NBA Power Rankings: Rockets Rise, Raptors Fall, Bucks and Giannis Keep Rolling

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 2, 2020

NBA Power Rankings: Rockets Rise, Raptors Fall, Bucks and Giannis Keep Rolling

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    With six weeks left in the regular season, now's the time for playoff-bound teams to start finding their peak form.

    The Houston Rockets got that memo, but the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat and Utah Jazz—all mainstays in the top 10 for most of the season—sure didn't. Those three teams' collective slippage created an opportunity for a certain upstart squad led by a bulldozing rookie to crash the top 10.

    As always, rankings factor in record, advanced stats, injuries and recent play while still considering a team's full-season resume. The idea is to organize all 30 teams into an order reflecting the league's current power structure. Come to think of it, that's probably why "power" is right there in the title.

    March is upon us, so let's see who's rising and falling in this month's first edition of NBA power rankings.

30-26

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    30. Golden State Warriors (30)

    If the Warriors want to win games (they shouldn't) over the final six weeks of their mail-in season, they could do worse than turning spurned draftees loose on their former teams. Dragan Bender, on Golden State's roster since just Feb. 23, posted 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists in Saturday's 115-99 win in Phoenix.

    The Suns picked Bender fourth overall in 2016, but his career floundered there. He exacted a small measure of vengeance on Saturday.

    The Dubs are a league-worst 4-22 since Jan. 1, and every other team in the league has at least two more wins than they do during that span. The gap between No. 30 and No. 29 is a gaping chasm.

           

    29. Chicago Bulls (25)

    The Bulls let New York rack up an NBA season-high 70 points in the restricted area on Saturday, falling by a final of 125-115.

    There are plenty of indicators that a team has officially called it quits on the season, but giving up that many close-range points to a team whose lack of shooting should result in five defenders permanently camped in the lane is about as conspicuous of a white flag as you'll see.

    Sadly for the Bulls, it's not uncommon for them to permit mountains of points in the restricted area. They rank last in the league in opponent shot frequency down there, allowing teams to attempt an embarrassing 41.5 percent of their shots inside the charge circle.

    The Bulls have lost 10 of their last 11 games, but at least Coby White is cooking. He cracked the 30-point mark three times in Chicago's last four games.

           

    28. Minnesota Timberwolves (23)

    The Wolves were 15-22 after beating Portland on Jan. 9. Since then, they're 2-20, due mostly to the second-worst defensive rating in the league during that span.

    One of the two wins in this hellish stretch came Wednesday in Miami, a 129-126 shocker. That victory showcased an offense that has been surprisingly competent without Karl-Anthony Towns. Since the All-Star break, the Wolves have scored at least 116 points in five of their six games.

    These final couple of months were supposed to be chemistry tests for Towns and D'Angelo Russell. With KAT out, it's difficult to glean much meaning from Minnesota's play. Still, it's promising that both Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez have shot well from deep since coming over at the deadline.

    There's little hope of seeing quality defense down the stretch this year (or in the future with this core), but the seeds of a potent offensive attack may be sprouting.

           

    27. Detroit Pistons (28)

    Derrick Rose's 31 points and game-sealing floater halted the Pistons' seven-game losing streak on Friday, producing a 113-111 win in Phoenix. It was Detroit's first victory away from home since Jan. 18.

    It appeared the Pistons were in line for another one, as they sprinted out to an 18-1 lead against the Kings on Sunday. But Sacramento promptly rallied to hand Detroit yet another defeat.

    At 3-8 in February, Detroit actually overachieved. Its minus-6.2 net rating for the month ranked 27th in the league.

            

    26. Cleveland Cavaliers (29)

    The Cavs climbed out of a 19-point hole at the start of the fourth quarter to stun the Heat on Monday as Kevin Porter Jr. turned in the best performance of his brief career. The rookie put up 30 points, eight boards and three assists, not to mention a go-ahead bucket in overtime of Cleveland's 125-119 win.

