PBT's Week 22 NBA Power Rankings: Denver, Boston remain 1-2 in the rankings, Pelicans climbing

The top of the NBC Sports NBA power rankings remains pretty stable as the teams we thought would be good have put things in gear for the playoffs. The more interesting question is how far teams like New Orleans and Dallas can rise.

1. Denver Nuggets (48-21, Last Week No. 1). Denver is 12-2 since the All-Star break and it took Kyrie Irving's running left-handed H-O-R-S-E shot to hand them one of those losses this week. The Nuggets have the second-ranked offense and eighth-ranked defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, with a +9.9 net rating. In a tight three-way race for the top seed (Denver and OKC are tied as of this writing), Nikola Jokic and company are not taking their foot off the gas in the final weeks of the season like they did last year. Fun test against the gritty but shorthanded Knicks on Thursday, part of Denver having 6-of-7 at home.

2. Boston Celtics (54-14, LW 2). The Celtics officially clinched a playoff spot this week (the first team to do so) but with a 10-game lead in the East they are coasting into the No. 1 seed. There are questions about this team — they are 11-10 in games within three points in the final three minutes, their clutch offense gets stagnant — but those are questions that can only be answered in the playoffs (the second round of the playoffs and beyond, really). Boston has won six in a row and the Wednesday night showdown against Milwaukee lost some luster with Giannis Antetokounmpo out, after that game the Celtics have six straight on the road.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder (47-20, LW 3). The raw numbers for Gordon Hayward are not that impressive of late — 5.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2 assists a game in his last five. However, the Thunder are winning the minutes he is on the court, with the team +37 in those 101 minutes he's been on the court in the last five. The Thunder and Nuggets remain in a virtual tie for the No. 1 seed in the West (Minnesota is one game back) but the Nuggets have a much easier schedule the rest of the way. That doesn't really apply this week, however, as the only really tough game on the OKC schedule is Sunday at Milwaukee.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-22, LW 5). Despite a bit of drama with the Timberwolves' sale to Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez, everything seems settled, which is good for a franchise with difficult financial discussions coming over the next year. That's not what everyone is talking about, however. Anthony Edwards' utter annihilation of John Collins is not just the dunk of the year, it's one we're going to be showing in Edwards highlight clips when he retires in a decade or more.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (44-24, LW 4). Giannis Antetokounmpo being out for Wednesday night's showdown with the Celtics sucks some air out of the proceedings. However, there is good injury news in Milwaukee — Khris Middleton is back. He looked sharp in his return Sunday against the Suns, scoring 22, and it's a good sign because if this team is going to make any kind of serious postseason run it needs the Middleton from the championship run a few years back.

6. New Orleans Pelicans (42-26, LW 6). Last Friday night's win over the Clippers in Los Angeles was as much of a statement as a team can make at this point in the season. Los Angeles and New Orleans appear headed for a 4/5 seed first-round matchup, and the Pelicans asked questions during that game that the Clippers couldn't answer. Los Angeles doesn't have a good answer for defending point Zion, and while James Harden missed the game that doesn't answer the defensive questions. New Orleans can win that series, if they can keep their poise. The Pelicans are on the road this week with a tough back-to-back in Orlando and Miami.

7. New York Knicks (41-27, LW 9). OG Anunoby is out again with a flair-up of his elbow issues. Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson also remain out, yet Jalen Brunson keeps willing this team to wins — the last three in a row on the road. Brunson's play of late should have erased any doubt in voters' minds he is an All-NBA guy, and he likely will see some MVP votes (likely not enough to steal fifth away from Jayson Tatum, but votes nonetheless). New York remains two games back of the Cavaliers for the No. 3 seed, they need wins but that will be tough to come by Thursday night in Denver.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers (43-25, LW 8). Donovan Mitchell is going to miss a week or so to let his fractured nose heal, but more importantly that gives time for his bulky knee to heal as well. Cleveland is 10-9 without Mitchell this season, and it needs its top scorer to be healthy if there is going to be any kind of playoff run (or just staying ahead of the Knicks for the No. 3 seed). Wins to keep that lead will be tough to come by this week with two games against Miami sandwiched around facing Minnesota.

9. Dallas Mavericks (40-29, LW 11). Dallas is a playoff threat for a few reasons. Obviously, they have Luka Doncic, a proven playoff threat. They also have Kyrie Irving, and if you forgot how clutch he can be watch him hit the shot of the season, a game-winning left-handed running hook shot that was completely improvised and had no chance, and beat the Nuggets. Dallas is also 20-8 in clutch games this season, which is the best clutch winning percentage in the league. Most importantly, their defense has looked better of late, top 10 in the league over the last seven games. If the defense continues like that, the Mavericks have a chance.

10. Orlando Magic (41-28, LW 12). Orlando is all but locked into a winning season (they just need one more victory) and a top-five seed, but the real question now is could they pass the shorthanded Knicks and get the No. 4 seed, hosting a first-round series? It's possible. Orlando is half a game back of New York (one in the loss column) as of this writing but also has a slightly tougher schedule the rest of the way. The Magic are home for their next six, but there are no easy games with the Pelicans and Kings coming to town this week.

