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NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets back on top, Celtics, Pacers climbing fast

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For the second time this season, Denver moves to the top of the power rankings, holding off the healthy and improving Warriors. At the other end of the scale, the Bulls are the new occupants of the cellar.

 
Nuggets small icon 1. Nuggets (21-9, last week No. 6).. Mention Denver as a potential Western Conference Finalist and the question is quickly thrown back: “Is this team for real?” If you’re looking for a sign how about this: The Nuggets are 12-3 against teams over .500, best record in the NBA. Think a contender needs a star? Nikola Jokic is pushing his way into the fringe MVP conversation. Denver has won four in a row (on a homestand) but now have 7-of-11 on the road, where it is just 8-6 this season. Too bad no Nuggets on Christmas, just so we could see Jokic do more things like this.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (21-10, LW 4). The Warriors are still coasting through the regular season, as evidenced by their disinterested loss to the Raptors a week ago (when Toronto was on a back-to-back and without Kawhi Leonard). Have your doubts about the depth and everything else if you want, but when Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green are on the court together they are +12.8 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors will flip the switch when it matters. Like Christmas Day against LeBron James and the Lakers.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (20-9, LW 1). The Bucks have won 4-of-5, but the one loss was a blowout to the Pacers and it raised some concerns. At the top of the list right now is Khris Middleton, who is shooting 31.5 percent overall and 26.7 percent from three over those last five games. The Bucks need him to get right because Giannis Antetokounmpo and friends got the Christmas Day game they wanted, at noon in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (23-9, LW 3). Toronto has some of the most impressive wins of the NBA season… and just as many baffling losses. Recently, the Raptors won back-to-back games on the road against the Clippers and Warriors without their best player — Toronto is 7-1 without Leonard this season — then dropped games at Portland and Denver. Both of those losses were without Kyle Lowry (thigh contusion) and it speaks to how crucial he is for this team to thrive. Overall the Raptors have dropped 4-of-6 and have an interesting test against the red-hot Pacers Wednesday night.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (18-11, LW 8). Boston’s offense was on fire — even with Marcus Smart in the starting lineup — during their eight-game win streak (which ended in Detroit last weekend). This was a bottom five offense for much of the start of the season but in the last nine games (including the Detroit loss) the Celtics had a 120.6 offensive rating and shot 40.4 percent from three. With Gordon Hayward moved to the bench and Al Horford surprisingly looking a step slower, much of the offensive load has fallen on Kyrie Irving, and he has been up to the task.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (20-11, LW 9). Indiana had won seven in a row and turned heads, at least before a surprising home loss to Cleveland Tuesday. While much of the Pacers’ run has come against a soft spot in the schedule, they knocked off the Bucks and Sixers in this stretch, and they have outscored opponents by 9.7 per 100 possessions in their last eight (including Tuesday’s loss), second best in the NBA. December win streaks are not harbingers of playoff success, but ignore the Pacers at your own peril. This team can play.

 
Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (19-10, LW 2). Who leads OKC in scoring, three point shooting percentage, PER, and has been the team’s MVP this season? Paul George. Not that guy with the MVP trophy at home, the other star. George is averaging 24.9 points per game and his play has got him in the early All-NBA team discussion. The Thunder have 7-of-9 coming up on the road (where they are 7-7 this season) and that includes a Christmas Day game at Houston.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (20-12, LW 5). A couple of rough losses last week (Pacers and Nets) with Jimmy Butler on the sidelines. That is less about Butler and more about how this team lacks quality depth, they are not getting consistent quality play out of guys like Furkan Korkmaz and Wilson Chandler (Philly misses the guys it traded to get Butler – still a good trade, but there were sacrifices). Fun prime-time Christmas Day showdown with the Celtics.

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (17-13, LW 14). Two quality wins last week (Toronto and the LA Clippers) stopped the bleeding of a 3-8 stretch. Part of the reason for the Blazers’ fast start (12-5) was the play of the Evan Turner and the bench, but that has fallen off so hard that coach Terry Stotts has gone back to keeping one of Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum on the court at all times. You can watch those rotations in the Christmas Day nightcap, where Portland travels to Salt Lake City (the Jazz are playing better than their record indicates, that will be an interesting game).

