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NBA Power Rankings, 3/4

03.04.10 at 10:40 am ET

After a few weeks off, we’re back. This week we’re offering the reminder that things might not be as bad in ‘Celtics Land’ as you want to believe. They come in at… well, check for yourself:

1. Cleveland: He’s playing the best ball of his life. I’ve never seen him guard people as ferociously as he has lately. What he did against the Celtics — simply DECIDING to take Ray Allen out of the game — was Jordanesque.

2. Lakers: Watch this team play and you understand why coaches are always asking their GMs for big men. Their size is crazy, with all of their contributing big guys able to defend, rebound and score. Plus they have, you know, Kobe. Wow.

3. Dallas: Steal, steal, and steal again. Josh Howard for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood? No wonder the Mavs are on a nine-game winning streak. They’re now as good as any team in the league.

4. Orlando: There are a few things that scare me about Dwight Howard, beyond the double-doubles: he’s only 24; he’s developed his offensive game significantly since last year; and he’s become an extremely smart defensive player.

5. Atlanta: When the Cavaliers lost to the Magic last season, they improved their team with the Magic in mind. My question about the Hawks is this: did they do the same thing after being swept by the Cavs last year? In other words, Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith are nice additions, but is that enough to get by Cleveland?

6. Denver: God bless George Karl. He has beaten cancer before. Here’s to beating it again.

7. Boston: Put aside your anger at losing to the Nets; and your anger at Rasheed and his 3s; and the baffling inability to play well at home (damn, anything else?). The reality is that the Eastern Conference is weak after the top four teams are accounted for, and the Celtics still have no fear of the teams in front of them. Does that mean anything? And is Sean Grande right when he says that he and Cedric Maxwell will be in Cleveland for Game 1 of the Cavs-Celtics conference finals?

8. Oklahoma City: I understand Kobe and LeBron were also great at 21 years old, but neither of them did ALL of the following as well as Kevin Durant at 21: shoot well from 3-point range, shoot well on 2-pointers, shoot well from the line, defend, rebound, and be the best player on a young team headed for the playoffs. It’s amazing. The last time we saw something as impressive from someone so young? Magic in 1980.

9. Utah: Ian Thomsen had a question for me the other day that I’m STILL having trouble answering: “Who do you like more, Chris Paul or Deron Williams” It’s a debate all basketball fans have been having since Williams and Paul were in college. There is no right answer, but if you absolutely made me pick one, I’d take Williams. And I’d be second-guessing myself constantly.

10. Phoenix: A few things about Steve Nash: 1. He’s the best 36-year-old point guard in basketball history. 2. Even though he’s 36, he’s played 10,000 fewer minutes in his career than 33-year-old Kevin Garnett. 3. I love players who can defend, but Nash’s offense is so off-the-charts good that his defensive liabilities don’t even seem like liabilities.

11. San Antonio: Richard Jefferson hasn’t had a season like this since his rookie year. We’ll find out soon if the Spurs are just pacing themselves for the playoffs, or if they truly are in trouble.

12. Portland: If the Lakers repeat as champions this year, they won’t have to apologize to anyone. Their first-round opponent will either be these guys or San Antonio.

13. Milwaukee: Scott Skiles has to get some Coach of the Year love for this, doesn’t he? No one saw this coming. They were 16-23 on January 18th. They’ve gone 15-6 since.

14. Chicago: They’re a half game from being a 5 seed and a few games from being out of the playoff mix altogether. Which makes the loss of Joakim Noah for three weeks so important. There’s a very good chance that the loss of the superior rebounding center will cost them a postseason spot. Their best-case scenario might be falling to eight…and the right to play the Cavaliers in the first round.

15. Toronto: They can score with anybody. At almost any time. But can you see them getting critical stops in a playoff game? They will lose in the first round, and it’ll be ugly.

16. Memphis: I wish this team could sneak into the playoffs, but they play in the wrong conference. They continue to be the second-best team story in basketball this year (after Oklahoma City), but they’ll likely finish with 40-something wins and have no postseason to show for it.

17. New Orleans: Blame basketball writer Rich Levine for this: Lately when I see “New Orleans,” I think, “Lil Wayne.” No one is more obsessed with Lil Wayne than Rich, and now he’s got me obsessed, too. So much so that I want to know what Wayne thinks of Darren Collison and the team without Chris Paul, the coaching change this season, and the underrated skills of David West. (Supposedly, Wayne is a Bruins and Red Sox fan. Seriously.)

18. Miami: I was reading Erik Spoelstra’s bio the other day. It says he’s been with the Heat for 15 years. Have you seen this guy? It looks like he’s been ALIVE for 15 years. He looks like a kid actor playing a coach in a made-for-TV movie.

19. Houston: Brilliant trade at the deadline: Moving Tracy McGrady. Ridiculous trade: Moving Carl Landry.

20. Charlotte: I wonder how many former athletes have the resources to pull off what Michael Jordan just did. He’s been a part owner with the Wizards and Bobcats. Now he’s the man, apparently coming up with roughly $250 million to purchase the team. If he’s a really smart owner, he’ll get the ‘Cats the hell out of town. It’s just a terrible market for pro basketball.

21. LA Clippers: Of all the years I’ve been watching the Clippers, I can only think of two guys who campaigned to stay: Loy Vaught and Marcus Camby. In Camby’s case, I’m not sure it was the Clippers; a more likely story is that he didn’t want the inconvenience of being traded.

22. Washington: Their record is awful, but they’ve been playing decent ball since they traded Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. They don’t have nearly as much talent as they did three weeks ago, but they have a much better team. Come on, Ernie Grunfeld. You should have figured out that formula years ago.

23. Philadelphia: The most boring team in the league just took another entertainment hit: AI has been sent home for the rest of the year. It’s too bad he can’t simply be their designated Press Conference Guy. At this stage, it’s a lot more fun listening to him talk than watching him play.

24. Sacramento: They’ll be next year’s Memphis or Oklahoma City. Give Geoff Petrie a roster and a little time, and he’ll give you a good product.

25. Detroit: Where are the all-you-can-eat buffets in this town? Is anyone else uncomfortable when they see the chronically underfed duo of Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince on the floor at the same time? Every time I see them I think of the gaunt figures in “I Am Legend.”

26. Golden State: I hate that a talented kid like Stephen Curry gets stuck with the Warriors. Certain franchises crush your soul with their stupidity, and this is one of them.

27. New York: Okay, a question for all you armchair coaches and scouts: Should we have buyer’s remorse after watching Bill Walker’s last two games with the Knicks? He’s scored 21 and 22 in consecutive games. Could he have done that here?

28. Indiana: I love Larry. I really do. He was great to me when I covered basketball, and I even had the opportunity to “play” for him when he was coaching in a celebrity game (we got drilled). But I wonder if he has an exit strategy from the Pacers. If he decided to leave tomorrow, nobody would blame him.

29. Minnesota: It seems like I work in about a dozen offices, and all of them are filled with Syracuse basketball loyalists. The ‘Cuse is very good this year, but just imagine what we’d be saying about them if Jonny Flynn was still there as opposed to being a rarely seen all-rookie performer in the Twin Cities.

30. New Jersey: They’re the best terrible team I’ve ever seen. How’s that for a T-shirt or bumper sticker? Although they’re better than the ’73 Sixers, have more talent than the ’98 Nuggets (11-71), and aren’t openly tanking like the ’97 Celtics (15-67), I’m still rooting for these guys to be historically bad. I’m sorry, but it’s a car crash I want to witness.

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