The Sixers posted an undefeated week to lead the East with a record of 5-1.
Though we’re certainly dragging some of its remnants into the new year, 2020 is finally behind us. And so are the first two weeks of this unusual season, with some eye-opening blowouts and some pretty fun games as well.
With the singularity of this season, with rest days and protocol-related absences, we might look at these games as being less important than early January games in any other year. But because this season is shorter, they mean more.
The one team that could probably cruise through the next few months, the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers, seem to be doing the opposite. The champs lost on ring night, they had a rough fourth quarter against Portland last Monday, and they probably could have stepped on the gas a little earlier in Memphis on Sunday. But the Lakers have generally been taking care of business. They built defensive habits early last season, and they’re not thinking about flipping a switch in that regard this year. There are a bunch of new guys to incorporate into the program and it seems that steps won’t be skipped.
So the Lakers remain at No. 1 in this week’s Power Rankings. The Clippers remain in the top five, but last week’s No. 2, the Brooklyn Nets, have taken a tumble, replaced by a division rival that they’ll face this week.
Plus-Minus Players of the Week
Teams of the Week
- Make It Last Forever: Philadelphia (3-0) — The Sixers were the league’s only unbeaten team last week. Wins at home over the struggling Raptors and Hornets don’t do much for the resume right now, but they absolutely thumped the previously unbeaten Magic in Orlando on Thursday.
- Something Just Ain’t Right: Minnesota (0-4) — Karl-Anthony Towns for MVP.
East vs. West
Movement in the Rankings
- High jumps of the week: Philadelphia (+13), Utah (+7), Chicago, Golden State (+6)
- Free falls of the week: Brooklyn (-15), Minnesota (-9), Miami, Orlando, San Antonio (-8)
Week 3 Team to Watch
- Boston — Jaylen Brown is on fire, but the Celtics just struggled to split two games in Detroit. This week could be even more interesting, as the Cs play three games against two teams they faced in last year’s playoffs. They begin the week in Florida, facing the Raptors on Monday and the Heat on Wednesday. Then they’re back home for two games, hosting the Wizards on Friday and the Heat on Sunday.
Previous Power Rankings
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league has averaged 101.8 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 108.9 points scored per 100 possessions this season.
NBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man’s opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.
Pace: 101.2 (20) OffRtg: 115.7 (3) DefRtg: 104.5 (6) NetRtg: +11.2 (2)
Having just turned 36 years old, LeBron James leads the Lakers (and ranks 12th in the league) in total minutes played. But his per-game minutes are at a career-low 32.1 and, with the upgrades the Lakers made to the supporting cast, his load is certainly lighter. With Dennis Schroder taking on some of the playmaking duties, James’ time of possession is down from 7.4 minutes per game (21% of his minutes on the floor) last season to just 6.0 per game (19%) this season. And the percent of his buckets that have been assisted is up from 29% to 38% (his highest mark since his championship season in Cleveland). On Monday, Schroder and James had their first pick-and-roll connection. And on Thursday, a Schroder drive got the Spurs’ defense moving and created a clean lane for James to dive to the rim (it looked like the old Mo-Williams-to-James-connection).
James’ efficiency is down slightly. He and Anthony Davis haven’t dominated the paint quite as much as they did last season. But it hasn’t mattered, because the supporting cast has shot so well. The sustainability of that shooting is the question. After ranking 27th in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint last season (47.9%), the Lakers rank third this season (56.3%). Schroder has shot 12-for-20 (60%) from mid-range, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Wesley Matthews have combined to shoot 35-for-77 (45%) from beyond the arc.
The Lakers’ size still matters. They’ve registered a league-high 17.6 second chance points per game, with Kuzma (the starting shooting guard at 6-foot-8 with Caldwell-Pope nursing an ankle injury) getting the go-ahead tip-in in San Antonio on Friday. The poor Spurs had DeMar DeRozan guarding Marc Gasol and are playing this team three times in nine days.
Week 3: @ MEM, vs. SAS, vs. CHI, @ HOU
Pace: 102.3 (11) OffRtg: 107.2 (16) DefRtg: 99.7 (1) NetRtg: +7.5 (3)
Joel Embiid’s numbers (21 points, nine rebounds, two blocks) weren’t that staggering when the Sixers handed the Magic their first loss of the season (with a 35-point, halftime deficit) on Thursday. But Embiid’s intention to get into the post (turning perimeter catches into back-downs) early and often was both evident and important. It did result in one mean spin move and dunk on Nikola Vucevic’s head, but the Magic mostly doubled Embiid in the post, and that mostly resulted in open shots (one, two, three) for his teammates. When they fronted him, they got the same result. The Sixers rank second in the league in ball movement (375 passes per 24 minutes of possession), having seen the biggest jump from last season (333, 14th).
And they’re 5-0 with Embiid, having outscored their opponents by 19.2 points per 100 possessions in his 167 minutes on the floor. He still has more field goal attempts from outside the paint (41) than he does in the paint (35), but he’s 14-for-26 (54%) from mid-range, his free throw rate (60.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field) is the highest of his career, and he’s shooting 80% from the line for the third straight season. Sixers-Nets on Thursday (7:30 ET, TNT) should be fun.
