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NBA Power Rankings: Toronto is for real, maybe the Clippers are, too

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Klay Thompson called the upcoming Thursday night matchup between Toronto and Golden State a potential Finals preview… and he’s right. Nobody doubts the Warriors will figure it out in the West (and they may have Curry back for that game) and so far, Toronto has been the class of the East. And they sit atop these rankings.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (18-4, last week No. 2). Toronto has won 6 in a row, but the knock on them had been they had the fourth easiest schedule in the league. Tuesday night they went into Memphis and beat the Grizzlies — that’s a quality win. A good game in that one from Fred VanVleet, who has struggled this season, was promising. The tests will keep coming over the next few weeks, so it’s a good thing C.J. Miles is back, they could use the depth. Now Golden State, Denver, and Philly make up three of the next four (and the tough run continues like that through much of December).

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (13-6, LW 3). With the caveat it’s too early to have a serious postseason awards conversation yet, if I were voting for Sixth Man of the Year right now the Clippers would have two guys in the top three. First is the defending holder of that crown Lou Williams, who again leads the league in fourth quarter scoring. Then there’s Montrezl Harrell, who might be more important to the team off the bench. His energy, defense, and rebounding are eye-popping.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (14-6, LW 1). The Bucks are for real — they have the best net rating in the NBA, the best offense, a top-10 defense, and a serious MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo — but when you live by the three like they do, you can die by it, too. When Brook Lopez goes 0-of-12 from three against the Suns, you lose. When you shoot 22.9% from three over the final three quarters against Charlotte, you lose. Not that they can or should stop shooting threes, it’s working, but it can lead to some ugly losses now and again (and a little slide down the rankings when it happens).

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (12-7, LW 4).. Russell Westbrook had his first triple-double of the season last week, he’s not racking up the raw numbers like he used to, but what he’s done is be more efficient and that’s leading the Thunder to wins. Last season, Westbrook averaged 19.3 drives per game (leading the league) but shot 49.9% when he shot on those. This season the volume of drives is down, 15.5 per game, but he’s shooting 57.7% when he does drive and shoot. Those kinds of little things — and impressive OKC defense — has them as one of the best teams in the NBA over the last 15 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (14-7, LW 10).. Jamal Murray is struggling with his shot. The point guard Denver sees as part of its core is shooting 42.9% overall, 31% from three (down from 37.8% last season) and his 51.8 true shooting percentage is below the league average. His assists are up and the offense is still 2.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (largely because he’s often paired with Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris), but the Nuggets need more out of him to stop having the hot-than-cold streaks. Right now they are hot, having won four in a row but now head out for five straight on the road.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (14-8, LW 7). Philadelphia is 5-2 since the Jimmy Butler trade. Butler is the closer they needed, he’s already got two game-winners, but that masks a +0.1 net rating in those seven games — basically that of a .500 team. The Sixers have a top five offense (it came together more quickly than expected) but a bottom five defense since they made the big trade. While the Sixers have some elite defenders, they don’t have great depth and teams are targeting the weak links on that end. It’s not a big concern, yet, especially as long as Butler keeps doing this:

 
Warriors small icon 7. Warriors (15-7, LW 11). About those Warriors’ struggles… they have won three in a row, Kevin Durant has been taking over (he dropped 49 on the Magic), and they may have Stephen Curry back as soon as Thursday in Toronto (and certainly during the upcoming five-game road trip). Golden State’s “rough patch” has dropped them all the way to the No. 2 seed percentage points behind the Clippers. Still a few interesting tests coming up on the road in Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (13-8, LW 6). Indiana is 3-2 so far with Victor Oladipo out due to a knee issue, including a win over the Jazz (Indy was 0-7 last season, so it’s a huge improvement). The Pacers also keep winning while bucking the trend of shooting threes — they are 27th in the league in percentage of shots taken from three, but they are fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage, shooting 37.3 from deep. It helps make up for that when Darren Collison can do this with his crossover.

