Posted: Tuesday March 29, 2011 2:32PM ; Updated: Tuesday March 29, 2011 9:39PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Lakers favored to win it all again

Story Highlights

The Lakers are again title favorites as the league-leading Spurs struggle

Derrick Rose and the East-leading Bulls hold on to the No. 2 ranking

The Thunder's stingy defense helped them move up to No. 3 this week

With just two weeks left in the regular season, the Lakers have emerged as the consensus favorite to win their third consecutive championship. Along with being 15-1 since the All-Star break, the Lakers are relatively healthy and their attitude is well-honed for the postseason grind.

By contrast, problems have arisen among a couple of Los Angeles' chief rivals. The Spurs enjoyed a long stretch of remarkably good health but are now enduring a spate of injuries, including the absence of Tim Duncan, whose sprained ankle is cause for concern with the playoffs looming. And in the East, the Celtics (8-7 in March) are coping with five new faces on their roster and lingering injuries to Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal.

Ironically, the Lakers may also benefit from being beaten out for the No. 1 seed by San Antonio. If all the Western teams maintain their current playoff seedings and form holds, the Lakers' path to the conference finals would start with the David West-less Hornets and continue with a Mavericks team with disappointing playoff failures in their recent history. Meanwhile, the top-seeded Spurs would face a rugged, fearless Grizzlies team that has already beaten them twice, followed by the dangerous Thunder, who have added the interior defense of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed to the scoring of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Bottom line: Things are breaking favorably for the Lakers, who remain atop the Power Rankings for the fourth straight week.

(All stats and records are through March 28 unless otherwise noted.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 1
Frontcourt size and Kobe Bryant's offensive heroics will always be the signature virtues of this championship roster, but a less noted strength is Kobe's and Derek Fisher's extraordinary familiarity from sharing the backcourt for 12 years. It is partly coincidence and partly their synergy that explains why the only times the Lakers didn't get out of the first round during Kobe's career were the three years Fisher spent in Golden State and Utah. By now, Kobe knows exactly where and when Fisher will be spotting up for a three-pointer should he need an outlet pass, and Fisher knows when to cover for Kobe in transition and when to spell him on some of the ball-handling duties. Fisher is also a bit of a bodyguard for his backcourt mate, displaying a toughness that is craftier than that of the more hotheaded Ron Artest. Like John Stockton during Utah's heyday, he is a deceptive bruiser in giving and running into picks, with the most recent example being his run-in with Clippers center Chris Kaman. That encounter prompted the Clippers' Mo Williams to compare Fisher to Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, another genial media presence who has a reputation for toughness -- and cheap shots.
 
2Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 2
For one of the few times this season, the Bulls relaxed and let their guard down. It cost them their 14-game home winning streak as Philadelphia built a 23-point first-half lead and held on for the victory Monday. Chicago's fatigue was understandable, as it had swept a back-to-back against Memphis and Milwaukee on Friday and Saturday -- two physically tough teams in the midst of playoff races. Fortunately, the schedule eases considerably over the next 10 days, giving Tom Thibodeau's crew a chance to lock down the top seed in the East while addressing minor concerns such as the lack of offensive rhythm in Carlos Boozer's play in the five games since his return from an ankle injury.
 
3Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 5
Two months ago, the Thunder wouldn't have won a game in which Durant shot 0-for-8 in the second half and the team finished with fewer than 100 points on 42.7 percent shooting, as happened in Sunday's 99-90 home victory against Portland. Even before Perkins was acquired from Boston at the trading deadline, the Thunder were finally starting to concentrate on defense the way they had through almost all of their breakthrough season a year ago. In particular, Westbrook, whose plentiful steals were obscuring his slipshod on-ball defense, began to batten down and provide resistance on the perimeter. From January to February, the Thunder knocked 6.5 points per game off their opponents' scoring totals, and since Perkins arrived and has been healthy enough to play, freeing shot-blocker Serge Ibaka to roam a bit at power forward, they have trimmed another five points in March, down to 95. That stinginess has led to a 12-2 record this month, second best behind the Lakers' 11-1.
 
