PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

NBA Power Rankings: Celtics remain on top but Suns jump up to second

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We head into the holiday season and the Boston Celtics are still rolling atop the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings this week. The Suns jumped up to second with a few wins while the Bucks stumbled, but the Pelicans remain in the top 10 and a surprise to be there.

 
Celtics small icon 1. Celtics (17-4, Last week No.1). Joe Mazzulla is going to get some Coach of the Year votes. It may be too early to start thinking about awards not voted on until April, but Mazzulla was thrust into an awkward situation with the suspension of Ime Udoka for the season, and all he has done is preside over the best offense in the history of the NBA — a 120.9 net rating (for comparison, the Jazz had the best offense in the NBA the previous two seasons at 116.2 and 116.5). Mazzulla didn’t mess with what works and kept the team focused. He deserves credit for that. Two interesting games this week against the Miami Heat, both in Boston (and the second one may see Jimmy Butler return).

 
Suns small icon 2. Suns (14-6, LW 3). The Suns are not the same team away from the Footprint Center in Phoenix — they are 11-1 at home and 3-5 on the road so far this season. Starting Sunday that will be put to the test as the Suns head out on the road for 6-of-7. Will Phoenix have Chris Paul for those games? Suns just-extended head of basketball ops James Jones said “he’s close” to a possible C3P return (he has missed 10 games with a heel injury), but there is no official return date set (he is out Wednesday vs. Chicago). One of the games on the upcoming road trip is against Dallas and Luka Doncic, the first time the playoff foes from last season have met since opening night.

 
Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (14-5, LW 2). After their 9-0 start to the season, the Bucks are a .500 team, with a pedestrian defense and a bottom-10 offense in that stretch. It’s hard to read too much into that with Khris Middleton still out — although he is poised to return this week, a massive boost for the team in the half-court — all of which may be a sign there are vulnerabilities in Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo set a career-best with nine dunks against the Cavaliers, a team with generally good rim protection but not in transition last Friday night.

 
Cavaliers small icon 4. Cavaliers (13-8, LW 4). Donovan Mitchell has been everything the Cavaliers have hoped for and more, but the first quarter of the season has shown Jarrett Allen is the most valuable Cavalier — he solidifies their paint defense and provides quality screen setting on offense. The Cavaliers have been 6.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season, but it’s the defensive end that comes apart when he misses games. Cleveland is a team of streaks: Win eight in a row, lose five in a row, win 5-of-6, then they fell again Monday in Toronto. LeBron and the Lakers come to town next Tuesday.

 
Grizzlies small icon 5. Grizzlies (12-8, LW 12). Memphis may only be 3-2 in games Jaren Jackson Jr. has played since his return, but they have outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions in the minutes he is on the court — he matters that much to this team. We also need to give some love to Santi Aldama, who played well with Jackson out and his defense and finishing are going to help this team win games when it matters. A couple of interesting games against the East are coming up, Friday night against the 76ers then Monday against the Heat.

 
Pelicans small icon 6. Pelicans (12-8, LW 9). Is New Orleans for real? On paper they are one of a handful of teams with a top-10 offense and defense, the traditional sign of a contender (it’s also a flawed measure, Boston doesn’t have a top-10 D right now but they are clearly contenders). Doubters will point to the fact opponents are shooting just 33.2% from 3 against the Pelicans (something likely to go up), plus that the Pelicans are 8-1 against teams under .500 but 4-7 against teams over that mark. Still, you have to beat the teams in front of you and the Pelicans have the fourth-best net rating in the league. Good tests are coming up with games this week against Toronto and Denver.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (12-9, LW 16). James Harden is expected to return on Philadelphia’s three-game road trip, maybe in Houston next Monday night (good soft landing spot). The 76ers are 8-4 in the dozen games Harden has missed so far and have the best defense in the NBA over that stretch — that is the end of the floor where they need to thrive after Harden (and, eventually, Tyrese Maxey) returns. The 76ers have those eight wins without Harden because B-Ball Paul Reed, Shake Milton and others (including Tobias Harris) have stepped up in recent games.

 
Nuggets small icon 8. Nuggets (13-7, LW 11). Denver outscores its opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions when Nikola Jokic is on the court, but gets outscored by 13.9 per 100 when he sits — the team is +26.7 when he plays. That’s the kind of wild on/off differential that helped him win back-to-back MVPs, but it was supposed to be different this season with the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the maturation of Bones Highland and the addition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The issues with the Nuggets bench remains and it’s something they need to solve if they want to challenge the teams above them in this ranking.

