NBA Power Rankings: OKC Thunder Red-Hot, Everyone Else on Red Alert
You'd think that a week marked by All-Star Game announcements would be a great one for the NBA's best teams. Those players voted in by the fans or chosen by the coaches would have every reason to celebrate, while those snubbed from the proceedings could take out their frustrations against unsuspecting opponents on the court.
And yet, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant-fueled run notwithstanding, the league's elite have all run into bumps in the road of some sort in late January—treacherous ones, in some cases. Injuries have begun to get the goats of the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat, the Indiana Pacers and the Portland Trail Blazers have been dragged down a bit by the usual doldrums of the month.
These developments, while unfortunate in many cases, have injected a measure of intrigue into the Association's proceedings, which usually grow stale in the weeks leading up to All-Star weekend. Likewise, they've shaken up these here power rankings since last week's edition hit the Interwebz.
How, exactly? You'll just have to find out for yourself.
30. Milwaukee Bucks
Who's in the mood for some full on faux-trage? I'm sure all you sad Milwaukee Bucks fans are after seeing which rookies and sophomores the NBA chose to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star weekend.
On the one hand, you're probably elated to see Giannis Antetokounmpo (i.e. every lazy announcer's favorite name to ignore) get his do. The "Greek Freak" has averaged a steady 7.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in just under 29 minutes per game since sliding into a starting spot on the wing for Milwaukee.
On the other hand, you could have a serious bone to pick with John Henson's exclusion. The UNC product has turned in 12 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a night up front for a Bucks squad that was without Larry Sanders for much of the first half of the 2013-14 season.
And yet, Henson was somehow beat out by Jared Sullinger, who's scored slightly more than Henson has but isn't anywhere near the sort of defensive force that the Bucks big man can be.
As for the losing...well, that's par for the course in Brew City at this point.
29. Orlando Magic
Despite performing phenomenally well for the Orlando Magic during the first half of the 2013-14 season, Arron Afflalo was denied his first trip to the All-Star Game. The people voted in Dwyane Wade as a starter, while the coaches chose DeMar DeRozan and Joe Johnson to fill out the reserves.
The apparent logic was that DeRozan and Johnson were more deserving because their teams are actually, you know, winning.
To that end, there's no arguing with the coaches. Afflalo's Magic own the second-worst record in basketball, at 12-35, while DeRozan's Toronto Raptors and Johnson's Brooklyn Nets are currently duking it out atop the Atlantic Division.
DeRozan's candidacy is certainly valid. The L.A. native has taken his game to another level since Rudy Gay was traded away, averaging 22-5-4 in 25 games without him.
It's Johnson's selection that should raise more eyebrows. Afflalo has scored significantly more per game (20 points to Johnson's 15.7) and shot better across the board (.470/.420/.832 to Johnson's .443/.386/.813) on a team with less talent and, thus, fewer players to steer defensive attention away from him.
28. Los Angeles Lakers
The winter of the Los Angeles Lakers' discontent continued unabated this week with the news that Kobe Bryant will go another three weeks before his troublesome left knee is re-examined by team physician Dr. Steve Lombardo, per Royce Young of CBSSports.com.
That likely puts Bryant's return at no sooner than a month from now. He'll likely need at least a week or two of practice and other on-court work once he's cleared before he's ready to return to live game action.
And that's assuming he's fit enough to garner the go-ahead from L.A.'s medical staff next month.
Meanwhile, his Lakers have lost 17 of 21 games since Kobe fractured his left tibial plateau against the Memphis Grizzlies in mid-December. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Internet is teeming with Black Mamba struggle faces right now. If the Lakers keep losing at this rate, there will be plenty more to choose from by the time Bryant returns.
27. Boston Celtics
For the first time since 2007, the Boston Celtics will be without representation during the All-Star Game.
Not that this should come as any surprise. Rajon Rondo's the only All-Star-caliber talent on this 15-33 squad, and he's been back in action for all of two weeks now after missing the first two-and-a-half months of the season while rehabbing from a torn ACL.
As it happens, 2007 was also the last time the C's were in anything close to "tank" mode. That team won just 24 games, the second-fewest in the Association, but slid to the fifth pick in the draft on account of the lottery. Boston missed out on selecting Kevin Durant as a result but did parlay its own pick (Jeff Green) into Ray Allen as part of a series of trades that would set the C's up for their title run in 2008.
