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15. Los Angeles Clippers (10)
The Clippers’ hot start feels like it happened years ago, as a brutal stretch sent them tumbling from their early-December perch atop the West. Only the Knicks and Cavs have been worse on defense this month.
Tobias Harris had 39 in Monday’s loss to Portland, but he’s been short on help as Lou Williams’ absence has created a scoring void.
The Clips aren’t as bad as they’ve been this month, but it’s now safe to say they’re nowhere near as good as they looked through the end of November.
14. Utah Jazz (15)
The Jazz are up to second in defensive efficiency since Dec. 1, a welcome sign for a team whose early struggles on that end were among the biggest mysteries in the league.
In Wednesday’s home win over the Warriors, the Jazz overcame Donovan Mitchell’s worst shooting night of the season, a 5-of-26 clunker in which he had more turnovers than field-goals, Utah leaned on its stopping power to limit the NBA’s No. 2 offense to a 45.3 effective field-goal percentage.
Identity rediscovered, Utah should now start seeing some better results.
13. Dallas Mavericks (11)
If superhuman court vision by 19-year-olds factored into the rankings criteria, Dallas would probably be locked into our No. 1 spot for the umpteenth consecutive week. Luka Doncic put on a true passing clinic during 126-118 loss at Denver, piling up 12 assists and finding shooters on the weak side corner like they had homing beacons attached to them.
The Mavs have hit a rough patch of late, though, and Doncic’s passing, while breathtaking, hasn’t been enough to overcome cold shooting and shoddy defense.
Dallas won’t see an opponent from the softer East until after New Year’s, so the upcoming stretch could get ugly.
12. Portland Trail Blazers (20)
Portland took down the Raptors, Clippers and Grizzlies in a 3-0 week that saw Damian Lillard average 29 points per game. The run has the Blazers all the way back up to 18-13 on the year, but since they play in the West, they’re still just two games out of the lottery.
The Blazers don’t generate many extra possessions by forcing opponent turnovers, as they rank 29th in that stat on the season. Fortunately, Portland is all the way up to fourth in offensive rebound percentage. There’s more than one way to create additional scoring chances.
11. San Antonio Spurs (18)
We should all just start keeping some version of the following pasted to a clipboard for use whenever the Spurs inevitably render rumors of their demise premature.
San Antonio has won six of its last seven behind a dialed-in defense and timely shooting, rising from outside the playoff race to position itself, once again, for a postseason trip.
That’s exactly what’s happened with the Spurs lately, but you’d only have to change a word or two to make it apply when they do this again in 2019. Or 2020. Or 2050, for that matter. It’ll be a real time-saver.
The Spurs are the cockroaches of the NBA, and that is absolutely a compliment. They will outlive us all.