NBA Power Rankings: Where the Spurs just keep on keeping it on

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, not many changes at the top this week… or on the bottom.

1. Spurs (37-7). You’ve been wondering when you’ll see a kink in the Spurs armor. Well, they have just one home game between now and Feb. 23. That might be the time. Or, they might grow tighter and better.

2. Celtics (33-10). We’re just going to pretend we didn’t see that Wizards game, every good team is allowed a few of those. Already a buzz around the Lakers game this Sunday.

3. Lakers (32-13). How are the Lakers going to do in the playoffs when they struggle during the season? Well, the Lakers play their best when the game slows down and they get more rest. What happens during the playoffs? Exactly.

4. Magic (29-15). They are 7-3 in their last 10 and clearly are still struggling with fit and rotations some now. This is a team still finding its footing with this lineup. I also could have sworn I saw Hedo Turkoglu dunk this week… nah, must have been the Jack talking.

5. Heat (31-13). Lots of time off (one game over seven days) but they get back at it Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Mike Miller had a big breakout game but we want to see more than one game before we say he’s all the way back.

6. Bulls (30-14). In their last 10 games, opponents are shooting just 39.6 percent against the Bulls overall and 32 percent from three. Tom Thibodeau can coach.

7. Hornets (29-16). Just like they were hot at the start of the season, they are hot again with eight straight wins now and just two losses since the start of the year.

8. Thunder (28-15). Two losses last week and it could have been three save for Kevin Durant’s dramatic game winner (which was well defended by Gallinari). The Laker one was the most painful because it exposed old, unsolved problems.

9. Hawks (29-16). They are 8-2 in the last 10 and are getting great play out of Joe Johnson and Al Horford. I really had high hopes for Jeff Teague this season, those have been crushed.

10. Mavericks (28-15). In his five games since returning, Dirk Nowitzki is shooting just 38 percent overall, 33 percent from three.

11. Blazers (25-20). More injuries — Marcus Camby, come on down! — and this team just keeps on winning and even when they lose you have to fight them for it.

12. Nuggets (25-18). They have the best offense in the NBA (on points per possession), but until they learn to defend it’s still hard to really see them as a serious playoff threat.

13. Jazz (27-17). Four straight losses and with it the associated grumbling out of Utah. They have to look at what Carmelo Anthony is doing to Denver this year and just fear their future with Deron Williams.

14. Clippers (17-26). It’s not just Blake Griffin dunking on everything that moves (although we do enjoy that). This is a good team right now with Eric Gordon playing well (though an injured thumb) and D’Andre Jordan. But the Clippers are about to head out on a Grammy road trip and the road has not been kind to the Clips this season.

15. Suns (20-22). Over the next month you are going to hear countless Steve Nash trade scenarios. That’s great. Right now, the Suns still say they are not moving him.

16. Grizzlies (21-23). I keep waiting for this run of good play that pushes them into playoff contention, I keep seeing blown leads and spotty play.

17. Knicks (22-21). Six straight losses as the offense has not been able to carry them past the fact their defense sucks. They really need a steady big man in the paint, and as much as we are fans of Ronny Turiaf he is not that guy as a starter.

18. Sixers (18-25). Andre Iguodala has played fantastically since his return, but it remains Jrue Holiday and Elton Brand they need to play well at the end of games to win a few more.

19. Bobcats (17-25). Don’t look now, but Boris Diaw has been playing pretty well lately: he’s averaged 12.4 points and 7 boards a game shooting 49 percent overall and 34.4 percent from three in his last 10.

20. Warriors (19-24). Three tough home games this week — San Antonio, New Orleans and Utah — but you know Golden State will have dramatic win in one of those.

21. Bucks (16-25). I kept thinking the Bucks offense was going to turn around at some point. That dream is now dead for me.

22. Rockets (20-25). Kevin Martin is filling it up but not efficiently — he’s shooting 43 percent overall and just 30.4 percent from three in his last 10. He’s just not a number one offensive guy, he needs a playmaker or post player to balance things out.

