By Chris Mannix
January 04, 2010

Up is down. Down is up. Consider what's happened lately to some front-runners: Boston was knocked around by the Clippers and Warriors, Orlando was battered by the Bulls and the Hawks were outlasted by the Knicks. Meanwhile, the teams that made up the bottom of the previous rankings are taking names. The Bulls swept four straight, the Bobcats stunned Cleveland on the road and the Raptors have won six of their last seven.

And, oh yeah, San Antonio is back.

After struggling to incorporate seven new players (and two new starters, and a returning Manu Ginobili ... you get the idea) the Team of the Decade (so says Forbes) is finally clicking, specifically its defense.

"Slowly, but surely, our defense is getting better," coach Gregg Popovich said. "We're not where we want to be and we've got a ways to go, but it's a willing crew and they are learning and reacting to each other better and better all the time. Our defense is better than it was a month ago. Our recognition offensively, the communication -- a month ago it was probably a three. Now it's probably a 5 1/2 or a six. It's going in the right direction."

(All stats and records are through Jan. 3.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 5
A loss to the Bobcats on Sunday was about the only thing to tarnish the shine of Mo Williams. During Cleveland's seven-game winning streak, LeBron James' forgotten sidekick averaged 21.6 points on 50 percent shooting. James and Williams rank third among the NBA's top scoring duos with 46.2 points per game.
2 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
Kobe Bryant's month-long heroics -- three game-winners in 28 days -- brought a smile to most of Lakerland. Except for Phil Jackson. The coach has expressed concern that the euphoria that's come with L.A.'s narrow wins (each of which came against teams hovering around .500) might be masking a bigger problem. "I'd just as soon [Bryant] didn't have to do that, personally," Jackson told reporters. "Losses make mountains out of molehills. You win, you think that there's nothing wrong and it's pretty easy."
3 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 3
Balance continues to key the Magic's success. When they have had five or more scorers in double figures, they are 16-2. When six or more players do it, they are 9-1. More impressively, they have developed a solid balance, despite a fluctuating starting lineup that has seen 10 players make at least three starts.
4 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 2
The injury bug hasn't just bitten the Celtics -- it's chewing on them. With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo sitting last week, Boston has been picked up by an unlikely source: Tony Allen, a defensive-minded reserve who has been stuffing the stat sheet. In the last five games, Allen has scored in double figures four times, dished out four-plus assists three times and pulled down at least seven rebounds twice.
5 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 12
Welcome back to the upper echelon, San Antonio! Even with a weekend loss to the Raptors, the Spurs have won 11 of their last 14 games behind (surprise!) the play of Tim Duncan, the only player in the NBA to rank in the top 20 in points, rebounds, field-goal percentage and blocks.
6 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 6
The Mavs get a mulligan for Sunday's 35-point loss to the Lakers -- the end of a four-game road trip -- because they have been playing pretty well of late. Dallas' explosive starting lineup is well known, but before losing to L.A., a Mavericks reserve had led the team in scoring in three of the previous four games.
7 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 11
Raise your hand if you thought Juwan Howard would be the last member of the Fab Five still playing. With LaMarcus Aldridge joining Portland's overflowing injury ward last week, Howard chipped in 10 points (on 5-of-7 shooting) in 38 minutes in a win over the Clippers, and 12 points (6-for-11) in 34 minutes in a win over the Warriors.
8 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 9
The Rockets continue to roll along without Tracy McGrady, picking up home wins over the Hornets and Mavericks and narrowly missing out on an undefeated week by blowing a 10-point lead with three minutes to go in New Orleans. They will be put to the test this week with back-to-back roadies against the Lakers and Suns.
9 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 8
Phoenix Suns (21-13)
Talk about letdowns. The Suns followed up double-digit poundings of the Lakers and Celtics with a 25-point loss to the Grizzlies. Still, they have to be happy with their bench production. The Suns are going 10 deep with no player ranked in the top 50 in the league in minutes, thanks to reserves like Louis Amundson (15.1 rebounds/48 minutes, 11th in the NBA).
10 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 4
Atlanta Hawks (21-11)
After losing three straight -- including an ugly home defeat to the Knicks -- maybe it's time to give Jason Collins some more burn. Over the next two weeks, the Hawks' frontcourt will have to contend with Jermaine O'Neal, Brook Lopez, Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins twice. Just the kind of matchups a proven defensive-minded center is good for.
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