Welcome to the hard part.
You're past that initial rush of late fall and early season. You're past the bump of playing to get to the holidays. Now you're trying to survive the next two months until the All-Star break, and hoping injuries, malaise, and the basketball gods keep their hexes off of you. This is the rough part of the NBA season.
Injuries and fatigue start to set in. More teams have nights where they're just off. At the same time, you can't keep saying "Well, it's still early." It's no longer early. It's nearly mid-season. Most teams will have figured out what kind of season they're going to have by the time they hit the trade deadline. If you're underperforming, you have two months to fix what ails you. If you're a good team you have two months to survive.
The playoffs are a distant dream. It's cold, it's dark, and this is where it gets difficult to find the ability to stay consistent.
Sunday brought uncharacteristic intensity from the Cavaliers and Warriors for a midseason matchup. It made the Cavaliers' come-from-behind victory all the more impressive. The two teams meet again in mid-January, but for the most part, we know where we're at. The Warriors are a team that can thrash any bottom feeder but still aren't beyond weakness, at least not against the Cavaliers. The Cavaliers aren't perfect, but they're the champions for a reason.
Now is about finding ways to grind through. Teams like Chicago and Detroit are finding out how hard that is. The NBA season is long, and this is the long, messy middle. Welcome to the hard part. Let's find out how you respond.
Here are this week's power rankings.
|You wanted a statement game? You got a statement game. No J.R. Smith, Warriors added Kevin Durant, and the Cavaliers just found a way to get the win, again. LeBron was LeBron, but don't overlook contributions from Kyrie Irving, who was terrific on both ends in the fourth quarter, and Kevin Love. Back on top, Cavs.||2||51-31|
|The Spurs put a beating on the Bulls, and are now third in defense per 100 possessions. Their offense is back to a seamless, well-oiled machine of clinical demolition.||2||22-60|
|The Warriors still have the league's best record, the second best offense and second-best defense. On paper, everything's great. But watching them, they do not have an air of invincibility. That matters, for them, and their opponents. They're going to have to earn it, and the Cavaliers just gained even more confidence in how they match up with the super-duper team. But the Warriors showed little of their full capability in terms of scheme. And now, back to winning 80% of their games.||1||44-38|
|Toronto usually struggles on this long West road trip, and they face the Warriors and Spurs in the next 10 days. But this team is best situated to turn a challenge into an opportunity over the duration of the road trip which also has winnable games vs. the Lakers and Suns.||1||41-41|
|I'm going easy on them, because without Capela, hanging with San Antonio was a good loss. Things will get worse before they get better without Capela, but don't expect much of a dropoff vs. the majority of the league for the Rockets. Their formula will work.||4||22-60|
|A three-game winning streak including a quality win vs. the Celtics and the Thunder are now top-15 in offense and defense. More importantly, they've stopped playing down to bad teams with double-digit wins vs. inferior teams. The Thunder are getting their head screwed on more and more as the year goes on.||2||40-42|
|Some really good wins the past two weeks for Boston, which needed some gains vs. the better teams in the league. They lost to the Thunder, because Westbrook dropped a 45-point triple-double. With games vs. Memphis and Cleveland this week, a real chance to put themselves on the map as the East contender we talked about in preseason.||3||57-25|
|I'm not going to punish them for the back-to-back losses to Cleveland, especially with one in OT. Did you know that they're one of only four teams that are top-10 in both offense and defense? And their schedule is tissue paper until late January. Keep an eye out for Milwaukee.||1||58-24|
|The Grizzlies have the second-worst offense in the league and yet are eight games over .500. They are confounding by any statistical analysis, and then you watch them and you just go "Oh, yeah, OK, they just play well in areas they need to." Their schedule is softer this week but gets absolutely brutal starting in January. Then again, every time I say that, they go on a winning streak. Who knows? It's Memphis.||2||51-31|
|They manage to go nowhere thanks to teams behind them failing to surge enough and their own split of beating San Antonio short-handed and losing to the Lakers in the same spot. Injuries are starting to catch up with them; the season is long, and every team has dips. The Clippers are probably going to hit a dip here for a while, not because of any one injury, but the aggregate.||1||44-38|
