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

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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) 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.

NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets strike gold in win streak, take over No. 1 spot

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As it has been for weeks, there is little separation among the top five teams in these rankings, so whoever gets hot for a couple of weeks climbs to the top. This week that is the Denver Nuggets, but the margins remain slim.

 
Nuggets small icon 1. Nuggets (16-7, last week No. 5).. They should be ranked this high just because of the sweet city jerseys, but also they are winners of a very impressive six in a row, which includes victories at Oklahoma City, Portland, Minnesota, and Toronto. They are the hottest team in the NBA right now. Much like the Nuggets’ season, it’s been a lot of Nikola Jokic with everyone else pitching in, for example, Gary Harris missed a couple of games then returned and dropped 27 on Portland. Paul Millsap has averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds a night, shooting 51.9% and knocking down 44.4% of his threes in the last five games. Also, I know the shot was late but this Jokic heave should have counted just because.

 
Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (20-5, LW 1). What team has the best net rating on the road this season? These Toronto Raptors, who are +8.4 per 100 possessions when they travel south of the border this season. Monday’s loss to Denver snapped an 8-game winning streak that included knocking off Golden State and a win at Memphis. Toronto now has 5-of-7 on the road and the two home games in that stretch are the 76ers and Bucks. That road net rating is about to be put to the test.

 
Thunder small icon 3. Thunder (15-7, LW 4). Russell Westbrook has tied Jason Kidd on the all-time triple-doubles list and will pass him soon enough — and of late Westbrook has played more like late-career Kidd, taking more three pointers and attacking the rim a little less. The Thunder and their elite defense feasted on a soft November schedule — as they should — but now things get tougher as Monday’s win in Detroit started 5-of-6 on the road, and the opponents get tougher.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (16-7, LW 2). When Avery Bradley is on the court, the Clippers defense is good — 104.7 points per 100 possessions allowed, which would be top five in the NBA. When he is off the court their defense ranges between average and bad. The problem is when Bradley is on the court his lack of scoring drags one of the NBA’s top five offenses down to below average. It’s so bad the Clippers have been 2 points per 100 possessions worse with Bradley this season (there is a lot of noise in that number, but it has relevance). It leaves Doc Rivers with some tough choices to make, both at the end of games and overall as the season progresses. The Clippers need Bradley to find his shot.

 
Bucks small icon 5. Bucks (15-7, LW 3). The Bucks have lost 2-of-3 and what’s disturbing is who they lost to, Charlotte and the Knicks. The problem is on the defensive end, which has been bottom five in the league over their last five games. It’s likely just a blip, some mid-season slippage, but Mike Budenholzer and crew need to get it together fast because a tough stretch of games comes up including the Warriors (Friday) and at Toronto (Sunday). That Raptors game also starts a run of 7-of-9 on the road.

 
Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (17-8, LW 6). Obviously, the key to the team’s recent 8-of-9 win streak is the matching white headbands of Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, the guys Brett Brown calls the “defensive brothers.” However, everything on the defensive end is based around the decisions Joel Embiid makes — they call his defensive position “Batman.” Literally. That’s the team name for it, because whatever he does everyone else has to read and play off or it.

Pistons small icon 7. Pistons (13-8, 9). Detroit had sone 5-in-a-row (including spoiling Stephen Curry’s return to the Warriors) before running into OKC Monday, and the Pistons still have won 9-of-12. The key? Health. Blake Griffin is playing the best basketball of his career as the fulcrum of the offense, he’s going to be in consideration for an All-NBA spot if he keeps this up, but the most important thing is he’s been in all 21 games. Same with point guard Reggie Jackson. The schedule gets tougher — the Bucks and 76ers are the next two games — but the Pistons look like a solid playoff team. If they can just stay healthy.

 
Warriors small icon 8. Warriors (16-9, LW 7). Stephen Curry is back in the lineup and will bring a boost to an offense that was good, but not special, without him. However, just how much the Warriors miss Draymond Green’s defense has been evident in the last 9 games he missed — the Warriors defense has been 20th in the league in those games, surrendering 110.8 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors defense has been 9.8 points per 100 better when Green is on the court this season. Getting Curry back helps, but Golden State needs Green, too.

