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NBA Power Rankings: Celtics hang on to top spot but Pelicans up to third

Michael Holley and Vincent Goodwill debate over a recent ranking of the NBA's top 10 players.

The Celtics and Bucks are the two best teams in basketball and remain on top of our weekly NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, but the Pelicans are now up to third. Spots 6-12 in this ranking feel like they could go in any order with those teams, they are all uneven and capable of impressive highs and depressing lows.

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1. Celtics (22-7, Last week No.1). Boston’s two losses this week spoke to how much they missed having Robert Williams and Al Horford on the floor — and both could be back this weekend. Blake Griffin gave a valiant effort, but he cannot come out and defend at the level of the ball and the Warriors shot over the top of the Boston defense. Against the Clippers, he couldn’t stop Kawhi Leonard and others from getting into the paint and kicking out (plus the Celtics just missed shots). The Clippers and Warriors are comfortable going small and switching, but when asked if that might be an issue for his team, Joe Mazzulla said no, not when they are healthy. And the Celtics are about to be healthy.

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2. Bucks (20-7, LW 2). Milwaukee’s blowout win over the Warriors is a reminder of what a force this team can be when healthy — and they may be about to get even healthier and deeper with Joe Ingles close to a return (he has been working out with the Bucks’ G-League team). At this point in his career Ingles isn’t a game-changer, but if he can knock down shots the Bucks can find a role for him. Brook Lopez is not just an elite defender, he knocked down the game-winner against the Mavericks last weekend.

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3. Pelicans (18-9, LW 4). Pelicans coach Willie Green said Sunday that he’s hopeful Herb Jones (left ankle sprain) will return at some point during the team’s upcoming road trip. He had the same hope for Brandon Ingram (left big toe sprain), but a setback in his recovery will have him out for at least another week. Not that missing starters (CJ McCollum missed time here as well) has slowed the Pelicans, who are 7-1 in their last eight and have the second-best net rating in the league. Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are for real.

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4. Grizzlies (18-9, LW 5). Jaren Jackson Jr. returned to the Grizzlies 13 games ago (he’s missed a couple more in that mix) and since he returned Memphis has the third-best defense in the league (better than even the Bucks) — he means that much to this team. The Grizzlies keep on winning despite Desmond Bane still being out a few more weeks, plus Ja Morant (thigh) and Steven Adams (ankle) have missed a little time. The Grizzlies and their defense will be tested starting this Thursday when they face the Milwaukee Bucks, followed by 5-of-6 on the road.

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5. Cavaliers (17-11, LW 6). One concern for Cleveland is their -5.5 net rating in the clutch this season (that said, they are 9-8 in games within five points in the final five minutes). It’s more concerning when you look at the Cavs in the final three minutes of a game within three points — they have the worst net rating in the league. The Cavs have survived it so far (and played well in the fourth quarter of games), but looking ahead to the playoffs the Cavaliers need to find a way to get buckets and stops in tight games (they have struggled on both ends of the court. After Friday, the Cavaliers are home for six in a row, through Christmas.

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6. Nuggets (16-10, LW 10). Michael Porter Jr. has missed the last nine games and his timeframe for a return from a heel injury is unclear. On the bright side about players coming back from injuries, Jamal Murray has seen his minutes climb in recent weeks and he was the reason they beat the Trail Blazers last Thursday (and besting Damian Lillard in the clutch). The Nuggets are largely home between now and their Christmas Day game against the Suns, except for one trip to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers on Friday. It’s a chance for the Nuggets to string some wins together.

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7. Suns (16-12, LW 3). Phoenix has dropped five straight games and has the worst defense in the NBA over that stretch, and that might not even be their biggest problem at this point. Chris Paul has not been himself this season, he’s shooting 36.6%, his usage rate is down but his turnover percentage is up, and he’s not helping the team generate easy buckets like he did in the past. Also, he’s not been the same player in the clutch — the Suns are 4-7 in clutch games this year (within three points in the final three minutes in this case). CP3 hasn’t played poorly, but he’s not the All-Star he once was, and the Suns were counting on more of that Chris Paul.

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8. Nets (17-12, LW 12). Do we trust the Nets now? Brooklyn got back in the second-tier mix in the East with a 6-1 homestand, then they picked up a road win in Indiana where they rested pretty much every rotation player you can name. They haven’t always looked dominant, but the Nets have won 8-of-9 and have a top-10 offense and defense in that run, as well as a +6 net rating (fourth in the league for that stretch). The Nets have won a couple in a row on the road, which is where they will be tested with 8-of-11 coming up away from the Barclays Center.

