NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Finally Losing Grip on Top Spot?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Finally Losing Grip on Top Spot?

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    This week's edition of NBA power rankings includes a suddenly beleaguered (but still statistically dominant) Milwaukee Bucks squad looking more vulnerable than it has in months. With potent late-season climbers in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Utah, the top end of the rankings remains anything but settled.

    That's to say nothing of a trio of Western Conference pursuers, one of whom happens to also be chasing a third straight title, hot on the heels (hooves?) of the injured Bucks.

    As always, rankings consider team record, advanced metrics and health. Full-season stats are still important, but in trying to gauge the league's current hierarchy, recent play is a significant factor.

    We've only got three weeks left in the 2018-19 season. Expect continued rankings unrest and a mad dash to the finish.

30-26

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    Last week's rankings in parentheses.

           

    30. New York Knicks (30)

    Where does Mario Hezonja's game-sealing block and staredown of LeBron James rank on the all-time list of the Knicks' iconic moments? A spot above, or below, Willis Reed hobbling out of the tunnel in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals?

    In a season with little to get juiced about, Hezonja's play on Saturday, which secured a 124-123 win (New York's only one in March so far), was a welcome shot of excitement. And, in all seriousness, considering the parties involved and the circumstances, it has to at least rate as one of the least likely Knicks highlights ever.

           

    29. Phoenix Suns (26)

    Kelly Oubre Jr.'s season is over, thanks to surgery on his left thumb that'll keep him out for 4-6 weeks, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. A 20-point scorer since the All-Star break, Oubre Jr. should factor into Phoenix's long-term plans...if it can afford to match what should be a substantial offer sheet in restricted free agency.

    And rather than discuss the Suns languishing waaaaaaaaay down at the bottom of the West, let's all delight in the return of Jimmer Fredette, who signed a two-year deal with the Suns, according to the Athletic's Shams Charania.

    Get ready for him and Devin Booker to drill a million threes and make up the worst defensive backcourt in NBA history next year.

            

    28. Dallas Mavericks (27)

    All we do is (rightly) celebrate Luka Doncic around here, but he's quietly had some free-throw issues of late that come about as close to worrisome as anything in his game gets. He split a pair with 1.9 seconds left in regulation of Monday's overtime loss to the Pelicans. A 2-of-2 trip could have secured a one-point win. That follows another miss from the charity stripe in last Thursday's loss to Denver, which allowed Nikola Jokic's buzzer beater to win the game instead of tie it.

    When you're tanking, misses that produce losses aren't so bad. And, really, it's hard to make the case that a player with as much confidence and ahead-of-the-curve poise as Doncic will spend his career missing big foul shots. But it's only fair to ding him after a season of praise.

    The Mavs are 1-10 in March, which isn't great. But Dirk Nowitzki passed Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list this past week, which is.

           

    27. Chicago Bulls (28)

    Maybe all the tough love, extra practices and hard-assery from head coach Jim Boylen actually worked. At the very least, we can say there's been real progress in Chicago from a team-harmony standpoint. The Bulls have gone from a planned mutiny to Zach LaVine offering to pay Boylen's fine (incurred for his ejection against the Clippers). 

    The Bulls went 2-2 this week and, more importantly, seem to be sticking together.

           

    26. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    Collin Sexton's run continues, driven by a tweaked shot selection that aligns much more snugly with the profile of a high-efficiency scorer. 

    Before the All-Star break, Sexton took 19.3 percent of his shots from three-point range. Since: 36.7 percent. He's also cut his mid-range attempts substantially, as only 5.5 percent of his points have come from the mid-range area since the break. Before that cutoff, Sexton got 27.5 percent of his points on mid-rangers.

    Sexton has scored at least 23 points in each of his last seven games (the most consecutive 23-plus point games by a rookie since Tim Duncan), but the way he's gotten them matters far more for his development.

    Cleveland beat Detroit and Milwaukee this week after defeating just five playoff teams all season beforehand, which warrants a climb.

