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NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: It's tight at the top

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NBA Eastern Conference power rankings: It's tight at the top

There's still not much separating the top-five teams in this week's Eastern Conference power rankings: 

1. Raptors (26-10) Last week: 1 
Don’t take the Sixers’ 25-point win over Toronto on Saturday as a sign of anything seriously wrong with the Raptors. When everyone is healthy and on the floor — which hasn’t happened very often recently — Toronto is still the best team in the East.

2. Bucks (24-10) Last week: 2
The Bucks also have a very strong claim for the top spot, with six wins in their last seven games and the best net rating in the NBA. They’ll have a chance on Jan. 5 to beat Toronto for the third time this season.

3 Celtics (20-14) Last week: 3
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Celtics and Sixers swap spots in our power rankings several times over the next couple months. The dramatic overtime battle on Christmas illustrated why the Sixers need some bench help to vault decisively over Boston. Zero bench points for the Sixers until late in the third quarter is perhaps the stat that jumps out most from that loss.

4. Sixers (23-13) Last week: 4
If JJ Redick didn’t miss two free throws, or if he knocked down an open look from the wing at the end of regulation, many people would likely have a very different perspective on the Sixers. That’s not to place all the blame on Redick, but a reminder of how close the Sixers were to earning a big win at TD Garden. A 17-point victory over the Jazz on Thursday night was the perfect way to respond to that loss.

5. Pacers (23-12) Last week: 5
Indiana has won three straight games and 10 of their last 12. They’ve held opponents below 100 points in eight of those 12 games, an impressive feat in the modern NBA. 

6. Hornets (16-17) Last week: 6
Wednesday night, the Hornets lost yet another heartbreaker, a bizarre double-overtime game in Brooklyn. They’re getting a lot of practice in close games. You’d expect they’ll eventually figure out how to win them, right? 

7. Detroit Pistons (16-16) Last week: 7
You get the sense the Pistons would need Blake Griffin to score at least 30 points per game to have a chance of winning a playoff series. Detroit is 6-9 when Griffin posts 25 points or fewer, 10-7 when he scores 26 or more.

8. Brooklyn Nets (17-19) Last week: 9
The Nets just keep rising in our power rankings. Spencer Dinwiddie had 37 points and 11 assists in that double overtime win over Charlotte. He’s scored in double figures in all but two games this season.

9. Miami Heat (16-17) Last week: 10
A tight loss to the Raptors on Wednesday ended a five-game winning streak for Miami. Justise Winslow has done a nice job filling in at the point for the injured Goran Dragic.

10. Magic (14-19) Last week: 8
The four-game losing run Orlando is on has been an especially bad one. They’ve lost by 39 to the Spurs, 24 to the Heat, and also fell to the Bulls and Suns.

11. Wizards (13-22) Last week: 11
The Wizards are still not a team that inspires a ton of confidence, having lost eight of their past 10 games. On the bright side, Thomas Bryant made history with a 14-for-14 performance in a triple-overtime win over the Suns on Saturday, and the Wizards are encouraged by his development.

12. Hawks (9-24) Last week: 13
Atlanta’s first three-game winning streak of the season was snapped with a loss vs. the Pacers on Wednesday. Rookie Kevin Huerter is shooting 42.9 percent from three-point range since joining the starting lineup on Nov. 25.

13. Cavs (8-27) Last week: 12
Out of their 27 losses, Sunday’s 20-point defeat to the Bulls might have been Cleveland’s worst. The Cavs are dealing with a bunch of injuries and have lost four straight. 

14. Bulls (9-26) Last week: 15
The Bulls are actually 4-7 since Jim Boylen took over as interim head coach, though it feels worse. Lauri Markkanen has gone for 30-plus points in two of his last three games.

15. Knicks (9-27) Last week: 13
You can always count on drama from the Knicks. Enes Kanter wasn’t happy about being replaced by Luke Kornet in the starting lineup Thursday night, then got ejected in the Knicks’ loss to the Bucks. Kevin Knox is learning how to score in the NBA, with 19.4 points per game since Dec. 9.

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Defensive woes continue to plague Sixers as Giannis Antetokounmpo goes off in loss to Bucks

Defensive woes continue to plague Sixers as Giannis Antetokounmpo goes off in loss to Bucks

BOX SCORE

What’s your prediction for the fight? 

Pain.

OK, so maybe Brett Brown didn’t go full Clubber Lang last month when discussing the Sixers’ installation of a new defensive scheme, but he did anticipate there would be struggles.

But I’m willing to bet even he didn’t think they would be to this extent.

The Sixers’ defense failed to hold up yet again during Wednesday night’s 123-108 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks (see observations)

After ranking 11th in the NBA by giving up 105.3 points per game last season,  the Sixers wanted to get even better. When defensive-minded Lloyd Pierce took over the head coaching job in Atlanta, the Sixers enlisted Monty Williams to take over those responsibilities and add some different principles that would make the franchise the league’s top squad in that department.

