NBA Power Rankings: LeBron James, Lakers Finally Break Through

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 9, 2020

NBA Power Rankings: LeBron James, Lakers Finally Break Through

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    It turns out all the Los Angeles Lakers needed to break the Milwaukee Bucks' hold on the top spot in our NBA power rankings was a head-to-head meeting.

    LeBron James' return to No. 1 wasn't only about his Lakers' win over Milwaukee on Friday. Sunday's downing of the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee's other struggles were also factors. But there was still something eye-opening about the way James and the Lakers handled the Bucks and Clippers in succession.

    Even if the full-season numbers still say Milwaukee is the league's top team, those back-to-back Lakers wins were statements. They superseded several months of data.

    As always, rankings consider record, advanced stats, health and recent play. And as teams toward the top of the order start flashing their playoff form, head-to-head matchups and recency are getting a little more sway than usual. With only a few weeks to go until the postseason, we're getting a sense of who some of these teams really are.

    As for James, we've known his true identity for a while.

    Long live the King.

30-26

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    30. Chicago Bulls (29)

    NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson reported Bulls head coach Jim Boylen was angrier than he'd been all season after Wednesday's 115-108 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. At first, it might seem surprising that a coach could summon a season-high level of rage this late in a lost year, but remember that Boylen is notorious for calling timeouts at the ends of games so his team can work on ATO plays while down 25 points.

    The Bulls are a zillion games out of the playoff race, but nothing's ever really over for Boylen. Maybe his expectations are also higher now that Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. are all back after extended injury absences.

    Coby White's scoring binge continues, but there's not a lot else to get excited for as the Bulls play out the string.

           

    29. Detroit Pistons (27)

    From barely making the team to the high-profile position of the last spot in pregame introductions, Christian Wood has come a long way. Though his new relative star status has a lot to do with Detroit's barren roster, you've still got to feel good for the 24-year-old big man. He's earned his intro spot with sterling post-break numbers for a team that needs his production as badly as the morale boost he provides.

    Wood matched his previous career high in scoring (26 points) on Feb. 12 and has broken it twice since then.

    Only Chicago has fewer wins than the Pistons since Feb. 1

             

    28. Washington Wizards (23)

    Nobody's averaging more points since the All-Star break than Bradley Beal, whose streak of games leading his team in scoring ended at 21 when he scored "only" 23 against the Miami Heat on Sunday.

    Washington hasn't beaten anybody of real quality since the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 7, and even that win required Luka Doncic's absence and a game-winning layup from—you guessed it—Beal.

    The Wizards are still the worst defense in the league, which tends to make their losses entertaining. Between Beal's noble charge down a meaningless final few weeks and the assurance of lots of points on both sides of the box score, there are worse lottery-bound outfits to follow.

           

    27. Cleveland Cavaliers (26)

    Collin Sexton's promising run continued this week, peaking with a career-high 41 points in a 112-106 home loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. The Cleveland guard crushed his previous personal best of 32 points, set just two nights earlier.

    The week's biggest moment came Saturday as the Cavs vets led the way in a 104-102 win over the Denver Nuggets. Kevin Love scored 27 points, breaking the 20-point mark for the fourth straight game. Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson gobbled up 13 boards, and Matthew Dellavedova logged a career-best 14 assists.

    If the Cavaliers can get production like this from their role players, it'll make life easier on LeBron James as they chase another Finals berth.

    Wait, sorry. Love, Thompson and Delly putting up numbers in a Cleveland win made me think it was 2016.

    My mistake. Carry on.

           

    26. Minnesota Timberwolves (28)

    Josh Okogie is a brave man. Even if the best defense against Zion Williamson's juggernaut approach is often holding still and absorbing the blow, it goes against every self-preservation instinct to stand in the path of an onrushing wrecking ball with legs.

    Okogie's sacrifice wasn't the reason Minnesota stunned the New Orleans Pelicans with a 139-134 win on Tuesday (that had more to do with the Pels' defensive collapse), but it was nonetheless inspiring.

    Minnesota just completed its first multi-win rankings session since the first week of January, and it seems like Malik Beasley still hasn't missed a shot since coming over at the deadline.

    Like several of the teams in the bottom third of the rankings this week, the Wolves are showing signs of life. 

25-21

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    25. Golden State Warriors (30)

    They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that never felt more true than Thursday, when Stephen Curry played his first game since busting up his left hand in October.

