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NBA Power Rankings: Joel Embiid powers 76ers into top spot

Michael Holley and Michael Smith analyze Steph Curry's consistent production and three-point shooting of late makes him the most memorable performer this season and could help him catch Nikola Jokic in the NBA MVP race.

Joel Embiid may not be able to bully ball his way to the top of the MVP race anymore, but he has been able to bully the 76ers past the Clippers and onto the top of our weekly NBA Power Rankings.

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1. 76ers (39-18 Last Week No. 4). Beating the shorthanded Nets put Philadelphia in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the East, then a win over the Clippers (also shorthanded, although so were the 76ers) cemented their contender status and put Philly atop these rankings (we’re not holding the loss to the tornado that is Stephen Curry against them). Joel Embiid is dominating again and thrusting himself back into the MVP conversation with his recent play, averaging 34.5 points per game over a recent four-game winning streak (sorry Sixers fans, he’s not going to win the award after missing 18 games, but he will finish in the top five).

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2. Clippers (41-19, LW 1). Kawhi Leonard missed four games, came back for one, and now will be out at least another week due to a sore right foot. Getting their stars healthy and on the court together is a concern for the Clippers — just like it was last year. Leonard and Paul George have played just 5 of their last 14 games together, and Serge Ibaka has been out since mid-March. Despite that, the Clippers have gone 5-1 in those recent Leonard-less games, 8-1 in their last nine (the only loss is to the 76ers), and 17-5 since the All-Star break with the best offense in the NBA during that stretch leading the way.

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3. Jazz (43-15, LW 3). Utah’s good luck with injuries ran out last week. The entire state of Utah held its breath when Donovan Mitchell rolled his ankle against the Pacers, but fortunately it isn’t as severe as it looked at the time; he should be back and healthy before the playoffs. Jordan Clarkson has missed time with an ankle issue as well. Utah needs all nine of its rotation players healthy come the playoffs, so don’t be surprised if you see more games like against the Lakers when Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley, and Derrick Favors all were rested. Utah has the cushion not to wear guys down the final month of the season.

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4. Suns (41-16 LW 2). Phoenix has earned the two-seed in the West, having won 12-of-14 despite their defense being more pedestrian of late. The Suns have done it with Chris Paul setting the stage as a floor general, Devin Booker as an All-Star bucket getter, DeAndre Ayton as a double-double machine and defensive anchor, and role players like Mikal Bridges hitting big shots. To hold on to the No. 2 seed the Suns have to overcome the toughest schedule of the West’s top teams the rest of the way, including 12-of-16 on the road. The win against the Bucks was a good start to that stretch.

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5. Nuggets (37-20 LW 6). Nikola Jokic winning the MVP has become a quest for Nuggets fans and his 47-point night against Memphis — including a game-winning three in the second overtime — was the kind of MVP moment that every winner needs to stick in the minds of voters. Denver has gone 3-0 without Jamal Murray, a reminder that this roster was far more than a two-man show. The wins also seem to have locked Denver in as the four seed in the West, but their “reward” for that may be the Lakers in the first round.

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6. Bucks (35-22, LW 7). Milwaukee got Giannis Antetokounmpo back on the court after a six-game absence, but the up-and-down nature of the Bucks regular season continued with losses to the Grizzlies (who were getting and making shots at the rim) and the Suns. If the Bucks are going to make a push for the top seed in the East, they need to be on the upswing the rest of this week with two games against Joel Embiid and the Sixers. Milwaukee sits four games back of Philly with 15 games to play, the Bucks need to sweep this two-game set to have any shot at the top seed (and an easier path through the playoffs).

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7. Nets (38-19, LW 5). James Harden is now out until likely right about the start of the playoffs, which means the seven games and 186 minutes the Brooklyn big three got on the court together is all they may get before the postseason tests start. Kevin Durant remains day-to-day with his bruised thigh. Maybe the run of injuries ends and they get healthy, the chemistry comes together, and all of this regular season drama around the Nets doesn’t matter. Or maybe the stress test of the playoffs will show building good habits in the regular season does matter when it is all on the line.

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8. Lakers (35-23, LW 8). The Cavalry is about to charge over the hill to the rescue — Anthony Davis is on the verge of returning to the Los Angeles rotation, maybe by this weekend (but with a strict minutes limit). The Lakers have gone a very respectable 7-8 with both LeBron James and Davis out — thanks to a top-10 defense in the NBA over that stretch — keeping them as the five seed in the West. LeBron’s return is still a couple of weeks away. Dennis Schroder and Kyle Kuzma have done what they can to keep the offense afloat, but LeBron is the hub of everything they do and until they get him back points will be at a premium.

