NBA Power Rankings: Bucks clinch playoff berth, Lakers and Celtics renew rivalry

As February comes to an end, the NBA is firmly in the post-All-Star break period. The final two months of the regular season are underway, and the playoff picture is beginning to take shape.

The Milwaukee Bucks have officially clinched a playoff spot through 56 games. The Houston Rockets’ small-ball reboot continues to impress, and that is reflected in a top-10 rise. On the other end, the Indiana Pacers are looking to stop their skid as March approaches.

Throughout the regular season, our panel (ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Andre’ Snellings, Royce Young and Bobby Marks and The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

Previous rankings: Week 18 | 17 | 16 | 15 | 14 | 13 | 12 | 11 | 10 | 9 | 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1 | Training camp | Free agency | Post-Finals

1. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 48-8
Week 18 ranking: 1

The Bucks are in cruise control right now, racking up wins and statistical superlatives at a similar rate. The Bucks officially clinched a postseason appearance in just 56 games, the earliest in 15 years. Here’s another one for Giannis Antetokounmpo: He currently leads the NBA in both fast-break points per game and points in the paint per game. Over the past 20 seasons, no player has led the NBA in both categories in the same season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. — Snellings

This week: @WAS, @TOR, OKC, @CHA

2. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 43-12
Week 18 ranking: 2

LeBron James is on a path to finish the season as the NBA’s leader in assists for the first time at 35 years old. According to Elias Sports Bureau data, no one in NBA history has been that old at the time of their first scoring, rebounding or assists title. Former Lakers great Jerry West was 33 years old when he led the NBA in assists for the first time during the 1971-72 season. — Spears

This week: NOP, @GSW, @MEM, @NOP

3. Toronto Raptors
Record: 42-15
Week 18 ranking: 3

The Raptors have been on a torrid winning pace in the new year, with only one loss since Jan. 15, but they’ve been unable to make up any ground on the Bucks nor open up much space from the Celtics for the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors do have the 12th-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to BPI, as compared to the Celtics’ 19th easiest, which gives Toronto a bit of an edge as it races down the stretch. — Snellings

This week: MIL, CHA, @DEN

4. Boston Celtics
Record: 39-17
Week 18 ranking: 5

If there is a silver lining to the Celtics’ two-point loss to the Lakers on Sunday it is that All-Star Jayson Tatum continues to emerge as a franchise player. While Kemba Walker missed the game with a sore knee, Tatum scored 41 points in the loss. Though the Celtics are 7-3 in games Walker has been out, keep in mind that only one win has come against a team (Philadelphia) above .500. — Marks

This week: @POR, @UTAH, HOU

5. Denver Nuggets
Record: 39-18
Week 18 ranking: 4

The Nuggets are finally at full strength — generally speaking — for the first time since Jan. 6. With injuries splattered throughout the roster, they weathered a difficult schedule, and they seem to be set up to push with momentum into the postseason. Coach Mike Malone is going to have to sort through some rotational questions, which likely will be as much of an objective as securing the No. 2 seed. — Young

This week: DET, @LAC, TOR

6. LA Clippers
Record: 37-19
Week 18 ranking: 6

Uh, Clippers? Y’all good? Losing three straight games isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but for the third to be a home loss to the Kings is an eyebrow raiser. Again: Health is going to be their top priority down the stretch, but the addition of Reggie Jackson jumbled the chemistry equation that much more. The Clippers have as much talent as anyone, but the question is whether they can maximize it — or at the very least, just have it all available. — Young

This week: MEM, @PHX, DEN, PHI

7. Houston Rockets
Record: 36-20
Week 18 ranking: 9

“We know that we’re the only team that’s in our way, and every night we’ve got to take the challenge of being the best team in the league,” Russell Westbrook said after Saturday’s win at Utah.

Agree or not, the Rockets’ résumé is rather impressive since the trade for Robert Covington that signaled going all-in on small ball. Houston is 4-1 in games Westbrook has played since Covington’s Feb. 6 debut, with double-digit victories over the Lakers, Celtics, Warriors and Jazz. — MacMahon

This week: NYK, MEM, @BOS

8. Miami Heat
Record: 36-20
Week 18 ranking: 8

Dwyane Wade’s No. 3 going to the rafters during a three-day jersey retirement celebration was definitely the Heat’s highlight of the week. That, along with an 82-point first half against the Cavaliers on Saturday, maybe helped ease the sting of Trae Young’s 50-point performance. Miami has two apparent chippies on deck with Cleveland and Minnesota. That should help to get Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro back in place. — Young

This week: @CLE, MIN, DAL, BKN

9. Utah Jazz
Record: 36-20
Week 18 ranking: 7

Utah’s run of 19 wins in 21 games seems like a distant memory. The Jazz are 4-7 since then and have had alarming defensive struggles during that span. Utah ranks 22nd in the league in defensive rating over the past 11 games, allowing 115.1 points per 100 possessions. Royce O’Neale, who was recently awarded a four-year, $36 million extension in large part due to his defensive prowess, has the team’s worst individual defensive rating in that stretch (118.0 when he is on the floor.) — MacMahon

