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NBA Power Rankings: Suns stay on top but Bucks, Mavericks climbing fast

Marc Spears joins Michael Holley and Michael Smith to break down how the Mavericks quietly have been on the rise in the Western Conference and what Dallas can accomplish in the playoffs.

In our penultimate NBA Power Rankings, the Suns still own the top spot but the Grizzlies have climbed up to the No. 2 spot, and Luka Doncic has the Mavericks rising fast.

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1. Suns (61-14, Last Week No. 1). You know Devin Booker is playing well when a player getting MVP mentions in his own right — Ja Morant — says Booker needs to be getting more MVP love. Traditionally, the highest scoring player on the best team gets MVP consideration (just don’t tell Donovan Mitchell that because he was those things last season and...), Booker is those things this season and deserves mention at least, maybe a spot on the ballot. He has a chance to finish fourth or fifth in the voting. Everything with the Suns is in cruise control, they have locked up the No. 1 seed, won eight in a row, and Chris Paul is back from his fractured thumb and playing well.

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2. Grizzlies (53-23, LW 3). The Grizzlies have somehow gone 18-2 with Ja Morant out, and while some of that has been taking advantage of a soft schedule in those games, there have also been some high quality wins. Your other stat of the week: The Grizzlies lead the league in 25+ point wins with 12. Racking up wins this week while the Warriors have faded without Curry has the Grizzlies locked into the No. 2 seed. The stars are lining up for a Memphis vs. Minnesota first-round matchup, two of the young up-and-coming teams in the NA, with Jaden McDaniels trying to slow Ja Morant and Stephen Adams bodying up Karl-Anthony Towns. Basketball gods we need this one.

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3. Celtics (47-29, LW 2). Center Robert Williams being out 4-6 weeks knocks the Celtics from the perch as favorites to come out of the East — their defense and switchability take a step back — but this is still one of the teams that could be playing in June. A lot falls on the shoulders of Daniel Theis, a mid-season pickup that now seems brilliant, plus expect Ime Udoka to lean into some small-ball lineups with Derrick White in the mix (another great mid-season pickup, Brad Stevens is pretty good at this job). Of the teams in the top four in the East, the Celtics have the toughest remaining schedule with games against the Heat (Wednesday), Grizzlies, Bucks and Bulls.

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4. Bucks (47-28, LW 5). The impressive thing about Milwaukee’s statement win against the 76ers Tuesday was that was not peak Bucks. They have another gear — Jrue Holiday didn’t have a great defensive night (Shake Milton blew by him at one point), Pat Connaughton was 0-4 from 3, and everyone not named Giannis Antetokounmpo could have been a little better. As the season winds down, Milwaukee is looking more and more like the team to beat — again — in the East. Antetokounmpo made an MVP statement against the 76ers, and he showed he can go the length of the court in four dribbles.

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5. Mavericks (47-29, LW 8). Dallas has kept its head about it — going 7-4 in their last 11 — while the Jazz below them in the standings and the Warriors above them have stumbled. That’s allowed the Mavericks to climb up to the No. 4 seed out West with eyes on No. 3 (they are one game back of the Warriors with six to play). However, Luka Doncic has not always kept his head about him this season and last week picked up his 15th technical — one more during the regular season and he is suspended a game. That tech counter resets for the playoffs, Doncic just has to swallow his frustration with the refs for another week and a half.

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6. 76ers (46-29, LW 7). “We’re just not there yet,” River said last Friday, and the come-from-ahead loss to Milwaukee on Tuesday drove home that point. This is still a contending team, especially when James Harden plays as he did for the first three quarters of this game, running a pick-and-roll/pop game with Joel Embiid the Bucks could not stop. What’s important was Harden was aggressive and shooting, not treating this like an Olympic team training camp where the best players are all deferential to one another (to use Rivers’ analogy). The defensive end is where the Sixers are not as talented and need tighter team play, but that’s about adjustments and time together (and Embiid is right, against the Bucks his minutes need to match up with Giannis). They have seven games to bring it together.

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7. Heat (48-28, LW 4). Thanks to the forever-tanking Kings, the Heat’s four-game losing streak ended Monday. However, what was concerning was less the number of losses than how they happened: A Warriors team without Curry/Green/Thompson going on a 37-16 run, a Knicks team without Julius Randle going on a 30-5 run (and that’s not including the Jimmy Butler/Eric Spoelstra meltdown of a week ago). Things do not get easier this week as the Heat head out on the road to face the Celtics, then have a weekend road back-to-back against the Bulls and Raptors. The Heat could fall out of first place in the East, but is finishing with the No. 3 or 4 seed — and being sure to avoid Brooklyn in the first round — the worst outcome?