    Darius Garland was also integral in that one, and Collin Sexton put up 28 points in Wednesday's 108-94 victory over the depleted Sixers. It's been a bummer of a season, but a 3-3 record since the break (with J.B. Bickerstaff taking over for John Beilein), spurred by contributions from the kids, is enough to spark a little optimism.

25-21

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    25. Charlotte Hornets (27)

    Charlotte notched one of its more impressive wins of the year Friday, downing Toronto 99-96 on the strength of Devonte' Graham's nine fourth-quarter points and a tiebreaking free throw from Terry Rozier with 2.1 seconds remaining. The Raptors were short two starters, but let's not rain on any parades.

    The Hornets predictably fell against Milwaukee on Sunday, but they're 5-3 in their last eight games and a remarkable 4-1 in their last five road contests. Fun stat: They've got three more wins away from home than the Sixers this year.

    In keeping with their season-long trend, the Hornets' record probably overstates their quality. Based on its point differential, Charlotte should have nearly five fewer wins on the ledger. No team has been luckier by that metric.

            

    24. New York Knicks (26)

    New York won its first four games in February, lost its next six and closed the month with a 125-115 win over the Bulls on Saturday. Mitchell Robinson led the way with 23 points and 10 boards against Chicago as the Knicks pummeled the Bulls inside. 

    With a 5-6 record and a minus-2.7 net rating in February, New York played its most respectable month of the season. Unfortunately, for a team that should be as future-focused as this one, its youth disappointed. Rookie RJ Barrett's nine February games included a ghastly shooting split of 40.6/25.9/54.1.

    Maybe he really is shooting with the wrong hand.

             

    23. Washington Wizards (24)

    Bradley Beal has led the Wizards in scoring for 18 straight games and totaled at least 25 points in each of them. He also posted back-to-back nights with at least 50 points on Feb. 23 and 24, though Washington lost both contests.

    The Wizards' 2-4 record since the break puts the playoffs almost completely out of the question, so we should shift our focus to a more important matter: petitioning the league to create an award for the player who soldiers on most valiantly, despite no help at all. It ought to be named after Beal.

              

    22. Portland Trail Blazers (19)

    Sometimes, teams rally when their best player goes out. Role-fillers take on increased burdens, secondary stars shift into primary position, and the whole operation benefits from a collective elevation in focus.

    Not so with the Blazers, who are 1-4 in their five games since the All-Star break without Damian Lillard.

    It may just be because Lillard's absence means opponents aren't taking the ball out of the basket and facing a set defense as often, but it's still a little surprising that Portland's defense has been worse without its top scoring threat. The Blazers are allowing 116.3 points per 100 possessions since the break, three points worse than they permitted before it.

    Until Lillard comes back, the Blazers are easily a bottom-10 team.

            

    21. San Antonio Spurs (21)

    Dejounte Murray and Derrick White have shared just 94 minutes in San Antonio's backcourt this season, and they want more. According to NBA.com's lineup data, which doesn't exclude garbage time, they deserve it; the Spurs have a plus-4.1 net rating with both guards on the floor. Cleaning the Glass filters out meaningless minutes in blowouts, and it, conversely, has the White-Murray tandem at a minus-7.0.

    San Antonio is 3-7 in its last 10 games, but is still within semi-realistic striking distance of a postseason spot. 

    The Spurs have never been much for punting on the present, but there's at least some evidence that a pairing geared toward long-term development could also help in their pursuit of the West's No. 8 seed right now. It's probably worth tossing White and Murray out there more often—regardless of which lineup data source you trust more.

20-16

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    20. Atlanta Hawks (22)

    All season, Trae Young has been the Hawks' offense. As Ben Ladner of Sports Illustrated noted, Atlanta had lost all 13 games in which Young failed to score at least 24 points, each defeat coming by double figures.

    That changed with Friday's 141-118 blowout win over the Nets.

    John Collins led the way with 33 points, but De'Andre Hunter (18 points) and Cam Reddish (26 points) were also factors in the balanced scoring. Those two rookie wings need to develop if Atlanta's current core is going to accomplish anything going forward, so their solid efforts were highly encouraging.

