This is the dog days of the NBA season. While there are fun games (Cleveland vs. Houston on Sunday), more likely you see up-and-down performances from the top teams. That may continue for a couple weeks. The most interesting race may be the one for the final two playoff spots in the East, with six teams in contention.
1. Hawks (47-12, Last Week No. 3). Are the Hawks back? Are they through what coach Dwane Casey called a “malaise” mid-season? They have won four in a row, doing it mostly with a stout defense (which is back). but we’ll get a better answer this week with Houston and Cleveland on the docket. Dominique Wilkins gets his much-deserved statue outside the Atlanta arena Friday.
2. Warriors (46-11, LW 1). They have won three of their last four and that one loss to Cleveland I think is a bit of an outlier — the Warriors missed shots in the paint they normally hit (it wasn’t all Timofey Mozgov). With 10 of 12 at home starting Wednesday, look for Golden State to go on a run.
Grizzlies (42-16, LW 2). Memphis traded wins with the Clippers last week. When you watch this team late in games and see them struggle to get good shots at times, you begin to wonder if they will be able to execute well enough late in games come the playoffs. Make no mistake, they are a contender for the title, but they have flaws.
4. Rockets (41-18, LW 6). They are 11-4 without Dwight Howard so far and in that stretch James Harden has pulled neck-and-neck with Stephen Curry for the MVP race (Harden may even be in the lead, by a beard). Terrence Jones is back and he’s been huge, averaging 18.5 pints and 10.5 rebounds in his past four games (I never got why some in Houston were down on him).
5. Trail Blazers (39-19. LW 7). They have won three in a row and that includes a come-from-behind win Friday against Oklahoma City. This team loves to come from behind (they have done it twice this season to the Thunder from down at least 13) and that makes them a real threat in the playoffs. They are my sleeper out of the West.
6. Cavaliers (37-24 LW 4). LeBron James had an off day Sunday. It happens, don’t start drawing big-picture conclusions from one regular season game. This team has still won 18-of-22 and Friday night we get an Eastern Conference Finals preview against the Hawks.
7. Clippers (39-21, LW 5). Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan continue to prop up the Clippers, who have held on to the fifth spot in the crowded West despite Blake Griffin being out. The Clips are 5-3 against playoff teams without Griffin, which is impressive and something to build on.
8. Mavericks (39-22, LW 8). Not sure Rajon Rondo has shown enough on offense in Dallas to get Rick Carlisle to trust him with the play calling, but I also don’t think that spat means Rondo is gone for sure this summer. They need his defense to make a playoff run (plus they need Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons to get healthy).
9. Thunder (33-27, LW 10). Russell Westbrook has been playing like an MVP with three straight triple doubles, but that blown lead against Blazers and loss to Suns has them in a fight for the eight seed. New Orleans is just half a game back (tied in the loss column) and Phoenix is two games back. They can’t afford to be without Westbrook and Kevin Durant long (except against the Lakers).
10. Spurs (36-23, LW 11). They went an unimpressive 2-7 on the rodeo road trip but now are back home for six in a row, and against some beatable teams this week (Sacramento, Denver and banged-up Chicago).
11. Bulls (37-23, LW 12). No Derrick Rose for at least a month, now no Jimmy Butler for another three weeks. It’s the time of year when the Bulls just seem to break down. Cleveland will pass them for the three seed, but can the Bulls find their defensive identity again and hold on to the four spot?
12. Pelicans (32-27, LW 15). We thought they’d fade when Anthony Davis went down, but New Orleans has won five in a row. They are just half a game out of the playoffs and are doing it because they have found a balanced offense that has scored 108.3 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, best in the NBA.
< 13. Suns (31-29, LW 14). Monday night expect Goran Dragic to have a monster game on his former team and remind them what they are missing. The Suns are two games back of the Thunder and it’s just hard now to imagine them catching the Thunder (or maybe even the Pelicans).
