NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Fall from Top 3, Philadelphia 76ers Take Top Spot

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IFebruary 1, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Lakers Fall from Top 3, Philadelphia 76ers Take Top Spot

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Another fun week in the books. The Los Angeles Lakers clashed with two Eastern Conference heavyweights with varying results. Portland is still on “Dame Time,” Jimmy Butler made his return to the court, and the Memphis Grizzlies played their first game since January 18. 

    With most teams near the 20-game mark, there is beginning to be some separation in the Western Conference as the top three teams pull away from the pack. The Eastern Conference is a different story with seeds one through six separated by four games. 

    Trade rumors began to fly last week, and a few players who could be on the move could shift the balance of power in the NBA. Eyes are on Washington and New Orleans, in particular, as both teams might become sellers by the March 25 trade deadline. Despite the deadline being nearly two months away, most free agents who signed with a new team can be dealt after February 6. 

    The criteria remain the same: How a team played this week, the body of work for the season, who they beat and strength of schedule all play a role in the rankings. 

30. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 29th

    It is looking bleak in Minnesota with Karl-Anthony Towns out and D’Angelo Russell missing two games last week. The Wolves went 1-3, and every game is a struggle. They have the league’s worst point differential and are rarely competitive. 

    With Towns out and Russell in and out of the lineup, a few Wolves have stood out. Malik Beasley had a big week, leading the team in scoring with 25.0 points a game. Rookie Anthony Edwards shot 52.0 percent from three for the week while averaging 19.5 points. They showed some promise, but it netted them just one win.

    The Wolves will head out for a five-game road trip. They have only one road win in eight attempts.

29. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 28th

    The Wizards were able to stay out of the power rankings basement with a wild win over the Nets. Before this game, all the energy around the Wizards was bad as they had lost four straight and the Bradley Beal trade winds were blowing hard. A win like this one can be the starting point of a turnaround for Washington.

    Besides another 30-point-plus game from Beal, Russell Westbrook had his best game in a Wizards uniform. He erupted for 41 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and the game-winning three. It is a welcome sight for Washington fans as Westbrook has struggled for most of the season. Prior to this game he was averaging 18.9 points on 38.1 percent shooting.

    This win will only buy the Wizards some goodwill if they can build on it. In the coming week, they have tough games against the Blazers, Heat (2x) and Hornets. If they can’t build on it, the game will go down as a fluke and the Wizards will go back to being the worst team in the league.

28. Detroit Pistons

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 30th

    It was a good week for the Pistons.

    They scored wins over the Sixers, who were without Joel Embiid, and the Lakers, who were without Anthony Davis. Those absences do not diminish the wins one bit, and the team moves up in the rankings.

    The Pistons got a throwback game from Blake Griffin against the Lakers with a 23-point, six-assist performance. It was his best outing since the second game of the season. It has been a rough year overall for Griffin. He is averaging 12.5 points on 37.6 percent from the field.

    Every now and then there will be a flash like the Lakers game, but Griffin is now more of a role player than a star.

27. Orlando Magic

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 20th

    The Magic are 6-2 in games Markelle Fultz has played. But they are 2-11 since he tore his ACL.

    Rookie Cole Anthony has done an admirable job trying to make up for that loss. Pushed into the starting lineup, he is averaging 12.2 points and 3.9 assists a night since the injury, but it has not been enough for Orlando. 

    With Fultz and Jonathan Isaac out for the season, it might be time for the Magic to hit the reset button and become sellers as the trade deadline approaches. Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon all have value that can kick off the rebuilding process. 

    The Magic should consider stepping off the treadmill of mediocrity. 

26. Chicago Bulls

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 26th

    Chicago only played two games last week because of COVID-19 protocols. It is a good time to take a look at what is going on with the Bulls.

    Zach LaVine is just outside the top 10 of scoring, averaging 26.9 points a night. The issue is that he is averaging 4.4 turnovers. Three other players averaging more than four turnovers are Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Trae Young. The difference is they all average at least 8.6 assists. LaVine is just handing out 5.2 dimes in comparison.

    The Bulls as a whole lead the league in turnovers, and if they want to fix that, it starts with their best player valuing the ball more.

