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PBT’s NBA Power Rankings: Clippers climb with win streak, Knicks rising too

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I’ve used this annalogy before: To me the Clippers feel like the Cincinnati Bengals (minus the mental meltdowns, I hope). They can have a fantastic regular season — they have won nine in a row as of this writing – but their success this season will be completely judged in the postseason. Can they get out of the second round? I’m not sold, but they have climbed to fourth in these power rankings. As for the other end, the bottom teams remain the same, but Charlotte is suddenly trying to join them.

 
source:  1. Warriors (35-2, last week No. 1). They have won six in a row and their offense continues to hum along (110.4 points per 100 in their last 10 games). This is how Stephen Curry described the Warriors’ ball-sharing offense to me this week: “For the most part we don’t call many plays. That flow is, we have a pretty good high IQ for whatever lineup is out there, and usually the ball finds the right spot and the right person and we trust them to make it.”

 
source:  2. Spurs (32-6, LW 2). Winners of seven in a row and besting teams by 17 points per 100 possessions in their last 10 (tops in the league). The Spurs have had the easiest schedule in the NBA so far this season, having not had games against other top contenders, but that starts to change this week when they face the Cavaliers Thursday in a must-watch game.

 
source:  3. Cavaliers (26-9, LW 4). One guy who has benefitted from the return of Kyrie Irving is J.R. Smith, who is getting more and better looks from three and shooting 41.9 percent from there since Irving’s return. Great test this week against the three Texas teams, highlighted by the Spurs on Thursday night.

 
source:  4. Clippers (25-13, LW 5). Winners of nine in a row, eight of those without Blake Griffin, and in their last 10 they are scoring 110.4 points per 100 possessions (tied for third best in the NBA with Golden State). Without Griffin, the Clippers are doing it with more of a spread pick-and-roll in which Chris Paul (and J.J. Redick) are thriving.

 
source:  5. Thunder (26-12 LW 3). OKC has been fun to watch the past couple weeks because their games become shootouts — they are scoring a league-best 113.5 points per 100 possessions in their last 10, but are allowing 106.2, 22nd in the league. For example, see Damian Lillard going off for 17 points in the final 3:07 to beat OKC Sunday. The OKC bench in particular has struggled defensively. That said, they are still 7-3 in their last 10.

 
source:  6. Bulls (22-13, LW 6). Joakim Noah is healthy and returns Monday night, but that poses some challenges for coach Fred Holberg. First, statistically this team is best with Nikola Mitotic at the four, so you don’t want to chop his minutes at that spot. Second, Bobby Portis has been fantastic with Noah out, you don’t want to have him barely seeing the court either. It’s not going to be simple.

 
source:  7. Raptors (24-15, LW 9). Every team would like some mid-season rest, some days off right now, and the Raptors get it — they have just one game this week. It’s against Orlando in London (the light week is needed otherwise jet lag would cost them games). Toronto has won three in a row. And Raptor fans, stop freaking out about DeMarr DeRozan, he’s going to stay in Toronto (so long as they pay him the going rate).

 
source:  8. Mavericks (22-16, LW 11). When we’re talking about the things Dallas did right to build this surprisingly good team, make sure to put “got a lot of high IQ players” way up on the list. Then ignore the JaVale McGee signing. Brutal schedule this week: Cleveland, at Oklahoma City, at Chicago, at San Antonio.

 
source:  9. Hawks (23-15, LW 8). Impressive win over the Bulls last week, but like its starting lineup the Hawks are inconsistent night to night. The Hawks are getting good guard play out of Kent Bazemore (47.1 percent from three this season) and of late from Tim Hardaway Jr. off the bench.

 
source:  10. Pacers (21-16, LW 10). Holding on to leads has become a bit of an issue — the Pacers had double-digit leads over Miami and Houston last week and blew both. The return of George Hill didn’t change that. And as good as he has played, Dan Feldman and I don’t think Paul George is in the MVP conversation, as discussed in our latest podcast.

 
source:  11. Heat (22-15, LW 7). Chris Bosh has been phenomenal of late — 23.6 points per game in his last 10 and shooting 46.3 percent from three in that time (plus grabbing 7.7 rebounds a game). Challenging week ahead on the road (where the Heat have been a .500 team): At the Warriors, Clippers and Thunder (and Nuggets, too).

 
source:  12. Grizzlies (21-18, LW 15). They were so shorthanded last week that Tony Allen had to play some point guard — the fact they got some wins despite that is impressive. Zach Randolph has accepted his role off the bench and started to dominate some second units out there, giving the Grizzlies a boost.

 
source:  13. Pistons (21-16, LW 16). Andre Drummond is quietly having a very strong defensive season — he is protecting the paint, bodying up bigs, and making sure opponents possessions end after one shot. He’s not going to win DPOY, but he should get mentioned for the third spot on ballot (behind Kawhi and Draymond, who are 1-2). Tough week ahead for the Pistons with the Spurs, Grizzlies and Warriors scheduled.