Pistons small icon 9. Pistons (11-7, 15). The Pistons are 7-2 in their last nine, Blake Griffin is still beasting, and the wing combo of Glenn Robinson III and Reggie Bullock settled in right as the winning streak started. All good things, but it’s not those starters that is to thank for this run — it’s the Detroit bench. Pistons fans should thank Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, and Bruce Brown are leading the way and it’s working, Detroit is solidly in playoff position in the East.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (12-8, LW 8). Memphis has zigged when the league zagged — pace is up everywhere, but the Grizzlies are throwing teams off by slowing it down (the slowest pace of play in the league) and playing a smart, grind-it-out game that takes teams out of their rhythm. Combine that with their length and Marc Gasol playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level in the paint and you have a defensive rating of 104.9, fifth best in the league. One troubling trend while losing three in a row is blowing leads (including 17 to Toronto Tuesday), this team doesn’t have the firepower to come from behind well.

 
Lakers small icon 11. Lakers (11-9, LW 13). Tuesday night, the Lakers were 5-of-35 from three. That’s not terribly out of character, ] Lakers normally don’t shoot a lot of threes (29.7 a game, 20th in the league), and they are shooting 34.7%. Laker coach Luke Walton is okay with some threes. “It is as long as we keep taking good ones…. Other teams scout to let us shoot threes, so when they are open, we’ll make open threes. Our guys are good… We don’t want to run to the three-point line in transition, we want to attack the rim. We don’t want to swing, swing, jack up a three, we want to penetrate the defense and then shoot a three. So as long as we take the right kinds of threes our percentage will stay up. We want to be a team that attacks the rim.”

 
Blazers small icon 12. Trail Blazers (12-8, LW 5). Losers of three in a row and 5-of-7, and that includes in the last week a 43-point thrashing by the Bucks and 28 by the Warriors (without Steph and Draymond). It’s been a rough patch, but they had a few days off, the schedule softens some (although Orlando tonight is no pushover) and the best news is Jusuf Nurkic should be ready to go after a shoulder contusion. They need him in the one lineup that is firing for this team (Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nurkic).

 
Celtics small icon 13. Celtics (11-10, LW 14). What is wrong with Boston’s offense is everyone’s new favorite parlor game around the NBA (that and Bradley Beal trade scenarios). I don’t think it’s one simple thing, but to me the Celtics have to start driving more (their 34.8 per game is third fewest in the league), getting to the rim more (24.6 shots per game in the restricted area is third fewest per game in the NBA), draw some fouls (second lowest free throw rate in the league), and stop settling for long pull-up twos, nothing will change. The Celtics need to get playing downhill, that will open up the jump shooters more.

 
Rockets small icon 14. Rockets (9-10, LW 12). Just when you think they’ve turned the corner, the Rockets drop three straight, including games to the Cavaliers and Wizards (and despite James Harden dropping 54 in Washington). Those last two were without Chris Paul, who now is battling a left hamstring injury (that’s not the one that cost him games earlier this season), which means he could miss more time. Houston’s net rating is -1.1 this season. We keep thinking they will get healthy, go on a big run and look like the threat to Golden State we expected, but at what point is it time to start really worrying about this roster?

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (10-11, LW 9). Losers of four in a row, although the first three were without Anthony Davis. He remains the key to everything in New Orleans, they are 10-7 when he plays and 0-4 when he doesn’t, no need to overthink that stat. The Pelicans are 17.4 points per 100 possessions worse when Davis sits. On the bright side, Julius Randle’s strong play has him in early consideration for Sixth Man of the Year (although that’s a crowded field and he’s got a lot of work to do).

