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.).

David Griffin on possibility of keeping Anthony Davis: ‘We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George’

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New Pelicans lead executive David Griffin wants to sell Anthony Davis on staying in new Orleans.

Even with the Pelicans landing the No. 1 pick and ability to draft Zion Williamson, Davis reportedly still wants to be traded.

But New Orleans doesn’t have to acquiesce. No matter what Davis wants, he’s still under contract next season. The Pelicans can keep him and spend the season trying to convince him to re-sign in the summer of 2020.

Griffin, via Zach Lowe of ESPN:

“We can be Oklahoma City with Paul George,” he said. “We can hold onto [Davis] and let him see what we really are. [Winning the lottery] changes how quickly he can buy into it. It gets us closer. Every day, maybe he believes a little more. As much as elite talent likes to play with elite talent, I can’t imagine any elite player in his prime looking at our situation and saying to himself, ‘There’s a better grouping to play for’ than ours.”

George had his eyes on the Lakers when the Thunder traded for him in 2017. But he enjoyed his time in Oklahoma City and re-signed.

The big difference between George and Davis: Davis requested a trade from the team trying to keep him. George didn’t.

In fact, George didn’t even request a trade at all. George merely told the Pacers he wouldn’t re-sign the following year. Obviously, he knew that made them more likely to deal him. But he was content playing out the the final year of his contract in Indiana or anywhere else.

Davis told New Orleans he wanted out. He’s not coming to a new team, let alone with an open mind.

Still, the Pelicans have changed significantly since Davis’ trade request. Griffin and Williamson significantly improve the the franchise’s outlook. Depending what offers he receives for Davis, Griffin keeping the superstar and attempting to change his mind throughout the season could make sense. New Orleans can always deal Davis before the trade deadline if it’s not working, though trading him later likely lowers the return.

Of course, Griffin could have no intention of keeping an unhappy Davis. Saying he might only increases Griffin’s leverage in trade negotiations.

But if they truly want to keep Davis and pitch him throughout the season, the Pelicans are facing a much steeper hill than the Thunder had with George.

Report: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers expected to sign super-max extension

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Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers entered this postseason with an opportunity to prove themselves to each other. Portland had gotten swept in the first round the last two years, including a devastating sweep as the No. 3 seed last season. Lillard would be eligible this offseason for a super-max extension that projects to be worth $193 million over four years.

Everyone feels good now.

Lillard hit one of the biggest shots ever, and the Trail Blazers advanced to their first conference finals in 19 years. Both sides want to continue their partnership.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are expected to come to terms over the summer on a four-year, $191 million supermax contract extension, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Lillard is under contract two more seasons. So, his extension would take effect in 2021, when it’s exact value would be determined. I project it at $193 million over four years.

As an All-NBA lock this year, Lillard will be eligible to sign a super-max extension this offseason or next. If he waits until 2020, he could sign a five-year extension. That deal would carry the same terms as the four-year extension for the first four years but would add a fifth year worth a projected $57 million – bringing the total projected value to $250 million. But there’s no guarantee Portland will offer the megadeal next year.

Already, this is a real risk for the Trail Blazers.

It’s probably one they must take. Lillard is an excellent player who does so much to set the team’s culture.

But paying someone projected salaries of $43 million, $46 million, $50 million and $53 million from ages 31-34? Nearly no player can assure he’ll warrant that. Build a winner around a single player earning so much is quite difficult. Portland’s ownership situation after the death of Paul Allen, who frequently paid the luxury tax, only adds to the uncertainty.

This could be a litmus test for the designated-veteran-player-extension rule altogether. If it doesn’t work with Damian Lillard – who exudes so many traits you want in a superstar – who will it work with?

Meyers Leonard delivers all-time out-of-nowhere playoff performance

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In 1967, Richie Guerin retired. The former Knicks star had been the St. Louis Hawks’ player-coach a few years, and he shifted fully into coaching. He even won Coach of the Year that season. As the Hawks moved to Atlanta the next year, he occasionally returned to the lineup, but played sparingly while focused on coaching. He played even less the following season, scoring just seven points in eight games.

But when the Hawks were facing injuries, inexperience and a 3-0 deficit to the Lakers 1970 Western Division finals, a 37-year-old Guerin stepped up on the court. He scored 31 points in Game 4, though Los Angeles completed the sweep.

Afterward, Hawks publicity director Tom McCollister called in the game’s stats to the league office:

”Guerin played 35 minutes,” reported McCollister, quietly, ”made 12 of 17 field goal attempts, 7 for 7 free throws, had 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 personal fouls. Thirty-one points.” Pause. ”They are burying him tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”

That was a rare time someone with a lower scoring average than Meyers Leonard scored 30 points in a playoff game.

Leonard – who averaged 5.9 points per game in the regular season – scored 30 points in the Trail Blazers’ Game 4 loss to the Warriors last night. He scored 25 in the first half!

This was the same Leonard who was in and out of the rotation all season, who had a DNP-CD in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, who had a previous career high of 24 points. That came in 2015, preceding a much-maligned four-year, $41 million contract.

But when Portland needed a more-mobile defender at center, Leonard started. He played well in Game 3, scoring 16 points and dishing four assists. That wad already an unexpectedly good night for him.

Yet, Leonard upped the ante yesterday. For a while, he was going shot-for-shot with Stephen Curry. Though he couldn’t keep up with Curry (37 points), Leonard went 12-of-16, including 5-of-8 on 3-pointers.

Here are the players to score 30 points in a playoff game with the lowest regular-season scoring averages:

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The only other player besides Guerin to drop 30 in a playoff game after scoring so little in the regular season was Daniel Gibson. Boobie averaged 4.6 points per game his rookie year then scored 31 points on 5-of-5 3-point shooting in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, helping send the Cavs to their first NBA Finals.

“If I’m dreaming, please don’t wake me up,” Gibson said. “This was perfect, to win it for Cleveland.”

The most recent player to crack the leaderboard was CJ McCollum, who averaged 6.8 points per game in 2014-15 then scored 33 in a season-ending Game 5 loss to the Grizzlies in the first round. McCollum won Most Improved Player the next year and has remained a near-star ever since.

Could Leonard make a similar jump for the Trail Blazers? Don’t count on it. McCollum was in only his second season. Leonard, who just finished his seventh season, has been in the league even longer than McCollum now.

But appreciate Leonard’s scoring binge for what it was – one heck of an outlier.

Giannis Antetokounmpo pays for basketball court in fire-ravaged Greece

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo has agreed to fund the construction of an indoor basketball court in a fire-ravaged area outside Athens where at least 100 people were killed last year.

The mayor of the Rafina area where the fire occurred last July said on Monday the local authority accepted the offer from the Milwaukee Bucks player to build the court at a new recycling park that is being planned. The mayor, Vangelis Bournous, gave no details of the construction cost but said the venue would ready at the end of this summer.

The blaze gutted the seaside resort of Mati, east of Athens, and other coastal areas, destroying more than a thousand homes.

Antetokounmpo’s Bucks are leading in the NBA Eastern Conference finals 2-1 over the Toronto Raptors.