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Champs back on top at the midway point

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jan 18 2010 9:02AM

Through Sunday, 593 NBA games are in the books for the 2009-10 season, which means we've got just 22 to go to reach the official midpoint of the season. That will come Wednesday, once eight of the night's 13 games have been completed.

Though it seems like the first half of the season has flown by, we're starting to wish the postseason was almost here. But then we get instant classics like Thursday's Cavs-Jazz game (or either of the other games the Cavs played this week) and we can appreciate the daily thrills of the regular season.

To offer more perspective on how much can go down between now and April 14, here's a look at where things stood exactly one year ago...

• Kevin Garnett had played in 42 of the Celtics' 43 games.
• The Lakers were No. 5 in the Power Rankings.
• Jameer Nelson was healthy and Rafer Alston was a Rocket.
• The Pistons were in fifth place in the East.
• The Thunder had the worst record in the NBA (8-34).
• Trevor Ariza had started just one of the Lakers' 39 games.
• Carmelo Anthony was in the middle of a 10-game absence with a broken hand.
• Quentin Richardson was four trades from being a member of the Heat.

A lot can happen in the next three months. Stay tuned.

• Last Week: West playoff picture gets crowded

Hero Team of the Week: Charlotte (3-0)
Zero Team of the Week: Sacramento (0-3)

High jumps of the week: Charlotte (+5), Indiana (+5), Four teams (+4)
Free falls of the week: Golden State (-4), Five teams (-3)

East vs. West: The West is 131-96 (0.577) in inter-conference games, but the East was 16-10 this week.

Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
Off: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league averages through Sunday are 95.4 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 104.1 points scored per 100 possessions.

