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Heat surge; Celtics climb to No. 1

Midway through Monday's game against New Orleans, LeBron James chased after a ball he had dribbled off his leg. Falling out of bounds with the shot clock about to expire, he twisted in midair and launched a rainbow over the corner of the backboard. It barely tickled the twine as it fell through the hoop.

It's been that kind of December for the Heat, who have won nine straight games, all by double-digit margins, since a loss at Dallas on Nov. 27 put them just a game above .500 and had their naysayers suffused with schadenfreude.

The Heat's recent rampage is what many expected when James and Chris Bosh elected to join Dwyane Wade in South Beach. There have been tremendous feats of athleticism performed with an almost casual brilliance. When the three players were on the floor together during the 2008 Olympics, their suffocating defensive pressure sooner or later generated a flurry of turnovers that resulted in easy transition baskets. The competition is stiffer in the NBA, and the trio's Miami teammates are less talented, but those explosive runs, keyed by steals, blocks and other defensive stops, remain the most indelible signature of the Heat style.

Right now, the team is in near-perfect alignment, with the Big Three accounting for 75 points in four straight games and the revolving door of big men, led by veterans Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier, helping to erase the notion that you can attack the paint against the Heat. (On the contrary, Miami has allowed the lowest field-goal percentage and the second-fewest makes on shots at the rim this season, according to Hoopdata.) Inevitably, there will be slippage and slumps anew. But now that the Heat have unlocked their enormous potential over an extended period, the specter of the season's becoming an embarrassing debacle has been removed.

In other words, the pressure of being shamed is much diminished in Miami. Except for the Heat's opponents, of course.

Miami has made a predicable leap in the Power Rankings, to No. 6. Meanwhile, after the Mavericks' loss to Milwaukee on Monday, the new team at the top is the Celtics, who, among their many impressive accomplishments so far, have defeated the Heat twice.

(All stats and records are through Dec. 13.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Boston Celtics
Last Week: 2
So little space, so much to praise. How about 33-year-old Paul Pierce, who set the tone in the first quarter of the tail end of a back-to-back against Charlotte on Saturday by running down D.J. Augustin for a LeBron-style block on a layup, then disrupting a three-on-one fast break by deflecting a Stephen Jackson pass out of bounds? Or let's marvel at the various speeds, from dawdling nonchalance to a quicksilver blur, in which Rajon Rondo drives to the basket, complete with different release times and angles. Then there's Kevin Garnett's return to voracious defensive form, as chronicled by my colleague Zach Lowe. And what about Turkish rookie Semih Erden, the fourth-string center who has stepped in ready to play as the starter the last two games because of injuries to Kendrick Perkins, Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal?
 
2San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
The more you watch the Spurs, the more you appreciate the value of George Hill. The 6-2 combo guard is capable of filling in for either Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili without a significant drop-off in performance. Hill's hot shooting helped the Spurs pull away from Atlanta in the fourth quarter Friday, and his all-around game ignited the tone-setting first-half spurt as the Spurs pounced on Portland on Sunday. He's scored in double figures in 11 straight games and is the Spurs' second-leading scorer over the last 10 (16.2 points), shooting 51 percent from the field, 48.4 percent from deep and 89.6 percent from the free-throw line. According to 82games.com, the Spurs are 7.9 points per 100 possessions better when he plays compared to when he sits. These are serious credentials for a Sixth Man Award candidacy -- and, given Ginobili's injury history and the punishment Parker absorbs every game, a crucial element of the Spurs' championship hopes.
 
3Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 1
While everyone expects the ball to go to Dirk Nowitzki with the game on the line, Jason Terry is another veteran who savors such make-or-break moments. Terry demonstrated that again Saturday when he hit a tiebreaking three-pointer against Utah with eight seconds left as Dallas won its 12th in a row. That winning streak ended Monday when the Mavs were ambushed by Milwaukee's 14-0 run midway through the fourth quarter and lost 103-99. Coach Rick Carlisle frequently deploys a three-guard lineup to avoid turnovers and space the floor down the stretch, but the Bucks' speedy tandem of Brandon Jennings and Keyon Dooling was able to close out on shooters and foil the gambit. Another turning point was four missed free throws by Brendan Haywood, making the backup center 9-of-38 (23.7 percent) for the season.
 
4Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 8
What's not to like right now? After shooting just 32-of-132 (24 percent) from three-point range his first two seasons, Derrick Rose has hit 40-of-95 (42.1 percent) this season. This newfound outside threat opens space for low-post maestro Carlos Boozer and makes it easier for Rose to turn on the jets and penetrate when opponents come out to jam him. It also facilitates wing passes to three-point marksman Kyle Korver. On defense, Joakim Noah's rebounding and interior play make him a potential All-Star; off-guards Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer know that making stops is job one; and the entire team, including Rose, has bought into Tom Thibodeau's schemes and become No. 4 in defensive efficiency. Friday's victory against the Lakers validated the Bulls' contender status, and their drubbing of the Timberwolves in a classic trap game the next night proved they could keep their eyes on the prize. Provided Rose's sprained wrist (from a tumble against Indiana on Monday) isn't too severe, the Bulls will be heavy favorites from now until Christmas, when they visit the Knicks.
 
5Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 5
Andrew Bynum's imminent return comes not a moment too soon for a weary Pau Gasol. After a terrific November, Gasol has seen his averages for December drop by more than five points and nearly three rebounds per game, and he's logged more than 40 minutes in seven of the last 10 games. Bynum is also needed for the rugged road ahead, as the Lakers have fattened their record via the NBA's softest schedule. The purple and gold have beaten just one team currently with a winning record -- the Bulls, who since evened the score with a victory in Chicago on Friday.
 
6Miami Heat
Last Week: 9
Miami Heat (18-8)
This Miami Herald story further confirms that the Heat have the right coach in Erik Spoelstra. By attaching the power to freelance on offense to a notable play on defense, Spoelstra has reinforced his and his team's priorities while loosening the reins on the abundant creativity of his stars. Less than three weeks ago, Spoelstra's job status was a parlor game for pundits and a pawn in the egotistical chess games being waged by his players. That's all ancient history now. Good for him.
 
7Utah Jazz
Last Week: 4
Utah Jazz (18-8)
More than ever, the story in Utah is Deron Williams, who ranks second in total minutes, fifth in total points and third in assists per game. Williams scored 30 points in Monday's home victory against Golden State, his third consecutive 30-point game. That performance raised his scoring average to 23.0, well above his career high of 19.4 set in 2008-09. The 26-year-old point guard is also on pace for a career high in true shooting percentage (which takes into account two-pointers, threes and free throws) while shooting more than ever from the field and the line. "I'd have to say this is as good as I have ever seen him play," coach Jerry Sloan told reporters after Monday's game.
 
8Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 10
The Thunder are 10-3 when Serge Ibaka starts and 9-1 when he plays more than 30 minutes. That's because the 21-year-old forward-center, who doesn't need the ball to be effective, is a near-perfect complement on a team dominated by two offensive forces in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He displayed his rim-protecting acumen against the Timberwolves last week when he blocked six shots in the fourth quarter (eight overall) and was the primary reason why Minnesota's top scorers, forwards Michael Beasley and Kevin Love, combined to shoot 3-of-18 for the period. He is among the NBA's top five in shooting and blocks ane leads the Thunder in rebounding. With neither Cole Aldrich nor Byron Mullens ready for the NBA, and first Nick Collison and now Nenad Krstic hobbled by injuries, Ibaka has been a savior in the paint.
 
9Orlando Magic
Last Week: 7
A team with the best defender on the planet always merits respect. But with more than one-quarter of the season gone, a trademark of the Magic's past success, three-point accuracy, is still missing. In the last six games, Orlando hasn't shot better than 36 percent from behind the arc, and it ranks 17th overall at 35.5 percent. Then there is the team's recent post-intermission blues: The Magic have outscored their opponents in just one of 10 second-half quarters over the last five games. After a relatively light week -- at Denver on Tuesday and home against the Sixers on Saturday -- the schedule ratchets up with a trip to Atlanta and home games against Dallas, San Antonio and Boston.
 
10New York Knicks
Last Week: 12
Amar'e Stoudemire is removing all doubts about his ability to carry a team without Steve Nash. The personal-best scoring average of 26.2 points is impressive, but the fact that Stoudemire is also way ahead of his previous career highs in both assists and turnovers indicates how often the Knicks' offense runs through him. He's been phenomenal -- on a par with his MVP-caliber second half of 2009-2010 -- during New York's 13-1 run over the past month. Scoring at least 30 points in each of the Knicks' eight straight victories is noteworthy, but reaching double digits in five consecutive fourth quarters and leading the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring is what puts him in the early MVP talk despite the Knicks' less-than-challenging schedule -- which toughens this week with home games against Boston (on Wednesday) and Miami (on Friday).
 
11Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Jamal Crawford is getting a lot of the credit for the Hawks' 5-2 record since Joe Johnson was sidelined 4-6 weeks by elbow surgery, as the reigning Sixth Man Award winner has increased his scoring to 18.9 points in that stretch. But Josh Smith's defensive versatility has been more important, and more fun to watch. With center Jason Collins getting more minutes, Smith is playing more small forward and he's been glorious in that role. Smith engaged in some epic matchups with Orlando's Vince Carter last week, hindered the open-court freelancing of Manu Ginobili in San Antonio (zero assists, six turnovers) on Friday and frustrated the Pacers' Danny Granger into 3-of-14 shooting and more turnovers than either rebounds or assists Saturday. Not coincidentally, Atlanta held both Orlando and Indiana (but not the Spurs) below 90 points, and has done so two other times in Johnson's absence.
 
12Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 6
Chauncey Billups embodies the importance of intangible leadership when evaluating a player. His numbers are not remarkable: Billups has a career shooting percentage of 41.5, with a single-season best of just 44.8. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a pedestrian 2.69 to 1, and he's averaged more than seven assists only twice in 13 full seasons. Those mediocre numbers are even worse this year -- he's shooting 35.1 percent and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.88 to 1 -- and if Denver's fortunes weren't utterly dependent on the whims of Carmelo Anthony, there would be legitimate scrutiny of Billups' effectiveness. Getting thoroughly outplayed by Raymond Felton in Saturday's 129-125 loss at New York was the latest chink in his formidable reputation. And yet, according to both 82games.com and Basketball Value, Denver is a better team with Billups on the court, especially on defense.
 
13Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 19
This big boost in the rankings is an endorsement of coach Lionel Hollins' determination to foster quality depth on a team that had arguably the worst bench in the NBA last season. Weeks of tinkering paid off Monday: Memphis locked down the Blazers 25-9 in the fourth quarter, with four subs and Zach Randolph getting most of the burn as the Grizzlies won 86-73 for their third victory in a row. Now healthy, Tony Allen is reprising the disruptive defense he showcased in Boston -- his four fourth-quarter steals were the catalyst for Saturday's 84-83 win at the Clippers. At a rangy 6-6, rookie point guard Greivis Vasquez can fill in for the much-smaller Mike Conley when opponents (like Portland's Andre Miller) begin to exploit Conley in the low post. The insertion of another rookie, Xavier Henry, into the starting lineup allows Hollins to bring O.J. Mayo off the bench. And Darrell Arthur is a quality big man whose emergence takes some of the sting away from Hasheem Thabeet's lack of impact.
 
14New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 13
The Hornets have lost nine of 12, mostly because of an offense that ranks 28th in scoring and 24th in efficiency. Meanwhile, Chris Paul continues to shoot less frequently than ever. Others have noted this issue, but the dynamic reached an absurd extreme during Sunday's first half at Philadelphia when Paul made half of his four attempts while his teammates misfired on 34 of their 38 shots as the Hornets generated only 23 points in what became an 88-70 defeat. It's time for Paul to tweak his game. The catechism of a pure point guard is to create "the best shot possible" for his team. For New Orleans, that means having Paul shoot jumpers and go to the basket more often.
 
15Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 21
Monday's road upset of Dallas felt like the good old days during the 2009-10 season. Andrew Bogut demonstrated why he's the game's most multifaceted center through fourth-quarter heroics that included stealing an inbounds pass and dribbling the length of the floor for a dunk, zipping a nifty assist from the high post to a cutting Ersan Ilyasova and drawing a charge on Jason Terry. Bogut finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out with a minute to play. Brandon Jennings mixed in questionable jumpers with blazing drives and dished enough to finish with a double-double (23 points, 10 assists). Ilyasova was too fast, nonstop and crafty (he, too, had a nifty assist and a drawn charge in the fourth) for Dirk Nowitzki to guard him thoroughly and still maintain his go-to responsibilities for the Mavs on offense. And aside from seven minutes bridging the first and second quarters, first-year Buck Corey Maggette was nowhere to be found. It doesn't get easier for Milwaukee, which visits San Antonio and plays host to Utah in its next two games.
 
16Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 16
It is time for some hard, plain talk between Brandon Roy and Blazers management. Roy's chronic knee woes have diminished his endurance and curtailed much of his once-magical playmaking skills, but he's too proud to admit or accept it. Fewer minutes, or entire games off, should be among the options. Roy is still capable of flashes of greatness. Portland's challenge is to maximize those flashes. While the Blazers' reputation as a slow-paced team is justified, coach Nate McMillan has always preached going for the transition basket when there is an opening. With the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews and (the currently ice-cold) Nicolas Batum, they have the personnel to strike quickly. With more rest, Roy can join that party, or exercise his still-potent half-court creativity more often.
 
17Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 14
The Pacers continue to defend well but have fallen to 20th in offensive efficiency, in part because their reliance on three-pointers -- they're second in attempts, 14th in accuracy -- depresses their free-throw total, which is second lowest, ahead of only Golden State's. The perimeter focus seems to have affected even center Roy Hibbert, whose shot attempts, when broken down by location, are up everywhere but at the rim. Having lost three of their last four, Indiana now gets the Lakers and Celtics over its next three games, which should further test the harmony between prickly coach Jim O'Brien and his players.
 
18Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 15
Phoenix Suns (11-12)
The Suns are learning, over and over, that sometimes a potent offense isn't enough. Playing at Portland last week, they converted 16-of-17 shots at the rim and hit half of their 16 three-pointers and still lost, in large part because their two "bigs," Earl Barron and Channing Frye, couldn't defend the rim without fouling out, spurring Portland's plus-15 in made free throws (32 to 17) in its 106-99 victory. Phoenix yielded more than 100 points in two more losses last week -- home games against Memphis and Portland -- and continues to rank last in defensive efficiency. This puts enormous pressure on the shooters to remain accurate, and the normally reliable Jason Richardson hit a cold patch of 3-of-20 the last two games, a performance made worse by his stubborn refusal to penetrate. Only one of his shots was at the rim and 15 were from at least 16 feet out.
 
19Houston Rockets
Last Week: 17
Coach Rick Adelman continues to mix and match his centers while Yao Ming recuperates from his latest injury. The undersized Chuck Hayes is starting and getting 20 minutes a game. Brad Miller has aged into more of a spot-up shooter and floor spacer -- he had 20 points and three blocks but zero rebounds in 25 minutes against Chicago earlier this month. Recently, Adelman has been giving forward Jordan Hill a taste of being the primary big man on the early substitution rotation as Houston goes small before bringing in Miller to join him. Remarkably, the juggling has worked to some extent: Houston's centers produce a better PER rating than what they allow, according to 82games.com. Of course, everything will get scrambled again when Yao returns.
 
20Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 22
The Sixers have won five of seven, with a collapse at Atlanta and a heartbreaker to visiting Boston the only blemishes. The most obvious cause for the rapid improvement is Jodie Meeks, who has helped space the floor by shooting 58.6 percent from deep and averaging 15.6 points since being put in the starting lineup Dec. 3. But other factors include Andre Iguodala's improving health; the upgrade from horrendous to mediocre in center Spencer Hawes' game; the blossoming of swingman Thaddeus Young as a Sixth Man Award candidate; and the dramatic improvement on defense under coach Doug Collins, who has Philadelphia at 11th in defensive efficiency after it finished 24th last season with Eddie Jordan.
 
21Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 18
The Raptors are a respectable 5-6, including wins over Boston and Oklahoma City, since trading starting point guard Jarrett Jack to New Orleans. (The Hornets are 4-8 in that time.) Jose Calderon has flourished in Jack's absence, playing with an efficiency reminiscent of his 2007-08 prime, with 71 assists and 16 turnovers in his last nine games. And with Calderon out with a sore foot the last two games, the tandem of Leandro Barbosa and Jerryd Bayless (the latter acquired in the Jack deal) led the Raptors to 236 points, albeit against the shoddy defenses of Denver and Detroit. Unfortunately, none of the three is a quality defender himself, but Toronto at least now has a more confident floor general in Calderon and two explosive scorers who can push the pace beyond Jack's speed limit.
 
22Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 20
The Celtics went by the book defending Gerald Wallace on Saturday, leaving him wide open at the three-point line and packing the paint in anticipation of his kamikaze drives. The result was two quick airballs from long range and an eventual line of 2-of-15 shooting with five shots blocked as the Bobcats mustered only 62 points. (Point guard D.J. Augustin was blanked on 0-of-8 shooting.) Wallace is getting only 4.7 shots at the rim this season, far off his career low of 7.0, and the 28-year-old forward needs to start hitting enough jumpers to force opponents to change their strategy if he's going to avoid his worst effective field-goal percentage since 2003-04.
 
23Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 27
The NBA's two top rebounding teams clashed Saturday and the No. 1 Wolves were waxed on the glass by the Bulls 53-36 to trigger a 31-point loss. Nevertheless, Kevin Love grabbed at least 15 rebounds for the 10th straight game. The 22-year-old power forward has become a hybrid banger and stretch power forward, hitting 52.5 percent of his three-pointers (21-of-40) in those 10 games and 65.2 percent (15-of-23) over the last five to lift his accuracy to 42.7 for the season to go with 88.7 percent from the free-throw line. Help is on the way: Point guard Jonny Flynn (hip surgery) and swingman Martell Webster (back surgery) are expected to make their season debuts Tuesday against Golden State.
 
24Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 26
Sure, it's 20/20 hindsight, but imagine if the Clippers hadn't dealt Marcus Camby to the Blazers last season. The players they received, Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw, were both cut loose (although the $1.5 million in cash Portland included to sweeten the deal stayed put). Next, imagine if Camby had re-signed for the same amount he received from Portland, $21 million over two years, slightly more than the $16.5 million the Clippers spent on two-year deals for Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes. Camby, Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon would be a simpatico trio of talents and the Clippers would be a better team.
 
25Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 23
The Warriors need better production from their bench. When Dan Gadzuric, Rodney Carney and Vladimir Radmanovic enter the game, the offense disappears and the defense doesn't improve. Injuries have diminished the depth, too, leaving Golden State helpless during a brutal recent schedule that included five games against teams ranked in the top 10 on this list, four of them on the road. That said, forward David Lee needs to regain his All-Star form on offense from a year ago. Coach Keith Smart has tried to pair Lee with a diligent frontcourt defender -- usually Andris Biedrins and recently Louis Amundson -- to shore up that weakness in his game, but at the other end, Lee's shooting percentage has plummeted to 44.9, well below his career low of 54.5.
 
26New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 28
Forward Travis Outlaw has been demoted from the starting lineup, first in favor of rookie Damion James and then veteran Quinton Ross after James broke his foot (he underwent surgery Monday). Ross, a defensive specialist, was a reasonable antidote after the Nets had yielded 55 percent shooting in three straight double-digit defeats to run their losing streak to six heading into Sunday's game against the Lakers. Defending Kobe Bryant, Ross was a game-best plus-14 in 19:30, but coach Avery Johnson opted for a three-guard lineup of Devin Harris, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow with seven minutes to play, and a one-point game became a 99-92 loss.
 
27Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 24
The Pistons are in the sort of toxic free fall that can get a coach fired. On Friday in Minnesota, they squandered a 13-point first-quarter lead in a 109-99 loss to finish an 0-3 road trip. The next night, at home against the Raptors, was worse. Up by 24 with less than three minutes to play in the third quarter, having scored 72 points by halftime, they let off the throttle and were beaten 120-116. "I am pointing one finger at myself," beleaguered coach John Kuester said. A noble but misguided sentiment. How is Kuester to blame for such foolish plays as the eight-second violation by Rodney Stuckey (you can't get it over half court against the Raptors?) or the way-too-high alley oop from near half-court by Rip Hamilton, both stoking Toronto's momentum during the fourth-quarter blitz? Nor is Kuester at fault for this veteran team's overestimating its big lead, and in the process dooming itself to the worst 25-game start in franchise history.
 
28Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 30
The Kings have won only once in 10 games, a 116-91 home rout of the Wizards last Wednesday. Tyreke Evans remains dinged up and continues to struggle, shooting 32 percent in that 10-game stretch. Forward Carl Landry has regressed, especially on the boards and on defense, where the Kings are allowing 12.8 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. Yet with an expiring $3 million contract, Landry's ability to score in the paint makes him a decent trade chip, preferably in exchange for a younger player in the backcourt, provided the Kings can find the right team willing to deal.
 
29Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 29
As if the Cavs didn't have enough problems trying to overcome a dearth of talent and get accustomed to the sobering post-LeBron reality, coach Byron Scott and forward J.J. Hickson are at odds. Scott adds class and professionalism to a reeling, embittered franchise, and Hickson is its best hope for the future. But after a strong start, Hickson has floundered under Scott's tough love and seen his minutes decline, and the relationship has become corrosive. Hickson's scorn toward Scott has been ill-advised, as is the coach's choice to give minutes to the likes of Jawad Williams over Hickson. Management needs to resolve the impasse and get Hickson's development back on a fast track.
 
30Washington Wizards
Last Week: 25
Center JaVale McGee, a 7-footer with great leaping ability, is undeniably fun to watch. But the Wizards are an abject lesson in the need for court sense to guide that athleticism -- see Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche, Nick Young, etc. The reality is McGee patrols the paint for a team that allows more baskets at the rim than any club except Toronto, at a higher percentage than any team but Sacramento and Phoenix. McGee could well be a diamond in the rough. But at this stage, the rough is more certain than the diamond.
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