NBA Power Rankings: Houston Rockets Reclaim Top Spot, Toronto Raptors Stumble

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 23, 2018

NBA Power Rankings: Houston Rockets Reclaim Top Spot, Toronto Raptors Stumble

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    As the postseason picture solidifies, you can feel it coming: the final sprint of the 2017-18 NBA season.

    Nine teams' playoff hopes are officially kaput, and the top two seeds in each conference are virtually locked into position. That might seem like a lot of certainty with only a few weeks left in the season, but we still have massive congestion among the last six spots in each postseason race.

    Note, too, that the standings firming up hasn't stabilized anything here. We have several new entries in the top 10, along with a new (old) team in the No. 1 spot.

    These rankings are designed to organize all 30 teams into a hierarchy that reflects their present strength. That means there'll be several deviations from the actual standings because recent play, injuries and gut instinct mean just as much as overall wins and losses.

    Stats are accurate through games played Thursday, March 22.

30-26

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

          

    30. Phoenix Suns (29)

    At 2-24 over the last two months, the Phoenix Suns don't have much to get excited about.

    So let's throw them a bone and laud rookie Josh Jackson, who's been playing better lately—possibly in a way that actually means something.

    Per the Ringer's Kevin O'Connor: "It’s not as if his numbers are a product of garbage time; Jackson has gotten buckets against depleted defenses (36 points against the Warriors, minus three of their stars) and bad defenses (29 points against the Grizzlies), but also against great defenses (39 points in his last two games against the Jazz)."

    Glass half-full.

          

    29. Memphis Grizzlies (30)

    The Memphis Grizzlies are Kevin Malone, and sometimes it's just nice to win one.

    Dillon Brooks led the way with 24 points in Saturday's 101-94 triumph (relative term) against the Denver Nuggets, finally snapping a 19-game losing streak. It's been a brutal season for this team. Ravaged by injuries, player-coach discord and uncertainty surrounding ownership, Memphis climbs out of the cellar because I am merciful.

    The Charlotte Hornets lack my compassion, as evidenced by their 61-point drubbing of the Grizzlies on Thursday.

    It. Was. Gruesome.

     

    28. Chicago Bulls (24)

    The Bulls have beaten just one non-tanker, Minnesota, since Jan. 17, so if you're in the prediction game, you might only see two more wins on the slate this year. Chicago gets the Nets for two of its final three games.

    A 3-of-30 night from deep doomed the Bulls during Monday's 110-92 loss to the Knicks, and then the Nuggets hung 135 points on a checked-out defense in Wednesday's rout. Denzel Valentine's 34 points against the Cavs on March 17 was the bright spot in a dim week.

          

    27. Orlando Magic (23)

    The Orlando Magic damn near blew it on Tuesday.

    But by the grace of the tanking gods, they gagged up the lead they'd built over the Toronto Raptors through three quarters, shooting 3-of-19 (which included three blocked shots) and turning the ball over four times in the fourth.

    When asked for comment after the 93-86 loss, the Magic collectively thought (but did not say) "Whew! Close one!"

                   

    26. New York Knicks (28)

    The Knicks ended their nine-game skid with a 124-101 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday. Apparently enjoying the foreign feel of victory, they doubled down with another one, besting the Bulls in Monday's 110-92 win.

    Tim Hardaway Jr. totaled 47 points in the rare pair of successful outings, helping stop a run of home losses that stretched all the way back to Jan. 30. A return to normalcy arrived on Wednesday, as Miami trounced the Knicks 119-98, despite Enes Kanter's 23 points and 13 rebounds.

25-21

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    25. Sacramento Kings (25)

    Don't worry about why it happened (the Warriors were missing their top three scorers). Instead, just enjoy the fact that the Sacramento Kings won their second game in Oakland this year on March 16, giving them a road sweep against the Warriors for the first time since 2003.

    Empty sweeps aside, Buddy Hield is using the home stretch to prove he's more than a shooter. He had seven assists against the Dubs, then handed out six more in Saturday's loss to the Utah Jazz. Those are the two highest dime totals of his career, and if that seems modest, keep in mind a guy who drills 42 percent of his threes doesn't need to be John Stockton.

    Hield looks more and more like a quality rotation weapon these days.

    Finally, veteran influences are important. As Vince Carter showed the young Kings this week, there's no more important lesson to pass down than this: We must always mock Blake Griffin's overly dramatic reactions to contact.