 
Lakers small icon 9. Lakers (14-9, LW 11). Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant have expressed frustration with how the Lakers have started to run everything on offense through LeBron James, saying the Lakers are playing too much like last year’s Cavaliers. Which is true. But what exactly did Magic expect, this “roster of playmakers” he wanted doesn’t actually have quality playmakers outside LeBron and maybe Lonzo Ball (unless you want to run a lot of moderately efficient isolations for Brandon Ingram). The Lakers will look like the Cavs until they land another superstar. The Laker offense in the last 9 games, since Rajon Rondo went down, is bottom five in the league. However, the Lakers are 6-3 in that stretch thanks to top five defense and some timely plays from LeBron.

 
Celtics small icon 10. Celtics (13-10, LW 13). Since starting to come off the bench, Gordon Hayward has started to find his groove. Hayward is averaging 13.8 points per game on 47.4 percent shooting, up from 10.1 on 39.9 as a starter. Hayward is hotting 39.1 percent from three as a starter, his assists are up (4.5 a game) and he is an average of +8.3 per game in the bench role. Boston has won three in a row and is in a soft part of the schedule for the next couple of weeks, so the wins should keep piling up.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (14-10, LW 8). Indiana is 5-4 without Victor Oladipo in this stretch, and while the offense misses the All-Star the defense has (surprisingly) been one of the top 5 in the NBA in that stretch, allowing just 101.5 points per 100 possessions. The one guy who has stood out during the Oladipo absence has been Domantas Sabonis, who was looking like a Most Improved Player candidate before but in the last nine games Indiana has had to run their offense through him more and Sabonis has been up to the task. He looks like the big of the future in Indy (sorry Myles Turner, who has played decently).

 
Grizzlies small icon 12. Grizzlies (13-9, LW 10). Jaren Jackson Jr. is injecting himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation with his play, and he made a statement last Friday in Brooklyn scoring 7 points in the final 27 seconds to help force OT, and finishing the game with 36. He’s the best two-way rookie player by far. Despite Jackson’s play, the Grizzlies have hit a rough patch dropping 4-of-5, and now their next four games are other potential/likely West playoff teams (Clippers, Pelicans, Lakers, Nuggets).

 
13. Timberwolves (12-12, LW 21). Minnesota is now 8-3 since the Jimmy Butler trade and the key has been the second-best defense in the NBA in that stretch (despite not being able to stop Gordon Hayward last Saturday), led by Robert Covington, who even has Karl-Anthony Towns focused and protecting the rim well on that end. Towns has taken a step forward, Andrew Wiggins… is still Andrew Wiggins. Tonight against Charlotte is the end of a home-heavy stretch (10-of-12) and Minnesota heads out on the road for four, including at Portland and Golden State.

 
Mavericks small icon 14. Mavericks (12-10, LW 16). Dallas has won 9-of-11, including knocking off the Clippers and Trail Blazers this week. The Mavericks have been solid on offense — with rookie Luka Doncic leading the way — but the big key to the streak has been on the defensive end, where they have allowed just 101.6 per 100 (third best in the NBA in that stretch). What’s most impressive is Dallas has done this against a run of games against other potential playoff teams in the West, the kind of wins that signal this could be a playoff team in Dallas after all.

 
Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (13-11, LW 12). This ranking almost feels too high for Portland the way it has played the past couple of weeks, having dropped 6-of-7 with a -13.1 net rating. Damian Lillard and the offense have struggled some in those games, but by far the bigger problem is a disastrous defense surrendering 119.5 per 100 possessions in those seven games. Lillard said after the game the team needs to look at itself in the mirror. It does. Portland also needs a better effort on defense and to spread the floor more and have someone other than just Lillard and C.J. McCollum shooting threes.

 
Rockets small icon 16. Rockets (11-12, LW 14). Just when you think things are turning around… Chris Paul returned (they are 0-5 without him) and the Rockets’ offense clicked in weekend wins against the Spurs and Bulls, it felt like Houston was finding a groove, then Monday the Timberwolves smacked them around. That was a cold shooting night for Houston but they scored just 9 points in the fourth quarter, which is disturbing. Plus they could not slow Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, something they did last season in the playoffs (when Minnesota had less shooting, so help was easier to give) but had no answers for Monday. The issues with the Rockets are real.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (12-13, LW 15). Julius Randle is having a Sixth Man of the Year level season in the Big Easy, scoring 18.3 points per game of 54.9 percent shooting, pulling down 9 rebounds a night, with career high PER of 22.6. But Randle and MVP-level performances from Anthony Davis are not enough right now, as the Pelicans have dropped 6-of-8 due to a struggling defense. That end of the court needs to get fixed fast as their next five games are against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (12-11, LW 20). After Sacramento got a win with Willie Cauley-Stein’s putback dunk, the Kings improved to 9-3 in clutch games this season (within five points in the final five minutes). That’s likely not sustainable, and why they have the net rating of a 10-13 team, but to their credit this Kings team just keeps finding ways to win. Tuesday’s win in Phoenix started a string of 6-of-8 on the road where getting tough wins will be put to the test.