Week 3: vs. CHA, vs. WAS, @ BKN, vs. DEN
Pace: 97.2 (30) OffRtg: 114.0 (5) DefRtg: 111.4 (21) NetRtg: +2.6 (9)
There are three 5-2 teams in the Western Conference and the Clippers have beat the other two, *almost* blowing a 31-point lead in Phoenix on Sunday, but holding on thanks to Nicolas Batum’s dagger 3. (Teams are 46-0 after leading by at least 18 points this season.) It was easily the Suns’ worst defensive game and Paul George did most of the damage, scoring 39 points (on 15-for-24 shooting) in less than 39 minutes. We know he’s going to have to prove himself all over again in the playoffs, but right now, George is one heck of a player (on both ends of the floor) having one heck of a season. He’s averaging 25.1 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.7 steals, shooting 51% from the field, 49% from 3, and 93% from the line.
The Clippers scored 112 points on 93 possessions in Phoenix despite scoring just eight points in the restricted area, fewest for any team in any game this season. It was speculated in this space two weeks ago that they might miss Montrezl Harrell’s rim attacks, and they indeed rank 28th in the percentage of their shots that have come in the restricted area (23%). George and Kawhi Leonard are some jump-shootin’ superstars, having combined to take just 30 (14%) of their 215 shots in the restricted area. In their loss in Utah on Friday, it was just five of 41 total attempts from the pair, and they were 4-for-19 on non-restricted-area 2-point shots.
Week 3: vs. SAS, @ GSW, @ GSW, vs. CHI
Pace: 97.4 (29) OffRtg: 110.7 (13) DefRtg: 103.4 (3) NetRtg: +7.3 (4)
Three out of four against the Pelicans, Jazz, Nuggets and Clippers ain’t bad. And in the loss (to the Clippers), the Suns cut a 31-point deficit to one before coming up empty offensively over the final nine minutes. Phoenix had three “clutch” games in the last four days, despite holding second-half leads of 21 and 16 points in Utah and Denver, respectively, and falling in that 31-point hole on Sunday. Maybe Chris Paul (4-for-6) is trying to pad his clutch stats, but he’s allowed Devin Booker (4-for-14) to take more than twice as many clutch shots so far.
The Suns seemingly have the ideal offensive lineup, with one of the best point guards in league history, a star scorer, a rim-running big man and a pair of shooters in the corners. But (like the Thunder last season) their success has thus far been more about defense and that lineup hasn’t been all that great, getting outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions in its 116 minutes (most for any lineup in the league). Bench minutes (featuring two guys named Cam) have been big, and they’ve gotten a boost from the return of back-up center Dario Saric, who’s a plus-44 in 49 minutes.
Week 3: vs. TOR, @ DET, @ IND
Pace: 100.0 (25) OffRtg: 112.0 (7) DefRtg: 106.7 (11) NetRtg: +5.3 (7)
The Jazz rank seventh offensively, and some of their best players haven’t been particularly sharp. Donovan Mitchell’s effective field goal percentage (45.3%) and free throw rate (18.1 attempts per 100 shots from the field) are both career-low marks. Joe Ingles had been pretty quiet (coming off the bench again) until totaling 24 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists over the last two games. And Bojan Bogdanovic had shoot poorly until breaking out with 28 points on 10-for-13 (6-for-7 from 3-point range) in San Antonio on Sunday.
Rudy Gobert has been characteristically efficient and Mike Conley has been the real offensive star, averaging a team-high 20.3 points on an effective field goal percentage of 61%. He did the Clippers dirty early and often on Friday and then drained a huge 3 (off a how-did-he-see-him feed from Mitchell) after the Jazz almost blew a 20-point lead. Given the way last season went, it may be for the best that Conley is the guy finding his groove early. And if everybody else eventually finds theirs, the Jazz are going to be tough to beat.
Week 3: @ BKN, @ NYK, @ MIL, @ DET
Pace: 100.1 (23) OffRtg: 111.6 (10) DefRtg: 112.0 (24) NetRtg: -0.4 (15)
In this space two weeks ago, the query was if Jaylen Brown could improve as a playmaker. But what if Brown instead turned into the best shooter in the league? Through seven games, the fifth-year wing has averaged 28 points on an effective field goal percentage of 66.3%, having shot a remarkable 22-for-28 (79%) from mid-range. Brown missed a 3-pointer for the tie in Detroit on Friday, but had the game-sealing steal in Indiana on Tuesday, a career-high 42 points against Memphis on Wednesday, and came back from the first Detroit game to hit a go-ahead 3 (prior to Jayson Tatum’s game-winner) on Sunday. As we saw with one particularly wicked crossover on Friday, Brown seems to have tightened up his handle.
Those big shots were needed because the defense wasn’t up to this team’s standards. No team has seen a bigger jump in points allowed per 100 possessions (+5.5) than the Celtics, who ranked in the top 10 defensively from start to finish (every single Monday) last season. Though they’re starting two centers, these Cs rank 24th in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (60.1%) and 26th in defensive rebounding percentage (70.3%).
Their three high-profile games this week are against teams — Toronto and Miami — that have been struggling (and rank in the bottom five) offensively.