14. Raptors (37-22, LW 9). They lost five in a row, and it has been an ugly five in a row at that — they lost to the Knicks. Their star players are struggling with their shot. With Cleveland and Oklahoma City up this week it’s a chance to get some big wins to turn this around, or to watch things spiral farther down.
15. Bucks (32-27, LW 13). Not surprisingly, the Bucks offense has taken a step backwards since Michael Carter-Williams took over for Brandon Knight. MCW was a long-term play by the Bucks but he is still a bit of a project at the point, one who is turning the ball over a lot.
16. Pacers (25-34, LW 18). They are currently the eight seed in the East, and they should get Paul George back in a couple weeks. More and more it feels like they are going to get one of those spots at the bottom of the East bracket.
17. Heat (25-33, LW 19). They may have the point guard they wanted in Goran Dragic but without Chris Bosh their offense has struggled for spacing. However, with a run of games at home the next couple weeks expect them to string together some wins and hold on to the seven seed in the West.
18. Pistons (23-36, LW 16). They have lost three in a row and they have the majority of their games (14 of 23) on the road the rest of the way. Reggie Jackson is starting to find a groove, especially on defense, but it’s going to be hard for them to climb into one of those last playoff spots.
19. Wizards (34-26, LW 17). The good news is Bradley Beal is back and while he was rusty in his return (2-of-10) his shooting and floor spacing will help their offense. Still, that loss to Philadephia last week shows just how far this team needs to go to turn it around before the playoffs.
20. Jazz (23-35, LW 22). Their defense has been strong since they fully committed to the Derrick Favors/Rudy Gobert front line and they have won four of five. Because of that defense the Jazz are starting to find their identity and they are a tough out.
21. Celtics (23-34, LW 23). For you fantasy players, Isaiah Thomas is putting up good numbers coming off the bench in Boston. He’s probably not available but if you can get him do it. That blown 26-point lead to the Warriors Sunday was a punch to the guy in a season filled with body blows.
22. Nets (24-33, LW 21). The Nets are still in the mix for a playoff spot in the East and Thaddeus Young is giving them good minutes in an effort to get there. This is the kind of week where the Nets need some wins to make the postseason: Suns, Hornets and Jazz. All pretty good teams but the kind of games playoff teams win more than they lose.
23. Hornets (24-33, LW 20). This is another of the six teams battling for the two final playoff spots in the West but they have a real shot if their offense keeps clicking like it has of late. Big games vs. Brooklyn and Detroit this week that they need.
24. Kings (20-37, LW 24). They head out on an eight game road trip, and Sacramento has struggled away from home. George Karl’s imprint can be seen on this team but when DeMarcus Cousins rolled his ankle you saw how dependent this team is on him.
25. Timberwolves (13-45, LW 25). Kevin Garnett back in Minnesota is a wonderful story, but this is still a team that doesn’t play much defense and shoots too many midrange shots on the other end. KG can’t change those things by himself anymore.
26. Lakers (14-41, LW 29). How Nick Young acting inappropriately exuberant surprises anybody or became a big story in Los Angeles I will never understand. This is what you can expect with the players the Lakers chose to put on this roster.
27. Magic (19-42, LW 26). Elfrid Payton lost some playing time due to his shooting struggles, with interim coach James Borrego leaning on veteran Willie Green. Why exactly? They are not making the playoffs, let the young guys learn some hard lessons on the court. That said, Payton needs to work on his shot. A lot.
28. Knicks (12-46, LW 30). They won a couple games in a row — including beating Detroit in OT — all because they started Andrea Bargnani and he has put up numbers. That may be the seventh sign of the apocalypse.
29. Nuggets (20-39, LW 27). Losers of six in a row and the players are already apparently throwing in the towel. Brian Shaw will take the fall for this over the summer, but the fact is the current state of the Nuggets all goes back to decisions by management years ago when George Karl and Masai Ujiri left the franchise.