 
Lakers small icon 10. Lakers (18-13, LW 7). For those of you tracking how well LeBron James is meshing with the young Lakers, know that L.A. is +1.9 per 100 when LeBron and Lonzo Ball share the court. When LeBron and Brandon Ingram share the court it’s just +0.5. (The best is LeBron and Josh Hart, +8.3.) Los Angeles just went 1-3 on a road trip, including ugly losses to the Wizards and Nets. The Lakers are 8-3 vs. teams over .500 and 10-10 against teams under that mark. Does that mean it’s good news they get the over .500 Warriors on Christmas Day?

 
Rockets small icon 11. Rockets (15-14, LW 21). Eric Gordon has moved into the starting lineup, James Ennis is coming off the bench, and in spite of that — Gordon has struggled and Ennis got injured — the Rockets have won four in a row, all against good teams in the West. What changed? Their defense has moved from bottom-five abysmal to league average in those wins, and in two of those games James Harden went off like a guy who wants to keep his MVP trophy. He had 50 points against the Lakers and 47 against the Pacers. Yes, he traveled on that setback everyone saw vs. Indy. Yes, he’s frustrating to play against. But Harden is an elite scorer and when he is on opponents are helpless.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (16-15, LW 19). San Antonio won 5-of-6 during its recent homestand, and we’re just going to ignore that baffling loss to Chicago (blowing a 21-point lead). The Spurs have been dominant during this stretch (best offense in the NBA, second best defense over that stretch) and they have done it with balance. That said, the loss to the Bulls was a reminder of the inconsistencies of this team. Starting Friday in Minnesota the Spurs have five games in a row against other teams fighting for playoff slots in the West.

 
Kings small icon 13. Kings (16-14, LW 18). No Marvin Bagley III for at least another week due to a bone bruise in his left knee. The rookie made headlines anyway this week when coach Dave Joerger praised Luka Doncic and some interpreted that as a shot at Bagley (when in reality it was a shot at the front office). Joerger then tried to make up for it comparing De’Aaron Fox and Bagley to Westbrook and Durant. Even when the franchise is playing well — much better than expected — and in the playoff mix, they can’t stop the petty, distracting sniping.

 
Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (15-14, LW 12). It’s good to see Dirk Nowitzki back on the court, but he is playing a very limited role through three games — 7.3 minutes a night, scoring 2.7 points per game and shooting a very un-Dirk like 37.5 percent. He’ll get better, but he’s not the focal point of this team any longer. Dallas has lost three straight, that despite getting J.J. Barea back from a sprained ankle. Tuesday’s loss in Denver was the start of 9-of-11 on the road, much of that against other teams in the West battle. The next few weeks could make or break their season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (16-14, LW 11). Joakim Noah is giving Memphis between 14 and 15 minutes a night off the bench, and the defense remains solid when he is on the court (1.2 points per 100 better than when he’s off). The problem is the offense nosedives with him out there, more than 10 points per 100 worse (which is not all about Noah, the Grizzlies weak bench is all to blame). The Grizzlies have lost 5-of-6 and have three games remaining on a tough road trip through the West.

 
Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (17-13, LW 10). Losers of four in a row, all without Lou Williams, but the Clippers problems go farther back than that, they have dropped 6-of-7, the lone win in that stretch came in overtime against the Suns team without Devin Booker. While Tobias Harris is in a slump and the offense without Sweet Lou is struggling, the bigger problem is on defense where the Clippers are allowing 121 points per 100 in the last four games and 115.9 in the last 10 (both worst in the NBA). Things don’t get easier for the Clippers with their next six against teams in the playoff hunt in the West.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (14-15, LW 16). Charlotte goes as Kemba Walker goes, and in the last 10 games that has not been good. Walker is shooting 33.7 percent in those 10 and 24.7 percent from three, is scoring six fewer points per game and the Hornets are getting outscored by 4.7 per game with him on the court. That said, the Hornets are 5-5 in that last 10 including wins over the Nuggets and Bucks, but they are not going to be able to sustain that level of winning — or make the playoffs — if Walker does not get his mojo back soon.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (14-14, 13). Detroit pulled off one of the most improbable wins of the season last Saturday: The Pistons had lost six in a row, the Celtics had won eight in a row, and yet it was Detroit’s night. That, however, is the Pistons lone win in their last eight games. The good news is the schedule eases up a little: Minnesota, Charlotte, Atlanta, an Washington are the next four. That should help Detroit get its footing back.

