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NBA Power Rankings: Toronto back on top as team to beat in East

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Toronto is back on top after knocking off their closest Eastern Conference foes last weekend, but we keep waiting for some team to flip the switch and demand to be No. 1 in the rankings. The Warriors are disinterested, maybe the Rockets make that push if they keep winning? We shall see, we’re just halfway through the marathon NBA season.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (31-12, last week No. 3). The Raptors showed they are the team to beat in the East last weekend knocking off the Bucks and Pacers in back-to-back games. Even better news for the Raptors is Kyle Lowry returned to the lineup on Sunday. They had missed their All-Star point guard — since his injury the Raptors had gone 10-8 (he played in some of those games trying to come back but clearly wasn’t ready). Now the Raptors are healthy (except for Jonas Valanciunas, still out most of this month with a thumb injury) and have 5-of-7 at home in a soft part of the schedule to rack up some wins.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (28-11, LW 1). The Bucks’ offense has been on an absolute tear the last five games, scoring a ridiculous 122.1 per 100, led by a starting five that can’t seem to miss a shot. However, the defense in those same five has slipped out of the top 10 and it was an inability to get stops — or slow Pascal Siakam — that cost them against the Raptors. The next few weeks is the big test for these Bucks: They travel to Houston on Wednesday night and that starts 5-of-6 and 11-of-14 on the road.

 
Pacers small icon 3. Pacers (27-13, LW 2). Indiana has won 7-of-8, but the wins were them fattening up on the soft underbelly of the East. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Indy has been doing what good teams do — beat the bad teams consistently. The Pacers are winning despite a defense that has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA the past five games. The good news, the offense has clicked during the winning streak and been a top-10 unit. The one loss in there was too Toronto, and next up they face Boston Wednesday.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (23-16, LW 6). In Houston’s first 20 games this season, James Harden was getting up an average of 11.4 threes per game, but he has gotten red hot and part of that is Harden raining threes — 16.2 per game in his last 10, and he’s hitting 41.4 percent of them. Also key during this 12-of-13 win streak: Clint Capela. The big man has averaged 18.5 points per game in his last 10, shooting 64.2 percent and grabbing 16.2 rebounds a game, Capela looked out of shape to start the season but he has played his way back into it and has been a force.

 
Warriors small icon 5. Warriors (27-14, LW 4). The Warriors finally got healthy and… meh. The Warriors are 9-5 since both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green returned to the lineup, with a +3.2 net rating (12th in the league). Their offense is 12th best in the NBA, their defense is middle of the pack, and overall the Warriors look meh. The Warriors (and most people around the league) are in the “don’t worry, after the All-Star Game they’ll flip the switch and be fine” camp. We’ll see. Among the reasons for optimism is that the target date for the debut of DeMarcus Cousins has been set, either Jan. 18 or 21 in Los Angeles (against the Clippers in the first game or Lakers in the second). They could use his help in the paint.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (25-15, LW 7). It’s weird to say this about a guy averaging a triple-double (again) but Russell Westbrook is in a shooting slump. It’s been going on for about a dozen games but has been worse in the last five: He’s shooting 3-of-23 from three in those last five (13%), 32% from the midrange, and just 55.6% at the rim. But with Paul George playing maybe the best basketball of his career, Westbrook still getting in the lane opening things up, and with the best defense in the NBA, the Thunder are 8-4 in those last 12 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (27-12, LW 5).. The Nuggets continue to win but their offense is carrying them — they have the fifth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games, but the fourth worst defense. For the season Denver still has a top-10 defense, but it has fallen off sharply in recent weeks. Maybe getting Paul Millsap and Gary Harris back healthy (as happened last week) will change that, and Will Barton is expected to return to the lineup in the next week or two. That the Nuggets did as well as they did with three starters out speaks to this team’s depth. Plus they have Nikola Jokic hitting game winners.

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (24-17, LW 9). It was cathartic for Spurs fans to get to boo and watch a blowout win when Kawhi Leonard came back to town in a Raptors’ uniform, and you know DeMar DeRozan savored his first ever triple-double in that game. It isn’t just Toronto that got crushed by the Spurs, San Antonio is 12-3 in its last 15 and has the best offense and the best defense in the NBA in that stretch. Monday’s in in Detroit started 7-of-10 on the road for the Spurs.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (24-15, LW 10). Kyrie Irving missed a couple of games with an eye injury and it was interesting to watch the transformation of some other players: Gordon Hayward averaged 25.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 6 rebounds a night in those two, Terry Rozier looked scary again, and Boston picked up a couple of wins with good ball movement. The Celtics need Irving to be Irving to win, but they also need a little more of what we saw in those games mixed in (which is on Irving to lift those guys up). Are Celtics fans more worried about their team’s start or Anthony Davis trade scenarios?

