Associated Press

Three Things to Know: New look Bucks remind Raptors East full of threats

Leave a comment

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) Bucks rain threes, throw down dunks, remind Raptors the top of the East is a Battle Royale. Here’s my primary takeaway from Milwaukee’s 104-99 win in Toronto Sunday:

I can’t wait for the second round and beyond of the Eastern Conference playoffs next May.

Any combination of the big four teams — Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia — is going to be a compelling combination of slugfest and chess match. All those teams are deep with talent, have versatility, can knock down threes, can defend, and any one of them can win the East’s King of the Mountain battle next May (although the Sixers have a little work to do).

The Bucks reminded the Raptors on Sunday not to count them out.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the focus of the army of long, athletic wing defenders the Raptors can roll out — Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green — and, thanks to smart help (at different times and angles) they did as much as anyone can do to make Antetokounmpo look human, he finished with “just” 19 points on 15 shots. Of course, he also had 19 rebounds, 6 assists, but he didn’t take over the game. Toronto had clearly focused on making it difficult for the Greek Freak to beat them, although he still was doing this (even if it didn’t count).

What the Bucks had was other guys to step up. Brook Lopez was every bit of Splash Mountain scoring 19 points and going 5-of-8 from three, including a beautiful step back at one point. Then, with the game on the line, Malcolm Brogdon was doing this.

These are not the Jason Kidd Bucks anymore, this is a modern NBA team now — they took 39 threes and only 12 of their 87 shots came between 8 feet of the rim and the three-point arc (13.8 percent of their shots from that midrange). Credit the Raptors defense, that’s more midrangers than the Bucks usually take. However, under Mike Budenholzer these Bucks are committed to their style of play.

So is Toronto under Nick Nurse, and they took 44 threes, hitting 15 (34.1 percent). The Raptors just were not as efficient: Serge Ibaka had 22 points but needed 21 shots, Leonard had 20 points on 18 shots.

That is where Toronto needs Kyle Lowry to step up, but he is in the middle of a terrible shooting slump and was scoreless in this one (he did have seven assists, he’s more of a playmaker now, but he still needs to be a threat to score for it all to come together). Lowry was 0-of-5 Sunday, making him 5-of-32 in his last five games.

This was a highly entertaining, up-and-down game that for a few minutes became the Brogdon vs. Fred VanVleet shootout we all expected (VanVleet had 19 off the bench). Actually, it speaks to the depth of these rosters that this game could become that and never lose its energy.

Milwaukee got the win Sunday, but next May if these teams meet in the playoffs we’re all going to win.

2) In the wake of a 56-point blowout loss, Bulls players call for meetings, everybody vents. When Fred Hoiberg was fired, Bulls management didn’t give Jim Boylen the interim tag as the new coach, they gave him the job for the rest of this season and noted he’s under contract for next season and they want to bring him back.

The reason for this was to give him leverage to come in hard and shake things up — Boylen has called it “shock and awe” to borrow the military term. He said the team was out of shape, he’s running long, hard practices and benching starters when they struggle. He did that for the final 21 minutes Saturday 56-point blowout loss to the Celtics.

Sunday, players pushed back against the tactics. It almost led to a player mutiny where they didn’t show up to practice, but then Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez talked everyone into showing up and meeting — first a players’ only meeting, followed by one with coaches and the front office. There was a lot of venting to do.

Boylen has come in trying to change the culture of a Bulls team that needs it. Remember, he comes out of the Spurs organization, where Tim Duncan was open to Gregg Popovich coaching him hard and calling him out in front of the team as an example. Thing is, there is no Duncan on this Bulls team (on or off the court). When Hoiberg was the head coach Boylen could be the bad cop, hold guys accountable, and there was a balance, even if it didn’t work all that well. However, as the head coach, you can’t just be the bad cop or you lose guys. There has to be positives, there has to be rest for guys. More importantly, there must be explanations of why things are happening, trust needs to be built up. Do that and this generation of players will still run through walls for a coach — but if the coach just says “run through that wall” it doesn’t work anymore.

Everyone is adjusting to the new realities in Chicago. With Markkanen back and the team getting healthy, they should be good enough to move out of the East cellar. However, that’s going to take some work, from the players and coaches. And some open communication. That, at least, seems to be happening.

3) Julius Randle is beasting as a starter. When Nikola Mirotic went out with an injury, Julius Randle slid into the starting lineup and has played in a way that is going to make it very difficult to take him out of it. Randle has dropped at least 26 points in his last four games — all starts — and that includes 28 points, six rebounds, and five assists Sunday as the Pelicans knocked off the Pistons 116-108.

In his last four games as a starter, Randle is averaging 29.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. It might be time for coach Alvin Gentry to take Randle out of the Sixth Man of the Year running — a race he has been in the conversation for early this season — because he will start to many games. It’s hard to argue with production.

Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook makes history, Paul George has 47 in comeback win

Getty Images
1 Comment

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) Russell Westbrook makes history, Paul George scores 47 in Thunder’s dramatic comeback win. There was a point, right when Oklahoma City’s Terrance Ferguson missed a three with 7:16 left in the game keeping Brooklyn ahead by 16, that the Thunder’s win probability was down to 1.4 percent — there was a 98.6 percent chance the Nets would pull the upset.

