Posted: Fri March 22, 2013 1:33PM; Updated: Fri March 22, 2013 6:15PM
Matt Dollinger

NBA Power Rankings: Examining the rest of the East playoff picture

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New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers are battline for East's No. 2 seed
The Pacers currently hold a one-game lead over the Knicks for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

The Heat's captivating run has deservedly stolen our attention, but there's a playoff race going on among the East's minions that's as compelling as it is close.

Only 7½ games separate the Pacers, the East's No. 2 seed, and the Bucks, the No. 8 seed. Bunched in between are the Knicks, Nets, Hawks, Bulls and Celtics in a tightly contested race. On top of that race are Indiana, New York and Brooklyn, who are separated by just two games and are playing for the coveted No. 2 position, which guarantees home-court advantage in the first two rounds and not seeing the Heat until the Eastern Conference finals.

Below them, only 3½ games separate the bottom four playoff teams. Milwaukee holds a virtually insurmountable 8½-game lead on Philadelphia for the final spot, but it can't rest if it wants to avoid Miami in the first round. The Celtics, who are in the much sunnier No. 7 slot, lead the Bucks by two games.

To make matters more interesting, the No. 2 through No. 7 seeds all seem to be playing about the same right now. No team has gone better than 6-4 in its last 10 games and no team has done worse than 4-6. With about 15 games remaining in the regular season, each game is critical. But with so much parity in the conference after Miami, it's nearly impossible to project where the tight-knit group will finish.

One thing is for certain: No one wants to play the Heat, who lead the Power Rankings for the sixth consecutive week.

(Note: All statistics and records are through March 21.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Miami Heat
Last Week: 1
Since: 4-0
Miami Heat (53-14)
The Heat haven't lost since January. They've beaten 19 different teams over their 24-game winning streak and have won in just about every way imaginable, including a 27-point comeback, a double-overtime escape and a rout in which they held an opponent to 67 points. If there was a hole to be poked, it's been filled. If there was a weakness to be exploited, it's been strengthened. Miami's only obstacles at this point are boredom and injury.
2 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 3
Since: 4-0
Are the Nuggets the second-best team in the league? They're definitely playing like it. Denver scrapped out its 14th straight victory Thursday thanks to a costly foul by Damien Wilkins and a pretty bad choke job from Evan Turner. It was the second game in four days that Denver had won under fairly remarkable (or fortunate) circumstances. (The Nuggets beat the Bulls thanks to officials taking Joakim Noah's OT tip-in off the board Monday.) Much like Miami, the second-hottest team in the league seems to have everything going for it right now.
3 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 5
Since: 2-0
Few teams could weather the loss of their best player as well as the Spurs have. The Clippers went 6-6 without Chris Paul this season, but the Spurs have managed to go 6-2 without their floor general, Tony Parker. Cory Joseph hasn't done much in the starting role, but San Antonio as a whole has done a remarkably good job replacing Parker. San Antonio leads the league in assists per game (25.3) and has managed to average more dimes (26.6) without Parker the last eight games.
4 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 2
Since: 2-2
Kevin Martin has cooled off this month while the Thunder are trying to gear up for the playoffs. Here are his month-to-month numbers (which show a decline in scoring as his minutes have decreased):
Month Point per game Field goal % 3-point %
November 15.9 ppg 46.2 percent 48.8 percent
December 15 ppg 44.2 percent 40.7 percent
January 14.3 ppg 44.4 percent 41.1 percent
February 13.7 ppg 49 percent 41.7 percent
March 11.8 ppg 40.7 percent 35.7 percent

The Thunder are a deep team, but Martin is far and away the their third-best perimeter player outside of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They don't need Martin to carry the team, but they do need him to be an efficient scorer off the bench.

