You'd have expected the Golden State Warriors, with a healthy Kevin Durant, to make a run at 70 wins and hold the top spot in ESPN's weekly NBA Power Rankings from here to the regular-season finish line.
Without Kevin Durant?
Sans their prized new star, Golden State might well find it hard to wrest the No. 1 ranking back from the San Antonio Spurs over the final five Rankings Mondays, now that the Spurs have moved to the summit in the wake of Durant's sprained left knee.
Golden State has 20 games left in the regular season and is favored in all but two of them, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Those two would be the Warriors' pair of remaining road games against the Spurs, coming Saturday night in San Antonio and again March 29, both on the second half of a back-to-back.
The Warriors, of course, care far more about holding off the Spurs and clinching the No. 1 seed in the West than impressing the Committee (of one). But the degree of difficulty there, without warning, just got way tougher thanks to their Durant misfortune.
Especially with San Antonio playing 14 of its final 21 games at home.
Don't forget to tune into the overnight SportsCenter that airs Tuesday at 1 a.m. ET for our weekly video feature that accompanies these rankings. Profuse thanks, as always, go to ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau -- with ESPN research ace Micah Adams running the point -- for all the background data they supply to assist the Committee's efforts -- to arrange things here properly.
The Spurs just clinched their 20th successive playoff berth, but that's not the truly impressive part. What grabs you most is the fact that San Antonio's streak is twice as long as the team that's next in line: Atlanta is on pace to make its 10th straight trip to the playoffs this spring. Next up: Two more wins will take the Spurs to 50 for the 18th consecutive season. The last time they failed to get there was the 1998-99 season, when the lockout shortened the NBA season to 50 games. Click on this fun tweet, meanwhile, for more background to explain why we chose Kawhi Leonard as our Second Trimester MVP. In short: San Antonio is still as Spurs-y as ever -- even in the wake of Tim Duncan's retirement after 19 seasons as the center of the Spurs' orbit. And Kawhi's ongoing maturation as a superstar is the biggest reason why.
There are some in the Warriors organization who regard their just-snapped streak of 146 consecutive games without back-to-back defeats as perhaps the most impressive thing these guys have achieved during these past two-and-a-half seasons of grand success. Given that the previous league record was Utah going 95 games in a row without a losing streak in the late 1990s, those sentiments would appear to have some merit. It comes as little surprise that Stephen Curry, even after an unexpected trip to the dentist Saturday afternoon, busted out Sunday with 31 points on 5-for-13 shooting from deep in Golden State's (much-needed?) win at Madison Square Garden over the Knicks. Curry's hard-to-believe cold spell from deep in the Warriors' previous three games (4-for-31) simply couldn't last. Since losing Kevin Durant, Golden State's 24 minutes in the ensuing two games with Curry off the floor have been really hard to watch, with the Warriors getting outscored 56-36 and averaging just 0.75 points per play while shooting 2-for-14 from the 3-point line.
In the nearly 45,000 regular-season and playoff games since the NBA ushered in its own 3-point line for the 1979-80 season, only twice has a team sunk 25 3s in a single game. You'd be completely justified to assume that the Warriors or Rockets would be involved in those two rare cases, but both times it was LeBron James and his Cavs, who just tossed in 25 triples against the Hawks for the second time in 10 months. Not sure LeBron will ever have another month like he enjoyed in February -- shooting 63.7 percent from the field and 56.8 percent from deep to go with his 25.9 PPG and 10.6 APG -- but what surely pleases him most are the arrivals of Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut to fortify what James has been telling us for weeks is a too-thin bench. Bogut is expected to make his Cavs debut Monday against Miami. Williams, meanwhile, gives Cleveland a league-high six players with 10,000 or more career points alongside James, Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith.
