NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets, Trail Blazers early season surprises in Top 5

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The Warriors being on top is not a surprise, but the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Bucks all being in the top five? That is not what we expected coming in. The Cavaliers remain in dead last in these rankings, but the Suns are pushing hard for that spot.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (10-1, last week No 1). It is far, far too early to talk about the MVP race… but if one did, one would say Stephen Curry has been fastest out of the gate in that race. Curry, hunting his own shot like it’s 2015 again, has averaged 31.3 points per game while shooting 50.8% from three, with a PER of 30. He just changes the game when he’s on the court and it’s been a joy to watch this season. Fun showdown Thursday night against the red-hot Bucks.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (10-1, LW. 3). Kyle Lowry has found a comfort level as a playmaker in Nick Nurse’s system — he is averaging 11.5 assists a game and is assisting on 45.6 percent of his teammates buckets when he is on the floor this season, both career highs by a country mile. Lowry and teammates beat the Lakers and Jazz on the road, back-to-back, without Kawhi Leonard (foot injury, hopefully he and the team can stay on the same page about treatment). That speaks to the depth of this roster. Toronto is top six in both offense and defense.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (9-1, LW 4).. Jamal Murray dropping 48 on Boston was a statement — both for him and for the Nuggets, a one-loss team that has now beaten both the Warriors and the Celtics this season. Note to Kyrie Irving, if you want to stop Murray from going for 50 points with a meaningless shot at the end of the game, do something about the first 48. Interesting early tests coming up against the Bucks (Sunday) and a Rockets team finding itself again (Tuesday).

Blazers small icon 4. Trail Blazers (8-3, LW 5). While the Portland starting five — Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jake Layman, Jusuf Nurkic — is outscoring teams by 8.4 points per 100 possessions so far this season, it has been the team’s strong bench play led by Zach Collins and Evan Turner that has keyed the team’s fast start. When that bench struggles, as it did against the Lakers, the Blazers fall (also they just couldn’t buy a three against Los Angeles). McCollum dropped 40 on the Bucks and make a statement, now the Clippers and Celtics are up next.

Bucks small icon 5. Bucks (8-2, LW 2). The Celtics and their hot three-point shooting knocked the Bucks from the ranks of the unbeaten, but we’re more interested in seeing how Milwaukee fairs on a tough four-game West Coast swing that started with a loss in Portland Tuesday where they had no answer for McCollum. Next up are the Warriors. Also, we need to revisit the Greek-on-Greek crime of this Gianni Antetokounmpo’s dunk of the year entry over Kosta Kufos.

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (7-4, LW 9). Just a friendly reminder that back in 2013 the Cavaliers picked Anthony Bennett No. 1 in the draft over Victor Oladipo (most teams did not have Bennett near that high). Ouch. The Pacers are now built around Oladipo, who has averaged 23 points and 7.2 rebounds a game this season, but maybe more importantly has been a force of nature in the clutch (8-of-11 shooting this season) and is doing things like this to the Celtics.

Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (6-3, LW 12). The offense, with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge knocking it down from the midrange, has always been fine, but the recent four-game winning streak was sparked more by a defense that has moved from last in the league to middle of the pack during those games. Well, the D was at least until it regressed at home against Orlando. Now things get tougher with 9-of-11 coming up on the road (and the first home game in that stretch is a Rockets team now finding itself).

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (6-4, LW 6). The Celtics have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far this season. Their offense has been improving, but it’s not yet intimidating — 27th in the NBA for the season but 15th over the last three games. Late in games, Brad Stevens has trusted Marcus Morris over Gordon Hayward, and that’s the right play because Hayward is still struggling to start the season (as we should expect, remember that a year ago his leg was literally shattered).

Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (6-4, LW 11). The Clippers are better than their record would indicate (and their record is better than many expected). This is a top 10 team in offense and defense, and they are outscoring teams by 6 points per 100 possessions (meaning they should be 7-3 at least). Tough next four: At the Blazers, then home to the Bucks, Warriors, and Spurs.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (5-4, LW 22).. Oklahoma City catches a break with Russell Westbrook’s sprained ankle not being as bad as it looked, so he will not miss much time. The Thunder, winners of five in a row, also catch a break this happened as they hit a soft spot in the schedule: Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, and Sacramento are six of next seven. The Thunder should keep on winning and making up for the slow start.