 
Mavericks small icon 16. Mavericks (9-9, LW 20). They have won 6-of-7 with a +11 net rating during that stretch (third best in the NBA). That one loss in the last seven not coincidentally was the one J.J. Barea had to miss — Dallas is 17.6 points per 100 possessions better offensively when he is on the court this season, and he drives that second unit. They’ll need him with a rough week ahead: at Rockets, at Lakers, Clippers, Trail Blazers.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (10-10, LW 17). If we were picking emojis to go with teams Charlotte would get the ¯_(ツ)_/¯. They have the seventh best net rating in the league, which should mean a 13-7 record, but here we are. They have beaten the Buck and the Celtics in the past two weeks, but lost to the Hawks. What they have that’s working is Kemba Walker, who is playing at a “you better include me in your MVP talk” level. However, when he is not playing at that level this team lacks shot creation and just looks pedestrian. Hawks, Jazz, and Pelicans at home this week.

 
Spurs small icon 18. Spurs (10-10, LW 19). The Spurs are 2-5 on a string of 7-of-9 away from San Antonio, a run that ends tonight in Minnesota. Following a theme in these rankings, the Spurs can shoot the three (38.5% from beyond the arc this season, third best in the league) but take the second fewest shots from there of any team. Only 25.9% of their points come from threes, fourth fewest in the league. That’s to be expected on a team where DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are the stars, but a few more three pointers could help the cause.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (10-11, LW 16). Nikola Vucevic is having the best season of his career (in a contract year… shocking) and he credits coach Steve Clifford for a lot of that. ““The way we play now, it helps me playing inside-out, it gets me going and makes me more comfortable… [it] makes it much more difficult for the other team and gives them a different look. It works great for me because I get some easy ones in the paint and am able to step out. The way coach wants me, wants us, to play fits my skill set.” That’s true, but now Vucevic is confident — so confident he’s posting up and spinning by LeBron James.

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (10-10, LW 18). This ranking feels too low for a team in the playoff mix in the West (but that brutal conference makes the middle of these rankings a bit of a crap shoot). They have lost 4-of-6 and over the last 10 games have a -4.6 net rating, maybe the fast start was a bit of a mirage. On the flip side, they have played the sixth toughest schedule in the NBA so far, as things soften up a little they may be able to rack up a few easy wins. Fun game Thursday night against the Clippers, two of the NBA’s most surprising teams through the first quarter of the season.

 
21. Timberwolves (10-11, LW 22). Is the turnaround in Minnesota real? This team has won three in a row and 6-of-8 since trading away Butler, and they have a +5.5 net rating in those eight games with the best defense in the NBA at 101 points allowed per 100 possessions. Robert Covington is quarterbacking that defense from the wing (and putting himself in the early Defensive Player of the Year conversation). The next three on the schedule are the Spurs, Celtics, and Rockets — San Antonio and Houston are the kind of games that count double in a tight Western Conference.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (8-12, LW 24). Don’t look now, but the Wizards have won 3-of-4 since Scott Brooks moved Thomas Bryant and Kelly Oubre Jr. into the starting lineup, pushing Markieff Morris to the bench where he has solidified the second unit. While the vultures have circled and fans/media members come up with trades, the Wizards have won 6-of-9 and may not be quite so ready to push the eject button when they are the nine seed, just 1.5 games out of the playoffs. Washington has 6-of-7 coming on the road, starting tonight in New Orleans.

