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Spurs are No. 1; East race heats up

There shouldn't be too much debate about who the best team in basketball is right now. The Spurs own the NBA's best record (29-4) and spent the past week beating three of their more formidable Western Conference rivals. They are healthy, energized, experienced and harmonious.

But over in the East, the competition has intensified. The Heat have jelled; the Magic seem effectively retooled; the Bulls are in the thick of the hunt despite injuries to key players for almost the entire season; and the Celtics seem to be on a familiar path -- nearly unbeatable before Christmas, injured or otherwise slowed for a while after that, but looking every bit like a tough out come playoff time. This quartet of Eastern titans is clustered together behind the Spurs in this week's Power Rankings.

(All stats and records are through Jan. 3.)

NBA Power Rankings
1San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
There is rarely a doubt that San Antonio will get the ball to the open man on offense and not leave an opponent open for long on defense. This is the signature style of the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era and the dedication to fundamentals hasn't changed with the more up-tempo style, the aging of the stars or the personnel turnover of the second unit. Last week's Dallas game was inconclusive because of the injury to Dirk Nowitzki, but the Spurs simply took the starch out of the Lakers and Thunder, in a manner that can't be rationalized away. This was their "show-me" week after a relatively soft schedule, and the hosannas are rolling in. To avoid repetition, let me nominate Matt Bonner as this year's quintessential Spur. He knows his role -- space the floor by knocking down three-pointers -- and performs it expertly, yet also is an excellent team and individual defender despite his physical limitations, with good judgment and excellent hands. And he wouldn't be nearly as good on any other team.
 
2Miami Heat
Last Week: 4
Miami Heat (27-9)
When the three stars committed to Miami, there was speculation that the Heat would be able to simply toy with some teams. The most blatant case occurred on New Year's Day against Golden State. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company simply didn't show up on defense in the first half, yielding 72 points on 64 percent shooting, and they trailed by 20 a minute before intermission. Only then did they deign to play, roaring back to make it a two-point game halfway into the third quarter and coasting home to a 114-107 victory. Monday against the Bobcats, they took only the first quarter off, allowing Charlotte to shoot 12-of-19 from the field and then 18-of-60 the final three periods. Arrogance contributed to Miami's slow start in November, and after a rather diligent 15-1 December, there are signs of the arrogance -- in the form of boredom hindering effort -- reappearing in January.
 
3Boston Celtics
Last Week: 2
Rajon Rondo is back after missing nearly three weeks with a sprained ankle. He looked rusty against Toronto on Sunday, with more turnovers (five) than points (four) and "only" eight assists. On Monday, again playing more than 30 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back, he was scoreless in the first half on only two shots, ignoring all the space Luke Ridnour and the Timberwolves were giving him to launch his jumper, choosing instead to dole out eight assists. He added eight more assists in the second half, but, more important, sank two key buckets in the comeback win, the first a runner in the lane with a minute and a half to play that gave Boston the lead, and the second a mid-range jumper outside his comfort zone that boosted the lead to three with under a minute to play. Needless to say, Rondo's taking and making shots in crunch time is bad news indeed for opponents.
 
4Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 7
The Bulls are 6-2 since losing Joakim Noah to a thumb injury (and 13-2 in their last 15) mostly because of their defensive cohesiveness. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and defensive guru Ron Adams (sorely missed as a Thunder assistant after upgrading them last season) are highly skilled strategists who emphasize getting stops. And in a manner reminiscent of Thibodeau's tenure with the Celtics, everyone has bought in: The second unit shut down the Nets on 4-of-13 shooting in the first six minutes of Friday's second quarter to turn around the game. The next night, team leader Derrick Rose was interviewed courtside after the Bulls had allowed 91 points on 40.2 percent shooting in a win over the Cavs. "Defensively, we're just not there yet," he said. Chicago is second in defensive efficiency and its formerly defensively deficient point guard is still hungry at that end of the floor.
 
