It's hard to stay hot during the dog days of the NBA season, when basketball fans' attention shifts toward the NCAA Tournament, and when players look ahead to one of two things: To a nice beach for the offseason (if you're lottery-bound), or to the playoffs.
So it's even more impressive for a team to stay hot during this stretch.
For the Philadelphia 76ers, who seem fairly secure as the No. 3 seed in the East, they've remained hot in recent weeks, Saturday's loss to the Atlanta Hawks notwithstanding. This starting five -- Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick -- is absolutely nails. Since returning from injury, Embiid, in particular, has been awesome, averaging 29.2 points and 16.2 rebounds, including his 40-point tour de force last week in the upset road win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
James Harden has been nothing less than the hottest player in the NBA -- my MVP vote, if it were taken now. Since his streak of 30-point games started back in December, the Rockets have gone 37-14, and Harden has averaged just shy of 40 points -- including two consecutive games this week where he scored 57 and 61. It's concerning how much Houston leans on him, and you wonder if it'll all add up come playoff time. But for now, Harden is as hot of an NBA player as we've seen in quite some time, and the Rockets remain one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
And while the Denver Nuggets might have gotten smoked Sunday at Indiana, the NBA's best home team seems to have righted its listing ship with a six-game winning streak. Trust the Nuggets in the playoffs? I don't, not yet -- they just don't have the experience -- but fade them at your peril. The Nuggets with home-court advantage in a seven-game series will be a difficult out for anybody. Especially when Nikola Jokic does his thing, and when the Nuggets play capable defense -- they rank 10th in the NBA in defensive efficiency this season.
Let's take the temperature of every team in the NBA with the playoffs just around the corner.
|Temperature: The perfect whirlpool, whose heat can remain consistent all year long. Yes, the injuries for the Bucks are concerning, Malcolm Brogdon especially. Brogdon was averaging 15.6 points per game, and is likely to become the eighth player in NBA history to shoot better than 40 percent from 3, 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the free throw line. He went down with a minor plantar fascia tear that'll keep him sidelined through the first round of the playoffs. Then Nikola Mirotic went down with a fractured thumb. Then Pau Gasol went down with an ankle injury. The Bucks are one of the deepest teams in the NBA; their depth certainly has taken a hit. Small sample size, but the Bucks have lost twice in five games -- one of them to the lowly Cavaliers -- since Brogdon's injury.
|Temperature: Warm and staying steady. Sure, the Raptors are only 8-7 since the All-Star game, and dropped an absolutely brutal one on Sunday to the Hornets on a Jeremy Lamb half-court buzzer-beater. But this team still feels built for the playoffs. Home-court is close to out of reach at this point -- the Raptors are four games shy of the Bucks. But they are comfortably clear of the Sixers. So now they ought to be able to rest up until the playoffs.
|Temperature: As hot as they want to be. In some games -- like when Steph Curry was resting on Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks -- the Warriors simply don't show up. Hey, it's hard playing as many games as they have during this dynastic run. Things get a little bit boring. But ever since the eye-opening loss to the Suns, the Warriors have been pretty damn good, aside from that Mavericks loss. This is the most vulnerable the Warriors have been during their run. But they're still not actually vulnerable.
|Temperature: Burn-your-tongue hot, enough to wipe out a region of taste buds for a few days. Since the All-Star break, the Rockets are 14-3, with a net rating that's second-best in the NBA. Most importantly, their defense seems to have finally taken shape. In that span, the Rockets rank fourth in defensive efficiency.
|Temperature: Hot-ish. I was half-ready to call the Sixers one of the hottest teams in the NBA -- then they went out and lost to the Atlanta Hawks despite each of the starting five playing 30-plus minutes. (Trae Young will do that to you.) But that starting five has been one of the best five-man lineups in the NBA in its limited minutes so far this season (150 minutes together since Tobias Harris joined the team). That lineup has outscored opponents by 15.7 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-highest net rating for any five-man lineup that's played 150 or more minutes together. How good is Joel Embiid? Fourth in the NBA in points, second in rebounds, eighth in blocks, second in free throw attempts, seventh in player efficiency rating.
