NBA Power Rankings: Toronto return trip to Finals? It could happen.

NBA Power Rankings
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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This is the penultimate NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings (we’ll have one next week before the playoffs start) and we have a new No. 1 in Toronto. Once again this ranking only covers the 22 teams invited to the NBA restart in Orlando.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (51-19, 5-1 in the bubble, Last Week No. 2). Toronto has locked up the two seed in the East and it has done that with its defense — the Raptors are the best defense at the restart, allowing less than a point per possession. The offense has been good enough but not championship level (second worst in the bubble, ahead of only the Lakers) and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and company must lift that up if the Raptors are serious about a repeat.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-16, 3-4, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be sitting out the Bucks final seeding game after headbutting Moe Wagner (the suspension is coming). It doesn’t really matter, the Bucks have the No. 1 seed locked up. The Bucks played it slow with the ramp up through the restart, but now they are healthy (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton are with the team) and we will see if the strategy worked.

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (52-18, 3-4, Last week No. 1). The Laker offense has woken up in flashes — a 137.8 offensive rating against the Nuggets (complete with a Kyle Kuzma game-winner), or watching Anthony Davis drop 42 on the Jazz. But the offense has stumbled through other games and LeBron James admitted he is still adapting to playing without fans in the building. It’s all a small sample size and doesn’t matter because the Lakers are the No. 1 seed, but if they face the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard in the first round, they need to be better.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-23, 5-2, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, and that includes a 22-point thumping of the Raptors that should be a confidence booster heading into the playoffs. Versatile teams make deep playoff runs, and a guard/wing rotation with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — is exactly that. Boston looks like a real threat in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (47-23, 3-3, LW 4). Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble and going through quarantine, which means Doc Rivers may have a full roster of players for the Clippers final seeding game (Friday, against Oklahoma City, a game that could have seeding implications on the West) and into the playoffs. The Clippers shooters need to find their legs and there are chemistry questions because this team hasn’t played together, but they are still a title contender.

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (44-26, 4-2, LW 5). Houston has the fourth best defense in the bubble. Let that sink in. If a team with James Harden and other bombers from three (plus Russell Westbrook) is also defending at a high level, then you are looking at a title contender. Whether they can defend like that against a taller team for seven games remains to be seen, but Houston’s defense has looked legitimate in the bubble.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (44-27, 3-3, LW 7). Jimmy Butler got in T.J. Warren’s face, shut down the leading scorer in the bubble, and the Heat got a statement win against the Pacers, their likely first-round opponent. Butler has been a perfect fit into the Heat culture and his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs could see Miami challenging the presumptive power in the East in the second round of the playoffs.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (43-28, 4-2 LW 9). T.J. Warren is a lock for the All-restart team, his scoring leap has been one of the wonders of the bubble. But, Jimmy Butler holding Warren to a 5-of-14 shooting night this week is concerning, mostly because come the playoffs the good teams can always take away (or at least slow down) offensive option Plan A, and it’s a working Plan B (and C and D) that gets teams deep into the postseason. Do the Pacers have that with Victor Oladipo right now?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (43-27, 3-3, LW 6). Their seeding may come down to the final day of “seeding games” on Friday when Chris Paul takes on his former team, the Clippers. It’s a potential playoff matchup with another former CP3 team, the Rockets, that has NBA fans (and television network executives) buzzing. That would be fun to watch, and the series could turn on how many minutes (and how well) the recently returned Andre Roberson could cover James Harden a game.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (34-39, 5-2, LW 11). Damian Lillard is on a tear — 112 points last two games on 55% shooting — that has put the Trail Blazers in the drivers’ seat for a return to the playoffs. Win on Thursday and Portland is the eighth seed, meaning they only need to win one-of-two play-in games and they will be back in the postseason (against the Lakers in the first round). Gary Trent Jr. has been a breakout star for the Blazers in the bubble.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (46-25, 3-3, LW 10). Jamal Murray was back on the court over the weekend and instantly was hitting big shots and showing how important he is for the offense. Combined with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets offense has looked good (top 10 in the bubble). However, Denver has the worst defense in the NBA restart and that makes it very vulnerable to a first-round upset (regardless of who the Nuggets face, and that is still up in the air).

