With less than two weeks left until the start of the NBA playoffs, there is still a little drama left, but not a whole lot.
The Eastern Conference is all but settled, as both Miami and Milwaukee have a four-game lead on ninth-place Detroit for the final two east post-season spots.
The last five playoff spots in the west, however, are far from being decided. Houston, Golden State and Portland have all clinched, but then there is a log-jam of seven teams with a shot at the playoffs. They start with San Antonio (45-32), and then OKC (45-33), Utah (44-33), Minnesota (44-34) and New Orleans (43-34) rounding out the 4th through 8th spots.
Gumming up the works, and with outside shots are ninth place Denver 42-35 and 10th place L.A. Clippers (41-36). Things may go down to the wire in the wild, wild west.
The monster trade of Blake Griffin to Detroit didn’t have the desired effect the team had hoped for. Since he first played on Feb. 1, the team has gone just 13-14 and ninth in the East with a 37-40 record that puts them four games out of a playoff spot with five games to go.
A pretty interesting off-season and then a busy trade deadline saw plenty of change, though we think that the balance of power is still tipped toward the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers — if they can stop the dysfunction and just play basketball.
That is not say they won’t be challenged, but the NBA is not a paragon of parity.
There is plenty to be excited about going into the final two weeks and with it comes SportsBreak’s March update to the Power Rankings — which will be the last.
Like hockey and football, we are only focusing on those teams we figure will contend for playoff spots (eight from the East and eight from the West), in ascending order.
16. Miami Heat – February Rank: NA
The Heat were accorded the cruelest of fortunes in 2016-17, finishing tied with Chicago at 41-41, but missing the playoffs anyway. Without spiritual leader Dwyane Wade, a changed Heat team struggled to .500 and have missed the playoffs in two of three seasons since losing in the 2014 finals. However, a new guard is led by Hassan Whiteside, SG Dion Waiters and PG Goran Dragic. Journeyman PF James Johnson was added last year and performed well off the bench. He will be ably complemented by free agent forward Kelly Olynyk, while second year SF Rodney McGruder should improve on his rookie season. Miami’s first round pick, C Bam Adebayo of Kentucky, got his feet wet in the pre-season and should be a capable back-up to Whiteside. Look for the Heat to return to the playoffs.
March Results: The Heat made us look good in a harsh March, going 9-7 to put them into seventh place in the Eastern Conference at 41-36. Of their nine triumphs, the Heat beat Philadelphia, Washington and Cleveland (by a resounding 98-79 count on Mar. 27). What keeps them from going any higher in these rankings, though, was their terrible road record in March (1-5). As they are going to start the playoffs away from South Beach, they have to tidy up their act. Miami was boosted by Whiteside’s return post-Christmas and in March he had a 19 rebound performance in a win over Detroit, followed by a 24-point, 14 rebound double-double in a victory against Phoenix two nights later. Even better, the Heat got Dwyane Wade back at the deadline and he responded in his 11 games during March. His signature effort came in that big victory over Cleveland and his old pal LeBron, where he scored 12 in just 17 minutes of floor time, along with two rebounds, four assists, four blocks (two on LBJ) and a steal.
A look ahead: Miami has five games remaining to gear up for the post-season, starting with a home-and-home against Atlanta on Tuesday and Wednesday. They then travel to New York to take on the Knicks on Apr. 6 and conclude their 2017-18 campaign with tough home dates against Oklahoma City on Apr. 9 and Toronto (a possible first round playoff preview) on Apr. 11.
15. Milwaukee Bucks – February Rank: 12
Just by virtue of having the Greek Freak on their roster makes the Bucks a force to be reckoned with at the bottom of the Eastern Conference pecking order. What the Bucks will have to contend with, however, is an injury to second leading scorer Jabari Parker that will keep him out of the line-up until February. John Henson, his understudy in 2016-17, will have to pick up some of the scoring slack along with Mirza Teletovic and first round draft pick D.J Wilson (should he make the starting line-up out of camp). Giannis Antetokounmpo, the aforementioned freak, has the ability to carry this team on his back and will likely improve on his career best marks from last season (22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.9 blocks). One dark horse in camp, Gary Payton II, has lit it up and may be a force like his old man down the road.
