NBA Power Rankings: Can Indiana Pacers Reclaim No. 1?
Like most folks out there, the NBA takes it relatively easy during the heart of the holiday season. The entire league took off Christmas Eve, and only 10 took to the court on Christmas Day.
You could argue that at least two teams (New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets) were still so slogged on eggnog that they didn't even show up to the arena for their games.
And that at least one—the Indiana Pacers, who had themselves a pretty great week—should've been active during the biggest day on the regular-season calendar in the Association.
That being said, a light week of action doesn't necessarily correlate to stagnation in the power rankings from week to week. There was still plenty of jostling and jockeying among the league's hierarchy, albeit without the sort of dramatic movement that you might see in a normal, jam-packed week.
But don't take my word for it. Why don't you see for yourself?
30. Philadelphia 76ers
The Philadelphia 76ers' one-point overtime win over the Nets looks a lot less impressive given Brooklyn's overall struggles this season.
Still, a win's a win for the Sixers, who had lost seven in a row prior to that contest. Philly's since come back to Earth, however, with a 10-point loss to the awful Milwaukee Bucks.
This could be the start of yet another lengthy slide for the tank-tastic Sixers. That loss in Milwaukee kicked off a six-game road swing that'll see Philly traveling through Phoenix, L.A., Denver, Sacramento and Portland before returning home to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Some way to end one year and begin another, don't you think?
29. Milwaukee Bucks
When your season is as sorry as that of the Milwaukee Bucks, you take your victories—real or moral—wherever and whenever you can.
This last week saw the Bucks lose two out of three, with their lone win coming at home over the Sixers. To Milwaukee's credit, the defeats weren't embarrassing by any means. Both came on the road in overtime, to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Charlotte Bobcats.
In fact, the Bucks haven't lost in regulation since Dec. 14, when the were mauled by the Mavericks in Dallas.
That is not bad for a team that, at 6-22, owns the worst record in the NBA to date.
28. Orlando Magic
Say this much for the Orlando Magic: They've been playing everyone close of late, for better or worse.
The Magic haven't been involved in a double-digit final outcome since Dec. 8, when they lost to the Rockets in Houston, 98-88. That span has seen Orlando pick up wins over the Charlotte Bobcats and Chicago Bulls and fall short of the Oklahoma City Thunder by just three points.
Not that all their finishes in that span are necessarily respectable. In their last three games, the Magic have lost to the Utah Jazz by four, the Sacramento Kings by five and the New York Knicks by five—all at home, no less.
Orlando may be tanking to some degree, but at least this team is giving its fans some excitement as a reward for their commitment to crummy basketball.
27. Utah Jazz
Here's a fun fact: The Utah Jazz are 4-3 in their last seven road games. That may not seem like much to most teams, but for the Jazz, it points to some rather encouraging progress.
This is especially true when you consider, for comparison, that one of the elite teams in the Western Conference (i.e. the Los Angeles Clippers) went 4-3 on a recent seven-game trip.
To be sure, we're not exactly measuring apples against apples here. The Jazz were at home during a 100-86 loss to the San Antonio Spurs prior their five-game roadie, during which they went 2-3. The Clips, on the other hand, were out of L.A. for about two weeks.
And, well, nobody in their right mind would put Utah on par with the Clippers right now. But the Jazz, to their credit, are playing slightly better ball of late, though it will certainly not be enough to put them out of range of one of the top picks in the 2014 NBA draft.
26. New York Knicks
It's always something with these New York Knicks, isn't it?
They seemed to be getting their act together after an early spate of injuries and locker room drama. The point guard situation was still a mess, with Beno Udrih (!) soaking up big minutes in place of the dinged duo of Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni.
But at least Tyson Chandler was back, J.R. Smith was starting to rediscover his pre-knee surgery self (for better or worse), and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. was emerging as an intriguing piece on the wing.
Then, Carmelo Anthony sprained his ankle and...well, what appeared to be a likely loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder devolved into a 29-point blowout with last season's scoring champ watching the worst Christmas Day loss in NBA history from the sideline.
As you'd expect, the boo birds at Madison Square Garden pelted him and his teammates with waves of jeers.
25. Brooklyn Nets
What is it about the Barclays Center that's made it the scene of so many blowouts this season? Is it the lighting? The state-of-the-art amenities? The Brooklyn Knight?
