PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Rip City moves to front of the line

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For the first time this season we are seeing some life out of the Eastern Conference in these rankings — they have three of the top six teams in the Rankings. However, the top spot still goes to the West and it’s a new team — Portland. They are top 10 in offense and defense and that’s the ultimate sign of being legit.

source:  1. Trail Blazers (26-7. Last Week No. 2). They have won nine of 10 and are 2-1 in games that LaMarcus Aldridge has missed recently. They are 15-2 at home — if they can hold their ground in a deep West home court could be huge for them in the playoffs. UPDATED: They passed a big test Tuesday night against Toronto and and there is another once coming against Atlanta on Saturday.

source:  2. Bulls (21-9, LW 10). They have won six in a row and what should really scare teams is they are doing it with offense more than defense. They have looked like the best team in the East of late, they are healthy, and if they can stay that way the road to the Finals out East will go through the Windy City.

source:  3. Warriors (24-5, LW 1). They lost both games in Los Angeles last week — without Andrew Bogut teams have found you can go at them and get shots in the paint. Bogut is going to miss a couple more weeks at least but the good news is the Warriors are home for six of the next seven.

source:  4. Rockets (21-8, LW 8). What the Rockets hope Josh Smith brings them is depth and versatility up front. They got that in his first game as a Rocket — they fed him heavily late in the game and in overtime because Vince Carter was trying to guard him. Smith wasn’t efficient (9-of-21 shooting for 21 points) but it got the job done and the Rockets won. However, against the Spurs Sunday he was 2-of-7 shooting and largely a non-factor. The jury is still out on this pickup, but it was low risk (only $2 million).

source:  5. Raptors (24-7, LW 6). They picked up a quality win on the road against the Clippers, plus they got 61 points out of Lou Williams and Kyle Lowry against Denver. They are a very impressive 11-4 without DeMar DeRozan and have the best offense in the NBA so far this season.

source:  6. Hawks (22-8, LW 7). They are 15-2 in their last 17 and that includes wins over the Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets, Bulls and Cavaliers. Good test against Portland this week, but the Hawks are showing they are legit.

source:  7. Mavericks (22-10, LW 4). It’s small sample size theater but the Mavericks are defending better since Rajon Rondo arrived, which is what they needed most out of him. What is evident is they need another big behind Tyson Chandler — Jermaine O’Neal may be that guy but he’s undecided about coming back. Even without Chandler that was a quality win Sunday over the Thunder.

source:  8. Grizzlies (22-8, LW 3) They dropped four in a row before beating the Heat on Saturday, and their defense hasn’t been the rock it was. The good news for them is that after the Spurs this week the schedule softens up for a short while (as much as it can in the West, anyway.

source:  9. Clippers (20-11, LW 5). Yes, they picked up a quality win over the Warriors on Christmas Day, but the best thing any Clipper did last week was Spencer Hawes’ suit on Christmas Day. That was real and it was spectacular.

source:  10. Suns (18-14, LW 12). Winners of six in a row, but that is how the Suns seem to run — red hot then ice cold (they had lost six in a row before this). You’d like to think this latest streak means they found their groove, but I’m not convinced yet because the defense still isn’t that great, just average, and the offense will only carry them so far.

source:  11. Spurs (19-13, LW 9). They have dropped six of their last eight games and may be without Tony Parker — the catalyst for their offense — for “a while” due to his recurring hamstring injury. Still, good luck finding anyone around the league willing to write off the Spurs, we’ve all seen their obituaries before only to watch them rise up.

source:  12. Wizards (21-8, LW 11). Sure, it was only beating the Knicks, but Washington’s win on Christmas Day showed why this team has a legitimate chance to make the Eastern Conference Finals. The reason is their defense — at 99.2 points per 100 possessions it is the best in the East (and fourth best in the NBA overall). That and John Wall can carry them a long way.

source:  13. Thunder (15-17, LW 15). It’s not easy to string together consistent wins in the West, especially with Kevin Durant missing time with a sprained ankle. A few losses has them now three games back of the red-hot Suns in the race for the final playoff spot in the West, four back of the seven seed Spurs. I still expect the Thunder get there, but the path is not that easy.

