NBA Power Rankings: Shaking out NBA's Final Weeks of the Playoffs Race

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterApril 4, 2014

NBA Power Rankings: Shaking out NBA's Final Weeks of the Playoffs Race

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    Sue Ogrocki

    The NBA playoffs are so close, you can almost smell 'em...

    Which may not be the best thing, actually. The scent of sweaty giants battling on a basketball court isn't the most pleasant one to say the least.

    And, really, there's plenty left to be decided during what remains of the 2013-14 regular season. Nearly every playoff seed is up for grabs in some capacity, including the final ones in both conferences.

    Heck, even the race to the bottom for the worst record in the Association has yet to be decided. The Philadelphia 76ers sit two games "back" of the Milwaukee Bucks in that regard, despite losing an NBA-record-tying 26 straight games.

    Those and other springtime pursuits have done plenty to shake up the league's hierarchy since we last convened. Read, click and swipe ahead to see where everyone stands—based on recent on-court performance relative to one another—heading into the first full week of April.

30. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Bleacher Report

    THE STREAK IS OVER! THE PHILADELPHIA 76ERS WON'T SET THE RECORD FOR MOST CONSECUTIVE LOSSES IN NORTH AMERICAN PRO SPORTS HISTORY!

    Not this season, anyway. Where are Jim Jones and Ron Browz when you need 'em?

    Before folks in Philly pop too much champagne (whoa), let's keep in mind that the Sixers are still (probably) the worst team in the NBA. They've lost twice since trampling the destitute Detroit Pistons, including a 30-point blowout at the hands of the red-hot Charlotte Bobcats.

    In truth, Philly could finish this most miserable of seasons losing nine straight and 35 of 36 (!!!). Of the team's seven remaining games, five are on the road, and five are against squads that are currently playoff-bound, with plenty left to be decided in terms of seeding for each of them.

    Any hope the Sixers had of stealing their season series with the Miami Heat once LeBron James revealed that he'd be cutting short his own streak of missing the final game of the campaign is gone. "I have no choice," James told the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Shandel Richardson. "I don't plan on sitting out any of these (eight) games unless something happens. I'm going to be in the lineup."

    So much for that feather in Philly's weathered cap.

29. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Even after Philly's historic slump, the Milwaukee Bucks still own the NBA's worst record and thus the best shot at landing the No. 1 pick in the (presumably) loaded 2014 draft.

    How did the Bucks pull that off? Well, for one, they didn't start the season 3-0 like the Sixers did. Milwaukee actually managed to win six times during the nearly two months that Philly went without a victory.

    That in and of itself should tell you everything you need to know about just how bad these Bucks are—and just how badly the Sixers want to steal ping-pong balls from them.

28. Utah Jazz

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    The question of Gordon Hayward's future with the Utah Jazz is one with which both player and team will soon have to grapple, with perhaps the sorriest season in franchise history soon to close.

    "He’s someone we can see in a Utah Jazz jersey until he retires," general manager Dennis Lindsey told The Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk back in October. "That’s our hope. We think there’s a great fit."

    Any claims about Hayward's fit in Utah seem suspect. He's posted career-worst shooting numbers across the board while turning the ball over nearly three times per game. 

    Of course, that regression isn't without explanation. This season was Hayward's first as the Jazz's No. 1 option after three seasons spent biding his time behind the bygone frontcourt duo of Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Utah has leaned on him to carry the scoring load and charged him with the team's playmaking duties prior to Trey Burke's debut.

    Not a simple task by any means. Hayward, to his credit, has been productive, filling the box score with 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists a night.

    The Jazz figure to match whatever offer sheets Hayward receives as a restricted free agent this summer, assuming none is particularly exorbitant. Should another club jump in with a "Godfather offer," though, Utah can rest relatively easy knowing that it has at least one replacement (Alec Burks) waiting in the wings and another potentially in store by way of the 2014 NBA draft.