 
Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (27-14, LW 8). When a big three is brought together, the question becomes “who is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team?” In Miami, Chris Bosh took on the brunt of it, but Dwyane Wade sacrificed too so LeBron James could lead. In Golden State, Klay Thompson probably sacrifices the most but every one of their stars does to make the whole better. In Minnesota, who is willing to sacrifice and still contribute? That’s still a work in progress. Joel Embiid is complaining about how he is used, Jimmy Butler wants more traditional pick-and-rolls, and Ben Simmons has not fit smoothly yet either. This isn’t a Brett Brown thing, this is the players needing to sacrifice for the greater good and so far that has not happened in Philly.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (24-17, LW 11). Looking for a third scorer in Portland? Look no further than Jusuf Nurkic, who has been a beast of late scoring at least 20 points in 6-of-7, including 27 points against Golden State a couple days after Christmas. Nurkic is doing most of his damage at the rim, with 75% of his shots in the last five games in the restricted area. Nurkic has made up for the slumping C.J. McCollum of late. After a tough stretch of the schedule, the Blazers are home and drinking good coffee against easier opponents for a couple.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (24-16, LW 12). The Clippers will be serious contenders on the free agent market — both Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant have been rumored… and maybe both could come — but don’t ignore the here and now. Montrezl Harrell might be the leader in the Sixth Man of the Year race and is a nightly must watch. Consistency has not been the Clippers’ hallmark of late, but the team has won three in a row and 7-of-10, using a softer part of the schedule to vault back up to the top four in the West — if the playoffs started today the Clippers would have home court in the first round.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (22-19, LW 13). The Lakers are now 2-5 with LeBron out, and where they miss him most is in the fourth quarter and in the clutch The Lakers are shooting 36.7% in the clutch (last 5 minutes, game within 5 points) since LeBron’s injury, scoring a league-worst 82.9 points per 100 in that stretch (the team is 1-3 in clutch games). Brandon Ingram just is not an “isolate him at the top of the key and let him go” kind of player, he can’t get to his spots, and he struggles. Lonzo Ball has great instincts but doesn’t read half-court plays well consistently, plus he is just not a threat to score on drives — he has no floater, can’t finish at the rim consistently, and is in his own head about free throws so he avoids contact. This is not what the Lakers imagined.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (20-21, LW 17). On paper the Jazz have been better than their record (they have the point differential of a 23-18 team) but it’s time for that to start translating to wins. Utah has 8-of-9 at home (and 12-of-15) and this is when the push needs to come. Defenses have adjusted and taken away some of what Donovan Mitchell wants to do, and while he needs to grow his game to counter those defenses, what the Jazz really need is someone to step up as a secondary scorer and athlete. Quin Snyder’s system can get them some buckets, but Utah needs a second scoring threat to reach the goals they have set for themselves this season.

 
Heat small icon 15. Heat (19-20, LW 18). Miami had won 8-of-10, Hassan Whiteside was playing impressive defense in the paint and Justise Winslow was making it work as the point guard. But then came an ugly loss to the Hawks — how is this team 0-3 to Atlanta this season? — followed by a loss to Denver as the schedule starts to turn tough. Those banked wins should help keep them in the postseason, but they can’t afford a losing streak the next couple of weeks. By the way, Dwyane Wade still knows how to make the highlight play.

 
16. Timberwolves (20-21, LW 20). Tom Thibodeau didn’t build up enough good will in the organization and community to survive the Jimmy Butler trade, and so he’s out and Ryan Saunders (son of Flip) is in. Minnesota has played better after Butler tried to sabotage the franchise, having gone 16-12 since Butler was traded (they got off to a fast a 9-3 start but are 7-9 since, mainly due to injuries to Derrick Rose, Jeff Teague, and Robert Covington). Karl-Anthony Towns has returned to his All-NBA form, but unless Andrew Wiggins consistently lives up to his status as a No. 2 option it will be difficult to grow and improve this capped-out team. Also, the Timberwolves have been dreadful in the clutch (-22.2 net rating, games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and that has to change.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (20-21, LW 14). Back in October and November, the Kings were a ridiculously good clutch team, but that has changed lately. In their last 15 games, 12 have been within 5 points in the final 5 minutes and the Kings are lucky to be 5-7 in those games considering their -20 net rating. The Kings have slipped below .500, have lost 5-of-6, and while just 2.5 games out of the playoffs they can’t afford a longer losing streak, it would be too hard to climb out of the hole. Which is why Tuesday’s loss to a Devin Booker-less Phoenix is so ugly for them. The Kings have a couple winnable games against Detroit and Charlotte at home coming up before the schedule gets tougher, De’Aaron Fox and the Kings need to get wins now.

