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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors surge, Raptors still on top

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The Golden State Warriors reminded everyone Tuesday night what they are capable of, but the top two spots still belong to the top teams in the East. They have been more consistent.

Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (33-12, last week No. 1). Things are coming together for the Raptors. They have won five in a row, the last four of those with Kyle Lowry back in the lineup returned from injury, Kawhi Leonard has moved the ball better in those five wins (26 assists), Pascal Siakam is getting more run at center, and Serge Ibaka has slipped up a few times but is still having a renaissance season playing center. Raptors fans, enjoy the journey, this may well be the best Toronto team ever, try to ignore that cloud over the team about Leonard and July. Teams like this don’t come around often. Savor it.

Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (31-12, LW 2). They had a statement win against Houston — where Brook Lopez’s defense in the paint was the surprising key (after they overplayed Harden and forced him right and into Lopez) — and while the Bucks then turned around and lost to the Wizards a couple of nights later it was without Giannis Antetokounmpo so we’re not holding that against them. The other interesting thing out of the win over Houston: How well Eric Bledsoe did on James Harden. Yes, Harden had 42 points on 30 shots, but Bledsoe made him work for his buckets and that bodes well for the Bucks heading into the postseason. Milwaukee has 7-of-9 on the road coming up.

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (30-14, LW 5). The reports of the troubles/demise of Golden State have been greatly exaggerated — despite the injuries, lack of depth, infighting and everything else they currently have the best record in the West. They took control of the conference with an emphatic win over Denver, a game that was a reminder of how good they can be. Friday night against the Clippers the DeMarcus Cousins experiment begins and should be one of the more interesting stories of the second half of the season (when you hear rumors of the Warriors’ interest in Robin Lopez on the buyout market, that’s really just Cousins insurance, nobody knows how this is going to go).

Pacers small icon 4. Pacers (29-13, LW 3). Myles Turner returned from injury against Phoenix Tuesday, which was good news because their defense when he was out was not the same — and the Pacers are second in the NBA in defensive rating. It’s a credit to coach Nate McMillan how well he has this team defending, that end of the floor has become their calling card. Indiana went 3-2 on a recent road trip but the losses were to Toronto and Boston, two of the other teams at the top of the East, and that’s a cause for some concern.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (29-14, LW 7).. Will Barton is back in the lineup — he played in just the first two games of the season before injuring his groin — and that is a big boost for Denver and it’s wing depth and rotation. Just ignore the Warriors game, Golden State does that to teams a couple times a season, except that it was another rough defensive outing. While the Nuggets on the season have a top-10 NBA defense, that has slid to the second worst in the NBA in their last 10 games. The defensive slippage has been covered up because Nikola Jokic can do things like this.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (25-18, LW 4). Clint Capela is out 4-6 weeks with an injured right thumb, and the pressure just mounted even more on James Harden — he responded with 57 points in the first game without Capela, but can he sustain this? The Rockets are 3-3 in their last six with an elite offense covering up for a bottom-10 defense, and that defense is not likely to improve with Capela out. Look for Daryl Morey to try and find some help at the five because the only real center on the roster now is Nene and he can give them maybe 15 minutes a night, tops.

Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (26-17, LW 6). The Thunder have the best defense in the NBA on the season, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions (via NBA.com stats), but in the last five game that has slipped to 119.7 per 100 (28th in the league in that stretch). While teams have bad runs of games over the course of 82, the Thunder are built on defense and they can’t afford for the defensive issues to last much longer, or there will be more ugly losses like Tuesday’s one to Atlanta.

Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (29-16, LW 10). Philadelphia is 20-10 since trading for Jimmy Butler, and the way the Sixers looked and the way the Timberwolves rolled over in that game Butler looked prophetic. That said, all is not just puppy dogs and rainbows with the Sixers — After an Embiid-less loss at home to the lowly Hawks, Ben Simmons called his team out as soft (Atlanta was the more physical team in that game). That Simmons would go there speaks to the struggles still going on trying to get Butler/Embiid/Simmons on the same page.

Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (25-18, LW 9). Terry Rosier said this week this team is “too talented” and that has been a popular theory — too many mouths to feed, too many players who want touches and shots, and it leads to a crowded rotation and guys pushing for larger roles. Is it too much talent or that talent not fitting together? The Celtics can rise up and look like one of the best in the East — they did it in the win over Indiana — but they don’t consistently. Brad Stevens also needs to be thinking about who will be in his 8/9-man playoff rotation, and which current rotation guys (likely Robert Williams, Daniel Theis, and Semi Ojeleye, maybe others) will be relegated to the bench.

Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (26-19, LW 11). The Blazers are 18-7 at home and have a +7.1 net rating, but get on the road and they are 8-12 with a -5.1 net rating. The problems are on both ends of the court, the offense is 5.4 per 100 worse on the road and the defense is 6.8 per 100 worse. We saw it recently in action, the Blazers won four in a row at home then got out of Portland and promptly lost two straight. The Blazers have five more road than home games the rest of the way (but a relatively easy strength of schedule(.

Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (24-21, LW 14). The Jazz look like themselves again winning four in a row, 6-of-7, and they have allowed less than a point per possession in that stretch (best in the NBA). Utah has moved into a tie for the eighth seed in the Wes. Granted, this run has come against a softer part of the schedule (something that ends this week with the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Nuggets), but the Jazz have the second-easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and the easiest of any team in the West. Utah is starting to look like a playoff team again.

Spurs small icon 12. Spurs (25-20, LW 8). Last Thursday’s dramatic double-overtime win against the Thunder — where LaMarcus Aldridge scored 56 — was a signature win for San Antonio. And, if that’s all you saw of them you’d say they were surging. However, they have dropped 3-of-4, including splitting that home-and-home with OKC. The Spurs’ defense, which has carried the team this season, is bottom 10 in their last 5 games, while the offense has been pedestrian. The Spurs may be coming back to earth a little bit, they need to get their defense right and start winning some road games against the West (3-12 so far).

Kings small icon 13. Kings (23-21, LW 17). Rookie Marvin Bagley III is back in the rotation after missing 11 games and is starting to find his form again. Bagley has played fairly well, averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a night off the bench before he got injured (it’s just in this rookie class those numbers get overshadowed). Coach Dave Joerger needs to get Bagley some run and bring him along, the No. 2 pick is a big part of the Kings’ future. Sacramento has won four in a row at home, but now heads out on the road for their next six.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (24-19, LW 12). The Clippers have regressed to the mean recently, having lost three in a row and 7-of-8. In those last 15 games the Clippers have had a top-10 offense — with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell providing a big spark off the bench — but a bottom 10 defense. The Clippers will be the focus of the NBA universe Friday night because DeMarcus Cousins makes his return against them — we all want to see Boban Marjanović matched up against him. Doc Rivers needs to make that happen.

Lakers small icon 15. Lakers (24-21, LW 13). Los Angeles has gone 4-7 since LeBron James’ groin injury, sliding down to a tie for the final playoff spot in the West, and with some ugly games in there — the loss to Cleveland at home was their worst loss of the season. Two things to be concerned about if you’re a Laker fan: 1) This recent run of games really did not help the “we can trade these guys for Anthony Davis” cause (although Brandon Ingram, when he’s facilitating still shows promise); 2) The Lakers have the second toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way. With LeBron back they should be able to handle it and make the playoffs, but it’s not going to be easy.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (21-21, LW 15). The unlikely backcourt of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson has started to find some chemistry, they had big games in the wins against the Celtics and Grizzlies recently, and the Heat have won 10-of-15 with them running the show (although it’s a top-10 defense that has really carried the Heat through this stretch). The loss in Milwaukee Tuesday was the first of 6-of-7 on the road as Miami enters a rough patch of the schedule.

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (21-23, LW 20). New Orleans finally has Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic back in the rotation after extended absences due to injury, they have gone 2-1 in those games and looked much improved. Their return came at the right time, if New Orleans is going to make a playoff push — read: have any shot at all of keeping Anthony Davis — they need to survive a tough January schedule the rest of the way, with 5-of-7 on the road and much of that against West playoff teams. The Pelicans have the fourth toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way.

