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NBA Power Rankings: Rockets remain locked on top, race to the bottom interesting

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Not much movement at the top of the power rankings, the Rockets are playing well and most of the other top teams seem to have a case of senioritis looking ahead to the All-Star break. The more interesting race may be to the bottom, where the Suns and Nets are losing, the Knicks have dropped seven straight, and the taking for lottery position is about to go full force.

 
Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (43-13, Last Week No. 1). Houston is a run-and-gun Mike D’Antoni team, right? Not really, or at least not as much as people think. The Rockets are ninth in the NBA in pace and 14th in the NBA in the percentage of offense started in transition. The Rockets are very efficient when they get in transition, scoring a league best 129.5 points per 100 transition possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass), but they don’t run like people think. The Rockets have won nine in a row, they remain tied with the Warriors in the loss column in the race for the No. 1 seed and home court throughout the playoffs.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (44-13 LW 2). Whoever is doing the coaching for Golden State (Steve Kerr, Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee), he/they seems to have awakened their dormant bench of the past month or so. Which is good, because they may need to fill in for Draymond Green soon — he has a league-leading 14 technical fouls this season, two more and he gets an automatic one-game suspension. One sign of when the Warriors start to buckle down and focus again heading into the playoffs — their dreadful transition defense will improve. Right now it is one of the worst in the league.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (40-16, LW 3). Winners of six in a row — and the first five each by at least 15 points. The Raptors are in an impressive stretch and look like they could be the class of the East, but they will need to prove it in the playoffs. The Raptors are the top seed in the East as you read this — which could really matter come the playoffs. If Cleveland really has turned things around, the Cavs will still be the 3 seed (six games back of Boston/Toronto), meaning whoever finishes as the two seed gets them in the second round. Finish first, the path to the conference finals is cleaner.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (40-18, LW 4). Losers of 3-of-4, including ugly losses to the other top teams in the East Toronto and Cleveland. (The Celtics would have lost four in a row if the Wizards had played a little cleaner and Markieff Morris hadn’t fouled late.) The real reason for concern is the defense has been 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse in their last five games, going from best in the league to pedestrian. The offense remains just okay as it has much of the season, they need an elite defense to make up for it. This is likely just a blip, but something to watch.

 
5. Timberwolves (35-25, LW 5). That midseason stretch of good defense may have been a mirage — in their last 10 games the Timberwolves have given up a sieve-like 113.4 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the NBA for that stretch. Their transition defense continues to be the big issue. Rumors persist that Tom Thibodeau wants to pick up Derrick Rose off the buyout market, but I can’t see a good reason to do that. There are better options for point guard depth out there.

Bucks small icon 6. Bucks (32-24 LW 7). When Joe Prunty took over as head coach, his first move was to change the defensive schemes to something simpler and more traditional that his players could execute consistently — and in those 10 games the Bucks have allowed less than a point per possession and gone 8-2. Over that same time the Bucks have had a pedestrian offense (18th in the league) and while injuries (Malcolm Brogdon) are part of that the team needs to step up, starting with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

 
Spurs small icon 7. Spurs (35-24, LW 6). The Spurs have shaken up the starting lineup, inserting Davis Bertans and moving Pau Gasol to a sixth man role. The reason is that with Dejounte Murray starting at the point but not having an outside shot, the Spurs needed better floor spacing. They have gotten it, the offense has looked better with this new lineup. The Spurs are 1-3 at the start of their Rodeo road trip and it continues past the All-Star break through Feb. 25 in Cleveland.

 
Wizards small icon 8. Wizards (32-24, LW 8). Washington has won 6-of-8 since John Wall went down, with the two losses to elite defensive teams (Boston and Philly). With Tim Fraizer also out injured, the Wizards need to pick up a point guard on the buyout market to provide some depth behind Tomas Satoransky (who has played well and moved the ball with Wall out). Expect a move soon.