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9. 76ers (15-12, LW 13). Joel Embiid has been playing like an MVP the past couple of weeks, scoring 31+ with 9.8 rebounds a night in the team’s last five games. In the 76ers’ Tuesday night win over the Kings Embiid was hot early, but when he went to the bench it was James Harden taking over for a stretch and keeping the offense clicking (Philly put 80 points in the first half on the Kings). All this without Tyrese Maxey back. The 76ers have their next four at home but it’s a rough stretch with the Warriors, Raptors and Clippers in that mix, all before their Christmas Day game against the Knicks.

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10. Warriors (14-14, LW 7). After getting their doors blown off by the Bucks, the Warriors are now 12-2 at home and 2-12 on the road — that’s an issue as they start a five-game road trip. There are two key issues, the first is they lose defensive focus on the road (they have the second-worst defense in the league away from home). The other is some poor clutch play away from home, like blowing a four-point lead in the final 10 seconds in Utah, or scoring just 2 points in the final five minutes in Miami. Are those just focus issues or symptoms of something larger?

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11. Mavericks (14-13, LW 8). Over their last 10 games, the Mavericks have averaged 44.6 3-point attempts per game, second most in the league in that stretch. Is it working for them? They have a couple of impressive wins over the. Suns and Nuggets in that stretch, but Dallas is also 5-5 in those games. In case you forgot, Luka Doncic can throw down a huge dunk, just ask the posterized Jrue Holiday.

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12. Kings (14-12, LW 9). Closing out a come-from-behind win against the Cavaliers with a 19-0 run last Friday was a reminder how this team does not give up when it gets behind (which is a lot, they get outscored by an average of 2.6 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter. This is a surprisingly good clutch team with an 8-5 record in games within three points in the final three minutes, and a +15.1 net rating in those minutes. The Kings have dropped 3-4 on this road trip (the one win was the comeback against the Cavs), with two more games before a six-game homestand where their rabid fans lift them up and maybe help them pick up a few wins o right the ship.

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13. Clippers (16-13, LW 15). The Clippers are 6-2 in games Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both play, including beating the Celtics on Monday night in what was Leonard’s best game of the season (25 points on 10-12 shooting). There are nights like the Celtics’ game where you can see the outline of a contender in the Clippers. The obvious issue is the duo have both been on the court for just eight games out of 29, but it’s those moments why nobody is writing this team off. That said, we need to see a lot more of them healthy before we believe.

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14. Trail Blazers (15-12, LW 17). Portland starts a 6-game road trip Wednesday night in San Antonio, and somewhere during this trip Damian Lillard will become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. It’s not just a testament to the immense skill of Lillard but also his loyalty to the franchise — he has been recruited by other players, he has had options, but he has never left the Pacific Northwest. That kind of loyalty is good for the league.

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15. Jazz (16-14, LW 11). The NBA can be all about opportunity, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker is taking advantage of his. He had 19 points in a big win for the Jazz Tuesday over the Pelicans and, since Collin Sexton went out (hamstring) and Alexander-Walker’s minutes went up, he’s been averaging 17 points a night and shooting better than 60%. It’s been needed with Lauri Markkanen missing time, but he was back Tuesday and scored 19. Starting Saturday in Milwaukee the Jazz have 6-of-7 on the road.

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16. Raptors (13-14, LW 16). Scottie Barnes has stalled out this season, not taking a step forward off his Rookie of the Year campaign. Defensively he has struggled as an on-ball defender despite his tools, and on offense is settling for more isolation and is averaging 13.9 points per game (down from 15.3 a season ago) and his true shooting percentage has fallen to 51, well below the league average. Toronto was expecting a step forward from Barnes, but instead he has been another challenge for coach Nick Nurse.

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17. Knicks (14-13, LW 22). The Knicks have won four in a row and done it the old-school Tom Thibodeau way — with defense. New York has given up less than a point per possession over this streak, and now sit sixth (and out of the play-in) in a crowded East. Julius Randle has also stepped up to help lead the offense (his 30 and 15 game against the Hawks was a reminder of what he can do). New York has two games this week against stumbling Chicago, followed by a trip to Indiana. If the Knicks want to stay at No.6 and avoid the play-in those are the kinds of games they win most of.

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18. Hawks (14-14, LW 14). He probably won’t win the new Jerry West Clutch Player award, but A.J. Griffin is becoming the go-to guy for game-winners on this team, on Sunday night it was the Bulls who paid the price. If Griffin isn’t getting the Hawks late buckets the team is struggling, having dropped 7-of-10 and falling into play-in (not playoff) positioning in the East.

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19. Lakers 11-16, LW 18). The Lakers went 3-3 and made some steps forward on their road trip — they showed that the hot streak that started against a weak part of the schedule was not a mirage, and they showed that with a focused Anthony Davis they are a threat against anyone (they almost beat the Celtics back at home). No team has been mentioned as a trade deadline buyer more than the Lakers, who are looking to make Lebron James and Anthony Davis happy by adding depth. But the players they can land for one pick and a couple of role players may not move the needle much.

