Associated Press

NBA Power Rankings Week 3: Clippers climb to second behind Cavaliers

6 Comments

This early in the season it is all still small sample-size stuff, so one good game or one bad one can skew the numbers — and send teams farther up and down these rankings than likely is where they finish. That said, the top of the board looks about right, or at least what we expected heading into the season.

 
Cavaliers small icon 1. Cavaliers (6-0, Last Week No. 1). The NBA’s last undefeated team had more trouble with the Sixers than the short-handed Celtics. Cleveland’s offense is carrying them — best in the NBA so far — and the defense is good enough when needed but wasn’t impressive against Houston or others. So far not having a decent backup point hasn’t hurt Cleveland, but you have to wonder if at some point that depth is an issue.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (5-1, LW 3). Los Angeles has the best defense in the NBA so far this young season, they are doing a great job of forcing opponents into midrange jumpers. The win on the road at San Antonio might be the most impressive win of the season (and it has us overlooking the home loss to OKC). If the Clippers can stay healthy and can get a playoff showdown with San Antonio, L.A.’s athleticism could be real problem for the San Antonio.

 
Spurs small icon 3. Spurs (5-2, LW 2). An impressive 4-0 start on the road this season is probably the best indication of how good they really are (they have already lost more home games this season than they did all of last season, two). The Spurs will be without Tony Parker for a week due to a knee injury — but that’s not all bad, the starters are more than 50 points per 100 possessions better this young season with Patty Mills playing instead of Parker.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (4-2, LW 4). This team simply doesn’t have the margin for error it did last season. When focused and defending, like they did vs. OKC, this team can blow out anyone — and Stephen Curry can still put up 23 points in a quarter. But they lost that focus and drive the next night and found themselves upset by the Lakers (and Curry goes 0-of-10 from three). While the ball is still moving, they have shown a few areas of weakness so far and defensive rebounding is the biggest Achilles heel (29th in the NBA).

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (5-1, LW 6). While the loss to a motivated Golden State got the national attention, this is a team playing harder than everyone right now (including the Clippers, who they beat the night before the GSW game). They still are relying on a stout defense and getting buckets on the break — 20 percent of their plays this season are in transition, the highest percentage in the league (and they are scoring a decent point per possession doing it).

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (4-2, LW 9). DeMar DeRozan remained red hot, scoring at least 30 in his five games this season, until Sacramento on Sunday (an ugly Toronto home loss). Toronto bucks the NBA trend by relying on DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and others to create their own shots — only 44.9 percent of their buckets are assisted, lowest in the league — but it works for them. Big tests this week at Oklahoma City and Charlotte.

 
Hawks small icon 7. Hawks (4-2 LW 5). This is a team not taking full advantage of the soft part of the schedule (and it gets tougher this week with the Cavaliers and Bulls). However, the defense is second best in the NBA at 94 points allowed per 100 possessions and that is getting them wins. Mike Budenholzer is using Dwight Howard well, not just giving him the ball on the block but also in the high post and places where he’s asked to facilitate, not just score. It’s got Howard involved beyond just defendable post ups.

 
Hornets small icon 8. Hornets (4-1, LW 11). The soft schedule this week — Philadelphia and Brooklyn — helped them look good and pad the record. That’s about to change and we’ll see just how good this team is this week when they face Indiana, Utah, Toronto, and Cleveland. I suspect the Hornets are quite good (they are moving the ball well on offense), but that’s a brutal stretch.

 
Pistons small icon 9. Pistons (4-2, LW 13). Tobias Harris has been one of the more efficient scorers in the NBA this season with a true shooting percentage of 64.8 percent. Soft schedule helps them keep picking up wins despite being without Reggie Jackson. Detroit’s 0-2 on the road and they have a tough stretch of 6-of-7 away from the Palace, and this week is particularly tough with games against the Clippers, Spurs, and Nuggets.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (4-3, LW 17). Gordon Hayward returned Sunday, scored 28 points (good warm-up game against a soft defense in the Knicks), and the Utah offense just looks better with him on the floor. They closed the game with George Hill, Rodney Hood, Hayward, Joe Johnson, and Rudy Gobert (until he fouled out, then Derrick Favors came in) and that group could do some real damage.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (4-3, LW 10). The loss to Phoenix on the road was not pretty, but they bounced back in Dallas and then got a quality win in Memphis. Their defense, particularly in the paint, has been inconsistent and with that they lose some games they probably should win. Still, when Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are on this team can beat anybody and is a lot of fun to watch.

