By Britt Robson
March 08, 2011

In the first three and a half months of the season, the Lakers had bouts of indifferent defense, saw their thin bench exposed too often for comfort and exercised patience with Ron Artest's shooting woes. There were also concerns about their stars, with Kobe Bryant working through knee issues and Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom carrying a heavy load while waiting for Andrew Bynum to return from knee surgery. Los Angeles finished the pre-All-Star break schedule with its third losing streak of at least three games this season, the last defeat coming at Cleveland, the team with the NBA's worst record.

Then the break was over and the switch was flipped -- it has looked nearly that simple for the two-time defending champions. The Lakers have won seven in a row, capped by Sunday's dismantling of the league-leading Spurs in San Antonio.

Not surprisingly, then, the Lakers are the new leaders in the Power Rankings. But maintaining the top spot won't be easy as L.A. visits Atlanta, Miami and Dallas this week before returning home for next Monday's game against Orlando.

(All stats and records are through March 7.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 3
Anyone who saw Phil Jackson bark at his reserves and the referees and insert his starters back into the game during a garbage-time fourth quarter against the Spurs understands that the push for a three-peat has begun in earnest. The return of swingman Matt Barnes, out 26 games with a knee injury, was a tonic for a team with a shaky bench. And Artest's defensive work against Kevin Durant, Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili over the last 10 days should get at least a few of his many critics off his back.
2 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
One dreadful performance from a team that is at least four games better than anyone else should not be enough to dislodge it from the top spot. But the Spurs had two pratfalls last week, beginning with a pasting by Memphis in which the Grizzlies scored 30 points off 22 turnovers and cast doubt about the ability of ace sixth man George Hill -- who had six turnovers replacing injured Tony Parker -- to handle intense perimeter pressure in extended minutes at the point. Then there was the home blowout against the Lakers, which reignited questions about the ability of San Antonio's undersized front line to cope with L.A.'s length. It puts the resilient, resourceful, playoff-savvy Spurs -- who had an impressive blowout of their own, against Miami, in between the two losses -- in the enviable position of still being an underdog with something to prove while likely owning home-court advantage throughout the postseason.
3 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 2
Tyson Chandler's absence the last three games because of an ankle injury is helping to prepare Brendan Haywood for a more significant role in the playoff rotation if necessary. Haywood's defense remains solid (albeit not on Chandler's level), but he's shooting 36.2 percent from the free-throw line. He can use the extra minutes to practice his stroke (he's 3-of-5 from the line in the last three games) along with getting into a rhythm with the starters. The Mavs won two of those three games without Chandler, including a buzzer-beating loss to Memphis on Sunday. Dallas' only two defeats in the last 18 games have come on last-second shots (Denver beat the Mavs in dramatic fashion Feb. 10).
4 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 4
Chicago Bulls (44-18)
One of the most impressive things about the Bulls is their logical, dedicated approach to improvement. They have honed the finer points of their defense with rigorous precision and have more recently seemed to focus on perimeter passing, especially when and where to spot up for three-pointers in transition. Knocking down those open looks means more space for Derrick Rose to penetrate and Carlos Boozer to score in the low block. If the shooting guard -- Keith Bogans early and Kyle Korver late -- and small forward Luol Deng are nailing their threes in the postseason, Chicago is going to be a very tough out.
5 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 5
In the dozen games the Celtics had Kendrick Perkins this season, they allowed more than 100 points only once, in a 101-97 loss to Dallas. But they also eclipsed 100 only three times and were held under 90 in losses to Phoenix, Charlotte and the Lakers, going 8-4 overall. Since the arrival of Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green in the trade for Perkins, Boston has yield more than 100 three times in five games. Then again, they are 5-0, with Krstic and Green both shooting better than 55 percent. Ah, but the opposition was weak, with none of those five teams in position to make the playoffs. In other words, the jury will be out on this gutsy (and in my opinion, wrongheaded) move by president Danny Ainge until at least the second or third round of the playoffs. But we already know the sting of losing Perkins hasn't disrupted the chemistry between the other four starters, which is good news indeed in Boston.
6 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 8
Don't sleep on the Grizzlies. They have defeated Dallas and San Antonio (whose combined record is 97-29) without Rudy Gay in the last week. Much-maligned point guard Mike Conley more than held his own against Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook on Monday, finishing with nine assists, zero turnovers and 20 points (on 9-of-20 shooting) in a 107-101 victory. Even without Gay, coach Lionel Hollins can throw Tony Allen at a premier scorer like Durant and then come back with another effective defender, the bigger Shane Battier. Memphis leads the league in points off turnovers and is one of the best in offensive rebounding, which makes up for its lack of three-point shooting. This is a confident bunch: Against the current top four seeds in the West, the Grizzlies have won three of four against both Dallas and OKC, split four games with the Lakers and beaten the Spurs once in three tries.