 
Hornets small icon 18. Hornets (19-21, LW 15). How far has Frank Kaminsky fallen? Staring center Cody Zeller is out (broken hand, he’ll miss another month or so) and so James Borrego has gone to a starting front line of Devonte' Graham and Bismack Biyombo, and Willy Hernangomez got time at the give while Kaminsky ranks up DNPs. Charlotte’s best look is closing with Marvin Williams at center, but that’s not an all-game kind of thing. Kemba Walker is putting up All-Star level numbers and is even making half courters as he tries to run out the clock.

 
Nets small icon 19. Nets (20-22, LW 22). Every time I write this I still shake my head, but it’s true — if the playoffs started today Brooklyn would be in as the seven seed. It’s not going to be easy for the Nets to hold on to that (they have a one-game lead over Detroit in the ninth spot) and Brooklyn has the toughest remaining schedule in the East the rest of the way. While making the playoffs would be huge, just the fact this team is in the mix will help them lure free agents this summer (the Nets will have ample cap space and are in New York). Sean Marks has been amazing as a GM turning this franchise around.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (19-22, LW 23). Nikola Mirotic is missed in New Orleans. He has been out a dozen games now recovering from a sprained ankle, and without him the team has been 5-7, and while the offense has remained top 10 (it has slipped some without Mitotic’s floor spacing) the defense has been bottom 10 and is costing them games. I know Pelicans fans are sick of Anthony Davis trade rumors, but it’s not a media creation — teams around the league are obsessed with him and the fact the Pelicans are outside the playoffs has those teams convinced Davis is going to move on. Dell Demps is burning up the phone lines trying to trade for help, but this is a dead trade market.

 
Mavericks small icon 21. Mavericks (18-22, LW 19). Fun summer question: Will Dallas try to bring DeAndre Jordan back? Or, the better question may be: At what discounted price would the Mavericks re-sign Jordan for? Jordan is averaging an efficient 10.9 points and 14.1 rebounds a game, and he leads all NBA centers in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus (although that is the perfect example of the eye test not matching the stats). Watch the games and he just doesn’t seem to fit with Luka Doncic and the future of the Mavs. Jordan is a free agent this summer and will likely find the market much tighter than he expects, but could that lead to staying in Dallas?

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (17-21, 21). The Pistons do a surprisingly good job of keeping teams from getting to the rim — they have given up the second fewest shots in the restricted area of any team this season (Milwaukee is first), but when teams do get in the restricted area they are shooing 68.5 percent, the highest percentage in the NBA. Once you get past the defense, there is no rim protection. Detroit has lost 7-of-9 and slipped out of the playoffs in the East, the team has struggled to score, and now it heads out on a five-game road trip through the West. That said, the Pistons have a relatively easy schedule the second half of the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (18-22, LW 16). Memphis has lost six in a row, 11-of-13, during those 13 games they have a net rating of -7.3 (third worst in the NBA and below the Bulls, Hawks, and Suns), and the team has slid out of the playoffs in the West. It’s been ugly. The only thing we know for sure is Chandler Parsons will not be the Cavalry riding to the rescue (although it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where he gets traded/bought out before this summer). The Grizzlies play the red-hot Spurs Wednesday then head out for 4-of-5 on the road.

 
Magic small icon 24. Magic (17-23, LW 24). Magic fans want to see Nikola Vucevic make the All-Star team — he’s averaged 20.2 points and 12.1 rebounds a game, is shooting 38.1% from three, and his floor spacing and improved game have helped the Magic to what wins they have (17). Let’s stipulate that Joel Embiid will be the starting center for the East, after that who from that conference gets a nod over Vucevic? Brook Lopez? Al Horford? Can’t see it. The concern for Orlando is there is not just a center position, so if the coaches want to reward a lot of forwards — Pascal Siakam and Blake Griffin should make it in my book — Vucevic could get squeezed. I think Vucevic makes the cut, but it will fall to the coach’s vote (they pick the reserves).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (16-25, LW 26). Washington is 3-3 since John Wall went out for the season, with a slightly above-average offense and a slightly below-average defense. Sadly, in the East that’s enough to keep Washington’s playoff hopes alive. The Wizards might be open to being sellers at the trade deadline, and while John Wall and Bradley Beal aren’t going anywhere, the Wizards should be open to trading Trevor Ariza (again, he was picked up from Phoenix before the Wall injury). Ariza is the kind of veteran wing a number of playoff teams could want (the Lakers were very interested before), it would be a smart move by the Wizards to add some assets in a season they are not competing for anything of consequence.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (12-28, LW 25). Trae Young is being a bit more selective with his threes and has started to knock down his shots for the Hawks. In his last 10 games, Young is averaging 15.5 points a night and his hitting 50 percent of his 3.2 three-point attempts per game — a number well down from his season average of 4.9 attempts per game. He’s got the passing skills and he’s starting to figure out the NBA game. Atlanta went 0-3 on a road trip, came home for a night to beat the Hawks, and then went back on the road and fell to Toronto. Atlanta has two more games left on this road trip.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (10-32, LW 27). I know Suns fans want to see Devin Booker in the All-Star Game, but it’s a long shot. In part because the Suns stink. More than that, the West is just stacked at the guard spot. Stephen Curry and James Harden will be the starters (we can assume), after that there are three or four more guard spots to divide up between Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, Luka Doncic, Mike Conley, and Donovan Mitchell, among others. Hard to see Booker, as good as he is, cracking that group. Tuesday’s come-from-behind win against Sacramento (without Booker) snapped a six-game losing streak, just in time for Phoenix hit the road for 5-of-6.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (10-30, LW 28). Chicago wants to be sellers in the next month heading into the trade deadline. They just moved Justin Holiday to Memphis, a move that frees up minutes for Chandler Hutchison. Ideally, the Bulls would like to trade Robin Lopez, but he makes $14.4 million this season and it’s going to be hard to find players to match that salary the Bulls would want to bring in. Most of the league expects the Bulls will fall short in finding a trade and will just buy him out after the deadline, and a number of teams are ready to pounce if that happens.

