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Bucks roll past Pistons 121-86 in series opener

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points and 17 rebounds in just 24 minutes, and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks showed they were serious about making a playoff run with a 121-86 rout of the Detroit Pistons in Game 1 on Sunday night.

The MVP candidate ran and dunked all over the Pistons, who only really caught him when center Andre Drummond shoved him to the ground with both hands late in the third quarter after Antetokounmpo grabbed an offensive rebound with Detroit trailing by 41 points.

Drummond was given a flagrant 2 foul and ejected. He threw a kiss to the Fiserv Forum crowd as he was escorted off the court.

Antetokounmpo struggled at the foul line, making only 5 of 12 attempts, but was 9 for 17 from the field and 1 of 5 from 3-point range.

Seven Bucks players scored in double figures. Eric Bledsoe had 15 points, and Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton each added 14. George Hill scored 16 points off the bench.

Luke Kennard paced the Pistons with 21 points off the bench and Drummond had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Reggie Jackson also had 12 points. Detroit played without forward Blake Griffin, who sat out with a left knee injury.

Detroit shot 38% from the field, converting 35 of 92 attempts.

The Bucks rolled to a 27-point lead in the first half, taking a 70-43 margin at halftime. Antetokounmpo had 14 points and 10 rebounds while Lopez added 14 points and Hill contributed 13.

Detroit shot 34% in the half (18 of 53) and made just 3 of 14 3-point attempts.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey said his team made a big step forward in qualifying for the playoffs but vowed to fight against the heavily favored Bucks.

“We’re not in the class of where Milwaukee is with their program right now,” Casey said. “They were not two or three years ago.

“I remember coming here a couple years ago (with Toronto) and playing against them. They were getting started, building what they’ve got now. Their patience has paid off. It’s a great experience for us to come in and play against a great team like Milwaukee.”

TIP-INS

Detroit: Casey said Griffin was “day-to-day but too sore to go” in Game 1. The Pistons forward averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 75 games in his first full season with the Pistons. … Griffin was called for a technical for protesting Drummond’s ejection . Former Bucks forward Thon Maker faced his former team and started in Griffin’s place. He avoided a flagrant foul when he brought Antetokounmpo to the floor in the second quarter. Maker came to Detroit in the three-team trade in February that brought Nikola Mirotic to the Bucks from New Orleans. He had four points and four rebounds in 22 minutes and was booed heavily by the home crowd. “You don’t have to say giddy-up to Thon Maker,” Casey said. “He wakes up in the morning ready to go.” . Former Bucks assistants Sean Sweeney and Tim Grgurich are on the Pistons’ staff. . Detroit entered with a 14-3 playoff record against Milwaukee, winning all four series.

Milwaukee: Mirotic was available and played 15 minutes while scoring four points. “He’s just getting back in conditioning and health and everything like that,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. Mirotic had missed the last 11 regular-season games after fracturing his left thumb on March 19 against the Los Angeles Lakers. . The Bucks’ 70 points were the second-most in a first half in franchise history. They scored 77 in March 1970. . Budenholzer said he was concerned about the rebounding battle and going against league-leading rebounder Drummond (15.6 per game). “It’s going to take our whole group to make sure we’re taking care of the defensive boards. It’s not the big guys’ job or the center; we have to do it collectively,” Budenholzer said. The Bucks had a 54-46 rebounding advantage.

UP NEXT

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Milwaukee.

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks move back into top spot

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Despite a rash of injuries, the Milwaukee Bucks slide back into the top spot on the strength of their win over Houston. The Nuggets remain just behind the Warriors, and the Clippers are climbing fast.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (56-19, Last Week No. 2). The injury bug has hit the Bucks hard and at the wrong time of the year, with Nikola Mirotic, Donte DiVincenzo, Pau Gaol, and worst of all Malcolm Brogdon all out for extended periods (Brogdon into the playoffs, where they will need him after the first round). Even with all that, the Bucks showed against the Rockets Tuesday night that they were the better team — the MVP battle between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo never materialized, but Milwaukee had a superior game plan and the players to execute it better. Eric Bledsoe earned that new contract money in that one.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (50-23, LW No. 1). There are games in the past few weeks where you see the Warriors focus their defense — holding the Thunder and Pacers each under 90 points, keeping the Timberwolves to 40% shooting overall and 25% from three — and then there are games where they just seem disinterested again. In their last 7 games the Warriors have a top 10 NBA defense, but for the season they are 15th (outside the range that normally wins a ring… although the Warriors feel like an exception). That ugly loss to Dallas on Saturday was a reminder just how much Stephen Curry matters to this team, he sat out to rest and they fell apart.

Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (50-23, LW 3). Consider the progress: Rather than a late-season discussion of “can the Nuggets grab the 8 seed” they have already have 50 wins, have secured a playoff spot, and have a shot at the one seed. This week goes a long way toward deciding that seeding. Back-to-back Thursday/Friday against Houston than Oklahoma City a tough one. Bigger yet in the chase for first is the game against Golden State next Tuesday — Denver needs that one.

Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (47-28, LW 5). Houston got a taste of playoff basketball from Milwaukee — a James Harden-focused defensive game plan, the referees letting them play — and there were bright spots to take away. Clint Capela had a strong game (and when his man cut off Harden’s drives he did a good job of sliding to the rim). Chris Paul was dropping defenders with his moves. However, the Rockets will need that and more in the postseason. Another good playoff test Thursday night against Denver.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (52-23, LW 6). If you’re looking for positives as Toronto heads toward the playoffs, there is this via NBA.com’s John Schuhmann: Kawhi Leonard leads the NBA in baskets to tie or take the lead in the final minute of a game with eight this season (he is 0-of-3 from three). He’s Toronto’s closer, he can get to his spots and hit contested shots, and late in close playoff games that’s a must. Toronto went 2-2 in the four recent games Kyle Lowry missed with ankle issues.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (47-27, LW 4). Philly won six in a row, including a dramatic win over Boston a week ago, and they looked like a team figuring it out… then they lost to the Hawks and Magic (two teams playing better lately, but still). Philly’s defense has not been as good in recent weeks and that combined with the lack of depth makes them vulnerable to teams they should beat (let alone good ones).

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (46-27, LW 9). I fear this may be the highest Portland gets in these rankings, after losing Jusuf Nurkic for the season (and still being without CJ McCollum, maybe until the start of the playoffs. That’s Portland’s second and third best players (you can debate the order) and the guys who relieve the pressure when defenses trap Damian Lillard. Portland is currently tied with Houston for the 3/4 seeds in the West, the question is can they hold off the Clippers (2 games back) and the Jazz (2.5 back) and keep home court advantage in the first round?

Jazz small icon 8. Jazz (44-30, LW 10). They have won 7-of-8, with the best defense in the NBA and the second best offense — and a +19.1 net rating — in those games. But before we get to high on “the Jazz are back” know that this run has come against a very soft schedule, this is simply the Jazz doing what they should against lesser opponents. Still, it provides momentum and confidence. The easy part of the schedule continues this week and with the Jazz just 2.5 games back of home court in the first round.

Clippers small icon 9. Clippers (45-30, LW 11). The Clippers are the hottest team in the NBA, having won 11-of-12 and in those dozen games Los Angeles has the second best offense in the NBA. Lou Williams gets a lot of credit for that, and he’s the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year (again) for a reason, but the big difference of late has been Danilo Gallinari. In his last 10 games, Gallo is averaging 24.5 points per game and is shooting 44.8% from three on 5.8 attempts per game.

Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (43-32, LW 11). San Antonio has been a top=10 NBA defense at home this season, but get them on the road and they are 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse and fall into the bottom 10 in the league (that balances out right now to 20th in the NBA in defensive rating overall). We saw it Tuesday night, when Kemba Walker went off on the Spurs in Charlotte and led the Hornets to a win. Why is this concerning? The Spurs are going to start the playoffs on the road somewhere.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (44-31, LW 7). Remember when the Celtics blew out Golden State and Kyrie Irving said a cross-country plane flight and a chance to air things out with Brad Stevens put the Celtics on the right track? Boston is 4-5 since then, and now have a four-game losing streak. Last season Boston’s playoff run was built on elite defense, but in its last 10 games the Celtics are 26th in the NBA (and it’s gotten worse during the last five). We shouldn’t be more than 70 games into the season and asking if this team can pull it together in time.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (45-29, LW 12). Indiana knocks down threes when they take them, shooting 37.2 percent from beyond the arc as a team, fifth best in the NBA. However, they take the second fewest a game (25.4). Will that change in the playoffs, where they seem destined to face Boston in the first round? The Pacers will need to generate more offense and without Victor Oladipo to create looks and the three ball seems a reasonable way to do that.

Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (42-31, LW 13). Oklahoma City has dropped 5-of-6, and part of that is how their MVP candidate Paul George has slumped of late. This is the second season is a row George has struggled after the All-Star break. Last season he shot 38.5 percent overall (32.4 percent from three) after the ASG. This season it’s 38.6 percent shooting overall and 32.9 percent from three. Russell Westbrook is putting up numbers but he’s not as efficient, the Thunder need peak PG13.

Magic small icon 14. Magic (37-38, LW 18). Winners of six in a row, with the victory over Miami on Tuesday night the Magic are in the playoffs as you read this. By half a game, but they are in (the Magic and Heat are tied in the loss column). Back at the trade deadline, the Magic decided to keep Terrence Ross and make a playoff push rather than rebuild, and now that seems brilliant. While fivethirtyeight.com gives Orlando an 80% chance to hold on to a playoff spot, it’s not that simple when you look at the schedule. This week Orlando has road games at Detroit (another team the Magic trail by just half a game), Indiana, and Toronto.

Heat small icon 15. Heat (36-38, LW 14). The Heat are strongly worse at home than on the road this season, having gone 17-21 in AmericanAirlines Arena. That came back to bite them on Tuesday with a loss to Orlando. If the Heat are going to climb back into the postseason they need wins against Dallas and New York the rest of this week before a home-and-home with Boston. Justise Winslow‘s absence has further hurt a struggling offense, plus the Heat just can’t stay healthy enough for Erik Spoelstra to have regular rotations.

Nets small icon 16. Nets (38-37, LW 16). D’Angelo Russell and company need to keep finding enough offense to go with their top-10 defense (the last five games, anyway) if the Nets are going to hold on to a playoff spot. While they are currently the six seed, they are just 1.5 games up on the nine-seed Heat and every remaining Brooklyn game is against a playoff-bound team (including the Heat on the final game of the regular season). Fivethirtyeight.com gives Brooklyn a 79% chance of making the playoffs, but to live up to that will require a little more offense down the stretch.

Kings small icon 17. Kings (37-37, LW 17). The Kings are not making the playoffs, but with eight games to play the goal of a .500 season remains in their grasp. It just won’t be easy. The Kings are on the road for 5-of-8, and they have five playoff teams in that mix. Nice feel-good story by the Kings recently signing former Sacramento State guard and local kid Cody Demps to a 10-day contract.

