PBT's Week 18 NBA Power Rankings: Celtics solid on top, Thunder second

It's been a couple of weeks since the All-Star break but we are back with a fresh batch of NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings, although nothing has changed in the top spot where Boston has dug in and probably rides out the season on top of this poll.

1. Boston Celtics (46-12, Last Week No. 1). Winners of nine in a row, with the best net rating in the NBA (+10.6, more than two points clear of second place OKC) and one of the easiest schedules remaining in the league, Boston securing the top seed in the entire NBA for the playoffs feels like a foregone conclusion. The players and team also know the regular season is not where this group's season will be judged. Honestly, it feels like the NBA media is searching for a reason to doubt Boston and/or prop up another team because saying the Celtics should run roughshod over the East to the Finals is boring. But, if Kristaps Porzingis stays healthy, the Celtics should run roughshod over the East to the NBA Finals.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder (41-17, LW 4). The question about the Thunder is not "Is this team really that good?" — yes, they are that good and should only get better in the coming years — but rather, can their young core and system win big in the playoffs? Yes, but it might require a tweak. In a statement win over the Clippers last Thursday, Mark Daigneault moved starter Josh Giddey to the bench for the second half and started Isaiah Joe, and that proved to be the winning formula. It's something Thunder observers have wanted to see for a while. Giddey was back in the starting lineup the next game against the Wizards, but come the playoffs don't be surprised if Joe is back in the starting and closing five, while Giddey adjusts to a new role.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves (41-17, LW 2). Minnesota and Oklahoma City are tied at the top of the West, but the Thunder have a slightly easier schedule the rest of the way, leaving the Timberwolves some work to do before the playoffs if they want home court all the way through. The concern about the Timberwolves in the playoffs? Their performance in the clutch this season. In games within three points in the final three minutes, the Timberwolves are 10-9 but with a -12.7 net rating, which is Raptors/Trail Blazers territory, while most contenders have positive numbers in those minutes.

4. Denver Nuggets (39-19, LW 9). Around this time last season, the Nuggets put the pedal to the metal, pulled away from the rest of the West, and cruised into the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. It's a different West this season, but the Nuggets have started a part of the schedule for a couple of weeks that is a real test and will tell us how serious they are about this regular season and seedings. They beat the Warriors on the road Sunday. The upcoming schedule is Kings, Heat, at the Lakers, Suns, and Celtics. We should have a better feel for this team after that stretch. Still, this is the team to beat out West (and maybe the entire NBA).

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (38-19, LW 3). It looks like Cleveland and Milwaukee could be in the race for the No. 2 seed in the East, but with the Cavaliers having a one-game lead at this point (two games in the loss column) and the easier schedule the rest of the way (the Bucks have the toughest remaining schedule in the East), the Cavaliers control their own destiny. Getting that second seed and home court in the second round could matter (especially if going up against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks). Cavaliers fans can just watch this Max Strus 50-foot game-winner on a loop for the next week and be happy.

6. Milwaukee Bucks (38-21, LW 6). The narrative about the Doc Rivers Bucks has shifted after the team racked up three straight wins out of the All-Star break. The thing is, they are earning those wins for something plain to see before the break (talked about right here in these rankings previously): The defense is better under Doc. Over its last seven games, Milwaukee has the best defense in the NBA and, not coincidentally, a 5-2 record with a +13.4 net rating. Just how good this team really is will get put to the test the rest of the way as Milwaukee has the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the East. You get to see that starting Monday when the Bucks host the Clippers.

7. Los Angeles Clippers (37-19, LW 5). Off the court, love the new look. It's part of a rebrand this team needs. It's sharp. On the court the trendy "they can challenge Denver" team in the West has not been sharp, dropping 4-of-7. The losses have not been pretty, and the wins in that stretch have been unimpressive. There are some injuries (Paul George is out again Wednesday night against the Lakers) but the Clippers have been bottom 10 in the league on both ends of the court in those last seven games. Another concerning sign: The Clippers are 2-6 against the other teams in the top four in the West. They can change that dynamic Sunday at Minnesota, but that is the first game of a brutal back-to-back against the Timberwolves.