Whatever happens this time around, expect GM Danny Ainge to make the most of the hand he's dealt.
And, for you diehard C's fans out there, be sure to check out Jared Sullinger in the Rising Stars Challenge. He'll be the only player wearing Beantown's green at All-Star weekend.
26. Philadelphia 76ers
Timing is a curious thing, isn't it? One night, a player hits a game-winning shot. The next, he's being talked up as trade bait.
Such is the life of Evan Turner these days. On Wednesday, the fourth-year swingman dropped through an off-balance look in the lane to push the Philadelphia 76ers past the Boston Celtics on the road, 95-94. Come Thursday, ESPN's Chris Broussard (subscription required) was suggesting that the Sixers are trying to move Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes before the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
Granted, that "revelation" hardly came as a shock. Philly's been in full-on "tank" mode for most of this season, with the aforementioned three getting every opportunity to show what they can do and boost their value in the process.
Still, Sixers GM Sam Hinkie must've loved seeing Turner deliver that buzzer-beater. The win may have "hurt" Philly's odds of landing the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, but if it makes the Sixers more likely to extract attractive assets from an interested trade partner, the result will have been well worth it.
25. Cleveland Cavaliers
It should come as little surprise that Kyrie Irving is reportedly plotting his escape from the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Irving declined to address the revelations from ESPN's Chad Ford prior to the Cavs' 117-86 smackdown at the hands of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
Still, you don't have to be an NBA insider to connect the dots here. Irving's work as a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year has come amid the ongoing quagmire in Cleveland. The Cavs currently sit at 16-30, 3.5 games out of a playoff spot, in what was supposed to be the team's breakthrough season.
The fact that the Cavs fell a season-worst 14 games below .500 by losing to a team and in a building that Irving apparently admires is merely icing on what's shaping up to be yet another disappointing cake for the residents of Rock City.
24. Sacramento Kings
Speaking of timing, how bad has it been for Boogie of late?
The Sacramento Kings have lost five in a row, including their last four without DeMarcus Cousins, who sprained his ankle against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 21. To add "insult" to injury, Cousins was "snubbed" from the Western Conference All-Star squad; Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge were chosen to fill the frontcourt reserves for the West.
Cousins' numbers (22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.0 combined steals and blocks in 32 minutes) were certainly All-Star-worthy. But lingering concerns among Western Conference coaches about DeMarcus' hot-headedness (he's tied for the league lead with 11 technical fouls) and lack of consistent commitment on the defensive end likely undid his candidacy.
Sacramento's 15-30 record probably didn't help, either.
Don't cry for Cousins, though. The 23-year-old will have ample opportunity to play in the All-Star Game going forward, assuming the Kings turn things around under their new ownership soon enough.
23. Detroit Pistons
Congratulations to the Detroit Pistons! They're our choice for this week's edition of the not-all-that-occasional segment "How Bad Is the Eastern Conference Now?"
So, how bad is the Eastern Conference now? The Pistons, who'd lost four in a row and 11 of 14 before beating the Magic on Tuesday, are just a game back of the Charlotte Bobcats for the eighth and final playoff spot.
With the way things are "progressing" in that bracket, Wednesday's freeze-out of Pistons-Hawks in Atlanta could be a major factor in how the postseason picture shakes out.
22. New Orleans Pelicans
No offense to the Western Conference coaches, who made solid choices for their All-Star squad's reserves, but how in the what did Anthony Davis not garner enough support to represent the hometown team? The guy's averaging 20-10 with a league-leading 3.3 blocks per game for an injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans team that's won four of its last six games.
The Brow won't be disbarred from All-Star weekend, though. He's already slated to represent the Pels in the Rising Stars Challenge.
And, if there's any justice in this crazy world, the NBA will find a way to sneak Davis into the heart of the weekend-long showcase. Maybe Adam Silver will tip off his reign as the league's next commissioner by deeming Davis a worthy injury replacement for Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul—the former of whom was voted in but won't play on account of a bum knee, the latter a choice of the coaches whose own shoulder problem could keep him out of action.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that the All-Star Game would be a travishamockery without Davis, though leaving him out of the main event would seem a slight to the Crescent City itself, wouldn't it?
21. Utah Jazz
Back-to-back wins over the Wizards and the Kings have not only moved the Utah Jazz out of the basement of the Western Conference but have moved them into sole possession of 13th place. That's quite an accomplishment for a squad that had spent nearly the entire 2013-14 season buried at the bottom of the food chain out West.
