NBA Power Rankings: Houston Rockets Lead the Pack After Perfect February

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 2, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Houston Rockets Lead the Pack After Perfect February

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The NBA's home stretch has arrived, and with it our first set of post-All-Star break power rankings.

    While most of the intrigue remains at the top, the league's bottom rung demands attention.

    The entire bottom third of the rankings deserves its own tier, a lump of clubs no longer interested in competing that we should probably ignore. With that section, we'll be brief, as it is decidedly not powerful—and these are power rankings.

    There are a whopping eight teams with between 41 and 44 losses, plus the New York Knicks, who have 38. All of them are racing pell-mell to the bottom (or at least not fighting the fall), tanking with purpose, vigor and great urgency. Gotta bank those losses before the lottery odds change next year, right fellas?

    As always, these rankings organize all 30 teams into an order that reflects the league's current hierarchy. Full-season performance matters, but so does recent play. Advanced stats, injuries and head-to-head meetings all factor in.

    Strap in (or check out if you're a member of that tanking contingent). We're headed into the 2017-18 season's fourth quarter.

30-26

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

            

    30. Memphis Grizzlies (26)

    Losers of 11 straight, the Memphis Grizzlies have been the league's worst team lately. They couldn't halt their skid in Wednesday's home date with the Phoenix Suns, who, you'll recall, were ranked 30th in our last power rankings.

    As you'd expect, none of what's going on with the reeling Grizzlies sits well with Marc Gasol.

    He told reporters his frustration level was "pretty high" and that all the coded tanking talk about developing players and getting reps doesn't interest him. "This is the NBA, not the [G League]," he said.

    If Gasol has a happy place he can go to, a retreat deep within his subconscious where he can pretend everything's fine, now would be a good time for him to visit it.

                      

    29. Phoenix Suns (30)

    Devin Booker produced the ideal result for Phoenix fans Monday, scoring 40 points in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. If you can be entertaining without screwing up lottery odds, you're tanking the right way.

    We already spoiled Phoenix's Wednesday win at Memphis, which snapped the Suns' 10-game losing streak. Josh Jackson posted 29 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks in that one, and he's scored at least 19 points in three of his last four contests.

              

    28. Sacramento Kings (25)

    The Sacramento Kings are handing things over to the kids as the season winds down, which is something that should have happened months ago. Better late than never, though, as a Kings team that has eight players on rookie-scale contracts should use this final chunk of the year to suss out which members of its youth movement are keepers.

    Based on comments he made to Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee, rookie De'Aaron Fox has a plan for getting the most out of the Kings' remaining games: "I'm trying to be aggressive all the time. It doesn't matter what time of the game it is, it's just trying to come at the game."

    The Kings have one win in five tries since the break.

             

    27. Orlando Magic (23)

    Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic are back on the court for the Orlando Magic, but better health hasn't spurred change in the win-loss department. Orlando has dropped seven straight.

    Mario Hezonja, who averaged 16.9 points per game and may well have resurrected the possibility of his becoming a rotation-quality NBA player in nine pre-break games without Gordon, has seen his playing time dip as the Magic have gotten healthier.

    When Jonathan Isaac makes it back from the ankle injury that has all but destroyed his rookie season, Hezonja, an unrestricted free agent at season's end, will get squeezed even more.

               

    26. Chicago Bulls (22)

    Oh look, another losing streak with no end in sight!

    The Chicago Bulls haven't won since Feb. 12 (five games), though Bobby Portis' 38-point outburst nearly led to a tank-diverting victory against the Sixers last Thursday.

    With Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday being held out of action as healthy scratches, it's clear the Bulls have called it quits on the season.

25-21

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    Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

    25. Brooklyn Nets (28)

    According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Brooklyn Nets rookie Jarrett Allen is in the midst of one of the most accurate shooting stretches by a 19-year-old in NBA history. And if you're wondering how someone that young could be so accurate, consider that most of his shot attempts look like this.

    When you can dunk it from anywhere, over anyone, it's easy to be efficient.

    Brooklyn beat the Bulls since we last ranked, which explains the climb.

              

    24. New York Knicks (29)

    So...Trey Burke, huh?

    The No. 9 overall pick in 2013 had effectively washed out of the NBA after an uninspiring stint with the Washington Wizards last year, but his strong G League performance earned him a spot with the New York Knicks in January.

    Now playing a larger role than ever, he's looking more like a viable pro. Over his last three games, Burke is averaging 23.3 points and 6.3 assists in 27.0 minutes per contest.

