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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers Own Top 3

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    We’re full steam ahead into the second half of the NBA season with the All-Star break behind us. Some teams have stumbled out of the blocks, while a few picked up right where they left off.

    The Minnesota Timberwolves surprised a few teams to get out of the last place in our power rankings. Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets have hit rock bottom after stretching their losing streak to 16 games. The Toronto Raptors have several players stuck in health and safety protocols, which has caused them to tumble as well.

    Quite a few teams are on some nice win streaks that have them climbing in the rankings. The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks are on five-game runs. The Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks are right behind them with their own four-game win streaks.

    The criteria for this week’s rankings remain the same: How teams performed in their games last week, how they play in the big picture and how they ended the week were all considered.

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 29th

    It is getting bad in Houston. 

    The Rockets are on the longest-running losing streak of the season at 16 games. Eric Gordon will be out for the next four to six weeks with a groin strain, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Houston went into its game against Utah on Friday without Gordon, John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Christian Wood and Danuel House Jr. for a variety of reasons.

    P.J. Tucker also sat out the last two contests and has likely played his final game with the Rockets. Both parties agreed that he will be away from the team as it looks to find a trade for him, according to Wojnarowski and ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. It is safe to assume Tucker will end up on the buyout market if the Rockets don’t trade him by the March 25 deadline. 

    Between the longest losing streak this season, the injury woes and Tucker’s imminent departure, the Rockets have moved to the bottom of our rankings.

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 28th

    The Magic already had a six-game losing streak earlier in the year, and they are now on their longest losing streak of the season at eight in a row. With Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz out for the year because of injuries, the Magic are in the midst of a lost season.

    With the trade deadline looming, Orlando should look to be sellers. There will be plenty of interest in All-Star Nikola Vucevic, and Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon could all also be on the move, according to B/R’s Jake Fischer.

    The schedule does not get any easier for the Magic. Their next eight games all come against teams that are currently in line to make the playoffs.

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 30th

    Coming out of the break, the Wolves were able to get new head coach Chris Finch his first career win with a massive blowout over the Pelicans. It put an end to a nine-game losing streak. The Wolves added another win over the weekend by splitting their miniseries against the Blazers. 

    Minnesota got a monster week from Anthony Edwards. The young rookie put up 27.3 points on 46.9 percent shooting, including 42.3 percent from three. He capped off the week leading the Wolves with a 34-point performance over the Blazers.

    A 2-1 week is cause enough for the Wolves to climb out of the basement in our power rankings. 

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 27th

    Detroit ended a four-game road trip last week (that started before the All-Star break) with a pair of losses and dropped the first game at home to go winless for the week.

    The Pistons did make a small move by sending Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2027 second-round pick to the Thunder for Hamidou Diallo. Expect more moves around the margins as Detroit tries to collect young talent for its rebuild. 

    In Diallo, Detroit is getting another wing with a long wingspan who has nearly doubled his scoring output this year as his minutes have gone up. He still has a long way to go on offense, in particular as a three-point shooter, but it was a low cost to add another player the Pistons can work to develop.

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 26th

    The good news is that the Cavaliers got Larry Nance Jr. and Kevin Love back after the All-Star break. Unfortunately, getting them back did not result in wins.

    The Cavaliers have struggled offensively. They are last in offensive rating and second-to-last in both three-point percentage and turnovers. They scored only 82 points in each of their first two games back from the All-Star break.

    This season has been more about testing their young core than winning games. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton and Jarrett Allen have all shown they should be in the Cavs’ plans for the future. 

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 25th

    Sacramento’s playoff hopes have taken a complete nosedive. The Kings would have to leap over three teams just to get into the play-in tournament.

    They came back from the break with a victory against the beaten-down Rockets, but they are now on a six-game East Coast road trip. It did not start well as they went 0-2, including blowing a 15-point second-half lead to the Hornets.

