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Sunday, April 18, 2021

NBA Power Rankings: Short-Handed Nets Slide a Spot, Surging Jazz on the Rise

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    Associated Press

    The NBA is heading into the final third of the season with most teams having fewer than 25 games left. The play-in tournament has added a new wrinkle with more teams competing to get into the postseason. 

    In the Western Conference, the Jazz, Suns, Nuggets and Mavericks are on winning streaks that have flown under the radar but have them climbing in the power rankings. Meanwhile, the Spurs and Lakers are falling both in our rankings as well as in the standings. 

    The Eastern Conference has four tiers of separation in the standings. There are three teams clearly at the top. Then seeds four through nine are bunched up, separated by three games. There is a battle royale brewing between five teams for the final play-in spot. Finally, the Pistons are in a tier of their own, as they are essentially out of the race. 

    The criteria for the power rankings are based on how teams played last week, who they beat and where their season is heading after the week.

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 26th

    Cleveland is stuck on a five-game losing streak and went winless last week. The Cavaliers offense has been an issue all season, but it’s been even worse recently.  

    During this losing streak, the Cavs have averaged 90.8 points, scoring just 75 points against the Jazz. As a team, they’ve shot 27 percent from three. 

    In some good news, Cleveland got Kevin Love back in the lineup last week. In two games, he averaged 11.5 points over 21.6 minutes while grabbing 7.0 boards. With two years left on his massive contract after this season, it would go a long way for the Cavs if they can showcase his skills in the final third of the season.

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    Bob Levey/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 28th

    It’s been a brutal season for the Rockets, and last week did not help as they went winless in all four of their games. To Houston’s credit, though, they have played hard throughout. The Rockets gave a real strong challenge to the Pelicans on Sunday.

    Despite all the losses, there have been a few bright spots. Christian Wood is a rising star when healthy, Jae’Sean Tate is showing promise as a rookie and Kevin Porter Jr. is showing flashes as a reclamation project. 

    Kelly Olynyk, whom the Rockets acquired from Miami, has slid right in, averaging 18.8 points last week and shooting 57.4 percent from the field despite his three-ball not falling. This is certainly an audition to other teams with his contract expiring at the end of the season. 

    Unfortunately for Houston, Danuel House Jr. sprained his ankle in its game against New Orleans. The Rockets cannot afford another extended absence from one of their key guys.

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 29th

    The Wolves are not winning much, but they are getting monster performances nightly from Karl-Anthony Towns. Last week, he averaged 29.5 points while grabbing 14.8 rebounds and giving out 4.5 dimes. Towns even put Joel Embiid on a poster in their matchup. 

    Besides Anthony Edwards, who has continued to play great ball for the Wolves, Jaden McDaniels deserves some recognition as well. Over the last week, he more than doubled his scoring output with 13.0 points a night, shooting 47.8 percent from three.  

    There is not too much to celebrate in Minnesota these days, who hold the worst record in the NBA, but the young guys have been playing well. 

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 30th

    Going .500 makes for a good week for the Magic. It started with a comeback win in which they went on an 11-0 run to shock the Clippers. Then they followed it up with an overtime win against the Pelicans. Plus, they gave the Nuggets a big scare but could not pull off the upset. Picking up two wins—and nearly a third—moves the Magic out of the power rankings basement. 

    Orlando is getting good play from some of its young guys as minutes have been opened up with all its trades. Chuma Okeke has been averaging over 30 minutes since the deadline passed, and it has paid off. He is averaging 16.2 points on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and 38.5 percent from three on 4.3 deep attempts per game. 

    Now that the Magic have gone into a full rebuild, the development of young players is going to be a big part of their future.

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 25th

    Bradley Beal missed all of last week with a hip injury. Washington went 1-3 without him in the lineup, and its offense predictably fell off. 

    It has been a rough season for the Wizards, and one of the biggest disappointments has been Deni Avdija. He was pitched as an NBA-ready draft prospect, but that has not been the case. In his rookie campaign, he has averaged 6.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists and has shot 31.4 percent from three. 

    Avdija is still young and has time to develop into a big-time player, but the immediate plug-and-play feature with him was exaggerated. 

