Karl-Anthony Towns and Minnesota have the chance to climb the West standings this week.
We’re down to just three weeks left in the 2021-22 regular season. Twenty days of hoops (no games on April 4) and 161 games left to play.
Amazingly, the playoff picture seems somewhat clear on the edges. In the Eastern Conference, the 10th-place Hawks lead the 11th-place Wizards by 4 1/2 games. And in the West, the 10th-place Lakers lead the 11th-place Spurs by 2 1/2. That’s not a huge lead with 11 games left to play (10 for San Antonio), but let’s just say that neither the Spurs nor the 12th-place Blazers are making strong threats for that final Play-In spot. (The Lakers aren’t exactly holding strong either.)
More interesting right now are the races at the top of the Play-In groups. On Sunday, the Timberwolves tied the Denver Nuggets to move into sixth place in the West. The Raptors, meanwhile, got a big win in Philadelphia to stay just a game behind the sixth-place Cavs in the East. And wouldn’t you know it, we’ll have some big head-to-head battles this week.
Note: For the bottom five teams in each conference (though a couple of them still have small chances of reaching the Play-In), it’s time to start recapping the season. This week’s notes for those teams will be focused on their offense, and we’ll dig into their defense next week.
Plus-Minus Players of the Week
Teams of the Week
- Make It Last Forever: Charlotte (3-0) — The Hornets’ offense is [fire emoji].
- Something Just Ain’t Right: Chicago (0-3) — Losing in Sacramento is not a good way to start a road trip that only gets tougher after that.
East vs. West
Schedule strength through Week 22
- Toughest: 1. Portland, 2. Houston, 3. Detroit
- Easiest: 1. Phoenix, 2. Utah, 3. Memphis
- 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: Milwaukee (+4), Indiana (+3), Charlotte, New Orleans (+2)
- Free falls of the week: Portland (-3), Atlanta, Chicago, Golden State, LA Clippers (-2)
Week 23 Team to Watch
- Minnesota — The Wolves have won 10 of their last 11 games to climb into sixth place in the West, just a game and a half behind the fifth-place Mavs. The two teams will face each other this week, in Dallas on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass) and in Minnesota on Friday. The Wolves will also host the first-place Suns on Wednesday and visit the red-hot Celtics on Sunday.
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 98.7 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 110.8 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: 100.1 (9) OffRtg: 114.5 (2) DefRtg: 106.1 (2) NetRtg: +8.4 (1)
The Suns are close to clinching the league’s best record (see below), but they aren’t slowing down. They’ve won their last five games, and it’s been their best five-game stretch in regard to both points scored (129.1) and point differential (plus-19.0) per 100 possessions. The opponents haven’t been great (the Bulls were the only one with a winning record), but there’s obviously value in taking care of business. They needed overtime in Sacramento on Sunday, but finished off the Kings without Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, who both fouled out. Landry Shamet’s go-ahead jumper off a clever baseline out-of-bounds play (it looked like Mikal Bridges was the one coming to the ball) was his first clutch 3 of the season. The Suns no longer have the best clutch record of the last 26 years (they have the third best), but they still have the league’s most efficient clutch offense (128.7 per 100).
And with this hot stretch of offense, they now rank second in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Seven different Suns have averaged double-figures over the winning streak, lead by Booker (30.4 points per game), Mikal Bridges (20.4) and Ayton (19.2), who’ve combined to shoot 57% from the field, 52% from 3-point range and 92% from the line. The Suns have been doing this without Chris Paul and Cameron Johnson, who was the league’s best post-break 3-point shooter prior to his quad injury. Jae Crowder missed two games last week and his replacement in the starting lineup (Torrey Craig) shot 13-for-13.
The maximum number of wins that any other team can finish with is 59, so the Suns need just two more victories to clinch the league’s best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But the toughest five-game stretch of their entire schedule begins Wednesday. It’s a home game against the Sixers, sandwiched by visits to Minnesota, Denver, Golden State and Memphis. The first two of those road games are back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday.
Week 23: @ MIN, @ DEN, vs. PHI
Pace: 96.5 (27) OffRtg: 112.3 (11) DefRtg: 107.5 (5) NetRtg: +4.8 (6)
The Heat had a couple of ugly offensive games without Jimmy Butler earlier this month, but they were OK playing a game and a half without him (after he turned an ankle) last week, in part because the opponents were Detroit and Oklahoma City. The Heat have actually been better in 126 total minutes with their other four starters on the floor without Butler (plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions) than they’ve been in 359 minutes with the whole group together (plus-12.5).
Part of that is Butler’s perimeter shooting issue. His effective field goal percentage of 33.3% on shots from outside the paint (not including backcourt shots) is a career-low mark and ranks *286th among 289 players with at least 100 attempts from the outside. And part of it is the continued excellence of Tyler Herro, who has averaged 25.4 points on an effective field goal percentage of 65.5%. (and with a jump in free throw rate) since the All-Star break. Bam Adebayo has also been much more efficient (true shooting percentage of 64.6%) with Butler off the floor.
* Adebayo (31.7%) is one of the three players with a worse mark (Naji Marshall and Jalen Suggs are the others), though Adebayo has taken only 101 shots from outside the paint, while Butler has taken 254.
The Heat have still won 13 of their last 15 games with Butler, who obviously makes up for his shooting issue in a lot of ways. And they’d surely love to have him back as they begin to face a tougher schedule on Monday. They go from an eight-day stretch where they played only the Pistons and Thunder to a stretch where they’re playing six of eight games against teams with winning records. The Heat will have a rest advantage in Philadelphia on Monday and have won two of the first three meetings, though they’ve yet to face the James Harden edition of the Sixers (he sat out their meeting in Miami 16 days ago).
Week 23: @ PHI, vs. GSW, vs. NYK, vs. BKN
Pace: 97.1 (24) OffRtg: 112.0 (13) DefRtg: 105.5 (1) NetRtg: +6.5 (3)
The Celtics have won the first three games of their four-game trip and, though two of the games were against very good teams, none of the three were very interesting (to non-Celtics fans, at least). That’s because the Celtics won the three first halves by 16, 19 and 25 points, holding the Warriors, Kings and Nuggets to just 87.2 points per 100 possessions before halftime. Only the Suns (26) have led more games by at least 20 points than the Celtics (*25), who’ve won 19 of the last 20 games they’ve led by double-digits.