Week 3: @ TOR, @ MIA, vs. WAS, vs. MIA
Pace: 104.7 (4) OffRtg: 118.9 (1) DefRtg: 105.6 (9) NetRtg: +13.4 (1)
The NBA record for 3-pointers in a game is supposed to come *against* the Bucks, not from the Bucks. But Milwaukee has started the season on fire from beyond the arc. You can’t ignore that loss to the Knicks (when they shot 7-for-38 on 3-pointers), but they’ve shot 48% from 3-point range over their other five games, with the highlight obviously being the 29 3s they made in Miami on Tuesday. Donte DiVincenzo has taken well to his new starting job, shooting a league-best 19-for-30 (63%) from deep.
Another hot shooting night (22-for-45 from 3) made up for only eight buckets in the restricted area (tied for the Bucks’ fewest in almost three years) against Chicago on Friday. The percentage of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s shots that have come in the restricted area is down from 53% last season (and 62% the season prior) to just 42% this season. His his free throw rate (62 attempts per 100 shots from the field) is up, but an Antetokounmpo shot in the restricted area (about 1.4 points per attempt) is worth more than an Antetokounmpo trip to the line (about 1.2 points per two attempts).
His one dribble pull-up from the high post (the Bucks’ first bucket) in Miami on Wednesday did look intriguingly comfortable and would be something that could open up other options within the Milwaukee offense.
Week 3: vs. DET, vs. DET, vs. UTA, vs. CLE
Pace: 101.4 (16) OffRtg: 112.6 (6) DefRtg: 105.4 (7) NetRtg: +7.2 (6)
The Pacers rank sixth offensively overall, but they’ve scored just 15 points on 27 clutch offensive possessions, with as many turnovers (8) as field goals (6) and free throws (2) combined. After they blew a 17-point lead against Boston on Tuesday, they still had a chance to tie in the final minute, but they seemingly botched the after-timeout play (Malcolm Brogdon was standing where Justin Holiday was dribbling) and turned the ball over. And against the Knicks on Saturday, they went scoreless on eight straight possessions as a three-point lead turned into an eight-point deficit.
With T.J. Warren set to have surgery on his left foot, the Pacers’ everyone’s-healthy starting lineup has played just 129 total minutes (in just nine games) since the arrivals of Brogdon and Warren in Indiana. The new starting lineup, with Aaron Holiday in Warren’s place, has grabbed just 34% of available rebounds in its 31 minutes. The 6-foot-6 Justin Holiday could be playing a lot of “power forward” in those minutes that one of Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner is on the bench. In the loss to the Knicks on Saturday, he spent about as much time guarding Julius Randle (3:21) as he did RJ Barrett (3:33). The next power forward is even thicker than Randle.
Week 3: @ NOP, vs. HOU, vs. PHX
Pace: 98.6 (28) OffRtg: 105.9 (21) DefRtg: 103.7 (4) NetRtg: +2.2 (11)
The Pelicans have joined the group of defenses that will allow a high volume of 3-point attempts in order to protect the rim. Last week, their three opponents attempted 47, 48 and 48 3s (56% of their total field goal attempts). Some of the volume (as noted) is scheme and priorities, and some of it (along with how uncontested those 3-pointers have been) is not making the next rotation after providing help in the paint (see below). Of their opponents’ 262 3-point attempts, 94% have been open or wide open, according to Second Spectrum tracking. The league average is 88% and the Raptors’ opponent mark last season (when they had the highest opponent 3-point rate) was just 85%. The Pelians’ rotations are not the Raptors’ rotations (so far, at least).
Of course, it was against the Raptors’ rotations (and off a double-team of Brandon Ingram) that Eric Bledsoe hit the go-ahead 3 on Saturday, capping off what was the Pelicans’ best offensive game so far (with their 47 free throw attempts being the most for any team in a game this season). Their starting lineup has scored 114.5 points per 100 possessions, but all other New Orleans lineups have scored just 102.8, with JJ Redick shooting just 8-for-31 (26%) from 3-point range.
Week 3: vs. IND, vs. OKC, vs. CHA
Pace: 100.1 (24) OffRtg: 104.2 (26) DefRtg: 101.8 (2) NetRtg: +2.4 (10)
Another week has passed and the Cavs still rank second defensively. (Last season, they dropped from fifth after Week 1 to 23rd after Week 2.) On Saturday, they held what was the league’s No. 1 offense (that of the Hawks) to 21 fewer points per 100 possessions (91 on 97) than it had scored in any of its first five games. They continue to force turnovers at a high rate (22 from Atlanta), with their three healthy bigs — Larry Nance (6.0), Andre Drummond (5.1) and JaVale McGee (4.1) — ranking first, fourth and 15th in deflections per 36 minutes among 220 players who’ve played at least 100 minutes thus far.
The Cavs have been walking a tightrope in regard to shots at the rim. According to Synergy tracking, 21.3 of their opponents’ possessions (the league’s highest opponent rate) have been in transition. Cleveland opponents have taken 37% of their shots (the league’s second highest opponent rate) in the restricted area, but have shot just 55.3% (the league’s lowest opponent mark) there. Both Drummond and Nance rank in the top 12 in total shots defended at the rim, so they’re not necessarily gambling too much and giving up easy layups.