This week: PHX, BOS, WAS

10. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 35-22
Week 18 ranking: 10

At 35-22, the Thunder would need to go 15-10 in their remaining 25 games to get to 50 wins — something the franchise hasn’t done since Kevin Durant was wearing a Thunder uniform. Fifteen of those games are on the road, which might make the task seem more daunting; but then again, the Thunder are riding an eight-game road winning streak. They came out of the break with a barometer game against the Nuggets — a possible first-round opponent — and put down an impressive 12-point win. The Thunder are serious. — Young

This week: @CHI, SAC, @MIL

11. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 35-22
Week 18 ranking: 11

Philadelphia’s 9-20 record on the road and Saturday’s 21-point loss at Milwaukee are certainly cause for concern, but they seem minor compared to the health of Ben Simmons. He missed the 76ers’ first game following the All-Star break with lower back soreness, and he left during the first quarter of Saturday’s loss with more back pain. Simmons will not play Monday against the Hawks as he undergoes further testing, and any length of time missed could shut the door on the 76ers’ chances of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. — Marks

This week: ATL, @CLE, NYK, @LAC

12. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 34-23
Week 18 ranking: 12

The chemistry is clicking between the young franchise cornerstones the Mavs plan to build around for the foreseeable future. Dallas has outscored opponents by 38 points in the 55 minutes Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have played together since Doncic returned from his second right ankle sprain of the season. Porzingis got in his best groove of the campaign during Doncic’s absence, and that has continued, as Porzingis has averaged 25.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists during their two recent games together. — MacMahon

This week: MIN, @SAS, @MIA, @MIN

13. Indiana Pacers
Record: 33-24
Week 18 ranking: 13

Victor Oladipo and the Pacers sputtered into the All-Star break, losing six straight games at one point while trying to acclimate Oladipo back into the lineup. They won the games going into and out of the break, but their 46-point loss to the Raptors on Sunday was the largest loss by a team over .500 since 2016, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Oladipo missed that tilt with a sore back, but clearly the Pacers still have a ways to go to get back to competing at the top. — Snellings

This week: CHA, POR, @CLE

14. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 28-28
Week 18 ranking: 14

Rookie of the Year front-runner Ja Morant and the Grizzlies stumbled out of the gate after the All-Star break, dropping both ends of a road back-to-back against the Kings and Lakers to fall to .500. Morant had more turnovers than assists in both losses, something he had done only three times all season. He also had a negative plus-minus in consecutive games for the first time since late January, and his minus-25 against the Kings matched Morant’s worst plus-minus since his NBA debut. — MacMahon

This week: @LAC, @HOU, SAC, LAL

15. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 26-29
Week 18 ranking: 15

There is finally a sense of clarity in Brooklyn. With the news that Kyrie Irving will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, head coach Kenny Atkinson can now focus on the 13 healthy players in the locker room. The Nets faced the 76ers immediately following the announcement that Irving would be done for the season, and Brooklyn nearly joined the Mavericks and Heat as the only teams to win in Philadelphia this season. In Saturday’s 115-86 victory at Charlotte, eight players scored in double figures, including a team-high 21 points from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. The Nets will need to continue to take a “next man” approach to stay in contention for a playoff spot. — Marks

This week: ORL, @WAS, @ATL, @MIA

16. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 25-32
Week 18 ranking: 17

Zion Williamson continues to make scoring in the NBA look historically easy for someone with so little experience. He has 10 games with 20-plus points in his first 12 appearances, matching the most in the opening dozen games of anyone’s career over the past five decades, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. Williamson has eight straight 20-point performances, one away from tying Carmelo Anthony for the longest streak ever by a teenager. — MacMahon

This week: @LAL, CLE, LAL

17. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 24-32
Week 18 ranking: 18

Just when it seemed as if Dejounte Murray might be turning a corner in his development as a scoring threat, he had a doughnut in Sunday’s loss to the Thunder, going scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting. Murray, the 23-year-old point guard who signed a four-year, $64 million extension in the fall, had averaged 19.8 points on 60% shooting over the previous four games. — MacMahon

This week: DAL, ORL

18. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 26-32
Week 18 ranking: 16

It wasn’t technically a must-win game against the Pistons on Sunday, but let’s call it a you-better-not-lose contest. And the Trail Blazers didn’t, squeaking by behind 41 points from CJ McCollum and 32 from Carmelo Anthony. They are four games behind Memphis in the loss column for the eighth playoff spot in the West, and they’re running out of time. Damian Lillard is coming back from his groin injury soon, but the Blazers are probably going to need another miraculous run from him to close the gap. The schedule is pretty favorable to close, but as inconsistent as Portland has been, that might not even matter. — Young

This week: BOS, @IND, @ATL

19. Orlando Magic
Record: 24-32
Week 18 ranking: 19

The Magic have lost nine of their past 12 games, going 0-8 against teams currently positioned for the playoffs and 3-1 against teams positioned for the lottery. They have fallen eight games under .500, but they still have a three-game lead for the eighth playoff spot in the East. Slam Dunk near-champion Aaron Gordon has been the bellwether of late, averaging 22.3 points per game in the three wins but only 14.3 points in the nine losses. — Snellings