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 27th

    Normally a two-win week would be considered a good week for Detroit, but it ended with a 44-point loss to the Knicks at home. Jerami Grant is continuing to struggle to find his groove. Last week, he averaged 16.3 points and shot just 39.7 percent from the field. 

    On the good news front, Hamidou Diallo had a nice week in the three games he played, flashing some scoring, shooting and rebounding. Detroit also got rookie Killian Hayes back from injury.

    The Pistons are in full development mode, and getting Hayes back is important as they continue to evaluate what they have in their young guys.

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    Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 24th

    There is no team happier than the Raptors to see the month of March come to an end. Toronto dealt with a COVID outbreak that had several players and coaches miss games the first half of the month. Then the drama of “will they or won’t they” trade Kyle Lowry dominated the news for the second half of the month. The Raptors came into March 17-17, and they finished the month 18-30. 

    The Raptors started April with a rout of the Warriors to put an end to a four-game losing streak. They will need to get back to defending at a higher level if they want to get into the play-in tournament. Toronto had the second-worst defensive rating for March at 117.4.

    Despite going 1-13 for March, Toronto is still in the running for the play-in tournament, trailing the Bulls by a game-and-a-half for the last spot.

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 23rd

    If anyone is doing a case studying on teams in the NBA trying to tank, they should leave out the 2020-21 Thunder. They are winning games despite shutting down Al Horford for the season, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander missing games with plantar fasciitis and Luguentz Dort in concussion protocols. 

    Coach Mark Daigneault deserves a lot of credit for the work he has done with the young players and keeping them competitive on a nightly basis. If teams take them lightly because of their record, they will be in for a real surprise.

    The Thunder front office was also busy last week converting Moses Brown to a four-year contract worth $6.8 million. The second and third years of the deal are unguaranteed and the Thunder hold a team option for the fourth . It’s similar to how they secured Dort last season.  

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    Hector Amezcua/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 21st

    The Kings’ winning streak was stopped at five, and they have gone on a three-game losing streak since then. The offense was not the problem as much as their inability to defend. They gave up 120, 115 and 129 points in their losses last week. 

    The Kings’ winning streak was powered by De’Aaron Fox’s play offensively, but when he struggles, so does Sacramento. Despite averaging 20.8 points last week, Fox’s efficiency went out the window as he shot 38.8 percent from the field. With how poor the Kings defense has been all season, they need to be that much more efficient on offense. 

    Going 1-3 last week, including a blowout loss to the depleted Lakers, is not going to fill anyone with confidence that the Kings can sneak into the play-in tournament. 

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    Bob Levey/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 22nd

    Injuries had a few Pelicans grounded last week. Brandon Ingram missed games with a foot injury. Zion Williamson is out of the lineup with a sprained thumb. Then it was announced Josh Hart will miss a few weeks with a torn ligament in his thumb. 

    On the other hand, the Pelicans got Lonzo Ball back after an extended absence to end the week. In his first game since March 18, Ball led the Pelicans to a win with 27 points and nine assists while hitting eight threes. The victory helped the New Orleans go .500 for the week and stay in the race for the play-in tournament. 

    To make up for so many players on the injury report, the Pelicans signed Isaiah Thomas to a 10-day contract. Even though Thomas has not played this season in the NBA, he did represent Team USA in the FIBA Olympic qualifiers for two games. He averaged 14 points and shot 50 percent from three. Thomas will make his debut next week.

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 20th

    The Bulls picked up their first win with Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine in the lineup. It snapped a six-game losing streak, as they beat the Nets to end the week. 

    The game showed what the Bulls front office was thinking pairing those two together. LaVine had 25 points and five assists, while Vucevic put together a 22-point, 13-rebound double-double. Chicago also had more balance offensively with six players scoring in double figures in the win. 

    The win was important for Chicago besides the fact that it stopped the losing streak. It gave the Bulls a 1.5-game lead over Toronto for the final play-in spot. They are on the road for the next five games, including a game against the Raptors this week. 

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 19th

    Indiana’s win over San Antonio saved the Pacers from going winless for the week. Malcolm Brogdon struggled in the two games he played but missed the rest of the week with a sore hip. To make matters worse, the Pacers then lost Domantas Sabonis to a sprained ankle against the Hornets. 