8. Dallas Mavericks (33-25, LW 11). Dallas has been one of the hottest teams in the NBA, racking up quality wins like the one against Phoenix, but what makes this team a dangerous playoff matchup — beyond the existence of Luka Doncic (who has fans working hard to make his MVP case) — is they are doing it with defense. The Mavericks are 7-3 in February with the ninth ranked defnese in the league for the month (they are bottom 10 for the season). Adding Daniel Gafford with Dereck Lively II means there can always be a shot blocker on the court. However, what has looked better of late is the Maxi Kleber at the five minutes — these Mavericks have a lot of versatility.

9. Phoenix (34-24, LW 10). Luka Doncic remains a problem for the Suns, he went off for 41 points with 11 assists in the first game back from the All-Star break. While it's fair to note that Doncic is a top-five player in the league and a problem for every team, what he did in that game points to the defensive concerns about the Suns headed toward the playoffs. The Suns are fighting to hold on to the No. 6 seed in the West and avoid the play-in but they have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. This week that includes facing the Thunder and Nuggets.

10. New York Knicks (35-24, LW 8). Precious Achiuwa was almost an afterthought, some salary ballast in the OG Anunoby trade, but he is thriving in Tom Thibodeau's system. Thrust into the starting lineup due to injuries, he has impressed averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds a game as a starter, with a solid 58 true shooting percentage. He has been a find. Despite Achiuwa's play, the shorthanded Knicks have dropped 6-of-8. Anunoby is on track to be back in the coming weeks following elbow surgery, and while reports on Julius Randle (shoulder) and Mitchel Robinson (ankle) are promising, they are farther away for stepping back on the court.

11. Miami Heat (33-25, LW 14). Miami is 8-2 in February and the reason is its defense, second in the NBA during the month. That defense has Miami looking like the playoff Heat that everybody fears and is fully capable of another surprise deep run. With Jimmy Butler out on suspension against the Kings, rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. dropped 26 points against the Kings (a Heat win) – he continues to make his case to be on the Rookie Of the Year ballot and should be a lock All-Rookie First Team. Miami has won five in a row but that will be tested Thursday in a Finals rematch against Denver.

12. New Orleans Pelicans (35-24, LW 7). They are the most slept-on team in the West, and maybe in these rankings. New Orleans sits as the No. 5 seed in the West and has a +4.6 net rating for the season that is fifth best in the league, yet Zion Williamson and company don't strike fear in the hearts of other West playoff teams the way even some teams below them in the standings do. Part of that is they are not a great clutch team (7-9 in games within three points in the final three minutes, with a -9.6 net rating in those minutes) but also the sense that is just part of a larger trend with this team. New Orleans will get tested with 8-of-12 coming up on the road, starting with a home-and-home against Indiana this week.

13. Golden State Warriors (30-27, LW 15). For all the impressive play of late and the Warriors having found an identity, the come-from-ahead loss to the Nuggets on Sunday was a reminder of where this team is in relation to the West's elite: The Warriors are 2-12 against the top four in the West. If the Warriors are going to make a playoff run, they need a lot of breaks to go their way. One thing that can help propel that run is the bench, which got stronger this week with the return of Chris Paul from hand surgery. One reason to be optimistic the Warriors can climb out of the nine seed into the top eight: They have the third easiest remaining schedule in the West (but they are going to need some help, a team needs to fall back to the Warriors a little).

14. Los Angeles Lakers (31-28, LW 13). The focus will be on LeBron James scoring this week as he is just 74 points shy of becoming the first player ever to cross the 40,000-point threshold. However, more of that focus should be on his ankle — he missed the games on either side of the All-Star break to get treatment on it, but then returned to the lineup and scored 58 points over the next two games. The Lakers' chances of climbing out of the No. 10 seeding during the regular season, not to mention a playoff run, hinge on a healthy LeBron James flipping the switch (as we have seen in moments this season).

