Posted: Fri January 4, 2013 1:36PM; Updated: Fri January 4, 2013 1:37PM
Matt Dollinger

Spurs take top spot after rough week for contenders

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Tim Duncan
At 36, Tim Duncan is averaging 17.8 points, 9.7 rebounds for the 26-9 Spurs.
Clarke Evans/Getty Images

It was a rough week for the NBA powers that be, leading an old, familiar team to claim the Power Rankings throne as we embark on a new year.

The Spurs might have played possum in Thursday night's clash with the Knicks, but they climb to the top of this week's rankings thanks to the futility of their peers. The Clippers ended their two-week run as No. 1 -- and their 17-game winning streak -- with back-to-back blowouts on the road. The Thunder have dropped three of their last six games, including a disturbing loss at home to the Nets. And the Heat are coming off their worst spell of the season, losing back-to-back games last week and needing overtime to squeeze out two others.

San Antonio held the league's longest winning streak at seven games before losing to the Knicks on Thursday. But one regular-season loss won't make anyone on the Spurs sweat (see: Popovich, Gregg). The Spurs own top-four units on offense and defense and have bounced back nicely from their mid-December doldrum. Tim Duncan's renaissance has been fueling the Spurs' fire, with the big man playing his best basketball in years at age 36. Duncan is one of three players averaging at least 17 points and nine rebounds this season and has San Antonio poised for another run deep into the playoffs. With Popovich at the helm, you can expect Duncan to be well rested, too.

(Note: All statistics and records through Jan. 3)

