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Week 11 NBA Power Rankings: The Pelicans, Wizards are moving up the ranks

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Only minor changes near the top of the board this week (Toronto and Houston switch spots), as we all await the Martin Luther King Jr. day rematch of Cleveland and Golden State. Two teams on the rise are Washington and New Orleans, now we see if they can sustain success.

 
Cavaliers small icon 1. Cavaliers (25-7, Last Week No. 1). It has raised eyebrows: LeBron James just turned 32 and is racking up a lot of minutes. A lot. He averaged 38.5 minutes per game in December. However, in a radio interview last week Tyronn Lue said the goal was to keep him at about that pace until late January/early February, then back him off some, so he is rested for the playoffs. The problem is resting him hurts the team — he sat a game again last week (they aren’t being punished for that here), and the Cavs are 0-3 when he does. That said, they beat the Celtics and remain the clear best team in the East.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (29-5, LW 2). Good teams not only beat other good teams, but they also don’t stumble against lesser competition — the Warriors are an NBA-best 19-1 against teams under .500. They picked up two wins at home this week and are 14-2 at Oracle this season, where they will be a lot for the next few weeks (they don’t leave California again until Jan 19). A number of radio shows have asked me if the Cavaliers are in the Warriors’ heads? We won’t really know until June, but ask again after the Martin Luther King Day rematch.

 
Spurs small icon 3. Spurs (27-7, LW 3). They went 12-2 outscoring opponents by 8.8 points 100 possessions in December, and a lot of that is thanks to a defense that held teams to a point per possession in December (second best in the NBA in last month). The team also was undefeated in games where they led by 13 until Sunday, when Atlanta came back and won in OT (when a sick Kawhi Leonard couldn’t hit the game winner). Interesting tests this week against two of the better teams in the East, Toronto and Charlotte.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-9, LW 5). The Rockets are 18-2 against teams under .500 this season, third best record in the NBA (behind Golden State and San Antonio). That is what good teams do, not let up and beat the teams they should. Winners of four in a row, their offense has been on fire of late, with a streak of four consecutive games with at least 120 points (the last time the Rockets did that was the 1978-79 season). Of course, James Harden leads the way and his 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists night on New Year’s Even was one of the best performances from anyone this season.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (23-10, LW 5). Congratulations to DeMar DeRozan, who passed Chris Bosh last week as Toronto’s all-time leading scorer. The Raps have gone 3-2 on a West Coast road trip, which started with a couple wins giving them a franchise-record seven road wins in a row, before falling to the Warriors. One game left on the trip, in San Antonio. Will having Jakob Poeltl step in for Patrick Patterson on the “Kyle Lowry and the bench” lineup that has destroyed teams be a step back? Not so far.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (20-14, LW 9). They fell to Cleveland, they aren’t on that level yet, but picked up wins against Memphis and Miami, the latter thanks to Isaiah Thomas’ 52-point, 29 in the fourth quarter effort against Miami Friday. IT is having another All-Star level year (choosing the guards in the East will be tough). Just looking ahead to the summer: Thomas and Avery Bradley — who is playing well of late — will both be up for new contracts.

 
Grizzlies small icon 7. Grizzlies (22-14, LW 7). They have the point differential of a team with a 19-17 record, but in December they had the best defense in the NBA (allowing 99 points per 100 possessions) and the last couple weeks their offense has been impressive. Wins last week against Oklahoma City and Sacramento has them solidly in the playoffs in the West, despite ongoing injury issues (Mike Conley missed more time last week). Six of their next eight games are on the road.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (21-13, LW 8). It’s hard to come up with new ways to say “Russell Westbrook is unbelievable” but when he’s on the floor he accounts for 39.1 percent of the Thunders points (via scoring or assists). The formula of good defense, strong rebounding, and Westbrook works — but can they keep it up through the All-Star break. They spend most of January on the road and have arguably the toughest schedule in the league for month.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (21-13, LW 10). They got right with wins over soft teams they should beat (Lakers, Sixers, Suns) but the Nets on Monday night starts a tough five games in seven nights road trip that includes getting Boston and Memphis on the second night of back-to-backs. Can the basketball gods ease up on George Hill, please? He missed 13 games due to injury, looks good coming back and scores 21, then the next game takes an elbow to the head and is knocked into the NBA’s concussion protocol.

