Boston Celtics

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers playoff hopes on life support

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USA TODAY

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers playoff hopes on life support

The Lakers playoff hopes may have taken the final nail in the coffin with their Monday night loss to the in-city rival Clippers. Much was made of LeBron James effort (or perceived lack of) level in the loss, despite James racking up 27 PTS, 8 REB, 6 AST with only 2 TO in the loss. Yes, Kyle Kuzma pushed James into a shot-contest in the clip seen ‘round the world, and yes, that is a routine thing that happens all the time in professional hoops, and doesn’t mean as much as people tried to make it out to be.

Either way, the Lakers are likely out of playoff contention, which opens up the doors for the Clippers, Kings and Spurs to fight it out for the last two spots in the Western Conference playoff picture. The NBA changes quickly, and perhaps nothing signifies that as much as the upstart Kings being in the same conversation as the Spurs, the gold standard when it comes to franchise consistency.

Over in the Eastern Conference, the dysfunction of the uber-talented Boston Celtics has put them in position to finish as a bottom-4 playoff seed despite their great net rating. Kyrie Irving has been a problematic quote machine, essentially throwing gasoline on the flames that are rumors of Irving’s departure from Boston this offseason.

Whether or not Kyrie stays, the Celtics are in a position to move forward with a successful, young and talented core. But there hopes of making an NBA Finals run are in serious jeopardy if they can’t find some sort of consistency moving forward. Boston has an interesting stretch of games to end the season that will see them play both playoff contenders and rebuilding teams who have played better as of late.

Irving has shown that he can still get buckets in a hurry, but Boston will need a clear-cut secondary scoring option, as well as continued focus on the defensive end of the floor as they head into the postseason. The Sixers and Pacers stand as the most likely 1st round playoff opponents for the C’s, and thankfully for head coach Brad Stevens, Boston has a few more chances to play the Sixers and Pacers before the season ends.

Playoff matchups will be on the minds of some of the more pensive NBA head coaches as we near the end of the season. It will be intriguing to see if any coaches feel strongly enough to commit to any lineup/roster shenanigans in order to put their squads in a better position to play a particular opponent in the 1st round of the postseason.

Click here to see our most updated power rankings as we watch the NBA playoff picture start to take its final form.

NBA Power Rankings: Christmas Day sheds light on several title contenders

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USA TODAY

NBA Power Rankings: Christmas Day sheds light on several title contenders

Sadly—fortunately?—the Bulls were left off of the NBA Christmas Day slate. But while we didn’t get to see another big night from Lauri Markkanen and co., we did get a better idea of the true contenders among the some of the top teams in the league.

Christmas Day featured five games, all involving teams still in the playoff hunt sans the Knicks. So what did we learn?

We learned that the Rockets can still hang with the league’s best, as they downed the Thunder 113-109 behind 41 points from James Harden. Houston held the Thunder to 43 percent from the field and seem to have rediscovered last seasons’ mojo. Their win was even more impressive considering that it came without Chris Paul in the lineup.


PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr. form a tenacious defensive duo on the wings, with rookie Gary Clark Jr. also playing the role of low-usage, defensive-minded forward well. Turnovers will continue to be an issue for Houston in the absence of Paul, just as 3-point shooting will continue to be an issue for the Thunder all season. But both teams should see the light at the end of the playoff tunnel by the end of the season.

There wasn’t much to take away from the first game of the day, as the Bucks 14-point win over the Knicks was only surprising because Milwaukee shot a miserable 6-for-32 from the 3-point line.


Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated with a 30/14/3/4/2 stat line, though New York got solid performances from some of their young talent, with Noah Vonleh specifically shining with a 14-point, 15-rebound double-double in 33 minutes.

Boston proved that last season’s playoff series win over the Sixers was no fluke, as Kyrie Irving got whatever he wanted all  night. He dropped 40 points in the OT win, including some truly amazing shots that he hit while guarded by All-Star Jimmy Butler.


The Sixers lack of bench production--13 points off the bench compared to 25 for the Celtics --sunk them in this game. With their “big 3” in place, the rest of this season should be about adding depth around the margins for Philly.

Even if the Sixers had home court advantage in the playoffs, they will be hard-pressed to make the NBA Finals with Landry Shamet being the best shooter off the bench.

The final two matchups of the night were Western Conference showdowns. The main event of the evening (Warriors-Lakers) almost marred by injury, as LeBron James went down with a groin injury after just 21 minutes of play. But once James went down, Rajon Rondo led the charge. He showed a heightened aggressiveness on offense, finishing with 15 points and 10 assists, while shooting 1-for-3 from the 3-point line. Los Angeles also had seven players score in double figures. We learned that the Lakers will be a tough out in the postseason because of the attention to detail on defense, combined with their ability to get up-and-down the floor quickly. Curry had a rough game against the Lakers, and Lonzo Ball deserves some credit for applying pressure on or off-ball.

In the Christmas nightcap, the Jazz dominated the Trail Blazers 117-96. Utah is still trying to climb back into the playoff race, as they sit a full two games back of the No. 8 seed. But we learned that their dominant defense is capable of vaulting them back into the thick of things, even with a struggling offense.

