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Cleveland stumble clears way for Jazz to take over top spot

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Feb 22 2010 11:24AM

It's always fun to look at the standings and say that a bad or mediocre team on a bit of a hot streak is one of the best teams in the league over the last last couple of weeks. Example: The Knicks were the third best team in the East between Dec. 4 and Dec. 22.

But 19 days isn't much of a sample size. Two months, however, can be quite telling.

A look at the standings since Christmas can be pretty eye-popping, especially in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs, despite their recent mini-slide, have been the best team in the East at 21-6 in the last eight-plus weeks. No surprise there.

Behind Cleveland, though, are three teams that had a combined 35-50 record on Christmas morning. Since then, the Raptors (17-7), Bulls (19-9) and Bobcats (16-11) have all been better than the Magic (16-12), Hawks (14-12) and Celtics (12-14).

Yes, if you've been paying attention, you knew that Toronto, Chicago and Charlotte were playing well. And though the Raptors are now five games over .500 and the Bulls are three games over, it will still be tough for either to catch the Hawks and earn home court advantage in the first round on the playoffs.

But from the way they've been playing over the last two months, both teams have the right to stay focused on Atlanta without worrying about what's going on behind them in the standings.

• Last Week (Top 10 only): With All-Star break over, it's time for stretch run

Hero Team of the Week: Utah (4-0) -- Four road wins, starting with a back-to-back in Houston and New Orleans, and then a trip across the country.
Zero Team of the Week: Minnesota (0-4) -- They gave the Thunder a scare on Sunday, but their week started with a 23-point loss in Detroit.

High jumps of the week: Chicago (+6), Dallas (+4), three teams (+3)
Free falls of the week: Houston (-4), San Antonio (-4), three teams (-3)

