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Power Rankings: Steady Spurs taking care of business

Pistons make big climb; Celtics, Raptors fall

POSTED: Dec 21, 2015 11:40 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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The Spurs have maintained a strong defense, and now have the No. 1 rated offense for December.

There's no reason to say that the Golden State Warriors are not the best team in the league right now. They've beat every team they've played and their only loss was on the second night of a back-to-back after two overtimes and an 850-mile flight.

But the San Antonio Spurs are making a strong case for a promotion after three straight weeks at No. 2. The Spurs have had the league's best defense since Week 3 and continue to get it done on that end of the floor. They've held 13 of their last 16 opponents under 100 points per 100 possessions and 11 of those 16 under 90, which is just ridiculous.

But as the season has gone on, the Spurs have built an offense to match their defense. They've scored more than 116 points per 100 possessions over their last nine games and have the league's No. 1 offense in December.

The schedule hasn't been tough (and doesn't get tough for another few weeks), but the Spurs have been taking care of business as well as any team could. Of course, we can again lament that the last two champs won't face each other until Jan. 25.

The good news is that we're getting a Finals rematch on Friday, as part of the league's five-game Christmas slate that also features the other two title contenders.

* * *

• Last week: Warriors, still No. 1, move on
• This time last year: Happy Holidays from the schedule makers -- The Mavs traded for Rajon Rondo and the Rockets traded for Corey Brewer. Jabari Parker tore his ACL, the Grizzlies ended the Warriors' 16-game winning streak, and James Johnson cocked back on Andre Drummond.

• Plus-minus stud: Rodney Stuckey (IND) was a plus-65 in four games last week.
• Plus-minus dud: Robert Covington (PHI) was a minus-71 in four games last week.

• Hero team of the week: Cleveland (3-0) -- The Cavs' five-game winning streak features road wins over Orlando and Boston, as well as Thursday's comeback against the Thunder.
• Zero team of the week: Brooklyn (0-4) -- Home losses to the Magic (by 23), Heat and Wolves have the Nets holding strong to the honor of being the third-worst team in the league.

• Team to watch this week: Houston -- The Rockets got a good win over the Clippers on Saturday, but continue with a tough stretch this week, hosting the Hornets and Spurs, with a visit to Orlando in between.

• East vs. West: The East and West are even (79-79) in interconference games after the West went 9-7 last week.

• Toughest schedules through Dec. 20: 1. New Orleans, 2. Philadelphia, 3. Utah
• Easiest schedules through Dec. 20: 1. San Antonio, 2. Houston, 3. Golden State
Schedule strength is based on cumulative opponent record, and adjusted for home vs. away and days of rest before a game.

• High jumps of the week: Detroit (+6), Atlanta (+4), Three teams (+3)
• Free falls of the week: Boston (-5), Toronto (-5), Milwaukee (-4)

* * *

Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)

The league has averaged 98.4 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 101.9 points scored per 100 possessions this season.

* * *

NBA.com's Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man's opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.

1

Last week: 1

Golden State (26-1)
Pace: 102.3 (1) OffRtg: 113.3 (1) DefRtg: 98.1 (4) NetRtg: +15.2 (1)
The Warriors trailed by 11 with less than eight minutes to go on Friday, but finished the game on a 32-12 run and got their revenge on the Bucks. Festus Ezeli has already played more minutes than he did last season and picked up his fifth double-double (of the season and of his career) on Friday with Andrew Bogut dealing with a back issue. The Cavs might actually be the healthier team for Friday's Finals rematch.
This week: vs. UTA, vs. CLE

2

Last week: 2

San Antonio (23-5)
Pace: 95.8 (27) OffRtg: 106.6 (3) DefRtg: 92.8 (1) NetRtg: +13.8 (2)
The No. 1 offense in December has, of course, been balanced. LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard have each had a couple of big games, but five other Spurs have scored at least 15 points in a game this month, and 11 guys have at least 11 assists over the 10 games. They should keep rolling, because after they host the Pacers on Monday, they play 10 straight games against opponents that are currently at or below .500.
This week: vs. IND, @ MIN, @ HOU, vs. DEN

