PBT NBA Power Rankings: It’s the Hawks, Warriors then a step back to everyone else

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The best teams in January are not necessarily the ones that we will see playing in June — at this time last season the top of the PBT Power rankings was Indiana and Portland. (The Spurs were third, the Heat fifth, obviously they met in the finals.) That said, right now Atlanta and Golden State are separating themselves from the pack. After that there are a lot of teams on the second tier, all pretty close to one another.

 
source:  1. Hawks (33-8, Last Week No. 1). Winners of 12 in a row and that includes a gauntlet of the other best teams in the NBA — several of those wins with at least one of their stars Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Question is how many of them the coaches put on the All-Star team.

 
source:  2. Warriors (32-6, LW 2). MVP-candidate (he’s got my vote at the halfway mark) Stephen Curry is going to be voted in an All-Star starter by the fans. But will he be the only Warriors representative? Klay Thompson will be on the bubble with the coaches’ vote because the West is so deep with guards.

 
source:  3. Spurs (26-16, LW 5). They get Kawhi Leonard back Friday night and promptly go out and beat Portland (then crush Utah Sunday). This team is just getting healthy and they have six of their next eight at home, don’t be shocked if they go on a little run.

 
source:  4. Grizzlies (29-11, LW 9). Another West test on Monday against Dallas, although Memphis has a great record against other playoff teams out West at 10-3 (while Dallas struggles against good teams). Another deserving player on the All-Star bubble, Mike Conley.

 
source:  5. Clippers (27-14, LW 7). Doc Rivers wants the Clippers to play faster, but the Clippers defensive inconsistency has made that difficult. “One of the things that I have said since I’ve been here is that it’s hard to run when you are taking the ball out of bounds.” The Clippers have done that a lot lately.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (30-11. Last Week No. 3). They have the third best defense in the NBA on the season but that has slipped the last five games (14th in the NBA in that stretch). Well, to be fair, they have struggled on both sides of the ball lately. The good news is Robin Lopez got his cast off and is getting closer to returning.

 
source:  7. Rockets (28-13, LW 6). That loss to Golden State last week was ugly because Houston’s regularly solid defense got roasted. Same thing happened against Orlando. The Warriors and Suns are on the schedule this week and Houston needs to get that defensive groove back.

 
source:  8. Mavericks (28-13, LW 8). Dallas is in the middle of a heavy road stretch of games, something that runs through early February. They are 4-3 in their last 7 games and the offense is struggling. With Nowitzki and plenty of scorers on the roster we’ll call this an offensive slump for now and see if it continues.

 
source:  9. Suns (24-18, LW 11). The eight-seed Suns see the Thunder three games back in the rear view mirror, but they also know have a heavy home schedule the second half of the season. The Suns are on a 47-win pace right now and they will likely beat that number — and they are working the trade market hard offering Miles Plumlee up.

 
source:  10. Wizards (28-13, LW 12). The Wizards are playing well and that is mostly due to their starters — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene, and Marcin Gortat are +12.4 per 48 minutes when on the court together. Consistent play out of the bench is something the Wizards still are searching for.

 
source:  11. Raptors (26-13, LW 10). DeMar DeRozan is back and this team still isn’t getting stops and still isn’t winning, having dropped 7-of-9, including blowing a lead to a Pelicans team without its two best players Sunday. Maybe they can find themselves on the road, where they are for six of their next eight.

 
source:  12. Bulls (27-15, LW 4). The Bulls’ mid-season slump continued last week and there is no one simple answer — Joakim noah needs some nights off to recover from ailing injuries, Derrick Rose is inconsistent, and Jimmy Butler is having a personal slump. Add to that a tough slate of games — Cavs, Spurs and Mavericks are up this week. The Bulls need to find their missing defense.

 
source:  13. Cavaliers (21-20 LW 16). Two wins in a row and it’s amazing how much better this team looks with LeBron James back. Well, on offense anyway, their defense still struggles (Timofey Mozgov hasn’t solved the issues in the paint) and there are questions of depth, but right now this team just needs to rack up a few more wins and get its confidence back.

 
source:  14. Thunder (19-20, LW 13). Quality win over Golden State on Friday night, reminding everyone what this team can do when right. But they are not right consistently. They better start with a tough rest of the month ahead — to make sure they pass the Suns the Thunder needs to go 30-12 the rest of the way.

 
source:  15. Bucks (21-19, LW 15). They had a nice London vacation last week (that includes picking up an easy win over the Knicks) but the injury gods continue to turn their wrath on Milwaukee — now backup point guard Kendall Marshall is lost for the season.

 
source:  16. Pelicans (20-20, LW 14). Anthony Davis (toe injury, nothing major) and Jrue Holiday have missed time yet the Pelicans found a way to win two of their last three. Good to see Alexis Ajinca step up Sunday with a 22-point game, if he can become a solid role player for them off the bench it would be a huge boost.

 
source:  17. Pistons (16-25, LW 18). . They are 8-2 in their last 10 games and are just one back of the Nets for the eight seed in the East. We’ll see if the hot streak continues with the Hawks, Bucks and Raptors on the schedule this week (I have a feeling it will).

 
source:  18. Heat (18-22, LW 17). Remember the “space and pace” offense the Heat were going to keep this season? Not so much. They are playing at a crawling pace of late and are the slowest team in the league this season. With that their offense hasn’t been impressive.

 
source:  19. Hornets (16-25, LW 20). What does it say about Lance Stephenson’s reputation around the league that his hometown Brooklyn Nets were thinking about trading for him, did their due diligence asking around the league about him, and pulled out of the deal?