 
Lakers small icon 12. Lakers (4-3, LW 24). Luke Walton has them playing at the fastest pace in the NBA so far this season, and the team is loving it — they love basketball. The biggest surprise of this season to me is the play of Nick Young — he had 24 in Sunday’s win against Phoenix, but more than that he’s moving the ball, playing a mature game, and not just showboating. If I were cynical, I’d say that’s upping his trade value, but right now he’s at the heart of this team playing entertaining basketball.

 
Bucks small icon 13. Bucks (4-3, LW 21). They had one of the best offenses in the NBA before a dismal Sunday night in Los Angeles (which was more about them then the Mavericks). Jabari Parker has been fantastic this season, scoring 17.6 points per game and doing it inside and out (38.5 percent from three), and he’s got a PER of 18.8. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo are carrying Milwaukee’s offense.

 
Celtics small icon 14. Celtics (3-3, LW 8). Second best offense in the NBA so far this young season, but the second worst defense in the league has been holding them back. Injuries hit Boston early: Al Horford was out with a concussion against the Bulls and Cavaliers, and the team had been +23 per 100 possessions better with him on the court through the first three games. Then Jae Crowder rolled and ankle and will miss some time. Yet they got a win over the Bulls and keep finding a way; I expect them to find a groove with a softer schedule this week.

 
Bulls small icon 15. Bulls (3-3, LW 7). Dwyane Wade already more threes this season than all of last season, and he has sparked a Bulls’ offense that is third in the NBA this young season. The problem is their defense has been inconsistent at best, and they are getting killed on the pick-and-roll. Maybe those Bulls numbers will improve as they head into a soft part of the schedule for a few weeks — they should help them rack up wins.

 
Rockets small icon 16. Rockets (3-3, LW 14). The third worst defense in the NBA so far this season, on the other side the fifth best offense with James Harden putting up fantastic numbers. So, about what we expected out of Houston. Sam Decker looks very comfortable and is playing well in the D’Antoni system. A home-and-home against the Spurs this week will be a real test.

 
Nuggets small icon 17. Nuggets (3-3, LW 16). Emanuel Mudiay was off to an ugly start this season (shooting less than 30 percent) when everything came together and he went off for 24 points in the first quarter against Boston. That kind of quarter is not sustainable, but he should be better than the first few games. With Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic it shouldn’t be a surprise Denver gets 12 percent of its offense from post ups, the highest percentage in the league.

 
Pacers small icon 18. Pacers (3-3, LW 18). Larry Bird wanted to play faster and have a better offense — and they are playing 2.5 possessions faster a game and scoring nearly four more points per 100 possessions — but that has come at the expense of the defense, which is giving up 7.7 more per 100. Jeff Teague has been one of the bigger disappointments in this young season. Maybe run more dribble handoff plays, where they’ve had success (1.26 points per possession). Heavy home stretch of games coming up, plus a home-and-home against Philly, should help Teague and the Pacers get right.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (3-4, LW 12). The good news is that Chandler Parsons is back in the lineup as of Sunday and that should help both the ability to spread the floor and shot creation. And they need those things, because the Grizzlies offense was unimpressive last week when the three balls were not falling. Hopefully Parsons’ return helps the lack of depth on this team as well.

 
Heat small icon 20. Heat (2-3, LW 23). They have the eighth-best defense in the NBA this young season thanks to Hassan Whiteside patrolling the paint and some decent perimeter defenders. But the 24th ranked offense has this team below .500. Justise Winslow and Dion Waiters have really struggled on offense, as evidenced by their PERs — 8.5 for Winslow and 6.5 for Waiters. Those are “get sent to the D-League” kind of numbers.

