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Power Rankings: Bucks trending in the right direction to end 2018

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Giannis puts up triple-double in win vs. Nets (1:16)

Giannis Antetokounmpo puts up 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists as the Bucks beat the Nets in Milwaukee 129-115. (1:16)

It's still 2018, but we've already got our third different team atop our list. Welcome to the club, Milwaukee Bucks!

Who else is heading into 2019 in style? Check below as we unveil our final Power Rankings of the calendar year.

Throughout the regular season, our panel (ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, Tim MacMahon and Andre' Snellings, The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears, and FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which are looking most like title contenders.

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1. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 25-10

With the Bucks owning both league's best win percentage and the best point differential by a wide margin heading into the new year, it's hard to imagine a better case for Coach of the Year than the one Mike Budenholzer has. One huge change over last season: The club's 3-point attempts have spiked almost 61 percent. -- Herring


2. Golden State Warriors
Record: 24-13

Klay Thompson had himself a Saturday. Thompson broke out of a five-game shooting slump by scoring 32 points and nailing four of five 3-pointers in a 115-105 win at Portland, where he talked to his shooting hand by telling it, "I missed you." And after the game, he turned his news conference into a lesson about the pitfalls of the internet. Please don't change, Klay. -- Spears


3. Toronto Raptors
Record: 27-11

The Raptors, whose early-season dominance has receded in December, would love to get Kyle Lowry a clean bill a health and back into the lineup. Though he has struggled with his shot for much of the season, Lowry has always rated highly as a positive on-court influence -- and this season is no exception. The Raptors score 117 points per 100 possessions when Lowry is on the floor and only 100.8 when he's not. Toronto faces a tough four games in six days this week, with dates at San Antonio and Milwaukee, bookended by home tilts with Utah and Indiana. -- Arnovitz


4. Denver Nuggets
Record: 23-11

The Nuggets will finish 2018 with the best win percentage in the Western Conference, a major accomplishment for a team that narrowly missed last season's playoffs and that has been wracked by injury for most of this season. Their two starters who have remained healthy all season are 23-year-old Nikola Jokic and 21-year-old Jamal Murray, an inside-out duo who represent both the now and the future for a Nuggets team with legitimate championship aspirations. -- Snellings


5. Indiana Pacers
Record: 24-12

December was easily the Pacers' softest scheduling month on the calendar this season, as Indiana entered the last month of 2018 with an expected win percentage of almost 65 percent, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index. The Pacers have beaten that projection, posting an 11-3 December record so far, the best mark in the NBA over that span. -- Herring


6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 22-13

The Thunder are second in the NBA in team defensive rating, allowing only 102.1 points per 100 possessions. They lead the NBA with an opponents turnover percentage of 18.3, and they are top-10 in both defensive rebound percentage and opponent effective field goal percentage allowed. Their formula of a dominant defense and an offense led by two All-NBA-caliber performers in Russell Westbrook and Paul George has them anchored at the top of the NBA landscape. -- Snellings


7. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 23-14

Anyone who fell in love with Sixers basketball last winter and spring would have found the team that finished a Christmas Day loss at Boston unrecognizable in its predictability and selfishness. The Sixers responded two nights later at Utah with a spirited win in which everyone shared the ball. Offensive stylings aside, it's the defense that will define much of the Sixers' success in 2019. Right now, Philadelphia is top-five in the NBA in opponent effective field goal percentage, a trend it will need to continue. -- Arnovitz


8. Houston Rockets
Record: 20-15

The spotlight has rightfully been on James Harden's spectacular play during the Rockets' 9-1 run, as he has averaged 39.4 points and 8.0 assists in that span, proclaiming with his play and mouth that he expects to repeat as MVP. But three under-the-radar midseason additions to the rotation -- Nene Hilario (missed first month and a half due to a calf strain), G League call-up Danuel House Jr. and signed-off-the-scrap-heap Austin Rivers -- have been huge helps. Their net ratings (points per 100 possessions) over the past 10 games, respectively: plus-31.5, plus-19.8 and plus-11.2. -- MacMahon


9. Boston Celtics
Record: 21-14

Kyrie Irving is playing his best ball of the season of late, averaging 27.3 points (49.2 percent shooting, 95.2 from the free throw line), 7.1 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals during his past nine outings. With Irving stepping forward as the consistent offensive anchor, the Celtics pair the 11th-ranked offense (110 points per 100 possessions) with a top-five defense (104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, fourth in NBA), making them a formidable two-way threat. -- Snellings


10. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 21-16

Life without LeBron James will be a test -- but also an opportunity for the young core to find a rhythm. Of that nucleus, Brandon Ingram has the most to prove and potentially the most to gain. Of the 120 NBA players who have attempted at least 300 shots this season, Ingram ranks a lowly 93rd in shot quality, according to Second Spectrum. Ingram has acknowledged that he has allowed the ball to stick to his hands. The next couple of weeks will demonstrate whether he has the creativity, discipline and instincts to refine his game. Sunday's big night was a nice start. -- Arnovitz


11. LA Clippers
Record: 21-15

The Clippers continue to exert maximum effort, but the results are waning a bit after their feel-good start. They're a quintessentially league-average team that's middle of the road in shooting, rebounding and turnover rate -- though superb at getting to the line. But there's been some measurable slippage defensively. The Clippers rank 25th at defending the pick-and-roll, giving up 1.10 points per possession, according to Second Spectrum -- only the Knicks have been worse in December. -- Arnovitz


12. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 21-16

Damian Lillard has scored at least 40 points on five occasions this season. Doing so before the arrival of 2019 tied a career high (he also did it in the 2016-17 season). Unfortunately for Lillard, the most recent 40-point outburst came in a loss to the Warriors. The three-time All-Star is averaging a career-high 27.1 points per game, too. -- Spears


13. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 20-17

"Patience is like the first step in showing confidence in somebody or in a group," coach Gregg Popovich said recently, and he knew that patience would be required with so much offseason roster turnover. It has paid off in December. The Spurs are 10-5 this month with a net rating of plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. San Antonio entered the month 10-12 with a minus-3.5 net rating. -- MacMahon


14. Sacramento Kings
Record: 19-17

The Kings will enter 2019 with a surprising winning record at 19-17. While that is far from a team expected to make the playoffs, Sacramento is finally moving in the right direction after years of despair. Keep in mind this is a rebuilding franchise, with an injured No. 2 pick in Marvin Bagley III, that trailed 45-10 in a preseason game. Last season, the Kings entered 2018 with a 13-27 record. -- Spears


15. Utah Jazz
Record: 18-19

The Jazz have returned to their dominant defensive form in December after being mediocre on that end of the floor for the first month and a half of the season. They're allowing only 100.5 points per 100 possessions this month, which ranks second in the NBA, as they've adjusted to teams trying to lure rim protector Rudy Gobert out to the perimeter as much as possible. "I've gotten a lot better being able to close out to the shooting bigs but still able to protect the rim," he said. "It's tough, but it's a good challenge and I embrace it." -- MacMahon


16. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 17-18

Dennis Smith Jr.'s name is floating around the trade rumor mill. Sources tell ESPN that he's available, but the Mavs aren't motivated to move him unless they're overwhelmed by an offer. There are concerns about his on-court fit with his Fortnite pal Luka Doncic, but there are also reasons to be encouraged despite their early struggles and the awkwardness of Doncic standing helplessly at half court as Smith failed to get a shot off before the buzzer at the end of Saturday's loss to the Pelicans. Small-sample-size alert: That duo is plus-8.4 points per 100 possessions in two games since Smith returned from a sore wrist (minus-5.1 before). Smith has become a clutch pit bull on defense, getting game-saving stops against Tobias Harris and Paul George in wins. -- MacMahon


17. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 18-17

The Grizzlies are at a strange standoff with Chandler Parsons midway through the third season of his four-year, $94.4 million maximum deal. The medical staff recently cleared Parsons to play after knee soreness -- a persistent problem that is the primary reason he has played only 73 games for the Grizzlies -- had sidelined him since the first week of the season. The front office has opted to continue to hold him out and has offered no specific plan to get him back in the fold. Meanwhile, Memphis has lost eight of its past 11 games. -- MacMahon


18. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 17-18

The Hornets play two home games before going on a six-game road trip, ending with Tony Parker's return to San Antonio on Jan. 14. The last time Charlotte won a road game was on Dec. 9 at New York. Home is certainly where the Hornets' heart is as they are 13-7 at home and 4-11 on the road. -- Spears


