Posted: Tuesday March 20, 2012 1:21PM ; Updated: Tuesday March 20, 2012 8:19PM
Britt Robson
Britt Robson>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Suns boost postseason hopes as Western Conference race tightens

Story Highlights

A 9-2 surge since the All-Star break has the Suns in the thick of the playoff race

The Bulls, formidable even without reigning MVP Derrick Rose, remain at No. 1

Up-and-down Dallas is on the rise again; Wolves struggling without Ricky Rubio

Two years ago, the NBA had the Eastern Conference and the Wild West. Just five games over the course of an 82-game season separated the 55-win second seed from the 50-win eighth seed in the Western Conference, creating one of the most competitive playoff brackets in league history.

With about 20 games remaining in this abbreviated season, the West is again threatening to be wild and woolly. A few weeks ago, everyone was feeling sorry for Steve Nash, seemingly destined to miss the playoffs in potentially his last year in Phoenix. But through Monday a 9-2 record since the All-Star break had put the Suns just a half-game out of a postseason berth -- and only 3 games away from the fourth seed. Can the Suns (up to 13th in the Power Rankings) continue their climb as the schedule gets tougher, beginning this week with a four-game road trip that includes visits to Miami, Orlando and Indiana?

Entering Tuesday, 10 teams in the West had winning records. A handful of them are teetering between a surge to playoff legitimacy and a plummet into possible full-scale rebuilding. Not surprisingly, the middle of the pack is where the action is in this week's Power Rankings.

(All stats and records are through Monday, March 19.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 1
Someday when we look back on the great Bulls defenses under Tom Thibodeau, holding Dwight Howard and the Magic to 59 points Monday will be one of the games we recall. Yes, Orlando missed a few open shots, but the defensive intensity and the crispness of the help rotations in the half-court were tremendous even by Chicago's exalted standards. Much of the credit belongs to Thibodeau, who knows how to forge a true team defense. Guys like Carlos Boozer, who played 34:32 in Orlando, and Kyle Korver, who played 26:39, have justified reputations as subpar individual defenders. But they play for a team that is now 10-4 when reigning MVP Derrick Rose is out and has the NBA's best record even though its iron man in minutes, Luol Deng, is playing with a bum wrist that has cut into his field-goal percentage and scoring. They and the rest of the Bulls have bought in to making stops as the top priority. It is a formidable mindset and a reliable weapon heading into the playoffs.
 
2Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 2
The buzz around Derek Fisher's possibly joining the Thunder after his buyout from Houston is understandable. Oklahoma City lost backup point guard Eric Maynor to a season-ending knee injury in early January and now has rookie Reggie Jackson in that role. The conventional wisdom is that Fisher, a savvy veteran who has won five titles, would be invaluable in the locker room and in spelling Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. That's probably sound judgment, but adding Fisher at this juncture, assuming OKC is where he wants to go, is not without risk. It would run counter to the organization's measured and masterful assembly of the roster, which is part of the team's culture. The Thunder's young core has already amassed quite a bit of playoff experience (although obviously not on Fisher's level), and, because the offense relies on transition baskets, isolation plays and free throws more than most teams, traditional point-guard play is not as much of a factor. Given the intangibles Fisher brings -- if OKC happened to meet the Lakers in the playoffs, he knows their tendencies better than most of the Lakers themselves -- it would be silly to turn down the chance to get him. But there is no dire need to upgrade from Jackson.
 
3Miami Heat
Last Week: 3
Miami Heat (33-11)
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched Miami play much this season, but LeBron James is feasting in the paint. Only Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard finish at the rim with more frequency than James, who has a higher shooting percentage from there than both of them. When it comes to shots from 3-9 feet -- the floaters, short bankers, side layups and some putbacks -- LeBron is the NBA's third-most-accurate shooter, behind Emeka Okafor and Roy Hibbert. Yes, a lot of those shots are coming in transition. The added strength and physical comfort he shows in his post-up game this season, plus common estimates that he actually weighs 20-30 pounds more than his listed 240, makes for some intriguing potential playoff scenarios. Just as Miami uses James to defend dynamic point guards such as Derrick Rose in the postseason, why not give him short stints guarding the elite centers who trouble Miami, like Howard? Is that really a worse matchup than throwing Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony or Dexter Pittman at Superman?
 
