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Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

James Harden scores 44 points as Rockets beat Wolves 104-101

AP
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HOUSTON (AP) James Harden scored 44 points and powered a big fourth-quarter run that allowed the Houston Rockets to outlast the Minnesota Timberwolves 104-101 on Sunday night in Game 1 of the first-round playoff series.

Minnesota scored four straight points to get within 3 with about 30 seconds left. Chris Paul added two free throws after that for Houston, but a tip-in by Karl-Anthony Towns got Minnesota back within 3. After a bad pass by Paul gave the Timberwolves a chance to tie it with 1.5 seconds left, Jimmy Butler‘s shot was short.

The Timberwolves had a one-point lead with about seven minutes left when Houston used a 9-0 run, with the last seven points from Harden, to make it 94-86 with about four minutes to go. Harden, who also had a steal in that span, capped the run with a 3-pointer that prompted Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau to call a timeout.

Jeff Teague ended Minnesota’s scoring drought with two free throws after the timeout and added a 3-point play after a basket by Harden. Harden made another shot to give him 11 straight points for Houston before another basket by Teague.

Harden got Capela in on the scoring after that, finding him for an alley-oop that pushed the lead to 101-93 with less than three minutes left.

The top-seeded Rockets had their hands full with the No. 8 Timberwolves on a night where Houston made just 10 of 37 3-pointers. Harden made 7 of 12 3-pointers, but Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon and Paul combined to make just 3 of their 22 tries.

Houston kept All-Star big man Towns in check, limiting him to just eight points after he’d averaged 21.3 in leading the Wolves to their first playoff appearance since 2004. Andrew Wiggins scored 18 points to lead Minnesota.

The Wolves scored the first nine points of the second half to take a 56-54 lead. Tucker made a 3 for the Rockets after that, but Minnesota used a 6-1 spurt, with 3s from Wiggins and Teague, to go back on top 62-58.

The Rockets had managed just six points in the quarter when Gerald Green made a basket with to cut the lead to 1 with about five minutes left in the third. Derrick Rose added a bucket seconds later, but Houston scored six straight points after that to put Houston up 68-65. Harden got things going when he made a 3-pointer while being fouled by Rose and also made the free throw.

Minnesota led by a basket after a jump shot by Towns with about two minutes left in the quarter. Harden took over after that, scoring the last six points of the quarter to leave Houston up 76-72 entering the fourth.

Harden hit a 3-pointer before making a driving layup he was fouled on by Gorgui Dieng. Harden flexed each bicep twice while peering down at the muscles after the shot before making the free throw.

The Rockets swept the regular-season series 4-0, winning by an average of 15.8 points a game and it looked like this one might be another blowout early as the Rockets raced out to a 17-6 lead behind 10 early points from Clint Capela. But the Timberwolves got going after that and had tied it up by late in the first quarter.

The Rockets led 54-47 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Butler, who led the team by averaging 22.2 points in the regular season, finished with 13 points. … The Wolves made 8 of 23 3-point attempts. … Towns had 12 rebounds and two assists.

Rockets: Ryan Anderson missed the game with a sprained left ankle. Coach Mike D’Antoni said there was a chance he could return for Game 2, but that he would know more in the next couple of days. … Capela had 20 points and 10 rebounds at halftime, but was limited in the second half and added just four more points and two rebounds.

UP NEXT

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Houston.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Jimmy Butler returns, Timberwolves pick up crucial win vs. Lakers 113-96

Associated Press
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jimmy Butler scored 18 points in his return from right knee surgery, Jeff Teague had 25 points and eight assists, and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Los Angeles Lakers 113-96 on Friday night.

Butler played 22 1/2 minutes and was 7 for 10 from the field in his first game since getting hurt against Houston on Feb. 23. He had surgery two days later for a cartilage injury and missed 17 games.

Minnesota moved into sole possession of eighth place in the Western Conference with the win (half a game ahead of Denver, but the teams are tied in the loss column).

