NBA Power Rankings: Celtics on top, Spurs move into top five

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The top four in our power rankings did not change this week and the teams just kept on winning — including 13 in a row for Boston, but that will be tested Thursday night when they face the Warriors. The Wizards were the big climbers this week, jumping from 16 to 8 (although I may have had them a little low the week before).

Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (13-2, Last Week No. 1). Brad Stevens is getting a lot of praise from front offices around the league because his Celtics team loses Al Horford for a couple of games, Kyrie Irving gets his face busted by Aron Baynes, and they keep on finding ways to win. Boston keeps on doing it with defense, which remains the best in the NBA. The Celtics have passed every test so far, but the Thursday one against the Warriors is the biggest yet in a young season.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (11-3 LW 2). They have won seven in a row and all by double digits, and during that stretch they have the best offense and second best defense in the NBA (it was the D that got off to the slow start). Here’s the scary thing, so far the Warriors have played the second toughest schedule in the NBA, and that doesn’t change Thursday with the Celtics on the docket.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (11-4, Last Week No. 3). The top two players in three-point attempts this season so far are James Harden and Eric Gordon (Stephan Curry is third). Harden has made at least five threes in six straight NBA games, which is a record. Chris Paul should return in the next week or two, but Mike D’Antoni has to find a way to keep using the Rockets’ starting five — Harden, Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela — which is outscoring opponents by 25.7 points per 100.

Pistons small icon 4. Pistons (10-3, LW 4). Tobias Harris is having the best start to his career and it all starts at the arc — he has nearly doubled the number of threes he’s taking (3.8 per game last season, 6.4 per game, and it’s hitting 50.6 percent this season. Also, Andre Drummond has grabbed at least a dozen rebounds in every Piston’s game this season, confirming he is the best rebounder in the NBA.

Spurs small icon 5. Spurs (9-5, LW 7). San Antonio went 4-2 on a recent homestand (the Warriors and Bucks were the losses), which has helped them hold on to a playoff slot while we wait for the return of Kawhi Leonard (still no timetable, but “sooner rather than later” is the new word). After a rough start to the season with more isolation than they wanted, on the homestand the Spurs got the ball moving again, averaging 313.8 passes per game (same as the Warriors in that stretch). That has sparked their offense. Even without Leonard the Spurs are fifth in defense.

6. Timberwolves (8-5, LW 5). On the surface they look like they are off to a good start to the season — winning record, great young talent — but if their 26th in the NBA defense, which is 29th if you remove garbage time (as the site Cleaning the Glass does) things will go south. The most concerning thing: Minny’s defense is 10.9 points per 100 possessions worse when Karl-Anthony Towns is on the court. He is still struggling on that end. Andrew Wiggins takes a lot of heat for his D from Timberwolves fans, but the team defense is 5 points per 100 better when he is on the court.

Raptors small icon 7. Raptors (8-5, LW 9). They are moving the ball more and isolating less, but they are still a team that scores on the drive — they average 28.2 points per game on drives, the most in the NBA. The Raptors’ five losses are the Warriors, Spurs, underrated Nuggets, Wizards, and Celtics — they had beaten the team they were supposed to but needed a marquee win, and they got it putting up 129 on the Rockets Tuesday night. OG Anunoby has been a find.

Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (8-5, LW 16). The Wizards move up this week because they feasted on a soft part of their schedule, winning 3-of-4 on a homestand. It’s a good sign that they are at least taking lesser teams seriously. Now the schedule gets harder: 11-of-14 on the road with a lot of playoff teams in the mix is up next, starting with a home-and-home vs. the Heat.

Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (8-6 LW 13). The DeMarcus Cousins/Anthony Davis pairing continues to thrive — they are both averaging more than 26 points and 11 rebounds per game (which is a historic pace for teammates, if they can sustain it). Rajon Rondo returned to the lineup in limited minutes on Monday, as he works his way back into shape Alvin Gentry needs to find some perimeter rotations that can help out that strong front line. Darius Miller has earned some extra run with his performances.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (8-6, LW 14). Nikola Jokic is having a fast start to the season and the reason is he is trusting his three-ball. Jokic is nearly doubling the number of threes he took per game last season (1.9 up to 3.6) but the key is he is hitting 41.2 percent this season (up from 32.4 percent last season). Denver moved up the rankings going 5-1 on a homestand, but Monday’s loss at Portland is the first of 11-of-15 on the road.

