NBA Power Rankings: No KD, No Problem for Brooklyn Nets

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IMarch 1, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: No KD, No Problem for Brooklyn Nets

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    There were several games last week that came down to the final few possessions. Big moments were had by guys we expect them from—like Luka Doncic with his game-winner against the Celtics—while some came from unlikely sources, such as Luguentz Dort with his buzzer-beater against the Spurs.

    Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s winning streak came to a halt to end the week, but James Harden still has the Nets rolling. Milwaukee and Miami decided to go streaking through the winning-streak quad. Houston is on an 11-game skid with four consecutive double-digit defeats (ouch). Teams that were left for dead like Washington and Dallas are rising.

    The power rankings 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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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 30th

    It has not been an easy week for the Wolves. The transition to new head coach Chris Finch was not smooth. Minnesota was panned for not having a process in place or being transparent, as well as not giving David Vanterpool an opportunity. It was poorly done, and the criticism was completely earned.

    Then the week got worse as the NBA announced that Malik Beasley will be suspended for 12 games for pleading guilty to a felony charge he was facing. That is a big blow for Minnesota on the court, as he’s been having a career year. Prior to the suspension, Beasley played in every game and was the Wolves’ second-leading scorer with 20.5 points a night while shooting 40.6 percent from three.

    There is no chance of getting out of the basement with the league’s worst record while riding an eight-game losing streak.

29. Houston Rockets

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 28th

    The week started with Houston waiving DeMarcus Cousins after 25 games. The Rockets have been without Christian Wood the last 11 games and been playing extreme small ball like last season.

    It is not a coincidence that since Wood has gone down with an ankle sprain the Rockets have fallen into an 11-game losing streak. Houston just has no way to make up for his 22.0 points and 10.2 rebounds. 

    Do not be surprised as the trade deadline nears if rumors begin to pop up around P.J. Tucker and maybe, just maybe, Victor Oladipo.

28. Detroit Pistons

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 27th

    The Pistons finished a five-game road trip last week with just one win over the Magic. In fact that win was their only win in their last seven games. With all the losses piling up, it is easy to feel there is no hope, but rookie Isaiah Stewart is beginning to turn heads. 

    The per-game averages are not something that would pop off the page. For the season he is averaging just 5.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, but his time on the court has been fruitful for the Pistons. When he is on the court, Detroit has a defensive rating of 104.7 compared to the 113.6 when he is off. 

    This year is not about wins for the Pistons but about development, and in Stewart they have another young player with promise to develop.

27. Orlando Magic

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 26th

    After a three-game winning streak last week to move up in the rankings, the Magic fell into a three-game skid, which in turn dropped them a few spots. But it was not all bad news for Orlando.

    Nikola Vucevic was named an All-Star Game reserve. Critics will point to the team's record, but he has been one of the few guys holding everything together for the Magic. This season he is averaging 24.4 points, shooting 41.0 percent from three and grabbing 11.6 boards.

    Record aside, Vucevic's play on the court earned him the spot on the All-Star team.

26. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 29th

    Cleveland snapped its 10-game losing streak with a mini three-game winning streak. The Cavs edged the Hawks in a thrilling game, beat a depleted Rockets team and shocked the Sixers to go undefeated last week and rise in the rankings.

    The Cavs have turned to their young players, and the kids delivered last week. Collin Sexton is averaged 26.7 points on 46.8 percent shooting from the field. Jarrett Allen cleaned the glass with 14.0 rebounds, Darius Garland dropped 9.0 assists a night and Dylan Windler shot lights out from three.

    It has been encouraging for the Cavaliers that they are getting these types of plays from the guys they deem as core pieces of their future.

25. Sacramento Kings

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 23rd

    The fall of the Kings continues as their five-game, East Coast swing resulted in four losses. Sacramento allowed an average of 129.3 points in those four defeats. It even gave up 140 points to the Knicks, the most points they have scored this season.

    Sacramento put an end to its nine-game losing streak with a win over the Pistons. But the good feelings from that win did not last long as the Kings blew a nine-point lead with 2:19 left against the Hornets. They gave up a 12-3 closing run and missed six consecutive free throws to give this game away.

