NBA Power Rankings: Lay of the Land Heading Down the Stretch

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterMarch 14, 2014

NBA Power Rankings: Lay of the Land Heading Down the Stretch

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    Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    Gravity isn't just something that wins Oscars and works against blues singers. It's also a force that has a way of pulling NBA teams toward their destiny, particularly during the final month or so of the regular season.

    On the one hand, it's played a part in long winning streaks for the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs and boosted the Memphis Grizzlies, the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls in their respective playoff pushes.

    On the other hand, it's worn on the Indiana Pacers' once-impenetrable defense, pushed the Portland Trail Blazers into disarray and dragged the Phoenix Suns out of the postseason picture.

    Not to mention what it's wrought upon the Philadelphia 76ers, the Orlando Magic, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz at the very bottom of the barrel in 2013-14.

    To be sure, there's much more at play here than just some vague energy with a scientific name. Every team's circumstances are peculiar and change from week to week, as do these here power rankings.

    But in pro basketball, teams tend to show their true colors this time of year, often in extreme ways. Those with championship hopes rise well above the rest, while those headed in the other direction tend to fall off the wagon completely.

    Read on to see who's gone which way in this week's power rankings.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Bleacher Report

    One can only harp on the futility of the Philadelphia 76ers so much before it becomes an exercise in cruel and unusual punishment. So, rather than delve into the steaming pile of stinky numbers produced by Philly's 18-game losing streak, let's see if we can find a bright spot to highlight here...

    ...

    ...still looking...

    A-ha! Here's one: Henry Sims! The slow-footed throw-in from the Spencer Hawes trade logged the first 20-10 game of his career during the Sixers' 17-point loss to the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday. Better yet, he stuffed the rest of the stat sheet with three assists, three steals and two blocks and hit 10 of 11 from the free-throw line.

    That's heady stuff for the 23-year-old, even when considering the caveat that he did this for the Sixers.

    And for those of you into Ja'mie-style randomness of the Basketball Internet, Sims is the perfect subject. As Grantland's Ben Detrick pointed out, Sims has a habit of posing with fellow Georgetown alums on Instagram and has some rather Awkward step-siblings.

    But actually, though.

29. Orlando Magic

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    Has there ever been a less-talked-about Rookie of the Year race than this season's snoozefest? It certainly doesn't help that the top three candidates—Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke—play for three of the worst teams in the NBA.

    Oladipo, though, has done well to hold up his end of the bargain for the Orlando Magic. He chipped in 12 points, four assists and three rebounds in just 19 minutes in his first game back from a bum ankle and followed that up with 15 points, four rebounds and three assists against the Denver Nuggets two nights later.

    Not that his efforts were of any real benefit to Orlando. The Magic have dropped their last four and might be in the midst of a nine-game skid if not for a pair of wins over the pitiful Sixers to mask their mediocrity of late.

28. Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers have had plenty of bad weeks this season, but none can quite compare to this one. It began with a franchise-worst 48-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, ended with a 131-102 trouncing in OKC (after stunning the Thunder on Sunday) and saw Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash both ruled out for the rest of the season in between.

    Not to mention all the Buss family drama dragged back to the surface once word broke that Phil Jackson was likely to fill a front-office seat with the New York Knicks.

    As it happens, that aforementioned 29-point loss to the Thunder was L.A.'s 10th of 20 points or more this season, tying a team record for the most such defeats in a single season.

    The previous instance? 1974-75, the year before the Lakers acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks.

    At this point, they can only hope that—between a healthy Bryant, a wealth of cap space and a prime pick in the 2014 draft— there will be at least one savior of any sort to make sure 2014-15 isn't marked by similar misery.

27. Milwaukee Bucks

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    If there's any non-Giannis bright spot to lift the sad spirits of the Milwaukee Bucks this season, it's the emergence of Brandon Knight.

    The former Gatorade Player of the Year turned one-year wonder at Kentucky is quietly becoming the caliber of player that his talent has long portended. His 20-point performance against the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday marked his fourth straight with at least that many—his longest such streak since pulling off that feat in five straight games with the Detroit Pistons in December of 2012.

    Milwaukee's general misery will make it difficult for Knight to get in even an edgewise word in the Most Improved Player debate. But if his season-long stats (17.4 points, 4.9 assists) are any indication, the 22-year-old certainly belongs in the discussion.

