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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Warriors remain on top, Sixers slide into late teens

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With just a few days until Christmas, the top of the Power Rankings board remains stable (and likely will for a while), with the only change in the top 5 being Toronto jumping over the Spurs into fifth. The big fall down the board this week is the Sixers, who have lost 7-of-8 and drop nine slots to 18.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (25-4, Last Week No. 1). The NBA record for average number of three pointers made per game over a season is 14.4, and the most attempts averaged per game is 40.3. This season the Rockets are hitting 15.9 per game on 43.2 attempts per game, shattering the records. That strategy is working, the win streak is up to 14 in a row now. Chris Paul faces his former team the Clippers for the first time Friday in Houston. After that the Rockets have 6-of-8 on the road, and they take on Oklahoma City Christmas Day.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (24-6 LW 2). Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are out (Curry is out for Christmas Day), but Steve Kerr believes injuries have focused his team. “I think when Steph went out we realized we don’t have that margin for error, and if we’re going to win we’re going to have to do two things, take care of the ball and defend,” Kerr said Monday before his team beat the Lakers in OT (in a game they were not terribly focused). The Warriors have won nine in a row and now have seven straight at home, the biggest one against the Cavaliers on Christmas Day.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (26-7, LW 3). The come-from-behind win against Indiana Monday night was a microcosm of this team recently — inconsistent play bailed out by big shots (Kyrie Irving’s late threes) and timely defense (Terry Rozier’s steal and game-winning bucket). Boston has really struggled of late with Irving off the floor, something to watch going forward. The Celtics get to showcase their return to the top of the East on Christmas Day, going up against a Wizards team that is dangerous when focused (and they should be that day).

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (23-8 LW 4). Cleveland has won 18-of-20 (even after the loss to the Bucks Tuesday) and in that stretch it is their offense that has carried them (second best offense in the NBA in their last 15, scoring 114.5 per 100 possessions). Of course, the Cavaliers should be packing on wins now, they have played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (things get harder starting Christmas Day against the Warriors). Also in this most recent win streak, LeBron James strung together three straight triple-doubles for the first time since the 2008-09 season (the first year he won MVP).

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (20-8, LW 6). The Raptors have won 9-of-10 and separated themselves from the pack in the East — as the three seed they are 4 games up on the Pistons in fourth. The big change is the defense, giving up less than a point per possession and best in the NBA in the last 10 games. The offensive change in this team is for real: last season 41% of the Raptors shots came from the midrange, this season that is down to 30.1%, with the shots moving to more efficient spots on the floor (at the rim or from three).

 
Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (21-10, LW 5). The Spurs have gone 1-2 in games Kawhi Leonard has played, although one of those losses was to a very good Rockets team. Leonard has been efficient in limited minutes (16 per game) he getting, averaging 10.7 points a game with true shooting percentage of 65.3 (above the league average). That said, he clearly still needs to get his legs under him still. The Spurs have 6-of-8 on the road coming up, but if the game is close they know they can lean on Manu Ginobili.

 
7. Timberwolves (18-13, LW 10). Minnesota keeps winning, but here’s the thing that would concern me as a T-Wolves fan (or if I’m Tom Thibodeau): Minnesota has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point (tied with the Cavaliers). Well, that and the fact the defense still struggles (it’s bottom 10 in their last 10 games, 25th for the season). And the fact Thibodeau is again running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jimmy Butler are all in the top 10 in the league in total minutes played. Minnesota has the point differential of a 16-15 team and those things tend to even out. They will play on Christmas Day against the Lakers in a game where the NBA wants to show off its young stars.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (17-14, LW 7). Indiana’s ball movement has slowed down recently, and on an offense-driven team that led to tougher, contested shots — but none of that seems to matter to Victor Oladipo, who keeps going off (38 in the loss to Boston Monday). The Pacers were one of the hot teams in close games to start the season, but that scale is balancing out (as it tends to) with close losses to the Thunder, Pistons, and Celtics recently. Good news is the schedule gets soft for the next week.

 
Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (17-14, LW 12). John Wall is back but the Wizards offense hadn’t found a groove again — despite a couple of wins in a row — until they ran into New Orleans Monday. Mike Scott has stepped up with Otto Porter out, in his last five games he has averaged 16.6 points per game on 67.9% shooting, and hitting 42.9% from three in that stretch. Washington will take on the Celtics on Christmas Day, with a chance to make a statement they belong in the top four in the East (despite the Wizards’ inconsistent play this season).

