NBA Power Rankings: Warriors start season on top with Bucks on their heels

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The NBA season tips off tonight, so there is no better time to break out our NBA Power Rankings to start the season. Traditionally these will run on Wednesday throughout the season, but with a Tuesday night season tip-off (76ers vs. Celtics, Lakers vs. Warriors) this seemed a good day to start. The defending champion Warriors start the season on top, but in a deep NBA this season there could be a lot more changes in the first five than we traditionally see over the course of a year.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (53-29 last season). So much for smoothly easing into their title defense. Thanks to Draymond Green‘s right cross, tensions are relatively high around the Warriors — with an undercurrent of “is Draymond going to get paid?” Hanging around all season — but it is nothing they can’t overcome. With Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins getting paid, things should settle down. Maybe Klay Thompson is right, time and a ring ceremony will heal all wounds. The Warriors get their rings against the Lakers tonight (Tuesday), then face the Nuggets, Kings, and Suns — there are few easy nights in the West.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (51-31). It’s been a quiet offseason and training camp for Milwaukee, not a lot of drama — which is just how Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokounmpo want it. Khris Middleton will miss the start of the season following wrist surgery, and Pat Connaughton also is out early, which could expose the wing depth issues of the Bucks to start the season, but they are still going to win a lot of games. However, the Bucks didn’t win any games in the preseason and their defense was one of the worst in the league — it’s just preseason, but that raised an eyebrow. Expect things to change starting Thursday night against the 76ers.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (51-31). This is a championship-level roster — better than the one that went to the Finals last season thanks to the addition of Malcolm Brogdon as a sixth man. However, it took Ime Udoka as coach to get them to break bad habits and turn the ship around midseason last campaign. Will they revert to form with him gone? It didn’t look that way in the preseason when their offense was elite (the Celtics’ defense was less impressive, which is to be expected with Robert Williams out for the first couple of months at least). Philadelphia then Miami make it two tough games to start the season.

 
Clippers small icon4. Clippers (42-40). The pressure is on the Clippers this season — this is a championship level roster on paper, one that overachieved last season basically without its stars and now get a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to make that run. The only position battle on the roster ended with Reggie Jackson getting named the starter and John Wall coming off the bench. Expect the Clippers to be bombs away from 3 this season, and they shot 39.9% from deep in the preseason. The biggest challenge for Tyronne Lue is keeping everyone happy and engaged on a roster 12 deep with rotation players.

 
Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (51-31). Could Tyrese Maxey be second on this team in scoring this season? He had a very strong preseason and while the James Harden/Joel Embiid two-man game will remain the bread and butter of the 76ers this season, Maxey looks ready to step up his scoring. If Harden embraces a more facilitator role, Maxey could be second (and should be an All-Star this season). The addition of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House should help the 76ers perimeter defense, but that will be put to test from the opening tip as the Sixers face the Celtics on opening night followed by the Bucks two nights later.

 
Suns small icon 6. Suns (64-18). On one hand, this is a roster bringing back the core of a team that went to the Finals two years ago and won 64 games last season — they have to be considered title contenders. But the vibes around this team are not good: the scars from the playoff blowout loss to the Mavericks, the tension between Deandre Ayton and coach Monty Williams last season (plus Ayton’s contract drama), Jae Crowder not being around the team and demanding a trade, the distraction of the franchise being up for sale, and Chris Paul getting a year older (and it showed the end of last season into the playoffs). Maybe the Suns and their struggling playoff defense bounce back this season, but there will be a lot of eyes on them (and a somewhat thin bench) heading into the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 7. Grizzlies (56-26). There are a lot of people around the league who expect Memphis to plateau this season, or maybe take a small step back. The Grizzlies lost more than they gained this offseason with DeAnthony Melton (76ers) and Kyle Anderson (Timberwolves) going out the door. Add in the fact Jaren Jackson Jr. is out to start the season due to injury and there are depth questions around this team. Ja Morant looked as explosive as ever in the preseason, but will internal improvement of their young players balance out the loss of veterans?

