Getty Images

NBA Power Rankings: Of course Golden State ended on top, what did you expect?

4 Comments

Golden State is still the team everyone has to beat to win a title, they are the heavy favorites to threepeat, so of course they end the season on top of the rankings. The Bucks are second, and then it gets interesting.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (57-24, Last Week No. 1). Golden State ends the regular season on top of these rankings, and that’s as it should be. We all know this is the team to beat if anyone else wants to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June. For all the ups-and-downs of the regular season, the Warriors end it with the best record in the West and relatively healthy heading into the playoffs (Stephen Curry’s ankle sprain Tuesday was minor). Those things are always the goals.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (60-21, LW 2). There are plenty of doubters, people questioning if these Bucks can carry their regular-season success over to the playoffs. Milwaukee does not deserve that level of skepticism — they have been to the playoffs before, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be his usual self, Khris Middleton was a beast against Boston a season ago, and this team has veterans who understand playoff pressure. That said, they need Malcolm Brogdon back for the second round, and even that may not be enough because Boston has been a matchup problem for Milwaukee.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (53-29, LW 4). Houston has finished its season, but depending upon what happens Wednesday could be anything from the 2 to 4 seed in the West. Denver played games (resting guys against Portland) to push Houston to the four seed and the Warriors side of the bracket, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Houston facing Golden State in the second round means James Harden isn’t as tired and Chris Paul is less likely to be injured (he has a history), that may be better for the Rockets than waiting until the conference finals.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (58-24, LW 3). While nobody was looking too closely, the Raptors have played some of their best basketball of the season in resent weeks — they are hitting the playoffs in stride. Marc Gasol has been a big boost — the Raptors are 11-4 when Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry all suit up. When Gasol, Leonard, Lowry, and Pascal Siakam are on the court together, the Raptors have a net rating of 14.3.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (50-31, LW 7). Utah is locked into the five seed in the West, win-or-lose their final game on Wednesday against the Clippers. The Jazz likely are rooting for shorthanded Portland to stay the four seed (Utah’s goal is to get out of the first round again), but Houston could fall to four, and that would be a real matchup challenge for the Jazz. For fans, however, Donovan Mitchell vs. James Harden would be a very entertaining show.

 
Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (53-28, LW 5). Denver has to win its final game against Minnesota to secure the No. 2 seed. The Nuggets’ gambit — resting players against the Trail Blazers and losing to them last weekend — could pay off, if Portland wins Wednesday (and Denver does, too) then Portland is the three seed and Houston falls to fourth. That means the Nuggets avoid the matchup they least want in the second round. But whoever they face, Denver has a lot to prove in its first postseason with this core.

 
Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (52-29, LW 8). If Portland can beat Sacramento on Wednesday they likely finish as the three seed (Denver has to win, too) and with 53 wins — the second straight year as the three seed and with four more wins. That’s an impressive accomplishment. This summer the Trail Blazers should pay Damian Lillard the supermax extension (he will make the All-NBA team and qualify) then decide how to approach the rest of the roster. But make Lillard a Blazer for life, he’s too good on and off the court for this franchise to do anything else.

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (49-33, LW 10). Boston enters the playoff having won 6-of-8 and with things setting up well for them: A shorthanded Pacers team in the first round followed by a Bucks team they match up well with in the second round. Boston’s key is health. Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum have battled little injuries and need to get right before the postseason. The Celtics also need Gordon Hayward to play like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (50-31, LW 6). No team has undergone a metamorphosis this season like the Sixers — trading away a lot of depth to acquire Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, going all in on a title this season. “The Process” seems like a distant memory. No team in the East has a starting five as talented as Philly, but will the lack of depth and questions about chemistry catch up with them in the second round? Conference Finals? Never. This is going to be a fun team to watch through the playoffs.

 
Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (48-33, LW 12). The team in the bottom half of the West that nobody in the top half wants to face in the first round. With a win against the Bucks (who have nothing to play for) Wednesday, the Thunder secure the six seed in the West. Oklahoma City has two All-NBA level stars in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, and a solid team defense, which makes teams nervous about playing them in the postseason. However, Westbrook has been inefficient and the Thunder role players have stumbled, if that continues it will be another short playoff run for OKC.

