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NBA Power Rankings: Suns keep on rising up to top spot

Michael Holley and Michael Smith agree that James Harden is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity for the Brooklyn Nets that cannot be replicated anywhere else if the team wants to go far.

Phoenix has climbed to the top of our NBA Power Rankings with a perfect week, while it seems like some of the big market contenders stumble toward the end of the season (and fall down these rankings).

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1. Suns (47-18, Last Week No. 2). Chris Paul for MVP is an idea gaining momentum as the Suns continue to surge late in the season — five straight wins — and CP3 ends up dominating in the clutch (closing the door on the Clippers, scoring the final seven points against the Knicks). Paul isn’t going to knock heavy favorite Jokic out of the top spot on MVP ballots, but he may garner enough votes to finish in the top five (and CP3 is a lock for All-NBA). Win two of the games this week against the Knicks, Lakers, and Warriors, and the Suns have a good shot at taking the top spot in the West away from the Jazz.

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2. Jazz (47-18, LW 4). With Donovan Mitchell out and Mike Conley being in and out of the lineup, the Jazz offense has stumbled in recent weeks (13th in the NBA over their last seven games, with an offensive rating 4.7 below their season average), and that could cost them the top seed. The Jazz also have been unlucky in the past couple of weeks, but they have been unlucky all season — Utah has 47 wins but Cleaning the Glass’ numbers say they should have 51 or 52 wins, in which case we wouldn’t be having this top seed discussion. Whether they are the No. 1 or 2 seed, this Jazz team is a legitimate contender.

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3. 76ers (44-21 LW 7). Philadelphia was the big winner of Milwaukee taking two games from Brooklyn last week. Combine those two Nets losses with the 76ers taking advantage of a soft schedule to close the season — Philly has won five straight — and the Sixers are two games up on the Nets in the loss column with seven to play. There’s a push for Ben Simmons to win Defensive Player of the Year, and while the Sixers defense was modestly better this season with him on the court (2.1 per 100), it has been much better the past three weeks when has he has played some lockdown defense.

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4. Nuggets (43-22 LW 5). Denver is 9-2 since Jamal Murray tore his ACL, but maybe more impressively they are 7-2 since Monte Morris joined him in street clothes and 5-1 since Will Barton went out. Nikola Jokic’s play since the injuries — including a 30 point, 14 rebound, seven assist outing with no turnovers against the Clippers — has solidified his hold on the MVP award. The Nuggets will need more of that to retake the No. 3 seed in the West, they are half a game back of L.A. and the Clippers have an easier remaining schedule.

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5. Bucks (41-24, LW 6). Harden or not, there’s a lot of good to take away from the two wins against Brooklyn this week. For one, Giannis Antetokounmpo played like his MVP self and was hitting 3-pointers (4-of-8 in the first game, then hit his first three attempts from deep on Tuesday). Jrue Holiday scored 23 points with 10 assists on Tuesday, and in both games he played respectable defense on Kyrie Irving. Khris Middleton was clutch Tuesday and shot 6-of-6 in the fourth quarter. And the Bucks went on an 18-1 fourth-quarter run Tuesday to comeback and win, the kind of resiliency they need to show in the playoffs.

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6. Clippers (44-22, LW 3). Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley returned to the court, good news because getting healthy remains the most important thing for Los Angeles. However, losses last week to the Nuggets and Suns are concerning. The Clippers are 3-3 in their last six with a below-average offense and defense — this does not feel like a team that has built good habits and is gaining momentum into the postseason. Huge showdown with the Lakers on Thursday night — the Clippers (and Lakers) would like to avoid a Hallway Series in the first round. Good test against the Knicks on Sunday.

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7. Nets (43-23, LW 1). Brooklyn has lost three straight and is 4-4 in their last eight. While the defense remains a concern, the offense was not elite in the two losses two the Bucks or in recent weeks, and it needs to be for the Nets to have a chance. Of course, the eventual return of James Harden should make them elite, but we don’t know when that happens (plus Kyrie Irving had a short shooting slump from three, which didn’t help). Moving up to the top seed in the East seems a long shot, but most projection systems have the Nets finishing second. If healthy, this remains the team everyone fears in the East.

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8. Knicks (37-28, LW 8). The Knicks are surging at the right time — 12-1 in their last 13 with the best offense in the NBA over that stretch. New York is holding on to the four seed, which will mean more playoff games at Madison Square Garden, but how this team will match up in the postseason against more seasoned teams will be the challenge. What is Plan B for the Knicks’ offense when a good defense turns its focus to slowing Julius Randle? As an aside, Randle seems the runaway winner for Most Improved Player this season.

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9. Mavericks (37-28, LW 9). Dallas could end up the five seed thanks to an arcane NBA rule: If there is a three-way tie for a playoff spot — as there was for 5/6/7 between the Mavericks, Lakers, and Blazers last week — the top seed goes to a division winner. Not that anyone ever focuses on NBA divisions, but Dallas leads the Southwest Division (did you even know they played in the Southwest?). Dallas could also get the five seed because it is playing well and, after Brooklyn on Thursday, it has a soft schedule the rest of the way. Doncic has become one of the biggest complainers in the league and it could cost him; he is one technical away from bringing a league-mandated suspension upon himself.

