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The Milwaukee Bucks got a rude awakening at the hands of Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers this past week, but will that Christmas defeat be enough to remove the team that’s been entrenched at No. 1 in our NBA power rankings for over a month?
You’ll have to do some scrolling before you find the answer to that question, but rest assured there’ll be plenty of surprises to enjoy earlier on in the rankings. Just about everyone in the bottom 10 (with the exception of the hopeless Atlanta Hawks) got things together, showing new life ahead of the new year.
As always, rankings consider record, advanced stats, health and recent play. These aren’t championship-odds rankings, which is unfortunate for the high-ceiling, low-floor Sixers. Instead, the idea is to organize all 30 teams into an order reflecting current strength.
Here’s where everyone stands as we hit the final week of 2019.
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30. Atlanta Hawks (30)
John Collins put up 27 points and 10 rebounds in his first outing after a 25-game suspension, but it wasn’t enough to avoid yet another loss in a season that has saddled the Hawks with plenty of them. Monday’s 121-118 defeat in Cleveland was the Hawks’ eighth in a row.
Two more stumbles—at home to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday and on the road in Chicago on Saturday—stretched that slide to 10. Atlanta, owner of the league’s worst record and net rating, is the only team with multiple losing streaks of at least 10 games this season.
The Hawks aren’t going to magically transform just because they got their best big man back, but Collins will provide an offensive boost as a roll man who’s already established chemistry with Trae Young. Unfortunately, Young had to be helped off the floor in Friday’s loss after spraining his ankle and didn’t travel with the team on Saturday.
Atlanta can’t defend regardless of who’s on the floor, but its offense depends entirely on Young. It doesn’t look like the Hawks will get out of this spot any time soon.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (25)
The Timberwolves drew the line at 11 straight losses, surviving a 105-104 double-overtime affair against the Sacramento Kings on Thursday to bring their skid to a merciful halt. Karl-Anthony Towns’ knee is still barking, but human salary-dump Gorgui Dieng filled in capably with 21 points and 15 boards to help stave off the struggling Kings.
Jordan McLaughlin beat Draymond Green off the dribble and dunked on Alec Burks in last Monday’s 113-104 loss at Golden State: a surprising turn of events unless you’ve kept tabs on the Wolves’ two-way guard. McLaughlin has shown a knack for sneaky highlights before.
Everyone likes little-guy dunks. It’s just too bad they don’t compensate for poor defensive rebounding, Jeff Teague’s constant tunnel vision on drives and a defense that, while improved lately, still ranks 28th in December.
Minnesota has lost 12 of its last 13 games, including a nauseating 94-88 defeat at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers in which 28 forced turnovers weren’t enough to overcome the absences of Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
28. Washington Wizards (24)
A sore right quad prevented human trebuchet Davis Bertans from slinging projectiles this past week, but the Wizards got intriguing production up front from the unheralded Anzejs Pasecniks, a 24-year-old rookie on a two-way deal.
Pasecniks, one of only two available Washington centers alongside Ian Mahinmi, scored 14 points in last Monday’s 121-115 win over the New York Knicks and added another 17 points in Thursday’s blowout loss at Detroit. If it seems like every Wizards big man who sees the floor outpaces expectations—think Thomas Bryant, Moritz Wagner and Bertans—that’s because it keeps happening.
Mahinmi has even been serviceable despite coming into the season with little shot of a rotation spot.
Washington still doesn’t defend, and it’s relying on recently signed Gary Payton II to run the offense in a significant role. He started and played 30 minutes in Saturday’s loss to the Knicks as Bradley Beal missed his first game in over two years.
The Wizards have lost more than twice as often as they’ve won this year and went 3-11 in December.
27. Golden State Warriors (28)
Golden State had plenty to be proud of in its win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. It schemed effectively against James Harden, limiting him to one foul shot, and got great performances from Damian Lee (22 points, 15 rebounds) and Draymond Green (20 points, 11 rebounds).
Then, against the Phoenix Suns on Friday, the Warriors climbed out of a 10-point hole with under eight minutes left in regulation, using a 39-18 fourth-quarter scoring edge to secure a 105-96 victory.