11. Los Angeles Clippers (42-25, LW 7). The Clippers have treated the past few weeks like a team that thinks it can just flip the switch. Probably because it believes it can. Check out this quote from Terrence Mann, via Law Murray of The Athletic: "Playoffs is a whole different ball game. Everybody's worried about what the hell is panning in regular season right now. I mean, cool. I mean, no. We're not worried — that doesn't waiver our confidence going into the playoffs at all. No." If I were a Clippers fan, I would be worried.

12. Phoenix Suns (39-29, LW 10). As someone who picked the Suns to win the West before the season started, I have thrown in the towel on this team. They just can't get enough stops to make me believe. Phoenix is 6-7 with a -1 net rating since the All-Star break, and while a variety of injuries have held them back, watching them does not inspire confidence. Kevin Durant seems frustrated with the communication and connection at points. Frank Vogel seems to be throwing things against the wall hoping something works on a given night (like the KD at center lineups). Despite the high-end talent on the roster, this team does not scream playoff threat.

13. Sacramento Kings (39-28, LW 16). It's all about holding onto the sixth seed and avoiding the play-in for the Kings at this point, which is easier said than done the way Dallas is playing (and the Suns are in the mix, too). Part of the challenge is Dallas has the easiest schedule of any remaining team. The Kings went 4-2 on a recent six-game homestead, and that included sweeping the season series from the Lakers (which always feels good to Kings fans). The Kings have winnable games this week (Raptors, Wizards, Magic, 76ers) but they can't have offensive no-show games and lose to the teams they should beat. This Kings team no longer has that kind of margin for error.

14. Los Angeles Lakers (37-32, LW 13). The Lakers remain confounding: Quality wins over the Bucks and Timberwolves, followed by sloppy losses to the Kings and Warriors. That kind of inconsistency makes it hard to envision Los Angeles making a postseason run this year like they did a year ago — D'Angelo Russell's shooting can win them a game here and there, but nothing about this team feels steady. That may well cost Darvin Ham his job when this season is over, someone is going to take the fall as the Lakers front office works to convince LeBron James that he should re-sign because things are going to be different going forward.

15. Miami Heat (37-31, LW 14). Miami desperately wanted to avoid having to come out of the play-in again this season, and that dream is somehow still alive despite the Heat having lost 5-of-7 — the only two wins were against Detroit and it took Bam Adebayo knocking down the buzzer-beating, game-winning 3 to get one of them. There are multiple reasons it doesn't feel like this Heat team has another run to the Finals in them, but the 14-22 record against teams over .500 (and it's worse against the top teams in the East) is one of them. Miami needs wins to avoid the play-in (they sit eighth but one game out of sixth) but those will be tough to come by this week with two games against the Cavaliers and one against the Pelicans.

16. Indiana Pacers (38-31, LW 15). Since Tyrese Haliburton returned from his hamstring injury, he has not looked like the same player, and the Pacers have not been the same team. Since his return the Pacers are 11-11, while since the All-Star break Haliburton is averaging 15.8 points a game (down from 21.8 before the break), 9.8 assists and he is shooting just 21.3% from 3. If Indiana is going to get back into the top six in the East (they are half a game behind Philly for the No. 6 seed) then Haliburton needs to find his pre-injury form. The Pacers are on the road for their next five, including a swing out west against Golden State and both Los Angeles teams this week.

17. Houston Rockets (33-35, LW 19). What seemed a long shot suddenly is within grasp — the Rockets could get to the No. 10 seed in the West and make the play-in. Fueled by NBA Player of the Week Jalen Green (26.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last week) the Rockets have won six in a row (8-of-9) and are 2.5 games back of the stumbling Warriors for that last play-in slot. The bad news is the Warriors have a much easier schedule the rest of the way. The Rockets have winnable games this week against the Bulls, Jazz and Blazers, if they get closer the Warriors will feel some heat (to be fair, the Rockets, as well as they are playing, are going to need some help to make up that ground).

18. Golden State Warriors (35-32, LW 17). After a loss to the shorthanded Knicks, Stephen Curry summed up the Warriors at this point: "Honestly who cares what seed you are? If you play like we did tonight — six, seven, eight, nine, 10 — whatever it is, doesn't matter. You're not getting very far." Golden State has dropped 4-of-6 and for all of the "nobody wants to see this team in the playoffs" talk they have to get there first, and right now this team looks like a 10 seed, not a playoff team. The Warriors need wins, and they have two games at home (Grizzlies, Pacers) before heading out on a five-game road trip.

19. Philadelphia 76ers (38-30, LW 18). All signs continue to point toward Joel Embiid returning before the playoffs start, which is all the 76ers can ask for. However, there is no timeline. It's a matter of keeping their heads above water until he returns. Kyle Lowry has helped with that since the Philly native was moved into the starting lineup, and he's averaging 8.6 points and 4.8 assists a game, shooting 37.5% from 3. Tough games this week as the 76ers are on the road against the Suns, Lakers, Clippers and Kings.

