A pair of lengthy winning streaks came to an end this past week as the Toronto Raptors saw their run of 11 consecutive victories snapped, while the Houston buzz saw claimed another victim to halt Portland at 13 straight.
Golden State and Boston, meanwhile, have been treading water as many of their key players have been sidelined due to injury, which has all but taken them out of contention for the top seed in their respective conferences.
The team that makes the most sizeable jump in our power rankings this week is Oklahoma City, who have started to figure it out and were the ones to end Toronto’s streak – that too at Air Canada Centre where the Raptors are 29-6 this season.
1. Houston Rockets
Record: 57-14 | Last week: 1
Wrap your head around this: Houston are 23-1 over the past 24 games. And the lone loss in that span came to Toronto on the road.
2. Toronto Raptors
Record: 53-18 | Last week: 3
They continue to be the only team in the league in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Plus they’ve won 12 of their last 13.
3. Golden State Warriors
Record: 53-18 | Last week: 2
4. Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 44-27 | Last week: 5
It took the Rockets to end Portland’s impressive 13-game winning streak, which shot them up to third in the West.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 43-30 | Last week: 13
The late collapse to Boston was embarrassing, but big-picture wise, they showed real promise with six straight wins before that.
6. Boston Celtics
Record: 48-23 | Last week: 4
They look more like the Maine Red Claws than the Celtics, but Brad Stevens still has his team fighting tooth and nail every night.
7. Utah Jazz
Record: 40-31 | Last week: 10
Even with the disappointing loss to bottom-feeders Atlanta, Utah have won 21 of their past 24 and found their rhythm.
8. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 41-29 | Last week: 6
The return of Kevin Love provides a boost and allows the Cavaliers to get a better idea of how they can fit together before the playoffs.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 41-30 | Last week: 7
They’re in the midst of playing five games in six days, which will be followed by a murderers’ row featuring Houston, Portland, Cleveland and Oklahoma City. Yikes.
10. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 39-30 | Last week: 12
Joel Embiid is rolling and the Sixers look like a team no favourite wants to face in the first round of the playoffs.
11. Indiana Pacers
Record: 41-30 | Last week: 8
Five of their next seven are on the road, where the Pacers have been a .500 team this season.
12. Washington Wizards
Record: 40-30 | Last week: 11
The win over banged-up Boston was far from impressive, but Washington are managing without John Wall.
13. San Antonio Spurs
Record: 41-30 | Last week: 9
Kawhi Leonard is still not back yet, but the Spurs have responded with four straight wins after dropping five of six.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 41-31 | Last week: 15
Andrew Wiggins has been shooting more efficiently in Jimmy Butler’s absence, but it’s not like he’s gone to another level.
15. Miami Heat
Record: 38-33 | Last week: 19
Goran Dragic has been hot of late, averaging 23.2 points on 53.2 per cent shooting overall and 50.0 per cent on 3-pointers over the past five games.
16. Denver Nuggets
Record: 38-33 | Last week: 14
They’re two games back of the eight spot in the West and without Gary Harris for the moment after he went down with a knee injury.
17. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 37-33 | Last week: 17
Inconsistencies have plagued them all season and they just can’t seem to string together wins.
18. Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 37-33 | Last week: 16
Four straight losses, albeit to some of the best teams the West has to offer, have set them back in the playoff race.
19. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 31-39 | Last week: 19
Julius Randle has been playing some inspired basketball, averaging 26.0 points and 11.6 rebounds over his past five games.
20. Detroit Pistons
Record: 32-39 | Last week: 21
21. Charlotte Hornets
Record: 30-41 | Last week: 20
No team has a worse defensive rating than the Hornets over the last 10 games, with Charlotte allowing 116.6 points over 100 possessions.
22. Sacramento Kings
Record: 23-49 | Last week: 23
They’ve been playing playoff teams tough of late, with rookie guard De’Aaron Fox having flashes of brilliance.
23. Chicago Bulls
Record: 24-46 | Last week: 25
Chicago aren’t exactly helping their cause as their 4-5 record so far in March is harming their lottery odds.
24. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 23-48 | Last week: 27
Cleveland likely have one eye on Brooklyn, who are two games from third-to-last and three games from 10th.
25. New York Knicks
Record: 26-45 | Last week: 28
Tim Hardaway has raised his scoring over the past month and taken charge as the Knicks’ primary threat.
26. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 21-50 | Last week: 22
Atlanta must be thrilled to see the continued development of Taurean Prince, who has scored at least 22 points in four of his past five.
27. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 22-49 |Last week: 26
The main reason they were exciting to watch even as they were losing, Dennis Smith Jr, is now out with a sprained ankle.
