PBT Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Golden State, Atlanta remain on top tier

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With the Hawks knocking off the Cavaliers and Golden State putting up more impressive wins, it has become clear that those are the top teams in their respective conferences. Those are the tea

 
source:  1. Warriors (49-12, LW 2). A key part of the MVP campaign for Russell Westbrook and James Harden is how much they mean to their respective teams. Well, the Warriors are 17.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Stephen Curry is off the court — he matters a lot to his team, too. Seven of Golden State’s next nine are at home.

 
source:  2. Hawks (49-13, Last Week No. 1). Anyone saying the Hawks can’t win the East didn’t watch them take down the Cavaliers Friday night. The Hawks packed the paint cutting off LeBron James, their defensive traps bothered Kyrie Irving, plud the Hawks passing and movement on offense opened up the Cavs defense. This team may very well make a new owner happy with a trip to the Finals.

 
source:  3. Cavaliers (40-25 LW 6). They continue to rack up wins but the loss to Atlanta Friday, and Houston the week before (and even the Cavs win over Toronto), serve as a reminder that their defense has looked beatable against good teams. Also, if you’re hyping this team for the postseason, remember Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have played in a combined 0.0 playoff games. To me, this is the year the Cavs can be beat in the East.

 
source:  4. Grizzlies (44-18, LW 3). Quality grind-it-out win over the Rockets last week, but they still continue to struggle on offense of late, in large part due to Mike Conley’s slump (shooting 40 percent since the All-Star break). If they are going to make a serious playoff run they need to find some shot making and diversified offense.

 
source:  5. Rockets (43-20, LW 4). Just to provide the update, the Rockets are 13-6 without Dwight Howard in this stretch. They remain one game up on Portland for the three seed out West, which makes their showdown with the Blazers Wednesday big. They’ve lost to some good teams of late and the Clippers are on the docket this week as well.

 
source:  6. Trail Blazers (41-20. LW 5). The loss of Wesley Matthews (torn Achilles) is a brutal blow. He’s an important perimeter defender, the team’s offensive spacing will suffer (they need his threes), and he’s an emotional leader in the locker room. Arron Afflalo will get the run but behind him the drop off is steep. Tough timing as the Blazers had started to look like a team you didn’t want to face out West.

 
source:  7. Spurs (39-23, LW 10). They have won five in a row and Tony Parker is back to getting into the paint and being the offensive catalyst San Antonio needs him to be. The question is how much momentum can they build toward the playoffs with 11 of their next 16 games against likely playoff teams?

 
source:  8. Clippers (40-23, LW 7). The Clippers have gone a respectable 7-5 without Blake Griffin against a tough schedule. Now, can they keep the energized DeAndre Jordan going when Griffin comes back is another question. The Clippers are desperate enough for depth that Doc Rivers has returned to giving Nate Robinson a shot.

 
source:  9. Thunder (34-28, LW 9). No, he hasn’t been as efficient as Kevin Durant, but in his last 10 games Russell Westbrook has averaged 33.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 10.1 rebounds a game. What really could win him the MVP however his “overcoming injury, leading team to playoffs” narrative is the kind of thing that garners the award.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (41-24, LW 8). There are all sorts of ominous signs for Mavericks fans: This team is just 18-12 with Rajon Rondo in the lineup, and they have lost seven straight on the road to playoff teams. More than anything, this roster just needs to get fully healthy to have a chance.

 
source:  11. Pelicans (34-29, LW 12). The good news: The Pelicans own the tie breaker against the Thunder. The hard part will be catching OKC — New Orleans is one game back and with a tougher schedule the rest of the way. They still have Anthony Davis, however.

 
source:  11. Bulls (39-25, LW 11). Jimmy Butler to PBT on why the Bulls defense is pedestrian this season (13th in defensive efficiency): “I think it’s more about us being able to score the ball so well now that we think we can outscore opponents, which if we want to win a championship like we say we want to, we’re going to have to start guarding and stop trying to outscore people and just stop them from scoring as a whole.”

 
source:  13. Pacers (28-34, LW 16). Winners of five in a row, they are defending again, plus they get Paul George back soon. Look for the Pacers to grab one of the two final playoff seeds in the East, then be a tougher out than their opponent would prefer.

 
source:  14. Bucks (33-29, LW 15). The good news was they beat the floundering Wizards last week. The bad news is they dropped four games against the West — and three of those games were against the Jazz, Nuggets and Lakers. The Bucks have held opponents to 85 points or fewer 15 times this season, tops in the NBA.

 
source:  15. Hornets (28-33, LW 23). They have won five in a row and since he joined the team Mo Williams has averaged 21.7 points a game to spark this run. Look for them to make the playoffs out East. Steve Clifford’s biggest challenge will be getting Williams and Kemba Walker to play together when he returns to the lineup soon.

 
<source:  16. Suns (33-31, LW 13). They are the longest shot of the teams vying to grab the final playoff spot in the West, 2.5 games out (and having shaken up the roster). However they have nine of their next 10 at home, so maybe they can put together a run. The problem is there are a lot of playoff teams in that mix, it will not be easy.

 
source:  17. Jazz (26-36, LW 20). Quin Snyder was brought in to develop talent ant that is happening — the Jazz have found their defensive identity. They have a run of games against the East and should rack up some win is that stretch.

 
source:  18. Heat (28-34, LW 17). Tyler Johnson? That’s another D-League call-up making plays for the Heat, along with Hassan Whiteside. Those are the guys that have them tied for the eight seed in the East right now, but it’s going to be tough to catch Indiana and Charlotte unless Goran Dragic goes on a huge run.

 
source:  19. Celtics (25-36, LW 21). No JaVale McGee in Beantown, which may be a good thing, not sure he’s the best role model for a young team. If the Celtics want to make the playoffs they have their fate in their own hands with a number of games coming up against Charlotte, Indiana, Brooklyn, Miami and Detroit (the other teams in the playoff mix at the bottom of the East). Whatever the outcome, good learning experience for the young team.

 
source:  20. Raptors (38-24, LW 14). They snapped a five-game losing streak with a win over the lowly Sixers, but then turned around and lost to Charlotte and Cleveland. Their defense continues to struggle so they just try to outscore teams, and as well as DeMar DeRozan is playing — and now that Kyle Lowry is back — that isn’t the way to win come the playoffs.

 
source:  21. Wizards (35-28, LW 19). John Wall admitted Monday that he is physically beat up right now. Which was kind of obvious. Resting him is not easy as the Wizards continue to rely on him to create shots for everyone, but they need to get him a break before the playoffs.

 
source:  22. Nets (25-36, LW 22). They beat Golden State last week, showing that on any given night in the NBA anything can happen. The loss to the Hornets later in the week is the bigger blow to their playoff hopes, which seem to be fading fast.

 
source:  23. Pistons (23-39, LW 16). They have lost six in a row and seen their surprising playoff run crash on the rocks. It comes back to the same old issues with the Pistons, regardless of coach: They need more shooting to space the floor.

 
source:  24. Kings (21-40, LW 24). You can see hope for the Kings’ offense going forward, but George Karl’s real work (both in getting players over the summer and in training camp next fall) will be establishing even an average defense. They are a mess on that end of the court.

source:  25. Timberwolves (14-47, LW 25). They aren’t winning a lot but with their new rotation they are pushing qualities teams. Which is all they see this week on the road with the Clippers, Suns, Thunder and Spurs.

 
source:  26. Magic (21-43, LW 27). The up-and-down rookie Elfrid Payton was up over the weekend when the Magic picked up a couple nice wins. Victor Oladipo is putting up numbers lately, too.

 
source:  27. Nuggets (22-41, LW 29). Brian Shaw has a lot of supporters around the league — Paul George, David West, Kevin Garnett — which is more than he had in the Nuggets’ locker room.

 
source:  28. 76ers (14-49, LW 30). Since the Michael-Carter Williams trade the Sixers have become a much better three-point shooting team, one of the top five in the NBA in terms of percentage. Which is good with plans to have Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in the paint, this team needs to space the floor.

 
source:  29. Lakers (16-45, LW 26). Kobe Bryant came by to watch the Lakers blow a lead against the Mavericks Sunday. I know fans want to see him being a mentor, but who is there to mentor on this current active roster that will be a Laker in three years? Jordan Clarkson and…

 
source:  30. Knicks (12-49, LW 28). Phil Jackson has been traveling around scouting top college prospects. As he should, the Knicks are very likely to have the best lottery odds to get the top pick this year. Knicks fans will be watching the NCAA Tournament with that eye.

Russell Westbrook outduels Damian Lillard, Thunder pick up win to get back in series

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Russell Westbrook called his play in Game 2 “unacceptable.”

It was more than acceptable in Game 3. He had 33 points and 11 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Portland Trail Blazers 120-108 on Friday night to cut their series deficit to 2-1.

Paul George added 22 points, Jerami Grant had 18 and Dennis Schroder 17 for the Thunder. They will host Game 4 on Sunday night.

Damian Lillard scored 32 points, but he had just three in the fourth quarter after scoring 25 in the third.

C.J. McCollum had 21 and Enes Kanter added 19.

Oklahoma City closed the second quarter on a 10-1 run to take a 49-39 lead. Lillard was held to four points on 2 -or-6 shooting and the Trail Blazers shot 37.5% in the half.

George hit a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw in the opening minutes of the second half to push Oklahoma City’s lead to 55-43. Westbrook backed down Lillard, hit a bank shot and was fouled. Westbrook brought out his “rock the baby” celebration, then made the free throw to put Oklahoma City up by 15.

Lillard scored 23 points the rest of the quarter to help cut Oklahoma City’s lead to 86-82 at the end of the period. McCollum hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 89 early in the fourth.

