NBA power rankings: Surprise team on rise with winning streak

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The Houston Rockets won 22 games in 2022-23. They didn’t collect their sixth victory until Dec. 2 amid a 6-16 start last season.

This season, the Rockets are 6-3, have a six-game winning streak and, on Sunday, they beat the defending champion Denver Nuggets 107-104 behind 26 points from veteran guard Fred VanVleet and 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and one steal from third-year center Alperen Sengun.

They also have impressive back-to-back wins against the Sacramento Kings, a rout over the Los Angeles Lakers and a victory against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Now, seven of Houston’s first nine games were at home, and nine of its next 13 are on the road. Let’s see how that plays out.

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But general manager Rafael Stone assembled talented and promising young players and veterans, and first-year Rockets coach Ime Udoka is teaching them how to succeed. That is reflected in this week’s USA TODAY Sports NBA power rankings (records are through Sunday’s games):

1. Philadelphia 76ers (8-1)

With James Harden out of the picture, the Sixers can focus on basketball behind the stellar play of MVP Joel Embiid and blossoming star Tyrese Maxey who scored a career-high 50 points (with seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks) Sunday.

2. Denver Nuggets (8-2)

The champion Nuggets started right where they left off last season – winning with team ball, Nikola Jokic’s dominance and the league’s No. 1 shooting team from the field (50.3%).

3. Boston Celtics (7-2)

Boasting a top-three offense and defense and the top-performing starting five with a plus-14 net rating and Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis averaging at least 19.6 points, the Celtics are off to the start they needed.

4. Dallas Mavericks (8-2)

The Mavericks have the No. 2 offense led by Luka Doncic, an impressive rookie in Derrick Lively and solid production from summer free-agent signing Grant Williams. Let’s see if they can improve defensively.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (7-2)

The Timberwolves are locked in defensively with the NBA’s No. 1 rating, allowing just 102 points per 100 possessions, and they have an All-NBA candidate in Anthony Edwards.

6. Houston Rockets (6-3)

No. 10 offensively, No. 5 defensively and No. 7 in net rating, it’s easy to see the potential in the Rockets and their young core featuring Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, Jae’Sean Tate and Amen Thompson.

7. Indiana Pacers (6-4)

Led by seven players averaging double figures in points (23.8 points, 12.2 assists per game for Tyrese Haliburton) and two more players within a bucket of double figures, the Pacers are the top-rated offense (122 points per 100 possessions) and No. 1 in assists per game (30.7)

8. New York Knicks (5-4)

The Knicks have won three consecutive games, and they’re doing it with the No. 2 defense at 104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions and the league’s best defensive rebounding team.

9. Orlando Magic (5-4)

The Magic are fourth defensively, No. 2 in steals, No. 4 in defensive rebounding percentage, and like Houston, they have a promising young core with Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Anthony Black and Wendell Carter Jr.

10. Golden State Warriors (6-5)

Steph Curry sure doesn’t look 35 years old – averaging 30.7 points, making 5.6 3-pointers per game, shooting 48.8% from the field and 44.6% on 3s and on pace to challenge his record for most 3s in a season (402).

11. Atlanta Hawks (5-4)

Three of the Hawks’ victories this season were comebacks from deficits of at least 10 points, including a 127-113 victory against Minnesota after trailing by 21.

12. Miami Heat (6-4)

Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro (now out with a sprained ankle) are off to good starts, but Miami’s offense still struggles.

13. Oklahoma City Thunder (6-4)

Josh Giddey is off to a slow offensive start, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is putting up points despite his 3-point shooting percentage, but Chet Holmgren is in producing his rookie season, and Lu Dort and Jalen Williams are getting the job done.

14. Milwaukee Bucks (5-4)

Not all is well for the Bucks, even with the Damian Lillard trade. They are 25th defensively and not in the top-10 offensively. It’s a tough start for new coach Adrian Griffin.

15. Sacramento Kings (4-4)

The Kings have too many talented offensive players to have the No. 24 offense, No. 29 field-goal shooting percentage (.437), No. 27 3-point shooting percentage (.319) and No. 27 free throw shooting percentage (.727).

16. Los Angeles Lakers (5-5)

Beyond a couple of big losses (120-101 to Orlando and 128-94 to Houston), most of the attention is on LeBron James’ minutes and overall team health – until the Lakers start stringing together more victories.

17. Phoenix Suns (4-6)

The Suns are still waiting for a game where Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal have played together. But the losses are piling up.

18. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-5)

After a 1-3 start, the Cavs won three of their next five, including two victories over Golden State as Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen returned from injuries.

19. Brooklyn Nets (5-5)

Cam Thomas, Ben Simmons and Mikal Bridges are bright spots for the Nets. However, Thomas and Simmons are out with injuries.

20. Toronto Raptors (4-5)

The Raptors are No. 4 in fastbreak points (18.6 per game) but just 29th in points off turnovers (14.3).

21. Los Angeles Clippers (3-6)

Of course an adjustment period is necessary after adding James Harden, but 0-4 with Harden is still 0-4 as part of a five-game Clippers losing streak.

22. New Orleans Pelicans (4-6)

Even with three players (Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Zion Williamson) averaging 20 points, the Pelicans are 28th offensively and 20th defensively.

23. Chicago Bulls (4-6)

The Bulls have the fewest turnovers per game (11.9) and are No. 5 in steals per game, but it hasn’t turned into productive offense at No. 22.

24. Portland Trail Blazers (3-6)

Coach Chauncey Billups is trying to install a defensive mentality (No. 10, allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions), but scoring is a problem – the Blazers are last at 105.2 points per 100 possessions.

25. Charlotte Hornets (3-6)

The Hornets are No. 1 in points in the paint (64 points per game) but 30th in 3-pointers made per game (8.8) and 29th in 3-point shooting percentage (.303).

26. Detroit Pistons (2-9)

Five of the Pistons’ losses by 10 points or fewer, including one defeat by a point and another by two points. Turnovers (29th) and points allowed off turnovers (tied for 29th) have been detrimental.

27. Washington Wizards (2-7)

The Wizards have allowed at least 120 points in six of their nine games, including 143 to Indiana and 146 to Philadelphia.

28. Utah Jazz (3-7)

A poor start defensively has hurt the Jazz, who are 28th in field-goal percentage allowed (.492) and 24th in 3-point shooting percentage allowed (.381).

29. Memphis Grizzlies (2-8)

The Grizzlies weren’t supposed to be this bad without suspended Ja Morant in the lineup. This start (29th offensively) puts even more pressure on Morant when he returns. Not ideal.

30. San Antonio Spurs (3-7)

Rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama has been impressive but this Spurs rebuild isn’t happening overnight. They have the worst net rating at minus-12.7 points per 100 possessions, nearly five points worse than the 29th-ranked team.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY