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Week 9 NBA Power Rankings: Houston rocketing up rankings

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We’re sorry about the lazy wordplay in the headline. I blame the stress of the holidays for not coming up with something better. Houston has flown all the way up to third in the rankings, Utah has climbed to seventh, while the Sixers stay out of the bottom thanks to Brooklyn.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Finally, on Christmas we get the Warriors vs. Cavaliers rematch, but this time around the Warriors have JaVale McGee. Oh, and Kevin Durant (though McGee has played pretty well this season). Stephen Curry said it this week, what Durant has brought to Golden State is another level of versatility. Durant slid into Harrison Barnes’ slot in the “death lineup” and they are outscoring teams by 25.6 points per 100 possessions. When Durant and Curry are on the floor together, the Warriors outscore opponents by 16.4 per 100. Also for Warriors this week, interesting game vs. Utah on Tuesday.

Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (22-5, LW 3). As you would expect from the Spurs organization, the retirement of Tim Duncan’s jersey was classy, emotional and just flat out on point. That Sunday win over the Pelicans was first of five games in seven days for the Spurs, including games on the road against the Rockets, Clippers, then the Trail Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back. Rough stretch, guys will get rested. Of course, the Spurs have Christmas Day plans, taking on the Chicago Bulls in the second of the ABC games.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (21-7, LW 5). The real key to the Rockets 10-game winning streak? They are allowing 98.4 points per 100 possessions on defense, second best in the NBA in that stretch (Memphis). They are up to 14th in the NBA in defense overall this season — that’s better than Cleveland — and have played well on that end since the return of Patrick Beverley. People are still asking if the Rockets are for real, there’s a good test of that Tuesday night when the Spurs come to town.

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (19-6, LW 2). Despite the uproar over Tyronn Lue resting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love all in one game in Memphis last week, the fact is Lue is keeping a tight rotation most nights and leaning on his stars. LeBron has played the second most minutes of anyone in the NBA in December. Lue needs to trust his bench more — and those guys need to earn that trust. Of course, big showdown against the Warriors on Christmas where Lue should lean on those stars.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (19-8, LW 4). Toronto has the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games, and the best offense in the NBA this season (yes, better than Golden State). Key to that is Kyle Lowry with the bench lineup continues to just destroy teams — Lowry with Cory Joseph, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ross are +30.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents this season (better than the Warriors “death lineup” in nearly as many minutes). Patterson with the starters also has been impressive for the Raptors.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (20-8, LW 6). After a 14-2 start that saw them playing better than any team in the NBA, the Clippers have gone 6-6 — and now will be without Blake Griffin for a few weeks due to knee surgery. The Clippers starters with Griffin are the second most used lineup in the NBA and are +16.2 per 100 possessions, when they go to the bench the Clippers struggle. Los Angeles is about to go to the bench a lot. The Clippers “travel” to the Lakers on Christmas — I like that idea, a matchup where both teams get to spend the days with their families before the game, no travel.

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (18-10, LW 9). Winners of five in a row and eight-of-nine, all while they still can’t get healthy (no George Hill, yet). They still just keep winning games, with the second-best defense in the NBA this season and a top-10 offense. While everybody is talking about the Warriors vs. Cavaliers on Christmas, the Jazz take on the Warriors Tuesday in a very interesting test (same with the Toronto vs. Utah game Friday).

Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (18-11, LW 7). The Grizzlies got Mike Conley back last Friday, sooner than expected, but the rust is still there as he shot 5-of-23 in two games. The Jazz went an impressive 7-2 while Conley was out. To me, that moves the Grizzlies into the “yes, they are going to make the playoffs for sure” column. Thank Marc Gasol for that. How good is he playing? Here is what Utah coach Quin Snyder said: “Marc Gasol has been the best player in the NBA the last 10 games.”

