Jaylen Brown scores 30, young Celtics take 2-0 series lead over Bucks

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Giannis Antetokounmpo drove and scored while being fouled, his third drawn foul on a made shot.

But he stepped on Aron Baynes foot, fell to the ground and held his right ankle in pain. Then – following a Last Two Minute Report that noted he held the ball longer than the permitted 10 seconds on all six of tracked free throws in Game 1 (a longstanding issue) and an air-balled quicker free throw earlier in Game 2 – Antetokounmpo missed again from the line.

Antetokounmpo remains a force, but the rising Celtics have the Bucks down, battered and thrown for a loop.

Jaylen Brown scored 30 points to lead Boston to a 120-106 Game 2 win over Milwaukee on Tuesday, giving the Celtics a 2-0 series lead. Teams that have won the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home have won the series 94% of the time.

The 21-year-old Brown became youngest Boston player ever to score 30 in a playoff game.

“What more can you ask for?” Brown said. “Everybody’s writing us off. They’re saying that we’re too young, and we’re not even listening.”

The Celtics appeared headed for trouble with Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis out injured. But Boston’s young players are stepping up.

Starting at point guard for Irving, 24-year-old Terry Rozier (23 points on eight assists tonight) has played 78 minutes in this series without a turnover. Rozier is acing this audition.

Antetokounmpo (30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) is elite. Khris Middleton (25 points on 10-of-14 shooting) played excellently once he finally asserted himself.

But Eric Bledsoe continues to struggle. Tony Snell has been invisible. The Bucks still haven’t found a helpful role for Jabari Parker – no easy task considering his defensive shortcomings. Milwaukee’s centers were also too often out of position defensively. Anything Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe did required overcoming the Bucks’ poor spacing.

On the other hand, the Celtics – both young and seasoned – are flowing. Marcus Morris (18 points) and Middleton got chippy late in the game. At one point, Morris committed a hard foul on Middleton. Middleton earned free throws, but once everyone was separated, Morris was calling the Boston crowd to its feet.

The Bucks are still standing. The Celtics feel good about how things are going.

Jabari Parker presents Bucks with short- and long-term dilemmas

AP Photo/Morry Gash
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DETROIT – Jabari Parker reportedly wanted a max contract extension last offseason. The Bucks reportedly offered him $18 million annually.

Without getting into specific numbers, Parker said he was never close to signing and called the situation out of his hands.

Out of his hands? If Milwaukee made an offer, that put it in his hands, right?

“No, it’s not,” Parker said. “Because they can offer me a dollar, am I supposed to take it?

“So, that’s what it is.”

Parker was still rehabbing from his second left ACL tear while negotiating his extension. Some players in that situation would take the security rather than the chance.

“It’s not my chance,” Parker said.

In an alternate universe, a perfectly healthy Parker is locked into a max contract extension, capitalizing on the promise that made him the No. 2 pick in 2014 and playing Robin to Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Batman on a team drawing consideration for Eastern Conference favorite.

In our reality, Parker has twice torn his left ACL, is headed toward restricted free agency and is trying to find his groove on a second-rate Eastern Conference challenger.

Given how Parker has immersed himself in the work necessary to come back, it’s easy to see how he could lose site of the difference.

“I don’t have to prove myself at all,” Parker said. “People know my résumé.”

The number of times he says he’s taking it “day by day” during a short interview is impressive. He stayed in Milwaukee to train during the All-Star break, a time most players vacation and unwind. He is clearly zeroed in, maybe to the point of delusion.

Parker maintaining that confidence and focus is almost certainly good for him. But it’s not so simple for the Bucks, who face two major questions, the first of which will influence the second:

1. What role will Parker hold in this year’s playoffs?

2. How much is Parker worth long-term?

Parker in the postseason

Parker has looked fine since returning last month. He has played just 20 minutes per game in 13 games, so the sample is small. But he mostly appears comfortable on the court, an important first step.

The Bucks (34-30, tied for seventh in the East) are comfortably in playoff position. Though they’re just 6-7 with Parker, they can afford to ride out his acclimation.

Heck, they might be better off staying seventh or eighth, avoiding LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who will probably finish between third and fifth. Getting into the non-Cleveland, 3-6 or 4-5 first-round series would be ideal – especially if it’s with home-court advantage. But opening with the Raptors or Celtics, who’ve both looked vulnerable in previous playoffs, wouldn’t be so bad.

Whomever Milwaukee faces in the postseason, determining Parker’s role will be key. The Bucks can beat any Eastern Conference team. They can’t waste minutes on Parker if he isn’t ready to contribute.

At least there appear to be clear distinctions of when Parker will and won’t help.