4San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 4
Trading Richard Jefferson for Stephen Jackson provides the Spurs with significant savings and the potential for major cap space in the summer of 2013, but the deal can also be justified as an attempt to improve this year's team. Danny Greene and Kawhi Leonard shoot better than 40 percent from the three-point corners, according to the advanced stats at NBA.com, which was Jefferson's primary function in the offense. What Jefferson can't or won't do anymore is penetrate: His shots at the rim have declined each year, from 5.9 per game in 2008 to 0.7 this season. Jackson is likewise penetrating less than ever this season, but he is still getting to the basket 2.2 times per game (albeit with a below-average 53.4 completion rate there). With Manu Ginobili's fragile health a concern, the Spurs could use someone besides Tony Parker challenging big men off the dribble. The 6-8 Jackson would be valuable if he can fill that role.
 
5Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 7
There should be two recent reasons for genuine optimism among the purple-and-gold faithful. Adding Ramon Sessions from Cleveland is a wonderful remedy for what was probably the team's biggest flaw: the lack of a point guard who could dish off the dribble. That happens to be Sessions' specialty, and he's also a better defender than either Steve Blake or the departed Derek Fisher. The other smile-inducing development is the continued enhancement of Andrew Bynum's game. Utah came hard with double- and even triple teams every time Bynum touched the ball early in Sunday's game, and the big man committed four turnovers in the first quarter. But in the final three periods, Bynum adjusted, scoring 27 points (to finish with 33) on 11-of-12 shooting against Utah's tall and rugged young frontcourt while committing only two additional turnovers. If not for Kobe Bryant's 3-for-20 shooting woes that night, the Lakers would have finished with a 4-0 week.
 
6Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 9
The Clippers had gone 1-5 in games decided by four points or fewer in March before winning two more nail-biters over the weekend to salvage a split of their six-game homestand. Kenyon Martin has been a godsend for a defense that still ranks in the bottom third (21st) in points allowed per possession. According to Basketball Value, the Clippers give up 99.9 points per 100 possessions when Martin is on the floor. The next-best rate among his teammates is DeAndre Jordan's 103.1 points per 100 possessions. Can newly acquired shooting guard Nick Young provide a similar boost for the offense? Not likely, but if the shameless gunner we saw in Washington can get his shot selection under better control playing alongside Chris Paul, he'll rightfully steal minutes from starter Randy Foye and enable coach Vinny Del Negro to provide a quicker hook for Mo Williams when the team's primary scorer off the bench is having one of his frequent off games.
 
7Orlando Magic
Last Week: 5
The last time the Magic were flattened by an elite defense, scoring just 56 points against Boston in late January, they lost four of five in embarrassing fashion before getting back on track. This time, the situation seems less daunting. A wretched performance doesn't increase the chatter that Dwight Howard is on his way out the door, and it's unlikely that enough teams will overtake Orlando to force it into a first-round matchup with the Bulls or Heat. But in the wake of Monday night's blowout against the Bulls, the Magic have now been humbled by two conference rivals, and the limitations of an offense dependent on three-pointers has been emphatically exposed again. Not many players on the roster are great passers, shutdown defenders (Howard excepted, of course) or adept at scoring off the dribble. Ryan Anderson has had a terrific season and is becoming more competent scoring and defending in the paint. But when he has an off night, as occurred against Miami and Chicago in the last week, Orlando is in trouble.
 
8Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 15
What an odd season. The defending champions have twice shown every indication that they are about to implode, then suddenly coalesce and embark on an impressive winning streak. Dirk Nowitzki has regained his touch, scoring at least 27 points in each of the last four games while shooting 54.8 percent (52.6 percent from long distance) and averaging 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists. On defense, there has been a smoother transition among the revolving big men Brendan Haywood, Ian Mahinmi and Brandan Wright, and score-first veterans like Jason Terry and Vince Carter rededicated themselves to getting stops. The schedule provided a good refresher, as home wins over Washington and Charlotte helped banish memories of ugly, dysfunctional play to begin the second half. But the last two victories -- at home against San Antonio and at Denver -- have been nearly wire-to-wire and impressive. It remains to be seen whether Dallas can sustain this high caliber of play enough to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
 
9Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 6
Zach Randolph's return wasn't quite as triumphant as the Grizzlies hoped, as Memphis missed 20 free throws, committed 18 turnovers and stumbled its way through a home overtime loss to Toronto on Friday. The lackluster play continued in a mundane win over Washington on Sunday. But Randolph immediately flashed the low-post talents that made him an All-Star last season, averaging 19 points on 56.5 percent shooting and nine rebounds in just 24.5 minutes over those two games. It is apparent already that his ability to play with Marreese Speights will give Marc Gasol some much-needed rest. But the outstanding question is how Randolph meshes with small forward Rudy Gay. Their staggered injury history rarely enabled them to share the court from the second half of last season through the first half of this one. So far it has created more space for Gay on the perimeter, which he utilized for a season-high 27 points Sunday.
 
10Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
Will the player carousel that is the Nuggets' roster ever stop long enough for the team to sort out roles and figure out how to play with each other? It didn't seem that way after Denver was shellacked at home by Dallas on Monday amid a rush-hour level of comings and goings. Swingman Wilson Chandler, a restricted free agent who signed a five-year deal after playing part of the season in China, logged 28 minutes in an encouraging debut. Center JaVale McGee, acquired in a trade with Washington for Nene, was in town but didn't play. Point guard Andre Miller lasted five minutes before bruising his shoulder, and sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari, who recently returned after an ankle injury, broke his left thumb in the third quarter. As for the game itself, a deliberate Dirk Nowitzki made mincemeat out of uber-athletic but undersized rookie Kenneth Faried en route to 33 points. Shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who by attrition has become the team's elder statesman, led the Nuggets with 24.
 
11Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 8
Not even center Spencer Hawes' return could get the Sixers back into their early-season groove. Part of that is because Hawes is being brought back slowly. He sat the entire game against Miami and was limited to 24 minutes or fewer against Indiana, Chicago and Charlotte. When he did play, the offense was much more fluid, and his rebounding prowess, especially on the defensive glass, is the best on the team. If Hawes can get back to playing nearly 30 minutes per night, and second-unit scorers Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young don't slump simultaneously again (although being defended by Miami and Chicago has been known to induce slumps), the Sixers could re-establish momentum. There is no time like the present, as Atlantic Division rivals Boston and New York are up next at home, followed by a visit to San Antonio.
 
12Boston Celtics
Last Week: 12
Ask seasoned NBA fans to name the best pure shooters in the history of the game and it is likely that Ray Allen will be among the first three or four players mentioned. Allen is living up to his reputation this year, posting the best three-point percentage and second-highest true shooting percentage of his 16-year career. So why does Allen shoot less frequently per minute than any other member of the starting five, on a team that ranks 26th in points scored per possession? On Monday in Atlanta, Allen's eight-point splurge (two three-pointers and two free throws) ignited a 17-2 fourth-quarter run that spelled the difference in a 79-76 win. He scored a team-high 19 points but was fifth with nine field-goal attempts. At 36, he can no longer constantly run around in traffic to rub off his opponent and get open looks, and still have enough energy to devote for defense. And force-feeding him the ball would cut down on his scoring efficiency. Even so, Boston is an aging team in a dogfight just to make the playoffs, and it has to space the floor to make its smaller lineup, with Kevin Garnett at center, more effective. The Celtics need to run more set plays for Allen, and he needs to be less judicious in his shot selection.
 
13Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 19
Phoenix Suns (23-22)
The Suns are the hottest second-half team in the West with that 9-2 record, including victories on three consecutive nights last week. Different bench players are emerging. Center Robin Lopez was a fourth-quarter sparkplug in the final two games of the three-night stretch, which ended with Friday's victory against Detroit. Another reserve, former Bucks star Michael Redd, turned back the clock for 25 points in 19 minutes in Sunday's win over Houston. But the biggest boost has been from the role-playing starters, especially Jared Dudley, who has upped his scoring without sacrificing any of the glue-guy attributes that benefit the team; and Channing Frye, who is expanding his portfolio from three-point specialist and ultra-soft defender into someone who at least tries to body up his man while raising his rebounding average to 8.2 over the last 10 games.
 
14Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 10
Atlanta has mostly been able to avoid any pecking-order concerns among its three stars because each has a fairly distinct role. Al Horford is the stabilizer who does the dirty work and makes his teammates better. Joe Johnson is the scorer and go-to guy in crunch time. And Josh Smith is the talented, athletic catalyst and most versatile defender. But as injuries have cost Johnson and especially Horford playing time this season, Smith has frequently needed to expand his responsibilities. When Johnson was out, he assumed the fourth-quarter scoring burden. With Horford sidelined since mid-January, he has been mixing it up in the paint more often and shooting more mid-range jumpers in the flow of the offense, although with much less accuracy than Horford achieved. In other words, with less playing time among their leading trio, the Hawks are plugging away at about the same place in the standings. Does it follow, then, that Atlanta can break up its core without taking a major step backward? Hard to say, but of the three, Smith is the only one whose contract will be expiring soon (after next season) and thus easier to move. Of course, he's also been the most valuable this season. Either way, the Hawks need to get away from this middle ground, where there are no lottery picks or second-round triumphs.
 
15Utah Jazz
Last Week: 16
Utah Jazz (23-22)
The weekend couldn't have worked out much better for Utah, which is trying to develop its young roster and make a playoff push at the same time. After defeating Golden State on Saturday for their second straight overtime home victory, the Jazz beat a Lakers team that had been 19-2 at home. Rookies Enes Kanter and Alec Burks combined to shoot 13-for-17 and each scored a career-high 17 points in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, with scoring and rebounding leader Al Jefferson away for both games attending his grandmother's funeral, second-year center-forward Derrick Favors stepped up with 35 points and 27 rebounds. Then there was the crunch-time heroics of second-year swingman Gordon Hayward, who had a crucial chase-down block immediately followed by a floor-length dribble for a game-tying dunk with two minutes to play in regulation against Golden State. The Jazz still face a road-heavy schedule, and they are just 6-16 away from home. But being a half-game out of the eighth seed in the West with a winning record after 45 games and the young talent blossoming still qualifies as satisfying overachievement.
 
16New York Knicks
Last Week: 22
Without question, new coach Mike Woodson is enjoying a honeymoon from the resolved tension that occurred when Mike D'Antoni departed. But Woodson's own performance since taking over augurs continued success. Criticized for his "iso-Joe" reliance on shooter Joe Johnson while coaching the Hawks, Woodson has not repeated the practice with Carmelo Anthony, as many expected. Instead, the Knicks are winning primarily with defense; even with Indiana's garbage-time 42-point fourth quarter Friday, their three opponents have shot a combined 38.7 percent since Woodson took over. They are spreading the ball around, going away from Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire for long stretches without penalty to their offense. Sure, under a microscope for his perceived role as a "coach killer" in the D'Antoni debacle, Anthony is probably on his best behavior, and it remains to be seen what happens when the Knicks trail by double digits or are missing easy shots created by their ball movement. But it can already be said that Jeremy Lin is not strictly a byproduct of D'Antoni's offense -- after an inevitably tough patch of games, he's been more solid and self-assured lately -- and that for the first time this season, the Knicks are playing well with their most talented players on the court.
 
17Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 13
The acquisition of Leandro Barbosa from Toronto is being given generally positive reviews because of the small price paid (a second-round pick) and the potential for him to jump-start the offense of Indiana's sluggish second unit. But that increases the mystery of why the Pacers haven't better utilized guard George Hill, who cost them a first-round pick in an offseason deal with San Antonio. Yes, it can be argued that Barbosa is better at creating his own shot, although that is less true over the past few seasons, as the ninth-year player has lost a step. This season, Hill has been the more efficient scorer, with higher field-goal and three-point percentages and a much better assist-to-turnover rate. In fact, Hill is posting nearly identical shooting stats as a year ago, when he was an integral component of a 61-win team in San Antonio. After missing three weeks with a chip fracture in his ankle, he's come back to shoot 47.7 percent and average 11 points in 24.5 minutes since the All-Star break. If the Pacers would just encourage him to shoot more, or provide him more time at the point, as the Spurs did, the problem Barbosa is meant to address would be diminished.
 
18Houston Rockets
Last Week: 17
The loss of point guard Kyle Lowry to a bacterial infection really hurts the perimeter defense, a main reason why the Rockets are 3-5 without him. Getting Marcus Camby from Portland for a couple of draft busts in Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn was a shrewd move, as was the further roster pruning that took place with the trade of power forward Jordan Hill (which assures that the more promising Patrick Patterson will continue to get regular minutes) and the release of talented but clueless swingman Terrence Williams. Until Lowry is healthy, coach Kevin McHale has to figure out lineups that balance offense and defense. For example, Camby would seem to be much more effective paired with volume scorer Kevin Martin (who has missed the last four games with a strained shoulder) than with the offensively inconsistent Courtney Lee, who has scored 21, nine, 25 and two points in the four games he has started in Martin's absence. Last but not least, it was a classy move for Houston to grant Derek Fisher his release. Fisher could have absorbed some minutes for the team's injury-depleted backcourt, but he wanted to play for a team with a better shot at a championship after getting dealt from the Lakers.
 
19Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 20
NBA.com's John Schuhmann got it right calling attention to new Bucks center Ekpe Udoh as the hidden jewel in the trade with Golden State. Regular readers of this column know of my own Udoh obsession. He's the NBA's most underrated player, a standout defender who should eventually mesh perfectly with coach Scott Skiles' schemes, providing Milwaukee with the staunch low-post presence they've lacked since the injury to the now-departed Andrew Bogut. More problematic is the backcourt pairing of Monta Ellis with Brandon Jennings, especially if it costs Mike Dunleavy minutes. In 10 games since the All-Star break, Dunleavy has averaged 16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 51.3 percent from the field and 44.7 percent from three-point range. Finding time for everyone will be a challenge, but Skiles generally prefers a 10-player rotation, so don't discount the Bucks in what should be a marvelous joust with the Celtics and Knicks for the final two playoff spots in the East.
 
20Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 14
As anticipated, the loss of Ricky Rubio to a knee injury has significantly damaged the perimeter defense, which helps explain why Minnesota has won just two of six since the rookie point guard went down. The Kings constantly got into the paint off dribble penetration in their 115-99 victory over the Wolves on Sunday. Meanwhile, Darko Milicic added another footnote to his underwhelming career when he started in place of Nikola Pekovic (who is nursing a sore ankle) at Sacramento. Milicic lasted just halfway through the first quarter before noticeably tiring despite minimal effort. He didn't return and wasn't in uniform for Monday's game at Golden State. To top off a dreadful Sunday, Kevin Love and J.J. Barea squabbled in the huddle late in the game. Both had good cause, as Love had an uncharacteristically lackluster performance and Barea was launching ill-advised shots early in the shot clock. Love's 39-point, 17-rebound domination of the Warriors stopped a three-game skid, but without Rubio, the team's playoff hopes and a chunk of the camaraderie that comes to a team with good ball movement is gone.
 
21Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 18
Owner Joe Lacob made a bold move acquiring Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh. Lacob doubled down on the gamble by likening the trade to Kevin Garnett's arrival in Boston, which immediately produced a Celtics title. Bogut is an ace defender and gifted passer, and Ellis has been offensively redundant and defensively deficient for years sharing the backcourt with Stephen Curry. But Lacob is banking on the health of Bogut and Curry, who continue to compile a troubling history of injuries. Bogut's broken ankle and Udoh's departure mean that the Warriors must rely on Andris Biedrins, who suffers from a debilitating lack of confidence, as their starting center. Meanwhile, Lacob quickly dealt Jackson to San Antonio for Richard Jefferson and a first-round pick, a trade most observers regarded as a large salary-cap hit for a small upgrade in talent and assets. The deadline moves, particularly unloading fan favorite Ellis for an injured Bogut, were just part of the reason why Lacob was booed during the halftime ceremony to retire Chris Mullin's jersey Monday. As if that weren't enough intrigue, the Warriors will owe Utah their first-round pick this year unless they finish with one of the NBA's seven worst records. Golden State is ninth worst after Monday's loss to Minnesota.
 
22Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 21
Point guard Brandon Knight has hit the fabled "rookie wall," shooting just 36 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from three-point territory in the second half (both well below his first-half figures). His assist-to-turnover ratio, however, has improved, thanks to the hot hand of backcourt mate Rodney Stuckey, who is converting more ordinary passes into dimes. Knight, who turned 20 in December, has surpassed the minutes he logged during his only year at Kentucky, and the wear and tear is showing on his slender frame. While his counterpart, Chris Paul, racked up 15 points and four assists during the fourth period and overtime Sunday, Knight was shut out in both points and assists as the Pistons lost 87-83 to the Clippers. Even so, he and Stuckey have established themselves as the starting duo in what was a crowded field of combo guards at the beginning of the season.
 
23Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 24
The Blazers played with gleeful abandon Friday in their first game after Nate McMillan's firing, handing the Bulls just their fourth home loss. The high spirits continued in a grudging loss to a much superior Thunder team Sunday. But the dismantling-and-retooling plan Portland instituted at the trade deadline meant the loss of ace defenders Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby, and the joy of not having McMillan to kick them around anymore will fade among the remaining players. In other words, it could get ugly, and already has at the center position, where the formerly fearsome shot-blocker Joel Przybilla is more likely to try to draw the charge (his offense remains nonexistent) and Kurt Thomas is finally starting to move and react like the oldest player in the NBA. Meanwhile, one of the league's most loyal fan bases cherishes the first-round pick from New Jersey that Wallace fetched in a trade, anticipates the re-signing of swingman Nicholas Batum and bides its time for next season.
 
24Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
You can see it coming together in Sacramento, where the Kings routed the Celtics and Wolves without Tyreke Evans to improve to 4-3 on their nine-game homestand. The team is being repaid for a brutal schedule that had it playing 24 of its first 38 games on the road, but it is also surging offensively since rookie Isaiah Thomas became the starting point guard. The Kings are 6-10 with Thomas at the controls and 5-7 since the All-Star break, a stretch in which they have raised their scoring more than 10 points per game (from 94.2 to 104.8) because of much-improved accuracy from the field (41.1 to 46.3) and three-point arc (31.2 to 35.0), more assists and fewer turnovers. Thomas is promoting more ball movement and fewer isolations for Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, and the man he replaced as a starter, John Salmons, is spearheading better offense from the second unit. The next, interrelated steps in the Kings' development are upgrading a defense ranked 28th in efficiency and improving their 4-20 road record.
 
25Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 23
During his first few weeks in the NBA, 6-8 forward Tristan Thompson looked like a long-term project -- quick and burly but very raw, without a great sense of how he fit into the big picture on the court. All that is still true, except that Thompson now has a monster game under his belt after exploding for 27 points on 12-for-16 shooting and 12 rebounds (eight on the offensive glass) to lead the Cavs over New Jersey on Monday. The No. 4 pick was too strong for the Nets and benefited from the officials' "letting them play." He still needs to refine the most basic aspects of the game -- shooting, dribbling, passing -- but jousting in the paint can be checked off the list.
 
26Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 27
All season, first-year coach Dwane Casey has forsaken offense to concentrate on reversing the culture of soft, careless defense in Toronto. But with point guard Jose Calderon out with a sprained ankle, shooting guard Leandro Barbosa traded to Indiana and leading scorer Andrea Bargnani back after missing six weeks with a calf injury, rotation changes and a schedule of mostly porous defenses led to more points and a respectable 2-2 road trip. Jerryd Bayless took over at the point and averaged 23.3 points on 52.6 percent shooting, eight assists and three turnovers in 39.8 minutes those four games. Gary Forbes, a little-used 6-7 small forward, performed well as a sub in the depleted backcourt. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan continues to find his stroke -- unlike Bargnani, who is below 40 percent from the field in the six games since his return. Heavier minutes for both Bayless and Bargnani will challenge Casey to keep tightening the reins or face more yo-yo results like those of last week, when Toronto followed its best win of the season, Friday's overtime victory at Memphis, by yielding 107 points on 50.7 percent shooting in a loss to Charlotte, the NBA's worst team.
 
27New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 28
Jarrett Jack leads New Orleans in points and assists, but the more you watch the Hornets, the more apparent it is that Greivis Vasquez should be the starting point guard. The 6-6 Vasquez has great size for the position, and his four years as a starter for Maryland plus his two NBA seasons have given him the experience to bolster his instincts as a facilitator. While Jack is enjoying his best season, he still can be a shoot-first guard who has blinders on, especially at crunch time, ignoring open teammates. He is also an inferior defender to Vasquez. The woeful Hornets have been outscored by only 34 points in Vasquez's 990 minutes, compared to minus-175 in the 1,041 minutes he has sat. Next season and beyond, he is a much better complement Eric Gordon at both ends of the court. The 6-3 Gordon is a volume shooter who needs touches and an undersized shooting guard who could benefit from cross-matching coverage with Vasquez on defense.
 
28New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 25
With Dwight Howard choosing to stay in Orlando at least temporarily and Deron Williams still planning to opt out after the season, the Nets face the very real possibility of opening a new arena next season without any stars to help them fill it. As for the present, their last two games have been painful to watch. Williams returned from a calf injury Saturday and hogged the ball with the game on the line, missing three shots in the final 98 seconds as the Hornets came from behind to win. Against Cleveland on Monday, same scenario: Williams shot 1-for-6 over the final 6:16 as the Nets blew a five-point lead. (He also had two assists in that span and would have had a third if Kris Humphries had broken to the basket on a wide-open pick-and-roll.) Despite being named to the All-Star team and erupting for 57 points against Charlotte last month, Williams has not had a good year. He leads the NBA in turnovers per game and has done his part to make the Nets the league's worst in points allowed per possession.
 
29Washington Wizards
Last Week: 29
The Wizards did well at the deadline, reducing their immaturity issues with the departures of JaVale McGee and shooting guard Nick Young while acquiring the talented but expensive Nene as their new man in the middle. The obvious goal is to surround cornerstone point guard John Wall with more fundamentally sound talent before he wearies of the mistake-prone tragicomedy that has been Wizards basketball and wants out. What would help Wall the most is a backcourt mate who plays strong defense and doesn't need touches to be effective. Both Young and his replacement, Jordan Crawford, are nearly the polar opposite of that ideal. Hopefully Nene's arrival will help Wall settle down. In the three games since the trades, the former No. 1 pick has shot 27-for-45 (60 percent) with 27 assists and 21 turnovers, ball dominance that produced a win at New Orleans and losses to Atlanta and Memphis in which the Wizards faded down the stretch.
 
30Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 30
The Bobcats were on their way to yet another loss, trailing Toronto by seven points in the third quarter Saturday in Charlotte. Then, suddenly, they began to dominate the matchups. Tyrus Thomas' defense was giving Andrea Bargnani fits. Swingman Gerald Henderson got wherever he wanted against DeMar DeRozan, finishing 11-for-14 from the field. And rapidly improving rookie Bismack Biyombo took advantage of three quick third-quarter fouls by Toronto center Aaron Gray and began to exert himself in the paint. The result was a 107-103 win and a confidence boost for three players who figure prominently in the Bobcats' future plans.

 
SI.com
Hot Topics: Sammy Watkins NFL Draft Rick Adelman NFL Questions Aaron Hernandez Donald Trump
TM & © 2014 Time Inc. A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you. Read our privacy guidelines, your California privacy rights, and ad choices.
SI CoverRead All ArticlesBuy Cover Reprint