By Britt Robson
December 28, 2010

Talk about depth: Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle missed Monday's game in Oklahoma City while recovering from knee surgery. Dallas turned to assistant Dwane Casey, who, at the end of his one and only stint as head coach, had the Timberwolves playing .500 basketball at 20-20 before being fired halfway through the 2006-07 season. Minnesota is 81-239 since Casey's departure.

Then the Mavs lost top scorer Dirk Nowitzki to a knee injury midway through the second quarter, and they entered the fourth period trailing by two without their MVP candidate for crunch time. No problem. They simply plugged in their other fourth-quarter ace in the hole, Jason Terry, who scored 11 of his 13 points in the final 12 minutes as the Mavs pulled away for a 103-93 victory to improve to 17-1 in their last 18 games. In 12 December games, the Jet has averaged eight points per fourth quarter, shooting 54.4 percent from the field (37-of-68), 44.4 percent from three-point range (8-of-18) and 16-of-16 from the foul line. In seven of those 12 games, Terry's fourth-quarter output has matched or exceeded his point total for the preceding three quarters. Now that's a designated closer.

Dallas' three quality road wins (against Miami, Orlando and OKC) over the past eight days, coupled with the Celtics' Christmas Day loss to the Magic, move the Mavs back to the top spot in the Power Rankings. The other two Texas teams are on a roll, too. San Antonio and Dallas join Boston and Miami as the league's hottest teams at 9-1 over their last 10 games, and right on their heels is Yao Ming-less Houston, which has won eight of 10.

(All stats and records are through Dec. 27.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 2
Their poise and confidence have been extraordinary, as they are not only 11-1 on the road but also 7-2 when trailing after three quarters. While Terry was catalyzing the offense late in Monday's victory, Tyson Chandler was again dominant defending the paint. The Thunder finished the fourth quarter with just 12 points on 4-of-18 shooting and five turnovers. But regardless of how well Dallas plays, the specter that shadowed the Cleveland Cavs last season will likewise dog the Mavs: Can they translate regular-season majesty into playoff success?
2 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 1
The Celtics finally missed Rajon Rondo enough to lose a game, at Orlando on Christmas. Rondo's replacement, Nate Robinson, resurrected the gunner mentality from his days as a Knick, connecting on only 2-of-15 (more shots than anyone on his star-studded team) and reminding us all that an ill-timed jumper that hits the side iron and careens out of bounds is a turnover by any other name. In fairness, Robinson is shooting less frequently this season than ever before and Boston is a respectable 5-2 in games in which he plays more than 30 minutes. But the Celtics sorely missed Rondo's creative ball movement against Orlando's hard-nosed defense down the stretch and will require his imminent, healthy return to hold off surging Miami in the season-long battle for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
3 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
How important is point guard Tony Parker to the Spurs? He leads the NBA's most efficient offense in assists, he ranks second in scoring behind Manu Ginobili (who shoots much more frequently) and he trails only Tiago Splitter (a 6-11 center who plays far fewer minutes) in field-goal percentage. He plays defense well enough that San Antonio allows nearly four points per 100 possessions fewer when he plays compared to when he sits, according to Basketball Value. But statistics from the same database also reveal that the Spurs are actually nearly six points per 100 possessions better on offense without him. This isn't because Parker plays poorly; it's that George Hill and Manu Ginobili are strong replacements. The net result is a fantastic three-guard rotation that makes each member of the trio more replaceable.
4 Miami Heat
Last Week: 5
Miami Heat (23-9)
Chris Bosh performed auspiciously (24 points, 13 rebounds) in the Heat's high-profile Christmas win over the Lakers. As the third among equals in the Big Three, Bosh has arguably had the toughest adjustment since his days as the alpha dog in Toronto, compelled to edit his game while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sorted things out and settled in together running the offense. In particular, Bosh's chances at the rim have declined from more than 5.5 shots per game throughout his career to just 2.7 this year, which is why his 8-of-10 performance at the rim against the Lakers' huge front line was yet another sign that Miami is figuring things out.
