NBA Power Rankings, Week 18
Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have led the Sixers to the top of the latest Power Rankings.
There are four weeks left in the regular season. Four weeks for teams to fight for playoff position and/or find a rhythm before the playoffs begin. But it seems like doing both of those things has never been more difficult.
In both conferences, there are examples of teams (Miami in the East, Dallas and others in the West) who should already have their foot on the gas peddle, but simply can’t put wins together, even when the games on the schedule are very winnable.
Injuries and a condensed schedule have played their part. Teams do not want to risk May and June to win an extra game or two in April. And that caution has affected the top of this week’s Power Rankings, where the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz have all slid down, having suffered multiple or somewhat inexplicable losses last week.
Right now, there is no clear “best team in the league.” The Jazz still have the best record, but have lost four of their last eight. The Nets have the highest ceiling, but can’t get (and stay) healthy.
So for the first time this season, the Philadelphia 76ers are in the top spot, climbing all the way up from No. 6, with the rise fueled by wins over the Mavs, Nets and Clippers in the last seven days. With more tough games this week, that position may be tenuous. But when they’ve been whole, the Sixers have handled the top competition pretty well (see below).
Plus-Minus Players of the Week
Teams of the Week
- Make It Last Forever: Washington (4-0) — Maybe triple-doubles are meaningful again.
- Something Just Ain’t Right: Dallas (1-3) — If it weren’t for one miraculous shot, it would have been a brutal week for the Mavs.
East vs. West
Schedule strength through Week 17
- Toughest: 1. Minnesota, 2. Dallas, 3. Washington
- Easiest: 1. Phoenix, 2. New York, 3. Chicago
- Schedule strength is based on cumulative opponent record, and adjusted for home vs. away and days of rest before a game.
Movement in the Rankings
- High jumps of the week: Boston (+6), Philadelphia (+5), New York (+5)
- Free falls of the week: Dallas (-6), Miami (-6), Detroit (-3), Utah (-3)
Week 18 Team to Watch
- Milwaukee — The Bucks are the same team as they were last season, and we really won’t know if that’s a good thing until the playoffs. But this week could offer a clue or two. They’ll get a visit from the Suns on Monday and then have two days off before hosting a huge, two-game series with the first-place Sixers on Thursday and Saturday. After that, they’ll travel to Atlanta to play the fourth-place Hawks on Sunday night.
Previous Power Rankings
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league has averaged 99.7 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 111.5 points scored per 100 possessions this season.
NBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man’s opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.
Pace: 100.8 (10) OffRtg: 111.8 (15) DefRtg: 106.6 (2) NetRtg: +5.2 (6)
The Sixers probably let the shorthanded Nets hang around for too long on Wednesday, but they got the win they needed to take control of the top seed in the East. And it was one of three wins against good teams missing good players last week, improving the Sixers to 16-12 in games played between the 15 teams that are currently over .500. They’re 9-1 against that group (the only loss came in the final seconds in Portland) when they’ve had their full starting lineup.
Joel Embiid has led the way, averaging 34.5 points (shooting 13-for-24 from mid-range), over the Sixers’ four-game winning streak. And Furkan Korkmaz has had his best stretch of the season, averaging 15.8 points (on an effective field goal percentage of 68%) over the last five. Korkmaz’s season-long numbers are down a bit from last season, but he’s doing a little more by himself, with the percentage of his buckets being assisted dropping from 87% to 71%. He had only seven points against Brooklyn, but two of those came (after he almost lost the ball a couple of times) on an impressive late-clock iso (gif’d below) vs. Nicolas Claxton.
The toughest stretch of the Sixers’ second-half schedule continues this week. Their first meeting with the Bucks (March 17) came without Embiid and was their worst offensive performance of the season (105 points on 121 possessions), but wasn’t decided until overtime.
Week 18: vs. GSW, vs. PHX, @ MIL, @ MIL
Pace: 97.9 (27) OffRtg: 117.4 (1) DefRtg: 110.6 (10) NetRtg: +6.8 (2)
The Clippers are dealing with similar continuity issues as the ones they had last year. Prior to Sunday, they had both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for only five of their previous 13 games. Serge Ibaka hasn’t played in more than a month, and Patrick Beverley is still a couple of weeks from his first post-hand-surgery evaluation. But the Clips have been taking care of business, tied with the Suns for the best record (14-3) over the last month and having beat Phoenix in their head-to-head meeting 11 days ago.
And the Clippers haven’t conceded anything. Playing without both George and Leonard in Detroit on Wednesday, they came back from 11 points down with less than five minutes to go and Reggie Jackson provided the late-game heroics against his former team. Playing without Leonard two nights later in Philly, they climbed out of an early, 14-point hole, had an efficient second half against the league’s second-ranked defense, and took a brief lead before scoring just two points (with four turnovers) on their next six possessions.
Clutch offense does remain an issue. The team with the most efficient offense in NBA history has scored just 107.3 points per 100 possessions (18th best) with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Among 96 players with at least 20 clutch field goal attempts, Leonard (34.3%) and George (32.6%) rank 86th and 88th in effective field goal percentage on those shots.
Week 18: @ POR, vs. MEM, @ HOU
Pace: 98.2 (24) OffRtg: 115.3 (7) DefRtg: 108.6 (5) NetRtg: +6.7 (3)
The Suns are set to play 12 of their final 16 games on the road, with the five-game trip that begins Monday pitting them against five of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. Phoenix has the league’s best road record (17-7), along with the West’s second-best record (16-6) against the East. They’re 4-1 against the East’s top six, with the one loss having come when they blew a 24-point lead to Brooklyn.