East vs. West: The West is 178-143 (.555) in interconference games and was 12-12 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 95.3 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 have 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 Utah (3) 36-19 Pace: 95.4 (13), Off: 106.2 (10), Def: 101.5 (9)
No moment of Utah's 17-2 stretch can top Sundiata Gaines' game-winner to beat the Cavs, but Sunday's comeback in Portland was as impressive as it gets. The Jazz have won seven straight on the road, holding their opponents to 39 percent shooting.
2 L.A. Lakers (2) 42-14 Pace: 96.0 (9), Off: 106.2 (11), Def: 99.3 (2)
In five games without Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' defense has been better (91.5 rating) than it's been since a stretch in November. But the offense has failed to score a point per possession in each of the last three, including Thursday's loss to the Celtics.
3 Cleveland (1) 43-14 Pace: 93.2 (26), Off: 108.6 (4), Def: 101.2 (7)
Mike Brown again has to figure out how best to use a new frontcourt, which now has just one center and just one decent defender. The defense (116.5 rating) has been the problem as the Cavs have lost three straight for the first time since March of 2008.
4 Oklahoma City (6) 33-21 Pace: 95.1 (15), Off: 103.6 (18), Def: 99.8 (4)
Kevin Durant's streak of 25-plus points is at 28 and the Thunder's winning streak is at nine. Russell Westbrook is averaging 19.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 9.3 assists during the latter. He recorded his second career triple-double on Sunday.
5 Orlando (5) 38-19 Pace: 95.1 (16), Off: 106.9 (7), Def: 99.8 (3)
The key to Sunday's win over the Cavs was keeping Dwight Howard on the floor. He played the entire second half and, though he scored just one point in the fourth quarter, his presence kept LeBron James out of the paint and off the line.
6 Denver (4) 37-19 Pace: 97.6 (5), Off: 109.1 (3), Def: 104.4 (16)
The Nuggets have faced just one below-.500 opponent in their last 14 games, so their 6-5 record over the last 11 isn't too much cause for alarm. But one of those five losses was to the one bad team they faced. There's no excuse for Friday's loss in Washington.
7 Boston (8) 35-19 Pace: 94.0 (23), Off: 104.4 (14), Def: 98.9 (1)
Wins over the Kobe-less Lakers and Roy-less Blazers, and a 91.1 defensive rating over a four-game stretch were reasons for optimism, but not convincing arguments that the Celtics were back on track. Sunday's loss in Denver was another step back.
8 Toronto (11) 31-24 Pace: 95.7 (11), Off: 109.1 (2), Def: 108.8 (30)
With a home-heavy schedule, the Raps have won 10 of their last 12. They haven't faced a team with a winning record in almost a month, but will see four of them in the next eight days, a good test to really start the home stretch.
9 Dallas (13) 35-21 Pace: 94.4 (20), Off: 106.3 (9), Def: 103.3 (12)
The Mavs' big trade has quickly paid dividends. Their defense looked much improved (99.0 rating) as they went 3-1 this week, with an important win over the Suns and an impressive one in Orlando. They host the Lakers on Wednesday.
10 Atlanta (7) 34-20 Pace: 93.2 (25), Off: 107.9 (5), Def: 103.6 (13)
The Hawks have lost three of their last four, and Sunday's collapse at Golden State may have been their worst loss of the season. They led by 17 after three quarters and shot 5-for-22 in the fourth. Their four-game trip ends Monday in Utah.
TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
11 Phoenix (12) 34-23 Pace: 98.3 (4), Off: 110.9 (1), Def: 107.6 (27)
The Suns got defensive (96.8 rating) as they won three of four this week. In fact, it was their best defensive four-game stretch since February of 2008. And it was against some good offenses. They held the Grizzlies and Hawks to a combined 37 percent shooting.
12 Portland (9) 32-26 Pace: 90.0 (30), Off: 107.0 (6), Def: 104.4 (17)
Barely holding on to a playoff spot and still waiting for Brandon Roy to get completely healthy, the Blazers begin a critical five-game, seven-day trip in New Jersey on Tuesday. They have the fewest remaining home games (nine) in the league.
13 Chicago (16) 29-26 Pace: 95.8 (10), Off: 99.7 (27), Def: 100.8 (6)
A soft schedule has helped the Bulls win six of their last seven. But they've accumulated the third-best record in the East since Christmas while playing 16 of the 28 games on the road. After Monday's visit to Washington, they play six of seven at home.
14 San Antonio (10) 31-23 Pace: 93.9 (24), Off: 106.4 (8), Def: 102.2 (11)
With the rodeo trip complete, the Spurs have just one more win than the ninth-place Hornets, who have missed Chris Paul for more games (18) than the Spurs have missed Tim Duncan (three), Manu Ginobili (five) and Tony Parker (nine).
15 New Orleans (16) 30-26 Pace: 94.8 (17), Off: 104.5 (13), Def: 105.1 (18)
Now at 9-9 without Chris Paul, the Hornets are still hanging around, tied in the loss column with Portland and just one win behind San Antonio. But before they get a pair of shots at the Spurs next week, they have the Cavs, Magic and Mavs.
