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NBA Power Rankings: Can anyone threaten the Bucks, Lakers in top spots?

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The Bucks and Lakers are running away with their conferences, and with that hold on to the top spots in this week’s power rankings. The question is can anyone knock them off come the playoffs?

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (50-8, Last Week No. 1). The calendar hasn’t even flipped over to March yet and the Bucks have 50 wins and have officially secured a playoff spot already. They have been that dominant in the East, and they looked every bit the inevitable favorite to come out of that conference in crushing the Sixers on Saturday, then beating Toronto on the road Tuesday, on the second night of a back-to-back. The Bucks are now 6-2 this season against teams winning at least 65% of their games (stat via Tom Ziller).

 
Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (44-12, LW No. 3). Picking up Markieff Morris on the buyout market not only gives the Lakers another solid rotation player, it gives them a floor-spacing four to play in lineups with Anthony Davis at center (which remain their best lineups, the Lakers were +14 against Boston with AD at the five). With a 5-game cushion in the West, Los Angeles should find a way to reduce LeBron’s minutes and get him some rest in the next month, before the grind of the playoffs start.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-16, LW 2). Toronto has lost just twice in their last 19 games. The first came to Brooklyn in the game before the All-Star break, which they treated like the last day of school before vacation. That happens. However, the loss to the Bucks at home on Tuesday was more disturbing. It came on a night Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry struggled, exposing issues with this team. If Lowry and Pascal Siakam are not hot this team struggles to create good looks — and hit them — against a quality defense. Also, Kyle Lowry, this simply isn’t ever going to work.

 
Rockets small icon 4. Rockets (37-20, LW 9). Small ball is working. Since the Rockets added Robert Covington they are 5-1 with a +12.9 net rating when he is on the court. The best news for Rockets fans dreaming of a deep playoff run is that the team’s defense has been solid in those six games, 13th in the league over that stretch. With James Harden and this version of Russell Westbrook (playing to his strengths, not jacking up threes) the Rockets will score plenty, but if they get stops this team becomes dangerous.

 
Celtics small icon 5. Celtics (39-17, LW 4). Kemba Walker is out and this team barely misses a beat because Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are playing so well. Tatum continued the leap forward this season that made him an All-Star when playing the Lakers last Sunday, scoring 41 and forcing Los Angeles to throw doubles at him and get the ball out of his hands. Combine that with an aggressive, switchable defense and maybe Boston is the one team in the East with any shot at Milwaukee.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (36-22, LW 11). Oklahoma City has some of the best lineups in the league. Their three-guard lineup — Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — has a net rating of +29.7 and dominates on both ends when out there together. Round that group out with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams and the Thunder have a +30.5 net rating. That’s a long list of guys with some playoff experience, too — the Thunder are going to be a tough out for whichever team lands them in the first round.

 
Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (40-18, LW 5). Denver is finally healthy and with that, when you look at their roster led by a motivated (and thinner) Nikola Jokic, you see this team has the potential to be a threat to the Lakers and Clippers. A lot needs to go right for that to happen. They need Gary Harris to play better. They need to prove they can defend and execute on the biggest of stages. They need to keep the second seed. All that said, the potential is there. Denver picked up a couple of soft wins once healthy (Timberwolves and Pistons), but there’s a good test coming against a (probably) full-healthy Clippers squad on Friday night (then Toronto next).

 
Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (38-19, LW 6). Monday night was the first game the Clippers had their fully healthy new roster in place, with Marcus Morris starting and all the core guys there — and they crushed the Grizzlies. It was a reminder of how good this team can be: They are 15-5 this season in games Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley all play. Injuries have forced Doc Rivers to use a league-high 28 different starting lineups this season, but if this core can stay healthy for a month, get time on the court together and build chemistry, nothing stands in their way.

 
Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (36-22, LW 10). Ben Simmons is out for at least two weeks — and likely longer, maybe much longer — with a pinched nerve in his lower back. It’s concerning because we don’t know what is causing the issue in the first place, and these kinds of injuries can linger. Losing the All-Star is a huge blow down the stretch for a Philadelphia team trying to catch Miami and get home court in the first round of the playoffs. Joel Embiid is back to being a beast, playing like the best center in the game, but the Sixers still need some outside to go with that inside.

 
Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (35-23, LW 12). Luka Doncic is back from his sprained ankle (his second this season), and Dallas has comfortably won all three games he played in that stretch (the one loss, to Atlanta, was when he and Kristaps Prozingis sat on a back-to-back). The chemistry between Doncic and Porzingis is picking up, they combined for 60 points in a win against Sacramento and 57 against the Magic. Also, Mark Cuban will soon get a healthy fine for his Twitter rant against the referees after the Atlanta loss, adding to the $1.6 million he has paid in fines since becoming the owner of the team (the money goes to NBA charities, for the record).