5 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 4
Since: 2-2
Back-to-back losses never feel good, but an overtime win over the Thunder more than makes up for two tough road defeats. Marc Gasol's tip-in gave the Grizzlies a last-second win over their Western rivals, and he could be the difference once again come the playoffs. Very few are as intimidating and effective in the post as Gasol is on both ends. He ranks third in defensive win shares and shoots 63.6 percent at the rim thanks to one of the best back-to-the-basket games in the league.
6 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 6
Since: 2-1
The Clippers have yet to win back-to-back games this month. Their issues with inconsistency are cause for concern. Just last week, Los Angeles went from allowing 80 points to the Knicks to giving up 116 to the Kings to then holding the 76ers to just 72. The best-case scenario version of the Clippers is a contender in the West, but the middling-playoff team version has been rearing its ugly head too often of late.
7 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 7
Since: 2-1
The Pacers are hoping to get Danny Granger back in time for the playoffs, but you can't help but wonder if the team is better without its former star. As's Rob Mahoney notes, the Pacers have boasted an above-average offense over the last 20 games after ranking near the bottom of the league earlier in the season and look comfortable turning to Paul George as the leading man. If Granger comes back looking like his old self, coach Frank Vogel will have no trouble finding him minutes. But don't be surprised if Granger rides the pine in favor of Lance Stephenson or Gerald Green if he looks like he did when he returned a month ago.
8 Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 8
Since: 2-1
The Nets are coming on strong at the right time, particularly Deron Williams. Brooklyn's star point guard is having his best month of the season, averaging 24.5 points on 49.4 percent shooting and dishing out 7.2 assists. Throw in Brook Lopez, who dropped a season-high 38 on the Mavericks and is averaging 20.4 points this month, and you have a team that suddenly looks dangerous in the playoffs. Brooklyn leads Atlanta by two games for home-court advantage in the first round, but could rise up the playoff ladder before the season is done.
9 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 10
Since: 2-1
If the season were to end today, the Rockets would face the Thunder in the first round, pitting James Harden against his old friends. The potential playoff series would also set up a shootout between the league's two highest-scoring offenses. The matchup could challenge the Thunder more than you think. Oklahoma City ranks in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, but is just 14-16 when opponents score 100 points or more. The Rockets have scored at least 100 points in almost 70 percent of games this year.
10 New York Knicks
Last Week: 9
Since: 2-1
Injuries haven't been kind to the Knicks. New York's front line is without Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace, leaving the cupboard bare and the team reliant on Kenyon Martin (originally signed on a 10-day contract), Chris Copeland (rookie free agent) and Marcus Camby (turned 39 on Friday). New York has been outrebounded in each of its last eight games, five of which have been losses.
11 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 11
Since: 2-2
After taking on water for the better part of two months, the Warriors have finally patched up their defense and are playing the type of stingy basketball that led to their hot start. Golden State has won four of its last six and held opponents to just 87.8 points over that stretch, including three games under 80. Coach Mark Jackson would prefer to see those type of low-scoring games out of Golden State more often, something that would have been blasphemous to say in recent years. The reason? Six of the last seven teams to surpass the century mark against Golden State have won.
12 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 13
Since: 2-1
The Lakers played surprisingly well without Kobe Bryant against the Pacers, a game in which he logged only 12 minutes, and the Kings, a game in which he sat out, but then came back to earth with a 23-point loss to the lowly Suns. Mike D'Antoni said he is hopeful that Kobe and Pau Gasol, who has been sidelined since suffering a plantar fascia tear on Feb. 5, will return on Friday. Despite its improved playoff position, L.A. will have to sort out potential chemistry issues with Gasol back in the mix. 
13 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 14
Since: 3-1
The Hawks might be the toughest team in the league to predict. Atlanta is smack dab in the middle of an airtight East playoff race. Projected to finish fifth, the Hawks are only three games back of the No. 3 seed and only 1½ games away from dropping into a tie for the No. 7 seed. Oddly enough, the No. 7 seed might be the best place for the Hawks. Not only would it put them on the opposite end of the bracket as the Heat, but the Hawks are 2-1 against the Pacers, the projected No. 2 seed.
14 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 12
Since: 1-2
Tough times in Beantown. After blowing a 17-point lead to the Heat and falling just short of snapping their bitter rival's lengthy winning streak, the Celtics fell to the Hornets at the buzzer on Anthony Davis' last-second tip-in. If the Celtics aren't careful, Milwaukee (two games back) could catch up and bump them to the East's No. 8 seed and another meeting with the King.
15 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 15
Since: 1-2
Derrick Rose is reportedly close to returning, but is still unable to put a timetable on it. Just how good will the point guard be when he suits up? He's been practicing for weeks and could use the end of the regular season as his "preseason" for the playoffs. The biggest question is whether he trusts his surgically repaired knee enough to do the type of things that make him a superstar player. Each game that passes is another missed opportunity for him to regain his confidence before the postseason.
16 Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: 16
Since: 2-1
Back-to-back ejections earned Larry Sanders a $50,000 fine and a calling out from his coach. Sanders is one of the best defensive players in the league, and the darling of sports nerds everywhere, but if he's not careful, he'll be lumped in the same category as other talented, but troubled big men (see Cousins, DeMarcus). It'd be a shame for Sanders to be known for something more than his elite shot-blocking and interior defense.
17 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 17
Since: 2-2
The stubborn Blazers refuse to go away, remaining on the outskirts of the West playoff race despite a brutal February. Portland trails the eighth-seeded Lakers by 3½ games but also has to pass the Jazz and Mavericks. The Blazers have the benefit of playing six of their last 10 games at home (where they are 22-11), but they also have to endure six more road games against playoff teams. That's a lot to overcome for a young team.
18 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 18
Since: 2-2
