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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Clippers threatening Bucks, Lakers at the top

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While the Bucks and Lakers hold on to their top two spots, the Rockets and Clippers are climbing fast and look like threats (at least in the West).

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (52-9, Last Week No. 1). Brook Lopez is going to get some down-ballot Defensive Player of the Year votes — and he deserves them. Lopez has contested more shots than anyone in the NBA this season — 1,133 shot contests (82% of those are twos), which is 182 more than the next person on the list (Rudy Gobert). Lopez has played the best defense of his career and is a key reason the Bucks have the top-ranked defense in the NBA. That defense will get a good test Friday night when the Bucks travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (47-13, LW No. 2). The Lakers add 4.1 points per 100 possessions because of their transition play, tied for most in the league (with Toronto, stats via Cleaning The Glass). The Lakers are a force when they get out and run, however, that is muted somewhat because they have a middle-of-the-pack transition defense. The Lakers are an elite halfcourt defense but the Bucks will test their transition defense Friday night (no team tries to run as much as Milwaukee). Then comes a Sunday showcase game against the healthy and hot Clippers.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (39-21, LW 4). In November, Russell Westbrook took 28.3% of his shots from three and 36.4% at the rim, and he struggled with his shot. In his last 10 games, just 9.4% of his shots are threes while more than half (50.6%) of his shots came at the rim — and Westbrook is thriving. The Rockets have gotten him chances to play downhill and attack closer to the rim, using him in snug pick-and-rolls and tighter spaces with their small ball lineups. It has worked brilliantly. This is one of the best stretches of basketball in Westbrook’s career.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (42-19, LW 8). Finally healthy and fully loaded, the Clippers have won five in a row and looked like a force of nature the past week. As in, best team in the NBA kind of force of nature. Their offense has been the best in the NBA over the past five games since everyone got in the lineup, and the defense has locked teams down (fifth-best in the league in the last five, although that got a little skewed by Shake Milton’s hot hand). Speaking of defense: Montrezl Harrell leads the NBA in charges drawn this season with 30. Doc Rivers said in the Clippers system they see a charge drawn the same way as a blocked shot and Harrell has taken that to heart.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (41-19, LW 5). Kemba Walker returned Tuesday night and had 21 points on 23 minutes, but a minutes limit had him on the bench down the stretch as the Celtics blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead and fell to the Nets in Boston’s worst loss of the season. Also not on the court at the end of that was was Jayson Tatum, due to illness, but the numbers are in from Tatum’s breakout February: 30.7 points a game on a 63.7 true shooting percentage, plus 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists a night.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (43-18, LW 3). Toronto just can’t get healthy — right as Norman Powell returns, Fred Van Vleet and Serge Ibaka head to the bench injured (joining Marc Gasol, who has been out since January). Toronto is up one game in the loss column over Boston for the two seed in the East, and their schedules are basically even in terms of difficulty the rest of the way. Toronto needs to get healthy and get some wins.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (41-20, LW 7). Denver had an impressive defensive start to the season, but the blowout loss to the Clippers last Friday night was a reminder how much they have faded on that end of the court — the Nuggets are 20th in the league in defense over their last 10 games. This may be the biggest question the Nuggets face heading into the postseason: Can they get enough stops when it matters. Denver has 22 games to get their defensive groove back from November.