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8. Jazz (45-30, LW 6). This ranking may be too high for the Jazz right now. More concerning than another huge blown lead against the Clippers is the words of Utah’s stars after the game. Rudy Gobert: “We don’t get our hands dirty. We never get our hands dirty.” Donovan Mitchell: “This is the same s***... this is literally the same thing as last year.” The Jazz have lost five in a row and they are in their own heads. The string of losses has knocked them back to fifth place in the West, meaning starting on the road in the first round against Dallas or Golden State (Utah would not be the favorite in either series). After all of Mitchel and Gobert’s years together under Quin Snyder, the team’s chemistry should be more baked in, and they need to find out how to get it back before the playoffs start. If not, if this is another early exit, changes are coming. Probably big changes.

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9. Timberwolves (43-33, LW 9). Minnesota is on track for the No. 7 seed and having the first play-in game at home — and that matters a lot, because the Timberwolves are much better at home than on the road. Minnesota is 25-13 with a +5.7 net rating at the Target Center, but is 18-20 with a 0.9 net rating away from home. More strikingly, the Timberwolves’ defense is 9 points per 100 possessions worse on the road this season. While Minnesota is only two games back of Denver and, more interestingly, the stumbling Jazz, they will need a win in a big showdown with the Nuggets on Friday. That game is away from home, however (and Denver has a huge home-court advantage).

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10. Nuggets (45-31, LW 12). The latest straw poll from ESPN has Nikola Jokic as a solid frontrunner for MVP. What would hurt his chances (fair or not) is if Denver were to fall out of the No. 6 seed and into the play-in, which is a possibility. The Timberwolves are just two games back of the Nuggets entering the final 10 days of the season, but if Minnesota beats Denver on Friday night in the Mile High City, the race is on. The more likely scenario is that Denver moves up into the No. 5 seed — they are tied with Utah, who is stumbling — and the Jazz and Timberwolves battle it out to avoid the play-in. The Nuggets just make their life easier with a win on Friday night.

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11. Raptors (43-32, LW 14). Pascal Siakam has quietly had an All-NBA level season (although I don’t know that he’ll make the teams, it’s a deep year at forward). However, he was critical with 35 points against the Cavaliers this past week in the game that paved the way for Toronto to slide into the No. 6 seed (and avoid the play-in), then he dropped 40 against a shorthanded Boston team that was another critical win for Toronto. The Raptors’ schedule softens up over the final 10 days and they should be able to hang on to a top six seed. The big game is Sunday, when franchise legend Kyle Lowry returns wearing a Miami Heat uniform.

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12. Warriors (48-28, LW 10). The Warriors are 1-5 since Stephen Curry went out with a sprained foot, with the 27th-ranked offense in the league over that stretch — they don’t generate consistently good looks when he’s sidelined. Surging Dallas is now just one game back of the Warriors for the No. 3 seed in the West — being third matters because the Warriors would prefer not to face the Suns in the second round (giving Golden State more time to find its groove). After facing the Suns Wednesday, Golden State has a stretch of winnable games that could help keep them in third... well, winnable if they had Curry. They are going to have to be better without him to hang on.

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13. Hornets (39-37, LW 15). Charlotte looks to be in line for what may be the most interesting of the first-round play-in games this season against Atlanta — LaMelo Ball vs. Trae Young. Loser is done for the season. To avoid that game, the Hornets need to win enough to get back in front of the Nets, who Charlotte led for 24 hours after beating them Sunday but now trail again. Those wins will not be easy as the Hornets head out on the road this week to New York (who beat Charlotte handily a week ago), Philadelphia and Miami. The Hornets are playing their best ball of the season, having won 7-of-9, but in a deep East, it will be hard to move up the ladder.

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14. Nets (40-36, LW 11). Kyrie Irving is in the lineup full time, with a couple of home games under his belt, but that and Kevin Durant being healthy accounts for just two of the “big three.” Ben Simmons is not doing any on court work yet and it seems highly unlikely he will play this season. Which is a problem because his defense and passing ability in transition are skill sets this Brooklyn team needs heading into the postseason. Sunday’s home loss — with Irving playing — to Charlotte briefly dropped Brooklyn to ninth in the East, but they have climbed back to eighth (they want to be 7 or 8 and have two games to win one to get into the playoffs). The Nets host the Bucks Thursday in a big East showdown, but after that their schedule is pretty soft the rest of the way, and the Nets should be able to hold on to eighth at least.

