The struggling Cleveland Cavaliers lost another tough game on Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls — and they vaulted up this week's power rankings as a result.
That might seem preposterous, but read on to find out why there's less reason for alarm in Cleveland than you think, why the Blazers are a scary playoff opponent for the Warriors, why we're so impressed with Russell Westbrook, and much more in the penultimate edition of our NBA rankings for the 2016-17 season.
David BanksUSA TODAY Sports
Phoenix Suns (Previous ranking: 30)
The Suns should have just canceled their season after Devin Booker dropped 70 points at the end of last week. That was by far the highlight of Phoenix's entire year, especially since the standout performance came in a loss. The tank keeps on rolling in the desert.
Los Angeles Lakers (27)
Jeanie Buss says she expects the Lakers to have an All-Star next year as Staples Center hosts the NBA's midseason festivities, otherwise she'll be heartbroken.
So, about that ...
Brooklyn Nets (29)
While he's probably not on most NBA fans radars, it's good to see K.J. McDaniels getting some burn for the Nets since joining the team at the trade deadline. He's a solid wing player who just needs a team to believe in him and give him room to devleop.
Orlando Magic (26)
The Magic made sure to greet Victor Oladipo in his return to Orlando ... then they watched Russell Westbrook rip out their throats with another clutch performance.
This season can't end soon enough for Aaron Gordon's team.
Philadelphia 76ers (28)
While everyone continues to focus on the injured Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Rookie of the Year frontrunner Dario Saric could be the real key to Philly's Process working out. The better he becomes by next season, the less stress there will be on Embiid and Simmons to do too much and re-injure themselves.
Sacramento Kings (25)
Believe it or not, the Kings are excited to see DeMarcus Cousins when they face the Pelicans on Friday (via the Sacramento Bee):
“I’m going to give him a big hug,” Ben McLemore said.
As for how he expects Cousins to approach the reunion?
“What do you think?” McLemore said, grinning. “You never know what to expect from DeMarcus.”
There's enough evidence by now to call this one: Andre Drummond just isn't that good. Of course, the Pistons are on the hook for over $23 million in each of the next three seasons with their big man, so Stan Van Gundy is going to have to figure out a solution in a hurry this summer, lest Detroit sink even further.
Minnesota Timberwolves (21)
The Wolves faltered a bit over the past 10 days, but it's hard to hold their struggles against Ricky Rubio. He's played well, and he's felt good doing it. "Starting the season, I wasn't feeling that good," said Rubio after a win over the Lakers, "and now I feel the best I've ever felt."
It's a good thing the Wolves didn't trade him at the deadline.
Dallas Mavericks (20)
Most lottery teams pack it in over the final two weeks of the seasons. Rick Carlisle's Mavs aren't most teams. The Dallas head coach recently made it clear he considers the remainder of this year an open audition for anyone and everyone headed into next season.
Charlotte Hornets (22)
With the Hornets continuing to tumble down the standings, Kemba Walker reflected this week on happier memories in the Final Four. At least he'll always have that NCAA championship to get him through the dark times.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
Chicago Bulls (24)
Chicago's leap is predicated entirely on their impressive win over the Cavaliers on Thursday. The Cavs didn't really give it their all in the second half, but so what? The Bulls showed resiliency in beating back LeBron's squad as it tries to figure out what's wrong headed into the playoffs.
A first-round matchup between those two teams would be a whole lot of fun.
Indiana Pacers (17)
The Pacers are at about DEFCON 2 with Paul George and his potential desire to flee Indiana. Every time he talks into a microphone, he sounds like a man who's already considering what it will be like with the Lakers.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
Atlanta Hawks (18)
No basketball thoughts for the Hawks this week. We're just hoping everyone stays safe and manages to make the most of the next few months while I-85 is rebuilt.
Memphis Grizzlies (16)
The Grizzlies got a much-needed win over the Pacers to snap a four-game losing streak, because the last thing Memphis wants to do is collapse down the stretch, fall to the eighth seed, and face the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
On the bright side, Marc Gasol & Co. can pick on the Mavericks, Lakers and Knicks in three of their next five games.
Jeffrey SwingerJeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Denver Nuggets (14)
The Nuggets had to have seen the Jusuf Nurkic Revenge Game coming. What else did they expect when they basically told the young big man, "We love you, but we're not in love with you," by trading him to the Blazers? Now, Denver's on the outside, looking in on the Western Conference playoff race once more.
The Bucks were at their very best against the Celtics: forcing turnovers, getting out in transition, and largely beating Boston at its own game. It was enough to make us think Milwaukee could give the East's current No. 1 seed — or any other opponent, for that matter — fits in the playoffs.