NBA.com's Power Rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Monday during the season. If you've got an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
1 L.A. Lakers (2) 31-9 Pace: 96.8 (7), Off: 105.7 (11), Def: 98.4 (1)
Pau Gasol returns and all is right with the Lakers. After Friday's spanking of the Clippers, they're 20-3 with Gasol in uniform (much stronger offensively). This week is big, as they host the Magic on Monday and begin an eight-game trip in Cleveland on Thursday.
2 Cleveland (1) 31-11 Pace: 93.3 (28), Off: 108.1 (6), Def: 100.4 (4)
The Cavs could only watch buzzer-beaters that could have altered the outcome in each of their three games this week. Two of the three went their way, but their defense is getting progressively worse as they head into their rematch with the Lakers.
3 Boston (3) 27-11 Pace: 94.1 (22), Off: 106.7 (9), Def: 98.5 (2)
Rasheed Wallace returns Monday for Dallas and Kevin Garnett is expected back Friday for Portland. But at this point, you just have to hope that the Celtics are healthy by late next week, when they play the Magic, Hawks and Lakers in the span of four days.
4 Portland (5) 25-16 Pace: 90.0 (30), Off: 108.1 (5), Def: 103.6 (14)
After Friday's win over the Magic, the Blazers are 2-0 without Brandon Roy. Their offense has been red hot since the first Roy-less win in San Antonio. Over the last 11 games, they're shooting 50 percent and are scoring 115.6 points per 100 possessions.
5 Atlanta (9) 26-13 Pace: 93.7 (23), Off: 109.0 (2), Def: 103.3 (12)
You know Jamal Crawford was just itching to hit a game-winner for his new team. The Hawks have won five out of six and lead their division for the first time since 1999. They're not shooting well, but are making up for it on the offensive glass.
6 Denver (10) 26-14 Pace: 98.3 (5), Off: 109.0 (3), Def: 104.0 (16)
The Nuggets are healthy and (not coincidentally) playing well. They're now 22-8 with both Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups in uniform, and their defense has been solid (101.5 rating) in the five games since Billups returned from his groin injury.
7 Dallas (4) 26-14 Pace: 94.4 (19), Off: 105.6 (12), Def: 101.9 (9)
The Mavs' defense was their strength for the first two months of the season, but since the Lakers smoked them two weeks ago, the D has been Warrior-esque. They've got a 114.7 rating and have allowed their opponents to shoot 51 percent over the last seven.
8 San Antonio (7) 24-15 Pace: 93.5 (26), Off: 107.8 (7), Def: 101.4 (7)
From beating the Lakers by 20 to scoring a total of 162 points in Charlotte and Memphis, the Spurs are your Jekyll and Hyde team of the week. They may earn that honor again if Gregg Popovich is going to hold Tim Duncan out of more games.
9 Orlando (6) 26-14 Pace: 95.1 (15), Off: 107.1 (8), Def: 100.8 (6)
Vince Carter's return on Friday after a three-game absence was underwhelming (1-for-7 from the field, 1-for-6 from 3-point range) and did nothing to solve the Magic's problems. They allowed the Nuggets and Blazers to shoot 51 percent over the last two games.
10 Oklahoma City (11) 22-18 Pace: 95.0 (16), Off: 103.0 (21), Def: 100.5 (5)
The Thunder are temporarily in ninth place, but the numbers say that if they keep their quality of play at the level it's been, they're a playoff team. Speaking of numbers, Kevin Durant has remained red hot, hitting 14 of his 18 shots against Miami on Saturday.
TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
11 Phoenix (8) 24-17 Pace: 98.9 (3), Off: 111.1 (1), Def: 108.0 (28)
After starting 0-3 and giving up 125 points to the offensively anemic Bobcats, the Suns will try to salvage their road trip in Memphis on Monday. After winning eight of their first 11 road games, they've gone 1-10 away from the US Airways Center.
12 Utah (14) 23-18 Pace: 95.3 (14), Off: 104.9 (13), Def: 102.4 (11)
Sundiata Gaines' game-winner against the Cavs was the best moment of the season so far. Then Gaines played just three total minutes over the weekend. Utah's defense rested and their four-game winning streak came to an end Sunday in Denver.
13 Memphis (17) 21-18 Pace: 96.2 (8), Off: 106.4 (10), Def: 107.5 (24)
The remainder of the Grizzlies' pre-All-Star schedule is home-heavy but tough, with 10 of the 12 games against teams with winning records. It starts this week with the Suns, Hornets and Thunder, three teams they're within a game of in the loss column.
14 Toronto (12) 21-20 Pace: 95.4 (13), Off: 108.6 (4), Def: 109.5 (30)
Andrea Bargnani had a nice weekend, averaging 23 points and nine boards while shooting 18-for-30 in wins over the Knicks and Mavs. He's averaging career highs across the board and already has more double-doubles (seven) than he did last season.
15 Charlotte (20) 19-19 Pace: 93.4 (27), Off: 99.4 (26), Def: 98.5 (3)
At 7-1 and with six of the wins over teams with winning records, the Bobcats are the league's best team of 2010. They're just 1/2 game behind Miami for fourth place in the East, and they host the Heat on Wednesday to end a six-game homestand.
