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NBA Power Rankings: Can Rockets, Raptors carry impressive seasons into playoffs?

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The final power rankings come out on the final day of the season. There are no real surprises at the top, and the comments on these rankings are as much a look forward for teams as a look back at the season that was.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (65-16, Last Week No. 1). This season went as well as could have been imagined for Houston: James Harden is going to win MVP, he and Chris Paul meshed well from Day 1, and their switching defense proved to be top 10 in the league. The Rockets proved to be legitimate title contenders. They went 41-3 in games Harden, Paul and Clint Caplela all played. Their big test comes in about a month when the Western Conference Finals start — they had better be in it, and then we’ll see how they match up with Golden State.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (59-22, LW 2). Like Houston, this was as good a regular season as Toronto could have hoped for: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan stayed healthy all season and led a more egalitarian offense that moved the ball well, plus they finished the season with a top 5 offense and defense. Toronto is the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time in its history. None of that has fully eased the playoff doubts — the Raptors have never won their first playoff game (0-9) and will face a tough test (probably from Washington, although Miami or Milwaukee could still be the 8 seed).

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (58-24 LW 3). Time to flip the switch. Due to injuries and a knowledge that they both know where the switch is and can turn it on, the Warriors have coasted through the end of the season. When the Warriors four stars are all on the court the team is 31-10 during the season and remain the title favorites, but they will need to get through the first round without Stephen Curry. More importantly, they need to start defending like a champion again, that end has seen the big drop in recent weeks.

Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (51-30, LW 5). Winners of 15 in a row and with a win Wednesday night against the Bucks they keep the three seed and the easiest path through the playoffs. Keep that three seed and the path to the Eastern Conference Finals is pretty clear — if they can get Joel Embiid back soon, mask and all. They need him. Still, for a team that won 28 games games a season ago the ride this season has been nearly unprecedented.

Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (50-31 LW 7). This has seemed like four seasons in one for Cleveland, with enough drama and changes to be their own reality show. Yet at the end of it all, this is a 50-win team with the best player in the game and the Cavaliers are the team to beat in the East again. The one thing that can keep them out of another Finals trip is their defense — can LeBron James turn it on and lift this team’s D up to even league average? That will probably be good enough to make the Finals, but the Cavaliers enter the playoffs weighed down by bad defensive habits.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-33, LW 8). Back on Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500, five games out of the playoffs, and without Rudy Gobert. Since then they are 31-7 with a frightening defense (Rudy Gobert will win Defensive Player of the Year) and this is the team other top teams in the West wanted to avoid in the first round. With a win in Portland Wednesday night the Jazz will get the three seed, but even if they fall short of that the turnaround of this team — and the play of rookie Donovan Mitchell — has been amazing to watch.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (54-27, LW 4). Wait until next year! Brad Stevens has got my Coach of the Year vote for the job he has done leaning on Al Horford and young players (who traditionally don’t defend well) to have the top-ranked defense in the NBA for the season. Boston earned its two seed, and it’s not impossible they could win a first-round series with a little luck and a hot hand. But next season? With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back, this team may be the favorites in the East.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (48-34, LW 10). Indiana is locked in as the five seed and will face either Cleveland or Philly in the first round — the Pacers went 3-1 against the Cavs this season and 2-1 against the Sixers, so they should have some confidence. The Pacers may be the most surprising team in the league, most of us “experts” had them pegged for 30ish wins and the ability to set tee times for mid-April, instead Victor Oladipo (the lock Most Improved Player) has lifted this team to the postseason and made them a threat there.

Spurs small icon 9. Spurs (47-34, LW 11). That this team won 47 games with Kawhi Leonard essentially being absent all season is a testament to Gregg Popovich and “the Spurs way.” And also LaMarcus Aldridge, who has earned an All-NBA roster spot this season (at either forward or center). That said, without Leonard this is not a team that strikes great fear in the hearts of the teams at the top of the West, the Spurs will defend but their lack of athleticism will catch up with them.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (47-34 LW 9).. We’re 81 games into the season and still asking “exactly who are the Thunder?” Down the stretch of the season the Thunder have been wildly inconsistent, both game-to-game and even within games (the win in Miami Monday was a great example, OKC toyed with Miami for much of the game, before decided to get serious and take advantage of their superior athleticism). Still, because of the elite talent on this roster, it’s a team nobody wants to face in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (48-33, LW 6). It looked like they had the three seed locked up a couple weeks ago, but they have stumbled to the finish line and now have to play the Jazz Wednesday night with the three seed on the line. Of late Portland’s offense has relied too heavily on Damian Lillard (who has been brilliant), on Wednesday night and into the playoffs C.J. McCollum and the rest of the Blazers need to pitch in more on that end.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (47-34, LW 12). When DeMarcus Cousins went down with his torn Achilles we all pretty much wrote off the Pelicans — what Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday did to get this team into the postseason is one of the great stories of the season. Davis isn’t going to win MVP (he will finish top 5 in the voting) but he has played like one the second half of the season. Reaching the postseason means GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry are likely back next season, and the Pelicans will re-sign Cousins. However, this roster still needs work to take the next step. A lot of it.