 
Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (48-34). Everyone is healthy again, but how long will it take Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to find their groove together again (they only played one game together in a preseason where coach Michael Malone took it easy on the veterans). With the added depth around Jokic, will his scoring numbers go down as he sees himself in more of a facilitator role (and there are other guys who need touches now, such as Michael Porter Jr.). The Nuggets get a relatively easy start to the schedule this season (Utah and Oklahoma City the first week), but there is a test against the Warriors that should be enlightening.

 
Heat small icon 9. Heat (53-29). This may be too low for the Heat, who will be a strong regular season team, just like always. Having lost P.J. Tucker at the four stings, but that’s more of a playoffs/matchup concern because Caleb Martin will do a good enough job to help Miami rack up regular season wins. The Heat culture was evident in the preseason as Erik Spoelstra held back the starters, played a lot of bench (and G-League) guys, and Miami still went 4-1. The biggest thing we can likely learn about the Heat during the regular season is if Kyle Lowry is back after being down last season — Miami needs him to be in they want to knock off the teams above them in this ranking. Miami opens the season with four games at home.

 
Nets small icon 10. Nets (44-38). This could be way too low or way too high for Brooklyn. In the limited minutes their stars were on the floor together in the preseason the Nets looked very good — and the offense wasn’t just isolation after isolation (does Steve Nash get credit for that or new assistant coach Igor Kokoskov?). Ben Simmons stayed in his lane, didn’t take jumpers, but did look good on defense and helped push the ball in transition. No Joe Harris or Seth Curry to start the season leads to questions about whether the Nets will have enough shooting to start the season (especially starting two non-shooters in Simmons and Nic Clayton). The Wednesday game against the Pelicans might be the most intriguing game of the first week.

 
11. Timberwolves (46-36). We didn’t see much of the twin towers of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns together in the preseason — they only played together in the final game against Brooklyn (and were -16 in the minutes both were on the floor). Anthony Edwards looks primed for a leap forward this season, but he’s going to have to adjust to different spacing with Towns and Gobert on the floor together, and that seemed a work in progress during the preseason. Look for Minnesota to get off to a fast start as they open with the softest schedule in the league (Thunder, Jazz, at Thunder, Spurs twice, Lakers, Spurs again).

 
Cavaliers small icon 13. Cavaliers (44-38). It’s just preseason, but the Cavaliers’ new backcourt of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell showed some real chemistry playing off each other. What we didn’t get to see is those two playing next to Evan Mobley (he only played in the final preseason game), which could unlock more as Mobley seems primed for a big step forward this season (with all due respect to Mitchell, if the Cavaliers are going to contend in a few years it’s because Mobley steps up and becomes a top-10 player). The biggest thing to watch with this team over the first half of the season is who wins the job at the three as the fifth starter (and, more importantly, closer).

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (52-32). Don’t expect another slow start to the season for Luka Doncic — coming off EuroBasket his conditioning is better, his focus is better, and it showed in the preseason when he was a dominant force. Christian Wood was the big offseason acquisition and he will come off the bench to start the season, but expect him to get a lot of minutes with Doncic because they will need his ability to score in the paint to help balance the floor. Good tests to start the season in the Suns and Grizzlies.

 
Raptors small icon 14. Raptors (48-34). This could be too low a ranking for a Raptors team I am high on — their unique style throws teams off (at least in the regular season). Nick Nurse rolls out a bunch of 6’4″ top 6’9″ guys (plus Fred VanVleet) who can switch everything and are positionless on offense, leaning into the dribble handoff like no other team in the league. Look for another All-NBA season from Pascal Siakam and a step forward from Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes. Toronto’s shooting was off in the preseason, they need to find it fast because they have a brutal schedule the first couple of weeks (Cleveland, Brooklyn, Miami out of the gate).

