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NBA Power Rankings: Milwaukee looks good... now real games start

Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin runs through the top storylines to keep an eye on leading into the NBA restart in Orlando.

Let the games begin! The NBA’s bubble concept has worked so far (*knocks on wood*) and the seeding games tip-off Thursday. With that our NBA Power Rankings are back (returning to their usual Wednesday slot next week) and will run a few weeks up until the start of the playoffs.

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1. Bucks (53-12, Last week No. 3). The Bucks offense has looked good in both scrimmages, putting up 113 points in 40 minutes and 131 in 48. Brook Lopez, who struggled with his shot for much of the regular season (29.6% from three), has found it in Orlando: 12-of-15 shooting overall and 7-of-9 from three. He has been the best Bucks player in the scrimmages, and while those games don’t matter it’s a good sign.

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2. Lakers (49-14, LW 1). Already without Avery Bradley (who chose to sit out the restart for family reasons), the Lakers have now lost Rajon Rondo to a thumb injury. While Rondo is expected back around the Western Conference Finals (when they would really need him), he and Bradley accounted for 44 minutes a game in the backcourt rotation. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is starting, while Quinn Cook and Dion Waiters have looked good for stretches in the scrimmages. Grey-beard LeBron James and Anthony Davis look rested and ready.

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3. Clippers (44-20, LW 2). After having six rotation players not with the team in the Orlando bubble at one point last week, the Clippers are down to just one (Montrezl Harrell, out on a family matter), with a number of players in quarantine but close to being back. Lou Williams will be a little longer, he’s quarantined for 10 days because his favorite restaurant in Atlanta is a strip club (he does have a wings flavor named after him at Magic City, so maybe they are good).

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4. Raptors (46-18, LW 5). Serge Ibaka has looked rested and his shot is falling at the restart, he had 19 points against Portland, plus a little dust up with Jusuf Nurkic. Kyle Lowry also has played well in a couple of games, and Fred VanVleet’s knee knock with a Portland player doesn’t seem to be anything serious. Don’t sleep on this deep team with championship experience.

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5. Celtics (43-21, LW 4). Kemba Walker has been eased back into competition this restart because of the balky left knee that has bothered him all season, but Walker moved well and impressed in Sunday’s scrimmage. That’s a good sign. Backcourt scoring and versatile, switchable wing play are Boston’s strengths, but a deep playoff run will depend on Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter stepping up at the center spot.

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6. Rockets (40-24, LW 6). James Harden is back, looking rested, and dropped 31 points (and a near triple-double in 35 minutes) on Sunday. He requested to play all those minutes, and wouldn’t come out at the end, because he wanted the feel of a real game. The Rockets defensive rotations looked sharp in the fourth quarter Sunday and held the Grizzlies to 18.2% shooting.

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7. Thunder (40-24, LW 9). I’m not sure most fans realize just how well OKC was playing before the season was interrupted: They were 33-13 after Dec. 1 with a top 10 offense and defense. Chris Paul was playing at an All-NBA level and may have been the best clutch player in the league this season, leading OKC to a lot of close wins. The Thunder got an emotional boost watching Andre Roberson step back on the court for the first time in 909 days.

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8. Heat (41-24, LW 8). Kendrick Nunn (who tested positive for the coronavirus) was not only back in Orlando but back in the starting lineup for the Heat’s scrimmage against Utah. Bam Adebayo, who also tested positive, is in Orlando but has yet to play in a game. With a deep and versatile roster, Miami is the dark horse favorite at the restart for a lot of analysts, thanks in part to the intensity of Jimmy Butler leading a talented young core.

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9. Nuggets (43-22, LW 7). Mike Malone said it himself: Denver’s coach has no idea where his team is in preparation for the seeding games right now. Due to injury and the coronavirus they have had just eight players ready to go in both scrimmage games. But on of those players is Bol Bol and that is all most of us need to see.

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10. Mavericks (40-27, LW 11). Any questions about Luka Doncic’s fitness should be tossed out the window at this point, he has looked fantastic. Dallas’ floor spacing and shooting from three is going to be dangerous in the playoffs, but their defense needs to tighten up if they are going to be a real first round threat. Also, expect Doncic to text Kristaps Porzingis daily to remind him to get his coronavirus test.

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11. 76ers (39-26, LW 11). Joel Embiid missing a game due to calf tightness isn’t devastating but it will raise some eyebrows — a healthy and focused Embiid is critical to any Sixers playoff hopes. (He did practice Monday, a good sign.) All that talk about Ben Simmons taking two corner threes in the Sixers opener (hitting one), notice in the second game he didn’t even attempt a shot from deep. He has to shoot constantly from there to be a threat.

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12. Jazz (41-23, LW 13). Utah needs a Mike Conley to step up and replace Bojan Bogdanovic’s scoring and play making, which is why his second half against Miami is encouraging. Rudy Gobert has looked fantastic through two games, and he and Donovan Mitchell have shown some on-court chemistry even as there are questions about their chemistry off it.