Week 3: @ ORL, @ ORL, @ MEM, @ MIL
Pace: 102.7 (9) OffRtg: 116.7 (2) DefRtg: 109.4 (17) NetRtg: +7.3 (5)
Through four games (including two against Brooklyn), the Hawks had the league’s No. 1 offense, despite getting just 28 total minutes from Danilo Gallinari, who returned from a two-game absence on Wednesday and promptly sprained his ankle three minutes into his first stint back on the floor. Trae Young was getting to the line more than James Harden, John Collins and Clint Capela were giving them vertical spacing, and all three of their young wings were shooting well. They were even scoring efficiently with Young off the floor.
So, perhaps the Hawks were do for a stinker (56 points on 73 possessions over the final 36 minutes) in the second game of their first back-to-back. Young had more turnovers (6) than free throw attempts (4) and the Hawks blew a 15-point, second-half lead against the Cavs on Saturday. Much of this season’s results (league-wide) have seemingly depended on 3-point shooting, but the Hawks lost a game in which their opponent shot 7-for-29 (24%) from beyond the arc. They rank second in point differential from 3-point range (+12.5 per game), but 27th in points in the paint differential (-6.0 per game).
The Hawks don’t have another back-to-back until Jan. 15 and 16. But they play another team that’s surprisingly ranks in the top 10 defensively (the Knicks) on Monday.
Week 3: vs. NYK, vs. CHA, @ CHA
Pace: 98.6 (27) OffRtg: 115.4 (4) DefRtg: 115.8 (29) NetRtg: -0.4 (14)
The good news is that there’s a defense that ranks lower than that of the Nuggets, and they get to play that defense again on Tuesday. The bad news is that the Nuggets needed a 41-point fourth quarter in Minnesota on Sunday to beat a bad team missing its best player. After a couple of rough outings in losses to the Kings and Suns earlier in the week, the Denver bench shot 10-for-21 from 3-point range and actually moved the scoreboard in the right direction. The Nuggets have still been outscored by 20.9 points per 100 possessions (and scored a paltry 89.6 per 100) in Nikola Jokic’s 79 minutes on the bench.
Jokic is averaging 22.3 points (on an effective field goal percentage of 66%), 11.2 rebounds, and 12.8 assists, but his team is 2-4. Neither his gaudy numbers nor the Nuggets’ losing record are likely to extend over 72 games, but team success matters in regard to most awards, and a player’s MVP campaign can certainly depend on his team’s ability to maintain a lead when he’s off the floor.
The Nuggets’ 29th-ranked defense comes was a familiar issue: They’ve allowed a league-high 5.3 corner 3s per game. They’ve generally done a good job of preventing shots at the rim, but the Wolves had 22 restricted-area buckets on Sunday, as many coming in Jokic’s 16:18 on the bench (11) as came in his 31:42 on the floor. JaMychal Green was playing just his second game as the back-up center, but it’s not wrong to wonder if Mason Plumlee will be missed on that end.
Week 3: vs. MIN, vs. DAL, @ PHI, @ NYK
Pace: 103.9 (6) OffRtg: 107.9 (15) DefRtg: 107.5 (13) NetRtg: +0.3 (12)
The Magic were the last unbeaten team in the league, but any good feelings about that accomplishment have probably been lost with a loss to the Sixers in which they trailed by 38 and a loss to the Thunder in which they scored 35 points over the second and fourth quarters. The Philly game was riddled with un-Magic-like defensive mistakes, Dwayne Bacon was at the center of a few of them, and the Magic’s starting lineup (with Bacon in place of the injured James Ennis) has allowed 125 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among the 16 lineups that have played at least 50 minutes.
Aaron Gordon did have a transition block against Ben Simmons on Thursday and a slick transition dime to Nikola Vucevic on Saturday (making more plays with Evan Fournier out), but he’s one of several Magic players who have struggled to shoot from the perimeter. It doesn’t help that this team ranks last in both the percentage of its shots that have come from the restricted area (20%) and the percentage of its shots that have come from 3-point range (30%). Markelle Fultz’ 5-for-23 (22%) from mid-range is the worst mark (by a healthy margin) among 26 players with at least 20 mid-range attempts.
Week 3: vs. CLE, vs. CLE, @ HOU, @ DAL
Pace: 100.2 (22) OffRtg: 106.3 (19) DefRtg: 106.2 (10) NetRtg: +0.1 (13)
Last season’s top-ranked offense is off to a slow start. In fact, the Mavs already been held under a point per possession as many times (3) as they were all of last season. They’re once again in the top three in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (45.5%), but they’re dead last in 3-point percentage (30.7%), with Dorian Finney-Smith (8-for-39, 27%) and Luka Doncic (5-for-31, 16%) ranking 92nd and 98th among 99 individuals with at least 25 attempts. With Doncic nursing a bruised quad on Sunday, replacement starter Jalen Brunson scored 31 points in Chicago, but didn’t get much help from a group that’s heavily dependent on its 21-year-old star.