 
Magic small icon 21. Magic (3-3 LW 29). They had a softer schedule last week and they took advantage of it beating the Sixers, Wizards, and Kings. They got those in spite of a defense that continues to rank in the bottom 10 in the league despite the talent on paper to be much better. Tougher tests this week with Chicago, Minnesota, Utah, and Oklahoma City on the docket.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (3-5, LW 15). The Kings played terrible defense and started 0-4 on a tough East Coast road trip (the kind of trip where playoff teams still get some wins). Then they got to Toronto Sunday, slowed the NBA’s leading scorer in DeRozan, and picked up an unexpected win. Best news for Kings fans is that Darren Collison returns from his suspension this week, which strengthens the starting lineup and pushes Ty Lawson to the bench to lead the second unit.

 
timberwolves small icon 23. Timberwolves (1-4, LW 20). The record doesn’t reflect how well this team is playing — they keep losing close games, which feels a lot like last season. Then again, Minnesota’s numbers are skewed by a blowout win over Memphis the night the Grizzlies rested nearly anyone you can name. No Ricky Rubio for a while with a sprained elbow, which is not good for an already below-expectations defense.

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (2-4, LW 22). Jeremy Lin is out for a couple weeks with a hamstring, and with Greivis Vasquez already out injured the Nets offense is going to struggle. Brook Lopez has played well when he gets help, Trevor Booker hustles, but without those guards to create Brooklyn is in for a rough stretch. Cross-town showdown at Madison Square Garden this week.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (2-4 LW 19). Kristaps Porzingis needs more touches — and the Knicks finally did that in Chicago (and got the win). I get that they added Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee and others who will take up some shots, but Porzingis is the future and his touches and shots per minute are down this season. He’s the future, get the man the rock. A quality win in Chicago in an emotional game for Rose and Joakim Noah — Rose was dishing in that game better than he has all season. But they then turned around and fell at home to Utah.

 
Suns small icon 26. Suns (2-5, LW 27). Devon Booker is tearing it up, with 38 and 39 points in his last two games respectively — the last Sun player to break 35 on consecutive nights was A’Mare Stoudemire nine seasons ago. That’s your bright spot. The Phoenix offense doesn’t share the ball and the defense has been pedestrian.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (1-5, LW 26). Harrison Barnes has been as good as Dallas could have hoped for, but with Dirk Nowitzki out (Achilles) and Deron Williams battling nagging injuries, this team has struggled. And dug themselves a hole. They have the suddenly-hot Lakers then the Warriors this week, Dallas needs a split or that hole will start to get too deep. Also an aside to Mark Cuban, you’re better than banning media members.

 
Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (1-4, LW 25). Challenging schedule to start the season, but they beat the Hawks at home — then lost to Orlando. Bradley Beal has struggled (29.6 percent from three) after getting a max contract this summer, which has him leading the disappointment train. Washington had double digit leads in all their losses last week but faded in the second half, a troubling sign for a team where the schedule gets tougher this week (Boston, Cleveland, Chicago).

 
Pelicans small icon 29. Pelicans (0-6, LW 28). Injuries have ravaged this team — they only had 11 healthy players after Lance Stephenson needed groin surgery. (That’s what led to Stephenson being waived, his contract was not fully guaranteed, and they needed to create a roster spot for Archie Goodwin). However, the guys still healthy and getting run not-named Anthony DavisSolomon Hill in particular — have been the bigger disappointment. I liked moving Omer Asik to the bench, but this roster’s problems are deeper.

 
Sixers small icon 30. 76ers (0-5, LW 30). Despite how much fun it is to watch Joel Embiid play and think of the potential, and despite the clever passing of Sergio Rodriguez, Philadelphia has the worst offense in the NBA by a mile — 4.2 points per 100 possessions worse than New Orleans. That’s why they blew leads in the fourth quarter last week. They have a home-and-home against inconsistent Indiana this week, that could be a place to grab a “W.”

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
2 Comments

The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.

Raptors’ summer gamble pays off with trip to Finals after Game 6 win over Bucks

Associated Press
5 Comments

Toronto’s big gambles paid off.

Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse with the hope of installing a more creative offense.

Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history DeMar DeRozan to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.

It was all a massive roll of the dice.

Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.

Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.

“It means a lot,” long-time Raptor Kyle Lowry said about making the Finals. “It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here [in Toronto]….