One more win will enable Mike D'Antoni to join Gregg Popovich (1,137), Doc Rivers (790), Rick Carlisle (687) and Nate McMillan (510) on the short list of active coaches with 500 regular-season victories. This is a tough month for the Rockets to get wins, though, with ESPN's Basketball Power Index rating Houston's March schedule as the league's toughest. The Rockets have reached the 100-point plateau in a franchise-record 49 games in a row, which represents the league's longest such streak since a 50-gamer assembled by Phoenix way back in the 1989-90 season. But the consistency Houston established during the season's first half, during that 31-9 start, has been elusive for a while now. Let's see if wins last week over the Clippers and the Grizzlies nudge the Rockets closer to its early-season standards after their recent 11-10 malaise. (An addendum on leading Sixth Man Award contender Eric Gordon: EG's 180 3-pointers off the bench this season just established a new single-season record for reserves.)
Were we too harsh on John Wall by excluding him from the East MVP of the Second Trimester discussion over the weekend? Perhaps. Wall, after all, recently strung together 13 consecutive points/assists double-doubles, something this league hasn't seen since Chris Paul had a similar 13-game run during the 2013-14 season. Beating Golden State was a biggie, obviously, but finding a way to come back against visiting Orlando and avoiding what would have been an unsightly home loss was just as huge for Washington. As a bonus, Bojan Bogdanovic found the range for 27 points against the Magic, giving the Wiz some real hope that his arrival (along with the Brandon Jennings signing) can spruce up a bench that badly needs some sprucing. Yet it remains to be seen whether the Wiz can handle playing 15 of their final 21 games on the road.
Kyle Lowry is averaging 22.8 points on 46.3-percent shooting from the field and a 41.7 percent success rate from 3-point range. All of those figures are career bests. It's obviously a huge blow, then, for the Raptors to be playing without their point guard for the rest of the regular season and trying to make sure they finish no worse than third in the East to ensure they can avoid Cleveland until the conference finals. Yet it must be said that DeMar DeRozan is doing everything he can to try to haul the Raps out of a potential second-round encounter with the reigning champs: DeRozan is averaging 30.0 PPG on nearly 50-percent shooting from the floor since the All-Star break sans Lowry. Behind 32 points, 13 rebounds and five assists Friday night from DeRozan, Toronto won at Washington to avenge a potentially costly home defeat to the Wiz two nights earlier.
Thanks to Rudy Gobert, Utah avoided what would have been its third demoralizing defeat of the week Sunday night at Sacramento as the Jazz strain to hold off the Clippers and retain home-court advantage for what appears to be an increasingly inevitable first-round playoff matchup with the Clips. The Jazz already had endured a one-possession loss at Oklahoma City, followed by an uncharacteristic (and worrisome) 27-point drilling at home inflicted by Minnesota, by the time Gobert rescued a W with his disputed tip-in at the buzzer at the Golden 1 Center. What's not in dispute: Gobert is still right in the heart of the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year race and just posted his second 15-and-20 game of the season in that Sacramento escape. What a find.
I have to be honest: I really didn't see our selection of Isaiah Thomas as Eastern Conference MVP for the season's middle third as all that controversial. It does not mean we have Thomas higher than LeBron James on our actual MVP ballot. It means we graded Thomas' second trimester of the season higher than LeBron's, which can't be too surprising if you remember Cleveland's 7-8 record in January. Yet you have to wonder if we jinxed Thomas somehow given what happened in the final ticks of Boston's costly loss Sunday night in Phoenix. Circle this coming Sunday in your calendars, too: Boston plays host to Chicago in a rematch of the highly contentious game these teams played just before the All-Star break in which Jimmy Butler sank the clinching free throws after a much-disputed foul called on Marcus Smart with one second to go in regulation. (One final note on IT: He's shooting 40.7 percent on 3s in 39 wins and just 32.5 percent on 3s in 20 losses.)