5Orlando Magic
Last Week: 6
Is there really another player more valuable to his team than Dwight Howard has been for the Magic? Shortly after Howard sat down in the second quarter Monday against the Warriors, Golden State had four layups and two foul shots without a miss in less than two minutes before coach Stan Van Gundy hurried him back into the game. No other Magic player makes opponents think twice about dribble penetration besides Howard. And yet, in their six-game winning streak -- achieved after GM Otis Smith made two trades that sacrificed defense for offense, betting that Howard alone could hold the fort -- the Magic have allowed only one team, the Cavaliers, to shoot a higher percentage than its season average.
 
6Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 1
Obviously the injuries are a problem, although Jason Terry's 6-of-31 shooting magnified the absence of Dirk Nowitzki in losses to the Spurs and Bucks. More perplexing is the gradual, steady decline in center Brendan Haywood's performance. He looks befuddled and generally out of sorts, and has seen his minutes decline to 15.2 in the last 10 games -- 10th on the team in that span. For a team that increasingly has come to rely on its length, a competent Haywood is crucial for those more meaningful games in the future when Tyson Chandler inevitably gets into foul trouble.
 
7Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 5
It matters less that the Lakers are losing -- three straight Finals appearances make December and January games a poor barometer -- than that they seem emotionally dysfunctional. Kobe Bryant's verbal tirades and ball-hogging have proved to be at least temporarily corrosive. Who is he trying to motivate? Ron Artest's shooting woes are among the biggest issues, and Artest would give up a kidney if Kobe asked for it. Is Derek Fisher slacking or old? Are newcomers -- and underachieving reserves -- Matt Barnes and Steve Blake playing indifferently, or has Kobe perhaps wound things a little too tightly around this team?
 
8Utah Jazz
Last Week: 8
Utah Jazz (24-11)
Utah's bench has dramatically outperformed the starters in three straight games, enabling the Jazz to escape with two close home victories against losing teams (Memphis and Detroit) after a loss at Portland. The reserves, a group that fosters chaos and a quick pace, are composed of undersized guards Ronnie Price and Earl Watson; rookies Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans, who add athleticism on the wing; sixth man C.J. Miles, who has cooled some after a prolific start shooting from outside; and Kyrylo Fesenko and Francisco Elson, who provide beef and length in the paint, respectively. Mehmet Okur, who returned from an Achilles injury in mid-December, has been in and out of that bench mix as back and ankle problems have limited his availability.
 
9Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 9
Point guard Russell Westbrook's shoddy defense was particularly noticeable Saturday as the Thunder were routed by the Spurs. Aside from one poke-away steal from behind in the first period, Westbrook offered precious little resistance to the dribble penetration of Tony Parker, who went 6-of-8 on shots at the rim and had 10 assists (against three turnovers) in only 29 minutes. According to Basketball Value, the Thunder for the season yield nearly 11 more points per 100 possessions when Westbrook plays compared to when he sits, the worst differential on the team.
 
10Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 14
Once Al Harrington recovers from a dislocated thumb, the Nuggets will be at full strength for the first time this season. The recent returnees who really matter are Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin, arguably Denver's two best low-post defenders, who have been missed as the Nuggets have fallen to 20th in defensive efficiency, their lowest ranking since 2002. Even with Carmelo Anthony out part of the time, Denver has won four in a row, but it is only 5-10 on the road and doesn't have a quality win away from home since beating Dallas the second week of the season.
 
11Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Mike Bibby isn't going to rank among even the top half of NBA point guards again, but no Hawk except perhaps Al Horford has overachieved based on preseason expectations. Destined to be phased out in favor of second-year player Jeff Teague, the 32-year-old Bibby instead is third on the team in minutes and has proved to be Atlanta's only positive option at the point. (The Hawks are outscored by opponents when either Teague or combo guard Jamal Crawford runs the offense.) In a statistical oddity, Bibby is shooting lights out from three-point range (49 percent) compared to his career average (38 percent), yet the career 80.4 percent free-throw shooter is hitting only 58.8 percent at the line -- and getting there less than once per game. Clearly the Hawks still need to upgrade the point to go beyond the second round of the playoffs. But right now, the $6.4 million Bibby is owed next season in the final year of his contract looks like a good investment.
 
