There are six weeks remaining in the NBA's regular season and a pair of sleepers are lurking at the bottom of the playoff picture. One of them is likely familiar to you, the other one you've likely forgotten about.
The Thunder lead the league in net rating (9.3) since Feb. 1 and have gone 10-3 despite dealing with injuries to Kevin Durant and most recently Russell Westbrook. Sam Presti's moves at the deadline are already paying off, with Enes Kanter flourishing and D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler excelling in spot duty. It likely doesn't come as a surprise to you that Oklahoma City is making a second-half surge after curiously struggling in the open months, but the results nonetheless have been impressive. The Thunder have arguably its deepest team in the Durant-Westbrook era with myriad of offensive spots. OKC also leads the NBA in offensive efficiency since Feb. 1 with a sterling mark of 110.5.
The other sleeper? The Pacers. While the Thunder have been the most dominant team since Feb. 1, Indiana isn't far behind, ranking No. 4 in net rating (6.5). Both the team's offense and defense rank in the top 10 in efficiency in the last month and all signs point to Indy only getting stronger down the stretch. Paul George has returned to practice and is eyeing a return this month. While the Pacers have plenty of competition for the No. 8 seed, which they currently hold via tiebreakers, none of their rivals have an All-Star waiting on the wings.
With the Thunder and Pacers both moving up, let's take a look at this week's NBA Power Rankings.
(All stats and records through Mar. 1)
Dropping 37 points is pretty ho-hum for Steph Curry these days. But erasing 26-point deficits? If there's a way to make that look easy, the Warriors pulled it off against the Celtics on Sunday. Said C’s coach Brad Stevens: “Twenty-whatever we were up in the first half felt like three to me.”
Mike Budenholzer’s Gregg Popovich impression has been better than the real thing this season. The former Spurs assistant has the Hawks ahead of his ex-team in offensive rating, assist percentage and effective field goal percentage. But Bud might have made Pop the most proud Sunday, winning despite resting four key players.
This is Zach Randolph’s 14th year in the league and the 33-year-old is still as dominant and intimidating (just ask DeMarcus Cousins) as ever. Randolph is averaging 16.5 points and tying a career-high with 11.7 rebounds per game. He isn’t as prolific offensively as he was a few years ago, but he’s every bit as efficient and frustrating of a load.
Harden kicked LeBron James in the groin during Sunday’s clash, but the Rockets' social media team might have given the four-time MVP a much-needed kick in the behind. It’s one thing to beat LeBron, it’s another thing to taunt him by stealing his nickname right after the game. A regular-season loss defeat is a small price to pay for a motivated LeBron.
Portland has struggled on the road this season, going 2-9 in its last 11 games away from the Moda Center. With nine of their next 13 games on the road—and just a one-game lead on the Clippers for the No. 4 seed—the Blazers will be put to the test this month. The good news is Portland is going into the gauntlet playing well, having won three straight, including victories over the Thunder and Spurs.
Chris Paul often doesn’t look for his shot until the fourth quarter, but he’s been gunning more of late with Blake Griffin out. Paul scored 28 in a win over the Bulls on Sunday and dropped 30 in a loss to the Grizzlies earlier in the week. L.A. tends to fare well when Paul is shooting: The Clippers are 20-8 when he tops 20 points.
The Spurs don’t what you to know this, but they’re on the forefront of sports analytics. The team was recognized as the top analytical team in sports at last week’s Sloan conference and GM R.C. Buford was awarded the lifetime achievement award. If you think Gregg Popovich rests players because he’s grumpy, think again. Pop, who probably even plays his dinner order close to the vest, tried to downplay the franchise’s award before admitting: “We don’t walk in everyday and say, ‘Give me the analytics.’ It’s just one of the tools.”
Rajon Rondo insists things are “back to normal” in Dallas following his feud with Rick Carlisle, but “normal” still isn’t all that great. The reality is that Rondo isn’t a great fit in Carlisle’s system, something the Mavs knew before they traded for him but decided his talent was worth the risk. The ex-Celtic has struggled mightily to adjust, averaging just 8.9 points and 6.2 assists (his fewest since his rookie season). The on/off splits are even more damning: Dallas’ offensive rating is 112.2 with Rondo on the floor and 104.3 with him off.
The steal of the trade deadline may prove to be Enes Kanter, who has averaged 15.8 points (57.7 FG%) and 10.2 rebounds for the Thunder in five games. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both banged up, OKC is relying heavily on its new additions (Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler all started Sunday) and getting promising results.
Who is this Anthony Davis you speak of? Just when you thought the Pelicans would brow out of their race (thank you) with the Thunder, they reel off five straight wins, including the last four sans Davis. Omer Asik has stepped up on the glass, notching double-digit boards in four straight games, something he hasn’t done since December.
The Wizards aren’t in jeopardy of missing the playoffs, but it’s tough to imagine them returning to relevancy after losing 11 of 14, including back-to-back games against the Wolves and 76ers last week. Randy Wittman recently told SI's Chris Mannix: “We’ve lost that edge of nastiness that we played with.”
Calling out your fans is a strange move on the heels of a 27-point loss. Markieff Morris has as much right to speak as anyone on the Suns—he’s having a career year and has started in every game—but his timing is awful. Luckily for Morris, he doesn’t have to face the music for a week as Phoenix hits the road for a four-game road trip.
Brad Stevens deserves heaps of credit for squeezing every ounce of juice out of this lemon. Boston is inexplicably just one game out of the No. 8 seed in the East despite trading Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and losing Jared Sullinger for the season. Twenty-two different players have logged court time for the C’s this season.
The Jazz—yes, the Jazz!—lead the NBA in defensive rating since the All-Star break (87.1) and have allowed just one of five opponents to top 82 points. Utah has won six of its last eight games, including wins over the Blazers and Spurs, and is playing the most surprising basketball of the season outside of the Pistons’ post-Josh Smith turnaround.
It was only three years ago that Deron Williams was averaging 21 points per game and considered one of the best point guards in the league. Times have obviously changed for the oft-injured Nets guard, but the flashes are occasionally there. Williams topped 21 points for just the third time this season with a 25-point showing last week against the Mavs.
The Kings are just 2-12 this season without DeMarcus Cousins, who missed his second straight game Sunday. Sacramento’s defense, in particular, feels the absence of Boogie, allowing nearly 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor.
The list of silver linings in L.A. is shorter than Kobe Bryant’s patience with Nick Young, but Jordan Clarkson has been a surprising addition since being plugged into the starting lineup. The rookie is averaging 13.7 points, 3.8 assists and 3.2 assists as a starter and scored a career-high 22 points in a win over the Jazz last week.
Kevin Garnett’s homecoming has turned into the feel-good story of the season. Minnesota is unlikely to pull off many wins like its 20-point romp of Washington in KG’s return, but it’ll likely play with the same edge its boasted since having Garnett on the team.
Elfrid Payton totaled just seven points on 3-of-20 shooting in three games and 76 minutes last week. The rookie point guard continues to show a penchant for passing (15 assists over that span), but not a lot else. Payton told SI last week that his biggest struggle adjusting to the NBA is “understanding when to get my shot or look for my teammates.”
It’s been a while since anyone has had anything nice to say about Andrea Bargnani, but here goes nothing. Bargnani dropped 25 points and 12 rebounds in a 2OT win over the Pistons and has scored in double-digits in each of his last six games. Don’t be surprised if New York suddenly shuts him down for the season.
The cupboard is beyond bare in Philadelphia, leaving Brett Brown comically short on offensive options. Philly has topped the century mark just three times in its last 36 games.