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Itís Winning Time
February 25, 2008 -- It's not like the games played before the Feb. 17 didn't count, but now that the All-Star break and the trade deadline are behind us, the games mean even more. Teams know that now is the time to turn it up a notch in preparation for the postseason.

Out West, you simply cannot take a day off. With nine teams within 5 1/2 games of each other, one little slide can put you on the outside looking in. And with the way some teams have taken big risks to improve their roster, not even making the playoffs would be absolutely unacceptable.

In the East, the Pistons and Celtics suddenly have a lot (meaning home court advantage in a potential Conference Finals matchup) at stake now that Boston has slid back a little. The Magic, Cavs and Raptors are each trying to establish themselves as Team No. 3, while several other teams are probably thinking that they could grab that No. 6 seed and have a decent shot in the First Round.

So I'm going to put a heavy emphasis on games played after the break. If you win big games from here on out, you're in good shape. But if you lay an egg against a team you're fighting for position with, you're not ready for the playoffs. That being said, I'm not going to completely ignore how well some teams (Rockets, Jazz, etc.) were playing before the break.

At this point, three teams are undefeated after the break: the Lakers (4-0), Spurs (3-0) and Rockets (4-0).

If you've got any questions or comments about this week's rankings, you know what to do. I'll answer mail later this week.

Barry Team of the Fortnight: Houston (6-0)
Pants Team of the Fortnight: Memphis (1-5)

High jumps of the week: Houston (+6), L.A. Lakers (+6), San Antonio (+6)
Free falls of the week: Charlotte (-5), Boston (-4), Detroit (-4), Indiana (-4)

Off: Points scored per 100 possessions
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions
The league averages 91.6 possessions (per team) per game and 108.2 points per 100 possessions.