    The Hawks went 2-2 for the week and are still 27th in net rating overall, but Young turned in his second straight month with averages of at least 30 points and 10 assists. Only four other players in NBA history had ever done that before.

            

    19. Phoenix Suns (16)

    We may be without the league's top nickname and signature celebration for a while, as Kelly Oubre Jr. was diagnosed with a torn meniscus in his right knee, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

    Tsunami Papi is seeking a second opinion, but it appears he won't be dunking on Rudy Gobert and handing out another tech-inducing headbang any time soon.

    Back-to-back home losses to Detroit and Golden State is about as bad as it gets, and insult joined injury when the Suns became the first (and perhaps only) victim of the Dragan Bender Revenge Tour on Saturday.

            

    18. Brooklyn Nets (15)

    Brooklyn coughed up a 19-point third-quarter edge to the Magic in a dispiriting 115-113 defeat last Monday, surrendering 74 second-half points to one of the worst offenses in the league.

    That's how a 0-4 week riddled with gut-punch losses began.

    Whether blowing advantages or failing to complete their own comebacks, the Nets' clutch struggles defined three of their four losses. On Saturday in Miami, Spencer Dinwiddie simply threw the ball out of bounds on Brooklyn's final possession, preventing the Nets from even getting a shot up while trailing by two points.

    The only off-brand loss: a 141-118 road thrashing at the hands of the Hawks.

    Brooklyn has had two losing streaks longer than the four-gamer it's currently riding, but the nature of the defeats lately marks this slide as the most painful of the season. Worse still, Orlando also overtook the Nets for the East's No. 7 seed.

    Just brutal.

            

    17. Sacramento Kings (20)

    The Kings blew a 19-point third-quarter lead in their 112-108 loss to the Thunder on Thursday, ending a three-game winning streak that rekindled fading playoff hopes. Don't expect the built-in excuse of De'Aaron Fox missing the game with a groin injury to ease the sting of another squandered advantage.

    Fox was back to lead the way with 25 points in a critical 104-101 road win over Memphis on Friday, and he was just as good in Sunday's home victory over Detroit.

    Skepticism is always warranted when it comes to the Kings, but they've won five of their last six games and finished February with a 7-4 mark. Those four defeats all came against playoff teams, and the Kings have been better about avoiding self-inflicted wounds. They rank 15th on the season in turnover percentage but coughed it up less frequently than everyone but San Antonio and OKC in February.

            

    16. Memphis Grizzlies (14)

    You could see the crash coming, as Memphis came out of the All-Star break facing the league's toughest remaining schedule. But injuries to Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke accelerated the nosedive by stripping the Grizz of their most important floor-spacer and most athletic finisher not named Ja Morant.

    Justise Winslow isn't healthy enough to help yet, and the absence of Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill (dealt for Winslow) further compromises Memphis' attack. Since the break, only the Spurs, Warriors and Hornets have been worse on offense.

    Morant turned in 27 points and 14 assists in a brilliant 105-88 win over the Lakers on Saturday, ending the Grizzlies' five-game losing streak. Still, with such a daunting schedule ahead, instead of asking whether the Grizz can hold onto the West's eighth spot, it now seems more reasonable to ask who'll inevitably take it from them.

15-11

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    15. Orlando Magic (18)

    Terrence Ross scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter of last Monday's spirited 115-113 win in Brooklyn, and Aaron Gordon logged his first career triple-double during Friday's 136-125 victory over Minnesota.

    So much of playing efficient offense is picking the low-hanging fruit. Orlando, which ranks 28th in "wide-open" three-point percentage on the year, harvested threes marginally better in February. As a result, its offensive rating for the month was a relatively high 111.8, 5.3 points better than its full-season figure.

    That's progress.

    If Evan Fournier could have converted a transition layup over Patty Mills' scrambling contest on Saturday, the Magic would have ended the week with a perfect 4-0 mark. As it is, they've played well enough lately to remove any lingering doubts about retaining their playoff spot. In fact, with Brooklyn gagging away leads left and right, it's starting to feel like the Magic will stick in the East's No. 7 spot.

