NBA Power Rankings: Clippers, Nets Battling for Top Spot Down the Stretch

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IApril 26, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Clippers, Nets Battling for Top Spot Down the Stretch

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Teams have entered the final stretch of the 2020-21 NBA season, and every game is taking on more importance. The top seed is still a tight race in the East and West. Some teams are trying to climb out of the play-in tournament, while some are just trying to get in. All of this is making for an entertaining finish to the end of the season. 

    With everything getting a little tighter, there is a lot of movement all through the rankings. Two teams in the East are currently holding the longest winning streaks. Injuries, COVID-19 protocols and non-COVID-19 illness are affecting nearly every team. 

    The rankings criteria have remained the same: How the team performed for the week, who they beat and where the season is heading based on the week’s worth of games.

30. Houston Rockets

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 30th

    No team can be looking forward to the end of the season more than the Rockets. It seems as though everyone is injured. Houston only had eight players available for its game against the Nuggets. That is the bare minimum of eligible players.

    Houston has gone 1-9 over its last 10 games and officially has been eliminated from the playoffs. Christian Wood had to miss his last game of the week with an ankle issue, but he has been the Rockets' best player when healthy. Averaging 21.0 points and 9.5 rebounds shows he is the building block for Houston as it looks to reload for next season. 

29. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 28th

    Cleveland was able to put an end to its three-game losing streak with a win against Chicago. Then it dropped its next two games to finish the week 1-3. 

    On the good side of the week, the Cavaliers got some great scoring from Darius Garland. He finished the week second in scoring at 25 points per game and shot 48 percent from three. Collin Sexton has continued to show off scoring skill with 28.7 points for the week. 

    The Cavs have a nice one-two punch with the pair but will need to find some help defensively playing such a small backcourt.

28. Orlando Magic

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 27th

    The Magic are riding a five-game losing streak and are 1-10 over their past 11 games. To complicate things further, coach Steve Clifford has entered COVID protocols and could miss the next few contests. 

    One bright spot for the Magic has been the play of Gary Harris. Over his seven games, he has found his shot and connected on 50 percent of his threes and scored 11.4 points per contest. 

    Injuries derailed the Magic’s season early on and now they are entering a full rebuild as they look to build around their young talent.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 26th

    In the first half of the season, it was easy to joke that the Oklahoma City Thunder forgot how to tank. Well, their current 13-game losing streak should stand as a reminder that they have not forgotten at all. 

    Oklahoma City’s last win was at the end of March, and the team could go all of April without picking up a victory. This is not to say players aren’t trying. Darius Bazley averaged 24.0 points last week to go with his 7.3 rebounds. Theo Maledon has shown growth as a playmaker, handing out 6.7 assists last week. Coach Mark Daigneault deserves credit for keeping the players engaged despite all the losing. 

    Currently, with the fifth-worst record, the Thunder have some work to do if they want to increase their lottery odds at getting the first pick in the draft. 

26. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 29th

    Minnesota had a nice week by going 2-1, including an upset victory over Utah. The trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell is providing a great scoring punch for the Wolves. They have combined for 66.3 points since Russell’s return to the lineup. 

    Russell’s role has changed since coming back from his knee surgery. Minnesota is using him as a scorer off the bench, and he has flourished. Naz Reid has also been a valuable player off the bench for the Wolves. Paired with Russell, he is averaging 11.8 points in 19.7 minutes. 

    Since Russell has come back, Minnesota is a respectable 5-6. That should give fans something to be excited about for the future. 

25. Detroit Pistons

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 25th

    The Pistons have lost three straight and seven out of their last nine games. At this point, the final run will all be about development. Jerami Grant has proved he can be a prolific scorer, and now the team needs to put the right pieces around him.

    Detroit already has some good building blocks around Grant. Saddiq Bey has shown he can knock down the three-ball but will need to improve on his consistency. Killian Hayes’ rookie campaign started slowly before he got hurt, but he has shown flashes as a competent playmaker, averaging 6.3 assists over the last week.

    There is promise on this Pistons roster, but they could be a few years away from capitalizing on it. 

24. Sacramento Kings

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    Randall Benton/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 24th

    The Kings will lose De’Aaron Fox for the next 10 to 14 days due to COVID protocols all but sealing Sacramento’s postseason hopes. In good news, the Kings did get Richaun Holmes back after he missed the last five games with a hamstring issue.

