Middle Of The West Is Red-Hot

Middle Of The West Is Red-Hot

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The Phoenix Suns are in a tier of their own at the top of the Western Conference. Even with the team missing Chris Paul for an extended period and Devin Booker in recent days, it would be staggering if the Suns did not finish atop the conference standings, and the reigning Western Conference champs are in a comfortable position. From there, the Memphis Grizzlies are one of the better stories in the NBA this season, with Ja Morant enjoying a superstar turn and the team emanating spectacular vibes. The Golden State Warriors enjoyed a strong start before a downturn that coincided with Draymond Green’s absence but, despite that, the Warriors are terrifying when at full strength and far less so if Green or Stephen Curry are hampered or absent.

The drama in the West truly begins with the No. 4 seed and, in recent days, the teams situated between No. 4 and No. 7 have been red-hot. The Utah Jazz are 10-3 in the last 13 games and, with Rudy Gobert on the floor this season, Utah is 34-16 overall with an elite point differential. The Dallas Mavericks are on a five-game winning streak, further building on a positive extended stretch that includes an 11-2 mark in the last 13 contests. The Denver Nuggets, led by an MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic, are also 11-2 in the last 13 contests, overcoming the absences of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray to staggeringly impressive results. Finally, the Minnesota Timberwolves are 8-2 in the last 10 games, including a five-game winning streak, and they have proven they aren’t fading away.

While the synergy of the four teams excelling in unison is interesting in its own right, there is also a battle to be waged in the final quarter of the season. Admittedly, the Wolves are four games behind the Jazz, making it difficult to envision Minnesota climbing all the way to No. 4, but the Jazz, Mavericks, and Nuggets are separated by a total of 1.5 games with approximately one month to go. Positioning will also be important in that no one wants to be in the play-in and potentially align themselves with a matchup against the Suns in the first round. From there, a full-strength Warriors team may present a different challenge than other contenders, and the “styles make fights” nature of the Western Conference Playoffs will be fascinating.

What does it all mean? These four teams appear safe to make the postseason, but the bracket could open up for each of them. With attention paid to the play-in races in both conferences and the uncertain picture at the top of the East, it would be easy to overlook the shuffling, but observers should buckle up. Where do these squads stack up in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s take a look.

1. Phoenix Suns (52-13, Last week — 1st)

Phoenix isn’t the same team without Devin Booker and Chris Paul. That isn’t breaking news to anyone, but the Suns are staying afloat and the team’s advantage in the standings is undeniable. Phoenix has an eight-game (!) lead on the entire NBA field, and that makes this a pretty easy call at the top, even when taking circumstance into account.

2. Miami Heat (44-22, Last week — 3rd)

Since Feb. 3, the Heat are 12-2. The two losses came against good teams (Dallas, Milwaukee) by a total of nine points. Miami also has the best record in the Eastern Conference, and it is appropriate to send respect their way. Oh, and the Heat get a chance to face the Suns at home on Wednesday.

3. Boston Celtics (39-27, Last week — 8th)

It feels absolutely wild to have the Celtics in the top three, but it is clearly justifiable when considering an extended period of results. Boston is 16-3 in the last 19 games, and the Celtics beat the Grizzlies head-to-head this week. The Celtics now lead the league in defensive rating (105.6) for the full season, and Boston’s net rating (+16.3) over the last 19 games is preposterous.

4. Memphis Grizzlies (45-22, Last week — 2nd)

Memphis still has the second-best record in the league, but the Grizzlies had a weird loss to Houston this week on top of the aforementioned loss to Boston. Still, there is no reason for alarm, and Memphis blasted New Orleans on Tuesday. That helps to lessen the sting of a (minor) drop.

5. Philadelphia 76ers (40-24, Last week — 4th)

The schedule hasn’t exactly been murderous, but Philadelphia is 5-0 with James Harden in uniform. Four of those five victories came by double-digits, and Harden is averaging 12.4 assists per game to go along with efficient scoring. The Sixers may not be this good when things settle in, but Philadelphia is having fun, and any offensive concerns have been muted.