 
Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (47-34, LW 11). Gregg Popovich deserves some Coach of the Year love from voters this season, taking a team filled with guys you don’t know — and the ones you do know love the midrange shot a little too much — and turning them into a playoff team. Again. The man is a wizard. The Spurs can finish anywhere from the 6-8 seed by the time Wednesday night ends, but the fact they are in the playoffs is a win in and of itself.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (47-34, LW 9). The Clippers have stumbled, losing three in a row down the stretch, which puts them in danger of getting the Warriors in the first round (the Clippers can finish 7th or 8th, depending on what happens Wednesday night). Whatever happens, Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes. This team entered the season with low expectations from pundits, traded their best player midway through the season (Tobias Harris, although Boban was close), and still made the playoffs. The Clippers are well positioned to land a star free agent next summer, now we’ll see if that plan comes together.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (47-34, LW 13). The third straight team in these rankings where the coach — in this case, Nate McMillan — deserves credit and should/will get Coach of the Year votes. This was a team heavy on guys who would be free agents, yet they bought in and played as a team. That’s a credit to McMillan. The Pacers hung on to the five seed in the playoffs and will face Boston in the first round, a team they can push but not likely beat without Victor Oladipo.

 
Magic small icon 14. Magic (41-40, LW 15). They will finish the season as at least a .500 team and as anywhere from the 6 to 8 seed in the East — that is a huge accomplishment for this franchise. The question for Orlando this summer is will they pay enough to keep All-Star Nikola Vucevic from bolting, because he will have options. My guess is that after they got a look at Mo Bamba for a season they will pay Vucevic to stay, figuring if/when Bamba is ready to take over the starting job someday they can trade Vucevic.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (41-40, LW 17). The Nets have been rebuilding — without high draft picks or big time free agents — for years now, and that they will turn that into a playoff appearance this season is impressive. The wins last weekend against the Pacers and Celtics speak to the scrappy play this team has shown all season. Now they enter the summer as big game hunters in free agency, although, like the rebuild, that may require patience as well. Brooklyn was not rebuilt in a day.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (40-41, LW 14). With Blake Griffin hobbled, the Piston have struggled to hold on to a playoff spot and now must win the final night of the regular season to ensure they get a ticket to the dance. If the Pistons make the playoffs, they aren’t much of a threat with Griffin slowed as he is. Detroit can finish as the 7,8, or 9 seed — win Wednesday and they are 7 or 8, lose and they are at the mercy of the next team on this list.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (39-42, LW 20). Kemba Walker will not let this team die. While he has stumbled some after the All-Star break, he has willed this team to still have a shot at the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. Kemba Walker loves Charlotte, but the man is going to have options from coast-to-coast next summer — literally from New York to Los Angeles — and he will be able to choose his city and working environment. The question is, what does Kemba really want?

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (39-42, LW 16). Thank you, Dwyane Wade. Few if any players were as entertaining on the court, as professional, as gifted, and a joy to watch as Wade was. He got rings as the best player on the team and as the guy willing to make the sacrifices to win. He was a smart player and maybe the best shot blocking guard of all time. It’s not going to be the same watching Heat games or the NBA without him. It’s too bad his final season ended without one more trip to the playoffs.

 
Kings small icon 19. Kings (39-42, LW 18). Coaches and players hate the term “moral victory,” but that’s what this season was in Sacramento. The Kings could not sustain their fast start and eventually fell out of the playoffs, but this season the Kings found their identity in pace. The Kings found two guys who can be part of the foundation of what is being built — De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley — plus other players such as Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles who could play roles on a good team. There is a lot to like, now the Kings just have to build on it. And not screw it up.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (37-45, LW 19). No team enters the offseason with more uncertainty than Los Angeles, Magic Johnson made sure of that. As big a shock as it was, Magic leaving can be good for the Lakers — he was not good at his job. It now falls on Jeanie Buss to be aggressive, use the draw of that Lakers’ brand, and go get an elite president of basketball operations. Poach him from another team, go with David Griffin, whatever, but the Lakers need a guy to set a direction and build a culture. Right now they are just a brand. And LeBron James.