    "You can’t worry about that until the summer," Hayward told The Tribune. "As of right now I’m just playing basketball."

27. Detroit Pistons

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    How, pray tell, did the Detroit Pistons fall two spots this week despite bouncing the Bucks and nearly perpetuating the late-season putridity of the Indiana Pacers?

    Simple: They lost to the Sixers.

    By 25 points.

    To end Philly's 26-game slide.

    It's no wonder that Jonas Jerebko, of all players, is contemplating passing up the $4.5 million remaining on his four-year, $18 million deal to pursue other opportunities this summer that, while less lucrative, could yield more success on the court.

    "I don't play the game for money," Jerebko told MLive's Brendan Savage. "We'll see what happens when I have a discussion with my agent. Like I said, eight more games to finish the season out then I'll start thinking about the future."

    For Jerebko and the Pistons, there's no time like the present for that.

26. Boston Celtics

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    Things really are getting weird for the Boston Celtics, aren't they?

    Getting eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 was one thing. The C's all but expected that would happen once Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce had all been shipped out this past summer.

    But if some things in Beantown change, can't others stay the same? Like, you know, Rajon Rondo's long-running tiff with Joakim Noah?

    Apparently not. Rondo spoke of his respect for Noah during the point guard's stint as Mike Gorman's sidekick during the C's-Bulls broadcast this past week. When told of the apparent thaw on Rondo's behalf, Noah spoke of the role that Bill Duffy, the agent that he and Rondo share, may play in a future (dare I say it?) friendship between the two.

    "We have the same agent, and it’s interesting," Noah told the huddled media masses after the Bulls swept their back-to-back set against Boston, via the Boston Herald's Mark Murphy. "I always ask my agent, how is Rajon? How is he? We don’t really have that conversation with each other. I’m sure it will happen one day. As you get older you realize you can compete and still have respect for your opponent."

    Rondo, though, was quick to pump the brakes on any budding relationship with Noah. "We’re not friends. No. He’s not on my team," Rondo added. "We have respect for each other. We’ve both accomplished things in this league, we’re both competitors, we love to win and hate to lose.

    "But you play against somebody for 10 years, you probably won’t like the guy."

    That's more like it.

25. Orlando Magic

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    What do LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have in common with Jordan Crawford, Jared Sullinger, Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson and Nikola Vucevic?

    They've all been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week this season.

    Vucevic's first such honor came after a three-game set in which he averaged 22.7 points and 14.3 rebounds while shooting 58.3 percent from the field for the Orlando Magic. Those numbers were bolstered by Vucevic's 24-point, 23-rebound bonanza during the Magic's 110-105 overtime win against the surging Charlotte Bobcats.

    The fact that Vucevic performed that well at Big Al's expense—and held Jefferson to a relatively modest 20 and eight on the other end—must've weighed heavily into the decision.

    Though, to be fair, Jefferson still won the war; he was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month, and his 'Cats are close to clinching just the second playoff berth in franchise history.

24. Los Angeles Lakers

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    By 2013-14 season's dismal standards, this past week was a good one for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Granted, they lost three of four, including one in which they allowed the Minnesota Timberwolves to score an unsightly 143 points, 111 of which came in the first three quarters. The return of Pau Gasol's vertigo, after playing 28 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers, was none too encouraging either.

    On the bright side, though, the Lakers managed to fluster the Phoenix Suns, behind Chris Kaman's 28-point, 17-rebound, six-assist bird-flip to head coach Mike D'Antoni. They also made a game of it against the Sacramento Kings before dropping to 25-50 and after watching Steve Nash contribute a double-double and Nick Young score a swagtastic 40 points against Portland.

    Unfortunately for Lakers fans, Swaggy P won't likely be wearing purple and gold for much longer. He's all but certain to decline his $1.2 million player option for 2014-15 and subsequently seek out longer, more lucrative terms with another team—unless, of course, the Lakers pony up accordingly.