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (36-21, LW 8). Losers of three in a row (with Boston coming up next), Utah is 4-7 in its last 11 games — with the fifth worst defense in the NBA in that stretch. Utah is not putting together 48 good minutes, letting rough offensive stretches impact their defense (or, sometimes, bad defense impacts the offense). Utah has slid down to the fifth seed and out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs in the West. They have the talent to turn this thing around, but time is running out.

 
Heat small icon 12. Heat (36-21, LW 7). Miami has gone 2-4 since the trade that brought them Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder, with the struggles coming on both ends of the court. Overall the Heat are 2-6 in their last eight games, with five of those losses coming on the road. They are in danger of falling out of having home court in the first round of the playoffs (Miami seems headed to face Philadelphia in that first round, and only one game separates them in the loss column). The Heat have five games in a row and 8-of-10 at home, this is their chance to turn things around.

 
Pacers small icon 13. Pacers (34-24, LW 13). Victor Oladipo sat out the past two games after tweaking his back, it doesn’t sound like he will be out long but it’s something to watch. Indiana is 3-7 since his return and in that time the defense has been solid but the offense has been bottom five in the league. Things are about to get tougher, on Saturday the Pacers start a run of 6-of-7 on the road (with the one home game being the Celtics).

Pelicans small icon 14. Pelicans (25-33, LW 17). Zion Williamson remains must-watch — he has scored at least 25 points in five straight games, and has broken the 20-point barrier in nine straight. That has led to a lot of “Can he catch Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year?” talk. Pelicans fans, do not get your hopes up — availability is the best ability and Morant has missed just five games, plus he is putting up very impressive numbers in his own right as the primary shot creator on a team (currently) in the playoffs. The only hope Zion has is for the Pelicans to bump the Grizzlies out of the playoffs, and even that may not be enough.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (26-30, LW 16). Kyrie Irving is out for the season thanks to shoulder surgery, but the Nets are a .500 team (18-18) without him this season. With the Nets comfortably locked into a playoff slot (six games up on ninth seed Washington) Brooklyn can get back to the Spencer Dinwiddie-led balanced attack that makes the Nets a tough team to beat nightly. Their next four games are on the road.

 
Magic small icon 16. Magic (25-32, LW 18). If Orlando is going to climb out of the eight seed and avoid Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs, now is the time — they enter a soft patch of the schedule the next few weeks and can string together some wins. That has already started. Orlando has turned around its recent rough patch winning three of four, and the trio of Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vucevic should keep the Magic comfortably in the playoffs.

 
Grizzlies small icon 17. Grizzlies (28-29, LW 14). No coach does the “we just want to get better every day” coach speak than the Grizzlies Taylor Jenkins. However, it seems to be working. Back in November, Memphis had a defensive rating of 113.8, fifth-worst in the NBA. In February, that is down to a 106.4 net rating, fourth-best in the NBA. That has not led to wins because the offense has been bottom five in the league the past five games. Memphis needs some wins to hold off Portland and New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the West.

 
Kings small icon 18. Kings (23-33, LW 19). It’s too little too late to end the league’s longest playoff drought, but Sacramento has won 6-of-8, and are doing it without bigs Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes (injures). De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Heild (the latter coming off the bench) are carrying the offense, both averaging more than 20 points a game during the streak. Suddenly the Kings look like the exciting, athletic, attacking team we’d hoped to see all season long.

 
Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (26-32, LW 15). Damian Lillard remains out with a groin strain suffered the night before the All-Star break, and with that Portland’s chances to climb back into the West playoffs remain on hold. The Blazers have one of the softest remaining schedules in the league, but they have lost 4-of-5 and without Lillard they are not the same threat. Portland has 4-of-5 coming up on the road.

 
Suns small icon 20. Suns (24-34, LW 21). Much of the talk around Deandre Ayton and the Suns is the numbers the young center puts up, but quietly Phoenix has become a good defensive team with him around. The Suns have a defensive rating of 107.1 when he is on the court, which would be top 10 in the league. When Ayton and Booker share the court, the Suns are +6.1 per 100 possessions. The Suns have won 3-of-4, and they now have six in a row coming up at home.