 
Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (29-28, LW 17). Winners of 10 in a row and they have been the best team in the NBA over that stretch. The biggest surprise is that the frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert is working again — the Jazz are +26.2 per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together during this streak. Not sure if that’s sustainable. Donovan Mitchell continues to impress during the streak taking over games late, Ricky Rubio has found a comfort level in Quin Snyder’s system and next to Mitchell, and Joe Ingles can’t miss. With a softer schedule the rest of the way than other teams in the fight for playoffs, fivethirtyeight.com says they have a 90 percent chance of making the postseason.

 
Cavaliers small icon 10. Cavaliers (34-22 LW 19). They are 2-0 with the new-look lineup, and while it’s just two games the fact that LeBron James looks energized again, that the athleticism on defense is paying off, and that the bench looks good are all very good signs the Cavs are on the right track. After the All-Star break Tyronn Lue will get a few practices with his new team, which is needed. It’s too early to buy in on the Cavaliers again, but I like what I’ve seen in the test drive so far.

 
Thunder small icon 11. Thunder (32-26 LW 9).. Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony returned to the rotation Tuesday night vs. Cleveland but it didn’t help, and the Thunder are 2-6 in their last eight. Without Andre Roberson in those games their elite defense has fallen to the middle of the pack (15th in the NBA in those 8) and they continue to look for a fifth man in the starting and closing rotation. Also in those eight games, the team’s offense has fallen to bottom 10 in the league. This still feels like a team better built for the postseason, but the hole they have dug themselves will make that a struggle.

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (31-26, LW 12). Denver quietly made a really smart move at the trade deadline, swapping out Emmanuel Mudiay for Devin Harris — Harris has fit right in and helped (he had 17 vs. Phoenix). The win over the Spurs Tuesday night mattered because for Denver the playoffs start now — they are the current six-seed in the West, but just two games up on the nine-seed Clippers (and three on the 10 seed and climbing Jazz). Denver needs victories now.

 
Sixers small icon 13. 76ers (29-25, LW 16). Adding Marco Belinelli after his buyout from the Hawks was a good pickup, he provides shooting and wing depth this team could use. The Sixers have won eight in a row at home now, but have 8-of-10 on the road were they are 12-15 this season. The Sixers need to keep racking up wins to keep Detroit at arms length and stay in the postseason, but the Sixers have the second toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way.

 
Pacers small icon 14. Pacers (30-25, LW 10). Indiana is 6-1 in games decided by three points or less this season, which is a little bit lucky but has helped keep them afloat and out of too much danger of missing the postseason. Although the bigger reason this team remains solidly in the postseason is the play of Victor Oladipo, the team has gone 13-6 since his return from injury.

 
Clippers small icon 15. Clippers (29-26 LW 14). DeAndre Jordan remained a Clipper past the trade deadline, despite a lot of teams calling about his availability (if the Clippers moved him they did not want to take on long-term salary coming back, and that became a sticking point). Whether he remains a Clipper after summer free agency is another question, he told our own Dan Feldman he’s not sure how much the team wants him, and you can bet other teams will work hard to recruit him.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (31-26, LW 13). The Trail Blazers offense was hot for a while, then has cooled off (despite a 50 spot from Damian Lillard) but the ups-and-downs are expected in an offense where the pick-and-roll ball handler or a guy in isolation take 30.3 percent of the shots (this team does not move the ball well, which can lead to contests against good defenses). Fun matchup Wednesday night when the Blazers face the Warriors: Lillard and C.J. McCollum vs. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

 
Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (30-26, LW 15). New Orleans is 3-5 since DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season, and not surprisingly it is the offensive end of the court where they miss him most. Since the injury, the Pelicans have scored just 101.6 points per 100 possessions, way down from the 108.3 rating they had before. The Pels defense has been okay, but it can’t cover up that much lack of scoring. Of the five teams battling for the final three playoff spots in the West, the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Pelicans have the toughest remaining schedules, New Orleans needs to find some buckets to stay in the postseason.

