Are you ready for the playoffs to start? The race for seeding is in full swing for both conferences. Outside of the East’s 4-5 matchup (likely the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers) there isn’t a single playoff matchup that is remotely set in stone right now.
On the other end of the standings, there are several teams looking forward to the playoffs, but for different reasons. The playoffs mean the end of the regular season, which hasn’t gone well for teams such as the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls.
Let’s take stock of three teams currently on the upswing this week, as well as three teams who played below their standards.
NBA Week 23 Risers
Milwaukee Bucks (57-19, No. 1 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 4-0)
It was another marquee week for the best team in the NBA so far this season. Milwaukee went 4-0 in four home games, all of which were impressive performances. The Bucks demolished the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers by 29 and 22 points respectively. They then coasted in the fourth quarter to easy wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, two of the hottest teams in the NBA.
The crazy thing is that the Bucks are doing this despite dealing with injuries to key players. Starting guard Malcolm Brogdon is out indefinitely with a foot injury, and Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell, Pau Gasol and Donte DiVincenzo are all currently out as well. Even superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo was walking with a slight limp after the win over the Clippers on Thursday.
People have been waiting for the Bucks to regress, but they refuse to do so. As it turns out, having a superstar (Antetokounmpo), two other fringe All-Stars (Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe) plus shooters and defenders is a great recipe for success in the NBA.
Charlotte Hornets (35-40, No. 10 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-1)
The Hornets are still alive in the playoff race! With three wins in four games against a very tough schedule this week, Charlotte is just two games behind the eighth-seeded Miami Heat. Winning Friday’s road game against the Los Angeles Lakers would have been nice, but Charlotte should be happy that it got three wins against teams with records of 44-32 or better last week.
The biggest reason for the strong week was fantastic play from two young players: Dwayne Bacon and Miles Bridges. Bacon averaged 19 points per game during the week on a 64.1 true-shooting percentage and Bridges put up 15.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3 assists per game on a 71.8 true-shooting percentage.
Unfortunately for Charlotte, the next several games don’t look very conducive to starting another winning streak. The Hornets play three more games on their West Coast road trip, including the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz. Overall, five of their final seven games are against teams with records better than theirs.
Even if the Hornets don’t make the playoffs, they should be hopeful that Bacon and Bridges have shown nice flashes as difference-makers who can help their future.
Utah Jazz (46-30, No. 5 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 4-0)
The Jazz’s second half of the season hasn’t been quite as dominant as last season, but it has been close. Utah has gone 28-11 in its last 39 games on the strength of improved play from Donovan Mitchell and continued excellence in the paint from Rudy Gobert.
Strong offensive play from guys like Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors has also helped lift the Jazz to the league’s top half in offensive efficiency. Utah has been elite defensively for most of the season, but its shots are falling more consistently now and the ball movement has been excellent as of late. The Jazz are averaging 29.1 assists to their opponents’ 21.5 assists per game over their last 14 contests.
You could make the argument that, outside the Golden State Warriors, the Jazz are the best team in the West right now. Utah should be considered, along with the Houston Rockets, the biggest threat to Golden State’s Western Conference throne in the postseason.
NBA Week 23 Fallers
Philadelphia 76ers (48-27, No. 3 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-2)
The 76ers appeared on the “risers” list last week on the heels of their six-game winning streak. Last week, though, they lost two of three games, despite both of those games being against teams out of Eastern Conference playoff positioning.
For all of Philadelphia’s star power on the team (especially in the starting lineup), the Sixers’ lack of team speed has been a problem. The four best players on the team are all 6’8” or taller and aren’t known for their quickness. They are struggling both to defend faster guards and to get back on defense after turnovers or missed shots.
When the 76ers’ offense is humming, they are extremely tough because they have time to get back on defense and then use their size on the defensive boards to get going back the other way. When it’s not, as was the case in two of last week’s game, Philadelphia can look extremely vulnerable.
Denver Nuggets (51-24, No. 2 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 2-2)
The Nuggets ended the week with a nice road win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Overall, though, they had two major duds against playoff teams this week. They lost to the Indiana Pacers by 36 points and the Houston Rockets by 27 points.
Denver was looking like it finally had found momentum after getting healthy. They won six games in a row, finishing at the end of last week. However, severe shooting woes have plagued the team as of late, and getting to the free-throw line has also gotten more difficult.
The poor three-point shooting isn’t a huge concern yet. However, things are going to get drastically tougher for them in the postseason if the team’s key shooters (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley) stay cold. The Nuggets’ offense is built around Nikola Jokic’s amazing offensive touch and passing, but his success is significantly tied to opponents respecting his teammates’ shooting ability.
Chicago Bulls (21-55, No. 13 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 0-3)
I guess the fact that the Bulls lost by an average of 20 points per game to three playoff teams isn’t super surprising. However, it is still not good, and the news of health problems for young big man Lauri Markkanen are also quite concerning.
Markkanen was lights out in February before falling off significantly in March. As it turns out, he is suffering from a rapid heart rate and extreme fatigue, two symptoms that he encountered against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. The Bulls won’t play their franchise power forward for the rest of the season, which is probably smart since the rest of this season is meaningless for the team.
Outside of Markkanen, other bumps and bruises have also plagued the Bulls. Let’s hope that none of these issues are bad enough to affect the future of Chicago’s franchise, which is actually somewhat bright. I’m sure the Bulls will be happy if they never have to start a lineup of Antonio Blakeney, Shaquille Harrison, Robin Lopez, Wayne Selden and Brandon Sampson again, as they did against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.