We have a new No. 1 after the Spurs controlled the style of play and beat the Warriors over the weekend (although all that game really proves is those two teams will have an epic Western Conference Finals). Elsewhere the Hawks are climbing, the Clippers are slipping.
1. Spurs (59-10, LW 2).The win over Golden State showed a few things the Spurs want/need to do against the Warriors in a seven-game series: Slow the tempo (12 below GSW average), use entire team to defend Stephen Curry beyond the arc, dominate the glass, hit their midrange shots, get a little lucky. Their defense sets the tone. Fun challenge at Oklahoma City this week.
2. Warriors (62-7, last week No. 1). A few guys are out, but they miss the injured Andre Iguodala more than any of them, especially when Golden State goes small. They need to go 11-2 the rest of the way to break the Bulls’ 72-win record, which Draymond Green seems to think they can do in their sleep. It’s not going to be that easy, starting with having to face the Clippers this week.
3. Cavaliers (49-20, LW 3). They lost two games last week that had fans and Tyronn Lue shaking their heads (Miami and Utah). The big issue is their defense has become pedestrian — 17th in the NBA in their last 10 games — and the offense doesn’t always bail them out. The recent losses has left Cleveland vulnerable to the next team on this list.
4. Raptors (48-21, LW 4). They are just one game back of the Cavaliers for the top seed in the East (and remember the Raptors have the tie breaker). Toronto’s guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan rightfully draw a lot of praise, but other guys have stepped up of late, such as Bismack Biyombo.
5. Thunder (48-22 LW 6). Russell Westbrook is second on my MVP ballot right now and he had three triple-doubles last week to secure that space. Add to that the Thunder defensive numbers have been better of late — not to mention they still have Kevin Durant (and he loves OKC) — and Saturday’s showdown with the Spurs will be interesting.
6. Hawks (41-29, LW 10). Your current three seed in the East, they have the second best net rating in the NBA over the last 10 games (San Antonio is tops), and it’s because their defense continues to shut teams down (second best in the NBA on the season). They have won five in a row, their offense is starting to look like last year’s, and you have to wonder if the Hawks can make it back to the conference finals if things go their way (meaning they are not on the Cavs side of the bracket).
7. Hornets (39-30, LW 7). After a couple stumbles they picked up an important win against the Heat and remain in the hunt for the three seed (1.5 back of Hawks) and for home court in the first round (1 game back of Miami). But the schedule gets tough, starting with the Spurs Monday then a heavy dose of road games to follow.
8. Heat (40-29, LW 9). They fell to Charlotte but beat the Cavaliers last week. Unlike those Cavs, the Heat are actually playing faster since the All-Star break (nearly five possessions a game) and the result has been a dramatically improved offense (8.6 points per 100 possessions). If they can sustain that come the playoffs (or if Chris Bosh returns) remains the question.
9. Clippers (43-26, LW 5). In their last two games they fell to Memphis with Zach Randolph and none of the rest of their core, then they lost to Anthony Davis-less New Orleans. They are 4-6 in their last 10, their defense has been a mess, and now it looks like Blake Griffin will not be back until next month.
10. Celtics (39-30, LW 8). They are simply not the same team without Jae Crowder, which may be why Celtics fans would rather focus on how they have a longshot chance at Kevin Durant this summer (he loves the city). Kelly Olynyk is back but is showing a lot of rust.
11. Pacers (36-33, LW 11).This is not a team securely in the playoffs in the East — thy are the seven seed but Chicago and Detroit are in a virtual tie for eight and nine just half-a-game behind Indiana. With a run of winnable games (Sixers, Pelicans, Nets) the Pacers need to create some space between them and the teams below them.
12. Rockets (35-35, LW 15). I don’t see Dwight Howard’s stickum situation as that big a deal, but he finds ways to hurt his own cause with his comments on a consistent basis. Houston is tied with Dallas for the final two playoff spots in the West, 1 game up on nine seed Utah, which means the Rockets need to find wins in a tough schedule this week against Thunder, Jazz, Raptors, and Pacers.
13. Grizzlies (40-30, LW 12). One of the most injury riddled teams in the league, they are stumbling but then turn around and still find ways to do things like beat the Clippers. They remain basically locked into the five seed, very likely setting up another playoff series against those Clippers.
14. Wizards (34-35, LW 19). Washington started the week beating Detroit and Chicago — the two teams they are chasing to make the playoffs — and have now won four in a row. Still, fivethiryeight.com has them projected with just a 17 percent chance to make the playoffs. That would change if they can do damage in a home-and-home with Atlanta this week.
