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NBA Power Rankings: Can Rockets, Raptors carry impressive seasons into playoffs?

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The final power rankings come out on the final day of the season. There are no real surprises at the top, and the comments on these rankings are as much a look forward for teams as a look back at the season that was.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (65-16, Last Week No. 1). This season went as well as could have been imagined for Houston: James Harden is going to win MVP, he and Chris Paul meshed well from Day 1, and their switching defense proved to be top 10 in the league. The Rockets proved to be legitimate title contenders. They went 41-3 in games Harden, Paul and Clint Caplela all played. Their big test comes in about a month when the Western Conference Finals start — they had better be in it, and then we’ll see how they match up with Golden State.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (59-22, LW 2). Like Houston, this was as good a regular season as Toronto could have hoped for: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan stayed healthy all season and led a more egalitarian offense that moved the ball well, plus they finished the season with a top 5 offense and defense. Toronto is the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time in its history. None of that has fully eased the playoff doubts — the Raptors have never won their first playoff game (0-9) and will face a tough test (probably from Washington, although Miami or Milwaukee could still be the 8 seed).

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (58-24 LW 3). Time to flip the switch. Due to injuries and a knowledge that they both know where the switch is and can turn it on, the Warriors have coasted through the end of the season. When the Warriors four stars are all on the court the team is 31-10 during the season and remain the title favorites, but they will need to get through the first round without Stephen Curry. More importantly, they need to start defending like a champion again, that end has seen the big drop in recent weeks.

Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (51-30, LW 5). Winners of 15 in a row and with a win Wednesday night against the Bucks they keep the three seed and the easiest path through the playoffs. Keep that three seed and the path to the Eastern Conference Finals is pretty clear — if they can get Joel Embiid back soon, mask and all. They need him. Still, for a team that won 28 games games a season ago the ride this season has been nearly unprecedented.

Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (50-31 LW 7). This has seemed like four seasons in one for Cleveland, with enough drama and changes to be their own reality show. Yet at the end of it all, this is a 50-win team with the best player in the game and the Cavaliers are the team to beat in the East again. The one thing that can keep them out of another Finals trip is their defense — can LeBron James turn it on and lift this team’s D up to even league average? That will probably be good enough to make the Finals, but the Cavaliers enter the playoffs weighed down by bad defensive habits.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-33, LW 8). Back on Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500, five games out of the playoffs, and without Rudy Gobert. Since then they are 31-7 with a frightening defense (Rudy Gobert will win Defensive Player of the Year) and this is the team other top teams in the West wanted to avoid in the first round. With a win in Portland Wednesday night the Jazz will get the three seed, but even if they fall short of that the turnaround of this team — and the play of rookie Donovan Mitchell — has been amazing to watch.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (54-27, LW 4). Wait until next year! Brad Stevens has got my Coach of the Year vote for the job he has done leaning on Al Horford and young players (who traditionally don’t defend well) to have the top-ranked defense in the NBA for the season. Boston earned its two seed, and it’s not impossible they could win a first-round series with a little luck and a hot hand. But next season? With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back, this team may be the favorites in the East.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (48-34, LW 10). Indiana is locked in as the five seed and will face either Cleveland or Philly in the first round — the Pacers went 3-1 against the Cavs this season and 2-1 against the Sixers, so they should have some confidence. The Pacers may be the most surprising team in the league, most of us “experts” had them pegged for 30ish wins and the ability to set tee times for mid-April, instead Victor Oladipo (the lock Most Improved Player) has lifted this team to the postseason and made them a threat there.

