Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings Week 19: Trade deadline shuffle didn’t change balance of power, rankings

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We saw a couple big moves in the run-up to the trade deadline, and there were plenty of rumors, but when the dust settled it still looks like a Golden State/Cleveland Finals rematch, so long as everyone can just stay healthy.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (49-9, Last Week No. 1). Here’s the only question that matters with the Warriors: Are they better than last year’s team? It’s a question answered in the postseason, but they are not going to win as many games. However, as of right now they have a better net rating (beating opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions) than last season (11.8). I think this team can hit higher highs than last season, just ask the Clippers who watched the Warriors drop a 50-point quarter on them last week.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (45-13, LW 3). They are pretty locked in as the two seed in the West, 4.5 games behind the Warriors and 3.5 games up on the Rockets. We keep looking past a team about to win 50 games for a 20th straight non-lockout season. Also, we need to enjoy the final ride of Manu Ginobili, he is going to be missed.

 
Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (40-17, LW 2). No Kevin Love now until around the start of April but the Cavaliers are filling out their depth nicely with the expected signings this week of Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut off the waiver wire (two guys who can still contribute plenty). That depth helps but it’s LeBron James carrying this team — with a heavy minutes total — and that’s not going to let up as they battle to keep home court. Kyle Korver returns to Atlanta on Friday night, he should get a warm greeting from those fans.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (42-18, LW 4). Houston is averaging a league-best 40.3 three-point attempts per game, but they hit 50 fairly regularly now — and the addition of Lou Williams is going to only up that number. Admit it, you want to see a Rockets/Warriors Western Conference Finals just like I do, not because Houston can beat a healthy Golden State team, but because it would be so damn entertaining.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (37-22, LW 7). They are the anti-Rockets — they want to play slow and they have won three in a row keeping their opponent under 100 points (actually, their last nine wins they opponent hasn’t cracked triple digits). They have the point differential of a team a couple games better than their record (the rash of injuries early caused that), and come the playoffs Utah could make the second round and be a tough out.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (38-21, LW 6). It was one of the NBA hot topics after the trade deadline: Should the Celtics have stood pat at the trade deadline? It’s not a simple question. For one, you’re assuming that Paul George or Jimmy Butler could be had without a gut-the-assets deal, which would be a mistake (Indy, in particular, wasn’t that interested in a deal). Second, they can revisit those trades this summer. Of course, we all know this decision will ultimately be viewed through the revisionist history lens of whatever comes in the next several years for Boston.

 
Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (34-23, LW 5). Nice pickup landing Bojan Bogdanovic for a little depth help, but this team is still heavily dependent upon its starters. Scott Brooks has done a great job lightening up the practice schedule to keep guys fresh, but they have a lot of road games and a tough schedule remaining, can they hold off Toronto for the three seed? They have a home-and-home with the Raptors this week that will be telling.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (36-25, LW 11). OKC made strong moves for this season at the trade deadline, grabbing Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott (although they clearly have not figured out how to use the latter guy yet). The Thunder went 4-6 with Ends Kanter out and have won three in a row, the last two since his return. Key games with Utah, then at Portland and Dallas this week.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (35-24, LW 12). They are 2-0 since the All-Star break, where they made bold moves landing Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. Often these moves get cast in the light of the Cavaliers, but first and foremost these moves need to get them back past the Wizards and into the three seed, so they avoid Cleveland in the second round. They have six of seven on the road, the one home game part of a home-and-home with the Wizards that will be key in getting the three seed.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (34-25, LW 8). In a league where versatility is a buzzword, the Grizzlies are what they are — big, physical, grinding — and it works for them. The Grizzlies also are one of the better fourth quarter teams in the NBA because they execute well. Memphis remains a squad that the teams near the top of the West would prefer to avoid in the first round of the playoffs, just because of the physicality.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (35-23, LW 13). Chris Paul is back, and with that Blake Griffin is going off (72 points in his last two games). Still things are not smooth, they needed overtime to get by the Hornets, and with a tough schedule and a lot of back-to-backs left it will near impossible for them to get out of the four/five matchup in the first round of the playoffs (they are 5.5 games back of the three seed Rockets) and that means a tough Utah team in the first round, win that and get the Warriors.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (27-32, LW 14). They came out of the break and smacked around Indiana and Atlanta — the Heat have won 16 of 18 and are just one game back of Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East. Waiters Island has more visitors than Hawaii right now. Miami has winnable games this week (Dallas, Philadelphia, Orlando) followed by the Cleveland in what could be a fun showdown.