Through games played Friday, the Warriors, a regular presence in the bottom three spots of our rankings for several weeks, owned the longest active winning streak in the West. The four-game run came to an end on Saturday as the Dallas Mavericks took care of business, but let’s not get too critical of a team’s wins when it has as few as the Warriors do.
Plus, the Mavs only won by 20 on Saturday night. That’s an improvement over the 48-point margin that separated the teams last time they met.
The vibes are taking on a positive tone in Golden State lately, and it’s undeniable that what was once a horribly disorganized and mistake-ridden defense is now tightening up as young players and new additions develop better communication. The Warriors are still at a major talent disadvantage almost every night, but they’re competing with smarts and solid schemes more often lately.
They rank a respectable 12th in defensive efficiency since Dec. 1.
26. New York Knicks (27)
Julius Randle dropped 35 points on the Wizards in a 121-115 loss last Monday, and his 33 points in Thursday’s 94-82 victory over the ice-cold Brooklyn Nets gave him his first set of back-to-back 30-point efforts this season. He made it three straight with another 30 points in Saturday’s victory over the Wizards.
All that scoring helps a Knicks offense that needs punch (New York closed the week ranked 29th in scoring efficiency), but it’d still be nice to see Mitchell Robinson occupying a larger role.
He and Randle both work best at center, and the Knicks haven’t yet found a way to craft successful lineups with the two of them together. Robinson takes himself off the floor often enough with foul trouble, but there are still plenty of situations in which the Knicks seem more committed to Randle, which is probably a mistake considering Robinson’s youth, low cost and upside.
On the court, December was the Knicks’ best month of the year. They won five times, more than half of their season total. Remarkably, New York is 5-4 in its last nine.
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25. Cleveland Cavaliers (26)
Cleveland’s season-best three-game winning streak came to an abrupt close in Boston on Friday, but it got back on the right track by beating the Wolves in Minnesota on Saturday by a final of 94-88. The Timberwolves were without both Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in that ugly loss, and the Cavs coughed the ball up 28 times, which only worsened a turnover percentage that already ranked last in the NBA.
But a win’s a win, and Cleveland wasn’t at full strength itself. Kevin Love, a day after scoring 30 points against Boston, had to sit out against Minnesota with a hip contusion.
The Cavs are 5-3 since ending an eight-game slide, and their 10 wins have them well ahead of last year’s 19-63 pace.
24. Charlotte Hornets (22)
A scheduling quirk got Charlotte four days off between its Dec. 22 loss to Boston and Friday’s meeting with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The extra rest may have broken the Hornets’ rhythm, as they clanked their first 18 attempts from deep in the 104-102 overtime defeat against OKC. Sunday’s road loss at Memphis was the Hornets’ fifth in a row.
Charlotte isn’t getting results on either end lately, but its process on offense should yield better results. The Hornets rank in the top 10 for percentage of shots that come at the rim and from three, and they tend to treat the mid-range area like it’s hot lava.
PJ Washington made it back this past week after missing five games with a fractured finger, and Bismack Biyombo’s surprising return to relevance continues. Still, Charlotte is piling up the losses. With so many of the usual bottom-feeders enjoying successful weeks, this slip was inevitable.
23. New Orleans Pelicans (29)
Credit Derrick Favors and a suddenly improved defense for the Pels’ startling recent turnaround.
A steadying presence in the middle, Favors was vital in reversing New Orleans’ nosedive. Though the Pelicans lost Favors’ first three contests back after a 13-game absence, they steadily improved as he got his legs under him and increased his playing time.
Wednesday’s 112-100 win over the Denver Nuggets was New Orleans’ second straight victory on the road and showcased a surprising side of Favors’ game. Denver routinely sent two bodies at ball-handlers, and Favors functioned beautifully as a release valve, picking out shooters with quick decisions en route to a career-best eight assists.
The Pelicans smashed the Indiana Pacers 120-98 on Friday, scoring 24 points off turnovers and holding their third straight opponent to 100 points or fewer. They then swept a tough back-to-back by beating the Houston Rockets on Sunday, a task made easier by the absences of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela.
