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NBA Power Rankings: Can any team in the West catch the Utah Jazz?

Milwaukee Bucks v Utah Jazz

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 12: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz high fives Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz after the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on February 12, 2021 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

The red-hot Utah Jazz remain on top of NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, and considering the injuries to the teams in Los Angeles chasing them, can anyone catch Utah in the West?

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1. Jazz (23-5 Last Week No. 1). For the first part of this amazing Utah run — now up to winning 18-of-19 — it was fair to say it came against a soft schedule. No more. The last four wins have come against Boston, Milwaukee, Miami, and Philadelphia (without Joel Embiid). The Jazz earned the respect of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who said they’re the “best team in the West.” The schedule doesn’t get any easier with two against the Clippers coming up (although L.A. is banged up right now). Looking at the West landscape, Utah has a real shot at the No. 1 seed.

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2. Lakers (22-7, LW 2). Anthony Davis will be sidelined until likely after the All-Star break — and the Lakers should be cautious, they need Davis healthy for the playoffs — but it likely will not hurt the Lakers much. They have 6-of-8 at home before the All-Star break, and the schedule is generally soft. The Lakers are +5.3 per 100 this season when LeBron James is on the court without Davis, too. LeBron could strengthen his front-running MVP case the next couple of weeks without AD.

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3. Clippers (21-8, LW 5). Four Clippers starters — Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley, and Nicolas Batum — have missed time recently. Yet, Los Angeles has won four in a row and its offense has remained one of the best in the league thanks to Lou Williams looking like his vintage self. The Clips’ defense has fallen off in those games, understandable without George and Leonard. A two-game set against Utah this week will be interesting, but only if the Clippers have George and Leonard back for those games.

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4. Nets (18-12, LW 7). Brooklyn continues to be difficult to truly get a read on — they are 10-1 against teams over .500 but 8-11 against teams below that line. Its utter destruction of a top-10 defense in Golden State, or comeback against the Suns from 24 down, show what a fully functional Nets team could look like. Brooklyn has won three in a row, but its last loss was to a struggling Detroit team that put up 122 points on them, and their wins continue to be shootouts. Maybe games on the road against the Lakers and Clippers this weekend will give us a clearer picture.

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5. Suns (17-10 LW 6). Winners of 9-of-11, the Suns have been the second hottest team in the West the past couple of weeks. The offense has been top-10 in that stretch and at points carried by Devin Booker, who had scored at least 25 points in four-straight games before Tuesday’s loss to Brooklyn (he averaged 32.3 points in those four wins, shooting 48% from three). The Suns defense has been slightly below average the past couple of weeks — something to watch — but Booker and the offense has covered that up.

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6. 76ers (18-10 LW 3). With no fans in most buildings, home-court advantage has been wiped away for much of the season — except for Philadelphia. The 76ers are 7-8 on the road but 11-2 at home. For some reason, the Sixers shoot worse and score seven fewer points a game on the road (maybe that’s random, but it doesn’t feel like it). Joel Embiid’s streak of scoring at least 25 points is up to 11 games (something only Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, and Charles Barkley have done in 76ers history), but he was out Monday with a sore back. Hopefully that is just day-to-day.

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7. Trail Blazers (17-10, LW 12). It seems like every week we run another video in this space of a Damian Lillard game winner. That’s because the Trail Blazers may be the most clutch team in the league this season — they are +29 in games within five points in the final five minutes. That’s insanely good. Lillard has been so good I voted him an All-Star starter. And as promised, another Damian Lillard game-winner.

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8. Bucks (16-12, LW 4). Four straight losses, but Giannis Antetokounmpo says fans should not panic. He’s right, it’s too early and some of the Bucks’ issues come from them experimenting in the regular season — switching on defense, having Antetokounmpo as the pick setter — in a way that should make them a better playoff seed. That said, the Bucks have the 13th ranked defense in the NBA and that does not bode well for the playoffs if not improved.

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9. Nuggets (15-12 LW 8). Nikola Jokic continues to play at an MVP level — expect him to be an All-Star Game starter — but the Nuggets continue to wait on bubble Jamal Murray to show up this season. The regular-season version of Murray has returned most of this season, and while he’s good — 18.5 points and 4.4 assists a game — he’s not “No. 2 player on a conference finals team” good. The advanced stats have him looking pedestrian this season, and Denver needs more than that. Maybe strong back-to-back 25-point outings — Sunday against the Lakers and Tuesday against the Celtics — will springboard a turnaround.

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10. Spurs (16-11, LW 10). Jakob Poeltl is giving the Spurs quality minutes of late, 27 of them a night averaging 8.9 points and 8.3 rebounds a game since being inserted into the starting lineup. However, his 31.6% free throw percentage this season is on pace to be the worst for a single season in NBA history. Yes, worse than Wilt (38% was his lowest) or Shaq (42.2%). San Antonio is 2-0 to start their annual rodeo road trip with four more games to go.

