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NBA Power Rankings: Bucks move into top spot, finally healthy Warriors climbing fast

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The Bucks have had the best net rating in the league much of the year, they have the leading MVP candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and now they have the top spot in these rankings. At least until the finally healthy Warriors really get rolling again.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (18-8, last week No. 5). Kawhi Leonard, who was matched up on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the showdown last week (that the Bucks won) was asked what has the Greek Freak done to step up his game this season: “He’s very aggressive. He got better knowing himself and who he’s playing with. He’s just more comfortable on the floor.” The transformation of the Bucks offense remains one of the most eye-popping things in the league, last season the Bucks took an average of 17.3 midrange shots per game, this season that is down to 6.2. The Bucks are 5-5 on the road this season, allowing 8 more points per game, and now they have 6-of-7 away from home.

 
Thunder small icon 2. Thunder (17-8, LW 3). Oklahoma City has won 5-of-6, and while they’ve done it against a soft part of the schedule with a scare (Brooklyn) and an ugly loss (Chicago) mixed in, their defense keeps them within striking distance of the top. The schedule gets tougher now, we’ll see how they fare (they did beat Utah Monday). Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double again — 22.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 10.2 assists per game — again, but his efficiency has slipped, he’s hitting just 21.8% from three and 61.8% on free throws (it was his efficiency when carrying a bigger offensive load that won him the MVP a couple years back).

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (22-7, LW 2). How is Southern California guy Kawhi Leonard adapting to the cold of Toronto? “Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said Tuesday night. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.” Kyle Lowry snapped out of the worst shooting slump of his career Tuesday, shooting 8-of-13 and hitting some tough shots in a win over the Clippers (Lowry had shot 8-of-42 over his previous five games, 5-of-32 from three). Tuesday’s easy win over the Clippers starts a 4-game swing through the West and 7-of-9 on the road.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (19-9, LW 8). Stephen Curry returned to the lineup last week, Draymond Green was back on Monday, the Warriors have now won 4 in a row and are just percentage points out of the top spot in the Western Conference. For all the drama and hand-wringing about their internal squabbles, lack of depth, and questions about their health/wear and tear they are still right at the top of the West and now are poised to go on a run and remind everyone who the heavy favorite in the NBA is.

 
Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (19-9, LW 6). Joel Embiid may feel uncomfortable being asked to space the floor more since the arrival of Jimmy Butler (although he’s gotten more paint touches per game after the trade compared to before), but the big three is working: When Ben Simmons, Butler, and Embiid share the court the Sixers are +7.8 per 100. Add starters J.J. Redick and Wilson Chandler into that and the five-man starting unit for the Sixers is +12.4 per 100. Philly has won 6-of-7 behind them.

 
Nuggets small icon 6. Nuggets (18-9, LW 1).. Injuries are crushing this team right now: Paul Millsap will miss 3-4 weeks with a broken toe, then there’s Gary Harris (groin), Will Barton, and Isaiah Thomas (hip), and we haven’t even seen first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. (nor will we this season most likely). Things got so bad Denver signed Nick Young as an injury replacement. All the missing bodies led to losses in Charlotte and Atlanta last week, but this team has banked enough wins to stay afloat in the West, plus they still have Nikola Jokic.

 
Lakers small icon 7. Lakers (17-10, LW 9). The Lakers have an insanely good defensive net rating of 95.2 when Tyson Chandler is on the court this season, which is why the Lakers are +12.8 per 100 when Chandler is on the court this season. He was the defensive anchor they needed. Something to watch: How much the second unit suffers without Brandon Ingram (out for a couple of weeks with a sprained ankle), he was often the main shot creator with that unit (the Lakers were -15 Monday vs. Miami in the 10:29 LeBron was on the bench).

 
Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (16-10, LW 10). Winners of six in a row and they have outscored opponents by 25.6 per 100 in that stretch. Granted, a lot of that is against a soft part of the schedule (which continues for the next week) but it’s still confidence-boosting wins for a team that needs it. At the heart of Boston’s run is they are shooting the ball much better from three, 42.7% in those six games (the Celtics struggled to start the season from deep, shooting 32.8% from beyond the arc in October).

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (17-10, LW 11). Indiana may get Victor Oladipo back soon, but they have impressed going 7-4 without him during this stretch with a +6.5 net rating in that time. Two things have keyed this run. First, the Pacers have the second best defense in the NBA over the last 11 games (allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions). The second is the strong play of the Pacers’ bench, which has the second best net rating of any second unit in the NBA, +4.4 per 100.

