NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets, Trail Blazers early season surprises in Top 5

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The Warriors being on top is not a surprise, but the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Bucks all being in the top five? That is not what we expected coming in. The Cavaliers remain in dead last in these rankings, but the Suns are pushing hard for that spot.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (10-1, last week No 1). It is far, far too early to talk about the MVP race… but if one did, one would say Stephen Curry has been fastest out of the gate in that race. Curry, hunting his own shot like it’s 2015 again, has averaged 31.3 points per game while shooting 50.8% from three, with a PER of 30. He just changes the game when he’s on the court and it’s been a joy to watch this season. Fun showdown Thursday night against the red-hot Bucks.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (10-1, LW. 3). Kyle Lowry has found a comfort level as a playmaker in Nick Nurse’s system — he is averaging 11.5 assists a game and is assisting on 45.6 percent of his teammates buckets when he is on the floor this season, both career highs by a country mile. Lowry and teammates beat the Lakers and Jazz on the road, back-to-back, without Kawhi Leonard (foot injury, hopefully he and the team can stay on the same page about treatment). That speaks to the depth of this roster. Toronto is top six in both offense and defense.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (9-1, LW 4).. Jamal Murray dropping 48 on Boston was a statement — both for him and for the Nuggets, a one-loss team that has now beaten both the Warriors and the Celtics this season. Note to Kyrie Irving, if you want to stop Murray from going for 50 points with a meaningless shot at the end of the game, do something about the first 48. Interesting early tests coming up against the Bucks (Sunday) and a Rockets team finding itself again (Tuesday).

Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (8-3, LW 5). While the Portland starting five — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jake Layman, Jusuf Nurkic — is outscoring teams by 8.4 points per 100 possessions so far this season, it has been the team’s strong bench play led by Zach Collins and Evan Turner that has keyed the team’s fast start. When that bench struggles, as it did against the Lakers, the Blazers fall (also they just couldn’t buy a three against Los Angeles). McCollum dropped 40 on the Bucks and make a statement, now the Clippers and Celtics are up next.

Bucks small icon 5. Bucks (8-2, LW 2). The Celtics and their hot three-point shooting knocked the Bucks from the ranks of the unbeaten, but we’re more interested in seeing how Milwaukee fairs on a tough four-game West Coast swing that started with a loss in Portland Tuesday where they had no answer for McCollum. Next up are the Warriors. Also, we need to revisit the Greek-on-Greek crime of this Gianni Antetokounmpo’s dunk of the year entry over Kosta Kufos.

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (7-4, LW 9). Just a friendly reminder that back in 2013 the Cavaliers picked Anthony Bennett No. 1 in the draft over Victor Oladipo (most teams did not have Bennett near that high). Ouch. The Pacers are now built around Oladipo, who has averaged 23 points and 7.2 rebounds a game this season, but maybe more importantly has been a force of nature in the clutch (8-of-11 shooting this season) and is doing things like this to the Celtics.

Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (6-3, LW 12). The offense, with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge knocking it down from the midrange, has always been fine, but the recent four-game winning streak was sparked more by a defense that has moved from last in the league to middle of the pack during those games. Well, the D was at least until it regressed at home against Orlando. Now things get tougher with 9-of-11 coming up on the road (and the first home game in that stretch is a Rockets team now finding itself).

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (6-4, LW 6). The Celtics have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this season. Their offense has been improving, but it’s not yet intimidating — 27th in the NBA for the season but 15th over the last three games. Late in games, Brad Stevens has trusted Marcus Morris over Gordon Hayward, and that’s the right play because Hayward is still struggling to start the season (as we should expect, remember that a year ago his leg was literally shattered).

Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (6-4, LW 11). The Clippers are better than their record would indicate (and their record is better than many expected). This is a top 10 team in offense and defense, and they are outscoring teams by 6 points per 100 possessions (meaning they should be 7-3 at least). Tough next four: At the Blazers, then home to the Bucks, Warriors, and Spurs.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (5-4, LW 22).. Oklahoma City catches a break with Russell Westbrook’s sprained ankle not being as bad as it looked, so he will not miss much time. The Thunder, winners of five in a row, also catch a break this happened as they hit a soft spot in the schedule: Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, and Sacramento are six of next seven. The Thunder should keep on winning and making up for the slow start.

Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (6-5, LW 14). Charlotte has been the least lucky team in the NBA — they are one game over .500 but with a +8.9, that of an 8-3 team. This is not a new problem, last season the Hornets struggled to close out close games, too, and it was one reason they missed the playoffs. Interestingly, the Hornets are +15.2 per 100 when Tony Parker runs the point and Kemba Walker is at the two, that may be a way James Borego tries closing games.

Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (5-4, LW 13). The Grizzlies continue to defend well but their offense — especially with Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. in the starting lineup — is struggling mightily. Mike Conley has not found consistency with his jumper, and that is part of the offensive issues, too. Memphis needs to figure out how to get buckets quickly because they have lost two in a row and the next four games — Denver, Philadelphia, Utah, and Milwaukee — are against quality teams.

Kings small icon 13. Kings (6-4, LW 16). Why are the Kings playing so well? They found an identity in pace — last season the Kings averaged 95.6 possessions a game, dead last in the league, this season they are at 108.1. That’s 12.5 possessions a game faster, a ridiculous leap. Synergy has them getting 21.9 percent of their offense in transition and scoring 128 per 100 on those chances. The real test of their new identity comes this month with a brutal schedule.

Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (6-5, LW 15). With all the focus on how Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons can’t play together (to his credit, Brett Brown is playing them as a tandem less and less), it’s been overlooked by some that Joel Embiid has been an absolute beast carrying this team. He is averaging 28.4 points and 12.6 assists per game, and he even has time to build condos in Andre Drummond’s head. Right now, the Sixers go as Embiid goes, but that is not going to get them where they want this season.

Rockets small icon 15. Rockets (4-5, LW 23). Winners of three in a row, the last two of those with James Harden back from injury. The Rockets are looking much better. Carmelo Anthony’s offense is coming around as well, but it’s not making up for his defense — the Rockets are 10.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the court. Great news that Jeff Bzdelik is returning, a sign the Rockets are going to focus on defense again, but his switching style is still going to run into a personnel problem when Anthony is on the court.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (4-5, LW 17). Josh Richardson is the rare case of a player forced to take on more offensive responsibility — his usage rate has jumped from using 18.2 percent of the team’s possessions when he is on the court to 24.1 percent, however, his true shooting percentage also is up to 57.1 (from 55.1), his PER is up to 17.4, and he is now scoring 21.4 points per game (up from 12.9 last season). He dropped 31 on Miami, 32 on Atlanta, and 27 points on Detroit. However, he can’t get the team wins unless they clean up the defense, which has been bottom 10 the last five games, in a very un-Heat kind of way.

Jazz small icon 17. Jazz (4-6, LW 7). No team has had a harder time adjusting to the “freedom of movement” rules on defense than the Jazz. Utah is giving up 109.3 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the league this season and 6.4 per 100 worse than last season. The Jazz like to be physical on defense, slowing guys off picks with a bump and grab, but that draws a whistle this season, and the Utah defenders have not mastered getting their feet in the right place and making the play that way. They need to if this team is going to reach its goal of being home for the first round of the playoffs.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (4-5, 10). Detroit has played the fourth easiest schedule in the NBA so far, and as it has gotten tougher the team has dropped five in a row. The problem in the losing streak has been the offense, which is scoring less than a point per possession in those five games. Teams have started to adjust to Blake Griffin having the ball in his hands as a playmaker, and Detroit has yet to counter.

Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (4-6, LW 21). Magic gave Luke Walton a stern talking to about the offensive system and defense, but at the same time he should be taking a look in the mirror — what did he expect with this roster. When you add LeBron James, he is the system. Also, the pace the Lakers are playing at is a system. Los Angeles picked up Tyson Chandler to help on defense, but it’s fair to ask if he still has that in him at age 36. Either way, it’s a low-risk move for Los Angeles.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (4-6, LW 8). Won their first four, but then dropped their next six, all against quality teams in the West (and five of those losses are on the road). During the losing streak New Orleans has had a bottom-10 offense, but the real problem is on the defensive end where they surrendered 116.7 per 100. Games against the Bulls and Suns next give them a chance to right the ship.

Nets small icon 21. Nets (5-6, LW 24). The most up-and-down team in the NBA — they got blown out by the Knicks, but turn around and blow out the Sixers. That said, the inconsistency has still been good enough — if the playoffs started today the Nets would be the seven seed. Tuesday’s win in Phoenix is the start of 7-of-9 on the road, with some rough stops against the West at the start of the trip.

22. Timberwolves (4-7, LW 18). Jimmy Butler is missing time for “precautionary rest” and “general soreness” which everyone around the league sees as pressure to force a trade, no matter what Butler and the team try to sell. There are times it looks like the Timberwolves are close to figuring it out (Lakers) and other times they look close to imploding. At least Derrick Rose dropping 50 was a great distraction and one of the best stories of the season.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (4-6, LW 26). They have won two in a row and it’s not a coincidence it happened when Jonathan Isaac had to sit (ankle), so Aaron Gordon could move back to his more natural spot at the four and the offense could start to flow. Coach Steve Clifford may have to stick with this rotation for a while. Orlando has 6-of-8 coming up at home — if they are going to make a push up into the East playoff discussion, it has to start during this homestand.

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (3-8, LW 23). There have been stretches this season where the Knicks have started to show some spark and have looked competent — and then they lose to the hapless Wizards, and then drop a punch-to-the-guy double OT game to the Bulls. It’s fun to watch Mitchell Robinson play, there are reasons to tune in some nights, but with 6-of-8 coming up on the road it feels like the losses could start piling up even faster.

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (3-7, LW 20). Dallas has played the second easiest schedule in the NBA so far, so their slow start should be even more concerning. So is the fact there seems to be tension between Luka Doncic — who keeps putting up good numbers — and some of the veterans on the team. It’s not just DeAndre Jordan going over Doncic’s back to get a rebound, just watching their interaction gives one the sense some veterans aren’t sure Doncic has yet earned his status. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki should be back in about three weeks.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-7, LW 25). Atlanta has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to date, just to put the early record in perspective. That said there are things to like (besides the up-and-down play showing the potential of Trae Young), for one moving Omari Spellman into the starting lineup. That worked well against Miami. Also, Dewayne Dedmon is back and averaging 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks a night — he is going to generate trade interest from contenders as we get closer to the deadline.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (3-8, LW 27).. Zach LaVine continues to prove his doubters wrong, the latest example the 41 points — including the game-winning free throw — Monday against the Knicks. That was a deserved win for the Bulls, they had been competitive but lost three home games to good teams (Denver, Indiana, Houston), Monday the basketball gods smiled on them. There are winnable games coming up at home against Cleveland and Dallas.

Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (2-8, LW 28). Washington earned a win over the Knicks and if they are going to turn things around it is now — the Wizards enter a soft part of the schedule with five more games against teams below .500. Of course, they dropped one in Dallas on Tuesday in another game where there was just a lack of effort on defense. No team has worse body language around the league than the Wizards.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (2-8, LW 29). Devin Booker’s return almost makes this team watchable again, and he had 14 fourth-quarter points in a win over the Grizzlies. He also had 20 points against Brooklyn but needed 21 shots to get there. Let the Suns be a lesson: In today’s NBA you need a decent point guard to run the show. The Suns front office remains incredibly active trying to land a decent point guard, the problem is there are not many available right now, plus everyone around the league knows how desperate the Suns are for one, which leads to teams trying to fleece them in a trade.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (1-9, LW 30). Cleveland finally reached a deal to turn Larry Drew from “the voice” into an actual coach of the team. That’s great, he gets a team where Kevin Love is out with foot surgery for a couple of months, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver want to be traded, and the veterans don’t think Collin Sexton knows how to play the game. Congrats on that new gig, Drew. Have fun storming the castle!

