The Warriors continue to falter without Steph

Philly rises, Phoenix makes history

8:00 AM ET

As the Brooklyn Nets continue to fight for playoff seeding, Kyrie Irving is now able to play in home games. New York City Mayor Eric Adams lifted the mandate for unvaccinated players and performers on Thursday, clearing the way for Irving to play in home games at Barclays Center. He made his Barclays debut Sunday night with 16 points and 11 assists against the Charlotte Hornets but wasn’t able to get a win as the Nets fell 119-110. Though the Nets are pleased with the news, they have just seven games remaining to climb the standings ahead of the playoffs.

In the East, the Boston Celtics continued their late-season surge by claiming the top spot, as the Miami Heat continued to falter. The Heat and Celtics share the East’s best record, while the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers are just a half-game back. As Joel Embiid continues his push for MVP, reigning Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has the defending champions on the right track.

And while the race in the East will come down to the wire, Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns have run away with the Western Conference — now nine games ahead of the No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies. Ja Morant and the Grizzlies continue to open up their lead over the Golden State Warriors, who’ve won just one game since Stephen Curry was sidelined by a foot injury and as Draymond Green struggles to find his rhythm off a two-month absence.

And LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers now trail the New Orleans Pelicans by a half-game for home-court advantage in a potential play-in matchup after blowing a 23-point lead against the Pels on Sunday.

Our experts break down the playoff races in the final update of March.

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

1. Phoenix Suns
2021-22 record: 61-14
Previous ranking: 1

With Thursday’s win over the Nuggets, the Suns clinched the best record in the NBA for the season. Just four seasons ago, the Suns had the worst record in the league at 21-61 in 2017-18. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, it’s the third-quickest turnaround for a franchise to go from worst record to best record in NBA history. Only the Baltimore Bullets (worst in 66-67 and best in 68-69) and the Philadelphia Warriors (worst in 52-53 and best in 55-56) did it quicker, albeit with far fewer teams in the league. — Lopez

2. Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22 record: 52-23
Previous ranking: 3

The Grizzlies expect Ja Morant, who will miss at least two weeks due to soreness in his right knee, to return before the playoffs. Meanwhile, Memphis continues to dominate its competition while the Grizzlies’ superstar sits. After Saturday’s blowout over the Bucks, the Grizzlies are 17-2 and have outscored opponents by 18.5 points per game this season when Morant doesn’t play. Desmond Bane‘s development as an offensive creator has been a big factor. He has averaged 24.3 points and 5.5 assists during Memphis’ current four-game win streak. — MacMahon

3. Boston Celtics
2021-22 record: 47-28
Previous ranking: 5

Boston continues to absolutely overwhelm opposing teams. After Sunday’s blowout win over Minnesota, the Celtics are now 24-4 in their past 28 games, and are outsourcing teams by roughly 16 points per game. That has allowed the Celtics to go from 10th place in the East two months ago to tied for the conference’s best record heading into the final two weeks of the regular season, though Robert Williams’ knee sprain Sunday is a cause for concern. — Bontemps

4. Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 record: 46-28
Previous ranking: 6

Philadelphia saw a three-game winning streak come to a halt in Phoenix at the hands of the league-leading Suns, but there’s no shame in that. It does, however, set up a massive game with Milwaukee on Tuesday back in Philadelphia, as the two teams continue to battle — along with Boston and Miami — for positioning atop the East. — Bontemps

5. Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 record: 46-28
Previous ranking: 4

The defending champions are starting to put things together down the stretch. Milwaukee has won 10 of its past 13 games as veterans Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton and George Hill have gotten healthy and rejoined the rotation. Milwaukee has a major road trip this week, with games against the 76ers and Nets, before returning home to face a couple of Western Conference playoff teams in the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. — Collier

6. Miami Heat
2021-22 record: 47-28
Previous ranking: 2

Miami has lost four in a row, and the frustration spilled over in a very public argument between Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra during Wednesday’s loss to a Warriors team that was without Stephen Curry (foot), Draymond Green (rest) and Klay Thompson (rest) for the night. The Heat have a tough three-game road trip coming up this week with stops in Boston, Chicago and Toronto while they try to get things settled going into the postseason. — Friedell

7. Golden State Warriors
2021-22 record: 48-27
Previous ranking: 7

Golden State has lost five of six, and hasn’t been able to get back on track since losing Stephen Curry to a foot injury. Draymond Green hasn’t played well since coming back from a disc injury, and the Warriors’ defense that had been so solid throughout the first half of the season has been getting torched lately. They’ve given up 244 combined points in back-to-back losses to the Hawks and Wizards. At the moment, the issues are deeper than just getting Curry back on the floor. — Friedell

8. Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 record: 46-29
Previous ranking: 8

The Mavs’ goal for the remainder of the regular season is to hold on to home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas has surged to fourth in the West standings — breaking a tie by beating Utah on Sunday night — by posting the league’s fourth-best record (29-11) in 2022. After a slow start, free-agency addition Reggie Bullock has been a big factor in the Mavs’ success as a 3-and-D role player, posting the best net rating (plus-8.0 points per 100 possessions) of any Dallas rotation player since Jan. 1. — MacMahon