Fortunately for the Mavs, Paul George celebrated Christmas a day late and the Heat are struggling more offensively than they are. Dallas had lost its last 35 games in which it scored less than a point per possession before pushing past Miami in a pitcher’s duel on Friday. There’s an opportunity to find some offense against two bottom-10 defenses on Monday and Thursday, but it will depend on Doncic’s status.
Week 3: @ HOU, @ DEN, vs. ORL
Pace: 101.9 (14) OffRtg: 101.8 (28) DefRtg: 108.8 (16) NetRtg: -7.0 (26)
The Milwaukee defense is the one that set records for most 3s allowed per game in each of the last two seasons (13.1 in 2018-19, 14.0 last season). But those numbers were somewhat boosted by the pace that the Bucks played at, and the Heat actually allowed their opponents to take a higher percentage of their shots from 3-point range (44%) than the Bucks did (42%) last season. They’re back at 44% this season for the sake of protecting the paint, and they obviously paid the price on Tuesday for being a little too slow in closing out.
The Heat earned a split in the two-game series against Milwaukee with a Goran Dragic-fueled, fourth-quarter run the following night. They’ve scored 26.4 more points per 100 possessions in Dragic’s 118 minutes on the floor (113.7) than they have in his 122 minutes off the floor (87.3). Overall, they’ve have alternated bad offensive games with good ones, but one thing that’s been consistent (and not in a good way) is their turnovers. They had 22 in both games against the Bucks, have the league’s highest turnover rate (19.5 per 100 possessions) by a healthy margin, and 61% of their turnovers (the league’s second highest rate) have been live balls.
Through Friday, the Heat will have played a league-low seven games, while five other teams will have played 10. But things will start to get busy with a weekend back-to-back in Washington and Boston, and they won’t have any more two-day breaks for the rest of the first-half schedule.
Week 3: vs. OKC, vs. BOS, @ WAS, @ BOS
Pace: 101.5 (15) OffRtg: 111.8 (8) DefRtg: 115.7 (28) NetRtg: -3.9 (23)
Just think: CJ McCollum (28.0 points per game) and Damian Lillard (26.3) are both in the top 10 in scoring, and they never get to play against the Blazers’ defense. Before Stephen Curry got them for 62 on Sunday, Lillard (34 points) and McCollum (28) tore up the Warriors’ defense two nights earlier. McCollum remains a mid-range assassin, but he’s seen a big jump in the percentage of his shots that have come from beyond the arc (38% last season to 49% this season). He’s made 43% of his attempts and had one Lillard-esque, pull-up bomb on Friday.
More 3-pointers are needed, because the Blazers’ defense has now allowed two of the four highest scoring games of the season (McCollum has one of the other two) and ranks last in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (63.7%).
The Blazers are home for 10 of their next 12 games, with only two one-game trips to Sacramento over the next 24 days. That stretch is pretty soft in regard to opponent strength as well, so if they fancy themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference, this is their time to rack up some wins.
Week 3: vs. CHI, vs. MIN, @ SAC
Pace: 104.2 (5) OffRtg: 111.6 (9) DefRtg: 107.3 (12) NetRtg: +4.3 (8)
The Nets’ first two games, while, perhaps, an indication of how good this team could be, were clearly not a true indication of how good this team is right now. And they disguised two serious issues: rebounding and second-unit offense. The Nets rank last in defensive rebounding percentage, having grabbed just 67.4% of available defensive boards. That number has been 75.0% in 133 minutes with DeAndre Jordan on the floor, but a brutal 62.6% in his 208 minutes on the bench. The 20.3 second chance points per game that Brooklyn has allowed are the most in the league by a wide margin. Offensive boards produced the deciding points for Memphis on Monday and for Washington on Sunday.
The second-unit offense (88.4 points scored per 100 possessions in 39 minutes over six games) seems more fixable. Coach Steve Nash started staggering the minutes of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant a little bit last week, but he’s still started second and fourth quarters with both on the bench. And on Sunday, the Nets’ lost a game in which they outscored the Wizards by 13 points in 43:06 with one or both on the floor. Both Irving and Durant missed shots for the win in the final seconds, but an 11-0 Washington run to start the second quarter and a few empty Brooklyn possessions early in the fourth were more damaging.
The Nets have one five-games-in-seven-days stretch (two back-to-backs with a single game in the middle) in the first half of the season, and it begins with their game against the Sixers on Thursday. Both Durant and Irving sat the second game of their first back-to-back, and the Grizzlies could benefit again 10 days later.
Week 3: vs. UTA, vs. PHI, @ MEM, vs. OKC
Pace: 101.4 (18) OffRtg: 110.8 (12) DefRtg: 111.8 (22) NetRtg: -1.0 (16)
The first possession in John Wall’s first regular-season game with the Rockets was not good. Wall ran a pick-and-roll with Christian Wood, De’Aaron Fox went under the screen, everyone stood around, and Wall’s late-clock iso produced a mid-range jumper that clanged off the front of the rim. Things turned around from there, though. In two wins over the Kings, Wall looked quick and explosive in totaling 50 points and 15 assists. One key bucket in the Thursday game was a sprint up the middle of the floor, capped by very John-Wall-esque wrong-foot finish over Cory Joseph. Both Wall and James Harden (who missed the Saturday win with an ankle injury) have quickly learned that Christian Wood (26-for-31 in the restricted area) is an adept lob catcher.
