PBT Power Rankings: Boston, Indiana making late surge up the rankings

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Another showdown this week between the Hawks and Warriors, a potential Finals preview for sure. Although the Cavaliers and about six teams in the West will have their say about that. The Lakers return to the bottom of the rankings after they couldn’t beat the Knicks.

 
source:  1. Warriors (52-13, Last Week No. 1). They have won eight in a row at home and their next five are at Oracle, including an interesting rematch against the Hawks Wednesday night. Don’t expect to see David Lee in that game, he’s had three DNP-CDs in the last six games.

 
source:  2. Hawks (51-14, LW 2). They became the first team in the NBA to lock down a playoff spot, and with a 10-game lead on the Cavs they will be the No. 1 seed. So how much did Mike Budenholzer learn from Popovich about resting players down the stretch? He did it Sunday against the Lakers and got a win, although Kyle Korver played and broke his nose (he may miss a game or two).

 
source:  3. Cavaliers (43-25 LW 3). This is what having stars like Kyrie Irving and LeBron James on your team can bring — the Spurs were the better team last Wednesday and it didn’t matter because Kyrie was on fire and dropped 57. LeBron’s tweaked knee Sunday was a scary moment (the Cavs are 2-9 without LeBron this season).

 
source:  4. Trail Blazers (44-20. LW 6). They are just one game back of being the two seed in the West and they face off against the Grizzlies Saturday. The Blazers are 6-1 in March with their stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard playing maybe their best ball of the season. Someone forgot to tell them they were going to fall apart after Wesley Matthews was injured.

 
source:  5. Spurs (41-24, LW 7). No Manu Ginobili for at least a week with a sprained ankle. I don’ read much into the loss to the Cavs on Wednesday — the Spurs were the better team, just nobody could stop Kyrie Irving for a night. That happens. The Spurs are 1-5 in overtime games this season, which is more fluke than cause for concerns.

 
source:  6. Grizzlies (45-20, LW 4). They are 7-6 since the All-Star break with their offense not impressing anybody. They rested all their key guys Thursday in Washington then looked better Saturday in a win over the Bucks, we’ll see if they can build on that and right the ship.

 
source:  7. Rockets (44-22, LW 4). The Rockets are 14-8 without Dwight Howard and have stumbled some lately, but picked up a gritty win on the road against the Clippers. Harden is still putting up near MVP-level numbers but you have to wonder if he’s slipped behind Russell Westbrook in that race (in my book he never caught Stephen Curry).

 
source:  8. Clippers (42-25, LW 8). The return of Blake Griffin brings needed scoring and options to the offense, the key is to keep DeAndre Jordan playing at a high level as he has been. Griffin’s also brought back that get-under-the-opponents skin nature of Los Angeles, not to mention the need to lobby referees on every call. The good news for the Clippers is their schedule is one of the softest in the NBA the rest of the way.

 
source:  9. Thunder (37-29, LW 9). It’s going to be another week or so before Kevin Durant returns, and now Serge Ibaka is going to miss some time for knee surgery. That hasn’t mattered with the masked-man Westbrook pushing this teams to wins. Also combination of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams up front has worked pretty well (32 points and 29 boards combined against the quality Bulls front line Sunday), but they will be tested without Ibaka.

 
source:  10. Mavericks (42-25, LW 10). We’ve discussed Dallas’ challenges with top teams in the West, but they looked very good routing the Clippers last Friday. Can they build on that with the Thunder and Grizzlies on the schedule this week? And while they had some struggles, they are not sliding 5.5 games behind the Pelicans before the season ends.

 
source:  11. Pelicans (36-30, LW 11). Anthony Davis’ Sunday line is legendary: 36 points, 14 rebounds, nine blocks, and seven assists. According to Basketball-Reference.com, no other player in the last 30 seasons has posted a line with at least those numbers. But the Pelicans lost in double OT to Denver, they have too many of those nights to make the playoffs.

 
source:  12. Pacers (30-34, LW 13). Best team in the NBA since the All-Star break but they have some real tests coming up the next couple weeks (this week it’s the Raptors, Bulls, Cavaliers and Nets). Get through these two weeks in the playoff mix and they are not coming out of it.

 
source:  13. Jazz (29-36, LW 17). The best team in the West since the All-Star break, but unlike the Pacers out East that’s not good enough to get you in the playoff mix in the West. They seem to be finding themselves on the court, but the shift in ownership with Greg Miller stepping down raises questions about one of the most stable franchises in the league.