 
Spurs small icon 21. Spurs (24-32, LW 20). Don’t leave San Antonio out of your “they could get the eighth seed in the West” discussions, they are only 3.5 games back of struggling Memphis. The Spurs have a heavy home schedule and some softer teams coming up, if San Antonio is going to make a run to extend their playoff streak to 23 years now is when it happens. San Antonio is going to need consistency out of Dejounte Murray to make that run.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (20-36, LW 23). Bradley Beal is going off — two straight 50+ point games — and yet both of those games ended up in the loss column for Washington. That stings. The Wizards are just 3.5 games back of the Magic (four in the loss column) for the final playoff spot in the East, but to get there Washington needs to take advantage of their best player making a push for the All-NBA team.

 
Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (20-39, LW 26). Coby White is on fire, scoring 30+ points in three straight games — the last Bull to do that was some guy named Michael Jordan. That, however, has not moved White into the starting lineup (despite Kris Dunn being out for the season injured), which has become the latest knock on coach Jim Boylen. It’s right up there with his bad timeouts at the end of decided games. Will the new front office person hired by the Bulls this summer have the authority to remove the coach? We know John Paxson doesn’t want to.

Pistons small icon 24. Pistons (19-41, LW 22). Andre Drummond? Gone. Reggie Jackson? Gone. Markieff Morris? Gone. The rebuild is on in Detroit, but for the rest of this season it will be Derrick Rose against the world. The Pistons have lost seven in a row and things are not going to get better in the short term.

 
Hornets small icon 25. Hornets (19-38, LW 28). After he shot 1-of-17 in the first two games out of the All-Star break, coach James Borego decided to give Devonte’ Graham some rest on Tuesday night. Graham has come back to earth after his hot start to the season, although he still looks like a rotation player who can be part of Memphis’ future. So does P.J. Washington. After that… Mitch Kupchak has a lot of roster building to do this summer.

 
Hawks small icon 26. Hawks (17-42, LW 27). It’s tough to say this team can build for the future as it plays out the string this season because it is doing so without Clint Caplela, the big man they traded for at the deadline who remains out injured. John Collins is playing like a guy who got his job threatened at the deadline, averaging 25 points a game on 63.3 shooting, plus 10.5 rebounds a night in his last 10 games.

 
Cavaliers small icon 27. Cavaliers (16-41, LW 30). Cleveland has the most heavily used five-man lineup in the NBA this season: Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Cedi Osman, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson. That group also has a -9.6 net rating. The Cavaliers have won 3-of-4 and are home for 6-of-7, but the teams coming in are all over .500 playoff teams.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (17-40, LW 24). The Leon Rose era in New York officially begins on Sunday, and he takes over a team with a couple nice young players — RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson — plus seven first-round picks in the next four years. The pieces are there, but can Rose put together an organization that drafts well and develops players, building a foundation to attract elite free agents? Will James Dolan give him the autonomy and time to do it.

 
29. Timberwolves (16-40, LW 25). Losers of five in a row and 18-of-19, and Karl-Anthony Towns is out weeks with a fractured wrist. There have been flashes from D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, but this team is a defensive disaster, which makes it difficult to win any games. Especially without Towns to put up points and cover the mistakes.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (12-45 LW 29). Stephen Curry will make his return to the lineup on Sunday after missing four months with a fractured hand. Expect it to take a few games for him to get his legs back under him, but the Warriors should be better — and a vastly more interesting team to watch — as Curry and Andrew Wiggins start to figure out how to play together.

Three Things to Know: Emotional celebration of Kobe’s life just start of day for Harden, Booker

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

1) Emotional, moving Kobe Bryant Celebration of Life just start of the day for James Harden, Devin Booker. The most fitting way to honor Kobe Bryant? Play the game of basketball with passion. Leave everything on the court.

James Harden and Devin Booker did just that.

Harden, Booker, and Russell Westbrook were at the powerful and unforgettable Kobe Bryant Celebration of Life memorial Monday afternoon at Staples Center in Los Angeles. All three left that event, hopped on charter flights, and were playing in NBA games that night.

Harden had 37 points on 14-of-25 shooting, leading the small-ball Rockets past the Knicks.

Westbrook also was in Los Angeles and then in Houston for the game, but he did not play (officially due to a sure thumb).

Booker’s flight took him to Salt Lake City where he scored a fitting 24 points to spark the Suns in an upset win over the stumbling Utah Jazz.

However, the most impressive double-duty of the day belonged to Oregon women’s basketball star Sabrina Ionescu. She spoke at Kobe’s memorial that morning.

Then she was on a plane to the Bay Area where she laced them up for the Ducks against Stanford and made history becoming the first college basketball player — male or female — to score 2,000 points and have 1,000 rebounds and 1,0000 assists in a career.

Somewhere, Kobe is smiling watching the way Ionescu plays. That passion is the most fitting way to honor him.

