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NBA Power Rankings: Houston rockets up to second spot with nine-game win streak

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Houston has Rocketed up to No. 2 in the rankings (see what I did there?) and right now look like the biggest threat to Golden State. They haven’t knocked the Bucks out of the top spot, at least not yet.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-17, last week No. 1). The defense has slipped since the All-Star break — 110.1 net rating, 16th in the league — but the Bucks are still 8-3 in that stretch because their offense has gotten even better. Everyone in Milwaukee is looking ahead, the Bucks in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era have never won a playoff series, that will change in the first round this year. But the second round… on paper this team is a contender but will Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe perform on the biggest stages. Good benchmark Sunday vs. Philly.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (42-25, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the Rockets look like the second-best team in the NBA again. A team that may be a threat to the Warriors (as much as anyone). Not just because Chris Paul is playing well (although he is playing closer to last year’s version), or because Clint Capela is healthy and running the floor hard again, but because they are defending well for the first time this season. Since the All-Star break, Houston has a defensive net rating of 106.4, seventh best in the NBA (better than Utah in that stretch). Can they sustain it? If so, the Warriors will be looking over their shoulders.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (48-20, LW 2). Toronto didn’t pick up Marc Gasol expecting an eventual Serge Ibaka suspension, but it helps with Ibaka missing three games after throwing hands with Marquese Chriss. This is not a team making a strong playoff push (5-4 since the All-Star break) but it’s hard to read them because Kawhi Leonard has gotten a lot of rest and because their playoff position has been essentially set (the No. 2 seed) removing urgency in games. One thing to bet on, Pascal Siakam is going to win Most Improved Player.

Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (45-21, LW 3). For one game, against Denver on the night the Nuggets could have tied the Warriors with a win, we saw what the fully-functional Death Star can do. It was awe inspiring. Then the Warriors turned around and lost to the Suns. Expect to see Kevin Durant (ankle) and other key players rest down the stretch, and expect more erratic performances, but does anyone doubt they can play like the Death Star team four times in any seven game series?

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (44-22, LW 4). Isaiah Thomas has struggled to fit in off the bench so far, which is why coach Mike Malone is shrinking his role and minutes (IT got a DNP-CD on Tuesday). Through nine games he’s averaging 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Monte Morris bounced back with a good game against the Warriors and coach Mike Malone will need to lean on him and not IT when the playoffs start.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (43-25, LW 5). Joel Embiid’s return Sunday had Philadelphia looking like a team that could come out of the East again — he had 33 and 12 in a key win over the Pacers, he anchored their defense and bullied the Pacers in the paint on offense. The Sixers need that Embiid to be a real threat. Big test Sunday at Milwaukee, a chance for both teams to make a statement they are contenders for the East crown.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (41-27, LW 11). They went a strong 3-1 on a West Coast road trip and looked like the team we expected coming into the season (don’t read into the loss to the Clippers, last games of a trip get mailed in sometimes). Much like it has been recently in the regular season, Boston’s chances in the playoffs will swing with how Gordon Hayward plays — when he scores in double digits off the bench, the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (41-26, LW 8). Russell Westbrook’s interaction with a fan in Utah got the NBA community finally talking about an issue that needed to be in the spotlight — there are too many fans crossing the line of what is said to players, and there is little the players can do about it. Westbrook got fined for it, but my guess is he’s good with that if it sparked a real discussion (which it did). The Thunder went 2-2 on their recent road trip and things do not get easier now, they have their next six games against playoff teams.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Coach Terry Stotts shot down a question about the playoffs, saying he is not thinking about matchups or seeding yet, but Portland wants to climb up to the four seed and have home court in the first round (they are tied with Oklahoma City for that spot as of this writing). Portland is 25-9 at home this season and 16-17 on the road — if they are going to advance pat the first round playing at home would be a big boost.

Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (39-30, LW 12). Wins over Boston and Oklahoma City recently show why this Clipper team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Spend time around the Clippers and you sense a confidence amongst this team despite all the roster changes this season — they like each other, they joke around in the locker room, and on the floor they know who they are and they play hard. Lou Williams is making a push for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, but the loss to Portland shows just how much Danilo Gallinari’s shooting and ability to create looks matters to this team (he rested that game).

