NBA Power Rankings: Warriors, Thunder rising ahead of final battle
The Golden State Warriors, truth be told, have returned to the summit of ESPN.com’s weekly NBA Power Rankings somewhat by default.
A 3-0 week against three sub-.500 teams from the Eastern Conference doesn’t exactly signal that the Warriors are back to their best. The Committee (of One) can’t simply forget the fact that Golden State recently went 2-5 over a seven-game stretch starting with the night in Washington that it lost Kevin Durant.
With San Antonio faltering, Cleveland ruffling feathers with its weekend rest policy and Houston not quite convincing the Committee just yet that it’s a contender for top billing on our ladder, Golden State has bounced back to No. 1 entering Monday night’s trip to Oklahoma City. Let’s see what the Warriors can do in their final regular-season showdown with the Thunder after seizing leads of 31, 25 and 26 points in the first three meetings with Durant leading the way.
The Thunder, for their part, have ridden a five-game winning streak to move into the top 10 (at No. 9) just in time for the Warriors’ visit. The giant-killing Memphis Grizzlies are this week’s other notable climber, rising eight spots from No. 19 to No. 11 after notching their second win over the Spurs to go with two wins over the Warriors. You’re also advised to keep an eye on Portland (up to No. 13 from No. 16) and Denver (up to No. 14 from No. 18) in the race for the West’s final playoff berth.
Don’t forget to catch the overnight SportsCenter that airs Tuesday at 1 a.m. ET for our weekly video feature that accompanies these rankings. Many thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Info and the Elias Sports Bureau — with Micah Adams running the point — for all the background data they supply to assist the Committee’s efforts to arrange things here properly.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index pegged the Warriors’ Philadelphia/Orlando/Milwaukee home stretch at home to be the third-weakest succession of three games on Golden State’s schedule for the entire season. And it played out that way — for the most part — after the Dubs survived an almighty scare against the Sixers, with much-needed routs of the Magic and Bucks restoring some long-awaited comfort to Golden State after an uncharacteristic 2-4 start to the month. There was even some positivity to be gleaned from the Philly game if you looked hard enough; Golden State improved to 4-7 this season in games in which it trailed by 15 points or more. Which stands as the league’s best record in that uncomfortable situation, comfortably ahead of Toronto (4-10), Washington (4-12) and Memphis (4-18).
It was a rare week of ups and downs for the ever-consistent Spurs. The news was sensational on the injury front with LaMarcus Aldridge (heart arrhythmia) and Tony Parker (several ailments as detailed here by our Michael C. Wright) returning to the lineup to launch their playoff preparations in earnest, but the actual basketball was uncharacteristically unpredictable. San Antonio grabbed a share of the conference lead for the first time since the morning of Nov. 9, outlasting Atlanta at home to complete the impressive erasure of a season-high deficit in the standings — they had fallen five games behind the Warriors — in a span of just 29 days. But back-to-back losses enabled Golden State to reopen a two-game gap at the top. If you prefer to laser in on the defensive end, San Antonio is bidding to lead the league in defensive efficiency for the second straight season. (The Spurs also finished third, fourth and third in DE in the three seasons before that.)
Is there a top-four MVP candidate who isn’t playing great right now? With Russell Westbrook soaking up much of the spotlight over the course of the past week for his box-score-stuffing exploits, James Harden merely posted two more triple-doubles Friday and Saturday in which he scored 40 and 41 points, respectively. Harden has scored in the 40s in seven of his 19 triple-doubles this season. Don’t forget that the Rockets’ franchise record for triple-doubles coming into this season stood at 14 — total — courtesy of Hakeem Olajuwon. Led by The Beard’s frequent eruptions, Houston will soon clinch the West’s No. 3 seed and has maintained a healthy 56-win pace while sporting the league’s third-best overall average scoring margin (plus-6.9 PPG). As a team, meanwhile, Harden & Co. need only 59 more 3-pointers to break Golden State’s single-season record (1,077 set last season).