4Miami Heat
Last Week: 6
Miami Heat (51-22)
On both a micro and macro level, the Heat are a team of spurts and momentum, with scoring runs fueling their winning streaks. Last week, they erased an eight-point deficit with a 15-0 run to open the fourth quarter in a victory against Detroit, then used two surges -- 23-2 near the end of the second quarter and 21-3 midway through the fourth -- to thump a 76ers team that had otherwise outplayed them for more than 30 minutes. But Sunday's home win against Houston -- Miami's fifth straight victory and eighth in nine games since a five-game skid -- followed a different script because the Rockets are one of the few teams willing and able to run with Miami. With the Heat and Rockets pressing the pace and yet scrambling back on transition defense, the teams combined for only 17 fast-break points, and the best run Miami could muster was a 12-3 surge in the fourth quarter of a 125-119 victory.
 
5Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 7
Apparently Peja Stojakovic is the Mavs' lucky charm -- Dallas is 15-0 when he plays at least 15 minutes. While part of that may be the genuinely beneficial effect of Stojakovic's ability to space the floor, it is also attributable to his being absent for games against tough Western Conference foes like the Lakers, Spurs, Blazers and Hornets. In addition, he was benched after playing only 13 minutes and shooting 0-for-4 in a loss to the Grizzlies. As might be expected of someone on the downside of his career, almost all of his numbers are either at or below his customary output. Meanwhile, Dallas' keys to success haven't really changed throughout the season: The most accurate shooting of Dirk Nowitzki's 13-year career and Tyson Chandler's leading the most efficient team defense since the Mavs' 67-win season in 2006-07.
 
6San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 3
The Spurs' unsurpassed ability to maximize their talent by clearly defining and coordinating roles also leaves them particularly vulnerable when key personnel get hurt. And no one is more crucial to the current framework than Duncan, the ever-ready fulcrum for their defensive philosophy. The drop-off from Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker to backup George Hill isn't nearly as steep as the one from Duncan to Tiago Splitter. Duncan remains the most reliable Spur on the side of the ball that wins championships, and nobody else can come close to replacing him as rim protector. That's why even gallant play from the rest of the roster resulted in close road losses to the Nuggets, Blazers and Grizzlies. Those defeats probably confirmed to coach Gregg Popovich that, for Monday's home game against Portland, he was better off letting all of his Big Three, plus Antonio McDyess, rest up to alleviate their various aches and pains. It's a good long-term strategy that has produced the short-term reality of a four-game losing streak and uncertainty about how completely Duncan can return to health in the postseason.
 
7Boston Celtics
Last Week: 4
Aside from their defensive gem against Milwaukee when they permitted 56 points, the Celtics haven't played really well all month. You can blame injuries, the turbulence of Danny Ainge's trading spree, the veterans' boredom with a long season or the law of averages yielding an extended slump. Whatever it is, it could cost Boston home-court advantage in every series but the first round and has made newcomers Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green more self-conscious about their roles and impact. But the ex-Thunder duo has been better than expected, and while Rajon Rondo is the easiest scapegoat among the four All-Stars, their teamwork is so cohesive that it is hard to single out anyone. The Celtics have been consistently building and then blowing double-digit leads lately, and the days of the entire roster shooting better than 50 percent are long gone. But those who doubt this team's ability to flip a switch when the postseason arrives have pretty short memories.
 
8Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 9
Preparing for Portland is no picnic because coach Nate McMillan has so many lineup options and players capable of dominating matchups on offense. Since the acquisition of Gerald Wallace from Charlotte and the return of Brandon Roy from knee surgery, the Blazers are relying less on LaMarcus Aldridge to carry the load, although he'll still get 20 points on 50 percent shooting if opponents don't come with the double team. Teams try to bait Wallace into jump shots, but when he's hitting from mid-range, as happened against the Thunder on Sunday, it sets up his penetration and he explodes for 40 points. Andre Miller is still the NBA's best post-up point guard and retains a great instinct for when to push in transition. Roy has lost a step or three but remains a master craftsman creating plays in half-court sets. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum can stick the three-pointer or finish off the dribble and backdoor cuts. Add in a deliberate pace designed to exhaust defenses, and you have a dangerous team that rarely beats itself.
 
9Orlando Magic
Last Week: 8
Monday's loss to the Knicks made it plain that the Magic have glaring depth problems at point guard as well as center. With Jameer Nelson sidelined with a sprained knee, coach Stan Van Gundy went with Gilbert Arenas and Chris Duhon at the point. It's a strategy that will be akin to playing Russian roulette with Orlando's season if Van Gundy repeats it in the playoffs. The pair managed to get Dwight Howard enough touches for just two shots in the first half against an opponent that didn't play a legitimate center the entire night. Right now, it appears that the productive part of Arenas' career is toast. Along with an inability to set up Howard, he shot 2-of-11, which is actually an improvement on his 1-of-12 performance in his previous game (for the season, he is at 36.4 percent). And in March, Arenas has more turnovers than assists. Turnovers are also a problem for Duhon, who is committing them at an incredibly high rate of 32.7 per 100 plays. Duhon missed the second half against New York with a bruised thumb, leaving Arenas as the only healthy point guard.
 
10Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 10
Rudy Gay is an undeniably talented player who elevated his game after getting a max contract last summer. But watch the Grizzlies for a while and you understand why Gay isn't sorely missed: This team has forged a playoff-friendly identity with the low-post scoring of Zach Randolph and a defense, led by Tony Allen, that is both physical enough to grind through screens and quick enough to lead the NBA in steals. Despite his unimposing stats, Allen belongs in the discussion with Lamar Odom and Jason Terry for the Sixth Man Award. His minutes and field-goal percentage have risen for four months in a row, with those numbers climbing to 57.3 percent and 28.5 minutes in March. In Sunday's win against the Spurs, he scored 19 second-half points and finished 9-of-10 from the field. Allen leads the NBA in steals percentage, and Memphis is 10-4 when he plays at least 30 minutes.
 
11Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
Denver's triumphant teamwork in the wake of the Carmelo Anthony trade is one of the season's best stories. But that 12-4 record since Anthony was dealt is about to be put to the test. Home-and-away games against Sacramento on Wednesday and Friday are no longer gimmes in light of the Kings' recent play. Denver then faces the Lakers, Mavs and Thunder twice, with three of those four on the road, where it is 4-4 since the trade and 14-22 overall. The Nuggets look bound to start the postseason on the road, too, as they trail Oklahoma City by five games in the loss column in the race for the No. 4 seed.
 
12Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 12
The Sixers have ambushed a lot of opponents with their small lineup, but there are signs that teams are adjusting. A faster pace has become less user-friendly for Philadelphia, which is yielding seven more points per game in March than it did in February. The increase results in part from a tougher schedule, with opponents having increased their rebounding, free-throw attempts and shooting percentage. Meanwhile, the Sixers are attempting six more shots per game and reaping fewer than one extra basket this month. In response, coach Doug Collins is relying more on 7-footer Spencer Hawes to guard big men and also bring them away from the basket by taking mid-range jumpers. Hawes has scored in double figures a season-high four consecutive games, and he also seems more energized on defense.
 
13Houston Rockets
Last Week: 13
Points, rebounds and assists are all easy to come by against the Warriors, so center Chuck Hayes' triple-double versus Golden State last Wednesday wasn't that surprising, especially to those who have watched every facet of his game blossom over the last two seasons. But the feat did briefly shine the spotlight on an unsung grinder who is mostly known as a curio, a 6-6 center often guarding opponents half a foot taller. Even if Hayes hadn't dramatically improved his passing and shooting, he's invaluable for being able to deny big men prime low-post position because of his extraordinary strength and low center of gravity, while also being quick and smart enough to be Houston's best pick-and-roll defender. The Rockets would have a tougher time keeping the likes of Kevin Martin and Luis Scola on the floor without Hayes being able to cover for their defensive shortcomings. More impressive than the triple-double was coach Rick Adelman's decision to have Hayes guard both Erick Dampier and LeBron James at different parts of the same half Sunday in Miami.
 
