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NBA Power Rankings Week 5: Warriors climb to top, Mavericks fall to bottom

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We all knew that Golden State would have the top spot in the rankings at points this season (seven wins in a row will do that) but did anyone see Dallas on the bottom? That caught me off guard.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (11-2, Last Week No. 3). They have won seven in a row, and have done it with a dominant offense and a pedestrian defense. The Warriors are moving the ball — they have 30+ assists in their last nine games — and they are scoring 119.5 points per 100 possessions with a True Shooting Percentage of 62.4 in the last seven. Against Toronto last week, almost 74 percent of the Warriors’ shots were either at the rim or a three pointer, and 45 percent of their shots were uncontested (according to NBA.com players tracking). That is covering up a defense giving up 106.6 per 100.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (12-2, LW 1). You can’t underestimate how great Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been defensively this season, propelling this team — but don’t sleep on how great the Clippers’ offense has been of late. In the Clippers’ last five games they have scored 118.9 points per 100 possessions (second only to ridiculous Warriors offense). They are scoring efficiently in every possible way — transition, pick-and-roll, spot-up jumpers, whatever they run now it works.

 
Cavaliers small icon 3. Cavaliers (10-2, LW 2). What’s the primary place the Cavaliers are getting shots? Catch-and-shoots. They account for 30 percent of their looks, and the Cavs are shooting 55.4% eFG% on those (stats via Synergy Sports). The one loss last week was when LeBron James rested. They enter a fairly soft stretch of the schedule, with the only challenge being Portland in the next week.

 
Spurs small icon 4. Spurs (10-3, LW 6). They have won five in a row and remain undefeated on the road at 7-0. San Antonio’s offense is 3.8 per 100 better when Tony Parker is on the court. “Tony knows the offense better than anybody, and he gets us organized in a lot of situations, so he has been really important since he came back from his injury,” said Gregg Popovich.

 
Hawks small icon 5. Hawks (9-4 LW 5). Part of Atlanta’s success has been it’s bench — it has the most efficient scoring bench in the NBA so far this season (using points per possession). Well, at least until the entire team sleepwalked through a day game Sunday in New York. At the heart of that bench has been the play of Thabo Sefalosha, who is having his best season in the NBA, efficient on offense and playing fantastic defense.

 
Bulls small icon 6. Bulls (9-5, LW 9). Dwyane Wade sat out the second game of a back-to-back in Los Angeles, which signaled the start of Chicago’s knee maintenance program for him. Chicago won anyway with Jimmy Butler dropping 40, and with that have won five-of-six (with the lone loss being the Clippers). When Butler and Dwyane Wade are on the court but no Rajon Rondo, the Bulls outscore opponents by 24.7 points per 100. They finish up their road trip vs. Denver and Philly this week.

 
Hornets small icon 7. Hornets (8-4, LW 8). Kemba Walker has been a flat out beast this season, especially running the pick-and-roll. He’s got a 53.9 percent eFG% on those shots, and as a team the Hornets score at a very good 1.03 points per possession on those plays. Teams are trying to take the ball out of his hands on those plays, but when he has to pass out Hornets still at a good 0.91 points per possession (stats via Synergy Sports). Tough start to the week with Memphis and San Antonio, then an interesting home-and-home with New York.

 
Raptors small icon 8. Raptors (8-5, LW 4). We didn’t want to penalize them too much for losses to the Cavaliers and Warriors last week, and while the referees followed the letter of the law in the end in Sacramento that rule needs to be changed. The Raptors have been all offense, no defense of late: in the last five games they are scoring 111.6 points per 100 possessions, but giving up 108.8. Also, your weekly reminder that DeMar DeRozan is a beast even if Anthony Davis passed him in the scoring leader chase.