Pistons small icon 10. Pistons (17-13, LW 13). The Pistons snapped out of their seven-game losing streak and won three in a row now, including a quality win over the Pacers on the second night of a back-to-back. The offense has seen a boost with Luke Kennard getting starts (Avery Bradley is out) and Reggie Bullock playing well and finding his stroke from three once he moved into the starting lineup.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (16-14, LW 11). Denver struggled without Nikola Jokic, going 2-4, but he’s back now just in time for a key stretch of games against the other teams fighting for one of the last playoff slots in the West. The Nuggets beat the Pelicans in overtime but fell to the Thunder. Their next run of games: Timberwolves, at Trail Blazers, at Warriors, Jazz, and at Timberwolves. Rack up some wins here and it helps the playoff cause.

Bucks small icon 12. Bucks (16-13 LW 8). The Bucks had lost three in a row and in that stretch their defense had been the big problem — and it was again against the Cavaliers Tuesday night (Milwaukee is still 24th in the league on the season defensively). However, against the Cavs, their athleticism and offense overcame the defensive issues. Rumor is the Bucks have been active as potential buyers on the trade market, but the trade will have to be close to even financially (the Bucks are just about $5 million short of the tax line, and ownership does not want to cross it). Also, they get Jabari Parker back in February.

 
Knicks small icon 13. Knicks (16-14, LW 15). Kristaps Porzingis’ defense at the rim this season has been spectacular, opponents are shooting just over 40% in the restricted area when he is the primary defender, and when KP is switched onto the pick-and-roll ball handler they are shooting just 34.9%. The Knicks are playing on Christmas Day again, and interestingly their game against the Sixers has a higher secondary market ticket price than Cavaliers at Warriors (according to TickPick).

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (16-14, LW 17). They continue to surprise with a top-10 defense (4th in the league for the season, 8th the last 10 games) but struggling on offense. The Blazers went a respectable 3-2 on a five-game road trip, improving the team to 9-6 away from Portland (which is better than their 7-8 record at home). One other concern for Portland fans: Your team has played the third easiest schedule in the NBA so far. Things will get tougher.

 
Thunder small icon 15. Thunder (15-15 LW 18).. The Thunder have won three of four (including a triple-overtime thriller vs. the 76ers), and that got them up to .500 and the seven seed in the West. Don’t confuse that with the offense looking smoother, it just means Russell Westbrook is asserting himself again, especially late in games. OKC has 7-of-8 at home, and one of those is the Rockets on Christmas day.

 
Pelicans small icon 16. Pelicans (15-16, LW 14). The buzz started up this week again about the Celtics and other teams keeping an eye on Anthony Davis’ trade availability (GMs are vultures seeking out potential steals). I’ve been told that the Pelicans do not have any plans to trade him, and nobody thinks they will go down that road for at least a year, maybe two (the summer of 2019 seems the earliest it gets considered). The Pelicans have lost 3-of-4 overall and the first two games of a four-game road trip.

 
Heat small icon 17. Heat (15-15, LW 19). Miami had won 4-of-5 before the injuries — Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside are out — caught up with the Heat Monday in an ugly loss to Atlanta. After playing at Boston on Wednesday, the Heat have 7-of-8 at home, many against teams under .500, and they need to rack up the wins before they hit the road and things get tougher in January.

 
Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (14-16, LW 9). The Sixers have lost 7-of-8, and those losses can often be traced back to turnovers — they give the ball up on 17.5% of their non-garage time possessions, worst in the NBA by a large margin (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Rookie Ben Simmons having the ball in his hands a lot is part of it, but plenty of Sixers, including Joel Embiid, are coughing it up too much. On the bright side, one bit of good news about the Sixers’ early season play: They have gone against the second toughest schedule in the NBA so far. It should lighten up.

 
Jazz small icon 19. Jazz (14-17, LW 16). The Jazz have dropped the two games since Rudy Gobert went down with his second significant injury of the season, although losses to Cleveland and Houston might well have come anyway. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress as a rookie playmaker and scorer, but he and the Jazz will be put to the test with this upcoming schedule: at Thunder, Spurs, Thunder, at Nuggets, at Warriors, Cavaliers.