 
Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (10-31, LW 29). Coach David Fizdale on the Knicks’ defensive struggles: ““I think just figuring out what these kids can handle and what was a little bit too much. This first half of the season was figuring that out. I think now I’m starting to see, OK, this is the kind of thing that they can really hang their hat on and here are the things we probably should stay away from. Moving into the second half of the season we’re going to try to trim it and simplify it that way for them, so that we can maybe find some consistency in the second half.”

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (8-33, LW 30). They have lost 10 in a row, Kevin Love is not going to return for a few weeks, and the one favor they did for an agent — putting together the offer sheet for Patrick McCaw to get him out of Golden State, then cutting him so he could be an unrestricted free agent — has the NBA league office investigating if the Cavs tried to circumvent the salary cap. Just nothing is going right for this team.

Donovan Mitchell adjusting to elevated expectations

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Donovan Mitchell quickly won over fans in and outside Utah with his electrifying play. Despite not being an All-Star, he stole the show at All-Star Weekend, charismatically building his platform and winning the dunk contest. He unleashed an insurgent Rookie of the Year campaign. He led the Jazz to playoff-series victory. He signed a lucrative endorsement deal and got a signature shoe.

Donovan Mitchell has made it.

And that makes him uncomfortable.

“I’ve never really come from a position where I’m not the underdog, if that makes sense,” said Mitchell, whose stature rose quickly for a player who initially intended to return to Louisville for his junior season and was still just a mid-first-round pick in 2017. “I haven’t really had that in my life.”

Mitchell is having another fine year, averaging 20.4 points per game. But he doesn’t look quite as sharp as last season, when he established himself as a co-franchise player with Rudy Gobert for the Jazz.

The future in Utah with those two can still be extremely bright. The ascent will be just be bumpier than hoped.

Some of Mitchell’s difficulties are unavoidable. He’s the go-to scorer on a defensive-first team – a tremendous burden.

Of the nine regularly playing guards with usage percentages above 30, only two have their team allow fewer than 105 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor – Mitchell and Russell Westbrook. Relatedly, Mitchell and Westbrook have the lowest true shooting percentages among those nine:

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(That’s Zach LaVine barely poking out behind Kemba Walker.)

The Jazz and Thunder have built systems around putting defensive-minded personnel on the floor, positioning players to get back on defense, gumming up spacing and expecting their top guards to produce anyway. It’s a big ask, one that depresses Mitchell’s and Westbrook’s individual efficiencies but works to the betterment of the team.

Westbrook was a seasoned star in his ninth season when Oklahoma City gave him that role following Kevin Durant‘s departure. Mitchell got it as a rookie and is continuing with it in his second season.

At times, Mitchell has tried to defer. His teammates urged him to keep shooting. This team was built to feature him, and a couple months of relative struggles don’t change the bigger picture.

Mitchell is the only Jazz starter who can reliably create for himself. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio are the only starters who can reliably create for others. Mitchell and Joe Ingles are the only starters who can reliably space the floor from distance. Utah starts a pair of traditional bigs in Gobert and Derrick Favors. So much falls to Mitchell offensively.

Opponents have adjusted to Mitchell more quickly than he has developed his game. They blitz him more often on pick-and-rolls. They shade toward him more quickly as he drives. They stunt off him more often rather than completely leave him to help.