 
Hawks small icon 13. Hawks (32-26 LW 9). The Hawks looked more than rusty in the two games since the All-Star break, shooting 38 percent in them combined with an average of 17.5 turnovers. It didn’t help that Dennis Schroder was suspended for one game (visa issues getting back into the country after the break) then didn’t start the next game because he missed a team bus. They are poised to face a team like Toronto or Washington in the first round, I don’t see the consistency from the Hawks to think they could threaten in one of those series.

 
Bulls small icon 14. Bulls (30-29, LW 15). The Bulls front office insists there is a plan, but it remains hard to see it. They kept Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline as the core guy to build around, but moved Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, who were key rotation guys. That said, they have won four in a row including over the Raptors, Celtics and Cavaliers (without LeBron). Fun Thursday night showdown withe Warriors on national television.

 
Pacers small icon 15. Pacers (30-29, LW 10).. While they tested the market, the Pacers didn’t really want to move Paul George at the deadline, so they didn’t. That said, if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team this year (allowing the Pacers to offer him a Designated Player contract worth $210 million) expect them to revisit trade talks over the summer. They have five of their next six on the road and a little losing streak could have them scrambling to hold on to a playoff slot in the East.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (28-31, LW 17). Does everyone on this roster being available at the trade deadline — including Andre Drummond — impact the roster chemistry going forward? The Pistons tried to move Reggie Jackson at the deadline but couldn’t find a buyer (not sure what Orlando was thinking), still expect a heavy diet of Ish Smith as this team tries to hold off Miami for a playoff slot.

 
Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (26-33, LW 16). That Wilson Chandler and Danilo Galinari are still on the roster is a sign this team wanted to keep the veterans with its young core and make a push to hold off Portland and keep the eighth seed. Emmanuel Mudiay has fallen out of the rotation, which puts more on the shoulders of Jamal Murray, but he can handle it. Check back to PBT on Tuesday for more on Murray.

 
Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (24-34, LW 19).. Jusuf Nurkic has brought some toughness — he lost two teeth and stayed in the game Sunday — it hasn’t been enough yet. The real question with Portland and Denver — and who gets the eighth seed — is which teams plays better defense down the stretch? The good news for Portland is they have a softer schedule the rest of the way.

 
Bucks small icon 19. Bucks (25-31, LW 22). They are 10-15 since Jan. 1 and have the 24th ranked defense in the NBA in their last 15 games, and unless that number changes (they were top 10 in defense the first couple months of the season) they are not going to climb back into the playoff mix. Seeing Khris Middleton back in the starting lineup is a good thing.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (23-35, LW 18). I’m a big fan of their pickup of Nerlens Noel at the trade deadline, but they are now committed to this path because he is a restricted free agent this summer and they will have to pay him handsomely to retain him. While they are just three games out of a playoff slot this season, and Marc Cuban would never admit to tanking, waiving Deron Williams is a sign they are not going to make a huge push for the final spot. I like Yogi Ferrell as much as the next guy, but he’s part of the plan for the future not this playoff run.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-36, LW 23). DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are still trying to figure out how to play together, the biggest sign of that was Sunday night when Davis scored 24 in the first, Cousins zero; then in the second quarter it flipped and Cousins had 19 while Davis scored zero. No other Pelican player had more than 10 points in the game. Despite the dreams it’s hard to see them really making a playoff push this season, they need to figure out how to play better together so they can make a push next season.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (25-34, LW 20). They made the move to get away from DeMarcus Cousins, we will see how that plays out long term, but in the short term it’s hard to see them making a serious playoff push without him (despite a good win against Denver this week where Willy Cauley-Stein looked great). Maybe it’s time to see what Skal Labissiere and Georgios Papagiannis can do.

