NBA Power Rankings: Final Standings Heading into Postseason Action
The fast approach of the NBA postseason marks a bittersweet moment for yours truly.
On the one hand, I'm beyond pumped for all things playoff-related: the incredible first-round matchups; the hotly anticipated playoff debuts of rising stars like Stephen Curry, Brook Lopez and James Harden 2.0; the Miami Heat's quest to not only win a second title, but validate their 27-game winning streak in the process; and the absence of also-rans like the Charlotte Bobcats, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings (among others).
On the other hand, the end of the regular season also brings with it the conclusion of our weekly romp through the Association—in which we rank all 30 teams against one another in the most powerful way possible.
Subjectively, that is.
Not that there won't be plenty of fun and exciting playoff-related reading material to keep you and me busy until summer.
In any case, it's been a good ride slotting the NBA's squads for you folks. But like all good things, this, too, must come to an end.
Until next season, anyway.
But before we all hunker down into full-on playoff mode, here's a look at how every team stacks up at the tail end of what's been a memorable 2012-13 campaign.
30. Charlotte Bobcats
How fitting that the Charlotte Bobcats reclaim their spot in the NBA basement just in time for the end of the regular season. They've all but secured the worst record in the league for the second year running, "thanks" to a three-game losing streak against tough, playoff-bound opponents.
Now comes the "fun" part for Charlotte. The 'Cats will anxiously wait for Tuesday, May 21, when the lottery determines the official order of the 2013 NBA draft. They'll have the best chance of landing the No. 1 pick, which, in this weak class of entrants, seems designated for Nerlens Noel and his bum knee.
Then again, the 'Cats had the most ping-pong balls last year, and even that couldn't keep the New Orleans Hornets from sneaking to the top for Anthony Davis.
29. Phoenix Suns
How the Phoenix Suns managed to beat the Dallas Mavericks, fighting for their playoff lives, on the road during the second night of a back-to-back is one of those cosmic mysteries that leave you no choice but to throw your hands up and ask why bad things happen to good teams.
Perhaps the Suns were simply tired of losing. They'd dropped 10 games in a row to carve out a comfortable spot at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Perhaps the Mavs were tired of battling to keep their postseason streak going and the Suns were fortunate to catch them at the right time.
But lest we get too wrapped up in this Phoenix win, let's give these Suns some dap for finding new and inventive ways to lose. We may never again see an ending like the one that closed out Phoenix's 101-98 loss to the Houston Rockets—with Jermaine O'Neal goaltending a bricked three-point attempt by James Harden at the end of regulation.
Basketball gods, consider me at your mercy.
28. Orlando Magic
You don't have to look too hard to see the promise inherent in the future of the Orlando Magic. Their 113-103 overtime win against the Milwaukee Bucks indicated as much.
Granted, the Bucks did everything they could to let the Magic back into the game in regulation. But to Orlando's credit, the team's youngsters were hungry and ready to seize the opportunity when it presented itself.
Tobias Harris missed a free throw at the end of the fourth quarter that would've sealed the deal for Orlando. Aside from that, it's tough to find fault in his 30-point, 19-rebound, five-assist performance. The same goes for Nikola Vucevic's 30-20-5, Maurice Harkless' 14-4-1 and even Doron Lamb's 16-4-2 off the bench.
Whether any of these guys stick in central Florida over the long haul is anybody's guess at this point. More importantly, they've all shown flashes of considerable talent, which is all general manager Rob Hennigan needs as he looks to find a diamond in the rough (or two) around which to build.
27. Cleveland Cavaliers
It's been a tough year for the Cleveland Cavaliers, to say the least.
Injuries to Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao (among others); poor play on both ends of the floor from most of the healthy(ish) principals; and massive comebacks like the ones registered by the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers at Cleveland's expense have combined to prolong the pain and misery of the post-LeBron James era.
But hey, at least there's some cause for hope in the Forest City. Irving's blossomed into an All-Star performer faster than anyone expected, Waiters and Tristan Thompson both look like productive rotation players, and the Cavs will have yet another plum pick at their disposal, albeit in a lousy draft.
Best of all, if Cleveland can get its ducks in a reasonable row next season, it just might be able to lure LeBron back to his old stomping grounds in 2014...or something.
A Kid (Cudi) can dream, can't he?