So what's changed? Well, Utah's defense is a good place to start. The Jazz held Washington to 42.9 percent shooting and limited Sacramento to 41.1 percent from the floor two nights later.
Granted, neither of those opponents can claim to be anything close to elite on the offensive end. But for a Utah team that still ranks last in points allowed per 100 possessions (per NBA.com), any displays of competent defense are well worth acknowledging, if not celebrating.
20. Charlotte Bobcats
Al Jefferson appears to have found his groove outside of Salt Lake City. The former Jazz big man has averaged an eye-popping line of 27-12 with 2.5 assists and 2.1 combined steals and blocks in a shade under 37 minutes over his last 10 games, during which the Charlotte Bobcats are an even 5-5.
That may not seem like much of a record to most, but for a franchise that's suffered through some historically epic failure the past few years, accruing a mark like that over any span is worth noting, even more so when it features home wins over the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Clippers and an always-impressive victory against the Denver Nuggets on the road.
Too bad that same stretch was marred by a 29-point blowout loss in New York, during which the Bobcats' once-vaunted defense surrendered 62 to Carmelo Anthony.
And too bad Big Al has just recently picked up his play. If not for early-season injury problems, Jefferson might've had a better case to make alongside the likes of Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and one-time Utah teammate Paul Millsap as a frontcourt reserve for the Eastern Conference All-Star squad.
19. New York Knicks
What happened to all that chatter about how the New York Knicks should "blow it up" and trade Carmelo Anthony for rebuilding assets before he hits free agency this summer?
I suppose Melo's 62-point masterpiece against the Charlotte Bobcats had something to do with the disappearance of that particular discussion. So, too, has the four-game winning streak that Anthony's outburst sparked.
As it happens, if the Knicks beat the Heat at home on Saturday, they'll have alternated five-game streaks over their last 15 games. That speaks to the inconsistency that's plagued New York from the opening tip this season. Like last season, the Knicks have fared best in 2013-14 when Anthony's served as the team's de facto power forward in three-guard lineups, as was the case during Thursday's 117-86 win over the visiting Cavs.
And, according to 82games.com, Anthony has been plenty productive when he's slid up a spot.
18. Denver Nuggets
Well, this could be awkward for the Denver Nuggets.
Nate Robinson joined Ty Lawson on the Nuggets' training table after suffering a knee injury during Denver's 101-98 home loss to the Bobcats. That left the Nuggets without a point guard to run their offense...sort of. Andre Miller was healthy enough to contribute but hasn't played in 2014 on account of an in-game spat with head coach Brian Shaw on New Year's Day.
According to Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post, the Nuggets' recent injury woes may force Shaw to consider burying the hatchet with Miller and slipping the 37-year-old back into the rotation.
Good thing Shaw would be amenable to a thawing of diplomatic relations between himself and his most veteran player...and that Lawson might be available to play against the Toronto Raptors on Saturday.
17. Washington Wizards
Make that 0-6 for the Washington Wizards in opportunities to move above .500 this season. They're still waiting for their first taste of a winning record since Halloween of 2009.
It's tough to fault the Wizards too much for their latest failure, though. They were on the road, in L.A., going toe-to-toe with a Clippers squad that's only lost three times at home all season and has been scoring at a scorching-hot pace since Chris Paul went down.
And, to their credit, the Wizards played the Clips close. They narrowed the gap to a single point with about 3:30 to play before L.A. closed out the proceedings with a 12-6 spurt.
It may be a bit before Washington has another crack at a winning record, though. The week ahead features an absolute gauntlet of Western Conference opponents, with OKC, Portland and San Antonio all slated to swing through the nation's capital.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves
Let's go easy on the Kevin Love-to-the-Lakers talk for a bit, shall we? Last I checked, his Minnesota Timberwolves are in the thick of a playoff push, and he's set to represent them as a starter at the 2014 All-Star Game in New Orleans.
To be sure, I understand the appeal of pontificating on Love's plans for 2015, when he can opt for free agency. After all, I was born, raised and still live in L.A., so I wouldn't exactly mind seeing a fellow Bruin return to wear the Purple and Gold.
