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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Raptors on top, movement in middle

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Nothing juch is changing at the top or bottom of the rankings, but in the middle where things are tightly bunched up in each conference there is more moving around. The Clippers climb, the Wizards fall, and nobody is quite sure what to make of the Cleveland Cavaliers night to night.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (61-14, Last Week No. 1). Since the All-Star break, the Rockets have gone 17-1 with the fourth best offense and third best defense in the NBA, all of which has them coasting into the best record in the league. Chris Paul got some rest (after tweaking his hamstring) and sat out three games, then on Tuesday it was James Harden’s turn for a night off. With the No. 1 seed and Harden’s MVP locked up, expect a little more of this the last couple weeks of the season.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (55-20, LW 2). Don’t read too much into the Raptors loss at Cleveland last week — it was the second night of a back-to-back and third game in four days, their legs looked tired at the end. Still, Toronto has taken their foot off the gas a little having gone 3-3 in their last six with the third worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. They are allowed to coast a little, they have the No. 1 seed in the East all but locked up (plus they are now half a game up on the Warriors for the second best overall record). Interesting road tests at Boston and Cleveland this week.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (54-20 LW 3). The Stephen Curry MCL sprain in his knee is the first of the Warriors’ litany of injuries expected to bleed into the playoffs — Steve Kerr says Curry is out for the first round, and we believe him. The Warriors should still win a first-round series without Curry fairly comfortably, even if that means more Kevin Durant isolations/post-ups, and more midrange shots (both go up without Curry). However, Portland will be no second-round pushover and the Warriors could really use a healthy Curry by that point. Durant is expected back Thursday, with Thompson a couple games after that.

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (51-23, LW 5). Kyrie who? The Celtics have won four in a row without the only guy on the roster who can be relied upon to create offense. The questions following Kyrie Irving’s knee surgery are when will he be back and do the Celtics really want to push him to get back for the first round? With no Gordon Hayward, no Marcus Smart (for the first round) and no Daniel Theis, will the Celtics take the long view and figure a potential first-round loss is a small price to pay for Irving to be healthy, especially considering this team is poised to be a force next season and beyond.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (43-30, LW 8). Markelle Fultz is back in the rotation after missing 68 games with a shoulder injury that evolved into a remade jump shot that he’s still gaining confidence in. Felt has been put into a sixth-man role as the ball handler and shot creator off the bench, something the Sixers need, and in his first game back he looked like a talented rookie with some good plays and some rough decisions. The Sixers are tied in the loss column with the Cavaliers for the three seed in the East and have a chance to pull away and secure that spot thanks to a soft schedule the rest of the way (much to Toronto’s chagrin, they don’t want the Cavs in the second round).

Blazers small icon 6. Trail Blazers (46-28, LW 4). A big win over Oklahoma City last weekend (because C.J. McCollum went off), plus victories like Tuesday over New Orleans (because Damian Lillard went off with 20 points in the fourth quarter), means Portland had a tight grip on the three seed in the West. It’s theirs to lose, they have a three-game lead in the loss column. That said, the Blazers will be without Lillard for a game (the birth of his son — congratulations!) and without Maurice Harmless, who will have his knee scoped on Wednesday. His return is up in the air.

Cavaliers small icon 7. Cavaliers (44-30 LW 10). Cleveland just looked flat Tuesday night once Kevin Love went out, and if he goes into the concussion protocol after a blow to the face that knocked loose a tooth they are going to have to get by without him for a few games. LeBron James was merely good Tuesday night, and with the Cavaliers porous defense that is simply not enough — he has to be MVP-level and lift the offense up for this team to have a chance against good teams. The Cavs are now tied in the loss column with the Sixers for the three seed, and Philly’s schedule the rest of the way is tissue soft. Cleveland has a showdown (and potential second-round matchup preview) with Toronto next Tuesday.

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (42-32, LW 7). I don’t know if Donovan Mitchell is going to win Rookie of the Year, but the man has made a strong case. He put up 35 points in a loss to the Spurs in overtime — that’s four 35+ point games this season, only Carmelo Anthony has had more as a rookie (6) — and in crunch time he is the guy with his ball in his hands, being asked to create. Mitchell is averaging 20.3 points per game, and while his efficiency has dipped a little lately he is the guy driving the offense of a playoff-bound team. (I wish he and Simmons could be co-MVPs, they both are very deserving.)

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (44-31 LW 6).. Carmelo Anthony’s well-publicized recent struggles in the clutch — two missed late free throws against Boston, then four missed threes in the crunch against Portland — lead to questions about just how effective he can be in the playoffs. Anthony has a below league average true shooting percentage (50.8) and he gets most of his shots this season on spot-ups where he is shooting just 36.8%. He’s going to get targeted in the playoffs when the Thunder are on defense. His ability to lift his game up could be key to the Thunder getting out of the first round and getting their crack at Golden State or Houston.

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (44-31, LW 9). Lance Stephenson is a beast at home in the Fieldhouse — .536 true shooting percentage and hitting 33.1% from three, plus aggressive defense — but get him on the road and those numbers drop to .469 TS% (well below the league average) and 26.3% from three. He and all the Pacers need to step it up on the road — Tuesday’s win against the Warriors started a stretch of 6-of-7 on the road as they fight the Sixers for the 4/5 seed all while trying to hold off the Wizards right behind them.

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (43-32, LW 12). The Spurs are on pace to win 47-48 games this season and solidly make the playoffs, which considering they have done it essentially without Kawhi Leonard is amazing. How did they do it? They took care of business against the teams they should beat — the Spurs are 25-6 against teams below .500 on the season. Gregg Popovic’s teams don’t beat themselves, and against lesser squads that is often enough. Tough schedule this week with the Thunder, Rockets, and Clippers.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (43-32, LW 13). One of the most impressive feats of the season — the Pelicans swept their back-to-back-to-back. Anthony Davis is everything to this team right now, they struggle (especially offensively) when he sits, which is why he tried to tough it out with a sore ankle Tuesday night. He has been good enough to carry them to a likely playoff slot, but seeding is still up in the air and the schedule this week is tough with Cleveland and Oklahoma City.

13. Timberwolves (42-33, LW 14). Losses to the Sixers (understandable) and the Grizzlies (not remotely understandable) in their last two games has Timberwolves looking like they will be either the 7 or 8 seed in the West, which means a brutal first round (those losses also kept hope alive for the Nuggets and Clippers behind them, L.A. is just one game back in the loss column). Jimmy Butler is still on track to be back right at the end of the season or for the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (40-34 LW 18). Los Angeles went just 3-5 on a stretch of 7-of-8 on the road, but Minnesota’s stumbles plus winning their last two (Bucks and Raptors) has Los Angeles still with a shot at the playoffs, just 1.5 games back of the Timberwolves (1 in the loss column). Without Blake Griffin the Clippers have truly become Lou Williams’ team — fantastic on offense but struggling on defense. They need to find a lot of wins coming up to get into the postseason.

Wizards small icon 15. Wizards (41-33, LW 11). A slimmer John Wall — he says he’s lost 10-15 pounds — should be back soon, and the Wizards could use him. Tuesday’s win over the shorthanded Spurs ended a streak where the Wizards lost 5-of-7 and in their last eight games the Wizards’ offense has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA (Bradley Beal seems to have hit a wall and is not getting to the line like he was) while the defense is below average. Wall is the spark they could use with three winnable games up this week.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (40-35, LW 15). Miami picked up a quality win Tuesday in a rare way — its defense held Cleveland in check (less than a point per possession for the Cavs on offense). Since the All-Star break, the Heat have won with offense, scoring 114 points per game (4th in the NBA in that stretch) and that has covered up the defensive flaws. The Heat could be in a good spot, with the Bucks stumbling to the end of the season, Miami could get the seven seed and draw a banged-up Boston in the first round.

Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (40-35, LW 15).. Denver has gone 2-4 with one game left in a crucial road trip (at Oklahoma City is the last game) and that may not be enough to get an invite to the dance, although the stumbling Timberwolves have kept hope alive (the Nuggets and Timberwolves play twice in the final week of the season, Denver has to win enough to keep those games meaningful). It would help to get some stops to get the win — they have the fourth-worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break and are 22nd in the NBA in their last 10.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (39-35 LW 18). In their last 10 games, the Bucks have the fourth-best offense in the NBA (113 points per 100 possessions) and the 24th ranked defense (112.3). That’s why they’ve stumbled of late with losses (their only quality win in the last 11 is against a banged-up Spurs team). Jabari Parker played 30 minutes in back-to-back games recently, a good sign, but in his last three games has shot a combined 7-of-28 (25%). Heading into a tight market as a restricted free agent who has been up-and-down since two ACL surgeries, this market might be tough for Parker (or, the Bucks may be able to re-sign him on terms they like).