March Results: The Ides of March got to the Bucks, as they did the old “one step forward, two steps back” routine and finished the month with a 8-7 mark and now sit in 8th place with a 41-36 record. Giannis Antetokounmpo et al didn’t fare well against the east, going 3-4, but did manage a winning mark against western competition at 5-3, including a big victory over Stephen Curry-less Golden State on Mar. 29. Speaking of Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s fourth leading scorer at 27.2 points per game poured in 32 against the Dubs, along with four rebounds and five assists. He had eight double-doubles on the month and wasn’t quieted a whole lot by opposition defences. Former Phoenix Suns PG Eric Bledsoe had one of his better months in a Bucks uniform, averaging 18.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.1 steals. He was huge in a win over the Lakers on Mar. 30, dropping seven of 12 three point attempts for a season high 39 points, along with six assists and four steals.
A look ahead: Milwaukee has a healthy four-game cushion on ninth place Detroit, however, they can improve their positioning with a few wins in their last five games, all against Eastern Conference competition. It starts Tuesday night with a game at home against Boston and end with a road game in Philadelphia on Apr. 11. If the playoffs were to start today, they would face 2017 post-season foe, the Toronto Raptors.
14. Utah Jazz – February Rank: NA
A funny thing happened to the Jazz when they lost 2016-17 leading scorer Gordon Hayward in free agency, as well as starters George Hill (Sacramento and then Cleveland) and Rodney Hood (traded to Cleveland). The team rallied around rookie Donovan Mitchell and returnees Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles and have actually become a team to be reckoned with. A trade deadline move saw the Jazz acquire Cleveland PF Jae Crowder (in the Hood-Hill three-team trade) and the off-season acquisition of SG Ricky Rubio has paid dividends too. PF Derrick Favors, who had a down year in 2016-17 has rebounded nicely, while former Boston Celtics PF Jonas Jerebko has been very valuable off the bench. Undrafted Baylor grad Royce O’Neale has had a pretty good rookie season in a reserve role, too.
March Results: The Jazz marched to the beat of their own drummer in March, reeling off a nine-game winning streak to start the month and ending it with an impressive overall record of 12-3. One of the NBA’s hottest teams now sits sixth in the Western Conference at 44-33 and climbing. Holdover C Gobert, who is 11th in average rebounds per game at 10.8 (he doesn’t qualify for overall status as he’s missed 26 games this year), had a monster March. The fifth-year veteran from France had 11 double-doubles and averaged 12.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. In a 110-91 triumph over Golden State on Mar. 25, Gobert had 17 points, 15 rebounds, three assists and four blocks.
A look ahead: Utah isn’t home and clear quite yet, as they are in a logjam of teams within four games of each other. They are two games clear of ninth place Denver and have five regular season tilts remaining in April after knocking off Minnesota on Apr. 1. They host the Lakers Tuesday and the Clippers on Thursday before traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers again Sunday. They host Golden State next Tuesday and go to Portland to finish the season a night later.
13. New Orleans Pelicans – February Rank: 10
The Pelicans have not played to expectations the last two seasons, winning a combined 64 games (losing 100) and missing the playoffs both years. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins form two-thirds of one of the best front courts in basketball, but the team overall just wasn’t getting it done. So, they brought in help in the back court for Jrue Holiday in the forms of point guards Jameer Nelson (9.2 PPG, 5.1 assists for Denver) and Rajan Rondo (7.8 PPG, 6.7 assists for Chicago). The also brought in 12-year veteran SG Tony Allen from Memphis and journeyman SG Ian Clark from Golden State (6.8 PPG, 37.4 percent three-point shooting).
