Al-Farouq Aminu

Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings: Boston moves into second, Minnesota into top five

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The Warriors have the top spot in the rankings on lockdown now (especially with Stephen Curry back), but there’s plenty of movement below them — Houston is sliding, Boston is climbing, and Minnesota has pushed into the Top 5 behind strong recent play (the question is if it is sustainable).

Also, remember just 12 days to get your All-Star vote in.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (29-8 Last Week No. 1). Golden State doesn’t have a traditional rim protector in the rotation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t protect the rim — the Warriors are averaging a league-leading 8.4 blocks per game (Toronto is second at 5.9, the NBA record is the 85-86 Washington team at 8.7). On the other end of the court, Stephen Curry is back, draining 10 threes in his return (the Warriors were 27th in league in three-point percentage while he was out). Kevin Durant should score his 20,000th point this week (likely Thursday vs. Houston).

 
Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (30-10, LW 4). Boston has played more games than any team so far, in part because they only have one game the week they go to London in January (vs. Sixers), but it means there will be time to rest players down the stretch. The Celtics take on the Cavaliers Wednesday night, the first time they have met since opening night, but much like that game don’t read too much into this one (both teams will be different come the playoffs). Also, Isaiah Thomas will not play for the Cavs (back-to-back) but he will get love from the Boston fans, even if there is no tribute (at IT’s request).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (25-10, LW 3). Toronto may have won 14-of-17, but they did it against a soft part of the schedule. That is changing, the tests are coming. They lost at OKC last week, then got a franchise-record 52 from DeMar DeRozan to beat Milwaukee Monday, and that was the first of nine January games against teams over .500, including the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Spurs. Toronto may have its best team ever this season, but the next few weeks will tell us how real the recent run has been.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (26-9, LW 2). Chris Paul is back, but the Rockets lost five in a row before beating the Lakers (in 2OT), and now they will be without MVP candidate James Harden for a few weeks with a strained hamstring. The offense should be fine when CP3 is on the court, but Mike D’Antoni is going to have to start trusting his bench. More importantly, their defense has slipped of late (in part due to injuries) — allowing 110.9 points per 100, 26th in the league in the last 10 games — and that end needs to pick up to carry the team through the next month without Harden (give or take).

 
5. Timberwolves (24-14, LW 7). The Timberwolves went 10-5 in December, but a dozen of those games were within 5 points in the final 5 minutes — good teams don’t win more close games, they win more blowouts. When things get tight, the Timberwolves lean heavily on Jimmy Butler, but now he has less help with Jeff Teague out (sprained MCL), meaning there is one less shot creator and three point shooter on the court. Minnesota has played the fifth easiest schedule in the league, but that changes in January with 11 opponents over .500.

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (26-12, LW 6). The Spurs lost by 14 to the Pistons Saturday, the team’s 8th double-digit loss this season — that’s how many they had all of last season. Part of those losses is the team was without Kawhi Leonard to start the season and they are still easing him in (although he had 25 points vs. Knicks). However, another part of it is an inconsistent offense that is 22nd in the NBA over the last 10 games. With the Spurs’ win Tuesday over the Knicks, Gregg Popovich passed George Karl for fifth on the all-time coaching win list.

 
Cavaliers small icon 7. Cavaliers (25-12 LW 5). Isaiah Thomas is back (17 points in 19 minutes in his return), and just in time as the Cavaliers need him to lighten the load on LeBron James, who has played the most minutes of anyone in the league to this point. That’s going to take time as Thomas will be eased back into the rotation, and will not play in Boston Wednesday (second night of a back-to-back). The Cavaliers have the toughest schedule in the NBA in December (12 opponents over .500) and they need all that Thomas can give them.

 
Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (20-17 LW 8).. Oklahoma City was losing a lot of close games early in the season, then went on a hot streak when they started to win those games. Close losses to the Bucks and Mavericks last weekend (both at home) show that being in close games is a crap shoot, even if you have Russell Westbrook on the roster. OKC could use some easy wins but has five-of-six coming up on the road. That said, the swing through Los Angeles (both teams) and Phoenix are winnable games this week.

