Norman Powell

Mock NBA expansion draft
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Mock NBA expansion draft: Celtics, Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Raptors

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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division. Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Atlantic:

Boston Celtics

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 7

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: Boston’s decisions are fairly cut and dry. Jayson Tatum, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and Robert Williams are all on their rookie-scale contracts. Jaylen Brown will be starting a four-year contract extension. Kemba Walker was just signed to a max contract. Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are good values and key rotation players.

The toughest decision was on Gordon Hayward. Carrying a salary over $34 million, the Celtics are betting he’ll go undrafted and will return to the team. Everyone else was a fairly easy decision to leave unprotected.

Brooklyn Nets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Nets are keeping their big four in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Jarrett Allen is still on his rookie-scale contract, so that’s an easy decision. With over $101 million on the books for just Durant, Irving, Dinwiddie and LeVert, Nicolas Claxton and Rodions Kurucs help bring some low-cost upside to the back-end of the roster.

DeAndre Jordan will likely go unselected, given his age and $30 million-plus owed through 2022-23. If Jordan is selected, Brooklyn can bank some potential luxury tax savings down the line. Taurean Prince was on the fence, but given his disappointing play this season, and lack of fit in a lineup featuring Durant, the Nets will take their chances he’ll be selected.

New York Knicks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 6

Ineligible – 1

  • Maurice Harkless

Analysis: The Knicks are clearing the decks for a run at free agency this summer. The expansion draft could only help along that way. New York is protecting their young players with upside, as well as Julius Randle, last year’s big free agent addition. The Knicks are also protecting Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier. Not out of fear of losing them, but in hopes that either of the expansion teams will select a bigger salary and take it off the New York cap sheet.

Dennis Smith Jr. was the only questionable player to leave unprotected, but $5.7 million is simply too much for a player out of the rotation. The other five players aren’t part of the future in New York, so that decision was easy.

Philadelphia 76ers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: Philadelphia’s decisions make themselves. The highly paid players are key rotation players. Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton are steals on minimum contracts. Matisse Thybulle is only entering year two of his rookie scale deal. Zhaire Smith was on the bubble, but he’s young enough, and under team control, that he’s worth protecting.

Al Horford is very unprotected. His signing simply hasn’t worked out for the Sixers. He’s a player Philadelphia is open to talking about a trade with either of the expansion teams. With an extra first-round pick, the 76ers hope to dangle it to entice a team to select Horford.

Toronto Raptors

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Raptors don’t have to expose any of their core rotation players in the expansion draft. Up front, Pascal Siakam just inked his contract extension, and OG Anunoby is still on his rookie scale deal. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are all free agents. In the backcourt, Toronto can protect Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, along with undrafted find Terence Davis. And Fred VanVleet is a free agent.

The leaves just a handful of players who don’t have a role for the Raptors. Toronto could even entertain offering a second-round pick to entice either expansion team to select Stanley Johnson and take his $3.8 million off the cap/tax.

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers, Clippers move up into top two spots

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We have a new No. 1, with their dominant weekend the Lakers move into the top spot, with the Clippers still right on their heels. Houston took a tumble after a rough patch of losses.

 
Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (49-14, Last Week No. 2). In a dominant weekend with two wins over the next two teams in these rankings, the Lakers played to the strengths that will make them tough to beat come the postseason. One is LeBron James’ IQ — his ability to read the game, hunt the mismatches, and dictate play to his liking is unparalleled. The other is the size of the Lakers’ stars — the 6’9” LeBron and the 6’10” Anthony Davis are hard to match up with because they are so big and skilled. A trap game loss to Brooklyn followed those big weekend wins.

 
Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (44-20, LW 4). Marcus Morris continues to struggle adapting to his new role and situation in Los Angeles, shooting just 38.6% on 9.5 shots a game, and 28.3% from three. He struggled against the Lakers on Sunday and the Clippers need him to be a scoring option when it gets to the second round of the playoffs and beyond. Doc Rivers also has to find a solution to the Lou Williams/Montrezl Harrell defensive issues at the end of games, the Lakers weren’t the first team to target Lou-Will in close games.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (53-12, LW 1). Fortunately it doesn’t appear the Giannis Antetokounmpo’s knee injury is anything serious, he’s missed two games and likely will miss a few more as Milwaukee will wisely error on the side of caution. The Bucks are running away with the East and what matters is getting the Greek Freak, Eric Bledsoe (who has to be better in the playoffs than he was against the Lakers), Brook Lopez and everyone else healthy before the postseason starts.

