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NBA Power Rankings: Suns hold on to top spot, Celtics climb to second

Josiah Johnson joins Michael Holley to talk about Trae Young's rivalry with New York Knicks fans and why no team wants to see the Lakers if they make the postseason.

The Phoenix Suns continue to have a firm grip on the top spot in the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings and it’s tough to see them giving it up this season. But if one red-hot team could take it from them it’s the Celtics, who are now second in these rankings and must be seen as legit title contenders.

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1. Suns (58-14, Last Week No. 1). Phoenix has gone 10-4 without Chris Paul (and Devin Booker missed some games in there as well) and is about to get the Point God back for a final push to lock up the best record in the NBA and home-court throughout the playoffs. The Suns’ magic number to lock up the best record is one — they are nine games better than the team with the second-best record (Grizzlies). It will be interesting to see how voters treat Suns during NBA awards: Chris Paul and Devin Booker both All-NBA? Mikal Bridges on the ballot for Defensive Player of the Year? Cameron Johnson for Most Improved?

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2. Celtics (45-28, LW 5). Let’s deal with the most important thing first: No, Grant Williams, your nickname cannot be “Batman.” Only Kobe got to pick his own nickname; that’s not how it works. The Celtics have come together since the All-Star break, going 11-2 with a +11.5 net rating, led by the best offense in the NBA over that stretch. Boston has rocketed up the standing so fast that the biggest concern could be getting the No. 2 seed and potentially facing Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs — but the Celtics are as good a defensive matchup for the Nets as there is (as much as there is a matchup for Kevin Durant). Celtics title talk is not crazy, it’s legitimate.

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3. Grizzlies (49-23, LW 3). Ja Morant will get some bottom-of-the-ballot MVP votes, and he will make All-NBA first or second team, but he is the frontrunner for one award: Most Improved Player. While his counting stats did jump this season — 27.6 points a game, up from 19.1 — and his efficiency rose along with it, what voters know is that the leap from “star” to “superstar/franchise cornerstone” is the hardest one to make, and Morant made it in his third year. With the Warriors Curry-less for much if not all of the remaining regular season, the Grizzlies look locked into the No. 2 seed in the West. They can get some guys some nights off down the stretch (and do things like resting Morant’s knee).

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4. Heat (47-25, LW 2). Miami may have won 6-of-8 and sit atop the Eastern Conference, but Monday’s loss to a shorthanded Philadelphia team was concerning. Miami is a contender, but their inconsistency in halfcourt offense against Philly. Sure, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry combined for 69 points on the night, when the Heat’s floor-spacing shooters went cold — Tyler Herro 10 points, Duncan Robinson 5-of-15 — the offense bogs down quickly. Miami’s halfcourt offense can be predictable (and predictable is defendable). Plus, there are places for opposing offenses to attack the Heat defense. Miami could win the East. Their hard-nosed style and the grit of Butler and Adebayo should thrive in the postseason, but Miami is more ensemble than overwhelming individual talent, it has to be firing on all cylinders to have a chance.

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5. Bucks (45-27, LW 6). Giannis Antetokounmpo said Milwaukee’s toughness and grit are why they won a ring last season and can do so again, during an interview with Sam Amick of The Athletic. Antetokounmpo’s point: The Bucks didn’t get lucky with injuries in the playoffs (ie.. CP3’s hand), they fought through the ones they had better than their opponents (Antetokounmpo’s knee, Donte DiVincenzo being out, and more). This season the Bucks have had to be just as tough with Brook Lopez out, but he’s returned and Antetokounmpo has played like an MVP of late, averaging 31.5 points per game since the All-Star break. Big game for the Bucks in their chase for the two-seed next Tuesday at Philadelphia.

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6. Jazz (45-27, LW 8). Reports suddenly surfacing of coach Quin Snyder being a potential target of the Spurs and Lakers have the odor of an agent/coach trying to create leverage during a contract extension negotiation (even if those talks are not public). People on the ground in Utah say Snyder has a good relationship with new team owner Ryan Smith, but if the Jazz are bounced from the playoffs before the conference finals, there is likely to be a roster overhaul that could include the coach (nothing will be off the table). The Jazz are 1-1 on a six-game road trip that will go a long way to deciding if they start the playoffs at home, with the big game being Sunday in Dallas.

