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Mavs continue to tear up West

The Heat are accustomed to demoralizing opponents with sudden runs generated by steals, layups and three-pointers in transition that can abruptly change the complexion of the game. Trailing by 13 with 2:39 to play in the first quarter against Dallas on Monday, Miami stepped on the throttle for a 12-0 spurt to close the quarter, and added five more during the opening minute of the second period.

But the Mavericks absorbed the onslaught with impeccable poise, quickly answering with a 9-0 run. And when Miami again found its groove for a 12-2 rally later in the second, and a 13-0 explosion midway through the third, Dallas had built enough of a cushion to keep the pressure on the Heat and not be overwhelmed. Call it what you want -- maturity, court IQ, knowing your roles -- but this year's Mavs seem supremely self-possessed, and it is a significant factor in their 12-3 mark against winning teams and their 9-1 record on the road.

It's easy to ascribe this to their savvy core of veterans. But the likes of Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry were all around for the undignified denouement to the Mavs' 2009-10 season, when they were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Spurs. It was just seven months ago that Shawn Marion and Caron Butler were unhappy over playing time and Roddy Beaubois, who hasn't played a minute this season because of injury, was regarded as the key cog in helping the Mavs return to elite status.

What's happened instead is that newcomer Tyson Chandler has solidified the defense in a manner similar to what Kevin Garnett did in Boston on his arrival. With Chandler protecting the rim, Dallas can gamble a bit on more aggressive rotations or throw up a zone with lengthy wings extending out to the perimeter. At the same time, coach Rick Carlisle has done a masterful job getting quality minutes for most of the players on the league's deepest team, and the players themselves, including Marion, Butler and Brendan Haywood (demoted to a backup role by Chandler's ascendance), have played hard instead of pouted.

In the brutally competitive top tier of this week's Power Rankings, Dallas has supplanted San Antonio for second. But both Texas rivals still trail the Celtics, who continue to win despite a variety of injuries. And just behind that trio are the Lakers and the Heat, who have a much-anticipated matchup looming on Christmas Day.

(All stats and records are through Dec. 20.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Boston Celtics
Last Week: 1
The great irony 26 games into the season is that while a succession of banged and bruised centers show up on the sideline in street clothes and Rajon Rondo nurses his latest injury, aging stars Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett haven't missed a game and lead the team in total minutes. That translates into a 22-4 record and renewed appreciation for how well the Big Three work together. Pierce's triple-double against Indiana on Sunday is the clearest indication of his "point forward" responsibilities in Rondo's absence; Allen has coupled his highest minutes average (36.5 per game) since arriving in Boston with a career-best field goal percentage (48.9); and Garnett locks down the NBA's most efficient defense despite a revolving door of big men coming in beside him.
 
2Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 3
It's not as exciting as having a killer closer like Kobe Bryant fire up a buzzer-beating jumper, but one reason the Mavericks have won so many close games over the past two seasons is that Nowitzki and Co. are masters at "the foul game" when protecting a lead in the waning minutes. Nowitzki's length, soft hands and decent dribbling ability make it extremely difficult for opponents to force a turnover when he catches the inbounds pass. And when they foul him, he's a career 87.6 percent shooter from the line. If opponents sell out denying Dirk the ball, the inbounds can go to Terry (84.5 percent for his career) or Kidd (better than 80 percent the last four years).
 
3San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
Tim Duncan is suddenly on a tear, and just in time to propel the Spurs to a series of tight wins over mostly mediocre foes. He had seven blocks in 31 minutes in Wednesday's 92-90 home victory against Milwaukee, then went to Denver the next night and nailed a bevy of mid-range jumpers, finishing with a season-high 28 points and 16 rebounds in a 113-112 win. Back home against Memphis on Saturday, he clinched the 112-106 OT victory with 23-second flurry that included a dogged put-back on his third attempt at the rim, a block of Mike Conley's layup and an assist, his fifth of the game, on a Richard Jefferson dunk to close it out. Hi stat-stuffing line in Monday's 118-110 victory against Phoenix --20 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, three blocks -- was the cherry on top of his marvelous week.
 
4Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 5
Andrew Bynum is being brought along slowly in his return from offseason knee surgery, with no more than 17:39 of court time in any of his first four games, playing mostly against the likes of backups Hilton Armstrong and Solomon Jones. He moved smoothly, showing hard on the pick-and-roll and, if anything, acting a little too aggressively challenging mid-range jumpers. But watching his comeback, the cliche "you can't teach height" comes to mind, as Bynum went over the back without fouling in the course of grabbing some of his 17 offensive rebounds, to go with 22 foul shots, in 66 total minutes. He also looks like he's bulked up his upper body. With Luke Walton also playing well (he was a plus-15 in 14 minutes against Toronto on Sunday), the Lakers' first 10 are healthy for the first time this season.
 
5Miami Heat
Last Week: 6
Miami Heat (21-9)
Everyone was curious how, or if, the three Heat stars would compromise their games once they came together in Miami. It's obviously not a precise measure, but usage rate -- how often possessions end with a particular player's doing something like shooting, getting fouled or turning the ball over -- is a good place to start. According to Basketball-Reference, LeBron James' usage rate is 31.9 percent, exactly his career average, albeit not as high as his three previous years, which topped out at 33.8 percent in 2008-09. Dwyane Wade has seen his usage drop to 30.9 percent, below his 32.6 career average and well under his past five seasons, which topped out at a league-leading 36.2 in 2008-09 and 34.9 last year. And Chris Bosh's usage rate of 24.0 is less than his career average of 24.9 and a significant drop from his peak last season of 28.7.
 
6Utah Jazz
Last Week: 7
Utah Jazz (20-9)
If the objective for a sixth man is to trigger dramatic improvement in his team's play coming off the bench, then swingman C.J. Miles is one of the league's premier subs. When he's on the court, the Jazz score 9.1 more points and allow 8.6 fewer points per 100 possessions, according to 82games.com. Nor is Miles simply padding his numbers by being able to play alongside, say, Deron Williams. When it comes to plus/minus totals, eight of the top nine two-man combinations for the Jazz include Miles with a different Jazz teammate -- he's the main difference-maker. Not bad for a player who doesn't rank higher than fourth in any major category on his team except personal fouls, where he's third.
 
7Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 8
My colleague Zach Lowe beat me to the punch in criticizing the Thunder defense in the wake of their home loss to the Suns. All season OKC has relied on the offensive explosiveness of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to win, and that's been good enough for an admirable 19-9 record. But you don't become a viable championship contender without a consistent commitment to defense, and both Durant and Westbrook have abdicated the leadership they demonstrated last season at that end of the court. If you can't stop Phoenix in December (especially when the Suns' roster was depleted by personnel transitions from last weekend's trade with Orlando), you aren't going to stop the Lakers, Dallas, San Antonio or Utah when it really matters in May and June.
 
8Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Injuries to guards Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford earlier this month presented an ideal opportunity for eighth-year swingman Maurice Evans to become a more integral part of the rotation. But Evans shot his way back to a reduced role -- he connected on 29.2 percent in five starts when Johnson was sidelined, and his 32.3 percent accuracy for the season is a career low, well off his 44.4 percent average. But other role players -- notably Jason Collins and Josh Powell -- have stepped forward enough that Atlanta has a chance to beat out Chicago and/or Orlando for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
 
9Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 4
It is apparent that the Bulls are going to miss Joakim Noah -- out 8-10 weeks after thumb surgery -- more than they did Carlos Boozer. On Saturday against the Clippers, they went with a trio of 6-9 forwards (Boozer, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson at center) for their frontcourt, and less than five minutes into the game L.A. was up 15-8 and Gibson was on the bench with two fouls. Even a speedy recovery from a concussion he suffered later in the game won't prevent Chicago from relying more on 7-foot rookie Omer Asik, who will likely be overwhelmed by most starting centers, and Kurt Thomas, 38, who proved on Saturday that he still has the wiles, if not the hops, to deliver a dozen or so decent minutes.
 
10Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 12
With Chauncey Billups sidelined by ligament tears in his wrist, Ty Lawson had a trio of marvelous games running the offense last week. The second-year point guard had 22 assists and more steals (four) than turnovers (three), and he averaged 18 points on 52.6 percent shooting. This continues a trend of Lawson's statistics being superior to those of Billups (except for free-throw percentage) across the board this season. It bears noting, however, that the Nuggets allow about nine points more per 100 possessions when Lawson plays than when he sits, according to 82games.com. Obscured by Lawson's gaudy stats and the 2-1 record, Denver has yielded more than 106 points per game since Billups was sidelined. Billups told reporters that he planned to return Wednesday against San Antonio.
 