16 Memphis (14) 28-27 Pace: 95.7 (12), Off: 104.7 (12), Def: 107.2 (24)
It's been a rough few weeks for the Grizzlies, but a loss to the Nets would surely have been the nadir. Fortunately, they came back from 18 down in New Jersey on Sunday to salvage their pride and any hopes of staying in the playoff picture.
17 Miami (20) 29-28 Pace: 92.7 (28), Off: 104.1 (16), Def: 101.4 (8)
After a five-game winning streak that ended in Dallas on Saturday, the Heat are in decent shape. Dwyane Wade's not ready to return, but they have the Wolves on Tuesday and then three days off. And no team has fewer road games remaining on its schedule.
18 Milwaukee (18) 26-28 Pace: 95.2 (14), Off: 100.9 (24), Def: 101.9 (10)
Though they've cracked 100 points just once in their last 11 games, the Bucks have gone 8-3 in that stretch. This is a rare five-game week, with four of the five on the road. They're just 9-19 away from the Bradley Center, but have won three straight roadies.
19 Charlotte (17) 27-27 Pace: 93.1 (27), Off: 101.1 (23), Def: 100.5 (5)
Was there any doubt who the Jekyll and Hyde Team of the Week would be? The Bobcats are now 1-2 against the Nets and 3-1 against the Cavs. Tyrus Thomas had a nice debut on Saturday, but the Cats' point guards shot 3-for-16 in a critical loss in Milwaukee.
20 Houston (15) 28-27 Pace: 96.1 (8), Off: 103.4 (19), Def: 103.9 (14)
The Rockets' offense has struggled (99.2 rating) as they've lost five of their last six games. Not only are they shooting just 43 percent in that stretch, but they've turned the ball over 17.5 times a game. Kevin Martin is 8-for-28 in two games as a Rocket.
TEAM (LAST WEEK) REC. BREAKDOWN
21 Philadelphia (21) 21-34 Pace: 94.0 (22), Off: 102.9 (20), Def: 105.9 (20)
The Sixers basically stood pat at the deadline, and in the second half against the Spurs on Friday, they looked as good as they have all season, with tenacious defense leading to 26 fast-break points. But a night later, they were smoked in Chicago.
22 Washington (24) 19-34 Pace: 94.7 (18), Off: 102.3 (22), Def: 106.8 (22)
The Wizards hit the reset button, trading their three best unsuspended players. Then they had perhaps their best four-day stretch of the season, beating the Wolves and Nuggets and taking the Raptors to the wire in Toronto on Saturday.
23 Indiana (22) 19-36 Pace: 100.0 (2), Off: 99.4 (28), Def: 104.0 (15)
Two days after he was almost traded to Charlotte, T.J. Ford scored a season-high 23 points in Saturday's win in his hometown of Houston. The Pacers play eight of their next 11 on the road, where they're just 7-21.
24 L.A. Clippers (23) 22-33 Pace: 94.7 (19), Off: 100.8 (25), Def: 105.1 (19)
The Clippers were one of the winners at the trade deadline, freeing up an extra $5.5 million of cap space for this summer. Then they ended their six-game losing streak with a win over the Kings on Friday, Kim Hughes' first W as interim coach.
25 Detroit (27) 20-35 Pace: 90.9 (29), Off: 100.3 (26), Def: 106.4 (21)
Still a Piston, Richard Hamilton has averaged 30.7 points on 53 percent shooting over the last three games. Sunday's win over the Spurs was the first time that he, Ben Gordon and Rodney Stuckey each scored 20-plus. They had 14 of the Pistons' 16 in OT.
26 Golden State (29) 16-39 Pace: 102.8 (1), Off: 103.8 (17), Def: 107.6 (25)
After Sunday's crazy comeback win over the Hawks, the Warriors are 3-0 when Stephen Curry scores more than 30 points. The rookie is averaging 23.5 points and 9.2 assists over his last six games, giving the Warriors plenty of reasons to shop Monta Ellis.
27 New York (26) 19-35 Pace: 96.1 (7), Off: 104.1 (15), Def: 107.2 (23)
Tracy McGrady's debut was intriguing, but the trade that brought him to New York was more about Jared Jeffries. Actually, it was mostly about guys that are still playing for other teams. There's still another 4 1/2 months before we know if it paid off.
28 Minnesota (25) 13-44 Pace: 98.3 (3), Off: 98.7 (29), Def: 107.8 (29)
The Timberwolves have dropped six straight and though they're just three wins behind the Warriors, they may already have the race for the second-best lottery odds wrapped up. Only four of their remaining 25 games are against teams currently under .500.
29 Sacramento (28) 18-38 Pace: 97.3 (6), Off: 102.8 (21), Def: 107.6 (26)
Since the Kings came back from 35 points down in Chicago on Dec. 21, they're 5-24, while the Bulls are 19-10. It didn't take long for Geoff Petrie to give up on the Evans-Martin backcourt. At least he got Carl Landry and cap space in Thursday's deal.
30 New Jersey (30) 5-51 Pace: 94.0 (21), Off: 95.7 (30), Def: 107.7 (28)
The Nets got win No. 5 on Tuesday, but they'll need to pick up the pace if they want to avoid making history. If only they played the Bobcats more often. Brook "The Bright Spot" Lopez averaged 22.5 points on 67 percent shooting in four games last week.
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