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13. Trail Blazers (29-37, LW 14). Jusuf Nurkic was back for his first scrimmage over the weekend and looked fantastic both as a scorer and distributor. His chemistry with Damian Lillard was like he never left, and the little dust-up with Serge Ibaka was a reminder of the grit Nurkic brings. The experiment of Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside playing together will be something to watch.

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14. Pelicans (28-36, LW 15). Zion Williamson is back in the bubble and (provided he keeps testing negative) will be available opening night against Utah. Whether Alvin Gentry will play him after limited practice remains to be seen, but the Pelicans can’t afford to start slow in the chase to get into a play-in series for the eighth seed. They need Zion.

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15. Pacers (39-26, LW 12). The loss of Domantas Sabonis for the restart due to a foot injury is a punch to the gut of a team that was looking to advance out of the first round in the playoffs. No official word yet on if Victor Oladipo will play in the seeding/playoff games, but he has looked fantastic in both Pacers scrimmage games. Will the Sabonis news impact his decision?

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16. Magic (30-35, LW 17). Both Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are set to return for the final Magic scrimmage game and could be good to go for the seeding games, if cleared. Getting Isaac back would be huge for an Orlando team where defense has been the issue, he was an All-Defensive Team level player before an injury prematurely ended his season.

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17. Grizzlies (32-33, LW 16). The loss of Justise Winslow to a hip injury is a real blow to the depth and potential of this team. There have been bright spots. Memphis’ best rookie through two scrimmages is not soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Ja Morant (who has still looked solid), it’s Brandon Clarke (16 points against Houston Sunday). Kyle Anderson also has shown he is healthy and can handle some minutes in Orlando.

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18. Kings (28-36, LW 19). No Marvin Bagley due to a foot injury that has him out for the restart (the other foot from the foot injury that had him out for much of the season). No Bagley hurts the offense, the lack of Alex Len being healthy hurts the defense, although Len could return by the weekend. With all that it’s hard to picture Sacramento ending a playoff drought that goes back by 2006.

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19. Spurs (27-36, LW 20). Pour one out for the Spurs 22-season playoff streak, there is almost no way that will continue. The bubble games for San Antonio are about the future, specifically what a Dejounte Murray/Lonnie Walker IV backcourt might look like. Plenty of speculation around the league about whether Gregg Popovich will coach next season, a question he may not know the answer to yet.

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20. Suns (26-39, LW 21). Good news, Aron Baynes has been cleared after testing positive for the coronavirus and is on his way to the Orlando bubble. Phoenix is using this restart to get Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton some time to build chemistry — and Ayton plans to keep shooting those threes if left open. The Suns lack of depth has been an issue in the scrimmage games (especially against a deep Celtics’ roster.

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21. Nets (30-34, LW 18). With more players out than we have room to list here, Brooklyn has become the Caris LeVert show at the restart, a lot of the offense runs through him. Joe Harris and Garrett Temple will have bigger roles too, while Jarrett Allen has a chance to step up. Most observers expect the Nets to fall behind the Magic and become the eight seed in the East (meaning the Bucks in the first round).

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22. Wizards (24-40, LW 22). Can Washington make up two games on Brooklyn to force a play-in series? As depleted as the Wizards are, that feels like a long shot. The key is for guys to stay healthy and not suffer an injury that impacts next season.

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23. Bulls (22-43, LW 23). Hearing more and more buzz that even though the new front office is not sold on Jim Boylen as coach — and players such as Thaddeus Young will push for a trade if he stays — he will keep his job next season. It saves money for ownership at a time the league is taking a hit, plus it lets Arturas Karnisovas save the “changing the coach” card for another time. Nothing is decided yet on this front, but it will need to be in the coming weeks.

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24. Timberwolves (19-45, LW 24). Glen Taylor has put the team up for sale, but only to a new owner who will keep the team in Minnesota (the team’s lease at the Target Center runs through 2035). Kevin Garnett is the best storyline of the potential new owners, and he is talking to billionaire partners. The Wilf family (which owns the Vikings) are not actively negotiating, but there are a number of other billionaires kicking the tires on the sale.

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25. Hawks (20-46, LW 25). Not in Orlando for the restart and not much new to talk about in Atlanta, outside of Lou Williams’ restaurant choices.

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26. Hornets (23-42, LW 26). Not in Orlando for the restart.

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27. Knicks (20-45, LW 27). Tom Thibodeau is the team’s new head coach, and I like the hire… with caveats. First, Thibodeau has to have grown and take his foot off the accelerator at points with a young team — RJ Barrett doesn’t need to lead the league in minutes played. Secondly, Thibs and team president Leon Rose need to be on the same page with player development, culture building, and more. That coach/front office connection has not always been there in Madison Square Garden before.

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28. Pistons (20-45, LW 28). Not in Orlando for the restart.

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29. Cavaliers (19-46, LW 29). Not in Orlando for the restart.

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30. Warriors (15-50 LW 30). Not in Orlando for the restart.

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