    With Fox being out, it will move rookie Tyrese Haliburton into the starting lineup. As good as he has been all season, it will be a challenge replacing Fox’s 25.2 points and 7.2 assists a night. Haliburton certainly gave it his best shot against the Warriors dropping 24 points and eight assists. 

    It will not fall just on Haliburton’s shoulders to replace Fox’s numbers but Delon Wright, Buddy Hield, and Harrison Barnes will all have to step up their game.

23. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 23rd

    New Orleans has gone 1-5 in its last six games, which has pushed the team out of the play-in tournament. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have been a great tandem, combining for 55.0 points a game, but the Pelicans just have not given them much support beyond that.

    The issue has been Williamson is giving back all the points he scores on the defensive end. This season, the Pelicans defense has been nearly five points better when he is off the court. With the number of minutes he has to play powering the offense, he has to find a way to, at the very least, be a net-zero defender. 

    Sitting just four games back of the Warriors for the last play-in spot, and with three games coming against Golden State, New Orleans must play near-perfect basketball to have a legitimate shot at the postseason. 

22. Chicago Bulls

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 22nd

    Chicago lost its grip on the final play-in spot but is not out of the race. The Bulls are still without Zach LaVine, who is in COVID-19 protocols. They were able to keep up in the race, going .500 for the week. 

    With LaVine out, Colby White stepped up for Chicago in his absence. Last week, he averaged 20.5 points on 42.9 percent from three. Nikola Vucevic has kept pace by also averaging 20.5 points in the last week. 

    The real challenge for the Bulls will be the schedule next week when they finish their miniseries with the Heat, then play the Knicks, Bucks and Hawks to end the week. That run of games could make or break the Bulls' postseason hopes. 

21. Toronto Raptors

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 21st

    The Raptors had a light week, playing just two games. They were able to upset the Nets but then fell to the Knicks. Toronto is on the outside looking in at the play-in tournament, sitting two games behind the Wizards for the 10th seed.

    Toronto got big games last week from Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, but the rest of the squad struggled. In particular, Gary Trent Jr. struggled as he was moved to the bench. He went 1-of-9 from three and scored nine points for the week. It may take him a little bit of time to adjust to the new role, but time is a luxury the Raptors do not have.

    Another blow to the Raptors' run at the play-in is the injury to Chris Boucher. He suffered a sprain MCL against the Nets and will be out indefinitely. 

20. Indiana Pacers

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 19th

    The injury report has not been kind to the Pacers. Domantas Sabonis missed every contest last week with a back injury and the news gets worse with Myles Turner out indefinitely due to a partial tear in the big toe on his right foot. Add in Goga Bitadze missing the past three games and Indiana’s frontcourt is looking mighty thin. 

    In some good news, this was the first week where both Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert were able to go off at the same time. The pair combined for an average 46.6 points for the week but they need help from the rest of the roster.  

    Barring a collapse, the Pacers are well situated to make the play-in tournament in the 9-10 bracket. Their chances of picking up the two wins they would need will depend on if they can get healthy in time for the tournament. 

19. San Antonio Spurs

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 18th

    San Antonio just refuses to quit. 

    Winners in four of their last five, the Spurs have moved a game above .500. They are part of the heated play-in seed race with the Warriors and Grizzlies despite having a brutal schedule. San Antonio’s win in New Orleans to end the week was the start of 10 of the Spurs’ last 14 games being on the road. 

    Jakob Poeltl has been great these last four games. Despite ending up on a poster dunk from time to time, he averaged 3.8 blocks while pulling down 8.5 boards and scoring 12.3 points. It is never flashy and often goes unnoticed, but he has been a huge contributor to the Spurs this year.

18. Washington Wizards

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 20th

    Aside from the Knicks, the Wizards are one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Winners of eight straight games, they are looking like the frontrunners to land the last play-in spot in the East. The last time Washington won eight games in a row was 2001. The offense has erupted this week, averaging 121.4 points. Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook have spearheaded the streak, but Washington is also getting key contributions from its role players.

    Davis Bertans is shooting 45.3 percent from three, Daniel Gafford is providing some rim protection with 2.3 blocks a night. Raul Neto is providing a spark coming up with steals and some three-point shooting to help space the floor.