    If Young does return, he could be joined in that regard by Jodie Meeks and Xavier Henry, both of whom recently spoke about their respective desires to remain in Lakerland.

23. Atlanta Hawks

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    It took a while, but the Atlanta Hawks have finally fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. That might actually fit the overarching plans of GM Danny Ferry, who began dismantling the core of this club almost immediately after taking over the front office two years ago.

    "We're not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that's not our goal," Ferry told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "We're trying to build something that's good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so."

    Granted, Ferry wasn't talking about his team "tanking" its way out of the postseason by losing seven of its last eight. Rather, he's referring to his desire to turn the Hawks into something more than the middling playoff team they've been since 2007.

    Finishing outside of the East's top eight—and vaulting the team's 2014 first-rounder into the lottery—would certainly serve that purpose more than a first-round flattening at the hands of the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers would. Hence, Ferry's acceptance of his team's potential fate.

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Somebody get Anthony Davis a can of insect repellent—STAT! The kid's still plagued by the injury bug at nearly every turn.

    Last Friday, Davis played just four minutes in the New Orleans Pelicans' win over the Utah Jazz and missed their subsequent loss to the San Antonio Spurs on account of an ankle sprain.

    Davis came back in a big way against Sacramento (22 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four blocks, two steals), albeit in a loss, before he was bitten by back spasms 11 minutes into New Orleans' blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.

    For the most part, Davis has managed to stay on the court for the Pels this season. He's missed 10 games, seven of which came after he busted a bone in his hand back in December, after sitting out 18 times as a rookie.

    That in and of itself counts as an improvement but still points to Davis' need to get bigger and stronger if he's to survive the rigors of being a big man in the NBA without his body breaking down entirely. 

    Pelicans head coach Monty Williams, for one, isn't so sure that Davis will ever be brawny enough to man the middle on his own. "I don’t think [Davis] is ever going to be a center," Williams told Grantland's Zach Lowe. "I think he’s a power forward who will sometimes play center."

    The more Davis has to play center, the worse the beating his slender frame is likely to take.

21. Sacramento Kings

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    Much has already been made of what the Sacramento Kings can do to build around the misunderstood DeMarcus Cousins and whether Rudy Gay should opt into the final year of his current deal or leave $19.3 million on the table in pursuit of long-term security.

    But the most pressing concern involving Sacramento's own Big Three may well be what to do about Isaiah Thomas.

    On the one hand, the water bug of a point guard has put up spectacular numbers since Greivis Vasquez was traded away in the Gay deal. In 52 starts this season, Thomas has averaged 21.7 points and 6.9 assists, though he's shot far better from three (.403) as a reserve.

    That play may put Thomas, a restricted free agent at season's end, out of the Kings' price range. They could be well over the salary cap if Gay stays—not an ideal situation for a 27-48 squad. 

    And with the way rookie Ray McCallum has played of late (24.5 points, 7.5 assists in his last two games), Sacramento could choose the taller, younger and cheaper floor general over the undersized Thomas if the latter fields an expensive offer sheet from another club this summer.

20. Denver Nuggets

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    Just because the playoffs are now a distant memory for the Denver Nuggets doesn't mean everyone in the Mile High City has decided to phone in the rest of the 2013-14 season.

    Kenneth Faried certainly hasn't. The Manimal scored a career-high 34 points and chipped in 13 rebounds, two assists and three blocks—all in just under 27 minutes, no less—in a 30-point win over the Pelicans on Wednesday. 

    Such excellence, while new in some respects, isn't entirely out of the ordinary for Faried. Since the All-Star break, he's averaged 18.8 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting just under 56 percent from the field.

    Faried's explanation for the turnaround from his early-season woes makes plenty of sense too. 

    "Trades scare you. Talking about, 'Oh, you may get traded to another team,' or knowing that your team is probably pushing you out there and it seems that they don't want you, that's scary," Faried recently told The Denver Post's Mark Kiszla. "But when the trade deadline did clear and I knew I was staying a Denver Nugget at least until the end of the year, I came out and it was a burden off my shoulders. I could play my game and show them what I'm really made of."

