PBT's Week 24 NBA Power Rankings: Denver, Boston remain on top as Dallas climbs

This is the penultimate edition of the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings of the season and things have settled at the top — this is Boston and Denver's race. The only question is can anyone stop that from being the Finals matchup?

1. Denver Nuggets (53-22, Last Week No. 1). Denver had to keep its foot on the gas to earn the No. 1 seed this season — which is one reason Nikola Jokic appears on his way to a third MVP — and now they appear in the driver's seat. The Nuggets are half a game up on Minnesota and Oklahoma City and have the easiest schedule of that trio the rest of that group. They have a tough game coming up Thursday night against the Clippers, but then it's Atlanta and Utah before a big showdown with Minnesota next week.

2. Boston Celtics (59-16, LW 2). The Celtics have locked up the No. 1 seed in the East and need to win one in their remaining six games to lock up the top seed in the entire NBA (Denver could theoretically tie Boston — and the Nuggets have the tiebreaker — but that's not going to happen). All that matters now is getting to the finish line healthy, rested and in a groove. The only thing left to root for is Philadelphia not getting the No. 8 seed out of the play-in, with Joel Embiid back that's a much more formidable first-round opponent than the Celtics want to face.

3. Minnesota Timberwolves (52-23, LW 4). This is impressive: Minnesota is 9-4 with a +6.1 net rating since Karl-Anthony Towns went out injured. Despite losing and All-Star, they have stayed in the mix for the No. 1 seed. The Timberwolves are half a game back of Denver for the top seed in the West, although Denver has a softer schedule the rest of the way (the Timberwolves also have the tiebreaker). Minnesota has games against the Suns and Lakers this week (with a huge game against Denver looming for April 10).

4. Oklahoma City Thunder (52-23, LW 3). The Thunder are 3-3 in their last six, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (thigh contusion) missing half of those games and Jalen Williams (sprained ankle) missing the last one. Oklahoma City is just half a game out of first in the West, but has the toughest remaining schedule of the three at the top. As a personal note: SGA is about to finish top three in MVP voting and that should be celebrated, if you're instinct is to rant about him not winning what is an incredibly close race at the top, chill out. Thunder fans, enjoy the great moments as they come the next few years, there were will be plenty of them, savor the ride, it doesn't come around often enough as sports fans. Enjoy moments like this from Isaiah Joe — damn that's nasty.

5. Dallas Mavericks (45-30, LW 8). Dallas' hot streak — winners of nine straight until a stumble against the Warriors Tuesday — doesn't have them safely in the top six yet. Dallas and New Orleans are tied for the 5/6 seeds in the West with Sacramento and Phoenix one game back in 7/8. The good news is the Mavericks have the easiest remaining schedule in the West, with games this week against the Hawks, a Warriors rematch, Rockets and Hornets. Luka Doncic is on pace to finish in the top three in the MVP race.

6. Milwaukee Bucks (47-28, LW 5). The Bucks have dropped 3-of-4, but the good news is Milwaukee is still on track for the No. 2 seed in the East. They are two games up in the loss column on Cleveland with seven to play, although the banged-up Cavaliers have an easier schedule the rest of the way (the Bucks face the Knicks Sunday and the Celtics Tuesday). The bad news: Getting the No. 7 seed in the first round could well mean Miami or Philadelphia in the first round.

7. New Orleans Pelicans (45-30, LW 6). Is there a better story in the NBA this season than Zion Williamson's play in the second half of the year? Whatever sparked it (criticism following the play-in blowout by the Lakers?), since the All-Star break he's averaged 23.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists a game with a 62.3 true shooting percentage. Like the Mavericks, the Pelicans need wins over the final 10 days of the season if they are going to hold on to a top-six seed in the West and avoid the play-in, but they have dropped 3-of-4 when facing other good teams and things do not get easier this week with a quality Orlando squad, Wembanyama and the Spurs, then the Suns.

8. New York Knicks (44-31, LW 7). The comments from Josh Hart and the vibe out of New York this week that OG Anunoby and Julius Randle will not be back this season was hard to take for a team with high postseason hopes (rumor is Anunoby is closer than Randle, but nobody seems optimistic). While New York seems destined for a 4/5 first-round matchup with the Magic, they are stumbling toward that, having lost three straight (and they could fall behind the Pacers, who are 1.5 games back if those losses keep piling up). This week the Knicks host the Kings then head out on the road for four, which includes games against the Celtics and Bucks.

9. Phoenix Suns (44-31, LW 11). Phoenix is just one game out of the No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in, and they have some quality wins of late (Denver, New Orleans). That said, they also have the toughest remaining schedule in the league, this week that means the Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Clippers. Racking up enough wins against that group to move up in the standings will be a challenge, even with the big three of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal all healthy.

10. Orlando Magic (44-31, LW 9). While the Magic are promoting Paolo Banchero for All-NBA (he probably falls short this year), the player that will get postseason recognition is Jalen Suggs, who should be a lock for voters on an All-Defensive team (which team is tougher to say in a list without positions, but he should be in). Orlando and New York are tied for the 4/5 seeds in the East, the Magic have the tiebreaker but could use a few more wins to host a game in the first round. This week's schedule has a tough one against the Pelicans but then winnable ones against the Hornets, Bulls and Rockets.

11. Cleveland Cavaliers (46-30, LW 10). "We can all point to s***. It's April. It's f****** April. We've got to figure it out. Gotta be better." Donovan Mitchell was spot on after the Cavaliers lost by 29 to the Nuggets — that's what a contender looks like, what the Cavs should aspire to. The Cavs are locked into the No. 3 seed unless they fall apart, but they need to prove to themselves and everyone they can consistently beat good teams. They get the chance this week against the Suns, Lakers and Clippers.

12. Sacramento Kings (44-31, LW 13). Domantas Sabonis deserves an All-NBA spot this season. Whether voters give it to him remains to be seen, but the man with the eternal double-double streak has earned the honor. The Kings are tied with Phoenix for the 7/8 seed in the West, just one game back of the Mavericks/Pelicans for 5/6, Sacramento needs wins to avoid the play-in, but that will be tough to do on the road this week agains the Knicks, Celtics and Thunder.

13. Los Angeles Clippers (47-28, LW 16). Maybe this is too low a ranking for a likely four-seed in the West, but it's still hard to get behind these Clippers, considering their recent play. Yes, they rattled off three straight wins after Tyrone Lue called them soft, but with Tuesday's loss to the Kings they are 3-3 in their last six, 5-5 in their last 10, which is all pretty average. That loss to the Kings came without Kawhi Leonard, who returned to Los Angeles for treatment of a sore knee, another concern heading toward the postseason. Is this team really a threat to Denver and the teams above them in the standings?

14. Indiana Pacers (43-33, LW 14). Back around the All-Star game, Tyrese Haliburton was considered a lock for All-NBA and the question was more could he get a first-team spot. After his slump, whether he makes it — and gets the $40 million bump in salary that comes with it — is much more up in the air. He's probably in the top 15, but it's close and debatable now. Indiana has won 5-of-7 and with that is holding on to the No. 6 seed in the East as of this writing, but just half a game (tied in the loss column) with the Heat in seventh. That makes Sunday's game against the Heat massive .

15. Miami Heat (42-33, LW 18). It's the time of year for the Heat to flip the switch and become a threat to everyone in the league — scoring 142 points and beating a team by 60 will tell everyone you're serious now (even if that team is Portland). While "playoff Jimmy Butler" often gets credit for that, Bam Adebayo deserves credit — and deserves serious Defensive Player of the Year ballot consideration (he should be a lock for All-Defense). The Heat are within half a game of a top-six seed and avoiding the play-in, which makes Thursday's game against Philadelphia (with Joel Embiid back) and especially Sunday's against Indiana huge. Those are the kind of games the Heat step up for.

16. Los Angeles Lakers (43-33, LW 12). Anthony Davis should be a lock for All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, and LeBron James probably makes All-NBA as well (although third team, and it's not an easy call). Los Angeles is headed to the play-in, but having won 7-of-8 it holds out hope of catching Phoenix or Sacramento for the No. 8 seed (and only having to win one game to escape into the playoffs), mostly because the Suns and Kings have tougher schedules. Up for the Lakers this week is at tanking Washington, followed by hosting the Cavaliers, Timberwolves, then a huge game next Tuesday against the Warriors (that still very well could be a 9/10 play-in preview).

17. Golden State Warriors (41-34, LW 17). Stephen Curry likely makes an All-NBA team again this season, but it's not the lock it used to be in previous years. Brandin Podziemski is also almost a lock for All-Rookie (second team, but he's in). The Warriors are a lock for the play-in, but despite having won five straight the chances of jumping the Lakers to the No. 9 seed and hosting that first game seem long. If it's going to happen, they need to beat the Lakers in LA next Tuesday, that could be a huge game.

18. Philadelphia 76ers (41-35, LW 19). Joel Embiid is back and with that Philadelphia officially became the team nobody at the top of the East wants to see in the first round. Embiid put up 23 points but clearly needs to get in shape and shake off the rust over the final 10 days of the season. The 76ers sit eighth in the East, two games back of Indiana for the No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in, which means they need wins and help to move up in the standings. The good news is Philly has the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, but the one tough matchup this week is a huge on Thursday for the standings: at Miami. That's must win.

