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NBA Power Rankings Week 23: Can Spurs, Rockets knock Warriors out of top spot this week?

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There’s only a few weeks left n the NBA season, and if someone is going to knock Golden State out of the top spot it’s going to happen this week — the Warriors play the Spurs once and the Rockets twice. As for now, Golden State remains the team on top, while both Boston and Washington slide past Cleveland.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (59-14, Last Week No. 1). And people were worried about this team because… why? Golden State is winners of seven in a row, and Kevin Durant seems to be on track to be back before the regular season ends. This week they will get tested: back-to-back at Houston and San Antonio, then Houston and Washington back at Oracle. If they stumble, the door opens for San Antonio to get the No. 1 seed, but don’t bet on it as Golden State’s schedule softens after this week. Also, just a reminder Andre Iguodala can do this.

 
Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (56-16, LW 3). Winners of four in a row, and this becomes the third straight season the Spurs have beat all other 29 teams in the NBA at least once in the regular season. No other team in NBA history has done that. If the Spurs don’t beat the Warriors Wednesday and close that gap for the No. 1 seed this week (and even if they do) expect Gregg Popovich to make sure his stars get rested heading into the playoffs.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (51-22, LW 4). If you are making a case for James Harden for MVP based on his efficiency and ability to lift his team up, Sunday’s win over the Thunder should be Exhibit 1A (it also was an easy win for Houston in what may well have been a first-round playoff preview). That said, Harden is playing through a sore wrist, and this week the Rockets have the Warriors twice, plus a desperate Portland team trying to make the playoffs. Houston will need MVP Harden to keep winning (and he may get a night off to rest that wrist).

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-26, LW 7). In one week they beat the Wizard and the surging Heat, the Celtics have won 8-of-10 and are now tied with Cleveland for the best record in the East. Know that the Celtics have a much softer schedule the rest of the way than the Cavs. Al Horford has stepped it up since the All-Star break and in March is averaging 15.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. How high will Brad Stevens finish in Coach of the Year voting?

 
Wizards small icon 5. Wizards (45-28, LW 8). Quality win over the Cavaliers Saturday in Cleveland, and while I may not be sold they beat the Cavs in a seven-game series they deserve acknowledgment for what they did. The Cleveland win was the first game of six-of-seven on the road, and they have a gauntlet of the West ahead on this trip with the Clippers, Jazz, and Warriors. That’s a problem because Toronto is winning again and is just one game back of Washington in the race for the three seed (and avoiding Cleveland in the second round).

 
Cavaliers small icon 6. Cavaliers (47-25, LW 2). They have lost three-of-five, and their defense is 29th in the NBA in the month of March, which has let Boston tie them for the best record in the East (and Cleveland has a tougher schedule the rest of the way. Yet, most observers around the league (including coaches/scouts) expect the Cavs to flip the switch come the playoffs. Tyrone Lue says he has a plan to fix the defense in the postseason, but it feels like the plan on both ends come the playoffs is “unleash angry LeBron James.” By the way, that’s a really good plan.

 
Raptors small icon 7. Raptors (44-29, LW 10). Winners of five in a row and that has them back in the mix for the three seed (the Raptors are just one game back of the Wizards and have an easier schedule the rest of the way). The Raptors have gone 11-5 without Kyle Lowry thanks to an improved defense and a lot o DeMar DeRozan, and this team looks dangerous in the postseason.

 
Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (44-31, LW 9). Every time you think this team is making strides, they turn around and do something like that ugly loss on their home court to the Kings on Sunday. That said, the win over the Jazz this week and a very soft schedule the rest of the way should have the Clippers getting home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs against Utah (that series is almost a lock). The question is, which Clippers team shows up for the playoffs? Or will that vary night to night?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (41-31, LW 5). More than just an MVP showdown, the Thunder/Rockets game Sunday was a likely first-round playoff matchup — and that should worry Thunder fans as their team got crushed. That said, OKC likes to play a physical style of defense and they may be able to get away with more on that front in the postseason. Interesting Friday night game vs. Spurs, what will Westbrook do when Kawhi Leonard locks in on him?

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (44-29, LW 6). They have lost four of five, but the loss to the Clippers Saturday was the biggest blow. While LA is a game back for the four seed and home court in the first round, the Clips have a much easier schedule the rest of the way. For that apparent Jazz/Clips first round series, Utah needs Derrick Favors back and contributing. Los Angeles will use more Marreese Speights because he can draw Rudy Gobert away from the basket, Favors can help counter that for Utah.