This week: @BKN, @ATL, MIN, @SAS

20. Sacramento Kings
Record: 23-33
Week 18 ranking: 21

The Kings have now won six of their past 10 games, including two over the heralded Clippers. But with a 23-33 record, it’s probably too late to gain a winning record or end the NBA’s longest playoff drought at 13 seasons. — Spears

This week: @GSW, @OKC, @MEM, DET

21. Phoenix Suns
Record: 23-34
Week 18 ranking: 20

Center Deandre Ayton has averaged 22.3 points and 13.9 rebounds in February. The No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft was two points and one rebound shy of a 30-20 game in Saturday’s win against the Bulls. And that was despite dealing with an ankle injury. — Spears

This week: @UTAH, LAC, DET, GSW

22. Washington Wizards
Record: 20-35
Week 18 ranking: 22

The Wizards keep talking about making the playoffs, and every time it comes up, they lose horrible games — such as the ones against Cleveland and Chicago. And yet, they still are somehow only three games back in the loss column of the Magic for the 8-seed. But the upcoming schedule for Washington will probably be the determining factor, as 10 of its next 17 games are against teams currently positioned to play in the postseason. — Young

This week: MIL, BKN, @UTAH, @GSW

23. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 19-37
Week 18 ranking: 26

The two games following the All-Star break illustrated the growing pains in Charlotte this season. PJ Washington, Miles Bridges and Malik Monk scored a combined 64 points in a win at Chicago, while the Bulls were held to 93 points. In the following game, a 29-point loss at home to Brooklyn, the Hornets shot 35.2% from the field and allowed an undermanned Nets team to score 115 points. Devonte’ Graham has struggled offensively since the break, shooting a combined 1-of-17 from the field in both games. — Marks

This week: @IND, NYK, @TOR, MIL

24. Chicago Bulls
Record: 20-38
Week 18 ranking: 23

Coby White and Michael Jordan are the only Bulls rookies to score 30 points in consecutive games. White has tallied a career-high 33 points in back-to-back contests. White also joined Trae Young and Allen Iverson as the only rookies with 33 or more points in consecutive games. — Spears

This week: OKC, @NYK

25. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 17-41
Week 18 ranking: 28

Forward John Collins has averaged 25.4 points and 10.7 rebounds in February. He tied his career high with 35 points against Dallas on Saturday, and Collins has six games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in nine outings this month. — Spears

This week: @PHI, ORL, BKN, POR

26. New York Knicks
Record: 17-39
Week 18 ranking: 25

Whether Wayne Ellington will finish the season in a Knicks uniform or on a playoff team will become clearer this week. Ellington is a lead candidate to hit the waiver wire before the March 1 deadline for playoff eligibility. After signing a two-year, $16 million contract (there is only $1 million guaranteed in 2020-21) in July, the shooting guard has appeared in only 28 games, shooting a career-low 35.8% from the field. — Marks

This week: @HOU, @CHA, @PHI, CHI

27. Detroit Pistons
Record: 19-40
Week 18 ranking: 24

The Pistons have continued to go all-in on rebuilding, buying out veterans Reggie Jackson and Markieff Morris to make more space for their younger players to get on the court. This might be the smart long-term move for the franchise, but it signals a lot of losses to come this season. The Pistons have lost six straight games, and they might not be favored against any single opponent for the rest of the campaign. — Snellings

This week: @DEN, @PHX, @SAC

28. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 16-39
Week 18 ranking: 27

Karl-Anthony Towns is sidelined for at least the next couple of weeks with a fractured wrist, which means the Timberwolves have to wait before they can see their new core perform together on a regular basis. In the meantime, they’ve gotten good production from some of their lesser heralded new additions, with Malik Beasley averaging 24 points per game and James Johnson turning in 14 combined steals and blocks over the past three games. — Snellings

This week: @DAL, @MIA, @ORL, DAL

29. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 15-41
Week 18 ranking: 29

A coaching change just after the All-Star break is not what general manager Koby Altman had envisioned when he hired John Beilein in the offseason. The five-year contract that Beilein signed was meant to bring a sense of stability to the young backcourt of Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. Instead, the Cavaliers are now on their fourth head coach in two seasons following Beilein’s resignation. If there is a silver lining, it is that the new head coach, former assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, already has a relationship with the current roster. — Marks

This week: MIA, PHI, @NOP, IND

30. Golden State Warriors
Record: 12-45
Week 18 ranking: 30

Injured guard Stephen Curry is expected to return on March 1. The two-time MVP scrimmaged on Saturday for the first time since having left hand surgery on Oct. 30. Curry’s Splash Brother, Klay Thompson, will not return this season. The Warriors, who are vying for the top pick in the NBA draft, have the worst record in the NBA. — Spears

This week: SAC, LAL, @PHX, WAS

Source: Read Full Article