3

Last week: 3

Cleveland (18-7)
Pace: 95.6 (28) OffRtg: 104.9 (4) DefRtg: 99.0 (7) NetRtg: +5.9 (4)
The Cavs rank 19th offensively in December, but have climbed to seventh in defensive efficiency, having allowed 92.5 points per 100 possessions over their five-game winning streak. If Mo Williams (sprained thumb) returns this week, they'll be healthy for the first time in a year (Anderson Varejao was lost for the season last Dec. 23). The question now is how well they'll defend with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor together.
This week: vs. NYK, @ GSW, @ POR

4

Last week: 4

Oklahoma City (18-9)
Pace: 98.9 (11) OffRtg: 108.2 (2) DefRtg: 99.1 (9) NetRtg: +9.1 (3)
Thursday's loss in Cleveland was the Thunder's fourth straight against teams currently at .600 or better after their opening-night win over the Spurs. And as they visit the Clippers on Monday, note that the OKC defense hasn't traveled well. They're 5-6 on the road, having allowed 8.2 more points per 100 possessions in road games (104.0) than they have in home games (95.7), the second biggest differential in the league.
This week: @ LAC, @ LAL, vs. CHI, vs. DEN

5

Last week: 8

Indiana (16-10)
Pace: 99.5 (8) OffRtg: 102.9 (10) DefRtg: 98.9 (6) NetRtg: +4.0 (7)
The Pacers had a three-game winning streak fueled by some big runs: a 32-2 run against Toronto, a 31-15 stretch against Dallas, and a 19-5 run against Brooklyn. They've won their last 10 home games against teams that didn't win a championship last season. But they've lost four straight on the road after Saturday's loss in Memphis, in which the game-changing stretches were ones where their offense looked rather anemic.
This week: @ SAS, vs. SAC, @ MIN

6

Last week: 9

Miami (16-10)
Pace: 95.6 (29) OffRtg: 102.5 (12) DefRtg: 98.2 (5) NetRtg: +4.2 (6)
The Heat have evolved from a great defensive team to a good offensive team, with Sunday's win over Portland being their best offensive performance yet. They've won four of their last five games to climb back into the top three in the East and their schedule remains home-heavy for the next 2 1/2 weeks. With only one of their next 11 games against a top-10 offense, the defensive numbers could go back down.
This week: vs. DET, vs. NOP, @ ORL

7

Last week: 11

Atlanta (17-12)
Pace: 98.5 (15) OffRtg: 103.1 (9) DefRtg: 101.0 (14) NetRtg: +2.1 (11)
The Hawks already have as many losses between Thanksgiving and the All-Star break this season (7-5) as they did last season (36-5), but may have started to turn things around with strong finishes in weekend wins in Boston (25-11 in the last 5:05) and Orlando (8-4 in the final 3:13). With six guys averaging 12 points or more, they've scored 112 points per 100 possessions over their three-game winning streak.
This week: vs. POR, vs. DET, vs. NYK

8

Last week: 14

Detroit (16-12)
Pace: 98.1 (20) OffRtg: 100.6 (22) DefRtg: 99.8 (11) NetRtg: +0.8 (14)
The Pistons blew a late lead against the Clippers on Monday, but won their two more important games, including Friday's four-OT marathon in Chicago, last week. Every Detroit bench player, with the exception of Joel Anthony's minus-3 in 30 seconds of Wednesday's win over Boston, had a positive plus-minus in all three games, a real Festivus miracle. They're the only East team in the top 11 on both ends of the floor in December.
This week: @ MIA, @ ATL, vs. BOS

9

Last week: 7

Charlotte (15-11)
Pace: 98.3 (17) OffRtg: 104.1 (5) DefRtg: 99.4 (10) NetRtg: +4.7 (5)
It was a Jekyll & Hyde-ish week for the Hornets. In between road losses in which they allowed two below-average offenses to score 114 points per 100 possessions was a home win in which they held a top-10 offense to just 91. Starting for an ill Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin scored 35 points in that Thursday, overtime win over the Raptors, but the Charlotte offense has been at its best with Batum and Lin on the floor together.
This week: @ HOU, vs. BOS, vs. MEM