 
Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (46-18, LW 6). Norman Powell came back from injury and was on fire. In his last five games he has averaged 23.6 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting, while hitting 39.4 percent from three, helping carry the Raptors to a string of wins (four in a row). Then, as his season has gone, he sprained his ankle 1:35 into Monday’s game against Utah. Toronto just cannot get and stay healthy this season.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (43-21, LW 5). Reality hit Boston in the past week as they had Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward all missing time with injuries, plus Jayson Tatum’s shooting returned to human levels — they dropped 4-of-5 before a win Tuesday. Boston needs to get everyone, particularly Walker, right before the playoffs start, even if that means sacrificing some games. Boston’s win in Indiana Tuesday started a string of 7-of-9 on the road.

 
Heat small icon 6. Heat (41-23, LW 9). Winners of 5-of-6 with a soft schedule ahead this week, Miami seems on target to hold on to the four seed and be home for the first round of the playoffs (likely against Philly or Indy). To win either of those matchups they will need playoff Jimmy Butler, and he sat out the second half against Charlotte with a toe issue. Expect him to get a little time off down the stretch to make sure he is right when the playoffs tip-off.

 
Thunder small icon 7. Thunder (40-24, LW 10). Winners of 8-of-10, and the only two losses in that stretch are to the Bucks and Clippers. Oklahoma City is trying to track down Utah for the four seed and to have home court in the first round, and with two games against the Jazz on the schedule — including one Wednesday night — that looks like a doable goal for Chris Paul and company. It helps that they will get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander back healthy for that game.

 
Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (43-21, LW 7). A couple of wins (against Charlotte and what was left of Milwaukee) do not cover up the fact Denver’s defense is 5.7 points per 100 possessions worse since the All-Star break. It forced coach Mike Malone to keep Michael Porter Jr. on the bench against Charlotte (he’s not yet much of a defender). The Nuggets need to find that defense fast with 7-of-8 on the road starting tonight in Dallas (and the one home game in that stretch is the Clippers).

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (40-24, LW 3). Houston’s small-ball caught teams off guard at first, and the Rockets won 10-of-12 when they first committed to it. However, the tide turned and they lost four in a row before beating the struggling Timberwolves Tuesday night? It’s not been one simple problem, the Rockets have been bottom seven in the league on offense — James Harden can’t buy a three and Russell Westbrook isn’t finishing the same way — and defense in the last five games. Now they are at the Lakers and Trail Blazers before the schedule softens up into next week.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (39-27, LW 8). Dallas will make the playoffs, but it has a real motivation to string together some wins — they currently sit as the seven seed and that means the Clippers in the first round. If the Mavericks can make up two games and pass either the Rockets or Thunder then Dallas likely gets Denver in the first round, a much better matchup for them.

 
Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (39-26, LW 11). Indiana went 4-1 on a recent string of road games, but keeping both Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo healthy at the same time has proven a challenge. The pair has played just 10 games together this season and now Brogdon is week-to-week with a torn left rectus femoris (which connects the hip and quadricep). Indy needs to keep finding wins, injured or not, if they are going to hold off the 76ers for the five seed in the East.

 
Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (38-26, LW 12). With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons out, the 76ers defense has fallen apart, worst in the NBA over the last five games. That was expected, what wasn’t expected was Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson stepping up and getting Philly to play its best offense of the season over those same five games. Embiid should return in the next week to stabilize the 76ers defense, but the team is just hoping Simmons can return from the pinched nerve in his lower back before the playoffs.

 
Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (41-23, LW 13). Utah beat up on the East (at least until it ran into Toronto) and a five-game win streak moved them back up to the four seed in the West, but now the real tests come (starting with surging Oklahoma City Wednesday). Joe Ingles struggled at first when returned to the bench, but he has found a groove of late with Jordan Clarkson and the two of them have made Utah’s bench formidable again, which could help keep them in the top four and at home for the first round of the playoffs.