6. Denver Nuggets (39-26, Last week — 6th)

We highlighted the Nuggets last week and they promptly lost a home game to Oklahoma City. That isn’t great, of course, but Denver answered the bell in winning the next three games. As noted above, Denver is absolutely in a groove right now, and the optimism on the potential returns of Murray and Porter Jr. brings even more buzz.

7. Milwaukee Bucks (41-25, Last week — 9th)

There should be appropriate fear of the Bucks right now. Milwaukee is on a five-game winning streak, beating a handful of quality teams in the process, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is a man possessed. Are the Bucks as deep as they were a year ago right now? Absolutely not, but the top of the roster is scary.

8. Dallas Mavericks (40-25, Last week — 10th)

Dallas leapfrogs Utah on the strength of a head-to-head win this week, and the Mavericks also have two victories over the Warriors in recent days. The Mavericks may not have the true talent level of a 24-7 team, but that is the record for Dallas since late December.

9. Utah Jazz (40-24, Last week — 7th)

Losing to Dallas, as noted above, wasn’t the disaster this week for Utah. That honor belongs to a 34-point loss in New Orleans. Most teams have messy performances, but that one clouded the other work going on in Salt Lake City.

10. Golden State Warriors (44-22, Last week — 5th)

When Draymond Green returns, the smart bet would be that the Warriors are better than this. Lately, though, Golden State has been anything but spectacular with a 3-9 mark over 12 games that was actually boosted by a home win on Tuesday. The measured take is to wait and see how they look at full strength, but they are wavering.

11. Minnesota Timberwolves (37-29, Last week — 12th)

Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 30 and 11 in March. Obviously, that is a small sample, but Towns is also shooting 65 percent from the floor and doing it all in 29 minutes per game. When he’s playing like this, the Wolves are clearly dangerous.

12. Cleveland Cavaliers (38-27, Last week — 14th)

It’s not as if the medium-term evaluation of the Cavs is fantastic, as Cleveland is just 3-6 in the last nine games. They did pick up a very nice win over Toronto on Sunday, though, and Darius Garland put together an electric performance (41 points, 13 assists) in a Tuesday night win over Indiana.

13. Chicago Bulls (39-26, Last week — 11th)

Danger in Chicago? The Bulls have lost five straight and lead Boston by only a half-game for the No. 4 seed. Considering Chicago was tied for No. 1 very recently, that is a precipitous fall. To be charitable, all five losses came in tough matchups, with a gauntlet of road games in Miami, Atlanta, and Philadelphia mixed in with home tilts against Memphis and Milwaukee.

14. Toronto Raptors (34-30, Last week — 13th)

The Raps are 2-5 since the All-Star break, and the only two victories came against the Durant-less Nets. That isn’t exactly the start to the second half that Nick Nurse wanted, and Toronto is closer to No. 8 than No. 6 in the standings as a result.

15. Brooklyn Nets (33-33, Last week — 16th)

The biggest news is the return of Kevin Durant and, amid other craziness, the Nets are 25-14 when he plays this season. It was Kyrie Irving that keyed the team’s most recent win, however, as the star guard erupted for 50 points in Charlotte on Tuesday. Now, all eyes turn to Thursday’s showdown in Philadelphia and Ben Simmons returning to Wells Fargo Center.

16. L.A. Clippers (34-33, Last week — 15th)

L.A. is almost in its own tier right now. The Clippers are 3.5 games behind the Wolves and 4.5 games ahead of the Lakers in the West, giving a strong likelihood that they stay at No. 8 when the play-in arrives. But, if you take a look beyond the nuts and bolts, it is clear that the Clippers have mammoth upside, especially amid (at least mild) rumblings that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George may suit up in the coming weeks.

17. Atlanta Hawks (31-33, Last week — 17th)

Every time it seems like the Hawks are turning the corner, they stall out. The latest example was a back-to-back sweep over Chicago and Washington this week, only to lose to Detroit in overtime on Monday. Atlanta’s schedule is quite friendly down the stretch, but this is a team that is struggling to find a consistent level.

