy buckets, force cross-matches and take advantage.

Boston gets their points by committee, they get the ball to the open man and he has to knock the shot down, whether it’s Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier or Al Horford or anyone else. In Game 6, they were not hitting those shots, and defensively they let Hill and other supporting Cavaliers get rolling. That has to change in Game 7 — make LeBron work for his buckets and don’t let the role players get hot.

Boston needs another aggressive first quarter from Brown (he’s done that most of the series). They need to force switches and run sets that get Horford space from Thompson. The Celtics need to defend, then run — they need to force the pace and try to wear down the older Cavaliers.

All season, all playoffs, despite being down men, the Celtics have just found a way to win. They need to do that one more time to reach the Finals.

Will Chris Paul play in Game 7?

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The way Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry were shooting it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of Game 6, but the Houston Rockets missed Chris Paul. They missed his steadying influence on offense, and maybe more importantly they missed his defense — Curry was directing the offense, creating space with his handles then finding people cutting off the ball and draining threes. Paul may have been able to help keep Curry in relative check.

Which all leads to this big question: Will Paul suit up and play in Game 7?

Doesn’t sound like it.

I would describe the mood of sources I spoke to on this issues as pessimistic on CP3’s chances of play.

If Paul can at all go, he will. Three years ago Paul played through a hamstring injury to lead the Clippers past the Spurs, he’ll want to do it again.

This is different. For one thing, Paul is older now, his body will not bounce back the same way. Also, there are risks in playing him — if he is at all limited with his movement the Warriors will target him with Curry and Klay Thompson, try to get CP3 moving laterally and exploiting him. If he’s not right, Mike D’Antoni needs to have him on a short leash.

But if he can go, D’Antoni will let him try.

Watch best of Klay Thompson’s nine threes, 35-point night

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Stephen Curry is a better shooter. Kevin Durant is a better scorer with a bigger toolbox.

But no Warrior can get as white-hot as Klay Thompson.

He did that on Saturday night helping the Warriors to a Game 6 win, getting his rhythm and becoming a scoring machine in the second half, finishing with 35 points including hitting 9-of-14 from three, and having six rebounds. He was just as important on the other end of the floor.

“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. But he was fantastic.”

Thompson will need to bring some of that Heat in Game 7 on the road if the Warriors are going to head back to the NBA Finals.