    What he's made of could soon be a lot of money. Faried will be eligible for a rich contract extension once this season comes to a close.

    GM Tim Connelly may well be willing to give him one. He scoffed at the notion of trading the Manimal at any point and proceeded to sing Faried's praises. "He rebounds like he's 7-feet tall. His intensity and toughness overcomes his lack of size. His shooting percentage is high. And, of course, his energy level in contagious. In a lot of ways, Faried determines how we play."

19. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves' playoff hopes have long since vanished into thin air, but that hasn't stopped Kevin Love from going bonkers. This last week alone, Love tallied two triple-doubles (the second and third of his career), the latest of which helped the T-Wolves trounce the surging Memphis Grizzlies at home on Wednesday.

    It's stretches like these—and, well, his entire season, for that matter—that justify Minny's reluctance to trade Love before he "inevitably" opts out of his contract and takes his talents elsewhere in 2015. Players like Love don't come around very often, and most teams would move heaven and earth to get one.

    The T-Wolves already have their Kevin Love. If they're going to keep him beyond next season, they'll have to make a significant leap into the postseason, not unlike that which the Portland Trail Blazers have put together with LaMarcus Aldridge in 2013-14.

18. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Try as we might to stick a fork in their playoff hopes, the Cleveland Cavaliers just won't go away. They've won four of their last five to pull within two games of the Hawks and Knicks in the race for the East's eighth seed.

    Best of all, the Cavs just welcomed Kyrie Irving back to the lineup. The All-Star MVP contributed 17 points, eight assists and six boards to Cleveland's 119-98 win over Orlando upon returning from an eight-game biceps injury-related absence.

    The Cavs will need all they can get out of Irving if they're to defy expectations and appear in the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James skipped town.

    Their remaining schedule is relatively soft, though every game—especially those against Atlanta and Charlotte this weekend—will be a "must-win" if Cleveland is to sneak its way into the mix.

17. Brooklyn Nets

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    If the turf war between the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks is ever to blossom into a bona fide rivalry, they'll need to start playing games against each other that qualify as no worse than half-decent.

    That's been a struggle for these two squads this season. Each of their three meetings in 2013-14 has been decided by at least 23 points, including the 29-point pounding suffered by the Nets at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday.

    For comparison's sake, last season's four editions of the NBA's Subway Series were settled by a total of 27 points. New York and Brooklyn will have one more opportunity to prove that they can both show up on the same court when the Nets host the Knicks at the Barclays Center on April 15.

    Here's hoping that one yields a more competitive contest than what we've seen from these two teams thus far.

16. New York Knicks

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    What's better than climbing back into the playoff picture after hovering on the fringes? How about doing so at the expense of your territorial tormentor?

    That's what the New York Knicks did in destroying the Nets at MSG on Wednesday, 110-81. The win was the Knicks' third in a row and 12th in 15 tries dating back to early March.

    The reasons behind New York's late-season turnaround aren't tough to track down.

    After spending most of the season as the Knicks' lone gunner, Carmelo Anthony has suddenly found himself surrounded by scorers. Since March 5, the Knicks have seen J.R. Smith (16.2 points, .423 from three) and Amar'e Stoudemire (16.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, .540 from the field) turn into reliable second and third options in New York's stagnant offense.

    At least one luminary within the organization has taken notice. 

    "When Carmelo had to carry the load in scoring, a lot of times on his own back, and other people weren't stepping into helping him carry that load, which Amar'e [Stoudemire] and J.R. have done, it could be a struggle," team president Phil Jackson recently told ESPNNewYork.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "But now they have more than one option out there on the floor, and I think that we'll give teams trouble."

15. Washington Wizards

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    At long last, the Washington Wizards are headed back to the playoffs. Their 118-92 win over the Celtics on Wednesday secured the Wizards' first postseason berth since 2008, before Gilbert Arenas started packing heat in the locker room.