Nets small icon 18. Nets (22-23, LW 19). Before the season it was expected that Brooklyn would be out of the playoff mix and with some expiring contracts — DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Kenneth Faried — and they would be sellers at the trade deadline. But the scrappy Nets, who play hard and take smart shots, have turned their team of journeymen into the seven seed in the West with a real shot at the playoffs. With that, the fire sale is off and Brooklyn is one of the feel-good stories of the season.

19. Timberwolves (21-23, LW 16). Coming out flat against Philadelphia was ugly — they made Jimmy Butler look prophetic about Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins by showing no fire in that game. This team shows flashes — KAT was blocking Anthony Davis at the end of a win over the Pelicans — but they don’t defend or take smart shots with any consistency. Ryan Saunders is 2-2 as a coach and there are people rooting for him to do well enough to keep this job, but he has a lot of work ahead of him to just get more every night out of this roster.

Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (20-23, LW 21). Why are the Mavericks shopping Dennis Smith Jr.? Because, while his shooting has improved this season, he simply has not fit with Luka Doncic (and Doncic is the future). Smith as part of the regular starting five for Dallas scores less than a point per possession, sub rookie Jaylen Brunson in for Smith and that lineup’s offense gets 16 points per 100 possessions better. Smith is incredibly athletic and should have value on the trade market, but with every other team knowing both Dallas and Smith want to part ways, it’s going to be hard to get anywhere near fair value.

Magic small icon 21. Magic (19-24, LW 24).
Another team many around the league expected to be a seller at the deadline, but after back-to-back victories over Boston and Houston, the Magic are just a game out of the playoffs in the East and are more likely to make a push for it rather than tank. The key to making the playoffs will be more of the Aaron Gordon who showed up against Boston and Houston, scoring 28 and 22 points in those games, shooting a combined 51.7 percent, and getting to the free throw line. Orlando needs Gordon to be aggressive and the catalyst for the offense.

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (20-23, LW 18). Charlotte wants to make the playoffs this season, owner Michael Jordan wants to make the playoffs, and their recent 2-4 road trip did not help that cause (although the Hornets remain a game ahead of Orlando for the eight seed). The bigger problem is they miss Cody Zeller, he has been out seven games (2-5) and in those games the Hornets have the third worst defense in the NBA. They need to get some stops over the next few weeks because Kemba Walker’s heroics alone are not enough to get them into the playoffs.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (18-26, LW 25). They beat the 76ers. They beat the Bucks. They took the Raptors to double overtime. Forget about tanking and selling off players, the Wizards are playing better and, with the third easiest schedule the rest of the way the Wizards are thinking playoffs. The Wizards are 5-4 with a +3.2 net rating since John Wall left the team due to injury, there is more balance on the offense and Bradley Beal is attacking the rim more than we’ve seen in years. Despite their horrid start to the season and injuries, the Wizards are just 2.5 games out of the playoffs and stranger things have happened.

Pistons small icon 24. Pistons (18-24, 22). Blake Griffin’s 44-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday night was a classic revenge game — he even blew off Steve Ballmer (maybe) — and a great reminder of how good Griffin can be. It’s also the Pistons’ only win in their last six games, the team continues to struggle offensively (bottom 5 in the league over the last 10 games). The Pistons have 7-of-10 at home and if they are going to make a playoff push it needs to come now.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (14-30, LW 26). The Hawks have quietly gone 8-7 in their last 15 games, with an average NBA offense and a just slightly below average defense in that stretch. That included a 142-126 win over Oklahoma City. Rookie point guard Trae Young has started to show some chemistry with Kevin Huerter,, and the Thunder found out about that the hard way.

Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (19-24, LW 23). Unexpected stat: The Grizzlies lead the NBA in passes per game, averaging 342.1. Unfortunately, that does not correlate directly to winning, the Grizzlies have gone 3-13 in their last 16, have slid out of the playoffs, and their next four games are the Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, and Pelicans. If the losing continues for another week or two, and with Marc Gasol a free agent this summer, will we finally see Memphis talk trade and break up their core? Other teams are watching, but if they didn’t do it this summer would they now?