    The Knicks have lost 10 of their last 11, and their first four games in March come on the road, where they're 8-24.

               

    23. Dallas Mavericks (27)

    Dallas jumped the Indiana Pacers in a 109-103 win Monday and would have knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night if Dwight Powell hadn't shot 1-of-6 from the foul line (including two misses in the final 68 seconds of regulation.

    We can't be too hard on the Mavs big man, though. He tore it up in February with averages of 14.2 points and 8.4 rebounds on 61.8 percent shooting. Plus, his springy work on the offensive glass yielded a buzzer-beating putback that sent the OKC game to overtime.

                        

    22. Atlanta Hawks (24)

    "Tankers beat Indiana" week continued, as the Atlanta Hawks followed Dallas' efforts, handing Indy a second straight embarrassing defeat Wednesday.

    Earlier in the week, the Hawks mocked Los Angeles Lakers fans for wearing jerseys of players from past (more successful) eras. Maybe cool it with that stuff, Hawks. You're a zillion miles behind the Lakers in your rebuild, and you've got the worst attendance figures in the league.

    At least fans who wear that old-school L.A. gear show up to games.

                

    21. Detroit Pistons (21)

    Blake Griffin has been a Detroit Piston for a full month, and during his tenure, Detroit is 6-6 with a minus-0.8 net rating. Before he showed up, the Pistons were 23-26 with a minus-1.0 net rating.

    Do you feel that sense of comfort? That warm, familiar security? That's the realization that these Pistons are fated to be mediocre, forever.

    Isn't certainty reassuring?

20-16

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    20. Miami Heat (17)

    Sorry, what year is it?

    Dwyane Wade scored a season-high 27 points and hit a game-winning step-back jumper from just inside the three-point arc Tuesday, effectively socking the Philadelphia 76ers in the gut with a performance that sure made it feel like we were reliving 2009.

    However, Miami has won just three times in its last dozen games.

                             

    19. Charlotte Hornets (18)

    A 28-point blowout loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday halted the Charlotte Hornets' longest winning streak of the season, a five-gamer that spanned from Feb. 14 to Feb. 27.

    Kemba Walker is doing everything he can to drag this underachieving collection of vets to the postseason, and he's drilled an incomprehensible 50.8 percent from three in his last 15 games. He's not being all that selective, either. That percentage comes from 64 makes in 126 attempts, which means he's basically gone 4-of-8 from deep each game for the last five-plus weeks.

    Nonetheless, Charlotte remains six games under .500 (28-34) and all but out of the playoff mix.

               

    18. Los Angeles Lakers (20)

    Without control of their first-round pick, the Lakers' only point of interest during the rest of the season is player development. So it's less than ideal that rookie Josh Hart, who'd been cracking the 30-minute barrier regularly, went down with a small fracture in his left hand, according to Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports.

    Fortunately, the Lakers are watching Brandon Ingram mature at a rate that more than offsets Hart's loss. In 10 February contests, Ingram averaged 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds while shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 52.2 percent from deep.

    Doubts abounded during his rookie year, but Ingram, still just 20 years old, looks like a multidimensional star in the making.

    Not that it matters, but L.A. is 16-7 in its last 23 games. That's an encouraging performance over what amounts to more than a quarter of the season. 

                          

    17. Los Angeles Clippers (16)

    Boban Marjanovic got busy for 18 points and six boards during a dominant 15-minute stint against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday. Outside of that effort, he's scoreless in four total minutes since the break.

    Think his performance might be a little matchup dependent?

    The Clips continue to fight for playoff position, and that win over Denver was huge, pulling them to within a half-game of the eighth spot in the West. If L.A. manages to make the dance, it might attend without Avery Bradley, who hasn't played the team's last four games because of a sports hernia and might not be back at all this year, according to a report from Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times.

                           

    16. Minnesota Timberwolves (13)

    This one's as brutal as it is simple.

    The Minnesota Timberwolves lost Jimmy Butler to a torn meniscus, and they're flat-out crummy without him. On the year, Minnesota's net rating is plus-7.8 with him on the floor and minus-6.0 when he sits.

    Don't forget about the sheer volume, either. Butler was tied for the league lead in minutes per game when he went down (37.1), which means the Wolves have a huge swath of playing time they'll have to cover. And more than that, Butler was a walking representation of the team's competitive spirit. He was the core and the conscience, the steadying force.