    The entire NBA got a little more fun when Curry stepped back onto the floor.

    The Warriors fell to the Toronto Raptors by a final of 121-113, but they were in the game throughout, clearly animated and refreshed by Steph's presence. Just as if he'd never left, Curry opened up the floor for teammates by drawing 10 eyes' worth of opponent attention at all times. Despite Toronto's focus, he still managed to get his own.

    Curry finished with 23 points in 27 minutes and wowed the crowd with signature quick-trigger treys. He looked invigorated and spry as ever off the dribble, even against Toronto's highly accomplished defense.

    In addition to the boost provided by the two-time MVP, the Warriors should also enjoy the fact that this Andrew Wiggins rejuvenation seems real. Career-best block and steal rates show he's never been more active defensively, and his aggression attacking the rim produces a handful of eyebrow-raising finishes every night.

    The Dubs shocked the Nuggets with Tuesday's 116-100 win in Denver and then followed the loss to Toronto with a stunning 118-114 win over the Philadelphia 76ers without Curry on Saturday. They're 3-2 in their last five games and have Curry back in the rotation.

    That warrants a move out of the basement.

            

    24. New York Knicks (24)

    Fans are allegedly getting bounced from games for encouraging owner James Dolan to sell the Knicks again (the team denies the ejections). Even Spike Lee has had enough.

    Let's shift the focus off New York's malevolent vibe and onto something less discouraging.

    The Knicks beat the Houston Rockets by a final of 125-123 last Monday, getting 27 points from RJ Barrett and lockdown clutch D from Frank Ntilikina.

    Smile through the pain, Knicks fans. Someday, everything will be OK. Just, you know, not soon.

           

    23. Atlanta Hawks (20)

    The other bottom-10 teams made the rankings tricky this week, so we owe the Hawks some thanks for keeping it simple. They went 0-3, didn't defend at all and lost their contests by an average of over 20 points per game.

    A pair of blowout defeats against the Memphis Grizzlies should have demonstrated to Atlanta what a real up-and-coming power looks like. The Hawks have some promise, but they're not in Memphis' league despite starting their rebuild a year earlier.

    And it seems like some vets have had enough of Trae Young's flashy play. Curmudgeons everywhere have a champion in Trevor Ariza.

            

    22. Charlotte Hornets (25)

    The Hornets are 3-3 in their last six, and the defeats have been as impressive as the victories.

    Charlotte pushed the Milwaukee Bucks in last Sunday's 93-85 loss then fell by a single point to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday. Jamal Murray dowsed the Hornets' hopes of a win Thursday, hitting a clutch jumper to secure a 114-112 victory for Denver.

    But then, on the strength of surprisingly locked-in help defense, Charlotte held Houston to just 99 points in a nine-point win Saturday.

    All year, the Hornets have been among the league's luckiest teams, sporting a record better than their point differential warrants. Lately, the trend has reversed, and Charlotte's close losses are obscuring a team playing more competitively than it has for weeks.

    Maybe there's something about March that revs the engines of the league's bottom-feeders. It seems like every lottery team had its moments this past week.

            

    21. Phoenix Suns (19)

    Cameron Johnson's career-high 21 points couldn't get the Suns past the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, but the rookie's growth should be a major point of pride for the Suns. Now that the rangy wing is adding more frequent rim attacks to an offensive repertoire that already features knockdown perimeter shooting, he looks like a legitimate rotation weapon.

    Everyone shoots threes now, but it's still worth a double-take when Aron Baynes, who only started dabbling in the deep ball last season, hits nine treys in a game. The resulting 37 points broke the big man's previous career-high scoring mark by 11 and earned the Suns a 127-117 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday.

    James Harden is the only other player in history to amass 37 points, 16 rebounds and nine made threes in a game.

    The victory over Portland halted a four-game losing streak, and Sunday brought another win against a Milwaukee Bucks team reeling without Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    That's a solid end to the week, but the Suns are still a hefty six games out of the eighth spot in the West.

20-16

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    20. San Antonio Spurs (21)

    Tim Duncan should retire again, this time from coaching. Or, less drastically, he should refuse to occupy the big boy chair ever again. That way, he'd preserve his perfect 1-0 record.

    The Spurs fell by 17 points to the lowly Hornets in Duncan's fill-in effort for Gregg Popovich but rallied back and held on for a 104-103 victory behind Dejounte Murray's 21 points.