But the T-Wolves are in the hunt now, after winning five of six, and deserve to be treated as such. Their 121-120 victory over the Warriors in Oakland last Friday was their first of the season in a contest decided by four points or fewer; Minny had lost its first 11 in such situations.
Love was particularly impressive in that game, stringing together 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. He'll rep the Wolves well in New Orleans in mid-February.
And if he's wearing another team's colors at the 2016 All-Star Game in New York City, so be it. Wolves fans shouldn't worry themselves about the "inevitabilities" of the future at the expense of enjoying the presence of a superstar in their present.
15. Chicago Bulls
While the NBA rumor mill mulls the possibility of Carmelo Anthony taking his talents to the Windy City, let's take a moment to further acknowledge what the Chicago Bulls have accomplished with Derrick Rose sidelined by injury and Luol Deng suiting up for the Cavs. They're now 9-4 since sending Deng to Cleveland after fending off the short-handed Spurs in San Antonio on Wednesday.
Joakim Noah has been the catalyst behind Chicago's return to the ranks of those with winning records. In those 13 games, the Florida product has averaged an impressive line of 13.4 points, 14.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.1 combined steals and blocks while anchoring the Bulls' efforts on both ends of the floor.
You could say, then, that Noah earned his selection as a reserve for the Eastern Conference All-Stars—even more so when you consider the relative lack of (healthy) talent up front on that side of the NBA.
14. Atlanta Hawks
It wouldn't be fair to laud Joakim Noah's All-Star worthiness with the Bulls without giving some dap to Paul Millsap for what he's done for the Atlanta Hawks.
Millsap's been nothing short of a steadying force in Atlanta in the wake of Al Horford's latest season-ending injury. In 15 games since Horford was sidelined, Millsap has upped the ante to 19.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.4 combined steals and blocks. Those efforts have helped the Hawks stay afloat as a top-four seed in the East and garnered Millsap his first-ever All-Star selection in the process.
13. Dallas Mavericks
Not to overdo it with All-Star talk or anything, but kudos to Dirk Nowitzki for earning his 12th selection, courtesy of the Western Conference coaches. They could've opted for new blood up front (i.e. Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka) or some other successful veterans (i.e. Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, David Lee).
Instead, it'll be Nowitzki, who nearly beat the Houston Rockets on his own with 38 points and 17 rebounds on Wednesday, lacing 'em up for the West once again.
Nowitzki, though, won't likely be the most excited participant, to say the least. "It wasn’t even really my type of game when I was young, so it definitely is not my type of game when I’m old," the giant German told Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. "But I still have fun going there. It’s always been an honor."
12. Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have lost twice in 2014—both times to the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. There's no shame in that nowadays, what with the Raptors being on their own roll since trading away Rudy Gay and all.
More importantly, the Nets have (finally) firmly established themselves as a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, thanks in large part to a switch-happy defensive scheme that takes full advantage of Brooklyn's height and length at every position except power forward.
A share of the credit for the turnaround and the strategic shift that begat it belongs to Jason Kidd, who's more closely resembled an honest-to-goodness NBA head coach ever since he banished Lawrence Frank from his staff.
"I think since Lawrence as left. . . he was leaning on (Frank) a lot," Deron Williams recently told Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News. "So now I think he's coaching the way he wants to and doing things the way he wants to so that's what you're seeing.
"I think you see him putting his footprint on the game a little bit more, especially lately," Williams added. "He's done a great job. He's learning on the job, and we knew that coming in. But he's doing a great job, especially now."
And the Nets, clearly, are better for it.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
The Oklahoma City Thunder are far and away the hottest team in the NBA right now, but don't discount the temperature at which the Memphis Grizzlies have been playing. They've won four in a row and nine of their last 10 to move within a half-game of the Mavs for the final playoff spot out West.
The Grizz were particularly impressive this past week. They swept the Houston Rockets in a home-and-home set—withstanding a record-setting three-point-shooting half from Chandler Parsons in the first and demolishing the Rockets at home in the second—before pounding the Portland Trail Blazers and the Sacramento Kings on the road.
The return of Marc Gasol, the solid play of Zach Randolph and the surprising contributions of Courtney Lee and James Johnson have helped. But if there's anyone who deserves (All-Star) recognition for putting Memphis back on the map, it's Mike Conley. He has chipped in 20.1 points, 6.4 assists and 1.4 steals with shooting splits of .493/.426/.886 during the Grizzlies' recent tear.