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (33-39, 7-0, LW 17). BREAK UP THE SUNS! Phoenix was an afterthought in the West heading into restart but a 7-0 record has it on the brink of getting into the West play-in tournament. The Suns need to beat the Mavericks and get some help (a Memphis or Portland loss), but even being in this position is impressive. Devin Booker has made his case for bubble MVP.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (43-31, 3-4, LW 13). Luka Doncic has been magical in the bubble, but the Dallas defense has been terrible (third worst in the bubble) and because of that the Mavericks don’t scare anyone heading into the playoffs. It’s not written in ink yet, but a first-round matchup with the Clippers seems destined (and that bad wing defense by Dallas makes that a brutal matchup for them).

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (32-38, 5-2, LW 15). The playoff streak of 22 years is going to need a lot of help to stay alive. The Spurs need to beat the Jazz on Thursday (and Utah is playing for seeding) then get losses from two of the Grizzlies, Blazers, and Suns. Even if the streak dies, the bubble has been another testament to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich. He overhauled the LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan system they played all season to go with a fast-paced four-guard/wing lineup that has been fun to watch and won games. Derrick White has been one of the breakout stars of the bubble.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (42-29, 3-3, LW 12). No Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is expected to be back for the playoffs (and maybe the final seeding game)but will be coming off a tweaked ankle. The 76ers will almost certainly face the Celtics in the first round. Al Horford has played well in the restart, and if Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Josh Richardson and others can find chemistry together this is still a good defensive team. But they don’t scare Boston right now.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (43-28, 2-4, LW 14). The Jazz have struggled with critical aspects of what they want to do — defend the paint, hit threes, much more — during the restart, but have shown flashes of it coming together in recent games (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have both had strong games). Still, this was a team all about elite defense the past two seasons, but in the bubble their defense has been average and the offense has not been good enough to carry the load. If the defense doesn’t improve (particularly on the perimeter) it doesn’t matter who they play.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (35-36, 5-2, LW 20). It was a rag-tag roster thrown together late because of all the players the Nets lost, but Jacque Vaughn coached this team to wins over the Bucks, Kings and Clippers, and the Nets have locked down the seven seed (avoiding the Bucks in the first round… not that Toronto is a pushover). Chris LeVert and Jarrett Allen have shown why they should get minutes next season on a deeper Nets roster. Joe Harris has shown why the Nets need to back up the Brinks truck and re-sign him this summer.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (32-40, 2-5, LW 16). Orlando struggled in a run of games against some of the better teams in the East, and that has locked them into the eighth seed — meaning they will face the Bucks in the first round without Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon. Good luck with that. If you’re a Magic fan looking for a bright side… Gary Clark has shown some flashes. That’s all we got.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (33-39, 1-6, LW 19). Ja Morant shot a respectable 34.3% from three for the season, but that has fallen to 25% in the bubble and its one of the things holding the Memphis offense back (no Jaren Jackson Jr. hurts, too). Despite all that, the Grizzlies can advance to the play-in game if they can find a way to knock off the Bucks on Thursday (Milwaukee may be without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension for headbutting Moe Wagner).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-41, 2-5, LW 21). Sacramento’s playoff drought is now up to 14 seasons, the second longest in NBA history. Whatever is happening on the court, the Kings have been getting it right in the community and that includes their latest effort, “Rally the Vote,” which is working with 19 other professional sports teams to encourage people to register and vote.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-41, 2-5, LW 18). The rumors about Alvin Gentry’s job status have been around for a while and picked up a lot of momentum after the Pelicans entered the restart with so much hype, only to have the pieces not quite fit together (and Zion Williamson not be fully available at the start, although that was beyond Gentry’s control). Would a strong Xs and O’s coach help put the talent of the Pelicans in better positions? Would New Orleans ownership okay a coaching change during a pandemic when there is a short offseason and financial losses are piling up? It’s worth watching.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-47, 0-7, LW 22). The Wizards were always a longshot for the playoffs, the hope was to find some young guys who might fit well in a rotation next to John Wall and Bradley Beal next season. Washington found a couple, Troy Brown Jr. and big man Thomas Bryant have played well in the restart. They deserve a longer look next season as the Wizards try to put a playoff-level team on the court and then keep it healthy.

Anunoby hottest name at trade deadline… or would be if Raptors decide to trade him

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Knicks are standing at the front of the line, but if the door opens Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans will be among the teams trying to push their way through the door.