Milwaukee has unsurprisingly excelled with Antetokounmpo, an MVP candidate, on the floor this season. But Parker and Antetokounmpo, both nominal power forwards, didn’t seamlessly mesh before. Now that Antetokounmpo has seized an even bigger share of the offense and Parker – whose main skill is scoring, primarily on the ball – isn’t fully operational, the fit is even more difficult.

With Antetokounmpo and without Parker, the Bucks have played like a 52-win team. With Antetokounmpo and Parker, the Bucks have played like a 33-win team.

But that doesn’t render Parker useless.

Milwaukee has cratered whenever Antetokounmpo sits. Parker can provide a scoring punch in those minutes without worrying about redundancies.

With neither Antetokounmpo nor Parker, the Bucks have played like a 15-win team. Without Antetokounmpo and with Parker, the Bucks have played like a 26-win team.

That’s not great, but it’s a marked improvement. It’s the type of difference that could swing a playoff game or two.

“We need him,” Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty said of Parker.

Of course, such a narrow role wouldn’t leave much playing time for Parker. Antetokounmpo is already averaging an NBA-high 37.3 minutes per game. He played 40.5 minutes per game in last year’s playoffs, up from 35.6 that regular season. How little time will he sit this postseason?

Maybe Parker will have hit his stride by then. He developed a 3-pointer last year that made him far more dangerous off the ball and workable next to Antetokounmpo. Parker’s improved passing, which we haven’t seen much of yet this season, also contributed to his newfound play-with-anyone flexibility.

But the Bucks don’t need to assess the Parker-Antetokounmpo pairing just for the spring. They also must look much further.

Parker in future seasons

Parker’s injuries are scary. I was surprised the Bucks offered him $18 million annually – and not the way he’d be surprised. The list of NBA players to suffer two ACL tears is short and depressing. Josh Howard and Michael Redd washed out quickly after theirs, though Parker – just 23 – is far younger than either was. That’s the main reason we’re even having this discussion rather than writing off Parker as a high-level contributor.

Is Parker at greater risk of getting hurt again? Will his performance suffer? Athleticism is integral to making each facet of his all-around offensive game work together.

Milwaukee’s luxury-tax situation makes this even more complex.

The Bucks already have $104,034,259 committed to 10 players next season. Add Malcolm Brogdon (unguaranteed but sure to be kept) and three minimum-salary players, and Milwaukee would be about just $11 million below the projected tax line.

Parker’s max salary projects to be about $25 million.

The crunch doesn’t get any easier the following year – at least if the Bucks want to keep Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brogdon. Bledsoe (unrestricted) and Brogdon (restricted) will be free agents and Middleton holds a $13 million player option in 2019.

Milwaukee will probably look to dump at least one of its marginal players with significant money left on their contracts – John Henson (two years, $20,309,862), Matthew Dellavedova (two years, $19,215,000) and Mirza Teletovic (one year, $10,500,000).

Getting Teletovic deemed medically unfit to play could go a long way, as that would remove his still-due salary from cap and tax calculations. However, the earliest that could happen is November, and he might not go along willingly. Would the Bucks really risk starting the season above the tax line and banking on a fitness-to-play panel ruling in their favor?

Unloading Henson, Dellavedova and/or Teletovic in a trade would likely require a sweetener. Milwaukee already traded a first-round pick for Bledsoe. It’ll convey to the Suns if it lands 11-16 this year. Otherwise, the Bucks won’t be able to trade a future first-rounder this summer before their 2023 pick.

Could Milwaukee deal Bledsoe or Middleton, who hold positive trade value, instead? Tony Snell might also factor into that discussion, which could stretch to next trade deadline. The luxury tax is assessed on team salary the final day of the regular season.

Again, all this time lost for Parker and Antetokounmpo to build chemistry – and the Bucks to evaluate the pairing – really stings. It’s not the only consideration, though. Milwaukee doesn’t want to squander an asset. On the right deal, Parker could be signed then eventually traded. Players who can create their own shot are still among the most highly coveted league-wide.

How is Parker perceived now?

He’s a versatile scorer, capable of attacking bigger and smaller defenders in a variety of ways. His improved 3-point shooting and passing make him such a better fit in a team offense. He was even showing small strides defensively, his major weakness, before getting hurt. Perhaps most importantly, he works famously hard.

It’s difficult not to wonder where Parker would be if he focused all his time on basketball development rather than knee rehab. Not that Parker is dwelling on it.

“You don’t put yourself in other peoples’ shoes,” Parker said. “Your life and your situation is what you’ve got to live with, because that’s all that’s going to matter at the end of the day when we die.”

Parker isn’t feeling sorry for himself – not about the injuries, not about the lost development time, not about his contract. Whatever the case during extension negotiations, all those things are definitely out of his hands now.

“It’s just a matter of what you do in response,” Parker said.