    Losing the game was not the only hit the Kings took; they also lost Marvin Bagley III to a fractured hand, as reported by Chris Haynes.

    The road does not get any easier with stops in Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland. With Sacramento’s playoff hopes all but gone, other teams figure to inquire about the availability of Harrison Barnes as the trade deadline approaches. 

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 21st

    After going on a five-game win streak in mid-February, the Wizards have regressed. They are 1-6 in their last seven games and have lost four straight. Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal both missed the first game of the Milwaukee miniseries.

    Sitting at 14-24, the Wizards’ hopes of making the play-in tournament are fading. With the trade deadline looming, they should begin to seriously consider trading Beal. The time to shift into a rebuild is fast approaching.

    A bidding war could emerge if Washington decides it is time. Several teams would love to have a relentless scorer like Beal who can swing their chances to contend for a championship. 

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 20th

    The Bulls got off to a brutal start after the All-Star break. They got blown out by the Sixers, who were without both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and then lost to the Heat the next night before stopping their skid against the Raptors. 

    A big part of the issue was that Chicago’s offense fell off a cliff. Last week, the team averaged only 104.3 points over three games. That is a big drop-off from the season-long average of 114.1 points per game. 

    The offensive struggles of Wendell Carter Jr. are even more troubling. He averaged only 8.0 points per game and shot 36.4 percent from the field over those three games, and head coach Billy Donovan moved him from the starting lineup to the bench Sunday.

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 24th

    If Oklahoma City is trying to tank, it is doing a terrible job. It went 2-1 last week with wins over a pair of fellow playoff hopefuls. 

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is in the midst of an All-Star-caliber season, but he is not the only Thunder player having big moments. Aleksej Pokusevski had a great week showing off his promise. He put up 13.7 points per game, shot 35 percent from three and pulled down 8.3 boards. Pokusevski went off against the Grizzlies with a career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds. 

    On Saturday, the Thunder sent Hamidou Diallo to the Pistons for Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2027 second-round pick. They’ll now have the chance to see if Mykhailiuk’s shooting ability is something they want to invest in moving forward.

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 23rd

    The Pelicans got smacked by the lowly Timberwolves in their first game back from the break, losing by 30. However, they bounced back with a 34-point win over the Cavs and a 20-point victory over the Clippers. 

    The win over L.A. was particularly impressive, as New Orleans shot 65.4 percent from the field. 

    As the trade deadline approaches, keep an eye on Eric Bledsoe. He has struggled in the Pelicans’ last five games, averaging only six points and shooting 13.3 percent from three. 

    The Pelicans reportedly want to open more playing time for young guards Kira Lewis Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. However, Sam Amick of The Athletic reported the market for Bledsoe has been “minimal so far.”

    Making the playoffs is the goal for the Pelicans, but so is developing their young talent. With Lonzo Ball playing so well, Bledsoe might be the odd man out in New Orleans.

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 15th

    Just when it looked like the Raptors were righting the ship, they lost several staff members and players to the league’s health and safety protocols. They have now lost their last five games.

    The lone bright spot through all of these losses has been the play of Norman Powell. He has led Toronto in scoring over that stretch, averaging 28.2 points and shooting 45.5 percent from deep.

    The Raptors got head coach Nick Nurse back on the sidelines last week, but with several players still sidelined, there was only so much he could do.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 19th

    Regardless of the results on the court, it was a great week for Indiana. 

    Caris LeVert made his debut as a Pacer after undergoing surgery on his kidney to treat renal cell carcinoma back in late January. He was a little rusty in his first game, but the fact he is back is a big win for Indiana.

    The Pacers started the second half of the season out West against some of the league’s top teams. They dropped a close game against the Lakers before coming up with a big win over the Suns. They ran out of gas at the end of the trip and fell to Denver, though. 

    After a nice start to the season, the Pacers are beginning to crumble, having lost six of their past eight games. It will be challenging to stay in the playoff race with upcoming games against the Nuggets, Nets, Heat (twice) and Bucks in the next week.

