NBA Power Rankings: Rockets and Celtics Hitting Midseason Skids

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 20, 2020

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets and Celtics Hitting Midseason Skids

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    The Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics combined for a 1-6 record during games within this session of the NBA power rankings, which serves as a reminder that even the steadiest and most star-laden teams are vulnerable to sudden slippage.

    There is, however, a tier above the one those clubs occupy that shows no sign of changing. Our top two squads, one from each conference, just keep winning. The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks seem destined to battle it out for the top spot all season.

    Meanwhile, this past week saw Ja Morant drive a fast-filling bandwagon, Michael Porter Jr. break out and Luka Doncic scan the floor in four dimensions.

    As always, rankings consider record, advanced stats, health and recent play as we organize all 30 teams into an order reflecting the league's current hierarchy.

30-26

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    30. Golden State Warriors (29)

    Before they got past the Orlando Magic on Saturday, the Warriors were mired in one of their roughest stretches of the century. Their 10 consecutive losses represented the franchise's longest losing streak since the 2001-02 season.

    The Dubs have already lost five games by at least 25 points this year, which happened just four times in Steve Kerr's first five seasons. Though it'd be nice to reward Golden State for its first win since Dec. 27, the skid-halting success against Orlando doesn't outweigh the preceding three-week stretch in which the Warriors produced the NBA's worst net rating and most losses.

            

    29. Atlanta Hawks (30)

    The shorthanded Hawks earned one of their best wins of the season Tuesday, downing the Phoenix Suns by a final of 123-110 behind 36 points from Trae Young and a stat-stuffing 23 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists by Kevin Huerter.

    John Collins started at the 5 and showed more defensive attentiveness than usual while also fueling a fast-paced attack that kept the bulkier Suns on their heels. Atlanta's defensive performance has been markedly better since Jan. 1, and it'll be intriguing to see if it can sustain that while leaning into smaller, faster units.

    Friday's 121-120 victory over the Spurs was even more impressive, as it was the first Hawks win in San Antonio since 1997. Several Atlanta players, including Huerter, who hit the go-ahead three with 6.3 seconds remaining in the game, hadn't even been born the last time the franchise topped the Spurs on the road.

    The Detroit Pistons waxed Atlanta by 33 points on Saturday, but a two-win week will get you out of the cellar every time.

            

    28. Cleveland Cavaliers (28)

    Nothing resets expectations created by a two-game winning streak like dates on the road against a pair of L.A. powerhouses.

    Despite Darius Garland's first career double-double (14 points, 10 assists), the Cavs fell by 25 points against the Clippers. That was a day after their 29-point drubbing at the hands of the semi-interested Lakers. Two more road defeats in Memphis and Chicago made it four straight losses for Cleveland.

    On the positive side, Collin Sexton has hit 24 of his last 50 threes and is averaging more points per game in January than in any previous month of his career.

            

    27. New York Knicks (25)

    It was easy to expect the worst when RJ Barrett went down Thursday against the Suns, and the rookie will miss at least a week's worth of games before having his sprained ankle re-evaluated this Friday. But at least X-rays were negative.

    New York has lost three in a row and is just 2-8 in 10 January games.

    You're going to want to get acquainted with new two-way signee Kenny Wooten. He may not see much time, but if he does, be prepared for him to do some things.

            

    26. Minnesota Timberwolves (27)

    After 15 games on ice, Karl-Anthony Towns finally rejoined the Timberwolves this past week. Though understandably rusty in losses to the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors on Friday and Saturday, Towns will immediately get Minnesota back to offensive respectability.

    When KAT went down, the Wolves ranked 14th in offensive efficiency, scoring 108.5 points per 100 possessions. In the nearly month-long stretch he missed, Minnesota managed only a 101.0 offensive rating, which ranked 29th during that span.

    A playoff trip is probably still unrealistic for the Wolves, who've lost five straight; Towns' impact on Minnesota's defense is nearly as negative as his influence on offense is positive. At least the on-court product should be more watchable going forward.

25-21

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    25. Washington Wizards (24)

    It's strange to think that the last couple of weeks, during which time the Wizards beat the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets without Bradley Beal, will probably go down as the most enjoyable portion of their 2019-20 season. Led in scoring by the likes of Ish Smith, Troy Brown Jr. and Jordan McRae, a starless and plucky Washington squad knocked off teams it had no business competing with.

