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High risers

Kobe, Yao elevate their game to challenge for No. 1

Posted: Friday March 23, 2007 1:04PM; Updated: Friday March 23, 2007 1:09PM
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It's not hard to notice a theme to the NBA's version of March Madness, one that sees even the best of its players "pacing" (read: not showing up) for entire quarters at a time as the season drones on and a nation's eyes focuses on Kansas and Ohio State. Luckily for you, dear reader, my tuner doesn't pick up CBS (seriously), I have no idea why Boston and Milwaukee aren't playing their starters, and One Shining Moment sounds like the official name of the #42 entrée (scallops and some sort of lobster sauce, heavenly) at my local Chinese eatery.

All statistics and records through March 22.

NBA Player Power Rankings
Rank LW   Player
1 1 The Mavs have won four straight since the team's 43-day win streak was extinguished by a pair of losses, and Nowitzki has been his same borderline-dominant/definitely MVP-worthy self within the confines of the relatively paltry winning outburst. He average 26.3 points on 51 percent shooting, with nine rebounds and some sound team defense -- especially in a game-deciding run over the Knicks last Tuesday.
2 4 In spite of our misgivings of his interest on the defensive side of the basketball, Dr. Bryant had grabbed a secure hold of the No. 2 spot in the rankings even before his 60-point outing against the Grizzlies on Thursday night. With Luke Walton and Lamar Odom struggling to hit from the outside due to aching extremities, Bryant's recent scoring outburst (175 points in three games, three wins) was badly needed in order to keep the Lakers ahead of the surging Nuggets in the Western playoff bracket. Walton, especially, has been hurting from outside: the Lakers forward hit 16 three-pointers in the season's first month, and he's hit 17 in the days since.
3 -- People tend to forget just how dominant Yao was in the season's first two months, even when he was turning the ball over too much, because the big guy was doing his damage during football season, and for a Rockets team struggling to find its way. Since his return, he's more or less picked up right where he left off in late December, averaging a mind-boggling 21.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists in only 30.3 minutes a game in 10 contests. That's All-Star worthy production in about three-quarters of the time All-Stars usually spend on the court, while ostensibly rehabilitating in time for the playoffs.
4 2 Duncan came through with as good a game we've seen this season on Wednesday night, torching the Pacers for 27 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals in only 29 minutes in the 18-point San Antonio win. The Spurs are rolling, and it's still hard to see any team taking four out of seven games from this group during the playoffs, but Duncan's free-throw stroke is starting to desert him. He's shot just 57 percent from the charity stripe in March.
5 3 Still leading his Timberwolves in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, and just a half-assist off the team lead with 4.1 (on a team that features about a half-dozen converted point guards in its rotation ... pathetic), KG is also a defensive hound who appears to be the only guy trying at times. The Timberwolves were fifth in the NBA in overall defensive efficiency a week before Dwane Casey was fired, and now they've fallen to 18th under coach Randy Wittman as the roster full of shot-happy guards readies its offseason plans. Pardon our redundancy, but that's pathetic.
6 5 After seeing his scoring average slip in January and February, Nash has been looking for his own shot more often in March, averaging 20 points on 55 percent shooting, while his assists per game average (9.9) threatens to dip his monthly average into single-digits for the first time all season. Of course, the preceding sentence implies that Nash is only looking for his own shot because he was worried about his scoring average. Not true -- the Suns have won eight of 10 this month because of his aggressive tone, because Nash knows exactly what his team needs, what the play-after-next is going to be (nice pass followed by a nice finish), and what you're going to have for breakfast tomorrow (Special K, with banana). In basketball, there's usually less than meets the eye. Not true with this guy.
7 8 The Eastern Conference's likely Player of the Month has given his Cavaliers a brilliant bit of basketball in March, attacking more in transition and flourishing alongside a re-born Larry Hughes, now entrenched as Cleveland's starting point guard. LeBron hasn't improved his footwork or his ability to score without the ball, but he has re-introduced the sort of production he offered in 2005-06, an MVP-caliber year that the Cavs are chuffed to be reminded of. LBJ is averaging 32.7 points on 50 percent shooting (and a solid 74.2 mark from the charity stripe) this month, alongside 7.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 3.1 combined blocks/rebounds.
8 7 A sign that has to warm the hearts of pro hoop junkies both near and far from the Republic of Texas: McGrady is still playing inspired, creative basketball, even with Yao Ming camped out in the lane. After Houston's convincing win over the Pistons on Thursday night (the Rockets won by six, but led by double figures most of the night), McGrady was left averaging 22.8 points and 7.4 assists in the 10 games since the center's return -- all in Jeff Van Gundy's slowed-down offense, the pace of which prevents the sort of dual 30-point nights you'd see coming from teammates out of Denver or Phoenix.
9 10 On Feb. 27, Bosh's Raptors took on Dwight Howard's Orlando Magic in Toronto, and though the home team escaped with a 113-103 win, the game was a lot closer than the box score would indicate. Howard missed just one of 14 shots, finishing with 32 points and nine rebounds, while Bosch gave the winning team 41 points, eight rebounds and just one turnover in 45 minutes. With the two young outfits meeting again in Toronto on Wednesday, one would think Howard ready to make amends and grab a road win (or, at least, outscore Bosh on this occasion). Not happening: Howard got his 17 and 12, but Bosh went off for 34 points and 16 rebounds in the win. Even scarier? Bosh doesn't turn 23 until this weekend.
10 6 Stoudemire's production has declined a bit over the last three weeks, though it appears as if a lack of focus is behind the rough patch, as opposed to issues with his surgically repaired knees. The former is no picnic to deal with for Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, but he at least can bank on his prodigy perking up a bit as the postseason approaches, whereas knee problems aren't as easily extinguished.

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