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Week 12 NBA Power Rankings: As always, the Spurs are an efficient regular season machine

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In a seven-game series, I would still take Golden State (with their flaws) or Cleveland to beat San Antonio or Houston, but in the regular season those latter two teams are hotter and move to the top of the food chain for a week. Also, Boston could move past Toronto in the standings — they already have in these rankings — with a win Tuesday when the teams meet.

 
Spurs small icon 1. Spurs (30-7, Last Week No. 3). Winners of four in a row and seven of their last eight, the Spurs defense is back (allowing less than a point per possession in their last 10 games) and with it they have outscored opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions in their last 10 (best in the NBA). The Spurs have another interesting find in Davis Bertrans, who was a draft-and-stash throw in as part of the Kawhi Leonard/George Hill trade who dropped 21 last week and has played solidly in a bench role for the team.

 
Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (30-9, LW 4). Winners of eight in a row, that includes a game where Russell Westbrook puts up the bigger stat line but James Harden led the Rockets to the win (which sums up the MVP race to this point). Not that Harden’s stat lines are not eye catching — he has 10 triple-doubles himself this season and 10 straight 20/10 games. With Clint Cappela still out with a broken leg, Montrezl Harrell has stepped up with some big games, including 28 points on 12-for-13 shooting Sunday.

 
Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (28-8, LW 1). Adding Kyle Korver helps in the short term (until March or so) when J.R. Smith returns, but this was really a move about games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals — Tyronn Lue has a dangerous new weapon. Credit GM David Griffin for going all-in — you have 32-year-old LeBron James, things don’t get more “win now.” The Cavs have started 2-0 on a six-game road trip through the West that concludes next Monday with a rematch at Golden State.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (31-6, LW 2). How much should we read into the issue with the Warriors going a little too much Kevin Durant isolation in crunch time? Or that ugly fourth-quarter collapse against Memphis last Friday? It’s January, so not much, but what makes this team dangerous in the clutch was teams can’t guard everyone, and they are stocked with shooters — go isolation and the defense doesn’t have to (the same way). If the Warriors fall into the iso habit (with KD, Stephen Curry, or anyone) in crunch time they will pay for it.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (23-14, LW 6). Winners of four in a row, although Utah was the only team over .500 in that stretch (and the Celtic defense has not impressed in the last 10 games). Isaiah Thomas is in a tough spot with the other top point guards in the East — somebody is going to get left out of the All-Star Game. So Thomas is doing his best to make sure it’s not him: He’s averaged 34.8 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting in his last five, hitting 58.5 percent from three in that stretch.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (24-13, LW 5). Toronto’s defense, which helped carry them early on (along with their elite backcourt) has faltered of late. So has the entire Raptors team, dropping five of seven against a tough schedule, while Boston has feasted on a softer one. The Raptors get the chance to re-establish their status as second best in the East Tuesday when the Celtics come to town (lose and they fall to third in the East).

 
Grizzlies small icon 7. Grizzlies (23-16, LW 7). With their defense slipping a little of late (and the offense picking up) the Grizzlies have become less consistent — they lost to both Los Angeles teams (the Clippers were without Blake Griffin and Chris Paul), then turned around and beat the Warriors in a thrilling overtime game. Good tests with teams they are battling for playoff positioning this week on the road in Oklahoma City and Houston.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (22-16, LW 8). Here is Westbrook’s MVP case in a nutshell: They are 14-3 when he has a triple-double, 8-13 when he doesn’t. He has to carry the offensive load and be efficient for this team to have a chance. The Thunder had lost three in a row against a tough January schedule until another Westbrook triple-double and a win against Denver Saturday. Seven of their next eight games are on the road.

 
Hawks small icon 9. Hawks (21-16 LW 12). Winners of seven in a row thanks to fantastic defensive play, but how hard will the Kyle Korver loss hit them? And how will they deal with the sword hanging over their head in the form of impending Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha trades? Did this win streak build up enough of a cushion to keep them in the playoffs when those trades come down? Plenty of questions in Atlanta, but they are just three games from falling out of the playoffs right now in the crowded East.

 
Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (25-14, LW 13). Winners of four in a row, three of those have come with Chris Paul back and Los Angeles is looking like one of the top four teams in the West again. Expect LA to shoot back up these rankings the next couple of weeks as they have a five-game homestead with only one of those teams over .500 (OKC).