    The stench from this loss is going to stick with the Kings for a while as they continue their descent in the rankings. They have lost 10 of 11.

24. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 24th

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a big week, putting up a career-high 42 points in the Thunder’s win over the Spurs. That outburst should not come as a surprise as he has been balling since he came back from his knee sprain. In the seven games back, Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 25.0 points, 5.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 50.0 percent from three on 5.4 attempts. 

    Unfortunately for the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander had a dud two games later in their blowout loss to the Nuggets. He struggled from deep, going 1-of-6 from three and scoring only 13 points. 

    Despite this loss, the Thunder are still hanging around the play-in tournament race and continue to surprise teams this season.

23. Atlanta Hawks

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 22nd

    The Hawks finally got a big game out of Danilo Gallinari against the Celtics last week. He put a season 38 points up on 13-of-16 shooting, and 10 of those made baskets came from three. Unfortunately, that was sandwiched between losses.

    Atlanta dropped games against the Cavs, Thunder and Heat to go 1-3 last week. The last two losses were at the start of a five-game road trip. The road has not been kind to the Hawks, who are now 6-11 and have just one road win in their last seven attempts.

    Another troubling stat was Trae Young's 31.4 three-point percentage from last week. For the Hawks to stay in the playoff race, they will need Young to find his shooting touch again.

22. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 21st

    Zion Williamson continues to show just how impossible he is to guard on a nightly basis. It is not just the points he scores but also the 61.5 percent he shoots on 16 attempts a night. Williamson just puts so much pressure on defenses, and it is only a matter of time until they crumble beneath him.

    But the better news for the Pelicans has been their three-point shooting in the month of February. In particular, Lonzo Ball and JJ Redick have been tickling the nylon from distance. For the month, Ball shot 45.9 percent and Redick came in at 46.8 percent.

    New Orleans did have an opportunity to make a statement in its game against Milwaukee but was not able to close it down the stretch. Then the Pelicans followed up that loss with a close loss against the Spurs to cement a 1-2 week and a drop in the rankings.

21. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 25th

    It was an extremely busy week for the Wizards with five games. It started with an overtime win over the Lakers to keep their streak alive. Their five-game winning streak came to an end the next day with a loss to the Clippers, but they ultimately finished their West Coast swing going 3-1 with a win over Denver. 

    Washington's turnaround has started on the defensive end. Prior to the Wizards' winning streak, they had a defensive rating of 115.5, and since then it has dropped to 108.8. After a rocky start, Russell Westbrook is becoming more of a positive player for the Wizards. Pre-winning streak, the team had a minus-12.3 net rating with him on the floor; since, it is plus-2.0.

    Things have been looking up for the Wizards over the last few weeks with victories over the Lakers, Blazers and the Nuggets twice. After a horrible start, Washington finds itself just two games out of a play-in seed.

20. Chicago Bulls

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 20th

    Coaches around the NBA rewarded Zach LaVine with a reserve spot and his first appearance in the All-Star Game. LaVine has carried Chicago this season, averaging career highs in points (28.7) and assists (5.0).

    Chicago went on a mini winning streak for three games before falling to Phoenix. Its game against the Suns continued to highlight turnover struggles. The Bulls blew a fourth-quarter lead with 10 turnovers that turned into 10 points for the Suns. 

    All of these turnovers have cost the Bulls dearly, as they are 29th in the league in opponents points off turnovers. Valuing the ball goes a long way to getting wins and is something Chicago just has to get better at.

19. Indiana Pacers

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    Elsa/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 12th

    It was a winless week for the Pacers. They lost the three games by an average of 4.3 points, with the biggest differential being six points. Clutch games have been a problem for them this year.

    In games with a three-point differential with three minutes left, the Pacers have a net rating of minus-22.5 and a record of 6-11. Indiana has to get more scoring from its headline guys Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, who are averaging 1.1 and 1.3 points in the final minutes of those games.

    There was a bit of good news for Indiana: Sabonis was called up as an injury replacement for the All-Star Game, replacing Kevin Durant.

18. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 19th

    On Feb. 20, the Grizzlies got a little healthier with the return of Justise Winslow. It is a step in the right direction as they are still without Jaren Jackson Jr. The crowning achievement for Memphis last week was its blowout victory over the Clippers in the first game of their mini-series. 

    Winslow’s return to the lineup gives Memphis another playmaker alongside Ja Morant. Point Winslow was a thing for the Heat, and that is a skill the Grizzlies are hoping to tap into as they try to stay in the playoff race. 

    Making the postseason will be a monumental challenge because their second-half schedule is packed with back-to-backs.

17. Boston Celtics

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    Sam Hodde/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 13th

    Forget the week. It has not been a good month for the Celtics.

    Boston went 7-9 in February, and it has not been pretty. Injuries and lack of depth in general have been largely to blame for the Celtics' slide in the standings. But there is another reason for the rough play lately, and it starts with their young two stars.

    Prior to February, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were playing some of the best basketball of their careers. Brown was averaging 27.1 points on 53.1 percent shooting from the field and 44.3 percent from three. Tatum was right behind him, dropping 26.8 a night on 48.4 percent shooting and 43.5 percent from three.

    Then February hit and their efficiency fell off as defenses began putting more focus on them. Brown's average dropped to 22.2 points with 44.3 and 30.9 percent shooting splits. Tatum's numbers fell to 24.0 points on 39.7 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from deep.

    Brad Stevens needs to find a way to get easier looks for Brown and Tatum to get them back to what they were doing when the season started.

16. Charlotte Hornets

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 16th

    Charlotte is in the middle of a challenging six-game road trip. With four games last week, the Hornets went 2-2. LaMelo Ball had a real moment to close out their tough win over the Suns. He scored seven of his 20 points in the final frame, including a few big buckets in the closing minutes to help seal the victory.

    Then against the Kings, the Hornets were without Gordon Hayward and Cody Zeller to go along with Devonte’ Graham, who had already been out. It did not matter because PJ Washington stepped up with a career-high 42 points in an improbable comeback victory.

    The wins against the Suns and Kings powered by Charlotte’s young players can carry a team through tough road trips.

15. Golden State Warriors

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    Wendell Cruz/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 14th

    The Warriors won more than two games in a row for the first time this season with victories over the Knicks, Pacers and Hornets last week. More surprising than that was Golden State's 33.0 percent shooting from three in its wins.

    A big reason the Warriors won those games despite not shooting well is Draymond Green. It was not Green's scoring but his playmaking: he averaged 14.0 assists in those wins. That included a monster 19-assist night against the Hornets to go with his 11 points and 12 rebounds for a triple-double.

    The good times did not last long, as Green had to leave the Warriors' game against the Lakers with a sprained ankle.

14. Miami Heat

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 18th

    The Heat are doing more than heating up—they are hot right now.

    Miami is riding a six-game winning streak, including a big victory over the Jazz. The Heat are still not fully healthy, as they lost Tyler Herro to a hip injury after getting back Goran Dragic. Just as they got Herro back for their last game of the week, Jimmy Butler sat out with a knee issue. Regardless, the Heat have still found their groove.

    Before missing the Heat's game against the Hawks, Butler appeared to be rounding into form. During the streak, he is averaging 22.4 points, 9.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds. Bam Adebayo is averaging a double-double with 17.5 points and 11.8 rebounds during this run.

    Miami has persevered over its early-season struggles and is back on track to being a threat in the East.

13. Dallas Mavericks

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 17th

    The Mavericks moved to .500 and played well last week, going 3-1 with some nice wins.

    Luka Doncic was unbelievable for the whole month, averaging 30.3 points, 8.3 assists and 7.1 rebounds while shooting 43.5 percent from three. Look no further than his game-winning three against the Celtics for proof. Kristaps Porzinigis is continuing to play better, as he put up 22.2 points per game in nine games last month.

    But it has not just been Luka and Porzingis playing well for Dallas. Several role players have stepped up in February. Tim Hardaway Jr. is thriving in a new role as a sixth man and could make a run at the offseason award. Then there is Jalen Brunson, who has quietly become one of the players Rick Carlisle turns to in close games. He shot 40.9 percent from three in February.

