By Chris Mannix
December 29, 2008

The Celtics are human. That much we know after their first back-to-back losses of the season. The Cavaliers? The jury is still out on their mortality. Cleveland continues to roll, utilizing a superior defense and a dynamic offense (read: much more than LeBron). That potent combination enabled the Cavs to edge out the Celtics-slaying Lakers for the top spot in this week's rankings.

(All stats and records are through Sunday.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 2
The Cavs got scares from Washington (on Christmas) and Miami (on Sunday) but eked out victories to improve to 16-0 at home and run their winning streak to six. Mo Williams has scored at least 20 points in four consecutive games, raising his average for December to 16.9 points (on 54.9 percent shooting).
2 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 3
Who should be the Lakers' starting small forward? Vladimir Radmanovic? Trevor Ariza? Lamar Odom? Right now, it's Luke Walton, and don't expect a change anytime soon. The Lakers are 8-2 since coach Phil Jackson moved Walton into the starting lineup. "Luke's a real good passer-playmaker," Jackson said. "I felt the team was lacking that."
3 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 4
Fueled by a seven-game winning streak, the Magic have matched the franchise's best 30-game start. Orlando has done it convincingly, too, outscoring the opposition by an average of 7.5 points, the fourth-best differential in the NBA.
4 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 1
The loss to the Lakers isn't what caused the Celtics to plummet this far. The loss to the inept Warriors? That did it. Boston was due to stumble and it rebounded well with a rout of Sacramento on Sunday, but the top of the NBA totem pole is so tough that two losses in a week is enough for the defending champions to slip three spots.
5 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 6
Welcome into the spotlight, Roger Mason Jr. Mason was already a hit in San Antonio: He is averaging 12.6 points and connecting on 47 percent of his three-pointers in his first season with the Spurs. One of those threes came in a nationally televised game at Phoenix on Christmas, when a cold Mason -- who hadn't played a minute in the fourth quarter -- came off the bench in the final seconds to nail the game-winning shot at the buzzer.
6 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 9
The Nuggets look like they are a tough, physical backup power forward away from being true championship material. Too bad they cut a tough, physical backup power forward in Antonio McDyess, who came over in the trade for Chauncey Billups but was bought out last month. "We have conversations like that," coach George Karl said. "He would have been great with us."
7 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 5
Not a great week in the Big Easy. A double-digit loss to the Lakers was followed by a lackluster blowout to the Magic on Christmas, the latter spelling the end of Chris Paul's record streak of 108 games with a steal. "We struggle against smart basketball teams," power forward David West said.
8 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 7
The Rockets continue to struggle just to get Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest on the floor together along with Yao Ming. Artest (ankle) missed last Friday's loss at New Orleans but returned a night later to score 28 points in a double-overtime victory against the Jazz. McGrady (knee) shot a combined 4-for-18 in losses to Cleveland and New Orleans before sitting out the Utah game.
9 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 10
The Mavs' recent play has more than a few people believing that owner Mark Cuban will be a buyer and not a seller at the Feb. 19 trade deadline. A little more lineup consistency could make Dallas even more dangerous: Coach Rick Carlisle already has deployed 12 different starting lineups.
10 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 8
Memo to coach Nate McMillan: Put center Joel Przybilla in the starting lineup. "The Eraser" has been superior to former No. 1 pick Greg Oden, averaging 6.8 points (on 75.5 percent shooting), 8.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 23.3 minutes. Even Oden agrees. "If Joel is playing better than me, he should be starting," Oden told The Oregonian. "And I think he is right now."
11 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
Atlanta Hawks (19-10)
The Hawks went 2-0 last week, capped by Joe Johnson's 41-point, eight-assist performance against Chicago on Saturday. Atlanta was 6-1 on its eight-game homestand entering Monday's visit from Denver.
12 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 15
The Pistons went 3-0 last week to improve to 6-3 since Rodney Stuckey moved into the starting lineup. Stuckey has averaged 17.4 points and 6.9 assists in those nine games. The second-year guard scored a career-high 40 points in last week's victory against Chicago.
13 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 13
Phoenix Suns (16-12)
The Suns played only one game last week -- the heartbreaking loss to San Antonio -- giving them plenty of valuable practice time with newly acquired Jason Richardson. "Players don't like it," coach Terry Porter said. "[But] it gives us a chance to get back and clean things up, work on some execution."
14 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 14
Ladies and gentlemen, the NBA's self-proclaimed best-dressed player is back! Damon Jones, in a self-imposed exile from the Bucks after being acquired from Cleveland in the offseason, returned to the team over the weekend. Maybe he feels he needs to earn a new contract to keep up with his spending, as a New York clothier reportedly is suing Jones for owing $16,000 for custom-made threads.
15 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 12
Utah Jazz (18-14)
