NBA Power Rankings: Where the Chips Fall with 1 Month Left

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterMarch 21, 2014

NBA Power Rankings: Where the Chips Fall with 1 Month Left

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    The NCAA tournament is here! You know what that means?

    No, not that workers across America will be much less productive for the next few weeks, though $1.2 billion worth of labor is a lot to lose.

    Rather, I'm referring to the stretch run of the NBA's regular season. We're just a month away from the Association's version of March Madness, albeit one that lasts more than twice as long across April, May and June.

    The exciting experience of watching college kids fight for their teams' survival should serve as a solid primer for the 2014 edition of the NBA's "Hunger Games," to say the least. It can be easy to lose sight of how intense pro basketball can be around this time of year, with so many teams tanking toward the bottom of the standings while those at the top rest their stars for long playoff runs.

    That split can and often does shake up our power rankings. It certainly did last week. Read on to see if the same holds true this week.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    March 27.

    That's when the Philadelphia 76ers travel to East Texas to take on the Houston Rockets. If the Sixers drop their next three—and they figure to with dates against the red-hot New York Knicks, the fairly hot Chicago Bulls and the scorching-hot San Antonio Spurs on tap—they'll step into the Toyota Center with a 25-game losing streak and strong odds of tying the NBA record for consecutive defeats.

    That bit of history, however dubious, would be all too appropriate for Philly. The Sixers came into this season looking to "accelerate" their rebuild by turning their roster into the equivalent of a raging tire fire. GM Sam Hinkie single-handedly turned that fire into a raging inferno at Wells Fargo Central when he dumped Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline for little more than cap fodder and second-round picks.

    Hinkie had better hope that something good comes from this franchise-wide arson. Otherwise, his headstone among those of former Philly GMs figures to read something like, "Was responsible for the longest losing streak the NBA has ever seen."

    Assuming, of course, that the Sixers' slide continues through their March 29 meeting with the Detroit Pistons.

29. Orlando Magic

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    Even with a losing streak that's extended to seven games, the Orlando Magic are all but out of the running for the worst record in the NBA, especially if Philly's futility continues unabated.

    The good news is the Magic are practically a lock to have one of the three worst marks around. In theory, that should ensure Orlando doesn't slip out of the top three in the draft lottery.

    That bodes well for the team's draft strategy. According to ESPN's Chad Ford, the Magic have Kansas' Andrew Wiggins atop their big board at the moment.

    Not that this should come as any great surprise. Wiggins came into this season as the odds-on favorite to go No. 1 overall in June, and his improved play in Joel Embiid's absence has vaulted him back into that spot.

    Of greater interest is Orlando's second choice: Dante Exum. The Australian teenager figures to be the first guard taken whether the Magic pick him or not.

    And if Orlando does, it may have to worry about Exum's reported desire to be a Laker—not exactly a good look for a franchise that's already seen Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard go that route.

28. Los Angeles Lakers

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    It's official: Phil Jackson isn't walking through those Staples Center doors to save the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Not anytime soon, that is. With the Zen Master assuming a new role as team president of the New York Knicks, the Lakers will move forward without his shadow looming over the franchise he led to five championships as a coach.

    As upsetting as this may still be for Lakers fans, the fact is there was no role available for him in L.A. that was suitable for his immense basketball knowledge. Jeanie Buss, Jackson's fiancee and the Lakers' team president, said as much during an interview on Time Warner Cable SportsNet this week.

    "He's too good of a basketball mind to be sitting home in a rocking chair playing solitaire," Buss said of her future hubby.

    Also official: The Lakers were eliminated from the 2014 playoffs this past week.

    Though, like Jackson going back to the Big Apple, that was only a matter of time.

27. Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Milwaukee Bucks could've given up entirely by now. They could've thrown in the towel a long time ago, when they started the season at 2-13, due in part to Larry Sanders' injurious bar brawl. They could've called it quits on any number of occasions.

    Instead, the Bucks seem to be fighting hard, even if the final results might suggest otherwise. Milwaukee's lost its last six in a row, but only two of those have come by double digits. The Bucks managed to take the Blazers to overtime in Portland and came oh-so-close to doing the same to the Warriors in Oakland on Thursday night.