    More importantly for the Mavs, they are better defensively when he is on the floor with a defensive rating of 108.6.

12. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 8th

    After going on a surprising six-game winning streak, the Blazers have fallen on some hard times. Portland ended the week on a four-game losing streak. Even though the defense has slipped a bit, it is small compared to the fall off in offensive production Portland is suffering from.

    The Blazers' offensive rating has fallen 10 points to 105.9 during the losing streak from their 115.9 rating before this downturn trend. A big issue has been their three-point shooting taking a dive from their 38.9 percent to 32.6 percent. This Portland team relies heavily on outside shooting considering it scores the league's fewest points in the paint.

    To get back in the win column, the Blazers will need to find their shooting stroke.

11. Toronto Raptors

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 10th

    The Raptors have clawed their way out of the hole they dug early in the season. Toronto now holds a .500 record after its four-game winning streak. But last week was a difficult one both on and off the court.

    On the court, Toronto went 1-2, dropping games to the Sixers and Heat before beating the Rockets. The off-court issue looms larger, though.

    Before the win over Houston, it was announced that six members of the coaching staff, including Nick Nurse, were out due to health and safety protocols. Pascal Siakam was the lone player to enter the COVID-19 protocols prior to that game. Then the Raptors' last game of the week was canceled with more players becoming unavailable.

10. New York Knicks

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 15th

    The good times continue to roll in New York with the announcement of Julius Randle making the All-Star team as a reserve. His play after the word came has not slipped up. Over the last week, Randle averaged 24.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists.

    Knicks fans were dancing in the streets Saturday night after their win got their record up to .500. In fact, it has been only the sixth time in 20 years that the team has been .500 or better after 34 games. That is a good enough reason to dance these days.

    With their win on Sunday, the Knicks find themselves sitting in the fourth seed of the East and rising in the rankings.

9. Denver Nuggets

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 11th

    Last season’s Western Conference runner-up has a lot of work to do to get back to where it was a year ago. Jamal Murray appears to be back on track after a slow start. Nikola Jokic is putting together an MVP-worthy season. But the wins have not followed.

    Offensively, the Nuggets are in the top 10 in offensive rating, but their defense has fallen this season. They are 17th in defensive rating this year. Things will not turn around until they defend on a regular basis. One thing that has hurt the defense has been the absence of their best perimeter defender Gary Harris, who has only played once in Denver’s last 13 games.

    Despite the struggles, the Nuggets may have gone undefeated last week had it not been for their mistake in transition on the final possession against the Wizards.

8. San Antonio Spurs

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 7th

    After several postponed games, the Spurs returned to action last week with some of their players still in COVID-19 protocols. In their two games back, they were still without Keldon Johnson, Rudy Gay, Derrick White, Devin Vassell and Quinndary Weatherspoon.

    San Antonio dropped a tough one to the Thunder at the buzzer and then survived a fourth-quarter onslaught from the Pelicans to go 1-1 for the week.

    The most interesting thing about the Spurs in the two games back was the change to the rotation. LaMarcus Aldridge returned from his hip injury but came off the bench. It could be a shift in his role and something that could benefit the Spurs. Prior to his injury, the Spurs had a negative net rating with him on the court, but in the two games back (small sample size alert), he flipped the net rating to become a positive player for the Spurs.

    That is something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Last Week's Rankings: 4th

    The Clippers went 2-2 last week, but their two losses looked bad. In the first game of their mini-series with the Grizzlies, they got blown out. They allowed 72 points in the paint and only mustered up 24 points of their own.

    The Clippers' loss to the Bucks also featured a few recurring issues. They were outscored in the paint again, this time 48-30. They rank 27th in points in the paint. The Clippers were also outscored in transition 22-2. For the season they rank just 24th in fast-break points.

    But an even bigger issue was that L.A. only got to the line seven times. SEVEN! Only Lou Williams and Kawhi Leonard attempted free throws for the team. It is not abnormal for them as they average only 19.9 free-throw attempts a game.

