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Pelicans try to call timeout with 1.1 seconds left in overtime, don’t have one, lose on technical free throw

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Insert your own Chris Webber joke here.

The New Orleans Pelicans lost Saturday night in one of the most bizarre NBA endings anyone has seen.

With :07 seconds remaining in the game and up 136-133, New Orleans called its final timeout after rebounding a Devin Booker missed three. All the Pelicans needed to do was inbound the ball and hit their free throws, but Elfrid Payton held on to the ball too long and the Pelicans were hit with a five-second violation. It was Suns ball, and that opened the door for Phoenix’s Josh Jackson hit a three to tie the game.

After the make, someone on the Pelicans tried to call a timeout, but without any the referees conferred and New Orleans was assessed a technical foul. Booker hit the free throw to give the Phoenix Suns the lead for good in a 138-136 victory on Saturday night.

Booker finished with 40 points to go with 13 assists. Payton had 16 points, 16 assists and 13 rebounds in his fourth straight triple-double. Julius Randle had 21 points and 11 rebounds.

 

NBA Power Rankings: Houston rockets up to second spot with nine-game win streak

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Houston has Rocketed up to No. 2 in the rankings (see what I did there?) and right now look like the biggest threat to Golden State. They haven’t knocked the Bucks out of the top spot, at least not yet.

Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (51-17, last week No. 1). The defense has slipped since the All-Star break — 110.1 net rating, 16th in the league — but the Bucks are still 8-3 in that stretch because their offense has gotten even better. Everyone in Milwaukee is looking ahead, the Bucks in the Giannis Antetokounmpo era have never won a playoff series, that will change in the first round this year. But the second round… on paper this team is a contender but will Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe perform on the biggest stages. Good benchmark Sunday vs. Philly.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (42-25, LW 6). Winners of nine in a row, the Rockets look like the second-best team in the NBA again. A team that may be a threat to the Warriors (as much as anyone). Not just because Chris Paul is playing well (although he is playing closer to last year’s version), or because Clint Capela is healthy and running the floor hard again, but because they are defending well for the first time this season. Since the All-Star break, Houston has a defensive net rating of 106.4, seventh best in the NBA (better than Utah in that stretch). Can they sustain it? If so, the Warriors will be looking over their shoulders.

Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (48-20, LW 2). Toronto didn’t pick up Marc Gasol expecting an eventual Serge Ibaka suspension, but it helps with Ibaka missing three games after throwing hands with Marquese Chriss. This is not a team making a strong playoff push (5-4 since the All-Star break) but it’s hard to read them because Kawhi Leonard has gotten a lot of rest and because their playoff position has been essentially set (the No. 2 seed) removing urgency in games. One thing to bet on, Pascal Siakam is going to win Most Improved Player.

Warriors small icon 4. Warriors (45-21, LW 3). For one game, against Denver on the night the Nuggets could have tied the Warriors with a win, we saw what the fully-functional Death Star can do. It was awe inspiring. Then the Warriors turned around and lost to the Suns. Expect to see Kevin Durant (ankle) and other key players rest down the stretch, and expect more erratic performances, but does anyone doubt they can play like the Death Star team four times in any seven game series?

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (44-22, LW 4). Isaiah Thomas has struggled to fit in off the bench so far, which is why coach Mike Malone is shrinking his role and minutes (IT got a DNP-CD on Tuesday). Through nine games he’s averaging 8.6 points a night but is shooting 27.3% from three (where he takes 44% of his shot attempts), and even when he gets to the rim he’s only finishing 50% of his attempts. Monte Morris bounced back with a good game against the Warriors and coach Mike Malone will need to lean on him and not IT when the playoffs start.

Sixers small icon 6. 76ers (43-25, LW 5). Joel Embiid’s return Sunday had Philadelphia looking like a team that could come out of the East again — he had 33 and 12 in a key win over the Pacers, he anchored their defense and bullied the Pacers in the paint on offense. The Sixers need that Embiid to be a real threat. Big test Sunday at Milwaukee, a chance for both teams to make a statement they are contenders for the East crown.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (41-27, LW 11). They went a strong 3-1 on a West Coast road trip and looked like the team we expected coming into the season (don’t read into the loss to the Clippers, last games of a trip get mailed in sometimes). Much like it has been recently in the regular season, Boston’s chances in the playoffs will swing with how Gordon Hayward plays — when he scores in double digits off the bench, the Celtics become a much more dangerous team.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (41-26, LW 8). Russell Westbrook’s interaction with a fan in Utah got the NBA community finally talking about an issue that needed to be in the spotlight — there are too many fans crossing the line of what is said to players, and there is little the players can do about it. Westbrook got fined for it, but my guess is he’s good with that if it sparked a real discussion (which it did). The Thunder went 2-2 on their recent road trip and things do not get easier now, they have their next six games against playoff teams.

Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (41-26, LW 7). Coach Terry Stotts shot down a question about the playoffs, saying he is not thinking about matchups or seeding yet, but Portland wants to climb up to the four seed and have home court in the first round (they are tied with Oklahoma City for that spot as of this writing). Portland is 25-9 at home this season and 16-17 on the road — if they are going to advance pat the first round playing at home would be a big boost.

Clippers small icon 10. Clippers (39-30, LW 12). Wins over Boston and Oklahoma City recently show why this Clipper team is going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Spend time around the Clippers and you sense a confidence amongst this team despite all the roster changes this season — they like each other, they joke around in the locker room, and on the floor they know who they are and they play hard. Lou Williams is making a push for Sixth Man of the Year with his play of late, but the loss to Portland shows just how much Danilo Gallinari’s shooting and ability to create looks matters to this team (he rested that game).

Spurs small icon 11. Spurs (39-29, LW 13). Winners of six in a row (they needed that after a brutal rodeo road trip) and the streak has solidified their playoff position. The Spurs have done it with good defense — 105.1 net rating in this stretch, sixth best in the NBA — and enough offense from DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to make it all work (they combined for 61 Tuesday night to beat the Mavs).

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (43-25, LW 9). The Pacers need to play better (they have lost 6-of-9) if they are going to hold on to home court in the first round. The Pacers are tied with Philly for the 3/4 seed with Boston just two games back, but Indy has a brutal schedule coming up — Oklahoma City at home Thursday then 6-of-7 on the road including the Nuggets, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder again, then Celtics. It’s going to be tough to find wins in there.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (37-29, LW 10). With the softest remaining schedule in the NBA, it should have been time for Utah to make its push up the Western standings and maybe even get home court in the first round. Instead, they have lost 3-of-4 (including to Memphis and New Orleans). More concerning, Julius Randle and Jonas Valanciunas have punished the Jazz in the paint. Utah is still in the playoffs as the eight seed, but their lack of focus against teams they should beat is going to have them starting the playoffs on the road.

Nets small icon 14. Nets (36-33, LW 15). Winners of four in a row, the last one against Detroit to keep them ahead of the Pistons and in the six seed. Spencer Dinwiddie had 19 against Detroit, continuing his run of good play — he is going to get some Sixth Man of the Year votes. But now the Pacers have seven in a row on the road and every one of their remaining games this season except one (Lakers) is against a team over .500.

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (34-32, LW 14). Detroit has leaned a little too much on fourth-quarter comebacks lately, but they had won 8-of-9 before the loss to the Nets Monday. Still, because of the Nets’ schedule, expect the Pistons to finish the season as the six seed in the East. Give coach Dwane Casey credit for pulling this team together in his first season in Detroit, finding an offense that works, and getting this team into the postseason.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (33-33, LW 16). The Kings have had the most surprising season in the NBA, and that will mean Coach of the Year votes for Dave Joerger and Most Improved Player votes for De’Aaron Fox. Both well deserved (although neither are likely to win the award). However, the surprising season is not going to end with a playoff berth, the Kings are four out with 16 games to play. The key this offseason is to stick with the building plan and not to become impatient and make win-now moves.

Heat small icon 17. Heat (31-35, LW 21). Miami’s new starting lineup — Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Kelly Olynyk — has led the team to win 4-of-5 and hang on to the final playoff slot in the East. In the seven games they have started (91 total minutes) that lineup is +7.1 per 100 possessions, with a high powered offense leading the way. Miami has a tougher schedule than Orlando (one game back) and Charlotte (1.5 back) the rest of the way and will need more out of that lineup if the Heat are going to get an invite to the postseason dance.