Pistons small icon 18. Pistons (37-37, LW 15). I am rooting for a first-round Detroit vs. Toronto matchup, the Dwane Casey revenge series. Detroit took the season series 3-0. For the Pistons to make any postseason noise they not only need a huge series from Reggie Jackson, but they also need a team where their postups with Andre Drummond are more efficient than they are against most teams. With Marc Gaol and Serge Ibaka the post-ups may be difficult against Toronto, but that would be an entertaining series.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (35-39, LW 22). Kemba Walker just will not let this team go away. He had 38 points against the Spurs Tuesday night, 11 of them in overtime, and was a one-man offensive force just when the Hornets needed it. Charlotte is going to need a lot more of the Kemba show down the stretch. The Hornets are 1.5 games out of the playoffs and have their next four games (and 6 of the 8 remaining) on the road. Plus there are five current playoff teams in that eight. If Charlotte can find enough wins, the final game of the season against Orlando could be interesting.

20. Timberwolves (33-41, LW 19). It looks like Ryan Saunders is going to keep the head coaching job, in part because he is getting credit for unleashing Karl-Anthony Towns. (KAT is playing so well he is in line to make third team All-NBA, which would mean a $32 million bump in his contract extension with Minny.) The real question is who will be he next GM and how can they upgrade around Towns on a roster that Thibodeau bogged down with expensive veterans and the max contract/anchor that is Andrew Wiggins.

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (33-41, LW 24). While the Lakers play out the string, talk in Los Angeles has moved on to “Who is next?” As in, who is taking over for Luke Walton after they let him go? While the Lakers eyed big names, Doc Rivers is staying at his end of the Staples Center hallway and Rick Carlisle likes working for Mark Cuban. While Mark Jackson’s name comes up, the smart money is on Tyronn Lue — a former Laker player and someone respected by LeBron James — getting the job.

Pelicans small icon 22. Pelicans (31-45, LW 20). Now Jrue Holiday has been out since March 7 and now has undergone surgery to repair a “core muscle injury” (what used to be called a sports hernia). Just for fun, here are Anthony Davis’ numbers since the All-Star break (when his minutes got cut following his trade request): 16.9 points per game with an impressive 60.8 true shooting percentage, 8.4 rebounds a game and a +11 net rating in 21.1 minutes a night.

Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (30-44, LW 23). Jonas Valanciunas has been an interesting fit in Memphis, essentially stepping into the role of Marc Gaol after the Toronto trade. He has averaged 19.3 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, but he doesn’t seem to have the same chemistry with Mike Conley (the pair have a -4.7 net rating together in 270 minutes shared on the court). Remember, JV has a $17.6 million player option this summer, he may look at the market and decide to take the bird in the hand and opt-in for another season.

Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (30-45, LW 21). Interesting situation brewing with Bradley Beal: He leads the league in total minutes played with 2,823 (181 more than second place James Harden… that’s a lot) and with the team just playing out the string it would make sense to scale back and ease up on the team’s best player. However, if Beal can make an All-NBA team — and he is seriously in the mix for third team, talking to voters — then this summer he qualifies for a supermax extension of an estimated $199 million over four years (added on to the two years that would remain on his contract, locking him up for six seasons). The Wizards already maxed out John Wall, does Ted Leonsis have the stomach to do it with Beal, too?

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (27-48, LW 25). How hot is Trae Young? He has four straight games now with at least 20 points and 10 assists (that includes dropping 33 and 12 on the Pelicans Tuesday night. Four other players have had a streak of at least three 20-10 games this season: James Harden (twice), LeBron James, D'Angelo Russell, Russell Westbrook (twice). That’s some select company.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (29-45, LW 26). Luka Doncic has had back-to-back triple doubles and that gives him seven on the season. Here’s the list of other players who had that many triple-doubles their rookie season: Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Ben Simmons. Impressive company to keep. As hot as Trae Young has been to finish the season, Doncic’s consistency since Day 1 will win him Rookie of the Year.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (21-54, LW 27). The Bulls showed what an entertaining team they could be, but with Wendell Carter Jr. already shut down for the season and both Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. battling nagging injuries, the spark is gone. The Bulls would be wise not to risk anything and either shut those other two guys down as well, or at least scale them way back. Next season should be interesting in Chicago, with Lauri Markkanen ready to go from the start (hopefully coach Jim Boylen will let up on the reins and let this team put up more threes).

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (19-56, LW 29). It’s about the bright spots for Cleveland going forward, and Collin Sexton has proven to be one of those in recent weeks. He is averaging 24.6 points per game and shooting 50.8% from three on 6.3 attempts per game in his last 10 games. Cleveland is still just 3-7 in those games, but heading into the draft there is reason for hope going forward (plus maybe Kevin Love will be healthy next season).

Suns small icon 29. Suns (17-58, LW 28). Devin Booker put up 59 the other night in a loss, with the Suns fouling late to get the ball back so he could take a three and get to 60, and the Jazz countering by fouling him when he touched the ball so he couldn’t take a three. While Zion Williamson is the obvious prize of this draft, if the Suns land in the No. 2 spot and can get Ja Morant, that seems a good fit.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (14-60, LW 30). If this were the old lottery system, the Knicks heavy tanking in recent weeks to secure the worst record in the NBA would have been smart with Zion Williamson hanging out there. As it is the Knicks have a 14% chance of the top pick and a 27.4 percent chance of drafting in the top two. The Knicks continue to project confidence about free agency this July, we will see if that is justified.

