PBT Weekly NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Spurs, Cavs finish season in top slots

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This is the final PBT Power Rankings of the season, and the goal is to put them in the order they have a shot at winning the NBA title. San Antonio moves in front of Cleveland because I believe today the Spurs are the better team. As for the bottom, it’s the Timberwolves who get the “honor.”

 
source:  1. Warriors (65-15, Last Week No. 1). Steve Kerr has not given his young charges a game off down the stretch, although some have seen their minutes shrink a little. We’ll see if that changes. They have taken their foot off the gas a little of late but will still finish first in defensive rating and second in offensive rating for the season.

 
source:  2. Spurs (55-26, LW 3). They have won 11 games in a row, and may need to make it 12 on Wednesday against the Pelicans to ensure they get the No. 2 seed out West (and in theory they could still miss it). As noted by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, during this win streak the Spurs have outscored opponents by more than 20 points per 100 possessions. That’s insane.

 
source:  3. Cavaliers (51-29 LW 2). Cleveland resting all it’s stars Sunday made it far more likely they get the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. Coincidence? I wouldn’t bet on it. Boston’s young team will be just happy to make it, a nice, soft first playoff experience for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

 
source:  4. Hawks (60-19, LW 4). There are a lot of questions about how it happened off the court, but the Thabo Sefolosha injury really hurts the Hawks in a potential matchup with the Cavaliers. He would have seen a fair amount of time on LeBron James, plus his defense was key to their stingy second unit.

 
source:  5. Clippers (54-26, LW 5). They come into the postseason the second hottest team in the league (behind San Antonio) but there is not a lot of faith in them coming out of the West. It all comes down to their lack of depth and the lack of versatility/flexibility that comes with a short rotation. That’s Doc Rivers the GM tying the hands of Doc Rivers the coach again.

 
source:  6. Rockets (54-26, LW 6). They lost both ends of the home and home with the Spurs and that saw them fall to the six seed in the West (although they still could finish as high as the two seed). Even with Dwight Howard playing better of late this seems to symbolize the limits of how far this roster can really go.

 
source:  7. Trail Blazers (51-29. LW 7). They will be the four seed in the West but will not have home court in the first round. The foot injury (sprain) LaMarcus Aldridge suffered could be big trouble if it lingers into the postseason and limits Portland’s best player.

 
source:  8. Grizzlies (54-26, LW 8). Injuries make this team very vulnerable in the first round — Mike Conley has a foot issue, Tony Allen is not yet back, and Saturday Marc Gasol rolled his ankle. Two tough games for seeding issues, at Golden State then Indiana. The good news is they have a lot of tiebreakers in their favor in the middle of a crowded West.

 
source:  9. Mavericks (48-31, LW 10). In his last 15 games, Rajon Rondo is shooting a respectable 47.5 percent. That doesn’t matter. All those teams battling for the 2-6 seeds in the West covet the two seed most of all, they see Dallas as the softest first-round matchup.

 
source:  10. Bulls (48-32, LW 9). Go ahead and make the case that when all of their starters are there — Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah — they are 17-5. Yes, they have played much better at the United Center of late. I still haven’t seen consistent enough defense from the Bulls this season to think they can flip the switch. They are the third best team in the East but well back of the Hawks and Cavs.

 
source:  11. Pelicans (43-36, LW 11). They control their own destiny, a win on the road against the struggling T-Wolves Monday night puts them in a strong position. But if OKC beats Portland Monday the Pelicans may have to beat the Spurs the final game of the season and that will be a tall order and the Spurs likely need that win, too.

 
source:  12. Thunder (43-36, LW 13). Russell Westbrook is trying, but the Thunder defense is the reason they need help to get in the postseason. Huge game Monday, they need to beat the Trail Blazers (because the Pelicans will beat the Timberwolves). Their final game against the Timberwolves should be a win, if they are still in the playoff mix.

 
source:  13. Raptors (48-32, LW 14). As division winners — while the Bulls are not — they have the tiebreaker over Chicago for the 3/4 seed race. They will be home for the first round of the playoffs and may win 50 games. That said, their Swiss cheese defense has them being pretty average since the All-Star break. The Raptors should beat the Bucks if if they are the three seed, but a matchup with the Wizards (who do defend) could be a challenge).

 
source:  14. Wizards (45-34, LW 12). Washington will be the five seed starting on the road in the playoffs, but they are the second best defensive team in the East (behind Milwaukee). That plus John Wall’s attacking style means they can get out of the first round, they will not be an easy out.

 
source:  15. Jazz (37-43, LW 15). The Jazz and their fans need to consider this season a success — they found a front line that might really work for them in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. They need to find more offense, but if history is an indicator expect patience from the Utah front office this summer.

