NBA Power Rankings Week 16: The Celtics Are Rounding Into Form

The 2020-21 season has been a roller coaster for the Boston Celtics. Between injuries, COVID-related absences and general inconsistency, the Celtics have struggled to replicate last season’s 48-24 performance and the form that allowed Boston to reach the conference finals. In fact, the Celtics have hovered around the .500 mark, landing firmly in the middle of an uninspiring Eastern Conference, and at times, Boston’s issues have left many scratching their head.

As of mid-April, though, there are positive signs with the Celtics. Boston is 5-1 in the last six games, outscoring their opponents by a total of 65 points in that six-result sample. In taking a wider view, Brad Stevens’ team is 13-9 in the last 22 games and, perhaps more importantly, the Celtics boast a +3.9 net rating in those 22 games with the No. 6 offense in the NBA, scoring 1.16 points per possession.

It would be reckless to assume that 22-game sample, void of context, is more representative than the rest of the season, but it perhaps more closely aligns with preseason expectations and roster availability. For one thing, the Celtics have been brutal in what defines as “clutch” situations, posting just a 13-21 record in games featuring a differential of five points or less in the final five minutes. That is the fifth-worst mark in the league and, while some alarm bells could emerge there, it is overly possible that there is noise associated with that kind of unsightly mark. In fact, 21 of the team’s 26 losses fit into that category, which indicates that, at minimum, the Celtics aren’t getting run out of the gym very often.

From there, Boston is simply playing better basketball right now. The Celtics seemingly flipped a switch on Sunday in Denver, turning a 14-point third quarter deficit into a 14-point win. That included a fourth quarter in which Boston outscored Denver by a wild 31-8 margin, and on top of that “signature win” on a national stage, the team’s best players are, well, playing like it.

The Celtics are a more than respectable 26-22 when Jayson Tatum is in the lineup this season, and he is rounding into form after a well-chronicled battle with COVID. Tatum recently turned in a 53-point effort in a win over the Wolves, and he has reached the 20-point mark in ten straight contests. Over that 10-game sample, Tatum is averaging 29.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game while shooting 49.5 percent from the floor, 39.1 percent from three and 94.1 percent from the free throw line. Those numbers speak for themselves, and the Celtics need Tatum to be at his best.

Elsewhere, Jaylen Brown continues a breakout season, averaging 24.3 points per game with 58.7 percent true shooting, and the Celtics bolstered their roster for the stretch in adding Evan Fournier at the deadline (currently out due to COVID protocols). Finally, Marcus Smart is back after an 18-game absence in February and early March and, since his return, Smart is connecting on 38.0 percent of his three-pointers. He is also the team’s best perimeter defender and passer, but Smart is putting up 14.5 points (including 43.8 percent from three) and 6.5 assists per game in this recent 5-1 uptick, further illustrating his value.

Questions are still unanswered with the Celtics, ranging from Kemba Walker’s performance level to what the team will do at the center spot in prominent situations. With that said, in what most have felt has been a season to forget in Boston, the team is just one game behind Atlanta and a half-game behind Miami in the standings, meaning that the scuffles haven’t left the team in a terribly precarious position.

Where do the Celtics fall in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s take a look.

1. L.A. Clippers (37-18, Last week — 6th)

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The top is a mess this week, and the gaps between these teams are virtually non-existent. When that happens, we’ll default to the hottest squad, and the Clippers own the NBA’s longest winning streak at five in a row. L.A. boasts the No. 1 offense in the history of the league (117.7 points per 100 possessions), and they are rolling.

2. Phoenix Suns (38-15, Last week — 3rd)

If we’re being honest, the only reason the Suns are not No. 1 this week is that the Clippers beat them just a few days ago. Otherwise, Phoenix has the NBA’s best profile since late January. The Suns are a ridiculous 30-7 since then, outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions.

3. Utah Jazz (40-14, Last week — 1st)

There is no great shame in losing to Phoenix on the road in overtime, which happened to begin this week. The uglier result was a home loss to Washington on Monday. Utah did show resilience in coming all the way back to take the lead in that game, but we have to dock them a touch for both results. Have no fear, the Jazz are still in fantastic shape and could be No. 1 again next week quite easily.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (37-17, Last week — 7th)

There is a real case for Philadelphia at No. 1 on this list. That case revolves around the 76ers being 28-8 when Joel Embiid plays this season, and Doc Rivers’ team has a +13.0 net rating in the 1,155 minutes with Embiid on the floor this season. He is ridiculous, and Philadelphia might be underrated when healthy. They also seem to be feeling pretty good right now.