Chris Paul is back and Blake Griffin is in a great groove, but the Clips are 1-4 since the All-Star break thanks to a rather brutal schedule that forced them to deal with Golden State, San Antonio and Houston in three of the first four of those games. According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, L.A. has a 6 percent chance of winning a playoff series against Golden State, which puts it fourth in the league among the Warriors' main rivals behind the Spurs (23 percent), Rockets (12 percent) and Cavaliers (7 percent). I have to admit it: I'd have expected that figure to be lower given the manner in which Golden State has dominated the matchup lately, winning the teams' past 10 meetings.
It won't be long now before the Grizzlies officially clinch their seventh successive playoff berth, good for the league's third-longest active streak behind San Antonio (assured of a 20th straight postseason trip) and Atlanta (soon to clinch 10 in a row). The Grizz are also a tidy 4-2 against the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs this season, second only to Chicago's 5-2 mark in those games. But the big concern in Graceland right now continues to be Chandler Parsons' slow recovery from offseason knee surgery after landing a four-year, $94 million contract in July. "I suck right now," Parsons told our Tim MacMahon. "There's no sugarcoating it. It is what it is. I'm just going to continue to work, continue to grind."
It probably won't affect anything in real life -- even if the Heat find a way to snag the East's No. 8 seed -- but we do feel compelled to point out that Miami has registered 12 consecutive regular-season home victories over Cleveland. One could argue that's a pertinent stat given the prospect of a potential Heat-Cavs first-round playoff series -- although it must be noted that LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were all spectators for the Cavs' heavy Saturday night loss on South Beach. Hopefully by now you've seen the Coach of the Second Trimester award we bestowed over the weekend upon the Heat's Erik Spoelstra, who gets the highest of marks from us for getting this roster filled with "contract years" to believe that winning is the best way to enhance your reputation and maximize your value.
We were there at the United Center on Thursday night to see the finish and still can't explain it even with Kevin Durant out with an injury: Chicago wound up holding Golden State to a measly 87 points to earn yet another W against a top team to go with its recent victories over the Raptors, Celtics and, of course, Cavs. (The Warriors, for the record, have failed to score 100 points in just three games this season and lost all three.) In the bigger picture, Chicago is inexplicably 15-14 now against .500-or-better teams but just 16-17 against sub-.500 teams. It gets crazier: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one team in NBA history -- New York way, way back in 1955-56 -- finished a season that way. The Bulls are also a combined 5-2 against the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs; Memphis is the only other team in the league that can claim a win over all three. After digesting all that, we had the chance to ask Dwyane Wade in this SportsCenter visit if he wishes the Bulls could face the top two teams more often.
We expected this week's entry to focus on Russell Westbrook's recent four 40-point games in a row and how impressively he was holding up in the face of all those folks who said he couldn't possibly survive to the end of the season coping with the load he's carrying (and that seemingly unfathomable usage rate of 42.6). Instead? Westbrook has suddenly gone three successive games without a triple-double to match his second-longest drought of the season. Woret yet, Oklahoma City has lost seven consecutive road games, six of those without the injured Victor Oladipo. Westbrook needs 151 rebounds (7.9 RPG) and 187 assists (9.8 APG) in the Thunder's final 19 games to clinch a historic triple-double average for the season, but his seventh-seeded Thunder desperately need wins above all else now. They're 24-6 this season when Westbrook triple-doubles and 11-22 when he doesn't.
Losing by a point to the Spurs (in San Antonio) would hurt under any circumstances because it inevitably feels like such a lost opportunity. Yet you can safely bet that last Wednesday's 100-99 defeat in South Texas was particularly painful for the Pacers, since it involved Kawhi Leonard -- who was unforgettably selected by Indiana with the 15th overall pick in 2011 and dealt to San Antonio on draft night for George Hill -- hitting a game-winning fadeaway jumper with 2.4 seconds remaining. The Pacers, though, had three full off days to recover and ultimately capitalized on the rest with a one-point win Sunday night in Atlanta. Hopefully by now you've seen the heartwarming clip of Glenn Robinson III hitting the game-winning 3 from the corner with his father, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, watching with pride nearby in the stands. For more on the Pacers, we turn to our pal Zach Lowe, who puts the face of their franchise under the microscope as only he can in his weekly "Ten things I like and don't like" by asking: "How good, really, is Paul George?"