15. Indiana Pacers (33-26, LW 17). Indiana is in the bunched-up 5-8 grouping in the East (Heat, 76ers, Magic and Pacers all within half a game of each other), but they have looked sharper of late having won 4-of-6. It's a little hard to get a feel for this team because Pascal Siakam, Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner have played just eight games together, and the Pacers have a +3.2 net rating when all three are on the court together. Also, the defense has been better (2.9 per 100 better in their last seven games than their season average). Is that enough to win a playoff series? That's a question for later, the focus now is on grabbing a top six seed and avoiding the play-in.

16. Orlando Magic (33-26, LW 16). I know what the Last Two Minute Report said, but we all saw it and know better: Paolo Banchero traveled on that game-winner. Orlando is 3-1 out of the All-Star break and helping their cause to get a top-six seed. That they are in that mix speaks to the potential of Banchero and Franz Wagner as a core duo, shot creation falls heavily upon them in an offense that is often clogged up because of a lack of shooting. If Orlando wants that top six seed this is the stretch to make a push, their next four games are the Jazz, Pistons, Hornets and Wizards.

17. Sacramento Kings (33-24, LW 18). This ranking is probably too low for a team in the mix out West for a top-six seed, there are stretches where the play of Domantas Sabonis and De'Aaron Fox make Sacramento look dangerous. The Kings did not get worse this season — they were exactly 33-24 at this juncture last season — but the West got better around them. A season ago Sacramento was 33-24 and sat third in the West, were a playoff lock and the best story in the league. The Kings leaned into continuity last summer, the West got much better, and now that same record has them fighting to stay out of the play-in. The Kings need wins but face Denver and Minnesota on the road this week.

18. Philadelphia 76ers (33-25, LW 12). The 76ers are 4-8 since Joel Embiid stepped away to have knee surgery, and they have a -8.8 net rating in that dozen games (reports say he could return at the end of March or early April). The question now is can they hold on to a top-six seed until Embiid gets back? The 76ers sit in the middle of a clump of teams in the East: Miami, Philly, Orlando and Indiana are seeds 5-8 and all are within half-a-game of each other. It will take wins to stay out of the play-. While Dallas will be tough games against Charlotte and Brooklyn provide a chance for the shorthanded Sixers to help themselves out.

19. Atlanta Hawks (26-32, LW 19). Trae Young is out for the next month, which if the Hawks are serious about potentially trading him this summer could be a look into what a Dejounte Murray-led team looks like (Atlanta is 2-0 in the games without Young and Murray is averaging 21 points and 11 boards in them, but it's an exceedingly small sample). The Hawks have a four-game cushion over both Toronto and Brooklyn and should be able to hold on to a play-in spot barring a total collapse. Atlanta should have Young back before any play-in game (almost certainly in Chicago against the Bulls).

20. Chicago Bulls (27-31, LW 20). In a sign of the toll injuries have taken on this team, DeMar DeRozan and Coby White are 1-2 in the entire NBA in total minutes played this season. That's the DeMar DeRozan the Bulls need to let walk for nothing or overpay to keep so they can keep this "competitive" roster together for next season. As for the rest of this season, barring a total collapse the Bulls appear headed for the play-in, where they very likely face the Hawks. This week they face the Cavaliers and Bucks.

21. Toronto Raptors (22-36, LW 24). With Trae Young out for a month or more in Atlanta, the door seems to be swinging open to grab the 10th seed in the East and make the play-in, but can Toronto do it? The Raptors have the easier schedule the rest of the way, but four games is a lot to make up (that's how far back they are of the Hawks. One positive development in Toronto is the emergence of rookie Gradey Dick, who struggled to start the season, was sent down to the G-League, but he's back and in his last 10 games he's averaged 12.2 points a game shooting 54.8% from 3. It's a good sign for the future.

22. Houston Rockets (25-33, LW 21). Amen Thompson was always a high-upside prospect who was going to take some time to find his groove, but he seems to have found it more of late. In February, he averaged 12 points and 9.2 rebounds a game while shooting 54.7%. Every game he seems to be making a stride forward. Thompson and his brother Ausar need to spend this summer getting up jump shots, but there's a lot to like going forward. Houston has two games in Phoenix this week.

