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NBA Power Rankings: Hornets continue surprising rise

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NBA Power Rankings: Hornets continue surprising rise

Good luck trying to figure out these Charlotte Hornets.

One of the league's best stories in the season's first two months, racing out to a 14-8 start, things went south. Steve Clifford's group dropped 12 of 15 between December and January and appeared on track to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.

They inched their way back to relevance in January, coming within a game of .500 at 22-23, then 24-25. They finally got back to .500 on Feb. 8 with a home win over the Bulls. And since that time, they've been on fire.

Led by a dominant Kemba Walker, who was named the Eastern Conference player of the week, Charlotte has won 13 of 15 and, after being left for dead, sits tied for 5th in the East and just 1.5 games behind third-seeded Boston.

They're the biggest risers in this week's power rankings. Here's how the other 29 teams fared:

Previous power rankings: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7 | Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Week 12 | Week 13 | Week 14 | Week 15 | Week 16 | Week 17 | Week 18 | Week 19

Rank (LW) Team
Record Comment
1 (1) 59-6  They needed a 37-point fourth quarter to avoid an embarrassing home loss to the Suns on Saturday. As it stands, they'll need a 14-3 finish to top the Bulls' mark. It looks like it'll happen, especially if they beat the Spurs on Saturday.
(2) 56-10  Impressive home wins against the Bulls and Thunder to close the week give them a 32-0 record at the AT&T Center. Saturday night's showdown there against the Warriors could be an instant classic (and they play twice more after that).
(3) 47-18  There are days you wonder whether they'll even make it out of the East (Monday's loss to Memphis). Then there are days you wonder if they really can compete with Golden State in a seven-game series (24-point road win over the Clips).
4 (4) 44-20  DeMar DeRozan was an absolute monster Saturday night in Toronto's overtime win against the Heat. He went for a season-high 38 points and grabbed 10 boards, keeping Toronto within reaching distance of Cleveland for the No. 1 seed.
5 (5) 44-22  Incredibly they've now lost six of nine, the worst of those coming Saturday at home to the Timberwolves. There's time to right the ship, and they'll need to do so to stay in the No. 3 spot (and avoid the Warriors in Round 2).
6 (6)   42-23  Sunday's matchup against the Cavs would have been a chance to make a statement. A 24-point loss later, the next chance they'll have to do just that is Tuesday in San Antonio.
7 (9)   38-29  They've now won seven of their last nine and are in the race for the No. 3 seed in the East. Their only two losses in that span were at Golden State and at Toronto. And both were single-digit defeats. Al Horford and Co. are heating up at the right time.
8 (7)   38-28  Can't say enough about how much Joe Johnson has helped the Bosh-less Heat offense. In eight games Johnson is averaging 15.5 points on 57 percent shooting. Miami has won six of eight in that span.
9 (8)   39-27  It'll be on Brad Stevens to figure out his rotation in the wake of Jae Crowder's sprained ankle that'll keep him out two weeks. Boston is clinging to a one-game lead on the No. 3 seed over Miami.
10 (12)   37-28  The Hornets have won seven in a row. In those games, Kemba Walker has averaged Curry-like numbers: 28.6 points, 53% FG, 3.6 3-pointers, 6.9 assists. Charlotte looks like a lock for the postseason after being left for dead two months ago.
11 (11)   39-27  It's incredible they've been able to piece parts together and remain in the playoff hunt without a host of key players. They're 9-5 since Marc Gasol was lost for the season with a broken foot.
12 (10)   35-32  It would have been nice to see them put up more of a fight in Golden State (16-point loss). But they responded nicely Saturday, thumping the Magic by 37 points. The Blazers hit 17 triples in that one, two days after connecting on 18 triples against the Dubs.
13 (13)   35-31  Indiana took a big step forward toward making the postseason with an impressive win over the Spurs on Monday. Monta Ellis and Paul George combined for 49 points in that one. Three more tests this week, hosting Boston, Toronto and Oklahoma City.
14 (15)   34-32  The time is now for Detroit to make their move. After a road tilt in Washington, D.C., on Monday they'll play nine straight at home. If they want to hang on to that No. 8 seed, it'll happen based on what happens in March.
15 (17)   33-33 Before running into the buzzsaw that is the Charlotte Hornets, James Harden and the Rockets picked up impressive road wins against the Raptors and Celtics. They're currently tied with Dallas for seventh in the West, two games up on Utah.
16 (16)   32-32 Playoff odds are looking bleaker for the Bulls, who are now dealing with injuries to Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol just as Jimmy Butler returns to the lineup. They're only one game back of the Pistons for the No. 8 seed, but Detroit owns the tiebreaker.
17 (20)    31-35 They stopped the bleeding with wins over the Wizards and Kings, but they've still got plenty of work to do if they're going to catch the Mavericks or Rockets.
18 (21)    29-38 More Giannis Antetokounmpo love. In his last 11 games he's logged four triple-doubles, averaging 20.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.9 blocks per game in 38.5 minutes. He just turned 21 years old.
19 (14)   33-33  A head-scratching five-game losing streak has them on the verge of dropping out of the playoff chase. And now they get a red-hot Hornets team, followed by Cleveland, Golden State, Portland at home, Portland on the road and Golden State again. Yikes.
20 (24)   28-38  They've won four straight, tying the Warriors (yes, those Warriors) for the longest current winning streak in the West. Emmanuel Mudiay has really turned a corner in his rookie season, averaging 19.7 points and 5.7 assists in his last six games.
21 (18)   30-35  John Wall is quietly putting up MVP numbers. But it may be too little, too late for the Wizards, who have now lost five straight and are 3.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the East. One of the conference's biggest disappointments.
22 (22)   28-37  With the playoffs now out of reach, might be time for Scott Skiles to really unleash rookie Mario Hezonja. He's averaging 23.1 minutes per game in March in a crowded Magic backcourt. #FreeSuperMario.
23 (23)   24-41  Don't tell Anthony Davis to coast down the stretch for a lottery-bound team. In his last four games he's averaged 31.3 points and 11.8 rebounds. Of course, the injury-ravaged Pelicans are 1-3 in those games.
24 (19)   25-40  The Kings have imploded. They've lost nine of 10, DeMarcus Cousins was suspended for screaming at George Karl in a huddle and are 7.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the West. Just a dysfunctional organization from the top down.
25 (26)   21-45  Ricky Rubio's triple with 0.2 seconds remaining won it for the Wolves in Oklahoma City. But the real story was Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds, including two key buckets and a huge block on KD in the final minute.
26 (25)   28-40  Probably not a majority opinion, but if the Knicks heed Carmelo Anthony's advice and make a significant move in free agency they aren't that far away from competing in the East.
27 (27) 18-48  In a lost season, the Nets may have found something in Sean Kilpatrick. The former Cincinnati Bearcat has played well, averaging 13.6 points and 2.0 triples in his last five games. The former All-American has always been able to score.
28 (29) 14-53  The young Lakers are looking better each night. Julius Randle has averaged 15.1 points on 50 percent shooting and 9.9 rebounds in his last eight games. He's rounded into form nicely after a quiet first half.
29 (30) 17-49  Not much to play for in Phoenix, but it'll be fun to watch Devin Booker and Brandon Knight work together in the Suns' backcourt. On Saturday they combined for 48 points and 18 assists in a near-win over the Warriors.
30 (28) 9-57  A six-point win over the Nets at home isn't usually anything to write about. But it marked the Sixers' first win since Feb. 6 and snapped a 13-game losing streak. Congrats. Almost up to double-digit W's.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.