When Paul Millsap banked in a go-ahead bucket with 30.5 seconds to go in regulation to send the Hawks on their way to a home win over Dallas, Millsap improved to 4-for-8 this season on shot attempts with a chance to give his team the lead inside the final minute of regulation and overtime. Coming into this season, Millsap was 1-for-25 in such situations. Also flourishing is Tim Hardaway Jr., who earned a deserved mention in our Trimester MIP entry over the weekend after scoring 36 points in Friday's shootout loss to the Cavs. It was the biggest scoring output from a Hawks reserve since a 36-point outing for Jamal Crawford in January 2011 and made it the only game in the league this season to feature three 35-point scorers (LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were the others). Hardaway has more than doubled his scoring average from last season's 6.4 PPG to this season's 13.5.
Is Harrison Barnes still the most improved player on his own team? We're going to have to start seriously considering that question if Seth Curry keeps this up. Entering Sunday night's ESPN showdown with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder -- while big bro was mired in the worst 3-point shooting funk of his career -- Seth had merely averaged 24.7 PPG in Dallas' wins over Miami and Memphis and a loss in Atlanta. Seth then scored 22 more points in a win over OKC to hike his record as a Mavs starter to 15-9 and take his numbers since the All-Star break to 23.3 PPG on 57.8 percent shooting from the floor and 52.6 percent on 3s. But the big story in Big D at the minute remains Dirk Nowitzki's pursuit of 30,000 points, which sits just 20 points away now after Dirk's handy 18 points and 12 boards in the OKC win. For more on the achievement and Nowitzki's revolutionary career, we refer you to our freshly recorded 41 minutes with No. 41 on the TrueHoop Conversations podcast.
Why would Stan Van Gundy consider starting Ish Smith ahead of Reggie Jackson? Since Jackson's return from injury in early December, Detroit averages 105.9 points per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor and sports a net efficiency of plus-6 in those 783 minutes. With Jackson on the floor for 1,125 minutes in the same span, Detroit is scoring 102.6 points per 100 possessions and sports a net efficiency of minus-8.6 (excluding the 31 minutes Jackson and Smith have played together). More surprising Pistons data: Andre Drummond leads the league in individual defensive rating and ranks No. 2 in defensive win share per Basketball Reference, but Van Gundy clearly doesn't like something he's seeing. Drummond ranks only fourth in minutes played for the Pistons behind new sixth man Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. And the advanced data says those three are much better defensively (surrendering just 95 points per 100 possessions) when they're not joined by Drummond than when they are (allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions).
After losing Khris Middleton before the season even started and then losing Jabari Parker just as Middleton was returning, Milwaukee isn't going to be shedding tears for any rival team out there confronted with its own injury woes. So there were no apologies from the Bucks on Saturday when they rode a season-high 24 points from Middleton to take down the Kyle Lowry-less Raptors on the second night of a back-to-back for their Canadian visitors. The most pleasing part for Milwaukee, mind you, had to be the fact that Middleton was also playing on the second half of a back-to-back for the first time this season. The common assumption is that the Bucks can't possibly make the playoffs without Parker, but they're still hanging around the eighth spot and just signed Terrence Jones as a potential bargain-priced boost.
The thought pops into my head every time I look at the standings: How much is Denver going to kick itself for that 3-8 record in games decided by three points or fewer if it fails to hold onto the No. 8 spot in the West? Only the Knicks have more one-possession defeats (nine), with Charlotte (0-8) and Minnesota (4-8) also wincing uncontrollably any time someone brings up that category. The cure for that in the Rocky Mountains, though, is simply bringing up Nikola Jokic, who is suddenly up to four triple-doubles for the season, good for the highest single-season total for any Nugget since famed triple-double artist Fat Lever's five in 1989-90. Jokic turned 22 on Feb. 19 and had three of those triple-doubles in February. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three players in league history have managed three triple-doubles in a single month at a younger age: Oscar Robertson (1960-61), Magic Johnson (1980-81) and Lamar Odom (2000-01). All three of those guys were 21.