16 New Orleans (13) 21-18 Pace: 94.3 (20), Off: 104.0 (16), Def: 105.3 (19)
The Hornets have won eight of their last 10 games and can make even more noise in their next 10. They play the Spurs, Nuggets, Blazers, Suns, Thunder and Grizzlies (twice) between now and Feb. 3. They're 6-7 against other West teams with winning records.
17 Miami (15) 20-19 Pace: 93.6 (25), Off: 104.3 (14), Def: 103.4 (13)
In six games with the Heat, Rafer Alston has played in three times as many wins (three) than he played in over 27 games with the Nets (one). After a 3-3 trip, the Heat are home for just five of their next 18 games, but their opponents are relatively weak.
18 Houston (16) 22-18 Pace: 95.5 (12), Off: 103.6 (18), Def: 104.1 (17)
January has not been kind to the Rockets, who are 2-5 and have allowed their opponents to shoot 48 percent this month. Their triple-OT win over the Wolves was their eighth straight at home, but the streak was snapped on Friday by the Heat.
19 Chicago (22) 18-20 Pace: 94.9 (17), Off: 98.3 (28), Def: 101.5 (8)
The Bulls have won four straight thanks to strong defense for three games and a career-high 37 points from Derrick Rose against the Wizards on Friday. Opening their seven-game trip against the Warriors and Clippers, they've got a shot at getting to .500.
20 L.A. Clippers (18) 17-22 Pace: 94.2 (21), Off: 102.3 (23), Def: 104.6 (18)
If Rasual Butler's and Baron Davis' potential game-winners went in, the Clippers' week would have been much different. Though they were missing Chris Kaman, they have their defense (118.1 rating, opponents shot 49 percent) to blame for their four losses.
TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
21 New York (19) 16-24 Pace: 95.9 (10), Off: 103.5 (19), Def: 105.4 (20)
The Knicks have cracked 100 points just four times in their last 17 games, partly because they're playing at a slower pace. But they've also been pretty inefficient offensively. Chris Duhon has shot 6-for-29 from the field as they've lost four out of the last five.
22 Milwaukee (21) 16-22 Pace: 96.1 (9), Off: 99.4 (25), Def: 102.0 (10)
The Bucks' six-game trip comes to an end Monday in Houston. The trip has seen both their worst offensive game (against the Lakers) and worst defensive game (against the Blazers) of the season so far, but they did come up with a win over the Warriors.
23 Indiana (28) 14-26 Pace: 100.1 (2), Off: 99.2 (27), Def: 103.9 (15)
The Pacers' offense showed some signs of life as they won three straight, but it went dead against the Hornets on Saturday. Roy Hibbert and Dahntay Jones combined to shoot 19-for-31 in that game, but their teammates combined to shoot 19-for-57.
24 Philadelphia (26) 13-26 Pace: 93.6 (24), Off: 103.9 (17), Def: 107.2 (23)
Not only is Samuel Dalembert leading the charge to aid earthquake victims in Haiti, but he's also playing his best basketball. Over the last six games, he's averaging 13.5 points, 14.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, while shooting 73 percent.
25 Detroit (29) 14-25 Pace: 90.9 (29), Off: 100.2 (24), Def: 106.9 (22)
Thanks to some improved defense and some weak opponents, the Pistons have followed their 13-game losing streak with three straight wins. After Monday's visit to New York, they have a six-game homestand, but five of the six are against winning teams.
26 Sacramento (23) 15-24 Pace: 97.1 (6), Off: 104.0 (15), Def: 107.7 (26)
The return of Kevin Martin hasn't helped the Kings' offense. In his two games back, they were held to 86 points by two bad defensive teams: Philly and Washington. Their trip only gets tougher, as they visit Charlotte, Atlanta, Orlando and Miami this week.
27 Washington (25) 13-26 Pace: 95.9 (11), Off: 102.3 (22), Def: 106.2 (21)
The Wizards are 2-5 since Gilbert Arenas was suspended. They've actually been better offensively (105.9 rating) and worse defensively (110.3) than they were with him, though they did hold the Kings to 37 percent shooting in Saturday's win.
28 Golden State (24) 11-27 Pace: 103.1 (1), Off: 103.5 (20), Def: 108.7 (29)
Monta Ellis has scored 30-plus in 10 of his last 14 games and had one of the slickest plays of the season so far. But 30-point games and nice highlights haven't been able to overcome the Warriors' injuries and porous defense. They're 5-17 since Dec. 1.
29 Minnesota (27) 8-33 Pace: 98.7 (4), Off: 97.1 (29), Def: 107.6 (25)
Al Jefferson had 26 rebounds in Wednesday's triple-overtime loss in Houston. He had two rebounds in Friday's 25-point loss in Memphis. Of course, it's tough to get boards when your opponent shoots 59 percent from the field.
30 New Jersey (30) 3-36 Pace: 94.8 (18), Off: 94.9 (30), Def: 107.7 (27)
It doesn't seem possible, but the Nets are getting worse. After his 2-1 start, coach Kiki Vandeweghe is 1-17, with no signs of progress or any sort of identity on either end of the floor. New ownership and major changes can't come soon enough.
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