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (39-29, LW 13). Winners of six in a row (they needed that after a brutal rodeo road trip) and the streak has solidified their playoff position. The Spurs have done it with good defense — 105.1 net rating in this stretch, sixth best in the NBA — and enough offense from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make it all work (they combined for 61 Tuesday night to beat the Mavs).

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (43-25, LW 9). The Pacers need to play better (they have lost 6-of-9) if they are going to hold on to home court in the first round. The Pacers are tied with Philly for the 3/4 seed with Boston just two games back, but Indy has a brutal schedule coming up — Oklahoma City at home Thursday then 6-of-7 on the road including the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder again, then Celtics. It’s going to be tough to find wins in there.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (37-29, LW 10). With the softest remaining schedule in the NBA, it should have been time for Utah to make its push up the Western standings and maybe even get home court in the first round. Instead, they have lost 3-of-4 (including to Memphis and New Orleans). More concerning, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas have punished the Jazz in the paint. Utah is still in the playoffs as the eight seed, but their lack of focus against teams they should beat is going to have them starting the playoffs on the road.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (36-33, LW 15). Winners of four in a row, the last one against Detroit to keep them ahead of the Pistons and in the six seed. Spencer Dinwiddie had 19 against Detroit, continuing his run of good play — he is going to get some Sixth Man of the Year votes. But now the Pacers have seven in a row on the road and every one of their remaining games this season except one (Lakers) is against a team over .500.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (34-32, LW 14). Detroit has leaned a little too much on fourth-quarter comebacks lately, but they had won 8-of-9 before the loss to the Nets Monday. Still, because of the Nets’ schedule, expect the Pistons to finish the season as the six seed in the East. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for pulling this team together in his first season in Detroit, finding an offense that works, and getting this team into the postseason.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (33-33, LW 16). The Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA, and that will mean Coach of the Year votes for Dave Joerger and Most Improved Player votes for De’Aaron Fox. Both well deserved (although neither are likely to win the award). However, the surprising season is not going to end with a playoff berth, the Kings are four out with 16 games to play. The key this offseason is to stick with the building plan and not to become impatient and make win-now moves.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (31-35, LW 21). Miami’s new starting lineup — Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk — has led the team to win 4-of-5 and hang on to the final playoff slot in the East. In the seven games they have started (91 total minutes) that lineup is +7.1 per 100 possessions, with a high powered offense leading the way. Miami has a tougher schedule than Orlando (one game back) and Charlotte (1.5 back) the rest of the way and will need more out of that lineup if the Heat are going to get an invite to the postseason dance.

18. Timberwolves (32-36, LW 20). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be on a tear — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 32.9 points per game on 59.6 percent shooting overall, 48.3 percent from three (on 5.8 attempts a game), plus grabbing 12.8 boards a night. Is that going to be enough to get him an All-NBA center spot in a crowded field (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis) — if he does it’s worth a cool $32 million on his rookie contract extension that kicks in next season (thanks to the Rose rule).