 
source:  20. Nuggets (18-22, LW 19). The most interesting thing about the Nuggets the next few weeks is the trade watch — Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler and others are available at the right price. After that we can focus on what kind of team the Nuggets are trying to build and who should coach them.

 
source:  21. Nets (17-24, LW 24). The Nets want to move two of their big three contracts and it seems likely that they will find a taker for Brook Lopez — pulling back from trades now was just an effort to get a higher price. Now, finding a taker for Deron Williams or Joe Johnson will be far more difficult.

 
source:  22. Pacers (15-27, LW 21). For a team that prides itself on defense letting Mo Williams go off for 52 had to hurt. So did losing to a Hornets team without Kemba Walker or Al Jefferson. This team has playoff dreams still but the Pistons seem more likely to catch the Nets right now.

 
source:  23. Kings (16-24, LW 22). Blake Griffin says DeMarcus Cousins deserves to be an All-Star and I think the West coaches will agree with him and vote Cousins in. Good for him, but don’t expect much from a Kings team with a very heavy road schedule the rest of the season.

 
source:  24. Magic (15-28, LW 26). They went 2-2 through a gauntlet of good teams last week thanks to wins over the Bulls and Rockets. They are just 3.5 games back of a playoff spot in the East but will need to get hot the rest of the way, relatively, to make up that ground.

 
source:  25. Jazz (14-26, LW 23). The Utah offense is still the Gordon Hayward show, he is the glue that makes it all work. The Utah defense doesn’t work period. They can outscore a team like the Lakers (as they did last week) but they are not consistent enough defensively to get guys like Derrick Favors talked about seriously as an All-Star.

 
source:  26. Celtics (13-25, LW 27). They have more trades to come — no chance Tayshaun Prince is on this roster past the deadline, for one. In theory they could make a run at the playoffs, they are just 2.5 back of the eight-seed Nets, but management has no interest.

 
source:  27. Lakers (12-29, LW 25). If you think Kobe Bryant is going to not play next season, then clearly you’ve never had $25 million sitting on the table in front of you before. He’ll be back next season, likely playing fewer minutes a night and taking some off, as part of a farewell tour while the Lakers continue to struggle.

 
source:  28. 76ers (8-32, LW 28). Michael Carter-Williams has played fairly well of late for the Sixers, giving them an offensive boost to go with their solid defense. So why is he mentioned in trade talks? Sell high, and some with Sixers not convinced he’s a quality starting point guard in the league.

source:  29. Timberwolves (7-32, LW 29). They finally won a game last week thanks to 31 from Andrew Wiggins, who has developed as a good shooter much more quickly than people expected (he’s got a ways to go but is improving at a rapid rate). He’s the kind of shooter that the Cavaliers could use.

 
source:  30. Knicks (5-36, LW 30). If your choice is to watch a Knicks game or go see American Sniper, go to the theater. Not that the movie is all that easy to watch, but it’s less painful than a Knicks game.

Blake Griffin inadvertently hits referee in face (video)

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Blake Griffin kept causing problems during the Pistons’ loss to the Bucks last night.

He and Giannis Antetokounmpo went face-to-face a couple times. At one point, Griffin bumped down and stepped over Antetokounmpo, prompting Khris Middleton to confront the Detroit star.

But Griffin saved his most devastating work for referee Scott Twardoski.

Griffin extended his arm and whacked Twardoski in the face, flooring the official. Play stopped for Twardoski to recover. The replay doesn’t do the contact justice. Twardoski was moving quickly up the floor when he ran straight into Griffin’s hand.

At least it wasn’t as bad as this legendary Carlos Boozer moment:

Out of game, shoeless LeBron James waves towel on court near play (video)

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LeBron James wasn’t about that NBA-rulebook life last night.

Not only did he get away with a comically blatant travel, he – ostensibly out of the game – later wandered onto the court during play. He got pretty close to the action, waving his towel in celebration of consecutive Kyle Kuzma blocks.

And LeBron was wearing only socks on his feet. He had already given his shoes away to young fans – with 4:20 left! Sure, the Lakers were up 19 on the Jazz, but that’s a lot of time remaining. What a kind and totally disrespectful gesture, a real do-it-all move.

Restless-late-in-a-blowout LeBron is the best LeBron.

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 35, Bucks’ winning streak reaches 13 with rout of Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to their 13th consecutive victory, 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

The last time the Bucks had a longer winning streak than this was when they won 16 in a row spanning the end of the 1972-73 season and the beginning of 1973-74. They also had a 13-game run shortly after that 16-game streak ended.

Milwaukee had won its previous two games by 41 and 44 points, and the Pistons had won their previous two by 34 and 33. This one wasn’t close either. The Bucks have dominated Detroit of late.

Milwaukee won all eight matchups with the Pistons last season – four in the regular season and four in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks also beat Detroit last month in their first meeting of 2019-20.

The Bucks went on a 13-2 run late in the second quarter to lead 57-39, and although Detroit closed within 11 at the half, the Pistons never made a major run during the final two quarters. Antetokounmpo scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Milwaukee led 92-72 after three.

Andre Drummond had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Detroit. That included a monster dunk over the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton had 17 points for the Bucks.

There were six technical fouls in the game, and there were words exchanged during a couple mild altercations. The first involved Antetokounmpo and Detroit’s Blake Griffin after those two collided around midcourt in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo fell to the ground after being fouled, and then Griffin stepped over him. Middleton came over to confront Griffin. Three technicals were assessed after that.