PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Cream rising to top as playoffs near

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There are only a couple weeks left in the regular season (and only a few more power rankings to come, before the playoffs make them moot) and you can see the cream rising to the top — Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs and so on. The Clippers are hot, but do you really buy into them as a contender?

 
source:  1. Warriors (60-13, Last Week No. 1). Looking for a team hitting their stride as the playoffs approach? The Warriors have won nine in a row and 14-of-15, getting them to 60 wins and locking down the top seed in the West. They are five games up on the Hawks for best record overall. Tough slate of games this week, expect Steve Kerr to rest some key players.

 
source:  2. Cavaliers (48-27 LW 2). It is looking more and more like they are going to land the two seed and face Miami in the first round — not that the Heat can beat the Cavaliers, but that’s going to draw a lot of attention and be a more challenging first round than the Cavs would prefer. The Cavs play the Heat Thursday in what will be a little preview.

 
source:  3. Spurs (47-26, LW 3). They have won three in a row and 7-of-10 — they finally got healthy, put their regular starting five out there and now look like title contenders again. They keys have bee Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, and their returns to form gets the bench rotation back in order.

 
source:  4. Hawks (55-18, LW 4). Mike Budenholzer learned his craft next to Gregg Popovich — expect the Hawks to rest a lot of key players the next two weeks with the top spot secured (like they rested all five starters over the weekend). The good news for the ATL is whoever they get in the first round it’s basically a bye and they can use that to get their groove back.

 
source:  5. Clippers (49-25, LW 7). They have won seven in a row and they are doing it with offense — J.J. Redick is playing the best ball of his NBA career. The Clips are just 1.5 games back of the two seed and 1.5 games up on the six seed, no team’s playoff landing spot is harder to predict.

 
source:  6. Rockets (50-23, LW 6). They have won 7-of-8 and, with Dwight Howard back in the rotation, they seem a lock to be a top three seed (they are No. 2 right now). That said the loss of Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas will hurt the team’s depth as they face the Thunder and Mavericks later in the week.

 
source:  7. Grizzlies (50-24, LW 5). They have lost three straight, albeit to quality teams (Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs). Now the schedule softens up for them as they try to hold on to the two (or at least three) seed in the West (although look for them to jockey for position to avoid the Spurs, who give them trouble).

 
source:  8. Trail Blazers (47-25. LW 9). The Blazers have won three in a row and have broken out of their slump, but those wins came against teams out of he playoffs and with Damian Lillard still looking to regain his shooting form. Key game Wednesday against the Clippers, a potential first-round matchup (and Portland will not have home court in that matchup without a win).

 
source:  9. Bulls (45-29, LW 11). Jimmy Butler is back, Nikola Mirotic is on fire, and the Bulls have won five of six — but have done it beating up on the cream puffs out East. Soon the Bulls will get Derrick Rose back and they seem clearly the third best team in the East heading into the playoffs. How far can that really take them?

 
source:  10. Mavericks (45-29, LW 10). They have lost four of five and the issue is far more than Monta Ellis not getting calls. The Mavs have a tough stretch coming up at Oklahoma City, then hosting Houston and Golden State. If they lose to the Thunder Wednesday, Dallas needs to be concerned about holding on to the seven seed.

 
source:  11. Thunder (42-32, LW 8). It’s official, no Kevin Durant for the playoffs, and Serge Ibaka will be on the bubble. The win over Phoenix Sunday all but secures them a first round playoff spot, but if they are the eight seed it’s nearly impossible to see them getting past Golden State. Beat Dallas on Wednesday and the seven seed is not out of the question. Is just getting this banged up Thunder team to the postseason enough to get Russell Westbrook the MVP?

 
source:  12. Pelicans (39-34, LW 13). The only way they make the playoffs is with a lot of help from OKC. The Thunder close out the season against facing a lot of the playoff teams in the West and it’s going to be hard to rack up wins and stay close at this point.

 
<source:  13. Suns (38-36, LW 15). That loss to Oklahoma City on Sunday was the stake through the heart to their playoff hopes. Well, that and the losses in the two games before Sunday as well. They seemed destined for a second strong season as the nine (maybe 10) seed in the West.

 
source:  14. Wizards (41-33, LW 12). Lots of people look at the Wizards stumbling to the playoffs, then the job Randy Whittman has done, and think the Wizards need a new coach. However, he has a guaranteed contract for next season and owner Ted Leonsis is not likely to throw that kind of money away. I’ve been told to expect Whittman back as the Wizards coach next season.

 
source:  15. Raptors (43-30, LW 16). For the second year in a row the Raptors have clinched the Atlantic Division crown, which is something to celebrate. They have a soft schedule the rest of the way in (after Houston on Monday) so they should be able to hold on to home court against Washington in the first round.

