Posted: Fri December 28, 2012 3:02PM; Updated: Fri December 28, 2012 7:39PM
Matt Dollinger
Matt Dollinger>NBA POWER RANKINGS

Clippers stay on top; Rockets crack top 10

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The NBA has transformed Christmas Day into a showcase of its best players and teams. Naughty or nice, David Stern once again gift-wrapped us an embarrassment of marquee matchups to rip through in one 13-hour period. So what did we learn about the NBA's power hierarchy after watching the biggest day of the regular season?

For one, we were reminded that the Heat are still the team to beat after their eerily familiar-looking win against the Thunder in a rematch of last season's Finals. We also learned that Kobe Bryant and the new-look Lakers -- when at full strength -- are capable of beating an elite team such as the Knicks, who have cooled off a bit and seen the injuries continue to pile up. We found out that the Rockets really are earning their status as the NBA's highest-scoring team, hanging 120 on the typically stingy Bulls in Chicago. And we ended the night by witnessing yet another victory by the Clippers, who have proved they are the best team so far this season and worthy of being No. 1 in our Power Rankings for the second straight week.

The rest of the top five, however, looks different after an eventful seven days. Houston, winners of five straight, moved up seven spots to No. 9, overshadowing the Lakers' six-spot rise to No. 12. Here's where all 30 teams stands as we close out 2012.

(Note: All statistics and records through Dec. 27.)

NBA Power Rankings
 
1 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 1
Since: 4-0
The Clippers reaffirmed their No. 1 ranking with a 4-0 week, outscoring opponents by an average of 19.7 points and extending their franchise-best winning streak to 15 games. There might have been a debate before the season regarding the NBA's best point guard, but Chris Paul's performance in the Clippers' 23-6 start has ended the discussion. Paul's competitive spirit has kept the Clippers from having an off night since November and his point-guard prowess has led him to rank first in the league in steals (2.7) and second in assists (9.6).
 
2 Miami Heat
Last Week: 5
Since: 3-0
Miami Heat (20-6)
The one-on-one matchups between Kevin Durant and LeBron James were breathtaking on Tuesday, but LeBron ultimately won the clash, scoring four fewer points but finishing with a more rounded stat line of 29 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Miami looks engaged again, winning six straight after dropping three games in a little more than a week earlier this month. But you kind of expect LeBron and Co. to grow bored by the regular season, as they fine-tune and gear up to defend their title in the spring. Maybe he'll try to top Larry Bird's famed left-handed game, in which Bird dropped 47 points on the Trail Blazers while primarily using his off hand amid a lengthy hot streak for Boston. Just because.
 
3 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 2
Since: 1-1
The Thunder came dangerously close to losing their third straight game before Kevin Durant (40 points) came to the rescue in Thursday's overtime victory against Dallas. Unlike Miami, which has embraced its small-ball destiny, Oklahoma City seems unwilling to adapt, sticking with Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup and for 25 minutes per game despite the NBA's dearth of dominant big men. Perkins' contributions have been minimal, as he is averaging career lows in points and rebounds per 36 minutes and failing to have a major impact on the team's defense. Playing Nick Collison in place of Perkins or Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin at the same time makes the Thunder a much more dangerous team on offense. If it's not hurting them on defense, either, the change makes even more sense.
 
4 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 6
Since: 3-0
The Spurs are the only team outside of the Clippers to rank in the top five in points scored and allowed per possession, a strong indicator that they're truly elite. But how does San Antonio stack up against other powerhouses Not well. The Spurs are 1-4 against the Clippers, Thunder and Heat, though one of those games comes with an asterisk thanks to Gregg Popovich's mandated day of rest. But Popovich's veteran crew knows better than most that regular-season success doesn't guarantee anything the playoffs. San Antonio has finished with the best record in the West in each of the last two years, but hasn't made the Finals since winning it all in 2007.
 
5 New York Knicks
Last Week: 3
Since: 2-2
Few teams have had any success in slowing down the Knicks' offense, but the injury bug is positioned to do just that. Raymond Felton became the latest victim, as the point guard will miss 4-6 weeks with a broken finger. That means Jason Kidd will shift back to his natural point guard position, softening the blow. Meanwhile, a banged-up Carmelo Anthony sat out Wednesday; Amar'e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert and Rasheed Wallace remain on the injured list for varying periods of time; and Steve Novak got his bell rung on this devastating (but accidental) blow from Metta World Peace. As long as J.R. Smith is hitting shots like this, New York doesn't have to panic. But the Knicks have lost three of six since a 9-1 run.
 