Mavericks small icon 8. Mavericks (37-25, LW 10). As should have been expected coming off an ACL injury, it took a while for Kristaps Porzingis to get his legs back under him. In November he averaged 15.8 points per game on 38.7 percent shooting overall and he made 2.1 threes a game. Fast forward to February where he averaged 25.2 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting and 3.7 made threes a game (on 39.8 percent shooting from deep). Fans and some pundits were impatient, but Porzingis looks like the cornerstone Dallas thought he would be.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (39-22, LW 12). Back in November, Miami had a defensive rating of 105, eighth-best in the NBA. Since then, the Heat defense has gotten a little worse each month, culminating in a February defensive rating of 113.7, a bottom 10 in the league ranking (hat tip to our old friend Rob Mahoney of The Ringer for pointing that out). Miami’s defense was spectacular for a night in the upset of Milwaukee this week, and the team is on a three-game winning streak. The defense will get tested by Zion and New Orleans on Friday night.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (37-24, LW 6). Dennis Schroder is one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting 38 percent from three. It helps that he is part of the powerful three-guard lineup with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that has drawn a lot of attention, and it helps that the Clippers’ two stars will split the vote, but Schroder deserves to be at the front of that race. Reality hit the Thunder hard the last two games when the Bucks — in a 47-point blowout — and the Clippers handled them with relative ease.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (37-24, LW 13). While Jeremy Lamb’s torn ACL is painful news, Indiana has continued to roll of late, having won four in a row and 6-of-7. Part of the spark there is Victor Oladipo looking a little better each game (he had 19 points against Cleveland), at least until a right knee flare up has him out at least a game and maybe more. The Pacers have won two in a row to start 5-of-6 on the road, but things get tougher with the Bucks, Mavs, and 76ers coming up.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (37-25, LW 9). Philadelphia made a Christmas Day statement beating Milwaukee 121-109, improving to 23-10. Since that they are 14-15 with a -2.1 net rating, the defense has been solid but held back by a 24th-ranked offense (Shake Milton can only bail them out so much). That’s not getting better in the short term with Joel Embiid still out, and Ben Simmons is going to be out “a while” due to his lower back nerve issue, according to coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have slid back to sixth in the East, but the top priority is getting healthy before the playoffs.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (38-22, LW 11). The Jazz have the worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break. That is some small sample size theater of just six games, but dead last is not good. Donovan Mitchell was single-handedly trying to cover that up scoring 30+ points in four straight games (until that streak ended Monday because he didn’t need to do that to beat the Cavs), but the Jazz need to get the defense fixed. A month ago I would have said Rudy Gobert is on his way to another DPOY award, but he and the Jazz have not looked great defensively of late and that door is now open for others to walk through.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (30-31, LW 17). Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Grizzlies a 13% chance of making the playoffs, that despite their three-game lead for the eight seed with 21 games to play (give or take, depending on the team). That’s because four teams — the Kings, Trail Blazers, Spurs, and Pelicans — are within four games of the Grizzlies, and every one of them has an easier schedule than Memphis. That’s why the Grizzlies upset of the Lakers was so critical, it was an unexpected win. It likely takes about 40 wins to get the last playoff spot, which means the Grizzlies need to go 10-11 the rest of the way. Do that and there’s no question Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year (there probably isn’t anyway).

Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (26-35, LW 14). There are a lot of fans around the league (and in executive offices at ESPN/TNT) who want the Pelicans to grab the eight seed and face the Lakers in the first round, which is why a loss like Tuesday’s to a struggling Minnesota team is a big setback. Now New Orleans has 5-of-6 on the road and against some quality teams such as the Mavericks and Clippers. That soft schedule everyone talks about with the Pels is the final dozen games or so of the season but they have to stay afloat until then to have a chance.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (27-34, LW 16). Steve Clifford finds ways to make sure his team can compete, and throw in Aaron Gordon’s first career triple-double (against Minnesota) and this team looks like it can avoid Milwaukee in the first round. There is a 99% chance the Magic make the playoffs for the second straight year (according to fivethirtyeight.com) but that doesn’t negate the “what kind of team are they trying to build?” questions that the team will face this summer.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (27-33, LW 15). Tuesday night’s comeback win against the Heat — sparked by Caris LeVert’s 51 — was the best win of the season for Brooklyn. That took some of the sting out of a recent four-game losing streak where the Nets had a chance to win three of those games late and fell short. Brooklyn is stumbling toward the finish line this season, but its eyes were always on next season anyway.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (25-37, LW 18). Sacramento is surging, having won 6-of-7 to move within three games of the Grizzlies and ending the longest playoff drought in the NBA. The Kings have a top-10 offense and defense, leading to a +6.2 net rating, since the All-Star break. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Kings a 15% chance of making the postseason, which is a lot better than things looked a couple of weeks ago.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (27-35, LW 19). Damian Lillard is set to return to the lineup on Wednesday night after missing six games with a strained groin (only six because it happened just before the All-Star break). Portland went 2-4 in those games but remained within the striking distance of the Grizzlies and the playoffs if they got hot — now Lillard needs to light this fire (fivethirtyeight.com gives Portland a 19% chance of making the playoffs and taking on the Lakers in the first round).

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (26-34, LW 21). Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Spurs just a 3% chance to come out of the pack and make the playoffs, maybe what they need is to have Tim Duncan as acting coach for more games, he is undefeated after all. Part of the reason for the pessimism around the Spurs chances is they have lost big man Jokob Poeltl for a few weeks to a month due to a right MCL sprain.

Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (22-38, LW 22). Bradley Beal is starting to get the James Harden treatment late in games, with teams throwing early double-teams at him to get the ball out of his hands and dare anyone else on the roster to beat them. The reason is obvious: Beal is red hot, averaging 36.2 points per game in February. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Wizards a 10% chance of making the playoffs, but to get there they are going to need some help from Brooklyn (or Orland) coming back to the pack.