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (34-40, LW 20). Detroit has won 4-of-5 (the lone loss in OT to Houston) thanks to a defense that finally woke up and is allowing less than a point per possession in those games. Where was this defense the last couple of months, when they could have used it? The offense continues to just look more fluid with Reggie Jackson back at the point. All of this is not expected to save Stan Van Gundy’s job as GM (coach… maybe).

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (34-41, LW 21). Winners of four in a row (they are with Detroit in the “too little, too late” club) thanks to some brilliant play from Kemba Walker, who has averaged 31.3 points per game in that stretch, shot 48.7 percent from three, and has been +17.5 per 48 minutes. Walker is a free agent in 2019 and said the new GM’s plans and if the team can steadily make the playoffs will determine if he re-signs with them. The new GM’s first major job is to sit with Michael Jordan and pick a direction — keep Kemba or rebuild?

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (32-41 LW 19). Lonzo Ball is learning tough lessons about how the NBA adjusts. Early in the season, he couldn’t buy a three, so teams started playing off him and going under everything. Eventually, Ball found a comfort level on when he could get his three-ball off and his confidence in taking them, they started to fall and that was culminated with him basically beating the Spurs with threes back on March 3. Teams saw that and adapted, starting to chase him over picks and trail him, challenging his shot. In his last 10 games, he is 13-of-68 from three (19.1%). Both his three ball and finishing better around the rim are keys for Ball to work on and improve this offseason.

Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (27-48, LW 24). Phil Jackson is gone, but the drama is not (nor likely will it ever be from the Knicks with this ownership). As the Knicks stumble to the end of the season, there is more speculation about who will be the next coach there —it’s all but assumed around the league Jeff Hornacek will be let go — than anything else. The next coach, whoever he is, needs to get players to buy into a defensive system and play it with energy, and he needs an offensive system that doesn’t lead to more mid-range jumpers than threes (the Knicks are the only team in the NBA to do that this season).

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (23-51 LW 26). Dirk Nowitzki says he plans to come back for one more season in Dallas, which gives the Mavs something to sell and fill the seats while Dennis Smith Jr. (and the rest of their young core) develops. The Mavericks are suffering through their first 50-loss season since Nowitzki came to the team 20 years ago.

Kings small icon 24. Kings (24-51, LW 22). Credit the Kings organization for handling very well the protests that have kept most fans out of their building for a couple of games now. The shooting of Stephon Clark 20 times in the backyard of the house where he lived has torn apart that community, and the Kings have done the right thing wanting to be part of the healing. Sacramento has home games Thursday (Indiana) and Saturday (Golden State) before heading out on the road, it’s not known yet if the protests will continue outside the games and block entrance to the Golden 1 Center.

Nets small icon 25. Nets (23-51, LW 23). The toughest part of a rebuilding process — especially a long one, like the Nets are having to go through due to the sins of the past front office — is to build a culture of getting guys to play the right way despite the losses. Kenny Atkinson is doing that in Brooklyn and deserves credit for it. The Nets bust it on defense. They get their shots at the rim or from three (they take the third smallest percentage of their shots from the midrange in the league, behind only the Rockets and Clippers, via Cleaning the Glass). A foundation is being built for when they have draft picks again and can stockpile some needed talent.