14New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 14
Emeka Okafor is shooting a career-best 57.9 percent but is also averaging only 7.3 shots -- the sixth straight year since his rookie season that his field-goal attempts have declined. That modest offensive role hasn't changed much in the two games since leading scorer West's season-ending knee injury. Instead, coach Monty Williams has preferred to continue running set plays for his starting power forward (West's replacement, Carl Landry) and keep Okafor focused on maintaining the Hornets' top-five ranking in fewest points allowed in the paint. Okafor, who has accepted his role as defensive leader with gusto, and Williams will keep trying to grind the Hornets into the playoffs.
 
15Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 15
The Hawks are a difficult team to rally behind. They have the twin stigmas of being publicly mortified in last season's playoff sweep against Orlando and of then giving 29-year-old Joe Johnson an exorbitant six-year, $124 million contract when he is already at the tail end of his peak productivity, limiting the team's future flexibility. Management scapegoated its coach, Mike Woodson, who improved the team in each of his last five seasons, and now the players are not responding to Woodson's once-beloved assistant, Larry Drew, posting a losing record since the end of January. The Hawks' virtues have become familiar and insufficient. Perhaps the last, best hope for Drew and this current roster will come in the playoffs next month, when they are almost certain to face last year's nemesis, the Magic, against whom the Hawks are 2-1 this season with the final meeting Wednesday.
 
16Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 16
Phoenix Suns (36-36)
Steve Nash is likely to miss the playoffs for only the second time in the last 10 years despite playing at his typically high level while enduring injuries and a rotating cast of teammates. According to Basketball Value, Nash improves his team's offense more than any player (14.5 points per 100 possessions) and is third, behind Paul Pierce and Nowitzki, in overall improvement at 16.4 points per 100 possessions. The 37-year-old also has a chance for his fifth year of shooting at least 50 percent from the field (he's at 49.7), 40 percent from distance (40.1) and 90 percent from the line (90.9).
 
17Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 18
Swingman Mike Dunleavy has been cleared to play after missing five weeks with a broken thumb. Despite the emergence of rookie Paul George, the Pacers could certainly use Dunleavy's multifaceted skills as they struggle to stay in the eighth seed in the East. Here's a remarkable stat that underscores Dunleavy's value: Through Sunday, there were 16 five-man units around the league that had played at least 400 minutes together. According to Basketball Value, the Pacers' quintet of Dunleavy, Roy Hibbert, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger and Darren Collison ranked third in net points per 100 possessions with plus-14.22. A Boston lineup with its four All-Stars and Glen Davis (plus-16.15) led the NBA, and the Lakers' opening-night lineup, with Odom in for Andrew Bynum, was second (plus-14.7).
 
18Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 23
Since taking over for Larry Brown in late December, coach Paul Silas has been masterful in mentoring a roster depleted by injuries and trades meant to lower payroll and prepare for the future. The 67-year-old Silas has been especially adept during the Bobcats' surprisingly stubborn bid for the playoffs. After Charlotte roared back from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to win at Boston on Friday, point guard D.J. Augustin credited the coach's encouragement at halftime and constant faith in the players. Returning home the next night to face the Knicks, starter Kwame Brown and four reserves opened the second quarter on a 22-4 run and the Bobcats never looked back. The capper was Monday's pivotal game against the Bucks, who are also vying for the eighth seed. Brown missed the game because of a family matter; then both Augustin and backup Shaun Livingston had to leave with injuries, putting the inexperienced Garrett Temple in charge of the team. So, naturally, they overcame a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit with clutch shooting from Gerald Henderson, who was ignored by Larry Brown and is thriving under Silas.
 