18. Timberwolves (32-36, LW 20). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to be on a tear — in his last 10 games he’s averaging 32.9 points per game on 59.6 percent shooting overall, 48.3 percent from three (on 5.8 attempts a game), plus grabbing 12.8 boards a night. Is that going to be enough to get him an All-NBA center spot in a crowded field (Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis) — if he does it’s worth a cool $32 million on his rookie contract extension that kicks in next season (thanks to the Rose rule).

Magic small icon 19. Magic (31-37, LW 17). Playoff teams take care of business against lesser opponents, which is why the Magic are in danger of missing the postseason after their big push to get back in it. Orlando has lost 3-of-4 including the the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. The Magic struggle in tight games, which is part of the problem. I’d say they have a soft section of the schedule ahead, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Orlando. They just need wins.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (30-40, LW 18). Jrue Holiday being out is a big blow, he has been playing at a near All-NBA level and off the court has become more of the face of the franchise (after the Anthony Davis situation). Rookie guard Frank Jackson has stepped up with some strong games in Holiday’s absence, which is about all there is to root for if you’re a Pelicans fan.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (30-37, LW 19). The vultures are circling. Needing to make a playoff push the Hornets have instead lost 7-of-9, and now the rumors about Kemba Walker being unhappy and wanting out are growing louder (I had heard from sources right after the trade deadline he was frustrated the team didn’t make a move. Charlotte plays Miami in Sunday, one of the teams they are battling with for the last playoff slot in the East, they need that win.

Grizzlies small icon 22. Grizzlies (28-40, LW 24). Memphis’ first-round pick this year is top 8 protected, and considering it’s a softer draft (and the Grizzlies are just starting their rebuild) they wouldn’t mind letting Boston have it this year (and keeping it in the future). That means winning more now, and the Grizzlies have done just that, with victories in 5-of-7 (thanks to the best defense in the league in that stretch, a 100.3 net rating). Currently, they have the seventh-worst record in the league (85.8% chance they keep the pick) but keep winning and the odds Boston gets it climb fast.

Wizards small icon 23. Wizards (28-39, LW 23). Washington’s playoff chances are not dead — it is 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot (Miami) but they have a 10% chance of making up that ground and getting in, according to fivethirtyeight.com. That makes Wednesday’s game against Orlando and Friday against Charlotte critical — all three of those teams are in the same playoff chase, a couple of wins there and the Wizards chances get much more realistic. Lose both and they can book the hotel in Cabo for mid-April.

Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-36, LW 22). Luke Walton is going to take the fall for this Lakers’ season, which is not completely fair because the roster he was given to work with by management was flawed and needed perfect health and some breaks to make the playoffs. That didn’t happen (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are shut down for the season now). The question becomes, where do the Lakers get their next coach? Who can they get that LeBron James will respect and buy into? There is not an obvious upgrade just sitting on the open market, but this will be the first big test for management in a summer it has to nail.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (23-45, LW 25). Here’s what should have Atlanta fans pumped about the future: In their last 10 games, the Hawks are +5.9 points per 100 when Trae Young and John Collins are on the court together. That pair is the cornerstone of the future for the Hawks, and it’s looking promising. In the loss to the Nets last weekend, Young had his first triple-double and Collins added 33 points and 20 rebounds in the game. The Hawks are going to take a step forward next season, just watch.

Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (27-40, LW 26). The long season seems to be catching up with Luka Doncic. In his last five games he’s still averaging 20.4 points per game, but he’s shooting just 27.8% from three and 37.5% overall. Against San Antonio Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, 5-of-18 shooting, 1-of-7 from three, and even 1-of-9 from the free throw line. What you had to like is the frustrated Doncic went in and worked on his game immediately after that showing, vowing it would not happen again.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-52, LW 29). The Suns are not taking for Zion — they have won 5-of-7 and that includes beating the Warriors and the Bucks. The biggest key is that Kelly Oubre has been a fit, and averaged 18.9 points a game since put in the starting lineup, providing another shot creation and scoring option for Phoenix.

Bulls small icon 28. Bulls (19-50, LW 27). What has Zach LaVine done to step up his game this season? Get to the rim. Before his injury (his three seasons in Minnesota) LaVine took 33% to 35% of his shots at the rim, but this season that is up to 49% (stats via Cleaning the Glass). He can get to the rim whenever he wants and is finishing a solid 61% of those shots. He’s taking fewer midrangers also and has found a steady stroke from three (although he should get and take more corner threes, he’s deadly there).

