NBA Power Rankings: Bucks, Lakers hold on to top two spots heading into showdown

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The Bucks and Lakers both dropped a game this week but kept the top two slots in these power rankings heading into their showdown Thursday night. Dallas has climbed to third, but it will be tough to stay there with Luka Doncic out for a couple of weeks.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Their 18-game win streak came to an end with an off night against Dallas, but they got that win streak with elite play on both ends: The second-best defense and the second-best offense in the NBA over the last 15 games. Even with that, Thursday night against the Lakers is the real measuring stick. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James in a potential Finals preview (except for Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Kuzma, and others out injured, plus the fact both teams will evolve a lot before the playoffs even start).

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (24-4, LW No. 2). If anyone needed evidence of what Anthony Davis means to this Lakers team, watch the video of the loss to Indiana from Tuesday night (which snapped the Lakers 14-game road win streak). Indiana grabbed the offensive rebound on 30% of their missed shots without Davis there to clean up the glass, and without those rebounds Los Angeles couldn’t get out and run to transition points like it normally does. Their spacing was off, too. We could go on, but you get the idea. If the Lakers want to prove they belong on top of this ranking, they get the chance Thursday night against the Bucks.

Editor’s note: Tickets to Bucks-Lakers? Click here

Mavericks small icon 3. Mavericks (18-8, LW 4). No Luka Doncic for two weeks (at least, due to a sprained ankle) is a huge test for Dallas — they passed the first part beating Milwaukee on the road. The Mavs offense will not be the same without the guy giving them 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, the guy who runs their pick-and-roll based game. Where Dallas can make up for it is on the defensive end (they are 6.1 per 100 better defensively when he sits this season), and with Kristaps Porzingis stepping up.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (21-8, LW 5). Paul George has become as dangerous a three-point shooter as there is in the league. PG13 is hitting 40.3% from three on 9.8 attempts from beyond the arc per game (only James Harden and Buddy Hield attempt more). The Clippers face the Rockets Thursday night in what will be an interesting chess match: Last time these teams met the Clippers doubled and trapped Harden out near the mid-court line, and while the Clippers won the game (122-119) Harden still had 37 points and the Rockets’ offense was not slowed. What strategy does Doc Rivers test out this game?

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (20-8, LW 6). Philadelphia is Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to being in the Wells Fargo Center or on the road. Philly is 14-0 at home, 6-8 on the road, and the real difference is on defense — the Sixers allow less than a point per possession (98.9 defensive net rating) and play with more emotion and energy at home. The Sixers have a +12 net rating at home and -2 net rating on the road. The Sixers have 4-of-5 coming up at home including the Bucks on Christmas Day.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (17-7, LW 3). How much Marcus Smart means to the Celtics defense was evident in losses last week to Indiana and Philadelphia, games where they gave up at least 115 points to teams outside the top 12 offenses in the league. Those games — particularly against the Sixers — exposed the lack of bench depth outside Smart on this team, the challenge is the Celtics do not have great options to trade for more depth at the deadline. Boston also doesn’t have a good answer for Joel Embiid (few teams do), and that will be a playoff challenge if they meet.

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (19-9, LW 10). The Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis big man combo is starting to work: In the last 15 games, they have played nearly 300 minutes together and the Pacers have an impressive 100.3 defensive rating and an impressive +9 net rating in those minutes. How well it worked showed up against the Lakers (without AD) when Turner was switching onto LeBron an others late and holding his own defensively, while Sabonis scored 26. The Pacers have won four in a row and have a fun showdown with the Bucks on Sunday.

Rockets small icon 8. Rockets (18-9, LW 7). Once again, James Harden is right at the front of the discussion for MVP, scoring 38.9 points per game. Once again, he scoffs at the idea of load management and taking a night off. And, once again, he is second in the league in total minutes played (only he and Devonte' Graham are over 1,000 already) and usage rate (38.6, tied with the Greek Freak for the most). That’s a lot on his shoulders and it’s fair to wonder if he will be able to hold up physically. The Rockets have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, starting with the Clippers Thursday.

Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (17-8, LW 11). Denver is a team to watch heading into the trade deadline, with them trying to package players such as Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez to get an upgrade to their rotation. Both of them are expiring contracts, if there’s a team seeking some cap relief, but finding a deal that gets them quality back will not be easy. After losing 5-of-6 and struggling on the road, Denver came home and has strung together three straight wins (against a soft schedule, but still wins). Good test in Los Angeles Sunday against the Lakers.

