Only two more power rankings to go after this one — then the playoffs start (you know, the things that make these rankings moot). Oklahoma City is getting hot at the right time, Dallas and Chicago are the polar opposites of that.
1. Warriors (66-7, last week No. 2). They have to go just 7-2 the rest of the way to beat the Bulls’ single season win record, and Steve Kerr will chase it rather than rest players wholesale (like the next team on this list). They have a challenging back-to-back with Washington and Utah Monday/Tuesday but Kerr said expect everyone to play. Best playoff sign: They are 13-1 against teams with the next five best records.
2. Spurs (61-12, LW 1). Gregg Popovich knows the Spurs are not catching the Warriors for the top seed so he has begun resting guys wholesale — five guys were out vs. Oklahoma City Saturday (it’s not a coincidence that’s the likely second-round matchup, why potentially tip your hand/give them confidence). Biggest playoff concern: San Antonio is 5-6 against others in league’s top six (by record).
3. Thunder (51-22 LW 5). Winners of seven in a row and most against playoff teams — they peaking at the right time behind Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles and Kevin Durant’s improved all-around game. Tough schedule down the stretch including Toronto, Detroit, LA Clippers and Houston this week.
4. Cavaliers (52-21, LW 3). Big picture, things look pretty good in Cleveland. Sure, LeBron James is frustrated with the lack of consistent focus, and Tyronn Lue has had to dial back what he wanted to do on defense, but this is still an elite team that almost certainly will get the chance to throw its punches in the NBA Finals. That said, to me they often look like first-year Miami with LeBron — talented players playing next to each other, not with each other.
5. Hawks (44-30, LW 6). Atlanta has won eight of nine. The Hawks have had an elite defense for a while (second best in the NBA this season) but after the All-Star break their offense has improved with starter Kyle Korver regaining his form from three, while bench leader Dennis Schroder is shooting much better from just about everywhere compared to the first half of the season.
6. Raptors (49-23, LW 4). These Raptors will set the franchise record for wins in a season, but the question is how will they fare in the playoffs (where they haven’t gotten out of the first round since the Vince Carter era)? The return of DeMarre Carroll would help with that, but he did not take to the road with the team recently and there is no official timetable yet.
7. Hornets (42-31, LW 7). Jeremy Lin has been red-hot off the bench and sparked a 23-point comeback against the Spurs to give Charlotte it’s best win of the season. Still a dangerous team on paper come the playoffs, but if they started today they would struggle with a hot Atlanta team in the first round. They are just a game back of getting home court in the first round, but they need to rack up wins — a home-and-home with the Sixers this week should help.
8. Heat (42-30, LW 8). They are currently the five seed in the East but are just a game back of the three-seed Hawks and Miami has a soft schedule down the stretch. Just like the Hawks, Miami thinks if it can get the three seed (and avoid the Cleveland side of the bracket) they can make a deep playoff run.
9. Clippers (45-27, LW 9). Blake Griffin has been cleared to play and following his suspension will return to the Clippers lineup Sunday and with that he will have seven games to get back in the flow with teammates (he also will have the four or five games Los Angeles will have in the first round against a depleted Memphis team). The Clipper ball movement has been better overall (although not the last week) with Griffin out, can can certainly pass but can he keep the ball from sticking on one side of the court too much?
10. Celtics (43-30, LW 10). They stopped their slide with a four-game winning streak, it doesn’t matter who that was against. However, now comes a brutal West Coast road trip — at the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Warriors, and Lakers (the last time Kobe faces the Celtics).
11. Pacers (39-34, LW 11). They seem comfortably in the playoffs, up 2.5 games on the nine-seed Bulls with nine to play, but that makes Monday’s matchup against Chicago key. Indiana continually seems to beat the teams it should beat but doesn’t stack up well with the teams in the top five in either conference.
12. Pistons (39-35, LW 15). Detroit is 5-2 on their nine-game homestead, with both losses coming at the hands (or wings) of the Atlanta Hawks. Next up are tough ones with Oklahoma City and Dallas, but the real test is Saturday night on the road in Chicago — that’s the team trying to catch them in the playoff chase. If Detroit win just one game this week, it needs to be that one to secure their playoff spot.
13. Jazz (36-37, LW 16). Utah would be in the playoffs if they started today and you have to like their chances of staying there. While they have just a one-game cushion over the nine seed, that is Dallas which is fading fast. Also, the Jazz have a heavy home schedule the rest of the way with some very winnable games this week (Golden State excepted). After the injury-riddled season they had, making the playoffs would be quite an accomplishment. And that defense would make some top team work for their first-round wins.