But this was to be OKC’s big night.

It was that night because Russell Westbrook would finish with 21 points, 15 rebounds, and 17 assists — his 108th career triple-double, moving him past Jason Kidd into third on the all-time list.

It was OKC’s night because Paul George — having arguably the best season of his career so far — dropped 47 points, including hitting the game winner. (As a side note: How do both Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson go with Westbrook and nobody slides over with George when George slips the pick> He was wide open because of it.)

The Thunder are one of the NBA’s hottest teams, having won four in a row and 9-of-11, with the NBA’s best defense as the cornerstone of what they do. Built on that defensive foundation, and between their two superstars, the Thunder find a way to get enough offense to rack up the victories. This was the Thunder team management there pictured a season ago, and this year they still get Andre Roberson back at some point.

The Thunder are one of the best teams in the West and look to be a threat next April and May when the playoffs roll around.

2) Toronto’s win shows they are the current class of the East, while Philadelphia has work to do. In the latest PBT Podcast we did a deep dive on the Sixers with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters — the team’s sideline reporter if you are watching on League Pass — and I asked her if the Sixers believed that they were right there with the East’s best. She said the team felt like right now it was half a step behind the elite, but that they could get there before the season ended.

Wednesday night that played out.

Toronto was clearly the better team in a 113-102 victory. It was a lot of things adding up.

• Philadelphia turned the ball over 21 times — 20.4 percent of their possessions or one in five trips down the court — as Toronto’s length and athleticism on defense threw the Sixers off their game.

Kawhi Leonard had his best game as a Raptor, looking like an MVP-level player again, scoring 36 points on 24 shots, hitting 5-of-6 from three, and on the other end disrupting Ben Simmons on offense and making five steals. Leonard was the best player on the floor.

• The Raptors have three big men they can throw at Joel Embiid, giving the Sixers cornerstone both different looks and keeping a fresh body on him at all times, plus really make Embiid work on both ends of the court. Embiid finished the night with 10 points on 5-of-17 shooting. In contrast, Jonas Valanciunas had 26 points in 17 minutes of play.

• The Toronto guards — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and in spots Fred VanVleet — also did a great job of digging down and helping on Embiid in the post and still getting back out to challenge J.J. Redick and other Sixers shooters.

• Toronto’s bench was back to its dominant ways for a night, outscoring the Philadelphia bench 41-18, led by OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and VanVleet.

There were bright spots for the Sixers — Jimmy Butler had 38 points and impressed.

As Winters’ said, the Sixers can get to the level of the elite by the end of the season, maybe with more time for their core to gel, maybe with some trade/waiver wire pickups just to bolster the depth. Philadelphia is good and they are close.

But right now, Toronto is the class of the East.

3) LeBron James takes over the fourth quarter for Lakers, but is that part of the problem in L.A.? Magic Johnson may want a more egalitarian offense for the Lakers, with multiple playmakers and scorers, but that ignores one fact:

Nobody takes over a game like LeBron James.

LeBron had 20 points in a dominant fourth quarter, leading the Lakers past the struggling Spurs 121-113. The Lakers have won four in a row and are 15-9 now on the season because LeBron is playing at a level that puts him in the MVP conversation.

The question Thursday became: If LeBron is that dominant, does it make it harder for the Lakers to attract a second superstar?

Kevin Durant said yes it can, for some players. It wasn’t a dig at LeBron, it was an honest statement — not every superstar in the NBA is at a place in their careers where teaming up with LeBron in Los Angeles is what’s best for them. It wasn’t for Paul George, who last summer decided he wanted to stay in Oklahoma City, when one summer before his people were saying he was destined to be a Laker.

More importantly, the Lakers may not be a fit for free agents coming up this summer. Look at Durant, for example. He struggled to find a balance of alpha status in OKC with Westbrook, in Golden State he may well be their best player (he has been in the last two NBA Finals) but that is Stephen Curry‘s culture and team. If KD wants to carve out his own legacy now is playing next to LeBron how to best do that? Durant notes playing with the greatness of LeBron forces even elite players (Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, etc.) to change their games to fit around him. Plus, the combination of LeBron in the celebrity culture of Los Angeles creates an off-court environment that is not for everyone (Durant called it “toxic”).

The Lakers will get their next superstar to pair with LeBron. Maybe next summer, maybe in 19 months, but it will happen. Just don’t assume that every superstar wants to rush to play with LeBron on the Lakers — it’s just not a fit for everyone.

No matter how amazing it is to watch LeBron take over games in the fourth quarter.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto is for real, maybe the Clippers are, too

Getty Images
4 Comments

Klay Thompson called the upcoming Thursday night matchup between Toronto and Golden State a potential Finals preview… and he’s right. Nobody doubts the Warriors will figure it out in the West (and they may have Curry back for that game) and so far, Toronto has been the class of the East. And they sit atop these rankings.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (18-4, last week No. 2). Toronto has won 6 in a row, but the knock on them had been they had the fourth easiest schedule in the league. Tuesday night they went into Memphis and beat the Grizzlies — that’s a quality win. A good game in that one from Fred VanVleet, who has struggled this season, was promising. The tests will keep coming over the next few weeks, so it’s a good thing C.J. Miles is back, they could use the depth. Now Golden State, Denver, and Philly make up three of the next four (and the tough run continues like that through much of December).