Heat small icon 10. Heat (19-8, LW 8). Bam Adebayo is on a tear and is putting up All-Star numbers of late: 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 7.4 assists a game over his last five, all while shooting 58.1% from the field. There are no moral victories in the NBA, but the Heat’s three-point loss to the Lakers where they hung with an elite team all game was a good sign for this team heading forward. Another good test Wednesday night in Philadelphia (where the Sixers remain undefeated).

Raptors small icon 11. Raptors (18-8, LW 9). After losses in the past weeks to quality teams (Heat, Rockets, 76ers, Clippers), Toronto may want to step back, assess where they are in the East (and NBA pecking order), and see if they can make deadline trades for Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. The challenge is the money — Gasol makes $25.5 million, Ibaka $23.2 million — because teams don’t have cap space, but expect Toronto to be active and at least talking to teams. Good test next Monday against Indiana.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (15-12, LW 12). Kyrie Irving has been out 16 games now, the Nets are 11-5 with a top-10 defense in the league during that stretch. Wilson Chandler is back from his 25-game PED suspension, and while he has come off the bench and played a limited role, he ads some much needed veteran depth at the forwards spots.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (16-11, LW 13). Donovan Mitchell took over late against Orlando Tuesday, which bailed out another rough performance by the Utah bench (Royce O’Neale had 11 points but the bench as a total had just 14, and they are wildly inconsistent night to night). Winners of three in a row (against a soft part of the schedule) the Jazz now head on the road for 7-of-9. Away from home the Jazz are 5-8 and are getting outscored by 2.4 PPG.

Thunder small icon 14. Thunder (12-14, LW 16). Billy Donovan doesn’t go to a three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all that much — he’s used it in 26 games but for fewer than six minutes a game — however, when he does, they destroy teams. That trio holds teams to less than a point per possession and has a net rating of +25.9 points per 100 possessions. Expect a lot of Danilo Gallinari trade rumors between now and the deadline, he is going to be on the move.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (11-16, LW 14). We learned this week that Andre Drummond has a strong Avocado allergy and some ceviche in Mexico sidelined him for a few days. Throw in Blake Griffin’s painful knee and you have a team that has lost two-of-three. Derrick Rose is trying to keep them afloat, averaging 16.6 points and 6.1 assists a game off the bench, and keeps making his case for Sixth Man of the Year.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (12-15, LW 15). The Magic have dropped 4-of-5 through a difficult part of the schedule, with games at Denver and at Portland still ahead. Orlando is banking n the return of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to start their lowly offense (25th in the league). Even with all that, the Magic sit as the current eight seed in the East.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (12-15, LW 19). De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III are back in the lineup, and while that didn’t mean a win in Charlotte Tuesday it does mean Sacramento is close to whole again. Even with the loss, Sacramento has won 4-of-6, they got their best players back, and starting Dec. 23 (against Houston), the Kings have 10-of-12 at home. Make a run there and the Kings can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West (for the first time in 13 years).

Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (11-16, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony’s defensive reputation was both well earned and the thing that made other teams slow to sign him this summer. However, watch him play now and he is putting in the effort on that end of the floor — he had three blocks and two steals against the Suns on Monday night. He’s active and trying, and that’s a good start. Portland starts a run of 6-of-7 at home on Wednesday against Golden State, if the Blazers are going to turn their season this is the time to do it.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (13-17, LW 22). Charlotte remains the team playing the most over its head this season, Cleaning the Glass has them as a 10-win team (9.6, to be specific) but the Hornets keep winning close games. Charlotte is 4-1 in their last five but they are just +8 in those games (and have a 1.2 net rating). Devonte’ Graham continues to impress every time he steps on the court, including dropping 40 on Brooklyn a week ago.

