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Spurs clear leader at the midway point

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Jan 17 2011 12:05PM

We're 20 games from the official midpoint of the season, which makes it another good time to take stock of where we are.

It's fair to say that we currently have four solid title contenders (Boston, L.A., Miami and San Antonio), with another two teams (Dallas and Orlando) possibly in the conversation if they can recover from injury (in the Mavs' case) or continue to make progress after a roster rehaul (in the Magic's case).

There are plenty of interesting stories beyond that, of course. So here are this writer's top three surprises and disappointments of the first half.

Top three surprises:
1. New Orleans Hornets -- The Hornets seemed to be going downhill after missing the playoffs last season, and they looked absolutely awful in the preseason. But they flipped the switch once the season started and have recovered from a rough stretch in December.

2. New York Knicks -- We knew the Knicks would be improved with an influx of talent, but it was hard to distinguish them from the other teams who would be battling for the last couple of playoff spots in the East. Their potent offense has made them a force.

3. Los Angeles Clippers -- The Clippers have been the Jekyll-and-Hyde team of the season. At 5-21 through Dec. 15, they were an utter disappointment. And at 9-4 since, they've been a joy to watch.

Top three disappointments:
1. Milwaukee Bucks -- Milwaukee's offseason moves were supposed to help them offensively and keep them neck-and-neck with the Bulls atop the Central Division. That hasn't happened.

2. Portland Trail Blazers -- The Blazers looked to be on the same level as the Jazz and Thunder in the Northwest Division, but health issues have kept us from seeing what they can do.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers -- Yes, we knew they were going to regress after losing the two-time MVP. But they really shouldn't be this awful.

• Last week: Miami's run finally gets them to the top
• This time last year: Champs back on top at the midway point - Sundiata Gaines earned a second 10-day contract with this shot, the Mavs' defense was struggling after a strong start, and the Bobcats had the league's best record (7-1) in January.

Hero Team of the Week: New Orleans (3-0) -- The Hornets have won seven of their last nine, including overtime victories over the Hornets and Rockets last week.
Zero Team of the Week: Dallas (0-3) -- Only because it would be too cruel to pick the Cavs again. And because the loss of a couple of players isn't enough of an excuse for the team with the league's third-highest payroll.

High jumps of the week: Chicago (+2), L.A. Lakers (+2), Phoenix (+2), Washington (+2)
Free falls of the week: Miami (-3), Toronto (-3), Dallas (-2), Orlando (-2)

East vs. West: The West is 131-97 (.575) against the East in inter-conference games this season, and was 18-7 last 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 94.9 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 104.0 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.

1 San Antonio (35-6)
Pace: 95.3 (14), Off: 109.6 (1), Def: 100.3 (6)
Since their back-to-back losses in New York and Boston, the Spurs have won six straight, allowing their opponents to shoot just 40 percent. If they can defend like that consistently, they'll be really scary. Of course, the test will come Friday, when the Knicks that put up 128 on them visit the AT&T Center.
Previous: 2

2 Boston (30-9)
Pace: 92.9 (24), Off: 106.3 (10), Def: 98.3 (2)
After a couple of false alarms, Kevin Garnett finally returns for Monday's game against the Magic. That pushes Glen Davis back to the bench, where he has shot (48 percent) and rebounded (7.7 rebounds per 40 minutes) better than he has as a starter (41 percent, 4.9 rebounds per 40).
Previous: 3

3 L.A. Lakers (30-12)
Pace: 95.1 (15), Off: 108.8 (2), Def: 101.1 (9)
Here's where the Lakers' schedule starts to get tough. The good news is that six of the next eight games are at home. But they'll face as many teams with winning records (four) this week as they have in the three weeks since Christmas. They're 2-9 when they fail to score 98 points and 28-3 when they succeed.
Previous: 5

4 Miami (30-12)
Pace: 93.3 (20), Off: 108.6 (4), Def: 99.2 (2)
The Heat lead the league in regrettable quotes and tweets, the latest coming from Chris Bosh, who seems to believe that hustling for the ball isn't worth the injuries that might occur. Miami is 1-3 when Dwyane Wade or LeBron James don't play. And they may lose Bosh for the first time with a sprained ankle.
Previous: 1

5 Chicago (27-13)
Pace: 94.7 (17), Off: 103.3 (17), Def: 97.3 (1)
The Bulls are 9-6 without Carlos Boozer and 11-5 without Joakim Noah. But with Boozer suffering a sprained ankle at the end of Saturday's win over the Heat, they'll have to play without both of them for the time being.
Previous: 7

