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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.

Donovan Mitchell goes off for 19 in fourth quarter, Jazz hold off elimination with win

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This game just felt different — the Utah Jazz were playing with a passionate desperation we had not seen from them all series. Down 3-0 to Houston, Utah did not want to be swept out of the playoffs on their home court. The Jazz defended better, got a big night from Jae Crowder (14 points in the first quarter alone), and were knocking down shots.

But Utah could not pull away. Houston was always within striking distance.

Until the fourth quarter.

That’s when Utah went on a 12-1 run early, sparked by Donovan Mitchell who had 19 in the fourth, and the Jazz created some separation and held on for the 107-91 win.

Mitchell finished with 31 on the night.

Mitchell had some help. Crowder finished with 23 points, while Ricky Rubio added 18 points and 11 assists.

“We were okay until the last quarter… again, they had more of a desperation than we had,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said.

James Harden got his, 30 points on 19 shots, in part because he went 6-of-12 from three. Chris Paul had 23 as well. All the other Rockets combined to shoot 29.3 percent on the night. In the fourth, the Rockets were 0-of-13 from three.

For the Rockets this is a blown chance to get more rest. The Warriors play Wednesday night in Game 5 of their series, if the Rockets had closed the series out they could have had a little more rest. Instead, they also now have a Game 5 Wednesday.

For the Jazz, this was a matter of pride, they finally found what it would take for them to beat the Rockets. It was their most energized defensive performance of the series, and the shots were falling. The series is not in doubt — no team has ever come back from a 0-3 deficit to win a series — but the Jazz showed the fight and resilience we have come to expect from a Quin Snyder coached team.

Will that be enough Wednesday night is another question.

Phoenix Suns fire coach Igor Kokoskov

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Following a 19-63 season where the man who hired him — GM Ryan McDonough — was already shown the door, there was a lot of speculation that coach Igor Kokoskov was next on the chopping block.

That happened Monday night, the Suns decided to move on from Kokoskov.

“After extensive evaluation, I determined it is best to move in a different direction with our head coaching position,” said Suns general manager James Jones in a statement. “I want to thank Igor for his work this past season and wish him the best with his future endeavors.”

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added some detail.

The Suns recently hired Jeff Bower as their senior vice president of basketball operations. Bower gave Monty Williams his first head coaching job, hiring him to coach the Hornets back when Bower was the GM there.

Williams will have his second interview with the Lakers next week. Williams is rumored in some quarters to be the frontrunner for the Los Angeles job (he and Tyronn Lue will have second interviews coming), the Suns are starting this race from behind but do have a relationship there.

Kokoskov was the first European born person to be a head coach in the NBA. He was Luka Doncic‘s national team coach, but the Suns took Deandre Ayton No. 1 (reportedly at the urging of owner Robert Saver).

Kokoskov was handed a young roster that lacked a point guard or solid veteran leader, so it’s no surprise the Suns and Kokoskov got off to a slow start, going 4-18 and looking a mess. However, the team improved, Kelly Oubre Jr. was added, and the Suns went an improved 8-15 after the All-Star break, including wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Devin Booker improved, Deandre Ayton was growing, and the team showed improvement. That said, there were questions about Kokoskov’s rotations and communication with players.

Phoenix, with meddling owner Robert Sarver at the helm, is known for turnover and instability — whoever is hired next will be the team’s seventh head coach in eight years. This move just fits right in with the perception.

 

Bucks win first playoff series in 18 years, give Pistons longest playoff-game losing streak in NBA history

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DETROIT – Between on-court postgame interviews, Giannis Antetokounmpo took a pit stop at the Bucks’ bench for a drink. He appeared to need a few moments to catch his breath, so Fox Sports Wisconsin reporter Katie George asked whether he was ready.

Antetokounmpo nodded as if he didn’t give it a second thought.

Of course he was ready.

Antetokounmpo was ready for everything tonight.

He scored 41 points – the most so far by anyone this postseason – and blocked four shots to lead the Bucks to a 127-104 Game 4 win over the Pistons. By sweeping Detroit, Milwaukee got its first playoff-series victory in 18 years.