19. Houston Rockets (38-37, LW 15). Despite a gallant effort and 11 straight wins at one point, the Rockets' quest for the final play-in spot appears doomed. Houston is three games back of Golden State and would need a Warriors collapse to get past them, but if that's going to happen it starts Thursday with a game against said Warriors. Two postseason awards questions for the Rockets: Will Alperen Sungun make the top three for most improved (his missing time at the end of the season didn't help his case)? Did Amen Thompson do enough during the Rockets' run to make All-Rookie second team?

20. Atlanta Hawks (35-40, LW 20). Atlanta and Chicago are locked into the 9/10 seeds in the East, and the only question is which of them will host that first play-in game? Chicago is half a game ahead of (the teams are tied in the loss column) and has the easier schedule the rest of the way. If the Hawks are going to host they need wins this week, which will be tough with the Mavericks, Nuggets and Heat on the schedule.

21. Chicago Bulls (36-40, LW 21). Coby White is one of the frontrunners for Most Improved Player this season, although voters have to parse out how much of that is real improvement vs. him getting a bigger role this season (he took advantage of that role). Alex Caruso should be in the All Defensive Team mix as well, the question there is how he stacks up against rim-protecting bigs in a vote without positions. On the court, the Bulls are headed for the 9/10 play-in game against the Hawks, if Chicago wants to host that game it needs wins this week against New York and Orlando, which will not be easy.

22. Brooklyn Nets (29-47, LW 22). It's been a forgettable season in Brooklyn — outside of the play of Cam Thomas — and as they play out the string the front office should be asking if its plan to get stars to come play with Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton is a sound one.

23. Memphis Grizzlies (25-30, LW 24). In the big picture, this has been a flush-it season for the Grizzlies, undone by injuries and suspensions. The silver lining was the emergence of rookie GG Jackson looking like a rotation player, plus the recent return of Brandon Clarke (will he play for Canada this summer at the Olympics, or does he rest, and his spot goes to Zach Edey?).

24. San Antonio Spurs (18-58, LW 25). Devin Vassell and Jeremy Sochan are out for the rest of the season in San Antonio, and the only question remaining is if the Spurs will shut down soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Victor Wembanyama for the final games. This is going to be a wild team to watch over the summer as they start to evolve this roster.

25. Utah Jazz (29-47, LW 23). This season has shown there is real potential on this roster beyond Lauri Markkanen. Keyonte George could develop into a solid starting point guard in the league, Walker Kessler is still a top-flight rim protector who needs to improve his screening/offensive game to the point he can stay on the floor. Taylor Hendricks has shown promise. The roster needs more talent, but those guys can be part of whatever is being built.

26. Toronto Raptors (23-52, LW 26). This was not where the Raptors pictured themselves before the season started, but mid-season moves have this roster poised for next season. They have settled in building around Scottie Barnes, who needs to take the next step forward (from All-Star to closer to All-NBA level) to show he deserves it, and having RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley around him are good fits. This team has the potential to grow into something with a strong offseason and some player development.

27. Washington Wizards (15-61, LW 28). Rookie Bilal Coulibaly showed promise in the second half of the season before fracturing his wrist. Where the Wizards go from here doesn't seem clear. Doesn't everything with this franchise feel like Monumental Sports' ill-advised announcement of a move to Virginia before it had all its political ducks in a row? The plans that exist are not well thought through or executed.

28. Portland Trail Blazers (19-56, LW 27). Two 60-point losses in one season aside, there is promise with this team coming out of this season. Scoot Henderson started to find his groove the second half of the season, pair his growth with Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe and this team becomes a lot of fun to watch next season, at the very least.

29. Charlotte Hornets (18-57, LW 29). Steve Clifford is officially out as coach at the end of the season, which isn't a surprise. Don't kick the man on his way out the door, Clifford was brought into a tough situation that got much worse with suspension and injuries sapping his teams of talent. He was coaching playing the right way to a group of young players feeling they need to make their market with individual numbers. The smart higher would be a younger, development-minded coach to help grow a young team with potential — Brandon Miller proved to be a great pick.

30. Detroit Pistons (13-62, LW 30). How hot is Troy Weaver's seat? How hot should it be? Are some of his odd decisions orders from ownership who think they are pushing for a more competitive team now and instead cutting the GM off at his knees, or are these decisions of his own making? Big offseason ahead as the Pistons have the worst record in the NBA for the second straight season.