25. Toronto Raptors

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 21st

    It is getting close to panic time for the Raptors. After racking up a few wins to get close to .500, they stumbled last week, going 1-3. The advanced metrics would make one think they are better than they are. The Raptors are right in the middle of the pack for net rating. They should be better than four games below .500.

    Another issue to look out for: It seems Chris Boucher has begun to hit a wall. After cooking early in the season, he struggled last week. He shot just 32.4 percent from the field and averaged 8.0 points. 

    Toronto is heading out on a six-game road trip, and if the losing ways continue, that might put it too far behind in the playoff race.

24. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 27th

    A quarter of the way through the season, the Pelicans have to be considered the most disappointing team in the NBA. Because of that, it should not come as a surprise that trade rumors have begun circulating. Rumors about JJ Redick, Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe are moving around the NBA.

    The idea behind moving some or all of those players is to open up playing time for Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis Jr, who have been a bright spot in a dark season for New Orleans. In 21.6 minutes a night, Alexander-Walker is averaging 10.6 points. Lewis has not seen a lot of court time with the logjam of guards, but he has been a positive when on the floor.

23. Sacramento Kings

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 25th

    The last week had the Kings playing the Florida triangle with the Raptors playing in Tampa Bay. Their one-point loss to Miami snapped the mini three-game winning streak and stopped them from sweeping the trip. 

    The Buddy Hield that showed up last week is the Buddy Hield the Kings need every night. During the last three games, he averaged 23.0 points and shot 54.5 percent from downtown. His numbers are not bad for the year, but when Hield is this aggressive, it gives the Kings a better chance to be the team they expect to be. 

    The next step for Sacramento is defense. The Kings have to find a way to stop teams from scoring 119.7 points a night. If they want to climb out of the hole they’ve dug, it will start on that end.

22. Houston Rockets

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 24th

    The Rockets are on a five-game winning streak. John Wall and Victor Oladipo have only played three games together, but they are proving to be a fun combination. The Rockets have a plus-3.5 net rating and average 48.7 points in the 21.8 minutes that Wall and Oladipo are on the court together. That number should grow as they log more time together, but the tandem is off to a good start.

    Last week also gave Wall a chance to take it to his old team when the Wizards rolled into town. He put up an angry 24 points and five assists. In his postgame comments, he said the game was personal for him, as he felt they gave up on him.

    Houston is slowly moving up in the standings, and if it can maintain good health of Wall, Oladipdo and Christian Wood, the team should be in contention for the play-in games.

21. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 23rd

    A couple of nice wins last week for the Thunder kids over Portland and Phoenix. This team continues to get wins by just playing hard on a nightly basis. 

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander showed out for his mentor Chris Paul. In the crunchtime of the Oklahoma City-Phoenix game, he took control, making reads to score and get open looks for his teammates. Gilgeous-Alexander finished the game with 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

    The Thunder also got a couple of throwback games from Al Horford last week. Horford averaged 18.5 points and 8.5 rebounds and was lights out from three. A few more games like this should help pump up his trade value for Oklahoma City.

20. Dallas Mavericks

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 13th

    The Mavs are nearly whole after Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson and Jalen Brunson returned from the COVID protocols. It did not help Friday as Dallas got blasted by the Jazz when those guys returned. 

    Dallas is on a five-game losing streak and needs to right the ship immediately. It will have to start from the three-point line, as the Mavs are the league’s worst three-point shooting team at 32.8 percent. Many have contributed to that low number, but Luka Doncic is the headliner, shooting below 30 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts a game. 

    The only player yet to return from the COVID protocols is Maxi Kleber, who is their best three-point shooter. The Mavericks are going to have gallop in their next few games to get back in the thick of things out West. 

19. Miami Heat

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 16th

    It has been a brutal season for the Heat, completely wrecked to this point by COVID-related absences. Jimmy Butler returned from the protocols just in time to snap the Heat’s five-game losing streak. It took 30 points and eight assists from him to lead the Heat to a one-point victory against the Kings.