26. Detroit Pistons

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    Bleacher Report

    Leave it to none other than NBA.com's David Aldridge to lend clarity and calm to a situation as evocative of vitriol as Joe Dumars' future with the Detroit Pistons has become.

    As Aldridge notes, Dumars' firing after yet another abysmal season, while a foregone conclusion to many, may not be as cut-and-dried in reality. A number of Dumars' presumed blunders can be just as closely connected to late owner Bill Davidson, in terms of both the coaching ousters Davidson demanded and the uncertainty around the organization that resulted from his passing.

    Past mistakes aside, the present predicament of the Pistons makes for an intriguing thought exercise. Despite its sorry 25-40 record, Detroit sits well within striking distance of the final playoff spot in the awful Eastern Conference.

    The Pistons would probably be swept out of the first round by the Indiana Pacers or the Miami Heat if they did qualify but would at least have brought to an end a postseason drought that's plagued the franchise for nearly a half decade now.

    That might be enough to save Dumars' job, for better or worse.

    On the other hand, the Pistons will owe their first-round pick in the 2014 NBA draft to the Charlotte Bobcats if they land anywhere outside the top eight. As such, those who detest Dumars' ongoing stewardship of Motor City's squad would probably prefer that the Pistons not only miss the playoffs, but stink badly enough to ensure that they keep their next lottery pick.

    And, with any luck, have someone other than Joe D. decide who that pick would be.

25. Boston Celtics

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    Without much to excite Boston Celtics fans in the present, it's only fitting that this week welcomed encouraging news concerning the franchise's past and future.

    The introduction of sleeved jerseys for St. Patrick's Day, ones whose colors are reminiscent of the 1946-47 squad that was the franchise's first, probably didn't move the needle much.

    Talk of Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith engineering an Oak Hill Academy reunion that surfaced around the Pistons' visit to Beantown might've enticed those who A) appreciate what J-Smoove can do under the right circumstances and B) believe said reunion would take place in Boston and not Detroit.

    But the bubbliest feelings of all at the TD Garden likely came from Paul Pierce entertaining the notion of wearing green again. Pierce's latest visit to Beantown with the Brooklyn Nets prompted Sheridan Hoops' Peter May to ask if The Truth, who's due for unrestricted free agency this summer, would entertain a return to the franchise in whose eyes he's an icon.

    Pierce's response? "Why not? Play for them. Work for them. You never know."

    Or, as Pierce later said, "Without a doubt."

    If GM Danny Ainge is able to work some more of his magic this summer, Pierce's second go-round with the C's might be for something more than just a farewell tour.

24. Utah Jazz

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    After a brief foray beyond the basement of the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz have returned to their "rightful" place, courtesy of a stretch that's seen them lose seven of eight and 10 of 13 since All-Star Weekend.

    As you might expect, folks in Salt Lake City aren't exactly showing up in droves to support their local squad. According to The Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk, the Jazz are drawing their fewest fans per game (17,947) since they moved from the Salt Palace to the Delta Center in 1991.

    That still makes Utah's home crowds more populous than the league average and the fourth-biggest among teams with losing records. Still, for a small-market team that leans so heavily on gate receipts to make ends meet, the Jazz had better hope that whoever they land in the 2014 NBA draft as a result of their current misery is exciting enough to put the fans back in the stands soon.

    And, of course, serve as a key cog on a championship-caliber squad down the line.

23. Sacramento Kings

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    The road has not been kind to the Sacramento Kings. They've dropped three of five to start their seven-game road swing, with the two wins coming against the Bucks and the Sixers (i.e. the two worst teams in the NBA).

    To be sure, Sacramento's clumsiness away from Sleep Train Arena shouldn't come as any great shock. The Kings are just 10-23 outside of California's capital this season and haven't posted a winning road record in a decade.

    Frankly, losing is in the Kings' best interest over the long haul. Sacramento won't so much as sniff the postseason in 2014, and its first-round pick this year will belong to the Bulls (by way of the Cavs) if it doesn't land among the top 12.

22. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Good luck to the Cleveland Cavaliers in their pursuit of their first post-LeBron James playoff appearance.

    They'll need it.

    The Cavs sit a full four games back of the Atlanta Hawks in the race for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. They'd dropped four in a row and seven of nine prior to a surprising win in Phoenix on Wednesday.

    This, despite shipping off all manner of draft picks to bring in Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes prior to the trade deadline. If the postgame report from the Akron Beacon-Journal's Jason Lloyd is any indication, beating the Suns may have been all that kept the Cavs locker room from devolving into yet another worrisome flood of ill will.