source:  14. Cavaliers (18-12 LW 11). The finger pointing at coach David Blatt has begun, and there are legit questions about if he can reach this team. That said, the best player in the NBA said he was in “chill mode” against Orlando until Tobias Harris trash talked him. The Cavaliers can’t win with LeBron in chill mode, they need him to step up and be a real leader. And that might start with hustling back on defense.

source:  14. Pelicans (15-15, LW 15). Despite the gaudy block numbers of Anthony Davis — pretty much all AD’s stats are gaudy — the Pelicans are 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. They brought in Omer Asik to solidify the defense and if that’s not happening coach Monty Williams is going to feel his seat getting very warm.

source:  16. Bucks (15-16, LW 16). This team has had to deal with a lot of injuries and credit Jason Kidd for finding lineups that continue to work. Even Jared Dudley is having the kinds of big games (10-for-10 shooting nights) the Clippers had hoped for last season.

source:  17. Heat (14-17, LW 18). Chris Bosh is set to return Monday, which should help the Heat’s spacing and their offense. Miami was 3-5 during a long home stand without Bosh and their offense has been three points per 100 better when he is on the court this season.

source:  18. Kings (13-17, LW 19). Well, firing the coach has really fixed everything. The Kings do have DeMarcus Cousins back and did beat the Knicks Saturday (in overtime, thanks to 39 from Cousins) but they still aren’t defending so they still don’t win consistently. Which is what Malone had been preaching.

source:  19. Nets (13-16, LW 21). Lionel Hollins is finding it was a lot easier to put together a quality offense around Marc Gasol than it has been with the ingredients the Nets have given him. Challenging road games vs. Bulls and Heat up for the Nets this week.

source:  20. Nuggets (13-18, LW 17). You still see flashes from them, but nothing consistent. In fact, the weak play has been worse in the last month, this seems to be a team regressing as it moves along.

source:  21. Magic (12-21, LW 23). Things I didn’t expect to type — the Magic are the nine seed in the East, just three games back of Brooklyn and Miami for making the playoffs. They’ve won two of three and were up on the Cavaliers (until Tobias Harris started barking at LeBron James).

source:  22. Jazz (10-20, LW 26). More from Derrick Favors, speaking to PBT, about the improvements in the Utah offense: “That’s one of the things Quin talked to the whole team about coming in, was the spacing on the floor, particularly on the pick-and-roll with me and whichever guard is in it. It’s always open for the guard or they dish to me and I drive to the basket to make a play, or for whoever is on the perimeter they get a wide-open jump shot, a wide open three. That’s something Quin really talked to us about.”

source:  23. Hornets (10-21, LW 22). They had played well without Lance Stephenson (coincidence?) but even a 42-point night from Kemba Walker can’t get them a win. The bigger issue for this team remains the slip in defense from top five last season to 19th so far this season.

source:  24. Pistons (7-23, LW 27). They upset the Cavaliers and had their best offensive showing of the season and won two in a row since they waived Josh Smith. Coincidence? I think not. It doesn’t mean the Pistons will rattle off 10 wins in a row, but they are finding a comfort with the offense now.

source:  25. Pacers (11-21, LW 24). George Hill is back and while he has been much maligned in Indy he is a needed talent with this roster. Some challenging games ahead with Chicago, Miami and Milwaukee up this week.

source:  26. Celtics (10-18, LW 20). I expect you’ll start seeing Brandan Wright showcased more as Danny Ainge will want to trade him again at the deadline. The Celtics have lost four in a row and their offense has been the reason. It’s not pretty.

source:  27. Lakers (9-22, LW 22). No, the Lakers are not better without Kobe Bryant. However, what they are is more predictable and easy to defend on offense — when Kobe is pounding the ball in an isolation set everyone else stands around, the Lakers become predictable. The offense needs to be less a shrine to Kobe and more about player movement — and it was on Sunday night against the Suns. But the Lakers still lost.

source:  28. 76ers (4-25, LW 28). They have a Top 10 NBA defense. Seriously. They 10th in defensive efficiency. The fact that they have just four wins on the season speaks to just how anemic the offense is. They are on a rough West Coast road trip this week with the Warriors, Suns and Clippers coming up this week.

source:  29. Timberwolves (5-24, LW 29). Losers of eight in a row but the cavalry may be on the horizon — Ricky Rubio is practicing a little and could be back on the floor in a couple of weeks. They play the Jazz twice and the Kings this week, it’s a good chance to end that losing streak.

source:  30. Knicks (5-27, LW 30). They have lost seven in a row and 18-of-19. In the last game Carmelo Anthony did not return after halftime with a sore left knee, so the team leaned heavily on Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cole Aldrich for offense. That pretty much sums it up.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse leaves mouth agape a loooong time after odd call (video)

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The Raptors got called for an extremely quick three-second violation during their Game 4 win over the Magic yesterday.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe it.

