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Lowe’s League Pass Rankings! Breaking down NBA teams 30-11 in fun, style and unintended comedy

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It’s time for our dumbest NBA preseason tradition: League Pass Rankings! These rankings turn 10 today. I can’t believe I continue to trick publications into running them.

These are not power rankings! They are watchability scores, derived from an ancient formula Bill Simmons claims appeared before him when he ingested too many TB12 supplements.

We score teams, 1-10, in five categories:

ZEITGEIST: Do actual humans care about this team?

STAR/HIGHLIGHT POTENTIAL: Do you stick around games, at the expense of sleep and loved ones, because one player might do something spectacular?

STYLE: Are they tactically interesting?

LEAGUE PASS MINUTIA: Announcers, jerseys, court designs.

UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: Coaches making funny faces, passive-aggressive teammates, frequent bloopers, sneaky irritants.

This an uphill battle for deep rebuilds. The Thunder bring up the rear again, despite the presence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — who appears to move in cinematic jump cuts, as if he is constantly buffering — and one of the league’s most unusual players in terms of skill set in Aleksej Pokusevski.

Poku is 7 feet and weighs only a little more than I do. He is physically implausible; he looks as if he plays on stilts. He is a gigantic perimeter player, with decent vision, a knack for blocking shots, and a tendency to throw way-too-ambitious passes in random directions.

Our guy Poku jacked almost seven 3s per 36 minutes and hit only 28%, a combination of profligacy and inaccuracy that has only been matched about a half-dozen times. He’s so tall, he almost shoots downward.

It really feels as if the Poku pick will either be a home run or a disaster. He’ll either develop into a borderline All-Star or a skinny turnover machine. Can you envision him turning into, like, his version of Danny Green? Nope.

Can we trust these guys to play Gilgeous-Alexander in the final 20 games? By the end of last season, they were trotting out hilariously bad lineups — including super-big groups in which Kenrich Williams, who should be the 10th guy on a contender, was somehow a shooting guard.

Luguentz Dort mauling opposing stars is one of the NBA’s secret delights. How does Josh Giddey translate? Can I interest you in some Ty Jerome, who has scraggly facial hair and hit 42% on 3s?

Mark Daigneault is a coach to watch. It will be fun listening to opposing announcers pause to check the names of Thunder players.

The Thunder need a total artistic redesign, though they have been on a roll with city edition jerseys.

Hypothesis: Mike Muscala is the most boring player in the NBA. Why? I have no idea; he just is.


This is low for #Sexland, and for a team that since LeBron James‘ second departure has collected six interesting young players: the two members of #Sexland, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Jarrett Allen and the uber-enticing Evan Mobley. The fit is murky, but these rankings are concerned only with fun.

Collin Sexton is the most telegenic kind of fearless: Napoleon complex mixed with chest-puffed self-belief that he is always the best player on the floor. Darius Garland can get crafty with the ball at full speed — a rare thing.

Let’s hope Kevin Love has one more epic on-court tantrum in him before the inevitable breakup. Two seasons ago, he committed a brazen and intentional 3-second violation just to make a point: Will one of these young guards please pass the freaking ball? Last season, he slapped an inbounds pass to no one — allowing the Toronto Raptors to steal it. That stuff frustrates the Cavs, but it makes for great television.

Allen will challenge anyone at the rim, even if the would-be dunker has a head start.

Cleveland’s offense last season was an unwatchable dribblefest, and fallow periods could look worse without the elbow playmaking of Love and Larry Nance Jr.

The Cavs’ color combination just doesn’t work. One fun new twist in their redesigned court: the “LET EM KNOW” wordmark contains the names of season-ticket holders. So, they’ve got that going for them, which is nice.

Basketball gods, please send Ricky Rubio to a good warm-weather team!


Is this the league’s weirdest collection of players? Markelle Fultz‘s jumper went from “totally broken” to “only kind of broken” before his knee injury; where is it now? What, exactly, is Mo Bamba? Why are there so many centers? If we don’t get to see at least 200 Robin Lopez ice-cream scoop hooks, what are we even doing?

Jonathan Isaac has played 136 games in four seasons — and none since New Year’s Day 2020, when we weren’t sure the world was about to go to hell.

When we last saw him, Isaac was flashing NBA Defensive Player of the Year potential as an all-position destroyer, and finding his place on offense as a big guy who didn’t get to set ball screens often. (I honestly can’t believe we never saw lineups with Aaron Gordon and Isaac as the only two bigs. Is it in the collective bargaining agreement that Orlando must roster at least four centers?)

When Isaac returns, both Chuma Okeke and Franz Wagner will spend more time on the wing; Okeke looms as a crucial player going forward. The Fultz/Jalen Suggs/Okeke/Isaac/Wendell Carter Jr. lineup should entertain. R.J. Hampton zooms with turbocharged confidence — and little regard for his own safety. Michael Carter-Williams will get around your damned pick, even if he has to crash through it; he ends up bleeding a lot.

The mystery is refreshing. Orlando maximized its talent under Steve Clifford, but the product had grown vanilla.

The art is first-rate, and the broadcast, with David Steele and Jeff Turner, is soothing: no homerism or bile, with the right mix of analysis and deadpan humor. Terrence Ross is good for a half-dozen scorchers.


Maybe the young Spurs will bottle the energy of their bubble run — when, with LaMarcus Aldridge out, this stodgy group revved up to the league’s fastest pace and got to the basket at a rate approximating that of a normal team.

But the bet here is they play near an average pace — and meander side to side before jacking hails of long 2s.

Hoops nerdom is curious which of San Antonio’s young players could pop, and how one of the league’s storied franchises might extricate itself from the wilderness after a quarter-century near the top. Dejounte Murray is their fulcrum — an apparition on defense who can be in your face, and then somehow dart 15 feet to intercept your entry pass. Does he have another level on offense? Keldon Johnson attacks the rim to inflict pain. Can he drain enough 3s to be a real impact player?

Lonnie Walker IV is an enigma — an open-court marauder whose decision-making can go haywire in the half court. Devin Vassell might have the most potential of all. Joshua Primo has looked good in preseason.

Drew Eubanks is a sneering dunker. Thaddeus Young is one of the league’s great tricksters — flicking hooks on the way up, before he faces the basket, from such goofy angles that the shot is in before Young’s man realizes he should challenge it.

Hooray for the fiesta court!


Jalen Green will get as many chances to run the show as he wants. We’ll learn whether Kevin Porter Jr.‘s eruption in Houston portended something real, or was merely empty-calories stat-chasing on a tanking team.

