NBA Teams Looking Energized Down the Stretch

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2015

NBA Teams Looking Energized Down the Stretch

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The weeks following the NBA All-Star break provide a chance to make a statement about how a team will finish the season, and while teams like the Toronto Raptors have been sinking, others squads have made serious strides. 

    Basketball teams thrive on momentum, and at the midway point between All-Star Weekend and the regular season's end, these eight teams have played better than any of the others in playoff contention. 

    While the Utah Jazz have been the hottest team in the NBA since the break—helped by the surging talent of Rudy Gobert—they're still completely out of the playoff picture. (Though they would be in the hunt with the same record in the Eastern Conference.)

    Though all eight of these teams are not guaranteed a playoff appearance, they're each riding a wave of potent play directly toward postseason shores.

Golden State Warriors

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Golden State Warriors continue to lead a stacked Western Conference with far and away the best record. But when they play in Oakland, they've been downright unstoppable.

    In 32 games at Oracle Arena, the Dubs have accrued a ridiculous 30 wins. They also have a league-best home differential of plus-15.2 points per game, per NBA.com, more than six points per game better than the league's next best home team.

    While they've predictably fallen off from their stunning win percentage of better than 80 percent, they still won 11 out of 15 games coming out of the All-Star break.

    Point guard Stephen Curry continues his MVP-caliber campaign, raining down three-pointers and vexing defenders with his dazzling displays of dribbling.

Atlanta Hawks

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks won every single game they played in the month of January, extending their win streak to 19 games. The entire starting five of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford shared Player of the Month honors. 

    No team of humans could possibly sustain such perfection, but the Hawks have barely fallen off from their torrid pace. 

    After bookending the All-Star break with losses to the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, the Hawks won 10 out of 12 games. Bizarrely, those two losses came against the dregs of the NBA in the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets, so perhaps a trap-game mentality crept in on those evenings. 

    They've continued to pile up wins in keeping with their previous modus operandi: ball movement. In 13 games since the break, they've tied for the highest assist percentage in the league, per NBA.com.

    Having built a virtually insurmountable 11-game lead on the rest of the Eastern Conference with just 15 games remaining, the Hawks are soaring into the postseason high above their competition.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    On Jan. 13, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost 107-100 to the Phoenix Suns, which was the team's ninth loss in a 10-game span. Four days later, the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd reported that Cavs head coach David Blatt could be fired, writing: "The idea of parting ways with Blatt was absolutely discussed internally."

    Those doldrums now seem like they were several seasons ago. The Cavaliers reeled off a 12-game win streak, and they've risen to second place in the Eastern Conference.

    The biggest difference was deft adjustments to the roster. Two January trades to acquire big man Timofey Mozgov as well as guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith improved the team's defense and depth.

    In 14 games since the All-Star break, the Cavs lead the NBA in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com. In that span, they also lead the league in point differential at a robust plus-10.3 points per game.

    The Cavs haven't been perfect, as shown in the 106-92 thrashing visited by the Miami Heat on March 16.

    Somebody bring LeBron his headband ASAP. pic.twitter.com/BRULhsye1B

    — NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 17, 2015

    Although it's possible that LeBron just needed to put his headband on once again.

Indiana Pacers

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    R Brent Smith/Associated Press

    Since Valentine's Day, the Indiana Pacers have shown opponents no love with a stout defensive approach that recalls their fine form from last season.

    The Pacers have allowed just 94.7 points per 100 possessions in the last 12 games, via NBA.com, which is better than every NBA team except the Utah Jazz. Indy's defensive efficiency ranks 3.5 points better than the next best team.

    From the final game before the All-Star break through March 12, the Pacers piled up 10 wins in 11 games. For a team that sat 15 games below .500 at the start of February, it's been an impressive turnaround in just a few weeks.

    The Pacers woke up on March 17 owning the exact same record as the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, with the Charlotte Hornets only a half-game behind that pack. The four teams are pressing for just two playoff spots at the bottom of the race in the East, but no team has played better of late than the Pacers.

