Blazers lock OKC down on defense to take 2-0 lead

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Damian Lillard could not be stopped. CJ McCollum could not be stopped. Moe Harkless could not be stopped. Most of the Portland Trail Blazers bench could not be stopped. Now, after a Blazers win in Game 2, 114-94, we’re left wondering if the Oklahoma City offense can get going enough to avoid a third consecutive loss down 2-0.

As things got going Tuesday night in Portland, it was looking like it could be a more competitive matchup with Paul George saying his shoulder was feeling much better. George was more confident, and in fact, the Thunder led in the first quarter.

But things quickly went downhill from there.

Portland tied it with a McCollum 3-pointer just as time expired heading into halftime. That seemed to spark the Blazers, who came out hot on both sides of the ball in the third quarter.

Portland put the clamps on the defensive side of the ball to start the third, allowing just 21 points and then 19 points in fourth quarter.

Naturally, things got a little testy as the game wore on. Double technicals were issued to Zach Collins and Markieff Morris earlier in the game, and Lillard and Steven Adams got to jaw jacking after the Thunder big man laid the Blazers guard out on a screen.

This is how it’s gone between the Thunder and Portland this year. Technical fouls have been issued, guys have been in each other’s faces, and emotions have run high. For Blazers fans, Tuesday night’s game was not just a show of their depth, but their willingness to not back down from a fight.

Honestly? It was impressive.

After covering this team for the better part of this decade, it has always been a question whether Blazers good meter out there play when opponents toughened up on them. This version of Portland has played more as a team, but the Thunder are dishing out the shots needed to Test the mettle of the Blazers role players.

Oklahoma City, despite their offensive inequities, pushed the Blazers rotational players to the limit in Game 2. Portland’s best asset all season long outside of Lillard has been its depth, and although guys like Seth Curry, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, and Zach Collins didn’t pop on the box score, their impact was immeasurable.

Like we talked about after Game 1, the Thunder appear to be in trouble. It started with the uneasiness of George’s shoulder. Now with George feeling and playing better, OKC continues to look out matched. And although the Oklahoma City star was more efficient and confident in Game 2, Harkless again got an early block on George.

In short, things don’t look great for the Thunder.

So where does the series go from here? The Blazers took care of business at home at Moda, and things move to Oklahoma City. Still, there is some real questions about whether the Thunder can muster up enough offense to beat this Blazers team.

OKC is shooting just 16.4 percent combined from 3-point range during the series. The Thunder have three times more turnovers than made threes in this series, and it’s not immediately clear where they will be able to make that up.

George leads the team with more than double the made 3-pointers than the next closest teammate in Dennis Schroder. The problem is that George is shooting just 27 percent from deep, and his teammates aren’t helping.

Meanwhile Portland has been outstanding from the 3-point range, shooting 42 percent for the series. Lillard and McCollum combined to go 7-of-15 on Tuesday, and at one point Lillard was daring Westbrook to shoot. After one deep made three over the former MVP, Lillard turned to the crowd and said, “Bombs away!”

In Game 2 it was obvious that Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan had a decided to use pace to disrupt Portland’s defense, running on every made basket. It threw the Blazers off, but only for a quarter. The Thunder are going to need a strategy more dynamic than that as they try to beat the Blazers back at Chesapeake for Game 3 on Friday.

For a team with a player who likes to barrel through opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder found out on Tuesday night that the Blazers aren’t likely to pull back on the reins when they get some momentum going. Lillard looks unstoppable, McCollum was on fire, and Portland’s bench survived every gutpunch.

The Thunder are playing right into Portland’s plan, and they’re flailing as they head home down two games in the first round.

Blazers take Game 1, Paul George’s shoulder could decide series

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are in trouble. Yes, Russell Westbrook and Paul George lost Sunday’s Game 1 matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, 104-99. Portland lead by as many as 19 points at one point in the first half, but the Thunder rallied with solid play as they capitalized on Blazers turnovers.