7 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 7
Orlando Magic (40-24)
MVP contender Dwight Howard was suspended for Monday's loss to Portland for having 16 technical fouls this season. But any allusions to uncontrollable hotheads like Rasheed Wallace are misguided -- the Orlando center absorbs far more punishment than 'Sheed ever received, and is justified, if not right or smart, in his response. Meanwhile, out on the perimeter, 10-year pro Gilbert Arenas continues to play like a rookie, alternately too tentative and too impulsive in his shot selection, ball movement and defensive rotations. Given Hedo Turkoglu's struggles, Orlando can't afford to wait for a resurgence from Arenas that may never come. Coach Stan Van Gundy should cut Arenas' 21 minutes in half in favor of either Chris Duhon or J.J. Redick as the situation warrants.
8 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 10
A familiar problem -- interior defense -- finally caught up with the Thunder on Monday, as Memphis scored a whopping 68 points in the paint while ending OKC's three-game winning streak 107-101. This followed Phoenix's 54 paint points in the Thunder's overtime victory the previous night. In both games, coach Scott Brooks opted to go small during crunch time, sitting center Nazr Mohammed for a lineup that frequently featured Durant at power forward as Serge Ibaka slid over to center. It's a potent offensive unit because it brings James Harden, who has thrived since Green was traded, into the game alongside Durant and Westbrook, but it is hard to imagine the Thunder's being successful with it against elite teams in the playoffs. Thus, the timetable for Perkins' return from a knee injury is likely to have a major impact on OKC's postseason prospects.
9 Miami Heat
Last Week: 6
Miami Heat (43-20)
Everyone else has an opinion about what's wrong with the Heat, so here's mine: too much churn in the rotation. Rather than build a genuine team by patiently establishing roles for the players surrounding the three stars, Miami has created an increasingly desperate carousel, especially at center and point guard. The Heat player with the fourth-most minutes this season, Mario Chalmers, wouldn't even rank in the top five in minutes on 24 of the other 29 teams. Yes, there have been injuries, but that doesn't fully explain the wild fluctuations in playing time for those who rank from fifth to ninth in minutes -- James Jones, Joel Anthony, Carlos Arroyo (recently released to make room for Mike Bibby), Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Eddie House. Continuity breeds familiarity and trust. There hasn't been enough of any of that for Miami, which has lost four in a row and faces home games against Portland, the Lakers, Memphis and San Antonio over the next week.
10 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 9
Do the Blazers have to worry about burning out LaMarcus Aldridge? The 6-11 forward has logged the second-most minutes (behind Monta Ellis) in the NBA, but it's the quality as well as the quantity of his playing time that is cause for concern. Helping to fill some of the gaps created by injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, Aldridge is both the focal point of Portland's offense and much more of a low-post banger than in his previous four years. That's a heavier physical and mental burden to carry, which is why, although it is a ridiculously small sample size, and perhaps meaningless, Aldridge's zero assists and 10 total rebounds the last two games, on the heels of a 9-of-27 showing against Sacramento, may be signs of fatigue. In any case, with the acquisition of Gerald Wallace and the return of Marcus Camby and Roy (at least part time) adding depth, it wouldn't hurt for coach Nate McMillan to get Aldridge below 40 minutes per game between now and the playoffs.
11 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 12
The Sixers are an East-best-tying 12-4 over the last 16 games, they are arguably the deepest team in the conference and they have a versatile shutdown defender in Andre Iguodala, who also has performed with the command and efficiency of a point guard since coach Doug Collins flipped him the keys to the offense last month. The center tandem of Spencer Hawes and Marreese Speights is the weak link in the rotation, but the length and quickness of their wing and perimeter players (including Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner, as well as Iguodala) often compensates. Everyone gets out in transition -- their controlled, three-quarter-speed fast break is superb -- and their interior passing is a real advantage against weak defenses, as Golden State discovered Sunday. If the trends continue -- the Heat, Hawks and Magic fragile, the Sixers steadily improving -- Philadelphia could become a first-round dark horse.