 
Bucks small icon 11. Bucks (37-36, LW 14). Atlanta, Indiana, and Milwaukee are all tied for the 5-6-7 seeds in the East with nine games left to play. The Hawks have a mildly easier schedule but the Bucks are playing much better right now than either of those two teams, having won 11-of-14. In the last 14 games, the Bucks have had a top-10 defense, and that has sustained them night to night — the Bucks have won 17 in a row when holding their opponent under 100 points.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (35-38, LW 12). Miami is clinging to a half-game lead over the Bulls for the final playoff slot in the West, but if the Heat are going to keep that they need to rack up wins in their next five games, because the team’s final four are brutal (and Chicago has a much easier schedule). This week the Heat are at Detroit, have a home-and-home with the Knicks, then host the Nuggets. The Heat need consistency from Goran Dragic, he needs to take charge with Dion Waiters out.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (35-38, LW 15). They are tied for the eighth seed in the West having gone 11-3 in March, with the second-best net rating and seventh best defense in the NBA in that stretch. The Blazers are tied with the Nuggets for the eighth seed and the two teams play Tuesday, but Portland has a much softer schedule the rest of the way. Making the playoffs begins to salvage what has been a disappointing season in Portland (they still have some questions to answer this summer, regardless.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (35-38, LW 16). Denver beats Cleveland, then turns around and gets blown out at home by New Orleans. Their offense led by Nikola Jokic is good, but they don’t get stops and that leads to the inconsistency. Huge game Tuesday night against Portland: The two teams are tied for the eighth seed but Denver’s schedule the rest of the way is much tougher so the Tuesday game becomes almost must win for the Nuggets.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (40-33, LW 11). I like the new starting lineup with Vince Carter at the three, but this team has lost three in a row and needs to get healthy (both Tony Allen and Marc Gasol missed time this week). Memphis seems destined for the seven seed at this point, if they are going to give the Spurs (probably, maybe the Warriors) a push,Memphis needs to get healthy for the postseason.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (36-36, LW 17).. Another inconsistent team trying to hold on to a playoff slot. Tied for 5-6-7 in the East, they have a tough week ahead but a soft enough schedule overall they should get in as the six or seven. The Indiana bench has been a problem all season long and the ankle injury to Al Jefferson is not going to help matters down the stretch.

 
Bulls small icon 17. Bulls (35-39, LW 20). They are just half a game back of the Heat for the eighth seed and have a much softer schedule the rest of the way, so you’d like to say they will get in. Then they turn around and lose to the Sixers, and we all are reminded this is not a good team, so don’t count on anything. Nikola Mitotic is coming on as the season winds down, averaging 14.2 points and shooting 39.2 percent from three in March, all of which just seems very Bulls. Also, Jimmy Butler dished out 14 assists in a game this week.

 
Hawks small icon 18. Hawks (37-36 LW 13). Losers of seven in a row, as injuries to Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore have taken their toll — the lack of depth has been a serious issue of late, the bench is a problem. While the Hawks are tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East right now, they are just 2.5 games ahead of Chicago in the nine seed, and if any team looks like they could slide out of the playoffs in the final weeks of the season, it’s Atlanta right now.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (34-39, LW 18). . If they have any playoff dreams left, they have to beat the Heat on Tuesday night (Detroit is just a game back of Miami, but it feels like it should be much more). Ish Smith is starting at point guard for Stan Van Gundy, but that didn’t solve the problems as Detroit lost to Chicago and Orlando last week once the change was made. Talk about a team that really needs to access where it is and how it is structured this off-season, few teams have been as disappointing as Detroit this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (31-41, LW 19). The Mavericks’ next loss will officially end their 16-season streak of being .500 or better. That streak started when Mark Cuban took over as owner and speaks to the job he has done as owner turning what had been one of the worst franchises in the NBA around. On the court the final weeks of the season, Rick Carlisle is experimenting with lineups to see what works, which is interesting to watch.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (33-40, LW 23). The Hornets have questions to answer this summer, but not as many as you may think. This team has outscored opponents by one point per 100 possessions this year, or put another way the Hornets are +66 for the season. Basketball-Reference.com says their record should be 39-34 right now, which would have them solidly in the playoffs as the five seed. No team has been as unlucky this season as Charlotte. Also, Kemba Walker had an overlooked 31 points Sunday.