    It is not all good news, though. Deni Avdija’s rookie season has come to an end with a hairline fracture in his right foot and Rui Hachimura has missed the past three games with a sore left knee. 

17. Charlotte Hornets

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 17th

    The Hornets ended the week on a small two-game winning streak, including a huge victory over the Celtics. Charlotte jumped out to an early lead and finished with 39 assists in a blowout win. 

    Over the last week, Miles Bridges has shown he is more than just a dunker with his ability to knock down threes, shooting 48.3 percent on 7.3 attempts. He is also doing work on the glass with 8.8 rebounds while playing solid defensively. 

    Charlotte also got some good news on the injury front. It was thought LaMelo Ball would be out for the season with a fractured wrist, but there is hope he can return to help the squad come playoff time.

    With the win over the Celtics, the Hornets pulled a game-and-a-half ahead of getting out of the play-in tournament. They will have another big matchup with the Celtics next week to decide the season series.

16. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Steve Dykes/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 13th

    Portland is struggling right now. The team has lost five in a row, three of which were by a combined four points. With how bad their defense is, the Blazers’ margin of error is razor-thin. They cannot survive when they are shooting 35.3 percent from three as a team like Portland did in the last week.

    Damian Lillard missed three games, but since he’s returned, he has not found his shot. Shooting just 29.0 percent from three will always put Portland in a bad spot. CJ McCollum and Norman Powell are also struggling from deep.

    The Blazers' current five-game losing streak has them in a heated race with the Mavericks to avoid the play-in game. Next week gets even tougher for Portland as the Blazers head out on a six-game road trip.

15. Golden State Warriors

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 16th

    Golden State is in a heated race with Memphis and San Antonio, with the three teams all within a game of each other. Going 3-1 last week goes a long way in that race for the Warriors. Despite having a rough night in Washington, Stephen Curry is still red-hot. He put on a spectacular performance against the Sixers on his way to 49 points. That matchup was the sixth time this season Curry has made 10 or more threes in a game. 

    Just as impressive as Curry’s shooting has been Draymond Green’s passing. He had a 19-assist, 12-rebound double-double in the Warriors' loss to the Nuggets. He repeated the performance against the Kings with 13 assists and 14 rebounds. Scoring has never been a priority for Green, but his ability to make plays as a passer opens up several options for Golden State’s offense. 

    A fun Curry stat—he has broken the NBA record for threes in a single month with 85 triples in April. He still has plenty of time to add to that number, too.

14. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 15th

    Memphis is right in the middle of a seven-game road trip and has gone 4-2 so far. It got a big boost in the middle of the week with Jaren Jackson Jr. making his season debut against the Clippers. The team is working him in, slowly bringing him off the bench, but he has delivered so far, averaging 19 points on 56 percent shooting. Jackson’s return could not come at a better time, with Jonas Valanciunas missing games because of a concussion. 

    The Grizzlies also got an offensive explosion from Ja Morant last week. He dropped 36 against the Nuggets in a double-overtime loss and 33 on the Blazers in the first game of their miniseries. For the week, he averaged 29.8 points, 8.0 assists and just three turnovers—an encouraging sign for Memphis since Morant’s game was off the previous week.

    Ideally, Memphis would love to work its way out of the play-in game, but that might be a long shot at this point. More important for the Grizzlies should be trying to hold off the Spurs and Warriors to finish in the 7-8 bracket. Finishing in that range means it would only take one win to qualify for the playoffs.

13. Boston Celtics

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 9th

    Last week was tough on the Celtics’ depth. Guys were in and out of the lineup all week, but more troubling was Boston’s lackluster effort against the Hornets. After the loss to Charlotte, Brad Stevens said, “We got outplayed, outcoached, outhustled.”

    The bigger issue for the Celtics is the lack of ball movement. In Boston’s losses last week, the team averaged just 20.0 assists. In the Celtics’ wins this season, they get an average of 25.3 dimes. It just shows when the ball is moving around it gets the defenses in rotation and opens opportunities for everyone to attack.  

    Going 1-3 has Boston in a tie with the Heat for sixth place out East. It has also dropped the team out of the top 10 of the rankings. Every game is going to matter down the stretch for the Celtics, as they can finish anywhere from fourth to eighth in the standings. 

12. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 8th

    In good news for the Lakers, Anthony Davis is back after missing 30 games. To Los Angeles’ credit, it went 14-16 during that time. The Lakers will still be cautious with Davis’ return, starting with a minutes restriction. It was a good sign for the Lakers that they were able to increase the minutes restriction from 15 minutes to 25 after Davis' first game back. 

    Davis’ return did not help the Lakers get on the right side of winning last week, as they lost all three games. The Lakers’ normally tough defense has fallen off. Last week, teams were shooting 42.5 percent against them from three. 

    Getting swept by Dallas in the miniseries has Los Angeles in real danger of falling to sixth in the West. All eyes now will be on when LeBron James could return to the lineup.

11. Miami Heat

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 14th

    Going 3-1 last week shows Miami is on another upward swing in its roller-coaster season. The team is hot on the trail of the Celtics for the sixth seed and closer to getting out of the play-in tournament. Getting up to fourth is not out of the question, as the Heat are just two games behind the Knicks.

    Last week’s run of wins was powered by Kendrick Nunn’s hot shooting and Jimmy Butler’s playmaking. Nunn led the team in scoring with 20.5 points while shooting 47.1 percent from three. Butler dropped 8.7 dimes to go with his 19.0 points per game for the week.

    The key to the week was the Heat finding some success from three, as they connected on 38.6 percent of their attempts. With the team so dependent on outside shooting, that has been the barometer for success this season. If the team can get hot from deep, Miami may have a good shot of getting out of the play-in game. 

10. Dallas Mavericks

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 12th

    It was a big week for the Mavericks, who went undefeated to begin a climb out of the play-in tournament. Luka Doncic nearly averaged a triple-double last week with 26 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds. The downside, though, is he is racking up technicals at a pace that might lead to suspension down the road. Doncic currently has 13 techs, just three away from triggering an automatic one-game suspension.

    Dallas got some hot shooting from Dorian Finney-Smith, who 9-of-16 (56.3 percent) from three-point range over three games this week. JJ Redick is beginning to look more comfortable in his new home, knocking down five of his nine triples (55.6 percent). 

    Sweeping the miniseries against the Lakers gives the Mavs some hope of moving up to the fifth seed with the season series in hand. Dallas’ play this week has the team back in the top 10. 

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 10th

    The Hawks are right in the mix for homecourt in the first round of the playoffs despite all of the injuries they’ve had to work around. This week alone they lost Clint Capela for a game with a day-to-day back issue. Trae Young is also out for the next few games with a sprained left ankle that he suffered against the Knicks.

    Those guys being out did not stop Atlanta from picking up an important win over Miami. That win sealed the season series in favor of the Hawks. Holding that tiebreaker could come in handy should they finish tied in the standings. 

    In addition to that win, the Hawks rode a hot shooting fourth quarter sparked by Lou Williams and Bogdon Bogandovic to defeat the Bucks. The pair combined for 27 fourth-quarter points and eight threes to pull off the win. 

    That victory puts the Hawks in tie with the Knicks for fourth in the fight for playoff seeding.

8. New York Knicks

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 11th

    There is a lot to celebrate in New York right now. The Knicks are on their longest winning streak since the 2012-13 season when they won 13 in a row. More importantly, the energy at the Garden is palpable with fans in the stands. Julius Randle was the recipient of MVP chants when he went to the line.

    Those chants are rightfully deserved. Randle has been amazing during this streak. He is averaging 30.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from three. Those numbers also include two 40-point games. But it hasn’t just been Randle. RJ Barrett has been a worthy sidekick, Reggie Bullock has hit some timely threes and Derrick Rose has been great off the bench.

    This current nine-game winning streak has the Knicks making their first appearance in the top 10 of the rankings.

7. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 2nd

    It was a tough week in the city of Brotherly Love. The Sixers have lost four straight with Ben Simmons out due to a non-COVID illness. Tobias Harris also missed the first two games of the week and Joel Embiid missed the last game of the miniseries against the Bucks to add to the pain. 

    For those wondering about Simmons’ defensive impact this season, the team struggled last week without him. Last week, the 76ers cobbled together a defensive rating of 118.4—a big climb from 106.6 before this losing streak. 

    The injuries and losing streak have dropped the Sixers from the top spot in the East and created an opening for the Bucks to overtake them as the second seed. Philadelphia needs to get right and back on the winning side immediately.

6. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 7th

    Milwaukee’s week was sandwiched by two losses. First, the Bucks lost a heartbreaker against the Suns in overtime and then gave up a lead in the fourth quarter against the Hawks on Sunday. The Atlanta loss hurts because after sweeping the Sixers in the two games prior, a win could have pulled the Bucks within a game of the second seed and 2.5 behind the Nets for first. 

    The blown opportunity will overshadow the good week the Bucks got from Bobby Portis off the bench. In 19.7 minutes, he put up 14 points per game and shot 66.7 from three on 12 total attempts. This includes a 23-point outburst against Philadelphia on Thursday. 

    Dropping a game like the one against the Hawks will come back to haunt the Bucks in their bid to climb the standings.

5. Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 6th

    It has been four games since Donovan Mitchell went down with a sprained right ankle. The Jazz went 2-2 but one of those losses was when they chose to rest several of their starters. Mitchell was re-evaluated and it appears he will be out at least another week.

    Bojan Bogdanovic has been called upon to pick up the scoring load in Mitchell’s absence, dropping 20.5 points on 42.9 percent from three. Mike Conley and Joe Ingles continued to make plays for Utah, combining for 17.5 assists between them. The one issue for the Jazz over the past four games has been their high turnovers (16.3).

    The week ended on a sour note with a surprising loss to the Wolves. Despite the loss, the Jazz are the first team to clinch a playoff berth with the Blazers’ loss.

4. Phoenix Suns

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 3rd

    It was a big week for the Suns, which played the first four games of their five-contest  East Coast trip. It was a run through some of the best teams in the conference. The Suns pulled out a thrilling overtime win over the Bucks and ground out a win over the depleted Sixers.

    The trip then began to sour with losses to Boston and Brooklyn as the Suns’ shooting went south. They shot just 26.1 percent from three. In particular, Mikal Bridges (7.7 percent) and Cameron Johnson (9.1) could not find the rim from deep.

    The Suns' schedule does not lighten up as they have games against the Knicks, Clippers, and Jazz next week. A strong performance next week could have Phoenix in a prime position to take the No. 1 seed in the NBA.

3. Denver Nuggets

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 4th

    The injury bug will not let go of its hold on the Nuggets. Will Barton left Denver’s contest against Golden State this week with an apparent right hamstring injury. They were already without Monte Morris, who also has a hamstring issue, so this puts even more minutes on the plate of newly signed Austin Rivers to help shore up the backcourt rotation. 

    Nikola Jokic has continued leading the way for Denver, scoring 30.3 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out 6.3 assists last week. But the real focus should be what Michael Porter Jr. has done since Jamal Murray’s injury. He is sliding into the role as a second option, scoring 22 points on 57.1 percent shooting including 51.3 percent from three. 

    Even though the schedule has not been the toughest, the Nuggets have done well to go 5-1 since Murray got hurt.

2. Brooklyn Nets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 5th

    The Nets got some rough news to start the week with word that James Harden will be out indefinitely with a setback to his right hamstring injury. There is no timetable for his return, but some suspect it may not be until the playoffs begin. Brooklyn also has Nicolas Claxton out in the COVID protocols.

    Kevin Durant made his return to the court for Brooklyn after missing three games. He did not miss a beat, scoring 33 points against the Suns. Kyrie Irving also scored 34 points, marking the second time this season they both scored 30-plus for the Nets.

    Brooklyn went 3-1 last week and moved ahead of Philadelphia in the standings to take the top seed in the East.

1. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 1st

    The Clippers have been rolling since the trade deadline going 14-3—the league’s best record over that stretch. Stephen Curry may be overshadowing everybody individually, but Paul George has been phenomenal for L.A. He has scored 30 points or more in seven of his past eight games. 

    As good as everything is going right now, there are a few injury issues to keep an eye on. Kawhi Leonard was out last week with a sore right foot. Patrick Beverley has been out with a broken left hand. Serge Ibaka has been out with a back injury since the All-Star Game. Add Rajon Rondo to the injury list missing the past two games. 

    Despite the injuries, L.A. is tied with Phoenix for the second seed in the West, though the Clippers are slightly behind based on winning percentage—.700 to .694. As important as having home court would be, getting healthier has to be the Clippers' primary focus.