 
Heat small icon 18. Heat (30-27, LW 11). Dwyane Wade is back home in Miami, and that boost stopped a five-game skid. Wade is not an efficient scorer anymore, but he is an improved playmaker who can serve as sort of a defacto backup point guard, plus he can make some timely plays on both ends of the court. Expect him to keep coming off the bench but to get some crunch time minutes as well.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (27-29, LW 18). The Blake Griffin honeymoon is over as the Pistons have lost three straight and remain 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the East. If you really want to be picky, every game Griffin has won with the Piston came when the opponent was on the second game of a back-to-back. Overall the Pistons have been +6.5 points per 100 with Griffin on the court this season, but in the last three games, the Griffin and Andre Drummond pairing has been -14.4 per 100. Stan Van Gundy is looking forward to having some practices with his team at the end of the All-Star break.

 
Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (23-32 LW 21). Isaiah Thomas has a chance with the Lakers to improve his stock heading into his summer free agency — stock that took a serious hit in the past year with his injury, play in Cleveland, and his disruption of that locker room. Thomas had 22 points in his Lakers debut off the bench, and while his defense is still terrible if he can show he can still put up numbers he helps his cause this summer (either as a key ball handler on a lesser team or a sixth man on a good one).

 
Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (23-33, LW 20). The Hornets didn’t trade Kemba Walker at the deadline, as expected, but they should revisit that during the summer when the offers may improve. Charlotte did take a flier on Willy Hernangomez at the deadline, and while it adds some salary long term it’s a good flier on a guy who showed promise as a rookie then got squeezed in the New York rotations this season. On Saturday, while you’re settling in to watch the Dunk Contest, remember to wish Michael Jordan a happy 55th birthday.

 
Bulls small icon 22. Bulls (20-36 LW 29).. After trading out Nikola Mitotic, the Bulls took an interesting flier at the deadline taking on Noah Vonleh. He didn’t impress much in Portland but he was marginally better this season (he started a dozen games for them) and there is potential. Zach LaVine has impressed more and more of late, including the game-winning steal and dunk vs. Orlando on Monday.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (18-38, LW 25). And somewhere Scott Skiles smiles — the Magic decided to move on from Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline. They didn’t get much back but it was still the right move, it was time. Orlando continues to play well on offense — they are 10th in the NBA in that category over their last 10 games. The problem is they give up almost as many buckets as they score, leading to a 4-6 record in those games.

 
Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (18-40 LW 23). Dennis Smith Jr. continues to show flashes but struggle with efficiency, he scoring 15.5 points per game in his last 10 but is shooting just 36.1 percent overall and 27.7 percent from three in that stretch. On the bright side, Dirk Nowitzki dropped 22 on the Lakers and even had a dunk (his first of the season).

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (18-37, LW 24). Tyreke Evans is still in Memphis after the trade deadline in one of the most bizarre deadline non-moves we have seen. Memphis’ GM tried to spin this was better for the team, but the reality is no team was going to give him the first he wanted, so now rather than two second-round pick (or a second and Emmanuel Mudiay, a deal that was on the table) the Grizzlies are going to watch him walk this summer for nothing. Will they revisit the Marc Gasol trade idea this summer?

 
Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (23-35, LW 22). They have lost seven in a row and are pushing their way higher into the draft lottery. I like the trade deadline gamble on Emmanuel Mudiay, a big point guard who could be a backup down the line, and maybe play next to Frank Ntilikina. The Knicks aren’t going anywhere (this season or probably next after the Kristaps Porzingis ACL injury) so taking gambles and trying to develop players is what they should do.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (18-40, LW 28). Dewayne Dedmon is back in the rotation, and Mike Budenholzer is going deep into that rotation to get a good look at the players they have as the Hawks start to work out who can be part of the rebuild long-term. Atlanta has won 3-of-6, which normally one would say is a good thing but in a tight race for lottery position, the Hawks wins cost them the best lottery odds in the past week.