2) Bradley Beal scores 50+ points for the second straight game. Wizards lose for the second straight game.
Bradley Beal is putting up up points like he’s an NBA Jam game come to life — “He’s on fire!” In Chicago Sunday night Beal scored a career-high 53 points, but Washington still lost in Chicago.

Monday night against the Bucks Beal topped it, scoring 55 points — including 22 in the fourth quarter to force overtime, then seven more in the extra frame — and still the Wizards lost. Again.

Around the league last summer, teams were making calls to see if the Wizards were ready to trade Beal. Instead, he took the cash and showed his loyalty to the franchise by signing a max extension. Beal and everyone else knew the Wizards would struggle this season, he made his $71 million decision (and you can’t blame a man for getting paid).

Those trade calls are going to start up again next summer, but the Wizards are intent on getting John Wall back on the court with Beal and their younger players such as Rui Hachimura then making a playoff push next season. Beal is not going to be on the move. Yet.

Also of note out of Milwaukee’s win, Khris Middleton scored Milwaukee’s final nine points on his way to 40 for the night.

3) Joel Embiid scores career-high 49 points in 76ers win. Joel Embiid is another one of the NBA players who has talked about how much Kobe influenced him — watching Bryant in the 2010 NBA Finals is what inspired him to play basketball.

Embiid played inspired ball on Monday night, scoring a career-high 49 points plus grabbing 14 rebounds in a 76ers win at home over the Hawks.

That win leaves Philadelphia just one game back in the loss column from Miami for home court in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. (A Heat/76ers matchup is looking more and more likely in that first round.)

However, the Sixers found out Monday that Ben Simmons will be out for an indefinite amount of time due to lower back pain. Losing the All-Star could be a blow to the Sixers home court (and maybe playoff) chances.

Bradley Beal scores 50+ again. Wizards lose again.

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WASHINGTON — Bradley Beal, one night after scoring a then-career-high 53 points in a loss at Chicago, topped it with a 55-point effort that included 22 points in the fourth quarter and seven more in overtime against the Bucks.

The Wizards lost. Again.

Khris Middleton scored Milwaukee’s final nine points and the Bucks beat Beal and the Washington Wizards 137-134 in overtime on Monday night.

Middleton, who finished with 40 points, hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 30.2 seconds left to five the Bucks a 135-132 lead.

After Beal made two free throws, Middleton was fouled with 7.8 seconds left and made both attempts from the line to make it 137-134 and Troy Brown, Jr.’s 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer.

Shabazz Napier added a season-high 27 points for Washington.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 22 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out with 1:33 remaining in regulation for Milwaukee.

The Wizards rallied from 17 points down to take a 123-121 lead on Beal’s 3 with 1:01 remaining.

Eric Bledsoe‘s free throws tied it and after a miss by Beal, Middleton missed as well. Felipe Lopez blocked Rui Hachimura‘s layup attempt with 1:0 second left and Milwuaukee’s alley-oop toss at the buzzer failed.

Middleton had a career-high 51-points in the teams’ first meeting, a 151-131 Milwaukee win on Jan. 28.

The Bucks led 51-49 early in the third quarter when Middleton’s step-back jumper started a 14-2 run.

Washington rallied and Napier’s four-point play made it 102-93 with 9:29 left in the game, and his layup soon pulled the Wizards within seven. Middleton scored four straight points to push the lead back to double figures, but Beal scored 17 straight Wizards points and his 3 made it 119-116 with 2:15 left.

Three Things to Know: It was a good day, Lakers get LeBron game-winner, sign Markieff Morris

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

1) It was a good day, Lakers get LeBron dagger, sign Markieff Morris.
The ghost of drafts past and playoffs future haunted the Lakers on Sunday — all in the form of Jayson Tatum.

Three years ago, the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball No. 2, the Celtics took Jayson Tatum No. 3 — and Tatum has proven to be the better pick. On Sunday, taking over playmaking responsibilities with Kemba Walker out, Tatum dropped 41 on the Lakers, forced L.A. to adjust its defense and double him in the fourth. It was Tatum who pushed Boston to a lead in the third quarter. After the game, LeBron gave Tatum a shoutout on Instagram.

LeBron, however, had the final word (the day before the Kobe Bryant memorial in the same building, it was fitting). In what was one of the best games of the regular season — despite some questionable officiating that took the flow out of the game late — it was LeBron’s fade-away midranger over Jaylen Brown that was the game-winner.

 

If the Lakers had drafted Tatum, he likely would have been traded to New Orleans — just like Ball was — to bring Anthony Davis west. Tatum is an All-Star, but Davis was all-world on Sunday with 32 points and 13 rebounds, both team highs. The Lakers don’t win this, or much of anything else this season, without him.