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11. Warriors (15-13, LW 9). While Stephen Curry going nuclear seemingly every night gets the headlines, Golden State is quietly playing good defense this season, eighth-best in the NBA. The Warriors are top-10 in halfcourt defense, but where they shine is in limiting transition points. They give up the fourth fewest transition opportunities to opponents and are third best defensively when teams do run. By the way, how hot is Curry? Even after the buzzer sounds Curry can hitting ridiculous shots, like an underhanded three.

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12. Celtics (14-13, LW 11). If you want to pile on Boston for being 6-10 in their last 16 and looking pedestrian for much of it, go right ahead. They’ve earned it. Danny Ainge should get criticism for not grabbing Myles Turner when he had the chance last offseason. Just know we have not seen the Celtics anywhere near full strength yet: their four best players — Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart — have played a total of 28 minutes together this season, for a total of 57 possessions. Boston simply has not been whole.

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13. Pacers (14-14, LW 14). Jeremy Lamb has thrived as a scorer off the bench the past week (three games), averaging 13 points a game and helping spark a win against Detroit that stopped a three-game losing streak. The Pacers missed Doug McDermott and the shooting/spacing he brought to the starting lineup in a loss to Chicago (bruised right knee). When Lamb or McDermott or Myles Turner can help Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis, this becomes a tough team to beat.

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14. Raptors (13-15, LW 17). Toronto has come up in Andre Drummond trade rumors, but don’t bet on that one happening, unless the Raptors want to throw Kyle Lowry in the deal (and they don’t); it has to be 3 or 4 players for one, and that kind of trade is much more difficult to pull off (and the Raptors will not want to surrender the good young players the Cavs would seek). Toronto’s impressive win against Milwaukee on Tuesday has them 5-2 in their last seven road games (they have two more coming up on the road, the Bucks and Timberwolves).

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15. Knicks (14-15, LW 22). This is just very Tom Thibodeau: Julius Randle leads the NBA in total minutes played, with RJ Barrett fourth. Thibs leans heavily on guys he can trust to get him wins — and it’s working, the Knicks have won three in a row and 5-of-7 to put themselves solidly in the playoff/play-in spots in the East. Mitchell Robinson will be out 4-6 weeks following hand surgery, which is a real blow to the Knicks front line. Nerlens Noel got the start in his place against Houston — he had a solid game — and likely will stay in that role.

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16. Hornets (13-15, LW 16). Injuries and COVID protocols forced coach James Borego to try a three-guard lineup with LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, and Devonte Graham — and it thrived. Charlotte beat Minnesota starting those three and the three-guard lineups are +25.6 per 100 with a ridiculously good offense. It’s small sample size theater, but worth revisiting for Charlotte. When the Hornets return to playing after having games postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, they enter a brutal stretch of the schedule, including six in a row on the road through the West starting Monday in Utah.

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17. Mavericks (13-15, LW 21). In its last seven games, Dallas has had the second-best offense in the NBA behind Luka Doncic playing at an All-NBA level again — he had 90 points over two games last weekend. The problem is the Dallas defense is 29th in the league in that stretch. Dallas has gone 5-2 in those seven games, but that kind of pace will be difficult to maintain if it cannot get some stops. Still, with the offense back on trade the Mavs are a threat to win every night.

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18. Grizzlies (11-12 LW 23). Ja Morant has been dynamic in stretches since his return to the lineup, when he gets to the rim the Memphis offense thrives, but his jumper has been a struggle this season. Morant is shooting 26.5% on the four threes he takes a game, and while he doesn’t take many midrange shots he’s missing the ones he does take. It’s one of the areas his game can take a leap forward. Memphis sits as the nine seed right now, but with teams like Dallas surging behind them, the Grizzlies need to find some wins to stay in the West’s play-in mix.

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19. Heat (11-16 LW 20). In another sign of Miami’s struggles this season, the team is 1-10 against teams over .500 — a challenge considering the team is on a road swing through the West (they have lost back-to-back games to the Jazz and Clippers). The good news is the Heat defense that carried them in the bubble last season seems to be finding its footing, eighth best in the NBA over the last seven games. Jimmy Butler has been putting up massive numbers. Free Max Strus — or at least give him more run.

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20. Bulls (11-15, LW 25). Zach LaVine is racking up his points and making his All-Star case — he’s scored at least 26 in six straight games and had 46 in a win over the Pelicans. Despite that, LaVine is on the bubble. He’s not going to be a starter, and there are some locks at guard on the team — Beal, Harden, Irving, Young — and then it gets down to splitting hairs with LaVine, Simmons, Brogdon, Holiday, and people shouldn’t sleep on Fred VanVleet. The coaches make the reserve decisions, and some good players are going to be left off.