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (21-16, LW 9). The Wizards are 11-6 vs. teams over .500 this season, including a nice Christmas Day win over the Celtics, but they are 10-10 against teams below .500. You can spin that as they are a good team when focused, but they are not building good habits and those losses will keep them down in the standings and make their push through the playoffs that much more difficult. Sorry Wizards fans, but nobody is ducking you.

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (20-15, LW 11). Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond are first and second in total screens set in the entire NBA this season, according to the NBA’s Second Spectrum player tracking data. The Pistons have a middle-of-the-pack NBA offense, mostly because they lack a real shot creator who can get the ball in isolation and make things happen (especially with Reggie Jackson out with his sprained ankle), so they set more picks off the ball to create looks. It’s worked fairly well.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (19-17, LW 10). Jamal Murray is the barometer for this team — Nikola Jokic is the guy who makes the offense work, but the offense is 9.6 points per 100 possessions better when Jamal Murray is on the floor because he’s a threat to score. When Jokic and Murray are on the court together, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. The next step in Murrays’ evolution is playmaking (2.7 assists per game is low), but he’s become the clear point guard of the future.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (19-16 LW 14). The Bucks continue to struggle defensively (25th in the NBA in their last 10 games, 23rd on the season). On the bright side, Milwaukee allows the fewest transition opportunities in the NBA (but teams that can run on them score at a high percentage). However, where they struggle is closing out on spot-up shooters — those long Bucks athletes are good isolation defenders, but move the ball to an open shooter and the Bucks don’t rattle their shooters.

 
Heat small icon 13. Heat (19-17, LW 13). While Hassan Whiteside was out, the Heat found a playing style that worked — smaller, faster, moving the ball and spacing the floor. Fitting Whiteside back into that has been hit and miss so far. Miami has gone 2-1 since his return, but both wins are against Orlando so the opponents this week (Pistons, Knicks, Raptors) will be a better test.

 
Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (18-18, LW 15). When the Pelicans signed Rajon Rondo late last summer, I wasn’t sold on the fit, but it turns out his high IQ passing is what the team needs. When he is on the court, the Pelicans offense is 4.6 points per 100 possessions better, and when he is on the court with Jrue Holiday the Pelicans outscore opponents by 2.4 per 100. Last Wednesday was the Rajon Rondo show, as he dished out 25 assists against Brooklyn.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (19-18, LW 17). Damian Lillard missed six games after tweaking his hamstring, but Portland went 4-2 in that stretch, thanks in part to big nights from C.J. McCollum, plus big shots from Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu. Tuesday’s loss to the Cavaliers is the start of a string of tough games, including the Spurs, Thunder, and Rockets in a row.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (16-19 LW 19). Los Angeles has won four in a row and 6-of-7, and now sits just one game out of the final playoff slot in the West. Also, hey have Blake Griffin back in the fold. Will Los Angeles make a push to get into the postseason, or will it trade DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams in an effort to jump start a retooling of the roster? The buzz around the league is they’re thinking playoffs more than retool, and they have a long run of home games (and the road games are in California this month), a push up the standings could well influence the big decisions.

 
Pacers small icon 17. Pacers (19-18, LW 12). Indiana is not the same without Victor Oladipo (thanks, Capt. Obvious) having dropped three games in a row, and he is expected to miss more time due to a sore right knee. Indiana is just one game ahead of the Knicks for the final playoff slot in the East right now, and with New York heading out on the road more (where they struggle) this time was a chance for Indy to create some space in the standings. The good news is they have four games at home after Wednesday night’s tilt with the Bucks in Milwaukee.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (17-19, LW 18). The Sixers are just 1.5 games out of the playoffs, and it continues to be their offense that holds them back — specifically turnovers. Philly turns the ball over on 17.7% of their non-garbage time possessions, far and away the league leader (stats via Cleaning the Glass). That said, they finally won a game Joel Embiid sat last week. Tough schedule coming up, get through that well and they have a shot at the postseason.