Or maybe it's the Brooklyn Nets themselves. Of their 14 home games this season, eight have been decided by double digits, including six losses on Brooklyn's part.
The latest of those—a 95-78 loss to the Bulls on Christmas Day—was particularly embarrassing. Chicago, without the services of Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, stomped Brooklyn to the extent that the Nets' home crowd felt compelled to boo their team throughout.
Of course, Brooklyn has had injury issues of its own. Brook Lopez is done for the season after breaking his foot (again), while Andrei Kirilenko has spent most of 2013-14 on the shelf with a bad back.
If the Nets are to make anything meaningful of this season without Lopez, who's arguably their best player, the onus will be on Deron Williams (18 points, four assists, three turnovers versus Chicago) to spark that success and avoid another setback of his own along the way.
24. Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings' recent loss at home to the New Orleans Pelicans served a sobering reminder to the new regime in California's capital that there's still much work to be done to wash away the legacy of the Maloof brothers.
That game saw Tyreke Evans, who was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year in 2009-10 while in Sacramento, explode for 25 points (11-of-12 at the free throw line), six rebounds, 12 assists and three steals off the bench for New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Jason Thompson—whom the Kings selected 12th overall in 2008, ahead of Roy Hibbert, Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Sactown native Ryan Anderson (among others)—was held scoreless in 27 minutes. Rudy Gay, the shiny toy that the new management essentially brought in during the season to placate the team's long-suffering fans, finished 2-of-12 from the field with six turnovers.
On the bright side, DeMarcus Cousins (24 points, 14 rebounds, one assist, two steals, two blocks) was once again beastly, as was Isaiah Thomas (21 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals).
But the Kings' old habits on defense died hard—just as many remnants of the former ownership figure to over time.
23. Cleveland Cavaliers
It's been a tough couple of weeks for Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The latest loss marked the fifth in six games for Cleveland, which now sits at a sorry 10-18, just a game up on the Big Apple's dueling dunces.
To be sure, there are plenty of moral victories to be gleaned from this depressing stretch. The Cavs played three likely postseason teams—the Portland Trail Blazers, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks—far better than their own record would suggest. As for the two blowout losses to the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons, you could explain those away with Dion Waiters' absence if you so chose.
But moral victories don't count in the standings. If you're the Cavs, who've been targeting this season as the opportunity to make some serious headway toward a brighter future ALJ (After LeBron James), it might be time to reevaluate the plan put in place to surround Kyrie with a solid supporting cast.
22. Los Angeles Lakers
Say this much for the Los Angeles Lakers: They haven't given up since losing Kobe Bryant to a fracture in his left knee.
Not entirely, anyway. They rode strong games from Pau Gasol, Xavier Henry and Nick Young—along with a dash of "Ewing Theory" magic—to victory over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves immediately after the Black Mamba succumbed to injury. They were also surprisingly competitive against the sleepwalking Miami Heat on Christmas Day.
But as encouraging as those results were, there's no denying that this Lakers team is still in a heap of trouble. In between those home games against Minny and Miami came blowout losses to Golden State (by 19) and Phoenix (by 27!).
And don't expect L.A.'s road record to improve much in the near future, either. The Lakers will face the Utah Jazz on Friday without Gasol, who's still struggling with an upper respiratory infection, per Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times.
They'd better hope Pau and the rest of the team's infirmary get well soon. Otherwise, a stretch of 10 out of 11 on the road could send the Purple and Gold spiraling toward disaster.
21. Boston Celtics
It seems like all the news surrounding the Boston Celtics these days has nothing to do with the actual guys in green.
First came this nugget (via Tristan Thornburgh of Bleacher Report) about the C's putting Kevin Garnett on their 2014 calendar, even though the team traded the Big Ticket to the Brooklyn Nets this past summer.
Then came a report from ESPN's Brian Windhorst, who suggested that the Knicks will try to snag Rajon Rondo by baiting Boston with the same tactics that eventually led Carmelo Anthony to push for an exit from the Denver Nuggets in February 2011.
Granted, it's tough to blame this current iteration of the C's for not being the story. The team has lost its last three games in a row, all to Eastern Conference opponents. As a result, it finds itself in a virtual tie with the Chicago Bulls for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs.
Chances are, Boston's current squad won't wind up in the headlines any time soon—at least until Rondo returns, which may not be until after January comes and goes, per Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe.
That is unless, of course, they shock the basketball world with another run of success without their All-Star point guard in the meantime.
20. Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls appear to have stopped the bleeding—for the time being, at least. Back-to-back blowouts of the Cavs and Nets marked Chicago's first consecutive wins since mid-November, when a healthy Derrick Rose had helped the Bulls to five straight victories.
This not to say that the Bulls are about to rise back to the top of the Eastern Conference, right where many had pegged them to be prior to the start of the 2013-14 season. Rose is still expected to miss the rest of the campaign, and Luol Deng has been in and out of the lineup with an Achilles injury since early December.
But the Bulls may yet be stabilizing. Mike Dunleavy Jr. (14.2 points on 45.7 percent shooting over his last 12 games) appears to be settling into Tom Thibodeau's world. So too does D.J. Augustin, who's chipped in a solid 13.6 points and 7.4 assists while shooting 46 percent overall (46.4 percent from three) in Chicago's last five games.
It also helps that the frontcourt trio of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson is playing solid, productive ball on both ends of the floor, and that, thanks in large part to those bigs, the Bulls defense is one of the five stingiest in the NBA today.
Chicago has plenty of work to do before it can safely say that it's escaped its early-season hole. That said, the pieces are there for the Bulls to hang around the playoff picture in the weak Eastern Conference.
And if Rose returns in the spring, the team could make some significant noise thereafter.
19. Toronto Raptors
It's not the Toronto Raptors' "fault" that they're in first place in the Atlantic Division with a record of 11-15. Blame it on the C's, Knicks, Nets and Sixers for being that much worse.
Or better yet, blame the NBA for still having divisions at all.
Just don't fault the Raptors for the way they've played of late. Their record now sits at a respectable 5-3 in the post-Rudy Gay era. Two of those losses have been 13-point shortfalls against the San Antonio Spurs, while the third was the result of a buzzer-beater by Kemba Walker in overtime.
On the actually positive end of the ledger, Toronto can now count itself as the only squad to have upended the white-hot Oklahoma City Thunder at home, just two nights after scoring a one-point overtime win in Dallas.
An upcoming home-and-home stint with the Knicks should serve as a golden opportunity for the Raptors to move ever closer to their first playoff berth since Chris Bosh fled south in 2010.
18. Memphis Grizzlies
Zach Randolph's done his darndest to keep the Memphis Grizzlies afloat in Marc Gasol's absence. In the 13 games that Gasol's missed, Z-Bo has averaged 18 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists for the offensively challenged Grizz.
That includes a week of three straight 20-10 games, comprising an impressive line of 23-14-4 over Randolph's last three games.
Z-Bo's bruising efforts were pivotal to putting Memphis ahead of New York and Utah, though wins over those two bottom-feeders don't exactly signal positively toward the health of a squad.
The fact remains that the Grizzlies need a healthy Gasol in the lineup to orchestrate their efforts on both ends of the floor and, eventually, work their way back into the playoff mix out West.
This makes the news that Gasol could return from his MCL sprain in the next 10-20 days, per Memphis radio host Chris Vernon, that much more exciting for the Grizz.
17. Detroit Pistons
At long last, Josh Smith is starting to play like the $54 million man that the Detroit Pistons are paying him to be.
Over his last six games, Smith has averaged a sturdy line of 23.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.7 combined blocks and steals while shooting a respectable 49.2 percent from the field. He's still shot poorly from three (25 percent) and has taken too many attempts from that range (3.3 per game), though at least the latter represents an improvement over J-Smoove's season-long status quo.
But if Smith—and Brandon Jennings, who's poured in 19.3 points and 10 assists per game while shooting 39.4 percent from three in that same span—can continue to produce with that sort of efficiency, the Pistons should see their team-wide stock soar in the weeks to come.
They're slated to play just four games against opponents that currently own winning records between now and the end of January.
16. New Orleans Pelicans
The tandem return of Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans is already paying dividends for the New Orleans Pelicans.
A 110-107 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers marked the Pellies' fourth defeat in a row, but it came with plenty of encouraging caveats. For one, Davis and Evans both scored 21 points in that game, with the former also chipping in nine rebounds and two blocks and the latter stuffing the stat sheet with six assists, six rebounds and two steals.
Better yet, New Orleans owned a lead in the final two minutes and had two opportunities to tie the game on the final possession, both of which went wanting.