Spurs small icon 9. Spurs (47-34, LW 11). That this team won 47 games with Kawhi Leonard essentially being absent all season is a testament to Gregg Popovich and “the Spurs way.” And also LaMarcus Aldridge, who has earned an All-NBA roster spot this season (at either forward or center). That said, without Leonard this is not a team that strikes great fear in the hearts of the teams at the top of the West, the Spurs will defend but their lack of athleticism will catch up with them.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (47-34 LW 9).. We’re 81 games into the season and still asking “exactly who are the Thunder?” Down the stretch of the season the Thunder have been wildly inconsistent, both game-to-game and even within games (the win in Miami Monday was a great example, OKC toyed with Miami for much of the game, before decided to get serious and take advantage of their superior athleticism). Still, because of the elite talent on this roster, it’s a team nobody wants to face in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (48-33, LW 6). It looked like they had the three seed locked up a couple weeks ago, but they have stumbled to the finish line and now have to play the Jazz Wednesday night with the three seed on the line. Of late Portland’s offense has relied too heavily on Damian Lillard (who has been brilliant), on Wednesday night and into the playoffs C.J. McCollum and the rest of the Blazers need to pitch in more on that end.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (47-34, LW 12). When DeMarcus Cousins went down with his torn Achilles we all pretty much wrote off the Pelicans — what Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday did to get this team into the postseason is one of the great stories of the season. Davis isn’t going to win MVP (he will finish top 5 in the voting) but he has played like one the second half of the season. Reaching the postseason means GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry are likely back next season, and the Pelicans will re-sign Cousins. However, this roster still needs work to take the next step. A lot of it.

Nuggets small icon 13. Nuggets (46-35, LW 17).. With their backs against the wall, the Nuggets have won six in a row to force Wednesday night’s “win and you’re in” showdown with the Timberwolves. If Denver doesn’t make it, they shouldn’t look back on the final game as much as things like the March 17 loss to Memphis or the March 13 loss to the Lakers, those were the games they needed to win and didn’t take seriously enough. The sense around the league is Mike Malone’s job is not safe after a season with the league’s 27th ranked defense.

14. Timberwolves (46-35, LW 13). One game to determine if Minnesota can end the longest playoff drought in the NBA (13 seasons). No pressure guys. To win the game the Timberwolves will need what they haven’t gotten consistently all season — good defense out of Karl-Anthony Towns (matched up on Nikola Jokic) and a focused game from Andrew Wiggins. Jimmy Butler was a great pickup by GM Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Buckets has had an All-NBA level season.

Bucks small icon 15. Bucks (44-37 LW 18). Milwaukee has stumbled in the fourth quarter of games recently, not a good sign heading into the postseason. However, with a loss to the Sixers on Wednesday night the Bucks will be the coveted seven seed in the East and face off in the first round against the banged-up Celtics — with Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee will have the best player on the court in that series and a legit shot to win it. Would that be enough to get Joe Prunty the head coaching job full time? With this ownership, hard to say.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (43-38, LW 16). Miami is an interesting team to watch come the playoffs because of their style of play: This is not a “get the ball to our superstar and get out of the way” offense. Rather, they wear teams down with multiple pick-and-roll actions on each trip down the court, they rely on five versatile players, and once the defense slips up Miami makes them pay. But what happens when it’s the postseason and the defense is dialed in and not making those mistakes (or at least not as often)? The Heat have the defense to hang in a series, but do they have the offense to win one?

Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (43-38, LW 15). On paper, this team should scare Toronto or whoever they face in the first round. In reality, the Wizards dropped four in a row before beating a Celtics team Tuesday comprised of guys Brad Stevens had to pluck out of the front row due to injuries sidelining everyone else. Washington is 3-8 in its last 11, with a bottom 10 offense and defense over that stretch. John Wall is back, Bradley Beal can knock down shots, I love Otto Porter’s game, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts right now in Washington. Do you want to bet this team can flip the switch?