So far the changes have had the opposite impact as the Sixers have allowed opponents to average 116.8 through five games in 2018-19.

“Like I’ve been saying since preseason, I don’t think we’re very good defensively,” Joel Embiid told reporters. “A lot of teams are taking advantage of that. We’ve got to fix it, we’ve got to correct it.”

One glance at the numbers would have you believe the Sixers did a decent job on the defensive side against the Bucks. They limited Milwaukee to 41.0 percent shooting from the field and 30.2 percent from three-point range.

However, it was the game-changing second quarter that turned the tide. The Bucks connected on 15 of 26 shots (57.6), including 8 of 12 three-pointers (66.6 percent). That turned the Sixers’ 12-point lead into a seven-point deficit by halftime.

“I saw a lot of threes,” Brett Brown responded when asked what he witnessed during that stretch of the game. “I saw eight threes. Brook (Lopez) made five threes in a row.”

Lopez (21 points, 5 for 11 on three-pointers) found his game during that second quarter, but it was also the moment Giannis Antetokounmpo started to put his imprint on the matchup. The “Greek Freak” scored 15 of his 32 points in the second quarter as he added 18 boards and 10 assists for a triple-double.

No matter who the Sixers threw at Antetokounmpo, he was able to get to his spots and score the ball. Actually, the Sixers couldn’t even agree on who should be attempting to slow down the All-Star forward on each possession.

“I feel like I should have been on him the whole game,” Simmons said.

What can be agreed on is that the Sixers’ defense is in shambles right now. The team came into training camp with an emphasis on limiting opponents and finding the right combination to take the next step in the playoffs.

At this moment, the Sixers aren’t even playing postseason-caliber defense. More importantly, they’re not playing the type of defense that lives up to the city.

“It’s Philadelphia, it’s the Sixers,” Simmons said. “We play a certain way. We hold ourselves to a high standard.”

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Bucks 123, Sixers 108: Giannis Antetokounmpo shows out

Bucks 123, Sixers 108: Giannis Antetokounmpo shows out

BOX SCORE

Another night, another star player the Sixers weren’t able to keep in check.

Despite Ben Simmons' return for the Sixers, they were unable to prevent Giannis Antetokounmpo from notching a triple-double in a 123-108 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers fell to 2-3 on the season with the loss and remained winless on the road.

What’s going on with the rotation? Was Joel Embiid actually outplayed by another center? 

We dive into that and more in our observations.

• I wholeheartedly understand it’s only five games into the new season and no one wants to overreact. However, the distribution of minutes among guards has reached a head-scratching level.

One night after T.J. McConnell played 32 minutes and Markelle Fultz sat the final 10 of regulation and all of overtime, things took another tumble in Milwaukee. 

In this one, McConnell was suspiciously glued to the bench until the 7:02 mark of the third quarter while Fultz played 27 minutes.

All NBA coaches are attempting to get a grasp on their rotations at this point of the season, but Brett Brown might have to nail down a decision on his faster than most to get this thing settled.

• Teams seeking to reach an elite level don’t show this brand of rapid inconsistency.

The Sixers followed up arguably their best defensive quarter of the season in the first with an absolutely dreadful showing in the second. They allowed the Bucks to shoot 57.6 percent from the field in the frame, including a ridiculous 66.6 percent from three-point range.

Center Brook Lopez went off with four triples of his own in the second quarter as the Bucks scored 49 points. They turned a 12-point deficit into a seven-point lead.

We understand the Sixers are still working on implementing a new defensive scheme, but at the end of the day it comes down to simply stopping the man in front of you from putting the ball in the basket.

• Simmons looked solid in his return after missing one game with back tightness. He provided the Sixers with a boost early as the team raced out to a 34-22 lead at the end of the first quarter.

While Simmons turned in his second triple-double of the young season (14 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists), a glaring concerned was evident again: free throw shooting.

Simmons was 2 of 6 from the line and is now at 52.6 percent from the stripe in 2018-19. That’s actually down from his 56.0 percent from a season ago.

• Embiid was caught out of his element far too often on Tuesday night as he was forced to chase Brook Lopez (21 points, 5 for 11 from three-point range) around the arc. Not the best situation for the big fella on the second night of a back-to-back set.

Despite not having the best game, Embiid still managed to muscle through for 30 points, 19 boards, six assists and three blocks.

That is one of the true signs of being a great player when you can have an off night and still put up numbers to give your team a chance.

• Unfortunately for the Sixers, any chance they had was snuffed out by Antetokounmpo.

Much like Tuesday night with Blake Griffin, the Sixers had absolutely no answer for the “Greek Freak.” Antetokounmpo turned in absolute dominant stat line of 32 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists, three blocks and a pair of steals.

The Sixers may not be able to completely lock down opponents’ star players, but they have to at least slow them down.

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