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Utah's surge should worry foes

It's a question that made the rounds through the NBA last week: Just how good is Utah?

The answer is really good, on paper. Despite a murderous schedule (nine of the Jazz's 12 opponents in January had winning records at the time), Utah finished the month with a 10-4 mark and vaulted from an eighth-place tie in the Western Conference on New Year's Eve to sole possession of fourth.

Consistency, coupled with the resurgence of Carlos Boozer, has been the key.Six Jazz players are averaging double figures in scoring, paced by Boozer (19.2 points) and Deron Williams (19.0). They have been unselfish on offense (according to hoopdata.com, Utah has the highest assist rate in the league) and stingy on D (opponents are connecting on 45 percent of their shots, the seventh-lowest percentage in the NBA).

The tests will keep coming in February. Eight of Utah's 11 opponents this month are in position to make the playoffs and nine have winning records. Another month like January and the fast-rising Jazz could be making a push for No. 1.

(All stats and records are through Jan. 31.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
Could Mike Brown be headed for his second straight Coach of the Year award? Don't rule it out. Brown has navigated the Cavaliers to the NBA's best record in spite of a variety of key injuries (Mo Williams, Jamario Moon, Delonte West) and off-court distractions (West). He's also -- no small feat here -- found a workable frontcourt rotation with Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, J.J. Hickson and Anderson Varejao.
 
2Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 3
A 4-0 week on the road has the Lakers surging. The starting five, anyway. L.A.'s reserves are chipping in just 26.6 points per game (23rd in the NBA) this season while connecting on 43.1 percent of their field-goal attempts.
 
3Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 2
Chauncey Billups had better cancel those vacation plans. Chris Paul's knee injury likely means Billups earned a trip to Dallas for the All-Star Game. That should please George Karl, who was none too pleased by Billups' omission. "I have no problems with Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash being selected" as reserves by the coaches, Karl said. "But Chauncey in the last four weeks has been playing better than all of them. I think he has been incredible, holding our team together and lifting it into a very confident and successful team."
 
4Orlando Magic
Last Week: 6
The Magic continued their strong play (W's over Boston and Atlanta last week) even as Vince Carter continues to struggle. Carter has scored single digits in 10 of his last 13 games and is averaging a career-low 15.6 points as he battles ankle and shoulder injuries. "I feel OK," Carter said. "I can't complain. I wish I could get to Toys 'R' Us or something and get me a new shoulder, but whatever."
 
5Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 4
Atlanta has figured out Boston -- last week's win moved the Hawks to 4-0 against the C's this season. Now if they could only solve Orlando, which dropped the Hawks for the third time this season on Saturday. Their problems have something to do with Magic center Dwight Howard, who's averaging 21.7 points and 13.3 rebounds against Atlanta this season.
 
6Utah Jazz
Last Week: 9
Utah Jazz (28-18)
Boozer's calf injury gave reserve power forward Paul Millsap an opening to remind Utah why it made him a $32 million man last summer. With Boozer sidelined, Millsap posted 32 points and 14 rebounds in a win over Sacramento, his first start of the season.
 
7Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 5
There's not much D being played in Big D. The once-stingy Mavs defense (opponents shot 43.8 percent through December) has allowed its last three opponents to crack 50 percent. "We've gotten very soft defensively as a team," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We were a tough-minded team in the first quarter of the year. That's gone by the wayside. It's an attitude adjustment that we're going to have to make to get it back."
 
8San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 10
A 2-4 homestand, punctuated by a national TV loss to Carmelo Anthony-less Denver, isn't the kind of sendoff the Spurs were planning on before their longest road trip of the season -- an eight-game, 3½-week stint that starts Wednesday. They'll play only 12 more games in the Alamo this season.
 
9Boston Celtics
Last Week: 7
At some point the "wait until we get healthy" line in Boston is going to get a little old. The Celtics came up empty in matchups with the Magic, Hawks and Lakers last week, and Doc Rivers continues to preach patience for his perpetually dinged up club. "The only way they're going to get back [to playing at a high level] is to keep them on the floor and letting them play through it," Rivers said. "Unfortunately while you're doing that, your team is going to struggle a little bit."
 
10Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 12
Two nights after dropping 30 points in a win over Denver, Kevin Durant scored 45 of the Thunder's 112 points in a win over Golden State. The outburst, which came on 16-of-21 shooting from the field, moved Durant to within a tenth of a point of Anthony in the race for the league's top scorer.
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