          

    24. Dallas Mavericks (21)

    Sometimes, the schedule seems particularly cruel.

    Dallas dropped the final three games of its road trip to start the week, then returned home to host a Jazz team coming off that embarrassing loss to the Hawks. The Mavs never had a chance.

    Nerlens Noel, playing semi-regularly since returning on Feb. 28, has at least been active. He managed six points, six rebounds, five steals, three assists, three blocks and six fouls in 27 minutes against the Raptors last Friday.

            

    23. Brooklyn Nets (27)

    In Monday's 118-115 win over the Grizz, Brooklyn became the first non-Mike D'Antoni Rockets team to shoot at least 40 threes and 40 free throws in NBA history (h/t Mike Zavagno of Fear the Sword). Forty free throws doesn't make for a great viewing experience, but chances are you weren't watching Brooklyn-Memphis anyway.

    Had the Nets not blown a 23-point lead against the Hornets on Wednesday, they would have put together a 3-1 week (with the only loss coming by just four points to the Sixers).

           

    22. Atlanta Hawks (26)

    Taurean Prince is running more pick-and-rolls as part of a late-season force-feeding with Kent Bazemore out, and the extra responsibilities have produced surprising results. He's got a pair of 38-point games over the least two weeks.

    Dennis Schroder is still the alpha when he's in the lineup (career-high 41 points in what was likely the most unforeseeable win of the year, Tuesday's 99-94 victory at Utah), but Prince being pushed to expand his game should pay dividends.

           

    21. Charlotte Hornets (20)

    Somebody convinced Dwight Howard it was 2010. If you have a better explanation for his 32-point, 30-rebound effort against the Nets on Wednesday, I'd love to hear it.

    He and Kevin Love are the only players in the 30-30 club over the last three decades.

    Not to be outdone, Kemba Walker hung 46 points on the Grizzlies in Charlotte's ruthless 140-79 win on Thursday.

20-16

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    20. Detroit Pistons (22)

    After 37 games on the sidelines recovering from an ankle sprain, Reggie Jackson finally returned to the floor against the Suns on Tuesday. Phoenix is terrible, and Jackson was on a minutes restriction, but it was hard to deny the boost his presence provided.

    A lot happened while Jackson was out, including significant roster turnover that makes the before-and-after comparison noisy. But it's still worth noting Detroit was five games over .500 when it lost Jackson. Now, it's eight games under the break-even mark and five-and-a-half games out of the eighth playoff spot.

    Stay tuned for next year, when Detroit brings the whole gang back, hopes to stay healthy and tries to walk the tightrope to a 44-win season.

          

    19. Los Angeles Lakers (15)

    The Lakers fell back to earth this week, following up an 8-2 stretch with a four-game losing streak defined by Lonzo Ball's shooting struggles and injuries that produced strange lineup constructions. Kyle Kuzma is not a small forward, but he's played there some lately.

    L.A. had better fatten up against a soft slate next week, because its closing run includes the Jazz, Spurs, Wolves, Jazz (again), Rockets and Clippers in that order. All but the Rockets figure to be fighting for playoff position, so a six-game skid to finish the year is in play.

           

    18. Denver Nuggets (14)

    Denver failed to score over the final 2:47 of a brutal 101-94 loss to the Grizzlies on Saturday and then fell in a much more on-brand 149-141 double-overtime bucket-fest against the Heat the following Monday.

    The season of extremes continues for the Nugs, who recovered to hammered Chicago by 33 points on Wednesday to avoid a winless week. Since Feb. 1, only the Suns have been worse on defense, and Nuggets have the league's best offense.

    As the playoff picture clarifies and time gets short, it's looking like Denver is destined to finish outside the West's top eight.

           

    17. Milwaukee Bucks (19)

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's ankle sprain is the most worrisome news, as the Bucks' net rating plummets by 13.6 points per 100 possessions when he sits. But there's also a deeper, more systemic problem plaguing Milwaukee.

    It allows the largest percentage of opponent shots at the rim by a significant margin. Jason Kidd's departure and ensuing scheme-tweaking haven't mattered. Milwaukee, 1-2 this week, continues to surrender the highest-value looks on the court at the highest volume under interim coach Joe Prunty.

    Until that changes, it's hard to imagine anything but a quick first-round exit—regardless of the opponent.