    To be sure, the Bucks had some help in their last two games: LaMarcus Aldridge didn't play for Portland, and Andre Iguodala's balky knee kept him out of action for Golden State.

    But those caveats don't make Milwaukee any less terrible. Nor do they detract from the Bucks' valiant, if futile, efforts to show some personal and professional pride on the court long after their playoff hopes have gone fishing.

26. Detroit Pistons

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    Now seems as good a time as any to drive another nail into the Detroit Pistons' playoff coffin. They've lost their last three in a row and 13 of 16 dating back to just before the All-Star break. Those bad times figure to continue for a bit, what with Andre Drummond recovering from a neck injury and Detroit's next three games coming on the road against Western Conference foes.

    It's not as though the times in Motown were all that good to begin with. The Pistons sit 6.5 games back of the Atlanta Hawks for the final playoff spot in the East, with just 15 games left on the schedule. As such, the Pistons are all but destined to miss the postseason for the fifth straight year.

    That should be enough to force out longtime GM and franchise legend Joe Dumars, who, according to The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn, is expected to resign at season's end.

25. Utah Jazz

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    I get it. The Utah Jazz were set up to get blown out by the Houston Rockets on Monday. The Jazz were stomped in San Antonio the night before for their fourth loss in a row and ninth in 10 games. Worse still, the Rockets were chomping at the bit for a victory after dropping their three prior games.

    As such, the 38-point pounding that resulted was nothing if not entirely predictable.

    But Dwight Howard was out with an ankle injury, which, in theory, should've given Utah some sliver of hope. Instead, the Jazz shot just 41 percent against Houston's improving defense and let Terrence Jones torch them for 30 on the other end.

    Bring on the lottery.

24. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers have been surprisingly competitive without Kyrie Irving of late. Since the All-Star MVP went down with a biceps injury against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, the Cavs have come within four points of upending the Miami Heat and within seven of scaring the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    It's too soon to definitively ascribe the Cavaliers' current situation to Bill Simmons' "Ewing Theory." They'll need to start winning games for that to happen.

    But if there's anyone who seems to be benefiting from Irving's absence, it's Dion Waiters.

    Which should come as no shock, given the prior discord between Cleveland's two young guards.

    Waiters went off for 17 points and 11 assists against Miami and followed that up with 30 points, four assists and three steals at OKC's expense on Thursday.

    The Syracuse product is clearly gifted enough to be an impact player in the NBA for a long time to come. Whether or not he and Kyrie can comfortably coexist will be an issue to be tackled atop the Cavs' offseason agenda.

23. Sacramento Kings

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    Great news for the Sacramento Kings: They're one step closer to building their brand-spankin'-new arena.

    The team announced this week that the local Superior Court had cleared the way for the city to acquire the entire Downtown Plaza site on which the Kings' new home is slated to be constructed.

    “We are pleased by the ruling and thank the City and other partners for their leadership on this issue," said team president Chris Granger. "Today’s news moves us yet another step closer to breaking ground and building a truly world-class entertainment and sports complex that will revitalize downtown Sacramento and cement the Kings' long-term future in this incredible community.”

    Too bad this doesn't do anything for the Kings in the interim. They've already been eliminated from the playoffs for the eighth year running and, with next season's cap sheet already clogged, figure to see that dubious streak extended to a ninth in 2015.

22. Boston Celtics

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    Even in this most depressing of down years, the Boston Celtics have found ways to put smiles on the faces of their fans from time to time.

    Wednesday's 101-96 win over the Miami Heat was one of those times. The C's shot 60 percent over the final three quarters, led by Rajon Rondo's near triple-double (nine points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists) and Avery Bradley's 23 points, to take the season series from the two-time defending champs.

    That does little to change the reality that Boston's lost twice as many games as it's won this season. And LeBron James' absence from the action devalues the victory, if only a bit.

