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NBA Power Rankings: Bucks stay on top, Knicks vault up to third

Vincent Goodwill and Sherrod Blakely join the show to scrutinize the top NBA storylines, including the competition to be named the league's Most Valuable Player, as well the Eastern and Western Conference playoff races.

The Bucks hold on to the top spot in this week’s NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, but the news is just below them where the Nuggets have climbed up to second and the Knicks have vaulted up to third.

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1. Bucks (47-18, Last week No. 1). Milwaukee’s 16-game win-streak was snapped when its top-three defense let Philadelphia put up 48 in the fourth quarter. The Bucks bounced back from that bad 12 minutes with a couple of wins since, and with Boston slipping Milwaukee has a 2.5-game cushion for the top seed in the East. That matters because it puts them on the opposite side of the bracket from the Celtics and 76ers, who would have to go through each other before facing Giannis Antetokounmpo and company. The Bucks are happy to let them beat each other up. Three game road trip starts Saturday in Golden State in a nationally televised showdown against Stephen Curry and friends.

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2. Nuggets (46-19, LW 3). The Nuggets have won four straight and 8-of-9. What should give Nuggets fans the most hope heading into the playoffs is they are a league-best 30-4 at home. The big playoff concern about this team is on the defensive end, but over their last 15 games Denver’s 112 defensive rating is eighth best in the NBA — if they are playing top-10 defense come the postseason their chances of getting to the Finals jump dramatically. Starting Friday in San Antonio, Denver has 6-of-7 on the road, but most of this week is a relatively soft schedule.

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3. Knicks (39-28, LW 6). In a reminder of how much Jalen Brunson means to this team, the Knicks’ nine-game winning streak was snapped by a Wembanyama-chasing Hornets team because he was out. While there is still time for things to go sideways in a way Knicks fans are all too familiar with, this team seems destined for a 4/5 matchup with the Cavaliers and the goal the rest of the way should be getting home court for that series. The other sign of how much Brunson meant to the team is New York having the fifth-best offense in the league this season, although part of that is Julius Randle going off and winning games with shots like this.

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4. Celtics (45-21, LW 2). The Celtics have lost three in a row and 4-of-5, and the question is whether this is a structural issue or they are just a little bored with the regular season. I think it’s the latter, but this little slump has them 2.5 games back of the Bucks and looking at the No. 2 seed, which is a much rougher path through the playoffs. As things stand today they would get a beatable but physical and challenging Miami team in the first round, win that and it’s likely Philadelphia in the second round, with Milwaukee waiting at the end of the road. That is a gauntlet. Starting Saturday the Celtics head out on a six-game road trip.

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5. 76ers (43-22, LW 4). Can the 76ers make it to the second seed? Philly has Gond 5-3 since the All-Star break and with the Celtics scuffling a little, find themselves just one game back of Boston, which would mean hosting a second-round series. If the Sixers are going to make it to the conference finals or beyond this season, they will need the James Harden that showed up in the fourth quarter against Milwaukee.

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6. Cavaliers (41-26, LW 7). The Cavaliers have the best defense in the league for the season (109.5 defensive rating) but that has slipped a little of late, up to 112.1 over the last 10 games (that’s still ninth best in the league for that stretch). Cleveland appears headed for a showdown with New York in the first round of the playoffs and what the Cavs have going for them is the best player in that series — Donovan Mitchell had a 40 burger against the Celtics on Monday, he can carve up the Knicks defense and key a win in that series. Two big games against a desperate Miami team this Wednesday and Friday.

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7. Kings (38-26, LW 8). Back during Summer League in Las Vegas, some rowdy (perhaps intoxicated) Kings fans were chanting “40 wins” and talking playoffs, which led to chuckles in the NBA world. Nobody is laughing now — the Kings are about to blow by that optimistic outlook, just like they did the Vegas over/under on wins. The Kings moved up to the No. 2 seed in the West as they continue to play well (winning 6-of-7) while the Grizzlies deal with multiple issues and fall back. Things are going so well their Thursday night game against the red-hot Knicks was moved into the late game on TNT slot — the nation will get another look at the Kings.

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8. Suns (36-29, LW 9). Phoenix is 3-0 since Kevin Durant entered the lineup with a +13.5 net rating in those games — they have looked like contenders, even if it is one with some flaws. They have executed well when they have needed to, such as against the Mavericks, a game where Devin Booker and Durant combined for 73 points. The Suns sit as the No. 4 seed, three games back in the loss column from the Kings and Grizzlies. While Sacramento is not coming back to the pack, there is a chance the Suns can catch the stumbling Grizzlies for the No. 3 seed. The Suns play those Kings Saturday, then have a brutal back-to-back against the Warriors and Bucks Monday and Tuesday.

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9. Grizzlies (38-26, LW 5). Ja Morant remains “away from the team” following him flashing a gun on social media and there is no return date set. There are bigger issues at play and Morant finding the right path for himself matters most, but they miss him dearly on the court as they slide down the West standings. Losing Brandon Clarke for the rest of the season and the playoffs to a torn Achilles is another big blow, he is a key part of their rotation. He likely is out until some point in the second half of next season (and missing all of it is not out of the question).