But all that is in the background for now. At this point, after seeing George play with an injured shoulder — or shoulders? — it appears Oklahoma City has bigger issues.

George’s alter ego “Playoff P” was nowhere to be found despite the Thunder star logging 26 points, 10 rebounds, and four steals. That stat line was not indicative of how George played, particularly as a shooter. He shot just 26.6% from 3-point range, and was easily susceptible to blocks from the likes of Portland defenders like Maurice Harkless. George was inert, predictable, and unable to overpower his opponents the way he has as an MVP candidate this season.

News from Moda Center after the game from George himself wasn’t exactly encouraging, either. In fact, George said that he couldn’t even lift his shoulder four days ago.

Via Twitter:

The game still ended up being just a five-point affair, with Portland running out of gas and playing sloppy down stretch. Damian Lillard was the Blazers’ saving grace, adding 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter alone.

It’s true that the first game of the playoffs can often belie the true nature of the coming battle between two teams. There’s usually no need to overreact to a single result as coaching staffs make huge adjustments from game-to-game.

But it could be different for Oklahoma City.

Sunday’s game against the Blazers showed that Portland has enough firepower, particularly with their rotational players like Enes Kanter and Seth Curry. Former New York Knicks big man had a monster game, scoring 20 points with 18 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks.

You can also expect Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, and Harkless to make a bigger impact as the series goes along.

So where does that leave the Thunder?

In a word: exasperated.

That much was was clear after the game when Westbrook gave two consecutive “next question” responses to a reporter from Oklahoma City.

Portland has been a solid story all season, and they are more of a team-oriented squad now than they have been since 2015. Damian Lillard is a top five MVP candidate, and the fact that McCollum has come back from a knee muscle strain this soon is an indicator of how serious this team is about getting out of the first round.

The Blazers have been swept the last two postseasons in a row, and it was immediately evident in the first quarter on Sunday that they were not looking to continue that streak. Portland was everywhere, diving for loose balls, jumping into passing lanes, and giving maximum effort that petered the edge of control.

Westbrook played the way that Westbrook does. He notched another triple-double against the Blazers in Game 1, and the rest of the Thunder contributed in kind. But this version of Oklahoma City isn’t strong enough to beat Portland when they are firing on all cylinders, particularly as the Blazers have found a bit of depth and momentum heading into the postseason.

Blazers got a win at home and the Thunder continued their streak of losing the first game of the first round. Game 2 is on Tuesday, again in Northeast Portland, and the Blazers will have an eye on grabbing a serious lead before switching locations for Game 3.

Portland will be digesting tape and analyzing the Thunder’s tendencies. Oklahoma City knows that, for all their own study, their season could hinge on the treatment George can receive over the next 48 hours.

For now, the biggest question in Portland will be about George’s shoulders, and whether he can find some explosiveness to match the Blazers’ talent in Game 2.

NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

Three Things to Know: NBA players were as bored with Super Bowl as you were

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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) NBA players were as bored with Super Bowl as you were. Well, that was a dud. Tom Brady added to his legacy and the New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3, but the game itself was just a dull puntfest.

NBA players took to Twitter to say all the things you were saying to your friends during the slog of a game.

2) Portland tries to add depth, bolster its second unit with a trade for Rodney Hood. We know exactly how Portland is going to be defended in the playoffs: Opposing teams are going to trap Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, force the ball out of their hands as much as possible, and dare any other Blazer to beat them. It works because who is that third Blazer that scares you? Jusuf Nurkic has played well of late but isn’t a shot creator. Evan Turner was that guy running the second unit for the first month of the season, but he’s faded. It might have been LaMarcus Aldridge but he bolted for San Antonio years ago, and since then nobody has been consistent as the third option.

Rodney Hood is going to get his shot at the role the rest of this season and into the playoffs. Portland agreed to a trade for Hood on Sunday, sending Nik Stauskas, Wade Baldwin IV, and second-round picks in 2021 and 2023 to the Cavaliers.

It’s a decent gamble by the Blazers, one probably will not pay off like fans hope but also not one that risked a lot. Hood has been itching to prove he is a quality scorer, a bucket-getter, ever since he saw his role squeezed by Donovan Mitchell in Utah. In Portland, he’s at least going to get his chance. This season coach Terry Stotts has tried to play Lillard and McCollum together as much as possible (mitigating the trapping idea somewhat) and hoping someone could be a force with the second unit. Evan Turner was that guy for the first six weeks or so of the season but has faded since. Now Hood will get his chance.

We will see how that goes. Hood doesn’t get to the free throw line and that has always hurt his efficiency, but Hood is playing for a new contract and will be out there trying to get buckets. If it works for Portland they become a bigger threat in a West that, after Golden State, is relatively close and could see a number of teams make a run to the conference Finals. If it doesn’t work, not a huge loss.

For Cleveland, this is really about the picks. Hood wasn’t part of the long-term plans (neither are Stauskas and Baldwin), so to get a couple of picks for him is a decent play as they continue to stockpile for future drafts as part of the rebuild in Cleveland. This isn’t a haul, but for a guy in the last year of his deal, it’s not bad.

3) Clutch Kyrie Irving gives Boston a shootout win over Oklahoma City. Well, at least one game on Sunday put up a lot of points and was entertaining.

Boston moved into a tie for third in the East with a 134-129 win at home on Sunday and Kyrie Irving was the key. He scored 30 points with 11 assists in the game, and as it does the Celtics leaned heavily on him to make plays late in the game. With less than 30 seconds to go he got the ball in isolation, blew past Terrance Ferguson and hit the floater over Steven Adams that eventually proved to seal the win. Russell Westbrook still had a chance to tie or take the lead when he drove the length of the court with 13 seconds left, but Irving got in his way and forced Westbrook to fumble the ball and turn it over (something Westbrook rarely does in the clutch). It was just an entire night of Irving making plays.

Boston is playing as well or better than any team in the East right now. In their last 15 games, the Celtics are 11-4 with a +8.9 net rating, third best in the league in that stretch (Golden State and Milwaukee have been better). Boston looks like the team we all thought was the one to beat in the East going into the season.

The Thunder got big games from their stars, Paul George dropped 37 points and Westbrook racked up another triple-double with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 16 assists. The challenge is that, against the league’s best, they need more from their depth and it just isn’t there often enough. The Thunder are never an easy out with how hard they play, but their usually-stout defense was a step slow against the Celtics and it cost them.

NBA Power Rankings: Golden State is back on top and it feels like a return to normalcy

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Things seem back to normal, or at least back to what we expected, with the Golden State Warriors back on top of the rankings. Their biggest threats in the playoffs probably come more from teams in the East, not the West.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (33-14, last week No. 3). Golden State has won eight in a row, so are we done with the “what’s wrong with the Warriors” stories? DeMarcus Cousins is now the starting center for Golden State, and while he’s still shaking off the rust and adjusting after a year off (to recover from a torn Achilles), he already brings a lot to the table. His three-point shooting, his playmaking out of the midpost, his solid screens, and his ability to be a big body in the way on defense all give the Warriors a dimension they have not had since Andrew Bogut during the first title run (but Boogie is a better version of that player).

