NBA Power Rankings: James Harden, Houston Rockets Blasting Their Way to the Top

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 19, 2019

NBA Power Rankings: James Harden, Houston Rockets Blasting Their Way to the Top

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    For this edition of NBA power rankings, we'll be prisoners of the moment a bit more than we were during the regular season.

    There's this idea that the playoffs are when teams' true quality is revealed. Weaknesses get exploited, strengths show more starkly, and we see each club operating with tighter rotations and greater effort. It's the live performance to the regular season's dress rehearsal.

    So when teams look particularly improved or overwhelmed, it carries a bit more weight.

    As for the lottery teams who haven't played a game this week (and won't until October), we'll keep you apprised of any significant news and look to other relevant changes in status when shuffling them around in the rankings. Some have hired top executives, while others have removed coaches.

    Only 16 teams are still playing, but we have all 30 organized in an order reflecting current strength right here. As always, win-loss record, advanced stats, health and a little gut feeling factor into the rankings.

30-26

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    Last week's ranking in parentheses.

    30. New York Knicks (30)

    A couple of positives about the Knicks' 2019 offseason so far: Kristaps Porzingis no longer being on the roster meant he couldn't kick off a summer of anxiety by skipping his exit meeting again, and the cessation of regular-season competition means New York can't lose any more games.

    The Knicks are technically undefeated since April 10. Fresh off a 65-loss season, that has to feel good.

            

    29. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    A vestige of the old collective bargaining agreement, JR Smith's partially guaranteed contract makes him an attractive asset. Though his salary counts for $15.7 million in a trade, the acquiring team can pay him just $3.9 million before cutting him loose entirely.

    Cleveland should use Smith's unusual contract to take on bad money with a draft pick attached, and it's already receiving calls, according to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

              

    28. Phoenix Suns (28)

    After last week's random drawing, the Suns sit third in the lottery order. Technically, they share a 14 percent chance at the top pick with New York and Cleveland, but the Suns could fall farthest of the three. The Knicks will pick no lower than fifth, the Cavs sixth and the Suns seventh.

    Phoenix also named James Jones its general manager, removing the interim tag and giving him sole possession of a position he effectively split with Trevor Bukstein last year. Bukstein will be the assistant GM, and both he and Jones will work under newly installed senior vice president of basketball operations Jeff Bower. Bower was Detroit's GM from 2014 to '18 and has three decades of front-office experience. 

    Head coach Igor Kokoskov's fate is in the hands of Bower, a personnel man who didn't hire him. That's never a comfortable spot.

            

    27. Chicago Bulls (27)

    Head coach Jim Boylen and the Bulls are finalizing a three-year extension, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. Boylen has come a long way from barely ducking a mutiny.

    Chicago was 5-19 with a minus-9.5 net rating under Fred Hoiberg. Boylen's post-takeover stats included a 17-41 record and a minus-7.8 net rating—nothing great by any stretch and certainly aided by a healthier roster, but an improvement nonetheless.

    After missing time late in the year with extreme fatigue and an elevated heart rate, Laurki Markkanen has been fully cleared for basketball activities. This will be a pivotal summer of development for Markkanen, who's shown flashes of offensive stardom in his first two seasons.

             

    26. Washington Wizards (24)

    Interim GM Tommy Sheppard has plenty to think about with Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis and Thomas Bryant headed for restricted free agency. But his is just one name in the running for the job opening created by Ernie Grunfeld's firing.

    Sources told NBC Sports Washington's Chase Hughes that retaining Bryant would be among Sheppard's top priorities, but everything could change if the Wizards make an outside hire to fill the GM role on a permanent basis.

    Though burdened by John Wall's massive extension, the Wizards have more flexibility than you might think. Just three players are under contract beyond the 2019-20 season. If Washington hadn't laid such an egg this past year, it'd be a solid free-agent destination.

