Damian Lillard

NBA Power Rankings: Detroit, Minnesota crash top five party

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A few weeks into the season and we’re starting to see which hot starts are for real — Boston, Detroit — and which teams are coming back to earth (Orlando). The top three on this list have started to separate themselves from the pack… for now, it’s a long season.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (9-2, Last Week No. 1). When Gordon Hayward went down, one of the expected drop offs was that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were young players about to be thrust into much larger roles, and how were they going to handle it? Turns out, just fine. For example, the pair has shot 35-of-71 (49.3%) during team’s a nine-game win streak, plus they are part of a very switchable perimeter defense. They have been fantastic

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (8-3 LW 3). Their offense hasn’t just been good, it’s been all-time good to start the season. The Warriors are averaging 116.4 points per 100 possessions, that is 7.5 more than the second-place Cavaliers and 1.8 per 100 better than the 1986-87 LA Lakers, who have the best mark of all time. As they were last season, the Warriors have been a dominant third quarter team to start this season.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (8-3, Last Week No. 4). The Rockets have started to pick up their pace again, and with that their offense has returned to being a force — then James Harden exploded, dropping 56 points on a very good Utah defense. Tough week with the Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Pacers, and Raptors ahead, but if Harden does this again the Rockets will be just fine.

Pistons small icon 4. Pistons (7-3, LW 10). Detroit is off to its fastest start in nine years, and one key reason is the play of Anthony Tolliver off the bench, particularly defensively. While a lot of attention has gone to Andre Drummond shooting 75% from the free throw line (with good reason), he also has improved true shooting percentage (59%), assist rate (doubled it to 12.2%), and his rebound rate (which was already the best in the league and is now at 25.8%). Drummond has been a beast.

 
5. Timberwolves (7-3, LW 14). Winners of five in a row, and it’s not a coincidence it started with the return of Jimmy Butler to the lineup — they are 8.4 points per 100 possessions better when Butler is on the court. As Zach Lowe noted on Twitter, it’s not because he is dominating the ball, he has the fifth highest usage rate on the team, it’s because of his defense, and he is being efficient on offense.

 
Grizzlies small icon 6. Grizzlies (7-4, LW 2). The Grizzlies are 2-1 so far into a five-game road trip, splitting a pair in Los Angeles then winning in Portland. Tyreke Evans is impressing off the bench, averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 43.1 percent from three. Watching him live this week he is moving well — which is amazing considering the knee injury he is coming off of — and hitting shots his coach wishes he wouldn’t take. So, vintage Evans.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (6-4, LW 11). The Spurs offense has not been consistent without Kawhi Leonard, as one would expect. San Antonio is 19th in the NBA in offensive rating, and they no longer shoot threes the same way (22.6 attempts per game, 29th in the league). What is surprising is their usually stout defense (even without Leonard) has fallen to 11th in the league. San Antonio’s ability to execute and not beat themselves works against the Hornets and Suns, but not against the Celtics and Warriors, where they lost.

 
Knicks small icon 8. Knicks (6-4, LW 20). While all the attention is focused on Kristaps Porzingis (he did have a monster week), the Knicks are 6-1 since steady veteran Jarrett Jack was made the starting point guard. He keeps the offense moving and puts the ball in the right place. Porzingis — who gets compared to Dirk Nowitzki all the time but reminds me more of a better Andrei Kirilenko — dropped 40 on a Pacers defense Sunday.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (6-4, LW 9). DeMar DeRozan is still a guy who gets his buckets in the midrange, but one thing is different this season — he is attacking earlier in the shot clock, rather than letting the defense set. It’s worked, his true shooting percentage is up to a career high 57.1% this season. After a respectable 3-3 road trip through the West, the Raptors came home and got beat by the Wizards without John Wall, a tough loss in this East.

 
Magic small icon 10. Magic (6-4, LW 7). Injuries to their top two point guards — Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin — set this team back against Chicago and Boston, and it continued a slide for an offense that was hot early (No. 2 in the NBA) but has since regressed to the middle of the pack. Payton should return Wednesday against the Knicks. Aaron Gordon has shown no signs of slowing down his hot shooting.

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (6-4, LW 21). What team leads the NBA in passes made per game? You guessed it, the Sixers. Rookie point guard/power forward Ben Simmons is averaging the most passes made per game of any player in the league. Those are good signs for the future and speaks to a selfless team. Tuesday night in Utah (a Philly win) started a five-game road trip that includes facing the Warriors and both Los Angeles teams.

 
Blazers small icon 12. Trail Blazers (6-5 LW 13). Damian Lillard remains one of the most clutch players in the NBA. Look at it this way: Lillard shoots 42.3% in the first quarter, 32.4% in the second, 37.9% in the third, then suddenly 54.3% overall and 43.8% from four in the fourth. He was getting to the line late against the Thunder, then against the Lakers he did this.

