Nuggets earn a spot in the top five
At this point last year, the Chicago Bulls trailed the Toronto Raptors by a game for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Right now, things are a little different. The Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets are technically still alive, but the 16 teams making the playoffs are very close to being set.
Still, when it comes to determining the 2010-11 NBA champions, there are some regular season games over the next week and a half that could mean a lot.
The biggest of the 82 games remaining on the schedule is Sunday's matchup of the Celtics and Heat in Miami. The two teams are currently tied in the loss column, with Boston holding the tie-breaker, having won the the first three head-to-head meetings.
The Heat could use a win over the Celtics for both morale and home-court advantage in a possible conference semifinals matchup. With the way they've been playing, the Celtics could also use a statement win.
In the West, the Lakers host the Spurs next Tuesday. San Antonio currently has a two-game lead in the loss column over L.A., but if they drop one of their three games this week, the door is open for the Lakers to grab the No. 1 spot in the West.
Despite their loss to the Nuggets on Sunday, the Lakers retain the No. 1 spot in the Power Rankings. Denver was the only team in last week's top 10 not to lose over the last seven days, and they've been rewarded for their post-trade improvement, vaulting into the top five for the first time this season.
• Last week: Lakers and Bulls taking charge after break
• This time last year: Lakers looking nothing like champs - Andrew Bogut's fall against Phoenix ended his season, the Lakers were 14-9 (with a below-average offense) since the All-Star break, the Heat had the league's best defense since the break, and the Raptors were a playoff team.
Hero Team of the Week: Portland (3-1) - The Blazers lost by four in New Orleans, but beat the Spurs on the road, and the Thunder and Mavs at home.
Zero Team of the Week: New Jersey (0-4) - The Nets were the only team with four losses last week. They lost to the Knicks by four, but were outscored by 64 points over the other three.
Plus-minus Stud: Zach Randolph (MEM) was a plus-62 in three games last week.
Plus-minus Dud: Michael Beasley (MIN) was a minus-60 in three games last week.
High jumps of the week: Denver (+4), Portland (+3), Four teams (+2)
Free falls of the week: Dallas (-3), Orlando (-3), Three teams (-2)
East vs. West: The West is 260-186 (.583) against the East in inter-conference games this season, but the East was 5-3 last week.
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
Off: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league averages 94.6 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 104.5 points scored per 100 possessions.
NBA.com's Power Rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Monday during the season. If you've got an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.
L.A. Lakers (55-21)|
Pace: 93.3 (21), Off: 108.5 (4), Def: 101.1 (6)
Just when it looked like the Lakers had the edge in the fight for the best record in the West, they couldn't score against the Nuggets on Sunday. The good news is that they've still got a two-game lead in the loss column over Boston and Miami, and home-court advantage in The Finals is more important.
Pace: 93.0 (22), Off: 105.4 (12), Def: 97.4 (1)
With Joakim Noah out, the Bulls have allowed two straight opponents to shoot 50 percent for the first time since Nov. 5. But they beat the Pistons by forcing 20 turnovers and beat the Raptors with offense. The overall No. 1 seed is within reach, but they've got tough games against Boston and Orlando this week.
Pace: 93.5 (19), Off: 109.3 (2), Def: 100.9 (5)
He may say that Derrick Rose deserves to be MVP, but LeBron James' actions suggest that he's not ready to give up the crown. Over the last six games, he's shooting 62 percent and averaging 30.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists. Dwyane Wade (29.3 points, 53 percent shooting) hasn't been bad either.
San Antonio (58-19)|
Pace: 94.8 (14), Off: 109.0 (3), Def: 102.6 (9)
In addition to their (more critical) defensive issues, the Spurs were in a bit of a 3-point shooting slump (19-for-73 over three games) before hitting 14-of-25 threes in Sunday's win over the Suns. They're 22-2 when they hit 10 or more threes and 33-4 when they shoot 41 percent or better from downtown.
Pace: 98.0 (3), Off: 109.5 (1), Def: 104.5 (17)
It's time to take the Nuggets very seriously. They're the No. 1 offensive team in the league, and have actually been the best defensive team (96.6) since the All-Star break. As evidence of their balance, nine different Nuggets scored in double-figures in at least one of their three games last week.