 
Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-38, LW 26). The Kings moved on from George Hill at the deadline, and they got a second-round pick for it. The real key for the Kings is what they do with that and their other picks — the Kings have either missed on or been unable to properly develop players over the past decade, and that has held them back. Sure, they nailed DeMarcus Cousins, and this is not about Georgios Papagiannis (who they waived), rather it’s about not regularly turning first-round picks into solid rotation players they can hold onto at an affordable price. That’s how teams get built, and the Kings need to get there to turn this ship around.

 
Nets small icon 29. Nets (19-39, LW 27). Getting a second-round pick for Tyler Zeller was a good move for the Nets. Losers of six in a row, that only serves to make Cavaliers fans happy as they control the Brooklyn pick (and they value it enough that Cleveland would not give it up at the trade deadline despite a roster overhaul). Allen Crabbe has shown some signs of life in the last two weeks, a good thing as he is near the top of the “most disappointing player in the NBA this season” list.

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-40, LW 30). Losers of six in a row and 11-of-12, the Suns are now tied for the worst record in the NBA (and a chance for the top spot in the draft lottery). I like the flier on Elfrid Payton at the trade deadline, they want a point guard to put next to Devin Booker eventually, and while Payton may not be it they didn’t give up much and Payton has potential if he could find his shot.

Instead of desired playoff appearance, Jazz might have found better prize in hotshot rookie Donovan Mitchell

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DETROIT – Donovan Mitchell inspires confidence.

Chris Paul watched him play at a spring camp and told Mitchell, who was leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior season, to declare for the NBA draft. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey threatened to fire anyone who revealed how good Mitchell looked in a pre-draft workout then traded up to pick the guard No. 13. After Gordon Hayward left Utah for the Celtics in free agency and early injuries set in, Jazz coach Quin Snyder made the rookie his go-to player. Fans flocked to Mitchell for his high-flying dunks, bold pull-up 3-pointers and monster scoring games.

Between his athleticism, smooth shooting stroke and 6-foot-10 wingspan on a 6-foot-3 body, Mitchell oozed promise. His future was undeniably bright.

But, in a distinction too few made, his present was underwhelming. Mitchell’s high-scoring nights were celebrated, but his too-frequent duds were ignored. He posted big point totals out of volume far more than efficiency. At Thanksgiving, his true shooting percentage was a dreadful 46.8, well below league average of 55.6.

Mitchell didn’t step back, though. In fact, he increased his offensive load. And he’s growing up right before our eyes. His true shooting percentage since Thanksgiving is 59.0, a sparkling mark considering his high usage.

“At the end of the day, I’m a rookie,” Mitchell said. “If I miss shots, it’s to be expected. None of this was supposed to happen.”

Not based on Mitchell’s reluctance to leave Louisville. Not based on his projection – mid-to-late first round – once he finally turned pro. Not based on where he actually got picked, No. 13.

But, by now, Mitchell has already established himself as a hyped player.

Most rookies who averaged 18 points per game won Rookie of the Year. Mitchell is averaging 19.1. He might not catch the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who appeared to be running away with the award earlier in the season, but Mitchell’s candidacy should be taken seriously.

Not that Mitchell is giving it much thought.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, make a playoff push,” Mitchell said. “I think if I focus on that one award, it’s kind of selfish on my part to be like, ‘Alright, this is why I’m playing.’ We have bigger things in mind.”

And that’s the rub.

Teams rarely win while relying so much on rookies. Sometimes, that’s because the only way to get a rookie worth giving the ball to so much is tankingg for a high pick. Regardless of that rookie’s talent, it can take years to build back up after stripping the roster to tank.

Utah sure didn’t do that, winning 51 games and a playoff series last season. The Jazz are still a veteran team, the NBA’s eighth-oldest weighted by playing time despite the 21-year-old Mitchell nearly leading them in minutes. They were built to win now with Hayward, and his departure threw the entire franchise for a loop.

Those are big shoes for Mitchell to fill, and he’s doing an admirable job – in context.

