NBA power rankings: No one’s picking on Pacers or Heat

No one is dumb enough to bully the group with the two biggest kids in it. So maybe it’s time we stop picking on the Eastern Conference, at least while the two best teams in the league still reign.

The Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat are complete and healthy, the most consistent of the league’s elite. The Oklahoma City Thunder are stumbling without Russell Westbrook, and the Portland Trail Blazers may be coming back down to Earth. The West is still far superior, but perhaps we should stop mocking the East.

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Indiana is back on top, rolling through a lighter stretch of schedule at the same time Danny Granger is getting his legs back. The real X-factor though continues to be Lance Stephenson, who is shooting 55 percent in January and averaging 13.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists for the season.

It is somewhat strange that Miami’s only season-long motivation is to gear up for an inevitable Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Indiana. That’s a lot of energy spent tracking down the best record only to get one extra home game. Indy is, however, the only true roadblock keeping Miami from a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Otherwise the Heat could put it in cruise control now.

Golden State has won 10 in a row, including the first six of seven games on their current East Coast trip. (Remember when that used to sound hard? Sorry, couldn’€™t help it.) The Warriors are cruising since the return of Andre Iguodala, and they now lead the Pacific Division past Jan. 1 for the first time since March 2, 1992.

The loss to the Knicks was the first time the Spurs fell to a team with a losing record all season. The loss of Tiago Splitter for three to five weeks is the larger concern, however. Of course, San Antonio will just use their machine to create another quality role player.

This is why it’€™s important not to overreact too early. Yes, the Trail Blazers are still a player out West, and yes, they are still the league’€™s biggest surprise. But losing four of the last six, three of which came to teams with losing records, demonstrates growing pains will still exist.

Even 48 points from their superstar couldn€’t lift the Thunder past the lowly Jazz on Tuesday. Kevin Durant doesn’t need any more reminders how tough it can be without sidekick Russell Westbrook. It looked like OKC was surviving without their All-Star, but even the scoring of Durant needs a supplement. Reggie Jackson will needs to up his output to fill the current void.

Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith are dealing with day-to-day knee injuries. They’re the latest Rockets to be hampered, joining Omer Asik and Pat Beverley. While the Rockets haven’t played to their expectations as an elite team yet, they’ve still been quite good despite so many injuries.

Suns spots

The Suns looked like a 20-win team entering this season. It’€™s just no one expected they’€™d do it by Jan. 4. Jeff Hornacek deserves that Coach of the Year, at least for the 2013 half of the season.

Darren Collison doesn’t need to be Chris Paul. He just needs to keep Los Angeles even somewhat clicking for the next 20 games or so, as the extensive NBA schedule allows plenty of time for Paul to return. The injury might mean losing the Pacific to the surging Warriors, but the Clippers shouldn’t be in danger of missing the playoffs.

It might be time to finally admit Dallas is legitimate. The Mavericks are ranked in the bottom half of the league (21st) defensively this season, allowing 101.5 points per game. But in their last six games, the Mavericks have stepped up and allowed just 94.5 points per game.

Don’t let the recent stretch of four wins in six games fool you. Minnesota’s offense is pouring it on (116 ppg in the last six), but the defense has allowed 47.6 percent shooting and 102.5 points per game. The teams they’ve beaten (Wizards, Bucks, Pelicans, 76ers) don’€™t prove much either.

More teams should try trading Rudy Gay. Remember how well Memphis did without him last season? The Raptors were 6-12 when Gay last played for them and are 10-5 since. The last two losses have come at Miami and at Indiana. DeMar DeRozan is leading the way with more than 25 points and 5 assists per game since Gay was traded to Sacramento.

If Washington winds up with home-court advantage in the playoffs, the government may just have to shut down again.

The Nuggets are like a yo-yo dieter with all this back and forth. They look good one moment, and they look awful the next. A recent stretch of three straight wins, against the Grizzlies, Lakers and Celtics, isn’t a sustainable diet.