12 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 13
The new, unselfish spirit in Denver is epitomized by Raymond Felton, who was being toasted as a potential All-Star and co-leading the resurgent Knicks just a few short weeks ago. Now, although he is still averaging more than 30 minutes per game for the Nuggets, he is coming off the bench and often playing alongside the starting point guard, second-year man Ty Lawson. But would Felton be as compliant about his reduced status if the Nuggets were losing? On a team whose rotation can legitimately run eight or nine players deep without an acknowledged star in the group, and whose current emotional leader is the irascible Kenyon Martin playing on an expiring contract, the Nuggets have combustible chemistry. But thus far, opponents are the ones most often getting burned.
13 New York Knicks
Last Week: 14
Although the Knicks lost in Orlando and at home to Cleveland, it was a good week for sorting out subsidiary pieces to the roster puzzle. Unlike Amar'e Stoudemire, who has become a legitimate two-way player, Carmelo Anthony remains a subpar defender -- his failure to close out on shooters was a factor in the loss to the Cavs. That makes the reacquisition of mobile, defensively oriented forward Jared Jeffries a shrewd and significant move, ratified by his easy transition into the lineup the last four games. He's been a valuable contributor despite scoring just one point in 100 minutes. The other bit of good news was the stellar play of Toney Douglas and Anthony Carter, the backup point guards who shot surprisingly well and defended tenaciously while filling in for the injured Chauncey Billups.
14 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 17
The Rockets have won eight of 10 to surge above .500 for the first time this season. Marquee guys Kevin Martin and Luis Scola have both played well, but point guard Kyle Lowry has provided the big boost during that stretch, averaging 16.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists and only 2.0 turnovers while shooting 50.8 from the field and 41.9 from three-point range. The trade that sent Aaron Brooks to Phoenix for Goran Dragic was good for team chemistry: Brooks was unhappy coming off the bench after starting last season, while Dragic is more comfortable being a second fiddle to Lowry, having backed up Steve Nash with the Suns. In any case, Lowry has slowly but surely emerged as the Rockets' leader in minutes, steals and assists this season,. He could take on a heavier role in Houston's suddenly viable playoff chase if the knee injury Scola sustained Monday against Sacramento keeps him out of the lineup for any period of time.
15 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 11
Phoenix Suns (32-29)
Nash has initiated the NBA's prettiest pick-and-roll for about a decade. The new favorite dancing partner for the nonpareil point guard is center Marcin Gortat, who dives aggressively toward the hoop and slams it home in a manner that befits his nickname, the "Polish Hammer." The beauty of Nash's timing and placement never gets old: His pass seems to materialize in Gortat's hands almost exactly at the time the 7-footer is lifting off. Not coincidentally, Gortat is getting to the rim and the foul line more frequently in Phoenix and his field-goal percentage (56.4) is nearly the same as his career high.
16 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 15
With Marcus Thornton having been traded to Sacramento and Trevor Ariza out with a groin injury, shooting guard Marco Belinelli got a bump in his playing time. And when Chris Paul sustained a scary concussion against Cleveland on Sunday, forcing combo guard Jarrett Jack to take Paul's place more often, Belinelli became even more prominent in the rotation. He has seized the opportunity to shoot with an accuracy that has been missing since his hot November as a surprise starter helped propel New Orleans to 11 wins in its first 12 games. Although he hurts the Hornets' defense, which doesn't sit well with coach Monty Williams, Belinelli also has the highest true shooting percentage among guards named Chris Paul, and New Orleans needs to improve an offense that ranks 22nd in efficiency to better compete in the crowded playoff race.
17 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 26
Atlanta Hawks (37-26)
It was one step forward, two steps back last week. The Hawks began with the sort of gritty win over an elite team (83-80 against Chicago) that could have provided a genuine spark and been perceived as a harbinger right after they moved to address their defensive problems at point guard by acquiring Kirk Hinrich from Washington. But then they allowed the Thunder to shoot 50.6 percent and score 111 points in a seven-point loss in which Russell Westbrook roasted Hinrich for 28 points and nine assists and coach Larry Drew was bemoaning the lack of effort after the game. It got worse Sunday, as the Knicks buried the Hawks with a 19-2 fourth-quarter run and Atlanta fell at home 92-79. The Hawks' best and most consistent player, Al Horford, chose a terrible time for his worst game of the season, scoring only 4 points in 40 minutes while being unable to contain Amar'e Stoudemire, who had 26.