19. Miami Heat
Record: 17-18

Despite the slight dip in the rankings, the Heat have been one of the hotter teams in December, led by an increasingly stifling defense that mixes man-to-man and zone principles around an old-school, inside-out structure led by defensive anchor Hassan Whiteside (third in the NBA in defensive real plus-minus at plus-3.62). The Heat have allowed more than 100 points twice in their past eight games, a stretch over which they have allowed only 97.9 points per game. -- Snellings


20. Detroit Pistons
Record: 16-18

It has been nearly a month since this inconsistent Detroit club has been able to enjoy any kind of win streak. The Pistons desperately need some secondary offense and, heading into Sunday night's game with Orlando, had gone four straight contests without breaking the century mark. -- Herring


21. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 17-21

The Nets have returned to earth after running off nine wins in 10 games. They ran into the Bucks' buzz saw on Saturday while resting D'Angelo Russell and Ed Davis, yet found production from Shabazz Napier (career high of 32 points) and Kenneth Faried (double-double), neither of whom has spent much time in the Nets' rotation of late. The Nets are one of only three teams in the NBA to rank in the top 10 in percentage of field goals attempted from beyond the arc and 3-point percentage (Boston and Miami). -- Arnovitz


22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 17-19

It will be an interesting return to Minnesota on Friday night for Andrew Wiggins, who was booed during a stunning 123-120 overtime home loss to lowly Atlanta on Saturday after missing seven of 12 free throws. Afterward, Wiggins said that Minnesota has "some s----- fans, and we've got some good fans." -- Spears


23. Orlando Magic
Record: 16-19

The Magic broke their four-game losing streak with a surprising blowout victory over the then-first-place Raptors and added another Sunday against the Pistons. The Magic took down Toronto behind 30 points and 20 rebounds from center Nikola Vucevic, their one consistent weapon this season. Their lack of a consistent perimeter game limits their upside to that of a fringe playoff/high lottery squad, as reflected by their current placement in the rankings. -- Snellings


24. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 16-21

"No one's going to make me believe that we're not going to get it turned around," coach Alvin Gentry told reporters Saturday after the Pelicans' eighth loss in 11 games. "We're going to get some guys back healthy. We're going to get guys back in the role they are comfortable in. There is still a lot of basketball left to be played. I think we're going to be OK." The Pelicans' room for error is getting increasingly slimmer. They have fallen five games under .500 and four games out of the West's final playoff spot. -- MacMahon


25. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 11-24

The baby Hawks have spread their wings, putting together five wins in six games -- three of them on the road, including a gutsy overtime victory at Minnesota on Friday. They've improved their shooting and slowed down the pace over that stretch, but the real dividends have been paid on the glass. The Hawks, the 26th-ranked rebounding team heading into the streak, have been annihilating opponents on the boards since: a league-best 56.1 rebounding rate, leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the field. -- Arnovitz


26. Washington Wizards
Record: 14-23

News of John Wall's season-ending left heel surgery puts the Wizards in an awkward spot. The team was already facing an uphill battle to make the playoffs but still possesses too much talent, even without Wall, to secure one of the best picks in the NBA draft -- something the Wizards could desperately use as a club that's capped out without a clear way of reaching the next level. -- Herring


27. Phoenix Suns
Record: 9-28

The Suns are ending 2018 on a hot note after being under a cloud early in the season. Phoenix has won five of its past nine games, including a four-game win streak earlier this month. Even the losses haven't been bad -- the past four have been by an average of 6.7 points. With the Suns playing respectably now, there may not be an easy win left in the Western Conference. -- Spears


28. Chicago Bulls
Record: 10-27

The Bulls' offense isn't a thing of beauty. But going into Sunday's contest with the Raptors, Chicago ranked 10th in defensive efficiency since Jim Boylen took over as coach -- a vast improvement from the No. 23 spot under Fred Hoiberg. -- Herring


29. New York Knicks
Record: 9-28

The Knicks are the coldest team in the NBA, having lost seven straight games and 12 of their past 13 overall. With that said, they have gotten strong production from 22-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay and 19-year-old Kevin Knox during this time, which mitigates the team losses. The goal of this team is to build for the future much more so than for the now. -- Snellings


30. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 8-29

Collin Sexton is still a rookie, which means his shot profile likely can and will change over time. But he ranks second in the NBA, behind Klay Thompson and ahead of DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant and J.J. Redick, with his 175 long midrange shot attempts. While he can score from there, it's worth questioning whether you want a young player to settle for midrange shots so frequently. -- Herring