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10. Trail Blazers (36-29, LW 17). Damian Lillard struggled in April (for him) — 23 points a game (down from 29.8 through the first 45 games), while shooting 39.2% overall — and without Lillard playing at an MVP level Portland went 5-10 in April and fell back into the play-in games. But Lillard and the Blazers have found their groove again, winning 4-of-5 so far on this road trip (including beating Brooklyn and Boston), and they have a real chance to pass the Lakers and get into the top six in the West to avoid the play-in. Friday night’s game against the LeBron-less Lakers is huge. BTW, Carmelo Anthony has been tearing it up off the bench of late.

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11. Heat (35-31 LW 16). Miami’s hot play of late (winning 7-of-10) has moved them up into the sixth seed in the East and out of the dangers of the play-in games. For now. But a two-game set against Boston on Sunday and Tuesday will go a long way to determining who avoids the play-in (Boston is just one game back of Miami). Miami’s hot streak has been fueled by an offense that is top 10 in the league over that run — and it’s that offense, and the ability of Jimmy Butler to raise his game, that has Miami as a team the top three in the East would like to avoid in the first round.

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12. Lakers (37-28, LW 10). All-NBA level Anthony Davis returned against Denver and the Lakers needed it and the win as they look to avoid the play-in games. Staying above the seven seed won’t be easy. Los Angeles will be without LeBron James for a couple of games (at least) with his ankle sprain, Dennis Schroder is out through the start of the playoffs at least due to health and safety protocols, and Los Angeles has a tough remaining schedule — Clippers, Blazers, Suns, and Knicks are their next four. Health is most important for L.A., but next is getting back their elite defense, which is 4 points per 100 worse than their season average over their last seven.

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13. Hawks (36-30 LW 11). He’s not going to win Coach of the Year in a crowded field, but the Hawks are 22-10 in under coach Nate McMillan (think they could use him and his hard-nosed style in Indiana right now?). Atlanta is getting healthy — Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic are expected in the lineup Wednesday night — and they need it because the Hawks are just 1.5 games up on Boston and the seven seed (which means play-in games). The Hawks have a tough schedule coming up — Suns, Pacers, two against the Wizards — and need to find wins to avoid the play in.

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14. Celtics (34-31, LW 12). This is true of a lot of teams, but especially Boston: It needs to find a way to get and stay healthy the final weeks or they will be part of the play-in games. Jaylen Brown is missing some time (but is day-to-day) with an ankle sprain after a collision with Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker has been in and out of the lineup the past couple of weeks. Aaron Nesmith, the rookie out of Vanderbilt, has grown into a solid part of the rotation and the Celtics will need him and everyone else this week with a big two-game series against the Heat on Sunday and Tuesday.

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15. Wizards (30-35 LW 18). When Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal are on the court together this season, the Wizards basically play teams even. However, put those two on the court with Daniel Gafford at center — helping protect the rim and anchor the defense — and the Wizards are +12.9 per 100 possessions in those minutes. Gafford has been the unsung hero in Washington’s run up to the 10 seed in the East, and they seem headed for the play-in. The Wizards are 6-2 in their last eight with a respectable defense and a top-five offense (despite not taking a lot of threes compared to the rest of the league). Washington heads out on the road Wednesday to start a tough five-game road trip.

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16. Warriors (33-33, LW 14).Stephen Curry’s April numbers were ridiculous: 37.3 points per game on 46.6% shooting from three, plus 6.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a night. In the three games he’s played in May, he has 108 points. The man has carried the Warriors into the play-in tournament — projects them to finish eighth in the West — and with that will end up on a lot of MVP ballots. The Warriors are leaning even more on Curry with Kelly Oubre sidelined with a torn thumb ligament and fracture in his palm.

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17. Pacers (30-34, LW 19). The disjointed and disappointing Pacers’ season that has been a story in Indiana became national news with the report Nate Bjorkgren may not be back with the team because of strained relationships with players and the front office. People think NBA head coaching is about Xs and Os, and that’s part of it, but relationships with players and the mental aspects of getting everyone pulling the rope in the same direction is much more of it. Indiana has lost 3-of-4 and is in danger of getting passed for the nine seed by the Wizards — who the Pacers play in a big showdown on Saturday.

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18. Grizzlies (32-32 LW 13). Justise Winslow has struggled since his return from injury this season: 6.4 points a game, 34% shooting overall, and coach Taylor Jenkins has wisely started giving some of Winslow’s minutes to Tyus Jones. In the short term, heading into the play-in games, Memphis needs something more off the bench from Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. (who also has yet to find his form since getting healthy and returning to the lineup). Long-term with Winslow, do the Grizzlies pick up the $13 million team option on Winslow next season? Probably, but it’s worth asking. On the bright side for Memphis, watch Ja Morant look at the rim them finish alley-oop from Dillon Brooks.