Hornets small icon 11. Hornets (6-5, LW 14). Charlotte has been the least lucky team in the NBA — they are one game over .500 but with a +8.9, that of an 8-3 team. This is not a new problem, last season the Hornets struggled to close out close games, too, and it was one reason they missed the playoffs. Interestingly, the Hornets are +15.2 per 100 when Tony Parker runs the point and Kemba Walker is at the two, that may be a way James Borego tries closing games.

Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (5-4, LW 13). The Grizzlies continue to defend well but their offense — especially with Kyle Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. in the starting lineup — is struggling mightily. Mike Conley has not found consistency with his jumper, and that is part of the offensive issues, too. Memphis needs to figure out how to get buckets quickly because they have lost two in a row and the next four games — Denver, Philadelphia, Utah, and Milwaukee — are against quality teams.

Kings small icon 13. Kings (6-4, LW 16). Why are the Kings playing so well? They found an identity in pace — last season the Kings averaged 95.6 possessions a game, dead last in the league, this season they are at 108.1. That’s 12.5 possessions a game faster, a ridiculous leap. Synergy has them getting 21.9 percent of their offense in transition and scoring 128 per 100 on those chances. The real test of their new identity comes this month with a brutal schedule.

Sixers small icon 14. 76ers (6-5, LW 15). With all the focus on how Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons can’t play together (to his credit, Brett Brown is playing them as a tandem less and less), it’s been overlooked by some that Joel Embiid has been an absolute beast carrying this team. He is averaging 28.4 points and 12.6 assists per game, and he even has time to build condos in Andre Drummond’s head. Right now, the Sixers go as Embiid goes, but that is not going to get them where they want this season.

Rockets small icon 15. Rockets (4-5, LW 23). Winners of three in a row, the last two of those with James Harden back from injury. The Rockets are looking much better. Carmelo Anthony’s offense is coming around as well, but it’s not making up for his defense — the Rockets are 10.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the court. Great news that Jeff Bzdelik is returning, a sign the Rockets are going to focus on defense again, but his switching style is still going to run into a personnel problem when Anthony is on the court.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (4-5, LW 17). Josh Richardson is the rare case of a player forced to take on more offensive responsibility — his usage rate has jumped from using 18.2 percent of the team’s possessions when he is on the court to 24.1 percent, however, his true shooting percentage also is up to 57.1 (from 55.1), his PER is up to 17.4, and he is now scoring 21.4 points per game (up from 12.9 last season). He dropped 31 on Miami, 32 on Atlanta, and 27 points on Detroit. However, he can’t get the team wins unless they clean up the defense, which has been bottom 10 the last five games, in a very un-Heat kind of way.

Jazz small icon 17. Jazz (4-6, LW 7). No team has had a harder time adjusting to the “freedom of movement” rules on defense than the Jazz. Utah is giving up 109.3 points per 100 possessions, 17th in the league this season and 6.4 per 100 worse than last season. The Jazz like to be physical on defense, slowing guys off picks with a bump and grab, but that draws a whistle this season, and the Utah defenders have not mastered getting their feet in the right place and making the play that way. They need to if this team is going to reach its goal of being home for the first round of the playoffs.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (4-5, 10). Detroit has played the fourth easiest schedule in the NBA so far, and as it has gotten tougher the team has dropped five in a row. The problem in the losing streak has been the offense, which is scoring less than a point per possession in those five games. Teams have started to adjust to Blake Griffin having the ball in his hands as a playmaker, and Detroit has yet to counter.

Lakers small icon 19. Lakers (4-6, LW 21). Magic gave Luke Walton a stern talking to about the offensive system and defense, but at the same time he should be taking a look in the mirror — what did he expect with this roster. When you add LeBron James, he is the system. Also, the pace the Lakers are playing at is a system. Los Angeles picked up Tyson Chandler to help on defense, but it’s fair to ask if he still has that in him at age 36. Either way, it’s a low-risk move for Los Angeles.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (4-6, LW 8). Won their first four, but then dropped their next six, all against quality teams in the West (and five of those losses are on the road). During the losing streak New Orleans has had a bottom-10 offense, but the real problem is on the defensive end where they surrendered 116.7 per 100. Games against the Bulls and Suns next give them a chance to right the ship.

Nets small icon 21. Nets (5-6, LW 24). The most up-and-down team in the NBA — they got blown out by the Knicks, but turn around and blow out the Sixers. That said, the inconsistency has still been good enough — if the playoffs started today the Nets would be the seven seed. Tuesday’s win in Phoenix is the start of 7-of-9 on the road, with some rough stops against the West at the start of the trip.

