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NBA Power Rankings: Celtics back in top spot, Nets climb to second

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 21: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics walks off the court after their loss to the Indiana Pacers at TD Garden on December 21, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

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The Boston Celtics’ statement Christmas Day win over the Bucks has them on top of the weekly NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, but the red-hot Brooklyn Nets — winners of nine straight — are now second.

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1. Celtics (25-10, Last week No. 3). The Celtics had stumbled and looked unfocused for a couple of weeks heading into Christmas Day, but under the brightest of lights against a threat to their title chances, Boston made a statement crushing the Bucks. Boston hit its 3-pointers, Jayson Tatum was getting into the paint and to the foul line, and the Celtics looked like a championship defense. They earned their spot back on top of these rankings. Starting Sunday they make an interesting road trip out West with games against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets as well as Luka Doncic and the Mavericks – more good tests for a title contender.

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2. Nets (22-12, LW 6). Winers of nine in a row and the hottest team in the NBA, with impressive victories over the Bucks and Cavaliers this week. Kevin Durant — playing at an MVP level — and the offense is carrying this streak, the Nets have the best offense in the NBA over their last nine (a ridiculous 124.6 offensive rating). However over the same stretch they have the 19th-ranked defense. The other thing fueling this Nets run is their play in the clutch, they are 12-3 in games within five points in the final five minutes and have a +29.7 net rating in those games. The Nets look like a contender, although we are watching that defense.

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3. Nuggets (22-11, LW 7). Denver has won 8-of-9 and in a tight West that has been enough to vault it to the top of the standings. The Nuggets’ offense has remained top-five in the league in this stretch, but the difference is the once bottom-five defense has been a respectable 11th in the league over the last eight games. Denver’s effort and focus on that end has been better, and the return of Michael Porter Jr. in the last couple of games helps. Denver won the most entertaining game on Christmas, beating the Suns in part due to Aaron Gordon’s dunk-of-the-year candidate over poor Landry Shamet.

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4. Pelicans (21-12, LW 5). After stumbling against better teams in Phoenix and Milwaukee, New Orleans righted the ship this week with three wins against the Spurs, Thunder and Pacers — and got all those wins without Zion Williamson (health and safety protocols, but expected back this week) and Brandon Ingram (sprained left big toe that has had him out since November). Credit Naji Marshal for stepping up with 22 points against the Pacers, and the Pelicans showed what they can do defensively keeping Tyrese Haliburton in check. Zion should be back for the two games against Joel Embiid and the 76ers this week, which will be both entertaining and a good test.

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5. 76ers (20-13, LW 9). The second-half comeback on Christmas against the Knicks — with a 38-5 run in the middle of it — showed why this team has looked like a potential contender in recent weeks (even if we still have questions). Their eight-game winning streak was snapped on Tuesday despite 48 points from Embiid because they shot 6-of-31 from 3 and their defense was not as sharp as it had been recently. Tyrese Maxey is expected to return this week, but that leaves Doc Rivers with some hard choices the way De’Anthony Melton has played as a starter, there will need to be adjustments.

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6. Grizzlies (20-13, LW 2). A week ago I would have agreed with Ja Morant’s “I’m fine in the West” statement and picked the Grizzlies to come out of the conference — not over the field, but they felt like a young team figuring it out and about to get Desmond Bane back. Then they got their doors blown off by a shorthanded Warriors team on Christmas Day, followed by a loss to the shorthanded Suns. Memphis is 4-7 against West teams over .500 and my confidence in them is shaken (not that there is a clear frontrunner out West). They are home this week back-to-back against the Pelicans and Kings, it’s a chance to right the ship. Or send up more red flags.

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7. Bucks (22-11, LW 1). The most interesting news in Milwaukee is Marc Lasry — the face of ownership for this franchise — is looking to sell his shares of the team. Marc Stein reports that could be to Wes Edens, the other club co-owner. If so, he’s going to turn a healthy profit — Larry and Edens bought the Bucks for $550 million, built a new stadium in the Fiserv Forum, plus they have Giannis Antetokounmpo driving up the franchise value (likely in the ballpark of the $4 billion valuation for the Suns). Stein speculates Lasry would want back in the NBA, possibly with an expansion team. What that would mean for the Bucks depends on who buys the shares, but if it’s Edens then expect little to be different.

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8. Cavaliers (22-13, LW 4). Five straight wins — including one over the Bucks — had us thinking “how good can the Cavaliers be this season?” The back-to-back losses to the Raptors and Nets (that second one despite 46 from Darius Garland) brought us back to thinking this is an excellent young team that needs more at the three and more time to mature. Still a 4-2 homestand has the Cavs in the mix out East, with a couple of games against the Bulls this week that should help pad the record.

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9. Clippers (21-15, LW 12). The Clippers are 11-3 when Kawhi Leonard plays this season, and they have a +15.5 net rating when Leonard and Paul George are on the floor together — there are moments this team looks like a threat to win the West. Then they blow a lead against Philadelphia and struggle to slow Embiid and the questions are there — but at least different questions rather than “will he play?” Still Leonard is healthy and playing 34-35 minutes a night, which is a good sign for a Los Angeles team that just finds ways to keep winning and keeping themselves in the mix. Write them off at your peril. Interesting test Thursday night against Boston.