 
19. Timberwolves (14-16, LW 15). Since the Jimmy Butler trade, the Timberwolves are 8-3 at home but 2-4 on the road, and that includes a recent four-game losing streak. In that losing streak their defense, particularly chasing teams off the arc, came undone. That’s nothing new, the Timberwolves have a defensive rating that is 9 points worse per 100 — or, to go old school, they have given up 9.5 more per game — away from Target Center. The concern about that is starting Friday in San Antonio the Timberwolves are back on the road for 6-of-7, they can’t afford to slide farther down the standings in the West.

 
Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (15-16, LW 17). Despite Anthony Davis playing like an MVP and Julius Randle beasting on everyone, the Pelicans are treading water — their last 10 games have gone win, loss, win, loss, etc. The Pelicans offense has been a little better than average, their defense about average, during that stretch, but the Pelicans just can’t string together wins and they remain 12th in the West (1.5 games back of the eight seed). No team is being more active and aggressive heading into the trade deadline, management wants to impress Davis and prove he can win in the Big Easy before what will be a big summer for him.

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (14-17, LW 20). This feels to low for how the Jazz look on paper and with their point differential, but then again they have lost 4-of-5. Utah has been the unluckiest team in the NBA this season, they have the point differential of a 17-14 team (according to Cleaning the Glass, which means stats without garbage time included). Utah has played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far and it shows. It doesn’t get easier this week with the Warriors, Thunder, and the Trail Blazers twice, once on Christmas Day.

 
Nets small icon 22. Nets (14-18, LW 24). The scrappy, never-say-die Nets are winners of six in a row (with wins over the Raptors, Sixers, and Lakers in there). They’ve done it with an elite offense (117.6 points per 100 possessions in the streak, third best in the NBA) covering up for a still bottom 10 defense. Great move signing Spencer Dinwiddie to an extension, he’s the kind of tough, smart player that epitomizes the Nets.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (14-15, LW 23). No team gets to the free throw line less than Orlando, their free throw rate of 15.3 is worst in the league. Which is interesting in that the team drives the lane 41.3 times per game, right about the middle of the pack (18th in the league), the Magic just don’t draw contact. That was some ugly basketball played in Mexico City last week, but the Magic won both games there so it looked pretty to them.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (13-16, LW 22). Miami has hung on without Goran Dragic, who missed 12-of-14 with knee soreness (the Heat went 6-6) but can they sustain that over the next couple of months now that he is out with knee surgery? The Heat are -5.8 per 100 without Dragic, almost all of that drop coming on the offensive end. Also, now Pat Riley and the Heat will become the target of other teams thinking the Heat will be sellers at the deadline.

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (12-19, LW 25). Washington went out and got Trevor Ariza, the kind of solid wing presence on the court and professional off of it that management hopes can turn the season around, but it feels like they could have gotten more than that for Kelly Oubre. Nothing sums up the Wizards’ season better than an impressive win at home against LeBron and the Lakers where John Wall is engaged and dropping 40, then turning around and losing to the Hawks. Ariza is not going to fix that.

