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NBA Power Rankings: Toronto, Denver start fast, race to top

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It’s just a few games into the season, it’s too early to read too much into numbers or trends, but we’ve seen a few things that caught our eye — especially in Toronto and Denver. Lots of movement in the power rankings this week, as tends to happen in the early season before we get a real feel for teams.

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (4-0, last week No. 4). Kawhi Leonard is averaging 25.7 points a game, shooting 46.7 percent from three, is dominating games — and is clearly still shaking off rust. It’s scary how good he is (and it’s great to have him back). Kyle Lowry is thriving with his new wing partner. The Raptors are playing faster this season and their offensive efficiency is already up more than four points per 100. Oh, and they beat the Celtics. The Raptors are legit, and with Leonard they are a playoff threat if everyone stays healthy.

Nuggets small icon 2. Nuggets (4-0, LW 8).. Denver is tied for the league’s best defense, one of only two teams allowing less than a point per possession this season (Boston)… that’s not going to last. Denver with the best defense is the ultimate example of small sample size. Still, if the Nuggets defense can be average this season then they may be home for the first round of the playoffs. The Will Barton injury (out at least six weeks) is a blow. Nikola Jokic is earning that new contract to start the season, including an 11-of-11 shooting triple-double already.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (3-1, LW 1). The good news, Damian Jones is doing a solid job as the starting center, and is playing within himself — 9.3 points per game on a ridiculous 85 percent shooting (small sample size, but still impressive). The bad news, Klay Thompson is now 3-of-22 from three this season. We know that’s not going to last, and pity the team the Warriors play when those flood gates open. Nobody on the Warriors can get as white hot for a quarter or half as Thompson.

Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (3-0, LW 10). The Bucks are playing four possessions a game faster than last season, their offense is 5.3 points per 100 better, the defense is 4.4 per 100 better, and last season they took less than 28 percent of their shots from three, this season it if 44.7 percent so far. Welcome to the Mike Budenholzer effect, and the Bucks are going to be much better for it. Fun test against the Sixers coming up.

Pelicans small icon 5. Pelicans (3-0, LW 12). Impressive opening night win blowing Houston out on the road, and they have kept that level of play up. The Pelicans have had the best offense in the NBA early (122.2 points per 100 possessions, although just through three games). Anthony Davis is a beast averaging 30.3 points and is hauling in 13 rebounds a night, with 3.3 blocks. Real test coming up against Utah, Rudy Gobert, and that defense.

Pistons small icon 6. Pistons (3-0, 19). Blake Griffin may be the hottest player in the NBA right now — 36.3 points per game (leading the league) on 53.3 percent shooting overall at 61.1 percent from three, plus gragging 11.3 boards a game and dishing out 5.7 assists a night. And he dropped 50 on the Sixers. The Pistons are using Griffin as a point forward for stretches, running pick-and-rolls as the ball handler. And it works. He has been nothing short of amazing.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (2-1, LW 13). The “Free Nik Stauskas” crowd has to be happy — 14 points a game, and shooting 52.9 percent from three through three games. He has been a huge boost to the Trail Blazer bench. Portland has started the season with the kind of wins they need to make the playoffs (West foes Lakers and Spurs). Now the Blazers head as far as they can go to play a couple of games, Orlando and Miami, and it’s a chance for Portland to get off to a fast start.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (2-2, LW 11). That stinging loss to the Bucks should serve as a reminder of the level of the top teams in the East, and that the Pacers have work to do. The Pacers just aren’t in sync early, Victor Oladipo seems to be trying to do too much, and their team shot selection is less than ideal. That said, the 2-2 record does not do the Pacers justice, they are +5.8 per 100 possessions this season, keep that kind of pace up and they will win a lot of games.

Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (2-2, LW 2). The Celtics’ offense is stumbling to start the season, scoring less than a point per possession. Integrating Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward turns out to not be plug and play. One thing we know — Jayson Tatum has announced his presence with authority and has Celtics’ fans hyped. It’s too early to say how good he will ultimately be, but if you told me someday he’s a top 10 NBA player, I would believe you.

Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (2-1, LW 14). It’s a bit of small sample size theater, but it’s still strange: San Antonio has the worst defense in the NBA through three games, allowing 122 points per 100. Chalk a lot of that up to the Dejounte Murray ACL injury, they leaned on him on the perimeter. Those low numbers are not going to last, they will get better, but for now they are winning thanks to the second best offense in the league.

Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (2-2, LW 5). How long will the Markelle Fultz starting experiment go on? The Sixers starting five with Fultz has been a disaster on both ends (in very limited minutes, to be fair), but when J.J. Redick replaces Fultz that lineup becomes elite (it’s more than 60 points per 100 better). It’s about shooting, floor spacing, and experience. With Ben Simmons out against the Pistons and Fultz having the ball in his hands he looked more comfortable on offense, but Fultz was struggling defensively with the Pistons’ screens and for most of the fourth quarter and all of OT he was on the bench because of it.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (2-2, LW 17). That 2-2 record came against a brutal early schedule (and it doesn’t stop yet, the Rockets are up next). Rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has shown a lot of promise, especially on offense, while veteran guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley have been up and down on that end. My favorite dunk of the early season goes to Boban Marjanovic. who was holding on to the rim with his feet on the floor. It’s insane.

13. Timberwolves (2-2. LW 20). Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Timberwolves don’t get Karl-Anthony Towns the ball enough on offense. Towns is too timid a soul to demand the rock like he should and the Minnesota offense — while the fifth most efficient in the NBA so far — does not run creative sets that get him the ball in space or against enough mismatches. Also once again, what is holding Minnesota back is a bottom-10 defense. Tom Thibodeau got louder boos in the home opener than Jimmy Butler, and the previous stats and figures in this note explain why that is deserved.

Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (1-2, LW 6). Utah’s dominant defense hadn’t been on lock-down to start the season, it’s been pretty pedestrian (welcome to the small sample size theater, one of those games was against the Warriors, which skews things). The loss to Memphis on Monday where the Jazz only scored 84 points was more troubling, if Donovan Mitchell can’t get it going there is no great secondary playmaker on this team, they have to get the offense out of the system. Utah has 5-of-6 games coming up on the road, starting in Houston.

Rockets small icon 15. Rockets (1-2, LW 3). The Rockets looked disinterested on opening night and got run out of their own building by the Pelicans. Watching them in person, you can see their defensive communication is not nearly as good as it was last season, when they were a top-10 defense, the Rockets are not sharp on rotations and switches right now. Lost in the fight with the Lakers (which has Chris Paul sitting out against Utah Wednesday), James Harden dominated after the altercation and got Houston the win.

Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (2-2, LW 21). Kemba Walker is on fire to start the season, averaging 33 points a game (second in the NBA) and in new coach James Borego’s system has been freed up to shoot 11.3 three pointers a game, hitting 46.7 percent of those so far. Those numbers will come down as defenses adjust, but there is a lot more freedom in the new system and it shows. The Hornets’ defense has impressed at times, if that gets more consistent the playoff dream will be within reach.

Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (2-1, LW 18). This ranking may seem low considering their record (which includes a win over the Jazz), but I’m not yet sold. Well, I’m sold on the defense, which has been top 10 so far. However, the offense hasn’t been good and the Grizzlies have been outscored overall through three games. The JaMychal Green injury hurts (out for weeks with a broken jaw) but there is a silver lining if it means more minutes for Jaren Jackson Jr.

Mavericks small icon 18. Mavericks (2-1, LW 22). Luka Doncic is leading the Mavericks averaging 18.3 points per game. He’s shown a good shooting touch, has been strong in transition, but is still learning to master the NBA-style pick-and-roll as the ball handler (Dallas is scoring 68 points per 100 possessions so far on those P&R plays). He will get better. Dallas is another team that has more wins than losses, but has been outscored this season. Doncic vs. Trae Young showdown Wednesday night.

Magic small icon 19. Magic (2-2, LW 28). Impressive wins over Miami opening night then holding Boston to just 90 points, and their defense has been solid this season. Their offense, however, is one of the slow starters in the league and is scoring less than a point per possession. Nikola Vucevic is averaging 18.8 points a game and had a triple-double — will that raise his trade value?

Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (1-2, LW 15). Washington started the season with two losses it should regret — both to teams on a back-to-back and missing rotation players. They miss Dwight Howard inside, the Heat grabbed the offensive rebound on 42.9 percent of their missed shots, which includes Kelly Olynyk’s putback game-winner. The overtime win in Portland kicks off five road games in a row (and 8-of-10).

Heat small icon 21. Heat (1-2, LW 16). Josh Richardson has taken on far more of a scoring load and is averaging 18.7 points per game, but it’s taking 17.7 shots a night to get there and has a woeful 48.4 true shooting percentage. The Heat’s three games have all been close and decided by a total of five points between the three. Their one win came because Kelly Olynyk has a thing for torturing Wizards’ fans.

Thunder small icon 22. Thunder (0-3, LW 7).. The first couple of losses without Russell Westbrook were not good, but at least there was an explanation. The home opener loss to a scrappy Kings team is harder to explain. Oklahoma City has the worst offense in the NBA to start the season, but again with Westbrook back that will change. However, their pedestrian defense is the bigger issue, they need a top-10 defense to help cover that predictable offense. They really miss Andre Roberson. Next up on the schedule it doesn’t get easier: Boston on Thursday.

Lakers small icon 23. Lakers (0-3, LW 9). Want to look at the bright side, Lakers’ fans? Gregg Popovich, on the Lakers early struggles: “They’re just going to get better and better. Luke (Walton) has done a great job with this group, still a very young group… and LeBron’s a great teacher, a great role model, and they’ll just get better and better and better. By that I mean mentally, as much as physically… The leadership of LeBron, he’ll demand a lot and he’ll help them all raise to another level for sure.“

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (1-3, LW 27). Allonzo Trier is NBA Twitter’s new favorite Knick. He played with Deandre Ayton at Arizona, went undrafted but played his way onto the Knicks through a solid Summer League (17 points a game) and camp (14.2 average in preseason games, better than Kevin Knox). Then on opening night he dropped 15 points with some highlight reel plays. Keep an eye on this kid.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (1-3, LW 29). They have played better than their record indicates, they’ve been scrappy and looked like a solid team. De’Aaron Fox has looked improved, but the bigger standout has been “get me paid” Willie Cauley-Stein at center averaging 16.8 points a game on 63.8 percent shooting, plus grabbing 6.8 rebounds a night. The difference in Cauley-Stein’s game is he’s playing to his athletic strengths — no midranges, just get to the rim and finish, and use that athleticism to get putbacks, alley-oops, and easy buckets where you can.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (1-2, LW 30). Trae Young is going to be up-and-down this season, but the ups are eye-popping — 35 points and 11 assists against the Cavaliers on Sunday, for example (Young torched Collin Sexton in that game). The Hawks’ home opener in the heavily-renovated State Farm Arena Wednesday night should be a show — Future is performing at halftime. The Young/Doncic showdown Wednesday (even though they’re not matched up) will have people talking. And jumping to way-too-early conclusions.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (1-2, LW 25). It’s too early to draw solid conclusions about anything in the NBA, but right now the hiring of Igor Kokoskov as coach looks like a great get — the ball movement and creative offense have been impressive. It helped Devin Booker to 35 points on 18 shots in the opener. T.J. Warren has been a beneficiary, scoring 20 points a game and shooting 57.1 percent from three so far (on 4.7 attempts per game). The offense is still bottom 10, but that’s more about roster construction than coaching.

Nets small icon 28. Nets (LW 26). Two words sum up the Nets so far this season: Caris LeVert. He’s averaging 24.7 points a game, shooting 40 percent from three, and is having to do a lot of his shot creation himself with quality defenders (such as Victor Oladipo) on him. LaVert and Jarrett Allen look like they could be key parts of what Brooklyn is building. Saturday’s loss to the Pacers starts 4-of-5 on the road for the Nets, with the one home game being the Warriors.

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (0-3, LW 24).. Zach LaVine has looked like an offensive force who deserves the contract that had everybody shaking their heads this summer. LaVine is averaging 32.3 points per game with a ridiculous 74 true shooting percentage. He does much of his scoring as the pick-and-roll ball handler (67.3% eFG% on those) but is killing it in isolation and transition as well. We’ll see if he can keep this up all season and make everyone eat their words about that contract.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (0-3, LW 23). Some people tried to sell that the Cavaliers defense would be better without LeBron James because he didn’t work hard on that end last season. Um, nope. Three games in the Cavaliers have the second worst defense in the NBA, and the numbers don’t do how ugly it is justice. Kevin Love is trying, averaging 20.7 points and 14.3 rebounds a game, but there is only so much he can do.

