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Knicks rise while Mavs still tops

For the first time since the Pleistocene era -- or the decade-old days of Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston and Jeff Van Gundy -- the New York Knicks are being talked about in terms that don't involve lawsuits, punch lines or salary-cap woes. Mike D'Antoni's team has won 10 of 11 games to move into the thick of the playoff hunt behind a potent, entertaining offense that revolves around Amar'e Stoudemire.

Yes, it is still early, only one of the Knicks' 10 victories in this current run has been against an opponent with a winning record (New Orleans), and New York ranks just 20th in defensive efficiency. But for an overhauled roster that lost five of its top eight players in minutes played from a year ago, the Knicks have rapidly coalesced into an offensive juggernaut. Stoudemire and another free-agent signee, point guard Raymond Felton, are running the pick-and-roll with a facility not far removed from the Steve Nash-Stoudemire duo in Phoenix last season. Over the last 10 games, Stoudemire is averaging an NBA-high 29.7 points on 58.7 percent shooting and Felton is averaging 9.7 assists.

Adding to the Knicks' bountiful offseason harvest is the play of second-round draft pick Landry Fields, the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for November and the NBA's leading rebounder among guards. Three-point specialist Danilo Gallinari and 17-point scorer Wilson Chandler, a recent addition to the first unit as the Knicks went small in center Ronny Turiaf's absence, complete a young but not callow starting lineup.

Time will tell if this is the high point in the Knicks' season or the start of something really good. But it is instructive to compare New York's two games against the Timberwolves. A month ago in Minnesota, the Wolves roared back from a 21-point second-half deficit, embarrassing Stoudemire and the Knicks with Kevin Love's 31-point, 31-rebound effort. On Monday in New York, Stoudemire scored 34 points (his fifth consecutive game with at least 30) and the Knicks rallied from an early 11-point deficit to beat Minnesota 121-114.

With the Raptors and Wizards up next, the Knicks -- who have climbed to No. 12 in this week's Power Rankings -- have a chance to go 15-9 before consecutive home games against the Nuggets, Celtics and Heat. Those three games begin a difficult stretch that will serve as a good measure of New York's progress.

(All stats and records are through Dec. 6.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 1
Dallas fans should be thankful that Mark Cuban is willing to invest in roster upgrades. Precious few of Cuban's peers have the means or desire to turn Erick Dampier's expiring contract into $12.6 million worth of Tyson Chandler after already investing a guaranteed $42 million in a player, Brendan Haywood, who plays Chandler's position. Haywood ranks eighth in minutes on the NBA's deepest team while Chandler's play in the paint puts him just behind Dirk Nowitzki as the early team MVP, but six weeks ago, most observers could have imagined a reverse scenario between the two centers. Best of all, the value of Cuban's approach doesn't dissipate: Haywood is an excellent, if expensive, insurance policy for the injury-prone Chandler, and yet Chandler knows he could receive a lucrative extension to stay if he maintains his current play.
 
2Boston Celtics
Last Week: 3
The only starter who isn't shooting better than 50 percent happens to be one of the greatest long-range marksman of all time -- Ray Allen, who is hitting 47.2 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three-point range. That the entire team is at 50.8 percent 20 games into the season is remarkable. Add in a typically suffocating defense that ranks second in efficiency, and Boston is humming, concerned more about age and injury than the Magic and Heat. Coach Doc Rivers has cut slightly the minutes of Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo over the last 10 games while still going 8-2 in a stretch that includes strong performances like Friday's rout of Chicago. And the Celtics don't even have Kendrick Perkins back yet.
 
3San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
The Spurs' fast-paced, high-powered attack is becoming increasingly well-known, but their defense isn't too shabby either -- they're seventh in defensive efficiency and are allowing their fewest points per 100 possessions since 2007-08. Although merely average in opposing field-goal percentage, the Spurs rank second in steals while committing the fewest fouls, a testament to the intelligence (and lobbying abilities?) of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili on traps and rotations. Freed from the need to score as often this season, Duncan is setting the tone for a defense that permits 9.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays compared to when he sits, according to 82games.com.
 
4Utah Jazz
Last Week: 4
Utah Jazz (16-6)
Al Jefferson is getting the hang of Utah's winning system, leading the Jazz in rebounds and blocks while ranking second to Deron Williams in minutes. In the last 10 games, Jefferson has slowly but surely upped his field-goal percentage and assist rate. Despite the personnel turnover (five of Utah's top nine players from a year ago have either departed or are injured), Jerry Sloan's squad has won 14 of 17 with a surprisingly effective bench that includes C.J. Miles, who is forming an effective platoon with Raja Bell at shooting guard, and Francisco Elson, who is holding the fort for brief stints at center behind Jefferson until Mehmet Okur returns. This week's tough schedule includes visits by Miami and Orlando and a trip to Dallas.
 
5Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 5
One of the best arguments for a three-peat is the ridiculous reality that Lamar Odom is their third-best player. Consider some highlights of his first half in Friday's victory against Sacramento that snapped a four-game losing streak: Odom had a floor-length drive and another fast-break finish in which he beat the big men down the floor; blocked three shots and shut down Carl Landry; and delivered a jaw-dropping bounce pass from the top of the key at one end of the court into the lane at the other end for a streaking Matt Barnes. With Odom having played all but three minutes of the first three periods, Phil Jackson gave him the final period off with L.A. up 30.
 
6Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 9
With the Nuggets having overcome injuries and distractions to win seven consecutive games and improve to 13-6, Carmelo Anthony's refusal to extend his contract in Denver looks increasingly selfish. His defenders claim management hasn't done enough to upgrade the team, especially the frontcourt. But while Anthony was shooting only 4-of-20 on Sunday, center Nene was besting Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to the tune of 27 points (on 10-of-13 FG), 11 rebounds and six assists in a 108-107 victory. Meanwhile, starting power forward Shelden Williams is averaging 6.4 rebounds in only 20.6 minutes, and forward-center Chris Andersen, although out a couple of games with a minor back injury, has recovered from knee surgery. And in the backcourt, Arron Afflalo has emerged as an ideal glue guy, and Chauncey Billups and Ty Lawson are an excellent combination of seasoning and speed at the point. Bottom line: If Anthony's top priority is winning, his best option is to remain in Denver.
 
7Orlando Magic
Last Week: 6
A team designed to play an inside-outside offense can't feel good about ranking 16th in three-point shooting percentage. When the threes aren't falling, you get abominations like Monday's loss to Atlanta: 4-of-22 shooting from deep and 74 points. When the stomach flu ravaged the roster last week, Orlando seemed to miss point guard Jameer Nelson as much as its MVP candidate, Dwight Howard, in large part because neither Chris Duhon nor Jason Williams has looked sharp shooting or distributing in Nelson's stead. One other concern is Howard's struggles at the free-throw line, where he is averaging a career-high 11.7 attempts but shooting a career-worst 54.1 percent.
 
8Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 8
Carlos Boozer had a trademark 29-point, 12-rebound performance in Monday's victory against Oklahoma City, his fourth game as a Bull. He fueled a Chicago attack that scored 58 points in the paint, delivering his lion's share via deft cuts to the hoop, standard low-post feeds, deadly mid-range jumpers and the occasional putback. Without Boozer, the Bulls don't win on a night when Derrick Rose shoots 3-for-13. That lighter burden on the point guard's production is going to pay dividends with his endurance down the stretch this spring. After a brutal stretch, the Bulls play five of their next seven at home against mostly inferior competition.
 
9Miami Heat
Last Week: 12
Miami Heat (14-8)
Dropping four of five in late November finally dissolved Miami's arrogance, and the hullabaloo over LeBron James' return to Cleveland intensified its focus. Consequently, the major players in this star-studded experiment began to concentrate on how best to play together, reeling off five straight wins. James and Dwyane Wade are both moving better without the ball and are becoming less self-conscious and more intuitive about their playmaking. Perhaps more important, the weak spots are being sealed: Pushed by a healthier Mario Chalmers, point guard Carlos Arroyo is being more aggressive about shooting open jumpers, and the grab bag of veteran big men -- Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Erick Dampier -- is stitching together more respectable interior defense. The next step is posting an impressive victory against a very good opponent -- Wednesday's game at Utah is a worthy test.
 
10Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 7
It's simply not as much fun to watch the Thunder play this year as last season: They lack a natural rhythm to their switches and rotations on defense; Kevin Durant's offense isn't coming nearly as easily; and Russell Westbrook is more indomitable than ever, but his improvement and Durant's brief injury absence have given the point guard more sway over the offense -- a mixed blessing as he leads the league in turnovers and has taken the third-most shots with a below-average accuracy of 43.7 percent, yet also ranks third in free-throw attempts and converts 87.2 percent at the line. But to heck with aesthetics when you can have victories: OKC has actually been outscored by nine points overall but is two games ahead of last year's 22-game mark of 12-10.
 
11Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 13
The Hawks have won three of four since losing top scorer Joe Johnson for 4-6 weeks, including Monday's gritty 80-74 victory at Orlando in which neither team shot 40 percent. With Jason Collins starting at center and big men Josh Powell, Zaza Pachulia and Etan Thomas helping off the bench, the Hawks limited Dwight Howard to 5-of-11 shooting and 14 points. It's too early to call Johnson's temporary loss an unexpected blessing, but the Hawks are playing with a stiffer backbone and enjoying the underdog role after being appropriately tagged as a good-but-not-great team even with Johnson healthy and signed to a max contract.
 
12New York Knicks
Last Week: 14
The Knicks' faithful has been pondering the Holy Grail of high-powered trades and free-agent signings for so long now that it is still hard to countenance standing pat with a young, steadily improving roster. How many, and which, of the current pieces should be sacrificed to get Carmelo Anthony or to pry Chris Paul away from the potentially untenable ownership situation in New Orleans? Would scorers Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire be a good fit? Do you sell very high on Landry Fields, or is the rookie guard a great complementary player for years to come? All of these questions are infinitely more pleasant than the often-deluded speculation that marked the years in the Isiah Thomas wilderness.
 
13New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 10
Chris Paul is nobody's fool, and he understood perfectly well how much controversy his praise of Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni would generate in the midst of the uncertain ownership situation in New Orleans and his team's recent struggles. "I'm a huge fan of coach D'Antoni's and he really has those guys going right now," Paul said of the man with whom he won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. Meanwhile, an entertaining battle between Paul and Tony Parker on Sunday lost intensity after it was apparent Parker had the superior supporting cast. Early-season surprises Emeka Okafor (on offense) and Marco Belinelli (at both ends) have regressed and the Hornets have dropped six of eight, yielding more than 100 points four times after doing so just once in their first dozen games.
 
14Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 11
The way the Pacers pass the ball around and bomb away from three-point range results in the occasional eruption, like the 144 points they scored on Denver last month or the 124 they got against Toronto on Monday. That type of capability obscures the fact that Indiana is winning with the NBA's seventh-most-efficient defense more often than with its 18th-ranked offense. As with most good things with the Pacers, the root cause of that staunch D is center Roy Hibbert, who is playing a career-high 29.7 minutes per game and has improved his agility thanks to better conditioning and treatment for a belated asthma diagnosis.
 
15Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 15
Seven-foot journeyman Earl Barron gives the Suns a semblance of rim protection (Phoenix is 3-0 since he became a starter), but they will continue to live and die by concentrating on outscoring the opposition. With assists on a platter from Steve Nash, Jason Richardson is shooting 52.4 percent (and 49.1 from three-point range) in his last 10 games. After a series of mediocre outings, forward Hakim Warrick was 8-of-8 (six dunks, two layups, five of them Nash assists) at the rim against the Wizards' inept front line Sunday, while Nash schooled John Wall with 20 points (8-for-8 from the field) and 17 assists against two turnovers. The Suns have four winnable games -- Memphis and Minnesota at home alternating with a home-and-away pair with Portland -- over the next eight days and then have to hope center Robin Lopez has recovered from his knee injury in time to join them on a road swing through Dallas, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
 
16Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 16
It's shocking, and increasingly sad, to watch Brandon Roy trying to function with his normal facility this season. The athletic Wizards made him look decrepit in the second half of Portland's slow collapse on Friday, harassing him into harried shots, turnovers and less-than-optimal passes. Roy's issues with Andre Miller over who would run the half-court offense have turned into a gaping void when Miller isn't on his game -- Portland went 0-for-8 and was a minus-6 in crunch time Friday when Nate McMillan sat the cold-shooting Miller and essentially went with Roy at the point (Miller's backups, Armon Johnson and Patrick Mills, have been inadequate). Even in Sunday's win over the Clippers, Roy followed a solid first stint on the floor with 1-of-10 shooting (although he was 7-of-8 from the line), one rebound and two assists in his final 22:50 on the court.
 
17Houston Rockets
Last Week: 22
The Rockets are 4-4 since Rick Adelman reverted to a move from last season and inserted undersized center Chuck Hayes into the starting lineup, forming an effective tandem when the offensively oriented Brad Miller comes off the bench. Point guard Kyle Lowry has also regained his sea legs after a rocky start returning from a bad back to fill in for the injured Aaron Brooks. With four winnable games up next -- home against Detroit, Cleveland and Sacramento and a visit to Milwaukee -- Houston has a chance to flirt with .500 after a 3-10 start. But will this week's anticipated return of Yao Ming and Brooks bolster momentum or complicate team chemistry again?
 
18Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 23
Just when you want to take the surprising Raptors seriously as a bottom-rung playoff contender in the East, they lose to the Knicks and Pacers by a combined 41 points. But their defense has improved by 3.7 points per 100 possessions from a year ago, and if coach Jay Triano can make the right decisions on personnel and playing time, the Raptors could make the postseason. Triano would be smart to go with youth -- like rookie forward Ed Davis and second-year swingman DeMar DeRozan -- over, say, the more potent but aging Peja Stojakovic (when he returns from a knee injury). And pairing combo guards Jerryd Bayless and Leandro Barbosa with point guard Jose Calderon deprives DeRozan of minutes or creates a smaller lineup on a team that already yields too much on defense. One silver lining: The recent play of high-priced forward Amir Johnson filling in for Reggie Evans.
 
19Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 9
Coach Lionel Hollins' decision to retool on the fly is a savvy, and necessary, long-term strategy that could nevertheless put him on the hot seat if the Grizzlies don't pull out of their recent tailspin -- beating the Lakers is their lone win in the past six games. Starting rookie shooting guard Xavier Henry over O.J. Mayo hasn't made much difference in production at the position over the past nine games. But the switch makes sense: The 6-6 Henry is two inches taller, less polished but with more potential, and cheaper for a longer period of time before his contract expires. Point guard Greivis Vasquez is the other rangy rookie getting some seasoning and taking his lumps -- he's shooting 39.7 percent and got tangled up with Deron Williams while trying to defend the Utah point guard Monday.
 
20Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 20
In a revealing story in the Charlotte Observer, Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson cited lesser intensity and aggression from new starters D.J. Augustin and Nazr Mohammad as reasons for the 7-13 start. Coach Larry Brown appropriately put the onus back on Wallace, Jackson and Boris Diaw, noting that "the youth plays with energy." Jackson did cop to Brown's charge that the team wasn't getting back in transition. Incidentally, the Bobcats are allowing 10.5 more points per 100 possessions when Jackson plays compared to when he sits, according to 82games.com. One thing to keep in mind: The Bobcats were 12-18 through December before mounting their playoff run and finishing 44-38 last season.
 
21Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 21
You don't have to be a Bucks fan to be frustrated over the way Milwaukee practically refused to involve Andrew Bogut in Monday's loss to Miami. After missing two weeks with a back injury, he returned Saturday and hung 31 points and 18 rebounds on the Magic (who were missing Dwight Howard), one of his few performances this season reminiscent of his play last year. With the Heat's vulnerability defending at the rim, a steady diet of Bogut seemed like the Bucks' best bet for an upset. But his teammates -- especially point guards Brandon Jennings and Earl Boykins -- repeatedly ignored him on the pick-and-roll and the Bucks seemed content to let the Heat's cheating in the paint on Bogut deter them from trying to get him in rhythm. His 4-of-12 shooting overstates his involvement, which was generated as much by his own effort and ingenuity as purposeful ball-sharing by his teammates.
 
22Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 28
Saturday's solid victory against Charlotte was an important one for coach Doug Collins. The Sixers had melted down at Atlanta the night before, a 21-3 stretch over the final 8:32 that culminated in Philadelphia's failing to rebound a missed Hawks free throw while down one with 18 seconds to play, and then, behind by three, fumbling away the inbounds pass to seal the loss. Collins, a veteran taskmaster who doesn't camouflage his anguish on the sideline, had subbed out starting point guard Jrue Holiday for Jodie Meeks on that last possession -- only to watch Meeks commit the fatal turnover. The fallout could have easily been dissension and lack of effort on the ensuing second night of the back-to-back. But Meeks, starting alongside Holiday in the backcourt for the second game in a row, scored 20 first-quarter points and the young Sixers went on to win their fourth consecutive home game.
 
23Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 18
Forward Louis Amundson, who had finger surgery in mid-October, has returned to practice. The Warriors desperately need the disruptive hustle he contributes on defense. Only Phoenix allows more points per 100 possessions than Golden State, which is creeping back into the losing, paint-averse mode it showed under former coach Don Nelson. The Warriors have been outscored by 9.9 points per game at the free-throw line (197 points in 20 games). The otherwise marvelous Stephen Curry ranks behind only DeMarcus Cousins in the frequency of his fouling. At the other end, however, Curry has increased his free-throw attempts from 2.5 as a rookie to 4.2 this season, and he's shooting 90.7 percent at the line. As for David Lee, if he is going to shoot below 50 percent from the field for the first time in his career (he's at 46.4), the least he can do is get to the line more than 3.8 times per game.
 
24Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 25
The future remains bleak: The Pistons rank in the bottom third of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency, they've lost two of every three games and, with the possible exception of 24-year-old Rodney Stuckey, they don't have a proven commodity under the age of 25. Austin Daye has fallen out of the rotation, DaJuan Summers isn't getting the D-League experience he so obviously needs, Jonas Jerebko is expected to be out until March and 2010 top pick Greg Monroe is usually riding the bench in favor of 36-year-old Ben Wallace.
 