The Pels’ 4-0 week looks fantastic when you’ve got a 13-game losing streak still visible in the rearview mirror.
With a healthy Favors anchoring things on both ends, Lonzo Ball striping it from deep and defensive chemistry finally developing, New Orleans looks a lot more like the frisky playoff threat many expected before the season.
22. Sacramento Kings (18)
All’s not well in Sacramento.
Though just one of the Kings’ seven straight losses came by double digits, and though Harrison Barnes missed a clean look at a game-winner on Saturday against the Phoenix Suns, other issues are bubbling up to compound the pain of mounting defeats.
This past week saw the Kings lose De’Aaron Fox (back) and Marvin Bagley III (foot) to injury. If that weren’t enough, Buddy Hield, mired in a wicked shooting slump, popped off about his dwindling fourth-quarter minutes.
“Seems like we’re all over the place,” Hield told reporters after playing just over four minutes of the fourth quarter in Thursday’s 105-104 double-overtime loss to the hapless Wolves. “… Trust issues going on, I guess. They stop believing in players. It is what it is.”
Hield didn’t play at all in the final period of Sacramento’s loss to the Houston Rockets last Monday, and even before that, he’d been pulled fairly often in situations that called for offense-defense substitutions. With Hield’s shot offline, it’s easy to understand head coach Luke Walton turning away from the defensively shaky guard late in games. If Hield isn’t hitting, he’s not helping.
Still, the Kings invested substantially in him just before the season, extending his deal another four years. You can understand why a player in that situation might want a little more benefit of the doubt.
Add Dewayne Dedmon’s trade request to the mix and you’ve got quite the recipe for trouble.
21. Phoenix Suns (20)
The Suns dodged a bullet when Harrison Barnes couldn’t capitalize on Aron Baynes’ defensive gaffe, missing the three that could have handed them their ninth loss in a row. But Barnes’ shot was off, and Phoenix returned to the winning side of the ledger for the first time since Dec. 9.
Phoenix’s December resume (with one game left) is rough. Its 4-10 record is even weaker than it looks considering the victories came against a pack of pushovers: Charlotte, New Orleans, Minnesota and Sacramento. Yes, the Suns battled injuries all month. And yes, they played the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Rockets tough in single-digit losses.
But Phoenix’s defensive performances are hard to excuse. Among West teams, only the Wolves have been worse in December. And it’s not like the Suns are losing shootouts. They also rank in the bottom half of the league offensively over their last 14 games.
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20. Memphis Grizzlies (21)
The Grizzlies managed to make a game of it against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday, somehow staying competitive late into the proceedings after managing just 11 points in the first quarter.
It may be that the young Grizzlies are too naive to know when to quit, but there’s really no bad way to spin a resilient effort like the one they put forth against a hot Denver team. With 42 points in the fourth quarter, Memphis made the Nuggets sweat before ultimately falling by a final of 119-110.
Sunday’s win over Charlotte moved Memphis to 8-8 in December, and it’ll be nice to have the mental boost of a breakeven month heading into three straight road games to start off January.
19. Detroit Pistons (19)
The Pistons announced on Thursday that Luke Kennard will miss up to two weeks with bilateral knee tendinitis. Kennard is an important piece of a Detroit offense that needs creators, but his absence didn’t matter much in a 132-102 blowout win against the defensively challenged Wizards.
What’s more, the Pistons haven’t really struggled to score as much as you might think.
They’re narrowly inside the top 10 in offensive efficiency and have only been slightly better on that end with Kennard on the floor. The on-off numbers probably undersell his impact a bit, though. His ability to run reliably successful pick-and-rolls will be missed as Detroit continues its road trip through the West this week—particularly against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, a pair of punishing defensive forces.
The Athletic’s James Edwards III made a compelling case for a teardown this past week, citing the spotty health of Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, Kennard’s shelving and the team’s dwindling playoff hopes. The Pistons’ health picture is bleak, but it may not be as hopeless as the pursuit of value in a trade involving Griffin or Andre Drummond.