 
Suns small icon 26. Suns (7-24, LW 30). Winners of three in a row, and they “won” the trade with the Wizards, too (although there were no real winners in that deal, except maybe for Memphis for not being a part of it). Kelly Oubre will be more engaged and play hard in a contract year for the Suns, plus he can still be traded before the deadline (just not in a package with other players, has to be alone). Phoenix could have held on to Austin Rivers and tried to find a trade for him as well, but they decided to let the guard walk and save some money on the buyout.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (8-23, LW 28). Kevin Love is out until January, Tristan Thompson remains in street clothes, and the most interesting thing around the Cavaliers right now is J.R. Smith trade watch. There has not been a lot to celebrate in Cleveland this season, so they joy of the Cavaliers after Larry Nance’s tip-in to beat the Pacers was fun to see. Plus, what a great play.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (9-23, LW 27). In his last five games, four of them starts, Kevin Knox has averaged 19.4 points per game, is shooting 41.7 percent from three, and is grabbing 6.8 rebounds per game. His confidence is growing. The Knicks have lost 7-of-8 but because they’re the Knicks can see them Christmas Day as they try to slow down Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Good luck with that.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (7-23, LW 26). No team in the NBA is playing faster than the Hawks, who averaged 106.6 possessions per game (a full possession faster than the second place Kings). Play fast, play poor defense, turn the ball over too much and things happen like giving up 144 points to the Nets. Three point line, imaginary four point line, it doesn’t matter — Trae Young continues to struggle with his shot from beyond the arc.

 
Bulls small icon 30. Bulls (7-24, LW 29). The Bulls have lost 11-of-13 with an offense in that stretch scoring less than a point per possession (worst in the league by far in that time). Now Jabari Parker has been benched and Zach LaVine is out injured, that’s not going to help the Bulls offense (it could be good for their defense, however. With Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis healthy and playing well, Parker moves onto the trade block but it will be interesting to see what Chicago can get for him (Parker has a team option for $20 million, making him valuable for a team looking to clear cap space and willing to send Chicago picks/young players).

Watch Eric Gordon’s 50-point night spark Houston win over Jazz on night Harden, Westbrook sit

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Eric Gordon scored a career-high 50 points to lead the short-handed Houston Rockets to a 126-117 victory over the Utah Jazz on Monday night despite playing without James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Danuel House Jr. added 21 points and 11 rebounds, and Austin Rivers also had 21 points as Houston handed the Jazz their first home loss since Dec. 9.

Gordon became the first Rockets player besides Harden to score 50 points in a game since Hakeem Olajuwon had 51 in January 1996, according to STATS. Harden has done it 23 times since then.

Donovan Mitchell scored 36 points and Bojan Bogdanovic added 30, but Utah lost for just the third time in 22 games despite shooting 51% from the field.

Gordon had his first game with more than 30 points this season. His previous career best of 41 came against Oklahoma City on Jan. 23, 2009. The veteran guard stepped up and filled the scoring void with Harden, Westbrook and Clint Capela sitting out.

Harden missed his second straight game with a bruised left thigh. Capela (bruised right heel) and Westbrook (rest) sat out after playing Sunday against Denver.

Their absence had minimal impact on Houston’s offense early.

Gordon bookended an 11-0 run with a dunk and a 3-pointer to give the Rockets an 11-4 lead early in the first quarter. Houston stayed in front throughout the period.

The Jazz went ahead with a 13-2 run to open the second. Mitchell scored three baskets to fuel the spurt, and Mike Conley drove for a layup to cap it off.

Gordon provided a spark to help Houston regain the lead. He totaled 15 points in the second quarter and helped the Rockets close the first half on a 17-6 run to take a 59-46 lead into the break. Thabo Sefolosha started and finished the run by driving for a layup.

Utah trimmed the deficit to 72-66 midway through the third on consecutive 3-pointers from Bogdanovic, but got no closer. Rivers and House answered with back-to-back baskets to stop the rally. That sparked a 15-6 spurt that gave Houston an 87-72 lead near the end of the quarter.

Watch Buddy Hield score career-high 42, rally Kings from 27 down past Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS — Buddy Hield scored a career-high 42 points to help the Sacramento Kings rally from a 27-point deficit for a 133-129 overtime victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night.

De'Aaron Fox scored 22 for the Kings, putting back the rebound of his intentionally missed free throw as part of a 33-11 run over the final 5:42 of regulation.

Andrew Wiggins had 36 points, nine rebounds and eight assists for the Timberwolves, who lost their 10th consecutive game.

