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NBA Power Rankings: Celtics overtake Bucks for top spot, Nuggets up to third

Natalie breaks down Jayson Tatum's NBA MVP case on the heels of the Boston Celtics' road win over the Atlanta Hawks.

The Milwaukee Bucks stumbled this week, the Boston Celtics have not stumbled for seven straight games, and that winning streak moves them to the top of this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings. The Denver Nuggets have quietly played well and have climbed up to third.

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1. Celtics (11-3, Last week No.5). Boston has flown almost under the radar this season, even though they have won seven in a row, thanks to the dramas in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and other cities. There could have been drama after the suspension of Ice Udoka, but credit coach Joe Mazzulla for not letting that happen and keeping the team focused. Mazzulla has the Celtics’ offense humming (best in the league) and that is winning games (the defense is 19th, but when Robert Williams returns that will change). So much to like with the way Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are playing, and they get a fun test on the road in New Orleans on Friday night.

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2. Bucks (10-3, LW 1). The Milwaukee Bucks have gotten some solid minutes from rookie MarJon Beauchamp, who has shown flashes on the wing, averaging 7.5 points per game in limited minutes. He had 19 points against the Thunder and 20 against the Hawks in games that showcased him a little more. The G-League Ignite product was seen as a raw wing with real potential entering the draft, but you can see why he has been a good roll of the dice for Milwaukee. The Bucks have dropped 3-of-4 but Giannis Antetokounmpo is back, which is good considering the Bucks play the Cavaliers, 76ers and Trail Blazers this week.

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3. Nuggets (9-4, LW 9). This might seem a high ranking for people not watching much Nuggets basketball — or who just see Nikola Jokic’s counting stats are down — but the Nuggets have won 5-of-6 (the only loss is to the Celtics) with the second-highest net rating in the league in that window. They have the second-best offense in the NBA, and are 4-0 in clutch games (inside five points in the final five minutes) with a +39.4 net rating in those games. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are finding their rhythms. It’s been a relatively soft schedule for the Nuggets so far, but we should see a better test this Friday and Sunday with two games in Dallas.

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4. Suns (8-5, LW 3). The Suns have stumbled losing 3-of-5 on a road trip, but are without Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson right now so they don’t tumble far down the rankings. The Suns are still a top-five offense and defense in the league, and Devin Booker is playing at an All-NBA level (Phoenix wouldn’t have been in the game in Miami without him, but then Jimmy Butler spoiled that party). The Suns should be able to pick up some wins with 5-of-6 at home, including the Warriors who struggle outside the Bay Area.

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5. Mavericks (8-5, LW 7). Luka Doncic is playing at an MVP level, leading the league in scoring (34.4 points per game) plus pitching in 8.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists a game. The only real concern in Dallas is the minutes he and Spencer Dinwiddie (the only other quality perimeter shot creator on the team): Doncic is at 37.2 minutes a night, fourth most in the league, and Dinwiddie is playing 33.7. Jason Kidd has talked about getting them some rest, but that is easier said than done with two games against Denver and one against Boston coming up soon.

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6. Cavaliers (8-5, LW 2). What the four straight losses by the Cavs have shown us is this team lacks depth right now — when players like Donovan Mitchell or Jarrett Allen sit, this team doesn’t keep getting wins (the way the Bucks have without Khris Middleton or the Celtics have without Robert Williams). That will come with time, and it will come with time (the four losses are by 19 total points). When healthy, Cleveland can compete with anyone. More tests are coming this week for the Cavaliers with the Bucks and Heat on the schedule.

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7. Trail Blazers (10-4, LW 10). The early success of the Trail Blazers has made it harder to have stabilized roles for some of the bench guys — Nassir Little has played well but his minutes are up and down depending on the matchups. Little has adjusted, shooting a career-best 43.4% from 3, but at some point Chauncey Billups needs to set a nightly rotation and stick to it. Portland is relentless, it has trailed by double digits in six of its 10 wins but has fought back in those games.