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7. 76ers (44-27, LW 10). Last Sunday, a fully-loaded Philadelphia team lost to a shorthanded Toronto team, and couldn’t slow down Precious Achiuwa. The next night, with Joel Embiid and James Harden in street clothes, Tyrese Maxey took over against the No. 1 team in the East, the Heat, and got the win. That inconsistent, Jekyll and Hyde team is why Sixers fans should be concerned heading into the playoffs. The 76ers have been up and down, while the Celtics have been the hottest team in the league and the Bucks have gotten healthy and started to put things together. On a good day the Sixers can hang with those teams — and anyone else in the NBA — but come the playoffs can they string together a series of good days? The good news, when Harden and Embiid share the court the 76ers have a +15.8 net rating. It’s the other minutes they need to make consistent.

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8. Mavericks (44-28, LW 4). Dallas sits as the No. 5 seed in the West with 10 games left, but there are good reasons to think they could finish No. 4 — starting the playoffs at home — and maybe No. 3. One reason is that the Mavs are just one game back of the four-seed Jazz. Another is Utah has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league, while Dallas has one of the easiest. Another reason: Luka Doncic has been playing the best basketball of his career in recent weeks. One final reason: Spencer Dinwiddie keeps doing things like this.

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9. Timberwolves (42-31, LW 11). Since the All-Star break the Timberwolves are 11-3 with a +11.6 net rating (best in the NBA), with a top-three offense and defense in that stretch. With 42 wins, the Timberwolves are guaranteed a winning season for only the second time in 17 seasons. Will that be enough to climb out of the No. 7 seed and avoid the play-in? The Timberwolves are just one game back of the Nuggets with nine games to play, but Minnesota has a tougher schedule. Minnesota and Denver face each other on April 1.

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10. Warriors (47-25, LW 7). Golden State is 2-6 without Stephen Curry this season and their offensive rating falls to bottom five in the league when he is not on the court. With Curry sidelined through much of the rest of the regular season with a sprained foot, Golden State has to find a way to get some wins to hold on to the No. 3 seed (they are two games up on the Jazz, three on the surging Mavericks), and blowing a 14-point lead to lose to Orlando on Tuesday was disheartening. Even if the Warriors get Curry back healthy for the playoffs, is their chemistry baked in enough they can just pick up where they left off and be contenders, or are the Warriors in trouble this postseason?

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11. Nets (38-34, LW 12). Kyrie Irving has been the leading scorer in the NBA since the All-Star break, averaging 37.8 points per game. In the games he gets to play. New York Mayor Eric Adams spoke Tuesday and didn’t sound like a guy on the verge of lifting the private employer mandate soon (the one keeping Irving from playing home games). Ben Simmons got an epidural but doesn’t sound close to returning, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s status remains unclear. Despite all the questions, the Nets have won 6-of-7, including beating the 76ers and Jazz in that mix, and are gaining momentum heading into the playoffs. That’s what a healthy Kevin Durant can bring you.

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12. Nuggets (43-30, LW 9). Nikola Jokic’s MVP case could take a hit if Denver can’t avoid the play-in, and with red-hot Minnesota just one-game back of the Nuggets, the threat of falling back to No. 7 and being in the play-in is real. What has helped keep the Nuggets afloat is the improved play of their bench in recent weeks, with Bones Hyland, JaMychal Green, and even some timely DeMarcus Cousins play giving the Nuggets a boost. Minnesota faces Denver on April 1 in a game that could go a long way to deciding who gets the No. 6 seed.

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13. Bulls (42-30, LW 13). “At some point, we’ve got to get tired of getting our butt kicked like this and flip that switch.” That was DeMar DeRozan after a dispiriting loss to the Bucks on Tuesday that showed just how far Chicago is from a contender right now. DeRozan himself has been part of the problem: He averaged 34.2 points a game with a .630 true shooting percentage in February, has come back to earth averaging 24.7 points per game in March with a .527 TS% (below the league average). The Bulls have dropped 10-of-13 and have slid to fifth in the East, and they look like the team other teams want to face in the first round. DeRozan will need more than words to help right this ship.