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (17-51, LW 28). Collin Sexton was not the instant star some of the other guys in the last draft have been, but he has steadily improved throughout the season. Last week he broke Kyrie Irving’s franchise record for triple-doubles as a rookie. He’s got work to do, particularly on the defensive end, but he’s taking steps in the right direction.

Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (13-55, LW 30). Zion Williamson will return from injury to play in the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament for Duke. While have been fans and pundits calling for him to shut it down, it speaks to his makeup and desire that he wants to play and wants to win with his teammates, not just sit back and wait until he gets paid. With him, and particularly how Zion improves their defense, the Blue Devils have a real shot to win it all. What… you want to talk about the Knicks? Come on.

Report: Lakers coaching staff urged Magic Johnson to re-sign Brook Lopez and Julius Randle

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Lakers president Magic Johnson’s decisions last summer mostly backfired. (LeBron James signing with the Lakers was LeBron’s, not Johnson’s, decision.)

The Lakers let Julius Randle and Brook Lopez walk in free agency then signed Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley.

Randle is having a solid season for the Pelicans. Lopez is thriving with the Bucks.

Rondo, Stephenson and Beasley have collectively underwhelmed. The Lakers will almost certainly miss the playoffs.

The consequence in Los Angeles: Lakers coach Luke Walton will probably get fired after the season.

But maybe Walton tried to get himself a better roster.

Bill Oram of The Athletic:

Johnson ignored the pleas of the coaching staff that he retain Brook Lopez and Julius Randle.

Let’s assume this happened. Did the coaching staff have any unheeded roster advice that doesn’t look as good in hindsight? That probably won’t leak to the public. This is selective and self-serving.

NBA coaches generally must earn roster input. Walton hadn’t. The Lakers were bad last season with Walton coaching Lopez and Randle.

Though Randle seemingly made expected progress given his age, Lopez was really unlocked by Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer. That might not have happened with Walton in Los Angeles.

Nobody deserves more blame for the Lakers’ failures than Johnson, who assembled an ill-fitting roster abound LeBron. Johnson must do better this summer.

But listening more to Walton isn’t the simple answer.

Failure of LeBron’s Lakers this season piles on pressure to win offseason again

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LOS ANGELES — It was a surreal moment:

LeBron James — sitting in front of his locker with his feet in an ice bucket, more ice wrapped around his knees and lower back — was talking about something unthinkable in his previous 15 seasons: shutting it down early because he needs to think long-term.

“Well, I mean, that’s a conversation that would probably be had between me and Luke [Walton]…” LeBron said. “We didn’t take care of business, so you kind of look at the rest of the games, and the percentages of what’s going on there in the future, and see what makes more sense not only for me but the team itself as well.”

At one point Monday night in a crushing loss to the across-the-hall Clippers, LeBron grabbed his groin (the injury that sidelined him for 17 games) and asked out. That loss leaves the Lakers playoff chances are all but dead, which leads to reflection about what is best now for the 34-year-old LeBron.

Father time seems to be winning the race (as he always does). What we have not seen this season, particularly since his return from injury, is the LeBron who just takes over games. The guy who carried the Cavaliers to the Finals last season. LeBron has put up good numbers — he had 27 points on 18 shots against the Clippers Monday — but he has rarely been able to summon up his otherworldly dominant self that just wins games by force of will.

What the Lakers also lack is a team that can lift LeBron up when he stumbles — and that goes back to decisions made last July that prioritized maintaining cap space for the summer of 2019. From the start the Lakers called this a multi-year process and prioritized having the cap space to bring in another star next to LeBron over everything.

However, missing the playoffs in year one of the LeBron era was not part of the plan. It just piles on the pressure on the Lakers’ brain trust of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to repeat what they did last summer and win the offseason. Again.

If not, the LeBron experiment in Los Angeles likely ends without banners and parades.

•••••••••••••••••••

The Lakers won the last offseason on July 1, the moment LeBron announced he was coming to Los Angeles. LeBron didn’t drag out the process and listen to everyone’s pitches as he had in the past, he made his call early then hopped on a plane with his family to go on vacation.

What followed was a plan that had the NBA shaking its head — surround the Lakers’ new star with playmakers, not shooters as had been the case during LeBron’s eight straight trips to the finals. LeBron reportedly pushed for this, he wanted someone else (or someones else) to be able to create shots, he didn’t want to be the only focal point of the offense. Magic and Pelinka bought in.