 
Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (6-5 LW 19). This needs to be pointed out: DeMarcus Cousins is putting in real effort on defense and doing well. It’s small sample size theater, but the Pelicans’ defense is 7.1 points per 100 possessions better when Cousins is playing this season (granted, being paired with Davis for a chunk of that time helps). The Pelicans are feasting on weaker teams this season, but that’s a start.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (6-5, LW 22). Last season after the All-Star break — when the Nugget offense was the best in the NBA — they were taking 70 percent of their shots either at the rim or from three. This season that has fallen to 58.2 percent and that is part of the reason their offense is off 5 points per 100. The Nuggets are 3-1 in their current six game homestand after a win over the Nets (tougher matches with the Thunder and Magic are ahead).

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (5-5, LW 16). Kemba Walker is once again brilliant and once again overlooked. This season he has averaged 21.8 points per game and is hitting a solid 37.1 percent from three. More importantly, the Hornets are 30.3 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court.The Hornets started a four-game road trip 0-3 with Boston still remaining.

 
Wizards small icon 16. Wizards (5-5, LW 8). The Wizards have a soft schedule for the next week plus, giving them a chance to bank some wins, but the problem is this team does not bring its focus against weaker teams. As evidence, look at the home loss to Dallas on Tuesday night. The Wizards want to be contenders but championship level teams bring it nightly. John Wall missed a couple games with a shoulder injury but returned Tuesday.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (5-5 LW 5). The Clippers just stumbled through a 1-4 homestand where you understand the loss to the Warriors but the other ones hurt, and it’s due to their defense completely falling apart (second worst in the NBA over the past six games). Tuesday’s loss to San Antonio started eight of nine on the road and that includes facing the Thunder and Cavaliers, it’s a tough stretch for a slumping L.A. that could see them tumble down these rankings and the standings.

 
Lakers small icon 18. Lakers (5-5 LW 23). Brook Lopez has been a fantastic big for what the Lakers want to do — he is their best three point shooter, a good passer, and can get buckets down low (they go to him in the post on mismatches after a switch). The Lakers start a four-game road trip in Boston on Wednesday, where Lonzo Ball matches up with Kyrie Irving.

 
Pacers small icon 19. Pacers (5-6, LW 18). Myles Turner is back, which has bumped Domantas Sabonis to the second unit — and that could be a good thing. Sabonis has been fantastic as the guy the offense ran through with the starters, if he can boost the bench it’s a big help in Indy. The loss to the Suns stings, but serves as a reminder that teams struggling on defense — the Pacers are 24th in the league this season — are more likely to have ugly losses. Indy needs to improve on that end of the court.

 
Cavaliers small icon 20. Cavaliers (5-6 LW 17). Four of the five Cleveland wins have come against the Bucks, Wizards, and Celtics — the Cavaliers show up and care against teams seen as a perceived threat. They don’t other nights. LeBron played the best game of the season last Friday night against Washington, scoring 57 points and single-handedly ending the Cavs four-game losing streak. To do that in his 15th NBA season is insane. But it just put a Band-Aid over the Cavaliers woes, and their worst in the league defense. The Cavs biggest defensive problem is not chasing teams off the arc and not contesting out there — teams are shooing 41.9 percent from three against them.

 
Thunder small icon 21. Thunder (4-6 LW 6).. Their defense is second best in the NBA, but the offense remains people taking turns going in isolation, not playing like a team. They have thrown the fewest passes of any team in the league. Carmelo Anthony is taking one more three and seeing one or two fewer possessions a game in OKC, but aside that his numbers are almost identical to his last season in New York. Things are not changing for him. Anthony needs 12 points to pass Hall of Famer and former teammate Allen Iverson for 24th on the all-time scoring list.

 
Jazz small icon 22. Jazz (5-6, LW 15). Utah’s offense is 8.5 points per 100 possessions better when Rudy Gobert is sitting? There’s no one simple answer as to why, but with Ricky Rubio at the point the pick-and-roll with Gobert has no threat of someone taking an outside shot, so the spacing becomes all muddled. Rubio is being more aggressive shooting the ball this season, especially from three, but his hitting just 29.8 percent of them.

