Nikola Jokic

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Projecting final standings in wild West playoff chase


It’s going to come down to the little things: a lucky bounce here, a sprained ankle there, a made three from the corner under pressure. Unpredictable things — but that’s not going to stop us.

And it’s going to take 46 wins to make the playoffs in the West (last season Portland got in at 41-41).

The West playoff chase is compelling because it is so deep and tight. Right now Houston and Golden State are playoff locks, but after that just 3.5 games separate Portland as the three seed and the Utah Jazz, currently 10th. With just under a month to go in the season, anything can happen.

I sat down and projected out the rest of the season, and here’s what I got, down to projected final record and remaining strength of schedule — it’s going to take those 46 wins to get into the dance (which may be too much for Los Angeles and Denver). But one bounce, one ankle could change this entire dynamic.

Rockets small icon1. Rockets: 64-18 proj. record; .483 remaining opponent winning percentage. It’s going to be a coin flip at the end of the season between Houston and Golden State for the top record in the NBA. I’ve put Houston on top for a less-than-empirical reason: Houston wants the top seed, James Harden wants the MVP, and Mike D’Antoni will push for those things while the Warriors will not care about seeding. The Rockets will get what they want.

Warriors small icon2. Warriors: 63-19 proj. record; .447 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Warriors have by far an easier schedule the rest of the way than the Rockets, however, they also care less about getting the top seed and will rest guys down the stretch (such as Curry with this ankle, Andre Iguodala with his wrist, and Kevin Durant will get some nights off, too). Coach Steve Kerr cares far more about getting Iguodala and Jordan Bell back healthy than he does the team’s playoff seed.

Blazers small icon3. Portland, 48-34 proj. record; .538 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Trail Blazers are seventh in the NBA in defense on the season, and since the All-Star break they are second in the league giving up less than a point per possession — that (and the fact they have outperformed their point differential for the season) is why this team stays at the three seed. We know they can get buckets with Damian Lillard at the helm (especially in the clutch, where he’s been special), but it’s the other end of this floor that makes Portland more of a threat. This team not only gets home court in the first round, they could well win that and advance to the second.

4. Minnesota 47-35 proj. record; .474 remaining opponent winning percentage. One of the hardest teams to project from here on out because they don’t have Jimmy Butler, who got them buckets and solidified their defense. That said, in this scenario the T-Wolves get the four seed over OKC because they won the head-to-head tiebreaker (3-1). Butler or no there still a lot of talent on this roster — they need to keep feeding Karl-Antony Towns like they did Sunday against the Warriors — but the Timberwolves have a tough stretch coming up at the Wizards, at Spurs, then home to Houston. They lost two-of-three before the Warriors, if they struggle in the next three does it get into the head of a young team? Their schedule softens up after that.

Thunder small icon5. Oklahoma City 47-35 proj. record; .556 remaining opponent winning percentage. It’s difficult to project where this team lands because they are so wildly inconsistent. Watch the Rockets destroy them as happened last Tuesday (attacking Carmelo Anthony mercilessly) and you think the Thunder will be in trouble against any team in the West in the first round, or just getting into the postseason. Watch them shred the Spurs as they did Saturday night and you’re reminded of the elite talent on this team and why they can be such a tough out in the playoffs. Oklahoma City is simply not as good as we thought preseason (especially without Andre Roberson), but they are good enough to make the postseason, and maybe make the second round depending on the matchup.

Pelicans small icon6/7/8. New Orleans 46-36 proj. record; .549 remaining opponent winning percentage. In a conference race this tight, why wouldn’t there be a three-way tie for the final playoff spot? There are too many scenarios to get into the three-way tiebreaker for this ending, so for the purposes of this projection, we will call them all even. Anthony Davis only missed one game with his tweaked ankle, this is a team that looks like its recent run was enough to get back to the postseason (the Pelicans are 7-2 since the All-Star break but only have outscored teams by 1.1 per 100 possessions, they’ve been a little lucky). They need a little more luck the rest of the way.