Nuggets small icon 13. Nuggets (46-35, LW 17).. With their backs against the wall, the Nuggets have won six in a row to force Wednesday night’s “win and you’re in” showdown with the Timberwolves. If Denver doesn’t make it, they shouldn’t look back on the final game as much as things like the March 17 loss to Memphis or the March 13 loss to the Lakers, those were the games they needed to win and didn’t take seriously enough. The sense around the league is Mike Malone’s job is not safe after a season with the league’s 27th ranked defense.

14. Timberwolves (46-35, LW 13). One game to determine if Minnesota can end the longest playoff drought in the NBA (13 seasons). No pressure guys. To win the game the Timberwolves will need what they haven’t gotten consistently all season — good defense out of Karl-Anthony Towns (matched up on Nikola Jokic) and a focused game from Andrew Wiggins. Jimmy Butler was a great pickup by GM Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Buckets has had an All-NBA level season.

Bucks small icon 15. Bucks (44-37 LW 18). Milwaukee has stumbled in the fourth quarter of games recently, not a good sign heading into the postseason. However, with a loss to the Sixers on Wednesday night the Bucks will be the coveted seven seed in the East and face off in the first round against the banged-up Celtics — with Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee will have the best player on the court in that series and a legit shot to win it. Would that be enough to get Joe Prunty the head coaching job full time? With this ownership, hard to say.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (43-38, LW 16). Miami is an interesting team to watch come the playoffs because of their style of play: This is not a “get the ball to our superstar and get out of the way” offense. Rather, they wear teams down with multiple pick-and-roll actions on each trip down the court, they rely on five versatile players, and once the defense slips up Miami makes them pay. But what happens when it’s the postseason and the defense is dialed in and not making those mistakes (or at least not as often)? The Heat have the defense to hang in a series, but do they have the offense to win one?

Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (43-38, LW 15). On paper, this team should scare Toronto or whoever they face in the first round. In reality, the Wizards dropped four in a row before beating a Celtics team Tuesday comprised of guys Brad Stevens had to pluck out of the front row due to injuries sidelining everyone else. Washington is 3-8 in its last 11, with a bottom 10 offense and defense over that stretch. John Wall is back, Bradley Beal can knock down shots, I love Otto Porter’s game, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts right now in Washington. Do you want to bet this team can flip the switch?

Clippers small icon 18. Clippers (42-39 LW 14). It’s going to be an interesting off-season in Los Angeles. Will DeAndre Jordan opt out of his $24.1 million contract to test a tight free agent market (and get out of L.A.) or does he take the cash and wait a year to try his luck? If he does opt out, will the Clippers try to re-sign him or let him go and start a rebuild? Is Doc Rivers back next season (the buzz around the league is no)? If the Clippers do decide to rebuild, what can they get for Lou Williams? L.A. would love to move Danilo Gallinari’s contract, but they will balk at the sweeteners other teams will want to take him on. This ship could sail a lot of different directions this offseason.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (38-43, LW 19). The sense from sources around the league is that Stan Van Gundy is going to lose is GM powers — with former agent Arn Tellem stepping in as head of basketball operations — but will he be back as coach? Whoever is sitting in the big chair, if the Pistons can keep Blake Griffin, the much improved Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson healthy for a majority of the season they should be a playoff team. But that feels like a very big “if.”

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (36-46, LW 20). Mitch Kupchak is in as the new GM in Charlotte, and at his introductory press conference he kept his cards close to his chest (note to Charlotte media, get used to that). Kupchak and Michael Jordan need to decide the big picture question here: Can they put together a consistent playoff team around Kemba Walker, or is it time to trade him and start a rebuild? Either way, is Steve Clifford a part of that future? (Clifford got a relationship with Kupchak, but if the new GM wants to shake things up that will not be enough.) On the bright side, Dwight Howard had a solid season for the Hornets and looked rejuvenated.

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (34-47 LW 21). Going into the season, a reasonable goal for this team was the mid-30s in wins, with their young core — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle — showing real signs of development. By that measure, this was a good Lakers’ season. This team defended better than expected, and the offense showed flashes. It’s something to build on, no matter who they land or don’t land in free agency this summer.

Nets small icon 22. Nets (28-53, LW 25). It’s going to be a long, slow rebuilding process in Brooklyn, but as they start to dig out from the ruins of the “we have to build a contender right now” trades of the past, they are finding some keepers. Rookie center Jarrett Allen showed real promise the second half of the season. Spencer Dinwiddie is a rotation NBA point guard who can be part of the future. Coach Kenny Atkinson is building a strong culture there. The big off-season question in Brooklyn: What to do about D’Angelo Russell.

Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (28-53, LW 22). Nobody around the league expects Jeff Hornacek to keep his job as coach, the only question is do they fire him before the weekend? Oh, and who replaces him? The Knicks are a big market, but a team with big expectations, not the most consistent owner, and star Kristaps Porzingis is expected to miss about half of next season returning from a torn ACL. This coaching job has its challenges. On the bright side this season, Tim Hardaway Jr. played well, and rookie Frank Ntilikina showed flashes to build upon.

Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (24-58 LW 23). Dirk Nowitzki will be back for one more tour of duty, and the celebration of the greatest Maverick ever (and the greatest European player in NBA history) will provide some cover as Dallas continues its rebuild. Dennis Smith Jr. showed off all that athleticism but also looked like a rookie and needs to get far more efficient with his shot and decision making. Dallas will have another top 10 pick to put next to him and Harrison Barnes.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (26-55, LW 24). Sacramento played their youth a lot and quietly, De’Aaron Fox showed real promise as the season went on, and the combination of Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic provides some good shooting on the perimeter to open up space. That said, the Kings don’t take good advantage of all that — they play too slow and take too few threes. Next season they need to open the offense up and let their young athletes — plus whoever they draft — shine.

Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (27-54 LW 27).. The Bulls finally went all in on the rebuild and they found real quality in big man Lauri Markkanen, he can be a key part of the future in Chicago. I’m still not as high on Kris Dunn as Bulls fans, but he looks like a rotation player who can bring some defense. The big off-season question is Zach LaVine, who is coming off an injury and is a restricted free agent. In a tight market, is some team going to come in big and try to steal him? How much would the Bulls pay to match and keep him? It’s going to be an interesting game of poker in the Windy City.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (24-58, LW 28). John Collins was the most efficient rookie out there (Ben Simmons could make a good case, too) and whatever is rebuilt in Atlanta he will be a part of it. Taurean Prince is now a legit “3&D” guy on the wing, those are hard to come by. There is still a lot of rebuilding to do in Atlanta, but they have a couple of quality young players now and can add to that in this draft.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (24-57, LW 26). Frank Vogel is going to be let go as coach (he should land on his feet somewhere) and the Magic’s new front office has to bring in someone who knows how to develop talent such as Jonathan Isaac and build up a young roster. Then that front office needs to go get a lot more young talent. The problem is they are locked into paying Bismarck Biyombo $17 million next season, hurting their cap space. Expect a lot of Nikola Vucevic trade rumors this summer (solid center on an expiring contract). The Mario HJezonja era in Orlando is going to end this summer.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (22-59, LW 29). Injuries were a big part of it, but there was no more disappointing team in the NBA than Memphis this season. With the ownership situation settled, expect the status quo next season (including coach J.B. Bickerstaff being back) — and with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol back, plus a high draft pick next to them Memphis should be back at least fighting for a playoff slot next season. (The Grizzlies might be the best fit for Luka Doncic, but do they want him? Depends in part on how the lottery gods treat them.)

Suns small icon 30. Suns (21-61, LW 30). The Suns tanking worked, they will head into the lottery with the best shot at the No. 1 pick. The first big question of the offseason is who will be the next coach of this team? (Expect them to reach out to Villanova’s Jay Wright, expect him to say no.) That coach has to develop talent well — rookie Josh Jackson showed improvement but has a long ways to go. The Elfrid Payton experiment did not work, and both Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender were disappointments. The front office has work to do to put better talent around Devin Booker.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.

NBA makes it official, moves up free agency six hours to 6 p.m. June 30 (Eastern)

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I’d like to think this means we’ll all be able to go to bed at a reasonable hour on June 30. I also know better.

There is a frenzy of activity right as free agency opens (Tampering? There is no tampering in the NBA…), which traditionally has been as the clock turns to July 1 in New York, right at midnight. Things got so active that a lot of agents and players made sure they were in Los Angeles, even if they didn’t live there in the offseason, just so things started at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m.

Now the NBA has made the rumors official: Free agency will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30. Six hours earlier than before.

This was done as an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This is going to be a wild July with a lot of big-name free agents — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler — and maybe a third of the players in the league on the market, plus there are a lot more teams with cap space to spend this season. It’s going to be a frenzy.

Now we know what time the wild times start.

Why does Kevin Durant respond on social media? “I’m qualified to talk about basketball”

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Every NBA player gets ripped on social media, even the guys who are not on social media. Most of the time players just ignore it, the way they ignore fans yelling stuff courtside or distant family asking them for money.

Kevin Durant, however, gets into it sometimes, even with national media members (and even had a burner account). Which always becomes a thing.

Why? Why not just ignore it? From Durant himself at practice Friday, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Because I have social media,” Durant said Friday… “I mean, I’m a human being with a social media account. I could see if I ventured off into like politics, culinary arts or music and gave my input, but I’m sticking to something that I know. You know what I’m saying? This is all I know. I’m actually talking about stuff that I know. I’m qualified to talk about basketball.

“So when I respond to something, especially if it’s about me personally, of course I’m going to tell you if you wrong about it. When I’m on the training table getting treatment on my calf and I see a tweet that come by and I disagree — I don’t talk to people because I’m worried about what they say, it’s just that I’m interested. So if you talking about in-game or the NBA Finals, they’re the same to me, you know what I’m saying?”

Durant seems to have more time on hands to get into these spats while he is out injured. Which likely will last into the start of the NBA Finals.

Does this mean the Drake/Durant beef is inevitable?