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (8-5, LW 15). The Rockets looked every bit a playoff team this week beating Portland and Utah, while playing Oklahoma City to the wire in a two-point loss. It’s just two games, but to the eye the Rockets’ defense looks much improved with Patrick Beverley back. (Can he pull it out of the bottom 10? They are 22nd right now.) After Thanksgiving Houston heads out on a five-game West Coast road trip that will be a real test.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (8-5, LW 17). Winners of four in a row, and that includes beating the Clippers and Jazz on nights David Fiddle’s spread the floor offense clicked. The bad news is they will need to continue this streak without Chandler Parsons for a couple weeks (bone bruise in his left knee), and their spacing and shooting is not the same with him off the floor, they are 8.3 points per 100 possessions worse with him sitting.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (8-6, LW 11). This team has some ugly losses — they lost to the Pistons without Andre Drummond this week, and despite a triple-double from Russell Westbrook they lost to a Pacers team resting Paul George on Sunday. They have a mini West Coast road swing to start the week (no Warriors), then head home to take on the Pistons with a chance to get a little revenge for that loss.

 
Celtics small icon 12. Celtics (7-6, LW 12). Both Al Horford and Jae Crowder returned on Saturday night — and Horford celebrated by hitting the game winner, then getting the game sealing block. Isaiah Thomas’ offense has struggled recently, the return of Horford as a pick-and-roll partner and guy to space the floor should help. Look for them to climb the rankings the next few weeks now that they are healthy again.

 
Blazers small icon 13. Trail Blazers (8-7, LW 10). They have the worst defense in the NBA this season, giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions this season (the loss of Al-Farouq Aminu is part of the problem). All of that is why there will be more of things like the recent three-game losing streak, it’s hard to get consistent wins without defense — the offense can only bail you out so much. How many wins can they get out of a week with the improving Knicks and Pelicans, plus the Cavaliers and Rockets on the schedule?

 
Lakers small icon 14. Lakers (7-7, LW 12). The offense is there, the Lakers have scored 120+ points four times this season, which is already more than the two years under Byron Scott combined. The problem is on defense, where the Lakers cannot get stops, which did them in against a depleted Bulls team Sunday. The Lakers have allowed 116 points per 100 possessions through their last four games. Larry Nance Jr. is turning everyone’s heads, he had 18 points on 11 shots vs. the Bulls.

Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (7-8, LW 7). The Jazz have a four-game losing streak, and they have played eight games without George Hill now (out with sprained thumb) and are 3-5 in that stretch. Maybe the guy feeling Hill’s loss the most is Gordon Hayward, who has struggled with his shot because the spacing is not there. Dante Exum makes a nice backup right now but he cannot fill Hill’s shoes, which is why Utah is taking a serious look at extending Hill.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (7-7, LW 20). The Pacers beat the Cavaliers, although only because LeBron James sat, but more impressively got a win Sunday vs. Oklahoma City with Paul George out. He’s got a sprained ankle and will miss at least one more game (Warriors). Jeff Teague had 30 points and nine assists in the win over OKC, after a slow start to the season he has found his shooting groove the last couple of weeks. Tough schedule this week with the Warriors, Hawks, and Clippers (and a respite against the Nets).

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (6-7 LW 25). They have won three of four and in those four games the Knicks defense has been near the league average — which is a massive improvement. We’ve only had a small sample size but the Knicks have looked great with Carmelo Anthony at the four and Kristaps Porzingis at the five, they need to run more of that. Tough tests for that defense this week vs. Portland, then a home-and-home with Charlotte.

 
Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (6-8, LW 16). They beat the Thunder on the night Andre Drummond rested, but have lost three in a row since as their defense has been terrible. There may be no team with a bigger road/home difference than the Pistons, who are 1-7 on the road but 5-1 at home. This week they are home for three but it won’t be easy against the Rockets, Heat, and Clippers.

 
timberwolves small icon 19. Timberwolves (4-8, LW 18). They continue to struggle getting production out of the point guard position — Ricky Rubio’s never-good shot has not taken a step forward, and Kris Dunn is not ready to take over that role — the rookie is shooting 32.7 percent overall and is miserable from the midrange (and 27 percent from three). The defense also remains bottom 10, which is where Tom Thibodeau is going to push for improvement.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (6-7 LW 22). They are getting outscored by 7 points per 100 possessions this season, which would would suggest a 3-10 team (according to basketball-reference.com), but their defense is improving and that is winning them some games. Jeff Green is starting over Aaron Gordon now at the three, which reminds us that Gordon was at his best at the four but isn’t getting used there enough. Winnable games this week: Suns, Wizards, and two against the Bucks.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (4-8, LW 26). Goran Dragic is back from a sprained ankle and the Heat picked up two quick wins (Bucks and Wizards). Not a coincidence. Hassan Whiteside is living up to that massive new contract — 17.7 points, 16.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots per game, with a PER of 25. He’s playing like an All-Star. This week they are on the road in Philly, Detroit, and Memphis.

