Posted: Tuesday January 11, 2011 1:01PM ; Updated: Tuesday January 11, 2011 5:49PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Road wins carry Heat to top

Story Highlights

Miami's 13 straight road wins show remarkable turnaround of Spoelstra's crew

The league-leading Spurs drop to No. 2 after their blowout loss to Knicks

As the Carmelo drama heats up, Nuggets falter and drop four spots to No. 14

Every team has nights when the shots aren't falling and the rhythm is skewed. For newly formed teams without a history of success together, this is the time you begin to find your mettle, to discover how much you want to triumph over the grind.

You get the impression that Miami entered the next phase of its development last week, when a team that had been rather routinely blowing out opponents dug down for back-to-back gritty overtime road wins against painstaking, well-coached teams in Milwaukee and Portland. Both victories were about persistence and will power as much as talent.

While their rivals for best team -- Boston, San Antonio, Dallas and the Lakers -- have been waylaid recently by injuries and/or upsets, the Heat have won 21 of 22 (Orlando, an exception to that group, has won nine in a row and is on the rise). And for the first time during the regular season, Miami has climbed to the top of the Power Rankings.

(All stats and records are through Jan. 10.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Miami Heat
Last Week: 2
Miami Heat (30-9)
Down seven with just over two minutes to play in Portland on Sunday, LeBron James was a force of nature in scoring a layup, an extra gear on the locomotive. Then, after a LaMarcus Aldridge basket, LeBron nailed a three-pointer. Then it was Dwyane Wade's turn with a finger roll layup as balletic as LeBron's was brutal. LeBron's two free throws sent the game into overtime. Then Wade hit a fadeaway, Chris Bosh canned a jumper, LeBron pulled up for another three, and the Heat had their 21st win in 22 games. Two players expected to play significant supporting roles -- the injured Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, who made his season debut last month -- aren't a factor. But Carlos Arroyo has found a niche as the point guard when LeBron isn't interested in running the show, and as a Miller-esque spot-up shooter from long distance to space the floor and keep the driving lanes open.
 
2San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 1
Perhaps more than any other NBA star, statistics cannot adequately convey Manu Ginobili's value. The fourth quarter of Friday's game in Indiana is a recent example. With the Spurs down nine with six minutes to play, Ginobili draws a charge on Danny Granger, sending Indiana's leading scorer to the bench with his fifth foul. A minute later, he steals the ball and goes in for a layup. Forty seconds after that, he nails a three from the top of the key and it is suddenly a two-point game. With 16 seconds left and the Spurs down a point, he was fouled and made both free throws. According to the "clutch" stats at 82games.com, every one of Ginobili's relevant stats except for assists -- field-goal, free-throw and three-point accuracy, steals, rebounds, blocks and turnovers -- improves in the last five minutes of games in which teams are separated by five points or fewer. But you still have to see it to fully appreciate it.
 
3Orlando Magic
Last Week: 5
GM Otis Smith looks like a genius as Orlando has a nine-game winning streak in the wake of blockbuster deals with Phoenix and Washington. The obvious hero is Hedo Turkoglu. He is averaging 12.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists since arriving from Phoenix, picking up where he left off in the NBA playoffs two years ago as the point forward catalyzing the Magic offense with his passing and three-point shooting. The unsung hero is 6-11 forward Ryan Anderson, who has pulled yeoman duty as the de facto backup center to Dwight Howard since the trades. Orlando is 12-0 when Anderson plays more than 15 minutes.
 
4Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 7
The Lakers are 6-1 (including four victories in a row) since a three-game losing streak over the holidays prompted Kobe Bryant to ramp up his participation in practice even as he revealed that his right knee is nearly devoid of cartilage. Now it is back to rest during practice and pacing for the marathon to June, a journey that got a little more rugged with the news that forward Matt Barnes is expected to miss eight weeks because of torn cartilage in his knee that requires surgery.
 
5Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 4
Kurt Thomas is earning every penny of his $1.8 million contract. The Bulls are 9-4 since Joakim Noah went down with a thumb injury, which is a huge credit to Thomas, the 6-9, 38-year-old backup center who had played less than 13 minutes the entire season at the time he was pressed into service. Now he's averaging more than 27 minutes per game as a consummate mucker with a savvy veteran's self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses. His attention to defense has been invaluable while Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer get to know each other on offense. He had four blocks and eight rebounds in 28 minutes in Saturday's victory against Boston, and he was a game-best plus-24 in Monday's win over Detroit.
 
6Boston Celtics
Last Week: 3
With Kevin Garnett sidelined and Shaquille O'Neal serving as the starting center, one might have thought Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer would have a field day running the pick-and-roll on the Celtics on Saturday. Instead, it was Boozer posting up Glen Davis and Rose hitting mid-range jumpers and drawing fouls off penetration that doomed Boston. After that, Monday's listless home loss to Houston seemed like a distress flare calling out for the return of KG and his intensity. The Celtics are hoping to get Garnett back as soon as Wednesday's game against Sacramento.
 
7Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 6
According to Basketball Value, the Mavericks are 23 points better per 100 possessions when Dirk Nowitzki is on the court compared to when he isn't, the highest differential of any player getting regular minutes. Without the 7-foot Nowitzki (who could be back sometime this week after being sidelined seven games with a sprained knee) and rugged 6-7 forward Caron Butler (out for the season after sustaining a right knee injury Jan. 1), the Mavs are missing two of their top three scorers and the extraordinary length and depth that helped sustain their defense. As they've lost five of seven, point guard Jason Kidd is being re-exposed for his inability to generate offense on his own; center Tyson Chandler is no longer getting open looks at the rim; and after not allowing an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent in the first 32 games, it has happened twice in the last four games.
 
8Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 11
While all the focus has been on the top four teams in the East, the Hawks are steadily bidding to make it an elite quintet. They've won six of seven, with five of those games on the road. Their offense is humming, led by Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford, who are 22-of-41 from three-point territory during their four-game winning streak. Everyone is sharing the ball: Five players are averaging between 3.4 and 5.5 assists over the last 10 games, eight of them wins. And the upcoming schedule is favorable, with 12 of the next 16 against losing teams.
 
9Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 9
You pick your poison when Kevin Durant has the ball, but opponents are increasingly, and wisely, deterring penetration and letting him shoot from the perimeter. According to Hoopdata, Durant is shooting a significantly better percentage on shots at the rim this year but is getting fewer chances, indicating a preponderance of transition layups rather than dribble-drives in the half-court. Meanwhile, he's shooting more often and at a much lower percentage from three-point territory. He also has slightly fewer free throws per game and much fewer offensive rebounds, both signs of less time in the paint. Add in his less tenacious defense -- unlike last season, the Thunder don't play better D when he is on the court -- and you see why the preseason MVP talk has cooled.
 
10Utah Jazz
Last Week: 8
Utah Jazz (25-13)
There are telltale signs that point guard Deron Williams is occasionally faltering under the enormous burden he carries. Williams has had the Grizzlies' Tony Allen and the Rockets' Kyle Lowry pick him clean for steals and transition layups the last two games. Curling around a screen for a wide-open jumper at the foul line with 35 seconds left and the score tied against Houston on Saturday, Williams launched an airball a foot short of the rim. He is shooting 35.9 percent and has turned the ball over 19 times in five January games. Part of the strain is always playing catch-up: Utah has outscored opponents in the first quarter just twice in the last 16 games, and has come back to win from 15-point deficits seven times (including Saturday) and from double digits a dozen games, both NBA bests.
 
11New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 12
Remember what an explosive scorer Marcus Thornton could be in the second half of last season? Thornton averaged 20.3 points after the All-Star break and formed a potent rookie backcourt with Darren Collison. The memories are relevant because this year's Hornets desperately need a third scorer to complement David West and Chris Paul, but new coach Monty Williams is an old-school disciple of Gregg Popovich and Nate McMillan and Thornton's disinclination to play lockdown defense has sliced his playing time to 14 minutes per game. In turn, the lack of burn has cut into his confidence and he's shooting below 40 percent.
 