 
Magic small icon 19. Magic (12-12, LW 19). They went a very respectable 3-3 on a six-game road trip, and two of those losses (Golden State and Portland) had something to do with Aaron Gordon’s back issues flaring up. Nikola Vucevic continues to put up numbers, and while it is tempting to think about the trade offers the Magic might get for him at the deadline, but this team is currently 7th in the East and if they are in the middle of a playoff chase he — or Terrence Ross, or anyone on the roster — is likely not available. At least at a reasonable price.

 
Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (12-13, LW 23). Last week the Jazz traded for Kyle Korver and he has been the spark they needed. Since the trade the Jazz are 3-1 and shooting 43.3% from three, including dropping a franchise record 20 threes on the Spurs Tuesday. That may not be sustainable (and the wins didn’t come against top tier talent) but it’s a start. The Korver effect will be put to the test with games against Houston and OKC this week, plus 4-of-6 coming up on the road.

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (11-12, LW 17). Marvin Williams is going to miss at least a week with a shoulder injury, which isn’t major but the Hornets have been getting hit with a lot of bumps and bruises in the past couple of weeks and it exposes the lack of depth when this team’s key starters can’t go. The Hornets have lost 4-of-6 but have been able to hang around the playoff bubble in the East, but this team needs Kemba Walker to be Mr. Everything to win and he has been good but not his earlier MVP level of late.

 
Spurs small icon 22. Spurs (11-13, LW 18). They have had the worst defense in the NBA over the last 15 games allowing 115.4 points per 100, and with that have slid all the way down to the 14 seed (but still just two games out of the playoffs in the bunched up West). It’s just not like a Gregg Popovich team. Starting Friday when the Lakers visit the Spurs have six in a row at home and 8-of-10, this could be a springboard for them to bounce back up the standings in the West (if not… it would be concerning).

 
Heat small icon 23. Heat (9-14, LW 26). The inconsistent Miami Heat continue along, a team that lost to Atlanta and followed it up with wins over New Orleans and Utah. The Heat have been a gritty, tough-to-play against team that has overachieved the past couple of seasons, we’ve come to expect that from them, but this season Miami only shows that in flashes. Friday night in Phoenix starts a six-game road trip through the Western Conference.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (10-14, LW 22). Tomas Satoransky has moved into the starting lineup, with Scott Brooks saying he likes having a player who will accept a role. That’s a hint. However, if you want to focus on the Wizards’ issues start with John Wall, both on defense and his speed of play.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (8-17, LW 24). New York has had a series of improbable wins this season, the latest one being an overtime win against the bucks last Saturday at the Garden. That despite the fact Tim Hardaway Jr. is in a deep slump, shooting 34.2% in his last five games (he’s under 40% for the season, this has not been his year, but it’s been worse lately). Of course, there is only one play everyone wants to talk about with the Knicks.

 
Cavaliers small icon 26. Cavaliers (5-18, LW 27). Collin Sexton continues to be up-and-down, he was red hot for five games, then in his last five he’s shooting 37.6% overall and 25% from three. Rookies, that’s what you get. The Cavaliers did well — or, as well as they were going to do at this point — in the Kyle Korver trade. While they will save money going into next season with Alec Burks off the books, this season he can give them some minutes and buckets off the bench — and he gave them a game-winning dunk this week.

 
Nets small icon 27. Nets (8-17, LW 25). Brooklyn’s net rating on the season of -2 suggests this team should have an 11-14 record, three games better than what it does. Why have the Nets been “unlucky?” Because they struggle to close out close games, having gone 4-11 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. The Nets system and hustle make up for a lot, but in close games they just don’t have the talent of many of the teams they go up against. The Nets have lost seven in a row with the Thunder and Raptors next on the schedule.

 
Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-19, LW 28). Atlanta has moved Kevin Huerter into the starting lineup and Kent Bazemore to the bench, and that sparked them to a couple of wins before dropping their last three. Taurean Prince is going to be out at least three weeks with a sprained ankle, that is a blow the Hawks’ frontcourt rotation. Still, tune in to watch Trae Young because whether he’s red hot or ice cold — and it can be either at any time — he puts on a show.

