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NBA Power Rankings: Warriors remind everyone why they should finish on top

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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.

 
Warriors small icon 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.

 
Bucks small icon 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:

 
Raptors small icon 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.

 
Rockets small icon 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.

 
Nuggets small icon 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.

 
Sixers small icon 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.

 
Jazz small icon 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).

 
Blazers small icon 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.

 
Clippers small icon 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.”

 
Celtics small icon 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.

 
Spurs small icon 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.

 
Thunder small icon 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.

 
Pacers small icon 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.

Pistons small icon 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.

 
Magic small icon 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.

 
Heat small icon 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.

 
Nets small icon 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.

 
Kings small icon 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.

 
Lakers small icon 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?

 
Hornets small icon 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.

 
Wizards small icon 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.

 
Hawks small icon 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).

 
Grizzlies small icon 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.

Pelicans small icon 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.

 
Mavericks small icon 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.

 
Bulls small icon 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.

 
Suns small icon 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.

 
Cavaliers small icon 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.

 
Knicks small icon 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.

NBA Power Rankings: Bucks move back into top spot

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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.

Bucks small icon 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.

Warriors small icon 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.

Nuggets small icon 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.

Rockets small icon 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.

Raptors small icon 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.

Sixers small icon 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).

Blazers small icon 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?

Jazz small icon 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.

Clippers small icon 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.

Spurs small icon 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.

Celtics small icon 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.

Pacers small icon 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.

Thunder small icon 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.

Magic small icon 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.

Heat small icon 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.

Nets small icon 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.

Kings small icon 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.

Pistons small icon 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.

Hornets small icon 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.

Lakers small icon 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.

Pelicans small icon 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.

Grizzlies small icon 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.

Wizards small icon 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?

Hawks small icon 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.

Mavericks small icon 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.

Bulls small icon 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).

Cavaliers small icon 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).

Suns small icon 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.

Knicks small icon 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.

Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid in middle of everything leading Sixers past Celtics

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Joel Embiid in middle of everything leading Sixers past Celtics. Bench play? Philadelphia don’t need no stinkin’ bench play.

When GM Elton Brand made the mid-season trades to bring in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, he sacrificed depth to create the best starting five in the East: Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Butler, Harris, and Joel Embiid. For one night at least, it worked the way Brand envisioned it — the Sixers starters scored 110 of the teams’ 118 points, were +11 on the night, and propelled the Philadelphia to a confidence-boosting win over Boston, 118-115.

Joel Embiid was the instigator in the middle of it all. Before and after the game.

It’s not just the 37 points and 22 rebounds, although the Sixers don’t win without that performance. Embiid also was the guy who elbowed Marcus Smart on a screen — then Smart lost his cool, wildly overreacted in shoving Embiid to the floor, which earned Smart an ejection (and a fine in the next 48 hours).

Boston was never the same after that.

Embiid scored the next eight points after the ejection, and the fired-up big man was a force the rest of the way. Embiid bullied his way inside — determined to show he can score on Al Horford — and in doing so led an attacking style that got Philly to the free throw line 46 times in the game. Also late in the game, Boston ran plays to get Kyrie Irving switched onto Embiid and both times Embiid got the stop, including one impressive recovery and block.

Then in the final minutes, the Sixers turned the keys over the Jimmy Butler — he had two critical threes, then a dagger jumper along the baseline followed by a meme-worthy celebration.

After the game, Embiid stayed the center of attention with this interview where he said he was the most unstoppable player in the NBA (somewhere James Harden’s eyebrows raised).

If you’re a Sixers fan, there were certainly things to like out of this win, particularly down the stretch. They now have a matchup that works against Boston — they went right at Kyrie Irving’s defense and bullied him inside, then shot over him. Having Smart on the court would help Boston, but it doesn’t completely solve that problem. With this Sixers starting five, there is no place to hide Irving.

(Not that a meeting of these teams in the playoffs is any kind of lock, the Sixers are looking like the three seed, Boston will be four or five, meaning if they meet it will be the Eastern Conference Finals. And if that happens both teams will have evolved since this game.)