The Blazers remain Denver's closest pursuer for the eighth and final playoff berth in the West, but that might no longer be the case at week's end given the fact surging Dallas has three rather favorable home games this week against the Lakers, Nets and Suns. But Portland continues to believe that it can (and will) emerge from the pack chasing the Nuggets to get back to the postseason and force a rematch with the Warriors -- albeit one round earlier than last spring. It has been a promising start, meanwhile, for the newest Blazer: Jusuf Nurkic has quickly moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 14.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists through six games with his new team while posting a robust PER of 20.9.
Saturday night's unexpected triumph at Denver, after the Hornets got drilled in Phoenix, enabled them to put a passable bow on their seven-game road trip by finishing 3-4 to stay within reasonable distance of the East's final playoff berth. But Charlotte has lost another big man on top of its well-chronicled woes whenever Cody Zeller has been out injured. This time it's Frank Kaminsky, who's suddenly dealing with a sprained left shoulder after enjoying the best month of his pro career. In February, Kaminsky averaged 18.1 points and 7.1 rebounds, posting five 20-point games after just four in his Charlotte career to that point. Zeller is inching his way back to a more regular role after a quadriceps problem, but Charlotte isn't deep enough to keep taking hits.
The Pelicans were two-and-a-half games out of the West's final playoff berth when they acquired DeMarcus Cousins. As rough as Boogie's indoctrination to life with the Pels has been -- with losses in his first four games, one suspension (due to his 18th technical of the season) and two foul-outs -- New Orleans is only a game worse off heading into the new week. As you watched crunch time Sunday night in Los Angeles, with the Pels squandering all of a late 14-point lead, you couldn't help but think that their playoff hopes were being extinguished for good at Staples Center. Don't write 'em off yet, though. Jrue Holiday played more in the manner against the Lakers that New Orleans needs him to play alongside Anthony Davis and Cousins. The Brow, furthermore, is averaging 33.2 PPG since the All-Star break (No. 2 in the league) and turns 24 on Saturday. Maybe some birthday luck is coming his way.
He didn't get the trade to New York that you suspect he wanted after hearing his name tossed into countless rumored deals in recent weeks, but Ricky Rubio did notch his first triple-double of the season in Saturday night's OT loss in San Antonio, which made NBA history. Rubio's 11 points, 10 assists and 13 rebounds accounted for the 79th triple-double of the season, good for a new league record. He's the 21st player to record a triple-double this season and nudged the 2016-17 campaign past the 1988-89 season, when Magic Johnson (17) and Michael Jordan (15) combined for 32 of the league's 78 triple-doubles. (We urge you to light a candle Friday for injured Wolves swingman Zach LaVine, who turns 22 on Friday but obviously won't be celebrating too much less than six weeks removed from his season-ending ACL tear.)
No one here at Stein Line HQ is saying that Dario Saric can't win the NBA's Rookie of the Year trophy. If Saric continues to play as well as he has for the past 10 games -- averaging 19.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists in that stretch -- then maybe it's not too late for him to put an ROY-worthy case together. He was particularly good in Friday night's win over the Knicks, scoring 12 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. But what we do believe, as we speak, is that neither Saric nor Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon has done enough to trump what Joel Embiid achieved in his mere 31 games this season. There's still almost a fourth of the regular season left for Saric or Brogdon or another rook to change our minds. As it stands, though, I can't cast an ROY vote for anyone else but Embiid, no matter how loudly you howl at me about how few games he has played.
