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NBA Power Rankings Week 22: Golden State climbs back on top, Lakers take over bottom rung

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While you were watching Villanova and Duke screw up your NCAA bracket (I had Villanova in the title game), the Golden State Warriors found their footing and three-point touch again and move back to the top of the rankings. The Lakers have been so bad we even put Brooklyn ahead of them now.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (55-14, Last Week No. 3). All they needed to get right was some time at home (three games at Oracle) against softer competition. Stephen Curry was back to draining threes (6-of-8 Saturday vs. Milwaukee) and they played much better defense. The competition picks up this week (at Oklahoma City Monday, Memphis later in the week) but the Warriors seem to have their footing back. Also, Kevin Durant is shooting jumpers again, working his way back.

 
Cavaliers small icon 2. Cavaliers (46-23, LW 5). They went 7-6 without Kevin Love, got him back, and won both games he played (Clippers game obviously excluded). Notice, by the way, that the day after LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Love rested they combined to score 101 (granted, against the Lakers). Coach Tyronn Lue said he plans to keep starting Iman Shumpert and bringing J.R. Smith off the bench until Kyle Korver returns (possibly this week) because he likes what Smith brings with the second unit.

 
Spurs small icon 3. Spurs (53-16, LW 1). Great news that LaMarcus Aldridge’s heart issue was not that serious, plus Kawhi Leonard is now back from his concussion, and Tony Parker’s back is strong enough that he shot 8-of-10 Sunday night. However, they got Aldridge back and quickly dropped two straight games, which is not like them and has them a couple games out of the No. 1 seed (and with a slightly tougher schedule than the Warriors the rest of the way).

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (48-22, LW 2). James Harden is the frontrunner among the media for MVP (the media votes on the award), and he is strengthening his case with four straight triple-doubles. There’s an MVP showdown Sunday when the Rockets play the Thunder. Houston beat Denver on the second night of a back-to-back Saturday, they are now 13-1 this season on the second night of those. That’s damn impressive.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (40-29, LW 10). OKC is just half a game back of the Clippers for the five seed in the West (and a much easier first round matchup in Utah, compared to Houston). However, Los Angeles has a much softer schedule the rest of the way. Russell Westbrook won our fan poll for MVP; however a media poll done last week had Harden well in front — a showdown on Sunday with the Rockets could be a chance for Westbrook (but the Thunder need to win, no matter what numbers Westbrook puts up). Also, Westbrook had the assist of the year last week.

 
Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (43-27, LW 6). They solidified home court in the first round by beating the Clippers last Monday, the Jazz seem locked in as the four seed. Coach Quin Snyder has some interesting lineup options when it gets to the postseason — with Derrick Favors out, Utah has started Joe Johnson at the four going small, and that lineup has shown some promise, particularly on offense. Favors probably starts in a playoff matchup with the Clippers for defense, but Snyder knows he has Johnson as an option.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (44-26, LW 7). If you’re a Celtics fan holding fast to your dreams of catching the Cavaliers for the No. 1 seed (Boston is 2.5 games back), here is the good news: Boston has one of the easiest schedules in the East the rest of the way, Cleveland one of the toughest. That said, dropping games like Sunday against Philly is not helping the cause. Big showdown with the Wizards Monday in the battle for the 2/3 seed.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (42-27, LW 4). They have lost three of four and need to get it together Monday when they play the Celtics in Boston, that is if the Wizards have dreams of the No. 2 seed in the East. They need that win. Seven of their next 10 are on the road, and to hold on to the three seed (with Toronto lurking) spot the Wizards need to play better defense — they have given up 112 points per 100 possession in their last 10 games, 27th in the NBA.

 
Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (41-29, LW 8). Los Angeles lost three in a row, but caught a break when Cleveland decided to rest their stars for a night on Saturday. The good news for Clippers fans is they have a soft schedule the rest of the way, which should help them hold off sixth-seeded OKC. The Clippers are two games back of the Jazz for the four seed and would need to beat them Saturday night in Los Angeles to have a shot at catching them and getting home court in the first round.

 
Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (41-29, LW 9). Winners of three of their last four, and with a soft schedule coming up the Raptors have their eye on the No. 3 seed belonging to Washington (it’s the race to avoid Cleveland in the second round, and the Raptors are just 1.5 games back of the Wizards now). Toronto has played great defense since acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, it’s easy to see how this becomes a dangerous playoff team once Kyle Lowry returns.

