Power Rankings, Week 20: Suns, Sixers on rise in season's final 2 weeks
See where all 30 teams rank as the final two weeks of the regular season roll on and the playoff chase continues to intensify.
There are two weeks to go in the regular season, and the title picture couldn’t feel any more wide open.
The Lakers got LeBron James back this weekend, but they’re still far from playing championship-level basketball. The Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers are all playing great, while the Utah Jazz are on a downswing without their starting backcourt.
The Brooklyn Nets have felt like the favorite in the Eastern Conference all season, but they’re still missing James Harden and had some flaws exposed in Milwaukee on Sunday. The Philadelphia 76ers are whole again and teams lower in the East (like the New York Knicks and Miami Heat) look more dangerous than they did a few weeks ago.
The postseason is almost here, but we still have no idea how the teams will align for the Play-In or the playoffs. Stay tuned.
Note: For the seven teams that are at least four games out of Play-In Tournament position (the bottom three in the East and the bottom four in the West), season-recap notes below will be focused on their defense. See last week’s rankings for notes on their offense.
Plus-Minus Players of the Week
- Right Way: Damian Lillard (POR) was a plus-81 in four games last week.
- Wrong Way: Darius Bazley (OKC) was a minus-78 in five games last week.
Teams of the Week
- Make It Last Forever: Portland (4-0) — From a five-game losing streak to a four-game winning streak, the Blazers have turned things around quickly.
- Something Just Ain’t Right: Cleveland (0-4) — Remember when the Cavs were 8-7, having swept a two-game series with Brooklyn? That really happened.
* * *
East vs. West
- The West is 220-194 (.531) against the East in interconference games after going 13-9 last week. With six more wins, the West will clinch a better record than the East for the 21st time in the last 22 seasons.
Schedule strength through Week 19
- Toughest: 1. Minnesota, 2. Sacramento, 3. Dallas
- Easiest: 1. New York, 2. San Antonio, 3. Phoenix
- 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: Portland (+6), Denver (+3), Miami (+3)
- Free falls of the week: LA Clippers (-4), Nine teams (-2)
* * *
Week 20 Team to Watch
- L.A. Lakers — We’ve seen a lot of teams turn things around quickly this season, but the Lakers are running out of time and have a tough schedule this week. After they host the Nuggets (in the second game of a back-to-back) on Monday, they’ll have two days off. But that’s followed by another back-to-back, where they play the Clippers on Thursday and visit the Blazers (in what may be their most important game of the season) on Friday. They’re then back home to host the Suns on Sunday night.
* * *
- The archive: NBA.com 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.
Last Week: 3 ↑
Pace: 97.9 (25) OffRtg: 115.7 (7) DefRtg: 109.4 (5) NetRtg: +6.3 (3)
The Suns’ core will be a relatively inexperienced group in the playoffs, with four of Phoenix’s top six guys having never tasted the postseason. But they had three games last week that had a little more juice than normal regular season games, and they won all three, scoring more than 124 points per 100 possessions against the top-10 defenses of the Knicks, Clippers and Jazz.
Chris Paul was expectedly exceptional, shooting 23-for-36 (including 15-for-21 on non-restricted-area 2s) and putting both the Knicks and Clippers away with a flurry of pull-up jumpers. But Devin Booker also displayed his big-game chops, especially in the first half on Monday, when the rest of the Suns didn’t have much going against the Knicks. Booker averaged 28.3 points over the three games, Mikal Bridges shot 19-for-28, and Deandre Ayton hung in defensively.
It wasn’t just an important pre-playoffs test. The three wins (along with another in Oklahoma City on Sunday) have the Suns in first place in the West and in position to have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
— NBA (@NBA) April 27, 2021
Week 20: @ CLE, @ ATL, vs. NYK, @ LAL
Last Week: 4 ↑
Pace: 100.4 (10) OffRtg: 112.1 (14) DefRtg: 106.9 (2) NetRtg: +5.2 (6)
Ben Simmons is back and the Sixers are back in control of the top seed in the East. They had lost four straight games without him, but they’ve won their last eight that Simmons has played, having held their opponents to just 100.9 points per 100 possessions in his 223 minutes on the floor over that stretch. With the Lakers struggling and the Sixers playing a softer schedule (six of their final eight games are against teams that rank in the bottom 11 offensively), there’s a good chance that Philly will end the season as the No. 1 defense in the league.
That’s good, because offense can still be a struggle at times. The Sixers almost lost in San Antonio on Sunday (with the Spurs resting three starters) because they scored just 24 points on 31 possessions in the fourth quarter and overtime. Last week (in the Nets’ space), it was noted that, in the 24 years for which we have play-by-play data, only one champion (the 2000-01 Lakers) ranked lower than 11th defensively in the regular season. The same can be said for offense, with the 2003-04 Pistons being the only champ in those 24 years (since 1996-97) to have ranked lower than 11th in offensive efficiency.
The top three in the East remain a fascinating contrast of styles and star power, and we still don’t know how they’re going to line up when the playoffs begin.
— NBA (@NBA) May 3, 2021
Week 20: @ CHI, @ HOU, vs. NOP, vs. DET
Last Week: 6 ↑
Pace: 97.7 (28) OffRtg: 116.7 (3) DefRtg: 111.4 (12) NetRtg: +5.3 (5)
Over their first 32 games, the Nuggets were 17-15, having played a pretty tough early schedule and having lost nine of their 15 games that were within five points in the last five minutes. Over their last 32 games, they’re a league-best 26-6, having absorbed a devastating injury to Jamal Murray and with his back-up (Monte Morris) having played just 13 of the 32.
