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NBA Power Rankings: Do we really believe in Toronto and Portland?

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The top of the rankings this week are filled with the “do we really believe in them?” teams. Toronto and Portland are 1/2 and both have had a reputation of folding in the postseason… but we’re not there yet. Not even close. So they take over the top spots, while the Suns are the new cellar dwellers.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (12-2, last week No. 2). These Raptors want to run — 19% of their possessions and 17% of their points come in transition. Toronto’s raw pace isn’t extreme (102.1 possessions per game, 12th in the league) but when they do they are efficient. The Raptors had won six in a row, including crushing everyone on a West Coast road swing, until they ran into a hot Anthony Davis Monday. Friday against Boston is a fun test and starts another four-game road swing (you know they wish the schedule maker would put more road trips to warm place in January/February and not the fall).

 
Blazers small icon 2. Trail Blazers (10-3, LW 4). What’s different about these Blazers? Evan Turner struggled to be the third scoring option as a starter, but with the ball in his hands on the second unit, paired with Zach Collins, and he is thriving. Plus continuity matters, especially early in the regular season, and the Blazers have a lot of that. Portland is 6-1 against teams over .500 this season but will be tested on a six-game road trip that criss-crosses the nation and starts Wednesday against the Lakers.

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (10-3, LW 5). There’s been a lot of talk about the Bucks’ improved defense, and it is vastly improved, now third best in the NBA so far this season. However, it has a flaw. The defense is built around protecting the paint — Brook Lopez and other bigs drop back off the pick-and-roll — but that allows other teams to shoot threes. A lot of threes — 37.2 attempts per game, highest allowed in the league (also the Bucks allow the highest in percentage of opponent shots from three). They are still aggressive going for steals and that can be exposed by good passing to open guys at the arc, just something to watch.

 
Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (12-3, LW 1). Draymond Green took the thing lurking in the shadows of the Warriors season — Kevin Durant’s looming free agency — and shoved it in the spotlight in the middle of the locker room. This is a veteran team that can get past that… probably. But it’s something to watch. Health concerns caught up with the Warriors — Green missed time, Stephen Curry continues to miss time with his groin issue — and it led to two losses in the past week to good teams (the Bucks and Clippers). The Warriors are two games into a 3-games-in-5-days stretch (1-1 so far).

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (8-5, LW 9). It’s time to take the Clippers seriously — they have a top-10 offense and defense and just racked up back-to-back overtime wins against the Bucks and Warriors. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been impressive as a starter with Avery Bradley out a few games (it won’t be easy to send him back to the bench). The Clippers can be even better — they are the second-best three-point shooting team in the league at 38.7 percent, but they take just 25.2 a game, 27th in the league. Doc needs to loosen the reins and get this team firing away more from deep. Monday in Brooklyn starts a stretch of 11-of-15 on the road.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (8-5, LW 10).. Russell Westbrook is still out with his sprained left ankle and likely will miss another game or two, at least. The Thunder have gone 3-1 without Westbrook through this stretch against a soft patch of the schedule (they are 3-3 on the season). Dennis Schroder has done an admirable job stepping into the primary ball handler role (the bench unit misses having Schroder). Westbrook being out is a reminder just how important Steven Adams is to this team on both ends of the floor, a guy willing to do the dirty work needed for the flashy guys to thrive.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (9-5, LW 3).. Denver has lost four in a row, and the defense that was so good to start the season has been the worst in the NBA in the last four (114 points allowed per 100). Denver switched up its starting five and it was the right move. Denver had started Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, and Jokic but was outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions, but sub Juancho Hernangomez in for Craig and it gets 9.1 per 100 better. Against Houston, Juancho got the start and the lineup was -2 in 17 minutes.

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (9-6, LW 14). Philadelphia is all-in — Jimmy Butler is a Sixer now and will start Wednesday vs. Orlando. Butler changes the team dynamic, and not just because of Butler’s alpha personality, it puts the Sixers on the clock to win now. No more hand-holding for Markelle Fultz (not by his trainer, either), it’s sink-or-swim time on this roster. Philly will re-sign Butler and be a title threat… but the clock is ticking because Butler turns 30 and has off-roading Thibodeau miles on his legs. The Sixers front office needs to add shooting and depth to this roster to compete with the elite in the East, the team’s new big three alone are not enough.

 
Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (8-6, LW 6). A long break this week (Sunday to Friday) comes a good time to right the ship after losing three of four. The real issue has been the offense, which is scoring 7 points per 100 possessions fewer in those four games. Victor Oladipo and Tyreke Evans need to pick up the scoring starting against Miami Friday, and would help if Domantas Sabonis can do more of this.