NBA Power Rankings: Warriors back into top spot, Raptors up to third

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Didn’t we all assume Golden State would spend most of the season on top of these rankings? Boston’s hot start and Houston’s amazing run kept them out once the season tipped off, but Golden State is back on top (even without Stephen Curry, and the team not playing near its peak). Toronto has become the highest rated team in the East, Oklahoma City has climbed into the Top 10, and on the other end Orlando gives us a new 30.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (27-7 Last Week No. 2). When you win of 12-of-13 coaches tend to stick with what’s working, but on Christmas Day Steve Kerr shook things up again and went small, sitting Zaza Pachulia and starting rookie Jordan Bell (although the lineup they had the most success with was the starters with Andre Iguodala in for Patrick McCaw). The “Hamptons five” lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green has only played 58 minutes total and been unimpressive -8.6 per 100 possession this season (in part due to injuries). What small ball lineup has worked is Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and David West, which was +4 vs. Cleveland and is +10.8 points per 100 possessions on the season.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (25-7, LW 1). Houston has lost three in a row, including to the Thunder on Christmas day, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three games the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. Over last 10 they are allowing 111 per 100 (29th in NBA). Clint Cappela and Luc Mbah a Moute being out for some of that stretch is a huge impact. Things don’t get easier with Boston and Washington on the road as the next two games.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (23-9, LW 5). They have won 12-of-14 through a soft part of the schedule recently (despite an ugly loss to Dallas Tuesday) — that’s what good teams do, beat the teams they are supposed to beat, not play down to them. If the definition of a contender is a top-10 offense and defense Toronto qualifies (fourth in offensive rating, sixth in defensive rating). This team is legit, but will be judged on the playoffs, and how they do when the schedule gets tougher, such as Wednesday night (Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back).

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (27-10, LW 3). They have lost 3-of-4, including to the Wizards on Christmas Day (and frankly should have lost to Indiana five games ago but the Pacers literally threw the game away). The problem over that five-game stretch is the defense has taken a step back, with the Celtics fouling too much (second most in the league over 5 games) and not getting rebounds the way they once were. Fixable problems, but something to address. Another big test Thursday hosting Houston (who has stumbled of late, too).

Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (24-10 LW 4). The Cavaliers are not into moral victories, but on Christmas they hung with the Warriors while playing without Isaiah Thomas (granted, no Curry for the Warriors) and if LeBron had gotten a call late maybe things are different. The Cavs (and a resurgent Jae Crowder) showed they have some matchups that can be troubling for the Warriors. More concerning is the Cavaliers going back to playing poor defense — they did fairly well on Christmas when focused, but over the last five games the Cavaliers are 25th in the NBA defensively.

Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (24-11, LW 6). San Antonio is bringing Kawhi Leonard along very slowly upon his return — he is averaging 17.5 minutes a game in the four games he’s played, and he’s been rested in there, too. He’s been efficient when playing — eFG% of 55.6%, PER of 24.6 — but with a soft part of the schedule ahead and a good team led by LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, the Spurs can afford to be very patient and think long term. It’s about the playoffs, not December games.

7. Timberwolves (21-13, LW 7). Winners of four in a row, including over a depleted Lakers team on Christmas where Karl-Anthony Towns was too much for Los Angeles. Still, Jimmy Butler played 41 minutes, Towns almost 40, and the two of them and Andrew Wiggins are all in the top 15 in minutes played total in the NBA this season. Young legs or not they may start to wear down. Tom Thibodeau needs to get more Nemanja Bjelica or someone off the bench into the rotation.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (19-15 LW 15).. Oklahoma City has won five in a row and during that stretch has a 115 offensive rating, best in the NBA for that stretch (even better than the Rockets and their historic offensive pace). But are the Thunder really better? They are 11-4 in their last 15 but with a net rating of +1.3 (which should have them more like 8-7 or 9-6 in that stretch), what’s changed is they are winning close games now. The Thunder were not as bad as their record looked early, but aren’t as good as their record of late, either.

Wizards small icon 9. Wizards (19-15, LW 9). Washington’s small-ball lineup — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, and Markief Morris — hasn’t played much this season, but when it has it is +42.3 points per 100 possessions. Coach Scott Brooks went to it at the end of Washington’s Christmas Day win over Boston and the lineup was +11 in the final 6:37. We need to see more of that group.

Nuggets small icon 10. Nuggets (19-15, LW 11). They have won three in a row, including beating Portland on the road and snapping Golden State’s win streak — that’s a good week. The Nuggets still need to get a lot more out of their bench to win consistently, but they look like a solid playoff team in the West. Fun showdown Wednesday night between Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns, two of the best young bigs in the game.

