There is only one matchup between the top four teams in this week's Athlon Sports NBA Power Rankings.
Third-ranked Boston travels to fourth-ranked Miami as two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference face off on TNT Thursday night. This will be the second meeting between the two teams this season. Boston won the first game 88-80 in Beantown on Opening Night.
The Celtics lost to Cleveland the following night before reeling off five straight wins — two in OT and a four-point win over the Knicks. Boston enters the game off its second loss, a 92-83 defeat in Dallas.
Miami has lost once more since its first game — 96-93 to the 6-0 Hornets — but has won by an average of 20.6 points in its five victories going into tonight's game against visiting Utah.
Utah, this week's 14th-ranked team, finds itself in a number of games against teams from the top 16 over the next week.
The Jazz play four teams inside the top 16 starting with the game against No. 4 Miami tonight. Utah travels up the Florida Turnpike — the team probably takes a plane though, right? — to go against No. 5 Orlando Wednesday. After taking Thursday off, the Jazz get a seventh-ranked Atlanta team that started the season 6-0 before losing its last two (Phoenix and Orlando). Next Monday ends the gauntlet at home against No. 11 Oklahoma City.
So a week of success will have Utah skyrocketing up this list or probably just holding steady as one of the league's top 16 teams over the first three weeks.
Oklahoma City will take on visiting Portland (No. 10) and San Antonio (No. 6) on Friday and Sunday before its game against No. 14 Utah Monday. So the Thunder will be in the same boat of finding themselves ascending even higher on this list or failing to live up to the preseason hype and settling back down around 13-15.
No. 15 Memphis sits right behind Utah and also has a weeklong gauntlet.
If the Grizzlies want to prove they can contend, this is quite an early test to either confirm or deny that they can do so. They play host to No. 8 Dallas tonight coming off a 109-99 win against 13th-ranked Phoenix.
Memphis then welcomes No. 3 Boston Saturday and travel to No. 5 Orlando Monday. The Griz start this run with a record of 4-4 and taking two out of three would be a big step forward.
Athlon Sports' top two teams — the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Hornets — are the only two undefeated teams and have a few encounters with our top-tier teams.
The Lakers travel to No. 9 Denver Thursday and play host to No. 12 Phoenix Sunday — both are games L.A. should win. As a matter of fact, looking over the schedule and assuming everyone is healthy, I think the Lakers go into their Christmas Day game with Miami at 29-0.
New Orleans and Western Conference Player of the Week Chris Paul shouldn't be tested until the end of the week with a Saturday game against visiting 10th-ranked Portland and two games in three days against Dallas.
The 2-3 Knicks sit on the fringe of the top 16 in our rankings, and can start making a move up the chart with a win over visiting Golden State Wednesday night as David Lee returns to Madison Square Garden with his No. 12 Warriors.
Golden State then visits No. 16 Chicago Thursday as Stephen Curry goes against Derrick Rose in another battle of middle of the league teams.
With 11 of the top 15 teams the Western Conference dominates the top half of this week's power rankings. Only Boston, Miami, Orlando and Atlanta are within the top 15, and they at least help save face for the Eastern Conference as those four teams make up four of the top seven.
Team on the Rise
Sacramento — Outside of Wednesday night’s 112-100 loss against the Lakers, the league’s highest-scoring team (113.8 ppg), the Kings are learning how to win. All three of their victories have been by three points or less, and they have scored over 100 and allowed over 100 in every game. Sacramento has won three of the five games it trailed at the half and two of the three when leading after the third quarter and one when trailing entering the fourth.
Perhaps most noticeable from the 3-2 start is that the Kings are 2-1 on the road, which has them on pace to easily surpass the seven wins they managed on the road last season, Samuel Dalembert has returned from his leg injury, but rookie DeMarcus Cousins is going to keep the starting center job for the Kings. Coach Paul Westphal told the Sacramento Bee: “I don’t see any big reason to change things right now.” Cousins has been solid thus far, averaging 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists, .6 steals and .4 blocks in nearly 23 minutes a game. The only knock would be the 4.8 fouls per game — tied for second most in the league.
Team on the Decline Houston — The Rockets are off to an 0-4 start despite Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier and Luis Scola returning as starters and Yao Ming getting back into the fold in limited minutes. It’s been a tough start with games against the Lakers on their ring ceremony night and the Warriors when Monta Ellis dropped 46 on them. Houston returned home to get rocked by Denver and fell to New Orleans 107-99 Wednesday.
The Rockets have no five-player combination that has a +/- over 7 —the 32nd-best combo in the Western Conference. More numbers that are puzzling are that Houston is third in the league in first-quarter scoring at 29.8 a game and drop to 21st in third-quarter scoring at 22 a game before rising back to second in the league at 28.2 in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the Rockets need to stay on the floor during halftime and keep shooting.
Numbers to Know 30 & 22 — Saturday’s Memphis-Minnesota game was one for the ages if you’re a fan of sloppy basketball. Both teams set franchise records as Minnesota coughed up 30 turnovers, while Memphis recorded 22 steals. Grizzlies guard Mike Conley stole seven of those to tie a franchise record. Conley then went on to steal $40 million over five years from Memphis just under the deadline to extend 2007 rookie contracts.
3 — The Warriors are 3-0 at home for the first time since 1990, when Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin helped the team to a 6-0 start. Fittingly, Golden State, even without stud Stephen Curry (ankle), leads the league in fast break points per game at 23 a contest.
42 — Orlando handed the Minnesota Timberwolves their worst loss in franchise history with a 128-66 trouncing Wednesday. The 42-point deficit came a night after the T’Wolves fell to Miami by 32. The Magic had 78 points at the half — a franchise record.
17 — Kobe Bryant posted the 17th triple double of his career in Wednesday’s win over Sacramento. Bryant had a line of 30 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for the 5-0 Lakers.
1 — The Clippers got their first win of the season against an opponent that should have pushed the team to 0-5. However the two Erics — Gordon (27) and Bledsoe (17) held Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City to a 37-percent shooting night from the field in a 107-92 win. Durant was 6-of-24 for 16 points. The Thunder have dropped two in a row — by 15 to the Clippers and 21 against the Jazz.
4-0 — The Hornets matched their best start in franchise history at 4-0, and it’s the first time the team has won its first four games against teams that finished better than .500 the previous season.
11 — In 16 meetings this season, the Western Conference is 11-5 against the Eastern Conference.
Beyond the Arc Not much back-to-back in pursuit of three-peat: The Lakers only have 15 back-to-back games this season in pursuit of their third straight title. That is the fewest they’ve had since joining the league in 1948. Fellow Western Conference teams Phoenix (16) and Oklahoma City (17) are second and third on that list, while Eastern Conference playoff favorites Atlanta, Chicago and Milwaukee top the list at 23 back-to-backs apiece.
Where’s the Love? Despite the stink that came up last week with Minnesota coach Kurt Rambis not giving Kevin Love enough minutes — remember Love did say this summer that Team USA treated him better than his own NBA team — the Timberwolves’ F/C is still getting it done. In a paltry 26.4 minutes a game, he is tied for second in the league with three double doubles in five games at 16.8 ppg and 10.8 rpg. He was one rebound shy of his fourth double double on Wednesday night.
Conley extended: So there are varying opinions on the Grizzlies extending relatively unproven PG Mike Conley with a five-year, $40 million contract Monday night. The organization is already considered a participant in the most lopsided trade when in February 2008 it sent Pau Gasol and his salary to the Lakers for his brother Marc, and two first-round picks that turned out to be Darrell Arthur (2008) and Greivis Vasquez (2010) in addition to three players not in the league anymore. Cap space cleared enabled the Grizzlies to get Zach Randolph. Memphis locked up rising superstar Rudy Gay to a max contract in the summer to go along with Conley’s contract, but will there be enough left in the kitty to keep OJ Mayo and Marc Gasol? Maybe Memphis got caught up in the success point guards are having at the outset of the season, including Conley's. He is averaging 15.8 points,, 9.2 assists, 5.8 boards while shooting 44.6 percent from the line, 35 from beyond the arc and 68 from the line. He is also averaging 38 minutes — eight more than his career average. So Conley is either going to blow up or burnout with minutes like that.
Team on the Rise Atlanta — New coach. No problem. Veteran roster. The easy solution. The Hawks enter tonight’s game with 0-4 Detroit at 4-0. The Hawks lead a Southeast Division that houses Miami and Orlando. Larry Drew’s squad has won two of the four by 10 points or more, scored 100 or more in three of the games, led in rebounds and shooting percentage in three of them and committed fewer turnovers in two of them. Atlanta has never trailed at the half. Only the Lakers (4-0) have those types of numbers through the early part of the season.
The six players who have registered starts have combined to shoot 49 percent from the field despite a miserable 28 percent from 3-point land. The Hawks’ starters shoot 77 percent from the stripe, average 31.9 of the team’s 44 rebounds and are scoring 86.2 of the team’s 105.5 points a game.
Team on the Decline Charlotte — We stay within the same division to find the team on the decline. The Bobcats enter tonight’s game at New Jersey 0-3. It is the worst start for the Michael Jordan-owned franchise after entering the season off of its first playoff appearance. They have trailed at the half and at the end of three in two of the losses, while blowing a seven-point third-quarter lead against Indiana and giving up a triple double to Brandon Jennings in a loss to Milwaukee.
The Bobcats now get a New Jersey team that is 2-1 at home. Recent history says Charlotte will fall to 0-4 as it went 13-28 on the road last year, is 0-2 so far this year and has not scored more than 88 in those two losses this season.
Numbers to Know 16.7 — Where do you begin with the assist numbers Boston Celtic PG Rajon Rondo is putting up? His 16.7 per game average is on pace to best John Stockton’s record of 14.5 set in 1989-90. Rondo’s 67 through four games are the most in NBA history.