    Moving into the postseason picture will be a particularly tall order with the week or so Cleveland has ahead on its schedule. The Cavs will play at Golden State and in L.A. against the Clippers this weekend before returning to the Q for a three-game homestand against the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets.

    Heck, the Cavs would be fortunate to win any of those games, much less enough of them to keep their playoff hopes alive.

21. Atlanta Hawks

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    Welcome back to everyone's favorite NBA game, "How Bad is the Bottom of the East?!"

    How bad is the bottom of the East? Funny you should ask.

    The Atlanta Hawks had gone more than a month without winning two games in a row. That sorry stretch came to an end Thursday, when the Hawks fended off the Bucks at home, 102-97. Three days earlier, Atlanta escaped Salt Lake City with a two-point win in Paul Millsap's first game against his old team since signing with the Hawks in free agency this past summer.

    For those keeping score at home, the Hawks moved to 28-35 by beating a pair of teams with a combined record of 35-95 by a total of seven points.

    After all that, after losing 14 of 15 prior to those victories, the Hawks can still comfortably claim a 3.5-game cushion as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

    Which brings us to the answer of our initial question: pretty, pretty, pretty bad.

20. New York Knicks

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    Phil Jackson might be exactly what the New York Knicks need right now, and it has nothing to do with what he may or may not bring to the table as team president if he does indeed sign on the dotted line.

    All the hoopla surrounding the Zen Master should distract the sports media mob in the Big Apple just enough to allow the Knicks to keep winning without being poked and prodded into yet another downward spiral. New York has won five in a row, albeit all against non-playoff teams, to move into sole possession of ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

    That streak should stretch to six Saturday when the Knicks host the Bucks.

    If New York is able to sneak past a slumping Pacers squad the following Wednesday, Carmelo Anthony and Company should find themselves in solid position to creep even closer to the Hawks in the standings thereafter; six of their final seven games of March will come against teams currently outside of the postseason picture in either conference.

19. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Somebody forgot to tell Anthony Davis that he was supposed to throw in the towel on a lost season for the New Orleans Pelicans. While Davis' teammates are still dropping like flies—Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon missed Wednesday's game against the Memphis Grizzlies due to illness—the second-year stud has taken his game to 11.

    Over his last four games, Davis has averaged an astounding 29.5 points, 14 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.3 blocks while shooting 56.9 percent from the field and 81.8 percent on 11 free throws per game.

    The Pels won the first three of those contests and lost the fourth by just two points to the improving Memphis Grizzlies.

    This stretch by Davis, who turned 21 on Tuesday, isn't just wildly impressive. It also confirms just how important he is and will be to the Pels. As much as New Orleans needs the likes of Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, Evans and Gordon to be healthy, Davis is still the straw that stirs this team's drink.

    And it's not even close.

18. Denver Nuggets

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    In many ways, Kenneth Faried can be fittingly described as a "poor man's Blake Griffin." Like Griffin, Faried is a high-flying, high-energy power forward who doesn't grade out as a great defender but whose offensive skills remain underrated and who plays as hard as anyone in the NBA today.

    Moreover, the recent uptick in the Manimal's play runs parallel to the leap that the Flying Lion has made in 2013-14. Since the All-Star break, Faried has averaged 18.3 points on 59.5 percent shooting, with 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists, in just under 32 minutes per game. That stretch includes a career-high 32-point explosion against the Lakers and a 26-9 night in his most recent outing opposite Orlando.

    Granted, those two performances didn't come against top-notch competition. And Faried, to his credit, acknowledged that he should've started performing at this level much sooner than he actually did.

    "I'm starting to become what I should have been earlier," he recently told The Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey. "That's an all-star caliber player. I believe in that, and my teammates believe, my coaches believe, and everybody is starting to see that I can be that type of player."

    Come summertime, it'll be incumbent upon the Denver Nuggets to decide whether they want to pay Faried like that type of player. He'll be eligible for an extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal.

17. Washington Wizards

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    Nene's absence appears to be catching up with the Washington Wizards. They've lost their last two games, against the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Bobcats, and barely beat the Bucks before that.

    Each of those outings has come with a torching of Washington's interior defense. Milwaukee went for a whopping 52 points in the paint against the Wizards, Miami slashed its way to 38 and Al Jefferson torched Trevor Booker for 26-10 all by himself.