 
21. Timberwolves (36-45, LW 21). Minnesota is going to keep Ryan Saunders as the coach, he had a connection with Karl-Anthony Towns and sparked the offense, that’s a good sign (although he needs a defensive-minded assistant). They are keeping Scott Layden as GM and hiring a new person to oversee all of this and set direction, a new head of basketball operations. With Towns they have a centerpiece, but in Wiggins they have an anchor of a contract (and there are some other bad ones on the books, too). There is work to do in Minny.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (32-50, LW 22). The Wizards need to find a new GM/president of basketball operations, then figure out the biggest question facing the franchise: Re-sign Bradley Beal to a max (or, if he makes an All-NBA team, supermax) contract that keeps him with the Wizards for six years, making him the franchise cornerstone; or trade him while at his peak and jumpstart a rebuilding/retooling. Don’t expect John Wall to play next season following his torn Achilles.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (33-48, LW 26). Dallas is well positioned: Luka Doncic faded a little as the season went on (rookies often do) but he showed the potential to be a franchise player, they landed Kristaps Porzingis via trade already (even with the cloud of charges hanging over him), and they have the cap space to add quality players to the roster this summer. Dirk Nowitzki is a legend who will be missed (but will still be around the franchise), but Dallas is prepared for the next chapter.

 
Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (32-49, LW 24). Memphis will finish with 32 or 33 wins this season — which is still 10 or 11 more than a year ago. That speaks more to the disaster of 2017-18, but these Grizzlies did play hard and found a future star in Jaren Jackson Jr. The big question this summer is if they will trade Mike Conley — they probably do — and what they can get in return. He’s an All-Star level player, but on a big contract.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (29-52, LW 23). No team near the bottom of the standings/top of the lottery should feel as good as the Hawks — they have two cornerstone pieces in Trae Young and John Collins. Add to that this draft, continue to develop guys and this is a franchise that is headed in the right direction.

Pelicans small icon 26. Pelicans (33-49, LW 25). Anthony Davis really worked hard to make sure he squandered all the good will he had built up in New Orleans, didn’t he? Own your clothing choices. What matters most in New Orleans now is who they bring in as the new GM/head of basketball operations. That’s the person who sets the direction, and with that what they want/will get back in the eventual Davis trade.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (22-59, LW 27). New coach Jim Boylen is hard driving, and that doesn’t sit well with every player, but John Paxson likes him and it feels like the Bulls are going to ride Boylen as coach into next season. It will be interesting to see what this young team can look like together if healthy to start a season, and with a little more experience.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (19-63, LW 28). The Suns have got their man, Jeff Bower is going to set the direction for the franchise. Will he bring back Igor Kokoskov as coach? They have an All-Star level player (almost, anyway) in Devin Booker and potential in Deandre Ayton, but they need a lot more talent and a lot more defense to make this all work going forward.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-63, LW 29). Collin Sexton came on as a scorer the second half of the season. Put him with a healthy Kevin Love — probably hard to trade him this summer — and whoever the Cavaliers draft and maybe they can be less bad next season. But this rebuild is going to be a process. A long one.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (18-64, LW 30). Are the Kevin Durant rumors — which are rampant around the league — true? The Knicks are quietly confident. If it does happen the Knicks are going to be fast-tracked to a turnaround next year whether they land the top pick and Zion Williamson or not. The question is who they can get around him. Also, if KD goes to the Knicks he is my preseason MVP pick for next season.

Bucks on brink of first playoff series win in 18 years

Associated Press
1 Comment

ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Milwaukee Bucks can wipe away 18 years of frustration on Monday night.

They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2000-01 season, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals. That drought can end in Detroit if they complete a sweep of the Pistons.

The top-seeded Milwaukee cruised through the first three games, winning by an average of 24 points. If they lose in Game 4, the Bucks would have three more chances in the best-of-seven series to end their streak of eight straight first-round exits. The earlier the Bucks eliminate eighth-seeded Detroit, the more time they’ll have to prepare for the conference semifinals.

“It’s going to be nice if we can finish it here and get six days of rest,” superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said.

In Game 3 on Saturday, Antetokounmpo had a quiet night and the Bucks still led by double digits most of the way. Antetokounmpo finished with 14 points, three assists and four turnovers and only played 27 minutes due to foul trouble. The Pistons couldn’t take advantage of his off night, though, as Milwaukee had six other players in double figures in its 119-103 victory.

“It’s good to see my team doing really well out there without me,” he said. “It means a lot to me. There’s going to be nights like this. My teammates did a great job of picking me up.”

The Bucks were up 13 points when Antetokounmpo sat early in the third quarter after getting whistled for his fourth foul. When he re-entered late in the quarter, they were leading by 22 points.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to build all year,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’re a team that plays together, tries to take what the defense gives us. Guys have a lot of confidence to make plays. It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is. If and when we need more from other people, it’s a credit to Giannis to let his teammates carry him some nights, carry him some stretches.”