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 18th

    A team fighting for a playoff spot cannot afford to let winnable games slip away, but that is precisely what Memphis did to end the week.

    The Grizzlies dropped Sunday’s game against the Thunder, who were without Luguentz Dort. They also lost to the Nuggets by one point on Friday. Then Memphis got run out of the gym in Phoenix on Monday to end the week on a three-game losing streak.

    The Grizzlies have a small cushion for the final spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament, but they need to bank as many wins as they can. Memphis has a heavy schedule in the second half of the season after having several games postponed to this point.

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 22nd

    The Nate McMillian era is off to a good start.

    The Hawks are on a five-game winning streak, their longest of the season, and have already improved their fourth-quarter play. Tony Snell’s game-winner against the Raptors was the latest example of Atlanta’s late-game heroics.

    In more good news, Danilo Gallinari is looking more comfortable during this win streak. His scoring average is up from 11.3 points over the first 22 games of the season to 17.2 over the last five. He’s also drilled 45.2 percent of his three-point attempts over that stretch.

    As good as it is for Atlanta to have Gallinari playing at a high level, it will also need Bogdan Bogdanovic to find his form. The Hawks can climb even higher in the rankings once that happens. 

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 17th

    The Warriors came out of the All-Star break with a listless loss against the Clippers to extend their losing streak to four games. Stephen Curry was caught on camera midway through the third quarter trying to rally his teammates. 

    Although it did not help in that game, the Warriors responded in their next contest. Everyone showed up in their big win over the Jazz. 

    Curry did his part by putting up 32 points while handing out nine assists. Draymond Green gave a vintage performance with an 11-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist triple-double. Rookie center James Wiseman chipped in 16 points off the bench while Andrew Wiggins erupted for 28 points on 12-of-16 shooting. 

    The Warriors need Wiggins to bring that aggression every game. During their losing streak, he averaged only 12.0 points on 41.9 percent shooting and struggled on defense. There is a stark difference in Golden State when he plays to his potential versus when he struggles.

    Despite going 1-2 on the week, the Warriors moved up a spot for their big win over the top team in the West. 

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 16th

    The Hornets have become the NBA League Pass darlings this season, and it isn’t just because of LaMelo Ball. They play hard each night regardless of the score. Look no further than their win over Sacramento to end the week.

    The Hornets were down as much as 15 points but hung in throughout the whole second half to come up with another victory. In the fourth quarter, Ball, Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward combined for 24 of Charlotte’s 31 points.

    The Hornets are particularly potent in the clutch. Charlotte is 11-3 in games with a three-point differential with three minutes left and leads the league in net rating during those situations. It is shaping up to be a tough team to deal with in the second half of the season.

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 11th

    The New York Knicks are relevant again, which makes the league fun. But last week, we were reminded they still have a long way to go to threaten the top teams in the East.

    The Bucks blew them out by 33 on Thursday, and then they lost the battle of the Big Apple in heartbreaking fashion Monday. Going 1-2 last week is why they dropped a few spots in the rankings.

    Losses aside, the Knicks can hang their hat on the growth of RJ Barrett. He’s improved his scoring average, shooting splits, rebounds and assists from his rookie year. That, combined with the monster season Julius Randle is having, has made them fun to watch this season.

    The big question is whether the Knicks should be buyers in the trade market. They could give themselves a better chance to not only make the playoffs but also make some noise once they are there. 

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 13th

    Marcus Smart has made his return from the calf injury he suffered at the end of January, but he’s still on a minutes restriction. Boston went 9-9 without him, and it has not been pretty.

    In Smart’s first two games back, he averaged 12.0 points while shooting 57.1 from three on 3.5 attempts in only 19.7 minutes. Most importantly, he gives the Celtics more lineup flexibility.

    The Celtics have gone on an offensive tear as of late. They’ve averaged 120.2 points over their last six games and won five of them.

