NBA Power Rankings: How would you feel about a Spurs/Celtics NBA finals?

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Our weekly NBA Power Rankings, where we’re thinking that the finals could be Spurs and Celtics because no teams are executing anywhere near their level right now in crunch time.

1. Spurs (40-7). They are now 7.5 games ahead of the second place Lakers in the Western Conference (and 4 ahead of Boston for the best record overall). They will be the West’s top seed. Here is the real question: Can they beat the Lakers in a seven-game series? They certainly can beat the Lakers team that played Sunday.

2. Celtics (36-11). Boston looked pretty disinterested in Portland and Phoenix last week, but when they took the court against the Lakers Sunday they were ready. That win was about the team that executed better in the final six minutes, and it was all Boston.

3. Heat (33-14). They actually had everyone healthy for a game this weekend, the first time for that in a while. Some interesting rematches for them this week against the Magic and Clippers.

4. Bulls (33-14). Kurt Thomas is playing much better than I thought possible. He’s averaging 8 points and 8 rebounds a game, shooting 63 percent, over the last 10 Bulls games. Chicago is 8-2 in that stretch.

5. Magic (31-17). They are just 1-4 against teams over .500 in January. Is this team still figuring everything out with the new pieces of Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson, or are they just not good enough to be contenders?

6. Lakers (33-15). The schedule is about to get really tough for the Lakers — lots of road games and they have 23 games left against teams over .500 and only 11 against teams under that mark. Either their execution is going to come together against those better teams or they are going to slip. And if they slip at all against these Spurs they are not getting back to the finals.

7. Mavericks (31-15). Before the season Mark Cuban raved about the depth of the Mavericks. Last week they got wins thanks to big offensive games from Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea. Cuban was right.

8. Hornets (31-18). Chris Paul is clutch, but the Hornets lost a couple of heartbreakers last week.

9. Thunder (30-17). Their recent run has been all about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who have averaged 58 points a game combined over the last 10. The rest of the team is scoring 56.8 per game in that same stretch.

10. Hawks (30-18). If Josh Smith wanted to make an All-Star push, his play against the Bucks was not how to go about it. He tried to take over that game late and tanked. Good news is Joe Johnson has found his groove.

11. Nuggets (28-19). They have found balance — in their last 10 games seven players have averaged double digits in scoring. They are 7-3 in the last 10.

12. Jazz (28-20). It just feels like the wheels are starting to come off. Deron Williams has missed two games with a wrist injury and they need him back fast if they are going to turn this thing around.

13. Blazers (25-22). At least the two guys who had MRI’s last week didn’t suffer major injuries. Really, when was the last time the Blazers had a couple good MRI results in a row?

14. Knicks (25-22). The win over Miami was a statement win, as much as you can really have one of those in January. More and more they look like a playoff lock — and if they don’t pick up Donnie Walsh’s contract they deserve what befalls them.

15. Grizzlies (24-24). No O.J. Mayo for 10 games is not as huge a loss as he was only giving them 9.2 points a game on 40.5 percent shooting in the last 8 he played.

16. Sixers (21-26). There is just no way this team trades Andre Iguodala as they fight for a playoff berth. The rumors will circulate but the Sixers are currently the seven seed and just one game up on the nine seed Bucks. They are not going to throw in the towel unless the offer is just too good to ignore.

17. Suns (22-24). Don’t look now but they are 7-3 in their last 10. So why did they slide down in the rankings? Because they lost to the Sixers and the Knicks snapped their losing streak and jumped them. It happens.

18. Bobcats (20-26). D.J. Augustin is like a new player under Paul Silas, and it changes who the Bobcats are in a good way.

19. Bucks (20-26). They have a three-game winning streak and have outscored their opponents 101.7 to 93.7 in that stretch.

20. Clippers (18-28). They are really going to miss Eric Gordon. Randy Foye is a nice enough replacement but it’s not the same.

21. Rockets (22-27). They are four games out of the final playoff spot in the West. The only way they are making that ground up is if Carmelo Anthony falls to them.

22. Warriors (20-27). We’d like to think Golden State turned a defensive corner against the Jazz Sunday, but that really was a lot more about how bad Utah is right now on offense.

23. Pistons (17-31). Free Rip Hamilton! (We’re just going to keep writing that every week here until it happens.)

24. Kings (12-33). Wins over the Lakers and the Hornets in the same week — and the Kings looked good doing it. They are playing their best ball of the season.

25. Pacers (17-27). Look for them to have a little bump in performance under interim coach Frank Vogel — mid-season coaching changes often do that.

27. Nets (14-34). Two wins this week moved them past last season’s win total (12) before the All-Star Game.

27. Wizards (13-33). Still no road wins (and they almost got one by knocking off the Thunder of all teams). John Wall is shooting 38.2 percent in his last 10. Maybe he should eat something other than Doritos.

28. Timberwolves (11-36). I think Kevin Love should be an All-Star reserve.

29. Raptors (13-35). The losing streak is up to 11, and that sad excuse for a zone defense is not the answer.

30. Cavaliers (8-39). No team has ever gone from the best record in the league to the worst in one season. That’s about to change. Sadly with 20 losses in a row now, teams are getting up for the Cavs because they fear being the team that loses to them and ends the streak.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.