 
Clippers small icon9. Clippers (13-9, LW 7). It’s still hard to figure out what these Clippers are. They won the first three games Kawhi Leonard was back, and they have a ridiculous +31.7 net rating in the limited minutes that Paul George and Leonard are on the court together. But this team can’t stay healthy — Leonard was out with a sprained ankle — and gets its rotations set, so it just keeps treading water. Tuesday night in Portland started 6-of-7 on the road for Los Angeles.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (12-8, LW 13). Indiana and Myles Turner came through Los Angeles — the Pacers beat the Lakers on a dramatic game-winner by rookie Andrew Nembhard, but fell to the Clippers — and that revived trade speculation going back to this summer. While Turner works to ignore the noise and is having a career year so far, the bigger question becomes would the Pacers still trade him? Or do they want to keep him with Tyrese Haliburton long-term? Even if Indiana doesn’t want to trade him, if they think he will bolt in free agency next summer they may not have a choice, but for now the buzz around the NBA is the Pacers are not eager to deal (and would need to be blown away by an offer).

 
Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (10-10, LW 6). Tuesday night’s win over the Warriors sums things up for the Mavericks:
On any given night they can compete with anyone and win, but it takes a 41-point triple-double from Luka Doncic (12 rebounds, 12 assists) to have a chance. There is no secondary shot creation (off-season acquisition Christian Wood is coming off the bench), and with that the workload on Doncic is incredible. How long can he keep this up? That one game explains why no team wants to face the Mavericks in the playoffs, but what it will take for Doncic to get this team to the postseason is a lot to ask.

 
Warriors small icon 12. Warriors (11-11, LW 19). Golden State is 8-4 in last 12 and has found its footing. A key part of that was a move by Steve Kerr to split more of the minutes of Draymond Green and Stephen Curry more, having Green play with the second unit in place of the youngsters who did not work out as a group. The result has been something steady that works and doesn’t blow leads. Throw in Klay Thompson finding his legs again and the Warriors are starting to look like the Warriors again.

 
Raptors small icon 13. Raptors (11-9, LW 17). Pascal Siakam returned from a 10-game absence Monday and looked like his best self, getting downhill, attacking the rim, grabbing rebounds, and pushing the pace. Toronto went 5-5 without Siakam but it didn’t take long to see why they missed him. Scottie Barnes is back on the court as well, and with OG Anunoby playing at an All-Star — maybe Defensive Player of the Year — level, it could be time for the Raptors to string tother a few wins (doing so at Brooklyn and at New Orleans will not be so easy, however).

 
Jazz small icon 14. Jazz (12-11, LW 5). Losers of five in a row and 8-of-10, Utah has come back to earth after its fast start. The Jazz’s problems are on the defensive end, where they are second worst in the league over the last 10 games. The bad news is that in a very tight West, even a little losing a few games means a quick tumble down the standings (the Jazz fell to eighth in the West, part of the play-in). The good news is they are home for 7-of-8 coming up, a chance to rest and turn this thing around (the Jazz lost the opener of the homestead to the Bulls).

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (10-9, LW 8). Sacramento looks at the way De'Aaron Fox is thriving, the way Domantas Sabonis fits in with them, and yes, the way Tyrese Haliburton has blossomed in Indiana, and think they nailed the trade (something Sam Amick talked about at The Athletic). Maybe they were right, if they can hold on to a playoff spot. The Kings have had one of the easiest schedules in the league but that is about to change with a 7-of-8 on the road starting Saturday against the Clippers.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (11-11, LW 21). The Nets could be getting T.J. Warren back on Friday night, which could be a huge boost if Warren can get back close to his vintage self. Warren was one of the breakout stars of the bubble, averaging 26.6 points and 6.3 rebounds a game for the Pacers. However, he has played just four games since the bubble due to stress fractures in his foot. Kevin Durant may want nothing to do with the MVP conversation, but he continues to play at that level: 30 points per game on an insane 65.9 true shooting percentage, plus 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a night.

 
Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (11-10, LW 15). Consistency has not been in the Wizards’ vocabulary this season. Last week they dropped two games to the Heat, then watched Kristaps Porzingis go off for a career-high 41 against the Timberwolves in a win. Sometimes consistency can come when a team bonds on the road, which is what Washington needs to happen — 14 of its next 20 games are outside DMV. Bradley Beal seems to be finding his scoring groove again, which would help bring some consistency to the table.