25-21

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    25. Los Angeles Lakers (25)

    Marc Stein of the New York Times reports, "In numerous rival organizations, there is both shock and relief that the Lakers haven't responded to events of the past week by chasing the likes of Golden State's Bob Myers, San Antonio's R.C. Buford and Oklahoma City's Sam Presti before they go looking for a new coach."

    Stein also opined that owner Jeanie Buss entrusting GM Rob Pelinka with more power over basketball operations "would be the worst mistake of her tenure."

    Smash cut to: Pelinka, with no additional executives around him to replace Magic Johnson, on the hunt for a head coach to replace Luke Walton. Sixers assistant Monty Williams, former Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue and Heat assistant Juwan Howard are candidates, according to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.

    This doesn't seem promising.

           

    24. Memphis Grizzlies (21)

    The Grizzlies shook it all up last week, firing head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, reassigning former GM Chris Wallace to a scouting role and moving Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman into more prominent positions within the front office. Throw Rich Cho and Glen Grunwald into the mix as well; both were hired in front office roles on Wednesday.

    The overhaul happened fast, and it must have been unexpected for Bickerstaff and Wallace, who held media availability and conducted exit interviews under the impression they'd be back in the same roles next year.

    Memphis has a 42.6 percent chance of conveying its top-eight protected pick to the Boston Celtics. Add that to Mike Conley's potential exit via trade and the search for a new head coach, and you've got quite the heap of offseason uncertainty.

           

    23. New Orleans Pelicans (26)

    Hope is the currency of the NBA offseason, and rather suddenly, the Pelicans are rolling in it.

    New VP of basketball operations David Griffin crushed his introductory presser on Wednesday, expressing optimism in the organization's direction and confidence in his own upcoming conversations with Anthony Davis and Klutch Sports.

    Keeping AD seems unlikely, even with Griffin making the pitch. But at least the Pels have a front-facing executive saying all the right things—one with a history of also doing a lot of them. That's as much as you can ask for in the first days of a critical offseason.

             

    22. Dallas Mavericks (23)

    Dirk Nowitzki's retirement was as bittersweet as they come. The NBA will feel a little less fun with him gone. But, without besmirching the legacy of an all-time great, can't we also consider the possibility that Dallas may benefit from the clarity of purpose his departure provides?

    Even as they were building for the future, the Mavs were anchored to the past. Nowitzki deserved everything Dallas did to honor him, but his presence also kept the franchise from completely rebuilding over the last several years. Sure, the Mavericks eventually tanked in each of the past three seasons, but they also began those campaigns with at least some intention to compete for a playoff spot.

    Maybe the rebuild can now proceed without the hindrance of giving Nowitzki a shot to play relevant games. That's not to say Dallas will go full Hinkie Sixers—just that it can organize itself around Luka Doncic, its new star, instead of paying homage to an old one.

       

    21. Minnesota Timberwolves (22)

    Tyus Jones set an NBA record for assist-to-turnover ratio this past season, and nobody outside of Minnesota seemed to notice.

    It's easy for nuggets like this to fall through the cracks when a team is pretty obviously lottery-bound by March, but Jones deserves credit for his careful offensive stewardship. He's not a star, and he may not even profile as a starter going forward, but there'll always be a role for a point guard who can lead a mistake-free offense.

    Once the Wolves figure out who'll be running the front office, that person will be in charge of Jones' impending restricted free agency.

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    20. Charlotte Hornets (19)

    Surprising no one, Bismack Biyombo picked up his $17 million option for 2019-20, locking in a rate he wouldn't have sniffed on the open market and cramping an already constricted Hornets payroll.

    Kemba Walker could stay on a five-year contract worth between $189 and $221 million, depending on if he makes an All-NBA team. With a potential starting salary of $32.7 million next season, Walker's deal would immediately put the Hornets in the tax. That's not ideal for a club that would be bringing back virtually the same team that fell short of the playoffs in 2018-19.

            

    19. Atlanta Hawks (20)

    The Hawks closed the year with a 10-14 record and the No. 11 offense after the All-Star break. They're young, exciting and in possession of significant cap space. Time to splash the pot in free agency, maybe fast-track this little rebuild they've got going?