    The good news has been the play of Bam Adebayo. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists. Adebayo has also taken his mid-range to another level, shooting 48 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass, up from 38 percent last season. With the expansion of his range, it will open up more opportunities for the Heat’s offense once they get everyone back.

    With Butler back, the prospects of Miami climbing from its 7-12 start are looking better.

18. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 22nd

    No one would have predicted the Cavaliers being 9-11 through 20 games. Andre Drummond leads the league in rebounds and has had a double-double in all but three games he’s played. With how good Drummond has been, it should not come as a surprise that the Cavs are third in points in the paint.

    The real story in Cleveland is the SexLand backcourt blossoming. In their 12 games together, the Cavs have a positive-4.6 net rating when they share the court—a massive swing after the pair gave Cleveland a negative-10.8 net rating last season.

    The pair proving they can play together and finding success is a sign the Cavs have their backcourt of the future.

17. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 19th

    LaMelo Ball really makes the Hornets a lot of fun to watch, but that does not always translate to wins. The Hornets have a net rating of positive-1.7 when Ball is off the court and a negative-3.2 rating when he is on.

    Not nearly as flashy, but Devonte' Graham has been producing for Charlotte. He leads the team in assists with 6.2 while giving the ball away only 1.4 times. The Hornets suffer a huge drop-off when Graham is off the court, as they have a minus-12.2 net rating with him off and a plus-3.2 with him on. No other Hornet has nearly as big of a swing.

    Until Ball becomes more trustworthy with the rock, Graham is their best option at point guard to continue winning games.

16. New York Knicks

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    Brad Penner/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 18th

    The Knicks give up the fewest points, allow the lowest field-goal and three-point percent and are in the top 10 for rebounds in the NBA. That type of defense will keep them in many games. New York has a minus-1.7 point differential per game.

    After an up-and-down rookie year, RJ Barrett has started to show what he can do. For the season, he is averaging 17.8 points and 6.7 rebounds and has a positive plus-minus. All of this is an improvement from last season. 

    The one thing that is a concern is how many minutes both Barrett and Julius Randle are playing. They are playing over 36 minutes per night. How long can they keep performing before wearing down?

15. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 17th

    Memphis had been sidelined due to COVID protocols. The team had not played a game since January 18, but after that long layoff, the Grizzlies played the Spurs on Saturday.

    The good news is that Memphis showed no rust to extend its winning streak to six. Seven Grizzlies scored in double figures to rout the Spurs, 129-112. Granted they have played fewer games than most teams, but the Grizz have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA.

    A lot of this was done with several players out with injuries, including Jaren Jackson Jr, who has yet to suit up this season.

14. Atlanta Hawks

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 15th

    Just as the Hawks begin to get healthy with Danilo Gallinari coming back, they lose another player. De’Andre Hunter will be out at least a week after he suffered articular wear and tear in his right knee. This is a big blow, as he has been Atlanta’s second-leading scorer, averaging 17.2 points. Just add Hunter to the injury list alongside Kris Dunn and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

    Gallinari has been back for five games on a minutes restriction. In his return, he has averaged 10.2 points and is shooting 38.9 percent from three. Atlanta may have to raise the minutes limit with Hunter out.

    The next week is going to test the Hawks, as the Lakers, Mavs and Jazz will all roll through town.

13. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 11th

    With CJ McCollum out for several weeks, the Blazers will need Anfernee Simons. Last week he showed off his scoring ability, averaging 16.0 points while shooting 48.0 percent from three. The real issue is his 0.7 assists over those games. The Blazers need to get some playmaking from someone other than Damian Lillard.

    It took a Lillard hero shot to save the Blazers from going 0-3 last week. The ending of the game against the Bulls showed why the fourth quarter is “Dame Time.” He poured in 14 points in the quarter, including the game-winner over Lauri Markkanen as time expired.

    One player to highlight for the Blazers is Enes Kanter, who has stepped up in a big way since Jusuf Nurkic got hurt. He is averaging 12.8 points and 13.0 boards to help make up for that loss. 

12. Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 14th

    The big news in Golden State has been the removal of James Wiseman from the starting lineup. This should not reflect poorly on Wiseman—he is a rookie and hit the infamous rookie wall. Inserting Kevon Looney has resulted in a 51.7-point net-rating swing in the right direction for the Warriors.