Even with a new coach, the Rockets still have issues with transition defense. The first half of the Thursday game against the Kings was particularly bad in that regard, as they let Marvin Bagley go coast-to-coast for a drop-off assist (with a classic Harden transition-defense, steal-attempt lunge), gave up an easy lob after a score on the other end, and let Cory Joseph drive for an and-one after another score. They did seem to do a better job getting back in the second half, and if they can do that more consistently, they’d make things a lot easier on themselves. At this point, only the Spurs have allowed more fast break points per 100 possessions.
Week 3: vs. DAL, @ IND, vs. ORL, vs. LAL
Pace: 101.4 (17) OffRtg: 108.3 (14) DefRtg: 109.5 (18) NetRtg: -1.2 (17)
Rookies don’t usually get you wins, but Tyrese Haliburton had his fingerprints on the Kings’ second victory over the Nuggets, scoring 13 points (eight in the fourth quarter), dishing out six assists, and registering a game-best plus-20 in less than 25 minutes on Tuesday. Haliburton is 10-for-20 from 3-point range with that funky shot of his and ranks fifth in assist-turnover ratio at 5.50.
Alas, Haliburton missed the second of the Kings’ two losses in Houston and is expected to miss their game in San Francisco on Monday. He couldn’t have hurt in a game in which the Kings recorded just 11 assists (fewest for any team in a game this season) and scored a paltry 30 points on 48 offensive possessions after halftime. Two nights earlier, the Kings’ issues were on the other end of the floor, where they too often got in trouble when their bigs switched pick-and-rolls, either because their guards got beat up inside or their bigs got beat off the dribble. (Marvin Bagley III couldn’t keep up with the Rockets’ bigs, either.)
The Kings could be (and have been) in a worse spot than 3-3 after six games (against just three different opponents). Game No. 7 (a rest-advantage game against the Warriors on Monday) could tell us a lot about their ability to compete for a play-in spot in the West. Game No. 8 (another rest-advantage game against the Bulls on Wednesday) is the start of a seven-game, 12-day homestand.
Week 3: @ GSW, vs. CHI, vs. TOR, vs. POR
Pace: 107.4 (2) OffRtg: 105.1 (23) DefRtg: 115.2 (27) NetRtg: -10.1 (29)
Stephen Curry’s free throw streak (80 straight regular-season makes, going back to March of 2019) came to an end on Sunday, but he somewhat made up for it by scoring a career-high 62 points against the Blazers. Other defenses will obviously do a better job of containing Curry (we smell a box-and-1 coming on Sunday!), but after a worrisome first two games, the Warriors are finding their footing, and they could certainly do worse than following Curry’s lead.
Having Draymond Green back helps too. Five other Warriors have played more minutes with Curry, but Green (45 minutes) already has more assists (5) to him than any other teammate. In two games, Green is appropriately 0-for-5 from the field with 12 total assists.
The defense needs more help than the offense. Even with a healthy Curry and his eight 3-pointers on Sunday, the Warriors have the league’s biggest 3-point discrepancy, having allowed a league-high 16.5 3-pointers per game. James Wiseman had some serious issues trying to contain or contest Damian Lillard in the pick-and-roll on Friday.
Week 3: vs. SAC, vs. LAC, vs. LAC, vs. TOR
Pace: 102.6 (10) OffRtg: 101.8 (29) DefRtg: 104.3 (5) NetRtg: -2.5 (20)
The Pascal Siakam Struggle Story now includes a team suspension for disciplinary reasons, presumably because he went straight to the locker room after fouling out on Tuesday. Beyond the 8-for-28 from 3-point range, Siakam’s shooting numbers from any particular area aren’t that bad. But only 17% (11/66) of his shots have come in the restricted area. That rate is down from 34% last season and 49% through his first three years. With that, his free throw rate is down from 27.4 attempts per 100 shots from the field last season to just 12.1 per 100 this season. His name isn’t Curry or Redick; He needs layups and free throws.
Despite Siakam’s struggles and though depth remains a serious issue, the Raptors aren’t that far away from where they want to be. They’ve led all five of their games by double-digits. Their defense is there, though its proclivity for swarming to the ball gave up huge 3s in Philadelphia on Tuesday (when Fred VanVleet left Seth Curry to help on a Joel Embiid drive) and in New Orleans on Saturday (when they doubled Brandon Ingram 22 feet from the basket).
Week 3: vs. BOS, @ PHX, @ SAC, @ GSW
Pace: 98.9 (26) OffRtg: 103.0 (27) DefRtg: 105.5 (8) NetRtg: -2.5 (19)
The Knicks, who have ranked in the bottom 10 defensively in 13 of the last 16 seasons, are in the top 10 through two weeks. They deserve some credit for working on that end of the floor, but the biggest reason they’re in the top 10 is that their opponents have shot a league-low 29.1% from 3-point range. A good defense can certainly affect long-distance shooting to some degree (Mitchell Robinson sealed their win over the Pacers on Saturday by blocking a Malcolm Brogdon 3-pointer), but we’ll need some time to see how much that 3-point percentage rises and if the Knicks can make strides otherwise. They rank in the bottom 10 in opponent turnover percentage (12.8 per 100 possessions, 26th) and defensive rebounding percentage (72.5%, 21st). The percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from the restricted area or 3-point range (81%) is the highest in the league.
