NBA Power Rankings: Spurs, Clippers are your clear top two

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The Spurs and Clippers are both on double-digit winning streaks and that vaults both to the top of the PBT weekly NBA power rankings. At the bottom sit the Sixers and their 20-game losing streak — should that impact Michael Carter-Williams’ candidacy for Rookie of the Year? I don’t think it should.
source:  1. Spurs (50-16, Last week No. 1). Winners of 10 in a row and that gives them the best record in the NBA and 50 wins on the season (for 15 straight years, which is just insane). Heading into Sunday night they had the fourth best offense in the NBA in their last 10 games (110.2 points per 100 possessions) and third best defense (98.9 per 100). And you know they can sustain it.
source:  2. Clippers (48-20, LW 2). Going into the season we said “if they can defend they are contenders.” Over their last 15 games they have the second best defense in the NBA (99.7 allowed per 100 last 15; 98 in last 10 games). They are contenders. Danny Granger, given less rigid role by Doc Rivers, is thriving. Winners of 11 in a row with a soft schedule ahead.
source:  3. Pacers (49-17, LW 6). Winners of three in a row but they haven’t looked impressive beating Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit. Better tests this week with the Knicks, Bulls and Grizzlies on tap. Indiana still not playing the same lockdown defense they did earlier in the season, but that they can get back.
source:  4. Heat (45-19, LW No. 4). Miami’s execution at the end of the win over Houston was a reminder that they still have another gear they can get to. Dwyane Wade’s maintenance plan is working — when he has played he has shot a career best 55 percent (59.4 true shooting percentage). When he has played he has been fantastic and was again Sunday.
source:  5. Thunder (48-18, LW 5).. OKC has stumbled because their defense — in particular their perimeter defense — has slumped. They really miss Thabo Sefalosha and Caron Butler is just not much of a defender anymore. This is something to watch when the playoff match ups come into focus.
source:  6. Bulls (37-29, LW 7). They are just half a game back of Toronto for the three seed and after the next 11 days (Pacers twice, Thunder, Blazers) the schedule gets pretty soft for them. Real chance they make it.
source:  7. Rockets (44-21, LW 3). Rough week with losses on the road to the Heat, Thunder and Bulls, but this season the schedule lightens up (Jazz, Timberwolves, Cavaliers) and Houston has done a good job this season of beating the teams they are supposed to. I wonder if the Rockets will move to upgrade the point guard position this offseason.
source:  8. Grizzlies (39-27, LW 9).  They have a slim one-game lead over Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the West and face some challenges this week with both the Heat and Pacers on the docket. Mike Conley is in my Top 10 of current NBA players who I want the ball in their hands in the final seconds with the game on the line.
source:  9. Warriors (42-26, LW 8). This team is a roller coaster — they have an ugly home loss to the Cavaliers then an inspiring 18-point comeback against the Trail Blazers. Roller coaster is a nice way of saying they are inconsistent, which could come back to haunt them in the playoffs.
source:  10. Mavericks (40-27, LW 10). Dallas is just 1.5 games ahead of the Suns (and falling out of the playoffs) but they just crushed Oklahoma City on Sunday and now their next eight games are at home (where they are 21-10). This is where they solidify that playoff spot.
source:  11. Suns (38-28, LW 11). They have been playing .500 ball the last 10 games, do that in the West and you fall. They are now one game back of Dallas for last playoff spots. Their schedule is relatively soft until start of April, they need to stockpile wins now.
source:  12. Trail Blazers (43-24, LW 12). Stat that should worry Portland fans: They have lost their last 12 games against teams that would make the playoffs in the West (hat tip to Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge). Soft schedule this week (Bucks, Wizards, Bobcats) they need to pick up some wins.
source:  13. Wizards (35-31, LW 13). If they get Nene back healthy I still think the Wizards could be the third best team in the East come the playoffs — but they have gone an impressive 8-3 without him. Beat the Nets last week and looked good, then not so much in loss to Bobcats. Andre Miller is providing a real boost off the bench.
source:  14. Raptors (37-28, LW 14). Their lead over Chicago for the three seed is down to half a game, they need some wins.They beat the Grizzlies last week in a quality win, but lost to the Nets and Suns. Their defense continues to look pretty good… at least until the Suns came to town and dropped 121 on them.
source:  15. Nets (33-31, LW 15). Big wins against Raptors and Heat not only solidify their playoff spot but keep dream of Atlantic Division crown alive (they are 3.5 games back of Toronto with 18 games to play, that’s going to be hard to make up without a Raptors collapse). Should be fun Goran Dragic/Deron Williams showdown Monday night.
source:  16. Bobcats (33-34, LW 17). Winners of four in a row and eight in a row at home. Looking back at the All Star Game selections I think Al Jefferson was the biggest snub — he’s averaging 26.6 points per game this month.