NBA Power Rankings
1 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 4
Since: 4-1
For at least a week, the Spurs reign supreme. San Antonio would have been the clear-cut No. 1 had it beaten New York, but Popovich took his foot off the gas (as he's been known to do) with his team playing in its second road game in as many nights. Popovich let up even further when he saw Stephen Jackson go down with a freak injury in the first quarter, playing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginboili all of just 24 minutes each. That led to the end of San Antonio's seven-game winning streak, but we know the Spurs aren't worried. They are the only team to rank in the top four in points scored and points allowed per possession and lead the league in margin of victory following the Clips' back-to-back lopsided losses.
2 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 1
Since: 2-2
The Clippers' historic 17-game winning streak ended with a thud against the Nuggets and Warriors. Seventeen games is an extraordinary feat under any circumstances, but the streak boasted wins against just four teams currently above .500, none of which are likely contenders (Nuggets, Bulls, Timberwolves and Bucks). We'll find out more about how the Clippers stack up among the league's elite this month, when they face tough tests against the Warriors, Thunder and Grizzlies.
3 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 3
Since: 2-1
The power struggle between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is rearing its ugly head again. The Thunder suffered their third loss in six games Wednesday and barely escaped a fourth loss to the Mavericks last week. Kevin Durant's frustration boiled over in that loss Wednesday to the Nets when he earned the first ejection of his 400-plus game career. Durant took his anger out on the officials, but he might have been venting because of someone else. In the three losses and the Mavericks game, Durant averaged 33.2 points on a scintillating 54 percent shooting (47-of-87). Meanwhile, Westbrook attempted virtually the same amount of shots (86), but connected on just 36 percent. The guard's 5.2 turnovers per game in those contests likely didn't help matters, either. Ultimately, the Thunder need the NBA's three-time scoring champ to be their No. 1 option, not 1A, and he knows it.
4 Miami Heat
Last Week: 2
Since: 2-2
Miami Heat (22-8)
Talk about a rough week. The Heat suffered double-digit losses in Detroit and Milwaukee before needing overtime in two straight games to beat the Magic and Mavericks, both of whom are under .500. It's tough to slam the reigning champs for trivial regular-season losses, but you can't ignore a miserable week when putting together Power Rankings. The exception to that misery? LeBron James, who is toying with the rest of the NBA. In Miami's last two wins, James is averaging 34 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
5 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 6
Since: 2-1
The Grizzlies are tough to beat when Mike Conley shows up, but tend to come up short on nights when he doesn't. Conley totaled a season-high 23 points and nine assists in Memphis' win over Boston on Wednesday, moving the Grizzlies to 10-2 when he scores at least 16 points and 7-2 when he dishes at least eight assists. Memphis has plenty of talent elsewhere, but its offense hinges on its catalyst, Conley, who had a forgettable December after a strong start to the season. The Grizz will go as far as Conley can take them this season.
6 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 7
Since: 3-0
I'm running out of nice things to say about the Warriors. Golden State pulled off its latest head-turning feat with a stomping of the West-leading Clippers on Wednesday night. David Lee outplayed Blake Griffin in every facet -- as he's done most of this season -- and Steph Curry bested (and irritated) Chris Paul. Luckily for fans, we get to see these teams duke it out again this Saturday in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for the Clippers, it'll be the second time they have to face the Warriors in the second half of a back-to-back this week. Don't expect the Warriors to take it easy on them.
7 New York Knicks
Last Week: 5
Since: 1-2
The 6-foot-10 forward that wears No. 1 for the Knicks is back, but it'll take time before Amar'e Stoudemire really returns. In his first two games in eight months following knee surgery, Stoudemire was active, but rusty, scoring six points in 17 minutes in his debut and going for 10 points in 21 the next. Stoudemire's claim that he's never actually been taught defense was troubling, but don't let it fool you -- Stoudemire is going to be a valuable player for the Knicks if he can stay healthy. If Mike Woodson can get by with Steve Novak and J.R. Smith, he surely can do the same with Stoudemire, especially if he's playing alongside Tyson Chandler. It'll take awhile for Stoudemire to get his floor legs back, but once he does the Knicks should be even better on offense -- and defense.
8 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 8
Since: 3-1
The Hawks have caught fire from deep, hitting 44-of-89 (49.4 percent) three-pointers over their last four games and winning five of six. Atlanta already has a horde of shooters, but they've added another one more to the mix recently in rookie John Jenkins, who has stepped in for the injured Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow. Jenkins drilled 15-of-22 shots last week, including 6-of-8 from three-point range. Even with a depleted bench, the Hawks can spread the floor like few others in the league. They rank third in three-pointers made per game and seventh in percentage. 
9 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 9
Since: 2-2
They'll need some luck, but the Rockets could possibly have their starting backcourt make the hometown All-Star Game in Houston this year. As of the last balloting, Jeremy Lin trailed Chris Paul by nearly 47,000 votes for a starting spot, but James Harden is all but a lock for a bench spot, averaging the fifth-most points in the league at 26.3 per night. The Rockets haven't had an All-Star since Yao Ming, but now find themselves with two of the most exciting backcourt players in the league. While Lin's statistics aren't anywhere close to being All-Star worthy, there's no denying fans would love to see him playing in front of his home fans during the All-Star Game.
10 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 10
Since: 3-1
Indy is cleaning up against the NBA's bottom-dwellers, winning six of its last seven games with only one victory coming against an above .500 team. In fact, the Pacers have beaten only two teams all season who currently have winning records (Bulls and Grizzlies), yet find themselves atop the Central Division and as the No. 4 seed in the East. Paul George has been taking advantage of the easy schedule more than anyone, averaging 18.8 ppg in December and starting the new year with a 29-point effort against the Wizards.
11 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 11
Since: 2-2
The Nuggets suffered just their second home loss of the season Thursday against the Wolves, spoiling Andre Miller's historic night. With Ty Lawson missing Tuesday's game with an Achilles injury, Miller started in his place and helped the Nuggets snap the Clippers' streak. Lawson returned Thursday, but came off the bench to post a team-worst -25 plus/minus rating. With Miller playing well and Lawson banged up, George Karl would be wise to keep riding the veteran for the time being.
12 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 14
Since: 2-1
Derrick Rose took the "next step" on his road to recovery, joining the team for their two-game Florida swing. Tom Thibodeau continues to refuse to put a timetable on his return, but it's still believed Rose will be back around the All-Star break. Don't be surprised if he's back sooner. Being around the team on a daily basis and participating in shootarounds and practices will motivate Rose even further -- if that's humanly possible -- to speed up his return.
13 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 12
Since: 1-1
The Lakers whiffed Tuesday against Philadelphia in their bid to move above .500 for the first time since Nov. 20. Once again, the team was plagued by too much Kobe Bryant (team-high 29 shots), not enough Dwight Howard (seven points) and way too little defense (allowing 103 points on 47.7 percent shooting). Howard's back continues to be the biggest concern in Los Angeles, but the Lakers have plenty to worry about over their next five games; they face the Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs and Thunder.
14 Brooklyn Nets
Last Week: 15
Since: 3-1
The Nets are finding out you can't build a contender overnight. Brooklyn's firing of Avery Johnson reeked of the same desperation that surrounded the team's acquisition of Joe Johnson and his albatross contract this summer. The Nets are significantly improved this year, in part thanks to Joe Johnson -- the team is 3-1 under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo -- but they still fall short of the league's top tier.
15 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 16
Since: 2-1
The Wolves can't seem to catch any luck. On a night Ricky Rubio was forced to sit out due to back spasms, Kevin Love suffered a freak finger injury on the hand he broke before the season. Minnesota ended up beating Denver Thursday despite Love's early departure, but it won't be easy to win many others with Love and Rubio in street clothes. To Minnesota's credit, they went 5-4 to open the season with the two stars sidelined.
16 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 17
Since: 2-2
Damian Lillard hit the second biggest shot of his spectacular, albeit short, career with a step-back three-pointer to ice the Knicks (and here's No. 1). Lillard's not only been carrying the Blazers this season, he's been putting up one of the greatest rookie seasons of any point guard in history. His 18.4 points per game rank 15th all time among guards and his 2.3 three-pointers per game rank first, slightly ahead of Stephen Curry (2.1). Many people have thrown out comparisons -- Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Brandon Roy to name a few -- but Lillard's rookie statistics closely mirror a different point guard: Steve Francis. Many don't remember Francis fondly, but he was sensational before his abrupt decline. Lillard is currently averaging 18.4 points, 6.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.03 steals per game, while Francis put up 18 points, 6.6 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals during his rookie campaign.
17 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 13
Since: 1-2
The Bucks have been playing fairly well, but their offense continues to drag them down, ranking 25th in points per possession. A quick solution for Scott Skiles would be to insert Mike Dunleavy into the starting lineup in place of Marquis Daniels. Milwaukee is averaging 6.3 more points per 100 possessions when Dunleavy is on the floor and -4.8 with Daniels on it.
18 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 19
Since: 1-2
Utah Jazz (16-17)
If there's any team that couldn't afford an injury to its backcourt, its the Jazz, who are now stunningly shallow with starter Mo Williams out at least six weeks with thumb surgery. Utah's only other options are veterans Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson, who are more game managers than game changers. The Jazz will need the point guard platoon to play like it did in their latest win -- Tinsley and Watson combined for 14 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in 48 minutes -- for the team to survive Williams' absence. 
19 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 23
Since: 3-0
The Pistons were one of two teams to go undefeated last week, piecing together their first three-game winning streak of the year and taking five of their last six. The Pistons' upset of the Heat was most impressive of all, but the team showed toughness in its slim victories over the Bucks and Kings, too. Detroit has won the rebounding battle in its last seven games and continues to be rewarded when it gives rookie Andre Drummond more minutes. The Pistons' center of the future has averaged 9.3 points and 10.8 rebounds off the bench in his last six games.
20 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 18
Since: 0-3
On grit and reputation alone, we assume the Celtics will be in the playoffs. But their four-game skid has pushed them out of the top eight in the East and their overall play has us wondering what kind of damage they could inflict even if they make the postseason. Boston has looked stunningly punchless of late, losing by 29, 18, 22 and 10 in their last four games. The Celtics now rank in the bottom half of the league in points scored and allowed and are in desperate need of a turnaround to keep their season from slipping away. This isn't how Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett expected this season to go.
21 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 20
Since: 1-3
Jrue Holiday is worthy of a spot on the All-Star team. Holiday notched a triple-double in Wednesday's loss and has put up 21 points, 9.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game over his last five. He's in the top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating at his position and has embraced the go-to-guy role this year with Andre Iguodala's departure and Andrew Bynum's delayed debut. But Holiday can't keep Philly afloat all by himself. The Sixers will need more from their other players to finish their eight-game road trip strong (currently 2-4).
22 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 25
Since: 3-0
The Raptors continue to humiliate Andrea Bargnani, winning eight of nine since their star declared them "pretty much the worst team in the NBA." With Bargnani and rookie Jonas Valanciunas sidelined, Toronto has been getting big contributions from unlikely sources, the latest being a career-high 26 points from rookie Terrence Ross in a blowout over the Blazers. Ed Davis has also been picking up the slack, too, scoring in double digits in five of his last six games.
23 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
Since: 3-1
Third time's the charm. DeMarcus Cousins' latest suspension appears to have knocked some sense into him. The Kings have gone 3-1 since his return, with Cousins pulling down a double-double in each contest and even going for his first career triple-double against the Celtics. The past four games epitomize why Cousins' bad attitude can be so frustrating -- he's amazing when focused. When he plays like this, he's good enough to lead the lowly Kings over teams like the Knicks. Let's hope the good Cousins stays around for awhile. 
24 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 21
Since: 1-3
You know things are bad when your coach is threatening to suspend players for not trying. The Mavs needed a game against the Wizards to end their six-game slide and followed that up with an overtime loss to the Heat. Rick Carlisle backed off his comments, but will his tactics catch the attention of his players? His public call-out of Darren Collison earlier this year -- and signing of Derek Fisher -- led to mixed results, but Carslile seems hell-bent on getting more out of his Mavs and isn't afraid to use the media as the middle man. He'll also be boosted by a rounding-into-shape Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 19 off the bench in Wednesday's loss.
25 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 24
Since: 1-3
Phoenix Suns (12-21)
Are the Suns on the brink of another streak? Phoenix closed November and started December with a seven-game losing streak, only to follow it up with a four-game winning streak. But things took another turn for the worst from there, with the Suns dropping their next six in a row. The team has shifted the needle once again, notching a solid win over the 76ers to end the skid and open a three-game homestand. Can they do it again?