    Without many points in the paint, transition points and free throws, the Clippers just do not get enough easy baskets.

6. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 6th

    The Sixers had a chance to close the week undefeated after wins over the surging Raptors and Mavericks but blew their game against the struggling Cavaliers. That is not an excusable loss, even with Tobias Harris out.

    Philadelphia’s offense struggled in the loss. Only Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Shake Milton scored in double figures. One thing that even caught Embiid’s eye was the number of three-point attempts—the Sixers got only 28 threes up in that game. After the game he said, "If you’re open, let it fly."

    For the season, Philadelphia averages the third-fewest three-point attempts in the NBA. The team has improved its shooting, but it needs to actually shoot the ball to take advantage of that.

5. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 5th

    It is not a coincidence that the Lakers’ four-game losing streak came to an end once Dennis Schroder returned from the COVID-19 protocols. The Lakers offense struggled with both him and Anthony Davis out. It relied too heavily on LeBron James to create everything, and eventually that wore down the Lakers. 

    In the four games Schroder missed, the Lakers could only score 101.3 points per game. Los Angeles’ transition game was nearly non-existent, averaging only 7.3 fast-break points. With Schroder back they got 23 fast-break points against the Blazers and 22 in their rout of the Warriors.

    The Lakers are still very far from fully healthy with Anthony Davis sidelined, but getting a big piece to their offense is going to help them stay afloat until they are whole again.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 9th

    It has been a roller-coaster season for Milwaukee this year. The Bucks responded to a five-game losing streak with a five-game winning streak capped by a win over the Clippers.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have been great during this stretch. Antetokounmpo is averaging 35.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists, but most importantly he is shooting 77.8 percent from the free-throw line. Middleton for his part is shooting 44.0 percent from three while averaging 23.4 points and 5.6 assists.

    In more good news for Milwaukee, it got Jrue Holiday back Sunday from COVID-19 protocols. Expect the Bucks to ease him back into the lineup as he recovers.

    Despite all their drama, the Bucks are only a game out of first place in the East, and their recent streak has them rising in the rankings.

3. Phoenix Suns

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 3rd

    Phoenix is clicking on several cylinders right now.

    Over the last 15 games, the Suns have found their groove, going 12-3. During that stretch, they are averaging 116.9 points, shooting 39.6 percent from three and holding opponents to 107.4 points per game. It has them sitting just a game from the second seed in the West.

    Chris Paul and Devin Booker have also found their footing playing together. Before this 15-game stretch, the Suns had a net rating of minus-5.2 when the pair shared the court. But in this stretch of games, Phoenix’s net rating has risen to plus-12.9 with the tandem on the court together.

2. Utah Jazz

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 2nd

    Utah has begun separating itself from the rest of the West in the standings. The Jazz went 3-1 last week, only dropping a game to the Heat on the road. They are continuing to shoot the three ball at an effective rate.

    The Jazz lead the league in three-point attempts, averaging 42.8 a game, while ranking third in percentage at 39.6 percent. Utah is second in the NBA in wide-open three-point attempts, generating 22.2 such looks a game. It has been the drive-and-kick game, as well as Rudy Gobert's gravity, that has helped create those looks. Defenses are forced to react on the drives and rolls, leaving the openings along the three-point line.

    The Jazz could have jumped into the top spot of the rankings, but dropping the game to the Heat cost them that opportunity.

1. Brooklyn Nets

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Last Week's Ranking: 1st

    The Nets’ eight-game winning streak came to an end at the hands of the Mavericks, but it was not too concerning. Kevin Durant still remains out with a hamstring issue, and Kyrie Irving missed the matchup with a shoulder injury, too. James Harden did all he could, but the team lacks depth when healthy, so it was especially thin in that game.

    Durant has been out the last seven games, and Steve Nash announced that he will not return until after the All-Star break. The Big Three have only played seven games together, and it will be critical for them to get more time on the court to continue developing chemistry, especially on the defensive end.

    The Nets were able to maintain the top spot because two of their best players were sitting on the sidelines for their lone loss last week.

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