5. Brooklyn Nets (36-17, Last week — 2nd)

It’s not entirely clear how the Nets lost to the star-less Lakers by 25 points over the weekend. That result did happen, though, and it’s part of why Brooklyn dropped here. Otherwise, the Nets are just holding the line until James Harden returns.

6. Milwaukee Bucks (33-20, Last week — 5th)

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Milwaukee is just 4-4 without Giannis Antetokounmpo this season. That isn’t terribly surprising given how important (and awesome) he is, but that does help to explain some of the variance with the Bucks. They also throttled the Magic by approximately 100 points in their last outing, snapping a three-game skid in the process.

7. Denver Nuggets (34-20, Last week — 4th)

Everyone has been raving about Denver, but it was not a good end to the week. The Nuggets completely collapsed in a home loss to Boston, then flopped against Steph Curry and company on national TV on Monday. The biggest concern, though, is the health of Jamal Murray after he went down in the fourth quarter against Golden State with a torn ACL.

8. Atlanta Hawks (29-25, Last week — 11th)

The Hawks are essentially the hottest team in the NBA right now, winning 15 of their last 20 games despite myriad injuries. Check this out for more.

9. Boston Celtics (28-26, Last week — 13th)

NBA observers will be seeing plenty of the Celtics in the coming days. Five of their next seven games will be on national television, including three in a row against the Blazers, Lakers and Warriors this week. Buckle up.

10. Miami Heat (28-25, Last week — 12th)

The stretch run of the season is approaching and the Heat are still 25th (!) in the NBA in offense. That is a little bit scary, but Miami is 6-1 in the last seven games to alleviate some of that fear. They will be tested in a big way with road trips to Phoenix and Denver this week.

11. Los Angeles Lakers (33-21, Last week — 10th)

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Trying to rank the Lakers right now is kind of silly, because they are a completely different team at this moment than they will be when the big guns return. To their credit, Los Angeles is 5-7 in the last 12 games, even while posting the 2nd-worst offensive rating (1.03 points per possession) in the NBA during that time. It helps to play good defense.

12. Portland Trail Blazers (31-22, Last week — 9th)

Portland is just 2-4 in the last six, which isn’t ideal for any team. However, all four losses came to quality opponents (Bucks, Clippers, Jazz, Heat), and the Blazers have a two-game cushion as the No. 6 seed. Avoiding the play-in would be nice for Dame and company.

13. Dallas Mavericks (29-24, Last week — 8th)

It wasn’t a great week for Dallas. They opened with a relatively inexplicable loss to Houston, then finished up with back-to-back defeats. Perhaps the Mavericks were due for some regression after a very hot stretch, but they need to make waves in the next couple of weeks against what is a pretty soft schedule on paper.

14. Indiana Pacers (25-27, Last week — 15th)

Indiana rattled off three straight wins to end the week, taking care of business against two bad teams (Minnesota and Orlando), then winning in Memphis. That leaves the Pacers just 1.5 games out of the No. 8 spot, and they feel at least reasonably dangerous in the play-in situation.

15. Memphis Grizzlies (27-25, Last week — 14th)

The Grizzlies went 2-2 this week and pretty much held serve. That gives us a chance to showcase Jonas Valanciunas, who has been fantastic for Memphis all season. Ja Morant is the team’s centerpiece, but Valanciunas is averaging 17 and 10 for the season and, in the last nine games, that boosts to 22.2 points and 13.7 rebounds per game with 66.2 percent shooting. He’s been great.

16. New York Knicks (28-27, Last week — 18th)

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After sweeping a three-game homestand, the Knicks are in sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the East. They are also as close (1.5 games) to the No. 4 spot as they are to the No. 9 spot, leaving New York in a pretty great position, all things considered.

17. Charlotte Hornets (27-25, Last week — 16th)

It’s unclear if the Hornets can keep this going without both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. With that said, James Borrego is doing a heck of a job so far, and Charlotte is 7-4 in the last 11 games overall.