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (16-11, LW 8). The Thunder stumbled last week on offense with Victor Oladipo out, although things looked better when Anthony Morrow slid into the starting lineup and provided some shooting. Something else that should help is the return of Cameron Payne in the next couple weeks, improving the backup point guard situation. Russell Westbrook gets a star turn on Christmas day, and should put up strong numbers against a struggling (to be kind) Minnesota defense.

Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (15-12, LW 11). Think the Celtics didn’t miss Isaiah Thomas? They lost three of four when he was out recently, and won both games since he returned. Granted, the toughness of the schedule played into that, but the Celtics are not the same without Thomas in the lineup. What should please Celtics fans more is the team’s improved defensive play the past couple of weeks. The Celtics tip-off the Christmas Day games against the Knicks

Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (15-13, LW 10). They had lost four in a row until picking up a victory against Atlanta Saturday, and the key factor in that remains the bench play. When Kemba Walker is on the floor, the offense is a force. When he sits, and when Steve Clifford leans on the bench, the team struggles at both ends of the floor. Interesting game against the stumbling Bulls on Friday.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (13-12, LW 15). Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player in the NBA to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. The guy just does everything (except be consistent on jumpers), and they have surrounded him with enough shooting — including from Jabari Parker — to make it all work. They have a tough home-and-home with Cleveland this week.

Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (14-14, LW 16). They enter a softer part of the schedule for the next couple of weeks — this is when good teams, playoff teams, pad their win totals. The Pacers have seemed to play up-and-dwon to the competition. The new CBA “designated player” rule makes things interesting the next couple of years for certain players such as Paul George — if he makes the All-NBA team he’s in line for a potentially much larger raise. He’s one of the early test cases, if he qualifies.

Wizards small icon 14. Wizards (12-14, LW 20). The Wizards have won five-of-six and they got on this hot streak because of their the offense – they are 6.6 points per 100 possessions better in the last six games (the defense has remained basically flat just 0.4 points per 100 possessions better). Also, the bench has been playing much improved (they had nowhere to go but up). The Wizards have been shooting very well from the midrange, we’ll see if they can sustain that.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (14-15, LW 14). They have been stumbling on the offensive end, which Stan Van Gundy said has stated to impact their defense. That led to some ugly losses (Sixers, Wizards, Pacers) and sparked a team meeting to talk it out. We’ll see if that helps, but better play from Reggie Jackson (trying to get right after a return from injury and is shooting 39 percent. Rough week to try and get things right, they start against Chicago but then get the Grizzlies and Warriors.

Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (14-13 LW 13). They have lost three in a row, and it’s not a coincidence that Derrick Rose missing most of the last six games has something to do with that. Brandon Jennings is a fun spark plug off the bench, but not a great fit with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Madison Square Garden hosts the tip off of the Christmas Day games, as the Celtics come to town. The Knicks also have Indiana and Orlando in town this week, the kinds of games they need to win to remain a playoff team.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (13-16, LW 18). They have dropped 6-of-7 and are now 8-4 at home but 5-12 on the road for the season. The defense remains dead last in the NBA, but in the last 10 games they remain sixth in the NBA in offense, keeping them afloat. However, they have nights where there is a lot of pounding the ball and watching. Also, this season the Trail Blazers have been outscored by 186 points when Evan Turner is on the court.

Bulls small icon 18. Bulls (13-13, LW 12). Losers of three in a row and that includes blowing a 21-point lead to the Timberwolves. Chicago’s offense has gone into the tank. They have an ABC, prime time, Christmas Day game against the lock-down defense of the Spurs. Watch during the game how the Bulls try to neutralize Kawhi Leonard by having whoever he is guarding the half court (usually Jimmy Butler) act as a decoy on the weak side, not involved in anything, and the rest of the Bulls will attack 4-on-4 against the remaining Spurs.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (12-17 LW 19). The defense we expected to see from the Magic this season just is not there — they are 19th in the NBA in defensive net rating, and over the last few weeks they have been much worse. What has saved them is a surprisingly good offense led by Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka. The new starting lineup — no Elfrid Payton or Nikola Vucevic — is 5-2.

