If the NBA season were just one game, teams would have roughly 12 minutes remaining to make something happen.
The season is entering its fourth quarter, and all we really know is that there is still a lot of basketball still to be played. The playoff race is wide open.
Just 7.5 games separate the second and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference. In the West, as many as five teams will likely battle it out for the final two playoff spots, and it’s too early to write off any of them.
The lines between elite and good, good and average and average and just plain bad are relatively clear this year. Unfortunately, half the league is compromised of middle-of-the-pack squads fighting for a playoff spot.
On the other hand, parity makes for entertaining basketball, and there’s still a lot left to be played.
Let’s take a look at the power rankings heading into the final stretch of the season.
1. Miami Heat (43-14)
Fourteen-game winning streaks speak for themselves. Miami is on a tear right now, and there doesn’t look to be anything standing in its way, especially after mounting a comeback win over the third-place Knicks on Sunday.
With a 6.5-game lead on the Pacers in the Eastern Conference and the best player on the planet on a different level right now, nothing is going to slow down the Heat.
2. San Antonio Spurs (47-14)
Losing Tony Parker will be a difficult challenge, but San Antonio has one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. As long as the Spurs can hold up in Parker’s absence, their three-game lead in the Western Conference should be secure.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (43-16)
After dropping four of its last seven games, Oklahoma City pulled off a big win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. Three games separate the Thunder and Spurs in the West, and the next five games will be crucial for Oklahoma City’s playoff positioning. The Lakers, Knicks, Celtics and Spurs all await a matchup with the Thunder in the coming week.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (43-19)
The Clippers seem like a team still missing something. They haven’t lost many games against lesser opponents, but they still struggle against the top teams in the league. Los Angeles is now 0-3 against the Thunder this season after a 108-104 loss on Sunday.
5. Denver Nuggets (38-22)
There’s very little to dislike about the Nuggets. They have one of the deepest rosters in the league, and Denver’s winning streak prior to the All-Star break was one of the most impressive of the season.
A 25-3 mark at home is impressive, but the Nuggets need to find a way to pick up some wins on the road (13-19) if they are to contend with the elite teams in the Western Conference in the playoffs.
6. Indiana Pacers (38-22)
After the Heat’s thrilling comeback win against the Knicks on Sunday, the Pacers rolled to a 97-92 victory over the Bulls, securing the second spot in the Eastern Conference.
Unlike some of the other top teams in the NBA, Indiana gets it done on the defensive end of the floor. With an 89.6 points-against average, the Pacers’ defense has been its strength. As long as it holds up, Indiana could be a scary team when the playoffs roll around.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (39-19)
Memphis has been one of the hottest teams in the league since February 8, ripping off eight straight wins before finally falling to Miami on March 1. Like the Pacers, the Grizzlies are playing phenomenal defense. They have allowed more than 90 points just four times in their last 10 games.
8. New York Knicks (35-21)
Sunday’s loss to Miami highlighted the issues New York has been having in recent weeks. Inconsistency has plagued the Knicks, and seven road games in the next two weeks won’t make moving back into second place any easier.
9. Houston Rockets (33-28)
The Rockets could be a very scary team in the playoffs—for opponents and Houston fans. No team is scoring more points per game (107), but only one is allowing more points per contest. As long as they continue to light up the scoreboard, though, the Rockets have a good chance of jumping Golden State and Utah in the Western Conference standings.
10. Chicago Bulls (34-26)
The Bulls are starting to come apart at the seams. A 6-9 record since the start of February is not a good sign for a team in desperate need of a boost heading into the playoffs. If Derrick Rose can’t return soon, even making the playoffs may become a big question mark.
11. Boston Celtics (31-27)
No one expected the Celtics to still be hanging around after Rajon Rondo tore his ACL. Instead of phoning it in, Boston has clawed its way into the mix for a playoff seed anywhere between fourth and eighth.
Indiana, Atlanta and Oklahoma City sit ominously on the schedule in the next week, though. Getting through that stretch with at least two wins should give Boston enough momentum to make a late-season push for quality playoff positioning.
12. Los Angeles Lakers (30-30)
Don’t look now, but the Lakers are back to .500 and just 2.5 games out of eighth in the West. It isn’t the situation they thought they would be in this late in the season, but the Lakers just aren’t going away. Winning five of their last six was a good precursor for a big matchup with Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
13. Brooklyn Nets (34-26)
There may not be another team that was in greater need of a big trade deadline deal than the Nets. They didn’t make a big splash before the deadline, though, and there’s little reason to believe they can threaten for a top spot in the east when it’s all said and done. Brooklyn isn’t a bad basketball team, but it’s missing something to break through the barrier of the best teams in the conference.