18. Charlotte Hornets (32-34, Last week — 20th)

Charlotte lost at its own game on Tuesday. The Hornets gave up 132 points to the Nets and, even on a night in which they were scoring effectively, Charlotte couldn’t win at home. That isn’t a death sentence, especially with the Hornets tied for No. 9 in the East, but the ceiling is limited because of the defense.

19. Washington Wizards (29-34, Last week — 22nd)

Home wins over the Pistons and Pacers won’t excite anyone, and that’s fair. The Wizards still went 2-1 this week and nearly beat the Hawks in the third game. Kristaps Porzingis is now on the floor, too, and Washington is only 1.5 games out of the play-in. This season isn’t over by any means.

20. New Orleans Pelicans (27-38, Last week — 18th)

The Pels are very clearly in pole position for the No. 10 seed and a recent four-game winning streak further established that stranglehold. New Orleans did just lose two games, allowing 270 points in the process, but a four-game homestand begins on Wednesday against Orlando.

21. San Antonio Spurs (25-40, Last week — 19th)

Gregg Popovich is a legend by any description. He tied Don Nelson’s NBA career record this week with 1,335 wins, and he can set a new record as soon as Wednesday. That doesn’t mean San Antonio is great by any means but, after 65 games and a mark that is 15 games under .500, the Spurs still have more points than their opponents for the season.

22. Los Angeles Lakers (28-36, Last week — 23rd)

Los Angeles is still in the No. 9 spot in the play-in, and they are projected to stay in that range. With that said, the Lakers are just 2-8 in the last ten games and the vibes are horrific. It’s worth noting that LeBron James reminded everyone he’s an alien with 56 points in a big win on Saturday, but the positive blips are few and far between for the Lakers.

23. New York Knicks (27-38, Last week — 25th)

A seven-game losing streak all but closed the door on the Knicks making a run at the play-in. New York did bounce back with a weekend sweep on the road over the Clippers and Kings, but the Knicks now have to travel to Dallas, Memphis, and Brooklyn in succession.

24. Detroit Pistons (18-47, Last week — 29th)

Since mid-February, the Pistons are 6-2. That includes three straight wins and victories over the Hawks and Raptors. Cade Cunningham appears to be the real deal and, if nothing else, Detroit is playing hard and not yielding, even when they could easily justify it.

25. Sacramento Kings (24-43, Last week — 24th)

The Kings actually got a nice road win in San Antonio on Wednesday, but the rest of the week wasn’t great. Sacramento lost to a Luka-less Mavericks team before allowing more than 130 (!) points to the Knicks at home on Monday. That is gross, and the Kings are four games out of the No. 10 spot.

26. Portland Trail Blazers (25-39, Last week — 21st)

Portland’s four-game winning streak before the All-Star break seems like a million years ago. To put it kindly, the Blazers have pivoted to the future, losing five straight contests in blowout fashion. All five losses came to playoff-caliber teams, but it wasn’t as if Portland was on the precipice of stealing any games.

27. Oklahoma City Thunder (20-45, Last week — 26th)

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander put up 99 points and 29 assists in the last three games for the Thunder. Sadly, Oklahoma City was 0-3 in those games with an average margin of defeat of 25.7 points. The Thunder also announced that three players, headlined by Lu Dort, won’t return this season, and the focus is ping-pong balls.

28. Indiana Pacers (22-45, Last week — 27th)

With Tyrese Haliburton and Malcolm Brogdon both available, the Pacers have one of the more intriguing backcourts in the league. That doesn’t cure all ills, but that duo at least gives Indiana fans something to watch that could inform the future. The Pacers are still 1-4 in the last five games with a split against Orlando and a loss to Detroit.

29. Orlando Magic (16-50, Last week — 28th)

The Magic have been borderline frisky for about six weeks. Orlando is 8-11 in the last 19 games, and the Magic nearly beat the Suns on Tuesday. Granted, that wasn’t the full-strength Suns, but the Magic aren’t embarrassing. They are competitive.

30. Houston Rockets (16-49, Last week — 30th)

Houston did shock Memphis this week, snapping a 12-game losing streak in the process. That wasn’t enough to escape the basement, though, as that victory was the team’s only win in the last calendar month. The Rockets are 1-13 over that span with a hideous -12.5 net rating.

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