5 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 4
As the Lakers' leader, Kobe Bryant has every right to call out his teammates for needing "to play with more focus" after L.A. scored a combined 156 points in home losses to Milwaukee and Miami. But are his three technical fouls -- including a late ejection against the Bucks -- in those games a sign of focus or petulance? From here, it looks like Pau Gasol is mentally and physically tired from playing five minutes more per game than Kobe, and Andrew Bynum is working his way back into game shape. And is lack of focus the reason L.A. is getting zero offense out of two positions? In the last 10 games, the Ron Artest/Matt Barnes tandem at small forward has shot below 40 percent and the Derek Fisher/Steve Blake combo at point guard has hit under 35 percent.
6 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 11
Orlando Magic (19-12)
Ending two double-digit winning streaks back-to-back is by itself impressive; that the Magic beat the Spurs and the Celtics in different fashion indicates the potent versatility of their revamped roster -- and the potential pitfalls if coach Stan Van Gundy can't push the right buttons. The Spurs, on the tail end of a home/road back-to-back, were ripe to be run out of Amway Arena last Thursday, and with new acquisitions Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu eager to prove their mettle, Orlando sped to victory via a 30-2 advantage in fast-break points. On Christmas, the Magic churned out a defensive-oriented win against Boston led by the holdovers -- Dwight Howard, Brandon Bass, Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick. Monday's thrashing of New Jersey was a mixture of the two. Credit Orlando for quality victories against San Antonio and Boston, but in the big picture, Turkoglu and Arenas remain huge gambles and the Magic need another legitimate big man to shore up their frontcourt.
7 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 9
Chicago Bulls (19-10)
Although Kurt Thomas has held his own on the defensive end and Carlos Boozer is scoring efficiently in the paint, the Bulls miss Joakim Noah's extraordinary versatility on the fast break. Noah can block a shot or grab a rebound, zip the outlet pass, fill the lane on the fly and even finish with a flourish when the occasion warrants. When he went down five games ago, the Bulls were averaging 16.2 fast-break points per game. Since then, the average has dropped to 11.2, and that includes the 28 scored in Chicago's 121-76 blowout of the Sixers last week.
8 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 6
Utah Jazz (21-10)
It has been an odd season for the Jazz, who are off to their best 31-game start in four years, yet haven't seemed to maximize their disparate new parts since their dramatic succession of comeback wins on a November road trip. Only point guard Deron Williams has been consistently capable this month (he's having his best season for the second year in a row), yet Utah hasn't lost consecutive games since the first two of the season. Another adjustment period is in store as jump-shooting center Mehmet Okur works his way back into the rotation after returning from the ruptured Achilles injury he suffered last April. In any event, 21-10 is hardly a rocky transition, and there is a lingering sense that if everything suddenly falls into place, Utah is going to be very hard to beat.
9 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 7
As someone who applauded general manager Sam Presti's draft-night maneuvers last June, I feel duty-bound to report that the early returns on those deals are not positive. The two long-range shooters Presti acquired, Morris Peterson and Daequan Cook, have combined to play 90 minutes and shoot 3-of-17 from beyond the arc, contributing to the Thunder's last-place ranking in three-point accuracy. Presti also traded up in the draft to get center Cole Aldrich at No. 11. Big men take time to develop, of course, but Aldrich spent three years at Kansas and is already 22, yet has gotten off the pine for just 55 minutes this season even though starting center Nenad Krstic was temporarily sidelined with an injury.
10 New York Knicks
Last Week: 12
The buzz over Raymond Felton's All-Star candidacy is partly a function of his move to a glitzier setting, partly a result of a lack of depth at guard on the Eastern Conference ballot (he'd have no shot in the West) and only slightly due to an upgrade in his play. His field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio are nearly identical to what he posted last year. The difference is that Felton is playing more minutes and at a much faster pace for Mike D'Antoni in New York than he did for Larry Brown in Charlotte, significantly boosting his points and assists. Advocates can counter that his increase in three-pointers and better free-throw accuracy have bumped his true shooting percentage to a career high, and that the Knicks are 18-12 with him at the point.