 
Bucks small icon 22. Bucks (5-7, LW 14). The Bucks have lost five of six, including three in a row to quality teams (Hawks, Heat, and Warriors). What player has the lowest eFG% in the league on shots from from outside the paint? Gianni Antetokounmpo at 25.5%. They have two games against Orlando coming up, but the Cavaliers and Raptors are mixed in as well.

 
Nuggets small icon 23. Nuggets (5-8, LW 24). They won two-of-three last week and the one loss was in OT to the Raptors. Mike Malone is still searching for lineups that work well, but he seems to like a front line of Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic (it worked well against the massive Jazz front line). Tough week coming up with the Bulls, Jazz, and Thunder on the docket.

 
Kings small icon 24. Kings (5-9, LW 21). They had lost four in a row before getting a quality win over the Raptors Sunday, which happened when they moved Rudy Gay to the four to start. The story with the Kings is fairly simple: When DeMarcus Cousins is on the court the Kings get outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions (very close to playing teams even), when he sits they get outscored by 13.7 per 100. Also, when Cousins and Rudy Gay are on the court together the Kings are +3.4 per 100.

 
Pelicans small icon 25. Pelicans (4-10, LW 29). The return of Jrue Holiday has been huge for the Pelicans, he is hitting shots (54.8 percent) and when he is on the court the Pelicans are outscoring opponents. Anthony Davis took over the top spot in the NBA scoring race, at 31.7 points a game. Hawks, Blazers, and the Mavericks are on the schedule this week.

 
Nets small icon 26. Nets (4-9, LW 19). The Nets have lost four in a row and gone 2-6 since Jeremy Lin went down, their offense is just not the same with him sidelined. Of course, their defense has been a disaster of late as well and he’s not going to help as much on that end — the Nets try to be aggressive and pressure on the wings but they don’t have personnel to do that.

 
Wizards small icon 27. Wizards (3-9, LW 28). The John Wall/Bradley Beal combo isn’t a disaster — when they are on the court together they Wizards outscore their opponents by 2 points per 100 possessions. Overall, the Wizards’ offense is middle of the pack, the problem is their 25th-ranked defense keeps costing them games. Wall and Beal each scored 30+ on Saturday, but they couldn’t get stops and the Heat got the win. Can they pick up wins this week against the Suns and Magic (I wouldn’t count on the Spurs).

 
Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (3-10, LW 30). The Sixers have won two-of-three, beating the Wizards and Suns last week. Joel Embiid is still a force of nature inside and finding his game, but when Nik Stauskas is hitting shots the Sixers floor spacing is better and they pick up wins. Those wins will be tough to find this week against the Heat, Grizzlies, Bulls, and Cavaliers.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (4-10, LW 27). One of the biggest surprises of the season so far is the fact Devin Booker is shooting 41.4 percent overall and 27.9 percent from three. Not the step forward we all expected. The Suns are in the middle of a six game road trip (1-3 so far, the win against the Pacers without Paul George) and the team continues to struggle on both ends of the court.

 
Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-10, LW 23). Losers of five in a row, even with the return of Dirk Nowitzki, and they have the worst offense in the NBA. Harrison Barnes is trying to carry the offense and is doing well, but much of that is coming in isolation — 29.7 percent of his shots have come in isolation, the highest percentage of any player in the league this season, but he’s shooting a very good 52.4 percent on those (via Synergy Sports). It will be hard to find wins this week against the Spurs, Clippers, and Cavaliers.

Three Things to Know: Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team

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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) Kawhi Leonard got his ring then destroyed his old team. Board man got his ring.

The Toronto Raptors and their fans handled the return of Kawhi Leonard with nothing but class. The video tribute was spot on, and having the court light up to retrace his “shot heard around the World” was brilliant. Having the guys Leonard played with out to greet him at center court was a great touch, having Kyle Lowry present him the ring was perfect, and the crowd responded with an extended standing ovation (a few did boo Paul George, as if Leonard leaving was his fault). Doc Rivers said after the game he’s not seen any team do it better and he’s right.