 
Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (40-30, LW 16). Chandler Parsons was lost for the season to injury, and Memphis rattled off four consecutive wins. Coincidence? Memphis now heads out on the road for four straight games, and that includes facing Golden State and San Antonio. The seven-seed Grizzlies are just half a game back of the six seed Thunder and one back of the fifth seed Clippers, but Memphis has a considerably tougher schedule the rest of the way than either of them.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (34-36, LW 13). One of the more interesting stories on the NBA this week came from Mike Prada at SB Nation about the value Erik Spoelstra and the Heat put on conditioning — part of the reason for their surge the second half of the season is they are in better shape. That said, talent still matters, and the loss of Dion Waiters for a stretch due to an ankle injury means Goran Dragic needs to play better than he did Sunday night in a loss. Dragic and Hassan Whiteside needs to carry this team for a while.

 
Hawks small icon 13. Hawks (37-32 LW 11). Losers of three in a row, and now Paul Millsap is going to miss at least two more games (knee) and Kent Bazemore at least four (also a knee). Atlanta isn’t climbing into a top four seed, and they need to worry about blowing their two-game cushion over sixth-seed Indiana and falling further down the standings.

 
Bucks small icon 14. Bucks (34-35, LW 12). Milwaukee is 9-2 when Kris Middleton starts, and he is averaging 18 points per game shooting 52% when he does start. The Bucks are 2-2 through a tough six-game road trip then return home later this week to face the Hawks and Bulls. They need wins, fivethirtyeight.com still has them with just a 62% chance of making the playoffs.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (32-37, LW 18). A little desperation — and the addition of Jusuf Nurkic — has the Blazers as winners of eight of their last 10 games. They’ve done it all with offense — such as Damian Lillard’s 49 points Sunday — as their defense is still 23rd in the NBA in that stretch. Portland has a much softer schedule than Denver the rest of the way and fivethirtyeight.com has them at a 71 percent chance to make the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (33-36, LW 17). Denver maintains a one-game lead over Portland for the eighth seed, in large part thanks to Nikola Jokic — the Nuggets are 5-0 this season when he has a triple double. The bad news in the Rockies is Denver has the toughest schedule in the West the rest of the way, while Portland has one of the easiest. This week’s games include the Rockets and the Cavaliers.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (35-34, LW 14).. Maybe the toughest playoff landing spot to predict: Indiana is just two-games back of a banged-up Hawks team for the five seed, but also just 1.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs entirely. Paul George is doing his part this month averaging 27.5 points on 51 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (34-36, LW 15). . Detroit’s next five games could well determine if they make the postseason. First there are four games on the road, but against weak teams (Nets, Bulls, Magic, Knicks). Then they come home to take on Miami next week. To get wins they are going to need a lot more consistency out of their guard play, particularly the up-and-down Reggie Jackson.

 
Mavericks small icon 19. Mavericks (30-39, LW 19). When you get blown out by Philadelphia, your playoff dreams take a hit — Dallas is three games out of the eighth seed in the West and fivethirtyeight.com has them at a one percent chance of making the playoffs. So yes, I’m saying there’s a chance. But Dallas has a brutal four-game homestand — Warriors, Clippers, Raptors and Thunder — followed by six-of-seven on the road.

 
Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (33-37, LW 21). Dwyane Wade is now out the season and the Bulls are 3-7 in their last 10, yet their playoff dreams are not dead for a couple of reasons. First, the Bulls have been 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Wade is out this season. Second, Chicago has a much easier schedule than Miami or Detroit the rest of the way, and the Bulls are just a game back of those two (tied for the eighth seed). Fivethirtyeight.com gives Chicago a 48% chance of making the playoffs still.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (29-41, LW 23). Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are still playing next to each other not with each other, and the Pelicans have been better with one of them off the court, but they are starting to figure things out and have won four-of-five (including wins over Portland and Houston). Still, no way New Orleans will catch both Denver and Portland for the eighth seed, which makes you wonder what coaching/front office shakeups we could see this summer.

 
timberwolves small icon 22. Timberwolves (28-41, LW 20). Since the All-Star break, Ricky Rubio is averaging 16.1 points, 10.8 assists, he’s taking jumpers, hitting 48% of them, and just being aggressive. Maybe Tom Thibodeau finally got through to him, and if so they may not want to trade him this summer. That said, the Timberwolves dropped three games last week because their defense went AWOL after being strong for a few weeks.