Pistons small icon 11. Pistons (19-14, LW 10). Detroit has won 5-of-6 (including a quality win at home over Indiana Tuesday) and while the defense has remained solid through that stretch, it’s an improved offense — 4 points per 100 possessions improved over their season average — that has driven the streak. However, Reggie Jackson now Reggie Jackson is out 6-8 weeks with a grade 3 sprain suffered against the Pacers, and the Detroit offense is 2.6 points per 100 worse when he is off the court. A lot falls on Ish Smith and Langston Galloway now.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (19-15, LW 8). Victor Oladipo continues to tear it up — he has seven 30-point games this season, he had just nine in his career up his move to Indiana. He’s got to be an All-Star. The Pacers have gotten off to this good start because they don’t lose to weak teams, and they have a few of those on the schedule this week again (although both Dallas and Chicago are playing better and will not just roll over).

Heat small icon 13. Heat (18-15, LW 17). Miami can’t seem to get everybody healthy at once, and Dion Waiters admits he may need off-season surgery to get fully right with his ankle, but they got Goran Dragic and James Johnson back and have kept on winning. The reason they are racking up victories is their middle-of-the-pack defense for most of the season has been fifth in the NBA over their last 10 games (and Miami is 7-3).

Bucks small icon 14. Bucks (17-15 LW 12). Giannis Antetokounmpo only missed one game with a banged up knee, and had 28 points in his return (although the Bucks still lost to the Bulls). Tony Snell is back as well and had the go-ahead bucket in a big win over Cleveland (although Jason Kidd telling Khris Middleton to miss a free throw up three with seconds left in that game is bizarre — hit the free throw, go up four, and don’t foul; Kidd said he wanted to avoid a four-point play, but left his team open to a three tying it).

Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (17-16, LW 16). New Orleans went 2-2 on a recent four-game road swing, which included a quality win over Miami. New Orleans is desperate to make the playoffs (why they are not trading DeMarcus Cousins) and currently are tied with Portland for the 7/8 seed in the West, three games up on Utah in ninth. This week the Pelicans have a back-to-back at home against the Mavericks and Knicks, but New Orleans has been a solid 3-2 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Knicks small icon 16. Knicks (17-16, LW 13). Welcome to the make-or-break part of the season for New York — the team is 2-10 on the road this season and now 16-of-20 are on the road. Keep playing like that and by the time the Super Bowl kicks off they will be well out of the playoff chase. The Knicks got up to one game over .500 on the back of Kristaps Porzingis, but he has shot a little bit worse away from Madison Square Garden, and in general on the road the Knicks offense falls apart, scoring less than a point per possession.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (17-16, LW 14). The Trail Blazers had lost 8-of-11 before beating the Lakers Saturday (the 14th time in a row they have beaten LA). In their last dozen games, the Trail Blazers fourth in the league defense this season (if you remove garbage time from the equation) has stepped back to the middle of the NBA pack, but the more confounding thing is their offense has remained terrible (28th in the NBA in those dozen games). The good news is they should have Damian Lillard back on Thursday to go against the Sixers.

Sixers small icon 18. 76ers (15-18, LW 18). Christmas Day was just another sign just how much Joel Embiid means to this team — the Sixers outscored the Knicks 90-65 when he was on the court, but were outscored by 18 when he was off and had to scrap to hold on to a win. That game in New York has the Sixers 1-1 to start a five game road trip that swings West now, but then Philly comes home for 5-of-6 as they try to string together some wins and get back in the playoff picture.

Clippers small icon 19. Clippers (14-19 LW 22). Blake Griffin is expected back this week — maybe Sunday at home, if not then on the road not long after — and they need him. Los Angeles was 6-8 without Griffin, and they sit three games out of the playoffs. Make a run during an upcoming five-game homestand and maybe management decides to keep DeAndre Jordan at the trade deadline and make a run at the postseason. The more likely scenario is he gets moved, however.

Jazz small icon 20. Jazz (15-20, LW 19). According to stats at Cleaning the Glass, Utah has been one of the unluckiest teams in the NBA this season. They have the point differential of a team that is 18-17, not 15-20, and that’s the difference between being in the playoffs or three games out of it, as they are right now. Things don’t get easier with a game against Golden State Wednesday then Cleveland on Saturday.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (12-21, LW 20). Take the wins where you can get them — so if you beat the Knicks without Porzingis or the Bucks without the Greek Freak, you take them. This team is still all about Kemba Walker — they are 20.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court, and when he sits the offense falls apart (scoring 94.9 per 100). Averaging 21.5 points and 5.8 assists per game, Kemba should make the All-Star game again, but we’ll see if the coaches put him there.

Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (11-22 LW 23).. Cleveland ended the Bulls winning streak at six, and then another loss to Boston followed. It happens when facing teams that good, but the Bulls bounced back with a road win over the Bucks. Chicago started winning against a soft spot in the schedule, that’s about to change and we will see how well Nikola Mitotic and the team fare.