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15. Bulls (44-32, LW 13). Chicago looks to be solidly set as the No. 5 seed in the East. They can’t beat any of the top four teams (1-11 on the season) but they have played well against the teams trying to pass them, including beating the Cavaliers last week 98-94. Surprisingly it’s the offense that has been an issue, bottom 10 in the league over the last five games and worse if you go back 10 — despite the firepower of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and some good shooters, they are struggling to get consistent buckets. The good news is the return of Alex Caruso has helped the Chicago defense get back to respectable.

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16. Cavaliers (42-33, LW 16). Cleveland has slid back to the No. 7 seed and into the play-in — and now the injuries keep piling up. Already without Jarrett Allen, Cleveland is going to be without star rookie Evan Mobley for at least three more games — without that backline the Cavaliers’ defense struggles to get stops. The Cavs also have a tougher remaining schedule than the Raptors, meaning making up the game and passing Toronto to get back to the No. 6 seed will be difficult. The problem with the play-in is that the Cavaliers will get an almost healthy Brooklyn team first, and if Cleveland loses that, it’s a win-or-go-home game against the winner of the Hawks/Hornets game. There are good teams in the East play-in.

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17. Hawks (38-37 LW 17). Atlanta has real motivation to make up the half-a-game they are being Charlotte (tied in the loss column) and get the nine-seed so they can host the first play-in game: The Hawks have a -2.5 net rating on the road but a +4 at home this season. The Hawks are going to have to win one on the road to make the playoffs this year, but with Trae Young in the spotlight anything is possible for one night. Atlanta’s schedule the rest of the way is not easy but a big game against fellow play-in team Cleveland on Thursday could be critical for seeding.

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18. Pelicans (32-43, LW 19). Zion Williamson is traveling with the team on its current four-game road trip. If one were cynical one would say the CJ McCollum comment about not speaking to him after the trade — and J.J. Redick’s later — stung Zion and he wants to look like a better teammate. And he wants to make sure he gets that max contract extension next summer. But we’re not cynical like that, we choose to believe he wants to be with his teammates and bond. Williamson will be in street clothes but on hand Friday in Los Angeles when the Pelicans have a rematch with the Lakers — a critical game with the Pelicans, Lakers and Spurs all within one game of each other for the final two play-in spots in the West. The loser of this game is closer to not having a chair when the music stops.

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19. Spurs (31-44, LW 21). San Antonio is a team playing together, playing for Pop, and it has moved past the LA Lakers into the No. 10 seed in the West and grabbed the final play-in spot. The Spurs have the tiebreaker over the Lakers, so while the teams are tied at 31-44 it’s the Spurs who control their own destiny. San Antonio’s schedule down the stretch is not easy, making the two games they host tanking Portland on Friday and Sunday critical — the Spurs need to win both of those. Do that, and even if the Spurs drop their other five games the Lakers would have to go 3-4 down the stretch to pass them and LA may not be up to that task.

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20. Clippers (36-39, LW 18). Last Friday, when Tyronn Lue was asked if the Clippers were starting to run out of gas, he said, “It looks like it, don’t it? Looks like it a little bit, yeah.” Tuesday night, Los Angeles got a much needed boost in the return of Paul George, who took over in the clutch on his way to 34 points and led the Clippers’ comeback win against the Jazz. The Clippers just became a much tougher out and the kind of veteran, versatile, disciplined team higher seeds don’t want to see in the first round — the Clippers may not go far, but they will be a tough out.

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21. Knicks (34-42, LW 22). Break up the Knicks!!! Actually, Leon Rose may well do that this summer, but New York has looked better of late winning four in a row and 9-of-13. The key during that run is Tom Thibodeau has New York defending again, they have the second best defensive rating in the league over those 13 games (108.2). It’s too little, too late for making a run into the postseason in the East, but it let us see what does work (lineups centered around RJ Barrett) and what doesn’t (does Julius Randle want out?) heading into a summer of change in New York.

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22. Lakers (31-43, LW 20). With LeBron James and Anthony Davis out, the Lakers are just hard to watch. Like in the loss to Dallas on Tuesday. It will be that same star-free lineup Thursday in Utah (Davis is officially doubtful, but nobody expects him to play) but Davis is targeting a return Friday at home against the Pelicans in what is almost a must-win game for Los Angeles. New Orleans is another team in the 9/10/11 seed chase in the West and one of the easier games remains on what is a stacked Lakers’ schedule. There is no word on LeBron’s return, but the Lakers need him — their offense is 6.1 points per 100 possessions worse without him. LeBron is the only reliable, quality shot creator on this roster.