Plus, the lower half of the East remains a morass of mediocrity; the Pistons, despite losses in six of their last seven games, are within easy striking distance of the No. 8 seed.
18. Portland Trail Blazers (15)
Add Skal Labissiere to the list of injured Blazers big men who’ve now left the team with just one healthy player taller than 6’8″: Hassan Whiteside.
Labissiere started but played fewer than three minutes before going down with a knee injury in Saturday’s 128-120 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Blazers’ third consecutive defeat in a rough week that dropped them to 14-19 overall.
Anfernee Simons has looked more comfortable lately, and at least Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are still standing upright. But with the Blazers losing big bodies from a rotation that already struggled to rebound and protect the rim, it’s difficult to be optimistic about their chances of competing with the league’s better teams.
To date, Portland is just 3-13 against opponents with winning records.
17. San Antonio Spurs (23)
Big scoring nights aren’t unusual for LaMarcus Aldridge. His season-high 40 points in last Monday’s 145-115 demolition of the Grizzlies marked the eighth time he’s reached that total in his career. In contrast, the three triples Aldridge hit in that game do warrant discussion.
Aldridge’s trio of treys tied a career high, as did his five attempts. That is until he broke both marks later in the week against Detroit by going 5-of-6 from deep.
The Spurs have caught deserved heat for their anachronistic shot profile, and DeMar DeRozan continues to avoid eye contact with the basket when he’s beyond the arc—even when he catches it with ample space to fire. But Aldridge is quietly averaging career highs in makes and attempts from deep and has already taken more threes than he did all of last year.
Even if he’s still at just two long-range tries per game, at least he’s nudging San Antonio toward the modern era of shot distribution. The Spurs made 18 threes in their 136-109 pummeling of the Pistons on Saturday, a season high.
Though they seemed to be coming undone earlier in the month, the Spurs have won two of their last three and can finish December with a 7-5 record if they handle the Warriors on Tuesday.
16. Chicago Bulls (17)
The Bulls’ statistical profile benefits substantially from having played the Hawks three times this year, sweeping the season series by a combined margin of 89 points. A Chicago net rating that has crept within a half-point of breaking even will probably also take a hit with matchups against the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics this week.
The Bulls are just 1-11 against teams with records above .500 so far.
Still, Chicago has won three of its last four behind a defense that has climbed into the top five on the year, and Kris Dunn continues to play some of the best backcourt defense in the NBA. He has more three-steal games than anyone this season, and he’s been up to the challenge of wrangling the opponent’s top perimeter threat every night.
If the Bulls could ever get the training wheels off their league-worst half-court offense, they’d easily lock down a playoff spot.
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15. Brooklyn Nets (14)
It’s difficult to lose to the Knicks, but one way to pull it off is to make the fewest two-point buckets in a game since the Truman administration. That’s what the Nets managed in Thursday’s ghastly 94-82 defeat.
Brooklyn was only a bit better on offense in Saturday’s 108-98 loss to the Houston Rockets and is now just 16-15 after an 0-2 week dropped its record to 12-8 in the 20 games Kyrie Irving has missed.
Irving appears no nearer to a return from his shoulder injury, but at least Caris LeVert is approaching his own return. Spencer Dinwiddie should probably rejoice at the possibility of help. With virtually every other Nets wing slumping over the last few games, Dinwiddie has had a harder time shouldering the offensive load.
He scored 25 against the Knicks and just 17 against the Rockets, well below the totals he reached—31, 41 and 39—the week prior.
14. Orlando Magic (16)
We probably haven’t discussed Evan Fournier enough in this space. Though his team-high 23 points weren’t enough to help the Magic escape Milwaukee with a win on Saturday, the eighth-year guard has been one of the only reliable offensive weapons on a Magic team that desperately needs scoring.
Fournier is posting career highs in points (19.4), true shooting percentage (61.0) and usage rate (25.1). Orlando’s 104.5 offensive rating is 26th in the league, but take Fournier off the floor and that figure plummets to 98.7, far worse than the Hawks’ league-low 102.9.