    Nobody's asserting a causal link, but Beal is back, and the losses are mounting. Maybe opponents are taking the Wizards more seriously with their star in the lineup, or perhaps whatever lightning Washington briefly captured escaped the bottle. Understandably, the losing is taking a toll.

    Washington (0-2 this week) allowed the Toronto Raptors to score a season-high 140 points in Friday's 140-111 loss and remains last in the league in defensive efficiency.

            

    24. Charlotte Hornets (23)

    The Hornets have lost six straight and are 2-12 over the last month, but at least they're doing the right thing by embracing youth as their record spirals. That's a big step for a franchise that has been defined for years by a misguided (and unsuccessful) insistence on overspending its way to sub-mediocrity.

    Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer noted how head coach James Borrego has been consistent in his commitment to trusting the youngsters, as players with three or fewer years of experience have accounted for more than half of Charlotte's minutes this year. Meanwhile, three of the team's highest-paid vets—Marvin Williams, Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—have just two starts between them.

    Here's hoping the Hornets continue to embrace this realistic approach to playing time. It's the only way to make progress amid so many losses.

            

    23. Chicago Bulls (22)

    The Bulls, already allowing the highest opponent shot frequency at the rim, might be the last team that could afford to lose multiple big men. But Daniel Gafford's dislocated thumb, suffered Wednesday, will keep him out two-to-four weeks. With Wendell Carter Jr. already sidelined, it may mean extensive Luke Kornet time in Chicago.

    Zach LaVine was on a scoring tear before lighting up the Cavs for 42 points on Saturday and is now averaging 30.6 points per game in January. But the Bulls are just 3-7 while allowing the second-highest effective field-goal percentage in the league since the calendar flipped.

    For the season, the Bulls are still a top-10 defense. But with opponents' shot luck normalizing and a dearth of rim protection, don't expect Chicago to sustain that position.

            

    22. Detroit Pistons (26)

    Let's focus on the good stuff.

    The Pistons got one terrific year out of Blake Griffin before the injury wave, building for years, finally crested and crashed.

    Derrick Rose went wherever he wanted and scored 22 points on 11-of-13 shooting in Wednesday's 116-103 win over Boston, then he put up 27 more in Detroit's 33-point win over Atlanta on Saturday. His eight straight games with at least 20 points are his longest such run since March 2011.

    Sekou Doumbouya's thrilling breakout also continues as the rookie dropped a career-high 24 points in that win against the Celtics.

    Detroit still faces a teardown sooner than later, but it was 2-1 this week. It's not all bad with the Pistons.

            

    21. Sacramento Kings (20)

    De'Aaron Fox went full superstar against the Orlando Magic last Monday, earning that designation for reasons beyond a 31-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound stat line. He also relieved the routinely torched Buddy Hield of his duties guarding Evan Fournier down the stretch and turned in a "tough layup, steal, and-1 layup" sequence that should have won the game in the final seconds.

    Had Trevor Ariza not completely lost track of Aaron Gordon, allowing him to slip to the front of the rim for the game-winner on a dime from Fournier, Fox's exploits would have resulted in a statement victory.

    Marred by injuries and gut-punch losses, Sacramento's snake-bit season continues. But Fox looks primed to deliver a second half that could meet the sky-high individual expectations we set for him before a slow start and a sprained ankle knocked his game out of alignment.

    The Kings have lost four straight but are among the top 10 in transition frequency since Jan. 1, a welcome sign after they finished December ranked 19th in the league. This team showed it was at its best at full speed last season, and with Marvin Bagley III playing more center due to injuries throughout the roster, there's every incentive to up the pace.

20-16

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    20. Portland Trail Blazers (21)

    The Blazers' plague of injuries had already claimed bigs and wings this season, so why not add a key guard to the epidemic?

    CJ McCollum's sprained ankle, suffered Friday in Dallas, comes at an inopportune time. Portland secured a contentious 117-107 win in Houston on Wednesday, easily among the team's best performances this season, and was scrapping admirably with the Mavericks when McCollum had to exit. Nobody's arguing the Blazers were on the verge of a full turnaround, but they had looked undeniably better in the leadup to that injury.

    New acquisition Trevor Ariza could add stouter defense and more reliable shotmaking than Kent Bazemore, but that deal hardly registers as a needle-mover and may actually be geared toward adding financial flexibility this summer.

    Portland went 2-2 this week, but the loss of its No. 2 scorer stings.

