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NBA Power Rankings: Bucks hold on to top spot; Celtics climbing fast

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The Bucks and the Lakers have looked like the best team in each conference to start the season, and they remain on top, but surprising Boston and Dallas keep moving up the ladder.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (21-3, Last week No. 1). There are no statement games in December (it’s way too early, teams will evolve by the playoffs), but if there was one it would look a lot like the Bucks 28-point thrashing of the Clippers last Friday. The Bucks have won 15 games in a row and while the Greek Freak gets a lot of credit for that — he is out Wednesday night with a thigh issue — it’s the Bucks’ “protect the paint at all costs” defense that is critical to their success. The Lopez brothers drop back, the long Bucks’ perimeter players lock-and-trail on the P&R, and the result is the Bucks allow the fewest shots in the restricted area in the NBA.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (21-3, LW 2). With LeBron James and Anthony Davis we don’t think of the Lakers as a fast-break team — but they are this season. The Lakers score 18.7 fast break points a game, third in the league. To use the advanced stats, the Lakers start 16 percent of possessions in transition, eighth most in the league, with an insane 130.8 offensive rating on those, third best in the NBA. Los Angeles will try to keep up the pace on a five-game road trip through the East starting Wednesday night in Orlando.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (17-5, LW 8). Gordon Hayward is back in the Boston rotation, a full two weeks ahead of projections. Boston held up without him — they went 9-4 with a +5.9 net rating — but the team’s offense slid back to middle-of-the-pack, it missed his scoring and shot creation. Boston has won four in a row and 6-of-7 but has a challenging week ahead with Indiana, Philadelphia, and Dallas.

Mavericks small icon 4. Mavericks (16-7, LW 4). While the spotlight is always on Luka Doncic (with good reason), Dallas has quietly had a very good bench this season. The Mavericks get and average of 43.4 points per game from their bench players, fifth best in the league. Dallas’ bench is doing it with balance, getting points and quality minutes from players such as Maxi Kieber, Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry, Delon Wright and more. That depth gives coach Rick Carlisle matchup options nightly.

Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (18-7, LW 3). Montrezl Harrel might be the Sixth Man of the Year (if the vote were taken today), it’s either him or Lou Williams. One key difference between those two is Lou Williams is locked up by the Clippers for this season and the next one (same as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard), but Harrell is an unrestricted free agent next summer in a down year. The man — averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists a year — is going to get PAID. The Clippers have his Bird rights and Steve Ballmer can afford the tax, but it’s something to watch come July. Leonard makes his return to Toronto Wednesday night, and there will be nothing but love for him. And a ring.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (18-7, LW 6). Philadelphia is a force at home this season, 13-0 with a lock-down defense and a +12.4 net rating. It’s the best home start for the franchise since the Wilt Chamberlain Sixers started 22-0 back in 1966. The concern is that 5-7 road record with the -1.1 net rating — the best teams, especially in the playoffs, win on the road. It was good to see the dancing, having fun Joel Embiid back on Tuesday night.

Rockets small icon 7. Rockets (15-8, LW 10). The new strategy on defending James Harden is now everywhere in the league: Teams are doubling him the second he steps over the half-court line, forcing him to pass and daring anyone else to beat them. That worked at first, the Rockets lost three games in a row when it first saw the strategy, but they have since won 4-of-6 (and the two losses were to the Spurs in 2OT and the Kings on a buzzer-beater). Russell Westbrook has averaged 22.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.6 assists a game his last five games, but his lack of a three ball means teams can keep trying this strategy.

Heat small icon 8. Heat (18-6, LW 9). Sixth man Goran Dragic has missed the last five games, but the Heat are 4-1 (with a couple of OT wins) because they have such a strong-young core carrying them Bam Adebayo is playing at an All-Star level, Kendrick Nunn is second on the team in scoring and in the middle of the Rookie of the Year race, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro just keep knocking down shots. Jimmy Butler brings it all together, but this team is third in the East because of the young players. Great test against the Lakers on Friday night.

Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (16-7, LW 5). Toronto lost three straight against a tough part of the schedule — Miami, Houston, Philly — and are a concerning 3-7 against teams over .500 (with the Clippers and the return of Kawhi Leonard up for Wednesday night. Pascal Siakam has come back to earth a little bit (we can cool the MVP ballot talk) but is still averaging 22.4 points and 7.8 rebounds a game over his last five, however, he’s shot just 31% from three in that stretch. Toronto has had a few guys out with injuries over the last 10 games but remains in the mix in the East.

Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (15-9, LW 11). While the addition of Malcolm Brogdon last summer gets all the hype, T.J. Warren has been a quality pick up for their rotation. He’s averaged 18.4 points a game, is spacing the floor with his 39.5% shooting from beyond the arc (on 3.2 attempts a game), and he has generally been solid for them. Indiana has a solid 3-2 road trip but came home to a couple tough games, a tough loss to Paul George and the Clippers, and Wednesday night the Celtics come to town.

Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (14-8, LW 7). Losers of 5-of-6 and the reasons is their offense has dropped off a cliff (24th in the NBA over that stretch, and the blowout win over the Knicks makes that look better than it really is). Against the Lakers and Celtics, the Nuggets looked like a team a tier or two below. There have been more strong games from Nikola Jokic but the bench has struggled and Denver has not looked like the threat in the West we thought they would be. Thursday starts a five-game homestand against teams all below .500, it’s a chance for Denver to right the ship.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (13-10, LW 14). The Nets get Wilson Chandler — a projected starter before the season — back this weekend from his 25-game PED suspension. Coach Kenny Atkinson said Chandler would be “thrown to the wolves,” so expect him to get some run from Day 1. It also means Iman Shumpert – or someone else, but probably Shumpert — has to be released.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (13-11, LW 13). The Jazz made two big summer signings that were supposed to lift them up to the next level. The Mike Conley signing has just not worked out (and Wednesday night will be his fourth game out with a hamstring injury). Conley is averaging 13.9 points a game (his lowest in nine years), is shooting 36.9% from the field, and has a below-average PER of 12.9. On the flip side, the Bojan Bogdanovic signing has been a stroke of genius, he is giving them 20.6 points a night, shooting 45.3% from three, and has provided a second playmaker next to Donovan Mitchell. Still, the Jazz offense lacks the ball movement of seasons past.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (10-14, LW 15). They have won 4-of-5 with a top-7 offense and defense in the league over that short stretch. Detroit has beat teams a variety of ways: Blake Griffin stepping up and hitting shots (Indiana), or Andre Drummond owning the glass (he is averaging 16.7 rebounds a game, the last guy to average more than that was Dennis Rodman in 1995, or check out the Derrick Rose game winner against the Pelicans.

Magic small icon 15. Magic (11-12, LW 18). After missing what will be nine games (he is out Wednesday vs. Los Angeles), Nikola Vucevic is expected to return to the Orlando rotation on Friday vs. Houston. The Orlando offense is 9.1 per 100 possessions better when Vucevic is on the court. The Magic have gone 5-3 without him, including a four-game win streak against the soft part of the schedule. That has changed, the Magic lost to the Bucks Monday, have the Lakers and Rockets next, then head out to the West for four games.

Thunder small icon 16. Thunder (11-12, LW 19). Oklahoma City has climbed up to the seven seed and is in the mix for a playoff spot in the West. Just don’t think that has changed the long-term plan — this team is rebuilding and Chris Paul, Stephen Adams, Danilo Gallinari, and others are available. Another bright spot for the future in OKC: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is getting master class in how to be an elite point guard from CP3, sources have said the two have bonded and Paul is in SGA’s ear all the time trying to pass along knowledge.

Suns small icon 17. Suns (11-12, LW 16). Phoenix will get Deandre Ayton back next Tuesday (at the Clippers) from his 25-game PED suspension. They could use him. While Aron Baynes has stepped up brilliantly in Ayton’s absence, there has been a lack of depth along the front line. Phoenix is staying afloat because Devin Booker is still lighting teams up: 29 points per game shooting 40.5% from three, with 6 assists a night in his last five games.

18. Timberwolves (10-13, LW 12). Minnesota has dropped five in a row and the reason is their defense has been dreadful — a 124.7 defensive rating those past five games, worst in the NBA over that stretch (and 16.9 per 100 possessions worse than their defense was in November. It was evident against a good Lakers team — Minnesota could score enough to hang around, even against that long and aggressive L.A. defense, but they could not get stops. It caught up with them. Light week, with just the Jazz and Clippers at home.

Kings small icon 19. Kings (10-13, LW 20). The Kings have been keeping their heads above water in the playoff race until they get healthy, but that starts soon. Marvin Bagley III is expected to return this week, and in a couple of weeks De’Aaron Fox will come back from his sprained ankle. Sacramento had two of the biggest wins of the week, sweeping the Mavericks and Rockets on back-to-back nights on the road, the second one of those thanks to Nemanja Bjelica (and a defensive lapse from Houston).

Blazers small icon 20. Trail Blazers (10-15, LW 17). With Rodney Hood now gone for the season due to a torn Achilles, and combined with a disappointing start to the season, no team has seen trade rumors swirl around them like Portland. There is a lot of talk about them trying to bring Kevin Love back to Oregon (where he grew up and played his high school ball), but Love is in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract, which makes trading him difficult. Landing Danilo Gallinari out Oklahoma City makes more sense financially and going forward, but one way or another look for something to happen.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (9-14, LW 21). Two wins in a row, both in overtime, could be the kind of spark the Spurs need this season. More of the Dejounte Murray we saw against the Kings — the guy with 14 points off the bench and who hit the game-winner (he lost his starting job because of his play, the Spurs need him to play like he’s winning it back). Lonnie Walker broke out against Houston but was back to being ineffective against the Kings, San Antonio needs more of him as a guy who changes games. The Spurs are going to be interesting to watch at the trade deadline, will they be sellers?

Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (10-16, LW 25). Devonte' Graham has been one of the best stories in the NBA this season. A second-round pick out of Kansas, Graham played in just 46 games for the Hornets last season. This season he is their leading scorer at 19.2 a night, had 29 points on 19 shots to lead the Hornets to a win over the Wizards on Tuesday.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (8-17, LW 22). Chicago has lost three in a row, 6-of-8, and somehow lost twice to Golden State in span of 10 days, second one last Friday. The media reports about player frustration with coach Jim Boylen fit with what I’ve heard floating around the league for a while now, players are not fans. In fact, the only fans seem to be in the Bulls front office, who like Boylen’s old-school, hard-nosed style. But if he’s not winning changes will come.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (7-16, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup Monday night after missing four games with “back spasms,” which popped up after he fell into courtside cameraman. Memphis is second in the league in points scored in the paint, averaging 53.7 a game, and a lot of that is from Morant and the other young stars of the team pushing the ball in transition.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (7-16, LW 23). Rui Hachimura is making an impression. In his last five games, the Japanese national — and there is a media contingent from Japan following him around — is averaging 18.2 points a game. Against Philadelphia last Thursday he may have had his best game as a pro, scoring 27 points on 18 shots, with seven rebounds, and two steals. The concern is that he takes too many midrange shots — 24.6% of his shot attempts come from outside the paint and inside the arc. While he hits a respectable 42.3% of those shots, he needs to extend his range and turn some of those into threes.

Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (6-18, LW 28). Vince Carter played in his 1,500th regular season NBA game Tuesday night, a joining just four other players ever to do so (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, John Stockton, and Dirk Nowitzki). Reports have surfaced that Trae Young is frustrated with the Hawks’ losing — which is good. I’d be more concerned if he took it in stride. John Collins’ eventual return will help this team, but it’s young and going to take some time.

Pelicans small icon 27. Pelicans (6-18, LW 26). Zion Williamson is not doing on-court work, almost certainly will not meet the 6-8 week deadline, and it would be a surprise to see him on Christmas Day. Zion is reason for hope, but the No. 1 pick alone is not going to fix the mounting problems in New Orleans. Lonzo Ball’s struggles continue — 38.2% shooting from the field — and he has lost his starting job with the Pelicans.

Warriors small icon 28. Warriors (5-20 LW 30). Eric Paschall’s run of 13 double-digit scoring games came to an end against Memphis, but the rookie has still had quite a run and is the one bright spot in this Warriors season (that and the draft pick that will be coming their way). Paschall is scoring 16.6 points per game with a PER of 15.4 — right at the league average but good for a rookie. It’s easy to see where he fits in the rotation next year when the Warriors get healthy.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (5-18, LW 27). It’s been a rough season for Matthew Dellavedova, he’s down to getting 13.1 minutes a night and is shooting 27.7% when he does get on the court. Then again, it’s been rough everywhere for the Cavaliers, who have lost 7 in a row and 13-of-14 (with a tough stretch coming up, Wednesday against Houston then on the road for three more games.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (4-20, LW 29). Lots of Masai Ujiri as the next team president rumors flying around — how interested he is in the job depends upon who you talk to around the league — but those rumors should mean something bigger for Knicks fans: James Dolan seems finally ready to turn over total control of his basketball operations to a competent individual (Ujiri or someone else). If Dolan does that, then actually sticks with a plan for three or four years and stops looking to shortcut the process, the Knicks could turn this thing around.

NBA Power Rankings: Red-hot Milwaukee moves into top spot

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We’ve got a new team on top because the Bucks have been tearing up the league, and while they have some tough games coming up, the fact they are in the East means Milwaukee might hold down this slot for much of the season.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (18-3, Last week No. 2). Winners of 12 in a row with a top three offense and defense in the league over that stretch. All that, and this team still leaves points on the table from the three-point line — the Bucks take 40.2 threes a game (third most in the NBA) but hit just 35.1% of them (20th in the league). Gianni Antetokounmpo being willing to shoot from three now is part of that (4.9 attempts a game, hitting 30.4%).They miss Malcolm Brogdon on that front. Good test Friday night when the Clippers come to town.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (18-3, LW 1). Watch the Lakers play in person and two things that jump out at you. First, this is is a tall, long team. Second, they play hard. Those two things combined are why they have the fifth-best defense in the league right now. LeBron James sees what’s on the table this year and he’s not coasting, nor is he letting others coast defense, which is another reason he’s in the MVP conversation. That said, the Lakers have gotten sloppy and not played 40+ good minutes a game lately, they got away with that last month but not against Dallas, but showed they learned a lesson against Denver on Tuesday.