Really couldn’t believe it.

Just couldn’t believe it one bit.

Bucks on brink of first playoff series win in 18 years

Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Milwaukee Bucks can wipe away 18 years of frustration on Monday night.

They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2000-01 season, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals. That drought can end in Detroit if they complete a sweep of the Pistons.

The top-seeded Milwaukee cruised through the first three games, winning by an average of 24 points. If they lose in Game 4, the Bucks would have three more chances in the best-of-seven series to end their streak of eight straight first-round exits. The earlier the Bucks eliminate eighth-seeded Detroit, the more time they’ll have to prepare for the conference semifinals.

“It’s going to be nice if we can finish it here and get six days of rest,” superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said.

In Game 3 on Saturday, Antetokounmpo had a quiet night and the Bucks still led by double digits most of the way. Antetokounmpo finished with 14 points, three assists and four turnovers and only played 27 minutes due to foul trouble. The Pistons couldn’t take advantage of his off night, though, as Milwaukee had six other players in double figures in its 119-103 victory.

“It’s good to see my team doing really well out there without me,” he said. “It means a lot to me. There’s going to be nights like this. My teammates did a great job of picking me up.”

The Bucks were up 13 points when Antetokounmpo sat early in the third quarter after getting whistled for his fourth foul. When he re-entered late in the quarter, they were leading by 22 points.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to build all year,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’re a team that plays together, tries to take what the defense gives us. Guys have a lot of confidence to make plays. It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is. If and when we need more from other people, it’s a credit to Giannis to let his teammates carry him some nights, carry him some stretches.”

The Bucks will try match their regular-season feat against the Pistons. Their four-game sweep was the first by either team in the all-time series. They have met in the postseason four other times, with Detroit winning each time.

“We might be the number one seed and best team in the NBA (record-wise) but at the end of the day, we haven’t won a playoff series in a while,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re hungry, everybody’s hungry.”

The Pistons’ best player, power forward Blake Griffin, made his debut in the series after sitting out the first two games with a sore left knee. Griffin toughed it out for 31 minutes and posted 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His teammates let him down, as Detroit shot below 40 percent for the third straight game.

“That young man is giving us everything he has,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He said he was feeling good. I was concerned about his conditioning with as much time as he’s missed. You can’t really simulate 5-on-5 basketball when you’re rehabbing. But he came in and gave us what he could. He just has a presence that we can’t replicate.”

The Pistons haven’t shown enough of a defensive presence against a team that averaged a league-high 118.1 points.

“We had some situations where we make a mistake or miss a shot, now we go down to the defensive end and don’t carry out our assignments,” Casey said. “That’s part of growth. That’s a team that makes you pay for mistakes that you make.”

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Not just Lillard, CJ McCollum outplaying OKC, too

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) It’s not a one-man show, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum outplaying Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Coming into the series, both Portland and Oklahoma City faced a question: Could their stars help overcome weakness with their depth and support players. Through four games, one team’s stars are outplaying their counterparts.

That played out again on Sunday: Russell Westbrook was 0-of-7 shooting in the second half, 5-of-21 for the game, finishing with 14 points. Paul George was 8-of-21 shooting but at least was getting to the free throw line on his way to 32 points. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard had 15 points in the third quarter alone when Portland started to pull away, CJ McCollum hit some critical threes in the fourth (he was 5-of-9 from three for the game) to help the Trail Blazers stay ahead on his way to 27 points.

Portland went into OKC and won 111-98, taking a commanding 3-1 lead heading home for Game 5.

After the game, Jusuf Nurkic (sidelined with a leg injury) couldn’t resist taking a little shot at Westbrook and his postgame antics.

A lot of the attention this series has gone to the heads-up matchup of Westbrook vs. Lillard duel — and with good reason, it’s been bad blood and entertaining. However, that has left McCollum in the shadows and he deserves some spotlight for averaging 26.3 points, shooting 51.6 percent from three, plus having 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game against the Thunder through four. Oklahoma City has not had an answer for him.