    Not so fast.

    "Skipping steps is a dangerous, dangerous thing," head coach Lloyd Pierce told Chris Kirschner of The Athletic. "Just because you're able to win a game doesn't mean you're able to win the next one. You take the win, you learn from the win, appreciate the win and get back in the lab and do what got you the win."

    The patient approach isn't usually this exciting.

           

    18. Detroit Pistons (17)

    Our lowest-ranked playoff team, the Pistons backed into the postseason with an injured Blake Griffin, got hammered in their first two games against the Milwaukee Bucks and seem ticketed for a sweep. Maybe they'll sneak away with a win in Game 3 or 4 if the Bucks relax, but that's about as far as any Pistons optimism goes.

    Griffin's absence has turned Detroit into one of the least threatening playoff teams we've seen in years.

            

    17. Miami Heat (16)

    Led by Dwyane Wade on the floor, Erik Spoelstra on the bench and Udonis Haslem in the locker room, the Heat likely would have put up a better fight against the Bucks than the Pistons are. But Miami didn't take care of business down the stretch, so it never got the chance.

    The Heat logged two fewer wins than Detroit on the year, but the two teams finished with identical net ratings. So ranking the Heat ahead of the Pistons feels fair, especially considering the current version of Detroit is short a healthy Griffin.

            

    16. Sacramento Kings (18)

    GM Vlade Divac got himself a new deal that will run through the 2022-23 season, according to The Athletic's Sam Amick. Newly empowered, Divac flexed immediately.

    He fired head coach Dave Joerger and replaced him with Luke Walton before the news cycle had a chance to reset. Joerger deserves credit for installing an uptempo attack, but this is now the second time he's been bounced from a job because of a failure to connect with key figures—players or executives, take your pick—within the organization.

    Walton's calm demeanor should be a welcome change, but he'll have to prove he's on Joerger's level from a tactical perspective. This move up the rankings is a bet Walton represents an overall upgrade.

15-11

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    15. Indiana Pacers (14)

    Indiana ranked 21st in offensive efficiency after the All-Star break, so its failure to score against the Boston Celtics is hardly a surprise. Though the Celtics played uneven ball all year, they finished with the league's No. 6 defense. The Pacers were third overall on that end, which is why Games 1 and 2 were such scoring-starved slogs.

    But it won't matter how effectively the Pacers defense limits Boston's attack if their offense continues to produce a 36.9 effective field-goal percentage—by far the worst of any playoff team so far.

            

    14. Oklahoma City Thunder (11)

    Russell Westbrook is a combined 13-of-37 from the field and 1-of-10 from deep in two losses to the Portland Trail Blazers this postseason. His horrendous regular-season shooting has followed him into the playoffs.

    With Paul George's shoulder injury contributing to his own perimeter struggles (6-of-22 from three), the Thunder can't space the floor well enough to force Portland into scrambling rotations. The Blazers defense was supposed to be in big trouble with Enes Kanter in Jusuf Nurkic's place, but OKC isn't forcing Kanter to defend in space often enough to play him off the floor. And if Kanter can avoid being exposed on D, he's proved he can make a major impact on the other end.

    A popular upset pick against a Blazers team missing its starting center, the Thunder have fallen embarrassingly flat so far.

            

    13. Brooklyn Nets (15)

    Brooklyn landed the first punch with a 111-102 win in Game 1, capitalizing on the Philadelphia 76ers' strange refusal to dominate with superior physicality. Things normalized in Game 2, with Philly pushing harder in transition, leveraging its speed and bulk and overwhelming the Nets with a 51-point third quarter.

    The Nets have three guards who can cause problems for Philadelphia's suspect defense at the point of attack. D'Angelo Russell hit several of his pet mid-rangers in Game 1, Spencer Dinwiddie can roast anyone but Jimmy Butler off the dribble, and Caris LeVert's smooth attacks have been effective as well. But Brooklyn can't contend with Joel Embiid inside, and the success it had going small in Game 1 disappeared without Jared Dudley available for Game 2.

    In Game 3, Brooklyn couldn't find its stroke from deep (8-of-39 on threes) and had no answers for a Sixers team that should have been beatable without Embiid.

           

    12. Orlando Magic (13)

    Given the Raptors' franchise mark of 2-14 in Game 1s, should we even credit Orlando for winning the series opener on D.J. Augustin's game-winner?

    Sure, the win technically counts, but Toronto seems to prefer starting every series in the hole. It's tradition. When the Magic hit an improbable 14 of their 29 threes—a key reason they stole Game 1—we should have just shrugged and taken it as the expected result.

    Game 2, a 111-82 blowout loss, was probably more indicative of what we'll see the rest of the way. Orlando's offense, which ranked 22nd during the season, stalled against a dialed-in Toronto defense in that one. And Kawhi Leonard individually overwhelmed every defender the Magic threw at him.

    Orlando's defense is excellent, which we knew coming in. But like a handful of other teams facing long odds—OKC, Indiana and Utah come to mind—the Magic aren't potent enough on offense to make any serious noise.

           

    11. Denver Nuggets (6)

    We'll get to the fireworks in a second, but let's first acknowledge Gary Harris' less-heralded work in his playoff debut. His third-quarter effort in Game 2 was the main reason Jamal Murray's explosion ended up mattering.

    If Murray hadn't gone thermonuclear in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's 114-105 win, this space would have been spent on Denver's postseason eulogy. But Murray hit eight straight shots, many of them difficult ones, to save the Nuggets from dropping their first two playoff games at home—where they posted the league's best regular-season record.

    There would have been no recovering from that, and the skeptics who questioned Denver's readiness for the bright lights would have been completely vindicated.

    Denver doubters should remain confident, as the Nuggets have still lost two of their first three against the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs. If this series returns to Denver with the home team in a 3-1 hole, the pressure of an impending upset could overwhelm the young Nuggets.

10. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 12

    The Clippers never stop playing, and sometimes that relentlessness produces stunning results. Like, say, a 31-point comeback win against the defending champs.

    That Game 2 shocker—fueled by elite irritant Patrick Beverley, incomparable shot-maker Lou Williams and roll-man extraordinaire Montrezl Harrell—was an earned result. The Clips wanted the win more, executed their game plan for four quarters (rather than the two-and-a-half the Golden State Warriors managed) and strutted out of Oakland with a win.

    The flip side, of course, is that the Clippers trailed by 31 points and had no answers for Golden State during the portion of the game the Warriors deigned to care about. 

    Credit the Clips for stealing an incredible win. Just remember it also forced the Warriors to focus up, which led to a 132-105 loss in Thursday's Game 3.

9. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 5

    The playoffs are about matchups, and the Jazz drew a terrible one in the Houston Rockets.

    In a 122-90 Game 1 loss, Utah did what it could to emulate the Bucks' defensive practices against James Harden, staying glued to his left side and inviting drives toward a waiting rim protector. But Harden had no problem accepting those lanes to the bucket and either hitting Clint Capela for lobs or zipping dimes to open shooters in the corners.

    Then, in Game 2, Harden's unstoppable step-back three showed up as well, and it was curtains for Utah again.

    Though the Jazz might objectively be one of the half-dozen best teams in the league, they simply aren't built to contain Houston's attack. It also doesn't help that Utah isn't capitalizing on its open looks. In their 118-98 loss in Game 2, the Jazz would have been expected to post an effective field-goal percentage of 57.4 percent, according to tracking data relayed by Forbes Sports' Ben Dowsett. Instead, they bricked their way to an effective field-goal percentage of 43.9 percent.

    Combined with a rough matchup and Harden's indomitable offensive brilliance, Utah's failure to score efficiently is a death sentence. Heading home for Game 3 on Saturday, the Jazz either need to prove they can slow Harden down or hit shots at a respectable rate—preferably both if they'd like to avoid a short series. 

8. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last Week: 7

    Joel Embiid's knee isn't right, and he's looking a little above his fighting weight after playing just 10 of the Sixers' last 24 regular-season games. He missed Game 3 on Thursday due to lingering tendinitis in that troublesome knee, but it didn't prevent the Sixers from securing a 131-115 win to take a 2-1 series lead over Brooklyn.

    Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has been more creative than Brett Brown, deploying small-ball lineups and attacking Philadelphia's most vulnerable defenders. Still, the Sixers have insurmountable advantages in top-end talent and physicality. Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis can't handle Embiid down low, and Simmons' transition game is as great an asset as his outside shooting is a liability.

    Simmons shook off an ineffectual Game 1 with a triple-double in Game 2, and then he really showed out as a roll man when the Sixers shrunk their lineup in Game 3. He finished that one with 31 points, nine assists and four boards.

    The Sixers' weak defense at the point of attack, suspect depth and JJ Redick's status as a permanent target for opposing offenses have all played roles in the first round. They'll continue to be issues as the playoffs progress and Philadelphia encounters more dangerous opponents.

    Of course, if Embiid keeps missing time, the Sixers will have bigger problems. 

7. San Antonio Spurs

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    Last Week: 10

    San Antonio should continue to have success by involving LaMarcus Aldridge in pick-and-pop sets, which pulls Nikola Jokic away from the basket and forces him to defend in space. And because the Spurs are happy to take as many mid-range shots as possible, it's not like the Nuggets can force them into low-percentage looks so easily.

    It's been a make-or-miss postseason so far, with several upsets in other series owing to hot or cold shooting. The Spurs may be the most at the mercy of their field-goal percentage because they aren't committed to hunting threes or close-range looks. They'll just take whichever open shots present themselves, a strategy they employed all year to great effect en route to the No. 6 effective field-goal percentage in the league.

    San Antonio was better than Denver for roughly seven quarters across Games 1 and 2, but Jamal Murray salvaged a spit for the Nuggets anyway.

    In Game 3, it was all Derrick White. San Antonio's ascendant point guard went off for 36 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals in a 118-108 win.

6. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 8

    The Celtics are up 2-0 against Indiana, which counts as an achievement during a postseason that has already featured its share of surprising upsets. Indy, though, isn't a typical No. 5 seed. It lost its best player in January, was under .500 after the All-Star break and lacks the firepower to score against top defenses.

    Anyone looking for the Celtics to use this first round as some kind of showcase—one in which they left all their regular-season stumbles behind—can't be satisfied.

    Boston got 37 points from Kyrie Irving in Game 2, notching a 99-91 win without much production from an under-the-weather Al Horford, but Irving was the only consistent source of offense in that one. Many of his buckets were the product of individual skill rather than team flow, and the Celtics offense remains disjointed. We should credit Indy's tenacity on D for some of those struggles.

    On the positive side, the Celtics are defending well, and both Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are fulfilling their respective roles—defender/slasher and second-side distributor—well.

    Boston is taking care of business, but we're not going to learn much about this team until it faces a worthier adversary.

5. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last Week: 9

    So much for the OKC upset many expected. Instead of the Thunder locking down a Blazers team missing its starting center, it's Portland with a comfortable 2-0 lead.

    The Blazers have scored enough against a generally solid Thunder defense, but they've also exploited Oklahoma City's lack of shooting in intelligent ways that extend beyond the obvious "just let Westbrook fling bricks until his right arm gives out." Portland is sending multiple defenders at Paul George, caring very little about the danger of a quick pass finding an open shooter.

    The Thunder, all season and so far in this series, haven't had anyone threatening enough from deep to punish aggressive trapping schemes. Portland, doing what it can to get stops with Enes Kanter as a starting center, is wisely daring OKC to beat it from long range.

    Foul trouble limited Kanter in Game 2, but he hung 20 points and 18 boards on his former team in Game 1. Any scenario in which he's not a massive drag on Portland's chances is a win, and so far, he's been as effective as anyone could have hoped. The Thunder could put him in more pick-and-roll actions, but with Westbrook involved, there'd be no reason for Kanter to worry about covering ground to contest a jumper.

    Lastly, Damian Lillard has removed any doubt that he's an objectively better player than Westbrook. Defenses don't rejoice when he gets clean looks; they freak out. That's a big difference.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    Kyle Lowry's 0-of-7 Game 1 shooting performance triggered understandable panic, but the Raptors recovered to smash Orlando in Game 2 behind Kawhi Leonard's dominant 37 points. Leonard proved to be exactly what the Raptors hoped for in that 111-82 win: a transcendent two-way force capable of controlling a game on both ends.

    Nothing disperses the "here we go again" anxiety of a Game 1 loss like remembering you have an MVP-caliber superstar whose emotional settings do not include panic.

    And, not to be forgotten, Lowry is the series' leader in plus-minus through two games. Toronto has outscored the Magic by 41 points in his 71 minutes.

    The Raps blinked in Game 1, and a hot shooting night from Orlando did them in. Don't bank on the Raptors letting their guard down again.

3. Golden State Warriors

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    Last Week: 1

    DeMarcus Cousins' torn quad, which will keep him on the sidelines indefinitely, is a bummer. The guy missed his potential playoff debut last year with a torn Achilles, and his second crack at postseason play lasted just 25 minutes (during which the Warriors were outscored by 18 points).

    That plus-minus figure illustrates why Cousins' absence may not matter much. Andrew Bogut is a better defender, and Draymond Green was always going to play center in crucial minutes of close games.

    Game 1 went according to plan, as Stephen Curry lit the Clips on fire with 38 points on 16 field-goal attempts, and Game 2 went even better for the Dubs until they essentially stopped playing after halftime.

    Pet theory: If there were a mercy rule in the NBA, Golden State would never lose. In Game 2, you could see the Warriors, up 31 and cruising, say to themselves, "OK, we've proved our point. Can we be done now?"

    The Clips, to their credit, were not done. But from the Warriors' perspective, they can take solace in knowing any team that blows a 31-point lead had a 31-point lead.

    Malaise, turnovers, overconfidence and the never-ending focus on what Kevin Durant is/should be doing on offense have all followed Golden State into the playoffs. We have to knock the Dubs down a couple of pegs for their slip in Game 2, but there's no reason to worry about an upset in this series.

    Game 3, a 132-105 Warriors romp in which Durant rang up 38 points, proved that.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 2

    Without Blake Griffin on the floor, the Pistons got outscored by just 1.6 points per 100 possessions. That's not bad!

    Notably, they did not play the Bucks every night in amassing that figure.

    Milwaukee is obliterating a Pistons team missing its best player and only reliable facilitator. None of this is unexpected. So while it might seem unfair to leave the Bucks at No. 2 in the wake of two blowout wins to start their first-round series, come on...they're barely playing against an NBA team right now.

    We'll have to wait until the second round to learn anything worthwhile about the Bucks as a playoff team. Suffice it to say this early performance squares with a statistically dominant regular season.

1. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 3

    Throw gimmicks at James Harden. Force him right. Dare him to shoot floaters. Tell him his shoes are untied. Tickle his beard a little. Sometime, maybe midway through the first quarter, try to convince him Bran really is the Night King in Game of Thrones.

    It doesn't matter. None of it does.

    Harden is roasting the Jazz, scoring and facilitating however and whenever he wants. In Game 2, he started drilling step-back threes. He's in complete control of this series, and though the Jazz aren't ideally equipped to slow him down, the rest of the league has to be uncomfortable with how thoroughly the MVP candidate is dissecting a Jazz defense that ranked first in the league after Jan. 1.

    Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker are hitting threes, Clint Capela is catching lobs and the Rockets are whipping a quality opponent.

    Sure, Utah is missing everything, and Donovan Mitchell is failing as a primary option in his second postseason. A lot of that could change as the series heads back to Salt Lake City. But for now, Houston is looking more dangerous than anyone else.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Thursday, April 18.