They’re 11-1 when the score’s been within five in the last five (having shot 16-for-29 on clutch 3-pointers) over that second 32-game stretch, having avenged the one loss (to New Orleans) on Wednesday (thanks to a fortunate no-call). But the other big difference has been bench minutes. Over those first 32 games, the Nuggets were outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions with Nikola Jokic off the floor. Over the last 32, they’re a +4.3 per 100 with Jokic on the bench. And over their current, five-game winning streak, that number is +18.1.
The winning streak, capped by a win over the Clippers on Saturday, has moved the Nuggets into third place and solidified Jokic’s status as the Kia MVP favorite. He had a huge game (30 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers) against the Clips, but this is also situation where a player’s MVP case is boosted by how well his team has played without him.
The Saturday win was the first of five straight games against teams that are at least eight games over .500 and the 3-6 seeds in the West remain very much unsettled.
Week 20: @ LAL, vs. NYK, @ UTA, vs. BKN
Last Week: 2 ↓
Pace: 100.4 (11) OffRtg: 117.1 (1) DefRtg: 113.2 (25) NetRtg: +4.0 (7)
The Nets have a losing streak (two games) for the first time since their wake-up-call loss in Detroit almost three months ago. The issue back then was defense, and the Nets obviously still have issues on that end of the floor. The Blazers and Bucks combined to shoot better than 50% from the field, including 31-for-73 (42%) from 3-point range, and the two teams scored 120 points on just 92 possessions with DeAndre Jordan on the court.
But the Nets have also stumbled a little bit offensively, scoring just 109.3 points per 100 possessions over the two games. Kevin Durant missed the Portland loss, Kyrie Irving was off his game in Milwaukee, and the Nets’ ball movement wasn’t at their normal level. Given their defensive issues, the Nets are just 4-11 when they’ve scored fewer than 110 points per 100 possessions. (Milwaukee is 8-11 for comparison.)
So the Nets have lost hold of the top seed in the East and another loss in Milwaukee would put them in danger of falling to third. James Harden doesn’t seem to be close to returning, but Nicolas Claxton (who has missed the last eight games) and Bruce Brown were in uniform on Sunday and should help the defense once they’re back up to full speed, especially if they allow coach Steve Nash to permanently shelve the Jordan-Jeff Green frontline.
Week 20: @ MIL, @ DAL, @ DEN
Last Week: 1 ↓
Pace: 97.7 (27) OffRtg: 117.0 (2) DefRtg: 111.0 (10) NetRtg: +6.0 (4)
The top of the Western Conference is unforgiving. After a 17-3 stretch had the Clippers within a game in the loss column of the second-place Suns, a three-game losing streak has dropped them to fourth. Seeds might not matter come playoff time, but matchups will.
The Clippers have been on the edge of the top 10 in overall defense for the last month, but they’ve taken a pretty big step backward there from last season, with only five teams having seen a bigger jump in points allowed per 100 possessions. The Clippers rank last in points allowed per possession from pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.94) and, as they allowed more than 120 points per 100 possessions over the three losses, the Pelicans, Suns and Nuggets shot 55% on pull-up 2-pointers. Ivica Zubac has generally been terrific as the starting center in place of the injured Serge Ibaka and has been the better rim protector of the two, but his drop coverage isn’t very disruptive. His 0.8 deflections per 36 minutes are the fifth fewest among 348 players who’ve played at least 500 minutes this season.
The Clippers aren’t in danger of falling any further than fourth, but we might get a playoff preview (and they can complete a season sweep) when they meet the healthy Lakers on Thursday.
Week 20: vs. TOR, vs. LAL, vs. NYK
Last Week: 7 ↑
Pace: 102.5 (3) OffRtg: 116.1 (6) DefRtg: 109.8 (7) NetRtg: +6.3 (2)
The Bucks continue to have some growing pains with their defensive adjustments, and they somehow allowed the Rockets to score 143 points on Thursday. But they passed a big test on Sunday, outlasting the Nets in an entertaining, back-and-fourth game that kept the door open for the Bucks to move up from third in the East. Their rim protection has taken a step backward this season, but on Sunday, the Bucks had more blocks (a season-high 11) than the Nets had buckets in the restricted area (their 10 were their fewest in more than three months).
Offensively, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton took advantage of matchups more than Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, totaling 75 points, with only nine of their 32 buckets being assisted. The Bucks had eight more isolation possessions (23) than the Nets did (15), according to Synergy tracking, and Antetokounmpo scored 17 points on his 12 isos. His 36 field goal attempts were five more than he’s ever had in a game and his seven buckets from outside the paint (3-for-7 from mid-range, 4-for-8 from 3-point range) tied his career high (set against Brooklyn in 2018). The Nets will surely dare him to make seven more on Tuesday.
Week 20: vs. BKN, vs. WAS, vs. HOU
Last Week: 5 ↓
Pace: 99.5 (15) OffRtg: 116.4 (4) DefRtg: 107.5 (3) NetRtg: +8.9 (1)
For the first time in three months, the Jazz are not in first place in the Western Conference. And they can blame health, the same thing that helped them rack up the league’s best record through the first four months of the season. With Donovan Mitchell having missed the last eight games and Mike Conley having missed four of the eight, the Jazz are 4-4, even though they have the league’s second-ranked defense over that stretch. Aside from the night (Wednesday in Sacramento) when they had the most efficient game (154 points on 101 possessions) for any team in the last 23 years and set the NBA record for effective field goal percentage (77.9%), offense has been a struggle.