 
Magic small icon 14. Magic (30-35, LW 16). The Magic have won three in a row, right after losing three in a row. That inconsistency comes because the defense — that was the best thing about the Magic earlier in the season — is 25th in the league since the All-Star break. Orlando is just trying to outscore teams (they have the best offense in the league since the All-Star Game), and that always leads to inconsistent results. Orlando needs to string together some wins and get in front of Brooklyn to avoid the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

 
Grizzlies small icon 15. Grizzlies (32-33, LW 14). For Memphis, the playoffs have started — every game the rest of the way has meaning, especially Thursday night’s showdown with Portland (and the looming home-and-home with New Orleans in a week). The good news for Memphis is they may be more healthy for some of these games, they are expected to get Jaren Jackson Jr. (left knee soreness) and Justise Winslow (back soreness) back on the court. It’s going to be a little longer for Brandon Clarke, but he should return this season.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (30-34, LW 17). While there are tabloids full of speculation about Brooklyn off the court, they have rattled off three straight wins on it, including an upset of the Lakers on Tuesday. The Nets and Magic are in a “we don’t want to face the Bucks in the first round” race for the seven seed (not that Toronto or Boston would be a picnic). With Jacque Vaughn as coach, DeAndre Jordan (the good friend of Durant/Irving) is back in the starting lineup and Jarrett Allen is coming off the bench (in case you had any questions about who has the power on this team).

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (28-36, LW 15). The Pelicans have been one of the unluckiest teams in the NBA this season, they have the point differential of .500 team — they should be 32-32 — according to Cleaning the Glass’ calculations. Basketball reference suggests more like 30-34. Even with the worse of those records the Pelicans would be just 1.5 games out of the playoffs and look like more of a lock with their soft schedule the last month of the season, as it is fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 60% chance to catch and pass the Grizzlies for the eighth seed. To get to that soft part of the schedule, the Pelicans have to play a rough week of the hot Kings (another team in the playoff hunt), at the Jazz, then at the Clippers.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (28-36, LW 18). Quietly the hottest team in the chase for the eight seed, they have won 7-of-10 and that includes a big weekend win against Portland. Sacramento is digging itself out of a hole from its 12-22 start to the season, which makes one wonder if the combination of a new coach, a trip for a preseason game in India, and some new faces took an especially hard toll on them (it may not be, the Pacers did the same trip and started 22-12).

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (29-37, LW 19). Jusuf Nurkic is expected to make his return to the court Sunday against Houston — and they need him back for their playoff push. It’s less about the offense, although he provides some interior scoring, it’s on defense where he can protect the rim and be a big body inside that keeps teams from getting to the rim. Before that, Portland faces Memphis on Thursday night in what feels like a must-win game for the Blazers down the stretch.

 
Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (27-36, LW 20). Can the return of LaMarcus Aldridge to the rotation turn around the Spurs’ playoff push (he helped them get a win in his debut). San Antonio quietly keep hanging around the playoff chase in the West, it are just four games back of Memphis, but making up that ground when the Spurs play such poor defense is the reason fivethirtyeight.com gives them just a two percent chance of keeping their playoff streak alive.

 
Suns small icon 21. Suns (26-39, LW 22). Phoenix may be out of the playoff picture but it is not going quietly into that good night — Ricky Rubio racked up a triple-double in a win against the (shorthanded) Bucks, and Devon Booker is getting heavy minutes from coach Monty Williams. Phoenix has played fairly well on the road this season (13-17), which is good because eight of their next 10 games are away from home.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-40, LW 21). Bradley Beal is lighting up the league and making a serious All-NBA push (no matter how bad the team around him is). In his last 10 games, Beal has averaged 37.5 points per night and is hitting 48.1% of his threes on nearly 11 attempts a game. Beal may have to keep putting up numbers in losses because the Wizards have the toughest remaining schedule in the East.

 
Hornets small icon 23. Hornets (22-42, LW 26). Charlotte has dropped four—of-five, but in a league without moral victories, these look a lot like moral victories. They pushed the Bucks, lost by one to the Spurs and two to the Nuggets, beat the Rockets, then went double OT with Atlanta. PJ Washington is a find and is going to be a key part of whatever is ultimately put together through this rebuild process in Charlotte.

 
Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (22-43, LW 24). The Bulls have started to get healthy with Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen all back, but take Zach LaVine out of the offense and it falls apart for the Bulls. At least now Coby White is finally starting, in the 10 games since the All-Star break he is averaging 24.7 points a game and shooting 40.7 percent from three.