Magic small icon 26. Magic (22-51, LW 27). This may never have been a playoff team, even in the East, but you have to wonder how much better this team could have been if they had been healthy and been able to keep Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Terrence Ross on the court together. The Magic have a net rating of -0.2 — basically a .500 team — when those four are on the court together. Substitute in D.J. Augustin for Ross and they outscore opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. The Basketball Gods never let us really find out this season as they hit Orlando with a lot of injuries.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (24-50 LW 25).. The Bulls have dropped six straight, but the bigger disappointment is the injuries to Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen that have slowed the development of the young trio. Chicago has some nice young talent, will add more in this upcoming draft, and have finally started to play offense in the style Fred Holberg has wanted. There is reason for hope in Chicago, even if it may take a couple of years for it to all come together.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (21-53, LW 28). Dennis Schroder potentially facing felony battery charges just adds to the dark cloud over the team this season, and the challenges it faces with the German point guard. Taurean Prince and John Collins remain the bright spots as the Hawks continue their rebuild this offseason. The Hawks have lost 9-of-10 and will have one of the top picks in the draft come June.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (20-54, LW 29). The Grizzlies have an interesting off-season coming up. They will lose Tyreke Evans in free agency but pick up a high draft pick. The team will get Mike Conley back at the point — remember, they were 7-6 when he went out — and with Marc Gasol in the paint they could push for one of the last playoff slots in the West. But we don’t know what is up with the ownership situation, and with that we don’t know if there will be a decision from on high that it’s time to tear down and rebuild.

Suns small icon 30. Suns (19-56, LW 30). Will the Suns want to keep Elfrid Payton after this season? His defensive effort and play have been unimpressive since the trade, and his offensive shooting percentages have fallen way off (in part because he’s being asked to create a lot more of his own shots rather than getting them through the flow of a ball-moving offense). Part of whether Payton is back will come down to money, but he has not paired well with Devin Booker and Phoenix is 1-17 since his arrival.

Watch the top 60 blocked shots of last NBA season

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We love blocked shots. One player is attacking the rim, another gets in his way and rejects that shot. Frankly, we overestimate their importance on defense at points (because it’s a quantifiable stat in a world where defense is hard to quantify), but they matter.

And they are fun.

Check out the top 60 blocks from last season, as put together by NBA.com. It all starts with a chase down block by Kevin Durant (who has improved his rim protection in recent years) and ends with Anthony Davis showing why he is a beast.

It’s Sunday, and what else are you going to do? Watch preseason football?

Grizzlies expected to bring rookie Jaren Jackson along slowly

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Jaren Jackson was one of the standout rookies of Summer League. It started in Salt Lake City at the Jazz Summer League, where he looked like the future of the NBA five — knocking down threes, being athletic enough to run the court on the break, blocking shots, and being physical inside. In Utah, he averaged 15.7 points per game and five boards a night.

Expect the Grizzlies to bring Jackson along slowly, however, once the regular season starts. Jackson likely will come off the bench behind the starting frontline of Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. That will not be popular with the fan base, but the Grizzlies want to trust their veterans and make a playoff push.

Look at what Grizzlies executive John Hollinger told the Peter Edmiston of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

I think whatever happens, we want it to happen organically, and not get ahead of ourselves, and make sure we’re taking all the right steps on him, and not getting too excited and skipping ahead….

“We don’t want to put him into overtly physical matchups yet because he’s 18 and his body is still filling out,” he said.

Strength is almost always the biggest challenge facing young big men in the NBA (and Jackson is still 18, he will turn 19 during training camp). These are grown men they are going against nightly, and while Jackson had plenty of strength to hang with the Summer League crowd, things are very different when the big boys come to play. Even in an NBA moving away from old-school power ball, it still matters.

While the Grizzlies will work to not rush Jackson, that plan is somewhat dependent on players with a history of injury issues staying healthy. Jackson is not going to get 30 minutes a night, he’s not going to get the touches that fellow rookies such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic will receive, and he may not be in the mix for Rookie of the Year. We’ll see how things shake out, but on a Grizzlies team looking to put itself in the playoff conversation, the coach likely will lean on veterans he trusts.

Where Jackson will rank in this draft class three years from now could be very different. He has the potential to be the star of this class (or at least one of a few breakouts, this is an interesting group).

Victor Oladipo: “I play nothing safe now” because “that really didn’t get me anywhere”

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Victor Oladipo transformed last season.

Traded to the Pacers, he showed up to camp in better shape than he had ever been before, and with a new confidence in his handles and shot making. Coach Nate McMillan realized what he had, put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, and got out of the way. The result was a 48-win Pacers team where Oladipo was the league’s most improved player, made an All-NBA Team, the All-Defensive Team, and was an All-Star for the first time.