    Despite being down both Brogdon and Sabonis, Indiana was able to jump-start its offense, scoring 139 points. In the three-game losing streak before that win, the offense had stalled out for the Pacers. They averaged 102.7 points and 16.3 turnovers during their skid. 

    The Pacers have built a nice cushion for the ninth seed, but to move up the standings they have to hope that Brogdon and Sabonis will not miss a lot of time.

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 18th

    The Warriors had their worst defeat of the season when they lost by 53 points to the Raptors. They were without Stephen Curry, who missed the game with a lingering tailbone injury, and Draymond Green, who was a late scratch with a finger sprain. Steve Kerr called the loss “humiliating.”

    Curry returned for their game against the Hawks and scored 37 points but struggled from three, going 3-of-12. He also had eight turnovers.

    It has been a rough stretch for the Warriors, who are 1-7 over the last eight with Curry in and out of the lineup. They are on the edge of the play-in tournament, but if Curry and Green continue to miss games, they might be on the wrong end by the time the season ends.  

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 15th

    The Spurs went 1-3 last week as they are slowly drifting into troubled waters. They dropped a double-overtime game against Atlanta and an overtime game to Indiana. They have not been good in the clutch this season, having gone 8-11 in games with a three-point differential in the final three minutes.

    However, if they continue to get DeMar DeRozan to play the way he did last week, the Spurs will have a good shot at the play-in tournament. DeRozan led them in scoring with 26.0 points a night and 7.5 assists. The Spurs also got a big week from Derrick White, who dropped in 21.0 points and shot 36.8 percent from three. 

    San Antonio’s nine-game homestand will come to an end next week. From there the Spurs will play 17 of their final 24 games on the road. The path to the play-in tournament will be a challenging one.  

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 16th

    It was a big week for the Grizzlies. Their three wins pulled them into a tie with the Spurs for the eighth seed. Whoever finishes eighth will get two cracks at trying to make the playoffs.

    Memphis’ week ended with a nice win over the Joel Embiid-less Sixers. The Grizzlies got a big performance from Dillon Brooks with a 17-point night. He had a solid week for them as the third scorer, averaging 15.8 points on 43.8 percent from three. 

    But really, Jonas Valanciunas has been the Grizzlies’ unsung hero this season. For the year, he’s been a double-double machine with 29, including 10 straight and counting. Valanciunas is fourth in the NBA in rebounds with 12.5 per game.

    With Jaren Jackson Jr. yet to log a minute, Valanciunas has manned the middle all season and has helped carry the Grizzlies to their 24-23 record.  

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 12th

    Despite how good the Knicks defense has been, their offense has been atrocious. New York dropped three straight last week and was only able to break 100 once in that span. The Knicks defense has been the backbone, but they will need more from their offense.

    New York’s offensive numbers during the three-game skid were troubling. It averaged just 88.0 points per game, shot 38.2 percent from the field, 28.6 percent from three and got to the line just 15.3 times a game. 

    The Knicks snapped out of it when they put up 125 points on the Pistons in their lone win for the week. If they can get the offense to be consistent to go with their mighty defense, they could be a real threat in the East.

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 13th

    The Celtics went 2-2 last week, but they easily could have gone 3-1 or 4-0 if a few things broke their way to start the week. Their losses were by an average of 5.5 points, but their wins were both blowouts to close out the week. 

    Robert Williams III had a fabulous week in the three games he played. He moved into the starting lineup after the Daniel Theis trade, and he is delivering. Last week, he averaged 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 blocks and shot 82.6 percent from the field. Granted, these numbers will come down some, but if he can maintain a double-double average for the rest of the season, the Celtics’ center issue will be just fine. 

    Boston also got back Romeo Langford at the end of the week. He will provide depth and defense to the backcourt, which they were sorely lacking at the start of the year.

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    Troy Taormina/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 11th

    Charlotte is in the middle of a six-game road trip and so far has gone 2-2 on the trip. The problem is the injuries have been piling up. With LaMelo Ball out, the Hornets also lost Malik Monk to a sprained ankle. Then in their win over the Pacers, they lost Gordon Hayward with a sprained right foot, which will keep him out for the next four weeks. 