Oklahoma City (50-26)|
Pace: 95.2 (13), Off: 108.3 (6), Def: 103.9 (13)
The Thunder have been excellent defensively (95.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) in 246 minutes with both Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka on the floor, but they've struggled on the other end in dropping two straight. We get a playoff preview with two Denver-OKC meetings this week.
Pace: 90.7 (30), Off: 105.6 (11), Def: 103.9 (14)
The Blazers are one of five teams in the top 10 both offensively (109.1) and defensively (103.0) since March 1st. In that time, seven of their 12 wins have come against the top four teams in either conference, including two (at home) against Dallas, their likely first-round opponent.
Pace: 92.5 (23), Off: 104.4 (17), Def: 97.7 (2)
The one thing the Celtics had going for them was how dominant their starting lineup with Shaquille O'Neal was early in the season. But then 5 1/2 minutes after he returned from injury on Sunday, Shaq got hurt again. It might be minor, but what are the chances he's healthy for the whole postseason?
Pace: 93.3 (20), Off: 107.4 (8), Def: 102.7 (11)
Between Feb. 1 and Sunday, the Mavs played 20 of their 30 games on the road. So a three-game losing streak at the end of that stretch (and at the end of a six-game trip) shouldn't be too much to worry about. With just a single road game in Houston left, they won't leave the state of Texas until Game 3 of the first round.
Pace: 94.5 (15), Off: 104.6 (15), Def: 102.7 (10)
The Grizzlies picked the right time to get back to playing top-10 defense. They've allowed 97.1 points per 100 possessions as they've won seven of their last eight to virtually ensure a return to the postseason. Zach Randolph has been beastly, averaging 23.3 points and 10.5 boards over the last four.
Pace: 93.6 (18), Off: 105.9 (10), Def: 99.6 (3)
Sunday's loss in Toronto may have been the Magic's worst of the season, but Wednesday's loss in Atlanta may have been more alarming. The Hawks beat the Magic three times, held them to just 91.7 points per 100 possessions in four meetings, and have a secret weapon named Jason Collins.
New Orleans (44-33)|
Pace: 90.9 (29), Off: 104.1 (18), Def: 101.7 (7)
Carl Landry is averaging 20.2 points on 54 percent shooting in his five starts, but the Hornets' new starting lineup hasn't been great defensively (108.7 in 87 minutes) and they got destroyed on the boards in Friday's loss to the Grizzlies. The two teams are now tied for seventh and meet again in Memphis on Sunday.
Pace: 94.1 (94.1), Off: 104.4 (16), Def: 102.3 (8)
The biggest difference between last year's 27-55 Sixers and this year's team is how well they defend the 3-point line. They ranked 30th in 3-point defense last season (39.3 percent) and third this season (33.7). Thaddeus Young had a big week, averaging 19.8 points on 59 percent shooting as Philly went 3-1.
Pace: 97.0 (6), Off: 108.4 (5), Def: 106.8 (21)
It's a shame that the Rockets took so long to find a winning formula, but they shouldn't look back at their season with too many regrets. They lost only three home games to non-playoff teams. One thing's for sure: They've got a bargain in Kyle Lowry at less than $6 million a season for three more years.
Pace: 91.6 (27), Off: 103.7 (20), Def: 104.1 (15)
The Hawks beat the Magic and Celtics last week, and their most important players in the two games were arguably their back-up centers. Zaza Pachulia went for 15 and 10 against Boston, while Jason Collins gave them a defensive edge against Orlando. They could have used that in Houston on Sunday.
New York (38-38)|
Pace: 98.1 (2), Off: 108.2 (7), Def: 107.1 (22)
Carmelo Anthony is putting up big numbers (34.8 points on 51 percent shooting over the last four games) and the Knicks are officially in the playoffs. Most important is that the Knicks have actually outscored their opponents by 21 points in the four games with Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire on the floor together.
Pace: 96.9 (8), Off: 107.0 (9), Def: 107.1 (23)
We knew that the Suns weren't making the playoffs, but they're now in serious danger of finishing with a losing record for the first time since Steve Nash returned to Phoenix in 2004. With Nash under the weather and Chicago, Dallas and San Antonio left on their schedule, such a fate looks inevitable.
Golden State (33-44)|
Pace: 97.5 (5), Off: 105.3 (13), Def: 107.9 (27)
Since that first-round upset in 2007, the Warriors haven't had much success (4-11) against Dallas, but Saturday's win over the Mavs was their best defensive game against a playoff team this season. They're 16-4 when holding an opponent under 100 points and 15-5 when Monta Ellis scores 30-plus.