            

    19. Brooklyn Nets (18)

    Those spots on the floor Kyrie Irving gets to with singular craft and skill? They're still right where he left them, and he's finding them just as easily as ever since returning from a 26-game absence.

    In four January games, he's averaging 21.0 points on a 51.5/50.0/81.8 shooting split. Even if those figures get an extreme boost from his 10-of-11 effort in his return on Jan. 12, they still illustrate the scoring punch he offers a Nets team that had been hurting for buckets.

    Irving's chemistry-compromising word salads came back along with his offensive game, and the Nets managed just 103.3 points per contest in three losses this past week. Good luck finding another star who's more of a mixed blessing than Irving.

           

    18. Orlando Magic (16)

    If you'd gone AWOL from the NBA for a couple of years and decided to re-engage as a fan this week, Markelle Fultz's triple-double in a road win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday might not have seemed like a big deal. That's not out of the realm of reasonableness for a top overall pick, and though you might have been confused as to how he wound up on the Magic, the performance would have aligned with expectations (if you'd set them in June 2017).

    Fultz doesn't have to play like a star every night, but his importance in Orlando grew with the team's announcement that D.J. Augustin will miss at least three-to-four weeks with bone irritation in his knee.

    The Magic lost their next two games—to the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors—after Fultz's strong showing against the Lakers and have one more date in Charlotte before the conclusion of their six-game trip.

    Orlando is 6-4 in January but has been outscored overall this season.

            

    17. San Antonio Spurs (15)

    DeMar DeRozan's heater finally burned itself out. After 13 straight games with at least 20 points on 50 percent shooting, the longest streak in league history by a guard, he finished Sunday's 107-102 loss to the Miami Heat with 20 points on 7-of-16 shooting.

    San Antonio will take the victory, though. It needed a palate cleanser after Friday's dispiriting 121-120 loss to the Hawks, although the only thing people will remember from that contest is Dejounte Murray turning in one of the highlights of the week (and possibly of the season) when he crossed Trae Young into oblivion.

    This has been a season divided for San Antonio, and though it's imprecise, you can split it into sections that came before and after LaMarcus Aldridge's decision to start firing from deep. He took five treys on Dec. 23, helping the Spurs beat Memphis by 30. Before that game, San Antonio was 11-17 with a minus-3.5 net rating.

    Since, the Spurs are 7-6 (1-2 this week) with a plus-5.3 net rating.

    This isn't all about Aldridge, either. His willingness to fire from deep has been key to opening lanes for DeRozan and everyone else on the roster.

    Behold the power of the three.

            

    16. Phoenix Suns (17)

    After shuttling in and out of the starting lineup since returning from his suspension for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program, Deandre Ayton may have finally earned himself some stability. He posted the first 20-point, 20-rebound game of his career in Thursday's 121-98 win over Knicks and then went for 26 and 15 in an eye-opening 123-119 win at Boston on Saturday.

    Devin Booker totaled 68 points in the pair of road victories, and Ricky Rubio (25 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds against the Knicks) ran the offense with crafty aplomb, but you'd have to think the Suns are most pleased with the emerging consistency of last year's top overall pick.

    Had Rubio not missed Tuesday's loss in Atlanta to witness the birth of his child, we might be talking about the Suns' five-game winning streak. As it is, Phoenix will take a 4-1 mark in its last five—particularly considering its two most recent wins came with Kelly Oubre Jr. sidelined and in the concussion protocol.

15-11

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    15. New Orleans Pelicans (19)

    After months of waiting, we have a date: Zion Williamson will return to game action on Jan. 22.

    Aside from the raw excitement of a debut we've been waiting months to see, Williamson's play-finishing verve should have positive trickle-down effects. Example: Lonzo Ball has been one of the least efficient pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the NBA this season, but with Williamson rumbling downhill as a roll man, the points per possession on such plays are bound to increase.

    Better still, that action won't have to be New Orleans' primary weapon on offense. That distinction belongs to budding star Brandon Ingram, who scored a career-high 49 points and was responsible for carrying a Pels team to a thrilling 138-132 overtime win against the Utah Jazz on Thursday.

    New Orleans pulled that win off without Jrue Holiday or JJ Redick.

    The Pels are 10-5 since the conclusion of their 13-game losing streak, and reinforcements are on the way.

            

    14. Memphis Grizzlies (14)

    Suppose that instead of having surgery in October, Zion Williamson never missed time and had played up to expectations. Are we sure he would have had a better first half of his rookie season than Ja Morant?