    Said Duncan of Murray, per Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News: "His confidence and aggression are going up. They are going in the right direction, and he's big for us. He's going to have to be big for us. He needs experience, he needs time on the floor, and he needs situational experience. He's going to be a good one."

    That means a lot coming from the coach with the highest winning percentage in league history.

    The Duncan-as-head coach experience distracted from an otherwise unimpressive week for the Spurs, who dropped a 139-120 contest to a Brooklyn Nets team mere hours from firing its head coach Friday night.

           

    19. Orlando Magic (15)

    When you're the worst offense currently in position to make the playoffs, you'll take scoring however you can get it—even if nothing else comes with it. So you won't be hearing any complaints about Terrence Ross's 35-point, zero-assist, zero-rebound, zero-block, zero-steal effort in Wednesday's 116-113 loss to the Miami Heat.

    Bojan Bogdanovic also had a "35 points and nothing else" game earlier this year, but including Ross', there have only been three such stat lines since 1983-84. 

    Remarkably, the Magic found some scoring punch late in the week, putting up 132 points in Friday's win over the Wolves and 126 in Sunday's unexpected victory at Houston. With the Nets' coaching change potentially causing strife in Brooklyn, there's still an opportunity for the Magic to grab that No. 7 spot and build a cushion.

    That'd get them out of the Bucks' first-round crosshairs.

            

    18. Portland Trail Blazers (22)

    Portland went 2-2 this past week (1-2 in the three games since Damian Lillard's return), and it could make a run for the West's eighth spot if it capitalizes on a schedule that grades out as easier than either the Memphis Grizzlies' or the Sacramento Kings'.

    To make up ground, the Blazers have to defend.

    That won't necessarily get easier with Lillard back on the floor, but it wouldn't take much for Portland to improve on its level of play to this point. The Blazers are 27th in points allowed per possession and haven't been much better than that since the All-Star break.

    Oh, and now that it's over, let's appreciate CJ McCollum's work during Lillard's time away. Portland's other standout scorer averaged 33.3 points and 8.3 assists with a 48.4/40.6/76.5 shooting split in six games sans Dame. That's just more evidence that McCollum is among the most overqualified second bananas in the league.

           

    17. Brooklyn Nets (18)

    Prior to his eruption against Boston on Tuesday, Caris LeVert had never scored more than 37 points in a game. He matched that number in the fourth quarter and overtime alone as Brooklyn came back to stun the Boston Celtics in a 129-120 victory, just its second since the All-Star break.

    LeVert finished with 51 points in total, scoring with craft at all three levels and (possibly) establishing himself as the third star the Nets want alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving next year.

    It's now unclear who'll be coaching that group, though.

    Brooklyn fired Kenny Atkinson on Saturday, fresh off a 139-120 stompout of the Spurs. The organization has been remarkably vague about its reasoning, but we can safely assume that if Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant had wanted Atkinson to stay, they could have made it happen.

    DeAndre Jordan is on this roster and making $9.8 million because of his relationship with KD and Kyrie, and it's telling that he returned to the starting lineup on Sunday in Jacque Vaughn's first game replacing Atkinson. There's no rational case for starting Jordan over Jarrett Allen, a better, younger and cheaper center. But it seems rationality isn't alone in controlling Brooklyn's decisions lately.

            

    16. Philadelphia 76ers (13)

    Thursday's 125-108 win over the Sacramento Kings was the Sixers' first road victory since Jan. 20. It ended a nine-game slide away from home, and it came against the team that, at that point, had the best record in the league after the All-Star break.

    Even without three starters—Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson are all still out—Philadelphia was competitive in the tough opening contests of its now-concluded four-game trip up the West coast, holding early advantages against the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers before predictably faltering against healthier powerhouses.

    Whatever encouragement Philly might have mined from a tough trip disappeared in Saturday's embarrassing 118-114 loss to the Warriors, who played without Stephen Curry and with a whole bunch of guys you've almost definitely never heard of.

    Joel Embiid hurt his shoulder the same night Philadelphia lost to the Cavs a couple of weeks ago, but Saturday's loss to the Dubs might still represent the season's low point. Once the big man is back (possibly as soon as Wednesday), it'll be safe to move the Sixers up several spots.

    For now, this is the position they deserve.