|Temperature: Like a cloudy day in the mountains -- don't underestimate, or you could get burned. The Nuggets had won six in a row before getting smoked Sunday in Indiana. For some reason -- this team's lack of experience, I suppose -- plenty of folks seem to be counting the Nuggets out come playoff time. I'm one of them. Yet the only teams with a better net rating this season than the Nuggets are teams that everyone considers title contenders: The Bucks, Raptors and Warriors. And the Nuggets with home-court advantage in the playoffs would be bru-tal -- they are tied with the Bucks for the best home record in the NBA.
|Temperature: Hot like a comfortable bath. The Blazers have won six of their last seven, with the only loss coming in San Antonio, where it's close to impossible to win these days. They better stay hot; while the 3-seed is very much in play -- the Blazers are in fourth, a game back of the Rockets -- so is the 8-seed, as only three games separate the Blazers and the eighth-place Spurs.
|Temperature: Hotter than a steaming hot plate of breakfast tacos from Torres Taco Haven. Since the disastrous Rodeo Road Trip, the Spurs have gone 10-2, including doing something uncharacteristic on Sunday: Beating a good team (the Celtics) on the road. Remember how weird it was that the Spurs were playing very un-Spurs-ian defense all season? Well, over the past 12 games, the Spurs have ranked third in the NBA in defensive efficiency. LaMarcus Aldridge has averaged 24 and 9 during that stretch, and torched the Celtics for 48 points Sunday, but big men like Davis Bertans and Jakob Poeltl have been nearly as important, with on/off numbers that rank among the best on the team.
|Temperature: Scorching. The Clippers have gone 14-5 since trading away Tobias Harris, and have won 10 of their last 11. Everything they touch seems to turn to gold. Doc Rivers won't win Coach of the Year. But if it weren't for the Milwaukee Bucks, I'd vote for him.
|Temperature: Just right. The Jazz may not be exactly rolling through the soft part of their schedule, but they're right on track for what were this team's expectations going into the season: Around 50 wins and a middle seed in the West. Since the All-Star break, the Jazz have the best net rating in the NBA and are 11-5.
|Temperature: A chilly spring breeze whipping across the prairie -- like, you know things could warm up soon, but there's still some winter in the air. The Thunder are in a precarious situation -- in a virtual tie with the Jazz and Spurs for that six-seed, and slipping fast. Paul George's big-time game to beat the Kyle Lowry-less Toronto Raptors on Friday night means a lot for the Thunder's future. A hot hand from George means this Thunder team could be dangerous in the playoffs.
|Temperature: A bit chilly, but warmer than you'd expect it to be -- like a Minnesota lake in mid-September. (Sorry, I write from personal experience.) Random stat alert: The Pacers lineup of Young/Evans/Joseph/McDermott/Sabonis has a 25.7 net rating -- the best net rating in the NBA for any five-man lineup that's played 150 or more minutes together. This team will be playing loose and free in the playoffs, because this season is all found money at this point.
|Temperature: Is this thermometer broken? Because it goes from hot to cold in an instant. Kyrie Irving openly questioned Brad Stevens' defensive scheme after the Celtics blew an 18-point fourth quarter lead Saturday night to the Hornets. Irving had some pointed remarks on how they defended Kemba Walker: "We should have probably trapped him a little bit more like every other team does in the league. He torches us every time; it's no surprise." Then he threw some more shade at the team's youngsters, saying the team needed to be "more mature down the stretch." I mean, really, Kyrie? If you say that, you gotta back it up. Instead of backing it up, Kyrie came out and shot 5-of-17 the next night in their home loss to the Spurs. The Celtics have now lost four in a row.
|Temperature: Cooling off quick. The Pistons had been one of the NBA's hottest teams, but have now lost three of four, including to the (oof) Cavaliers. The Nets are right above the Pistons in the standings, but the Nets also have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA.
|Temperature: Warm -- two wins in a row, and winners of six of their last nine -- but with the chance of cooling off quick. Why? Because of that toughest-in-NBA remaining schedule. D'Angelo Russell, however, has been hot as anyone.
|Temperature: Chilly enough to send shivers through your spine -- but only because this team only a few weeks ago felt on the cusp of making the playoffs. The fourth-quarter meltdown against the Nets this week might have been the nail in this team's coffin. The Kings are 6-11 in their past 17 games. Still, you gotta be hopeful for this young team's future.
