The two hottest teams in the NBA right now are the Phoenix Suns and the Orlando Magic, both carrying seven-game winning streaks with excellent chances of extending them further.
The Suns, who have climbed to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference play in Toronto on Wednesday and then host the Denver Nuggets on Friday night, a chance to re-establish themselves as a contender after their early season struggles.
The Magic have the No. 2 seed in the East, just a game behind the Boston Celtics, and host the Wizards both Wednesday and Friday night. After that, things get only marginally more difficult with a road game against the Nets and a home game against the Cavs before they get their chance to make the same kind of statement as the Suns — back-to-back road games against the Celtics on Dec. 15 and Dec. 17.
The Suns were 2-4 to start the season. The Magic, who weren't necessarily a lock to make the playoffs, were playing 0.500 through their first 10 games and it's only this current streak that's pushed them toward the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference standings. So how did the two hottest teams in the NBA catch fire?
The Suns got healthy
The Suns' winning streak has, unsurprisingly, coincided with the return of Devin Booker. He played in just two of their first 10 games and is averaging 28.9 points, 8.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game during this stretch, on 47.5/38.7/90.6 shooting splits.
Booker has been functioning fully as the point guard and their new small ball lineup — Booker, Eric Gordon, Grayson Allen, Kevin Durant, Jusuf Nurkic — is hammering teams, outscoring opponents by an average of 26.2 points per 100 possessions and scoring at a rate of 135.5 per 100.
With the floor so well spaced around him, Booker has been absolutely feasting off the dribble. Over this seven-game stretch, he's driving an average of 15.7 times per game, up from 12.8 last season. He's also recording an assist on 13.6 percent of his drives and drawing a foul on 10 percent. Those numbers would rank fifth and 10th among the 43 players averaging at least 10 drives per game.
Booker has been using every tool in both his personal and personnel arsenals to create easy buckets. Kevin Durant is threatening to break his own record for the highest true shooting percentage by a player with a usage rate of 30 percent. This is the offense the Suns envisioned when they reloaded this offseason and it still doesn't even have all the pieces. Allen and Gordon are shooting a combined 43.9 percent from beyond the arc on 12.1 attempts per game. But Bradley Beal has only played 86 minutes and if he's ever healthy enough to join that guard rotation it's another infusion of elite shooting and complementary creation.
We're seeing that the Suns' plan wasn't just good on paper. As long as they're healthy, they're a threat to overwhelm anyone.
The Magic found an offensive rhythm
I profiled the Magic defense in an installment of The Whiteboard earlier this season, and their hyper-aggressive, pressing attack has been the backbone of their success this season. But on this current winning streak, the offense has started to catch up.
Across the entire season, the Magic have allowed an average of 107.0 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the league. Across their first 10 games, they were scoring at a rate of just 109.9 points per 100 possessions but that's jumped to 116.5 over their seven-game winning streak.
Several factors are contributing to their offensive surge — jumpers have started falling for Paolo Banchero, Jalen Suggs and Joe Ingles. But the biggest difference is an injury to Markelle Fultz opening an opportunity for Cole Anthony and Gary Harris to play a lot more minutes.
Orlando's starting lineup at the beginning of the year — Fultz, Suggs, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. — really only gave the defense one real perimeter threat to worry about (Wagner). Suggs has a track record as a shaky outside shooter; Fultz basically doesn't shoot at all from beyond the arc, and as you would expect, their spacing was terrible.
Anthony is a solid spot-up threat who is also comfortable pulling up or attacking off the dribble. He's not as crafty a driver or creator as Fultz and he's not efficient enough as a three-level scorer to really drive an offense by himself. But as a complementary threat, he's made things much, much easier for Wagner and Banchero.
Over this seven-game winning streak, Anthony is playing about five extra minutes per game and averaging 17.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game, shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. Harris is also playing about five extra minutes per game and hitting 37.6 percent from beyond the arc, bringing much more gravity to bear on the defense than Fultz was.
Across the entire season, the Magic have scored an average of 119.9 points per 100 possessions with Fultz on the bench and at least one of Harris or Anthony on the court with Suggs, Banchero and Wagner. That trio with Fultz is averaging just over 100 points per 100 possessions.
Fultz has recovered from his early career struggles and made himself a very useful player. And his length and defense at the point of attack are very important to Orlando's scheme. But there is now a growing body of evidence that they're more balanced and better without him, which could create a sticky situation when he returns. (He currently has no firm return date from the knee tendonitis that's held him out.)
There are a few different teams who could be interested in Fultz at the trade deadline and the Magic have enough other interesting pieces and picks to swing a deal for someone like Malcolm Brogdon, Buddy Hield or even Zach LaVine at the deadline.
But that's a problem the Magic don't have to deal with immediately and, after years of struggles, figuring out how to balance a rotation with too many useful pieces is a great problem to have.
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LeBron James sets two new records — one good, one bad
LeBron James set a historic mark on Monday night, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most minutes played in NBA history. But that achievement was overshadowed by a 44-point beatdown at the hands of the 76ers, the worst loss of LeBron's career.
LeBron was visibly frustrated after the loss, which may have marked an ignomonious end to the 7-2 stretch that helped the Lakers turn their season around. Of the Lakers eight losses this season, five have come by double digits and three have come by 15 or more. They reveal a team whose roster might be much more unfinished than it appeared to be at the beginning of the season.
- LeBron James takes NBA all-time minutes lead in career-worst loss by Dave McMenamin, for ESPN
- Lakers fans call for Darvin Ham's job after record-setting loss to 76ers by Jason Reed, for Lake Show Life
- Lakers’ LeBron James says ‘a lot’ needs to change after 44-point loss to 76ers by Jovan Buha, for The Athletic
1. Uh ... what?: "Real Hoopers know that stats can't measure heart. That you need elite handle to handle your business and that efficiency is just a made-up word to protect the feelings of weak, soulless shooters who hide behind the 3-point line. They know that buckets win games and bucket-getters make the world go round." Real Hoopers Know: Kevin Durant will be remembered as better than LeBron James
2. Hey, Bub: "Carrington is 6-foot-4 with a tremendous first step and a knack for gaining separation off the dribble. He mixes speeds effectively and is comfortable in live-dribble or off-the-catch situations. He shoots comfortably from multiple steps behind the 3-point line. The pull-up middies are pure. He isn't the most advanced playmaker, but he can work the pick-and-roll and minimize mistakes. His 6.2 assists-to-1.7 turnovers ratio is probably the most encouraging stat of all." NBA Draft stock up, stock down, games to watch: It is Bub Carrington's world
3. De'Aaron Fox has no fear and no flaws: "These days, he is much more composed. He gets into the jumper when he wants to, not when the defense wants him to. He settles himself and squares to the rim far more easily and comfortably, and he shoots with the confidence of someone who thinks the ball is going to drop through the net, rather than someone who merely hopes it does. He’s at the point now where he can toy with defenders and bait them into giving him enough space to fire away, and to do it from his preferred spots on the floor. (He’ll even do it to defenders like Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, and Victor Wembanyama.)" You can't just give De'Aaron Fox space anymore