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8. Hawks (9-5, LW 8). Atlanta has won 5-of-6, and picked up four of those wins on the road, but they’ve done it against a soft part of the schedule so we’re not fully buying in yet. What is working for the Hawks is the starting lineup of Trae Young, Dejounte Murray, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela — it has played more minutes than any other five-man lineup in the league so far (240 minutes) and has a +8.8 net rating. That lineup will see a tougher schedule coming up, they picked up a win over the Bucks but now comes the Celtics, Raptors and Cavaliers. Good tests.

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9. Grizzlies (9-6, LW 6). The good news: Jaren Jackson Jr. made his debut on Tuesday night, and while there was a lot of rust (3-of-14 shooting) just having him back as a rim protector will boost the Grizzlies 19th ranked defense. The bad news: Desmond Bane — who has been playing at an All-Star level averaging 24.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists a night — is out for 2-3 weeks with a sprained big toe. He has been their best secondary shot creator after Ja Morant this season. Not that Morant needs help when he can do things like this.

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10. Jazz (10-6, LW 4). Losers of three straight (Wizards, 76ers, Knicks) and things are about to get tougher with the Suns, Trail Blazers and Clippers the next three. Losing to Joel Embiid when he has a historic night is forgivable, but it lays bare the blueprint teams are using to attach the Jazz — be physical and get the ball inside and pound Kelly Olynyk and Lauri Markkanen. Expect to see more of that from teams who like to play physical, such as the Clippers.

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11. 76ers (7-7, LW 10). Philadelphia has gone 3-2 without James Harden (out for a month with a right foot tendon sprain), with the last two of those wins because Joel Embiid has been a force of nature — 101 points over two games. Sunday he dropped a career-high 59 points on the Jazz, but this was a dominant all-around effort with 11 rebounds and five blocks in the fourth quarter, when he just took over. We are witnessing MVP-level Embiid, and the Sixers may need more of him this coming weekend with the Bucks and Timberwolves in a back-to-back.

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12. Pelicans (8-6, LW 12). While we knew the Pelicans would put up points this season, what has been a surprise is their defense — a 109.9 defensive rating that is eighth in the league. The thought was that when the Pelicans stars shared the floor — CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson — the defense would suffer, but they have a 107 defensive rating in those minutes. This is a legit playoff team. As proof, there was beating the Grizzlies Tuesday while Zion got the night off — a quality win for New Orleans and kept the above .500 for the season.

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13. Clippers (8-7, LW 17). It’s legitimately concerning that the Clippers have the second-worst offense in the NBA this season (the worst if you remove garbage time, as Cleaning the Glass does with its stats). While Kawhi Leonard has only played 42 minutes all season, the problems have been bigger than that. The offensive slumps are costing them games, like allowing Brooklyn to go on a 20-2 fourth-quarter run and get the win on Saturday in a game the Clippers seemed to have under control. With the Pistons, Spurs and Jazz at home this week it’s a chance for Los Angeles to rack up a few wins — and maybe find some consistent offense outside a Paul George isolation.

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14. Raptors (8-7, LW 11). The Raptors are a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to taking 3-pointers: 14th in attempts per game, 19th in shooting percentage. But Fred VanVleet is the guy keeping them afloat in this category, taking 8.3 3-pointers a night and hitting 42.2% of them so far. OG Anunoby and Siakam (when healthy) pitch in, but VanVleet is the sharpshooter on this team Toronto is keeping its head above water, going 3-3 so far without Pascal Siakam. They now have 4-of-5 at home but what a four: Miami, Brooklyn, Dallas, Cleveland.

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15. Heat (7-7, LW 19). The Heat are starting to get a little more from their role players — and they are shooting 55% from 3 over the last three games — which has led to a three-game win streak. Miami needed the bench to step up, it had been too much of a two-man show up to this point: The Heat defense is 12.7 points per 100 possessions better with Bam Adebayo on the court, the Miami offense is 18.5 per 100 better with Jimmy Butler on the court. Those two switched roles — Adebaoyo scored 30, Butler had the defensive play of the year so far — against the Suns. The Heat head out on the road for four this week.

