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NBA Power Rankings: Toronto looks like best team in bubble so far

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Things in the bubble are getting interesting — young teams are taking it seriously, while some playoff-bound teams see it more as an extended exhibition season. That is leading to upsets and movement in our power rankings.

EDITORS NOTE: We are not including the eight teams not invited to the restart in the rankings the rest of this season.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (51-15, 2-1 in bubble, Last week No. 2). Of course, LeBron James has been good in the bubble restart — 19.3 points and seven assists a game — but Anthony Davis has been the early bubble MVP. He was a beast and feasted against Utah Monday, scoring 42 points with 16 rebounds despite being matched up against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert for much of the night. Davis led the Lakers to the win sealed them as the No. 1 seed in the West.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (48-18, 2-0, LW 4). The win over the Lakers was a reminder — Toronto is a contender (but I still have to rank the top-seeded Lakers higher, I’d take them in a series). The Raptors have been the best defensive team in the bubble with sharp rotations and smart schemes (just ask LeBron and AD). On the other end of the court they can get scoring from a variety of players: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet (he dropped 36 on the Heat), among others. Do not sleep on the Raptors. Possible second-round preview against the Celtics on Friday.

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (54-14, 1-3 in bubble, LW 1). The Bucks are treating the bubble games like the preseason, a slow warmup to when things matter. It hasn’t been all bad, Gianni Antetokounmpo has looked every bit the MVP when called upon, and the Bucks’ defense is locked in — they held James Harden to 5-of-14 shooting and 24 points, while the Rockets as a team shot 39.6%. But Mike Budenholzer sat Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton for the second half against the Nets (a loss), and they aren’t taking the won/loss record seriously. They are easing into the games that matter, something their record over the first 65 allows them to do.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (45-22, 1-2, LW 3). Both of the Clippers’ losses in the bubble have been close ones (Lakers opening night, the Suns on Devin Booker’s game-winner), and they have been shorthanded without Montrezl Harrell (they just got Lou Williams back on Tuesday). Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have played well, and the L.A. defense has been strong, but these Clippers feel like the ones we watched for most of the season, just waiting for them to get healthy and find some chemistry together. We’re still waiting for the switch to flip with this team.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (42-25, 2-1, LW 6). Milwaukee’s defensive strategy is “protect the paint at all costs, we’ll give up some threes” played into Houston’s hands and the Rockets launched 61 from beyond the arc. However, it was a stretch of good defense in crunch time of that game that turned heads — the Rockets have not been a great defensive team in the bubble (18th in net rating), but they’ve been good enough when it mattered. Danuel House and Ben McLemore have stepped up with Eric Gordon still out.

Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (41-25, 1-1, LW 7). OKC has played good defense in the bubble, and having Andre Roberson back in the rotation certainly helps with that (and is just a good story after he missed 900+ days due to injury). Despite the OT loss to Denver, the Thunder remain one of the best clutch teams in the league, which makes them a very dangerous first-round playoff opponent. Dennis Schroder is out of the bubble for the birth of his child but is expected to return.

Heat small icon 7. Heat (43-25, 2-1, LW 8). Knocking off Boston while Jimmy Butler had the day off was a message game — Miami is going to be a very tough out come the playoffs. The Heat have been a top-10 offense and defense so far in the bubble (small sample size, but a good sign). Bam Adebayo has more than just the best name in the league, he has become a real problem for opponents, dropping 22 on Denver and then having 21 points and 12 boards against Boston. He’s playing at an All-NBA level.

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (44-23, 1-2, LW 5). Despite a very off night from Jayson Tatum against the Bucks (he bounced back with 34 against Portland) and a minutes limit on Kemba Walker, the Boston offense has been good inside the bubble. The Celtics are 2-1 because they can’t get stops — a 117.9 defensive rating through three games. If the Celtics want to make noise in the playoffs, that is the side of the ball Brad Stevens and crew need to turn around.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-26, 3-0 LW 15). T.J. Warren is your didn’t-see-that-coming MVP of the bubble so far, scoring 119 points through three games and lifting the Pacers to that undefeated record in Orlando. Pair him with Victor Oladipo (who is playing… and collecting those checks) and Malcolm Brogdon and the Pacers have a formidable offense. Indy seems locked into the five seed and a likely first-round matchup with Miami. How will the Heat slow down Warren?