9. Utah Jazz
2021-22 record: 45-30
Previous ranking: 9

A rough road trip took a turn for the worse Sunday night in Dallas, where the Jazz lost their fourth straight game to fall to fifth in the West standings. All-Star center Rudy Gobert was a late scratch due to pain he suddenly felt in his lower left leg, but he’s optimistic he won’t have to miss any more time. All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell returned to the game after getting his right ankle stepped on by Dallas center Dwight Powell. “Right now, it’s sore, I’m not going to lie to you,” Mitchell said after the loss. “We’ll see how it feels tomorrow and move forward from there.” — MacMahon

10. Toronto Raptors
2021-22 record: 42-32
Previous ranking: 15

Even though Toronto continues to deal with guys shuttling in and out of the lineup because of injuries, the Raptors have managed to move into the top six in the East entering the final two weeks with wins in eight of their past 10 games. This week will begin and end with big games in Toronto, as the streaking Celtics arrive Monday and franchise legend Kyle Lowry makes his return to Toronto on Sunday. — Bontemps

11. Denver Nuggets
2021-22 record: 44-31
Previous ranking: 10

As good as the Nuggets played last month and in early March, Michael Malone’s team is in a dogfight with Minnesota for the sixth spot and avoiding the play-in. After a couple of games in which Nikola Jokic actually looked vulnerable on the boards by being held under double-digit rebounds, the Nuggets star put up MVP numbers in wins over the Clippers and Thunder. They’ll need more MVP Jokic if they are to hold off the Wolves. — Youngmisuk

12. Minnesota Timberwolves
2021-22 record: 43-33
Previous ranking: 12

The Wolves dropped three of four games during a tough week against playoff contenders — Dallas, Phoenix and Boston — which will push Minnesota 1½ games back of the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. They have their work cut out for them if they want to close that gap and avoid the play-in tournament, but they have the second-best net rating in the league since the All-Star break. — Collier

13. Chicago Bulls
2021-22 record: 43-31
Previous ranking: 11

A victory over the Cavs last weekend helped stabilize the Bulls’ free fall in the standings. Chicago will begin the week at No. 5 in the East, two games ahead of the play-in tournament, while starting the week with a favorable back-to-back at New York and Washington. The Bulls have struggled defensively (they rank 24th in efficiency) this month, but perhaps more surprising has been their disappearing offense (27th in efficiency), which had been fifth in the NBA entering March. — Collier

14. Brooklyn Nets
2021-22 record: 39-36
Previous ranking: 13

Brooklyn finally has Kyrie Irving back for games in NYC, but it has lost two of three after a disappointing showing against the Hornets on Sunday night when Irving and Kevin Durant combined to go 15-of-46 from the field. Aside from getting Irving back full-time, the good news for the Nets is that they have an easy schedule down the stretch. They remain confident they’ll be able to get things in order prior to the play-in tournament starting April 12. — Friedell

15. Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 record: 39-36
Previous ranking: 16

After a huge win over the Nets with Kyrie Irving on the floor in Brooklyn on Sunday night, Charlotte is into eighth place in the East by virtue of holding the tiebreaker over the Nets. There is a massive difference between being in eighth, which means having two chances to get a win and make the playoffs, and ninth, which means having to win two games to make it. Now, with seven games to go, Charlotte has the inside track on claiming that eighth spot. — Bontemps

16. Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 record: 41-33
Previous ranking: 14

The Cavs went 0-3 last week, including losses to Toronto and Chicago, the two teams directly ahead of them in the standings. Currently at No. 7 and a game behind the Raptors, the Cavs have eight games left to try to avoid the play-in tournament. Only three of those games are against teams with a better record than Cleveland. — McMenamin

17. Atlanta Hawks
2021-22 record: 37-37
Previous ranking: 18

Trae Young really likes playing in Madison Square Garden. Broadway playoff bows aside, Young has scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games at the Garden dating back to last year’s playoff series. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s tied for the second-longest streak by a visitor at MSG since it opened in 1968 (including playoffs). Young is tied with Michael Jordan — who did it two separate times — Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Dominique Wilkins and Bob McAdoo. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has done it more at five times. — Lopez

18. LA Clippers
2021-22 record: 36-39
Previous ranking: 17

The Clippers welcomed back Doc Rivers with their fifth straight loss on Friday. Entrenched in the eighth seed, the Clippers are playing their worst basketball of the season, but Paul George (torn UCL in his right elbow) is progressing toward a return. And Norman Powell (fractured bone in his foot) also shot with the team on the court. At this point, the Clippers just need to get healthy and prepare for the play-in tournament. — Youngmisuk