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (23-15, LW 9). For their win over the Timberwolves Saturday, the Jazz were completely healthy for the first time this season — both Alec Burks and George Hill were in the rotation. They may be able to get on a little run with six of their next eight at home, although Cleveland comes to town Tuesday and that’s not going to be easy.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (20-18, LW 15).. Winners of five in a row, they get a little rest this week flying to London for their one game, against Denver. Jeff Teague has played better, but the other key is the Paul George and Myles Turner combination: Indiana is +6.5 per 100 possessions on the season when those two are on the court together, but that is up to +22.1 in the last five games.

 
Bulls small icon 13. Bulls (19-18, LW 18). Three impressive wins last week including Cleveland and Toronto — all thanks to Jimmy Butler being on an incredible hot streak. That included Butler scoring 14 in the fourth against the Cavaliers, which has Chicago fans saying he should get mentioned in MVP talk. Busy five games in seven nights week for Chicago, with two back-to-backs (getting Washington and Memphis on those second nights).

 
Bucks small icon 14. Bucks (18-18, LW 11). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second in the Eastern All-Star fan voting for the front court, and as the NBA is accounting for misspellings of his last name on ballots his totals should jump. He seems a lock. Rookie Malcolm Brogdon has been an absolute find — he’s shooting 41 percent from three, can work off the ball, can defend, and give Jason Kidd lineup options.They split a close home-and-home with the Knicks, then dropped a game to the Wizards.

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (20-18, LW 10). Charlotte’s top-10 defense for the season has been bottom 10 in the league in the last 10 games, with a slump on the defensive glass being part of the issue. Nicolas Batum missing some time with a sore knee isn’t going to help that cause. They almost picked up a win against Detroit thanks to Marco Belinelli’s brilliance, but fell just a half-second short

 
Wizards small icon 16. Wizards (18-18, LW 14). John Wall has been fantastic of late — he was the NBA’s Player of the Week last week — and the Wizards caught a break Sunday getting to face the Bucks without the Greek Freak (due to flu). Now they have five games in a row at home, a chance to solidify a playoff position in the crowded bottom half of the East.

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (17-20 LW 16). Derrick Rose has looked the best he has in years this season, but he’s not the old Rose anymore: The Knicks are now 1-12 when Derrick Rose takes 17 FGA or more (hat tip @bball_ref) Kristaps Porzing is frustrated with this team’s inconsistency — as he should be, this team has lost seven of eight. Games against the Bulls and Raptors this week, the kind of games where they could use a win to get back in the playoff picture.

 
Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (18-21, LW 23). In November, the Detroit Pistons allowed 103 points per 100 possessions on defense. In December they were giving up 105.1 — and the decline is picking up speed. In their last five games, the Pistons are allowing 111 points per 100. In spite of that, Detroit has won two straight games by one point, not pretty but the Pistons will take it.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (16-23, LW 22). This team should be the best of the bunch battling for the final playoff slot in the West, what with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but they keep taking steps back. Look for them to be active on the trade market looking for defensive help (particularly a defensive big). Tough back-to-back this week, first the improving Lakers on Tuesday (LA is just two games back of them in the playoff chase) then Golden State the next night.

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (15-22, LW 21). They have started off 0-3 at home on a seven-game homestead that is key if this team is serious about making the playoffs (when it ends they head out on the road for eight straight). As an aside, the Kings interest in a Paul Milsap trade has one major flaw — he’s a free agent this summer? Do the Kings really think they can re-sign him?

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (14-24, LW 17). Anthony Davis is trying to carry this team, he has four straight games of at least 20 points and 15 rebounds, but it’s not working, they have lost three straight. That said, they are still in the playoff hunt in the West, but they spend the week on the road where they are 4-13 on the season. New Orleans needs some road wins to make the postseason.

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (16-23 LW 19). Coach Frank Vogel on the team’s struggles: “We’ve just got to feel the game out better. When we’re too perimeter orated and the shots aren’t falling full cover, we’ve got to drive the basketball more and get it inside and not settle. This team doesn’t pass the ball instinctually very well.”