Knicks small icon 11. Knicks (7-6, LW 8). The Knicks thought they had a signature win Monday night against Cleveland, only to blow a 23-point lead and take a punch to the gut. I know that coach Jeff Hornacek likes his center rotation of Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn, but he played Kristaps Porzingis there at the end of the Orlando game, I’d like to see more of that.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (7-6, LW 11). The big news for the Sixers this week is Robert Covington can sign a new contract extension, and expect the Sixers to make him a happy man with a healthy payday in the next few days. The Sixers are 2-2 on a five-game road trip that ends in Los Angeles Wednesday (one loss was an ugly one to the Kings), then the Sixers are home for six straight.

Magic small icon 13. Magic (8-6, LW 10). It’s still a little strange to type this, but Aaron Gordon continues to kill it from three, shooting 53.7 percent this season, best in the NBA. The Magic are improved on both ends of the court this season, but are 1-2 on their current road trip, with 5-of-7 on the road still to go.

Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (7-6 LW 12). Portland has the third best defense in the NBA this season, and with that should have a better record than they do so far (they have the point differential of a 9-4 team). What’s holding them back is a middle of the pack offense, and the reason is they get the fewest points out of transition in the league. The Blazers need to play a little faster and get some easy baskets.

Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (7-6, LW 6). I like the move to start Dillon Brooks over Andrew Harrison, but it does not change the momentum of a team that has lost 5-of-7, with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol struggling with their shot. The most impressive thing about Memphis this season has been the strong play of its bench, led by Tyreke Evans.

Bucks small icon 16. Bucks (7-6 LW 23). Winners of three in a row since Eric Bledsoe arrived, although none of those wins was particularly pretty. What he has brought is a willingness to push the pace more — a team with the Greek Freak and a defense designed to create turnovers shouldn’t be 26th in the league in pace. On Saturday the Bucks head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (6-7, LW 24). The Heat had a solid 3-3 road trip, one where they played good defense, allowing less than a point per possession during the trip. Problem is they also scored less than a point per possession. Still, that road trip felt closer to the Heat team from the second half of last season than we have seen yet this season.

Cavaliers small icon 18. Cavaliers (7-7 LW 20). Kevin Love playing the five has been an experiment that has not always looked good, but Love has finished better at the rim — 70.8 in the restricted area this season — than at any point in his career. LeBron James has played more regular season games now than Michael Jordan, is in his 15th NBA season, yet leads the NBA in 38.1 minutes played per game. He’s been phenomenal in those minutes – because the Cavs need him to be — but that’s a heavy load.

Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (6-7 LW 21).. The Thunder have a couple wins in a row, which happened for two reasons. First, because Paul George went off for 42 and 37 in those games to carry a struggling offense. The other reason for the wins is the Thunder played the Clippers (six game losing streak and then a Dallas team that is last in the Western Conference. Maybe the Thunder needed a couple easy wins as slumpbusters, just any wins to turn the team around, and with Chicago up next the streak could well reach three wins.

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (5-7, LW 15). They have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this season. The Hornets start fast, outscoring teams by 6.9 points per 100 in the first quarter, but they get outscored by 6.3 per 100 in the fourth, which has them blowing leads and losing ugly (like leading by 12 in the forth to Boston and losing).

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (6-8 LW 18). What’s impressive is the Lakers have the fourth best defense in the NBA this season, which is shocking after years of horrid defense from the team. They are defending well in the half court, with Brook Lopez playing a key role in the paint, but they struggle defending in transition (20th in NBA according to Cleaning the Glass). The offense, like Lonzo Ball’s shot, needs a lot of work.

Pacers small icon 22. Pacers (6-8, LW 19). Myles Turner returned to the lineup, and since then the Pacers are 1-6 with the fifth worst defense in the NBA. Turner hasn’t seemed himself since returning from injury, but the Pacers are doing a poor job of getting him the ball in the spots he wants. It’s hard to find positives, outside of Victor Oladipo’s in-game 360 dunk.

