Lakers out front

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Champs back on top for first time since November

Champs back on top for first time since November

For the first time since Week 3, the Los Angeles Lakers sit atop the weekly Athlon Sports NBA Power Rankings — knocking the Chicago Bulls down a peg.

The last time the Lakers were atop these rankings they were 8-0 and didn't look like they would have trouble with any team until a Christmas Day game against Miami. Oops. They followed up their No.1 ranking with back-to-back losses.

That was then, this is now. And now is all that matters as there are just three weeks left in the regular season and the two-time defending champs are playing like it. They have lost just once since ending a three-game losing skid on February 16 — that one loss being a 94-88 defeat at Miami. In the other 13 games, eight of those wins have come against current playoff teams and five of those eight are against Western Conference teams.

The third-ranked Spurs lost Tim Duncan indefinitely this week with a ankle injury. They still hold a six-game lead over the Lakers for the top seed in the Western Conference, but play Portland twice, Memphis and Boston — all current playoff teams — to close out the month of March.

Meanwhile in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls and Celtics are neck and neck for the top seed. Chicago currently has a one-game lead and is the second hottest team in the league as winners of 10 of its last 11 games. The Bulls saw their perfect run through the Central Division come to an end at 12-0 when Indiana scored a 115-108 victory on March 18.

The Bulls gets Memphis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Minnesota to close out March with a monster game against Boston on April 7 looming.

Boston fell to Memphis Wednesday night to also fall a game back of the Bulls. The Celtics, after having won eight of nine in late Februrary, have lost five of their last nine. Their defense is still strong, allowing 86.1 points per game in those nine, but that's followed by just 88.4 points per game on the offensive end.

Fifth-ranked Miami is on a tear as of late. After losing five in a row to begin March, the Heat have won six of the last seven games and get a friendly schedule that could enable them to catch Boston and Chicago. Philadelphia and Houston are next up for Miami, but after that there are a string of get-well games including Cleveland, Washington, Minnesota, New Jersey, Milwaukee and Charlotte before a April 10 clash with Boston.

So perhaps the only drama left for the upper-tier teams will be those two games Boston has on April 7 at Chicago and April 10 against visiting Miami.

Athlon Sports NBA Power Rankings Week 22
1. L.A. Lakers
2. Chicago
3. San Antonio
4. Boston
5. Miami
6. Oklahoma City
7. Dallas
8. Orlando
9. Portland
10. Denver
11. Memphis
12. Philadelphia
13. Houston
14. New Orleans
15. Atlanta
16. Phoenix
17. New York
18. Utah
19. Indiana
20. Golden State
21. Milwaukee
22. L.A. Clippers
23. Charlotte
24. Detroit
25. New Jersey
26. Toronto
27. Sacramento
28. Minnesota
29. Washington
30. Cleveland

— Corby A. Yarbrough @AthlonCorby on Twitter

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