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Rockets making do; Cavs on top

A superstar goes down, the team plays better. Wait ... this sounds familiar.

The Rockets' recent surge without Tracy McGrady isn't exactly like the 10-0 run they went on once Yao Ming went down last season (they already had won 12 straight games when Yao was lost for the year), but there are similarities. With McGrady gone, the Rockets have revamped their offense behind speedy point guards Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry while pairing Ron Artest and Shane Battier together for a formidable defensive presence. The results speak for themselves: Houston has won seven of its last eight games without T-Mac and is giving up just 88.3 points per game.

Knowing McGrady's season is over has helped the Rockets settle into roles.

"Tracy really impacted how we play on both ends," general manager Daryl Morey said. "Having him be in and out daily was a big challenge for the coaching staff."

"It's always hard when you don't know if one of your best players is going to be in or out of your lineup," said Nets coach Lawrence Frank, whose team lost to the McGrady-less Rockets on Feb. 17. "There was closure. Everyone moves forward because they know he's not going to be there."

(All stats and records are through Sunday.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 2
The way Joe Smith has been talked about in the last few weeks, you would think Kobe Bryant was being bought out of his contract. Indications are that Smith, who was waived by Oklahoma City on Sunday, will sign with Cleveland this week, though Sacramento's surprising decision to release former Cav Drew Gooden could complicate matters. Either addition couldn't come at a better time. With Ben Wallace (broken leg) out 4-6 weeks, and the race for home-court advantage in the East likely to come down to the wire, Cleveland badly needs more frontcourt size.
 
2Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
With road losses to Denver and Phoenix, the Lakers have dropped back-to-back games for the first time since mid-January. Meanwhile, reports out of L.A. say Andrew Bynum is on schedule to return before the end of the regular season. The 7-footer has yet to start running but is able to ride a stationary bike as he recovers from a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee.
 
3San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
They blew a chance to pick up some ground on the conference-leading Lakers when they split four games last week. The good news is that Tim Duncan is healthy. After missing three consecutive games with right quad tendonosis, San Antonio's most important player returned in Sunday's loss at Portland. With only 3½ games separating the second-seeded Spurs from the No. 8 Mavericks, Duncan's presence in the lineup down the stretch is critical.
 
4Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
Stephon Marbury's first week in Boston began with a roar (eight points in 13 minutes in Friday's victory against Indiana) and ended with a whimper (zero points, four fouls and two turnovers in 12 minutes in Sunday's loss to Detroit). Marbury's presence hasn't seemed to faze starting point guard Rajon Rondo, who likened Marbury's arrival to that of Sam Cassell at midseason in 2007-08. "I think it's the same situation but I probably am more established," Rondo told reporters. "I'm more confident -- and I'm playing a little better."
 
5Orlando Magic
Last Week: 5
Is there any question that Stan Van Gundy is the favorite for Coach of the Year? Van Gundy has had a hand in developing the Magic's three All-Stars (Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson) and turned Orlando into an elite team despite starting two small forwards in the frontcourt. Also, after Nelson's season-ending shoulder injury, Van Gundy smoothly transitioned the Magic from playing with a shoot-first point guard to a pass-first one (Rafer Alston). There isn't another coach out there who has done a better job.
 
6Houston Rockets
Last Week: 7
They understand the criticism that they can't win in the playoffs without McGrady. Where you lose them is when you say the same things about Alston. "The joke in our locker room is that the people who are saying we can't win without Rafer are the same people who said we couldn't win with him," Battier said. While the Rockets have liked the way Brooks has filled in since Alston's departure, backup Lowry could eventually emerge as the starting point guard. The Rockets love Lowry's defensive mind-set, a mentality that Brooks is currently lacking.
 
7Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 6
They desperately need help on the boards if they plan to compete with the top teams in the West in the playoffs. Gooden could be a nice addition. A more complete offensive player than Smith, Gooden would fit in well with the Nuggets' up-tempo system and provide insurance in the frontcourt in case the often-injured Kenyon Martin or Nene go down again.
 