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (13-6, LW 3). With the caveat it’s too early to have a serious postseason awards conversation yet, if I were voting for Sixth Man of the Year right now the Clippers would have two guys in the top three. First is the defending holder of that crown Lou Williams, who again leads the league in fourth quarter scoring. Then there’s Montrezl Harrell, who might be more important to the team off the bench. His energy, defense, and rebounding are eye-popping.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (14-6, LW 1). The Bucks are for real — they have the best net rating in the NBA, the best offense, a top-10 defense, and a serious MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo — but when you live by the three like they do, you can die by it, too. When Brook Lopez goes 0-of-12 from three against the Suns, you lose. When you shoot 22.9% from three over the final three quarters against Charlotte, you lose. Not that they can or should stop shooting threes, it’s working, but it can lead to some ugly losses now and again (and a little slide down the rankings when it happens).

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (12-7, LW 4).. Russell Westbrook had his first triple-double of the season last week, he’s not racking up the raw numbers like he used to, but what he’s done is be more efficient and that’s leading the Thunder to wins. Last season, Westbrook averaged 19.3 drives per game (leading the league) but shot 49.9% when he shot on those. This season the volume of drives is down, 15.5 per game, but he’s shooting 57.7% when he does drive and shoot. Those kinds of little things — and impressive OKC defense — has them as one of the best teams in the NBA over the last 15 games.

 
Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (14-7, LW 10).. Jamal Murray is struggling with his shot. The point guard Denver sees as part of its core is shooting 42.9% overall, 31% from three (down from 37.8% last season) and his 51.8 true shooting percentage is below the league average. His assists are up and the offense is still 2.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (largely because he’s often paired with Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris), but the Nuggets need more out of him to stop having the hot-than-cold streaks. Right now they are hot, having won four in a row but now head out for five straight on the road.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (14-8, LW 7). Philadelphia is 5-2 since the Jimmy Butler trade. Butler is the closer they needed, he’s already got two game-winners, but that masks a +0.1 net rating in those seven games — basically that of a .500 team. The Sixers have a top five offense (it came together more quickly than expected) but a bottom five defense since they made the big trade. While the Sixers have some elite defenders, they don’t have great depth and teams are targeting the weak links on that end. It’s not a big concern, yet, especially as long as Butler keeps doing this:

 
Warriors small icon 7. Warriors (15-7, LW 11). About those Warriors’ struggles… they have won three in a row, Kevin Durant has been taking over (he dropped 49 on the Magic), and they may have Stephen Curry back as soon as Thursday in Toronto (and certainly during the upcoming five-game road trip). Golden State’s “rough patch” has dropped them all the way to the No. 2 seed percentage points behind the Clippers. Still a few interesting tests coming up on the road in Toronto, Boston, Milwaukee.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (13-8, LW 6). Indiana is 3-2 so far with Victor Oladipo out due to a knee issue, including a win over the Jazz (Indy was 0-7 last season, so it’s a huge improvement). The Pacers also keep winning while bucking the trend of shooting threes — they are 27th in the league in percentage of shots taken from three, but they are fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage, shooting 37.3 from deep. It helps make up for that when Darren Collison can do this with his crossover.

Pistons small icon 9. Pistons (11-7, 15). The Pistons are 7-2 in their last nine, Blake Griffin is still beasting, and the wing combo of Glenn Robinson III and Reggie Bullock settled in right as the winning streak started. All good things, but it’s not those starters that is to thank for this run — it’s the Detroit bench. Pistons fans should thank Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, and Bruce Brown are leading the way and it’s working, Detroit is solidly in playoff position in the East.

 
Grizzlies small icon 10. Grizzlies (12-8, LW 8). Memphis has zigged when the league zagged — pace is up everywhere, but the Grizzlies are throwing teams off by slowing it down (the slowest pace of play in the league) and playing a smart, grind-it-out game that takes teams out of their rhythm. Combine that with their length and Marc Gasol playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level in the paint and you have a defensive rating of 104.9, fifth best in the league. One troubling trend while losing three in a row is blowing leads (including 17 to Toronto Tuesday), this team doesn’t have the firepower to come from behind well.

 
Lakers small icon 11. Lakers (11-9, LW 13). Tuesday night, the Lakers were 5-of-35 from three. That’s not terribly out of character, ] Lakers normally don’t shoot a lot of threes (29.7 a game, 20th in the league), and they are shooting 34.7%. Laker coach Luke Walton is okay with some threes. “It is as long as we keep taking good ones…. Other teams scout to let us shoot threes, so when they are open, we’ll make open threes. Our guys are good… We don’t want to run to the three-point line in transition, we want to attack the rim. We don’t want to swing, swing, jack up a three, we want to penetrate the defense and then shoot a three. So as long as we take the right kinds of threes our percentage will stay up. We want to be a team that attacks the rim.”

 
Blazers small icon 12. Trail Blazers (12-8, LW 5). Losers of three in a row and 5-of-7, and that includes in the last week a 43-point thrashing by the Bucks and 28 by the Warriors (without Steph and Draymond). It’s been a rough patch, but they had a few days off, the schedule softens some (although Orlando tonight is no pushover) and the best news is Jusuf Nurkic should be ready to go after a shoulder contusion. They need him in the one lineup that is firing for this team (Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, Nurkic).

 
Celtics small icon 13. Celtics (11-10, LW 14). What is wrong with Boston’s offense is everyone’s new favorite parlor game around the NBA (that and Bradley Beal trade scenarios). I don’t think it’s one simple thing, but to me the Celtics have to start driving more (their 34.8 per game is third fewest in the league), getting to the rim more (24.6 shots per game in the restricted area is third fewest per game in the NBA), draw some fouls (second lowest free throw rate in the league), and stop settling for long pull-up twos, nothing will change. The Celtics need to get playing downhill, that will open up the jump shooters more.

 
Rockets small icon 14. Rockets (9-10, LW 12). Just when you think they’ve turned the corner, the Rockets drop three straight, including games to the Cavaliers and Wizards (and despite James Harden dropping 54 in Washington). Those last two were without Chris Paul, who now is battling a left hamstring injury (that’s not the one that cost him games earlier this season), which means he could miss more time. Houston’s net rating is -1.1 this season. We keep thinking they will get healthy, go on a big run and look like the threat to Golden State we expected, but at what point is it time to start really worrying about this roster?

 
Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (10-11, LW 9). Losers of four in a row, although the first three were without Anthony Davis. He remains the key to everything in New Orleans, they are 10-7 when he plays and 0-4 when he doesn’t, no need to overthink that stat. The Pelicans are 17.4 points per 100 possessions worse when Davis sits. On the bright side, Julius Randle’s strong play has him in early consideration for Sixth Man of the Year (although that’s a crowded field and he’s got a lot of work to do).

 
Mavericks small icon 16. Mavericks (9-9, LW 20). They have won 6-of-7 with a +11 net rating during that stretch (third best in the NBA). That one loss in the last seven not coincidentally was the one J.J. Barea had to miss — Dallas is 17.6 points per 100 possessions better offensively when he is on the court this season, and he drives that second unit. They’ll need him with a rough week ahead: at Rockets, at Lakers, Clippers, Trail Blazers.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (10-10, LW 17). If we were picking emojis to go with teams Charlotte would get the ¯_(ツ)_/¯. They have the seventh best net rating in the league, which should mean a 13-7 record, but here we are. They have beaten the Buck and the Celtics in the past two weeks, but lost to the Hawks. What they have that’s working is Kemba Walker, who is playing at a “you better include me in your MVP talk” level. However, when he is not playing at that level this team lacks shot creation and just looks pedestrian. Hawks, Jazz, and Pelicans at home this week.

 
Spurs small icon 18. Spurs (10-10, LW 19). The Spurs are 2-5 on a string of 7-of-9 away from San Antonio, a run that ends tonight in Minnesota. Following a theme in these rankings, the Spurs can shoot the three (38.5% from beyond the arc this season, third best in the league) but take the second fewest shots from there of any team. Only 25.9% of their points come from threes, fourth fewest in the league. That’s to be expected on a team where DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are the stars, but a few more three pointers could help the cause.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (10-11, LW 16). Nikola Vucevic is having the best season of his career (in a contract year… shocking) and he credits coach Steve Clifford for a lot of that. ““The way we play now, it helps me playing inside-out, it gets me going and makes me more comfortable… [it] makes it much more difficult for the other team and gives them a different look. It works great for me because I get some easy ones in the paint and am able to step out. The way coach wants me, wants us, to play fits my skill set.” That’s true, but now Vucevic is confident — so confident he’s posting up and spinning by LeBron James.

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (10-10, LW 18). This ranking feels too low for a team in the playoff mix in the West (but that brutal conference makes the middle of these rankings a bit of a crap shoot). They have lost 4-of-6 and over the last 10 games have a -4.6 net rating, maybe the fast start was a bit of a mirage. On the flip side, they have played the sixth toughest schedule in the NBA so far, as things soften up a little they may be able to rack up a few easy wins. Fun game Thursday night against the Clippers, two of the NBA’s most surprising teams through the first quarter of the season.

 
21. Timberwolves (10-11, LW 22). Is the turnaround in Minnesota real? This team has won three in a row and 6-of-8 since trading away Butler, and they have a +5.5 net rating in those eight games with the best defense in the NBA at 101 points allowed per 100 possessions. Robert Covington is quarterbacking that defense from the wing (and putting himself in the early Defensive Player of the Year conversation). The next three on the schedule are the Spurs, Celtics, and Rockets — San Antonio and Houston are the kind of games that count double in a tight Western Conference.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (8-12, LW 24). Don’t look now, but the Wizards have won 3-of-4 since Scott Brooks moved Thomas Bryant and Kelly Oubre Jr. into the starting lineup, pushing Markieff Morris to the bench where he has solidified the second unit. While the vultures have circled and fans/media members come up with trades, the Wizards have won 6-of-9 and may not be quite so ready to push the eject button when they are the nine seed, just 1.5 games out of the playoffs. Washington has 6-of-7 coming on the road, starting tonight in New Orleans.

 
Jazz small icon 23. Jazz (9-12, LW 21). One of the most confounding teams in the NBA. Their defense remains middle-of-the-pack overall, and even when Rudy Gobert is on the court they are a top-five defense but not elite like a season ago. On the other end, Joe Ingles is knocking down threes (38.9 percent on six attempts per game) but the rest of the team combined is shooting 30.2 percent from deep. Donovan Mitchell is taking 6.6 a game and hitting 29.2 percent, Jae Crowder is 6.4 per game and is knocking down 28.9 percent, and even Grayson Allen is at 28.6 percent. While there are flashes, this team does not look like the three seed we expected.

 
Knicks small icon 24. Knicks (7-15, LW 26). One of the biggest surprises of the young season to me is Noah Vonleh not sucking (that’s what I get for writing off a 23-year-old). He’s knocking down threes (42.1% on the season and he’s been hotter of late) and now has become a solid part of the Knicks’ rotation. Along with Tim Hardaway, Allonzo Trier and others, you can see some guys who could be role players on a roster as things turn around. The Knicks had won three in a row through a tough part of the schedule (Celtics, Pelicans, Grizzlies) until they ran into Detroit Tuesday. Still, David Fizdale’s team is flashing signs of promise.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (8-13, LW 23). The “Brooklyn can make the playoffs” talk has slowed as the team dropped three in a row and 7-of-9 (although they are just two games out of the 8 seed right now). They miss Caris LeVert’s playmaking and the one game Spencer Dinwiddie and D'Angelo Russell combined for 69 points Jimmy Butler does them wrong in the end. Jarrett Allen continues to show growth and promise, not just in the raw numbers but in taking on more of the offense while still being efficient.

 
Heat small icon 26. Heat (7-13, LW 25). Miami misses Goran Dragic (knee issue), they are 1-4 without him in this stretch and 2-6 without him on the season, with a -4.3 net rating when he is off the court. Also at issue is Miami’s penchant for turnovers — 15.6 percent of their possessions end in a turnover, fifth worst in the NBA. On the bright side, Bam Adebayo is playing better of late — he’s had some nice double-doubles — and looks like the future for the Heat. Of course, that leads to some tough Hassan Whiteside questions.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (4-15, LW 28). Cleveland had a couple of nice wins in the past week, knocking off Philadelphia and Houston (although that will move them up only so much in these rankings). Collin Sexton is showing flashes and getting buckets, and through those wins Tristan Thompson was a beast on the boards. Trade rumors — about Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith, primarily — continue to swirl, but it may take an injury or some pressure on another team to get the job done. Great job by Cleveland handling the LeBron James return tribute last week.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-16, LW 30). The Hawks have won two in a row and it’s not a coincidence that has happened with John Collins back and starting to get his legs under him again. Through six games he has averaged 15.2 points per game shooting 62.7%, with a PER of 18.9, and on defense he had the game-winning block against Charlotte. He provides some of what the Hawks lacked inside. Trae Young continues to struggle with his shot, hitting 34.8% overall and 26.9% from three in his last five games (which isn’t good but better than the previous five games).

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (5-16, LW 27). Losers of 7-of-8 (the lone win came against Phoenix, the only thing keeping Chicago out of the bottom of these rankings). If you’re looking for a silver lining, Jabari Parker is averaging 20 points a game over his last five, and is shooting 35% from three overall in that stretch. It’s not efficient enough to make up for his defense (and someone has to get the points on this team), but he looks like a guy who maybe can find a bench role in the league going forward.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-16, LW 29). Just one win in their last six but you can see the potential — Devin Booker is a scorer, rookie Deandre Ayton is giving them 17 and 10 a night, T.J. Warren has improved — but this team lacks the kind of game-managing quality point guard that can be the glue, who can bring all these parts together and make it all work. Jamal Crawford has given them a couple of nice recent games, expect his name (along with Trevor Ariza) to come up in trade rumors soon).

NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee jumps into top spot as Golden State slides

Getty Images
2 Comments

No team has really grabbed hold of the top spot in the power rankings, with everybody stumbling a little. Toronto had a short slide, the Clippers just lost to the Wizards, Golden State can’t get healthy, and in the absence of one dominant team the Milwaukee Bucks — the team with the best net rating in the NBA — move into the top spot. For now.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (12-4, last week No. 3). Thon Maker, this is opportunity knocking. With backup center John Henson out about three months following surgery on a ligament in his left wrist, the Bucks’ front line depth will be tested and Maker is going to get some run as the backup center. This is his opportunity to show he deserves to be on the court more (plus the Bucks need those minutes). Maker can space the floor some as a shooter (Brook Lopez-lite) but the real key is on the defensive end. The Bucks are 8-1 at home (the one loss because the Grizzlies got hot late) and have 7-of-10 at their new arena coming up. They can’t keep digging first quarter holes to climb out of, however.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (14-4, LW 1). Kawhi Leonard was brilliant against the Celtics in a game that had us hoping these teams meet in the playoffs because the matchups are fascinating and the teams evenly matched. One drop off from last season to this one: Toronto’s bench. Last season it was the best in the NBA but this season Fred VanVleet is scuffling shooting less than 40 percent on the season and not hitting threes, and the rest of the Raptors second unit is following suit. That depth is what can keep them on top of the East over the long grind of the season and they need to find it again.