No team has defended the Jazz better than the Suns, who moved into first place and completed a season sweep on Friday by holding Utah under 105 points per 100 possessions for the third time. The Jazz had 62 drives on Friday (their season average is 52.7), but couldn’t turn those into as many shots at the rim (they had just 13 shots in the restricted area) or open 3-pointers as they typically generate. In their three games against Phoenix, the Jazz have averaged just 14.7 wide-open 3-point attempts, compared to 21.5 in their other 61 games.
Their game against the Nuggets on Friday is the Jazz’s last within the (current) top six in the West. They’re 7-7 within the group thus far, with their only post-break win (in five games) within the group having come against the Lakers without LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Week 20: vs. SAS, vs. SAS, vs. DEN, vs. HOU
Last Week: 8
Pace: 96.4 (30) OffRtg: 110.6 (18) DefRtg: 107.8 (4) NetRtg: +2.8 (9)
The Knicks’ nine-game winning streak came to an end against Phoenix in what felt like a playoff game at Madison Square Garden on Monday. Julius Randle and RJ Barrett (35 total points on 13-for-35 shooting) weren’t able to match Devin Booker and Chris Paul (54 total points on 22-for-38), with Booker scoring a season-high 20 points in the paint against a New York defense that still yields a lot of shots at the rim. Only the Pacers, Cavs and Spurs have allowed their opponents to take a higher percentage of their shots in the restricted area than the Knicks (33%). The Knicks rank second in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (60.8%), but lost primary rim protector Nerlens Noel to an ankle injury on Sunday.
The Knicks rebounded from the Phoenix loss and took care of business against Chicago and Houston. They still have the league’s No. 1 offense over their 11-1 stretch and we should be getting some real playoff games at the Garden later this month. But the Knicks still have some work to do to make sure that happens. The loss to Phoenix dropped them to 6-8 against the top 10 teams in the West, with five of those losses accounting for five of their eight worst defensive gams of the season. Their next six games (five on the road and one back at home) are against that group.
Week 20: @ MEM, @ DEN, @ PHX, @ LAC
Last Week: 10 ↑
Pace: 97.9 (26) OffRtg: 114.1 (8) DefRtg: 112.1 (19) NetRtg: +1.9 (10)
Thanks to the fact that divisions still matter and despite getting swept by the Kings (scoring just 108 points per 100 possessions over three games against the league’s worst defense), the Mavs are in fifth place. They have an easier remaining eight games (only three against teams currently over .500) than the Lakers (five) or Blazers (five). But, as noted, the Mavs have lost three games to the Kings in the last 15 days.
In fact, the Mavs have the same record against the other 14 teams that are over .500 (18-14) as it does against the 15 teams at are .500 or worse. And they’ve better statistically against the top 15 (+3.5 per 100 possessions) than they’ve been against the bottom 15 (+0.4), with the bigger difference on defense. The Mavs did beat the Pistons (without Luka Doncic) on Thursday, getting a career-high 42 points from Tim Hardaway Jr. But the game (in which Detroit was without its three veteran starters) was tied with 2:15 to go in the fourth quarter.
So we can’t count anything as an automatic win or loss over these last two weeks. But hopefully, the Mavs will have Kristaps Porzingis (who’s missed five of the last six games) back for the final stretch.
— NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2021
Week 20: @ MIA, vs. BKN, vs. CLE, @ CLE
Last Week: 16 ↑
Pace: 99.0 (18) OffRtg: 116.3 (5) DefRtg: 115.6 (29) NetRtg: +0.7 (14)
Every week in this weird season, there are a few teams whose situations look a lot different than they did seven days prior. The Blazers are one of those teams this week, and that’s a good thing. They’ve followed a 2-9 stretch with a four-game winning streak, beating the Pacers and three teams — Memphis, Brooklyn and Boston — that had all been playing pretty well. All four wins have come on the road, all four have come by double-digits, and all four have come with the Blazers scoring at least 125 points per 100 possessions.
Damian Lillard has averaged a team-high 26 points over the winning streak and had a big game in Brooklyn (with a couple of ridiculous 3-pointers) on Friday. But the entire (shortened) rotation has shot well, Anfernee Simons made nine threes in Indiana, and CJ McCollum (who has reduced his 3-point volume and shot well both inside and outside the arc) was ridiculously efficient in three of the four wins. It’s been the Blazers’ best stretch of offense since the All-Star break and it has maybe saved their season.
The Blazers are in Atlanta on Monday, having played only eight guys in Boston on Sunday night. But they’ll have a rest advantage when they host the Lakers in a huge game on Friday.
Week 20: @ ATL, @ CLE, vs. LAL, vs. SAS
Last Week: 9 ↓
Pace: 101.1 (8) OffRtg: 111.3 (16) DefRtg: 110.2 (9) NetRtg: +1.1 (12)
The Grizzlies had the league’s No. 1 offense over the first 25 days of April, launching more frequently and successfully from 3-point range. But they went back to the old Grizzlies (at least in regard to the success rate) last week, shooting just 26% from 3-point range and scoring just a point per possession as they lost three of four. That stretch, which featured a huge collapse (they led by 20 in the third quarter) in Orlando on Saturday, probably takes them out of the hunt for the No. 6 seed and keeps the Grizzlies in a fight just to remain in eighth place, where they’d have to win just one Play-In game to end their three-year playoff drought.
