The four-team battle for No. 1 out West. Plus, about the Wizards benching Jordan Poole


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In the words of Lloyd Christmas, “We landed on the moon!” Again!

Wild, Wild West

How will it shake out?

There’s a pretty epic battle going on for the top four spots in the Western Conference standings. The Thunder are a game and a half ahead of the 36-18 Clippers (after thumping LA, 129-107, last night) and 37-19 Nuggets (who beat Washington 130-110). With these teams aiming for home-court advantage, let’s break down the race for No. 1:

1. Minnesota Timberwolves (39-16)

  • Season series: OKC (2-2), LAC (2-0), DEN (1-0)
  • Remaining strength of schedule: 20th
  • Remaining top-eight opponents: Kings, Clippers (2x), Nuggets (3x), Suns (2x)
  • Strengths: Top-ranked defense in the league; Anthony Edwards is a monster.
  • Weakness: Rank 26th in turnovers per game.

Basketball-Reference gives the Wolves a 64.7 percent likelihood to grab the top seed. As long as they go at least 4-2 in their remaining Northwest Division games, they’ll win the tiebreaker over OKC.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder (38-17)

  • Season series: MIN (2-2), LAC (2-1), DEN (3-1)
  • Remaining strength of schedule: 24th
  • Remaining top-eight opponents: Suns (2x), Mavs (2x), Pelicans, Kings
  • Strengths: Top four in both offensive and defensive rating.
  • Weakness: Currently ranks 29th in rebounding percentage.

The Thunder holds the tiebreaker over the Clippers and Nuggets. They’ll need some help from Denver to get the tiebreaker over Minnesota. Basketball-Reference gives OKC a 24.7 percent chance at the No. 1 seed.

3. LA Clippers (36-18)

  • Season series: MIN (0-2), OKC (1-2), DEN (1-2)
  • Remaining strength of schedule: 11th
  • Remaining top-eight opponents: Kings (2x), Wolves (2x), Pelicans, Nuggets, Suns (2x)
  • Strengths: Their offense is out of this world (third), and this team has been rolling for months (33-11 record since Nov. 17 is NBA’s second-best).
  • Weaknesses: They’re a bottom 10 defensive rebounding team, part of the reason their defense is outside the top 10.

Basketball-Reference gives the Clippers just a 7.3 percent finish atop the West, probably because they don’t have any tiebreakers over these other three teams.

4. Denver Nuggets (37-19)

  • Season series: MIN (0-1), OKC (1-3), LAC (2-1)
  • Remaining strength of schedule: 18th
  • Remaining top-eight opponents: Kings, Suns (2x), Mavs, Wolves (3x), Clippers
  • Strengths: The Nuggets are the reigning champions and are healthy.
  • Weakness: They are a bad free-throw shooting team and lose the charity-stripe battle often.

Denver has just a 1.3 percent chance at the top seed, but I’m guessing the Nuggets are comfortable with where they are.

The Latest From Shams

Pistons’ Stewart to sit several games for fight

The NBA has suspended Pistons C/F Isaiah Stewart for three games after his altercation with the Suns’ Drew Eubanks. Stewart was arrested and issued a citation last week after striking Eubanks in the face. Phoenix Municipal Court dismissed an assault charge afterward.

Pistons reporter James Edwards detailed the fallout of Stewart’s suspension. His three-game absence will a game longer than his two-game ban for an incident with LeBron James in 2021. Stewart hasn’t played since Jan. 28 due to an ankle injury.

Jordan Poole Benched

How bad has this trade become?

I’m not sure we’ve seen a worse form of entertainment involving a pool/Poole since the movie “Swimfan.”

Wizards interim coach Brian Keefe made the decision to move Jordan Poole to the bench for the time being, as the Wizards enter the final stretch of their first season amid their rebuild. After starting the team’s first 52 games, Poole will be a reserve as the Wizards look for more opportunities for rookie Bilal Coulibaly in the starting lineup.

The headline is “Poole to the bench,” but we need a better descriptor – like when Klay Thompson was moved to the bench for the Warriors. Benched, to me, means Poole won’t play. Maybe we can come up with something like, “The Wizards Sixth Man’d his ass,” but we must also ensure that it doesn’t infer he was turned into a ghost to help Marlon Wayans play college basketball.