Christian Wood has a silky inside-out game — feathery jumpers and gliding power dribbles — that fits alongside both small-ball power forwards and burly centers. Feed me all the Wood-Alperen Sengun minutes.

Bridging the gap is a cadre of tweener wings so athletic, so reckless, so jolting and frenzied that they are something like the NBA’s Flying Wallendas: David Nwaba, Kenyon Martin Jr. (an absolutely hellacious dunker), and Jae’Sean Tate, a switchy brute with nascent passing chops who is a reliable jumper away from being really interesting.

Will John Wall pretend to pay attention to games? Will Eric Gordon write “trade me” on his sneakers? Does Daniel Theis realize he signed with this team? Will Stephen Silas smile more after spending his first hellish year as coach in the James Harden honey bun vortex?

Is this too much red for one basketball court?

I think it is.

The Rockets overhauled their TV broadcast, and thank god, because no team needed it more. I can’t wait to hear Mario Elie as an analyst; he was one of my favorite 1990s glue guys. The only downside: Matt Bullard, who was really good as third wheel, is now in the front office.


Inject the Cade Cunningham/Killian Hayes/Saddiq Bey/Jerami Grant/Isaiah Stewart lineup into my veins — with a dash of Hamidou Diallo and Josh Jackson pinballing through traffic without any coherent plan.

What a nice landing spot this has turned into for Dwane Casey. With minimal pressure, Casey gets to coach — really dig in and coach — young, fierce players who have taken to his personality and go hard.

Grant wants to prove he is a big-time scorer; he keeps coming and coming, even after cold streaks. Bey is a problem. Stewart is turned up to 11 at all times. Any veteran big hoping to coast against Stewart had better brace himself for end-to-end sprints and pointy elbows to his gut. Stewart hit 48% on long 2s, and dabbled in 3s. Kelly Olynyk‘s pump-and-go move — he should start a gas station chain with that name — is so slow, it confuses defenders accustomed to NBA speed.

The Pistons are a sneakily great visual and auditory experience, minus the blah, gray alternate jerseys. George Blaha is a legend, and Greg Kelser brings no-nonsense analysis. Thumbs-up to both new courts:

Their old court had too much red. This one has the perfect blend of core colors. I love the basketball poking through each sideline — echoed in Detroit’s new 313 court. I’m generally not a fan of plain, wooden “painted” areas, but if you go that route, you need a bold color for the lines — as the Pistons have done here using blue.


Let’s be honest: The most exciting things about the 2020-21 Pacers were T.J. McConnell skulking to steal inbounds passes and Greg Foster nearly fighting Goga Bitadze as the tension simmering under Nate Bjorkgren exploded into the open.

McConnell is still here playing backcourt cat burglar, but Rick Carlisle will get this house in order — which makes for less riveting melodrama.

Carlisle has meaty puzzles to solve: splitting ballhandling between Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert; reintegrating T.J. Warren (someday!) as both volcanic scorer and off-ball threat; and refining the Domantas SabonisMyles Turner pairing — if Carlisle is as committed to it as his predecessors were.

LeVert is slithery. Sabonis has a delightful mean streak; he loves shoulder-checking guys to the floor, dunking as they fall, and gloating over their carcasses like a WWE heel. There is a lot of Isaiah Jackson buzz, and Chris Duarte should play right away.

They just don’t make you leap from your seat. Only the Magic and Portland Trail Blazers recorded fewer dunks last season. Carlisle favors a low-risk half-court style. Sabonis lost his pass-and-cut tag team partner — Doug McDermott — to the Spurs.

The Pacers boast what is probably a top-five court:

That is the right mix of blue and gold. The state logo is a gem, and “We Grow Basketball Here” is so Indiana. The “grow” motif repeats in the center-court graphic, which evokes a sun-soaked field.

The broadcast trio of Chris Denari, Quinn Buckner, and Jeremiah Johnson doesn’t miss — and have chemistry only time and shared love of the sport can build.


There is some indefinable drabness about the Wizards experience. Something about their red, white and blue jerseys doesn’t work. Maybe it’s the anodyne, all-lowercase wordmark, or the fat stripe across the middle that somehow looks amateurish.

The Gandalf era was hokey, but the nation’s capital thing hasn’t landed — with the exception of one white alternate jersey that had faux cracks and creases meant to mimic blocks of marble.

Bradley Beal is an electric scorer with old-school midrange smooth. He and Spencer Dinwiddie should amp the pace, and take turns running spread pick-and-roll with shooters spotting up around an army of nasty dive men — Daniel Gafford, Montrezl Harrell, and eventually Thomas Bryant. (Byrant has a really high ceiling on offense.)

Gafford tossed everyone’s nonsense back once the Wiz stole him from the Chicago Bulls; he blocked 3.6 shots per 36 minutes in D.C., a mark only one rotation player leaguewide — Myles Turner — matched overall.

Rui Hachimura has hit just 31% from deep on low volume; he’ll have to suss out his place within this an offense built around pick-and-rolls that don’t often involve him directly. Hachimura has the craft and guile to do it. Dividing minutes between Hachiumura, Kyle Kuzma, Deni Avdija, and Davis Bertans — a walking heat check — could get tricky; Wes Unseld Jr. might even try playing three of them at once just for kicks.

Dinwiddie has a cool “Electric Slide”-style exaggerated sidestep three:

Drew Gooden is candid and funny, brimming with behind-the-scenes stories.


22. Toronto Raptors (28)

This feels low for a group that should play avant-garde, vice grip defense. The Raptors can trot out lineups featuring a bunch of 6-foot-8-ish stoppers, and Nick Nurse is the mad scientist to do it. How about the fivesome of Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Precious Achiuwa, and Chris Boucher?

Even in traditional lineups, no team will defend with more schematic versatility and sheer manic urgency. Boucher, Siakam, and Anunoby rank second, fifth, and sixth, respectively, in blocked 3-pointers over the past two seasons, per Second Spectrum. (Matisse Thybulle is No. 1.) Joel Embiid talked on the Lowe Post podcast about how he hates playing the Raptors because they swarm from odd angles, without conceding easy kickouts.

The Tampa Raptors fouled more than anyone, but they got the payoff for their swiping: the most forced turnovers, leading to open-court fun.

The offense might be a slog, but the Raps have two feisty and creative point guards in Goran Dragic and Fred VanVleet. Anunoby is about to make another leap. Nurse wants to play super fast to compensate for iffy spacing. Barnes might be ready for more ballhandling than anticipated.

Nurse has an incredible “I’m shocked and appalled!” face, and can hold a catcher’s squat longer than actual baseball catchers. The claw-marked basketball is one of the NBA’s best logos.