Tyus Jones got some of his minutes back from Justise Winslow (now an unfathomable 6-for-48 from 3-point range) over the weekend, but with Jaren Jackson Jr. yet to find his rhythm and De’Anthony Melton in a shooting slump (2-for-15 from beyond the arc last week), bench minutes continue to be an issue. Of course, with eight games over the final 12 days of the season, trimming the rotation before they get to Game 72 (at Golden State) might not be an option.
— NBA (@NBA) May 1, 2021
Week 20: vs. NYK, @ MIN, @ DET, @ TOR
Last Week: 15 ↑
Pace: 97.0 (29) OffRtg: 109.5 (23) DefRtg: 110.0 (8) NetRtg: -0.4 (20)
The Heat had a pretty inexplicable loss to the Bulls (featuring a pretty inexplicable Jimmy Butler layup) on Monday. But they’ve won seven of their last nine games, finally finding some consistency on offense. They rank fifth on that end of the floor over the last 15 days, with Kendrick Nunn giving them consistent and efficient production (19.8 points per game on an effective field goal percentage of 68%) as a starter. The degree of difficulty isn’t the same, but for the season, Nunn has shot better on catch-and-shoot 3s (42.6%) than Duncan Robinson (41.2%). And since he returned to the starting lineup, he’s shot much better on pull-up jumpers (51% on fairly limited volume) than he did prior (34%).
The Heat aren’t the first-quarter team that they were last season, but they’ve been getting off to some stronger starts of late, they’ve been the league’s best third-quarter team (+15.9 points per 100 possessions) over the last five weeks, and they’ve scored more than 124 points per 100 possessions in 104 total minutes with Nunn and Goran Dragic on the floor together over the 7-2 stretch.
If this level of offense can be sustained, the Heat are the team that the top three in the East should want most to avoid in the first round.
Last Week: 11 ↓
Pace: 98.4 (22) OffRtg: 113.4 (10) DefRtg: 112.4 (21) NetRtg: +1.1 (13)
The Hawks had won their previous five games without Trae Young, but more injuries and absences took their toll when they hit the road last week. They were held under 90 points per 100 possessions for the second and third times this season, shooting 10-for-46 (22%) from 3-point range in Detroit and Philadelphia on Monday and Wednesday. Young returned for their second game in Philly (that they’re getting healthier is most important), but they were thumped for a second straight time (they trailed the two games by 46 and 27 points) by the Sixers. The Hawks finished 3-9 (losing all four season series) against the top four teams in the East, having allowed more than 120 points per 100 possessions over those 12 games.
All three losses to the fourth-place Knicks were within three points in the last five minutes and, having won their season series against both Boston (2-1) and Miami (2-1), the Hawks remain in control for the No. 5 seed. Six of their final seven games are at home, where they’ve won 13 of their last 15. Their two toughest remaining games are Monday and Wednesday, but they’ll have a rest advantage against both the Blazers and Suns.
Week 20: vs. POR, vs. PHX, @ IND
Last Week: 12 ↓
Pace: 99.0 (19) OffRtg: 109.8 (22) DefRtg: 106.7 (1) NetRtg: +3.1 (8)
Uh oh. The Lakers have their stars back, but having LeBron James and Anthony Davis back in uniform is not the same as having James and Davis ready for the postseason, whether it begins with a Play-In game or with a first-round series against a really good 3 or 4 seed in the West. James was unable to finish his second game back, feeling soreness in his ankle on Sunday. Davis, meanwhile, has shot 39% since his return, with a lower free throw rate and a lower percentage of his shots coming in the paint. The Lakers have been outscored by almost 15 points per 100 possessions in his 175 minutes back on the floor.
With that, they’ve lost six of their last seven games to fall into a three-way tie for 5th-7th place in the West. Their offense has been bad for a while, but they’ve allowed 114.3 points per 100 possessions over the seven games and, for the first time, look to be in serious danger of losing their status as the No. 1 defense in the league. The Sixers are right on their tail and L.A.’s next four games area against teams that rank in the top seven offensively. More importantly, it’s a four-game stretch that could put the Lakers into the Western Conference Play-In.
Week 20: vs. DEN, @ LAC, @ POR, vs. PHX
Last Week: 13 ↓
Pace: 98.9 (21) OffRtg: 113.1 (12) DefRtg: 111.8 (16) NetRtg: +1.3 (11)
The Celtics just can’t seem to stay healthy. Robert Williams III got back last week, but Kemba Walker has been out with an oblique strain and on Sunday, a wacky week concluded with a collision in which Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum both appeared to turn their ankles. The Celtics’ most-used lineup includes Daniel Theis (who plays for the Bulls now) and played just 131 minutes together, the fewest for the most-used lineup for any team that’s currently in playoff or Play-In position. And what seemed to be the Celtics’ when-healthy starting group — Walker, Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum and Williams — hasn’t played together since April 13.
The Celtics did get an important win over the eighth-place Hornets on Wednesday, with Brown and Tatum combining for 73 points. Two nights later, Tatum scored 60 by himself and the Celtics came back from 32 points down to beat the Spurs, taking the lead for good when Tatum made the right decision to get off the ball and Brown drained a corner 3. The two wins came with the sudden emergence of rookie Aaron Nesmith (19-for-28 over the last three games) as a rotation contributor. But they were sandwiched by an embarrassing loss to the Thunder and the loss to Portland on Sunday, just the eighth time this season a team has lost a game in which it shot better than 50% from 3-point range.