26. Portland Trail Blazers
Are the Portland Trail Blazers actually the fifth-worst team in the NBA? Certainly not. Their bench has been terrible all season, but their foundation of All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, eventual Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and talented swingmen Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews should serve as a solid foundation for a playoff push in 2014.
But it's tough to ignore nine losses in a row, especially when the latest effort featured four rookies in the starting lineup for the first time in franchise history.
However, all nine of those defeats have come against teams that are either in the playoffs or—in the case of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks—battling on the fringes.
So long as the bench and the defense both improve over the summer, expect to see the Blazers bring playoff basketball back to the Rose Garden in short order.
25. New Orleans Hornets
I'm sure the New Orleans Hornets would agree that there's no substitute for good health in the NBA. Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, the Hornets' two most talented players, have had particularly tough luck in this regard, missing 15 and 40 games, respectively, on account of injury.
Gordon's future on the Bayou is uncertain, given his previously expressed desires for employment elsewhere. The Hornets could do worse than hanging on to him, assuming he can keep his knees in working order with any consistency.
Davis remains the more pivotal player to New Orleans' future. He's come on strong since returning from his most recent setback on March 4, with averages of 16.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.7 blocks in 19 games since then.
However, his slender frame remains an issue. Davis sprained his left knee while taking a charge against Marcus Thornton during the fourth quarter of an 11-point loss to the Sacramento Kings. He'll need to bulk up considerably if he's to absorb punishment in the paint on a nightly basis without having to make regular trips to the training room.
On the bright side, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, the 'Brow has already been hard at work packing on the pounds...by way of persistent pizza cravings.
In New Orleans, where the proper regional cuisine is both delectable and plenty fattening, that shouldn't be a problem.
24. Sacramento Kings
There might be some promise yet in the 2013-14 season for the Sacramento Kings, regardless of where they wind up playing.
They've played surprisingly solid ball down the stretch, with narrow losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies of late. Those games have epitomized both the promise of the talent on hand and the frustration of an organization that is a cesspool of poison from top to bottom.
So long as the Maloofs and general manager Geoff Petrie aren't involved going forward, the Kings may yet return to their former winning ways before the next decade rolls around.
That is, assuming new management deals with the bad apples (DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw, etc.) in one way or another. Otherwise, the Kings' current culture of losing might just as easily infect the incoming regime.
23. Detroit Pistons
Here are a few things that we know about the Detroit Pistons after yet another down year in the Motor City:
1. Greg Monroe is a solid building block but still has a ways to go on both ends of the floor before he can rightly be considered All-Star material.
2. Andre Drummond, raw and young though he may be, is already a highly promising and productive player and might be a bona fide star in this league, so long as the Pistons take the time to teach him how to play and don't bring him along too quickly.
3. Brandon Knight's season has been chock-full of embarrassing moments, though the kid's got talent and should be a solid fixture in Detroit, assuming the Pistons don't try to force him in as a point guard.
4. Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva are still wastes of cap space, and the sting from the Darko Milicic disaster has yet to fully subside, even going on 10 years since.
So what's on tap for the summer? A steady point guard, Jose Calderon or otherwise, would be nice. So would some fiscal responsibility in free agency on the part of general manager Joe Dumars.
One miracle at a time, folks.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Now that the Minnesota Timberwolves' season-long rendition of Team, Interrupted has nearly run its course, folks in the Twin Cities can finally look forward to beautiful weather throughout the spring and summer, followed by a retreat indoors to watch some solid, steady, playoff-caliber basketball during the fall and winter...right?
That's the idea, anyway. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio both figure to be fully healthy, Alexey Shved and Derrick Williams will both be a year older and wiser, and the roster will include a shiny, new lottery pick from the 2013 NBA draft.
But as is so often the case with sports in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, opportunities for disappointment to strike again are all too abundant.
Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic could be gone via free agency, head coach Rick Adelman might retire to spend more time with his ailing wife, and much-maligned GM David Kahn will be at the controls deciding which player from an underwhelming draft class gets to join the T-Wolves.
Remember, Kahn is the guy who picked Jonny Flynn ahead of Stephen Curry and traded Ty Lawson to the Denver Nuggets in 2009, bombed with Wesley Johnson at No. 4 in 2010 and sold Chandler Parsons' draft rights to the Houston Rockets in 2011.
Beware the ice on the lake if Kahn's nearby. He's bound to crack it with his skates.