Spurs small icon6/7/8. San Antonio 46-36 proj. record; .566 remaining opponent winning percentage. If the Spurs don’t make the playoffs, does the league even still hold them? This is the hardest team to project for a couple of reasons. First is they have the toughest schedule of any West team chasing the postseason, including two more against the Rockets and one against the Warriors. Second is Kawhi Leonard. He is reportedly going to return on Thursday vs. New Orleans, but for how many minutes? And how long does it take him to shake off the rust? If he gets back to form, both the Warriors and Rockets would like to avoid the Spurs in the first round, Leonard is that good, he changes everything. But the Spurs have to make it first, and that’s far from a given.

Jazz small icon6/7/8. Utah 46-36 proj. record; .489 remaining opponent winning percentage. The Jazz grab one of the last spots thanks to a soft schedule the rest of the way — although they do have two against the Warriors remaining — and the fact they have had the best defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, allowing well under a point per possession. Rudy Gobert would be the clear Defensive Player of the Year if he wasn’t going to have missed 25+ games this season due to injury. So long as Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio can generate just enough offense, the Jazz will make the cut.

Clippers small icon9. Clippers 45-37 proj. record; .553 remaining opponent winning percentage. That the team who lost Chris Paul last summer and traded Blake Griffin in the middle of this one is still in the playoff conversation is a testament to what a good job Doc Rivers has done as coach this season. Lou Williams is going to win Sixth Man of the Year going away, and DeAndre Jordan is still a force inside. But the Clippers have a tough schedule the rest of the way — two each against the Trail Blazers and Pacers that will be key — and almost no margin for error.

Nuggets small icon10. Denver 44-38 proj. record; .553 remaining opponent winning percentage. Denver has found a nice young core in Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, and their offense is top 10. However, their 23rd ranked defense (once you remove gargage time stats, via Cleaning the Glass) is going to leave them on the outside looking in when all is said and done. They have two games against Minnesota and one against Portland remaining, win those and the dynamic changes.

NBA Power Rankings: Houston locked in on top, but tanking race at bottom is wild

Associated Press

Every week with this poll, it’s splitting hairs between about eighth through 17 or so, the teams are very bunched up. This year, oddly, the same is true from about 22 to 30 — the tankapaloza going on in the NBA makes it hard to choose who is really the worst in the NBA. Phoenix is making a very good case for the “crown” however.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (47-13, Last Week No. 1). James Harden has pulled away as the clear frontrunner in the MVP race with about 20 games to go around the league. He has nine 40-point games to lead the NBA, he leads the league in scoring (31.4 per game), but he also leads in some of the Advanced stats with the league’s best value over replacement player (6.2) and in win shares (11.9). It’s his award to lose at this point. The Rockets have won 13 in a row, including a high-altitude back-to-back in Denver and Utah.

Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (47-14 LW 3). The All-Star break was what the Warriors needed, apparently, since the time off they have outscored teams by 20.8 points per 100 possessions, and they are back to defending at a high level. One other post All-Star change is the more athletic JaVale McGee starting at center, giving a team that got off to some slow starts (especially defensively) in the weeks before the break a guy who can protect the rim, alter shots, and switch a little on the perimeter. It has worked, the Warriors are getting off to better starts, then blowing teams out in the third quarter.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (42-17, LW 2). The Raptors have never finished on top of the Eastern Conference and entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, and their franchise record for wins in a season is 56. If the Raptors can go 15-8 the rest of the way they set the wins record, but they will need to get to 60 or better to hold off the Celtics and keep the top seed (a very obtainable goal). After the Raptors rolled the Pistons on Monday, smart money is on a matchup against Miami in the first round.

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (43-19, LW 5). It’s just three games, but out of the All-Star break the offense that has been the Celtics’ weak point this season has taken off behind Kyrie Irving, scoring 114 points per 100 possessions. We’ll see if they can sustain this — they need to to climb out of the two seed (which would mean facing LeBron James and Cleveland in the second round, something both Boston and Toronto would prefer to avoid).