    Not that Washington necessarily came by its latest trip to the playoffs honestly. The team was aided—against Boston at least—by Marcin Gortat's surreptitious spying tactics.

    Gortat's sneaky reconnaissance, though, brings to mind a couple of questions:

    1. Why would he bother barging into the opponent's huddle with his own team up by 17 points?

    2. How did the C's fail to notice that a 7-footer in a Wizards jersey was butting into their business.

    The answer: WHO CARES?! THE WIZARDS ARE GOING TO THE BIG DANCE!!

14. Phoenix Suns

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    The Phoenix Suns will have only themselves to blame if they fall just a hair short of ending their Cinderella season in the playoffs...

    OK, and maybe the city of Los Angeles too. The Suns were handled by the listless Lakers in L.A. on Sunday and blew a 17-point lead to the Clippers on Wednesday.

    This after winning six straight, albeit against weaker competition.

    Phoenix won't have many more patsies to feast on going forward. Five of the Suns' final seven games will come against current Western Conference playoff teams, including a trip to Portland and a home date against OKC this weekend.

    With a schedule like that, the Suns can't hope to sneak their way into the postseason. Rather, they'll have to earn their berth against an uncompromising gauntlet of quality competition.

13. Dallas Mavericks

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    The Dallas Mavericks know a thing or two about late comebacks by the Los Angeles Clippers and the impact they can have on a team's playoff hopes nowadays. They'd blown double-digit leads against the Clips three times this season—all ending in defeat.

    The Mavs nearly fell victim to a similar script on Thursday in L.A. but managed to hang on for a much-needed 113-107 win. The result doesn't entirely make up for Dallas' disappointing 4-4 homestand, but it does put the Mavs back into the playoff picture out West.

    For now at least. A half-game cushion on the Memphis Grizzlies and the Suns might as well be no cushion at all. Fortunately for the Mavs, the rest of their four-game road trip will come against the bottom three teams in the Western Conference, at whose expense they should be able to carve out some breathing room in the standings.

12. Charlotte Bobcats

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    Never have things looked so rosy for the Charlotte Bobcats.

    They've won three of their last four to move within both a game of the .500 mark and striking distance of the second playoff berth in franchise history. Al Jefferson, who's been nothing short of vital to Charlotte's 16-win (and counting) turnaround, was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month for March.

    And, as yours truly detailed this past week, the 'Cats have plenty of room for growth thanks to the collection of young talent currently on hand and the upcoming draft picks that should help them add more in the years to come.

    The timing of Charlotte's rise couldn't be much better either. Next season, the team will reclaim the Hornets nickname that contributed to the NBA's popularity in the Queen City throughout the 1990s.

11. Golden State Warriors

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    Hot Seat Watch, Week 2: Mark Jackson's job with the Golden State Warriors could indeed be in jeopardy but not because he lost the locker room. According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, the Dubs' players love their head coach, despite his decision to demote assistant Brian Scalabrine to the D-League's Santa Cruz Warriors.

    If Stephen Curry and co. truly have Jackson's back, they'd do well to demonstrate as much on the court. They managed just 84 points at home in a loss to the Knicks on Sunday, were limited to 90 in a 21-point loss to the streaking San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday and needed a buzzer-beater to fend off the Mavericks in overtime in between.

    Injuries to Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Andre Iguodala haven't helped the Warriors any of late. Jackson could justifiably hide behind those absences in explaining away Golden State's woes, though he can bet that management won't be so forgiving if they lead to an early ouster from the playoffs.

    Or worse, a slide from the No. 6 seed to the outer edges of the Western Conference postseason picture between now and the end of the regular season.

10. Memphis Grizzlies

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    A 2-3 record on their recent five-game Western road swing dropped the Memphis Grizzlies into a dead heat with the Phoenix Suns for the conference's eighth and final playoff spot. 

