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Week 9 NBA Power Rankings: Houston rocketing up rankings

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We’re sorry about the lazy wordplay in the headline. I blame the stress of the holidays for not coming up with something better. Houston has flown all the way up to third in the rankings, Utah has climbed to seventh, while the Sixers stay out of the bottom thanks to Brooklyn.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Finally, on Christmas we get the Warriors vs. Cavaliers rematch, but this time around the Warriors have JaVale McGee. Oh, and Kevin Durant (though McGee has played pretty well this season). Stephen Curry said it this week, what Durant has brought to Golden State is another level of versatility. Durant slid into Harrison Barnes’ slot in the “death lineup” and they are outscoring teams by 25.6 points per 100 possessions. When Durant and Curry are on the floor together, the Warriors outscore opponents by 16.4 per 100. Also for Warriors this week, interesting game vs. Utah on Tuesday.

Spurs small icon 2. Spurs (22-5, LW 3). As you would expect from the Spurs organization, the retirement of Tim Duncan’s jersey was classy, emotional and just flat out on point. That Sunday win over the Pelicans was first of five games in seven days for the Spurs, including games on the road against the Rockets, Clippers, then the Trail Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back. Rough stretch, guys will get rested. Of course, the Spurs have Christmas Day plans, taking on the Chicago Bulls in the second of the ABC games.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (21-7, LW 5). The real key to the Rockets 10-game winning streak? They are allowing 98.4 points per 100 possessions on defense, second best in the NBA in that stretch (Memphis). They are up to 14th in the NBA in defense overall this season — that’s better than Cleveland — and have played well on that end since the return of Patrick Beverley. People are still asking if the Rockets are for real, there’s a good test of that Tuesday night when the Spurs come to town.

Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (19-6, LW 2). Despite the uproar over Tyronn Lue resting LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love all in one game in Memphis last week, the fact is Lue is keeping a tight rotation most nights and leaning on his stars. LeBron has played the second most minutes of anyone in the NBA in December. Lue needs to trust his bench more — and those guys need to earn that trust. Of course, big showdown against the Warriors on Christmas where Lue should lean on those stars.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (19-8, LW 4). Toronto has the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games, and the best offense in the NBA this season (yes, better than Golden State). Key to that is Kyle Lowry with the bench lineup continues to just destroy teams — Lowry with Cory Joseph, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ross are +30.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents this season (better than the Warriors “death lineup” in nearly as many minutes). Patterson with the starters also has been impressive for the Raptors.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (20-8, LW 6). After a 14-2 start that saw them playing better than any team in the NBA, the Clippers have gone 6-6 — and now will be without Blake Griffin for a few weeks due to knee surgery. The Clippers starters with Griffin are the second most used lineup in the NBA and are +16.2 per 100 possessions, when they go to the bench the Clippers struggle. Los Angeles is about to go to the bench a lot. The Clippers “travel” to the Lakers on Christmas — I like that idea, a matchup where both teams get to spend the days with their families before the game, no travel.

Jazz small icon 7. Jazz (18-10, LW 9). Winners of five in a row and eight-of-nine, all while they still can’t get healthy (no George Hill, yet). They still just keep winning games, with the second-best defense in the NBA this season and a top-10 offense. While everybody is talking about the Warriors vs. Cavaliers on Christmas, the Jazz take on the Warriors Tuesday in a very interesting test (same with the Toronto vs. Utah game Friday).

Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (18-11, LW 7). The Grizzlies got Mike Conley back last Friday, sooner than expected, but the rust is still there as he shot 5-of-23 in two games. The Jazz went an impressive 7-2 while Conley was out. To me, that moves the Grizzlies into the “yes, they are going to make the playoffs for sure” column. Thank Marc Gasol for that. How good is he playing? Here is what Utah coach Quin Snyder said: “Marc Gasol has been the best player in the NBA the last 10 games.”

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (16-11, LW 8). The Thunder stumbled last week on offense with Victor Oladipo out, although things looked better when Anthony Morrow slid into the starting lineup and provided some shooting. Something else that should help is the return of Cameron Payne in the next couple weeks, improving the backup point guard situation. Russell Westbrook gets a star turn on Christmas day, and should put up strong numbers against a struggling (to be kind) Minnesota defense.

Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (15-12, LW 11). Think the Celtics didn’t miss Isaiah Thomas? They lost three of four when he was out recently, and won both games since he returned. Granted, the toughness of the schedule played into that, but the Celtics are not the same without Thomas in the lineup. What should please Celtics fans more is the team’s improved defensive play the past couple of weeks. The Celtics tip-off the Christmas Day games against the Knicks

Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (15-13, LW 10). They had lost four in a row until picking up a victory against Atlanta Saturday, and the key factor in that remains the bench play. When Kemba Walker is on the floor, the offense is a force. When he sits, and when Steve Clifford leans on the bench, the team struggles at both ends of the floor. Interesting game against the stumbling Bulls on Friday.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (13-12, LW 15). Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player in the NBA to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. The guy just does everything (except be consistent on jumpers), and they have surrounded him with enough shooting — including from Jabari Parker — to make it all work. They have a tough home-and-home with Cleveland this week.

Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (14-14, LW 16). They enter a softer part of the schedule for the next couple of weeks — this is when good teams, playoff teams, pad their win totals. The Pacers have seemed to play up-and-dwon to the competition. The new CBA “designated player” rule makes things interesting the next couple of years for certain players such as Paul George — if he makes the All-NBA team he’s in line for a potentially much larger raise. He’s one of the early test cases, if he qualifies.

Wizards small icon 14. Wizards (12-14, LW 20). The Wizards have won five-of-six and they got on this hot streak because of their the offense – they are 6.6 points per 100 possessions better in the last six games (the defense has remained basically flat just 0.4 points per 100 possessions better). Also, the bench has been playing much improved (they had nowhere to go but up). The Wizards have been shooting very well from the midrange, we’ll see if they can sustain that.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (14-15, LW 14). They have been stumbling on the offensive end, which Stan Van Gundy said has stated to impact their defense. That led to some ugly losses (Sixers, Wizards, Pacers) and sparked a team meeting to talk it out. We’ll see if that helps, but better play from Reggie Jackson (trying to get right after a return from injury and is shooting 39 percent. Rough week to try and get things right, they start against Chicago but then get the Grizzlies and Warriors.

Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (14-13 LW 13). They have lost three in a row, and it’s not a coincidence that Derrick Rose missing most of the last six games has something to do with that. Brandon Jennings is a fun spark plug off the bench, but not a great fit with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Madison Square Garden hosts the tip off of the Christmas Day games, as the Celtics come to town. The Knicks also have Indiana and Orlando in town this week, the kinds of games they need to win to remain a playoff team.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (13-16, LW 18). They have dropped 6-of-7 and are now 8-4 at home but 5-12 on the road for the season. The defense remains dead last in the NBA, but in the last 10 games they remain sixth in the NBA in offense, keeping them afloat. However, they have nights where there is a lot of pounding the ball and watching. Also, this season the Trail Blazers have been outscored by 186 points when Evan Turner is on the court.

Bulls small icon 18. Bulls (13-13, LW 12). Losers of three in a row and that includes blowing a 21-point lead to the Timberwolves. Chicago’s offense has gone into the tank. They have an ABC, prime time, Christmas Day game against the lock-down defense of the Spurs. Watch during the game how the Bulls try to neutralize Kawhi Leonard by having whoever he is guarding the half court (usually Jimmy Butler) act as a decoy on the weak side, not involved in anything, and the rest of the Bulls will attack 4-on-4 against the remaining Spurs.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (12-17 LW 19). The defense we expected to see from the Magic this season just is not there — they are 19th in the NBA in defensive net rating, and over the last few weeks they have been much worse. What has saved them is a surprisingly good offense led by Aaron Gordon and Serge Ibaka. The new starting lineup — no Elfrid Payton or Nikola Vucevic — is 5-2.

Hawks small icon 20. Hawks (13-14 LW 17). The Hawks had an impressive win over the Raptors on the road, but also fell to both the Magic and Hornets last week. Nothing is consistent about this team, well except that their defense is no longer elite. They started the season 9-2, have gone 4-12 since, and it feels like they are more the latter team than the former.

Nuggets small icon 21. Nuggets (11-16, LW 21). Mike Malone is still searching for a front-line rotation that works, and has gone to the “start Nikola Jokic and play Jusuf Nurkic far less” lineup and that has won the team two games in a row. For as bad a start as they had to the season, the Nuggets are just a game back of Portland for the final playoff spot in the West, and if they can put together a run it gets interesting.

Kings small icon 22. Kings (10-17, LW 22). The new CBA is going to make things interesting for DeMarcus Cousins. If the Kings hold on to him past the trade deadline — as most close to the team expect — they can this summer offer Cousins the Designated Player extension, meaning a five-year, $207 million (give or take) deal beyond his current one. If he leaves as a free agent in 2018, he will make roughly $60 million less guaranteed. Will Cousins turn that kind of money down? He will be the first big test case for that rule.

Heat small icon 23. Heat (9-19, LW 25). They just got Justice Winslow back, which should help spark the team, particularly defensively. Miami is playing hard for coach Eric Spoelstra, and Hassan Whiteside has earned that massive contract from last summer, but this team just finds ways to lose close games. With this team looking out of the playoff chase, will they move Goran Dragic, Luke Babbitt, or Dion Waiters at the trade deadline?