5. Timberwolves (38-26, LW 4). With Jimmy Butler likely out until around the start of the playoffs following meniscus surgery, Minnesota’s playoff standing becomes all about Andrew Wiggins — he has to step up. In the two games without Butler, he has 45 points total on 54.6% shooting, both way up from his numbers through the rest of the season. Minnesota currently sits as the three seed in the West, but they are just two games up on OKC as the 7 seed (and four games up on the Clippers and falling out of the playoffs, which is not likely but also not impossible).

Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (36-25, LW 6). Kawhi Leonard is working out again with the team and is expected to make another comeback again in March. The Spurs could use him on both ends. They need is shot creation come the playoffs, but they may need his defense even sooner — San Antonio’s very solid defense all season has fallen off of late and they are 19th in the NBA over their past 10 games. The Spurs went 2-4 on the rodeo road trip and have a tough schedule the rest of the way, they need more wins.

Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (36-25, LW 7). Washington has gone 10-3 without John Wall outscoring teams by 5.7 points per 100, fifth best in the league over that stretch. Bradley Beal continues to play like an All-Star, but the big difference has been improved play from Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Tomas Satoransky. Things aren’t getting easier with the Warriors, Raptors, and Pacers as the next three teams up.

Cavaliers small icon 8. Cavaliers (36-24 LW 10). Some of the shine has come off the new-look roster after losses to the Wizards and Spurs — teams are adapting to the Cavaliers, and Tyronn Lue hasn’t had the practices to put in a lot of new offensive sets yet, so the Cavs don’t have good counters. Cleveland needs to get J.R. Smith rolling again as he has gone cold. LeBron is still putting up numbers but the man needs help (George Hill pitched in Tuesday).

Sixers small icon 9. 76ers (32-27, LW 11). Six games over .500 with the easiest schedule in the East the rest of the way, the question now isn’t if they make the playoffs but what seed they will be. They are only two games out of the four seed (and home court in the first round) but the next couple of weeks may decide what happens — they started 0-2 on a stretch of road games that has them away from home for 6-of-8 (half the games are against current playoff teams). Sixers are 13-17 on the road this season primarily because their defense struggles. That has to change now if they are going to climb the ladder at all.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (33-27 LW 8). New coach (10-5 under Joe Prunty), better (more conservative) defense, but the Bucks are still one of the most inconsistent teams in the NBA — they beat Toronto in Toronto last week, then blew a big lead to the Pelicans. Jabari Parker has played more than 20 minutes each of the last two games, averaging 13 points and 6.5 assets per game, and his increased minutes has let Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton play fewer minutes of late, which is good all around.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (34-26, LW 14). This ranking may be a little low for a team that has won 7-of-10 and outscored opponents by 5.1 per 100 possessions in that stretch. On the season Indiana’s offense has been efficient in the half-court (ninth in the NBA) but does a lot of damage in transition (particularly off steals), scoring a league-best 128.7 points per 100 in plays started on the break. Monday’s loss at Dallas was the first of four on the road for the Pacers, the kind of games the Pacers need to win if they want to pass the Wizards and get home court in the first round.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (34-26, LW 17). Winners of six in a row, in large part because Anthony Davis is playing like an MVP (he was having a strong season from day one, but since the DeMarcus Cousins injury he has taken everything to a new level). In his last five games, Davis has 196 points and 72 rebounds total (39.2/14.4 per game average). The last guy to put up those kind of numbers in five-game stretch? Shaquille O’Neal in March 2000. The Pelicans start a series of four road games Wednesday night, with a key one next Tuesday against the Clippers (a team they are trying to hold off to stay in the playoffs).

Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (35-27 LW 13).. Some nights Russell Westbrook can bail them out (like the last-second shot against Sacramento), but Oklahoma City’s defense continues to struggle and that’s going to be an issue down the stretch and into the postseason. Over the last five games, the Thunder have allowed 113.9 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony has been solid, but he’s not getting as many isolation and post-up attempts (where he can use his strength to get his shot) this season, and even when he does he is not as efficient with those looks as he was in New York last season. This season, Anthony is taking way more spot-up looks, where he is solid but not great.

Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (35-26, LW 16). Damian Lillard has been lighting it up — he is averaging 39.4 points on 51.2% shooting in his last five games, he’s taking 10 threes a game and hitting 38% of them. The Blazers have won four straight, and in the last three their defense has looked good again (albeit against not great offensive teams). Portland is 18-11 at home this season and now have 9-of-11 at the Rose Garden — this is the chance for them to secure their playoff spot with a series of wins.

Jazz small icon 15. Jazz (31-30, LW 9). Utah has lost 2-of-3 out of the All-Star break, but against two playoff teams (Portland and Houston), but they still have the easiest schedule the rest of the way of teams fighting for a playoff spot (which is why has their playoff odds at 55%). Still, they need to rack up some wins (they face the Timberwolves but have a rest advantage with Minny on a back-to-back). The big question down the stretch: Utah relies heavily on rookie Donovan Mitchell at the end of close games, can he keep up this pace of strong play as the pressure mounts?

Clippers small icon 16. Clippers (32-27 LW 15). With Tuesday night’s win against Denver, the Clippers are the eighth seed in the West (ahead of the Nuggets by percentage points) and gives them a 67% chance of sticking in the postseason. Doc Rivers legitimately does deserve some Coach of the Year consideration. Out of the All-Star break the Lou Williams led Clippers offense has impressed scoring 114.4 points per 100 possessions (the Williams/Boban Marjanovic pick-and-roll has shown real promise, seriously) but Los Angeles needs to get more stops.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (32-29, LW 19). Kelly Olynyk is back in the rotation, the Heat missed his shooting while he was out. After some stumbles heading into the All-Star break, Miami has won two in a row (Justise Winslow broke out against Memphis, then Dwyane Wade jumped in the hot tub time machine against the Sixers), and now the Heat look secure in the postseason 3.5 games up on the Pistons. gives them a 92% chance of making the postseason. They can really lock that spot up with a win over the Pistons Saturday (in Miami, and Detroit is on a back-to-back).

Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (33-28, LW 12).. Nikola Jokic’s triple-double streak ended at three and the Nuggets have had a couple tough losses (home to Houston when the Rockets were on a back-to-back, then to the Clippers). Denver is now a coin flip to make the playoffs and they need wins now — four of their next eight are against tanking teams, two more are against the Lakers (not tanking but not good), and two are Cleveland. This is the time Denver needs to make a run because after this a 7-game road trip looms and things get harder.

Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-33, LW 20). Winners of five in a row, the Hornets are more likely to make the postseason now than the Pistons — gives Charlotte a 29% chance. That said, they are going to need help from Miami or Philly, Charlotte is still four games out of the postseason with 21 to play. Charlotte’s run has been fueled by the fact they are finally healthy and the bench is thriving, plus the team has found it’s three-point shooting stroke of late (41.1% in the last 10 games).

Lakers small icon 20. Lakers (26-34 LW 21). In what is going to be a tight market for bigs this summer, Julius Randle is going to get paid. He has developed into a player who does a couple things exceptionally well and plays to those strengths, is physically strong, and has good recognition on passing out of the double teams. A lot of teams could use him as a small-ball five. The Lakers also have waived Corey Brewer in a buyout, a guy who was great in the locker room but not providing a lot on the court for the team.

Pistons small icon 21. Pistons (28-32, LW 18). Since coming to Detroit, Blake Griffin is shooting 40.1% overall and 27.4% from three (he hit 34% from deep with the Clippers). Griffin has not been good enough to lift the Pistons into the playoffs ( gives them a 7% chance of making the postseason) and the team has yet to win a game since his arrival where the opponent was not on the second night of a back-to-back. Internally, the team’s front office has reportedly moved on to focusing more on next season.