25Washington Wizards
Last Week: 27
With 20/20 hindsight, we know that Gilbert Arenas' contract is a disaster; what's dumbfounding is how management could compound its salary woes -- and damage the team's future -- with the Andray Blatche extension. Blatche, an athletic 6-11 forward, exhibits the worst shot selection of any significant scorer in the NBA. Although he consistently converts better than 60 percent of his shot attempts at the rim, Blatche chooses to launch jumpers 62 percent of the time, on which he has an effective field-goal percentage of only 35.0. He also has the Wizards' lowest effective field-goal percentage on shots taken in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock -- a sign that he's missing a lot of layups in transition and jacking up too many quick jumpers. To ensure that this offensive saboteur plays with John Wall's sanity through the 2014-2015 season, the Wizards added three years and $28 million to Blatche's contract in September, keeping him from becoming a free agent in 2012.
 
26Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 29
Amid the Blake Griffin mania, guard Eric Gordon continues to put up star-caliber numbers. He ranks seventh with 24.3 points a game to go with 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists -- all career highs for a player who won't turn 22 until Christmas Day, making him just three months older than Griffin. The third-year guard is also getting to the rim more than ever, according to Hoopdata, and he'd be even higher on the scoring list if his three-point touch (25.5 percent) hadn't deserted him and he had a point guard who wasn't either a rookie (Eric Bledsoe) or a shoot-first type (Baron Davis) feeding him the ball.
 
27Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 26
Minnesota's starting frontcourt has the NBA's top shot-blocker (Darko Milicic), best rebounder (Kevin Love) and 13th-leading scorer (Michael Beasley). So why are the Wolves barely better than the 4-15 mark that got Randy Wittman fired almost exactly two years ago? According to Player Efficiency Ratings compiled by 82games.com, the Wolves are being outplayed everywhere except at Love's power forward spot. Yes, Minnesota has amassed some fascinating pieces. But the jury is still out on whether coach Kurt Rambis, with his triangle offense, can mold them into a complementary whole. The plot thickens with the imminent return of last year's disappointing rookie, Jonny Flynn, at the point, and a few weeks later Minnesota is expected to get back swingman Martell Webster, who was acquired in an offseason trade with Portland and was arguably the team's best player in the preseason before injuring his back.
 
28New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 24
Nets fans are in the unfortunate position of hoping that an injury might explain center Brook Lopez's listless performances of late. His pathetic rebounding totals bottomed out with zero defensive boards (and only two rebounds overall) in 38:48 against Charlotte on Friday, and his 2-of-6 shooting in Sunday's loss to Boston made him 12-for-39 (30.8 percent) in three December games and 43.6 for the season -- way below his career 50.2 mark. The 22-year-old 7-footer's attempts at the rim have dropped from 6.6 to 3.2 and his accuracy there from 61.4 percent to 47.4 percent. After registering 33 double-doubles last season, he has just one in the first 20 games. Is he hurt, or can the likes of the Bobcats' Nazr Mohammed not only shut him out on the defensive glass but also limit him to 0-for-2 shooting in the first half?
 
29Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 17
LeBron's return was obviously pivotal for both Miami and Cleveland, with the Cavs following up that blowout loss to the Heat with no-shows against the lowly Timberwolves and Pistons. The tumble highlights how much the Cavs were winning via sweat equity -- less-than-maximum effort triggers an automatic loss for this talent-depleted team. Team lethargy aside, if you're looking for scapegoats among the leading players, try Mo Williams, whose three-point percentage has plummeted from 42.9 to 30.6 without LeBron's drive-and-kicks. Cleveland has performed much better, especially on offense, when Daniel Gibson and/or Ramon Sessions replaces Williams in the backcourt, per 82games.com.
 
30Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 30
Anyone who watches 20-year-old center DeMarcus Cousins play for a while can see his All-Star potential. But the temperamental rookie's notorious immaturity is just as obvious. Plenty has already been said about the arguments with coach Paul Westphal that have gotten Cousins thrown out of practice. But of greater concern is his inability to hold it together on the court. He deserves much of the blame for the Kings' coughing up a nine-point lead in the final 5:25 against Dallas on Saturday. When Cousins wasn't trying to be a hero by forcing the action on offense, he was arguing or acting out his displeasure with the officiating -- behavior that builds the wrong kind of reputation with referees. But just two nights later, Cousins was the Kings' most effective starter in a road loss to the Clippers.
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