15-11

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    15. Indiana Pacers (11)

    Malcolm Brogdon left Wednesday's 119-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks after tweaking his left hip, adding to a list of Indiana's injury woes that seems to keep getting longer. Indiana announced he's week-to-week with a torn rectus femoris.

    Victor Oladipo, T.J. Warren and Doug McDermott are also banged up.

    Excluding the 118-111 win over the Giannis-less Bucks on Feb. 12, the Pacers hadn't beaten a team in playoff position since Jan. 19. So they badly needed Sunday's 112-109 road win in Dallas. 

    Indiana is still a full game up on the Sixers for the East's fifth seed, an impressive feat considering the injuries it's weathered lately.

            

    14. New Orleans Pelicans (10)

    An apology is in order. Barring a miracle, the Pelicans aren't going to make the playoffs, which makes last week's move into the top 10 seem absurd in hindsight. A soft schedule doesn't mean much if the so-called pushovers push back, which is exactly what happened during Tuesday's inexcusable 139-134 home loss to the Timberwolves.

    Minnesota flashed zone looks down the stretch of that game, and New Orleans had no discernible plan to combat them, scoring just 23 points, flinging off 11 threes (and making just two) in an alarmingly stagnant fourth quarter. Even worse, the Wolves seemed to flummox New Orleans' defense with repeated high pick-and-rolls, obviously targeting Zion Williamson, who looked lost against the NBA's most basic offensive set.

    Wednesday's loss to Dallas was predictable, coming on the second night of a back-to-back set, but it put the Pels in a hole only one team has ever climbed out of: five games back of the eighth spot with 20 to play.

    New Orleans held off a comeback attempt against the Miami Heat on Friday and exacted revenge against Minnesota with a victory Sunday. But with the Grizz looking tough and the Kings rolling, the Pelicans have a ton of work to do.

            

    13. Sacramento Kings (17)

    De'Aaron Fox is driving the Kings' post-break run, showing ramped-up aggression attacking the basket, but Alex Len and Kent Bazemore deserve recognition for shoring up the defense. Bazemore has been disruptive on the perimeter, snatching steals and ruining opponents' sets with deflections. Len's work on the interior has been even more valuable.

    Harry Giles III still looks like Bambi on the ice once in a while, but he's exceptionally competitive and undeniably fun.

    The Kings have just one loss to a non-playoff team since Jan. 6, and Sunday's excusable home defeat against Toronto leaves them with a stellar 7-3 mark since the All-Star break.

    It took Sacramento too long to get here, but it's finally playing like the postseason team it thought it was back in October. With Memphis holding strong against a difficult schedule, it may be too late to salvage a playoff trip, but the Kings can pride themselves on progress.

            

    12. Memphis Grizzlies (16)

    Much has been made of the Grizzlies' difficult remaining schedule, and that five-game losing streak coming out of the All-Star break seemed to portend a slip out of playoff position. But Memphis followed last week's momentum-swinging 105-88 win over the Los Angeles Lakers with a pair of blowout wins at Atlanta and Brooklyn.

    Following a stumble against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, the Grizzlies smoked the Hawks for a second time, winning Saturday's return engagement 118-101 behind 27 points and 17 boards from Jonas Valanciunas.

    Memphis has won four of its last five games, with each victory coming by at least 17 points. Maybe their schedule will be too much to overcome and the Grizzlies will still wind up leaving the West's top eight. That seems less likely now than it did a week ago, and one thing's certain: If the Grizz go, they won't go quietly.

            

    11. Miami Heat (14)

    The Heat have played roughly breakeven ball with below-average defensive numbers over the last several weeks, but they showed they're capable of more in stifling Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks during last Monday's 105-89 win.

    Duncan Robinson made eight threes in back-to-back games this week, all without attempting a single two-point jumper, which had never happened before. Talk about knowing your role...

    The Heat are stabilizing after an ominous 2-7 stretch bridged the All-Star break. They've won five of their last six games and bested playoff-bound Dallas, Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Orlando over the last two weeks. Since that run started on Feb. 28, Miami has defended better while also scoring at a top-10 clip.

    That's more like it.

10. Utah Jazz

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    Last Week: 12

    The Jazz have been all over the place this season, and if there were a separate set of rankings that cataloged the league's most confounding teams, they might top it.

    The only thing we know about Utah is that whatever trouble it streaks itself into, it can streak itself out of.

