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NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee starts the season on top, but can it finish there?

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The NBA season is finally here — and with that the NBC NBA power rankings are back. These will normally drop on Wednesday, but this week we are moving them up one week to celebrate the tip-off of the NBA season. The rankings reflect where I see teams today, heading into the season, not where I predict they will land come April and the start of the playoffs (I picked the Clippers to win it all, but they are shorthanded to start the season).

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (60-22). Milwaukee had the best record in the NBA last season, they went 5-0 in the preseason with a stifling defense, and they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo. We can debate how much they will miss Malcolm Brogdon, but that may end up being more of a playoff concern than a regular season one. For most of the season they should be very high in these power rankings.

 
Nuggets small icon 2. Nuggets (54-28). Any questions about Denver are really about the postseason, not the first 82. The combination of continuity, the league’s best home court advantage, and the rest of the West trying to sort out new pieces, should give the Nuggets the top seed in the West this season. Don’t be shocked if they make a mid-season trade to bring in a veteran to help alleviate the concerns about shot creation and defense in the playoffs.

 
Sixers small icon 3. 76ers (51-31). Philadelphia is my pick to come out of the East and make the NBA Finals, but the start of this season will see them still trying to figure the offense out. Fortunately, an elite defense anchored by Joel Embiid — he can be in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year — will carry them to wins while we wait to see if Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris can step up and carry the late-game load. Look for a strong season from Josh Richardson, this is a great fit for him.

 
Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (50-32). This is my dark horse team that could pull an upset the Los Angeles squads and come out of the West. They have the defense, Donovan Mitchell will take a step forward, and the Mike Conley/Rudy Gobert pick-and-roll will be a force. Another team that could make a mid-season trade to bolster them for the playoffs, where Utah is a genuine threat.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (53-29). James Harden and Russell Westbrook are going to blend better on offense than people think, and the Rockets are set up to win a lot of regular season games. Come the playoffs there are serious defensive questions — I would not rank Houston above the two Los Angeles teams below them for postseason success. Look for Danuel House Jr. to have a strong season as an athlete who can run with Westbrook.

 
Lakers small icon 6. Lakers (37-45). No Kyle Kuzma to start the season as he recovers from a stress reaction in his left foot. Frank Vogel has talked about going with an old school style defense with a defender back protecting the paint. Are Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee up for that? That kind of defense also asks the forwards to cover a lot of ground, and the Lakers backcourt has some defensive questions. The Lakers’ defense (and health) will be what determines how far they go in the postseason.

 
Clippers small icon 7. Clippers (Last Season 48-34). While everyone from NBA GMs to humble NBA pundits (*raises hand*) are picking the Clippers to win their first NBA title, L.A. starts the season without Paul George, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Kawhi Leonard is not going to have a minutes restriction to start the season, but expect the Clippers to be team load management as the season wears on.

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (49-33). Kemba Walker is going to provide a lot of what Kyrie Irving did on offense for Boston, and his “put my arm around them and walk together” leadership style should lead to a better locker room dynamic. The Celtics defense, however, especially without Al Horford, is something to monitor. Bet the over in Boston games.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (58-24). The defending champions get their rings and the banner goes up in Toronto Tuesday night — it was all worth it. Kawhi Leonard is now back home in L.A., but the team that remains in Toronto is pretty good — unless they start trading guys to jumpstart the rebuild. Signing Kyle Lowry to a one-year, $31 million extension didn’t make him any less tradable. Toronto, if it starts out strong, may stand pat, but if they stumble the equation changes.