    But for a fanbase that hates the Heat as much as Boston's does, any glint of good basketball against Miami must come as some comfort, at least until the draft lottery rolls around.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    For once, something other than an injury forced Anthony Davis out of action. Davis sat out the New Orleans Pelicans' 107-100 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday with an upper respiratory infection. Assuming the ailment isn't one fabricated for tanking's sake, Davis should be back in action in relatively short order.

    That should come as welcome news to basketball fans everywhere. Davis had been on a roll, averaging 32-14-3 with three blocks while shooting 57.9 percent from the field over his last six games.

    Hopefully, he'll be back to raising everyone else's eyebrows before too long.

20. Denver Nuggets

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    Welcome back to the land of the living, Aaron Brooks. The 29-year-old scoring guard had himself a game on Wednesday, tallying 27 points, six rebounds and a career-high 17 assists to lead the Denver Nuggets to a 118-109 win over the Pistons while holding down Ty Lawson's spot at the point.

    Better yet, Brooks didn't even think he'd get the nod. He wasn't aware that any change in the lineup would be in store until Lawson, stricken with a sinus infection, left the court during pregame warm-ups.

    "I thought he was joking at first," Brooks said after the game (via The Associated Press). "I was like, 'Quit playing around. Get back out there.' But that's what you have to do. We all stepped up."

    And step up Brooks did. The 2013-14 season was lost long ago for the Nuggets, but that doesn't mean the remainder needs to be cause for misery in the Mile High City.

19. Washington Wizards

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    The Washington Wizards appeared to have stabilized in the absence of Nene. They'd beaten the Magic and the Brooklyn Nets on back-to-back nights and seemed set to skate by the Kings in Sacramento.

    But that's why they play the games, isn't it? The Wizards squandered an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter before succumbing to the home team in overtime, with Isaiah Thomas torching John Wall for his first career triple-double (24 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists).

    What was it that got into Washington down the stretch?

    “We get punished for being cocky," Marcin Gortat told The Washington Post's Michael Lee after the game. "We get punished for being too confident and we got to pay the price now. I think we start celebrating like we already won the game. We start joking around, I guess and loosened up a little bit too much."

    Clearly, the Wizards are still getting used to this whole "winning" thing. They struggled with the concept again Thursday during a 13-point loss to the LaMarcus Aldridge-less Blazers.

    At this point, the Wizards would do well to speed that process along lest they get caught flatfooted and ousted early from what's likely to be their first playoff appearance since 2008.

18. Charlotte Bobcats

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    The only thing unfortunate about Lee Jenkins' brilliant profile of Al Jefferson for Sports Illustrated was the timing of its release. Jenkins' piece hit the web the very same week that Jefferson's Charlotte Bobcats encountered a two-game bump in the road on account of losses to the Atlanta Hawks and the Brooklyn Nets.

    Big Al wasn't at his best in those two defeats either. He failed to top the 20-point plateau in consecutive outings for the first time in more than two months.

    The 'Cats will need Jefferson to be at his best if they're to escape the coming week with their playoff hopes still so strong. They'll host Portland, Houston and Brooklyn, each of whom has both the offensive firepower to challenge Charlotte's vaunted defense and the size to frustrate Jefferson on the other end.

17. New York Knicks

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    This seems strange to say, but things are pretty good for the New York Knicks these days. Between Phil Jackson's arrival and the Knicks' current seven-game winning streak, the future seems bright at Madison Square Garden.

    To be sure, there are some caveats to consider here. Team owner James Dolan has insisted that he won't interfere with Phil's front office; with his history of meddling in basketball affairs, though, the veracity of Dolan's claim won't be determined for some time. 

    Even if Dolan gets the heck out of the way, Jackson will likely have to wait until the summer of 2015—when the contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani expire—to instigate a complete roster overhaul.

    In the meantime, the Knicks' on-court success may prove too little, too late. They still sit four games back of the Atlanta Hawks for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

    All of this being said, there's no denying that things are looking up in New York, far more than they did earlier on in this most disappointing of seasons.

16. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Atlanta Hawks' five-game winning streak may seem like a surprise given the stretch of 14 losses in 15 games that preceded it. But this team was long overdue for a turn of fortune, and all signs pointed toward this segment of the season as the best time for it.