 
Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (11-6, LW 5). Winners of five in a row until a second-half collapse in Washington (dead legs on a back-to-back), the Clippers may be the biggest positive surprise in the early NBA season. In two short seasons Los Angeles has transformed itself from the glamour of Lob City to a workmanlike team that is easy to get behind: Tobias Harris getting it done on the wing, Lou Williams (still coming off the bench) as the star and closer, Montrezl Harrell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the hardworking young talent, Danilo Gallinari reminding everyone he can play when healthy, and of course everyone loves Boban Marjanovic. The Clippers are 2-1 on the road to start of stretch of 11-of-15 away from Staples Center.

 
Thunder small icon 4. Thunder (10-6, LW 6).. The Thunder have won 10-of-12, that despite Russell Westbrook having missed half of those games. While the offense has stayed afloat the real key is on the other end of the court, where the Thunder have the best defense in the league over the past dozen games, allowing 101.6 points per 100 possessions. Paul George and Steven Adams have stepped up their roles in this stretch, and with Westbrook back OKC should be rolling again. They need to close out November strong, because December gets tougher with a lot more time on the road.

 
Blazers small icon 5. Trail Blazers (12-5, LW 2). The Blazers remain on top of the West standings, and while we should keep talking about their improved bench and top-10 defense, let’s not forget to mention Damian Lillard is ridiculously good. He is fifth in the NBA in total points scored (454) and that works out to 26.7 a game, plus he is dishing out 6.2 assists a night (17th in the league), and he leads the league in win shares at 2.9. Portland is 2-2 so far through a six-game road trip with tough games against the Bucks and Warriors still ahead.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (11-6, LW 9). The Pacers have won three in a row, the last two essentially without Victor Oladipo, who aggravated a knee injury Saturday vs. Atlanta. This is a step forward for the Pacers, who were 0-7 when Oladipo sat last season. The difference is this season the Pacers have been playing much better defense of late, the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games at 100.8 points per 100 possessions. That is making up for a sluggish offense, but the Pacers need to find better balance with 6-of-8 on the road against some good teams.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (12-7, LW 8). The Sixers are 3-1 since Jimmy Butler entered the lineup, and that includes three wins in a row. Against Charlotte, in overtime, you could see how much the Sixers need Butler at the end of games to create shots — he’s fearless at it, and when he missed at the end of regulation he stepped back up to take the big shot in overtime. Philadelphia is 9-0 at home, the final unbeaten team at home in the NBA — that’s relevant because 76ers play five of their next six in Philly.

 
Grizzlies small icon 8. Grizzlies (11-5, LW 12). Remember last summer when a lot of people (*raises hand*) called for Memphis to blow it up, trade Mike Conley and start the rebuild? Well… Memphis is currently the two seed in the West, having won four in a row and 6-of-7. During that stretch they have allowed less than a point per possession on defense — it’s that end of the floor that is carrying the Grizzlies, the offense is still stumbling. Rookie Jaren Jackson continues to impress and is averaging 12.8 points per game so far this season with a good 55.9 true shooting percentage and an 18.2 PER. The Grizzlies are on the road for their next 4-of-6.

 
Pelicans small icon 9. Pelicans (10-7, LW 17). Expect to hear the Pelicans come up in a lot of trade rumors over the few months — they know they have to win, that they are on the clock to keep Anthony Davis, and they need more talent on the roster. (Sorry New Orleans fans, it’s true, you don’t have to like it and maybe Davis decides to stay, but the pressure is on now.) New Orleans was in the Jimmy Butler talks, and already rumors of them going after Bradley Beal (unlikely) and Otto Porter (possible) are out there. That’s not going to stop. Elfrid Payton is going to miss a month or more after surgery on his hand, which really hurts the Pelicans’ depth at the point.

 
Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (10-7, LW 7).. The Nuggets have lost 6-of-7 (the only win in there was against the lowly Hawks) as the wheels continue to come off on the defensive end. Denver has allowed 110.4 points per 100 possessions over the last seven games, 27th in the league, and while the offense remains top 10 it can’t cover for everything. The biggest defensive issue is they just can’t stop fouling, but a lot of things need to be cleaned up on that end before they slide deeper into a crowded middle in the West.

 
Warriors small icon 11. Warriors (12-6, LW 4). Welcome to the “real NBA.” The Warriors went 0-3 on a road trip for the first time in the Steve Kerr era and have lost 5-of-7, with the second worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. It’s been ugly, but we also know why: The Warriors aren’t healthy with Draymond Green (toe) and Stephen Curry (groin) out for a stretch. Kevin Durant has tried to put the Green drama behind him, but the best way to do that is step up on the court and both he and Klay Thompson have not been the forces the Warriors need with their other two stars out.