    These absences are going to put even more pressure on Terry Rozier until those guys come back. He has been having an impressive season, leading the Hornets in scoring at 20.4 points a game and shooting 40.8 percent from three. But it will get much harder without those guys in the lineup.

    Buzz City has been able to hold on without Ball, but with Hayward out for a few weeks and Monk recovering from a sprained ankle, that might be too many injuries for the hive to handle.

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 14th

    Atlanta is squarely in the playoff race after its big win streak, but injuries might hurt the team’s chances to avoid the play-in tournament. Last week had several players in and out of the lineup with both Danilo Gallinari and Trae Young missing a game. Even with the shuffling of lineups, though, the Hawks were able to go 3-1. 

    Atlanta got some big plays from Bogdan Bogdanovic all week long. He averaged 21.5 points, 5.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds, shot the lights out from three at 56.7 percent and posted just 1.3 turnovers per game. 

    Bogdanovic was one of the crown jewels of the Hawks’ free agency, so getting him going is a good sign as the team prepares for a playoff run in the last third of the season. 

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    AJ MAST/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 17th

    The Heat ran off four straight wins after putting an end to their six-game losing streak. They weren’t all pretty, but it was their defense that brought them home. They kept two of their opponents from scoring 90 points last week. 

    Even though it was not a great offensive week for the Heat, they did get some encouraging signs from Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Robinson averaged 18.3 points and shot 50.0 percent from three. Herro put up 16.3 a night and shot 49.0 percent from the field. 

    Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler have been consistent for the Heat this year, but the struggles of Robinson and Herro, as well as Goran Dragic’s health, have them struggling this season.

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 8th

    Last week saw the short-lived debut of Andre Drummond for the Lakers. He played just 14 minutes before having to sit out with a toe injury. The good news is that it does not appear to be serious, but he will miss a few games. 

    The silver lining with these injuries has been the playmaking from Kyle Kuzma. Since LeBron James’ injury, he is averaging 3.9 assists, up from the 1.4 before it. At full strength, Kuzma will not get a lot of playmaking reps, but having another player that can make plays for others will be a huge asset going forward. 

    Los Angeles picked up a win over the Kings but understandably struggled against the Bucks and Clippers. Staying afloat right now is the goal for the Lakers while they wait for their top guys to return. 

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 9th

    The Blazers’ four-game winning streak came to an end against the Bucks. They rebounded nicely with an easy win over the Thunder, which was welcomed in Rip City since there have not been many easy victories this season.

    Of the Blazers’ 30 wins this season, 16 have come with a three-point differential with three minutes left. It helps that Damian Lillard is on Portland’s side. Those close games are when Lillard turns into a superhero. He is shooting 61.3 percent and has yet to miss a free throw during “Dame Time.” 

    Portland is two games out of the third seed in the West with big games coming up against the Jazz and Clippers this week. With the Blazers getting healthy at the right time, they might begin to ascend in the standings.

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 10th

    The Mavericks only lost on their five-game road trip game with both Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis out. Since then Dallas has reeled off four straight with Doncic playing at a high level. He shot 55.1 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three, which led to him averaging 28.3 points. 

    Besides Doncic’s offensive run, the Mavs defense has been at another level. Dallas’ defensive rating was 97.4 last week, a big improvement over its 111.4 defensive rating for the season. 

    Going undefeated last week has the Mavericks moving up the power rankings. They have some work to do to catch the Blazers to get out of the play-in tournament but can make up ground with nine of their next 11 games coming at home.

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 6th

    It was an odd week for the Clippers. They had a great win against the Bucks, which they blew open with a 33-19 fourth quarter. L.A. followed that big win with a terrible loss to the rebuilding Magic and then falling to the Nuggets before beating up on the injury-riddled Lakers. The losses are the reason for the Clippers’ drop in the rankings. 

    Terance Mann has been huge for the Clippers with Patrick Beverley having been out since March 11. He has averaged 11.3 points and shot 38.1 percent from three and 51.4 percent from the field since Beverley’s injury. Mann was even better last week, upping his scoring averaging to 12.0 while grabbing 5.8 rebounds and handing out 3.8 assists. 

    Rajon Rondo made his debut as a Clipper against the Lakers. He played just 13 minutes and had minimal impact on the game. On the transaction front, Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported that the Clippers plan to sign DeMarcus Cousins to a 10-day contract to help shore up their big man rotation with Serge Ibaka still out with a back injury. 

