NBA Power Rankings: DeMar DeRozan’s heroics send the first-place Bulls soaring

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DeMar DeRozan and the Chicago Bulls ended 2021 with fireworks. They started 2022 with some too.

The NBA’s leader in fourth-quarter scoring was at it again this past week, knocking down wild, buzzer-beating 3-pointers in back-to-back fashion to stun the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards.

Thanks to DeRozan’s late-game heroics, the Bulls have now won seven straight to vault into the Eastern Conference lead.

Sticking in the East: The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks have taken advantage of softer stretch in their schedule to reel off a six-game win streak.

The longest active run in the Western Conference belongs to the Memphis Grizzlies, who remain in the driver’s seat for home-court advantage behind four straight wins, a run that includes close victories over the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers.

See where the league’s streaking teams check in this week in our latest breakdown of all 30.

Note: Throughout the regular season, our panel (Tim Bontemps, Jamal Collier, Nick Friedell, Andrew Lopez, Tim MacMahon, Dave McMenamin and Ohm Youngmisuk) is ranking all 30 teams from top to bottom, taking stock of which teams are playing the best basketball now and which teams are looking most like title contenders.

1. Golden State Warriors
2021-22 record: 28-7
Previous ranking: 1

The Warriors picked up a big win over the Jazz on Saturday night, made even more impressive given the fact that they did it without Draymond Green, who was out because of COVID-19 protocols. After dealing with a variety of coronavirus-related absences, Steve Kerr’s team just rolls on and is on the verge of getting Klay Thompson back. The Warriors are clearly the best team in the league through the first 2½ months of the season. — Friedell


2. Phoenix Suns
2021-22 record: 28-8
Previous ranking: 2

Jalen Smith delivered an epic poster over Mason Plumlee on Sunday night. But more importantly, Smith, who has been forced into action because of health and safety protocols hitting Phoenix, has made the most of his time. In the past four games, Smith is averaging 16 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while shooting 56.1% from the field — all while not hitting 30 minutes in any game. — Lopez


3. Chicago Bulls
2021-22 record: 24-10
Previous ranking: 6

Good luck stopping DeMar DeRozan right now. During the seven-game winning streak that has vaulted the Bulls into first place in the Eastern Conference, DeRozan is averaging 28.4 points, 6.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 48.6% (including 5-of-7 from 3). Last week, he became the first player in NBA history with buzzer-beaters on back-to-back nights, against the Pacers and the Wizards; it was a small peak into how good he has been in the clutch. The Bulls are 11-6 in clutch situations, and DeRozan is shooting 55.6% from the field and 96.2% from the free throw line in those situations. — Collier


4. Utah Jazz
2021-22 record: 26-10
Previous ranking: 4

The Jazz had no choice but to play some small ball in Saturday night’s loss to the Warriors because backup center Hassan Whiteside was sidelined by a concussion. It didn’t go well. Utah outscored Golden State by 10 points in Rudy Gobert‘s 35 minutes — and lost the game by seven. Signing Rudy Gay gave the Jazz the flexibility to tinker with small-ball lineups, but they’ve largely been ineffective, as Utah’s five most frequently used centerless lineups are minus-15 in 40 minutes. — MacMahon


5. Milwaukee Bucks
2021-22 record: 25-13
Previous ranking: 5

After being slowed by injuries to start the season, Jrue Holiday has started to settle into a groove lately. He is averaging 21.5 points and 7.2 assists per game during Milwaukee’s six-game winning streak, shooting 60.2% from the floor and 45.8% from 3. — Collier


6. Brooklyn Nets
2021-22 record: 23-11
Previous ranking: 3

Will Kyrie Irving make his debut this week? He could play as soon as Wednesday at Indiana. The Nets, meanwhile, have a couple of signpost games on their schedule over the next couple of weeks, beginning with Friday’s showdown at Barclays Center against the defending champion Bucks. — Bontemps


7. Miami Heat
2021-22 record: 23-14
Previous ranking: 7

Miami had its five-game winning streak snapped on Sunday in Sacramento, the start of a West Coast swing that includes tough games against the Warriors on Monday and the Suns on Saturday. Jimmy Butler is in the midst of a solid run and continues to set the tone for his team. Over his past four games, Butler is averaging 25 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists. — Friedell


8. Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22 record: 23-14
Previous ranking: 9

Ja Morant is in the midst of one of the greatest scoring runs in Grizzlies history. He has scored at least 30 points in three straight games, just the second time that has happened for the franchise. Morant has averaged 34.7 points during that stretch, shooting 55.7% from the floor and 80% from 3-point range. Morant, whose jumper had been considered a weakness, is shooting 40% from 3-point range this season. — MacMahon


9. Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22 record: 19-16
Previous ranking: 10