 
Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (20-45, LW 25). Who will be the Knicks next head coach? Does Leon Rose want a player development and culture guy? Because if so that team just over the bridge let Kenny Atkinson go. Or, as expected, are the Knicks going to look hard at veteran guys like Mark Jackson or Tyronn Lue. The name I keep hearing from sources is Tom Thibodeau, although part of that is just people connecting the dots because Thibs and Rose are friends.

Pistons small icon 26. Pistons (20-45, LW 23). Detroit has dropped four in a row and 11-of-12, with the worst offense in the NBA during that stretch (on the sort of bright side, the defense is just outside the bottom 10). Still, this team has some players to watch down the stretch in Christian Wood and Sekou Doumbouya (Wood is playing for his next contract right now, and that’s always good motivation.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (19-46, LW 29). There will be no coaching search, Cleveland locked up J.B. Bickerstaff as their man with a multi-year contract. The Cavaliers are a respectable 5-6 since he took over mid-season, and more importantly Bickerstaff has a good relationship with both the young players on the team and the front office. This is a good hire for their long-term rebuilding plan (which is what they should be focused on).

 
28. Timberwolves (19-45, LW 28). Malik Beasley has been tearing it up for the Timberwolves. He was acquired as part of that massive four-team trade where Minnesota’s primary target was D’Angelo Russell, but Beasley is averaging 20.7 points per game and is shooting 42.6 percent from three. This has been the best stretch of basketball in his career, and it’s well timed right before he hits free agency this summer.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (20-46, LW 27). Cam Reddish has started to find his groove of late, in his last five games he has averaged 18.6 points per game and shot 56.7 percent from three. He scored 28 points against Washington’s “defense” last Friday night. There are flashes of bright spots around this team but everything good seems undone by their defense, that end of the floor has to be the focus this summer and heading into next season in Atlanta if they have playoff dreams.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (15-50 LW 30). The Warriors found another player who may be able to play a role for them next year in Mychal Mulder. A good shooter at the G-League level, he came to the Warriors on a 10-day contract and averaged 11 points a game, showing a little promise as a shooter and starting to find more of a comfort level as he is around longer. The Warriors signed him on a good multi-year contract and he could be a nice role player for them off the bench next season.

Three Things to Know: Welcome to the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday during the NBA regular season we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Welcome to the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend. The conventional wisdom from NBA pundits — and their sources inside the game — is that there are three teams on the top tier in the NBA as we approach the playoffs: The Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers.

Every other team with title dreams — Boston, Denver, Houston, Toronto — are trying to prove they belong on that level.

This weekend, we may get a sense of the pecking order in that top tier. Friday night, the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks. Sunday, the Lakers and Clippers face off in the last meaningful game between them this season.

This is the Lakers’ measuring stick weekend.

The Lakers have been the best team — and the most consistent team — in the West all season long. After years of conserving energy during the regular season in preparation for a deep playoff run (where he had to carry lesser teams), LeBron James has gone all-out in an MVP-level season. LeBron averaged 25.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, and an NBA-best 10.7 assists a game, all while playing strong defense night in and night out. Mix in a season from Anthony Davis that will get him down-ballot MVP votes — 26.6 points and 9.5 rebounds a game — and you have the best duo in the NBA.

Those two, with just a little help, can get the Lakers a win most nights.

This weekend for the Lakers is not most nights.

The Milwaukee Bucks come to town with the best defense in the NBA this season by a longshot, one predicated on taking away shots in the paint and corner threes. That will be the most interesting thing to watch in this game: The Lakers have great size and length, and they average 53.7 points in the paint a game (second in the league), while the Bucks surrender just 38.6 points a game in the paint, fewest in the league. Can the Bucks turn the Lakers into a jump-shooting team? If they do, Milwaukee wins. If the Lakers get to the rim, they win.

Then there is the MVP-proxy battle. The Bucks are led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been better this season than last and is in the mix for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year again. At this point, talking to voters, LeBron is the only real threat to Antetokounmpo’s MVP repeat. One game does not an MVP-case make, but this subplot will be watched.