15. Pistons (36-34, LW 13). They are 2-1 to start their nine-game homestand, and if the Pistons are going to make the playoffs this stretch is the time to do it. This week they have winnable but not easy games such as the Bucks, Hornets, and Hawks. It’s going to come down to the up-and-down Pistons defense.
16. Jazz (33-36, LW 18). They have won five of six and now stand just one game back of Houston and Dallas for the final playoff slot in the West. Gordon Hayward is playing through some painful plantar fasciitis, but they need his offense on the court to make the playoffs (fivethiryeight.com projects them with a 78 percent chance of getting in).
17. Bulls (35-33, LW 17). Jimmy Butler being back in the lineup — and making game-saving plays against Toronto — is keeping the Bulls afloat and in the playoffs chase in the East (fivethiryeight.com projects them with a 38 percent chance of getting in). That estimate may be low, the Bulls have winnable games this week (Kings, Knicks twice, Magic) but they need to be more consistent, they have blown these kinds of games recently.
18. Mavericks (35-35, LW 16). . They are in a playoff fight and Dirk Nowitzki is carrying them on his 37-year-old shoulders — he has 20 or more points in eight straight games. He’s had to play some center and did it well. He’s going to have to keep it up as the Mavs have a rough week with four road games including at Portland and Golden State.
19. Trail Blazers (36-35, LW 14). Portland has the worst defense in the NBA in their last 10 games, which is why they have won just three of them. They are not a playoff lock, just 1.5 games up on nine-seed Utah. Important game for them against Dallas this week.
20. Bucks (30-40, LW 20). While the focus has been on Giannis Antetokounmpo as the point forward, and with reason, in their last 10 games the Bucks offense has been middle of the pack in the league. What has made them a potential spoiler is they have the fifth best defense in the NBA over their last 10 games. All that size on the court works defensively.
21. Nuggets (29-41, LW 22). In their last 10 games the Nuggets are scoring 109.7 points per 100 possessions, sixth best offense in the NBA. That’s in large part due to the improved play of Emmanuel Mudiay and some help from D.J. Augustin. Do that for all of next season and we’ll be talking about them in the playoff mix.
22. Magic (29-40, LW 21). They are playing good teams close. The Magic are still losing those games, but they are playing team’s close, so that’s a little moral victory. This had been a good stretch if you have Victor Oladipo on your fantasy team.
23. Kings (27-42, LW 26). Their defense has not been impressive, but DeMarcus Cousins has been and that’s enough to get them wins over the likes of the Lakers and Knicks. This is going to be one of the more interesting teams to watch this summer, but if you’re expecting Cousins to be traded you’ll be disappointed.
24. Knicks (28-43, LW 23). Another team that will be fascinating to watch this summer — the pressure is on Phil Jackson to put the right pieces around Kristaps Porzingis. If he can find a trade that Carmelo Anthony would agree to Jackson will have earned those massive paychecks.
25. Pelicans (26-43, LW 25). Anthony Davis gets shut down for the season and the Pelicans promptly go out and beat the Clippers. Did not see that coming (neither did Doc Rivers). Jrue Holiday is playing well of late — they need to get one more point guard to platoon/back him up to keep his minutes (and injuries) in check next season.
26. Timberwolves (22-47,LW 24). Some teams tweak rotations this time of the season, but the Timberwolves will not — the develop the young stars train will continue through April. The question is what coach will be developing these young players next season.
27. Nets (19-50, LW 28). Looking for bright spots in Brooklyn? Bojan Bogdanovic has played fairly well of late. New GM Sean Marks is very smart (and Bogdanovic could be a trade piece). After that… good food in the arena.
28. Suns (19-50, LW 29). While they’re not suddenly playing well they are beating some of the other bottom feeders recently. Which will make Celtics fans happy if the Suns can finish with a better record than the Nets (they are tied) as Boston has Brooklyn’s pick this June.
29. Lakers (14-52, LW 27). Finally Byron Scott has said he’s going to let the young players close out games, even if they are playing poorly. I know there were ego/discipline concerns with D’Angelo Russell (he wasn’t being professional in his work off the court) but this still should have been happening from the start. This is how you develop players.
30. 76ers (9-60, LW 30). A lot of people are asking why Joel Embiid is all the way in Qatar again getting treatment on his foot? That’s a world-class facility for elite athletes built as part of Qatar’s bribes/efforts to get the 2022 World Cup, and it’s common for elite European soccer players to get treatment there. This is a top flight spot, we’ll see if it helps Embiid.