The Knicks’ own 3-point shooting has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride, from 30-for-52 (58%) over two wins against the Bucks and Cavs to an incredible 3-for-36 (9%) in Tampa on Thursday. Once the other Knicks realized that Austin Rivers is on their team now, he hit a few, including the go-ahead 3 in Indiana. That was the Knicks’ first game that was within five points in the last five minutes and they won despite the Pacers shooting a solid 19-for-50 (38%) from beyond the arc. New York held them to just 26 points in the paint (35 fewer than Indy’s average through their first five games).
Week 3: @ ATL, vs. UTA, vs. OKC, vs. DEN
Pace: 107.4 (1) OffRtg: 106.1 (20) DefRtg: 113.2 (25) NetRtg: -7.1 (27)
Almost every game, Zach LaVine will read the defense brilliantly and throw a perfect pass that makes you think that, with that kind of vision, ridiculous athleticism and a textbook shooting form, he could be one of the five best offensive players in the NBA. And more than once a game, LaVine will jack a step-back long 2 with plenty of time left on the shot clock. Part of that is the lack of offensive talent around him, but he’s a little like a TV or movie character who has a special talent and a good heart, but is also frustratingly self-destructive. LaVine is 11-for-21 (52%) from mid-range, up from 34% (78th among 84 players with at least 100 attempts) last season, so maybe we have ourselves a plot twist.
After an 0-3 start, the Bulls have won three of four, despite being mostly shorthanded last week. The context is that the three wins have come against the Wizards (x2) and the Mavs without Luka Doncic. Denzel Valentine had a glorious #Shaqtin moment in their loss in Milwaukee on Friday, but the Bulls’ short bench, featuring Who He Play For? Hall of Famer Garrett Temple, had some productive minutes last week.
Week 3: @ POR, @ SAC, @ LAL, @ LAC
Pace: 106.2 (3) OffRtg: 111.6 (11) DefRtg: 113.3 (26) NetRtg: -1.8 (18)
The Wizards’ first win with Russell Westbrook came against Kevin Durant and was the first game in which Westbrook didn’t record a triple-double. It also came with Westbrook scoring a season-high 10 points in the paint (doing some work in the post in the fourth quarter) and nine more at the free throw line. After averaging a career-high 15.0 points in the paint last season, Westbrook has averaged just 5.6 with the Wiz, with more than twice as many mid-range attempts (49) as restricted-area attempts (22).
The Wizards had a frustrating finish to fall to 0-5 on Thursday, but they’ve scored more than 120 points per 100 possessions (with Thomas Bryant averaging 22.3 points on 87% shooting) over their last three games. Davis Bertans has seen his minutes increased (he played more than 30 on Sunday), and if they can get Westbrook to the basket more often, things could start to fall in place. They have a couple of days off before facing the league’s No. 1 defense on Wednesday in Philly, having blown a 12-point lead there in the season opener.
Week 3: @ PHI, @ BOS, vs. MIA
Pace: 102.1 (13) OffRtg: 105.0 (24) DefRtg: 111.3 (20) NetRtg: -6.3 (25)
In this space last week, it was illustrated how bad the Grizzlies had been (outscored by 30 points in 27 minutes) through their first two games with Ja Morant off the floor. And that same night, Morant suffered a nasty ankle injury that has him shelved for 3-5 weeks (11-18 games). The Grizzlies were already without Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow and De’Anthony Melton. But they held on to win that game in Brooklyn behind a career-high 28 points from the suddenly prolific Kyle Anderson, who’s now averaging more than twice as many points (16.7) as he had in any of his previous six seasons.
Tyus Jones had his first plus-game (with 12 assists and just one turnover) as they won in Charlotte on Friday. And, thanks to some good bench minutes on Sunday (Desmond Bane came into the league ready to play), the Grizzlies hung around with the Lakers until midway through the fourth quarter.
The Morant injury is still a brutal blow, but Melton should be back this week (he was seemingly cleared to play on Sunday, but didn’t leave the bench) and the offense functioned relatively well 111.1 points scored per 100 possessions when he was on the floor without Morant last season.
Week 3: vs. LAL, vs. CLE, vs. BKN
Pace: 102.8 (8) OffRtg: 105.5 (22) DefRtg: 108.1 (14) NetRtg: -2.6 (21)
The Hornets had a dalliance with efficient offense on Wednesday, blowing out the Mavs three days after Dallas’ historic afternoon in L.A. They got huge games off the bench from both LaMelo Ball (22 points, eight rebounds and five assists, 4-for-5 from 3-point rage) and Miles Bridges (20 points and 16 boards, 4-for-6 from 3), who might be a better fit as a reserve. Last season, starting 64 of the Hornets’ 65 games, Bridges was tied (with Terry Rozier and Cleveland’s Collin Sexton) for the league’s worst cumulative plus-minus. This season, the Hornets have been much better with Bridges on the floor (+8.2 points per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him on the floor (-12.9).