11 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 8
Atlanta Hawks (20-13)
A shooting slump has dropped their offensive efficiency to a mediocre 13th. Joe Johnson is making less than 40 percent of his shots in the six games since his return from an elbow injury, and all five of the team's top scorers have been less accurate than their season average over the past 10 games, a 5-5 stretch for Atlanta. Boosting defensive-oriented center Jason Collins' playing time to nearly 15 minutes per game doesn't help the attack. But the schedule cuts the Hawks a break as they have four permissive defenses -- Golden State, Oklahoma City, the Clippers and Sacramento -- up next.
12 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 14
Monday's victory in Utah may have been Portland's most impressive win of the season. The Blazers beat the Jazz at their own game -- crisp execution mixed with relentless physical play. While he can't match injured shooting guard Brandon Roy's skill set or savvy, Wes Matthews is a better complement to point guard Andre Miller and is able to defend multiple positions. If LaMarcus Aldridge can justify coach Nate McMillan's faith in him as a bona fide go-to guy, Portland's supposed demise (and I've been among the doubters this season) once again will have been greatly exaggerated.
13 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 19
The loss of Yao has at least created some welcome certainty, allowing the likes of Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to establish a rhythm and boosting the pace for the team's bevy of three-point shooters. Consequently, Houston has won five in a row (in a soft part of its schedule) to reach .500 after starting 3-10. The unconventional lineups (like playing 6-6 Chuck Hayes at center) and improvisational flair that made the Rockets fun to watch early last season have returned. Reflecting Martin's signature style, the team is third in three-point accuracy and seventh in three-point attempts, yet also fourth in free-throw attempts.
14 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 10
Yes, Denver's defense has been terrible, with or without Carmelo Anthony (who has missed the last three games after the death of his sister) or two big men who just returned from injury, Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin. But high-scoring games have been a team staple because of the fast pace favored by George Karl -- Denver hasn't ranked better than 17th in opponents' scoring since the coach's arrival in 2005 -- and the Nuggets usually have the firepower to prevail. The current three-game losing streak finds them missing their superstar closer at crunch time. The Nuggets have scored just 53 points, while allowing 84, in the last three fourth quarters, coughing up late leads to San Antonio and Philadelphia and falling in a close game at Oklahoma City.
15 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 15
The Hornets have the second-best home record in the West at 13-3, but they haven't won on the road in December (0-6). Their last two games tell the tale. At home Sunday against Atlanta, they utilized a dual point-guard backcourt of Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack to execute post-ups and pick-and-rolls on either side of the offense. Heeding Jack's halftime advice to "be more aggressive," Paul scored 18 of his 22 points after intermission and the Hornets defeated the Hawks 93-86. But back on the road Monday, the sixth-ranked New Orleans defense allowed the 20th-ranked Minnesota offense to shoot 53 percent, nail 11 three-pointers and generate 29 assists as the Hornets fell 113-98.
16 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 18
Coach Lionel Hollins has the raw materials to form one of the NBA's more formidable trapping defenses, with long, athletic swingmen like Tony Allen, Rudy Gay and Sam Young and speedy Mike Conley at the point. Allen and Gay combined for 11 steals to spark Monday's win over Toronto (it was Gay's second straight five-steal game), and Young and Conley rank second and third on the team, respectively, in steals per minute (Allen is first). The Grizzlies have gone from 21st to 19th to currently 13th in defensive efficiency over the past two-plus seasons, and being able to generate more turnovers than any team in the NBA is a big part of that improvement.
17 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 13
Phoenix Suns (13-16)
Allowing the victorious Clippers to score 50 points in the paint, shoot 53.4 percent from the field and make 19-of-23 at the rim Sunday indicates that Marcin Gortat will not be an immediate balm for what ails the Suns' defense, and with Robin Lopez and Hakeem Warrick combining for just 17 minutes, it is clear that coach Alvin Gentry is experimenting with his rotation. But Gentry can't wait too long: After losing seven of nine, the Suns need to capitalize at home against the Sixers and Pistons and at Sacramento before playing host to the Lakers and Knicks next week. Meanwhile, Vince Carter rests his aching knee on the sidelines.