6 Orlando (26-14)
Pace: 94.0 (18), Off: 106.1 (11), Def: 99.6 (4)
How do you know you've played poor defensively? When Dwight Howard shoots 17-for-20 from the line and you score 124 points ... and lose to the Thunder. The new Magic have been solid defensively overall, but you have to wonder if the potential for defensive stinkers like that is greater now.
Previous: 4

7 Oklahoma City (27-13)
Pace: 95.9 (11), Off: 107.4 (7), Def: 104.6 (16)
All of a sudden, you look up and the Thunder are in third place in the West. Maybe you expected them to be there all along, but you probably didn't expect them to be so potent offensively. They've scored a ridiculous 119.7 points per 100 possessions as they've won four straight.
Previous: 8

8 Dallas (26-13)
Pace: 92.4 (26), Off: 105.1 (13), Def: 101.7 (10)
The Mavs actually suffered as much defensively (107.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) as they did offensively (100.5 points scored per 100) in nine games without Dirk Nowitzki. They suffered most in the standings, falling from 1 1/2 games to 7 1/2 games behind the Spurs since his injury.
Previous: 6

9 Utah (27-13)
Pace: 93.2 (21), Off: 106.8 (9), Def: 104.8 (17)
The Jazz weren't giving you a wild comeback on Friday against the Cavs (they won the first quarter for the first time in nine games), so they broke out the double behind-the-back special for your entertainment purposes. They're bringing the show East this week, visiting the Wizards, Nets, Celtics and Sixers.
Previous: 9

10 New Orleans (25-16)
Pace: 91.5 (29), Off: 102.5 (19), Def: 99.7 (5)
Though the Hornets' defense is the most improved in the league, it's had some really bad nights. But after getting burned by the Warriors and Lakers, they've run off four straight wins by holding the Nuggets, Magic, Rockets and Bobcats to just 41 percent shooting.
Previous: 11

11 Atlanta (26-15)
Pace: 92.9 (23), Off: 105.4 (12), Def: 102.3 (11)
The Hawks are just a game back of where they were after 41 games last season, but statistically, they're a little further behind. The regression has come entirely on offense, but they've been strong on that end (110.5 points scored per 100 possessions) in January.
Previous: 10

12 Denver (23-17)
Pace: 98.7 (3), Off: 108.7 (3), Def: 105.4 (19)
Perhaps the Nuggets' offense feeds off of trade speculation. Denver averaged 130 points on 56 percent shooting in three straight wins last week, before the brief run came to a halt in San Antonio. Will Carmelo Anthony still be a Nugget at this time next week? Stay tuned ...
Previous: 13

13 New York (22-17)
Pace: 99.3 (2), Off: 107.7 (6), Def: 105.4 (18)
Statistically, Friday's game against the Kings was the Knicks' best defensive performance of the season. And they lost by 10. They went 3-3 without Danilo Gallinari, who is expected to return Monday against Phoenix. Friday's visit to San Antonio should be one of the most interesting rematches of the season.
Previous: 12

14 Portland (21-20)
Pace: 91.3 (30), Off: 104.1 (16), Def: 103.9 (15)
With almost twice as many rebounds as points, Marcus Camby has entered Ben Wallace territory. Camby has 55 boards and just 15 points over the last four games. That includes a couple of big offensive boards in Saturday's win over the Nets, a game that began a pretty soft six-game stretch for the Blazers.
Previous: 14

15 Memphis (19-21)
Pace: 95.7 (12), Off: 102.1 (21), Def: 102.5 (12)
In the midst of trade speculation, O.J. Mayo has shot a brutal 10-for-44 over the last four games. Despite his struggles, the Grizzlies are 14-10 with him coming off the bench. They've won 10 of their last 12 at home, but host the Bulls and Rockets (responsible for one of the two losses) this week.
Previous: 15

16 Phoenix (17-21)
Pace: 97.0 (6), Off: 108.1 (5), Def: 110.01 (30)
A run of 48 straight makes at the line took Steve Nash to the top. But after a couple of misses against the Blazers on Friday, he's back to being the second-best free-throw shooter of all-time. The Suns have dropped four straight on the road and begin a five-game trip in New York on Monday.
Previous: 18

17 Philadelphia (16-23)
Pace: 93.6 (19), Off: 102.9 (18), Def: 103.5 (14)
On Friday against the Bucks, the Sixers got just their second narrow victory of the season. That one ended with a big stop on the game's final play by Andre Iguodala, but overall, the Philly defense hasn't exactly returned to form with Iguodala back in the lineup.
Previous: 16

18 Houston (18-23)
Pace: 97.3 (5), Off: 106.9 (8), Def: 107.1 (24)
Thanks to some hot shooting, the Rockets picked up wins in Boston and Atlanta last week, but they've allowed 100 points or more in 11 straight games. This has been their worst defensive season since the season before they drafted Yao Ming, but their best offensive season since the year before that.
Previous: 17

