Monday, March 31, 2014

How Frisky Are Noah and the Bulls? (Power Rankings, Week 22)

This week, we saw the Eastern Conference's top two teams in a heavyweight matchup that even featured brawls in the stands. We also watched a few haymakers -- both literal and figurative -- in other possible playoff previews.

In this week's rankings, San Antonio stays in the top spot after yet another week of absolutely abusing its opponents. Meanwhile, despite losing Blake Griffin to back spasms, the Clippers defeated Houston on Saturday night to retain the second position in the rankings. The Rockets held onto the fourth spot, just behind the Thunder.

Below are the complete power rankings, followed by deeper looks at Joakim Noah's Chicago Bulls and Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder.

Here are my Week 22 Power Rankings, with all records current through Sunday:
30. Philadelphia 76ers (16-57)
29. Milwaukee Bucks (14-59)
28. Utah Jazz (23-51)
27. Orlando Magic (21-53)
26. Boston Celtics (23-50)
25. Los Angeles Lakers (25-48)
24. Sacramento Kings (25-48)
23. Detroit Pistons (26-47) 
22. Denver Nuggets (32-41)
21. New Orleans Pelicans (32-41)
20. Cleveland Cavaliers (30-45)
19. Atlanta Hawks (31-41)
18. New York Knicks (31-43)
17. Minnesota Timberwolves (36-36)
16. Charlotte Bobcats (35-38)
15. Washington Wizards (38-35)
14. Brooklyn Nets (39-33)
13 Chicago Bulls (41-32)
12. Dallas Mavericks (44-30)
11. Toronto Raptors (42-31)
10. Phoenix Suns (44-30)
9. Memphis Grizzlies (43-30)
8. Golden State Warriors (45-28)
7. Portland Trail Blazers (48-27)
6. Miami Heat (50-22)
5. Indiana Pacers (52-22)
4. Houston Rockets (49-23)
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (54-19)
2. Los Angeles Clippers (52-22) 
1. San Antonio Spurs (57-16)

Chicago Bulls
(Photo via guardianlv.com)
Much to my dismay, a great deal of the 2014 NBA coverage has devolved into a Joakim Noah lovefest. I have to admit that Noah deserves the praise, though. In Sunday night's win in Boston, Noah scored 13 points and dished out 13 assists. He now has more dimes in the fourth quarter than anyone else in the league. And he's a CENTER. Amazing.

Noah has become the fulcrum of Chicago's offense while also anchoring the second-most efficient defense in the league. The big man's rapport with Tom Thibodeau is similar to the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich partnership. I've always found Noah contempti-Bull, but this season he's been unbelieva-Bull.*

*Sorry.

Without Derrick Rose, trade acquisition D.J. Augustin has done an admirable job of picking up some of the slack. Augustin is dropping a career-high 12.2 points per game, including an average of 15.3 points in his last 10 games. He poured in 33 in Sunday's win over the Celtics.

Meanwhile, Taj Gibson has become a front-runner in the Sixth Man of the Year race. Gibson has scored 13.4 points per game and provided solid defense and rebounding to lead the Bulls' second unit.

The Bulls are very inefficient offensively, but there's no way Miami wants to see Chicago's defense in Round 2. It should be fun to watch Noah and Co. try to get into the heads of the Heat or Pacers in the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder
(Photo via zimbio.com)
Oklahoma City's track record tells us that it's a championship-caliber team, and team stats back up that claim. The Thunder are third in the NBA in point differential, and they fall in the top seven in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Their young legs could prove crucial in the Western Conference playoffs, which should feature three rounds of hard-fought series.

Kevin Durant has obviously had a phenomenal year, and we've written at length about that here. At this point, he's the correct choice for league MVP.

Serge Ibaka has also had a great season. He's averaging 15 points and 8.7 rebounds per game and has become a really reliable midrange shooter. On the other end of the floor, he's again doing a solid job of protecting the rim and anchoring the Thunder defense.

Oklahoma City needs Jeremy Lamb to regain the shooting form he displayed earlier in the season. He's averaging just 3.8 points on 31 percent shooting in his last 10 games. The Thunder will look for him, Caron Butler, and Reggie Jackson to take some pressure off of Durant, Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook in the postseason.

OKC has nine games left and it doesn't look like the Thunder will be able to catch the Spurs for the No. 1 overall seed. Instead of fruitlessly chasing San Antonio, they'll probably rest players in the last few games and get ready for the bloodbath that will be the West playoffs.  


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