7. Philadelphia 76ers (Steady)

(23-10) Last week: 3-1

Star centre Joel Embiid said the Sixers were playing scared and that they needed to back themselves against the best. The big man backed words with actions as he led the Sixers to a big Christmas Day win over the Bucks, pouring in 31 points with his 11 boards and highlight reel defensive plays.

After getting flummoxed by the zones Miami and Brooklyn put in front of them, the Sixers feasted upon the Wizards and Pistons for easy victories leading up to Christmas Day.

For all the concern about their offense, the defense remains elite, conceding 104.9 points per game; 3rd in the NBA.


6. Los Angeles Lakers (Down 4)

(24-7) Last week: 0-3

Cracks are starting to appear. That's 4 straight losses for the Lake Show now, against an admittedly tough schedule of Indiana, Milwaukee, Denver and the Clippers.

So given that run of games, why the stark drop? Firstly, the Lakers lack of depth has come to the fore through this run. The Pacers – themselves undermanned – took the Lakers to school with Anthony Davis sitting. Denver handled them with ease whilst LeBron sat with a groin complaint. Whilst Kyle Kuzma finally shed the shackles against the Clips on Christmas day, LeBron aggravated his groin injury and is expected to miss time.

Secondly, the fixture computer has been very kind to the Lakers so far. This is their first serious stretch this season – they've failed miserably. Come playoff time, the depth issue may not matter as much as rotations tighten. The inability to beat quality opponents unless everything is working their way is a big concern, however.


5. Boston Celtics (Up 1)

(21-7) Last week: 3-0

Boston just find a way to make it happen.

Without Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward, the Celts got a combined 82 points from Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to take down Dallas. Against Detroit, Walker couldn't hit a thing – Grant Williams hits 18 in a 21 point win. Next up Tatum goes for a career high 39 against the Hornets. To close it out, a solid win against an undermanned Raptors on Christmas Day. The Celtics are going to be a load once healthy.

Hayward and Smart are expected back in the next week.


4. Miami Heat (Up 1)

(22-8) Last week: 2-0

Post that inexplicable loss to the Grizzlies, the Heat have taken care of business, blotching the Sixers unbeaten home record before beating the Knicks and grinding out a result against the Jazz. The Jazz match up was a great watch: high intensity defense and some solid offensive execution. However, the visuals were an assault on the eyeballs. The Jazz wore their 'horizon' strip and Miami their powder blue 'Vice' uniform. Both strips are individually great, but together.....it's a lot of colour to process. What makes both of those uniforms pop is their contrast against the more traditional team colours. Together, they made the court like a Ken Done artwork.


3. Denver Nuggets (Up 1)

(21-9) Last week: 3-1

Don't look now, but the Nuggets are starting to purr. Coach of the year candidate Michael Malone has had his team playing lock down defense all season, conceding 103.8 points per 100 possessions (good for 2nd in the NBA). Their previously middling attack is starting to catch up. Against the Lakers, no less than 6 Nuggets hit double figures.

Nikola Jokic is looking like his old self, too. In December, he's upped his scoring by 5 points per game to 20.1, his assists to 8.1 (up by 2.3) and shooting 53/40/88 splits, up from 46/22/74 up to December.

The Nuggets, sitting 2nd in the West, are the real deal.


2. Los Angeles Clippers (Up 1)

(23-10) Last week: 2-2

Doc Rivers has the best and worst of it as an NBA coach this season.

He's managing the finest array of talent in the league both in terms of top end talent and depth. He can chop and change his lineups depending on form and match ups, due to said depth. He can afford to rest his players knowing there is another quality NBA rotation player ready to take their minutes at a moments notice. That all good, right?

He's also having to deal with his front office and medical staff wanting to rest his best two players regularly. Whilst totally understandable, it throws any chance of continuity of rotations out the window. It also takes away valuable reps for his new players to gel with their teammates. He's also coaching the NBA Champions Elect. There is pressure that comes with that, especially when your franchise has such a woeful history as the Clippers do.

The good side if this argument shows up in games like the Christmas Day victory over the Lakers, where you can dust of JaMychal Green in the 2nd half and have him change the game.

The negative rears it's head in matches like the loss to Houston, where you run 10 deep and nobody outside of the stars get to settle into the game. Doc will eventually have to find his core 7 or 8.


1. Milwaukee Bucks (Steady)

(27-5) Last week: 3-1

The titanic battle with the Lakers was a relatively easy game for the Bucks. And it came with a warning: Giannis can hit 3's. The Greek Freak canned 5 from downtown against the Lakers. If anything close to that sort of form continues, we can engrave the MVP trophy now. A reminder that he's shooting over 40% from deep through December.

The Bucks also had a solid win against the Pacers before the Christmas day loss to an inspired Joel Embiid and his Sixers.

The Bucks now have 10 straight games against teams at or below .500, by which time they could have just about locked in the #1 seed through the playoffs.