Damian Lillard drops 40, leads Blazers past Wizards

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WASHINGTON (AP) Damian Lillard scored 40 points, C.J. McCullom added 25 and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Washington Wizards 119-109 on Sunday.

Jusuf Nurkic had 13 points, 14 rebounds and matched his career high with eight assists for Portland.

The Trail Blazers, coming off a 112-96 loss at Minnesota on Friday, snapped a two-game losing streak and improved to 11-5.

John Wall scored 24 points and Kelly Oubre, Jr. added 19 for the Wizards, who slipped to 5-11.

The Trail Blazers started quickly, hitting 7 for 9 shots from 3-point range and taking a 32-12 lead with 3:54 remaining in the first quarter. Washington scored 15 straight and closed to 32-27, but Portland outscored the Wizards 30-14 and led 62-41 at the half.

Lillard scored 13 points in the second quarter and added 18 in the third.

Washington, which trailed by 29 points in the third, cut the deficit to 115-107 with 51 seconds to play.

Dwight Howard, who missed the first seven games of the season with gluteal soreness, aggravated the injury in the second quarter and was ruled out at halftime after scoring two points and picking up three fouls in seven minutes.

TIP INS:

Trail Blazers: G Seth Curry (right knee) missed his second straight game. … F Maurice Harkless (left knee) sat out his 11th in a row. . C Zach Collins picked up four fouls in eight first-half minutes and fouled out in the fourth quarter after playing just 13 minutes. … F Al-Farouq Aminu also fouled out late in the fourth.

Wizards: Coach Scott Brooks was assessed a technical foul in the third quarter. . Oubre picked up a fourth quarter technical foul. . G Jordan McRae was recalled from the G League Capital City Go-Go, but didn’t dress. McRae is averaging 36.7 points in three games in the G League.

UP NEXT:

Trail Blazers: Visit the Knicks in the fourth of a five-game road trip on Tuesday

Wizards: Host the Clippers in the final game of a five-game homestand on Tuesday

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Josh Jackson yells at teammate ‘You want to f—king play or what?’ (VIDEO)

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The Phoenix Suns are a bad team. They aren’t the worst team in the NBA — the Cleveland Cavaliers have them edged out there — but it’s clear there’s some serious work to do with this young squad moving forward.

It’s early in the season, but even with many young players in a development year, most would like to put a few more wins up on the board. As such, when poor or low effort play is involved, it’s possible for tensions to boil over.

That’s what happened on Saturday night as the Suns took on the Oklahoma City Thunder. During an inbounds play with a few seconds left to go in the third quarter, sloppy play by his Phoenix teammates led Josh Jackson to yell at TJ Warren.

Via Twitter:

I mean, someone has to come to the ball there, right? That’s some 5th grade basketball nonsense right there.

Perhaps Warren and the rest of the Suns thought that Jackson would try to launch the ball into their own half of the court to get a closer shot? In any case more communication was necessary.

The Suns lost to the Thunder, 110-100, and dropped to 3-12 on the season.

LeBron James scores 51 points, Lakers torch Heat 113-97

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MIAMI (AP) LeBron James scored 51 points against his former club and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 113-97 on Sunday night.

James had 19 points in the first quarter to set the tone, the Lakers led by as many as 21 and never trailed.

The 51 points were a season high for James, and the most he’s scored against Miami; he had 47 against the Heat twice. His last shot was a 32-footer with 16 seconds left, capping the 13th 50-point game of his career – including playoffs – and he threw the ball skyward at midcourt when time expired.

