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Three Things to Know: Where does Boston rank among the East’s top teams?

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Where does Boston rank among the East’s top teams? Things didn’t look promising Tuesday. The Celtics were the preseason favorite to be the top seed in the East because they had depth, they were going to have versatility because of that depth, because their young players were going to keep improving, because they were going to have a star with the ball in his hands taking them to the next level, and because we knew their defense was going to be good.

Turns out that actually describes the Milwaukee Bucks. And the Toronto Raptors.

Those are two teams who have beaten the Celtics since the All-Star break — Toronto blew Boston out on Tuesday night, turning and 18-0 second-quarter run into a 118-95 victory.

It’s led to a lot of questions about where Boston really fits in the pecking order at the top of the East. And there are no easy answers.

In Boston’s wins against Toronto earlier in the season it was the Kyrie Irving show but he seemed passive Tuesday, which led Boston to a more balanced attack this time around — and it backfired. They shot 6-of-30 from three and could not find an offensive groove. It was ugly. That happens, there are bad games and the Raptors are an elite team. What was concerning was the way the Celtics seemed to just roll over and accept their fate Tuesday night.

What’s concerning is this team has still not gelled 61 games into the season.

Also concerning: The look on Irving’s face.

Most concerning, however, is through their past 10 games the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the league. This was supposed to be Boston’s calling card, and while Boston has the fifth best defense in the NBA for the season we have not seen that of late. Their strength isn’t there to bail them out on the nights the shots don’t fall.

Which leads to the questions: Just how good are the Celtics? Where do they rank in the East?

If the playoffs started today, they wouldn’t even have home court in the first round. On the season, Boston is 2-10 on the road against teams better than .500. Still, there seems to be an internal level of confidence in the Celtics’ locker room. After a recent loss Kyrie Irving said this was just the regular season and when it came time to focus, when they drilled down on matchups against one team in the playoffs, the Celtics would be fine. Essentially, a flip the switch moment.

Can they really? Right now, the signs are not promising as teams start to gear up for their playoff run.

2) Denver turns out to be a matchup nightmare for Oklahoma City. Remember above I wrote we thought Boston would have depth, be versatile, their young players were going to step up, their star was going to lift them to the next level, and their defense was going to be good? That also describes the Denver Nuggets this season. Oh, and they have Isaiah Thomas.

That Nikola Jokic has stepped up to an All-Star — and likely All-NBA — is not a surprise, he’s been on that trajectory for years. What is a surprise is just how good Denver’s defense has become — top 10 in the NBA on the season, and in the last five games they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7, best in the NBA in that stretch).

That includes handling the Thunder 121-112 Tuesday night. Jokic led the way with 36 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists, and he heard MVP chants from the Denver faithful.

Paul George was putting up some highlight plays, but it wasn’t enough.

It is very possible these teams meet in the second round of the playoffs, and if that happens I’d be worried if I were a Thunder fan. Through three meetings this season, the Thunder have led for 12 minutes of game time, the Nuggets for 85. Ouch. Regular season games do not project postseason ones nearly as well as fans want them to, but when one team seems to have the other’s number that is a sign.

3) Break up the Knicks, they have won three of four. Tanking for Zion? There will be none of that in Madison Square Garden…

Well, there kind of is. The Knicks do have the second-worst record in the NBA, giving them as good a shot as anyone at landing the top pick in the draft and the rights to the Duke superstar (a 14 percent chance, but that’s as good as it gets with the new lottery odds).

New York, however, is not limping into the end of the season. Orlando came into Madison Square Garden having won 8-of-9 and is fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but New York got great play from their bench and got the win 108-103. Not one Knicks starter scored in double figures, but Emmanuel Mudiay had 19 points off the bench, Allonzo Trier added 18, and the biggest stud of the night was rookie Mitchell Robinson who had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks.

The Knicks are still going to have great lottery odds (they would need to make up three games on the Bulls — who have played well as of late also — to fall out of the bottom three and not have their 14 percent odds at the top slot). However, it’s good for the franchise to see the team’s young players show some grit down the stretch.

Kawhi Leonard dunks on Luka Doncic, scores 36 to spark Clippers win

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DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas Mavericks brought back one big man but lost another Tuesday night, and in the end, they couldn’t rein in the reigning Finals MVP.

Kawhi Leonard scored 36 points, Landry Shamet hit two clutch 3-pointers late and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-107 Tuesday night for their fourth straight win.

Leonard also had the dunk of the night going right over Luka Doncic.

Dallas ended a four-game winning streak, and more importantly, lost a key piece in center Dwight Powell just as they welcomed back Kristaps Porzingis.

Powell went down to a non-contact, right Achilles tendon injury in the first quarter, and though he will have an MRI on Wednesday, the team is fearing a worst-case scenario.

“Guys like him define the culture we want here,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “It doesn’t get much tougher than this, if it ends up being what we fear it might.”

Luka Doncic had 36 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists for Dallas. He scored 24 points in the second half to help rally the Mavericks after they trailed by double digits from late in the second quarter through most of the third.

Shamet helped the Clippers seize the game late in the fourth quarter. His 3 from the left wing to give Los Angeles a 100-98 lead with 2:48 to play. Montrezl Harrell added two free throws, then Shamet sank another 3 from straight-on to put the Clippers up by seven. He finished with 18 points.