* The Wolves, who the Celtics host on Sunday, have also led 25 games by at least 20 points. Both teams are 24-1 in those games. (The Suns are 26-0).
The winning streak has also been the Celtics’ best three-game stretch of offense (128.6 points scored per 100 possessions) this season. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have combined to average 58 points on an effective field goal percentage of 68%, while Payton Pritchard (11-for-15), Marcus Smart and Grant Williams have combined to shoot 22-for-40 (55%) from 3-point range. Derrick White can’t make a shot — he’s 6-for-31 over his last four games and has missed 21 of his last 24 3-point attempts – and it doesn’t matter.
With the three-game winning streak, the Celtics are 14-12 against the Western Conference. Three of their final four games against the West are this week and their previous meeting with the Jazz’s No. 1 offense (which is in Boston on Wednesday) was the Celtics’ worst defensive game of the season. The Celtics were without Jaylen Brown and the Jazz made 27 3-pointers, most for any team in a game this season
Week 23: @ OKC, vs. UTA, vs. MIN
Pace: 100.3 (7) OffRtg: 113.6 (5) DefRtg: 108.7 (7) NetRtg: +4.9 (5)
Ja Morant seems to be the favorite for the Kia Most Improved Player award. Among 298 players that have played at least 500 minutes in each of the last two seasons, he’s seen the biggest jump in points + rebounds + assists per 36 minutes (from 33.7 to 43.3). And among 104 players with at least 500 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons, he’s seen the fourth-biggest jump in effective field goal percentage (from 48.7% to 53.0%).
As the singular star of the team with the league’s second-best record, Morant has also been in the Kia MVP conversation. But his teammates keep hurting his case by playing well without him. With their wins in Indiana and Houston last week, the Grizzlies are 14-2 in games that Morant has missed, having allowed just 98.9 points per 100 possessions over those 16 games. Thirteen of the 16 have come against teams that rank in the bottom half of the league offensively, but that’s ridiculously good defense. The Pacers scored less than a point per possession for the first time in 15 games and the Rockets’ 98 points on 108 possessions on Sunday was their worst offensive performance in more than two months.
The Grizzlies have played 18 of their last 26 games on the road. They’ll play seven of their last 10 at home, where they’re 13-2 since Christmas. Two of the five best post-break offenses (those of the Nets and Bucks) are in town this week.
Week 23: vs. BKN, vs. IND, vs. MIL
Pace: 100.6 (5) OffRtg: 113.9 (4) DefRtg: 110.4 (15) NetRtg: +3.5 (8)
Brook Lopez is back and the Bucks got a big win in his return. Their 117-111 victory on Monday was the Jazz’s only loss (they’re otherwise 11-0) and worst offensive performance at home since Feb. 1. It was also another clutch win for the champs, who, after escaping Sacramento with a late win on Wednesday, have won their last six games that were within five points in the last five minutes. They’ve scored an amazing 69 points on 44 clutch possessions (157 per 100) over that streak, with Jrue Holiday (9-for-9, 3-for-3) and Khris Middleton (6-for-9, 3-for-4) combining to shoot 15-for-18 from the field, including 6-for-7 from 3-point range.
But the Bucks aren’t quite concern-free at this point. They scored less than a point per possession with Lopez on the floor last week, and he committed 11 fouls in a little more than 50 minutes (7.9 per 36). That’s probably a timing issue that will improve with more reps, but more concerning is that Giannis Antetokounmpo missed their game in Minnesota on Saturday (after two days off) with knee soreness. He’s averaged 35.8 points (in less than 34 minutes) over the last five games he’s played, but the Bucks have also allowed more than 121 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor over that stretch.
They now rank 15th defensively, the lowest they’ve been since mid-November. They’re set to face a couple of top-10 offenses (those of the Bulls and Grizzlies) this week, though the Bucks have allowed just 103.6 points per 100 possessions in going 3-0 against those two teams thus far.
Week 23: vs. CHI, vs. WAS, @ MEM
Pace: 95.5 (30) OffRtg: 111.2 (18) DefRtg: 108.5 (6) NetRtg: +2.7 (10)
Luka Doncic somehow registered a minus-30 as he scored 37 points in less than 30 minutes on Saturday. He didn’t get much help offensively (Spencer Dinwiddie was out) and the Mavs allowed 91 points on 61 defensive possessions in those minutes. The last three games of their five-game road trip were a step back for their defense, which allowed the Nets, Sixers and Hornets to score almost 126 points per 100 possessions over the three games. It’s fair to say that they were fortunate to get a win in Brooklyn on Wednesday, with Dinwiddie improving to 9-for-17 on clutch 3s on his buzzer-beating game-winner.
For the season, the Mavs rank third in 3-point differential, having outscored their opponents by 5.7 points per game from beyond the arc. But they allowed Philly and Charlotte to shoot 36-for-80 (45%) from deep over the weekend, just the eighth and ninth times this season they’ve been outscored by double-digits on 3s.
The team that ranks fourth in 3-point differential (plus-5.4 points per game) is the team – Minnesota – that Dallas will face twice this week, currently leading the sixth-place Wolves by just a game and a half. Monday should be the first time in six games that the Mavs have had their top seven guys (sans Tim Hardaway Jr.), with Dinwiddie and Reggie Bullock expected to return from absences. Their when-healthy starting lineup — Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell — has scored 123.4 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among 29 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes. (Minnesota’s starting lineup has the second-best mark.)
Week 23: vs. MIN, vs. HOU, @ MIN. vs. UTA
Pace: 96.4 (29) OffRtg: 111.8 (14) DefRtg: 109.6 (10) NetRtg: +2.2 (12)
The Sixers have outscored their opponents by 16.9 points per 100 possessions in 295 total minutes with James Harden and Joel Embiid on the floor together. The star tandem was even a plus-19 in 54 total minutes against the Nuggets and Raptors last week, and Doc Rivers has made sure to have one of the two on the floor at all times. But in those two games (which the Sixers lost by a total of nine points), they were outscored by 28 points (34.9 per 100 possessions) in 42 total minutes with one of the two stars on the bench. The bigger issue was on offense, where they scored just 74 points on 87 possessions (0.85 per).