Clippers small icon 18. Clippers (42-39 LW 14). It’s going to be an interesting off-season in Los Angeles. Will DeAndre Jordan opt out of his $24.1 million contract to test a tight free agent market (and get out of L.A.) or does he take the cash and wait a year to try his luck? If he does opt out, will the Clippers try to re-sign him or let him go and start a rebuild? Is Doc Rivers back next season (the buzz around the league is no)? If the Clippers do decide to rebuild, what can they get for Lou Williams? L.A. would love to move Danilo Gallinari’s contract, but they will balk at the sweeteners other teams will want to take him on. This ship could sail a lot of different directions this offseason.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (38-43, LW 19). The sense from sources around the league is that Stan Van Gundy is going to lose is GM powers — with former agent Arn Tellem stepping in as head of basketball operations — but will he be back as coach? Whoever is sitting in the big chair, if the Pistons can keep Blake Griffin, the much improved Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson healthy for a majority of the season they should be a playoff team. But that feels like a very big “if.”

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (36-46, LW 20). Mitch Kupchak is in as the new GM in Charlotte, and at his introductory press conference he kept his cards close to his chest (note to Charlotte media, get used to that). Kupchak and Michael Jordan need to decide the big picture question here: Can they put together a consistent playoff team around Kemba Walker, or is it time to trade him and start a rebuild? Either way, is Steve Clifford a part of that future? (Clifford got a relationship with Kupchak, but if the new GM wants to shake things up that will not be enough.) On the bright side, Dwight Howard had a solid season for the Hornets and looked rejuvenated.

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (34-47 LW 21). Going into the season, a reasonable goal for this team was the mid-30s in wins, with their young core — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle — showing real signs of development. By that measure, this was a good Lakers’ season. This team defended better than expected, and the offense showed flashes. It’s something to build on, no matter who they land or don’t land in free agency this summer.

Nets small icon 22. Nets (28-53, LW 25). It’s going to be a long, slow rebuilding process in Brooklyn, but as they start to dig out from the ruins of the “we have to build a contender right now” trades of the past, they are finding some keepers. Rookie center Jarrett Allen showed real promise the second half of the season. Spencer Dinwiddie is a rotation NBA point guard who can be part of the future. Coach Kenny Atkinson is building a strong culture there. The big off-season question in Brooklyn: What to do about D’Angelo Russell.

Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (28-53, LW 22). Nobody around the league expects Jeff Hornacek to keep his job as coach, the only question is do they fire him before the weekend? Oh, and who replaces him? The Knicks are a big market, but a team with big expectations, not the most consistent owner, and star Kristaps Porzingis is expected to miss about half of next season returning from a torn ACL. This coaching job has its challenges. On the bright side this season, Tim Hardaway Jr. played well, and rookie Frank Ntilikina showed flashes to build upon.

Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (24-58 LW 23). Dirk Nowitzki will be back for one more tour of duty, and the celebration of the greatest Maverick ever (and the greatest European player in NBA history) will provide some cover as Dallas continues its rebuild. Dennis Smith Jr. showed off all that athleticism but also looked like a rookie and needs to get far more efficient with his shot and decision making. Dallas will have another top 10 pick to put next to him and Harrison Barnes.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (26-55, LW 24). Sacramento played their youth a lot and quietly, De’Aaron Fox showed real promise as the season went on, and the combination of Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic provides some good shooting on the perimeter to open up space. That said, the Kings don’t take good advantage of all that — they play too slow and take too few threes. Next season they need to open the offense up and let their young athletes — plus whoever they draft — shine.

Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (27-54 LW 27).. The Bulls finally went all in on the rebuild and they found real quality in big man Lauri Markkanen, he can be a key part of the future in Chicago. I’m still not as high on Kris Dunn as Bulls fans, but he looks like a rotation player who can bring some defense. The big off-season question is Zach LaVine, who is coming off an injury and is a restricted free agent. In a tight market, is some team going to come in big and try to steal him? How much would the Bulls pay to match and keep him? It’s going to be an interesting game of poker in the Windy City.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (24-58, LW 28). John Collins was the most efficient rookie out there (Ben Simmons could make a good case, too) and whatever is rebuilt in Atlanta he will be a part of it. Taurean Prince is now a legit “3&D” guy on the wing, those are hard to come by. There is still a lot of rebuilding to do in Atlanta, but they have a couple of quality young players now and can add to that in this draft.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (24-57, LW 26). Frank Vogel is going to be let go as coach (he should land on his feet somewhere) and the Magic’s new front office has to bring in someone who knows how to develop talent such as Jonathan Isaac and build up a young roster. Then that front office needs to go get a lot more young talent. The problem is they are locked into paying Bismarck Biyombo $17 million next season, hurting their cap space. Expect a lot of Nikola Vucevic trade rumors this summer (solid center on an expiring contract). The Mario HJezonja era in Orlando is going to end this summer.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (22-59, LW 29). Injuries were a big part of it, but there was no more disappointing team in the NBA than Memphis this season. With the ownership situation settled, expect the status quo next season (including coach J.B. Bickerstaff being back) — and with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol back, plus a high draft pick next to them Memphis should be back at least fighting for a playoff slot next season. (The Grizzlies might be the best fit for Luka Doncic, but do they want him? Depends in part on how the lottery gods treat them.)

Suns small icon 30. Suns (21-61, LW 30). The Suns tanking worked, they will head into the lottery with the best shot at the No. 1 pick. The first big question of the offseason is who will be the next coach of this team? (Expect them to reach out to Villanova’s Jay Wright, expect him to say no.) That coach has to develop talent well — rookie Josh Jackson showed improvement but has a long ways to go. The Elfrid Payton experiment did not work, and both Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender were disappointments. The front office has work to do to put better talent around Devin Booker.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry headline Team USA player pool for 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics

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Carmelo Anthony capped his distinguished Olympic career in the 2016 Games by winning his third gold medal with Team USA.

Now, it’s time for the next generation of Americans to take over.

Gregg Popovich will succeed Mike Krzyzewski as coach, but the players could look similar to previous international competitions.

USA Basketball released its player pool for the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics, and it features plenty of familiar faces – just not Anthony:

This list includes nearly every very good American basketball player, but USA Basketball isn’t bound to follow it. These players are invited to a mini-camp this July, and that will give them a leg up. But if someone outside this 35-man list emerges as worthy of a World Cup or Olympic roster spot, he’ll get consideration.

The two notable snubs: LaMarcus Aldridge and Otto Porter.

Aldridge will be 36 by the 2019 World Cup and probably too far past his prim to deserve a roster spot. But Paul is even older and got invited. This could have something to do with Aldridge repeatedly withdrawing previously.

Porter is just 24, and his 3-and-D game could mesh extremely well with a team of stars. Apparently, he remains underrated.

LeBron James scores 33, Cavaliers rally to stun Wizards

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James scored 13 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter and brought Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 17-point deficit to stun the Washington Wizards 119-115 on Thursday night and maintain the No. 3 playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Cavs trailed 104-87 with 7:35 left before storming back behind James, who added 14 assists, nine rebounds and made sure coach Tyronn Lue got a win in his return after missing nine games due to health reasons.

Jeff Green added 21 points and Kevin Love had 16 for the Cavs, who are 10-1 since March 17, when Lue was forced to leave a game in Chicago with “piercing” chest pains. Lue, who has changed his diet and is taking sleep medication, has come back to a team that seems to be hitting its stride just in time for the playoffs.

But it took another of those patented James’ comebacks to down the Wizards, who have dropped seven of nine and are in a three-way battle with Milwaukee and Miami for playoff positioning.

Washington’s John Wall looked more like his speedy All-Star self in his third game back from knee surgery, scoring 28 points with 14 assists. But he had a costly turnover in the closing seconds and the Wizards couldn’t put away the Cavs down the stretch.

A basket by Markieff Morris gave the Wizards a 110-100 lead with 3:16 left, but James scored six straight, fed Green for layup, and Rodney Hood made two free throws to complete a 10-0 run by the Cavs.

Green’s two free throws – on a tough call against Washington – gave the Cavs a 116-115 lead, but after Walls missed a short jumper, James split a pair of three throws, giving Washington one last chance.