    For one, four of the Hawks' five recent victories have come against teams with losing records, including the Jazz and the Bucks.

    More importantly, Atlanta's injury-riddled frontcourt has finally regained some semblance of depth. Pero Antic and All-Star Paul Millsap both came back earlier this month shortly before the Hawks returned to their winning ways.

    Their productivity has certainly been pivotal to Atlanta hanging on to its spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. During this five-game spurt, Antic has chipped in 11 points and five rebounds, while Millsap's stuffed the stat sheet with 22.2 points, nine rebounds and 4.6 assists, including the first triple-double of his career in an overtime win against the Toronto Raptors.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    As great as Kevin Love has been this season, he can't lift the Minnesota Timberwolves out of their decade-long lottery lull all by himself. Minny's last two games speak volumes to that effect.

    On Wednesday, the T-Wolves sneaked past the Dallas Mavericks in overtime, 123-122, with Love going off for 35 points, eight rebounds and three assists. His efforts were outshone, though, by Ricky Rubio's triple-double (22 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists), rookie Gorgui Dieng's double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) and double-digit scoring efforts from Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and J.J. Barea.

    Come Thursday, Love (29 points, six rebounds, five assists) was back at it, as was Dieng (22 points, 21 rebounds). Unfortunately, Rubio, Brewer, Martin and Barea must've missed the memo about the team's Texas two-step; those four combined for 15 points in Minny's 129-106 loss in Houston.

    The T-Wolves could chalk their poor performance up to the absence of Nikola Pekovic, though the Rockets didn't seem at all deterred without Dwight Howard.

    Looks like Love might want to pack his bags for the draft lottery, then, because his T-Wolves are almost surely headed there once again in May.

14. Dallas Mavericks

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    Leave it to Mark Cuban, the quotable owner of the Dallas Mavericks, to rock the boat, even when the sailing is relatively smooth.

    Prior to Dallas' home win over the Celtics on Monday, Cuban called out Dirk Nowitzki for taking "naps" during games.

    "I think sometimes he loses concentration, and I think we’ve got to get past that,” Cuban told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Dwain Price. "I mentioned it to him today. I asked him how his nap was during the game [Sunday at Oklahoma City]. He laughed. At least that’s while I was facing him. When I turned my back and walked away, I don’t know."

    The timing of Cuban's comments was curious to say the least. The Mavs were fresh off a 23-point blowout of the Oklahoma City Thunder, albeit one from which Russell Westbrook was absent.

    Since then, Nowitzki has struggled. He shot just 6-of-17 in the win over Boston and needed 27 shots to score his 27 points in Dallas' overtime loss to Minnesota.

    Far be it for anyone to tell a billionaire business mogul like Cuban when to keep his thoughts to himself, but perhaps his public evisceration of his future Hall of Famer wasn't such a smart move.

13. Toronto Raptors

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    Just as yours truly was busy touting the virtues of the Toronto Raptors, they went and lost back-to-back games to the Suns and the Hawks before escaping New Orleans with a seven-point win over the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans.

    To be sure, I wasn't the only one to succumb to poor timing. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski published his gleaming profile of Kyle Lowry the same day the Raps pushed past the Pels in less-than-impressive fashion.

    Then again, Woj's subject did his best to keep Toronto on track amidst its struggles. In his last three games, Lowry has averaged 23.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and nine assists with 7.7 free-throw attempts and 1.7 steals to boot.

    Those are indeed numbers becoming of an elite NBA point guard.

12. Phoenix Suns

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    Evidently, Eric Bledsoe's return is having a positive impact on the fortunes of the Phoenix Suns. They've won three of their last four games to move back within a game-and-a-half of a playoff spot out West.

    A favorable schedule to finish the month of March should give the Suns ample opportunity to close that gap further, assuming they're up to the task. Four of their next six games will come against teams currently beyond the bounds of the postseason picture in either conference.

    Phoenix had better make hay while it can too. Come April, the Suns will play six of their final eight games against Western Conference playoff teams.