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (44-22, 1-1, LW 9). Denver has not been able to get everyone healthy, in the bubble and on the court together during the restart. Even as Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and the rest come back, it will take time to get them into game shape. Fortunately Denver has Bol Bol, who is an impressive playmaker on top of everything else.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (31-38, 2-1, LW 13). Jusuf Nurkic is back and his passing and screen setting has helped spark the Portland offense to be one of the best in the bubble — but he hasn’t helped the Blazer defense much. That’s a concern, but the Blazers are now within 1.5 games of Memphis and thinking about passing them for the eighth seed (and their fans are already jumping the gun, looking ahead to the Lakers). Portland is going to need a lot from Carmelo Anthony and Gary Trent Jr. to make a run to the postseason.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (40-27, 1-1, LW 11). Philadelphia’s defense has been terrible through the first two games in the bubble — including giving up 53 points to T.J. Warren — although that has been covered up somewhat by strong play from Joel Embiid and a Shake Milton game-winner against the Spurs. There’s a soft stretch of the schedule ahead where Philadelphia can find its rhythm. It needs to, right now the 76ers aren’t scaring anybody in the first round.

Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (41-29, 1-2, LW 10). Luka Doncic became the youngest player in NBA history to record a 30-20-10 triple-double (besting some guy named Oscar Robertson by a year and a half). Thanks to that the Mavericks finally pulled out a close-game win, having lost their first two bubble games to Houston and Phoenix in close ones. The Mavericks seem on track to get the Clippers in the first round, a tough matchup, but if Denver sneaks up to the two seed the Doncic will make the Mavs an upset favorite.

Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (42-25, 1-2, LW 12). Utah has struggled to score through the first three games of the restart, and that has been particularly true when their bench units are on the court (this is where not having Bojan Bogdanovic as a secondary playmaker hurts). Jordan Clarkson has put up points off the bench (although consistency is not his middle name), but after that the depth falls off. As it was during the season, Utah’s defense has been good but not great.

Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (29-37, 2-1, LW 19). The Spurs four-guard starting lineup — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, and Lonnie Walker IV — have the Spurs playing fast and winning games (including beating Memphis is a critical game if San Antonio is going to keep its playoff streak alive). Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are playing well off the bench, and for the first time in a couple of years the Spurs are a very entertaining team to watch.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (32-36, 2-1, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac is just brutal, a cornerstone of this franchise’s rebuild and he is likely out for all of next season as well. Orlando’s offense has been one of the best in the league at the restart (although soft defenses on the schedule helped with that) and it has them up to the seven seed in the East, where they will be able to avoid the Bucks in the first round (not that facing Toronto is much easier).

Suns small icon 17. Suns (29-39, 3-0, LW 20). The bubble Suns are undefeated and Devin Booker has the shot of the restart so far with his game-winning turnaround over Paul George to beat the Clippers. The biggest surprise in the bubble: How well Cam Johnson has played. He has taken a leap forward in Orlando (even with the rough game against the Clippers) and it’s a big boost for Phoenix.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (29-38, 1-2, LW 14). After dropping their first two games — and knowing they probably needed to win out to make the postseason — the Pelicans took Zion Williamson out of bubble wrap and found a way to beat the Grizzlies and keep their playoff hopes alive. The Pelicans have been good defensively but struggled on offense in the bubble, Williamson helps the offense but is still a defensive liability, that’s the end of the court he needs to improve upon. New Orleans’ schedule softens up from here.

Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (32-36, 0-3, LW 17). Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. for the rest of this season makes the Grizzlies much more vulnerable — they are not going to be able to fill his minutes with play nearly as good. Memphis has had a rough 0-3 start in the bubble, but all three losses are by single digits. They need to find some wins to keep the eighth seed but it won’t be easy with Utah, Oklahoma City, and Toronto the next three on the schedule.

