Things are starting to get interesting in the Eastern Conference’s top five. Let’s take a look at this week’s power rankings.
1. Raptors (28-12) Last week: 1
We’re sticking with the Raptors at No. 1, but it’s not without serious doubt. They’re dealing with an injury to Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard rest days, but they’re just 5-5 over their last 10. For now, they keep the top spot, but the East looks wide open right now with their struggles.
2. Bucks (26-10) Last week: 2
While Toronto has struggled, Milwaukee is red hot, having won four in a row and eight of their last nine. While an NBA win is an NBA win, the Bucks been beating up on some of the East’s cellar dwellers. Still, it’s tough ignore what Giannis Antetokounmpo and company are doing.
3. Celtics (22-15) Last week: 3
I’m still a little conflicted on Boston. Some nights they look like they’re turning a corner and then they just don’t. The Celtics have to be encouraged by Gordon Hayward’s 35-point performance vs. the Timberwolves. Still have to give them the slight edge over the Sixers and Pacers.
4. Sixers (25-14) Last week: 4
The Sixers had a bizarre road trip. They were a missed JJ Redick jumper from beating Boston and going 4-1 on a tough trip which featured wins in Utah and L.A. over the Clippers. The clunker without Joel Embiid in Portland was just that — a clunker. It happens. The Sixers have a nice stretch of winnable games coming up before what should a fun matchup at Indiana on Jan. 17.
5. Pacers (25-12) Last week: 5
Like the Bucks, the Pacers are on a ridiculous run right now. They’ve won five in a row and 12 out of their last 14. There’s no real secret to how Indiana is doing it despite only having one star player. They have depth and they play defense. They’ll likely still need to add a star-caliber player if they want to stay near the top of the East.
6. Miami Heat (18-18) Last week: 9
And this is where the East basically becomes a pick ‘em, though the Heat have shown life recently. Josh Richardson’s emergence reminds me a little of Victor Oladipo. Both players, who excel on both ends of the floor, had fine starts to their careers, but really emerged during their age-25 seasons. Goran Dragic has missed the last 10, but Miami is 7-3 in that stretch.
7. Hornets (18-19) Last week: 6
I hate to discredit the other members of the Hornets, but I simply don’t understand how they win games unless Kemba Walker goes off. He’ll be a hot name around the trade deadline, but he’s also all Michael Jordan’s franchise has.
8. Brooklyn Nets (18-21) Last week: 8
The Nets have cooled off since winning seven straight. I said in this space a couple weeks ago that this is a playoff team in the East. Nothing has changed. What an accomplishment that would be for GM Sean Marks after the mess he inherited.
9. Detroit Pistons (17-19) Last week: 7
Outside of Blake Griffin, there is no one on this Pistons team that scares you. Though if I’m the Sixers, I’d keep an eye on Reggie Bullock as a trade target if Detroit starts falling out of the playoff picture. He’s shooting 44 percent on 7.4 threes per game over his last 10.
10. Magic (17-20) Last week: 10
It’s a shame that former Sixer Nikola Vucevic is getting little All-Star love. He’s single-handedly keeping the Magic near .500.
11. Wizards (15-23) Last week: 11
John Wall is out for the year. Markieff Morris is out six weeks. The team has grossly underachieved. Just blow the damn thing up already.
12. Hawks (11-26) Last week: 13
The Hawks have been the best of the tanking teams. Both of their bigs, Dewayne Dedmon and Alex Len, have given them solid contributions. Either would look good backing up Embiid.
13. Knicks (9-29) Last week: 15
Kevin Knox looks legit and was just named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month. That’s the only reason they’re ahead of the other two teams.
14. Cavs (8-30) Last week: 13
Just look away.
15. Bulls (10-28) Last week: 14
Chicago is here because they don’t even know how to tank properly. Wendell Carter Jr. played 13 minutes the other night. Inexcusable.
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