Bucks hold on to top spot but 76ers, Celtics close
Not much movement at the top of the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings this week as teams racked up wins as they jockeyed for playoff seeding. A few teams, such as Miami, are climbing.
1. Bucks (51-20, Last week No. 1). If you believe the MVP should be the best player from the best team, then Giannis Antetokounmpo is your guy — and he has been gaining support in recent weeks (helped in part by the Nuggets’ slide). Antetokounmpo himself is less focused on that award and more on securing the No.1 seed in the East and its easier path through the playoffs. The Bucks have a cushion (three games in the loss column over the 76ers and Celtics) and just have to hold on to it through the four-game road trip that starts Friday in Utah. The most interesting game of that trip is Saturday in Denver, a battle of No.1 seeds.
2. 76ers (48-23, LW 2).Tyrese Maxey has found his groove of late, averaging 22.1 points and 3.4 assists a game in March — his attacking offense has been a critical part of the 76ers’ hot streak (eight straight wins until a loss to the Bulls on Monday). Joel Embiid‘s play — and with its resurgent MVP case — has also been at the heart of that run, but can he keep it going during a four-game road trip. The game everyone has circled on their calendar is Monday when the 76ers travel to Denver and Joel Embiid squares off against Nikola Jokić in a game that will take on outsized importance.
3. Celtics (50-23, LW 3).Robert Williams III returned to the court Tuesday night in an impressive win over the Kings. This matters — Williams will be key for this Celtics team to match up with Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and maybe even in the first round if they face Miami. They simply are not the same defensively or on the glass if he is not right. The other thing the Celtics need to be changed? Jayson Tatum is hitting just 29.2% of his 3-pointers since the All-Star break. Winnable games this week against the Pacers, Spurs, and Wizards.
4. Cavaliers (46-28, LW 4). Cleveland has won 7-of-9, but the two losses (one to the Heat in Miami, the other to Philadelphia) raise some questions about what kind of playoff threat the Cavaliers really are. The loss to the 76ers was the second night of a back-to-back, and Jarrett Allen was out, but it was still troubling. The Cavaliers appear headed for a 4/5 first-round playoff showdown with a scrappy Knicks team, but Cleveland will have the best player on the court in that series in Donovan Mitchell (the one they let get away in New York), and he can do things like this.
5. Nuggets (48-24, LW 5). Denver won 2-of-3 on the road this week, at least stemming the recent slide (although it will take more than just a couple of wins to give a jolt to the narrative around Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy). The real tests are awaiting when they arrive home: Milwaukee on Saturday and Joel Embiid and the 76ers on Monday. Those games are measuring sticks for the Nuggets as they prepare for the postseason, but they also will take on outsized importance in the narrative about the MVP (fair or not).
6. Grizzlies (44-27, LW 7).Ja Morant is set to return to the court Wednesday, but Dillon Brooks will be out that night due to a suspension, and that gets at the heart of the bigger issue with the Grizzlies — they have to be disciplined if they want to make a deep playoff run. NBC Sports basketball analyst Corey Robinson talks about the Grizzlies’ “punk rock attitude” which has both been part of what fuels them and part of what trips them up. In a West open for the taking, the Grizzlies have the talent, but they must be disciplined. They also have to get Steven Adams back, they miss him badly on the court and it appears he might be back for the playoffs, but nothing is for sure.
7. Kings (43-29, LW 6). The Kings will make the playoffs as a No.2 or 3 seed, but the ugly loss to the Celtics at home only fuels the questions about how deep a run this team can make in the playoffs with its 24th-ranked defense. (It should be noted that the Celtics game was the second night of a back-to-back for the Kings and their fifth game in seven days.) The Kings have a run in them with their versatile, impossible-to-stop offense, but it will depend on matchups — there are some dangerous teams in the bottom half of the West bracket. Who will the Kings’ face, how healthy will they be and matchups will be deciding factors. The Kings are good enough to make the conference finals, but there will be no easy paths in the West this year.
8. Knicks (42-31, LW 8). Josh Hart wants to stay in New York and the feeling is mutual among Knicks faithful, but the question, as always is money. The Knicks can offer four years, $51 million, but if another team comes in over the top at the restricted free agent (likely with a poison-pill Arenas rule offer) New York’s front office will have a decision to make. The Knicks appear headed for the No. 5 seed, but two of their next four games are against the Heat, New York needs a split there and not to go on a little losing streak to hold on to that spot.
9. Suns (38-33, LW 10). Phoenix has dropped 4-of-5, and them holding on to the No. 4 seed no longer feels like a sure thing, the Clippers are just one game back and the Warriors two games. The problem over those five games has been the Suns’ offense, which is 26th in the league for those games — that’s something Kevin Durant would fix just walking in the door. Durant (left ankle sprain) will be re-evaluated next week and back for at least a handful of the Suns’ remaining games. That means the Suns need wins and they have a tough week ahead with the Lakers, Kings and 76ers on the schedule.
