The Madness in March isn't exclusive to the NCAA, as the NBA hurdles towards a thrilling finish.
I’m not going to hold it against you if you’ve been preoccupied with the NCAA tournament of late. It happens.
But with only a dozen or so games remaining for each team in the NBA’s regular season, you’re missing out on a thrilling race to the finish. The Hawks and Cavaliers sit atop the East while five teams fight for the final two spots. In the West, the clash of contenders is so deep that the No. 8 seed (Thunder) is just as scary as the No. 1 (Warriors) and of the three teams immediately missing out on the playoffs: two are above .500 (Pelicans, Suns) and the other (Jazz) is 12–4 since the All-Star break.
Where do all 30 teams stand in the NBA’s version of March Madness? Let’s get to the rankings.
(All stats and records through March 22)
Golden State continues to be a dominant frontrunner. After starting the year 31–5, the Warriors are once again cruising, winning five straight and 10 of their last 11. With so many options and so many looks, the Dubs have managed to keep things fresh this season, helping to consistently keep their game on point throughout the rigorous 82-game grind.
The Spurs sent a subtle reminder in their rout of the Hawks: They’re still the ball movement kings. San Antonio dished out 30 assists on 46 baskets against Atlanta and swept the season series against former assistant coach Mike Budenholzer.
Russell Westbrook notched his 10th triple double of the season Sunday and helped the Thunder improve to 10–5 since Kevin Durant went down with his latest foot injury. With the timetable uncertain for the reigning MVP, it might be in OKC’s best long-term interest to sit KD the rest of the season and ride the Westbrook wave.
While it’s easy to get skittish about the Hawks after seeing them lose three straight for the first time all season, it’s worth noting the defeats came against the Warriors, Thunder and Spurs. Atlanta can still be the best team in the East without being able to hang with the West.
Jeff Green admitted he was pressing too much as a starter, which led to the Grizzlies’ first five struggling with him in tow. The veteran’s decision to ask Dave Joerger to be removed from the starting lineup shows a dedication few NBA players possess. Green started Saturday due to an injury, but the forward could be more effective as a super sub than a solid fifth man.
As strong as the Clippers have been of late, the competition has been not. L.A. is 8–4 this month, but has lost to Golden State, Portland, Dallas and Houston. A four-game winning streak which features wins over three non-playoff teams doesn’t erase all concerns.
Josh Smith has now played more than half a season with the Rockets, and the results of the ex-Piston in a reserve role have been encouraging. Smith’s per-36 numbers with Houston are right in line with his career averages and he’s handled his reduced role with impressive poise
With Taj Gibson back in the rotation, Tom Thibodeau will be forced to make some tough frontcourt decisions. Joakim Noah is the heart and soul of the team, Pau Gasol is at times its best player and Nikola Mirotic has been an offensive revelation off the bench. That doesn’t leave a lot of minutes for Gibson, a sensational defender and second-place finisher for 2014 Sixth Man of the Year.
The wheels are starting to come off for the Blazers, who have lost a season-high four straight and saw LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum go down with injuries in the most recent defeat. Aldridge has played admirably through a hurt thumb, but the big man says he isn’t “going to rush” back with his latest hand injury.
Grevis Vasquez has been a valuable sub for the Raptors all season, but he’s been even more effective as a starter in spot duty. Toronto is 14–7 with Vasquez in the starting lineup, during which he has averaged 10.9 points, 4.6 assists, 3.0 rebounds.
It appeared Washington had righted the ship after winning five straight earlier this month, but back-to-back blowout losses (the latter at Sacramento) suggests otherwise. The road continues to be treacherous for the Wizards, who have lost 11 of their last 13 away games.
While the Bucks have torpedoed since trading Brandon Knight, the Suns improved to 5–1 without him Sunday. Knight’s PER has plummeted since arriving in Phoenix (18.6 to 11.7) and his shot (37.6%) has evaded him as well. Phoenix has won four straight without Knight and will be hard-pressed to re-sign him this offseason if this trend continues.
Points are proving hard to come by, but the Jazz are still squeaking out wins. Utah is 8–3 this month despite ranking second-to-last in points per game (90.4).
No team took a bigger turn for the worse at the deadline than the Bucks, who have gone 4–13 since trading Brandon Knight and have lost six straight. Michael Carter-Williams’ shooting troubles clearly had little do with the 76ers. The second-year guard is shooting 38.3% from the field and a ghastly 7.1% on three-point attempts.
Indy’s status as Eastern sleeper has taken a big hit with its recent five-game skid. The Pacers’ offensive struggles are to be expected, particularly without Paul George, but the team’s defense betrayed it Saturday, allowing a season-high 123 points.
Marcus Smart’s temper continues to be an all-too-important storyline of his career. The Celtics rookie’s suspension last week—for punching Matt Bonner in the groin—was about as unnecessary as they come. Smart has flaws beyond his anger, but a missed jump shot or sloppy turnover are a lot easier to forgive than an ejection and suspension.
Brook Lopez has been a beast in March, setting season highs in minutes (29.8), points (17.8), rebounds (9.1) and field-goal percentage (52.7). Despite their lackluster season, the Nets are dangerous when Lopez is playing well. The team is 14–5 when the center tops 20 points.
Bringing Mo Williams off the bench makes sense for the Hornets, who inserted a healthy Kemba Walker back into the starting lineup two games ago. Williams’ best asset is his jumper, which produced a game-high 24 points against his former team Sunday and has led the ex-Wolves guard to score in double-digits in 14 of 16 games with the Hornets.
It may be too little too late for the Pistons, who have won three of four after losing 10 straight. Detroit is five games back in the East playoff race, but does have one silver lining in its quest to make up ground: it won’t face a Western Conference squad the rest of the season.
Rudy Gay was a pivotal member of Team USA during the 2014 FIBA World Cup due to his versatility and ability to stretch the floor as a power forward. He isn’t able to create the same mismatches in the NBA, but he still might be best suited for the four. George Karl started Gay at PF the last two games, leading to back-to-back wins and big efforts from Gay (59 points combined).
The struggle for playing time continues for Thomas Robinson, who is averaging 8.9 points and 8.5 rebounds in just 17.8 minutes per game. Robinson’s numbers as a 76er per 36 minutes are Whiteside-esque at 18 points and 17.3 rebounds.
It’s nearly impossible to look at the Knicks’ roster and find any players with long-term potential on the team. There’s rebuilding and then there’s restarting. New York is being forced to do the latter.
Andrew Wiggins has struggled with his shot of late, shooting just 40.3% from the field and going 1-of-10 from deep this month. The No. 1 overall pick won’t run away with the Rookie of the Year award, but even a sluggish finish won’t keep him from rightfully claiming the prize.