Then on Sunday, the finally-healthy-and-rolling Clippers will host the Lakers. The Clippers come in having won six in a row, including demolishing the Houston Rockets on Thursday night — they have looked dominant of late. The Clippers have been a paper tiger all season, with injuries holding them back — Doc Rivers has had to go with 28 different starting lineups. Finally the Clippers are whole, they added Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson at and after the deadline, and they have looked like a team living up to their potential. The Clippers are long, play good defense, have the deepest bench in the league — Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are both in the mix for Sixth Man of the Year again — and they have guys who can get shots whenever they want in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Regular season games in March do not decide playoff series. If these three teams meet, as expected, in the playoffs it will be in late May and June, and every team will have evolved some by then. Things will be different.

But this weekend we get to take the measure of the best teams in the NBA going against one another. For a Lakers’ team that has questions to answer, this weekend is the first big test.

Come Monday, we’ll have a slightly better idea what the top tier of the NBA looks like.

2) Clippers continue to roll, this time right over small-ball Houston. When the Rockets fully embraced small-ball, the intuitive counter argument was always “they will struggle with size.” However, that never meant “just post up Rudy Gobert” — the Rockets are good against that.

The real question was what would happen against a team with size all over the court, one can use that size and a little ball movement to get clean looks over the top of the undersized defense?

Thursday night, one of those teams — the Clippers — demolished the Rockets in a win in Houston. The final score of 120-105 makes this game seem a lot closer than it was, the Clippers led by more than 20 midway through the second quarter and kept that lead most of the way, going up by 30 at points in the fourth quarter, before garbage time kicked in.

Kawhi Leonard led the way for the Clippers with 25, but this was a balanced attack where Ivica Zubac had 17 points and Montrezl Harrell had 19 (size does matter).

Part of what went on here is Houston had an ice-cold shooting night, just one of those fluke off games. The Rockets were 7-of-42 from three on the night, at one point missing 20 in a row. That’s not going to happen again.

The Clippers, however, are finally healthy and are looking on the court like the contender they have been on paper all season. They get a good test come Sunday against the Lakers.

3) Stephen Curry drops 23 points in return, but Warriors still can’t beat Toronto. The Raptors have a way of spoiling big games in the Bay Area. Last June, it was the final game at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, which saw the Raptors celebrating a title.

Thursday night, it was Stephen Curry’s return.

Curry was back on the court after missing 58 games over four months with a broken hand. After a rough first quarter, he adjusted and looked pretty good. Curry finished with 23 points on 6-of-16 shooting overall and 3-of-12 from three, plus seven assists and seven rebounds.

That wasn’t enough to get the win. The Raptors backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell dominated this game, combining for 63 points and getting to the rim seemingly at will. Thanks to some key late plays from guys such as Pascal Siakam, the Raptors held on for the 121-113 win.

Still, it was great to see Stephen Curry back on the court. The Warriors just got a lot more interesting for the next five weeks.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Jamal Murray drains the fadeaway game-winner for Denver. The Nuggets are trying to keep pace with the red-hot Clippers and hold off the charging small-ball Rockets. Denver needs every win it can get right now.

Which is why Jamal Murray’s game-winner to beat Charlotte matters.

Murray finished with 18 points to lead a balanced Denver attack where seven players scored in double figures. Nikola Jokic had another strong night with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists, but the officiating got in his head over the course of the game.

He’s back! Watch Stephen Curry score 23 points in return to court

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It had been four months — 58 games — since Stephen Curry stepped on an NBA court.

That showed in a first quarter where he re-adjusted to the speed of the game — no points and Norman Powell stripped him of the rock — but Curry started to find his groove as the night went on. He finished with 23 points on 6-of-16 shooting overall, and 3-of-12 from three, plus seven assists and seven rebounds.

While Curry’s numbers were impressive — especially considering the time off — just his presence on the court created space and warped the Toronto defense. Also, Curry was unselfish with the ball, which moved well for the Warriors. That was good news for Mychel Mulder, who also had 23 points on the night (his came off the bench), and for Andrew Wiggins, who scored 21.

All of that was not enough to beat Toronto, which got 63 points combined out of its starting backcourt — Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell — and held on late for the 121-113 win. Toronto was attacking the rim all night long and the Warriors missed Kevon Looney (who remains out with a sore hip).

The win clinched a playoff spot for Toronto.