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (9-12, LW 21). One of the most confounding teams in the NBA. Their defense remains middle-of-the-pack overall, and even when Rudy Gobert is on the court they are a top-five defense but not elite like a season ago. On the other end, Joe Ingles is knocking down threes (38.9 percent on six attempts per game) but the rest of the team combined is shooting 30.2 percent from deep. Donovan Mitchell is taking 6.6 a game and hitting 29.2 percent, Jae Crowder is 6.4 per game and is knocking down 28.9 percent, and even Grayson Allen is at 28.6 percent. While there are flashes, this team does not look like the three seed we expected.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (7-15, LW 26). One of the biggest surprises of the young season to me is Noah Vonleh not sucking (that’s what I get for writing off a 23-year-old). He’s knocking down threes (42.1% on the season and he’s been hotter of late) and now has become a solid part of the Knicks’ rotation. Along with Tim Hardaway, Allonzo Trier and others, you can see some guys who could be role players on a roster as things turn around. The Knicks had won three in a row through a tough part of the schedule (Celtics, Pelicans, Grizzlies) until they ran into Detroit Tuesday. Still, David Fizdale’s team is flashing signs of promise.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (8-13, LW 23). The “Brooklyn can make the playoffs” talk has slowed as the team dropped three in a row and 7-of-9 (although they are just two games out of the 8 seed right now). They miss Caris LeVert’s playmaking and the one game Spencer Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell combined for 69 points Jimmy Butler does them wrong in the end. Jarrett Allen continues to show growth and promise, not just in the raw numbers but in taking on more of the offense while still being efficient.

 
Heat small icon 26. Heat (7-13, LW 25). Miami misses Goran Dragic (knee issue), they are 1-4 without him in this stretch and 2-6 without him on the season, with a -4.3 net rating when he is off the court. Also at issue is Miami’s penchant for turnovers — 15.6 percent of their possessions end in a turnover, fifth worst in the NBA. On the bright side, Bam Adebayo is playing better of late — he’s had some nice double-doubles — and looks like the future for the Heat. Of course, that leads to some tough Hassan Whiteside questions.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (4-15, LW 28). Cleveland had a couple of nice wins in the past week, knocking off Philadelphia and Houston (although that will move them up only so much in these rankings). Collin Sexton is showing flashes and getting buckets, and through those wins Tristan Thompson was a beast on the boards. Trade rumors — about Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith, primarily — continue to swirl, but it may take an injury or some pressure on another team to get the job done. Great job by Cleveland handling the LeBron James return tribute last week.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-16, LW 30). The Hawks have won two in a row and it’s not a coincidence that has happened with John Collins back and starting to get his legs under him again. Through six games he has averaged 15.2 points per game shooting 62.7%, with a PER of 18.9, and on defense he had the game-winning block against Charlotte. He provides some of what the Hawks lacked inside. Trae Young continues to struggle with his shot, hitting 34.8% overall and 26.9% from three in his last five games (which isn’t good but better than the previous five games).

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (5-16, LW 27). Losers of 7-of-8 (the lone win came against Phoenix, the only thing keeping Chicago out of the bottom of these rankings). If you’re looking for a silver lining, Jabari Parker is averaging 20 points a game over his last five, and is shooting 35% from three overall in that stretch. It’s not efficient enough to make up for his defense (and someone has to get the points on this team), but he looks like a guy who maybe can find a bench role in the league going forward.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-16, LW 29). Just one win in their last six but you can see the potential — Devin Booker is a scorer, rookie Deandre Ayton is giving them 17 and 10 a night, T.J. Warren has improved — but this team lacks the kind of game-managing quality point guard that can be the glue, who can bring all these parts together and make it all work. Jamal Crawford has given them a couple of nice recent games, expect his name (along with Trevor Ariza) to come up in trade rumors soon).

Giannis Antetokounmpo put on a show against Italy in World Cup tune-up (VIDEO)

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NBA defenses cannot stop MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So imagine what happens in an international game against lesser athletes and defenders.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine. Here are some highlights.

Antetokounmpo scored 18 points and pulled down eight rebounds 19 minutes of play, and Greece cruised to an 83-63 win. (Danilo Gallinari did not suit up for Italy in this one but will be on their World Cup roster.)

USA vs. Spain notebook: Celtics fans should like what they see

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — After listening to how defections had left Team USA weak and vulnerable, the Americans came out with a chip on their shoulder Friday night, played strong defense, showed they have plenty of athleticism and skill, and handled Spain 90-81 in a game that was not really that close.

