Arizona Republic’s NBA power rankings: Does now full-time Kyrie Irving put Nets in Top 5? – The Arizona Republic

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Are the Celtics true NBA championship contenders?

SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down why the Celtics need to be taken seriously in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

USA TODAY

New York City lifting its vaccine mandate for athletes and performers in local venues clears the way for Brooklyn Nets All-Star guard Kyrie Irving to become a full-time player.

“This is about putting New York city-based performers on a level playing field,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said during a press conference last week. “Day 1 when I was mayor, I looked at the rule that stated hometown players had an unfair disadvantage for those who were coming to visit. And immediately, I felt we needed to look at that, but my medical professionals said, ‘Eric, we’re at a different place. We have to wait until we’re at a place where we’re at a low area and we can reexamine some of the mandates.’ We’re here today.”

Does this also make Brooklyn once again the favorites to win it all?

Seventy-two percent of NBA general managers picked the Nets to bring home an NBA championship heading into the 2021-22 season, but this was when Brooklyn had James Harden.

He’s now in Philadelphia after the Nets and 76ers made a deal before the trade deadline that sent Ben Simmons to Brooklyn.

Simmons has yet to play a game as he’s dealing with a back injury.

Irving has been playing only in road games since January, but with the mandate exemption he can now play in New York. The Nets have eight games remaining, six at Barclays Center and two on the road, with one of those April 6 at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks.

It’s going to be so lit in the Garden that night

So can Kevin Durant and Irving lead the Nets to a title?

Here’s the better question: 

Should this news, along with a win Saturday night at East leader Miami, put the Nets in the latest Arizona Republic NBA Power Rankings?

Not quite, but if they can beat the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks at home Thursday and close the regular season strong, they’ll likely find their way back in it, but we’ll see.

More: Arizona Republic’s NBA power rankings: Devin Booker for MVP? Red-hot T-Wolves crack Top 10

1. Phoenix Suns (60-14, Last week 1st)

The Suns have clinched the No. 1 overall seed, became the fourth team in franchise history to win 60 games and now have their All-Star point guard, Chris Paul, back after a 15-game absence with a fractured right thumb.

They have huge matchup Sunday against Philadelphia before going back on the road to face Golden State and Memphis with the league’s best record away from home at 30-6.

2. Memphis Grizzlies (52-23, Last week 2nd)

They Grizzlies have responded to a 15-point loss at Atlanta with four consecutive wins against Houston, Brooklyn, Indiana and Milwaukee by an average margin of 22.7 points — without Ja Morant (right knee soreness).

He’s expected to be good for the playoffs, but Dillon Brooks has returned after missing 27 games with an ankle injury. He’s averaging 15.4 points in his six games back.

3. Golden State Warriors (48-26, Last week 3rd)

With Stephen Curry (foot) still sidelined, just don’t see Golden State catching Memphis.

The Warriors are 3½ games behind the Grizzlies and aren’t expected to have Curry back for Monday’s showdown in Memphis. They rebounded from a bad loss at Orlando with a win over a struggling Heat squad, but fell at Atlanta by 11. Golden State is 1-4 in its last five games heading into a winnable one at Washington before facing Memphis.

4. Philadelphia 76ers (46-27, Last week Next 5)

The 76ers beating the Heat without Joel Embiid and James Harden probably says more about where Miami is right now than what the Sixers did in beating them without the league’s top 1-2 punch.

Tyrese Maxey can ball as he scored 28 points that night. After Sunday’s tilt in Phoenix, the 76ers return home to face Milwaukee for what could be the East’s top seed.

5. Boston Celtics (46-28, Last week Next 5)

One of the most amazing NBA turnarounds in recent memory continues. The Celtics have won five in a row and nine of their last 10 games.

They simply manhandled Utah, 125-97, as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 52 points to offset Donovan Mitchell going for 37. Boston was 16-19 after scoring just 82 points in a home loss to the Clippers. The Celtics have gone 30-9 since.

Next 5

Milwaukee Bucks (46-28) — No Jrue Holiday (left ankle soreness) for 25-point loss at Memphis, but Morant was out Saturday’s game as well. Got next two on road at Philly and Brooklyn  with Irving.

Miami Heat (47-28) — The Jimmy Butler-Erik Spoelstra bench argument during Wednesday’s home loss to the Curry-less Warriors is part of a four-game skid that should end Monday against Sacramento.

Utah Jazz (45-29) — The Jazz have not only lost three in a row going into Sunday’s game at Dallas, but they’re 19-18 on the road this season. Not a good sign for a team looking to compete for a title.

Dallas Mavericks (45-29) — Took one on the chin at red-hot Minnesota by 21 after beating the T-Wolves at home by only two. Will Dallas or Utah finish fourth to have homecourt in the first round?

Minnesota Timberwolves (43-32) — Still just a game behind Denver for the sixth seed to avoid the play-in. Had the T-Wolves not blown a 15-point lead versus Phoenix, they’d be even higher in the rankings.

One last thing

Looking at the current eight teams in the play-in situation, which four should come out of it and make the playoffs?

East: Nets and Hornets.

Cleveland has been a great story, has two All-Stars and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has done a great job, but Brooklyn should beat them in the play-in and Charlotte has too much offensive firepower.

West: Timberwolves and Clippers

Minnesota still in the running for sixth. If they fall short of that, the T-Wolves can’t afford to lose that first play-in against the Clippers at home and have to play say the Lakers for the eighth and final seed.

In a win-or-go-home situation against LeBron James?

And if Anthony Davis (foot) is back by then?

Ugh. That’d be a tall order for Minnesota, even at home.

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at dmrankin@gannett.com or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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