    Which is just as well. After all, if the Suns hope to make any noise in the playoffs, they'll first have to prove (again) that they can take care of business against top-quality competition in the regular season.

11. Portland Trail Blazers

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    As great as LaMarcus Aldridge has been when healthy this season, the Portland Trail Blazers have managed surprisingly well without him. The Blazers' 116-103 win over the Wizards on Thursday was their seventh in nine games this season in which Aldridge hasn't played.

    This is in no way to suggest that the Blazers are "better off" without their franchise forward. Aldridge is the All-Star around which the rest of Portland's planets orbit, particularly on the offensive end. Without him, the Blazers would be hard-pressed to so much as make a series of it against any of the West's best come playoff time.

    If anything, the Blazers' success in L.A.'s absence speaks to the improved depth, talent and chemistry of this squad.

10. Chicago Bulls

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    The Chicago Bulls' recent and upcoming schedule might best be described as a seesaw in terms of the quality of game-to-game competition. This last week alone the Bulls bounced dates against Western Conference contenders (i.e. the Rockets and the Thunder) and tilts opposite lottery-bound bottom-feeders (i.e. the Kings and the Sixers).

    That pattern is scheduled to continue for the rest of the month. Chicago's set to play the Pacers (twice) and the Blazers before the end of March, with dates against Philly and Boston (twice) interspersed.

    The point being, the Bulls should enter a relatively easy April with their hopes of snagging the No. 3 seed in the East well intact.

9. Brooklyn Nets

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    How long Deron Williams' chronically injured ankles hold up is anybody's best guess. For now, though, the Brooklyn Nets have to like what they've seen from their highly paid point guard.

    Williams went off for 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting against the Suns and followed that up by tallying 25 points and eight assists opposite the Bobcats—both in winning efforts.

    "My confidence is getting back. That's a good thing for me," Williams said after beating the Bobcats (via The Associated Press). "I tend to play well when my confidence is high. I just have to keep it there."

    If D-Will can do that, the Nets could be the very postseason threat that everyone expected them to be coming into the 2013-14 season.

8. Memphis Grizzlies

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    These days, back-to-back games against the Sixers and the Jazz are chicken soup for the soul of most any NBA team.

    Just ask the Memphis Grizzlies. They bounced back from a disappointing defeat in Toronto by flattening Philly and scooting past Utah several days later.

    It's a good thing the Grizz got in their kicks while they could too. Their next back-to-back will take them to Miami on Friday and back home to host the Pacers on Saturday.

    With the way those two teams have been struggling of late, though, Memphis might not have much to worry about.

7. Indiana Pacers

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    For once, the overwrought refrain of "the Eastern Conference is terrible" doesn't apply solely to the lower 13 teams. 

    The Indiana Pacers have gotten in on the act too. They've lost five of their last nine games, with four wins in that span coming against Boston, Detroit and Philly (twice).

    Following Indy's loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, CBS Sports' Ken Berger wondered whether the once-robust Pacers—specifically Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert—had grown weary as a result of their pursuit of the East's No. 1 seed, which has come at the expense of rest for their core.

    Head coach Frank Vogel wasn't buying it. "We keep an eye on our guys," Vogel told Berger. "I agree with how (Gregg Popovich) handles his team, but we have a younger team. And the veterans wouldn't sit out if you put a gun to their head."

    That may be true, but it'd be a shame if Indy's championship chase fell flat on account of its top players tiring in key moments.

6. Golden State Warriors

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    So far, so good for the Golden State Warriors without Andre Iguodala. The Dubs are 2-0 since Iggy was ruled out on account of tendinitis in his right knee.

    Not that Golden State should find too much comfort in those results. Those two wins came against the Magic and the Bucks, the latter of which was closer than the quality of competition would suggest it should've been.

    The Dubs' depth will truly be put to the test Saturday when they welcome the Spurs to Oracle Arena. Golden State will need a much better effort out of Harrison Barnes, who went scoreless against Milwaukee after putting up just four points on Orlando, if it's to stop San Antonio's lengthy streak.

    And, for that matter, succeed in the postseason.