Clippers small icon 3. Clippers (16-6, LW 3). We have yet to see the full potency of this Clippers roster. For example, when the game is on the line their four best players are Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell, and that group together (with any other fifth player) is +38.3 per 100 possessions. But we have only seen it for 48 minutes (just five against Portland Tuesday night). It just sigs in Doc Rivers back pocket. The Clippers head out East for six games now (with two back-to-backs), including the Bucks on Friday.

Mavericks small icon 4. Mavericks (14-6, LW 5). Luka Doncic averaged a 30-point triple-double in the month of November, which puts him in some rarified company — the only other people to accomplish that are Russell Westbrook (twice) and Oscar Robertson (eight times). Doncic fuel’s Dallas’ engine, but their ball movement gets them a lot of open threes, 40.4 a game, second most in the NBA, and they hit 36.1% of them (10th best in the league). This offense is not a one-man show.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (15-4, LW 6). Nick Nurse didn’t win a title his first season as an NBA coach just because he had Kawhi Leonard on his team (although, that helped). It was because this guy can flat-out coach, and we have seen that this season with Leonard gone, injuries piling up, and yet the Raptors had won seven in a row until Miami on Tuesday and have a top 10 offense and defense over their last 10 games. The Raptors keep finding guys deep on the roster — rookie Terrence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, among others — who can contribute. Tough tests coming up with the Rockets, 76ers, and Clippers as three of their next four.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (15-6, LW 8). Everyone — from Sixers fans to coach Brett Brown — keeps waiting for the offense to catch up with the defense. Hasn’t happened yet. Defensively they are fourth in the league (and 0.7 in net rating out of the top spot), and in the last five games that defense has only been better. The offense, on the other hand, is 17th in the NBA for the season and 2.8 per 100 worse in the last five games. Philadelphia needs that offense because the schedule gets much tougher in the next month.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (13-5, LW 4). Can Denver get its offense rolling? The Nuggets are winning with the league’s second-best defense (a strange thing to type), but they are 20th in the league in offense. Denver doesn��t take a lot of threes (fourth-fewest in the league per game), and they don’t get to the free throw line much (fifth-fewest times per game), which leaves them working hard for the shots they do get. Plus, Nikola Jokic has not been the All-NBA dominant force on offense he was a season ago (the Lakers held him to 13 points on 12 shots Tuesday). Maybe the offense turns around, but we now have nearly a quarter of the season and we can’t just call it slow start anymore.

Celtics small icon 8. Celtics (14-5, LW 7). There are times the Celtics clearly miss his shot creation, but Boston has held up quite well since Gordon Hayward went down with a fractured left hand. The Celtics are 9-4 without Hayward with a +6.5 net rating, with a top 10 defense and a solid offense. Boston is also 7-0 at home this season where their offense has been dominant (and covered up for a sloppy defense in the Garden). Interesting showdown with the upstart Heat on Wednesday.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (15-5, LW 9). Jimmy Butler is averaging 18.8 points a game, but some in Heat nation think he needs to score more to bolster the team’s offense. I don’t see it that way, what the Heat need is more of the triple-double Butler — 22 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists — from the win that snapped Toronto’s winning streak on Tuesday. That Butler gets other guys such as Duncan Robinson or Bam Adebayo involved, and when that happens the Heat are much more difficult to beat.

Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (13-7, LW 12). James Harden has found his three-point stroke. The Beard shot just 29.8% from three through the first 10 games of the season, but over the last 10 games he’s shooting 38.9%. And that is on 14.4 attempts from beyond the arc. Harden has 88 more attempts from three than the second person on that list this season (Buddy Hield) and is on pace to break his own record for most threes in a season (set last season).

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (13-7, LW 11). The Pacers have been good — 11-4 in November — but it’s also a challenge to get a real gauge on this team between the soft schedule and rash of injuries they have faced. All that is about to change. The Pacers are getting healthy, the two-bigs lineup of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are showing promise, and most important of all Victor Oladipo is taking some contact in practice and is getting closer to a return. That they have kept their heads afloat through all this is an impressive coaching job by Nate McMillan.