25-21

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    25. New Orleans Pelicans (25)

    New Orleans called a timeout it didn't have against the Suns on Saturday, incurring a technical foul with 1.1 seconds left in overtime of a tie game. Devin Booker canned the free throw and helped the Pels unlock a new achievement in varietal losing.

    Monday's 129-125 overtime win at Dallas marked New Orleans' only victory in its last eight games. But hey, at least Elfrid Payton is piling up triple-doubles! He had five straight until Wednesday's loss to Orlando. And yes, if you're curious, it's meaningless late-season stat-stuffing time in the NBA.

          

    24. Los Angeles Lakers (22)

    The Athletic's Bill Oram chronicled LeBron James' moment-hunting in Madison Square Garden, which featured a 4-of-15 fourth quarter and several questionable shots down the stretch.

    It was yet another sign that this Lakers season is no longer about team success or player development or, really, anything of forward-looking value.

    James sat out Tuesday's tilt with the Bucks and, short of stat-chasing, it's tough to conjure a reason for him to suit up at all going forward. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored a season-high 35 points in that 115-101 defeat, but the Lakers have still lost nine of their last 10 games.

           

    23. Atlanta Hawks (23)

    Atlanta went 1-3 this week, but two defeats came against occupants of our top 10, while the win was over the Jazz, also a top-10 club. Notably, Kent Bazemore got...got. But at least he made use of the Notes app to explain himself.

    Somebody needs to tell Baze all of our attention spans are completely shot these days. Half of you probably don't even remember how this sentence started. Everybody would have forgotten about James Harden crossing him up, down and sideways if he hadn't addressed it.

             

    22. Charlotte Hornets (21)

    Kemba Walker roasted a Ben Simmons—Jonah Bolden double-team during Tuesday's 118-114 loss to the Sixers, but that's about as exciting as things got for the Hornets this week.

    Charlotte ranks 25th in net rating since the All-Star break.

            

    21. Memphis Grizzlies (24)

    The war of attrition continues in Memphis, with CJ Miles going down for the season with a stress reaction in his left foot. He joins Dillon Brooks, who's also out for the year. And there's no certainty Jaren Jackson Jr. or Kyle Anderson will play any time soon either.

    The Grizzlies got 33 points and 15 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas in Wednesday's overtime win against the Rockets, and with four wins in its last six games, Memphis is .500 since the All-Star break and still scrapping, despite being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

20-16

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    20. Washington Wizards (20)

    Bradley Beal scored 40 points on 17 shots in Washington's 135-128 win over Memphis on Saturday, the team's only win this week. There have only been 10 other games in the last 10 seasons in which a player has accumulated that many points on so few field-goal attempts.

    If nothing else, the Wizards will close out this season knowing they've got a star more than capable of leading the team if John Wall never returns to form after his Achilles surgery.

    Finally, though you don't want to read into stats from what amounts to the garbage-time portion of the season, Jabari Parker's production since joining the Wizards warrants notice. He's been a more efficient scorer than he was in Chicago and hung 28 vengeful points on the Bulls in Wednesday's overtime loss.

               

    19. Minnesota Timberwolves (18)

    With 26 points and 21 boards in Tuesday's 117-107 loss to the Warriors, Karl-Anthony Towns tied Kevin Garnett for the franchise record, logging his fifth game with at least 25 points and 20 rebounds this season.

    The Wolves are a bottom-five team in net rating since the All-Star break with a defense that has been the league's worst since Feb. 1.

    Glass half-full: It's pretty easy to isolate what Minnesota has to work on for next year.

          

    18. Sacramento Kings (17)

    Marvin Bagley III's 21 points and nine rebounds helped Sacramento halt its three-game skid in Sunday's 129-102 rout of the Bulls, but contemporaneous hot streaks by the Jazz and Clippers mean the playoffs are out of the question—realistically, if not quite mathematically yet.

    Whatever modicum of hope remained must be gone after a brutal fall-from-ahead loss to the Nets on Tuesday, despite Bagley III dropping another 28 points in that one. That defeat was ugly, but this season has still been a rousing success relative to expectations. Sacramento has a chance to post its first winning season since 2005-06.

            

    17. Orlando Magic (19)

    The Magic took care of business over their last three games, powering past the Cavs, Hawks and Pels by double-digits to preserve their playoff hopes.

    Even if Orlando doesn't make up the one-and-a-half-game deficit between it and the Heat, at least there are stakes to the latter chunk of the season. That's new for most of the Magic.

    "You can't compare it to past years," Nikola Vucevic told Roy Parry of the Orlando Sentinel. "You know, this time of year we'd already be planning our vacations, unfortunately. It's much different. It's much more fun."

           

    16. Brooklyn Nets (14)

    Lou Williams' game-winner rendered a late 10-0 run inconsequential on Sunday, but it's safe to say the Nets retained their crunch-time confidence. Against the Kings on Tuesday, they delivered the mother of all gut punches by erasing what was a 25-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter. The 123-121 win, fueled by D'Angelo Russell's career-high 44 points, snatched whatever tiny shred of Sacramento's playoff optimism might have remained.

    Russell's 27 fourth-quarter points led the way but were somehow less surprising than the overall success of a closing lineup that also featured Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (who hit the game-winning layup), Treveon Graham, Jared Dudley and Rodions Kurucs.

    At the risk of being a downer, Brooklyn is just 1-3 in its last four games and would be 0-4 if not for one of the most shocking fourth quarters of the year.  

15-11

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    15. Indiana Pacers (15)

    A four-game trip out West ended on Thursday with a predictable fourth consecutive loss. Indiana was admirably competitive in single-digit losses to the Nuggets, Blazers and Clippers before hitting the Golden State hacksaw on Thursday.

    Eight of Indy's final nine games feature opponents either in playoff position or desperately trying to get there (hi there, Orlando). That's not great news for a Pacers squad that has beaten just one team with a winning record over the last two months and is now 12-14 since Victor Oladipo went down for the season in January.

          

    14. Oklahoma City Thunder (10)

    The Thunder have dropped four consecutive games and are an alarming 4-10 over the last calendar month. Their defense, once elite, ranks squarely in the middle of the pack since Jan. 1, and their offensive efficiency hovers right around that same range on the year.

    A difficult schedule explains some of the collapse: Just three of OKC's last 14 opponents are lottery-bound. But it's still difficult to peg these guys as a serious threat in the West any longer, and considering their remaining slate is tougher than that of any other playoff team in the conference, the Thunder are probably the sensible pick to finish with the No. 8 seed.

          

    13. Detroit Pistons (13)

    Detroit dropped to 0-3 in games played without Blake Griffin this year when it fell 126-119 to the Cavs on Monday.

    For all the praise Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond have earned for their improved play over the last several weeks, and as much as Wayne Ellington's presence has opened up their offensive options, the Pistons still sink or swim with Griffin: His presence on the floor improves Detroit's net rating by 3.9 points per 100 possessions.

    The Pistons went 3-1 this week, with Sunday's 110-107 victory over the Raptors standing out as the clear highlight. Road games at Portland, Golden State and Denver loom ahead. Any slippage could result in a slide to No. 7 in the East.

            

    12. Miami Heat (16)

    The Heat are 8-2 and own the league's top defensive rating in March.

    Those stats owe partly to a soft schedule, as the Heat have fattened up with wins over Atlanta, Charlotte (twice) and Cleveland. Still, there are also victories over the Nets, Pistons, Spurs and Thunder in that same span. That's encouraging and, perhaps more importantly in the case of the Brooklyn and Detroit wins, very helpful to the Heat's playoff push.

    Miami is peaking at the right time.

            

    11. Portland Trail Blazers (12)

    Portland dodged a bullet when the MRI on CJ McCollum's left knee revealed only a popliteus strain. Depending on how next week's re-evaluation goes, McCollum could be back in action soon. It was hard to imagine a scenario that rosy when the sixth-year guard went down in a heap, clutching his knee in the third quarter of Saturday's 108-103 loss to the Spurs.

