NBA Power Rankings: Dark-Horse West Contender Breaks into Top 3

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IFebruary 15, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Dark-Horse West Contender Breaks into Top 3

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    It was another fantastic week in the NBA. There was a vintage Carmelo Anthony game. The Los Angeles Lakers played a few nail-biters. The Phoenix Suns' duo of Devin Booker and Chris Paul is beginning to click. Kevin Durant returned to his old home with his new team. And six different players scored 40 or more points, with several games going down to the wire.

    The Jazz have started a new winning streak, and the Suns are chasing right behind them. Several Eastern Conference teams made the pilgrimage West last week with varying degrees of success. Toronto, Miami and Dallas all look like they are beginning to get back on track after sluggish starts to the season.

    The Sixers, Nets and Bucks are beginning to separate from the rest of the East. But in both conferences, the middle of the pack is becoming a dog fight where a good or bad week can lead to wild fluctuations in the standings. Ten teams in the East are separated by just a four-game difference. In the West, that same difference is between eight teams. It is going to make for some great battles in the second half of the season.

    The criteria remain the same: How a team played this week, the body of work for the season, who they beat and strength of schedule.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 30th

    Even though they didn't win much last week, the Wolves did receive a bit of good news by getting Karl-Anthony Towns back from his COVID-19-related absence. Minnesota was able to stop its losing streak at four with a nice win over the Toronto Raptors to end the week. Towns put up a 20-point, 11-rebound double-double while working his way back into game shape. 

    Anthony Edwards is not the only young player the Wolves are developing. Second-year big man Naz Reid has shown improvement. As his minutes have gone up, he has improved his field-goal percentage by 10.8 points and his three-point percentage by 5.2. 

    With the playoffs and play-in games out of reach, the Wolves are heading toward the lottery again, but not without risk. If their pick falls out of the top three, it will be sent to the Golden State Warriors as a result of the D'Angelo Russell trade from last season. That makes the development of Edwards and Reid even more critical to their future success. 

29. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 24th

    It seems the clock has struck midnight on the Cavs' Cinderella story.

    Cleveland is riding a seven-game losing streak. Its stout defense has completely fallen off the cliff. Before this skid, the Cavs held a top-10 defense. During this bad run, their defensive rating has shot up to 126.4 and dropped them to 22nd overall.

    It has not just been the defense that has let the Cavs down, though. They have struggled offensively, as well. As a team, they are shooting 29.1 percent from three and were only able to crack triple digits four times in the last seven games.

    Cleveland started out well, but the bottom has fallen out on both ends of the court. The Cavs are looking like a pumpkin again, and that explains the big drop.

28. Orlando Magic

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 27th

    There is not a lot that can be said about the Magic. This team has been decimated by injuries and added Cole Anthony and Al-Farouq Aminu to the list in the past week.

    It is a shame because Nikola Vucevic is posting career highs in points per game (23.7), three-point percentage (43.1 percent) and effective field-goal percentage (55.1 percent). All of it has been done in a losing effort.

    Vucevic put in a Herculean effort to help the Magic beat the Sacramento Kings with a 42-point night Saturday. But with so many injuries, it is unlikely Orlando can build off that win. 

27. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 29th

    One thing the Wizards have going for them is they're entertaining. Washington provides a fun watch but very few wins. Carrying the Wizards this season is taking a toll on Bradley Beal and forced him to sit him out against the New York Knicks. 

    The rest served Beal well. The Wizards were able to end the week with a dominant win over the Boston Celtics. The fresh Beal led all scorers with 35 points while Russell Westbrook was a rebound shy of another triple-double.

    The more interesting part of the win was the lineup Scott Brooks chose to start. He went with his two stars as well as Moritz Wagner, Rui Hachimura and Garrison Mathews to shake things up. It is safe to assume after that performance that this could be the starting lineup for the foreseeable future. 

26. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 28th

    Detroit had a great week, going 3-1 with some strong wins to climb in the rankings. It started off with a big win over the Brooklyn Nets minus Kevin Durant and then secured its second win of the week over the Boston Celtics. To end the week, Detroit handled the New Orleans Pelicans to win consecutive games for the first time this season.

    Detroit got a monster game from rookie Saddiq Bey in its win over Boston. Off the bench, he dropped 30 points on a 7-of-7 performance from three while also grabbing 12 rebounds. He nearly outshot the Celtics from three on his own as the Pistons held them to just eight made triples. 

