NBA Power Rankings

NBA power rankings: Bucks' weaknesses exposed in first slump of the season

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USA TODAY

NBA power rankings: Bucks' weaknesses exposed in first slump of the season

Until Sunday night, the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks hadn’t lost consecutive games all season. But with Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined because of a minor knee sprain, the Bucks got drilled in Phoenix, coming on the heels of a 10-point loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles Friday night.

Now, losing two games in a row is hardly a cause for concern, especially with the reigning league MVP sitting out. But don’t forget the Bucks also were beaten soundly in Miami on Monday when the Heat held Antetokounmpo under 20 points by walling off the lane and preventing him from getting to the basket. That's the same strategy Toronto employed in winning four straight games in last season’s conference finals.

The Bucks simply don’t have a second shot creator to take over the offense when Giannis isn’t playing at an MVP level. Khris Middleton can score. He’s made the last two All-Star Games, but Middleton is a catch-and-shoot system player, not a guy who’s going to beat defenders off the dribble and create open shots for his teammates.

Meanwhile, starting point guard Eric Bledsoe has a tendency to disappear at the worst possible times, and is turnover prone against high level competition. Mike Budenholzer has a deep roster that’s built for regular season success, but will the Bucks be able to survive a best-of-seven series against Boston or Toronto when those teams can game plan to take away what Giannis does best, and force someone else to make shots from the perimeter? I guess we’ll all find out in a couple months.

Losing three games last week knocks Milwaukee out of the top spot in this week’s power rankings, and now the national debate is raging over whether LeBron James should win the MVP this season over Antetokounmpo. Check out who’s No. 1 this week.

NBA power rankings: Rockets small-ball experiment paying early dividends

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USA Today

NBA power rankings: Rockets small-ball experiment paying early dividends

I have to admit I wasn’t a big fan of the Rockets’ decision to trade athletic young center Clint Capela and commit to a small-ball line-up featuring 6’5” P.J. Tucker at center, 6’7” Robert Covington at power forward and three guards on the perimeter.

But so far, the five-out system has been working well in Houston. Russell Westbrook has been sensational pushing the pace and attacking bigger defenders with plenty of operating room in the paint. The Rockets have been holding their own in the rebounding battle and opposing teams haven’t been able to use their size advantage to dominate the points in the paint stat.

Houston is 11-2 since going to the small-ball line-up, moving into fourth place in the West with a record of 39-20. So, can this style of play work in the playoffs, when the pace of play inevitably slows down and teams are able to game plan to take away your strengths?

That’s the question Mike D’Antoni and his staff will have to answer when the post-season begins in late April. The Rockets’ defense might be able to hold up in certain match-ups, but can their small front-court really match-up against the likes of Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic?

It will be fascinating to see how far Houston can go in the post-season. The Rockets making the biggest jump in this week’s power rankings.

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers dynamic duo will be tough to beat in the playoffs

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USA Today

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers dynamic duo will be tough to beat in the playoffs

The latest chapter in the storied rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers unfolded Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles with a national television audience watching all the drama.

Boston’s Jayson Tatum continued his ascension as one of the league’s clutch scorers by pouting in 41 points, helping his team grab a late lead at Staples Center. But when it comes to clutch performances, it’s hard to beat the Lakers’ superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

James hit a step-back jumper to give his team a one point lead and then Anthony Davis hit three of four free throws down the stretch to give L.A. a 114-112 victory, increasing their latest winning streak to five games.

The Lakers are now five games up on Denver for the top seed in the West and they’ve strengthened their bench with the addition of veteran forward Markieff Morris, who was bought out of his contract by the Pistons last week.

While many NBA analysts believe the crosstown Clippers should be favored over the Lakers in a potential conference finals, it’s hard to beat the chemistry that James and Davis have displayed in their first season together.

James has become the de facto point guard for the Lakers, with his primary focus to get the ball to Davis at his favorite spots on the court. James is more than willing to accept the co-star role at this point in his career as he looks to win a fourth championship. And that approach should serve the Lakers well as they get ready to start the playoffs in mid-April.

The Clippers might look good on paper, but with Paul George in and out of the line-up because of a variety of injuries, time is starting to work against Doc Rivers’ team in trying to develop the on-court chemistry that is critical to playoff success.

Barring an upset, the battle of L.A. should play out in an exciting seven game series in late May. Basketball fans can hardly wait.

Now on to this week’s power rankings.