The Bucks will try match their regular-season feat against the Pistons. Their four-game sweep was the first by either team in the all-time series. They have met in the postseason four other times, with Detroit winning each time.

“We might be the number one seed and best team in the NBA (record-wise) but at the end of the day, we haven’t won a playoff series in a while,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re hungry, everybody’s hungry.”

The Pistons’ best player, power forward Blake Griffin, made his debut in the series after sitting out the first two games with a sore left knee. Griffin toughed it out for 31 minutes and posted 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His teammates let him down, as Detroit shot below 40 percent for the third straight game.

“That young man is giving us everything he has,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He said he was feeling good. I was concerned about his conditioning with as much time as he’s missed. You can’t really simulate 5-on-5 basketball when you’re rehabbing. But he came in and gave us what he could. He just has a presence that we can’t replicate.”

The Pistons haven’t shown enough of a defensive presence against a team that averaged a league-high 118.1 points.

“We had some situations where we make a mistake or miss a shot, now we go down to the defensive end and don’t carry out our assignments,” Casey said. “That’s part of growth. That’s a team that makes you pay for mistakes that you make.”

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Not just Lillard, CJ McCollum outplaying OKC, too

Associated Press
Leave a comment

The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) It’s not a one-man show, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum outplaying Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Coming into the series, both Portland and Oklahoma City faced a question: Could their stars help overcome weakness with their depth and support players. Through four games, one team’s stars are outplaying their counterparts.

That played out again on Sunday: Russell Westbrook was 0-of-7 shooting in the second half, 5-of-21 for the game, finishing with 14 points. Paul George was 8-of-21 shooting but at least was getting to the free throw line on his way to 32 points. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard had 15 points in the third quarter alone when Portland started to pull away, CJ McCollum hit some critical threes in the fourth (he was 5-of-9 from three for the game) to help the Trail Blazers stay ahead on his way to 27 points.

Portland went into OKC and won 111-98, taking a commanding 3-1 lead heading home for Game 5.

After the game, Jusuf Nurkic (sidelined with a leg injury) couldn’t resist taking a little shot at Westbrook and his postgame antics.

A lot of the attention this series has gone to the heads-up matchup of Westbrook vs. Lillard duel — and with good reason, it’s been bad blood and entertaining. However, that has left McCollum in the shadows and he deserves some spotlight for averaging 26.3 points, shooting 51.6 percent from three, plus having 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game against the Thunder through four. Oklahoma City has not had an answer for him.

Oklahoma City has had to play a lot of Dennis Schroder this series because he’s been efficient on offense (17 points on 6-of-12 shooting Sunday) but either Lillard or McCollum can just take him in isolation whenever they want and get buckets. It also helps Portland when Al-Farouq Aminu is giving them 19 points, as he did Sunday.

The big picture lesson in this series: Shooting matters. Oklahoma City’s stars are not finishing well enough inside, settling for more midrangers than they should, and unless it’s from the right corner the Thunder struggle from three. You’re not going to win a lot of games with the shot chart the Thunder had on Sunday.

2) Boston sweeps past Indiana to advance, East races shaping up as expected. The playoffs in the East are going to be a dynamic show, but we knew that was really going to start in the second round. One could make a case for Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston to come out of the conference, but after those four there was a talent drop off. There was the first round to get through before the real fireworks began.

Boston advanced Sunday with a sweep of the Pacers, winning 110-106 behind 20 points from Gordon Hayward, who had himself a night.

Frankly, this series was decided back in January when Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon. Without him the Pacers — who played hard and smart in his absence, and were brilliantly coached by Nate McMillan — just did not have the firepower to score enough to make this series interesting.

Also in the East on Sunday, Toronto overwhelmed Orlando 107-85 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead as things head back north of the border for Game 5. That loss by the Magic all but sealed this series, which might have been a sweep if not for the rider in every Toronto player contract that they have to stink in the first game of every playoff series.

Milwaukee likely sweeps Detroit out of the playoffs on Monday night, setting up their showdown with Boston in the second round. Brooklyn has put up a fight against Philadelphia — down to their GM breaking NBA taboos and going into the referees’ locker room to discuss how they officiate Joel Embiid — but with the Sixers up 3-1 and having game 5 at home Tuesday, this series also feels inevitable.

Then we can get on to the main course in the East.