    As Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver explained: "The Timberwolves' utilization of Jimmy Butler this season has run beyond an unhealthy reliance, falling closer to an addiction. And now, the withdrawal symptoms—fear, confusion, loss of identity and despair—will inevitably hit hard."

    Minnesota beat the Bulls and Kings to close out the month, and Karl-Anthony Towns appears ready to take up some of the Butler slack (26 points and 17 boards against Sacramento). But March brings a murderous schedule that'll test the suddenly vulnerable Wolves.

15-11

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    15. Denver Nuggets (12)

    Hey! Paul Millsap's back!

    Hopefully, his plodding offense and sturdy defensive presence will level out a Denver Nuggets squad that scored (and surrendered) vast heaps of points in February. For the month, Denver registered the league's second-best offense and worst defense. Its average final score during that 10-game span was 119.7 to 117.1.

    Though the margins were slim, Denver scored enough to win. The Nugs were 7-3 in February.

                          

    14. Milwaukee Bucks (9)

    The Milwaukee Bucks have dropped three of their four games since the break, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has looked more off than on lately. He managed just 11 points during Wednesday's blowout loss at Detroit.

    Antetokounmpo gets a pass for his lagging play. He's carried the Bucks all year amid shoddy coaching, backward schemes and strange lineups. His knee appears to be bothering him, and he deserves to feel worn down.

    Milwaukee continues to get in its own way, costing itself games with head-scratching moves such as paying extra attention to Rajon Rondo on the perimeter down the stretch of an overtime loss to the Pelicans last Sunday.

                   

    13. Indiana Pacers (11)

    Indy tried its best to avoid double-dipping into the inexcusable-loss pool, but it couldn't make up a 20-point deficit against Atlanta on Wednesday. And so, we have a Pacers club that went into the break with serious momentum but is now trying to figure out how it gagged up two contests to the tanking Mavs and Hawks.

    This mini-skid has been a two-way thing. Dallas scored 41 fourth-quarter points against a snoozing Pacers defense, then Indiana's offense coughed up 24 turnovers in the Atlanta loss.

    "We're getting a taste of what it's going to be like going down the stretch with these remaining games," head coach Nate McMillan told reporters after the Hawks contest.

    Indiana had better shape up, or the No. 4 seed could wind up down in the eight hole real quick.

              

    12. Oklahoma City Thunder (10)

    You know how Russell Westbrook delights in making interviewers uncomfortable? How he displays a fatigued hostility belying what seems like a belief that every question he fields is dumber than the last? How he cultivates annoyed inscrutability?

    That's sort of the same sense that washes over you when trying to analyze Westbrook's team. It's aggravating, and it's tough to get good explanations.

    Because while the Thunder are 4-1 against the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors this year, they somehow struggled to survive against the Kings, Mavericks and Magic. Westbrook iced Sacramento with a game-winning triple back on Feb. 22 and had to hit a clinching foul shot to beat the Mavericks on Wednesday.

    The moment of truth lies ahead, as 14 of Oklahoma City's final 19 games come against teams with winning records.

    Is OKC a top-four seed or a possible lottery club? We're about to find out.

              

    11. San Antonio Spurs (8)

    First, Gregg Popovich said he'd be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played this year. Then, suddenly, Leonard rejoined the team, and reports indicate he could play in March.

    The intrigue is almost too much, and while the bizarre double-talk and lack of communication between player and organization could have far-reaching effects, the good news is that it doesn't affect our rankings.

    We've been grading the Spurs without Leonard for most of the season, and at no point was his imminent return a factor in that analysis.

    Though San Antonio ranks second in defensive efficiency and fifth in net rating, the recent picture is bleaker. The Spurs closed out February with a 2-7 record. During Wednesday's loss to the Pelicans, LaMarcus Aldridge's sprained ankle offset Rudy Gay's strong return from a heel setback. And without Aldridge around to anchor things late, the Spurs succumbed to uncommon bouts of self-pity and poor execution.

    "It's a terrible mistake [to feel that way]," Manu Ginobili told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. "We said, 'OK, we're missing a lot of guys,' and we stopped executing when we needed it most."

    It's getting harder to recognize these Spurs. 

10. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 19

    Anthony Davis has gone celestial, and it is heavenly to behold.

    If you stare directly at him, you'll explode into a billion particles made of pure light and feel the presence of your creator whispering into your now exponentially expanded consciousness.

    "You are loved," the voice will say. And you will feel that love.

    "Blessings of the Brow be upon you," it will continue. And the particles you've become will vibrate in cosmic harmony with the rhythms of the universe.

