NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Above the Fray as Playoff Races Heat Up

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 29, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: Giannis, Bucks Above the Fray as Playoff Races Heat Up

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    As we near the end of the 2018-19 season, we're taking more of a big-picture approach to our NBA power rankings. By now, a hot or cold week shouldn't outweigh nearly six months of prior evidence.

    Record, advanced stats, health and recent play all remain factors. But we're not going to dock a 50-win team for the occasional no-show effort quite so severely. We've reached the point at which coasting is more prevalent at the top of our rankings, and several bottom-dwelling teams have completely mailed it in.

    That middle section, though? Where several Eastern Conference teams are fighting for their playoff lives? That's where the action is this week.

    April and the playoffs are just around the corner, at which point 14 teams effectively disappear for a couple of months. Let's see where all 30 rank before that postseason culling.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. New York Knicks (30)

    The Knicks have dropped five straight against a slate comprised only of playoff-bound opponents, and Frank Ntilikina was mostly ineffective in this week's return from a two-month layoff.

    While New York's defense gets much of the blame for its rotten performance this year, the cratering offense deserves more attention. The Knicks own the NBA's second-lowest effective field-goal percentage in March.

           

    29. Phoenix Suns (29)

    Devin Booker put up 59 points on the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City this past Monday, aided by some intentional fouling and generally suspect late-game tactics designed to help him reach the 60-point mark. It was a classic late-season, stat-hunting farce.

    Phoenix got blown out in that one and is locked into a bottom-three finish in both offensive and defensive efficiency for the year. Another 50-spot from Booker wasn't enough to avoid a home loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday—the Suns' fifth straight defeat. 

            

    28. Cleveland Cavaliers (26)

    A loser in four straight, Cleveland has just one more bottom-feeder (Phoenix on April 1) left on its schedule. Cracking the 20-win barrier will be tough for the 19-57 Cavs.

    Kevin Love's presence is basically the difference between a bottom-five and a league-average offense, but the 30-year-old is showing concerning signs of slippage. He's never shot worse inside three feet during a qualified season, and his two-point percentage is also at a career low. This could be the result of Cleveland's shoddy spacing and general lack of talent, but that's not a great sign for a guy whose four-year, $120 million extension doesn't even start until next year.

           

    27. Chicago Bulls (27)

    Lauri Markkanen experienced a rapid heart rate and fatigue against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, prompting the Bulls to shut him down for the season while they seek additional testing. Chicago went 0-3 this week, and its minus-8.1 net rating in March ranks 29th in the league.

           

    26. New Orleans Pelicans (25)

    Jrue Holiday's season is over following the Pelicans' Tuesday announcement that he underwent surgery to repair a core muscle injury. An offense that ranks in the bottom five during March probably won't get better in April. While that's a bummer, at least the Pels can enjoy new addition Christian Wood's stat-stuffing down the stretch. Claimed off waivers from the Milwaukee Bucks, he posted 23 points, nine boards, six blocks and three steals in Tuesday's 130-120 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. 

    Expect more of the same from the intriguing forward who averaged 29.3 points and 14.1 rebounds in the G League this year.

    New Orleans has lost nine of its last 11 games.

25-21

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    25. Dallas Mavericks (28)

    Dallas' only two wins in March have come against last year's Finals participants. While besting this season's version of the Cavs on March 16 hardly counts as an achievement, pulverizing the Golden State Warriors by 35 points in Oakland sure does.

    Luka Doncic had a pair of triple-doubles this week—one in Saturday's win over the Warriors and another against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday—but signs of fatigue are mounting. His three-point shot has abandoned him in March, which feels attributable to dead legs. The rookie has proved enough this year, though. Even as Trae Young comes on strong, Doncic's full-season resume warrants Rookie of the Year honors.

           

    24. Los Angeles Lakers (24)

    You can't find a more on-the-nose "life comes at you fast" example than LeBron James missing the playoffs after reaching the Finals for eight consecutive seasons.

    The Lakers' 111-106 home loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Friday resulted in their official elimination from postseason contention. They've been better since dropping that game—their fifth straight loss at the time—but it hardly matters. Unless you're intrigued by JaVale McGee posting ridiculous numbers (33 points, 20 rebounds and six blocks against Brooklyn; 20 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in Tuesday's win over the Washington Wizards), there's not a whole lot to see here until next October.