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21. Pelicans (12-15, LW 19). Tuesday’s win against the Grizzlies Tuesday snapped a three-game losing streak, a streak where the issue continues to be defense — they have the 26th ranked defense over the past two weeks, 27th in the league for the season. New Orleans is not defending the three-point line well. Watching Zion Williamson try to attack the rim when Steven Adams is on the court — and his defender can help and clog the lane — just does not pass the eye test (but they score 118.7 per 100 when both are on the court).

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22. Rockets (11-16 LW 13). The Rockets have lost six in a row, which not so coincidentally is when Christian Wood went out of the lineup (right ankle sprain). It doesn’t help that Victor Oladipo (right foot strain) also has been out a couple of games. Houston’s issues are on the offensive end — they are dead last in offense through the last eight games. Houston’s offense has not been dynamic all season (26th in the league), but it is 4.6 points per 100 worse over those last eight games. With Wood out for a while, there’s o easy way to change this trend.

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23. Thunder (11-16, LW 26). The Thunder have lost 4-of-5, and it hasn’t helped that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has missed the last four games with a left knee issue. One bright spot has been the play of Kenrich Williams, who has had some strong games (including 24 against the Lakers more than a week ago). With the insane depth and quality of guards in the West, Gilgeous-Alexander has little chance to make the All-Star Game, but averaging 22.6 points and 6.5 assists a night as the primary shot creator for the Thunder should at least get him some consideration.

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24. Kings (12-15, LW 15). Four straight losses has taken the shine off of the “we could make the playoffs” run where Sacramento won 7-of-8. The lack of consistency can be tied directly to the defense, which is still worst in the league for the season — on the nights the Kings can just outscore opponents they get wins, but that is hard to sustain, even with De’Aaron Fox back in the lineup. The bright spot in Sacramento remains Tyrese Haliburton — that rookie is special.

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25. Hawks (11-16 LW 18). The concern in Atlanta a year ago was how the Hawks fell apart when Trae Young is on the court, so the team spent in free agency to add depth. Last season the Hawks offense was 14.1 per 100 worse when Young sat, but this season it’s still -13.9. The problem has been getting all those free agents on the court. Injuries have been an issue: Danilo Gallinari has played 14 games, Rajon Rondo 14 games, Bogdan Bogdanovic 9 games, and Kris Dunn hasn’t even set foot on the court yet.

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26. Wizards (8-17 LW 30). It’s good to see Bradley Beal lead the NBA All-Star fan voting and get the recognition he deserves. And no, your eyes did not deceive you, the Wizards have had a couple good defensive games lately, including holding Boston to 91 points. With all that Washington has gone 5-5 in their last 10 games and are on a two-game win-streak. It’s not exactly “break up the Wizards” time, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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27. Pistons (8-19 LW 28). Detroit is sitting Blake Griffin while it searches for a trade for him, but this is more likely to end up in a buyout. Griffin is owe $36.6 million this season and has a player option he will certainly pick up for $38.9 million next season — that’s a lot of money to take on, and match in a trade, for a player averaging 12.5 points a game and shooting 36.5% overall (and 31.5% from three). After a buyout Miami, Brooklyn, the Lakers (if Anthony Davis is still out) all will be interested, among others.

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28. Magic (10-18 LW 27). Injuries continue to ravage Orlando like no other team, with rookie Cole Anthony being one of the latest to go down. It’s still Nikola Vucevic against the world for Orlando, but he put up 42 points in a win against Sacramento and is averaging 23.7 points and 11.4 rebounds a game. He deserves another trip to the All-Star Game this season, but whether the coaches will ignore Orlando’s record and vote him in remains to be seen.

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29. Timberwolves (7-21, LW 29). When Minnesota traded for D’Angelo Russell at the deadline last year, the goal was to both keep Karl-Anthony Towns happy — he and Russell are good friends — and provide a 1/5 pick-and-roll combination that would win a lot of games. Injuries have kept that from happening — Towns and Russell have played just five games together since the trade last season. Five. They will not be teaming up for the next month as Russell is having his knee scoped, which came up just as Towns returned to action.

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30. Cavaliers (10-19, LW 24). Not long ago this looked like a team that could at least make the play-in game, and things were promising with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland taking steps forward. The wheels have come off. The Cavaliers have lost eight straight, with the worst defense in the NBA over that stretch and a bottom-five offense. Now starting center Andre Drummond is on the bench as they look for a trade for him (don’t bet on Toronto, that’s a difficult deal to construct). There are good young players in Cleveland, but still so much work to do.

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