Mavericks small icon 22. Mavericks (19-42 LW 24). Welcome to the tanking part of the rankings, where Dallas’ quality win over the Pacers makes them look good despite having lost 11-of-14. I like the potential of Dennis Smith Jr., but he has to learn to finish at the rim and find his jumper to take steps forward. He is shooting 57.8% at the rim, Synergy has him at 47.6% shooting around the basket and 30.1% on jumpers. He’s learning as a pick-and-roll ball handler, he’s improving, but until he can finish defenses will live with him shooting.

Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (24-38, LW 27). They have lost 10-of-11 (the one win was against fellow taking team Orlando) but with the Knicks racked up enough early season wins that they will almost certainly enter the lottery in the nine slot. Trey Burke was an inefficient gunner his first couple of stops in the league (not moving the ball enough as a point guard to keep coaches happy) but with a couple of recent 25-point games maybe he can find a sixth man kind of role in the league as a scorer.

Nets small icon 24. Nets (20-42, LW 29). Jahlil Okafor is averaging 6.2 points per game, shooting 54.1 percent, and grabbing some defensive rebounds, which doesn’t sound terrible. But his lack of shooting range clogs the lane on offense and he provides little on defense — the Nets are 24.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court than on it. It’s not the kind of comeback he hoped for. Maybe this summer a team will offer him a minimum contract as a free agent, but it may not even be fully guaranteed. That’s where he has fallen to.

Bulls small icon 25. Bulls (20-41 LW 22).. Zach LaVine is showing some offensive promise, scoring 17.7 points per game and shooting 39.5% from three since his return in Chicago. However, it’s the other end of the floor that’s a concern — the Bulls are 8.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when LaVine sits. The Bulls are banking on him to be part of their future, but he needs both work on his defensive skills this offseason and be more focused on that end next season to become the kind of player the Bulls can really use as a cornerstone.

Magic small icon 26. Magic (18-42, LW 23). Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic may be back and starting, but the Magic have still lost six straight. In the “play the youth” mold the Magic should lean more on Khem Birch down the stretch, the big man could be a solid rotation player down the line. Mario Hezonja has had some rough games of late off the Orlando bench, it will be interesting to see what kind of free agent market there is for him next summer, it’s going to be a tight market and he has looked better but still pretty “meh” this season.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (18-43, LW 25). It’s good to see John Collins starting and getting more run, that’s what this time of the season is for. The Hawks have been pretty good at home this season (13-18) and better of late, and they started a 7-of-9 homestand Monday with a loss to the Lakers. If you’re watching the tanking race, the Hawks vs. the Suns Sunday in Atlanta could be a big game (someone has to win). It just won’t be a pretty one.

Kings small icon 28. Kings (18-43, LW 28). Buddy Hield was more heralded going into the draft, and has found his niche as a shooter (he is a pure spot-up guy who can do little else), but Rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic looks like a keeper and a solid to good rotation player in Sacramento. Bogdanovic is a quality spot up player, gets out and can finish in transition, and can do damage as a pick-and-roll ball handler. Their most heralded rookie, De’Aaron Fox has to find a shot outside of when he gets to the rim or he’s going to get the Rondo/Tony Allen treatment for his career.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (18-41, LW 26). Losers of 10 in a row, and during that stretch the defense has been poor but the offense has been abysmal, scoring 102.1 points per 100 possessions. How many nights off will Marc Gasol get down the stretch in the name of rest/playing the youth? Not that having him on the court has made Memphis better this season (they actually have been 3.5 points per 100 possessions better when he sits this season). The development of JaMychal Green and Dillon Brooks are things to watch down the stretch in Memphis.

Suns small icon 30. Suns (18-44, LW 30). It’s just six games, but while Elfrid Payton is scoring — 16.7 points per game, with 8 assists — he and Devin Booker have yet to click. When those two are on the court together the Suns are getting outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions (a lot of noise there, this is a bad team) and scoring less than a point per possession. It’s a dynamic to watch the rest of the season. Losers of 10 in a row, the Suns have 6-of-8 on the road and are the frontrunners to have the worst record in the NBA entering the Draft Lottery.