6 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 4
Since: 1-2
The Grizzlies' vaunted defense failed them in their second instance of back-to-back losses this month. A defensive breakdown against the NBA's highest-scoring team, Houston, which blitzed the Grizzlies for 121 points, is understandable. But allowing the much less potent 76ers to shoot 52.1 percent and score 99 points is very uncharacteristic of the Grizzlies, who had given up an average of 79.8 points in their previous four games. Memphis is 0-5 when yielding at least 99 points.
 
7 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 7
Since: 2-1
Stephen Curry has put to rest all of the preseason concern about his ankle injuries. Curry has been fit enough to play a career-high 38 minutes a game, good for 10th in the league. That's nearly 10 more than Curry averaged in an injury-shortened 2011-12 season. The point guard has taken full advantage of the extra court time: He is one of three players averaging at least 20 points, six assists and four rebounds (the other two are LeBron James and Russell Westbrook).
 
8 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 8
Since: 2-1
Defense continues to be the calling card for the Hawks, who rank sixth in points allowed per possession. Larry Drew has found a clever way to turn defense into offense. Atlanta ranks third in forcing turnovers (16.7 per game) and steals (9.1), which has helped it generate easy buckets and earn top-five rankings in points off turnovers (18.4) and fast break points (17.2). With Atlanta's depth, an aggressive style of offense and defense makes sense, especially if it's leading to wins.
 
9 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 17
Since: 3-0
The Rockets have averaged 112.4 points on 51.5 percent shooting during their five-game winning streak. That's because James Harden and Jeremy Lin have been torching opponents, proving they can co-exist after all. Harden is averaging 29.6 points in the last five games, while Lin is putting up 16.6 points and 7.4 assists. That type of production will keep Houston atop the league in scoring (105.3 points) and give the team a shot at its first playoff berth since 2008-09.
 
10 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 10
Since: 2-0
The 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert is struggling to live up to his $58 million max contract. He is shooting a career-low 40.4 percent and averaging just 9.9 points, the fewest since his rookie year. Hibbert told Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star that his shooting woes are a result of his ailing right wrist, which has "been basically a stub" this season. That would explain Hibbert's offensive struggles -- both in efficiency and shot selection, as highlighted perfectly by Tim Donahue of the Pacers-themed blog Eight Points, Nine Seconds. The biggest difference has been the decline in Hibbert's hook shot, his go-to-move; he converted 62.2 percent of attempts last season compared to just 47.6 this year.
 
11 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
Since: 2-1
The Nuggets are starting to look more like the team we thought they'd be, particularly at home, where they've won their last seven and are 9-1 overall. That's great news for Denver, which plays 15 of its next 20 games in the mile-high Pepsi Center. Denver averages 6.4 more points per game and gives up 6.9 fewer points at home.
 
12 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 18
Since: 2-1
Steve Nash has brought an undeniable spark to the offense in helping the Lakers win two of three since his return. But the team's mediocre defense has to improve if the Lakers want to hold up in the long run. Los Angeles gave up a season-high 126 to the Nuggets and 115 to the Warriors in an overtime game four nights before. To the Lakers' credit, though, those performances were sandwiched around a solid effort against the Knicks, who managed only 94 points on 42.7 percent shooting. SI.com's Rob Mahoney explains how Mike D'Antoni correctly utilized Dwight Howard to patch up the team's pick-and-roll defense and stifle the Knicks. The Lakers need Howard -- balky back or not -- to anchor their D that way on a regular basis.
 
13 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 14
Since: 2-1
Larry Sanders might never be a great offensive player, but he's showing the Bucks he can be an extremely valuable contributor. The big man is second in blocks per game (3.0), despite coming off the bench for most of the season and averaging only 24.6 minutes, and has the NBA's top defensive rating. With that type of breakout, Sanders' second-unit days are likely over. Since Scott Skiles inserted him into the starting lineup three weeks ago, Sanders is averaging 9.8 rebounds.
 
14 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 9
Since: 1-2
The Bulls delivered a coal-worthy performance on Christmas, failing to show up in front of their home fans against the Rockets. Until Derrick Rose returns, you can expect more sluggish offensive nights from Chicago, which scores points like a National League team tries to manufacture runs. The Bulls average a modest 98.5 points in wins, but just 85.9 points in losses, second fewest in the league.
 