 
Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (13-24 LW 22).. Chicago’s run winning 8-of-10 ended with a couple straight losses to Washington and Portland, still the Bulls are 10-4 since Nikola Mitotic returned to the lineup. The biggest surprise during the run has been the play of Kris Dunn, who is confidently is running the offense and averaging 16 points a game over his last five. He looks like a solid rotation point guard who can be part of the future in Chicago.

 
Knicks small icon 20. Knicks (18-19, LW 16). The Knicks really miss Tim Hardaway Jr. — without him their three point shooting is anemic, and their floor spacing disintegrates. The Knicks are 24th in the NBA in offense over the last 10 games. The Knicks just went 1-2 on a three game road trip, are 3-12 for the season on the road, and have a dozen games away from Madison Square Garden in January.

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (16-21, LW 20). How you know Donovan Mitchell has arrived — he went up against LeBron James last Saturday, ran the offense for the Jazz down the stretch (while Ricky Rubio sat), and Utah got the win. In his last 15 games Mitchell is averaging 22.7 points on 50.6% shooting, and hitting 37.5% from three. It’s both a great find by the Jazz and a credit to one of the best player development programs in the NBA under Quin Snyder.

 
Suns small icon 22. Suns (15-24, LW 23). Devin Booker and T.J. Warren both had more than 30 points in a win over Atlanta Tuesday, and now the Suns have won 3-of-4 (albeit against some of the worst teams in the league). Interesting to note that Gregg Monroe, who the Suns acquired in the Eric Bledsoe trade with the Bucks, has been racking up a lot of DNP-CDs lately. The Suns may try to move Monroe at the trade deadline, and failing that don’t be shocked if he gets bought out then hooks up with another team.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (13-25 LW 26). Winners of four in a row — three on the road and all of them games that were close late. Rookie point guard with the keys to the franchise Dennis Smith Jr. is looking more comfortable, both in those clutch games and from three where his is hitting 44.4% in his last 10 games (on 3.6 attempts per game). The Mavs have 8-of-11 at home coming up.

 
Hornets small icon 24. Hornets (14-23, LW 21). Charlotte has played the toughest schedule in the NBA to this point, but that eases up on them in January (starting with them crushing the Kings on Tuesday). Charlotte is 2-1 through the start of a four-game road trip, including beating the Warriors in Oracle Arena last Friday on a night the good Dwight Howard showed up — he protected the rim, knocked down midrange jumpers, and showed deft passing skills. Wish we saw that Howard every game.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (14-23, LW 24). Jahlil Okafor is expected to be in the Nets rotation starting this week, getting his chance to prove his game can fit in the modern NBA, and to earn his next contract. We don’t have an official timetable for D’Angelo Russell’s return yet, although that’s expected later this month by most. With no Russell or Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie has shown he has great shooting range and can work as an NBA rotation point guard.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (12-26, LW 28). Memphis wants to be a defense-first team that gets enough offense to rack up wins. In their last 10 games, the Grizzlies are 21st in the NBA in defense, allowing 109.6 per 100. They are 18th in the NBA on the season. The Grizzlies went a respectable 2-3 on a recent five-game homestand and now have 9-of-11 at home.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (12-25, LW 27). If you’re looking for a bright spot in Sacramento, Willie Cauley-Stein may be playing the best basketball of his career of late. He’s averaged 14.8 points per game in his last five, shooting 56.4% from the floor, and is grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game (with three assists, also). The Kings are 1-3 on a homestand going on right now, and it doesn’t get easier with the Nuggets and Spurs next up at the Golden 1 Center.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (10-27, LW 29). If you’re looking for a bright spot in Atlanta, watch rookie John Collins — he leads all rookies in PER at 21.2. He’s averaging 11.1 points and 7.1 rebounds a night in limited minutes off the bench (just under 23 a game), but he’s shooting 58.6 percent. Plus he leaps out of the building (dunk contest?). Tuesday’s loss in Phoenix was the first game of a five-game swing through the West for the Suns.