Though they remain in a tight race for the top seed in the West, there wasn’t a ton of urgency to bank as many wins as possible at home. But the Suns really laid an egg against the Spurs on Saturday. It was their worst offensive game of the season and just their fifth loss that wasn’t within five points in the last five minutes.
They did win the first four games of their five-game homestand, scoring more than 121 points per 100 possessions, with seven guys averaging double-figures. Torrey Craig isn’t one of those seven, but he had two big buckets in the game-changing, 11-1, fourth-quarter against the Kings on Thursday, gave the Suns some good minutes against Miami two nights earlier, and is 14-for-35 (40%) from 3-point range in his 16 games since the trade from Milwaukee. He might not have a big role in the postseason (he mostly struggled in the playoffs last year), but Craig was certainly worth a flier, with the Suns having acquired him for cash.
Week 18: @ MIL, @ PHI, @ BOS, @ BKN
Pace: 100.3 (11) OffRtg: 117.2 (2) DefRtg: 113.0 (25) NetRtg: +4.3 (7)
Before James Harden could return from his hamstring injury, *the Nets lost Kevin Durant to a left thigh contusion. This injury seems less concerning than previous ones (he took a knee to the leg in the first quarter on Sunday) and Durant has shot 35-for-52 (67%) since returning from his hamstring injury. Not bad. But the question of how much time the Nets’ three stars will get on the floor together (before the playoffs) remains unanswered. So far, the total remains 186 minutes (none since Feb. 13) over seven games.
* If it feels like last week’s entry in this space began in similar fashion, that’s because it did.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s retirement shouldn’t move the needle too much, but the seven-time All-Star did have a combination of size and skill that the Nets’ other options at center can’t provide. DeAndre Jordan had some success defending Joel Embiid early on Wednesday (Embiid was 1-for-4 in the paint in the first quarter), but the Sixers’ Kia MVP candidate finished with 39 points as Philadelphia clinched the season series. On the other end of the floor, Jordan obviously can’t pull Embiid away from the basket like Aldridge could. The Nets started Jeff Green alongside Jordan against Charlotte on Friday, but that’s been a disastrous combination defensively.
Having their stars healthy will help answer the Nets’ questions on the frontline. With the way Landry Shamet has been shooting (13-for-23 from 3-point range over the weekend), the secondary perimeter options look stronger than ever, increasing their ability to play Durant at the four.
Week 18: @ NOP, @ TOR, vs. BOS, vs. PHX
Pace: 99.6 (14) OffRtg: 116.7 (4) DefRtg: 107.8 (4) NetRtg: +8.9 (1)
The Jazz have been remarkably healthy. In only two of their first 53 games (a two-game series against Dallas in late January) did they have fewer than eight of their nine rotation guys available. But with a couple of injuries (sprained ankles for Jordan Clarkson and Donovan Mitchell) and the decision to get some guys (beyond Mike Conley) some rest, they were relatively shorthanded last week. They lost at home for the first time in 2021 and, playing without Rudy Gobert for the first time this season, got beat up in the paint by the Lakers on Saturday.
As long as Gobert has been on the floor, the Jazz have been good. Over their four games last week, the Jazz were more than 29 points per 100 possessions better with Gobert on the floor (+14.1) than they were with him off the floor (-15.3). For the season, that differential is 16.6, the biggest among players who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes. Gobert’s impact goes well beyond his rim protection, and Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic shouldn’t be the only centers in the Kia MVP “conversation.”
Mitchell will miss at least two more games with his ankle injury. Thursday and Friday are the Jazz’s final two-day break of the regular season, but they have just two back-to-backs remaining. And after they complete this two-game series with the Lakers, only three of their final 14 games are against teams with winning records, with seven of the other 11 against the bottom four teams in the West. Their ability to keep guys rested and keep the No.1 seed could come down to their game in Phoenix next Friday.
Week 18: @ LAL, @ HOU, vs. MIN
Pace: 97.4 (28) OffRtg: 117.0 (3) DefRtg: 110.7 (14) NetRtg: +5.5 (5)
Jamal Murray’s left knee injury, suffered in the final minute of the Nuggets’ loss at Golden State on Monday, isn’t just devastating in regard to this season. Murray had registered career-high marks in scoring (both on a per-game and per-minute basis) and true shooting percentage (59.2%) as the Nuggets are 19-5 since late February. An ACL tear can take 15-18 months to fully recover from, and we have to remember that the plan is for next season to be on a normal schedule, with the playoffs starting this week.
The Nuggets recovered from the Murray injury to get a good win over Miami on Wednesday, taking control with a 25-7, second-quarter run started by a lineup of Michael Porter Jr. and four reserves. That unit outscored the Heat and Rockets, 46-27, in 17 total minutes on Wednesday and Friday, scoring those 46 points on 35 offensive possessions. Since the All-Star break, Porter has averaged 21.5 points on an effective field goal percentage of 65.6% (third best among 96 players with at least 200 post-break field goal attempts). And at +172, Porter ranks fourth in cumulative plus-minus since break.
