NBA Power Rankings: Raptors are on top, but is this the Bucks’ year?

NBA Power Rankings
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
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This is the final NBA Power Rankings of the season, coming out on the day the playoffs start. After this there is no point to power rankings, the NBA has a playoff to determine which team is best (can you imagine a sport so backward it used media polls to help determine a champion?). We’ve only got the 22 bubble teams in here, and with the way the seeding games went these rakings may look upside down in a week.

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (53-19, 7-1, LW 1). Its fitting the defending champs finish the season on top of the rankings. They had the best defense through the seeding games, anchored by a healthy (and slimmer) Marc Gasol, and that can take them far in the playoffs — if they can find some half-court offensive punch (fifth worst offense in restart). That ability to get a bucket when the game slows down was a a strength last season, the Raptors need Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam to recreate the magic in the playoffs to get back to the Finals.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-17, 3-5 in bubble, LW 2). Giannis Antetokounmpo is frustrated by the 3-5 Bucks record in the bubble, the way they coasted into the postseason, and the fact he had to sit out a game for headbutting Moe Wagner. None of that is a real concern. The Bucks get to find their focus in the first round against a Magic team they outscored by 16.3 points per 100 during the season.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (49-23, 5-3, LW 5). Los Angeles was missing key players for much of the restart, it was not a team that blew people’s doors off, yet by the end they had the third-best net rating in the bubble (+6.1). The Clippers did that all season: Winning while not fulfilling their potential yet. Looking like a contender on paper but one that has not yet built chemistry. Does it all come together for them now in the playoffs?

Lakers small icon 4. Lakers (52-19, 3-5 in bubble, Last week No. 3). The Lakers shot the ball poorly and had the second-worst offense in the restart. Los Angeles has had trouble with smaller, quick scoring guards all season and now they face Damian Lillard in the first round. The Lakers are going to have to work to get out of the first round, but the challenge of Portland may snap L.A. out of its malaise. In the end, Frank Vogel can go to LeBron James/Anthony Davis pick-and-rolls all day and who is going to stop it?

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (48-24, 5-3, LW 4). While the Raptors had the better record in the bubble, the Celtics arguably were playing better (they had the better net rating). Boston had a top 10 offense and defense in the restart, Kemba Walker is healthy and this roster has a lot of versatility. Joel Embiid will be a tough first-round test, however, Philadelphia outscored Boston by 2.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season.

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (45-28, 6-2 LW 8). T.J. Warren was a breakout star of the bubble, they have a healthy Victor Oladipo, and the Pacers had a top-three defense in the bubble — Indiana is set up as well for the playoffs. Miami, with Jimmy Butler as a perimeter stopper, presents a real challenge (the Heat outscored the Pacers by 4.2 points per 100 during their regular season meetings), but the Pacers can win the series if they have balance and the role players step up.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (44-28, 4-4, LW 9). Chris Paul played brilliantly in the restart (and there may not have been a restart without him) the Thunder were a roller coaster through the eight games. looking dangerous one game and like a pushover the next. If Steven Adams can stay on the court against the Rockets micro-ball and punish them inside the Thunder are in good shape in the first round.

Rockets small icon 8. Rockets (44-28, 4-3, LW 6). No Russell Westbrook to start the series against OKC is a concern (quadriceps injury) because the Rockets are so top heavy. James Harden has been brilliant but Eric Gordon, Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore or someone is going to have to step up and pickup the secondary scoring loa to make this all work. On the upside, Houston defended very well in the seeding games and that should carry over.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (44-29, 3-5, LW 7). Jimmy Butler picks up his level of play in the postseason and we (and T.J. Warren) can expect that again. Still, eventually Indiana (and the teams Miami might face beyond them) will be able to slow him down, then who creates shots and gets buckets. The Heat have had good games from Bam Adebayo and Jae Crowder, plus there are rookies like Tyler Herro playing well, but are any of them ready to be the guy who has to get a bucket in crunch time?

Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (35-39, 6-2, LW 10). Damian Lillard is the deserving bubble MVP, but the play-in game win over Memphis showed that it’s not a one-man show that makes Portland dangerous. Jusuf Nurkic dominated the first half and had a 20/20 game, then CJ McCollum was hitting big threes late despite a fractured back. Portland has all the pieces to give the Lakers problems, but how they defend LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be the real keys.

Suns small icon 11. Suns (44-39, 8-0, LW 12). Everyone wanted to see the darlings of the bubble rewarded for their 8-0 run, but the first 65 games still mattered. Credit Monty Williams (officially the Coach of the Seeding Games) and crew for getting buy-in from players and improving during the restart when other teams in their position (Sacramento, New Orleans) mailed it in. Phoenix looks like a team poised for a playoff run next season, but the West is going to be 12 deep with playoff quality teams next season.

Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (46-27, 3-5, LW 11). Michael Porter Jr. has been amazing to watch — 22.2 points a game, 8.6 rebounds, and 42.2% shooting from three — and he gives them another shot creator besides Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, which makes them dangerous. Denver also had the worst defense in the restart and if that continues Utah has a real shot to knock the Nuggets out.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (43-30, 4-4, LW 15). GM Elton Brand bet Philly could win playing big before the season tipped-off, and now come the playoffs — and without Ben Simmons — it is the direction Brett Brown may have to go. He will start with the Al Horford/Joel Embiid frontline, and Embiid will need to dominate the Boston frontline to have a chance. Tobias Harris is going to have to provide more shot creation, and some role players are going to have to knock down threes for Philly to pull off the upset.

Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (43-32, 3-5, LW 13). How good is Luka Doncic? He nearly averaged a triple-double in the seeding games of 30 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.7 assists a game. He, along with big man Kristaps Porzingis, give the Mavs a chance to score their way to a win any night. However, how Dallas will slow down the wing scoring of L.A.’s Paul George and Kawhi Leonard is by far the biggest challenge of the first round.

Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (44-28, 3-4, LW 16). No Bojan Bogdanovic (surgery). No Mike Conley, at least for the first few games against Denver (birth of son). No Ed Davis (left knee). A shorthanded Utah team is going to need a monster series from Donovan Mitchell to advance. Denver dominated the paint in the regular season matchups with Utah, Rudy Gobert can’t allow that to happen again in the postseason or Utah will be home early.

Nets small icon 16. Nets (35-37, 5-5, LW 17). Give Brooklyn credit — while other teams with nothing to play for were rolling over in their final games, Brooklyn was one shot away from beating Portland in the final game and knocking the Trail Blazers out of the postseason. Coach Jacque Vaughn earned a lot of points around the league for this (whether it means Durant and Irving want him to coach them next season is another question). Caris LeVert was strong in the restart averaging 25 points and 6.7 assists a game, while Joe Harris added 20 a night and shot 54.1% from three. They will not be a pushover for Toronto.

Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (34-39, 2-6, LW 19). Ja Morant reminded everyone why he is the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year with his performance in the play-in game, but without Jaren Jackson Jr. winning that game was a tough ask. Still, this is a Memphis team poised to be a threat to make the playoffs next season. Note to Mark Jackson: It’s Taylor Jenkins.

Magic small icon 18. Magic (33-40, 3-5, LW 18). Steve Clifford is moving Markelle Fultz back to starting point guard for the playoffs, his matchup against the strong defense of Eric Bledsoe should be one of the more entertaining parts of that series. Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Evan Fournier likely will play well against the Bucks, at least for stretches, which may only fuel trade speculation.

Spurs small icon 19. Spurs (32-39, 5-3, LW 14). When asked if he would be back to coach next season, Gregg Popovich’s response was “why wouldn’t I?” Popovich found something that worked with the four-guard lineup he was forced to employ in the restart, now if he can make that mesh with LaMarcus Aldridge then maybe the Spurs can start a new playoff streak in a year.