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9. Celtics (31-27, LW 9). Jayson Tatum — admitting he is still feeling some effects from COVID-19 — has started to find his groove again, and that has sparked the Celtics to an 8-2 run in their last 10. Tatum averaged 32.7 points a game during a recent six-game win streak and shot 46.8% from three during that stretch. Boston is taking a look at Jabari Parker in a limited bench role the rest of the season (and he’s looked okay on offense in his two games), and paired with Evan Fournier — once he gets out of health and safety protocols — the pair should help the Celtics’ depth.

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10. Hawks (32-26 LW 11). Things are looking up in Atlanta: The team has has won 8-of-10 and vaulted up to the four seed in the East, and John Collins has returned after missing nine games with a sprained ankle. Trae Young gets the headlines and Bogdan Bogdanovic has been on a tear of late, but it is the steady defense Clint Capela in the paint that has been the quiet secret to the Hawks this season — Atlanta’s defense is 8.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

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11. Knicks (32-27, LW 15). Winners of seven in a row, the streak has been fueled by a red-hot Julius Randle carrying the offense to top-seven in the league over their last eight games, while the defense continues to be lock down. The goal now is to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in games but New York has the second toughest remaining schedule in the East (Toronto) and they are going to have to pull some upsets on the road to stay out of the play-in games.

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12. Grizzlies (29-27 LW 12). Memphis has the third-best offense in the NBA over its last eight games, and the aggressive play and sharp shooting of Grayson Allen has been a big part of that. Allen is hunting his shots now and averaged 18.5 points a game in the team’s last four, shooting better than 50% from three. Jaren Jackson Jr. should return soon from injury, helping the playoff push for the Grizzlies (they seem locked into the play-in games).

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13. Trail Blazers (32-25, LW 14). Damian Lillard is set to return Wednesday night against Denver after missing three games with a sore hamstring (Portland went 1-2 in those games). The Trail Blazers are trying to hold off the Mavericks (1.5 games back) and the Grizzlies (2.5 back) for the six seed in the West and the chance to avoid the play-in games, but Portland has by far the toughest schedule of any of those teams. It’s going to need some Lillard magic to hold onto those spots.

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14. Mavericks (30-26, LW 10). Dallas has just one win in its last five games, and that required Luka Doncic hitting an insane leaning game-winning three against Memphis. Dallas is struggling on both ends of the court right now, but their bottom-five defense over their last seven games is an anchor on efforts to climb past Portland and into the safety of the six seed (and no play-in games). Dallas has a soft schedule the rest of the way — including two against the LeBron-less Lakers this week — but if the defense can’t get stops, it will take more heroics to win.

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15. Heat (30-28 LW 13). With Jimmy Butler missing games due to a sprained ankle, Bam Adebayo has stepped up on both ends. You couldn’t miss it against Brooklyn, when Adebayo was switch onto Irving late in the game a couple of times and got stops, then faced up and drove for the game-winner himself. Miami is entering a soft part of the schedule, they need to take advantage and jump up into the top six now, avoiding a play-in game if at all possible.

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16. Warriors (29-29, LW 20). Stephen Curry has gone nuclear with a historic run — 11 straight games of 30+ points, the longest streak ever for a player 33 or older — but it’s taken all of that to keep the Warriors at 6-5 in those games and holding on to the nine seed in the West. While Curry gets the headlines, Andrew Wiggins has played well since the All-Star break: 20.1 points a game, a 60.8 true shooting percentage, and he’s played strong defense.

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17. Spurs (28-28, LW 16). There are times you can see the compressed and intense second-half schedule wearing on the Spurs, but with the Pelicans fading, San Antonio looks locked into one of the play-in games in the West. The Spurs struggled defensively for a while after the All-Star break, but they are fifth-best in the NBA over their last eight games. San Antonio is 4-4 in those last eight and the losses have come in a very unSpursian way — they are executing poorly in the clutch. That and the blown 16-point lead against Portland that was a punch to the gut. But San Antonio has bounced back with wins against the Suns and Pacers on the road. Starting Saturday in New Orleans, the Spurs will play 10-of-12 on the road.

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18. Hornets (28-29, LW 17). LaMelo Ball getting his cast off, starting individual work, and maybe returning in the next couple of weeks is the first bit of good injury news for Charlotte in a while, but they are still without key guys (Gordon Hayward, Malik Monk, more). Combine the Ball news with Terry Rozier continuing his Most Improved Player level turn around this season and there are reasons to be positive about the end of the season in Charlotte. Also, another week, another rim-rocking dunk by Miles Bridges.

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19. Pacers (26-31, LW 19). Myles Turner is out — likely for the rest of the season — with a partially torn plantar plate in his right big toe. It’s bad news because Indiana’s defense has been bottom 10 in the league over their past eight games, most without Turner. Indiana’s defense is 5.4 points per 100 worse when Turner sits this season. Indiana has lost 4-of-5 but can right the ship against a soft part of the schedule this week — it needs to. Washington is playing well and just two games back from knocking the Pacers out of even the play-in game.