The Jazz might want to post a Help Wanted sign for their battered frontcourt. Carlos Boozer (quad) has missed the last 20 games, fellow power forward Paul Millsap (knee) could miss another few games and Mehmet Okur (back spasms) is day to day. The only good news is that they are looking at a light week, with only two games, against Philadelphia (Monday) and at the Lakers (Friday).
16 Miami Heat
Last Week: 16
Miami Heat (16-13)
The Heat's top Rookie of the Year candidate played his college ball in the state of Kansas -- but it's not No. 2 pick Michael Beasley. Point guard Mario Chalmers has scored in double figures in 10 of his last 14 games, and he leads all rookies in steals and ranks third in assists. Last Friday, the second-round selection from Kansas outplayed No. 1 pick Derrick Rose, scoring 16 points and adding six assists in Miami's win against Chicago.
17 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 17
The Izod Center has been a hospitable venue for visiting opponents. Playing in front of lackluster (and numerically inflated) crowds, the Nets are just 5-11 at home (compared to 10-4 on the road). With four of their next six games in the Meadowlands, they had better pick it up.
18 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 21
The Bobcats' modest rise in the rankings has more to do with the poor play below them than anything they are doing. They were 2-1 last week, but the Bobcats blew a golden opportunity for a third victory when they lost to the Nets in overtime in Charlotte. That loss kept Charlotte from its first three-game winning streak of the season.
19 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 18
Chicago Bulls (13-17)
Luol Deng's disappointing season got worse as he will miss at least a week with a sprained ankle. Deng, who signed a six-year, $70 million contract in the offseason, is averaging only 13.3 points on 43.5 percent shooting, his lowest totals since his rookie season. "Luol's trying to find himself," coach Vinny Del Negro said before Deng injured his ankle. "He has to keep hustling and find ways to impact the game."
20 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 24
A 29-point performance in a double-overtime loss at San Antonio raised O.J. Mayo's scoring average to 20.1. He's on pace to become the sixth guard in the last 25 years (along with Kevin Durant, Allen Iverson, Mitch Richmond, Ron Harper and Michael Jordan) to average 20 points as a rookie.
21 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 19
Indiana lost its last three games (to New Jersey, Memphis and New Orleans) by a combined six points. After losing to the Nets on Devin Harris' buzzer-beater, the Pacers blew a 17-point first-half lead against the Grizzlies and squandered a 12-point third-quarter lead against the Hornets.
22 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 20
The Sixers are 0-2 on a six-game road trip with stops this week at Utah, the Clippers, Dallas and San Antonio. More disconcerting: They are one game worse than they were through 29 games last season.
23 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 25
Jermaine O'Neal's 36-point, nine rebound effort in a win at Sacramento was part of a four-game stretch in which he averaged 25.0 points and 8.0 boards. Meanwhile, Jose Calderon continues to be perfect at the foul line this season. With 66 made free throws in a row, Calderon is 31 shy of Michael Williams' NBA record.
24 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 27
The good news? The Warriors' stunning victory against Boston pushed the Robert Rowell-Chris Mullin-Don Nelson power struggle out of the news for one day. The bad news? Monta Ellis is now expected to be out until at least late January.
25 New York Knicks
Last Week: 23
"This is a crisis, without a doubt," coach Mike D'Antoni said before the Knicks fell to Denver on Sunday for their sixth consecutive loss. D'Antoni tinkered with his rotation against the Nuggets by bringing Al Harrington off the bench. After a hot start as a Knick, Harrington is shooting only 34.7 percent in his last six games.
26 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 22
The Mike Dunleavy watch has become 24-hour surveillance. The Clippers have been pasted by at least 22 points in three straight games, most recently a 98-76 loss to Dallas on Sunday. The scuttlebutt around the league is that Dunleavy may be willing to step away from the bench (where he has frequently clashed with Baron Davis) and become a full-time general manager.
27 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
Brad Miller's days in Sacramento could be numbered. With only one more year (at $11.4 million) remaining on his contract after this season, the veteran center is prime trade bait. "I'm not going to walk in and demand a trade," Miller told the Sacramento Bee, "but who wouldn't want a chance to win a championship?"
28 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 29
There are no moral victories for the Wizards, but their gritty effort at Cleveland on Christmas comes close. A win against the Thunder on Saturday was nice, but the upcoming schedule is daunting: Starting Monday, the Wizards face Houston, New Orleans, Boston, Cleveland and Orlando.
29 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 30
Kevin McHale wins! McHale was able to savor last Friday's victory at New York for nearly 24 hours before a 24-point home loss to Orlando. The Wolves have shot 45 percent or better from the field in each of their victories, but they've only reached that threshold six times all season.
30 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 28
How badly do the Thunder want Nets restricted free agent Nenad Krstic? They hand-delivered their offer sheet for the center to New Jersey president Rod Thorn. "I guess they were in a hurry," Thorn told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I'm sure that's been done before, but I really can't think of another time."
Got a different view than Chris?

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