Clippers small icon 23. Clippers (5-8 LW 17). Losers of six in a row and 7-of-8, and the key reason is their defense has fallen apart. The Clippers are allowing 113.8 points per 100 in their last six games, worst in the NBA. Injuries — games lost for Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic, and Patrick Beverley — has exacerbated the problems for this team.

Jazz small icon 24. Jazz (6-8, LW 22). Rudy Gobert is out for at least a month after Dion Waiters crashed into his knee, and the Jazz could be in real trouble — in their second game without him the Timberwolves pounded Utah inside. It doesn’t get easier, Utah’s schedule for the next month is brutal. The Jazz need to find a way to get wins and not slide out of the playoff picture in the crowded West while Gobert is out.

Nets small icon 25. Nets (5-9, LW 25). After the past few seasons it’s strange to type this, but the Nets are fun to watch. This is a scrappy, if not good, team. The Nets suffered a blow when D’Angelo Russell tweaked his knee, he is now out for a while and that means more Spencer Dinwiddie at the point, and Caris LeVert doing some playmaking as well.

Suns small icon 26. Suns (5-10, LW 26). That bump the Suns got after firing Earl Watson and replacing him with Jay Triano — winning 4-of-5 — is over, Phoenix has dropped 6-of-7 since. In those seven games the Suns have a bottom 10 offense and defense, and have been outscored by 10 points per 100 possessions. Devin Booker puts up numbers, but Phoenix desperately needs a playmaker to put next to him.

Kings small icon 27. Kings (3-10, LW 28). While George Hill had a good game against the Wizards Monday, for much of this season he has struggled and rookie De’Aaron Fox has been as good or better. Fox shows real promise. A young guns lineup for the Kings — Fox, Buddy Held, Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein — has only played 21 minutes together this season, and it hasn’t been great (-9.8 per 100) but I would like to see more of it. This is a developmental year in Sacramento.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (2-9 LW 27). Since returning from suspension, Bobby Portis is averaging 19.3 points and 10 rebounds a game. It’s going to be awkward when Nicola Mirotic eventually returns to practices and the lineup, but with Portis playing this well he is going to get a lot of run. The Bulls have lost 6-of-7 and have 5 of their next six on the road.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (2-12, LW 29). Ersan Ilyasova is back healthy and will come off the bench for Atlanta on Wednesday against the Kings. The Hawks have gotten help from some unexpected places, for example Luke Babbitt is shooting the ball well and that is opening things up for Dennis Schroder. Also, rookie John Collins is averaging 10.4 points per game shooting 50.4 percent, is grabbing 7.2 rebounds a night, and has a PER of 18.9 that is the best on the team among regular rotation players.

Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-13 LW 30). With his second made basket Friday against Minnesota, Dirk Nowitzki will pass Hakeem Olajuwon for eighth place on the NBA’s all-time made baskets list. Nowitzki passed Olajuwon in points three seasons ago to become the all-time leading scorer among international players. Nowitzki said he will let his body — and not the Mavs record — determine if he will come back for one more season after this one.

Three Things to Know: Lakers make defensive statement in back-to-back road wins

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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) Lakers make a defensive statement in back-to-back road wins in Denver, Utah. After winning 10 games in a row against the softest part of their schedule, the calendar flipping to December was supposed to start a real test for the Lakers. No more playing hard for 24 minutes and getting a victory, no more sloppy quarters leading to a comeback win — the Dallas Mavericks made that clear on Sunday.

Los Angeles answered that with back-to-back road wins where their defense — led by Anthony Davis — shut down the Nuggets and Jazz. Through the two games, the Lakers allowed less than a point per possession (96.5 defensive net rating total), including holding Donovan Mitchell and Utah to 96 points (and a 97 net rating) on the second night of a back-to-back. The Jazz shot just 41 percent as a team for the game.

Mitchell, who has played at an All-Star level this season, scored 29 but on 11-of-24 shooting — the Laker defense made him work for his buckets. (Bojan Bogdanovic had another strong game for the Jazz with six threes, he has been the Utah summer signing that has worked out well.)