That said, there are Sixers questions still, specifically can they lean on the starters like this in the playoffs (Simmons played 42 minutes, Embiid 41)? There are no back-to-backs and more rest is built in, but it’s still asking a lot and at points Philly is going to need something from its bench. With staggered minutes for the starters the weaknesses can be hidden better in the postseason, but the bench still needs to step up. It’s a puzzle for Brett Brown to put together.

What we know now is this: These starters make the 76ers a threat and can take them a long way in the playoffs.

2) James Harden drops 57, Rockets still lose in overtime to the Grizzlies. Interesting stat of the night: James Harden has seven 50+ point games this season, but the Rockets are 4-3 in those games.

The one-man Harden show was back and it carried the Rockets again — he scored 28 of his 57 points on the night in the fourth quarter and overtime, and had 15 during a 17-2 Rockets late run. That included three free throws to tie the game and force OT after a ridiculously bad foul by Justin Holiday. The kind of foul that will give J.B. Bickerstaff an ulcer.

However, the Grizzlies are scrappy, and as an organization they are trying to win — they have to give a pick to Boston one of the next three years, they would rather do it this season. The pick is top 8 protected this draft, and currently Memphis has the seventh worst record in the league. If the standings do not change Memphis has a 14.2 percent chance of giving up the pick, but make up the 1.5 games it is behind Washington and that jumps to nearly 40 percent. Memphis wants to win games.

Jonas Valanciunas got the memo and helped them do that. He grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled with 0.1 left in overtime, sinking the game-winning free throw (he finished with a career-high 33 points).

Houston remains the three seed, but they are just half-a-game up on four seed Portland. Houston needs some more wins to make sure they don’t slide down the standings (and into the Warriors side of the bracket).

3) Toronto beats slumping Oklahoma City in overtime. It was the night Oklahoma City celebrated Nick Collison, retiring the jersey the ultimate glue guy who put the franchise first.

The Thunder could use a guy like that right now.

Since the All-Star break, the Thunder are now 5-10 with the worst offense in the NBA over that stretch (104.6 offensive net rating). That was on display Wednesday in a loss to Toronto, where the Thunder had a 100.9 offensive rating.

Toronto led most of the way and was in control, complete with Kawhi Leonard seeming annoyed by Paul George‘s defense.

At home in OKC you knew it was coming — Thunder made a run and ultimately tied the game with 4.8 seconds to go on a driving Russell Westbrook layup.

It forced overtime, but there Paul George fouled out, the Raptors scored nine in a row, and that was the ballgame.

With the loss, the Thunder fell into a three-way tie with the Spurs and Clippers for the 6/7/8 seeds in the West, with OKC technically being the eight seed based on tiebreakers. That would mean Golden State in the first round, the worst possible outcome for Oklahoma City. There are 10 games left in the Thunder season and they need to find wins fast or it could be a quick postseason for a team that just a couple of months ago was talked about as potentially the second best team out West.

Jonas Valanciunas hits game-winning free throw, spoils James Harden’s 57-point night (video)

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The Grizzlies blew a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter and a five-point lead in the final 30 seconds of overtime. James Harden scored 57 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter and all 10 of the Rockets points in overtime.

But Jonas Valanciunas saved Memphis from total collapse. He drew a foul on his putback and hit the game-winning free-throw with 0.1 seconds left to give the Grizzlies a 126-125 win Wednesday.