Week 18: vs. MEM, @ POR, @ GSW, vs. HOU
Pace: 102.5 (3) OffRtg: 116.2 (5) DefRtg: 109.9 (6) NetRtg: +6.3 (4)
The Bucks have added some versatility to their defense — more switching, more zone — this season. That may help in the playoffs, when they’ll need to adjust to whatever opponent is in their way. But the consistency and downright dominance of the last two seasons on that end of the floor has been lost. In their win in Milwaukee on Saturday, the Grizzlies didn’t just make 15 3-pointers and 12 shots in floater range (the Grizzlies’ specialty). They were also 18-for-20 in the restricted area, with the Bucks having trouble taking care of the ball on one end (their 16 turnovers led to some transition opportunities for Memphis) and containing it on the other. The Bucks’ zone also had some rough moments and, at 1.05 points allowed per possession, ranks 18th among the 24 defenses that have played at least 75 possessions of zone, according to Synergy tracking.
More important is that Giannis Antetokounmpo returned to the lineup (from a six-game absence) last week, playing 54 total minutes against the Hawks and Grizz. And more important are the Bucks’ two games against the Sixers this week, how well they can defend Joel Embiid (who missed the first meeting), and what kinds of shots they can generate against Philly’s second-ranked defense. The Bucks scored 31 points in the first half of that meeting in Philly a month ago.
Week 18: vs. PHX, vs. PHI, vs. PHI, @ ATL
Pace: 98.6 (22) OffRtg: 113.6 (10) DefRtg: 111.6 (15) NetRtg: +2.0 (9)
The Celtics are a league-best 8-1 in April, and their six-game win streak includes victories over four teams with winning records and the red-hot Stephen Curry. All five of those wins were close (even though they led the Lakers by 27 points with eight minutes left on Thursday). After losing their first eight post-break games that were within five points in the last five minutes, the Celtics are 5-0 in the clutch this month. They’ve scored 67 points on 49 clutch possessions in April, with Jayson Tatum having scored 25 of those 67 points and Marcus Smart having shot 4-for-5 on clutch 3-pointers. Both of them had huge buckets in the final 80 seconds their win over the Warriors (one of the best games the season) after Jabari Parker got the comeback started.
Wait … Jabari Parker?
The Celtics rank in the top six on both ends of the floor this month, and this is the first time that they’ve ranked in the top 10 (for the full season) on either end of the floor since the start of Week 9. Tatum has averaged 29.3 points (on 50/40/90 splits) over the nine games, with the two highest scoring games of his career (53 and 44 points) having come in the last 10 days. When Tatum had a quiet night in L.A. on Thursday, Jaylen Brown scored 40 points (on 17-for-20 shooting) against the league’s No. 1 defense.
The Celtics’ defense will be challenged this week, especially by the division rival that has scored 126 points per 100 possessions in two meetings thus far.
Week 18: vs. CHI, vs. PHX, @ BKN, @ CHA
Pace: 99.1 (18) OffRtg: 110.0 (20) DefRtg: 105.8 (1) NetRtg: +4.2 (8)
The Lakers continue to tread water without their stars, winning seven of their last 12 games. Elite defense has been the foundation of their success, and the offense is starting to pick up. The last five games have been their most efficient stretch (112.8 points scored per 100 possessions) since LeBron James’ ankle injury, and have come with incredible balance. Dennis Schroder has been the go-to guy and had key buckets down the stretch of wins over the Hornets and Jazz last week. But eight different Lakers have averaged double-digits over this five-game stretch (though only four of those eight have played in all five games).
After a couple of quiet nights earlier in the week and another toe-related absence, Andre Drummond scored 27 points against Utah on Saturday. He took advantage of Rudy Gobert’s absence, but six of those points were a result of his own active hands on defense. Relative to how the Lakers have generally played without their stars, the offensive numbers (116.3 points scored 100 possessions) have been better than the defensive numbers (108.9 allowed per 100) with Drummond on the floor.
Anthony Davis could be back this week. In regard to avoiding the Play-In Tournament, the Lakers’ most important games are the two they play in Dallas on Thursday and Saturday.
Week 18: vs. UTA, @ DAL, @ DAL
Pace: 100.9 (8) OffRtg: 111.8 (14) DefRtg: 110.0 (8) NetRtg: +1.8 (12)
The Grizzlies did not wait for the return of Jaren Jackson Jr. to break out offensively. They have the No. 1 offense in April (120.8 points scored per 100 possessions), having seen big jumps in both 3-point percentage (40.9% in April, 34.7% prior) and the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (38.0%, 32.6%). And they’ve done that with one of their best shooters (De’Anthony Melton) having missed the last eight games.
Grayson Allen missed the free throws that opened the door for Luka Doncic’s ridiculous game-winner on Wednesday, but has led the charge from beyond the arc (35-for-80 this month). Though he’s been the designated shooter in the Grizzlies’ starting lineup for most of the season, Allen hasn’t been super aggressive in hunting shots. But in April he’s attempted 10.1 3s per 36 minutes, up from 7.4 per 36 prior. Allen doesn’t run off screens with the urgency of a JJ Redick or Duncan Robinson, but a shooter who’s both accurate and aggressive will open things up for the Grizzlies’ paint attack. Ja Morant himself has started to find his shot after making just 24% of his 3s through March.
The Grizzlies remain in control for one of the top two spots in the Western Conference Play-In, but are just 2-12 against the seven teams ahead of them in the standings and play their next six games against the Nuggets, Clippers and Blazers.
