Golden State’s thrashing of Denver Tuesday night was the latest reminder that when the Warriors care and flip the switch they have gears no other team in the NBA has. They move back into the top spot in this penultimate power rankings of the season, and they should probably finish on top for good reason.
1. Warriors (52-24, Last Week No. 2). Golden State flipped the switch and dominated the Nuggets (behind DeMarcus Cousins’ best game as a Warrior), reminding everyone what they can do when they care. With the win, the Warriors are all but assured to have home court through the West playoffs (and in the Finals, unless they face Milwaukee or Toronto). As Mark Medina told me in this week’s PBT Podcast, the Warriors don’t feel all that threatened by anyone in the West this season. The biggest problem for Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry is having to listen to Draymond Green crow about that Michigan State win all week.
2. Bucks (58-20, LW 1). Milwaukee has been the best regular season team in the NBA, but the questions linger: Can they execute like this in the playoffs? Can Eric Bledsoe/Kris Middleton/Brook Lopez keep up this level of production deep into the playoffs and the pressure mounts? What happens when they run into a team with a stretch big that pulls Lopez out of the paint? Fair questions. The counter: Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing less than 33 minutes a night, what happens when that jumps to 40? I will tell you, a lot more of what he did to the Nets:
3. Raptors (55-23, LW 5). It was kind of the ideal week for Toronto — four wins and Kawhi Leonard got his “load management” rest in two of them. With little to play for, expect more rest for a lot of Toronto players this week. The Raptors are locked into the two seed, which doesn’t tell them who they will face in the first round yet but does set up a second-round showdown with the Sixers that will be an amazing series.
4. Rockets (49-28, LW 4). To help bolster James Harden’s MVP case, here’s a fun stat from our old friend Matt Moore of The Action Network: Harden scored more points this past January than any player had in January during the last 50 years. Harden’s scoring alone is not going to win them playoff games, the fact the Rockets have the second-best defense in the NBA in the last 15 games will. The Rockets have a relatively easy last 5 games (just two playoff teams) but they need wins to beat Portland to the three seed and avoid Utah in the first round and being on the Warriors’ side of the bracket.
5. Nuggets (51-25, LW 3). Denver is not a good matchup with Golden State (but who is?), and combine that with a Denver offense stumbling down the stretch and you get one ugly loss. That loss, however, does not define their season. The Nuggets should finish as the No. 2 seed (although Houston is just 1.5 games back in third) and this team should be able to advance to the second round in its first playoff appearance. That’s the goal, and that’s a strong season for one of the youngest teams in the league. However, like in that Warriors’ game, there are some tough lessons to learn ahead.
6. 76ers (49-28, LW 6). Philadelphia is becoming an increasingly trendy pick among league watchers to come out of the East, because the ceiling is so high with that starting five (and they get more minutes together in the postseason). That lineup — Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid — is +17.6 per 100 this season, with strong play on both ends of the court. Hopefully all this rest for Embiid has him ready to go for the playoffs (he is sitting out this three-game road trip), they need him. Big showdown with the Bucks on Thursday.
7. Jazz (47-30, LW 8). The hottest team in the NBA, they have won 10-of-11 and in that stretch have a +16.3 net rating. However, before you get too high on the Jazz, in those 11 games the Jazz have played just one playoff team (Brooklyn). Utah has three more games against non-playoff teams before closing with the Nuggets and Clippers. The Jazz would love to hang on to the five seed and (potentially) get the banged-up Trail Blazers in the first round (although that 4/5 seeding means the Warriors in the second round).
8. Trail Blazers (49-28, LW 7). Who is fading? Portland is 3-1 in the games since Jusuf Nurkic went down injured, and every one of those games was without C.J. McCollum, too. Portland is just half a game back of the Rockets in the race for the 3/4 seed, and the Blazers only have two of their remaining games against playoff teams (a home-and-home with Denver Friday and Sunday). Getting the three seed means avoiding a surging Utah team in the first round, plus it keeps them on the other side of the bracket from the Warriors.
9. Clippers (47-31, LW 9). Part of what makes the Clippers a tough regular season matchup for teams is they bring two of their three best players off the bench. “You want to find your best defenders on Lou (Williams) as much as you can, but your rotation has to change for that to happen,” Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff said last week. “You’re getting guys out quicker so they can get back in and find that matchup. That’s the pressure that they put on you and I think is brilliant by Doc.”