Nets small icon 20. Nets (32-35, 2-1, LW 21). Caris LeVert has looked good as the focal point of the offense in the bubble — he had 34 points against Washington — although this is not going to be his role next season when Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are on the court. With the win over Washington the Nets are all but a mathematical lock to make the playoffs (likely as the eighth seed).

Kings small icon 21. Kings (28-39, 0-3, LW 18). The playoff drought that goes back to 2006 is not ending in the bubble, not after the Kings coughed up all momentum losing their first two games at the restart. Buddy Hield has looked off — out of shape in the eyes of some scouts — and has shot 32.6% overall and 27.6% from three in Orlando. His contract extension kicks in next season.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-43, 0-3, LW 22). The 0-3 Wizards could be on their way to an 0-8 bubble record, but the goal here was to get run for guys like Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. Both have played well but struggled once defenses started to focus more on them.

Report: Danuel House apologized to Rockets before leaving bubble

Rockets forward Danuel House
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Rockets forward Danuel House left the bubble after the NBA determined he “had a guest” – reportedly a female coronavirus tester – “in his hotel room over multiple hours on September 8 who was not authorized to be on campus.”

House reportedly maintained his innocence.

At least to NBA investigators.

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

From what I understand, House apologized to the entire team before exiting the bubble.

I wonder what exactly House apologized for. An apology isn’t necessarily an admission of wrongdoing. But this at least implies he came clean in the end.

Houston missed House, who had been playing very well off the bench. The Rockets split the first two games of their second-round series against the Lakers then dropped three straight without him.

Was that slide all because of House’s absence? No. Would Houston have beaten the Lakers with House? Probably not.

But the Rockets had a chance at a championship this year, and their odds shrunk sans House. With James Harden, Russell Westbrook and P.J. Tucker aging, these opportunities won’t keep coming around forever.

House – who has two more seasons left on his contract – might need to regain trust of this team. He’s not good enough to get preferential treatment. Role players must do their part to fit in.

Anthony Davis on sprained ankle: “Rolled it pretty bad… I’ll be fine”

anthony davis ankle
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Anthony Davis has been the best Laker throughout the playoffs, particularly in the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets. Davis averaged 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and the Los Angeles Lakers are outscoring the Nuggets by seven points per 100 possessions when Davis is on the floor.

Behind the play of Davis, the Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and now just have to do what the Jazz and Clippers couldn’t: Get one more win.

Which might be harder to do after Davis rolled his ankle midway through the fourth quarter Thursday night.

Davis stayed in the game after that, but could it impact him in Game 5?

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Laker coach Fran Vogel noted that with ankles it is often the next day when there is a sense of the severity.

“We’ll see how it responds overnight, responds to treatment,” Vogel said. “Yeah, there’s always concern with an injury like that. It was good for him to play through it, but we’ll see how he responds overnight.”

With the Lakers just one win from the NBA Finals, if Anthony Davis can walk he will play on Saturday in Game 5. The Lakers want to close this series out, they have seen what happens to teas that let the Nuggets hang around.

 

LeBron James speaks more on Breonna Taylor, power of Black women

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The decision not to prosecute the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor in her home has frustrated and angered NBA players. A number of them have spoken out, including Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, who played his college ball in Louisville, Taylor’s home town.

LeBron James also has spoken out, saying the walls of Taylor’s neighbors got more justice than she did.

Asked about it after the Lakers Game 4 win on Thursday, LeBron spoke about justice.

LeBron also had taken to social media to talk about the challenges Black women face.

When asked about that Tweet after Thursday’s game, James was more than willing to open up on the topic.

“You just look at the history of America and the disrespect that Black women have gotten for the last 400 years. You can’t turn a blind eye to that,” James said. “When I look at my household and see my daughter, who is five on her way to six, my wife and my mom, rest in peace my grandmother, so many Black women have done so many things for me. Seeing the sacrifices they made, especially my mom when I was growing up. They were disrespected along the way and it’s still like that today.

“In the case of Breonna Taylor’s case, it’s just shown once again that the walls of the neighbor is more important than her life.