22. Timberwolves (4-7, LW 18). Jimmy Butler is missing time for “precautionary rest” and “general soreness” which everyone around the league sees as pressure to force a trade, no matter what Butler and the team try to sell. There are times it looks like the Timberwolves are close to figuring it out (Lakers) and other times they look close to imploding. At least Derrick Rose dropping 50 was a great distraction and one of the best stories of the season.

Magic small icon 23. Magic (4-6, LW 26). They have won two in a row and it’s not a coincidence it happened when Jonathan Isaac had to sit (ankle), so Aaron Gordon could move back to his more natural spot at the four and the offense could start to flow. Coach Steve Clifford may have to stick with this rotation for a while. Orlando has 6-of-8 coming up at home — if they are going to make a push up into the East playoff discussion, it has to start during this homestand.

Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (3-8, LW 23). There have been stretches this season where the Knicks have started to show some spark and have looked competent — and then they lose to the hapless Wizards, and then drop a punch-to-the-guy double OT game to the Bulls. It’s fun to watch Mitchell Robinson play, there are reasons to tune in some nights, but with 6-of-8 coming up on the road it feels like the losses could start piling up even faster.

Mavericks small icon 25. Mavericks (3-7, LW 20). Dallas has played the second easiest schedule in the NBA so far, so their slow start should be even more concerning. So is the fact there seems to be tension between Luka Doncic — who keeps putting up good numbers — and some of the veterans on the team. It’s not just DeAndre Jordan going over Doncic’s back to get a rebound, just watching their interaction gives one the sense some veterans aren’t sure Doncic has yet earned his status. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki should be back in about three weeks.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (3-7, LW 25). Atlanta has played the easiest schedule in the NBA to date, just to put the early record in perspective. That said there are things to like (besides the up-and-down play showing the potential of Trae Young), for one moving Omari Spellman into the starting lineup. That worked well against Miami. Also, Dewayne Dedmon is back and averaging 8.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks a night — he is going to generate trade interest from contenders as we get closer to the deadline.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (3-8, LW 27).. Zach LaVine continues to prove his doubters wrong, the latest example the 41 points — including the game-winning free throw — Monday against the Knicks. That was a deserved win for the Bulls, they had been competitive but lost three home games to good teams (Denver, Indiana, Houston), Monday the basketball gods smiled on them. There are winnable games coming up at home against Cleveland and Dallas.

Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (2-8, LW 28). Washington earned a win over the Knicks and if they are going to turn things around it is now — the Wizards enter a soft part of the schedule with five more games against teams below .500. Of course, they dropped one in Dallas on Tuesday in another game where there was just a lack of effort on defense. No team has worse body language around the league than the Wizards.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (2-8, LW 29). Devin Booker’s return almost makes this team watchable again, and he had 14 fourth-quarter points in a win over the Grizzlies. He also had 20 points against Brooklyn but needed 21 shots to get there. Let the Suns be a lesson: In today’s NBA you need a decent point guard to run the show. The Suns front office remains incredibly active trying to land a decent point guard, the problem is there are not many available right now, plus everyone around the league knows how desperate the Suns are for one, which leads to teams trying to fleece them in a trade.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (1-9, LW 30). Cleveland finally reached a deal to turn Larry Drew from “the voice” into an actual coach of the team. That’s great, he gets a team where Kevin Love is out with foot surgery for a couple of months, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver want to be traded, and the veterans don’t think Collin Sexton knows how to play the game. Congrats on that new gig, Drew. Have fun storming the castle!

C.J. McCollum breaks Donte DiVincenzo’s ankles

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Donte DiVincenzo is an NBA rookie.

C.J. McCollum, despite a slump to start the season, is one of the better shot creators and scorers in the league.

Task a rookie to guard McCollum?

“Very disrespectful,” McCollum said postgame. “It’s very disrespectful.”

The result was an absolute breaking of DiVincenzo’s ankles by McCollum.

DiVincenzo wasn’t the only Buck getting thrashed by McCollum, who dropped 40 on Milwaukee in a quality Blazers win. McCollum was 5-of-10 from three but did more of his damage from the midrange, hitting 10-of-12 between eight feet out and the arc. The Bucks’ defense is designed to force opponents into inefficient midrange shots, but McCollum thrives in the midrange and it was a problem for the Bucks.

Don’t sleep on Portland, which is off to an 8-3 start behind monster games from Damian Lillard and an improved bench. Plus, now McCollum has broken out of his slump.