 
Warriors small icon 10. Warriors (57-24). Yes, Stephen Curry is going to put up numbers that have him in the MVP race (and you want him on your fantasy team). Yes, they still have Draymond Green at the four. Maybe D’Angelo Russell fits well with Curry creating a strong backcourt. But Glenn Robinson III will start at the three and there are legitimate concerns about the Warriors’ defense. They are going to lose some shootouts.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (53-29). Number crunching advanced analytics predictions are down on Portland again, some have them even missing the playoffs. That’s not going to happen with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the backcourt. However, with Jusuf Nurkic out until the calendar flips to 2020, is Hassan Whiteside going to be the answer Portland needs in the paint in the deep West? Not sure a top four seed is in the cards in this conference.

 
Nets small icon 12. Nets (42-40). If Brooklyn is going to climb into the top four in the East this season (without Kevin Durant, don’t bet on his return this season) then it’s going to be less about Kyrie Irving and more about Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen having breakout seasons. Also keep an eye on Spencer Dinwiddie, he’s my preseason pick for Sixth Man of the Year.

 
Spurs small icon 13. Spurs (48-34). It’s tempting to pick against San Antonio making the playoffs and putting the fast-rising Mavericks or Kings in that slot, but after 22 straight playoff appearances are you really going to bet against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs? I’m not. They will defy league trends and have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge shoot a lot from the midrange, but the Spurs also will not beat themselves. If Dejounte Murray is healthy and found a jump shot, watch out for a breakout season.

 
Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (33-49). Kristaps Porzingis was moving well and looking good in the preseason, and if that continues — and Luka Doncic takes a step forward with his conditioning and game — the Mavericks could be a playoff team this season. If they make it will come down to whether Delon Wright and Dwight Powell can step up in larger roles and provide support to those two stars — and Powell is out to start the season due to a hamstring strain.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (39-43). One of two teams (along with Portland) on the top of my list to make a win-now trade during the season. Look for the to try and flip the expiring Goran Dragic contract (and still good player) into a player that fits better next to Jimmy Butler. This is not a slow build situation in Miami, and you know Pat Riley is willing to be aggressive making moves.

 
Pacers small icon 16. Pacers (48-34). One of the hardest teams for me to pin down this season because of three questions: Can Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner work well next to each other on the front line? Is Malcolm Brogdon ready to handle being the No. 1 option and the guy scouting reports are focused on? When does Victor Oladipo return, and will he play at an All-NBA level again (and if so, how quickly)? I can see the Pacers ending up everywhere from a dangerous fifth seed nobody wants to face to being out of the playoffs entirely, depending upon how those questions are answered.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (39-43). It’s natural to think that after a 12-game improvement last season up to 39 wins, the rapid trajectory of De’Aaron Fox and Sacramento will continue into this season. However, I expect it to plateau a little, they will get better and be around .500, flirting with a playoff slot in the deep West, but the rise will not be as rapid as Kings fans or ownership hope. They are desperate to end a 13-year playoff drought.

 
18. Timberwolves (36-46). When Robert Covington was healthy and on the court for Minnesota last season, the team’s defense was 6.9 points per 100 possessions better than when he sat, and statistically it played at the level of a top five defense in the league. Covington, if he can stay healthy, will be critical to the Timberwolves making a playoff run. There are also a lot of other teams coveting him via trade, there will be rumors. It’s something to watch.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (42-40). This may be too low a ranking for a solid team that won 42 games last season, made the playoffs and brought the band back for another tour. All eyes are on Markelle Fultz, who in the preseason looked like a solid backup point guard for Orlando (a big step forward for him) but let’s see what happens when the trials and tribulations of the NBA regular season hits him.

Pistons small icon 20. Pistons (41-41). Another playoff team in the East from last season that may be too low on this list. Detroit is thinking playoffs or bust this season, don’t expect a mid-season sell off of Blake Griffin or anyone else unless things go very poorly the first half of the season. Kind of disappointed Joe Johnson didn’t make the final roster spot, but he looked old and a step slow in camp while Christian Wood played very well.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (33-49). No Zion Williamson for the first 20-30 games of the regular season is a setback — in the preseason he had taken advantage of the better spacing of the NBA game to put up 55 points on 71 percent shooting in a couple of games. This is still a good team without him — Brandon Ingram has a lot to prove this season, something to watch — but not nearly as high on the must-watch list.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (22-60, LW 27). The Bulls could outperform teams such as the Pistons (and maybe the Magic or Pacers, if Indiana fall off) and sneak into the playoffs. I loved the Tomas Satoransky pick up this summer and he has played his way into the starting point guard job, I think he could have a breakout season now that he’s out of Washington.