|Charlotte has maybe 2-3 wins that what you would call signature. They have a great point differential, but they're not scaring anyone right now. They have to get another punch offensively. I think they're capable of it as a team, but it's missing right now. That said, three in a row with a soft week coming up.||1||27-55|
|Beat the Thunder, lost to the Wolves, stole one vs. Denver. Sure. OK, Atlanta. I continue to have the feeling Atlanta's going to wind up in a mid-tier playoff seed, with a team that scares no one in May. It just seems fated at this point.||2||41-41|
|Three losses, two blowouts vs. good teams and a bad loss to a bad team. Maybe it's enough that Utah is just better than most. They are definitely a playoff team. They can worry about where to go from there after they actually get there. But they are still a ways away from being ready to trade haymakers, though injuries continue to be legitimate explanations for their downswings.||7||37-45|
|The Wizards are one trade away from being a playoff lock. It's not even a superstar trade. Just a good trade that resolves some of their chemistry and gives them a little boost. They are really close to being a really good team, but are currently a comfortable distance from even "good." It's not that they don't work, it's that they don't work well enough.||1||35-47|
|New York made a good showing in that Boston game on Christmas, even in a loss. But their defense is just too bad for them to be taken seriously. They have more going for them than a lot of the other 7/8-spot contenders in the East, though.||2||47-35|
|One game under .500, with over half their games at home so far where they are 11-5. I am suspicious of this team being worse than their record.||2||35-47|
|Have a week, Kings. Three in a row and five of seven for Sacramento after last week's drama. I feel like I've seen this movie before, where they surge after a Boogie Cousins ruckus, only to then fall apart again when things get quiet. But hey, maybe this one will be different. Finally.||7||48-34|
|They are who we thought they were. Their biggest problem is that they can't slow their downward momentum. There's no parachute, they're just increasing downward velocity. The offense has been horrible with Dwyane Wade on the court the past two weeks, the defense has been bad with Jimmy Butler in the same time span. That can't happen if Chicago's going to make the playoffs.||3||40-42|
|They are that friend who, when everyone else is ready to go to dinner, is still taking forever waiting on a phone call and trying to get their things together. It's not that they're jerks, but you're really hungry and you just wish they'd get their stuff together.||4||34-48|
|It's like that arena gag where the guy takes off his over-shirt and is wearing an opponent's jersey underneath before the mascot hits him in the face with a pie. The Pistons took off their over-shirt and revealed they are that team where just nothing is going right this season. You can look at the Mavs and say they're old, look at the Wolves and say they're young. The Pistons' problems are far uglier right now. They have a better chance of getting it together, but the problems are inked in their team DNA right now and that's hard to find a quick fix for.||4||17-65|
|Michael Malone picked up a (questionable) tech in a one-point loss to Atlanta and kept a red-hot Danilo Gallinari out of the lineup for the final minutes. Denver has straight up pulled a loss rabbit from a victory hat about six times at home this season.||2||53-29|
|The Pels have won two of three, but don't get excited. They were vs. the Heat and Sixers. They also have poor shooters and bad rebounding. Not a great combo.||4||42-40|
|Dallas has graduated from woeful to "admirably pesky." And hey, Dirk's back. It's a holiday miracle!||4||38-44|
|I've got a funny feeling we're going to see some big moves and a lot of D-League call-ups for Miami in the second half of this season.||2||44-38|
|They've lost 12 of 14 games, so no, I am not going to bump them for beating the Clips without Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick. Sorry. We have to have some measure of self-respect here. (No we don't, but let's pretend.)||4||43-39|
|Here's a question: What are the Wolves good at? Offense? They're 17th in effective field goal percentage. They just have very little to hang their hat on as positives in a sea of negativity.||1||42-40|
|A really impressive gamut of terrible losses for the Blazers recently. Bad team they should beat? Yup, lost to the Kings. Run out of the building by a team they want to compete with? Golden State housed them. A short-handed team resting several starters? The Spurs took them down. Portland is a portrait of graceful ineptitude right now.||7||33-49|
|A forgettable basketball team with a bunch of guys who will probably help other teams several years in the future. Somehow making "ahead of their time" into a bad thing.||1||45-37|
|You know, seven or eight more top-three picks and the Sixers might really have something.||1||54-28|
|Whoever gave them the Raptors, Cavs and Warriors in back-to back-to-back games was a not nice person and I hope they got coal in their stocking.||--||45-37|