 
source:  14. Celtics (19-18, LW 12). Last year’s draft pick Jordan Mickey has spent most of the season in the D-League, but he has impressed scouts down there. Wonder if he will get a chance with the big club, which has struggled of late dropping 5-of-6 and slid out of the playoffs into the ninth seed.

 
source:  15. Rockets (19-19, LW 19). Three-game winning streak (two against the Jazz, but they still count the same) and Houston is back up to .500. They get Ty Lawson back from suspension this week, but the way Trevor Ariza has played of late coach Bickerstaff may want to consider his minutes distribution.

 
source:  16. Magic (20-18, LW 13). This team’s offense doesn’t run as smoothly without Elfrid Payton and it shows with him out injured — the Magic have dropped 5-of-6. They get some rest with only one game on the schedule this week, against Toronto in London.

 
source:  17. Wizards (16-19, LW 17). Bradley Beal is getting closer to a return to the court, and they could use his playmaking, but the Wizards offense has been 6.7 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the court this season. John Wall has turned the ball over much more lately, leading to a very inconsistent team.

 
source:  18. Knicks (19-20, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony is sharing the rock and trusting teammates the past couple weeks like we haven’t seen since, well, probably the Olympics. It’s a good sign for this team. Last week New York passed last season’s win total of 17, and if they can beat Boston Monday they climb to .500 (and the playoffs are not out of reach).

 
source:  19. Jazz (17-20, LW 18). The good news is Rudy Gobert is finally back. The bad news is Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood are still out (not to mention Alec Burks and Dante Exum). Still, Gobert solidifies the defense and gives them a shot in games, such as the win against Miami Sunday.

 
source:  20. Kings (15-22, LW 22). If the price tag for bringing in John Calipari is 10-years, $120 million, you’d have to think the Kings are out of that running. But there still feels like a push and pull between the players on the roster and what coach George Karl (and presumably owner Vivek Ranadive) want from their team. So they struggle even as Cousins puts up insane numbers.

 
source:  21. Trail Blazers (16-24, LW 21). Damian Lillard went off for 17 points in the final 3:07 Sunday night to spark a win over Oklahoma City — he and C.J. McCollum make this team dangerous any given night. Portland is 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the West, but with a soft schedule coming up this is the time to make a push to join the dance.

 
source:  22. Hornets (17-20, LW 14). Losers of seven in a row, which not-so-coincidentally is when Al Jefferson went out injured. Throw in Nicolas Batum missing the last four and things get ugly in Charlotte. Steve Clifford has done a great job coaching this team, but he can’t cover this talent gap. Charlotte is now 11th in the East, 2.5 games out of the eight seed.

 
source:  23. Pelicans (11-25, LW 23). We said this last week but it’s worth repeating: The Pelicans had the league’s toughest schedule up to this point, but January gets much easier for them. I’m not sure they can make up the 5.5 games to get back in the playoff hunt, but we should start to see more wins.

 
source:  24. Nuggets (14-24, LW 27). Emmanuel Mudiay returned to the court Monday, and the Nuggets picked up a win (although the rookie looked understandably rusty after missing 14 games). It’s good he’s back because it’s time to see how he fits with the Nuggets’ other interesting young pieces— big men Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. There is a core there to build around.

 
source:  25. Bucks (15-24, LW 24). It’s been a disappointing season, but this team still shows flashes that remind you overall they seem to be on the right track. For example, there was the win last week against Dallas. Still, no playoffs for this team this year and GM John Hammond needs to go find some shooters this summer.

source:  26. Timberwolves (12-26,LW 25). It seems hard to talk about the promising young core of a team that has dropped 10-of-11, but as Dan Feldman and I discussed in the latest PBT Podcast Karl-Anthony Towns is the clear leader for Rookie of the Year, just like Andrew Wiggins the season before. This team desperately needs shooting to give Towns and Wiggins some space to operate.

 
source:  27. Nets (10-27, LW 26). The Nets have fired Lionel Hollins and Billy King, which leaves a lot of challenging long-term questions in the air, but in the short term Tony Brown will be tasked with getting the Nets to suck less. It will be interesting to see who gets shopped at the deadline (besides Joe Johnson, no other team will bite on that contract). Can the Nets get quality in return for Thaddeus Young?

 
<source:  28. Suns (13-26, LW 29). They picked up a win over plumeting Charlotte, and Brooklyn kindly took over the title of “most dysfunctional franchise” from them, so things seem a little quieter. The Suns’ perimeter defense is a mess without Eric Bledsoe, and Tyson Chandler isn’t young and healthy enough to clean up that mess anymore in the paint — teams are putting up numbers on the Suns.

 
source:  29. Lakers (8-31, LW 28). I’ll have whatever Lou Williams is having, he’s had a couple huge games including dropping a career-high 44 last week. The better news is that coach Byron Scott has been letting the young Lakers in need of development play more in the fourth quarter.

 
source:  30. 76ers (4-36, LW 30). Stat of the week: In nine games, Ish Smith had garnered 22 assists to Jahlil Okafor, which is more than any other Sixers guard has done all season. We’re even starting to see signs of Okafor and Nerlens Noel playing better together. Consider that your silver lining for the day.