3) Klay Thompson goes for a swim, comes out of the ocean and destroys the Clippers, Warriors go up 3-1. Klay Thompson hadn’t played poorly through the first three games of the Warriors’ first-round playoff series with the Clippers, he’d played impressive defense and averaged 13.7 points on 44.4 percent shooting. But he hadn’t had a breakout game, the kind we expect from one of the game’s best shooters.

So he went for a swim (via NBC Sports Bay Area and Monte Poole).

“I told Jonas [Jerebko] yesterday when we went to the beach to play some volleyball, like, ‘Yo, I’m just going to jump in the ocean. I know that will reset my mind.’ And it worked.”

Sunday Thompson had 27 points in the first half, going on to finish with 32 on 12-of-20 shooting (6-of-9 from three). The Warriors won 113-105 to take a 3-1 series lead heading back to the Bay Area for Game 5.

“The Pacific Ocean is undefeated,” said Stephen Curry after the game (he struggled with 12 points on 14 shots, the Clippers have defended him well this series).

Golden State has a showdown with Houston coming. With all due respect to the other teams still in the dance in the West, that is your Western Conference Finals, it’s just taking place in the second round. Houston has dominated Utah and can sweep them out of the playoffs Monday night.

Houston is playing its best basketball of the season, it is defending at a high level, and the Rockets have a shot against the Warriors. They believe they can win, but we’ll find out starting next weekend (most likely, dates for the second round are not public yet).

Road, sweet road! NBA away teams go 8-0 over weekend

Getty
Leave a comment

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Road, sweet road.

There were eight NBA playoff games this weekend, and all eight were won by the road team. It’s the first time in NBA history there were eight road playoff wins in a two-day span.

“Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs,” Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard said.

The Raptors were one of the eight road winners this weekend, prevailing at Orlando on Sunday. Other Sunday road winners included Boston over Indiana, Golden State over the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland over Oklahoma City.

On Saturday, it was Philadelphia over Brooklyn, Denver over San Antonio, Houston over Utah and Milwaukee over Detroit.

Through 30 games of this year’s playoffs, road teams are 16-14. Home teams went 3-0 on Wednesday, and went 2-12 in the four days that followed. Since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984, there has never been a first round where road teams won more than home teams.

Home teams won 71 percent of playoff games last season, the NBA’s highest such clip since 2008.

Damian Lillard outduels Russell Westbrook again, Blazers go up 3-1

Getty
6 Comments

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Damian Lillard scored 15 of his 24 points in the third quarter, and the Portland Trail Blazers held Russell Westbrook without a basket in the second half in beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 111-98 on Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their series.

Lillard had another big third quarter after scoring 25 points in the period in a Game 3 loss Friday. In this game, the All-Star point guard was 5 of 7 in the third to help Portland take control for good.

Lillard made his first basket with 1:14 left in the first half after missing his first six shots, but he still had seven assists before the break.

“We’ve kind of come to expect it,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “He manages the game. He senses the moment when we need him to do different things. He’s an ultimate competitor. He is going to give it his all.”

C.J. McCollum scored 27 points, Al-Farouq Aminu had 19 points and nine rebounds and Maurice Harkless added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Trail Blazers. Portland can close out the series Tuesday at home.

Paul George had 32 points and 10 rebounds for Oklahoma City. Dennis Schroder added 17 points.

Westbrook scored 14 points on 5-for-21 shooting. He missed his final 10 shots and was 0 for 7 for one point in the second half.

George missed most of the second quarter with three fouls, but the Thunder hung tough and led for much of the period. Lillard hit a 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half to give Portland the lead, then Aminu hit a 3 with 3.9 seconds left as the Trail Blazers took a 50-46 edge into the break.

“I thought in the first half, we weathered the storm a little bit with Paul picking up fouls,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We didn’t close the half very well and gave them momentum going into the locker room.”

Lillard hit deep back-to-back 3s 27 seconds apart to give Portland a 66-54 lead. The Trail Blazers stretched the lead to 19 in the third quarter before the Thunder closed the gap. George hit a 3-pointer from the corner in the closing seconds to cut Portland’s lead to 79-68.

A 3-pointer by Schroder cut Portland’s lead to 97-87 with 3:35 remaining, but the Trail Blazers maintained control.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Lillard was just 2 of 8 in the first half and scored seven points. … Made 22 of 23 free throws. … Outrebounded the Thunder 41-38.

Thunder: Donovan was called for a technical in the first quarter for a no-call against Steven Adams. … Shot 37.5 percent from the field. … Westbrook had nine rebounds and seven assists.

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports