11. Memphis Grizzlies (8, -3): Marc Gasol’s left knee just doesn’t seem right. He’s been a force in the middle for the Grizzlies’ defense, but until he gets to 100 percent, which he admittedly may not get to, the Grizzlies could falter at any time. The defense is solid though (90.4 points allowed over last 10) and will only get better with the return of Tony Allen.
12. Toronto Raptors (13, +1): Things continue to go well in Canada. We can no longer ask if the Raptors are “for real”, because they are. They have a four-game lead over the Nets in the Atlantic and show no signs of slowing down in the weak Eastern Conference.
13. Charlotte Bobcats (19, +6): What Steve Clifford has done with the Bobcats in his first season as coach is remarkable. Through 57 games, the ‘Cats have already exceeded last year’s win total by six games. Charlotte has the league’s fifth-best defense, allowing opponents to score just 96.8 points per game.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves (12, -2): It’s been really difficult for the T’Wolves to maintain any sort of consistency, which is why they’ll likely find themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time. Kevin Love is doing everything in his power to help them win, even posting the first triple-double of his career on Saturday, but injuries to Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin have really hurt their chances.
15. Chicago Bulls (16, +1): Losing Jimmy Butler for an extended period of time could shatter the Bulls aspirations of a top four seed in the East. Butler hurt his ribs on a nasty fall in Friday’s game, but there are no breaks. Either way, it’s something that could sideline him for a bit. Without him, the Bulls scored just 79 points in Sunday’s loss to the Heat.
16. Washington Wizards (14, -2): The Wizards are playing well, but news that Nene will be sidelined for 4-6 weeks with sprained MCL is a dagger into the hearts of the D.C. faithful. The Wiz had to sign Drew Gooden off the streets, which is not a promising venture.
17. Brooklyn Nets (18, +1): The Nets may be in the news for their signing of Jason Collins – the first openly gay player in the NBA – but it’s their play of late that’s gotten them on the plus side of the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Nets now sit in the eighth spot, thanks to the improved play of Deron Williams, who is averaging 14.8 points and 5.4 assists over his last five games.
18. Cleveland Cavaliers (26, +8): One thing’s for certain: the Cavs can’t be faulted for trying. They traded for Luol Deng earlier in the year and pulled off a trade for Spencer Hawes at last Thursday’s deadline. They’ve given up four draft picks in the process, but management clearly wants to win now – and it seems to be working. Cleveland is 6-2 since firing former GM Chris Grant.
19. Denver Nuggets (15, -4): There was some promise in Denver to start the season, and then even some as the year went by, but with Ty Lawson suffering from a broken rib, the playoffs are all but a dream. The Nuggets have lost four out of five since Lawson went down (with their only win coming against the lowly Bucks) and they’re scoring a meager 93.4 points in that span. Needless to say, it’s been a rough first season as head coach for Brian Shaw.
20. Atlanta Hawks (17, -3): Injuries have finally caught up to the Hawks. They played reasonably well after Al Horford was lost for the season, but depth has become an issue. Pero Antic, Jeff Teague — and now Paul Millsap — have been ailing, and the Hawks have lost eight of nine, dropping them into the seventh seed in the East. After playing much of the year in the top tier of the conference, the Hawks are dangerously close to not making the playoffs.