            

    14. Miami Heat (12)

    The Heat were 24-8 on Dec. 28 but have been a mediocre team since then, running up a 14-14 record and a plus-1.4 net rating in that two-month stretch of schedule.

    The highs have been high: a 31-point undressing of the Sixers on Feb. 3.

    But the lows have been low: back-to-back losses at home to Cleveland and Minnesota to start out this past week.

    Miami has missed Tyler Herro, but it's hard to blame its defensive shortcomings on the absence of a rookie guard. In February, the Heat ranked 21st in defensive efficiency. In the East, only the Cavs, Hawks and Bulls were worse.

    Derrick Jones Jr. is now starting over Kelly Olynyk, who replaced the injured Meyers Leonard. Here's hoping a little more bounce and mobility will get Miami the stops it needs.

            

    13. Philadelphia 76ers (11)

    With Ben Simmons already set to miss extended time, the sight of Joel Embiid's left shoulder hanging limp after a collision Wednesday with Cavs center Ante Zizic was enough to turn stomachs across the state of Pennsylvania.

    Fortunately, there's no structural damage, but Embiid is expected to sit out for at least a week.

    Not that it saves them from a rankings tumble (losing your two best players can't have any other effect), but the Sixers can still field a respectable lineup in the meantime. Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford can keep things competitive in a pinch. Harris scored 34 points, one off his season high, in Thursday's 115-106 win over the Knicks.

    Still, this isn't the ideal time for the four-game swing on the West Coast that kicked off with Sunday's loss to the Clippers. Shake Milton's 39 points weren't enough to avoid a 136-130 defeat.

    Philadelphia's road struggles were pronounced even with a full roster (9-22, worst among playoff teams in either conference), so the remaining healthy Sixers have their work cut out for them.

            

    12. Utah Jazz (10)

    "It's go time now," Donovan Mitchell told ESPN's Tim MacMahon last Wednesday. "We can't sit here and say we have time. We've got to go out there and do it."

    With home losses to Phoenix and Boston running Utah's post-break losing streak to four games before a 129-119 win over the Wizards on Friday, it appears Mitchell's urgent message isn't transmitting clearly.

    The All-Star scored 75 points combined in those two defeats and saved the Jazz with 10 of his 30 points in a pivotal 82-second fourth-quarter surge to salvage Friday's win. He's doing everything he can from a scoring perspective, but offense hasn't really been Utah's problem.

    It allowed the four opponents in its losing streak to score 121.9 points per 100 possessions, a number substantially worse than the Wizards' 30th-ranked figure for the season. The Suns game was particularly discouraging, as a mediocre Phoenix offense lit the Jazz up for 131 points.

    This is jarring for a team long defined by its stopping power, and it suggests lineup tinkering isn't the answer.

    Utah has to sort itself out, get Rudy Gobert back to his DPOY levels and rediscover its defensive identity. Otherwise, the only place the Jazz will be going is home. After a first-round ouster.

        

    11. Indiana Pacers (17)

    Myles Turner hit a dagger three from the top of the arc to secure Thursday's 106-100 win over the Blazers, and the play that created it was a window into the potential Indy's offense has yet to fully maximize. Domantas Sabonis, a dynamite roll man whose finishing and passing draw attention from every help defender on the floor, whipped a pass back to Turner, who slid into Sabonis' vacated perimeter spot.

    That sort of action makes use of each Pacers big man's specific talents and presents no easy answers for a defense.

    The Pacers didn't face a great slate this week, but they'll take a 3-0 mark and a 95.3 defensive rating.

    With the Sixers facing injuries and Miami searching for consistency, that No. 4 seed in the East is suddenly looking attainable.

10. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Last Week: 13

    Zion Williamson scored at least 20 points in 12 of his first 14 professional games, putting himself in rare company and, more importantly, sparking a Pelicans surge. While it's true New Orleans was 11-5 in the 16 games just prior to Williamson's debut, there's been no denying his impact.

    The Pels are clobbering opponents when he's on the floor and getting outscored when he sits, which isn't the typical trend you see with rookies.