Three Things to Know: LeBron averaged a triple-double in February, is making history

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) LeBron James makes history and helps cement his legacy, gets triple-double, leads Cavaliers to needed win.
When LeBron James hangs up his Nike’s some day, the debate will rage about where he falls in the pantheon of all-time greats. First things first, he belongs up on that Mount Rushmore with the greatest of all time, no question. His combination of abilities to score, defend, pass, have handles, and play with a high IQ is almost unmatched in league history. Anyone arguing he’s not one of the greats is a sports talk radio host willing saying anything to make a name for himself, or he/she just doesn’t know the game. Probably both.

Tuesday night, LeBron helped cement his legacy as he became the first player ever with at least 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists in his career. He is the most well-rounded NBA superstar ever.

LeBron wasn’t done on the night, picking up a triple-double against the Nets with 31 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists (with that we’ll overlook his off defensive night). LeBron averaged a triple-double for the month of February.

The good news for Cleveland is LeBron got some help for a night (which is why they won, unlike over the weekend). George Hill broke out of a mini-slump with 26 points on 17 shots as he looked like the guy Cleveland hoped to get. Rodney Hood was getting buckets. Cleveland ran plays for Kyle Korver and he was 4-of-7 from three. Granted, all this came against a scrappy but not good Nets team, still the Cavaliers will take the positives anywhere they can get them. And there were plenty on Tuesday.

2) Dwyane Wade turns back the hands of time, scores 15 in the fourth and drains the game-winner. Father Time has been winning the race with Dwyane Wade this season. For the season he is averaging 10.9 points per game on 50.4 true shooting percentage, with a PER of 14.9 — all career lows. And all those numbers are worse since he was traded to Miami. He’s not sure if he will play next season.

However, every once in a while he can hop in the hot tub time machine and still take over a game — he did that in the fourth quarter Tuesday with 15 points, including draining the game-winner against the Sixers.

That’s a big win for the Heat, keeping them 3.5 games clear of Detroit and in the playoffs.

3) Paul Millsap returns for Denver (it just wasn’t enough Tuesday). This is huge news for a Nuggets team trying to earn a playoff slot — Paul Millsap is back. The former All-Star forward has been out since before Thanksgiving following surgery to repair a ligament in his wrist. Denver needs him for the stretch run. He’s a strong defender at the four, can space the floor and hit threes, and fits well with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on offense. Millsap can help get the Nuggets into the postseason, and the fans in Denver know that and welcomed him back with a standing ovation.

Millsap showed some rust and didn’t help enough on Tuesday in a game the Nuggets and Clippers both needed. He was part of a bench unit that struggled as the Nuggets blew a 19-point third quarter lead — Denver had no answer for the Lou Williams/Boban Marjanovic pick-and-roll — and lost to the Clippers. With that, the Clippers are in and the Nuggets have fallen to the nine seed and out of the playoffs (by percentage points to the Clippers). Denver needs wins down the stretch. It’s something Millsap should eventually bring, just not Tuesday when he had some fourth quarter turnovers. Give him some time to shake off the rust. This is still a team more likely to make the playoffs than not.

Nikola Jokic records fastest triple-double in 20 seasons


The Denver Nuggets have one of the most interesting young cores in the NBA, and Nikola Jokic is right at the heart of it. Along with Will Barton, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris, Jokic is expected to grow as Denver becomes a legitimate playoff threat in the Western Conference.

But even for the quick-passing Jokic, Thursday night was an anomaly.

Playing in Milwaukee, Jokic amazed Bucks fans (much to their lament) by becoming the quickest player to a triple-double in 20 seasons.

Jokic reached his tripled-double with 1:54 left in the second quarter. He finally finished with with 30 points, 17 assists, and 15 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets beat the Bucks, 134-123.

Check out the full video of the historic night above.