In time, this team will learn how to capitalize on such situations. And to their credit, the Pellies appeared to have learned from that disappointing result when they pulled away from the Kings in Sacramento two nights later.
15. Charlotte Bobcats
It's not exactly fair to say that the Charlotte Bobcats have thrived without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, though you can't ignore the solid overall ball that they've placed since last year's No. 2 pick broke his hand in early December.
The 'Cats are a respectable 6-4 sans MKG, with those four losses coming by an average of just five points apiece. In fact, Charlotte hasn't suffered a double-digit defeat since Nov. 27, when the Indiana Pacers spanked them in the Queen City.
To say that Kidd-Gilchrist's absence has been a blessing, though, is to ignore the solid work done by Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker in the interim. The former has earned his hefty paycheck by pouring in 17.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 2.2 combined blocks and steals, while the latter has exploded for 22.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.5 steals, with shooting splits of .512/.432/.811.
The 'Cats will need all they can get out of those two—and everyone else, for that matter—over the next month or so. They'll face the Thunder at home on Friday before embarking on a 20-game stretch that includes 14 road games.
In other words, get well soon, MKG. Your team's going to need you.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
Is it too soon to say that the Minnesota Timberwolves are the biggest disappointment of the 2013-14 NBA season? I'm sure there are plenty of folks in the Big Apple who'd argue that the Knicks and the Nets should get first dibs on that dubious title, but at least those two teams can explain their struggles as the result of injuries and other extenuating circumstances.
The T-Wolves have only Chase Budinger's absence to hide behind, and even that does little to excuse this squad for its mediocrity. Kevin Love has put up fantastic numbers (26-14-4), but he has comported himself like anything but the sort of leader that a top-10 player should be. The pairing of Love and Nikola Pekovic, while dazzlingly effective on the offensive end, has struggled mightily to defend the rim on defense—almost as mightily as Ricky Rubio has by hitting the rim with his frozen rope of a jump shot.
I could go on and on, but the point remains: This team is now 13-15, with back-to-back road losses to both L.A. teams on the heels of what seemed to be a turning-point win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The more this team see-saws, the less favorable its odds of delivering Love to his first postseason will be—and the greater the likelihood of No. 42 taking his talents to greener pastures in 2015 becomes.
13. Denver Nuggets
Whatever Mile High Magic the Denver Nuggets were riding between mid-November and early December appears to have run out, at least for the time being. They've lost their last four in a row and 7-of-10 since Dec. 4 to fall a game-and-a-half back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Things don't figure to improve for the Nuggets before the calendar turns to 2014, either. They'll play the improving Pelicans in New Orleans and take their act to Memphis before returning home to brace themselves for the two-time defending champion Miami Heat on Dec. 30.
On the bright side, JaVale McGee, who's been out of action since Nov. 8, will soon be back in our lives, albeit not in an active capacity. He and his mom, WNBA Hall of Famer Pam McGee, will be starring in their own reality series, entitled Mom's Got Game, for the Oprah Winfrey Network.
12. Washington Wizards
I'm not trying to jinx anything here, but the Washington Wizards might soon find themselves on the right side of the .500 mark for the first time since Halloween 2009.
The Wizards have won three in a row, albeit against the dregs of the Atlantic Division (Knicks, Nets, Celtics), and will finish out 2013 with a trip to Minneapolis and a home-and-home set against the Pistons.
Those three games should all be winnable for a team like Washington, which fancies itself as more than just a de facto playoff team in the Eastern Conference, especially now that John Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene are all healthy at the same time.
Which reminds me: NO JINXES PLEASE!
11. Dallas Mavericks
Defense is quickly becoming a serious concern for the Dallas Mavericks—assuming it wasn't one already.
This last week alone, the Mavs allowed an unsightly 113 points per game on a collective opponent effective field-goal percentage of 53.4 percent.
The latter of which would rank as the worst mark in the NBA this season. Not surprisingly, Dallas dropped three of its last four outings, including an overtime loss at home to the Raptors.
Truth be told, defense was never going to be Big D's strength this season. The Mavs are thin up front, with the ground-bound DeJuan Blair and the thin Samuel Dalembert taking turns at center, and they also feature a pair of sieves in the backcourt between Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis.
This is not to mention that Dirk Nowitzki has never been much of a stopper and isn't about to become one at the age of 35.