18. New Orleans Pelicans (25-29, Last week — 17th)

The Pels have won three in a row, and they are just one game out of the No. 10 spot in the West. Credit for their uptick goes beyond Zion Williamson, but we should marvel at what he’s done. For example, Williamson is averaging 29.7 points per game since the All-Star break, shooting more than 63 percent along the way. He’s an alien.

19. Golden State Warriors (26-28, Last week — 23rd)

Golden State is in fine shape, sitting in the No. 10 spot in the West. Given that the Warriors are just 1-7 when Steph Curry doesn’t play, it would be fair to say that they are better than their record. If that wasn’t enough, Curry’s 53-point eruption on Monday was a good reminder of what he means to the Warriors.

20. San Antonio Spurs (26-26, Last week — 19th)

A recent 2-10 plunge likely removed any chance for the Spurs to land in the top six and avoid the play-in. They did recover with road wins over Dallas and Orlando over the weekend, reaching the .500 mark with 20 games to go.

21. Toronto Raptors (21-33, Last week — 20th)

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Do the Raptors have one last push in them? They would miss the play-in if the season ended today, which is wild to consider when remembering their preseason expectations. They’ve been snake-bitten all season, but it is pretty easy to sell yourself on a team with a positive point differential despite a 21-33 record.

22. Chicago Bulls (22-31, Last week — 22nd)

A 50-point game from Zach LaVine wasn’t enough to beat the Hawks earlier this week, and the Bulls followed that up with road losses to Minnesota and Memphis. Chicago would still be in the play-in if the season ended today, but they aren’t trending in the direction that most projected after the blockbuster acquisition of Nikola Vucevic.

23. Washington Wizards (20-33, Last week — 28th)

Beating the Magic on the road is one thing, but the Wizards also beat the Warriors and Jazz away from home this week. That Utah win was probably a bit fluky, but Washington also played quite well. With those wins, the Wizards are only two games out of the No. 10 spot, which seems crazy.

24. Minnesota Timberwolves (14-40, Last week — 25th)

It’s not as if the Wolves have been good since the All-Star break, but Chris Finch had a bit of time to get some work in and it seems to be helping. Minnesota is 7-11 with a -3.6 net rating since the hiatus, and that is more indicative of their talent level than the previous results. Finch also has Karl-Anthony Towns unlocked, which is a big factor.

25. Detroit Pistons (16-38, Last week — 24th)

The Pistons are respectable. They’re 3-3 in the last six and, even when accounting for the competition in their wins (Washington, OKC, Sacramento), the wins still count. Detroit has a notably worse win-loss record than teams like OKC and Sacramento, but their peripherals are better and that tracks when you watch them.

26. Cleveland Cavaliers (19-34, Last week — 26th)

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Cleveland won a game by 27 points this week and still managed to end the three-game week with a dead-even point differential. They’ve lost 13 of the last 18 and 23 of the last 32. Yet, the Cavaliers aren’t even in the mix for the bottom three.

27. Sacramento Kings (22-32, Last week — 21st)

It’s kind of amazing that the Kings aren’t in the bottom three right now. Sacramento has the NBA’s longest losing streak (seven), and they lost those games by 11.6 points per contest. De’Aaron Fox, who scored 43 points in New Orleans on Monday, is trying his best, but it’s ugly right now for the Kings.

28. Oklahoma City Thunder (20-33, Last week — 27th)

The Thunder have the NBA’s worst offensive rating and the NBA’s worst net rating. If not for some good fortune in close games, this could be off the rails, but OKC is firmly staring into the rebuild vortex down the stretch. They’ve lost six in a row by a total of 171 points. Read that again.

29. Orlando Magic (17-37, Last week — 29th)

Orlando’s available roster is pretty dire right now. That is well known, of course, but their performance on Sunday and Monday was unsightly. The Magic to the Bucks and Spurs at home by a combined 60 points. Sim to end.

30. Houston Rockets (14-40, Last week — 30th)

There were a couple of moments in which it seemed like the Rockets might escape from the basement this week. Then, Houston made everyone remember that they are just 3-30 in the last 33 games. It’s hard to overcome that.