10. Celtics (46-32, LW 11). Gordon Hayward has looked better the last couple of weeks, his best stretch as a Celtic. Hayward is averaging 13.8 points per game of 53.1% shooting in his last five games and grabbing 6.2 rebounds a game, although he is still not shooting well from three (25% in those games). The Celtics remain tied with the Pacers in the battle for home court in the first round when those two teams meet, they go head-to-head Friday and that could go a long way to deciding where the playoffs start for Boston.
11. Spurs (44-33, LW 10). The Spurs have stumbled of late — losing 4-of-7, with Derrick White coming back to earth — and that has them in a tie with the Thunder for the 7/8 seed, and neither of those teams wants the Warriors in the first round. San Antonio’s toughest remaining game is Wednesday night (in Denver on a back-to-back) then after that they have three non-playoff teams. The Spurs can’t afford let-down losses like the recent ones to the Kings and Hornets if they are going to get the seven seed.
12. Thunder (44-33, LW 13). Russell Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game was extraordinary, even by his standards, and it came when the Thunder needed it as they had lost 7-of-9 and found themselves in a battle with the Spurs to avoid the eight seed (and the Warriors in the first round). OKC has a tougher closing stretch than San Antonio and they could use more Westbrook (and a more efficient Westbrook at that), but what they really miss is pre-All-Star Game, MVP level Paul George. The Thunder are essentially in the playoffs the rest of the way.
13. Pacers (46-32, LW 12). Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis has a strong case for Sixth Man of the year, as evidenced by this stat (hat tip Justin Kubatko): Sabonis has 25 double-doubles coming off the bench this season, the most by a reserve since Detlef Schrempf in 1991-92. The Pacers and Celtics will face off in the first round and the only question remaining is home court for the 4/5 series — the teams are tied and face each other Friday night.
14. Pistons (39-38, LW 18). Blake Griffin deservedly gets a lot of credit for making Detroit’s offense work this season, and while Andre Drummond hasn’t always been a comfortable fit next to Drummond he has been steady. Another stat from Justin Kubatko: Drummond has 37 games with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds this game, putting him in a select company of players who have done this (Moses Malone did it four times, most recently Kevin Love did it). While not completely safely in the playoffs (Detroit is 1.5 games up on nine-seed Orlando), the Pistons look like a playoff team this year under Dwane Casey. Probably as the six seed.
15. Magic (38-40, LW 14). Fivethirtyeight.com projects the next three teams in this ranking (Orlando, Miami, and Brooklyn) all to finish at 40-42, bringing it down to tiebreakers to see who gets into the playoffs and which one of those teams stays home. Orlando went 2-2 on its recent road trip, including beating Miami (and Indiana), but with the tough-out Hawks and Celtics on the schedule this week, Orlando needs to win at least one of those to make sure they have a chair when the music stops.
16. Heat (38-39, LW 15). Miami has struggled at home more than it should all season (18-21, and their two games left there are the Celtics and 76ers), and in recent weeks the Miami offense has sputtered. The Heat have scrapped and clawed to stay in the playoffs, but now they need some upset wins with Boston, Toronto, and Philly on the schedule in the next week. It’s the ultimate test of a scrappy team.
17. Nets (39-39, LW 16). Caris LeVert started the season so hot he got far-too-early most improved player buzz, but his severe leg injury set his season back. Of late he has started to find that form again, including having 24 points and 6 assists in a loss to the Bucks. “From a confidence level and a physical level, that was the Caris from the beginning of the year,” Coach Kenny Atkinson said after that Bucks game. Smart move by the Nets locking up Atkinson and his staff with new contracts.
18. Kings (38-39, LW 17). This will be the 13th consecutive season the Kings miss the playoffs, the longest active streak in the NBA and tied for the second longest all-time — yet this season has to be considered a success. Sacramento was expected to be high up in the lottery, instead they are pushing .500, found a style of play and identity, and found a future star in De’Aaron Fox. This is a team heading in the right direction and it has been a season to build on. The playoff streak will be in danger of ending next season.
19. Lakers (35-43, LW 21). The Lakers finally decided to shut LeBron James down for the season with six games left, which was probably later than it should have been considering his groin injury was clearly not fully healed. The Laker defense was middle-of-the-pack for the NBA season, but strangely for a LeBron team it was the offensive end that was the problem — the Lakers were bottom 10 and the pieces did not fit. Turns out, shooting matters. Who knew?
20. Hornets (35-42, LW 19). Reality caught up with Charlotte on the road, where they have dropped three straight and in practice have fallen out of the playoff chase in the East (three games back with five to play). Kemba Walker is still in the mix for one of the final All-NBA guard slots, but missing the playoffs doesn’t help his cause (if he makes it and the Hornets can offer a super-max contract it makes it more likely he sticks around this July).
