PBT NBA Power Rankings: Santa brings presents to Blazers, Thunder; lumps of coal to Atlantic

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Oklahoma City almost took over the top spot in the rankings, until they laid an egg Sunday night. The Blazers hold on for another week, but they didn’t look elite last week even in their wins and this week sees a few big tests.

 
source:  1. Trail Blazers (23-5, Last Week No. 1). If the NBA had flex scheduling for Christmas, you can bet the Blazers would have made the cut. Only two games for Portland this week but they are tests: the Los Angeles Clippers and the Miami Heat. The good news is they catch both teams at home on the second night of a back-to-back.

 
source:  2. Thunder (22-5, LW 2). Their only loss this week snapped a 13-game home winning streak — a lackluster effort against a Raptors team playing better of late. That’s not what I’m going to remember out of this week, however, rather it will be the big win over the Spurs. OKC has a huge Christmas Day showcase game, but against the lowly Knicks.

 
source:  3. Heat (20-6, LW 5). Miami has won four in a row and it’s not a coincidence Dwyane Wade has averaged almost 26 points a game in that stretch. Christmas Day they get the Kobe-less Lakers, a team that wants to run… and plays right into the Heat’s hands.

 
source:  4. Pacers (22-5, LW 3). Another team that would be playing on Christmas Day if the NBA could redo the schedule. In the Blazers case you kind of see the oversight as they weren’t that strong last season, but why is a team that made the conference finals and was improving getting overlooked?

 
source:  5. Clippers (20-9, LW 6). Winners of five in a row and while we expect their offense to be strong (115.4 points per 100 possessions in those five) their defense has given up just 97.7 points per 100, sixth best in the league in that stretch. As we have said from the start, if the Clippers defend they are a real threat.

 
source:  6. Spurs (21-6, LW No. 4). It’s tough to accurately judge the Spurs during the regular season, or over the past week even, because they have battled injuries and rested guys. That said, this season they are 5-5 against teams over .500 in the West. Interesting.

 
source:  7. Suns (16-10, LW 7). The Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe pairing is driving the offense most nights, but when Gerald Green gets rolling like he did against the Mavericks over the weekend (and the Suns are draining threes) they are especially dangerous.

 
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8. Rockets (18-10, LW 8). Santa needs to bring this team some consistency — they look pedestrian getting drilled by the Pacers, then bounce back with one of their best games of the season against Detroit (with Dwight Howard dominating Andre Drummond). Been like that all season. Houston will miss Patrick Beverly.

 
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9. Warriors (15-13, LW 10). Andre Iguodala is back and instantly the Warriors defense became solid to good again — they needed him. However, that loss to the shorthanded Spurs was a punch to the guy, the Warriors need to find a way to score when the threes aren’t falling.

 
source:  10. Nuggets (14-9, LW 9). Denver finally won a first quarter last Friday against Phoenix! Of course, they the proceeded to blow a 21-point lead and lose the game. So, I guess go back to losing the first quarters.

 
source:  11. Hawks (15-12, LW 13). Winners of three in a row, but as they did it against the banged up Lakers, the Kings and the Jazz, don’t read too much into it. BTW, remember they have the right to swap picks with the Nets this coming draft. That is looking like a very good pick.

 
source:  12. Mavericks (15-12, LW 11). This is still a fun team to watch… if you’re not Rick Carlisle. The defensive lapses (they don’t have a rim protector) and blown leads have to be driving him crazy.

 
source:  13. Timberwolves (13-15, LW 12). Kevin Love put up monster numbers against the Clippers Sunday, 45 points and 19 rebounds, yet for the two biggest shots of the game Minnesota went to Nikola Pekovic. Yes, he had a good night and 34 points, but Love HAS to touch the ball there. Has to.

 
source:  14. Wizards (12-13, LW 17). Honest question: With Nene healthy is this the third best team in the East? Washington is the winner of three in a row — see how much fun it is to play against the teams in the Atlantic?

 
source:  15. Lakers (13-14, LW 15). Yes, they do look better without the rusty Kobe Bryant at the point; it’s okay to admit it. They are not better long term without him, but he was shaking off the rust still and forced to play the point. Also, Lakers fans stop asking for it: They will not tank, especially with Kobe coming back is six weeks or so.

 
source:  16. Bobcats (13-15, LW 26). Charlotte is a tough out because it plays hard every night — but all anyone wants to talk about is the new Hornets logo. Which I have to say I like a lot.

 
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17. Pistons (13-16, LW 16). They have lost five of six at home and in a couple of those games featured big blown leads, like 20 points to Charlotte. Yet they find a way to beat the Pacers. You try and figure this team out, Mo Cheeks can’t.

 
source:  18. Raptors (11-14, LW 20). Toronto is your new Atlantic Division leader, having gone 5-2 since the Rudy Gay trade (and one of those losses was in overtime). None of that changes the rebuilding plan, expect a lot more Kyle Lowry trade rumors soon.

 
source:  19. Pelicans (11-14, LW 14). Anthony Davis is back and scored 45 points on 31 shots plus pulled down 21 rebounds in two games. Not that the Pelicans won either of those games. Still, if I had to pick one team that could make a surprising climb up to the eight seed this would be the squad.

 
source:  20. Grizzlies (11-15, LW 18). They are 4-9 with a bottom five offense and defense in that stretch since Marc Gasol went down. Just in case you had any questions about how important he is to this squad.

 
source:  21. Celtics (12-17, LW 19). Looks like no Rajon Rondo until at best late January and maybe closer to the All-Star Game. Which is good, it’s not about this season in Boston, where they have surrendered the Titanic Atlantic division lead. Take your time Rajon, no rush.

 
source:  22. Cavaliers (10-16, LW 22). A quick look at the standings tells you what you need to know: Cleveland is a respectable 8-4 at home and a dreadful 2-12 on the road. Using the old Doug Moe theory, good teams have more road wins than home losses, so… not good.

 
source:  23. Nets (9-17, LW 21). The loss of Brook Lopez for the season is devastating. We’d say tank but they traded the pick to Boston (and the Hawks get to swap picks anyway) so they have no choice but to soldier on looking for wins. Look for some desperation trades to come soon.

 
source:  24. Knicks (8-18, LW 23). Is a blowout loss at home to Oklahoma City a major Christmas Day broadcast too much for Mike Woodson to withstand? Maybe. Problem is there are no “A-listers” to replace him mid-season, and maybe not that many after the season either (coaches around the league see that roster, the front office and the demands and wonder if it is worth it).

 
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25. Bulls (10-16, LW 24). Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler could return to the roster by Christmas, which would be a huge gift from Santa for a team really struggling. That D.J. Augustin has to start says everything you need to know about the state of the Bulls roster.

 
source:  26. Kings (8-18, LW 25). Rudy Gay is still scoring 18.8 points a game and shooting an efficient 50 percent from the floor since the trade. Not that the Kings are winning those games because their team defense stinks.

 
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27. Jazz (8-22, LW 28). At some point, don’t they have to start playing Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter together for long stretches, even if it fails at first, just to see? Trey Burke looks like a rookie — alternately brilliant (like against the Magic when he dropped 30) and a disaster.

 
source:  28. Magic (8-19, LW 27). Home losses last week to Utah and Sacramento — that is not good at all. Well, at least Tobias Harris is back on the court.

 
source:  29. 76ers (8-20, LW 29). Michael Carter-Williams is back in the lineup, and not so coincidentally the Sixers won on his return. That’s pretty much the only good news I have for Sixers fans. Sorry.

 
source:  30. Bucks (6-21, LW 30). O.J. Mayo leads this team in scoring at 13.9 points a game. Yikes. Tune in for the Giannis Antetokounmpo and… well, that’s really the only reason to tune in.

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.

Backs against wall down 17, Warriors crank up defense, rain threes, force Game 7

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Warriors’ fans have been asking one question since the season tipped off in October:

What is it going to take to get Golden State to truly focus and play up to their potential?

Apparently, the answer is going down 17 to the Houston Rockets in a playoff elimination game.

Houston entered Oracle Saturday night playing smart and with energy, defending as they had the previous two games and then turning that into transition buckets and threes — 11 of them in the first half. Houston was up 17 in the first quarter and 10 at the half.

However, Golden State had started to defend better in the second quarter and they cranked up the intensity to the level fans had hoped to see in the second half — Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter and 47 combined in the final three. Houston had 25 points in the second half and shot 2-of-9 from three in the third quarter.

At the same time, Klay Thompson led an onslaught of threes for Golden State (Thompson had 9 threes on the night). The Warriors defense turned into offense.

The result was a dramatic turnaround and a 115-86 Golden State win, tying the Western Conference Finals at 3-3.

Game 7 is in Houston Monday night. Winner advances to the NBA Finals.

“Effort. Intensity. Passion,” Thompson said of the Warriors’ second-half surge. “When we do that, and we rotate, and we help each other we’re the best defensive team in the league.”

While it was their defense that sparked everything, the Warriors also found an offense that worked against the Rockets’ switching defense — more Stephen Curry with the ball in his hands. There are a few ways to counter a switching defense and one is a creative ballhandler who can still make plays — not just isolation plays, but who can create a little space and find guys moving off the ball despite the pressure. Curry was that guy, he was the Warriors best all-around player on the night. He had a high IQ game and added 29 points.

It just took a lot of pressure from a Rockets team to get Golden State into that mental frame of mind.

Houston opened this game with the same defensive energy they had the last two games, and once again it flustered the Golden State offense. Except, this time the Rockets did a much better job of turning those misses and turnovers into transition points (the Rockets averaged two points per possession on the break in the first half). Throw in some terrible defensive communication errors by the Warriors, and the Rockets were raining threes in the first half — 11-of-22, with Gordon going 4-of-4.

The Warriors had some success with an ultra-small lineup that unleashed Curry, but as soon as non-shooters were on the floor — Kevon Looney, Jordon Bell, and the Rockets were daring Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston to shoot — Houston shrunk the floor and took away passing lanes, plus contested every shot.

In the second half, the Warriors used that Curry energy and hit their threes to pull away. The Warriors were at their best with Bell as the fifth man with the four All-Stars, he brought an energy and athleticism that made things flow on both ends. Don’t be shocked if he starts Game 7 for Golden State.

If the Warriors pack up that second half energy with them and take it to Houston, there is not much the Rockets will be able to do. But do not expect these gritty, feisty Rockets to go quietly into that good night.

Rockets were draining threes in the first half against Warriors in Game 6

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The Rockets were feeling it the first half in Game 6.

Playing with an energy the Warriors lacked at least in the first quarter), Houston defended well, pushed the ball in transition, and then they just drained three after three after three.

Eric Gordon started 4-of-4 from three and the team was 11-of-22 in the first half, which made up for the 11 turnovers and had them up 17 at one point and ahead by 10 after the first half.

Warriors’ Andre Iguodala out for Game 6

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Steve Kerr has been searching for a couple of games now for his fifth guy.

With Andre Iguodala out there is no Death/Hamptons 5 lineup and Kerr is looking for a fifth guy to partner with his four All-Stars. Kevon Looney is starting, Jordan Bell is showing potential but also makes some rookie plays, Nick Young has been bad enough that Kerr trusted Quin Cook more at the end of the last game (and Cook missed his looks).

Kerr is going to have to keep searching for a guy in Game 6 because Iguodala is out again.

The Warriors are not the team heading into Game 6 with the most significant injury woes, the Rockets are without Chris Paul. That and the fact the Warriors’ backs are against the wall is the reason they are heavy favorites in Game 6.

However, the Warriors have not been the same without Iguodala. He is a playmaker who can control the ball and settle things down, makes the right decision, get the player and ball movement the Warriors have strayed too much from back, plus is one of their best defenders on James Harden. Nobody else on the roster can do that.

And if Game 6 gets tight late, the Warriors are going to miss those skills. As they have in the last two games.