Dancing girls

The Hawks have dropped four of six since losing Al Horford and are slipping out East. Replacement center Pero Antic not only fills the role, but he also changes the position. Since Horford went down, the shooting big is taking 4.5 of his 6.5 attempts from three-point range (he’s actually hitting 44.4 percent).

Thankfully Ryan Anderson’s scary injury wasn’t as severe as it looked, but it still will result in a large chunk of his absence. The Pelicans just can’t keep a healthy full team, and losing Anderson’s 19.8 points and 6.5 rebounds is a terrible blow. The Pelicans’ wings will find it much harder to attack the hoop without Anderson stretching defenses.

Just when things were sort of starting to come together, the Bulls officially waive the white flag this season. Luol Deng is now gone, and draft picks and huge salary savings have arrived. Neither will make Derrick Rose come back sooner, but it could mean a better look when he finally does.

They’re still missing Marc Gasol, and will it be too late for the Grizzlies by the time he is back to full health? Kosta Koufos is passable, but the all-around impact of Gasol is heavily, heavily missed. The Western playoff picture isn’t forgiving.

The addition of Luol Deng makes the Cavaliers a playoff team in the East. Kyrie Irving has never played with a veteran star like Deng. If the young point guard stays healthy, he could also reach his first postseason. Plus, seeing Andrew Bynum go has to feel good.

If you were reading the Toronto ranking — and why wouldn’€™t you be — you’€™d think Rudy Gay was the plague. But he’€™s actually fitting in nicely in Sacramento, where he had 32 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Tuesday’s win against Portland. He was shooting just 38 percent on 7.2-of-18.6 shots per game in Toronto, but in Sac he’s much more efficient, shooting above 50 percent (7.6-of-15).

Brooklyn may get that matchup it wanted after all. The Nets’ current three-game win streak, which started on the road in Oklahoma City, has pushed Brooklyn just a half game back of Detroit for the No. 8 spot in the East. The Nets were saying something about wanting to face the Heat in the postseason, right?

NBA dancers

Remember when Ron Burgundy jumped into the bear pit with Veronica Corningstone in the original Anchorman? "I immediately regret this decision." The Pistons can’t be happy after signing Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract. Smith is averaging 15.2 points on 40 percent shooting, and he’€™s just 25 percent from three-point range. Then again, isn’€™t this what they should have expected?

Hey, let’s play that game when we take a terrible situation and make it seem like it’s not all that bad: the Knicks are playing .500 ball — since starting 3-13.

You know Kobe Bryant is bored and in need of attention when he’s coming up with new games to discover who he should follow on Twitter. #LakersLottery

Everyone saw the Bobcats collapse coming, right? The Bobcats, just 28-120 in their previous two seasons, early on appeared they could actually be one of those .500 teams. They sat at 14-15 just before Christmas but have since lost six of seven. Hey, there’€™s always the playoffs.

Inconsistency is to be expected from the team everyone targeted as "Most Likely to Tank" in 2014. Philly won four in a row to end a West Coast swing only to be crushed by an average of 24.5 points in its last two.

Utah has gone 8-6 in their last 14 games, getting 20 points and nine assists per game from rookie Trey Burke during that stretch. Withstanding Durant’s 48 points on Tuesday to knock off the West’s best record is just the latest in a cluster of wins for a Jazz team that’s clicking a bit.

There was a good run in there, and there should be a few more this season after Rajon Rondo returns. But Boston is sliding back toward original expectations. Expect the Celtics’ current five-game losing skid to reach eight games by the time they finish a West Coast trip that includes the Clippers, Warriors and Blazers.

Orlando’s season of bad basketball took another hit on Monday. Orlando has lost four in a row and now will lose Nik Vucevic. He suffered another concussion, his second since March, and he will be out until neurologists clear him.

Milwaukee has to be the current worst city in the NBA to play for, right? There’€™s little to do in that freezing weather, the team is the worst in the league, and the franchise may be moved. No wonder Gary Neal and Larry Sanders are bickering.