21. Timberwolves (34-43, LW 20). Ryan Saunders seems likely to keep the Timberwolves head coaching job — Karl-Anthony Towns and other players love him — but it might be wise to get an experienced defensive coach next to him. Under Saunders, the Timberwolves have struggled on that end, starting with KAT and his level of interest. Since the All-Star break, Minnesota has the worst defense in the NBA, and that can’t continue into next season if this team wants to get back into the playoff mix.
22. Wizards (32-46, LW 24). And there was much rejoicing in Washington, for Ernie Grunfeld is out as the Washington GM. Fans had been calling for his head for years. But whoever takes this job has got an Everest of challenges to climb, starting with: Do you trade Bradley Beal and start a rebuild, or re-sign him (possibly to a supermax extension if he makes All-NBA) and build around him? You get to make that call while managing the ego and expectations of owner Ted Leonsis. Plus, the anchor of the John Wall contract will hang around the new GM’s neck for four years.
23. Hawks (28-49, LW 25). Atlanta is making an impressive surge late in the season, and for playoff teams needing wins for seeding (or just to get in) this is not the team they want to see on the schedule right now. Trae Young 24.2 points and 8.9 assists per game in March, with a solid 55.8 true shooting percentage — the kid is special (but now Hawks fans, he’s not winning Rookie of the Year, sorry).
24. Grizzlies (31-46, LW 23). The trio of Mike Conley, Jonas Valanciunas, and Avery Bradley pass the eye test for me — together they look like they could do some damage. On the season the Grizzlies are -3.6 per 100 possessions when those three are on the court together (less than 200 minutes, so small sample size), but you have to wonder what they might have been able to do under different circumstances. Once the season ends the Mike Conley trade rumors will start to ramp up as we head toward the draft.
25. Pelicans (32-46, LW 22). Was their an uglier, more disappointing season in the NBA than the one in the Big Easy? The breaks did not go their way, and then Anthony Davis torpedoed the second half of the season. In their last 10 games, the Pelicans have a -11.3 net rating, which puts them in the neighborhood of the Bulls and Cavaliers in that stretch (not the company they want to keep). The GM search is underway and that person will sit down at his new desk and find a massive to-do list.
26. Mavericks (31-46, LW 26). Dallas’ first-round pick in the upcoming draft belongs to Atlanta but is top-five protected. Currently, the Mavericks are tied for the 6/7th worst record in the NBA. Dallas currently has an 8.2% chance of jumping up to the No. 1 pick, and a 34.2% chance of landing in the top four and keeping the pick. Which means basically a two-thirds chance of losing it. With Luka Doncic a year older and Kristaps Porzingis joining him on the court next season, this might be the Mavericks’ last shot at a high pick for a while.
27. Bulls (21-57, LW 27). Chicago heads into the NBA Draft Lottery with at least 12.5 shot at landing Zion Williamson (the Bulls will have at best the fourth worst record in the NBA). The Bulls have a lot of needs heading into the draft, but there are things to be positive about: I am curious what a Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. front line looks like. Put Zach LaVine and Otto Porter on the wings around them and this becomes an interesting squad next season.
28. Suns (18-60, LW 29). Devin Booker is putting up insane numbers recently, scoring 59 against Utah, 50 against Washington, and 48 against Memphis — but Phoenix lost all three of those games. Mostly because their defense remains dreadful. That certainly is a team problem, but it will fall more on Deandre Ayton to become a good rim protection and stop some of those buckets in the paint. The No. 1 pick had an impressive rookie season on offensive end, but we know what he needs to work on this summer.
29. Cavaliers (19-59, LW 28). The interesting question heading into the draft for Cleveland: What to do if the Cavs land the No. 2 pick? Ja Morant is the second best player on the board, but the Cavaliers have been very happy with how Collin Sexton and how he has found his game the second half of the season. Do they draft Morant and try to get the two guards to mesh? Draft R.J. Barrett or another wing? Trade the pick? It may be a moot issue, but it’s the kind of thing a GMs need to be prepared for.
30. Knicks (15-62, LW 30). Mitchell Robinson’s potential as a defensive force in the paint is the one good thing about the grinding end of the season in New York. As Justin Kubatko noted on Twitter, Robinson is averaging one block every eight minutes he is on the court, which is the third highest block rate by a rookie ever. Whatever is getting built in New York in the coming years, he can be key part of it in the paint.