“So not only did I want to acknowledge all the queens in this world, all the Black queens in this world, but the ones in my life, the personal ones, too. I just kind of had a moment yesterday. I mean, I have a lot of moments, but felt like it was important to let Black women know that you’re not alone. No matter the disrespect or what they may feel, don’t stop. Because that’s exactly what they want you guys to do. They want you guys to stop. They want you guys not to be as powerful as you guys are, not as strong as you guys are, as determined as you guys are. They want you all to be at bay. They want you to accept what’s going on. For sure, I won’t allow that.”

Powerful words from LeBron, who once again is using his platform to speak for a lot of others with these sentiments.

Second chance points, clutch LeBron defense earns Lakers win to go up 3-1 on Denver

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It’s a simple and obvious truth about any basketball game: The team that shoots better usually wins.

The Denver Nuggets shot 50.6% in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, including 10-of-28 from three (leading to a true shooting percentage of 62%). The Los Angeles Lakers shot 47.5% overall and 10-of-30 from three (a true shooting percentage of 59.7%). The Nuggets shot better Thursday night.

However, the better shooting team does not win when it gets crushed in another key area.

The Lakers grabbed the offensive rebound on 40.4% of their missed shots — including at three critical possessions in crunch time — and scored 25 second-chance points to Denver having six. Combine that with an aggressive and attacking LeBron James and Anthony Davis getting to the free-throw line 28 times — Denver as a team had 23 free throw attempts — and LeBron playing fantastic defense down the stretch on Jamal Murray, and a team can overcome a shooting deficit.

The result was the Lakers holding off a resilient Denver team to win 114-108, taking a commanding 3-1 series lead. Game 5 is Saturday night.

While the Nuggets came back from 3-1 down on the Jazz and Clippers, this series feels different — Denver may have run out of miracles. The way the Lakers closed out this game showed why the Lakers will not go the ways of Jazz and Clippers.

Once again, Davis was the best Laker on the floor, scoring 34 points on 10-of-15 shooting plus playing strong defense (his light rebounding numbers, five in this game, are overblown because the Lakers as a team are rebounding well).

But there are two key reasons the won the Lakers the game — two critical reasons they were able to hold off a Denver comeback when the Jazz and Clippers faltered in similar situations:

• The Lakers were dominant on the offensive glass, as mentioned above. They got a second chance on four out of 10 missed shots (the league average is about 26-27% of missed shots become offensive rebounds). Dwight Howard was doing it early, Davis was doing it late (plus Rajon Rondo had a critical one), but the Lakers getting a second chance to score and run off some clock down the stretch changed the game.

• LeBron James asked to guard Jamal Murray down the stretch — in the final five minutes of the game Murray was 0-of-3 shooting.

“LeBron asked for the assignment and obviously I granted it…” Lakers’ coach Frank Vogel said postgame. “Nothing was really working in terms of trying to slow him down until ‘Bron took that assignment.”

Vogel isn’t kidding. Murray was torching the Lakers, getting into the lane, and finding a way to finish — including maybe the best layup of the playoffs so far.

Murray finished with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, but LeBron held him mostly in check down the stretch (Murray did hit four free throws).

LeBron also had a strong game despite his jumper not falling because he hunted mismatches, throwing the Denver defense into a scramble, plus LeBron commands a double team when he gets the ball at the elbow or on the block and that opens things up.

Another key for Los Angeles was a great first half from Dwight Howard, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds in the first half while keeping the ball out of Jokic’s hands. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had 13 points.

Davis rolled his ankle in the fourth quarter, limped around on it, stayed in the game and made some plays down the stretch. A slowed Davis would be a reason for concern for the Lakers.

“My ankle feels fine,” Davis said postgame. “I’ve got tonight, tomorrow, before the game to get it back to where it is, but it’s good enough to play. I rolled it pretty bad, but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

If Denver is going to shock the world, it needs to keep Paul Millsap and his defense on the floor more, then the Nuggets need Gary Harris and other bench players to step up with big moments.

The Nuggets also need to find a way to slow LeBron and Davis. There may not be an answer to that question.