Los Angeles led struggling Utah by 18 at the half and cruised to a 121-96 win. In what looked like a scheduled loss before the season — the second night of a back-to-back at altitude against a good team — never felt in doubt as Davis had 26 points and LeBron James 20 and 12 assists.

The only drama was that LeBron got away with a blatant and hilarious travel and double dribble in the first quarter, one the officials somehow missed.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

Coming into the season there were questions about how good the Lakers’ defense was going to be, with coach Frank Vogel wanting to play two bigs and more of a drop-back style of defense. That’s the style Vogel used with success back in Indiana (with peak Roy Hibbert protecting the paint) and has become in vogue again in the NBA. That includes in Utah, where Rudy Gobert has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards because he owns the paint but also because of his length and mobility tp contest and cause problems out on the perimeter.

Davis has done exactly that for the Lakers this season.

It was most evident late in the game against Denver Tuesday. On one fourth quarter play big man Nikola Jokic tried to back down Davis, put on a move and score in the post and AD just stuff blocked him. A couple of possessions later, Davis got switched onto quick guard Jamal Murray on consecutive plays and forced him into a couple of bad shots that missed.

Stretches like that are the reason the Lakers’ have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA this season — and it is their defense that has them looking like legit title contenders. Davis is at the heart of it, although both Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have used their mobility to be surprisingly good defenders who can contest at the arc and get back to protect the rim.

Davis’ performance has the Lakers already campaigning for him to win Defensive Player of the Year (and some in the Lakers’ media core seem eager to promote that idea). We’re just a quarter of the way into the season, and this award is one that has to be earned over a much longer stretch of ground. There are no actual frontrunners yet, and players like Gobert, the Bucks’ Greek Freak, and Boston’s Marcus Smart — among others — will be in the middle of any conversation down the line.

But make no mistake, the Lakers defense and Davis are for real. They made a statement about that the past couple of nights — and showed why their defense could carry them to a parade in June.

2) Blake Griffin steps over Giannis Antetokounmpo and tempers flare. There wasn’t much drama in the game itself between the Bucks and Pistons on Wednesday — Milwaukee blew the doors off Detroit and never looked back.

Any drama came in the third quarter when Antetokounmpo tried to back down Griffin on the left block, Detroits Bruce Brown came over to double and fouled the Greek Freak, who fell to the floor. Then Griffin stepped over him.

Khris Middleton ran over to get in Griffin’s face about the disrespect and then… well, a lot of words were exchanged. Nothing else. The officials reviewed the play, and both Brown and Middleton ended up getting technical fouls.

That’s the most drama there was in Detroit Wednesday. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points and the Bucks won by 24, extending their win streak to 13.

3) Houston “leaning toward” protesting loss to Spurs over missed James Harden dunk call. That will fail, too. Let’s start with the obvious: The referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk against the Spurs Tuesday night. The basket should have counted, and after the game the officials admitted they missed the call.

The league’s response to this has been the same as when it says officials missed a call in the Last Two-Minute reports: be transparent about it but nothing changes. Missed calls are part of the game.

The Rockets are now leaning toward filing a protest of the game, according to multiple reports. We’ll see if they actually go through with it (this could be a lot of noise to make their star happy). If the Rockets do file a protest, it probably fails, too, but from the Rockets’ perspective it at least forces the league to rule on the issue.

First things first: The idea put forward that the league would step in and overturn the game outcome and just hand the Rockets a win was — to use the word of some around the league (not directly involved in the case) — “absurd.” The league would never do that. Let us never speak of that idiocy again.

The Rockets’ protest — if they actually file it — is a longshot. The bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Meaning, just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that coach Mike D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation. The lead official said after the game D’Antoni didn’t call for a coach’s challenge within 30 seconds, as the rule demands, so there could be no challenge to the call.

The Rockets have a point here. We can be honest and say the referee crew should have handled this better.

However, remember the bar for a protest is the misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Back in 2008, the league ordered the Hawks and Heat to replay the final 51.9 seconds of a game because the scorer’s table incorrectly said Shaq had fouled out of the game and forced him to sit when in reality he had just five fouls. That scorers’ table error could have changed the end of a game. In the Rockets case, the referees missed a call but proving the referees misapplied the challenge rule and that’s why the Rockets lost (in a game with nearly 8 minutes left) is a tough sell.

