As the NBA regular season winds toward its conclusion, the playoff races are heating up. Whether the battle is for home-court advantage, trying to avoid the top teams in the opening round or simply just trying to get in the postseason, it's officially crunch time.
One thing that immediately stands out is the vast difference between the conferences. The West is highlighted by balance, especially from spots five through nine, which are separated by just two games. The East is the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and then a huge gap back to every other team.
The power rankings reflect that outlook. Only two of the top 11 teams are from the top-heavy Eastern Conference. Let's check out the complete breakdown of all 30 teams as the playoffs start to appear on the horizon.
1. San Antonio Spurs (55-16)
Every year the question is raised about whether the season has finally arrived where the Spurs will fall off. And every year, at least so far, the answer has been an emphatic "no." San Antonio has won 15 straight games and is currently three games better than any other team.
ESPN Stats and Info notes it's the second-longest winning streak in team history:
Gregg Popovich has done a masterful job of limiting the minutes across the board, which should ensure the Spurs enter the postseason ready for another deep run. Another championship banner is certainly within reach.
2. Los Angeles Clippers (50-22)
The Clippers deserve a far more prominent place in the championship conversation. They lead the NBA in points per game, sport the league's second-best record at home and have won eight of their past 10 games. Peaking at the right time, which they are seemingly doing, is always a key playoff factor.
3. Indiana Pacers (52-20)
Indiana earned this spot with its victory over the Heat on Wednesday night. Although it wasn't the best performance from either side, the Pacers still deserve credit for rising to the occasion during the final minutes. That's what they'll need to do in order to eliminate Miami in a potential postseason matchup.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (52-19)
Slowly but surely the connection between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is finding a comfort zone. As long as those two stars are on the same page and Serge Ibaka is protecting the paint, the Thunder have the top-end talent necessary to match up with any team.
5. Miami Heat (48-22)
What the Heat have shown throughout the regular season is the toll winning two straight titles takes. Perhaps the biggest question in the entire league heading into the playoffs will surround whether they will be able to flip the switch and return to that unmatched level when it matters most.
6. Houston Rockets (48-22)
The Rockets are heating up. They knew what they were going to get from James Harden and Dwight Howard. The key was always going to be a third player stepping up alongside that pair. Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones have both filled the role at times to improve Houston's stock.
7. Phoenix Suns (43-29)
Quietly the Suns are starting to make a move. They can't match the star power of the teams above them on the list, but the emergence of Goran Dragic paired with a well-rounded group of other contributors has them right on the playoff borderline after four straight wins.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (43-28)
Memphis is another dangerous team battling for a playoff spot in the West. The frontcourt combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is enough to cause problems for a lot of teams. Whether the Grizzlies will have enough shooting is a concern, though.
9. Golden State Warriors (44-27)
If either Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes were having a good season the Warriors would be in far better shape. Instead, both swingmen are enduring tough campaigns, and the lack of that extra scoring option means Golden State must fight for a playoff spot rather than one of the top West seeds.
10. Dallas Mavericks (43-29)
Just when it looked like Dallas might be in danger of falling out of the playoff race, it was able to put together a 7-3 spurt to stay right in the thick of things. Having Dirk Nowitzki to lead the charge obviously helps, but the role players have stepped up as well.
11. Portland Trail Blazers (45-27)
The Blazers need to right the ship quickly. They looked like playoff locks a couple weeks ago, but a 3-7 stretch, including a current three-game losing streak, has made a postseason trip less of a certainty. There's still time to get back on track, though.
Chris Haynes of Comcast SportsNet Northwest reports they will get timely reinforcements in the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge:
Portland has a reasonable schedule down the stretch, so as long as it can break the losing streak soon it should be fine. That said, it definitely wants to stay as the No. 5 seed to avoid having to face the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder right away.
12. Brooklyn Nets (37-33)
Expectations were high for Brooklyn coming into the season after an offseason of wheeling and dealing. Although things didn't go exactly according to plan early in the campaign, the Nets have worked themselves back into position as a secondary threat in the East.
13. Chicago Bulls (40-31)
Another season where Chicago is forced to wonder how things would have gone if Derrick Rose was able to stay healthy. Even though the roster is solid even without the superstar point guard, it's not on the same level as the top two in the East.