Wall drove the lane but his twisting pass back outside was stolen by rookie Cedi Osman, who made two free throws to close it out.

Playing in just his third game since surgery, Wall had that burst back in his first step and he found his touch after two tough games. Bradley Beal added 19 points, and Otto Porter had 18 for Washington.

Lue came back to a familiar situation as the Cavs, who have endured injuries for months, were missing point guards Jose Calderon (hamstring) and George Hill (ankle). Lue started Osman at point.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall lost weight during his recovery, and coach Scott Brooks said that should help the All-Star going forward. “It’s going to be good for his long-term recovery,” Brooks said. “It’s good for him. It’s good for us. He just needs to gets some reps.”

Cavaliers: Won their eighth straight at home. … James has scored 30 points in 429 games, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for fifth place in league history. … Osman is the seventh different starting point guard for Cleveland, which because of injuries has had 29 starting lineups. … Lue was sorry to learn Celtics guard Kyrie Irving will miss the playoffs with a knee infection. Irving had a great run with Cleveland and will be forever remembered for his go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing minutes of Game 7 in the 2016 Finals. “He was a big part of what we did here, a big part of winning the championship and even though he’s on another team you still don’t want to see anyone go through that,” Lue said.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Host Atlanta on Friday night.

Cavaliers: At Philadelphia on Friday night.

All-star John Wall returns as Wizards beat Hornets

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington coach Scott Brooks was excited to have his “Ferrari” back. Now the Wizards will ride into the playoffs at full strength.

All-star John Wall had 15 points and 14 assists in his first game in two months, Otto Porter Jr. had 26 points and 11 rebounds, and the Wizards beat the Charlotte Hornets 107-93 on Saturday to clinch their fourth playoff berth in five seasons.

“That Ferrari is pretty good,” Brooks said referring to Wall. “He got a lot of open shots for a lot of players. That’s what he does at the highest level in the league.”

Wall, who last played on Jan. 25 and had left knee surgery six days later, made his first shot of the game – a 3-pointer from the top of the key – and played 33 minutes.

“It was good to see my first shot go in,” Wall said.

Bradley Beal scored 22 points and hit 6 of 8 3-pointers as the Wizards tied a franchise high with 18 made shots from deep. Washington beat Charlotte for the first time in four tries this season.

The Wizards went 15-12 without Wall, but had lost four of five to slip into sixth place in the Eastern Conference, just a half-game ahead of both Miami and Milwaukee entering Saturday.

“We don’t know who we play and we really don’t care who we play. We just want to play well going into the playoffs,” Brooks said.

The Wizards would currently match up with LeBron James and third-place Cleveland.

Wall had averaged 19.4 points and 9.3 assists in 37 games before the injury.

Dwight Howard had 22 points and 13 rebounds for the Hornets, who have now lost two straight after winning four in a row. Kemba Walker finished with seven points, just the fourth time this season the All-Star failed to reach double figures.

“I just think turnovers killed us,” Howard said as Charlotte had 17 turnovers compared to 11 for Washington. “I want to say so much that it was John Wall coming back, but I think it was just turnovers.”

Nine different Wizards – including Wall – had at least one steal.

“Their defense is aggressive,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “That was the difference in the game.”

Trailing 51-50 at the half, Washington outscored the Hornets 37-23 in the third quarter and never looked back. Bradley Beal scored 14 points in the third, while Mike Scott had 11 of his 15 points in the quarter.

Wall had five assists and the Wizards assisted on 12 of 14 shots in the third.

Asked afterwards if he was in pain after playing for the first time in two months, Wall responded: “I’m cool.”

Brooks said Wall would not play Sunday in Chicago, avoiding a back-to-back so early in his return.