    Anyone else starting to think Zion is atypical?

    This is a massive jump for the Pels, especially after a 1-2 week. But they have just one loss to a non-playoff team since Dec. 20 and rank 10th in net rating since Jan. 1. With the Heat, Sixers and Jazz all coming unglued lately, this feels right.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 9

    A 47-point loss has a way of skewing the stats, as Friday's 133-86 implosion against Milwaukee dropped OKC's February net rating from plus-6.2 to plus-0.9. This might be a rare case where a team's record (7-3 for the month) speaks more accurately about its performance than its per-possession differential.

    Oklahoma City won five straight games before the Milwaukee debacle, and its balanced profile (14th in offense, 10th in defense) marks it as a potential playoff opponent without an obvious shortcoming to exploit.

    The Thunder could stand to force a few more turnovers and hold down the defensive boards a bit better, as they're below average in both categories. But with a relatively unathletic roster, the potential for growth there is limited.

    At 37-23, OKC is only a half-game back of the reeling fifth-seeded Jazz.

8. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 4

    The Raptors' 127-81 win over Indiana on Feb. 23 was their largest in franchise history, but they probably wish they could have saved a few of those points for their next three games.

    Toronto missed Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka during a 0-3 week, as the injured starters sat out of losses to Charlotte on Friday and Denver on Sunday. Toronto fought valiantly against the Nuggets, and OG Anunoby registered a career-high 32 points, but it had the misfortune of catching Denver on the heels of an embarrassing loss to the Clippers.

    The Nuggets were driven to erase that memory, but you could argue the Raps should have been at least as eager to get right after falling to the lowly Hornets. The 133 points Toronto surrendered against a focused Nuggets team were a season high.

    Once Toronto is healthy, it'll be right back in the mix for a top-three spot. But these Raptors have lost three in a row for the first time since December and are a couple key bodies short.

7. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 7

    Luka Doncic's sore thumb appeared to hamper him against Miami on Friday, if his six turnovers and 0-of-6 shooting from deep were any indication. That 126-118 loss spoiled his 21st birthday, squandered Seth Curry's career-high 37 points and represented the only blemish in Dallas' 3-1 week—spent entirely on the road.

    Though there's still no denying Doncic makes the Mavs go, his teammates have done a better job lately of making the offense a collective effort. Curry's 37 led the way Friday, but Kristaps Porzingis topped Dallas with 28 points in its 109-103 win in San Antonio. Prior to that, Tim Hardaway Jr. was the Mavs' leading scorer in last Monday's 139-123 drubbing of the Wolves.

    KP really broke through with 38 points in Sunday's easy win over the Wolves.

    It may be hard to believe, but the league's best offense may not have hit its apex. If Doncic's support staff keeps contributing like this, and the thumb issue doesn't linger, it'll be even harder to slow the Mavs down.

6. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 6

    The Clippers put a hurting on Denver on Friday with a 132-103 beatdown that could be described in several fashions more nuanced than the one Nuggets head coach Mike Malone chose.

    "We didn't approach the game the right way," he told reporters. "They kicked our ass for 48 minutes. I can say that 10 different ways but that's the bottom line."

    After a loss like that, brutal honesty was probably the right choice.

    Denver has quietly lost three of its last four games against playoff-bound opponents, re-raising questions we thought it had already answered about its fitness against top teams. Prior to this recent stretch, the Nuggets were 4-1 in their last five games against teams currently in postseason position.

    At least a 133-118 win against Toronto on Sunday in which Nikola Jokic poured in 23 points, 18 rebounds and 11 assists closed the week on a positive note.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 8

    Reminder: The Clippers are not to be trifled with when healthy.

    L.A. smoked the Nuggets on Friday, running its record to 7-0 with all hands on deck in a 132-102 win. No Clipper had to log more than 25 minutes, and four players from the league's deepest bench scored in double figures. Reggie Jackson was particularly stellar, reeling off 10 points, eight assists and seven boards in only 19 minutes of work.

    Ranking the Clips has been a challenge all year. They've rested stars, coasted for long stretches and even appeared totally checked out at times. Nonetheless, we've all quietly shared an understanding that the fully engaged version of this team is a steamroller.