12. Timberwolves (10-9, LW 13). This is not getting enough attention: Karl-Anthony Towns is having an All-NBA (maybe First Team), bottom-of-the-MVP ballot kind of season. Towns is averaging 25.9 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks a game, is shooting 42.1% from three and is playing solid defense. He’s the reason this team is above .500. Minnesota is 7-2 on the road this season, where they score nine more points a game, and seem to play better defense. At home the Timberwolves are 3-7 on the season. So it’s good news that the Wolves start a four-game road trip on Wednesday.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (12-9, LW 10). Utah lost 4-of-5 on its recent road trip, including ugly losses in Toronto and Philadelphia. We knew the offense would struggle to start the season, but it’s 23rd in the league and Mike Conley is shooting 37%. The defense that was supposed to carry the team is good but not great, ranked in the league for the season, and in the last 10 games they have fallen to 17th in the league giving up 4.9 more points per 100 possessions than they averaged last season (Rudy Gobert did miss some of those games). The Jazz are a good team, but do not look like the potential contender some of us expected.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (10-10, LW 14). Kyrie Irving is doing on-court work to return from his shoulder impingement but is not taking contact and will remain out through at least Friday. Brooklyn is 6-3 in the games he’s missed, with a basically even net rating, and last week split a home-and-home with Boston — they are playing well thanks to Spencer Dinwiddie. The point guard has averaged more than 25 points and 7 assists a game since Irving went down, and he has the ball moving and the offense flowing more like it did last season in Brooklyn.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (8-13, LW 17). The Pistons are getting healthier and playing better of late, and all that starts with Blake Griffin. He has played in nine games so far and the team is 4-5 in those games, plus the Detroit offense is 4.6 points per 100 better when he is on the court. Detroit is playing better of late (+8.7 point differential that past two weeks, sixth-best in the NBA, via Cleaning the Glass), which is keeping them in the hunt of a playoff spot in the East despite the slow start.

Suns small icon 16. Suns (9-10, LW 15). Things have cooled off after the hot start to the season, having gone 2-6 in their last eight games with a -4.7 net rating. The offense has still been okay, but the defense has faded and is bottom 10 in the league over that stretch. The defense tends to be solid when Aron Baynes is on the court but drops off dramatically when he sits. The Suns will need to turn this thing around on the road, they have eight road games remaining this month.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (8-13, LW 21). Portland is 3-4 since the return of Carmelo Anthony, which is a step forward (even if the Clippers on Tuesday reminded Portland how far it still needs to go). Those three straight wins for the Trail Blazers were less about ‘Melo and more about the return of Damian Lillard to the lineup, but when those two are paired the Blazers are +8.5 per 100 possessions (in 120 minutes), mostly because the offense is on fire. Hassan Whiteside set a franchise record with 10 blocks this week, when he is on he is impressive.

Magic small icon 18. Magic (9-11, LW 19). Orlando has gone 3-3 and kept its head above water while Nikola Vucevic remains out with a right ankle sprain, although those three wins came against a softer part of the schedule. Still, the Magic will take the victories. Of all the young Orlando players, it is Jonathan Isaac who is emerging as a potential star, a defensive force already who is working on his offense game, check out our feature from Dan Feldman on Isaac’s development.

Thunder small icon 19. Thunder (8-11, LW 20). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the future of this team at the point, he’s already impressive in just his second season (18.2 points per game) and is ready for more responsibility. However, when the game is on the line, the Thunder turn to Chris Paul — he has more fourth-quarter points in the clutch than any other player in the league this season. It’s good that’s working out in OKC because Paul is going to be nearly impossible to trade in season (due to his contract). The Thunder are just a game out of the playoffs in the West but have a tough stretch coming up the next six games.

Kings small icon 20. Kings (8-11, LW 16). Sacramento has kept its head above water with young stars De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III both out — the Kings are 5-5 in games the pair has missed, with a -1.3 net rating. We’ll see if the Kings can stay in the playoff hunt in the West with 8-of-10 coming up on the road. Fox is going to be out at least another couple of weeks with his ankle sprain, but Bagley seems to be getting much close to a return.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (8-14, LW 24). Back in July at Summer League, it didn’t take much time watching Lonnie Walker IV to realize he is an NBA player who could dominate in Las Vegas and was ready for more and to break out in San Antonio. We may have seen that breakthrough Tuesday night, Walker scored 24 against Houston, with 18 of those coming in the fourth quarter, including eight consecutive points to tie the game. In what has been a rough season in San Antonio, Walker could be a bright spot.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (7-14, LW 23). There are positives when you watch the Bulls play — Wendell Carter Jr. has shown to be a solid big man on both ends of the court, with 12.6 pints and 9.7 rebounds a game, who can be part of the future in Chicago — but their offense continues to be a slog. The Bulls are 29th in the league in offensive efficiency and their offense has not been better the past five games. Chicago needed a lot more out of a healthy Lauri Markkanen than they have gotten this season.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (6-13, LW 18). The defensive book on playing Washington clear, and fairly obvious — blitz Bradley Beal whenever he has a screen set for him, and maybe double him even when he doesn’t. Get the ball out of Beal’s hands and force anyone else on that roster to beat you. That guy who beats you will not be C.J. Miles, who is out indefinitely after getting wrist surgery. At least Isaiah Thomas is keeping things entertaining.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (6-14, LW 28). Brandon Clarke, out of Gonzaga, has been one of the surprises as a rookie this season, averaging an efficient 11.8 points a game by getting to the rim and finishing, plus showing the ability to drain the three when he takes it (45.5 percent but just taking 1.2 a game). Unfortunately, an oblique injury will have him out for at least a week (he’s week to week). The Grizzlies have lost 7-of-8 and now head out on the road for their next four.

Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (8-14, LW 25). Reality has caught up with Charlotte, which has lost 7-of-9, and the reason is its defense. The Hornets are 29th in the league in defensive rating and in the past nine games they have been 4.5 points per 100 worse on that end of the court. The only wins in that stretch were a surprising sweep of a home-and-home against the Pistons where rookie PJ Washington stepped up and showed some promise.

Pelicans small icon 26. Pelicans (6-15, LW 22). Six weeks after his surgery, Zion Williamson is doing some walkthroughs but has not yet done any on-court work, with coach Alvin Gentry adding they would be “overly cautious” with bringing the young star back. Which means don’t expect to see him Christmas Day. The Pelicans have dropped six in a row and 7-of-11 coming up on the road.

Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (5-15, LW 27). Darius Garland can shoot the three, the rookie is taking 40.4% of his shots from beyond the arc and hitting 37.2% of them. The problem comes when he steps inside the arc, he is shooting just 46% at the rim and is taking a lot of shots from floater range and hitting just 39.2% of them. It’s a project for the rookie to work on the rest of the season (if this continues into next summer and next season, then we start to worry). The Cavaliers have lost 10-of-11 and now have 5-of-7 coming up on the road.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (5-16, LW 29). Atlanta snapped its losing streak, and sure it came against the Warriors but that still counts. Atlanta’s offense remains the entertaining Trae Young show, but the team is going to struggle with wins so long as their defense is bad — and it’s 25 in the league for the season. The biggest problem there is in transition, where teams score at a 133.1 points per 100 possessions pace (second-worst in the league), and the Hawks allow teams to start 16% of their possessions that way (bottom 10 in the league). Transition D is a real issue for the Hawks. (Stats via Cleaning the Glass.)

Knicks small icon 29. Knicks (4-17, LW 26). It can be hard to figure out what the Knicks are trying to do with their rotations: Kevin Knox was consistently losing minutes and last Friday got a DNP-coach’s decision, then on Sunday he started against Boston. Knicks fans are focused on the future and RJ Barrett, who has played solidly as a rookie thrown into the fire this season. Barrett has averaged 14.7 points per game but with a dreadful true shooting percentage of 45.8.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (4-18, LW 30). D’Angelo Russell has missed his last nine games with a thumb injury, and obviously Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are out, which also has meant a decrease in Draymond Green’s minutes. Like Ralph Fiennes in Taken, Green has a very specific skillset, and it’s one that makes can make great talent better, but doesn’t lift up young or lesser players. Which is what the Warriors are now, so Steve Kerr has started to cut back Green’s minutes. The Warriors have started 0-3 on their current road trip and have lost 6 of their last 7.

Three Things to Know: Is James Harden’s phantom dunk enough to get game replayed?

Associated Press
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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) Is James Harden’s phantom dunk enough to get the final minutes of the Rockets’ loss replayed? In the end, I expect the Rockets will end up disappointed — and when they do they will have nobody but themselves to blame. This Rockets’ double-overtime loss is not going to get replayed.

Still, Houston has a unique argument, and it starts here: The referees blew the call on this dunk by James Harden with 7:50 left the fourth quarter.

This is why the NBA has replay and a coach’s challenge… except the officials on the court would not let D’Antoni make a challenge.

Goaltending and out of bounds plays can be challenged, but the explanation by the lead official James Capers after the game is D’Antoni took too long to make his challenge.

I’m not buying that, even though the timing issue is likely what the league falls back on to retain the game’s outcome. Capers mentions basket interference, but that was never the call on the court, it was ruled a missed basket. This sounds like Capers trying to cover for his guys. It clearly took time for the referees to figure out what happened and explain their call to D’Antoni, which is when the coach said he made the challenge. The 30-second rule is being used as a cover.

This gets to the interesting questions: What happens if the Rockets protest the game? Will they even have to?

The bad news for the Rockets is we have seen how the league handles blown calls through the Last Two Minute Report: They admit the mistake but change nothing.