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    Craig Lassig/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 10th

    The Blazers got off to a rough start coming out of the break, losing to the Suns and splitting their miniseries with the Timberwolves. Damian Lillard has kept them afloat this season with how great he’s been, but their real issue is on defense.

    Portland has the second-worst defensive rating in the league at 116.3. After adding Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. over the offseason, the Blazers were expected to be far better on that end of the court.

    Lillard’s offensive ability can keep Portland in any game. But the real question will always be whether it can get the stops it needs. 

    Portland got good news Monday, though. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that CJ McCollum will make his return from a fractured foot Tuesday against New Orleans.

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 9th

    San Antonio made news last week by announcing it is looking to find a new team for LaMarcus Aldridge by the trade deadline. If the Spurs cannot find a trade, he’ll likely be bought out.

    The move is not all that surprising considering Aldridge had moved to the bench once he returned from his hip injury. The Spurs were better with him off the floor, which mostly had to do with the play of Jakob Poeltl.

    Poeltl has been averaging 7.2 rebounds, and the Spurs have a 104.4 defensive rating with him on the floor. That’s far better than the 114.2 points per 100 possessions they allowed with Aldridge on the floor.

    Thus far, the Spurs are 1-1 on their five-game East Coast swing.

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 12th

    The Mavericks had a busy week out of the All-Star break with four games. They went 2-2, and both Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic sat out one of their losses.

    Dallas did pick up important wins over the Spurs and Nuggets. Those wins carry weight as the battle for seeding comes into play, and having the season series is a big tiebreaker. The week ended on a tough loss to the Clippers, though.

    Doncic is looking more like the MVP candidate everyone was expecting at the start of the season. Since the start of February, he is averaging 29.0 points, 9.3 assists and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 40.6 percent from three.

    The Mavs have stabilized and are climbing in the Western Conference standings.

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 14th

    Miami is on a roll right now. 

    The Heat have won 10 of their last 11 and are on a four-game win streak. They’ve done so without Bam Adebayo, who has missed the last four games with a sprained knee.

    Goran Dragic has been averaging 15.0 points and shooting 43.2 percent since returning to the lineup in late February. He gives Jimmy Butler a consistent running mate who can create for himself and others in the backcourt. 

    The Heat’s defense has been a big reason for their climb. Miami is tied with New York for fourth in defensive rating, and it has been even better during this 10-game stretch.

    The Heat survived their health issues earlier in the season and are now thriving in the top 10 of our rankings.

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 8th

    The Clippers came out of the All-Star break with a thrashing of the Warriors before receiving their own beatdown against the Pelicans. They rebounded nicely against Dallas, but the New Orleans loss is showing a more troubling trend.

    Kawhi Leonard touched on it in his postgame comments: “If you want to have a chance at anything, got to be consistent. … Nights where energy is not there. It’s all about consistency. … That is what makes a team great.” 

    That has not been the Clippers’ best trait this season. 

    Despite the defensive talent on the roster, headlined by Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers are 16th in defensive rating. Until they get locked in on that side of the court, there are always going to be questions.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 7th

    Jamal Murray’s game has not come back from the All-Star break.

    In his first three games back, he is averaging only 9.7 points while shooting 27.5 percent overall and 33.3 percent from three. It has not affected the Nuggets too much yet as they have gone 2-1 since returning from the midseason break.

    Besides Nikola Jokic maintaining an MVP level of play, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton have both played well. Over the last week, Porter averaged 21.3 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 64.9 percent from the field. Barton also averaged 21.3 points and 5.0 threes to help make up for Murray’s struggles.

    Denver has gone 7-3 over its last 10 games and is beginning to climb. But if they are going to reach their lofty expectations, the Nuggets will need Murray to find his game on a regular basis.

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 4th

    Utah started the second half of the season with a win against a depleted Houston squad before heading out on a five-game road trip. That trip started on the wrong foot with a 131-119 loss to the Warriors.