 
Lakers small icon 29. Lakers (11-25 LW 25). Losers of seven in a row, Los Angeles should get both Lonzo Ball and Brook Lopez back in the next week, which will help on the court — the Lakers are playing almost four possessions per game slower with Ball out of the rotation. The Lakers were focused and playing solid defense earlier in the season, but in their past 10 games Los Angeles is allowing 111.4 points per game, 28th in the league.

 
Magic small icon 30. Magic (12-26, LW 30). Remember when this team started 8-4, Aaron Gordon couldn’t seem to miss and we thought Frank Vogel had started to put the misfit pieces of this team together? Seems like eons ago now. They are 4-22 since, and while injuries have certainly played a role in that the Magic have been flat out terrible at both ends of the court and have lost 11-of-12. Their next two games are at home vs. Houston and Cleveland, followed by 5-of-6 on the road, it’s hard to find room for optimism.

Three Things to Know: James Harden out weeks, Rockets’ Chris Paul’s now

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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) James Harden out for a few weeks with a hamstring strain, Rocket now become Chris Paul’s team.
When reports started to come out of the Rockets’ locker room New Year’s Eve that James Harden was limping around with his hamstring injury, you knew it was bad. Houston announced Harden has a Grade 2 hamstring strain (which means a partial tear of the muscle), and while he will be re-evaluated in two weeks the reality is he is likely out a month or so (based on history with this injury). Hamstring injuries are not ones where it’s just matter of playing through the pain, the muscle needs to be allowed to heal completely or it is very easy to re-injure.

It’s a blow because Harden has been playing at an MVP level this season — 32.3 points per game, 9.1 assists, and shooting 39 percent from three (Harden’s injury appears to put LeBron James in the MVP lead at the halfway point of the season). The Rockets have been the second-best team in the NBA this season, and it’s because of Harden (and an improved defense).

Houston is Chris Paul’s team now — and the Rocket offense has been 7.9 points per 100 possessions better with CP3 on the court this season. However, most of Paul’s minutes are with Harden on the court too, no lineup has played more than 22 minutes with Paul but without Harden (via NBA.com). Houston’s defense, which has slipped of late (26th in the NBA over the last 10 games allowing 110.9 points per 100 possessions) needs to be rejuvenated fast. The Houston offense should be fine when CP3 is on the court running the show, but Mike D’Antoni does not like to go deep into his bench and now needs to. He’s going to have to stagger Paul and Eric Gordon to keep more playmaking on the floor at all times, and guys such as Bobby Brown or just acquired Gerald Green are going to need to get run then step up.

Elite teams survive injuries, and the Rockets are an elite team, but they are going to take a step back without Harden, no doubt. Also, this Thursday’s showdown with Golden State lost a little luster.

2) DeMar DeRozan is a beast, drops Raptors-record 52 on Bucks. DeMar DeRozan still takes a lot of midrange jumpers — 61 percent of his shot attempts this season — but that number is down (from 71 percent last season) and he has replaced those with more threes and more shots at the rim.

We saw that in action Monday night when DeRozan dropped 52 on the Bucks — he was 5-of-9 from three, plus he attacked the rim more and shot 6-of-7 inside the restricted area (plus got to the line six times).

This game also showed why Toronto can be a threat to Boston and Cleveland in the playoffs because of the shifts in their offense. DeRozan had 21 points in the first quarter, so the Bucks adjusted their defense to focus on him, and that’s when he switched into a playmaker mode and set up teammates. He was moving the ball, and the Raptors kept on scoring. Combine that with an improved defense this season and this may be the best Raptors team we have seen in this recent run. They are a real threat to make the conference finals.

3) C.J. McCollum takes over the second half, leads Trail Blazers past the Bulls with 32 points. With Damian Lillard out injured (he is expected to return Tuesday in Cleveland) it has been the McCollum show for the Blazers.

Monday night he had 25 of his points after halftime, and he scored Portland’s final six points in overtime, to help his team steal a win from a hot Bulls team. He got some help, Al-Farouq Aminu had a couple of key threes late in regulation, but it was a big night from McCollum that got Portland a quality road win.