O.G. Anunoby trade rumors are maybe the hottest topic around the league in the run-up to the trade deadline, something sources have told NBC Sports but is not breaking news at this point, recent reporting by both Zach Lowe of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have detailed exactly that. Lowe said on his podcast that the “entire league” is interested in the young wing. Teams are calling Massai Ujiri about Anunoby, but the Raptors have yet to tip their hand about whether they will be sellers at the deadline, stand pat, or become buyers.

Anunoby has not publicly or privately asked for a trade, but would “embrace a change of scenery” Haynes said on the podcast (it should be noted there are similar rumblings about a number of dispirited Raptors this season, the losing has worn on them). Haynes added that part of the motivation for the Grizzlies and Pelicans in this case is to keep the other team from landing him.

The Knicks are reportedly offering three first-round picks for Anunoby, and while it’s up for debate which of the seven first-round picks they control are in the mix — and how protected they are — that is now the floor for an offer to interest the Raptors. Lowe said Anunoby could draw a Donovan Mitchellsized trade package.

There are obvious reasons the league is calling, Anunoby is an All-Defensive Team level wing averaging 16.9 points per game, can finish at the rim and hit threes. It doesn’t hurt that he is just 25 and is locked in next season at $18.6 million.

Everybody wants to talk about Anunoby, but it’s all moot until Ujiri and the Raptors do.

Devin Booker reportedly could return to Suns next week

Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
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The Phoenix Suns are 9-13 since Devin Booker went out with a left groin strain (which counts a few games before, but does not include, his attempted Christmas Day comeback, which lasted all of four minutes in a Suns loss). While they have bounced back lately as Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson returned, Phoenix still slid down to eighth in the standings.

The Suns need Booker to return — and they may get it next week, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, sidelined the past five weeks because of a left groin strain, could return as soon as Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets, sources told ESPN… Booker has been ramping up his on-court work, and is expected to join the Suns at the start of a five-game road trip that begins Friday in Boston and continues Saturday at Detroit.

Booker should be named an All-Star reserve Tuesday, despite all the time missed — he has been that good. Booker is averaging 27.1 points a game shooting 37% from 3 (a good 58.5 true shooting percentage) and is dishing out 5.1 assists per night. The bottom line, the Suns have outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court this season and been outscored by 2.5 per 100 when he is out.

He returns to a team that needs a jolt and could get a couple — both the return of Booker to the rotation and a trade at the deadline to bring in depth. The Suns are likely to trade Jae Crowder at the deadline — the Bucks are considered the frontrunners but the Heat and Hawks are reportedly in the mix — which may not bring back what James Jones once hoped, but should give the team a little more depth.

If the Suns can get back to the team that started the season 15-6 they could make some noise in the West, but there is a lot for the Suns to clean up to get back to those days.

PBT Podcast: LeBron chases history, WNBA superteam and trade talk

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It’s one of the craziest weeks in the NBA — the week before the trade deadline is always insane — yet that is maybe the third biggest story in the league right now.

First, in this edition of the PBT Podcast, we dive into LeBron James chasing history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record — what does that say about LeBron and his legacy? And his conditioning to be doing this 20 years into his NBA career.

From there, Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself dive into the biggest move in the basketball world this week — Breanna Stewart shaking up the WNBA and choosing the New York Liberty in free agency. She formed a superteam in New York, and there is another one in Las Vegas, and this is an opportunity for the WNBA to grow – and get charter flights for their players. From there, it’s Corey’s Jukebox and time to talk some Damian Lillard.

Then we into trade rumors from around the league and everyone waiting on the Raptors to open up the market.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Three things to Know: Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

The biggest free agent in WNBA history has chosen to form a super team in league history — and that’s a real opportunity for everyone.

Former league MVP and two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart has chosen to leave Seattle and play for the New York Liberty.

Just a few weeks ago, the Liberty traded for 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to pair with Sabrina Ionescu, forming one of the best pick-and-roll threats in the league. Now add Stewart and her playmaking to a roster filled with quality players —  Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, Joceyln Willoughby, Kayla Thornton — and this is a team that’s a legitimate threat to win the WNBA title next season. This is a superteam.

New York’s move comes just days after two-time former MVP and WNBA champ Candace Parker chose to join the defending WBNA champion Las Vegas Aces with reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and quality players around her such as Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray. This is also a superteam.

It’s not a coincidence Stewart and Parker chose to go to teams with newish WNBA owners willing to spend to win, Joe Tsai in New York (also the owner of the NBA’s Nets) and Mark Davis in Las Vegas (owner of the NFL’s Raiders). Two owners who came into the WNBA wanting to spend to pay players but also improve their experience — a new practice facility in Las Vegas, for example — and grow the sport that way. Owners with the vision to know they must spend money to make money — grow the league and its popularity and franchise values will skyrocket.