11Orlando Magic
Last Week: 9
With Dallas, San Antonio and Boston up next as they adjust to their roster overhaul, the Magic could easily be 16-14 by Christmas night. Meanwhile, Orlando needs another big man, pronto. Malik Allen lacks the speed and athleticism to handle Marcin Gortat's former role on an extended basis -- he struggled in a 13-minute stint in Monday's 91-81 loss at Atlanta before leaving with a leg injury. The Magic destroyed the Hawks by more than 25 points per game during last year's playoff sweep. This season, Atlanta has held Orlando to 82.3 points per game and won two out of three.
 
12New York Knicks
Last Week: 10
Coach Mike D'Antoni's use of an eight-man rotation was one of the catalysts of the Knicks' recent 13-1 run. But that lack of depth burned New York when it lost in overtime to Cleveland on Saturday to complete a stretch of three games in four nights that began with matchups against the NBA's two toughest defenses in Boston and Miami. The last-second loss to the Celtics was demoralizing; the blowout against the Heat was a reality check; and the defeat to the Cavs showcased a lack of physical and emotional fuel, as Cleveland energy guy Anderson Varejao hounded a spent Amar'e Stoudemire into eight turnovers and a second straight game of sub-50 percent shooting and fewer than 30 points.
 
13Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 18
Phoenix Suns (13-14)
All this chatter about moving Steve Nash is absurd -- or, for people outside Phoenix, wishful thinking. The Suns wouldn't have even made the playoffs in the rugged West this season with injury-prone Robin Lopez as their only big man, and a Lopez-Marcin Gortat tandem is a huge upgrade. Yes, Jason Richardson will be missed, but the three players coming from Orlando aren't primarily responsible for the Magic's offensive woes -- Gortat, Mickael Pietrus and Vince Carter ranked 2-3-4 behind Dwight Howard in effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of three-pointers) in Orlando. And while Carter, like the now-departed Hedo Turkoglu, is a defensive liability, Pietrus is tailor-made for the Suns' system at both ends of the court and, along with Josh Childress and Jared Dudley, could resurrect the sort of scrambling second unit that was so effective for coach Alvin Gentry last season.
 
14Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 16
The Blazers are 5-1 without Brandon Roy (including three straight victories against losing teams), but you wonder if they can continue to keep their chins above .500 in this second consecutive year of widespread injuries. In the frontcourt, center Marcus Camby, 36, has been injury-prone through much of his career and LaMarcus Aldridge leads the NBA in minutes. Point guard Andre Miller is remarkably durable but three months away from his 35th birthday. And the dings just keep on comin'-- Camby sat out Monday's win over Milwaukee with a sore shoulder, Nicolas Batum played with a sore shoulder and Dante Cunningham left with a sprained ankle. In the Blazers' favor is the NBA's slowest pace and coach Nate McMillan's emphasis on execution regardless of who is available to play.
 
15New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 14
The Hornets are in a nasty free fall, with all the momentum from their convincing win over the Jazz wiped out by close back-to-back losses to Indiana and Detroit. The team that was so fundamentally sound and came up big in the fourth quarter during its 11-1 start now makes fatal mistakes at crunch time, be it the inbounds pass stolen by Detroit's Jason Maxiell on Sunday or the lack of a box-out that allowed Mike Dunleavy's tip-in winner on Monday. With a rookie coach and GM, and two competitive hotheads in Chris Paul and David West as their leaders, it's a fragile situation.
 
16Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 20
The Sixers have been winning with defense, allowing more than 100 points just once in the past dozen games (the last-second loss to Boston, when they yielded 102), going 8-4 in that span. They've jumped from 24th to 10th in defensive efficiency compared to last year by cutting down on their turnovers (from 18th a year ago to third this year) and utilizing the speed and length of their wings (most notably Thaddeus Young, Andre Iguodala and 6-4 point guard Jrue Holiday) to seal off the three-point line, where they rank behind only Miami in opponents' shooting.
 
17Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 17
Jeff Foster has long been one of the NBA's better-paid grinders, averaging more than $5 million per year over the past seven seasons to mostly rebound and defend. The 6-11 center-forward showed his value in Monday's last-second win against the Hornets when he had 11 rebounds and four blocks in only 22 minutes. Beyond the box score, Foster put the clamps on David West, who had just five points and one field goal in the first half. And with Roy Hibbert suffering through a 1-of-10 shooting night with just three rebounds, Foster played center for most of the fourth quarter beside James Posey in an undersized front line with blue-collar grit.
 
18Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 13
With Rudy Gay suspended for a game after a flagrant foul on Luis Scola, coach Lionel Hollins went with two new starters Saturday in San Antonio, putting Tony Allen at Gay's small forward slot and former starter O.J. Mayo in for Xavier Henry to compensate for the loss of Gay's scoring. Mayo delivered 27 points as Memphis took the Spurs into overtime before losing, a performance that will reignite calls for him to remain a starter. But the Grizzlies need Mayo's offense in a second unit that includes cold-shooting rookie point guard Greivis Vasquez and the defensively oriented Allen. With double-double machine Zach Randolph (who had 24 points and 21 rebounds against San Antonio) and Gay as starters, Mayo wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- get the touches and shots necessary to establish his rhythm.
 
19Houston Rockets
Last Week: 19
Point guard Aaron Brooks is back after missing six weeks with a sprained ankle, center Yao Ming is gone for at least the rest of the season with his own foot and ankle woes, and the Rockets have won three in a row and can get to .500 by beating the Clippers on Wednesday and the Wizards on Monday. Despite his defensive shortcomings, shooting guard Kevin Martin is making his acquisition from Sacramento for Carl Landry look like a winner for Houston, fueling the Rockets' 7-3 record over the past 10 games by averaging 24.8 points in just 29.8 minutes. Always one of the NBA's most efficient scorers, Martin has been in a zone lately, shooting 55.1 from three-point territory and 93 percent from the free-throw line (with 7.4 attempts) in those 10 games.
 
20Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 21
Longshot dreams about a playoff berth aside, the Raptors are appropriately rebuilding, getting former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani accustomed to his go-to status and providing minutes for rookie forward Ed Davis since his return from injury. But second-year swingman DeMar DeRozan, the player whose improvement is probably most eagerly anticipated, remains inconsistent, with little to show for the extra 10 minutes per game he's getting over his rookie season (though Sunday's performance was promising as he scored 19 of his 23 points in the third quarter and finished 11-of-11 at the line in a loss to the Lakers). Toronto is significantly worse on defense when he plays and his shooting stroke remains unreliable from beyond 10 feet.
 
21Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 24
The Clippers are 4-6 since Baron Davis returned after missing three weeks with a hamstring injury, boosted by the veteran point guard's 63 assists against just 20 turnovers during that time. But Davis has shot below 40 percent from the field both before and after the injury, which, coupled with his passing acumen and the presence of teammates Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, calls into question his insistence on taking the last shot in crunch time. It has happened the past two Saturdays, a pair of woeful misses, the first of which cost the Clippers the game in a one-point home loss to Memphis, and the second of which caused them to sweat through a one-point win at Chicago that was a missed Derrick Rose free throw away from overtime.
 
22Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 15
When you already rank at or near the bottom in most every measure of offensive production, how bad could it be to lose your leader in scoring and assists? The Bucks answered that question against Portland on Monday with 80 points on 38 percent shooting in their first game without Brandon Jennings, who is out 4-6 weeks with a broken foot. Backup point guard Kenyon Dooling, who started Monday, has had a positive impact on Milwaukee's offense this season, according to 82games.com, but more than half of his minutes have come beside either Jennings or Earl Boykins as a shooting guard. Dooling is an 11-year career backup (he's never started more than 24 games in a season) whose 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover rate isn't enough for an already anemic Milwaukee offense.
 
23Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 27
As I've said before, the decision to start Rip Hamilton over Ben Gordon at the off-guard slot has been a season-long mystery. But perhaps Hamilton's unhappiness with any reduction of his role has something to do with it. On Sunday against New Orleans, with starting point guard Rodney Stuckey already sidelined with a toe injury, Hamilton begged out with a suspicious upset stomach, compelling coach John Kuester to go with Gordon alongside Tracy McGrady in a backcourt minus a point guard. The tandem was a disaster, shooting a combined 2-of-13 and going minus-9 as the Pistons trailed 51-41 at the half. But when McGrady left with a sore groin, Kuester was forced to pair Gordon with a point guard, Will Bynum, after intermission. Gordon promptly erupted for 19 points in the second half and another five in overtime, shooting 9-of-14 after his 0-7 performance with McGrady, and the Pistons, led by forward Tayshaun Prince's 28 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, beat the Hornets 113-110. Hamilton should be ill more often.
 