Watch C.J. McCollum drop 32 to lead Blazers over Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) — C.J. McCollum scored 25 of his 32 points after halftime, including the tiebreaking basket with 56.5 seconds remaining in overtime, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Chicago Bulls 124-120 on Monday night.

Al-Farouq Aminu added a season-high 24 points and Evan Turner also had his season best with 22 for Portland, which was without leading scorer Damian Lillard for a fifth straight game.

Kris Dunn scored 22 points and Nikola Mirotic had 18 points off the bench for Chicago, which blew a late lead for a second straight game. The Bulls lost for only the fourth time in 14 games since Mirotic returned to the lineup.

Lauri Markkanen finished with 19 points, including a jumper from the corner that tied it at 120 with 1:14 left in overtime.

McCollum then made his short floater and added a pair of late free throws.

McCollum and Aminu, who made 5-of-6 3-pointers after halftime, carried the Blazers’ offense as they rallied from a seven-point deficit.

After scoring four straight points to tie it at 112, McCollum missed two tries to pull ahead in the final 36 seconds of regulation.

Led by Mirotic and Bobby Portis, the Bulls’ bench helped them overcome a sluggish start. Each had nine points in a second quarter in which Chicago’s reserves outscored Portland’s 18-7. Mirotic hit a deep 3-pointer with 5:21 left before the half to give the Bulls a 43-39 lead after they trailed by as many as 10 points early.

Portis finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. Neither Mirotic nor Portis played the final 7 1/ 2 minutes of regulation or overtime.

Pat Connaughton had 16 points for Portland.

 

Trail Blazers: Al-Farouq Aminu out 2-3 weeks

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The Trail Blazers were absolutely right to dump highly paid Allen Crabbe on Brooklyn while they had the chance.

But they were also going to miss Crabbe’s frontcourt floor-spacing complementing Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Thankfully for Portland, starting power forward Al-Farouq Aminu has stepped up. Aminu has taken half shots this season from beyond the arc and made 43% of them (13-of-30). He also has played solid defense for a team trying to make strides on that end.

But now the Trail Blazers will miss Aminu, too.

Jason Quick of CSN Northwest:

Noah Vonleh, who just returned from his own injury, started in Portland’s win over the Lakers last night. He doesn’t nearly provide the floor balance Aminu does.

Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins could also get bigger roles off the bench, but they’re playing like the rookies they are – Swanigan one who’s experiencing up and downs, Collins one who’s in completely over his head. They should get better with experience, but Portland might have to put more on their plates than desirable.

In what’s shaping up to be a stiff competition for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference, Aminu’s absence could loom large.

Watch Damian Lillard hit the game-winner over the Lakers (VIDEO)

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It was closer than it should have been in a poor defensive contest, but fans in Portland tonight are humming after a game-winning shot by Damian Lillard with 0.7 seconds left gave the Trail Blazers the win over the Los Angeles Lakers, 113-110.

Portland started by giving up a game-tying 3-pointer to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 16 seconds left. That shot came on a simple pindown to the near corner with Blazers guard CJ McCollum trailing and failing to close out on LA’s guard.

That made it 110-110 with a quarter minute to go and with only one player that could take the final shot: Lillard.

Via Twitter:

Lillard calmly dribbled up the floor and let time run out as LA’s Brandon Ingram prepared to guard him. Lillard, who was always going to take the step-back 3-pointer, released with just 2.6 seconds left on the clock.

The crowd at the Moda Center went nuts, and the shot gave Portland the 3-point win they so desperately needed.

The Trail Blazers are in trouble, even if they played Thursday’s game without Al-Farouq Aminu due to a right leg injury. They look bad on defense, and can’t afford any injuries. To go along with that, they’ve played discombobulated on offense and Jusuf Nurkic is only just starting to come around on that side of the ball.

The win is a nice feather in their cap, and fans in Oregon will be hoping this is the start of a little run heading into the holidays.