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 4th

    Joel Embiid made his return last week against Minnesota, and it could not have come at a better time. As well as the Sixers did without him, going 7-3, it was not enough to keep them in the top spot in the East. 

    In his first game back, Embiid did not forget where the free-throw line was located. Against the Wolves, he went to the line 17 times on his way to 24 points as he worked his way back into form. 

    Embiid sat out the second game of the back-to-back against Memphis and the Sixers got clobbered. It was a bad enough performance that it brought the boos out of the few fans that were in attendance. 

    Even though Philadelphia was without Embiid, a 16-point loss to the Grizzlies is going to drop it out of the top five of the rankings. 

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 7th

    The Nuggets have been one of the hottest teams since the trade deadline. Denver has won five straight games after adding Aaron Gordon to the lineup. Its new starting lineup of Gordon, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton has a net rating of 33.9 over 90 minutes. 

    Last week, Denver had a big win over the Clippers while holding them to just 94 points. It got balanced scoring with all five starters in double figures, led by Murray’s 23 points. Defensively, the team forced the Clippers into 41.2 percent shooting from the field. 

    The Nuggets nearly had their streak snapped by the Magic to end the week. After a lethargic start to the game, Denver outscored Orlando 72-44 in the second half to keep the streak alive, move into the top five of the rankings and stay just a game out of third place in the West.

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 2nd

    The Bucks started this five-game road trip off on the wrong foot with a blowout loss to the Clippers but rebounded nicely to finish the week 3-1. 

    All the attention has been on Giannis Antetokounmpo and rightfully so. He did average 34.7 points and shot 65.5 percent from the field. But perhaps more importantly for Milwaukee, Jrue Holiday had his best week as a Buck. 

    Holiday averaged 26.8 points, 8.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and shot 45.8 percent from three. The week included scoring a season-high 33 points and adding 11 assists to secure the win against the Kings with Antetokounmpo out of the lineup. 

    The week was capped off with Holiday and the Bucks coming to terms on a $160 million, four-year extension, keeping him in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future. 

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 5th

    There is not too much that can be said about the Suns. They just continue to take care of business. Very quietly, Phoenix has gone on a five-game winning streak, including a 140-point outburst against the Thunder. 

    During the latest streak, Devin Booker is dropping 29.8 points with 50.5/39.4/94.1 shooting splits. Chris Paul is averaging 8.6 assists. Deandre Ayton is just shy of averaging a double-double with 13.0 points and 9.6 rebounds. Add Dario Saric’s play off the bench and the Suns are rolling along. 

    The next week will give the Suns a chance to gain some ground against the Jazz and create more distance from the Clippers when they face them. 

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 1st

    It seems like the universe does not want the world to see the Nets fully operational. Just as Kyrie Irving returned to the team, James Harden strained his hamstring. 

    Irving stepped up his playmaking with Harden out, handing out 11.5 assists in the two games sans Harden. The Nets also got a great week out of Jeff Green, who scored 14.5 points and shot 52.4 percent from three on 5.3 attempts 

    In good news for Brooklyn, Steve Nash told reporters that Kevin Durant should be suiting up in the coming week. So as long as the Harden hamstring injury is not serious, the world might get to see the Nets Big Three back on the court sooner rather than later. 

    Brooklyn’s winning streak being snapped by Chicago and another team streaking is why the Nets dropped from our top spot. 

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Last Week’s Rankings: 3rd

    A nine-game winning streak has Utah moving on up in the rankings. The Jazz are clicking on all cylinders with a top-five defense and offense. Their point differential during these nine games is 19.2 points. 

    Donovan Mitchell is showing he can be a team’s leading man during this stretch, averaging 28.1 points during the winning streak and hanging in the 50/50/90 club. He is shooting 53.1 percent from the field, 51.6 percent from three and 95.3 percent from the line. 

    Rudy Gobert continues to be a dominant rolling force, averaging 15.7 while anchoring the defense. The Jazz’s defensive rating is 90.2 when he is on the court and 111.3 when he is off during the streak.

    The Jazz are rolling and will face some stiff competition next week with games against the Mavs, Suns and Blazers to keep their streak going. 

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