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16. Kings (7-6, LW 24). Put in a national spotlight Tuesday night the Kings thrived, putting up 153 on the hapless Nets in front of a raucous crowd, it was the team’s fourth win in a row and a reminder this could be the season they break their 16-year playoff drought. De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis are playing like All-Stars, and role players like Terence Davis are finding their spots. The Kings need to rack up the wins now as they are in a soft part of the schedule — they have won 7-of-9 and there are a couple of quality wins (Cleveland, Golden State) but this is a soft stretch. Playoff teams make it because they beat the teams they are supposed to beat. The Kings need to continue to do just that.

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17. Warriors (6-8, LW 20). Former Warriors coach Mike Brown laid out the blueprint for handling this version of Golden State when Sacramento joined the chorus of teams beating the defending champs: Double and Curry every chance and force the other guys to beat them. So far the Warriors do not have an answer for that, and they are 0-7 on the road. James Wiseman has been sent down to the G-League because he needs the reps and Steve Kerr can’t give him any, Wiseman just hurts the team too much when he plays. Warriors have three of their next four on the road, can they get a win away from the Chase Center?

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18. Wizards (8-6, LW 21). Washington has won four in a row with Bradley Beal out, knocking off quality teams like the Mavericks, Jazz and Grizzlies thanks to career nights from Kyle Kuzma, Kristaps Porziņģis and Deni Avdija. However, this is still a team with a negative net rating overall that suggests the team should be 6-8, so we’re hesitant to move them up the ladder, especially with a bottom-10 offense. Three of their next five games are against the Heat, that will be a good measuring stick.

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19. Pacers (6-6, LW 10). It’s going to frustrate Pacers fans this season, who see a 6-6 team with a couple of promising young players — Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin — and a franchise that doesn’t have a history of tanking. So why all the focus on a Myles Turner trade nationally? The latest rumor was maybe the Clippers. The reason is that other teams expect them to move veterans, particularly Turner (a free agent after this season and has given the impression he wants a clean slate somewhere new). Still, this is a week the Pacers can pad that record with games against the Hornets, Rockets, and two against the Magic.

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20. Knicks (7-7, LW 15). Tom Thibodeau’s seat is getting warm and the problem — outside of the team not trading for Donovan Mitchell — is the end of the court where Thibs is supposed to specialize: Defense. The Knicks are bottom 10 in the league, and being without Mitchell Robinson (knee injury) is not helping. Thibodeau understands what the problem is, “But I know if we’re relying on trying to outscore people that’s not going to work. Our margin of error is small, we have to play with great intensity on every possession.” A quality win for New York in Utah on Tuesday, kicking off a rough five-game road trip, and beyond that a tough stretch of the season. Thibs seat could get hotter.

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21. Nets (6-9, LW 22). The hot start to the Jacque Vaughn era is over, he is now 4-4 as a head coach with a couple of defensive clunkers in there. Not that it’s Vaughn’s fault, Kevin Durant gets that, as he told Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report: “Look at our starting lineup. Edmond Sumner, Royce O’Neale, Joe Harris, [Nic] Claxton and me. It’s not disrespect, but what are you expecting from that group?” Kyrie Irving remains suspended. Ben Simmons is coming off the bench as a backup five. Things do not get easier. Brooklyn heads to Portland to face the Trail Blazers Thursday, then has the Grizzlies, 76ers, and Raptors. Next Tuesday could be Simmons’ return to Philadelphia, so get ready for some boos.

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22. Bulls (6-8, LW 14). The Bulls are winless in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes), with a 0-6 record, an offense struggling to create good looks and a -46.4 net rating. That all will improve some over time, but it points to a real problem for Chicago about execution in big minutes. Overall the Bulls still have a bottom-10 offense in the league and maybe their fortunes will turn around whenever Lonzo Ball can return, but the best teams still win games with their stars out. That is not Chicago right now.

