Marcus Morris

NBA Power Rankings: Everyone still chasing the Bucks, Lakers

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The power rankings took a week off so they could go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve last week, but they’re back — and nothing at the top has changed. It’s still Bucks and Lakers on top.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (32-6, Last Week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe both missed time in the past couple of weeks, and the Bucks just kept right on winning. Milwaukee is on pace to win 69 games and run away with the top slot in the East, but at what point does the franchise start to think about resting Antetokounmpo and others to make sure they are fully rested and healthy heading into the playoffs? It’s a little early for that now, but as we move into the coming weeks it’s something Mike Budenholzer needs to consider.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (29-7, LW No. 4). Anthony Davis had a nasty fall on Tuesday night and has a bruised tailbone. The good news is the MRI came back clean and it’s just a bruise, but expect the Lakers to be without AD’s 27.1 points and 9.4 rebounds a night. Also expect a lot of Kyle Kuzma trade rumors in the coming weeks, but most likely they get Darren Collison out of retirement and he’s a better playmaker than just about anyone they land for Kuzma. Which is to say, don’t expect a trade. Also, the Lakers are ready for some football.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (25-9, LW 2). Dealing with Danny Ainge at the trade deadline should scare teams, he tends to win everything he touches as a GM. For example, that four-year, $107 million Jaylen Brown extension this summer — he has arguably been the most important Celtics player this season and that contract looks like a steal for Boston. The Celtics could use a center that can shoot threes and is more on the age timeline of Brown and Jayson Tatum. That guy may not be available at the deadline. And no, the CBA does not allow Boston to trade to get Aron Baynes back (they could re-sign him next summer).

Jazz small icon 4. Jazz (24-12, LW 12). Winners of six in a row and 11-of-12, and in those last dozen games the Jazz have a league-best +8.7 net rating, with the second best offense in the land (the defense is 10th in the league, good, but not what we expected from this team). Donovan Mitchell is at the heart of the offensive resurgence averaging 24.9 points per game on 50% shooting from the floor over his last 10 games — he won’t be a starter, but he should be an All-Star this season in Chicago.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (24-11, LW 5). Russell Westbrook has been more efficient of late because he is getting to the rim more and not settling for the mid-range jump shots defenders are completely willing to give him. Combine Westbrook with Harden, and eventually Eric Gordon, and you have the offense of a contender. However, unless Clint Capela can suddenly turn into a defensive force, the Rockets middle-of-the-pack defense will let them down in the postseason.

Clippers small icon 6. Clippers (26-12, LW 6). The lack of an identity for these Clippers nearly halfway into the season is a concern for Doc Rivers — he said as much after last Saturday’s ugly loss to Memphis — but this mostly stems from health issues. Rivers has had his full compliment of starters and top four bench players exactly one game this season, and that makes it hard to develop chemistry and continuity. The good news for Rivers: The Clippers have easiest schedule of any team in the West in January.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (25-11, LW 3). There are moments it feels like Michael Porter Jr. is going to break out, like the 19-point game against the Kings or the 25 against the Pacers. But it’s not consistent, the next game after the Pacers he scored just seven and was -16 against Washington (I know single-game plus-minus is flukey, but it illustrates the point here). The Nuggets were counting on him this season, but he’s playing the up-and-down ball of a rookie, as we should have expected of him. The Nuggets have gone 2-2 so far on a five-game road trip that ends in Dallas Wednesday.

Heat small icon 8. Heat (26-11, LW 7). Miami is the luckiest team in the NBA this season. The Heat are outplaying their point differential by four games (via Cleaning the Glass), meaning they have played like a 22-14 team but have gotten lucky. Part of that, Miami is 6-0 in overtime games this season, which involves some luck. Also, teams are getting decent shots and just not hitting them — they have the 10th best eFG% against, but based on the shots they give up that should be 22nd (using Cleaning the Glass’ location eFG% tool). Miami’s a good team, but maybe not as good as their record suggests.

Mavericks small icon 9. Mavericks (23-13, LW 11). LeBron James is impressed with the Dallas bench: “We know not only the season that Luka’s having, but they’ve been successful because of their bench as well. Their bench gives them so much of a push. Luka comes out, KP comes out, their starters come out and their bench seems to rise to the occasion.” The Mavericks are 2-1 halfway through a six-game homestand.

