NBA Power Rankings: Minnesota into top 3, Miami into top 10

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It should be a shock to nobody that Golden State and Boston remain locked in the top two slots, but after that things get interesting. Minnesota is finally defending and is up to No. 3, Miami has pushed its way into the top 10, and a disinterested Cavaliers team (which has some real flaws, too) has fallen to 12th.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (36-9 Last Week No. 1). The Warriors have now won 13 in a row with Stephen Curry in the lineup, and 13 in a row on the road. That includes wins this past week in Toronto (up by 27 at one point) and in Cleveland showed the gap between the best in the East and the top of the West. If you’re looking for something to point to as a flaw, the famed “death” lineup hasn’t played much or terribly well. Not that it’s mattered.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (34-11, LW 2). Boston is now 1-0 in London and on a 7-game winning streak — a run that includes wins over the Rockets, Cavaliers, and the Timberwolves. The amazing thing during this win streak is the offense has been an unimpressive 27th in the NBA, it’s just that their defense has been so dominant it has not mattered. That may raise questions come the playoffs, but in the regular season the Celtics keep on rolling.

3. Timberwolves (29-17, LW 4). Jimmy Butler has moved into the broad MVP conversation, averaging 21 points a game on 53.1% shooting in the last five Timberwolves wins, and he’s hitting 64.3% from three in those contests, with 6.2 assists and rebounds per game. Tuesday night’s unimpressive loss in Orlando was the first of 7-of-9 on the road, a test for the improving Timberwolves. One of those tests is Thursday’s game against the Rockets, which becomes far more fun to watch if Harden returns.

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (29-13, LW 3). The comeback against the Warriors — from 27 down to make it a game late — without Kyle Lowry was impressive. However, a blowout win over the Cavaliers was the bigger deal, giving the Raptors some confidence as they look ahead to potential postseason matchups (and they did it without Lowry or Serge Ibaka). More than the improved offense, having rookie OG Anunoby doing a credible job defending LeBron James is crucial, allowing other guys to stay home on shooters. Toronto should have hope.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (30-12, LW 5). As good as Chris Paul is at knowing back tunnels and instigating trouble in the Clippers locker room, on the court the Rockets need James Harden — they have gone 4-3 without him (hamstring issue). Harden could return as early as Thursday night in a big televised game against Minnesota. Saturday night comes a nationally televised showdown with the Warriors and you know The Beard wants to suit up for that.

Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (29-16, LW 6). Just when you thought the Spurs would get healthy, Kawhi Leonard is out again with his quad issue. At least Rudy Gay should be back soon. The Spurs are where they are because of the second best defense in the NBA this season, then getting enough offense when they need it (13th in the league), mostly in the half court (Spurs are 28th in NBA in percentage of points in transition). If they can get healthy the offense should improve.

Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (25-19, LW 7). Washington’s offense has been good this season — 11th in the NBA overall, seventh in the league in percentage of their points in transition — but they have struggled to get to the rim. Only 31% of the Wizards shots are at the rim, 26th in the NBA (for comparison, the Lakers and Grizzlies get more than 40% of their shots there). Washington finishes well when it does get to the rim, shooting 65.5% (7th in the league) but instead they take more midrange shots (41% of shot attempts) which is less efficient. The Wizards could use to get to the rim for shots and to draw fouls more often.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (24-20 LW 8).. The Thunder starting five when healthy — Steven Adams, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Andre Roberson (out right now), and Russell Westbrook — have outscored teams by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. Start to dip into that bench and things get worse — sub Terrence Ferguson in for Roberson and the lineup is -9.1 per 100. Coach Billy Donovan is throwing a lot of different bench lineups against the wall trying to find something that sticks right now.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (25-18, LW 12). Miami’s loss to Chicago Monday was the first game of 9-of-11 on the road — a real test for the Heat, who had won 7 in a row before that (but only the last one by double digits). A test because the Heat have a negative point differential (outscored by 32 points this season), and that tends to catch up with teams. Part of the recent rise of Miami is that rookie Bam Adebayo is making a real contribution to the team nightly, he was a real find in the draft.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (23-20 LW 11). Just how big a threat is Milwaukee come the playoffs? We don’t know. Not just because it’s early, but we don’t yet know: 1) What this team looks like with Jabari Parker in the lineup (that’s a month away); 2) What moves the Bucks may make at the trade deadline. They have been one of the more aggressive teams in talks, but to land someone like DeAndre Jordan would require sending Parker out, and that doesn’t seem likely. This is a good team, but how dangerous remains to be seen.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (24-20, LW 17). If there’s one end-of-season award that seems a lock, it’s Victor Oladipo winning Most Improved Player. He played a major role in the 22-point comeback the Pacers had to beat the Cavaliers this past week as the Pacers went 3-1 on a homestand. Now they head out on the road with tough games at Portland and San Antonio this week.