March Results: The streaky Pelicans, sans Demarcus Cousins, maintained the slimmest of holds on a playoff spot in March, fashioning a 8-7 mark punctuated with minor winning and losing skids. As of Tuesday they were eighth in the Western Conference, with a one game lead on ninth place Denver. The last seven games of the month and the first one in April were indicative of the Pelicans’ season. They won four straight, starting with a huge win at home to Boston (108-89) on Mar. 18 and bookended by a narrow 128-125 triumph against the Lakers on Mar. 22. Anthony Davis carried the club on his shoulders in that quartet of wins, averaging 33 points, 2.5 blocks and 10.25 rebounds. Then New Orleans started skidding at the wrong time losing three in a row to Houston, Portland and Cleveland before dropping the first game of April to Oklahoma City. Deadline acquisition PF Nikola Mirotic was as unpredictable as his new team, alternating inspired and below average games throughout the month.
A look ahead: The Pelicans only have five games remaining to secure a playoff berth and find some rhythm to their game in the absence of Boogie. They have winnable games against Memphis, Phoenix and the L.A. Clippers, but there are no guarantees with enigmatic New Orleans.
12. Washington Wizards – February Rank: 11
The East isn’t a strong conference and of all the teams not named Cleveland, the Wizards can make a serious move up. That is, if the front court can bring their game up to the level of back court stars Bradley Beal and John Wall. Both Beal and Wall scored 23.1 points per game last season for the fourth place Wiz. Wall’s career year also included highs in assists (10.7), steals (2.0) and field goal shooting (45.1 percent). Up front, fifth-year starting forward Otto Porter Jr. brings enough scoring (13.4 PPG) and defence (6.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals) to the mix. The question marks surround veteran center Marcin Gortat and starting power forward Jason Smith. Neither would be considered elite, so back-ups like PF Markieff Morris (14.0 PPG in 2016-17) and veteran center Ian Mahinmi need to put in good minutes.
March Results: John Wall is back — sort of — and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Wiz. Washington struggled to a 5-8 record in March before their All-Star point guard got into long awaited action in a win over Charlotte on Mar. 31. He scored 15 points and added a game high 14 assists as the Wiz clinched a playoff berth. It had been over two months since he last played and in that time his team went 16-12. The Wizards were good in February with Wall out of the line-up, but faltered badly in March, including losing four of five before Wall came back from injury. Otto Porter Jr. and Bradley Beal, who picked up much of the offensive and defensive slack in Wall’s absence, now get to take a breather before the start of the post-season.
A look ahead: As the standings suggest on Tuesday, the Wizards may be destined to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. They likely won’t catch Indiana for fifth and a date with the Sixers, but they could move down. They already lost the first game of April to Chicago, when Wall was sat down for further rest. They have five games remaining, including road tilts in Houston (Tuesday) and Cleveland (Apr. 5), before returning home to face Atlanta and Boston. They conclude their season in Orlando on Apr. 11.
11. San Antonio Spurs -February Rank: 15
As good as the Golden State Warriors have been the past few seasons, there is a tendency to forget about the Spurs, who haven’t missed the playoffs in 20 years and got to the Western Conference finals against the Dubs last spring. The old guard from four championship clubs in the last 14 years are still kicking around, like Tony Parker, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobli, but for all intents and purposes now, this team belongs to all-star Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs are a deep and well coached bunch and in the off-season, they didn’t load up huge (didn’t need to), adding excellent depth at forward in journeyman Rudy Gay (18.7 PPG last year in 30 games). What the team will need is improved play in the rear from veteran SG Danny Green, as well as second-year PG Dejounte Murray. All in all, the Spurs are still solid.
March Results: The Spurs are rolling — even without superstar Kawhi Leonard — and that has to make Western Conference foes grip the rock a little harder. A 1-4 start to March gave way to a 7-2 finish, with the veteran Spurs winning their last two games against Oklahoma City on Mar. 29 and whipping first place Houston 100-83 on Easter Sunday. LaMarcus Aldridge has been Mr. Everything for the resurgent Spurs, who still haven’t clinched a playoff berth, but are poised to after disposing handily of James Harden and the Rockets on April Fools Day. He easily had his best month of the season, averaging 26.1 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. In a a 89-75 win over Golden State on Mar. 19. Aldridge poured in 33 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for his third of four double-doubles in March. Against Houston on Sunday the big man from Dallas had 23 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks.
