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Spurs the latest No. 1 from West

Monday's Spurs-Magic matchup was the best-played game of the season. Dwight Howard was magnificent, attacking Tim Duncan with his expanded arsenal of low-post moves for 26 points (on 11-of-16 from the field and 4-of-7 at the free-throw line) to go with 18 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. But the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year was ultimately helpless against San Antonio's offensive juggernaut, which registered 25 assists against only nine turnovers and shot 63.2 percent (12-for-19) from three-point range en route to a 106-97 home victory. The game was closer than the final score indicated -- the teams were separated by no more than six points until there were 31 seconds left.

With their 11th consecutive victory, the Spurs served notice that they belong at the top of this week's Power Rankings, another sign that the NBA's best reside in the Western Conference right now. The Spurs are followed closely by the Lakers, who have rolled to four straight wins after a two-game losing skid, and the Hornets, who acquired Jarrett Jack from Toronto in a trade that improved their backcourt and moved them under the luxury-tax threshold.

Overall, the West holds seven of the first 10 slots in this week's rankings. That makes for brutal competition within the conference -- San Antonio is the third team from the West to occupy the top spot in three weeks. And with games at home against Dallas and at New Orleans this week, the Spurs' stay in the penthouse may be equally brief.

(All stats and records are through Nov. 22.)

NBA Power Rankings
1San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
Unlike their four championship teams from the Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, this year's Spurs are winning with offense more than defense. Tony Parker is posting career highs in shooting percentage (54.8) and assists (7.8). The Spurs are shooting a league-best 44.4 percent from three-point range, and Matt Bonner leads the NBA with a 69.2 percent mark (18-of-26) from beyond the arc. Savvy, unselfish ball movement has fueled the success: In the second quarter of Saturday's win against Cleveland, the Spurs staged a phenomenal half-court clinic in registering 10 assists and zero turnovers while shooting 12-of-19 from the field and 9-of-12 at the foul line for a tidy 36 points.
 
2Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 4
This bears repeating: Of all their summer roster upgrades, none was more significant than the steady diet of power forward and even center play that Lamar Odom received during the FIBA World Championship. Odom's stifling of 31/31 man Kevin Love on Friday -- the Minnesota forward had zero points and seven rebounds and was a minus-27 in 34:07 -- is the latest example that Odom can more than hold his own down low against beefy NBA big men. According to 82games.com, he is outrebounding opposing power forwards 14.9 to 13.2 per 48 minutes, shooting more accurately (62.2 effective field-goal percentage versus 44.8 percent) and blocking the same percentage of shots. This strengthens the safety net for the two-time defending champs if and when Andrew Bynum can't perform at peak efficiency in the postseason.
 
3New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 1
Facing the 1-13 Clippers on Monday, point guard Chris Paul picked an odd time to slap together the worst three-quarter stretch I've seen from him. The numbers were bad enough -- two points (on 1-of-7 shooting) and two assists with four turnovers in his final 22:27 of play in a 99-95 loss. But letting the shot clock run out with the score tied and less than a minute to play, and bounce-passing a ball off David West's knee with five seconds left, was inexplicable. That hiccup aside, if you don't think the Hornets are for real, you haven't been paying attention. Or perhaps you underrate the value of five energetic defenders rotating on a string.
 
4Boston Celtics
Last Week: 2
As happened with the Lakers the previous week, the Celtics were beaten by boredom as much as the Kevin Durant-less Thunder (on Friday) or the customarily overmatched Raptors (on Sunday). You could see it in the pattern: fall behind by double digits, roar back to either take the lead or make it a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, then get edged in the final minute. Sure, they missed Rajon Rondo in the fourth quarter against OKC and the whole game at Toronto. But their 39-13 first-quarter blowout of the Hawks without Rondo on Monday decisively demonstrated that an attitude adjustment was the antidote for much of their ills.
 