    Even if McCollum is out a bit longer, Damian Lillard will have little trouble keeping the Blazers' offense humming. He put up 30 points and 15 assists on 9-of-16 shooting during Monday's 106-98 home win over Indiana. On the year, Portland's offensive efficiency when Lillard plays without McCollum is 115.4, which would rank second in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.

    The Blazers have won four of their last five and won't play anyone with a better win-loss record than their own until a home-and-home set against Denver on April 5 and 7.  

10. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 6

    With the Celtics and their relentless inconsistency, you can't focus on small samples because any two- or three-game stretch you choose might paint them as a championship front-runner or a first-round out. So let's expand things a bit and look at March as a whole. Maybe that'll help create some perspective.

    This month, Boston is 6-4 but has beaten just one playoff team, Golden State on March 5. That was a blowout, statement win. Then again, their victories over the Hawks and Kings (twice) each came via single digits. Most recently, the Celtics fell to the Nuggets and Sixers—the latter result owing largely to Marcus Smart's ill-advised decision to piss off Joel Embiid.

    Boston's full-season defense grades out as elite, but it ranks 19th this month. Scoring has been more of a struggle, yet the Celtics are seventh on that end in March.

    Mush that information together, and guess what? You still have a confounding team profile. Apparently, it doesn't matter how much of the 2018-19 season you analyze. The Celtics remain something of a mystery: high-ceilinged, low-floored, possibly coalescing but also possibly coming apart—all at once.

    Wednesday's loss to the Sixers all but cemented the Celtics into the 4-5 first-round matchup, which is, appropriately, a mixed blessing. The Pacers won't be a tough out, but the second round will pit Boston against the East's top seed. If a season with this much hype concludes in the conference semifinals, it'll be hard to view it as anything but a disappointment.

9. LA Clippers

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    Last Week: 9

    As measured by Basketball Reference's Game Score metric, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander completed the best three-game stretch of his rookie season this week. I

    n wins over Chicago, Brooklyn and Indiana, he averaged 16.0 points, 6.7 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from three.

    SGA's performance is basically a microcosm of this Clippers season, in which the team has simultaneously stayed competitive in the present while positioning itself for the future. A rookie guard contributing meaningfully to wins down the stretch in a playoff chase is the NBA equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.

    The Clips have won eight of their last nine games and are improbably within striking distance of a playoff seed as high as fifth. Rather quickly, they've opened up a chasm between themselves and the lottery teams beneath.

    If it feels like a club on this kind of hot streak deserves a bigger bump, keep in mind that LA's net rating on the season only ranks 13th, six of their last eight wins came at home and only four featured playoff-bound opponents.

    This section of the rankings is exceptionally crowded this week, so we've got to split hairs where we can.

8. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 11

    Maybe Rudy Gobert should play sick more often.

    He put up 23 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks in 34 minutes of Utah's 114-98 win against Brooklyn on Saturday...and then "vomited uncontrollably onto the carpet" in the Jazz locker room, according to Eric Walden of the Salt Lake Tribune.

    Gobert hasn't missed a game all year, and with Utah playing better on D than anyone else since Dec. 1, his case for Defensive Player of the Year is beginning to look undeniable.

    The Jazz are on a 5-1 in their last six games (the lone loss coming on the second night of a road back-to-back in Atlanta on Thursday) and won't see playoff-bound competition until the last two days of their season when they face the Nuggets and Clippers. In other words, prepare for this run of success to continue for a while.

    Utah's net rating is sixth in the league with a chance to crack the top five soon if the blowout victories continue. Its last five wins this week came by an average of 19 points.

    Finally, in deflating news, Dante Exum's season is likely over. A career so often shut down by injuries is offline again following a partially torn patellar tendon that'll keep him out indefinitely.

7. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 8

    Below .500 as late as Dec. 9, losers in seven of their eight games on a rough February road trip and disappointing on defense for the vast majority of the season, the Spurs just completed a 9-1 sprint that completely revitalized their season.

    Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.

    It's impossible to overstate how stunning it is that defense drove this run. Before the Spurs' 9-1 stretch, they ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency. Since March 1, they rank in the top five. Derrick White's return to the lineup on Feb. 25 explains some of that metamorphosis while Jakob Poeltl's insertion into the starting center spot coincides directly with the onset of San Antonio's hot streak.

    But it also feels fair to apportion some of the credit to a certain unquantifiable, Spurs-y refusal to give in. No team finds new ways to win like this one. Remember, San Antonio also went through a spurt of elite offense earlier this year. The Spurs trailed only the Warriors in scoring efficiency from Dec. 1 to Jan. 31. It's almost as if they decided to dominate defensively after they cooled off on offense.

    San Antonio's net rating is still outside the top 10 on the season, but the highlights from its list of victims during this surge—Detroit, OKC, Denver, Milwaukee, Portland and Golden State—forces another bump toward the elites in our rankings.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    Kyle Lowry sprained his right ankle in Monday's 128-92 deconstruction of the Knicks, but Pascal Siakam was more than ready to chip in a little extra when the point guard missed Toronto's 123-114 overtime defeat of the Thunder on Wednesday.

    The leading candidate for Most Improved Player bombed OKC with 33 points, 13 rebounds and six assists—leading the Raptors in all three categories.

    The Raps are only 7-5 over their last dozen games, but they've reached 51 wins. With a closing schedule that won't require travel any farther west than Minnesota (on the last day of the season) and won't pit them against any of the East's other top three teams, Toronto can either coast to the finish or make a serious push toward Milwaukee and the top seed. Considering the Bucks' recent injury issues, the Raptors could make things very interesting over these last 10 games if they want to.

    Home-court advantage throughout the entire playoffs is within reach.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 7

    Philly is 6-0 since Embiid returned from an eight-game absence (though they didn't need him to beat Charlotte on Tuesday), with impressive wins this week against the Bucks and Celtics.

    Embiid hammered Boston for 37 points and 22 rebounds, muscling his way to the foul line 21 times. His play after Marcus Smart's third-quarter shove served as a good illustration of why the Sixers can beat absolutely anyone. More than any other team, they can overwhelm opponents with sheer physical force.

    That strength obviously starts with Embiid, but Ben Simmons is part of it, too. And Jimmy Butler, who sunk the Celtics with 15 fourth-quarter points and the game-sealing jumper, is as tough as they come.

    Yes, Boston still took three of four games from the Sixers this season. And yes, Philadelphia's lack of depth is a major concern. But when you watch the Sixers leverage their brute strength against both Milwaukee and Boston in the same week, it's easy to see them walloping anyone who stands in their way during the playoffs.

    Philadelphia's brutality is dangerous because it's uncomplicated. Opposing teams can't necessarily game-plan around the Sixers' pure power approach. Embiid, when playing like this, is effectively unsolvable. And that makes the Sixers dangerous.

4. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 5

    With a 114-105 win at Boston on Monday, the Nuggets secured their first playoff trip since 2012-13 and briefly pulled into a tie with the Warriors for first in the West.

    That Denver is more focused on its fight for the top seed than it is on the end of its five-year postseason drought says everything about the franchise's elevated priorities.

    "Going into the season the goal was just to make the playoffs," head coach Mike Malone told reporters. "But now it's 'let's fight for the No. 1 seed, let's fight for homecourt advantage.' I love the mindset of our players right now."

    The Nuggets have won five straight, but with a slightly tougher schedule than Golden State down the stretch, the West's No. 1 seed may remain tough to secure. Still, it's hard to think of a team that should be more motivated to lock in home-court through the Finals than the Nuggets, who are an NBA-best 30-6 on their own floor.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 3

    The Rockets went 3-1 against lottery-bound opponents this week, recovering just fine from their March 13 loss to Golden State. If you're keeping score at home, Houston is 12-2 in its last 14 outings.