 
Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (15-26, LW 28). The Lakers have won three of four and moved within two games of the eight seed, and Lakers fans should thank D’Angelo Russell for that. He said that at the urging of Luke Walton he has developed a routine — for game days, for practice days, etc. — and that has helped him feel more comfortable, allowing him to be more aggressive. In his last five games, he’s averaged 20.8 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting from three, plus 5.2 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.4 turnovers a night. More than that, he just looks comfortable and confident running the offense.

 
Nuggets small icon 24. Nuggets (14-23, LW 20). It was a brutal week on the schedule — Warriors, Spurs, and Thunder — but they were tied just a week ago for the eight seed with the Kings, lost to them, and the losing streak is up to five. Denver has fallen to dead last in the NBA in defense this season, allowing 110.2 points per 100 possessions. Just one game this week, against the Pacers in London.

 
Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (11-26, LW 25). There have been moments the past couple weeks, as this team gets healthy, that it seems Dallas might start to figure it all out. Then they get slapped around by Phoenix. The Mavericks get the chance for a little revenge against the Suns this week, but the game is being played in Mexico City.

 
timberwolves small icon 26. Timberwolves (11-26, LW 24). Remember last season when the complaint about the Timberwolves was they didn’t know how to close out games. Well, as John Schuhmann of NBA.com notes, this year Minnesota is 5-15 in games within five points in the final five minutes. Also in classic Tom Thibodeau fashion, Andrew Wiggins is fourth in the NBA in total minutes played, Zach LaVine is sixth, and Karl-Anthony Towns is 12th.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (12-26, LW 29). They had won two in a row then made the Cavaliers work for the win Sunday night, all good signs. Eric Bledsoe is having an All-Star kind of season averaging 20.4 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.8 rebounds a game, it just may be tough to get a nod from the coaches because of the depth of the guards in the conference and the Suns’ struggles.

 
Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (10-25, LW 27). More fodder for the Joel Embiid’s ROY campaign: He is first player in NBA history have six-straight games of 20 points or more in fewer than 30 minutes (via Elias). With the win over the Nets Sunday, the Sixers are now 4-4 on the road in their last eight (they won just three games on the road all of last season). Not a coincidence Nerlens Noel is playing more and the defense looks better.

 
Heat small icon 29. Heat (11-28, LW 26). Justise Winslow is out for the season, and while he certainly was struggling with his jumper he defended well and the Heat were 4.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court. They are 2-11 in their last 13, 1-3 on the current road trip with games in Golden State and Milwaukee remaining.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (8-28, LW 30). Losers of six in a row, and they recently had a stretch of 7-in-10 at home and went 0-7 at Barclays. Still no timetable on Jeremy Lin’s return as the Nets are being cautious. In a “rearranging a the deck chairs on the Titanic” move, the Nets have released Anthony Bennett so they can sign Quincy Acy.

Report: 76ers open to trading if they hire Mike D’Antoni

76ers forward Al Horford and Tobias Harris
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The 76ers said they wouldn’t trade Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons.

Which makes it confounding they reportedly want to hire Mike D’Antoni as coach.

D’Antoni has typically succeeded with teams that can play small to spread the floor and pressure opponents through speed… and struggled otherwise. Post-based Embiid and non-shooting Simmons don’t fit D’Antoni’s demonstrated style.

Maybe Philadelphia’s roster could change.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Keith Smith:

The 76ers could trade Al Horford and Tobias Harris to reduce their glut of bigs. But Horford was already on the block (good luck convincing anyone to take his contract), and Harris is also expensive. For what it’s worth, Harris could thrive as a small-ball power forward in D’Antoni’s system, but Harris is often pigeonholed as a small forward on this roster.

The Embiid-Simmons pairing is a fundamental issue, though. Whatever Philadelphia does with Horford and Harris, Embiid and Simmons just haven’t played like they’d fit well together under D’Antoni.

If the 76ers remain insistent on not trading Embiid or Simmons, there are only so many roster moves that can be done to help D’Antoni.

Adding further complications, Philadelphia might be seeking a new lead executive. That could explain why Tyronn Lue has also gotten so strongly linked to this job. It’s not even clear who’ll oversee the coach and roster, let alone what plan that person will have.

So, yes, it’s meaningful if the 76ers are advancing trade talks with other teams to make their roster fit D’Antoni. But there are still plenty of questions about what will actually happen in Philadelphia.