Week 18: @ DEN, @ LAC, @ POR, @ POR
Pace: 98.6 (21) OffRtg: 114.2 (8) DefRtg: 112.3 (20) NetRtg: +1.9 (10)
The Hawks remain shorthanded on the perimeter, but got John Collins back from a nine-absence on Sunday. They went 7-2 over that sans-Collins stretch, with Bogdan Bogdanovic shooting 41-for-78 (53%) from 3-point range and Trae Young and Clint Capela combining to shoot 16-for-22 in the clutch. And with Collins’ return, the Hawks’ latest starting lineup outscored the Pacers, 39-19, in its 12.5 minutes. The bench gave up a lead in the fourth quarter, but the starters came back and put the game away by scoring 17 points on a stretch of seven possessions, with Young scoring, assisting on, or creating (via a lob to Collins in which he was fouled) all 17 of those points.
The Hawks have played 15 different wing combinations alongside Young, Collins and Capela. The numbers have been best (+14.2 points per 100 possessions) when DeAndre Hunter (who’s played in just two games since January) has been one of the other two guys, but Bogdanovic’s minutes with the trio have been limited thus far.
Atlanta has followed a 9-4 March with an 8-2 April, and its two most important games on the remaining schedule are Wednesday (in New York) and Friday (against Miami). In losing their first two meetings with the Knicks, the Hawks struggled to defend the league’s 22nd-ranked offense. And in splitting their first two meetings with the Heat, they committed 40 turnovers.
Week 18: vs. ORL, @ NYK, vs. MIA, vs. MIL
Pace: 96.6 (30) OffRtg: 109.4 (22) DefRtg: 107.5 (3) NetRtg: +1.8 (11)
The Knicks have one of the league’s most difficult remaining schedules, with eight of their final 14 games against teams currently over .500. Ten days ago, they were 7-16 against that group (and just 4-15 since early January). But their six-game win streak (their longest in seven years) includes wins over the Grizzlies, Lakers and Mavs (two of those teams have top-10 defenses) in which they scored almost 119 points per 100 possessions. With Julius Randle averaging 30.7 points (notably seeing jumps in both 3-point rate and free throw rate) and 7.0 assists, they’ve scored 115.9 per 100 over the streak as a whole, their best stretch of offense this season.
Randle’s heavy minutes load (he’s averaged 40.9 over the winning streak) haven’t provided much opportunity for Obi Toppin, but the Knicks’ backcourt reserves (two vets, one rookie) have been been big. Three of their best plus-minus marks over the streak belong to Immanuel Quickley (+63), Alec Burks (+38) and Derrick Rose (+35), who got Lonzo Ball to bite on his drive before kicking out to Reggie Bullock for the game-tying 3-pointer on Sunday. The Knicks’ wins in New Orleans and Dallas earlier in the week both turned on runs (10-1 and 16-3) spanning the third and fourth quarters, and in regard to point differential when reserves are on the floor, the Knicks have the league’s most improved bench from last season.
The win on Sunday was the start of a six-game homestand that includes a back-to-back this week against teams (Charlotte and Atlanta) also in the 4-8 scrum in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks have won 13 of their last 17 at Madison Square Garden.
Week 18: vs. CHA, vs. ATL, vs. TOR
Pace: 98.7 (20) OffRtg: 115.7 (6) DefRtg: 115.9 (29) NetRtg: -0.2 (15)
There’s probably no need to panic when Damian Lillard is on your side, but there should certainly be a level of concern in Portland right now. The Blazers have lost five of their last seven games, Lillard is banged up (he missed both of their weekend games with a hamstring issue), and the schedule is about to get nasty.
With Lillard not shooting well (35%) prior to his absence, the offense has seen a bigger drop-off over this 2-5 stretch. But the Blazers’ chronic defensive issues have also been present, like when they allowed the shorthanded Hornets to score 44 first-quarter points on Sunday. The Kings have had a stranglehold on the “league’s worst defense” title since mid-January, but the Blazers have slowly been closing in.
And now begins the real gauntlet. The Blazers lost a nail-biter to the Celtics on Tuesday, but have still played the fewest games (23) against the 15 teams (of which they’re one) currently over .500. They’re 8-15 (2-11 since mid-February) within that group and will will play 12 of their final 16 games against those other 14 teams, a stretch that includes all three of their meetings with the eighth-place Grizzlies, who trail the Blazers by only two games in the loss column. The stretch begins with a visit from the Clippers, who won the first two meetings by 23 and 17 points.
Week 18: vs. LAC, vs. DEN, vs. MEM, vs. MEM
Pace: 97.9 (26) OffRtg: 113.5 (11) DefRtg: 112.2 (19) NetRtg: +1.3 (13)
With a much easier remaining schedule than the Blazers and two home games against the Lakers this week, the opportunities are there for the Mavs to climb into the top six in the West. But if it weren’t for Luka Doncic’s miraculous game-winner on Wednesday, they’d have a five-game losing streak. Though they’ve come against offenses that rank no higher than 12th, the five games have been the Mavs’ worst stretch of defense (121.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) since mid-February. Their opponents have shot 42% from 3-point range and turned the ball over only 49 times over the five games.
On the other end of the floor, five of the six Mavs who’ve attempted more than 15 3-pointers over the five games have made less than 30% of those attempts. Doncic has shot 77% in the paint over these last five games and made that ridiculous leaner against Memphis, but has otherwise struggled from beyond the arc.