There is zero chance the league just puts the points back on the board and gives the Rockets a regulation win. How the game played out late (in terms of strategy and more) would have been different if the Rockets were ahead by two. The league could order the end of the game replayed, but in the past have chosen not to do so even after owning up to a missed call. This is different in that it’s a clear missed call on a basket that took two points off the board, but still this is not how the league has handled situations in the past.

If this goes down as a loss — 135-133 in double overtime — the Rockets shouldn’t blame the officials, they need to blame themselves. And only themselves.

Houston was up 20 with 3:23 left in the third and by 10 with 3:53 left in the fourth but, as has followed a pattern with this team, could not hold the lead. They lost defensive focus. James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined to shoot 26.5 percent (18-of-68). Whether or not they let the lousy call get in their heads, the Rockets played terribly down the stretch.

Lonnie Walker IV played well and had his best NBA game, keying that Houston comeback. Walker finished with a career-high 28 points and scored 18 of those points in the fourth quarter — including eight straight to close the game and force overtime. DeMar DeRozan added 23 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

2) Anthony Davis plays through flu, scores 25, but it’s his defense late that gets Lakers win in Denver. After the Lakers got their heads handed to them by Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Sunday, the theme in the L.A. locker room postgame was that the Lakers needed to play a full 48 minutes — not flip the switch in the third quarter — against the better teams. Like the Denver game coming up.

Anthony Davis did just that. Battling the flu that had him in bed all day before the game — then taking IV fluids at halftime just to keep going — Davis had 25 points. However, it was his defensive plays late that earned the Lakers the win: There was a stuff block of Nikola Jokic, but more impressive was when Davis twice got switched onto point guard Jamal Murray late and was able to stay in front of the speedy guard and force him into bad shots.

Jokic has been up-and-down this season and Tuesday night was a down, with Davis (along with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard) holding the Denver big man to 13 points on 12 shots.

LeBron James also added 25 points.

The Nuggets have been one of the best clutch teams in the NBA this season (8-4 in games within five points in the final five minutes), but the Lakers were better and outdueled them down the stretch in this one (L.A. is now 9-1 in those five-in-five clutch games).

For those who doubt the Nuggets as a real threat to the Los Angeles teams in the playoffs, Tuesday was more fuel for the fire.

3) Jimmy Butler’s triple-double leads upstart Heat past Raptors in overtime. In a number of fundamental ways, when Miami plays Toronto it’s like looking in a mirror.

These are two franchises that emphasize culture first. They each have stars that have worked their way up — Jimmy Butler for Miami and Pascal Siakam for Toronto — and were not just anointed top picks. These are two franchises that find guys other teams overlook and turn them into valuable contributors — three undrafted players started in this game, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson for Miami, and Fred VanVleet for Toronto.

Also, both teams are now 15-5 on the season after Miami held on to beat Toronto in overtime, 121-110. The difference was Jimmy Butler, who scored 8 of his 22 points in overtime on his way to a triple-double.

This is what Miami needs from Butler. Some are calling for Butler to score more and lift up the Heat offense that way, but this kind of game — where he distributes and gets others involved, then takes over when he needs to — is exactly what the Heat need out of him. More games like this will mean more wins.

Watch James Harden’s dunk get waved off (he still scores 50), but Rockets fall to Spurs in 2OT

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In what was the wildest game this season, the San Antonio Spurs came from 20 down in the third to beat the Houston Rockets in double overtime, all that in spite of James Harden dropping 50.

Harden was in the middle of everything, including one of the strangest missed calls by an official that you will ever see, saying a James Harden dunk did not count. Here is the play in question:

To the naked eye, if the officials thought the ball didn’t go through, or bounced off Harden and back out without cleaning the net, that can happen. People make mistakes. However, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni first asked for a clarification of the call and then asked for a coach’s challenge review. Multiple times. And didn’t get it, the bad call stood. Why? Here’s the official explanation.

This feels like the crew chief covering the, um, behinds of his crew. There are zero reasons not to review that after D’Antoni asked for it, by the time you clarified a complicated call. The 30-second rule is being used as a cover. The referees missed this and needed to prioritize getting the call right. (We have seen this more than once this season.)

The Rockets may protest the game.

As bad as the call was, I’d be shocked if the league changed the call and forced a replay (they certainly are not just going to give the Rockets the win, the end of the game would have played out with differently if the Rockets were ahead).  It’s just not what the league does.

This play also is not why the Rockets lost.

Houston was up 20 with 3:23 left in the third and by 10 with 3:53 left in the fourth but, as has followed a pattern with this team, could not hold the lead. If a team has those kinds of leads late, one play did not cost them the game.

Lonnie Walker IV had a career-high 28 points with 18 points coming in the fourth quarter — including eight straight to close the game and force overtime — to spark the Spurs 135-133 in a double overtime win. DeMar DeRozan added 23 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Harden scored his 50 in 49 minutes, all that coming off a 60-point outing Saturday.

