The first full week of play after the NBA All-Star Weekend didn’t bring any massive surprises. The teams atop the NBA hierarchy (the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers) are both on win streaks of at least five games and the lowly New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors are both on losing runs of at least six games.
There was some significant movement in the NBA’s upper-middle and middle classes, however. The playoff seeding definitely changed a bit since last Saturday.
Let’s take a look at which teams are flying and which are flopping right now.
NBA Week 18 High Flyers
Sacramento Kings (25-34, No. 11 in Western Conference, Past week record: 3-1)
The Kings’ season looked like a disaster just over a month ago. Sacramento was 15-29 and on the heels of two separate losing streaks of eight games and six games in a span of five weeks.
Since then the Kings have gone 10-5 and wedged their way into the Western Conference playoff hunt. A big road win over the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies on Friday officially announced Sacramento as a threat to crash the postseason party. The squad is only three games out of the No. 8 seed now and it has seven of its next eight games at home.
What’s driving the Kings’ success right now? Point guard De’Aaron Fox is at the forefront, averaging 23 points per game over his last four contests and showing great consistency. Midseason acquisitions Kent Bazemore and Alex Len have also provided tremendous energy off the bench on both ends. Finally, you have to give a bunch of credit for third-year big man Harry Giles finally showing what he’s capable of (15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds on 59.1 percent shooting from the field in his last four games).
Orlando Magic (27-32, No. 7 in Eastern Conference, week record: 3-0)
The Magic averaged 103.1 points per game during their first 53 games of the year. In their last six games, they’ve hung an average of 123 points per game on their opponents. How’s that for a turnaround?
Forward Aaron Gordon is leading a balanced attack for Orlando with his attacking of the rim, hot three-point shooting and vastly improved passing. Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross are also putting up big scoring numbers for a team that is moving the ball well while hardly turning the ball over at all right now.
Is the Magic’s turnaround for real? The important thing to watch right now is whether Gordon can sustain his hot play. The 24-year-old has had hot stretches throughout his six seasons, but they have often fizzled out. If he sustains this, though, the Magic should be able to stay above the Brooklyn Nets for the seventh seed and avoid a dreaded first-round playoff matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Houston Rockets (38-20, No. 4 in Western Conference, week record: 3-0)
While it is too early to proclaim that the Rockets’ super-small-ball strategy is a title-worthy plan, I have to say that I’m very impressive with how well it has worked so far. In Houston’s current five-game winning streak, 55.4 percent of the team’s field-goal attempts have come from behind the arc. The squad is hitting 40.4 percent on those shots for a ridiculous effective field-goal percentage of 60.6.
On the defensive end, Houston’s versatility and quickness is running teams off the three-point line extremely well. Opponents are attempting to get a lot of shots at the rim, not realizing that the Rockets do have plenty of strong inside defenders despite being undersized.
Houston is very close to fully health and with new depth pieces Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll, the Rockets have enough players to spell their starters. Is this their year to break through for a Finals run?
NBA Week 18 Flops
Memphis Grizzlies (28-31, No. 8 in Western Conference, week record: 0-3)
We talk about the rookie wall mainly with players, but the rookie wall is hitting the Grizzlies as a whole right now. Memphis is a very young team that is starting to experience some significant adversity now as we hit the latter part of the season after a surprisingly good bulk of a campaign.
The Grizzlies have lost five contests in a row, losing by an average of 14.8 points in those games. You can point to the absences of key young big men Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke as reasons for the slide and you would be mostly right. Both guys are very versatile defensively and finish plays efficiently on offense.
The squad is hitting just nine threes per game in the skid. That’s a problem in a league where teams average more than 12 made threes per game and most of those teams aren’t playing as quickly as the Grizzlies are. If nothing else, the Grizzlies’ rough patch highlights the team’s need to add quality shooters in the offseason.
Utah Jazz (37-22, No. 5 in the Western Conference, week record: 1-3)
The Jazz are the streakiest team in the NBA. Starting on December 10 they won 19 of their next 21 games. Then they lost five games in a row. Then they won four games in a row. Then they lost four games in a row. Finally, on Friday, they broke the streak in a 129-119 home win over the Washington Wizards, but it definitely wasn’t a convincing victory.
For Utah, it’s just been tough to get a lot of key players playing well at the same time. Donovan Mitchell dropped at least 30 points in all four of his games this week, but fellow All-Star teammate Rudy Gobert averaged a very meager 10.8 points, 8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2 turnovers in 35.3 minutes per game.
The Jazz just continue to leave questions about their contender status unanswered. Knowing them, they’ll rattle off another win streak again following Friday’s win and make us all even more confused.
Brooklyn Nets (26-32, No. 8 in the Eastern Conference, week record: 1-3)
We’ve already discussed in this space about how this is a transitional season for the Nets. Without Kevin Durant for the entire season and with Kyrie Irving only playing 20 games this season, Brooklyn is looking for players who can be reliable role players next to its next two superstars.
The Nets are 18-20 overall with Irving out of the lineup, but the last three games have been brutal. Three games against sub-.500 teams probably should have resulted in two wins, but Brooklyn instead lost all three contests. The last game was a 141-118 loss against the 18-43 Atlanta Hawks.
Brooklyn’s players seem unmotivated right now, which isn’t a great look for a franchise that aspires to be in the NBA title conversation starting this fall. Over the final month and a half of the season, will guys like Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris show they are worthy of being big-minute role players next season next to KD and Kyrie?