 
Rockets small icon 12. Rockets (8-7, LW 18). Carmelo Anthony has been away from the Rockets for four games, Houston has gone 4-0 with the second best offense in the league during that stretch. It’s not that simple, there’s more to it than just addition by subtraction Eric Gordon returned, Chris Paul has averaged 20.3 points on 59 percent shooting with 6.3 assists a game in those four, and what matters more is James Harden is playing like an MVP again. Everything is falling into place. Probably. Starting Friday the Rockets have 7-of-9 on the road as a test for their newfound level of play.

 
Lakers small icon 13. Lakers (9-7, LW 16). LeBron James is so very, very good at basketball and he has decided to take over a couple of games recently, first scoring 44 in Portland, then dropping 51 on his old friends in Miami. In those two games the Lakers looked like a playoff threat, the kind of team Magic Joshson envisioned. In between there, LeBron had a pedestrian (for him) game of 22 points with some defensive lapses, and the Lakers lost to Orlando. When LeBron isn’t pushing this team defensively they slide, and the offense (even with LeBron) can’t cover that up.

 
Celtics small icon 14. Celtics (9-8, LW 11). Something is wrong in Boston, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, in part because it’s just not one thing but a lot of little things. It’s a team with a lot of high usage players who want touches but there needs to be more of a pecking order (with Kyrie Irving on top), they need someone to attack the rim looking to score and not dish, they just need to knock down open looks at a higher clip, and they desperately need anyone to grab a rebound. The elite defense is keeping them in games, but the offense is stumbling, nobody more than Gordon Hayward. He just does not have that first step right now, and when he does drive it’s to dish not score. All of it is combining to hold this team back.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (8-6, 19). Detroit has won 4-of-5, and including in dramatic fashion in coach Dwane Casey’s return to Toronto. The wins have come during a soft part of the schedule (Orlando, Atlanta, Cleveland), and there are more of those to come after a home-and-home with Houston, but these are the games the Pistons need to win — they will struggle against the elite of the East most nights, but with Blake Griffin and good talent around him they need to feed on the weaker parts of the schedule.

 
Magic small icon 16. Magic (9-9, LW 22). They had won three in a row and 5-of-6 before Danny Green‘s game winner on Tuesday night. We went into the season focused on the potential of the Magic’s new front line — Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon — but Nikola Vucevic had become a reliable 20-10 guy this season (averaging 20 points and 11.2 boards a game), including shooting 44.2 percent from three. He’s in the final year of his contract and could help some playoff teams, expect his name to come up in trade rumors. Plus next summer he will have a few suitors willing to pay the going rate a a center who can stretch the floor.

 
Hornets small icon 17. Hornets (8-8, LW 15). Kemba Walker has emerged as a fringe MVP candidate, a guy forcing his way into the conversation with things like the 60-point game against Philly and the 43 he dropped on Boston in the next game (note to the Celtics: trap/double him off a late pick, make someone else beat you, and don’t let Walker get a clean look over Al Horford or you will regret it). James Borego opened up and spaced out the offense (something easier to do with Dwight Howard not clogging the lane) and Walker is attacking into those spaces. Plus the man shoots as nice a three off the move as you will see outside the Bay Area.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (9-8, LW 13). And this is why they can’t have nice things in Sacramento. The Kings are off to a much faster start than anyone expected, De'Aaron Fox is having a breakout season, and someone in the organization leaks to the press that coach Dave Joerger’s job is in jeopardy because he’s playing 30-year-old Nemanja Bjelica over rookie Marvin Bagley Jr. Someone clearly invested in Bagley because they pushed to draft him (and maybe feeling the pressure because they took him in front of Luka Doncic, who is having a strong rookie campaign). There was no reason to take this public, but… Kings. I feel for their fans.

 
Spurs small icon 19. Spurs (8-8, LW 10). San Antonio has lost 6-of-8 and at the heart of the problem is LaMarcus Aldridge‘s shooting slump, he is hitting just 36.5 percent of his shots in those eight. It looked like he was going to break out hitting 10-of-16 against Golden State, but he turned around and shot 2-of-11 vs. New Orleans. The other problem is the Spurs are a bottom 10 defensive team right now, and that is where they miss DeJonte Murray.

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (7-9, LW 23). This ranking may be too low for them. Dallas has the best point differential in the NBA over its last seven games, although the aberration blowout of the Jazz by 50 skews that number. Still, there wins over OKC and Golden State in a four-game win streak that ended Monday against Memphis. What has sparked this run is strong play from Harrison Barnes, who missed time with a hamstring issue but now seems to have his legs under him again and averaged 19 points a game in the four wins (he had just 10 against Memphis).

 
Jazz small icon 21. Jazz (8-9, LW 14). This is the team that most surprises and confuses me this season. How does a team lose to Dallas by 50 — 50! — then turn around a few days later and beat the Celtics? How does this team have a league average defense? The Jazz have lost 3-of-4 and can’t afford a long slide because it’s hard to climb back up in the deep West, where the conference is loaded with good teams. Starting Friday they have 5-of-6 on the road.