 
Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (7-5, LW 7). None of this should come as a surprise I guess, but somehow it does — after Dejonte Murray went down in the preseason I was convinced the Spurs defense would suffer. And it did at first. But in the past nine games they are third in the NBA in defense, which is keeping them in games and allowing the Spurs to execute like they do and win down the stretch. The Spurs are bucking an NBA trend again, starting the lowest percent of their possessions in transition this season (9.7, via Cleaning the Glass).

 
Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (7-6, LW 8). Boston has lost 4-of-5, and surprisingly the biggest problems are on the defense — they are bottom five in the league defensively over that stretch. The Celtics also have problems on offense, specifically Jayson Tatum’s newfound love of a midrange shot, especially long twos early in the shot clock. Last season 35% of Tatum’s shots were from the midrange, this season that is up to 42%. He is taking 12% fewer shots at the rim (but is shooting more from three). Brad Stevens has a lot on his plate right now, but Tatum’s shot selection has to be on that list.

 
Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (7-5, LW 12). Dillon Brooks being out 6-8 weeks (MCL sprain) is a blow, they need to get JaMychal Green and Omri Casspi healthy to bring back some depth to the roster. Memphis likes their home cooking: They are 5-1 at home where they score 107.3 points per game, and are 2-4 on the road where the point total falls to 96.3 with a slower pace. The Grizzlies are on the road for 4-of-6.

 
Kings small icon 13. Kings (8-6, LW 13). What is De’Aaron Fox doing better this season? Scoring. The quickness was always there, decision making at pace improved as last season went on, but he didn’t finish plays and had a true shooting percentage of 47.8 (well below the league average). This season it’s up to 59.7, which is a big leap and well above the league average. Fox is shooting 75% at the rim and 44.2% from three. His making buckets and playing fast is opening up everything in the Kings’ offense.

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (7-6, LW 17). After more than a year, the Jazz fans had built up plenty of venom for Gordon Hayward and let him hear it when Boston came to town. I get that, but Jazz fans need to move on because their new crush, Donovan Mitchell, is working out pretty well. His ability to go get buckets has been on display again this season, but his passing has improved this season and that’s giving the Jazz offense a little more diversity.

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (7-7, LW 11). New coach James Borego came in with a fresh slate and a plan to give Malik Monk a real chance. The results so far? Meh. He’s scoring 12.5 points per game, shooting 33.3 percent from three, a true shooting percentage of 50.3 and a PER of 12.3 (both of those last two below the league average). For a player expected to be an athletic shooter and finisher out of college, it’s disappointing. That was an ugly loss for the Hornets on Tuesday to Cleveland, and now comes a rough stretch of games: Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana, OKC.

 
Lakers small icon 16. Lakers (7-6, LW 19). In their last five games, the Lakers have the fourth-ranked defense in the NBA, allowing 101.7 points per 100 possessions. Tyson Chandler certainly helps with that, but the improvement had already started. The troubling long-term thing in Los Angeles: In back-to-back games Lonzo Ball was pulled for the clutch minutes of a game because he was getting torched defensively. First by Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox. Sunday night it was rookie Trae Young. In a “sink-or-swim” season for the Lakers, that is not a good sign and something to watch going forward.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (7-6, LW 20). Win four in a row, lose six in a row, win three in a row again including a statement victory at Toronto. It’s a little hard to get a good read on the streaky Pelicans this season, although we have to note the team is 7-3 when Anthony Davis plays. The Pelicans are +11.1 per 100 possessions when Davis is on the court, -11.6 when he sits. Maybe that’s the only read about the Pelicans that matters.

 
Rockets small icon 18. Rockets (6-7, LW 15). Carmelo Anthony is away from the team, but don’t be shocked if the saga drags out for a while because finding a landing spot for him is not going to be easy for his agent. Houston has looked better in recent games, although one thing to watch: Teams are now not switching the pick-and-rolls with James Harden as often as they used to, they are now trapping and double-teaming him more, essentially getting the ball out of his hands and daring other players to beat them. How the Rockets adapt and if those other players step up to the challenge will be interesting to watch in the coming weeks, but they looked good doing it against Denver Tuesday.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (6-6, 18). Dwane Casey gets his homecoming Wednesday night in Toronto, where he was Coach of the Year last year, and he should get a warm welcome Raptors’ fans. He did a lot for that franchise. Blake Griffin still leads the NBA in touches per game at 92.5, but he does a good job keeping the ball moving — just 1.7 dribbles and 3.3 seconds per touch. (Compare that to James Harden, who averages 5 dribbles over 6.2 seconds every time he touches the rock.)