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14. Raptors (40-32, LW 14). Toronto is still within striking distance of the No. 6 seed (Cleveland) and avoiding the play-in tournament (and a likely meeting with the Nets in the first round of that). But they have to be more consistent. After winning 5-of-6 on a recent road trip, the Cavs dropped a game at home to the Lakers, then after redeeming themselves with a big win over the 76ers, they lost to Chicago Monday. Next up is the biggest game of the season, against the Cavaliers on Thursday — if the Raptors are going to move into the No. 6 seed this is virtually a must-win game.

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15. Hornets (37-35, LW 17). Charlotte has won five in a row, with a +14.7 net rating in those games, thanks largely to LaMelo Ball sparking an elite offense (128.5 offensive rating in those five games). The Hornets currently sit as the No. 9 seed in the East and there is a chance they could climb to No. 8, but they would need some help from Brooklyn (the Nets are only one game up on the Hornets but are playing better ball). Isaiah Thomas has played pretty well for Charlotte, averaging 9 points in 13.5 minutes a night off the bench since signing with the team, plus he is shooting 45.5% from 3. Thomas earned that contract for the rest of the season.

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16. Cavaliers (41-31, LW 15). Cleveland is 6-8 since the All-Star break with a -3.3 net rating, and that has them in danger of being passed by the Raptors and falling back into the play-in tournament (where they would face Brooklyn then, if they fall to the Nets, a win-or-go-to-Cancun game against Atlanta or Charlotte). Cleveland plays Toronto Thursday night in Canada in a game that could go a long way to determining who gets that No. 6 seed. The Cavaliers have won the three previous meetings against the Raptors, but Toronto is healthy and playing its best ball this season going into the game. Hopefully Pascal Siakam doesn’t dunk on Kevin Love like LeBron James did last week.

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17. Hawks (36-36 LW 16). Nothing snaps Trae Young and the Hawks out of their funk like playing in Madison Square Garden and hearing the boos from New York fans. It wasn’t just that Young dropped 45 — although that was nice — it was the swagger and energy the entire Hawks team brought to the game. That was the confident Hawks of last season, not the ones who didn’t bring that same energy nightly this season and now will have to fight their way out of a couple of play-in games just to get into the playoffs. The Hawks that showed up in New York are just fun — I miss seeing those Hawks this season.

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18. Clippers (36-38, LW 18). Tyronn Lue is rightfully getting his flowers from around the league for the coaching job he has done this season, turning a team of role-players into a gritty squad that is tough to beat and known for comebacks. The Clippers are basically locked into the No. 8 seed in the West, meaning the play-in tournament is in their future. Los Angeles likely faces Minnesota or Denver in the first game, and if LA loses that one it becomes a win-or-go-on-vacation game against the Lakers or Pelicans (a Lakers vs. Clippers game with something actually on the line would be fun, that’s how a real rivalry is built). Whatever happens, you know the Clippers will be well prepared.

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19. Pelicans (30-42, LW 19). Zion Williamson is throwing down dunks on Instagram and has been cleared to play one-on-one at practices, all good signs, but it still seems highly unlikely he plays this season. Interesting non-Zion front court note, the Pelicans are +2.9 per 100 this season when Jonas Valanciunas and Jaxson Hayes are on the court together (Hayes is now in the starting lineup). Willie Green is finding combinations that work, putting together lineups that maybe (just maybe) could help New Orleans get out of the play-in and into the playoffs. It’s a long shot, but Green and CJ McCollum have the Pelicans playing hard and making themselves a tough out.

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20. Lakers (31-41, LW 22). Anthony Davis has started doing some on-court work, a hopeful sign for the Lakers because any dreams of making a playoff push — or, frankly, getting out of the play-in — hinge on Davis returning close to form. That doesn’t take anything away from LeBron James, who deserves all the praise coming his way after passing Karl Malone for second on the all-time scoring list. LeBron’s GOAT case will be based in part on longevity, and how well he is playing this deep into his career. Don’t take my word for it, ask Kevin Love.

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21. Spurs (28-44, LW 20). Keldon Johnson has taken a step forward with his game as the season has moved along, he has a couple of 30+ point games since the All-Star break and had the game-winning putback against the Warriors on Sunday. San Antonio’s hopes of making the play-in took a blow last Friday when they lost to New Orleans, the team the Spurs are trying to catch. The Spurs are now two games out with 10 to play, to have any chance they need revenge and a win on Saturday in New Orleans.

