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NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

Three Things to Know: Celtics show up to rout Warriors

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) The Gordon Hayward Boston thought it was getting showed up, Celtics impress routing Warriors. That is the Boston Celtics we expected to see all season, the Celtics who can beat anyone in the East. Apparently, they just needed to get out of the cold Boston winter, come to California and get warm.

Boston opened the game on an 11-0 run, got 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting off the bench from Gordon Hayward, moved the ball on offense, trusted each other, and most importantly communicated and were clean on their switches on defense. The result was the Celtics blowing out the defending NBA champ Warriors 128-95.

After dropping 5-of-6 in a string of sloppy losses, each defeat followed by comments about a lack of unity, this was the kind of game the Celtics needed. They played with the kind of joy the Warriors always talk about — Kyrie Irving looked like he was having fun, scoring 19, dropping 11 dimes, and barking at the Warriors bench.

Can the Celtics build on it during their four-game road trip through the West, or was this game the aberration?

Hayward was in attack mode from the minute he stepped on the court and was throwing down dunks all over the place.

What did we learn about Golden State? Nothing. They’re bored. They don’t have Klay Thompson. They find the regular season tedious and want to get on with the playoffs. That was the worst Warriors loss of the Steve Kerr era. Yawn.

To Boston, it doesn’t matter what Golden State team showed up — that was the kind of win this team desperately needed to turn things around before the playoffs.

Now we see whether it was a one-off, or the start of something.

2) Is Houston’s offense good enough to make them second best team in West? Looked like it against Toronto. Throughout James Harden’s historic run, and continuing through the Rockets’ current six-game win streak, one thing has been constant: Their defense still isn’t very good. Even during this win streak, when it’s been better, they have the 14th ranked defense in the league, just middle of the pack. It has put a damper on expectations.

But with Chris Paul resurgent and the offense clicking at an elite level, does it matter? Can the Rockets’ offense propel them to the Western Conference Finals?

It looked like it Tuesday when the Rockets went into Toronto and took a 22-point lead over the Raptors before eventually winning 107-95.

They still have Harden, who scored the team’s final 16 points and had 19 of his 35 in the fourth to secure the win.

Who is the second best team in the West? Oklahoma City? Denver? Portland? The Rockets, when playing like this, can hang with any of them. Even if their defense isn’t what it was a year ago.

3) Mike Conley reminds everyone why they should trade for him this summer, sparks Grizzlies upset of Trail Blazers. Some team is going to give up plenty this summer to trade for Mike Conley. No team met the Grizzlies high asking price at the trade deadline, but that will be different this summer (and the price likely drops a little).

Tuesday night showed why teams want the man.

Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers Tuesday night. (Well, that and it was the final game of a seven-game road trip for Portland and the team was done.)

Next season, in a situation more conducive to winning than the starting-the-rebuild Grizzlies, Mike Conley is going to show everyone why he finally needs to be an All-Star one year.

Jayson Tatum bombs way from half court to All-Star Skills Competition title

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s about how you finish.

Boston’s Jayson Tatum trailed in all three of his Skills Contest races on All-Star Saturday night, none worse than against sharpshooting rookie Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks in the championship matchup. Young beat Tatum through the court, lined up his three, and while he did Tatum bombed away from half court on the run and… he called bank so it counts.

Tatum is your 2019 Skills Contest champion.

“The previous two rounds, the guy was ahead of me. Figured I’d let him get a shot attempt so I could get closer to the three-point line,” Tatum said. “I didn’t want to give Trae a chance. I honestly didn’t know I was going to hit the shot, but I had to give myself a chance, throw it up there, and it worked out for the best.”

Tatum dropped 30 for Team USA in its win in the Rising Stars Challenge Friday night, then gets the win Saturday in Skills. It’s been a weekend for Tatum.

Did he plan to fall behind in every race just for the drama?

“No, that was not the plan,” Tatum said. “I couldn’t get the pass down on the first try, but I was trying. I wanted to win.”

The competition was fairly entertaining from the start.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped with the random matchups, and that led to one first-rounder everyone wanted to see: De’Aaron Fox vs. Trae Young. Fox led the whole way, by quite a bit as Young struggled with his passing into the tire, but when Fox missed his first three it allowed Young to shoot the long-range running three, and he drained it for the win.