 
Bucks small icon 23. Bucks (4-6 LW 12). After dropping three straight and feeling like this might be another season they take a step back, the Bucks made the big move and traded for Eric Bledsoe. That will help the rotations: Bledsoe will start, pushing Malcolm Brogdon to the second unit, and Matthew Dellavedova out of the rotation (a good thing, he’s been awful). Ideally Tony Snell gets fewer shots. On paper this is a smart gamble, now we will see if it pays off.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (4-6, LW 24). Hassan Whiteside returned last Wednesday and they needed him — he helped get the win over the Bulls then had 21 and 17 against the Clippers. The Heat just need consistency out of him now. Miami has started 1-2 on a six game road trip, and they have eight road games and three home games the rest of this month.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (4-7, LW 26). The Nets are averaging 109.2 possessions per game (via NBA.com), 3.5 possessions faster than the second place Suns, but combine pace and a bad defense and you have five guys having dropped at least 30 points on the Nets this season. Brooklyn has dropped five of its last six, and suddenly all that talk about the pick the Cavaliers got not being all that good has been silenced.

 
Suns small icon 26. Suns (4-7, LW 25). After the Suns sent Eric Bledsoe home, they gave up all their leverage, so the first-round pick they just got back for him — despite all the odd protections — is about as good as they were going to do. The question now is can the Suns flip Greg Monroe for more assets from another trade? Probably, but they are not going to get much in return as every team knows they want to dump him.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (2-7 LW 30). Bobby Portis is back in the rotation and didn’t look bad in his first game against the Raptors. Lauri Markkanen remains impressive, and is second in the NBA among rookies in both points per game and rebounds (trailing Ben Simmons in both categories). With Robin Lopez as an anchor, the defense for the Bulls’ starting five is pretty good, but get into the bench and things get ugly fast.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (2-8, LW 27). They still have the worst net rating in the NBA — -11.5 per 100 possessions — but the win over the Thunder Tuesday night keeps them out of the bottom of these rankings. It’s an odd mix with coach Dave Joerger trying to get minutes for George Hill (when healthy, he’s not right now), Zach Randolph, Garrett Temple and Vince Carter, and with them win games, then also be sure their young players get run to develop.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (2-9, LW 29). Their ailing offense looked good against the Cavaliers, which speaks more to Cleveland than Atlanta. Dennis Schroder is averaging 22.6 points and 6.6 assists per game, both career highs, and he’s been efficient if not consistent this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-10 LW 28). It’s been a rough start to the season (save for a nice win against Memphis last week), with Dallas having the third worst defense and seventh worst offense in the NBA this season. While seven of their remaining 10 games this month are at home, it’s a brutal schedule with the Thunder and Spurs twice each, the Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Celtics also in the mix.

Three Things to Know: Nine wins in a row and Boston’s time might be 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) Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum have Celtics thinking their time is now. The conventional wisdom coming into the season was Boston was a year away. They weren’t going to be good enough defensively (after moving Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder), their young stars such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown needed another year, and it was going to take time for Kyrie Irving and Al Horford to develop the kind of chemistry needed to go at LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

After a stretching their win streak to nine games Monday night with a 110-107 win in Atlanta — a day after the Cavaliers melted down and lost there — the Celtics are sounding a lot like Zack de la Rocha: “What better place than here, what better time than now? All hell can’t stop us now.”

Irving sealed the win scoring 8 of Boston’s final 11 points to top off his 35 on the night. All game he was carving up the Hawks in a two-man game with Horford that has become fierce already, or he would just put on a scoring clinic himself.

The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA so far, allowing just 95.9 points per 100 possessions. They have done it by holding teams to 47.7 percent eFG%, limiting the number of threes allowed, and doing a good job contesting midrange jumpers.

When Gordon Hayward went down it thrust rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year man Jaylen Brown into the spotlight and many thought before they were fully ready. Nope, they are ready and their play is another key to the Celtics nine-game win streak. Against the Hawks, Tatum had 21 points, including a key late-game three.

The Cavaliers at some point will start to play like they care, and they will figure out some of their defensive issues, but they also have some serious systemic defensive problems (a lot of minus defenders are going to have to get heavy minutes for them). It’s early, but Boston’s time might well be now, not a year from now. This team is well ahead of schedule.

2) The speculation game…. is LeBron James frustrated? And if so, at what exactly? Not long after the Celtics won their ninth in a row, LeBron James posted this meme to Instagram.

Mood…

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

It’s a meme from Arthur meant to express frustration.

So what is LeBron frustrated about? That the Celtics are hot and look like a real threat to the Cavaliers? That Boston and its new players have come together quickly as a team while the Cavaliers look dazed and confused on the court? That Kyrie Irving has looked brilliant this young season and seems to have made a good decision for himself?

In the comments, Damian Lillard said: “This post hella funny.”

Also in the comments, Isaiah Thomas wrote, “Need me to handle somebody cuz?” No, I think he just needs you back on the court sooner rather than later.