28. Orlando Magic
Record: 21-50 | Last week: 24
They’ve been woeful offensively over the past five games, fielding an offensive rating of just 93.8 points.
29. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 19-51 | Last week: 30
Not only did they finally end their 19-game skid, but Memphis beat a playoff hopeful in Denver to feel what it’s like to win again.
30. Phoenix Suns
Record: 19-53 | Last week: 29
The losses keep piling up as they’ve now dropped 24 of their past 26 to sit in pole position for the best lottery odds.
With much of their roster sporting blazers instead of jerseys and featuring more in the injury report than the box score, the Boston Celtics are leaning on their youngest player and he’s delivering.
Jayson Tatum has looked unlike a rookie all season, but with opportunity now in abundance, the Celtics’ first-year phenom is taking his game to new heights.
Despite just turning 20 a few weeks ago, Tatum had one of his best performances of the season against the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder in Boston’s 100-99 win on Tuesday.
Sharing the court with four current and former All-Stars – Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and Al Horford – Tatum was arguably the best player in the game as he dropped 23 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and dished four assists to lead the Celtics.
He did it efficiently too by knocking down 8-of-12 shots, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, while finishing with a game-high plus-minus of plus-23.
Tatum has caught the attention of opposing stars this season, with George the latest to be impressed by his talent and potential.
“He doesn’t look like a rookie. He looks like a star in this league,” George said.
“He has that confidence. He has that game. He’s in an organisation who is going to let him and help him become a star. It’s special man, we’ll be blessed to see him for many years in this league.”
Tatum has flashed bits and pieces of his game during the year, but his offensive arsenal was on full display against the Thunder.
From rim-rocking dunks, to spot-up 3s, to mid-range jumpers and even a lethal step-back move on Corey Brewer, Tatum put together a highlight-filled night.
He also set his teammates up on multiple occasions, finishing with four assists, which could have easily been more if shots fell.
Boston coach Brad Stevens even put the ball on his hands on their final offensive possession, in which Tatum drove before kicking out to Marcus Morris, who nailed the game-winning 3.
“I said it before: We’re going to just keep throwing him to the wolves and keep going to him in those moments,” Stevens said.
Over his past five games, Tatum is averaging 18.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 50.0 per cent shooting from the field and 40.0 per cent from long range.
With the Celtics all but locked into the two seed in the East and several players on the mend, Tatum is getting valuable experience carrying a heavy workload.
Few athletes in any sport have made a smoother transition from the playing field to being in front of a camera or behind a microphone than Jalen Rose.
The former NBA swingman and member of University of Michigan’s famed ‘Fab Five’ has built up a successful career as an analyst at ESPN, where he provides insight on the pregame TV show ‘NBA Countdown’, as well as talking about sports and pop culture on his radio show ‘Jalen and Jacoby’.
Sport360°’s Jay Asser got the chance to speak with Rose at ESPN headquarters as part of a roundtable discussion with international media, with topics including his role as an analyst, the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors and where the NBA is heading.
Q: What was it like to make the switch from the court to working in the media?
A: For me, it was always something I wanted to do. Radio, TV, film was actually my major at the University of Michigan. Even when I was growing up as a fan of sports, or even playing video games, I tried to institute house rules in a crowded room, where if you lose you don’t get to just go sit down on the sidelines, pick your nose or fall asleep – you have to commentate the next game. So I guess I started giving myself practice back then.
Playing in the NBA Finals in 2000 for Indiana, being traded to the Bulls for a couple seasons, they had nine wins in February 2002. So I was like ‘guess we’re not going to the playoffs this year’. I reached out to a contact of mine, pitched him an idea to allow me to cover the Lakers and New Jersey Nets NBA Finals. I would get on camera, get all-access, we would cut it and edit it, and it would be a good piece. They agreed, they ran it and they liked it. I turned around and pitched the same idea to FOX and the ‘Best Damn Sports Show Period’ in 2003. So while I was in the league, they actually had me corresponding, literally working for the network. From 2003 to 2007, I was actually playing in the league while working in the media at the exact same time for multiple outlets. So once I retired in 2007, it became an easy transition for me. And I’ve been at the ‘Worldwide Leader’ (ESPN) ever since.
Do you think former players make some of the best analysts?
No, not at all. The one thing I’ve learned about any industry is you still have to be prepared, work hard, be knowledgeable, credible, trustworthy and be able to articulate yourself, whether it’s writing, whether it’s working on television and analysing or being a host. There are people on both sides. Just because you play, I don’t believe that’s going to make you terrific at this job. There are those that did not play who are really good at the job.
