NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Spurs brace for historic clash
Well, we’re almost there. And as predictable as this season has been at times—our top three teams in the preseason remain in their spots, in that order—there’s a solid amount of basketball still worth watching, and a number of things that could come down to the final game of the season.
Are you tired of hearing about the Warriors yet? Better stop watching basketball for the rest of your life. Their pursuit of 73 wins can come down to the wire, not to mention the whole championship thing they have to chase. And hey, the Spurs are still technically chasing 70 wins, and they play Golden State twice. Safe to say the ancient Ouija board Adam Silver uses to make the NBA schedule has come up huge. It’s appointment viewing.
The Eastern Conference’s scramble for seeds 3–6 and 7–8 will likely continue until the very end. In the West, 5–6 and 7–8 remain similarly undecided. Don’t hate on the somewhat onerous 82–game slate, just enjoy the fact it works right now. That, and soak up all the Kobe you can, however you can, as his career concludes.
Here are the second-to-last Power Rankings of the year.
Unsurprisingly, the Warriors are now the first team in NBA history to hit 1000 three-pointers in a season. And with just 230 more points, they’ll become the highest-scoring team of all-time. This could all come to fruition against, of course, the Spurs.
All eyes will be on the Spurs and Warriors as they go head to head twice this week, and rightfully so. In any other year, we’d be fawning over these guys a little harder. But, as usual, the odds are this team couldn’t care less: their priority remains avoiding last season’s first-round playoff slip-up.
They’re close to locking up the top seed, but if Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury is serious, the entire outlook changes for the Cavs. Risk-prevention mode looks prudent with just six games until the playoffs lest history repeat itself.
Oklahoma City is 235–91 since 2010 with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka together in the starting lineup. They haven’t lost a playoff series with all three healthy since the 2012 NBA Finals. This, for one, makes me excited for the playoffs.
Second-round rookie Norman Powell has been a revelation since joining the starting lineup March 15, averaging 11.4 points and shooting 45% from three while bridging the gap to DeMarre Carroll’s still-pending return. For now, Toronto’s privileged enough to keep waiting.
As Ben Golliver detailed, Blake Griffin’s rusty return was still all smiles. The Clippers are whole again, and now it’s a matter of how fast they can re-adjust to his on-court presence.
Atlanta has finished out strong, but there’s some cause for playoff skepticism: the Hawks are a combined 0–5 against the conference-leading Cavs and Raptors. They’ll go through both opponents in their final five games as they try and hang onto the three seed.
Steve Clifford took home Coach of the Month honors after a 13–3 March marked the best in franchise history. He’s gotta be up there for the big award with the job he’s done: this is the first season the Hornets have scored over 100 points per game since 1995–96, and comes with an +8.9 scoring uptick from last season.
An impressive win over the Warriors plus Jae Crowder’s return has the Celtics in a good place as the postseason nears. Also notable: Boston has every chance to win the third seed as its last three games come against Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami. Standing pat at the deadline looks pretty prudent.
Goran Dragic has upped his scoring average every month this season and averaged 7.7 dimes to go with 16.6 points in March. As the team’s remarkable second half winds down, it’s a great sign for the present and future that he looks more comfortable.
In leading this group to the postseason (and closing in on the five-seed), Damian Lillard has a real shot at a franchise record. Scoring 30 points in each of Portland’s last four games would give him 27 performances with 30-plus on the year.
Between jawing with the Thunder and taking care of the Bulls, it was an eventful week for the playoff-minded Pistons. Also, wanna know where Kevin Durant’s definitely not going now? You guessed it.
After watching Utah push Golden State to overtime, you have to think this would be the toughest first-round series possible for the Warriors. On that note, nobody really wants to face the Jazz’s patient approach or have to game plan for Rudy Gobert a bunch of times. So … if you’re an upset-minded viewer, you want these guys in. It’ll at least be fun.
The Pacers mostly averted a mini-collapse last week and hold a helpful tiebreak over the Pistons. But they continue to have a hard time holding leads and winning tight games: as Candace Buckner of the Indy Star pointed out, Indiana has shot an insane 1-for-25 in the final 10 seconds of one-possession games.
Maybe Dirk should try slumping more often: he’s shot just 27% in four straight Mavs wins after hitting 52% of his shots during a March stretch where his team went just 2–11. Now, we could get playoff Nowitzki after all.
The playoffs are no longer a guarantee for the walking-wounded Grizzlies, who hang onto the fifth seed despite going 2–10 in their past 12. There ought to be a real sense of urgency, especially given two more dates with the Warriors.
If the Rockets were predictable, you might say they’ve got a favorable shot to sneak into the playoffs: they trail the Mavs and Jazz by a game with five to go. A win in Dallas this week would win a tiebreak over the former and essentially seal one over the latter, too—and then four beatable teams round out the schedule. The Rockets, however, are not predictable.
The battered Bulls have kept it together by a thread, but a key home loss to the Pistons handed over the tiebreaker and may have dealt the final blow to Chicago’s playoff hopes. A telltale off-season lies ahead, with Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah able to test free agency.
Say goodbye to the Wizards, who hit a rough West Coast trip at a bad time and never quite pulled things together. This might be it for Randy Wittman.
What the Magic decide to do with Nikola Vucevic—quality offense, iffy defense—will be interesting this off-season. Since returning from a groin strain, Vucevic has scored 71 points in 77 minutes of play over three games coming off the bench. That won’t be his role forever, but it’s an idea nonetheless.
No statistical backup here—purely on gut—I hate the decision to formally make Giannis a point guard. As a change of pace, it’s a look almost nobody can match up with, but as a permanent fixture, once teams start game-planning harder, I’m skeptical. His triple doubles are a sight to see, but you wonder how long the experiment lasts into next season.
According to basketball-reference.com, the Nuggets’ defensive rating of 108.7 (through 78 games) is their worst since 1998–99. The scoring totals have improved from last season, and this team can be fun at times, but this remains a work in progress.
The Wolves are 7–12 since Zach LaVine moved into the starting lineup, but in that span, the LaVine-Rubio-Towns-Wiggins-Dieng combo is averaging 111.1 points per 100 possessions together with a 3.3 net rating. The future is getting closer.
Did you know that according to basketball-reference.com, Sasha Vujacic’s nickname is “The Machine?” Well, The Machine scored 23 in a loss to the Pacers, which was four points shy of his career high and marked his best game in almost exactly five years. This has been “This week in dumb Knicks subplots.”
DeMarcus Cousins is sitting out away games the rest of the way, so if you live in Phoenix or Houston and are trying to go see the Kings before the season ends, think hard first. Or don’t.
EWING THEORY ALERT. The Pelicans, sans Anthony Davis, won three games (who cares the competition was iffy) in a week where Luke Babbitt averaged almost 17 per game, and Dante Cunningham led the team in minutes each night. Bring on the ping-pong balls.
Check out the continued evolution of Devin Booker. March was his best-scoring month yet (22.4 per game), as he got to the line more while his three-point shooting took a dip. He’s a more mature player than anyone could have imagined, and he's about the only thing left to see here.
Phones out for Kobe, phones away for D’Angelo Russell, six more games of whatever you want to call this.
New GM Sean Marks made the most sensible basketball decision in recent Nets history by shutting down Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young for the season. That is positive, and also sad.
The Sixers need one more win to … avoid the worst 82-game record ever, set by … the ’72–’73 Sixers. You know, sorta like a Black Mirror-episode version of Golden State.