 
Hawks small icon 15. Hawks (43-39). The Hawks new All-Star backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray were clearly still getting used to playing next to each other in the preseason, with a lot of “your turn/my turn” going on. That should improve as the season moves along, but Young is going to have to get used to being off the ball more. Atlanta made a big bet on De’Andre Hunter with his new four-year, $90 million contract — they need him to step up and become the three next to Young and Murray who can both defend at a high level and knock down 3s. The other big question for the Hawks this season: How well do they defend? We know the offense will be good, but they need stops and better minutes when Young sits.

 
Pelicans small icon 16. Pelicans (36-46). Zion Williamson will play in the opener against Brooklyn despite turning his ankle in the preseason. That’s another boost to what should be one of the top offenses in the NBA with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and a team that got out and ran in the preseason to take advantage of Zion’s athleticism. The question for New Orleans is can they get enough stops to win games? Zion got torched defensively by the Heat, a lot is going to fall on Herb Jones and Trey Murphy to shore up that end of the floor. The Pelicans open the season against the Nets in maybe the most interesting game of the first week.

 
Bulls small icon 17. Bulls (46-36). Not having Lonzo Ball to start the season hurts, both defensively and he is their best guard at pushing the pace. The Bulls are going to rely on a backcourt combo of Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso to improve their defense. It’s possible DeMar DeRozan takes a step back on offense, but lost in the spotlight on DeRozan last season is just what an offensive force Zach LaVine has become — the Bulls will get buckets. Chicago had the second best offensive rating in the NBA during the preseason. I had hoped to see more out of Patrick Williams this preseason, hopefully his regular season is stronger.

 
Lakers small icon 18. Lakers (33-49). While nobody should read too much into the preseason, the Lakers shot 28.6% as a team from 3 in the preseason and 39.8% overall — both numbers in the bottom 3 of NBA teams. Los Angeles had a league-worst preseason offensive rating of 93.9 (points per 100 possessions). There’s a lot of noise in those preseason numbers, a lot of shots by guys who will not be part of the regular rotation, but it should raise eyebrows. Especially with the Lakers facing a brutal schedule to open the season: at Warriors, Clippers, Trail Blazers, at Nuggets, at Timberwolves.

 
Knicks small icon 19. Knicks (37-45). In a very Tom Thibodeau move, no team played its expected rotation players more minutes in the preseason than the Knicks. The big takeaway from that in the preseason was how good the Knicks defense was (top five in the NBA, giving up less than a point per possession), now can they carry that over to the regular season? After a tough opener against Memphis the Knicks need to rack up some wins against a soft schedule (because after that the schedule turns brutal).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-52). While other good teams might pivot and tank for Victor Wembanyama if the season starts slowly for them, that will not be the case in Sacramento — it is playoffs or bust for a team that was missed the cut 16 straight years. The preseason was promising for the Kings: Mike Brown did his thing as coach and Sacramento had the best defense in the league, the offense was rolling, and the Kings went 4-0. All good signs, although maybe the best one was how good Keegan Murray looked. Murray is a strong long shot Rookie of the Year candidate.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (35-47). The big question about this team is how high the combo of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis can lift it — Washington has playoff aspirations — but the star duo only played 15 minutes together during the preseason. Without that combo (and injuries to some of the team’s promising young guns), the Wizards’ offense struggled during the preseason. It may be the first week of the season, but Friday’s game against the Bulls is the kind the Wizards need to win to make the postseason.