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.

Scoring, three-pointers taken both way up inside NBA restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The last time there was a slate of five or more NBA games on the same day, with every team scoring at least 110 points, was more than 32 years ago.

That is, until the opening of the league’s so-called bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic – where it already has happened twice.

Scoring numbers are soaring inside the NBA’s bubble, where the restarted season is happening at Walt Disney World. Entering Sunday’s games, 17 of the 22 teams inside the bubble were exceeding what had been their scoring averages before the season was suspended on March 11 because of COVID-19.

Games on average have seen nine points more than what had been the norm this season. The number of 3-pointers in each contest – which had been on a record clip when the season got suspended – is up as well. And Indiana’s T.J. Warren, not even a top-50 scorer when the pandemic hit, is leading the bubble in points per game so far, averaging 34.4 and nearly doubling what was his season average.

“T.J. Warren is on a different planet right now,” Pacers guard Victor Oladipo said.

He’s not alone. The bubble is working for just about everybody, or so it seems.

There was a six-game NBA schedule on Feb. 21, 1988, and all the teams playing that night scored at least 110 points. That hadn’t happened, on a day of five or more games, again in the NBA until July 31 – the second day of bubble games. It happened again Saturday.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle says there might be multiple reasons why the numbers are up, but foremost on the list is that the NBA has created an environment where players are comfortable.

“We came from a situation at home where players could only do individual workouts, you know, with a coach with a mask on and rubber gloves,” Carlisle said. “When you walked in the practice facility, you had to clean your shoes. You had to fill out a form, you had to take your temperature, you had do a lot of things and that was before serial testing began. So a lot has gone into this.”

It’s paying off.

Maybe this should have been expected, even after teams went 4 1/2 months without playing a real game during the suspension. Hostile fans aren’t screaming at and distracting shooters in the bubble. Nobody is weary from a long flight the night before. And the conditions inside the three different game arenas at Disney – from the lighting to the temperature – are relatively close to identical.

“Obviously, even though we are playing on different courts, they all kind of feel like the same arena,” Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez said. “It’s not like we’re going from Milwaukee to Philly, Miami, back to Milwaukee or anything like that. It’s pretty consistent in that regard.”

Only five teams – New Orleans, Toronto, Washington, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Lakers – entered Sunday with a lower average in the bubble than they had before coming to Disney.

“It’s a very weird dynamic,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time. It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in.”

Put simply, it is taking a ton of points to win. Entering the bubble, San Antonio had been 58-5 under coach Gregg Popovich when scoring 125 points or more; the Spurs are 0-2 at Disney when scoring that many. And entering Sunday, there had been 54 games completed in the bubble – with the winning team scoring at least 100 points in all 54 of them.

“I think shooting travels,” New Orleans’ J.J. Redick said. “If you can make shots, you can make shots. … I’ve shot in high school gyms. I’ve shot in civic centers. I’ve shot in arenas. I’ve shot in basements of Catholic administrative buildings. If you can make shots, you can make shots.”

Carlisle has another theory or explanation that can’t be argued: Wherever they are, bubble or no bubble, pandemic or no pandemic, NBA players in this era can score from practically anywhere.

“To me, it’s just the level of aggression of the players,” Carlisle said. “And the fact that, you know, the skill sets of NBA players are increasing exponentially by the month. I mean, it’s just getting harder and harder to guard these guys. There’s a high level of enthusiasm. The closeness of the games has been crazy to watch. It’s just been a very special time here – even though it’s been quite unusual.”

Hall of Famer Paul Westphal diagnosed with brain cancer

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Paul Westphal, the Hall of Fame guard who played at the peak of his career with the Phoenix Suns (and earlier won a championship with the Boston Celtics) has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

Longtime sportswriter Mike Lupica made the announcement.

Glioblastoma is a particularly aggressive and difficult form of cancer to treat.

Westphal was born and raised in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles and went on to play his college ball at USC. He was the No. 10 pick of the Boston Celtics in the 1972 NBA Draft and went on to play three seasons with the Celtics, winning a title with them in 1974.

After that he went on to Phoenix, where he was an All-Star player and was named to the All-NBA team four times. Westphal also played for the Knicks and Sonics during his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame last September.

After playing he became a coach, spending at least part of seven seasons as the Suns head coach, plus he coached the Kings for three seasons.

One of the best-liked people in NBA circles, there are a lot of people in Westphal’s corner today and going forward.