Hawks small icon 20. Hawks (13-14 LW 17). The Hawks had an impressive win over the Raptors on the road, but also fell to both the Magic and Hornets last week. Nothing is consistent about this team, well except that their defense is no longer elite. They started the season 9-2, have gone 4-12 since, and it feels like they are more the latter team than the former.

Nuggets small icon 21. Nuggets (11-16, LW 21). Mike Malone is still searching for a front-line rotation that works, and has gone to the “start Nikola Jokic and play Jusuf Nurkic far less” lineup and that has won the team two games in a row. For as bad a start as they had to the season, the Nuggets are just a game back of Portland for the final playoff spot in the West, and if they can put together a run it gets interesting.

Kings small icon 22. Kings (10-17, LW 22). The new CBA is going to make things interesting for DeMarcus Cousins. If the Kings hold on to him past the trade deadline — as most close to the team expect — they can this summer offer Cousins the Designated Player extension, meaning a five-year, $207 million (give or take) deal beyond his current one. If he leaves as a free agent in 2018, he will make roughly $60 million less guaranteed. Will Cousins turn that kind of money down? He will be the first big test case for that rule.

Heat small icon 23. Heat (9-19, LW 25). They just got Justice Winslow back, which should help spark the team, particularly defensively. Miami is playing hard for coach Eric Spoelstra, and Hassan Whiteside has earned that massive contract from last summer, but this team just finds ways to lose close games. With this team looking out of the playoff chase, will they move Goran Dragic, Luke Babbitt, or Dion Waiters at the trade deadline?

Pelicans small icon 24. Pelicans (9-20, LW 23). In the desperate search for silver linings outside Anthony Davis, Buddy Heild had a 21-point game last week and showed off how scouts thought that jumper would. Also good news, Tyreke Evans is back on the floor for New Orleans, that should help. Also, Tim razor has been dishing the ball well and looking like a solid NBA player.

Suns small icon 25. Suns (8-19, LW 27). What player has the worst raw +/- numbers in the NBA this season. Brandon Knight, and it’s not close at -224. (While +/- has its flaws as a stat, if you have that number there are issues.)Eric Bledsoe is trying to do it all on his own — three 30-point games — but the team defense stinks (24th in the NBA) and the offense can’t make up for it.

Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (11-19, LW 24). The team snapped an eight-game losing streak in Philly Friday, but over the past 10 games this has been the worst team in the NBA. The problem isn’t the offense or defense — it’s both. Injuries played a role in the slide, but this young team hasn’t figured out how to fight through fatigue or win on the road. Christmas Day they get to host the Clippers.

timberwolves small icon 27. Timberwolves (7-19, LW 26). This team shows flashes that give you hope — such as the 21-point come-from-behind win in Chicago last week. Then they turn around and blow a 12-point lead with two minutes left and fall to the Rockets on Sunday. Is Tom Thibodeau able to reach the young core players of the Timberwolves, or are they tuning him out already?

Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (7-20, LW 28). Going into the season, Brett Brown told us he wanted to try out different big man combinations to see what fits and what doesn’t. Last year we learned Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel is a poor paring (Noel is now glued to the bench). This year learning that Joel Embiid and Okafor don’t work well together, they get killed on defense. Is Dario Saric the long-term answer at the four?

Mavericks small icon 29. Mavericks (7-20, LW 29). Dirk Nowitzki says he wants to be back by the end of the month, but nobody is sure if that will happen. No Andrew Bogut for a while either. If you’re looking for a bright spot (outside the play of Harrison Barnes), we’re sorry about this: The Mavericks are about to play six-of-seven games on the road, where they are 1-12 so far this season.