Cavaliers small icon 12. Cavaliers (26-17 LW 7). Losers of four in a row (all against good teams), including the one game they really got up and focused on in Golden State. The Cavaliers need to do something at the trade deadline up upgrade (both for Warriors and ensure getting out of the East) but the options are not great in a tight trade market: DeAndre Jordan would help, as would Nikola Mitotic in a different way. The shooting of Evan Fournier could help. But if the Cavs will not give up the Nets pick (I hear they will not) then how good a player can they really land?

Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (23-20, LW 15). Anthony Davis, already a name floating around the second tier of the MVP race, has been flat out dominant the past week, dropping 48 in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, then turning around and putting up 45 in the Boston Garden Tuesday. However, under the radar in those games Jrue Holiday has been fantastic with his defense and knocking down midrange shots. The Pelicans enter a soft week in the schedule, they need to add wins to pad their playoff slot.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (22-21 LW 18). The Clippers — despite no Chris Paul and a rash of injuries to key players such as Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, and Danilo Gallinari — are just half a game out of the playoffs as of today in the crowded back end of the West. Insane. Doc Rivers deserves some Coach of the Year consideration. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton had a stat that shows just how much health matters to this team: The Clippers are 12-4 and plus-9.2 per 100 possessions when Milos Teodosic plays and 10-17 with a minus-4.3 differential when he is out.

Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (20-20, LW 14). J.J. Redick is out for a couple of weeks with a leg injury and that’s a concern because the Sixers offense is 7.8 points per 100 possessions worse when the sharpshooter is not on the court. Tough stretch for Philly coming up without Redick, with a game at Boston Thursday starting 7-of-10 on the road — Philly is a game out of the playoffs as that stretch starts, they have to stay in touch with Detroit and Milwaukee to keep the dream of the postseason alive.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (22-20, LW 16). The Pistons have been one of the more active teams seeking a trade as the deadline approaches — Stan Van Gunny wants to win now (or at least win more). With Andre Drummond in the fold they won’t want DeAndre Jordan, but wing depth and scoring — Tyreke Evans, Lou Williams — would be a priority, the question is will Van Gundy pay the price to get those guys? After a tough game vs. Toronto Wednesday, the Pistons have 13-of-15 at home.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (23-21, LW 13). The good news, Portland has finally found its missing offense — they have averaged 110.1 points per 100 possessions over their last 10 games. The bad news, their stout defense for most of the season went away in that same stretch, giving up 111.8 per 100 (so the Blazers are 5-5 in that stretch). Starting next Monday in Denver (a key game in a tight playoff race) Portland has 7-of-10 on the road.

Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (23-21, LW 10). Nikola Jokic snapped out of his recent scoring slump to drop 29 points (with 18 boards and 7 assists) on the Mavericks Tuesday. Denver needs more of that, as it is in the middle of the brutally tight back end of the Western Conference (1.5 games separates the 5 seed Thunder and the 9 seed Clippers). Along those lines, the Nuggets game at the Clippers’ Wednesday feels important.

Knicks small icon 19. Knicks (20-24, LW 19). Tim Hardaway Jr. is back healthy and in the rotation, and they needed him. The Knicks are 5-15 away from home and Monday’s win at Brooklyn was the first of 7 in a row and 9-of-10 away from Madison Square Garden. The Knicks are currently three games out of the playoffs and if they don’t do well on this upcoming road test they could be out of the race by the time Justin Timberlake is dancing on the halftime stage at the Super Bowl.

Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (17-27 LW 22).. Zach LaVine is finally healthy and made his debut as a member of the Bulls over the weekend — and he has looked good. He has 32 points in two games, but more importantly looks comfortable and quick attacking the basket — his athleticism has always been the key to his game and he seems to have a lot of that back. The Bulls face the Warriors Wednesday then head out for three on the road — it’s a tough week.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (17-25, LW 20). Steve Clifford is back on the sidelines, and that’s a very good thing. But over the next few weeks the Hornets have some big-picture decisions to make about this team (which is 5 games out of the playoffs) — is it time to trade Kemba Walker and start a rebuild? This team simply isn’t as good as ownership imagined, and there’s no clear path to being more than just a 7/8 seed if things go right in future years. Blowing it up in a small market where the team has struggled is no easy call, but the Hornets need to at least consider it from a basketball perspective.

Jazz small icon 22. Jazz (17-26, LW 23). Thabo Sefolosha is now out for the rest of the season with knee surgery, and Rudy Gobert will be out at least another week. Utah is one of the leading suitors for Nicola Mirotic and they also are shopping around Derrick Favors (Cleveland may be interested), a Mirotic/Favors trade will work but the Bulls want a first-round pick in the deal. Is Utah willing to throw that in? Expect some Utah movement at the trade deadline.

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (15-30 LW 25). Dennis Smith Jr. has shown promise at the point and has taken over at the end of the last two big Dallas comebacks (they fell short in those games, but you have to like what you see in Smith). There is some buzz that Dallas will go hard at DeMarcus Cousins in the off-season, and that sounds like a very Mark Cuban move. If New Orleans comes in big it may be hard to pry Boogie out of the Big Easy, but him and another high draft pick (Dallas would enter the lottery fifth right now) likely has the Mavs back in the playoffs in a year.

Nets small icon 24. Nets (16-28, LW 21). We could see the return of D’Angelo Russell this week, which is good for the Nets evaluation process, but what will it do to the minutes of Spencer Dinwiddie, who has become a really fun player to watch. So have the Nets as a whole — they are scrappy, and they keep games close with their effort. Then at the end of games Dinwiddie tries to take over and… he’s not exactly efficient, but he’ll hit the occasional game winner (ask the Hawks).

Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (14-28, LW 26). Marc Gasol isn’t going anywhere at the trade deadline, but Tyreke Evans may very well be on the move. He has established himself as a quality bucket getter again averaging 19.6 points per game and shooting 40.6% from three. (He’d be in the Sixth Man of the Year running except he’s started more than half the team’s games.) Evans is on a steal of a contract (one-year, $3.3 million) and the Grizzlies will not have the cap space to re-sign him next summer, so they should get some value for him while they can.

Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (15-28 LW 27). Lonzo Ball is incredibly good at tuning out the noise of his father, if only everyone else around the Lakers could do that. I will add people outside that locker room care a lot more about what LaVar does and says than people inside it. The Lakers had a four-game win streak (including over the Spurs) and Brandon Ingram continues to make strides as a guy who can just score the rock.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-29, LW 24). I like the job Jay Triano has done as coach, but is it enough to keep his job next summer? The Suns play fast — they get the fifth highest percentage of their offensive chances out of transition in the league (16.6%). The problem is they are one of the worst teams in the league at scoring in transition. Part of that is they don’t finish well at the rim — Phoenix is shooting 58.7% inside four feet this season, second worst in the NBA.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (12-31, LW 29). Dewayne Dedmon returned to the rotation last week, but at this point in the season isn’t it time to just turn John Collins loose? He has the highest PER of any rookie in the league, but Mike Budenholzer is bringing him along slowly off the bench at 22 minutes a night. Collins has been fantastic, time to unleash him on the NBA and let him learn a couple hard lessons along the way.

Kings small icon 29. Kings (13-30, LW 28). Coach Dave Joerger made it official, the Kings are going to play their youth heavily and keep veterans such as Zach Randolph, George Hill, and Vince Carter in smaller roles. This is the smart thing to do for player development, it’s also the smart thing to do because the Kings have their first-round pick this season (not next season) and this draft has some big talent at the top. Call it tanking if you want, the Kings weren’t winning with their vets, might as well get the young guys more rune.

Magic small icon 30. Magic (13-31, LW 30). It feels like a major roster shakeup is coming to Orlando, and that could start at the trade deadline as just about everyone on the roster is available. Evan Fournier is the kind of shooter and all around player a lot of teams could use, but the combination of his contract (three-years, $51 million after this season still) and what the Magic will want back means a deal may could be hard to put together in a tight market. Teams are hesitant to take on salary.

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.