Not much change at the top of the rankings this week, the Heat can’t seem to lose (the only real shift was the Clippers jumping the Pacers after beating them). The interesting question going forward is how far will the Spurs tumble without Tony Parker for a month. And if they tumble here, do they give back 3 games to the Thunder in the race for the top seed out West?
1. Heat (43-14, last week ranked No. 1). LeBron was ridiculous in February and this becomes the problem trying to stop the Heat in the playoffs — if you fully commit to taking him out of the game Dwyane Wade (playing very well) or Chris Bosh will beat you. Are you better off with the “Jordan rules” idea of letting LeBron get his and shutting everyone else down?
2. Spurs (47-14, LW 2). Let the record reflect the Spurs had a 3 game lead over the second-seed Thunder and 3.5 over the Clippers when Tony Parker went down for a month with a sprained ankle. The Spurs have a way of still winning despite injuries, (they are 4-1 without Parker this season) but it is going to be tough to not slide back in the standings this time.
3. Thunder (43-16, LW 3). If you are the Thunder, are you not thinking you need to use Sunday’s win over the Clippers as a springboard to chase down the Spurs for the top seed in the West. And maybe the best overall record. That is one loud home court the Thunder have and it would be handy in the playoffs.
4. Clippers (43-19 LW 5). They won four in a row — including a quality win last week in Indiana — then fought back to make it a close game before losing to the Thunder on Sunday. Still, it’s becoming clear they are a step back of the Spurs and Thunder out West.
5. Pacers (38-22, LW 4). David West was the reason the Pacers beat the Bulls Sunday, he’s the reason the Pacers beat a lot of teams this year. He is an unrestricted free agent this summer and the Pacers have to pay the man. They need him. Indy’s Roy Hibbert also starting to find his groove.
6. Nuggets (38-22, LW 7). Winners of four in a row, including a quality one over the Thunder last Friday. They could have a first-round matchup with the Grizzlies in the playoffs, which would be a fascinating contrast of styles.
7. Grizzlies (39-19, LW 6). They have won nine of 10 and their loss in that stretch is to the Heat. They have played much better after the Rudy Gay trade, but that could slow now with Zach Randolph banged up a little. Ed Davis, opportunity is knocking.
8. Knicks (35-21, LW 8). The Knicks are about to enter a brutally tough month of their schedule, including the second night of a back-to-back, fourth game in five days Thursday at Oklahoma City. It’s going to be tough to retake the two seed against this schedule.
9. Rockets (33-28, LW 9). I love that coach Kevin McHale is still experimenting with his roster, taking lightly-used rookie Donatas Motiejunas and starting him to give better floor spacing. And it works. The Rockets are a team in progress but they are making progress.
10. Bulls (34-26, LW 10). The Bulls are 4-6 in their last 10 and that is all about the lack of offensive spark — they traded their depth away last summer and that comes at a price. We all just continue to wait patiently for Derrick Rose to feel ready to go.
11. Nets (34-26, LW 11). The Nets are not a bad team — not a contender, not top three in the East even, but good. We say that so you don’t get fooled by the next three weeks when the Nets feast on a schedule heavy with lottery teams and they start to look better than they are.
12. Lakers (30-30, LW 14). They are a .500 team again and as of Monday morning just 2.5 games out of the playoffs after winning 13-of-17. The playoffs are within reach, but they have to keep winning at least two thirds of their games to make it work. Tough start to week at Oklahoma City.
13. Jazz (32-27, LW 12). If the Lakers are going to catch the Jazz it could happen in the next three weeks — Utah’s schedule gets road heavy (six of eight) and playoff team heavy (eight of next 10). How they play in that stretch may determine where they are in late April (Oklahoma City of golfing).
14. Celtics (31-27, LW 16). Really good tests coming up for the Celtics — at Indiana, home to Atlanta then back out on the road at Oklahoma City. It’s going to be interesting to see who Boston faces in the first round of the playoffs, they will be a tough out.
15. Hawks (33-24, LW 15). Every time I watch this team in a late-game situation against a good team — take the Lakers on Sunday night for example — I’m left to wonder, “Does this team even get out of the first round?”
16. Bucks (29-28, LW 17). Right now there is a fun little competition as Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and J.J. Redick try not to be the guy on the bench at the end of the game. The Bucks are a playoff team but head out on a tough West Coast road swing this week.
17. Warriors (33-27, LW 13). Losers of four in a row and seven of their last 10, the Warriors have picked a tough time to slump. They are the six seed in the West now and 3.5 games up on the 9 seed Lakers.
18. Mavericks (26-33, LW 18). Two losses last week where they had leads and gave them up — those are the kind of games they had to start winning and just haven’t. So they are looking up at the playoffs. We’ll see if they can keep the Rockets under 130 on Wednesday in a rematch.
19. Cavaliers (20-39, LW 19). I’ll admit I was concerned Dion Waiters was just going to develop into a gunner in this league, but with Kyrie Irving sidelined he’s been dishing out assists and looking the part of playmaker. He is going to be better than I thought draft night.
20. Trail Blazers (27-31, LW 24). As their focus goes from making the playoffs to the summer, the question I wonder about is if LaMarcus Aldridge can be the recruiter the Blazers can use to go with that cap space they have
21. Wizards (19-39, LW 23). In his last five games, Bradley Beal is averaging 20 points a game and is taking better than half his shots from three, where he is hitting 45.5 percent in that stretch. Plus, I could swear in crunch time Sunday I saw John Wall knock down some key jumpers.
22. Raptors (23-37, LW 20). Toronto has lost four in a row. Rudy Gay is scoring 20.5 points a game but is shooting just 38.7 percent as a Raptor — Toronto’s fans, that is who Rudy Gay is. He gets you points, but don’t expect any level of consistent efficiency.
23. 76ers (23-34, LW 21). If Andrew Bynum doesn’t play this season — and do you really think he will? — the question is how much does he get offered this summer? My guess, at least two years at $13 million per with team options for future years. Big men are at a premium.
24. Pistons (23-39, LW 22). They have lost five of their last six and with Andre Drummond out they aren’t nearly as much fun to watch. The question is do they want to keep Jose Calderon after this season and if so how much are they willing to pay to do so.
26. Hornets (21-39, LW 26). Jason Smith is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Anthony Davis has a bone bruise in his shoulder area and is out a while. So, good time to see New Orleans and their weak defense on your schedule.
27. Timberwolves (20-36, LW 25). Losers of five in a row and now both Nikola Pekovic and Andrei Kirilenko are battling injuries that could have them sidelined a while. On the bright side, more Ping-Pong balls for the lottery.
28. Kings (20-40, LW 27). You have to say this much for Sacramento — their city management has put together a good offer that will challenge the league’s other owners to make a tough decision on where this team plays next season. We’ll see if that’s enough.
30. Bobcats (13-46, LW 29). They lost to the Clippers last week and it was expected. They lost big to the Jazz, who were without Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. But they are back on the bottom because they got just crushed by the Kings. It was an ugly week in Charlotte.