With Harden on board, the Sixers rank 14th offensively and 11th defensively since the All-Star break, having ranked … 14th offensively and 11th defensively before the break. (This is numbers nirvana. We should just stop the season right now.) They’ve had a relatively tough post-break schedule, with nine of their 12 games against teams with winning records. And things will be easier going forward, with six of their 12 remaining games against teams currently over .500.
But the Sixers will face the Heat, Suns and Bucks in the next nine days. And Miami will have a rest advantage on Monday night, with the Sixers currently 1-4 in rest-disadvantage games. One of those losses was in Miami (without Harden) earlier this month.
Week 23: vs. MIA, @ LAL, @ LAC, @ PHX
Pace: 98.8 (15) OffRtg: 112.1 (12) DefRtg: 106.2 (3) NetRtg: +6.0 (4)
The Warriors’ first game with Draymond Green back (Monday against Washington) went great. Stephen Curry scored 47 points, the team scored 56 points on 33 offensive possessions (1.70 per) with Curry and Green on the floor together, and the Warriors had themselves a four-game winning streak.
The Warriors’ second game with Green back (Wednesday against Boston) was a disaster. The first 24 minutes were their worst offensive half (32 points on 48 possessions) of the season and came with Curry suffering a sprained left foot. He’s surely out for the team’s three big games — at Memphis, vs. Phoenix, vs. Utah — next week and it’s too early to tell if he’ll play again in the regular season. With their eventful loss to the Spurs on Sunday — Green was ejected and they came back from 14 points down only to lose on a put-back — the Warriors are 2-5 without Curry.
The good news is that they have a not-unreasonable facsimile in Jordan Poole, who has been on fire. Poole has averaged 25.1 points over his last nine games and his post-break true shooting percentage (68.6%) is the second-highest mark among 56 players with a usage rate of 24% or higher (lower than only that of Kyrie Irving). In addition to shooting 42-for-91 (46%) from 3-point range since the break, he’s 38-for-54 (70%) in the paint.
The Warriors are now a game in the loss column behind the second-place Grizzlies, who have won two of their three games thus far. The final meeting is the end of a five-game, seven-day trip that begins Tuesday in Orlando.
Week 23: @ ORL, @ MIA, @ ATL, @ WAS
Pace: 98.1 (21) OffRtg: 112.8 (8) DefRtg: 110.4 (14) NetRtg: +2.4 (11)
The Nuggets’ No. 1 narrative (and maybe Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy) has been flipped on its head this month. Through February, their starting lineup had outscored its opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-best mark among 24 lineups that had played at least 200 minutes. The Denver bench, meanwhile, ranked 24th. And the Nuggets had been 18.6 points per 100 possessions better with Jokic on the floor (plus-10.0) than they’d been with him off the floor (minus-8.6).
But in March, the starting lineup has been outscored by 18.3 points per 100 possessions in its 109 minutes, the bench ranks fifth, and the Nuggets have been 9.7 points per 100 possessions better with Jokic off the floor (plus-6.3) than they’ve been with him on the floor (minus-3.4). The positive end of that role reversal was the Nuggets’ win in Philadelphia on Monday, when Bones Hyland hit four fourth-quarter 3s to lead a comeback from seven points down. The negative end was Sunday against Boston, when the starting lineup was somehow outscored, 22-4, in the final 5:20 of the second quarter, leading to a Celtics rout.
If they can somehow merge the pre-March starting lineup with the March bench, the Nuggets are in great shape. But with Minnesota surging, they’ve slipped into seventh place in the West. They’ve lost three straight at home, where they’ll play seven of their final 10 games. That includes their final head-to-head meeting with the Wolves.
Week 23: vs. LAC, vs. PHX, vs. OKC
Pace: 97.9 (22) OffRtg: 116.3 (1) DefRtg: 109.4 (9) NetRtg: +6.9 (2)
The Jazz’s nine-game home winning streak came to an end on Monday, when they lost an 11-point, second-half lead and bungled the final minute, with Donovan Mitchell following a mindless foul in the backcourt with a back-breaking turnover. Even with a 12-second dalliance of clutch time in what turned out to be a 15-point win in New York on Sunday, and despite Mike Conley shooting 13-for-24 on clutch 3s, the Jazz are 16-19 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes.
But they continue to have the league’s best record (now 29-7) in games that weren’t within five in the last five. Despite the absence of Bojan Bogdanovic, they’ve won three straight games, scoring more than 120 points per 100 possessions in all three. That includes an evisceration of the Clippers’ top-10 defense without Mitchell. Danuel House and Juancho Hernangomez have started in Bogdanovic’s place, but Jordan Clarkson has been getting extra minutes. He was 3-for-14 against Milwaukee on Monday, but has averaged 23 points on an effective field goal percentage of 58.5% over the winning streak, with most of that scoring (24 of his 29 field goals) coming in the paint.
The Jazz have now scored at least 120 per 100 in a league-leading 29 (41%) of their 71 games (Atlanta is next with 26), and they’re 27-2 (with 15 straight wins) when they’ve done it. Their last loss that wasn’t within five points in the last five minutes was two weeks ago in Dallas. They’re back there on Sunday for the fifth game of a six-game trip that’s taking them from New York to L.A.
Week 23: @ BKN, @ BOS, @ CHA, @ DAL
Pace: 101.3 (1) OffRtg: 113.4 (6) DefRtg: 109.8 (11) NetRtg: +3.6 (7)
For the second straight season, the Wolves have been the most improved team (in regard to point differential per 100 possessions) after the All-Star break. Last year, the break was midway through the season (when Chris Finch was just five games into his tenure as coach) and the Wolves’ improvement (6.3 per 100 better after the break than before it) was almost entirely about offense. This year, they’ve seen the league’s second-biggest jump in offensive efficiency (10.3 per 100), with Karl-Anthony Towns somehow more efficient (true shooting percentage of 68.5%) than he was before the break (63.3%, second among high-usage players).
