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Hornets overtake reigning champs

Back when he coached the Timberwolves, Flip Saunders once imparted a succinct piece of wisdom that enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the NBA. "It's all about the matchups," he said.

Most games are indeed played out through that elemental prism. Teams work to create an advantage and relentlessly exploit it until their opponent adjusts, setting off a chain reaction of other potential mismatches. When the matchups involve high-profile performers, you've got yourself a ballgame.

The league's surfeit of precocious talent, especially at the point guard position, makes for matchup nirvana. The prospect of seeing two of the past three No. 1 picks, Derrick Rose and John Wall, trading crossovers, no-looks and teardrops when the Bulls faced the Wizards last Saturday is a prime example. As an added bonus, you get a deeper impression of what two years of NBA experience can mean when two players of otherwise comparable talent and versatility square off.

Sometimes you tune in anticipating one matchup only to be beguiled by others. Monday's Mavericks-Hornets game looked to be an intriguing battle between Jason Kidd and Chris Paul. But Kidd didn't usually defend Paul in half-court sets, and my attention shifted to the physical jousting of star power forwards Dirk Nowitzki and David West and the matchup between defensive-oriented centers Tyson Chandler and Emeka Okafor, who were traded for each other straight up in July 2009 and have both since followed up disappointing seasons with rejuvenated play that has cemented the defensive identity of their respective teams.

In other words, there is a game within a game within a game within a game during every NBA game, and tumbling down that rabbit hole is one of my favorite parts of observing the league. Not incidentally, it helps inform many of the comments in the Power Rankings below.

(All stats and records are through Nov. 15.)

NBA Power Rankings
1New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 2
A tough loss at Dallas on Monday doesn't outweigh the image of Peja Stojakovic's denying Portland's Brandon Roy a decent shot on an isolation play in New Orleans' victory Saturday. When even his lead-footed three-point specialist is buying into the system and buckling down on defense, coach Monty Williams' team has a decent chance of wringing the most out of its talent over a long haul. Especially when the cream of that talent is competitive firebrands like Chris Paul and David West. Expect a physical rematch with Dallas on Wednesday.
 
2Boston Celtics
Last Week: 3
So much attention is appropriately paid to their defense (where assistant coach Lawrence Frank has admirably picked up where Tom Thibodeau left off) that the crisp, frequently beautiful way they run their half-court sets gets short shrift. They lead the league in assists and rank in the top four in field-goal and three-point accuracy. (Only wretched offensive rebounding hurts their efficiency.) Miami, which has two superstar defenders who range around the court like mountain lions, simply couldn't keep up with Boston's ball-sharing and shot-making. Of all the great three-point shooters in the NBA, nobody has a faster trigger than Ray Allen. And few players relish big moments more than Paul Pierce.
 
3San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 6
Tim Duncan has scored fewer than 10 points in three consecutive games for the first time in his career. The last time a healthy Duncan had even back-to-back single-digit games was in November 1997 during his rookie season. All of which is fabulous news for Spurs fans who watched the fundamentals seeping out of a valiant but obviously drained Duncan down the stretch of the playoff race last season. The most Duncan has played in the past three games is 24:04, in a blowout of Philadelphia. Yet despite the rest, his per-minute scoring, rebounding and assist totals are his lowest in more than a decade. Translation? The Spurs, at 8-1, are learning to win with Duncan providing more defense and intangible leadership and less of everything else.
 
4Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
The most logical explanation for their two-game skid is that, after eight straight wins, the two-time defending champs got a little complacent and were outhustled by teams they had victimized in the past two Western Conference finals (Denver and Phoenix). But Lakers pessimists can point out that the Nuggets' jitterbug point guard, Ty Lawson, was a matchup nightmare in the fourth quarter, and that the Suns used L.A.'s size against it by spreading the floor and bombing away from the three-point line. Oh, and after brilliantly orchestrating the offense for seven games, Kobe Bryant shot too much in the needlessly close win over Minnesota and in the Denver loss.
 
5Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 7
A deep roster and a smart coach allow for a plethora of options, such as the three-guard lineup of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea that Rick Carlisle deployed alongside 7-footers Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler to ambush New Orleans in a fourth-quarter comeback Monday. Barea pushed the pace against a weary Chris Paul, allowing Kidd to spot up for three-pointers, and the big men -- including Nowitzki, who has become a very underrated defender -- sealed off the hoop and showed hard on the pick-and-rolls at the other end. The Mavs now own home victories against the top two teams on this list. One worry: The injury-prone Chandler has become invaluable in this newfound defensive identity.
 
6Utah Jazz
Last Week: 14
Utah Jazz (7-4)
Is there a more beloved figure among NBA fiends than the curmudgeonly Jerry Sloan? Awed by Sloan's longevity and embarrassed that he's never won a Coach of the Year award, the league reveled in the succession of gritty second-half comebacks that marked Utah's southeastern road sweep -- it was Sloan writ large. But all those comebacks bespoke early ineptitude as well as perseverance, and after a freewheeling home loss to the Thunder on Monday, the Jazz are 2-4 against the Western Conference. Between now and the day after Thanksgiving, they play five out of six at home, including games against the Spurs, Lakers and Hornets. By then we'll have a much better idea how special, or not, Sloan's team can be this season.
 
7Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
The insertion of jump-shooting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas into the starting lineup is hopefully designed to free up space in the paint for Chris Bosh, who needs more set plays run his way but also needs to be much more assertive on the boards at both ends of the court. Joining two superstars necessarily has cut into Bosh's field-goal attempts, but the biggest drop-off has come from his shots at the rim. Part of that is his decline in offensive rebounds and resultant put-back opportunities, and part of it is because LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are using the drive-and-kick much more than the interior pass. Without a change in personnel, however, it could be argued that nothing is more important to Miami's playoff prospects than figuring out how to maximize Bosh's low-post offense.
 
8Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 12
Once Carlos Boozer returns from his hand injury, the Bulls should entertain the notion of using him as a sixth man, at least until he fully reacquaints himself with the rigors of the NBA alongside his new teammates. Taj Gibson is simply working too efficiently beside Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, posting numbers Boozer would be proud to claim, like 53 percent shooting from 16-23 feet and 61.3 percent overall. When he's on, Boozer is a better passer and can get his own shot more effectively than Gibson, which makes him a better focus for the offense during the scant minutes Rose sits. Besides, rewarding Gibson for his play and giving Boozer a chance to be gracious as he works his way back would enhance team chemistry.
 
9Orlando Magic
Last Week: 5
The Magic just seem more vulnerable and uptight this year. Miami blew them out in the second half of their second game of the season. Then last week, Utah put up 39 points in the fourth quarter to beat them at home; Toronto followed suit by shooting 50 percent and scoring 110 points; and Orlando needed a tough, last-second floater by Jameer Nelson to edge the Nets and avoid a third straight loss. The Magic's long-range accuracy has gone AWOL. Last season, seven players shot at least 36 percent from beyond the three-point arc; this year, there are only three. The most notorious clankers are Rashard Lewis ($19.6 million salary), who is shooting 35.5 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from deep, and J.J. Redick ($7.3 million), who is 3-for-25 from long distance.
 
10Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 16
Can coach Alvin Gentry unearth another second unit that can defend as tenaciously as last season's? That may spell the difference between another season of magical overachievement and entertaining first-round playoff fodder. Yes, the Suns can be deadly from long distance, as the Lakers discovered Sunday. But if they keep letting opponents grab offensive rebounds at a league-high 35.3 percent rate, they'll lose as many games in the paint as they win on the perimeter.
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