 
Hornets small icon 10. Hornets (19-15, LW 11). I love Kemba Walker’s “Walker, Charlotte Ranger” campaign for the All-Star Game, and he deserves to be there. Whether he will be will come down to the coaches, who have some tough choices to make. Nicolas Batum has been playing well for the last few weeks, and the Hornets need him to continue. Charlotte can look up and see Boston just a game ahead of them in the standings, but they need to keep winning because they are just 2.5 games up on New York and the nine seed — and falling out of the playoffs.

 
Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (16-16, LW 12). With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, the Bucks are about on the top of my must-watch League Pass list — this team is entertaining. And good. They remain one of four teams with a top 10 offense and defense, and their point differential is that of a 19-13 team. Malcolm Brogdon put up his first triple-double ever, and he’s making a push to get more of Matthew Dellavedova’s minutes. Interesting home-and-home with the Knicks, plus the Wizards on the schedule this week — the kind of games a playoff team needs to win.

 
Hawks small icon 12. Hawks (18-16 LW 15). Interesting note: in close games late, Thabo Sefolosha plays for the Hawks and Kent Bazemore — he of the new four-year, $72 million contract — sits. With Bazemore watching, the Hawks had an impressive win over the Spurs Sunday at home. Interesting timing department: Al Horford returns to Phillips Arena for the first time Friday night with his new team, just as rumors of Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver trades start to rumble through the league.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (22-14, LW 6). Losers of six in a row, much of that without Chris Paul (hamstring) and all of it without Blake Griffin (knee). CP3 is expected to miss at least one more game (Monday in Phoenix). Get this team healthy and they’ll be fine. If you want a bright spot Clippers fans, the January schedule is probably the softest in the West.

 
Wizards small icon 14. Wizards (16-16, LW 16). A hot second half of December — the Wizards have won 9-of-12 overall and eight in a row at home — has them in the middle of the playoffs in the East right now. What 2-8 start? What chemistry issues — Bradley Beal cast an online vote for John Wall for the All-Star Game (and himself, of course). The Wizards defense was middle of the pack in December (which was an improvement), but it’s their top-10 offense that has them moving up the standings. Fun, high-scoring showdown with the Rockets this week.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (17-18, LW 14).. They fell to the Wizards, but picked up good wins against the Bulls and Magic because the ball started moving again on offense (Jeff Teague had 26 combined assists in those wins). We will assume Paul George found those games fun. Good news for the Pacers’ playoff hopes, the schedule softens up considerably for them in January, including having the Piston, Nets, and Knicks this week.

 
Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (16-17 LW 13). Great stat via Haralabos Voulgaris: Through the last two seasons Kristaps Porzingis is shooting 77.2% eFG% on uncontested threes. But the Knicks are putting a huge load in terms of both minutes and demand on the young, still-growing player and now he is trying to play through a sore Achilles. Not ideal. The Knicks have lost four games in a row, and Derrick Rose has scored at least 20 points in each of those games. This week they play the Magic, the Bucks twice in a home-and-home, and the Pacers — all teams they will be battling with for a playoff spot until the end of the season. They need some wins.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (14-21, LW 23). Winners of four in a row, the last three of those with Anthony Davis starting at center and no Alexis Ajinca or Omer Asik (both are racking up DNPs). The win streak has this team in the hunt for the eight seed in the West, just a game back of Sacramento and Denver (tied for eighth), with Portland also in that mix. Tough week ahead with Cleveland and Boston on the schedule. Also, a smart roll of the dice on Donatas Motiejunas, but don’t expect much of him to start.

 
Bulls small icon 18. Bulls (16-18, LW 17). Reports surfaced that Fred Hoiberg could be in trouble as the Bulls coach after a rough December for the team. Really? The front office assembles the worst three-point shooting team in the NBA, one that still doesn’t fit the coach’s preferred style of play, and so you fire the coach? I’m not sold yet on Hoiberg, but this is not on him. He has sent Rajon Rondo to the bench and is playing Michael Carter-Williams in his place — that’s not going to solve the Bulls’ shooting problems.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (15-19 LW 19). This team has the makings of being great on defense, and they have shown that in stretches this year, but then in December they were back to being bottom 10 in that category. Despite some good nights from Aaron Gordon, the offense isn’t going to bail this team out much, they need to defend better. It’s not going to get easier to stay in the playoff hunt, they have a tough January schedule ahead of them.

 
Nuggets small icon 20. Nuggets (14-19, LW 21). Nikola Jokic averaged 17 points and 8.9 rebounds a game through December. The Nuggets are playing teams close, but they need to get more wins — particularly this week against Sacramento, the team they are tied with for the eighth seed on the West. The rest of the week is brutal — Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder.