Of course, the other side of that is that their starting lineup — with the addition of Gordon Hayward, playing at a faster pace and with more ball movement — still hasn’t been good. The Hornets have scored just 100.4 points per 100 possessions in 113 minutes with Hayward, Rozier and Devonte’ Graham on the floor. Graham has struggled both in the paint (4-for-21, 19%) and from beyond the arc (12-for-42, 29%), while seeing his free throw rate cut in half.
Week 3: @ PHI, @ ATL, @ NOP, vs. ATL
Pace: 103.8 (7) OffRtg: 106.9 (17) DefRtg: 110.6 (19) NetRtg: -3.6 (22)
It’s kind of funny that the team that had a 22-season playoff streak less than two years ago is now the feel-good underdog of the NBA (with fiesta uniforms!), trying to scratch out wins with a lot more youthful energy than sophisticated execution. The Spurs had DeMar DeRozan guarding Marc Gasol last week, and when Derrick White made his season debut on Friday, he got bullied by LeBron James on a big bucket for his troubles.
Dejounte Murray showed out in the first meeting with the champs, scoring a career-high 29 points (on 12-for-19 shooting), with seven rebounds and seven assists. He’s still pretty skinny, but he had a couple of strong, bump-and-rise buckets (one, two) against Kyle Kuzma in the second half.
Alas, after scoring 117.4 points per possessions in their 2-0 start, the Spurs have scored just 101.5 over their four-game losing streak. They’ve been taking care of the ball, but rank in the bottom 10 in effective field goal percentage (24th), free throw rate (25th), and offensive rebounding percentage (27th). Their five-game road trip begins with two games in L.A., but gets soft at the end, with three games against the Wolves and Thunder.
Week 3: @ LAC, @ LAL, @ MIN, @ MIN
Pace: 101.3 (19) OffRtg: 101.0 (30) DefRtg: 108.3 (15) NetRtg: -7.3 (28)
Of the teams that rank in the bottom five in offensive efficiency, the Thunder sure look like the one most likely to stay there for the next 4 1/2 months. Luguentz Dort scored 26 points (with a Kawhi-Leonard-esque strip-and-go bucket in the third quarter) against Utah on Monday and is 12-for-23 (52%) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. But Shai Gilgeous-Alexander remains the only guy who can consistently create advantages off the dribble.
The defense has them hanging around in games, though. Four of their five games have been within five points in the last five minutes (a phrase familiar to those who followed this team last season), with their 33-point loss to New Orleans (in which they scored seven points in the third quarter and shot 5-for-15 on free throws) on Thursday being the lone exception. Despite Dort’s defensive tenacity (and the energy on that end from the second unit), OKC ranks 29th in opponent turnover percentage (11.9 per 100 possessions). And it’s not a good sign that the Magic had more restricted-area buckets in two games against the Thunder (42) than they’ve had in their other three games combined (40). But the Thunder have kept their opponents off the line, ranking first in opponent free throw rate (19.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field).
Week 3: @ MIA, @ NOP, @ NYK, @ BKN
Pace: 100.2 (21) OffRtg: 106.8 (18) DefRtg: 111.9 (23) NetRtg: -5.1 (24)
The Pistons’ first win of the season came against the Celtics in a game in which Detroit shot 41% (including just 32% from behind the long line). And they were fortunate that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown missed good looks at 3-pointers in the final minute. But well before that, the Pistons built a 21-point lead with defensive energy and execution. No. 19 pick Saddiq Bey shot 5-for-8 from 3-point range, but also showed both instincts and toughness on the other end of the floor. Two days later, the rookie was a defensive sub down the stretch, but his little hesitation in closing out against Jaylen Brown may been the difference between a two-game sweep and a 1-1 split.
After combining to score less than 93 points per 100 possessions on Friday, the Pistons and Celtics combined for more than 127 on Sunday, and Detroit couldn’t get the one stop it needed. High-scoring or low-scoring, all six of the Pistons’ games have been within five points in the last five minutes. So they’re not necessarily the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
Week 3: @ MIL, @ MIL, vs. PHX, vs. UTA
Pace: 102.1 (12) OffRtg: 104.3 (25) DefRtg: 116.8 (30) NetRtg: -12.5 (30)
It’s been ugly in Minnesota over the last eight days. The Wolves trailed each of their first three games without Karl-Anthony Tows by at least 31 points and, after hanging around with the Nuggets for 36 minutes on Sunday, got walloped in the fourth quarter, trailing by as many as 22. It’s hard to believe that Towns was holding this team together defensively, but after allowing just 102 points per 100 possessions through their first two games, the Wolves have allowed 124 over the last four. The absence of Josh Okogie over the last 3 1/2 games is likely a factor. All four games has come against teams that rank in the top 11 offensively, but the Wolves have played a role in those teams achieving those marks and they got two more games coming against that group on Tuesday and Thursday.
Over the four games without Towns, the Wolves have been outscored by 110 points (46.6 per 100 possessions) in D’Angelo Russell’s 108 minutes on the floor. That doesn’t seem possible, but Russell’s issues aren’t new. His defense is poor and he has just two free throw attempts to go along with his 57 field goal attempts (only six of which have come in the restricted area) over the four games.
Week 3: @ DEN, @ POR, vs. SAS, vs. SAS