23. Pistons (16-28). Free Rip Hamilton! And Tayshaun while you’re at it!

24. Wizards (13-29). Nice win over the Celtics, but being winless on the road remains the anchor on this team.

25. Pacers (16-25). An 0-4 road trip raises a lot of questions about this team. It just feels like a franchise that needs to be shaken up somehow.

26. Kings (9-32). They keep getting leads then blowing said leads (they were ahead in the fourth quarter of all their losses this week). The Kings are learning but the lessons are starting to hurt.

27. Timberwolves (10-33). Kevin Love is averaging 23 points and 15.9 boards on 51.6 percent shooting (45.7 percent from three) in his last 10. Spare me the “somebody has to get the stats on a bad team” junk, this guy is flat out balling. Not that it’s enough to make him an All-Star.

28. Nets (12-32). They have played better since owner Mikhail Prokhorov ended the Carmelo Anthony trade rumors. Wonder how the team will respond when they start up again in about a week.

29. Raptors (13-31). Losers of seven in a row because they aren’t playing any defense.

30. Cavaliers (8-35). Up to 13 losses in a row. They play New Jersey Monday, might be the best chance to break it this week.

Watch Kelly Olynyk’s game-winning putback with 0.2 seconds left for Miami

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All game long Miami owned the glass — the Heat grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.9 percent of their missed shots on Thursday night. That led to 16 more shot attempts and nine more free throws by the Heat than the Wizards on the night.

And it led to this, the game-winning putback from Kelly Olynyk with 0.2 seconds left.

 

Wizards fans need to admit it — they missed Dwight Howard inside (he is out with a butt injury, yes seriously). Without his presence (he’s still a quality rebounder), the Heat just outworked the Wizards on the glass and that ended up being the difference.

Three Things to Know: Will Lakers’ lack of shooting spoil more than LeBron’s debut?

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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) Lakers’ shooting clanks off rim, ruins LeBron James’ Laker debut. Will it ruin more? Since the day LeBron took his talents to South Beach the formula has been the same: Surround LeBron with shooters, including bigs so teams can go four out around him, space the floor and let LeBron carve up defenses and find those shooters. The result was eight straight trips to the Finals.

Magic Johnson sold LeBron on a different philosophy if he came to Los Angeles — fill the roster with other playmakers. “It takes the pressure off of him. He doesn’t have to make every play. That’s what wears him out, what wears him down,.. We’ve got guys that can make plays on their own so he can relax on offense some. And also, we’re a fast-breaking team, so we’re not just going to be throwing it down to him. We’re going to be out and running.”

In the Lakers’ first game, the lack of shooting was critical to their 128-119 loss. The Lakers were 7-of-30 from three in the game (23.3 percent) and 0-of-7 on corner threes. Brandon Ingram missed a couple wide-open corner threes early and was 0-of-4 from deep. Kyle Kuzma was 1-of-7, Lance Stephenson 0-of-3, Lonzo Ball 1-of-4. Throw in that the Lakers were 17-of-44 (38.6 percent) as a team on uncontested shots overall for the night (stat via Cleaning the Glass), and you have the portrait of a team that can’t knock down shots.

That lack of shooting proved to be an issue later when Rondo and Stephenson tried to initiate the offense but struggled to find passing lanes to cutters because defenders sagged off and dared them to shoot.

There were plenty of positives for the Lakers. That started with LeBron himself, who had 26 points and 12 rebounds on the night.

Also, the Lakers played fast and things worked when they did — 24.2 percent of Laker possessions started in transition and they scored a ridiculous 1.71 points per possession on those. Plus, they were just fun to watch at that pace.

But it was in the halfcourt that the offense bogged down (0.89 points per play). It wasn’t just the shooting that was a problem, the Lakers struggled on the glass (especially when they went small) and Portland grabbed the offensive rebound on 37.5 percent of their missed shots. The Lakers’ lack of continuity showed as well, particularly on defense.

Portland was rusty, too, but the Blazers shot 13-of-37 from three, 35.1 percent, which is not fantastic, but they made six more threes than the Lakers and that goes a long way to a nine-point win.

Magic compared this roster he and Pelinka built to Showtime and all the playmakers they had — and I’ll give him this, the roster the Lakers have now is fun. It’s entertaining. When they play fast you want to tune in, and they scored 70 points in the paint.