 
Kings small icon 21. Kings (14-19, LW 18). Rudy Gay has missed 8-of-9 due to injury, and it showed last week in losses to Portland and Memphis — the kinds of wins the Kings need if they are going to be a playoff team. The starting lineup with Ben McLemore and Matt Barnes has struggled, particularly on defense. After playing a big game in Denver Tuesday, the Kings have seven games in a row at home and need to rack up wins to solidify a playoff standing.

 
Blazers small icon 22. Trail Blazers (14-21, LW 22). They seemed to break out of their slump with big wins over Sacramento and Minnesota last week — and they did it without the injured Damian Lillard. You can thank C.J. McCollum for that. The defense has looked better with Lillard out (not a huge coincidence with Allen Crabbe getting his minutes).

 
Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (15-20, LW 20). The Pistons are 3-8 in their last 11 games and have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, worst in the NBA, in those games. Their offense has been anemic in this stretch, scoring a point per possession, while the defense that carried them early has been a mess and bottom 10. Stan Van Gundy said he doesn’t want to try and shake up this team with a trade yet, but he needs to do something (and figure out how to get Reggie Jackson back to his old self).

 
timberwolves small icon 24. Timberwolves (11-23, LW 27). They have gone 5-5 in their last 10, which is a step forward — all because their defense has been top 10 in the NBA in that stretch. That has been their weakness all season, but maybe Tom Thibodeau is starting to get through to the young core. Look for Thibodeau put on his GM hat and to try and get a better shooting point guard at the deadline or this summer. They need the floor spacing with Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine driving, and Karl-Anthony Towns in the paint — all three of them are averaging better than 20 points a game this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (10-24, LW 25). Rick Carlisle is a genius, but even he is going to struggle to get things to work with both Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut on the floor — the Mavs have been outscored by 62 points in the 53 minutes they have both been on the floor this season. It’s simply too slow on defense, and the offensive spacing doesn’t work, they are better with either of those two paired with Harrison Barnes. Dallas struggles against teams that can push the pace, which may be bad news against Washington and Phoenix this week.

 
Heat small icon 26. Heat (10-25, LW 24). How banged up are the Heat? Sunday night they started Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed. That ended about as well as you’d expect. Miami has nine healthy players on the roster, and it’s not their starters, which is why they have lost five in a row. They are on a West Coast road swing this week in Phoenix, Sacramento, and taking on both Los Angeles teams.

 
Sixers small icon 27. 76ers (8-24, LW 29). Was asked on a Philadelphia radio station this week how they can get Joel Embiid to the All-Star Game? No way the fans/players/media will vote him a starter, but you can make a case the coaches should pick him as a reserve — it’s not like he’s going to break his minutes restriction in that game. Probably a year away, but I’d love to see him in New Orleans (and not just for rookie/sophomore). The Sixers salvaged a West Coast road trip with a win in Denver, and when Embiid plays this team does not go down easily.

 
Lakers small icon 28. Lakers (12-25, LW 26). They were 2-14 in December, getting crushed in the second half of games all month, and that continued as the calendar flipped over as Kyle Lowry torched the Lakers in the fourth and the Raptors got the win. The Lakers also “passed” the Trail Blazers for the worst defense in the NBA on the season. Not to pile on, just a reminder that the Lakers first round pick this year goes to the Sixers (unless the lottery balls are kind and they land in the top three again).

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (10-24, LW 28). Expect trade rumors surrounding the Suns to pick up, particularly around Brandon Knight, but they are going to have to showcase him a little. He’s lost minutes to Tyler Ulis of late, and also Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender are getting more run — Earl Watson wisely has entered the “let them learn on the job” phase of the season.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (8-24, LW 30). Jeremy Lin is still out with another hamstring injury (the basketball gods have been unkind to him this season) and Randy Foye is only going to be able to bail them out so much. The Nets are a respectable 7-8 at home, where they play seven of their next nine games. (To save you doing the math, they are 1-16 on the road.)

Report: Cavaliers hire J.B. Bickerstaff to John Beilein’s staff

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to figure things out. LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and now the team has hired John Beilein to be its head coach. The team doesn’t have a top pick the way it has in years past, and barring any trades they will select 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But at least they are figuring out there coaching staff Issues.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers have hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to be its top assistant coach. Bickerstaff was apparently also in talks with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings.

Via Twitter:

Bickerstaff previously headed the Houston Rockets from 2015 to 2016, and was the top man for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons after the team canned David Fizdale.

This is a solid hire for the Cavs. Bickerstaff has been a respected assistant in the league for the past decade-and-a-half, and he should give some veteran NBA oopmh behind Beilein, who most recently coached at Michigan for 12 years and is headed into his rookie season.