23. Utah Jazz (27-32, LW 22). Utah needs to find wins the rest of the way this season so that they don't have a draft pick come June. It sounds like they are in the upside-down, but Utah owes its 2024 first-round pick to Oklahoma City, but it is top-10 protected and they are right on the bubble of having the No. 10 or 11 pick. The Jazz would be best off sending that pick out in this uninspiring draft and being done with it, but that means they need to finish with a bottom-10 record — Utah needs wins. Which will be hard to come by because they have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the league the rest of the way. This week that means trying to find wins in games at Orlando and Miami.

24. Memphis Grizzlies (20-38, LW 26). If there is a "lemons to lemonade" team this season, it's the Grizzlies. They took the rash of injuries (including the suspension then shoulder injury to Ja Morant) and adjusted mid-stream. They traded Steven Adams, Xavier Tillman, and David Roddy and picked up five picks (second-rounders, but picks), plus discovered GG Jackson and Vince Williams Jr. That doesn't make this team any easier to watch, they have dropped 11-of-13 and look headed to a high draft pick in June. It's a gap year in Memphis and they have made the best of it.

25. Brooklyn Nets (22-36, LW 23). Jacque Vaughn is out and Kevin Ollie is in, which should (in theory) help with locker room chemistry. Forget the rest of this season (even though they could, in theory, catch Atlanta for the 10 seed and the last play-in spot), the real question for Brooklyn is: What is the long-term plan? Brooklyn GM Sean Marks reportedly turned down trades for Mikal Bridges at the deadline that would have restocked the team's draft board and started another rebuild. That's a choice. The plan appears to be to get cap space in 2025 and lure a star to play next to Bridges, who becomes the No. 2. That's a bold plan, but it seems the direction Brooklyn wants to go.

26. Charlotte Hornets (15-43, LW 29). The Hornets are 5-2 with Grant Williams in the lineup since trading for him at the deadline, although that is less about Williams alone and more about Charlotte replacing their young bench with more veteran players. The search is on for a new head of basketball operations in Charlotte, but when that person sits down at the big desk, they have a question to answer: Should this team be built around Brandon Miller and/or LaMelo Ball? To me, the clear answer is Miller. As good as LaMelo has been when healthy, he has missed significant time in three of his four seasons due to injuries. If it were me, I would test the trade market for him this summer to see if a good deal is available and shift my rebuilding focus around Miller.

27. Detroit Pistons (9-49, LW 28). Give the Pistons credit: At this point in the season, plenty of teams down in this part of the rankings have quiet quit on the season and their minds are in Cabo. Not Detroit. They got screwed out of a win in New York then turned around on the second night of a back-to-back and showed some fight beating Chicago. In his last five games, Cade Cunningham is averaging 25.4 points and 6.6 assists a game, shooting 55.2% from 3 — he is not in Cabo, he's competing. Those are good signs going forward.

28. Portland Trail Blazers (15-42, LW 25). Losers of nine in a row, but that's not the losing streak we're talking about. For all the focus on the young guards Scoot Henderson and Anfernee Simons, the Trail Blazers are 0-17 this season in games Malcolm Brogdon has missed (including the last eight). This is a team with quality veterans on the roster (Jerami Grant, Deandre Ayton, Brogdon) so maybe the turnaround can be quicker than some of the other teams this deep in the rankings.

29. San Antonio Spurs (11-48, LW 27). It wasn't just Victor Wembanyama's 5x5 game that gave reason to believe in San Antonio. Rather, it was his reaction when told he was the only player besides Michael Jordan to have back-to-back five-steals, five-blocks games (since that stat was recorded): "I wonder if he did it in wins, not losses. To me, it's secondary. Hopefully… we can look back & think this is a good performance. As of today, I can't be satisfied with a loss."

30. Washington Wizards (9-49, LW 30). There are things to focus on in Washington besides the twin disasters of Jordan Poole and the rollout of the stadium in the suburbs idea. There's the promise of rookie Bilal Coulibaly and the under-the-radar good season of Deni Avdija. Are those things Washington can build around? Focus on those things.