Boston is now a game behind both Atlanta and Miami in what appears to be a three-team race for the No. 5 and 6 seeds in the East. They lost the season series with Atlanta, but will host the Heat for two games (the Celtics’ only two home games remaining) on Sunday and next Tuesday. The Celtics won the first meeting (back in Week 3) on a Payton Pritchard tip-in.
Week 20: @ ORL, @ CHI, vs. MIA
Last Week: 14 ↓
Pace: 103.0 (2) OffRtg: 109.5 (24) DefRtg: 109.8 (6) NetRtg: -0.2 (18)
When the Warriors found their footing with a 7-2 stretch from April 10-25, it was Stephen Curry’s next-level shooting and scoring that made the headlines. When that stretch came to an emphatic end with a 28-0, first-half run by the Mavs on Tuesday, the zero was more cringe-worthy. The Warriors went scoreless against a worse-the-average defense over the final 8:40 of the first quarter, with Curry on the floor that whole time.
But the Warriors had the league’s No. 1 defense over that 7-2 stretch. When you take league average into account (the league has scored 1.4 more points per 100 possessions than it did last season), the Warriors have been more improved defensively (-3.2 allowed per 100) than offensively (+5.2 scored per 100) this season. And more disappointing than that drubbing by the Mavs (the Warriors’ eighth loss by 25 points or more) was their loss in Minnesota on Thursday, in which they allowed the Wolves to score 35 points (on just 23 possessions) in the first quarter and 37 (on 24) in the fourth.
With 14 days left in the season, there are a lot of scenarios still in play for the Warriors. Given the Grizzlies’ sudden slide and with the season-series-deciding meeting in San Francisco on the final day of the season, the Warriors still have a real shot at the No. 8 seed, where they’d need to win just one Play-In game to reach the playoffs. Given how tough the Spurs’ closing schedule is, they’re in good position to, at worst, host the No. 9 vs. No. 10 game. But that loss to the Wolves also leaves them just three games in the loss column ahead of the 11th-place Pelicans with all three head-to-head meetings in the next 12 days.
Week 20: @ NOP, @ NOP, vs. OKC, vs. OKC
Last Week: 17
Pace: 99.3 (16) OffRtg: 110.7 (17) DefRtg: 111.0 (11) NetRtg: -0.3 (19)
When you’re playing 22 games (with seven back-to-backs) over the final 36 days of the season, it would be good to get some comfortable wins (or at least some comfortable losses) to keep guys as fresh as possible. The Spurs did have a 32-point lead in Boston on Friday, and prior to that, teams were 226-1 this season after leading by 25 points or more.
Alas, that 32-point lead turned into a brutal defeat, each of the Spurs’ last five games have been within five points in the last five minutes, and three of the five have gone to overtime. Their OT win in Washington on Monday came with an injury to Derrick White and they’ve lost the last three, committing some brutal turnovers down the stretch against Boston and Philly over the weekend. The Spurs have now lost 10 of their last 13 games that were within five in the last five, having allowed 192 points on 162 clutch possessions (119 per 100) over that stretch.
The bright side is that the Spurs have been competitive against good teams, even with starters resting. White’s injury has provided an opportunity for Lonnie Walker IV, who has averaged 21.6 points on 54% shooting over the last three games. The Spurs still have control of the final Play-In spot in the West and the two teams they’re fighting with play each other three times in the last two weeks (so they can’t both finish strong).
Week 20: @ UTA, @ UTA, @ SAC, @ POR
Last Week: 18
Pace: 104.4 (1) OffRtg: 109.9 (21) DefRtg: 112.1 (20) NetRtg: -2.3 (23)
Over the last 3 1/2 weeks, the Wizards rank last, by a healthy margin, in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (26.4%). They’ve made 10 3-pointers or more (the league average is 10.3 per game) in only four of their last 14 games. But the Wizards have had the league’s sixth-ranked offense over their 12-3 stretch, because they’ve been so strong in the paint. Bradley Beal is having the worst 3-point shooting season of his career, but is still in a battle for the scoring title (with a guy who made 96 3s last month), because of how well he’s shot inside the arc (with shots in the paint accounting a career-high 48% of his total field goal attempts) and from the free throw line (career-best 90.1%).
The Wizards also rank seventh defensively over their last 15 games, but they didn’t get the late stops they needed in losses to the Spurs and Mavs last week, having outscored both teams by 20 or more points in the paint and having led both games both eight or more points in the fourth quarter.
Their first meeting with the Pacers came with a 74-58 advantage in the paint, even with Beal out and Myles Turner around to block four shots. The two meetings this week (Monday and Saturday) could determine the location of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 Play-In game.
— NBA (@NBA) April 29, 2021
Week 20: vs. IND, @ MIL, @ TOR, @ IND
Last Week: 19
Pace: 99.1 (17) OffRtg: 110.5 (19) DefRtg: 111.8 (15) NetRtg: -1.3 (21)
Though their offense (especially with Gordon Hayward out) is guard-heavy, the Hornets have been one of the league’s more consistent teams on that end of the floor. But their defense, which has allowed their opponents to take 78% of their shots (the league’s highest rate by a healthy margin) from the restricted area or 3-point range, has had bigger ups and downs. As the Hornets took care of business against Detroit on Saturday, the Pistons shot just 17-for-37 (46%) in the restricted area and scored just 94 points on 96 possessions. But in their two most important games of the final three weeks, the Hornets allowed the Celtics and Heat to shoot a combined 77% at the rim, with Boston also grabbing almost as many offense rebounds (19) as the Hornets had defensive boards (22). Charlotte is now 24-5 when its allowed fewer than 111 points per 100 possessions and 7-28 when its allowed 111 per 100 or more.