    Not surprisingly, the stats bear out Washington's struggles with Booker filling in. Have a look at the difference in the Wizards' defensive metrics with Nene in and Booker out and vice versa this season courtesy of NBA Wowy:

     Pts Allowed/100 PossessionsTrue Shooting %Average 2-Pt Distance
    Nene in, Booker out99.553.39.19
    Nene out, Booker in110.356.38.03

    Get well soon, Nene. D.C. needs you.

16. Phoenix Suns

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    The best stories from the first half of the 2013-14 NBA season are all fizzling fast—and at the same time, no less.

    Case in point: the Phoenix Suns. They've lost three in a row and seven of 10 since moving a season-best 12 games above .500 with a blowout win over the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 21. Not even the long-awaited return of Eric Bledsoe—against the clumsy Cavs, no less—could stem the Suns' late-season regression.

    Phoenix had better hope that having Bledsoe in the backcourt again will be enough to portend a turnaround on the team's upcoming three-game swing through the East. Otherwise, the two games currently separating the Suns from eighth place in the Western Conference could grow to something far more daunting by the time they return home on March 19.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Who'd have thought that a war of words would ever erupt between quality guys like Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler?

    OK, so may words like "war" and "erupt" are a bit strong to describe what took place between these two bigs. Still, the results were rather entertaining.

    At halftime of the Minnesota Timberwolves' recent loss to the Knicks, New York's sideline reporter asked Chandler how he planned to exploit the mismatch with Love. Tyson's response: "Go at him. He can't play D."

    Love apparently took exception to that characterization of his defense. When asked about Chandler's comments, Love replied with a pair of expletives (per Fox Sports North's Phil Ervin).

    Chandler later took to Twitter to clear the air. He claimed that he was merely joking and reiterated his belief in Love as one of the best power forwards in the game.

    That concludes this week's edition of "Stupid Beef."

14. Charlotte Bobcats

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    Al Jefferson may not want to play one-on-one against a 51-year-old Michael Jordan, but he's not letting that fear of embarrassment seep into his game for the Charlotte Bobcats.

    At least, that wouldn't appear to be the case. Big Al kept his season-long roll going this week with back-to-back 26-point efforts in wins over the Nuggets and the Wizards. Thanks to Jefferson's efforts, the 'Cats have moved within 2.5 games of sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

    That slight shift in seeding could mean everything to a franchise that's yet to win a playoff series since its inception in 2004-05. If Charlotte moves up, it'll avoid playing either Miami or Indiana in the first round.

    And if the Toronto Raptors can hang on to the No. 3 seed, all the better; the 'Cats are 3-0 against Canada's club this season.

13. Dallas Mavericks

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    Dirk Nowitzki is at the point in his career where he makes history of some sort pretty much every time he steps on the court. But Nowitzki, to his credit, isn't reaching all those milestones quietly.

    On Wednesday, the giant German shot past Celtics legend John Havlicek and into 12th place on the all-time scoring list by scoring 31 points on a sizzling 12-of-14 from the field. That marked just the fifth time in Nowitzki's Hall of Fame career that he shot that well while scoring at least 10 points, per Basketball Reference.

    Not bad for a 35-year-old forward who's practically willing the Dallas Mavericks back into the playoffs by himself. Must be all the Blink-182 that Nowitzki's (probably) been pumping into his earholes of late.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    It's rare that a team reaches a breaking point when it's 19 games over .500. Yet that may be where the Portland Trail Blazers currently find themselves.

    Gone are the focused, carefree vibes that made the Blazers the feel-good hit of the first half. They've since been replaced by a four-game losing streak, one that could extend further with LaMarcus Aldridge and Mo Williams both sidelined by injuries.

    The latest loss, a 103-90 shortfall against the San Antonio Spurs, reportedly prompted a closed-door meeting at Damian Lillard's behest. "I just felt like it was something that needed to be said," Lillard told CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes. “At some point, it’s up to the players.”

    Now, it'll be up to those very same players to make sure that this rough patch doesn't devolve into anything like the 13-game skid that ended Portland's campaign in 2012-13.

11. Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors may have lost their latest battle with the Brooklyn Nets, but they still have the upper hand in the "war" for the Atlantic Division crown. The Raptors currently own a three-game lead for what would be the second division title in franchise history, the other coming in 2006-07.

    Back then, Chris Bosh was the one carrying the heaviest load in Toronto. Nowadays, that responsibility is split between DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Those two give the Raps a great shot at claiming another franchise second this spring: a second playoff series victory.