The Wolves are also one of only four teams that have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions since the break (109.0, fourth) than they did before it (110.0, 15th). They have played somewhat of a soft schedule over the last 2 1/2 weeks, and six of their last nine games (including two each against the 30th-ranked Thunder and the skeleton-crew Blazers) have come against teams that rank in the bottom 10 offensively. They also got the Bucks without Giannis Antetokounmpo on Saturday. But they’ve won 10 of their last 11, now tied with Denver (and holding the head-to-head tiebreaker) for sixth place in the Western Conference.
This week provides tougher tests, but also an opportunity. The Wolves are now just a game and a half behind the fifth-place Mavs, who they’ll face on Monday and Friday. The two teams split a home-and-home set in December, with Luka Doncic having missed both games.
Week 23: @ DAL, vs. PHX, vs. DAL, @ BOS
Pace: 96.8 (25) OffRtg: 110.4 (19) DefRtg: 107.4 (4) NetRtg: +3.0 (9)
The Cavs have trailed six of their last seven games by double-digits, but they erased three of those double-digit deficits last week. They couldn’t finish off the comeback on Wednesday, allowing 33 points on 22 fourth-quarter possessions as they fell to 0-3 against the Sixers. But two nights later, they scored 41 points on 28 possessions (1.46 per) over the fourth quarter and overtime to turn a 14-point deficit into a three-point win over the Nuggets. The Cavs have been at their best (plus-6.5 points per 100 possessions) in the first quarter, but, with another comeback win against the Pistons on Saturday, they’re tied (with Philly) for the sixth-best record (12-22) after trailing by double-digits.
The Cavs’ four games last week (though two came against top-10 defenses) were their best four-game stretch of offense (118.3 points scored per 100 possessions) since late December. They got Caris LeVert back from a nine-game absence and were at their best offensively (125.5 per 100) with him on the floor. But starters Evan Mobley, Lauri Markkanen and Isaac Okoro also combined for an effective field goal percentage of 60.5% over the four games. Mobley had career-high 30 points against the Clippers on Monday, and Markkanen capped his season-high (31) against the Nuggets with the go-ahead 3 in overtime. The Cavs have won 12 of their last 14 games in which Markkanen has made at least three 3-pointers.
The Cavs’ biggest game remaining on their schedule is Thursday in Toronto, with the Raptors currently a game behind them for the 6 seed in the East. Cleveland has won all three meetings thus far and has had the league’s best defense (99.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) against the Raptors.
Week 23: vs. LAL, @ TOR, vs. CHI
Pace: 96.7 (26) OffRtg: 111.5 (15) DefRtg: 110.0 (12) NetRtg: +1.4 (13)
The Raptors are putting together a strong resume for the Jekyll and Hyde Team of the Year award. Their March results include home losses to the Pistons, Magic and Lakers, along with road wins over the Suns, Nuggets and Sixers. The Raptors’ heavy-minute starters are obviously going to be their biggest plus-minus bellwethers; The team is 28-3 when Scottie Barnes has recorded a positive plus-minus and 2-19 when Pascal Siakam has recorded a negative one. But Chris Boucher’s minutes have been critical in those three big road wins. He was a game-high plus-16 in 39 minutes off the bench in Philly on Sunday, drawing the game-sealing flagrant foul (with his face) on James Harden in the closing seconds. For the season as a whole, the Raptors have been at their best (plus-4.4 points per 100 possessions) with Boucher on the floor.
The Raps are still a game behind the sixth-place Cavs (who hold the tiebreaker), but are now within a game and a half of the fifth-place Bulls (who lead the series 2-1). Chicago has the toughest remaining schedule of the group, while the remaining slates of Cleveland and Toronto are pretty even (both have six of their final 11 games against teams currently over .500). The Raptors will play both this week, with the game against Cleveland on Thursday being the start of a stretch where the Raps are playing eight of nine at home. Of course, their last three home games have been those three confounding losses, so maybe that’s not a good thing.
OG Anunoby remains out, but the Raptors should have Fred VanVleet back (he missed the Philly game) in Chicago on Monday.
Week 23: @ CHI, vs. CLE, vs. IND
Pace: 99.1 (13) OffRtg: 112.7 (10) DefRtg: 112.1 (21) NetRtg: +0.6 (15)
The Bulls are 3-8 since the All-Star break, having seen the league’s biggest post-break drop in winning percentage and its second-biggest drop in offensive efficiency. Only the Blazers, Magic, Thunder and Rockets have been worse offensively since the break, and the Bulls scored just 104.0 points per 100 possessions over their 0-3 trip out West. Two of those three games were against the Jazz and Suns, but the Bulls also managed just 43 points on 52 first-half possessions against the Kings’ 28th-ranked defense on Monday.
DeMar DeRozan (52.9%) and Nikola Vucevic (51.4%) rank 108th and 115th in post-break true shooting percentage among 135 players with at least 100 field goal attempts. DeRozan has shot just 41% on pull-up 2-pointers, down from 52% before the break. (He’s now taken 305 more pull-up 2s than any other player). Vucevic, meanwhile, is 8-for-39 (21%) from 3-point range. Billy Donovan tried shaking things up on Friday, starting Alex Caruso in the second half in Phoenix, but that didn’t work.
The Bulls have the worst record (7-13) in games played between the top eight teams in the East. They still have six games remaining within the group, with three of those six this week. They’re in the midst of a stretch where they’re playing eight of nine on the road, with the only home game (Monday against Toronto) being the first game of a back-to-back. It is a rest-advantage game for the Bulls (who are 9-1 in rest-advantage games thus far), with the Raptors having played in Philadelphia on Sunday.
Week 23: vs. TOR, @ MIL, @ NOP, @ CLE
Pace: 99.2 (12) OffRtg: 112.7 (9) DefRtg: 112.3 (22) NetRtg: +0.4 (17)
The Nets haven’t gotten any good news in regard to Kyrie Irving’s ability to play home games. And now, with Ben Simmons having had an epidural for his back issue last week, we have to wonder about his ability to play at all this season (playoffs included). The status of LaMarcus Aldridge (hip issue) also remains pretty cloudy.