Suns small icon 22. Suns (24-38, LW 20). The Suns have lost Kelly Oubre Jr., likely for the season, following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and after that the Suns have lost four in a row. That has all but killed the dreams of climbing up into the playoffs in Phoenix. One of those losses was at home to the Warriors (with both Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton on the court), the kind of loss teams in a tight playoff race cannot afford.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (20-42, LW 24). Great note from James Edwards III over at the Athletic: Tony Snell is 28-of-28 at the free throw line this season, only the second player in league history to have more than 25 attempts in a season without a miss. If he can get over 30 attempts without a miss, he will set a new NBA record for the most free throws in a season without a miss. Hopefully all the attention on this streak doesn’t jinx it.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (21-40, LW 23). Coby White continues to be red hot (even though his 30+ point a game streak ended) and it’s possible Lauri Markkanen will be back soon from his pelvis injury. None of that, however, as Bulls fans as pumped as the rumors there could be front office changes this summer. Gar Forman appears to be on the way out, but it looks like John Paxson will remain on as president. How much power the new GM has — and what it means for coach Jim Boylen’s future — will be something to watch.

Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (19-42, LW 28). The Knicks have had a couple of nice, promising wins this week: They beat the Bulls behind Mitchell Robinson‘s 23 points and 10 rebounds; then R.J. Barrett went off for 27 in an upset win against Houston. Unfortunately, nobody is talking about that because Knicks management got in a public pissing match with Spike Lee that the Knicks could not win. The Knicks need to keep their heads down and fix the on-court product, but they’ve needed to do that for years and here we are.

Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (21-40, LW 25). Devonte' Graham still has his moments, like the nine points in the fourth quarter against Toronto to spark an upset win last Friday, but the consistency of his game is not there. Charlotte remains one of the luckiest teams in the NBA this season, with the net rating of a 17-win team, but they have snuck out some close ones to boost that total.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (19-44, LW 26). Clint Capela has been approved for contact, but is at least two weeks away from stepping on the court — Atlanta still wants to see that this season, to jump start the Trae Young/Capela chemistry. In their last five games the Hawks have the third worst defense in the league, yet play at the fourth fastest pace, which means a lot of opponent points. Atlanta is 2-3 in those games.

28. Timberwolves (18-42, LW 29). They have turbocharged the offense since the All-Star break, playing at a nearly 108 possessions a game pace. In those games, 17.5% of their plays have started in transition, up from a middle-of-the-pack 14.3% for the season. The Timberwolves also have the second worst defense in the league since the break, meaning with the pace they are giving up a lot of points.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-44, LW 27). J.B. Bickerstaff started with a 3-1 record as the Cavaliers coach, but three straight losses have changed that dynamic (although they were competitive in a couple of those). Cleveland is going to have a high pick in a guard-heavy draft coming up this June, and after watching the Darius Garland/Collin Sexton backcourt for a season, this franchise has to take the best guy on the board regardless of position. There is no Luka or Zion on this roster, the Cavs need talent regardless of position.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (14-48 LW 30). Stephen Curry should return to the court this week, and even with the rust that adds a reason to watch this team play. Steve Kerr and the Warriors staff need to start assessing how Curry fits with Andrew Wiggins, and also with Eric Paschall (who could set some picks, roll, and possibly have some chemistry with Curry). The Warriors aren’t giving up the odds of a high pick with a couple more wins, and just having Curry back on the court will be good for the psyche of the team.

Watch Tom Brady tell Charles Barkley to “take a suck of that” after he holes fairway shot

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It was the highlight of an entertaining — if not always pretty — afternoon of live golf, raising money for charity.

Tampa Bay Bay Buccanneers quarterback Tom Brady (it’s so weird to type that) was on his fourth shot on the par-5 7th hole at the Medalist Golf Club. Brady had a rough front nine to that point, and commentator Charles Barkley decided to up the trash talk (as if Barkley should talk about someone else’s golf game).

“How many shots do you want? Come on, I’m going to give you some shots man, I want some of you,” Barkley said.

“Don’t worry, it ain’t over yet,” Brady countered as he walked up to his fourth shot, 130 yards from the pin. “I think you just made him mad, Chuck,” host Brian Anderson said. “No, he can take a joke,” Barkley replied. Then this happened.

Brady earned that trash talk.

It wasn’t the only great exchange between the two; they had some fun on an earlier on a par 3 when Barkley bet Brady couldn’t get it on the green.

