Nothing juch is changing at the top or bottom of the rankings, but in the middle where things are tightly bunched up in each conference there is more moving around. The Clippers climb, the Wizards fall, and nobody is quite sure what to make of the Cleveland Cavaliers night to night.
1. Rockets (61-14, Last Week No. 1). Since the All-Star break, the Rockets have gone 17-1 with the fourth best offense and third best defense in the NBA, all of which has them coasting into the best record in the league. Chris Paul got some rest (after tweaking his hamstring) and sat out three games, then on Tuesday it was James Harden’s turn for a night off. With the No. 1 seed and Harden’s MVP locked up, expect a little more of this the last couple weeks of the season.
2. Raptors (55-20, LW 2). Don’t read too much into the Raptors loss at Cleveland last week — it was the second night of a back-to-back and third game in four days, their legs looked tired at the end. Still, Toronto has taken their foot off the gas a little having gone 3-3 in their last six with the third worst defense in the NBA during that stretch. They are allowed to coast a little, they have the No. 1 seed in the East all but locked up (plus they are now half a game up on the Warriors for the second best overall record). Interesting road tests at Boston and Cleveland this week.
3. Warriors (54-20 LW 3). The Stephen Curry MCL sprain in his knee is the first of the Warriors’ litany of injuries expected to bleed into the playoffs — Steve Kerr says Curry is out for the first round, and we believe him. The Warriors should still win a first-round series without Curry fairly comfortably, even if that means more Kevin Durant isolations/post-ups, and more midrange shots (both go up without Curry). However, Portland will be no second-round pushover and the Warriors could really use a healthy Curry by that point. Durant is expected back Thursday, with Thompson a couple games after that.
4. Celtics (51-23, LW 5). Kyrie who? The Celtics have won four in a row without the only guy on the roster who can be relied upon to create offense. The questions following Kyrie Irving’s knee surgery are when will he be back and do the Celtics really want to push him to get back for the first round? With no Gordon Hayward, no Marcus Smart (for the first round) and no Daniel Theis, will the Celtics take the long view and figure a potential first-round loss is a small price to pay for Irving to be healthy, especially considering this team is poised to be a force next season and beyond.
5. 76ers (43-30, LW 8). Markelle Fultz is back in the rotation after missing 68 games with a shoulder injury that evolved into a remade jump shot that he’s still gaining confidence in. Felt has been put into a sixth-man role as the ball handler and shot creator off the bench, something the Sixers need, and in his first game back he looked like a talented rookie with some good plays and some rough decisions. The Sixers are tied in the loss column with the Cavaliers for the three seed in the East and have a chance to pull away and secure that spot thanks to a soft schedule the rest of the way (much to Toronto’s chagrin, they don’t want the Cavs in the second round).
6. Trail Blazers (46-28, LW 4). A big win over Oklahoma City last weekend (because C.J. McCollum went off), plus victories like Tuesday over New Orleans (because Damian Lillard went off with 20 points in the fourth quarter), means Portland had a tight grip on the three seed in the West. It’s theirs to lose, they have a three-game lead in the loss column. That said, the Blazers will be without Lillard for a game (the birth of his son — congratulations!) and without Maurice Harmless, who will have his knee scoped on Wednesday. His return is up in the air.
7. Cavaliers (44-30 LW 10). Cleveland just looked flat Tuesday night once Kevin Love went out, and if he goes into the concussion protocol after a blow to the face that knocked loose a tooth they are going to have to get by without him for a few games. LeBron James was merely good Tuesday night, and with the Cavaliers porous defense that is simply not enough — he has to be MVP-level and lift the offense up for this team to have a chance against good teams. The Cavs are now tied in the loss column with the Sixers for the three seed, and Philly’s schedule the rest of the way is tissue soft. Cleveland has a showdown (and potential second-round matchup preview) with Toronto next Tuesday.
8. Jazz (42-32, LW 7). I don’t know if Donovan Mitchell is going to win Rookie of the Year, but the man has made a strong case. He put up 35 points in a loss to the Spurs in overtime — that’s four 35+ point games this season, only Carmelo Anthony has had more as a rookie (6) — and in crunch time he is the guy with his ball in his hands, being asked to create. Mitchell is averaging 20.3 points per game, and while his efficiency has dipped a little lately he is the guy driving the offense of a playoff-bound team. (I wish he and Simmons could be co-MVPs, they both are very deserving.)
9. Thunder (44-31 LW 6).. Carmelo Anthony’s well-publicized recent struggles in the clutch — two missed late free throws against Boston, then four missed threes in the crunch against Portland — lead to questions about just how effective he can be in the playoffs. Anthony has a below league average true shooting percentage (50.8) and he gets most of his shots this season on spot-ups where he is shooting just 36.8%. He’s going to get targeted in the playoffs when the Thunder are on defense. His ability to lift his game up could be key to the Thunder getting out of the first round and getting their crack at Golden State or Houston.