|Temperature: Heating up, but in dire need of getting hotter. The Magic have won four in a row, and 13 of their past 19 games. Over the past 15 games, the Magic have the fifth-best net rating in the NBA, behind the Jazz, Rockets, Bucks and Blazers. Their comeback this week after being down 17 to the Grizzlies -- their biggest comeback of the season, on the strength of 31 points from Terrence Ross -- could have saved their playoff chances. They're a game back of the Heat in the race for the 8-seed.
|Temperature: Hotter than they should be. The Heat haven't lost to a non-playoff team since Feb. 25; their only losses in that 14-game span have been to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets. The Heat picked up two enormous road wins last week over the Thunder and the Spurs; Tuesday's home matchup with the Orlando Magic has major playoff implications in the East.
|Temperature: Lukewarm, but warming up too slowly, and too late. The Hornets had an absolutely enormous win on Sunday in Toronto on maybe the silliest buzzer-beater you'll ever see. Jeremy Lamb had the ball swatted away on an inbound pass with 3.1 seconds left, then chased the ball down past halfcourt, heaved up a prayer and watched it bank in for the win. The Hornets are still alive -- down two games to the eighth-place Heat (and one game to the ninth-place Magic) with nine games remaining. But six of those games are on the road, and the Hornets are 11-24 on the road this season.
|Temperature: The once-delicious meatloaf that got left out all night, and is now cold and gloopy. You can hardly blame the Wolves. It's been a season of drama and injuries. They're only playing for ping pong balls now.
|Temperature: There is no temperature, because the moment Anthony Davis demanded a trade, this team's season became meaningless. The Pelicans have lost eight of their past nine games. They've basically been getting punked out there, with the league's second-worst net rating during that stretch. All that matters now is the number of ping-pong balls they have in the lottery. By that measure, they're doing pretty well.
|Temperature: Refrigerator cold, but not freezer cold. The Wizards have lost four in a row, but three of those were by six points or fewer. They've actually been kinda-sorta OK since John Wall's injury: 17-22, with the NBA's eighth-rated offense. I'm admittedly looking for bright spots in what's been a pretty dark season.
|Temperature: Who cares? I can't wait to see what happens in their offseason. But I could care less what happens over the rest of this regular season. It's worth nothing more than tabloid-y headlines.
|Temperature: Hotter than they want to be. The Grizzlies are doing things like beating the red-hot Rockets, which is cool -- which is really cool! and Mike Conley is really awesome! -- but it's costing them ping pong balls.
|Temperature: The "didn't realize that pan was hot when I touched it" sort of hot. I did not realize the Mavericks had it in them to go into Oracle Arena and, on the strength of a Luka Doncic triple-double, beat the Warriors. Especially after losing 10 of their previous 11 games. Can't wait to see Luka-Porzingis!
|Temperature: Hot enough that people are starting to notice. Specifically, starting to notice Trae Young as someone who really could steal the Rookie of the Year award from Luka Doncic. A few weeks ago, I thought the Trae Young award chatter was silly. While I'd still vote for Luka -- a quick look at the numbers is all you need to come to an agreement with me, really -- Young has been incredible lately. If there are three NBA teams I'd be buying low on now for a few years down the road, the Hawks would be one of them. (The others: The Mavericks and the Kings.)
|Temperature: Lake Michigan in March -- meaning it's still rock-solid frozen, but you can imagine yourself going into that water in the not-so-distant future. I don't think there's a star among the Bulls young core. But they do have a solid young core. It's a shame that injuries have prevented us from getting to see this core play together more.
|Temperature: Warm-ish! The Suns have gone 6-7 since ending their 17-game losing streak on Feb. 25. They've really turned around their defense into something that's half-decent.
|Temperature: Cold enough for maximum lottery balls, but warm enough to confuse people. The Cavs' last three wins have been against playoff teams (the Bucks, the Pistons and the Raptors). Collin Sexton -- maligned the first few months of his rookie season, even by his teammates -- has been on fire. Over the past 15 games Sexton has averaged 21.3 points on 46.5 percent 3-point shooting.
|Temperature: An iceberg -- absolutely frozen, but slowly melting. Yes, the Knicks are terrible. But general manager Scott Perry is attempting to build a culture not unlike what the crosstown Nets have done over the past few years, taking low-risk fliers on castaways who may pan out for the future. Now, all the Knicks need to be contenders in the East is, uh, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson. Hey: It's possible!