Tatum’s big night was also a reminder the Lakers struggle to slow athletic wings — something that could be a real issue come the playoffs. Big wings — such as Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons (more point guard than wing, but same ball handling concept) — have had big nights against the Lakers. Look around the West and you can see where this could be a serious playoff issue.

Can Markieff Morris help? The Lakers officially signed him on Sunday after he cleared waivers (Los Angeles let DeMarcus Cousins go to make room). Morris will come off the bench at the four behind Anthony Davis, and could play next to AD (with Kyle Kuzma at the three) in some lineups.

Can Morris handle Leonard or Paul George or Bojan Bogdanovic? Probably not, but Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma can’t either. Morris is another player the Lakers can throw in that mix. If need be, the Lakers can close games with LeBron on that wing player down the stretch — he can have a defensive impact. And we know he knows how to close games.

2) Zion Williamson was too much for Golden State to handle. Every game, Zion Williamson gets a little bit better. Which is scary.

Over his last five game he has averaged 27.4 points on 63.1 percent shooting. He’s also averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds a game — and if he doesn’t get the rebound, he’ll just rip it away from the guy who did.

That was just two of the 28 points Williamson put up against the Warriors Thursday. Every bucket seemed to be a highlight. Williamson also dropped a defender to the ground.

And, of course, there were the monster dunks.

These are not empty-calorie points that Zion is getting, he could be leading them to the playoffs. The Pelicans are 4-1 in their last five games with a +9.9 net rating. They sit just 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West, and the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule in the West while the Pelicans have the easiest.

3) Just 56 games into the season, the Bucks have already clinched a playoff spot. On Sunday, Bradley Beal dropped 53 points on Chicago and that still wasn’t enough to get the lowly Wizards a win; they fell to the Chicago Bulls.

The Wizards are ninth in the East, and their loss clinched a playoff spot for the Bucks. Already. Just 56 games into the season — the 48-8 Bucks are 27.5 games up on the Wizards now. The Bucks can lose every game from here on out and they are in the playoffs.

Milwaukee is on pace to win 70 games, and their owner has hinted the team sees that as a goal. The Bucks also have title aspirations, and they may want to ask the Warriors if the push for winning 70+ games is worth it come the playoffs. That said, the Bucks have gotten Giannis Antetokounmpo rest because they are blowing teams out, so he doesn’t have to play late. Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.9 minutes a game and is 72nd in the league in total minutes played in the league this season. His workload has not been that brutal.

Mike Budenholzer just needs to be willing to up those minutes this postseason, up to 42 or more a night some games, to make sure they win. Budenholzer said last season that he didn’t think more minutes for the Greek Freak was the answer to the Bucks playoff struggles, if the Bucks are going to win the East this season — they should, they are the best team — he will need to change that mindset.

Bradley Beal scores career-high 53 points; Wizards still can’t beat Bulls

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CHICAGO — Coby White scored 33 points to join Michael Jordan as the only Bulls rookies with consecutive 30-point games, and Chicago overcame Bradley Beal‘s career-high 53 points to snap an eight-game losing streak with a 126-117 victory over the Washington Wizards on Sunday.

Beal surpassed his previous best of 51 points at Portland on Dec. 5, 2017.

Zach LaVine had 32 points for the Bulls and broke the franchise record for 3-pointers in a season.

Chicago led by 25 early in the third quarter after scoring 15 straight, and hung on after the Wizards pulled within seven in the fourth.

White matched the career high he set the previous night against Phoenix. He also became one of three rookies since 1992 with 33 or more in consecutive games, joining Allen Iverson and Trae Young.

LaVine made six 3-pointers to extend his career-high total to 177 and break Ben Gordon’s mark of 173 in 2008-09.

Thaddeus Young scored 25 while going 5 of 7 from beyond the arc, and the Bulls hit 18 of 37 on the way to their first win since they beat San Antonio on Jan. 27.

Davis Bertans scored 22 for Washington.

White wasted no time taking over, pouring in 26 points as the Bulls grabbed a 73-58 halftime lead.

He started a 15-0 run when he nailed his fifth 3-pointer with 34 seconds left before Tomas Satoransky drove for a layup to send Chicago to the locker room with a 15-point lead.

LaVine, who scored 41 in a loss at Washington on Feb. 11, started the third quarter by nailing two 3-pointers and a free throw after Beal picked up a technical. Young finished the run with a 3 to make it 83-58.

The Wizards cut it to 107-100 in the fourth quarter. It was an eight-point game when LaVine threw down back-to-back dunks to make it 119-107 with 4:13 left.