            

    23. Washington Wizards (20)

    Thomas Bryant registered 18 points, 19 rebounds and a pair of critical buckets in the final minute of Washington's 124-121 win over Phoenix on Wednesday. The victory put an end to the Wizards' five-game losing streak.

    Washington has scored at a top-10 rate in March, and Jeff Green went from meme-able goat to meme-able hero in a 24-hour span. The Wizards aren't winning much because their shoddy defense is negating their offensive gains, but they've found ways to be entertaining down the stretch.

             

    22. Minnesota Timberwolves (19)

    Tyus Jones is averaging 11.0 points and 6.9 assists while hitting 41.2 percent of his threes in seven games since he took over as the starting point guard. With Karl-Anthony Towns posting 26.6 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 47.2 percent shooting from deep during that same stretch, it's easy to overlook Jones' contributions.

    However, nobody on the Wolves is playing both ends anymore, which is why Minnesota is just 4-8 with the league's worst defensive rating over a dozen games in March.

           

    21. Atlanta Hawks (23)

    Trae Young earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for March 18-24, which makes him the first rookie to get that nod this season. On Saturday, he dropped in a game-winning floater to beat the Philadelphia 76ers. Three days later, he logged 33 points and 12 assists in a win over the Pelicans—his sixth 30-point, 10-assist effort on the year. Oscar Robertson is the only rookie to top that mark.

    Atlanta went 2-0 this week and has won three straight. That's not a bad way to wind down during a rebuilding season.

20-16

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    20. Memphis Grizzlies (21)

    The Grizzlies are 7-9  with a respectable minus-0.3 net rating since the All-Star break, and their last five wins have come against teams currently in playoff position.

    They aren't packing it in.

    Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 24.2 points and 16.0 rebounds on 50 percent shooting in his last five games, which will present the Grizzlies with a tricky free-agent question if the 26-year-old center opts out of his deal this summer. That's some serious production, but paying an offense-first conventional center more than $10 million per season may not be a worthwhile investment these days.

           

    19. Charlotte Hornets (22)

    Improbable wins over the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors (the latter coming via Jeremy Lamb's ridiculous buzzer-beating heave) kept Charlotte's fizzling playoff hopes aglow. Then, scoring 11 of his 38 points in overtime, Kemba Walker downed the Spurs 125-116 on Tuesday and guided the Hornets to a season-best fourth consecutive win.

    Rather suddenly, the race for those last three spots in the East is compelling again.

            

    18. Sacramento Kings (18)

    The Kings won't make the playoffs, but they're fighting to the end. And for what it's worth, they're already assured of being the last Western Conference team eliminated from postseason contention.

    It's difficult to overstate the significance of Sacramento sniffing .500 this late in the season. Following a 3-2 stretch, the Kings are 37-38. Two more victories and they'll have their highest season total since 2005-06.

    Among the many encouraging signs, De'Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III have a positive on-court net rating when sharing the floor since the All-Star break. Those three function as Sacramento's 21-and-under core. If they can play net-positive ball with this little experience, imagine what they'll do in a year or two.

            

    17. Brooklyn Nets (16)

    If the Nets triumph over their brutal closing schedule and make the postseason, they'll be more prepared for high-stakes games than a lot of other teams. That's because they've been fighting to survive for several weeks now.

    "It's funny. It'll drive you batty," head coach Kenny Atkinson told Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "I made a decision—I'm not going to go back and forth, watch scores and watch the standings. We're all tight. We look at it from the Nets' perspective. Every game is a playoff game for us right now. It's just what it is."

    Thursday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers dropped Brooklyn to within a half-game of the lottery. To avoid falling further, the Nets just have to beat the Celtics, Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks next week.

    So, yikes.

            

    16. Detroit Pistons (13)

    The Pistons' five-game road trip ended with three straight losses to the Portland Trail Blazers, Warriors and Denver Nuggets. Thursday's home win over the Orlando Magic got Detroit back on the winning side of the ledger and added a full game to its cushion in the playoff race, but those road woes are a real issue.

    The Pistons' only three wins away from home this month came against the Cavs, Bulls and Suns. At 14-24 on the road this year, they probably can't be expected to push a potential first-round series past five games.

15-11

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    15. Miami Heat (12)

    Tuesday was rough for the Heat, as their 104-99 loss to the Magic cost them possession of the East's No. 8 seed and gave Orlando the head-to-head tiebreaker for the season. Fortunately, Miami came from behind to beat the Mavs by a final of 105-99 on Thursday, moving a half-game back ahead of the Magic.

    The remaining schedule features Boston (twice), Toronto, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, but there's a strange silver lining to that rugged slate: Five of Miami's final seven games come away from home, which is actually a positive because the Heat own the third-best road record in the East.

    They still boast a top-10 net rating for the month of March, but their season will be decided in April.

            

    14. Orlando Magic (17)

    The Magic are doing it with defense. And by "it" we mean elbowing back into the playoff race with a season-high six-game winning streak. Orlando finally fell at Detroit on Thursday, but its run from March 14-26 got it all the way up to 37 victories—a dozen more than it earned last season.

    Resiliency has been key. Orlando was down 14 to start the fourth quarter against Memphis on Friday but rallied to win in overtime 123-119. It may have been a season-saver.

    Orlando's defensive rating is the best in the league since Feb. 1. That's a massive two-month sample that might surprise the casual fan, even if head coach Steve Clifford seemed to know something significant was happening when he told reporters on Feb. 26: "We're not going to be a top-five offensive team—we don't have that kind of roster—but we can be a top-five defensive team. If we want to win, that's how we have to do it."

           

    13. Indiana Pacers (15)

    Indy dominated Denver in Sunday's 124-88 victory, racking up 72 points in the paint and getting 35 points on 13-of-16 shooting from Bojan Bogdanovic. In its very next outing, the Pacers couldn't score at all and suffered a 107-99 loss to the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

    Without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers just don't have a reliable playmaker. Darren Collison and Tyreke Evans did much of the ball-handling against the Thunder, and both seemed incapable of making the right reads. Bogdanovic has been excellent, and Myles Turner's interior presence means the Pacers will always get stops. But this group will struggle mightily unless someone in the backcourt starts creating quality looks for teammates.

            

    12. Oklahoma City Thunder (14)

    The only teams with worse March offenses than the Thunder are the Knicks and Pacers.

    OKC broke off a 24-0 run against Indy on Wednesday, setting the season's high mark for unanswered points in a game. Still, that surge had more to do with the Pacers' lack of shot creation and the Thunder defense than any kind of offensive awakening.

    The Thunder went 2-1 this week, which helped erase the memory of last week's four-game losing streak. Russell Westbrook logged a pair of triple-doubles but also shot a combined 18-of-55 from the field.

    As long as Westbrook's shot remains broken and OKC's offense can't sniff a league-average production rate, a first-round out feels inevitable.

            

    11. Boston Celtics (10)

    The Celtics can't go more than a couple of games without drawing boos from their home crowd these days, and the jeering predictably rained down during Sunday's 116-95 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

    Tuesday's 116-106 win at Cleveland halted a four-game skid, but the underlying disharmony that has defined the Celtics all year looms large. Boston, under .500 since the All-Star break and showing an alarming lack of on-court connectedness as the playoffs approach, hasn't looked more vulnerable all season.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 11

    On Monday, the Blazers clinched a playoff berth and lost Jusuf Nurkic for the year, which goes in the books as a massive net negative. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula, ending a career year and robbing Portland of a critical piece on both ends. Only five playersPaul George, Stephen Curry, Danny Green, Jrue Holiday and Joel Embiid—have higher individual net ratings than Nurkic this year (among those who've logged at least 1,900 minutes).

    With a five-game winning streak and the league's best offensive rating since the All-Star break, Portland deserves to climb.

    But with two of their three leading players sidelined (CJ McCollum is still recovering from a popliteal strain in his left knee and won't return until April 3 at the earliest), the Blazers are breaking down at the worst possible time.

9. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 7

    The Spurs are just 2-3 since the conclusion of their nine-game winning streak, and the struggles have mostly come on defense.

    "We just don't play the same defense a lot of the time, we are not consistent defensively," head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after his Spurs dropped a 125-116 overtime decision to the Hornets on Tuesday. "If a team scores 120 points when we are on the road it is going to be hard for us to win a game."

    He's not kidding. San Antonio's defensive rating is over eight points per 100 possessions worse away from home.

    Though a post-All-Star-break surge got it into playoff position, the team has no realistic path toward a top-four seed with so little of the season left. That means it won't have home-court advantage in any series.

    Knowing that, the Spurs better use these last two weeks to sort out their home-road splits. Otherwise, they'll be in for a short first-round series—unless LaMarcus Aldridge looks like he did against Boston on Sunday, when he waxed the Celtics for 48 points.

8. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 9

    The Clips' 11-2 mark in March is tops in the league, and their 122-111 victory over the Wolves clinched their spot in the playoffs.

    Yes, the schedule has been soft. Seven of those 11 wins came against non-playoff teams. And yes, much of this run feels like found money ahead of a big summer that could vault the Clippers into the level of serious contenders—particularly if they poach a certain taciturn two-way star from the Toronto Raptors. But it's still hard to ignore the good vibes emanating from this team.

    A lot of that has to do with a focused and patient approach that contrasts so starkly with that of their Staples Center co-tenants.

    The Clippers completely hosed the Lakers on the Ivica Zubac trade, and Doc Rivers has no interest in switching L.A. allegiances. While the Lakers rely on mystique (and borderline tampering) to build their team, the Clippers are making shrewd moves with a clear long-term plan. Right now, their superiority in Los Angeles is undeniable.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 5

    Philadelphia's six-game winning streak, which culminated with a spirited 118-115 win over the Celtics on March 20, gave way to consecutive ugly losses at Atlanta and Orlando this week. Thursday's win over Brooklyn was more representative of what the Sixers have looked like over the last month.

    Joel Embiid continues to pile up historic stats, and the Sixers' starting five still has a flat-out elite net rating. But familiar frailties showed up in those defeats. Trae Young exposed their problems with point-of-attack defense, and the Magic smothered an inconsistent offense into a scoreless stretch that lasted nearly 12 minutes on Monday.

    Orlando is fighting for its playoff life, and the Sixers are cemented into the East's No. 3 spot. So the discrepancy in urgency has an easy explanation. Still, it'd be nice to see Philadelphia smashing these sub-.500 teams as it gears up for what should be a deep playoff run.

    On a positive note, rookie Zhaire Smith made his NBA debut against Orlando. He was the one to end that scoring drought with his first NBA bucket—a three from the top of the arc.

    Oh, and Boban Marjanovic hit the first triple of his career on Saturday. Can you say postseason secret weapon?

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 6

    Kyle Lowry made it back from a sprained ankle Sunday but looked passive, taking just five shots in 28 minutes of the hard-luck loss to the Hornets that came courtesy of Jeremy Lamb's buzzer-beater. He was better in a win against the Bulls on Tuesday, scoring 14 points in 21 minutes before the bench did most of the heavy lifting in the second half of a nine-point win.

    The Raps are just 10-7 since the All-Star break—not a disaster, but also not quite what you'd hope to see from a title threat. Still, Toronto's remaining schedule is cake. It could easily run the table and finish with 59 wins, which would tie the franchise record set last year.

    As for postseason concerns, the Raptors might want to focus on the glass. They rank in the bottom third of the league in both offensive rebound rate and offensive rebound rate allowed. Those extra possessions matter a little more when elimination is at stake.

5. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 8

    Even with stats as basic as net rating, which measures how many more or fewer points a team scores than its opposition per 100 possessions, cutting through a lot of static is necessary. Garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves pollute the data.

    Cleaning the Glass filters that stuff out, and Utah ranks third in net rating there, profiling as a juggernaut when you eliminate the noise.

    The Jazz are 8-1 in their last nine games. Though they're still defined by their elite defense (best in the league during March), they've registered effective field-goal percentages above the league average (52.3 percent) seven times during this run. Also notable: Rudy Gobert averaged 23.3 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks on 79.4 percent shooting throughout Utah's 3-0 week.

    It'll take two-way competence to do real damage in the playoffs, and Utah is starting to look capable of delivering on both ends.

    With the Blazers hurting and just two playoff-bound opponents left in their final seven games, the Jazz have a great shot at the West's No. 4 seed. If the Houston Rockets stumble, the third spot might even be within reach.

4. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 4

    Zoom out and appreciate how impressive it is that, barring complete disaster, the Nuggets won't finish worse than second in the West this year. This, after making no significant additions to a roster that missed the playoffs entirely just last season.

    Let's hear it for organic growth!

    Denver's not bulletproof, of course. It is just 5-7 against West playoff teams since Jan. 1, and the specter of those "first playoff trip" jitters will hover until the Nuggets dispatch them with a strong first-round showing. That 29-point second half against Detroit on Tuesday was also a little concerning, and losing by 36 to Indiana the preceding Sunday wasn't a good look, either.

    Slips like that are allowed when you've already locked up home-court advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. If there's a source of long-term concern, it's probably the success Houston had in attacking Nikola Jokic as a pick-and-roll defender. The Rockets targeted him relentlessly in the first half of Thursday's 112-85 loss, and you can bet playoff opponents will do the same.

3. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 3

    James Harden scored 118 points in a two-game span—57 in a loss to Memphis on March 20 and 61 in Friday's 111-105 win over San Antonio—but struggled mightily against the Milwaukee Bucks' defensive tactics in Tuesday's 108-94 defeat.

    Milwaukee kept a primary defender glued to Harden's left side as often as possible, stifling his step-back and strong-hand drive options. Content to concede floaters from outside the restricted area, the Bucks held Harden to fewer points than shot attempts for only the fifth time this season. Three of those games have come in the last three weeks, which should concern Houston for a couple of reasons.

    First, it suggests teams have finally settled on the best way to combat Harden's one-man onslaught; the book, such as it is, may be out. Second, diminished efficiency could point to fatigue, which has long been Harden's late-season and playoff Achilles' heel.

    I recognize how ridiculous it is to argue Harden is wearing down so soon after he ran up those 118 points in a two-game stretch, but Harden's fitness is the determinant of Houston's fate. If he isn't superhuman, the Rockets don't have enough support to make real playoff noise. That's been the case all year, but it became obvious as his teammates couldn't create offense when the Bucks' sporadic trapping forced him to give up the ball. 

    Thursday's blowout win over the Nuggets, in which Harden had 38 points, was a good reminder that not everyone can bottle up the league's leading scorer like Milwaukee did.

2. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 2

    The Warriors are now 5-7 without Stephen Curry this season. And though it shouldn't have taken the worst home loss of the Steve Kerr era to underscore the two-time MVP's indispensability, the Steph-less Warriors let it happen anyway.

    Dallas rolled into Oracle arena and hammered the Warriors by 35 points Saturday, as Dirk Nowitzki creakily tossed in a season-high 21 points against a Dubs defense that, put charitably, didn't seem interested in trying to stop anyone.

    Kevin Durant has been oddly reserved of late. He's had three games with single-digit shot attempts all year, and two came this past week—a six-attempt effort in 35 minutes against Detroit on Sunday standing out most of all. Of course, when you're a good enough scorer to go 12-of-13 from the field, which KD did against the Grizzlies on Wednesday, you don't really need much volume to be productive.

    Golden State barreled into the All-Star break on a 16-2 run but hasn't strung together more than two consecutive victories since. If that's not the perfect encapsulation of a team that can't muster high-end effort for more than a couple of games at a time, I'm not sure what is.

    The Dubs are locked in a fight with the Nuggets for the West's top seed, and it should go down to the wire. Despite so many mailed-in nights dragging their numbers down, the Warriors are still a mid-pack defense that scores more efficiently than anyone in the league. That's pretty good for a team that shows up to play roughly once a week.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    If the current numbers hold, Milwaukee will finish the year as the only team with top-four ranks in offensive and defensive efficiency. No one else ranks within the top five in both categories, and only Boston, Denver and Toronto grade out among the top 10 on each end.

    Two-way excellence is just one of the markers signifying their title-readiness. The presence of an MVP-caliber talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo is another, and their effort against James Harden and the Rockets on Tuesday offered a third.

    The Bucks proved they could implement and perfect a scheme designed specifically to slow down the league's premier offensive weapon, and a willingness to embrace somewhat gimmicky tactical adjustments when necessary will matter in the back-and-forth wars of late-stage playoff series.

    Milwaukee will be without Malcolm Brogdon and possibly Nikola Mirotic through the end of the regular season. Donte DiVincenzo's year is officially done, Pau Gasol is down and even Antetokounmpo dealt with an ankle sprain last week—which he aggravated in the fourth quarter of Milwaukee's win over the Clips on Thursday.

    With a comfortable margin separating them from the Raptors in a race for the East's top seed that's all but complete, we could see the Bucks throttle down soon.

    They've earned a break.

            

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, March 28.