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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.

Not one NBA equipment manager packed light for NBA restart

NBA equipment manager
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Rob Pimental spent a good amount of time thinking about everything the Miami Heat would need for what could be a three-month trip to Walt Disney World.

He is the Heat equipment manager. Every jersey, sock, sneaker, whatever the team needs, it’s his responsibility to have it ready. So, when it came time to figure out what was getting packed for Disney, Pimental came to a realization.

“Pretty much everything,” said Pimental, who confessed to having a few sleepless nights of worrying. “I’m the type of guy who wants everything on hand, so I literally packed up my entire equipment room and brought it with me.”

He’s not alone.

All 22 teams in the NBA restart had to pack more than ever, for a road trip like none other. Every team is assured of spending at least five weeks at Disney, and some could be there for three months. The challenges for players and coaches are obvious, but the challenge for equipment managers — among the unsung heroes of this restart plan — aren’t anywhere near as visible to those watching games from afar.

“This is what equipment managers were built for, honestly,” Orlando Magic equipment manager Jacob Diamond said. “We have some of the smartest guys around the league that do what I do and at the end of the day, for us, it’s really no job too big, no job too small. Our coaches are relying on us, our players, and this is history right here. So, it’s kind of cool to be a part of it — even though it’s extra work.”

For this trip, Diamond has a two-room suite in the hotel that the Magic are calling home.

It’s not a perk. He needed the space.

Luggage is lined up around all four walls, with more bags in the middle of the room, along with a clothes rack, a large trunk and a bunch of bright blue bags with the Magic logo stacked over by the sliding door that leads to the balcony. He knows the contents of each, where every item is, so if Nikola Vucevic needs a certain pair of socks or Aaron Gordon needs a certain type of compression gear, Diamond finds it in a flash.

“I made sure I overpacked for this rather than underpacked,” Diamond said. “It’s not so easy to have things sent here. I’d rather have things here, ready to go, so here we are.”

Toronto Raptors equipment manager Paul Elliott prides himself on typically taking only what he needs. He tends to take 45 bags on a standard road trip; by NBA standards, that is packing light.

Not this time. For this trip, Elliott’s count was 176 bags.

And while most teams only had to move their operation once — from their home facility to Disney — Elliott had to pack the Raptors up twice, first from Toronto to their pre-camp workouts at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, and then again to get the stuff up to Disney.

“I looked at it as what they were going to take for a two-week Western road trip, took what I would usually pack for that, and kind of quadrupled it,” Elliott said. “I just had to make sure I had enough options for these guys to accommodate them when they need. I just want to be prepared.”

More gear is on the way.

By the time games start, the 22 teams will have more than 4,000 jerseys between them. Every team brought three sets of uniforms — typically, two jerseys each for each player. Then the decision was made to give players at Disney the opportunity to wear jerseys with a message raising awareness about social injustice and racial inequality, and those huge shipments are expected to arrive in the next few days.

When Elliott started unloading the Raptors’ 176 bags, several staff members who aren’t usually tasked with helping with equipment ran to his aid. More bags will be going back to Toronto when the season ends; Elliott had his assistant send him empty ones to accommodate the new jerseys.

“We’ve got the greatest staff for that sort of thing,” Elliott said. “Nobody’s above anything. They just want to make sure it’s done properly.”

Washington coach Scott Brooks said the Wizards are using a similar everybody-must-help approach, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insisted his team do the same.

“There’s an absolute understanding that this is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Spoelstra said. “And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything — not just for equipment managers, but everybody. … We’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Days will be long for equipment managers. Each team only sent one; it’s not unusual for two equipment personnel to travel, but that wasn’t possible on this trip because of the restrictions on the amount of people who can be in the NBA bubble.

Extra work will add up as well. After practices or games, equipment managers will have to load up the sweaty gear, take it back to the hotel, then call a shuttle to pick them up and take them to the laundry facility built for the restart — 66 washers and 66 dryers, all lined up inside what once was a batting cage at the Atlanta Braves’ former spring training complex.