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets, Clippers threatening Bucks, Lakers at the top

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While the Bucks and Lakers hold on to their top two spots, the Rockets and Clippers are climbing fast and look like threats (at least in the West).

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (52-9, Last Week No. 1). Brook Lopez is going to get some down-ballot Defensive Player of the Year votes — and he deserves them. Lopez has contested more shots than anyone in the NBA this season — 1,133 shot contests (82% of those are twos), which is 182 more than the next person on the list (Rudy Gobert). Lopez has played the best defense of his career and is a key reason the Bucks have the top-ranked defense in the NBA. That defense will get a good test Friday night when the Bucks travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers.

Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (47-13, LW No. 2). The Lakers add 4.1 points per 100 possessions because of their transition play, tied for most in the league (with Toronto, stats via Cleaning The Glass). The Lakers are a force when they get out and run, however, that is muted somewhat because they have a middle-of-the-pack transition defense. The Lakers are an elite halfcourt defense but the Bucks will test their transition defense Friday night (no team tries to run as much as Milwaukee). Then comes a Sunday showcase game against the healthy and hot Clippers.

Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (39-21, LW 4). In November, Russell Westbrook took 28.3% of his shots from three and 36.4% at the rim, and he struggled with his shot. In his last 10 games, just 9.4% of his shots are threes while more than half (50.6%) of his shots came at the rim — and Westbrook is thriving. The Rockets have gotten him chances to play downhill and attack closer to the rim, using him in snug pick-and-rolls and tighter spaces with their small ball lineups. It has worked brilliantly. This is one of the best stretches of basketball in Westbrook’s career.

Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (42-19, LW 8). Finally healthy and fully loaded, the Clippers have won five in a row and looked like a force of nature the past week. As in, best team in the NBA kind of force of nature. Their offense has been the best in the NBA over the past five games since everyone got in the lineup, and the defense has locked teams down (fifth-best in the league in the last five, although that got a little skewed by Shake Milton’s hot hand). Speaking of defense: Montrezl Harrell leads the NBA in charges drawn this season with 30. Doc Rivers said in the Clippers system they see a charge drawn the same way as a blocked shot and Harrell has taken that to heart.

Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (41-19, LW 5). Kemba Walker returned Tuesday night and had 21 points on 23 minutes, but a minutes limit had him on the bench down the stretch as the Celtics blew a 17-point fourth quarter lead and fell to the Nets in Boston’s worst loss of the season. Also not on the court at the end of that was was Jayson Tatum, due to illness, but the numbers are in from Tatum’s breakout February: 30.7 points a game on a 63.7 true shooting percentage, plus 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists a night.

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (43-18, LW 3). Toronto just can’t get healthy — right as Norman Powell returns, Fred Van Vleet and Serge Ibaka head to the bench injured (joining Marc Gasol, who has been out since January). Toronto is up one game in the loss column over Boston for the two seed in the East, and their schedules are basically even in terms of difficulty the rest of the way. Toronto needs to get healthy and get some wins.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (41-20, LW 7). Denver had an impressive defensive start to the season, but the blowout loss to the Clippers last Friday night was a reminder how much they have faded on that end of the court — the Nuggets are 20th in the league in defense over their last 10 games. This may be the biggest question the Nuggets face heading into the postseason: Can they get enough stops when it matters. Denver has 22 games to get their defensive groove back from November.