It was James’ first time winning against Miami since he left the Heat after the 2014 NBA Finals. He was 0-4 when facing the Heat since; his teams were 0-7, when including the three Cleveland-Miami games that he sat out for various reasons.

Wayne Ellington scored 19 points for Miami (6-10), which has dropped four straight home games and is off to its second-worst start in the last 12 years. The Heat were 5-11 at this point of the 2016-17 season, the only other time they’ve been worse after 16 games in that span.

Josh Richardson scored 17 points before getting ejected in the fourth quarter after throwing one of his sneakers about 15 rows deep into the crowd, while he was arguing about what he thought should have been a foul call that didn’t come his way. Tyler Johnson also had 17 points for the Heat, while Rodney McGruder added 14.

Goran Dragic missed the game for Miami because of a right knee problem, one that will be further evaluated Monday. Dwyane Wade missed his seventh consecutive game for the Heat because of the birth of his and wife Gabrielle Union-Wade’s daughter; it’s possible that Wade returns to the Heat this week.

Miami hasn’t forgotten James, obviously – he still gets loud cheers when introduced in his former home arena – but just in case anyone in attendance needed a reminder of what’s in his skillset, he put on a show. He made eight of his first nine shots and had the whole arsenal working; dunks in transition, stepback 3-pointers, turnarounds from the baseline.

But the biggest shot for the Lakers might have come from Brandon Ingram with 3:46 left. Miami had clawed within eight and the shot clock was about to expire on the Lakers, but Ingram connected on a long jumper from the left wing to make it 104-94.

From there, the only drama was whether James would get 50. And he did.

TIP-INS

Lakers: This game is part of a long weekend of sorts in Miami for the Lakers, who arrived Saturday night after playing in Orlando and aren’t scheduled to fly to Cleveland until Tuesday. … Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 19 points, Kyle Luzma scored 15 and Ingram finished with 13.

Heat: The last time Miami lost four straight at home was early in the 2014-15 season, which was actually a five-game slide. … Miami had the rare five-shot possession in the third quarter, with three missed layups and a missed jumper, all of them rebounded by the Heat, before Ellington made a 3-pointer. … The Heat fouled 3-point shooters twice in the first half, after doing so only twice – total – in the season’s first 15 games.

CONSISTENT LEBRON

Whenever James changes teams – Cleveland to Miami in 2010, Miami to Cleveland in 2014, Cleveland to the Lakers this past summer – the same thing always happens: His new team starts 9-7. The Lakers surely hope the other thing that happens when James changes teams holds true, since the 2010-11 Heat and 2014-15 Cavs both went to the NBA Finals.

HEAT HELP

James Johnson played for the first time this season after finally being declared good to go following offseason sports hernia surgery. He had four fouls in the first half and finished with eight points.

UP NEXT

Lakers: Visit Cleveland on Wednesday. The Lakers are 2-11 in their last 13 trips to Cleveland.

Heat: Host Brooklyn on Tuesday. The Heat defeated the Nets 120-107 in Brooklyn last week.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Watch Josh Richardson get ejected for throwing a shoe into the stands

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It can be annoying when you can’t complete a simple task sometimes. For example, like when you are trying to put your shoe on and it just won’t work, for whatever reason. Did you suddenly forget how? Why aren’t your fingers working? Did your foot get fatter? A million dumb questions run through your mind at times like these.

That’s apparently what happened to Miami Heat wing Josh Richardson on Sunday as he took on the Los Angeles Lakers.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, Richardson felt that he was fouled on an attempt at the rim. He didn’t get the call, and needed to adjust his shoe in the meantime. When Los Angeles took possession of the ball — and with Richardson still without his shoe — the University of Tennessee product took an aggressive foul on LeBron James.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra then subbed Richardson out as he continued to try to put on his shoe. Frustrated that he couldn’t get it on, Richardson then hucked the shoe into the stands.

Via Twitter:

That move got Richardson a ejected from the game, and rightly so.

Who throws a shoe, honestly?

LA beat Miami, 113-97.