Suns small icon 23. Suns (13-23, LW 25). Devin Booker returned on Tuesday night, dropped 32 on Memphis and got Phoenix the win. They needed him back, they went 3-7 without him. However, Booker was off the court when the Suns got a creative win via coach Jay Triano and veteran Tyson Chandler — you can’t have basket interference on an inbounds pass (because it’s not a shot and can’t score), so Triano drew up a play to have Chandler flush down and alley-oop over the rim.

Nets small icon 24. Nets (12-21, LW 21). Brooklyn’s starting/closing five — Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Tyler Zeller — outscore opponents by 21.4 points per 100 possessions, and allow less than a point per possession on defense. The bench, on the other hand, is a disaster, but if they can keep the game close the Nets best five can hang with almost anyone.

Lakers small icon 25. Lakers (11-21 LW 24). They snapped the Warriors’ 14 game winning streak but have dropped three straight since, including on Christmas night to the Timberwolves (without Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball). Andrew Bogut and Luke Walton have said the swirling trade rumors around the team (specifically for Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle) may be throwing the young players off mentally. Everyone has seemed a little off for the Lakers lately — except Kyle Kuzma. He’s never off.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (10-25 LW 27). The upset of the Toronto Raptors Tuesday night was a reminder this team hasn’t been winning a lot but it’s played a lot of close games lately. Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass site has the Mavs as the least lucky team in the league, they should have 14 or 15 wins by net rating, but have lost some close games. Dallas has found an offensive groove lately, fueled by J.J. Barea (20 points vs. Toronto) and Yogi Ferrell.

Kings small icon 27. Kings (11-22, LW 28). It’s strange to say this about an 11-win team, but Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass site has them as the luckiest team in the NBA. They should be 7-26 (and on the bottom of these rankings) based on point differential, but they’ve had some luck in close games. The Kings have 7-of-8 at home, where they are 5-8 this season.

Grizzlies small icon 28. Grizzlies (10-24, LW 29). If you’re looking for a reason to watch a team that has lost 9-of-11 and grinds the game down with a slow pace, there is Dillon Brooks. The rookie out of Oregon has played fairly well, and is shooting 36.4 percent from three. He shows promise. The last-second loss in Phoenix was the start of a five-game road trip out West that includes Golden State Saturday.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (8-25, LW 30). Atlanta has found an offensive groove the past few weeks, and at the core of it is a strong front court rotation where Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee start and rookie John Collins comes in off the bench and is efficient. When Dennis Schroder is on, this is a dangerous offensive team. Just one that can’t get stops.

Magic small icon 30. Magic (11-24, LW 26). Losers of 9 in a row and you can blame injuries for part of that — four of their five opening night starts are injured now, with Elfrid Payton being the last one standing. The ill-fitting Orlando roster was something coach Frank Vogel made work when he had all his players to start the season, but take away a few pieces and the Jenga tower crumbles. Some around the league wonder if Vogel’s seat is getting warm.

Three Things to Know: Young, athletic Bucks make Cavaliers look step slow in loss

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

1) Milwaukee is young, long, athletic, and for a night that made the Cavaliers look a step slow in loss. The Milwaukee Bucks had lost three in a row coming into Tuesday night because their already not-that-good defense had been abysmal. That didn’t really change Tuesday against Cleveland, the Cavs had an offensive rating of 118.9 for the game. That is a win most nights.

Not this time, not against a Milwaukee team who was just faster and more athletic than the Cavaliers all night.

Led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and his 27 points with 14 rebounds, the Bucks ran past the Celtics starting in the middle of the second quarter — on the night, Milwaukee had 24 fast break points to Cleveland’s three. The Bucks led by as many as 20 and seemed in control, until a 19-0 by the Cavaliers bench (with Jae Crowder as the lone starter) made it a game again. That meant LeBron James was back in and he had nine points in the final minutes of the game, he was an absolute force again on his way to 39 points on the night.

It was a back-and-forth ending, but a Tony Snell three (thanks to Eric Bledsoe pushing the pace) had the Bucks up two — more transition points the Bucks got in part due to Dwyane Wade not getting back fast enough to really contest. However, after a couple missed threes, it looked like the Cavaliers would have one more chance when LeBron stole the ball from Antetokounmpo — but the athleticism, speed, and long arms of the Greek Freak once again changed the game and sealed the win.

I did love that on their last chance, LeBron went playground inbounding the ball off the turned Antetokounmpo’s back so he could get it himself. It just wasn’t enough.