    We've hit Morant's nuclear athleticism and pleasantly surprising perimeter accuracy (more volume, please) in this space several times, but his passing has gotten short shrift. The speed, handle and bounce are, put mildly, conspicuous. They're undeniable and obvious to the most casual observer.

    But the vision and creativity, the anticipation and one-step-ahead reads, all flashed with flair, are supposed to exist in players who need them to survive—not in dudes who hit Mach 5 on the break, change directions on a dime and then drop one of those pieces of currency with no-look gusto.

    Morant crushed the Houston Rockets late on Tuesday, hitting 10-of-11 from the field for 26 points and eight assists while defying James Harden's invitations to shoot from deep. He hit three of his four tries from beyond the arc, and more than one came in one-on-one matchups with the league's leading scorer.

    De'Anthony Melton is a defensive pest who ranks among the league's leaders in deflections per minute, Jaren Jackson Jr. is developing chemistry with Morant, and the Grizzlies have won seven in a row.

    This bandwagon is approaching capacity. Better find a seat while you can.

            

    13. Philadelphia 76ers (12)

    With Joel Embiid out, the Sixers continue turning to Josh Richardson in fourth quarters. No healthy Sixer averages more field-goal attempts in the final period, and so it shouldn't have been a surprise that he was the guy doing most of the scoring down the stretch of last Monday's loss to the Indiana Pacers.

    He scored 17 of Philly's 26 fourth-quarter points in that one.

    That was the only blemish in a 3-1 week for the Sixers, who got a career-high six made threes (including four in a two-minute stretch of the third quarter) from Furkan Korkmaz in Friday's 100-89 win over the Bulls.

    Philadelphia is now 20-2 at home, and Saturday's dicey 90-87 escape in New York gave it its first road win since Dec. 23, halting a six-game slide on the road.

    The process hasn't been pretty, but the Sixers' results without Embiid (5-2 since his injury) are satisfactory.

              

    12. Indiana Pacers (13)

    Domantas Sabonis' sore knee is a concern (When has that old "he can't do any more damage" rationale ever produced a happy ending?), but broadly, the Pacers are getting healthier. That means their preferred first unit of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, Sabonis and Myles Turner is seeing more floor time, a development that could bump the Pacers up the East standings—and these rankings—if it sustains.

    The 16 minutes those five shared in last Monday's 101-95 win over the Sixers were their first in 2020, and though Indy's starting five didn't perform so well in that contest (a noisy minus-6.5 net rating), that group has still easily been the Pacers' most effective quintet among those that see significant minutes.

    Of course, everything changes (for the better) once Victor Oladipo returns, which could happen within the next couple of weeks. But we can't move Indy up just because its best player is nearly back.

    Fortunately, we don't have to. The Pacers have done enough to this point to almost guarantee a finish in the East's top six, and a hot week could vault them all the way up to the No. 2 seed.

    Indiana ran its winning streak to five games Sunday, taking down the Nuggets in Denver behind 18 fourth-quarter points from Doug McDermott. With several other Eastern playoff teams nursing injuries just as Indy gets healthy, a bigger climb may be coming.

            

    11. Oklahoma City Thunder (9)

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander became the youngest player to record a 20-rebound triple-double in last Monday's 117-104 win over the Wolves. 

    Sure, the rebounds were a little anomalous, as SGA averages "only" 5.8 per game and saw several of his 20 boards simply fall into his hands. But let's not be a buzzkill about one of the game's best sophomores—one who'll almost certainly wind up on the shortlist for Most Improved Player at season's end.

    OKC sandwiched losses to Toronto and Miami between wins over Minnesota and Portland this week, obliging our ranking order by beating two teams situated below and falling to two slotted above. At 4-4 in their last eight games, the Thunder have leveled off a bit, but their overall net rating remains a solid plus-1.5, which ranks 13th in the league.

10. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 7

    Just 2-6 in their last eight games following losses to Detroit and Phoenix this week, the Celtics are looking more vulnerable than at any point this season.

    And that's without considering the import of Kemba Walker's knee soreness. The guard, who was responsible for scoring flurries that kept Boston within sniffing distance during a 128-123 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, had an MRI after missing Saturday's game against Phoenix at home.

    Though there was no structural damage, Walker's potential absence, even if for only a game or two, will make it tough for Boston to pull out of this spiral.