 
source:  16. Celtics (37-42, LW 19). Cleveland gave the Celtics a gift Sunday sitting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and pretty much every other Cav you can name. Of course, that likely means they get the fully-loaded Cavaliers in the first round. Nonetheless, just making the playoffs is a big step for the Celtics and will be a good experience for their young team.

 
source:  17. Bucks (39-40, LW 17). The win over Brooklyn on Sunday secured the six seed for Milwaukee (meaning they face Toronto or Chicago). The last time the Bucks won a playoff series was 2001, and that streak likely continues, but just getting in will be a good experience for a young, growing Bucks team.

 
source:  18. Nets (37-42, LW 18). They should be able to get the eight seed, especially since they have the tie breaker over the Pacers. However, a win over Chicago Monday night would be a big boost to their chances.

 
source:  19. Pacers (36-43, LW 20). They likely need to beat Washington and Memphis — no small feat — and get some help to make the postseason. Paul George did his best to help and even dunked for the first time this season on Sunday, it just may be too much of a slow start to overcome.

 
source:  20. Heat (36-43, LW 21). Obviously there were major roster shifts followed by major injuries, still it is odd to see the four-time NBA Finalists missing the playoffs all together this season. The last team to lose in the Finals then miss the playoffs was the Lakers the year after Shaq was moved.

 
<source:  21. Suns (39-41, LW 16). Would they have won the eight seed if they had not made their deadline trades? It’s moot, they might have been the eight seed and got smacked down in the first round. Better to think and plan long term.

 
source:  22. Pistons (31-49, LW 22). It’s another losing season in Detroit, but at least one where we started to see Stan Van Gundy play a foundation for the future. A future without Josh Smith. Also likely one without Greg Monroe, who will bolt as a free agent this summer. But likely one with Reggie Jackson in the fold.

 
source:  23. Hornets (33-47, LW 23). Their defense went from top five to top 10, a slip that hurt their chances for a return to the playoffs. That and the Lance Stephenson acquisition not working out, look for the Hornets to try and move him this summer.

 
source:  24. Magic (25-55, LW 24). There are moments you see a potential future with Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, and Nikola Vucivic. Then there was the second quarter against the Knicks, when the teams combined to score 15 points, when you are reminded just how far they have to go.

 
source:  25. Nuggets (30-50, LW 25). If you’re looking for a positive, Danilo Gallinari looked much improved at the end of the season. Nuggets management needs to decide what kind of team it want to build then go get a coach to fulfill that — then stick with it for a few years.

 
source:  26. Kings (27-53, LW 26). They made their moves — George Karl is in and Vlade Divac is the big voice in the front office. Now let’s see if those guys can put a team that will take advantage of the force of nature that is DeMarcus Cousins.

 
source:  27. 76ers (18-62, LW 27). They developed a foundation on defense and will add Joel Embiid (plus their own lottery pick) to the mix next season. They could take a nice step forward. But they also may not get any of those conditional picks they have (Lakers, Heat and Thunder picks all have protections).

 
source:  28. Lakers (21-59, LW 28). Jordan Clarkson can play at the point. They get Julius Randle back. They will have whoever they draft Top 5 (they have an 82 percent chance of keeping the pick). That plus Kobe Bryant makes the Lakers more interesting next season — and we haven’t even talked about Rajon Rondo or other potential free agents.

 
source:  29. Knicks (16-64, LW 29). Let the Greg Monroe watch begin. He would be a good get, but what they really need is some lottery luck and a top pick who can be a foundational player to pair with Carmelo Anthony (and just take the best player, don’t worry about position).

source:  30. Timberwolves (16-64, LW 30). Andrew Wiggins will be the Rookie of the Year. Pair him with a healthy Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine next season — with Kevin Garnett mentoring — and they shouldn’t end the season this low on the list. Well, if Flip Saunders can get these guys to defend.

Report: Russell Westbrook expected to miss Rockets’ first few playoff games

Rockets star Russell Westbrook and Thunder star Chris Paul
Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images
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Rockets guard Russell Westbrook could miss playoff games with a strained right quadriceps.

That’s no longer just a mere possibility.

It’s an expectation.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Though the Rockets could only put a timetable on when they will next evaluate Russell Westbrook’s strained quadriceps muscle, the expectation is that he will be out for the first few games of next week’s playoff series and possibly longer, a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking said on Thursday.

The Rockets will face the Thunder in the first-round, and Westbrook missing games would be a major blow.

Both teams have similar median levels. But Oklahoma City is steadier. Houston has a higher ceiling (championship level) but a lower floor – which drops even further without Westbrook.