 
Blazers small icon 18. Trail Blazers (11-10, LW 10). Good news in Portland: Damian Lillard is targeting Sunday to return from his latest calf strain. They need him. The Trail Blazers have gone 1-4 without him this time, including their worst loss of the season, a blown 18-point second-half lead to a Clippers team without either of their stars. Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to from the perennial All-Star. Hopefully he gets back to being that player quickly.

 
Hawks small icon 19. Hawks (11-10, LW 19). This team’s success seems fragile at times — Clint Capela has to sit a couple of games with dental pain and the defense comes apart, leading to losses. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray are blending fairly well together (+4.7 net rating when both are on the court) but the players around them have not meshed with the duo, and we thought the offense would thrive but it is 22nd in the league. Atlanta needs to pick up some wins in a soft part of the schedule this week (Orlando, OKC, and the New York Knicks).

 
Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (9-11, LW 20). After a 6-10 start, the Bulls beat the Celtics and Bucks in back-to-back games and have now won 3-of-4. Part of that can be tied to Patrick Williams, who started the season slowly but has averaged 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds a game in November, with a fantastic 63.2 true shooting percentage. Plus he plays solid defense. Chicago is 2-1 on its six-game road trip, but things do not get easier with Phoenix, Golden State, and Sacramento remaining.

 
Heat small icon 21. Heat (10-11, LW 24). With the roster shorthanded (Jimmy Butler is out for his seventh straight Wednesday due to right knee soreness) the Heat have leaned heavily into more zone defense. Couper Moorhead noted on Heat Twitter that in the six games including Sunday the Heat had over 330 possessions in the zone, “more than 21 teams used all of last year.” All the roster issues are part of why the Heat have been in 15 clutch games this season (within 5 points in the final five minutes), tied for most in the NBA, and they are 7-8 in those games despite a +9.4 net rating in those minutes.

 
Knicks small icon 22. Knicks (10-11, LW 20). RJ Barrett continues to present a challenge for Tom Thibodeau and Knicks fans. On the one hand, he gets you buckets — 18.4 points a game, plus 5.4 rebounds. But he’s terribly inefficient doing it, shooting 27.4% from 3 this season and with an ugly 49.9 true shooting percentage. He has a four-year, $107 million extension that kicks in next season, and while that is not wildly out of line he is not living up to it, either. Thibodeau has given Barrett plenty of room to be Barrett, but if this team wants to take the next steps either he needs to start making more shots, or those shots need to go to someone who will.

 
23. Timberwolves (10-11, LW 18). Karl-Anthony Towns is now out 4-6 weeks with a calf strain, and even if he beats that timeline it’s concerning for the Timberwolves — it’s never good to be without your franchise player for an extended period. What’s more, the Timberwolves have a -11.8 net rating this season when Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards are on the court together but Towns is not. That can change, maybe going to a more conventional one-big lineup and some D'Angelo Russell pick-and-roll will work, but the pieces have not fit well yet in Minnesota and this isn’t going to help matters.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers 7-12, LW 25). The Lakers did what they needed to do, racking up wins (5-of-6) through a soft part of the schedule. Now things get serious, and it didn’t start well with the heartbreaker loss to the Pacers. There are positives with the Lakers — Russell Westbrook‘s play off the bench, a more consistent Lonnie Walker IV — but if the losses start piling up again as the schedule gets tougher, tension around this team is going to rise quickly.

 
Thunder small icon 25. Thunder (8-13, LW 22). After a strong start to the season, OKC has hit a rough patch losing 5-of-6, with a bottom-10 offense and defense in that stretch. There are positives to take away from the first quarter of the season, beyond the fact Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has ascended to All-NBA level star. Rookie Jalen Williams (the wing out of Santa Clara) has impressed. Aleksej Pokusevski has taken a step forward and is contributing. This team was never going to win a lot of games but there are positives.

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (6-15, LW 26). Gordon Hayward‘s fractured left shoulder has added drama on and off the court in Charlotte, Terry Rozier is not meant to play point guard but is forced into the role with LaMelo Ball still out, and the lack of shooting and depth has left the Hornets with the worst offense in the NBA this season. Still, there are positives, such as the recent play of center Nick Richards, who has shown potential at the five (and deserves more run over Plumlee).