14. Atlanta Hawks (33-25)
The Hawks sit in a three-way tie with Chicago and Brooklyn for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, but both of those teams are probably more legitimate title contenders at this point. Atlanta plays well for long stretches, but it can’t seem to close out tight games in the fourth quarter against quality opponents.
15. Utah Jazz (32-27)
The next 10 days of the season could decide the fate of the Jazz this season. With the Rockets and Lakers on its heels, Utah plays on the road in five of its next six contests. A 10-19 road mark for the season suggests the next week-plus could be pretty bumpy for the Jazz.
16. Golden State Warriors (33-27)
Stephen Curry has been lights-out lately, and his season stats are starting to edge into the “elite” range.
After losing five of their last nine games, Golden State took a hit in the playoff race, but a home-heavy schedule to finish the season should allow the Warriors to remain in contention for one of the better playoff spots outside the top three.
17. Milwaukee Bucks (29-28)
Adding J.J. Redick proved to be a big boost for the Bucks following the trade deadline. After losing nine of 11 games from January 30 to February 23, Milwaukee has pulled off three-straight quality wins, and it now faces an Eastern Conference playoff race that is wide open beyond Miami, Indiana and New York.
18. Portland Trail Blazers (27-31)
The Trail Blazers represent the cutoff between playoff contenders and those teams that will likely slide back in the standings when it’s all said and done. Portland has the foundation for a big offseason and a lot of improvement for next year, but a recent 2-8 skid hasn’t helped its prospects for this season.
19. Dallas Mavericks (26-33)
The trade deadline fire sale never happened, but it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The Mavericks aren’t in any shape to make a late-season push for the playoffs. With a 136-103 blowout loss to the Rockets in the rear view, Dallas must once against face the best offensive team in the league on Wednesday.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (20-39)
Cleveland was considered a serious contender for the first overall pick in this year’s draft, but the Cavs’ young talent has started to find a way to win some games. Even with Kyrie Irving sidelined, Cleveland stole wins from Chicago and Toronto, and the trio of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller is starting to look like a legitimate building block to pair with Irving for the coming years.
21. Toronto Raptors (23-37)
A four-game losing streak has pushed the Raptors 21.5 games out of first in the East and 7.5 out of eighth place. Things went well in February, but Toronto is starting to come back to earth. A playoff berth isn’t in the cards this season.
22. Philadelphia 76ers (23-35)
While the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture is still foggy, the cutoff between the eighth seed and missing the playoffs is pretty clear. Philadelphia trails eighth place Milwaukee by 6.5 games.
To make matters worse, Andrew Bynum may need more surgery (per USA Today), effectively ending any hopes of a return this season. Regrouping for next season seems to be the 76ers best option at this point.
23. Washington Wizards (19-39)
With an 8-4 mark in its last 12, things are starting to look up for Washington this year. John Wall is back, Bradley Beal is playing terrific basketball of late, and there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful for the future.
24. Phoenix Suns (21-39)
For a team with relatively little direction, the Suns have played some good basketball in the last week. Wins over Minnesota, San Antonio and Atlanta were impressive, but don’t expect that kind of success to continue for long. Two contests with the Rockets and a game against the Nuggets pepper the schedule in the next 10 days.
25. Sacramento Kings (21-40)
Last place in the West would be good enough for 12th in the east, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sacramento is near the bottom of the league in nearly every team category (save points per game). With the direction of the team in flux, it’s hard to fault Sacramento’s on-court product for its record. The Kings have some nice young pieces in place for the future.
26. Detroit Pistons (23-39)
Detroit is 3-7 in its last 10, and there’s not much to look forward to this season except for player development. The Pistons have the ammunition to make a big splash this offseason. Unfortunately, that’s where the focus will soon turn.
27. New Orleans Hornets (21-39)
Eric Gordon and Greivis Vasquez have been a nice duo in the Hornets’ backcourt, and it’s certainly a good sign that Vasquez has played so well this season. New Orleans may not be in the hunt for the playoffs this year, but don’t be surprised to see the Hornets turn some heads in the next couple seasons.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (20-36)
The Timberwolves desperately need Kevin Love back in the lineup. Should he return soon, Minnesota has a chance to add some quality wins to its schedule, but the playoffs are already 10.5 games out of sight.
29. Orlando Magic (16-44)
The final 22 games are all about positioning. Orlando won’t be trying to lose ballgames to close out the year, but it isn't that far away from Charlotte for the league’s worst record. A No. 1 pick isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
30. Charlotte Bobcats (13-46)
The statistics aren’t pretty. Charlotte is 27th in points per game, 28th in points allowed and 31 games out of first place in the Eastern Conference. Losing by 66 combined points in the last two games doesn’t help matters.