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23. Wizards (32-43, LW 24). The rest of this season will be the “get used to playing with Kristaps Porzingis” part of the show (although without Bradley Beal playing it is not the same). Porzingis is averaging 20.8 points a game, and his shooting numbers are nearly identical to what we saw in Dallas before the trade, including the 28.3% shooting from beyond the arc. He’s still putting up a .587 true shooting percentage that is above league average, and looking like a good fit. As for the always-present Bradley Beal rumors, sources I have spoken to say everyone expects he will take the bag — the $246 million bag — and re-sign in Washington, but just in case the vultures are circling. And like every one of us, Beal is enjoying being recruited and told how much other people want/admire/covet him. Doesn’t mean he’s leaving.

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24. Kings (27-49, LW 25). After a historically bad defensive season a year ago, Sacramento’s defensive rating is just 2 points per 100 possessions better, which was good enough to be 28th in the league rather than 30th. Whoever gets hired to replace Alvin Gentry as coach in Sacramento needs to be a defense first coach, then given some players who can help him get stops. Sacramento picked up wins this week on the road over Indiana and Orlando, and now have two in a row against tanktastic Houston — the Kings can pick up a few wins down the stretch and feel a little better about themselves heading into summer. But there is still a long, long way to go with this team.

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25. Pistons (20-56, LW 28). Cade Cunningham impressed against the Nets, putting up 34/6 in New York and adding to his Rookie of the Year case (not sure he’s going to get it against good competition in Mobley and Barnes, but it’s those three clearly on the ballot). Cunningham has averaged 17.1 points, 5.5 assists and 5.8 rebounds a game this season, but now the Pistons need to find the other core player of the future to go with Cunningham. Jerami Grant is out for the season, but his replacement Marvin Bagley III posted a season-high 27 points and seven rebounds against the Knicks over the weekend. Bagley is not that core piece, but he is a potentially solid rotation player at a fair price, and he’s looked much better in Detroit than in Sacramento.

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26. Pacers (25-51, LW 23). Myles Turner is officially out for the season, which we never got to see him run the pick-and-pop with Tyrese Haliburton, a combo with real potential for Indiana. Turner being out since mid-January is also a key reason a Pacers defense that should be better than this is ranked 27th in the league heading into the season’s final days. Whatever the roster looks like next season, you can be sure coach Rick Carlisle isn’t going to let that number repeat itself. The Pacers still have two games remaining against the 76ers plus games against the Celtics and Nets — they could play spoiler... if they wanted to. Not sure that is the case, they may be thinking more about ping-pong balls.

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27. Rockets (20-56, LW 29). There are flashes of potential every time the Rockets take the court: Jalen Green exploding to the rim, Alperen Sengun throwing no-look passes, Kenyon Martin Jr. launching 3s. Green has averaged 19.1 points a game since the All-Star break. This was a young team built to lose a lot this year as Houston continues to stockpile talent, but through it all there has been reason for hope. That hope has manifested recently with the Rockets winning 3-of-5, and with a couple of games coming up against the Kings that number could climb.

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28. Thunder (22-53, LW 30). Josh Giddey is out for the season due to a hip injury, but the youngest player ever to record a triple-double averaged 12.5 points, 7.8 assists and 6.4 rebounds a game in 54 appearances this season. Giddey is headed for First-Team All-Rookie with his play this season. Put Giddey next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tre Mann and Oklahoma City has a young backcourt with some real potential. The Thunder have won 2-of-3, picking up victories in double-tanking “battles” against the Magic and Trail Blazers, and with another Blazers game (plus facing the Pistons) the Thunder could pick up another win or two down the stretch.

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29. Magic 20-56, LW 27). The sign of hope for Orlando has come on the defensive end — they have been the second best defense in the NBA since the All-Star break. That without Jonathon Isaac playing, and he has All-Defensive Team potential. Despite that defense the Magic have a -4.9 net rating since the break, but there are reasons to be optimistic about what the offense can be long term with the play of Cole Anthony, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr. and Jalen Suggs — all in their age 22 or younger season. Add in another high draft pick and things start to get interesting in Orlando next season.

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30. Trail Blazers (27-48, LW 26). Corey Robinson, the on-air broadcaster here at NBC (and son of David Robinson) talked about how much pressure he thinks is on Damian Lillard heading into next season. Rather than do a more traditional rebuild and be young and bad for a few years (Houston, OKC, for example) the Trail Blazers have set up a fast rebuild around Lillard and try to contend in the next couple of years. It’s a bold plan and it’s going to take some aggressive swings from the front office that pay off, but ultimately it all comes back to Lillard being healthy — he says he is pain free for the first time in years — and returning to his MVP form. If things don’t turn around fast, Lillard and the Blazers need to have some long conversations.

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