 
timberwolves small icon 23. Timberwolves (23-36, LW 24). They have come along on one end of the court — Andrew Wiggins has scored at least 20 points in 17 straight games, and Karl-Anthony Towns has done the same in 14. The challenge remains on defense, where in their last 15 games the Timberwolves are 25th in the league in defensive rating. Tough week on the road including games in Utah and San Antonio.

 
Hornets small icon 24. Hornets (25-33, LW 21). I feel like we’ve said this before about Charlotte, but this time we mean it: The next couple weeks are do-or-die for the Hornets’ playoff dreams. They are three games out of the eight seed and they have a fairly soft schedule (with the exception of Miami) the next couple of weeks. They climb back into it now or focus on the draft.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (24-35 LW 25). I thought the potential Derrick Rose for Ricky Rubio trade made a lot of sense for the Knicks, but it didn’t make enough sense for Timberwolves and the Knicks couldn’t sweeten the offer enough to get it done. Then Kristaps Porzingis sprained his ankle and will miss time, sucking more energy out of Madison Square Garden. After hosting the Raptors Monday, the Knicks have six of seven on the road (and the one home game is Golden State).

 
Sixers small icon 26. 76ers (22-36, LW 26). Joel Embiid’s knee is swelling up, Ben Simmons is done for the season, and it’s hard to get excited to watch the Sixers try to up Jahlil Okafor’s trade value the rest of the season. The only question is will 31 games be enough to get Embiid the Rookie of the Year trophy? Has Malcolm Brogdon or Jamal Murray done enough to steal it away?

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (22-38 LW 28). Orlando got back what it could for Serge Ibaka at the deadline, but at least it was a move that cleared the front court logjam and will allow coach Frank Vogel to go a little smaller and try to get some versatility on the court. They had some good moments against the Blazers and Hawks since the break, maybe it can be something to build upon.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (18-41, LW 29). They moved P.J. Tucker to Toronto and now Tyler Ulis and Alan Williams are getting the minutes that had gone to Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler in the rotation — the Suns have started looking ahead. Devin Booker is part of the future and has looked amazing. I don’t know if Derrick Jones Jr. is part of the future, but he can sure dunk.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (19-40, LW 27). The Lakers are far more interesting off the court right now than on it, with Magic Johnson taking over control of basketball operations and Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak getting kicked to the curb. Luke Walton is leaning heavily on youth, both because he should and that helps the Lakers odds of keeping their draft pick this year (top 3 protected). If you’re a Lakers fan, you should check out our podcast with Mark Medina of the LA Daily News breaking down the move to Magic.

 
Nets small icon 30. Nets (9-49, LW 30). Losers of 16 in a row, and at the deadline the market was so glutted with bigs they couldn’t find a reasonable offer for Brook Lopez. They did move Bojan Bogdanovic for a pick, so that’s something. The Nets are 0-2 to start and eight game road trip and the only question is will they break the losing streak away from Barclays’ Centre.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

Associated Press
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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.

Watch James Harden drop 54 to lead Houston past Orlando

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — James Harden found his 3-point shooting touch — again.

Harden scored 54 points, matching the team record of 10 3-pointers he set in Houston’s last game in the Rockets’ 130-107 victory over the Orlando Magic on Friday night.

“I just want to win,” Harden said simply. “Whatever it takes.”

Harden scored 50 or more for the fifth time this season and the fourth time in his last seven games. The rest of the NBA has combined for only five such games this season.