Though they barely beat the skeleton-crew Blazers on Friday, Nets have won five of their last six games, with the one exception being the one (against Dallas on Wednesday) they lost at the buzzer. It was a rest-disadvantage game (they’re 2-6 in those this season) and (in addition to Irving, Simmons and Aldridge) they were also without Seth Curry. Brooklyn has scored a pretty amazing 128.2 points per 100 possessions over the six-game stretch, which has included five of its seven most efficient games of the season. The Nets’ win in Orlando (in which Irving scored a franchise-record 60 points) was more efficient (150 points on 104 possessions) than any game the Nets had last season … when they had the most efficient offense in NBA history. Irving and Durant have obviously carried huge loads over these six games, but Bruce Brown has them running more (19.2 fast break points per game, up from 12.6 prior) and Andre Drummond has been giving them a bunch of second chances.
Irving is eligible to play just four more games in the regular season, and two of those are this week. The Nets will have rest advantages (with the opponent playing the night before) against Utah on Monday and in Miami on Saturday. They’re 0-3 against the first-place Heat thus far, with the last meeting (18 days ago) having come when Miami was resting three starters. Only the Warriors have held the Nets to fewer points per 100 possessions this season than the Heat (104.7).
Week 23: vs. UTA, @ MEM, @ MIA, vs. CHA
Pace: 100.8 (3) OffRtg: 112.9 (7) DefRtg: 112.4 (23) NetRtg: +0.5 (16)
The Hornets have scored a ridiculous 132.6 points per 100 possessions over a four-game winning streak, having handed the Mavs’ sixth-ranked defense its worst defensive performance of the season (129 points on 98 possessions) on Saturday. Charlotte’s least efficient game of the streak was their most important win, a 116-106, slow-paced victory over Atlanta on Wednesday that moved them back into ninth place. The score was tied late, but P.J. Washington scored 13 of his 16 points as the Hornets outscored the Hawks, 19-9, over the final 4:20.
Washington closed that game at the five, and the Hornets outscored the Mavs, 46-21 (scoring those 46 points on just 24 offensive possessions) in a little more than 12 minutes with him at the five on Saturday. But the Hornets’ starting lineup (with a frontline of Washington and Mason Plumlee) has also outscored its opponents by 21.2 points per 100 possessions in its 132 minutes since the All-Star break, the second-best mark among nine lineups that have played at least 100 post-break minutes. The lineup has recorded assists on 76.7% of its buckets since the break and four of the five starters (all except Washington) have averaged at least five assists over the four-game winning streak.
The Hornets will have a rest advantage (with their opponent playing the night before) in three of their four games this week. That includes their visit to Brooklyn on Sunday (the Nets are in Miami the night before), which could be for eighth place in the East and will determine the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Week 23: vs. NOP, vs. NYK, vs. UTA, @ BKN
Pace: 98.2 (20) OffRtg: 110.3 (20) DefRtg: 111.3 (17) NetRtg: -1.0 (19)
The Pelicans have won more games without Brandon Ingram in the last eight days (3-1) than they had prior to that (2-15). Weekend wins in San Antonio and Atlanta also moved them into ninth place in the West. They’re tied with the Lakers, but have been 16.3 points per 100 possessions better than L.A. since the All-Star break and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker (1-0) with two more meetings in the next 12 days.
Seven Pelicans averaged double-figures over the weekend and the last five games have been an efficient stretch of offense (118.6 points scored per 100 possessions) despite Ingram’s absence. But the other end of the floor has also been critical. The Pels have allowed less than a point per possession over these last three wins, including just 28 points on 53 defensive possessions over their last two first quarters. The Hawks erased a 19-point deficit on Sunday, but Jonas Valanciunas and Jose Alvarado put the Pelicans ahead for good with four of the Pelicans’ 62 points in the paint (tied for the third-most for any team against the Hawks this season). Alvarado’s four points in the final minute were the first clutch points of his career
The Pelicans are now one of five teams that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency since the All-Star break. And it hasn’t been the easiest stretch of schedule. They’ll play two more games against good teams on Monday and Thursday (their final games against the Eastern Conference) before playing a huge back-to-back over the weekend, with the Spurs and Lakers at the Smoothie King Center.
Week 23: @ CHA, vs. CHI, vs. SAS, vs. LAL
Pace: 98.5 (18) OffRtg: 114.5 (3) DefRtg: 113.7 (27) NetRtg: +0.8 (14)
Hawks-Hornets on Wednesday was a battle for ninth place and a battle between two bad defensive teams. The Hawks proved to be the worse defensive team of the two, allowing the Hornets to score 116 points on just 95 possessions, including 19 on their final eight possessions of the game (after the score was tied with 4:30 left). Atlanta ranks 27th in overall defense and 29th in clutch defense, having allowed 121.3 points per 100 possessions with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
The one team that’s allowed more is New Orleans, and the Hawks got the Pelicans to clutch time on Sunday, erasing all of what was a 15-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter. Both teams scored 13 points on 10 clutch possessions, but because the Hawks were trailing at the start of clutch time, their 13 points weren’t enough. The loss ended a seven-game home winning streak and was the fourth straight game in which the Hawks have allowed at least 60 points in the paint. They’d allowed that many just nine times prior to that.
A back-to-back in New York and Detroit is a good opportunity for the Hawks to get back over .500. But they haven’t won two straight road games since Christmas and, weirdly, the Knicks are one of the two Eastern Conference teams that they haven’t beat this season. Their final chance is Tuesday, with Trae Young having missed their first visit to Madison Square Garden.
Week 23: @ NYK, @ DET, vs. GSW
Pace: 98.5 (17) OffRtg: 107.8 (26) DefRtg: 109.1 (8) NetRtg: -1.3 (21)
There’s little doubt that the Clippers are going to be the No. 8 seed in the West, on the road for the 7-8 Play-In game. But they’ve still got some work to do to finish at .500 or better. They’ve lost six of their last eight games to fall a game below, playing slower (29th in pace over that stretch), but not defending (or rebounding) well enough to win. The Clippers have allowed 116.8 points per 100 possessions over the eight games, with their opponents shooting 38.7% from 3-point range (25th) and averaging 17.3 second-chance points per 100 possessions (30th).