How seriously do the Cavs take the regular season? Put it like this: Brooklyn and Orlando both sport a better road record against Western Conference opposition (4-11) than the defending champs do (3-9). Of course, as always, you’re well within your rights to ask in response: Who exactly in the East can punish the Cavs for their occasional lack of October-to-April focus? Last week, furthermore, will go down as a good week for the reigning champs despite the copious amounts of grief Cleveland caught for resting all of its main men Saturday night in Clipperland, thanks to the return of Kevin Love (after the Cavs scuffled to a 7-6 mark without him) and its first back-to-back wins since the All-Star break (prevailing in a slugfest with Utah after routing Detroit). The Cavs’ 91-83 triumph over the visiting Jazz, in fact, was just their third W all season in which they won despite falling shy of the 100-point plateau; Cleveland is 3-13 in such games. As for LeBron James: He’s quietly up to 10 triple-doubles himself this season after managing 10 in the previous five seasons combined.
Utah’s four-game swing through the East started with some promise; holding Detroit to 83 points bumped the Jazz to 11-0 this season when the opposition fails to reach 85 points. But Utah will need a win Monday night at Indiana to come away with a split for the trip after losses in Cleveland and Chicago in which the visitors were the ones who couldn’t score (totaling 83 and 86 points). There is also growing concern in the SLC that neither Derrick Favors nor Rodney Hood will be able shake the knee injuries that have plagued them; all season in Favors’ case and for the past two months in Hood’s. The Jazz are 9-6 in their past 15 games as they try to cling to the West’s No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. And this team, more than ever, seems to go as Gordon Hayward goes. Utah’s lone All-Star is averaging 23.8 PPG on .494 shooting (.451 on 3s) in those past nine wins. In those past six losses, Hayward is averaging 12.5 PPG and shooting just 32.5 percent from the field (.333 on 3s).
Perhaps what we’ve seen from the Celtics in these last two games without an ailing Isaiah Thomas — a narrow home win over Brooklyn, followed by a loss at Philadelphia — will give Thomas’ critics some pause. For all of IT’s well-chronicled defensive shortcomings, Boston is 2-4 without him this season and clearly lacking the same offensive potency in those games. The Celts, though, somehow ranked as the third-most likely team to reach the NBA Finals entering Sunday’s play, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index at 23.1 percent, trailing only Golden State (71.5 percent) and Cleveland (22.8 percent) despite their seemingly unending spate of injuries. As Celts fans prepare for Monday night’s showdown at home with Washington, here’s our Chris Forsberg with an inside look on the rivalry that has sprouted between these teams.
What on Earth did we do to the Wizards? Since last week’s promotion to the No. 3 spot, which presumably exceeded even their own wildest expectations coming into the season, they’ve dropped three of four entering Monday night’s visit to Boston in a battle between Nos. 2 and 3 in the East. The 1-3 slippage includes a home loss to a Mavs team that hadn’t won a road game in nearly six weeks. At least Washington appears to have survived the John Wall injury scare from that Dallas game; Wall bounced back two nights later with the first 20-assist effort this franchise has seen since Rod Strickland‘s in February 1998. There’s also this uplifting reminder: Washington responded to a loss in its last trip to Boston, on Jan. 11, with a 23-8 burst, which has the Wiz tied with Miami for the second-best record in that span behind San Antonio’s 24-8.
An 8-5 record since the All-Star break, with an offense than has ranked in the league’s bottom third in that time while Kyle Lowry has been sidelined with wrist issues, can’t sound so bad to the Raptors. They obviously had much higher goals coming into the season than coming away with a No. 4 seed in the East, but they’ve found a way to keep themselves in range in case Washington falters while keeping the fifth-seeded Hawks at bay. It’s probably the best they could have hoped for sans Lowry, along with a pretty manageable schedule for the rest of the regular season until Toronto gets its point guard back.
We caught a lot of flak going into the season when we said that the Thunder had a shot at 50 wins even without Kevin Durant. The 10-3 finish they’d need to get there from here seems unlikely, but this latest burst of triple-double brilliance from Russell Westbrook has put the No. 5 seed in play for OKC, which could only enhance his MVP case. After a six-game stretch (2-4) in which he averaged 44.0 PPG but only 8.0 APG, seemingly jeopardizing his chances of finishing the season with a triple-double average, Westbrook has averaged 26.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 14.4 APG during the Thunder’s five-game winning streak, prompting ESPN Insider’s unstoppable Kevin Pelton to compute that Angry Russ has a 97 percent chance now to average a triple-double for the entire 2016-17 campaign. Assuming Westbrook plays in the Thunder’s final 13 games, all he needs to clinch it is 95 rebounds (7.3 RPG) and 106 assists (8.2 APG). OKC, incidentally, has won each of the past 10 games in which Westbrook has recorded a triple-double. Its record is 28-6 when he triple-doubles … and 12-23 when he doesn’t.
Conditioning. That’s a common buzz word folks toss around about the Heat to explain their historic second-half surge without a single All-Star on the roster — with a particular focus on James Johnson and how much better he looks (and plays) in Miami than he did in any other previous stop. (As an aside: It makes us long for someone in that organization to assemble a conditioning cheat sheet for sportswriters when we see stories like this one from SB Nation’s Mike Prada about how Erik Spoelstra’s crew never gets tired). The Heat stumbled Sunday night at home against Portland without the injured Dion Waiters (ankle), losing out on the once-unimaginable opportunity to move to .500 for the first time since Nov. 1 … when they were 2-2. But they awoke Monday in a tie for the East’s No. 8 seed and, if they can find a way to separate themselves from the Bucks or Pistons, will become the first team in league history to reach the postseason after an 11-30 start. The NBA’s worst previous record for a playoff team, through 41 games, was the unsightly 12-29 registered by both the 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 1952-53 Baltimore Bullets.
We’d like to believe that the positive spark we provided the Grizzlies at least somewhat offsets the trouble we caused in the nation’s capital. We’ve had Memphis in our top 10 (or thereabouts) for much of the season but felt compelled to drop ’em all the way down to No. 19 last week in the wake of some major recent slippage as well as the loss of Chandler Parsons to a season-ending knee injury for a third successive campaign. So what happens? The Grizz naturally rammed that nine-spot demotion right back in our face, posting a 4-0 week in response to their 0-5 start to March. The grit-grinders, with the last of those W’s, also just joined the Clippers on the short list of teams that can claim two wins over San Antonio this season. The winning streak also has featured some nice individual milestones for Marc Gasol (his third career triple-double to pass brother Pau for the all-time franchise lead) and Vince Carter (that crazy 8-for-8 shooting performance against Milwaukee in his first start of the season to become just the sixth player in league history to post a 20-point game in his 40s). The other five players to register a 20-point game at age 40 or older, in case you’re wondering, are Michael Jordan (20), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (16), John Stockton (9), Robert Parish (6) and Karl Malone (4).
Holding off Oklahoma City and Memphis to retain the West’s No. 5 seed is the Clippers’ top priority at the minute, especially because last week’s loss to the Jazz — who are lined up to be LA’s first-round opponent if it can stay fifth in the conference — was just their second to Utah in the teams’ past 19 meetings. That’s a first-round matchup that the Clips, even without home-court advantage, will believe they can win. But they also are playing to avoid a slice of unwanted history. Of the 45 other teams in history that began the season at 14-2 or better through 16 games, only two finished the season with a winning percentage below .600: Seattle in 1982-83 (48-34, .585) and Indiana in 2002-03 (48-34, .585). The Clippers are on course to make it three unless they finish strong, with Blake Griffin in particular in the midst of a March that falls below his standards thanks to a recent run of five straight games short of the 20-point plateau.
If the Blazers miss the playoffs, it won’t be hard to identify one prime culprit: Portland has somehow lost a league-high five one-point games this season. Question for the analytics mavens out there: Aren’t close games supposed to be more random than that? Now for the good news: Damian Lillard has averaged 31.1 PPG in March to spark a Portland offense, along with impact newcomer Jusuf Nurkic, who has looked as good as anyone in fueling the Blazers’ 8-2 surge this month. The Blazers’ unexpected win in San Antonio last week also nudged Terry Stotts’ career record against Gregg Popovich to 12-12. Only two other coaches who have faced Pop at least 20 times – Phil Jackson (23-22) and George Karl (26-25) – can claim to possess a .500-or-better record against the five-time ring winner. Back to Lillard: Dame’s 26.8 PPG for the season is on course to be the fourth-highest figure in franchise history. Clyde Drexler averaged 27.2 PPG in 1988-89 and 27.0 PPG in 1987-88; Kiki Vandeweghe averaged 26.9 PPG in the Committee’s senior year of high school (1986-87).
Saturday’s narrow home loss to Houston brought a halt to Denver’s four-game win streak, but that well-timed run of Ws — including home victories over the Celtics and Clippers — accounts for the Nuggets’ longest unbeaten run of the season so far. The schedule, however, isn’t going to be very friendly from here, with nine of Denver’s final 13 games on the road and Portland (8-2 in March) applying its most sustained pressure in months. The Blazers, furthermore, hold a 2-1 lead in the season series entering the teams’ final meeting March 28 in Portland. All those road dates, mind you, mean lots of Nikola Jokic in cities than don’t get to enjoy him regularly. The biggest threat to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the league’s Most Improved Player race has racked up five triple-doubles since the start of February, putting Jokic in the same sentence with Nuggets legend Fat Lever, who had five in the 1989-90 season. Jokic also ranks as the first center to record five triple-doubles in a single season since David Robinson had five in 1993-94 in the Committee’s first season on the NBA beat. The single-season record for a center, since the NBA began listing positions in box scores starting with the 1970-71 campaign, is six by the Lakers’ Elmore Smith in 1973-74.
The Bucks were due to be scorched from deep by Stephen Curry, who had missed 21 of 26 3-pointers over his previous three games against Milwaukee before Curry’s 6-for-8 bust-out from deep Saturday night. But by virtue of a couple handy wins at Staples Center over the Clippers and Lakers, Milwaukee has given itself a real shot at a 3-3 ledger on this six-game swing through the Western Conference if it can win Wednesday night in Sacramento. (Tuesday’s stop in Portland, as hot as the Blazers are, obviously doesn’t look terribly inviting.) The Bucks’ road-heavy schedule from here to the regular-season finish means a playoff berth remains on the unlikely side, but it’s quite clear that the combination of a much more deliberate pace over the past 17 games in conjunction with Khris Middleton‘s return have turned this team around, resulting in a 12-5 uptick. The Bucks are 8-3 in March with Middleton, another elite two-way player alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, restored to the starting lineup.
The NBA schedule can be so weird sometimes. Indiana visited Toronto on Sunday for the teams’ first of three meetings this season, which isn’t merely late for two clubs that reside in the same conference but also a record (according to Elias) for two teams that met in the previous postseason. The 25-point pounding Indy absorbed bookended a week that began in equally disappointing fashion, thanks to the mere 81 points scored by the Pacers in a loss last Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. But here’s a tidbit that has to hearten Pacer People even with their team perilously close to .500 and in danger of losing the sixth slot in the East standings that they’ve occupied for so long: Myles Turner celebrates his birthday this coming Friday. And he’s only turning 21!
The Hawks announced Sunday that Paul Millsap will miss the next two games, at the very least, thanks to a knee injury, with Kent Bazemore expected to miss at least four with a knee ailment of his own that will be re-evaluated in seven to 10 days. Millsap’ situation doesn’t sound serious, but it’s also undeniably jarring that tightness during pregame warmups before Saturday’s heavy matinee loss at home to Portland is what forced Millsap to the sideline. No one’s suggesting this will bring Hawks fans any comfort, but a worthy diversion amid all these ill-timed injuries is reading this candid interview from Hawks center Dwight Howard with our Marc J. Spears.
Didn’t want to mention this in the Bulls’ comment, where we were trying to give Chicagoans some hope, but Detroit entered Sunday’s play with the second-most favorable remaining schedule in the league. Sunday nonetheless could have been disastrous for the Pistons, who faced a double-digit deficit to Phoenix at home in the second half before turning the game around against a Suns team that dressed only eight players. There are realistically five teams playing for the East’s final three playoff spots … six if we continue to count Charlotte. The Pistons, with an assist from the schedule, should find a way to get in from here. Yet something tells us Stan Van Gundy isn’t ready to relax.
A 2-2 swing through the Eastern Conference is a reasonable outcome for the Mavericks given that their 10-24 road record for the season is the third-worst in the West, better only than the Suns’ 9-24 and the Lakers’ 8-29 marks. But it’s the path Dallas took to earn a split of last week’s four games that figures to gnaw at Dirk Nowitzki & Co. for some time, after the Mavs followed up their conquest of the Wizards in one of the league’s most inhospitable buildings by absorbing a 42-point hammering in Philadelphia two nights later. In Nerlens Noel‘s return to Philly, Dallas came away with a 116-74 humbling that marks the first 40-point loss endured by the franchise since a 1997 defeat in Portland that the Blazers inflicted before Nowitzki was drafted. Keeping alive their faint playoffs hope will likely require the Mavs to sweep a challenging four-game homestand — against the Warriors, Clippers, Raptors and Thunder — before closing out the regular season by playing seven of their final nine dates on the road. Tuesday night’s encounter with Golden State, mind you, should be a good one irrespective of the standings, with Seth Curry playing host to 5-0 Steph Curry in the brothers’ sixth head-to-head meeting.
Do Bulls fans dare to dream? After the roller coaster they’ve endured for the past 70 games, should they listen to us — or cover their ears? — when we start talking about the mere one-game lead No. 8 Detroit holds and the Bulls’ increasingly favorable schedule? Entering Sunday’s games, Chicago’s 12 remaining opponents had a composite winning percentage of .419, which ranks as the league’s lowest. Throw in the fact that the Bulls, at the time of Dwyane Wade‘s season-ending elbow injury, were 4.8 points better per 100 possessions this season when Jimmy Butler was on the floor without Wade in 1,067 minutes compared to the 1,206 minutes Butler played alongside him and it’s conceivable that this injury won’t hurt them.
The Pelicans appear intent on taking their enigma status all the way to the regular-season buzzer. They’ve suddenly found an offensive burst in their last five games, going 4-1 with a couple quality home wins over Portland and Houston even though it’s realistically too late now for Boogie Cousins and The Brow to drag this team into playoff position no matter what the standings math says. Sunday night thus might be as good as it gets for Anthony Davis until next season, with a comfortable win over Minnesota, taking The Brow’s career record to 5-0 against fellow Kentucky alum Karl-Anthony Towns.
After an uplifting run in which it won seven of 11 games — including wins over the Warriors, Clippers, Jazz and Wizards — Minnesota just went 0-fer on a three-game swing through Boston, Miami and New Orleans to realistically snuff out any remaining playoff delusions in the Twin Cities. The consolation for the Wolves is that there has been undeniable progress during the season’s second half under new Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau, most notably on the defensive end and in the performances coming from embattled point guard Ricky Rubio. Thibs ultimately made the call not to surrender Rubio at the Feb. 23 trade deadline after serious talks with the Knicks on a Ricky-for-Derrick Rose swap. Rubio has responded to the non-deal with perhaps the best basketball of his NBA career, as evidenced by his numbers since the All-Star break (15.6 PPG, 11.1 APG, 4.4 RPG, .474 shooting and .424 shooting from 3-point range).
The Hornets’ 3 1/2-game deficit behind the eighth-seeded Pistons apparently hasn’t dimmed the respect Charlotte generates from ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. According to the trusty BPI, Cleveland’s second-toughest game left on the schedule is Friday’s trip to Charlotte, where the reigning champs have a mere 53.3 percent chance of winning. The only game rated tougher, of the 14 remaining on the Cavs’ schedule, is an April 10 trip to Miami (50.5 percent). If the Hornets can’t scramble their way back into a playoff berth, one guy you can’t blame is Kemba Walker, who has responded to his first All-Star selection by averaging 24.2 PPG and shooting .419 on 3s and .920 from the free-throw line in 13 games since the break. All of those figures are increases on what Walker was producing to earn his All-Star nod.
The Dario Saric Show rolls on. A 23-point effort Sunday in a narrow home over Boston continued Saric’s strong March, which might just propel him to Rookie of the Year honors given the utter lack of viable candidates out there with teammate Joel Embiid shut down for the season. Saric is averaging 19.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 4.3 APG for the month and looks like he’ll give us at least one rook who breaks into the 1,000-point club for the season. Assuming Saric plays in Philly’s final 13 games, he only has to average a touch more than 10.6 PPG to net the 138 points he still needs.
In the wake of DeMarcus Cousins‘ exit, Sacramento is seeing what it wants to see. Rookie forward Skal Labissiere rumbled for 32 points and 11 rebounds in a victory over Phoenix, making the 20-year-old Haitian this league’s first rook with a 30-and-10 game off the bench in a regulation victory since (gasp) 1980. Buddy Hield, meanwhile, was averaging 13.3 PPG as a member of the Kings on 49.2-percent shooting — including 45.0-percent accuracy from 3-point range — in his first 12 games entering Sunday night’s visit to San Antonio. Best of all for the Kings, they’re featuring these guys while cementing themselves as a team with one of the league’s six worst records, all but assuring that they’ll retain their first-round pick in June. This is how it has to go post-Boogie.
What happens in the front office with Rob Hennigan’s future figures to dominate NBA discussion in Central Florida for the rest of the season, given that there’s so little of note happening on the floor for the Magic entering their final 12 games. One exception, perhaps, is the scheduled return to the lineup this week for Jodie Meeks, who has been sidelined by a dislocated right thumb since Jan. 18. But that’s really about it in terms of on-court developments. How Magic management responds to a fifth straight non-playoff season since trading away Dwight Howard simply has to be the focus from here.
What if I told you that only two NBA teams — the Thunder and the Knicks — have a winning record against San Antonio over the last five seasons? We probably do need a 30 for 30 on the matter to explain how the Knicks will be taking a 5-4 record (from the teams’ last nine meetings) into their annual San Antonio visit Saturday night. Positives about New York’s nightmare campaign are so hard to muster that we feel obliged to pass along any that we stumble across. So here’s another while we take a one-week break in this comment cyberspace from questions about Phil, Melo and which of the Knicks’ two headstrong alphas will last the longest in Gotham: New York quietly clinched a 3-1 season-series win over playoff-bound Indiana between those two recent embarrassing Ls to the Nets. (And if you absolutely need your Phil fix, here’s a link to Ian Begley’s piece on The Zen Master’s three-year anniversary as Knicks president.)
The Nets’ second victory over the Knicks in a span of five days had to be three or four times sweeter than the first, since it brought Brooklyn’s 33-game road losing streak to Eastern Conference opponents to a halt. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the longest such winless drought witnessed in this league since a similar 33-gamer endured by the Nets in their New Jersey days across two seasons (1989-90 and 1990-91). The big question now, entering the season’s final 13 games, is whether Jeremy Lin‘s latest injury (right ankle) is “just a sprain” as described by Nets coach Kenny Atkinson following Sunday’s matinee loss to Dallas. The Nets surely would have taken Lin’s numbers over the course of an entire season, but injuries have limited the veteran point guard to 24 games in his maiden season at Barclays Center.
The Suns have made the call to shelve Eric Bledsoe for the rest of the season to ensure that the recent pain in Bledsoe’s left knee doesn’t morph into anything more than that. That opens the door for Devin Booker to finish the season as the Suns’ leading scorer, with that “duel” — if we can even pretend to call it that — likely the extent of the intrigue we can extract from the Suns’ season at this point. This is also a bit of a reach but Bledsoe and Booker do rank as two of the 33 current players averaging at least 20 PPG, contributing to a new single-season record. The previous single-season high for 20-PPG scorers, according to the league office, was 27.
The Lakers last week became the second team in the league with a tiny “e” next to their name in the standings, signifying a fourth successive season out of the playoffs. We all knew it was coming … but it’s still jarring for anyone who has spent considerable time in Lakerland tracking one of the league’s signature franchises. Before this current drought, remember, this is a team that had never endured a stretch longer than two non-playoff seasons in a row since moving to Los Angeles before the 1960-61 campaign. The Committee will never forget how quickly they rebounded from a rare trip to the lottery in 1994, building a Nick Van Exel-Cedric Ceballos-Eddie Jones core that would soon be supplemented by future Hall of Famers named Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. How long will it take Magic Johnson and Luke Walton to restore these Lakers to glory? It’ll certainly help matters if D’Angelo Russell‘s 40-point show Sunday night in an eventual loss to Cleveland wasn’t an isolated incident.