The Magic’s defense is the reason it currently occupies the East’s No. 8 spot. Much like the Bulls team it beat last Monday, Orlando, 2-1 with an upset win over the Philadelphia 76ers this week, is strictly a one-way operation.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (13)
The Thunder’s resilience ran out on Thursday, producing a disappointing 110-97 loss to Memphis and ending a four-game winning streak.
Prior to the Memphis defeat, OKC had been in the habit of erasing huge deficits and stealing victories. But without Danilo Gallinari (ankle) spacing the floor, Oklahoma City struggled to score and couldn’t replicate the late surges that produced unlikely wins over the Bulls and Grizzlies on Dec. 16 and 18, respectively.
Gallo also missed road wins in Charlotte and Toronto over the weekend.
OKC deserves praise for surviving a mess of a game against the Hornets on Friday, escaping with a 104-102 overtime win behind stellar bench play and a closing lineup featuring four guards around Steven Adams. The Thunder shot 5-of-31 from deep and only made 19 of their 31 free-throw attempts, yet they somehow escaped.
With a 10-4 record in December, the Thunder have quietly played like a postseason team over the past month.
12. Indiana Pacers (9)
Malcolm Brogdon’s hamstring prevented him from helping the Pacers this week, which resulted in a 1-2 record and raised concerns about how differently the team plays without its steadying floor leader.
“People may blame it on a back-to-back or something,” Domantas Sabonis told Scott Agness of The Athletic after Saturdays’ dispiriting 120-98 loss to New Orleans. “But I think it’s something that we need to fix [internally]. We need to move the ball more, play more like a team and get back to the way we were playing.”
There’s no denying Brogdon’s value. Indiana is a respectable 4-3 in games he’s missed, but its offensive rating dips by 6.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor.
Other than the Pelicans loss, the Pacers competed admirably this past week. Their overtime win against the Toronto Raptors on Monday was just their second of the season against an East opponent ranked in our top 10, and if the ball had bounced differently once or twice Friday, they could have stolen what turned out to be a one-point loss in Miami.
11. Utah Jazz (12)
Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell are thriving in their committee approach to replacing Mike Conley’s offensive stewardship. The Jazz duo combined for 61 points on 22-of-34 shooting in Thursday’s 121-115 win over the Blazers, though it’s important to note Rudy Gobert’s hustle and shot-blocking secured the victory down the stretch.
In Saturday’s 120-107 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers, arguably Utah’s most significant victory of the season, Mitchell went off for 30 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, while Ingles contributed a tidy five threes on eight attempts, plus eight assists of his own.
It’ll be intriguing to see how head coach Quin Snyder preserves what’s working with Mitchell and Ingles while reintegrating Conley when he returns from his hamstring strain. Jordan Clarkson, freshly acquired via trade from Cleveland, probably also needs to figure into that rotation decision. His 19 points off the bench were key to beating the Clippers.
The Jazz remain a few notches below their typical position in the league’s defensive hierarchy. They’re still just 10th in defensive efficiency.
That said, Utah is 7-1 since its ugly home loss to Oklahoma City on Dec. 9 and just met a critical challenge by proving it could beat one of the league’s top teams.
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Last Week: 7
You’ve got to hand it to head coach Nick Nurse, who somehow turned Patrick McCaw, a player who’d done very little with the increased minutes afforded him by injuries throughout the roster, into a difference-maker.
By putting the ball in McCaw’s hands for a whopping 43 minutes of playing time in Friday’s 113-97 win over the Celtics in Boston, Nurse coaxed aggression out of a notoriously passive player and leveraged the off-ball shooting of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry.
McCaw finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting and handed out a career-high eight assists—all against a Boston defense that has chewed up more imposing ball-handlers all year.
Toronto is 6-3 in its last nine games (and 3-3 since losing Pascal Siakam to a groin strain). It seems the absence of three rotation weapons (Marc Gasol and Norman Powell are also injured) is starting to take its toll.
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Last Week: 11
Though both losses came by a single point, the Sixers’ two defeats ruined what could have been a colossal week that started with a blowout win over the Detroit Pistons on Monday and peaked with a 121-109 victory against the powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.