    Especially if Toronto can hang on to a slice of home-court advantage and take on, say, the Wizards or the Bobcats in the postseason.

10. Chicago Bulls

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    Carlos Boozer isn't a happy camper.

    According to the Chicago Sun-Times's Joe Cowley, Boozer's been moody with the local media of late, with sources suggesting that the veteran forward feels "underappreciated" by the Chicago Bulls organization.

    Boozer's sadness certainly isn't without cause.

    Between his light load in fourth quarters (2.2 minutes per game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, via the Sun-Times), Joakim Noah's stellar play (one assist shy of his third triple-double this month vs. the Houston Rockets) and all the chatter about Nikola Mirotic shipping over from Spain in time for next season, Boozer should be feeling uneasy about his future in the Windy City.

    Even more so if the Bulls mull in earnest the amnesty of his contract this summer.

    In the meantime, Boozer's best bet to stay in Chicago is to remind the Bulls of how productive he can be. To that end, Thursday marked an important moment in Boozer's campaign. He tallied 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists in Chicago's win over the Rockets.

    Boozer didn't play a single minute in the final frame, but it's not as though the Bulls needed him to; they finished the first three quarters with a commanding 27-point lead.

9. Brooklyn Nets

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    There's a reason Hubie Brown spent so much time and energy waxing poetic about Shaun Livingston during the Brooklyn Nets' 96-95 win over the Miami Heat on Wednesday.

    Simply put, Livingston has been key to Brooklyn's recovery from its early-season slump—a topic that NBA.com's John Schuhmann explored in great depth that same day.

    As Schuhmann noted, the Nets have been 8.5 points per 100 possessions stingier and forced turnovers more than a fifth of the time whenever Livingston's been on the floor since New Year's Day. 

    That's no coincidence either. Livingston's length, as a 6'7" guard with a 6'11" wingspan, has been pivotal to the Nets' ability to contest shots and create miscues as frequently and as well as they have.

    His gangly arms were responsible for both poking the ball away from Terrence Ross to deliver Brooklyn to a 101-97 win over the Raptors and, more recently, preventing LeBron James from catching and shooting for a potential game-winner.

    With Phoenix and Portland both coming back to Earth, Livingston's role in the Nets' 23-9 run since Jan. 1 may well be the best story going in the NBA given the 28-year-old's tragic history of gruesome injuries.

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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    It's too soon to say that the Memphis Grizzlies are "comfortably" in the Western Conference playoff picture, though the two-game advantage they currently own over the Suns can't be anything other than encouraging right now.

    The Grizz have worked hard to get to where they are right now. A 90-88 win over the Pelicans, sealed by Mike Conley's clutch layup with 1.5 seconds left, extended the Grizzlies' winning streak to four games and moved Memphis' record to 25-9 in 2014.

    The task at hand is far from over for the Grizzlies, though. A week of games against the Raptors, the Sixers and the Jazz should allow them to grind on before tackling a back-to-back set against the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers.

    And with Phoenix poised to make a run now that Eric Bledsoe is back in the fold, Memphis will need all the cushion it can create to keep itself in the West's top eight.

7. Golden State Warriors

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    The term "slump" is a tough one to apply to Stephen Curry, but he may be in the midst of one right now. The All-Star guard has failed to crack the 20-point mark for six games running—his longest such stretch in over three years. In that time, Curry's averaged a subpar (for him) 14.5 points and 6.8 assists while converting just 28.6 percent of his three-point attempts.

    Not that the Golden State Warriors have been much worse for Curry's wear. They won the first five of those contests before dropping a 13-point decision to the rival Los Angeles Clippers.

    But with the West as competitive as it is, the Dubs can ill afford to have their best player struggle for much longer lest they slip into one of the last two playoff slots and invite a matchup with either the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder.

6. Houston Rockets

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    Just when it looked like the Houston Rockets could do no wrong, they've found themselves shredded on both ends of the floor by quality competition.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder limited the NBA's fifth-best offense to 98 points on 41.8 percent shooting and carved up Houston's top-10 defense for 106 points on the other end on Tuesday.

    That result, though, can be explained—to some degree anyway. The Thunder have had the Rockets' number since James Harden switched cities, with a 3-0 mark against Houston this season. And after Patrick Beverley poked the proverbial bear, OKC seemed destined to dominate once again.