    The Jazz’s defense has declined since the calendar flipped to March. They have the No. 3 defensive rating at 108.3 on the season, but their defensive rating is 114.8 in March, which ranks 19th league-wide.

    This might be more of a bump on the road than a real concern, but if Utah’s defense begins to slide, it will be a real issue. The Jazz have gone 2-4 in their last six games, which explains their fall in the rankings.

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 6th

    When asked about the possibility of resting during the second half of the season, LeBron James responded by saying, “It’s go time.” 

    The Lakers came out of the break with a close win over the Pacers and a thumping of the Warriors, but the concern about James’ burden is not entirely unfounded. 

    Since Anthony Davis has been out with tendinosis and a calf strain, James has had to be much sharper defensively. The Lakers’ defensive rating is 101.1 with him on the court over the past month, but it shoots up to 113.4 when he’s off the floor.

    The upcoming schedule will not help the Lakers much. Their game against the Warriors was the first of five in seven days, ending with a showdown against the Suns. 

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 5th

    It does not always look pretty, but the Bucks are winning games.

    They crushed the Knicks in their first game after the All-Star break, but they had to grind out a win against the Wizards on Saturday. The Bucks are experimenting with different offensive and defensive looks, which might cost them a game here and there.

    When the Bucks are on, they look dominant, as they did in the second game of the Wizards miniseries.

    Offensively, they had seven players in double figures, led by Giannis Antetokoumnpo’s triple-double. Defensively, they controlled the battle in the paint, allowing only 42 points on the interior, and Brook Lopez was a defensive force with four blocks.

    For all the hand-wringing over the Bucks’ struggles, they are on a four-game win streak and still in the mix for the top seed in the East. 

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 2nd

    Phoenix’s five-game win streak came to an end Saturday against the Pacers. But going 8-2 over their last 10 has the Suns in the upper echelon of the Western Conference. They are playing at an extremely high level.

    Devin Booker is playing like the star he is by averaging 25.1 points. Chris Paul is providing a steady veteran presence and is ready to go whenever games get close. Mikal Bridges has continued to provide hot shooting. Jae Crowder has been a consistent three-and-D threat. Deandre Ayton is typically a double-double. Off the bench, Dario Saric is providing playmaking from the frontcourt.

    On top of all of that, the Suns are defending at a high level. They are more than just a fun team; they are turning into a really good team.

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 3rd

    The Sixers had a rough week healthwise.

    Both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons missed the first game after the All-Star break because of the health and safety protocols, and Simmons missed their win over the Washington Wizards on Friday as well. That didn’t stop the Sixers from winning both games by at least 22 points.

    It has not been the best week for the Sixers out of the break. Ben Simmons had to miss the first two games of the week and Joel Embiid the first one. The good news for Philadelphia was that they were able to turn those into wins.

    Philly got a real scare when Embiid hurt his knee against the Wizards, although an MRI revealed no structural damage, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne. He’ll miss at least two weeks with a bone bruise, which is a big blow to the Sixers as they try to hold on to the top seed in the East.

    In their first game after Embiid’s injury, the Sixers dominated the Spurs for their fifth straight win. This week will be challenging, as they have four games in five days, including a showdown with the Bucks on Wednesday.

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 1st

    There are no questions about the Nets’ offensive brilliance. 

    James Harden is playing on another level and is leading the league in assists. Kyrie Irving is thriving as a bucket-getter and secondary playmaker. Just look at the 40 points he dropped on the Celtics last week. 

    As a team, Brooklyn leads the league in scoring and field-goal percentage and is second in three-point percentage. 

    The Nets have been doing this without Kevin Durant, who has missed the last 12 games and has played in only 19 of their 40 games. There is no timetable for his return as of yet. 

    It may not be critical for now, but the Big Three spending more time on the court together will help come playoff time. Each game missed is a lost opportunity to develop that chemistry on both ends of the court. 

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