5Orlando Magic
Last Week: 9
From admitting he didn't always give maximum effort while playing in Toronto to his lackluster performance against Boston in last year's conference finals, Vince Carter justifiably attracts a significant amount of criticism. But statistical measures are pretty emphatic about Carter's value to the Magic. According to 82games.com, Orlando scores 19.5 more points and allows 9.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Carter plays compared to when he sits. The more sophisticated, "adjusted plus/minus" metrics at Basketball Value reinforce his worth. For those who like to keep it simple, Carter -- who left Monday's loss at San Antonio in the fourth quarter because of a knee injury -- is shooting less frequently but more accurately from the field than ever before, and he's also converting a career-high 42.2 percent from deep.
 
6Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 8
Their 88-83 victory at Dallas on Friday was a masterpiece of grit. Up front, the Bulls grabbed four out of every nine potential rebounds off the Mavs' defensive glass (20 offensive rebounds to Dallas' 25 defensive boards); in the backcourt, they shut down Jason Kidd (three points, one rebound, four assists in 33:49) and Jason Terry and J.J. Barea (a combined 3-of-22 shooting). They have momentum halfway through the dreaded "circus trip," and if they can survive the next 10 games -- including six on the road, two with the Lakers and one each with Boston, Orlando and OKC -- they'll get Carlos Boozer back with the roughest part of their schedule behind them.
 
7Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 5
While newcomer Tyson Chandler's defensive impact has been Dallas' most prominent early-season story, we shouldn't let Dirk Nowitzki's consistency obscure our appreciation of his excellence. He's shooting a career-best 52.8 percent from the field (his true shooting percentage, which factors in three-pointers and free throws, is his third best ever) and defending better than ever. According to 82.games.com, the Mavs are a phenomenal 27.8 points per 100 possessions better when Nowitzki plays than when he sits, with his value to the defense (15.8) outweighing his upgrade on offense (12.0).
 
8Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 12
Who would have guessed that preseason MVP favorite Kevin Durant would not even necessarily be the best player on his own team at this point in the season? Like Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook is an offensive force who will maneuver for a high-percentage shot or get fouled trying -- then hit 90 percent of his free throws. Despite the merely sporadic signs of superstardom from Durant (he is shooting only 42.3 percent and hasn't been as good defensively as he was last season), the Thunder are suddenly 10-4. A recommitment to D will have them back in the discussion as one of the NBA's elite teams.
 
9Utah Jazz
Last Week: 6
Utah Jazz (10-5)
The Jazz have discovered that the undersized backcourt of Ronnie Price and Earl Watson can be a pace-changing catalyst off the bench. The pair has been especially effective in tandem but also individually the past three games. They provide a sorely needed respite for Deron Williams, who plays physically at the point. They also reduce minutes for rookie Gordon Hayward -- not a bad thing, considering Hayward's inconsistency and the up-and-down adjustment process Utah is already enduring with center Al Jefferson. Meanwhile, a higher-profile bench contributor is swingman C.J. Miles, who made a career-high seven three-pointers, including five in Utah's 38-point fourth quarter, in Saturday's comeback victory at Portland. Miles has formed an effective platoon with starting shooting guard Raja Bell.
 
10Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 14
The recent injury reports on Greg Oden and Brandon Roy -- the former out for the season for another knee surgery, the latter facing extended short-term treatment and long-term uncertainty because of knee woes -- indicate that the beleaguered Blazers will face another year of trying to patch gaping holes in what two seasons ago was the deepest roster in the NBA. Swingman Wes Matthews has filled in admirably for Roy the past two games, and center Joel Przybilla (knee surgery) is targeting Friday for his season debut. This might also be a good time for guard Rudy Fernandez to back up his pouting over minutes and roles with higher-caliber play. Instead, he has demonstrated precious little improvement a month into his third year in the league.
 
11Miami Heat
Last Week: 7
The drama intensifies with each new slippage of the gears, and one begins to wonder if the enormous public cost of failure for the LeBron James legacy adds a distorting dimension of pressure on his teammates and coaches. Certainly many of the critiques leveled at Mike Brown the past few years are now being said of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. And although LeBron's play has been spectacular by everyone else's standard, his shooting accuracy is down, turnovers are up, rebounds are down and assists are the same compared to last season. The integration of Chris Bosh into the offense was the week's best sign of progress, but the loss of top rebounder Udonis Haslem is going to hurt.
 
12Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 19
Center Roy Hibbert's steady progress remains the dominant story in Indiana. He outplayed Dwight Howard in the first half Saturday, forcing the Magic center into a rash of shots from slightly beyond his range in a 2-of-6 first quarter that also included two Howard fouls. By intermission, Hibbert had 17 points and six rebounds to six points and two boards for Howard, and the Pacers led 52-49. The script was quickly flipped in the second half -- Howard had a 19-and-10 double-double in those two quarters alone while Hibbert picked up two quick fouls early the third quarter and was quiet in a 14-minute half as Indiana lost 90-86. But these dramatic shifts in fortune -- both the taste of success and failure -- will expedite the maturity of Hibbert (who turns 24 in about three weeks) and brighten Indiana's future.
 
13Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 15
Even with a supposed sage like Chauncey Billups as floor general, the Nuggets can frequently look like a sloppy, heedless team. But, in fact, their offensive attack is plenty smart: They lead the NBA in shots attempted at the rim (which, of course, are the easiest ones to make) by a wide margin and rank sixth in three-point attempts while converting those threes with slightly above-average accuracy. That's how they rank sixth in offensive efficiency despite lots of clanking from Billups (34.4 percent shooting), J.R. Smith (38.8 percent), Al Harrington (41.3 percent) and Ty Lawson (44.1 percent and only 28 percent from three-point range).
 
14Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 13
The nightmare scenario is coming to pass in Atlanta. The Hawks have locked themselves into the status quo with a max contract to Joe Johnson, but the coaching change from Mike Woodson to Larry Drew hasn't solved their competitive dysfunction. Atlanta has lost six of eight -- the latest a blowout against the Celtics that was over in the first quarter -- and hasn't beaten a team currently with a winning record this season. The plan to incorporate point guard Jeff Teague into the starting lineup has faded -- he has played more than 20 minutes in a game just once. The uncomfortable question remains: Are the Hawks capable of generating enough heart and chemistry to maximize their considerable talents?
 
15Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 10
Hedo Turkoglu hit a low point Thursday when he went 0-of-8 from the field and had more turnovers (three) than points (two) in a 16-point loss to an Orlando team he helped lead to the NBA Finals two seasons ago. One justification for Turkoglu's miserable play since leaving Orlando is that he's most proficient with the ball in his hands, but the pratfall on Thursday occurred when Steve Nash was absent because of a groin injury and Hedo had more freedom to initiate the offense. Two nights later, D.J. Augustin outplayed Nash's backup, Goran Dragic, and Stephen Jackson had a triple-double as the Suns yielded 123 points to Charlotte's normally anemic offense. Not coincidentally, the Suns snapped their three-game losing streak when Nash returned Monday to play against Houston. The boomlet of "trade Nash" speculation seems to have disappeared.
 
16Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 16
The Warriors have missed David Lee's 11.3 rebounds per game since he went down with an infected elbow two weeks ago. Golden State is 1-5 without Lee, and the winning team has had the advantage on the boards in each of those six games. Unable to clear the glass and otherwise protect the rim, the Warriors are fouling as a first and last resort. Their opponents have converted 107 more free throws, an average deficit of more than seven points per game, wiping out the team's advantage in made field goals and three-pointers.
 
17Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 17
Forward Darrell Arthur says he prefers to start, and he plays marginally better in that role. But does coach Lionel Hollins reward him for that limitation at the expense of his horse, Zach Randolph, who's playing with an expiring contract? Either way, unless the Grizzlies are punting the season, Randolph will be on the court at crunch time. Rudy Gay doesn't get the chance to hit Saturday's buzzer-beater against the Heat without Randolph's manhandling every big man -- Chris Bosh, Juwan Howard, Udonis Haslem -- Miami threw at him in the paint.
 
18Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 11
Reasons why Milwaukee has the worst offense in the NBA: 1) Its floor general, Brandon Jennings, is a volume shooter who is hitting 39.4 percent. 2) Center Andrew Bogut, still sore in the right elbow he injured last season, is shooting just 48 percent (down from his 53 percent career average), has two fewer field goals per game than last season (6.9 to 5) because of inaccuracy and fewer attempts, and is converting 46.3 percent at the free-throw line. 3) Key sub Corey Maggette has the worst true shooting percentage of his 12-year career, and starting shooting guard John Salmons, a nine-year veteran, has his second-worst true shooting percentage. 4) The only Buck shooting better than 35 percent from three-point range is Carlos Delfino (37.8 percent), who has missed six of 13 games with injuries.
 
19New York Knicks
Last Week: 24
Danilo Gallinari is averaging 11.7 points over the past three games -- from the free-throw line. His 35-for-36 shooting from the line highlighted a three-game sweep of California teams not named the Lakers. The Knicks allowed Golden State, Sacramento and the Clippers to collectively shoot better than 50 percent and outscore them by 14 field goals overall, but they more than compensated with a 122-72 advantage in free-throw attempts. Renowned as a catch-and-shoot player, Gallinari's free throws per 36 minutes have climbed from 2.4 as a rookie to 4.0 last season to his current 7.5, a spike made even more significant by his 85 percent career accuracy at the line.
 
20Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 22
I've been tough on D.J. Augustin, but the third-year point guard has played the best ball of his young career during the Bobcats' 4-2 run over the past six games. Augustin has managed to both guide the offense -- he recorded 48 assists against eight turnovers while averaging 12.2 points on 45.1 percent shooting in that stretch -- and exercise due deference to top scorers Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson. In those six games, the Bobcats were plus-52 in the 200 minutes he played and minus-27 in the 88 minutes he sat.
 
21Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 21
Ryan Hollins' clothesline on San Antonio's Tiago Splitter on Saturday was just his latest in a series of cheap shots. While with the Timberwolves last March, Hollins was suspended two games for separate incidents in a loss to the Mavericks -- punching DeShawn Stevenson during a box-out scrum in the second quarter, then bashing Dirk Nowitzki in the head with his forearm in the fourth quarter. A month later, Hollins flagrantly fouled the Hornets' Marcus Thornton in the final six seconds of a 28-point loss. On Friday, he flagrantly fouled the Hornets' David West less than three minutes after teammate Joey Graham had been ejected for a flagrant on West. And on Saturday, he laid out Splitter with a forearm with the Spurs up by 10 in the fourth quarter.
 
22Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 23
Give the Pistons credit for winning five of their last eight and playing hard enough to suffer only two blowouts -- to Boston and Portland -- in their first 13 games. But it is laughable to hear folks tout their top-three status in bench points, considering that their top-three reserves -- Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Jason Maxiell -- are making a combined $22.8 million this season. The next four games -- on the road in Dallas and Memphis and at home against the Bucks and Knicks -- is the sort of stretch in which Detroit could reasonably go anywhere from 3-1 to 0-4.
 
23Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 27
With Jarrett Jack gone, fellow guard Leandro Barbosa had the best performance of his eight-game Toronto career Sunday against the Celtics, dishing for four layups in a six-minute span bridging the first and second quarters, then stanching Boston's 17-1 fourth-quarter run by feeding for his fifth assist (he'd had eight total in his previous seven games) and then knocking down a jumper with about two minutes left. Neither point guard Jose Calderon nor top scorer Andrea Bargnani can create his own shot, which is a Barbosa specialty. Yes, his skill set duplicates that of new acquisition Jerryd Bayless. But Barbosa is more developed, and given the sorry scrum for the final playoff berths in the East and the hot seat beneath coach Jay Triano, Barbosa should get the minutes playing alongside or instead of Calderon -- especially at crunch time.
 
24Houston Rockets
Last Week: 18
No team with Shane Battier and Luis Scola as the forwards should rank 27th in defensive efficiency, but solid team defense is about continuity and Houston has brought in or sought to reintegrate too many players -- including Yao Ming, Brad Miller, Kevin Martin and Courtney Lee -- since its roster was brimming with gritty overachievers less than a year ago. Through no real fault of his own, Yao's return has brought more distraction than dominance -- the Rockets have overhauled their style for a guy who has played 16 percent of his position's available minutes. But if and when Yao gets healthy, and point guard Aaron Brooks recovers from his ankle sprain, the Rockets have to discover an identity and stick with it as much as possible.
 
25Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 25
After watching Darko Milicic dominate the Lakers' Pau Gasol -- and yes, incredibly, that's what happened -- in the first half Friday, Minnesota fans can be forgiven for daydreaming about the prospect of Darko, Kevin Love and Michael Beasley all realizing their potential simultaneously. Put Ricky Rubio in the backcourt and suddenly all those "KAAAHHHNN" catcalls denigrating general manager David Kahn seem, at the least, premature. For the record, I still wouldn't trust Darko in clutch situations, believe Beasley will always be a turnover machine trying to dribble out of pressure (not a good tendency in your go-to scorer), and wonder how habitual Love's defensive lapses have become. (I also believe No. 4 pick Wes Johnson deserves more touches and TLC to maintain his silky-scoring proclivities.) But show me where Kahn has been more clueless or foolhardy than, say, such revered GMs as Detroit's Joe Dumars or Houston's Daryl Morey over the past two years.
 
26Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
In a postgame interview Monday, Utah's C.J. Miles casually mentioned that the Kings don't get back on defense in transition, which helps explain why a team with so many rugged athletes is yielding an NBA-worst 72.1 percent on shots at the rim. Coach Paul Westphal has added more length, subbing 6-11 Donte Greene into the starting lineup for 6-9 Omri Casspi and experimenting with 6-11 centers DeMarcus Cousins and Samuel Dalembert playing side-by-side on occasion. At the other end of the court, point guard Tyreke Evans seems to have regressed slightly in his second season.
 
27New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 20
There is little doubt that center Brook Lopez remains the Nets' best player. The team's offense and especially its defense both significantly improve when he's patrolling the paint. But the 7-footer's bizarre inability to finish at the rim has hamstrung Avery Johnson's team, as exemplified by Lopez's blown layup that could have tied the game with 15 seconds left in what turned out to be a 107-103 loss at Denver. Lopez is shooting 45.7 percent at the rim (compared to 66 percent and 61.4 percent his first two years) for the season, according to Hoopdata. And he's connecting on 42.2 percent overall, well below his 50.4 percent career mark.
 
28Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
Gilbert Arenas was the best player on the court for nearly the entire game Sunday at Detroit. But with 90 seconds to play and the Wizards up two, Arenas ignored a wide-open Andray Blatche rolling toward the hoop and instead unsuccessfully took on the double team off the pick-and-roll. Then for the final shot in regulation, he drove and kicked to Blatche, a career 24.8 percent from deep, for a missed three-pointer. In overtime, the Wizards permanently fell behind when Arenas twice got picked to allow two buckets by Rip Hamilton, then turned the ball over three times in the final 41 seconds of a 115-110 loss. The Wizards' front office, desperate to unload his contract and attendant baggage, has to hope the box-score watchers were bedazzled by Arenas' 19 points and career-high 16 assists.
 
29Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 29
That 20-year-old Jrue Holiday is settling in at point guard has been a silver lining in a wretched start. Holiday is finishing at the rim more often and effectively than he did as a rookie, his assist-to-turnover ratio is up and, for the most part, he works hard on defense. With Elton Brand aging, Andre Iguodala reportedly on the trade block and No. 2 pick Evan Turner facing a steep learning curve, the 6-4 Holiday is beginning to emerge as the face of the franchise.
 
30Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 30
After Blake Griffin's 44-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist performance in Saturday's loss to the Knicks, it's reasonable to wonder how much better the 21-year-old forward can become. Already a first-class rebounder (he ranks among the top seven in offensive rebounding and overall rebounding) and finisher (he's shooting 69 percent on shots at the rim), Griffin needs to establish a reliable jumper and learn how to play team defense. Here's a salient stat: The woeful Clippers are actually outscoring their opponents by 16 points in the 197 minutes Griffin has spent on the bench, and they are minus-152 in the 489 minutes he has played. It would help to have veteran Chris Kaman back to play center beside him. The return of point guard Baron Davis is more problematic: Between Davis, shooting guard Eric Gordon and Griffin, there aren't enough quality touches to go around.
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