The Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets will meet for the second time in three days on Tuesday evening, with a national TV audience taking in the festivities. Even without James Harden active and available, the matchup should be highly intriguing and, if nothing else, the Bucks and Nets are jockeying for playoff positioning as the stretch run of the regular season arrives. In fact, the Bucks-Nets doubleheader doubles as a pivot point for discussion on the top of the East, as a trio of teams have separated from the pack for quite some time.
The Philadelphia 76ers join the Bucks and Nets at the top of the heap, and those three squads have almost fallen out of the consciousness in some circles, especially as the race for the No. 4 through No. 10 spots in the conference emerges. Still, conventional wisdom dictates that the East’s representative in the 2021 NBA Finals is (highly) likely to come from this group, and as they jockey for position down the stretch, securing the top spot will help ensure one of them that they won’t have to deal with both of the others.
Philadelphia is on an active five-game winning streak to secure the top spot in the East with seven games to go. The team’s recent winning binge has not come against high-level competition but, at the same time, the 76ers are seemingly rounding into form. On top of that, Philadelphia’s peripheral statistics are very encouraging when they have all of their key pieces available, headlined by an on-court net rating of more than 11 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid plays. On paper, they’re the favorites to take the 1-seed if for no other reason than a soft closing schedule with only the Heat as a top-8 team in either conference remaining.
Milwaukee got the best of Brooklyn in their Sunday matchup and, if the Bucks win the rematch, they could potentially chase down the Nets for the No. 2 spot. More practically, though, the Bucks seem destined for the No. 3 seed, and they have spent large portions of the 2020-21 season stepping out of their comfort zone. There is no question that a group featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, coached by Mike Budenholzer, can win at a high level in the regular season. However, the addition of Jrue Holiday raises Milwaukee’s playoff ceiling, and they have tinkered with switching defenses and approaches that vary from Budenholzer’s oft-criticized “Moneyball” approach on both ends.
Finally, the Nets are essentially on pace to set the record for offensive rating, putting up more than 1.17 points per possession through 65 games. That is a clear indication of Brooklyn’s ridiculously potent attack, but things get even scarier when realizing Kevin Durant (28 games), Harden (34 games) and Kyrie Irving (48 games) have been in and out of the lineup. It would be unwise to even pretend to concern troll on Brooklyn’s offense, but injury questions are real and, even with the most efficient offense in history, the Nets could be theoretically vulnerable on the defensive end in a playoff environment when teams can scheme against them with vigor.
From a regular season standpoint, much of the attention is on the non-elite teams in the East as they battle for positioning. On one hand, teams like Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Milwaukee might want to avoid the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat, simply because those teams are proven entities that could be dangerous in the postseason. In contrast, the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks have been better than Boston and Miami this season and, well, things are weird in 2020-21. Still, this isn’t a scenario in which the top three are trying to avoid a team like West contenders may want to do with the Los Angeles Lakers, so mostly it’s about the long game and trying to have homecourt as deep into the playoffs as possible.
The Nets, Bucks and Sixers are now firmly in “nothing matters but the playoffs” mode, and that extends to the health of their key pieces. In the meantime, there is a race for pole position, and all three teams are near the top of our DIME power rankings this week.
1. Phoenix Suns (46-18, Last week — 3rd)
The last eight days have been stellar for Phoenix. They beat the Knicks on the road, then came home to beat the Clippers and Jazz in pretty impressive fashion. Sunday’s win over the Thunder was more in the “taking care of business” variety, but a four-game winning streak sends Phoenix to the top spot this week. They also have the tiebreaker over the Jazz, which could come in handy in the race for the top seed in the West.
2. Philadelphia 76ers (44-21, Last week — 4th)
To say that Philadelphia is in a good spot would be an understatement. The Sixers put together a stellar, unblemished week, and they now face the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. Considering they are already atop the East, Philly has to be the frontrunner for the No. 1 seed.
3. Utah Jazz (47-18, Last week — 6th)
Utah lost to Phoenix in decisive fashion earlier this week, which obviously matters when determining the pecking order. On the whole, though, the Jazz have done a solid job weathering injury absences to Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley. Oh, and they still have the NBA’s best record.
4. Milwaukee Bucks (40-24, Last week — 7th)
After Tuesday’s showdown with Brooklyn, the schedule lightens considerably for the Bucks. If they can beat the Nets again, the door will crack open for a push to No. 2 in the East.
