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Nuggets, Rockets among 5 hottest teams since the All-Star break

A closer look at the teams gaining momentum since the All-Star break, how they got here and where they might be going.

Collision course? Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets and Jayson Tatum’s Celtics have both lost just 3 games since the All-Star break.

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There’s a question to be asked of all 30 teams right around this time of year, when the NBA regular season rounds the corner and heads for the home stretch:

Do you blossom after the All-Star break, or will you brake?

It’s all about gaining or losing momentum in March and early April, and this carries major ramifications for positioning in the standings and avoiding the SoFi Play-In Tournament, or the flip side, trying to gain entry into it.

This season’s no different, as evident by the madness swirling at the top and in the belly of the Western Conference.

Here are the top five teams record-wise since the All-Star break, and how they got here, and where they might be going:

1. Denver Nuggets (15-3 since the break)

A case can be made that this stretch by the Nuggets is a cut above anyone else’s this season except Boston going 20-2 from Feb. 4 through last Sunday. Denver’s sizzle combines dominance, stamina, an unwillingness to relax and a dogged pursuit of the best record in the West.

The Nuggets’ three losses since the break were twice to Kevin Durant (the last one without Jamal Murray) and by two points against Luka Doncic. Now take a look at the wins: over Minnesota, Sacramento, Miami (twice) and the biggest scalp of the bunch, vs. the Celtics on March 7 in what was perhaps an NBA Finals sneak-peek.

The Wolves and Thunder are also prodding the Nuggets, which is helping to keep them sharp. That and Nikola Jokic is immune to slumps. The Kia MVP favorite had four straight triple-doubles right after the break, propelling his team into what we’re witnessing now.

Denver gets Minnesota on Friday (9 ET, NBA League Pass) for the second meeting in 10 days between the teams, and that could be meaningful. What’s scary is that in the dog days of 2023-24, the defending champs are treating March like May.

2. Boston Celtics (14-3)

There’s no slowing the Celtics, who are aggressively pushing for a re-spelling of the city name to Boss-ton. Their hold on the East is more secure than a mountain climber’s grip, and the “chase” for the best record in the conference was over not long after the break.

The reason for the Celtics’ lofty place on this list is, for one, they’re good (duh) and secondly, they’re deep. About that last part: depth means the Celtics can give breathers to their core players, as they’ve done lately in anticipation of the playoffs, and still issue beat-downs. Case in point — Jrue Holiday, Kristaps Porzingis and Jayson Tatum have missed games with minor stuff and no big deal.

Did you see the step-ups by Sam Hauser, Peyton Prichard and the reliable Derrick White lately? What about Jaylen Brown taking over games instinctively and Tatum-like?

They’ve only lost three games since the break, two by a combined three points, the other to the defending champion Nuggets. Otherwise, the Celtics remain on pace to win 65-plus and finish the season as strongly as they started.

T-3. Houston Rockets (13-5)

A team that was 25-34 when February ended and was teetering now owns the league’s longest active winning streak. What a way for the Rockets to make this list, by beating OKC in an overtime thriller Wednesday and extending the run to 10 straight wins.

Oh, we should mention: Houston is very much in play for the Play-In Tournament, daring the 10th-place Golden State Warriors, who are just a game up, to stumble even a little bit (Rockets vs. Warriors in Houston on April 4 might get crazy).

Oh, we should also mention: Jalen Green is volcanic right now, averaging 29.8 points per game during the streak and doing it very efficiently for a change. He has a pair of 40-plus games and a pair of 37-pointers. Oh, we forgot: Houston is winning without Alperen Sengun, the club’s leading scorer before he went down with an ankle sprain.

It would be a drastic and refreshing change of fortune if this team, which had losing skids of 13 and 12 last season, keeps streaking in the right direction here in the post-break under new coach Ime Udoka.

T-3. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-5)

All’s swell with the ambitious Thunder, still riding the ingredients for success — a Kia MVP candidate in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a Kia Rookie of the Year candidate in Chet Holmgren, and no candidates for major injuries. As a result, OKC is making a big move at snatching the best record and home-court advantage in the West.

That’s what is keeping the Thunder hungry in the home stretch. When the break ended OKC was only a game behind the Wolves for first place, and chasing that carrot became the main motivation. The Thunder realize the benefits of finishing first, namely, home court throughout. This young team lacks championship flavor, so that would be massive.

Their post-break record also makes a statement (in a sense): OKC is determined to demand your respect. The team hasn’t traveled into May since 2016, so there’s a sense of prove-yourself. If OKC gets first place in the West and, suppose, faces the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, some might view that as a toss-up.

5. Orlando Magic (12-5)

The franchise’s second winning season since 2018-19 is secured. Now with that hump cleared, the Magic can focus on steering clear of the Play-In Tournament and making a run for home-court advantage in the first round. Could they finish as high as third in the East?

It’s possible for a team that found its footing since the break and put it on the throats of others. The Jamahl Mosley-coached group may be young but you can’t tell most nights.

The Magic play defense, ranking No. 1 in defensive rating since the All-Star break. Since the All-Star break, the Magic rank No. 5 in opponent turnovers (14.6 per game), second in opponent second-chance points (9.4) and No. 5 in opponent points in the paint (44.7).

That’s what separates Orlando from the other youthful teams.

Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner struggled with deep shooting (combined 3-for-19 on 3s) the last two games, both losses, so the Magic’s leading scorers must clean that up.

And Orlando’s fifth place in the East is tenuous. Any combination of their two-game skid continuing and Miami or Indiana surging could spell trouble.

Honorable mention

Bucks (11-5). An honorable mention for a team that has been harpooned and lampooned much of the year. That goes with the territory when you add title-starved Damian Lillard to an MVP winner in Giannis Antetokounmpo and fire the coach at midseason because projections aren’t met. Coach Doc Rivers had a slippery start after replacing Adrian Griffin and since then, other than a lapse against the Lakers, Milwaukee and its two stars are starting to figure it out.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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