It’s one game in December, the Cavaliers have only lost two games in their last 20, and haven’t gotten Isaiah Thomas back yet (he’s got a G-League stint coming up first). Plus, there is no way I’d pick the Bucks over the Cavaliers in a seven-game series… but still, this was the kind of game that feels like it foreshadows things to come. The Cavaliers are older and slower than their rising challengers in the East, how many more years can they hold them off? And what does LeBron think about his future after games like this?

2) Kings beat Sixers, a reminder that when Joel Embiid sits the Sixers aren’t near the same team. When Joel Embiid is on the court this season, the Sixers have played like the equivalent of a 57 win team, but when he has sat they have played like a 23-win team. He means that much to them. So when Embiid sat out Tuesday night due to back tightness (the nearly 50 minutes he played against the Thunder had something to do with that), a game against the Kings went from what should have been an easy win to a real battle.

Philly still led by 16 in the third quarter and 10 at the start of the fourth, but couldn’t hold off the Kings, who got 10 points out of Buddy Hield in the fourth (and 24 for the night). Again it was turnovers that did in the Sixers when they blew the lead — Philly turned the ball over on 20.3 percent of their possessions in this game, one in five trips down the court. The Sixers lead the league in turnover percentage, and it’s not close. Simmons and Embiid’s replacement as a starter, Amir Johnson, were the big culprits. Mix the turnovers with inconsistent defense and a team that makes poor shot decisions down the stretch, and you get a loss. This time it was 101-95 to the Kings. The Sixers have now lost 7-of-8.

Also, with Embiid not patrolling the paint, the Sixers had no answer for Zach Randolph, and the old-school big man went off for 27.

3) The Wizards got an easy win because New Orleans had no answers for John Wall and Bradley Beal. When Washington is focused and brings its “A” game, they have one of the top backcourts in the NBA in Wall and Beal. That focus has been wildly inconsistent this season — if Washington wants to know why it’s not considered a threat to the top of the East it starts there — but those two brought it on Tuesday night.

And the Pelicans had no answers. Wall and Beal combined for 44 points and 14 assists, and that overwhelmed New Orleans (despite 63 points combined from Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins). Check out the Washington backcourt’s highlights from the 116-106 win.

NBA Power Rankings: Detroit, Minnesota crash top five party

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A few weeks into the season and we’re starting to see which hot starts are for real — Boston, Detroit — and which teams are coming back to earth (Orlando). The top three on this list have started to separate themselves from the pack… for now, it’s a long season.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (9-2, Last Week No. 1). When Gordon Hayward went down, one of the expected drop offs was that Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were young players about to be thrust into much larger roles, and how were they going to handle it? Turns out, just fine. For example, the pair has shot 35-of-71 (49.3%) during team’s a nine-game win streak, plus they are part of a very switchable perimeter defense. They have been fantastic

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (8-3 LW 3). Their offense hasn’t just been good, it’s been all-time good to start the season. The Warriors are averaging 116.4 points per 100 possessions, that is 7.5 more than the second-place Cavaliers and 1.8 per 100 better than the 1986-87 LA Lakers, who have the best mark of all time. As they were last season, the Warriors have been a dominant third quarter team to start this season.

 
Rockets small icon 3. Rockets (8-3, Last Week No. 4). The Rockets have started to pick up their pace again, and with that their offense has returned to being a force — then James Harden exploded, dropping 56 points on a very good Utah defense. Tough week with the Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Pacers, and Raptors ahead, but if Harden does this again the Rockets will be just fine.

Pistons small icon 4. Pistons (7-3, LW 10). Detroit is off to its fastest start in nine years, and one key reason is the play of Anthony Tolliver off the bench, particularly defensively. While a lot of attention has gone to Andre Drummond shooting 75% from the free throw line (with good reason), he also has improved true shooting percentage (59%), assist rate (doubled it to 12.2%), and his rebound rate (which was already the best in the league and is now at 25.8%). Drummond has been a beast.

 
5. Timberwolves (7-3, LW 14). Winners of five in a row, and it’s not a coincidence it started with the return of Jimmy Butler to the lineup — they are 8.4 points per 100 possessions better when Butler is on the court. As Zach Lowe noted on Twitter, it’s not because he is dominating the ball, he has the fifth highest usage rate on the team, it’s because of his defense, and he is being efficient on offense.

 
Grizzlies small icon 6. Grizzlies (7-4, LW 2). The Grizzlies are 2-1 so far into a five-game road trip, splitting a pair in Los Angeles then winning in Portland. Tyreke Evans is impressing off the bench, averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 43.1 percent from three. Watching him live this week he is moving well — which is amazing considering the knee injury he is coming off of — and hitting shots his coach wishes he wouldn’t take. So, vintage Evans.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (6-4, LW 11). The Spurs offense has not been consistent without Kawhi Leonard, as one would expect. San Antonio is 19th in the NBA in offensive rating, and they no longer shoot threes the same way (22.6 attempts per game, 29th in the league). What is surprising is their usually stout defense (even without Leonard) has fallen to 11th in the league. San Antonio’s ability to execute and not beat themselves works against the Hornets and Suns, but not against the Celtics and Warriors, where they lost.