Poole has been atrocious and disinterested all season long. His 15.6 points per game are down nearly five points from last season, when he was the third- or fourth-best option on the Warriors. Poole is supposed to be the No. 1 option in Washington, but he’s shooting under 40 percent overall and 30.4 percent from deep. Both are, by far, his lowest such efficiencies since his rookie season in 2019-20.

Contractually, Poole still has $95.5 million over the next three seasons, all fully guaranteed. We could absolutely see him start caring again and become the scoring machine we saw from a couple seasons ago. But as of right now, the Wizards moved Chris Paul (acquired in the Bradley Beal trade) for Poole, Ryan Rollings (released after shoplifting allegations), Patrick Baldwin Jr. (barely played and been bad), a 2027 second-rounder and a 2030 first-rounder (top-20 protected, and it’s a second if it doesn’t convey).

A year ago, many of us wondered aloud if Rudy Gobert’s trade to Minnesota was the worst deal ever, but it now looks pretty good for the Wolves. Things can turn around in Washington, but acquiring the NBA embodiment of “malaise” is not looking great. At least the “Sixth Man’ing” didn’t keep Poole from giving us another GIF gem last night

About Last Night

NBA’s stretch run is in full swing

Our first night back from All-Star break was full of action. We’ve recapped two matchups, so let’s see happened with the other 10:

Mavs 123, Suns 113: That Luka Dončić MVP chatter keeps getting louder. He had 41 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds to notch Dallas’ seventh straight win. The Mavericks moved to sixth ahead of Phoenix (both are 33-23). Also, please don’t call players derogatory terms and have your significant other pitch their podcast to him.

Magic 116, Cavs 109: No Orlando starter had more than 14 points, but Mo Wagner had 22 of the Magic’s 63 bench points. Orlando (31-25, seventh in East) has won seven of 10. Cleveland (36-18, second in East) is two games ahead of Milwaukee but had no Donovan Mitchell last night.

Knicks 110, 76ers 96: The Knicks (34-22, fourth in East) dominated the first half and cruised to victory despite Tyrese Maxey’s 35 points in 40 minutes. New York is a game out of the No. 3 seed. The 76ers (32-23, fifth in East) sits 1.5 games away from Play-In territory.

Warriors 128, Lakers 110: The Warriors (28-26, 10th in West) relied on an easy, game-high 32 points for Steph Curry. Klay Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis also did their part. Sadly, the Lakers (30-27, ninth in West) without LeBron James just can’t compete.

Kings 127, Spurs 122: De’Aaron Fox was massive down the stretch and made enough plays for the Kings to survive Victor Wembanyama’s 19 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, five steals and four assists in 31 minutes. Sacramento (32-23, seventh in West) sits 1.5 games from fifth.

Celtics 129, Bulls 112: Are we going to get a Derrick White All-Star Snub revenge tour? He had 28 points on 9-of-14 shooting. East-leading Boston (44-12) has won seven straight.

Pelicans 127, Rockets 105: The 34-22 Pelicans are up to fifth in the West. The Rockets (24-31, 12th in West) are now 4.5 out of the Play-In Tournament.

Hornets 115, Jazz 107: Don’t look now, but the Hornets of Charlotte (14-41, 13th in East) have now won four straight games. This is an awful loss for the Jazz (26-31, 11th in West), and I’m ready to call their season.

Pacers 129, Pistons 115: We don’t do moral victories, especially when you were down 29 at the half. But Detroit did force five Tyrese Haliburton turnovers. The Pacers (32-25, sixth in East) are 2.5 games behind the No. 4 spot.

Raptors 121, Nets 93: Maybe it was more than just a Jacque Vaughn coaching issue? At least the Raptors are figuring out their own issues.

Bounce Passes

If the Warriors fix their fourth-quarter issues, will they salvage their season?

Tyrese Haliburton should become the next great star in this league.

What’s going on with Monty Williams’ rotations for the Pistons?

Screen Game (All times Eastern)

    • Main Screen: Bucks-Wolves (10 p.m. ESPN). If the Wolves win, how will Doc Rivers deflect the blame?
    • Second Screen: Spurs-Lakers (10:30 p.m.). Wemby against Anthony Davis was brilliant in December.
    • League Pass Game of the Night: Heat-Pelicans (8 p.m.). This could be a defensive clinic by both teams. Full schedule here.

(Top photo: Patrick Smith  / Getty Images )

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