Raptors small icon 10. Raptors (24-13, LW 10). Injuries continue to hobble the Raptors: Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell all missed the Raptors most recent game (a loss to the Trail Blazers. That’s why Toronto is 2-3 in its last five. Nick Nurse has done an impressive coaching job this season, getting young players to step up and veterans to take on larger roles, but if the Raptors are going to be a threat in the East they need to get everyone healthy.

Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (21-16, LW 13). Chris Paul has been the most clutch player in the NBA this season. CP3 has scored 103 points in clutch minutes this season (the final five minutes of a game within five points), and that’s far and away the most in the league. He is shooting 54.5% in those clutch minutes and has dished out 11 assists as well. Paul was at it again Tuesday night, scoring 20 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, lifting OKC past Brooklyn.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (23-14, LW 8). Victor Oladipo’s return is now targeted for Jan. 29 (this past week he was practicing with the Pacers’ G-League team) — and they could use him. Malcolm Brogdon has been battling back issues which have kept him in and out of the lineup, and the Pacers offense feels the pinch. After a tough game Wednesday night against Miami, the Pacers head out on the road for 7-of-9, and Indy is 8-10 away from home this season.

Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (24-14, LW 9). Ever since the impressive win against Milwaukee on Christmas Day, the Sixers are 1-4 with a -3.9 net rating, having played rather pedestrian ball on both ends of the court. The offensive issues are not a surprise (Ben Simmons needs to attack the rim in crunch time and stop fearing fouls because of his trouble from the stripe), but it’s the defense that is supposed to keep the Sixers afloat through tough times and that has not impressed lately. Brett Brown has to find a way to get this team out of its malaise.

Magic small icon 14. Magic (17-20, LW 16). The loss of Jonathan Isaac in a breakout year for him — he looked like a guy who could make one of the All-Defensive teams at the end of the season — is a real blow. He’s out for two months, which will dent this team’s top-10 defense, but his activity will be missed on offense as well. And Orlando can’t have their offense get any worse if they plan to hold on to one of the last couple of playoff spots in the East.

Blazers small icon 15. Trail Blazers (16-22, LW 15). As disappointing as Portland has been this season — and they are in the running for “most disappointing team in the league — they still sit tied for the nine seed, just 1.5 games out of the playoffs thanks to the surprisingly soft bottom of the West. However, Portland faces a difficult January schedule, playing a lot of quality offensive teams that will test the Blazers’ bottom 10 defense. The schedule will make it tough to climb the ladder in the West. Well, unless they can get more Carmelo Anthony game-winners.

Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (15-20, LW 17). LaMarcus Aldridge, three-point marksman. Apparently that’s a thing now. In his last five games Aldridge is averaging 4.6 attempts from three a game, a huge leap from the 0.5 attempts a game he made last season, and it doubles the less than two attempts a night from the first 20 games of this season. More amazing, he’s hitting 69.6% from three in the last five games. It could be a rough month in San Antonio the Spurs have toughest schedule in the West in January.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (16-20, LW 14). Kyrie Irving got a shot in his shoulder, hoping to numb the pain so he can get back, but if you listened to the press conference he sounded like a guy who could well be headed for season-ending surgery. That adds to the woes in Brooklyn — the Nets have lost six in a row, and it doesn’t get easier with the Heat and Jazz on the schedule this week (and it actually gets tougher the week after that).

Kings small icon 18. Kings (14-23, LW 18). The three players the Kings are counting on to be their core — De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, and Buddy Hield — have played a total of 49 minutes together this season due to injuries. Kings fans can blame Luke Walton because their team went from one of the fastest-paced teams in the NBA last season to one of the slowest, but it’s tough to judge his performance without the players the Kings need healthy enough to play. The Kings had the league’s worst record over the last 10 years but have started the new decade winning 3-of-4.

Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (16-22, LW 22). Ja Morant is the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, but more than that he can be a cornerstone for Memphis to build around (probably with Jaren Jackson Jr.). Morant is incredibly fluid, his trust in his shot is growing, and he is fearless — more than once on Saturday Kawhi Leonard got switched onto him and Morant went right at him (with mixed results). Morant is also walking highlight reel and has become must-watch League Pass viewing.

20. Timberwolves (14-22, LW 28). Karl-Anthony Towns remains sidelined with a sprained knee (11 games and counting), but the Timberwolves have found some spark and have won 3-of-5 without him. This remains a team to watch at the trade deadline, with Robert Covington still drawing interest from teams. Also, stop with the Towns trade talk, that is not happening, he may be frustrated with the losing, but that’s different than going Anthony Davis and forcing his way out. Plus, in the first year of a five-year extension, everyone wants to find a way to make this work.

Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (13-24, LW 19). Chicago’s defense is tied for fifth best in the NBA this season (they have the same defensive rating as the stacked Sixers), but that hasn’t translated into wins because of their 28th-ranked offense. Still, the Bulls have the net rating of a 16-21 team (which would have them half-a-game out of the playoffs). The Bulls have lost four straight against some of the league’s better teams, but the schedule does soften up going forward.

Suns small icon 22. Suns (14-22, LW 23). Devin Booker is on fire, having scored at least 30 points in seven straight games, setting a new franchise record (Charles Barkley had held it at five games). Phoenix is 3-4 in those games seven games, and Booker has lifted their offense up to middle of the pack). He’s not going to be a starter, but Booker should travel to Chicago next month to play in his first All-Star game as a reserve.

Hornets small icon 23. Hornets (15-24, LW 21). Devonte' Graham is the clear early frontrunner to win Most Improved Player this season, he is averaging 19.1 points and 7.8 assists a game. He deserves the award, but it is all fueled by the three-ball — almost 60% of his shot attempts come from deep. To take the next step, Graham has to become a better scorer inside the arc and in he paint. Just look at his shot chart for the season.

Pelicans small icon 24. Pelicans (12-25, LW 27). Derrick Favors has been the guy at the heart of New Orleans winning 5-of-7, with him on the floor they are 6.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. The Pelicans just look like a different team when he plays. The Pelicans are a top-10 defense in the last 10 games thanks to Favors and a scheme where they now drop their bigs back to protect the paint on pick-and-rolls. No word yet on Zion Williamson’s return, but it should be soon. Or, at least soonish.

Pistons small icon 25. Pistons (14-24, LW 20). Blake Griffin had surgery to clean up issues in his knee, and while no official timetable has been given it would be a surprise to see him back this season. That will add to the growing buzz around an Andre Drummond trade, which seems to be more and more likely at the deadline. The silver lining in the Griffin injury is that it clears the way for more Sekou Doumbouya, who has started to look like the future of that franchise.

Wizards small icon 26. Wizards (12-24, LW 24). It’s a “what actually happened to the passengers on flight 828” level
mystery — in the past week a Wizards team without Bradley Beal or Thomas Bryant or
Rui Hachimura or Davis Bertans or John Wall have beaten the Heat, Nuggets, and Celtics. Why? How? Some things are just better left unexplained.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (10-26, LW 29). Marcus Morris scoring 38 points against the Clippers on Sunday almost felt like an audition for playoff teams watching — “look, I can help you against elite teams.” The Knicks were competitive in that game, as they have been against some other top teams of late, and New York is 6-9 with Mike Miller as the interim coach. They are at least competing.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (10-27, LW 25). Kevin Love is clearly unhappy — even if the way he is venting it on the court is not the most professional of moves — and wants to be traded. It’s just hard to see that coming together thanks to him being in the first year of a four-year, $120 million contract extension. Love still brings value on the court, but not at the level he’s being paid, and that has team balking when it comes to making a trade. Still, the rumors are flying around.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (8-29, LW 30). Trae Young is going to be an All-Star this year, and if the fans get their way he will start (he led East guards after the first round of fan voting). While we can talk about his lack of defense or how he needs to grow to be the kind of guy who can lead a team deep in the playoffs, Young is a walking highlight reel and that’s what you want at the glorified exhibition that is the All-Star game.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (9-29 LW 26). The focus in the Bay Area has turned to the next draft, understandably, with some calls for the Warriors to get a center or rim-protecting big, wherever they end up picking. That’s the wrong strategy. If James Wiseman falls in your lap, great, but take the best player on the board. Try to draft for position and you end up saying things like “we don’t need to draft Luka Doncic we have De’Aaron Fox” or “we don’t need to draft Michael Jordan, we have Clyde Drexler.” Take the best player and work the rest out later.

Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams each score 30+ off bench, Clippers beat Knicks

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LOS ANGELES — A day after a 26-point loss to Memphis in another matinee, the Clippers had a least three players score at least 30 points for the first time in franchise history.