    The Celtics' defensive integrity has slipped over the last two weeks, and Gordon Hayward has looked hesitant to attack on offense. Plus, it's never a great sign when Marcus Smart scores a career-high 37 points on 11-of-22 from deep(!!!), and it isn't enough to beat a sub-.500 team. Such was the case Saturday.

    The Celtics, after peaking at No. 2 not so long ago, are suddenly in danger of sliding out of the top 10.

9. Miami Heat

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    Last Week: 10

    Bam Adebayo's 21 points, 16 rebounds and six assists weren't enough to net the Heat a perfect week, as those numbers came in Sunday's 107-102 loss to the Spurs. But Miami took care of San Antonio earlier in the week and downed the Thunder in OKC on Friday, earning a 2-1 mark against solid Western Conference competition.

    Even with Sunday's loss, Miami sits second in the East at 29-13. The Lakers are still the only team to beat the Heat on their home floor, and there's room for improvement if Justise Winslow could ever get over the back injury that has kept him on ice for 20 of the last 21 games.

    The Heat's defense remains just outside the top 10, and perhaps it's troubling that they rank in the bottom three in opponent three-point-attempt frequency. Then again, maybe that's not necessarily a harbinger of doom. The other two teams joining them down there: the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.

8. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 5

    With four losses in its last five games and the ship getting rocked, Houston is not really in a position to talk smack. That didn't stop Russell Westbrook from popping off at Damian Lillard—the guy who effectively owned and ended the last franchise Russ played for—while down double digits.

    The Rockets' last four defeats all came by at least nine points, and the problem, surprisingly, has been offense.

    Houston ranks 17th in scoring efficiency since Jan. 1, and James Harden is averaging "only" 31.7 points per game while posting a 55.3 true shooting percentage for the month. There's plenty of time for him to goose that figure, but if he finishes January at or below where he is now, it'll be the first month in which he's posted a true shooting percentage under the league average this year.

    Even more amazing: It'll be his worst true shooting percentage in any month with more than two games since April 2013.

    The Rockets' schedule won't solve things for them. Five of their next seven games come against teams currently in playoff position.

7. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 11

    Luka Doncic's cross-court sling against the Kings on Wednesday might have been one of those passes that sticks on his career highlight reel forever, and those with long memories may even recall years from now that it occurred in the same game that saw the Mavs superstar become the youngest player in history to record at least 20 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a game.

    All he did the next night out was set a career high with eight made threes in a 120-112 victory over the Blazers, running Dallas' winning streak to four straight.

    The Mavs' decision to rest Doncic at the end of the first and third quarters (rather than play him for the entire periods) seemed to result in fresher legs against Portland. Two of his eight made treys came late in the fourth quarter and effectively iced the Blazers, reversing a trend that had seen the Mavs stumble down the stretch several times this season.

    Dallas is still without Kristaps Porzingis. But with four straight wins, its play has stabilized after a 16-game period in which it never won more than two in a row.

6. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 8

    Add Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet to the ranks of the returned for the Toronto Raptors, who saw Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell rejoin the fray just a few days before Big Spain suited up for Wednesday's 130-121 win over the Thunder. Powell led the way with 23 points in that win, but the real story was the Raptors' hulking first unit.

    Alongside Kyle Lowry, Toronto started OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Gasol, a quintet that had only played eight minutes together to that point in the season. Though the group was outscored in the OKC game, it illustrated the breadth of options available to head coach Nick Nurse with a healthy roster.

    VanVleet's Saturday return brought a team-high 29 points, a 122-112 win over the Wolves and even more lineup combos for Nurse to toy with. Toronto has won four of its last five games.

    The Raps were a consistent top-five team when healthy, and though their January slate hasn't tested them (just two of their eight opponents so far have winning records), it's fair to expect a return to that rarefied air soon.

5. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 4

    All you can really ask for from a player in Michael Porter Jr.'s position—coming off a lost collegiate season and, effectively, a redshirt rookie year—are flashes.

    Seventeen points in eight minutes (part of a 19-point outing in Wednesday's 100-86 win over Charlotte) certainly counted as one such flash, as did his 18-point, 10-rebound, five-assist effort in Thursday's win at Golden State.

    The rangy rookie has made his share of mistakes, but he provides an undeniable spark. Great body control, speed and a knack for finishing awkward shots inside suggest the scoring promise that made him a top college recruit didn't disappear with back problems and heaps of time off.

    Though it'll be Monte Morris taking the injured Jamal Murray's spot at the point, Porter may be the guy who picks up the scoring slack.

