Despite a rash of injuries, the Milwaukee Bucks slide back into the top spot on the strength of their win over Houston. The Nuggets remain just behind the Warriors, and the Clippers are climbing fast.
1. Bucks (56-19, Last Week No. 2). The injury bug has hit the Bucks hard and at the wrong time of the year, with Nikola Mirotic, Donte DiVincenzo, Pau Gaol, and worst of all Malcolm Brogdon all out for extended periods (Brogdon into the playoffs, where they will need him after the first round). Even with all that, the Bucks showed against the Rockets Tuesday night that they were the better team — the MVP battle between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo never materialized, but Milwaukee had a superior game plan and the players to execute it better. Eric Bledsoe earned that new contract money in that one.
2. Warriors (50-23, LW No. 1). There are games in the past few weeks where you see the Warriors focus their defense — holding the Thunder and Pacers each under 90 points, keeping the Timberwolves to 40% shooting overall and 25% from three — and then there are games where they just seem disinterested again. In their last 7 games the Warriors have a top 10 NBA defense, but for the season they are 15th (outside the range that normally wins a ring… although the Warriors feel like an exception). That ugly loss to Dallas on Saturday was a reminder just how much Stephen Curry matters to this team, he sat out to rest and they fell apart.
3. Nuggets (50-23, LW 3). Consider the progress: Rather than a late-season discussion of “can the Nuggets grab the 8 seed” they have already have 50 wins, have secured a playoff spot, and have a shot at the one seed. This week goes a long way toward deciding that seeding. Back-to-back Thursday/Friday against Houston than Oklahoma City a tough one. Bigger yet in the chase for first is the game against Golden State next Tuesday — Denver needs that one.
4. Rockets (47-28, LW 5). Houston got a taste of playoff basketball from Milwaukee — a James Harden-focused defensive game plan, the referees letting them play — and there were bright spots to take away. Clint Capela had a strong game (and when his man cut off Harden’s drives he did a good job of sliding to the rim). Chris Paul was dropping defenders with his moves. However, the Rockets will need that and more in the postseason. Another good playoff test Thursday night against Denver.
5. Raptors (52-23, LW 6). If you’re looking for positives as Toronto heads toward the playoffs, there is this via NBA.com’s John Schuhmann: Kawhi Leonard leads the NBA in baskets to tie or take the lead in the final minute of a game with eight this season (he is 0-of-3 from three). He’s Toronto’s closer, he can get to his spots and hit contested shots, and late in close playoff games that’s a must. Toronto went 2-2 in the four recent games Kyle Lowry missed with ankle issues.
6. 76ers (47-27, LW 4). Philly won six in a row, including a dramatic win over Boston a week ago, and they looked like a team figuring it out… then they lost to the Hawks and Magic (two teams playing better lately, but still). Philly’s defense has not been as good in recent weeks and that combined with the lack of depth makes them vulnerable to teams they should beat (let alone good ones).
7. Trail Blazers (46-27, LW 9). I fear this may be the highest Portland gets in these rankings, after losing Jusuf Nurkic for the season (and still being without CJ McCollum, maybe until the start of the playoffs. That’s Portland’s second and third best players (you can debate the order) and the guys who relieve the pressure when defenses trap Damian Lillard. Portland is currently tied with Houston for the 3/4 seeds in the West, the question is can they hold off the Clippers (2 games back) and the Jazz (2.5 back) and keep home court advantage in the first round?
8. Jazz (44-30, LW 10). They have won 7-of-8, with the best defense in the NBA and the second best offense — and a +19.1 net rating — in those games. But before we get to high on “the Jazz are back” know that this run has come against a very soft schedule, this is simply the Jazz doing what they should against lesser opponents. Still, it provides momentum and confidence. The easy part of the schedule continues this week and with the Jazz just 2.5 games back of home court in the first round.
9. Clippers (45-30, LW 11). The Clippers are the hottest team in the NBA, having won 11-of-12 and in those dozen games Los Angeles has the second best offense in the NBA. Lou Williams gets a lot of credit for that, and he’s the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year (again) for a reason, but the big difference of late has been Danilo Gallinari. In his last 10 games, Gallo is averaging 24.5 points per game and is shooting 44.8% from three on 5.8 attempts per game.
10. Spurs (43-32, LW 11). San Antonio has been a top=10 NBA defense at home this season, but get them on the road and they are 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse and fall into the bottom 10 in the league (that balances out right now to 20th in the NBA in defensive rating overall). We saw it Tuesday night, when Kemba Walker went off on the Spurs in Charlotte and led the Hornets to a win. Why is this concerning? The Spurs are going to start the playoffs on the road somewhere.