Montrezl Harrell scored 34 points off the bench, reserve Lou Williams scored 32 to match starter Paul George, and Los Angeles beat the New York Knicks 135-132 on Sunday.

It was the first time in the Clippers’ history that three players scored at least 30 points. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time two players have scored 30 points off the bench in a regulation NBA game since the 1970-71 season.

“Montrezl and Lou were fantastic. History is good. Someone has to make it,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.

Harrell didn’t say much after tying a career high and producing the seventh 30-point game of his four-year career. One day after saying the Clippers were “not a great team” following the embarrassment by Memphis, Harrell walked past reporters with a smile on his face and said, “You all have a good Sunday.”

George, who missed Saturday’s game with left hamstring tightness, said it was important to not come out flat two afternoons in a row.

“We saw Lou and Montrezl lead the way. Watching that from the bench, it got us motivated. We knew the job we had to do,” said George, who posted his seventh 30-point game this season. He was 9 of 14 from the field, including 5 of 6 on 3-pointers, in 32 minutes.

Both teams shot 54% or more from the floor in a game that will not go down as a defensive masterpiece.

Los Angeles was up by 15 late in the third quarter and 121-110 with 7:06 remaining in the game when George fouled out. New York scored eight straight points to draw within three and was still within one possession in the final minute when Williams drove the lane and hit a floating jumper with 18.5 seconds left to make it 133-128.

Marcus Morris — who led New York with a career-high 38 points — hit a jumper with 10.4 seconds left to get the Knicks back within three, but Williams put it out of reach after a timeout with a pair of free throws.

“You can win games with bad offense and good defense,” Rivers said. “Tonight people can say either the offense was phenomenal or both teams struggled defensively. The players will say one thing but the coaches will say the other.”

Rivers might be surprised that George agreed with him.

“We still allowed too many points and have to get better,” George said. “It’s an area we have to improve, but our offense got us over the hump today.”

RJ Barrett added 24 points for New York and Julius Randle had 16 points and eight rebounds.

“At end of the day, we wanted to win but took a positive step in our competition level,” Morris said. “For us to be in the game against one of the top teams in the league and have a big lead says a lot.”

Los Angeles trailed by 16 at the end of the first quarter but put up a 47-point second quarter to lead 76-69 at halftime. That was the most points scored in the second period of an NBA game this season and tied for the fourth most in any quarter.

Williams led the way with 18 points in the period, including three straight 3-pointers that tied it at 51 with 7:16 remaining. Harrell had 14 points in the quarter, including 10 of the Clippers’ first 13 points during the run.

The Knicks went on a 24-8 run in the first quarter to lead 33-19. New York, which came in making 10.7 3-pointers per game, made four during its spurt while Randle scored seven points.

The Knicks extended their lead to 45-29 at the end of the quarter as they went 19 of 29 from the field. The output was tied for the third-most points scored in the first 12 minutes of an NBA game this season and marked the first time the Knicks have scored at least 44 points and shot over 70% from the field in the first in nearly 11 years. The last time it happened was also against the Clippers, on March 25, 2009.

“It was one of the wilder games that I have been a part of,” Knicks coach Mike Miller said. “We put together a big first quarter and then it flipped. But we showed grit to stay in the game and put ourselves in position at the end.”

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks, Lakers hold on to top two spots heading into showdown

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The Bucks and Lakers both dropped a game this week but kept the top two slots in these power rankings heading into their showdown Thursday night. Dallas has climbed to third, but it will be tough to stay there with Luka Doncic out for a couple of weeks.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (24-4, Last Week No. 1). Their 18-game win streak came to an end with an off night against Dallas, but they got that win streak with elite play on both ends: The second-best defense and the second-best offense in the NBA over the last 15 games. Even with that, Thursday night against the Lakers is the real measuring stick. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. LeBron James in a potential Finals preview (except for Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Kuzma, and others out injured, plus the fact both teams will evolve a lot before the playoffs even start).

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (24-4, LW No. 2). If anyone needed evidence of what Anthony Davis means to this Lakers team, watch the video of the loss to Indiana from Tuesday night (which snapped the Lakers 14-game road win streak). Indiana grabbed the offensive rebound on 30% of their missed shots without Davis there to clean up the glass, and without those rebounds Los Angeles couldn’t get out and run to transition points like it normally does. Their spacing was off, too. We could go on, but you get the idea. If the Lakers want to prove they belong on top of this ranking, they get the chance Thursday night against the Bucks.