It’s been a wild season in Philly for many reasons, but the 76ers have lifted themselves out of the play-in morass with three straight wins to end 2021 and have begun trying to climb back to the top of the East standings. — Bontemps


10. Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22 record: 21-16
Previous ranking: 8

Much of the talk surrounding Kevin Love coming into the season regarded how healthy he would be and whether Cleveland would still be a fit for him at this stage of his career. He has proved to be vital to the Cavs’ resurgence. And his 20-point, eight-rebound and four-assist performance in a win over Indiana on Sunday marked his fifth straight 20-point game — his longest such streak since LeBron James was his teammate. — McMenamin


11. Denver Nuggets
2021-22 record: 18-16
Previous ranking: 11

Despite having a game postponed because of COVID-19 issues then watching coach Michael Malone and lead assistant David Adelman enter protocols, the Nuggets still have won three straight games. Nikola Jokic continues to put up MVP-like numbers, averaging 25.0 points and 18.2 rebounds over his past four games. And if Denver hadn’t blown a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Hornets, the Nuggets would be riding a four-game winning streak. Not bad for a team without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — Youngmisuk


12. LA Clippers
2021-22 record: 19-18
Previous ranking: 12

Still reeling from the Christmas Day news that they will be without Paul George for likely at least a month due to a torn ligament in his right elbow, the Clippers were routed by Brooklyn at home last Monday. They rebounded to win at Boston, but Clippers coach Ty Lue and starting center Ivica Zubac entered health and safety protocols before the team suffered a tough close loss at Toronto on New Year’s Eve. Forced to play at Brooklyn on a back-to-back, the Clippers learned Luke Kennard entered protocols before they left the hotel for the arena. Still, even with Nicolas Batum (ankle), Marcus Morris Sr. (rest) and Isaiah Hartenstein (ankle) also out, the Clippers pulled out their biggest and most improbable win of the season over an uninspired Nets team. Somehow, the depleted Clippers remain above .500. A few reasons: Eric Bledsoe is playing his best basketball of the season, and youngsters Terance Mann and Amir Coffey are developing. — Youngmisuk


13. Charlotte Hornets
2021-22 record: 19-18
Previous ranking: 13

Charlotte had its three-game winning streak snapped in a blowout loss to the Suns on Sunday. The good news for the Hornets is that LaMelo Ball continues to have a nice rhythm: Over his past five games, he is averaging 18.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists. The Hornets, however, have tough back-to-back home games against the Bucks at the end of the week. — Friedell


14. Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 19-19
Previous ranking: 14

Russell Westbrook had nine turnovers in Sunday’s win over the Wolves. He also had 20 points — including a big jumper to put L.A. up six with just less than five minutes remaining — along with five assists. LeBron James explained how Westbrook cutting his turnovers to two in the second half against Minnesota, after seven in the first half, helped the team. “It resulted in us being able to get shots, and when we get shots, we’re a really good team,” James said. “What has really hurt us this year is when we turn the ball over a lot, and not able to set our defense, where we’re really good in half court, have teams run it out on us.” — McMenamin


15. Washington Wizards
2021-22 record: 18-18
Previous ranking: 15

Like many other teams around the league, the Wizards have a long injury report, with six players, including Spencer Dinwiddie and Montrezl Harrell, in health and safety protocols. That 10-3 start Washington enjoyed has become 18-18 on the season. Washington, though, looked like it was going to beat the Bulls, until DeMar DeRozan drilled a 3-point buzzer-beater against them on Saturday. The Wizards are in a stretch in which they play 12 of 14 games at home. If they can get closer to whole, they could make some noise again. — Youngmisuk


16. Dallas Mavericks
2021-22 record: 18-18
Previous ranking: 17

The Mavericks managed to go 5-5 during Luka Doncic‘s extended absence in large part due to Jalen Brunson‘s performance as the fill-in starting point guard. In the 10 games, Brunson averaged 21.0 points and 7.4 assists while shooting 51.3% from the floor and 37.5% from 3-point range. Brunson, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, remained in the starting lineup alongside Doncic on Sunday, recording 12 points and seven assists in a road win over the Thunder. — MacMahon


17. Boston Celtics
2021-22 record: 18-19
Previous ranking: 16

Boston nearly got 2022 off to a disastrous start, only for Jaylen Brown‘s first 50-point game to save the Celtics from a home loss to Orlando to open the year. After a brutal December schedule, however, it gets easier in January, and Boston also should get Jayson Tatum back from health and safety protocols this week. — Bontemps


18. Toronto Raptors
2021-22 record: 16-17
Previous ranking: 19

Despite a season full of injuries, COVID-19 issues and now playing in an empty arena in Toronto, the Raptors have pulled themselves back to within a game of .500 after Sunday’s win over the Knicks. Coach Nick Nurse’s team finally has its best lineup — Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes — available, and now Toronto will try to scoot even farther up the standings. — Bontemps