10. Clippers (38-35, LW 12). The Clippers have won 5-of-7, with one of those losses coming in the game Kawhi Leonard sat out. That is not a coincidence, as Law Murray of The Athletic noted, the Clippers have lost seven in a row when Leonard sits and are 3-14 in their last 17 without him. Now the Clippers will need to win the next couple of weeks without Paul George, who will be re-evaluated from a knee sprain in 2-3 weeks. The Clippers are just one game out of four seed with some winnable games this week against OKC, the Pelicans and Bulls.
11. Heat (39-34, LW 11). Miami is making a push to catch the stripped-down Nets for the No.6 seed and avoiding the play-in — they are only half a game back, but Brooklyn has the tiebreaker so it is more like 1.5 games. That makes the Saturday night showdown against the Nets must win. Beyond that one game, the on-again/off-again Heat — beat the Grizzles and Cavaliers, lose to the Bulls — need consistency. And they need Max Strus and some other role players to start hitting their 3-pointers.
12. Warriors (37-36, LW 9). The Warriors snapped their 11-game road losing streak against lowly Houston, but that “winning streak” will get put to the test Wednesday night against Dallas — most importantly, can the Warriors start getting stops on the road? Their defense is 28th in the league on the road, but third-best (and more than 11 points per 100 possessions better) at home. After Wednesday the Warriors have 5-of-6 at home and they need to take advantage of that stretch and lock in their place in the top six in the West. Really good test at home Friday against the 76ers and MVP-candidate Joel Embiid.
13. Mavericks (36-36, LW 14). Dallas went 2-3 in games Luka Dončić missed with a left thigh strain, but the good news is he will be back Wednesday night in a critical showdown against the Warriors, two teams battling for the No.6 seed in the West (Golden State currently hold the spot, but the teams are tied in the loss column). The bad news for Dallas is Kyrie Irving will be out with right foot soreness after Dillon Brooks stepped on his foot in the Memphis game. The Mavericks could use a big night (or few games, if Irving is out) from Jaden Harvey, who will see a minutes bump. After the Warriors the Mavs have winnable games this week against the Hornets (twice) and the Pacers).
14. Thunder (36-36, LW 17). Look who sits at the No.7 seed in the West — the Thunder are not tanking, they are thinking postseason. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is leading that charge and cementing his All-NBA status, scoring 40 points Sunday in a win over the Suns, then dropping 31 on the Clippers on Tuesday. One thing that makes stopping the Thunder difficult is the size of their backcourt — Gilgeous-Alexander is 6’6″ and Josh Giddey is 6’8″. The Thunder started 1-0 on their West Coast road trip (a quick-trigger referee helped with that) and they have the Clippers (again), Lakers and Blazers to round out the trip.
15. Nets (39-33, LW 13). The Nets have dropped four in a row and can feel the Heat… sorry, that joke/line bothered even me. And I wrote it. But with Miami just one game back and eyeing the No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in, Brooklyn needs wins (and to get some stops, it’s their defense that is letting them down right now). The good news is the Nets have the third easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, but it doesn’t show in the shop term with the Cavaliers up next then a critical game against those Heat.
16. Raptors (35-37, LW 19). It’s the story of their season — Toronto has a +5.1 net rating over its last six games, but just a 3-3 record. For the season, they have the point differential of a team that is 38-34 (which would only move them up one spot to eighth in the East). The Raptors have a three-game cushion, and they are not falling out of the play-in, but the real target is the Hawks at No. 8 — the Raptors are just one game back of that easier path to the playoffs. They have winnable games this week against the Pacers, Pistons and Wizards, the Raptors just need to keep their focus.
17. Lakers 35-37, LW 18).Austin Reaves is earning the big payday he has coming this offseason (four years, $50ish million sounds about right), but the Lakers need more than that to get into the playoffs. They need peak Anthony Davis for a full 48 minutes. And they need LeBron James back from his foot tendon issue, he should be coming up for re-evaluation soon and has hinted on social media he is getting closer to a return. The Lakers have three more at home this week (Suns, Thunder, Bulls) before heading out on the road for five.
18. Timberwolves (36-37, LW 15).Karl-Anthony Towns is returning Wednesday after missing 51 games with a calf injury, a huge boost to the Timberwolves — but also presents a challenge. It’s hard to integrate any player who deserves a lot of offensive touches back into the rhythm of a team used to playing without him, and the fit the 21 games Towns played to open the season was clunky. It should be easier with a distributor in Mike Conley at the point (as opposed to D’Angelo Russell). Anthony Edwards‘s status is still up in the air as of this writing, but it’s good news that he will not miss much time. The Timberwolves need wins and face the Hawks, Warriors and Kings up this week.
19. Hawks (36-36, LW 16). Fans in Atlanta who remember the bump the team got when Lloyd Pierce was pushed out and Nate McMillan became the head coach have wondered why there hasn’t been the same thing with Quin Snyder in the door. It’s a very different situation, and Snyder hasn’t had the chance to install his offense (or tweak the roster). Snyder was a long-term hire. In the short term the goal is to hang on to the No.8 seed and hold off the surging Raptors, which means finding wins in games against the Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Pacers and Cavaliers. No easy task.
20. Bulls (34-37, LW 23). The Chicago Bulls needed a fire lit under them this season — that’s what Patrick Beverley excels at. The Bulls are 8-4 since signing Beverley on the buyout market with the second-best net rating in the league over that stretch (+7.9), and that has moved them up to the No.10 seed and the play in with a 2.5 game cushion to keep it. Beverley is not a quiet guy who just leads by example, his voice made a difference. It also helps Zach LaVine is averaging 29.9 points a game and shooting 45% from in those dozen games as well.
21. Jazz (35-36, LW 21). So much for tanking. We thought the Jazz bought tickets for the Wembanyama sweepstakes last summer, but they started the season 10-4. After trading away a lot of depth and quality at the deadline it was thought the tanking would start in earnest, but after a dip the Jazz are back into the top 10 and looking like a possible play-in team. Walker Kessler is drawing the headlines with his play this season, but guard Ochai Agbaji has stepped up in recent weeks, including 27 points against the Kings. Utah has a couple of keepers on the roster.
22. Pelicans (35-37, LW 20).Zion Williamson will be out at least two more weeks (through April 5) while the Pelicans are making their playoff push. Not good news for a team that has fallen to the No.12 seed and needs to string together some wins to make the postseason (things have gotten so bad they have the same record as the Lakers — with whom they have a pick swap this year). The Pelicans head out on the road Saturday for four, facing the Clippers, Blazers, Warriors and Nuggets — a tough challenge for a team needing wins.
23. Wizards (32-40, LW 22). Washington has gone 3-11 since the All-Star break and fallen 2.5 games out of the final play-in spot in the East. They will need help from teams currently playing well in the Bulls and Raptors to have a shot at making the postseason. That’s troubling for a team that entered the season with top-six aspirations — some hard questions are coming this summer. This week the Nuggets, Spurs and Raptors are on the schedule.
24. Pacers (32-40, LW 25). There are bright spots on this roster — Tyrese Haliburton, Myles Turner, Bennedict Mathurin — but it has just not come together, particularly on the defensive end. The Raptors are on the road for their next three, and it will be a tough trip: Toronto, Boston and Atlanta.
25. Magic 30-43, LW 26). Orlando is playing the role of spoiler well with some quality on the court in recent wins against Miami, the Clippers and the Wizards. While Paolo Banchero draws the headlines (and will win Rookie of the Year) it’s been the backcourt of a revived Markelle Fultz along with some good nights from Cole Anthony that has these Magic looking like a team that will not go quietly into the offseason.
26. Trail Blazers (31-40, LW 24). While some media outlets ran with this, don’t take Damian Lillard‘s recent comments as a sign he wants out of Portland. The Blazers aren’t going to trade him unless he asks out and league sources have told NBC Sports nobody expects him to (at least for the next year). He’s just frustrated with the losing and is at least considering shutting it down for the season, which is understandable. Portland has lost six in a row and are four games out of the last play-in spot — their postseason dreams are done. Starting Friday against the Bulls, the Blazers are home for five in a row.
27. Hornets (23-50, LW 27). Michael Jordan selling his majority shares of the Hornets has generally been seen as a positive for the franchise around the league. This is a team in need of new investments in practice/training facilities and more, and the new owners can step in and make a difference there right away. It’s also good for the league that Jordan will hang on to a minority ownership share of the team, it’s important for the GOAT to remain involved with the league.
28. Rockets (18-54, LW 28). With a bottom three record (and with it the best possible lottery odds) locked up, coach Stephen Silas has been able to lean into his young core and turn them loose, and they picked up some quality wins against the Celtics, Lakers and Pelicans (New Orleans even that out a couple of nights later). This week Jalen Green and the Rockets head out on the road, starting with two games against Memphis, followed by the Cavaliers.
29. Spurs (19-53, LW 29). The 24-point comeback win against the Hawks showed some heart from San Antonio, but this has been a rough season. Which was to be expected, but this will be the Spurs’ fourth straight season of missing the playoffs and the turnaround has been slow. Some luck — first with the draft, then with health — could turn things around pretty quickly. Part of the challenge this season was all the time Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson missed due to injuries.
30. Pistons (16-57, LW 30). No team is poised for a faster bounce back next season — get Cade Cunningham back healthy and put him next to Jaden Ivey, Isaiah Stewart, James Wiseman (who has spread his wings a little in the Motor City), veteran Bojan Bogdanovic, plus whoever they draft, and the Pistons could easily be in the play-in mix. Up on the schedule this week for Detroit are the Raptors and Bucks, to tough asks.
NBA Power Rankings: Bucks hold on to top spot but 76ers, Celtics close originally appeared on NBCSports.com