If you’re having a bad day — if life has got you down — tune into a Raptors game, and let Jack Armstrong’s high-pitched, raspy optimism cheer you up.


The Kings seem to have a winning entertainment formula: “blink and you’ll miss it” De’Aaron Fox fast-breaking combined with what last season was one of the most inept defenses in league history. Points for everyone!

Tyrese Haliburton has the change-of-pace craft of a 10-year veteran, and lofts buttery alley-oop lobs to Richaun Holmes. It is hilarious — and revealing — when opposing announcers marvel at Holmes’ push shot: Whoa, I didn’t know Richaun Holmes had that in his game! Oh, you didn’t?

The Fox/Haliburton/Buddy Hield/Harrison Barnes/Holmes lineup was a jet fueled festival of points — and walloped Sacto opponents. With Davion Mitchell on board, skeptics wonder how Luke Walton can find minutes for four guards. Suggestion from the fun committee: Say to hell with defense and rebounding, we stink at those things anyway, and play all four together! (Mitchell, of course, projects as a very good defender.) Heck, slot Marvin Bagley III at center and see if you (and your opponent) can crack 150 points.

What is Sacramento doing with Bagley? He needs to play some center, but the Kings have Holmes, Tristan Thompson (side-swiping people out of rebounding position like George Costanza shoving children to escape a burning house), Damian Jones, and, for some reason, Alex Len. Barnes and Maurice Harkless are small-ball power forward types. Did the Kings just, like, stop caring about the guy the previous regime drafted over Luka Doncic?

How visibly will Hield sulk if he loses minutes, and how long until the Kings trade him?

Huge congratulations to Kayte Christensen-Hunter, stepping in as analyst after killing it as sideline reporter.

I guess this makes the Clips the least entertaining high-wattage team. The main reason is obvious: the absence of Kawhi Leonard‘s lethal, stop-on-a-dime midrange game, and his magnet hands on defense.

Even with Leonard, the Clippers were a grind-it-out crew almost entirely reliant on jump-shooting. That changed in the postseason, when Tyronn Lue busted out all the strategery he’d been hiding; the Clippers with Serge Ibaka still out are well-equipped to play the five-out, centerless style that tore apart the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz.

That cascading drive-and-kick machine is a nice fit for head-down attackers like Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Jackson, and for LA’s army of wing shooters: Marcus Morris Sr., Luke Kennard (stop thinking and let it fly, Luke!), and Nicolas Batum. Terance Mann might serve both roles if he shoots anything like he did in humiliating Utah; he will be one of the league’s most important swing guys over the next two seasons.

Paul George is a redeemed star (who wasn’t in need of nearly as much redemption as the Pandemic P critics made it seem), but no normal person tunes in to watch him curl off screens.

The art is mostly a joke. Ivica Zubac is an under-the-radar nasty dunker. There is still some allure to Justise Winslow, right? Anyone? Jim Jackson and Mike Fratello splitting analyst duties is a home run: Fratello is a legend; Jackson a rising star. I’d watch a Steve Ballmer Cam, but only if it blurred out armpit sweat.


19. Minnesota Timberwovles (31.5)

We awarded the Wolves bonus comedy points for misspelling their team name in their own news release announcing the sudden — and very Wolves-y — firing of their president of basketball operations last month.

You could order the next half-dozen teams any way you want, and there’s a good chance Minnesota will be one of the league’s 10 most entertaining teams. The Wolves hit the gas and fired more 3s once Chris Finch took over. Finch is an offensive guru with a long history of pushing skilled bigs to unlock the full breadth of their game.

Karl-Anthony Towns might be the most versatile scoring big man ever, and Finch will leverage every weapon — Towns’ velvety jumper, his explosive pump-and-go game, an unstoppable arsenal of both power and finesse post moves. Towns is a solid passer; Finch will push for more, and run offense through Towns at the elbows.

Towns has the potential to be a top-10 player. The gap between here and there comes down to defense, grit, and really caring about the grimy parts of winning.

Towns has experienced unfathomable tragedy. It would be a wonderful coda to see him rampage out of the gates and push the Wolves near .500 through 30 games; they are good enough to make the play-in. Give me a 27-12-5 line on 50/40/90 shooting, improved defense, and some freaking joy in the NBA’s wintery den of losing.

Minnesota poured in almost 121 points per 100 possessions with Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards on the floor — better than Brooklyn’s league-best mark. (Kindly ignore the defensive numbers.)

For all his faults, Russell is a daring late-game shot-maker who cooks up ridiculous step-back streaks. Edwards showed glimpses of a powerful pick-and-roll game with Russell spotting up around him. Edwards is already one of the league’s cruelest dunkers, wanted for smashing Yuta Watanabe into thousands of small pieces.

Patrick Beverley instigates something every game. Naz Reid is a more well-rounded scorer than you think. Jaden McDaniels might make or break Minnesota’s season.

The broadcast is first rate, and I like this simplified court design — with that classic howling wolf, and compact “Minnesota” wordmark:

18. Portland Trail Blazers (31.5)

Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard won a lot over nine years together. Stotts tweaked around the edges every season, but the big picture coalesced around the same themes: one- and no-pass possessions; flurries of off-the-bounce jumpers from star guards; and a dropback defense that worked in some seasons and imploded in others — including last season.

It will be fascinating to see what Chauncey Billups changes. Maybe the right answer is “not much.” Lillard and CJ McCollum should jack jumpers; McCollum shifted more of his beyond the arc last season, and was laying waste to the league before a foot injury. He is the Dean Malenko of the midrange — the man of 1,000 moves, with balletic combinations of footwork that build toward step-back jumpers, sidesteps, and floaters with either hand.

There are few NBA experiences more exhilarating than a Lillard barrage. He has reached that hallowed point where on the road, in crunch time, the crowd makes a certain sound as Lillard prepares to shoot: a resigned groan mixed with screams of pure terror.

Portland’s conservative defense was stingy with Jusuf Nurkic in the middle. Norman Powell and Larry Nance Jr. bring oomph — Powell with speed, Nance with vertical thunder — to a ground-bound team that ranked last in dunks. Nance and Nurkic will connect on one high-low play every game. The Blazers need Nance to hit 3s, and defend everywhere from small forward to center.

The bench is the wild card, and there might be no wilder wild card anywhere than Anfernee Simons.

Portland might have the league’s snazziest art, starting with its untouchable pinwheel logo — one of the only wordless and purely abstract logos in sports that still manages to invoke the specific flowing speed of basketball. The court — half-red, half-black — is a masterpiece:

Oh, there’s this: if the Blazers disappoint, even slightly, every game gets heavier as the league monitors Lillard’s situation.


I almost overrode the algorithm and shoved the Heat to the bottom for scrapping the “Vice” uniforms and courts. I’m legitimately upset.

The algorithm might be missing the subtle splendors of Miami’s half-court offense. The Heat lean old and slow; they ranked 29th in pace, and Kyle Lowry‘s hit-aheads might not ratchet things up without the wing runners he had in Toronto. Bam Adebayo is Miami’s only regular dunker.

But the Lowry/Adebayo/Jimmy Butler/Duncan Robinson foursome overflows with an old-school, bob-and-weave creativity that thrives in tight confines.

Lowry and Butler are bruising give-and-go artists. Lowry plays on his toes, always. Butler is an underrated passer and cutter; if he can’t cut past his man, he might burrow through him. Adebayo is one of the league’s best big man passers, with a penchant for thread-the-needle jobs that spike Erik Spoelstra’s blood pressure. Those three will improvise symphonies.

Robinson expands their operating space. He and Adebayo have built one of the league’s most layered two-man dances. Defenses double Robinson when he pops off Adebayo picks, and Robinson does enough with the ball now — one-dribble moves, slick pocket passes — to slingshot Adebayo toward the paint with a 4-on-3 advantage.

The quartet of Lowry, Butler, Adebayo, and P.J. Tucker will bludgeon opposing scorers — and talk smirking junk to them while doing it. Heat games could get spicy.

We get to see whether Tyler Herro makes a leap, and if Adebayo takes another step as a one-on-one scorer or a jump-shooter — or both.

The bloodred uniforms are classic, and John Crotty is thriving as Miami’s analyst.

The Knicks ranked last in pace and first in isolations, and still land in the middle — a tribute to one of the league’s two best broadcast experiences: the classic jerseys and pristine blue court drenched in theater-style lighting; the Hall of Fame combination of Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier, with bang-up sideline work from Rebecca Haarlow; James Dolan’s Droopy the Dog courtside slouching; and perhaps the league’s most electric crowd.

Madison Square Garden is about to unleash a supersonic shriek of pent-up, late-pandemic (maybe?) fandom — an eardrum-bursting celebration of organizational competency that once seemed an impossible dream.

Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier bring variety — relief from the tyranny of Julius Randle isolations that worked well, but did not make for the most telegenic product. Even this wounded, aging version of Walker is one of the league’s master dribblers — a hunched whir of rapid-fire moves that crescendo like boxing combinations.

RJ Barrett got better at everything; I can’t wait to see what he has in store. Obi Toppin seemed comfortable in the postseason hothouse. Maybe he can carve out a larger role, and cram more power-dunk highlights.

Will Tom Thibodeau experiment with Randle at center?

Random note: Almost all the Knicks’ jerseys have featured the “New York” wordmark. As a longtime former New Yorker who believes it is the best city in the world, I appreciate the impulse to trumpet it.

But this team is starved for a killer alternate, and I propose they experiment with “Knicks” on the front.


Boston’s offense wasn’t quite the “your turn, my turn” blah-fest critics made it out to be last season. The Celtics ranked ninth in isolations and in the middle in passes. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are scorers first, but both advanced as playmakers — especially Tatum. How much more they grow that part of their games will determine how far they lead Boston.

Marcus Smart’s hustle has long overshadowed his sound passing, and he gets his chance as undisputed starting point guard. He is prone to bonkers shot selection that has at times annoyed teammates — see the Orlando bubble — and he must modulate that now.

A perhaps uncomfortable truth for Tatum and Brown is that Boston’s offense functions best — and they get easier shots — when a little more of it runs through their big-man facilitators. Boston may start two in Al Horford and Robert Williams III, and whether that alignment contains enough playmaking and spacing will be a bellwether.

People caught onto Time Lord’s passing last season; he picked out cutters and gained confidence making plays in space:

Mike Gorman is a deserving Hall of Famer. Brian Scalabrine is incisive and funny. His objectivity annoys Boston fans used to Tommy Heinsohn’s throaty homerism, but it’s the right pivot.

As Nikola Jokic lit up the Celtics in Boston last season, Scalabrine compared Jokic to Larry Bird and finally just started laughing after Jokic baskets. The adoration irked fans so much, Gorman acknowledged on air that they were getting hammered on social media. Ignore it, guys!

The green jerseys are the best in sports, period; the league should mandate Boston start games down 5-0 when they wear their godawful generic black alternates. The parquet court is No. 2, behind only the Los Angeles Lakers’ floor.


Ja Morant is becoming one of the NBA’s great showmen — the rare point guard who offers both dunking fireworks and nuanced playmaking that titillates NBA nerds.

Morant’s combination of speed and ferocity helps him punch above his weight as a dunker. He uses backdoor cuts as launching pads; he runs into the catch at full throttle, and he leaps to steal your soul.

Morant is a blur, but at 22, has already discovered the power of slowing down. Even amid the mayhem of transition, Morant will decelerate and allow players to pass him — crashing over him like waves — knowing someone will pop open behind the chaos. You don’t see guards his age clowning victims with the Smitty fake spin, and finishing with one-handed lefty gathers …

… or using pass fakes with such viciousness:

What a joy to be Morant’s teammate.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is one of the defining players of the next half-decade. If he’s an All-Star, the Grizz have something big going. If he’s just good, they face tough choices. Jackson is healthy, and will get more shots — at both power forward and center — with Jonas Valanciunas now smashing fools in New Orleans.

Dillon Brooks might be the NBA’s irrational confidence king. Does he think shots with a foot on the 3-point arc are worth five points? His bumping physicality on defense is grist for nose-to-nose confrontations.

Slow-Mo Anderson has weaponized his own slowness on offense, and just takes the ball from someone on defense — like, literally reaches out and grabs it from a stand-still — at least once per game.

De’Anthony Melton is one of only two rotation players listed 6-2 or shorter to finish any season averaging at least one block, two steals, and five rebounds per 36 minutes. Pete Pranica and Brevin Knight nicknamed Melton “Mr. Do Something,” and that’s perfect.

If you like floaters, the Grizz are your team. They force heaps of turnovers without over-fouling (aside from Brooks) — an appealing combo.

13. Dallas Mavericks (34)

The league is in a good place if Luka Doncic’s team can’t crack the top 10. Doncic can make every pass, from every spot — even when he’s under the rim with four defenders enveloping him.

Every move-within-a-move — every jab step, spinning pivot, shoulder fake and sideways glance — has a purpose. Doncic knows how each one might manipulate all five defenders, and which reactions will open up particular shots. Doncic isn’t one step ahead as much as he can visualize all potential outcomes at once when the defense is just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. As we’ve seen in the playoffs, Doncic has a counter for every defensive strategy.

Jason Kidd is the season’s biggest X factor. With Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard injured, the Mavs have a pathway to the conference finals or beyond — if Kidd would simply replicate Rick Carlisle’s schemes.

Kidd surely doesn’t think his failed Milwaukee-era blitzing defense is a fit for Kristaps Porzingis and the Mavs’ army of centers, right? How serious is he about posting up Porzingis — and starting him alongside a paint-clogging center in Dwight Powell? Should the Mavs really run much offense beyond, “Let Luka cook”?

Keeping Porzingis active within that construct is one of Kidd’s most important jobs. Playing Porzingis as solo big would make it harder for switchier defenses to neutralize him.

The art is so dull, I embraced the polarizing graffiti jerseys Dallas unveiled two seasons ago.

The three-man broadcast is lively. Spotting an animated, ornery Mark Cuban in his baseline seat still brings a smile. Will we see Dirk Nowitzki at games? Can he join the broadcast a few times?

The Mavs have more shooting around Doncic; here’s hoping Dallas is where Sterling Brown earns a full-time role. I’m not out on Josh Green!

Jalen Brunson is a spinning cinder block. Boban Marjanovic has been launching 3s in preseason. More Boban, please!


12. Philadelphia 76ers (34.5)

Ben Simmons has arrived in Philly, but will he play? If he does, it makes the Sixers — back-to-back League Pass champions in 2019 and 2020 — more watchable than this ranking suggests; we’d need Zapruder-level analysis of every possession and sideline interaction. Did Simmons look off Joel Embiid there? Did he sneer at Doc Rivers before refusing to take a jumper?

Too many free throws — Philly generates piles on both ends — normally reduces watchability, but every Simmons free throw is must-see.

If Simmons ends up traded sooner rather than later — and without knowing what Philly might get in return — how psyched are you, really, to watch this team? I enjoy Seth Curry — including his pouncing thievery on defense — but there was an alarming amount of Curry going on in the conference semifinals as Simmons melted into oblivion. The stakes don’t feel the same with the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks heavy East favorites even in the unlikely event Simmons is fully-engaged with the Sixers.

Still: Embiid might be the league’s most entertaining player — a unique mix of throwback brutality, nimble footwork, improved mid-range touch, and biting trash-talk. Will we see more of Embiid’s post game if Simmons is gone — decluttering the lane?

Embiid owns real estate in the heads of so many centers — including Andre Drummond. It’s almost a shame they are teammates — that we don’t get to witness Embiid’s ritualistic humiliation of Drummond — unless we get more of this Embiid non-verbal snark:

The young guys are interesting, especially Tyrese Maxey, but the learning curve is always bumpier than you imagine. The art is neck-and-neck with Portland for No. 1 overall. Doc Rivers makes the NBA”s best Anguished Coach Face. His mouth flattens into a long straight line, and his skin cinches up so tightly, you fear his face might crack apart.

Matisse Thybulle is a phantom. No one moves quite like he does. Like, how?

11. Utah Jazz (34.5)

We have reached elite territory. Utah’s drive-and-kick blender is nirvana for die-hards, and Quin Snyder brings a twist each season. A year ago, it was transition 3s — plus the greenest light imaginable for Jordan Clarkson.

You might think the Jazz are staid, but they have two audacious heat-check gunners in Clarkson and Bojan Bogdanovic — with Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, the latter once deferential to a fault, hoisting with abandon.

Mitchell is emerging as a scheme-proof postseason superstar, though without Doncic’s size and playmaking acumen. He made strides last season as a passer and cutter, and the more of an active, roving threat Mitchell makes himself, the more dangerous Utah’s offense gets.

Joe Ingles is a top-five trash-talker who gets in the middle of something every game. He might have the best pass fake since Manu Ginobili, and takes sadistic pleasure in embarrassing defenders with it.

Utah faces the pressure that comes with four straight postseason disappointments, involved new ownership, and Finals-or-bust expectations. If they start slow, stress levels could rise fast. (Ryan Smith, the Jazz governor, has inspired a debate among my friends: Is wearing a hat backwards in public over age 40 a red flag? Discuss.)

Let’s see if Snyder gives Rudy Gobert more chances to beast switches — a way of preparing for small-ball lineups Utah will see in the postseason.

I love both courts:

The note with the multicolored ball at the head is maybe my favorite slice of NBA art. Thumbs up for keeping the gradient court even though the jerseys are gone. Did you hear that, Heat? You couldn’t have at least kept the “Vice” court? I’m still mad.

I also dig this yellow jersey — one of at least three new-ish alternates (the others belong to the Spurs and Phoenix Suns) with no lettering on the front:

Watch the bit players: Miye Oni, Eric Paschall, Trent Forrest, and Jared Butler all bring explosive, unpredictable activity that makes for a nice contrast with Utah’s beautiful game.

Also: Holly Rowe!!!

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NBA Power Rankings, Week 7

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The battle for No. 1 in the NBA Power Rankings is on.

The Golden State Warriors, winners of seven straight games, take their league-best 18-2 record into Tuesday night’s Western Conference showdown with the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix, meanwhile, hasn’t lost in over a month and is one win shy of matching the franchise record of 17 straight victories.

Elsewhere in the NBA, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks are looking like themselves again and have successfully broken out of the Eastern Conference play-in race. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have won seven straight ahead of a Wednesday night meeting with LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets.

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are back to .500, the injury-riddled Denver Nuggets continue to slide in the West standings and the Memphis Grizzlies prepare for a stretch without star guard Ja Morant, who suffered a sprained left knee on Friday.

Where do all 30 teams stand in the final rankings of November?

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

1. Golden State Warriors
2021-22 record: 18-2
Previous ranking: 1

The Warriors are 18-2. Klay Thompson appears to be just a few more weeks away from returning. Stephen Curry is playing like he’s on track to win the third MVP award of his career. Draymond Green continues to play like he’s headed to another Defensive Player of the Year award. They have a chance to snap Phoenix’s 16-game winning streak on Tuesday and will see the Suns again on Friday night. Everything is looking up for Steve Kerr and his talented roster right now. — Friedell

This week: @PHX, PHX, SA


2. Phoenix Suns
2021-22 record: 17-3
Previous ranking: 2

With one more win, the Suns would tie their franchise record with 17 consecutive victories. They’ll get the chance on Tuesday night against the only team in the league with as many wins as the Suns have this season — the Warriors. Phoenix’s 16-game streak is also tied for the third-longest win streak in NBA history for a team that lost in the NBA Finals the previous season. — Lopez

This week: GS, DET, @DET


3. Brooklyn Nets
2021-22 record: 14-6
Previous ranking: 3

Brooklyn is a team that can be viewed in a couple different ways. Good: The Nets have the NBA’s third-best record, the East’s best record and Kevin Durant and James Harden are healthy. Bad: They’ve had three games against the other elite teams in the NBA this season — Milwaukee, Golden State and Phoenix — and have been thoroughly beaten in all of them. — Bontemps

This week: NY, MIN, CHI


4. Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 record: 13-8
Previous ranking: 9

The Bucks look like one of the powers in the Eastern Conference once again. They’ve won seven consecutive games, thanks to the best defensive efficiency in the NBA during that span, and they are still undefeated (9-0) this season when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are all in the starting lineup. Milwaukee has benefited from playing some soft competition recently, so hosting the Hornets and Heat this week should provide a better measuring stick. — Collier

This week: CHA, @TOR, MIA


5. Miami Heat
2021-22 record: 13-7
Previous ranking: 6

Playing without Tyler Herro, the Heat earned a strong win over the Bulls on Saturday night, thanks in part to the 20 points that Gabe Vincent poured in off the bench. Miami has another showdown with the Bucks coming up on Saturday night, but it has to feel good about the way things are going — especially with the way the defense continues to come together behind Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. — Friedell

This week: DEN, CLE, @IND, @MIL


6. Utah Jazz
2021-22 record: 13-7
Previous ranking: 5

It wasn’t a good week for the Jazz, who blew late leads in home losses to the Grizzlies and Pelicans. “This is not who we are,” Donovan Mitchell said after Friday’s loss to New Orleans, during which he was 6-of-21 from the floor days after going 5-of-20 against Memphis. “We have to be better. I have to be better. We have to start moving the ball or this is going to be who we are.” Utah responded by blowing out the Pelicans in a rematch the next night. — MacMahon

This week: POR, BOS, @CLE


7. Chicago Bulls
2021-22 record: 13-8
Previous ranking: 4

The Bulls dropped three of four games last week while letting some winnable games slip by with losses to the Heat and Rockets. Despite their hot start, their half-court offense is taking some time to gel against teams that stop them from running in transition. According to pbpstats.com data, Chicago ranks 27th in offensive efficiency after field goals made by their opponent. — Collier

This week: CHA, @NY, @BKN


8. Washington Wizards
2021-22 record: 13-7
Previous ranking: 7

The Wizards bounced back after a 127-102 loss at New Orleans with two straight wins. They pulled out a two-point win at Oklahoma City before getting a quality victory at Dallas. They will look to close this road swing at San Antonio with their third straight win. Washington is also starting to get reinforcements, as Davis Bertans has returned from injury and Rui Hachimura has been ramping up slowly for a possible return in December. The Wizards continue to play much-improved defense and are still one of the biggest surprises in the East. — Youngmisuk

This week: @SA, MIN, CLE, @TOR


9. Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 record: 10-8
Previous ranking: 10

Kristaps Porzingis‘ career-long streak of seven consecutive 20-plus-point performances was snapped in Saturday’s loss to the Wizards. He was particularly pleased about being a featured act in two games against the Clippers, as opposed to being used almost solely as a spacer in last season’s playoff series. “What a contrast, right?” said Porzingis, who scored 55 points on 19-of-34 shooting as the Mavs split the two games in L.A. “Honestly, I haven’t felt like this for a while. Last time I can remember was probably [with] New York.” — MacMahon

This week: CLE, @NO, NO, MEM


10. Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 record: 13-9
Previous ranking: 13

Charlotte continues to keep things interesting each and every week. The Hornets notched a win over the Timberwolves on Friday, followed by an overtime loss to the Rockets on Saturday night. The Hornets have three more intriguing road games this week against the Bulls, Bucks and Hawks. Kelly Oubre Jr. needs to stay hot in order to give the young team its best chance this week — he’s averaging 23.7 points per game over his past three contests. — Friedell

This week: @CHI, @MIL, @ATL


11. LA Clippers
2021-22 record: 11-9
Previous ranking: 12

The Clippers are beginning to get a little healthier. Marcus Morris Sr. returned last week, and Serge Ibaka is back, although not a major part of the rotation yet. But the Clippers miss Nic Batum, who has missed the past four games while in the health and safety protocols. The Clippers are 2-2 in that stretch, and a healthy Batum might’ve made the difference in the Clippers’ 112-104 overtime loss to the Mavericks on Tuesday. They played the Warriors tough on Sunday until Steph Curry put them away in the fourth. — Youngmisuk

This week: NO, SAC, @LAL, @SAC


12. Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 11

Philadelphia got Joel Embiid back after nearly three weeks away due to COVID-19 on Saturday night, but that wasn’t enough to stop the 76ers from losing in double overtime to the Timberwolves. More important in the long run, however, is that Embiid immediately looked like he was back to normal when he took the court. — Bontemps

This week: ORL, @BOS, @ATL


13. Atlanta Hawks
2021-22 record: 11-10
Previous ranking: 18

Atlanta’s seven-game win streak ended on Saturday against the Knicks, but it was another stellar night for Clint Capela, who finished with 16 points and 21 rebounds. It was his 22nd 15-point, 15-rebound game since joining the Hawks last season, tied with Rudy Gobert for the most in that span. In his past eight games, Capela is averaging 15.1 points and 15.1 rebounds per game. — Lopez

This week: @IND, PHI, CHA


14. New York Knicks
2021-22 record: 11-9
Previous ranking: 14

As Kemba Walker continues to struggle, at some point Tom Thibodeau will have to consider making a change to his starting lineup at the point. Of course, given how poorly the Knicks’ starting group has performed overall — it has been outscored by over 15 points per 100 possessions while being the most played five-man group in the NBA — some would argue he should do so now. — Bontemps

This week: @BKN, CHI, DEN


15. Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 17

Portland opened last week with its fourth straight win, a 19-point victory over Denver. But the Blazers lost at Sacramento the next night before losing by 15 to the Warriors on Friday. They’ll complete a three-game road swing at Utah on Monday. At 10-10, Chauncey Billups’ Blazers continue to struggle to find consistency. — Youngmisuk

This week: @UTAH, DET, SA, BOS


16. Denver Nuggets
2021-22 record: 9-10
Previous ranking: 8

The Nuggets are sinking fast with injuries crippling their season. Denver has lost six straight games, the last four without MVP Nikola Jokic (wrist). The Nuggets’ injury report is packed. Sitting alongside Jokic are Jamal Murray (knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (back), who are both out indefinitely. And Denver lost valued reserve P.J. Dozier for the season to a torn ACL. The Nuggets start a seven-game road swing on Monday at Miami, where the Nuggets will face the Heat for the first time since Jokic and Markieff Morris had their run-in that resulted in a one-game suspension for Jokic. Morris hasn’t played since that game. — Youngmisuk

This week: @MIA, @ORL, @NY


17. Boston Celtics
2021-22 record: 11-10
Previous ranking: 15

Boston got a win Sunday night over the Raptors to end November over .500, giving the Celtics a little bit of momentum going into a brutal month of December. How rough will it be? The Celtics have 15 games on the schedule — and every single opponent has a record of .500 or better. — Bontemps

This week: PHI, @UTAH, @POR


18. Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 11-11
Previous ranking: 16

“I mean, it ranks right at the top with any other challenge I’ve had in my career,” LeBron James said of the Lakers’ season after Sunday’s win over Detroit. “Which actually brings out the best in me and I love that.” L.A. fans will love to see some consistency out of their team after the see-saw continued this week. — McMenamin

This week: @SAC, LAC


19. Minnesota Timberwolves
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 23

The Timberwolves are fresh off a victory in one of the most thrilling games of the season so far, a double-overtime road win against the 76ers that marked Minnesota’s sixth win in its past seven games — including a five-game winning streak, the team’s longest since the 2016-17 season. With a defense that is 10th in the NBA in efficiency, the Wolves seem primed for a legitimate challenge for at least a spot in the play-in tournament. It would be just Minnesota’s second postseason appearance since 2003-04. — Collier

This week: IND, @WAS, @BKN


20. Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 19

All it took for Cleveland to snap its five-game losing streak was to have Rookie of the Year front-runner Evan Mobley return to the lineup. Mobley came back from an elbow sprain absence to put up 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocks in Saturday’s 105-92 win over the Magic. — McMenamin

This week: @DAL, @MIA, @WAS, UTAH


21. Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22 record: 10-10
Previous ranking: 21

The MRI results on franchise star Ja Morant‘s sprained left knee were a relief, but he will miss at least a few weeks. “We avoided significant injury,” coach Taylor Jenkins said before Sunday’s game against the Kings. “Basically, there’s no set timeline, just so everyone understands.” The Grizzlies managed to stay afloat when Morant missed time due to a sprained ankle last season, going 4-4 in that stretch. — MacMahon

This week: @TOR, OKC, @DAL


22. Indiana Pacers
2021-22 record: 9-13
Previous ranking: 22

The Pacers have been one of the more difficult teams in the league to gauge, and they continued their up-and-down play last week. They won comfortably on the road against the Bulls and at home against the Raptors, but had an overtime loss to the Lakers and blowout loss to the Bucks mixed in. — Collier

This week: @MIN, ATL, MIA


23. Toronto Raptors
2021-22 record: 9-12
Previous ranking: 20

Toronto got off to a 6-3 start, powered by a five-game winning streak, but the Raptors have since dropped nine of 12, including Sunday’s loss at home to the Celtics. The Raptors need to get OG Anunoby back on the court, as his absence due to injury was felt in a big way against Boston, which simply wore Toronto down. — Bontemps

This week: MEM, MIL, WAS


24. Sacramento Kings
2021-22 record: 8-13
Previous ranking: 25

Leave it to the Lakers to make the Kings feel good about themselves for a night. Losers of eight out of 10 coming into Friday night’s game in L.A., the Kings overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and seven-point hole in the first overtime to beat the Lakers in triple overtime. Something to keep an eye on: Marvin Bagley III is back in the rotation with Alvin Gentry at the helm, and is averaging 11.5 points on 81.8% shooting and 7.5 rebounds in the Kings’ past two wins. — McMenamin

This week: LAL, @LAC, LAC


25. Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22 record: 6-13
Previous ranking: 24

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missed two games last week due to a sprained right ankle and has been struggling recently. He has scored fewer than 20 points in his past five games, the first time that has happened since the end of the 2019-20 season. Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 30.8% from the floor and 19.4% from 3-point range in this slump. — MacMahon

This week: @HOU, HOU, @MEM


26. San Antonio Spurs
2021-22 record: 5-13
Previous ranking: 26

The free throw line has not been kind to San Antonio this season. The Spurs rank last in free throws made per game and second to last in free throws attempted per game. San Antonio is also shooting a league-low 69% from the stripe. San Antonio still ranks 18th in scoring this year despite ranking last in 3-pointers made and attempted. — Lopez

This week: WAS, @POR, @GS


27. Detroit Pistons
2021-22 record: 4-16
Previous ranking: 27

The Pistons’ week was most notable for the fallout after the on-court scuffle between LeBron James and Isaiah Stewart, but Detroit has also dropped a season-high six straight games. The Pistons have had issues making shots all season and are last in the league in 3-point percentage (29.7%). — Collier

This week: @POR, @PHX


28. New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22 record: 5-17
Previous ranking: 29

In Friday night’s win over the Jazz, the Pelicans’ Willy Hernangomez hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the first half to take a lead into the break and then Devonte’ Graham nailed a 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds to go in the fourth quarter to lift New Orleans to a win. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Pelicans became the first team since 2013 to hit go-ahead 3-pointers in the final two seconds of each half. — Lopez

This week: @LAC, DAL, @DAL, @HOU


29. Orlando Magic
2021-22 record: 4-17
Previous ranking: 28

Orlando has dropped six straight and starts a four-game West Coast swing later this week. The good news for the Magic is that Markelle Fultz has started practicing with the team’s G League affiliate and appears to be inching closer to a return to the floor. The Magic need all the help they can get as young players Cole Anthony and Mo Bamba are dealing with injuries of their own. — Friedell

This week: @PHI, DEN, @HOU


30. Houston Rockets
2021-22 record: 3-16
Previous ranking: 30

John Wall‘s desire to play puts the franchise in the position of trying to figure out how to respect the five-time All-Star while still prioritizing the development of Kevin Porter Jr. It has been a rocky start to Porter’s first season as a full-time starting point guard, but he showed promise during the Rockets’ shocking two-game winning streak, averaging 18.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 10.5 assists in upsets of the Bulls and Hornets that came on the heels of a 15-game losing streak. — MacMahon

This week: OKC, @OKC, ORL, NO

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Amid cancer fight, NBA referee Tony Brown returning to work

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Tony Brown usually isn’t that excited about being assigned a shift as one of the referees working in the NBA’s replay center.

That is, until now.

The longtime NBA ref — diagnosed earlier this year with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer — is going back to work Monday for the first time in eight months. He’s been cleared to work in the replay center for two nights, after his family, his doctors and the league agreed that his treatment has gone well enough to allow for him to start a comeback.

“I haven’t had time to sit around and be like ‘Why me?’ or ‘What am I going to do?'” Brown said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Me not fighting would have made me feel like I was letting people down. What kind of example was I going to be to my kids if I just laid in this bed and let it overtake me? I had to show my kids that there’s nothing in life that you can’t challenge and overcome if you have a positive mindset.”

Brown’s fight is a long way from over. The American Cancer Society estimates 3% of patients with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer are alive five years after being diagnosed.

He’s undergone 14 rounds of chemotherapy — each involving seven hours of getting infused with three different drugs at a hospital, followed by two more days of treatment at home through a port in his chest. Brown still has two more rounds of chemo left, but doctors are encouraged by scans that show his tumors have been steadily shrinking.

“I’ve gotten better results than what’s been expected,” Brown said.

His friends in the NBA referee community have checked in constantly. Rodney Mott, one of his closest allies, helped introduce Brown to certain shakes and supplements that Brown believes has helped him throughout the process. Even some current players have sent well-wishes.

“This is something you cannot face alone,” Brown said.

It all started with what was initially believed to just be food poisoning from a bad batch of sushi that he had during a work trip to Miami. That led to tests, which led to more tests, which finally led to the cancer diagnosis. Within a week, he was undergoing aggressive treatment and has been seeing highly regarded doctors from Emory University in Atlanta and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston since.

Turns out, the food poisoning was a very lucky break.

“I hope it just sends a clear message: just go and get some type of early detection,” Brown said. “It’s worth it, because you just never know. And time is of the essence.”

Brown has officiated 1,109 regular-season games, two NBA All-Star games and made his NBA Finals debut in 2020. He was going to return to the replay center earlier this month, but the schedule couldn’t be worked out around his chemo regimen at that time.

Monty McCutchen, who oversees the NBA referees, told Brown that when he was ready, the league would be ready for him. Brown’s doctors then signed off, and that left Brown with just one more necessary clearance.

“I started talking to my family about it, and before I could even get the words out, they were like ‘Absolutely, you should do it,'” Brown said. “I thought about it for about a week, then I contacted Monty and said I was ready to contribute and do my part.”

Brown’s goal is to get back on the court this season, possibly not long after the All-Star break. He’s been immersed in the game during his absence, saying watching and studying has been a big part of his therapy.

He’s also been able to keep in shape, another obvious help.

“I haven’t just been fighting for just me,” Brown said. “I’ve felt like I’m fighting for everybody that has love and respect for me. And that’s just makes you fight even harder.”

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Isaiah Thomas’ late 3 helps USA Basketball open World Cup qualifying with win over Cuba

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CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — Isaiah Thomas made sure USA Basketball’s road to the 2023 World Cup didn’t begin with a major upset.

Thomas scored 21 points, including a sealing 3-pointer with 13.3 seconds left, and the Americans erased a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Cuba 95-90 on Sunday in their World Cup qualifying opener.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to put USA on your chest,” the 32-year-old Thomas said. “So, anytime USA Basketball comes calling, I’m always going to be for it. We have a great group of guys, a great coaching staff, and it was fun to be out there. It was a great game. It was a tough game for us.”

The lead was just two after a Cuba basket by Jasiel Rivero with 34 seconds remaining. The U.S. didn’t call a timeout, and Thomas kept the ball in his hands for the entirety of what became the biggest possession of the game for the Americans.

The two-time NBA All-Star — who averaged 29 points for the Boston Celtics in 2016-17 and spent a considerable amount of time battling injuries since — waited for a screen, used it and connected from near the top of the key for a 93-88 lead.

“We have prepared for those moments,” U.S. coach Jim Boylen said. “We were organized. And he made a huge play.”

Thomas — an NBA free agent with hopes of getting back into the league — last appeared on the national team in February, starting two games during qualifying for the AmeriCup. He led the team with 14 points per game in those contests, with the U.S. defeating the Bahamas and Mexico.

He was in the NBA briefly last season, averaging 7.7 points in three games with New Orleans.

“For me, personally, the ultimate goal is to get back in the NBA,” Thomas said. “But I just love playing the game of basketball. So, obviously, at some point, if the NBA isn’t an option, I’ve got to look at options overseas. But I’m in love with the game. No matter where I’m playing, I have no pride whatsoever. I love competing and I love playing against the best players in the world.”

Brian Bowen II and B.J. Johnson each scored 16 points for the U.S., while Justin Anderson added 10 for the Americans.

Rivero, who plays professionally in the top Spanish league, led all scorers with 34 points for Cuba. Karel Guzman scored 18 and Yoanki Mensia finished with 12 for Cuba.

“We give all the respect to Cuba,” Thomas said. “They were a hell of a team. They made everything tough for us. They were talented.”

Marcos Chacon’s 3-pointer with 8:45 left gave Cuba an 80-73 lead. The Americans answered with a quick 9-0 run — Bowen and Thomas made 3-pointers to get the U.S. within one, then Thomas added a three-point play to cap the flurry and put his team back on top 82-80.

It was tied twice more from there. Johnson’s 3-pointer pushed the U.S. edge to 88-84 with 2:46 left, and Thomas sealed it in the final moments.

“We stuck to the game plan and we got a win,” Thomas said.

USA Basketball is using a roster composed primarily of G League players for qualifying, then added Thomas a few days before training camp began earlier this month in Houston. The U.S. is ranked No. 1 in the world by FIBA and is coming off the Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games, but it still needs to qualify all over again for the World Cup — which is one of the paths teams can use toward qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The U.S. concludes its trip to Mexico by playing the host nation in another qualifying game on Monday night. The two games in Mexico are the first of six first-round games for the U.S. in World Cup qualifying. The Americans are also scheduled to play Puerto Rico on Feb. 24, Mexico on Feb. 27, Puerto Rico on July 1 and Cuba again on July 4 in the opening qualifying round.

There are four teams in each of four qualifying groups out of the FIBA Americas region. The top three teams in each group move on to the second round of qualifying, which starts in August and runs through February 2023.

The World Cup is scheduled Aug. 25 to Sept. 10, 2023, with the final in the Philippines and other games taking place in Japan and Indonesia.

UP NEXT

USA: Faces Mexico on Monday.

Cuba: Faces Puerto Rico on Monday.

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