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10. Mavericks (34-32, LW 10). Dallas is 3-3 since the All-Star break, with a top-five offense and a bottom-10 defense that makes them dangerous but inconsistent. Despite Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving having four games already where both score 30+, they are 3-5 playing together. The Mavs are tied with the Warriors as the five and six seeds in the West and it’s hard to see them moving up, the Suns (2.5 games ahead) will be tough to catch, and while Memphis is falling back making up five games with 16 to go is asking a lot. Dallas heads out on the road for 11 of their next 14 games.

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11. Warriors (34-32, LW 12). Signs the Warriors are turning things around: They have the best defense in the NBA over the last seven games. They also got Stephen Curry back in the rotation, although that is an adjustment. “I think Steph is a really unique player to play with because most dominant players are on the ball constantly, and Steph is off the ball half the time,” Steve Kerr said. “And so you have to be ready not just to, you know, catch and shoot when he penetrates and kicks it to you but you got to recognize what he’s doing. Go set a screen for him, slip, be ready to take advantage of him with or without the ball.”

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12. Heat (35-31, LW 11). Erik Spoelstra has gone to staggering some of the minutes of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, needing to keep one of them on the floor to keep the team from cratering for stretches during a game. Still, there are rotation questions to answer: Kyle Lowry is nearing a return, should he start or should the steady Gabe Vincent keep the job? Max Strus was knocking down 3s and playing well as a starter with Kevin Love out, does he keep the job? Behind back-to-back wins against the Hawks last week, Miami has positioned itself well for the No. 7 seed, and now they can target trying to catch the Nets for a top-six finish, but to make up 2.5 games will take a hot hand and a little help. After a couple of games against the Cavaliers, the schedule softens up.

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13. Nets (37-28, LW 14). On a team with Devin Booker (and Deandre Ayton demanding touches), Mikal Bridges was not showcased offensively in Phoenix. He is getting his chance in Brooklyn and has grabbed it — he is averaging more than 30 points a game over his last four, and the Nets have won three of those (including a 28-point comeback against the Celtics). Brooklyn is a playoff team, and they have a 2.5-game lead over Miami with 17 to play (and the Nets have the tiebreaker), if the Nets can play around .500 ball the rest of the way they have a good chance of staying in the top six and avoiding the playoffs.

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14. Timberwolves (34-33, LW 17). Nothing is locked in, but the sweep of the Los Angeles teams last weekend has helped the Timberwolves’ play-in positioning — if you’re stuck in the play-in you want to be the 7/8 seeds so you only need one win to advance. As of now, Minnesota is seven seed and looks likely to hold on to a 7/8 seed. Minnesota is 4-5 since the arrival of Mike Conley and will try to add to that with games against the Hawks and Nets (two teams fighting for playoff positioning themselves) this week.

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15. Hawks (32-33, LW 16). Atlanta is 1-3 in the Quin Snyder era, although that is unfair as he was never going to have a chance to make meaningful changes to the system 60+ games into the season. They are shooting a few more 3-pointers a game, and Dejounte Murray went off for 41 against the Trail Blazers, but nothing has changed. It was interesting to see owner Tony Ressler go on a media tour to push back on the idea of meddling ownership (with his son working in the team’s front office) leading to frustration and the mid-season changes in the front office and coaching staff. Time will tell, but Snyder has the contract that gives him leverage.

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16. Clippers (34-33, LW 13). The Clippers snapped their five-game losing streak since the arrival of Russell Westbrook and him starting at point guard — but it took big games and a late push from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to beat the shorthanded and stunned Grizzlies team. As of this writing, the Clippers sit as the No. 8 seed, just half a game (one in the loss column) back of Golden State and Dallas as the No. 5/6 seeds. The Clippers can avoid the play-in if they find an identity and start building some chemistry, but the stylistic change of Westbrook at the point has set that process back (even with him playing efficiently, he just plays a very different game than they had been).

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17. Raptors (32-34, LW 15). Toronto is 4-3 since the All-Star break with their defense covering up an offense that has struggled with Fred VanVleet missing time then struggling with his shot upon his return. The Raptors appear locked into a play-in spot (they have a three-game cushion over the 11-seed Bulls) but the real question is can they pass the Hawks and climb up to the No. 8 seed and make their path through the play-in much easier? The schedule isn’t making things easier with both Los Angeles teams followed by Denver.

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18. Lakers 32-34, LW 20). The Lakers have gone 3-2 since LeBron James went out with a foot injury — thanks in large part to Anthony Davis getting back to his All-NBA form from earlier in the season — and that combined with the slides of New Orleans and Utah has the Lakers up to ninth in the West and in the play-in. Maybe the best sign for Lakers fans from this run: They are doing it with defense. The Lakers have the fourth-best defense in the NBA over those five games (and a bottom-10 offense). A critical game for the Lakers next Tuesday against the Pelicans.