5. Houston Rockets

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    No Dwight Howard? No problem for the Houston Rockets. They've eviscerated the Jazz and the T-Wolves since Howard left the lineup to attend to a cyst in his ankle.

    Granted, the competition hasn't exactly been stellar. But that doesn't mean the rest of the Rockets—especially those on the fringes who've come up big—don't deserve credit for picking up the slack in their superstar center's absence.

    Terrence Jones exploded for 30 points against Utah. Donatas Motiejunas poured in 20 points off the bench at Minny's expense.

    It helps too that Houston had a bona fide starting center in Omer Asik to fill in for Howard. The tall Turk has contributed 12 points and solid interior defense in each of his last two starts.

    If the Rockets want to go far in this year's playoffs, they'll need their role players to step up in similar fashion later on, even when Howard returns.

4. Miami Heat

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    LeBron James' back-spasm-related absence from the Miami Heat's 101-96 loss in Boston didn't stop Shane Battier from sounding off on his team's recent struggles.

    "We expect guys to come in and play and play a role and prepare like they’re going to play and...we didn’t do that," Battier told The Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman after the game on Wednesday. "We have never played this poorly at this point in the season before. This is uncharted territory for us."

    Battier's concern isn't without merit. The Heat are just 3-6 in their last nine games.

    But panic is hardly the proper state for Miami to be in right now. The Heat will have ample opportunity to catch the Pacers atop the East, with two dates left against Indy and plenty of cupcakes to play in between.

    So long as the Heat have all their ducks in a row by mid-April, they'll be in perfect position to extend their back-to-back championship run into a full-blown three-peat.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    For the second season in a row, the Los Angeles Clippers saw a double-digit winning streak vanish into Denver's thin air. In 2012-13, the Clips succumbed to the Nuggets on New Year's Day after stringing together 17 straight wins to end the previous calendar year. This time around, L.A.'s run went to 11 and no further as Denver's balanced attack trumped the Clippers' two-man game.

    To that end, L.A. should be encouraged by the latest news out of Playa Vista. According to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick were both back at practice Thursday. The former figures to play Saturday against Detroit, while the latter will need more time to get back in shape after missing 18 games with a bulging disk in his lower back.

    The replenishment of the Clippers' perimeter depth bodes well for the team's hopes for a deep playoff push. As great as Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have been and are as a trio, the Clippers will need Redick's shooting and Crawford's scoring to ensure that their dominance from November on translates into April, May and June.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    If there's any good to come from Russell Westbrook's battle with his knee, it's the realization on the Oklahoma City Thunder's part that their players, especially their best ones, need to rest from time to time during the regular season to better preserve their vitality for the playoffs.

    Of course, the Thunder paid the price for sitting Westbrook on Sunday, as the Mavs mauled them, 109-86. And the team's decision to sit Russ on Thursday left OKC just seven points better than the Kyrie Irving-less Cavs.

    These results won't matter once the playoffs roll around, though. Sure, the Thunder would love to reclaim the No. 1 seed in the West from the surging San Antonio Spurs.

    But two years after falling in the NBA Finals and a year after Westbrook's absence cut short a return trip, the Thunder probably aren't concerned with that. For OKC, this spring—and every spring of which Westbrook and Kevin Durant are a part—will be "championship or bust."

    Giving Westbrook (and hopefully Durant) the occasional breather should nudge them closer to the former than the latter.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    The San Antonio Spurs have peaked too early before. Two years ago, the Spurs won 10 in a row to end the regular season, then swept their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs and took a 2-0 lead over the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals before losing their next four to OKC.

    That may well be the case this time around. After all, the Spurs have been known to struggle with OKC's athleticism and were lucky to dodge the Thunder in last year's playoffs on the way to a classic NBA Finals showdown with the Heat.

    Then again, it's tough to find fault in a deep, veteran-laden team taking care of business by executing on both ends of the floor, regardless of when that stretch of superb ball comes around. So long as the Spurs have all their cylinders firing a month from now, they'll be as good a bet as any to represent the West in the 2014 finals.

    Probably against Miami...again.

     

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