LaMelo Ball returned from a six-week absence and filled the boxscore (including the turnover column) in his 58 minutes over the weekend. Coach James Borrego turned to the three-guard look (Ball, Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier) pretty early in the second half on Sunday (Graham didn’t play the night before), but it couldn’t put a dent in Miami’s lead.
Gordon Hayward has made progress, but doesn’t appear close to a return from the foot injury he suffered a month ago. With the losses to Boston and Miami, the Hornets will have a hard time climbing higher than the No. 8 seed. But that comes with the need to win only one Play-In game, and they have the head-to-head tiebreaker against the ninth-place Pacers.
LAMELO WASTING NO TIME IN HIS RETURN! 🤯 pic.twitter.com/u0MTDjqLk2
— NBA (@NBA) May 1, 2021
Week 20: @ DET, vs. CHI, vs. ORL, vs. NOP
Last Week: 22 ↑
Pace: 100.3 (12) OffRtg: 113.8 (9) DefRtg: 113.5 (27) NetRtg: +0.3 (16)
Two games in Minnesota (a Warriors loss and a Pelicans win) over the last four days have put the Pelicans in position where they control their own destiny. If they were to somehow to win all eight of their remaining regular season games (including three against Golden State), they’d make in the Western Conference Play-In.
The Pelicans haven’t won more than four straight games all season, but they have figured something out defensively. They have the league’s No. 1 defense (105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) over the last 3 1/2 weeks, a huge turnaround from where they were prior to that. Their opponents have not only shot worse, both inside and outside. With the Pelicans playing a little softer on screens, the opponents also shot less from the most efficient areas of the floor over those 13 games. Defending Stephen Curry over the next two nights will obviously present a new challenge.
And the Pelicans could continue to be challenged on the other end of the floor. They ranked 28th offensively in April, with turnovers (20 or more in three of their last five games) a particular issue of late. Six of their final eight games are against teams that rank in the top 10 on defense.
Week 20: vs. GSW, vs. GSW, @ PHI, @ CHA
Last Week: 21
Pace: 99.6 (14) OffRtg: 112.2 (13) DefRtg: 111.7 (14) NetRtg: +0.5 (15)
Playing five games in seven days last week, the Raptors didn’t put their full starting lineup on the floor in any of the last three, with Fred VanVleet missing two games and Kyle Lowry resting for one. But they were competitive in Denver and Utah before scoring running out of gas in the fourth quarter both nights. And with Lowry catching fire (and playing 41 minutes), the Raptors beat the Lakers on Sunday. They’re now 9-14 (with a positive point differential, of course) against the 11 teams that are currently at least eight games over .500, having yet to play Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers. The first meeting is Tuesday and the Clippers are in Tampa a week later.
It’s hard to see month-to-month or every-10-game progress in Pascal Siakam’s numbers, because he still has some rough nights, like when he shot 2-for-16 against Brooklyn on Tuesday. His effective field goal percentage for the season (49.2%) is still a career-low mark. But the good games have been a little more frequent of late, and he scored a season-high 39 points on 15-for-26 shooting in the win over the Lakers.
The Raptors last chance to make the race for the last Play-In spot interesting is Thursday, when they host the Wizards, having already won the season series. They would still need additional help, but it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for the Wizards, even after a strong last four weeks, to lose to teams they’re supposed to beat.
Week 20: @ LAC, vs. WAS, vs. MEM
Last Week: 20 ↓
Pace: 101.7 (5) OffRtg: 111.6 (15) DefRtg: 111.4 (13) NetRtg: +0.1 (17)
The Pacers began their game against Brooklyn on Thursday with five guys on the shelf. And then they lost three more (and the game) over the course of the next 48 minutes. Two nights later, they got Domantas Sabonis back from a six-game absence and, more importantly, a date with the Thunder. The 57-point win came with the second highest effective field goal percentage in NBA history (77.6%), which was also the second highest effective field goal percentage of the last five days (the Jazz had set the record on Wednesday). Over the last four weeks, the Pacers are 5-0 against the seven teams that are more than four games out of a Play-In spot and 0-6 against everybody else.
It’s been written in this space that the Pacers were lacking the kind of versatile (big and mobile) forward they needed to play the kind of defense they’ve been trying to play. But they may have found one in Oshae Brissett, who they originally signed to a 10-day contract on April 1. Since then, the Pacers have allowed 10.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Brissett on the floor (105.2) than they have with him off the floor (116.0). And in his seven games as a starter, the 22 year old has shot 18-for-40 (45%) from 3-point range.
The Pacers still have a shot at the No. 8 seed, but they also have two games against the 10th-place Wizards this week, holding a two-game edge in the loss column and having lost the first meeting. Starting with their game against the Kings on Wednesday, the Pacers are playing eight games over the final 12 days of the season.
