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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.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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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. (AP) — 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.

Report: Paul George reached out to Damian Lillard to clear the air

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NBA players talk a lot of smack. The Clippers’ Patrick Beverley is a constant stream of it.

Both Beverley and Paul George got into it with Damian Lillard in the Clippers recent win over the Trail Blazers (when Lillard missed some clutch free throws). That spilled over to Instagram after the game when Lillard called out George for switching teams so often.

However, it got nasty when family and friends got involved. George’s girlfriend Daniela Rajic and Lillard’s sister, La’nae, went at each other on social media — La’nae Lillard called Rajic a stripper, Rajic called La’Nae a cow.

All that prompted George to call Lillard and clear the air, Chris Haynes of TNT said during the Blazers broadcast Tuesday.

Lillard and George have a history that goes back to last playoffs and what Lillard did to that Thunder. That beef is still around.

Players are generally pretty good about leaving the game on the court, and while it spills over to social media now and again it’s just an extension of the game. Family members tend to throw gas on those fires. That happened here.

Lillard used all that fuel — he has scored 112 points on 55% shooting (hitting 33-of-34 free throws) since that Clippers’ game. In doing so, he pushed Portland to two wins and the eighth seed in the West.