For NBA players, Breonna Taylor grand jury decision ‘not enough’

Grizzlies forward Anthony Tolliver wears Breonna Taylor shirt
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — LeBron James sent the word to the Los Angeles Lakers in a group text on Wednesday afternoon, and basketball suddenly seemed irrelevant.

A grand jury in Kentucky had finally spoken. And James was letting his team know that NBA players, who have spent months seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, did not get what they wanted.

“Something was done,” Lakers guard Danny Green said, “but it wasn’t enough.”

Wednesday’s decision by the grand jury, which brought no charges against Louisville police for Taylor’s killing and only three counts of wanton endangerment against fired Officer Brett Hankison for shooting into Taylor’s neighbors’ homes, was not unexpected by many NBA players and coaches. They had a sense it wasn’t going to go how they hoped.

“I know we’ve been using our platform down here to try to bring about education and a voice in a lot of players on our team, especially also spoken out on justice for Breonna Taylor,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We have not gotten that justice.”

Teams came to Walt Disney World to finish the season and crown a champion, and hoping that the platform of the NBA’s restart bubble could help amplify calls for change. Players and coaches have used the NBA spotlight to make statements at a time when the demand for racial equality and an end to police brutality is resonating as loudly as it has in generations.

And Taylor’s story – the tale of a 26-year-old Black woman who was killed March 13 by police in Louisville when they burst into her apartment on a no-knock warrant during a narcotics investigation centered around a suspect who did not live there – has captivated NBA players. Many have met, virtually, with members of her family to offer support. They say her name in news conferences, wear it on shirts, scrawl it onto their sneakers.

“We have moms. We have sisters, nieces, aunties. And just like men of color have experienced traumatic instances, so have women,” Boston forward Jaylen Brown said. “That is an example of some things that happen to women in our country. So, we wanted to stand alongside them, but also make it that it’s not just us. I think the future is female, so it’s important to show our sisters that we care. That’s why it’s been important.”

Even for teams not in the bubble, it mattered. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce leads a committee of NBA coaches tasked with finding new ways to use their own platform to create change, and he’s encouraged his own players – Black and white alike – to speak out and take action, whether in Atlanta or their own community.

Pierce took Wednesday’s news hard.

“Yeah, there was a grand jury and yeah, they went through the information and yeah, they have facts to support whatever the claims may be,” Pierce said. “But that doesn’t provide any justice for those that are on the outside, those that feel like the police and law enforcement are there to protect them. … What currently is happening isn’t good enough.”

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell:

Clippers big Montrezl Harrell:

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts went a step further. “Sadly, there was no justice today for Breonna Taylor,” Roberts said. “Her killing was the result of a string of callous and careless decisions made with a lack of regard for humanity, ultimately resulting in the death of an innocent and beautiful woman with her entire life ahead of her.”

The league shut down for three days last month when a boycott that was started by the Milwaukee Bucks – in response to the shooting by police of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wisconsin – nearly caused players to end the season because they felt their pleas for change were not being taken seriously enough.

And Wednesday’s news was another disappointment for them.

“We feel like we’ve taken a step back, that we haven’t made the progress we were seeking,” Green said. “Our voices aren’t being heard loud enough. But we’re not going to stop. We’re going to continue. We’re going to continue fighting, we’re going to continue to push, we’re going to continue to use our voices.”

Report: Celtics were ‘very much enamored’ with Tyler Herro, whom Heat took one pick before Boston

Heat guard Tyler Herro vs. Celtics
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The Celtics – holding the Kings’ first-round pick – lost a tiebreaker with the Hornets and Heat in last year’s draft. Charlotte picked No. 12, Miami No. 13 and Boston No. 14.

The Heat took Tyler Herro No. 13.

A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

On NBA draft night last year there was a collective moan among the Boston Celtics brass right about the time the Miami Heat used the No. 13 pick to select Tyler Herro.

The Celtics were very much enamored with the 20-year-old leading up to last June’s draft

The draft is full of smokescreens and disinformation, especially from Boston. So, this can’t be taken as gospel.

But it’s still another fun chapter in the Pat Riley-Danny Ainge rivalry, which includes a previous example of the Heat drafting a player the Celtics coveted.

Herro made the All-Rookie second team and is now helping Miami against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals – no small feat for a rookie.

The Celtics settled for Romeo Langford, who had a far less productive first season and is now out for the year.