19 L.A. Clippers (14-25)
Pace: 95.0 (16), Off: 102.0 (22), Def: 106.1 (23)
After wins over the Heat and Lakers, we can't help but do some math ... Over their last 13 games, the Clippers have the point differential of a team that will win 29 of it's remaining 43 games. That would put them at 43 wins, which is one more than the eighth-place Blazers are on pace for.
Previous: 20

20 Milwaukee (14-23)
Pace: 92.5 (25), Off: 97.7 (29), Def: 100.4 (7)
Coming off a rough stretch in their schedule and playing the eighth-place team in the East, the Bucks needed Friday's game in Philadelphia. They did enough offensively to win, but surprisingly, it was their defense that let them down, allowing the Sixers to shoot a season-high 57 percent.
Previous: 19

21 Golden State (16-23)
Pace: 97.6 (4), Off: 104.6 (14), Def: 108.7 (27)
When you lead by six after the third quarter and score 35 in the fourth, you win, right? Not when you allow the opponent to score 46 in the final 12 minutes. That, along with getting outrebounded by 20, is how the Warriors lost to the Lakers on Wednesday. Their homestand continues with the Nets, Pacers and Kings.
Previous: 21

22 Charlotte (15-23)
Pace: 92.9 (22), Off: 99.7 (25), Def: 103.1 (13)
From 17 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in Wednesday's big win over the Bulls to eight points, four rebounds and a costly flagrant foul in Saturday's loss to the Hornets. Yes, this summed up Tyrus Thomas' week pretty well. The Bobcats play eight of their next 10 on the road.
Previous: 22

23 Indiana (16-21)
Pace: 96.7 (7), Off: 99.3 (27), Def: 101.1 (8)
After nine straight games of scoring less than a point per possession, the Pacers' offense came alive for back-to-back wins over the Sixers and Mavs before falling back down on Friday against the Bulls. The "W" in Philly ended a nine-game road losing streak. Now, the Pacers head West for a four-game trip.
Previous: 24

24 Detroit (14-26)
Pace: 91.6 (28), Off: 102.3 (20), Def: 108.0 (25)
Whether or not Richard Hamilton's three straight DNPs are deserved, they may have helped Ben Gordon find a rhythm coming off the bench. Gordon has shot 19-for-39 in the three games, a big improvement over the 6-for-25 he shot in the previous three (as a starter).
Previous: 25

25 Washington (11-27)
Pace: 96.0 (10), Off: 99.5 (26), Def: 105.7 (20)
The Wizards almost pulled off another inexplicable collapse on Tuesday against the Kings. They were up six with the ball with 21 seconds left in regulation and somehow found themselves in their fourth overtime of the season. That's where Kirk Hinrich saved them from humiliation.
Previous: 27

26 Toronto (13-27)
Pace: 96.3 (9), Off: 104.3 (15), Def: 109.3 (28)
When they're visiting the Hornets, Spurs, Magic and Heat this week, the Raptors are going to regret not getting a win against the Pistons or Wizards over the weekend. Jose Calderon was a rebound short of his first career triple-double in Saturday's loss in Washington.
Previous: 23

27 Sacramento (9-29)
Pace: 96.7 (8), Off: 99.7 (24), Def: 106.0 (22)
After they upset the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Saturday's visit to Detroit seemed like a prime opportunity for the Kings to put together their first winning streak since Nov. 1. But a 10-point third quarter prevented that from happening. Their six-game trip concludes in Atlanta on Monday.
Previous: 26

28 New Jersey (10-30)
Pace: 92.1 (27), Off: 98.6 (28), Def: 105.9 (21)
After a pouty trip to the bench in Wednesday's loss in Phoenix, Brook Lopez woke up to put together back-to-back 30-point games against the Lakers and Blazers. But Devin Harris shot 10-for-30 and was a minus-39 in the Nets' three games last week. Yep, he's distracted.
Previous: 28

29 Minnesota (10-31)
Pace: 99.6 (1), Off: 101.8 (23), Def: 108.0 (26)
The Timberwolves were called for more technical fouls (five) in 10 seconds of their loss to the Spurs on Tuesday than the Nets have been called for all season (four). They're two games ahead of their record at this time last year. Slow and steady wins the race.
Previous: 29

30 Cleveland (8-32)
Pace: 95.7 (13), Off: 97.4 (30), Def: 109.5 (29)
Three losses by a combined 105 points put Cleveland on the brink of being the worst team in the league both offensively and defensively. They're lucky to have picked up a few narrow victories early on, because their record could very well be worse than it is.
Previous: 30
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