NBA Power Rankings: Familiar faces from Bay Area back on top

Associated Press
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A familiar face is back on top of the power rankings, the Golden State Warriors, who flipped the switch in a couple of key games (Houston, Oklahoma City) to remind us of their status as the team to beat. The Bucks only slide down one spot.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (48-22, last week No. 4). Steve Kerr called last week’s loss to the Suns “a wake up call” for Golden State, and the team responded with wins against Houston and Oklahoma City, holding each of them to less than 40% shooting. All without Durant. Andrew Bogut is back and in his debut showed he can give the Warriors a few quality minutes behind DeMarcus Cousins (once Boogie gets back from his mild ankle injury) and that’s all they need from the Australian.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (53-18, LW 1). Malcolm Brogdon is going to be out for a while, likely into the first round of the playoffs (at least), and the loss to Philadelphia on Sunday showed how much the Bucks will miss him. Brogdon is both a threat to shoot the three (he’s shooting 42.6% from deep but takes fewer than four per game) and his straight line drives to the rim to create shots. The loss to the Sixers may be an anomaly but it was the realization of the worst playoff fears for the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo went off for 52 (a chunk of that late) but the other Bucks shot 31% from three and didn’t step up under pressure. That can’t happen in the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (47-22, LW 5). The Nuggets still have a shot at the best record in the West (they are just half-a-game back of the Warriors and are tied in the loss column) but they are going to have to get some tough wins on the road to do it — 6 of Denver’s next 8 games are on the road, and the teams left on its schedule have a much higher winning percentage than who Golden State faces (the teams play each other April 2). However, the win in Boston shows the Nuggets can get the needed wins. They just need more plays like this Nikola Jokic game-winner against Dallas.

 
Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (46-25, LW 6). Philadelphia is 6-1 when their dream five start the game. That lineup is besting teams by 17.2 points per 100 possessions when on the court together, dominating on both ends. However, the key in the postseason will be finding lineups with bench players that work while starters rest (and are staggered in with the bench). Against the Bucks Sunday the fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic was +12 in just under 11 minutes. The Sixers need more of that.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (45-26, LW 2). Houston has won games where it shot poorly recently (except against the Warriors) because the team is finally defending well again — the Rockets have a defensive rating of 107.7 in their last 15 games, eighth best in the league in that stretch. The Rockets need those wins to hang on to the three seed, Portland is just 1.5 games back and seeds 3-8 in the West are separated by just 3.5 games. Winners of 11-of-12, the Rockets have 4-of-5 coming up on the road, but only two of those games are against playoff teams.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (50-21, LW 3). Toronto is 12.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Kyle Lowry sits and the Raptors offense falls apart (the offense scores less than a point per possession when Jeremy Lin is on the court). It was evident in the loss to Detroit, but the Raptors thought Lowry would only be out two games until Michell Robinson fell on his ankle Monday, now he’s out for a while longer, although it doesn’t look to be a severe ankle injury. Toronto could use him in the upcoming home-and-home against Oklahoma City. The Raptors remain pretty much locked in as the two seed in the East, injury or no.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (43-28, LW 7). Boston GM Danny Ainge called his team “inconsistent” right now, and that’s pretty spot on. They have won 5-of-7 including thrashing the Warriors, but losses to the Clippers and Nuggets raised questions about how far they can really go. Another concern is the struggles of the starting lineup in recent weeks. With plans to rest Al Horford a few games as well as other starters down the stretch (with an eye toward having them fresh for the playoffs), will Boston make up the half game it is behind Indiana and get home court in the first round?

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (42-29, LW 11). After that dreadful rodeo road trip, we kind of wrote the Spurs off, but that’s always a mistake. San Antonio has won nine in a row and the Spurs have a shot at home court in the first round of the playoffs (San Antonio is the five seed, just 1.5 games back of Portland and home court). In the last 9 games the Spurs have a +9.1 net rating. While the offense has been good during the streak (top 10) it is the defense — which has struggled much of the season — returning to elite status that has made the big difference (103.1 defensive net rating in those 9 games, third best in the league).