10. Pacers (44-31, LW 9). Lance Stephenson is a beast at home in the Fieldhouse — .536 true shooting percentage and hitting 33.1% from three, plus aggressive defense — but get him on the road and those numbers drop to .469 TS% (well below the league average) and 26.3% from three. He and all the Pacers need to step it up on the road — Tuesday’s win against the Warriors started a stretch of 6-of-7 on the road as they fight the Sixers for the 4/5 seed all while trying to hold off the Wizards right behind them.
11. Spurs (43-32, LW 12). The Spurs are on pace to win 47-48 games this season and solidly make the playoffs, which considering they have done it essentially without Kawhi Leonard is amazing. How did they do it? They took care of business against the teams they should beat — the Spurs are 25-6 against teams below .500 on the season. Gregg Popovic’s teams don’t beat themselves, and against lesser squads that is often enough. Tough schedule this week with the Thunder, Rockets, and Clippers.
12. Pelicans (43-32, LW 13). One of the most impressive feats of the season — the Pelicans swept their back-to-back-to-back. Anthony Davis is everything to this team right now, they struggle (especially offensively) when he sits, which is why he tried to tough it out with a sore ankle Tuesday night. He has been good enough to carry them to a likely playoff slot, but seeding is still up in the air and the schedule this week is tough with Cleveland and Oklahoma City.
13. Timberwolves (42-33, LW 14). Losses to the Sixers (understandable) and the Grizzlies (not remotely understandable) in their last two games has Timberwolves looking like they will be either the 7 or 8 seed in the West, which means a brutal first round (those losses also kept hope alive for the Nuggets and Clippers behind them, L.A. is just one game back in the loss column). Jimmy Butler is still on track to be back right at the end of the season or for the playoffs.
14. Clippers (40-34 LW 18). Los Angeles went just 3-5 on a stretch of 7-of-8 on the road, but Minnesota’s stumbles plus winning their last two (Bucks and Raptors) has Los Angeles still with a shot at the playoffs, just 1.5 games back of the Timberwolves (1 in the loss column). Without Blake Griffin the Clippers have truly become Lou Williams’ team — fantastic on offense but struggling on defense. They need to find a lot of wins coming up to get into the postseason.
15. Wizards (41-33, LW 11). A slimmer John Wall — he says he’s lost 10-15 pounds — should be back soon, and the Wizards could use him. Tuesday’s win over the shorthanded Spurs ended a streak where the Wizards lost 5-of-7 and in their last eight games the Wizards’ offense has been middle-of-the-pack in the NBA (Bradley Beal seems to have hit a wall and is not getting to the line like he was) while the defense is below average. Wall is the spark they could use with three winnable games up this week.
16. Heat (40-35, LW 15). Miami picked up a quality win Tuesday in a rare way — its defense held Cleveland in check (less than a point per possession for the Cavs on offense). Since the All-Star break, the Heat have won with offense, scoring 114 points per game (4th in the NBA in that stretch) and that has covered up the defensive flaws. The Heat could be in a good spot, with the Bucks stumbling to the end of the season, Miami could get the seven seed and draw a banged-up Boston in the first round.
17. Nuggets (40-35, LW 15).. Denver has gone 2-4 with one game left in a crucial road trip (at Oklahoma City is the last game) and that may not be enough to get an invite to the dance, although the stumbling Timberwolves have kept hope alive (the Nuggets and Timberwolves play twice in the final week of the season, Denver has to win enough to keep those games meaningful). It would help to get some stops to get the win — they have the fourth-worst defense in the NBA since the All-Star break and are 22nd in the NBA in their last 10.
18. Bucks (39-35 LW 18). In their last 10 games, the Bucks have the fourth-best offense in the NBA (113 points per 100 possessions) and the 24th ranked defense (112.3). That’s why they’ve stumbled of late with losses (their only quality win in the last 11 is against a banged-up Spurs team). Jabari Parker played 30 minutes in back-to-back games recently, a good sign, but in his last three games has shot a combined 7-of-28 (25%). Heading into a tight market as a restricted free agent who has been up-and-down since two ACL surgeries, this market might be tough for Parker (or, the Bucks may be able to re-sign him on terms they like).
19. Pistons (34-40, LW 20). Detroit has won 4-of-5 (the lone loss in OT to Houston) thanks to a defense that finally woke up and is allowing less than a point per possession in those games. Where was this defense the last couple of months, when they could have used it? The offense continues to just look more fluid with Reggie Jackson back at the point. All of this is not expected to save Stan Van Gundy’s job as GM (coach… maybe).