The first meeting between the Mavs and Lakers was on Christmas and was L.A.’s most efficient offensive game of the season. The champs should be a little easier to guard without LeBron James, but Anthony Davis might be making his return on Thursday or Saturday.
Week 18: vs. DET, vs. LAL, vs. LAL
Pace: 97.3 (29) OffRtg: 108.4 (24) DefRtg: 109.9 (7) NetRtg: -1.5 (21)
The most fascinating game within the game when the Heat play is what happens when Bam Adebayo switches ball screens (which is often!). Adebayo can swallow up isolation attempts from the league’s best guards and wings (the 0.67 points per possession he’s allowed on isos ranks fourth among 47 players who’ve defended at least 50) and the switch can flatten opposing offenses out, but it can also put the Heat in a bad position elsewhere on the floor. In the Heat’s loss in Phoenix on Tuesday, the first Adebayo switch onto Devin Booker resulted in a dunk for Deandre Ayton, who rolled behind Trevor Ariza after the switch. But after that, though the Heat lost by 20, Adebayo’s switches mostly worked out for the defense. Later in the first quarter, Booker tried to challenge the big man, getting swatted on one drive and losing the ball on another.
On Sunday, Adebayo got two late-game stops (one, two) against Kyrie Irving before draining the game-winning jumper at the buzzer. The much-needed win came without Jimmy Butler, less than 48 hours after the Heat lost a game (in Minnesota) by eight points when they were outscored by 12 in just 9:23 with Butler off the floor. The Heat are still just 10-18 against the other 14 teams that currently have winning records, but seven of their next eight games are against teams that are at or below .500, with the exception being a big game (to determine the season series) in Atlanta on Friday.
Week 18: vs. HOU, @ SAS, @ ATL, vs. CHI
Pace: 102.9 (2) OffRtg: 109.6 (21) DefRtg: 110.2 (9) NetRtg: -0.5 (18)
Stephen Curry has been on one, averaging 42.6 points and shooting 44-for-81 (54%) from 3-point range over the last five games. The percentage of Curry’s 3-pointers that have come off the dribble (56%) has been the same as it was prior, but he’s made some ridiculously difficult shots both off the bounce and off the catch. At 42.1%, Curry is on pace for his sixth season of 40% or better on at least 200 pull-up 3-point attempts in the eight years for which we have tracking data. The rest of the league also has six such seasons.
Not coincidentally, and with both Andrew Wiggins and Kent Bazemore (starting for the injured Kelly Oubre Jr.) shooting well, the last five games have been the Warriors’ best stretch of offense (121.8 points scored per 100 possessions) this season. (Their differential of +14.9 per 100 is also their best five-game mark of the season by a wide margin.) Draymond Green even attempted some shots last week, scoring a season-high 18 points in a big win over Denver. Alas, Green blew the game-tying layup in Boston on Saturday.
The Warriors still have some work to do to earn one of the last two Play-In spots in the Western Conference. Their last two games of this five-game trip are their last two games against the East. They’ll play their final 13 within the West, with nine of the 13 at home.
Week 18: @ PHI, @ WAS, vs. DEN, vs. SAC
Pace: 99.5 (17) OffRtg: 110.3 (19) DefRtg: 110.8 (11) NetRtg: -0.5 (17)
The Spurs are hanging in against their brutal, second-half schedule. Their loss to Portland on Friday, in which they blew a 16-point lead and essentially turned the game over in the final 30 seconds, was rough. But they rebounded with their best win of the season, a thrashing of the Suns in Phoenix without DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl or Patty Mills. The Spurs have seen the league’s fifth biggest post-All-Star jump in points allowed per 100 possessions (they rank 20th defensively since the break), but the win on Saturday was, by far, Phoenix’s worst offensive performance of the season (85 points on 96 possessions). It also came with big games from Rudy Gay and Devin Vassell (37 total points on 17-for-23 shooting), important given the recent struggles of the Spurs’ bench.
It improved the Spurs to 5-3 without DeRozan and 4-7 in the second games of back-to-backs, with five more back-to-backs to play. The next one is Wednesday and Thursday when they host Miami and Detroit before they begin a four-game trip with what may be their most important game of the second half schedule. With the season series currently tied (both of the previous meetings went down to the wire), their game in New Orleans could go a long way in determining one of the final two Play-In spots in the West.
Week 18: @ IND, vs. MIA, vs. DET, @ NOP
Pace: 99.6 (16) OffRtg: 110.3 (18) DefRtg: 116.3 (13) NetRtg: -1.3 (20)
Attrition has taken a toll on the Hornets, who are 3-5 (with the league’s 26th-ranked offense) since Gordon Hayward’s foot injury. In Brooklyn on Friday, they weren’t just without Hayward, Lonzo Ball and Malik Monk (who’s missed the last nine games), but also Devonte’ Graham, P.J. Washington and Cody Zeller. That did provide an opportunity for rookie big man Vernon Carey Jr., who scored 21 points in his 35 minutes against the Nets, having played 33 total minutes prior to that. Thinking long term, the No. 32 pick in last year’s Draft provides floor spacing that the Hornets aren’t getting from Zeller or Bismack Biyombo. In shooting 5-for-7 from outside the paint on Friday, Carey displayed a smooth-looking stroke.