Three Things to Know: C.J. McCollum will kill you from the midrange, just ask the Bucks

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) C.J. McCollum destroys from the midrange with 40, Portland shows up big with a win over red-hot Milwaukee. Under new coach Mike Budenholzer’s simplified, clear system the Milwaukee Bucks have become an outstanding defensive team, allowing just 102.1 points per 100 possessions (third best in the NBA). They have done it by protecting the rim (bigs dropping back on the pick-and-roll to take away the drive) while trying to run teams off the arc. The goal is simple: force teams into less efficient midrange shots.

That works until you run into a guy who can drain midrange shots all night long.

Meet Portland’s C.J. McCollum. He was 10-of-12 between eight feet out and the arc on his way to dropping 40 on the Bucks and leading Portland to an impressive 118-103 win at home.

McCollum has gotten off to a rather “meh” start to the season — the Blazers were 7-3 coming into this game because Damian Lillard has been playing at a “you better throw my name in your too-early MVP talk” way, while Zach Collins and Evan Turner have sparked a surprisingly strong Portland bench. Tuesday night, it was McCollum’s turn to break out — and break the ankles of rookie Donte DiVincenzo.

It wasn’t all midrangers, these teams combined to chuck up 85 three-point attempts.

The Bucks were doing Bucks things. Giannis Antetokounmpo had nine — nine! — dunks and was putting up numbers with 23 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. Brook Lopez drained six threes.

Milwaukee played its defensive system well, it’s just that dropping the big on the pick-and-roll opens up the midrange and some guys will destroy you from there. McCollum is one of those guys, and it showed on Monday night. Especially in the second half Portland made McCollum the pick-and-roll ball handler with Lopez’s man Jusuf Nurkic setting the screen, so when he dropped back McCollum could find his midrange shot. As Milwaukee adjusted, the Blazers got Nurkic and others shots at the rim. That was your ballgame.

2) Poster Dunk: Hornets rookie Miles Bridges gets up high and Dewayne Dedmon isn’t going to stop him. This is how you attack the rim.

Kemba Walker loved it in a gif worthy way.

3) Luka Doncic continues to put up numbers, make an early Rookie of the Year case. It’s far too early to have a serious Rookie of the Year conversation — that award, in particular, is often won in the second half of the season, with the player who adjusts and improves racking up votes. That said, already Atlanta’s Trae Young and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton have put up impressive numbers.

As has Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who had 23 points, six rebounds, and three assists to lead the Mavericks past the early season pinata that is the Washington Wizards Monday night, 119-100. On the young season, Doncic is averaging 19.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. Doncic reads the play and attacks like a veteran.

It wasn’t just Doncic in this game, Wes Matthews had 22 and Dallas had a well-rounded night.

There feels to be a weird transition going on in Dallas with not all the veterans comfortable having Doncic as their best player (DeAndre Jordan going over Doncic’s back for a rebound recently is a perfect example). Just being around the team for a day you get the vibe that some of the veterans on this roster want Doncic to earn his status a little more, not just walk in the door as the Golden Boy. Okay, but watch him play and to me he is earning it.

• Bonus Thing To Know: Russell Westbrook’s nasty looking ankle sprain from Monday night turned out to not be that bad. After some rest and treatment, the Thunder are calling it a regular sprain, and while Westbrook is out Wednesday night he’s not going to miss extended time. There’s never a good time to have an injury, but if there was this is a good spot for OKC to be without Westbrook — Cleveland, Dallas, Phoenix twice, and Sacramento are six of the team’s next seven games. The Thunder have hit a soft spot in the schedule, where they can still get some wins without the former MVP.

Trail Blazers use second-half charge to get past Pacers 103-93

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Portland Trail Blazers may not need to rely exclusively on their dynamic duo to throw scoring punches any longer.

Their new supporting cast trades jabs pretty well, too, and it could make a real difference to their long-term prospects.

With Damian Lillard struggling Monday and C.J. McCollum scoring just 17 points, the Blazers got 17 points from Zach Collins and the first career double-double from former Purdue star Caleb Swanigan to put away the Indiana Pacers 103-93.

“They’ve been great for us all season. They’ve been keeping us alive all season,” McCollum said, referring to Portland’s bench. “They’re the difference between us being an average team and a really good team.”

It’s a series Portland has dominated.

They’ve won three straight over Indiana and eight of the last nine, largely behind the play of Lillard who had scored at least 33 points in three of his six previous trips to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. And Lillard was coming off back-to-back 40-point games.

This time the All-Star guard missed his first five shots, didn’t score until the final seconds of the first half and wound up with a season-low 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting with one rebound and two assists. McCollum was 7 of 15 with six rebounds and one assist and they combined for three 3-pointers.

In previous seasons, those numbers might have doomed Portland’s chances.

But Swanigan softened up the Pacers with his early flurry and Collins delivered the knockout punch by repeatedly scoring in the fourth quarter to help Portland pull away.

“The second unit came in and played really well,” said Collins, who matched his career high scoring total. “We ran the lead up and didn’t let it go down. In the second half, we did our job.”

The result: Indiana lost its first home game of the season with a lackluster performance.

Victor Oladipo had 21 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while Darren Collison added a season-high 17. Thaddeus Young added 16 points and Myles Turner had 10 points and nine rebounds on a night coach Nate McMillan hoped to see a stronger performance on defense and on the glass.

He wasn’t satisfied with much.

“We’re still working on establishing ourselves as a team, what works for us as a team – defending hard, rebounding the ball,” McMillan said.

The Pacers appeared to be cruising early in the second half when they took a 57-49 lead.

But the Trail Blazers charged back quickly by scoring five straight points, retook the lead during a 10-2 run and extended their 71-69 advantage by starting the fourth quarter on an 8-2 run.

Indiana didn’t get closer than five the rest of the way as Swanigan had 11 points and 10 rebounds, both career bests.

 

Three Things to Know: Boston’s offense lacks any magic in loss to Orlando

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Bad loss for Boston: Offense stumbles again and Celtics fall to Magic. I get it, we’re just four games into the NBA season and the Celtics are still adjusting to having Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back in the rotation. This early the defense isn’t expected to be at its switching peak yet. Everything is a work in progress and it’s far too early to even get nervous.

But the Celtics were manhandled down the stretch by the Raptors. Then Boston almost lost to an unimpressive Knicks team.

Now comes a home loss to Orlando. That is a bad loss. Boston is simply not playing well right now.

Following an unimpressive preseason, the Celtics are 2-2 to open the season after a 93-90 loss to the punchless Magic Monday. While Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin were able to get in the paint and kick out, and Nikola Vucevic had 24 and 12, it wasn’t the Magic offense torching the Celtics defense that was the biggest problem on the night. Once again, Boston’s offense looked out of sync, as evidenced by them shooting 7-of-20 in the first quarter or going 9-of-40 from three (22.5 percent). When the long Magic defenders stopped the Celtics’ initial actions, Boston players were not making passes that started good actions elsewhere, they just looked stagnant.

Meanwhile, the Magic had their young star, Jonathan Isaac, making plays.

The Celtics’ offensive chemistry is a work in progress — they will get there, this team will be elite, but it’s going to take a lot longer than expected. Everybody thought this would be more plug-and-play, that everything would come together quickly for the Celtics with their stars back. Things seemed to come more easily last season, it’s not that way this time around. This time, Brad Stevens and crew have a lot more work to do.

It’s just four games, the Celtics have the talent and plenty of time to get it all together. But this is not the start their fans envisioned.

2) Laker defense gets them in trouble, Spurs’ Patty Mills puts the nail in the coffin. Lakers remain winless. If you want highlights, this game had plenty. There was clutch LeBron forcing overtime.

Then, capping off a dramatic comeback where the Spurs scored the final seven points of the game in the final :55 seconds, Spurs veteran Patty Mills drained his game-winning attempt.

However, he did it so fast LeBron had one more shot to win it all, he got to his spot and…

The Spurs win, 143-142 in overtime.

Get past the highlights, and LeBron’s Lakers remain winless because of the same things that have plagued them through the first two games. The Lakers do not defend well at all (the Spurs scored 125.7 points per 100 possessions, and the Lakers are bottom six in the league in defense through three games). While the Lakers’ offense is great in transition, slow them down and they are very inconsistent (and searching for consistent shooting from three). Bottom line, if the Lakers get stops and can run they are impressive, but they don’t get enough of those, and then things are a roller coaster.

It’s just three games, but for a Laker team expecting to make the playoffs in a deep West, they need to start winning sooner rather than later.

3) Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris secure Wizards win a wild overtime game in Portland. Two of the best backcourts in the NBA — Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum for Portland, John Wall and Bradley Beal for Washington — faced off on Monday night, and the star was…

Markieff Morris?

Yes. Markieff Morris. He had 28 points and nine rebounds, including making key plays in a 125-124 overtime win for the Wizards. Damian Lillard was hitting clutch shots too, but with everything on the lin late Otto Porter rejected Lillard near the rim.

Rather than reading a description, just watch the highlights of the end of regulation and overtime, and enjoy.