A look ahead: San Antonio hits the road for three of its remaining five contests, with visits to L.A. to face the Clippers on Tuesday and then the Lakers on Wednesday. They are home to Portland on Apr. 7 and Sacramento on Apr. 9 before heading to ‘Nawlins to face the Pelicans in the season closer on Apr. 11.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves – February Rank: 7
To the detriment of many teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings last year, the T-Wolves got a whole lot better in the off-season and will supplant a few of them (including Utah and Memphis). In fact, we don’t see any reason that Minny could flip that 31-51 record around this year. The acquisition of all-star swing man Jimmy Butler from Chicago and PG Jeff Teague from Indiana makes the Timberwolves a scary good club right out of the gate. And that front court, wow. Veteran Taj Gibson was brought in from Oklahoma City to round out a frighteningly good trio that features C Karl-Anthony Towns and SF Andrew Wiggins. And if getting Jimmy Butler was good enough, the team also signed uber sixth man and shooter Jamal Crawford to back up him up. This team will be in the playoffs next spring — and make some noise, too.
March Results: The long overdue return of Jimmy Butler can’t come soon enough. The T-Wolves, who are 1.5 games up on ninth place Denver, have gone 8-8 since Butler went down in late February. In that 16-game span, Minnesota has beaten just one premier Western Conference opponent — Golden State — while losing to Portland, Utah, San Antonio, Houston and Utah again on April Fools Day. Third-year center KAT picked up his game measurably in March, averaging a season high 25.7 points, along with 12.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He was superhuman in a 126-114 win over Atlanta, shooting 19-32 from the field (6-for-8 from beyond the arc) for a whopping 56 points, along with 15 rebounds. Fellow third-year man Andrew Wiggins showed signs of coming back to form, shaking off a rusty February by averaging 18.8 points and shooting 37.7 from three-point range in March. However, Paul George had his worst month in a Thunder uniform (season low 18.2 PPG), ditto Carmelo Anthony, who seems to be tiring out, logging just 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in March (both season lows).
A look ahead: Minnesota controls its own post-season destiny with two games against Denver in their final four games of the season. They visit the Mile High City on Apr. 5 and conclude their season with a visit from the ninth-place Nuggets on Apr. 11. In between they face the Lakers in L.A. on Apr. 6 and host Memphis on Apr. 9.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder – February Rank: 6
The Thunder, after losing Kevin Durant to free agency, finally gave all-world point guard and reigning NBA MVP Russell Westbrook some serious talent to play with. First, they dealt Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana for all-star and elite defensive swing man Paul George. Then, they heisted all-star power forward Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second rounder. And with that, this version of the Thunder is an instant contender, that is, if this trio can gel together without egos getting in the way. Forgotten, we think, in all the off-season hullabaloo was the improved play of fifth-year center Steven Adams and what he will bring to the table, as well as the quiet acquisition of back-up power forward Patrick Patterson from Toronto. Expect big things from the Thunder in 2017-18.
March Results: March came in with a bang for the Thunder and then went out with a whimper. OKC started 1-2, then reeled off six straight wins, only to drop four of five to end the month 8-6. That record left them no closer to a post-season berth, as they sit in fifth at 45-33, 2.5 games up on ninth place Denver (42-35). The star-laden Thunder had some impressive victories over San Antonio, Toronto and Miami, but suffered demoralizing defeats to Houston, Boston, Portland and lastly Denver (126-125 in OT on Mar. 30). As per usual, Russell Westbrook amped up his game, recording five straight triple doubles during that six-game win streak, including an eye-popping 37-point, 13-rebound, 14-assist performance in a 132-125 triumph against Toronto.