    The Pistons' win over the Pelicans was an all-around effort. Mason Plumlee had a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Bey followed up his outburst with a 16-point effort, and Josh Jackson dropped in 21 off the bench.

    The best part for Detroit is that the supporting cast was able to pick up the slack as Jerami Grant struggled in the last two wins. He shot just 29 percent from the field and averaged only 15 points over the two games.

25. Chicago Bulls

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 26th

    As mentioned in the last power rankings, the Bulls defense is atrocious. Part of the issue for the defense has been Chicago's offense concedes the second-most turnovers in the league, which is giving opponents over 20 points a game.

    After a nice start to the season, the Bulls have gone 3-7 in their last ten games and trade rumors are beginning to pop up. Otto Porter, Zach LaVine, and Thaddeus Young could all pique the interest of several teams.

    The Bulls would have dropped in the rankings, but the 46-point outburst from LaVine against the Pelicans kept them from going winless last week. But the week ahead is going to challenge Chicago with games against Indiana and Philadelphia.

24. Houston Rockets

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 20th

    Christian Wood has missed the last five games for the Rockets and Houston has fallen into a five-game losing streak. To make matters worse, Victor Oladipo left their game against the Heat with a foot injury that kept him out of Houston's game against New York.

    One positive note has been rookie Jae'Sean Tate. Despite going undrafted, he has cemented his place in Houston's rotation. Tate plays 26.6 minutes per game, averaging 9.2 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 53.6 percent from the field. He also provides a solid defensive presence for the Rockets, who have a 104.6 defensive rating when he is on the court.

    As good as Eric Gordon and John Wall have been this season, there is not much the Rockets can do with the two core pieces out of the lineup. If Houston cannot sustain some good health, the playoffs are going to be a long shot this year.

23. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 22nd

    New Orleans saw their four-game win streak snapped and turned into a three-game losing streak as they hit the road for a four-game set. 

    The Pelicans have not been good on the road, going 4-10 this season away from the Big Easy. The good news for New Orleans is that after their game against Memphis to end this trip, they will only have two road games in their next nine games.

    The bigger concern will be their defense. Zach LaVine gashed them for 46 points as the Bulls scored 129 points, Luka Doncic also dropped 46 points on the Mavs' way to 143 points. Then the Pistons hit them up 123 points in their win.

    If the Pelicans are going to sustain any sort of success this season, it will have to start on the defensive end. Cannot give up an average of 131.7 points over three games and believe they have a chance at making the playoffs.

22. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 21st

    Last week was always going to be tough for the Thunder with them having to play three of those games without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Oklahoma City took the Lakers to overtime in both of their contests in the miniseries before losing and held a 19-point lead over the Nuggets before letting go of the rope.

    The injuries are slowly adding up. Besides Gilgeous-Alexander being out with a sprained knee, they have not had George Hill who is out due to a thumb injury. This highlights how thin the team is at the guard spot.

    The week ended on a high note as they upset the Bucks behind a great team performance. The entire starting five scored in double figures and the team had 32 assists on their way to victory. A win like that kept the Thunder from falling even further in the rankings.

21. Atlanta Hawks

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 15th

    Executives' ears perked up once they heard the Hawks and John Collins could not come to an agreement on an extension. It has been reported the Hawks are listening to offers for the young center. It might be better to deal then risk losing him in restricted free agency.

    To make matters worse, Atlanta went 0-3 last week with a tough loss to the Mavericks that ended up costing Trae Young $20K for yelling at the officials. Then they suffered double-digit losses at home to both the Spurs and Pacers.

    The common denominator in these three games for the Hawks has been their porous defense. Last week their defensive rating was 121.1, nearly 10 points more than their 111.3 mark for the season. Teams shot 39.2 percent from three against Atlanta this week, up from the 33.4 percent they hold teams normally.

    Several Hawks are grounded with injuries, but their defense has to find ways to be better if they are going to stay in the playoff race.

20. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 18th

    After the snapping of their seven-game win streak Memphis has struggled winning just two of their next seven games. They went 2-2 last week and a lot of that was off the play of Jonas Valanciunas. 

    Valanciunas has added toughness on the glass and in the paint for the Grizzlies since he came back. He has three double-doubles in the five games he has played. 

    The big thing for Memphis was notching a critical win over Sacramento. One of the teams they will need to stay ahead of as they make their quest for the playoffs. The Grizzlies will need to build on this win to rise in the standings.

19. Toronto Raptors

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 23rd

    Last week saw the end of a long six-game road trip for the Raptors. Toronto went 4-2 on the trip, picking up a few nice wins along the way. Just when it appears as if the Raptors are beginning to turn, they drop a game they should not have, like their loss to the Wolves.