“But I’m not satisfied.”

This series changed in Game 3 when Nurse mixed things up and had Leonard as the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, but everything became harder, and as the Raptors slowed the pace their halfcourt defense locked in. On the offensive end, Leonard just made plays when he needed to.

“He’s a great player, he made some very special plays, give him a ton of credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Leonard.

For the Bucks, who had the best record in the NBA this season and a likely MVP in Antetokounmpo, this was a learning experience about their shortcomings — both his and the Milwaukee roster. He had 21 points and 11 rebounds, but he was not able to dominate the game like Leonard did in crucial moments, and when he couldn’t get to the rim at will his lack of a jump shot he has confidence in showed. Those kinds of lessons come with being just 24 and making a deep playoff run.

“In our minds, we feel he’s going to get a lot better,” Budenholzer said of the Greek Freak. “At 24 some guys are… I don’t want to say they are who they are, but at 24 some of the great ones were the same at 30 and 32 and so forth. Giannis we feel has a lot of room to grow.”

So does the roster around the Greek Freak. Antetokounmpo sat just 7:28 in this game, and that proved to be too much — the Bucks were -9 in those minutes. They lost by six.

Eric Bledsoe struggled again, with 8 points on 9 shots. Khris Middleton — who is a free agent this summer — had 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

Still, this is a good team on a learning curve. One with some tough decisions ahead for the front office, but a team on the rise.

They showed that early.

Milwaukee came out playing with a sense of desperation — it showed in their energy and second efforts on defense — and they raced out to a 15-point lead early in the second quarter mostly because they just hit shots. In the first half, the Bucks did not get the ball inside (only seven shots at the rim) but were 9-of-18 from three and hit 50 percent of their shots from the midrange. Antetokounmpo had 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova surprised with nine points in the first 24.

That had the Bucks up 50-43 at the half, but it felt precarious. Then in the third, Milwaukee had an 8-0 run and the lead was pushed to 15 at one point. The Raptors were stumbling. Pascal Siakam hesitated on shots, not trusting himself. Danny Green trusted himself but couldn’t hit anything.

The tide turned thanks to Leonard. The Raptors finished third on 10-0 run — with Leonard scoring or assisting on every bucket — and the lead was down to 5 after three.

Early in the fourth was when Antetokounmpo sat again, and the Raptors went on a 7-2 run to tie the game at 78-78. That lead kept growing in a run that got to 26-3 for Toronto, then Leonard did this.

Milwaukee would not go away down the stretch, but Leonard kept making plays while Antetokounmpo and company got tight. Milwaukee could never get back in front.

For the Bucks, it’s a lesson.

For the Raptors, it’s the trip to the Finals they bet big on.

Watch Kawhi Leonard dunk all over Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlight of 26-3 Toronto run

Getty Images
5 Comments

For most of the first three quarters of Game 6, the Milwaukee Bucks were in control of the game and looked to be on the way to forcing a Game 7.

But Kawhi Leonard sparked a 10-0 run for Toronto to end the third, scoring eight and assisting on a Serge Ibaka bucket.

That run carried over into the fourth and became a 26-3 run that was highlighted by this insane dunk by Leonard over Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Insane.

I’d say that’s Leonard’s best shot as a Raptor if not for the series winner against Philadelphia.

The Bucks responded with a 7-0 run and this game is going to go down to the wire.

Bucks play with desperation, lead by as many as 15 in first half

Associated Press
1 Comment

If you think a 15-point lead is safe, go talk to a Portland Trail Blazers fan and get back to me.

The Bucks will still take it. Milwaukee has come out with a sense of desperation, but more importantly got to play with some pace and couldn’t miss early from three — they started 4-of-6 and were 7-of-13 from three as of this writing — and what we saw were play after play from the Bucks, the kinds of things we haven’t seen the last three games. They led by 13 after one, and the lead got as high as 15.

Can the Bucks sustain this, or will they cool down as the Raptors heat up? It’s going to be a wild rest of the game in Toronto.

The Raptors are up 3-2 in the series and playing for their first ever franchise trip to the Finals. The Bucks are playing to force a Game 7 Monday back in Milwaukee.