    But the Rockets' 24-point loss in Chicago isn't quite so easy to figure out. Sure, one can understand Houston struggling somewhat to solve Tom Thibodeau's defense, but 87 points, only 20 of which came from Dwight Howard and James Harden? And 16 turnovers, 12 of which were accounted for by Howard and Harden?

    And what about the Rockets surrendering 111 points on 50 percent shooting to the second-least-efficient defense in the NBA?

    Throw in the slumps in which the Heat, the Pacers and the Blazers were stuck when the Rockets took them down during a recent five-game winning streak, and any suggestion that Houston's ready for prime time now appears to be premature.

5. Indiana Pacers

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    The Indiana Pacers are lucky the roughest part of their campaign so closely coincided with that of the Miami Heat. Otherwise, Indy's two-game lead in the race for the No. 1 seed in the East might look more like a deficit right about now.

    The Pacers will have every opportunity to put more distance between themselves and the defending champs in the week ahead. They'll play Detroit, New York and Philly twice in their next four games.

    Andrew Bynum, who chipped in eight points and 10 boards in his Pacers debut, won't play against the Sixers on Friday, per The Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner, but he should be ready to contribute again thereafter.

    That should come as welcome news to a bench that still ranks 28th in the NBA in scoring, according to HoopsStats, despite the additions of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Evan Turner since last season.

4. Miami Heat

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    The Miami Heat had better hope they don't run into the Nets in the playoffs. The two-time defending champs moved to 0-3 against Brooklyn's veteran bunch with a 96-95 loss on Wednesday. Fortunately for the Heat, each of those three defeats have been closely contested, with the largest margin (nine points) coming in an overtime loss back in January.

    Still, the Nets' surge isn't all that should concern the Heat. Miami also split the season series against the hard-charging Bulls and has two dates with the Pacers remaining on its schedule.

    All of which is to say, the Heat's path through the East and on to a three-peat may not turn out to be the cakewalk it once appeared to be when the conference appeared to have only two competent clubs out of 15 earlier this season.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    For the Oklahoma City Thunder, revenge is a dish best served with a big ol' beatdown on the court.

    At least, that would be the biggest takeaway from the week that was for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Company.

    What began with a shocking 114-110 loss to the reeling Lakers in L.A. ended with a 29-point beatdown of the Purple and Gold in OKC. In between, the Thunder responded to Patrick Beverley's latest attempts to bulldog Westbrook into submission by ripping off a 23-5 second-quarter run on the way to a 106-98 victory over the Rockets that was far more commanding than the final score would suggest.

    Don't be surprised if the Thunder parlay these two convincing victories into another impressive run through the Association, especially with a reasonably navigable slate of games awaiting them through the end of March.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    The second spot in these power rankings belongs to the team with the second-longest active winning streak in the NBA: the San Antonio Spurs.

    San Antonio's pre-spring surge has everything to do with the health of its core group. For the first time in seemingly forever, the Spurs' top six of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter is entirely fit to perform.

    Leonard's return from a finger injury has been particularly important to the Spurs' eight-game streak. The last seven of those have come since Leonard rejoined the rotation.

    As NBA.com's Jay Cipoletti pointed out, San Antonio has outscored its opposition by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions in that span.

    And not just any opposition either. Three of the Spurs' last four wins have come against the Heat, the Bulls and the Blazers. In fact, that victory over Portland was the 490th in which Duncan, Parker and Ginobili had participated together, tying them with the "Showtime" Lakers core of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper for the second-most by any trio in NBA history, per NBA.com/Stats.

1. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers are only a game ahead of last year's pace, but to understand just how far they've come under Doc Rivers, one needs only consider the timing of and circumstances surrounding their most impressive winning streaks.

    Last season, the Clips became just the 15th team in NBA history to go undefeated in a calendar month while stringing together a 17-game winning streak. Unfortunately, that stretch came in December, long before the smell of the approaching postseason had wafted into anyone's nostrils, and they earned only three of those wins against teams that qualified for the playoffs.

    This time around, the Clippers are hitting their stride in March—against tough competition, no less. They've won a season-high nine games in a row, with victories over the Thunder, the Rockets, the Suns (twice) and the Warriors therein.

    Better yet, L.A. still has plenty of room for improvement. This spurt began with J.J. Redick still rehabbing from a bulging disc in his lower back and has persisted despite Jamal Crawford's struggles with a sprained left calf. Once those two return, the Clips will be as deep and dangerous as ever, especially with Danny Granger, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu proving to be valuable pieces in the interim.

     

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