Of course, it’s not yet time for the Hornets, trying to end a four-year playoff drought, to be thinking long-term. Carey started against Portland on Sunday, but played just seven minutes with Washington and Zeller back in uniform. The backcourt absences have Rozier back in point guard mode, totaling 28 assists over the last three games. The Hornets haven’t been very good defensively, but have scored a solid 112 points per 100 possessions in 421 total minutes with Rozier on the floor without Ball or Graham.
The Hornets have slipped a bit in the standings, but they can make things interesting again (and clinch the season series) with a win in New York on Tuesday.
Week 18: @ NYK, @ CHI, vs. CLE, vs. BOS
Pace: 104.6 (1) OffRtg: 108.6 (23) DefRtg: 112.6 (23) NetRtg: -3.9 (24)
Here come the Wizards! They’ve won six of their last seven games, with the highlight being the Jazz’s first loss at home in 2021. They took control with a 30-10 run spanning the third and fourth quarters with Bradley Beal mostly off the floor. The Wizards’ superstar combo is now Russell Westbrook (seven straight triple-doubles and 14 triple-doubles in the last 18 games) and Robin Lopez, with the team having outscored its opponents by almost 14 points per 100 possessions with the pair on the floor over the 6-1 stretch. At one point in the second quarter on Saturday, both Beal and Westbrook were deferring to the post-up prowess of Lopez.
Improvement over this 6-1 stretch has been about even on both ends of the floor, but with three straight games of holding their opponent to a point per possession or less, the Wizards have done that as many times in April (4) as they did prior. Their latest starting lineup, which has allowed just 103.3 points per 100 possessions, lost Alex Len to an ankle injury on Saturday before it was able to cross the 100-minute threshold. But Lopez and Daniel Gafford (the league’s best rim protector since the trade deadline) have both been capable back-ups.
This run has put the Wizards in a virtual tie with the Bulls and Raptors for the final spot in the Eastern Conference Play-In. They’ve already lost both season series (1-2 vs. Chicago, 0-2 vs. Toronto), but they’ll have another opportunity (May 6 in Tampa) to help themselves against the Raptors and they’re just three games into a stretch of eight straight against teams with losing records. They have all five of their meetings with the Thunder and Cavs remaining, with three of those five this week.
Week 18: vs. OKC, vs. GSW, @ OKC, vs. CLE
Pace: 99.6 (15) OffRtg: 113.8 (9) DefRtg: 114.6 (27) NetRtg: -0.8 (19)
Their three remaining games against the ninth-place Warriors will keep the door to the Play-In Club open for the Pelicans. But the Pelicans might be showing up to the Club with improper attire. Their bottom-five defense has shown signs of improvement, allowing just 105.5 points per 100 possessions over their last six games. But they’ve shot 24% from 3-point range over that stretch, Lonzo Ball shot 4-for-19 from the field in his first two games back, and their late-game issues cost them twice over the weekend.
On Friday in Washington, they blew a seven-point lead with a little more than two minutes to go in regulation, scoring just once on their final 12 possessions of the fourth quarter. And with the scored tied in overtime, Zion Williamson turned the ball over and then fouled Russell Westbrook on a jump shot with one second left. Sunday in New York, two more turnovers and a defensive blunder by Lonzo Ball allowed the Knicks to come back from six points down with less than two minutes to go. The two OT defeats were the Pelicans’ eighth and ninth (they’re 24-9) in games they led by more than five points in the fourth quarter. No other team has more than seven such losses and only the Timberwolves (13-7) have a worse winning percentage in games they led by six or more in the fourth.
The Warriors aren’t the only team the Pelicans can still catch for one of the final two Play-In spots in the West. And their game against the 10th-place Spurs on Saturday will determine the season series.
Week 18: vs. BKN, @ ORL, vs. SAS
Pace: 101.3 (5) OffRtg: 111.3 (16) DefRtg: 111.7 (16) NetRtg: -0.5 (16)
Myles Turner returned from a six-game absence on Sunday and the Pacers had one of their worst defensive games of the season. With Turner on the floor without Domantas Sabonis, the Hawks scored just 26 points on 33 possessions, but with the two bigs on the floor together, Atlanta scored 67 on 43, including 24 points on 12 possessions with the game in the balance in the fourth quarter. (Sabonis scored two of those 24 Atlanta points himself.) The Pacers’ bench continues to keep them in games (they outscored their opponents by 37 points in 39 minutes with Sabonis off the floor over their three-game road trip), but their starters’ minutes continue to be a problem. They lost eight straight third quarters prior to Sunday, when the issue wasn’t the third, but both the start (they trailed 18-6 before making a sub) and the finish.
With Charlotte shorthanded, the Pacers have an opportunity to climb into eighth place in the East, where they would only need to win one Play-In game to make the playoffs. The Hornets have the tie-breaker, but the Pacers have the slightly easier remaining schedule. They also have 11 of their final 16 games at home, though they’ve lost 10 of their last 12 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Week 18: vs. SAS, vs. OKC, vs. DET, @ ORL
Pace: 99.8 (13) OffRtg: 112.2 (13) DefRtg: 111.5 (12) NetRtg: +0.7 (14)
It’s not clear that the Raptors are happy that this is the case, but they enter Week 18 in 10th place, holding a percentage-points edge over the Bulls and Wizards for the final Play-In spot in the East. They’ve won three straight games, even though Kyle Lowry has missed all three … and while Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam have each played in exactly one of the three. They beat the Spurs with only Anunoby and Siakam, the Magic with only VanVleet, and the Thunder with only Trent.
