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Hornets close in on champ Lakers

It seems like every year an overachiever comes along to remind us that a well-coached team that plays hard and adheres to roles can ambush pundits and fans alike with a magical season. Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder were that team. In 2007-08, the New Orleans Hornets were that team. Early in 2010-11, the Hornets appear to be at it again.

In Chris Paul, New Orleans has a superstar who is once again healthy and on top of his game. But it's the supporting cast fashioned by new general manager Dell Demps and new coach Monty Williams that has made the Hornets the NBA's feel-good story so far.

Paul is first among equals, and power forward David West is a clear No. 2. But Paul and West -- who had that beguiling taste of postseason success three years ago -- have endured enough frustration since that last playoff-series victory to fully appreciate how a band of unsung newcomers has enabled the Hornets' early-season success, and the two mainstays have bought into the system.

New Orleans has some scorers -- Marcus Thornton, Peja Stojakovic and preseason acquisition Jerryd Bayless -- who have been shelved or had their playing time curtailed in favor of the likes of Marco Belinelli, Jason Smith and Willie Green, three obscure first-year Hornets who better implement Williams' defensive-oriented approach. Add in ball-hawking swingman Trevor Ariza and rejuvenated center Emeka Okafor, and the Hornets play with a style that minimizes letdowns and allows Paul's brilliance and West's proficiency to win games in the fourth quarter.

At 6-0, including quality victories against the Heat and Spurs, New Orleans trails only the Lakers in this week's Power Rankings. The Hornets may be unlikely to remain that high throughout the season, but they deserve the No. 2 spot right now.

(All stats and records are through Nov. 8.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
My prediction that the Lakers would miss Andrew Bynum and bide their time jelling in the regular season is looking foolish. They've been relentless (albeit with a favorable schedule), with Lamar Odom having the best start of his career, Derek Fisher shooting more accurately than ever and Pau Gasol showcasing the most complete set of skills for a frontcourt player since the peak seasons of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. And we haven't even talked about the game's most physical defender (Ron Artest), a deeper bench or a superstar named Kobe.
 
2New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 8
Here is Chris Paul's fourth-quarter stat line in six games to go with his impeccable crunch-time leadership: 40 points (on 12-of-25 from the field and 14-of-14 from the line), nine assists (against just three turnovers) and nine rebounds in 45 minutes. Mimicking Phil Jackson's usage of Kobe Bryant, coach Monty Williams is resting Paul for the first portion (anywhere from three to six minutes) of the final period. How long before this is standard operating procedure for every coach and his star closer?
 
3Boston Celtics
Last Week: 3
Now that he's fully recovered from knee surgery, Kevin Garnett is back to defending two or three players at the same time better than anyone but Dwight Howard -- a blessing for the Celtics, given their dinged-up, undersized or overmatched options at center. Rajon Rondo is another one of the game's defensive treasures, with a combination of quickness, sinew and ingenuity reminiscent of the late Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson in many ways. But it is hard to group him with elite point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams when his crunch-time jumper is so unreliable -- Dallas was begging him to shoot late in the fourth quarter on Monday -- and he's never made even 65 percent of his free throws over the course of a season.
 
4Miami Heat
Last Week: 2
The Heat's two losses have predictably come from opponents exploiting matchup advantages at the point and in the pivot. Plentiful first-quarter assists from both Boston's Rajon Rondo (six) and New Orleans' Paul (nine) put Miami in an early hole, and then active, mobile big men (Glen Davis for the Celtics, Emeka Okafor for the Hornets) helped propel foes to double-digit advantages on points in the paint. Why not match up either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade on the NBA's elite point guards?
 
