A matchup tonight between two of the NBA’s best teams — the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets (9 ET, NBA TV) — will sadly be lacking in some star power since the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (left knee sprain) is out. That absence shouldn’t limit the intensity factor for Denver, though, which is suddenly in a bit of a fight with Utah and Oklahoma City for the Northwest Division crown. While the Nuggets beat a fully-stocked Bucks team back in late January, Denver’s defense has hit the skids since the All-Star break with a 117.0 Defensive Rating (29th in the NBA in that span). Milwaukee’s offense hasn’t been great since then, either, (109.0 Offensive Rating), so this could be a game of two teams trying to see who can get back on track first.
Much like the Boston Celtics (see No. 3), the Houston Rockets were feeling fresh and frisky after the All-Star break thanks to their five-game win streak. How quickly that all has changed after an 0-4 run that included losses to the playoff-contending Orlando Magic and lowly Charlotte Hornets over the weekend. After Sunday’s loss to the Magic, coach Mike D’Antoni hoped this was, perhaps, the big valley of the season for Houston and it will pull itself out if this skid soon. The West standings wait for no team, as Houston has learned: it went from the No. 5 seed on Friday to the No. 6 seed as of this morning.
After a Feb. 26 win in Salt Lake City, the Boston Celtics were looking like a legit threat to swipe the No. 2 seed (and the Atlantic Division lead) from the Toronto Raptors. Back then, the Celtics were 1 game back of Toronto in the standings and had won three of four games to start their post-All-Star break schedule. A 1-4 mark since then — which includes last night’s heartbreaking loss to the Thunder — has Boston suddenly in a mini-skid. There’s no panic, mind you, for the Celtics. But there’s also a sense of urgency to turn things around as the season wanes.
Since it ran off 19 wins in 21 games from mid-December to late January, Utah has been wildly inconsistent. It followed that run with a five-game skid … then a four-game win streak … then a four-game skid … and now, a five-game win streak. The Jazz’s road swing through the East was a success and Toronto visits Salt Lake City next (9 ET, NBA League Pass), where Utah has seen a fantastic Defensive Rating at home this season (104.6) fall to putrid levels since the All-Star break (120.6). Before we get too down on the Jazz, though, know that Mike Conley is, perhaps at last getting into a groove in Utah. Over his last eight games, Conley is averaging 15.1 ppg and 4.8 apg while, more importantly, shooting much better (46.8% overall; 41.7% on 3-pointers).