Power Rankings

Power Rankings

Power Rankings: Rockets, Jazz continue runs toward the top

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

It’s still hard to pick against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers meeting again in The Finals. And the build-up to their Christmas Day meeting should be great. But, especially in the Western Conference, some threats to a Finals rematch are building up.

The San Antonio Spurs just keep rolling along, getting better and better defensively after a slow start on that end of the floor. The LA Clippers have regressed a little and will be missing Blake Griffin for a few weeks, but are too good not to be in the mix come April and May. And now, two more Western Conference teams are putting themselves in the conversation about the league’s elite.

The Houston Rockets are 10-0 in December, a stretch that began with a win at Golden State. Mike D’Antoni’s squad ranks second in defensive efficiency this month, climbing from 27th to 14th on that end of the floor in the last two weeks. The Rockets don’t just have a potent starting lineup anymore. With Patrick Beverley healthy and Eric Gordon coming off the bench, they’ve managed to build on leads when James Harden sits down.

The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, are 11-2 since Nov. 23, with wins over Houston, Oklahoma City and Memphis. They’re only two losses in that stretch were by one point (to Miami) and to the Warriors in a game in which the Jazz were missing four starters. They’re one of four teams – the Warriors, Clippers and Spurs are the others – that ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

There’s now a big five in the West and a big seven in the Power Rankings. Even with how well they’ve been playing, it’s been tough for the Rockets and Jazz to move up, because the other five teams have been really good too.

Before the Warriors have their Finals rematch in Cleveland, they’ll host the Jazz on Tuesday. The same night, the Spurs will visit the Rockets. So you don’t have to wait until Christmas to get two of the week’s best games, both of which will be on NBA TV.

Last week: Warriors, Cavs keep conference challengers at bay

This time last year: Steady Spurs taking care of business — Kyrie Irving made his season debut, the Pistons and Bulls played four overtimes, Jimmy Butler called out his coach for not calling out his players, the Sixers were 1-28, and Kobe Bryant dunked.

Plus-minus stud: Kyle Lowry (TOR) was a plus-75 in four games last week.

Plus-minus dud: Tobias Harris (DET) was a minus-51 in three games last week.

Hero team of the week: Utah (3-0) — The Jazz’s perfect week included two wins over fellow top-10 teams (Oklahoma City and Memphis).

Zero team of the week: Chicago (0-3) — The Bulls blew a huge lead to the Wolves and then got swept (convincingly) in their home-and-home with the Bucks.

East vs. West: The West is 84-71 (.542) against the East in interconference games after going 11-5 (3-0 vs. New York) last week.

Toughest schedules through Sunday: 1. Sacramento, 2. Dallas, 3. Portland

Easiest schedules through Sunday: 1. Golden State, 2. Memphis, 3. San Antonio

Schedule strength is based on cumulative opponent record, and adjusted for home vs. away and days of rest before a game.

High jumps of the week: Milwaukee (+6), Dallas (+3), Denver (+3), Indiana (+3), Washington (+3)

Free falls of the week: Chicago (-5), L.A. Lakers (-5), New York (-3)

Team to watch this week: San Antonio — The Spurs have quickly climbed from 13th to third in defensive efficiency over the last two weeks, but play three straight road games against teams that rank in the top eight offensively. They visit the Rockets, Clippers and Blazers before returning home to host the Bulls on Christmas.

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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 is averaging 98.8 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 104.6 points scored per 100 possessions this season.

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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.

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