20. Hornets (34-41, LW 21). Winners of four in a row (they are with Detroit in the “too little, too late” club) thanks to some brilliant play from Kemba Walker, who has averaged 31.3 points per game in that stretch, shot 48.7 percent from three, and has been +17.5 per 48 minutes. Walker is a free agent in 2019 and said the new GM’s plans and if the team can steadily make the playoffs will determine if he re-signs with them. The new GM’s first major job is to sit with Michael Jordan and pick a direction — keep Kemba or rebuild?
21. Lakers (32-41 LW 19). Lonzo Ball is learning tough lessons about how the NBA adjusts. Early in the season, he couldn’t buy a three, so teams started playing off him and going under everything. Eventually, Ball found a comfort level on when he could get his three-ball off and his confidence in taking them, they started to fall and that was culminated with him basically beating the Spurs with threes back on March 3. Teams saw that and adapted, starting to chase him over picks and trail him, challenging his shot. In his last 10 games, he is 13-of-68 from three (19.1%). Both his three ball and finishing better around the rim are keys for Ball to work on and improve this offseason.
22. Knicks (27-48, LW 24). Phil Jackson is gone, but the drama is not (nor likely will it ever be from the Knicks with this ownership). As the Knicks stumble to the end of the season, there is more speculation about who will be the next coach there —it’s all but assumed around the league Jeff Hornacek will be let go — than anything else. The next coach, whoever he is, needs to get players to buy into a defensive system and play it with energy, and he needs an offensive system that doesn’t lead to more mid-range jumpers than threes (the Knicks are the only team in the NBA to do that this season).
23. Mavericks (23-51 LW 26). Dirk Nowitzki says he plans to come back for one more season in Dallas, which gives the Mavs something to sell and fill the seats while Dennis Smith Jr. (and the rest of their young core) develops. The Mavericks are suffering through their first 50-loss season since Nowitzki came to the team 20 years ago.
24. Kings (24-51, LW 22). Credit the Kings organization for handling very well the protests that have kept most fans out of their building for a couple of games now. The shooting of Stephon Clark 20 times in the backyard of the house where he lived has torn apart that community, and the Kings have done the right thing wanting to be part of the healing. Sacramento has home games Thursday (Indiana) and Saturday (Golden State) before heading out on the road, it’s not known yet if the protests will continue outside the games and block entrance to the Golden 1 Center.
25. Nets (23-51, LW 23). The toughest part of a rebuilding process — especially a long one, like the Nets are having to go through due to the sins of the past front office — is to build a culture of getting guys to play the right way despite the losses. Kenny Atkinson is doing that in Brooklyn and deserves credit for it. The Nets bust it on defense. They get their shots at the rim or from three (they take the third smallest percentage of their shots from the midrange in the league, behind only the Rockets and Clippers, via Cleaning the Glass). A foundation is being built for when they have draft picks again and can stockpile some needed talent.
26. Magic (22-51, LW 27). This may never have been a playoff team, even in the East, but you have to wonder how much better this team could have been if they had been healthy and been able to keep Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, and Terrence Ross on the court together. The Magic have a net rating of -0.2 — basically a .500 team — when those four are on the court together. Substitute in D.J. Augustin for Ross and they outscore opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. The Basketball Gods never let us really find out this season as they hit Orlando with a lot of injuries.
27. Bulls (24-50 LW 25).. The Bulls have dropped six straight, but the bigger disappointment is the injuries to Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen that have slowed the development of the young trio. Chicago has some nice young talent, will add more in this upcoming draft, and have finally started to play offense in the style Fred Holberg has wanted. There is reason for hope in Chicago, even if it may take a couple of years for it to all come together.
28. Hawks (21-53, LW 28). Dennis Schroder potentially facing felony battery charges just adds to the dark cloud over the team this season, and the challenges it faces with the German point guard. Taurean Prince and John Collins remain the bright spots as the Hawks continue their rebuild this offseason. The Hawks have lost 9-of-10 and will have one of the top picks in the draft come June.
29. Grizzlies (20-54, LW 29). The Grizzlies have an interesting off-season coming up. They will lose Tyreke Evans in free agency but pick up a high draft pick. The team will get Mike Conley back at the point — remember, they were 7-6 when he went out — and with Marc Gasol in the paint they could push for one of the last playoff slots in the West. But we don’t know what is up with the ownership situation, and with that we don’t know if there will be a decision from on high that it’s time to tear down and rebuild.
30. Suns (19-56, LW 30). Will the Suns want to keep Elfrid Payton after this season? His defensive effort and play have been unimpressive since the trade, and his offensive shooting percentages have fallen way off (in part because he’s being asked to create a lot more of his own shots rather than getting them through the flow of a ball-moving offense). Part of whether Payton is back will come down to money, but he has not paired well with Devin Booker and Phoenix is 1-17 since his arrival.