Paul Watson, who has looked like a pretty disruptive defender at times, scored 30 points on Friday. Rookie Malachi Flynn has 46 assists and just 10 turnovers over his last seven games. And Khem Birch might be the steady and sturdy center the Raptors have been missing all season. They’ve outscored their opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions in 80 total minutes with Birch and Chris Boucher (“La connexion montréalaise”) on the floor together.
If the intent is to compete for the Play-In berth, last week’s DNPs (no matter how they were explained) will have the Raptors’ best players extra fresh when they face Brooklyn on Wednesday after a two-day break. Ten of their final 14 games are against teams that are currently over .500, and the Raps have lost 10 of their last 11 games against that group (though, in true Raptors fashion, all 10 losses have been by single digits).
Week 18: vs. BKN, @ NYK
Pace: 100.3 (12) OffRtg: 110.9 (17) DefRtg: 112.5 (21) NetRtg: -1.6 (22)
The good news is that the Bulls are the first team in the league that’s done playing the opposite conference, having lost their last 10 games against the West. Their win against the Cavs on Saturday was the start of 17 straight games within the East to close the season and improved them to 13-13 in the conference. They rank fourth defensively (109.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) in games played between Eastern Conference teams.
The bad news is that the Bulls have been caught (by both the Raptors and Wizards) for the final Play-In spot in the East (although they do have the tie-breaker over both teams. The win over Cleveland was preceded by a five-game losing streak, the Bulls’ worst stretch of defense (119.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) this season, with only one of those five opponents (the eighth-ranked Hawks) being a team that ranks in the top 10 offensively.
The worse news is that health and safety protocols have Zach LaVine out indefinitely. The Bulls have another go-to guy in Nikola Vucevic, but without LaVine, getting to the basket and to the free throw line will be an even bigger struggle than usual. The Bulls rank last in free throw rate and their last five games (14.3 attempts per 100 shots from the field) has been their worst stretch of the season in that regard.
Week 18: @ BOS, @ CLE, vs. CHA, @ MIA
Pace: 100.8 (9) OffRtg: 113.1 (12) DefRtg: 117.5 (30) NetRtg: -4.4 (25)
De’Aaron Fox was doing his thing over the Kings’ second nine-game losing streak of the season, averaging 27.3 points over the nine games, with most of his work coming in the paint (13.3 points per game) or at the free throw line (6.1). While Fox’s jumper looks smooth, it’s still not very effective. His 39.9% from mid-range ranks 42nd among 60 players with at least 100 mid-range attempts and his 29.8% on pull-up 3s ranks 46th among 49 players who’ve attempted at least 100. The other end of the floor remains the bigger concern for the Kings, who allowed almost 121 points per 100 possessions in Fox’s 332 minutes on the floor over the losing streak
The Kings lost Richaun Holmes to a hamstring injury earlier in the week, but put an end to the losing streak on Sunday, with Fox dishing out 12 assists (without a single turnover) in Dallas. Seven of those 12 went to Harrison Barnes, whom the Mavs had no interest in guarding beyond the 3-point line. The Kings now have seven wins over the top seven teams in the West and they’ve still outscored their opponents by a little less than a point per possession in 1,305 total minutes with Fox, Barnes and Buddy Hield on the floor together.
Week 18: vs. MIN, vs. MIN, @ GSW
Pace: 98.3 (23) OffRtg: 108.3 (25) DefRtg: 112.1 (17) NetRtg: -3.8 (23)
The Pistons’ busy schedule (14 games over 23 days through their game in Washington on Saturday) hasn’t diminished the energy of Isaiah Stewart, who had *the second 20-rebound game for a rookie in the last five years, grabbing 21 boards in Detroit’s win over the Thunder on Friday. Stewart averaged 15.3 points and 13.7 boards (in just 25.9 minutes) over the Pistons’ three games last week. He had a couple of intriguing meetings with Daniel Gafford at the rim on Saturday, with one bucket (gif’d below) coming on his fourth jump against the Wizards’ rim protector. That may have been the most Isaiah Stewart-y play of the season.
* Mitchell Robinson had the other one: 21 boards on March 28, 2019. Prior to that, Karl-Anthony Towns (April 3, 2016) had the last 20-rebound game for a rookie.
Despite Stewart’s work on the glass, offense has been a struggle for the Pistons. Their three point guards — Cory Joseph, Killian Hayes and Saben Lee — have combined to shoot 26-for-74 (35%) over the last five games, and they’re now responsible for two of the four games in which the Wizards have allowed less than a point per possession. Jerami Grant has done pretty well with his leading role, but the Pistons are one of 11 teams that have scored fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
Week 18: vs. CLE, @ DAL, @ SAS, @ IND
Pace: 101.9 (4) OffRtg: 107.5 (26) DefRtg: 114.9 (28) NetRtg: -7.5 (28)
For the “Karl-Anthony Towns is the Wolves’ best player by a wide bleeping margin” file: The Wolves played two games without Towns last week and scored a paltry 93 points per 100 possessions against the Nets (who rank 25th defensively) and the Bucks (without Giannis Antetokounmpo). Not only did they trail the two games by 45 and 30 points, respectively, but they didn’t hold a lead in either one, falling into early holes and never climbing out. For the season, the Wolves have scored a respectable 113.9 points per 100 possessions in 951 minutes with Towns and Anthony Edwards on the floor together, but just 101.7 per 100 in 863 minutes with Edwards on the floor without Towns, who’s actually having his least effective shooting season (effective field goal percentage of 56.0%) since he was a rookie.