Boston Celtics

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    From the category of "Why the Heck Are They Winning?" come the Boston Celtics, who surprised with a 10-3 run beginning Feb. 23.

    That hot streak has placed them firmly in the hunt for either the seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, but they've got plenty of competition from the Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets.

    Working in the Celtics' favor is that Miami has a difficult schedule to finish the season, and Indiana has the toughest remaining schedule in the conference, per John Schuhmann of NBA.com. But it's a tough remaining slate for the C's as well.

    Despite trading All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo in December, the Celtics have produced a better assist-to-turnover ratio since the All-Star break than every team in the league except the Golden State Warriors, via NBA.com.

    Strong play from the likes of Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Tyler Zeller has helped propel the Celtics into playoff contention, and with this much momentum, the C's could very well play first-round spoiler.

    Even if they fade down the stretch and miss the postseason, they've got a ton of draft picks stashed to build for the future.

New Orleans Pelicans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    In 13 games since the All-Star break, the New Orleans Pelicans have gone 9-4 to keep the pressure on the Oklahoma City Thunder for the eighth and final playoff spot out West. Now, OKC will be without Serge Ibaka, who needs knee surgery, as reported by ESPN.com's Royce Young, as the Thunder have battled injury issues with all three of their star players. 

    The Pelicans continue their playoff push with solid play, and there's one primary reason for that: They have Anthony Davis. As good as the likes of Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James have been, Davis has done things no other player can do. 

    In March 15's 118-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets, Davis nearly notched a quadruple-double with 36 points, 14 rebounds, nine blocks and seven assists. As noted on the Pelicans PR Twitter account, no one had accomplished that "since blocks were first recorded in 1973-74."

    That was Davis' ninth game of the year with at least 20 points, 10 boards and five blocks—or 150 percent as many such games as the rest of the league combined, per ESPN Stats & Info.

    According to Basketball-Reference.com, Wilt Chamberlain's 1962-63 season holds the NBA record for the highest player efficiency rating (PER) in league history at 31.82. A PER above 31 has only been accomplished 10 times in total by three players: Wilt, LeBron and Michael Jordan. Through 54 games, Davis leads the league with a 31.7 PER, via ESPN.com, thanks to his robust averages of 24.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.9 blocks and 1.4 steals per game. 

    Oh, and Davis' first three-pointer of the year came on a double-clutch buzzer-beater to thwart the Thunder on Feb. 6.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    During the Portland Trail Blazers' 94-75 win over the Dallas Mavericks on March 5, swingman Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles, ending his season. Losing such a high-energy player and ironman of consistency would have derailed many teams but not the squad from Rip City.

    A trade at the deadline netted it Denver Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo, who had an All-Star-caliber campaign for the Orlando Magic a season ago. That move proved prescient, as Afflalo filled the void left by Matthews' injury. Portland responded to the injury with victories over playoff teams in the Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors. 

    The Blazers have assailed opponents with offense, tying for fourth in efficiency over a dozen games since the All-Star break, via NBA.com. And what they lack in defensive efficiency (16th since the break), they have made up for with the league's best defensive rebounding rate.

    Thanks to the copious double-doubles of LaMarcus Aldridge and the electric play of their budding star point guard, Damian Lillard, the Blazers will be a handful for any opponent in the playoffs, as the Houston Rockets learned last year. 

San Antonio Spurs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The San Antonio Spurs remain the defending champions, but they've become something of an afterthought near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. 

    However, when you underestimate the veteran might of the Spurs, you've already lost. 

    In a dozen games since the All-Star break, the Spurs have tied for the best effective field-goal percentage in the league, via NBA.com. That statistic gives more weight to the value of made three-pointers, proving that the Spurs offense predicated on rapid ball movement can still produce top-notch results.

    From the end of February through mid-March, the Spurs reeled off seven wins over eight games. The only loss came in a 128-125 overtime barnburner against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when Kyrie Irving scored a franchise-record 57 points.

    Coach Gregg Popovich and the greatest power forward of all time, Tim Duncan, appear to have the Spurs galloping at the right time.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless noted otherwise. 

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