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10. Suns (20-15, LW 8). The Phoenix Suns are 2-4 in games Devin Booker has missed this season, their offense is 9.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he is off the court. Those numbers are a serious concern as he will be out for at least a month with a groin strain suffered — or at least aggravated — when he tried to play on Christmas Day. Expect a lot more Landry Shamet. The Suns will now look to keep their heads above water and in the top six in the West over the next month. Phoenix is 1-1 to start a six-game road trip, the win being a quality one over the Grizzlies without Booker, and now heads East including stops against the Raptors, Knicks and Cavaliers.

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11. Mavericks (19-16, LW 14). The injury to Maxi Kleber has forced Christian Wood into the starting lineup for the past six games, and while he had his best game of the season on Christmas scoring 30, he’s been up and down outside that (+1 in the other five games total). He is defending better and blocking more shots, but he’s out there for his scoring and that’s been inconsistent. Wood is now extension eligible and the Mavericks have a decision to make — is he a key part of their future next to Luka Doncic? Because Doncic is the sun that everything revolves around in Dallas, and in case you question that here is his 60-point triple-double from Tuesday to remind you.

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12. Kings (17-15, LW 11). Domantas Sabonis is going to play through the avulsion fracture on his right thumb, which can be painful and impact his touch, but he can play through it if he can handle the pain. His shooting percentages over the next week or two will tell us a lot about how he is dealing everything. The Kings need Sabonis’ All-Star level play, they have dropped 3-of-4 and have Denver and Memphis on the schedule this week, things are not getting easier.

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13. Jazz (19-17, LW 15). The offense that fueled the red-hot 10-3 start for Utah is still intact and putting up numbers, but the defense has fallen off and the Jazz are not bottom five in the league on that end of the floor. The bright spot of late has been rookie center Walker Kessler, who has gotten an extended run in the starting lineup with Kelly Olynyk out and is averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds a game in that role. For a team fighting for a playoff spot, games this week against the Kings and Warriors carry extra weight.

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14. Knicks (18-17, LW 10). Ouch. It’s not just having Luke Doncic drop 60 on you — he’s otherworldly and does that — but it’s taking a nine-point lead with :44.6 seconds to go in the game and blowing it, losing in overtime that stings. That loss shows how Jalen Brunson is worth every penny of his current contract, he was out for this one (sore right hip) and they missed his stability, his being the floor general in the clutch. The Knicks have dropped four in a row now but should be able to turn it around as this road trip heads to San Antonio and Houston, before a shorthanded Suns team comes to the Garden.

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15. Trail Blazers (18-16, LW 13). Good on the Trail Blazers organization for celebrating Damian Lillard properly as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer once he got home (he set the record on the road in OKC). These are the moments that make Portland and Lillard special. While Lillard remains the star attraction, Jerami Grant makes this team go on offense right now, averaging 22 points a game and shooting 45% from 3. Grant, Lillard and the Blazers have 4-of-5 coming up on the road, with a good test Friday night against a shorthanded (but playing better) Warriors team.

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16. Warriors (17-18, LW 16). After Tuesday night’s win over the Hornets, the Warriors have the best home record in the league (14-2) and the worst road record in the league (3-16). Those home wins include a Christmas Day statement game against the Grizzlies without Stephen Curry, who remains out with his shoulder injury. The Warriors are 3-3 since Curry was sidelined, keeping their heads above water but still sitting as the No. 10 seed in the West. The two wins against Memphis and Charlotte were the start of an eight-game homestand where the Warriors need to pad their record despite Curry being out.

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17. Heat (17-17, LW 18). Miami continues to feel like a team where, if it can just get to the playoffs healthy, it will be a problem. When the trio of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro get on the court tother the Heat have a +12.1 net rating, the problem is those minutes are too few and far between. That’s why the Heat win over the Timberwolves mattered (no Adebayo or Butler), and they will need a little more of the five-game West road trip that starts Friday. Starting Wednesday the Heat will have two games this week against their old friend LeBron James and his Lakers... if he plays (in Miami Wednesday, in Los Angeles next Wednesday).

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18. Pacers (18-17, LW 20). The question isn’t “should Tyrese Haliburton be an All-Star?” He unquestionably should be this season. The question is should Haliburton start the All-Star game? Assuming Donovan Mitchel is a lock starter (he should be), should Haliburton start over Jaylen Brown and Jalen Brunson? There’s a good case to be made, and Haliburton hitting game-winners like he did dropping 43 against the Heat will stick in voters’ minds.

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19. Hawks (17-17, LW 17). The Hawks got their starters healthy and back and strung together three wins in four games (the one loss was an unlucky one to Chicago at the buzzer), but in a game with playoff-seeding weight they fell to the Pacers. One step up and one step back with this team as they await a shakeup at the trade deadline (John Collins is likely on the move... somewhere). The Pacers start a run of 6-of-7 on the road starting Monday (and the one hope game in that stretch is the Bucks).