Pace: 92.0 (26), Off: 98.9 (30), Def: 100.4 (4)
The Bucks' two losses last week, against the two teams ahead of them in the standings, basically summed up (and ended) their season. They missed their final 11 shots in a one-point loss in Charlotte and had Drew Gooden taking a long 3-pointer at the buzzer of a one-point loss in Indiana.
Pace: 97.0 (7), Off: 101.8 (23), Def: 103.5 (12)
At the most critical time of the Pacers' season, it was the good Roy Hibbert that showed up wearing the No. 55 jersey. He had 26 points against the Celtics and 15 points, 11 boards and four blocks against the Bucks. Darren Collison also caught fire at the right time, shooting 22-for-29 in three wins last week.
Pace: 93.9 (17), Off: 104.9 (14), Def: 107.4 (24)
The Jazz have now lost eight straight games, and unless they pull off a miracle turnaround and win each of their remaining five - all against playoff teams, including road games against the Lakers and Spurs - they're going to finish with a losing record for just the second time in the last 28 years.
L.A. Clippers (30-47)|
Pace: 95.4 (12), Off: 102.1 (22), Def: 106.5 (20)
Blake Griffin has been the story of the season, but the Clippers can maybe build on their status as a decent defensive team at times. They ranked 10th defensively in December and have been 11th best on that end since March 1. They held the Thunder under a point per possession in Saturday's win.
Pace: 92.2 (25), Off: 100.3 (26), Def: 104.3 (16)
When you lose a home game to the Wizards in a game you absolutely need and give up 16 offensive rebounds in the process, you can probably kiss your playoff chances goodbye. The Bobcats still have a little bit of life in them, but likely need the Wizards to come up with another road win in Indiana on Wednesday.
Pace: 97.7 (4), Off: 100.5 (25), Def: 106.0 (18)
Before their team likely bolts for Anaheim, Sacramento fans got to see Tyreke Evans return to form last week. He came two assists shy of a triple-double in Tuesday's win over the Suns and had 24 points and 10 dimes in Sunday's win over the Jazz. That was just his third double-digit assist game of the season.
New Jersey (23-53)|
Pace: 92.3 (24), Off: 99.7 (27), Def: 106.5 (19)
The Nets have lost six straight and can help the Jazz's lottery chances by dropping a few more. They were right there with the Knicks until the final seconds on Wednesday, but will need a win on Friday to avoid being swept by New York for the first time since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season.
Pace: 91.3 (28), Off: 103.9 (19), Def: 109.1 (28)
Just when you thought the Pistons were going to get through the rest of the season without any more disciplinary issues, Rodney Stuckey refused to go back into Friday's loss to the Bulls in the fourth quarter, according to the Detroit News. The Pistons suspended Stuckey for Sunday's loss in Boston.
Pace: 95.5 (11), Off: 103.4 (21), Def: 110.1 (30)
The Raptors hung tight with the Bulls and knocked off the Magic last week. DeMar DeRozan has made one of the biggest leaps from last season when it comes to scoring, going from 8.6 points per game to 16.8. His next step is stepping back to the 3-point line, from where he's 4-for-41.
Pace: 96.3 (9), Off: 99.4 (28), Def: 107.6 (25)
It was an eventful week for the Wizards. John Wall got ejected and suspended, Jordan Crawford recorded their third triple-double, Andray Blatche grabbed 36 rebounds in two games, JaVale McGee denied the Heatles, and they won twice as many road games as they had won over the previous 22 weeks.
Pace: 95.7 (10), Off: 99.0 (29), Def: 109.6 (29)
Probably the most fascinating thing about the Cavs' win over the Heat on Tuesday was Ryan Hollins' plus-33 in a game that was decided by 12 points. J.J. Hickson was the star of the standard stats on that night and averaged 21.3 points and 9.3 rebounds, while shooting 58 percent, in four games last week.
Pace: 99.2 (1), Off: 100.8 (24), Def: 107.7 (26)
Kevin Love returned from a three-game absence, ran his streak to three straight non-double-doubles, and then missed Saturday's loss in Memphis. The Wolves have had second-half leads on both the Celtics and Heat over the last eight days, but have lost 10 straight, scoring just 94.7 points per 100 possessions.