18 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 25
Improved health has helped the Warriors to a season-best three-game winning streak. After missing six games with an ankle sprain, Stephen Curry is back to relieve some of the playmaking burden from reigning Western Conference Player of the Week Monta Ellis, who dished a season-high 12 assists in Monday's victory over the Sixers. As David Lee's infected elbow continues to heal, he is heating up -- after a month of misfires, he's back to converting field goals at his career pace of about 55 percent the last five games. And rookie lottery pick Ekpe Udoh, who has played seven games since returning from wrist surgery, has shown himself to be a lanky shot-blocker with good court sense. The reinforcements have enabled Golden State to halt what had been an absurd disparity in free-throw attempts for much of the season. The Warriors are 7-3 when they get to the line more than their opponents -- and 5-15 when they don't.
19 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 17
Roy Hibbert is mired in a horrendous shooting slump, converting only 31.6 percent (31-for-98) in the last seven games. Not coincidentally, the Pacers are 2-5 over that stretch. Just last month, Hibbert's offseason exploits were a colorful, often-told, feel-good story, the 7-2 center who parlayed mixed martial arts training and treatment for a previously undetected asthma condition into a breakout season. But the breakout lasted about six weeks; along with the wayward shooting, Hibbert is grabbing about three fewer rebounds per game in December. And missing jumpers hasn't made him more aggressive about going to the rim: His free-throw attempts are also down, from 4.0 to 2.4 per game, this month.
20 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 16
Thaddeus Young continues to be a matchup nightmare for opponents; he's too big for small forwards and too quick for power forwards. On Sunday in Denver, the 6-8 Young sent Denver's Shelden Williams to the bench for good with a second-quarter explosion that put the Sixers back in the game after a slow start. Then coach Doug Collins paired Young with Elton Brand in a small-ball frontcourt that fueled a decisive fourth-quarter comeback, forcing Denver coach George Karl to try four different players on Young. He finished 6-of-9 at the rim and 4-of-6 on two-pointers from 16-23 feet. His 15 points, eight rebounds and four assists weren't enough to prevent Monday's loss to Golden State. But Philadelphia is still a respectable 2-3 more than halfway through its eight-game, 17-day road trip.
21 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 21
Early injuries to veterans Baron Davis and Chris Kaman have been a blessing in disguise, allowing rookie power forward Blake Griffin and third-year shooting guard Eric Gordon to establish themselves as franchise cornerstones. After a 3-15 start, the Clippers are 7-7 in December, with Gordon (23.6 points per game) and Griffin (22.5) splitting the lion's share of the scoring almost evenly. Davis still shoots way too many threes -- at 17.6 percent, any is too many, especially when backcourt mate Gordon is making 45.7 percent from distance this month -- but his presence has helped stabilize the team. L.A. hopes for the same from Kaman, who averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 rebounds as an All-Star last season. He's expected to return from an ankle injury in the next couple of weeks -- just in time to help Griffin avoid hitting that rookie wall too hard.
22 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 22
With the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, we can second-guess how much better it would be for the Bucks if general manager John Hammond had re-signed point guard Luke Ridnour to something similar to the four-year, $16 million contract that he received from Minnesota, instead of agreeing to pay well-traveled forward Drew Gooden $32 million over five years. Ridnour was often Milwaukee's second-best player last season behind Andrew Bogut, offering a nice complement to the more freewheeling Brandon Jennings, and he would be a more capable replacement than Earl Boykins or Keyon Dooling now that Jennings is hurt. Meanwhile, last year's Super Glue forward, Ersan Ilyasova, has regained his pesky stride on defense at the power forward slot while Gooden copes with plantar fasciitis.
23 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 23
In a turbulent month in which the Pistons blew a 25-point lead to Toronto and an anonymous team source accused Rip Hamilton of quitting on the team, Detroit deserves credit for back-to-back fourth-quarter comebacks in its last two games. The way the Pistons pounded the boards for second-chance opportunities had Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau screaming at his players Sunday, though Chicago prevailed in overtime. The next night, the Pistons endured a 24-2 blitz by the Bobcats during the first eight minutes of the second quarter, but clawed back to the point that three-pointers by Ben Gordon could have tied the score in the final minute. That Gordon (who was Mr. Clutch during the fourth quarter when he played for Chicago) misfired on both chances, and that Hamilton followed up a suspicious "upset stomach" with 35 points in 28 minutes in his first game off the bench, against the Raptors last Wednesday, prolongs the soap opera in Motown.