    Defense was always going to be the determinant for the Rockets, and for most of this season, it appeared their stopping power just wasn't good enough for a true contender. That's changed lately. Though their full-season defensive rating is still just 21st in the league, the Rockets rank eighth on D since their 12-2 run started on Feb. 23.

    Paired with an offense that trails only the Warriors, it's starting to look like the Rockets have just enough on the other end to profile as a serious title threat.

    Much depends on role players sustaining their recent play: While Eric Gordon has hit at least four threes in 11 of his last 17 games, Danuel House Jr. is averaging 7.5 three-point attempts over his last four games and hitting 52.1 percent of them. Of course, when James Harden can run up 28-point quarters en route to 57-point totals, which he did in Wednesday's 126-125 overtime loss to the Grizz, it's hard to shift the focus anywhere else.

    Finally, from the "how's that even possible?" department: Harden didn't attempt a free throw in Sunday's 117-102 win over the Wolves. That was the first time in over four years an opponent kept him off the line entirely.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 2

    The Warriors completed a 3-1 road trip with wins over the Rockets, Thunder and Wolves; got Kevin Durant back from an ankle sprain; reintroduced Andrew Bogut to the mix and racked up 39 assists (on 44 made field goals) on the second night of a back-to-back set in that 110-88 Minnesota win.

    Durant was a sparkling 7-of-13 from the field against the Wolves on Tuesday but looked somewhat reserved in his approach. In light of his recent ankle sprain, that's understandable. And if he needs the odd game off down the stretch to stay fresh, it shouldn't be a problem. History suggests the Dubs will be just fine as long as Stephen Curry is around.

    According to ESPN Stats & Info, Golden State is 25-1 in the last 26 games Curry has played without KD.

    Lapses in focus will linger through the end of the regular season and it shouldn't be a surprise if the playoffs feature more than a few head-scratching, turnover-plagued stretches. That stuff is indivisible from all the things that make Golden State great; we should know that nearly five years into a dynasty.

    If there's one thing to spotlight over these final few weeks, it'll be the Dubs' defense. Their suffocation of the Pacers on Thursday suggested that end of the floor is becoming a greater priority as the postseason nears. A few more strong performances could nudge the Warriors' defensive rating into the top 10 and, more importantly, signal they've still got what it takes to shut down elite opponents for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    Down 20 in the first half, the Bucks outscored the Heat by a margin of 71-36 in the second to secure the 113-98 win on Friday. If switch-flipping is a championship prerequisite, consider Milwaukee bonafide in that regard.

    As stout as Milwaukee looked while bulldozing the Heat, a 130-125 loss to the Sixers on Sunday illustrated the fickleness of a make-or-miss league. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a career-high 52 points against Philly, punctuating the effort with a brutal dunk on Ben Simmons, but the Bucks shot just 16-of-50 from deep.

    Malcolm Brogdon will miss 6-8 weeks with a partially torn plantar fascia in his right foot, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Losing a 50-40-90 shooter hurts, and the Bucks will struggle to replace Brogdon's value as a drive-and-kick threat who keeps the offense humming whenever opponents close out too aggressively. Nikola Mirotic's fractured left thumb will cost him 2-4 weeks as well, according to the Athletic's Shams Charania.

    If you're an alarmist, Antetokounmpo's sprained right ankle, which kept him out of a win against the Lakers and a loss to the Cavs (on the second night of a back-to-back) this week, might be a cause for concern. But at this stage of the season, caution is the right play, and it doesn't seem as though the MVP candidate is dealing with anything serious.

    Still the league's pace-setters in wins, defensive efficiency and net rating, the Bucks would have to suffer a significant stumble down the stretch to lose their grip on the top spot. The injuries are mounting, but considering they've lost back-to-back games just once all year, a collapse seems unlikely.

            

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, March 21.