 
Thunder small icon 23. Thunder (49-33). This may be too low for Oklahoma City, at least to start the season. They have a motivated Chris Paul (he will want to put up numbers and be revitalized to boost his trade value), they have a rock-solid center in Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari can get buckets, and I love the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. A number of those vets could be traded over the course of the season — OKC is rebuilding — but to start the season this is a pretty good roster.

 
Hawks small icon 24. Hawks (29-53). Talk to executives/scouts around the league about Atlanta and you hear a lot of “they are one year away” and an expectation they will plateau a little after last season (improving by only a handful of games). The leap is coming with this roster, especially Trae Young and John Collins, but this team shapes up to be terrible defensively and that will hold them back this season.

 
Suns small icon 25. Suns (19-63). How much does having a competent point guard in Ricky Rubio help players such as Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges get better, cleaner looks at the rim? Probably a lot. This is a team poised to make a leap and be much better than a year before, but the playoff dreams around this team are overstated. Improve by 15 games and they are still at 34 wins, which is not near enough in the West.

 
Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (32-50). Bradley Beal took the money and signed a contract extension, but with the player option it only really adds one season to his deal. What that means is Beal is off the market at this trade deadline (disappointing Denver) but is back on next summer in basically the same situation he was last summer. Between now and then Beal should put up big numbers on an otherwise struggling team.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (17-65). I know there’s a segment of Knicks fans who see a playoff team in this roster, I just do not. Frank Ntilikina looked good in FIBA and better than expected this preseason, RJ Barrett will get his chances, and we know the combo of Dennis Smith Jr. and Julius Randle will put up points, but unless Mitchell Robinson and others have some surprise breakout seasons this is an improved but still not terribly good team.

 
Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (33-49). With Zion Williamson out for a couple of months, it opens up the race for Rookie of the Year and Ja Morant could take charge of that race. He will have the ball in his hands and the opportunity. With Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and some other young players the Grizzlies are going to be entertaining, just young and not ready to win in the West.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-63). Eventually the focus around the Cavaliers will flip to Kevin Love trade rumors (they are coming, and Portland will be in the middle of them), but in the short term the meshing of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in the backcourt will be something to watch. Sexton is poised to take a big step forward and be more of a leader in this team, we’ll see if he’s up to that task.

 
Hornets small icon 30. Hornets (39-43). GM Mitch Kupchak says that Charlotte will be rebuilt through the draft. Good idea… but they need to draft better (and get some higher picks). Here are their first-round picks for the past several years: P.J. Washington (2019), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2018, who was traded for Miles Bridges, a guy who needs to step forward this season), Malik Monk (2017), Malachi Richardson (2016, who was traded for Marco Belinelli), Frank Kaminsky (2015), and Noah Vonleh (2014).

Playoffs statement? Boston builds 40-point lead, routs Toronto

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The way the NBA standings look right now, there’s a reasonable chance that the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors could be slotted to see each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

And Celtics coach Brad Stevens is already making it clear — if that happens, a blowout win over the Raptors now won’t mean anything then.

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, Jayson Tatum added 18 and the Celtics never trailed on the way to an emphatic 122-100 win over the Raptors on Friday night. Kemba Walker scored 17 points in 23 minutes for the Celtics, who led by 40 at one point and kept slim hope alive of catching the Raptors for the No. 2 spot in the East race.

“This game will mean nothing if we get that opportunity again,” Stevens said. “They’re a really good team. I thought they missed a lot of open looks and it just wasn’t their night. Our guys played well, but it won’t mean anything in a couple weeks.”