Except that the Lakers also needed to preserve max cap space to potentially get LeBron a running mate in the summer of 2019, so they were only handing out one-year contracts. In their minds, that meant letting Julius Randle walk, now he is averaging 20.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game for the Pelicans, setting himself up for a healthy pay raise next summer. It meant letting Brook Lopez walk, and he has been critical in turning the Bucks into the NBA’s best regular season team.

It meant one-year deals for the free agents who had no choice but to take one-year deals — Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley. When you look at who has struggled for the Lakers during this recent critical stretch of losses, it’s those guys, not the young stars like Brandon Ingram or Lonzo Ball. The hand-picked veteran playmakers have let the Lakers down. Well, except for Michael Beasley, because he’s out of the league and playing in China.

•••••••••••••••••••

It’s a fun parlor game among league front offices, and especially among Lakers fans: The blame game with the Lakers for missing the playoffs again.

Luke Walton will be the fall guy and deserves a slice of the blame pie. His lineups have been odd, he’s leaned on veterans even when they have not been good, and when adversity hit he could not get everyone to pull the rope in the same direction.

Injuries certainly have played a big role, although every team battles injuries and the best keep winning (Denver’s starting five has played fewer than 200 minutes together this season, the Thunder have never had Andre Roberson, etc). LeBron himself is taking more heat than he has seen in years. In Cleveland (and to a lesser degree Miami), he got credit when the team won but the losses just rolled off his back and the blame hit teammates or the front office. Not in Los Angeles. Healthy or not, LeBron has not been as dominant.

However, the largest piece of the blame pie for this season has to go to Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka — the president and general manager, the brain trust of Lakers basketball operations. Their roster construction doomed this team.

They prioritized maintaining cap space for next summer to land another star.

Then, at the trade deadline, came the very public process of chasing Anthony Davis. Not only did the Lakers never really get close in negotiations, but every young Laker on the roster also heard their names in trade talks. As it does with virtually every young NBA player, it shook them. The players were questioning if LeBron wanted to play with them. The hustle and spark of the Lakers has not been the same since.

It has all come together to form a tidal wave of uninspired play that has the Lakers about to miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year, a franchise record.

But the Lakers have that cap space.

•••••••••••••••••••

The failure to make the playoffs both ramps up the pressure to bring in another star and makes it a little more difficult. Is there really an elite free agent looking at the Lakers situation from the outside right now — the roster construction, the bright lights of media scrutiny for the franchise, the impatient fan base — and thinking it is the most desirable place to be?

That said, the Lakers are still a draw. The chance to capitalize on the marketing opportunities in Los Angeles, and the chance to win with LeBron, will still tempt free agents.

Just maybe not the guys at the top of the free agent board.

Kawhi Leonard has been predictably mum on free agency, but Toronto has a chance to retain him. Plus, I had heard from sources as far back as Summer League that he didn’t like the idea of the brighter spotlight and drama that comes with playing next to LeBron on the Lakers, which is why he was leaning Clippers if he leaves Canada.

Kevin Durant called the media and environment around LeBron “toxic,” which is a clear indication he’s not thinking Lakers if (or more likely when) he bolts the Bay Area. (It should be noted Durant didn’t mean that as a shot at LeBron as much as the social media and noise around LeBron right now.)

Nobody thinks Klay Thompson is leaving the Warriors unless they lowball him, and with Durant eyeing greener pastures, there is no way the Warriors don’t max Thompson out, according to reports. He stays put.

Who is left? Is Jimmy Butler a fit next to LeBron? Kyrie Irving and LeBron have patched up their differences, but that’s very different from joining forces again. Kemba Walker might be the best fit of this tier of players, but does he want to leave Charlotte and come West?

The Lakers also are not out of the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. What happens in the East playoffs, particularly with slumping Boston, could have a big say in that team’s offseason moves and how much they would throw into a trade for Davis. Also, which team wins the draft lottery and the right to draft Zion Williamson can be a player in the trade talks. Most importantly, will the new GM of the Pelicans, whoever that may be, value the young Laker players differently than the former GM Dell Demps, who was unimpressed? Can the Lakers flip a couple of those young players into a player/players the Pelicans do want?

There are a lot of moving parts. This summer is going to be wild and unpredictable, and it’s going to take deft management to sail through those turbulent waters.