Oklahoma City regained control, then kept it. Westbrook’s jumper with just over two minutes remaining put the Thunder up 10.

 

Celtics beat Pacers 104-96 to take 3-0 series lead

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jaylen Brown scored 23 points and Kyrie Irving added 19 to help the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers 104-96 on Friday night for a 3-0 lead in the first-round series.

The Celtics can close out the Eastern Conference series Sunday in Indianapolis.

Irving also had 10 assists and five rebounds.

Tyreke Evans matched his career playoff high with 19 points for the Pacers. Bojan Bogdanovic had 15, not enough to prevent Indiana from losing its sixth straight to Boston in the regular season and playoff.

Indiana desperately needed a win to avoid facing its second sweep in three years, but Boston started fast and closed it with a 10-4 spurt late in the fourth quarter.

And once again, Boston’s defense turned the game by allowing just 12 points in the third quarter.

It’s been that kind of series for Indiana, which erased a 15-point first half deficit to take a 61-59 halftime lead. Myles Turner opened the third with a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

But Boston charged back with eight straight points to retake the lead, closed the quarter on a 9-2 run to make it 80-73 and pulled away late.

The Celtics took control quickly by going 8 of 10 on 3s in the first quarter to build a 37-22 lead.

Evans finally got the Pacers righted with 12 second-quarter points including bookend 3s to start and finish the 17-3 spurt that allowed Indiana to tie it at 52. The Pacers closed the half on a 9-2 run to take the lead.

 

Pascal Siakam scores 30, leads Raptors past Magic for 2-1 series lead

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Raptors think Pascal Siakam should be selected the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

He was their MVP on Friday night.

And the East’s No. 2 seed has the home-court edge back again.

Siakam had 30 points and 11 rebounds, hitting a floater with 1:33 left to help snuff out a big Orlando rally and the Raptors held off the Magic 98-93 to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

“He’s unbelievable,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “He’s the most improved basketball player in the NBA this year and he’s only going to get better.”

Siakam was 13 for 20 from the floor and the Raptors held Orlando to 36% shooting.

“It’s just taking what a defense gives us and going with it,” Siakam said.

Kawhi Leonard — battling illness this week — had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green had 13 points and Lowry finished with 12 points and 10 assists, plus ran down a huge offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left to extend a critical possession and spoil Orlando’s first home playoff game since 2012.

“It was really what I thought it was going to be tonight,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I really thought this was going to be a tough atmosphere to play in.”

Terrence Ross led Orlando with 24 points, and Nikola Vucevic shook off a slow start to finish with 22 points and 14 rebounds.

Game 4 is Sunday night in Orlando.

“Our turnovers hurt us again,” Vucevic said, lamenting Orlando’s 16 giveaways. “We had too many of those. Empty possessions for us and against a team like that you can’t have that.”

The Raptors trailed 61-60 midway through the third after a brief Orlando spurt, then went on a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take the lead for good. Siakam and Green were both 3 for 3 during the run, the Magic missed 10 consecutive shots over a span of 6 1/2 minutes and had to play uphill the rest of the way.

That being said, they went down swinging.

Lowry’s 3-pointer with 7:48 left gave Toronto its biggest lead at 86-69. The Magic came flying back, and Ross’ 3-pointer with 41 seconds left got Orlando to 96-93.

Leonard was short with a jumper on the next possession — but the Magic couldn’t control the rebound, Lowry ran it down and Leonard made a pair of free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining to clinch the win.

“Critical,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Orlando, which finished the regular season by winning 13 of its final 14 home games, was 13 of 44 from 3-point range.

Toronto scored the first 10 points — the last five by Siakam, who was a problem from the outset for the Magic — and led by as many as 11 in the first half. The Magic got within 48-45 at the break after Ross beat the clock from midcourt at the buzzer.

The Magic got the lead twice in the second half, once by one point, the other by two points. And both leads lasted exactly 15 seconds, getting taken away on 3-pointers by Siakam and Green.

And now it’s up to Orlando to regroup, the same way Toronto did after dropping Game 1.

“It’s 2-1,” Clifford said. “It’s not like it’s 3-0. It’s 2-1…. Handling disappointment is a huge part of NBA basketball and it’s a bigger part of playoff basketball.”

Watch Orlando’s Terrence Ross drain halfcourt buzzer beater just before half

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Back on their home court, the Orlando Magic are hanging right with the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the 1-1 series.

This helped.

It looked like the Magic would go into halftime down by at least six, and then Terrence Ross did this.

Ross’ name came up a lot just before the trade deadline when other teams thought the Magic would decide to tank and move on from their players who could bring back assets to help the rebuild. The Magic were 10 games below .500 and four games out of the eight seed. Orlando decided instead to push for the postseason, and they made their first playoffs since the Dwight Howard era, climbing all the way to the seven seed. That would not have happened without Ross.

Now they are making the most of their opportunity.