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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets move into top spot as Warriors slide down

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The top teams in the NBA seem to be getting some senioritis as All-Star Weekend approaches — but not the Houston Rockets, who keep on winning and with that move to the top spot in the rankings. Cleveland keeps on falling down the board as the Raptors and Celtics have established themselves on top of the East. Orlando is out of the bottom slot,
which sucks or Phoenix.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (39-13, Last Week No. 2). Houston’s destruction of the Cavaliers over the weekend was just another reminder that the Rockets are in the NBA’s elite (and the Cavs… not so much right now). The Rockets move into the top spot having gone 8-2 in their last 10, with a top-five offense and defense — while the rest of the league’s best teams struggle through the dog days of the season Houston is rolling and beating other top teams. Don’t expect any trade deadline moves from Houston, they are going to roll with the team they have.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (41-13 LW 1). If the Warriors repeat as NBA champions this June, everyone will credit their superior talent or how they gel as a team. But maybe it will be Karma — when everyone’s favorite halftime act Red Panda had her 7-foot unicycle stolen last week (and it devastated her), the Warriors stepped up with $25,000 to replace it. Karma isn’t helping their defense in the short term, however, which is 23rd in the NBA over last 10 games. After falling to the Thunder Tuesday, the Warriors are 1-4 vs. OKC and Houston this season.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (37-16, LW 3). Their win over the Celtics Tuesday — in very possibly a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals — was an impressive showing for their defense, which is third best in the NBA over the last 10 games and has been improved all season. I get the people who are hesitant to jump on board, who want to see how this new-look Raptors offense looks in the cauldron of the playoffs, the people who point to Toronto history, but I think the Raptors are legit. This is the best Raptors team of this era, and probably ever. Dwane Casey is not going to win Coach of the Year, but he should be in the discussion.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (39-16, LW 4). Terry Rozier was a guy Danny Ainge was always high on, even as he seemed slow to find his footing in the NBA, but recently he has rewarded that faith. He had a triple-double against the Knicks and dropped 31 on the Hawks in the past week, and he has developed into a trustworthy part of the rotation. Sunday it will be the Celtics turn to beat up on the struggling Cavaliers, and it’s also the Paul Pierce jersey retirement game.

 
5. Timberwolves (34-22, LW 7). The Timberwolves have the third-best offense in the NBA this season, but they do it in the half court and without the easy transition buckets most elite offenses thrive on. Minnesota plays at the 23rd fastest pace in the league and only 13.1 percent of their offensive possessions start in transition, 26th in the league (stats via Cleaning The Glass). That means their game should translate in the slower pace of the playoffs. Friday night, Jimmy Butler will face the Bulls for the first time since the trade last summer that sent him to Minnesota.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (34-21, LW 6). The Spurs are a very average 5-5 in their last 10 (with a -0.5 net rating), and the are 9-9 in 2018. The defense has remained top-10 (which is impressive considering they have not had Kawhi Leonard basically all season) but the offense has struggled, scoring 103.4 points per 100 possessions in the last 10 games (24th in the NBA). Rather than a trade at the deadline, the Spurs are going to count on a healthy Leonard and Rudy Gay to change the team’s fortunes around.

Bucks small icon 7. Bucks (30-23 LW 9). Jabari Parker is back and has looked solid through three games, averaging 11 points on 50% shooting in about 17 minutes a night. Already his ability to find space and knock down mid-range jumpers has helped open up an offense that can get clogged at times, and as he starts to stretch those jumpers out to the arc again all the better. Also, we can’t see this enough, Giannis Antetokounmpo dunking over 6’6” Tim Hardaway Jr.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (31-23, LW 12). Winners of five in a row until they ran into the Sixers Tuesday, Washington has been holding up well so far without John Wall. Washington has been active heading into the trade deadline trying to find backcourt help, and putting Marcin Gortat out there for a potential deal (especially if they can land DeAndre Jordan). However, people close to the team expect they Wizards won’t find a deal they like and will stand pat heading into the playoffs (with a healthy Wall by then).