10

Last week: 5

Toronto (17-12)
Pace: 96.0 (25) OffRtg: 103.2 (8) DefRtg: 100.3 (12) NetRtg: +2.9 (8)
Friday's win in Miami was the Raptors' sixth (tied for the league lead with Atlanta and Golden State) on the road against teams currently over .500, but their offense struggled in losses to the Pacers, Hornets and Kings last week. DeMar DeRozan has been putting up big numbers and almost won Thursday's game in Charlotte, but Kyle Lowry shot 6-for-29 that night and got ejected in Sunday's loss against the Kings.
This week: vs. DAL, @ MIL

11

Last week: 6

Boston (14-13)
Pace: 101.2 (4) OffRtg: 100.6 (23) DefRtg: 98.0 (3) NetRtg: +2.6 (9)
A three-game losing streak has taken some of the shine off the Celtics and has them a little more desperate for the return of Marcus Smart, which should come soon. Of course, Smart might not help the offense, which has scored less than 96 points per 100 possessions over the last five games, even though Isaiah Thomas had a couple of big nights last week. As Thomas has taken off, Avery Bradley has been quiet.
This week: vs. MIN, @ CHA, @ DET, vs. NYK

12

Last week: 10

Chicago (15-10)
Pace: 99.5 (7) OffRtg: 98.3 (27) DefRtg: 97.5 (2) NetRtg: +0.8 (15)
Derrick Rose got a good look at the end of regulation on Friday, but he's 7-for-27 from outside the paint over the last four games and that miss cost the Bulls more than one possession. They went on to lose to Detroit in four overtimes and had little gas in the tank the next night in New York. And that loss inspired Jimmy Butler's comments about Fred Hoiberg. Stay tuned, because this team could go in either direction from here.
This week: vs. BKN, @ OKC, @ DAL

13

Last week: 12

L.A. Clippers (16-12)
Pace: 98.8 (13) OffRtg: 103.9 (6) DefRtg: 101.6 (15) NetRtg: +2.3 (10)
The Clippers have bigger concerns than just the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder. But after Friday's loss in San Antonio, they're 0-3 against the three teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, though they led each of the three games after the third quarter. They have the league's fourth worst fourth-quarter defense, with their first meeting against the league's second best offense coming on Monday.
This week: vs. OKC, @ LAL, @ UTA

14

Last week: 13

Dallas (15-12)
Pace: 98.7 (14) OffRtg: 102.1 (16) DefRtg: 100.9 (13) NetRtg: +1.2 (13)
The Mavs are getting something out of Raymond Felton this season, Chandler Parsons had two of his best games of the season last week, and JaVale McGee even had a productive 18 minutes in Friday's win over the Grizzlies. But the Mavs are just 6-8 over the last month and, after Wednesday's 26-point loss in Indiana, 4-5 against the opposite conference, with five of their next six games against the East.
This week: @ TOR, @ BKN, vs. CHI

15

Last week: 16

Orlando (15-12)
Pace: 98.1 (19) OffRtg: 100.8 (19) DefRtg: 99.1 (8) NetRtg: +1.7 (12)
As improved as the Magic defense has been, it left Kyle Korver open six times too many in Sunday's loss to the Hawks. Victor Oladipo helping (far) off Korver in the corner with less than a minute to go and the score tied was a particularly egregious mistake and ended a three-game winning streak. The offense has been improved, with Elfrid Payton shooting 48 percent since Thanksgiving. He's seen his biggest jump in FG% at the rim.
This week: @ NYK, vs. HOU, vs. MIA

16

Last week: 15

Utah (11-14)
Pace: 93.9 (30) OffRtg: 101.9 (17) DefRtg: 103.4 (19) NetRtg: -1.5 (18)
With Rudy Gobert out since the start of the month, the Jazz rank 28th in defensive efficiency in December. They allowed 117 points per 100 possessions over a four-game losing streak that ended with an 11-2 run to close out Friday's win over Denver. Trevor Booker hit a big three in that run, but has taken a step back offensively this season, which has made it tougher to make up for the loss of Gobert.
This week: vs. PHX, @ GSW, vs. LAC