Boston also won the season series against Toronto, taking three of the four meetings. The Celtics also won back-to-back games for the first time in the bubble.

“We’re enjoying each other and building chemistry,” Tatum said.

Fred VanVleet scored 13 for Toronto, which got 11 from Kyle Lowry and 11 more from Pascal Siakam. The Raptors’ starters — VanVleet, Lowry, Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby — combined to shoot 16 for 45 (36%) from the field, 3 for 19 (16%) from 3-point range.

“One thing about this team, we always bounce back and we always stick together,” Toronto’s Norman Powell said. “I’m not too worried.”

Toronto’s biggest deficit in its first three games in the bubble was six points against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Raptors trailed Miami by three, then didn’t trail Orlando at any point in their game on Wednesday.

But only five minutes into this one, the Raptors were down eight.

And it would only get worse from there for the reigning champions.

The biggest deficit Toronto had faced this season was a 30-point hole against Dallas on Dec. 22, a game where the Raptors rallied to win. The Celtics didn’t allow anything close to a rally on Friday — after the Raptors closed within 10 early in the third, Boston went on a 36-12 run over the final 9:39 of the quarter.

It was 91-57 entering the fourth, and the Raptors went with subs the rest of the way. Making the night even worse for Toronto: forward Serge Ibaka left early in the fourth after getting hit in the face on a drive by Boston’s Gordon Hayward.

“I hate to say it, but there’s nothing really I learned,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The only thing I probably did learn is we’ve got to get a couple of our guys playing a little better.”

Nets, Magic lock up playoff spots in East; Grizzlies help own cause in West

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The NBA playoff picture is getting a little clearer, and the Eastern Conference field of qualifiers is now set.

Brooklyn and Orlando clinched the last two remaining East spots Friday, meaning no play-in series — a new wrinkle added to the rules of the NBA’s season restart at Walt Disney World — will be needed on that half of the bracket.

Brooklyn secured its trip by defeating Sacramento 119-106. Orlando’s spot was clinched when Washington lost to New Orleans 118-107 later Friday, eliminating the Wizards from contention.

The Nets and Magic will be No. 7 and No. 8, in some order, in the East playoffs. The No. 8 seed will face the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin Aug. 17. The No. 7 seed could meet the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who currently hold — but have not secured — the East’s No. 2 spot.

For the Nets, the clinching comes as something to savor in a topsy-turvy season.

Kevin Durant couldn’t play at all because of his recovery from Achilles surgery — yet still got a $1 million contract bonus because Brooklyn made the postseason. Kyrie Irving missed much of the year because of injury, the Nets had several regulars opt out of participating in the restart, changed coaches in March and have used 24 players so far this season.

“It’s great to punch our own ticket into the playoffs,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I joked with the guys: I like my laundry being done, but nothing like doing your own laundry.”

Orlando could have clinched with a win Friday, but lost to Philadelphia 108-101. The Wizards lost about an hour later, falling to 0-5 in the bubble. Washington was one of nine teams from the East who qualified for the restart, but has since fallen behind Charlotte into 10th place in the conference.

Philadelphia’s win tightened the race for No. 4 in the East. The 76ers (42-27) are tied with Indiana for the fifth-best record in that conference, one game behind fourth-place Miami (43-26).

The race for the last unclaimed playoff spot in the Western Conference remains close, with teams vying to grab the No. 8 spot and play the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. If the eighth- and ninth-place teams are within four games of one another when the seeding game schedule ends next week, there will be a two-game series to determine who gets the last playoff spot.

Should that series take place, the ninth-place team would have to go 2-0 in a best-of-two series to advance.

Memphis remained alone in eighth out West, after the Grizzlies snapped a four-game bubble losing streak by beating Oklahoma City on Friday 121-92. The Grizzlies are one game ahead of Portland in the West standings.