 
Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (17-10, LW 4). Los Angeles has lost 3-of-4, including having the Raptors hand them their worst loss of the season Tuesday. The Clippers aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. “We aren’t the Clippers flying under the radar,” Patrick Beverley said after the latest loss. “People and teams understand our success and they are coming out ready. Not ready, actually, throwing the first punch.” The Clips need to punch back, their next nine games are against West teams in the playoff hunt.

 
Grizzlies small icon 11. Grizzlies (15-11, LW 12). Joakim Noah stepped right into the rotation in Memphis, playing almost 17 minutes a night off the bench, averaging 6.8 points and 4.3 rebounds a contest. Small sample size, but the Grizzlies’ defense has been slightly better with him on the court so far but the offense has taken a real hit in those minutes (there’s a lot of noise there, considering he’s out with the second unit on a team short of playmakers). They have gone 2-2 through a stretch of games against other teams in the West playoff hunt, and Monday’s game in Golden State starts a swing of four in a row away from home.

 
Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (14-11, LW 14). Dallas’ bench has the best net rating of any in the NBA, +4.5, and Rick Carlisle deserves a lot of credit for once again finding ways to make misfit pieces fit together and excel. This week brings the Luka Doncic revenge tour — he is going up against the teams that passed on him in the draft. It’s Atlanta Wednesday, Phoenix Thursday, and Sacramento Sunday. Those teams had better hope Doncic does not do to them what he did to the Houston Rockets, scoring 11 straight points to turn a likely loss into a win in the final minutes.

Pistons small icon 13. Pistons (13-12, 7). After spoiling Stephen Curry’s return and beating the Warriors, the Pistons have dropped five in a row. The problem is on the offensive end, where the injuries to Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, and Ish Smith has hurt production and taken away key three-point shooters and floor spacing. With a heavy road schedule coming up, as well as some tough teams this week (Boston, Milwaukee), Detroit needs to find a way to stop the bleeding, knock down a few shots, and get a couple of wins before this starts to spiral.

 
Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (15-12, LW 15). Portland has gone 3-7 in its last 10, with the only win against a +.500 team coming against Minnesota (a game where Jusuf Nurkic went off). Part of the problem in that stretch is their bench, which played well to start the season and but is struggling during this stretch, Houston’s bench outscored them 37-13 Tuesday night. Portland could use more scoring, which is why their name comes up in Carmelo Anthony rumors, but it’s hard to see how ‘Melo would fit in and help them much.

 
15. Timberwolves (13-14, LW 13). While Minnesota can rightfully point to a strong 9-5 record since trading away Jimmy Butler (a record sparked by the fifth best defense in the NBA in that stretch) they need to find a way to get some road wins in the brutal Western Conference — Minnesota is 0-9 against the West away from home after losses this week in Portland and Golden State. Games coming up this week on the road in Sacramento and Phoenix provide better chances for victories, but nothing is given in the West and those road losses could bite them at the end of the season.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (13-13, LW 21). Charlotte’s preferred starting lineup — Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum, and Cody Zeller — is the most used five-man lineup in NBA, 311 total minutes together so far (just shy of 13 minutes a game). James Borego leans on that lineup because it’s outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100, and this is not a team with a lot of depth behind it. Charlotte has won a couple in a row and now has its next five games at home, a chance for the currently seven-seed Hornets to rack up wins and solidify their playoff standing.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (14-15, LW 17). Julius Randle was forced into the starting lineup due to an injury to Nicolas Mitotic, but it may be hard to take him out now — he has averaged 27.6 points per game on 59.3 percent shooting, hitting 50 percent from three, grabbing 11.2 boards per game, and a net rating of +13.8 in those games. However, the Pelicans can’t string together wins despite Randle’s play (they are 2-3 in those five games), in part because they struggle on the road, where they are 4-11 (the Pels are 10-4 at home).

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (14-12, LW 18). Sacramento did what good teams do last week — went on the road and beat lesser teams. The Kings went 3-1 on a recent four-game road swing with wins over the Suns, Cavaliers, and Bulls — all struggling teams, but plenty of teams above Sacramento in these rankings have dropped games like those.) If the ninth-seed Kings are going to make the playoffs it will be because they did well in stretches like the one coming up: Sacramento’s next 13 games are against Western Conference teams in the playoff chase. Those are the teams they need to beat.