Editor’s note: Tickets to Bucks-Lakers? Click here

Mavericks small icon 3. Mavericks (18-8, LW 4). No Luka Doncic for two weeks (at least, due to a sprained ankle) is a huge test for Dallas — they passed the first part beating Milwaukee on the road. The Mavs offense will not be the same without the guy giving them 29.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game, the guy who runs their pick-and-roll based game. Where Dallas can make up for it is on the defensive end (they are 6.1 per 100 better defensively when he sits this season), and with Kristaps Porzingis stepping up.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (21-8, LW 5). Paul George has become as dangerous a three-point shooter as there is in the league. PG13 is hitting 40.3% from three on 9.8 attempts from beyond the arc per game (only James Harden and Buddy Hield attempt more). The Clippers face the Rockets Thursday night in what will be an interesting chess match: Last time these teams met the Clippers doubled and trapped Harden out near the mid-court line, and while the Clippers won the game (122-119) Harden still had 37 points and the Rockets’ offense was not slowed. What strategy does Doc Rivers test out this game?

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (20-8, LW 6). Philadelphia is Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to being in the Wells Fargo Center or on the road. Philly is 14-0 at home, 6-8 on the road, and the real difference is on defense — the Sixers allow less than a point per possession (98.9 defensive net rating) and play with more emotion and energy at home. The Sixers have a +12 net rating at home and -2 net rating on the road. The Sixers have 4-of-5 coming up at home including the Bucks on Christmas Day.

Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (17-7, LW 3). How much Marcus Smart means to the Celtics defense was evident in losses last week to Indiana and Philadelphia, games where they gave up at least 115 points to teams outside the top 12 offenses in the league. Those games — particularly against the Sixers — exposed the lack of bench depth outside Smart on this team, the challenge is the Celtics do not have great options to trade for more depth at the deadline. Boston also doesn’t have a good answer for Joel Embiid (few teams do), and that will be a playoff challenge if they meet.

Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (19-9, LW 10). The Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis big man combo is starting to work: In the last 15 games, they have played nearly 300 minutes together and the Pacers have an impressive 100.3 defensive rating and an impressive +9 net rating in those minutes. How well it worked showed up against the Lakers (without AD) when Turner was switching onto LeBron an others late and holding his own defensively, while Sabonis scored 26. The Pacers have won four in a row and have a fun showdown with the Bucks on Sunday.

Rockets small icon 8. Rockets (18-9, LW 7). Once again, James Harden is right at the front of the discussion for MVP, scoring 38.9 points per game. Once again, he scoffs at the idea of load management and taking a night off. And, once again, he is second in the league in total minutes played (only he and Devonte' Graham are over 1,000 already) and usage rate (38.6, tied with the Greek Freak for the most). That’s a lot on his shoulders and it’s fair to wonder if he will be able to hold up physically. The Rockets have 5-of-6 coming up on the road, starting with the Clippers Thursday.

Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (17-8, LW 11). Denver is a team to watch heading into the trade deadline, with them trying to package players such as Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez to get an upgrade to their rotation. Both of them are expiring contracts, if there’s a team seeking some cap relief, but finding a deal that gets them quality back will not be easy. After losing 5-of-6 and struggling on the road, Denver came home and has strung together three straight wins (against a soft schedule, but still wins). Good test in Los Angeles Sunday against the Lakers.

Heat small icon 10. Heat (19-8, LW 8). Bam Adebayo is on a tear and is putting up All-Star numbers of late: 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 7.4 assists a game over his last five, all while shooting 58.1% from the field. There are no moral victories in the NBA, but the Heat’s three-point loss to the Lakers where they hung with an elite team all game was a good sign for this team heading forward. Another good test Wednesday night in Philadelphia (where the Sixers remain undefeated).

Raptors small icon 11. Raptors (18-8, LW 9). After losses in the past weeks to quality teams (Heat, Rockets, 76ers, Clippers), Toronto may want to step back, assess where they are in the East (and NBA pecking order), and see if they can make deadline trades for Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. The challenge is the money — Gasol makes $25.5 million, Ibaka $23.2 million — because teams don’t have cap space, but expect Toronto to be active and at least talking to teams. Good test next Monday against Indiana.