Ever since Mitchell torched Dwane Casey’s Raptors for 25 points early last season, the coach – now with the Pistons – has emphasized Mitchell in scouting reports.

“There’s certain things we want to live with and certain things we don’t want to give up,” Casey said. “And him sashaying from end of the court to the other, one slot drive, one dribble to the rim – those are the things we’ve got to take away.”

Mitchell isn’t getting to the rim as often as last season, settling for more floaters. His catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage has also fallen from 41% to 30% – concerning because that should be more defense-agnostic.

“The season might not go the way I want it to this year, for me personally,” Mitchell said.

He’s figuring it out as he goes, but not quickly enough to maintain the sky-high expectations set for him entering the year. At least the Jazz (20-21) are winning a reasonable amount amid a tough early schedule that will soften. Team success, Mitchell says, is his priority.

This is a learning season for both Mitchell and Utah about how to best deploy him.

The Jazz will have an opportunity to reconfigure this summer. They could waive Derrick Favors ($16.9 million unguaranteed salary), renounce free agents Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh and open a projected $31 million in cap space.

Maybe Mitchell just needs more complementary offensive pieces, and that’d be the cash to get them. Or maybe continuing to emphasize defense while riding Mitchell offensively is the right formula.

This season has provided plenty of reason to reel in the Mitchell hype. It has not produced many doubters in him.

“He may have some growing pains,” Casey said. “But it’s there, and you never forget how to swim. He’s going to be a great player in our league for a long time.”

Watch Kawhi Leonard go off for a career-high 45, leads Raptors beat Jazz 122-116

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TORONTO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored a career-high 45 points, Pascal Siakam had a career-best 28 points with 10 rebounds, and the Toronto Raptors beat the Utah Jazz 122-116 on Tuesday night.

Norman Powell scored a season-high 14 points, and the Raptors won their fourth straight at home.

Jae Crowder scored a career-high 30 points, Derrick Favors had 21 and Donovan Mitchell scored 19 as the Jazz dropped to 10-12 on the road and 18-20 overall.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert scored 16 points, and Ricky Rubio had 14.

Leonard made all seven of his field-goal attempts in the third quarter and added five foul shots. His 19 points were the second most in any quarter by a Raptors player this season. Serge Ibaka scored 20 points in the first quarter of a Nov. 4 road win against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Leonard shot 16 for 22 overall, missing all three attempts from 3-point range. He went 13 for 17 at the free-throw line.

After making two 3-pointers in the first half, the Raptors connected on their first three long-range shots of the third quarter, turning a two-point halftime deficit into a 12-point edge midway through the quarter. Siakam went 3 for 3 from 3-point range in the third and scored 13 points. Toronto outscored Utah 44-32 to take a 95-85 lead into the fourth.

Toronto guard Kyle Lowry sat for the eighth time in nine games because of a sore lower back. Before the game, the Raptors said Lowry had travelled to New York last Friday to receive anti-inflammatory injections.

Rubio started after sitting out Saturday’s win over New York because of a sore left knee and sore lower back, while Crowder was back after missing the victory over the Knicks because of a sore left thumb.

Leonard scored 10 points in the first quarter, and all five Raptors starters made at least one basket as Toronto led 26-24 after one.

 

Ben Simmons on last season’s Rookie of the Year win: “It wasn’t a f—— race”

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Last season’s Rookie of the Year race really became about two men: Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell.

Voters overwhelmingly chose Simmons (90 first place votes to Mitchell’s 11).

Utah fans — who feed off the perceived lack of respect for their franchise — have not let that go, they booed Simmons when he and the Sixers came to Salt Lake City Thursday night. Which is silly, because what exactly did Simmons do except have an amazing rookie season.

Simmons was having none of it. Before the game he told Eric Walden of the Salt Lake Tribune:

“It wasn’t a [expletive] race,” Simmons said. “You saw the votes, right? … Did you see the votes? So what’s the question?”

After the game — where Simmons had a triple-double of 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists leading the Sixers to an easy 114-97 win — he told Jazz fans that they had motivated him, and their insults were weak.

“I love being able to come into an arena and hear boos and chants, whatever it is, see signs and come in here and win by 20. I mean, there’s nothing better than that.”

A few thoughts for Jazz fans. [To be up front, I was one of the 11 who voted for Mitchell for ROY.]

• There was no bad vote between Simmons and Mitchell, both would have been deserving.

• The NBA rookie voting rules say that players who sat out the first season of their contract due to injury are considered rookies. You don’t have to like it, but those are the rules. Blake Griffin won that way in 2011. We can debate whether the rule is fair (I don’t have a problem with it), but Simmons and voters just followed the rules.

• Why are you booing Simmons again? Because he dared to be good? Come on now.