Week 20: @ WAS, vs. SAC, vs. ATL, vs. WAS
Last Week: 23
Pace: 99.8 (13) OffRtg: 110.2 (20) DefRtg: 112.1 (18) NetRtg: -1.9 (22)
Only the Cavs (1-39) and Rockets (4-46) have worse records than the Bulls (3-34) after trailing by double-digits. So it’s not good that the Bulls have lost the first quarter in five straight games, scoring less than 85 points per 100 first-quarter possessions and trailing by double-digits in the opening 12 minutes in three of those five. They keep starting Daniel Theis and Nikola Vucevic together, and they’ve been outscored by 75 points in the pairing’s 79 first-quarter minutes.
75 points in 79 minutes! And it’s not like they don’t have guys – Lauri Markkanen, Thaddeus Young, Patrick Williams – who can play the four.
Zach LaVine was back with the team (though not playing) over the weekend, but the Bulls were in a slide before he was lost to a health-and-safety absence (they lost the last four games he played in) and have a relatively tough remaining schedule. Barring a miracle, this will be their fourth straight season in the Lottery.
Week 20: vs. PHI, @ CHA, vs. BOS, @ DET
Last Week: 25 ↑
Pace: 101.9 (4) OffRtg: 108.4 (25) DefRtg: 114.6 (28) NetRtg: -6.2 (26)
While the Wolves have seen significant improvement offensively since the All-Star break and allowed just 102 points per 100 possessions in their two-game sweep in Utah , they still have the league’s 27th-ranked post-break defense. This will be the 13th time in the last 15 years that the Wolves have had a worse-than-average defense and (likely) the seventh time in that stretch that they finished in the bottom five defensively.
With four of the 42 players who’ve averaged at least 3.2 deflections per 36 minutes (minimum 500 total minutes played), the Wolves have forced turnovers at a top-10 rate. But they’re the only team that ranks in the bottom five in three of the four factors on defense: 29th in opponent effective field goal percentage, 26th in opponent free throw rate, and 27th in defensive rebounding percentage. Their issues start in transition; According to Synergy tracking, the Wolves are the only team that ranks in the bottom five in regard to the percentage of their opponents’ possessions that have been in transition (17.1%, third highest) and in points allowed per transition possession (1.17, fifth highest).
Personnel remains an issue in regard to defense. Karl-Anthony Towns ranks pretty low as a rim protector and the 118.6 points per 100 possessions that the Wolves have allowed with D’Angelo Russell on the floor is the second highest on-court mark among 229 players who’ve averaged at least 20 minutes per game.
Last Week: 24 ↓
Pace: 100.6 (9) OffRtg: 113.3 (11) DefRtg: 117.9 (30) NetRtg: -4.6 (25)
You can’t really “clinch” the Worst Defense in the League title, but if you could, the Kings did it on Wednesday, when they allowed the Jazz to score 154 points on 101 possessions, the most efficient game for any team in more than 23 years. The Kings actually ranked outside the bottom 10 (19th) last season, but this will be the 15th straight season in which they’ve had a worse-than-average defense. Having allowed 6.4 more points per 100 possessions than the league average, it’s tied (with the 2008-09 Kings) for the second worst defense (for any team) over the last 15 years, better than only that of the 2018-19 Cavs (+7.1 vs. the league average).
The Kings haven’t been hurt by a high volume of 3-pointers. Opponents have taken only 36.6% of their shots, the league’s sixth lowest opponent rate, from 3-point range. The Kings have actually seen the league’s biggest drop from last season (40.7%, fourth highest rate) in that regard. But they rank 30th in opponent field goal percentage in the paint.
The Kings also rank 29th in defensive rebounding percentage (71.2%), so when their opponents have missed shots, they haven’t been very good at finishing off those possessions. They’ve rebounded well (75.2%) when they’ve had their starting frontcourt — Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes — on the floor together, but Bagley has had other defensive issues and depth has been a problem.
Remarkably, with just two weeks left in the season, the league’s worst defense has yet to face the league’s worst offense. The Kings and Thunder will meet three times in the next nine days.
Week 20: @ OKC, @ IND, vs. SAS, vs. OKC
Last Week: 26
Pace: 98.3 (23) OffRtg: 108.0 (26) DefRtg: 112.0 (17) NetRtg: -4.1 (24)
Playing the second game of a back-to-back (without Trae Young) in Detroit on Monday, the Hawks might have had the most sluggish performance of any team last week. But the Pistons (the version where they play their veteran starters) played a role in Atlanta’s least efficient offensive game of the season. The Pistons rank as a worse-than-average defensive team, but given the youth in their rotation, 17th on that end of the floor isn’t a bad foundation to build from. They’ve had some solid defensive performances against some of the best teams in the league and they’ve allowed less than a point per possession in 201 total minutes with Jerami Grant on the floor alongside their two rookie bigs (Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart).
In each of Dwane Casey’s three seasons in Detroit, the Pistons have ranked in the top three in the (lowest) percentage of their opponents shots that have come from 3-point range (36% this season). Their rim protection has been a little better than it was last season (Stewart ranks decently in that regard), but the Pistons still rank just 20th in opponent effective field goal percentage, with their opponents having shot relatively well on pull-up 3s and non-restricted-area 2s. They’re also in the bottom 10 in both opponent free throw rate (23rd) and defensive rebounding percentage (24th).
