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NBC’s NBA Power Rankings: Memphis falling, Utah climbing as season winds down

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Welcome to the penultimate NBA power rankings for the season. While the top of the board remains steady, Memphis is falling and it feels like the middle of the pack is all bunched together and could be put in almost any order and be “right.”

source: 1. Warriors (69-8, last week No. 1). They need to go 4-1 the rest of the way to beat the Bulls’ 72-win record. Where it gets interesting is if they win their next three games (which is likely), they will go for the record next Sunday at San Antonio, where the Spurs are undefeated this season. Coach Steve Kerr has expressed concern that this record chase is taking a mental toll on his team, not ideal heading into the playoffs.

source: 2. Spurs (64-12, LW 2). Locked in at the two seed, Gregg Popovich has gone into full “we will rest guys” mode, but as you expect the Spurs keep winning (LaMarcus Aldridge has played well). Expect the heavy rest to include Thursday’s game at Golden State, where no Spur you can name outside Boban probably plays.

source: 3. Cavaliers (55-22, LW 4). The Cavaliers team that played the first half against Atlanta Friday night moved the ball, played with pace, defended, and could play with anyone. But Cleveland couldn’t sustain that for 48 minutes (the game went to overtime, where the Cavs eventually won). Kyrie Irving and LeBron James have gotten rest, expect key guys to get nights off this week as Cleveland heads out for three games on the road (Bucks, Pacers, Bulls).

source: 4. Thunder (53-24 LW 3). Blowing leads has been a disturbing trend for Oklahoma City all season, and Sunday a desperate Houston team out executed them over the final six minutes to get the win. They become too predictable on offense, but their defense struggles as well late in close games.

source: 5. Raptors (51-25, LW 6). They set a franchise record for wins in a season getting to the 50 mark, but everyone knows this team will be judged on winning at least one playoff round, if not making the conference finals (for the first time in Raptors history). Health remains a concern with that, including Kyle Lowry battling elbow issues. DeMarre Carroll would help if healthy, he says he wants to return but the team is less optimistic.

source: 6. Hawks (45-32, LW 5). The Hawks had been playing well but last week lost to the top two teams in the East, Cleveland and Toronto. Makes you wonder how far they can go come the playoffs, and how far that defense can take them. Seeding will matter, and they are in the group clumped in the east from 3-6, key games for Atlanta this Thursday (Toronto) and Saturday (Boston).

source: 7. Clippers (48-28, LW 9). Blake Griffin is back — he played 24 minutes and looked understandably rusty Sunday, but with flashes — and Doc Rivers will want to get him in a rhythm while getting core guys like Chris Paul some rest. Austin Rivers has played better of late, particularly his shooting, if he can do that in the playoffs it would be a big boost for the Clips.

source: 8. Hornets (44-32, LW 7). While the Hornets are in that bunched group in the middle of the East, their focus needs to be on getting guys healthy over wins — Al Jefferson missed Sunday’s game (quad) and Nicolas Batum had to leave it with a knee issue. Home court would be huge for them in the postseason, but it can’t come at the expense of health.

source: 9. Celtics (45-32, LW 10). They went 3-2 on a tough West Coast swing, they ended Golden State’s home winning streak, and with the win over the Lakers they clinched a playoff spot. “It’s a stepping stone,” Isaiah Thomas said after the Lakers game. “Definitely a goal of ours to make the playoffs, we definitely want more.”

source: 10. Heat (44-32, LW 8). Similar to Charlotte, this is a team that could really use home court in the first round (they are much better at the AAA) but getting healthy is the priority, especially Dwyane Wade. Interesting games against Detroit and Chicago this week.

source: 11. Jazz (39-38, LW 13). They have a one-game cushion on staying in the playoffs heading into a week where the games are tough — Spurs, Clippers, and improved Nuggets. Their defense has been stout, and if Alec Burks returns this week it would boost an inconsistent offense.