 
Knicks small icon 8. Knicks (6-4, LW 20). While all the attention is focused on Kristaps Porzingis (he did have a monster week), the Knicks are 6-1 since steady veteran Jarrett Jack was made the starting point guard. He keeps the offense moving and puts the ball in the right place. Porzingis — who gets compared to Dirk Nowitzki all the time but reminds me more of a better Andrei Kirilenko — dropped 40 on a Pacers defense Sunday.

 
Raptors small icon 9. Raptors (6-4, LW 9). DeMar DeRozan is still a guy who gets his buckets in the midrange, but one thing is different this season — he is attacking earlier in the shot clock, rather than letting the defense set. It’s worked, his true shooting percentage is up to a career high 57.1% this season. After a respectable 3-3 road trip through the West, the Raptors came home and got beat by the Wizards without John Wall, a tough loss in this East.

 
Magic small icon 10. Magic (6-4, LW 7). Injuries to their top two point guards — Elfrid Payton and D.J. Augustin — set this team back against Chicago and Boston, and it continued a slide for an offense that was hot early (No. 2 in the NBA) but has since regressed to the middle of the pack. Payton should return Wednesday against the Knicks. Aaron Gordon has shown no signs of slowing down his hot shooting.

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (6-4, LW 21). What team leads the NBA in passes made per game? You guessed it, the Sixers. Rookie point guard/power forward Ben Simmons is averaging the most passes made per game of any player in the league. Those are good signs for the future and speaks to a selfless team. Tuesday night in Utah (a Philly win) started a five-game road trip that includes facing the Warriors and both Los Angeles teams.

 
Blazers small icon 12. Trail Blazers (6-5 LW 13). Damian Lillard remains one of the most clutch players in the NBA. Look at it this way: Lillard shoots 42.3% in the first quarter, 32.4% in the second, 37.9% in the third, then suddenly 54.3% overall and 43.8% from four in the fourth. He was getting to the line late against the Thunder, then against the Lakers he did this.

 
Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (6-5 LW 19). This needs to be pointed out: DeMarcus Cousins is putting in real effort on defense and doing well. It’s small sample size theater, but the Pelicans’ defense is 7.1 points per 100 possessions better when Cousins is playing this season (granted, being paired with Davis for a chunk of that time helps). The Pelicans are feasting on weaker teams this season, but that’s a start.

 
Nuggets small icon 14. Nuggets (6-5, LW 22). Last season after the All-Star break — when the Nugget offense was the best in the NBA — they were taking 70 percent of their shots either at the rim or from three. This season that has fallen to 58.2 percent and that is part of the reason their offense is off 5 points per 100. The Nuggets are 3-1 in their current six game homestand after a win over the Nets (tougher matches with the Thunder and Magic are ahead).

 
Hornets small icon 15. Hornets (5-5, LW 16). Kemba Walker is once again brilliant and once again overlooked. This season he has averaged 21.8 points per game and is hitting a solid 37.1 percent from three. More importantly, the Hornets are 30.3 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court.The Hornets started a four-game road trip 0-3 with Boston still remaining.

 
Wizards small icon 16. Wizards (5-5, LW 8). The Wizards have a soft schedule for the next week plus, giving them a chance to bank some wins, but the problem is this team does not bring its focus against weaker teams. As evidence, look at the home loss to Dallas on Tuesday night. The Wizards want to be contenders but championship level teams bring it nightly. John Wall missed a couple games with a shoulder injury but returned Tuesday.

 
Clippers small icon 17. Clippers (5-5 LW 5). The Clippers just stumbled through a 1-4 homestand where you understand the loss to the Warriors but the other ones hurt, and it’s due to their defense completely falling apart (second worst in the NBA over the past six games). Tuesday’s loss to San Antonio started eight of nine on the road and that includes facing the Thunder and Cavaliers, it’s a tough stretch for a slumping L.A. that could see them tumble down these rankings and the standings.

 
Lakers small icon 18. Lakers (5-5 LW 23). Brook Lopez has been a fantastic big for what the Lakers want to do — he is their best three point shooter, a good passer, and can get buckets down low (they go to him in the post on mismatches after a switch). The Lakers start a four-game road trip in Boston on Wednesday, where Lonzo Ball matches up with Kyrie Irving.