Here are some other notes from Friday night’s exhibition game at the Honda Center (usually the home of the NHL’s Ducks)

Donovan Mitchell, who led Team USA with 13 points, summed up the feelings of the guys who did make a commitment to USA Basketball this summer:

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that… For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

Marcus Smart was in street clothes and did not play on Friday night. Thursday at team practice he took part in some shooting drills but not the scrimmages or anything with contact. He continues to try to come back from a calf injury and make the World Cup roster.

• Smart said during the broadcast Friday that he is “100 percent confident” he will be back on the court with the team.

• Good news for Celtics fans: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both played well within the team concept, cutting off the ball and attacking when they had the chance. There was a comfort level and confidence with their games that was good to see again.

Tatum, in particular, made good decisions with the ball all night long, found teammates as cutters when defenders came to him, and seemed to do an improved job playing through contact (something he worked on this summer, and if FIBA ball they let more contact go so he needs it).

Kemba Walker‘s hesitation moves are just unfair.

• The USA’s starters were Harrison Barnes, Khris Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Mason Plumlee, Kemba Walker.

• To start the second half, Myles Turner got the nod over Plumlee at center. Just a hunch on my part, but Turner is going to have some breakout games for the USA in China.

• Speaking of Myles Turner, this was the Tweet of the night.

• Of the three centers on the roster, Brook Lopez got the fewest minutes by a considerable margin. Lopez is considered a lock to make the roster, this may have been coach Gregg Popovich and staff wanting to get a longer look at Plumlee and Turner in game action (especially against NBA bigs on the Spanish side in Marc Gasol and Juancho Hernangomez). Not sure all three USA centers make the final roster cut.

• Middleton was the best player on Team USA Friday night. He always seems to make the right decision with the ball in his hands.

• This is Southern California, and the Laker fans were out in force. The Honda Center echoed with “Kuuuz” chants every time Lakers’ forward Kyle Kuzma touched the ball.

• Kuzma is considered one of the guys on the bubble to make the team, but he had a strong game on the boards and finished with seven points and five rebounds.

• In the third quarter, the USA rebounder passed ahead to Kuzma in transition, who pushed it up the wing but pulled up and went to the corner because Marc Gasol was back in the paint. As he pulled it out Kuzma found Derrick White as a trailer on break and threw him a pass, White got into the lane and hit an easy floater. When that happened, Popovich stood up and pointed at Kuzma and then Pop pointed at his head, acknowledging and loving the smart play by the Laker.

That was a sign of a maturing of Kuzma’s game, something the Lakers will need this season — and why playing for Popovich this summer is so good for him.

• You can see why Daryl Morey and the Rockets like Serio Llull — the 2017 EuroLeague MVP just knows how to play the game and is well rounded. Houston has Llull’s rights and have tried to lure him to the NBA, but he’s been happy playing for Real Madrid and so far has decided to stay in Spain.

DeMar DeRozan — a gold medalist with Team USA in the Rio Olympics — was in the arena with his children watching the action. Remember he plays for Popovich and the Spurs now (and is a SoCal native).

• In the final minute of a decided game, Team USA had a sloppy offensive possession then lost guys in transition leading to a Marc Gasol three. Popovich called a timeout with 53.4 seconds left to let his team hear about it. There was no chill.

Andrew Wiggins reportedly had shoes, luggage burglarized in Los Angeles

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Like many NBA players, Andrew Wiggins is in Los Angeles this summer working out, practicing against other elite talent, and generally enjoying the summer in the unofficial off-season destination for NBA players.

Wiggins, however, got burglarized — including having his rented SUV stolen. TMZ had the story.

Former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins was burglarized in Los Angeles … and TMZ Sports has learned the thieves made off with the NBA star’s shoes and luggage…

But, we’re told cops described the scene as “amateur hour” … because the burglars left jewelry and other valuables in the heist, and only took about $1,000 worth of the stuff instead.

We’re told the thieves stole a pair of Wiggins’ casual Nikes and his luggage — and also made off with his rental SUV Escalade. But, we’re told authorities were able to locate the vehicle a short time later.