It's too bad, then, that the point guard position is so stacked in the Western Conference. Otherwise, Conley would've booked a flight to New Orleans for All-Star weekend by now.
10. Toronto Raptors
I don't know about you, but I'm still getting used to the idea of the Toronto Raptors deserving to send more than one representative to the All-Star Game. DeMar DeRozan will be the first Raptor to partake in the midseason exhibition since 2010, when Chris Bosh last called Toronto home.
But, if we're being honest, DeRozan probably shouldn't be heading to the Bayou alone—and not because the 24-year-old needs a chaperone or anything. Rather, he should be accompanied by Kyle Lowry, who's been nothing short of outstanding for the Raptors this season. So far, Lowry's registered career highs in points (16.8), assists (7.6), steals (1.6) and three-point percentage (.406).
You'd think his back-to-back 30-point performances against the Magic and the Nets this week would've made a difference. Alas, the coaches had already sent in their choices for the Eastern Conference reserves by the time Lowry exploded.
9. Golden State Warriors
If consistency is the hallmark of an elite NBA team, then the Golden State Warriors have a ways to go before they belong in that category.
This past week was perfect proof of Golden State's perplexing struggles. The Dubs alternated close losses to borderline .500 opponents (the T-Wolves and Wizards) with blowouts of Western Conference powerhouses (the Blazers and Clippers).
On the one hand, the fact that the Warriors have fared well of late against quality competition bodes well for their prospects come playoff time, when they'll be pitted opposite the cream of the crop every night.
On the other hand, this emerging trend points to a troubling lack of maturity from a team that, for all the strides it's made over the last season-and-a-half, still has much to learn about being elite. The Warriors' persistent inconsistency could cost them some valuable real estate in the Western Conference standings and will definitely cap their postseason potential if they don't get their house in order by mid-April.
8. Phoenix Suns
If you haven't yet read Jonathan Abrams' brilliant profile of the Phoenix Suns for Grantland, do yourself a favor and check it out. Once again, Abrams nailed a fantastic comeback story, albeit on a team scale this time.
Despite Eric Bledsoe's ongoing absence, the team has not only held steady but has strengthened its position in the Western Conference. The Suns moved a season-best 10 games above .500 with a 102-94 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday—their second over the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference in the last eight days.
As usual, Goran Dragic was on point at the point, dropping a game-high 28 points to go along with seven assists, three rebounds and a steal. He's continued to catalyze Phoenix's rise in Bledsoe's absence, though, apparently, he hasn't been good enough to garner an All-Star selection from the Western Conference coaches.
Dragic's problem, it seems, is the same one that Mike Conley ran into: too many great point guards in the West and not enough spots to accommodate them all.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
Could the Portland Trail Blazers be coming back down to Earth?
A two-game sample is too small to tell definitively, though the nature of those back-to-back defeats—by 15 points at Golden State and by 17 points at home against Memphis—would suggest that the Blazers are ripe for regression.
Not that this comes as any great surprise. Any team whose defense is as porous as Portland's 23rd-ranked unit is bound to encounter some bumps in the road, especially when the team's reliance on three-point shooting is called to account. The Blazers rank fourth in three-point attempts and percentage, with only five squads deriving a larger share of points from behind the arc than they are, per NBA.com.
That pattern becomes problematic when you shoot 10-of-45 (22.2 percent) from three over a two-game span, as Portland did in losing to the Warriors and the Grizzlies. It could prove an even bigger pain, though, once the Blazers get to the playoffs, and their shooters cool off against the NBA's best defenses.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
A 19-point loss like the one the Los Angeles Clippers suffered on the road against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday doesn't negate all the good work done during the team's previous four-game winning streak or its 12-4 record in January. What it does do, though, is highlight the extent to which the Clippers still miss Chris Paul.
L.A. managed just 17 assists against 13 turnovers while shooting 40.8 percent from the floor in Oakland. On the other end, Stephen Curry needed only 10 shot attempts to rack up his 22 points.
To be sure, there hadn't yet been any discussion in the basketball world as silly as something like, say, "Are the Clips better off without CP3?" Although, L.A.'s 10-3 record and top-ranked offense without him (prior to Thursday night's game) might've dropped that topic onto the tips of some tongues here and there.