19New York Knicks
Last Week: 17
Apparently the shame of constantly losing to less-talented teams finally compelled the Knicks to try playing some defense against Orlando on Monday. In the half-dozen games before that, they had become an unlikable team, claiming the problem was not having enough time to mesh rather than acknowledging (and remedying) their lack of sweat equity in getting stops. While the win over the Magic provides a little breathing room, this team is still fundamentally mismatched. Carmelo and Chauncey Billups are jab-step jump shooters. But Amar'e Stoudemire, who should remain the team's alpha dog, has been spoon-fed pick-and-roll passes his entire career. Unlike Anthony and Billups, Stoudemire has devoted himself to defense at times this season. Now he has also ceded control of the flow to a pair who deprive him of touches and his favored style of play while taking the team on a long losing streak. No wonder he has been "exhausted" lately.
 
20Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 21
Heading into the season, the concern was that point guard Baron Davis would be a ball-hog and hinder the offensive development of Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. But Davis was hurt and then compiled his lowest usage rate since 2000-01 upon his return while Griffin and Gordon thrived. The trade that brought Mo Williams for Davis created another adjustment, especially for Griffin, who was hitting the rookie wall at the same time and wasn't getting as much deference from the new arrival. But the Clippers are now 8-6 with Williams, who is a better fit in the backcourt with Gordon at both ends of the court (each has combo-guard talents) and is more resilient than Davis -- not to mention almost four years younger and about $12 million less expensive over the next two years if Williams doesn't opt out his contract. The future is brighter with Williams on board.
 
21Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 22
As speculations swirls about whether coach Keith Smart will return, perhaps the most disheartening aspect to this season has been the lingering hangover from the Don Nelson era. Yes, the Warriors have already won six games more than last year, but they rank only 27th in defensive efficiency, allowing nearly as many points per 100 possessions (111.1) as they did last season under Nelson (111.7, 29th in the league). Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are a potent backcourt, but they are slightly too redundant together and in dire need of quality defenders to bail them out. And David Lee is power-forward facsimile of Ellis and Curry, with lots of talent but little in the way of defensive utility.
 
22Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 19
As with Phoenix in the West, Milwaukee likely doomed its playoff chances with a series of hard-fought losses in the last week. If Monday's 87-86 defeat in Charlotte -- where Michael Redd played 15 minutes in a scoreless season debut in his return from knee surgery -- is the death knell, it's fitting that it happened because the Bucks couldn't convert a bevy of easy shots, a season-long affliction. (Milwaukee missed its last 11 shots and was blanked the final 3:52.) The loss left the Bucks as close to 11th-place Detroit as they are to eighth-place Indiana, and they play six of their remaining nine games on the road.
 
23Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 27
The Kings may have a lot of maturing to do to maximize their potential, but they were impressive last week. After a 40-point loss at Chicago in the second game of a five-game road trip, Sacramento rebounded to beat Milwaukee, Indiana and Philadelphia. Sunday's overtime victory against the Sixers gave the Kings a season-high three-game winning streak and their best road trip (4-1) of at least five games since 2005-06. Marcus Thornton scored 28 of his 32 points in the second half at Philadelphia, raising his average to 22 points in 17 games with Sacramento. Samuel Dalembert, who has functioned well alongside DeMarcus Cousins in a big frontcourt, averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds on the road trip.
 
24Utah Jazz
Last Week: 20
Utah Jazz (36-39)
Utah reached a new low point in its embarrassing season with Monday's loss to the Wizards, who won their second road game. The Jazz are 5-16 under coach Ty Corbin and the players are performing with the faux passion and chronic dysfunction of a team that wishes it could follow Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams out of Salt Lake City. It was less than three months ago that no team looked forward to playing the Jazz in their building. But you could see the confidence from the Wizards' John Wall and JaVale McGee as they realized Utah lacked the schemes and the spine to stop them. It was only when Corbin benched the veterans and played rookies Gordon Hayward, Jeremy Evans and Derrick Favors the entire fourth quarter that Utah made up a 10-point deficit and forced overtime.
 
25Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 24
Power forward Chris Wilcox, who has been an injury-prone tease for many of his nine NBA years, is doing it again as his two-year, $6 million contract expires this season. Before the weekend, Wilcox had a seven-game stretch in which he averaged 12.6 points (on 76.9 percent shooting) and 5.6 rebounds in only 19.6 minutes. But then he sat out the second half of Saturday's victory against Indiana with knee tendinitis. He's also missed time this season with hamstring and groin injuries. But when he's been on the floor, Wilcox has had a more positive impact than anyone else in the Pistons' rotation, according to Basketball Value.
 
26New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 25
Coach Avery Johnson has recently used a three-guard starting lineup, prompted by the offensive inefficiency of swingman and former starter Travis Outlaw and the rebounding prowess of power forward Kris Humphries. But even that ostensibly quicker unit couldn't contain the athletic Hawks on Saturday. Atlanta used its size and speed to score at will in the paint, essentially deciding the game in the first six minutes with a 19-0 run. Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic, two former Lakers backups, have been part of that three-guard unit. And while both players have had their moments as Nets, it's clear neither was being held back in L.A. and probably benefited from the predominance of Kobe and the structure of the triangle offense.
 
27Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 26
Last week, I criticized leading scorer Andrea Bargnani for his indifferent defense. The center and his teammates made me look smart by yielding 84 points in the first half at Golden State on Friday, as the Warriors shot 31-of-45 from the field and got to the line 18 times. Bargnani's line in the 138-100 defeat included 2-of-10 shooting and zero rebounds in 27 minutes. He was a minus-40, meaning the Raptors actually outscored Golden State in the 21 minutes Bargnani sat out. That's a disgraceful performance for any player, let alone one who was once the No. 1 pick in the draft and is supposed to be a team leader.
 
28Washington Wizards
Last Week: 29
It is hard to believe that just two short years ago, coach Flip Saunders came to Washington with a reputation for offensive innovation. A lot of turmoil and roster churn have no doubt caused Saunders to toss aside his thick playbook, but that doesn't mean the Wizards can't exercise common sense on their shot selection. A major reason why Washington is 28th in offensive efficiency is because of their failure to utilize the three-pointer, ranking 27th in long-range attempts. Saunders might argue that he eschews deep shots because his team is also 27th in three-point percentage. But that still would be more productive than the status quo. The Wizards lead the league in attempts from 16-23 feet -- the least desirable shot -- but rank 28th in accuracy from that distance, according to Hoopdata. If the Wizards' guards want to clank from the perimeter, they should at least position behind the arc, where their made buckets, infrequent though they may be, will have more value.
 
29Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 28
The Wolves have lost seven in a row and need to finish at least 3-5 if they are to avoid falling below 20 wins for the second straight season. With Kevin Love sidelined by a groin injury, they've gotten a good look lately at the uber-athletic Anthony Randolph. The 6-11 forward moved into the starting lineup last week and toasted Dallas and OKC for a combined 55 points (and 63.9 percent shooting) and 26 rebounds in a couple of competitive losses. Then Randolph on Sunday ran into Kevin Garnett, who shut him out from the field (0-of-5) and limited him to three points and four rebounds in 17 foul-plagued minutes. Worse, Randolph pouted and acted out, critical of the whistles and his own ineptitude, as he pulled his jersey over his head in shame while still on the court and sulked on the bench as his teammates were mounting a second-half comeback.
 
30Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
A relentless string of injuries to big men has finally forced coach Byron Scott to start 7-footer Ryan Hollins, the 26-year-old, fifth-year center who has mostly watched from the sideline season while smaller but more competitive interior defenders have logged time and then hobbled off. Hollins has started the last three games and is averaging 19.6 minutes in March, his most in any month. With no other healthy player over 6-9 available, he should continue to have a belated chance to make an impression the rest of the season.

 
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