 
Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (31-42, LW 21). How has Anthony Davis performed since DeMarcus Cousins came on board? His numbers are almost identical, if anything Davis is shooting a little more efficiently (watch his highlights below). Assuming the Pelicans can re-sign Cousins (as is expected around the league), those two will work out their offensive challenges this summer (the Pelicans are already playing good defense with them). The question is who is coaching in New Orleans next season?

 
Sixers small icon 23. 76ers (27-45, LW 24). In his last 10 games, Dario Saric is averaging 20.2 points a game, shooting 38 percent from three, and pulling down seven rebounds a game. He has been fantastic since the All-Star break, but is that enough to get him past teammate Joel Embiid for Rookie of the Year? It’s going to be close and how Saric plays in the final nine games of the season could have a lot to do with it (as does how voters feel about giving Embiid the award despite him playing in just 31 games).

 
timberwolves small icon 24. Timberwolves (28-44, LW 22). Losers of six in a row, that has sealed the Wolves fate, they will be golfing in mid-April again and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. Fans are forced to say “wait until next year” but that may be the truth based on how Minnesota has played defense since the All-Star break. Still, this team is battling expectations and those will continue to rise this off-season.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (27-46 LW 28). They have won three-of-four, Elfrid Payton is racking up triple-doubles (against Detroit last week), and there are still flashes of hope in Orlando. Coach Frank Vogel has gone into experimentation phase, such as trying Mario Hezonja at the four. Which is what the coach should be doing on this team at this point. See what works so he can talk about it with the next GM.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (28-45, LW 26). Buddy Heild was putting on a show, scoring 11 of the Kings 22 points in a close-out run that had Sacramento beating the L.A. Clippers Sunday. He’s showing promise, but needs to spend the summer working on his handles and willingness to drive the lane, he needs to be more than just a spot-up guy for the Kings.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (27-46 LW 25). Plenty of drama in New York to end the season, with Joakim Noah getting 20 games for using a banned substance. While all the talk has been about a focus on the triangle offense, the Knicks problems remain they are a terrible defensive team, and that is more about the makeup of the roster than the coaching staff or the system. It’s going to be a very interesting summer in New York.

 
Nets small icon 28. Nets (16-57, LW 29). They have seven wins in March and have now won back-to-back games this season. The wins may keep on coming, the Nets have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. Relax Celtics fans, they are still going to have the worst record in the NBA for the season, but the wins speak both a little to health and some to the culture coach Kenny Atkinson is starting to build.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (22-51, LW 27). Devin Booker goes off for 70 and is a needed distraction from a seven game losing streak that has them pressing the Lakers for the bottom spot in the West. I’ve got no problem with the time outs and fouls at the end of the game to get Booker to 70, Earl Watson said it best: If Jae Crowder and the Celtics didn’t like it, go out and stop them.

 
Lakers small icon 30. Lakers (21-52, LW 30). We all know the Lakers keep their pick if it’s in the top three; otherwise it goes to the Sixers (part of the Steve Nash trade). Let’s just lay out the odds: As it stands now with the second-worst record in the league, the Lakers have a 56 percent chance of keeping that pick. However, slumping Phoenix is within a game of the Lakers, if those two tie the Lakers odds go down to 51 percent. If the Lakers pass the Suns in the standings (and have the third-worst record in the league) the odds of keeping the pick drop to like 45 percent. So, tanking.

Report: Indiana to retain Bojan Bogdanovic, he could start again next season

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Bojan Bogdanovic is the kind of floor spacing shooter the Pacers need next to the attacking Victor Oladipo. He started 80 games for the team, scored 14.3 points per game and shot 40.2 percent from three.

Bogdanovic is due $10.5 million next season, but the Pacers can buy him out before next Friday (June 29) for $1.5 million.

They’re not going to do that, the Pacers are going to retain Bogdanovic, reports Ben Gibson at the Pacers site 8points9seconds.com.

The Indiana Pacers currently plan to retain Bojan Bogdanovic — whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season — and would be comfortable going into next season with him as a starter, according to a source familiar with the Pacers offseason plans.

There’s no surprise here, it was expected. Bogdanovic provides genuine value to the team — they need him on the court as a shooter, he averaged the second most threes per game on the squad. And, as an expiring contract, he could be used in any potential trades for another star.

The Pacers also have a decision to make on Darren Collison, who is owed $10 million next season but has a $2 million buyout by July 1. They will probably keep him around.

Al Jefferson is owed $10 million next season but can be bought out for $4 million before next January 10. Expect the Pacers to exercise that option and buy him out well before that date.