Pelicans small icon 24. Pelicans (9-20, LW 23). In the desperate search for silver linings outside Anthony Davis, Buddy Heild had a 21-point game last week and showed off how scouts thought that jumper would. Also good news, Tyreke Evans is back on the floor for New Orleans, that should help. Also, Tim razor has been dishing the ball well and looking like a solid NBA player.

Suns small icon 25. Suns (8-19, LW 27). What player has the worst raw +/- numbers in the NBA this season. Brandon Knight, and it’s not close at -224. (While +/- has its flaws as a stat, if you have that number there are issues.)Eric Bledsoe is trying to do it all on his own — three 30-point games — but the team defense stinks (24th in the NBA) and the offense can’t make up for it.

Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (11-19, LW 24). The team snapped an eight-game losing streak in Philly Friday, but over the past 10 games this has been the worst team in the NBA. The problem isn’t the offense or defense — it’s both. Injuries played a role in the slide, but this young team hasn’t figured out how to fight through fatigue or win on the road. Christmas Day they get to host the Clippers.

timberwolves small icon 27. Timberwolves (7-19, LW 26). This team shows flashes that give you hope — such as the 21-point come-from-behind win in Chicago last week. Then they turn around and blow a 12-point lead with two minutes left and fall to the Rockets on Sunday. Is Tom Thibodeau able to reach the young core players of the Timberwolves, or are they tuning him out already?

Sixers small icon 28. 76ers (7-20, LW 28). Going into the season, Brett Brown told us he wanted to try out different big man combinations to see what fits and what doesn’t. Last year we learned Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel is a poor paring (Noel is now glued to the bench). This year learning that Joel Embiid and Okafor don’t work well together, they get killed on defense. Is Dario Saric the long-term answer at the four?

Mavericks small icon 29. Mavericks (7-20, LW 29). Dirk Nowitzki says he wants to be back by the end of the month, but nobody is sure if that will happen. No Andrew Bogut for a while either. If you’re looking for a bright spot (outside the play of Harrison Barnes), we’re sorry about this: The Mavericks are about to play six-of-seven games on the road, where they are 1-12 so far this season.

Nets small icon 30. Nets (7-19, LW 30). Jeremy Lin is back on the court, which makes this team far more entertaining to watch but not much better — they lost to the Sixers last week (they did get a win over a tired, traveling Lakers team). More bad news, the schedule this week is the Raptors, Warriors, and Cavaliers. Ouch.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.

NBA lays out ground rules for family, friends to enter restart bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — NBA players could have some family members or close friends inside the season-restart bubble with them by the end of the month.

And that raises the possibility of having a real, albeit small, cheering section for some playoff games.

The league detailed the policies for guest arrivals to teams on Wednesday in a memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. The opportunity to bring guests into the bubble at Walt Disney World will be only for teams advancing to the second round of the playoffs, and the earliest any guest could satisfy quarantine rules and be reunited with a player is Aug. 31.

In most cases, players would be limited to four guests. The league told teams that any guests would have to be either family members, “longtime close personal friends with whom a player has an established, pre-existing, and known personal relationship,” private security staff and established family childcare providers.

Those who wouldn’t be allowed into the bubble: “trainers, physical or massage therapists, personal chefs, hair/apparel stylists, tattoo artists, and current/prospective business partners, and certified agents (other than family members), among others,” the memo said.

Also not allowed, according to the league: casual acquaintances, friends by association, anyone the player has not previously met in person or is “known by the player only through social media or an intermediary.”

ESPN first reported on the contents of the memo.

Players have made no secret about how difficult it is to be away from their families and close friends inside the bubble. Some players have needed to leave the bubble for family emergencies; others, such as Boston’s Gordon Hayward, have said they will leave for the pending birth of children. Hayward and his wife are expecting their fourth child next month.

“I miss the hell out of my family,” Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James said last week. “My wife, my kids, my mother, and so on, and so on. So, it’s a huge challenge.”

The Phoenix Suns have had friends and family at games — in the form of a pregame video that introduces starters before the games that are classified as Suns’ home contests. The video was trending Tuesday when the Suns released a copy on their social media channels, and many NBA players such as James and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry raved about the gesture.

“We say family a lot,” Suns coach Monty Williams. “It was a surprise to all of us the first time we saw it, to see your families organize that kind of intro. It’s unique.”

Exceptions to the four-person limit could apply in cases where the player has up to four of his minor children coming to the bubble. But in all cases, the same policies for others in the bubble — such as adhering to strict standards before traveling to the Orlando area, then quarantining before being allowed to enter the campus, plus submitting to daily testing and mandatory wearing of face coverings — would apply to guests as well.