    The flattened Nuggets can now attest to that.

    With four straight wins, all in convincing fashion, it seems like the Clippers are peaking. That makes ranking them based on their ceiling more sensible.

    They'll get the chance to validate this week's climb with dates against Houston on Thursday and the Lakers on Sunday.

4. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 5

    Several factors influenced Houston's decision to abandon lineups with traditional centers—tax avoidance not being least among them—but it's worth wondering if the Rockets' tactical change was mostly about unlocking Russell Westbrook.

    The Rockets are 10-2 since scrapping the concept of the 5, and though Russ had started performing better a week or so earlier, his numbers since the team's official downsize are ridiculous: 33.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game on 53.9 percent shooting from the field.

    Turns out giving one of the league's most relentless rim-attackers more room to launch himself into the lane is a good strategy. Westbrook killed Boston with 41 points, eight rebounds, five assists and three steals in Saturday's chippy 111-110 overtime win. He has at least 20 points in 30 consecutive games.

    The Rockets are also switching as aggressively as ever and getting big-man work from their cadre of wings. Robert Covington hoarded 16 boards against Boston and has 22 blocked shots since the trade deadline. Only Hassan Whiteside, Myles Turner, Anthony Davis and Mitchell Robinson have more.

3. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 3

    Jayson Tatum's breakthrough month of February concluded with averages of 30.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 63.7 percent true shooting. Not coincidentally, the Celtics ran up a 9-3 record marred only by losses to the Lakers and Rockets in that span.

    All that with Kemba Walker playing just four games in the month.

    On fire from just about everywhere, Tatum also made tweaks that portend sustained stardom even if he cools off from deep. He cut his mid-range attempts and worked his way to the foul line more often than any previous month, which is basically the cleanest way to increase scoring efficiency.

    With Walker's return coming as soon as Tuesday, Boston could hang on to the No. 3 spot for a while.

2. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 2

    LeBron James seemed to summon a little something extra in his first meeting with Zion Williamson's Pelicans, scoring a season-high 40 points and repeatedly overpowering the undersized defenders New Orleans threw at him in Tuesday's 118-109 win.

    Alex Caruso's passing and shot-blocking (not a typo) were as impressive as any of the other dozen highlights produced during that electrifying contest.

    Though Ja Morant and the Grizzlies caught L.A. napping on Friday, the Lakers still finished up February with a 9-2 record and the No. 3 defensive rating for the month. On offense, everything still runs through James and Anthony Davis, but we shouldn't overlook Avery Bradley, who drilled 48.2 percent of his looks from deep.

    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green are the Lakers' best closing backcourt tandem, but if Bradley's hot shooting persists, that issue might get cloudier. Not that the Lakers should mind having to choose between three useful three-and-D weapons for two spots. Of course, if they want to avoid cutting anyone out, they could just use all three wings together with James and Davis handling the 4-5 duties.

    That lineup has barely played together, but its plus-9.8 net rating seems sustainable.

1. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    Giannis Antetokounmpo crammed 32 points, 13 rebounds and six assists into 27 minutes of work in Milwaukee's 133-86 undressing of the Thunder on Friday, the most merciless of his team's four victories this past week.

    In the process, the surefire MVP extended his league record of games with at least 30 points in under 30 minutes to nine.

    And though they didn't add to that particular record, Giannis' efforts in Sunday's 93-85 win over Charlotte were even more astounding. With Khris Middleton out, he obliterated the Hornets with 41 points, 20 rebounds and six assists in 35 minutes.

    No player in history had ever produced those three-category totals in so little playing time.

    Other than a 118-111 loss to the Pacers on Feb. 12 (which Antetokounmpo missed for the birth of his son), the Bucks were perfect in February, winning their other 10 games by an average of 17.5 points. No wonder they're still on track to post the highest average margin of victory in NBA history.

    Milwaukee is a blowout machine, nearly five points per 100 possessions better than the Lakers, who sit second in net rating.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Sunday, March 1.