 
Nets small icon 20. Nets (6-8, LW 21). The Caris LeVert injury, while not as serious as it looked, is still a setback for a guy having a potential Most Improved Player season early. On the bright side for Nets fans, second-year man Jarrett Allen has stepped up his game across the board this season: 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game, a very efficient 62.6 true shooting percentage and a PER of 21.2. He is playing more, taking on more of the offense than his rookie season, and still upped his efficiency. All great signs for the future.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (5-8, LW 16). A few weeks ago Miami had a better offer on the table for Jimmy Butler than the Sixers — I’d take Josh Richardson/Dion Waiters/2019 first round pick over what the Timberwolves got every day. However, after Richardson’s strong start to the season, when Thibodeau called last week Richardson was off the table. In Miami that leaves the question: What does Pat Riley and company do now to spark this team? Miami will not have cap space until 2020, so it’s going to have to be a trade. Expect to hear a lot of Heat rumors.

 
Magic small icon 22. Magic (6-8, LW 23). The point guard spot remains this team’s Achilles heel, they were convinced things would be better without Elfrid Payton and they’re not. D.J. Augustin is a solid backup forced into a starter’s role, and when backup Jerian Grant is on the court Orlando is outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions.. Expect the Magic to look at any point guards who become available on the trade market, although the move expected by sources around the league is them to go hard at a point guard as a free agent next summer.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (5-8, LW 25). Luka Doncic is averaging 19.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, is shooting 38.6 percent from three, has a PER of 15.7 — and you have to figure this is about as bad as he will ever be as an NBA player. He’s a 19-year-old rookie with a lot of room to get better (and he has, his defense has looked better the last few games). Dallas players reportedly have tired of DeAndre Jordan’s act — he was at his best when Doc Rivers was building him up, and Chris Paul was both pushing him and setting him up. Without CP3 Jordan is a far less consistent actor.

 
24. Timberwolves (5-9, LW 22). They went 0-5 on a West Coast road swing, losing whether Jimmy Butler played or not, which finally was enough to get it through Tom Thibodeau’s skull that he was not going to win with Butler on the roster this season and he needed to make a change. If he had come to that conclusion a few weeks earlier, he would have taken the better trade package from the Heat. That said, Robert Covington in particular, and maybe Dario Saric long term, should fit with the young Timberwolves core. Karl-Anthony Towns, this is your team now — act like it and take over. Every night.

 
Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (4-10, LW 27).. There was an interesting side note out of all the Jimmy Butler trade talk: Tom Thibodeau is considered a dead coach walking in Minnesota, very likely gone at the end of the season, and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor is a big Fred Holberg fan. Could this lead to a coaching change in Chicago? We’re a long way from that, right now Zach LaVine has to be Mr. Everything to get the Bulls wins, and he had to try and do too much, as was evident in a loss to Dallas.

 
Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (4-9, LW 28). There’s a lot of trade speculation around the Wizards but little actual traction — other teams are interested in Bradley Beal but Washington wants to keep their best player and move the almost untradable contracts of John Wall or Otto Porter. Reality is likely nothing happens. Washington is in a soft part of the schedule, seven games in a row against teams below .500, and they are 3-2 so far after Monday’s win against Orlando. Everything changes on Sunday when Portland comes to town, starting a stretch of seven games in a row against teams over .500.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (4-10, LW 24). Allonzo Trier, the undrafted rookie out of Arizona who is averaging 11.4 points a night and is closing games for the Knicks now, remains one of the best stories of the young season. It makes up for the uninspired play from Frank Ntilikina, who didn’t impress me at Summer League in Las Vegas (and second-year Summer League guys who got a lot of run as rookies should blow you away in Summer League). New York is 2-5 on the road this season (they’re 2-5 at home, too) and have 7-of-9 coming up away from Madison Square Garden.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (3-11, LW 26). Vince Carter on Trae Young: “I think teams, if he is scoring or distributing the ball, they are going to beat him up a little bit. I tell you what, he has done a great job of staying the course, trying to make the right read and play, he has done that these first couple of games. [Sunday night against the Lakers] wasn’t anything different.” Young had an up-and-down game against the Lakers but when it mattered in the fourth he was making plays, including a good shot attempt for the game winner (Tyson Chandler just made a better play).