 
Hornets small icon 23. Hornets (30-39, LW 22). It’s Kemba Walker vs. the world on offense for the Hornets, and while he’s been impressive — 24.2 points per game and shooting 41.9 percent from three since the All-Star break — it’s not enough. Rich Cho and the front office in Charlotte needs to find some playmakers this summer, someone to help take the load off Walker

 
Sixers small icon 24. 76ers (26-43, LW 26). Dario Saric continues to come on strong — 23 points against Boston Sunday — and he may now be the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year because he is averaging 19.5 points and 7.3 rebounds a game in March. And because voters are looking for ways not to cast their ballot for Joel Embiid and his 31 games played. Quietly, the Sixers have won three of four.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (27-42 LW 25). How bad are the Knicks right now? They have lost twice to the Nets in a five-day span. The offense they are playing looks more like a rhombus than anything Phil Jackson wants, and everyone seems to be waiting to see if they can move Knicks can find a deal to trade Carmelo Anthony this summer.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (27-43, LW 28). Skal Labissiere is showing real promise, including a breakout 32-point, 11-rebound performance against Phoenix. There were plenty of positive signs before that, though — he had four blocks against the Magic on Monday. I don’t know that Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Buddy Hield are the answer, but this team is far more entertaining than it was to watch before the trade.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (22-48, LW 24). Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are both shut down for the season as Phoenix goes into full on tank mode to run out the string. That means a lot of Devin Booker, although to his credit T.J. Warren has stepped up of late and put up some numbers (he thrives when the game gets less structured).

 
Magic small icon 28. Magic (25-45 LW 27). Five years ago the Orlando Magic traded away Dwight Howard, and they have not made the playoffs since. There is a sense around the league that GM Rob Hennigan is going to pay the price for that (it won’t be just-signed coach Frank Vogel). That said, don’t buy into the rumors of Doc Rivers making a return to save the day in Orlando.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (13-56, LW 30). They beat the Knicks twice in five days, they are getting outscored by just two points per 100 possessions in their last 10 games (which is a huge improvement over the entire season) and that is enough to get them out of the cellar in these rankings for a week. Brook Lopez has been a beast of late, but Jeremy Lin rolled his ankle again and will miss time, which could kill Brooklyn’s momentum.

 
Lakers small icon 30. Lakers (20-50, LW 29). After the backcourt combo of Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell showed some promise on Sunday against the Cavaliers — Russell had 40 points, and the pair showed some chemistry — coach Luke Walton said he would stick with it to see if there is something real to it. There hasn’t been much of the season — the Lakers have been outscored by 22 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together this season, and they were -14 as a pair against Cleveland. The questions for them are on the defensive end, Russell has to be able to cover two guards to make it work, and right now he can’t.

Chris Paul injures right hamstring, status unclear for Game 6 vs. Warriors

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Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul played the part of the hero for the home team on Thursday night as Houston beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead.

Now, the question is whether Paul will be able to play in Game 6 on Saturday night.

After a game in which the Rockets were not particularly offensively impressive, Paul came up with some clutch baskets despite struggling overall. Paul got the better of the Golden State defense several times from beyond the arc, including one instance in which he gave a shoulder shimmy to Stephen Curry, allowing the Warriors guard a dose of his own medicine.

But Paul appeared to injure his right hamstring on a play with 51 seconds to go in fourth quarter as he was shooting a floater in the lane. After his shot, Paul remained on the ground and down at the Houston end of the floor as possession changed sides. Paul left the game some 30 seconds later, and was unable to finish the game.

The Rockets point guard had already been battling a right foot injury and had to get lots of treatment just to be able to play in Game 5. It’s not entirely surprising that Paul injured himself on his right side. A weakened link in the kinetic chain tends to force other muscles and joints to compensate for injured areas. When overused or improperly used, the chance for a new injury in another part of the kinetic chain — say, up the leg and into the hamstring — is entirely possible.

That seems like what happened to Paul on Thursday night, but we will have to wait for official word from the team before we know whether he will be playing on Saturday. Hamstring issues can the nagging and despite lots of treatment there is also the swelling that will occur when Paul has to fly to Oakland.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni says that Paul will be evaluated tomorrow and will be continuing to get treatment but he is not worried about someone being able to fill Paul’s shoes. That’s certainly the right thing to say for D’Antoni but we know how Game 6 might go if CP3 is unable to play.

Chris Paul plays the hero as Warriors devolve to iso ball in Game 5 loss

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I personally thought a Western Conference Finals game couldn’t get any uglier after I watched Game 4 between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Boy, was I wrong.

Thursday night’s Game 5 matchup between the Rockets and the Warriors two teams produced three heinous quarters of NBA playoff basketball, made even more unbearable by the fact that we know how good these two teams can be when they’re really humming.