 
Spurs small icon 19. Spurs (14-14, LW 22). Congratulations to Gregg Popovich, who moved into fourth place on the all-time wins list for coaches on Tuesday night with 1,211, moving him past Pat Riley. Popovich is only 10 wins back of Jerry Sloan and should move into third on the list in the next couple of months (I’m not sure Popovich will coach long enough to catch Don Nelson or Lenny Wilkins at he top of that leaderboard). San Antonio has started 3-0 on a six-game homestand, wins the team needs if they plan to keep their playoff hopes alive in the deep West.

 
Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (13-15, LW 20). Last Thursday’s win against Houston, despite Rudy Gobert being ejected (wrongfully) in the opening minutes of the game, was probably Utah’s best win of the season. They celebrated that by going out on the road and dropping two more games (to San Antonio and OKC). This team remains maddeningly inconsistent. On the bright side, they have played the toughest schedule in the NBA so far and have had 18-of-28 games on the road, things should lighten up (although the Jazz are 4-6 at home, they need to get some wins in Salt Lake City).

 
Rockets small icon 21. Rockets (12-14, LW 16). While the defense remains the biggest problem for Houston, it’s been enough of the season now that Chris Paul’s slipping level of play — from elite to just good, for example his three-point percentage dropped from 38% last year to 33.9% this year, his PER from 24.4 to 18.5 — is a cause for concern. Especially since this is the first year of a four-year contract. The Rockets just looked bad losing all three games on a road trip (before beating Portland at home Tuesday), and with three more losses the Rockets will tie how many losses they had all of last season.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (11-15, LW 23). Dwyane Wade’s emotional farewell in his final game against LeBron James overshadowed a couple of quality road wins that came before it against the Suns and Clippers. The Heat have now won 4-of-6 and are just half-a-game out of the playoffs in the East, where their grit may be enough to get them invited to the dance, although they have played one of the easiest schedules in the league thus far and things will get tougher. That grit Eric Spoelstra prides his teams on will be put to the test.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (12-15, LW 19). Orlando is in Mexico City for two “home” games this week against the Bulls (Thursday) and the Jazz (Saturday), so now fans in other countries can marvel first-hand at the smart game of Nikola Vucevic. Orlando won a couple of games in a row against sub-.500 teams (Phoenix, Miami) then last week lost three straight to good teams (Denver, Indiana, and Dallas). Aaron Gordon and the Magic need to string together some wins to hold off Miami, Washington, and other teams with an eye on the final playoff slot in the East (which the Magic currently hold).

 
Nets small icon 24. Nets (10-18, LW 27). Brooklyn has been the NBA’s second worst team this season on clutch games (within 5 points in the final five minutes), going 5-12 — and that 17 clutch games is tied for the most in the league. That’s why the clutch win against Toronto last Friday was good to see, this team deserves a break, they work hard but just have not had the talent that wins out in the final minutes (especially with Caris LeVert out).

 
Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (11-16, LW 24). John Wall scoring one point in a loss to Cleveland last Saturday led him to come forward and say he’s been playing through a bone spur in his heel (I know some on Twitter scoffed at that, but Wall has a history of playing through injuries he should get treated). Wall sat out one game but is expected back in the lineup Wednesday night against Boston. It’s a matter of pain management, but this play is not helping Wall’s already limited trade value (because his max contract kicks in next season and nobody wants to be on the hook for that deal).

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (6-20, LW 28). John Collins continues to impress upon his return from injury, averaging 18.1 points and shooting 62.2 percent in those 11 games. In his last five games, Collins is averaging 21.6 points and 11.6 rebounds a night. This team does have its moments, like beating Denver last Saturday. The Hawks now head out for 5-of-6 on the road.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (8-20, LW 25). Courtney Lee is back on the court, although he was a rusty 1-of-7 shooting in his first two games. Lee’s name will come up in a lot of trade talks leading up to the February deadline. Rookie Kevin Knox scored 26 points and had 15 rebounds in a loss to the Hornets, becoming only the second teenager in NBA history to go for 25-15 or better (the other is some guy named LeBron… not sure what ever happened to him).

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 26). Cleveland did okay in the George Hill trade, doing what a rebuilding team should do — taking on contracts other teams want to dump in exchange for draft picks and young players (this included a protected 2021 first rounder). Maybe the Cavaliers could have held out for a little more, but there is no guarantee they would have gotten it in a tight market. This worked. Next up on the trade block should be J.R. Smith.