19. New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22 record: 32-43
Previous ranking: 19

Things got off to a rough start for New Orleans in what was a big weekend for the Pelicans in terms of the Western Conference play-in race as they lost to the San Antonio Spurs. Things looked like they were getting worse Sunday when they fell behind by 23 points to the Lakers. But the Pelicans stormed back for a 116-108 win, tying their largest comeback of the season and tying the second-largest comeback in franchise history. Ingram returned from a 10-game absence to pour in 26 points and gain half a game on the Lakers for the No. 9 seed and moving 1½ games up on the Spurs. — Lopez

20. New York Knicks
2021-22 record: 33-42
Previous ranking: 22

New York has quietly won six of its past 10, including three in a row, to build some nice momentum down the stretch. It ultimately isn’t going to mean anything, given New York is five games out of the play-in tournament with seven games to go, but it will at least give Knicks fans some hope of better days ahead, especially because of the prominent presence of the team’s young talent in this stretch. — Bontemps

21. Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 31-43
Previous ranking: 20

“Time’s running out on us,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said Sunday after his team couldn’t protect a 23-point first-half lead and lost in New Orleans, falling to the No. 10 spot in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers are now just a game up on the No. 11 Spurs — and San Antonio has the tiebreaker — so L.A. has to maintain that one-game cushion over the final eight games or fall out of the postseason picture completely. — McMenamin

22. Washington Wizards
2021-22 record: 32-42
Previous ranking: 21

With Kyle Kuzma out because of a knee injury, the Wizards are just playing out the remainder of the season and getting more reps with Kristaps Porzingis. They won’t catch Atlanta for the 10th spot and the play-in, but they’ve won two straight with Porzingis going for 30 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Detroit. With eight games left in the season, Porzingis has a chance to finish the season strong and go into the offseason with some momentum for his new team. — Youngmisuk

23. San Antonio Spurs
2021-22 record: 30-44
Previous ranking: 23

Dejounte Murray recorded his 13th triple double of the season in a key victory over the Pelicans on Saturday to keep San Antonio in the thick of the Western Conference play-in race. Murray had 15 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds and three steals in the 107-103 win over the Pelicans. It was Murray’s eighth triple-double this season with at least three steals. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, only Nikola Jokic has done that more than once this season. — Lopez

24. Sacramento Kings
2021-22 record: 27-48
Previous ranking: 26

Davion Mitchell continued his offensive rhythm in De’Aaron Fox‘s absence. The No. 9 overall pick has scored 20-plus points in three straight games, and it’s translating to success. Sacramento won its past two games on the road in Orlando and Indiana, with Mitchell averaging 23.5 points on 52.6% shooting and eight assists in those victories. — McMenamin

25. Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 27-47
Previous ranking: 24

Portland interrupted its tanking by beating Detroit for only its second win since the All-Star break. The Blazers otherwise were back to tanking as they lost consecutive games to Houston. Damian Lillard was shut down for the season last week, while Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic and Josh Hart have been held out of games. Only eight more games left before Portland can finally kiss this season goodbye. — Youngmisuk

26. Indiana Pacers
2021-22 record: 25-50
Previous ranking: 25

On Saturday, the injury-depleted Pacers had only nine players available — not including Malcolm Brogdon, who appears to be done this season and is listed as out for rest Monday for the fifth straight game — in Toronto, a game that was interrupted for 70 minutes in the second quarter because of a fire in a speaker hanging over the stands. Indiana has lost three in a row, and five of seven, as it stumbles toward the finish line. — Collier

27. Detroit Pistons
2021-22 record: 20-55
Previous ranking: 27

Marvin Bagley III has performed especially well when called upon to start for the injured Jerami Grant. Bagley racked up a season-high 27 points and seven rebounds in a loss to the Knicks on Sunday, one game after scoring 25 points after Grant left Friday’s game because of an injury. The former No. 2 overall pick has played nicely down the stretch in Detroit. — Collier

28. Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22 record: 21-53
Previous ranking: 28

Josh Giddey, the No. 6 pick in last year’s draft, has been ruled out for the rest of the season because of the hip injury that has sidelined him since late February. He earned Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors four times during one of the most impressive all-around seasons for a teenager in NBA history. Giddey became the youngest player to record a triple-double, matched Luka Doncic for the most triple-doubles by a teen with four and is the only teenager to average at least six rebounds and six assists in a season. — MacMahon

29. Orlando Magic
2021-22 record: 20-55
Previous ranking: 29

Orlando picked up a nice win over the Warriors on Tuesday night as Wendell Carter Jr. racked up another 19 points and eight rebounds. The Magic have some nice, young players in place who have shown growth throughout the season. Rookie Franz Wagner is one of those bright spots, averaging 17.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3 assists per game over his past five contests. — Friedell

30. Houston Rockets
2021-22 record: 20-55
Previous ranking: 30

In Saturday’s win over the Trail Blazers, Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun became the fourth pair of rookie teammates in Rockets history to each score at least 25 points in a game, and they’re the first since Cuttino Mobley and Michael Dickerson in 1999, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They have been bright spots for the rebuilding Rockets since the All-Star break, as Green has averaged 19.1 points with a 57.7 true shooting percentage and Sengun has averaged 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds off the bench. — MacMahon

Source: ESPN NBA

    

Author: Ellen Garcia