3) Nike making substantive changes to jerseys after series of high-profile tears to them. LeBron James had his jersey split open on opening night on national television, right down the back. Later that night, Tyler Ennis of the Lakers had his jersey tear and basically come apart after a not-that-hard pull on it from an opponent. Last week it was Ben Simmons whose jersey tore apart after a not very aggressive tug from an opponent. Then Kevin Love just ripped his own jersey with no problem. The new Nike jerseys have looked like old football tearaway jerseys.

Monday night Nike — which took over the NBA apparel contract starting this season on an eight-year, $1 billion deal —  released a statement to ESPN’s Darren Rovell saying changes were coming to the jerseys.

“…we have worked hard to create the most advanced uniforms in the history of the NBA. They are lighter and deliver great mobility and sweat wicking characteristics, and the feedback from players has been overwhelmingly positive. However, during gameplay we have seen a small number of athletes experience significant jersey tears. We are very concerned to see any game day tear and are working to implement a solution that involves standardizing the embellishment process and enhancing the seam strength of game day jerseys.”

Exactly what form all this will take, and how long it will take to get the players is not known, but this is a good step. As the physicality of the NBA season picks up as it moves along (as it always does), this problem would have gotten worse.

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.

Three Things to Know: Damian Lillard knows what time it is

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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) Damian Lillard knows what time it is, drains game winner to beat Lakers. Portland was hot all night from three, starting the game 6-of-7 from deep and racing out to an 18-point lead early. The young Lakers fought back to make it a game in the second and third (thanks in part to the fact Portland is terrible on defense), but more and more as the game went on Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts started calling Damian Lillard’s number, both as the pick-and-roll ball handler, and in isolation. The Lakers had no answer.

Lillard finished the night with 32 points on 18 shots, he got to the line 14 times, and when the game was on the line Stotts called for a Lillard isolation. Luke Walton countered with the very long Brandon Ingram on him (why not Kentavious Caldwell-Pope?), but it didn’t matter. It’s Lillard time.

2) Bad news: Lakers’ Larry Nance Jr. breaks hand. Good news: this is team making strides. The news first: Luke Walton is going to have to find a new starting power forward for a while because Larry Nance Jr. fractured the second metacarpal in his left hand against the Blazers and is out indefinitely. Nance left the game in the third quarter after contact with Caleb Swanigan and did not return, the Lakers say he will be evaluated by team doctors Friday and a timeline will be established. Nance has averaged 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds a game this season. Walton has to now figure out who starts in his place. Julius Randle had the starting job going into training camp and could get it back, but Walton likes Randle as a spark with the second unit so my guess is Kyle Kuzma gets the call (he had 22 points vs. Portland, but he struggles defensively). If Walton wanted to go with a veteran, Corey Brewer or Luol Deng are available.

As for the Lakers, the team is getting a little better each game, but this is what learning hard lessons feels like. The NBA is an unforgiving place. The Lakers battled back from being 18 down early and led by as many as five points in the fourth, and that’s a good sign, but closing out the Trail Blazers in Portland is hard for any team. The Lakers still have a top 10 defense this season (10th now), and they are putting out effort on that end, but their rotations are not sharp and good offenses like Portland’s will pick that apart. The Lakers’ defensive numbers will get worse, but they are improved on that end.

Lonzo Ball was much more passive than normal (0-of-2 shooting, 4 assists), not pushing the tempo in transition and not looking for his shot off picks despite the Portland big man laying off and daring him to shoot. Ball can pass, but he has to become comfortable as a shooter/scorer, that includes being better at attacking off the dribble into that space when teams play back and scoring at the rim. He’s not a threat as a scorer most nights (he scored in single digits six of the eight Lakers game) and the league is adjusting to him. Ball and Brook Lopez also learned some hard lessons about playing pick-and-roll defense, where Jusuf Nurkic tore them up as the roll man and finished with 28 points (the Laker help rotations were slow all night) and in the second half Lillard torched them. It’s a process, but Lakers fans have reason to be optimistic.

3) Spurs come out strong, go up 19 on Warriors… and it doesn’t matter. Golden State is back. San Antonio came out with great energy — they were deflecting passes and knocking the ball out of Warriors’ hands, plus contesting everything. LaMarcus Aldridge had 11 first quarter points, and after a 21-3 run the Spurs had a 19-point lead before the quarter ended.

It didn’t matter. Golden State found its groove, went on a 15-4 run before halftime and a 20-8 run to open the third quarter and that was the ballgame. The Warriors shot 51.8 percent overall, 50 percent from three, and held San Antonio 35.9-percent shooting in the second half. The Warriors we all expected are back, they have cured their championship hangover, and the rest of the league is searching for answers they will not find.

Klay Thompson had 27 points, Kevin Durant 24, and Stephen Curry had 21. Draymond Green pitched in 16 plus was key defensively, as always.

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.