 
Pacers small icon 19. Pacers (5-6, LW 18). Myles Turner is back, which has bumped Domantas Sabonis to the second unit — and that could be a good thing. Sabonis has been fantastic as the guy the offense ran through with the starters, if he can boost the bench it’s a big help in Indy. The loss to the Suns stings, but serves as a reminder that teams struggling on defense — the Pacers are 24th in the league this season — are more likely to have ugly losses. Indy needs to improve on that end of the court.

 
Cavaliers small icon 20. Cavaliers (5-6 LW 17). Four of the five Cleveland wins have come against the Bucks, Wizards, and Celtics — the Cavaliers show up and care against teams seen as a perceived threat. They don’t other nights. LeBron played the best game of the season last Friday night against Washington, scoring 57 points and single-handedly ending the Cavs four-game losing streak. To do that in his 15th NBA season is insane. But it just put a Band-Aid over the Cavaliers woes, and their worst in the league defense. The Cavs biggest defensive problem is not chasing teams off the arc and not contesting out there — teams are shooing 41.9 percent from three against them.

 
Thunder small icon 21. Thunder (4-6 LW 6).. Their defense is second best in the NBA, but the offense remains people taking turns going in isolation, not playing like a team. They have thrown the fewest passes of any team in the league. Carmelo Anthony is taking one more three and seeing one or two fewer possessions a game in OKC, but aside that his numbers are almost identical to his last season in New York. Things are not changing for him. Anthony needs 12 points to pass Hall of Famer and former teammate Allen Iverson for 24th on the all-time scoring list.

 
Jazz small icon 22. Jazz (5-6, LW 15). Utah’s offense is 8.5 points per 100 possessions better when Rudy Gobert is sitting? There’s no one simple answer as to why, but with Ricky Rubio at the point the pick-and-roll with Gobert has no threat of someone taking an outside shot, so the spacing becomes all muddled. Rubio is being more aggressive shooting the ball this season, especially from three, but his hitting just 29.8 percent of them.

 
Bucks small icon 23. Bucks (4-6 LW 12). After dropping three straight and feeling like this might be another season they take a step back, the Bucks made the big move and traded for Eric Bledsoe. That will help the rotations: Bledsoe will start, pushing Malcolm Brogdon to the second unit, and Matthew Dellavedova out of the rotation (a good thing, he’s been awful). Ideally Tony Snell gets fewer shots. On paper this is a smart gamble, now we will see if it pays off.

 
Heat small icon 24. Heat (4-6, LW 24). Hassan Whiteside returned last Wednesday and they needed him — he helped get the win over the Bulls then had 21 and 17 against the Clippers. The Heat just need consistency out of him now. Miami has started 1-2 on a six game road trip, and they have eight road games and three home games the rest of this month.

 
Nets small icon 25. Nets (4-7, LW 26). The Nets are averaging 109.2 possessions per game (via NBA.com), 3.5 possessions faster than the second place Suns, but combine pace and a bad defense and you have five guys having dropped at least 30 points on the Nets this season. Brooklyn has dropped five of its last six, and suddenly all that talk about the pick the Cavaliers got not being all that good has been silenced.

 
Suns small icon 26. Suns (4-7, LW 25). After the Suns sent Eric Bledsoe home, they gave up all their leverage, so the first-round pick they just got back for him — despite all the odd protections — is about as good as they were going to do. The question now is can the Suns flip Greg Monroe for more assets from another trade? Probably, but they are not going to get much in return as every team knows they want to dump him.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (2-7 LW 30). Bobby Portis is back in the rotation and didn’t look bad in his first game against the Raptors. Lauri Markkanen remains impressive, and is second in the NBA among rookies in both points per game and rebounds (trailing Ben Simmons in both categories). With Robin Lopez as an anchor, the defense for the Bulls’ starting five is pretty good, but get into the bench and things get ugly fast.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (2-8, LW 27). They still have the worst net rating in the NBA — -11.5 per 100 possessions — but the win over the Thunder Tuesday night keeps them out of the bottom of these rankings. It’s an odd mix with coach Dave Joerger trying to get minutes for George Hill (when healthy, he’s not right now), Zach Randolph, Garrett Temple and Vince Carter, and with them win games, then also be sure their young players get run to develop.

 
Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (2-9, LW 29). Their ailing offense looked good against the Cavaliers, which speaks more to Cleveland than Atlanta. Dennis Schroder is averaging 22.6 points and 6.6 assists per game, both career highs, and he’s been efficient if not consistent this season.

 
Mavericks small icon 30. Mavericks (2-10 LW 28). It’s been a rough start to the season (save for a nice win against Memphis last week), with Dallas having the third worst defense and seventh worst offense in the NBA this season. While seven of their remaining 10 games this month are at home, it’s a brutal schedule with the Thunder and Spurs twice each, the Cavaliers, Timberwolves and Celtics also in the mix.