Raptors outlast Bucks in 2OT to take Game 3 of ECF

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Don’t count the Toronto Raptors out yet.

On Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and his bench mob outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 118-112, in 2OT.

Finally back at home, Toronto showed up in the biggest way possible, and in exactly the way they had been needing in Games 1 and 2. Pascal Siakam, a non-factor in those contests, scored 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbing 11 boards to go with three steals. Norman Powell scored 19 off the bench, including hitting three 3-pointers.

Of course, the Raptors were led by none other than Leonard, who had 36 points and dominated at the free-throw line, going 12-of-13. Toronto’s best player also had nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, Game 3 was about Toronto finally hitting on all cylinders from the 3-point line. Where before almost no players outside of Leonard were able to get it going from deep, Game 3 was a much different story. Eight Raptors combined to make at least one three each, and Toronto shot 37.8% from the arc.

By the same factor, the Bucks struggled. As the home crowd pushed Toronto forward, Antetokounmpo and his squad just couldn’t get it going. The first half only treated the Raptors right, who scored 58 points. And although Antetokounmpo started to come on a bit better in the third quarter, the game eventually developed into a bit of a rock fight by the fourth.

Toronto looked like it had sealed up the win the end of regulation. Fred Van Vleet came up with a crucial block on Khris Middleton on the final possession, but the Milwaukee guard scooped up the loose ball and put it back in the hoop to push it to extra time.

By the time the second overtime rolled around, Antetokounmpo only had one foul left to give. The Bucks’ superstar then fouled out just 36 seconds into the second overtime while trying to draw a charge on Siakam.

That allowed Leonard score eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second OT en route to the six-point victory.

It took a wondrous night on defense for the Raptors to force Antetokounmpo to shoot just 5-of-16 from the field. Even still, Milwaukee’s star had 23 rebounds and seven steals, and it took until he fouled out in the second overtime for Toronto to grab a win.

The Raptors should be happy about what they were able to accomplish on Sunday night. Getting wins at home in a crucial playoff games is what championship hopeful teams should do. Still, it took every single ounce of what Toronto had, and even then it was only just barely enough to grab their first win of the series at home.

Nick Nurse will need to build on what he learned from Game 3 and see if they can improve upon it to level the series in Game 4 on Tuesday night.

Report: Grizzlies interviewed Igor Kokoskov for head coach gig

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The Memphis Grizzlies now have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Many believe that Memphis will trade Mike Conley and draft Ja Morant as a means to move the franchise forward.

The only problem? The Grizzlies still don’t have a head coach.

Memphis fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff and demoted general manager Chris Wallace to scout back in April. The Grizzlies are moving forward with some non-traditional front office hirings that include Jason Wexler, Zach Kleiman, Rich Cho, and Glen Grunwald.

According to one report, at least one inquiry has been made about the head coach position: former Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov got a shot to interview with Memphis.

Via Twitter:

Memphis is taking its time selecting their coach, and it’s not necessary that the team has someone in place leading into the draft. Whether the next guy will be “the guy” or simply “the guy who helps them rebuild in the future” we aren’t yet sure.

Kokoskov got a raw deal in Phoenix, with many feeling as though the Suns wasted their hiring of the Slovenian national team’s coach by not drafting Luka Doncic with the No. 1 overall pick last year. It would be nice just to see him back on an NBA bench at the start of next season.

Draymond Green on techs: ‘I was doing more crying than playing’ (VIDEO)

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Draymond Green believes he’s the best defender ever. The Golden State Warriors star was certainly incredible against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night, with the Warriors beating the home team, 110-99.

But one thing that has bothered Green’s detractors over the years is how much he speaks to the referees, particularly to his own detriment. It’s one thing to work referees the way that Chris Paul or Damian Lillard or James Harden does. It’s another to continuously antagonize refs en route to a whole mess of technical fouls, which have been a problem for Green in the playoffs in the past.

But Green has been pretty subdued when it comes to technicals this postseason, and that’s apparently in due to a concerted effort by the Golden State forward to curb his attitude and realize that he’s doing more damage than good.

Via Twitter:

This postseason, and particularly this Western Conference Finals, have been an interesting shift in the narrative around Green. Where before it seemed like haters could glom onto how much Green whined, at this point he’s simply dominating the Trail Blazers from a play standpoint and nothing else.

It’s been impressive to see, and I think all of us are happy to watch Green play the way he has without flapping his gums and putting the Warriors at a disadvantage because he wants to yell at the boys in gray.