With the NBA playoffs just around the corner, the battle to avoid Golden State starts now.
So there’s one month left on the schedule. This means that after all the season-long calls for X team to play with urgency, or Y team to dig deep and save their season, all these cliché needs are now actual priorities. It’s high time for teams to pull it together, with serious races for position taking place out East, the Thunder and Clippers jockeying to not face the Warriors in the second round, and mediocre eight-seed battles going down in both conferences.
Will the beat-up Bulls catch the young Pistons, who may not quite realize how well they’ve been playing? Can the Jazz pull it together and send an iffy Rockets team or the stumbling Mavericks home We’ve got four more weeks to find out.
Take a break from your brackets and check out this week’s Power Rankings.
Losing Andre Iguodala for two weeks obviously hurts the 72–win cause, but may be a prudent move thinking ahead to what should be another extended playoff run. In other news, the Warriors clinched the Pacific Division and I don’t think anyone noticed.
LaMarcus Aldridge has gotten fully comfortable at the right time, scoring 20-plus in seven straight and averaging 25 and nine rebounds in that span. The talk surrounding this team has paled somewhat since their 30-point drubbing at Golden State, but the Spurs have, unsurprisingly, been making strides of their own.
When can we stop worrying about the Cavs? When they win six of seven? When they’re scoring 120 points on a semi-regular basis? When J.R. Smith shoots 5-of-8 from three on a Sunday afternoon in L.A.? When Matthew Dellavedova is allowed to be part of team Instagram photos? Three of those four things have happened this month. Cleveland’s cruising again.
The Raptors are 34–1 when shooting at a better or equal clip to their opponents, a number that makes sense in a vacuum (shoot better, you should win), but astonishes in terms of raw consistency. That said, some correction in the form of weird-luck games could eventually be in order.
Fun fact: the Clippers can become the first team to ever deploy the league leaders in field goal, free throw and three point percentage on one roster. DeAndre Jordan (69.3%), Jamal Crawford (91.2%) and J.J. Redick (48%) lead all qualifiers in their respective categories.
The Celtics had their 14-game home win streak snapped at the hands of the Rockets, and with Jae Crowder out a couple weeks and a trio of teams hot on their heels, these guys have suddenly hit an important patch of season. Crowder may very well be this team’s most valuable player, and now we’ll get a feel for just how key his two-way labor has been all year.
The Thunder has now lost (blown?) 12 games this season in which it opened the fourth quarter with a lead. This is an issue, it’s probably mental, and Oklahoma City is running out of excuses.
Whoa! Since Jan. 31, the Hornets have been the best non-Warriors, non-Spurs team in the league, with a 15–3 record and current seven-game streak catapulting them into the thick of the East race. It helps that Kemba Walker’s putting up superstar-type numbers in March (28.6 points, 6.9 assists, five rebounds), a month that’s been extremely kind to him dating back to his UConn days.
Marked defensive improvement continues to shift the outlook for the Hawks, who hold the league’s best defensive rating since the All-Star break (93 points allowed per 100 possessions) and have now won seven of nine games. If that holds, a return to the Eastern Conference Finals isn’t so far-fetched.
The Heat figuring some things out has been one of the better post-break storylines, and Chris Bosh plans to be back this season, so there’s reason for optimism. In the short-term, a Dwyane Wade thigh bruise could determine home court in the first round.
Not to over-toot the Damian Lillard horn, but that guy is averaging 31.3 points in his last 15 games. He’s made more threes through his first four NBA seasons than any player in history, and joins LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the third player ever with 1,500 points and 400 assists in each of his first four years. It’s probably not worth asking Oscar Robertson what he thinks about that.
In his first career NBA game, on a 10-day contract with the Grizzlies, rookie Briante Weber started at point guard and logged 40 minutes in an overtime win. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about how injured Memphis is, Lance Stephenson and Matt Barnes combined for 59 points on 39 shots in that one.
Is it fair now to say the Pacers’ up-tempo philosophical shift has worked? Through 66 games, this Indiana squad has significantly outperformed last year’s iteration in points per game, offensive rating, defensive rating, fast-break points, forced turnovers and points off them.