    Golden State has been able to feast on the weaker teams in the NBA. It has a 7-1 record against teams that are below .500. But it has been a different story when the Warriors have faced stiffer competition, as they are 4-8 against the rest of the league. 

    The good news is that the Warriors are beating the teams they should beat, and if they can improve their record against some of the better teams, they should be just fine for the season.

11. San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 12th

    The Spurs had a three-game winning streak with wins over Boston and Denver entering Saturday. San Antonio looks much tougher than anyone expected. Gregg Popovich should get mentioned as an early candidate for Coach of the Year.

    During the winning streak, San Antonio got great playmaking from DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 8.3 assists per game. On top of DeRozan’s playmaking, the Spurs are seeing Dejounte Murray grow as a player. He averaged 16.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists during the winning streak.

    San Antonio is knocking on the door of the top 10 and would have made it in this week’s rankings if it was not for the loss to the Grizzlies on Saturday.

10. Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 10th

    Mikal Bridges picked a tough time to lose his three-point shot. Phoenix needs all the offensive firepower it can get with Devin Booker sidelined (strained hamstring), but Bridges shot just 25 percent from three last week. 

    It obviously does not come as a shock that the Suns offense struggles without Booker. To make things more difficult, they have been without another playmaker: Dario Saric is out due to COVID protocols. This leaves the weight of offensive creation on the shoulders of Chris Paul. 

    The Suns did get a taste of clutch Paul in their comeback win over the Mavericks. He had 16 points and five assists in the final frame to lead Phoenix to victory.

9. Indiana Pacers

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 9th

    Indiana came into this season with Malcolm Brogdon, Victor Oladipo, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Then the Pacers lost Warren to a foot injury and traded Oladipo for Caris LeVert, who is out indefinitely after having surgery to treat a renal cell carcinoma of his left kidney. Through all of this, with a first-year head coach, Indiana is holding strong with an 11-9 record.

    Everything was going so well for the Pacers in their game against the Sixers until the fourth quarter. They were not able to unlock Philly’s 2-3 zone and scored only 15 points. Indiana was in total control of the game, scoring 60 points in the paint and taking advantage of Joel Embiid’s absence.

    The loss highlights the need the Pacers have for LeVert. They only had four players in double figures and became very stagnant. This will be a tough loss for Nate Bjorkgren to swallow.

    Finishing the week 2-2 is enough of a reason to keep the Pacers in the top 10, but they will need to lock in for their next five games (vs. MEM, @MIL, vs. NOP, vs. UTA, @BKN).

8. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 6th

    It is a bit jarring seeing Milwaukee struggle considering how dominant it was over the last two seasons. Offensively, the Bucks continue rolling with the top offensive rating in the NBA, but the defense has scuffled. 

    The Bucks gave up 131 and 126 points in their two losses last week. It is a far cry from their stout defense last season. Milwaukee has only been able to keep a team from scoring fewer than 100 points in five games this season. Teams are shooting 39.5 percent from three against Milwaukee, up from the 35.5 percent from last season.

    Part of that is by design: The Bucks prefer to protect the paint and force teams to shoot over the top of their defense. But it might be time to make a change to their defensive scheme. 

7. Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 7th

    The Celtics got Jayson Tatum back from a long absence due to COVID protocols just in time for a big showdown against the Lakers in prime time. That game did not disappoint, going down to the wire. Unfortunately for Boston, it ended up on the wrong end. 

    After finally getting Tatum back and working Kemba Walker into the rotation, Boston lost Marcus Smart to a calf strain in that Lakers game. Injuries are piling up: Smart will miss some games, joining Payton Pritchard and Romeo Langford. Fully healthy Boston is not a deep team, but it gets much worse with all these injuries in the backcourt.

    The week ahead is challenging, as the Celtics head out West for a five-game roadie.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 8th

    The Nuggets had their five-game winning streak snapped against the Spurs last week but responded by stopping the Jazz’s run. Michael Porter Jr. has stepped in a big way coming out of the COVID protocols. He exploded for 30 points in their close win against the Mavs. Since coming back, Porter is averaging 14.7 points on 57.1 percent from three and 6.3 rebounds.