Taj Gibson also scored 18 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Karl-Anthony Towns had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who were on the second night of a back-to-back. They lost to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday.

Julius Randle scored 20 points and added 10 rebounds for the Lakers, who have lost nine of their last 13. Brook Lopez had 18 points and six rebounds, while Josh Hart tallied 20 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.

The Timberwolves took a 96-76 lead on a jump shot by Jamal Crawford. Los Angeles cut its deficit to 13 with 4:42 remaining in the game, but Minnesota scored six straight points, then opened up a 21-point lead with 2:06 left.

Minnesota started the third quarter with a 16-6 run and took a 67-64 lead on a basket Butler. Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Towns all made 3-pointers to give the Timberwolves an eight-point lead with 3:25 remaining in the period.

Towns capped an 11-2 run with a put-back layup to give Minnesota a 78-68 advantage with 2:12 remaining in the third. Josh Hart made a 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer and the Lakers trailed 80-73.

Los Angeles went on a 9-0 run after trailing 36-32 in the second quarter. An 11-0 run four minutes later gave the Lakers a 52-40 lead with 3:08 remaining in the first half.

Gibson’s basket cut Minnesota’s deficit to 56-50. The Timberwolves trailed 58-51 at halftime. Despite shooting only 29 percent from the field, the Lakers outscored the Timberwolves 32-21 in the second quarter.

Lopez scored the first 15 points for the Lakers, outscoring Minnesota by himself over the first six minutes of the game. The rest of the team, however, scored only 11 points the rest of the quarter.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets back on top behind MVP-to-be Harden

Associated Press
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The Houston Rockets are back on top of the power rankings, with the Raptors now second, and the Trail Blazers holding steady at fourth despite the end of their win streak. At the bottom, Phoenix has “reclaimed” the last spot and are winning their race to keep Deandre Ayton in Arizona.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (56-14, Last Week No. 2). Things look good for the Houston Rockets: They almost certainly will finish with the best record in the NBA, James Harden almost certainly will win the MVP, Ryan Anderson is back in the rotation giving Mike D’Antoni another three-point shooter to lean on (although how much Anderson can be used in playoff matchups remains to be seen), and after the dramatic 115-111 win in Portland Tuesday night the Rockets’ schedule softens up. D’Antoni has kept his rotations tight and not rested guys very often, how much will that change down the stretch?

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (53-18, LW 1). The Thunder snapped the Raptors’ 11-game win streak Sunday, but don’t read too much into that one loss: It was Toronto’s third game in four days and it showed in their legs late. Toronto plays each of the other two top teams in the East twice, starting with Cleveland Wednesday (the Celtics start next week), which makes for interesting storylines, but be careful drawing big conclusions from those games: If I’m Dwane Casey and I have a strategy I like vs. Cleveland, I’m not breaking it out for a regular season game (maybe beyond a couple of possessions at most). Save your best strategies for the games that matter.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (53-18 LW 3). Golden State should get Stephen Curry back Friday vs. Atlanta — he would have been back last weekend if this were the playoffs, but the Warriors have conceded the one seed and now are working on just getting their team healthy and rested before the postseason. With Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson banged up, the Warriors health is something to watch over the final few weeks of the season. The team says that everyone will be healthy come the start of the playoffs, and if so they will be a fully formed Voltron again, but if not the equation changes some.