• Simmons is right in the spirit of his comments, it’s time to move on. There are plenty of other things to freak out about with this Jazz team without pulling the scab off old wounds.

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis Antetokounmpo muscles Bucks into top spot

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The Warriors don’t care enough about the regular season to string together a series of wins and grab the top spot. Meanwhile, the Bucks and Raptors keep winning and keep playing like they care, so they are on top.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (23-10, last week No. 3). Milwaukee keeps racking up impressive wins, but it was their one loss that was interesting this week. Miami zoned off for stretches, cut off Giannis Antetokounmpo on the drive (as much as any team can), and made the Bucks beat them with jumpers — and the Bucks shot 9-of-43 from three. I expect we will see more of that philosophy going forward and into the playoffs (not the zone, but the idea of packing the paint). The Bucks — 34.8% from three as a team this season, 17th in the league — need to make teams pay for that strategy with jumpers. On Christmas Day, Giannis Antetokounmpo made his MVP case on national television (yes, it still counts if you do it against the Knicks).

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (25-10, LW 4). Every Raptors’ fans’ Christmas list had “Kawhi Leonard signs long-term in Toronto” at the top of it. We’ll see if Santa makes a special July trip to Toronto. Rumors fly around the league constantly, but only Leonard really knows what Leonard is thinking, and he’s not talking. Right now, on the court, the Raptors are flat — 5-5 in their last 10 with a middle-of-the-pack net rating (+2.4) in that stretch. Injuries and road games have played into that. One bright spot for the Raptors this season is the play of Kawhi Leonard in the clutch: he is shooting 60% overall and 50% from three in the final five minutes of a game within five points. The Raptors needed that.

 
Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (23-12, LW 2). Every week I want to move Golden State into the top spot in these rankings — I still believe that, when they are focused, the Warriors will be clear and away the best team in the league — they go out and have a disinterested, clunker game like they did on Christmas. So there they are in third. Also, the “death lineup” — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green — has played just 37 minutes this season and is -5.6 per 100 in that limited run.

 
Pacers small icon 4. Pacers (22-12, LW 6). Indiana got a lot of praise for signing Tyreke Evans this past offseason, he was going to be the boost their bench needed. Nope. He has been a disappointment – 36.3 shooting percentage, 47 percent true shooting percentage (way below the league average), and a PER of 11 (down from 21.1 last season in Memphis). The Pacers are winning without Evans, but they could use him. Indiana continues through a soft part of the schedule this week, with two against the Hawks and one against the Pistons.

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (21-10, LW 1).. The Nuggets had a light stretch of the schedule — one game over seven days (an ugly loss to the Clippers) — at just the right time as three starters (Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, Will Barton) remain out with injuries. The Nuggets have struggled defensively on the road, giving up seven more points per game, and they are just 8-7 away from the Pepsi Center, and that loss to the Clippers was the start of 7-of-11 away from home.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (20-13, LW 5). The Christmas Day win over the Sixers seemed to establish the offensive pecking order for the Celtics — Kyrie Irving eats first, then everyone else. That sense of an offensive order is something Boston has lacked this season. Getting healthier (Al Horford and Marcus Morris back, but losing Aron Baynes to a broken hand) certainly helped them win a couple in a row. Now comes a real test on the road at Houston, Memphis, and San Antonio. But if Kyrie Irving can do this with Jimmy Butler draped on him, the Celtics are in a good place.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (22-13, LW 8). Philly lost in OT to the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season but their were positives to take away, including Joel Embiid dropping 34 and 14 in the game (he struggled in the playoffs last season against Al Horford). The Sixers have gone 3-4 in their last 7 (although their net rating of +4.2 in that stretch suggests it’s a fluke) and the loss in Boston was the first of five in a row on the road as they head West.

 
Rockets small icon 8. Rockets (18-15, LW 11). Chris Paul is out for a couple of weeks with a strained hamstring, and as Bobby Marks of ESPN noted this is the ninth time since 2012 CP3 has missed time with a hamstring injury. That’s concerning. Before this latest injury the Rockets were 0-5 with Paul out of the lineup this season but they have gone 2-0 without him this week including James Harden going off on Christmas Day.
Harden has scored at least 30 points in 7 straight games and is carrying the offense — and the Rockets back into the playoffs as the team has won 7-of-8.

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (21-12, LW 7). When Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Steven Adams share the court together this season, the Thunder outscore opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions. The fact that the Thunder’s overall net rating is five points lower than that on the season speaks to the lack of depth around that strong core. Talk about OKC with scouts/executives around the league and there is a split about how far they can go with this lineup in the playoffs — some think their defense will carry them to the Conference Finals, others think you can scheme for OKC’s scorers and they will be out early. Hopefully, they’re healthy in April so we can find out.