          

    16. Los Angeles Clippers (11)

    The Clippers have lost four of their last five games and look increasingly likely to miss the playoffs, but Montrezl Harrell has been something of a revelation. Active, efficient and productive in limited playing time, Harrell averaged 15.3 points and five rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game in L.A.'s last three contests. 

    Undersized, he might struggle to convince teams he's a starter at center during free agency this summer. But it's hard to deny the numbers he's putting up for a competitive Clippers team. 

15-11

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    15. Miami Heat (18)

    Nothing perks up an offense like facing the Knicks and Nuggets, both of whom rank in the bottom three on defense over the last month.

    After narrowly escaping in a 92-91 win over the Lakers on Friday, thanks largely to Goran Dragic's 30 points, the Heat exploded for 149 points in Monday's win over Denver, then added another 119 points in a laugher against the Knicks.

    If the scoring keeps up, the Heat have a realistic chance to climb from seventh to fourth in the East down the stretch. Miami's next two games, road tilts with OKC and Indiana, loom large.

           

    14. Minnesota Timberwolves (16)

    Now 5-5 without Jimmy Butler and through the worst of a trying March schedule, the Timberwolves can reflect on several things that have gone well.

    Jeff Teague was terrific in the second half of their win over the Clippers on Tuesday, Andrew Wiggins has been hot from three and far more engaged on D, and Karl-Anthony Towns continues to lead the league in double-doubles. For a club that'll start paying Wiggins a max salary next season, the fourth-year wing's development might be most important.

    "If you want to go to the playoffs, you've got to grow up. Plain and simple," Taj Gibson told reporters when asked about Wiggins' improved play. "He's been doing a good job."

    The Wolves, 1-2 this week, play four of their next five against tankers. 

            

    13. Washington Wizards (10)

    In a short week, the Wizards took down the Pacers and fell to the Spurs as the Heat put together a three-game win streak that tightened an already constricted East playoff picture. Currently sixth in the conference, Washington might actually want to take it easy down the stretch. Slipping to seventh would mean a first-round date with the Celtics instead of LeBron James' Cavs—assuming the order of the top three holds.

    John Wall's recovery from knee surgery, originally pegged at 6-8 weeks, has progressed to the point of 5-on-0 on-court work. If he's going to hit that eight-week projection and get back in action by March 30, things will have to pick up.

    Once he's back, Tomas Satoransky, who has emerged in Wall's absence, can return to a bench role and prop up a shaky reserve unit.

                  

    12. Indiana Pacers (5)

    Jumps by the Spurs, Cavs and Thunder combine with the fact that Indiana has lost three of its last four games to dump the Pacers all the way down here. I'll admit, this feels too severe.

    But maybe their climb to fifth last week was the problem. That felt a little too high at the time. If we're just going by net rating, Indy belongs at No. 11. So we're not far off here.

    Here's a pledge, though: If Myles Turner Hulk-smashes another defender like he did Cheick Diallo this week, we'll permanently move the Pacers to the top spot and leave them there.

            

    11. New Orleans Pelicans (12)

    Thanks to a leaky roof that caused a postponement on Feb. 7, the New Orleans Pelicans notched the season's only back-to-back-to-back set this week. That the Pels came out of a stretch of five games in six days (this deep into the season to boot) with a four wins stands as one of the more impressive achievements of the year.

    Apparently immune to fatigue, Anthony Davis scored 13 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to beat the Pacers on Wednesday. Nobody has more total points or blocks than AD since Feb. 1.

10. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Last Week: 13

    Head coach Tyronn Lue announced plans to step away from the team to address his health. Whether related or not, the Cavs have rallied in his absence.

    Kevin Love is back from a broken hand, and his presence as a floor-stretcher and post-up threat immediately injected new life into the offense. Both he and George Hill (10-of-11 from the field) had it going in a 132-129 win over the Raptors on Tuesday, highlighting just how dangerous Cleveland can look when LeBron James' supporting cast performs well.

    For his part, James piled up 35 points and 17 assists (without a turnover) against Toronto and is averaging a triple-double on 53.8 percent shooting over the last two months, a 25-game span.

    The Cavs have won three straight.

9. San Antonio Spurs

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Last Week: 17

    May we all rage against time's slow, inexorably cruel advance like Manu Ginobili.

    The Spurs' 40-year-old guard (and, if everything goes to plan, one day, my best friend) played with hyperactive intensity all week, driving a five-game winning streak and sparking three victories over playoff teams this week alone. The Warriors, Wolves and Wizards all fell to the competitive buzzsaw that is Ginobili.