Oklahoma City has had to play a lot of Dennis Schroder this series because he’s been efficient on offense (17 points on 6-of-12 shooting Sunday) but either Lillard or McCollum can just take him in isolation whenever they want and get buckets. It also helps Portland when Al-Farouq Aminu is giving them 19 points, as he did Sunday.

The big picture lesson in this series: Shooting matters. Oklahoma City’s stars are not finishing well enough inside, settling for more midrangers than they should, and unless it’s from the right corner the Thunder struggle from three. You’re not going to win a lot of games with the shot chart the Thunder had on Sunday.

2) Boston sweeps past Indiana to advance, East races shaping up as expected. The playoffs in the East are going to be a dynamic show, but we knew that was really going to start in the second round. One could make a case for Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston to come out of the conference, but after those four there was a talent drop off. There was the first round to get through before the real fireworks began.

Boston advanced Sunday with a sweep of the Pacers, winning 110-106 behind 20 points from Gordon Hayward, who had himself a night.

Frankly, this series was decided back in January when Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon. Without him the Pacers — who played hard and smart in his absence, and were brilliantly coached by Nate McMillan — just did not have the firepower to score enough to make this series interesting.

Also in the East on Sunday, Toronto overwhelmed Orlando 107-85 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead as things head back north of the border for Game 5. That loss by the Magic all but sealed this series, which might have been a sweep if not for the rider in every Toronto player contract that they have to stink in the first game of every playoff series.

Milwaukee likely sweeps Detroit out of the playoffs on Monday night, setting up their showdown with Boston in the second round. Brooklyn has put up a fight against Philadelphia — down to their GM breaking NBA taboos and going into the referees’ locker room to discuss how they officiate Joel Embiid — but with the Sixers up 3-1 and having game 5 at home Tuesday, this series also feels inevitable.

Then we can get on to the main course in the East.

3) Klay Thompson goes for a swim, comes out of the ocean and destroys the Clippers, Warriors go up 3-1. Klay Thompson hadn’t played poorly through the first three games of the Warriors’ first-round playoff series with the Clippers, he’d played impressive defense and averaged 13.7 points on 44.4 percent shooting. But he hadn’t had a breakout game, the kind we expect from one of the game’s best shooters.

So he went for a swim (via NBC Sports Bay Area and Monte Poole).

“I told Jonas [Jerebko] yesterday when we went to the beach to play some volleyball, like, ‘Yo, I’m just going to jump in the ocean. I know that will reset my mind.’ And it worked.”

Sunday Thompson had 27 points in the first half, going on to finish with 32 on 12-of-20 shooting (6-of-9 from three). The Warriors won 113-105 to take a 3-1 series lead heading back to the Bay Area for Game 5.

“The Pacific Ocean is undefeated,” said Stephen Curry after the game (he struggled with 12 points on 14 shots, the Clippers have defended him well this series).

Golden State has a showdown with Houston coming. With all due respect to the other teams still in the dance in the West, that is your Western Conference Finals, it’s just taking place in the second round. Houston has dominated Utah and can sweep them out of the playoffs Monday night.

Houston is playing its best basketball of the season, it is defending at a high level, and the Rockets have a shot against the Warriors. They believe they can win, but we’ll find out starting next weekend (most likely, dates for the second round are not public yet).

Road, sweet road! NBA away teams go 8-0 over weekend

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Road, sweet road.

There were eight NBA playoff games this weekend, and all eight were won by the road team. It’s the first time in NBA history there were eight road playoff wins in a two-day span.

“Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs,” Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard said.

The Raptors were one of the eight road winners this weekend, prevailing at Orlando on Sunday. Other Sunday road winners included Boston over Indiana, Golden State over the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland over Oklahoma City.

On Saturday, it was Philadelphia over Brooklyn, Denver over San Antonio, Houston over Utah and Milwaukee over Detroit.

Through 30 games of this year’s playoffs, road teams are 16-14. Home teams went 3-0 on Wednesday, and went 2-12 in the four days that followed. Since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984, there has never been a first round where road teams won more than home teams.

Home teams won 71 percent of playoff games last season, the NBA’s highest such clip since 2008.