Suns small icon 27. Suns (11-34, LW 27). Kelly Oubre Jr. is starting to find a comfort level in the Valley of the Sun, averaging 17.6 points per game on 50.8 shooting in his last five games. That said, the offense continues to struggle if Devin Booker is not on the floor, and that lack of consistent offense keeps them from winning games (although they are competitive most nights, they are not just rolling over).

Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (10-33, LW 29). It will be February before we get an update, but if the rumors are true that the Knicks want to hold Kristaps Porzingis out all season — against his wishes — then that is the kind of short-sighted things that leads to broken relationships. (This is providing there is not a good medical reason to keep KP out.) Only one game this week as the NBA decided to promote its game by sending the Knicks and Wizards over to London for a Thursday game (don’t they have enough problems over there with Brexit without us making them watch that excuse for basketball?).

Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (10-34, LW 28). Chicago has lost eight in a row, but Bulls management wants to show it’s committed to the old-school ways of coach Jim Boylen by giving him a raise this season and next (they had lost six in a row when that news leaked). Boylen is now 5-15 as head coach. When you’re losing like that, experimenting with Lauri Markkanen at the three — as Boylen wants to do — is worth trying.

Cavaliers small icon 30. Cavaliers (9-35, LW 30). the Cavaliers snapped their 12 game losing streak thanks to the LeBron-less Lakers. One bright spot, Matthew Dellavedova has played like a solid pro for the Cavaliers off the bench providing some steady play their bench units can use. Beyond that… here’s a Zion Williamson highlight to dream about.

Dwyane Wade scores 19, Heat hold off Celtics 115-99

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MIAMI (AP) — Dwyane Wade knew the Boston Celtics would make a run.

He also decided when it should end.

Wade scored eight of his 19 points in a third-quarter spurt that saved Miami from what was starting to look like a freefall, and the Heat went on to defeat the Celtics 115-99 on Thursday night. Miami led by as many as 26 shortly after halftime, then saw the Celtics peel off 16 unanswered points before Wade helped quickly restore order.

“I’ve been on this train with him for a long time,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He has a way of making all of us look a lot better. … Sometimes this league is just about having great players in those important moments, swing moments during the course of a game.”

Josh Richardson scored 18 points for Miami, which set season highs with 18 3-pointers and 33 assists. Derrick Jones Jr. scored 14, and Justise Winslow scored 13 points and added a career-high 11 assists for the Heat.

“We’re trying to move up. We’re trying to continue to get better,” said Wade, who helped the Heat even their record at 20-20. “You want to be able to win some of these games against the top teams.”

Kyrie Irving led all scorers with 22 on 10-for-19 shooting for the Celtics, who scored a season-high 135 points one night earlier in a win over Indiana – but were held under 100 for only the fourth time all season, the first since Nov. 17.

Irving went to the Heat practice court immediately after the game, shooting for about 30 minutes.

“Just good to get some shots up, just release some stress a little bit after a tough loss,” Irving said.

Marcus Smart scored 18.

Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris each had 17 for the Celtics.

Miami outscored Boston 17-4 in the final 3:07 of the first half and took a 61-43 lead into the break – the largest halftime edge for the Heat since November. And an 11-3 run to start the third pushed the lead out to 72-46, which would seem to indicate that Miami was in complete control.

Looks were deceiving.

Boston scored the next 16 points, with Tatum getting six of them and the Celtics were right back in the game. Wade made a 3-pointer to stop the run, and scored eight points in the final 3:47 of the quarter as the Heat took an 83-72 lead into the final 12 minutes.

Tyler Johnson got a pair of 3s to fall in a 67-second span early in the fourth, and just like that Miami was back up 95-76.

“They really, really shot it and made big ones when we came back in the second half to stymie that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “But that’s a result of being comfortable all night.”

 

Kawhi Leonard scores 30, Danny Green hits game-winning three, Raptors beat Heat

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MIAMI (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 30 points, Danny Green‘s 3-pointer with 22.7 seconds left put Toronto ahead for good and the Raptors improved the NBA’s best record to 26-10 by topping the Miami Heat 106-104 on Wednesday night.

Green had 18 points and once again hit a key shot late for the Raptors.