    He dove on the floor, he drove into traffic, he irritated opponents into technical fouls—all at a fever pitch of competitiveness.

    It feels fair to mention that LaMarcus Aldridge has led San Antonio in scoring for five straight, averaging 29.6 points per game during the run. But let's not allow the facts to get in the way of a good narrative.

    Ginobili, who's been outspoken about the "Screw it, we're on our own" mindset necessary to survive the Kawhi Leonard fiasco, is energizing San Antonio at the right time, possibly saving it from its first non-playoff season in two decades.

    "For me, he's not coming back, because [thinking he is] is not helping," Ginobili told reporters. "We fell for it a week ago—again. I guess you guys [media] made us fall for it. But we have to think that he's not coming back. That we are who we are."

    Rage on.

8. Golden State Warriors

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    Michael Gonzales/Getty Images

    Last Week: 7

    The Warriors have lost four of their last six games, and Kevin Durant (ribs) joined Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry on the sidelines during a 1-2 week that featured losses to the Kings and Spurs. In the latter contest, the Dubs managed just 75 points.

    Turns out the Warriors aren't quite as offensively potent when three of the greatest shooters in the history of basketball can't play.

    Curry could be back Friday against the Hawks, which should revive the offense to some degree. The two-time MVP's return would likely put an end to the brief and wondrous Quinn Cook era. Cook, playing on a two-way contract, led the world champs in scoring all three times they played this week. His totals: 73 points on 29-of-48 from the field.

    It's clear now: Anyone who plays the point for the Warriors gets numbers. Curry is a product of the system.

    Seriously, though, the Dubs have a decision to make. Cook's shooting is real, and he's played well enough to deserve a spot on the playoff roster. Which means Golden State must cut somebody loose to make room.

    Omri Casspi isn't thinking about the possibility of being the roster casualty that gets Cook into the postseason, but he probably should be. 

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 9

    Oklahoma City should have beaten the Boston Celtics on Tuesday (more on that momentarily) but managed to dispatch the Clippers and Raptors before the tough defeat that ended a six-game winning streak.

    Now 5-2 against Toronto, Golden State and Houston, the Thunder continue to profile as the biggest postseason upset threat to a title contender.

    Through Dec. 9, when a 1-of-12 effort from deep seemed to trigger a turning point in his shot selection, Russell Westbrook was averaging six three-point tries per 36 minutes. Since then, he's bagged the long ball, averaging just 3.1 long-range attempts per 36.

    The three-point revolution isn't for everybody. And Westbrook knows how to be efficient in his own way, as evidenced by the 37 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds he amassed during Sunday's 132-125 win in Toronto. He shot 15-of-22 from the field in that one, becoming the first player in 30 years to be so efficient in such a massive triple-double effort, according to StatMuse.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Last Week: 8

    Injuries up and down the roster—Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown all remain out—left Jayson Tatum without a choice: He had to become the go-to scorer.

    Not a problem.

    Tatum dropped consecutive 23-point totals on the Pelicans and Thunder, hitting a combined 17 of his 26 shots from the field. According to Elias (via ESPN.com), Tatum is the first rookie to lead the Celtics in scoring in back-to-back games, while the team had a winning record, since Larry Bird did it in 1980.

    Boston went 2-1 this week, but neither victory came easy. Beating the Magic by single digits on Friday was harder than it needed to be, even with so many missing bodies. And the Celtics shouldn't have gotten the victory at all versus Oklahoma City. The league's L2M report said Marcus Morris committed a five-second violation and traveled before hitting the game-winning three with 1.8 seconds to go. 

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    Last Week: 6

    After a bumpy start to March, the Sixers smoothed things out with five straight wins over lottery opponents. And before you worry about sustainability issues when the schedule toughens up, keep in mind that the schedule won't toughen up.

    Only three of Philly's final 11 opponents are currently in playoff position.

    In an undefeated week, the Sixers' five-turnover night against the Nets last Friday might stand out as the best. For the league's most turnover-prone team, a giveaway total that low is a true rarity. Joel Embiid put up 24 points and 19 rebounds in that one and then went one better in both categories, running up 25 points and 20 boards in Monday's win over the Hornets.

    Philadelphia is a season-high 11 games over .500, owns the league's fourth-best defense and could easily push into the top 10 (it's 13th now) on the other end with better ball security.