 
Blazers small icon 22. Trail Blazers (27-55). The revamped Trail Blazers looked like a team trying to find its footing during the preseason, going 0-4 against NBA teams due to a struggling defense (bottom three in the league in preseason). Gary Payton II, one of the free agents brought in to shore up the defense, will miss the start of the season. The Trail Blazers open against the Kings, Suns and Lakers — how they fare against Sacramento and Los Angeles, two other teams fighting for a playoff spot, will tell us a lot about this team early.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (23-59). Cade Cunningham plays at his own pace, is not rushed, and it took him a while at the start of last season to figure out how to make that work in the NBA — but once he did he was a beast. Now he’s got the athletic Jaden Ivey next to him in the backcourt and a quality scoring option in Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing. This is a roster that is going to score points and could slide up into the play-in if they can get enough stops (wing and paint defense in particular were a concern in the preseason). We’ll see if the Pistons can open some eyes early with the Magic, Knicks, and Pacers to open the season.

 
Pacers small icon 24. Pacers (25-57). There’s a sense around the league that the Pacers would rather trade Myles Turner and Buddy Hield sooner rather than later and get in the Wembanyama sweepstakes, except that kind of tanking is never what owner Herb Simon has wanted in Indiana. Also, as long as they have Tyrese Halliburton on the roster, they are going to win a few games. Bennedict Mathurin was one of the most impressive rookies at Summer League and has carried that over into the preseason, showing an ability to get into the paint and score. The Pacers have a soft schedule to open, if they really are thinking lottery how will they react to some early wins?

 
Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (43-39). LaMelo Ball is out for the start of the season with a sprained ankle, and they are already without their leading scorer Miles Bridges (away from the team after an arrest on domestic violence charges, it would be a shock to see him in the NBA this season). The Hornets went 0-5 in the preseason with a bottom four offense and defense among NBA teams, and while it’s just preseason those are not good signs. Steve Clifford is one of the better defensive coaches in the league, but if he can get this roster even up to league average on that end of the floor it might be his best coaching job.

 
Rockets small icon 26. Rockets (20-62). Jalen Green looked like a player ready to make a leap during the preseason, showing off a better 3-point shot to go with his explosive athleticism. Kevin Porter Jr. got his payday, rookie Tari Eason looks like he can contribute, and the Rockets look like a team building something interesting. Heavy road schedule to start the season for Houston and a tough first week: at Atlanta, Memphis, at Milwaukee.

 
Magic small icon 27. Magic 22-60). This is probably too low for a team with No.1 pick Paolo Banchero running the offense and Franz Wagner finishing racking up points, surrounded by guys like Terrence Ross and Wendell Carter Jr. The preseason might have been a microcosm of the season for this team in that Banchero looked great and the youngsters got the ball and a chance to learn, but they still had a bottom-10 offense. Orlando is going to be an entertaining team to watch, even as they don’t win many games.

 
Jazz small icon 28. Jazz (49-33). After watching Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, it should have answered the question from some corners of Jazz nation, “why break this team up now?” This team looked very different under Will Hardy than the movement/3-point shooting of Quin Snyder, but they have young ball handlers surrounded by shooters such as Kelly Olynyk who can knock down a few shots, plus they still have Jordan Clarkson off the bench. Collin Sexton will put up numbers this season. This team could win a few games early, which might lead to another trade of a veteran sooner rather than later.

 
Thunder small icon 29. Thunder (24-58). It’s just preseason so nobody noticed, but the Thunder had the best offense and sixth-best defense in the NBA in the warm-up games (to be fair, those numbers were bolstered by games against international teams Adelaide and Maccabi Ra’anana). Not having Chet Holmgren for the season sucks, but there’s still talent on this team worth watching in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey. It was Giddey who ran the offense at Summer League and he showed some chemistry with Holmgren. OKC has the twin towers in Minnesota twice in the first week of the season.

 
Spurs small icon 30. Spurs (34-48). There are young players worth watching on this Spurs team, particularly Devin Vassell, who had a strong preseason (even if the Spurs didn’t). But this season in San Antonio is about Gregg Popovich teaching a young team to get better incrementally, and to see of Tre Jones or Josh Primo can learn to run the point. It’s going to be a long season in San Antonio, and a particularly rough first few weeks where their schedule is just brutal.

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.

Watch Pacers rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

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SAN FRANCSICO — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
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Three Things 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) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.