NBA Power Rankings: Familiar faces from Bay Area back on top

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A familiar face is back on top of the power rankings, the Golden State Warriors, who flipped the switch in a couple of key games (Houston, Oklahoma City) to remind us of their status as the team to beat. The Bucks only slide down one spot.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (48-22, last week No. 4). Steve Kerr called last week’s loss to the Suns “a wake up call” for Golden State, and the team responded with wins against Houston and Oklahoma City, holding each of them to less than 40% shooting. All without Durant. Andrew Bogut is back and in his debut showed he can give the Warriors a few quality minutes behind DeMarcus Cousins (once Boogie gets back from his mild ankle injury) and that’s all they need from the Australian.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (53-18, LW 1). Malcolm Brogdon is going to be out for a while, likely into the first round of the playoffs (at least), and the loss to Philadelphia on Sunday showed how much the Bucks will miss him. Brogdon is both a threat to shoot the three (he’s shooting 42.6% from deep but takes fewer than four per game) and his straight line drives to the rim to create shots. The loss to the Sixers may be an anomaly but it was the realization of the worst playoff fears for the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo went off for 52 (a chunk of that late) but the other Bucks shot 31% from three and didn’t step up under pressure. That can’t happen in the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (47-22, LW 5). The Nuggets still have a shot at the best record in the West (they are just half-a-game back of the Warriors and are tied in the loss column) but they are going to have to get some tough wins on the road to do it — 6 of Denver’s next 8 games are on the road, and the teams left on its schedule have a much higher winning percentage than who Golden State faces (the teams play each other April 2). However, the win in Boston shows the Nuggets can get the needed wins. They just need more plays like this Nikola Jokic game-winner against Dallas.

 
Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (46-25, LW 6). Philadelphia is 6-1 when their dream five start the game. That lineup is besting teams by 17.2 points per 100 possessions when on the court together, dominating on both ends. However, the key in the postseason will be finding lineups with bench players that work while starters rest (and are staggered in with the bench). Against the Bucks Sunday the fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic was +12 in just under 11 minutes. The Sixers need more of that.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (45-26, LW 2). Houston has won games where it shot poorly recently (except against the Warriors) because the team is finally defending well again — the Rockets have a defensive rating of 107.7 in their last 15 games, eighth best in the league in that stretch. The Rockets need those wins to hang on to the three seed, Portland is just 1.5 games back and seeds 3-8 in the West are separated by just 3.5 games. Winners of 11-of-12, the Rockets have 4-of-5 coming up on the road, but only two of those games are against playoff teams.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (50-21, LW 3). Toronto is 12.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Kyle Lowry sits and the Raptors offense falls apart (the offense scores less than a point per possession when Jeremy Lin is on the court). It was evident in the loss to Detroit, but the Raptors thought Lowry would only be out two games until Michell Robinson fell on his ankle Monday, now he’s out for a while longer, although it doesn’t look to be a severe ankle injury. Toronto could use him in the upcoming home-and-home against Oklahoma City. The Raptors remain pretty much locked in as the two seed in the East, injury or no.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (43-28, LW 7). Boston GM Danny Ainge called his team “inconsistent” right now, and that’s pretty spot on. They have won 5-of-7 including thrashing the Warriors, but losses to the Clippers and Nuggets raised questions about how far they can really go. Another concern is the struggles of the starting lineup in recent weeks. With plans to rest Al Horford a few games as well as other starters down the stretch (with an eye toward having them fresh for the playoffs), will Boston make up the half game it is behind Indiana and get home court in the first round?

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (42-29, LW 11). After that dreadful rodeo road trip, we kind of wrote the Spurs off, but that’s always a mistake. San Antonio has won nine in a row and the Spurs have a shot at home court in the first round of the playoffs (San Antonio is the five seed, just 1.5 games back of Portland and home court). In the last 9 games the Spurs have a +9.1 net rating. While the offense has been good during the streak (top 10) it is the defense — which has struggled much of the season — returning to elite status that has made the big difference (103.1 defensive net rating in those 9 games, third best in the league).

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (43-27, LW 9). Not having C.J. McCollum for at least a week — and likely longer, McCollum told NBC Sports he’s taking it week by week but he doesn’t have a timeline — will make it challenging for Portland to hang on to the four seed and home court in the first round. San Antonio, OKC, Utah, and the LA Clippers are all within two games of the Blazers. Portland leaned heavily on its starting five to win games, now it needs more out of Jake Layman and Rodney Hood to win enough to keep home court.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (41-29, LW 13). Winners of four in a row and with the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, as long as the Jazz take care of business they will climb higher than the seven seed, and home court is not out of the question (although it’s a long shot at two games back with 11 to play). The Jazz are doing it with their old formula: They have the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games and held a few teams to less than a point per possession, then they are getting just enough offense from Donovan Mitchell and company. But that pedestrian offense remains the thing holding them back.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (42-30, LW 10). Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes, and Steve Ballmer and the Clippers understand when you have something good you don’t let it go, so he locked Rivers up (no Lakers in Rivers’ future). The Clippers have been a well-run basketball operation for a few years now and extending Rivers fits with that. Another something that works in L.A.? Lou Williams. He has made a strong Sixth Man of the Year push and shots like this help.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (44-28, LW 12). The Pacers keep playing great defense to stay in games, then getting spurts of offense that spark dramatic comeback wins. Any fan of basketball has to admire the grit and tenacity with which this team plays. Nothing speaks to the fight in these Pacers like coming from 19 down against the Thunder, setting up the Wesley Matthews game winner.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (42-29, LW 8). Oklahoma City has lost three in a row — because their offense has gone missing, having the second-worst net rating in the league during the last 10 games — and is now tied with San Antonio for the 5/6 seed in the West, with the 7/8 seeds (Jazz, Clippers) both just half a game back. Why should those four bunched-up teams concern Thunder fans? Because OKC has the toughest remaining schedule of any West playoff team (starting with a home-and-home against Toronto starting on Wednesday) and the Thunder could fall farther down the standings in the West.

