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.

Three Things to Know: Luka Doncic sticks dagger in reeling Blazers, gets Mavericks win

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Luka Doncic sticks the dagger in reeling Blazers, gets Mavericks win. Deandre Ayton is filling up the box score. Jaren Jackson Jr. is impressing everyone on both ends of the court and looks like he may be the best player out of this draft class in three years.

But if the vote were today, Dallas’ Luka Doncic would be Rookie of the Year. He is the best offensive player on a 12-10 Mavericks team that is in the middle of the West playoff hunt (they are the 7 seed as you read this in the brutally tight conference).

Or, just ask Portland, because Doncic stuck the dagger in them Tuesday night.

Doncic bullied the Blazers down low when they put a smaller player like Nik Stauskas on him, shooting 4-of-7 in the paint, and Doncic was also 2-of-4 from three. He finished with 21 points and 9 rebounds on the night.

Portland, meanwhile, has hit a real slump losing 5-of-6 and with a net rating of -8.2 in those games. The offense has been just okay during this stretch, which has not been good enough to cover up a putrid defense surrendering 117.2 per 100 possessions in those six games. The team has eaten into that cushion of wins it had early in the season and finds itself right in the middle of that brutal and tight Western Conference playoff chase.

2) Markelle Fultz has a diagnosis, but there is still a long way to go before this saga ends. Markelle Fultz spent a week seeing specialists, 10 of them according to reports, but in the end a doctor diagnosed him with something that could certainly have impacted his shot: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). The Sixers say he will be away from the team indefinitely, although reports (certainly out of the Fultz camp) say he could miss just 3-6 weeks.

Markelle Fultz’s agent and camp are feeling vindicated, they have preached this was physical and not mental throughout. Even though clearly it was part mental. Now Fultz goes into rehab and we will see what he and his jump shot look like on the other side.

TOS is something seen in baseball players but rarely if ever in basketball players. Rather than me trying to play doctor, here is the Mayo Clinic’s description:

Thoracic outlet syndrome is a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels or nerves in the space between your collarbone and your first rib (thoracic outlet) are compressed. This can cause pain in your shoulders and neck and numbness in your fingers. Common causes of thoracic outlet syndrome include… repetitive injuries from job- or sports-related activities.

Here’s the important thing: If Fultz believes this treatment will help him, it will. Get him physically right and, hopefully, the mental part of his game clicks back in and he returns to being something like the consensus No. 1 pick. That’s the hope.

What does not change is that Fultz and the Sixers still need to part ways. The Sixers have moved into a win-now mode with the Jimmy Bulter trade and there is just too much baggage. When Fultz returns there may be trade interest around him at the deadline, and it would be best for both sides to just get on without each other.

Which is to say, the Markelle Fultz saga in Philadelphia is not over.

3) Kyle Korver returns to Salt Lake City, Jazz knock down a record 20 threes in win. Since the Utah Jazz acquired Kyle Korver from the Cavaliers, they are 3-1 and a team that had struggled from deep all season has shot 43.3 percent from deep. (Ignore the fact it’s been against a soft part of the schedule.)

That continued Tuesday night in Korver’s return to Salt Lake City — he was 3-of-4 from three on his way to 15 points, and the Jazz set a franchise record with 20 threes made in the game (on just 33 attempts), leading them to a 139-105 rout of the suddenly defenseless Spurs (San Antonio’s ugly defense the past couple of weeks is another story).

The Utah Jazz needed this, a game where their shots just seemed to fall like rain. Donovan Mitchell was 4-of-6 from three, and Joe Ingles was 3-of-6. They led the way for a team that just could not seem to miss.

Have the Jazz found their footing? Two of the next three games for them are against the Rockets and Thunder, that should be a good measuring stick. So far, that Korver trade has looked like a real spark.

New Cavalier Alec Burks throws down game-winning dunk to bet Nets (VIDEO)

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When the Cavaliers sent Kyle Korver to Utah, it was generally perceived they got back a couple second-round picks, plus Alec Burks to balance the salaries and save them some money next season (Burks is in the last year of his contract).

That sells Burks short, he guy can play (he was just losing a numbers game in Utah). With the game tied and time for a last shot in Brooklyn Monday night, coach Larry Drew put the ball in Burks’ hands and said go to work (with a pick from Rodney Hood) and…

Cleveland gets the win and snaps a four-game losing streak. Welcome to Cleveland indeed.

Donovan Mitchell scores 30, Jazz beat Hornets in Korver’s debut

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Charlotte packed the paint, and Utah took advantage.

Donovan Mitchell scored 30 points, Robert Gobert had 20 points and 17 rebounds and the Jazz scored 54 points off 3-pointers to hold off the Hornets 119-111 on Friday night.

Kyle Korver made four 3-pointers and scored 14 points in his debut with the Jazz, who acquired the veteran from the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday. Jae Crowder, Korver’s former teammate in Cleveland, added 24 points off the bench for Utah, including six 3s.

“We just took what they gave us,” Crowder said of the open looks. “(But) I was surprised. I’m not gonna lie.”

The Hornets got within six points with just over nine minutes left in the game, but Korver hit a pair of 3s to help hold them off.

“We were right there,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump tonight.”

Charlotte’s biggest concern going into the game was controlling the paint. The Hornets did well inside – scoring 70 points to Utah’s 46 – but couldn’t shut down the long-range game.

“This was not a team that was thriving at the 3-point line,” Borrego said. “They made 18. We made nine. So what they didn’t get at the inside they made up for at the 3-point line. Give them credit, they moved us around from the start.”

Charlotte clawed back late in the first half, mostly behind star Kemba Walker and veteran Tony Parker, and tied the game for the first time midway through the third period on a three-point play by guard Jeremy Lamb.

But Utah kept hitting 3s.

Joe Ingles made a 24-footer, Mitchell hit a 27-footer and Crowder connected on a 25-footer during a 90-second stretch late in the third period to get the lead back to 13.

“We had a lot of great looks tonight,” Korver said. “It’s just kind of the way basketball goes. You see one go down, then it snowballs. Obviously, Rudy put a ton of pressure on the basket. But we have great guards who are capable of making plays.”

Utah took its biggest lead at the start of the second period, a 16-point advantage, behind 10 points from Mitchell and eight from Crowder.

Walker finished with 21 points and seven rebounds, and Lamb had a season-high 24 points for the Hornets. Parker finished with 20 points and nine assists and Marvin Williams added 15 points and 11 rebounds for the Jazz.

 

 

PBT Extra: Utah gets a little help with Kyle Korver trade

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Before the season, just about everyone expected the Utah Jazz to be a top-three team in the West.

Right now they are 10-12 with a surprisingly average defense and a bottom five offense. A few things are contributing to that offensive sluggishness but at the top of the list is the Jazz are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBA.

Enter Kyle Korver.

The Jazz traded for — and brought back to town — the 37-year-old sharpshooter in a trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s a trade that works well — not brilliantly, but well — for both sides.

Utah will get some shooting to go with the second unit, but this is no cure-all, as I get into in this latest PBT Extra video.