PBT Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Golden State on top but don’t sleep on Memphis

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After a one-week hiatus while the entire PBT crew was at the All-Star Game, the Power Rankings have returned. For the first time in a few weeks, Atlanta has fallen out of the top slot and Golden State has regained its rightful spot. But Memphis is lurking near the top and is a team everyone should fear come the playoffs.

 
source:  1. Warriors (43-9, Last Week No. 3). Stephen Curry was out Sunday with a sore ankle — with his history that is frightening — and without him he Warriors lost to the Pacers. That speaks to his importance — this team is 17.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court compared to when he sits. That’s the sign of an MVP.

 
source:  2. Grizzlies (40-14, LW 2). Everyone seems to look past Memphis as a contender but there are only three 40-win teams so far and this is one of them. They showed how resilient they are with a come-from-behind win over Portland on Sunday. They’ve gotten good bench play of late and they’re going to need that — Memphis has the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way out.

 
source:  3. Hawks (44-12, Last Week No. 1). They seem to have hit the mid-season doldrums, they have gone 4-4 in their last eight, their offense isn’t executing at the same level as it had earlier in the season. Still, nobody in the East will catch them as the top seed.

 
source:  4. Cavaliers (35-22 LW 4). I’m not sure Kendrick Perkins gives them much behind Timofey Mozgov — Perk just doesn’t have much left in the tank — but at this price it’s worth a shot. Interesting game Thursday night hosting Golden State (let’s just hope Curry is healthy by then).

 
source:  5. Clippers (37-19, LW 10). Winners of four in a row despite Blake Griffin being on the sideline. They are doing most of their damage on the offensive end, in part thanks to aggressive play from DeAndre Jordan (well, except when he goes to the free throw line).

 
source:  6. Rockets (37-18, LW 6). They are 7-4 without Dwight Howard so far and with that have been able to hold on to the three seed in the West. I like the additions of K.J. McDaniels and Pablo Prigioni to provide depth, but this team’s offense still goes as James Harden goes.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (36-19. Last Week No. 8). Arron Afflalo wasn’t impressive in his debut but I expect he will find his groove — I think he was one of the most underrated pickups of the trade deadline. That said, the way Memphis ground down the Blazers in the fourth quarter on Sunday couldn’t make Rip City fans optimistic about the playoffs (where the style of play Memphis brings becomes more common).

 
source:  8. Mavericks (37-20, LW 7). They picked up a quality win over the Rockets this past weekend, but just a couple nights before the Thunder ran the Mavs out of the building. Amar’e Stoudemire looked good and bouncy in his debut, if he can keep that up it will be a nice pick up.

 
source:  9. Raptors (37-18, LW 9). The Raptors are 3-1 against the top seeded Hawks in the East this season, and that includes a blowout win last Friday. They are still up and down (as evidenced against Houston over the weekend) but this team is playing slightly better defense of late and that end will be needed down the stretch and into the playoffs. They have a fairly soft schedule the rest of the way out and with that can hold on to that two seed from charging Cleveland.

 
source:  10. Thunder (31-25, LW 14). No Durant for the next couple weeks, but that likely doesn’t slow this team down now. The lowest seed to win the title was the Houston Rockets as the six seed. The only eight seed to make the NBA Finals was the 1999 Knicks. The Thunder may rewrite the NBA history books this year. Russell Westbrook should be on bottom of MVP ballots this year, as Sam Amick of USA Today noted he is only player in the NBA to average at least 26 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds a game.

 
source:  11. Spurs (34-21, LW 5). They are 2-3 on the rodeo road trip so far, with both of the wins coming against Eastern Conference teams. The trip continues all this week then the Spurs are at home for six in a row. This team hasn’t struck fear in anyone yet, as evidenced by their 7-10 record against the other West playoff teams so far.

 
source:  12. Bulls (35-21, LW 12). Derrick Rose missed practice, followed by a bad game, and the shocking number of people in Chicago out for his head were back at it. Rose had played well in the run up to that game, he was starting to look like his old self, if that Rose rounds into form for the playoffs watch out. But this team still just cannot string good performances together.

 
source:  13. Bucks (31-24, LW 16). I was surprised they were willing to send Brandon Knight out at the trade deadline in a year he had been key to their success. Everyone likes to play the “Michael Carter-Williams reminds Jason Kidd of a young version of himself” game, but second year Jason Kidd was already a good point guard (PER of 17.8) and MCW is a long way from that (PER 12). Kidd, despite his problems, was a better shooter already, too.

 
source:  14. Suns (29-27, LW 9). Losers of four in a row and their moves at the trade deadline — sending out Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas — were not about this season. They know they are not making the playoffs now. People around the Suns love the picks and pieces they got at the trade deadline, personally I’m not sold.

 
source:  15. Pelicans (28-27, LW 13). No Anthony Davis for a week or two (shoulder sprain), no Ryan Anderson for 2-4 week (sprained knee) and no chance at the playoffs now for the Pelicans. When Anderson and Davis are paired, the Pelicans are +5.8 per 100 possessions, they needed those two to make a run. When they miss the playoffs, the Monty Williams job watch can begin.

 
source:  16. Pistons (22-33, LW 18). Reggie Jackson finally got what he wanted, his own team to run, then in his debut Sunday missed his first eight shots. Stan Van Gundy has some work to do here, but Jackson could be a solid long-term answer for them at the point. There are a number of teams fighting for one of those final playoff spots in the East, I have a feeling the Pistons will rise up and get one.

 
source:  17. Wizards (33-23, LW 15). The blowout loss to the Cavaliers was a sign the Wizards are not near the top of the East right now. But that crushing loss to the Pistons showed just how far things are falling in Washington. Their offensive spacing is a real issue with Bradley Beal out.