“We just kind of found a way to win,” Shamet said. “We’d loved to keep that lead the whole game, but that’s not how it’s going to be. It’s a long season. We got to find different ways how to win like we did tonight.”

Leonard added 11 in the fourth quarter, including his only 3 of the game with 1:15 left, which put the Clippers up 108-100.

But Dallas rallied, as Doncic hit a 3 and Maxi Kleber a dunk. After a Clippers turnover, Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s potential tying 3 spun around and out. JaMychal Green missed two free throws for LA, but then Doncic missed two – the second intentionally – and Leonard sealed it with two free throws.

 

Pelicans reportedly “really pulled back in trade talks” to focus on playoff push

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Three-and-a-half games.

Despite an injury-riddled 17-27 first half of the season, the New Orleans Pelicans are just three-and-a-half games out of the playoffs in a surprisingly soft bottom of the Western Conference.

Combine that with the team going 11-5 in their last 16 games, plus getting Zion Williamson in the lineup starting Wednesday, and the Pelicans have gone from sellers at the trade deadline to a team standing pat and planning to make a playoff push, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Around the G-League showcase just before Christmas (when league executives gathered in Las Vegas) there was a lot of buzz about the Pelicans trading point guard Jrue Holiday or big man Derrick Favors to help with their rebuild around Williamson. However, the recent hot streak and the emergence of Brandon Ingram as an All-Star level player has the Pelicans reconsidering their plans.

Memphis sits in the eighth seed in the West and has played well of late (8-2 in its last 10) behind the emergence of Ja Morant. However, New Orleans, San Antonio, Phoneix, and Sacramento have all shown flashes in recent weeks and could make a run at the final playoff spot in the conference (or higher if some team fades from the pack). Every one of those teams is trying to decide whether to make trades for young players/picks at the deadline or make a playoff push (Portland is the one team that could do both because they will get Jusuf Nurkick, Zach Collins, and CJ McCollum back from injury).

David Griffin, the man with the hammer inside the Pelicans organization, has until the Feb. 6 trade deadline to decide whether to go for the playoffs or make trades looking for guys on Zion’s timeline. How the team looks in the next couple of weeks with Williamson back will play a big factor in that call.

Dallas’ Dwight Powell leaves game with Achilles injury and it looks bad (VIDEO)

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This looks bad.

Hopefully it’s not what it looked like, but Dallas’ big man and critical role player Dwight Powell went down in the first half against the Clippers with a non-contact leg injury and will not return to the game with what the team is calling a right Achilles injury.

Here is a video of Powell going down as he plants to drive the lane; if you are at all squeamish this would be one to skip.

That looks a lot like a torn Achilles. Medical tests likely will confirm that tomorrow.

Powell is starting at center for the Mavericks, giving them 9.6 points and 5.7 rebounds a game, more importantly bringing toughness and doing the dirty work needed inside to allow Kristaps Porzingis to play his pick-and-pop game on the outside. Powell has become an important part of what is working in Dallas.

If this is a torn Achilles Powell is done for the season. This will ultimately mean more run for Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, plus it could send Dallas out into the market looking for another big man before the trade deadline.

Friends, family, former teammates of Delonte West trying to him find his way

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The conversation among Delonte West’s friends, family, and former teammates will sound familiar to people who have sat in living rooms or around dinner tables around the nation trying to find ways to help a friend or family member battling mental illness.

They offer help in a variety of ways — money, housing, a path to medical assistance through doctors — but can be frustrated at every turn as those steps fail to help.

West has been out of the league for seven seasons, but his challenges with bipolar disorder — something he announced he had during his playing days — have not ended. Last weekend, a disturbing video of West being attacked and beaten on a Washington D.C. street surfaced. It was followed by a second video showing West handcuffed and talking to the police, where West used graphic and disturbing language to accuse another man of pulling a gun on him. Legally, nothing came of the incident.

However, it showed how much West continues to struggle. A lot of people from the NBA family have tried to help West, but have been frustrated by the results, something Shams Charania wrote about at The Athletic.

Professional basketball allowed West to have structure in his life, to have a level of stability. According to those close to him, that has gone by the wayside since he exited the NBA…

Former teammate Jameer Nelson is one of many people who have witnessed West’s post-career distress and offered help. The National Basketball Players Association has maintained close contact with West and made itself available as a resource. His college coach at Saint Joseph, Phil Martelli, and West’s former player agent, Noah Croom, have been in communication with each other — and West — about providing him support. The same can be said for the Celtics and Mavericks. Both Boston GM Danny Ainge and Dallas owner Mark Cuban have been in direct contact at various points, according to those close to West.  They all want him to find his place in life, and they want to be a helping hand when needed.

The NBPA helped facilitate his residence change from Dallas to Maryland in recent years and extensively supported him financially, as recently as this month, according to sources. Ainge and the Celtics have given him a scouting job to scout games in the D.C. and East Coast area, sources said, but West has had mixed results due to fluctuating attendance. His close friends and family have all stepped in whenever they could.

As has happened with so many families around the nation, all that support and love has not been enough, it has not had the desired impact.

Nelson, West’s former St. Joseph’s teammate, posted this on Twitter over the weekend:

Delonte West announced he had bipolar disorder back in 2008, during his eight-season NBA career — a career that was cut short in part by a series of actions and lack of reliability (from teams’ perspectives) likely tied to his condition.

There is no shortage of love and concern for West, and there are a lot of people who want to help. How to help, and if he will accept that help, are very different questions. Ones a lot of people can relate to.