    Denver did not just beat the Jazz—it demolished them. Nikola Jokic finished with 47 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. The Nuggets put up 79 points in the first half and shot 15-of-17 from three. That is not a typo, folks: 15-or-17 from deep. Denver cooled down in the second half, and the game was not as close as the 11-point differential would lead one to think.

    After a slow start to the season, the Nuggets are looking more and more like the team that went to the conference finals last season.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 5th

    Brooklyn had its four-game winning streak snapped by the Wizards of all teams. The Nets were unable to come up with enough stops down the stretch and gave up 48 fourth-quarter points to let the win slip through their hands. The only reason Brooklyn did not fall out of the top five is it played that game without James Harden.

    Games like this are the reason the Nets are bringing in Iman Shumpert to help shore up their perimeter defense. Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal combined for 78 points.

    The Wizards loss was bad, but it did not erase the rest of the week. Brooklyn went 3-1 overall with wins over Miami, Atlanta and Oklahoma City.

    The Nets will need to get themselves together as the schedule gets much tougher this week with big battles against the Clippers and Sixers coming.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 3rd

    Last week was the first time this season the Lakers suffered consecutive losses. L.A. bounced back in a thrilling win over its historic rival the Boston Celtics. Losing to Philadelphia is understandable considering Lakers-Sixers has a chance of being a Finals matchup.

    The loss against the Pistons is not so easy to explain. Even without Anthony Davis, Los Angeles should come away with that win easily.

    The defense struggled over the week. It had a 110.3 defensive rating, up 5.5 points from the team’s season-long (and league-leading) defensive rating of 104.8. It seemed as if the Lakers were less connected on that end of the court. It took a huge 21-point fourth quarter from LeBron James to put away the Cavs.

    In the long run, the Lakers should be fine. Their losses kept them from moving up in the rankings, while their win over Boston kept them from dropping more than one spot.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Brad Penner/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 1st

    The week started with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George out due to COVID protocols. It caused the Clippers to drop their game to the Hawks, but they rebounded against the depleted Heat. The duo returned in time for their game against the Magic and did not miss a beat. L.A. got 26 from George and 24 from Leonard in their first game back.

    The Clippers offense is clicking on all cylinders. L.A. is third in offensive rating and first in three-point percentage. With their offense so strong, the Clippers are able to survive with an average defense.

    It may seem unfair to drop them from the top spot, but the teams ahead of them beat better competition last week. Only one team they faced last week had a winning record. 

2. Utah Jazz

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 2nd

    Utah had been the hottest team in the NBA and could have taken the top spot of the rankings despite losing to Denver. But the final score did not show how badly the Jazz were outplayed in the game, which played a role in their placement.

    Utah leads the league in rebounds, is third in three-point percentage and fourth in net rating. The winning streak is what kept the Jazz in the second slot, and they did more than just win during the streak. They won the 11 games by an average of 15.6 points. Utah has been on fire from three, with six players shooting 38 percent or better from deep on at least four attempts per game.

    The defense let the Jazz down in their matchup against Denver. They gave up 79 first-half points and the Nuggets shot the lights out of the gym. Every team gets blown out from time to time, and for the Jazz, this is more of a blip than a setback. 

1. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Ranking: 4th

    Despite a loss to the Pistons to start the week, the Sixers take the top spot by winning three straight games. The first came in what could be a Finals preview against the Lakers, and then they avoided a letdown game against the Wolves. They finished off the week by beating the Pacers without Joel Embiid.

    The 76ers got monster games from Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons, who scored 27 and 21 points in their come-from-behind victory against Indiana. They also got some timely scoring from Furkan Korkmaz, who put up 17 points off the bench. It was Philly’s first win this season playing without Embiid in five tries. 

    To get back in the game, the Sixers used a zone to hold the Pacers to 15 points in the fourth quarter. Look for Philadelphia to incorporate this defense a little more often with Simmons and Matisse Thybulle on top of the 2-3 zone.