We’ll see if Houston goes through and files this, or if all the bluster is just a PR move to keep an angry Harden happy and show they have his back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 35, Bucks’ winning streak reaches 13 with rout of Pistons

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DETROIT (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points to lift the Milwaukee Bucks to their 13th consecutive victory, 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.

The last time the Bucks had a longer winning streak than this was when they won 16 in a row spanning the end of the 1972-73 season and the beginning of 1973-74. They also had a 13-game run shortly after that 16-game streak ended.

Milwaukee had won its previous two games by 41 and 44 points, and the Pistons had won their previous two by 34 and 33. This one wasn’t close either. The Bucks have dominated Detroit of late.

Milwaukee won all eight matchups with the Pistons last season – four in the regular season and four in the first round of the playoffs. The Bucks also beat Detroit last month in their first meeting of 2019-20.

The Bucks went on a 13-2 run late in the second quarter to lead 57-39, and although Detroit closed within 11 at the half, the Pistons never made a major run during the final two quarters. Antetokounmpo scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Milwaukee led 92-72 after three.

Andre Drummond had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Detroit. That included a monster dunk over the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton had 17 points for the Bucks.

There were six technical fouls in the game, and there were words exchanged during a couple mild altercations. The first involved Antetokounmpo and Detroit’s Blake Griffin after those two collided around midcourt in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, Antetokounmpo fell to the ground after being fouled, and then Griffin stepped over him. Middleton came over to confront Griffin. Three technicals were assessed after that.

 

LeBron James blatantly, obviously travels, referees miss it and don’t make call

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Another day, another “how did they miss that?” call in the NBA. At least this one is not going to lead to a protest.

LeBron James blatantly traveled when bringing the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Jazz, and the officials completely missed it.

There was a double-dribble in there by LeBron, too, if we’re going to be sticklers for the rules. Which clearly we are not.

After the game LeBron owned it, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James said after the game… “I didn’t realize I did it until halftime. One of my coaches showed me.”

The reaction of Bojan Bogdanovic is maybe my favorite part, he’s incredulous.

This play did not impact the game, the Lakers ran away from Jazz early and went on to win 121-96 behind 26 points from Anthony Davis.

Rockets reportedly going to file protest over missed dunk call in loss to Spurs

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Houston apparently has been hoping — unrealistically — that the NBA would step in, rule in its favor on the missed call on James Harden‘s dunk, and give the Rockets the chance to replay the final 7:50 of their double-overtime loss to the Spurs from Tuesday night.

If the Rockets want the league to rule on this, they will have to file a protest, something they are likely to do, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

Houston had been optimistic in the wake of the loss that the NBA office would take action without a protest being necessary. However, sources said the Rockets are leaning toward filing a protest to ensure that the NBA office will have to make a ruling…

The Rockets contend that they should either be awarded the win — because they actually outscored the Spurs in regulation — or that the final seven minutes, 50 seconds of the game be replayed at a later date.

There is zero chance the league would overturn the game and hand the Rockets a win. The idea the Rockets even wanted that was described as absurd by some around the league (not directly involved in the case).

Even a protest is a longshot, it requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule which seriously inhibited Houston’s chance to win a game. Just saying the crew got the call wrong is not enough. Protests rarely go anywhere in the NBA because the bar to clear is very, very high.

No doubt the officials missed the call (even they owned up to it after the game). Here is the play in question.

Mike D’Antoni said he tried to challenge the play but was not allowed to by the game officials. Crew chief James Capers said after the game D’Antoni didn’t make his protest within 30 seconds as is required by the coach’s challenge rule.

Houston’s protest would hinge on the idea that D’Antoni wasn’t given a fair chance to protest the call because of how the referee crew handled the situation.

A protest is a full challenge process that the league would go through, but it’s hard to picture the Rockets winning it.

We’ve seen before with the Last Two-Minute Reports that even if the league admits an officials mistake that could have changed a game nothing is done. An official protest — where just saying the call is wrong is not enough to win — is not very likely to change that. The Rockets would argue that not only was there a missed call but that the crew mismanaged the challenge process. Good luck with that.

The Rockets are going to try, anyway.