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (31-24 LW 5).. They had lost four in a row until Russell Westbrook went off and the Thunder put an impressive beatdown on the Warriors Tuesday. Still, OKC is just 2-4 since Andre Roberson went down injured and in that stretch the defense has been pedestrian (13th in the NBA). OKC has been active in trying to add a wing player at the trade deadline, but in a market where sellers are squeezing buyers, the Thunder may decide to ride it out with the guys they have.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (30-25, LW 11). Indiana is attacking the rim more and it has sparked the Pacer offense, which is ranked in the top 10 in the NBA over the past five games. One of the guys attacking has been point guard Darren Collison, but he is out 2-3 weeks after having his knee scoped — which may well kill the trade rumors surrounding him, too. If Collison is not dealt, don’t expect any other Pacers moves at the trade deadline.

 
Heat small icon 11. Heat (29-25, LW 8). Losers of four in a row and things don’t get any easier with the Rockets, Bucks, and Raptors the next three teams on the schedule. The losses are coming because Miami keeps playing close games and the law of averages is catching up with them — 18 of their last 19 games have been within five points in the final five minutes, and they started 9-2 in those games but have gone 2-6 since then.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (29-25, LW 16). Winners of three in a row, they beat the Thunder and Warriors in that stretch — a good sign as they have a tough February schedule. While Gary Harris hit the game-winner in OKC, it is the improved play of Jamal Murray at the point that has this team taking steps forward into the playoffs. He looks like a foundational piece, along with Nikola Jokic, that Denver can build around for years. Also, Will Barton has played his way into the Sixth Man of the Year discussion.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (29-25, LW 13). Losers of three in a row (all though games on the road against some of the best of the East), and the concern remains the defensive slippage — they are 24th in the NBA over the last 15 games — which is holding back a team finally finding its offensive groove. Portland has talked to a lot of teams heading into the trade deadline and may make a “win now” kind of move, but they have shot down everyone who has called asking or C.J. McCollum. Portland is not breaking up its backcourt.

 
Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (27-25 LW 16). Owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, so while there has been a lot of buzz around Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan trades, L.A. was only going to do that if they got quality back, such as as a first-round pick for Williams. That didn’t materialize, so now they have extended him and will keep Williams through the end of the season. If Los Angeles doesn’t make a move at the trade deadline (keeping Avery Bradley, too), this roster still has a shot at making the playoffs (a 50% chance according to fivethirtyeight.com).

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (28-25, LW 10). New Orleans is 1-4 since DeMarcus Cousins went down with his Achilles injury, including a tough loss to a hot Utah team that is a threat to pass the Pelicans in the playoff chase. Anthony Davis has moved to center and, of course, played well there (he was the All-NBA First Team center last season), plus the addition of Nikola Mitotic seems to be a good fit. Can they hold on to a playoff slot? Fivethirtyeight.com says its 50-50.

 
Sixers small icon 16. 76ers (26-25, LW 15). The Sixers are only half-a-game ahead of surging Detroit for the final playoff slot in the East, but fivethirtyeight.com likes their chances saying they have an 88% chance of making the postseason. The win over Washington Tuesday helped with that. That said, the Sixers are active at the trade deadline looking at Tyreke Evans and other players who could be a scoring upgrade and improve this team’s chances of making the postseason dance.

 
Jazz small icon 17. Jazz (25-28, LW 20). Winners of six in a row, they have surprisingly vaulted back into the playoff picture (fivethirtyeight.com says they have a 74% chance of making the postseason). The Jazz are defending better but the key to the streak is the offense — they have scored 115.7 points per possession during the last six games, which is a couple points better than the league-leading Warriors on the season.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (26-26, LW 19). Detroit has yet to lose with Blake Griffin in the lineup and the win streak is up to four. Griffin is just being his healthy self (20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in his new uniform) but the team passing, and defense, has been better of late and pushed them into the playoff mix. Friday night Blake Griffin faces his old team the Clippers for the first time, and you could see some of this as Griffin and Andre Drummond are developing some fast chemistry on big-to-big passes.

 
Cavaliers small icon 19. Cavaliers (30-22 LW 14). The Cavaliers are active at the trade deadline, but let’s be honest here: There is no magic bullet trade that is going to solve the Cavs’ problems right now. (And that’s putting aside the fact that nobody wants the players they are offering in trades.) The Cavaliers have been awful, their effort has been pathetic many nights (including LeBron, who carried this team early in the season), and the only way to fix all of it is internal changes. Are they capable of that?