Their schedule isn’t getting any easier. Six of LA’s final nine games (including each of their next five) are against teams currently at least 10 games over .500. The Clippers are 12-21 (with four straight losses) against that group after getting crushed in Utah on Friday. The Jazz were without Donovan Mitchell, but (with the Jazz totaling 24 second-chance points) it was the Clippers’ worst defensive performance (121 points allowed on 99 possessions) since the All-Star break.
The Clippers have still played (tied with Sacramento) the most games in the league, so they’re playing just two over a stretch of 10 days (March 19-28) that began Saturday. One possible location for that 7-8 Play-In game is Denver, where the Clips will be on Tuesday. The Nuggets have won two of the three meetings thus far, though all three were within two points in the final minute of regulation.
Week 23: @ DEN, vs. PHI
Pace: 96.5 (28) OffRtg: 109.0 (24) DefRtg: 110.1 (13) NetRtg: -1.1 (20)
The idea with the Knicks’ 2021 offseason was that they’d take a small step backward on defense in order to take a big step forward on offense. Instead, they got a big step backward on defense, while also ranking lower offensively (24th) than they did last season (22nd). Their original starting lineup (with Kemba Walker) scored just 102.8 points per 100 possessions, the fifth-worst mark among 29 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes, and Walker was shut down … twice. Julius Randle, meanwhile, went from Most Improved to Most Aggrieved. His effective field goal percentage (46.1%) is his worst mark since his first (full) season in the league and ranks 148th among 150 players with at least 500 field goal attempts. RJ Barrett (47.2%, 139th) has had some big games, but has also seen regression.
The Knicks do rank in the top 10 in both free throw rate (third) and offensive rebounding percentage (sixth), with Mitchell Robinson ranking fourth in the latter among 305 players who’ve averaged at least 15 minutes per game. But they rank 26th in effective field goal percentage, with only the Thunder and Pistons having shot worse than the Knicks (53.1%) in the paint. They’ve tried shooting more 3-pointers, registering the league’s biggest jump in the percentage of their shots that have come from beyond the arc. But they’ve seen the second-biggest drop in 3-point percentage, from 39.2% (third) last season to 35.5% (13th) this season.
The Knicks’ offense will have some opportunities over the last three weeks of the season, playing seven of their final 11 games against teams that rank in the bottom 10 defensively. Signs of life are minimal, but if the Knicks are to have any chance at the final Play-In spot in the East, they probably have to win both ends of their Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back. They host the 10th-place Hawks (whom they trail by five games) and then visit the ninth-place Hornets.
Week 23: vs. ATL, @ CHA, @ MIA, @ DET
Pace: 97.6 (23) OffRtg: 110.2 (21) DefRtg: 113.2 (24) NetRtg: -3.0 (24)
The Wizards are currently in position to finish in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency for the first time in six seasons. They’ve actually seen the fifth-biggest jump (from last season) in 3-point rate (3PA/FGA), and they’re one of four teams that have shot better than 40% from the corners. But they’re still one of four teams that rank in the bottom 10 in both 3-point percentage (34.1%, 26th) and the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (35.8%, 25th). Their loss to Denver on Wednesday was their fourth game (that leads the league) with five or fewer 3s.
Easy buckets haven’t been easy to come by. With the departure of Russell Westbrook, the Wizards have gone from second (18.9%) to 28th (13.6%) in the percentage of their possessions that have been in transition. Spencer Dinwiddie was supposed to do what he’s doing in Dallas now, but before Bradley Beal was shut down for the season, the Wizards scored an anemic 101.7 points per 100 possessions with Beal and Dinwiddie on the floor together.
Things have been trending up a bit; Two of the Wizards’ four most efficient games of the season (including their win over the Lakers on Saturday) have come in the last 15 days. Among guys who’ve played at least 300 minutes, the Wizards have been at their best offensively (113.3 scored per 100) with Corey Kispert on the floor. The rookie has started the last 17 games and shot 21-for-46 (46%) from 3-point range over the last eight.
The Wizards still have a chance to climb out of the bottom 10 on offense, set to face two bottom-10 defensive teams (including the 30th-ranked Rockets) on the three-game trip that begins Monday.
Week 23: @ HOU, @ MIL, @ DET, vs. GSW
Pace: 100.4 (6) OffRtg: 109.1 (23) DefRtg: 111.7 (18) NetRtg: -2.7 (23)
The Lakers put an end to their 11-game road losing streak in Toronto on Friday, with … [checks notes] … Russell Westbrook hitting the game-tying 3 at the end of regulation. Westbrook is just 3-for-14 on clutch 3s, but two of those three makes were to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or OT (the other one was in Dallas).
After three straight games in which they lost the first quarter by at least 14 points, the Lakers have gotten off to two straight good starts, scoring 69 points on 47 first-quarter possessions over their weekend back-to-back in Toronto (with 14 first-quarter points from Wenyen Gabriel) and Washington. But their defense got shredded in the second half (69 points allowed on 46 possessions) by the Wizards, and they still haven’t won two straight games since early January. The defense was a disappointment before the break, and it ranks 27th since the break, even though just two of the Lakers’ 13 post-break games have come against teams that rank in the top 10 offensively.
Amazingly, the Lakers still aren’t in much danger in regard to falling out of the Western Conference Play-In. But home court in the 9-10 game will likely come down to their two remaining games against the Pelicans. The first of those two is Sunday in New Orleans, and the Lakers will have a rest advantage (with the Pelicans hosting the Spurs the night before).