17

Last week: 17

Memphis (15-14)
Pace: 96.6 (24) OffRtg: 99.3 (26) DefRtg: 103.6 (20) NetRtg: -4.3 (24)
The Grizzlies are 2-3 since moving Zach Randolph to the bench, but the new starting lineup has been strong (plus-13.4 NetRtg) over the five games and the Grizz are an impressive 7-1 on the second night of a back-to-back (only the 5-0 Spurs have been better) after Saturday's win over the Pacers. They play two more back-to-backs this week and then don't have another one until early February.
This week: @ PHI, @ WAS, @ CHA, vs. LAL

18

Last week: 21

New York (14-14)
Pace: 97.2 (23) OffRtg: 100.6 (21) DefRtg: 101.7 (16) NetRtg: -1.1 (17)
The difference in the Knicks over their four-game winning streak has been on offense, where they've scored 113 points per 100 possessions (against three below-average defenses and the weary Bulls), with Arron Afflalo avveraging 21 points on 60 percent shooting. They're at .500, but it will be tough to stay there. Saturday's win over Chicago began a stretch of 11 straight games against teams over .500.
This week: vs. ORL, @ CLE, @ ATL, @ BOS

19

Last week: 18

Houston (14-14)
Pace: 100.5 (6) OffRtg: 102.3 (13) DefRtg: 104.6 (22) NetRtg: -2.3 (21)
J.B. Bickerstaff started Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas next to Dwight Howard in losses in Denver and Sacramento before going back to Clint Capela for wins over the Lakers and Clippers. The Rockets have outscored their opponents by 20.1 points per 100 possessions with Capela and Howard on the floor. They've only played 108 minutes together, but that's a combination that Kevin McHale never used.
This week: vs. CHA, @ ORL, vs. SAS, @ NOP

20

Last week: 19

Washington (11-14)
Pace: 100.8 (5) OffRtg: 100.7 (20) DefRtg: 104.9 (24) NetRtg: -4.2 (23)
Another injury (this one to Otto Porter) had Randy Wittman playing an eight-man rotation on Saturday. But, with Garrett Temple scoring a career-high 21 points, the Wizards got a much-needed win over Charlotte, which began a stretch where they're playing 14 of 19 games at home. But there are an equal amount of games in that stretch against teams over .500, so this week's very winnable games are critical.
This week: vs. SAC, vs. MEM, @ BKN

21

Last week: 20

Phoenix (12-17)
Pace: 101.8 (2) OffRtg: 101.7 (18) DefRtg: 103.4 (18) NetRtg: -1.6 (19)
The Suns have been rather inconsistent on both ends of the floor over the last couple of weeks, but would be in eighth place if they held on to a nine-point, fourth-quarter lead against Milwaukee on Sunday. Markieff Morris is at the center of trade rumors, but is also back in the rotation and helped his current team get off to a good start in Friday's win over the Pelicans (his future team?).
This week: @ UTA, vs. DEN, vs. PHI

22

Last week: 24

Sacramento (11-16)
Pace: 101.7 (3) OffRtg: 102.1 (15) DefRtg: 105.0 (25) NetRtg: -2.9 (22)
The Kings have won four of their last five games, with seven of their eight rotation guys shooting better than 45 percent and six of them scoring in double-figures in Sunday's win in Toronto. Their defense has been decent too, and they're suddenly tied (along with three other teams) in the win column with the eighth-place Jazz. But they're 0-6 on the second night of a back-to-back, with two more of those in the next eight days.
This week: @ WAS, @ IND, vs. POR

23

Last week: 22

Portland (11-18)
Pace: 97.5 (22) OffRtg: 103.2 (7) DefRtg: 104.8 (23) NetRtg: -1.6 (20)
The Blazers' defense has been terrible as they've gone 0-3 on their current road trip and their offense could take a hit if Damian Lillard (plantar fascia issue) or C.J. McCollum (ankle) miss any time. Lillard has yet to miss a game in his three-plus seasons in the league and the Blazers have played less than 17 minutes with neither Lillard nor McCollum on the floor this season.
This week: @ ATL, @ NOP, vs. CLE, @ SAC