Three Things to Know: LeBron is energized again, which should scare league

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Two games in for the new-look Cavaliers and they look dangerous again. Go ahead and make all the “small sample size” alert warnings you want after two games of the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers — both wins after the Cavs knocked off the Thunder in OKC Tuesday 120-112 — but there are two clear takeaways so far:

LeBron James is energized again — and that should scare the league. For the first 10 weeks of this season, LeBron was a serious MVP candidate playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He carried the Cavs as far as one man could, but that was only the three seed because of the injuries/abysmal defense/lack of effort from everyone around him. LeBron wore down and became part of the problem, settling for jumpers on offense and not getting back or rotating sharply on defense.

With a new crew healthy (except for Kevin Love, still out with a broken hand) and putting in effort around him, LeBron looks like his vintage self again and dropped 37 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Thunder Tuesday.

• The bench play is suddenly legitimate for Cleveland. For all LeBron’s brilliance, the Cavaliers were -1 when he was on the court in this game, the Thunder starters were +5 as a unit in their 18 minutes. The difference was Cleveland has a bench now, one that extended the lead at the start of the fourth while LeBron rested and created a gap Oklahoma City could never close. Jordan Clarkson has the ball in his hands driving and making plays, Larry Nance Jr. is bringing energy and some high IQ play, and with Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood on the court there is plenty of shooting. That second unit, with Jeff Green making shots, started the fourth on a 9-0 run and created the separation the Cavs needed. Granted, the Thunder bench is an issue for them (and will be come the playoffs), but this is a good sign for Cleveland.

It’s just two games, let’s see what happens as the scouting reports pile up and teams adapt, but Cleveland looks like a real threat again. And with an engaged LeBron, this could be the team to beat in the East again.

2) James Harden looks every bit the MVP dropping 34 points on Minnesota. If the season ended today, James Harden would be your MVP. At least he’d have my vote (and I sense a lot of others).

It’s a recognition Harden wants badly, he feels he was robbed last year (a two-man race that Russell Westbrook won) and after a few seasons near the top of that race he wants his. Don’t expect him to let up now, with 26 games to go in the season. As evidence, look at the 34 points and 13 assists he dropped on Minnesota Tuesday night in another Houston win.

There is no simple formula to determine MVP, each voter has his or her own criteria, but most of the time the award ends up in the hands of the best player on a team with 55 or more wins, the guy having an elite season even by those standards. Houston is on pace for 63 wins and Harden leads the NBA in points per game (31.4), and he’s doing it efficiently which has him on top of a number of advanced stats categories (from the more basic PER to things like win shares per 48, and value over replacement player). After LeBron’s mid-season mental vacation, Harden has emerged as the man to beat in the MVP race.

3) Nuggets beat Spurs, and the back half of the West playoff race is stupid close. As of Wednesday morning, the San Antonio Spurs at 35-24 are the three seed in the West. (As a side note, if you’re one of the “disgruntled” Spurs fans trolling the team on Twitter for not being good enough this season despite doing this basically without Kawhi Leonard, you need to get outside, breathe some fresh air, and get a life. This team has overachieved.)

The Los Angeles Clippers are the nine seed and currently out of the playoffs — and they are just four games back of the Spurs. The 10th seeded Jazz are just five games back of the three-seeded Spurs, and the Jazz have won 10 straight and are the league’s hottest team now that they are healthy.

After the Warriors and Rockets, who are running away with the top two seeds, anything could happen in the West. The margins are slim and every game matters. Which is why Denver knocking off San Antonio 117-109 behind a triple-double from Nikola Jokic — 27 points 11 rebounds, 11 assists — matters. Denver is in the middle of that morass in the West and needs all the wins it can get — ones like this over the Spurs (or another recently over the Warriors) matters.

Let’s be clear, the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Thunder almost certainly hold on to their playoff slots (3-5) barring major injury (or, for the Spurs, another major injury). But after that, it’s five teams for three spots — Denver, Portland, New Orleans, the L.A. Clippers, and Utah — and they are all separated by two games. It’s the definition of wide open. predicts the Jazz, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers will come out on top, but even the Clippers and Pelicans have a 50/50 chance (or slightly better) of getting into the postseason. It’s that close. For these teams, the playoffs start the day after the All-Star break.