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20. Raptors (15-19, LW 21). Toronto is 3-7 in their last 10 games, and while the offense has understandably taken some blame, the 25th-ranked defense over that stretch has been the bigger issue (the offense is ranked 12th over the last 10, for the record). That defense threw doubles at their old friend Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday night, but when he gave up the ball, the rotations weren’t there, which set up another old friend Norman Powell to go off for 22 points. The Raptors have 7-of-8 at home coming up and they need the wins now, or big changes could come at the deadline.

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21. Thunder (15-19, LW 24). No team has been in more clutch games — within five points in the final five minutes — than the Thunder, who have had 23 of their 34 games decided that way. The Thunder defense has been spectacular in those moments, but their defense is scoring less than a point per possession — despite a couple of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander game-winners. Tough week ahead with both the 76ers and Celtics on the schedule.

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22. Wizards (14-21, LW 26). For one game the Washington Wizards were healthy — a quality win over the 76ers — but Bradley Beal left that game with a hamstring issue and is day-to-day. Again. He is out Wednesday night against Phoenix, then Washington heads out on the road for four (including a two-game set in Milwaukee against the Bucks). One of the recent bright spots is the play of Deni Avdija, who was missed for a couple of games with back soreness but had the key strip of Embiid late to seal the win against the Sixers.

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23. Magic 13-22, LW 23). It was good to see Wendell Carter Jr. return to the rotation this week after a 17-game absence, even if his minutes are limited at first (and now Bol Bol is in the starting lineup, at least for a bit). Despite a loss to the Lakers on Monday, the Magic have won 8-of-10 and are now within 2.5 games of the final play-in — they aren’t making trades at the deadline to chase that spot, but if they can land it a postseason game or two would be a good experience for Paolo Banchero and the rest of a young and improving team. Light schedule and winnable games this week against the Pistons and Wizards.

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24. Timberwolves (16-18, LW 19). Chris Finch benched Rudy Gobert down the stretch against Miami because he was getting outplayed by rookie Nikola Jovic (who is raw and isn’t seeing a lot of time this season), so Finch went with Naz Reid. That after a game where the Celtics started Al Horford against the Timberwolves and won the game going inside, scoring six more points in the paint and shooting 59.2% there. The Timberwolves are 6-7 without Karl-Anthony Towns and have a bottom-10 defense in that stretch. Rudy Gobert’s numbers and impact are down this season and it’s becoming a real issue, short and long-term, in Minnesota. It’s less than half a season of sample size, but it is enough to be very concerning.

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25. Lakers 14-20, LW 22). You can hear the frustration of LeBron James with the Lakers roster and record creeping into the comments in his passive-aggressive way of late. Christmas Day was a good example of his concern, he played a brilliant first half and had the Lakers up 11, but once the role players around Doncic actually knocked down shots the game was over, the Lakers couldn’t keep up. The Lakers are 2-4 during this latest Davis injury, and while there is hope he could return sooner rather than later it’s likely still weeks away. The Lakers remain on the road this week in Miami, Atlanta, and Charlotte.

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26. Bulls (14-19, LW 25). Chicago will take the wins anywhere they can get them — including back-to-back game winners. First there was Ayo Dosunmu’s putback game-winner (a lesson on why you box out for all you young players out there). Then against the Knicks it was a DeMar DeRozan jumper as time expired to get the win. Three straight wins showed hope, but then the loss to Houston was a reminder of what Alex Caruso means to this team’s defense.

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27. Spurs (11-23, LW 27). What is more interesting, Jeremy Sochan’s hair color or his new one-handed free throw style? That new look from the charity stripe seems to be working as he went 7-of-10 against the Pelicans in a game where he dropped 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists (in a loss, but still good numbers). Remember, he is just 19 and Gregg Popovich has a history of bringing guys along slowly and turning them into high-quality players. San Antonio has dropped 5-of-7 and it doesn’t get any easier this week with the Knicks, Mavericks and Nets.

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28. Rockets (10-24, LW 29). The buzz around the Rockets is suddenly about a possible James Harden return next season (even if that felt a lot like a negotiating ploy with the 76ers, nothing can be ruled out with Harden). Next season, the Rockets will want to flip to trying to win, and Harden will help with that. The other buzz around the league is about Houston fielding a lot of calls about Eric Gordon heading into the trade deadline, but he is not helping his cause averaging 8.4 points a game on 32.6% shooting over his last five games. Not the best time for a shooting slump.

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29. Hornets (9-26, LW 30). The Hornets as a team are hard to watch, but LaMelo Ball is still must-see entertainment — he put up 28-8-8 against the Lakers last week just as his father said there is no way he would let another one of his sons go play for that franchise. Not that the Hornets are letting Ball go anywhere. Charlotte has lost 11-of-13 and should be focused on the draft as a place to get Ball some help, this week they face the red-hot Nets and the Lakers again (this time at home).

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30. Pistons (8-28, LW 28). Here’s the update Pistons fans should care about: Victor Wembanyama is averaging 22.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and three blocks per game, leading his league in every category. Also, Scoot Henderson is nearing a return to the G-League Ignite. Beyond that, the Pistons have lost 9-of-10 and Friday head out on the road for 6-of-7.

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