21. Philadelphia 76ers
There's a light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel of a most disappointing season for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The team can wipe the wearisome flotsam from its slate this offseason if it so chooses. Andrew Bynum and his bowling-ravaged knees will be available in free agency, and Doug Collins, who tends to wear out his welcome wherever he goes, will face an unprecedented fourth season in the same locale.
The Sixers would do well to not afford him that fourth campaign.
If they're smart, the Sixers will use the smoldering wreckage of the 2012-13 season, as well as the few bright spots from it (i.e. Jrue Holiday's first half, Thaddeus Young's all-around solid play), to serve as a guide for what they should and shouldn't do this summer.
Just don't underestimate the appeal of a possible do-over to Philly's front office, especially if they (think they) can lure Bynum back at something of a discount.
20. Washington Wizards
I know I haven't shut up about John Wall for the last month or so, but I certainly have good reason for blathering on about him. The guy's been nothing short of spectacular on a nightly basis as the health of his knee and his overall conditioning have improved.
In the last week alone, Wall scored 37 points against the typically stingy Indiana Pacers, dropped 33 on the New York Knicks and fell just one rebound shy of a triple-double opposite the (admittedly depleted) Miami Heat.
If a few more of those superhuman efforts had resulted in wins for the Washington Wizards, I just might've been compelled to include Wall among the NBA's top 10 superstars.
That's a list on which Wall will most certainly belong if he carries his current momentum into the 2013-14 season.
19. Toronto Raptors
Who cares if the folks at The Basketball Jones have already buried the Toronto Raptors?
Apparently, not the Raptors themselves. They've won three of their last four games, including road victories against the T-Wolves and the Chicago Bulls, to pull themselves within a game of ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
Yeah, I know...whoopdee-frickin'-doo, right? Toronto will be lottery-bound for the fifth straight season, regardless of what happens on the court during the next handful of days.
At least the players are having fun and making the most of these last few games. That's more than you can say for most teams stuck in the doldrums of the NBA.
18. Milwaukee Bucks
If not for the Miami Heat being the No. 1 seed in the East, the Milwaukee Bucks would have a hard time getting any of their upcoming playoff games on television. The Bucks have dropped four of their last five games and are just 5-12 dating back to mid-March.
In their two most recent outings, the Bucks were helpless to stop a Heat squad missing two-thirds of its Big Three and practically gave the game away to the mediocre Magic at the end of regulation before lying down completely in overtime.
Of course, it doesn't help that Milwaukee lost Brandon Jennings and LARRY SANDERS! to injury during the loss in Orlando—not then, and certainly not going forward. Even with their full complement of players, the Bucks were already cruisin' for a first-round bruisin' against the defending champs.
If Jennings and SANDERS! aren't fit to go next weekend, expect Milwaukee's punishment from Miami to be swift and severe.
17. Dallas Mavericks
Once the Dallas Mavericks emerged from their 20-point pummeling at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers on April 2, it was only a matter of time until Dirk Nowitzki and company were officially eliminated from postseason consideration.
That moment came in rather embarrassing fashion: by way of an 11-point home loss to the cellar-dwelling Phoenix Suns.
Loud-mouthed owner Mark Cuban has already vowed that the Mavs "will come back and get better next year." But Cuban's words can't soothe the pain and disappointment of Dallas' 12-year playoff streak coming to an end.
Nor can they mask the fact that this day was bound to come sooner rather than later, after Cuban and the Mavs' front office essentially passed on a potential title defense by allowing Tyson Chandler (among others) to walk away via free agency in 2011.
16. Boston Celtics
Right now, the Boston Celtics are the chic pick to spring a seeded upset against the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs.
In some respects, that makes sense. Paul Pierce has a long history of torturing the Knicks, Kevin Garnett has never been shy about getting under Carmelo Anthony's skin, and the C's swept New York out of the postseason when they last met there in 2011.
Realistically, though, Boston's odds of breaking hearts in the Big Apple this year are slimmer than they've been in quite some time.
Rajon Rondo's been out since January with a torn ACL, Pierce and Garnett have had plenty of problems of their own, and the Knicks are far better now than they were two years ago. In fact, the Knicks won three out of four games against the Celtics this season, including twice during New York's now-defunct 13-game winning streak.
And if Boston's 4-9 record since March 18 is any indication, the C's aren't exactly gathering momentum for another surprising playoff push.