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20. Wizards (24-33 LW 24). Winners of five in a row, Bradley Beal feels vindicated for staying because Washington has jumped up into a tie with Chicago for the final play-in spot in the East. Russell Westbrook gets most of the media credit for the run, and he is racking up triple-doubles with 25 this season — he is the first player in NBA history to have 25 or more triple-doubles in four different seasons. However, it is the Robin Lopez led defense that is key: The Wizards have the fourth best defense in the NBA over the last eight games.

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21. Raptors (24-33, LW 22). Toronto is just half-a-game out of the last play-in game spot in the East, but the Raptors have the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the conference. As it has been all season, the biggest issue for Toronto is just getting and staying healthy — Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Rodney Hood, and others have all missed time in the last week. On the bright side, rookie Malachi Flynn has started to find his role as a playmaker with the second unit (46 assists in his last seven).

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22. Bulls (24-33, LW 21). Zach LaVine missing games this week (and for an undetermined amount of time) due to being in the league’s health and safety protocols could not come at a worse time as the Bulls fight to hang on to the final play-in slot in the East. Chicago’s already pedestrian offense is 7.4 points per 100 worse when LeVine is off the court. Chicago picked up a quality win against Boston Monday behind 29 from Nikola Vucevic, but they are just 5-9 since trading for the All-Star big man.

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23. Pelicans (25-33, LW 18). New Orleans has lost four in a row, but it’s how they are losing those games that is frustrating Stan Van Gundy — terrible late-game execution haunts them. Eric Bledsoe said he didn’t pay attention to instructions to foul the Knicks up three late, Lonzo Ball then helped off an open shooter, and after the overtime loss SVG was saying a high school team could have executed the end-of-game instructions and won. It’s going to be a busy offseason for the Pels; this roster needs to be reworked around Zion Williamson and his unique skill set.

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24. Kings (23-35, LW 25). A win against Dallas on Sunday snapped a nine-game losing streak, but Sacramento has still lost 10-of-11. Losing Richaun Holmes to a hamstring issue is going to hurt, he is critical to their defense. The one (only?) bright spot during the losing streak is De’Aaron Fox has been in attack mode and playing aggressively — he had 30 points and 12 assists in the win against Dallas, for example. Terence Davis has given the team a nice boost off the bench since coming from Toronto.

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25. Pistons (17-40 LW 23). The wins aren’t there, but the reasons for hope are in Detroit. Jerami Grant has worn down of late but has shown he can be a trusted shot creator on a playoff team. Saddiq Bey is a real player, a quality three-point shooter already, and strong on the defensive end for a rookie. Isaiah Stewart has come on of late (he averaged 15.3 points and 13.7 rebounds last week). Killian Hayes is finally healthy and showing some playmaking skills.

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26. Timberwolves (17-42, LW 27). Karl-Anthony Towns took time off (around the one-year anniversary of his mother’s death) and without him the Minnesota offense looked lost against the Nets and Bucks. He came back to the lineup, scored 24 points and the offense looked balanced in a win against Miami. Towns is the Wolves best player, and it isn’t close right now (although Anthony Edwards may make his case in couple of years).

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27. Cavaliers (20-37, LW 26). Kevin Love has played 10 games since coming back from injury, and he is averaging 13.8 points a game in that stretch, pulling down double-digit rebounds some nights, and the Cavaliers have been 11.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court this season. All of that helps his trade value, although getting a team to take on the two-years, $60.2 million he is still owed in a trade would be coup of the offseason for Cleveland.

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28. Magic (18-40, LW 30). Wendell Carter Jr. is playing well since coming to Orlando, and that includes a strong revenge game against the Bulls with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Since the trade Carter is averaging 14.5 points a game, on 57.8% shooting, plus he’s grabbing 8.8 rebounds a game. This is why you take a flier on young players with skill that didn’t work out as hoped with their first team, sometimes it’s about circumstance, not talent.

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29. Rockets (15-43, LW 28). The bright spot for Houston as it starts its rebuild has been the play of Jae’Sean Tate this season. He was undrafted and a little old for a rookie (25), but he is going to make the All-Rookie teams thanks to his defense, plus he is averaging 11.1 points a game on 52.7% shooting. The Rockets have lost 11 of 13 and the schedule gets tough this week (Jazz, Clippers, Nuggets).

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30. Thunder (20-38, LW 29). Losers of 11 in a row, it’s more about their own pick in this draft and the fact they get the Rockets pick if it is No. 5 or lower. More than words, this GIF sums up the Thunder right now.

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