NBA Power Rankings: Playoff Contenders Rising Down the Stretch

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NBA Power Rankings: Playoff Contenders Rising Down the Stretch
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This is the time in the NBA season when teams distinguish whether they are contenders or pretenders.

Some playoff contenders are raising their level of play down the stretch and showing signs of improvement on the hardwood. 

After all, it's not how you start, but how you finish, right?

From a team on the Western Conference showing more chemistry to a team using the thin air to its advantage, here's a look at playoff contenders rising down the stretch (in italics).

 

1. Miami Heat (44-14)

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The Heat have won 15 straight games. During that span, they have beaten the Knicks, Bulls, Thunder, Lakers, Clippers and Rockets. The Big Three are rolling.

 

2. Oklahoma City Thunder (44-16)

The Thunder hold the best point differential in the league, and they've won 32 games by 10 points or more. They have scorers, shot-blockers and three-point shooters. It could be a rematch in the NBA Finals this year.

 

3. San Antonio Spurs (47-14)

The Spurs have the second-best point differential in the league, and they are 8-2 in their last 10 games. But, for me, the absence of Tony Parker drops them down a spot.

 

4. Los Angeles Clippers (43-19)

The Clippers have won eight of their last 10 games, and they rank in the top 10 in points per game and points allowed per contest. The duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin continues to impress.

 

5. Indiana Pacers (38-22)

The Pacers have gone 7-3 in their past 10 games, and they rank second in the NBA in points per game allowed. David West was out of his mind on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls. Who needs Danny Granger?

 

6. Memphis Grizzlies (39-19)

The Grizzlies have allowed the fewest points per game in the NBA, and they've gone 9-1 in their past 10 games. That includes wins over the Nets and Warriors.

 

7. Denver Nuggets (39-22)

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The Nuggets are rolling right now. They've won five straight games, and they rank in the top three in points, rebounds and assists per game.

George Karl has the Nuggets playing well together and the depth on the roster is showing. Six different players are averaging in double-digits.

And forget about playing the Nuggets in Denver. They are 26-3 at home this season.

 

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8. Los Angeles Lakers (30-31)

The Lakers may have lost to the Thunder on Tuesday night, but there's no question they have been playing better lately. They've won five of their last seven games since the All-Star break.

Los Angeles may be just outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference, but Kobe Bryant isn't going to go down without a fight. He's scored 29 points or more in six straight games, while shooting 55 percent during that span.

 

9. New York Knicks (36-21)

The Knicks have won four of their last five games after a four-game losing streak. The only loss was a 99-93 defeat to the Heat. But it goes without saying that Carmelo Anthony's health is key moving forward.

 

10. Houston Rockets (33-28)

The Rockets have gone 6-4 in their last 10 games. That includes victories over the Thunder, Warriors and Nets. The highest-scoring team in the NBA can explode on you, evidenced by the 136-103 thrashing of the Mavericks on Sunday.

 

11. Boston Celtics (32-27)

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The Celtics may be aging, but they continue to find ways to win. They've won six of their last 10 games, and they've beaten the Warriors and Jazz in that span.

They've been playing tenacious defense lately—holding the Warriors to 34 percent shooting—and Doc Rivers continues to move on without Rajon Rondo.

 

12. Chicago Bulls (34-26)

It's no mystery that the Bulls are based on defense and rebounding with Derrick Rose out of action. Their offense is bland without the star point guard. They've gone 4-6 in their last 10 games.

 

13. Golden State Warriors (34-27)

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The return of Andrew Bogut on Monday in the 125-118 victory over the Raptors was a good sign for the Warriors. Golden State can shoot lights out, but how far they go ultimately depends on their defense. 

 

14. Atlanta Hawks (33-26)

The Hawks have lost three straight games, but they gave the Lakers a run for their money during that stretch. Atlanta needs to be consistent to be taken seriously.

 

15. Brooklyn Nets (34-26)

The Nets are ranked in the top five in points per game allowed, but that's a misleading number: They are allowing opponents to shoot 46.5 percent from the floor, which ranks near the bottom of the league. Allowing the Bulls to shoot 52 percent from the floor on Saturday was a prime example.

 

16. Utah Jazz (32-28)

Utah has gone 4-6 in its last 10 games, and the 109-108 overtime loss to the Bucks on Monday was brutal. There's nothing eye-opening about the Jazz except for their rebounding, which is why they are clinging to the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

 

17. Milwaukee Bucks (30-28)

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The Bucks have won four straight games, including the thriller against the Jazz on Monday. The offense has all of a sudden caught fire—the Bucks have scored 109 points or more in their last three games.

Milwaukee is 6-4 in games decided by three points or less and 3-2 in overtime games. It's a good sign for a team trying to come together.

 

18. Dallas Mavericks (26-33)

The Mavericks have lost four of their last five games, including the blowout loss to the Rockets on Sunday. "Consistency" needs to be a word that is ingrained in the mindset of the Mavericks. 

 

19. Portland Trail Blazers (28-31)

After a seven-game losing streak, the Trail Blazers have won three of their last four games. The defense needs to improve before Portland can go anywhere, though. The team ranks 27th in opponent field goal percentage.

 

20. Toronto Raptors (23-38)

The Raptors have lost five straight games. When the defense steps up, the offense falters. When the offense starts rolling, the defense falls off. There hasn't been consistent effort on both sides of the ball lately.

 

21. Washington Wizards (19-39)

The Wizards may be 19-39, but they've won eight of their last 12 games, including victories over the Clippers, Knicks, Nets, Bucks, Nuggets and Rockets. Talk about a resurgence. 

 

22. Cleveland Cavaliers (20-40)

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The Cavaliers have gone 4-6 in their last 10 games. But they beat the Bulls during that span and played the Heat and Knicks close. Progress is the key with this young squad.

 

23. New Orleans Hornets (21-40)

The Hornets' defense still has the improve. They are allowing opponents to shoot 46.5 percent from the floor—near the bottom of the league—and they just allowed the Magic to shoot 49 percent in the 105-102 loss on March 4.

 

24. Phoenix Suns (21-39)

The Suns have one of the worst point differentials in the league this season, but recent wins over the Spurs and the Hawks have to be encouraging. It's no coincidence that they've won their last three games while playing better defense.

 

25. Philadelphia 76ers (23-35)

The 76ers are in the midst of a massive free fall, losing nine of their last 10 games. The offense has skidded to a halt during that span.

 

26. Detroit Pistons (23-39)

The Pistons are a decent rebounding team, but there's not a whole lot that excites. The 114-75 loss to the Spurs on Sunday was proof of that.

 

27. Minnesota Timberwolves (20-37)

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves have lost their last six games and the offense is hard to watch. They are ranked 28th in the NBA in overall field goal percentage (43.3 percent) and 30th from downtown (29.7 percent).

 

28. Sacramento Kings (21-40)

The Kings have lost seven of their last nine games. Their only wins came against the Magic and the Bobcats. This team just doesn't know how to play defense, and it's painful to watch. They rank 29th in opponent field-goal percentage this season.

 

29. Orlando Magic (17-44)

The Magic have the second-worst point differential in the league, and they've gone 2-8 in their last 10 contests. They've lost 20 games by 10 points or more this season.

 

30. Charlotte Bobcats (13-47)

The Bobcats have the worst point differential by far (-10.3 per game), and they've lost an NBA-high 27 games by 10 points or more. They rank 27th in points per game, 28th in points allowed per game, 24th in rebounds per contest and 30th in assists per game. Just bad.

 

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