Winslow TownsonWinslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Portland Trail Blazers (13)
Jusuf Nurkic was the piece the Blazers were missing. We just didn't know it until we got to see it in action. He's the perfect complement to Portland's dynamic backcourt, giving the Blazers a much-needed inside presence on offense and improving rim protection on the other end.
We won't go so far as to say Portland is a threat to the Warriors, but Nurkic's presence could make a potential first-round matchup between those two teams rather interesting.
Miami Heat (11)
Hassan Whiteside's game-winning tip against the Pistons this week was a nice encapsulation of Miami's season. Everything is up in the air, capable of working out for the best or worst — yet in the end, things somehow go the Heat's way.
Having such a skilled big man certainly helps.
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.AP
Oklahoma City Thunder (9)
This will sound odd, but the near-certainty that Russell Westbrook is going to average a triple-double isn't the most impressive part of his season. It's that, plus the fact he's going to lead the Association in scoring with almost 32 points per game at the same time that truly makes the whole thing mind-boggling.
Kim KlementKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles Clippers (10)
You'd think an all-too-close win over the Suns would give the Clippers, theoretical Finals contenders, pause for concern. You'd be wrong, as Chris Paul explained after the game:
"Back to back, all these games, me and Blake talked about it," Paul said. "How to push through and find a way to win, and this goes in the win column. I'm not going to watch the film and dissect too much of it. We got the win."
If you say so, CP3.
Toronto Raptors (8)
Although he didn't give an exact timetable for his return, Kyle Lowry sounded like a man who's confident he'll be back at 100 percent in time to help the Raptors to a deep playoff run.
"Hopefully in the next couple of weeks I can be back and give [the team] a boost before the playoffs," Lowry said on Monday. "I’m starting to get more cardio in, getting on the floor and getting some work done; cutting and moving."
We're rooting for Lowry — and Kevin Durant, and everyone — to be healthy for the postseason, because the 2017 playoffs could be the best ever.
Utah Jazz (5)
Speaking of the postseason, we need to get one thing straight before the Jazz surprise people on national television in April and May:
As good as Gordon Hayward is, he's not Utah's best player. That would be Rudy Gobert. Start telling all your friends now before they jump on the bandwagon and try to convince you they knew that was true all along.
Washington Wizards (7)
Almost everything is working for the Wizards these days, except for Marcin Gortat. And coach Scott Brooks told reporters he won't hesitate to go with the hot hand if the Polish Hammer can't keep up in the postseason. Given that Washington is making a push as the biggest threat to the Cavs in the East, it's hard to blame him.
San Antonio Spurs (3)
Fair or not, Kawhi Leonard's MVP candidacy likely came to a screeching halt against the Warriors this week. As FOX Sports' Dieter Kurtenbach put it, every game down the stretch is crucial for the favorites to win the award. Laying an egg on national television cost Leonard as much as Westbrook's record-setting triple-double helped him.
Soobum ImSoobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Houston Rockets (4)
Congratulations to the Rockets for breaking the NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a season, topping last year's Warriors.
It would have been nice to get the win over the Blazers at the same time, but revolutionizing the NBA is a nice consolation prize.
Thomas SheaThomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
Boston Celtics (2)
I know it's not the sexiest conversation in the world relative to the front-runners, but Isaiah Thomas deserves more consideration in the NBA MVP race. He's the soul of a Celtics team that put together another astonishing season and could shock the world by knocking off the Cavaliers in the postseason.
I mean, they're almost certainly not going to manage that feat, but anything is possible.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
Cleveland Cavaliers (6)
Despite the disappointing loss to the Bulls on Thursday, you really shouldn't be all that concerned about Cleveland's defense.
The worries are understandable. The Cavs don't have good individual defensive players, and the pieces they added this season tilted way more toward the offensive side of the ball. Yet I saw all I needed to see in the first half of that Chicago game.
For 24 minutes, LeBron's team was locked in. They flew to the ball handler, swarmed passing lanes, and shut down Chicago at the rim. There was one point where Rajon Rondo basically did a Mikan drill with the ball on a layup, completely missing the rim because he was waiting for the defense to surround him.
After they proved their point, the Cavs rolled over in the second half — and I kind of applaud them for that. This team is exhausted. They'll need every ounce of their energy to beat the Warriors in the Finals.
So why play any harder than you need to in the regular season when you can lie in wait before striking out of nowhere?
Golden State Warriors (1)
Well, well, well — Steve Kerr was right. He told everyone earlier this season his team needed to face some turmoil to reach their full potential, and now here we are in April with the Warriors playing their best basketball of the season.