15. Utah Jazz
Just when you thought the Utah Jazz had ceded the No. 8 seed in the West to the Los Angeles Lakers, they've come roaring back to life to give the Purple and Gold a serious run for their money.
The Jazz are 7-2 in their last nine games, with those two losses coming against the Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, two of the top teams in the NBA.
But even those forgivable defeats to superior opponents have had troubling consequences for the Jazz. The loss to OKC gave the Lakers room enough to "open up" a full-game lead on Utah, which lost promising big man Enes Kanter for the season to a dislocated shoulder in late March.
There's still hope for playoff basketball in Salt Lake City, though. The Jazz have a relatively friendly schedule to close out the season. While the Lakers will be left to handle the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets at home, the Jazz will close out the campaign with a home-and-home against the lowly T-Wolves and an admittedly tough road game at Memphis.
And if the two teams should finish with identical records, the Jazz would get the postseason nod by way of the season-series tiebreaker they own against the Lakers.
14. Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant's 47-point, eight-rebound, five-assist, four-block, three-steal virtuoso performance against the Portland Trail Blazers may well be the most polarizing I've ever seen.
On the one hand, watching a 34-year-old, 17-year NBA veteran set a scoring record for a Rose Garden visitor while playing all 48 minutes was nothing short of spellbinding. Every jump shot, every post-up, every drive and every pass was a work of art unto itself.
On the other hand, the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers needed every inch of Bryant's brilliance just to outlast a Blazers squad that had lost eight in a row and started four rookies for the first time in franchise history was beyond frustrating.
Bryant wasn't exactly without blame for that. His lackluster effort on defense made it that much easier for Damian Lillard to score a career-high 38 points and for Portland, as a whole, to score 41 points in the first quarter alone.
If anything, Kobe's performance was an exaggerated microcosm of the Lakers as a whole this season: capable of amazing offensive feats and racking up steals and blocks at times, but always undermined by poor effort and constant miscommunication (or no communication whatsoever) on defense.
It's almost too bad, then, that the Lakers are on track for a playoff berth anyway, though they don't figure to stick around for long, against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the San Antonio Spurs, if they end up securing it.
13. Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks didn't start from the bottom, but they're here anyway.
Which is to say, back in the mix for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks have finished in fifth place in each of the last two seasons.
But those previous teams included All-Star Joe Johnson, whose onerous contract was dumped on the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for various cap fodder this past summer. This year's edition had replaced most of Johnson's production with Lou Williams until the Atlanta native went down with a torn ACL in mid-January.
As such, it's rather remarkable that the Hawks have maintained the status quo, as far as relative success is concerned, despite the "evolution" of their roster. Then again, considering how mundane the Hawks are and have been for years, can achieving the same result really be considered remarkable without inviting ridicule and boredom?
Such are the stakes for general manager Danny Ferry, who will have to oversee his team's new-found financial flexibility rather carefully this summer if Atlanta's ever to move beyond the muddled middle of the East.
12. Chicago Bulls
It's official: The Chicago Bulls are the "Jekyll and Hyde" team of the 2012-13 season. Their 118-111 overtime win against the New York Knicks Thursday night confirmed as much, and not just because the Knicks rode a 13-game winning streak until they arrived at the United Center.
The Bulls' big victory was made all the more surprising by the consecutive losses to the Pistons and the Raptors that preceded it.
Then again, the Knicks were cripplingly devoid of healthy bigs, with Chris Copeland forced to start at "center." And then again (again), we've seen similar successes from this Bulls squad before.
Remember a few weeks ago, when the Miami Heat came sailing into the Madhouse on Madison with their sights set on besting the Lakers' 33-game winning streak? Remember how Chicago, despite being even shorter of hand than usual, pulled off the shocker by bullying the defending champs to no end?
And then, remember how the Bulls promptly lost two of their next three games to sub-.500 opponents, with only a one-point win over Detroit to lift their spirits?
Such are (apparently) the inconsistencies you'd expect from a team that plays as hard as these Bulls do and is as rudderless as these Bulls have been at times without Derrick Rose.
11. Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors got a taste of what's to come in the postseason when they welcomed the Oklahoma City Thunder to Oracle Arena on Thursday night.
And I say "welcomed" because Golden State didn't exactly make life difficult for OKC. The Thunder scored 116 points on 50.6 percent shooting against the Warriors' "improved" defense and were particularly prolific in the third quarter, when they piled up 36 points at the home team's expense.