The Mavs should score more than enough to qualify for the playoffs out West, but winning a series seems like a stretch for this squad.
10. Atlanta Hawks
Underestimate the Atlanta Hawks at your own peril. This is a talented, well-balanced team that has the horses to compete in close games and, potentially, make some significant noise come playoff time.
OK, so maybe I'm overstating things a bit, but let's give the Hawks some credit nonetheless. They're a rare breed (i.e. an Eastern Conference team with a winning record) bolstered by an All-Star big man in Al Horford and a youngster in Jeff Teague, for whom a decent case could be made for inclusion in the midseason exhibition.
Teague had cooled off somewhat from his hot start to the season before turning in heroic efforts during Atlanta's two latest overtime tangles. He turned in a line of 26-6-8 with two steals in the Hawks' overtime loss to the Miami Heat and followed that up with a career-high 34 points, 14 assists, three rebounds and three steals against the Cavs in double-OT—including the game-winner to further solidify the Hawks' standing as the No. 3 seed in the East.
9. Golden State Warriors
Tough? Gritty? Dirty? Cowardly?
Whatever you want to call the Golden State Warriors after their Christmas Day win over the Los Angeles Clippers, you should acknowledge that this team is starting to get its act together. The Dubs have now won three in a row and four of five, with their lone loss in that span coming by two points at home to the shorthanded Spurs.
In fact, this team hasn't lost a game by more than four points since Dec. 6, when the Houston Rockets came out ahead by 22.
That run is reflective of the improvement of Golden State's frontcourt. Andre Iguodala's healthy again, David Lee's turned in 10 straight double-doubles (including six 20-10s), and Andrew Bogut has averaged a whopping 14 rebounds over his last 10 outings.
With a bit more consistency from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in terms of both shooting and ball-handling, this Warriors team should soon find itself playing up to its tremendous potential.
8. Phoenix Suns
It was only a matter of time before the Phoenix Suns got the "inside story" treatment from Yahoo! Sports NBA maven Adrian Wojnarowski. They're currently 17-10, good enough for sixth place in the crowded Western Conference, with a roster that most figured was ticketed for Tank Town, especially once Marcin Gortat was traded to Washington prior to the start of the season.
But the Suns started off surprisingly well and have only grown stronger of late. They've won three in a row and eight of their last nine to solidify their standing out West.
The next three weeks, though, could go a long way toward determining whether Phoenix has the horses to hang around over the long haul. The Suns finish out the calendar year with road games against the Warriors and the Clippers, with a reprieve against the Sixers in between. Then, after returning home to take on Memphis and Milwaukee, the team will embark on a five-game trip.
7. Oklahoma City Thunder
Forget the Oklahoma City Thunder's 23-5 record. Forget that they'd won 18 of their last 20 games. Forget that, in that span, they'd re-established themselves as an elite outfit on both ends of the floor.
That all goes out the window—for now, at least—with the news that Russell Westbrook is back on the shelf after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman.
The good news is, he's expected back around the All-Star Break in mid-February and the Thunder have the horses to survive in the interim. Reggie Jackson, who's entered himself into the Sixth Man of the Year race with his superb play off the bench, is well acquainted with the task of being Westbrook's understudy; he stepped in for Russ during the 2013 playoffs and started in his stead earlier this season.
Jeremy Lamb will likely see more time as OKC's primary bench scorer, while Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka will simply have to shoulder a bigger scoring load over the next six weeks or so.
The bad news is, Westbrook's latest setback is to the same knee on which he'd had operations twice in the previous eight months. The odds of re-injury going forward seem high, given Russ' propensity for physical, athletic and often reckless use of his body.
At this point, the Thunder can only hope that Westbrook makes yet another full recovery, and that his recent spate of problems doesn't hinder his ability to play the way he always has, physically or mentally.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers got a raw deal for Christmas, to say the least.
Beating the Warriors at Oracle Arena is tough enough without the refs needlessly disqualifying your players from the game. That's what happened to Blake Griffin, who was hit with two technicals within the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, despite the fact that he wasn't at fault for either of the conflicts.
The NBA apologized to Griffin and the Clippers for the wrongful ejection, though as head coach Doc Rivers noted to ESPN, the league's reversal didn't actually change anything:
It doesn't do anything for me. It's a human game. I'd love to fight it and argue it and let's play that fourth quarter again with Blake, but you can't. It just happens. It absolutely had an impact on the game, but there's nothing we can do about it.
