NBA power rankings: Rockets tick upwards

Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) keeps the ball away from Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the third quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. (Photo: Chris Nicoll, USA TODAY Sports)

USA TODAY Sports' NBA power rankings for Week 9 of the 2016-17 season (From Tuesday, Dec. 27 through Sunday, Jan. 1)

Note: Week shortened due to the holidays.

TEAM (RECORD) MOVEMENT

1. Golden State Warriors (29-5) -

We're not sure what's more impressive — the fact that the Warriors are on pace for 70 wins for the second straight season or the fact that they'd be just the third team in NBA history the reach the 70-win plateau, joining themselves and the 1995-96 Bulls.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (25-7) -

The Cavaliers are 25-4 this season when LeBron James is in the lineup. The Cavs' two losses in the past month? James wasn't in the lineup. The Cavs' last 12 wins? He was. Any questions?

3. San Antonio Spurs (27-7) -

After two decades in the NBA's upper echelon, what's left to be said about the Spurs at this point? They rank fifth in the NBA in offensive rating (109.9), fourth in defensive rating (101.6) and third in net rating (+8.3). The only other team that ranks in the top five in all three categories? The Warriors.

4. Houston Rockets (26-9) +1

Not only did the Rockets post an NBA-best 15-2 record in December, they led the league with a plus-12.9 point differential, too. With MVP frontrunner James Harden putting up 53-point, 17-assist, 16-rebound triple-doubles, and Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson both healthy and playing some of the best basketball of their careers, there's no longer any question. The Rockets are the real deal.

5. Toronto Raptors (23-10) -1

Led by a surging Kyle Lowry, who in December averaged 24.4 points and knocked down 50.4% of his three-pointers (4.2 makes per game), the Raptors — owners of the league's top offensive rating (113.8 points per 100 possessions) — continue to look like the East's second-best team, behind Cleveland.

6. Utah Jazz (21-13) +3

George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum have all missed time this season, but yet, the Jazz sit in fourth place in the West and have the NBA's third-ranked defense. With a four-game road trip that features Boston, Toronto and Memphis ahead, you may want to keep an eye on these guys.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-13) -

Victor Oladipo (wrist) returned from a nine-game absence for Saturday's 114-88 rout of the Clippers, giving Russell Westbrook a helping hand in the backcourt. As if he needed it. Westbrook now has a league-leading 16 triple-doubles on the season, the most recent of which he needed just 19 minutes to record.

8. Los Angeles Clippers (22-14) -2

Ravaged by injuries to All-NBA talents Chris Paul (hamstring) and Blake Griffin (knee), the Clippers entered 2017 on an NBA-worst six-game losing streak. It's far too early for fans to hit the panic button, but this season — the last few weeks, in particular — has been far from favorable.

9. Memphis Grizzlies (22-14) -1

With Chandler Parsons easing his way back into the action after missing the first quarter of the season with knee issues and Mike Conley and Marc Gasol both playing at an All-Star level, the Grizzlies — who boast the NBA's top defensive rating (100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) — will be a force to be reckoned with, health permitting, come spring.

10. Boston Celtics (20-14) -

Winners of seven of their last 10, the Celtics are playing their best basketball of the season behind All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who dropped a career-high 52 points in Friday's win over the Heat. The 5-foot-9 point guard is averaging a career-high 27.7 points to go along with 6.1 assists and 2.5 rebounds.

11. Charlotte Hornets (19-15) -

Sixth-year point guard Kemba Walker is averaging 22.7 points, 5.4 assists and shooting 40.7% from beyond the arc, making a strong case for the first All-Star selection of his career, and the Hornets are reaping the benefits.

12. Atlanta Hawks (18-16) +4

Despite the trade rumors surrounding veteran All-Star forward Paul Millsap, the Hawks put together one of their best wins of the season on Sunday, beating the Spurs for their third consecutive win. They've now won eight of their last 12 since going on a seven-game losing streak.

13. Washington Wizards (16-16) +2

The Wizards have won seven of their last 10 after a 6-12 start, and just like that, find themselves sitting in sixth place in the East, only two games behind the fourth-place Hornets. John Wall and Bradley Beal continue to play the best basketball of their careers, averaging a combined 45.4 points (on 45.9% shooting), 13.6 assists, 7.2 rebounds and 3.3 steals.

14. Milwaukee Bucks (16-16) -2

The Bucks may not be on par with the likes of Cleveland, Toronto or Boston at the top of the East, but with Giannis Antetokounmpo continuing his ascent toward superstardom, Jabari Parker emerging as a legitimate All-Star candidate and Malcolm Brogdon playing more like a veteran than a rookie, there are few teams in the league with a future so bright.

15. Indiana Pacers (17-18) +4

The Pacers have won two straight since Paul George dubbed this season "one of the most frustrating" he's ever been a part of. With nine of their next 10 games against sub-.500 teams, could this be the start of something good in Indy?

16. Chicago Bulls (16-18) -2

Not only have the Bulls lost seven of their last 10, but they've posted a league-worst 100.6 offensive rating during that span and rank 28th with a minus-8.3 net rating. As we get into the heart of the season, capturing a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive East is looking like less and less of a possibility.

17. New York Knicks (16-17) -4

The Knicks went into their Christmas Day showdown with the Celtics with a 16-13 record good enough for fifth place in the East. Four games and four losses (to Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans and Houston) later, they're on the outside looking in.

18. Detroit Pistons (16-20) -1

The bad news: The Pistons have lost seven of their last 10 games, including a 31-point rout at the hands of the reeling Bulls on Dec. 19. The good news: They're only 1 1/2 games out of eighth place.

19. Denver Nuggets (14-19) +1

After back-to-back, down-to-the-wire wins over the Clippers and Timberwolves, the Nuggets let up 124 points in a home loss to the 76ers on Friday, and now must face the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder in three of their next four games.

20. Sacramento Kings (14-19) -2

Despite a 13-point loss in Portland on Wednesday (which snapped a four-game winning streak) and a 14-point home loss to Memphis on New Year's Eve, the Kings still sit in eighth place in the West — a "feat" that's to be taken with a grain of salt.

21. Portland Trail Blazers (15-21) -

The Blazers have gone 2-2 with Damian Lillard (ankle) sidelined thanks to the heroics of his backcourt counterpart C.J. McCollum, who's averaging 30.3 points on 51.8% shooting in his absence. It's worth noting that Portland rung in the new year with a 14-21 record last season, too, but went on to finish with a 44-38 record good enough for the fifth seed in the West.

22. New Orleans Pelicans (14-21) +2

Not only are the Pelicans are on a four-game winning streak, they've gone 7-5 over their last 12 and sit just one game out of eighth place in the West.

23. Orlando Magic (15-20) -1

With games against the Hawks, Rockets, Clippers, Jazz, Bucks, Warriors, Celtics and Raptors on tap in January, don't expect any sort of resurgence from the Magic, who rank 29th in offensive rating (100.7 points per 100 possessions), 19th in defensive rating (105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) and 25th in net rating (minus-5.0).

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