In this edition of our Eastern Conference power rankings, we look at the impact of Joel Embiid's return and how things stand heading into the final month of the season.
1. Bucks (51-17) Last ranking: 1
The Bucks are beatable — they had a hiccup in San Antonio Sunday — but they sure look like a difficult team to top in a seven-game series. Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t shot worse than 50 percent from the field in a game since Jan. 27.
2. Raptors (49-20) Last ranking: 2
Monday was not a pleasant night in Cleveland for the Raptors, who lost to the Cavs by 25 and lost Serge Ibaka for three games after his fight with Marquese Chriss. Ibaka’s suspension should mean more playing time for Marc Gasol and a chance to further develop his chemistry with his new teammates, writes Lori Ewing of The Globe and Mail.
3. Sixers (43-25) Last ranking: 3
After going 4-4 since the All-Star break without Joel Embiid, the Sixers are 2-0 since their big man returned. They understandably weren’t satisfied with their performance Tuesday in the second and third quarters vs. Cleveland, but they’ll take the win and hope to build a little cohesiveness now that the rotation is finally intact again.
Brett Brown said after practice Thursday that the Sixers are “not even close” to where he wants them to be, but “there is time, in my opinion. There is time to have as perfect vanilla as we can have and use it as a launching pad to ride the wave of playoff emotion, momentum. You hear me talk about let’s land the plane, let’s keep everybody in the boat, let’s keep the spirit, let’s grow the structure, let’s understand rotations. … That’s the plan.”
4. Celtics (42-27) Last ranking: 4
Down as many as 17 points Thursday night, the Celtics came back to top the Kings. Boston has now won four of five, with games vs. Atlanta and Denver up next before Wednesday’s matchup in Philadelphia.
5. Pacers (44-25) Last ranking: 5
Surviving these next seven games will be critical for the Pacers if they hope to hold onto the No. 3 seed. In a brutal stretch, Indiana plays the Nuggets twice, the Trail Blazers, Clippers, Warriors and Celtics. Oh, and six of those seven games are on the road.
6. Nets (36-34) Last ranking: 6
The Nets crushed the team right behind them in the standings on Monday, holding the Pistons to 75 points on a season-worst 27.8 percent mark from the field. D’Angelo Russell has cooled off slightly as of late, but he still has a good shot at averaging over 20 points per game for the first time in his career.
7. Heat (32-35) Last ranking: 8
Detroit followed up that 75-point effort against Brooklyn with a 108-74 loss Wednesday in Miami. That victory gave Miami six wins in seven games, and the Heat find the growth of the Justise Winslow/Josh Richardon/Bam Adebayo trio especially encouraging, writes Barry Jackson of The Miami Herald.
8. Pistons (34-33) Last ranking: 7
To be fair to the Pistons, they were due for a clunker or two after a five-game winning streak. Detroit still has a 3.5-game edge over the No. 9 seed Magic and, barring a bad collapse, should be a playoff team.
9. Magic (32-38) Last ranking: 9
Since the Markelle Fultz trade, Orlando has the best defensive rating in the NBA — by almost two points.
10. Hornets (30-37) Last ranking: 10
There’s still a chance the Hornets manage to earn the eighth seed, though their odds aren’t great given the way they’re currently playing. Charlotte has won one of its last five games and has important matchups coming up Friday in Washington and Sunday in Miami. Meanwhile, Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer reports the Mavericks are the top threat to sign Kemba Walker this summer.
11. Wizards (29-39) Last ranking: 11
To make the playoffs, the Wizards are probably going to need their first four-game winning streak of the season. Their current streak is at two following a nice win over Orlando on Wednesday.
12. Hawks (24-45) Last ranking: 12
Altanta, following decisive wins over New Orleans and Memphis, has the third-highest scoring average in the NBA since February.
13. Bulls (19-50) Last ranking: 13
The Bulls say they “aren’t prioritizing draft lottery positioning this season,” according to The Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson, and you believe it. Zach LaVine is probable for Friday’s matchup against the Clippers after missing the past two games with a right patellar tendon strain.
14. Cavs (17-52) Last ranking: 14
A 25-point win over the Raptors; a close contest in Philadelphia; a 29-point loss to the Magic. That final result best captures the Cavs team we’ve seen all season.
15. Knicks (13-55) Last ranking: 15
In each of their past four games, the Knicks have been held under 100 points. The Sixers have scored under 100 points in a game only five times all season.
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