 
Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (44-26, LW 5). Despite the loss to the Rockets and the end of the 13-game winning streak, Portland seems to have nearly locked itself into the three seed in the West (and the way they are defending they should be favorites in the first round). One interesting stat that could play a role in a postseason series: the Blazers have the worst shooting percentage of any team in the league at the rim, 57.1% (not including garbage time numbers, this stat via Cleaning the Glass). Also, they are 27th in the league in corner threes attempted, just 5.5% of their shot attempts.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (48-23, LW 4). The Marcus Smart thumb injury and surgery is a big blow, especially depending upon how much of the playoffs he misses. Smart is Boston’s best perimeter defender and a central part to the best defense in the NBA this season. Boston is more vulnerable in the first round without him, but would really miss him in a second-round matchup (especially if that is Cleveland). Kyrie Irving is getting a second opinion on his knee and could miss more time than originally thought, but he should still be back for the postseason, giving Boston’s offense a much-needed boost.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (43-30 LW 6).. Corey Brewer has given the Thunder a tremendous lift since getting picked up after the Lakers’ waived him. Brewer is scoring 11.7 points per game, shooting 38.2 percent from three, playing competent defense, helping them speed up the pace, and generally giving them the fifth starter they needed since Andre Roberson went down. Brewer with the other four starters — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams — is +11.3 per 100 possessions. All this seems unsustainable at this level, in fact, the numbers fell back considerably after the loss to Boston, but still this move has been a big pick up for the Thunder, who had won six in a row before Tuesday.

 
Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (40-31, LW 10). The Jazz had won nine in a row before Tuesday’s punch-to-the-gut loss to tanking Atlanta. Still, Utah seems destined for the playoffs (which should get Quin Snyder some Coach of the Year votes down the ballot). It’s still all about the defense for this team: Their Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jae Crowder, Rudy Gobert lineup has a defensive rating of just 76.4 since Crowder was traded to the team (and they use that lineup heavily). This is a tough playoff out for whoever lands them. It’s good to see Dante Exum back on the floor.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (39-30, LW 9). They have won three in a row and still have the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way — 9-of-13 games against teams below .500. The Sixers are just one game back of the four seed — home court in the first round is not out of the question. But there are questions: How hard does Brett Brown and the organization push for that four seed vs. make sure Joel Embiid gets some rest down the stretch before they lean heavily on him in the postseason? And how much can they up his 31 minutes a game average in the playoffs?

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (41-30, LW 7). Injuries have caught up with the Pacers, Domantas Sabonis is still out with an ankle issue, and Myles Turner missed a little time, all of which meant more Al Jefferson than the Pacers would like to see and a couple of losses. The Pacers need some quality wins — like vs. the Pelicans, Clippers, and Heat coming up this week — because of the teams in the mix for the 3/4 seeds in the East (Cleveland, Washington, and Philadelphia are in there, too) the Pacers have the toughest remaining schedule. That includes a West Coast road swing starting next Tuesday in Golden State.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (41-29 LW 12). Kevin Love is back (he looked pretty good dropping 18 in his return from a broken hand) and Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. should be back in the rotation soon as well. Cleveland survived a recent road trip with a 3-3 record but need to rack up wins — and find some cohesion on defense — to keep the three seed and home court in the first round of the playoffs. Interesting test Wednesday against Toronto (they catch the Raptors on a back-to-back).

 
Wizards small icon 11. Wizards (40-30, LW 14). The Wizards are a good three-point shooting team, hitting 37.6% of their triples once you remove the garbage time stats from the equation (via Cleaning the Glass). Which makes you wonder why they are 23rd in percentage of their shots taken from three — if you can make them, take them. What matters most to this team is the return of John Wall, which may not be that far off — Scott Brooks thinks he could get into some 5-on-5 drills in the coming days, the last step before suiting up.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (41-30, LW 16). The death of the Spurs has been greatly exaggerated. Just a reminder not to completely count them out, the Spurs have won four in a row and it appears they will extend their playoff streak to 21 seasons. This Spurs run of wins has come like so much of their season: Incredible defense — 0.88 points per possession allowed through the four games — and enough offense courtesy LaMarcus Aldridge to get the “W” (he’s averaging 30.25 points per game over the streak). Bet the under when the Spurs and Jazz play Friday.