70 & 30 — Washington Wizards rookie John Wall became the first rookie since Oscar Robertson with at least 70 points and 30 assists through three games. The Big O had 72 and 30 in 1960-61; Wall has 71 and 31. The nine steals he had in the team’s home opener — tying a franchise record along the way — weren’t bad in his debut for the home fans, either.
Beyond the Arc The best Big Three: With all the hype surrounding LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining with Dwyane Wade in Miami to form the new Big Three you'd think this trio would run roughshod over the rest of the league. Well, Miami has a three-player combo that leads the league in +/- going into tonight’s games, but it’s not those three. It is the combination of PG Carlos Arroyo along with Bosh and Wade who lead the league with a +/- of 66 at 95:38 played. The much-publicized Big Three is actually eighth on that list with a +/- of 45 over 107 minutes played.
Top five combo: The best five-player combination resides in Golden State, although the sample size is pretty small (two games). Andres Biedrins, Dorell Wright, David Lee, Monta Ellis and Steph Curry have a +/- of 41 over 35:41 played. Miami’s five-player combo of Arroyo, James, Bosh, Wade and Joel Anthony is at a 35 +/- over five games and 65:41 played.
Sixth man almost the best man:Wilson Chandler may have lost his starting gig, but you wouldn’t know it as the Knick has been lighting it up through three games. He is the league’s top substitute in regards to points (21 ppg), rebounds (10 rpg) and assists (.7 apg) for a 31.7 average — 6.4 ahead of second-place Ben Gordon. The Knicks’ key signing in the offseason, Amar’e Stoudemire, is averaging 32.0 in the points/rebounds/assists combo.
That didn’t take long: Milwaukee guard Brandon Jennings joined Elgin Baylor as the quickest in league history to register a 50-point game and a triple double within their first 100 games (84). He went for 20-10-10 against Charlotte Saturday. As a rookie Jennings scored 55 against Golden State last November, which set a record for the youngest player to score 50. Jennings could have pulled off the feat by that Nov. 14 game against Golden State. In his NBA debut, he had 17-9-9 against Philadelphia. Another rebound and assist and it would have taken seven games instead of 84.
Week 1 of the NBA season is in the books, the hype is over and now teams begin to develop their chemistry and settle in for the long haul. As week 2 got underway Monday night, the Chicago Bulls were able to record a big home win against the previously undefeated Trail Blazers behind Luol Deng's career-high 40 points in a matchup of Athlon Sports' Nos. 7- and 12-ranked teams.
Games with some of Athlon's top-ranked teams are few and far between at the front end of the week, but the action starts picking up by week's end.
The Nuggets and Mavericks highlight the early part of the week with two games against each other in two key Western Conference tilts of our Nos. 6 and 8 teams.
Dallas is getting solid play from Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood down low, while Aaron Afflalo's hot play from the preseason has carried over to the regular season as the Denver shooting guard is averaging 14 ppg while shooting 56 percent from the floor and 82 percent from the free throw line.
The two teams, both 2-1, face off in Denver Wednesday and in Dallas on Saturday. The Mavericks will be off in between, while the Nuggets play host to the Clippers on Friday night.
Another Western Conference contest has No. 10 San Antonio traveling to No. 15 Phoenix Wednesday night. This should be a high-scoring affair as both teams are scoring over 102 a game and allowing 104.
The Trail Blazers end their Midwest run to Chicago and Milwaukee by returning to the Rose Garden to play host to No. 9 Oklahoma City Thursday. Portland might have as tough a time in Milwaukee on Tuesday as it did in Chicago on Monday and could return home a 3-2 team after leaving 3-0. Oklahoma City was blown out by Utah on Sunday and will try to rebound against the host Clippers before its matchup with the Blazers.
Staying in the Western Conference for two more games, the Suns come out of their game with the Spurs and turn right back around and play an up-and-coming Grizzlies team. No. 14 Memphis has a big game tonight at top-ranked Los Angeles and heads to No. 18 Golden State before taking on the Suns.
The Warriors, meanwhile, hope to have the services of guard Stephon Curry (ankle) back in a week in which they take on Memphis and No. 13 Utah at home before a road trip to Detroit Sunday night.
No. 11 New Orleans has a three-game stretch this week that begins at No. 17 Houston Wednesday, returns home Friday to play host to No. 3 Miami and finishes at No. 16 Milwaukee. The Hornets are off to a great start at 3-0 and take on a winless but dangerous Rockets team first, and matchups with the Heat and up-and-down Bucks should give us a pretty good idea where the Hornets stand after two weeks.
Milwaukee also needs to establish itself as one of the teams in that second tier in East. There are really only three competitive tiers in the East as it stands — Boston, Miami and Orlando in tier 1, Atlanta in tier 2, Chicago and Milwaukee in tier 3 and then two of the remaining nine teams that will fight for the right to get ousted in the first round by the top tier.
The Bucks have a busy week with games against Portland tonight, at No. 2 Boston on Wednesday, at Indiana on Friday before coming back to play host to the Hornets Saturday. This will be the second and last time the Bucks and Hornets play this year; New Orleans won 95-91 last Oct. 27 in the season opener for both squads.