Increasing buzz teams well out of playoffs will not come to Orlando for games

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The Golden State Warriors have been public about it, they expect their season to be over. Golden State is far from alone, multiple teams well out of the playoff picture have questioned the expense and risk-to-reward ratio of coming back to play a handful of regular season games without fans in Orlando.

More and more, the buzz has been the NBA league office sees things the same way. I am not the only reporter hearing this: Steve Popper of Newsday wrote a column saying there was no reason to invite all 30 teams to the bubble city and the USA Today’s well-connected Jeff Zillgett added this:

This is where we throw in the caveat: There are no hard-and-fast plans from the NBA yet and every option is still being considered. One lesson Adam Silver took from David Stern was not to make a decision until you have to, and Silver is going to absorb more information in the coming weeks — such as from the recent GM survey — before making his call.

That said, the league seems to be coalescing around a general plan, which includes camps starting in mid-June and games in mid-July in Orlando.

For the bottom three to five teams in each conference, there is little motivation to head to Orlando for the bubble. It’s an expense to the owner with no gate revenue coming in, teams want to protect their NBA Draft Lottery status, and the Warriors don’t want to risk injury to Stephen Curry — or the Timberwolves to Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Hawks to Trae Young — for a handful of meaningless games.

The league is considering a play-in tournament for the final seed or seeds in each conference (there are a few format options on the table, it was part of the GM survey). That would bring the top 10 or 12 seeds from each conference to the bubble, depending upon the format, and they would play a handful of games to determine which teams are in the playoffs (and face the top seeds).

Either way, that would leave the three or five teams with the worst records in each conference home. Which is the smart thing to do, there’s no reason to add risk to the bubble for a handful of meaningless games.

Eight-year NBA veteran Jon Leuer announces retirement

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Jon Leuer is only age 31, but the big man has battled ankle and other injuries in recent seasons, playing in only 49 games over the past three seasons. Last July, the Pistons traded him to the Bucks in a salary dump, and Milwaukee quickly waived him. Leuer struggled to get healthy and did not catch on with another team.

Sunday he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.

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I love the game of basketball. I still want to play, but I know deep down it’s not the right decision for my health anymore. The past 3 years I’ve dealt with a number of injuries, including 2 that kept me out this whole season. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m truly at peace with my decision to officially retire. As disappointing as these injuries have been, I’m still thankful for every moment I spent playing the game. Basketball has been the most amazing journey of my life. It’s taken me places I only could’ve dreamed about as a kid. The relationships it brought me mean more than anything. I’ve been able to connect with people from all walks of life and forged lifelong bonds with many of them. What this game has brought me stretches way beyond basketball. I’m grateful for this incredible ride and everyone who helped me along the way. 🙏🏼🙌🏼✌🏼

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Leuer — a second-round pick out of Wisconsin for the Bucks in 2011 — averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Pistons in the 2016-17 season, and for the years at the peak of his career he was a quality rotational big man teams could trust, either off the bench or as a spot starter.

Over the course of his career he played for the Bucks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pistons. He earned more than $37 million in salary, most of it from a three-year contract the Pistons gave him in 2016. It was not long after his body started to betray him.

Leuer has been riding out the quarantine in Minnesota is wife Keegan (NFL coach Brian Billick’s daughter) and the couple is donating thousands of meals a week to the needy in that community.

 

New York Governor clears path for Knicks, Nets to open facilities for workouts

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As of today, 19 NBA teams have their practice facilities open for players to come in for individual workouts, but 11 have yet to open the doors. Some it’s the decision of the team, some it’s that the municipality or state had not allowed it.

The Knicks and Nets — in the heart of New York, the part of the nation hardest hit by COVID-19 — are two of those teams whose facilities are closed. However, on Sunday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said they could open the door for practice.

“I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena — do it! Do it!” Cuomo said at his press conference. “Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

While the teams have not formally announced anything yet, it is likely at least the Nets will open soon for the players still in market to workout (the majority of players from the New York teams went home to other parts of the country). The Knicks, well out of the playoff picture, may be much slower to open their facilities back up.

When they happen, the workouts come with considerable restrictions: one player and one coach at each basket, the coach is wearing gloves and masks, the balls and gym equipment are sanitized, and much more.

One part of a potential plan for the NBA to return to play called for a couple of weeks of a training camp at the team facilities, followed by 14 days of a quarantined training camp in Orlando at the bubble site. Multiple teams reached out to the league about doing their entire training camp in Orlando to avoid having players quarantine twice (once when the player reports back to market, once when the team goes to the bubble city).