The Sixers caught fire from deep against Milwaukee, and Joel Embiid limited Giannis Antetokounmpo to 18 points on 8-of-27 shooting. Giannis had never missed more shots in a single game, and the consistency with which Embiid turned him away in the lane had to spark legitimate belief in Philly that a playoff series might progress the same way.
But then the Sixers dumped one to the Orlando Magic and lost a wildly competitive Saturday tilt with the Heat in Miami, finishing with a disappointing 2-2 mark this week. Coupled with a 3-5 record in their last eight games, the Sixers’ post-Bucks letdowns make it difficult to justify re-entry into the top 10.
But we can’t just ignore a double-digit win over the team that’s been atop our rankings for most of the year.
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Last Week: 6
After almost seven weeks off following arthroscopic knee surgery, Eric Gordon saw game action for the first time in Sunday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Houston, which has won five of its last seven games, couldn’t quite manage against New Orleans with James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela all sidelined. When Harden and Westbrook are healthy, Gordon, an additional shooter and playmaker, will only help punish opponents who blanket Harden with multiple defenders and dare other Rockets to beat them.
Gordon’s game was in shambles before surgery, and he’ll have to be better than the version of himself that started the season. If his poor play was due entirely to health, and if surgery corrected the issue, Houston is getting back a game-changer.
With 20 points on 6-of-12 shooting in Sunday’s loss to New Orleans, Gordon looked as good as anyone could have expected.
One thing that may not change, even with Gordon back, is the league’s approach to wrangling Harden. The Golden State Warriors notched a Christmas upset by sending a second defender into Harden’s path, but the Brooklyn Nets didn’t commit quite as much help on Saturday as Harden’s 44 points produced a 108-98 Rockets win.
It’s pretty simple these days: Show Harden at least two defenders constantly, or lose as he cuts up single coverage.
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Last Week: 10
The Mavs went 2-2 in the four games Luka Doncic missed with a sprained ankle, proving they could survive without their best player. Just don’t expect them to welcome the next opportunity to test themselves like that; everything is easier with Doncic on the floor.
Dallas beat the San Antonio Spurs at home in Doncic’s return, then it watched him log a 30-point triple-double in Saturday’s smackdown of the Golden State Warriors.
Though they couldn’t handle the Lakers in L.A. on Sunday, the Mavericks are still second in the NBA in net rating. That’s not the result of a soft schedule, either. Basketball Reference’s simple rating system, which factors in strength of opponent, also ranks Dallas second to the Milwaukee Bucks.
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Last Week: 8
Nikola Jokic scored a season-high 31 points and spent the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 119-110 win over the Memphis Grizzlies diming up teammates with a sampler menu of his favorite passes. His five assists in the final frame included a no-look feed, a sweet lob and a pinpoint find on a backdoor cut.
Denver nearly succumbed to a Grizzlies team that surged back after missing 20 of its first 25 shots, but it ultimately held on to secure the win. After beating the Sacramento Kings to complete a weekend back-to-back, the Nuggets stand at 23-9, winners in nine of their last 10 games.
Defensive regression still seems imminent, as the Nuggets don’t excel at keeping opponents from getting attempts at the rim and from the deep corners. But Denver’s offense quietly improved over the past month, ranking in the top 10 since Dec. 1 after finishing November ranked 18th.
That should help make up the difference if and when opponents start converting the high-efficiency looks they’ve been getting.
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Last Week: 5
The Heat don’t always hit shots or take care of the ball, but hustle remains a constant.
Relentlessness determined the result in Friday’s 113-112 win over the Indiana Pacers. During a night on which Miami hammered Indy on the boards 56-34, a pair of offensive rebounds gave Goran Dragic the chance to hit the game-winner with 6.8 seconds remaining.
On Saturday, the Heat scrapped, harassed the Philadelphia 76ers with the zone defense that produced a win back on Dec. 18 and got key late threes from Tyler Herro to hand Philly another defeat, this one by a final of 117-116 in overtime.
Among other highlights this week, Derrick Jones Jr. baptized Rudy Gobert in last Monday’s 107-104 win over the Utah Jazz.
Miami’s winning streak sits at five games, and only the Milwaukee Bucks have more December victories.