    The Raptors have slowly climbed in the standings and these rankings. They have begun to dig themselves out of the hole they are in with their offense. They averaged 123 points during the road trip and shot the three-ball exceptionally well. 

    Even more good news for Toronto is Pascal Siakam has started to shoot the ball better. Prior to the month of February, he was shooting just 24.3 percent from three. Since then he is shooting 46.2 percent from downtown.

    The next week ahead is going to be challenging as they have a miniseries against the Bucks and finish it off against the Sixers. That is why losses against teams like the Wolves are so costly when Toronto is trying to ascend in the standings.

18. Miami Heat

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 19th

    It appears the Heat are warming up. Miami went on a four-game win streak to get going in the standings. Having Jimmy Butler back has given them someone to close games. Miami has played six games that have had a three-point differential with three minutes left, winning four of them. They were 1-5 in such games prior to that span.

    Jimmy Butler has been great since he returned. He is leading the Heat in scoring and assists and is second in rebounds. The real issue for Miami is they still can't seem to get to full strength. Goran Dragic missed games last week with an ankle injury and Avery Bradley is out with a calf injury.

    Even though they got blown out in Utah at the end of the week, Miami moved up in the rankings because they are playing more and more like the team they were last season as they get healthy. 

17. Dallas Mavericks

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 25th

    Don't look now, but the Mavs are beginning to get back on track. Dallas went on a four-game win streak before losing a close shootout to the Blazers.

    During their win streak, Dallas' offense was picking up steam. They averaged 130.5 points and shot 44.7 percent from three as a team. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis spearheaded the Mavs' offensive charge.

    Doncic was very efficient, shooting 50.5 percent from the field on his way to averaging 35.5 points per game. To go with the scoring, he also averaged 8.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists on a nightly basis.

    Porzingis looks as if he is getting his sea legs back. During the streak he dropped 24.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and shot 46.4 percent from three. In the 12 games prior to this streak he was shooting 32.5 percent from three.

    The Mavs made a big jump in the rankings despite losing to the Blazers because their offense is starting to resemble the efficient unit of last season.

16. Charlotte Hornets

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 17th

    Just when the Hornets get Devonte' Graham, they lose the Martin Brothers and P.J. Washington to the COVID protocols. As if that was not difficult enough, Gordon Hayward missed their game against the Spurs to end the week with a back issue. 

    The absences forced coach James Borrego to go with a three guard starting lineup. It worked against Minnesota with a monster 41-point performance from Terry Roizer. He followed it up with a 33-point effort in a loss to the Spurs. Even though the Hornets lost the game, the starting unit did race out to a 33-17 first-quarter lead, Charlotte just couldn't sustain the onslaught.

    The three guard lineup might be something Borrego might want to stick with even when at full strength. The Hornets have a net rating of 21.0 with Graham, Rozier and LaMelo Ball on the court.

15. New York Knicks

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 16th

    The Knicks' win over the Wizards came at a serious cost. Mitchell Robinson left the game with a broken hand that will require him to have surgery and have him out four to six weeks. 

    How important was Robinson to New York? Well, he was their second-leading rebounder and shot blocker. It will put even more stress on Julius Randle to carry the frontcourt on the glass and the Knicks will need everyone to step up to replace his 8.3 boards a night. 

    The good news for the Knicks is Derrick Rose has already begun to make himself at home. He averaged 14.7 points and led the team in assists with four a night. Rose has also taken to mentoring Immanuel Quickley, who said, "I'm learning a lot of stuff." Quickley himself had a strong week, averaging 15 points.

    The Robinson injury is going to hurt the Knicks, but the real question is going to be how much?

14. Sacramento Kings

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 14th

    Sacramento came into the week with a monster four-game win streak but ended it with a three-game losing skid. The Kings' loss to the Sixers is understandable but if they are going to convince everyone they are indeed for real they cannot drop a game to a depleted Magic team. That is an inexcusable loss, even without De'Aaron Fox.

    Sacramento got Fox back for their game against Memphis but it was not enough to get them the win. This is a loss that can loom big for the Kings because the Grizzlies are one of the teams they are going to have to fight off to make the playoffs.

    The lack of consistency defensively is how the Kings went from a monster win streak to a losing one. Sacramento held their opponents to 111 points and forced them to shoot 32.5 percent from three when they went on a run. In their losing streak they are giving up 122 points and teams are shooting 44 percent from three.