24

Last week: 26

Minnesota (11-16)
Pace: 98.3 (16) OffRtg: 102.2 (14) DefRtg: 103.0 (17) NetRtg: -0.8 (16)
Karl Anthony-Towns' playing time hasn't been all that consistent, but his shooting has. He's made at least half his shots in nine straight games, ranking fourth in the league in effective field goal percentage over that stretch. He totaled 49 points and 20 boards in two trips home last week, though the Wolves' went 2-2 with their weird, Minnesota-to-New York-to-Minnesota-to-New York schedule. Defense has been a problem of late.
This week: @ BOS, vs. SAS, vs. IND

25

Last week: 25

Denver (11-16)
Pace: 97.8 (21) OffRtg: 100.6 (24) DefRtg: 105.4 (27) NetRtg: -4.8 (25)
After an eight-game losing streak, the Nuggets had won five of seven against a weak schedule and were holding onto a playoff spot. But weekend losses to the Jazz and Pelicans (that were both tied with 3 1/2 minutes left) have them back in Lotteryville with a tougher stretch of schedule coming up. They've been the second most improved offensive team (behind the Spurs) from October-November to December.
This week: vs. LAL, @ PHX, @ SAS, @ OKC

26

Last week: 27

New Orleans (8-19)
Pace: 99.2 (10) OffRtg: 102.5 (11) DefRtg: 109.0 (30) NetRtg: -6.4 (27)
A couple of big offensive games in Utah and Denver (road wins Nos. 2 and 3) have the Pelicans hanging on to some hope. They've outscored their opponents by 12.7 points per 100 possessions in 147 December minutes with Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis on the floor together, and Holiday is set to have his minutes restriction lifted at the end of the month. The play two more big games within the conference this week.
This week: vs. POR, @ MIA, vs. HOU

27

Last week: 23

Milwaukee (11-18)
Pace: 95.9 (26) OffRtg: 99.7 (25) DefRtg: 105.5 (28) NetRtg: -5.8 (26)
Jason Kidd is having hip surgery and leaving interim coach Joe Prunty at a tough time. The Bucks salvaged a four-game trip with a win in Phoenix on Sunday and host the Sixers on Wednesday, but Saturday's game against Toronto begins stretch where seven of eight opponents are above .500. Some good news: Michael Carter-Williams has averaged 19.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists over the last five games.
This week: vs. PHI, vs. TOR

28

Last week: 28

Brooklyn (7-20)
Pace: 98.2 (18) OffRtg: 97.2 (28) DefRtg: 104.0 (21) NetRtg: -6.8 (28)
The Nets were somewhat competitive and decent defensively for a good month from early November to early December. But a five-game losing streak in which they've allowed 109 points per 100 possessions may be a sign that the wheels are coming off (or that the defense can't survive without Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Shane Larkin). Joe Johnson is getting paid $25 million to average 11 points on 36 percent shooting.
This week: @ CHI, vs. DAL, vs. WAS

29

Last week: 29

L.A. Lakers (4-23)
Pace: 98.8 (12) OffRtg: 96.8 (29) DefRtg: 108.8 (29) NetRtg: -12.0 (29)
The Lakers got a win, Kobe Bryant dunked, and Julius Randle had a pair of double-doubles last week. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams has shot much better since becoming a starter. But the defense remains atrocious and L.A. lost to the Rockets and Thunder by a total of 60 points, getting thumped in Oklahoma City as Bryant missed a game (with a sore shoulder) for the first time since he announced his retirement.
This week: @ DEN, vs. OKC, vs. LAC, @ MEM

30

Last week: 30

Philadelphia (1-28)
Pace: 99.4 (9) OffRtg: 91.6 (30) DefRtg: 105.1 (26) NetRtg: -13.4 (30)
The Sixers have been much worse as they've lost 10 straight games (-18.9 NetRtg) than they were when they lost 18 straight to start the season (-12.1). The offense has actually been slightly better, but the defense has been much worse. Jahlil Okafor's inability to defend is an issue, but Brett Brown isn't getting getting his message across as well has he did last season, when this team somehow ranked 13th defensively.
This week: vs. MEM, @ MIL, @ PHX