 
Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (41-30, LW 5). It’s not only the Anthony Davis show since DeMarcus Cousins went down, Jrue Holiday has stepped up, too — he is shooting 41.1% from three in his last 15 games, adding the spacing the Pelicans need. In the wake of owner Tom Benson’s death, his wife Gayle runs the show now and there are not going to be big changes, according to sources. Also, the rumors that she’s going to sell the team are not true (at least not for a while, the Pelican’s lease runs through 2024). New Orleans won the first game of a rare back-to-back-to-back at home, something forced by the leaky roof postponement against the Pacers earlier this season.

 
14. Timberwolves (41-31, LW 8). The Timberwolves have gone 5-5 without Jimmy Butler, and Tuesday night against the Clippers was what we need to see more of from this team. First, Karl-Anthony Towns was getting touches and shot attempts (through the first 8 Butler-less games he was getting just one more shot attempt per game than he did during the rest of the season). Second, there was leadership on both ends from Andrew Wiggins, who had one of his better defensive nights. Minnesota is now three games up on the Clippers and the Timberwolves have a much easier schedule the rest of the way, they are going to make the playoffs.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (38-33, LW 19). With no Dwyane Wade, in a very close game with Denver last weekend, it was Josh Richardson isolation at the end of regulation then James Johnson at the end of overtime. Neither really got to their spots on the floor for a quality shot (fortunately for Miami it dominated the second OT, so no need to look for another option). With an easier schedule than the stumbling Bucks, Miami may be destined for the seven seed and a date with Boston in the first round.

 
Nuggets small icon 16. Nuggets (38-33, LW 15).. Denver has started a crucial 7-game road trip 0-2, including a gut-punch loss to the Grizzlies (and the 2OT one to the Heat stung, too). Just since the start of March, the Nuggets have lost to the Mavericks, Lakers, and Grizzlies — that lack of urgency and consistency is why they are two games out of the playoffs and with difficult prospects to climb back in (fivethirtyeight.com has them with a 12% chance of getting in). The Nuggets have gone 11-23 on the road this season (they are 27-10 at home) and if they don’t change their road woes around this week the playoffs will be out of reach.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (37-33 LW 13). Since the All-Star break, the Clippers are 24th in the NBA in defense, and their problems were evident Tuesday night when they had no answer to the Jeff Teague/Karl-Anthony Towns pick-and-roll and were roasted in the second half because of it. Tough road games ahead against the East coming up next — at Milwaukee, Indiana, and Toronto — and with the Clippers 2.5 games back of the Jazz and the final playoff spot, they need to find some road wins fast.

Bucks small icon 18. Bucks (37-33 LW 18). The Bucks are going to make the playoffs — in large part because the teams behind them in the East have collapsed — but that’s not what people around the league are talking about with this team. The question is who will be the next coach? This is going to be a coveted job — getting to coach Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of good role players who just need a better system in place — plus the team will be moving into a new arena. Will Bucks ownership spend what it takes to get a name/high-level coach?

 
Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (31-39 LW 17). Remember a few weeks back when Lonzo Ball torched the Spurs from three because, as coach Gregg Popovich admitted after the game, their game plan was to go under the pick and dare him to beat them from deep, then Ball did just that? Teams in the NBA learn, they are now trailing over the top on Ball, not letting him have uncontested looks, and since Spurs game he’s shooting just 23.1% from three (and 30.3% overall). Ball is good from three if he gets some room and his feet set, but teams have figured that out and are taking his space away.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (32-39, LW 20). Detroit has played poorly of late and is going to miss the playoffs. What happened in Detroit? Blake Griffin is getting blamed for it. Stan Van Gundy likely will lose his GM title for it (and we’ll see if he is back as coach next season). However, the reality is this team came apart when point guard Reggie Jackson got hurt. Since he went out Dec. 27 the Pistons were 12-25 without him — they were 19-14 with him. Jackson returned Tuesday in a limited role (15 minutes) but it will be too little, too late for the Pistons this season.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-41, LW 21). Nicolas Batum is going to miss some time to deal with chronic tendinitis in his left Achilles — a real concern because that doesn’t exactly heal well. Much like Mike Conley in Memphis, it requires constant monitoring and plenty of rest during the season. Before the All-Star break the Hornets were a middle of the pack defensive team in the NBA. Since the break they are 26th in the NBA giving up 6.6 points more per 100 possessions.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (23-49, LW 24). No team of late has given a higher percentage of minutes to first and second year players than the Kings — and there have been bright spots. Specifically, back-to-back wins last weekend against Miami and a banged-up Golden State team where rookie point guard D’Aaron Fox was making clutch plays. The Kings have started out 0-1 on a six-game homestand at the Golden One Center where the home fans can get a good look at the young players themselves.