Mavericks small icon 8. Mavericks (37-25, LW 10). As should have been expected coming off an ACL injury, it took a while for Kristaps Porzingis to get his legs back under him. In November he averaged 15.8 points per game on 38.7 percent shooting overall and he made 2.1 threes a game. Fast forward to February where he averaged 25.2 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting and 3.7 made threes a game (on 39.8 percent shooting from deep). Fans and some pundits were impatient, but Porzingis looks like the cornerstone Dallas thought he would be.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (39-22, LW 12). Back in November, Miami had a defensive rating of 105, eighth-best in the NBA. Since then, the Heat defense has gotten a little worse each month, culminating in a February defensive rating of 113.7, a bottom 10 in the league ranking (hat tip to our old friend Rob Mahoney of The Ringer for pointing that out). Miami’s defense was spectacular for a night in the upset of Milwaukee this week, and the team is on a three-game winning streak. The defense will get tested by Zion and New Orleans on Friday night.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (37-24, LW 6). Dennis Schroder is one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting 38 percent from three. It helps that he is part of the powerful three-guard lineup with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander that has drawn a lot of attention, and it helps that the Clippers’ two stars will split the vote, but Schroder deserves to be at the front of that race. Reality hit the Thunder hard the last two games when the Bucks — in a 47-point blowout — and the Clippers handled them with relative ease.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (37-24, LW 13). While Jeremy Lamb’s torn ACL is painful news, Indiana has continued to roll of late, having won four in a row and 6-of-7. Part of the spark there is Victor Oladipo looking a little better each game (he had 19 points against Cleveland), at least until a right knee flare up has him out at least a game and maybe more. The Pacers have won two in a row to start 5-of-6 on the road, but things get tougher with the Bucks, Mavs, and 76ers coming up.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (37-25, LW 9). Philadelphia made a Christmas Day statement beating Milwaukee 121-109, improving to 23-10. Since that they are 14-15 with a -2.1 net rating, the defense has been solid but held back by a 24th-ranked offense (Shake Milton can only bail them out so much). That’s not getting better in the short term with Joel Embiid still out, and Ben Simmons is going to be out “a while” due to his lower back nerve issue, according to coach Brett Brown. The Sixers have slid back to sixth in the East, but the top priority is getting healthy before the playoffs.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (38-22, LW 11). The Jazz have the worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break. That is some small sample size theater of just six games, but dead last is not good. Donovan Mitchell was single-handedly trying to cover that up scoring 30+ points in four straight games (until that streak ended Monday because he didn’t need to do that to beat the Cavs), but the Jazz need to get the defense fixed. A month ago I would have said Rudy Gobert is on his way to another DPOY award, but he and the Jazz have not looked great defensively of late and that door is now open for others to walk through.

Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (30-31, LW 17). Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Grizzlies a 13% chance of making the playoffs, that despite their three-game lead for the eight seed with 21 games to play (give or take, depending on the team). That’s because four teams — the Kings, Trail Blazers, Spurs, and Pelicans — are within four games of the Grizzlies, and every one of them has an easier schedule than Memphis. That’s why the Grizzlies upset of the Lakers was so critical, it was an unexpected win. It likely takes about 40 wins to get the last playoff spot, which means the Grizzlies need to go 10-11 the rest of the way. Do that and there’s no question Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year (there probably isn’t anyway).

Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (26-35, LW 14). There are a lot of fans around the league (and in executive offices at ESPN/TNT) who want the Pelicans to grab the eight seed and face the Lakers in the first round, which is why a loss like Tuesday’s to a struggling Minnesota team is a big setback. Now New Orleans has 5-of-6 on the road and against some quality teams such as the Mavericks and Clippers. That soft schedule everyone talks about with the Pels is the final dozen games or so of the season but they have to stay afloat until then to have a chance.

Magic small icon 16. Magic (27-34, LW 16). Steve Clifford finds ways to make sure his team can compete, and throw in Aaron Gordon’s first career triple-double (against Minnesota) and this team looks like it can avoid Milwaukee in the first round. There is a 99% chance the Magic make the playoffs for the second straight year (according to fivethirtyeight.com) but that doesn’t negate the “what kind of team are they trying to build?” questions that the team will face this summer.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (27-33, LW 15). Tuesday night’s comeback win against the Heat — sparked by Caris LeVert’s 51 — was the best win of the season for Brooklyn. That took some of the sting out of a recent four-game losing streak where the Nets had a chance to win three of those games late and fell short. Brooklyn is stumbling toward the finish line this season, but its eyes were always on next season anyway.

Kings small icon 18. Kings (25-37, LW 18). Sacramento is surging, having won 6-of-7 to move within three games of the Grizzlies and ending the longest playoff drought in the NBA. The Kings have a top-10 offense and defense, leading to a +6.2 net rating, since the All-Star break. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Kings a 15% chance of making the postseason, which is a lot better than things looked a couple of weeks ago.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (27-35, LW 19). Damian Lillard is set to return to the lineup on Wednesday night after missing six games with a strained groin (only six because it happened just before the All-Star break). Portland went 2-4 in those games but remained within the striking distance of the Grizzlies and the playoffs if they got hot — now Lillard needs to light this fire (fivethirtyeight.com gives Portland a 19% chance of making the playoffs and taking on the Lakers in the first round).