source: 12. Pistons (41-36, LW 12). With a huge win over Chicago Saturday the Pistons should feel secure about making the postseason, but when was the last time Stan Van Gundy relaxed and felt secure in season? Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, and Marcus Morris have all played well for the Pistons of late and the playoff experience they will all get will be invaluable for this team moving forward.

source: 13. Trail Blazers (41-37, LW 16). They have a real shot to move up to the five seed and get the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round (and avoid the Thunder), Portland is just half a game back of slumping Memphis for that slot. Some winnable games this week, plus a real test against Oklahoma City.

source: 14. Pacers (41-36, LW 11). Indiana’s loss to Chicago last Monday made the playoff chase at the bottom of the East much more interesting. And the fact the Pacers didn’t impress with wins over Philly and New York complicates matters. The Pacers are just a game ahead of the Bulls for the final playoff slot in the East, and they have a tough schedule with Cleveland and Toronto up this week.

source: 15. Mavericks (39-38, LW 19). This is the make-or-break week for Dallas’ playoff hopes. Dallas is clinging to a one-game lead over Houston, and those two teams face off Wednesday. Then after a soft game against Memphis the Mavericks close out the season with at the Clippers, at the Jazz, and against San Antonio. Tough patch. Even if Memphis loses out from here (a possibility) Dallas needs to win two of these five to catch them.

source: 16. Rockets (38-39, LW 14). Of the teams chasing a playoff slot at the bottom of the West, Houston has the easiest schedule by far. There is a big showdown with Dallas on Wednesday, but after that they go Suns, Lakers, Timberwolves, Kings. Houston should win it’s last four (but consistency has not been this team’s strength).

source: 17. Bulls (39-38, LW 18). They beat Indiana (giving Chicago the tiebreaker) but lost to Detroit, leaving Chicago two games back of those teams with five games left to play. The Bulls are going to need some help, and they need wins against Miami and Cleveland this week to have a chance.

source: 18. Wizards (37-40, LW 17). They are all but officially out of the playoffs and Bradley Beal (who struggled with his shot Sunday) summed it up well after a loss to the Kings last week: “To me, it felt like we gave up. I guess we kind of figured we’re already in the playoffs some reason. It’s either that or we want to get to the offseason. But as far as why, I have no idea.”

source: 19. Magic (33-44, LW 24). This is the team playoff-bound teams suddenly don’t want to face — the spoiler Magic beat the Pacers, Bulls, and Grizzlies recently. This week they face the Pistons, then have a home-and-home with Miami. Nikola Vucevic has found his groove post-injury and is playing well.

source: 20. Grizzlies (41-36, LW 15). The injuries have caught up with Memphis — six losses in a row, 10-of-12, and the team’s defense is atrocious. With a tough schedule ahead they could lose their last five, and then have to hope that Dallas/Utah/Houston stumble and don’t pass them. They will lose the five seed, which just a couple weeks ago seemed a lock for them.

source: 21. Bucks (32-45, LW 21). Who is third in triple-doubles in the NBA this season (behind Westbrook and Green)? Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s why Jason Kidd said he will still use the Greek Freak as a point-forward to initiate the offense next season.

source: 22. Kings (31-46, LW 23). Saturday night will be the final game at the old Arco, now Sleep Train, Arena. There were some good Kings teams, like the Chris Webber years, that played in that building. The Kings cracked 30 wins for the first time in five years this season, so maybe that’s a small step forward.

source: 23. Pelicans (29-47, LW 26). Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis are shut down, they are about to pull a guy out of the third row to play 15 minutes for depth, and yet the Pelicans have won three of four. They have done it playing quality defense (which seems odd with Davis out, but that’s what the numbers say).

source: 24. Nuggets (32-46, LW 20). The Nuggets have improved as the season wore on and started to really find some players and an identity for coach Mike Malone, but the schedule maker did them no favors to close out the season. This week they face the Thunder, Spurs, and Jazz.

