With injuries continuing to plague the Chicago Bulls, Oklahoma City has ascended into a class of their own. Crossing out potential playoff-competitors like a ‘bucket list’, the Thunder looked primed and ready to stake their claim as ‘Best of the West’. Remember that warning towards the Eastern Conference of the inevitable playoff push coming from the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks? Well, coming off Sunday’s thrashing of the Miami Heat, the Celtics have rattled off five-consecutive wins and find themselves in the four-seed. The Knicks, while without Amar’e Stoudemire (Back/2-4 weeks) and Jeremy Lin (Torn MCL/Remainder of Regular Season) are in the final playoff spot, and have won eight of ten.
1.) Oklahoma City Thunder (40-12, LW#2) Much to the dismay of Skip Bayless, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant continue to play well together. Durant is the clear-cut MVP frontrunner, in my opinion, and Westbrook is having a breakout season. The Thunder (winners of seven-straight) look to continue streaking with the Grizzlies, Heat, Pacers, and Raptors on the schedule for this week.
2.) San Antonio Spurs (36-14, LW#4) Enough keeping the Spurs out of the top couple spots based solely upon a slightly inferior record. Having endured several injuries to key players, these Spurs have been a model of consistency…so what’s new? Unlike last year’s team, that lacked depth and consistent bench productivity, the Spurs are completely loaded and don’t seem to skip a beat as Coach Pop rotates his guys. Acquisitions of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw (no pun intended) could prove to be huge for the post-season.
3.) Chicago Bulls (42-12, LW#1) Dropping two spots in this week’s rankings are as much about the reality of Chicago’s injury situation with the playoffs quickly approaching (12 games left), and just how serious it will be for them to maintain the two-game lead they currently hold over the Heat for the top-seed in the Eastern Conference. Whether they have a healthy Derrick Rose (which is absolutely vital) or not, home court advantage throughout (at least) the Eastern Conference playoffs could prove to be the difference for Chicago.
4.) Miami Heat (37-14, LW#3) No need to overreact to recent struggles, specifically because Chicago’s injury woes have re-opened the door for Miami. After getting thumped by Boston on Sunday, Miami heads into the week with three potential playoff teams (Philly/OKC/Mem) coming to town, before ending the week hosting Detroit. Can they make a push for that top seed? Winning a few games against a decent team on the road might help that cause.
5.) Los Angeles Lakers (33-20, LW#6) Lakers end a relatively positive (3-1) week with a victory over the visiting Warriors. After a ‘reality-check’ home loss at the hands of the Thunder and gruesome (3-21 fg) game from Kobe in a come-from-behind home win over the Hornets, Kobe (40 pts, 5 assists) and Pau’s (26/11/6/3blks) resurgence vs. the Warriors were a welcomed sight for LAL. At 22-5, the they have the third-best home record in the league. Bynum’s left ankle will be re-examined on Monday, following a sprain against Golden State. Bynum’s absence permitted Pau to return to playing out of the post, and not-so-coindentally, Pau reminded all of us just how effective he can be when ‘featured’.
6.) Boston Celtics (30-22, N/A) From unranked, to right in the mix, these Celtics certainly didn’t “sneak up” on anyone. Just before the trading deadline, rumors swirled around GM Danny Ainge looking to trade any/all/part of the ‘Big-4’. Looks as though the gamble to keep the the core in tact for one last playoff push may have paid off, as the Celtics are knocking on Orlando’s door (back 1 1/2 game) for the three-seed in the East. After waxing the Heat on Sunday, the next 10 days will make/break Boston’s season: vs Spurs, @ Bulls, @Pacers, vs Sixers, @Heat, vs Hawks.
7.) Dallas Mavericks (30-23, LW#9) Dirk is still “Dirk”, but unless the defending champs receive major contributions from their role players (much like Terry/Chandler/Barea/Stevenson last year) they may be ‘one-and-done’. Not to say the Mavs will in any way be an easy team to defeat in the postseason, but Vince Carter and Lamar Odom have been ‘inconsistent’, at best.
8.) Los Angeles Clippers (31-21, N/A) Thankfully, for ClipperNation (yes, even I snickered as I typed it) LAC figured out a way to start winning again. After running off a five-game streak, Coach Del Negro seems to be off the proverbial ‘hot-seat’, and right back into the thick of things out West. If they are able to steal a game in Dallas, and/or defend the ‘home court’ against the ‘visiting’ Lakers, then they can look to end the week on a high note vs. the lowly 18-34 Sacramento Kings (twice). A 3-1 (or better) week, could shift the balance of power in the Pacific Division, yet again.
9.) Indiana Pacers (31-21, N/A) The Pacers capped off a busy week (five games) with a nice overtime (road) victory over the Rockets. Indiana looks to be in a dogfight for the 4-seed (back one game) with Boston. This week, the schedule doesn’t make it any easier with the surging Knicks, Thunder, and Celtics all coming to Indiana for a visit.
10.) Orlando Magic (32-21, LW#5) After starting the week on the right path with a road win over the Raptors, the Magic went into the tank against the Knicks, Mavericks, and Nuggets. While Orlando can certainly get as hot as any team in a playoff series, the Magic have to consider potential playoff match-ups, and what the lack of home-court in the first round might signify for a team heading into what will undoubtedly be another off-season of (future) free-agent drama with Dwight Howard.
Jabari A. Davis
@RealTalkonSprts on Twitter