Suns small icon 20. Suns (11-15, LW 17). Deandre Ayton returned from his PED suspension Tuesday and put up 18 points and 14 rebounds in loss to the Clippers. It’s a good start, they need his offensive production in the paint. The Suns have lost four in a row and 5-of-6, with their struggling offense being the main reason for the slide.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (10-16, LW 21). Nobody on the Spurs was happy making history by playing in four straight overtime games, but the Spurs won three of them. Even with that it looks like they will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years this season, which leads to the next question: Will San Antonio be a seller at the trade deadline? Even if they want to be, is there much of a market for the big contracts of DeMar DeRozan ($27.7 million) or LaMarcus Aldridge ($26 million, but only $7 million guaranteed next season)?

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (10-17, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup and the Grizzlies have won 4-of-5 (with the only loss coming to Milwaukee. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are -6.4 per 100 possessions when paired together this season, and not particularly strong on either end of the court. That comes with being a young team. Morant’s dunk over Aron Baynes may be a week old, but you can’t see this one enough.

23. Timberwolves (10-15, LW 18). Losers of seven in a row, with a frighteningly bad 123.5 defensive net rating over that stretch. Just for some context, the Wizards have the worst defense in the league this season and their net rating is 116.7. Minnesota has slid back so far they might become sellers at the trade deadline, but the play of Robert Covington during this stretch — on both ends of the court — is going to make teams hesitant, and if nothing else will lower what they could get for him.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (10-19, LW 23). Looking for a bright spot on a team that is stumbling along, having lost 5-of-7, a team that keeps blowing big leads? Zach LaVine has added to his offensive arsenal, becoming a far more consistent three-point shooter this season, hitting 40.5% from beyond the arc on 7.6 attempts per game.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (8-17, LW 25). New GM Tommy Sheppard is going to get a lot of calls before the trade deadline about the availability of Davis Bertans, who was a steal from the Spurs this past summer. He’s averaging 15.4 points a game, shooting 45.7% from three as a stretch four, and is on an expiring contract. Sheppard has said he doesn’t plan trade Bertans, but if a good enough offer comes through he has to consider it.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (7-21, LW 30). The Knicks got Elfrid Payton back seven games ago and the Knicks are 3-4 in those games with an offense that just looks smoother (in part because rookie R.J. Barrett doesn’t have to play out of position at the point). Their defense is still dreadful, but at least New York is competitive. Marcus Morris trade rumors are going to heat up fast as we get closer to the deadline, a lot of teams could use his toughness and shooting.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (6-22, LW 26). Losers of five in a row, there is disappointment and frustration in the Atlanta locker room, which has led to questions about the job safety of coach Lloyd Pierce. For now he is safe, according to reports. But there were expectations Trae Young (who has been streaky this season), John Collins (suspended for PEDs), and company would take a step forward this season. If anything, it feels like their regressed, and the defense is a disaster. Not living up to expectations is often what leads to a coach being let go.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 29). Cleveland’s only win his their last 11 games was in overtime against the Spurs. The Cavs will be one of the most discussed teams in the run-up to the deadline, but Kevin Love’s contract makes him very difficult to trade. Tristan Thompson makes more sense for a lot of teams, if he is made available.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (5-23 LW 28). Looking for a positive? Alan Smailagic, the No. 39 pick in the last draft, just had a 29-point game for Santa Cruz in the G-League. Expect a lot of D’Angelo Russell trade discussion in the run up to the deadline in February, but I keep hearing from sources that is far more likely a summer trade, not one rushed in February.

Pelicans small icon 30. Pelicans (6-22, LW 27). Brandon Ingram has played his way into a max contract this summer: 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Sources say he is not available via trade (J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday, however, are). Is Ingram someone the Pelicans, or any other team, should feel comfortable maxing out? No. But in a down market, a guy who can get buckets the way he can is going to get paid. Also, nobody should blame the Pelicans for not extending him, considering health risks (blood clots last season) and they weren’t sure how he would fit next to Zion Williamson (and still aren’t).

Kyrie Irving says at times he “felt very disrespected” in Brooklyn

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics
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Kyrie Irving says he is happy. He said he feels celebrated and respected by his new team in Dallas.