Harden also was called for two charges in the second overtime. The second came against DeRozan with 0.8 seconds remaining, sealing San Antonio’s victory.

UP NEXT

Rockets: At Toronto on Thursday night.

Spurs: Host Sacramento on Friday night.

 

Notes from second night of Salt Lake Summer League

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Jazz play at the second highest elevation in the NBA, 4,226 feet, or 8/10ths of a mile. The air is a little thin.

For young players working on their conditioning — and especially some young players playing the second night of a back-to-back — it showed on Tuesday. Dylan Windler, the Cavaliers standout from Game 1, looked gassed by the second half. He wasn’t alone. It led to some sloppy basketball at points, even by the sliding scale of Summer League standards.

Here’s my notebook from the second night of games in Salt Lake City.

• With three games in three nights in Utah, the Fourth of July off, then games starting at the Las Vegas Summer League on Friday, teams rested a lot of guys on Tuesday. The Spurs sat Lonnie Walker IV (who scored 20 the night before), and the Grizzlies rested Yuta Watanabe (who also had 20 on opening night). Utah rookie Jarrett Brantley, who looked good in the opener, also got a night off. Combine that with the other guys sitting for injuries, such as Darius Garland (knee), or guys not yet officially traded so they can’t suit up (Kevin Porter Jr. for the Cavs, Brandon Clarke for the Grizzlies) and Tuesday was a little thin on names you know suiting up in Utah.

• It’s gotta be the shoes!

Spurs rookie Keldon Johnson — the Spurs’ No. 29 pick in this draft, a wing out of Kentucky — scored 29 points on 10-of-17 shots, including 3-of-4 from three. But all anyone wanted to talk about was his LeBron kicks.

With Walker and others out for the Spurs, Johnson found the ball in his hands a lot, but it was his defensive effort the Spurs coaching staff — and Johnson himself — liked.

“Defense comes first, then offense will come,” said Johnson, who had questions about his defense going into the draft. “Today I felt I was more assertive and more aggressive, which I felt translated on the offensive end.”

“Expecting that [level of offense] every day is a lot, but I thought he was good,” Spurs Summer League coach Blake Ahearn said. “He made some plays.”

Among those plays was the shot of the night, this half-courter at the buzzer.

The Spurs needed Johnson to step up with all the guys resting, and he did. That’s a good start for the rookie.

• Players who have had even a taste of NBA-level basketball often have a level of competence that means they just take over a Summer League game.

Case in point, Jazz big man Tony Bradley — the No. 28 pick back in 2017, who spent most of last season playing well for Utah in the G-League but has had played in a dozen NBA games — had probably the best night of anyone in Salt Lake Tuesday.

Bradley had 26 points on 9-of-13 shooting, pulled down 16 rebounds, and Cavaliers coach John Beilein credited him for making the Cavaliers miss a lot of shots at the rim.

“After the season, [Jazz coaches] gave me a few things to work on: defensive rebounding, communicating on defense, and being loud…” Bradley said. “I think I’ve done a better job.”

He’s done an impressive job so far.

• Along those same lines, Cleveland’s Naz Mitrou-Long has had a couple of cups of coffee in the NBA — 15 games total, he was on a two-way contract with the Jazz last season — but that little bit of experience and the touch of class he brings was evident in the first two games with the Cavaliers. He had 16 points and 8 assists in the first game on Monday, and 17 points in the second game.

“Experience is definitely the best teacher,” Mitrou-Long said. “I’ve been through this twice now, this is my third time. Especially being in this building, very comfortable here. So it’s something that definitely plays a big role.”

• Spurs Summer League legend Jeff Ledbetter showed out on Tuesday night, scoring 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting from three.

Ledbetter, 31, stands out in Summer League because of his smart play, hustle, shooting — and because he’s on the Spurs Summer League team seemingly every year. He’s not an NBA guy, he has spent the last three seasons with the Spurs G-League team and may do that again, or may go to Europe and bank a little cash. He’s a guy a lot of overseas teams could use.

Whatever happens with him next season, if he’s not back with the Spurs for Summer League next year it will be weird.

• The alley-oop of the day belonged to Utah second-round pick Justin Write-Foreman, who has some hops (and 20 points on the night).

Honorable mention in this category goes to the Spurs Thomas Robinson (yes, that Thomas Robinson).

• Spurs first-round pick Luka Samanic once again showed he has a good feel for the game, once again showed his three-point range (although he hesitated on a couple he should have pulled the trigger on), and displayed some deft passing skills. Also once again showed he’s just got to get stronger — three times over two days he tried to drive and dunk on someone only to get rejected. He got pushed around a few other times on defense. There’s a lot to like, but he’s a project.