Unfortunately for the Dubs, they may have to face the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs (should Golden State advance that far) if their lead over the Houston Rockets in the race for the sixth seed shrinks any further.
And if OKC should slip back to second in the West, then Golden State would have to brace for a most difficult re-entry into postseason life.
But hey, getting back into the playoffs for just the second time in 19 years is quite an accomplishment in itself for the Warriors.
10. Houston Rockets
With the Warriors falling flat against the Thunder, the Houston Rockets moved to within a half-game of the sixth seed in the West without so much as breaking a sweat.
Unless, of course, they watched the game while working out or something.
In any case, Houston has played well of late, winning five of its last six games, though not without some disconcerting blips. The Rockets' 18-point loss to the Denver Nuggets was none too pretty, though it's certainly excusable considering that it came at the Pepsi Center during the second night of a back-to-back.
Of greater concern was the three-point win over the Suns that came down to a boneheaded goaltend by Jermaine O'Neal. Houston struggled to contain former Rockets forward Luis Scola, who torched his old club for 28 points while burning Omer Asik and Greg Smith time and again in the paint.
Defense has been a major issue for the Rockets all season—they rank 19th in defensive efficiency and 21st in opponent effective field-goal percentage. Hence, as enticing as it is to imagine James Harden upsetting his old team in the first round or Houston's fast-break frenzy going toe-to-toe with the San Antonio Spurs, the Rockets' inability to consistently stop a solid offense will ultimately hold them back.
For now, anyway.
9. Brooklyn Nets
The pieces are starting to fall in place for the Brooklyn Nets.
Deron Williams has taken charge of this team (and is finally healthy enough to do so), thereby allowing Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson to settle into strong supporting roles. Since the All-Star break, Williams has averaged 22.8 points and 7.9 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and a robust 41.8 percent from three.
Those numbers are far more indicative of the superstar that the Nets thought they got when they signed D-Will to a massive $98.7 million deal this past summer.
That's better late than never, especially when "late" equates to "just in time for the playoffs."
8. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers' hot streak wasn't as perfectly timed as it originally appeared to be. The Pacers followed up a stretch of eight wins in nine games, including four straight during a Western Conference road sweep, with back-to-back blowout losses at home.
That skid would still be standing, at three in a row, if not for a lights-out fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Pacers trailed the Cavs by 20 after three quarters in their most recent outing. But they managed to hold Cleveland, the team with the fourth-worst record in the NBA, to just 10 points over the final 12 minutes while scoring 35 to pull out a 99-94 win.
Luckily for the Pacers, they'll have ample opportunity to re-establish their mojo in preparation for grueling matchups against the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals and, if they succeed in that series, against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
Speaking of mojo, there's nothing like inferior competition to get a team back on the straight and narrow.
The Los Angeles Clippers should know. After a month-long stretch through which they stumbled to a record of 6-8, the Clips came back with a trio of double-digit wins against Western Conference foes.
The first, a 126-101 decision over the Suns, secured the Clips' first 50-win season. The third, a 111-95 annihilation of the T-Wolves, marked L.A.'s franchise-record 31st home victory.
But the second, a 109-95 whipping of the Lakers, was the sweetest of all. The win not only finished off the Clips' first season sweep of their Staples Center co-tenants, but it also sealed the first division title of any kind in team history.
Of course, with expectations already at an all-time high after a successful 2011-12 season with Chris Paul on board, the Clips' 2012-13 accomplishments won't matter much unless they improve upon last year's second-round playoff washout.
6. Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets have put Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory to the test twice over. They've won five games in a row by an average of 13.6 points since losing Ty Lawson to a heel injury, and the last two by an average of 14 points without Danilo Gallinari and his torn ACL.
Gallo's injury is decidedly more disconcerting for Denver going forward. Lawson figures to be back in the lineup by the time the playoffs roll around, while the wily Italian will be out of commission until some point deep into the 2013-14 season.
The Nuggets are still on track to set a franchise record for wins in an NBA season (they won 65 games during the 1974-75 ABA campaign). But as Grantland's Zach Lowe recently broke down, Gallo's absence likely lowers their ceiling from that of a Western Conference dark horse to that of second-round fodder.
Then again, if the matchups play out properly and Denver's depth comes through in a big way, the Nuggets may yet have what it takes to compete with the best in the West.