Mitchell shoots 16.1 times per game. The only team in the last 20 years to make the playoffs with a rookie taking at least 15 shots per game: Carmelo Anthony‘s Nuggets in 2004. Even at just 20-28, Utah has the best record of any team since with a 15-shot-per-game rookie:

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It’s especially hard to win when that go-to rookie is a guard. Putting the ball in a young player’s hands that often is just asking for trouble. The last team to make the playoffs with a guard shooting 15 times per game was Mitch Richmond’s Warriors in 1989. Restrict it to point guards, and the last team was Ernie DiGregorio’s Buffalo Braves in 1974.

Mitchell’s position is hazy.

He starts with Ricky Rubio, a clear point guard. But Mitchell spends so much time as the lead ball-handler, as he can use a variety of moves to create his own shot. The Jazz also try to get him going plenty off the ball by running him off screens. He’s dangerous as a spot-up shooter.

Mitchell is nearly peerless in the breadth and depth of his scoring.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (9.9 attempts per game) and efficiency (49.3 effective field-goal percentage) on shots off multiple dribbles: LeBron James, Victor Oladipo, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Lou Williams, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, D'Angelo Russell, C.J. McCollum, Kemba Walker, DeMar DeRozan.

Players who match Mitchell’s volume (3.6 attempts per game) and efficiency (66.5 effective field-goal percentage) on catch-and-shoots: Clint Capela, Buddy Hield, Mirza Teletovic, DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Kevin Durant, Reggie Bullock, Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Enes Kanter, Tyler Zeller, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Trey Lyles, Hassan Whiteside, Jamil Wilson, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, Dwight Powell, Julius Randle.

If you notice, the only player on both lists is LeBron.

Like LeBron and many other players, Mitchell chose his jersey number to honor Michael Jordan. But Mitchell chose No. 45, not Jordan’s more famous No. 23. Jordan wore No. 45 during his stint in baseball, Mitchell’s favorite sport growing up, then briefly during his first comeback with the Bulls, which happened before Mitchell was even born. Why not pick No. 23 like everybody else honoring Jordan wears?

“Because that’s what everybody else does,” Mitchell said. “I try to be different. I’m not like everybody else.”

Mitchell isn’t blazing a completely new trail, though. His combination of usage percentage (28.7) and true shooting percentage (54.6) is amazing for a rookie, but one other first-year player already did it:

Jordan.

By putting himself in that elite company, Mitchell isn’t having his role reduced – no matter what growing pains the Jazz must endure.

“He’s our best offensive player,” Snyder said. “So, he’s going to get responsibility. From my standpoint, there’s not a timeline.”

Mitchell plays and talks like someone whose self-confidence matches the belief everyone else has in him. So, why was he leaning toward returning to Louisville for his junior – not even sophomore – season until Paul told him otherwise? As Mitchell explains, he was too shocked by the idea of competing against players like LeBron and Durant for his confidence even to set in.

So, when did shock wear off?

“It really hasn’t, to be honest,” Mitchell said. “It’s game by game. It’s kind of crazy to me, the entire thing.”

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: Jahlil Okafor gets his chance. What will he do with it?

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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) Jahlil Okafor gets his chance. The #FreeJah movement got what it wanted on Thursday — Jahlil Okafor has been traded, and landed in about as good a situation for him as could be found, Brooklyn. The trade is Okafor, Nik Stauskas, and the Knicks 2019 second-round pick to Brooklyn, while Philly gets Trevor Booker.

The Sixers needed to move on from Okafor, the former No. 3 pick, he was not part of their future and was wasting away on their bench. Okafor did not play well next to Joel Embiid (in limited minutes) or Nerlens Noel, who also is gone. Okafor has a throwback game that is not the direction the NBA has moved with its bigs — he doesn’t have to be guarded more than 10 feet from the rim, he plays below the rim, and he struggles defensively both in space and protecting the paint. But he can score around the bucket.