Fred VanVleet added 16 for the Raptors, who survived a wild fourth quarter that saw 12 lead changes and four ties. Miami had three shots on the game’s final possession, with Dwyane Wade and Justise Winslow missing 3s and Wade having a chance at a tip-in that wouldn’t fall.

Winslow scored 21 points for Miami, which saw its five-game winning streak snapped. Josh Richardson scored 17 and Hassan Whiteside scored 16 for Miami, which was 6 for 12 from the foul line – while Toronto was 19 for 23.

James Johnson and Tyler Johnson each scored 12 for the Heat, while Wade had 10. Pascal Siakam added 10 for the Raptors.

Winslow’s layup with 35.2 seconds left put Miami up by one, and on the next Toronto possession Green found himself wide-open in the right corner – nearly the identical spot from where Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer to deny Green and Leonard the 2013 NBA title when they were with San Antonio.

Green connected, the Raptors got the game’s last stop and escaped to move to 7-0 against the Southeast Division this season.

Miami led 58-44 at the half and extended the lead to 17 early in the third quarter, before Toronto went to a zone – the defense that the Heat have been using so well of late – and the game changed. VanVleet made three 3s and had 11 points while Leonard added 10 in what became a 31-12 run over the last 8:10 of the quarter by the Raptors, and they took an 81-79 lead into the fourth.

Winslow made a wild layup for a 99-93 lead that came after an 8-0 Miami run – and the Raptors needed about a minute to respond with a lead-taking 8-0 run of their own. VanVleet connected on a 3, Siakam added a three-point play and Leonard drew a blocking call against Winslow that the Heat didn’t like with 1:19 left that he turned into a pair of free throws and a 101-99 Toronto edge.

Heat’s Goran Dragic out two months following knee surgery

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Miami has been scraping by with point guard Goran Dragic missing time — the Heat are 5.8 points per 100 possessions worse when he is off the court, most of that coming from an offense that becomes very defendable without him. Still, the Heat have gone 7-8 in the games he’s missed, and while he has missed 12-of-14 games with a knee issue the Heat are 6-6.

That might be tough to keep up over the next couple of months, which is how long Dragic is reportedly going to be out following knee surgery on Wednesday, a story broken by Shandel Richardson of The Athletic.

The recovery time is expected to be six-to-eight weeks, the standard for this kind of surgery.

The Heat at 13-16 are just a game out of the playoffs as you read this, but without Dragic for a couple of months other teams will be calling Pat Riley to see if Miami will become sellers at the trade deadline. Teams will have their eye on Josh Richardson and Bam Adebayo, but Miami may prefer to trade Kelly Olynyk, Justise Winslow, or ideally Hassan Whiteside.

LeBron James’ Lakers edge Dwyane Wade’s Heat in final meeting

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 28 points and the Los Angeles Lakers survived Dwyane Wade‘s 15-point performance in the second half of the superstars’ probable final on-court meeting for a 108-105 victory over the Miami Heat on Monday night.

The game appropriately ended with James guarding Wade, who missed a difficult 3-point attempt in the waning seconds. After the buzzer sounded, and they shared a hug and a chat to close perhaps the final joint chapter of two careers that have intersected repeatedly since they entered the NBA together in 2003.

Wade and James teamed up with the Heat in 2010 to win two championships while reaching four consecutive NBA Finals, and they spent half of last season together in Cleveland.

Wade intends to retire after this season, and Staples Center sent him out of Los Angeles in style with multiple standing ovations and a tribute video in the first quarter.

James and Wade both missed big shots down the stretch, but James hit two free throws with 22.5 seconds left to stretch the Lakers’ lead to three points.

Kyle Kuzma scored 33 points for the Lakers, who have won 13 of 17 overall and five straight at home.

Justise Winslow scored a career-high 28 points for Miami, hitting six 3-pointers in the third stop on the Heat’s six-game road trip.

Wade’s wife, Gabrielle Union, was among the fans at courtside as the high-scoring guard played 32 minutes. Wade went 0 for 5 in a scoreless first half, but still had six assists.

He got rolling in the third quarter with eight points in a flurry that recalled his heyday, and he kept up the pressure in the fourth while finishing with 10 assists and five rebounds.