Andre Drummond’s got a pretty good case for most improved player. Though 16 points and 15 boards per game, plus a league-high 55 double doubles, are nothing to sneeze at, his influence goes further than gaudy stats. The Pistons are 30–12 when outrebounding opponents, and second in the league in second-chance points.
Oddly enough, things haven’t felt this safe for the Rockets in a long time: with the Mavs sinking and Jazz still inconsistent, treading water can do the trick for now. If Houston can stay around .500 the rest of the way (something it’s had zero trouble with all year), James Harden and Co. should be back in the postseason, albeit with little fanfare.
Floundering Dallas has dropped five straight, and with a treacherous set of six games ahead (at Charlotte, at Cleveland, home-away with both Golden State and Portland), things are going to get antsy in this final month. Whatever happens, don’t blame Dirk: the ageless wonder has averaged 21.3 points per game since the All-Star break.
The revolving door of injuries certainly hasn’t helped, but even if the Bulls crack the playoffs at this point, it all feels somewhat aimless—it’s tough to envision this transition year not feeling disappointing. The only certainty going forward is increased reliance on Jimmy Butler, who discussed his rise to stardom with Lee Jenkins on our podcast, and will be leaned on even more.
The Bucks have returned to their aggressive ways on defense, forcing 16 turnovers in eight straight games and averaging a whopping, league-high 26.1 points off those opportunities. Tasking an in-bloom Giannis Antetokoumpo with leading the fast break certainly helps that cause.
The Jazz has maintained a point differential better than three teams ahead of them in the West, but has made little dent in their playoff gap since the All-Star break. What’s more, Utah holds the league’s worst turnover ratio in that span. This team could still use a point guard.
Four in a row marks Denver’s longest win streak of the season, and the Nuggets have scored over 110 points in six straight, all at home. In terms of efficiency, they’re top five on offense and top 10 on defense in March. However, with nine of 11 games on the road to close out the month, they’ll be pressed to keep it up.
After losing five straight, the Wizards are as far below .500 as they’ve been all year. Poor showings against the Pistons and Bulls as the three teams chase the eight-seed can all but bury them. The kicker? If they don’t finish poorly enough to draft inside the top nine, that pick goes to the Suns from the Markieff Morris trade. Rock, meet hard place.
Post All-Star break, Magic opponents are shooting 49% from the floor and 40% from three, while the team has uncharacteristically played at the league’s highest pace. The Magic were a steady defensive team and 19–13 after the season’s first two months. Not anymore.
Their season was already weird before Jose Calderon hit a game-winning three off a broken play, while Kristaps Porzingis sat out with a stomach bug. Does that make Kurt Rambis closer to keeping his job? And. … is that a good thing?
It was terrific to see Andrew Wiggins make a difficult game-winning assist against the Thunder. That’s a better sign for the future than the fact distance-challenged Ricky Rubio hit the three for the win. We all need this true Wiggins star-leap next season. Think positive.
Jrue Holiday moves back into starting lineup. Holiday scores 92 points in next three games, including career-high 38. Pelicans score 342 points in next three games, go 1–2. Holiday goes back to bench. That kind of season.
DeMarcus Cousins is pissed again, and the Kings are nosediving toward elimination with no clear off-season resolution. The silver lining would be that they get to keep their pick from the Bulls if it’s within the Top 10, but in this cosmic bizarro-Kings world we’ve fallen into, the Sixers have unprotected swap rights. Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram may actually be happy about this.
As fleeting as it was, it sure was cool to see Kobe go at LeBron one last time. Ben Golliver highlighted both cases for the phantom rivalry, and a Finals matchup between the two greats stands as one of the better NBA what-ifs of the past decade or so.
Since moving into the starting lineup, Alex Len has eight double doubles in eight games with averages of 17.7 points and 13.1 rebounds. The 22-year-old certainly looks the part as a piece to pair with Devin Booker down the line.
Brook Lopez has played some of the best ball of his career lately, averaging nearly 24 points and three assists since the All-Star Game and shooting 57%, despite a small downtick in rebounding. Here’s hoping he gets some more help next season.
Nerlens Noel is now the last healthy Sixers lottery pick on the roster. He’s also just the fifth player in league history to amass 225 steals and 225 blocks over his first two seasons, joining Bobby Jones, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Andrei Kirilenko. Which of those two facts is more important?