NBA Power Rankings: Heat on top, Clippers climbing

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Miami moves back into the top spot — but the Clippers have now cracked the top three, which had been the domain of the Heat, Bulls and Thunder for a while. Oh, and the Bobcats still suck.

1. Heat (18-6, last week ranked No. 2). They’ve had a few uninspired wins (like Sunday against the Raptors) but they keep winning. Also, they beat the Sixers Friday with a burst that reminded us just how good they can be converting defense to offense, and how hard they will be to beat in the playoffs. Unless they get the Bucks in the first round. Six game road trip starts Wednesday.

2. Bulls (20-6, LW 3). Luol Deng is back and they missed him — so Tom Thibodeau welcomed him back with 41 minutes. Chicago is out of the friendly confines of the United Center for a nine-game trip.

3. Clippers (14-7, LW 5). Beat the Thunder convincingly Monday, and while that may have been an off night for OKC the Clippers are starting to look like a threat to come out of the West. Especially with Kenyon Martin in the fold providing needed depth up front (sorry Brian Cook). Still a lot of questions come the playoffs, but right now they are hot.

4. Thunder (18-5, LW 1). They may still be the team to beat in the West, but here is some cause for concern — Chris Paul and Tony Parker abused their perimeter defense last week. We’ve got questions, other teams think the Thunder can be beat.

5. 76ers (17-7, LW 4). Lost to the Heat, but beat the Magic, Bulls and Hawks — they are getting tested and passing. More tests on the way this week with the Lakers, Clippers and Spurs all coming to town.

6. Pacers (16-7, LW 8). Paul George is emerging as a young star to watch, and not just for the dunks. Lots of quality wins for this team — road wins against the Lakers, Bulls, Mavericks and more. Tough games this week on the road at Atlanta and Memphis

7. Spurs (16-9, LW 10). Tony Parker has been tearing it up the last week and they expect to get Manu Ginobili back during the Rodeo road trip (which is underway).

8. Nuggets (15-9, LW 6). Beat the Clippers, lost to the Lakers and fell to the Trail Blazers on the third night of a back-to-back-to-back. Still one of the most fun teams to watch in the league.

9. Hawks (16-8, LW 7). The Hawks are crushing the teams they should beat (13-0 against teams below .500) and getting good defense from Josh Smith. Still, tough games ahead against teams over .500, so we reserve judgment.

10. Magic (15-9, LW 12). Split games against the two good teams on the schedule last week (lost to Philly, beat Indy). How they do the next month is about how good they are at ignoring the Dwight Howard rumors, as they will only get louder.

11. Lakers (14-10, LW 14). Split a tough back-to-back (Denver then Utah) to start the Grammy road trip that has them on the road for a couple weeks. Big games this week — at Philly, Boston and New York. Are the Lakers big three of Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol enough (because after that the drop off is steep)?

12. Celtics (13-10, LW 17). They have won eight of their last nine and now have gotten Rajon Rondo back. Suddenly they look like one of those teams the elite want to avoid in the East.

13. Blazers (14-10, LW 13). Beat Utah at home, lost to the Kings on the road. This is just a Jekyll and Hyde team inside or outside the Rose Garden — 11-1 at home, 3-9 on the road.

14. Mavericks (14-11, LW 9). Dirk Nowitzki may finally be finding his footing with a couple good games near the end of the week. Still, this is a hot and cold team that could beat or lose to anyone on any given night. Not consistent like last season.

15. Jazz (13-9, LW 15). Quality win against the Lakers Saturday night (even if the old legs of LA were on a back-to-back). Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson have made a formidable front line. They are on the road a lot leading up to the All-Star Game, we’ll see how they do with that test.

16. Timberwolves (12-12, LW 18). They are only 1.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the West, and they are playing well. But they will have to get by two games this week without Kevin Love, who used Luis Scola as a doormat.

17. Rockets (13-11, LW 11). A lot of road games against the teams ahead of them in the West between now and the All-Star game. This would be a good time to make a push and secure one of those spots, but instead they are slumping.

18. Grizzlies (12-12, LW 16). Held their own last week in a tough stretch of games. If they can just hold close to a playoff spot (1.5 games out) until Zach Randolph gets back they have a shot.

19. Bucks (10-13, LW 20). What they are hoping for is to grab the 7 or 8 seed and get the Heat in the first round (they beat Miami twice in recent weeks). Stephen Jackson was supposed to carry the offense, but they are +7.2 per 48 minutes when he sits. So he’s been sitting a lot.

20. Cavaliers (9-13, LW 19). Kyrie Irving is the story, but Anderson Varejao has been fantastic the past couple weeks. The phone will start ringing with trade offers for the Brazilian, but will the Cavs be listening? Maybe not.

21. Knicks (9-15, LW 24). That lost Friday against Boston hurt — New York had a healthy lead and let it get away when Boston tightened their defense in the second half. Jeremy Lin gets the start — he’s nobody’s savior but his style of play (attacking) is what New York needs at the point.

22. Suns (9-14, LW 21). Good to see Michael Redd back out on the court and playing well. That story will be overshadowed by the annual “will they trade Steve Nash” rumors that are ready to kick into high gear.

23. Warriors (8-13, LW 25). For a team with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry this team is shockingly dull to watch.

24. Kings (8-15, LW 26). Marcus Thornton is back and playing well, and the Kings have looked relatively solid the past week. We’ll see if that holds up.

25. Raptors (8-17, LW 22). Sunday’s loss to the Heat showed how much this team misses Andrea Bargnani — they fought hard but lacked the offensive firepower to get a win.

26. Nets (8-17, LW 23). Their defense was torn apart by Jeremy Lin and Nikola Pekovic on back-to-back nights over the weekend. That should tell you everything you need to know.

27. Pistons (6-20, LW 29).
Winners of two and a row, so stand back. Still surprised to see a Lawrence Frank coached team 29th in the league in defensive efficiency.

28. Wizards (4-20, LW 27). Do they look any better than they did under Flip Saunders? And no, a couple wins over Charlotte don’t improve things.

29. Hornets (4-20, LW 28). Note to David Stern: You can drive a hard bargain when you are trading an asset like Chris Paul; Chris Kaman is another matter entirely.

30. Bobcats (3-21, LW 30). Losers of 11 straight, two of their losses last week were by more than 30. And now they enter one of their toughest weeks. Good luck!

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.