14. Rockets (36-38, LW 12). They have been dropping a lot of close games of late (they have lost four of five), but that’s not on James Harden who has carried the offense (including a triple double in Toronto). Houston is just half a game ahead of Dallas for the last playoff spot in the West and their schedule this week — Cavaliers, Bulls, Thunder — isn’t doing them any favors.
15. Grizzlies (41-32, LW 13). With makeshift lineups due to injury, you have to expect runs like this where the Grizzlies beat the Clippers but then lose to the Lakers. As one would expect with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol out, the Grizzlies defense isn’t very good (which doesn’t bode well for that first round series against the Clippers).
16. Trail Blazers (38-36, LW 19). Portland remains a team with a quality offense led by an elite backcourt, but they need to outscore teams to win because their defense is unimpressive. Particularly the past few weeks. Portland is 2.5 games clear of Dallas to remain in the playoffs, hard to see them dropping out of the postseason, but their schedule this week isn’t easy (Boston, Miami, Golden State).
17. Wizards (36-37, LW 14). They continue to win enough games to keep their playoff hopes alive, but making up 2.5 games on Detroit or three on Indiana in just a couple weeks seems like a longshot without a few upset wins. They are out on a five game West Coast swing that includes Golden State and the LA Clippers this week.
18. Bulls (36-36, LW 17). They have lost three in a row and from the outside there seems to be a lot of consternation as to the cause — especially getting swept in a home-and-home by the Knicks. I’d start by looking at the defensive end, where the once-stout Bulls are a mess. If they are going to climb back into the playoffs they need wins against the teams they are chasing this week, Indiana and Detroit.
19. Mavericks (35-38, LW 18). . Their playoff dreams took a serious blow losing Chandler Parsons for the season (don’t buy the rumors he could return this season/playoffs). Dirk Nowitzki is carrying as big a load as he can (and he will be back next year), but the defense is the problem for Dallas. Winnable games this week — Denver, New York, Minnesota — but the Mavs need to get some stops. Do it and maybe their playoff dreams don’t fade away.
20. Nuggets (31-43, LW 21). Let’s just bask in that moment one more time — Emmanuel Mudiay hit the best game winner of the season last week against Philadelphia. While you can’t play them together (unless you hate defense), I love the 1-2 center punch of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic.
21. Bucks (30-44, LW 20). When Jason Kidd and his staff sit down after the season to look ahead to the next one, the first question they need to ask is “how do we get our defense back to its 2015 level?” Last season they made the playoffs on the strength of that defense, this season they found an offensive groove with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the point forward, now how do you combine them?
22. Knicks (30-44, LW 24). Kristaps Porzingis is scoring more than 20 points a game most nights again — is he through the rookie wall, or did Kurt Rambis figure out how to use him better? Carmelo Anthony feasted on the Bulls defense last week.
23. Kings (29-44, LW 23). The drama never seems to go away with this team, with DeMarcus Cousins taking a not-so-veiled swipe at George Karl by backing Seth Curry. Time to move on to something positive: There’s still a lot of development to do with him, but Willie Cauley-Stein has had some solid offensive games lately, which is a good sign for the future.
24. Magic (30-43, LW 22). Good to see Dewyane Dedmon look good in the win over the Bulls, one man’s injury is another’s opportunity. By the way, Dwight Howard is open to a return? Ignoring the numerous burned bridges there, does an aging big man at a big price fit with with the model in Orlando? They can do better.
25. Timberwolves (24-49,LW 26). As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out on twitter, Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine have dramatically improved their shooting the second half of this season. If those two can become guys you have to respect on the perimeter because of their jumpers, Karl-Anthony Towns job just got easier — and he’s already making it look pretty easy of late.
26. Pelicans (26-46, LW 25). With Anthony Davis out the Pelicans have to play the other two other bigs they thought might work next to him, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca. That’s worked about as well as you thought it would. That’s one area whoever is the GM of this team this summer needs to work on.
27. Nets (21-51, LW 27). They beat the Cavaliers and Pacers last week, Bojan Bogdanovic is shooting well, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is back on the court. That’s about as much positive news about the Nets as we have had in a while.
28. Suns (20-53, LW 28). Devin Booker continues to be a bright spot, and he may have found a better groove with Brandon Knight. The players want management to bring back Earl Watson as coach next season, but he’s gone 6-18 and is that going to inspire management to keep him.
29. Lakers (15-58, LW 29). We continue to see signs of development from D’Angelo Russell (fortunately his ankle sprain wasn’t serious), Julius Randle (he’s seeing the court and passing much better), and the vastly underrated Larry Nance. This Sunday is Kobe’s final game vs. Boston.
30. 76ers (9-65, LW 30). They need just one more win to avoid tying the worst all-time record for an 82-game season, which doesn’t seem like much but they have already lost nine in a row and have just one win since Feb. 8. This week they face Charlotte (home and home) and Indiana, hard to see a win in there.