 
source:  16. Jazz (32-41, LW 14). They had lost four in a row and their mojo until Enes Kanter decided to go WWE smack talk and wake up the Jazz again. One thing that has seemed evident during this stretch is the Jazz need to draft or go after more shooters in free agency. Or both.

 
source:  17. Bucks (36-37, LW 22). Last weeks back-to-back wins over the Heat and Pacers all but assured Milwaukee will make the playoffs out East as the six seed. However, tough stretch this week with the Hawks, Bulls, and Celtics, fall in all those games and they slide down the standings.

 
source:  18. Heat (34-39, LW 18). In the volatile bottom of the East Miami is back up to the seven seed, all on the back of Dwyane Wade (who dropped 40 on Sunday). Tough games early in the week with the Spurs and Cavs, really key game late in the week vs. Indiana.

 
source:  19. Nets (32-40, LW 19). They hold the eight seed in the East now thanks to Brook Lopez carrying their offense averaging 28.2 point per game his last five (and in spite of a terrible defense). Like everyone at bottom of East, this is a flawed team likely to have a couple more bad losses.

 
source:  20. Celtics (32-41, LW 17). They have played great defense their last 10 games, but an anemic offense leads to some unexpected losses. They can make or break themselves this week facing the Hornets, Pacers, Bucks and Raptors. But I expect we get more up and down results.

 
source:  21. Pacers (32-41, LW 21). Sunday’s win over slumping Dallas was key for them heading into a week that will likely make or break their playoff dreams: at Brooklyn, at Boston, Charlotte, and Miami. Whatever happens, should they really bring Paul George back for any games this season? Hard to see why.

 
source:  22. Nuggets (28-46, LW 23). After a fast start the Nuggets have fallen back to 8-7 under Melvin Hunt as interim coach. That says less about him and more about how some minor injuries have exposed the limitations of this roster. He still deserves serious consideration for the big chair next season.

 
source:  23. Pistons (28-44, LW 24). The Pistons have played fairly well without the injured Greg Monroe (which could be a good sign for next season). Reggie Williams and Andre Drummond are starting to develop a real nice pick-and-roll chemistry.

 
source:  24. Kings (26-46, LW 25). The best thing about the Kings right now is the Sauce Castillo nickname. Check out Monday’s PBT Extra where I discuss if Willie Cauley-Stein is a good fit next to DeMarcus Cousins (short answer, not really).

 
source:  25. Hornets (31-41, LW 20). The Hornets beat the Hawks… only because Atlanta rested all five starters. If they want to get back in the mix for the eight seed in the East they need a big week of wins against Boston, Detroit, Indiana and Philadephia.

 
source:  26. 76ers (18-56, LW 26). They lost to the Cavaliers Sunday but the way their defense kept them in the game, the way they scrapped, is a sign of what this team could develop into down the line. There is reason for optimism in Philly.

 
source:  27. Magic (22-52, LW 27). They changed coaches mid-season (and will get a new one next summer) but rumor is GM Rob Hennigan is going to get a contract extension. That shows you ownership has bought into this rebuilding plan and thinks the problems are in execution down the line. Interesting.

 
source:  28. Lakers (19-53, LW 30). I wish the Lakers and Byron Scott would stop selling fans on the quick fix that is not coming. Rebuilding like they are doing takes years to do right, even if you nail your picks and get a quality free agent or two. Lakers fans will buy into a building process if you treat them intelligently, not like little children.

source:  29. Timberwolves (16-56, LW 28). When Ricky Rubio has been out, I have fully enjoyed the entertainment value of Zach LaVine running the Timberwolves offense. But that is not a long-term answer, they need another point guard in the mix.

 
source:  30. Knicks (14-60, LW 29). They have 60 losses on the season, a franchise record. This team needs a lot more than a “big butt to hold space.” Look at it this way, who leads the Knicks in total shot attempts this season? Carmelo Anthony, despite having played in just 40 games (‘Melo has 167 more than Tim Hardaway Jr.).

Referee bumps into waitress, tray of drinks spilled on court during Blazers game

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Katy Stevens has been a courtside server at Trail Blazers games for more than a decade — but this year has been unlike any other.

Back in December, LeBron James knocked her over, then helped her back up.

Then on Friday night, veteran referee Tony Brown backed into her and spilled an entire tray of drinks onto the court.

Let me say, as a guy who waited tables/bartended through college and a little while after — that job is hard. Katy is earning her money, and I felt terrible for her. I was not alone, as NBC Sports Northwest noted.

It was a rough night all the way around in the Moda Center. Portland, without Damian Lillard due to a groin injury, fell to the Pelicans 128-115 in a contest between two teams trying to catch Memphis for the final seed in the West (and the Grizzlies lost to the Lakers Friday).