 
Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (11-19, LW 21). In their last 10 games, the Hornets have the second best defense in the NBA but the worst offense, and that has them still getting outscored by 2 points per 100 possessions. The Hornets continue to struggle in close games. All of this has led to speculation around the league that Charlotte could be sellers at the trade deadline, if they decide to move out of the Kemba Walker era and rebuild.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (11-18, LW 20). Last season, the Nets didn’t have 11 wins until March, a sign of the steps forward this team is taking. Nik Stauskas has hit 5-of-9 from three since the trade (but is 1-of-5 inside the arc) since being traded out of Philadelphia. Much like Jahlil Okafor (who is still getting his legs under him), Stauskas will get a chance to prove his worth in Brooklyn.

 
Clippers small icon 22. Clippers (11-18 LW 22). How much do the Clippers miss Chris Paul? Last season they scored an excellent 1.02 points per possession on pick-and-roll plays, one of the tops in the league, this season that is down to 0.89 per possession, near the bottom of the league (and 36 percent of Clipper possessions are a pick-and-roll this season). Also, the Clippers have lost three in a row and have not scored more than 91 pints in any of those games.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (9-20 LW 27).. The Bulls are 6-0 since the return of Nikola Mitotic to the lineup, and he is averaging 20.3 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 65.1. One difference in his game, he is not hesitating now — not nearly as many pump fakes. He feels he can get his shot off and the confidence shows. After Orlando at home Wednesday the win streak will be put to the test with a three game road trip against the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Bucks.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (10-18 LW 24). The Lakers honored Kobe Bryant Monday night retiring both his numbers, 8 and 24. The question for the future is, will a player on the roster such as Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram ever get their name and number up next to him? The Lakers have a lot of nice young players on the roster — including Kyle Kuzma — but are any of them future top 10 players in the league you can build a contender around? Tough schedule for L.A. with the Rockets and Warriors both on the road coming up.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (11-21, LW 29). After dropping their first four games after Devin Booker went down, the Suns have won a couple in a row — and both because of their bench play. Isaiah Canaan had 11 fourth quarter points against Dallas to spark a comeback, and against Minnesota the game before both Troy Daniels and Dragan Bender stepped up with 17 points. We’ll see how sustainable that is, but the Suns will take the wins.

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (11-20, LW 23). Playing for his next contract (and wanting it to be in the NBA not Europe), Mario Hezonjia went off for 28 points Sunday, including 8 threes. Hezonjia has started the last five Orlando games (with Aaron Gordon out) and has been up and down depending upon the day. Remember, the Magic didn’t pick up his option for a fourth season, he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer.

 
Mavericks small icon 27. Mavericks (8-23 LW 25). Dallas gets all the best players from Wurzburg, Germany. First was Dirk Nowitzki, and now they have forward Maxi Kleber, who is averaging 7.3 points per game, shooting 56.5% overall and 38.7% as a starter. He’s a 25-year-old rookie seasoned in the German and Spanish leagues. Dallas has lost 6-of-7 but been competitive in those games, only one was by 10 points or more.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (10-20, LW 28). As of right now, the Kings have the worst offensive rating (98.4 points per 100 possessions) and worst defensive rating (108.7 per 100 allowed) in the NBA, but they keep winning enough games (such as against shorthanded Philadelphia on Tuesday) to stay out of the cellar in this ranking. No team has ever finished the season with both the worst offense and worst defense in the league. The Kings have the net rating of a 6-24 team according to Cleaning the Glass, but they keep finding some unexpected wins.

 
Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (9-21, LW 26). A few years back, Marc Gasol was a deserving Defensive Player of the Year — he wasn’t flashy, but he always made the right play and anchored a very good Grizzlies defense. It feels like Father Time is winning the race with him this season, opponents are shooting 60.4 percent at the rim when he is there as the rim protector this season. That doesn’t mean he is available yet via trade, all the buzz around the league is the Grizzlies have no plans to move either of their stars.

 
Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (7-23, LW 30). The good news is that rookie John Collins is back in the lineup. Well that and the Hawks upset the Heat Monday night behind big games from Taurean Waller-Prince (24 points) and Dennis Schroder (23 points). Atlanta has 3-of-4 at home before heading into a heavy road stretch to ring in the new year.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

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Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.