    Since a 19-2 stretch from Dec. 11 to Jan. 25, the Jazz have yo-yo'd to the extreme with five straight losses, then four straight wins, then four more losses in a row, followed by the current five-game winning streak that culminated with Saturday's 111-105 victory over Detroit.

    Though the Celtics were without multiple key players, Utah's 99-94 win in Boston on Friday meant something—if only because Mike Conley finally looked like a quality starter. His 25 points were his most since November, and his six made triples were a season high. Though he's seemed like a lost cause for most of the year, Conley may still be the key to getting the Jazz to the elite level they're chasing.

    Of course, if history is any guide, Utah will lose its next half-dozen games in a row and make this rankings climb look ridiculous.

9. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last Week: 9

    OKC had a weekend to stew on the 47-point loss it suffered against the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 28. The time to reflect didn't prevent another beatdown, this one a 109-94 shellacking at the hands of the increasingly fearsome Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday.

    Those results crystallized the Thunder's status in the league, as The Athletic's Erik Horne summarized: "For the second straight game against a top-two team, the Thunder were short of answers. It's been the look of a team a notch significantly lower than what league observers consider elite."

    Oklahoma City had little trouble with the Knicks and Pistons on the road after those tough defeats against elite competition, and Sunday's win over a shorthanded Boston Celtics team was even more meaningful.

    There's still an outside chance the Thunder could finish as high as third in the West if the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Jazz keep struggling with consistency.

8. Denver Nuggets

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    Last Week: 6

    Shockingly beaten by Golden State at home, saved from what would have been another horrendous loss to Charlotte by Jamal Murray's game-winning jumper from the left baseline and then bested on the road by the Cavs, Denver just completed one of its most troubling weeks of the year.

    No wonder it prompted soul-searching.

    "Who are we?" Nuggets head coach Mike Malone asked after that brutal loss to the Cavs on Saturday. "And who are we going to be? That's a decision that we have to really think long and hard about and make that decision because we are not playing as well as we're capable of, and that's kind of scary for it to be this time of the season."

    The Nuggets are disappearing for long stretches on offense and failing to summon consistent focus on D, particularly in transition.

    There's no good time for an identity crisis, but losing a sense of self this late in the year is terrifying for a squad that has the personnel to be a fringe contender.

7. Houston Rockets

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    Last Week: 4

    Houston's downsizing obviously benefits its offense, but one of the less-discussed bonuses is the way it mitigates the damage of James Harden's and Russell Westbrook's inattention off the ball. Both are respectable in one-on-one situations against opponents of varying size, especially down low, and a switch-everything approach forces Harden and Russ to stay engaged.

    In fact, the Rockets welcome frequent post-ups and isolation attacks from opponents who try to capitalize on their size advantages. Harden is the best high-frequency post defender in the league, which makes attacking him on the block a sucker's game.

    Unfortunately for the Rockets, opponents have had no trouble attacking in other ways. Houston lost all four games this week, hitting bottom when it fell down 20-0 to start Saturday's 108-99 loss to the Hornets.

    Russell Westbrook missed the Charlotte loss, but that's no excuse. Harden and the training staff should have been able to handle the Hornets. Sunday's 20-point loss to Orlando was similarly inexcusable.

    After initially looking unbeatable with its new approach, Houston is once again struggling.

6. Dallas Mavericks

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    Last Week: 7

    Luka Doncic conducted a symphony down the stretch of Dallas' 127-123 overtime win against New Orleans on Wednesday, roasting defenders off the dribble, setting up teammates and even turning in pivotal hustle plays.

    He finished that victory with his 14th triple-double of the year, and somehow the numbers impressed less than the eye test.

    Dallas needed that win to wash off the grime of last Monday's 109-107 loss in Chicago. Doncic's troublesome left thumb bothered him, and Kristaps Porzingis sat out to rest his knee, so we won't hold that defeat against the Mavs from a rankings perspective.

    Friday saw Dallas crush the Grizzlies into dust, though Sunday brought a loss to playoff-bound Indy.

    Still tops in offensive efficiency (this year and all-time) and markedly better on D since the break, Dallas is all the way up to sixth in net rating.

5. Boston Celtics

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    Last Week: 3

    Kemba Walker's return from a five-game absence didn't help the Celtics avoid an epic collapse against Brooklyn on Tuesday as the Nets outscored Boston 62-34 in the fourth quarter and overtime of a 129-120 loss.