Do Magic and Pelinka have that in them?

Lakers fans need to hope they do. If the Lakers don’t dominate the off-season again, the surreal and disappointing moments around the team will only multiply.

NBA Power Rankings: Greek Freak knocking down threes helps Bucks back to top spot

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Milwaukee is back on top and look like a real threat in the playoffs, although the East remains a fascinating chase. It’s Golden State then everyone else in the West.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (46-14, last week No. 2). Don’t tell anyone, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is hitting his threes lately. In his last 15 games, the Greek Freak is shooting 39.5% from three on 2.9 attempts per game. The defensive strategy on the Bucks in the playoffs will be to lay 15 feet off Antetokounmpo and dare him to shoot, if he can take and make enough of those just to keep the defense honest, it’s a game changer. Of course, if the Bucks need a big three at the end of a game — say, against the Celtics — they would want Khris Middleton to take it.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (43-17, LW 1). The much-hyped starting five of the Warriors — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins — has struggled. In its last 8 games together, the lineup has a net rating of -15.1 per 100 possessions, and they have been bad on both ends of the court. The result is the Warriors having to dig out of holes seemingly every game. In his last five games, DeMarcus Cousins is averaging 14.6 points per game but on just 40.3 percent shooting overall and 20 percent from three. If you’re looking for chinks in the armor, Golden State has some.

 
Raptors small icon 3. Raptors (45-17, LW 3). Toronto appears locked into the two seed in the East (2.5 games back of the Bucks, 4.5 up on the Pacers), giving Nick Nurse a chance to experiment with lineups around Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin, to see where they best fit. Toronto made a statement by blowing out the Celtics on Tuesday night, showing off their combination of length, shooting, and versatility. Toronto looked every bit the title contender in the win. The kind of team Kawhi Leonard might want to stick around for.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (41-18, LW 7). Denver has found its defense again — in the last five games, they have allowed less than a point per possession (97.7 per 100), the best in the league over that stretch. That’s a good sign for the postseason — so is the fact Nuggets also are a matchup nightmare for the Thunder. In their three meetings this season OKC has led the games for 12 minutes total, Denver for 85 minutes. There have been questions about how far the untested Nuggets can go in the postseason, but in the win Tuesday night over the Thunder they looked like the second best team in the West.

 
Thunder small icon 5. Thunder (38-21, LW 4). This is better Thunder team than a year ago heading into the playoffs — Russell Westbrook has found his shooting stroke of late, Paul George looks like an MVP candidate, and there is no Carmelo Anthony. Of concern, however, is the fact Denver seems to have their number, which would be an issue in the playoffs The Thunder are the current three seed in the West but have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA, and Portland is only one game back — slip to the four seed and even if they beat Houston/Utah in the first round they are on the Warriors’ side of the bracket for the second round.

 
Pacers small icon 6. Pacers (40-21, LW 8). So much for the Pacers falling back without Victor Oladipo: They are 8-2 in their last 10 with a +11.1 net rating, mostly because their defense has been elite during the stretch. Nobody is a bigger Pacers fan the rest of the way than the Raptors, because if Indiana holds on to the three seed the path for the two seed (almost certainly Toronto) to the conference finals is much easier.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (39-22, LW 6). The Sixers have gone 2-1 without Joel Embiid since the All-Star break (sore knee), but they have not looked like the same team without their best player and anchor in the middle. Philly will be without him (and Boban) against Oklahoma City Thursday. That is followed by a big test against Golden State on Saturday — if Embiid is not back for that game it feels like the red flag on his health flies a little higher. They need Embiid back to help this team gel before the playoffs.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (37-23, LW 11). How much they can play him in the postseason is a different question, but in the regular season adding Enes Kanter to back up Jusuf Nurkic has led to an advantage in the paint and on the glass so far for Portland. Combined through three games they have averaged 37 points and 17.7 rebounds a game. Portland has started 3-0 on a 7-game road trip through the East, but Boston and Toronto are up next.

 
Celtics small icon 9. Celtics (37-24, LW 5). They have lost three in a row out of the All-Star break, including to Milwaukee and getting blown out by Toronto. More concerning, the Celtics have a bottom-10 defense in the NBA through their last 10 games — that was supposed to be their calling card, supposed to be Brad Steven’s strength, and the Celtics have not been good of late (they are fifth in the NBA defensively for the season). It’s hard to figure out where this team ranks in the pecking order of the East, but the last couple of games have not been promising.