 
Nets small icon 23. Nets (23-48, LW 25). Part of what the Nets wanted to do after the All-Star break is give a lot of minutes to D’Angelo Russell and see what they really have in a player eligible for a contract extension this summer. He has shown flashes of both an ability to score and ability to lead a team, but the simple matter is the Nets have been 4.8 points per 100 possessions better this season when he is off the court, with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end. My guess is Russell is back next season without an extension and hits restricted free agency in 2020.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (26-45, LW 28). New York easily took care of Chicago on Monday night, meaning the Knicks almost certainly will enter the lottery in the nine slot (a 6.1% chance of jumping up into the top three). Few people around the league expect Jeff Hornacek to keep his job past this season, but who replaces him? Mark Jackson’s name gets mentioned. New York would be wise to get David Fizdale in early and talk to him. Whoever gets the gig, with Kristaps Porzingis likely out for the first half of next season, the new coach needs a long leash to build a culture that can win with KP in a couple of seasons.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (24-46 LW 22).. Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine are two of the young cornerstone pieces the Bulls think they have going forward. One problem, when they are on the court together this season, the Bulls get outscored by 19.1 points per 100 possessions. When those two are paired, the Bulls score less then a point per possession and are sieve defensively. This is over the course of 308 minutes, so while there is certainly noise in that number it’s not inconsequential. Chicago may not be able to keep both.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (22-49 LW 23). Whatever Mark Cuban says — and he should be far more focused on off the court Dallas issues right now rather than on it — the Mavs players are not tanking. The team just went 1-3 on a recent road trip, but in the losses they took the Raptors to overtime and played both the Nets and Pelicans tight. Another week, another milestone for Dirk Nowitzki, who is now fifth on the NBA’s career regular season games played record.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic (21-50, LW 26). With Elfrid Payton shipped West, D.J. Augustin has played well as a point guard for Orlando since the All-Star break. It’s a lone bright spot in an offense where Aaron Gordon missed time, Evan Fournier is still out, and after some impressive play lately Jonathon Simmons missed Tuesday’s game against the Raptors.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (21-50, LW 27). Atlanta is 1-1 to start a six-game road trip thanks to a surprising win over the Jazz Tuesday. Dennis Schroder went off in that game for 41. Before that, the bright spot for the Hawks lately has been Taurean Prince, who dropped 38 points Saturday, and now has two 35+ point games this season, the first Hawk to do that since Joe Johnson.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (19-51, LW 30). Tyreke Evans is back on the court, and not surprisingly the Grizzlies’ 19-game losing streak came to an end. If the “Most Improved Player” award were still the “Comeback Player of the Year” award Evans would be in the mix, despite playing just 51 games (so far). Evans has averaged 19.5 points a game and shot 39.2% from three, he’s going to make more money than the Grizzlies can afford this summer and they will lose him.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (19-53, LW 29). Losers of nine in a row, the Suns have “reclaimed” the bottom spot in the rankings. The Suns are on pace to finish the season with the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA by net rating — an “impressive” feat. They will probably have the best lottery odds going into it (25% chance at No. 1), and if they get the top pick you can bet they would love to keep DeAndre Ayton in Arizona.