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.

Russell Westbrook sneak-snacking steals show on NBA’s opening night

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NBA’s opening night was quite tame. The Celtics and Warriors won as expected, neither the 76ers nor Thunder mounting much of a challenge.

That allowed Russell Westbrookout with an injury — to have the most fun moment when he looked around deviously, turned to his side and ate something.

What did did Westbrook eat? Was he not supposed to be eating? Did he not want to share? Big questions remain unanswered surrounding this important incident.

Joel Embiid on 76ers-Celtics: ‘This is not a rivalry … They always kick our ass’

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The 76ers-Celtics rivalry is being renewed.

But it’s not there yet, according to Philadelphia center Joel Embiid.

The 76ers are 3-19 against Boston since drafting Embiid, and though that includes multiple tanking years, Philadelphia hasn’t fared much better since getting good. The 76ers went 2-7 against the Celtics last season, including 1-4 in their second-round playoff series. Philadephia followed that with a season-opening loss to the Celtics last night.

Embiid, via Matt Haughton of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

“JJ (Redick) mentioned it earlier, this is not a rivalry,” Embiid said to reporters after the Sixers’ 105-87 season-opening loss to the Boston Celtics (see observations). “I don’t know our record against them but it’s pretty bad. They always kick our ass.”

I appreciate Embiid’s directness. We can all see the problem. There’s no point denying it.

The subtext is Embiid’s motivation to change this status quo, and a lot of it does fall in Embiid. Al Horford has given him fits. Even Aron Baynes worked him at times last night. Embiid is talented and far younger than those two. He’ll eventually get there.

In the meantime, he’s not mincing words.

Vinsanity grinds into a 21st season, rare company in the NBA

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ATLANTA (AP) — Vince Carter feels like a 20-something again.

Always does when this time of year rolls around.

Never mind the specks of gray in his beard, all the wear and tear on his body, a resume that shows he entered the NBA the same year teammate Trae Young was born.

Carter has made it to another opening night. The thrill of a new season flows through those creaky ol’ bones. Once again, it all seems worthwhile: the monotonous practices, the tedious film sessions, the long plane flights, the grind of 82 games.

“If I had that old `heck, here we go again’ feeling, then I wouldn’t play,” Carter said Tuesday, having finished up practice with a few extra jumpers. “This is like I’m in my third, fourth, fifth year. I’m excited about the opportunity. I’m excited about playing. I still love playing. I still love competing. I still enjoy the traveling, the ups and downs of the league. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hard to let go.”

The league’s oldest player – Carter is 41 and will turn another year older in January – is back for his 21st season. That puts him on the cusp of some very exclusive company: Robert Parrish, Kevin Willis and Kevin Garnett are the only players to last that long in the NBA (Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki also has a chance to join the 21 Club this year).

Carter is hardly chasing a championship, signing on with a rebuilding Atlanta Hawks team that is years away from having a realistic shot at competing for a title. He’s here to mentor to a bunch of young players and serve as a virtual player-coach on a first-year staff led by Lloyd Pierce.

“When we have our locker room and on-the-bus debates and conversations, he’s on our side,” quipped Pierce, a rookie head coach who is only about eight months older than Carter. “He can relate a little closer to the coaching staff than he can with the players.”

Kent Bazemore, the last holdover from a 60-win team that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2015, lost most of his golfing buddies – including Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver – when the Hawks embarked on a rebuilding plan that send them tumbling to 24-58 last season.

With Carter on the roster, Bazemore again has someone to tee it up with on off days.

“I’ve got a new golfing buddy,” said Bazemore, who at 29 is one of the oldest players on the roster not named Vince Carter. “I’m excited about that. (The younger players) haven’t gotten into it yet.”

As expected, Carter takes some good-natured ribbing from his teammates, a grandpa joke here, an “ain’t it past your bedtime” there.

But all in all, he seems to fit it quite nicely with all these kids.

“We have a lot in common, believe it or not,” Carter said, breaking into a smile. “I make it my business to know what’s going on in the millennial world.”

While expected to fill a largely backup role for the Hawks, Carter will be in the starting lineup when they open the season Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. He’s subbing for power forward John Collins, a first-round pick in 2017 and one of those building blocks for Atlanta’s future, who is sidelined by an ankle injury.

Never mind that Carter is only 6-foot-6 and has spent his entire career at shooting guard and small forward.

Wherever he’s needed, he’s ready to give it a shot.

“I prepare myself in the summer for any situation,” Carter said. “I tell the coach first thing: `I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”‘

Young, the No. 5 overall pick and cornerstone of the Hawks’ makeover, looks forward to gleaning all he can from a player who was once one of the league’s brightest stars, a guy who threw down sick jams and averaged more than 20 points a game in 10 of his first 12 seasons.

Carter’s above-the-rim antics earned him a variety of nicknames – from “Vinsanity” to “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” – and a likely spot one day in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even though he’s never won a championship and there was griping early in his career about whether he was giving it his all.

These days, he’s a respected senior citizen, a player who draws nothing but awe for hanging on as long as he has, even though he’s bounced around to six teams in the past decade and hasn’t been a regular starter since 2012.

“He’s experienced so many things,” Young said. “I can go to him about anything and just ask him questions. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m just blessed to be around him and get advice from him.”

Carter hasn’t decided how long this ride will last.

Twenty-one years might be enough.

Then again, if he still feels that same sort of excitement that he’s feeling right now, he might go where no one has gone before in the NBA.

A 22nd season.

“At year 18, 19, I just said I’ll assess how I feel and the situation at the end of each year,” Carter said. “Just because I’m close to a bunch of different accomplishments, I don’t want to change my routine. I’ve had a lot of success doing it this way.”

With that, Carter hustled off to the locker room, the last guy to leave the court.

There was another flight to catch.

Another opening night to get to.

 

Nuggets agree to contract extension with coach Mike Malone

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Mike Malone was one of the names on the coaching hot seat lists this season. Not that his seat was warm just yet, a lot of pundits were high on his Nuggets (I predicted them to be fourth in the West), but after just missing the playoffs the past two years, if Denver got off to a slow start this season….

Cross Malone off your list, he just got a contract extension from the Nuggets.

This reportedly adds two years to his existing contract, so it now runs through 2021, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Expectations are high in Denver with a return to the playoffs the only acceptable outcome. The Nuggets have improved each season under Malone and won 46 games last season (that gets you in the dance most years). The Nuggets have a deep and impressive roster led by a top 20 NBA player in Nikola Jokic, a point guard in Jamal Murray who is poised to break out in his third season, plus quality rotation players such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

Malone can earn that new contract — and get the team into the postseason — just by finally improving the Denver defense, which was 26th in the NBA last season. If they move up to the middle of the pack, with the Nuggets’ elite offense, they are in.

Whatever happens, Denver is a team to watch this season. And Malone isn’t going anywhere.