Nets small icon 30. Nets (7-19, LW 30). Jeremy Lin is back on the court, which makes this team far more entertaining to watch but not much better — they lost to the Sixers last week (they did get a win over a tired, traveling Lakers team). More bad news, the schedule this week is the Raptors, Warriors, and Cavaliers. Ouch.

Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers completes pass to become part owner of Bucks

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Aaron Rodgers is regularly be seen courtside at Milwaukee Bucks games, having professed his love of the sport many times. Here was there Friday night for the Bucks’ Game 3 win, sitting courtside with girlfriend Danica Patrick.

This time, he was doing it as part owner of the team.

Milwaukee announced between the first and second quarters that the Packers QB1 is now part-owner of the Bucks, having bought a minority stake in the team.

“I have proudly called Wisconsin my home for the past 13 years, and I am thankful for the friendships and the opportunities I have been given to live and play here,” Rodgers in a released statement. “I am excited and honored to deepen my connection to the region by joining Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, Jamie Dinan, Mike Fascitelli and the ownership group of the Milwaukee Bucks. As a huge fan of the NBA and the sport of basketball, this is a dream come true for me, and I look forward to furthering my affinity for Wisconsin sports as a minority owner in a team I love and support.”

Rodgers is a California native who attended Cal in the Bay Area for college and now — like many an NBA player — splits his time between living where he works in Wisconsin and Southern California.

This is a smart time to buy into the Bucks — and not just because they won Friday. Milwaukee moves into a brand new building next season which should generate a lot more revenue for the franchise. Plus, the Bucks are poised to make a leap forward in the East as a team behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and a solid supporting cast (likely led by a new coach next season), which will lead to more revenue as they become a team to see on the road, one that fills buildings.

Pelicans look to pull off sweep of Trail Blazers

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Before the 2017-18 regular season began, any conversation regarding the New Orleans Pelicans and brooms had something to do with the possibility the team would clean house.

That would have meant parting ways with coach Alvin Gentry and general manager Dell Demps if the Pelicans missed the playoffs for a third consecutive year despite having one of the NBA’s best players in Anthony Davis.

But now, the broom means something very different.

Energized on both ends of the court, the Pelicans have the broom ready Saturday at the Smoothie King Center to sweep the faltering Portland Trail Blazers out of the Western Conference playoffs with a fourth consecutive victory in the first-round series.

With a win Saturday, the Pelicans would become the first playoff team seeded sixth or lower to sweep a first-round playoff series since the 2001 Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat 3-0 in a best-of-five series.

“Closeout games are the hardest,” said New Orleans guard Rajon Rondo, a 32-year-old veteran who is the Pelicans’ second-oldest player, someone who has served as an on-court coach to his younger teammates. “That’s what I’m going to try to explain to these guys. The first three might have been tough, but this last one is going to be very tough.”

In routing the Blazers 119-102 on Thursday to take a 3-0 series lead, the Pelicans fed off a raucous sellout crowd and led by as many as 33 points in the second half, allowing Gentry to rest his starters. Davis finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds while nursing a sore left thumb, and forward Nikola Mirotic, acquired after center DeMarcus Cousins went down in late January with a season-ending Achilles injury, scored a career-playoff-high 30 points, with 14 in the first quarter.

Even though Portland’s normally potent guard tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had their best game of the series — combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 102 points — Lillard had trouble shaking free of the Pelicans’ trapping defense, which forced the ball out of his hands. Lillard made just 5 of 14 shots, including 3 of 9 from 3-point range.

“They whooped our butt,” said McCollum. “They beat us in every facet of the game: loose balls, rebounds, free-throw line, energy plays, 3-pointers in transition. … You name it, and they did it.”

The Pelicans have made a conscious decision to swarm Lillard and McCollum at every opportunity, daring other Blazers to beat them. Portland hasn’t adjusted properly to the strategy. Lillard has shot 32.7 percent in the three losses.