Nets small icon 12. Nets (15-12, LW 12). Kyrie Irving has been out 16 games now, the Nets are 11-5 with a top-10 defense in the league during that stretch. Wilson Chandler is back from his 25-game PED suspension, and while he has come off the bench and played a limited role, he ads some much needed veteran depth at the forwards spots.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (16-11, LW 13). Donovan Mitchell took over late against Orlando Tuesday, which bailed out another rough performance by the Utah bench (Royce O’Neale had 11 points but the bench as a total had just 14, and they are wildly inconsistent night to night). Winners of three in a row (against a soft part of the schedule) the Jazz now head on the road for 7-of-9. Away from home the Jazz are 5-8 and are getting outscored by 2.4 PPG.

Thunder small icon 14. Thunder (12-14, LW 16). Billy Donovan doesn’t go to a three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander all that much — he’s used it in 26 games but for fewer than six minutes a game — however, when he does, they destroy teams. That trio holds teams to less than a point per possession and has a net rating of +25.9 points per 100 possessions. Expect a lot of Danilo Gallinari trade rumors between now and the deadline, he is going to be on the move.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (11-16, LW 14). We learned this week that Andre Drummond has a strong Avocado allergy and some ceviche in Mexico sidelined him for a few days. Throw in Blake Griffin’s painful knee and you have a team that has lost two-of-three. Derrick Rose is trying to keep them afloat, averaging 16.6 points and 6.1 assists a game off the bench, and keeps making his case for Sixth Man of the Year.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (12-15, LW 15). The Magic have dropped 4-of-5 through a difficult part of the schedule, with games at Denver and at Portland still ahead. Orlando is banking n the return of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to start their lowly offense (25th in the league). Even with all that, the Magic sit as the current eight seed in the East.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (12-15, LW 19). De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III are back in the lineup, and while that didn’t mean a win in Charlotte Tuesday it does mean Sacramento is close to whole again. Even with the loss, Sacramento has won 4-of-6, they got their best players back, and starting Dec. 23 (against Houston), the Kings have 10-of-12 at home. Make a run there and the Kings can start to solidify a playoff spot in the West (for the first time in 13 years).

Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (11-16, LW 20). Carmelo Anthony’s defensive reputation was both well earned and the thing that made other teams slow to sign him this summer. However, watch him play now and he is putting in the effort on that end of the floor — he had three blocks and two steals against the Suns on Monday night. He’s active and trying, and that’s a good start. Portland starts a run of 6-of-7 at home on Wednesday against Golden State, if the Blazers are going to turn their season this is the time to do it.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (13-17, LW 22). Charlotte remains the team playing the most over its head this season, Cleaning the Glass has them as a 10-win team (9.6, to be specific) but the Hornets keep winning close games. Charlotte is 4-1 in their last five but they are just +8 in those games (and have a 1.2 net rating). Devonte’ Graham continues to impress every time he steps on the court, including dropping 40 on Brooklyn a week ago.

Suns small icon 20. Suns (11-15, LW 17). Deandre Ayton returned from his PED suspension Tuesday and put up 18 points and 14 rebounds in loss to the Clippers. It’s a good start, they need his offensive production in the paint. The Suns have lost four in a row and 5-of-6, with their struggling offense being the main reason for the slide.

Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (10-16, LW 21). Nobody on the Spurs was happy making history by playing in four straight overtime games, but the Spurs won three of them. Even with that it looks like they will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years this season, which leads to the next question: Will San Antonio be a seller at the trade deadline? Even if they want to be, is there much of a market for the big contracts of DeMar DeRozan ($27.7 million) or LaMarcus Aldridge ($26 million, but only $7 million guaranteed next season)?

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (10-17, LW 24). Ja Morant returned to the lineup and the Grizzlies have won 4-of-5 (with the only loss coming to Milwaukee. Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are -6.4 per 100 possessions when paired together this season, and not particularly strong on either end of the court. That comes with being a young team. Morant’s dunk over Aron Baynes may be a week old, but you can’t see this one enough.

23. Timberwolves (10-15, LW 18). Losers of seven in a row, with a frighteningly bad 123.5 defensive net rating over that stretch. Just for some context, the Wizards have the worst defense in the league this season and their net rating is 116.7. Minnesota has slid back so far they might become sellers at the trade deadline, but the play of Robert Covington during this stretch — on both ends of the court — is going to make teams hesitant, and if nothing else will lower what they could get for him.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (10-19, LW 23). Looking for a bright spot on a team that is stumbling along, having lost 5-of-7, a team that keeps blowing big leads? Zach LaVine has added to his offensive arsenal, becoming a far more consistent three-point shooter this season, hitting 40.5% from beyond the arc on 7.6 attempts per game.