5Orlando Magic
Last Week: 4
The numbers don't adequately show how much progress Dwight Howard has made on offense. He's probably tripled the number of moves he's confident executing in the post, making him less predictable to guard. But the other side of Orlando's offensive equation, three-pointers, has tumbled from 37.5 percent last season to 32.3 percent early this season. One other thought: It can be a bit risky depending on the foul situation, but after watching a relatively svelte Marcin Gortat spearhead the Magic's comeback from an early 13-point deficit against Atlanta on Monday, coach Stan Van Gundy ought to reduce his power forward problem by playing Howard and Gortat together more often.
 
6San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 10
Their perimeter defense is terrible, Tim Duncan is growing more fallible with age and it's too easy to downgrade these Spurs against the near-impeccable past standards. Yet here they are at 5-1, with better pieces than last year surrounding their proud Big Three, including a rejuvenated Richard Jefferson (who is shooting 60.3 percent and harassed Charlotte's Gerald Wallace into a seven-point, 2-for-11 performance Monday), long-range sharpshooters in rookies Gary Neal and James Anderson and another rookie, Tiago Splitter, finally joining DeJuan Blair and Antonio McDyess in a center platoon beside Duncan.
 
7Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 11
The Mavericks' efficiency ratings (the amount of points scored or allowed per 100 possessions) rank higher on defense than offense, something they haven't done over a full season in 13 years. (They are fourth in defensive efficiency and 23rd in offensive efficiency.) An effective zone defense and the addition of Tyson Chandler are cementing that identity, a priority for coach Rick Carlisle since his arrival two years ago. Chandler and fellow center Brendan Haywood are staying within their role of protecting the rim (opponents are shooting just 41 percent) and converting put-backs and open layups off defensive lapses (the two are a combined 22-of-30 from the field). All that said, the Mavs miss injured sparkplug Roddy Beaubois as an offensive change of pace: Jason Kidd is shooting 34.9 percent and backup J.J. Barea has more turnovers (13) than assists (11).
 
8Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 6
Solid starts up front from Marcus Camby (defense), LaMarcus Aldridge (offense) and Nicolas Batum (both) have helped the Blazers go 5-3, but the relationship between guards Brandon Roy and Andre Miller remains corrosive to Portland's championship aspirations. Roy went for his against Toronto on Saturday, shooting 9-of-19 -- with all but three of those made baskets unassisted -- while failing to dish even a single assist. Miller had four shots and 13 assists, but only one to Roy. Such lopsided roles might work against the Raptors (Roy was plus-29 in a 97-84 victory), but won't beat quality teams. And it certainly isn't helping Roy's game. The perennial All-Star shot 1-of-6 in a 121-96 loss to the Lakers on Sunday (Ron Artest speculated that Roy is concealing an injury), and he is hitting 39.8 percent from the field overall with an assist-to-turnover ratio of only 1.3 to 1.
 
9Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 5
The Hawks' season-opening six-game winning streak came against teams that are all currently below .500 except Memphis; playing the Magic tough in a close road loss Monday was actually one of their better performances this year. The two big changes coming into 2010-11 were supposed to be more time for Jeff Teague at the point and fewer isolation plays for Joe Johnson. But Teague is confined to the bench -- he's 12-of-29 from the field and most of those shots are open invitations from his opponents -- and there is still enough "Iso-Joe" for Johnson to be way ahead of his teammates in shot attempts (he has 140; Al Horford is second with 91) and assists (he has 43; Josh Smith is next with 34).
 
10Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 19
Who would have guessed that running set plays that methodically maneuver for good shots and trying to defend in the half-court with tall players down near the basket could actually win games? Don Nelson's replacement, the aptly named Keith Smart, has figured this out. In three ugly losses to Utah last season, the Warriors were outrebounded by an average of 55.3-39.3 and yielded 110.3 points. In Friday's game against the Jazz, the Warriors were plus-6 on the boards and grinded out an 85-78 victory in which neither team shot 40 percent. Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are a potent backcourt when healthy (and they've already been dinged up), but it is the revamped front line of Andris Biedrins, David Lee and (the most pleasant surprise) Dorell Wright that has the Warriors moving up in the standings.
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