 
Heat small icon 14. Heat (34-36, LW 17). They have won 7-of-9 against a tough schedule, including beating the Pistons and Hornets in the past week. The wins have come in bunches with Bam Adebayo starting and Hasaan Whiteside coming in with energy off the bench, that rotation has helped the Heat defense. All those wins has kept Miami 1.5 games clear of Orlando for the final playoff slot in the East, but the Heat are on the road this week (and the Magic have a very soft schedule the rest of the way).

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (36-34, LW 15). Would the real Detroit Pistons please stand up? Please stand up? Is it the team that got blown out by the Nets and Heat, and Monday lost to the Cavaliers? Or, is it the team that beat Raptors twice this month (Dwane Casey revenge games)? The Pistons are inconsistent because Reggie Jackson has been off his game (Blake Griffin has struggled with his shot of late, too). That loss Monday in Cleveland was the first of a five-game road trip for Detroit.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (37-36, LW 14). The Nets have gone 1-3 to start a seven-game road trip (although the win was a dramatic comeback against the Kings that could turn the trip around). The blame for the stumbles falls on the team’s offense, third worst in the NBA over the last 10 games. Specifically, it falls on their guards — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and company have gone cold of late — at least until Russell in the fourth quarter against the Kings Tuesday. The Nets have slid down to the seven seed and are just three games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. Add to that they have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and Brooklyn needs to find some wins to stay in the dance.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (34-36, LW 16). Sacramento’s long-shot bid to make a run to the playoffs took a punch to the gut Tuesday night with the worst loss of the team’s season: blowing a 25-point fourth quarter lead to the Nets. Sacramento’s playoff dreams were put on their death by a recent 1-3 road trip where all the losses were in games the Kings were within five points in the final five minutes but couldn’t close it out. The Kings’ goal now should be to finish the season 8-4 and be above .500 for the campaign for the first time since 2006 (or at least 7-5 and get to .500).

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (33-38, LW 19). The Magic have the softest schedule of any team fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but that only helps if the team wins games — Orlando is 3-4 in its last seven with losses to Cleveland, Memphis, and Washington. The Magic are still just 1.5 games back of the heat and have won the first two of a five-game homestand, but that has to be just the start. Orlando needs more out of Terrence Ross and the bench to make this run.

 
19. Timberwolves (32-39, LW 18). Minnesota is turning heads with the amazing play of Karl-Anthony Towns sparking an offensive resurgence, but the team is 3-7 in its last 10 because it has the worst defense in the NBA by far in that stretch, a defensive net rating of 121.2. On the bright side, rookie forward Keita Bates-Diop is looking like he could be a rotation player.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (31-42, LW 20). Elfrid Payton has had a triple-double in five straight games. The only other players in NBA history to do that? Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan. That’s elite company. Of course, the Pelicans lost the first four of those, in part because they are one of the worst clutch teams in the NBA (15-26 in games within five points in the final five minutes). Which is why the win over Dallas in OT Monday was a nice change of pace.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (30-41, LW 23). Bradley Beal has thrived without John Wall next to him and, barring a collapse, will be just the 12th guard in NBA history to average 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Beal is averaging 29.9 points per game since the All-Star break and had a pair of 40-point games last weekend. Beal could make the All-NBA team, which shows how impressive he’s been in spite of the team’s struggles.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (31-39, LW 21). Charlotte’s playoff chances are not dead yet, but the prognosis is not good. Sunday’s loss to Miami, where Charlotte scored just 75 points, likely did them in. The Hornets are three games back of he Heat with 12 to play and likely need to go at least 8-4, maybe 9-3, the rest of the way to get an invite to the dance. Not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (28-42, LW 22). Given some extra run since coming over in the Marc Gaol trade, Jonas Valanciunas has reminded teams he can get them some points. Valanciunas has averaged 17.9 points on 58.2% shooting plus is grabbing 8 rebounds a game since joining the Grizzlies. He has a player option on his contract for next season for $17.6 million and it seems likely he will pick that up (unless he’s looking for a longer deal with more security, which is not likely out there). Expect his name to come up in trade talks, but wherever he plays next season he has value.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-40, LW 24). Los Angeles has clearly let go of the rope on the rest of this season — they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in their last 10 games, with an -8.1 net rating over that stretch. That’s why the focus in Los Angeles has already shifted to the off-the-court moves from the team this summer, starting with who the next head coach will be. That’s not decided, the only thing we know is it will not be Doc Rivers. By the way, LeBron James can still do this.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (24-48, LW 25). Despite the losses piling up and Hawks fans watching NCAA Tournament games this weekend on scouting expeditions, the Hawks remain one of the most entertaining teams to watch down the stretch. Trae Young is shooting from anywhere in the building and is electric to watch, John Collins is going to be a stud, but maybe the most fun part is 42-year Vince Carter still making plays and being a part of the action.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (28-42, LW 26). Luka Doncic is going to win Rookie of the Year and continues to impress, but his game has slipped a little as the long season has ground him down. It has been most evident his high 13.4 turnover ratio in his last 10 games (his assist ratio is still at 20%). Congrats to Dirk Nowitzki for passing Wilt Chamberlain for sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (20-52, LW 28). Chicago has played poorly of late, even for them. On one end their defense has been one of the worst in the NBA, while on the other end Lauri Markkanen has gone into a scoring slump. The only time that changed was the one game the Bulls could have stood to lose, their defense showed up in a win over the Suns, meaning the Bulls almost certainly will enter the draft lottery in the No. 4 slot.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (17-55, LW 27). The Suns picked up a key loss Monday in Chicago. Going into that game the Suns had the third worst record in the NBA but had won 6-of-10, while the Bulls were the fourth worst record. If the Suns won that game the Bulls would have had a real shot at one of the three worst records in the league, with each of those teams getting a 14% chance of Zion Williamson, er, the top pick in the draft at the lottery. The Bulls won and now are three games better than the Suns and will not make that up, meaning the Bulls will have a 12.5% shot at Zion. Not a huge difference, but when you’re talking about a franchise player every little bit helps.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (18-53, LW 29). Maybe Monday is the Cavaliers’ night. This past Monday Cleveland beat playoff-bound Detroit, the Monday before that they beat Toronto, but they lost the three games in between those contests. Collin Sexton has come on as a scorer lately, having scored at least 23 points in six straight games as he starts to feel more comfortable with the NBA three (and that means fewer midranges).

