NBA News: Ups & Downs of Week 24 of the NBA Season

Chris PaulThe NBA regular season has just one week remaining. Predictably, the best teams in the league are ramping up their level of play with the playoffs just around the corner. The league’s weaker teams have mostly struggled to win games during this time of year as they vie for spots in the NBA draft lottery that will take place in May.

Let’s decide which teams are hottest and coldest right now relative to how they have played during the rest of the season.

NBA Week 24 Risers

Houston Rockets (51-28, No. 3 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)

Nobody wants to play the Rockets right now. They are 18-3 in their last 21 games and just destroy you with deadly isolation and pick-and-roll play from James Harden and Chris Paul. Guys like Paul, Clint Capela, Danuel House and Austin Rivers are holding down an improved defense that ranks second in the NBA since the All-Star break.

The Rockets had two wins over the Sacramento Kings last week by a combined 36 points, then they trounced a hot Los Angeles Clippers team by 32 points on the road. When Houston’s threes are falling and its defense is in sync, the Rockets are close to unbeatable.

The attention now shifts to the Rockets’ title chances. They are obviously not as talented as the Golden State Warriors, but they seem to have more team chemistry and they just barely lost to the Dubs last season in the playoffs with a similar roster.

Toronto Raptors (56-23, No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 3-0)

The Raptors have blitzed through an easy schedule over their last two weeks, but the team still does look very consistently good these days. Toronto is on a five-game winning streak with an average winning margin of 15.8 points.

Remember, the Raptors are the only team near the top of the league this season that has been without their top two players for significant time. Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry have missed 22 and 16 games this season, respectively, but they are healthy right now. Many of those games for Leonard were just rest games to keep his workload manageable.

With injuries to key Bucks players Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell, it is reasonable to suggest that the Raptors are the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

Golden State Warriors (54-24, No. 1 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 3-0)

The Warriors have had a roller coaster season. They go from completely toying with teams to losing to the worst squads in the NBA in the blink of an eye.

This week, at least, they played like a team that has five All-Star caliber players. Golden State sprinted out to leads of 104-59, 102-72 and 92-58 in its three games against the Charlotte Hornets, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively. Of course, all three ended up being very easy wins.

Over the final four games, look for the Warriors to keep figuring out their team chemistry in order to be completely ready for a fifth straight Finals run.

One thing is for sure right now: Golden State is thriving at what it does best (three-point shooting) these days. In the Warriors’ last nine games, they are knocking down 14.9 threes per game at a 42.3 percent clip. Their opponents are hitting just 10.6 threes per game at a 30.9 percent rate in that time frame.

NBA Week 24 Fallers

Charlotte Hornets (36-42, No. 10 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-2)

The Hornets lost the two games they were supposed to lose this week to the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz, and they beat the New Orleans Pelicans. The way those games transpired is a bit concerning.

Against Golden State, Charlotte was down 104-59 (!) in the third quarter before falling 137-90 in the end. Against the Jazz, the Hornets were down by 20 points most of the second half before Kemba Walker scored 22 points in the final 5:04 to narrow the final margin to nine points.

Then, against the New Orleans Pelicans minus some important players, the Hornets needed Walker to bail them out in the fourth quarter. The All-Star point guard had 21 points in the last 10 minutes of the game.

The Hornets have a very slim chance at still making the playoffs. More concerning is the future of this team, which looks pretty grim right now. It is just way too much of the Kemba Walker show and not enough help from his teammates.

San Antonio Spurs (45-34, No. 8 in the Western Conference, Past week record: 1-2)

While most of the other Western Conference playoff teams have ramped up their play in the last couple weeks, the Spurs have been quite uneven. San Antonio is 3-5 in its last eight games with several games in that stretch playing down to inferior competition. The Spurs lost to the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and Sacramento Kings in that stretch and just barely edged out the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers at home.

San Antonio has an interesting roster of several players with severe strengths and weaknesses. At the moment, it seems the Spurs are struggling to finding balance in their rotation. One reason for the struggles is that breakout guard Derrick White has fallen off offensively after producing very well from January to mid-March. The team as a whole is extremely inconsistent on defense.

The Spurs have an easier schedule in their final three games and they will need to take advantage. They would love to win all three games and likely climb back up to the No. 7 seed in the West to avoid the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs’ first round.

Philadelphia 76ers (49-30, No. 3 in the Eastern Conference, Past week record: 1-3)

The 76ers get a second straight week on the “fallers” list with a very discouraging stretch of games. Philadelphia lost to both the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks, two teams way lower in the standings. The Mavericks loss was by 20 points. They did lose a close game to the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday, which is excusable.

Granted, there have been a few injury absences here and there in the past week, but Philly is just playing very uninspired basketball at the wrong time. Their depth is still a major weakness, as no one is really stepping up off the bench as a consistent contributor. The Sixers have the NBA’s fourth-worst defense since March 16. Effort and scheming is a big reason.

Philadelphia makes a very concerted effort to prevent three-point shots, but it often comes at the expense of good interior defense. The team isn’t quick enough to cover both the three-point arc and the paint well.