 
Rockets small icon 10. Rockets (35-25, LW 9). James Harden’s 30+ points a game scoring streak ended the way it was always going to — against a team where he didn’t need to put up crazy numbers for them to win (he still had 28). If the Rockets are going to return to being the second best team in the West two things need to happen the rest of the way: Chris Paul needs to keep playing like he did against Golden State (23 points, 17 assists) and their defense needs to improve to at least league average levels if not better. Just a couple of things to watch.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (33-26, LW 10). We don’t question Utah’s ability to defend (even if they have been up and down of late on that end), but the offense… actually has been good recently. In their last 10 games, they have averaged 114.6 points per 100 possessions, sixth best in the NBA over that stretch and better than the Thunder or Bucks. Donovan Mitchell is attacking, and anyone who continues to think Rudy Gobert is just a defender needs to sit down and watch more Utah basketball — he has good hands and can score around the rim.

 
Clippers small icon 12. Clippers (34-28, LW 13). The Clippers are the 7 seed in the West, on pace to finish with 44 wins and they have a 74% chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com). Doc Rivers is doing that with unconventional lineups — starting Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac, two recent additions, and counting on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell off the bench to carry the day. And it’s working — but there are big tests in their playoff chase this week with games against the Kings and Lakers, two of the teams chasing Los Angeles.

 
Nets small icon 13. Nets (32-30, LW 15). After stumbling back into a fight for a playoff spot, the Nets seem to have righted the ship, winning 3-of-4 and they now have a four-game cushion over the nine-seed Magic. They’re going to be a playoff team. That said they have the fourth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA (second in the East) and that could leave them open to getting passed by surging Detroit for the six seed. They need more of the D’Angelo Russell we saw against Charlotte, where he scored the team’s final 12 points to secure the win.

Pistons small icon 14. Pistons (29-30, 16). Welcome to the playoffs Detroit — winners of 7-of-8 with the best offense in the NBA during that stretch (120 points per 100), the Pistons are the seven seed in the East. And, they have an easier schedule the rest of the way than anyone they are competing with for one of the final spots other than Orlando. They key has been Reggie Jackson, who in his last 10 games is averaging 19.2 points per game, shooting 44.8 percent from three, is dishing out 5.7 assists a night, and is +9.4 points per game. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will do their thing, but this team needs Jackson to be great to thrive.

 
Kings small icon 15. Kings (31-29, LW 12). Rookie Marvin Bagley has steadily improved all season starting to really find his groove, he had good games against the Warriors, Thunder, and Timberwolves combining for 72 points and 35 rebounds in those contests. The Kings dropped 3-of-4 on a tough road trip and things do not get easier now with the Bucks and then the Clippers, one of the teams they are trying to catch for the final playoff slots in the West.

 
Spurs small icon 16. Spurs (33-29, LW 14). A couple weeks ago the talk was about the Clippers slipping back and getting passed for a playoff spot by the Kings or Lakers, but now the Spurs look like the vulnerable team. San Antonio went 1-7 on the Rodeo road trip and now sit as the eight seed, just one game up on Sacramento. FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs an 81% chance of making the playoffs, but that seems high unless the Spurs start to defend a lot better. The Spurs are home again but with the Pistons, Thunder, and Nuggets coming to town there are not easy wins on the horizon.