Week 23: @ CLE, vs. PHI, @ NOP
Pace: 100.7 (4) OffRtg: 111.2 (17) DefRtg: 112.0 (20) NetRtg: -0.8 (18)
Two post-break meetings with the Pelicans were going to give the Spurs a shot at the last Play-In spot in the West. But they got absolutely destroyed (at home) by the Pels on Friday, scoring just 10 points (on 24 possessions) in the first quarter and trailing by as many as 40. Overall, it was the Spurs’ worst loss and their second-worst offensive performance of the season. Of course, with a 33-point defeat and two wins in the final seconds last week, the Spurs’ record is a little more in line with their point differential (that of a 33-39 team) than it was seven days ago.
Even with the game-winners from Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson, the Spurs rank 29th in clutch offense, having scored just 95.2 points per 100 possessions with the score within five points in the last five minutes. And it was a good thing that Walker took that 3 on Wednesday, because Johnson, Dejounte Murray and Devin Vassell (0-for-13) have combined to shoot 6-for-44 (14%) on clutch 3s. That’s not good, and if a few more of those went in, we’d be talking about the Lakers in the Lottery right now.
Overall, the Spurs have seen the league’s eighth-biggest jump in offensive efficiency from last season, and that has come with the biggest jumps in both ball movement (passes per 24 minutes of possession) and player movement (miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession). The Spurs rank eighth and first this season after ranking 29th and 16th last season. That’s come with a big jump in turnover rate (from 11.3 to 12.6 per 100 possessions), but the Spurs still rank in the top two for the fourth straight season.
Of course, the departure of DeMar DeRozan has resulted in the league’s second-biggest drop in free throw rate. And the Spurs still don’t shoot a lot from beyond the arc, ranking 29th in 3-point rate (34.2%), ahead of only DeRozan’s new team. Theirs is still very much a mid-range offense (only the Suns and Bulls have taken a bigger percentage of their shots from between the restricted area and the 3-point line), which makes it difficult to score efficiently without elite offensive talent.
Week 23: @ POR, @ NOP
Pace: 100.2 (8) OffRtg: 109.7 (22) DefRtg: 114.8 (28) NetRtg: -5.2 (25)
The Kings had a top-10 offense through the first nine weeks (31 games) of the season, with all five starters averaging more than 12 points per game. But with Richaun Holmes dealing with injuries and COVID hitting in mid-December, the Sacramento offense quickly fell off. They still have time to climb out, but the Kings are now in position to finish in the bottom 10 offensively for just the second time in the last 11 years. They rank lower offensively under coach Alvin Gentry (24th) than they did under coach Luke Walton (11th) and lower since the trade for Domantas Sabonis (23rd) than they did before it (21st).
Even before they traded two of their best 3-point shooters, the Kings weren’t a very good perimeter-shooting team. And they remain one of four teams — the Grizzlies, Pelicans and Wizards are the others — that rank in the bottom 10 in both 3-point percentage (34.5%, 22nd) and the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (37.8%, 21st). De’Aaron Fox was playing well since the trade (averaging 28.9 points on an effective field goal percentage of 55.2%), but has missed the last two games with a sore right hand.
The Kings almost beat the Suns without Fox on Sunday, thanks in part to Davion Mitchell’s career-high 28 points. The Lakers continue to slide, and four of the Kings’ five games on the road trip that begins Wednesday are against the Pacers, Magic and Rockets (x2), so the longest playoff drought in NBA history isn’t quite locked in. But they’d probably have to win all four of those games to have a shot at the final Play-In spot, they’re currently 2-2 against those three teams, and they’re 9-25 on the road.
Week 23: @ IND, @ ORL
Pace: 98.7 (16) OffRtg: 104.8 (28) DefRtg: 113.2 (25) NetRtg: -8.4 (29)
The Pistons have had the league’s fourth most improved offense since the All-Star break, scoring 10.0 more points per 100 possessions (113.0, 18th) than they did before the break (103.0, 29th). And that improvement is a combination of the continued development of Cade Cunningham (who’s seen a big drop in turnover rate), better efficiency from Jerami Grant (who had a season-high 40 points in Cleveland on Saturday), and improved shooting from Saddiq Bey (who went off for 51 in Orlando on Thursday). The Pistons’ starting lineup has scored 118.0 points per 100 possessions in its 133 minutes since the All-Star break, the fourth best mark among nine lineups that have played at least 100 post-break minutes.
The Pistons are still heading to a second straight season in the bottom five in offensive efficiency. They ranked 26th last season and have seen the league’s seventh biggest drop in points scored per 100 possessions. They’re are one of six teams that rank in the top 10 in both ball and player movement, but shooting is the most important thing in this game, and the Pistons rank 29th in effective field goal percentage (49.1%). Among 150 individuals with at least 500 field goal attempts, Bey (49.3%), Grant (48.8%) and Cunningham (46.5%) rank 116th, 121st and 144th. The Pistons are one of two teams (the Magic are the other) that rank in the bottom five in field goal percentage in the paint (29th), mid-range field goal percentage (27th) and 3-point percentage (29th).
The Orlando game was the Pistons’ third non-clutch win of the season. And they have an opportunity to keep up the post-break success on offense, facing three bottom-10 defenses in the next five days.
Week 23: vs. POR, vs. ATL, vs. WAS, vs. NYK
Pace: 98.4 (19) OffRtg: 111.4 (16) DefRtg: 113.7 (26) NetRtg: -2.2 (22)
With three teams that have been really bad offensively, there are 18 that have scored more points per 100 possessions than the league average. The Pacers were one of those 18 teams even before they had their most efficient game of the season (129 points on just 95 possessions) against Portland on Sunday. They’ve been worse than the league average in regard to initial (pre-rebound) offense, but rank third in offensive rebounding percentage and seventh in second-chance points per 100 possessions (14.5).
The departure of Domantas Sabonis (along with the extended absence of Myles Turner) hasn’t hurt them on the offensive glass. The Pacers have second in offensive rebounding percentage and 10th offensively (116.1 points scored per 100 possessions) since their trade with the Kings, having ranked 17th offensively (110.0 per 100) at the time of the trade. And since the trade, they’ve scored 18.7 more points per 100 possessions with Buddy Hield on the floor (119.8) than they have with him on the bench (101.1). The Pacers are one of two teams – Charlotte is the other – that rank in the top five in both ball and player movement, and Hield has a good chance to end the season with more assists in 26 (or fewer) games as a Pacer (he’s got 80 in 16 so far) than he did in 55 games with the Kings (105).