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22. Knicks (30-42, LW 21). Julius Randle now has been fined four times by the league this season, totaling $130,000, which everyone might look past if he were playing better, but he’s regressed a lot from last season’s Most Improved Player. Dan Devine at The Ringer found this stat and its worth passing along as we think about the Knicks going forward: New York is +4.4 per 100 in minutes with RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley on the court but no Randle this season.

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23. Pacers (25-47, LW 24). It will be interesting to see the market for free agent T.J. Warren this summer. He looked like he could be a core part of a winning team in the bubble, but foot injuries have sidelined him for most of two years now (he last stepped on a court in December 2020). Warren is now officially out for the season, having not played a minute this season and just four games over the last two. Hard to imagine a team will offer more than the minimum, but there will be interested teams because of his potential. Buddy Hield and Tyrese Haliburton go up against their former team Wednesday (in Indiana).

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24. Wizards (30-41, LW 23). Of course there are other teams, like Miami, eyeing Bradley Beal this summer, but sources continue to say he’s likely going to take the big bag from Washington, then get out in a year or two if things don’t work out. Kristaps Porzingis is averaging 20.8 points , 7.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks a game as a member of the Wizards, he’s been efficient and played some of the best basketball of his career. If Beal returns, if Porzingis stays healthy, and if the young core of the Wizards takes a step forward there is potential in our nation’s capital. But there are a lot of “ifs” in that sentence.

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25. Kings (25-48, LW 25). Promising signs can be hard to come by in Sacramento, but rookie Davion Mitchell going off for 28 points with nine assists to help force overtime against the Suns this week. Domantas Sabonis is out with a bone bruise in his knee, and while the team says it will re-evaluate him in 10 days, it’s hard to imagine they will put him back on the court this season and take any risk for a handful of meaningless games.

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26. Trail Blazers (27-44, LW 26). There are reports that Portland will go after the Pistons’ Jerami Grant, and make sure they re-sign Anfernee Simons this summer. Both of those would be quality moves, but is that going to be enough to make the Trail Blazers a top-four threat in a deep West next year? More importantly, will that be enough to make Damian Lillard happy? Lillard and the front office are reportedly on the same page about rebuilding, but Lillard may need to step back and assess his priorities for the remainder of his career. He may not be able to have it all, so what does he want.

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27. Magic 20-53, LW 27). On the list of positives out of this season for Orlando, the emergence of Wendell Carter as a quality rotation big for them is near the top. Carter had 30 and 16 against the Thunder. Jonathan Isaac undergoing a “small surgical procedure” on a “minor” right hamstring injury, would be on the other end of the scale. Isaac has been out all season and this setback is concerning for a player the franchise sees as a defensive anchor going forward. Isaac puts in the work, that isn’t the question, but if he can’t stay healthy he can’t help the team.

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28. Pistons (19-53, LW 28). The emergence of Cade Cunningham and some strong games from Jerami Grant have lifted the Pistons to 19th in the NBA in offense since the All-Star break. That may not sound like much, but it’s far better than their pre-break numbers (29th in the league, and the offense was 10 points per 100 possessions worse). There is hope, there is also still a long way to go in Detroit. The Pistons continue to get solid play from Marvin Bagley III as well, he has played his way into his next contract since the trade deadline.

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29. Rockets (18-54, LW 30). The Rockets are 3-18 in their last 21 games, with a bottom five offense and defense in the league this season. Houston fans knew this season was going to be brutal and it has lived up to that billing. On the bright side, the No. 2 pick Jalen Green continues to grow and improve, and he is going to get paired with another high pick out of this draft. It’s taking time, but the Rockets are building something, it’s just that the present is not pretty.

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30. Thunder (20-52, LW 29). Darius Bazley has shown some promise of late with four 22+ point games in his last six outings. Combine that with his length and athleticism, and Bazely remains an interesting prospect, and one the Thunder could offer a contract extension to this summer (the sides will undoubtedly talk, whether they can find a number is another question). Losers of 10 in a row, things will not get much better for Oklahoma City the rest of the season.

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