    Fatigue should be burying Davis as he carries New Orleans with DeMarcus Cousins down (ruptured Achilles), but it's not. He bludgeoned the Suns with 53 points and 18 rebounds Monday, one day after logging 43 minutes in a tough tilt with the Bucks.

    During New Orleans' seven-game winning streak, Davis is contributing 39.3 points, 15.0 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.7 blocks while shooting 53.5 percent from the field. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he's the fifth player to ever average 35 points and 15 rebounds during a seven-game winning streak. The other four are all first-namers: Wilt, Elgin, Kareem and Moses.

    Yowza.

9. Washington Wizards

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 15

    The Washington Wizards are 11-4 since John Wall's knee injury knocked him out of action, and that mark includes an excusable Wednesday loss to the Warriors in which the Wiz were playing the second night of a back-to-back set.

    In this Wall-less stretch, the Wiz have downed the Bucks, Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Thunder and Pacers—a list of victims that, along with the visibly more fluid and dangerous brand of offense, legitimizes this run. And though the take du jour is that anyone insisting Washington is better without Wall should be investigated for basketball heresy, we have to be rational about what we're seeing.

    How about this for a clear-headed summary: The Wizards are better without the version of Wall they had this year—the one who was managing knee pain, defending only sporadically and slowing down the half-court attack. That much is indisputable, and at the very least, we've got to consider that whatever version of Wall returns might not be much better than that one.

    Knee surgeries don't magically cure everything, particularly when performed on a player who's already had several.

    In a best-case scenario, Wall observes the newfound flow of his team and, rather than coming back with plans to prove he's still the man, he returns with a willingness to become a part of the whole. That could make Washington a scary postseason matchup.

8. Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Last Week: 5

    OK, so maybe it was a little ambitious to vault the Utah Jazz up to fifth in our last set of rankings. But what else could we do after an 11-game winning streak built on stifling defense, Joe Ingles' slow-motion wizardry and Donovan Mitchell's "see you in next year's All-Star Game" breakout?

    Losers in two of three since the break, the Jazz have cooled.

    But they still feel like a good bet to make the playoffs, as eight of their next 11 games will come against opponents out of the postseason picture.

    The Jazz may not be as good as their pre-break winning streak indicated. But they've been the league's fifth-best team by net rating over the last two months. That's not a fluke. Utah is a legitimate top-10 team.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week: 14

    Damian Lillard should bottle his recently completed February and take a little sip any time he's feeling sluggish.

    He averaged 31.4 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field, surging to the finish with 40 points (and a game-winner) against the Suns on Saturday before hitting the Kings for 26 points and a dozen dimes in Tuesday's much less dramatic 116-99 walkover.

    "This is the best place I think we've been in years," Lillard told reporters after the Kings win. "But my thing is just to continue to be that, continue to push in the right direction. We can't be satisfied with where we are or what we've been doing."

    The Portland Trail Blazers went into the break with an impressive win over Golden State, and they've collected five straight victories en route to a season-best mark of 10 games over .500.    

6. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    All this roster-overhauling madness won't matter if the Cavs can't make shots.

    Cleveland has been cold since the break, hitting 8-of-35 from deep in a loss to the Wizards on Feb. 22 and then making just eight of 34 long-range tries in a 110-94 defeat at the hands of the Spurs this past Sunday. Thursday's loss to the Sixers featured nine makes in 32 three-point attempts.

    LeBron James averaged a triple-double in February while also becoming the only player in NBA history to amass at least 30,000 points, 8,000 rebounds and 8,000 assists for his career. In addition to LeBron's historic dominance, there have been other encouraging signs counterbalancing the Cavs' poor shooting.

    For example, George Hill's defensive impact is starting to show up. He was everywhere in Tuesday's win over the Nets, deflecting passes and disrupting things on the perimeter.

    A fitful start to the season's unofficial second half is disappointing for the remade Cavaliers, but we can't get too judgmental when so much of the inconsistency is tied to shaky three-point shooting. If there's anything worth trusting about a team featuring James and loads of knockdown deep threats, it's that the treys will eventually fall.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Oscar Baldizon/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Sixers fell at Washington on Sunday and Miami on Tuesday (albeit because of Dwyane Wade's game-winner in the latter defeat). Philly is the worst road team among the East's playoff clubs, sitting at an uninspiring 14-17 even after Thursday's win in Cleveland.