Hield and Tyrese Haliburton will face their former team on Wednesday. After that, seven of the Pacers’ final nine games will come against teams with winning records.
Week 23: vs. SAC, @ MEM, @ TOR
Pace: 99.8 (10) OffRtg: 104.0 (29) DefRtg: 111.9 (19) NetRtg: -7.9 (27)
Even when they reached the playoffs in their first two seasons under former coach Steve Clifford, the Magic struggled to score. And this will be their 10th straight season in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency. In the 26 years for which we have play-by-play data, the only other streak of at least 10 seasons in the bottom 10 on either end of the floor belongs to the Bobcats/Hornets, who had bottom-10 offenses in their first 11 seasons. As they stand, the Magic look pretty good for matching that streak next season.
This was noted in this space two weeks ago, but it remains remarkable: The Magic rank in the bottom five in all four of the four factors on offense, something no team has done in these 26 seasons of play-by-play data. Their best opportunity to avoid history is taking care of the ball over these last three weeks and moving up from 26th in turnover rate. Their 21 turnovers against the Thunder on Sunday were part of the least efficient performance (90 points on 100 possessions) for any team in a game it won this season (or least season).
Wendell Carter Jr. had five of those turnovers, but also scored 30 points on Sunday. He has the fourth-highest effective field goal percentage (64.4%) among 54 players who’ve averaged at least 18 points per game (he’s averaged 20.2) since the All-Star break, and he gets to play the Thunder again this week. The Magic are set to rank 29th in offensive efficiency for the second straight season, but they’re in little danger of falling to 30th.
Week 23: vs. GSW, @ OKC, vs. SAC
Pace: 98.8 (14) OffRtg: 108.3 (25) DefRtg: 115.5 (29) NetRtg: -7.2 (26)
The Blazers are the only team that ranked in the top five offensively in each of the last three seasons. And when Brooklyn set the all-time record for efficiency last season, Portland wasn’t far behind. Having scored 8.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than they did last season, the Blazers are basically in a tie with the Clippers for the biggest drop in offensive efficiency. Those would rank as the third and fourth biggest season-to-season drop-offs in the last 15 years, topped only by those of the 2019-20 Warriors (-10.7) and ’10-11 Cavs (-9.0).
Even when Damian Lillard was playing, the Blazers weren’t a very good offensive team. They were much better with him on the floor, but after he played his last game (Dec. 31), they ranked 16th offensively. Since then, only the Thunder and Magic have been worse. Anfernee Simons has seen the seventh biggest jump in points scored per 36 minutes (from 16.4 to 21.2) and the ninth biggest jump in assists per 36 (from 2.9 to 4.7) among 298 players who’ve played at least 500 minutes in each of the last two seasons and Jusuf Nurkic showed some signs of life offensively before he was shut down for the season. But other guys who could put the ball in the basket were traded away.
This will be the first time in 15 years (since the 2006-07 season) that the Blazers rank in the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency. A few more ugly games could put them in the bottom five, but they get to face the Rockets’ 30th-ranked defense twice this week.
Week 23: @ DET, vs. SAS, vs. HOU, vs. HOU
Pace: 99.4 (11) OffRtg: 102.9 (30) DefRtg: 110.8 (16) NetRtg: -7.9 (28)
The Thunder have scored 7.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average (110.8). That would make them the eighth-worst offensive team in the 26 seasons for which we have play-by-play data, one spot better than … last season’s Thunder, who scored 8.9 fewer than the league average. OKC is set to be the third team in these last 26 years to rank last offensively in consecutive seasons, though the Bulls did it three years in a row (1998-99 through ’00-01) and the Sixers did it four years in a row (2013-14 through ’16-17).
The Thunder have been much better offensively with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on the floor (106.1 points scored per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him off the floor (97.4), though that on-the-floor number is still well below the league average. Playing without him in Orlando on Sunday, they had their third-worst offensive game of the season (85 points on 100 possessions) against a defense that had allowed the Pistons to score 134 on 103 just three nights earlier.
That loss (their ninth straight) dropped the Thunder to 30th (behind the Pistons) in effective field goal percentage. They rank last in both field goal percentage in the paint (52.2%) and 3-point percentage (31.5%), with five of the 26 players who’ve shot worse than 30% on at least 100 3-point attempts (which is kind of amazing). One of those five is Gilgeous-Alexander, who leads the league in drives per game (23.8) for a second straight season and ranks 12th in free throw rate (39.3 attempts per 100 shots from the field) among 150 players with at least 500 field goal attempts, but has taken a huge step backward in regard to his shooting from beyond the arc (down from 42% last season).
Week 23: vs. BOS, vs. ORL, @ DEN
Pace: 101.2 (2) OffRtg: 107.2 (27) DefRtg: 116.5 (30) NetRtg: -9.3 (30)
The Rockets remain the only team that ranks in the bottom five on both ends of the floor. Their best chance to shed that distinction is on offense, and they’ll play seven of their final 11 games against teams that rank in the bottom 10 defensively. That includes two games each against the 29th-ranked Blazers and 28th-ranked Kings.
With the league average having seen a drop of 0.9 points per 100 possessions from last season (111.7), the Rockets have actually seen a small jump. They lead the league in free throw rate (28.6 attempts per 100 shots from the field), having seen the third biggest jump from last season. They’ve also seen the fourth-biggest jump in effective field goal percentage, and for the 10th straight season, they lead the league in the percentage of their shots (81%) that have come from the restricted area or 3-point range. There are five players that have taken more mid-range shots than the Rockets (308), with DeMar DeRozan having attempted 2.1 times as many.
The Rockets have had one huge Achilles heel offensively. And they’re set to be the first team in 16 years to have committed at least 1.0 more turnovers per 100 possessions than any other team. The difference between them (16.4 per 100) and the 29th-ranked Cavs (15.1) is the same as the difference between the Cavs and the 12th-ranked Thunder (13.8).
Week 23: vs. WAS, @ DAL, @ POR, @ POR