Donovan Mitchell is still shooting a horrid 31 percent over his last five games, but in that same span the Jazz are playing some of their best defense of the season. Utah is tops in the league in defensive rating over their last five games, allowing an impressively low 97 points per 100 possessions. Until Mitchell starts shooting better, the offense can stay afloat by emphasizing Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio more than usual. The duo combined for 32 points in the Jazz’ Christmas day win, one of the rare times Mitchell and Rubio have scored effectively, at the same time.


There are still doubts to be had as far as the Jazz’ case to make the postseason. If Mitchell’s regression this season is real, then move the Jazz to the top of the list of teams that need to make a roster move. They can win games with a less efficient Mitchell, but it is increasingly hard to string together wins with the offense being where it is currently.

Now that all of the Christmas Day dust has settled, we sit with 11 teams in playoff contention in the East and 14 (!!) in the ultra-competitive, parity-filled West. See how Christmas Day and the rest of the week changed our NBA Power Rankings here.

Bulls-Celtics preview: Is Boston still the team to beat in the East?

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USA TODAY

Bulls-Celtics preview: Is Boston still the team to beat in the East?

With former All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward returning from serious injuries to join a group of talented young players that took Cleveland to Game 7 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, most experts around the league predicted Boston would be the new beasts of the East in a LeBron-less world.

But one month into the season, the Celtics are still searching for consistency. They stand 3rd in the Atlantic Division and 6th in the East with a 7-6 record and well-respected coach Brad Stevens is hinting at line-up changes.

Hayward is still struggling to regain his form after that gruesome ankle injury he suffered on opening night of the 2017-18 season. Watching Celtics’ games early this year, it looks like Hayward is playing at three-quarters speed. He’s being limited to around 25 minutes right now and is averaging 9.9 points a game on .396 shooting from the field and .319 from 3 point range. The Celtics might be better served to bring Hayward off the bench and add more size to the front court with either Marcus Morris or Aron Baynes joining Al Horford in the starting line-up.

Irving looks completely recovered from the knee problems that brought a premature end to his 2017-18 season. He’s averaging 21 points and 5.4 assists on .466 shooting from the field and .405 from beyond the arc. When healthy, Irving is one of league’s most dynamic point guards and arguably one of the top 10 players overall.

Still, something is missing in Boston right now. After their breakout performances in last season’s playoffs, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still trying to adjust to less touches and shot attempts in half-court sets. Terry Rozier has also been less effective in a reserve role after starting in place of Irving in last season’s playoffs. Marcus Smart is still providing his trademark hustle plays and defense, but his inability to make shots (.328 from the field, .250 on 3’s) makes his a liability in crunch time.

Boston still has plenty of time to get things sorted out and Stevens is considered to be one of the league’s best coaches. Hayward should get better as he regains confidence in his surgically-repaired ankle, and Irving, Horford and Tatum are among the best players at their positions in the East.

Long-term, Boston figures to battle it out with Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee for the conference championship, but the predictions we read about the Celtics dominating the East for the next half dozen years might have been overstated. The Raptors are off to a 12-2 start with Kawhi Leonard happy and healthy again, and the 76’ers will feature an impressive big 3 after their acquisition of former Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler. It’s anyone’s guess which team will come out on top in late May.

So, what will the Bulls need to do to hang with the C’s at TD Garden on Wednesday?

1. GET ZACH SOME HELP.  LaVine stretched his season-opening streak of scoring 20 or more points to 14 games Monday night, but he was visibly exhausted in the post-game locker room after playing 41 tough minutes against a Mavericks’ defense that was designed to stop him. The Bulls desperately need someone from the group of Jabari Parker, Justin Holiday and Wendell Carter Jr. to emerge as a consistent 2nd scoring option.

2. LET CARTER PLAY THE AL HORFORD ROLE.  It seems like every city the Bulls visit around the league, coaches and opposing players are comparing Carter to the Celtics’ multiple time All-Star. Horford is an excellent passer at the high post, and the Bulls might want to try using Carter Jr. in that role to move LaVine off the ball at times to come off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities. Horford is also an excellent outside shooter, capable of spacing the floor to create driving lanes for Bostons’ athletic wing players. If Carter is able to knock down some mid-range jumpers, there might be less congestion in the paint when LaVine drives to the basket.

3. AVOID THE LONG DRY SPELLS.  The Bulls ran their offense effectively early in Monday’s game against Dallas, but missed a lot of open shots. Then, the Mavericks 2nd unit came in and broke the game open by going on a 27-8 run bridging the 1st and 2nd quarters. Boston has a lot more firepower than Dallas, so the Bulls will have sustain their offensive production throughout the game to keep things close heading into the final quarter.

Don’t forget you can watch Wednesday’s game on NBC Sports Chicago. Kelly Crull is with the team in Boston, and she’ll report live from TD Garden on Bulls Pre-Game Live at 6 pm. Adam Amin fills in for Neil Funk on the play by play call alongside Stacey King at 6:30, then Kelly will bring us reaction from Boston plus the expert analysis of Kendall Gill and Will Perdue on Bulls Post-Game Live. We wrap up the night with the fans’ perspective on Bulls Outsiders.

Make your plans to join us Wednesday night.