The top three teams in this week’s edition of the NBC NBA power rankings are pretty clear, but the next few spots get tricky. Just how good are the Thunder and Clippers? OKC played San Antonio close but got out-executed at the end. Without Blake Griffin the Clippers got crushed by the Cavaliers. How big is the gap from the top three to everyone else, and can those next three (or another team) bridge that gap in the playoffs?
1. Warriors (59-6, last week No. 1). They need to go 14-3 the rest of the way to break the Bulls’ 72-win record, it’s doable but not easy. Remember they play the Spurs three times, twice in the AT&T Center where San Antonio has yet to lose this season (including a meeting this Saturday). The bigger issue may be the loss of Andre Iguodala for a couple weeks, he is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate who settles down and is the best defender on Golden State’s second unit. He will be missed in the big games the next couple of weeks.
2. Spurs (56-10, LW 2). They beat the Thunder Saturday night when neither Tony Parker nor Manu Ginobili hit a shot from the field, which speaks to the evolution and depth of this team. Challenging week ahead with games against the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Warriors.
3. Cavaliers (47-18, LW 3). Winners of three in a row on their “business trip,” the Cavaliers look like they are coming together. “We’re kind of getting in form right now,” LeBron James said Sunday. “I think coach (Tyronn) Lue has done a great job of finding out his rhythm, of finding out what he wants from us, and we are responding.”
4. Raptors (44-20, LW 5). Despite defensive struggles in recent weeks, the Raptors have won three in a row and remain just 2.5 games back of Cleveland for the top seed in the East. Toronto has a slightly tougher schedule and will not catch Cleveland, and expect Dwane Casey to start resting key players (we’re looking at you, Kyle Lowry) down the stretch).
5. Clippers (42-23, LW 4). Clippers loss to Cavaliers Sunday should destroy any remaining “they are better without Blake Griffin” foolishness. Jeff Green and Luc Mbah a Moute are not going to get it done as your starting forward against elite teams. The Clips head out on a tough five-game road trip that includes stops in San Antonio and Golden State, they may be just 1.5 games back of Oklahoma City for the three seed but they’re going to need help to catch them.
6. Thunder (44-22 LW 6). Interesting stat from Marc Stein of ESPN via twitter: Since the All-Star break, Russell Westbrook is shooting 28.1 percent in the fourth quarter and overtime of games. Which speaks to the knock on OKC in the fourth: If you run a lot of Westbrook and Kevin Durant isolations (or simple pick-and-rolls), as good as those guys are that’s predictable, especially in a playoff series. And predictable is defendable.
7. Hornets (37-28, LW 10). The hottest team in the NBA, winners of seven in a row, and it’s being driven by Kemba Walker and their offense. The other guy really finding a groove is Nicolas Batum — doing that in a contract year is going to make him a very rich man this summer.
8. Celtics (39-27, LW 7). The loss of Jae Crowder for at least two weeks with a high ankle sprain could see Boston tumble a few slots down in playoff seeding, and down in these rankings. His “3&D” game is the glue that holds key lineups together and he is going to be missed with a heavy road schedule the next few weeks.
9. Heat (38-28, LW 8). Joe Johnson and Goran Dragic are developing a real chemistry, which is help driving the offense, wins, and them up the East standings. Interesting tests ahead this week against Charlotte and Cleveland.
10. Hawks (38-29, LW 9). They may have had a little defensive slippage but it remains that side of the ball that not only has this team in the playoffs but also makes them dangers in it. After a slump, Kyle Korver has found his three point stroke again (which is bad news for opponents).
11. Pacers (35-31, LW 14). They had a three-game winning streak, including one over the Spurs, until a loss on Sunday. Paul George has driven the offense, and he’s going to need to this week with a tough schedule of Boston, Toronto, and Oklahoma City.
12. Grizzlies (39-27, LW 11). I’m afraid I’m going to roll an ankle just writing about the Grizzlies. No Mike Conley or Mario Chalmers at the point for a few weeks, but Dave Joerger got his start in the D-League throwing together lineups and that experience seems to be paying off with some great coaching from him in recent weeks. Despite the injuries they are locked in as the five seed.
13. Pistons (34-32, LW 16). They are finding offensive balance and that has covered up an unimpressive defense and has them as the eight seed in the East as of this writing. Getting Stanley Johnson back healthy and into the rotation should help as they try to hold off a banged up Bulls team to make the postseason.