 
22. Timberwolves (7-10, LW 24). They are 3-1 since the Jimmy Butler trade and the thing you notice first is they are playing hard again — even Andrew Wiggins. We’ll see how long that lasts, but it’s refreshing to see. Same with Karl-Anthony Towns stepping up and looking like an All-NBA player again. Minnesota dug itself a hole to start the season but a soft part of the schedule comes up (after Denver Wednesday its the Nets, Bulls, Cavaliers, and Spurs) and it’s a chance for Minnesota to get back in the mix in the West.

 
Nets small icon 23. Nets (8-10, LW 20). The injury to Caris LeVert opened the door for D'Angelo Russell, who has stepped up and had 20 points, 9 boards, and 6 assists in a win at Miami Monday. Russell is playing for his next contract (which likely will not be in Brooklyn) and needs more nights like that. The Nets are struggling of late because they can’t get stops consistently, although they looked better doing that against the Heat. Now they just need to do it consistently.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (6-11, LW 26). The Wizards played their best half of basketball Tuesday night in a comeback win against the Clippers after being down 19 at the half. It’s notable because this team has been quick to fold its tents all season when faced with adversity. That half alone does not solve the problems, nor will it quiet all the trade rumors around this team. From what I hear from sources, most teams have interest in Bradley Beal but the price being asked is too steep, the guy most likely to be moved is Otto Porter.

 
Heat small icon 25. Heat (6-11, LW 21). Their Miami Vice-inspired City uniforms are the best of the city jerseys in the NBA (with the Nets and Timberwolves close behind). That’s something positive about the Heat, it’s hard to come up with much else. They have dropped 6-of-7 and their defense has been okay during that stretch but the Heat can’t score consistently. Josh Richardson is having a good season, but he’s not a No. 1 option, he just has to play that role in Miami.

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-14, LW 27). They have lost six in a row and it’s hard to find any positives in there, but I have one: Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing well despite the losses. In the last three games he’s scored at least 30 points (32 twice), pulled down at least 5 rebounds, and is making plays all over the court. So there’s that. Coach David Fizdale has them playing hard and is trying to build a culture, but it all takes time. The problem is this roster and play will not help their free agent pursuits next summer.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (4-13, LW 25). It’s easy to like the way Zach LaVine is playing as a scorer (25.3 points per game) but he’s not the guy who should be a playmaker as often as he needs to be with this roster — he has as many turnovers as assists this season. This team needs a quality point guard. When good defensive teams hold LaVine in check — as Boston and Milwaukee just did — the Bulls don’t have anyone to turn to. At least until Lauri Markkanen returns and provides a little more hope (although we may be expecting too much from him).

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (2-13, LW 29). They have dropped 7-of-8, J.R. Smith is not with the team until they can find a trade for him (not that simple, it could be a while for rosters to shake out), and Kevin Love says he will not be back until after the first of the year. But Wednesday night the Cavs are on national television and have a distraction — LeBron James is returning to town. This time there will be a video tribute and not the hatred of the last time this happened, because he brought Cleveland a title.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (3013, LW 30). Deandre Ayton is having a strong rookie season — 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a night, and shooting 60.3% — but Monday night Joel Embiid welcomed him to the NBA and showed the rookie what it will take to be an elite big in the NBA, nearly doubling Ayton up in both points and rebounds. Ayton’s defense has a ways to go, but he is showing promise. Despite that, the young Suns have dropped 6-of-7.

 
Hawks small icon 30. Hawks (3-14, LW 28). Losers of eight in a row and 12-of-13, but with John Collins back things should change around a little. Trae Young also is a distraction because he shows moments of real promise, but he also shows real moments of rookieness (sure, that’s a word). It’s a long process in Atlanta that’s just getting started but there are reasons for optimism despite the string of losses.

Kawhi Leonard hears MVP chants, plays like it with 31 points, leads Raptors past Celtics 113-101

7 Comments

TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard had 31 points and 10 rebounds, Serge Ibaka added 21 points and the Toronto Raptors beat the Boston Celtics 113-101 on Friday night in an early matchup between Eastern Conference contenders.

By the end of the game, Raptors fans were chanting “M-V-P” for Leonard.

Kyle Lowry scored 15 points, Danny Green had 14, and Fred VanVleet 11 to help the Raptors win for the 10th time in 11 home meetings with the Celtics.

Kyrie Irving scored 21 points for Boston, and Al Horford had 14 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Jayson Tatum scored 16 points, and Jaylen Brown had 13.

Boston’s Gordon Hayward scored 14 points in 24 minutes, connecting on six of 13 field goal attempts.

Leonard made 10 of 25 attempts, including 2 of 5 from 3-point range, and went 9 for 9 at the free throw line.

Brown made a 3-pointer to give the Celtics an 87-86 lead with 9:03 remaining. VanVleet answered with a reverse layup, the first basket in a 6-0 spurt that gave Toronto the led for good.

Green and Lowry each made 3-pointers around an offensive foul by Tatum with just over two minutes remaining, giving the Raptors a 107-99 edge. Green went 4 for 7 from long range, while Lowry made 3 of 5.