Okafor is going to get his chance in Brooklyn, there are minutes to be had because the center spot is thin (Tyler Zeller has been starting, Jarrett Allen could be part of the future but is a project, and Timofey Mozgov is basically out of the rotation). The question is what will Okafor do with his second chance? He has to prove he can be an efficient scorer — through his career in Philly his true shooting percentage of 53.9 is basically league average. He has to be a better playmaker passing out of the post when doubled, and he has to be stronger on the boards. Assuming his defense is what it is at this point and not going to improve much, he needs to show he can be the efficent offensive force we saw at Duke, not the rather meh player he’s been at the NBA level. Guys like Zach Randolph and Enes Kanter have made nice careers playing below the rim and not defending much in the NBA, but they are incredibly efficient on offense. That’s what Okafor needs to be. Do so and he will find a nice contract next summer (probably in Brooklyn). Don’t and the market for him will be slim.

I like this trade for Philly, Booker adds solid depth up front off the bench. The Sixers didn’t give up much — neither Okafor nor Stauskas was part of their future — and they get another pro’s pro veteran who can come in, play with energy, be a glue guy and help them both make the playoffs and be a difficult out once there. Pair him with Richaun Holmes off the bench and you have a solid rotation that works for Philly.

2) If this Lakers/Sixers game is what we see in the NBA Finals in four or five years, I’m good with that. This game was fun, played at a good pace and with long, young athletes figuring their game out. There was a lot to like. The young and playoff-bound Sixers had Ben Simmons with a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 15 assists) although he turned the ball over four times and didn’t do a great job getting the Sixers into their game plan and sets early in the clock. Joel Embiid was a beast with 33 points. Robert Covington (19 points) and Richaun Holmes had good games for the Sixers as well, but Philly came out flat (down 13 in the first quarter) and, like a lot of young teams, tends to play to the level of their competition. Philly has lost back-to-back games to the Suns and Lakers, the kinds of games playoff teams win.

With the Lakers, Brandon Ingram is turning the corner. He wants to be the team’s closer, and showed why Thursday on national television.

As for the game winner, we all thought Lonzo Ball was going to take this shot, right? With the game tied 104-104, Brandon Ingram passed the rock to Ball who was wide open in the right corner — where Ball is 0-of-6 shooting on the season. Ball said earlier in the season he would have taken the shot, but this time he drove past the Joel Embiid closeout, got close to the paint and sucked all five Sixers defenders in with him — then Ball whipped the pass to a wide-open Ingram at the arc. Ingram shot it like a closer, like the guy with the killer instinct he wants to be.

I’ve written here before in recent weeks (and posted on Twitter) that Ingram is making big strides. He’s still got to get stronger, but he’s confident now and uses his length and more strength than people realize to get his shot. He had 21 points in this game (on 21 shots) and still goes more in isolation than I would prefer, but he is starting to develop into the key cornerstone piece the Lakers hoped for.

3) And the Oscar goes to… Andrew Bogut for the flop of the season so far. Either this was a great flop, or Andrew Bogut was shot by the second gunman in the grassy knoll. Either way, no way he went flying like this based on the contact involved — but it worked. Bogut got the foul call.

Report: Nets to sign center Tyler Zeller to two-year contract

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A couple years ago, Tyler Zeller was a regular part of the Celtics rotation, and while his game had slipped as of Monday morning he still was one of PBT’s 10 best free agents still on the market.

He’s not on the market anymore.

He will join Timofey Mozgov and Jarrett Allen in the big man rotation in Brooklyn reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The second year of the deal is not guaranteed.

This is another of the smart gamble moves by the Nets, taking a chance on a player who didn’t fit elsewhere but has some potential (like D'Angelo Russell). Zeller is fairly athletic and moves well for a big man, but he is not efficient on offense and struggles to defend in space. He has a midrange game, but if he could get some easy buckets at the rim he’d be much more efficient.

He will get his chance with the Nets to prove he still has a role in the NBA.