14. Trail Blazers (35-32, LW 12). Last week the Trail Blazers got their heads handed to them by the Warriors, but mostly they just keep beating the teams they are supposed to beat (Washington, Orlando) and are sticking in the playoffs. Tough week ahead with the Spurs and Thunder, both part of a week-long road trip.
15. Rockets (33-33, LW 17). They are tied with Dallas for the seven/eight seed in the West, but with a softer schedule than the Mavericks going forward Houston is expected to make the playoffs. Despite slow starts and shaky three-point shooting this team has enough talent to make it to the postseason.
16. Mavericks (33-33, LW 13). . They have lost five in a row due to a terrible defense, and now look at their next six games” At Charlotte, at Cleveland, Golden State, Portland, at Portland, at Golden State. Utah is two games back and if Dallas is going to hold them off they need to win a couple of those.
17. Bulls (32-32, LW 15). Now Pau Gasol is out at least a couple games with swelling on the knee, just as the Bulls get Jimmy Butler back. The Bulls are entering a soft part of the schedule (after Toronto Monday), if they are going to climb back into the playoffs and make it they need to go on a run in the next couple weeks.
18. Jazz (31-35, LW 19). While they are two games back of Dallas for the final playoff spot in the West, most prediction models have them making it because of a much easier schedule the rest of the way. But they need to pick up wins in places like Chicago and Milwaukee this week if they are going to play into late April.
19. Wizards (30-34, LW 18). They have lost five in a row and it’s becoming hard to imagine them climbing into the playoffs, especially watching that loss to Denver Sunday. They play the teams they are chasing in Detroit and Chicago this week, and if Washington is going to get back in the mix these are must-win games.
20. Bucks (28-38, LW 20). Bad news about O.J. Mayo breaking an ankle (at home, walking down stairs), but Giannis Antetokounmpo playing point-forward with Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker continues to show a lot of promise. And win games. Expect more this week with a comfortable homestand.
21. Magic (28-37, LW 21). They continue to show flashes — like the comeback against Golden State — and the experiment with Aaron Gordon at the five is very interesting. But it’s not translating to wins, and that likely doesn’t change this week with Charlotte, Cleveland, and Toronto on the schedule.
22. Nuggets (28-38, LW 24). Emmanuel Mudiay dropped 30 during the Nuggets win Sunday, and they went 5-2 on their recent homestand. This team isn’t making the playoffs, but Mike Malone has established a culture in Denver that will pay off next season.
23. Knicks (28-40, LW 23). The Knicks have won three of five — the last thanks to Jose Calderon’s game winner against the Lakers — but all that really does is hurt where Toronto picks in June. Phil Jackson may have wanted his man to succeed, but there is no way Kurt Rambis should coach this team next season.
24. Timberwolves (21-45,LW 22). Oklahoma City let Ricky Rubio take a three to beat them — and he did. The Timberwolves seem to be shooting the long ball a little better of late (including Zach LaVine) and if that is something they could sustain it would be huge for their offense going forward.
25. Pelicans (24-41, LW 26). Jrue Holiday deserves serious consideration for Sixth Man of the Year: He is averaging 16.3 points and six assists a game coming off the bench in New Orleans. He only comes off the bench to help limit his minutes after injuries, they have him out there to close games. I just don’t know if voters will recognize a player on a team struggling this much.
26. Kings (25-40, LW 25). The DeMarcus Cousins/George Karl feud continues to go Hatfields vs. McCoys and is something the front office has to address this summer. And not in a “we can patch this relationship up” kind of way. The Kings have dropped 9-of-10.
27. Lakers (14-52, LW 29). There is now officially less than one month left in Kobe Bryant’s career, still he pulled out a pretty impressive game with 27 points against Cleveland Thursday. Much to the chagrin of Lakers fans their team could pick up a couple more wins this week with just Sacramento and Phoenix on the board.
28. Nets (18-48, LW 27). If you��re looking for bright spots, Sean Kilpatrick has played well since Sean Marks picked him up. That’s about it. This team is still bottom four in both offense and defense, and is just hard to watch.
29. Suns (17-49, LW 28). They made it entertaining this week when Golden State played down to their level and Brandon Knight stepped it up for a night. Still, this feels like a team that could fall behind the Lakers in the standings due to their inept offense.
30. 76ers (9-57, LW 30). And now Jahlil Okafor is out for the season, hopefully this knee issue is as minor as the Sixers went out of their way to make it sound. This is a chance to run more stuff for Nerlens Noel the final weeks, plus the Sixers defense got them a win over Brooklyn last week and these “powers” face off again this week.