    That he sat out the next night's 112-106 win over Cleveland suggests Walker isn't out of the woods yet with his sore knee. A little caution is fine, but a lingering injury for the Celtics' All-Star point guard doesn't augur well for the playoffs.

    Boston isn't quite itself lately—not just because of Walker's bum knee, but also because Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are missing time with injuries of their own. Brown's hamstring is more concerning than Hayward's knee issues, as those hammies tend to linger, and Brown's value as a two-way force to help spare Jayson Tatum from tough playoff matchups can't be overstated.

    The Celtics' schedule softens considerably over the next month, and they may even catch the Milwaukee Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo this Thursday.

    Boston, which fell to OKC on Sunday to finish the week at 1-3, could use the break.

4. Toronto Raptors

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    Last Week: 8

    You've got to appreciate a good heater, and Norman Powell was on one against the Warriors on Thursday.

    Golden State's lack of rim protectors and wing stoppers made it easy on Powell, but all credit to him for a thrilling series of drives and threes that produced 15 of his career-high 37 points in the second quarter of Thursday's 121-113 win.

    Toronto slid after last week's 0-3 record, but it got itself together with three consecutive road wins in this rankings session. 

    The Raptors haven't been quite as stingy on D since the break, but more consistent scoring from supporting players like Powell could offset that slippage.

3. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Last Week: 1

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's 13 points in last Monday's 105-89 loss to the Heat were a season low, and that defeat came on the heels of an uninspiring 93-85 win over Charlotte on March 1. Milwaukee had scored at least 100 points in 83 straight regular-season games and then fell short of the century mark twice in a row.

    The Bucks have been overdue for some coasting, so those struggles weren't real cause for concern. Their failure to score against the Los Angeles Lakers in Friday's 113-103 loss was a different story.

    Greatness and complacency are close associates, but the Bucks didn't lose to L.A. because they were checked out. They lost because they couldn't generate consistent offense in the half court, just like last year's playoff exit against the Raptors.

    Basically, we saw a team "solve" Milwaukee in exactly the manner you'd worry about. 

    Add to that a knee injury for Antetokounmpo that'll keep him out until at least March 12, and it's finally time: The Bucks have to fall out of the top spot.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last Week: 5

    The more looks we get at the full-strength Clippers, the harder it is to find weaknesses.

    Capable of fielding massive lineups with switchable wings and the 6'9" Paul George at shooting guard or shrinking into like-sized small-ball units, the Clips can transform like few other teams. Add to that a second unit bolstered by a motivated Reggie Jackson (whose ball-handling frees up Lou Williams to hunt buckets even more single-mindedly) and a reserve corps good enough to compete with plenty of opposing starters, and there's just no letup in this group.

    L.A. hammered the small-ball Rockets on Thursday to hit 10-0 with its full rotation, but it wasn't up to the challenge presented by the focused Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, falling 112-103 to end a six-game winning streak.

    Paul George was brilliant against the Lakers, scoring 31 points on 16 field-goal attempts. If the Clips could have gotten him a few more second-half looks (ideally at the expense of Marcus Morris Sr., who was 0-of-9 from the floor), the result could have been different.

    A win over the Lakers might even have earned the Clippers the top spot this week.

    Still, with the Bucks looking vulnerable for the first time all year and with convincing wins over the Nuggets, Sixers, Thunder and Rockets in the last two weeks, the Clips' recent resume is excellent.

    They'll have to settle for No. 2.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last Week: 2

    Bucks? Bashed.

    Clippers? Clipped.

    Recent play isn't the only thing that matters around here, but there's no denying the top spot to a team that just cut down two of the league's top title threats in the same week.

    The Lakers put the clamps on Antetokounmpo and the Bucks on Friday, resurrecting memories of Milwaukee's scoring struggles in last year's postseason against the Raptors. Then, in a hotly contested matinee on Sunday, LeBron James and Anthony Davis helped the Lakers become the first team to beat the fully healthy Clippers this season.

    The focused Lakers took down elite competition with defense and star-driven scoring, getting terrific chip-in efforts from the support staff. Avery Bradley's 24 points against the Clips were a season high.

    James, in particular, set the tone for his team by taking on the challenge of guarding Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard more often than he normally would in the regular season. He and the Lakers clearly viewed tilts against Milwaukee and the other L.A. outfit as message-sending opportunities.

    Message received: The Lakers are the best team in the league.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Sunday, March 8.