    After a big jump in the last rankings, these rankings see the Kings falling because of their poor defense.

13. Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 12th

    Stephen Curry has gone nuclear this season. He is just a few tenths of a percentage point away from being in the 50/40/90 club this season. Curry has scored 30 or more points in 13 of the Warriors' 27 games this year, including a 62-point effort. 

    Golden State's defense has gotten much better as the season has gone on. It's in the top 10 in defensive rating, but one area where it can improve is its fouling. The Warriors lead the league in fouls committed and free throws allowed

    So far this season, the Warriors have yet to win more than two games in a row. The good news is they have not had a losing streak longer than two games. Golden State will stay in the playoff mix if Curry can continue to stay on fire.

12. Boston Celtics

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 7th

    It was not a good week for the Celtics. They finished 1-3 with losses to the Pistons and the Wizards. The injuries are piling up, as Marcus Smart is still out with a calf injury. Jeff Teague, who has not exactly been lighting it up, sprained his ankle against Detroit. And then Daniel Theis left the game against Washington in the third quarter with an injury.

    Boston was already thin to start the season, but these injuries are putting extra pressure on the rotation. There are only so many minutes Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can play to keep the team afloat. Kemba Walker's struggles have not helped matters much, either. 

    Having lost seven of their last 10 games, the Celtics are searching for answers and might be more aggressive in the trade market armed with the largest trade exception in NBA history to add more depth.

11. Indiana Pacers

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 11th

    After getting blown out by Brooklyn, Indiana picked up wins over Detroit and Atlanta to end the week.

    Those two wins brought in a welcome sight for the Pacers: help for Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon.

    Doug McDermott averaged 17.5 points and Myles Turner chippied in 16.5 over the last two games to help balance the scoring responsibility in their wins. The Pacers have been heavily dependent on Sabonis and Brogdon to provide everything offensively.

    If they can continue to get this scoring help from those guys it  should help to keep them fresh as time goes on.

10. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 13th

    Portland deserves a lot of credit for maintaining despite all of their injuries. Since CJ McCollum has been out, the Blazers have been able to go 8-5 and stay in the thick of the playoff race. In the last week they went 3-1, including a very nice win over the Sixers.

    The Blazers got a vintage Carmelo Anthony performance all last week. He averaged 21.3 points and shot 44.8 percent from three. Anthony's 24 points and game-winning free throws against Philadelphia highlighted his week.

    Another player who has stepped up for the Blazers since McCollum's injury has been Gary Trent Jr. He is averaging 17.7 points on shooting 45.0 percent from downtown over the last 13 games.

    It has been surprising that Portland has been able to stay afloat despite the injuries, and if this continues, the team will only get stronger once the cavalry returns.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 10th

    The Nuggets halted their three-game skid with a couple of wins against a few lottery-bound teams. The real challenge came at the end of the week against the Lakers and Denver met that head-on.

    Nikola Jokic has continued his MVP level of play, averaging nearly a triple-double. On a nightly basis, the Nuggets have been able to count on him to put up 26.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.6 rebounds while shooting 56.7 percent. He has been the most consistent Nugget this season.

    The big hope for Denver fans is that Jamal Murray can build off his 25-point performance against the Lakers to turn his season around. He is averaging just 18.3 points and 4.4 assists while shooting 33.6 percent from three. It has been quite the fall off from Murray's performance in the bubble last season.

    Denver's schedule gets more challenging as eight of its next 10 games will be on the road.

8. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 4th 

    Last week saw the end of a six-game road trip for the Bucks. After this trip, eight of their next nine games will be at home as they get ready for the second half of the season. The trip was not a successful one, ending with a three-game losing streak. 

    The problems began with Jrue Holiday missing games due to COVID protocols. His loss really hurt them in their losses to the Suns and Jazz. Without Holiday, the Bucks struggled to defend the perimeter well. 

    Those losses to Phoenix and Utah are explainable as they're quality teams, but to lose to the Thunder at the end of the trip is not. Especially with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sitting that one out for Oklahoma City. 

    The Bucks are not as deep as they were in years past. If Holiday is held out for a long period, it is going to hurt Milwaukee and put more pressure on Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokoumnpo to produce.

7. San Antonio Spurs

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 9th

    Raise your hand if you had the Spurs on top of the Southwest division. No one? That sounds about right. San Antonio has been one of the bigger surprise teams this season.

    With LaMarcus Aldridge out with a hip injury, Jakob Poeltl replaced him in the starting lineup and he's been delivering. Since starting he's been averaging 10.2 points and 9.8 rebounds to help the Spurs to a 5-1 record without Aldridge.