But the game has evolved since the ‘80s. Shooting matters. A lot. (And those Lakers had shooters, from Jamal Wilkes in the corner through Byron Scott, but we digress.) The Lakers are going to have better shooting nights than they did in Portland, but this trend of not shooting well enough likely is not going away and is going to cost them more in a deep West loaded with teams who like to bomb-away from three. The Lakers’ shooting is going to be an ongoing issue.

Next up for Los Angeles? Houston. The three-point disparity may be even worse… but that is going to be an entertaining game to watch.

2) Watch Miami’s Kelly Olynyk’s game-winning putback with 0.2 seconds left on the clock. Dare we say it: The Washington Wizards missed Dwight Howard in this one. A scrappy Miami team grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.9 percent of their missed shots on Thursday night and that was the difference in the game — including the game-winner from Kelly Olynyk.

Olynyk saves some of his best games for Washington. Remember Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when then-Celtic Olynyk went off for 26 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, to get Boston the win? Wizards fans do.

3) Markelle Fultz hit an in-rhythm pull-up three, and at that point the skies parted, a rainbow appeared, and angels sang. All game long Thursday, Sixers fans were imploring Markelle Fultz to shoot and to trust himself. Take the open shot.

Then this happened — Fultz’s first three as a Sixer.

That earned pretty much a standing ovation from the Philly crowd.

Fultz was 5-of-15 shooting on the night and was just 2-of-9 outside the paint — there is still work to do. A lot of it. But the fact that Fultz kept pulling the trigger and led the Sixers in shot attempts at 15 can be taken as a good sign.

There was one other interesting reclamation project in that game — Zach LaVine, coming off that torn ACL, dropped 30 points in a losing effort.

LeBron James dunks way to 26, but Lakers have long way to go, drop opener in Portland

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The Portland Trail Blazers know who they are and what they want to do — they return mostly the same core players, led by All-Stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, still running Terry Stotts offense as they have for years.

The Lakers have LeBron James who scored 26 and grabbed a dozen boards… and a lot of other new faces. Too many of whom are not a threat from three and all of whom are still getting to know each other.

In LeBron’s Lakers’ debut, continuity and shooting won out.

Throughout much of the night, and especially when things tightened up late, Portland knew what it wanted to do and executed — it was Lillard time, he finished the game with a team-high 28 points. In contrast, too often the Lakers looked disorganized, particularly on defense. Their offense felt clumsy in the half court, with LeBron working to get guys involved more than just take over.

The Trail Blazers won the fourth quarter 35-28 and with it the game, 128-119, much to the delight of a raucous Portland crowd.

The Lakers are now 0-1 in the LeBron era. It’s just one game, but it showed that the Lakers have a long way to go to get to be the team they want to be this season — and it also showed the potential of what they can be.

“We had some good, we had some bad, which is to be expected in game one,” LeBron said after the loss. “I liked our fight to get back into the game when we were down double digits, I liked the way we competed at times, I liked the way we shared the ball at times as well.”

These new-look Lakers did what Luke Walton had promised — they ran, they attacked the rim scoring a ridiculous 70 points in the paint, and they moved the ball. The Lakers had 17 fast break points in the first half, this is a team that averaged 17.5 fast break points a game last season (LA finished with 34).

And Los Angeles dunked. LeBron got in on the fun and was throwing it down.

That, alone, does not win games.

The Lakers shot just 7-of-30 from three, missing a lot of quality looks from the corner and going 0-of-7 from there. Maybe in other games those start to fall, but concerns about the lack of shooting with the Lakers go back to how Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka constructed the roster, and that looked like a real issue on opening night.

LeBron also struggled to connect passes to teammates, he finished with six assists but turned the ball over on 18.8 percent of his possessions on the night. In the halfcourt, he let Rajon Rondo run the shot often (he had  13 points and 11 assists and was a +11 in 32 minutes, it was a good night for him).

“We had some turnovers, which I expected, just trying to get a feel for one another,” LeBron said. “We can do a better job.”

Portland, on the other hand, knocked down the kind of shots they struggled to hit against the Pelicans in the playoffs last April — they were 13-of-37 from three (35.1 percent). The surprise came from Nik Stauskas, who was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 24 points on the night.