Now, with all things equal, if a player is going to be good at television, as well as someone who didn’t play, and they have the same work ethic, all of a sudden now a player has a level of experience they can draw on that is untouched, which is playing experience. That usually gets overlooked in the dynamic that once you play sports for very long, you get a chance to be introduced to so many great minds in the game – coaches and mentors at different levels. That, in theory, becomes a level of experience that becomes untouched.
Have any players or former teammates reached out to you about critical comments you’ve made?
Absolutely. Here’s how that works. There was a period of time when I was a 20-point scorer in the NBA, but I was also working on The Best Damn Sports Show Period. Like that actually happened in the early 2000s. And what I noticed is, players, coaches, family members, agents, managers… the list goes on and on of people who reach out and contact you about things you’re saying on television or on radio. Because everybody is watching. It’s ESPN, it’s whatever network at the time.
So what I learned to do when people were moaning and groaning about things I said about them on television, I realised I had to establish my credibility one way – by facts. So if somebody was upset about me saying they played terrible or their team looked like it quit, I would just take a picture of the box score and just email it to them or text it to them. So if you had eight turnovers and I said you were sloppy with the ball and were playing out of control, that’s actually accurate. You see how many turnovers, right? I’m not on your staff, I’m trying to analyse the game.
When people see you’re speaking facts, but you’re not making it personal… Because what ends up happening is different relationships span over a period of time. Just because I did or didn’t like a coach or a player or an opponent, I’m not going to allow that to affect how I speak about them working for the media. I think building that level of equity and credibility with my peers has allowed me to continue to flourish in this industry.
Your former team, the Toronto Raptors, are currently leading the Eastern Conference. Yet they still don’t seem to be favourites to make the NBA Finals. Why do you think they’re underrated?
For two reasons. They are underrated in a dynamic where you play in the Eastern Conference and LeBron James has won the conference seven straight years, something a player hasn’t done since the early 60s with the Boston Celtics. You have to see that guy and pay the respect to him, especially the way he still plays. You have to make him the favourite until you see someone beat him four out of seven games.
But also, Toronto’s core group has an history and that’s what happens in the NBA. And unfortunately for them, their recent history these last few years, they haven’t met expectations once the playoffs come. They’ve lost to higher (lower) seeds, they’ve gotten swept, Kyle Lowry has had mysterious meltdowns in a couple games and situations. So while they have improved and I applaud how they’ve taken a stranglehold of the Eastern Conference and are a better basketball team, I do have faith they will make it to the Conference Finals. If, if, if there is a team that can beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, I actually believe it will be the Toronto Raptors. So we just have to see how it plays out.
Who’s your favourite for winning the title and for MVP?
While I’m still enthusiastic about how well not only the Raptors in the East, but the Rockets in the West have improved to form legitimate competition for LeBron James in one conference and the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the other conference, the same theory applies. I still have to give the Golden State Warriors the edge to win it all and to repeat, but for MVP that’s James Harden.
For him to be top-two in points and assists again is terrific. The Rockets have consistently been one or two in the West the entire year. The numbers that he’s displayed and the consistently he’s displayed has been phenomenal leading that team. So he would get my vote if it happened today.
Where do you see the NBA going in the next 10 years?
I think the NBA is thriving and flourishing and continues to grow at a rate as fast as the speed of light. It’s going to continue, in particular in the United States, catapult in popularity over other popular counterparts like the NFL and Major League Baseball. Not only has the NBA continued to breed stars that transcend the game… For example, if you were to look at how many people follow LeBron James and Kevin Durant on Twitter, you could probably take 25 of the most popular NFL players and it won’t add up to that. That’s how the NBA has truly catapulted itself and I think it’s going to continue to grow.
As it relates to changes in the game, while it still is a guard-driven league because your primary ball-handler is the creator and has the ball all the time, it’s being understated how the big man has actually made a comeback. If you look only at the Western Conference, I know DeMarcus Cousins is injured right now, but you mention him and Anthony Davis. Then you start looking at productive teams. Clint Capela and Steven Adams in a different way, they don’t post-up and give you offence but they’ll run, jump, dunk and play defence. But then you have Nikola Jokic who is flirting with a triple-double on a nightly basis. So the game is going to continue to possess five players that can dribble, pass and shoot at almost all times. I’ve talked a lot for years about positionless basketball and that’s where it continues to go. There are always going to be unique talents in the game.
A couple rule changes I know must happen. One, the NBA must get rid of the one-and-done immediately. I imagine LeBron James is probably going to play until his younger son is fortunate enough to make the league. One-through-16 playoff seeding, that’s going to happen. This year is the perfect example for that. If you had 1-16 seeding, the Rockets and Warriors could meet in the Finals instead of the Conference Finals. Those are pretty much the ones stand out for me, but the game is going to continue to thrive and endure.