24 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 29
Swingman Martell Webster's return is prompting coach Kurt Rambis to feature a quicker frontcourt with Kevin Love moving to center and Michael Beasley to power forward to accommodate Webster. Rambis used that lineup for much of the fourth quarter in Monday's win over New Orleans. Beasley, who has been more prolific as a power forward than a small forward since he came to the NBA, finished with a game-high 30 points. The Wolves will continue to give a lot of the center minutes to Darko Milicic, for rim protection and to keep Darko's confidence humming. But this other look is obviously a viable option in certain matchup situations.
25 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 28
Coach Larry Brown's departure was appropriate, because majority owner and chief decision-maker Michael Jordan needs to be the one left holding the bag on this inadequately stocked team. It's comical to read Sam Amick at FanHouse writing that, now that he has cut ties with Brown, Jordan is looking for "a point guard not named D.J. Augustin who comes with a veteran's résumé and a veteran big man who produces at both ends of the floor." Ah, do the names Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler ring a bell? If Clippers owner Donald Sterling or Timberwolves president David Kahn had just scapegoated his coach while frantically trying to undo the damage he had wreaked just months earlier, he'd be roundly ridiculed. Jordan, regardless of the exalted status he earned as a player, deserves the same.
26 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 24
Troy Murphy has plummeted from double-double machine to trade bargaining chip this season, camping out in limbo as the Nets develop younger players (most notably team rebounding leader Kris Humphries and rookie Derrick Favors) at his power forward slot and dangle his ample skills and $12 million expiring contract in front of potential suitors. New Jersey parted with solid rotation player Courtney Lee to obtain Murphy in a four-team deal over the summer, and the 6-11 forward has averaged a double-double five of his previous nine years in the league, including the last two seasons with the Pacers. He's also a career 39 percent shooter from three-point range, and the Nets are currently 24th in three-point accuracy. Murphy has long been mentioned as a possible piece in a Carmelo Anthony trade, and more recently, there's been speculation about interest from Orlando. But he's an expensive afterthought in New Jersey.
27 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 20
The Raptors need more players like forward Amir Johnson, who leads the team in blocks (1.1 per game), steals (0.8) and rebounds (5.8) among their active players, despite averaging just 23 minutes. Those paltry numbers also reveal how few opportunities Toronto creates on defense -- it's 18th in steals and 29th in blocks. Monday's loss at Memphis came without leading scorer Andrea Bargnani, who is also expected to miss visits to Dallas (on Tuesday) and Houston (on Friday) because of a strained calf.
28 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 26
The silver lining in the Christmas Eve skirmish between Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee is that the two immature youngsters didn't drag anyone else into the morass. At the same time the Wizards suspended the two players for Sunday's game against San Antonio, they welcomed back John Wall from a five-game absence because of a knee injury. Wall shot 2-of-9 off the bench in the defeat, then made 2-of-7 in a reserve role Monday (he also went 9-of-13 at the free-throw line in 27 minutes) as the Wizards lost at Houston to fall to 0-15 on the road.
29 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 27
Cleveland's problems are pretty fundamental. Opponents have scored 111 more field goals on 14 fewer shots in 30 games. The Cavs are allowing an NBA-worst 41.1 percent from the three-point line, which is how the lowly Timberwolves have beaten them twice, including on Sunday, when Minnesota made a dozen threes and won by a point in a rare road victory. Coach Byron Scott is playing his veterans -- the erstwhile complementary pieces to LeBron -- in an effort to halt a 1-13 skid, but only Anderson Varejao is shooting better than 44 percent among the starters over the last 10 games, although Mo Williams does have a five-game streak of double-digit assists.
30 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 30
Yes, the Kings are blowing close games at an alarming rate -- be it the spectacular pratfall that resulted in a blown 16-point lead with nine minutes left against Golden State last Wednesday, or Tyreke Evans' rimmed-out free throw (after he'd made the first two of three) with two seconds remaining that enabled the Clippers to hang on for a one-point win Monday. But an optimist would rebut that at least the Kings are keeping it close, and that Evans, who has been mired in a sophomore slump, had a season-high 32 points Monday. After the game, Evans said he was considering surgery on his ailing left foot, a procedure that would sideline him for three to four months. At that point, the optimist shut up.

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