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.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.

NBA lays out ground rules for family, friends to enter restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — NBA players could have some family members or close friends inside the season-restart bubble with them by the end of the month.

And that raises the possibility of having a real, albeit small, cheering section for some playoff games.

The league detailed the policies for guest arrivals to teams on Wednesday in a memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. The opportunity to bring guests into the bubble at Walt Disney World will be only for teams advancing to the second round of the playoffs, and the earliest any guest could satisfy quarantine rules and be reunited with a player is Aug. 31.

In most cases, players would be limited to four guests. The league told teams that any guests would have to be either family members, “longtime close personal friends with whom a player has an established, pre-existing, and known personal relationship,” private security staff and established family childcare providers.

Those who wouldn’t be allowed into the bubble: “trainers, physical or massage therapists, personal chefs, hair/apparel stylists, tattoo artists, and current/prospective business partners, and certified agents (other than family members), among others,” the memo said.

Also not allowed, according to the league: casual acquaintances, friends by association, anyone the player has not previously met in person or is “known by the player only through social media or an intermediary.”

ESPN first reported on the contents of the memo.

Players have made no secret about how difficult it is to be away from their families and close friends inside the bubble. Some players have needed to leave the bubble for family emergencies; others, such as Boston’s Gordon Hayward, have said they will leave for the pending birth of children. Hayward and his wife are expecting their fourth child next month.

“I miss the hell out of my family,” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James said last week. “My wife, my kids, my mother, and so on, and so on. So, it’s a huge challenge.”

The Phoenix Suns have had friends and family at games — in the form of a pregame video that introduces starters before the games that are classified as Suns’ home contests. The video was trending Tuesday when the Suns released a copy on their social media channels, and many NBA players such as James and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry raved about the gesture.

“We say family a lot,” Suns coach Monty Williams. “It was a surprise to all of us the first time we saw it, to see your families organize that kind of intro. It’s unique.”

Exceptions to the four-person limit could apply in cases where the player has up to four of his minor children coming to the bubble. But in all cases, the same policies for others in the bubble — such as adhering to strict standards before traveling to the Orlando area, then quarantining before being allowed to enter the campus, plus submitting to daily testing and mandatory wearing of face coverings — would apply to guests as well.

Guests would also have to remain in the bubble, meaning the adjacent Disney World theme parks would be off-limits. The league said programming and entertainment for kids would be available, such as games, swimming pools and bicycles.

Players would also get one ticket authorizing entry for one adult to each of that team’s playoff games after guest arrivals, so basically for the second round and beyond. That ticket would also allow an adult to bring a child — provided the child is 2-foot-8 or shorter — to those games as well, if “the child remains seated with … the adult to whom the ticket was issued, maintains at least six feet of distance from any other individual, and wears a face covering.”

That would be the first opportunity for players to hear actual cheers from people inside a game arena since the season shut down on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Games during the restart have had a fan presence, but only on 17-foot-high video boards that surround the game courts.

The league said it would seek ways to add seating and potentially give players more than just the one ticket per game.

Teams will also be allowed to add staff to the bubble, with a requirement being an on-campus person to serve as a liaison between the guests, teams and NBA league office.

Damian Lillard motivated at restart by death of cousin, playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Damian Lillard has no shortage of motivation.

There’s the painful kind, the kind that comes from dealing with the death three months ago of a cousin who was very close to him. There’s the made-up variety, stemming from the belief he shared Tuesday night that people who cover the league don’t respect his work. There’s the silly stuff, like a back-and-forth on social media with other NBA players.

And then there’s probably the biggest sort — his want to get the Portland Trail Blazers back to the playoffs.

He topped a 51-point performance on Sunday by offering a 61-point performance on Tuesday, doing all that with the Blazers’ postseason fate still not secure and knowing that any loss would put a sizable dent in those playoff hopes. He’s the 12th player in NBA history to have consecutive 50-point games, and just the second — joining only Wilt Chamberlain — to have three 60-point games in a season.

“Couldn’t have been a better time for that type of game,” Lillard said Tuesday, after he helped the Blazers beat Dallas and move pass Memphis into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. “So, like I said, it’s a pleasure and honor to be company with Wilt. And hopefully, you know, it can continue.”

This is where the Blazers are: Win Thursday’s seeding-game finale against nothing-to-play-for Brooklyn, and they’re in the West play-in series that starts on Saturday as the No. 8 seed. Lose Thursday, and nothing is guaranteed.

And Lillard, even with those stakes, is putting on the best show in the bubble.

“If we lose this game, we might not make it to the playoffs,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said Tuesday night. “So, the magnitude of this game, even though it’s in an empty gym and in a bubble … this was the season was on the line.”

The three-point win Tuesday had some help from above, Lillard said.

He took a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter from somewhere between 35 and 40 feet away, felt it was good when it left his hand, then saw it hit the back of the rim and bounce straight up — way, way, way up — in the air.

Lillard’s cousin and chef, Brandon Johnson, died suddenly and unexpectedly in May. Chef B, they called him. Lillard knelt over his body and prayed moments after Johnson died. Blazers teammate CJ McCollum, who was also close with Johnson, came over soon afterward. Lillard and McCollum sat and cried together. And in the bubble, Chef B is in their mind.

“I just tried to continue what I feel like he would want me to do,” Lillard said.

Back to that 3-pointer. A shot from that far away, moving with that much energy, typically doesn’t hit the rim and bounce straight up. They tend to bounce outward. Not this one. It went up, up, up and fell for three points.

A reminder: The Blazers beat the Mavericks by three points.

“Rest in peace, Chef B,” Lillard said. “I think that was him dropping that in.”

Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony said he knew that 3-pointer, as he watched the ball go up and then in, was special.

“I probably said about 20 please, like please-please-please-please-please like repeatedly,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t meant for us to lose when that shot went in. It just wasn’t meant for us to lose.”

When the night was done, when the last of the 61 points had hit the books, Lillard said he shouted “put some respect on my name” to the media area, because as he put it “those were the people who usually have something to say or put out whatever they put out.”

In the bubble, there’s pretty much only been marveling, for good reason.

Lillard got into a bit of a social-media beef a few days ago, after the Los Angeles Clippers’ Patrick Beverley and Paul George reveled in how he missed two late free throws in what became a Portland loss. That fired him up, too — in the two games since, he’s 33 for 34 from the line, those shots all critical given how close the games were.

The NBA said Tuesday that there will be an All-Seeding Games team and MVP selected by reporters and broadcasters who are covering the restart. Lillard is pretty much a lock to be a strong candidate.

Those awards will be handed out Saturday before Game 1 of the West play-in series. He didn’t come here to be on that award list. He came here for the playoffs, and thanks to him, the Blazers are now in the driver’s seat for a chance to play the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1.

And that will deliver even more motivation.