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (34-12, LW 2). Winners of five in a row, due in part to the fact Eric Bledsoe getting hot in those games — 21.6 points per game on 57.7% shooting, plus he’s dishing out 5 assists a night and is +16.4 per game in those contests. Can Bledsoe take that show on the road? Starting Sunday the Bucks head out for 8-of-10 away from their new arena, where they are 13-8 on the season with a +5 net rating — they are still good away from home, but not the same dominant force.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (36-13, LW 1). The Raptors are 25-11 in games that Kawhi Leonard has played this season, but maybe more impressive is they are 10-2 when he rests. Which he has done a lot of this season as Toronto tries to keep him happy and healthy. Leonard will be an All-Star, and it’s possible (despite a slightly down season) that Kyle Lowry will be in Charlotte, but what about Pascal Siakam? He has risen to a spot of vital importance in the Raptors’ rotation, so much so that with the game on the line Nick Nurse called an isolation for Siakam. And it worked.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (31-14, LW 5).. It’s not going to be fair to the team with the second best record in the West, but likely Nikola Jokic will be their only All-Star. Yes, Jamal Murray has a strong case, but the West is just so stupid deep with good guards that quality players are just not going to make the cut (Curry, Harden, Lillard, and Westbrook are locks, that leaves maybe one spot for Murray or Conley or Thompson or Booker or Fox… the West is so deep). Denver deserves two but may not get it.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (31-17, LW 8). This feels a little high for Philly, but they have won 4-of-5 and that includes blowout wins over Indiana and Houston. The Sixers have hit their offensive strides in those last 5 games, and their defense remains strong. Joel Embiid should be a lock as an All-Star Game starter in the East, but it will be interesting to see if Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons get voted in by the coaches. Will the coaches punish Butler for torpedoing Minnesota at the start of the season?

Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (31-15, LW 4). Victor Oladipo deservedly will make the NBA All-Star Game as a reserve voted in by the coaches, but do the surprising Pacers deserve two players in Charlotte? It’s tempting to say yes, but who is their second best player? Myles Turner? Does he really deserve to go? Domantas Sabonis is probably their second best player and could win Sixth Man of the Year, but does a reserve deserve to be an All-Star? Tough stretch coming up for Indy, 5-of-7 on the road ant the two home games are the Raptors and Warriors.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (29-18, LW 9). Winners of four in a row and 8-of-11 (although the only road win in the group was at Atlanta). The most impressive of those wins was against Toronto, and Boston went on a clutch 17-2 run late to make it happen. The Celtics have played up and down all season, but they have risen to the level we expected of them in recent wins against Indiana and Toronto, now they need to sustain it as the home stretch continues for 5-of-6. Saturday they can measure themselves against the red-hot Warriors.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (29-18, LW 7). Oklahoma City gets a lot nightly out of its starters — Russell Westbrook, Terrance Ferguson, Jerami Grant, Paul George, Steven Adams — as they are +14.3 per 100 possessions this summer. Sub Dennis Schroder in for Westbrook and that lineup still thrives. After that things get more inconsistent, but when they get big nights from the bench like they did Tuesday against Portland this team can hang with anyone. Interesting test Sunday night at home against the Bucks.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (29-20, LW 10). Portland has gotten strong play out of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic of late, but after them things drop off fast. Evan Turner and the strong bench that carried the team early in the season does’ show up nightly, especially on the road right now. Despite that Portland has the fourth best offense in the NBA over the last 10 games (119.4 offensive rating) and when the team can get just a few stops it can rack up wins.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (26-20, LW 6).
Clint Capela has missed four games, and in those games James Harden has scored 200 points, and the Rockets have gone 2-2. Houston has got 3-4 in their last 7 as teams are starting to give Harden a version of the defense used against Jordan and Steve Nash — let him score a lot, just don’t let him get anyone else involved and they’re vulnerable. The Rockets need other stars to step up. Chris Paul is expected to return this week, that will be a huge boost for Houston.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (26-22, LW 11). Ricky Rubio has returned from injury (he came off the bench Monday against Portland) and he is needed with Dante Exum and Raul Raul Neto still out). Donovan Mitchell has found his groove again, in his last five game he’s score 30 points a night average with an impressive 58 true shooting percentage, all with an increased usage rate (35.6%). Friday and Sunday it’s a home-and-home against Minnesota, which leads to the always fun Nikola Jokic vs. Karl-Anthony Towns matchup.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (27-21, LW 12). Most teams count on their starters to get them a lead and hope the bench can hold it, but for the Spurs their starting five — Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge — are +0.4 in their last 15 games, basically playing other starters to a standstill. It’s the bench and its three-point shooting that give the Spurs the lead. After a tough game Wednesday against Philly, San Antonio hits a soft part of the schedule for the next week plus (not all gimmies but winnable games) and they need to rack up wins to pad their record in a deep West.

Nets small icon 13. Nets (25-23, LW 18). One of the biggest changes in Brooklyn this season (especially the past month as the team has pushed above .500) is the ability to close out games. The Nets were terrible at it a season ago but are 10-9 in games within three points in the final three minutes this season (despite a -10.7 net rating). D’Angelo Russell has had big games lately: 34 points against Boston, 40 vs. Orlando, 31 against Sacramento, but in all those games combined he shot two free throws. Russell does not attack the rim and does not draw fouls, and that’s hurting his stock some coming into next season.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (25-22, LW 14). While the Clipper defense has struggled for much of the season (22nd ranked), it was bailed out by the offense. Until recently. In the last five games, the Clippers have scored just 102.8 points per 100, 25th in the league. Injuries that sidelined Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari have plenty to do with that, but the Clippers need to find their offense quickly. Los Angeles has started 1-1 on a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road that will decide its season, can the Clippers hang in playoff contention through all of this.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (25-23, LW 15). The Lakers have gone 5-9 without LeBron James but were finally going to get healthy — LeBron could be back this weekend, Rajon Rondo sooner — when Lonzo Ball went down with a sprained ankle that will have him out 4-6 weeks. Ball had been playing well without LeBron — 12.9 points, 6.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds a game shooting 38.9% from three — without LeBron and seemed ready to maybe step up. Now that is on hold. The Lakers are home this week but starting Jan. 29 hit one of their toughest stretches of the season.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (24-24, LW 13). Buddy Hield has a surprisingly strong All-Star case. He’s averaging 20.2 points per game to lead the rings, is shooting 45.5% from three, and is the team’s go-to scorer in the clutch (just ask the Pistons, or watch the video below. Hield isn’t going to make it this year — the West is so deep with guards with Curry/Harden/Lillard/Westbrook as locks for the game — but it would be good to at least see him in the three-point contest. The Kings are 1-3 so far on a six-game road trip.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (22-23, LW 16). Dion Waiters wants to play more — he got fined publicly complaining about it — and since his return he’s been solid but not blowing anyone’s doors off at 9.5 points per game, shooting 31.6% from three. He could get his chance to starts soon just because with Goran Dragic out and Josh Richardson running the point the Heat meed all the scoring they can find. The Heat went 1-3 on a recent road trip and still have 8-of-12 coming up away from South Beach.

18. Timberwolves (23-24, LW 19). The fans are trying to vote Derrick Rose into the All-Star Game, and while it’s unlikely the media and players go along with that Rose does remain one of the best stories in the league this season. That leads to a bigger question: If the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the fans, why not give them what they want? Why not put Rose and Dwyane Wade in the game? Rose is still making plays, just ask the Suns.

Pelicans small icon 19. Pelicans (22-25, LW 17). Anthony Davis is out for a while and is seeing a specialist, which is never a good sign (not that anyone in New Orleans is noticing, they are still angry about the no PI call at the end of the Rams/Saints game). The Pelicans are 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with their MVP candidate on the court and they need to find wins without him, as they did against the Grizzlies. The Pelicans are three games out of the playoffs and three games below .500, but if Davis misses much time that could get worse.