Watch LeBron James score 32; Anthony Davis’ big second half lift Lakers past Grizzlies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 32 points, Anthony Davis recovered from an early injury scare to get 28 points and 13 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers returned from the All-Star break with a 117-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Avery Bradley added 14 points for the Western Conference-leading Lakers, who finished strong after blowing most of their 25-point lead accumulated in a superb first half. Davis had 14 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter as Los Angeles improved to 42-12 with its fourth straight win since Feb. 6.

Josh Jackson scored a season-high 20 points for the Grizzlies, who have lost back-to-back games in California after heading into the All-Star break with eight wins in 10. Ja Morant added 17 points as Memphis dropped to 0-2 on its four-game West Coast trip, which matches its longest road stretch of the season.

Davis departed less than two minutes after the opening tip when he bruised his right calf on an opponent’s knee. The All-Star went to the locker room and missed the rest of the first quarter, but returned early in the second before scoring 24 points in the second half.

Although James, Davis and Dwight Howard were busy in Chicago over the break, the Lakers returned with impressive defensive focus across the roster. Los Angeles held Memphis to 15-for-38 shooting and forced 11 turnovers in the first half to jump to a 19-point lead.

The Grizzlies trimmed the lead to four points early in the fourth quarter with a prolonged surge. The Lakers hung on with a series of big plays, including a jaw-dropping rebound dunk by Alex Caruso off a missed free throw by Davis with 6:16 to play.

James clinched it with a driving layup followed by a gorgeous fadeaway jumper with 1:12 left. Davis then hit his second 3-pointer in the final minute.

The Lakers improved to 3-0 against the Grizzlies this season. They meet again in Memphis on Feb. 29.

 

Pilot in Kobe Bryant helicopter crash had FAA reprimand for flying in reduced visibility

Image courtesy Kurt Helin
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The pilot of a helicopter that crashed into a Southern California hillside, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was reprimanded five years ago for flying without permission into airspace while he had reduced visibility, according to a Federal Aviation Administration enforcement record.

Ara Zobayan was counseled by an FAA investigator after he violated FAA rules by crossing into busy airspace near Los Angeles International Airport on May 11, 2015, according to the record, which was first reported Friday by the Los Angeles Times.

The record doesn’t indicate whether Zobayan was carrying any passengers at the time.

Zobayan, 50, died Jan. 26 when his helicopter plunged at high speed into a hillside in Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles. Zobayan had been trying to climb above a cloud layer when the aircraft banked left and plunged 1,200 feet (366 meters) at high speed. There has been speculation that the pilot became disoriented in the foggy weather. The crash remains under investigation.

The crash also killed Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with six others. The victims will be honored at a Feb. 24 public memorial at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

At the time, Zaboyan was chief pilot for the charter service Island Express Helicopters Inc.

He was flying for the same company during the 2015 incident.

According to the FAA report, Zobayan’s helicopter was near the Hawthorne, California, airport and heading north when he asked the LAX tower for permission to cross LAX airspace. Zobayan was told that weather conditions didn’t meet the minimum for pilots using visual flight rules — that is, flying by sight.

Zaboyan was asked whether he could maintain “VFR conditions.”

Zaboyan replied that he could “maintain special VFR” — meaning he sought permission to fly by sight in less-than-optimal visibility.

When air traffic control denied the request and told him to stay clear of the area, Zobayan replied that he could “maintain VRF” but during the conversation, the helicopter entered the airspace, according to the record.

Zobayan contacted authorities and his company after the incident and was cooperative. But an FAA investigator faulted him for failing to properly plan and review current weather at LAX, which would have allowed him time to communicate earlier with the tower in order to receive clearance, according to the record.

The report said Zobayan “admitted his error, took responsibility for his action, and was willing to take any other necessary steps toward compliance.”

“There are no indications that this is a repeated incident and there are no signs that this incident is a trend with Mr. Zobayan,” the report said.

Zobayan was counseled “on operating in Class B airspace, special VFR weather minimums, proper planning, reviewing weather, and anticipating required action,” the report said. “He was cooperative and receptive to the counseling.”

Island Express Helicopters Inc, reported that it conducted additional ground and flight training with Zaboyan.

Veteran helicopter pilots were divided over the severity of the FAA violation, the Times reported.

“I don’t know a single pilot out there who hasn’t violated a rule,” Shawn Coyle said. “If that’s the only violation he’s ever had then I would say he’s pretty safe.”

But former Island Express pilot Kurt Deetz said entering LAX airspace without approval can be dangerous because of the possible presence of commercial jets. He also questioned Zaboyan’s communication with air traffic controllers.

“You can’t request special VFR and then they deny you and you say, ‘Oh wait a minute, actually I’m VFR’, ” he told the Times. “That’s not how it works. It shows that perhaps his understanding of special VFR as opposed to VFR was cloudy.”

Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.