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (43-27, LW 9). Not having C.J. McCollum for at least a week — and likely longer, McCollum told NBC Sports he’s taking it week by week but he doesn’t have a timeline — will make it challenging for Portland to hang on to the four seed and home court in the first round. San Antonio, OKC, Utah, and the LA Clippers are all within two games of the Blazers. Portland leaned heavily on its starting five to win games, now it needs more out of Jake Layman and Rodney Hood to win enough to keep home court.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (41-29, LW 13). Winners of four in a row and with the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, as long as the Jazz take care of business they will climb higher than the seven seed, and home court is not out of the question (although it’s a long shot at two games back with 11 to play). The Jazz are doing it with their old formula: They have the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games and held a few teams to less than a point per possession, then they are getting just enough offense from Donovan Mitchell and company. But that pedestrian offense remains the thing holding them back.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (42-30, LW 10). Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes, and Steve Ballmer and the Clippers understand when you have something good you don’t let it go, so he locked Rivers up (no Lakers in Rivers’ future). The Clippers have been a well-run basketball operation for a few years now and extending Rivers fits with that. Another something that works in L.A.? Lou Williams. He has made a strong Sixth Man of the Year push and shots like this help.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (44-28, LW 12). The Pacers keep playing great defense to stay in games, then getting spurts of offense that spark dramatic comeback wins. Any fan of basketball has to admire the grit and tenacity with which this team plays. Nothing speaks to the fight in these Pacers like coming from 19 down against the Thunder, setting up the Wesley Matthews game winner.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (42-29, LW 8). Oklahoma City has lost three in a row — because their offense has gone missing, having the second-worst net rating in the league during the last 10 games — and is now tied with San Antonio for the 5/6 seed in the West, with the 7/8 seeds (Jazz, Clippers) both just half a game back. Why should those four bunched-up teams concern Thunder fans? Because OKC has the toughest remaining schedule of any West playoff team (starting with a home-and-home against Toronto starting on Wednesday) and the Thunder could fall farther down the standings in the West.

 
Heat small icon 14. Heat (34-36, LW 17). They have won 7-of-9 against a tough schedule, including beating the Pistons and Hornets in the past week. The wins have come in bunches with Bam Adebayo starting and Hasaan Whiteside coming in with energy off the bench, that rotation has helped the Heat defense. All those wins has kept Miami 1.5 games clear of Orlando for the final playoff slot in the East, but the Heat are on the road this week (and the Magic have a very soft schedule the rest of the way).

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (36-34, LW 15). Would the real Detroit Pistons please stand up? Please stand up? Is it the team that got blown out by the Nets and Heat, and Monday lost to the Cavaliers? Or, is it the team that beat Raptors twice this month (Dwane Casey revenge games)? The Pistons are inconsistent because Reggie Jackson has been off his game (Blake Griffin has struggled with his shot of late, too). That loss Monday in Cleveland was the first of a five-game road trip for Detroit.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (37-36, LW 14). The Nets have gone 1-3 to start a seven-game road trip (although the win was a dramatic comeback against the Kings that could turn the trip around). The blame for the stumbles falls on the team’s offense, third worst in the NBA over the last 10 games. Specifically, it falls on their guards — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and company have gone cold of late — at least until Russell in the fourth quarter against the Kings Tuesday. The Nets have slid down to the seven seed and are just three games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. Add to that they have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and Brooklyn needs to find some wins to stay in the dance.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (34-36, LW 16). Sacramento’s long-shot bid to make a run to the playoffs took a punch to the gut Tuesday night with the worst loss of the team’s season: blowing a 25-point fourth quarter lead to the Nets. Sacramento’s playoff dreams were put on their death by a recent 1-3 road trip where all the losses were in games the Kings were within five points in the final five minutes but couldn’t close it out. The Kings’ goal now should be to finish the season 8-4 and be above .500 for the campaign for the first time since 2006 (or at least 7-5 and get to .500).

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (33-38, LW 19). The Magic have the softest schedule of any team fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but that only helps if the team wins games — Orlando is 3-4 in its last seven with losses to Cleveland, Memphis, and Washington. The Magic are still just 1.5 games back of the heat and have won the first two of a five-game homestand, but that has to be just the start. Orlando needs more out of Terrence Ross and the bench to make this run.