 
Rockets small icon 27. Rockets (5-15, LW 28). After a rough start to the season, rookie Jabari Smith Jr. has looked better of late, averaging 15.8 points per game and shooting 40% from 3 over his last five. What’s more he’s +19 in those five games (for context, he is -125 for the season). It will be a process with him, but he’s showing improvement. Rough stretch for the Rockets this week with three on the road — Denver, Phoenix, Golden State — then coming home to a healthy Philadelphia 76ers team.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (5-18, LW 29). If you hear one name more than any other starting Dec. 15 (when most players signed this summer can be traded, unofficially the start of NBA trading season) it will be Bojan Bogdanovic. He is playing well, averaging 20.3 points a game and shooting 39.7% from 3. A lot of teams are going to be calling, the Pistons just extended him at a fair price, but the question is do they want to keep him to help speed the turnaround next season (with a healthy Cade Cunningham), or should they get younger players and continue the rebuild? One thing is for sure, they are not giving him away, it will take an impressive offer to land him.

 
Magic small icon 29. Magic 5-16, LW 27). Paolo Banchero is back on the court after missing seven games, and scored at least 18 points in each of those games, including 24 on 9-of-17 shooting against the Nets. Markelle Fultz is also close to a return, as is Cole Anthony, adding more ball handlers and shot creators to the mix for the Magic. When healthy, this is an entertaining team to watch, if not one winning many games because of their defense.

 
Spurs small icon 30. Spurs (6-15, LW 30). It’s challenging to find bright spots on a Spurs team that has lost eight in a row and 13-of-14, but the one worth talking about might be Devin Vassell. The third-year wing out of Florida State has made a leap this season, averaging 20.4 points, shooting 41.9% from 3, and being more efficient overall despite a massive jump in usage. He deserves consideration for the Most Valuable Player award, even if it’s going to be tough to win it on this team.

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.

Three things to know: In very tight West, will any team go all in to win?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) In very tight West, will any team go all in to win?

Talking to someone with the Clippers less than a couple of hours before Kawhi Leonard‘s return to play, they casually said one of the reasons they were comfortable being patient was nobody had run away with the West.

They are right. On Thanksgiving, nearly 20 games into the season, just three games separate the top-seeded Suns and the out-of-the-play-in 11-seed Warriors.

It’s not like that in the East, where Boston and Milwaukee have clearly looked like the two best teams, and there is already a six-game gap between the Celtics and the 11-seed Bulls. Out East, the bar has been set (and both the Bucks and Celtics are still without key players due to injury).

Out West, no team has run away with anything — five other teams are within a game of the top-seeded Suns. Or, look at it this way: The Suns are two games away from falling from the top seed to the play-in. With so few games played who a team played matters, strength of schedule factors in more, and the Kings, Clippers and Suns are among the seven easiest schedules in the league. Things will get tougher for them.

Which leads to this question, one asked by Vincent Goodwill on Brother from Another on Peacock Wednesday:

Will any team make a bold trade and make themselves the team to beat in the West?

There are rumors of deals, but they are not necessarily a conference changers. The Jazz have been rumored to have an interest in John Collins. The Suns have their eye on Bojan Bogdanovic in Detroit among other players (and they are sending out Jae Crowder in a deal at some point, looking for players who can help them win now in return). Will any team make a move for Myles Turner? (And will the Pacers trade him, after they have gotten off to a better-than-predicted start and Turner has been a beast protecting the rim?) Buddy Held? Will the Rockets finally trade Eric Gordon?

Those are all quality role players, but what about the superstars? The players that shift the balance of power?

Nothing is sure on that front. Yet. A lot of eyes have turned to Brooklyn where the Nets look flawed and Kevin Durant looks frustrated. Then there are questions about which teams might look at themselves in the mirror come Christmas and decide to pivot toward Victor Wembanyama and the lottery. The Heat and Bulls are right with the Nets in disappointing starts, might they become sellers? (It’s hard to imagine the Heat throwing in the towel on any season, but they could put quality role players on the market beyond Duncan Robinson if they want.)

Some team in the West is going to make a move. Maybe the Mavericks find a running mate for Luka Doncic. Maybe it’s internal, like the Clippers getting Paul George and Kawhi Leonard healthy and on the court together for an extended stretch (they did go 3-0 when Leonard returned, only for him to sit out in a loss to the Warriors Wednesday due to his ankle). Maybe Denver cleans up their bottom-five defense. Perhaps the Pelicans get Zion Williamson healthy for an extended stretch and look like a team ready to make the leap.