Kings small icon 20. Kings (31-41, 3-5, LW 20). Vlade Divac is out as GM, and Joe Dumars is in (at least for the next year). It wasn’t just picking Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic that got Divac fired, there has been five years of questionable trades, contract moves, coaching changes, and a lack of organizational culture. The Kings have some nice young players (coming up for contract extensions) such as De’Aaron Fox, but the Kings need to figure out who they are first.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-42, 2-6, LW 21). Alvin Gentry is out as coach after the Pelicans looked flat and disinterested in the bubble (well, except for J.J. Redick). Some big name coaches are on the list to replace Gentry, but will the small-market Pelicans pay Tyronn Lue money, or will they be looking for a less-expensive up-and-coming assistant?

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (25-47, 1-7, LW 22). Well, they showed up in the bubble. They even won a game. That’s all we can say. Next season they get John Wall and Bradley Beal back on the court together and we can get back to debating if that pairing really works.

Watch Victor Wembanyama drop 30-point double-double in France

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Maybe you spent your Saturday afternoon watching Lionel Messi doing Lionel Messi things. Or intense college football rivalries.

In France, they spent part of the day watching Kylian Mbappe be brilliant but then flipped over and watched future No.1 pick Victor Wembanyama drop a 30-point double-double.

That’s two straight 30-point double-doubles for Wembanyama.

He will be the No.1 pick next June (barring something catastrophic), and teams are already thinking about the lottery next June.

Expect some other teams to jump in that mix at the bottom because the depth of this class goes well beyond just Wembanyama with Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson and others. The tanking is coming people.

 

Boogie Cousins called Warriors GM Myers and got reality check on why he’s not in NBA

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
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DeMarcus Cousins didn’t understand why he didn’t have an NBA contract this season.

He thought he had proven he could help teams in need of front-line depth last season, first in Milwaukee when Brook Lopez was out following back surgery and gave them 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game of solid play. The Bucks ultimately let Cousins go for financial reasons, so the Nuggets picked him up to backup Nikola Jokic. He was again solid, averaging 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game (and he had a 31-point night against the Rockets).

Confused, he called one of the former GMs who brought him in, Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors. Myers relayed their conversation on the All That Smoke podcast (via NBC Sports Bay Area).

“DeMarcus called me a month ago and he said, ‘Why am I not in the NBA?’ ” Myers told Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the “All The Smoke” podcast earlier this week. “And I said, ‘You want that answer? … Because people are afraid of how you’re going to act.’ And he’s like ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Well whatever the reason is, it’s here now.’

“And I like DeMarcus. You guys may know him. He’s just, I can’t blame him for him because of all he’s been through.”

Not long after that conversation, Cousins spoke with Chris Haynes and said he learned from his past mistakes.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. Have I done things the wrong way? Absolutely. For that, I’m very apologetic. But I’ve done even more things the correct way and I’ve done even more positive things compared to my negatives. I just don’t want those positives to be overlooked. And obviously, whenever it gets to the point where the negatives outweigh the positives, you should probably move away from him. That’s just how life goes. But I don’t believe I’m in that boat. I’m just asking for a chance to show my growth as a man and a player.”

Cousins also had physical issues, including a torn ACL that cost him a season with the Lakers in 2019-20. He also had domestic abuse allegations at the time (those charges were dropped a few months later).

Cousins just wants the chance to prove he is past all that and can help a team like he did last season. There have been rumors out of Taiwan that Cousins could join Dwight Howard in that league, but Cousins has not confirmed that. He still wants his shot in the NBA. So he waits, and hopes he can change the narrative around him.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says of Evan Mobley, ‘He can be better than me’

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
John Fisher/Getty Images
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Evan Mobley hasn’t taken the leap forward in his second season many expected, partly because he has to adjust to playing with a new, dominant backcourt in Cleveland of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. Mobley is getting nearly five fewer touches a game and is not getting the same chances to use his off-the-bounce skills (73% of his shots this season come off zero or one-dribble) as he did when he was a rookie.

That doesn’t mean his superstar potential has gone away. Just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo, as Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer did.

“He can be better than me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com in an exclusive interview while walking out of Fiserv Forum… “I don’t see why he can’t. It’s up to him. I will always try to improve. Every day. But he has the skill set to be a very, very good player. He’s 7-feet tall. He can move really well. He can shoot. He is very smart. As you said, he watches tapes of other players, which is very, very good for a young player. If he takes this seriously, he is going to be great.”