15 Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 12
Since: 1-2
Brooklyn didn't take long to immerse itself in New York's rich tradition of throwing away head coaches like expired subway passes. Avery Johnson, who led the Nets to a franchise-best 11-4 start and was named the NBA's Coach of the Month for October and November, was fired Thursday. The move somehow managed to top the Lakers' firing of Mike Brown for ridiculousness. Sure, the Nets are 3-10 in their last 13 games, but 10 of those games have come against teams above .500. It didn't help that Brook Lopez missed five games, all of which the Nets lost. Nor did it help that Deron Williams is shooting a career-worst 39.8 percent. But the Nets can't make Williams hit shots or Lopez not miss games, so they forced action another way, axing Johnson.
 
16 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 13
Since: 0-2
It's been a bit of a slow start for Ricky Rubio, who is easing his way back from ACL surgery. Rubio is shooting just 23.8 percent in his first five games, coming off the bench to play about 18 minutes per game. He's gone scoreless twice but has showed glimpses of his sensational court vision and passing ability, dropping nine assists in his season debut. The Wolves don't want to rush their point guard of the future back, but they could use him, having lost four of five.
 
17 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 22
Since: 2-1
Portland is playing its best basketball of the season, winning six of seven to get above. 500. J.J. Hickson continues to be a revelation, recording nine straight double-doubles and averaging 16.4 points (on 63.3 percent shooting) and 13.7 rebounds in that stretch. The team has also been getting a lift from Nicolas Batum, who has stepped up his play in Wes Matthews' absence to average 16.2 points, six rebounds and six assists over the last four games. Damian Lillard has maintained his firm grasp on the Rookie of the Year award and is finding ways to turn his all-world talent into wins.
 
18 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 16
Since: 1-2
The Celtics, losers of five of seven, continue to get manhandled down low, sitting 29th in rebounding rate and winning the battle on the boards only once in the last 10 games. The Celtics don't look like a team that can do damage in the postseason without an upgrade inside. Boston would be wise to aggressively pursue a veteran big man in order to strengthen its play in the paint and give Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce another established player to help them make a run at one more title.
 
19 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 15
Since: 1-2
Utah Jazz (15-15)
Utah's 24th-ranked defense has struggled all season, but it's been particularly horrid lately as the Jazz have lost by double digits in five of their last seven games. The Jazz allowed the Pacers to reach triple digits for the first time in nearly a month and have permitted at least nine three-pointers in their last four games. The offense hasn't been any better, failing to score 90 points in any of its five most recent losses.
 
20 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 20
Since: 2-1
Dorell Wright has given the Sixers a much-needed offensive boost. Wright has scored at least 20 points in three of his last five games, including a season-high 28 against the Grizzlies as a fill-in starter for an injured Jason Richardson. Philadelphia has split the first two games of its eight-game road trip, which still has stops in Golden State, Portland, Los Angeles (Lakers), Phoenix, Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
 
21 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 21
Since: 0-3
The Mavericks predictably went 0-4 in a brutal stretch against the Heat, Grizzlies, Spurs and Thunder, but the last loss was particularly painful after blowing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter. Dirk Nowitzki has been understandably rusty as he works his way back into shape from preseason knee surgery, coming off the bench to average 8.5 points and shoot 6-of-15 in his first two games. Nowitzki's return to the starting lineup -- and his regular self -- will be a boost for the Mavs, but it's unlikely to solve their defensive issues. Dallas ranks 29th in points allowed, in part because its fast pace creates more possessions, but it's also only 21st in points allowed per possession.
 
22 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 19
Since: 0-3
The Magic have been crying without Big Baby, going 0-3 since Glen Davis went down with a sprained left shoulder. Orlando had been riding high with the help of Davis, winning four straight in mid-December, but hasn't been able to produce the same type of results in the burly power forward's absence despite playing relatively good basketball. The Magic shot 48.4 percent and won the rebounding battle in every game of their 0-3 week, falling by a combined 11 points. Orlando needs better production from Gustavo Ayon or Andrew Nicholson to survive Davis' injury and stay in the conversation for a playoff spot.
 