    Last week marked the start of the annual rodeo road trip for San Antonio. The team is starting the seven-game road trip on the right foot going 2-0 to end the week. Last season it went 2-5 on the trip, which put it in a big hole.

    The Spurs has been a good road team so far this season at 9-3, but this road trip can make or break them.

6. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 8th

    Paul George has been out the last five games with a bone edema and Kawhi Leonard missed their last game of the week with a lower leg contusion. The Clippers did get Patrick Beverley last week after he was out for eight games. L.A. rebounded with a 3-0 week, it may not have been the stiffest competition but it was enough to move up in the rankings. 

    One issue the Clippers need to address is their play in clutch situations. With the game in the balance with three minutes left, Los Angeles has a net rating of minus-9.8. Their effective field goal percent drops from 56.9 percent to 38.6 percent in clutch moments. 

    A with a tough week ahead, the Clippers are going to have improve how they handle close games. The upcoming week they have games against Miami, a miniseries with Utah, and another showdown with Brooklyn.

5. Brooklyn Nets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 5th

    Last week did not start out well for Brooklyn with a loss to Detroit. Despite not having Kevin Durant, the Nets have enough firepower to beat them. It even led to Kyrie Irving saying postgame, "We look very average."

    The Nets bounced back in a resounding way against the Pacers. The 104-94 score does not indicate how big a blowout it was. Brooklyn led by as much 36 points as Irving led the team with 35 points.

    Brooklyn did get Durant back from the COVID protocols in time for the primetime matchup against his former team. It was hardly a contest as the Nets routed the Warriors. But the Nets announced that Durant will miss the next two games with a mild hamstring strain.

    That is a big blow as Brooklyn battles the entire Pacific division on their five-game road trip.

4. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 3rd

    Before last week, the Sixers' starting lineup was 14-0 when they played, but losses to the Blazers and Suns ended that run. Philadelphia has faltered on the defensive side of the ball during this road trip.

    They have a top-five defensive rating for the season at 108.5, but last week that shot up to 118.3. Guards like De'Aaron Fox (34 points), Damian Lillard (30 points), and Devin Booker (36 points) sliced them up.

    It is normal to have some defensive slippage as the season goes on, but the Sixers will need to get that side of the ball back on track because their offense cannot hold that up. Despite having Joel Embiid in the MVP race and a cadre of shooters Philadelphia's offensive rating is in the middle of the pack.

    If the Sixers' defense continues to slip, so will their spot in the rankings.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 2nd

    Los Angeles sleepwalked into a seven-game winning streak before Sunday's loss to the Nuggets. The Lakers had not been playing their best basketball in the last week. They needed overtime in both their miniseries games to put away the Thunder and were also down as much as 20 against Memphis before flipping the switch and winning that game handily. 

    The Lakers were due for a loss. 

    A big worry will be Anthony Davis' Achilles. He had missed the Thunder miniseries with tendonosis in his right Achilles. He returned against the Grizzlies but aggravated the injury in the loss to the Nuggets.

    The Lakers have enough talent to survive an extended absence while Davis heals. Without him, it would be hard to defend their title. 

2. Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 6th

    The Suns are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, on a six-game win streak and winners of nine of their last 10. That streak includes wins over the Celtics, Bucks and Sixers. 

    The pairing of Chris Paul and Devin Booker has begun to click. The game against the Bucks was the first time both scored more than 25 points in the same contest. Phoenix has a net rating of 19.4 when they're on the floor together. 

    Booker, in particular, has been on fire during the streak, scoring 28.3 points per game and averaging 5.7 assists. In the win over the Sixers, he poured in 24 second-half points and was just unstoppable.

1. Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 1st

    In the last week, the Jazz destroyed the Celtics, Bucks and Heat by an average margin of 15.3 points to extend their current win streak to seven games. Utah has won 18 of its last 19 games and has done so dominantly.

    No team has been able to dance to the tune the Jazz have been playing lately. Rudy Gobert’s defensive presence in the paint has teams completely perplexed. He is discouraging shots, recovering and getting blocks at nearly the same time.

    Utah has been able to sustain its success with Mike Conley missing the last four games with a hamstring injury. That has forced Donovan Mitchell to raise his game another notch. During Conley’s absence, he has averaged 7.5 assists and a team-leading 28.8 points.

    The Jazz’s dominance has kept them in the top spot, but new challengers will arrive this week as the Sixers and Clippers (twice) try to stop the music.