Wizards small icon 20. Wizards (20-26, LW 23). The Wizards are trying to make a playoff push (they are the nine seed currently, just two games out of the postseason) and to get there they are finding some success with their small-ball lineups that have Otto Porter or Sam Dekker at center. Bradley Beal is thriving in those smaller lineups. Washington got the win in London — and Thomas Bryant got his first game-winner in the NBA — on one of the strangest endings to a game ever, a goaltend with 0.4 on the clock.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (22-24, LW 22). Expect to hear a lot of Kemba Walker trade rumors the next couple of weeks, but I have yet to hear anything credible that the Hornets would be open to a trade — they want to make the playoffs then re-sign Walker next July. Charlotte has gone 4-6 without Cody Zeller (and are lucky to be doing that well, considering the -7.5 net rating in those 10 games) but has won 3-of-4 and need to keep winning to hold off charging Washington for one of the final playoff slots in the East.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (21-26, LW 20). How much does Dallas miss J.J. Barea? The Mavericks are 20-18 when he plays and now 1-8 without him, including losing 4-of-5. Getting Dennis Smith Jr. back will help mitigate some of that, he showed how much he could help against the Clippers in his first game back, scoring 17 points (on 17 shots, but he was a +9). Dallas has its next seven games against teams from the East.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (20-26, 24). Blake Griffin should be a lock as an All-Star Game reserve voted in by the coaches. Detroit remains just two games out of the playoffs in the East and wants to make a push (the loss to Washington Monday didn’t help) but they need more consistent play out of their guards and wings — Luke Kennard and Reggie Bullock have to step up.

Magic small icon 24. Magic (20-27, LW 21). Are the Magic going to be sellers at the trade deadline? There would be a lot of interest in Terrence Ross, some in Nikola Vucevic (teams love his game but he is a free agent come July, teams are not going to pay much for a rental), and there even is some Aaron Gordon buzz. However, that requires management and ownership to decide to throw in the towel on the season. The Magic are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and may not do that, thinking they would rather make a push for the eighth seed instead.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-32, LW 25). John Collins has been spectacular this season — like consider him for an East front court All-Star Game slot good. He’s averaging 18.8 points a night, is shooting 57.9% overall and 33.8% from three, is grabbing 10.4 boards a game and has a PER of 21.2. He has taken a leap forward this season. Collins probably won’t get the nod because he plays for the Hawks, but he has earned consideration.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-28, LW 26). The Grizzlies — losers of 12-of-13 — are finally open to the idea of trading Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, something that became public days after the two starts met with owner Robert Pera to talk about the future. That makes the trade deadline more interesting, but actually pulling off a deal for Gasol (declining skills and with a player option for $25.6 million next season) or Conley (All-Star level player but with $67 million guaranteed after this season) will be tough to do before the deadline. These could be July trades, but the buzz will be out there.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-38, LW 27). The Suns will be an interesting team to watch as they move into the trade deadline, they are willing take on salary now for picks and players who can help with their rebuild. However, teams are not giving up young talent easily, which is one reason the deadline likely will be so quiet. Phoenix’s offense has had its moments since the return of Devin Booker, but that hasn’t translated to wins as the Suns have dropped five in a row.

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-35, LW 28). Enes Kanter (who did not travel to London for safety reasons) was back in the starting lineup with Luke Kornet out with a sprained ankle for a couple of weeks. That will make Kanter happy, but it doesn’t make the team better — sub Kanter in for Kornet with the regular starters and the Knick offense gets 3.8 points per 100 possessions better, but the defense gets 4.3 per 100 worse. Bottom line, the Knicks have lost six straight and 14-of-15.

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (11-36, LW 29). Wendell Carter has played well and looked like part of the future in Chicago during his rookie season, which is why it’s such a blow he’s out most if not all of the rest of the season due to thumb surgery (he could return for the final few weeks of the season but don’t expect the Bulls to rush him). Chicago had lost 10 games in a row before Monday, when they took on the one team they can beat, the one team below them in these rankings.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-39, LW 30). How many players will the Cavaliers move a the trade deadline? Kevin Love is their best player, but he’s not back on the court yet from his foot issue and no team is taking on his massive contract without seeing him play. Could Tristan Thompson get moved? J.R. Smith, or is he more of a buyout candidate? The Cavs are rebuilding and should look to move any veteran for picks or young players. The Cavs have lost 16-of-17 games.