Los Angles moved well off the ball and when LeBron got the rock at the elbow he found a lot of cutters. However, when Rajon Rondo or Lance Stephenson was initiating the offense, the Blazers laid back and took away passing lanes, daring the Lakers to shoot.

Some of the Laker youth showed promise — Josh Hart had 20 points and was 3-of-5 from three, Brandon Ingram had 16 points and Kyle Kuzma 15. However, they are still adapting to playing with LeBron, they often struggled from three, and like the entire team, they were up and down on the night.

There were flashes when the Lakers were running when you saw how dangerous this Lakers team can be with a roster full of unselfish playmakers — the Lakers ran on 24.2 percent of their possessions and they scored 1.71 points per possession on those.

But they are not yet the team they need to be — and on the road, against a Portland team that knows exactly who it is, that is not enough. Welcome to the Western Conference, LeBron, there are a lot of teams like Portland out there.

Ben Simmons triple-double, Joel Embiid’s 30 leads 76ers past Bulls 127-108

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Markelle Fultz heard 20,000 Philadelphia 76ers fans exhort him to shoot each time he touched the ball, a roaring confidence boost for a No. 1 pick closer to a bust than brilliance.

Fultz had the look he wanted in the second quarter. He dribbled to the foul line without a defender in his path, pulled up and uncorked a jumper. The ball rattled around the rim before it fluttered through the net.

Sixers fans rose to their feet, erupted in cheers and chanted “Fultz! Fultz! Fultz!”

Yes, a simple jumpshot from the top pick of the 2017 draft in the second game of the season was enough to get a rise out of the fans – and a sigh of relief from Fultz.

“It makes me feel better for the whole crowd to feel as good as I want to,” Fultz said.

The curious case of Fultz’s missing jumper continued against the Bulls when one of the more scrutinized players in the NBA managed to steal the spotlight from his more accomplished teammates with routine – yet highlight-reel worthy – baskets.

Until he gets his shot right, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will continue to lead the Sixers.

Simmons had a triple-double with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists and Embiid had 30 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past the Chicago Bulls 127-108 on Thursday night.

Fultz scored 12 points on 5 of 15 shooting, the most shots taken by a Sixer.

“He shot it to mean it,” coach Brett Brown said. “He didn’t look afraid of anything. He missed the shots but they looked good.”

Fultz is coming off a miserable rookie season that was shortened because of a right shoulder injury, a broken shot and busted confidence. Even his personal shooting coach said Fultz suffered from the “yips,” an assertion shot down on media day by the second-year guard. Fultz simply blamed his lost season on the injury. Brown tried to give Fultz a confidence boost by putting him in the starting lineup – yet has benched him for the start of the second half.

Fultz was 1 of 6 in 15 minutes in the first half and didn’t play again until late in the third and the Sixers leading by 88-68.

“The challenge is to grow him and help us win the game,” Brown said. “There’s no book that tells you how to do that, so you’re going to have to figure some stuff out. There will be some pain along the way and some positives.”

With or without Fultz, the 76ers had plenty of positives after an opening-night disaster in Boston.

Simmons reached a triple-double with 2:34 left in the third, the 13th of his career and the first Sixer to ever get one in the home opener. Sixers fans chanted “Trust the Process!” when Embiid ended the third with free throws.

Fultz proved a long-range ace again in the fourth – this time with a 3! He drained his first career 3-pointer for a 108-88 lead and the Philly fans that are firmly perched in his corner went wild and again chanted his name.

The Sixers know that if they want to become legitimate Eastern Conference contenders, Fultz will have to become the star they envisioned when they drafted him.

“I’m never afraid,” Fultz said. “I worked hard this summer. Tonight, I didn’t make a lot of them, but I’m going to keep shooting them. If I see an open shot, I’m going to go shoot it.”

He didn’t even mind when Chicago’s defense sagged off him, daring him to take shots. The Bulls, not expected to win much in the East, scored a combined 35 points in the second and third quarters. Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 30 points in their season opener.

“When we started missing shots, we stopped guarding and rebounding,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

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