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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.

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.

 

LeBron James blatantly, obviously travels, referees miss it and don’t make call

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Another day, another “how did they miss that?” call in the NBA. At least this one is not going to lead to a protest.

LeBron James blatantly traveled when bringing the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Jazz, and the officials completely missed it.

There was a double-dribble in there by LeBron, too, if we’re going to be sticklers for the rules. Which clearly we are not.

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.”

The reaction of Bojan Bogdanovic is maybe my favorite part, he’s incredulous.

This play did not impact the game, the Lakers ran away from Jazz early and went on to win 121-96 behind 26 points from Anthony Davis.

Rockets reportedly going to file protest over missed dunk call in loss to Spurs

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Houston apparently has been hoping — unrealistically — that the NBA would step in, rule in its favor on the missed call on James Harden‘s dunk, and give the Rockets the chance to replay the final 7:50 of their double-overtime loss to the Spurs from Tuesday night.

If the Rockets want the league to rule on this, they will have to file a protest, something they are likely to do, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

Houston had been optimistic in the wake of the loss that the NBA office would take action without a protest being necessary. However, sources said the Rockets are leaning toward filing a protest to ensure that the NBA office will have to make a ruling…

The Rockets contend that they should either be awarded the win — because they actually outscored the Spurs in regulation — or that the final seven minutes, 50 seconds of the game be replayed at a later date.

There is zero chance the league would overturn the game and hand the Rockets a win. The idea the Rockets even wanted that was described as absurd by some around the league (not directly involved in the case).

Even a protest is a longshot, it requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule which seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Protests rarely go anywhere in the NBA because the bar to clear is very, very high.

No doubt the officials missed the call (even they owned up to it after the game). Here is the play in question.

Mike D’Antoni said he tried to challenge the play but was not allowed to by the game officials. Crew chief James Capers said after the game D’Antoni didn’t make his protest within 30 seconds as is required by the coach’s challenge rule.

Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation.

A protest is a full challenge process that the league would go through, but it’s hard to picture the Rockets winning it.

We’ve seen before with the Last Two-Minute Reports that even if the league admits an officials mistake that could have changed a game nothing is done. An official protest — where just saying the call is wrong is not enough to win — is not very likely to change that. The Rockets would argue that not only was there a missed call but that the crew mismanaged the challenge process. Good luck with that.

The Rockets are going to try, anyway.