Carmelo Anthony sends message to haters: ‘Take A Step Back… And Enjoy Life’

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When the expected became official and Carmelo Anthony opted to take the $27.8 million contractually owed him next season, there were groans from the Thunder faithful.

It was Anthony’s right — and everyone knew he was going to take the cash (we all would have done the same) — but his value on the court has shrunk and that’s what eats at the OKC faithful. Anthony’s response on Instagram was, essentially, “relax, it’s just basketball.”

It will be interesting to see if Anthony is back with the Thunder next season, or if he gets bought out. If he does return, how do they better fit him in the offense?

Anthony’s defense has long been a concern, but his offense used to be efficient enough, and his ability to create shots important enough, that teams lived with the defense. However, his efficiency has slid in recent years and, as we saw in the playoffs in April, it’s not enough anymore. The Thunder played better with other lineups. To which Anthony responded he has to get back to his old style of play more.

It’s going to be a wild summer in OKC. Whatever happens.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.

Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic: Mavericks tap brakes on inevitable comparisons

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic didn’t get compared to Larry Bird when he was introduced a day after the Dallas Mavericks traded up to get the third overall pick in the NBA draft.

For president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, that’s progress based on his last experience of getting a tender-aged European in hopes of lifting the Mavericks out of the doldrums.

Twenty years later, Dirk Nowitzki is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in league history. Back then, the big German wasn’t remotely comparable to Larry Legend – and his rough first two years proved it.

So ask Nelson about a player the Mavericks clearly coveted heading into the draft in Doncic, and he’ll choose his words carefully regarding the 19-year-old from Slovenia. Doncic won’t turn 20 until after the All-Star break of his rookie season, which is expected to be Nowitzki’s record 21st with one franchise.

“Dirk and I had a long talk coming in,” Nelson said about the player Dallas drafted days after his 20th birthday in 1998.

“We’re obviously very excited to have (Doncic) but he’s got a very tough road ahead of him. Dirk wasn’t done any favors in his first two years. We are going to steer away from any of those comparisons. Luka is his own guy. He’s got his own challenges.”

Coach Rick Carlisle dropped a few international names in trying to describe the versatility Dallas thinks is offered by the 6-foot-7 Doncic, who won Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP honors while helping Real Madrid win the title just days before the draft.

After offering comparisons to the late Drazen Petrovic, three-time champion Toni Kukoc and longtime San Antonio star Manu Ginobili, Carlisle stopped.

“I really feel it’s important that we shouldn’t try to compare this guy to anybody,” Carlisle said Friday during an introductory news conference that included Doncic and second-round pick Jalen Brunson, who won two NCAA titles in three years at Villanova. “Let him be himself. Let his game takes its own form.”

Doncic figures to shape the future of the Mavericks in some form with Dallas coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the second of Nowitzki’s two difficult years at the start of his career.

Those 1990s-era Mavericks had 10 straight losing seasons. Combine the drafting of Doncic with last year’s ninth overall pick in point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a still-young leading scorer in Harrison Barnes, and Carlisle expects the losing to stop soon, if not this coming season.

“Last night was symbolic to me that it was kind of a defining moment in this rebuild,” said Carlisle, who had just one losing season as a coach before the current Dallas slide. “We’re going propel forward with the idea that we’ve got to start winning games.”

Just as he did last year with Smith, Carlisle is declaring Doncic a starter, which means the opening night lineup will have a teenager for the second straight year. Youth partly explains a two-year record of 57-107, including the 24-58 mark last season that landed Dallas the fifth pick before the draft-night trade with Atlanta on Thursday.

Another explanation was an unusually large number of undrafted players, including a young German in Maxi Kleber who grew up watching his countryman become the 2007 MVP and 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since taking their only title in 2011, and have missed the postseason three of the past six seasons coming off a 12-year playoff streak. Doncic might only get one chance to get Dallas back on track with Nowitzki, the 13-time All-Star who has hinted that 40 is a nice round number as a retirement age.

If this is it for Nowitzki, Nelson sees a trio in Barnes, Smith and Doncic that reminds him of Michael Finley mentoring Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash and helping the Mavericks end a 10-year playoff drought in 2001.

“Michael Finley was our Harrison Barnes back in the day,” Nelson said. “We feel like we’ve got that here in a different form. There’s just some really cool elements to this that take me back and remind me about what it was like 20 years ago when we were watching these young guys.”

Just don’t remind Nelson about the Nowitzki-Bird comparisons.