Upon Towns’ return to the lineup, the Wolves got a good win over Miami, taking control with three straight Towns buckets (the first being a deft, wrong-foot runner over Trevor Ariza) in the middle of the fourth quarter. Scrap those two games he missed and the Wolves have scored 116.5 points per 100 possessions in April, a mark which would rank in the top 10 this month. (The defense is a concern for another day.)
Week 18: @ SAC, @ SAC, @ UTA
Pace: 98.1 (25) OffRtg: 104.9 (29) DefRtg: 112.1 (18) NetRtg: -7.2 (27)
Believe it or not (and whether they wanted it or not), the Cavs have had a real opportunity to push themselves into the Play-In race in the East. They’re playing 14 straight games against teams that are currently at or below .500, with six head-to-head matchups against Chicago, Toronto and Washington in that stretch. But they’re 3-4 so far, having allowed the Raptors (playing without Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam) and Bulls (playing without Zach LaVine and Cristiano Felicio) to score 123 points per 100 possessions in the two most important games.
Kevin Love has now played in nine straight games, and the Cavs have outscored their opponents with him on the floor over that stretch. He’s still taking most of his shots from 3-point range, but he did some work inside against smaller defenders late in the Cavs’ win in Charlotte on Wednesday. They have 45 two-man combinations that have played at least 200 minutes, and among those, the offense has been at its beset (111.4 points scored per 100 possessions) with Love and Darius Garland on the floor.
Week 18: @ DET, vs. CHI, @ CHA, @ WAS
Pace: 101.2 (6) OffRtg: 107.0 (27) DefRtg: 113.2 (26) NetRtg: -6.3 (26)
There was a time when the Rockets were pretty solid defensively. They actually had the league’s best defense (104 points allowed per 100 possessions) over the first 3 1/2 weeks (14 games) after the James Harden trade and still ranked in the top half of the league on that end of the floor a month ago. But over the last month, they rank dead last, having allowed almost 118 per 100 over their last 18 games. If the slippage doesn’t stop, this will be the Rockets first bottom-five defense in 19 years (since 2001-02).
The Rockets’ new starting lineup – John Wall, Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate, Kelly Olynyk and Christian Wood – is the team’s first five-man unit to crack the 100-minute threshold (it was also the first to crack the 60-minute threshold) and has outscored its opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions. Without Wall on Sunday (and with Avery Bradley starting in his place), the Rockets ended a five-game losing streak, taking control of their game in Orlando with a 22-6 start to the third quarter in which Tate had three of his six assists. The 25-year-old rookie remains a fascinating hybrid player and the Rockets have been almost 25 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (+2.3) than they’ve been with him off the floor (-22.3) over the last month.
Week 18: @ MIA, vs. UTA, vs. LAC, @ DEN
Pace: 98.8 (19) OffRtg: 105.3 (28) DefRtg: 112.9 (24) NetRtg: -7.6 (29)
The Magic are one of two teams (the Thunder are the other) that rank in the bottom five on both ends of the floor (29th on offense, 26th on defense) since the trade deadline. But they got a win over Nikola Vucevic and the Bulls on Wednesday, outscoring Chicago, 71-41, in the first and third quarters. Vucevic and Zach LaVine combined for 59 points, but the Magic had their most efficient game of the season (115 points on 92 possessions), with six guys in double-figures. One of the six was Wendell Carter Jr., the centerpiece of the Vucevic trade who has shot 76% in the restricted area in his 12 games with the Magic.
A backcourt of Michael Carter-Williams and Gary Harris isn’t necessarily one that will get much better over time (the real investment is in the 23-and-under set), but it could be pretty good defensively. The Magic have allowed just 93 points on 96 defensive possessions with the two vets (both under contract for one more season) on the floor together, but Carter-Williams has missed the last two games with an ankle sprain.
Week 18: @ ATL, vs. NOP, vs. IND
Pace: 101.0 (7) OffRtg: 103.6 (30) DefRtg: 112.6 (22) NetRtg: -9.0 (30)
The wheels have come off in Oklahoma City. The Thunder remained pretty competitive — 20-27 and ranking 13th defensively (111.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) — through the end of March. At that point — though Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had already missed 12 games and Al Horford’s season was already over — they were one of eight teams that hadn’t had a losing streak of more than three games.
But the Thunder are 0-10 in April, having lost the 10 games by an average of 23.1 points. Luguentz Dort has returned from a seven-game absence and scored a career-high 42 points in Utah on Tuesday. But the Thunder have still scored 7.4 fewer points per 100 possessions than any other team in April, having turned the ball over 19 times per 100 possessions (up from 14.9 prior).
Of course, the Thunder already had a bad offense, especially with no Gilgeous-Alexander. That their solid defense has suddenly become worse than that of the Kings (though they’ve played more bottom-10 offenses than top-10 offenses this month) is a bit of a mystery. A bunch of 23-and-unders playing more games and minutes than they ever have could have something to do with it.
Week 18: @ WAS, @ IND, vs. WAS