source:  17 . Timberwolves (33-32, LW 15). They are playing fairly well of late, it’s just too late to make a playoff run. I don’t envy Flip Saunders this summer, trying to decide if Kevin Love has one foot out the door or if there is a chance of keeping him if the team turns it around (and if so, how to get a rim protector on the roster).
source:  18. Knicks (27-40, LW 20). Doesn’t matter that he was hired after it started, Phil Jackson is going to get credit for the Knicks six game winning streak. Playoffs remain a longshot, they have 3.5 games to make up on Hawks with 15 to play, the Knicks have 9 on the road and 10 against teams over .500 (Hawks have 7 on road, 9 vs. +.500).
source:  19. Hawks (29-35, LW 24). They have won three in a row with the Knicks suddenly closing some ground. The question is were these wins a mirage or has Atlanta stopped the collapse. Games this week against Charlotte, Toronto (home and home) and Pelicans are the kinds of games where they need to get wins to hold off the Knicks.
source:  20. Nuggets (29-37, LW 18). This team is just being carried by the strong play of Ty Lawson and the hustle of Kenneth Faried. After that, the Nuggets need to do some roster evaluation.This is the team most likely to snap the Clippers 11-game winning streak for a while — Denver gets them at home in the mile high air on the second night of a Clips back-to-back.
source:  21. Cavaliers (26-41, LW 23). They may have lost Kyrie Irving for the season (as of this writing we still don’t know extent of his bicep injury) which would remove any reason to really watch the Cavs. Cleveland picked up two really nice wins last week also, beating Golden State and Phoenix, but this week is brutal (Heat, Thunder, Rockets, Knicks).
source:  22. Kings (23-44, LW 19). DeMarcus Cousins got the night off Sunday and predictably the Kings lost. On the bright side Kings fans, the NCAA Tournament is fun to scout and in May there should be demolition downtown to make way for the new arena.
source:  23. Pistons (25-41, LW 25). Saturday night’s neck injury to Andre Drummond was frightening. I’d rest him the rest of the way. And a few other guys too. Remember if the Pistons pick this year is Top 8 they keep it, 9 or beyond and it goes to the Bobcats (Detroit currently would have the 8 pick).
source:  24. Pelicans (27-39, LW 22). Anthony Davis went off for 40 and 21 Sunday night Anthony Davis is 21 years old and still figuring the game out. Next season if this team can keep Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday healthy they should be a playoff team.
source:  25. Lakers (22-44, LW 21). The shadow of Phil Jackson no longer hangs over this franchise, which is a blessing and a curse to current management. Kobe Bryant is demanding an immediate turnaround but unless someone wants to gift wrap them a trade that is not going to happen, it’s going to take a while. Kobe is what the Lakers sell fans while rebuilding.
source:  26. Celtics (22-45, LW 27). Kris Humphries hit a ridiculous shot to send the game against the Pelicans to overtime, and don’t tell anyone but Humphries has played pretty well of late. If a team gets him at $4 million a year this summer and brings him off the bench for 15-20 minutes a night he can be a solid role player.
source:  27. Jazz (22-45, LW 26). I had picked Trey Burke to win the Rookie of the Year award in my preseason predictions, then he got injured. He has had a rough go since returning, but in this class he’d still be third on my ROY ballot.
source:  28. Magic (19-48, LW 28). With the Sixers epic losing streak a lot of people are pointing toward Victor Oladipo for Rookie of the Year. As if the Magic are playing well. In his last 10 games Oladipo is averaging 14.9 points a game with a true shooting percentage of 53 and a usage rage of 23.1 (percent of possessions he uses when on the court). In his last 10 Michael Carter-Williams is averaging 14.9 points a game with a true shooting percentage of 46.2 and he is taking on more of the Sixers offense (25.1 usage rate). Not sure I blame MCW for the fact the players around him are worse than the ones around Oladipo.
source:  29. Bucks (13-54, LW 29). Brandon Knight has played pretty well of late — he has averaged 19.9 points a game in his last 15 and has guided the Bucks offense to play better than expected. He’s not the answer long term at point but he could be a good reserve (and was a better fit here than Brandon Jennings at his price).
source:  30. 76ers (15-51, LW 30). The losing streak is up to 20 and the next realistic shot they have at a win is against Detroit at home (when the streak will be 26 and tied with the longest in NBA history). The idea of them finishing the season on a 36-game losing streak is not unrealistic.

Watch Pacers’ rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO (AP) — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.