A look ahead: To their credit, the Thunder beat New Orleans on Sunday to open April on a high note. But, of their four remaining contests, they have to tangle with Golden State at home Tuesday, followed by a visit to Houston on Saturday and then Miami on Monday. They get Memphis in their last game at home on Apr. 11.
8. Indiana Pacers – February Rank: 13
After losing veterans Paul George, Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles, many expected that the 2017-18 season would be a rebuilding one for the Pacers. In their stead came SG Victor Oladipo from Oklahoma City (15.9 PPG in 2016-17), SF Bojan Bogdanovic from Washington (12.7 PPG, 39.1 percent three-point shooting), PF Domantas Sabonis from OKC (5.9 PPG, 3.6 rebounds) and PG Darren Collison from Sacramento (13.2 PPG, 4.6 assists). Holdovers like C Myles Turner (14.5 PPG, 7.3 rebounds) and PF Thaddeus Young (11 PPG, 6.1 rebounds), are expected to help gel the new-look unit. First round pick, PF T.J. Leaf out of UCLA (18th overall), could also get more floor time due to the exodus of players.
March Results: The Pacers clinched an unlikely playoff berth with a Tornado-like March, winning 11 against just four losses. Victor Oladipo, traded to Indiana in the Paul George deal, may have the last laugh if OKC misses the playoffs. He kept up his remarkable season, which sees him sitting 10th overall in scoring with 23.3 points per game, which is 1.5 more than George’s tally so far. He’s also averaged 5.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists, both career highs. Newcomer SF Bojan Bogdanovic was solid again last month, averaging 15.5 points per game and shooting 42.6 percent from three-point territory. It’s been an all-around great team effort for a Pacers team no one expected to contend, considering the turnover in personnel before the season even started.
A look ahead: The Pacers, who at 46-31 are a half game back of Philadelphia and one game below third place Cleveland, can grab home court advantage with five games to go. They beat the Clippers on the road on Sunday and three of their next four are away from Indiana, including stops in Denver Tuesday, then Toronto on Apr. 6 and Charlotte on Apr. 8. They host Golden State on Apr. 5 and finish the campaign up with a visit from the Hornets on Apr. 10.
7. Philadelphia 76ers – February Rank: 9
We will soon find out if the 76ers bold move to trade up in the NBA draft to get their star point guard Markelle Fultz was a good thing. The Sixers now have the last two no. 1’s in their line-up, including PF Ben Simmons, who was a scoring threat and defensive leader in the pre-season and will be a second unit player to start the regular season behind Jarryd Bayless. The Sixers front court situation was solidified by the acquisition of premier three-point shooter J.J. Redick. He is a career 41.5 percent shooter from beyond the arc and will provide oodles of leadership on a young-ish team. Philadelphia’s playoff hopes will also depend on the contributions of centers Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. Embiid, a defensive wizard, needs to remain healthy and Okafor should give the Sixers reason not to trade him (which they did anyway, to Brooklyn).
March Results: Yet another team not many gave hope of making the playoffs, the Sixers clinched and as of Tuesday held down fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 46-30 record, one half game back of third place Cleveland. They are also the hottest team in the NBA right now, having won their last 10 straight. Philly finished a great month of March with a 13-3 record, with their last loss to coming to Indiana on Mar. 13. Before suffering an eye injury in a game against the Knicks that will keep him out for couple weeks, second-year man Joel Embiid continued his breakout season with seven more double-doubles in March. Rookie Ben Simmons was even better, registering five triple-doubles, while averaging 12.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 10.6 assists (which pushed his season average to 8.2, good for fourth overall). Meanwhile, veteran SG JJ Redick, who is averaging a career high 16.6 points per game, maintained his hot hand from three-point territory, sinking 43 of 95 attempts for a 45.3 percent average.