20. Chicago Bulls (34-35, LW 21). Give DeMar DeRozan some props as he moved past Dwyane Wade (a Chicago legend) on the all-time scoring list last week. He's also going to get votes for Clutch Player of the Year – DeRozan has 166 clutch points this season (last five minutes of a game within five points), second only to the Warriors' Curry. The Bulls are pretty locked into the No. 9 seed (they will host Atlanta in the first play-in game). This week the Bulls are at the Rockets, then host the Celtics and Wizards.

21. Atlanta Hawks (30-38, LW 20). Thanks to the Nets falling apart, the Hawks are basically locked into the No. 10 seed and a chance in play-in. Dejounte Murray has stepped up with Trae Young out, but what's impressive not that his scoring is up but so is his efficiency. That could help his offseason trade value (or make the Hawks want to trade him and make a different move). Atlanta is 1-3 on a road trip that wraps up Wednesday night in Phoenix, before heading home for five.

22. Utah Jazz (29-39, LW 23). With the ninth-worst record in the league at this point, it looks as if the Jazz will keep their pick in this June's draft (it is owed to the Thunder but is top 10 protected). Which means Jazz fans might want to head to the Delta Center again this week to watch NCAA Tournament games and do a little scouting. The Jazz are on the road this week with a tough series of games: Thunder, Mavericks and red-hot Rockets, before returning home to see Dallas again.

23. Brooklyn Nets (26-43, LW 22). Maybe coaching wasn't the problem and what was holding Brooklyn back from the play-in. The Nets are 5-10 under interim coach Kevin Ollie, with a bottom-10 offense and the 11th-ranked
defense over that stretch, and a -3.4 net rating. Is that going to be enough for Ollie to keep his job and have the interim tag removed, or is it time for a full-on coaching search in Brooklyn.

24. Toronto Raptors (23-45, LW 24). Grady Dick is doing more than just making funny jersey exchanges, he's played well with increased minutes since the All-Star break. He is shooting 37.5% from 3 since the break and looks like a guy who can fit into the Toronto rotation next season when they get healthy and — hopefully — are in the playoff chase.

25. Memphis Grizzlies (23-46, LW 25). Give Desmond Bane credit for coming back. A lot of players trying to return from injury – he had been out for 29 games — and understanding where the Grizzlies are in the season would have mentally been in Cabo already. Saturday, Bane was back on the court for Memphis, bringing much-needed playmaking to the floor. The Grizzlies have dropped three straight and are on the road this week against the Warriors, Spurs and Nuggets.

26. San Antonio Spurs (15-54, LW 27). This is all you need to know about future Rookie of the Year Victor Wembanyama (sorry Chet, it's Wemby in a runaway): He had an
off game against Dallas Tuesday night and still finished with 12 points (3-of-13 shooting), 11 rebounds, three assists and six blocks. If that's a bad game the league is in trouble as he continues to improve. Fun test Friday night as Wembanyama goes against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Grizzlies.

27. Portland Trail Blazers (19-49, LW 26). Give Deandre Ayton props for turning things around of late, he is averaging 26.8 points per game on 63.5% shooting in March — that's what the Trail Blazers hoped to get from the start with the big man? What happened? He said it took a while to adjust to living in Portland and that his "body wasn't his body" because he wasn't getting proper rest because he was sleeping on an air mattress. Someone explain to the man how easy it is to order a bid and mattress — even a custom one for a 7-footer — online.

28. Charlotte Hornets (17-52, LW 30). There is a lot of spotlight on Brandon Miller over the season's final weeks as more and more is handed to him on the court. Most nights the Hornets are starting Miller with 30-year-old rookie Vasilije Micić, Tre Mann, Nick Richards and Miles Bridges (Micić has been sneaky good on offense, BTW). Miller has been playing at a first-team All-Rookie level (maybe third on the ROY ballot level), but will he stay focused as the Hornets run out the string? Will they make him play a couple of Summer League games?

29. Detroit Pistons (12-56, LW 28). The Detroit Pistons have leaned hard into their young core — Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Ausar Thompson, Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren — but that group is on pace to have one of the worst (if not THE worst) record in the NBA this season, has a -8.1 net rating when on the court together, and it seriously lacks shooting. Detroit is on pace to have a high pick in what is seen as a weak draft at the top, so what is the offseason plan to change things?

30. Washington Wizards (11-58, LW 29). Tough to see 19-year-old rookie Bilal Coulibaly be out for the season, he was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dark season in the nation's capital. The Wizards are 1.5 games back of the Pistons in the standings — and Detroit lost 28 straight games this season — and on pace for the worst record in the league.
Thanks to the Nets falling apart, the Hawks are basically locked into the No. 10 seed and a chance in play-in. Dejounte Murray has stepped up with Trae Young out, but what's impressive not that his scoring is up but so is his efficiency. That could help his offseason trade value (or make the Hawks want to trade him and make a different move). Atlanta is 1-3 on a road trip that wraps up Wednesday night in Phoenix, before heading home for five.