 
Lakers small icon 10. Lakers (20-14, LW 10). It was a little jarring to see LeBron James leave the game with an injury on Christmas Day — the league may never have had a more durable superstar (and few have prioritized injury prevention and care like he has). Fortunately, the MRI came back clean and LeBron likely only misses a few games. The Lakers shot well from three against the Warriors (39.4%), a welcome change from the previous four games when Los Angeles struggled from deep and went 1-3. The Lakers are not loaded with shooters but they need to hit enough threes to keep the defense honest.

 
Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (19-15, LW 9). Portland struggled to stop Utah from scoring on Christmas — and the Jazz do not have the most dynamic offense in the league — but that speaks to one of Portland’s problems of late. In their last 13 games, the Blazers have allowed 112.1 points per 100, which is fifth worst in the league. The offense, especially with the bench struggling, cannot make up for that. A tough stretch of six games coming up for the Trail Blazers, starting Thursday with a home-and-home against the Warriors.

 
Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (18-16, LW 12). Go ahead and say the Spurs take too many midrangers if you want, they have won 7-of-9 and in that stretch have the best offense in the NBA scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions. Their role players have stepped up as snipers and the Spurs are hitting threes at a 47.1% clip in their last nine (but taking the second fewest in the league, 23.1 per game, in that stretch). This was a team a few weeks ago three games below .500 and looking like they would fade from the playoff picture, now the Spurs are ninth in the West just half-a-game out of the playoffs.

 
Kings small icon 13. Kings (18-15, LW 13). The dynamic play of De’Aaron Fox this season has overshadowed his backcourt teammate — Buddy Hield has been a sniper and scoring machine this season, averaging 20.4 points a night (leading the Kings), taking 45.6% of his shots from three and hitting 44% of them (and those aren’t corner threes either, he likes to be above the break). Hield has thrived in transition ant the pace the Kings are playing, often running to the arc and getting a clean look at a three. He has found his role in the NBA and is thriving in it.

 
Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (19-14, LW 16). A couple of wins last week against other teams in the playoff chase — Dallas and Denver — may be signs that Los Angeles has stabilized the ship after rough patch. Still, in their last 10 games the Clippers have allowed 116.6 points per 100 possessions, the second worst defense in the NBA over that stretch (sandwiched between the Knicks and Cavaliers, not exactly great company). A challenging week — Kings, Lakers, Spurs, 76ers — will give us a sense of if things have improved or not.

 
Jazz small icon 151. Jazz (17-18, LW 21). A quality win on Christmas Day over Portland was the latest sign Utah has found it’s defense again — in its last seven games it has allowed less than a point per possession (95.5), best in the NBA. The offense is still bottom 10 over that stretch but looked good against Portland on a big national stage — if Donovan Mitchell and the offense can just be average to good while the defense locks teams down, the Jazz will be poised to go on a run and get back in the playoff picture.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (16-16, LW 17). Charlotte is treading water (5-6 in their last 11) mostly because Kemba Walker continues to struggle — 19.8 points per game his last 10 but shooting 37.4% overall and 29.5% from three (his pull-up three is one of his biggest weapons). The Hornets were pretty average through a soft, home-heavy part of the schedule the past couple of weeks, they did not bank wins, and that could come back to bite them later in the season.

 
Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (17-16, LW 15). The Grizzlies starting five — Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. — is the third most heavily used lineup in the NBA at 326 minutes, and they are +11.2 per 100. After that, the lack of depth on this roster catches up with Memphis. After going 1-3 on a recent road trip the Grizzlies have 4-of-5 at home, with some winnable games, starting with Cleveland Wednesday.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (16-16, LW 24). Winners of five in a row and 9-of-11, a streak due to a top four defense in the league in that time (the offense is bottom 10 in that stretch). That’s not likely to improve with Goran Dragic out for a couple of months, coach Eric Spoelstra has said Justise Winslow will be the point (really a point forward) for the team in his absence. The good news for Miami as it fights to keep a playoff spot is it has 7-of-9 at home coming up.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (15-16, 18). This ranking feels almost too high for a team that has lost 9-of-11 and is in danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely. The problem during this stretch is on offense, where the Blake Griffin led team is scoring 101.7 per 100 in their last 11, third worst in the NBA. The main issue is their biggest concern all season: This is just not a good shooting squad. They have a dreadful team true shooting percentage of 51.8 in the last 11 games, worst in the NBA. The Pistons also have turned the ball over more of late, which doesn’t help matters.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (15-17, LW 14). Losers of six in a row, the Mavs have yet to win a game with Dirk Nowitzki in the lineup, which is both a concern and not the sendoff the future Hall of Famer deserves. That said, Nowitzki isn’t himself playing 8 minutes a game, averaging 2.2 points a night, and when you see him in person and how he struggles to move well, it’s just hard to watch for such a great player. Everyone is distracted from the Nowitzki issue because Luka Doncic is doing this:

 
21. Timberwolves (15-18, LW 19). We keep waiting for teams to fall out of the playoff chase in the West, Minnesota may be that team. The Timberwolves currently sit 13th in the West, three games out of the playoffs, they are 4-6 in their last 10 with a top-10 offense but a bottom-five defense. Which is a big disappointment for a team we thought was on the rise in the West back at the start of this calendar year. Minnesota is 1-1 so far in a stretch of 6-of-7 on the road.