5. Brooklyn Nets (43-22, Last week — 2nd)
Everything is still in front of the Nets, and there is no shame in losing to the Bucks in a one-possession game without James Harden. If anything, it could be argued Brooklyn was more impressive than Milwaukee, even in the loss. If the Nets can respond with a win on Tuesday, it should be smooth sailing to the top two.
6. Denver Nuggets (43-22, Last week — 5th)
Monday’s loss to the LeBron-less Lakers wasn’t great for Denver, but they did win five in a row before that. Nikola Jokic is now the overwhelming betting favorite to win NBA MVP, and they’ve hardly missed a beat without Jamal Murray. That absences almost assuredly will matter more in the playoffs, but it’s a credit to the Nuggets that they’ve been rolling.
7. L.A. Clippers (43-22, Last week — 1st)
Kawhi Leonard has played only once since Apr. 18, but his return on Saturday at least signals positivity in the future. The Clippers lost that game to Denver, though, and they are now on a three-game skid. There is no reason to panic, but it explains the drop.
8. New York Knicks (37-28, Last week — 8th)
This is an unbelievable run by the Knicks. They are 12-1 in the last 13 games, and the only loss came to the No. 1 team on this list. New York still has work to do to secure home-court in the first round of the East playoffs, but it can’t be overstated how impressive this stretch has been. The work only gets tougher for the Knicks from here, as they enter a week or road games with the Nuggets, Suns, Clippers, and Lakers.
9. Atlanta Hawks (36-30, Last week — 9th)
Atlanta was absolutely housed in a two-game set by Philadelphia, but injuries played a big part in that destruction. The Hawks are now healthier than they’ve been in months, and they beat the Blazers pretty comfortably on Monday to keep pressure on the Knicks in the race for No. 4.
10. Miami Heat (35-30, Last week — 16th)
After sitting at .500 in mid-April, the Heat are 7-2 in the last nine games. That shouldn’t be overly noteworthy for the reigning East champs, but Miami finding traction is different (read: better) than what was happening before.
11. Dallas Mavericks (36-28, Last week — 14th)
Dallas is really good unless they play Sacramento. I know that sentence makes no sense, but the last three losses for the Mavericks have come against the lowly Kings. Fortunately, those defeats are sandwiched between six wins, so Dallas still moved up in the pecking order to 6th out West, but it’s definitely odd.
12. Los Angeles Lakers (37-28, Last week — 10th)
The Lakers salvaged things with an important win over Denver on Monday to jump from 7 to 5 in the West momentarily. Now, they get two days off before a showdown with the Clippers on Thursday, and LeBron James could be back after he missed the win over the Nuggets. Unleash Marc Gasol.
13. Golden State Warriors (33-32, Last week — 12th)
Golden State visits New Orleans (again) on Tuesday. From there, the Warriors finish the season with the final six games at home, which puts them in a good position to be at least the No. 8 seed in the West after moving ahead of Memphis on Monday. Being in that 7/8 game is a notable advantage over the 9/10, and they’ve still got Steph Curry.
14. Washington Wizards (30-35, Last week — 17th)
Russell Westbrook is completely out of his mind. He’s averaging 23.1 points, 12.7 rebounds and 12.5 assists per game since the All-Star break, punctuated by a 14-21-24 game on Monday. Washington generated fifty assists in defeating Indiana, and they are playing extremely well. The 8-seed suddenly isn’t completely out of reach for the Wizards.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (36-29, Last week — 22nd)
The Blazers ran into a schedule loss on Monday night in Atlanta, as they simply couldn’t stop the Hawks on the second night of a back-to-back with travel. Before that, though, Portland won four in a row to strengthen their playoff position. They are just a half-game behind Dallas for the No. 6 spot with a three-game cushion over the Warriors for No. 7. Still, they want out of the play-in and their game with the Lakers on Friday in Portland is for the tiebreaker between those two.
16. Boston Celtics (34-31, Last week — 11th)
Boston is truly baffling. They technically went 2-2 this week, but one of those losses came at home to the Thunder (!?) and the other was a disappointing home showing against Portland. It’s just hard to trust much right now as they slide into the play-in.