While fans in Brooklyn, Boston and Cleveland may snicker and say “wait for it…”, a happy Irving right now is a good thing for a Mavericks team desperate to put a high-level shot creator next to superstar Luka Dončić. Irving emphasized his joy in playing the game while speaking to the media Tuesday after his first practice with his new team. He praised the Mavericks organization while saying he sometimes didn’t feel respected in Brooklyn. Here are Irving’s comments, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“I just know I want to be places where I’m celebrated and not just tolerated or just kind of dealt with in a way that doesn’t make me feel respected,” Irving said after Tuesday’s practice at USC’s Galen Hall. “There were times throughout this process when I was in Brooklyn where I felt very disrespected and my talent — I work extremely hard at what I do. No one ever talks about my work ethic, though. Everyone talks about what I’m doing off the floor, so I just wanted to change that narrative, write my own story and just continue preparing in the gym, and now that I’m in Dallas, just focus on what I control.”

Irving makes it hard not to talk about his off-the-floor choices when he does things that keep him away from his team, such as his vaccination status a season ago, or a Tweet earlier this season promoting a movie with anti-Semitic themes that led to an eight-game suspension by the Nets.

When on the court, Irving’s skills are unquestionable — he has the league’s best handles and averages 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, plus he is shooting 37.4% from 3. It’s those skills he wants to bring to Dallas and make the focus. He wants to move on from the negativity surrounding him in Brooklyn.

Irving cited a lack of “transparency and honesty from people in the front office” as a reason he did not feeling comfortable continuing his career with the Nets…

“I don’t want to go into too many details because it’s water under the bridge now,” said Irving… “I wish them well. I left them in fourth place. I did what I was supposed to do, took care of my teammates, was incredibly selfless in my approach to leading, and I just want to do all the right things for myself — not to appease anybody that had something negative to say about me or judge me. This basketball game — just, it’s fun, and I want to keep it that way.”

If it stays fun and about basketball, this will be an excellent trade for the Mavericks. Irving will have to prove his critics wrong by keeping the spotlight on the court.

NBA, sports world reacts to LeBron James setting all-time scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James is now the leading scorer in NBA history.

He passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a turnaround jumper in the third quarter Tuesday night, and with that the fans filling Crypto.com Arena exploded, having witnessed history. The reaction was similar among his peers and fans on social media, but the praise for LeBron has been pouring in all season. Here are some highlights of the reaction to LeBron setting this historic record, both from Tuesday night and the buildup to that moment throughout the season.

“But I think when you talk about LeBron, LeBron is in his own category. Just with the way he came into the league, and he never disappointed his fans, his teammates, and his owners, by winning championships by being able to help players get paid, you know, and then, you know, at the end of the day, he he’s about winning, he’s a competitor, and he’s never talked about records. You know, he’s just the only thing that he has really talked about is trying to win championships.” —Dallas Mavericks coach and Hall of Fame player Jason Kidd

“LeBron has done it so differently to me because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.” —Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers

“It used to anger me when he first came in, and if he made a pass, somebody said he should have shot it. And if he shot the ball, he should have passed it. It really would anger me because they would just deal with the negative. And it was sort of a fake, negative in a way, the guy was doing everything great handling himself great, young kid with all that attention, doing what he’s doing. I just thought he was wonderful.” —San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

[On how LeBron reached this record without a score-first mentality] “I think empowering teammates the way he has done throughout the course of his career, he’s made his teammates threats, with where you have to account for them. And when you have to account for others… it allows you to operate more effectively with less traffic and you’re able to do what you need to do for the team in terms of scoring.” —Lakers coach Darvin Ham

“Congratulations to LeBron on breaking one of the most hallowed records in all of sports by becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. It’s a towering achievement that speaks to his sustained excellence over 20 seasons in the league. And quite amazingly, LeBron continues to play at an elite level and his basketball history is still being written.” —NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

“[The NBA] gave the keys to the whole entire business to an 18-year-old kid and now he’s 38 years old and he’s still dominating. I don’t think we should be surprised. I think we should congratulate him and celebrate him as much as possible.” —Kyrie Irving

LeBron cements place in NBA, Lakers pantheon with all-time scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — Lakers fans were slow to warm to LeBron James when he came West in 2018.

Lakers nation was excited about the possibilities but held LeBron at arm’s length. Part of that was the shadow of Kobe Bryant — L.A. was his town, these were his fans, and LeBron felt like a mercenary by comparison. Was he coming to town to carry on the Lakers’ legacy, or to make movies and television shows? It didn’t help that in his first season the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs. A year later when LeBron put banner 17 in the rafters, Lakers fans had to watch it on television while isolated in their homes. There were no fans gathering in bars for watch parties, there could be no championship parade, and there wasn’t the same sense of community around the city.