 
Nets small icon 22. Nets (16-19, LW 22). Winners of 8-of-9 the Nets find themselves as the nine seed in the East just a couple games out of the playoffs. Which is a testament to the culture being built in Brooklyn. They have done it with a top-five offense carrying a bottom-10 defense during that stretch, not ideal but it is working. The Nets now have a home-and-home coming up against the Hornets, one of the teams they are chasing.

 
Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (15-19, LW 20). Losers of four in a row, and that can’t be blamed on the well-coordinated media blitz of leaks/comments by LeBron James and his camp trying to sway Anthony Davis to come to Hollywood. Is that kind of move by LeBron’s team fair? Whoever told you the NBA was fair? The fact that New Orleans had to answer questions is not that big a deal — if answering questions is disrupting your franchise the problem isn’t the questions — and the questions about how this team was built around Davis over the past seven years are legitimate.

 
Magic small icon 24. Magic (14-18, LW 23). The Magic are 2-6 in their last eight, and those wins were ugly affairs in Mexico City. The problem is the offense, which was a concern going into the season but has cratered of late scoring less than a point per possession in this stretch. Aaron Gordon looked like a rejuvenated player living up to his new contract early in the season, but in the last five is averaging 11.2 points per game on 32.7 percent shooting (although he is hitting 38.9 percent from three). The Magic need to find a way to rack up some wins at home in the next few days because on New Year’s Eve they start a six-game road trip.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (9-23, LW 29). Atlanta is on a three-game winning streak and got those last two on the road in New York and Detroit. They’ve done it with a balanced attack and some good games from their veterans Vince Carter and Jeremy Lin, plus some solid defense. Expect the Kent Bazemore trade rumors to start to ramp up after the first of the season, although matching his $18.1 million salary for this season (with a player option for $19.3 next season he will certainly pick up) makes it tough to find a home for him.

 
Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (13-21, LW 25). Among the plethora of problems facing the Wizards, they have not had Otto Porter for the last seven games (and it will be eight) due to a knee issue. Porter himself has not been a game-changer this season, they just traded for Trevor Ariza, but the Wizards gave up some depth in that trade to get the veteran wing and that lack of depth is exposed with Porter out. Washington has a stretch of games where they could get some wins — at the Pistons, then hosting the Bulls, Hornets, and Hawks — but whether Washington will care or play hard enough to win those games remains to be seen.

 
Suns small icon 27. Suns (8-26, LW 26). It feels like Deandre Ayton is getting a bit overlooked this season. Yes, his defense is terrible right now and he is reliant on someone setting him up (72.6 percent of his two-point shots are assisted), but the rookie is averaging 16.3 points and 10.6 rebounds a game. He has a lot of offensive skill and as the Suns put a better team around him Ayton can be a cornerstone. The brief high of the four-game winning streak came crashing own with losses to the Wizards and Nets, leaving the Suns 2-2 on their current road trip.

 
Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (9-25, LW 30). It’s hard to rebuild when guys can’t stay healthy: Since Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine joined the Bulls the team has had 114 regular-season games, but those three have played together in just 14 of them (and less than 5% of the available minutes in that time). Right now both LaVine and Bobby Portis are out with sprained ankles. That said, the Bulls have won a couple in a row against other teams down here at the bottom of the rankings, giving them a little boost out of the power ranking cellar.

 
Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (9-26, LW 28). The Kristaps Porzingis update saying he will be re-evaluated in February is a good sign. Ideally the Knicks would like to get KP a few games at the end of the season, just to jumpstart his offseason workouts (and let any potential free agents know he will be there in 2019-20). The Knicks are of five in a row — including the Bucks on national television on Christmas Day — and New York is about to head out on a six-game road trip.

 
Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (8-26, LW 27). The only questions left about this season in Cleveland is can they get anything of value in trades for J.R. Smith or anyone else on the roster. Cleveland would be happy to find a taker for Kevin Love, but with him stepping into a massive extension and missing time due to a toe injury there’s no chance he’s traded before the summer, and even then it seems unlikely.