12New York Knicks
Last Week: 14
The joys and limitations of Mike D'Antoni's system were on full display last week. The Knicks blew out the Spurs with a 128-point jamboree, then went to Phoenix for Amar'e Stoudemire's homecoming and shot 17-of-33 from three-point land for a 25-point triumph and another aesthetic pleasure to watch. But two nights later, the length and physicality of the Lakers stopped them in their tracks, reminding us that when it comes to minting championship rings, this dazzling run-and-gun style is strictly fool's gold.
 
13Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 13
The best thing about the overtime loss to Miami: LaMarcus Aldridge's crunch-time offense against one of the league's best defenses that was giving him its full attention. Aldridge was responsible for 15 of Portland's 17 points in the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter, passing for three assists (one for a three-pointer) out of double teams and hitting 3-of-5 from the field in heavy traffic and 2-of-2 from the line. He also scored the Blazers' first five points in overtime. The worst thing about the loss: Nate McMillan yanked Andre Miller for Patrick Mills for most of that fourth quarter and OT. Yes, it provided more spacing for Aldridge to operate, and the way McMillan has wrung performance out of his injury-wracked teams the past two years is hard to second-guess. But after coping like a professional with the sniping from Brandon Roy over control of the offense the past couple of years, Miller deserved the chance to help guide his team through what would have been a major upset.
 
14Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 10
It's time for the divorce between the Nuggets and Carmelo Anthony. It's no coincidence that as the prospect of Denver's finally being at full strength begins to come into focus, the team's play has become more fitful and indifferent, culminating in a dreadful loss to Sacramento and a methodical home defeat to New Orleans. Now that the home crowd has booed the star who spurned the team's maximum contract offer during the preseason and has shown no inclination to change his mind, prolonging the situation further into an awkward charade of unity and passion would be corrosive, no matter how it is eventually resolved.
 
15Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 15
Memphis continues to confound, beating three of the top five teams in the West (the Lakers, Oklahoma City and Utah) and then getting blown out in Charlotte. Part of the inconsistency is that the Grizzlies are adept at creating and extending possessions with steals and offensive rebounds, but too often fail to take full advantage because they rank among the bottom third of the league in three-point and free-throw percentage. With more grit than grace, Memphis has proved it can beat -- or lose to -- anybody.
 
16Houston Rockets
Last Week: 16
The Rockets have stockpiled enough assets to put themselves in a solid position to make trades before next month's deadline. Matching Cleveland's offer sheet for point guard Kyle Lowry last summer means that Aaron Brooks is expendable. Brooks certainly didn't hurt his value by returning from an ankle injury to score a game-high 24 points in Monday's win at Boston. They also have a surfeit of frontcourt bangers, including the undersized but stalwart Chuck Hayes, veteran Brad Miller, second-year man Jordan Hill and rookie Patrick Patterson, to go with cornerstone Luis Scola (not to mention injured Yao Ming's expiring contract). Swingmen include promising second-year player Chase Budinger, defensive specialist Shane Battier (who, like fellow swingman Jared Jeffries, has a potentially valuable expiring contract), energy guy Courtney Lee and efficient scorer deluxe Kevin Martin. Without a deal to prune the roster, coach Rick Adelman will continue juggling the talent in an effort to make the playoffs.
 
17Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 18
The wrenching road loss to the Pistons -- right after the Sixers had secured a revenge win against a Bulls team that had thrashed them by 45 points two weeks earlier -- highlights the inconsistency of youth and also how much Philadelphia misses top defender Andre Iguodala. On the shelf with Achilles tendinitis, Iguodala would have come in handy as the Pistons' Tayshaun Prince was backing down Andres Nocioni for three straight buckets near the paint Saturday. Coach Doug Collins' staunch, unequivocal support for backup guard Lou Williams -- an 81.2 percent free-throw shooter who could have sealed the win by making just one of two at the line with 6.2 seconds left in regulation -- will strengthen the team down the line. With three games at home against losing teams this week, the Sixers can tighten their grip on one of the final playoff slots in the East.
 
18Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 22
The Clippers have won seven of 10 in large part because their starters are jelling. Point guard Baron Davis has become the facilitator most hoped for but few expected; he's shooting less frequently than any season since his second year in the league a decade ago, and registering a career high in assists per minute. Power forward Blake Griffin and shooting guard Eric Gordon are the athletic freelancers and highlight catalysts at both ends of the court. Third-year center DeAndre Jordan is learning how to protect the rim without fouling and doesn't need many touches. And small forward Ryan Gomes has always been the sort of sweat-the-details glue guy whose value rises with the talent around him. This quintet is actually outscoring its opponents for the season, according to Basketball Value, and deserves to remain a unit even after center Chris Kaman returns from an ankle injury.
 
19Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 21
The Warriors are 6-4 leading up to a five-game homestand that begins Wednesday against the Lakers and continues with four losing teams. From now until the All-Star break, they play 15 of 18 games at home. But to solidify its recent improvement, Golden State needs more from David Lee. Lee, an All-Star and the NBA's No. 4 rebounder last season, has been beset by injuries, most notably to his elbow and now his back. His defensive rebounding is down 2.5 per game from last season for a team that is last in defensive rebounding percentage. In the last four games, Lee sat out against Dwight Howard and Orlando with back issues; grabbed just two rebounds in 25 minutes and was a minus-4 in a seven-point win over New Orleans; went off for 22 points and 14 rebounds in a win against NBA-worst Cleveland; and had three rebounds in 25 minutes and was a minus-13 before fouling out in a 14-point loss to the Clippers.
 
20Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 17
There hasn't been enough common-sense backlash against Brandon Jennings' being named as a participant in next month's slam dunk contest during All-Star weekend despite being sidelined after late-December surgery for a broken foot. The broken bone is the long one on the outside of his left foot that extends out to the little toe. Jennings believes he hurt it on a drive to the basket, when he came down awkwardly on his knee, putting pressure on his ankle. At a time when there are clauses in players' contracts against motorcycle riding and all sorts of extracurricular activity, why is it a good idea for Jennings to be attempting a series of spectacular dunks -- at no benefit to his team -- less than 10 weeks after foot surgery?
 
21Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 23
Even with injuries to swingman Gerald Wallace and center Nazr Mohammed, Charlotte has won three in a row and is 5-2 since Paul Silas replaced Larry Brown. Second-year guard Gerald Henderson is playing the best ball of his career since moving into the starting lineup for Wallace (and bumping Stephen Jackson up to small forward), dominating Washington's Nick Young at both ends of the court with 8-of-11 shooting and nine rebounds in Charlotte's easy win Saturday. On Monday, Jackson shut down Rudy Gay as the Bobcats jumped out to a big first-half lead and coasted to victory. Even the much-maligned Kwame Brown, filling in for Mohammed, is playing in rhythm.
 
22Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 20
Phoenix Suns (15-20)
It is hard to imagine a more dispiriting win than Sunday's victory against Cleveland, which saw the NBA's worst team, with a roster recently decimated by injuries, keep the outcome in doubt until the Suns prevailed in crunch time. Coach Alvin Gentry keeps madly tinkering with his rotations since the trade with Orlando. After ample minutes for newcomers Marcin Gortat and Mickael Pietrus, Gentry is back (as of Sunday, anyway) to giving Robin Lopez more burn at Gortat's expense, and reducing Pietrus' time even after Grant Hill suffered a mild knee sprain four minutes into the game. One thing that should remain constant: long, regular rotations for Jared Dudley, who provides energy, rare defensive resistance and three-point shooting.
 
23Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 26
Toronto's two best scorers, Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan, are two of their worst defenders, deserving of the dreaded adjective "soft." The Raptors, who are 29th in defensive efficiency (ahead of only Phoenix) and allow more shots and makes at the rim than any other team, permit their most points per 100 possessions when Bargnani and DeRozan are on the court. Although the team gave up 112 points in Sunday's win against Sacramento, it marked the first time in four games that it held an opponent below 50 percent shooting. The Raptors' best hope for improvement is finding a way for Amir Johnson to avoid foul trouble; the whistles are keeping one of their most effective interior defenders off the court.
 
24Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 19
The Pacers have lost three in a row, six of seven and 10 of 13 as their offensive efficiency has plummeted to 27th. Roy Hibbert's sudden decline has been the most obvious factor, but top scorer Danny Granger also bears much of the blame. Granger's true shooting percentage is at a career low, and his turnovers per game are a career high without a corresponding boost in assists. He also seems to miss a lot of shots late in close games. It's hardly a large sample, but the clutch statistics at 82games.com show him shooting just 28.6 percent with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime and the teams separated by five points or fewer.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 25
Pistons fans should be pleased that their team's brain trust is finally looking forward. Rookie center Greg Monroe played 43 minutes Monday, posting a respectable double-double in the loss at Chicago. Second-year forward Austin Daye had his highest back-to-back scoring totals of the season the last two games, and hit the do-or-die three-pointer that triggered the overtime win over Philadelphia on Saturday. Veteran guard Rip Hamilton and his monster contract would reportedly head to New Jersey if the rumored three-team Carmelo Anthony trade goes through, freeing up backcourt time for Ben Gordon without any attendant dissension. Even the main piece they'd reportedly acquire for Hamilton, power forward Troy Murphy ($14 million expiring contract), gives them more flexibility for the future.
 
26Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 27
The Kings are 4-4 when Francisco Garcia starts, in part because the streaky three-point shooter helps spread the floor for Tyreke Evans to roam and DeMarcus Cousins to operate in the paint. When Evans is healthy and Cousins plays under control, you see the makings of a viable master plan in Sacramento. That's especially the case when Garcia, Omri Casspi and Beno Udrih are deterring double teams by hitting open jumpers. Unfortunately, Evans reinjured his ankle just in time for the Kings' six-game road trip, which began with Sunday's loss in Toronto and continues with four games in five nights, against Washington, Boston, New York and Detroit.
 
27Washington Wizards
Last Week: 29
What looked like one of the most compelling Rookie of the Year contests in NBA history the first few weeks of the season has become a rout for Blake Griffin over John Wall. You can blame Wall's sprained foot and bruised knee, the fact that dunks have more cachet than assists on the highlight reel, or that the Clippers are jelling while the Wizards are still winless on the road. But the numbers show that Wall is shooting below 40 percent since Thanksgiving, has fewer steals in his last 10 games (eight) than he did Nov. 2 against the Sixers (nine) and, like Griffin, is creating a more porous team defense when he is on the court compared to when he sits.
 
28Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 24
When Wes Johnson dribbled the ball off his foot in the final two minutes of regulation of an eventual overtime loss to Charlotte last week, coach Kurt Rambis channeled his inner Bobby Knight and screamed in the rookie's ear during the next timeout. Two nights later, Portland's Wes Matthews exploded for 29 first-half points on Johnson and the Wolves, and suddenly the fourth pick in the 2010 draft was out of the starting lineup for the first time since Nov. 2. A silky 6-7 swingman, the 23-year-old Johnson hasn't been able to translate his athleticism and relative maturity into sustained progress, becoming little more than a catch-and-shoot presence in the offense. It is the second first-rounder from Syracuse who hasn't paid immediate dividends -- point guard Jonny Flynn was similarly disappointing last season. Corey Brewer, another first-round ambiguity, replaced Johnson in the lineup.
 
29New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 28
Brook Lopez's regression continues. The 7-footer has grabbed three defensive rebounds in the last four games while playing an average of more than 28 minutes. He was shut out on the defensive glass against a Milwaukee team missing Andrew Bogut -- 6-9, 235-pound forward Ersan Ilyasova grabbed 13 boards in his stead -- and is now averaging 5.9 rebounds per game after grabbing more than eight per game his first two seasons. Yes, the presence of the dogged Kris Humphries and Derrick Favors as power forwards has something to do with the decline, but their activity should provide Lopez more space and energy to exploit his offense. Instead, after coming into 2010-11 shooting 51.2 percent for his career, he is down to 45 percent this season.
 
30Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
Losing Anderson Varejao for the season puts the Cavs in even greater danger of breaking the record for the worst single-season decline in NBA history, held by the 1996-97 Spurs, who fell 39 games to 20 wins and landed Tim Duncan in the draft as a result. To avoid tying or eclipsing that tumble, the Cavs would need to win at least 23 games (a 38-win drop-off from last season's 61-21 finish), which requires a 15-30 record the rest of the way -- a higher percentage than their current 8-29. That's a daunting task for an injury-ravaged team that started Manny Harris and Christian Eyenga against Phoenix on Sunday.

 
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