A look ahead: Philly, which beat Charlotte to open the month of April, still has six games to strengthen their hold on fourth, or move up and supplant Cleveland for third. Four of those six are at home, including games against Brooklyn on Tuesday, Cleveland Apr. 6, Dallas Apr. 8 and Milwaukee on Apr. 11. They are in Detroit on Apr. 4 and Atlanta on Apr. 10.
6. Portland Trail Blazers – February Rank: 8
In a tough and nasty Western Conference, the balance of power, at least in the lower echelons has shifted, but only slightly. The Trail Blazers, who finished eighth last year and were first round playoff fodder, are going to find it real hard to maintain that footing, considering they were just 41-41 last year. They return a good starting five from a year ago, highlighted by two-time All-NBA PG Damian Lillard (27.0 PPG, 5.9 assists), SG C.J. McCollum (23 PPG, 3.6 assists) and C Jusuf Nurkic (15.2 PPG, 10.4 rebounds). Portland didn’t make any significant free agent moves but did have a good draft, getting two players in the first round, including 10th overall pick Zach Collins from Gonzaga and 26th overall selection Caleb Swanigan from Purdue. As of the pre-season, Collins was third in depth at center and Swanigan third at power forward.
March Results: When the Trail Blazers opened the month of March with nine straight wins, it was part of a masterful 13-game winning streak started in February. Portland rode that nine-gamer to a great 12-3 record in March and a stranglehold on third place in the Western Conference at 48-29. Among their victims were Minnesota, Oklahoma City (twice), Golden State, Cleveland and New Orleans. Having clinched, they can fine tune their already significant game in the last week of the season. Damian Lillard sparked the Blazers with yet another awesome month, averaging 27.9 points (he is fifth overall on the season at 26.7) and adding 4.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists. Wing man SG C.J. McCollum was also superb, averaging 22.1 PPG and shooting 38.5 percent from beyond the arc.
A look ahead: Having survived a rocky March with a solid record and a playoff berth, the Blazers can prepare for the playoffs with four straight games on the road, starting Tuesday night in Dallas and continuing with stops in Houston (Apr. 5), San Antonio (Apr. 7) and Denver (Apr. 9). They finish their 2017-18 campaign at home to Utah on Apr. 11.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers – February Rank: 5
Fresh off a disappointing loss to Golden State in the NBA finals, the Cavaliers didn’t stand pat in the off-season, freshening up a roster with trades and free agent moves. The Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas deal was the off-season’s most surprising and won’t bear fruit until Thomas returns from a hip injury early in the new year. In the meantime, it looks like free agent signee Derrick Rose will split duties at point with Jose Calderon. The Cavaliers also brought in LeBron James Miami sidekick Dwyane Wade in to start at shooting guard, which may or may not pay off, considering Wade’s age. The most tantalizing part of the Irving/Thomas swap was the inclusion of PF Jae Crowder, who increased his cred with two good years in Boston. The depth the Cavs have behind their stars is stunning and we see no reason they won’t repeat as Eastern Conference champs this season.
March Results: After big shake-up at the deadline, and some mixed results, the Cavaliers got back down to business in March, winning 10 and losing six and clinching a playoff berth. At 47-30, they can’t move past Boston for second place, but could fall as far as fifth if they screw up in their final five games. Their start in March rang a few alarm bells as the Cavs went 3-5. But, on St. Patrick’s Day they clipped Chicago 114-109 to start a five-game winning streak that featured big wins over Milwaukee and Toronto. After a loss to Miami on Mar. 27, Cleveland hasn’t lost, beating Charlotte, New Orleans and Dallas on Easter Sunday. Of course, LeBron James, who is third in scoring, made a case for MVP with his strongest month yet. He averaged 30.9 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.5 assists on the month (including eight double-doubles and four triple doubles). In back-to-back wins over Milwaukee and Toronto, LBJ had 75 points, 19 rebounds and 27 assists.