19. Minnesota Timberwolves
2021-22 record: 16-20
Previous ranking: 20

Minnesota should be adding some reinforcements to its lineup this week, with Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell nearing the end of their stays in health and safety protocols. They are both likely to miss Monday’s game against the Clippers, but Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said a return for Wednesday’s game against the Thunder is a realistic target. — Collier


20. Atlanta Hawks
2021-22 record: 16-19
Previous ranking: 18

Trae Young averaged 30.5 points and 10.0 assists per game in December, the third time in his career that he has averaged 30 and 10 over the span of a month. (He averaged 31.7 and 11.5 in January 2020 and followed that up with 31.3 and 10.1 the next month.) According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the fourth-most calendar months averaging 30 points and 10 assists in NBA history, trailing Oscar Robertson (19), Tiny Archibald (six) and Russell Westbrook (four). — Lopez


21. New York Knicks
2021-22 record: 17-20
Previous ranking: 21

New York has fallen out of the play-in spots in the East. Kemba Walker is sidelined with knee soreness, and Julius Randle is in health and safety protocols. With the Eastern Conference being far more difficult than at any point this century, the Knicks had better get themselves straightened out — and fast. — Bontemps


22. San Antonio Spurs
2021-22 record: 14-21
Previous ranking: 22

San Antonio’s 3-point defense has been stellar over the past six games. Opponents have failed to make more than 10 3s against the Spurs in that stretch while shooting 27.3% from deep. San Antonio’s six consecutive games of holding an opponent to 10 or fewer 3s is the longest such streak by any team this season, and it’s tied for the second-longest streak by any team in the past three campaigns. (Utah had a streak of seven that started with two games at the end of the 2020-21 campaign and five to begin this season.) — Lopez


23. Sacramento Kings
2021-22 record: 16-22
Previous ranking: 26

Jimmy Butler’s layup attempt to force overtime at the buzzer on Sunday bounced twice off the rim before missing, giving Sacramento a quality win to cap a 3-1 week that included a buzzer-beating winner from Chimezie Metu. — McMenamin


24. Indiana Pacers
2021-22 record: 14-23
Previous ranking: 23

The Pacers have dropped four consecutive games, with their two most recent losses following a trend that has plagued them all season long: defeats in close contests, dropping to 1-11 in games decided by four or fewer points this season. — Collier


25. Portland Trail Blazers
2021-22 record: 13-22
Previous ranking: 24

The season continues to spiral for Portland. The Blazers dropped their fourth straight game on New Year’s Eve, when they fell by 33 points to the Lakers. Portland enters 2022 having lost 11 of the past 13 tilts. With Jusuf Nurkic, Cody Zeller and Dennis Smith Jr. in health and safety protocols and CJ McCollum (lung) still out, Damian Lillard will have to continue to shoulder a massive load to resuscitate Portland’s sinking season. — Youngmisuk


26. New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22 record: 13-23
Previous ranking: 25

Pelicans forward Herbert Jones has a block in 14 consecutive games, which is a franchise record for a rookie. He leads all rookies in steals (43) and deflections (95) and is second in blocks (34), behind Cavs center Evan Mobley. Jones is also the only rookie to average at least one block and one steal per game this season. — Lopez


27. Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22 record: 13-23
Previous ranking: 27

Rookie Josh Giddey returned from health and safety protocols with a historic performance, becoming the youngest NBA player (19 years, 84 days) to record a triple-double by putting up 17 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists in Sunday’s loss to the Mavericks. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Giddey tied an NBA record for most assists by a teenager, matching LeBron James and Zach LaVine. Giddey, the No. 6 overall draft pick, has dished out double-digit assists in four of his past six games. — MacMahon


28. Houston Rockets
2021-22 record: 10-27
Previous ranking: 28

A lot has gone wrong recently for the Rockets, who have lost seven in a row and have had disciplinary issues with two core players, Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood. A bright spot: Rookie Jalen Green has scored prolifically and efficiently since returning from the hamstring strain that sidelined the No. 2 overall draft pick for a month. Green has averaged 22.3 points on .481/.515/.870 shooting splits in four games since returning to the lineup. — MacMahon


29. Orlando Magic
2021-22 record: 7-30
Previous ranking: 29

Orlando has dropped five in a row after an overtime loss to the Celtics on Sunday night. They have given up an average 116.4 points over their past five games and are just 2-13 at home on the season. Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac can’t come back soon enough, but even those two young players can’t cure what ails this young group. — Friedell


30. Detroit Pistons
2021-22 record: 6-28
Previous ranking: 30

One recent source of encouragement for Pistons fans: some improved play from Saddiq Bey. After getting off to a slow start in his sophomore season, he is averaging 20.6 points and 7.5 rebounds during his past 10 games and is starting to look much like the player from his strong rookie campaign. — Collier

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