17. Memphis Grizzlies (32-32, Last week — 15th)
Memphis remains in solid shape through the lens of the play-in, but it was a rough week. The Grizzlies have lost four of the last five, and the only win came against Orlando… right before Memphis lost the rematch to the Magic.
18. Charlotte Hornets (31-33, Last week — 18th)
It seems for all the world as if the Hornets will stay in the No. 8 slot in the East. That means a play-in challenge, but they do have LaMelo Ball back with at least faint optimism about Gordon Hayward. For now, they are largely treading water, but with a game advantage on Indiana and 1.5 games on Washington, that’s what’s needed.
19. Toronto Raptors (27-38, Last week — 20th)
Because the Wizards keep winning and winning, the Raptors’ latest surge is going largely unnoticed. They are still three games out of the play-in, meaning they have a tall hill to climb, but the Raptors are 6-4 in the last ten games. It’s not impossible they could be playing meaningful games next week.
20. New Orleans Pelicans (29-36, Last week — 23rd)
New Orleans still trails San Antonio (see below) for the final play-in spot, and they aren’t likely to close that gap. The Pelicans are 4-3 in the last seven games, though, and Zion Williamson continues to be out of his mind. If they get hot, it’s not impossible to catch the Spurs if for no other reason than scheduling.
21. San Antonio Spurs (31-33, Last week — 13th)
The Spurs have lost four in a row. The Spurs also have the most difficult remaining schedule in the NBA. That is an ugly combination, but San Antonio does have a cushion to fall back on as they pursue the play-in. That helps considerably, but they have to find a couple wins somewhere, which is going to be hard to do.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves (20-45, Last week — 26th)
Minnesota came within a whisker of an active five-game winning streak, dropping an overtime decision to New Orleans on Saturday. There is certainly a debate on whether it’s good for the Wolves to win right now for draft purposes, but they are a lot more competitive lately. Perhaps that signals optimism for the future.
23. Sacramento Kings (27-37, Last week — 25th)
The Kings beat the Mavericks (twice) and Lakers in the last eight days. That is already noteworthy, but Sacramento won those three games without De’Aaron Fox. Good luck figuring that out.
24. Indiana Pacers (30-34, Last week — 19th)
This week was wild for the Pacers. On the positive side, they beat the Thunder by approximately 200 points. That’s helpful for the net rating. From there, though, Indiana lost its other three games by 21, 17 and 13 points, respectively. Defensively, it was a bloodbath, with the Pacers allowing 139 (!!) points per game in the trio of losses. What in the world?
25. Chicago Bulls (26-39, Last week — 21st)
When the Bulls traded for Nikola Vucevic, they did not expect to be four games out of the play-in with seven games to go. After four straight losses, that is exactly where they are. Even if it’s explainable due to Zach LaVine’s absence and an injury to Vucevic himself, it’s been brutal.
26. Orlando Magic (21-44, Last week — 29th)
Monday’s Magic-Pistons game was one of the bleakest of the season in the NBA, with both teams missing myriad pieces from depleted rosters. Still, the Magic won that contest, and they are 3-1 in the last four games. That may not help them in their lottery pursuits, but it helps them in this space.
27. Detroit Pistons (19-46, Last week — 24th)
It would be unwise to make too much of this result, but the Pistons losing to the Magic at home on Monday dropped them a slot or two. Detroit has been consistently more competitive than their record indicates, but they seem to be in something approaching shut-down mode down the stretch.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (21-43, Last week — 27th)
The NBA’s longest active losing streak belongs to Cleveland. The Cavs have dropped six in a row, including three straight at home to end the week, and one of those was a home loss to Orlando. Not ideal.
29. Houston Rockets (16-49, Last week — 28th)
Kevin Porter Jr. put on a show in leading the Rockets to a win over the Bucks this week, and it was a history-making effort. That was a fun night for Houston, but they followed it up by losing to Golden State and New York by a combined 51 points at home. The Rockets have more talent than this ranking dictates, but the results are still not great.
30. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-44, Last week — 30th)
When the Thunder beat the Celtics in Boston on Tuesday, the stage was set for them to potentially escape the basement. That victory stopped a four-game losing streak and all was right with the world. Since then, Oklahoma City is 0-3 and they set the NBA record for the worst home loss with a 152-95 drubbing against the Pacers. We’re going to leave them here.