11. Celtics (44-31, LW 7). Remember when the Celtics blew out Golden State and Kyrie Irving said a cross-country plane flight and a chance to air things out with Brad Stevens put the Celtics on the right track? Boston is 4-5 since then, and now have a four-game losing streak. Last season Boston’s playoff run was built on elite defense, but in its last 10 games the Celtics are 26th in the NBA (and it’s gotten worse during the last five). We shouldn’t be more than 70 games into the season and asking if this team can pull it together in time.
12. Pacers (45-29, LW 12). Indiana knocks down threes when they take them, shooting 37.2 percent from beyond the arc as a team, fifth best in the NBA. However, they take the second fewest a game (25.4). Will that change in the playoffs, where they seem destined to face Boston in the first round? The Pacers will need to generate more offense and without Victor Oladipo to create looks and the three ball seems a reasonable way to do that.
13. Thunder (42-31, LW 13). Oklahoma City has dropped 5-of-6, and part of that is how their MVP candidate Paul George has slumped of late. This is the second season is a row George has struggled after the All-Star break. Last season he shot 38.5 percent overall (32.4 percent from three) after the ASG. This season it’s 38.6 percent shooting overall and 32.9 percent from three. Russell Westbrook is putting up numbers but he’s not as efficient, the Thunder need peak PG13.
14. Magic (37-38, LW 18). Winners of six in a row, with the victory over Miami on Tuesday night the Magic are in the playoffs as you read this. By half a game, but they are in (the Magic and Heat are tied in the loss column). Back at the trade deadline, the Magic decided to keep Terrence Ross and make a playoff push rather than rebuild, and now that seems brilliant. While fivethirtyeight.com gives Orlando an 80% chance to hold on to a playoff spot, it’s not that simple when you look at the schedule. This week Orlando has road games at Detroit (another team the Magic trail by just half a game), Indiana, and Toronto.
15. Heat (36-38, LW 14). The Heat are strongly worse at home than on the road this season, having gone 17-21 in AmericanAirlines Arena. That came back to bite them on Tuesday with a loss to Orlando. If the Heat are going to climb back into the postseason they need wins against Dallas and New York the rest of this week before a home-and-home with Boston. Justise Winslow‘s absence has further hurt a struggling offense, plus the Heat just can’t stay healthy enough for Erik Spoelstra to have regular rotations.
16. Nets (38-37, LW 16). D’Angelo Russell and company need to keep finding enough offense to go with their top-10 defense (the last five games, anyway) if the Nets are going to hold on to a playoff spot. While they are currently the six seed, they are just 1.5 games up on the nine-seed Heat and every remaining Brooklyn game is against a playoff-bound team (including the Heat on the final game of the regular season). Fivethirtyeight.com gives Brooklyn a 79% chance of making the playoffs, but to live up to that will require a little more offense down the stretch.
17. Kings (37-37, LW 17). The Kings are not making the playoffs, but with eight games to play the goal of a .500 season remains in their grasp. It just won’t be easy. The Kings are on the road for 5-of-8, and they have five playoff teams in that mix. Nice feel-good story by the Kings recently signing former Sacramento State guard and local kid Cody Demps to a 10-day contract.
18. Pistons (37-37, LW 15). I am rooting for a first-round Detroit vs. Toronto matchup, the Dwane Casey revenge series. Detroit took the season series 3-0. For the Pistons to make any postseason noise they not only need a huge series from Reggie Jackson, but they also need a team where their postups with Andre Drummond are more efficient than they are against most teams. With Marc Gaol and Serge Ibaka the post-ups may be difficult against Toronto, but that would be an entertaining series.
19. Hornets (35-39, LW 22). Kemba Walker just will not let this team go away. He had 38 points against the Spurs Tuesday night, 11 of them in overtime, and was a one-man offensive force just when the Hornets needed it. Charlotte is going to need a lot more of the Kemba show down the stretch. The Hornets are 1.5 games out of the playoffs and have their next four games (and 6 of the 8 remaining) on the road. Plus there are five current playoff teams in that eight. If Charlotte can find enough wins, the final game of the season against Orlando could be interesting.