    Denver, a winner in three of its last four, is sitting pretty at 29-13.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 6

    Maybe it feels like we're taking the Clippers' position as title contenders, which remains as secure as anybody's other than the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks, on faith. Their performance through half the season hasn't been as dominant as, say, the Lakers' or Bucks'. But just about everyone, perhaps rightly, seems to accept a "Yeah, but once they all suit up and get serious for the playoffs, they'll be special" rationalization.

    Kawhi Leonard basically verified that sentiment after shredding the Cavs with 43 points in 29 minutes during Tuesday's 128-103 win.

    His counsel for teammates who might be concerned about midseason injuries, substandard defense and absent urgency: "Don't be in a rush to win these games. Enjoy every moment of it. Enjoy the process and use it as a learning tool when you get down in the trenches."

    Considering Leonard lifted last year's Raptors from good to great when it mattered, it's hard to question his mentality. 

    L.A. looks every bit the championship threat on the relatively rare occasions Leonard and George play in the same game, posting a 14-4 record. And it's not like a 30-13 record with a plus-6.5 net rating signals weakness. The Clips, often playing at half-speed, are still awfully good.

3. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 3

    Brandon Ingram and the Pelicans finally capped Utah's winning streak at 10, but the Jazz are still 16-2 in their last 18 games and own the No. 2 net rating in the NBA since Dec. 11.

    If Saturday's game was any indication, the Jazz will reintegrate Mike Conley gradually. The veteran point guard, who'd missed 19 of 20 games with a hamstring injury, played just 15 minutes in the 123-101 win over the Kings. The Jazz's surge coincided with Conley's shelving, so it's reasonable to worry about how he might disrupt what's been working so well.

    Even in rare defeats, the Jazz have been impressive. Donovan Mitchell tied his career high with 46 points in that toe-to-toe showdown with Ingram on Thursday.

    Though it would have seemed unthinkable before the season, the Jazz could defensibly bring Conley off the pine for as long as the Joe Ingles-Mitchell playmaking duo keeps the first-unit offense rolling. And even if it was only one play, Conley was involved in Utah's impression of the Beautiful Game Spurs.

    So maybe there's hope the Jazz can hit an even higher level if Conley is finally past his pre-injury struggles.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 2

    Anthony Davis has missed five straight games, but the Lakers have won 10 of their last 11 contests anyway. Road wins over the Mavs, Thunder and Rockets—all without AD—suggest Los Angeles will be able to maintain the West's top playoff seed even if injuries arise during the second half of the season.

    When you're getting contributions from players who aren't even in the game, you know things are going well. That was the case in Saturday's 124-115 win against Houston, in which Dwight Howard got a technical for being too far out onto the floor as he exhorted his teammates during a dead ball.

    "I think the bench as a whole … I thought their energy actually did impact the game," Lakers coach Frank Vogel told Bill Oram of The Athletic. "They were very engaged, whether it was trash talking or communicating with our own team—the coverages and when to go and when to rotate. They were like a bunch of coaches over there and I do think that our bench contributed to the win."

    Since early November, there's been little doubt the Lakers have the talent to reach the Finals. It may be just as significant that their collective enjoyment of success (and each other) is also beyond question.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    We know the Bucks are among the league's most efficient teams in several conventional senses; their No. 1 defensive rating and No. 2 offensive rating are obvious examples. But we should probably credit them for condensing four quarters of work into, on most nights, two or three.

    That's a whole different brand of efficiency, and it's largely why Giannis Antetokounmpo is on pace to be the first player in league history to average over 30 points in under 31 minutes per game. His 37 points in 21 minutes against the Knicks on Tuesday, just the second time a player had ever scored so much in so little time, were an extreme illustration of a trend that defines this phenomenal Bucks season. 

    Rather than coasting and then getting serious for a decisive five-minute burst, a hallmark of many superteams of the past, Milwaukee attacks from the jump with desperation uncommon in squads this good. It's a defining feature of a very unusual juggernaut, and it's also a novel approach to load management.

    Antetokounmpo doesn't have to sit games out if he racks up more than one DNP (blowout) in fourth quarters over the course of a week.

    The Bucks (11-1 in their last 12 games) are in line to set a new NBA record for average margin of victory, and they're doing it while affording key players copious rest.

    The Lakers have been great, and Utah has been stellar for six weeks now. But here we are again with Milwaukee standing firm at No. 1.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Sunday, Jan. 19.

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