 
17. Timberwolves (29-31, LW 21). Karl-Anthony Towns’ streak of 303 consecutive games played ended because of a car accident that left him in the league’s concussion protocol. The funniest thing this week was Ja Rule putting a curse on the Timberwolves, saying KAT was going to leave — that would be the same guy whose five-year max extension kicks in next season. If he’s going anywhere it’s not for a while, Minnesota is building around him. Now, if Ja Rule wants to curse Andrew Wiggins out of town that would be welcome among Wolves fans.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (28-34, LW 19). Orlando is on the doorstep of the playoffs thanks to an 8-3 run fueled by their defense, the best in the NBA over that stretch (although the loss to the Knicks Tuesday hurt). Not coincidentally, Orlando’s rise started when coach Steve Clifford stopped playing Mo Bamba — he has potential but is not ready — and Jonathan Simmons (since traded). Orlando has an easier schedule than everyone else chasing one of the final playoff spots in the East, they have a real shot.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (28-32, LW 17). Charlotte has lost 4-of-5 and subbing Miles Bridges in for Jeremy Lamb in the starting lineup after the All-Star break has not changed things. Charlotte sits as the eighth seed in the East as you read this, just one game up on Orlando and 1.5 on Miami, and the Hornets have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the East. It’s why fivethirtyeight.com gives the Hornets just a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Miss the postseason and Kemba Walker’s free agent decision this summer gets more interesting.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (27-35, LW 23). The Pelicans are limiting the minutes of Anthony Davis down the stretch — more interestingly they had some good play without him. The Pelicans beat the Lakers while Davis sat. A fourth-quarter run to make it just a one-point loss (after trailing by 17 earlier) against the 76ers came with Davis on the bench. They are still +7.5 per 100 better with Davis on the court since his return from injury, but the Pelicans are showing they can do some things without their star who doesn’t want to be there. Julius Randle continues to play himself into a big contract this summer.

 
Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (29-31, LW 20). Two ugly losses has led to renewed questions about Luke Walton’s job security (few around the league think he’s back next season) and a passive-aggressive LeBron James seeming current starting lineup with Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, JaVale McGee, Reggie Bullock and James is giving up 116.2 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the worst defensive rating in the league at 115.9. LeBron’s effort has been at the heart of those defensive issues. Before LeBron (and maybe Magic) goes blaming the young kids for the Lakers not making the playoffs, they may want to look at this chart.

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (26-33, LW 22). Miami has a lot of nice complimentary players — Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo — but no true star to create good looks and lead them in crunch time. The return of Goran Dragic doesn’t change that. The Heat are only 1.5 games out of the playoffs, but with the Warriors, Rockets, and Nets on the schedule this week it’s going to take some upsets to get them in playoff position.

 
Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (26-34, LW 18). Losers of five in a row, they were without Luka Doncic for the fist couple of games after the All-Star break, but he was back against Clippers Monday. Not that it mattered. Classy move by Doc Rivers at the end of Monday’s game to make sure that Dirk Nowitzki got a proper send-off from the Los Angeles fans.

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (24-36, LW 24). Bradley Beal leads the NBA in total minutes played this season, but with the Wizards all but out of the playoff chase you’d think Scott Brooks would start to ease up on him. You’d be wrong. He has played at least 41 minutes in each of the Wizards last four games, all losses. Washington is four back of a playoff slot and fivethirthyeight.com has them with a 7% chance of getting back into the postseason. Time to ease up on Beal.

 
Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (24-38, LW 25). Memphis wouldn’t mind winning enough — and getting some lottery luck — so that they lose their first-round pick to Boston this season in a down draft. Their actions at the trade deadline just made that hard. With where they stand now, the Grizzlies have a 3.8 percent chance of sending that pick to the Celtics, and they are not going to win enough the rest of the way to improve those odds much.

 
Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (16-45, LW 27). The Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season, having won 3-of-4 and having the best offense in the NBA in the month of February. When Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen are on the court together this has been a good offensive team, and that gives real hope for the future in the Windy City.

 
Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (20-41, LW 26). Trae Young continues to play well and put up numbers — 30 points against the Pistons, and 36 against the Rockets. But while we focus on his scoring his passing is still creating highlight after highlight and he — along with John Collins — are making the Hawks worth watching.

 
Knicks small icon 28. Knicks (13-48, LW 30). No tanking for Zion here, the Knicks have won 3-of-4 and have done in part thanks to Dennis Smith Jr., but the emergence of Mitchell Robinson has helped as well. The rookie big man had 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks against the solid front line of Orlando Tuesday night. I’m not sure he’s going to be the star some Knicks fans think, but he could be part of the rotation in whatever the Knicks will look like next.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (14-47, LW 28). Kevin Love, back from injury for five games now, looks like he is starting to get his legs back under him as Love scored 32 against Memphis and now has 66 points and 35 rebounds in his last three games. Love looking healthy the rest of the season will increase the odds he gets traded this summer (although those odds are not that high).

 
Suns small icon 30. Suns (12-50, LW 29). A surprising win in Miami ended a 17-game losing streak on Monday night, thanks to a balanced attack from their starters, led by Devin Booker with 20. If Suns fans missed the win because all their doing is watching Duke games, you can’t blame them.
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