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (2-11, LW 30). Where did that come from — the Cavaliers thrashed the Hornets on Tuesday night by 24 (to be fair, Charlotte’s horrible shooting from three helped with that). That win moved this team out of the bottom of the rankings. Kyle Korver’s name is coming up in trade buzz around the Sixers, a team now desperately in need of shooting, but it’s not going to be easy to get a deal done because they Cavs will want building blocks for the future back and the Sixers have used up a lot of those assets.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (2-11, LW 29). If the future is Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, how are they playing when together? Well, not good — the Suns are getting outscored by 9.2 points per 100 when they are on the court together. However, the team’s offense ticks up 5.3 points per 100 when they are paired and as Ayton’s defense improves (that’s going to take time) those numbers should improve. The Suns are losers of four in a row and 10-of-11, they are doing it with the worst offense in the NBA and the third-worst defense overall.

Kobe Bryant’s advice to Jayson Tatum: ‘Shoot every time’

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Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant, and was a Los Angeles Lakers fan as a kid. Now Tatum is poised to become the next big thing in Boston, and it’s his solemn duty to make sure Los Angeles doesn’t see a playoff series victory if they should ever meet the Celtics in the postseason.

That hasn’t kept Tatum from working out with the former Lakers star. During his time with Bryant, Tatum says that he was given some very Kobe-esque advice.

Specifically: shoot the ball.

Via GQ:

All the more surreal, then, that he says this in L.A., the day after the Lakers legend generously decided to mentor the young Celtic, a rare one-on-one workout between longtime East-West rivals. And what was Professor Vino’s advice for his new student?

“Shoot every time,” he recalls. “Pass if you have to. But if not, shoot it.”

This of course is extremely bad advice and despite the harping of Lakers fans in distance, there is little evidence to suggest that anyone should pay attention to Kobe Bryant on what would make an efficient basketball player in 2018.

For his part, Tatum has shot the ball more this season. He’s up two attempts per 100 possessions according to Basketball-Reference.com. Tatum is a more effective passer this year, but his 3-point shooting has taken a huge dip and it’s hurt his individual statistics greatly.

A sophomore slump isn’t anything new, but hopefully Tatum sharpens up his offensive game as the year goes on and the playoffs approach.

Nets fans chant ‘Jayson Tatum!’ at Markelle Fultz, which… (video)

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Celtics rising star Jayson Tatum haunts half the rest of the Atlantic Division.

In the doomed-for-the-Nets Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce trade, Brooklyn dealt the pick Boston used to get Tatum. That pick landed No. 1 in last year’s draft, and the Celtics traded down with the 76ers to No. 3, drafting Tatum there. Philadelphia picked Markelle Fultz, who has struggled so far.

Nobody comes out well in this outside Boston.

But with the 76ers visiting the Nets yesterday, Brooklyn fans tried to remind Fultz of his unflattering connection to Tatum – as if they don’t have their own unflattering connection to Tatum!

They could be heard clearly on television, though that doesn’t mean the chant was widespread. It could have been just a couple fans near a microphone.

Still, what a brutal self-own.

Kyrie Irving scores 28, Celtics rain threes on Bucks to win 117-113

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BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Celtics went outside and stayed there while knocking off the last of the NBA’s unbeatens with a barrage of 3-pointers.

The Celtics set a franchise record for 3-pointers with 24 in a 117-113 win over the Bucks on Thursday night, handing Milwaukee its first loss of the season.

“We got a lot of open looks. We were taking what they were giving us,” said Gordon Hayward, who hit three 3-pointers while scoring a season-high 18. “Those are big shots for us. We have to be able to hit those.”

Kyrie Irving led Boston with 28 points, including six 3-pointers as the Celtics shattered the club record of 19 and came up one short of the NBA record.

Al Horford also scored 18, hitting four from beyond-the-arc, and Marcus Morris made five 3-pointers to finish with 17 points.

“It was probably a little more than we wanted to shoot, but those were the shots that were there,” said Horford, who also led the Celtics with eight assists. “We definitely want to be better, but we did a good job. I just felt like we moved the ball well. That was encouraging to see.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo returned to the lineup after missing one game while in the NBA’s concussion protocol and led Milwaukee with 33 points and 11 rebounds.

Antetokounmpo helped lead the Bucks to a 62-22 advantage in points-in-the-paint, but it wasn’t quite enough for Milwaukee to overcome Boston’s outside shooting.

“We were all shooting really well,” Morris said. “We were just knocking them down and our guys got hot.”

Milwaukee, the last unbeaten team left in the NBA after beating Toronto on Monday night, came up just short after a furious rally in the fourth quarter.

Down 15 entering the final period, the Bucks opened on a 12-0 run and were within a point in the final minute, but the Celtics held on for their fourth straight win.

“We still think we are one of the best teams,” Antetokounmpo said. “Tonight we didn’t have an `A’ or `B’ game. Probably a `C’ game, but we were still close to winning the game in Boston.”