Bucks to retire jersey Marcus Johnson’s number

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Marcus Johnson is a Milwaukee legend. He averaged 21 points a game in his seven seasons with the Bucks and is sixth on the all-time franchise list in points (10,980), is its all-time leader in offensive rebounds (1,468), is third in total rebounds (3,923), and made 4,546 during his time in Milwaukee. He is now a color commenter for the team.

Now, the team is going to retire his No. 8.

The ceremony will be March 24, a story broken by the Journal-Sentinel.

Johnson will be the ninth Bucks player to have his number retired and the first since the team’s move to its new home Fiserv Forum.

Current Bucks legend Giannis Antetokounmpo told the Journal-Sentinel he was happy. Antetokounmpo turned to Johnson at points for help with footwork, post moves, and more.

“I’m really happy for him, I think he deserves to have his jersey retired,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s amazing. He’s just sitting down there like a normal person, but this guy was one of the best players in the league when he was playing. … He’s a legend.”

Johnson won an NCAA national championship at UCLA under the legendary John Wooden before going on to an NBA career that included five All-Star appearances and three All-NBA teams.

Paul George hits game winner, lifts Thunder past 76ers 117-115

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Paul George converted a four-point play with 5.1 seconds left, sending Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder to a wild 117-115 victory over Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

George’s clutch shot capped a wild finish that included another memorable exchange with Westbrook and Embiid. Westbrook hit the floor out of bounds under the basket after a foul by Embiid late in the game, and Westbrook fouled out with 14.9 seconds remaining after he got Embiid while shooting a 3-pointer.

Embiid made all three foul shots, tying it at 113, and Jimmy Butler‘s driving layup put Philadelphia in front with 6.9 seconds to go. But George drained a 3 while being fouled by Butler and made the foul shot.

Philadelphia had one last chance, but Butler missed a 3-point attempt in the final seconds. The 76ers have lost 19 in a row to the Thunder.

George finished with 31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Westbrook had 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for Oklahoma City, and reserve Dennis Schroder also scored 21 points.

The Thunder had dropped five of six, including a 138-128 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists. JJ Redick scored 22 points for Philadelphia, and Ben Simmons finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.

Oklahoma City led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter, but Philadelphia rallied in the second and trailed 59-56 at the break.

 

Rumor: Suns, Magic have inquired about Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina

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Where do the Knicks stand on Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft (taken ahead of Dennis Smith Jr. Zach Collins, and Donovan Mitchell)?

This should tell you all you need to know: The Denver Nuggets decided to cast Emmanuel Mudiay aside and the Knicks traded for him and instantly Mudiay jumped Ntilikina on the depth chart.

Ntilikina has played good defense but unimpressive offense for the Knicks this season and there is a thought from other teams around the league they may try to trade the young European.

A few teams are interested, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, but — shocker! — there may be a split in the front office about what to do between president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry.

Despite the Knicks’ clear lack of confidence in Ntilikina, teams have inquired about the 20-year-old, with the Magic and Suns expressing interest, according to a source. And this is where it gets interesting. There seems to be a debate within the Knicks on whether to deal Ntilikina. He was drafted by Mills and has supporters in the front office. But, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Perry, who took the job after Ntilikina was drafted, recently approached the Atlanta Hawks to gauge whether the team was interested in dealing for the guard (Hawks have Trae Young and weren’t interested).

The Suns and Magic both desperately need point guards. However, neither are offering much in trades knowing that come free agency next July there will be better, more established targets — D'Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier, among others.

Ntilikina is a good perimeter defender whose skills could be developed in the right situation into a rotation point guard. Probably. But because the offers will be lowball, the Knicks would essentially just be dumping the No. 8 pick of a season ago, a guy who is only 20 years old. That would be a mistake — if the Knicks can’t get decent value back, keep Ntilikina and try to develop him themselves. Point guards take longer to come around in the NBA, maybe Ntilikina will develop into a player the Knicks want to keep.

But the rumors are out there and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.