24New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 26
Devin Harris has rebounded from last year's disappointment to become New Jersey's best player and stabilizing force. Not coincidentally, Harris had slumped during the Nets' recent eight-game losing streak. But the point guard on Thursday continually forced the action in the fourth quarter, dishing three assists and getting to the line a dozen times as the Nets broke through and edged Washington. And on Sunday, Harris utilized his speed advantage over Mike Bibby to score nine points in the first 4:11 of the game to set the tone in New Jersey's upset of Atlanta.
 
25Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 25
Boosted by his 44-point performance against Houston Monday -- his highest total since he sprung for 46 against the same Rockets on opening night -- Monta Ellis is putting together the best season of his six-year career. His accuracy from the three-point line has never been better; ditto his assists, steals and points per minute. Some of this bump (especially the assists) has to do with the absence of Stephen Curry, who is still out with an ankle sprain. And some of it stems from Golden State's philosophy of playing fast and winning with offense. Those who believe that the undeniably exciting Ellis is more sizzle than steak can point out that Golden State is being outscored by almost exactly the same number of points whether he is on or off the court -- it's just that both sides score significantly more often when he's in the game.
 
26Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Although robbed of a win by a non-call as Kirk Hinrich was fouled driving on the game's final play against the Heat on Saturday, the Wizards' strong showing indicates why trading Gilbert Arenas was a good idea. The move opens up minutes at shooting guard for the talented but raw Nick Young, who scored 30 points. It enables steady veteran Hinrich to be the main facilitator when John Wall is out (for either rest or injury, the latter being the case now) and the primary mentor, without Arenas present, on the court and in the locker room. (The shooting woes that plagued Hinrich last season have continued, so he's also better paired with a marksman like Young than another clanger like Arenas.) The deal also brings in low-key professional Rashard Lewis to further stabilize a team relying too often on the talented but erratic Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. Finally, it frees up a little backcourt space for returning swingman Josh Howard, who has looked surprisingly sharp (except at the foul line) in his first two games.
 
27Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 29
Just as the Cavs' abysmal showing against LeBron and Miami on Dec. 2 presaged their inept and listless play in six straight ensuing defeats, the rematch with the Heat last Wednesday broke the dolor with a hard-fought loss that marked a notable return in Cleveland's competitive spirit. Veteran guard Mo Williams seized the reins of the NBA's second-most-inefficient offense, averaging 19.3 points and 11.3 assists during his most prolific three-game stint of the season, culminating in a 109-102 overtime win against the Knicks on Saturday that snapped a 10-game losing streak. Williams followed that up with 10 assists in Monday's loss to Utah.
 
28Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 22
Charlotte is averaging 79.8 points over its last five games, three of which were blowouts by more than 30 points. The formula for this disaster is simple: Point guard Raymond Felton and center Tyson Chandler were allowed to depart for precious little compensation and have vastly improved their new teams in New York and Dallas, respectively, while replacements D.J. Augustin and Nazr Mohammed have been wildly inconsistent. Holdover stars Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson have been hurt at various points during the season. (Wallace is currently out with a sprained ankle.) And aside from forward Tyrus Thomas, there is very little talent on the bench. After Monday's 108-75 debacle against Washington, featuring a whopping 29 turnovers by the Bobcats, coach Larry Brown told reporters, "We're not a team. We don't play hard. That's my responsibility." Stay tuned.
 
29Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 23
Swingman Martell Webster has stepped right in after missing the first 24 games because of back surgery -- he's averaging 15.4 points on 55.6 percent shooting in just 28.4 minutes. Second-year point guard Jonny Flynn returned at the same time from hip surgery and is exhibiting better shot selection and more emphasis on ball movement compared to his rookie underachievement. Add them to Kevin Love's ridiculous statistics, Michael Beasley's prolific scoring and Darko Milicic's improved production, and you wonder how the Wolves are only 6-23. Then you notice the numbers are at least slightly inflated by the NBA's fastest pace of play, and that Minnesota's defense is dreadful (even accounting for the breakneck pace, it is 28th in defensive efficiency).
 
30Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 28
Tyreke Evans' regression continues. Evans, who has struggled with a foot injury, simply can't penalize opponents when they back off to defend the paint and dare last season's Rookie of the Year to beat them from outside. He is shooting below 30 percent away from the rim, and while his accuracy finishing his drives is about the same (59.6 percent), he's getting to the rim for only 5.2 shots per game, down from 8.4 a year ago. Add in Evans' sporadic ability to create opportunities for his teammates, and the Sacramento offense is a mess. The Kings have topped 100 points in only four of the last 20 games after going for triple digits in their first five games.
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