    Breaking that tie in their favor will be no easy task for the Grizzlies. They'll host the Nuggets and head to San Antonio this weekend before returning home to take on the Miami Heat.

    Chances are Memphis' postseason fate will hang in the balance in the lead-up to its final two games of the season. Its opponents? Phoenix and Dallas.

    Because apparently the schedule-makers are frickin' geniuses.

9. Portland Trail Blazers

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    This just in from Captain Obvious: The Portland Trail Blazers are a much, much better team when LaMarcus Aldridge plays. They've won four in a row since Aldridge returned from a groin injury to move within a game of the hurting Houston Rockets for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

    Aldridge made plenty of hay against the Lakers in L.A. on Tuesday (31 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal), but he wasn't the only Blazer to do so. Damian Lillard added 34 points and eight assists to the cause.

    Surprisingly enough, that marked the first time in their two years together that Aldridge and Lillard had gone for 30 apiece in the same game. The Blazers will need that pair to perform that way in the playoffs if they're to parlay their surprising season into something more than a first-round ouster.

8. Toronto Raptors

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    The assumption about this year's Toronto Raptors was that GM Masai Ujiri wanted to blow up the team after trading away Rudy Gay in December.

    Or at least that he anticipated that circumstances might call for a full-scale demolition job, with Kyle Lowry the most likely to ride a wrecking ball out of town, like Miley Cyrus in sneakers.

    Ujiri came clean about his plan being something along those lines in a piece by the National Post's Bruce Arthur. "[We came] very, very close [to a different path]," Ujiri told Arthur. "I think it was clear for us that after the Rudy Gay trade we were going to see how this whole thing was going to play out."

    And boy has it played out. The Raptors have gone 37-20 since dumping Gay on the Sacramento Kings and moved into third place in the Eastern Conference as a result.

    "Could we have gone either way? I would say yes, for sure," Ujiri added. "But I know one thing: We said we were going to give these guys a platform, and we honestly did."

7. Chicago Bulls

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    It's been all Joakim Noah all the time for the Chicago Bulls, both on and off the court.

    His affinity for art, traveling and, shall we say, unorthodox recovery methods came to the fore by way of a wide-ranging profile from CBS Sports' Ken Berger. His desire to win, regardless of its effect on the Bulls' potential playoff matchups, shone through his comments about his team being "not soft" to ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell (via Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes).

    His herky-jerky, all-around game was on ample display this week as well. Noah notched 13 assists against the C's on Sunday—the sixth time this season (all since early February) that he's recorded double-digit helpers.

    Noah's extraordinary efforts in the absence of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng should earn him more than virtual ink. He could be in the mix to finish third in the MVP race behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James and should be considered the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

6. Indiana Pacers

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    Apparently I'm not the only one who's tired of talking about what's wrong with the Indiana Pacers. So too is Roy Hibbert.

    "We've had plenty of players-only meetings,'' Hibbert told USA Today's Bob Kravitz after the Pacers' 103-77 embarrassment at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. "We've had plenty of sit-downs with the team and coaches, some with upper management listening in. Maybe we should all go to group therapy and have an airing of grievances.''

    Maybe. There would seem to be plenty of grievances to air, from Lance Stephenson's risky flash and Paul George's offensive regression to Hibbert's tendency to disappear on the offensive end and Evan Turner's "You're Not Ron"-esque failure to be Danny Granger.

    Whatever the issue may be, Indy would do well to get its act together—and quickly. The Pacers have already ceded the top spot in the East for the first time this season and could fail to reclaim it before campaign's end with dates against the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder still to be fulfilled.

5. Houston Rockets

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    You don't have to be Bill Simmons on NZT-48 to figure out why the Houston Rockets are struggling right now. They lost Patrick Beverley to a right knee injury and Dwight Howard to inflammation in his left ankle in late March and saw Terrence Jones leave their last game with an illness.