A look ahead: Cleveland has three tough games in a row, starting Tuesday night against visiting Toronto, They then host playoff bound Washington on Apr. 5 before heading to Philadelphia on Apr. 6 to tangle with the chasing Sixers. They get a bit of respite to finish the schedule, going to New York to face the Knicks on Apr. 9 and getting a return from them on Apr. 11.
4. Boston Celtics – February Rank: 4
What an absolutely crazy off-season for the Eastern Conference’s first place club. The Celtics, who finished ahead of Cleveland last season — but couldn’t beat the Cavs in the playoffs — made several bold (and maybe even questionable) moves. First and foremost, they dealt all-star point guard Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder to Cleveland for all-star point guard Kyrie Irving. Crazy. Second, they traded the rights to no. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz to Philadelphia, but still ended up with the third overall pick in SF Jayson Tatum. Third, they acquired all-star forward Gordon Hayward from Utah, and last, the Celts traded Avery Bradley to Detroit for Marcus Morris. Thus, this team was almost completely remade. We think for the better.
March Results: Boston shook off a sluggish start to a fairly light schedule in March by winning six straight to finish out 9-4 and keep the heat on front-running Toronto (they are two games back with six remaining). After a loss to New Orleans on Mar. 18 that dropped their monthly ledger to 3-4, the Celtics roared back. They beat OKC 100-99 on Mar. 20 and then beat in succession Portland, Sacramento, Phoenix and Utah (all on the road) and capped it with a huge 110-99 triumph against visiting Toronto on Mar. 31. And, they rolled along without the services of Kyrie Irving, who has missed the last nine games with a knee injury and whose timetable for return is up in the air. Rookie SF Jayson Tatum rose to the occasion in March, posting season best averages in points (16.8) and assists (2.4). He dropped a season high 24 on Toronto, with six rebounds and four assists. PF Marcus Morris was outstanding too, recording 18.9 points and 5.6 rebounds during his best month.
A look ahead: The Celtics will finish no worse than second in the East and can overtake Toronto with late winning streak in their final six games. They can put the heat on the Raptors by beating host Milwaukee on Tuesday and then take down the Raptors in Toronto Wednesday night. Three of their last four are at home.
3. Toronto Raptors – February Rank: 3
Are the Raptors a serious contender, or just another Eastern Conference also ran? They have been knocked out of the playoffs two years in a row by a Cleveland team that got better this off-season, so the needle points to also ran. However, this is still a playoff caliber club that played better defence in 2016-17, what with the addition of starting PF Serge Ibaka. On the other side, the Raps made a decent move in free agency by getting veteran SF C.J. Miles, who was a dependable spot starter with the Indiana Pacers, shooting a career high 41.3 percent from beyond the arc in 2016-17. The secret sauce for Toronto will be getting veteran point guard Kyle Lowry some rest so he can be fresh for the playoffs, which means youngsters Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet will be leaned on hard for bigger minutes this season. Much will also depend on all-star SG DeMar DeRozan duplicating his fantastic 2016-17 campaign (27.3 PPG, 5.2 rebounds).
March Results: The Raptors started out March like a house on fire, winning nine straight as part of a 11-0 run that started in late February. Then exhaustion crept in, with the team losing four of seven to finish a crazy busy month a still respectable 12-4. That fourth loss, to Boston on Mar. 31, stung the worst as it allowed the Celtics to creep within two games of front-running Toronto. Both teams have six games remaining between now and Apr. 11, with one against each Wednesday, which should make things very, very interesting. While DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry continue to be the engine that runs Toronto, the team’s bench was huge in March. Reserve PG Fred VanVleet, in his second year out of Wichita State, came up huge in March, averaging 11.5 points and hitting 40.8 percent of his three-point attempts. Ditto great efforts from back-up PF Pascal Siakam (8.4 PPG, 4.4 rebounds) and PG Delon Wright (7.3 PPG, 3.1 assists).
A look ahead: The Raptors need to make a statement in their next two games, even though they can finish no worse than second this season. First, they need to play Cleveland hard in their barn Tuesday night, and then beat Boston at home Wednesday night as part of six games to end the season. The finish out by hosting Indiana on Apr. 6 and then Orlando Apr. 8, before hitting the road in Detroit on Apr. 9 and Miami on Apr. 11 (which could be a playoff preview).