12New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 15
Chris Paul, David West and Emeka Okafor have come up big and stabilized the Hornets, who are 5-2 since back-to-back heartbreaking losses two weeks ago threatened to drop them out of playoff position for the first time this season. Although coach Monty Williams preaches defense first, the Hornets need to find a reliable perimeter shooter to supplement West's deadly mid-range game and Paul's efficient but too unselfish scoring. Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack and Marcus Thornton are all below 40 percent for the season and Marco Belinelli has been down there, too, since the start of December. With all the poor shooters surrounding him, Paul's average of 9.7 assists per game is equivalent to league leader Rajon Rondo's 13.6 dishing to the likes of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal.
 
13Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 12
As the highest-paid second-year player in the league, Wes Matthews (who signed a five-year, $33 million deal in the offseason) now bears a burden as heavy as his wallet in taking over for Brandon Roy at shooting guard. He and LaMarcus Aldridge have become the iron men in coach Nate McMillan's injury-ravaged rotation. Matthews (36.9 minutes over the last 10 games) is the defensive stopper, with the latest evidence being his work on uber-efficient scorer Kevin Martin, who shot 6-of-17 and got to the foul line only three times in Portland's 100-83 win over Houston on Sunday. Meanwhile, Aldridge, who leads all power forwards with 38.3 minutes per game, has transformed himself from a jump shooter into a reliable scorer in the paint -- he has 5.4 makes from within 10 feet this season, compared to his career best of 4.0 -- enabling center Marcus Camby to set up in his chosen high post position.
 
14New York Knicks
Last Week: 10
Remember all the health concerns about Amar'e Stoudemire? The MVP candidate, whose $100 million contract is uninsurable because of his major knee surgery in 2005 and eye surgery in 2009, ranks 14th in minutes per game while arguably playing harder at both ends of the court than at any time in his nine-year career. That's why 28 strong minutes from center Ronny Turiaf, including a career-high six blocks, was the best bit of news in Sunday's victory against the Pacers. The Knicks were 5-1 when Turiaf was a starter in November, but, after a brief absence because of a knee injury, his minutes were cut in half as coach Mike D'Antoni shortened his rotation in December. At the very least, his presence reduces some of the banging that Stoudemire -- the team's only other big man of consequence -- absorbs underneath. Turiaf could reclaim a starting spot now that forward Danilo Gallinari is out two to three weeks with a knee injury.
 
15Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 16
Although it wasn't usually a head-to-head matchup, center Marc Gasol outplayed his older brother, Pau, on Sunday, with a stat-stuffing 10 rebounds, six assists, four blocks and three steals ornamenting a game-best plus-26 as the Grizzlies routed the Lakers 104-85. Of course, in the previous game, Gasol didn't grab a defensive rebound in 32 minutes and had a game-worst minus-8 in a loss at Utah. The Grizzlies' season has been on a similar yo-yo -- they put together mini-winning and losing streaks, hanging on the fringe of playoff contention.
 
16Houston Rockets
Last Week: 13
The silver lining from low-post defender Chuck Hayes' ankle injury is that coach Rick Adelman finally found minutes for top pick Patrick Patterson. The burly forward -- who looks much bigger than his listed 6-9, 235 pounds -- helped spearhead a decisive spurt against the Raptors on Friday, getting 15 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes (nearly doubling his playing time up to that point in the season). Adelman then used him a combined 46 minutes in road losses to Portland and Denver; Patterson showed a lot of promise, grabbing another 10 rebounds and adding two assists against the Blazers, and blocking three shots against the Nuggets. With second-year forward Jordan Hill and veteran center Brad Miller also in the frontcourt mix with Hayes, and with Luis Scola locking down the power forward slot for the next few years, Houston has some intriguing options -- with or without a guy named Yao.
 
17Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 22
Earl Boykins garnered most of the attention by scoring 20-plus points in wins over the Lakers and Mavs, and the best long-term news in Milwaukee is the improvement in the health of Andrew Bogut (the right elbow is the final frontier), who frustrated Dallas' hard and fast double teams with good decision-making Sunday. But more quietly, John Salmons has stepped up his offense since point guard Brandon Jennings went down six games ago, averaging 18.7 points (he's at 13.9 for the season) on 44.7 shooting (raising his season percentage to a still-miserable 38.8).
 
18Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 20
It is a pivotal point of the season for the Sixers, who finished 3-5 on a 17-day road trip and play five of their next six at home (where they are 8-6), with only the Bulls among those opponents sporting a winning record. They'll also be without Andre Iguodala -- who has been sidelined with Achilles tendinitis since Dec. 27 -- for a little while longer, but veteran Andres Nocioni has filled in admirably, enabling matchup nightmare Thaddeus Young and rookie Evan Turner to come in off the bench. Early-season spark plug Jodie Meeks is slumping now that teams are better prepared for his catch-and-shoot game.
 
19Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 19
It may be time to start second-guessing coach Jim O'Brien's player rotations. For the first time this year, O'Brien started Jeff Foster over Roy Hibbert at center, against the Knicks on Sunday. Fair enough; Hibbert's been in a dreadful shooting slump and has been otherwise too timid on the court lately. But when Foster fouled out with the score tied and 3:33 to play, O'Brien replaced him with Solomon Jones, sliding James Posey over to guard Amar'e Stoudemire. Long story short, Stoudemire twice blew past Posey for buckets while Jones missed a wide-open 10-footer and traveled while under mild duress. Hibbert is the Pacers' stud, a cornerstone player, and keeping him on the sideline at this key moment was a coaching gaffe in more ways than one. Meanwhile, O'Brien finally started playing top pick Paul George after more than a month of inactivity. In his second game back, George had five steals, seven rebounds and 13 points in 18 minutes during a win over the Wizards.
 
20Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 17
Phoenix Suns (14-18)
I've been dead wrong so far in my belief that the blockbuster deal with the Magic would dramatically improve the Suns. Phoenix is 1-4 since incorporating the new players, a plunge epitomized by its fourth-quarter collapse against Sacramento, the league's worst team, on Sunday. After calling out his teammates for their lack of commitment to defense, Marcin Gortat couldn't stop rookie DeMarcus Cousins in crunch time. Mickael Pietrus was 1-of-9 from three-point range and didn't score after the first period. And Vince Carter continues to solidify his reputation as an anti-glue guy whose numbers always look better than his team's record.
 
21Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 18
Since returning in mid-December after preseason wrist surgery, 6-10 rookie Ekpe Udoh has already become the Warriors' best low-post defender. He didn't back down from matchups with Dwight Howard on Monday. He's a good fit for Golden State because he can run and has decent hands, and because he's a shot-blocker (with 14 in his first 11 games) who can eventually clean up the defensive mistakes of guards Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry.
 
22Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 21
Blake Griffin has shifted into another gear, averaging 25.9 points (on 55.2 percent shooting), 14.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists (against just 2.4 turnovers) in 39.5 minutes during the last 10 games, half of them wins. Then there is the wow factor from his spectacular dunks, which elevates Donald Sterling's bottom line by putting people in the seats. Six of the Clippers' next seven games are at home.
 
23Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 25
It took new coach Paul Silas three games to discover the dysfunction in Charlotte. That could have been the length of Silas' winning streak out of the gate were it not for a horrible decision by Stephen Jackson on the game's final possession Friday against Golden State. With his team down a point, Jackson received the ball with eight seconds remaining, let the clock wind down and clanked a three-pointer. Jackson is shooting 84.4 percent from the free-throw line and he was going up against a poor defensive team that commits the third-most fouls in the league, but rather than try to get into the paint, he settled for a contested three.
 
24Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 24
The Wolves have led by double digits 10 times in the last 17 games but have only five victories in that span. Part of the problem has been a disinclination to keep riding Michael Beasley, who has at least two game-winners and was dominant down the stretch (4-of-6 shooting) against the Celtics on Monday before Luke Ridnour was called for traveling on the game's do-or-die possession. Two weeks ago, in a similar situation against Utah (the Wolves had forfeited a big lead but still had a chance to pull out a squeaker), the play was a three-pointer missed by Martell Webster, despite the fact that Beasley had the edge in his matchup with Paul Millsap for much of the game and that Kevin Love, an 87.6 percent free-throw shooter, could have gone to work against Al Jefferson, who had five fouls, in the paint.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 23
Watching Tayshaun Prince score a tough crunch-time basket in the low block against the quality defense of Andrei Kirilenko on Monday was a bittersweet experience. Prince, 30, has honed his once-mediocre offense to the point where he is shooting more frequently and more accurately than ever while leading the Pistons in total points (he is just behind Rodney Stuckey in scoring average). On a team laden with underachieving free-agent signees, aging ring holders and young players either injured (Jonas Jerebko) or having a hard time establishing a niche, Prince is Detroit's best player, toiling valiantly on a much-diminished stage.
 
26Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 27
How did second-year swingman DeMar DeRozan manage to score 37 points yet finish a team-worst minus-14 in Toronto's nine-point loss to Houston on Friday? Well, he helped negate the Raptors' ball movement, finishing with zero assists in 33 minutes. And he was playing a Rockets team with horrible perimeter defenders who don't mind trying to outscore opponents. On Sunday, DeRozan had a team-high 27 points against the tougher Celtics, along with three assists to go with five turnovers, but again was a team worst in plus/minus, at minus-17. Those who gush over his 32-point average compensating for the absence of leading scorer Andrea Bargnani should note that in those two games Toronto was minus-31 in the 74 minutes DeRozan played -- and plus-8 in the 22 minutes he sat.
 
27Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 30
It was reported on Christmas Eve that the Kings were strongly considering shipping immature rookie DeMarcus Cousins to the D-League. But in the last three games, the 20-year-old center has averaged 21.7 points (on 58.7 percent shooting) and 10.7 rebounds as the Kings went 2-1, with home victories against Memphis and Phoenix and a road loss to Denver. He finished with season highs of 28 points and six assists in the comeback victory over Phoenix. Cousins and the Kings play their next two games at home (against Atlanta on Tuesday and Denver on Thursday) before beginning a six-game road trip Sunday in Toronto.
 
28New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 26
Rookie Derrick Favors was schooled by Kevin Love in the Nets-Wolves matchup Saturday. Favors, who has made his biggest impact this season as a rebounder, was shut out on the glass and had his playing time (11:48) short-circuited by five fouls, two of them jousting with Love. It was a different story between Love and Kris Humphries, two of the league leaders in rebounding rate (Love is second to the now-injured Reggie Evans and Humphries is sixth). Humphries had 14 (five offensive) while helping to hold Love to 10 (two offensive), five below his season average. Love got the last laugh with a 15-point win.
 
29Washington Wizards
Last Week: 28
Washington continues to flounder, but it is hard not to be intrigued by the raw materials coach Flip Saunders has if and when everyone gets healthy. John Wall is widely regarded as a burgeoning star, with extraordinary size and quickness for a point guard. Rashard Lewis is displaying a fundamentally solid floor game (but still not shooting well) and combines with Kirk Hinrich to bring veteran stability. Josh Howard has shown flashes on defense and with his hustle. Among the other youngsters, Nick Young is blossoming into a fairly consistent, potent scorer; JaVale McGee will be a legitimate, and more consistent, force in the paint if he is less block-happy and concentrates on positioning and defensive rotations; and Andray Blatche is a wild card who could turn up royalty or a joker.
 
30Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 29
The Cavs have won once -- in overtime against the Knicks -- since Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. The month waiting to revile LeBron on his return has passed, leaving the next seven weeks or so to mull over how to raze the roster by the Feb. 24 trading deadline. Anderson Varejao is a desirable piece and Orlando should be trying to pry him away, but short of Jason Richardson's $14.4 million expiring contract, there is not a lot of interest for the Cavs on the fringes of Orlando's roster. Cleveland's most expensive players -- Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Varejao -- all have at least another year besides this one on their deals (provided Williams exercises his $8.5 million option). On the books as on the court, the Cavs are stuck in a bad place.
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