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20. New Orleans Pelicans (18)
New Orleans went winless on its four-game road trip and has lost five straight overall—all by single digits.
Anthony Davis, who, at this point we must assume is just playing out the string with the Pelicans before a trade this summer, soldiers on for a Pels team short on talent and hit by injuries to Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton. He’s averaging 28.4 points, 15.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.4 blocks over his last five games—numbers that are right around what he’s done all year.
Even as hope slips away, AD is still giving what he can.
19. Miami Heat (23)
Behind the league’s lowest effective field-goal percentage allowed, Miami just completed the most impressive stretch of its season, a 5-1 surge that included wins over Houston and Milwaukee, plus a two-point loss to the Raptors on Wednesday.
Justise Winslow is the point guard now, officially, and the Heat have been playing more zone lately. Basically, a veteran-led, battle-tested and resourceful organization is doing everything it can think of to stay competitive. It’s worked. Miami is 9-4 since slipping to 7-13 a month ago.
18. Charlotte Hornets (16)
When you lose as many close games as the Hornets, it’s reasonable to search for tiny inefficiencies in the roster’s makeup. With close margins so often determining outcomes in Charlotte’s games, a rebound here or a lost ball there could make all the difference.
According to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, there’s one conspicuous issue that doesn’t take much searching to find: “It wasn’t a mistake to trade [Dwight] Howard. He would not have fit into the quick-decision/ball-movement style coach James Borrego was installing, and Howard would have chafed at an inevitable reduced role as a reserve. But Howard’s departure meant the Hornets had to become an ensemble rebounding team to mitigate that loss.”
Charlotte has lost two of its last three games and has outrebounded its opponents in just three of its last 14 contests.
17. Sacramento Kings (20)
The Kings erased 19-point deficits against Memphis and New Orleans, winning consecutive games with stirring comebacks. Buddy Hield has been scorching of late, and he put up 28 points in both victories.
Sacramento’s relentless pace-pushing means it can conjure staggering scoring blitzes whenever opponents who get a little too comfortable with leads stop to take a breath. Head coach Dave Joerger might prefer a more even-keeled approach, but the Kings’ swoon-and-surge method is producing results.
“The identity that we’re never out of a game, we love,” Joerger told reporters after Sunday’s comeback against the Pels. “The identity of starting slow because we’re going to catch you later is not what I’m looking for.”
Naturally, the Kings came from 15 down to beat the Lakers Thursday on Bogdan Bogdanovic’s buzzer-beating game-winner.
Sacramento currently has the lowest net rating of any team sniffing around playoff position. But when you’ve missed the postseason every year since 2006, you’ll punch your ticket however you can.
16. Dallas Mavericks (13)
Dallas pulled out of its nosedive with a 122-119 win over the Pels on Wednesday, mercifully halting a six-game plunge in which the average margin of defeat was only six points. Those close calls mean we can’t be as negative about the Mavs’ recent play as the record suggests we should, but from a playoff-position perspective, the skid has done real damage.
Dallas was 15-12 and firmly in the playoff picture on Dec. 12. Now, two weeks later, it’s on the outside with a 16-17 mark.
Obligatory Luka Doncic note: It was already hard to keep a lid on the exuberance surrounding Dallas’ rookie phenom, but it’ll be impossible if he continues hitting circus shots to send games to overtime. Or putting up lines like the one he produced against New Orleans: 21 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds and just one turnover in 31 minutes of a badly needed win.