Oladipo, after going to the USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, is back in a Miami gym with the same team of trainers and staff who transformed his body and game a year ago. In a fantastic profile by J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star, Oladipo talks about the mental transformation he has undergone as well.

“I push the envelope. I play nothing safe now,” Oladipo says. “I’m the guy if we’re down two, I’m pulling up for three. I work too hard to not push the envelope. I used to be conservative but that really didn’t get me anywhere.”

His trainer, Al Watson, talked about getting Oladipo better prepared for defenses that focus on him and late-game situations.

“Last year we started doing a lot of tightening up his ball-handling skills. This year we took it to another level because I watch a lot of film on him,” Watson says. “In the fourth quarter, he’s like the point guard. Wanted to focus on a lot of combination moves, working on traps. It’s no secret now. They’re going to be double-teaming him.

“You look at the great players, Kobe, they had to do a little bit of everything. His shot from the perimeter may be off so he’s got to learn, ‘Let me get myself going, get to the mid-post, get some fouls.’ He’s got to be able to attack with all different facets of the game. We do a lot of sprinting, getting to your spots. Got to get open. I touch everything with in-game situation stuff.”

Oladipo’s team includes an off-the-court group trying to better position himself to make money off his stardom. He doesn’t want to play it safe off-the-court, either.

Indiana is going to lean heavily on Oladipo again. They added some depth — Doug McDermott, drafting Aaron Holiday — and are counting on more from players such as Myles Turner. However, by and large, the Pacers are running it back, and they are sneaking up on nobody this season. Internal improvement will be their key.

Oladipo is ready. He’s not playing it safe anymore.

Klay Thompson: “I would like to be a Warrior for life”

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Next summer, Klay Thompson becomes a free agent.

That has a lot of teams interested — they would love to pitch Thompson on how his elite shooting and strong defense would make him the star or their team and lift said team to new levels. Thompson is a big enough talent to have “his own team” if he wants it. Thompson’s free agency also excites fans who want to break up the Warriors juggernaut, this could be the first crack in the armor.

Or not.

At events around the Thompson Family Foundation Golf Tournament this weekend, Thompson reiterated to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News that he wants to remain with the Warriors.

“I’ve said it many times before: I would like to be a Warrior for life,” Thompson told Bay Area News Group before hosting a party at Hotel Vitale as a prelude to his first annual Thompson Family Foundation Golf Tournament on Sunday at TPC Harding Park. “Contract negotiations are way down the line. But I think we all have the same interest. I would love to be here for the rest of my career.”

Would he take a massive discount and sign an extension?

“It’s tough to say,” Thompson said. “I’d definitely be interested. But at the end of the day, I’m going to be a free agent in 2019. Number one on my list would obviously be to stay with the Warriors.”

Thompson’s father Mychel — a former No. 1 pick, a 12-year NBA veteran with a couple of rings, and a current Lakers broadcaster — was more emphatic, speaking to Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Oh yeah, you can mark it down,” Mychal Thompson said at a party to kick off the Thompson Family Foundation’s first charity golf tourney. “Klay’s going to retire in the Warriors’ uniform. He’s going to play at Chase Center (the Warriors’ new arena, opening in 2019), and he’s not going to be at Chase Center as a visiting player, he’s going to be a Warrior for the next seven or eight years.”

Two thoughts here.

First, I am not a fan of taking seriously family members comments on players, they often miss the mark. However, there are exceptions, and Mychel Thompson is one of those. Not only has he lived the NBA life, but he and his son are also very close. He’s been a good barometer of what Klay is thinking.

Second, beyond Thompson’s own words, sources from other teams don’t expect Thompson to leave the Warriors. A lot of teams would love to make the pitch, they will place calls and try to get their foot in the door, but nobody really expects him to leave. Thompson is his own guy (he stepped out of his last contract extension talks to play with his dog), he’s not built with the “I have to be the man on my own team” ego that accompanies a lot of star players, what matters most to him is to win and be in a good environment, and he has that in Golden State. Thompson is happy. He’s not likely to sign an extension to stay with the Warriors, that would be financially stupid, but most sources expect him to give the team a discount and stay put.

Which kills the dreams of a lot of fan bases, but it’s the reality.