Much as it was in Game 4 it was Houston’s defense that was on display, ironically forcing the Warriors to play much in the way the Rockets do when they lose. Golden State battled the shot clock with isolation ball much of the game, with Kevin Durant getting the ball at the top of the arc as some of the league’s top players — including a two-time MVP in Stephen Curry — widened the floor in a 1-4 flat set for the 7-foot wing.

To their credit, both Curry and Durant were in good shooting form through the first half but as the periods ground on they started to slow. Draymond Green was Draymond-y, scoring 12 points while grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds with four assists. Statistically, it’s hard to understand how the Warriors lost. Golden State shot better from the field, from the arc, and from the charity stripe. But their scoring was concentrated and their offense predictable at just the wrong moments.

Houston’s attack was nothing to shake a stick at, either. James Harden‘s scored just 19 points on 5-of-21 shooting, and as a unit the Rockets doled out 12 assists. Incessant switching and a tendency to hound the ball on defense allowed Houston to force a whopping 18 turnovers from Golden State. It was the most important statistic of the game for the Rockets, who scored 18 points on those turnovers despite being outpaced in 3-point shooting, points in the paint, and in fastbreak buckets.

Then, the fourth quarter happened. Everything changed, and as we are wont to do, the game felt much cleaner. Both teams had their energy up, they traded baskets, and the lead went back-and-forth.

Enter Chris Paul.

Houston’s point guard was the savior, scoring 20 points on a piddly 6-of-19 shooting performance. But Paul’s box score did not tell the tale of his impact on the game. Several times with the shot clock winding down, Paul came up with big beyond-the-arc buckets, at one point hitting one over Curry, giving him back a shoulder shimmy much the way the Warriors point guard did in Game 4.

Paul’s leadership pushed Houston forward, but his commitment during Game 5 might get overlooked after the Rockets point guard was forced to check out of the game after a play with 51 seconds remaining. On a floater in the lane, Paul appeared to hurt his right hamstring. Unable to play, Paul had to watch the final minute from the Houston bench, and his availability for Game 6 is currently up in the air.

It was ugly and it was gritty, but the Rockets beat Golden State on Thursday night, 98-94, to take Game 5 and a 3-2 series win as the Western Conference Finals heads back to Oakland.

Now, we look toward Game 6 in California on Saturday, May 26 at 6:00 PM PST.

Eric Gordon buckets, Draymond Green turnover seals game for Rockets

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For the second game in a row, the Houston Rockets were clutch in the fourth quarter and the defending champion Warriors clanked and fumbled their way to a loss.

Houston won Game 3 98-94 because down the stretch Eric Gordon made plays (and free throws) and Draymond Green fumbled away the Warriors chance.

It started with the Rockets up one with less than two minutes to go, when Eric Gordon — who led the Rockets with 24 points — drained a three that gave Houston some breathing room.

Six seconds later, Draymond Green answered with a three to keep it a one-point game.

With 10 seconds left in the game, a Trevor Ariza free throw made it a two-point game, giving the Warriors a chance to come down and tie or win. Then Green did this.

Gordon was fouled, hit two free throws, and it was ballgame.

The Rockets are now up 3-2 in the series and are one win away from the Finals.

Draymond Green thought Warriors might trade him after fight with Steve Kerr

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Draymond Green is the backbone of the Golden State Warriors, not just because he was the 2016-17 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Green sort of does it all, including passing, scoring, rebounding, and myriad other scrap work that doesn’t show up on regular box scores.

But there was some doubt in Green’s mind in 2016 that he would stay with the team. Green was involved in an argument during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and after things settled down the Warriors big man was concerned the team might trade him.

The thought of doing so is sort of ridiculous, but apparently that was something that flashed into Green’s mind given the tenseness of the situation between he and Kerr.

Via Bleacher Report:

But Green’s mood was still foul, and he left the arena that day believing his days as a Warrior were numbered. He feared the relationship had been fractured, that the Warriors would choose Kerr over him. That he’d be traded.

“One hundred percent,” Green tells B/R. “Especially with the success that he was having as a coach. Like, you just don’t get rid of that.”

The thing that makes Golden State great isn’t just the players, or the system, or Kerr. It’s the human resources management aspect of their organization that allows them to compete on the court in the way they do.

It’s not crazy to think that a player could be shipped out of town thanks to a disagreement with a coach, although the leverage players have these days likely has put a stop to that realistically happening. But that Kerr, Green, and management were able to get things back under control that season was to the benefit of everyone involved.