With the Kings down three with 4.7 seconds left in regulation, Fox made his first free throw. He intentionally fired the second off the front of the rim, grabbed his own rebound and laid it in to tie the game with 3.6 seconds left.

Hield scored 18 points in the final 4:36 of regulation on a night that featured tributes to his childhood hero, Kobe Bryant. Fox scored 17 points in the second half and overtime. Nemanja Bjelica finished with 20 points.

The Timberwolves built their lead thanks to a franchise-record 23 3-pointers. Wiggins was 7 for 11 beyond the arc.

Robert Covington had 24 points and Karl-Anthony Towns added 23 for Minnesota. It was the first time three Timberwolves have scored 20 or more points in a game since Dec. 13.

To open the game, both teams honored Bryant, who died Sunday in a helicopter crash. Minnesota took an 8-second backcourt violation and Sacramento took a 24-second shot-clock violation on the ensuing possession. While taking the 8-second violation, Wiggins placed the ball on the free throw line where Bryant scored to pass Michael Jordan for third place on the career scoring list on Dec. 14, 2014, at Target Center.

Minnesota hit 10 of its first 15 3-point attempts and shot 14 for 23 from 3 in the first half. That set a franchise record for 3s in a half and helped the Timberwolves to a 68-50 halftime lead.

The Timberwolves honored Bryant prior to tipoff with words from Towns, a video tribute and a moment of silence. Towns wore No. 24 and Covington wore No. 8 while being introduced as part of the starting lineup to honor Bryant. They donned their regular Nos. 32 and 33 before the opening tip.

LeBron James on Kobe Bryant: ‘I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!!’

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Often on social issues (or just because it’s Taco Tuesday), LeBron James can be quick to post on social media.

With the death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others — in a tragic helicopter accident, it took LeBron some time. LeBron and Kobe were close, they won Gold Medals together and competed against each other at the highest levels of the game. There became close, even more so in the past couple of years when LeBron came West and joined the Lakers. LeBron got to know Kobe’s family — when Gianna was at a recent Lakers game, LeBron was asking her about her fadeaway (which looked a lot like her dad’s).

Understandably, it took a grieving LeBron some time to comment on what happened, but Monday night he issued his first public statement on the passing of Kobe through an Instagram post.

View this post on Instagram

I’m Not Ready but here I go. Man I sitting here trying to write something for this post but every time I try I begin crying again just thinking about you, niece Gigi and the friendship/bond/brotherhood we had! I literally just heard your voice Sunday morning before I left Philly to head back to LA. Didn’t think for one bit in a million years that would be the last conversation we’d have. WTF!! I’m heartbroken and devastated my brother!! 😢😢😢😢💔. Man I love you big bro. My heart goes to Vanessa and the kids. I promise you I’ll continue your legacy man! You mean so much to us all here especially #LakerNation💜💛 and it’s my responsibility to put this shit on my back and keep it going!! Please give me the strength from the heavens above and watch over me! I got US here! There’s so much more I want to say but just can’t right now because I can’t get through it! Until we meet again my brother!! #Mamba4Life❤️🙏🏾 #Gigi4Life❤️🙏🏾

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

There’s nothing else to say.

James Harden, Russell Westbrook both sit for Rockets game vs. Utah

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When going up against a Utah team that has won 14-of-15, and outscored teams by 14.6 points per 100 possessions in that stretch, an opponent needs to be at full strength.

The Houston Rockets will be without James Harden and Russell Westbrook for the game. The Rockets have lost 5-of-7 heading into this game.

Harden will miss his second consecutive game with a thigh bruise. The rest ultimately may be good for him, Harden has struggled of late and looked a little worn down — in his last five games he’s averaging 23 points a game (13.1 below his season average), shooting 33.3 percent overall and 13.6 percent from three.

Harden is not expected to miss extended time, the Rockets play again on Wednesday vs. the Trail Blazers.

For Westbrook, this is a planned rest game. The Rockets are on a back-to-back and Westbrook took on a heavy load in Denver Sunday with 32 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, and also 10 turnovers in the Houston loss.