 
source:  18. Pacers (23-33, LW 22). With an impressive win over the Warriors on Sunday the Pacers have won six of seven. What’s surprising is they are doing it with offense — 110 points per 100 possessions in the last seven, fourth best in the NBA — and not their defense. George Hill has been fantastic at the point (he just wasn’t being put in a good position for him in previous years. And yes, Paul George is serious about a mid-March return.

 
source:  19. Heat (23-31, LW 20). Yin and yang: Great pickup with Goran Dragic, terrible news about Chris Bosh being out the rest of the season. Look for Miami to play a lot faster with Dragic, which is about the only thing they have going for them the rest of this season now.

 
source:  20. Hornets (22-32, LW 17). This was a team with playoff dreams who have dropped five in a row and are now half a game out of the final playoff spot (technically they are 11th but things are bunched). Their schedule the rest of the way isn’t that difficult, but it is tougher than just about everyone they are trying to beat out. They need to beat teams like Boston and Orlando this week.

 
source:  21. Nets (22-31, LW 19). They got what they wanted at the trade deadline: $6.5 million shaved off their tax bill. Plus they pick up Thaddeus Young. If Jarrett Jack can stay healthy at the point that may be enough to get this team into the playoffs. Maybe.

 
source:  22. Jazz (20-34, LW 23). With the Enes Kanter trade the Jazz are committed to the Rudy Gobert/Derrick Favors front line. As they should be. By the way, I like the nickname “the Stifle Tower” for Gobert.

 
source:  23. Celtics (20-33, LW 21). I love the Isaiah Thomas pickup, he’s on an affordable deal who will give the Celtics a spark on offense for a couple years while Marcus Smart develops. Well, as long as he doesn’t get thrown out of more games.

 
source:  24. Kings (19-35, LW 24). Sacramento is out and running under George Karl, the tempo is up and it seems to suit DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings just need to cut down on the turnovers. Brutal schedule week for Karl with Memphis, San Antonio and Portland on the docket.

source:  25. Timberwolves (12-42, LW 25). Kevin Garnett coming back is a nice story, and the emerging Andrew Wiggins can learn a few things from him about being a star in this league (and in this market). I’m not sure the lessons do much for Anthony Bennett’s future.

 
source:  26. Magic (19-39, LW 28). Whispers out of he Orlando locker room is that the players really like interim coach James Borrego, who has helped lead the team to a three-game win streak. It was not management’s plan to keep him on but he has 24 more games to make his case.

 
source:  27. Nuggets (20-35, LW 26). There was a time Denver was one of the most feared places to play on the schedule, but the Nuggets are just 12-14 at home this season. The Nuggets have 15 more home games to get that number above .500.

 
source:  28. 76ers (12-42, LW 27). I’m actually relatively okay with the Michael Carter-Williams trade — they didn’t love his shooting and that Lakers pick will be pretty high the next couple seasons. But their other moves — trading K.J. McDaniels and bringing in JaVale McGee — confuse me. This team was developing a nice defensive identity and trading MCW and KJ away just blows that identity up. Brett Brown gets to start over.

 
source:  30. Lakers (14-41, LW 30). The Lakers beat the Celtics in overtime Sunday, and to show you how far these teams have fallen since 2010 this game was played opposite the Oscars in LA and I can assure you far more people cared about the statue Birdman got than the Lakers win.

 
source:  29. Knicks (10-45, LW 29). Losers of seven in a row and they are 0-15 on the season without Carmelo Anthony. There are not a lot of reasons for hope. That said, I think Phil Jackson’s tweets critical of the team are getting blown out of proportion. Sure, he made the team bad, but he’s said a lot worse about his own players in the past (ask Kobe).

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.

NBA makes it official, moves up free agency six hours to 6 p.m. June 30 (Eastern)

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I’d like to think this means we’ll all be able to go to bed at a reasonable hour on June 30. I also know better.

There is a frenzy of activity right as free agency opens (Tampering? There is no tampering in the NBA…), which traditionally has been as the clock turns to July 1 in New York, right at midnight. Things got so active that a lot of agents and players made sure they were in Los Angeles, even if they didn’t live there in the offseason, just so things started at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m.

Now the NBA has made the rumors official: Free agency will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30. Six hours earlier than before.

This was done as an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This is going to be a wild July with a lot of big-name free agents — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler — and maybe a third of the players in the league on the market, plus there are a lot more teams with cap space to spend this season. It’s going to be a frenzy.

Now we know what time the wild times start.

Why does Kevin Durant respond on social media? “I’m qualified to talk about basketball”

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Every NBA player gets ripped on social media, even the guys who are not on social media. Most of the time players just ignore it, the way they ignore fans yelling stuff courtside or distant family asking them for money.

Kevin Durant, however, gets into it sometimes, even with national media members (and even had a burner account). Which always becomes a thing.

Why? Why not just ignore it? From Durant himself at practice Friday, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Because I have social media,” Durant said Friday… “I mean, I’m a human being with a social media account. I could see if I ventured off into like politics, culinary arts or music and gave my input, but I’m sticking to something that I know. You know what I’m saying? This is all I know. I’m actually talking about stuff that I know. I’m qualified to talk about basketball.

“So when I respond to something, especially if it’s about me personally, of course I’m going to tell you if you wrong about it. When I’m on the training table getting treatment on my calf and I see a tweet that come by and I disagree — I don’t talk to people because I’m worried about what they say, it’s just that I’m interested. So if you talking about in-game or the NBA Finals, they’re the same to me, you know what I’m saying?”

Durant seems to have more time on hands to get into these spats while he is out injured. Which likely will last into the start of the NBA Finals.

Does this mean the Drake/Durant beef is inevitable?