4. Utah Jazz

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Last Week: 4

    One good way to jam up your playoff odds is to lose to the Hawks FOR THE SECOND TIME THIS YEAR, which the Jazz managed to do on Tuesday. Utah shot 6-of-34 from deep in that one, and Donovan Mitchell made just one off his 10 long-range tries.

    Everybody has off nights, and the Jazz still profile as an elite team (when not playing the Hawks). When Atlanta last beat Utah on Jan. 22, it triggered a 21-2 stretch during which the Jazz led the league in net rating while allowing an astonishing 94.5 points per 100 possessions. That's two months of dominant basketball and the better gauge of Utah's quality than whatever it is that happens when Atlanta is involved.

    The Jazz are still worthy of a top-five spot, and Rudy Gobert has a lot to do with that.

    "I don’t like to make my own case, but there's nobody who impacts the game defensively like I do in the whole world," he told Kyle Goon of the Salt Lake Tribune. "I watch a lot of games, and I don't see anyone. Draymond had a great year last year, and he was close. But this year, it's not close."

    He's not wrong. Gobert's Jan. 19 return from injury lines up more than coincidentally with Utah's defensive clampdown.

3. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Cameron Browne/Getty Images

    Last Week: 3

    The 13-game winning streak's over, but if you think we're dropping the Blazers after they lost by single digits to the Rockets on Tuesday, forget it.

    Portland isn't going anywhere, and much of what we saw during the monthlong stretch of undefeated ball suggests it could enjoy similar staying power in the playoffs. That's a dangerous claim given the uncertainty and top-down potency of the field out West, but the Blazers have pulled together and feel like a "more than the sum of their parts" kind of group.

    "Over the last month-and-a-half, two months, we've been a much better team because of what we're doing as a unit," Damian Lillard told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian after Tuesday's loss to the Rockets. "Everybody's been locked in, everybody's been contributing and they've done it consistently. Me and CJ [McCollum] struggled [against Houston], and it's still a one-possession game with under a minute left."

    Portland has one of the league's best clutch defenses. Lillard gets loads of credit for carrying Portland during fourth quarters, but the Blazers' close-and-late defense (third) ranks a heck of a lot higher than their offense (16th).

2. Toronto Raptors

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Last Week: 1

    Slippage is death this high in the rankings, and the Raptors' controversial, ejection-riddled 132-125 loss to the Thunder on Sunday means their stay at the top of the rankings lasted all of a week. Wednesday's stumble against the Cavs clinched it: Toronto had to fall.

    Its net rating is still third in the league, and no on else holds the distinction of a top-five spot in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

    Still, the Raptors have looked a bit vulnerable lately. They needed OT to beat the Mavs last Friday, followed the OKC loss with a stinker of a win against Orlando and then suffered a three-point defeat the next night in Cleveland. Comfortably the East's top seed and a worthy No. 2 here as long as injuries diminish the Warriors, Toronto's lull is only a minor concern.

    As long as the NBA's best bench keeps putting the screws to opponents and turning stops into breakout scoring chances, it'll be hard for Toronto to endure a protracted slide.

1. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 2

    The Houston Rockets aren't who we think they are. Despite the coach and scoring efficiency you'd normally associate with an uptempo team, Houston is actually something of a slowpoke.

    SB Nation's Seerat Sohi noted that the Rockets' average player speed, according to NBA.com, is the league's slowest. They also run the fewest total miles per game. Why? Because, as Sohi explains: "The reality is that [James] Harden, [Chris] Paul and [Clint] Capela—with whom the Rockets are 38-2 (now 39-2)—are often running a three-man motion offense within an offense, while a mishmash of interchangeable wings chill and watch."

    You'd stand around and watch Harden cook, too.

    "He's unique. That's the best offensive player I've ever seen," head coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters after Harden tossed in a pair of devastating, decisive step-back threes to ice the Blazers on Tuesday. "He has so many weapons and now he's shooting those step-back threes. It's impossible to guard him. It's impossible."

    So, I guess in that sense, the Rockets are who we think they are: impossible to guard.

    It doesn't bear on these rankings, but the fact Houston conserves so much energy by limiting its actual physical movement might prevent fatigue in the playoffs, something that has dogged it in the past. It's also possible that smart defenses will adjust in ways that prompt the Rockets to get moving, but that might not be so easy with Harden being the league's most dangerous isolation threat.

    At any rate, the Rockets, winners of seven straight and 24 of their last 25, regain the top spot they lost last week.

                       

    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Thursday, March 22.

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