Guests would also have to remain in the bubble, meaning the adjacent Disney World theme parks would be off-limits. The league said programming and entertainment for kids would be available, such as games, swimming pools and bicycles.

Players would also get one ticket authorizing entry for one adult to each of that team’s playoff games after guest arrivals, so basically for the second round and beyond. That ticket would also allow an adult to bring a child — provided the child is 2-foot-8 or shorter — to those games as well, if “the child remains seated with … the adult to whom the ticket was issued, maintains at least six feet of distance from any other individual, and wears a face covering.”

That would be the first opportunity for players to hear actual cheers from people inside a game arena since the season shut down on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Games during the restart have had a fan presence, but only on 17-foot-high video boards that surround the game courts.

The league said it would seek ways to add seating and potentially give players more than just the one ticket per game.

Teams will also be allowed to add staff to the bubble, with a requirement being an on-campus person to serve as a liaison between the guests, teams and NBA league office.

Damian Lillard motivated at restart by death of cousin, playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Damian Lillard has no shortage of motivation.

There’s the painful kind, the kind that comes from dealing with the death three months ago of a cousin who was very close to him. There’s the made-up variety, stemming from the belief he shared Tuesday night that people who cover the league don’t respect his work. There’s the silly stuff, like a back-and-forth on social media with other NBA players.

And then there’s probably the biggest sort — his want to get the Portland Trail Blazers back to the playoffs.

He topped a 51-point performance on Sunday by offering a 61-point performance on Tuesday, doing all that with the Blazers’ postseason fate still not secure and knowing that any loss would put a sizable dent in those playoff hopes. He’s the 12th player in NBA history to have consecutive 50-point games, and just the second — joining only Wilt Chamberlain — to have three 60-point games in a season.

“Couldn’t have been a better time for that type of game,” Lillard said Tuesday, after he helped the Blazers beat Dallas and move pass Memphis into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. “So, like I said, it’s a pleasure and honor to be company with Wilt. And hopefully, you know, it can continue.”

This is where the Blazers are: Win Thursday’s seeding-game finale against nothing-to-play-for Brooklyn, and they’re in the West play-in series that starts on Saturday as the No. 8 seed. Lose Thursday, and nothing is guaranteed.

And Lillard, even with those stakes, is putting on the best show in the bubble.

“If we lose this game, we might not make it to the playoffs,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said Tuesday night. “So, the magnitude of this game, even though it’s in an empty gym and in a bubble … this was the season was on the line.”

The three-point win Tuesday had some help from above, Lillard said.

He took a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter from somewhere between 35 and 40 feet away, felt it was good when it left his hand, then saw it hit the back of the rim and bounce straight up — way, way, way up — in the air.

Lillard’s cousin and chef, Brandon Johnson, died suddenly and unexpectedly in May. Chef B, they called him. Lillard knelt over his body and prayed moments after Johnson died. Blazers teammate CJ McCollum, who was also close with Johnson, came over soon afterward. Lillard and McCollum sat and cried together. And in the bubble, Chef B is in their mind.

“I just tried to continue what I feel like he would want me to do,” Lillard said.

Back to that 3-pointer. A shot from that far away, moving with that much energy, typically doesn’t hit the rim and bounce straight up. They tend to bounce outward. Not this one. It went up, up, up and fell for three points.

A reminder: The Blazers beat the Mavericks by three points.

“Rest in peace, Chef B,” Lillard said. “I think that was him dropping that in.”

Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony said he knew that 3-pointer, as he watched the ball go up and then in, was special.

“I probably said about 20 please, like please-please-please-please-please like repeatedly,” Anthony said. “It wasn’t meant for us to lose when that shot went in. It just wasn’t meant for us to lose.”

When the night was done, when the last of the 61 points had hit the books, Lillard said he shouted “put some respect on my name” to the media area, because as he put it “those were the people who usually have something to say or put out whatever they put out.”

In the bubble, there’s pretty much only been marveling, for good reason.

Lillard got into a bit of a social-media beef a few days ago, after the Los Angeles Clippers’ Patrick Beverley and Paul George reveled in how he missed two late free throws in what became a Portland loss. That fired him up, too — in the two games since, he’s 33 for 34 from the line, those shots all critical given how close the games were.

The NBA said Tuesday that there will be an All-Seeding Games team and MVP selected by reporters and broadcasters who are covering the restart. Lillard is pretty much a lock to be a strong candidate.

Those awards will be handed out Saturday before Game 1 of the West play-in series. He didn’t come here to be on that award list. He came here for the playoffs, and thanks to him, the Blazers are now in the driver’s seat for a chance to play the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1.

And that will deliver even more motivation.