Leonard then repaid that love by showing what he and his new teammates can do, crushing the Raptors with relative ease.

Lenard had 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting, but credit OG Anunoby for making him work for those buckets. Leonard has struggled at points this season — he shot 2-of-11 against Toronto at Staples Center last month — and part of that was his knee was bothering him. Scouts talked about him not looking as explosive or comfortable, but that has changed of late, he is moving well and getting tho his spots.

Another former Raptor, Lou Williams, added 18 points. The Clippers bench, as it usually does, had their way and outscored the Raptors bench 44-18. It was a good win for the Clippers after getting thrashed themselves by the Bucks last Friday night. They needed a quality road win.

The Raptors are 1-4 in their last five with losses to Miami, Houston, Philadelphia, and now the Clippers in that stretch. Toronto is 3-8 against teams over .500. It’s concerning, and it will force Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office to consider their plan to keep this core together through another playoff push — if a team comes calling with a good offer for Marc Gasol, do the Raptors say yes?

Wednesday was a reminder that without Leonard, there is a ceiling on this Toronto team.

2) Cleveland opts not to trap James Harden, he drops 55 and carries Houston to win. For the past couple of weeks, teams have adopted a new, aggressive strategy against Harden — aggressively double team him at midcourt, force him to give up the ball, and dare any other Rocket to beat them. (Zach Lowe breaks it all down beautifully at ESPN.)

The strategy has had mixed results. When good defensive teams do it (the Clippers, for example, tried it) they’ve had some success, especially if they can force Russell Westbrook to take threes. When bad defensive teams do it (say, Atlanta) Harden still carves them up. The Rockets are 5-5 since teams started trying it, but they have the fourth-best offense in the NBA in that stretch (their defense and mental vacations during games are what has let them down).

Cleveland is not a good defensive team, third-worst in the NBA coming into Wednesday night, so the Cavaliers didn’t try to trap The Beard. They went with a more traditional defense, and Harden carved them up for 55 points.

Houston had a comfortable lead in this game but had one of its in-game mental vacations and let Cleveland score 24 in a row to take an 11 point lead. That’s when Harden took over and scored the Rockets’ next 15 points to get them back into the game.

Harden is carrying the Rockets this season (which is why he’s in the thick of the MVP race, again), but if the team can’t tighten up its game and stop having those in-game lapses there is only so much Harden can do.

3) Grizzlies’ rookie Ja Morant may have thrown down the dunk of the year. When we talked about athletic freaks leading up to the last draft, talk instantly turned to Zion Williamson. With good reason.

However, people seemed to sleep on what a good athlete Ja Morant is. If you want proof, why not go as Phoenix’s Aron Baynes about it. Morant just destroyed Baynes on an early contender for Dunk of the Year.

Notice that came on a critical fourth-quarter possession — you’ve got to love the way Morant is willing to attack in that situation.

• Bonus Thing to Know: DeAndre Jordan is going to make sure Jarrett Allen looks good before taking the court.

No Giannis Antetokounmpo, no problem as Bucks win 16th straight

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — No Giannis was no problem for the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.

Reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out but the Bucks kept on rolling, getting 29 points from Eric Bledsoe and 24 from Khris Middleton in a 127-112 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans that extended their winning streak to 16 games.

The Bucks (22-3) tied the second-longest winning streak in franchise history and moved closer to the franchise record of 20 set during the team’s 1970-71 championship season.

Antetokounmpo sat out with a right quad tendon injury, missing his first game this season. He has missed time with concerns about overuse injuries in his leg before.

Antetokounmpo did not participate in the team’s shootaround on Wednesday morning and quickly was ruled out.

“I don’t think we know exactly when it happened,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “This morning the soreness was such that he was not able to play tonight. The severity of it, we’re hoping it’s not too serious.

“We’ll take it day by day and we’re always going to err on the side of caution.”

The rest of the Bucks stepped up.