The Rockets re-engineered their team around Westbrook, going super small so he serves as the only player who doesn’t space the floor with 3-pointers. That gives everyone more room to operate, and the explosive Westbrook has taken particular advantage. Even if he returns during the series, lingering leg issues could really limit him.

James Harden is good enough to lift Houston to playoff relevancy. Role players like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington can still contribute. The Rockets have plenty of guard who can step into larger roles – Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore.

But Westbrook takes this team to the next level.

The Rockets traded a valuable set of draft picks last summer to upgrade from Chris Paul to Westbrook, who looked more durable. Ironically, Houston must now face a rejuvenated and healthy Paul, now on Oklahoma City, with Westbrook sidelined.

Grizzlies’ other rookie, Brandon Clarke again leaping over expectations

Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke
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When Brandon Clarke signed with San Jose State in 2014, the Spartans bragged about landing their highest-rated recruit ever – Cody Schwartz.

When Clarke transferred to Gonzaga in 2017, Bulldogs fans viewed him as a consolation prize after the program struck out on other transfers like Chase Jeter, Kameron Rooks, Elijah Brown, Randy Onwuasor and Deontae Hawkins.

When the Grizzlies got Clarke with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis naturally focused on No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

Unlike the previous situations, the player coveted ahead of Clarke proved worthy of the hype. Morant is the rare rookie point guard who drives winning, and he’s the biggest reason the Grizzlies are still in the thick of the playoff race.

But, as usual, Clarke is quietly thriving.

“I don’t mind not being super famous,” Clarke said. “I don’t mind people kind of missing out on me.

“By now, I’m kind of used to it.”

Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke give Memphis a promising, cohesive young core to build around. Just remember to include Clarke in that group.

After a long run of competitiveness, the Grizzlies were fortunate to go over the hill and bottom out in a year someone as good as Jackson was available with the No. 4 pick. Then, Memphis got lucky in last year’s lottery, nabbing the No. 2 pick in a two-player draft and getting Morant. What a quick way to rebuild.

Especially when nailing moves around the margins like getting Clarke.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis traded up to the No. 21 pick for Clarke, whom ranked No. 10 on my board. The power forward-center has only outperformed his ratings since.

Clarke’s per-game stats – 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks – are modest. But he’s incredibly productive in his 22.3 minutes per game.

Incredibly productive.

Clarke doesn’t hold ideal size. He’s just 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and weighs just 215 pounds.

But he’s a great leaper, both quick and high off the ground. And he plays with an attacking style that maximizes his athleticism.

Clarke is an elite finisher who gets above the rim, dunking or showing nice close-range touch. He has already developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant. Clarke is shooting 74% in the restricted area, placing him among the league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

When opponents wall off the basket, Clarke turns to his highly effective floater. He gets way up then shows the range of his touch. Clarke is shooting 58% in the paint outside the restricted area – second in the NBA behind only Nikola Jokic, who’s shooting 60% from that range. The league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

Clarke also shoots a keep-’em-honest 3-pointer, making 37% of his 1.1 attempts per game.

Clarke pairs well long-term with Jackson, a 3-point-bombing center (who’s out with an injury). Jackson’s outside shooting clears space for Clarke inside, and the attention Clarke should draw in the paint will free Jackson on the perimeter. Yet, both can flip roles – Jackson to the interior, Clarke to the perimeter – to keep defenses guessing.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “Playing with a guy like him, who’s so explosive and somebody I can bounce off of really well, it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s unclear whether Clarke or Jackson can effectively defend big centers. That responsibility will likely fall to Jackson, who’s 6-foot-11 but must add strength. Clarke’s defense is more versatile. He blocks plenty of shots with his hops and timing, and he moves reasonably well in space.

Clarke knows his role and stays within it. He’s not much of a creator, for himself or teammates. He rarely gambles defensively. He just plays intelligently, makes positive plays and avoids negative ones.

On a certain level, Clarke should be an early contributor. He turned 23 before the season. But even experienced rookies rarely play this well.

Yet, Clarke is still overshadowed among rookies on his own team.

“It’s honestly fine,” Clarke said. “I’m not somebody that loves having a bunch of cameras on me and a bunch of pictures and videos being taken of me. So, I think it’s perfect of having Ja be that guy that gets all of that attention.”

Clarke should get some attention soon. He belongs on the All-Rookie first team with Morant.

The three Rookie of the Year finalists – Morant, Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Heat guard Kendrick Nunn – are locks. I had Clarke safely in my fourth slot. Really, he was closer to Williamson and Nunn that fifth.

But Clarke’s scoring average ranks just 12th among rookies. Williamson, Morant, Nunn, R.J. Barrett, Eric Paschall, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Coby White, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland and P.J. Washington all averaged more points per game. That statistic more than any tends to drive voters. So, it could be close for Clarke.