If that weren't bad enough, the league office had long ago scheduled the Clips to play the second night of a back-to-back on Boxing Day in Portland, where the Trail Blazers were 11-2 coming into Thursday. L.A. did well to acquit itself in Rip City but fell short in overtime amid DeAndre Jordan's foul-out, Matt Barnes' late mistake and Chris Paul's tired legs.
On the bright side, the Clips will get to ring in 2014 at home, with eminently winnable games against the Jazz, Suns and Bobcats on tap.
5. Houston Rockets
A 100-92 win over the Grizzlies moved the Houston Rockets to 12-2 on the season when holding the opposition under 100 points.
That sort of stat shouldn't take anyone by surprise. Defense wins games in the NBA—as it does in any sport—and keeping the opposition out of triple digits in the scoring column is a primitive but still somewhat meaningful metric for measuring that.
But isn't that the point with these Rockets? Their offense is so good—between James Harden's slashing, Dwight Howard's finishing in the pick-and-roll, Chandler Parsons' versatility and the team-wide approach of pushing the pace, attacking the rack and launching threes—that they're always going to be putting up big numbers.
The question is, can Houston stop anyone from doing the same? We might soon have our answer, now that the Rockets are inching toward the top 10 in defensive efficiency.
4. San Antonio Spurs
I'd be more worried about the San Antonio Spurs if, well, they weren't the San Antonio Spurs.
They had themselves a busy week, alternating between losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Rockets and wins over the Raptors and Mavs.
In other words, they beat the clearly inferior opponents on their schedule and succumbed to two of the more talented teams, not only in that region of the country or the Western Conference but in the entire league.
Blips like these are to be expected for a team like the Spurs, even more so on the heels of what should've been a championship campaign. But the loss to Houston on Christmas Day moved San Antonio to 0-7 against the six other teams that have won at least 20 games so far this season.
Of course, going 23-0 against everyone else isn't too shabby, but one can't help but wonder whether this Spurs squad truly belongs among the elite right now considering their lack of success against their powerful peers.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers, on the other hand, have fared remarkably well against the league's elite. Their 116-112 overtime win against the Clippers on Thursday moved them to 5-1 against the other members of the 20-win club so far this season.
They'll have a pair of opportunities to add to that impressive record before the year is out. The Miami Heat will visit Rip City on Saturday, and the Blazers will go toe-to-toe with the Thunder in OKC on New Year's Eve.
Those showdowns should also serve as showcases for LaMarcus Aldridge's burgeoning MVP campaign. He tallied 32 points, 10 rebounds and four assists—his 18th double-double of the season—to propel Portland past L.A.
If he continues to put up big numbers against the NBA's best and the Blazers keep winning as a result, it'll be tough to keep Aldridge out of the MVP conversation.
2. Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers could write a pretty solid handbook on how to bounce back from tough losses. Since suffering consecutive narrow defeats to the Pistons and Heat, the Pacers have ripped off three straight wins—by an average of 26.7 points.
To be sure, the Pacers have had some "help" in that regard. Two of those wins came against the Celtics and Nets, the latter freshly coping with the loss of Brook Lopez.
But the first—a 114-81 annihilation of the Rockets—was about as impressive a performance as any team has put on this season. Paul George was particularly awesome, tallying 24 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals while helping to hound James Harden into five turnovers and a 3-of-14 shooting night.
1. Miami Heat
I caught quite a bit of flack last week for ranking the Miami Heat ahead of the Thunder, and I certainly understand why. OKC was white-hot, having won 16-of-17, while Miami wasn't all that far removed from a stretch of five games that featured three losses to Central Division foes.
Truth be told, the Heat haven't exactly set the NBA ablaze since then. In the past week, they've run roughshod over the Kings and sleepwalked through closer-than-expected wins over the Hawks and Lakers.
But such lulls are to be expected from any squad that's lurched its way through three straight trips to the NBA Finals and absorbed every opponent's best shot during the regular season as well. A three-game swing through Sacramento, Portland and Denver should be an intriguing year-end test for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and their merry band of role players.
It will certainly be more interesting than what lies ahead in January, a month in which the Heat will have ample opportunity to beat up on the cupcakes of the Eastern Conference.
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