20. Timberwolves (33-41, LW 19). It looks like Ryan Saunders is going to keep the head coaching job, in part because he is getting credit for unleashing Karl-Anthony Towns. (KAT is playing so well he is in line to make third team All-NBA, which would mean a $32 million bump in his contract extension with Minny.) The real question is who will be he next GM and how can they upgrade around Towns on a roster that Thibodeau bogged down with expensive veterans and the max contract/anchor that is Andrew Wiggins.
21. Lakers (33-41, LW 24). While the Lakers play out the string, talk in Los Angeles has moved on to “Who is next?” As in, who is taking over for Luke Walton after they let him go? While the Lakers eyed big names, Doc Rivers is staying at his end of the Staples Center hallway and Rick Carlisle likes working for Mark Cuban. While Mark Jackson’s name comes up, the smart money is on Tyronn Lue — a former Laker player and someone respected by LeBron James — getting the job.
22. Pelicans (31-45, LW 20). Now Jrue Holiday has been out since March 7 and now has undergone surgery to repair a “core muscle injury” (what used to be called a sports hernia). Just for fun, here are Anthony Davis’ numbers since the All-Star break (when his minutes got cut following his trade request): 16.9 points per game with an impressive 60.8 true shooting percentage, 8.4 rebounds a game and a +11 net rating in 21.1 minutes a night.
23. Grizzlies (30-44, LW 23). Jonas Valanciunas has been an interesting fit in Memphis, essentially stepping into the role of Marc Gaol after the Toronto trade. He has averaged 19.3 points and 10.2 rebounds a game, but he doesn’t seem to have the same chemistry with Mike Conley (the pair have a -4.7 net rating together in 270 minutes shared on the court). Remember, JV has a $17.6 million player option this summer, he may look at the market and decide to take the bird in the hand and opt-in for another season.
24. Wizards (30-45, LW 21). Interesting situation brewing with Bradley Beal: He leads the league in total minutes played with 2,823 (181 more than second place James Harden… that’s a lot) and with the team just playing out the string it would make sense to scale back and ease up on the team’s best player. However, if Beal can make an All-NBA team — and he is seriously in the mix for third team, talking to voters — then this summer he qualifies for a supermax extension of an estimated $199 million over four years (added on to the two years that would remain on his contract, locking him up for six seasons). The Wizards already maxed out John Wall, does Ted Leonsis have the stomach to do it with Beal, too?
25. Hawks (27-48, LW 25). How hot is Trae Young? He has four straight games now with at least 20 points and 10 assists (that includes dropping 33 and 12 on the Pelicans Tuesday night. Four other players have had a streak of at least three 20-10 games this season: James Harden (twice), LeBron James, D'Angelo Russell, Russell Westbrook (twice). That’s some select company.
26. Mavericks (29-45, LW 26). Luka Doncic has had back-to-back triple doubles and that gives him seven on the season. Here’s the list of other players who had that many triple-doubles their rookie season: Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Ben Simmons. Impressive company to keep. As hot as Trae Young has been to finish the season, Doncic’s consistency since Day 1 will win him Rookie of the Year.
27. Bulls (21-54, LW 27). The Bulls showed what an entertaining team they could be, but with Wendell Carter Jr. already shut down for the season and both Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr. battling nagging injuries, the spark is gone. The Bulls would be wise not to risk anything and either shut those other two guys down as well, or at least scale them way back. Next season should be interesting in Chicago, with Lauri Markkanen ready to go from the start (hopefully coach Jim Boylen will let up on the reins and let this team put up more threes).
28. Cavaliers (19-56, LW 29). It’s about the bright spots for Cleveland going forward, and Collin Sexton has proven to be one of those in recent weeks. He is averaging 24.6 points per game and shooting 50.8% from three on 6.3 attempts per game in his last 10 games. Cleveland is still just 3-7 in those games, but heading into the draft there is reason for hope going forward (plus maybe Kevin Love will be healthy next season).
29. Suns (17-58, LW 28). Devin Booker put up 59 the other night in a loss, with the Suns fouling late to get the ball back so he could take a three and get to 60, and the Jazz countering by fouling him when he touched the ball so he couldn’t take a three. While Zion Williamson is the obvious prize of this draft, if the Suns land in the No. 2 spot and can get Ja Morant, that seems a good fit.
30. Knicks (14-60, LW 30). If this were the old lottery system, the Knicks heavy tanking in recent weeks to secure the worst record in the NBA would have been smart with Zion Williamson hanging out there. As it is the Knicks have a 14% chance of the top pick and a 27.4 percent chance of drafting in the top two. The Knicks continue to project confidence about free agency this July, we will see if that is justified.