“I think we took a little more ownership of what’s going on out there,” Middleton said. “When Giannis is out there, he draws such a huge crowd that we play through him a lot. Without him tonight, we know we have to do a little bit more.

“It was a great test; they play with a fast pace just like us. I think we did a great job.”

Veteran forward Ersan Ilyasova, starting in place of Antetokounmpo, had a season-high 18 points and nine rebounds. George Hill contributed 13 points off the bench.

Bledsoe drove aggressively and scored 11 points in the third quarter to answer a Pelicans rally, and he finished making a season-high five 3-pointers and going 10 for 13 from the field while adding six assists.

“I try to get in the paint as much as possible,” Bledsoe said. “If I don’t have a shot, I kick it out to my teammates and trust them to make the right play.”

New Orleans (6-19) lost its 10th straight game despite a season-high 31 points from J.J. Redick. Brandon Ingram had 25 points and 10 rebounds and point guard Jrue Holiday added 21 points.

A frustrated Redick spoke up in the locker room at halftime, when New Orleans trailed by 23 points.

“It’s not like this is the first time we’ve had a talk at halftime,” Redick said. “I would say emotionally sometimes you reach a tipping point. That’s the timing of that.”

New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said his team needs to communicate better.

“It’s the quietest group I’ve ever been around, even on the plane and in the meal room,” Gentry said. “But we do have to get them talking on the court and have them communicate on the court.

“When we do, we’re pretty solid. I thought we did a good job in the second half of communicating. But when you’re trying to come back from 25 to-28-point deficits, the least little thing is going to have a glaring effect.”

The Bucks hit six of their first eight attempts from 3-point range, including 3 of 3 by Bledsoe, to take a 28-12 lead.

Milwaukee led by 23 points in the opening quarter before New Orleans closed the period on an 8-0 spurt to pull within 35-20.

The Bucks used a 17-0 run to grab a 56-28 lead in the second quarter before settling for a 69-46 halftime margin. Middleton and Bledsoe each had 13 points and Ilyasova and Hill added 11 apiece.

The Pelicans outscored the Bucks 40-36 in the third quarter.

New Orleans pulled within 120-108 with 2:51 remaining but Middleton hit a pair of jumpers to put the Bucks safely ahead.

 

Watch James Harden score 55, including 10 threes, to beat Cleveland

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CLEVELAND (AP) — James Harden scored 55 points – 20 in the fourth quarter – and Russell Westbrook added 23 points as the Houston Rockets withstood an unexpected scare from Cleveland and held on for a 116-110 win Wednesday night over the free-falling Cavaliers, who have lost eight straight and 14 of 15.

Harden matched Kyrie Irving‘s arena record for points in a game, and his fourth with 50 or more this season bailed out the Rockets, who allowed the Cavs to score 24 straight points in the second half.

Cleveland was still up 108-107 when Harden, who came in leading the NBA in scoring at 38 points per game, dropped a floater in the lane. After a turnover by Cavs guard Jordan Clarkson, P.J. Tucker hit a 3-pointer from the corner and Clint Capela had a dunk following another Cleveland miscue.

The inexperienced Cavs crumbled in the final minute, making three turnovers.

Capela added 13 rebounds for Houston, which figured to have an easy time with the Cavs, who are struggling under first-year coach John Beilein.

Cleveland, though, came to play and was led by rookie Kevin Porter Jr.‘s season-high 24 points. Collin Sexton added 18 and Kevin Love had 17 points and 11 boards.

Harden connected on a pair of 3-pointers during a 16-2 run in the third quarter when the Rockets, who were sleepwalking through long stretches of the first half, appeared to take control.

But Houston relaxed, and Cleveland went on a jaw-dropping 24-0 run – all without Love, who was on the bench with a head laceration – over a 4:43 stretch bridging the third and fourth quarters to a take a 99-88 lead on Porter’s bucket.

 

Grizzlies’ Ja Morant absolutely destroyed Aron Baynes with dunk (VIDEO)

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We may have a new Dunk of the Year.

Memphis rookie Ja Morant is an athletic freak, one confident enough in his skills to go right at a big switched onto him. Say Phoenix’s Aron Baynes. On a critical fourth-quarter possession.

RIP Aron Baynes.

Memphis won the game 115-108.