“I don’t think (defensive assistant coach) Darren Erman has gotten the credit that he deserves,” Gentry said. “He put together a great defensive game plan. It was him that brought the game plan to me and said, ‘This is what I want to do against them.'”

“You have to continue to mix it up and give them different looks,” Gentry added. “Even doing that, those guys got some shots off and made some real difficult shots. We’ve just got to make sure that we stay locked in and not let them get into one of those zones when it starts to go in and it doesn’t matter what kind of shot they’re shooting that it’s going to go in.”

Making matters worse for the Blazers is their injury status. Both Moe Harkless (left knee) and Evan Turner (right toe) are questionable for Game 4.

Portland coach Terry Stotts said the Pelicans have been tough to handle because a different player each night has shredded the Blazers’ defense.

“Going into the series, those four guys (Davis, Jrue Holiday, Mirotic and Rondo) have played extremely well,” Stotts said. “(Mirotic) is the third different guy who’s had a 30-point night. He’s very efficient, and he made a lot of smart basketball plays as well.”

Heat’s Justise Winslow fined $15,000 for stepping on Embiid’s mask

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NEW YORK (AP) Miami’s Justise Winslow has been fined $15,000 by the NBA for attempting to damage Philadelphia center Joel Embiid‘s facemask during Game 3 of their playoff series.

Winslow intentionally stepped on Embiid’s mask after it had fallen onto the court with 7:51 remaining in the second quarter of the 76ers’ 128-108 victory on Thursday night.

The NBA cited Winslow for unsportsmanlike conduct in announcing the penalty Friday.

Embiid was wearing the mask for the first time after returning from a 10-game absence caused by a broken orbital bone around his left eye.

Philadelphia leads the series 2-1. Game 4 is Saturday.

Defense found: Bucks overwhelm Celtics for 116-92 win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored 23 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 19 and the Milwaukee Bucks used a dominating first half to overwhelm the Boston Celtics 116-92 on Friday night, narrowing their deficit in the first-round playoff series to 2-1.

Eric Bledsoe and Jabari Parker each added 17 for the energized Bucks, who held the Celtics without a field goal for nearly an 11-minute stretch of the first half.

Milwaukee found its defense after a disheartening 14-point loss in Game 2, getting contributions from up and down the roster.

Backup center Thon Maker scored 14 points and had five of the Bucks’ 12 blocks. Pesky guard Matthew Dellavedova, a veteran of a championship run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, helped hold young Celtics point guard Terry Rozier to nine points on 2-of-7 shooting.

“The activity, if you take the stat sheet out of it, the activity and the energy that we brought … as you go through the game, that’s what you need, is the energy first,” coach Joe Prunty said.

Al Horford scored 16 for the Celtics, who fell behind by 23 at halftime and got no closer than 76-62 with 3:06 left in the third quarter on Jayson Tatum‘s 3-pointer.

The game was so well in hand that the Bucks closed out the victory even with Antetokounmpo on the bench for much of the fourth quarter with five fouls. Middleton had eight points in the fourth.

Game 4 is Sunday in Milwaukee. The Celtics will need to get off to a much better start if they want to avoid going home for Game 5 with a 2-2 series tie.

“We got into a hole. This is new for our group,” Horford said. “They had it going … and we really didn’t have an answer for them tonight.”

Milwaukee hustled for loose balls and stayed active around the paint, used its length to get deflections and disrupt Boston in the lane.

The 7-foot-1 Maker, in particular, provided a huge boost to help Milwaukee counter what had been a decisive edge off the bench for the Celtics. Maker got extended minutes only because starting center John Henson missed the game with a sore back.

Nearly everything else went Milwaukee’s way, too.

Parker, who voiced displeasure this week after playing just 24 minutes over the first two games, was 7 of 12 from the field and played 30 minutes. Bledsoe, outplayed by Rozier in the first two games, shot 8 of 13.

“Good win, lots of positives tonight. Quick turnaround … so we’ll have to do it again on Sunday,” Prunty said.