Better than Giannis? What could possibly make him say that?

“I didn’t average what he is in my second season, so he’s already ahead of me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com. “It’s in his hands. If he stays humble, continues to work hard, focuses on the game and shows love to the game of basketball, he is going to be really good.”

One of the players Mobley is known to study on tape is Antetokounmpo. Of course, mirroring the force and athleticism Antetokounmpo plays with is next to impossible, but Mobley has the skill set that could see him become a shot-creator and scorer on the wing with the ball.

The Cavaliers don’t need him to be that with Garland improving and Michell being better than advertised. Cleveland has a top-five offense and hasn’t had to turn to Mobley for more scoring and shot creation. But that can change, especially come the playoffs against the strong defenses of teams such as the Bucks and Celtics. Ultimately, how far these Cavaliers can go in the postseason over the next few years could come down to the growth of Mobley on the offensive end.

Antetokounmpo believes Mobley could be special in that role, which should give fans in Cleveland even more hope.

 

Watch Giannis throw down career-high nine dunks, score 38 in comeback win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
John Fisher/Getty Images
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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks taught the Cleveland Cavaliers a lesson in playoff-type intensity well before the start of December.

Antetokounmpo scored 38 points and the Bucks capitalized on a 23-2 run in the first eight-plus minutes of the third quarter to rally past Cleveland 117-102 on Friday night to snap the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak.

Milwaukee came back from a 16-point deficit by outscoring the Cavaliers 35-10 in the third period. The Bucks hadn’t outscored a team by such a wide margin in a single quarter since Jan. 4, 2019, when they outscored the Atlanta Hawks 43-14 in the opening period of a 144-112 victory.

“We had a little bit of luck on our side and were able to knock down some shots and get downhill and were able to get that momentum and keep it going,” said Antetokounmpo, who also had nine rebounds and six assists. “I think it started from our guards defending the pick-and-roll and Brook (Lopez) just contesting every shot on the defensive end.”

The Cavaliers hadn’t scored less than 15 points in any quarter this season before Friday.

“They turned it up to a level that we haven’t seen, that we haven’t experienced,” said Donovan Mitchell, who led he Cavaliers with 29 points. “That’s playoff basketball, and understanding that they’re going to turn up the physicality (and) everything has to be sharper, everything has to be more precise.”

Darius Garland added 20 for Cleveland. After combining to shoot 14 of 26 and score 38 points in the first half, Mitchell and Garland went 4 of 16 for 11 points over the final two periods.

Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen played only 12 minutes and scored one point before leaving with a hip injury.

The Cavaliers lost for the first time since their last visit to Milwaukee, a 113-98 Bucks victory on Nov. 16.

“We were trying so hard, and we were like running in quicksand,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the second-half struggles.

Jevon Carter scored 18 points and Bobby Portis had 14 for the Bucks.

After trailing 63-52 at halftime, the Bucks turned the game around in the third quarter.

“It felt like us again,” Portis said. “I feel like for the last couple of games, we haven’t felt like ourselves, for real, missing a lot of shots and just not playing how we play.”

Jrue Holiday, who committed three fouls in the first 1 1/2 quarters, scored his first points of the game in the opening minute of the third. He followed that up with a 3-pointer.

Carter then found Antetokounmpo for a dunk, though Antetokounmpo missed a free throw that would have given him a three-point play. Mitchell scored to extend Cleveland’s lead to 65-59, but a Brook Lopez 3-pointer and an Antetokounmpo dunk cut the lead to one.

Lopez then recorded one of his six blocks to set up an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer that gave the Bucks their first lead of the night with 7:19 left in the third. The Bucks eventually led by as many as 22.

“This is a great lesson for us,” Bickerstaff said. “We played against an established team who knows where they need to go when they need to take it to another level. That’s what we’re learning. They took the game to playoff-level physicality, and those are things we have to learn how to compete against.”