While the car was found, his shoes and luggage have not been, and there have yet to be any arrests. As anyone who has been burglarized can tell you (*raises hand*) the items stolen are rarely recovered and returned, that stuff tends to be in the wind.

With Jimmy Butler gone, Minnesota heads into this season trying to highlight Karl-Anthony Towns and find a second star to go next to him (they went hard after D'Angelo Russell this summer but did not get him). Wiggins has not been that guy as the Timberwolves had hoped, but with his massive max contract that still has four years remaining Wiggins is nearly impossible to trade. That leaves Ryan Saunders with the task of finding out how to get as much as he can out of Wiggins nightly.

USA shows it still has plenty of talent, athleticism, in 90-81 exhibition win against Spain

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — For the past month, whenever anyone mentioned USA Basketball, the talk was about who decided not to suit up this summer — James Harden, Anthony Davis, etc. Everyone wanted to talk about who Team USA did not have and how much trouble the team was in.

It’s time to move on from that topic.

The United States doesn’t just have the most talented players in the world, it has the deepest talent pool. And it’s not even close.

That was on full display Friday night — this version of Team USA still had more than enough talent and skill to comfortably handle Spain, one of the world’s better squads and a medal contender at the upcoming World Cup in China.

The United States picked up a 90-81 confidence-boosting win in its first test, an exhibition game it led by double digits most of the way. After the game, Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo reminded everyone the USA was the “best team in the tournament” and that he wanted to measure his team against this squad now as a learning experience.

The USA will now head to Australia — with 14 players, not making any roster cuts (they need to eventually get to 12) — for a series of exhibition games. From there it’s on to China for the World Cup, with the American’s first game coming Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

For a young USA team, Friday night’s exhibition was another step along the learning curve. Especially playing against a Spanish team that has played together for years and executes a deep offense at a high level.

“There were a lot of situations we learned from this evening,” USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “The win or the loss is pretty unimportant at this point. It’s about getting better, coming together, learning to execute…

“I was most pleased with us defensively, I thought we did a good job as a new group, communicating with each other. I thought we rebounded well, we haven’t done that well, to date, consistently, I thought we had a good effort on the boards from everybody tonight.”

The USA came out and attacked as well, pushing the ball in transition and getting to the rim whenever they could. Team USA took just 19 threes (hitting 10), but when the Spanish players closed out on the shorter international three-point line the Americans put the ball on the floor and went hard to the rim. Guys cut off the ball as the defense rotated, and that led to some nice plays.

The USA was led by Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. However, the best player on the floor for the Americans was the Bucks’ All-Star Khris Middleton, who had 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, three quality assists, played strong defense, and always seemed to make the right decision. Kemba Walker showed off some impressive hesitation moves on his way to 11 points.

“Everybody on this team can score,” Mitchell said. “But we have guys willing to sacrifice to be a defensive player, to rebound, to take charges, to make the little plays. Maybe not play as many minutes but lead from the bench.”

Team USA came opened the game playing with urgency, and using their athleticism both on defense and in transition, something Spain could not match. The Americans also just knocked down their shots. The USA shot 5-of-8 from three and 55.6 percent overall in the first quarter Friday night, while Spain started 2-of-9 from three. The result was a 31-20 lead after one frame, and the USA kept that lead in double digits most of the way.

Spain was led by Marc Gasol‘s 19 points on 13 shots, as well as Ricky Rubio, who had 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting.

A couple of times in the fourth quarter Spain cut the lead to eight, but each time Team USA responded with a run to push the league back to the mid-teens. The fact they handled the adversity well is a good sign for the USA.

“We have a group of guys that are willing to learn, willing to listen to each other and lock in,” Donovan Mitchell said. “It’s easy to come in and say ‘it’s my show’ but we have a lot of guys willing to sacrifice for each other, and you want to be on a team like that.”