There’s also a code among the equipment managers. While the 22 teams will be trying to beat each other, the equipment staffs are working together and helping one another where possible.

“We all understand each other’s daily battles,” Diamond said, “because we share the same ones.”

The real comforts of home are gone for the next several weeks. The trick, Pimental said, is making sure players don’t have to worry about getting what they need.

“It’s something we’ve never done before,” Pimental said. “But we’ll make it work.”

Joakim Noah says focus of Achilles recovery was to make Clippers roster

Joakim Noah Clippers
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Joakim Noahlike Kobe Bryant and so many athletes before them — didn’t want an injury to define how his career would end.

Noah said he injured his Achilles back in September and the focus of his rehab is the chance he has now with the Clippers.

“You know, in September, I had a freak accident and cut my Achilles, and you know, I told myself that that’s just not how I wanted to end my career,” Noah said on a conference call with reporters Saturday.

“So you know, the day after the surgery, I was in the gym working out with the hope of making this team. I knew that if I didn’t keep training and if I got a call from the Clippers and I wasn’t ready, I knew I would have regrets for the rest of my life. So I kept training, and to be in this position right now, I feel very fortunate to be in this position, being with God, great players, being in a position to win a championship, it’s not something that I take for granted.”

Joakim Noah added he was supposed to have a workout with the Clippers before the season, but the injury ended that.

“I was supposed to work out with them in September right before the season started. I was ready. I was really excited for the opportunity, and then, you know, just from up with one minute to the next, I cut my Achilles.

“So to be back in this position and to have the confidence from the organization… It’s just a class organization. I just feel like very, very blessed to be in this position right now.”

Noah provides depth and versatility behind an established Los Angeles frontcourt, something needed with the compacted schedule in the Orlando NBA restart. The Clippers start Ivica Zubac, a more traditional center, then bring potential Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell off the bench. Harrell brings his energy, 18.7 points and 7.1 rebounds a night, great pick-and-roll chemistry with Lou Williams, plus improved defense to the mix.

The Clippers are counting on the Noah from the second half of last season, where he was solid coming off the bench in Memphis playing quality defense plus scoring 7.1 points per game. Noah could even play himself into a Clipper contract for next season (depending on what happens with Harrell in free agency this offseason).

For now, Noah is just happy to be back on the court.

Philadelphia’s Ryan Broekhoff not in Orlando after wife tests positive

Ryan Broekhoff Philadelphia
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Ryan Broekhoff, who never quite found a spot in the Dallas rotation, got a real opportunity when Philadelphia signed him as a substitute player for the restart in Orlando.

Except Broekhoff hasn’t gotten a chance to take advantage of the opportunity because there are things more important than basketball.

Broekhoff explained in a Tweet that his wife tested positive for the coronavirus and family has been his priority. As it should be.

Philly signed Broekhoff because the team needs shooting, and what he does is take and make threes — 51 of his 59 shot attempts in Dallas this season were from three (for his career 77.8% of his shot attempts are from deed) and he hit 40.3% of them.

Broekhoff was always going to struggle to find minutes with the Sixers. Philly is expected to start Shake Milton and Josh Richardson on the wing in Orlando, and coming off the bench behind them is Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Glenn Robinson III, and Alec Burks.

Kawhi Leonard arrives in Orlando, Nikola Jokic expected soon

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The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard has arrived in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is not far behind him.

They are two of the biggest name players who were delayed arriving in Orlando, but for them the delays were short.

“Kawhi, he is here, he is going through the protocol,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Saturday, adding the two-time Finals MVP arrived Friday night and is in the midst of the two-day/two-test quarantine all players and staff went through. If things go smoothly, he should be practicing with the team by Monday. Leonard’s arrival was delayed for “personal reasons” (and Leonard doesn’t open up much about his personal life).

Jokic tested positive for the coronavirus back in his native Serbia, which delayed his arrival stateside (where there were more tests and quarantine time). Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Jokic should arrive soon.

That leaves the two Houston stars — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — as the biggest names not yet in Orlando. Both are expected to arrive in the coming days. The Rockets have resumed practice without him.