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20. Heat (13-15, LW 20). 2-1

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21. Pacers (14-14, LW 19). Indiana has dropped 6-of-8 to fall back to .500 and the offense has been the primary issue, they are ranked 27th in the league over those eight games. The schedule doesn’t get any easier with the Warriors, Cavaliers, Celtics, Heat and Pelicans coming up. The Pacers have three impressive young guards in Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard and if the team continues to slide as the trade deadline approaches, the Pacers ownership and front office need to make a decision about the long-term direction of the franchise.

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22. Timberwolves (13-14, LW 24). Minnesota has gone 3-3 with Karl-Anthony Towns out with a right calf strain, with a -2.1 net rating and the offense outperforming the defense. D’Angelo Russell is carrying that offense (not Anthony Edwards), with the point guard averaging 26.4 points on 57.6% shooting over his last five games (both up 10 points over his season averages). The Timberwolves have started 1-2 on their five-game road trip with an improving Clippers next up.

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23. Bulls (11-15, LW 25). The Chicago Bulls have more clutch losses (games within three points in the final three minutes) than any team in the league at 2-9 (that’s a little unlucky as they have a 0.2 net rating in those minutes, they should be closer to .500, but nothing has gone the way Chicago hoped this season). If the Bulls are going to turn this ship around and not be sellers at the trade deadline they need to make a push between now and Christmas, when they have three of six games against the surging Knicks, plus the Timberwolves and Heat. If they don’t get some clutch wins (or just wins) in that stretch it’s time to become sellers at the trade deadline.

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24. Wizards (11-17, LW 21). Bradley Beal remains out with a hamstring issue, and he missed the last four games of the team’s current seven-game losing streak. The Wizards need him back. The losses piling up have sparked a lot of Kyle Kuzma trade talk around the league — Kuzma is going to opt out of the $13 million he is owed next season and if the Wizards don’t think they can re-sign him then they have to trade him at the deadline to get something back. The Wizards start a six-game road trip through the West Wednesday, and Beal is expected to return at some point on the trip.

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25. Thunder (11-16, LW 23). How good has Shai Gilgeous-Alexander been? He has 17 30+ point games already this season. Insane. He’s on his way to his first All-Star game, and an All-NBA nod is not out of the question down the line. The Thunder are only 2.5 games back of the play-in and they now have 9-of-10 at home after a heavy road stretch, if SGA can rack up some more big nights the Thunder making the postseason — an idea that would have seemed insane before the season — doesn’t seem so crazy.

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26. Rockets (9-18, LW 26). Break up the Rockets!! Houston has won 3-of-4 (and 6-of-10), but what’s impressive is who they beat: The 76ers, Bucks and Suns. While Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. put up the big numbers, second-year center Alperen Sengun has played well of late, averaging 13.4 points and 10.4 rebounds a night over his last 10 games. The Rockets are home for their next five.

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27. Magic 8-20, LW 29). Orlando has won three straight and Paolo Banchero is averaging 21.1 points a game over his last 15 games, and has now scored 20 points more than 15 times already this season. The only other players to score 20+ 15 times in their first 20 NBA games are Zion Williamson and Michael Jordan. That’s some good company. The Magic’s next four games are all against the Hawks or Celtics.

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28. Spurs (9-18, LW 30). San Antonio has won three in a row and the last of those was the most dramatic, holding off a comeback from Donovan Mitchell and the Cavaliers. Mitchell had a break to win the game but Keldon Johnson was there with the block to save the victory. Not sure you can win the new Jerry West Best Clutch Player trophy with just defense, but a block like this can boost your case.

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29. Hornets (7-20, LW 27). LaMelo Ball returns to action Wednesday night after missing the last 11 games with a sprained left ankle. That’s the same ankle he sprained that forced him to miss much of training camp plus the first 13 games of the season. LaMelo averaged 19.3 points and seven assists a game in the three games he played this season, but how far can he lift a team that has stumbled this much out of the gate (and in a year with a deep draft, how much do the Hornets want him to lift them up at this point?).

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30. Pistons (7-22, LW 28). Cade Cunningham made the expected official and will have shin surgery that will end his season. That’s going to mean more learning on the job for Jaden Ivey, something that could help next season when Cunningham returns. The question around the league now is will the Pistons be sellers at the trade deadline — specifically, while they move Bojan Bogdanovic? Reports from those close to the team hint they are leaning toward keeping him, but that’s exactly what you’d say to get teams to increase their offers. Expect a lot of Bogdanovic rumors between now and Feb. 9.

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