An upcoming five-game homestand is obviously critical for Dallas, which trails the Lakers by 3½games after losing three of its last five. Dallas will face projected playoff teams in all five games, followed by road games at the Lakers and Nuggets. Injuries to Roddy Beaubois (broken hand, out for year) and Shawn Marion (bruised calf, day to day) only make the road ahead that much more daunting.
19 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 20
Since: 3-1
The Wizards took advantage of a soft spot in the schedule by winning five of their last seven while holding opponents to just 90.2 points in the victories. Washington's defense has simply gotten better this season, rising from 24th last year to seventh in efficiency. Unfortunately for them, the Wizards are the only team in the top 13 in that category that isn't headed to the playoffs.
20 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 19
Since: 1-2
Utah Jazz (34-34)
Is it too late for the Jazz? Utah is 1½ games behind the Lakers after dropping 10 of its last 13. It's been a painful free fall, mostly because of a fluttering offense, which has scored just 93.5 points this month. The biggest problem for the Jazz of late has been its penchant of crumbling in crunch time. As Jared Bray from Yahoo! notes, Utah is 1-6 since Feb. 25 in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. The team's lack of a playmaker in the backcourt hasn't helped.
21 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 22
Since: 1-2
The Raptors cleared their logjam at point guard by trading Jose Calderon at the end of January, but they haven't seen the type of results they were hoping for from Kyle Lowry. While Calderon was a Raptor, Lowry averaged 13.5 points on 41.7 percent shooting and 5.8 assists. With Lowry liberated and Calderon gone, he's averaged just 10.3 points on 38.6 percent shooting and six assists. Toronto will need to see more than that before making a long-term financial commitment to Lowry, who has one more year left on his contract.
22 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 23
Since: 1-3
The Sixers came one bad foul away from snapping the Nuggets' winning streak, but had to settle for their 15th straight road loss. Philadelphia has gone 11-10 at home during that skid, but just can't seem to muster any success on the road. The Sixers are tied for the fewest road victories (six) and see their league-worst scoring average of 92.4 dip to 90.2 away from the Wells Fargo Center.
23 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 27
Since: 2-1
The Kings have had a hot hand of late, beating the Clippers and Bulls last week and scoring at least 100 points in their last six games. In fact, Sacramento hasn't had much trouble scoring all season, ranking in the top half of the league in points per game and offensive efficiency, but its lack of respectable defenders has led to a league-high 104.7 points allowed. Sacramento's best interior defender, Chuck Hayes, plays only 16.4 minutes, and the team's slew of talented guards are all known for their offensive ability, not their defensive presence. Sacramento would be wise to pursue some sound defensive players via the draft, free agency or trade this summer.
24 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 24
Since: 1-3
Phoenix Suns (23-46)
What could possibly be compelling the Suns to play Jermaine O'Neal big minutes at this point in their season? The 34-year-old (on an expiring contract) logged a season-high 33 minutes Thursday and has averaged 25.1 in March, the most of any month this season. While Marcin Gortat is likely out for the season, Phoenix could at least give more minutes to Hamed Haddadi, Marcus and Markieff Morris or Michael Beasley. Haddadi is the only true center, but considering Beasley (eight minutes) and the Morris brothers (17 minutes combined) barely played Wednesday, O'Neal's amount of floor time seems odd.
25 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 21
Since: 0-4
The fact that a Cavaliers team without Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters could build a 27-point lead on the second-hottest team in NBA history is pretty incredible. The fact that it blew said lead was pretty predictable. It's foolish to suggest that the Heat spotted Cleveland that gargantuan advantage just for fun, but it sure did seem like they were trolling the Cavaliers by dismantling them in spectacular fashion.
26 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 26
Since: 1-3
Anthony Davis' tip-in gave the Hornets a feel-good win over the Celtics, but they should feel even better about their rookie big man's play of late. Davis is averaging 15.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in March, numbers that likely would have earned him Rookie of the Year if he'd been able to maintain them over the course of the season. Only seven rookies in the last 20 years have finished with a double-double average: Shaquille O'Neal, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, Emeka Okafor, Alonzo Morning and Dwight Howard. 
27 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 25
Since: 1-3
It has taken a little longer than expected, but Derrick Williams is starting to look like the player the Wolves envisioned when they drafted him No. 2 in 2011. Williams scored a career-high 28 points in a win over the Hornets last week and has scored at least 10 points in 16 of his last 18 games after reaching the mark just 16 times in the first 42 games. The Wolves would love to have Kevin Love back, but his absence has given Williams a chance to show what he can do at the 4, a position he might be more suited for than small forward.
28 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 28
Since: 0-2
The Pistons have been spiraling out of control for weeks, losing 12 of their last 13 and nine by double digits.  Injuries to Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight give Detroit a reasonable excuse, but the Pistons haven't been respectable since they won six of seven almost three months ago. The good news is that they will keep their first-round pick, which would've gone to the Bobcats if Detroit had made the playoffs.
29 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 30
Since: 2-2
The Bobcats rise out of the Power Rankings cellar thanks to wins over the Wizards and Raptors last week. Gerald Henderson, known as a complementary player through his first four years, has looked like a star of late, scoring at least 20 points in five of his last seven games while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Charlotte's offense ranks 27th in scoring, but has put together three of its best outings of the season this month thanks to Henderson and Co. 
30 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 29
Since: 0-4
Orlando drops to last this week, but it deserves credit for going about rebuilding the right way. The Magic might catch the Bobcats for the worst record in the league, but at least the team realizes its playing for its future, not a playoff run. Orlando has done a great job of giving its young players minutes -- specifically Nikola Vucevic, Mo Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and Tobias Harris -- and is going to be able to bring in more young talent in this offseason. The Magic might be miserable now, but their perspective and patience means they won't be like this for long.
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