Of course, it’s far too early to declare either player will absolutely have a better career than the other. Besides, Boston never chose between Herro and Langford. The Heat got the choice and took the player both teams seemingly agreed was better.

Down 2-1 to Lakers, Nuggets sense a familiar bubble series pattern

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Mike Malone thinks he’s been here before.

Not just down 2-1 in an NBA bubble playoff series and having to come from behind, but the pattern of it — his team getting stronger and figuring things out while the opponent falters.

“This is to me kind of similar to the last series,” Malone said after the Nuggets’ Game 3 victory. “Game 1 the Clippers blew us out. Game 2 we win. Game 3, we felt we gave that game away against the Clippers.

“[The Lakers] blew us out in Game 1. Game 2 we gave away at the end. We had to right that wrong and try to get a game under our belt, which we did tonight. This gives us that much more confidence going into this series letting them know that we’re here, we’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to continue to fight and do whatever we can.”

“You definitely learn more about your opponent, what to try to look for, tendencies, and all that…” Jamal Murray said about why Denver improves as the series gets longer. “Like I said, just taking care of stuff that we can control, whether it’s turnovers, communications, switches, rebounding. Areas that we should control, we got to do that if we want to win. If we’re consistent in our play, like we touched on earlier, we can win a lot of games, put a lot of pressure on other teams.”

Those tendencies and patterns, that history of success, has Denver feeling more and more like this is a series they can win. There is a confidence that is brimming from the Nuggets stars, especially Murray. He has stepped up his game, and it’s not just the three-point shooting — 34.6% in the regular season  47.7% in the playoffs — it’s his aggressive attacks and finishing at the rim. Murry, an inconsistent finisher at the rim even during this regular season, has been lights out when he gets inside in the playoffs. It stems from confidence.

“I think what I’ve seen from Jamal this year, aside from the growth defensively, which has been tremendous, I’m so proud of him in that regard, but now I know every night what I’m getting from Jamal,” Malone said. “Last year we knew what we were getting from Nikola, but what kind of game would Jamal have. That’s no longer the case. We have two superstars in Nikola and Jamal and a lot of young, talented players behind them.”

It should not be a surprise to anyone that the Nuggets played their best basketball with their backs against the wall — this team has been in four straight seven-game playoff series, winning three. They are used to the pressure. Nor should it have caught anyone off-guard that they would not go away quietly. Some in Lakers’ nation thought Anthony Davisgame-winning three to put the Lakers up 2-0 was a gut punch that would floor the Nuggets.

Malone made sure that was not the takeaway from the game.

“[Monday] when we met and we watched the film, I started off by watching the last play of the game,” Malone said. “Get the elephant in the room out of the way. Let’s talk about the play, what happened. When we’re in this situation again, let’s learn from it. Yes, we all take ownership. Let’s learn from it.

“After that, my goal was when we got done with that film, they saw so many positive clips of us doing the right things, which put us in a position to win. Now we had to do that for more than just a second half. We had to do it for four quarters.”

They did it for three, but that was enough to get the win thanks to some late heroics from Murray.

The key to the remainder of this series is defense. For both teams.

Denver is not an elite defensive team, they were middle of the pack for the regular season. What they can do throughout a series is become more disruptive. They have done it this series, quieting the Lakers’ halfcourt offense. The Lakers scored less than a point per possession — 92.8 points per 100 possessions — in their halfcourt in Game 3 (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Add to that the fact LeBron James is fading as games go on — he is dominant in the first quarter but struggling more in the fourth. Denver got a fantastic game from Jerami Grant in Game 3, they will need more of those games, but the Nuggets have a plan that works and that they can execute.

The heart of that plan is keeping the Lakers out of transition, which brings us to the other side of the equation: The Lakers intensity and physicality on defense almost won them Game 3. The Lakers forced turnovers — six in a row at one point — and turned those into transition buckets. The Lakers are as good a transition team as there is in the league and the Nuggets are terrible at defending it. When the Lakers run, they win. It’s just harder to do that when you’re taking the ball out of the basket each time down, the Lakers need stops.

Expect the Lakers to come out with intensity in Game 4, maybe helping them race out to a big lead. Maybe.  But even if that happens, the Nuggets will not be phased — they came from 16 and 19 back against the Clippers to win last round.

Denver has seen this movie before, and they liked the ending.