Wizards small icon 25. Wizards (8-17, LW 25). New GM Tommy Sheppard is going to get a lot of calls before the trade deadline about the availability of Davis Bertans, who was a steal from the Spurs this past summer. He’s averaging 15.4 points a game, shooting 45.7% from three as a stretch four, and is on an expiring contract. Sheppard has said he doesn’t plan trade Bertans, but if a good enough offer comes through he has to consider it.

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (7-21, LW 30). The Knicks got Elfrid Payton back seven games ago and the Knicks are 3-4 in those games with an offense that just looks smoother (in part because rookie R.J. Barrett doesn’t have to play out of position at the point). Their defense is still dreadful, but at least New York is competitive. Marcus Morris trade rumors are going to heat up fast as we get closer to the deadline, a lot of teams could use his toughness and shooting.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (6-22, LW 26). Losers of five in a row, there is disappointment and frustration in the Atlanta locker room, which has led to questions about the job safety of coach Lloyd Pierce. For now he is safe, according to reports. But there were expectations Trae Young (who has been streaky this season), John Collins (suspended for PEDs), and company would take a step forward this season. If anything, it feels like their regressed, and the defense is a disaster. Not living up to expectations is often what leads to a coach being let go.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (6-21, LW 29). Cleveland’s only win his their last 11 games was in overtime against the Spurs. The Cavs will be one of the most discussed teams in the run-up to the deadline, but Kevin Love’s contract makes him very difficult to trade. Tristan Thompson makes more sense for a lot of teams, if he is made available.

Warriors small icon 29. Warriors (5-23 LW 28). Looking for a positive? Alan Smailagic, the No. 39 pick in the last draft, just had a 29-point game for Santa Cruz in the G-League. Expect a lot of D’Angelo Russell trade discussion in the run up to the deadline in February, but I keep hearing from sources that is far more likely a summer trade, not one rushed in February.

Pelicans small icon 30. Pelicans (6-22, LW 27). Brandon Ingram has played his way into a max contract this summer: 24.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Sources say he is not available via trade (J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday, however, are). Is Ingram someone the Pelicans, or any other team, should feel comfortable maxing out? No. But in a down market, a guy who can get buckets the way he can is going to get paid. Also, nobody should blame the Pelicans for not extending him, considering health risks (blood clots last season) and they weren’t sure how he would fit next to Zion Williamson (and still aren’t).

Knicks reportedly had players-only meeting before David Fizdale was fired

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
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New York had lost eight in a row, blowing big leads in a couple of those games. The last two games the Knicks were listless — a 44-point crushing by the Sixers, then a 37-point thrashing by the Nuggets — and looked like a team that had given up.

Friday morning, team veterans — led by Marcus Morris — called a players-only meeting before practice to talk about the need for the players to not roll over and play harder. Particularly with coach David Fizdale’s job on the line. That meeting was reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Fizdale then ran the team practice.

One meeting and one practice was not going to stop the inevitable, Fizdale was fired later on Friday. The Knicks have made that official and assistant coach Mike Miller will take over as the interim head coach.

Sometimes there is a boost of energy teams get from a coaching change, but in the case of the Knicks it may well be a dead cat bounce. That is unless the veterans really do take charge and start pushing this roster.

While Fizdale certainly deserves blame for the lack of identity on offense and defense from the Knicks, I’m not a believer that an NBA coach is fully responsible for his team’s motivation. These are professionals getting paid millions of dollars, it shouldn’t take a rah-rah speech from a guy in a tie to get them focused and ready to do their job. It’s on the players. Motivation is always part of a coach’s job, and with a young team keeping the players on task certainly is part of the coach’s responsibility, but at the NBA level a coach should have to worry less about firing his guys up on a nightly basis.

Marcus Morris pushes, Nikola Jokic chest bumps, pair separated (video)

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The Knicks haven’t put up much fight this season.

Marcus Morris has.

In his first game back from son-caused injury, Morris and Nikola Jokic got physical going for a potential rebound. Afterward, Morris pushed Jokic. Jokic chest bumped Morris. Morris pushed Jokic again. The players received a double technical foul.

This fits a pattern for Morris.

As does the result – Nuggets 129, Knicks 92 – for New York.