26 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 22
Since: 0-4
The return of Hedo Turkoglu hasn't been able to wake the Magic's offense from its slumber. Orlando has lost seven straight games, eclipsing 100 points just once. Turkoglu will need to step up quickly after averaging just 5.7 points in three games since returning from a broken wrist. The Magic's offense is producing just 101.4 points per 100 possessions, third worst in the league. 
27 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 28
Since: 1-3
The Hornets split Eric Gordon's first two games back, but the maxed-out guard showed plenty of rust, shooting just 33.3 percent. Gordon did give New Orleans a much-needed playmaker, averaging 17.5 points and 5 assists. His presence also means less minutes for rookie Austin Rivers, who continues his historically bad season. ESPN Insider's Kevin Pelton wrote last week that Rivers is projected to have the worst WARP (wins above replacement-level player) by his metrics in the 34 seasons on record. 
28 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 27
Since: 0-3
The Cavaliers hold the distinction of being the only team in the league with more wins on the road (four) than at home (three). Cleveland dropped its fifth straight game at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday, allowing the Kings to win on the road for just the second time this year. To make matters worse, six of the Cavs' next seven home games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. 
29 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 29
Since: 1-2
Charlotte dodges the Power Rankings cellar for another week after an impressive win at Chicago, holding the Bulls to their second-lowest output at home this season. The Bobcats' defense was the key to their early success, but could be seen on milk cartons last month, when the team allowed 106.9 ppg. That lack of resistance led to a dreadful 1-15 December after a 7-8 November. If Mike Dunlap can patch up his team's league-worst defense, the Bobcats will become semi-frequent visitors to win the column once again.
30 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 30
Since: 1-3
Thirty games into the season, it's time for the Wizards to start preparing for the next. The team should be dumping all of its minutes and energy into grooming young players like Bradley Beal (19), Jan Vesely (22), Kevin Seraphin (23) and Chris Singleton (23), not trying to be respectable with veterans like Nene (30) and Emeka Okafor (30). Nene and Okafor give them a chance to steal a win here and there, but Washington should be focused on bettering its future, not salvaging the present.
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