NBA Rankings: Raptors face steep climb back to top

The Toronto Raptors have their work cut out for them against the NBA-best Warriors. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Over this past weekend the Toronto Raptors were officially bumped out of the top spot of the Eastern Conference, overtaken by the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.

While this doesn’t mean the world is ending—and there definitely shouldn’t be any panic—getting back to the top of the mountain will prove difficult.

The Hawks and Bulls are both playing excellent basketball right now, and what they’re doing is much more sustainable than the roll the Raptors had going during their hot start because of the quality of defence both teams play.

Toronto remains an offensive juggernaut, but their inability to stop teams really hurt them this past week. Atlanta and Chicago—while unable to get buckets at Toronto’s level—are both top-10 offensive teams, while also being ranked in the top 10 on defence.

Fortunately for Toronto, they'll play their next six games at home with four of those coming against opponents currently sitting under .500. In short, the Raptors could conceivably close the gap quickly, but given the way Chicago and Atlanta are playing right now, that’s a tough sell.

Rank Team

The Warriors wasted no time correcting a two-game slide and have now won four in a row. Golden State have only lost two consecutive games twice this season. Not to sound like a broken record in this space, but yeah, the Dubs are damn good.

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Still don’t believe the Hawks are actually the best team in the East? Now you can check the standings and confirm what has been a reality since early December. Atlanta’s for real and won’t be going away any time soon. Now the big questions surrounding the Hawks is who will be the team’s new owner and just what the hell is a “Swipe Right Night”?

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The first set of all-star voting returns were recently released and Damian Lillard ranked eighth among Western Conference guards. Eighth? Are you kidding me? It shouldn’t matter that Lillard doesn’t play in a sexy market, he’s been a top-three guard in the West this season and the votes should reflect that. To his credit, he doesn’t seem to really care and won’t go out of his way to campaign for a spot. That alone should make you want to vote for him.

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It took a little time but the Mavericks look very comfortable with Rajon Rondo running the show. The fact that Rondo has been able to adjust to a new offence should come as no surprise. What is surprising is that head coach Rick Carlisle has apparently given him the green light to shoot it whenever he wants. He’s taking 13.6 field-goal attempts per game, a rate that would be a new career high.

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The Bulls are grooving having won 10 of their last 11 games. So far they’ve been everything they were projected to be this season, with the exception of Derrick Rose who has struggled mightily from the field, shooting 40.6 percent from the floor and an abysmal 26.4 percent from three-point range despite attempting 5.2 triples per game. Maybe he should stop taking threes for a while?

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Tony Allen is a man who is not to be trifled with… unless his son is puking all over him.

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The Raptors lost three straight to close their six-game road trip with a 2-4 record, dropping them to third in the East. Luckily, they can get right back in the hunt for the No. 1 seed thanks to an upcoming six-game homestand against weaker competition.

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The Spurs are still banged up and madly inconsistent because of it. Still, they seem pretty comfortable as the seventh seed in the West, and given Gregg Popovich’s propensity for resting his guys, it can be difficult to determine whether players are actually hurt. Maybe Pop feels there’s an advantage in the bottom end of the bracket?

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Steven Adams and Nick Collison have the best pre-game handshake in all of sports. I dare you to find a better one.

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Josh Smith was benched after just five games with Rockets and it appears the move may have paid off. In the two games since, Smith has scored 12 and 21 points, respectively, and has gone an efficient 16-for-29 from the field.

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According to reports, the Clippers aren’t getting along right now. The source may be less than bankable, but it would explain why L.A. has been so hot-and-cold this season.

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Similar to the Raptors, the Wizards got a bit of a rude awakening on a recent west coast jog, losing to the Mavericks, Thunder and Spurs. And just like the Raptors, there’s no reason to panic in D.C.

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Goran Dragic hasn’t been himself this season, adjusting to the addition of Isaiah Thomas at a much slower rate than his backcourt mate, Eric Bledsoe. However, over his past seven games, “The Dragon” has been looking more like the player that was named to an all-NBA team last season, scoring 19.4 points per game on 52.5 percent shooting from the field and 42.4 percent from deep.

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Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has held Larry Sanders out of the past two games for personal reasons (after he sat out the previous four games with an illness). Sounds like J-Kidd’s suspended Sanders to me.

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Watch this video and feel the “Brower!”

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The Cavaliers pulled off a major move by trading Dion Waiters and getting back Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Will it pay off? We won’t really know until LeBron James returns.

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For the past five games, Lionel Hollins has experimented with bringing Brook Lopez and Deron Williams off the bench. The strategy doesn’t seem to have improved the Nets any, but hey, at least this means Lopez will now have a little more time to work on his Wookie.

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The Nuggets appear to be underperforming and that usually means a coach is in the hot seat. According to a report, although it isn’t likely, Mike D’Antoni would be the man Denver targets after a shakeup.

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Hey, do you remember Roy Hibbert’s first attempt at a game-winning jumper earlier this season? Well, he tried another. The expression “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” probably shouldn’t apply to this particularly baffling play in the Pacers’ book.

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The Heat got some sweet Christmas Day revenge on LeBron James, unfortunately it didn’t translate into sustained success. Including that victory over the Cavs, Miami has only won twice in the past two weeks.

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Addition by subtraction? The Pistons have won five straight games since they got rid of Josh Smith, including an impressive 103-80 beatdown of the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

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Tobias Harris is quietly having himself an all-star calibre season, averaging 18.3 points and seven rebounds per game on a .476/.400/.790 shooting split. He’s also been dunking on people. Not bad. Even better for him, though, he’s doing this in a year where he will become a restricted free agent.

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Watch this possession. DeMarcus Cousins completely takes it off. Between that effort and not realizing that the Kings have committed to Ty Corbin for the remainder of the season, methinks there may be a bit of a rift forming between Kings’ ownership and their franchise player.

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Alec Burks attempted to play through a shoulder injury and it hasn’t exactly panned out the way he and the Jazz hoped. Word that he underwent season-ending surgery on his left shoulder should’ve come as soon as he suffered the injury.

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Julius Randle’s disastrous season somehow got even worse. Already forced out for the entire season after breaking his leg only 14 minutes into his NBA career, Randle is now undergoing a procedure on his foot. The kid just can’t catch a break.

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Kemba Walker going for a career-high 42 points and the Hornets still losing just about perfectly sums up Charlotte’s season—so much promise ultimately amounting to nothing.

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In a classy move, the Celtics honoured Rajon Rondo with a video tribute in his return to Boston. Rondo likely won’t go down as one of the all-time Celts (there are just too many), but he was undoubtedly Boston’s best player for a number of years on teams that featured the likes of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

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Like just about everybody, 76ers head coach Brett Brown views Nerlens Noel as a centre. Brown is also aware that Joel Embiid is a centre and this could cause problems in the future. Nice to see that everyone is finally on the same page.

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The Wolves have dropped their last 12 games and 18 of their last 19, but it doesn’t really matter because Andrew Wiggins has been delivering on the hype. Not only does he continue to crown people, his game is also steadily improving. Over his last seven contests, Wiggins is pouring in 21 points per on 50 percent shooting and 45.5 percent from behind-the-arc.

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The Knicks traded Smith and Shumpert for beans. In addition, they’re reportedly encouraging Carmelo Anthony to sit and rest his aching knee, an idea he isn’t crazy about. The tank appears to be rolling down Broadway.

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