18 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 18
Utah Jazz (33-31)
The Jazz weren't a particularly good defensive team even when they were giving maximum effort earlier in the season. Now that coaching legend Jerry Sloan and All-Star point guard Deron Williams have departed, the players expend energy to score but otherwise bide their time waiting for the offseason to begin in April. In Monday's blowout loss to the Knicks, their defense was a toxic mixture of confusion, indifference and self-pity. Al Jefferson remains a low-post stud on offense (he had 36 points against New York) and a wretched defender. Raja Bell has lost a step and some of the edge from his vintage days as a shutdown defender. Teenager Derrick Favor is willing but not yet able to guard the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire, who together with Carmelo Anthony shot 24-for-31 from the field. But no Jazz player is really exempt: This lack of effort is a trend, not an aberration. Utah has allowed more than 107 points per game while going 2-8 under new coach Ty Corbin.
19 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 21
Ekpe Udoh started the middle three games of the current seven-game road trip, in part to give confidence-depleted center Andris Biedrins a break and in part because the 6-10 rookie happens to be the Warriors' best interior defender. But after an up-and-down 30 minutes in a win over Washington, Udoh was yanked after three short stints totaling 13 minutes against the Celtics and got into early foul trouble Sunday at Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Monta Ellis exploded for 41 points (on just 24 shots) against Boston, and after a 4-of-14 performance in the first three quarters Sunday, he went off for 18 fourth-quarter points -- including a couple of thrilling three-pointers in the final minute with Iguodala on him -- to send the game into overtime.
20 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 19
Third-year center Roy Hibbert remains emblematic of the Pacers' frustrating season, and the key to their future improvement. At 7-2, he should dominate in the paint, but his instincts and style are averse to banging, which is why such a towering, coordinated player can actually be below the league-average accuracy in his shots at the rim (Hibbert is 63.3 percent, the rest of the NBA 63.9). After a strong start this season, his overall field-goal percentage is a career-low 45.2, largely because he is taking more and making fewer shots from 10-23 feet. In Saturday's loss to Houston, only four of Hibbert's 14 shots were at the rim even though he enjoyed an eight-inch height advantage against his primary defender, the 6-6 Chuck Hayes.
21 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 26
For five glorious quarters last week, the Clippers were at full strength, with Eric Gordon following Chris Kaman back from the extended injury list, and Mo Williams replacing Baron Davis at the point after the two were traded for each other. Added to Blake Griffin, Ryan Gomes and Eric Bledsoe, this crew looked impressive in beating Houston for the Rockets' only loss since the All-Star break. But then Gordon reaggravated his wrist injury while being fouled in the first half of the next game against Denver and is out at least a week. That hasn't deterred the Clippers from mounting a three-game winning streak, or prevented their fans from realizing that the roster presents an ideal scenario for a star center, point guard or small forward to come in and almost immediately transform the franchise into a legitimate championship contender. But is such a scenario really possible if Donald Sterling still owns the team?
22 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 20
With Gerald Wallace and Mohammed having been traded mostly for cap space and draft picks, and Tyrus Thomas and now Stephen Jackson injured, Charlotte has lost five in a row but remains just a game and a half behind Indiana (which has dropped three straight) in the sorry "race" for the eighth seed in the East. The choice to emphasize the future instead of becoming first-round fodder for the Celtics is understandable, provided the front office is capable of rebuilding intelligently. In the meantime, Bobcats fans can still bear witness to such rare and unexpected pleasures as power forward Boris Diaw's holding his own against Griffin in Monday's home loss to the Clippers.
23 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 23
It is not the kind of game a coach can put on his résumé, but the fact that the Bucks battled the Celtics down to the final minutes before succumbing 89-83 on Sunday was an enormous tribute to Scott Skiles. Without Andrew Bogut or their main starter at power forward, Ersan Ilyasova (not to mention Drew Gooden, out for months with plantar fasciitis), the Bucks were threadbare on the front line, starting 6-7 banger Jon Brockman and 6-11 rookie Larry Sanders. Yet Milwaukee still grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, generated 17 turnovers, shot 38 percent from three-point range and slowed the pace to an estimated 87.2 possessions per 48 minutes to keep the game close. The effort proves that, despite all the injuries and misfortune during this disappointing season, the hard-nosed, demanding Skiles, renowned for his relatively short shelf life, hasn't lost his team.
24 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 22
If Rip Hamilton is going to be embroiled in supposed practice boycotts and reject the opportunity to go elsewhere (as he reportedly did after the Pistons had a deal worked out with Cleveland at the deadline), the least he could do is put the ball in the basket when embattled coach John Kuester allows him to play anyway. Instead, Hamilton shot 12-for-38 (31.6 percent) in three games last week, starting with his 4-of-17 outing in just 26 minutes against Milwaukee; that performance likely was the difference in a two-point loss (Detroit shot a respectable 44.4 percent otherwise against the Bucks' tough defense). After that he was a combined 8-of-21 against two of the NBA's worst defensive teams as the Pistons lost to Minnesota and beat Washington at home.
