Week 18 NBA power rankings: Spurs creeping up on Warriors


USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick discusses how the Warriors will miss Kevin Durant’s defensive prowess while he’s out.
USP NBA: SAN ANTONIO SPURS AT NEW ORLEANS PELICANS S BKN NOP SAS USA LA
(Photo: Derick E. Hingle, USAT)

USA TODAY Sports’ NBA power rankings for Week 18 (Sunday, Feb. 26 through Saturday, March 4) of the 2016-17 season.

► MVP race: Kawhi Leonard rising, Isaiah Thomas back in top five

► ROY race: Dario Saric overtakes Joel Embiid as No. 1

TEAM (RECORD) MOVEMENT

1. Golden State Warriors (50-11) -

The biggest news of the week for the Warriors came Wednesday, when it was announced that Kevin Durant will miss at least four weeks with a Grade 2 MCL sprain and tibial bone bruise. Reigning back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry said the Warriors will “be fine” in Durant’s absence, but with Tuesday night’s loss to the Wizards (Durant played two minutes before leaving) and Thursday night’s loss to the Bulls (the Warriors scored 87 points to Chicago’s 94) — the gap between the Warriors and second-place Spurs is closing quickly.

2. San Antonio Spurs (48-13) -

Riding an NBA-best seven-game winning streak, San Antonio’s last three wins came by the skin of their teeth. But they were wins all the same. On Wednesday, Kawhi Leonard hit a game-winning jumper in the final seconds to give the Spurs a one-point win over the Pacers. On Friday, the Spurs held on to beat New Orleans in overtime when a potential game-tying three-pointer from DeMarcus Cousins missed wide left. On Saturday, the Spurs fought back after a slow start to beat the Timberwolves by seven in overtime.

3. Houston Rockets (44-19) +1

The Rockets have scored an NBA-best 116.9 points per 100 possessions during their past 10 games — eight of which have been wins. They also have the NBA’s eighth-ranked defense (104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) during that span, which is an area assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik has focused on since being hired by Houston over the summer.

“These guys have been terrific. They understand the importance of defending,” Bzdelik told reporters last month. “They understand that we just can’t decide to turn it on come playoff time. You’re gonna rely on your habits come April. So we need to constantly be developing great habits all the time.”

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (42-19) -1

The Cavaliers went 2-2 this week, with wins over the Bucks (102-95 on Monday) and Hawks (135-130 on Friday) and losses to the Celtics (103-99 on Wednesday) and Heat (120-92 on Saturday). In the win over Atlanta, the defending champs knocked down an NBA-record 25 three-pointers. In the loss to Miami, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving — who combined for 81 points against Atlanta — took the night off.

5. Utah Jazz (38-24) -

The Jazz had two wins (102-92 over the Wizards; 112-97 over the Nets) and two losses (109-106 to the Thunder; 107-80 to the Timberwolves) this week. In the loss to the Thunder, Utah squandered up a four-point lead in the final minute thanks to Russell Westbrook, who hit a three-pointer and converted a three-point play. In the loss to the Timberwolves, the Jazz shot 38.9% from the field, 21.1% from beyond the arc and 54.5% from the free throw line.

6. Boston Celtics (40-22) -

With Wednesday’s down-to-the-wire, 103-99 win over the Cavaliers, who were led by a LeBron James triple-double (28 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists) — the Celtics proved fully capable of competing with the defending champs. Sitting comfortably in second place in the East, Boston is just 2½ games behind Cleveland.

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7. Los Angeles Clippers (37-25) -

After losing four of five, the Clippers pulled off a much-needed win on Saturday in Chicago, led by three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, who finished with 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Now in fifth place in the West, expect the Clippers to fight with fourth-place Utah (the Clippers have won the first two of the four-game season series) for homecourt advantage the rest of the way.

8. Washington Wizards (36-24) +1

After stumbling out of the All-Star break, the Wizards put together a statement victory over the Kevin Durant-less Warriors on Tuesday. They followed it up with a nine-point win over the fourth-place Raptors on Wednesday, led by recently-acquired sixth man Bojan Bogdanovic (27 points). The Wizards weren’t able to go back-to-back over Toronto, though, as they lost 114-106 on Friday, giving the Raptors the season series.

9. Toronto Raptors (37-26) -1

The Raptors (4-2 since All-Star break) have been able to survive without Kyle Lowry thus far, but the All-Star point guard is expected to be out until the playoffs, so Toronto will need other players to shoulder more of the scoring load moving forward. In Saturday night’s loss to the Bucks, All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan was held to just 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

GALLERY: WEEK 18 NBA POWER RANKINGS

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10. Memphis Grizzlies (36-27) -

Chandler Parsons, who signed a four-year, $94 million contract over the summer, has played just 32 games for the Grizzlies this season while recovering from multiple knee surgeries. He’s averaging career-lows across the board: six points, 33.5% shooting (25% on threes), 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 19.7 minutes. But despite his seemingly never-ending struggles, Grizzlies coach David Fizdale is opting to keep Parsons in the starting lineup.

“(Starting is) where he’s more comfortable,” Fizdale said after Saturday’s loss to the Rockets, per Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal. “That’s the biggest thing – I want him to be comfortable and get connected with his teammates. I really can’t waste time bringing him off the bench where he’s not playing with the guys he’s been brought here to play with. We tossed around all of those ideas with him. But, at the end of the day, I still feel like we’re not there yet to even be thinking about him playing off the bench.”

11. Oklahoma City Thunder (35-27) -

The Thunder lost two games this week (114-109 at Portland on Thursday; 118-111 at Phoenix on Friday) despite superhuman performances from Russell Westbrook (46.5-point, 12.5-rebound, 6.5-assist averages). They also won two games this week (118-110 against New Orleans on Sunday; 109-106 against Utah on Tuesday) behind just-as-superhuman performances from Westbrook (42-point, 11-rebound, 10.5-assist averages).

12. Atlanta Hawks (34-27) -

The Hawks snapped a three-game losing streak with Monday’s 114-98 win over the Celtics,…