In the other first-round matchups, Nikola Jokic beat Nikola Vucevic, Mike Conley had a comfortable lead over Jayson Tatum but couldn’t hit the three and when Tatum got there he drained his for the win, and Doncic his three before Kyle Kuzma for the win.

In the second round, Tatum was behind again but beat Jokic by draining his first three, and Young had a comfortable win over Luka Doncic.

That up the Finals showdown that ended with a long-range bomb.

Mike Conley returns to All-Star Weekend 11 years later, but still not as All-Star

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CHARLOTTE – Mike Conley arrived about 15 minutes late to his press conference this morning. He said arena personnel initially didn’t allow him in, forcing him to go around until someone let him through.

It’s the story of his career and getting to All-Star.

“Just going to make me go around in circles until one day letting me in, right?” Conley said.

The Grizzlies point guard is widely recognized as the best active player never to be an All-Star. But Conley – who will compete in the Skills Challenge tonight – is back at All-Star Weekend for the first time since his rookie year, when he played in the 2008 Rookie Challenge.

Back then, Conley was still hyped as the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft. He figured the Rookie Challenge would be just the start of many trips to All-Star Weekend. But he didn’t progress in his second season enough to get picked for even the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge.

“It was tough,” Conley said. “The first year you get invited, you feel like you’re doing good things. The second year, you don’t get invited, and it’s frustrating.”

“But stuff like that helped drive you a little bit, helped give you that motivation to put yourself out there again and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back as an All-Star.”

Time is running out.

Conley will be in his 13th season next year. Nobody has ever made their first All-Star game that late in their career. Kyle Korver (2015 Hawks), Tyson Chandler (2013 Knicks) and Vlade Divac (2001 Kings) first became All-Stars in their 12th seasons.

So, Conley made his way to Charlotte for the Skills Challenge this year. He fondly recalls his dad – Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper – taking him to events as a kid and getting pictures with him and famous people. Conley said he has already gotten pictures this weekend of his children with Fabolous, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The vacation also timed up well for Conley, who was subject of numerous rumors before last week’s trade deadline. Memphis traded Marc Gasol to the Raptors but kept Conley.

“I just needed a break from all the hoopla and trade rumors and trade talks, and just get away, get my family out here, try to have fun with these guys and experience something other than reading Twitter and Instagram about where I’m going to be at next, “Conley said.

Conley called All-Star Weekend “a big party” and said he particularly appreciated the camaraderie with fellow players. Even in a crowd of stars, Conley stands out.

“The players really respect me and every one of them, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you haven’t been an All-Star. You should be one. You should have been one this year,'” Conley said. “It’s the same thing over and over. But it’s cool to know they at least recognize it.”

Is there something special about being known as the best player in the game who hasn’t been an All-Star?

“I’d rather have just been an All-Star,” Conley said.

Grizzlies to retire Marc Gasol’s No. 33

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Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen led the Grizzlies in the franchise’s great era.

But like most teams that don’t win titles, Memphis is moving on from that longstanding core.

Unlike most teams, the Grizzlies are quickly announcing their connection to the past.

They already said they’d retire numbers of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Now, after trading Marc Gasol to the Raptors, they’re saying his number will also get retired.

Grizzlies owner Robert Pera in a statement:

“Marc has been a dedicated teammate, star player and pillar of this team for the past 11 seasons. He plays with a heart and a passion for the game that helped carry this franchise to seven straight playoff appearances, but what Marc has done for this organization is about more than just basketball. He was a part of a core group of players that helped shape the identity of this franchise on and off the court and were embraced by the City of Memphis. On behalf of the Grizzlies organization, I would like to thank him for his blood, sweat and dedication to the Grizzlies and Memphis. The impact he has had on this team and the city will live on, and we look forward to one day welcoming him back home to Memphis where his #33 jersey will hang in the rafters of FedExForum next to Zach and Tony.”

It was a forgone conclusion Memphis would retire Gasol’s number, especially after planning to retire retire Randolph’s and Allen’s. Gasol is the greatest player in franchise history.

The only novelty is announcing it while Gasol is still active. I like it. Why wait to show that appreciation?

Eventually, Conley will likely join another team. When he does, expect the Grizzlies to quickly say his No. 11 will get retired, too.