    It doesn't help Houston's case that its three-game skid has come against playoff-bound opponents, including a surprisingly brutal back-to-back in Brooklyn and Toronto.

    As unfortunate as the timing of the Rockets' troubles is, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of Space City shedding a tear for them. Houston's slide has allowed the Los Angeles Clippers to solidify itself as the No. 3 seed out West and the Blazers to pull within a game of home-court advantage.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Blame Vinny Del Negro all you want for the Los Angeles Clippers' previous postseason failures, but their collapse in last season's playoffs had everything to do with injuries. More specifically, Blake Griffin's battle with a bum knee left the Clips one superstar shy of a true title contender against the Grizzlies.

    Griffin's banged-up body could prove to be L.A.'s undoing once again, regardless of what Doc Rivers does differently from his predecessor.

    The high-flying power forward succumbed to back spasms against the Rockets on Saturday and is clearly still hobbled by them, despite what his phenomenal numbers against the Suns (23 points, six rebounds, three assists) and the Mavs (25 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists) might suggest.

    No NBA player is ever 100 percent healthy once the playoffs roll around, but back spasms are particularly debilitating and unpredictable. The Clippers would be hard-pressed to win a playoff series, much less contend for the title, if the Flying Lion is grounded by them in any significant way.

3. Miami Heat

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    Well, would you look at that? After playing possum with the Pacers for more than five months, the Miami Heat finally pulled ahead of Indy to claim pole position in the Eastern Conference this past week.

    Not by much, of course. Miami's lead is one of mere percentage points right now. That advantage could evaporate in a hurry with at least six of its remaining eight games—including a visit from the Pacers on April 11—posing worthy challenges to the two-time defending champs.

    It's a good thing, then, that LeBron James doesn't plan to partake in his annual regimen of late-season rest. "I have no choice," James told the South Florida Sun Sentinel's Shandel Richardson. "I don't plan on sitting out any of these (eight) games unless something happens. I'm going to be in the lineup."

    The Heat could use Dwyane Wade in there too, though his health for the playoffs far outweighs any benefit Miami might garner from running him out there during the remainder of the regular season if he's not ready to go.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder know a thing or two about streaks of all stripes.

    Kevin Durant's 28-point performance Thursday extended his run of 25-point games to 39, just one shy of tying Michael Jordan's record for the longest such stretch of the last half-century. That showing from Durant, in turn, lifted the Thunder to a 106-94 win over the San Antonio Spurs, who came into the evening riding a franchise-record 19-game wave of wins.

    This wasn't the first time OKC has vanquished a Spurs streak of such impressive length. Two years ago, San Antonio won 20 games in a row, including its first 10 of the postseason, before dropping four straight in the Western Conference Finals to the Thunder.

    OKC did the same to San Antonio this season, winning each of its four games against the Spurs. That track record of success should have the Thunder well prepared to take down their Alamo City antagonists should they meet once again in the playoffs.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    One road loss to the Thunder—in the second game in as many nights and the fifth in a seven-day stretch—isn't enough to knock the San Antonio Spurs from their perch atop these here power rankings.

    Not after winning a franchise-record 19 games in a row. Not after claiming 14 of those by double-digit margins and eight by 20 points or more. And certainly not with Manu Ginobili dressed in street clothes for the streak's conclusion at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

    That being said, the Spurs' latest loss to the Thunder fits all too snugly into a bigger narrative that could threaten San Antonio's hopes of repeating as Western Conference champs for the first time in team history. This defeat dropped San Antonio to 0-4 against the Thunder this season and 0-5 in its last five regular-season trips to OKC.

    The Thunder's all-around athleticism is clearly still an obstacle for these Spurs. They won't have to see OKC again until the Western Conference Finals at the earliest. But it'll take much more than impressive momentum for the Spurs to vanquish their tormentors on the way back to the NBA Finals.

    Especially when the Big Three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili is rolling—rather than exiting the game for good relatively early on or watching it entirely from the sidelines.

     

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