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23. Thunder (6-8, LW 23). We are not saying this enough: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is playing All-NBA (maybe even bottom of the MVP ballot) level basketball this season. He averaging 30.5 points per game on a 62.8 true shooting percentage, dishing out 5.5 assists a night, and is top eight in pretty much every advanced stat you can name. Behind him, the Thunder offense is out of the bottom 10 in the league and the Thunder are picking up wins against teams like the Raptors and Knicks. Next up this week, the Wizards, Grizzlies, and the Knicks again.

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24. Timberwolves (6-8, LW 16). D’Angelo Russell is struggling to find a consistent role and fit playing with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. For example, he was shooting 37.7% heading into Sunday, but then dropped a 30-spot on the Cavaliers, hitting 11-of-13 from the field. Coach Chris Finch said Russell is “the lynchpin for this team: We’re not going anywhere without D-Lo playing at a much better level for us, but he had kind of a slow start last season, too,” Finch said. The Timberwolves have 4-of-5 on the road, with the one home game against the Heat (who will be on the second night of a back-to-back).

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25. Magic 4-10, LW 29). Bol Bol is one of the season’s best stories so far. Something between a novelty and a project in Denver, in Orlando he has averaged 11.6 points and 7.6 rebounds with 1.9 blocks in 24 minutes per game. He has been legitimately impressive. Playing with Nikola Jokic must have paid off because he has become a good off-ball cuter, he can work out of the dunker’s spot, and can play in the pinch post. Or he can just bring the ball up and do it all himself.

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26. Spurs (6-9, LW 25). The Spurs remain tough to play against because they move the ball so well — 68.6% of their buckets are assisted, second highest percentage in the league and ahead of the Warriors (Pacers are first). The Spurs also lead the league in points off spot-up shots. While there is real talent on the roster in Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell, the Spurs’ egalitarian system works for them. The Spurs started their current five-game road trip 0-2 and it doesn’t get any easier with the red-hot Kings followed by the two Los Angeles teams.

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27. Lakers 3-10, LW 27). It sounds strange to say it just 13 games into the season, but if the Lakers are going to turn this dreadful start around and make a playoff push, it has to come in the next couple of weeks against a soft part of the schedule. Their next six games are Pistons, Spurs, Suns, Spurs two more times, then the Pacers (let the Myles Turner rumors fly). If Los Angeles doesn’t come out of this stretch at least 4-2, then is this season even salvageable? The Lakers need more of the Anthony Davis we saw against the Nets for this to happen.

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28. Hornets (4-11, LW 26). LaMelo Ball is back and clearly shaking some rust off — 16 points and 7.5 assists average through his first two games, shooting just 33% overall — but when he is on the floor the ball movement and spacing in the Hornets offense is better. It’s what led to a nice win over Orlando in his second game. Things don’t get easier for the Hornets this week with the Cavaliers and Wizards on the docket, and with their early season struggles one has to wonder if the Charlotte brain trust would be willing to pivot toward the lottery if the return of LaMelo doesn’t spark a winning streak before Christmas.

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29. Rockets (2-12, LW 28). The youth of the Rockets is still showing, they are turning the ball over on 15% of their possessions, the third worst in the NBA. There are still flashes of bright spots for this team from players such as Jalen Green or Kenyon Martin Jr. (who is knocking down his threes this season, 34%), but the design of this team is to let those young players learn by being thrown into the fire and losing. Jabari Smith is one of those players learning the hard way, he’s averaging 10.1 points per game but is shooting 31.6% on the season so far.

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30. Pistons (3-12, LW 30). At what point do we start to worry about how the Pistons? Not that they were going to be good this season — we thought maybe they could fight for a play-in spot — but this team has been dreadful, with a bottom-five offense and defense so far. It doesn’t help right now that both Cade Cunningham (shin) and Isaiah Stewart (foot) are out, but even when they were playing, this team did not seem to make progress. It’s early, but at what point are these numbers concerning, and does it mean Dwane Casey’s seat could get hot?

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