23 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 26
Since: 2-1
There's no better way to end a six-game losing streak than with back-to-back wins over the Wizards. Detroit followed that up with a bizarre double-overtime loss to the Hawks in which its bench exploded for 85 points, the most by any NBA team in 13 years. It helped that Will Bynum scored 31, but Andre Drummond (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Rodney Stuckey (16 points, 11 assists and five rebounds) also turned in huge games. It's time for the latter two to replace Jason Maxiell (one point against Atlanta, one of many quiet games of late) and Kyle Singler (zero points against Atlanta, and he's shooting 35.1 percent this month) in the starting lineup. 
 
24 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 23
Since: 0-3
Phoenix Suns (11-18)
Despite a three-game skid, the Suns have to be encouraged by the offensive outburst from defensive stopper Jared Dudley. For years, Phoenix was a hotbed for points, but that trend has dried out since Steve Nash's departure. For the first team since 2004, the Suns don't rank in the top 10 in scoring. That type of output has led Dudley, a career 8.8-point scorer, to step up his game, averaging 19.3 points over his last eight, including a career-high 36 on Wednesday. Even more unlikely is that Dudley is the team's most efficient offensive player, with a 60.3 true shooting percentage (which takes two-pointers, three-pointers and free throws into account).
 
25 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 24
Since: 1-1
Toronto suffered another big injury up front in the loss of rookie center Jonas Valanciunas, who will miss 4-6 weeks with a broken finger. More minutes for backup power forward Ed Davis (19.8 PER) is a good thing, but those were already coming in Andrea Bargnani's absence. With Valanciunas going down, too, the Raptors are looking for minutes from seldom-used center Aaron Gray, who fills up the paint but not box scores. The Raptors' five-game winning streak ended with a 20-point loss at San Antonio on Wednesday. 
 
26 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 25
Since: 1-2
Let me channel my inner Stephen Colbert for a second. I'd like to give a tip of the hat to the Kings, for indefinitely suspending DeMarcus Cousins after his latest blow-up. But Sacramento gets an even bigger wag of the finger for ending the ban after just one game. The Kings had the self-respect to not play Cousins the night after lifting the suspension -- but how can they accept Cousins' apology so quickly? Have the obscenities hurled at his coach already faded from memory? If the Kings are hell-bent on keeping the talented, yet tumultuous big man, so be it. But the Kings shouldn't be so keen on catering to his nonsense if they are going to keep him around.
 
27 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 28
Since: 2-1
Cleveland won back-to-back games for the first time this season with road victories against the Bucks and Wizards. Even more impressive, they did it without Anderson Varejao, who is still nursing a knee injury. With rookie Tyler Zeller stepping in for Varejao, the Cavs' starting lineup drops to an average age of 22, but the youngsters are getting it done. If Cleveland's youth movement continues to see this type of success, the pressure will pile up for the team to part with Varejao for prospects and picks that will help speed up the rebuilding project.
 
28 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 27
Since: 1-2
The Hornets mercifully snapped their 11-game skid thanks to Robin Lopez, who scored a season-high 29 points in Wednesday's victory at Orlando. Lopez has been producing at a surprisingly high level all season, nearly doubling his production from last year while shooting a career-best 55.2 from the field. When drafted out of Stanford, Lopez was widely regarded as the defensive version of his twin brother, Brook, but Robin has shown there's more to his game. He's actually shooting a higher percentage than his brother this year from both the field (56.6 to 50.2) and the free-throw line (80.8 vs. 65.9).
 
29 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 29
Since: 0-3
Losing streaks are a slippery slope in Charlotte. The Bobcats have dropped 16 straight just two months after snapping a 23-game slide dating to last season. It's been a full month since they've won a game and almost that long since they've held an opponent under 100 points. Charlotte has done its best to earn the bottom spot in the rankings, but the Wizards' woes continue to keep them out of the cellar. That could change if the 'Cats' losing streak is still going strong this time next week.
 
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Since: 0-3
The Wizards are terrible, but can you really blame Randy Wittman? The coach has gone 21-54 since taking over for Flip Saunders last season, piling up a winning percentage (.280) that looks more like Bryce Harper's batting average. Wittman will be lucky to have a job with the Wizards next season if they keep playing like this, but the front office hasn't done him any favors. There's a massive talent void outside of John Wall, who hasn't even played this season. Washington is so desperate that on Wednesday it started Shelvin Mack, who was called up from the D-League the day before. Washington is on a league-worst pace, an inevitability that Wittman, Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach or anyone else couldn't have prevented. 
 
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