“Where we were and where we are right now,” Antetokounmpo said, “it’s been an unbelievable journey.”

The Bucks advance to face the Celtics in the second round, an awaited rematch of last year’s first-round series. But Milwaukee cared far more about its opening round than most 60-win No. 1 seeds do.

Every NBA MVP besides Kevin Garnett, who didn’t advance until his ninth year, won a playoff series in his first five seasons. Antetokounmpo, who’s favored to win MVP this year, just won his first series in his sixth season.

The wait has been even longer for Milwaukee, which ends the fourth-longest playoff-series-victory drought of all-time at 17 seasons:

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The Bucks left no doubt, beating Detroit by 35, 21, 16 and 23. This is just the second four-game sweep with every game won by at least 15 points in NBA history (Celtics over Rockets in 1980).

The sweep gives the Pistons sole possession of the longest playoff-game losing streak of all-time, 14 games:

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Detroit’s streak includes 2009 and 2016 sweeps by the Cavaliers, meaning the Pistons have now gone 11 straight seasons without winning a playoff game. That’s one of the longest such droughts of all-time (record during drought listed):

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Detroit just had no answer for Antetokounmpo, who drew 16 fouls Monday. The most impressive came as he rose to dunk on Andre Drummond, withstood contact and shifted to make a circus shot:

The play left his teammates in awe.

Eric Bledsoe: “I had to tell him, ‘Bro, you don’t understand how athletic you’ve been all season and finessing at the rim.’ That one, it was just unbelievable. It was unbelievable, man.”

Pat Connaughton: “There are sometimes you’ve just got to shake your head at some of the things that he can do. … I think the nickname ‘Freak’ is for a reason.”

Nikola Mirotic: “It was just amazing watching him tonight”

The Bucks will have a little time to lock back in.

Milwaukee-Boston will be the first series between teams coming off sweeps since Lakers-Suns in the 2010 Western Conference finals. It’ll be the first such second-round series since Pistons-Bulls in 2007.

As Antetokounmpo repeatedly said in the locker room after tonight’s game, “I can’t wait.”

Report: Luke Walton sued for sexual assault

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Luke Walton is being sued by a female reporter claiming sexual assault from a hotel room incident that dates back to before he was hired as the Lakers’ head coach (he was recently let go from that position and is currently the coach of the Sacramento Kings).

Kelli Tennant was writing a book and wanted Walton to write the forward, according to a lawsuit obtained by TMZ. The two had a business relationship and she agreed to meet him in a Santa Monica hotel to discuss him writing the forward to the book, according to the report. We’ll let TMZ take it from there:

In the suit, Tennant says when she arrived at Walton’s hotel, he convinced her to come up to his room so they could discuss the book. She claims when they got up to his room, Walton suddenly pinned her to the bed, placing his hips and legs over her body.

In the docs, Tennant claims Walton then began forcing kisses on her neck, face and chest. She claims she screamed for him to stop and tried to free herself, but he held her down, groped her breasts and groin, and rubbed his erection on her leg.

She says he eventually relented and let her get up from the bed, but as she was walking towards the door to leave he grabbed her from behind and again forced his body up against hers.

The lawsuit goes on to say Walton and her would interact after that, because of her job, and he would give her exaggerated hugs, kisses, and would make lewd comments to her.

Walton took over coaching the Lakers for the 2016-17 season. The alleged assault took place while Walton was still an assistant coach with the Warriors, however, some of the comments/actions that made her uncomfortable came later while Walton was with the Lakers.

Walton’s attorney released a statement to Sam Amick of The Athletic.

The Sacramento Kings have made a statement:

“We are aware of the report and are gathering additional information. We have no further comment at this time.”

The Warriors issued this statement:

“We became aware of the alleged incident and story this evening and are in the process of seeking more information. We’ll have no further comment at this time.”

The Lakers issued this statement:

“This alleged incident took place before Luke Walton was the Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. At no time before or during his employment here was this allegation reported to the Lakers. If it had been, we would have immediately commenced an investigation and notified the NBA. Since Luke Walton is now under contract to another team, we will have no further comment.”