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (14-57, LW 30). Knicks fans, don’t just watch Duke and drool at the possibilities in the NBA draft, don’t forget to check out Ja Morant from Murray State, the kind of scoring point guard New York might want. Also, D’Andre Hunter from Virginia is the kind of defensive wing who can get out in transition and hit threes who would look good with the Knicks next season. Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech also would be a good fit.

NBA Power Rankings: Chris Paul, James Harden have Rockets climbing fast

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Welcome to the dog days of the NBA season, when all the elite teams seem to yawn and lose focus, leading to some strange losses. Houston may be the hottest team going right now, and the Rockets jump up in these rankings.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (48-16, last week No. 1). The addition of Pau Gasol is not going to have a massive impact on the court, but the Bucks don’t need that. What the veteran brings is a voice in the locker room of a guy who has been through deep playoff runs and has the rings to show for it. The questions with the Bucks in the postseason are not if they have the talent to contend, but will they have the mental makeup to withstand the pressures, the highs and lows. That has not been tested yet. Gasol helps with that.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (46-19, LW 3). Toronto is two games back of Milwaukee for the top seed in the East (and overall), and that leaves the franchise trying to walk a tight line. They want to keep racking up wins — maybe to catch the Bucks, but also to stay ahead of the Warriors (1.5 games back) in case they meet in the Finals. All while making sure Kawhi Leonard is not overtaxed, and meshing Marc Gasol into the new rotations. It’s a lot for Nick Nurse to juggle. If you need evidence of why you want a healthy Leonard on your side with the game on the line…

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (44-20, LW 2). Golden State is back to being a team looking like a bored team that can’t wait for the playoffs to start, they dropped 4-of-6 and have fallen behind by double digits in 12-of-13 games (and have been resting a lot of players). The Warriors can get away with that as long as Denver keeps slumping and stays behind them in the standings. Klay Thompson has been out with a tweaked knee, and they are being cautious with his return.

Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (42-21, LW 4). No team has fought through injuries to key rotation players this season like the Nuggets. Their preferred starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — have played just 93 minutes together on the season. Now they are finally healthy and looking to get that unit in sync before the playoffs. The Nuggets have lost three in a row and have a good test against the Warriors coming up Friday night.

Sixers small icon 5. 76ers (41-23, LW 7). What questions about his role? Jimmy Butler took over the closer role late for the Sixers against the Magic Tuesday night, hitting a couple of key fadeaways, making defensive plays, and setting up Mike Scott for a three. The Sixers have gone 4-2 with Joel Embiid out since the All-Star break, but he is expected to return this week. The team needs that, it’s hard to sort out the questions about players’ roles without the first offensive option on the court.

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (39-25, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA right now, winners of six in a row, and a lot of it is because Chris Paul is back to playing about how he was a season ago. In his last 10 games CP3 has averaged 16.8 points per game, dished out 9.8 assists, shot 36.8% from three, and played better defense. The Rockets have looked like the second best team in the West the past couple of weeks, although their defense is still pedestrian (14th in NBA over last 10 games) and that could haunt them in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 7. Trail Blazers (39-25, LW 8). Portland won 5-of-7 on a road trip thanks in part to Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter giving Portland a solid second unit again (and this is without Evan Turner in games). That or maybe it was the team bonding of eight players being stuck together in an elevator for 30 minutes. Either way, Portland had the best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games until a tired last-game-of-the-road-trip loss to Memphis Tuesday. Keep playing well and the three seed is not out of the question in the West. Just like last year.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (39-25, LW 5). Paul George was back in the lineup on Tuesday night, which was good because the Thunder were 1-2 and unimpressive in his absence (although they lost in his return, too). Those losses hurt because the Thunder need wins for seeding: fivethirtyeight.com projects seeds 3-6 in the West (Thunder, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz) all to finish with between 50 and 52 wins — the middle of the West is going to be very tight. It will be interesting to see if teams push to be the 3 or 6 seed and avoid the 4/5 to stay away from the Warriors’ side of the bracket.

Pacers small icon 9. Pacers (42-23, LW 6). Indiana has started to come back to earth, having gone 2-3 in their last five, with the problems coming on the defensive end (115 per 100 allowed last five games, 25th in the league). The Pacers sit as the three seed and want to hold on to home court in the first round, they are half-a-game up on the Sixers (they play each other Sunday) and three up on the five-seed Celtics. The Pacers have 8-of-11 coming up on the road and a tough stretch of games, they are going to have to find a new level of resilience to hold on.

Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (36-27, LW 11). Utah’s defense was in vintage form through a tough three-game stretch — Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks — and Utah won all three (then they turned around and lost to the Pelicans). The Jazz sit as the six seed in the West, but with the softest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way the idea they could make up the 2.5 games and climb into the top four to get home court for the first round is not out of the question. They just can’t have games where they aren’t focused, like against New Orleans.

Celtics small icon 11. Celtics (39-26, LW 9). Like a lot of Bostonians this time of year, apparently what the Celtics needed was a trip to California to warm up. After an ugly stretch losing 5-of-6 with internal sniping after each game, the Celtics looked like the team we all expected this season in thrashing the (disinterested) Warriors Tuesday. Boston played with the joy Golden State lacked, they moved the ball and switch on defense well. Can the Celtics build off that win, or will it be a one-off moment? They need to get on a roll now heading into the playoffs.

Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (37-29, LW 12). Ask Clippers coach Doc Rivers (a coach of the year candidate) what he loves about this squad, and he talks about their resilience. “We took a hit. When we made that trade (sending out Tobias Harris at the trade deadline) it hit our locker room. But we got them to believe we want to win still, we’re going to win still. Then for them to start doing it just shows you how resilient they are.”

Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (36-29, LW 16). Home cooking matters to the Spurs. They looked like a team that would fall out of the playoffs during their 1-7 rodeo road trip, but they got home and knocked off three quality teams in a row (Pistons, Thunder, Nuggets) thanks to a much improved defense. The Spurs are projected for 45 wins and fivethirtyeight.com gives them a 95% chance of making the playoffs, considering the loss of DeJonte Murray before the season that is an impressive effort by San Antonio.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (31-31, 14). The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league). The run really started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Reggie Jackson has played well, and Blake Griffin is showing off new levels of handles and shooting.

Nets small icon 15. Nets (33-33, LW 13). In the 14 games he played at the start of the season, Caris LeVert was the Nets’ leading scorer and looked like a candidate for most improved player. He’s been back for 10 games now but things have not been the same — he’s shooting just 36.2% overall and 27.5% from three, and he hasn’t been the same positive force. The Nets have come back to earth a little and are 4-6 in their last 10. The Nets also have the third toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, they are going to need to find some wins to hold on to that playoff spot.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (32-31, LW 15). It was good news that Marvin Bagley only suffered a sprained knee that will sideline him a couple of weeks, it looked like it could have been much worse. That said, it came at a bad time as Bagley was playing his best basketball of the season. Harry Giles has looked good in Bagley’s absence, at least when he stops elbowing opponents in the head.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-36, LW 18). While Orlando sits half-a-game out of the playoffs as this is written, the fact they have a much softer schedule than the teams they are chasing (Orlando’s next seven games are against teams below .500), and they have played well of late, has fivethirtyeight.com giving them a 67% chance of making the playoffs. Jonathan Isaac has been the key to it all, the Magic are +12.7 per 100 when he is on the court in the last 15 games.

Pelicans small icon 18. Pelicans (30-36, LW 20). Nobody, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, thinks playing Anthony Davis 20 minutes a night and sitting him in the fourth is a good look for the league. But sit him and there is pushback from the league and union, play him 40 a night and the Pelicans are taking an unnecessary risk and hurting their draft position. So ugly compromise it is. Jrue Holiday continues to play well when he is on the court in limited minutes.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (29-34, LW 19). Charlotte has dropped 8-of-11 and coach James Borego is searching for answers. He switched around the starting lineup, but the new group can’t defend. He’s pulled Frank Kaminsky out of the dog house and played him — and Kaminsky has responded with solid play. Nothing has really worked. Big showdown with the Heat Wednesday (one of the teams they are battling for a playoff spot) and on Saturday they head out on the road for four.

20. Timberwolves (30-34, LW 17). Robert Covington went down to the G-League to practice, usually the last step before a player returns to action with the main team, but now the Timberwolves are sounding cautious and being patient again. Maybe his knee didn’t respond well to the increased workload, but whatever it is he will be out a little while longer. After three losses in a row that all but doomed their playoff dreams in Minnesota, Karl-Anthony Towns exploded for 41 and 14 against the Thunder. That was good to see.

Heat small icon 21. Heat (29-34, LW 22). They have won 3-of-4, including an upset of the Warriors, the kinds of wins the Heat will need more of down the stretch if they are going to get a playoff spot. Dwayne Wade’s last dance has just been fun, from the jersey exchanges to the moments he shows he still has it on the court. It’d be nice to see Miami make the playoffs just to set up more potential moments like this.

Lakers small icon 22. Lakers (30-34, LW 21). In the 13 games since LeBron James returned from his groin injury, the Lakers have the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Their effort on that end has been up and down, but more than that they have lacked basic defensive recognition and cohesion. The Lakers are 4-9 since LeBron’s return, and 2-4 since the All-Star break when LeBron “activated” playoff mode. Their playoff dreams are dead and Luke Walton may want to start polishing up his resume.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (26-37, LW 24). If you’re looking for a silver lining to this Wizards season, well, I’m sorry about that. Not sure there’s much we can do. Can I recommend reading our own Dan Feldman’s story on Thomas Bryant? That’s about as positive as I can get with this franchise.