2. Golden State Warriors – February Rank: 1
The reigning champion Dubs didn’t need to make any off-season moves to remain the class of the NBA, but they did anyway. To a team featuring the best starting five in the loop — Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Zaza Pachulia — the Warriors added Nick “Swaggy P” Young from the Lakers and reserve forward Omri Casspi from Sacramento. Heck, the Warriors subs could vie for a playoff spot. A reserve five of David West, JaVale McGee, Andre Iguodala, Young and Shaun Livingston could beat many team’s best quintets. And so it goes for the Warriors, who, if they stay healthy, will walk through the Western Conference again and on to another championship.
March Results: For the first time this season, the Warriors are not no. 1 in our rankings — and for very good reasons. While still very formidable and capable of beating any team on any night, they are currently without superstar Stephen Curry, who may miss the first round of the playoffs. That’s one. Second, they were a very uncharacteristic 7-7 in March. Not bad, by some teams’ standards, but pretty bad for the Dubs, who lost all of nine games in an entire season in 2015-16. By virtue of that milquetoast month, the Warriors are destined to finish second, since they sit 6.0 games back of Houston with five games to play. Curry appeared in just two games between Mar. 6 and Mar. 31. His 29-point performance in a win over Atlanta on Mar. 23 was welcome, but he re-aggravated his injury. Rookie Quinn Cook and veteran Shaun Livingston have done a decent job in Curry’s absence, however, neither can carry this club through four rounds of playoffs. The Dubs are going to have to rally without their on-court general.
A look ahead: Golden State will tune up for the post-season with four of its five remaining games on the road. Kevin Durant and the boys will face nemesis and host Oklahoma City on Tuesday, followed by a trip to Indiana on Apr. 5. They return home to tangle with New Orleans on Apr. 7, before hitting the road again to play Phoenix on Apr. 8 and Utah (a likely first round opponent) on Apr. 10.
1. Houston Rockets – February Rank: 2
Adding Chris Paul to a back court that includes perennial MVP candidate Ryan Harden was like adding King Kong to a movie featuring Godzilla. The Rockets exponentially improved their chances in the Western Conference by trading seven players, a future first round pick and cash to the L.A. Clippers for one of the game’s elite offensive and defensive point guards. Harden scored 29.1 points per game last season and contributed a NBA high 11.2 assists, while Paul scored 18.1 points and dished out 9.2 dimes, along with superior defensive numbers. Additionally, the Rockets re-stocked their roster with another defensive stalwart in Toronto’s P.J Tucker, who will back up Trevor Ariza. Lesser signings included forward Luc Mbah a Moute from the Clippers, as well as Tarik Black from the Lakers. It will be interesting to watch the Rockets this year.
March Results: Ask anyone who’ll listen — except of course LeBron James — and all will tell you James Harden is the hands-down NBA MVP. The league’s leading scorer has been the catalyst to the Rockets best season in franchise history. Harden had a big hand in just about all of the Rockets 14 wins in the month of March, running their record to 62-15. Before dropping a 100-83 decision to San Antonio on Apr. 1, Houston was on a 28-1 run dating back to Jan. 26. Harden, clipping along at 30.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, had four double-doubles and two triple-doubles last month. Even in a losing cause to Toronto (their only defeat in two months) Harden dropped 40, including four of eight from beyond the arc. Of course, he can’t do it all himself, with back-court dynamic duo Chris Paul (who’s been resting an injury of late) and SG Eric Gordon doing a bang-up job. Fourth year center Clint Capela is having a career year, too, averaging 13.9 points, 10.9 rebounds (8th in the NBA) and 1.9 blocks (second in the league).
A look ahead: Houston has clinched the conference crown and will have home court advantage through the entire post-season. They have five games to rest regulars, three at home and two on the road.