 
source:  14. Bulls (40-28, LW 12). They have lost five of six, and the one win came because Aaron Brooks went off on the Sixers. There have been a few problems with their defense this season, but one of the biggest has become rebounding — the opponent’s possession isn’t over until you secure the ball. The Hornets and Thunder gave the Bulls all sorts of problems there.

 
source:  15. Celtics (29-36, LW 19). They have won four in a row and, in a sign we normally see from good teams, they are doing it with key guys injured (Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas). That this team is in the playoff hunt should get Brad Stevens some Coach of the Year votes.

 
source:  16. Wizards (38-28, LW 21). The Wizards beat the Grizzlies because Memphis chose that game to rest every player you can name. John Wall shouldn’t be offended, just take the win. You needed it. The Wizards have won three in a row but things get tough with Portland then a West Coast road swing.

 
source:  17. Bucks (34-32, LW 14). Jason Kidd and the Bucks wanted Michael Carter-Williams and his wonky shot, and traded Brandon Knight to get him. Well, since the trade deadline, they’re 4-9 with the 29th rated offense (using points per possession) in the league. Yes, they have been better offensively with MCW on the court, but not good enough at all.

 
<source:  18. Suns (35-33, LW 16). You knew after their trade deadline moves they were likely to fall out of the playoff mix and they have in any way that really matters. Tough stretch of the schedule against quality teams coming up, which will officially doom any playoff hopes.

 
source:  19. Raptors (39-27, LW 20). They have stumbled losing 8-of-10 because of a weak defense, but they may be able to hang on to the three seed the rest of the way thanks to DeMar DeRozan’s recent offensive explosion, and the fact their schedule is pretty soft the rest of the way out.

 
source:  20. Hornets (29-35, LW 15). Kemba Walker is understandably rusty. Al Jefferson is banged up. They have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the teams battling for one of the final couple playoff spots in the East — it’s going to be hard to hold off Boston unless they get healthy and get some steady offense.

 
source:  21. Heat (29-36, LW 18). Miami is only half a game out of the East’s final playoff spot, but the schedule this week is brutal: Cleveland, Portland, improved Denver, then a four-game roadie that includes the Thunder and Hawks. They need the Hassan Whiteside of a couple weeks ago back not the one losing his temper and not playing as focused.

 
source:  22. Nets (26-38, LW 22). For a team loaded with veterans they seem to be collapsing like a house of cards down the stretch. And not the good Netflix House of Cards (great show), I mean an actual one. They need some wins against the teams they are battling for a playoff space, starting with the Pacers Saturday night.

 
source:  23. Nuggets (26-41, LW 27). They are 6-2 under Melvin Hunt, who has at the very least earned a serious interview as the guy to replace Brian Shaw. Denver management may want to do something crazy and ask their core players — Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried — what they think of Hunt vs. other potential candidates.

 
source:  24. Kings (22-42, LW 24). No Rudy Gay for a bit as he rests his knee. The Kings are a lot more fun to watch and offensively dangerous under George Karl, but they have become a defensive mess. You don’t win games that way. The Kings are proof.

 
source:  25. Pistons (23-43, LW 23). They have lost 10 games in a row and the team’s shooting has been abysmal. It has made the big question remaining in Detroint: Can you see Reggie Jackson as the future point guard for this franchise? What are you willing to offer him this off-season? He hasn’t played like a guy deserving the big cash lately.

source:  26. Timberwolves (14-51, LW 25). No Kevin Garnett due to knee soreness the last four (all losses), which takes some of the luster off his little return. Actually the luster is off of everything: Andrew Wiggin’s shooting, Ricky Rubio’s ankles, anything resembling defense.

 
source:  27. Magic (21-47, LW 26). No doubt they are bad, but you see some hope with solid future rotation players like Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic (actually Vucevic could be a potential All-Star). Just hang in Magic fans and hope management hires the right coach.

 
source:  28. 76ers (15-50, LW 28). Thomas Robinson has played pretty well and looked like a potential future rotation player. Same with Robert Covington. And Nerlens Noel. And remember they could have three first round picks in this draft. They might be able to build something if management lets it

 
source:  29. Knicks (13-53, LW 30). Alexey Shved is not your savior New York, he is a mirage of entertainment. Which at this this point in the season you take. After listening to Phil Jackson the past couple weeks, if Knicks fans are worried about the future you can’t blame them.

 
source:  30. Lakers (17-47, LW 29). At their current pace (fourth worst record in the NBA) they have basically a 4-in-5 chance of retaining their top-five draft pick this season (if it is sixth or later it reverts to the Sixers). Most Lakers fans are rooting for Minnesota or Philadelphia to get hot enough they pass the Lakers and improve those odds.

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.