5. San Antonio Spurs
It's deja vu all over again for the San Antonio Spurs. Yet another spectacular regular season could go for naught in the playoffs because of injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Parker's sore neck and ankle are clearly the most disconcerting of San Antonio's litany of setbacks. He had enjoyed an MVP-caliber campaign until his ankle first became a problem.
More importantly, Parker is the focal point of the Spurs' perimeter-oriented, pick-and-roll-heavy offense. Without Parker to run the operation, the onus for the team's success falls all too heavily on 36-year-old Tim Duncan and second-year swingman Kawhi Leonard.
Both players are more than capable of carrying the Spurs in spurts, and the team's supporting cast is as deep as it's been in some time, even with Boris Diaw out because of a bad back.
The postseason is a different story, though. If Parker and Ginobili aren't ready to go within the next week or so, the Spurs could be bound for an all-too-early playoff exit.
At least, that's what San Antonio's recent run of four losses in six games would suggest.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
With the Nuggets racked by injuries, the Memphis Grizzlies have emerged as, perhaps, the biggest threat to the hegemony of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs atop the Western Conference.
A stretch of six wins in seven games has certainly helped to improve the perception of the Grizzlies league-wide. So, too, has Memphis' surprising uptick in offensive productivity and precision since Rudy Gay was shipped north of the border.
But as Zach Lowe notes, the Grizzlies' ability to push deep into the playoffs and (potentially) sneak into the NBA Finals will likely depend on the performance of Zach Randolph. Z-Bo's been hobbling around on a bum ankle that's sapped him of much of his already lackluster athleticism, thereby making it that much harder for him to do what he does best—score.
When you consider that Memphis is anything but an elite offensive squad that depends more heavily than ever on its frontcourt duo of Randolph and Marc Gasol, it makes sense that having one of them playing at a level significantly below full capacity would be a serious crimp in the Grizzlies' postseason game.
3. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks' 13-game winning streak came to a halt (albeit not exactly a screeching one) in the exact same building that ate the Miami Heat's 27-gamer, but that needn't mar what Carmelo Anthony and Co. accomplished along the way.
By ripping off the fourth-longest spurt of the season, the Knicks essentially locked down the No. 2 spot in the East while also locking down their first Atlantic Division title in nearly 20 years. Within the streak, 'Melo took over the lead, however slightly, in the race for the scoring title by piling up 30-plus-point games as if doing so were second nature.
With all of that out of the way, the Knicks can and must now refocus their efforts on what they hope (and expect) will be their deepest playoff push since the turn of the 21st century. They'll be hard-pressed to crack the Eastern Conference finals unless Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin are healthy enough to provide the sort of size, toughness and defensive prowess that they normally would.
Otherwise, New York's hopes will be precariously dependent on the team's streaky (if prolific) three-point shooting, along with the individual scoring talents of 'Melo and J.R. Smith.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder officially overtook the Spurs in pursuit of the No. 1 seed in the West with a commanding 116-97 win against the Warriors—on national TV, no less. The Thunder have now won five of their last six games and eight out of 10 since suffering back-to-back defeats to the Grizzlies and the Nuggets.
Not all is necessarily "well" in OKC, though. Carmelo Anthony's recent basket binge has thrown Kevin Durant's three-year streak of scoring titles into serious jeopardy. At present, Durant trails 'Melo by four-tenths of a point with just three games to go.
KD's chances of retaking his spot ahead of 'Melo in the standings are not good. The Thunder will finish up their season against the Blazers, the Kings and the Bucks—relative patsies all. If the Thunder need Durant to blow up the scoring column in any of those games, then they'll have to have gone wrong somewhere along the way.
1. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat currently enjoy the perks of NBA domination to the fullest. Their transcendent play through the first five months of the season, particularly during their historic 27-game winning streak, gave the Heat more than enough cushion in the standings to rest their starters judiciously down the stretch and still enjoy all of the trappings that come with being the best team in basketball.
For example, Miami locked up the best record in the league for the first time in its 25-year history with a 103-98 win Wednesday over the Washington Wizards—a win that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all watched from the comfort of their sideline seats while wearing their finest non-basketball threads.
Those three figure to play in fits and spurts over the final four games of the regular season, if only to stay warm and engaged as the Heat prepare for their third deep playoff run in as many years.
Then again, the Heat should have ample opportunity to rest their principals in the first round when they take on the overmatched Milwaukee Bucks.