 

Three Things to Know: Shorthanded Wizards find way to beat even more shorthanded Celtics

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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) Shorthanded Wizards find way in double overtime to beat shorthanded Celtics in thriller. Every coach in the NBA preaches the “next man up” mentality to dealing with injuries. But Wednesday night in Boston, the next man up for the Celtics might have had to be some guy coach Brad Stevens pulled out of the first row — the Celtics were without four out of five starters. There was a whole lot of star power not playing — no John Wall, no Kyrie Irving, no Al Horford — but we were still entertained, this was a thriller.

One the road, the Wizards started out with a flat effort, especially defensively, and the Celtics got a big first quarter from Marcus Morris, then Greg Monroe was scoring off the bench, and midway through the second quarter the Celtics were up 20. Marcus’ brother Markieff Morris wanted in on the action, scored 11 in the second quarter to started the Wizards comeback, then in the second half it was like Bradley Beal said “I’m the only All-Star in this game” and just took over, and pretty soon we had a ballgame again.

Boston had the lead by three with 5.5 seconds left, and Washington’s Otto Porter was driving the lane for a layup, Marcus Morris started to contest then realized he should let Porter have a two, but ended up in a no-man’s land and had forgotten about veteran sharpshooter Jodie Meeks in the corner, so we are headed to overtime.

Boston could have won it in the first OT — down two with 8.4 seconds left rookie Jayson Tatum drove the lane, hit the free layup and drew the foul. But you have to hit the free throw to get the and-1 point, and Tatum missed forcing a second overtime.

Tatum had a three at the buzzer in the second overtime but that did not fall either, and the Wizards escaped with a 125-124 win.

The Celtics are pretty much locked into the two seed in the East, they just need to get healthy and the loss doesn’t hurt them in the standings. For the fifth-seeded Wizards in a jumbled middle of the East, this win helps them hold on to their spot and stay within striking distance of the fourth-seeded Cavaliers (Washington is just one game back).

2) Lakers’ Isaiah Thomas, Julius Randle get into it on the bench during game, but afterward it’s all good. On the court, Isaiah Thomas and Julius Randle have developed a little chemistry — Thomas as the playmaking guard, Randle as the bull using his physicality and athleticism to get what he wants inside.

But the two got into it on the bench during Wednesday night’s game against the Warriors. Brook Lopez and Lonzo Ball had to step in and be the voices of reason.

Randle was heated, Thomas looked like he just wanted to explain himself, and by the end of the game it was all good, they were joking and talking Randle put it this way:

“It’s great, honestly. We expect a lot out of each other. It was just communicating. We expect a lot out of each other, we want to win, we expect to win these games and we expect each other to play at a certain level. It’s just us being teammates. There’s nobody I’d rather go to war with than I.T., so it’s nothing personal. We’re just trying to get the best out of each other to try and win the game.”

Nothing to see here, move along. Oh, also the Warriors won the game 117-106 behind 26 from Kevin Durant.

3) Bucks, Heat both lose to tanking teams on Wednesday night. In theory, we don’t know that the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat are going to be stuck where they are and finish the season as the seven and eight seeds in the East — both teams are within a game (Bucks) or 1.5 games (Heat) of moving up in the standings.

In practice at this point in the season, if you’re losing to tanking teams it’s a bad sign. And you’re going to finish at the bottom of the seedings (although neither is in danger of falling out of the playoffs).

The Heat fell to the Sacramento — who have been losing but scrappy of late — when Kings rookie De'Aaron Fox nailed another buzzer beater to force overtime.

Buddy Hield had 4 of his 24 points in overtime to help secure the Sacramento win.

The entire Milwaukee squad looked like they had a Disney World hangover — usually teams do this in Miami/New York/Los Angeles, but to each his own — and came out flat from the start against Orlando. Giannis Antetokounmpo returned to form with 38 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals, but the rest of the team just looked disinterested. Meanwhile, the Magic cared. Jonathon Simmons had a career-high 35 points and drained 7-of-12 from beyond the arc, D.J. Augustin outplayed Eric Bledsoe on his way to 32 points, and Nikola Vucevic dominated inside for stretches and pitched in 22 points.