Khris Middleton and Malcom Brogdon scored 16 apiece and Eric Bledsoe had 13 points and seven assists for the Bucks.

The Celtics, whose previous record for 3-pointers was 19, came one short of tying the NBA record of 25, set by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a win over the Atlanta Hawks on March 4.

Boston didn’t score in the fourth until Jayson Tatum hit a 3-pointer with 9:13 left in the game. Milwaukee continued to push and pulled within 113-112 when Bledsoe made 1 of 2 from the foul line with 13 seconds.

That was as close as the Bucks would get as the Celtics sealed it from the foul line.

Irving hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the second quarter and Boston led 55-53 at halftime. He opened the second half with three straight from beyond-the-arc and the Celtics appeared to be cruising with a 93-78 lead entering the fourth quarter.

“We can get better. We can play better, but credit to Boston tonight,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

 

New father, Marcus Morris shows poise in big season for himself and Celtics

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DETROIT – I’ve seen Marcus Morris asked multiple times about his displeasure with the Suns. Each time, even years after Phoenix traded him, he answered directly.

Morris never seemed to care about dancing around the edges or holding back on anything. He said what he felt. Grudges weren’t beneath him, which didn’t differentiate him from many. What made Morris exceptional: If he hadn’t moved on, he didn’t pretend as if he did just because that was seen as the “right” thing to do.

But when I asked the Celtics forward about applying lessons from his contract extension with the Suns – which he signed at a discount rate to play with his twin brother, then got traded – to unrestricted free agency next summer, he refrained.

“When it comes time, I’ll let my agent and people that represent me handle all that,” Morris said.

Morris hasn’t completely given up years-old grudges, but the 29-year-old’s worldview has definitely expanded.

He opened up about dealing with anxiety. He became a father in July. He looks to be in greater control on the court.

And he’s making sure it all ties together.

After naming his son Marcus Morris Jr., the new dad changed the name on the back of his jersey to “Morris Sr.” The only player in the league with that suffix on his uniform, Morris said he does it to remind himself of his fatherly pride when he puts on his jersey and to one day show his son how he honored him.

“I grew up without a father,” Morris said. “So having him brought a lot of joy and kind of filled a missing a void that I had in my life.”

Morris didn’t want to get into his contract-year status during the season, but he told Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald before the season, “This year is a big opportunity for me, coming up on my contract year, make sure my family is stable. … Now I’m having a contract year for somebody. I can take care of his kids, and his kids — let the Morris name go on.”

On the court, Morris is off to a swell start. He’s averaging 14.3 points, shooting 52% on 2-pointers and 48% on 3-pointers, with 7.2 rebounds per game. That hot shooting from deep probably isn’t sustainable, but Morris has stepped up while his team’s offense has lagged.

Boston is 4-2 despite ranking 27th in points per possession. That’s the product of a league-best defense and Morris doing just enough offensively to keep the Celtics afloat. His combination of usage percentage (21.3) and true shooting percentage (65.7) rises well above Boston’s other top players’ (axes represent league average):

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The 6-foot-9 Morris just finds mismatches and attacks them. Sometimes, it’s that simple.

“He can post smalls. He can stretch bigs,” Stevens said. “He’s a tough guy to guard.”

Conversely and importantly, he has the versatility to defend both smalls and bigs.

“He’s a great fit for how we play,” Stevens said.

Really, he’s a great fit for how every team plays. Who couldn’t use a two-way forward who stretches the court and defends multiple positions, let alone one who also possesses other all-around skills like Morris?

If there’s any team, it’s Boston, which also has two young promising forwards in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and a max-contract forward in Gordon Hayward.

The Celtics are nearly $4 million over the luxury-tax line, and Morris’ salary is $5,375,000. Though ownership has shown a willingness to pay the tax and the impending tax bill is relatively small, Boston could also face huge repeater-rate tax bills down the road. Delaying the clock by dodging the tax altogether this year could hold appeal.

Plus, will the Celtics really re-sign Morris next summer, when Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Terry Rozier can become free agents?

It might be better to trade Morris now and get something in return.

Morris is trying to avoid the noise – “All that talk and all that jibbering, it will go out the window unless I see it on TV or something – but Boston’s activity in the trade market is well-established. On the other hand, the Celtics hold legitimate championship aspirations this season, and depth players like Morris could make the difference.

“I have great relationships with everybody around here,” Morris said. “But obviously, it’s a business. So, at the same time, I’m just going to continue to do what I need to do.”

It’s a lot to juggle – his short- and long-term fits in Boston, the Celtics’ team goals, his son, his play on the court. But if Morris ever need a reminder of what he needs to do, he can always glance at the back of his jersey.