Tuesday night that changed — Lakers fans fully embraced LeBron, and he cemented his place in NBA history and the Lakers’ pantheon.

With a free throw line turnaround jumper in the third quarter, LeBron passed the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, with 35,388 points (he would finish the night with a couple more.

“I write that ‘Man in the Arena’ on my shoe every single night, from Theodore Roosevelt. Tonight I actually felt like I was like sitting on top of the arena,” LeBron said. “When that shot went in and the roar from the crowd, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to feel that feeling again, unless it’s like a game-winning Finals shot…

“Everything just stopped and it gave me an opportunity just to kind of embrace it and look around. And seeing my family, seeing the fans, seeing my friends, it was, it was, it was pretty cool.”

As the shot fell through the net, LeBron raised his arms and Lakers fans roared as loud as this building has ever heard — it sounded with the echoes of the Shaq/Kobe era and Kobe’s wild 60-point final game. It was history made in purple and gold, it cemented LeBron in the hearts of Lakers fans.

Play was stopped and LeBron soon doubled over with the emotion of the moment. He was wiping away tears, while his sons sitting courtside were filming him on their phones (the way teenagers must in this era). LeBron, at age 38, has spent 20 seasons in the NBA — and a lifetime focused on conditioning and health — to reach this moment, and his emotions hit him when it happened.

Abdul-Jabbar was sitting courtside and was gracious, despite what had been a frosty relationship between the pair in the past. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar took part in a brief ceremony to mark the historic occasion. Then LeBron made an emotional address to the crowd — and dropped an F-bomb at the end, a sign of the emotions and lack of a filter in that moment.

By the middle of the first quarter, it started to feel as if this could be his night, that LeBron was going to to the 36 points he needed. The energy was high, but LeBron started the game 0-of-2 shooting and focusing more on what he has always done — making the right basketball play and dishing off when the defense overloads on him — much to the frustration of the crypto.com arena crowd urging on history. He eventually broke that streak four minutes in with a corner 3.

Soon after LeBron went into attack mode. He was able to get downhill, getting into the paint seemingly at will, and when the Thunder point-of-attack defenders started to play back to take the drive, he knocked down 3s. LeBron was showing off the full arsenal, hitting on post-ups and in transition. It also was a game starting to feel like a lot of Lakers games this season — it was going to take a heroic effort from LeBron just to keep the Lakers in the game (ultimately it wasn’t enough OKC won 133-130).

LeBron had 20 at the half, was scoring whenever he wanted, and told his sons he was getting the record this night.

“I felt pretty good, I got into a good rhythm, and once I get in a good rhythm, then I can make any shot on the floor,” LeBron said describing the moment he set the record. “You know, to break the record, I was able to get to a really good spot where I’m very comfortable with and get to one of my patented fadeaway shots.”

It fell. Saying he is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer is another pillar holding up his GOAT argument. It’s another chapter in a career that has been in the spotlight since high school but never felt off track. And it was a shot that forever cemented his legacy with West, Wilt, Shaq, Kobe, Magic and the pantheon of Lakers greats in the hearts of Lakers fans.

Watch LeBron James set NBA all-time scoring record

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LOS ANGELES — With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looking on from courtside, LeBron James hit a free-throw line turnaround jumper to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,388 points.

After the bucket, LeBron raised his hands to the air and exhorted the crowd, but soon the moment hit him and he doubled over with the emotion of the moment, his hands on his knees. The game was stopped for a few minutes to celebrate the moment, with Abdul-Jabbar and NBA Comissioner Adam Silver came out on the floor for a short ceremony. LeBron addressed the crowd before play resumed.

On a night it felt like the Lakers forgot to bring their defense home from the Grammys road trip, LeBron had to take on more of a scoring load to keep his team in the game. The Thunder were not playing great defense either, allowing LeBron to get downhill and score in the paint early. Once he got a few buckets to fall, the floodgates opened — and the Lakers crowd roared as loudly as this building has ever heard to urge him towards the record. A fanbase that has seen more than its share of greatness and history embraced the moment.

And they embraced the player, which was not always the case in Los Angeles. It was LeBron’s night and a very special moment of history.