14. Toronto Raptors (40-31)
Toronto, like Phoenix in the Western Conference, is another team that's quietly hanging around. The Raptors are sitting in third place in the weaker conference. The backcourt combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan has made a bigger impact than almost anybody predicted.
15. Charlotte Bobcats (35-37)
The Bobcats likely aren't ready to make any playoff noise this season, especially since they are on track to face either the Pacers or the Heat in Round 1. That said, progress is being made, which is enough to finally raise hopes moving forward.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (31-40)
Anthony Davis is a joy to watch, but the absences of Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday prevented the Pelicans from coming anywhere close to their full potential this season. If that health luck changes in 2014-15, they are definitely a team to keep tabs on.
17. Minnesota Timberwolves (35-35)
One thing to watch with Minnesota is how much Ricky Rubio can improve as a shooter. He's connected on just 37 percent of his shot attempts this season, which allows defenses to lag off him and limits the team's offensive upside. If he becomes even average in that area, the impact will be very noticeable.
18. Washington Wizards (36-35)
John Wall is a special talent, but the lack of a second star forces Washington to go through lulls like the one it's enduring right now. Bradley Beal could eventually fill that role, but right now his lack of efficiency can lead to some frustrating stretches.
19. New York Knicks (30-42)
The Knicks have been playing much better basketball as of late. It's allowed them to move back within two games of a playoff berth with 10 games to play. A brief two-game losing skid quelled some of that momentum, however.
Billy Witz of the New York Times passed along brief comments from new Knicks President Phil Jackson made during an ugly loss to the Lakers:
"'It was awful, huh,' Jackson, the new Knicks president, said with a slight grin as he exited a luxury suite in the corner of the arena and took an elevator down to the floor level."
New York did bounce back to beat the Kings, but the margin for error is thin. The schedule isn't going to do the Knicks any favors either. But if they play as well as they did at points over the past few weeks, anything is possible.
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (29-44)
Winners of three straight, the Cavs are showing some life down the stretch. The fact they have been able to do it without Kyrie Irving is even more impressive. A large charge could still land them a playoff spot, but more than likely they are building for next season.
21. Denver Nuggets (32-40)
The best news for Denver is that what has become a disappointing season is nearly over. Things just never came together for the Nuggets during the course of the season, and the toughness of the Western Conference certainly didn't do them any favors.
22. Atlanta Hawks (31-39)
Atlanta is still holding onto the final spot in the East, but it's far from secure. The Hawks have gone on a four-game losing streak at an inopportune time, which has opened the door for the Knicks, among other teams. They need to right the ship quickly.
23. Los Angeles Lakers (24-46)
Pau Gasol is putting together another very solid season. Aside from that, there aren't many positives for the Lakers to take away from a season where Kobe Bryant played in only six games and they lacked any other impact performers.
24. Sacramento Kings (25-46)
DeMarcus Cousins showing signs of maturing is a welcome sign for Sacramento. The Kings certainly have some pieces in place as a foundation, but filling out the rest of the roster in order to become a contender is still going to take some time.
25. Detroit Pistons (26-45)
The Pistons remained in the playoff hunt for a long time thanks to the weakened East. A 2-8 mark over their past 10 games likely brought an end to those hopes, though. Now the focus shifts to figuring out which players can be building blocks for the future.
26. Boston Celtics (23-48)
A lack of any type of consistency in the lineup has made it hard to gauge if any progress was being made in Boston. The Celtics had some brief spurts of solid play, but the rebuild is on, and Brad Stevens seems like the right coach to oversee it.
27. Utah Jazz (23-49)
If the Jazz want to look on the positive side of things, they can point to the fact the roster has a lot of players talented enough to fill roles moving forward. What they lack is the top end necessary to make it so those players can take up those specifics spots instead of being asked to do too much.
28. Orlando Magic (20-52)
The most troubling sign for the Magic is the lack of development from players like Maurice Harkless and Andrew Nicholson. This should have been a season where they received more playing time and made strides. It just didn't happen, slowing the pace of the rebuild.
29. Milwaukee Bucks (13-58)
Milwaukee is still the owner of the worst record in the league. It sits 42 games behind the Spurs for the best record with games still to play, which is astonishing. But with plenty of talent in the draft, the Bucks should get a star to build around.
30. Philadelphia 76ers (15-56)
Losers of 25 straight and counting. Even though the 76ers were expected to struggle this season, losing that many games in a row is extraordinary. The only question now is whether they will win again before the season ends.
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