    That's something Philadelphia will have to sort out before anyone gets too serious about considering it a first-round-upset threat.

    Still, the 76ers completed February with an 8-3 record. With the Pistons falling off so precipitously, that stretch means Philadelphia might only need to play .500 ball the rest of the way to secure a playoff spot.

    The Sixers, 30-19 in games Joel Embiid has played this year, can expect to be better than a break-even team from here to the end of the season.

    Finally, though the additions of Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli probably impact the stretch run more, it's still encouraging to see Markelle Fultz shooting jumpers in a manner that doesn't make you wonder if he's seen a basketball before.

4. Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    The improvement in Boston's offense since the break is hard to trust because it came against a slate of suspect squads with weak defenses. The 4-0 run is encouraging, but it'd be more so if any of the wins involved opponents in playoff position.

    Kyrie Irving has been efficient of late, scoring 25 points on 13 shots against the Grizzlies in Monday's easy win and then needing just 18 shots to hang 34 points on the Hornets two nights later.

    Marcus Smart is back after missing 11 games with a lacerated hand, but Daniel Theis, who'd been playing well since the break (12.3 points and 7.0 rebounds in an expanded role) missed Boston's meeting with Charlotte on Wednesday with a sore hamstring. In light of that, Greg Monroe picked a good time to wake up. He contributed 14 points and looked closer to the player Boston hoped it was getting when it signed him in early February.

    A four-game winning streak is a solid start to the stretch run, and it earns the Celts a boost here.   

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Last Week: 2

    The Raptors did us a solid by losing their first game after the break, a 122-119 overtime thriller against the Bucks last Friday. If that hadn't happened, it would have been tough to justify dropping them a spot.

    Even now, it doesn't feel good.

    The Raps remain the East's top seed and most complete team. Despite massive winning streaks from the Rockets and Jazz and a return to form by the Warriors, Toronto still ranked second in the league in net rating during February.

    It takes contributions from all quarters to produce that much excellence, but how about a little love for CJ Miles in particular? He's the league's second-most efficient spot-up shooter on a per-possession basis, and his gravity on offense (opponents know he'll shoot it if he touches it, and that he'll make it if he shoots it) creates the space for the league's best second unit to thrive.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3     

    The Warriors are experts at serving little reminders that they've still got a gear nobody can touch.

    Stephen Curry buried the Clippers with 44 points last Thursday, but there were questions about a defense that hadn't met expectations all year. So then the Dubs obliterated the Thunder on Saturday, holding them to 80 points on a 38.1 effective field-goal percentage.

    Kevin Durant offered the requisite cliches as to how the Warriors suffocated an OKC team that had beaten them twice this season. "Make them take tough shots all game," he told reporters.

    It was about more than that, though. Golden State defended with an energy and attentiveness that was, previously, absent this year. Draymond Green spent the entire game in a frenzy. Klay Thompson hounded Westbrook. Durant and Andre Iguodala materialized in the right places time after time.

    The win over Oklahoma City was one of the Dubs' most complete efforts this season. Generally, they've used single quarters (the third, to be precise) to alert the league they can be special on demand.

    According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Warriors' plus-20 margin in the third quarter against the Knicks on Monday marked the fifth time this year they'd amassed that big of a third-period advantage on the road. The rest of the NBA has managed that trick four times combined.

    Golden State gains ground this week, but it'll have to do more than periodically remind us of its peak levels to overtake our top team.    

1. Houston Rockets

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    One piece of criticism: The Rockets are very bad at high-fives.
    One piece of criticism: The Rockets are very bad at high-fives.Associated Press

    Last Week: 1

    Injury and illness forced the Houston Rockets to get a little weird with some of their lineups, but this roster's sheer volume of playable options means it's hard for head coach Mike D'Antoni to come up with a bad combination.

    And in a season full of success, Monday's 96-85 win over the Utah Jazz stands out as a high point.

    In that game, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Brandan Wright all sat out, which resulted in heavy minutes from Luc Mbah a Moute at center. Despite failing to hit at least 10 threes for the first time in 55 games, despite the fact Utah hosted the Rockets on the second night of a back-to-back set (in which Houston's first game was at Denver), and despite the injuries and illnesses...the Rockets won by double figures.

    Just...wow.

    "This is the deepest team I've ever been on or maybe seen," forward PJ Tucker, who replaced Anderson in the starting lineup, told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "It's unbelievable."

    There is no wrong button to push for these Rockets, who went undefeated in February and are on a 14-game winning streak.

                 

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played March 1.

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