Harden was 10 of 15 from long range and 19 of 31 overall from the field. He also had a seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes, receiving a loud ovation from the Orlando crowd when he headed to the bench in the final minutes.

“I feel like we lost against just him tonight,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “He’s the MVP for a reason. We talked about in pregame that he’ll take shots, and we’ll just live with the results. He did not miss tonight, period.”

Harden set the Houston record for 3-pointers with 10 in 18 attempts Wednesday night in a 55-point game in a victory at Cleveland.

“When he’s shooting over the top like that, I don’t know what you can do,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.

Russell Westbrook added 23 points for Houston. The Rockets were 22 of 39 from 3-point range, setting a record for the most 3-pointers by any Magic opponent in franchise history.

“We just shot the ball extremely well,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “When James is like that, it’s hard for anybody to really beat us … no matter what kind of defense you’re going to throw, we’ve got guys.”

The Rockets pulled away in the second quarter, with Harden scoring 18 points, including Houston’s last 11 for a 59-49 lead.

Fournier led Orlando with 27 points. Aaron Gordon added 21. The Magic have lost three straight after winning four in a row.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard combine for 88 points in Clippers win

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — It’s hard to stop Paul George. It’s hard to stop Kawhi Leonard. It’s really hard to stop both at the same time.

George and Leonard showed what the Los Angeles Clippers had in mind when they teamed up the superstar duo Friday night. George scored 46 points, Kawhi Leonard had 42 and the Clippers held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-117 for their fourth consecutive victory.

“It’s special, two guys offensively,” George said. “The thing about it is, we’re dishing, finding each other, feeding each other. And then when we have moments to be aggressive, we’re looking to get aggressive, attack, look for our shots. It’s great when both guys can get it going”

Leonard and George became the first set of teammates in Clippers’ history to each score 40 points. It was the 21st time in NBA history it has happened. The last time it was done, it also involved George. He and Russell Westbrook did it for Oklahoma City last season.

Leonard and George’s previous high this season came Dec. 1, when they combined for 65 points against Washington.

“It’s great that we can have somebody else out there to help scoring the ball, making the game easier for myself,” Leonard said. “We’re still trying to build our chemistry out there.”

Karl-Anthony Towns had 39 points and 12 rebounds for Minnesota, which lost its seventh in a row. Towns had 14 points, including a 4-point play, in a 22-6 fourth-quarter run that trimmed a 21-point Los Angeles lead to five.

Andrew Wiggins added 34 points for the Timberwolves. His basket with 1:04 left cut the Clippers’ lead to 119-115. Minnesota didn’t get closer than four the rest of the way.

“Disappointed from the loss, but we fought back,” Wiggins said. “We were down big. Dug ourselves a hole. We fought back though. We went out swinging.”

Leonard and George set the tone early, combining to score the first 23 points for a Clippers team playing without Lou Williams, who sat out with a calf injury. In his absence, George and Leonard accounted for 54 of Los Angeles’ 65 first-half points. They became the first duo to each score 35 or more points through the first three quarters of a game in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Leonard made a career-high 19 free throws. He was 19 for 19 from the line.

“That was great,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We knew without Lou tonight, every play was basically for those two guys. And they came up big.”

The Timberwolves took a 51-50 lead in the second quarter with a 15-2 run, capped by a Towns 3-pointer. Leonard responded with seven consecutive points to give the Clippers the lead for good.

George started the third quarter with a 7-0 run of his own. He scored 16 in the third, when Los Angeles took control by outscoring Minnesota 37-23.

“Forty-six and forty-two, they make it very tough on you,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.

Leonard’s 31 first-half points set a career high for points in a half. He tied a career high for points in a first quarter with 16.

“We got into our spots early, made shots,” Leonard said. “Paul carried us in that second half.”

Montrezl Harrell scored 18 points for the Clippers. Jeff Teague scored 22 for the Timberwolves.