 
Bulls small icon 29. Bulls (5-20, LW 29). Fred Hoiberg is out as coach and now Jim Boylen is tasked with getting this team to play with a little more grit and fire than the mild-mannered Hoiberg could get out of the crew. Smart move giving Boylen the head coaching job for the rest of the season — and saying they want him to be back next season — so he has some leverage to get the players to buy into whatever changes he makes. That said, the biggest problem with this team was not Hoiberg, he just wasn’t the answer either.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (4-20, LW 30). They have dropped six in a row, but if you’re looking for a bright spot rookie De'Anthony Melton stepped up with 21 points in the Suns’ loss to the Kings and looked like a player who needs some more run. Melton was a second-round pick who barely played in college, but out of high school was considered a big-time talent, maybe the Suns lucked out and got a steal with him. We need to see more of him to understand just what the Suns might have.

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

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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).

Three Things to Know: Deandre Ayton outduels Luka Doncic in rookie showdown

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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. This was the first full slate of games this season and three of the first four were #LeaguePassAlert games — welcome back NBA.

1) Suns, Deandre Ayton gets best of Mavs’ Luka Doncic in rookie debuts. It’s tedious but let’s start with the required-by-law caveat: It’s just one game. Almost any reaction here is an overreaction. What matters is not where Ayton and Doncic are right now but how much better are they around Christmas. And March.

That said, Ayton showed an offensive game that comes to him with ease and looked the better of the two promising rookies in an opening night showdown.

Ayton had to go up against DeAndre Jordan and did a good job of letting the offense come to him, not forcing it, and he finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, and an impressive six assists. (Credit to new coach Igor Kokoskov, the Suns moved the ball very well and assisted on 78 percent of their baskets.) Ayton did most of his damage deep in the post, mainly when smaller players were switched onto him, but also nailed a few midrange jumpers. His first bucket came with an and-1 against Doncic down low.

That said, on the defensive end of the floor Ayton has a lot of work to do. He just looked lost, without recognition. The book on him coming in was he had never really been taught to defend until college and he just doesn’t have the understanding yet, and that showed. It’s just a reminder he has a LONG way to go on that end.

Dallas’ Doncic couldn’t get his shot to fall (5-of-16 overall and 0-of-5 from three) but the Dallas offense did look smoother with him running it. He still finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, and four assists — and a few highlight moments to remind you what he can be.

Phoenix’s Devin Booker was the real offensive star of the game — he scored 17 points in the final five minutes to seal the win and had 35 on the night for the Suns.

2) Pelicans beat down Rockets in opener, win by 19 (and it wasn’t that close). Last season, Houston’s switch-everything defense was seventh best in the NBA and the stops/steals it got helped fuel an elite offense. There were a lot of questions through the summer about how much the losses of Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and defensive guru assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik (retirement) were going to set them back.

It’s just one game, but the returns are not good.

The Pelicans picked apart the switches, got mismatches and clean looks, and flat-out thrashed Houston in its home opener 131-112. This was a 17 point game at the half and the Pelicans led by as many as 29 at points. Anthony Davis feasted on the Houston defense on his way to 32 points,16 rebounds, eight assists, and three blocks. He looked stronger and was scoring in the post on Clint Capela at times.

The Pelicans big-man trio dominated this game — Nikola Mirotic hit his first six threes and finished with 30 points, and Julius Randle punished switches inside on his way to 25 points and eight rebounds. New Orleans is an interesting combination — they play as fast as any team in the league but will punish teams that go small ball on them. The Rockets struggled with all of that.

Houston will play better — James Harden and Chris Paul were good but not playing at their otherworldly potential, and the defense will improve. But there were other concerns. Carmelo Anthony came off the bench for the first time in his career and looked pedestrian and out of sync, not like a guy who can help the team in May, and shot 3-of-10. Worse yet, Michael Carter-Williams was a mess, getting torched defensively, and on offense the Pelicans at points literally did not guard him and that messed with the spacing and flow of the rest of the offense. Houston has some work to do to get back to the level we all expect of them.

3) Kawhi Leonard looks good — if a bit rusty — in Raptors debut. We saw it with Gordon Hayward in Boston on Tuesday night (and to a degree Kyrie Irving as well): Miss a large chunk of the last season and there’s going to be some expected rust and struggles in the first game of the next season.

That was the Kawhi Leonard story in Toronto. He put up 24 points in his first game, but on 9-of-22 shooting. Early on it was clear the Raptors were feeding him to try to get him rolling, but that had a limited effect (although he did look better in the second half).