Let's put that to bed before it seeps out: They're not. Of their 10 wins sans CP3, only one has come against a team that had a winning record at the time—and that one (at home against Dallas) required a rally from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to pull off. They've dropped their three tilts against top-tier competition (the Spurs, Pacers and Warriors) and stumbled to a four-point loss in Charlotte.
Clearly, the Clips are far from screwed without Paul, though you can bet he'll be happy to return to the lineup in early February, as is his goal, per Dan Woike of The Orange County Register.
5. San Antonio Spurs
The hits just keep on coming for the San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili will be out three to four weeks after straining his left hamstring on a dunk during the Spurs' 97-90 loss to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday. Ginobili joins three San Antonio starters (Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard) since the start of 2014.
As you might expect, those injuries have started to take a serious toll on the Spurs' on-court results. They've dropped three in a row and four of their last six. Throw in San Antonio's lack of success against the NBA's elite (just one win against teams with 30 or more victories so far), and one can't help but wonder whether the Spurs' day of reckoning might be on the horizon.
Then again, it's only January, which means there's still plenty of time for the Spurs to get healthy and heat up for another extended playoff push.
4. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets will have no shortage of representation at All-Star weekend in New Orleans. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Dwight Howard and James Harden were both chosen to fill out the Western Conference reserves, while Terrence Jones was chosen to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge.
All three are deserving of their respective honors, Jones included. He's averaged a sturdy 13-8 with 1.5 blocks since slipping into the starting lineup at power forward next to Dwight, with two 20-point games and a career-high 36-point explosion on his resume in January.
Jones' emergence has likely contributed to the surprising lack of movement on the trade front from Houston. No longer are the Rockets so desperate to find themselves a "stretch four" now that Jones has stepped up in that capacity.
Then again, it wouldn't hurt for the Rockets to move Omer Asik—rather than leave him to rot on the bench—if they can. Unfortunately for Asik, GM Daryl Morey recently told Houston's season ticket-holders that the Rockets would likely hang on to the tall Turk until his contract is up, via Ben DuBose of ClutchFans.
3. Miami Heat
Here's what concerns me about the Miami Heat's annual midseason malaise: They seem to be slipping into some bad habits. They've been uncharacteristically slow to rotate on defense and sloppy with the ball on offense of late.
And it has shown in the stats. According to NBA.com, Miami's defense no longer ranks among the top 10 in points allowed per possession, due in no small part to the Heat's opposition shooting a sizzling 36.7 percent from three-point range. Miami still scores more efficiently than any team other than Portland but has done so while turning the ball over 16 percent of the time—the seventh-worst mark in the NBA.
You don't have to dig even that deep into the stats to see how these trends might be problematic for the Heat. Just look back at their 112-95 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, wherein LeBron James and company allowed their Sooner State counterparts to shoot a scorching-hot 16-of-27 (59.3 percent) from downtown while coughing up the rock 21 times themselves.
James, though, didn't seem too concerned about the outcome. "They beat us good," he told Sam Amick of USA Today. "Outclassed? I don't know if I'm going to go that far, but they came in and beat us pretty good."
Such defeats aren't worth losing sleep over in January, so long as they don't snowball into bigger, more intractable problems in April, May and June.
2. Indiana Pacers
The Western Conference hasn't been kind to the Indiana Pacers of late. They were blown out in Phoenix and Denver and barely escaped Sacramento with a win on their recent road trip. They then returned home to lose a second time to the Suns on Thursday.
As a result, the Pacers no longer own the best record in the NBA. That distinction now belongs to the Oklahoma City Thunder, albeit by only a game.
More importantly, Indy can still boast of a three-game cushion atop the standings in the East. The Pacers won't play the second-place Heat again until March and can use the week ahead to right their slightly rocky ship against a trio of Eastern Conference opponents.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
There's hot, there's the sun, and then there's whatever temperature at which Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder are currently operating. Their prime-time blowout of the Heat on Thursday was OKC's ninth win in a row and featured Durant extending his streak of 30-plus-point performances to 12 games.
KD has scored plenty more during that run than the 33 he put up in Miami, though that total may be his most impressive to date. He spent most of the night with LeBron James, arguably the best perimeter defender in basketball, shadowing his every move.
And yet, Durant managed to hit 12-of-23 from the field (4-of-9 from three) and dish five dimes, despite the best efforts of the four-time MVP and the continued absence of Russell Westbrook.
All of this has the Thunder looking like the best team in the NBA and Durant like the MVP favorite...in January.
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