8Utah Jazz
Last Week: 9
Utah Jazz (37-23)
Who would have thought reincorporating Carlos Boozer into the lineup would loom as their biggest challenge in March? Utah, riding an eight-game winning streak, is trying to work in Boozer, who has been playing about 20 minutes a game since returning last week after missing three months with a left knee injury. "Anytime Booz is on the floor, your instinct is to look for him, your instinct is to go in to him," Deron Williams told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We want to look for him, we want to get him back 100 percent as soon as possible. It's just kind of a feel."
 
9New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 11
They have a pretty good opportunity to leapfrog several teams in the standings early this month. After beating Sacramento, Detroit, Milwaukee and New Jersey last week, their schedule over the next two weeks includes games against Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Washington, Milwaukee and Chicago.
 
10Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 8
After back-to-back losses to Houston and San Antonio, they rebounded to blow out the Timberwolves and Spurs over the weekend. Portland has played the last seven games without starting center Greg Oden (bone chip in left knee), who is reportedly struggling through practices and is expected to be out at least through Wednesday's game against Indiana.
 
11Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 12
Phoenix Suns (34-25)
What do Shaquille O'Neal and Marbury have in common? They are two of the three players (along Bernard King) to score 40 or more points with four different teams. Shaq reached that milestone with a 45-point outburst against Toronto last Friday. Raptors forward Chris Bosh complained afterward that O'Neal benefited from being able to camp out in the lane. "That's strong words coming from the RuPaul of big men," O'Neal told the Arizona Republic. "I'm going to do the same thing [in their next meeting] I did before -- make him quit. Make 'em quit and complain. It's what I do."
 
12Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 10
How happy were they to get guard Jason Terry (broken hand) back following an eight-game absence? After the supersub returned to score eight points in 19 minutes in Sunday's victory against Toronto, coach Rick Carlisle gushed about the "spiritual lift" Terry gives the team. "He's an All-Star player for us," Carlisle told reporters. "You miss everything."
 
13Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 13
They beat Miami on Friday in their first unofficial playoff game, but Sunday's loss to Cleveland cut their lead over the Heat to 1½ games in the race for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round. Atlanta plays its next three games on the road (Washington, New York and Charlotte) before opening a seven-game homestand Sunday against Detroit.
 
14Miami Heat
Last Week: 14
Miami Heat (31-27)
Trailing the Knicks by 15 points in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Dwyane Wade caught an errant elbow from Danilo Gallinari that busted his lip wide open. A visibly agitated Wade proceeded to torch the Knicks for 24 points in the quarter in a 120-115 victory. "I think we need to punch him in his lip every night," Heat forward Michael Beasley said.
 
15Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 15
Samuel Dalembert is not getting a lot of love from courtside scouts. And for good reason. The center is in the midst of a forgettable season, averaging just 6.3 points and 8.7 rebounds. "He's good for one game every few weeks," a scout said. Said another scout: "His game has deteriorated so much this season. He's forcing shots and disrupting the rhythm of their half-court offense."
 
16Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 18
It has been suggested recently that this could be Allen Iverson's final season, that the Pistons' struggles with him and the Nuggets' success without him mean teams won't be interested in signing the former MVP. That's doubtful, but the Pistons' play the last two games has put the final nail in his coffin in Detroit. With Iverson sidelined with a sore back, and Richard Hamilton back in the starting lineup, the Pistons won at Orlando and at Boston to build some confidence after their eight-game losing skid.
 
17Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 16
They rallied from a 17-point deficit in the final six minutes to beat Houston on Saturday and then learned that Luol Deng could return to practice this week after earlier concerns that he might miss the rest of the season with a leg injury. The Bulls, who entered the week trailing No. 8 Milwaukee by one game, play host to the Bucks on Friday.
 