source: 25. Timberwolves (25-52,LW 25). They feel like a team just playing out the string, waiting for Karl-Anthony Towns to go and pick up his Rookie of the Year award. They have lost four of five and seem listless on offense.

source: 26. Knicks (31-47, LW 22). This team is going to see big changes over the summer — a new coach and an entirely new backcourt, for starters. The question is what kinds of free agents can the combination of Phil Jackson and Carmelo Anthony entice to come to Manhattan?

source: 27. Nets (21-56, LW 27). No Brook Lopez or Thaddeus Young for the rest of the season — which is the smart play by GM Sean Marks. Why risk injury to your two best players and trade assets for meaningless games? But nobody may be as happy about the news as Celtics fans (Boston has Brooklyn’ pick, unprotected).

source: 28. Suns (20-57, LW 28). It’s been a disappointing season in the Valley of the Sun and this is going to be an interesting summer of change for them. That will start with a new coach, although the players like Earl Watson.

source: 29. Lakers (16-60, LW 29). They honored long-time trainer Gary Vitti Sunday and coach Byron Scott told a great story: Vitti started in the 1984-85 season and he had a radical idea — players should lift weights a lot more than they did. Back then few guys lifted regularly, the conventional wisdom was they would get too bulked up. Vitti said they would reduce injuries and it could help their athleticism. Looking back 30 years later, every team now does what Vitti got resistance trying to get his Lakers to do during the Showtime era.

source: 30. 76ers (9-68, LW 30). They have lost 12 in a row and need to get one more win to avoid tying the record for fewest wins in an 82-game season. There are winnable games in there, particularly against the Pelicans and Bucks this week. Those may be the best chance for the Sixers to avoid history.

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

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It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

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The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.

Jarrett Allen denies Kyrie Irving rumors, “He acts like a normal teammate”

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It hasn’t taken long for the “Kyrie Irving isn’t a good leader in Brooklyn” rumor mill to start up. The Nets 6-8 start combined with a desire in some corners of the NBA (and NBA Twitter) to pile on Irving has started the talk. Whether those rumors are just smoke or there’s some fire there depends on who you ask.

It was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who brought the topic to the forefront again on First Take.

Just as a refresher, anything Smith says should be taken with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt. His job is to stir things up. That doesn’t mean he has no connections.

Nets center Jarrett Allen did an AMA on Bleacher Report and shot down the idea Irving is a bad influence in the locker room.

He acts like a normal teammate. People say that he has mood swings, but that’s a complete lie. He wants to see us succeed and do well if anything.

Allen added this when asked to compare playing with Irving vs. D'Angelo Russell.

They’re kind of different. Kyrie can score from anywhere, even without me setting up the pick-and-roll. DLo…we worked well; if he didn’t score, he’d kick it to me to score.

The Nets are a franchise inhabiting a strange space this season. First, this ultimately is Kevin Durant‘s team, but he doesn’t really get the keys until he can play, which almost certainly means next season. That makes Irving an interim Alpha on that team, but that’s an unusual dynamic.

Second, this is a Nets team that has rebounded from as low as it can get in the NBA to being a place Irving and KD wanted to play by establishing a culture, an identity. This is a lunch pail group of players who were selfless and bought into the team’s ideas and concepts. Nobody was a superstar, it was team first. Except, in come two superstars who bring their own ways of doing things — and the Nets can’t mess with that. There are compromises that need to go on for both sides, with Irving/KD bending to the Nets some, but the Nets giving them superstar treatment.

All of that creates friction that is going to rub some people the wrong way. Plus, Irving is a unique personality who is going to do things his way, and that will bother others. Some of those people will talk to the media, but that doesn’t mean everyone — or even a majority — feel the same way. It’s usually people who feel aggrieved who want to vent.

How all this plays out in Brooklyn is going to be something to watch. But the ultimate test is next season, not this one.