25 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 25
Deron Williams has racked up 76 assists and five double-doubles in his first five games as a Net, including back-to-back victories against Toronto in London last week. But anyone watching knows he's not operating at peak efficiency yet. His shooting is off (36.5 percent, including 22.2 percent from three-point range) and his shot selection has been as questionable as his defense. (His sore right wrist and bruised left hand could be a factor in the shooting woes.) In Friday's win over the Raptors, right after Williams watched from the bench during the Nets' decisive 20-6 fourth-quarter run that transformed a three-point deficit into an 11-point lead, NBA TV analyst Jerry Stackhouse claimed that Williams was the difference in the victory. As a consensus top-five point guard, Williams doesn't need anyone fluffing his bona fides.
26 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 28
Credit Byron Scott for getting a lot out of his team under difficult circumstances. The Cavs have won four of their last nine, led by combo guard Ramon Sessions, who is averaging 17.7 points and 6.9 assists in that span while getting to the line more than eight times per game. The injury hex continues, though, with Antawn Jamison out for the season with a broken finger and Daniel Gibson sidelined the last three games with a bruised quad. But J.J. Hickson finally has some beef beside him in the paint with newly acquired Semih Erden and Luke Harangody getting rotation minutes and another rookie, 6-9, 260-pound forward Samardo Samuels, claiming Jamison's starting slot.
27 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 27
I've been hard on second-year swingman DeMar DeRozan because for most of the season the Raptors have played better with him on the bench than on the court. But his back-to-back 30-point games against the Nets in London were impressive, even though the two losses validated his relative lack of value. DeRozan scored easily in multiple ways -- on penetration, off the dribble and with the catch-and-shoot. Yes, he lacks a three-point shot (he's 3-of-31 this season and 7-of-47 in his career), but that only underscores how much better he could be if the Raptors were able to space the floor with a legitimate long-range threat (Andrea Bargnani, shooting a career-low 33.8 percent from distance, doesn't qualify) and/or a stud who demanded a double team in the low post. Toronto lacks either asset. The Raptors are a team of mid-range shooters (and, to be fair, muckers who can score in the paint) who play lousy defense.
28 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 24
On Saturday in Utah, 6-11, 270-pound rookie center DeMarcus Cousins raced back and effectively helped prevent a Jazz basket in transition. Then he scrambled after the loose ball, picked it up, got past Andrei Kirilenko with a crossover move, dribbled just over half court and let loose a perfect alley-oop pass for a one-handed slam by Donte Greene. The rook was only 6-of-18 from the field, but he stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks in 44 minutes of an overtime loss. Yes, Cousins has used poor judgment at times and is a handful to coach. But he's just 20 -- immaturity should be expected. If he pans out, he'll be a top-five center. And as it stands now, with averages of 14.1 points and 8.5 rebounds in just 27.7 minutes, the immediate dividends are already almost worth the aggravation.
29 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 29
As a charter member of the Kevin Love fan club and one of the earliest to point out how coach Kurt Rambis was undervaluing Love's contributions last season, I congratulate the All-Star power forward on the persistent effort required to compile a record-tying 51 straight double-doubles en route to averages of 20.9 points and 15.8 rebounds. But critics of Love who harp on the Wolves' record have a point. Minnesota would be better if Love balanced his focus more on preventing easy field-goal attempts rather than rebounding missed ones, staying with the opponents' possession longer before turning to the glass. According to Basketball Value, Love has the largest negative impact on scoring defense on the team, a stat verified when you watch the games. At the other end, the Wolves would benefit from calling more plays that create weakside three-pointers for Love. He is second to Luke Ridnour with a 42.7 percent accuracy from distance, yet shoots fewer threes per minute than at least six other rotation players, including Jonny Flynn (29.3 percent), Sebastian Telfair (35.9) and Wes Johnson (35.5). Love and the Wolves should swap two fewer offensive rebounds with four more three-point attempts. The double-doubles may dip, but the wins might increase.
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
The Wizards now have four members of the 2010 draft class, with Kevin Seraphin (taken 17th), Trevor Booker (23rd) and recent acquisition Jordan Crawford (27th) joining top pick John Wall. All should get ample opportunities down the stretch as the Wizards play out the string. Booker raised eyebrows with three crunch-time dunks -- two of them over Kevin Love -- to beat the Timberwolves on Saturday, and he has logged the most minutes of the three non-Wall draftees. But Seraphin is two years younger, was picked ahead of Booker and is a better complement to supposed cornerstone Andray Blatche, who is signed through 2014-15.

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