Or maybe it is the Suns, but after the way they exited the last playoffs, they will have to prove their mental toughness in May, not December.

The door is open in the West. Is any team going to be bold enough to walk through it?

2) Bulls finally win a game in the clutch, knock off Bucks 118-103

Last season, the Bulls were one of the best teams in the clutch in the NBA, largely thanks to DeMar DeRozan having a career year and hitting big shots. This season, the Bulls entered Wednesday 0-7 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes (not a perfect measure of clutch, but the one that has become the standard).

But Wednesday Coby White stepped up.

The Bulls are not a team stacked with shooting that takes a lot of 3-pointers, but White is a guy that can get hot for them from deep. He had two threes in the final 90 seconds that were key, as was Alex Caruso drawing a late charge on Giannis Antetokounmpo.

DeRozan finished with 36 for the Bulls. Antetokounmpo had 36 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, Brook Lopez added 20, but the Bucks turned the ball over 20 times and that did them in.

The Bulls have now beaten the Celtics — snapping Boston’s nine-game win streak — and the Bucks in back-to-back games. It’s a huge confidence boost for a team that stumbled out of the gate, now can they sustain and build on that momentum?

3) Trae Young puts up 36 and Kings’ seven-game win streak goes down

They can’t light the beam every night.

The Sacramento Kings seven-game win streak ended at the hands of Trae Young, who can be a one-man offensive machine and put up 36 on the Kings in a 115-106 Atlanta victory.

Malik Monk led Sacramento with a season-high 27 points, but this wasn’t their night. Clint Capela added 11 points and 14 rebounds for the Hawks.

The Kings have been a great story, the second-best offense in the NBA (using the NBA.com numbers) with De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis leading the way and seemingly a different guy stepping up every night. But they have had this fun, 10-7 start against one of the softest, easiest schedules of any team so far. That’s about to change with the Celtics and Suns on the docket for their next two games (and a long road trip in December). The tests for the Kings are coming.

Watch Zion Williamson score season-high 32 as Pelicans beat Spurs

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SAN ANTONIO — New Orleans forward Zion Williamson is starting to feel like himself again. San Antonio can attest to that.

Williamson had a season-high 32 points along with 11 rebounds and the Pelicans never trailed while handing the Spurs their sixth straight loss, 129-110 on Wednesday night.

“Zion was a monster from start to finish,” New Orleans coach Willie Green said. “Driving the ball, kicking it about to his teammates. Taking advantage of mismatches. Defensively, I thought he was really solid tonight. Just in the right spots, communicating, switching with contact, all the things we work on. Monster game by Z tonight.”

Williamson, who missed all of last season following surgery to repair a fractured right foot, has had two consecutive solid outings. He was limited to nine points in a 128-83 victory over Golden State on Monday night, but his defensive effort was key.

“Defensively, I’m starting to find my movements and feeling the game out,” Williamson said. “Really seeing the game. I was happy about last game (defensively). This game, it just trickled over to my offense.”

Williamson was 14 for 18 from the field while scoring 28 points in the paint.

Even with C.J. McCollum out due to an illness, the Pelicans extended their lead to 24 points in the fourth quarter in winning for the seventh time in nine games.

San Antonio’s reserves went on an 11-0 run to cut New Orleans’ lead to 118-102 with 3:20 remaining, but the game was essentially decided in the opening minutes.

Spurs guard Devin Vassell had 26 points and eight assists and Doug McDermott added 21 points. San Antonio has lost 11 of 12.

Jonas Valanciunas finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds for New Orleans.

The Spurs missed their first eight shots of the game as the Pelicans raced to a 21-6 lead. San Antonio would follow that by scoring four points in the first 4 1/2 minutes of the second quarter.

Williamson and Valanciunas dominated the paint early, combing to score 18 points on 7 for 9 shooting in the first 6 1/2 minutes of the game.

“Well, obviously we didn’t figure it out,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said of defending Williamson. “But there is a reason why he got picked where he got picked. He’s pretty good.”

New Orleans held Keldon Johnson, San Antonio’s leading scorer, to a season-low five points. Johnson’s three lowest totals of the season have come in his last three games.