Grizzlies small icon 24. Grizzlies (26-40, LW 25). This summer, some team is going to give up some quality pieces to trade for Mike Conley. Tuesday night he showed why that team will be making a smart play. Conley had 19 in the fourth, 40 for the game, and was the reason the Grizzlies beat the Trail Blazers.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (22-43, LW 27). Trae Young continues to just tear it up. In his last five games, the rookie has averaged 30.6 points per game and is shooting 50% from three on 7.6 attempts per game, plus is dishing out 9.4 assists per night. He was honest that he was overthinking things early in the season, but the game has slowed down and now he is just letting it fly. Combined with John Collins next season, the Hawks could be a team looking to make a leap.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-36, LW 23). Dallas has been the worst team in the NBA over the last 10 games, a -13.9 net rating that has them going 2-8. They have the worst offense and the worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. Mavericks fans, focus on Dirk Nowitzki and dream of next season with Kristaps Porzingis.

Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (18-47, LW 26). Chicago had won 5-of-7 until recent setbacks against the Hawks and Pacers, and the reason remains the offense. The Bulls are scoring 114.1 per 100 in their last 15 games, fifth best in the league (and ahead of the Warriors in that stretch). The Bulls have an offensive rating of 119.8 and are outscoring teams by 8.8 per 100 when Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Otto Porter are all on the court together.

Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (16-48, LW 20). Cleveland is 5-2 in games Kevin Love has played in since his return. Cedi Osman has been playing better of late too, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 47.5 percent from three in his last 15 games. The Cavs are playing well enough they could have moved out of the bottom three of the draft lottery, except the Bulls have been playing even better.

Suns small icon 29. Suns (14-51, LW 30). They have had some fun playing spoiler. They beat a Miami team that needs wins to stay in the playoffs in the East, and when they beat the Lakers last weekend it felt like the death of the Lakers’ playoff chances. The most impressive thing in that win over Los Angeles was Deandre Ayton — not the rookie’s 26 points and 10 rebounds, but that they had him defend LeBron James all game and he did a respectable job.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-51, LW 28). Mitchell Robinson is the reason to tune into Knicks games now — the rookie shot blocker is a lot of fun. Knicks fans deserve something good to happen and watching Robinson play is it this season. I’m not as sold he’s going to be anywhere near as good as some Knicks fans are pumping him up to be, but his defensive presence and energy could make him a solid rotation big man in whatever form the Knicks take on the next few years.

Three Things to Know: James Harden drops 42; Celtics roll over in face of adversity

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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) James Harden drops 42, Celtics roll over in the face of adversity. Again. James Harden puts unique pressures on a defense. He’s physical and knows how to use his shoulder to create space going to the rim. He’s got ridiculous handles. He’s got the best step-back in the game. He is a good passer who can find shooters when you collapse on him. And it helps when he gets away with this.

When faced with those pressures Sunday, on national television, the Celtics just folded. Again. Houston was in control almost the entire game and won 115-104, handing the Celtics their fifth loss in six games since the All-Star break (and now Boston heads out on a four-game road trip through the West). Harden finished with 42.

Once again the Celtics played like a bunch of individuals, and that is more obvious on defense than anywhere else. Houston’s Eric Gordon had 20 points in the first half, yet early in the third quarter Boston lost him off cuts on consecutive possessions. It forced Brad Stevens to call a timeout. Who led the team after that? Semi Ojeleye yelled at them in the huddle. Jaylen Brown had another high-energy outing off the bench (he’s got to start for the struggling Marcus Morris).

Kyrie Irving? Sure he had 24 points on 7-of-10 shooting, but after the game he seemed a combination of angry, frustrated, and detached. He didn’t sound like a leader.

There is plenty of blame to go around — Irving, Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge, frankly every player gets a little — but what the Celtics need is leadership. Someone to unify them. Someone to get them to believe in themselves. Someone to get them to put out a focused effort nightly.

I’m just not sure that person is in the locker room. I’m not sure there is time for them to pull this all together before the playoffs.

2) Trae Young hits ridiculous three then gets even more ridiculous ejection for stare down of Kris Dunn. I get why NBA referees are frustrated — players seem to complain about every call, even the obvious ones, and will try to incite the crowd with gestures while doing it. The referees feel more targeted than they have in a long time.

But overreaction calls like this one don’t help. This is just ridiculous.

Atlanta’s Trae Young hit a deep three over Kris Dunn then starred down Dunn a little — and got tossed for taunting.

Even the Bulls players were at a loss.

It’s an emotional game. It’s entertainment. Let the players show that — it’s why we tune in. We want them to care, to be passionate, to talk a little smack and stare some guys down. Some lines should not be crossed, but Young was nowhere near that.

If you want the referees perspective.

That wasn’t the only overly eager technical handed out Sunday.

3) Detroit beats Toronto in OT improving to 9-2 in last 11. Suddenly the Detroit Pistons are emerging as a team the elite would like to avoid in the first round of the playoffs in the East.

It started 15 games ago when Andre Drummond returned from concussion protocol, since then he has averaged 20.5 points a game on 62.6 percent shooting, and he’s grabbing 15.7 rebounds a game. Add to that point guard Reggie Jackson started to find his groove. And Blake Griffin has stepped up in the shot-creating/leader role, and is even hitting circus shots like this (although this one didn’t count).

Sunday the Raptors sat Kawhi Leonard (load management) but the team still came in 13-4 without him, they are still deep with talent (Kyle Lowry had an impressive 35 on the night). The Pistons were deeper for a day. Griffin had 27 points, Drummond added 15 points and 17 rebounds, Jackson had 19 including a clutch three in overtime, and Luke Kennard added 19 off the bench, too.

The Pistons are clicking, 9-2 in their last 11 with a +10.9 net rating. They’ve had the best offense in the NBA during that stretch, at 118.1 per 100 (and the defense is fifth in the league).

With Sunday’s win, the Pistons are at .500 (31-31) and are the sixth seed now in the East. Keep playing like this and Detroit will make life difficult for some team in the first round of the playoffs.