 
19. Timberwolves (32-39, LW 18). Minnesota is turning heads with the amazing play of Karl-Anthony Towns sparking an offensive resurgence, but the team is 3-7 in its last 10 because it has the worst defense in the NBA by far in that stretch, a defensive net rating of 121.2. On the bright side, rookie forward Keita Bates-Diop is looking like he could be a rotation player.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (31-42, LW 20). Elfrid Payton has had a triple-double in five straight games. The only other players in NBA history to do that? Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan. That’s elite company. Of course, the Pelicans lost the first four of those, in part because they are one of the worst clutch teams in the NBA (15-26 in games within five points in the final five minutes). Which is why the win over Dallas in OT Monday was a nice change of pace.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (30-41, LW 23). Bradley Beal has thrived without John Wall next to him and, barring a collapse, will be just the 12th guard in NBA history to average 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Beal is averaging 29.9 points per game since the All-Star break and had a pair of 40-point games last weekend. Beal could make the All-NBA team, which shows how impressive he’s been in spite of the team’s struggles.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (31-39, LW 21). Charlotte’s playoff chances are not dead yet, but the prognosis is not good. Sunday’s loss to Miami, where Charlotte scored just 75 points, likely did them in. The Hornets are three games back of he Heat with 12 to play and likely need to go at least 8-4, maybe 9-3, the rest of the way to get an invite to the dance. Not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (28-42, LW 22). Given some extra run since coming over in the Marc Gaol trade, Jonas Valanciunas has reminded teams he can get them some points. Valanciunas has averaged 17.9 points on 58.2% shooting plus is grabbing 8 rebounds a game since joining the Grizzlies. He has a player option on his contract for next season for $17.6 million and it seems likely he will pick that up (unless he’s looking for a longer deal with more security, which is not likely out there). Expect his name to come up in trade talks, but wherever he plays next season he has value.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-40, LW 24). Los Angeles has clearly let go of the rope on the rest of this season — they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in their last 10 games, with an -8.1 net rating over that stretch. That’s why the focus in Los Angeles has already shifted to the off-the-court moves from the team this summer, starting with who the next head coach will be. That’s not decided, the only thing we know is it will not be Doc Rivers. By the way, LeBron James can still do this.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (24-48, LW 25). Despite the losses piling up and Hawks fans watching NCAA Tournament games this weekend on scouting expeditions, the Hawks remain one of the most entertaining teams to watch down the stretch. Trae Young is shooting from anywhere in the building and is electric to watch, John Collins is going to be a stud, but maybe the most fun part is 42-year Vince Carter still making plays and being a part of the action.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (28-42, LW 26). Luka Doncic is going to win Rookie of the Year and continues to impress, but his game has slipped a little as the long season has ground him down. It has been most evident his high 13.4 turnover ratio in his last 10 games (his assist ratio is still at 20%). Congrats to Dirk Nowitzki for passing Wilt Chamberlain for sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (20-52, LW 28). Chicago has played poorly of late, even for them. On one end their defense has been one of the worst in the NBA, while on the other end Lauri Markkanen has gone into a scoring slump. The only time that changed was the one game the Bulls could have stood to lose, their defense showed up in a win over the Suns, meaning the Bulls almost certainly will enter the draft lottery in the No. 4 slot.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (17-55, LW 27). The Suns picked up a key loss Monday in Chicago. Going into that game the Suns had the third worst record in the NBA but had won 6-of-10, while the Bulls were the fourth worst record. If the Suns won that game the Bulls would have had a real shot at one of the three worst records in the league, with each of those teams getting a 14% chance of Zion Williamson, er, the top pick in the draft at the lottery. The Bulls won and now are three games better than the Suns and will not make that up, meaning the Bulls will have a 12.5% shot at Zion. Not a huge difference, but when you’re talking about a franchise player every little bit helps.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (18-53, LW 29). Maybe Monday is the Cavaliers’ night. This past Monday Cleveland beat playoff-bound Detroit, the Monday before that they beat Toronto, but they lost the three games in between those contests. Collin Sexton has come on as a scorer lately, having scored at least 23 points in six straight games as he starts to feel more comfortable with the NBA three (and that means fewer midranges).

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (14-57, LW 30). Knicks fans, don’t just watch Duke and drool at the possibilities in the NBA draft, don’t forget to check out Ja Morant from Murray State, the kind of scoring point guard New York might want. Also, D’Andre Hunter from Virginia is the kind of defensive wing who can get out in transition and hit threes who would look good with the Knicks next season. Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech also would be a good fit.