The defending champions opened 27-2, the best start for a team before its third loss. Included in that record run was a 19-game winning streak that set a franchise record and tied for the fourth longest in NBA history. However, after that 29-game run, the Celtics lost seven of their nine games, a slide that showed they might need to fortify their bench with another shooter and/or big man as the playoffs approach.
2 of 13Bill Frakes/SI
With Dwight Howard anchoring an improved defense, Jameer Nelson blossoming into an All-Star candidate and a bevy of shooters giving defenses fits, the Magic have emerged to join Cleveland and Boston in the race for the Eastern Conference's best record. In a stretch that punctuated its arrival as a serious contender, Orlando recently beat the Spurs, Lakers and Nuggets during a 4-0 road trip against Western Conference teams.
3 of 13Greg Nelson/SI
Six coaches were fired before Christmas, from those failing to meet expectations (Toronto's Sam Mitchell and Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks) and struggling to accelerate rebuilding plans (Oklahoma City's P.J. Carlesimo, Minnesota's Randy Wittman and Sacramento's Reggie Theus) to Eddie Jordan, who didn't win much in Washington without injured starters Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood. The most successful replacements? The Thunder are showing improvement under Scott Brooks, the 76ers have caught fire lately (without Elton Brand) under Tony DiLeo and the Timberwolves are on a roll in January under Kevin McHale (pictured).
4 of 13John W. McDonough/SI
Lakers alone at the top
The Lakers reached midseason with a five-game lead in the Western Conference while being on pace to win 66 games. L.A. still looks like it has room for improvement, too, as Kobe Bryant is in the midst of cranking up his offensive game, Andrew Bynum isn't in top form yet and Jordan Farmar is expected to return soon to bolster the bench.
5 of 13Bob Rosato/SI
LeBron's MVP to lose
LeBron James has positioned himself as the MVP front-runner in leading the Cavaliers to a spotless home record and putting them in the hunt for the East's No. 1 seed. Along with his usual across-the-board production, James is shooting a career-high 50 percent from the field and earning raves for his improved defense.
6 of 13Greg Nelson/SI
LeBron may have the upper hand in the MVP race, but Chris Paul isn't too far behind. He leads the NBA in assists, steals and triple-doubles (four), and is keeping the Hornets in contention for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference despite subpar years from starters Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic.
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Changing of the guards
In a rare November blockbuster, Denver sent Allen Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups. While the Pistons have been up and down since the trade, Billups has helped turn the Nuggets into one of the NBA's most surprising success stories. Denver is leading the Northwest Division even after dealing Marcus Camby to the Clippers in a salary dump last offseason.
8 of 13John W. McDonough/SI, Damian Strohmeyer/SI (inset)
2010, here we come!
By dealing Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford in separate trades on the same November day, the Knicks cleared millions in salary-cap space for the summer of 2010, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and several other stars can become free agents. The trades ignited a frenzy of speculation about New York's chances of landing LeBron in two years -- and reduced the current Mike D'Antoni-coached Knicks team to an afterthought.
9 of 13Bill Frakes/SI
Back with a vengeance
Dwyane Wade's resurgence, which began at the Beijing Olympics last summer, has gained even more momentum. After back-to-back injury-riddled seasons, Wade is playing better than ever in thrusting a thin, undersized Heat roster into the thick of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Like LeBron James, Wade has elevated his play on the defensive end to complement his vast offensive repertoire.
10 of 13John W. McDonough/SI, AP (2)
New Jersey's Devin Harris, Indiana's Danny Granger and Utah's Paul Millsap are among the up-and-coming players who are making a bid to become first-time All-Stars. Harris leads all point guards in scoring and has the Nets surprisingly in playoff contention. Granger hit the halfway point as the NBA's fourth-leading scorer. Millsap, a restricted free agent after the season, is averaging better than 17 points and 11 rebounds in games he's started in place of the injured Carlos Boozer.
11 of 13David E. Klutho/SI
The kids can play
Even with modest contributions from Greg Oden and an up-and-down start for Michael Beasley, this season's rookies have made a strong impression as a group. While Derrick Rose (pictured) and O.J. Mayo have established themselves as the Rookie of the Year front-runners, Brook Lopez, Russell Westbrook, Marc Gasol, Rudy Fernandez and Eric Gordon, among others, have more than held their own, too.
12 of 13AP
The Steph circus
The Pacers banished their unwanted starting point guard, Jamaal Tinsley, before the season so as to limit the potential distraction. You may have heard that the Knicks didn't do the same with their unwanted starting point guard, Stephon Marbury, who has remained a tabloid sensation while holding out hope of joining another team at some point this season.
13 of 13AP
Darius Miles saga
Grizzlies forward Darius Miles' comeback from a two-year absence is great news for him but a significant blow to the Trail Blazers, who are back on the hook for the $18 million left on the player's old contract. The saga turned ugly when Portland threatened a lawsuit against any team that signed Miles "for the purpose of adversely impacting" the Blazers' future salary-cap space and luxury-tax situation. The Grizzlies went ahead anyway, and now the Blazers will have less money to spend in free agency this summer.
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