It’s just one game, and Leonard was moving and defending well, we need to give him some time to get his game fully back. The Raptors beat the Cavaliers 116-104 and as long as they keep winning Leonard can find his game again without pressure.

BONUS NOTE: Could not end this without a shout out to Allonzo Trier. You might remember him as the player who, when you tuned in to watch Ayton at Arizona last season, you said, “hey, who is No. 35, he’s pretty good?” Trier went undrafted but played his way onto the Knicks’ roster through a solid Summer League (17 points a game) and camp (14.2 average in preseason games, better than Kevin Knox).

Opening night he impressed dropping 15 and making some highlight reel plays. This is a rookie to keep an eye on.

Anthony Davis-led Pelicans thrash Rockets in opener

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HOUSTON (AP) — Anthony Davis couldn’t help but notice James Harden‘s freshly minted MVP trophy sitting at midcourt before a ceremony during warmups on Wednesday night.

After Harden hoisted the trophy for the first time before the Toyota Center home crowd and received a few MVP chants throughout the night, Davis began to make an MVP case of his own.

Davis had 32 points, 16 rebounds and a career-high eight assists while Nikola Mirotic scored 30 points to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 131-112 win over the Houston Rockets in their season opener.

“When it was sitting there before the game, I glanced at it, and then I had to lock back in for the game,” Davis said. “That stuff will take care of itself. As long as we keep doing what we’re doing as a team, the rest will come on its own.”

Davis added three blocks and three steals, while Mirotic shot a sizzling 6 of 8 from 3-point range, and Julius Randle had 25 points off the bench.

“We moved the basketball and we made shots, but we put our hats on and defended,” Davis said. “To come out with a win against a team like that after the season they had and coming off the season we had, we wanted to come out and set a tempo for ourselves.”

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 21 points off the bench, while P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul both added 19 points. James Harden had 18 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.

“A little bit of legs and non-communication and giving them easy points, easy opportunities — a little bit of everything,” Harden said. “But first game, you just continue to build those good habits and continue to get better every single game. We’ll be all right.”

The Pelicans dominated the first half, taking an early lead and never relinquished it as they hammered the undersized Rockets in the paint. New Orleans led 71-54 at the break and led by 29 points in the second half. The Pelicans outrebounded the Rockets 54-37.

“It was a good win for us, but to be honest, we feel like if we play at the level we’re supposed to — we’re not surprised,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We played exactly how we have to in order to beat that team.”

New Orleans dominated Houston in paint scoring, 76-44, and also shot 40 percent on 10 of 25 shooting from 3, compared with a rusty 33.3 percent (16 of 48) from the Rockets.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t seem overly alarmed by the defensive display, praising New Orleans’ energy.

“They played harder, longer and did a better job,” D’Antoni said. “They played great, but at the same time, there was a period in there where we got really tired and then trying to figure things out, being tired doesn’t work, and we didn’t have the energy and we kind of let go of the rope at the end of the first half. We obviously have some things to work on, we’ve got to get our legs and then go after it.”

Coming off the bench for Houston with seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Rockets offseason pickup Carmelo Anthony received a standing ovation when he entered the game wearing his trademark headband and the No. 7. Anthony made his first two shot attempts, the first, from 3, and finished 3-of-10 shooting for nine points in 27 minutes.

TIP-INS

Pelicans: C Jahlil Okafor (right ankle sprain) entered the game late in the fourth quarter, playing less than two minutes.

Rockets: PG Michael Carter-Williams (left knee soreness) played on a minutes restriction as a precaution, with D’Antoni setting the cap around 15 minutes. Carter-Williams played 16 minutes and had 10 points. … Centers Nene (right calf tightness) and Zhou Qi (left knee sprain) did not play.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

Before the game, the Rockets honored the life of late Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen on the big screen wearing a Portland hat, offering a tribute and moment of silence. Allen, a Microsoft co-founder who also owned the Seattle Seahawks, died Monday in Seattle from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to his company Vulcan Inc. He was 65.

A PERFECT 10

Elfrid Payton‘s minimalist triple-double made him the first player to record exactly 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a single game since March 2, 2013 when Kyle Lowry did it for Toronto. It was Payton’s 11th career triple-double.

HE SAID IT

“For all you analytics guys, we’re not winning 82 (games) this year. That’s done, that’s all about how it’s been proven.” – D’Antoni.

UP NEXT

Pelicans: Host Kings on Friday.

Rockets: At Lakers on Saturday.