Smith, Hawks grow into contenders

Monday November 23rd, 2009

Mike Woodson is the coach and Joe Johnson is the star, but if there is one player who embodies the Atlanta Hawks, it's Josh Smith.

Smith, like his team, has been talented but erratic in recent years. Like the Hawks, Smith could dazzle you with his skill but also leave you scratching your head after an inexplicable mental mistake.

No longer. Smith has matured this season. After five years of trying to prove he was a long-range shooter, Smith has purposefully avoided the three-point line this season (he attempted his first and only triple last week). His turnovers (2.1) are at a four-year low and his assists (4.3) are at a career best.

Not surprisingly, as Smith's game has blossomed, so have the Hawks. Smith's last-second tip-in beat the Rockets last Friday, extended Atlanta's winning streak to seven and prompted Houston's Luis Scola to tell reporters, "Big-time players make those plays."

The Hawks' streak ended Saturday in New Orleans, but they still take the top spot in this week's Power Rankings.

(All stats and records are through Nov. 22.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 2
A versatile scorer who can play two positions? We give you Jamal Crawford, who, in his new sixth-man role (16.7 points, 44.4 percent shooting), leads a second unit that has the first unit gushing. "We have players who can maintain a lead," Joe Johnson told USA Today. "Or increase it." Crawford may need to make a brief return to the starting lineup this week, as point guard Mike Bibby sprained his left ankle on Saturday and is day-to-day.
2Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 1
Grant Hill (12.3 points, 7.5 rebounds) is showing no signs of slowing down at age 37, but if does, Jared Dudley is emerging as a pretty capable successor. The third-year forward is averaging a career-best 9.6 points and connecting on an team-best 49 percent from three-point range. Dudley already has 24 three-pointers, only five fewer than last season.
3Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 6
Welcome back, Pau Gasol. The Lakers celebrated their All-Star power forward's return from a hamstring injury with easy home victories against Chicago (24 points, 13 rebounds for Gasol) and Oklahoma City (15 and seven). "We have our squad back now," Kobe Bryant told reporters. "We didn't miss a beat, either."
4Orlando Magic
Last Week: 7
Dwight Howard, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis deservedly get a lot of credit when the Magic win, but a deep bench will have a lot to say about Orlando's fortunes this season. In Sunday's victory against Toronto, reserves Marcin Gortat, Ryan Anderson, Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick and fill-in starter Jason Williams turned a two-point third-quarter deficit into an 11-point lead. Said Stan Van Gundy: "You can't ask for more than that."
5Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 4
Now that the LeBron-to-the-Browns speculation has (temporarily) died down, the focus can return to James' play on the court, which, if you hadn't noticed, has been pretty good lately. LeBron scored 31-plus points in four games last week and led the Cavs in assists each night. He will face stiffer tests this week at Detroit and at Charlotte, both of whom rank in the top 10 in team defense.
6Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 5
A loss to the lowly Clippers last Friday is one of the few bumps during a successful November in which the Nuggets have played seven of their first 11 on the road. NBA scoring leader Carmelo Anthony (30.5 points) and the Nuggets will have a chance to fatten their numbers this week with home games against New Jersey, New York and Minnesota and a road date with the Timberwolves.
7Boston Celtics
Last Week: 3
The good: two wins in three games. The bad: one win was a two-point OT escape in New York that came on the heels of a home loss to Orlando. With no discernible low-post game, Doc Rivers had to step in and order three-point-happy Rasheed Wallace to cut back. Factor in Kevin Garnett's gimpy knee, and there is some cause for concern in Boston.
8Dallas Mavericks
Last Week:
Who thought the Mavs would be tied for the second-most wins at this point? Probably the same number of people who expected Rodrigue Beaubois to be a starter during this five-game winning streak. The flashy rookie is averaging 9.3 points (on 61.5 percent shooting) as a starter and chipped in with tough defense on Detroit's Ben Gordon and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings.
9Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 10
One good game against an NBA bottom-feeder can't erase a month of futility, but for Martell Webster, it's a start. After scoring eight points in his previous five games, Webster broke out with a 21-point, 13-rebound effort against Minnesota on Saturday. A move back into the starting lineup seemed to help: Webster averaged 5.0 points on 29.3 percent shooting in nine games off the bench before being returned to the first unit, where he has averaged 10.8 points on 44 percent shooting.
10Miami Heat
Last Week: 8
The Heat's interest in Allen Iverson (however fleeting) was directly related to the inconsistent play of Mario Chalmers. The second-year point guard has proved an effective, if inconsistent, scorer (capable of 30 points on 60 percent shooting against Toronto as well as eight points on 37.5 percent vs. the Hawks), but has yet to establish himself as a high-level playmaker. At least Chalmers ended the week on a strong note, handing out a season-high nine assists in a win against New Orleans on Sunday.
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