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (26-34, LW 21). Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Spurs just a 3% chance to come out of the pack and make the playoffs, maybe what they need is to have Tim Duncan as acting coach for more games, he is undefeated after all. Part of the reason for the pessimism around the Spurs chances is they have lost big man Jokob Poeltl for a few weeks to a month due to a right MCL sprain.

Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (22-38, LW 22). Bradley Beal is starting to get the James Harden treatment late in games, with teams throwing early double-teams at him to get the ball out of his hands and dare anyone else on the roster to beat them. The reason is obvious: Beal is red hot, averaging 36.2 points per game in February. Fivethirtyeight.com gives the Wizards a 10% chance of making the playoffs, but to get there they are going to need some help from Brooklyn (or Orland) coming back to the pack.

Suns small icon 22. Suns (24-38, LW 20). The Suns have lost Kelly Oubre Jr., likely for the season, following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and after that the Suns have lost four in a row. That has all but killed the dreams of climbing up into the playoffs in Phoenix. One of those losses was at home to the Warriors (with both Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton on the court), the kind of loss teams in a tight playoff race cannot afford.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (20-42, LW 24). Great note from James Edwards III over at the Athletic: Tony Snell is 28-of-28 at the free throw line this season, only the second player in league history to have more than 25 attempts in a season without a miss. If he can get over 30 attempts without a miss, he will set a new NBA record for the most free throws in a season without a miss. Hopefully all the attention on this streak doesn’t jinx it.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (21-40, LW 23). Coby White continues to be red hot (even though his 30+ point a game streak ended) and it’s possible Lauri Markkanen will be back soon from his pelvis injury. None of that, however, as Bulls fans as pumped as the rumors there could be front office changes this summer. Gar Forman appears to be on the way out, but it looks like John Paxson will remain on as president. How much power the new GM has — and what it means for coach Jim Boylen’s future — will be something to watch.

Knicks small icon 25. Knicks (19-42, LW 28). The Knicks have had a couple of nice, promising wins this week: They beat the Bulls behind Mitchell Robinson‘s 23 points and 10 rebounds; then R.J. Barrett went off for 27 in an upset win against Houston. Unfortunately, nobody is talking about that because Knicks management got in a public pissing match with Spike Lee that the Knicks could not win. The Knicks need to keep their heads down and fix the on-court product, but they’ve needed to do that for years and here we are.

Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (21-40, LW 25). Devonte' Graham still has his moments, like the nine points in the fourth quarter against Toronto to spark an upset win last Friday, but the consistency of his game is not there. Charlotte remains one of the luckiest teams in the NBA this season, with the net rating of a 17-win team, but they have snuck out some close ones to boost that total.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (19-44, LW 26). Clint Capela has been approved for contact, but is at least two weeks away from stepping on the court — Atlanta still wants to see that this season, to jump start the Trae Young/Capela chemistry. In their last five games the Hawks have the third worst defense in the league, yet play at the fourth fastest pace, which means a lot of opponent points. Atlanta is 2-3 in those games.

28. Timberwolves (18-42, LW 29). They have turbocharged the offense since the All-Star break, playing at a nearly 108 possessions a game pace. In those games, 17.5% of their plays have started in transition, up from a middle-of-the-pack 14.3% for the season. The Timberwolves also have the second worst defense in the league since the break, meaning with the pace they are giving up a lot of points.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-44, LW 27). J.B. Bickerstaff started with a 3-1 record as the Cavaliers coach, but three straight losses have changed that dynamic (although they were competitive in a couple of those). Cleveland is going to have a high pick in a guard-heavy draft coming up this June, and after watching the Darius Garland/Collin Sexton backcourt for a season, this franchise has to take the best guy on the board regardless of position. There is no Luka or Zion on this roster, the Cavs need talent regardless of position.

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (14-48 LW 30). Stephen Curry should return to the court this week, and even with the rust that adds a reason to watch this team play. Steve Kerr and the Warriors staff need to start assessing how Curry fits with Andrew Wiggins, and also with Eric Paschall (who could set some picks, roll, and possibly have some chemistry with Curry). The Warriors aren’t giving up the odds of a high pick with a couple more wins, and just having Curry back on the court will be good for the psyche of the team.