1 L.A. Lakers (7) 39-17 Off: 113.6 (2), Def: 106.1 (5) -- With Pau Gasol fitting in perfectly and Kobe Bryant seemingly unaffected by his mangled pinky, I'm not sure this team isn't the favorite to win the title even without Andrew Bynum. And with Bynum's rehab coming along, it would be very difficult for anyone to pick against the Lakers right now.
2 San Antonio (8) 37-17 Off: 110.1 (11), Def: 104.3 (4) -- With Tony Parker back, Manu Ginobili playing out of his mind and a favorable schedule, the Spurs are primed for a nice run. Heck, they're already on a nice run, having won nine of their last 10.
3 Houston (9) 36-20 Off: 107.3 (16), Def: 103.1 (2) -- The Rockets have won 12 straight, 15 of their last 16, and are 21-4 since Jan. 1. What changed with the calendar? The offense. They have a 110.7 offensive rating over the last 25, up from 104.6 in the first 31. And the key there may be that they're sharing the ball more, with an assist-field goal ratio of .625 over the last 25 and .680 during the 12-game streak.
4 Utah (3) 36-20 Off: 113.5 (3), Def: 107.3 (10) -- Despite an inexcusable loss to the Clippers (going 0-for-13 from downtown) on Friday, the Jazz have a (relatively huge) 2 1/2 game lead over the Nuggets in the Northwest and have won 14 straight at EnergySolutions Arena.
5 Detroit (1) 41-15 Off: 113.2 (4), Def: 103.9 (3) -- Beating the Suns by 30 is a nice way to start a four-game Western swing, and with the Celtics struggling out West, the top seed in the East is within reach.
6 Boston (2) 42-12 Off: 111.3 (10), Def: 100.7 (1) -- Early on, when the Celtics were destroying the East, some readers predicted that they would be humbled when they eventually ventured West. It didn't happen on the first trip, but they dropped their first three after the break (with their defensive rating finally venturing above a point per possession) before winning in Portland Sunday.
7 New Orleans (4) 37-17 Off: 111.9 (9), Def: 106.2 (6) -- With a rough schedule, the Hornets are 5-5 over their last 10. Their defensive rating is an ugly 116.7 over that span, up from a terrific 103.9 over their first 44.
8 Phoenix (5) 38-18 Off: 113.9 (1), Def: 108.7 (18) -- Maybe I'm writing this with Sunday's blowout loss fresh in my mind, but with a tough remaining schedule and some adjustments to be made, I think it might be tough for the Suns to stay in the top five in the West.
9 Dallas (6) 37-19 Off: 112.3 (8), Def: 107.7 (11) -- Sunday's 28-12 fourth quarter in Minnesota may have been Dallas' first real taste of what Jason Kidd can do for that team.
10 Golden State (10) 33-22 Off: 112.7 (6), Def: 110.7 (24) -- Special recognition must go out to Andris Biedrins, who put up 21 and 13 in Wednesday's big win over the Celtics ... with appendicitis.
11 Denver (11) 33-22 Off: 108.8 (13), Def: 106.4 (8) -- At the All-Star break, Allen Iverson said that the key to the Nuggets making a run was on the defensive end. Specifically, the need to improve their on-the-ball D and not rely on Marcus Camby so much. On Friday, the Nuggets gave up 135 points to the Bulls in 100 possessions (Camby had six blocks), their second worst defensive performance of the season.
12 Cleveland (13) 32-24 Off: 107.1 (17), Def: 108.0 (15) -- The new supporting cast is off to a good start and they've got a favorable remaining schedule (no other East team has fewer remaining games against the West), but Wednesday's matchup in Boston (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) should tell us a lot about where the Cavs stand now.
13 Toronto (14) 30-24 Off: 112.6 (7), Def: 107.7 (12) -- Knowing what Jamario Moon was going to do in the finals of the dunk contest (and don't ask, I can't tell you), I really, really wish he made it there. I blame Kapono for the bad toss. Only thing he missed all night.
14 Orlando (12) 36-22 Off: 112.9 (5), Def: 108.9 (19) -- Since the break, the Orlando offense has been pretty unstoppable (122.5 rating against some pretty good defensive teams), but their defense against the Raptors (145.3) was pretty atrocious, easily their worst performance of the season.
15 Sacramento (16) 26-29 Off: 108.0 (15), Def: 110.0 (23) -- Here's a question for anybody who watched the Kings lose to the Magic on Sunday: How did Francisco Garcia, who had made 21 of his 32 field goal attempts (including 15-of-21 from downtown) in the first three games after the break, get only three shots?
16 Portland (15) 29-27 Off: 108.2 (14), Def: 109.0 (20) -- The Blazers' only win in the last eight games was a four-point victory at home over the Sonics on Thursday, which Seattle avenged the next night. And now, Brandon Roy may be out again with a bad wheel.
17 Philadelphia (19) 25-32 Off: 105.9 (19), Def: 106.3 (7) -- The Sixers went into the break with five straight wins and then came out of it by losing to the T-Wolves by 16. Still, they look like they have a good shot of getting back to the playoffs.
18 New Jersey (18) 25-31 Off: 104.0 (25), Def: 109.3 (21) -- Since the Kidd trade, the new Big Two (Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson) is playing better than the Big Three (with Kidd) had in a while. RJ is averaging 31.3 points on .561 shooting and VC is filling the boxscore with 24.0 points, 8.0 boards and 6.7 assists, while also shooting over .500 in the three games.
19 Washington (17) 26-29 Off: 109.8 (12), Def: 109.7 (22) -- Caron Butler is still out. Agent Nacho isn't ready yet. They've lost 10 of their last 12 and they're not far from falling out of the playoff picture. Oh yeah, they're upcoming schedule (Hornets twice, Houston, Orlando and Toronto) looks pretty tough.
20 L.A. Clippers (25) 19-34 Off: 103.2 (27), Def: 107.9 (14) -- In the 12 games since the rosters for the Rookie Challenge were selected, Al Thornton is averaging 18.4 points on .467 shooting. More important, the Clippers are a respectable 6-6 in that stretch. The All-Rookie Team and a permanent spot in the starting lineup are probably in Thornton's future.
21 Chicago (22) 22-33 Off: 103.7 (26), Def: 106.7 (9) -- Joakim Noah's first start as the starting center for the Bulls went well, as he put up a double-double in a win over the Nuggets. Then he had just two points and two boards (with four steals) in 25 minutes in Sunday's loss to the Rockets, before rolling his ankle in the third quarter.
22 Atlanta (20) 22-31 Off: 105.2 (23), Def: 107.8 (13) -- They've played some pretty good offensive teams and obviously, they need time to adjust, but the Hawks' defensive rating in the four games since they traded for Mike Bibby is 117.2. That's pretty bad.
23 Seattle (26) 15-40 Off: 101.5 (30), Def: 108.7 (17) -- The Sonics are making progress, winning six of their last 11 games with improved ratings on both sides of the ball, but they've got a tough back-to-back (@ GSW, vs. DEN) this week and seven-game trip starting Sunday.
24 New York (24) 17-39 Off: 105.3 (22), Def: 112.3 (29) -- Isiah Thomas somehow resisted the urge to make a trade on Thursday, even after his squad lost by 40 (yes, 40) to the Sixers (yes, the Sixers) the night before. Perhaps, some roster stability will spur the Knicks on a big playoff push.
25 Indiana (21) 22-34 Off: 105.9 (20), Def: 108.6 (16) -- If you didn't get a chance already, check out the transcript from Larry Bird's press conference on Friday. You might find the answer to the question about Jermaine O'Neal's intentions to be amusing.
26 Milwaukee (28) 21-35 Off: 105.7 (21), Def: 112.9 (30) -- It was a little surprising to see the Bucks stand pat at the deadline, and even more surprising to see them come back from 23 down to beat the Nuggets two days later. Still, you'd have to think that this underachieving team is primed for a shakeup this summer.
27 Minnesota (27) 11-43 Off: 102.7 (28), Def: 110.8 (25) -- In case you forgot what Theo Ratliff can do in this league (because he's played a total of 10 games over the last two seasons), he gave you a little reminder in limited minutes Sunday.
28 Charlotte (23) 19-37 Off: 104.7 (24), Def: 110.9 (27) -- The Bobcats' situation is pretty ugly as it is (they've lost 10 of their last 11), but with 17 of their final 26 games coming on the road, it's time to start thinking about who's going to represent Charlotte in Secaucus.
29 Memphis (29) 14-42 Off: 106.3 (18), Def: 112.1 (28) -- How many of you went through the transactions page on Thursday more than once, looking for Mike Miller's name?
30 Miami (30) 9-44 Off: 102.3 (29), Def: 110.8 (26) -- The Grizzlies really deserve to be No. 30, but when a team goes 1-26 over a 27-game stretch (a pace that would win a total of three games in 82)...

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