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (23-30, LW 21). Smart trade deadline move by Charlotte picking up Willie Hernangomez from the Knicks — he’s a solid young big man who made the All-Rookie team last season, looks like he can become a solid rotational big man who can get some buckets, and is on an affordable contract for a couple of years. Charlotte can be dangerous when Nicolas Batum is aggressive and creates, like he did against the Hawks and Pacers last week, just wish that happened more often.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (22-31 LW 23). Los Angeles is trying to be active at the trade deadline, they still want to get off the contract of Jordan Clarkson, and they’ll listen to offers for veterans such as Brook Lopez, but the reality is there may not be a deal for them. The Lakers don’t seem likely to land a big free agent this summer, which will lead to the question should they use some of their cap room to keep Julius Randle, who has evolved into a quality small-ball five a lot of teams could use. Randle is going to get contract offers this summer, we’ll see if the Lakers are willing to match.

 
Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (23-32, LW 18). It’s painful to watch Kristaps Porzingis go down with an ACL injury, knowing that not only ends the slim chance of a playoff comeback this season, but could doom next season as well. As a comparison, Zach LaVine in Chicago tore his ACL in early February a year ago and didn’t return until mid-January this season, 11 months later. If Porzingis is out the start of next season — something very possible, the Knicks will be cautious bringing him back — it could doom any playoff dreams in 2019 also. Still, the Knicks will max Porzingis out this summer with a contract extension.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (17-37 LW 25). Congratulations to Dirk Nowitzki for reaching the 50,000 minutes club in his NBA career (only five others have done it, and they are all in the Hall of Fame, as Nowitzki will eventually be). Not having Seth Curry all season is one of the things that has held Dallas back, and now he is officially out for the rest of the campaign to have Tibia surgery, which should solve his issues. Curry should be back on the court for Dallas next season, which will provide some needed shooting.

 
Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (18-35, LW 22). If there is one thing to be sure of at the trade deadline, it’s that Tyreke Evans will get traded out of Memphis. The question is where (Boston, Philly, and Denver are the frontrunners) and will the Grizzlies get a first-round pick for him as they have demanded. So far that hasn’t been on the table (and if they get one it may be a “fake first” that is so heavily protected it eventually becomes a couple of seconds). Memphis is 0-6 without Evans this season, once he is moved they will fall back into a better lottery position.

 
Magic small icon 25. Magic (17-36, LW 30). With Nikola Vucevic out, so has been the high-post passing offense that Frank Vogel had them running. In it’s place has been more ball movement and that has worked to get better shots — Orlando is scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions in its last five games, sixth best in the NBA. This had earned the Magic some wins (3-2 in those five), pulled them out of the bottom of this ranking, and gives them something to build on the rest of this season and into the summer.

 
Kings small icon 26. Kings (17-36, LW 26). Will George Hill get traded at the deadline? To Cleveland? Those questions hanging in the air, and while the urgency has come out of those talks it’s still on the board and could happen. The Kings rookies — De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Justin Jackson — are getting the start but it was a big night from Zach Randolph that helped get them the big win against New Orleans recently.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (19-36, LW 27). Jarrett Allen has taken over the starting center spot and is showing real promise as the Nets future at that position. He doesn’t have much range, but he is efficient around the rim and provides a lot of rim protection on the other end. The Nets could take on a bad contract at the deadline if another team will throw in a good enough pick to make it worth their while.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (17-37, LW 28). Marco Belinelli has reportedly been told he will be traded at the deadline and Ersan Ilyasova could be out the door as well — 29 other teams could use more shooting, and both of these veterans can provide that. Expect the Hawks to make a move. Taurean Prince has played well of late, including dropping 31 on the Celtics, and is evolving into part of the future in Atlanta.

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (18-35 LW 24).. Losers of seven in a row, the Bulls have had a bottom-six offense and defense in the league over that stretch. The move to trade Nikola Mitotic has worked — Chicago’s own pick is looking better and they picked up another first-rounder for the rebuild. Doesn’t make this team any easier to watch in the short term. Hey, Robin Lopez, how do you feel about the Bulls’ play recently?

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-37, LW 29). The Suns have lost 11-of-13 and have played the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch (worse than the Cavaliers or Nets). The offense hasn’t been much better at 29th in the league in those 13. If you’re looking for a bright side Devin Booker and Josh Jackson seem to be developing some chemistry. The Suns bought out Greg Monroe, and with that don’t really have the pieces for a deal at the deadline.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.