Yet, Morant and Clarke at least have the opportunity for a rare accomplishment.

Since the NBA entered an expansion era in 1988, just seven teams have put two players on an All-Rookie first team:

  • 2017 76ers: Dario Saric and Joel Embiid
  • 2008 SuperSonics: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green
  • 2007 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge
  • 2007 Raptors: Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa
  • 2005 Bulls: Ben Gordon and Luol Deng
  • 2002 Grizzlies: Pau Gasol and Shane Battier
  • 1998 Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight

Will the 2020 Grizzlies become the eighth?

They have more-pressing goals first.

Memphis faces the Bucks today with a chance to make the Western Conference play-in. Advancing would be a great achievement for one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

But Memphis is ahead of schedule even being in the mix. The Grizzlies’ future is bright, regardless. They’re talented, fun and seem to get along well.

In a game earlier this season, Morant threw Clarke an alley-oop, but Clarke missed the poster dunk.

“I’d be joking with him, saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t want to make SportsCenter,'” Morant said.

Later in the same game, Morant attacked the rim but passed rather than scoring. Clarke shot right back: “You don’t want to make SportsCenter.”

And in some ways, yes. Morant still views himself as the underdog from Murray State. But his game is too stylistic, his highlights too jaw-dropping. There’s no way for him to escape the spotlight.

“I wish I could be in the background,” Morant said.

Does Morant envy Clarke’s low profile?

“It’s not jealousy at all,” Morant said. “He’s getting attention. He’s not necessarily in the background. We love him in Memphis. I’m pretty sure his name will get out there even more soon.”

Chris Paul launches ball off Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler runs over CP3 in response

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Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler didn’t need fans to ramp up their intensity Wednesday night.

Just before half of Oklahoma City’s dramatic win over Miami (which cost the Thunder a first-round pick), Paul was getting into it with Miami’s Duncan Robinson. They were jawing back and forth, with Paul draped all over the Heat shooter. Then, on a poor inbounds pass, Paul ripped the ball away from Robinson, lost his balance in doing so and was falling out of bounds, then full-on fired the ball at Robinson to get the out-of-bounds.

Jimmy Butler was having none of that — next time down, he got the switch then intentionally ran over CP3.

“You’re not gonna throw the ball at my teammate like that. We don’t do that here. You mess with one of my guys, especially one of my shooters, then you gotta deal with me and everybody else.”

That was Butler after the game, when asked about the incident.

Paul, for his part, sees a steal on time down the court and drawing an offensive foul the next — two trips down the court the Heat didn’t get off a shot in a tight game. He’ll take that.

Unfortunately for us fans, that’s it for Heat/Thunder matchups for this season (unless you’re picking that as your NBA Finals matchup). I’ve got a feeling Butler and Paul are the kinds of guys who will remember a grudge like this across an off-season.

Every 2020 NBA playoffs first-round matchup set except one; West play-in scenarios

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The first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs is set.

Almost.

Seven of the eight first-round matchups are locked in, but there is still the matter of the eighth seed in the West. The Suns, Blazers, Grizzlies, and Spurs are still alive; which two teams make it to the play-in tournament over the weekend will be decided Thursday.

First, here are the first-round playoff matchups for the NBA restart bubble (times and dates for games have yet to be announced).

EAST

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
Boston Celtics vs. Philadephia 76ers
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

WEST

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

For that eighth and final matchup, we know the Los Angeles Lakers are the top seed in the West.

The only 2020 NBA playoffs spot remaining is the Lakers’ opponent, the eighth seed in the West, which will be determined by a play-in series Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday. In a unique rule set up just for the NBA restart (because of the shortened season), if the ninth-seed team is within four games of the eighth seed (something that will happen in the West), the eighth and ninth seeds are put into a two-game play-in series. The eighth seed team needs only to win one of those games, the ninth seed needs to sweep both. The winner advances on to face the Lakers.

Here are the standings entering Thursday:

Portland and Memphis control their own destiny — win and they are in.

Let’s look at the play-in scenarios for each team.

• Portland: Beat the Nets and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. If Portland loses, it only remains the eighth seed if everyone else loses (which is highly unlikely). Portland can lose and still be the nine seed if two of the other three teams also lose.

• Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — which is without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis becomes the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose to the Bucks, they need both the Suns and Spurs to lose to stay in the playoffs.

• Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks and go 8-0 in the bubble or they are out. Even that may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eighth, just one and they finish ninth).

• San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and their 22-season playoff streak ends. Even with a win, San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is an extreme longshot).

That’s a lot of options, but ultimately Damian Lillard and Portland are in the driver’s seat — and the way he’s playing it’s tough to imagine them losing Thursday, or two in a row after that.