NBA Power Rankings: Thunder are rolling at the right time
Two and a half weeks left, and there’s a healthy amount of theatre still to witness. The East is getting tight both in the middle and at the bottom, with four teams neck-and-neck for home court and three fighting for the final seed, with the Pistons creating some space, the Bulls imploding and the Wizards fading. Out West, the final four playoff spots remain pretty fluid, with the Mavericks possibly the odd team out thanks to a precipitous slide. Of course, Kobe’s retiring, and yes, the Spurs are starting to rest easy, and no, we were not unaware that the Warriors are chasing Michael Jordan and the Bulls. You don’t say.
So what’s the scenario? In short, the stakes remain fairly high. It’s time for casual fans to start playing catch-up and regular viewers to enjoy the payoff. That is, before we do this all again for another two months, just with extra gravitas. And of course, you can’t spell gravitas without “Power Rankings.”
An undefeated week bought the history-minded Warriors more room for error. Going 7–2 from here feels a whole lot simpler than 11–2 did a week ago. It’s a bit clichéd at this point, but tune in as best you can—we may not see this again for a long time.
Popovich troll mode, engage. Now that the Spurs have toppled the Warriors, they’re perfectly content to roll out the subs (Boban alert!) and rest the important legs for the postseason. Nobody will be surprised if Andre Miller and Kevin Martin start the final two regular-season meetings with Golden State, either.
Following a tough loss in San Antonio on March 12, the Thunder have now ripped off seven straight, averaging 117 points and a 16.9 point margin of victory. Talk about flushing it and moving on …
Quit tripping about super teams and LeBron’s body language during weird losses and instead focus on the annual arrival of his playoff-level alter ego. James is posting 28.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists in his last five and finishing out the season on a personal high note. If tweeting while in his feelings is what it takes to pump himself up, so be it.
The Raptors hit a small speed bump, clinching a playoff berth nonetheless, and are entrenched enough in the No. 2 seed to pace out their final 10 games a bit. DeMarre Carroll, where art thou?
Jeff Teague was almost left behind in Detroit, so this seems like a natural time to bring up how good Dennis Schröder has been. On a per-36 minute basis, the latter has outperformed the former in points (19.8 to 19), assists (8 to 7.5), rebounds (4.6 to 3.4) and shooting percentage (43.3% to 42.8%). Maybe the antsy bus driver was onto something.
We finally have a Blake Griffin return date (April 3), although being able to play and being fit to play in terms of conditioning are two different criteria. For a team essentially locked into playing at home in the first round, there’s quite a bit to figure out as he meshes back into the rotation.
It doesn’t get more impressive, in a vacuum, than a 23–point comeback over a full-strength Spurs team (with a sprinkling of Linsanity, for good measure). The Hornets continue pushing for home court in the first round with three weeks to go, and have rounded into what should prove a very tough out.
We collectively spent much of the season lambasting Miami’s lack of three-point shooting. Wanna know something weird? The Heat has been the NBA’s best team from deep in March, hitting at a 43% clip that was pretty unthinkable not long ago. Look at the addition of Joe Johnson (52% from three since signing on) and emergence of rookie Josh Richardson (48.8% on the season) … then wonder how sustainable it is.
As we should probably have expected, the Celtics pulled together for four wins after dropping four in a row and continue to fight for position. If you’re wondering why, look no further than Andrew Sharp’s dive into Boston’s unique group chemistry.
It’s been easier to focus on the eight-seed race in the East, and so the fact that the Pacers have just a half-game on the Pistons has been relatively hushed. There’s a mini-race unfolding here to avoid the Cavs.
A well-timed hot streak and Bulls collapse has the Pistons in the catbird’s seat for their first playoff berth in seven years. With five players averaging more than 15 points in March, Stan Van Gundy has helped strike a pretty decent offensive balance at the appropriate time.
Damian Lillard’s in a bit of a shooting slump and his team’s results have varied accordingly. The good news? The Blazers are 23–12 at the Moda Center and get six of their eight remaining games at home. Dame’s been a 40% marksman from deep on his own floor, too.
It’s a small sample size, but Lance Stephenson has found a home in Memphis, averaging 15.2 points on 50% shooting in 18 games with the Grizz, which would be a career-high if extrapolated over the course of the season. He’s shouldering a decent load for a limping team experienced enough to keep making it work for the last few weeks.
Credit the Jazz for being persistent, winning the games it’s needed and playing itself back into the picture for the final spot in the West. With six games remaining against sub-.500 teams, take care of their business and these guys are back in the postseason.
The Rockets have a couple of factors working in their playoff favor: a tiebreaker over the Jazz and a 2–1 series lead on the Mavs. A win in Dallas on April 6 would give them an edge in the event of that tie and cut down their magic number by an extra game. Still gotta win ‘em, though.
As the team falls apart around him, Derrick Rose has been very good in March, averaging 18.4 points and 4.8 assists while shooting just under 50%. He’s on track to play 70 games for the first time since 2010–11. Unfortunately, now no one else seems to have much in the tank.
The Wizards need every bounce they can get at this point with the Pistons starting to pull away. The supporting cast has turned it up, with Marcin Gortat posting double doubles and Brad Beal shooting well from deep, but it might be too little, too late.
The Mavs have been the league’s second-worst defensive team this month and a putrid 3–10. It’s one thing to give up 128 points to the Warriors, but a different ballgame of bad when you allow 133 to the Kings. This is not a team equipped to consistently win shootouts, and accordingly, its playoff hopes lie on the other side of the ball.
Technically, the Nuggets are still in the playoff race. They’ll have to be close to perfect to even get near the eight seed, and the odds say no—but it’s been an pretty positive post-All-Star run for Mike Malone’s team (8–6 in March) regardless.
Sweeping the Bulls in a home-and-away doesn’t mean what it used to, but they’re wins nonetheless. The big question for Knicks fans: Was Thibs watching?
One report this week indicated the Kings are trying to persuade George Karl to resign (no, not re-sign) mid-season so he won’t collect the rest of the money they owe him. Insert snake emojis here.
The Wolves are 2–38 when opponents shoot a better percentage from the field. Basketball logic suggests this would make sense, as they’re shooting 46.3% on the year (a top 10 mark) but allowing 47% on average (bottom three). Normally, 2–38 would point to a bit of bad luck, but Minnesota is a reasonable 6–7 in three-point games and a bad 8–19 in 10-point ones. This is a long-winded way to say it’s been a rough season.
The run of improved defense has come to an end for now: the Bucks are leaking buckets to the tune of a 110.7 defensive rating in their past five games. They’re not forcing turnovers in their usual manner either, creating just 13 takeaways per game. Wait ’til next year.
The only opponents the Magic has been able to hold under 100 points since the All-Star break are the Bulls. Twice. Which team does that look worse for?
Name five things less likely than the Nets winning consecutive games against the Cavs and Pacers. Actually, because it’s a chore. The comment section is below.
For the second week in a row, here’s another mostly ambiguous Brandon Knight-related fact: since returning in March, he’s shooting just slightly better from the field (34.8%) than from three (33.8%), which is to say, not great. On the other hand, he’s been Phoenix’s second-best scorer, top assist man and best rebounding guard. It’s a weird sport, isn’t it?
Hear that? It’s the sound of the wheels falling off the wagon.
Ten more games and Kobe’s gone, guys. Soak that in for a minute.
If the Sixers lose out and finish tied for the franchise’s all-time worst record, that bizarre Emmanuel Mudiay half-court, game-winning buzzer-beater in Denver is gonna sting.