18New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 20
Things you can do in 1.8 seconds: Stand up, hop and sit down; zip through seven channels on your cable box; and, apparently, catch, dribble, get your shot blocked, recover and flip in a 50-foot runner. Devin Harris' miracle shot gave New Jersey an improbable win against Philadelphia last week and served as the highlight to a prolific week in which he averaged 35.7 points in three games (two victories).
 
19Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 19
Even if they don't make the playoffs this season, they have found the point guard who will eventually get them there: Ramon Sessions. The second-year player averaged 18.5 points and 7.4 assists in February, helping the Bucks stay afloat without Michael Redd (knee) and Andrew Bogut (back). He has split time at the two guard positions this season, but with Redd expected to be back next season, the 22-year-old Sessions is clearly the point guard of the future.
 
20New York Knicks
Last Week: 17
A word of advice to Nate Robinson: Tone it down before someone (namely, you) gets hurt. The flamboyant Robinson is an electrifying scorer (27.4 points in seven games since the All-Star break) and a crowd pleaser, but many NBA insiders believe his act -- which includes high-fiving fans and flexing after a strong move to the basket -- is likely to get him knocked down one of these days.
 
21Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 22
Boris Diaw has not been shooting enough. At least that's the assessment of coach Larry Brown, who has ordered Diaw to fire away at every available opportunity. Diaw is heeding the intructions, scoring 22 or more points in three of the past four games (including victories at Sacramento, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers).
 
22Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 21
Mike Dunleavy, the Pacers' second-leading scorer, revealed that he has been suffering from a "giant" bone spur on his right patella tendon all season. Next up for Dunleavy could be surgery. Meanwhile, Indiana downed Denver on Sunday, leaving San Antonio as the only division leader that the Pacers haven't beaten.
 
23Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 23
Coach Don Nelson's decision to go young has irritated some veteran players, specifically Jamal Crawford, who was benched for Friday's game against Charlotte. "Jamal wants to play," Crawford's agent, Aaron Goodwin, told the San Jose Mercury News. "That's what he came here for. If the coach doesn't want to play him, he should have a valid reason why he doesn't want to play him."
 
24Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 26
One complaint about the Raptors is that they don't care enough after a loss. Newcomer Shawn Marion is hoping to change that. "Every player should want to play for a championship," the forward said recently. "We're not that far out of the playoffs and we still have a long way to go in the season. If we can put something together, I think we can get there. But it has to start now."
 
25Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 24
Forward-center Kevin Love may never have the style of O.J. Mayo, with whom he traded places on draft night, but he is showing he may be able to match him in substance. Love leads all rookies in rebounding (8.7) and averaged 12.2 points and 10.0 rebounds in February.
 
26Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 25
The Thunder: 103 points per game allowed in three games (two losses) last week. Tyson Chandler: 11.5 points, 12.0 rebounds and one healthy toe in 35 minutes per game last week for New Orleans. Oh, and a game-winning tip-in to beat Milwaukee on Friday.
 
27Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 30
A win over Golden State and a surprise victory against Boston were followed by losses to Sacramento and Charlotte. Power forward Zach Randolph is averaging 22.4 points in 25 games with the Clippers.
 
28Washington Wizards
Last Week: 27
Gilbert Arenas is participating in full practices. The Wizards continue to say they expect the three-time All-Star to return this season, but it's (surprise!) Arenas who is taking the more pragmatic approach. "The way I look at it, I rushed back twice and got hurt again twice," Arenas told The Washington Post. "This time, I'm going to take my time."
 
29Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 28
With Gooden out of the picture after his buyout, that means rookie Jason Thompson will continue to start and play big minutes at power forward. Thompson is averaging 10.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in 61 games.
 
30Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 29
They plummet to the bottom spot thanks to a three-loss week that included defeats to Indiana and Oklahoma City. After opening 4-4 under Lionel Hollins, Memphis has lost seven straight and will play six of its next seven on the road. The Grizzlies also traded an up-and-coming point guard (Lowry) for little more than a draft pick and they are drawing a little over 12,500 fans a night. So the question is: How much longer can NBA basketball survive in Memphis?
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