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19. Trail Blazers (31-34, LW 21). Damian Lillard has carried Portland’s offense, scoring 30+ points in nine of his last 10 games (and that includes the insane 71-point night against the Rockets), but he is going to have to keep that up and get more help if the Trail Blazers are going to make the postseason. The next couple of weeks will be critical for Portland as they face a brutal schedule that could sink their playoff hopes: Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, Boston, L.A.

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20. Thunder (31-34, LW 23). Steven Adams is expected to return soon from injury. Jalen Williams may be playing himself onto the All-Rookie First team with his play of late — he’s averaging 21.3 points a game on 58.8% shooting since the All-Star break. OKC is in the bunch between 9 and 11 in the West with the Lakers, Pelicans and Trail Blazers battling for the final couple of play-in spots. The Thunder will have to earn this on the road, with 8-of-10 away from home (the Thunder are 11-19 away from home so far this season). The key game is this Sunday at New Orleans.

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21. Wizards (31-34, LW 24). Washington has the roster of a dangerous play-in team. Bradley Beal could go off at any time, like he did last week dropping 37 on the Hawks. Kyle Kuzma is playing for his next contract and is capable of 30+ any given night. Kristaps Porzingis is another guy on the roster who can get hot and win the Wizards one game. And even with all of them, it was Daniel Gafford who got free for the game-winner against the Pistons, a put-back at the buzzer.

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22. Jazz (31-35, LW 18). As expected after their moves selling off veterans at the trade deadline, the Jazz are struggling — they have lost four straight and fallen out of the play-in picture in the West. With the second toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, it’s tough to picture the Jazz turning it around. This season was supposed to be, in part, about developing players for the future in Utah and not only has Walker Kessler lived up to that, but of late Kris Dunn has impressed with solid minutes off the bench. The Jazz are 0-3 to start their six-game road trip.

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23. Pelicans (31-34, LW 19). Zion Williamson will be out at least a couple more weeks, the team announced, and that may be optimistic. If the Pelicans look like they are out of the play-in mix in two weeks, they might sit him for the remainder of the season. Huge games this week against other teams in the play-in mix: at home against the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Lakers. New Orleans needs a couple of wins in that trio of games.

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24. Bulls (29-36, LW 22). Can the Bulls still climb up to the No. 10 seed and get into the play-in? They will need a little help from the Raptors or Wizards — Chicago sits two games back of Washington with 17 to play. It doesn’t help that Chicago has the fourth toughest schedule in the East the rest of the way. Zach LaVine has been putting up numbers of late, but the defense that was impressive earlier in the league has slipped and is bottom 10 in the league over the last five games.

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25. Magic 27-39, LW 25). Orlando isn’t headed to the playoffs but this season was always supposed to be about development and Paolo Banchero certainly has lived up to that — he will be the Rookie of the Year — but there have been other bright spots as well with second-year player Franz Wagner taking another step forward, and Wendell Carter Jr. looks like a rotation big. Losing Jonathan Isaac for the season again after just 11 games is a blow, but hopefully, he can bounce back from adductor surgery and be ready to roll next season.

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26. Pacers (29-37, LW 26). There are so many signs of how much Tyrese Haliburton means to this team beyond the 40 points and 16 assists he put up against the 76ers on Monday. The best example may be Indiana’s season fell apart starting mid-January when Haliburton missed 10 games and the team went 1-9 without him. Haliburton has played at an All-NBA level this season, however the league is so deep with elite guards that picking the top six for All-NBA honors is going to mean some very good players are going to get left off.

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27. Hornets (21-46, LW 27). Tuesday’s win snapping the Knicks’ nine-game winning streak was one of the team’s best wins, especially without LaMelo Ball (out for the season). Kelly Oubre Jr. is happy to take more shots and has picked up some of that scoring slack and is averaging more than 24 points a game since Ball went down. They have more winnable games this week against the Pistons and Jazz.

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28. Rockets (15-50, LW 29). The Rockets are firmly entrenched in the bottom three teams in the league — they will have a 14% chance at landing Victor Wembanyama — so a couple of wins against the Spurs this week is not going to hurt their cause. For all the focus on Jalen Green and his impressive athleticism, Alpren Şengün looks like the guy who could be a key part of this team’s rotation in the future. Starting Saturday against the Bulls the Rockets have a six-game homestand.

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29. Spurs (16-49, LW 30). San Antonio won two games in the past week (Pacers and Jazz) and that was enough to get them out of the cellar of these NBA Power rankings, but then they go and lose both games of a home-and-home with Houston, so how much can we really move them up? On the bright side for Spurs fans, outside of scouring YouTube for Wembanyama highlights they can watch Devin Vassell, who returned to action this week.

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30. Pistons (15-51, LW 28). Losers of nine in a row and 12-of-13, the Pistons have slid into the bottom of these NBA Power Rankings. Adding to their woes, Detroit has lost Hamidou Diallo for the rest of the season with a Grade 2 right ankle sprain. This team could make a leap next season with whoever they draft and the return of Cade Cunningham (the guy who brings this entire offense together), but the next few weeks will not be pretty.

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