5. Denver Nuggets
Arising out of middle of the road play and an underwhelming start to the season, the Nuggets have slowly heated up and have now caught stride. As of Sunday before their game against the Celtics, they sit at 9-1 in their last 10 outings, their last eight in a row. This period included wins over the 76ers and Clippers as well as back-to-back wins against the Spurs, in a season where double-headers have frequently caused good teams to drop to weak opponents. With a safe lead over the Trail Blazers and the closest team behind them an injured Lakers squad, they have nowhere to go but up. Unless they can keep on fire and take advantage of some lull from the Clippers, expect to see them as a safe four seed, likely moving to the second round.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
Despite all the hype surrounding a potential renaissance in the East, an explosion in the West and a slew of disappointments from the Nets and the Bucks have again left the 76ers as the only Eastern Conference team in the power rankings. However, this should not make Philadelphia look any less daunting as an opponent. This team can on any given night beat any opponent, and they certainly have the capacity to win any series in the postseason. More than likely, the constant close games for Brooklyn will stop tilting their way so frequently and they will begin accumulating more losses. When this starts, the 76ers should not only retake the top seed in the East but run away with that top seed. No team in their conference looks more likely to make the Finals, but do not discount the potential for a lower seed to surprise them.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers, although they have not played like it at every point this year, are absolutely stacked. With a recent win over the ever-improving Suns and a 17 point defeat of the Trail Blazers, they have reminded the world just how dangerous they can be. The Nuggets could potentially displace them, but it seems less than likely. If Phoenix ever cools off, Los Angeles could hope to displace them and take a better first-round matchup, which right now makes the difference between taking Playoffs Dame in Portland or the inconsistent Mavericks. They will almost certainly secure either a second or third seed, and a first-round upset seems unlikely. The odds of a Finals run seems roughly equal to that of Utah, Phoenix and maybe even Denver.
1. Utah Jazz (tie)
While Utah will not drop the top seed in the power rankings that they have held for so long, they will have to concede a smaller defeat. For the final list, they will share the top slot, appearing more as a one-and-a-half seed rather than a complete one. A two seed seems unfair, as they still have only lost close games and still very much appear capable of beating any given team, especially in a series format, but nonetheless another team seems to have surpassed them. Monday’s loss against the Mavericks hurts them much worse than Wednesday’s overtime disappointment, but their slight cushion as first in the West still makes them look like an arguable best. They will without a doubt secure the number one seed in their conference and almost as surely make the second round. All uncertainty left remains contingent on how clutch this team will be when the moment comes.
1. Phoenix Suns (tie)
With an impressive overtime win on Wednesday over the Jazz, the Suns will take over the coveted top spot in the power rankings. The exhaustion from such a feat resulted in a blown chance at back-to-back eyebrow-raisers with a loss the following night against the Clippers, but considering they played extra minutes on Wednesday only to hop on a plane to Los Angeles and play the next, the missed opportunity seems forgivable. Although they still seem somewhat unlikely to claim the top seed in the West by the end of the regular season, they seem to have a good chance at security in the second spot and a guarantee not to drop below third. No lower seed will eliminate Phoenix in the first round. Only a Clippers squad at full capacity can really hope to put an end to their aspirations of a Conference championship.
Hot Seat: Brooklyn Nets
While they have to make an appearance in some capacity as the leading team in the Eastern Conference, Brooklyn seems less and less likely to make a Finals appearance with each outing. While much of sports media may tout their win streaks they can build and always impress L10, no one should forget about their inability to play like a top-tier team. Monday’s win over the Knicks came by just two points, and Sunday contained a loss to the Bulls who currently sit outside the threshold for the postseason, in the weaker Eastern Conference no less. Not to mention, many of their games come against weak teams, and their schedule overall has looked like one of the easiest. They won four straight before losing to the Bulls, but those wins came against the Pistons by two, the Timberwolves by five, the Rockets by 12 and the Hornets by 22. They beat bad teams by poor margins. And of course, this string came after a 30 point rout at the hands of the Jazz. They will take a likely second or third seed in the postseason, but no top seed seems more likely to fall in the first round than this one. A Finals appearance looks impossible.