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19. Spurs (31-33, LW 15). The Spurs have dropped four in a row, not only because the schedule got tougher (although the blown 32-point lead to Boston stung), but also because this looks like a team where their condensed second-half schedule (to make up for all the first-half postponements) has worn down their legs. The Spurs may not climb out of the 10 seed, but they are still 2.5 games up on the stumbling Pelicans, and San Antonio seems destined for the play-in games. The loss of Derrick White for the rest of the season due to a sprained ankle is a blow.

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20. Hornets (32-33, LW 20). LaMelo Ball returned to action and and it took less than five minutes for the highlights to return with him (first an underhanded, length-of-the-court touchdown pass for a bucket). The Hornets are 2-1 since his return, with the perked-up offense covering up a struggling defense as the Hornets fight to keep the eighth seed in the East (hold on to it and they just have to win one of two play-in games to advance to the postseason).

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21. Pelicans (30-36, LW 22). It’s taken all season, but Stan Van Gundy finally has New Orleans playing great defense — best in the NBA over the last 10 games. Even with the offense having taken a step back in this stretch, the Pelicans have looked better, it just may be too little, too late to catch the Spurs and make the postseason (New Orleans would basically need to win out, and they are about to start a five-game road trip). Lonzo Ball has been up and down with his shot of late, but when it’s falling — like his 33-point night against the Warriors Tuesday — this is a tough team to beat.

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22. Raptors (27-38, LW 21). Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam looked every bit champions and All-Stars in beating the Lakers on Sunday night. That game (despite all the injuries) was a better picture of who the Raptors really are — they have a +0.4 net rating, which means they should have more like a 34-32 or .500 record. Toronto is 3 games back of Washington for the final play-in spot (3.5 back of Indiana) and if that miracle comeback is going to happen it has to start with a win over Washington on Thursday.

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23. Kings (28-37, LW 24). It’s good news there was no ligament damage to Tyrese Haliburton’s knee following his scary injury last week. No ligament damage means no surgery, which means Haliburton should be able to hit the gym hard and work on development in the offseason. While no Haliburton or De’Aaron Fox or Harrison Barnes, the Kings are limping to the finish line of the season, but they have won three in a row, and they have two more games against the Thunder left. There could be a few more wins to come.

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24. Bulls (26-39, LW 23). Good news that Zach LaVine is out of the league’s health and safety protocols and is expected to return to the court Thursday against Charlotte. Chicago could use LaVine and his shot creation, plus the expected return of Nikola Vucevic to the lineup, as the team has the 27th ranked offense in the league over its last eight games.

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25. Timberwolves (20-45, LW 25). Minnesota is having the kind of late-season run that can build momentum into next season. The Wolves have won 5-of-7, their offense is looking better with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Town finding some chemistry, but the real positive is a top-10 defense over the last six games. Anthony Edwards’ growth this season is another positive, but his play over the last couple of months is not going to be enough to move him last LaMelo Ball in the Rookie of the Year race.

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26. Magic (21-44, LW 28). It’s good to see Steve Clifford healthy and back on the sidelines for Orlando, although this has had to be a difficult year for the defense-first coach, watching his team struggle to a 24th in the league defensive rating (22nd if you remove garbage time, ala Cleaning the Glass). Most of their defensive issues come in the half court, where they miss Jonathan Isaac tremendously. The one bright spot of late is rookie Cole Anthony finding his groove, including knocking down a contested game-winner from three to beat Grizzlies.

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27. Pistons (18-47 LW 26). Jerami Grant is expected to be back on the court Saturday against the 76ers — Detroit is not tanking its way to the end of the season. Grant’s breakout/Most Improved level year, combined with signs of real promise from Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Killian Hayes should give Pistons fans some hope for the future. A little bit of NBA Draft Lottery luck and the Pistons could really have something.

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28. Cavaliers (21-44, LW 27). Cleveland has a Collin Sexton decision coming up, not immediately but it is on the horizon. Sexton is extension eligible this summer, and the Cavaliers both drafted and put a lot of effort into developing him, which makes it seem possible. However, Cleveland may want to wait until he heads to restricted free agency in 2022. Waiting allows them to see how Sexton’s game grows and gives them more time to decide if the Sexton and Darius Garland backcourt is something they want to live with long term.

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29. Rockets (16-49, LW 29). It’s hard to find things to be positive about in Houston, then Kevin Porter Jr. does his James Harden impression, and drops 50 points, with nine three pointers, plus dished out 11 assists. Porter is gettin a real chance with John Wall out for the season, and there are moments where Houston is aggressive and attacking with Porter running the show. It’s a hopeful sign.

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30. Thunder (21-45, LW 30). The bottom fell out of the Thunder after Shai Gilgeous-Alexander suffered a “significant tear” in his plantar fascia: a 2-21 record with the worst offense in the NBA and 28th ranked defense (the Thunder had defended fairly well prior to his injury). It’s hard to find bright spots in a run like that, but Ty Jerome has shown potential and had a few highlight plays, he could develop into a player that sticks around as part of the Thunder future.

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