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Last Week: 2
The on-off splits are persuasive, and the anecdotal evidence corroborates the theory: L.A. needs a healthy LeBron James. The Lakers offense falls apart whenever James is off the floor, and it’s no coincidence that the losses have piled up recently with the four-time MVP struggling through a groin injury.
James was clearly limited in the Lakers’ Christmas loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, flinging a dozen threes because he couldn’t quite find the legs to attack the basket and missing a career-high 10 of them.
L.A. got a lot of its roster-building decisions right this past offseason, finally surrounding LeBron with spot-up shooters, effective roll men and enough perimeter defenders to lighten his load on that end. Those types of players maximize James’ value when he’s on the floor, but the Lakers lack a reliable secondary playmaker to keep things moving when he’s not.
The Lakers beat the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks to salvage a 2-1 week, but the four-game losing streak that culminated with the Christmas loss to the Clippers raised some real concerns.
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Last Week: 3
LeBron James’ compromised health makes the comparison a little unfair, and it’s probably too early to think in these terms. But it was hard to ignore the magnitude of Kawhi Leonard’s impact in Wednesday’s meeting of the two Los Angeles teams with matching title aspirations.
Leonard was the best player on the floor in the Clips’ 111-106 win over the Lakers on Christmas, pumping in 35 points on 11-of-19 shooting along with 12 rebounds and five assists—all while serving as the primary defender on James.
The Lakers have several rangy backcourt stoppers, but none bring the bulk required to bother Leonard. And if James isn’t healthy enough to take on the challenge, Leonard effectively gets to do what he wants on offense. By proving he also had the stamina to stymie the Lakers’ most important weapon on defense, Leonard reminded everyone that he’s the guy who’ll swing a potential playoff series between these two teams.
The Clips couldn’t follow their Wednesday win, falling by a final of 120-107 to the Utah Jazz on Saturday to close out a short week. Consistency has been tough to muster for L.A. recently. It’s just 4-4 in its last eight games, alternating wins and losses throughout that stretch.
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Last Week: 4
Jaylen Brown scored 16 of his 30 points in a perfect 5-of-5 third quarter Wednesday, keying a 118-102 Celtics road win in Toronto. The Raptors remain short several key bodies, but Boston will take the victory without thinking twice; it hadn’t won in Toronto since 2015.
Brown hung another 34 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers in Friday’s 129-117 victory, marking the first time in his career with back-to-back outings of 30-plus points.
The Raptors exacted revenge with a 113-97 win in Boston on Saturday, handing the Celtics their second home loss of the year and ending a five-game winning streak.
Gordon Hayward returned to action against Toronto after missing three games with left foot soreness, and Marcus Smart finally made it back Saturday following an eight-game absence spent battling a nasty eye infection.
Despite injuries and illnesses, the Celtics join the Milwaukee Bucks as the only teams with top-five offensive and defensive ratings on the season. With key players getting healthier, Boston looks as tough as it has in a long time.
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Last Week: 1
Wednesday’s 121-109 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers is exactly the kind of defeat the Bucks should worry about.
Their pack-it-in defense allows a boatload of opponent three-point attempts, and Philadelphia took what it was offered, drilling a season-high 21 of its 44 looks from deep. That’s the kind of scheme-busting performance that will haunt the Bucks and embolden the Sixers in a possible playoff matchup.
Not only that, but Joel Embiid proved capable of limiting Giannis Antetokounmpo’s scoring, even when the MVP got downhill on his drives.
Antetokounmpo didn’t play in Milwaukee’s 112-86 walkover against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday or its 11-point win over the Orlando Magic on Saturday, resting a sore back as Khris Middleton led the team in scoring for the third straight game.
The Bucks have an absolute cakewalk of a January schedule with the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Brooklyn Nets representing the only winning opponents on the schedule. And they’re still far and away the league’s best team by whatever statistical measure you prefer, topping the field in win-loss record, net rating and simple rating system (which factors in strength of schedule).
Even if Giannis misses more time, don’t expect the Bucks to budge from this spot.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Dec. 29.