Week 20: vs. ORL, vs. CHA, vs. MEM, @ PHI, vs. CHI
Last Week: 28 ↑
Pace: 101.5 (7) OffRtg: 106.2 (27) DefRtg: 113.3 (26) NetRtg: -7.2 (27)
Through the first seven weeks of the season, the Rockets were 11-11, with the league’s second-ranked defense (106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). But they were just one game into their 20-game losing streak and they’ve ranked 29th defensively since then. The Harden/D’Antoni era was obviously about offense more than defense, but the Rockets have seen the league’s 10th biggest jump in points allowed per 100 possessions from last season (+3.5) and this will be the lowest-ranked Houston defense since 2002 (27th of 29).
Good and bad defense starts in transition, and the Rockets have allowed a league-high 24.5 transition points per game, according to Synergy tracking. In the half-court, they’ve played a more traditional defense (less switching) than they did the last few seasons, but have still had rebounding issues. There were good defensive numbers (104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) win 383 total minutes with John Wall (out for the remainder of the season), Jae’Sean Tate and Christian Wood on the floor together.
— NBA (@NBA) April 30, 2021
Week 20: vs. PHI, @ MIL, @ UTA
Last Week: 29 ↑
Pace: 98.9 (20) OffRtg: 104.8 (29) DefRtg: 113.1 (24) NetRtg: -8.3 (29)
In his previous six seasons as coach, Steve Clifford had four top-10 defenses and his teams ranked no lower than 17th on that end of the floor. The Magic ranked 20th defensively when they traded three starters at the deadline and have ranked 26th since. This will be just the seventh time in the 25 seasons for which we have play-by-play data that the Orlando defense will rank in the bottom 10. A little more slippage and it will be just the third time in that span that it ranks in the bottom five.
The Magic rank third in opponent free throw rate (just 21.2 attempts per 100 shots from the field). But limited rim protection has come with the limited fouls. Only four teams have allowed their opponents to shoot better in the restricted area.
The Magic’s best stretches of defense were before losing Michael Carter-Williams to a foot injury and after he returned. He wasn’t the only player that missed large chunks (or all) of the season, but the Magic have allowed 9.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Carter-Williams on the floor (105.6) than they have with him off the floor (114.9). That’s the sixth biggest on-off differential among players who’ve played at least 750 minutes. Carter-Williams isn’t exactly the future of the Magic, but they do have a lot of younger players — Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr., Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Jonathan Isaac and Chuma Okeke — with real potential on that end of the floor. Given better health and continuity, Clifford could be able to construct a top-12ish defense (and a team that overachieves) out of that group next season.
— NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2021
Week 20: @ DET, vs. BOS, @ CHA, vs. MIN
Last Week: 27 ↓
Pace: 98.0 (24) OffRtg: 105.3 (28) DefRtg: 112.6 (22) NetRtg: -7.4 (28)
The Cavs are one of three teams in the bottom six of the league — the Rockets and Thunder are the others — that had a top-10 defense for a decent-sized chunk of the season. Cleveland led the league in defensive efficiency through Week 3 and still ranked 10th on that end of the floor through Week 7, forcing a ton of turnovers and protecting the rim without fouling.
The slide toward the bottom 10 began with an injury to Larry Nance Jr. and continued when the Cavs stopped playing Andre Drummond. There was a feast-or-famine aspect to Drummond’s defense and Jarrett Allen remains one of the league’s best rim protectors. But he’s just not as disruptive away from the basket; Allen’s 1.3 deflections per 36 minutes (with the Cavs) are far fewer than the rates of Drummond (4.0), Nance (3.9) and JaVale McGee (3.6). A frontline of Isaac Okoro, Nance Jr. and Allen (a restricted free agent this summer) seems like the start of a good defense, but this season, the defense (108.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) hasn’t come close to making up for how bad the offense has been (97.4 scored per 100) in 283 total minutes with that trio on the floor.
Taking the season as a whole, the Cavs have seen the fourth biggest drop in points allowed per 100 possessions (-2.2). They had nowhere else to go after ranking 29th, 30th and 30th defensively in the last three seasons and they will finish with a worse-than-average defense for the 10th time in the last 11 years (since LeBron James left Cleveland the first time), with the one exception being the season (2015-16) they won the championship. But a step forward is a step forward.
Week 20: vs. PHX, vs. POR, @ DAL, vs. DAL
Last Week: 30
Pace: 101.7 (6) OffRtg: 103.1 (30) DefRtg: 113.1 (23) NetRtg: -9.9 (30)
The Thunder had a top-10 defense at the All-Star break and they still ranked 11th the day after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander played his last game. This team overachieved — the Thunder were 19-24 (better than the Pelicans) after Gilgeous-Alexander’s last game — because it played tough and organized on that end of the floor. There was some probably come luck with 3-point shooting in that top-10 defense; The Thunder ranked fourth in opponent 3-point percentage at the break and rank 27th since the break. But they also ranked fourth (and remain in the top five) in opponent free throw rate and 12th in defensive rebounding percentage.
The fall since then has been rapid, and the nadir was Saturday, when the Pacers registered the second highest effective field goal percentage in NBA history. The Thunder’s defensive drop-off has come with better 3-point shooting, more offensive boards, and more shots in the restricted area from OKC opponents. Take the whole season account and only four teams — the Bucks, Raptors, Kings and Celtics — have seen a bigger jump in points allowed per 100 possessions from last season (when the Thunder ranked seventh defensively). But those first 11 weeks were evidence that coach Mark Daigneault can make the most of what he’s been given and that this team can be competitive when it wants to be.
Week 20: vs. SAC, @ GSW, @ GSW, @ SAC