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (6-22, LW 29). The Bulls are 1-3 in the Jim Boylen era, with him coming in so out-of-touch old school he had players threatening a mutiny. Well done, Chicago. New coach or not, the biggest difference on the court is the return of Lauri Markkanen from an elbow injury. He has averaged 15.2 points per game, and while he’s struggled with the rust oh his shot the biggest key is he spaces the floor. The Bulls gave the elite Thunder defense problems last Friday because a Zach LaVine/Markkanen pick-and-pop pulled Steven Adams out of the paint and opened up driving lanes — the Bulls floor spacing is so much better with Markkanen in the lineup. Plus, he can do this.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-24, LW 30). Losers of 10 in a row, all I can offer Suns fans is that on Wednesday I dropped an NBA Draft preview podcast where we talk about Zion Williamson, why the shine is coming off R.J. Barrett, and there are thoughts on other top picks coming up in the next draft. Focus on that, you’ll feel better, especially with Devin Booker having to miss time with a hamstring injury.

Jimmy Butler says he shot only once while leading Timberwolves’ third-stringers to practice win over starters

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Fed up with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins not matching his competitiveness, fed up with the Timberwolves for not trading him yet and apparently fed up with being told he must practice… Jimmy Butler unleashed hell during a scrimmage before the season.

Butler reportedly arrived late, led third-stringers to a win over the starters, talked smack and then left early. The Minnesota practice instantly became legendary.

And we didn’t even realize the full extent of Butler’s showing.

Butler, via The J.J. Redick Podcast on The Ringer:

The most interesting detail of that whole scrimmage that nobody knows: I only shot the ball once.

Oh, I was dominating, but I only shot the ball once. Dimes, boom, boom, boom. Steals, blocks. I only shot the ball one time.

That is peak Jimmy Butler. He is so good. Though he’s a quality scorer, he affects the game in so many ways. Nearly all stars are excellent with the ball, but the ones who contribute to winning without the ball give their team an extra edge.

Butler has those skills, and it allows 76ers teammates like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid more room to operate in their comfort zones. With so many questions raised about Butler as a teammate, I’d take him on my team any day.

Seeking guard depth, 76ers reportedly workout Arron Afflalo, Brandon Rush, others

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Markelle Fultz is officially off getting treatment for thoracic outlet syndrome and will be out for weeks or months (nobody is exactly sure). Which isn’t really bothering the Sixers — other than the fact players, coaches, and everyone else is weary of the barrage of Fultz questions — they are playing well without him, and Fultz is not in the long-term plans for the Sixers anyway.

However, it leaves Philadelphia lacking depth at the guard spot. Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick start and get the key minutes, with T.J. McConnell and rookie Landry Shamet behind them, but this is no longer a deep spot on the team.

So Philadelphia is considering bringing in some help, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

It’s not clear what, if anything, will come out of that workout, but it means the Sixers are weighing options. It’s unlikely that anyone they will look at in this capacity will break into the regular rotation, this is more about adding depth and security, just in case it’s needed.

Arron Afflalo is an 11-year NBA veteran who last season in Orlando, his efficiency and game slowing down, but he still shot 38.6 percent from three and is good in the locker room. Brandon Rush was not on an NBA roster most of last season, he did sign a 10-day contract with Portland in February but never saw the court for them.

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

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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) 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.

Jimmy Butler on Markelle Fultz: “We want him to be great”

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When Philadelphia traded for Jimmy Butler, it was the effective end of the Markelle Fultz experiment for this season.

The 76ers moved into a win now mode, which did not fit with letting Markelle Fultz start so he could gain confidence over time (that starting five with Fultz did not have enough shooting and often dug the team a nightly hole to climb out of). J.J. Redick was quickly starting again, and guys like T.J. McConnell and Landry Shamet were getting more run.

Through it all, the Sixers players have stood by Fultz — they like him, they want to see him succeed. That includes Butler.

“I just want Markelle to know he got everybody in his corner here. We want him to be great… when he’s ready to get back in here and work, we’re all for it. We need the guy.”

Fultz is currently in New York seeing specialists about his shoulder injury, one the Sixers organization was not aware of (dissect that how you wish).

Young players, such as Fultz, often struggle to block out the “outside noise” and focus on what they want to do. Butler, Redick, veterans are very good at it. Whatever is going on, it feels like finding Fultz a new home is what’s best for everyone. Of course, that’s not easy and could drag out a while, but it may be time for Philadelphia sports fans to just move on, to focus on the good — Butler draining game winners — and bad (a bottom five defense since the trade), not Fultz.