“We channeled what we’ve done all season long,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We played Grizzlies basketball. Grizzlies basketball equals Grizzlies wins, more often than not. We hadn’t done that in the first four games.”

San Antonio leaped idle Phoenix into 10th in the West by beating Utah 119-111, with the Spurs improving to 3-2 in the bubble. The Spurs (30-38) are one game behind Portland in the standings.

“At the end of the day, we can’t control what they’re doing,” Spurs center Jakob Poeltl said. “We can only control what we’re doing. We’re going to take every game as it comes. We’re going to try to win every game.”

Phoenix, Sacramento and New Orleans remain in the mix for a West play-in series spot. The Suns, who are 4-0 at Disney, play Miami on Saturday.

Training camps for “delete 8” reportedly might happen inside Orlando bubble

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Whether the eight teams not invited to the NBA restart will have training camps and get together for scrimmages depends on who you ask. There are some teams adamant they will be at a massive disadvantage if their young teams go nine months without playing competitive NBA basketball. The problem is bringing teams together creates coronavirus issues that are not easily eliminated.

Which led to an idea: Why not bring those eight teams into the Orlando bubble on the Walt Disney World Resort campus and let them practice/play there?

It’s being talked about as an option reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

What if those eight teams joined the rest of their colleagues inside the Walt Disney World bubble for training after the eliminated teams departed? Sources say the NBA has been exploring that possibility for quite some time now, and that the idea was raised most recently on the aforementioned governors’ call. And in some ways, it makes perfect sense.

As NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has made clear all along, the union has been skeptical of any basketball setting that doesn’t match the Orlando approach in terms of precautions and protocol. But starting on Aug. 17, when six teams go home and the 16-team playoffs begin, space will be opening up inside this three-hotel, three-court, (seemingly) COVID-free community they have created.

More space will open up in the bubble as more teams are eliminated from the postseason, although some of those rooms were to be used by family of team staff still in the bubble. It’s a delicate balancing act for the league.

The eight teams in question are Golden State, Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago, and Charlotte.

Putting together a second bubble for the “delete eight” was never likely to happen, it’s a logistical nightmare, and it’s expensive (but without the television money payoff of the actual bubble). There is some logic to inviting those eight teams to Orlando.

Whether it happens or not remains to be seen.

Memphis picks up first win since restart, beats Oklahoma City

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Dillon Brooks scored 22 points, and the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their first win since the restart with a 121-92 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 11 rebounds and Ja Morant had 19 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies.

Memphis lost its first four restart games and would have fallen into a tie with Portland for eight place in the Western Conference standings with a loss.

“As a whole, we never doubted ourselves, doubted what we can accomplish as a team,” Morant said. “But like, we all was very confident in our team and feel like tonight, we just went out and played freely and we were able to come out with a win.”

Chris Paul scored 17 points and Luguentz Dort added 16 for the Thunder. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City’s leading scorer this season, finished with 10 points on 3 for 13 shooting.

The Thunder looked nothing like the team that rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. Oklahoma City missed a chance to move into a tie with the Houston Rockets for fourth place in the West.

Oklahoma City led by 18 in the first quarter, but the Grizzlies rallied to take the lead in the second. The Thunder made 7 of 13 3-pointers in the first quarter but 6 of 30 the rest of the way.

“I thought it was a little bit of fool’s gold in the first quarter,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.

Memphis led by nine in the final seconds of the first half. Danilo Gallinari hit a 3 for the Thunder with 4.6 seconds left, then Paul got a steal and hit a corner 3 to cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 63-60 at halftime.

The Grizzlies outscored the Thunder 32-18 in the third quarter to go up 95-78 at the end of the period.

“They started making shots,” Paul said. “We never really made them feel us all game long. They were just so comfortable. They got a little bit of everything. They got floaters, they got the threes, they got to the free-throw line. Our defense was just bad today.”