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15. Utah Jazz (15)
Utah’s shooting is normalizing, as evidenced by a 16-of-32 performance from distance in a 111-84 thrashing of the Heat on Wednesday. It was bound to happen. Through Thursday, the Jazz had generated the third-highest frequency of corner threes but made them at the league’s 20th-ranked clip.
The Jazz are 5-3 in their last eight games, but consistency continues to elude them. Some of that has to do with those three-point issues, but more owes to a theoretically elite defense that still ranks outside the top 10.
14. Sacramento Kings (19)
This is not a mistake; the Kings have cracked the top half of our rankings.
Sacramento has won five of its last six games—the latest a thoroughly entertaining 141-130 home win over the Wolves that nearly featured a highlight-of-the-year candidate. Had Marvin Bagley III finished an above-the-square lob from De’Aaron Fox in the fourth quarter, bedlam would have ensued.
NBA.com’s John Schuhmann counted the percentage of minutes each team devotes to first- and second-year players, and the Kings lead the league. That makes their surprising start all the more encouraging; the kids are driving the success.
13. Charlotte Hornets (17)
Kemba Walker broke a string of six straight games in which someone else led the Hornets in scoring, topping Charlotte in points in each of its three wins this week.
The Hornets continue to own the league’s biggest negative discrepancy between actual and expected win totals (the latter’s based on point differential), but at least Tony Parker and Walker are making sweet music. They’ve contributed to a plus-5.8 net rating in the 187 minutes they’ve shared.
Jeremy Lamb’s game-winner downed the Pistons on Wednesday, but because Charlotte isn’t allowed to win close games without extra drama, Malik Monk ran onto the floor to celebrate with time still on the clock, earning a technical foul and gifting the Pistons an extra point. The Hornets still won, 108-107, to complete their perfect week, but it was an on-brand nail-biter.
12. Memphis Grizzlies (9)
Marc Gasol‘s not right, and he hasn’t been since he sprained his ankle against the Raptors on Nov. 27—after which he labored through 47 minutes against the Nets on Nov. 30. His numbers since that fateful tweak: 10.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 34.6 percent shooting.
Memphis (2-2 this week) is still disinterested in corralling its own misses and remains too foul-prone, ranking 29th in offensive rebound percentage and 28th opponent free-throw rate. But, man, can these dudes defend. The Grizz beat Portland by nine points in a game that saw them shoot 41.5 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from deep and 66.7 percent from the foul line.
Who needs to score when you can smother the other team?
11. Dallas Mavericks (14)
Clutch performance is largely random from year to year, which means there’s no guarantee Luka Doncic will ever be this good in close-and-late situations again…but geez, let’s just live in the moment on this one, shall we?
Dallas’ rookie phenom sports a 63.6 field-goal percentage in the clutch, which is tied with Victor Oladipo for the top accuracy rate among players who’ve taken at least 20 clutch shots. His personal 11-0 run to ground the Rockets on Saturday is already legendary.
Harrison Barnes—posting his best true shooting percentage and free-throw rate in three years—has never been more efficient as a Maverick.
Nowitzki finally made his season debut against the Suns on Thursday, adding veteran savvy and creaky, lean-back jumpers to a Mavs squad that’s occupying playoff position.