Magic small icon 19. Magic (31-37, LW 17). Playoff teams take care of business against lesser opponents, which is why the Magic are in danger of missing the postseason after their big push to get back in it. Orlando has lost 3-of-4 including the the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. The Magic struggle in tight games, which is part of the problem. I’d say they have a soft section of the schedule ahead, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Orlando. They just need wins.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (30-40, LW 18). Jrue Holiday being out is a big blow, he has been playing at a near All-NBA level and off the court has become more of the face of the franchise (after the Anthony Davis situation). Rookie guard Frank Jackson has stepped up with some strong games in Holiday’s absence, which is about all there is to root for if you’re a Pelicans fan.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-37, LW 19). The vultures are circling. Needing to make a playoff push the Hornets have instead lost 7-of-9, and now the rumors about Kemba Walker being unhappy and wanting out are growing louder (I had heard from sources right after the trade deadline he was frustrated the team didn’t make a move. Charlotte plays Miami in Sunday, one of the teams they are battling with for the last playoff slot in the East, they need that win.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (28-40, LW 24). Memphis’ first-round pick this year is top 8 protected, and considering it’s a softer draft (and the Grizzlies are just starting their rebuild) they wouldn’t mind letting Boston have it this year (and keeping it in the future). That means winning more now, and the Grizzlies have done just that, with victories in 5-of-7 (thanks to the best defense in the league in that stretch, a 100.3 net rating). Currently, they have the seventh-worst record in the league (85.8% chance they keep the pick) but keep winning and the odds Boston gets it climb fast.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (28-39, LW 23). Washington’s playoff chances are not dead — it is 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot (Miami) but they have a 10% chance of making up that ground and getting in, according to fivethirtyeight.com. That makes Wednesday’s game against Orlando and Friday against Charlotte critical — all three of those teams are in the same playoff chase, a couple of wins there and the Wizards chances get much more realistic. Lose both and they can book the hotel in Cabo for mid-April.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-36, LW 22). Luke Walton is going to take the fall for this Lakers’ season, which is not completely fair because the roster he was given to work with by management was flawed and needed perfect health and some breaks to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are shut down for the season now). The question becomes, where do the Lakers get their next coach? Who can they get that LeBron James will respect and buy into? There is not an obvious upgrade just sitting on the open market, but this will be the first big test for management in a summer it has to nail.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (23-45, LW 25). Here’s what should have Atlanta fans pumped about the future: In their last 10 games, the Hawks are +5.9 points per 100 when Trae Young and John Collins are on the court together. That pair is the cornerstone of the future for the Hawks, and it’s looking promising. In the loss to the Nets last weekend, Young had his first triple-double and Collins added 33 points and 20 rebounds in the game. The Hawks are going to take a step forward next season, just watch.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-40, LW 26). The long season seems to be catching up with Luka Doncic. In his last five games he’s still averaging 20.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 27.8% from three and 37.5% overall. Against San Antonio Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, 5-of-18 shooting, 1-of-7 from three, and even 1-of-9 from the free throw line. What you had to like is the frustrated Doncic went in and worked on his game immediately after that showing, vowing it would not happen again.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-52, LW 29). The Suns are not taking for Zion — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Warriors and the Bucks. The biggest key is that Kelly Oubre has been a fit, and averaged 18.9 points a game since put in the starting lineup, providing another shot creation and scoring option for Phoenix.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (19-50, LW 27). What has Zach LaVine done to step up his game this season? Get to the rim. Before his injury (his three seasons in Minnesota) LaVine took 33% to 35% of his shots at the rim, but this season that is up to 49% (stats via Cleaning the Glass). He can get to the rim whenever he wants and is finishing a solid 61% of those shots. He’s taking fewer midrangers also and has found a steady stroke from three (although he should get and take more corner threes, he’s deadly there).

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-51, LW 28). Collin Sexton was not the instant star some of the other guys in the last draft have been, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Last week he broke Kyrie Irving’s franchise record for triple-doubles as a rookie. He’s got work to do, particularly on the defensive end, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-55, LW 30). Zion Williamson will return from injury to play in the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament for Duke. While have been fans and pundits calling for him to shut it down, it speaks to his makeup and desire that he wants to play and wants to win with his teammates, not just sit back and wait until he gets paid. With him, and particularly how Zion improves their defense, the Blue Devils have a real shot to win it all. What… you want to talk about the Knicks? Come on.

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.”

Team USA had plenty of highlights in first half against Spain

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ANAHEIM — Concerns? What concerns about Team USA?

The Americans came out in their first real test, an exhibition against a good Spanish team, and showed their athleticism and depth. The USA led 54-41 at the half, with Khris Middleton (10 points, 4-of-4 shooting, a couple nice assists) and Kemba Walker (nine points on 3-of-3 shooting) leading the way.

The Americans put their athleticism on display, pressuring on defense then getting out and running, and that led to some impressive highlights.

Ricky Rubio led Spain with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting.