Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Raptors’ reserves rolling, and they don’t plan to let playoffs stop them

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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DETROIT – Fred VanVleet remembers sitting on the end of the Raptors bench with teammates like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam last season. None held a permanent rotation spot, and they discussed what they would do better if they got an opportunity.

“If you’re made of anything, nobody likes sitting on the bench,” VanVleet said. “So, we’re all kind of pissed off.”

They’ve gotten a chance to channel that frustration into production, and they’ve sure capitalized. Those four and C.J. Miles, who signed with Toronto last summer, lead the NBA’s best bench and comprise one of the league’s top lineups.

“The question has been whether we’re going to keep them in, that group, during the playoffs,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said without even being asked about the postseason, a time most teams shrink their rotation. “And why not? Until they prove us wrong and prove that they can’t perform in the playoffs, that’s our plan.”

Toronto is outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions with mostly reserves in, one of the best marks in the last couple decades. Here are the top benches by net rating since 1997, as far back as NBA.com data goes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Many productive benches ground overwhelmed opponents into submission with tough defense. The Raptors’ reserves excel offensively and defensively. Their 110.8 points per 100 possessions ranks third among benches since 1997 (behind only the 2012 Spurs and 2018 Rockets).

Other benches are propped up by staggered stars who carry backups. Not in Toronto. The all-reserve lineup of Wright, VanVleet, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl is outscoring opponents by 22.2 points per 100 possessions. Of 43 five-man units to play 200 minutes this season, only the Timberwolves’ Tyus Jones/Jimmy Butler/Andrew Wiggins/Taj Gibson/Karl-Anthony Towns lineup has fared better (+23.4).

Here are the top lineups with at least 200 minutes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Casey said he has seen opponents juggle their rotations to play more starters against his bench. Yet, the reserves have held up. That’s a big reason he has so much faith in the group for the playoffs.

But Casey didn’t have much choice to entrust these recently deep reserves with bigger roles initially.

The Raptors lost DeMarre Carroll (traded to Nets), P.J. Tucker (signed with Rockets), Patrick Patterson (signed with Thunder) and Cory Joseph (traded to Pacers) last offseason. Shedding that depth was necessary to re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and remain under the luxury-tax line.

Of course, Toronto knew it had developing players who might have been ready for larger roles. But the way everything has come together has been incredible.

These players mesh so well. They space the floor and pass willingly. Wright, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl all have the length and mobility to swarm defensively, allowing the pesky, but undersized, VanVleet to aggressively pressure the ball.

They’ve formed an identity without commonality, the outliers adapting to the group.

They like to talk about how they’re young players trying to prove themselves. Wright is 25, Siakam 24, VanVleet 24, Poeltl 22. But Miles is 30 years old and in his 13th season

“The exuberance they have and the way they play the game, it keeps me in it,” Miles said.

They bring how they’ve all been overlooked. Wright and Siakam were drafted in the 20s. Miles was a second-rounder. VanVleet went undrafted. But Poeltl was a top-10 pick.

“I feed a lot off my teammates’ energy, also,” Poeltl said. “I’m the type of guy that, if we all get fired up, I get dragged along with that. And then, at that point, I also bring a lot of energy to the table. That drags my teammates with me.”

Another trait contagious among the group: unselfishness.

Some emanates from Wright and VanVleet. Both essentially point guards, they were competing for a spot on the depth chart a year ago. Now, VanVleet is in a contract year, and Wright will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Both admitted some trepidation about playing together.

“It would be easy for me to be selfish going into my contract year,” VanVleet said. “It would be easy for Delon to try to make his mark going forward.”

Yet, they make it work. When VanVleet initiates the offense, Wright cuts. When Wright initiates the offense, VanVleet spots up.

“It was really our first stint of having a role on a team,” Wright said. “So, I don’t think there’s no time to be selfish when you’re just getting your opportunity.”

Of course, that attitude can’t last forever. The Raptors’ reserves are tasting success and hungering for more.

“People are asking why we’re so good. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got good players.

“We know most of us, if not all of us, can start on other teams. And that’s something that we hold to our heart.”

VanVleet probably won’t overtake Lowry or DeMar DeRozan to start in Toronto’s backcourt. But as a restricted free agent this summer, he’ll have the first opportunity to seek a starting job elsewhere. Toronto faces a potential luxury-tax bill next season and might decide not pay VanVleet, especially with Wright there.

For now, the Raptor reserves are just gearing up for the playoffs and enjoying each other’s company.

“The camaraderie we have as a unit is unbelievable,” Miles said. “It’s non-stop laughter, not-stop joking.”

The newcomer, Miles saw that brewing when he arrived over the summer. He recognized a group of young players who bonded over their lack of playing time and thought back to his first few seasons, when he was in the same boat. He told his emerging younger bench-mates he wanted to be part of what they were doing, not an outsider.

Now, they’re dominating.

“It’s really special when you think about it,” Miles said.

Spencer Dinwiddie wins All-Star Skills Contest

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LOS ANGELES — Anyone who knew the Spencer Dinwiddie story knew not to count him out when he looked down.

That was true when at Colorado he had played his way into the first round of the draft, maybe the 2014 lottery, until an ACL injury derailed him. He had to battle back from a devastating injury, push his way back through the then D-League to the NBA, and wait for his chance. When he got it this season in Brooklyn (after the Jeremy Lin injury) he grabbed it and has had a quality NBA season for the Nets.

So when Dinwiddie was behind the Kings’ Buddy Hield in the first round of the All-Star Saturday Night Skills Contest, he needed a little help. Dinwiddie got it when Hield missed his first three (you have to close out the race with a made three), Dinwiddie caught up and drained his on a pull-up jumper.

Forget the fact Dinwiddie is shooting 28.5 percent on pull-up threes this season, he did the same thing to Jamal Murray in the semi-finals.

Dinwiddie boat raced Bulls’ rookie Lauri Markkanen in the finals when the big man struggled with the passing skill and got so far behind it was over.

“It’s big for me to even be at All-Star Weekend considering the road that’s been in my career, very up and down, Dinwiddie said. “Obviously being in the G-League both on assignment and as a G-League player, thank you to the Brooklyn Nets for giving me this opportunity to play and be here.

Then it all really feels and seems full circle because I got to come home and do it in front of my family.”

Dinwiddie was born in Los Angeles and played his high school ball at Taft High School in Woodland Hills (in LA’s San Fernando Valley). He went against the likes of Jrue Holiday and DeMarre Carroll, and he learned some hard lessons there.

It’s all paying off now for Dinwiddie, who has proven he belongs in the NBA.

And that he’s got skills.

Jayson Tatum’s key plays late helps Celtics edge Nets for sixth straight victory

Associated Press
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NEW YORK (AP) — With a couple big wins behind them and a long plane ride ahead, the Boston Celtics knew they were in for a rough game.

“I think everybody had to push through,” rookie Jayson Tatum said.

Tatum did most of the pushing at the end.

He had a driving dunk and a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions, pulling the Celtics out of a late hole and leading them to an 87-85 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday night.

Playing without Al Horford because of a sore left knee, Boston won its sixth straight heading into its trip to London to face Philadelphia on Thursday.

The Celtics were trailing by one when Tatum got the ball and drove for a powerful slam that gave them an 84-83 lead. Kyrie Irving missed on Boston’s next possession but wrestled the ball away from DeMarre Carroll and got it to Tatum in the corner near the Boston bench, and his 3 made it 87-83 with 45 seconds to play.

“He is not scared of the moment,” coach Brad Stevens said about the No. 3 pick. “Never has been.”

The Nets cut it two on Joe Harris‘ tip and had a bunch of chances to tie in the final seconds, but missed a series of shots near the basket, with DeMarre Carroll appearing to be injured during the sequence.

Irving finished with 21 points, and Tatum added 14.

Both teams shot under 40 percent, with the Celtics perhaps worn out after a draining week in which they beat Cleveland on Wednesday and Minnesota on Friday in nationally televised games at home. But they played their usual rock-solid defense, limiting the Nets to 33 percent shooting from the field and 19 percent from 3-point range.

“For us as a young, developing group to really will ourselves to that win, of course there are some games where we’re not necessarily going to score over 90 points,” Irving said. “But on the flip side, we can hold teams to under 90 points so we’ll always give ourselves a great chance to win if we’re playing at a high level on the defensive end.”

Spencer Dinwiddie had 20 points for the Nets, who were bidding for their first three-game winning streak of the season.

They’re also trying to earn respect, and Dinwiddie feels they aren’t getting it yet from referees.

“When you approach somebody and they shush you or they wave you off like you’re not a man, you know what I’m saying, or something of that nature,” Dinwiddie said, “that’s also frustrating to already be in a position of feeling like you’re not getting the same respect.”

Harris had 10 points and 12 rebounds in his first career double-double.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors back into top spot, Raptors up to third

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Didn’t we all assume Golden State would spend most of the season on top of these rankings? Boston’s hot start and Houston’s amazing run kept them out once the season tipped off, but Golden State is back on top (even without Stephen Curry, and the team not playing near its peak). Toronto has become the highest rated team in the East, Oklahoma City has climbed into the Top 10, and on the other end Orlando gives us a new 30.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (27-7 Last Week No. 2). When you win of 12-of-13 coaches tend to stick with what’s working, but on Christmas Day Steve Kerr shook things up again and went small, sitting Zaza Pachulia and starting rookie Jordan Bell (although the lineup they had the most success with was the starters with Andre Iguodala in for Patrick McCaw). The “Hamptons five” lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green has only played 58 minutes total and been unimpressive -8.6 per 100 possession this season (in part due to injuries). What small ball lineup has worked is Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and David West, which was +4 vs. Cleveland and is +10.8 points per 100 possessions on the season.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (25-7, LW 1). Houston has lost three in a row, including to the Thunder on Christmas day, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three games the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. Over last 10 they are allowing 111 per 100 (29th in NBA). Clint Cappela and Luc Mbah a Moute being out for some of that stretch is a huge impact. Things don’t get easier with Boston and Washington on the road as the next two games.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (23-9, LW 5). They have won 12-of-14 through a soft part of the schedule recently (despite an ugly loss to Dallas Tuesday) — that’s what good teams do, beat the teams they are supposed to beat, not play down to them. If the definition of a contender is a top-10 offense and defense Toronto qualifies (fourth in offensive rating, sixth in defensive rating). This team is legit, but will be judged on the playoffs, and how they do when the schedule gets tougher, such as Wednesday night (Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back).

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (27-10, LW 3). They have lost 3-of-4, including to the Wizards on Christmas Day (and frankly should have lost to Indiana five games ago but the Pacers literally threw the game away). The problem over that five-game stretch is the defense has taken a step back, with the Celtics fouling too much (second most in the league over 5 games) and not getting rebounds the way they once were. Fixable problems, but something to address. Another big test Thursday hosting Houston (who has stumbled of late, too).

Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (24-10 LW 4). The Cavaliers are not into moral victories, but on Christmas they hung with the Warriors while playing without Isaiah Thomas (granted, no Curry for the Warriors) and if LeBron had gotten a call late maybe things are different. The Cavs (and a resurgent Jae Crowder) showed they have some matchups that can be troubling for the Warriors. More concerning is the Cavaliers going back to playing poor defense — they did fairly well on Christmas when focused, but over the last five games the Cavaliers are 25th in the NBA defensively.

Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (24-11, LW 6). San Antonio is bringing Kawhi Leonard along very slowly upon his return — he is averaging 17.5 minutes a game in the four games he’s played, and he’s been rested in there, too. He’s been efficient when playing — eFG% of 55.6%, PER of 24.6 — but with a soft part of the schedule ahead and a good team led by LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, the Spurs can afford to be very patient and think long term. It’s about the playoffs, not December games.

7. Timberwolves (21-13, LW 7). Winners of four in a row, including over a depleted Lakers team on Christmas where Karl-Anthony Towns was too much for Los Angeles. Still, Jimmy Butler played 41 minutes, Towns almost 40, and the two of them and Andrew Wiggins are all in the top 15 in minutes played total in the NBA this season. Young legs or not they may start to wear down. Tom Thibodeau needs to get more Nemanja Bjelica or someone off the bench into the rotation.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (19-15 LW 15).. Oklahoma City has won five in a row and during that stretch has a 115 offensive rating, best in the NBA for that stretch (even better than the Rockets and their historic offensive pace). But are the Thunder really better? They are 11-4 in their last 15 but with a net rating of +1.3 (which should have them more like 8-7 or 9-6 in that stretch), what’s changed is they are winning close games now. The Thunder were not as bad as their record looked early, but aren’t as good as their record of late, either.

Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (19-15, LW 9). Washington’s small-ball lineup — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, and Markief Morris — hasn’t played much this season, but when it has it is +42.3 points per 100 possessions. Coach Scott Brooks went to it at the end of Washington’s Christmas Day win over Boston and the lineup was +11 in the final 6:37. We need to see more of that group.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (19-15, LW 11). They have won three in a row, including beating Portland on the road and snapping Golden State’s win streak — that’s a good week. The Nuggets still need to get a lot more out of their bench to win consistently, but they look like a solid playoff team in the West. Fun showdown Wednesday night between Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns, two of the best young bigs in the game.

Pistons small icon 11. Pistons (19-14, LW 10). Detroit has won 5-of-6 (including a quality win at home over Indiana Tuesday) and while the defense has remained solid through that stretch, it’s an improved offense — 4 points per 100 possessions improved over their season average — that has driven the streak. However, Reggie Jackson now Reggie Jackson is out 6-8 weeks with a grade 3 sprain suffered against the Pacers, and the Detroit offense is 2.6 points per 100 worse when he is off the court. A lot falls on Ish Smith and Langston Galloway now.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (19-15, LW 8). Victor Oladipo continues to tear it up — he has seven 30-point games this season, he had just nine in his career up his move to Indiana. He’s got to be an All-Star. The Pacers have gotten off to this good start because they don’t lose to weak teams, and they have a few of those on the schedule this week again (although both Dallas and Chicago are playing better and will not just roll over).

Heat small icon 13. Heat (18-15, LW 17). Miami can’t seem to get everybody healthy at once, and Dion Waiters admits he may need off-season surgery to get fully right with his ankle, but they got Goran Dragic and James Johnson back and have kept on winning. The reason they are racking up victories is their middle-of-the-pack defense for most of the season has been fifth in the NBA over their last 10 games (and Miami is 7-3).

Bucks small icon 14. Bucks (17-15 LW 12). Giannis Antetokounmpo only missed one game with a banged up knee, and had 28 points in his return (although the Bucks still lost to the Bulls). Tony Snell is back as well and had the go-ahead bucket in a big win over Cleveland (although Jason Kidd telling Khris Middleton to miss a free throw up three with seconds left in that game is bizarre — hit the free throw, go up four, and don’t foul; Kidd said he wanted to avoid a four-point play, but left his team open to a three tying it).

Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (17-16, LW 16). New Orleans went 2-2 on a recent four-game road swing, which included a quality win over Miami. New Orleans is desperate to make the playoffs (why they are not trading DeMarcus Cousins) and currently are tied with Portland for the 7/8 seed in the West, three games up on Utah in ninth. This week the Pelicans have a back-to-back at home against the Mavericks and Knicks, but New Orleans has been a solid 3-2 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (17-16, LW 13). Welcome to the make-or-break part of the season for New York — the team is 2-10 on the road this season and now 16-of-20 are on the road. Keep playing like that and by the time the Super Bowl kicks off they will be well out of the playoff chase. The Knicks got up to one game over .500 on the back of Kristaps Porzingis, but he has shot a little bit worse away from Madison Square Garden, and in general on the road the Knicks offense falls apart, scoring less than a point per possession.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (17-16, LW 14). The Trail Blazers had lost 8-of-11 before beating the Lakers Saturday (the 14th time in a row they have beaten LA). In their last dozen games, the Trail Blazers fourth in the league defense this season (if you remove garbage time from the equation) has stepped back to the middle of the NBA pack, but the more confounding thing is their offense has remained terrible (28th in the NBA in those dozen games). The good news is they should have Damian Lillard back on Thursday to go against the Sixers.

Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (15-18, LW 18). Christmas Day was just another sign just how much Joel Embiid means to this team — the Sixers outscored the Knicks 90-65 when he was on the court, but were outscored by 18 when he was off and had to scrap to hold on to a win. That game in New York has the Sixers 1-1 to start a five game road trip that swings West now, but then Philly comes home for 5-of-6 as they try to string together some wins and get back in the playoff picture.

Clippers small icon 19. Clippers (14-19 LW 22). Blake Griffin is expected back this week — maybe Sunday at home, if not then on the road not long after — and they need him. Los Angeles was 6-8 without Griffin, and they sit three games out of the playoffs. Make a run during an upcoming five-game homestand and maybe management decides to keep DeAndre Jordan at the trade deadline and make a run at the postseason. The more likely scenario is he gets moved, however.

Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (15-20, LW 19). According to stats at Cleaning the Glass, Utah has been one of the unluckiest teams in the NBA this season. They have the point differential of a team that is 18-17, not 15-20, and that’s the difference between being in the playoffs or three games out of it, as they are right now. Things don’t get easier with a game against Golden State Wednesday then Cleveland on Saturday.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (12-21, LW 20). Take the wins where you can get them — so if you beat the Knicks without Porzingis or the Bucks without the Greek Freak, you take them. This team is still all about Kemba Walker — they are 20.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court, and when he sits the offense falls apart (scoring 94.9 per 100). Averaging 21.5 points and 5.8 assists per game, Kemba should make the All-Star game again, but we’ll see if the coaches put him there.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (11-22 LW 23).. Cleveland ended the Bulls winning streak at six, and then another loss to Boston followed. It happens when facing teams that good, but the Bulls bounced back with a road win over the Bucks. Chicago started winning against a soft spot in the schedule, that’s about to change and we will see how well Nikola Mitotic and the team fare.

Suns small icon 23. Suns (13-23, LW 25). Devin Booker returned on Tuesday night, dropped 32 on Memphis and got Phoenix the win. They needed him back, they went 3-7 without him. However, Booker was off the court when the Suns got a creative win via coach Jay Triano and veteran Tyson Chandler — you can’t have basket interference on an inbounds pass (because it’s not a shot and can’t score), so Triano drew up a play to have Chandler flush down and alley-oop over the rim.

Nets small icon 24. Nets (12-21, LW 21). Brooklyn’s starting/closing five — Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Tyler Zeller — outscore opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions, and allow less than a point per possession on defense. The bench, on the other hand, is a disaster, but if they can keep the game close the Nets best five can hang with almost anyone.

Lakers small icon 25. Lakers (11-21 LW 24). They snapped the Warriors’ 14 game winning streak but have dropped three straight since, including on Christmas night to the Timberwolves (without Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball). Andrew Bogut and Luke Walton have said the swirling trade rumors around the team (specifically for Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle) may be throwing the young players off mentally. Everyone has seemed a little off for the Lakers lately — except Kyle Kuzma. He’s never off.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (10-25 LW 27). The upset of the Toronto Raptors Tuesday night was a reminder this team hasn’t been winning a lot but it’s played a lot of close games lately. Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass site has the Mavs as the least lucky team in the league, they should have 14 or 15 wins by net rating, but have lost some close games. Dallas has found an offensive groove lately, fueled by J.J. Barea (20 points vs. Toronto) and Yogi Ferrell.

Kings small icon 27. Kings (11-22, LW 28). It’s strange to say this about an 11-win team, but Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass site has them as the luckiest team in the NBA. They should be 7-26 (and on the bottom of these rankings) based on point differential, but they’ve had some luck in close games. The Kings have 7-of-8 at home, where they are 5-8 this season.

Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (10-24, LW 29). If you’re looking for a reason to watch a team that has lost 9-of-11 and grinds the game down with a slow pace, there is Dillon Brooks. The rookie out of Oregon has played fairly well, and is shooting 36.4 percent from three. He shows promise. The last-second loss in Phoenix was the start of a five-game road trip out West that includes Golden State Saturday.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (8-25, LW 30). Atlanta has found an offensive groove the past few weeks, and at the core of it is a strong front court rotation where Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee start and rookie John Collins comes in off the bench and is efficient. When Dennis Schroder is on, this is a dangerous offensive team. Just one that can’t get stops.

Magic small icon 30. Magic (11-24, LW 26). Losers of 9 in a row and you can blame injuries for part of that — four of their five opening night starts are injured now, with Elfrid Payton being the last one standing. The ill-fitting Orlando roster was something coach Frank Vogel made work when he had all his players to start the season, but take away a few pieces and the Jenga tower crumbles. Some around the league wonder if Vogel’s seat is getting warm.