PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings: Hawks seem to be out of malaise. Maybe.

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This is the dog days of the NBA season. While there are fun games (Cleveland vs. Houston on Sunday), more likely you see up-and-down performances from the top teams. That may continue for a couple weeks. The most interesting race may be the one for the final two playoff spots in the East, with six teams in contention.

 
source:  1. Hawks (47-12, Last Week No. 3). Are the Hawks back? Are they through what coach Dwane Casey called a “malaise” mid-season? They have won four in a row, doing it mostly with a stout defense (which is back). but we’ll get a better answer this week with Houston and Cleveland on the docket. Dominique Wilkins gets his much-deserved statue outside the Atlanta arena Friday.

 
source:  2. Warriors (46-11, LW 1). They have won three of their last four and that one loss to Cleveland I think is a bit of an outlier — the Warriors missed shots in the paint they normally hit (it wasn’t all Timofey Mozgov). With 10 of 12 at home starting Wednesday, look for Golden State to go on a run.

 
source:  Grizzlies (42-16, LW 2). Memphis traded wins with the Clippers last week. When you watch this team late in games and see them struggle to get good shots at times, you begin to wonder if they will be able to execute well enough late in games come the playoffs. Make no mistake, they are a contender for the title, but they have flaws.

 
source:  4. Rockets (41-18, LW 6). They are 11-4 without Dwight Howard so far and in that stretch James Harden has pulled neck-and-neck with Stephen Curry for the MVP race (Harden may even be in the lead, by a beard). Terrence Jones is back and he’s been huge, averaging 18.5 pints and 10.5 rebounds in his past four games (I never got why some in Houston were down on him).

 
source:  5. Trail Blazers (39-19. LW 7). They have won three in a row and that includes a come-from-behind win Friday against Oklahoma City. This team loves to come from behind (they have done it twice this season to the Thunder from down at least 13) and that makes them a real threat in the playoffs. They are my sleeper out of the West.

 
source:  6. Cavaliers (37-24 LW 4). LeBron James had an off day Sunday. It happens, don’t start drawing big-picture conclusions from one regular season game. This team has still won 18-of-22 and Friday night we get an Eastern Conference Finals preview against the Hawks.

 
source:  7. Clippers (39-21, LW 5). Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan continue to prop up the Clippers, who have held on to the fifth spot in the crowded West despite Blake Griffin being out. The Clips are 5-3 against playoff teams without Griffin, which is impressive and something to build on.

 
source:  8. Mavericks (39-22, LW 8). Not sure Rajon Rondo has shown enough on offense in Dallas to get Rick Carlisle to trust him with the play calling, but I also don’t think that spat means Rondo is gone for sure this summer. They need his defense to make a playoff run (plus they need Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons to get healthy).

 
source:  9. Thunder (33-27, LW 10). Russell Westbrook has been playing like an MVP with three straight triple doubles, but that blown lead against Blazers and loss to Suns has them in a fight for the eight seed. New Orleans is just half a game back (tied in the loss column) and Phoenix is two games back. They can’t afford to be without Westbrook and Kevin Durant long (except against the Lakers).

 
source:  10. Spurs (36-23, LW 11). They went an unimpressive 2-7 on the rodeo road trip but now are back home for six in a row, and against some beatable teams this week (Sacramento, Denver and banged-up Chicago).

 
source:  11. Bulls (37-23, LW 12). No Derrick Rose for at least a month, now no Jimmy Butler for another three weeks. It’s the time of year when the Bulls just seem to break down. Cleveland will pass them for the three seed, but can the Bulls find their defensive identity again and hold on to the four spot?

 
source:  12. Pelicans (32-27, LW 15). We thought they’d fade when Anthony Davis went down, but New Orleans has won five in a row. They are just half a game out of the playoffs and are doing it because they have found a balanced offense that has scored 108.3 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, best in the NBA.

 
<source:  13. Suns (31-29, LW 14). Monday night expect Goran Dragic to have a monster game on his former team and remind them what they are missing. The Suns are two games back of the Thunder and it’s just hard now to imagine them catching the Thunder (or maybe even the Pelicans).

 
source:  14. Raptors (37-22, LW 9). They lost five in a row, and it has been an ugly five in a row at that — they lost to the Knicks. Their star players are struggling with their shot. With Cleveland and Oklahoma City up this week it’s a chance to get some big wins to turn this around, or to watch things spiral farther down.

 
source:  15. Bucks (32-27, LW 13). Not surprisingly, the Bucks offense has taken a step backwards since Michael Carter-Williams took over for Brandon Knight. MCW was a long-term play by the Bucks but he is still a bit of a project at the point, one who is turning the ball over a lot.

 
source:  16. Pacers (25-34, LW 18). They are currently the eight seed in the East, and they should get Paul George back in a couple weeks. More and more it feels like they are going to get one of those spots at the bottom of the East bracket.

 
source:  17. Heat (25-33, LW 19). They may have the point guard they wanted in Goran Dragic but without Chris Bosh their offense has struggled for spacing. However, with a run of games at home the next couple weeks expect them to string together some wins and hold on to the seven seed in the West.

 
source:  18. Pistons (23-36, LW 16). They have lost three in a row and they have the majority of their games (14 of 23) on the road the rest of the way. Reggie Jackson is starting to find a groove, especially on defense, but it’s going to be hard for them to climb into one of those last playoff spots.

 
source:  19. Wizards (34-26, LW 17). The good news is Bradley Beal is back and while he was rusty in his return (2-of-10) his shooting and floor spacing will help their offense. Still, that loss to Philadephia last week shows just how far this team needs to go to turn it around before the playoffs.

 
source:  20. Jazz (23-35, LW 22). Their defense has been strong since they fully committed to the Derrick Favors/Rudy Gobert front line and they have won four of five. Because of that defense the Jazz are starting to find their identity and they are a tough out.

 
source:  21. Celtics (23-34, LW 23). For you fantasy players, Isaiah Thomas is putting up good numbers coming off the bench in Boston. He’s probably not available but if you can get him do it. That blown 26-point lead to the Warriors Sunday was a punch to the guy in a season filled with body blows.

 
source:  22. Nets (24-33, LW 21). The Nets are still in the mix for a playoff spot in the East and Thaddeus Young is giving them good minutes in an effort to get there. This is the kind of week where the Nets need some wins to make the postseason: Suns, Hornets and Jazz. All pretty good teams but the kind of games playoff teams win more than they lose.

 
source:  23. Hornets (24-33, LW 20). This is another of the six teams battling for the two final playoff spots in the West but they have a real shot if their offense keeps clicking like it has of late. Big games vs. Brooklyn and Detroit this week that they need.

 
source:  24. Kings (20-37, LW 24). They head out on an eight game road trip, and Sacramento has struggled away from home. George Karl’s imprint can be seen on this team but when DeMarcus Cousins rolled his ankle you saw how dependent this team is on him.

source:  25. Timberwolves (13-45, LW 25). Kevin Garnett back in Minnesota is a wonderful story, but this is still a team that doesn’t play much defense and shoots too many midrange shots on the other end. KG can’t change those things by himself anymore.

 
source:  26. Lakers (14-41, LW 29). How Nick Young acting inappropriately exuberant surprises anybody or became a big story in Los Angeles I will never understand. This is what you can expect with the players the Lakers chose to put on this roster.

 
source:  27. Magic (19-42, LW 26). Elfrid Payton lost some playing time due to his shooting struggles, with interim coach James Borrego leaning on veteran Willie Green. Why exactly? They are not making the playoffs, let the young guys learn some hard lessons on the court. That said, Payton needs to work on his shot. A lot.

 
source:  28. Knicks (12-46, LW 30). They won a couple games in a row — including beating Detroit in OT — all because they started Andrea Bargnani and he has put up numbers. That may be the seventh sign of the apocalypse.

 
source:  29. Nuggets (20-39, LW 27). Losers of six in a row and the players are already apparently throwing in the towel. Brian Shaw will take the fall for this over the summer, but the fact is the current state of the Nuggets all goes back to decisions by management years ago when George Karl and Masai Ujiri left the franchise.

 
source:  30. 76ers (13-46, LW 28). How much does GM Sam Hinkie covet draft picks? They traded for JaVale McGee then bought him out at full price, $15 million basically, just to get a first rounder.

USA’s 78-game international win streak ends at hands of Australia, Patty Mills, 98-94

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Gregg Popovich wanted his USA team to face some adversity. For them to be challenged and see how they’d respond.

He got his wish on a Saturday afternoon in Australia and has to be disturbed by the result.

Australia, behind a red-hot Patty Mills who finished 30 points and drained seemingly every big bucket down the stretch, tore up the USA defense and outplayed the Americans when it mattered most, beating Team USA 98-94 in an exhibition match in front of a raucous 52,000 people in Melbourne.

Team USA had won 78 consecutive games — including both friendlies and in international tournaments — before this loss. The last USA exhibition game loss was in the run-up to the 2004 Olympics (when the Americans took home the bronze).

The USA opens FIBA World Cup play in just more than a week, facing the Czech Republic in their first game on Sept. 1. The Americans enter that tournament as the favorites, but the combination of improved international play and a lot of elite American talent staying home has made the USA’s margin for error very slim. Teams such as Serbia have to see this result and gain confidence.

This loss comes just two days after

“They wanted it more than us tonight,” Kemba Walker said after the game. “Lesson learned for us.”

Those lessons include needing to clean up a defense that still has communication issues, and to find more consistent shot creation outside of pick-and-rolls with Kemba Walker or Donovan Mitchell.

Walker, who came off the bench to score 22, was clearly America’s best player. His ability to penetrate was the only thing all night that either forced the Aussie defense to collapse, or it allowed him to get space for a good shot. Donovan Mitchell, who finished with a dozen points including seven straight late in the game, was able to provide a little shot creation, but the Americans lacked much ball or player movement in this one. Harrison Barnes finished with 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

Popovich is clearly still experimenting with lineups and combinations, and that is the silver lining of this USA loss. This was not the American’s best foot forward.

But don’t take anything away from Australia, which played a physical and feisty game all afternoon. They put the ball more in the hands of Utah’s Joe Ingles and he responded with 15 points, seven assists, and he and Andrew Bogut set up the offense and were smart with their passes. Bogut finished with 15 points.

Team USA takes on Canada in a final exhibition game in a couple of days, before heading to China for the World Cup.

Report: Dwight Howard gave back $2.6 million in buyout with Memphis, what he will make in L.A.

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Dwight Howard will get his money, the full $5.6 million he opted into this summer. The man is getting paid.

The checks are just coming from two different teams.

To facilitate a move to the Lakers, Howard is giving back $2.6 million in a buyout with the Grizzlies — exactly how much he makes on a minimum contract with Los Angeles. From Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks of ESPN:

My guess is the Grizzlies will just take the cap hit this season to get Howard off the books.

This is exactly how this was expected to go down financially if Howard came to Los Angeles. The risk for Howard is he will sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers — they can waive him for whatever reason, pay a small buyout fee, and Howard loses out on the $2.6 million.

That’s motivation for him to follow through on what he promised the team.

 

Former NBA, ABA coach Tom Nissalke dead at 87

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tom Nissalke, who won coach of the year honors in the NBA and ABA, has died. He was 87.

Nissalke passed away at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday after facing a “series of health-related problems” in recent years, according to the Deseret News.

He was the first coach of the Utah Jazz after the franchise relocated from New Orleans in 1979.

Nissalke was also an NBA head coach in Seattle, Houston, and Cleveland.

Nissalke got his start in the pro ranks as an assistant with Milwaukee and helped guide a team featuring Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an NBA title in 1971. His work with the Bucks landed him a head coaching gig with the ABA’s Dallas Chaparrals. He led them to a 42-42 record in his first season and was named the league’s top coach.

He was hired the next season in Seattle but was fired after a 13-32 start. Nissalke then coached the Utah Stars and San Antonio before returning to the NBA with the Rockets. He won 124 games in three seasons with Houston, twice taking the team to the playoffs and the 1977 Eastern Conference finals.

Nissalke was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year after going 49-33 in 1976-77.

After retiring, he was active with the YMCA and worked as a radio analyst.

Nissalke is survived by a daughter, Holly, son Thomas Jr, and two grandchildren. His wife, Nancy, died in 2006.

 

How Dwight Howard convinced the Lakers to take a chance on him

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Laker fans Friday sounded like your friends after an ugly relationship and breakup, when you suddenly consider taking that person back. Laker nation took to Twitter screaming “ARE YOU SERIOUS? What are you thinking? Are you even thinking?”

The Lakers, however, are entering a second relationship with Dwight Howard with their eyes wide open — he will sign a non-guaranteed contract to be the team’s center (sharing duties with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee). Howard will have to prove himself, on and off the court. The Lakers have leverage and can waive Howard and move on to Joakim Noah or someone else quickly if things do not pan out.

But how did it even get to this point? How did Howard — who did his annual summer media tour saying “I have changed, I am taking the game and my conditioning seriously, I just want a chance” and league observers shrugged because they have heard the same thing for years — convince the Lakers to roll the dice on him again? Shams Charania of The Athletic laid it all out.

Howard’s message to [Laker assistant coach Jason] Kidd and the Lakers was the same one he delivered to The Athletic in July from NBA summer league: He’s learned from the past several seasons, learned that, at age 33, he is simply one of the guys now. Howard believes he can contribute at a high level for any NBA team, but the eight-time All-Star also understands he has to focus on rebounding, defense, blocking shots, finishing around the rim and simply playing whenever he is asked… Kidd became convinced about Howard’s newfound awakening…

The Lakers then began setting workouts for free agents, and Howard traveled from Atlanta to Los Angeles on Wednesday. His meeting and workout with the Lakers was set for Thursday, but Howard went to the Lakers’ facility in El Segundo, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon for his own training session. The Lakers were surprised to see him, sources said, and many key decision makers were in attendance…

League sources said Howard had a convincing and emotional meeting with the players and Lakers officials, explaining how he had reached rock bottom a season ago and needed to find a new mindset in his life. On and off the floor. He was not the teammate he needed to be in playing for three teams in the past three years. He did not take the game seriously enough, he did not understand what was needed to turn the corner.

Howard has said all that before. Multiple times. To multiple teams and teammates. Maybe this time he has genuinely figured things out, but whatever he did and said was enough to convince the Lakers to buy in…

To a point.

One could argue — and I would make the case — that Noah would be a better fit on the court for the Lakers’ needs in terms of passing and defense, but he comes with plenty of risks as well (health, getting along with LeBron James, and how much he liked the nightlife as a Knick in New York and what that would mean in L.A.). At least with Howard, the Lakers mitigated that risk with the non-guaranteed contract. If Howard will not accept his role and is disruptive (as he has been in recent stops), if he is still eating candy like a bingeing 10-year-old on Halloween night, if he can’t stay healthy, the Lakers can waive Howard and move on. If the Lakers brought in Noah, they would have been smart to have the same non-guaranteed contract (if Noah would have signed that kind of deal).

For now the Lakers have their man, but he’s basically on probation. Howard has to prove in deeds everything he has said in words.