Setting the stage for NBA second half

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LeBron James averaged 27.4 points per game before the all-star break. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

THE NBA ALL-STAR break is considered the midway point only in theory.

During a normal season, it almost always comes after the teams have played more than half their games.

In this lockout-shortened 66-game schedule, defining midway is a little goofier than normal.

Still it's close enough to reflect on what has happened during the first half of the season and set the stage for the second:

 

Stand pat or deal?

Despite limping into the break having lost a season-high five straight games, the Sixers' lead in the Atlantic Division with a 20-14 record is still one of the surprises of the first half.

Coach Doug Collins' squad has used teamwork and scrappy determination to push itself into an echelon dominated by teams with superior talent.

But the flaws in the Sixers' no-superstar system have been exposed.

With the health of center Spencer Hawes constantly in question and forward Elton Brand showing some age, the Sixers don't seem to have the horses to keep running with the big boys.

A trade for a big man or a scorer on whom you can count from the first quarter through the fourth would help a team that struggles offensively in the halfcourt and at the end of close games.

But there doesn't seem to be a trade out there that will push them past the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls, so sticking with the young nucleus looks like the best option.

General manager Rod Thorn will not make a trade unless it improves the team, saying that doing something just to do something doesn't make sense.

Still, if the Sixers stay the same, it will be interesting to see whether they can hold off the revitalized New York Knicks and the savvy Boston Celtics to win the division.

 

Attrition

Just before the All-Star Break, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich rested starters Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, even though Manu Ginobili was already out with an injury.

The Spurs were playing the eighth game of a nine-game road trip, squished into 18 days. San Antonio lost badly to Portland on Feb. 21, but, 2 days later, with Parker and Duncan back in the lineup, the Spurs won big at Denver.

Basically, Popovich sacrificed one game to enhance his chances for the next.

In this condensed schedule, injury and fatigue have affected every team.

With the second half just as compact, look for other coaches of top teams to do unorthodox things with an eye toward keeping players fresh. It's about the playoffs, not the regular season. Tired legs don't make strong runs at a championship.

 

Stop the Linsanity

Unquestionably, the top individual story line for the first half has been the out-of-nowhere emergence of New York point guard Jeremy Lin.

The second-year undrafted guard from Harvard had played only 11 minutes when the Knicks beat the Sixers on Jan. 7 and totaled only 55 minutes in the Knicks' first 22 games before getting his first NBA start on Feb. 4.

In the 12 games since then, Lin has averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists as the Knicks have gone 9-3 to claw back into the playoff picture.

It will be interesting to see how Lin adjusts, now that opponents have a book on him for the second half.

I'm still not convinced there is enough body of work to elevate Lin to superstar status just yet, but he has definitely proved he belongs in the league.

 

Staying or going

Last season's never-ending trade soap opera was Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets.

This season, it is the saga of Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard. As Anthony successfully did last season, when he was traded to the Knicks, Howard has tried to force a deal by letting it be well-known he will walk from Orlando as a free agent at the end of the season.

The Magic question is whether the Magic will test to see whether he is bluffing, hoping that the extra $30 million it can pay Howard will be too enticing for him to give up.

If I'm the Magic, now that I'm done hosting All-Star weekend, I'm taking that standing offer from New Jersey of center Brook Lopez and several first-round picks for Howard.

How'd that bluff thing work out for the Magic when it lost Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers as a free agent?

 

Showtime to Lob City

The Lakers made a legitimate trade with the league-operated New Orleans Hornets for All-Star point guard Chris Paul.

David Stern used his powers as commissioner to squash it, leaving the Lakers in disarray.

Stern then doubled-down on his Lakers abuse by approving a trade of Paul to the Clippers, who share the Staples Center with the Lakers. Teaming Paul with All-Star forward Blake Griffin has caused a seismic shift in the power structure of the City of Angels.

The Clippers, who've made the playoffs only once since 1997, lead the Pacific Division over the Lakers, who have won five NBA titles from 2000.

Since coming into existence as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, the Clippers franchise has never finished first in a division.

 

Miami vs. OKC

If this were college football in the 1980s and '90s, this would be a dream matchup for the national championship.

But for the Larry O'Brien Trophy?

The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder finished the first half at a league-best 27-7. The Chicago Bulls were a half-game back at 27-8.

With the bitter taste of last year's defeat in the Finals still in their mouths, Miami's Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have hit the league with a vengeance. Now Miami also is getting solid and reliable contributions from Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony, Norris Cole, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem.

Talent and depth is a hard combination to beat, and OKC has the same thing. The Thunder has a superstar tandem in All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Daequan Cook make Oklahoma City the deepest team in the West.

You can never predict the playoffs, but right now it looks like "The U" and "Sooner Schooner" for the NBA title.

 


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