Good news: Phoenix found a way to beat the Thunder even after surrendering 48 points, 17 assists and 9 rebounds Friday night to Russell Westbrook. In the teams' previous two meetings, both Suns losses, Westbrook rumbled for career highs in points (51 on Oct. 28) and assists (22 on Dec. 17). Even better news for the desert dwellers: The Suns have only one date left on the schedule with Westbrook, when they host OKC on April 7. The best news of all for Phoenix: Sunday's dramatic triumph on Tyler Ulis' buzzer-beating triple from the wing to stun Boston marked its league-leading third such win this season. Devin Booker (Feb. 3 against Sacramento) and Eric Bledsoe (Nov. 2 against Portland) also have been heroes at the horn for the Suns, who have somehow been involved in eight buzzer-beater finishes over the past three seasons.
It has been that kind of season: Nikola Vucevic records his fifth 25-point game of the 2016-17 campaign to lead the Magic to a surprising win over scorching Miami in the latest Florida derby -- and then has to sit out the next game because of Achilles soreness. Vucevic tested the foot in pregame warm-ups but ultimately watched Orlando suffer a painful one-point defeat in the nation's capital against one of the East's best teams. The Magic led by 16 at the half and would have clinched the season series with the Wiz for the first time since 2011-12 had they hung on. #thatkindofseason
After back-to-back wins on Dec. 20 and Dec. 22, New York was 16-13, good for the East's fifth-best record. Since then? Only the Nets and Lakers have worse records than the Knicks' 9-25 mark, which includes zero back-to-back wins since the calendar flipped to 2017. Adding to the Knicks' pain is a 5-11 record in games decided by five points or fewer as part of that nosedive, as well as a league-leading nine losses by three points or fewer after Friday's 105-102 defeat at Philadelphia. For a ray of good news we turn to Kristaps Porzingis, who mustered 24 points and 15 boards in Sunday's matinee defeat to the Warriors. Plagued by Achilles and ankle woes, Porzingis averaged just 15.0 points and 5.9 rebounds over the previous 30 games before his bust-out against Golden State, as well as missing 10 of those 30 because of various injuries. Porzingis averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds through his first 33 games this season.
The best part about Sacramento's abrupt decision to trade DeMarcus Cousins and start all the way over is the fact that the first Stein in NBA history -- Willie Cauley-Stein -- has been thrust into a role of prominence that makes it easy to write about him here. If you haven't seen the dunk Cousin Willie tried to pull off Sunday night over Utah's Rudy Gobert, you better click to it immediately. As explained further in the Nets' comment, Sacramento is perfectly fine with stacking up losses for the rest of the season in hopes of retaining its lottery pick in June. So last week's most interesting Kings development involved Turkey-based shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, whom Kings GM Vlade Divac is eager to bring over next season.
You can safely presume that Magic Johnson, as much he surely understands that losses can only help the Lakers right now in their quest to hang onto their first-round pick in June, had to be suffering mightily Friday night when hated Boston came to Staples Center and rung up 70 points and a 25-point lead by halftime. The trouble, of course, is that the Lakers are in such a bind that playing well doesn't bring any more comfort. They uncorked a furious late rally Sunday night against the desperate Pelicans that, had L.A. finished the job, might have inflicted a killer blow on New Orleans' season. Yet we suspect you're well aware by now that the Lakers can retain their lottery pick in June only if it lands in the top three of the lottery. Every L from here, like it or not, increases the Lakers' odds of doing just that. So it's actually good news that the Lakers are one of just two teams on the NBA map, along with 10-51 Brooklyn, with fewer than 20 wins for the season.
The Nets sure showed us, didn't they? After going winless since Jan. 20 and enduring a bunch of snide barbs from the Committee in last week's comment space, Brooklyn dug out a 109-100 victory in Sacramento to ensure that it would not go winless on this seemingly interminable eight-game road trip. The Kings, of course, not-so-secretly want to be losing games these days to ensure that they finish in the top 10 in the lottery in May to avoid being forced to convey their first-round pick in June to Chicago. But don't be a hater and dwell on the details. The poor Nets went nearly 40 days without a win of any kind and still have three stops to go on this brutal trip (Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas) before they get to rediscover the comforts of home.