Stewart in her free agency pushed charter flights for players to the top of the list of ways to improve the league. Right now, the WNBA CBA requires teams to fly commercial. It’s part of a penny-pinching mindset from some quarters that sometimes feels like it will choke off the growing league. Charter flights for every team to every game — something common in professional sports and high-level college sports, including women’s college basketball — would cost about $30 million for the league.

There’s a divide among WNBA owners, not all want to pay that added charter flight cost out of their pocket, but the league has to find a way. As Corey Robinson of NBC Sports noted in the video above, this feels a lot like when his father — Hall of Famer David Robinson — wrote an open letter in 1991 to then San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs asking to fly charter to games because of the competitive advantage (McCombs agreed after the public pressure, now charter flights are just expected in the NBA).

Beyond just flights, this is an inflection point for the WNBA — it has to intensify its marketing, its outreach, and do whatever else it takes to grow the league.

Stewart, a recognizable face and name to any sports fan in America (even casual ones who only know her Olympics efforts) just formed a superteam in the biggest media market in the nation. They have a natural, high-profile rival in Las Vegas with their own superstars and big names. If you can’t sell this, you’re doing it wrong — this will be great basketball (and that’s not even mentioning Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury, and other good teams out there).

New York vs. Las Vegas could be the 1980s Lakers vs. Celtics moment for the WNBA. Stewart vs. Wilson can be a version of Magic vs. Bird — a rivalry and must-watch matchup that took the NBA off tape-delayed late-night television and vaulted it into prime time, putting it on the course for what it is now. This feels like that moment for the WNBA, but will WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert be able to grab the opportunity the way David Stern did? Can she get her owners to buy in the way Stern did? The WNBA must spend, it must take advantage of this opportunity. Chances and players like this don’t come around very often.

2) Timberwolves outplay Warriors in clutch, pick up quality win

Right now, this Warriors team just does not have the aura of its championship teams of years past. Even last year’s team didn’t enter the playoffs as the favorites in the West (that was the 64-win Suns), but we had seen enough to know they could be a threat to win it all with a couple of breaks. Which they got.

This year’s team… the Warriors had a 13-point lead on the Timberwolves Wednesday night with less than 11 minutes left and then got outplayed the rest of the way. While D'Angelo Russell was draining key 3-pointers, Stephen Curry, Donte DiVincenzo and  Andrew Wiggins were missing theirs, and Jonathan Kuminga was committing illegal screens. The result was the Warriors blowing their lead and the Timberwolves took advantage of it — with some critical plays by Naz Ried.

“I thought we had control of the game and then I thought we just kind of gift-wrapped it,” Kerr said postgame, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “And not to take anything away from Minnesota, I thought they were great. They took advantage of our mistakes and lack of execution. [D’Angelo Russell] got hot and guys made big shots, but we missed box-outs, we threw the ball away, we took really difficult shots.

“So everything we had done to that point to have control of the game, we stopped doing. We got what we deserved.”

This year’s Warriors are 13-14 in the clutch (games within five points in the final five minutes), with a -1.8 net rating. Make that a game within three points in the final three minutes and the Warriors are 10-12 this season.

The Warriors had won 4-of-5 before this and it felt like they may be flipping the switch, but then games like this happen and it gives you pause. These Warriors are not there yet.

3) Celtics put on a show, romp past shorthanded Nets

Boston has cooled off following its hot start to the season, but there are nights when they get focused, turn the burner back on high, get hot and remind everyone why they are the title favorites this season.

The Nets ran into those Celtics on Wednesday — Boston outscored Brooklyn 46-16 in the first quarter, hitting eight straight 3-pointers to open the game.

From there the Celtics romped to a wire-to-wire 139-96 win. Boston stayed hot from deep and hit 48.1% from 3 for the game (26-of-54). Jayson Tatum scored 31 points,  Jaylen Brown added 26, and both got to sit in the fourth quarter and watch.

The Celtics needed a win like this.

The Nets… life is tough sometimes without Kevin Durant. This is a game Brooklyn can flush and move on, even with KD it would not have helped much the way the Celtics were shooting.

ONE BONUS THING TO KNOW (or see): Give Tari Eason credit, he did not give up. That is persistence.