Full-Court Press: NBA’s first-half surprises

Tim Duncan’s fall. Rajon Rondo’s ACL. Jared Sullinger’s back. Stephen Curry’s ankles. Billy Hunter’s leave of absence. Dwight Howard’s shoulder. Reggie Evans’ mouth. Kevin Garnett’s breakfast cereal turns of phrase.

We remember the injuries, the scandals, the foot-in-mouth comments. Of course we do. That’s what makes news: the falls, cover-ups and bad decisions. They’re the flashy headlines, the stuff of biting exposes and fans crying themselves to sleep. They’re gripping, but for a moment as we sit more than halfway through the season, I ask you to consider the other surprises, the pleasant ones  the ones that don’t necessarily warrant headlines but should without question warrant notice:

Derrick who?

What Tom Thibodeau has done for this year’s Bulls, who were left for dead without Derrick Rose, is downright astonishing. But Saturday, Thibs played four players more than 40 minutes to beat Atlanta, 93-76. Add that three of them  Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Nate Robinson  aren’t even usually starters, and you have to wonder why the coach was playing like it was April in early February.

Chicago is 29-18, with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls sit atop the Atlantic Division with a one-game lead over the Pacers, who have won two straight and are 8-6 in 2013. The more time that passes, the more Chicago looks like a dangerous playoff team. Just three months ago, there was talk of shutting Rose down for the season if it proved a lost one for the Bulls, and too many signs pointed toward such an outcome. Now, as Rose enters full-contact practices, the idea of his return, however gradual, combined with his 11 games over .500 team is downright frightening.

Chalk it up to Thibodeau’s wizardry, Carlos Boozer’s resurgence, Joakim Noah finding a spot among the best big men in the league. Chalk it up to whatever you feel like, because these Bulls seem to be for real.

The other California team

Last season, California got its taste of a playoff team that wasn’t the Lakers in the Blake Griffin and Chris Paul Clippers. This year, it’s adding another team to its playoff hopes, the Golden State Warriors, whose early-season success was a surprise to many but now leaves them among the best in the West.

David Lee is good, great even. Steph Curry, injured or not, is looking like one of the best point guards in the league and utterly deserving of his $44-million contract extension. Klay Thompson is coming into his own, Jarrett Jack is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and Andrew Bogut is finally back. And to top all of that, Mark Jackson is looking more and more like a legit candidate for Coach of the Year on the team with the eighth-best scoring offense in the league.

I’ll admit. I was skeptical about this bunch in November, but with their 30-17 record three days into February, it seems insane not to buy in to the team that last season finished 20 games under .500 and with the third-worst record in the Western Conference.

New York’s new hope

Even after the whole Linsanity situation in New York last year, you knew the Knicks were going to lose quickly in the playoffs. It was a surprise, even, that they made it that far, and any postseason win  they had just one, against the Heat  was just icing on the cake.

This year, Mike Woodson seemed poised to carry on the turnaround he’d orchestrated after taking over for Mike D’Antoni last spring, but it was hard not to see a limit on his efforts. The Knicks were old, and without Amare Stoudemire, and reliant on Carmelo Anthony asserting himself in a way he’d rarely asserted himself before. They’d given up on Jeremy Lin in a surprising move over the summer, and his replacement was the formerly fat Raymond Felton  representative, it might have seemed, for everything New York might have become: old and sluggish.

But just as Felton showed up surprisingly slim, the Knicks have been neither too old nor too large. Despite their collective age, they’ve excelled, and through Sunday they have a 30-15 record, good for second-best in the East. That’s with Stoudemire’s gradual return, with a fall-off in 3-point shooting, with more injuries than anyone could have hoped for. They may not be true contenders, but the Knicks haven’t completely fallen out of that conversation, not yet.

Life post-Harden

The Thunder set the NBA a-buzz when they traded James Harden to Houston just days before the beginning of the season. Without their prized sixth man, many thought that they were dealing championship hopes for financial stability. Last year’s NBA runner-up suddenly was barraged with questions about how it would compensate, how it would maintain its identity, how it would go on with Kevin Martin in Harden’s place.

Kevin Durant gave the doubters a slap in the face in the form of his best bid yet for MVP. Russell Westbrook is still his talented self, as is Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and the entire Oklahoma City supporting cast  and with the second-best record in the league, 35-12, it’s all too easy to forget about The Beard.

Trending up

Ricky Rubio’s shot, which seems to be returning slowly but surely to something close to form. In his first month back, the Timberwolves point guard averaged just 3.8 points per game on woeful 22.2-percent shooting, including 0 for 8 on 3-pointers. His legs weren’t in his shot  that is, when he was looking for it, which was rare. Now, though, in his four most recent games, Rubio is averaging 10.6 points on 46.9-percent shooting, and there may just be reason to hope his confidence is back.

Trending down

Dwight Howard’s shoulder, which is looking like it may be more of a problem than anyone bargained for. The center left the Lakers game against the Suns on Wednesday in the fourth quarter before an all-out collapse left his team with its eighth straight road loss, and then he missed the next game in Minnesota after flying back to Los Angeles to receive PRP therapy. The plan was for him to play Sunday in Detroit, but that didn’t happen, either. The issue right now with the shoulder is not a matter of curing the pain, coach Mike D’Antoni said, but rather of getting it to a level at which he can manage. “It just hurts,” the coach said Friday. “He just, hopefully he doesn’t get hit on it. It’s just going to hurt. Take a lot of Tylenol, I guess.”

Best of the week

Team: The Spurs, whose 10-game winning streak make this designation more than just a consolation for having to watch Tim Duncan writhe on the court after colliding with the Wizards’ Martell Webster and spraining his already-sore left knee and his right ankle. Apart from that, San Antonio has a plus-10.9 point differential over its winning streak, and it was without Duncan for five of the 10 wins, so as demoralizing as the injury might be, it isn’t quite the devastation one might think.

Player: Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried, who followed up a touching video supporting his two mothers and LGBT rights that was released Jan. 25 with two of his best games of the season, both Denver wins, on Jan. 30 and Feb. 1. Over the two games, he averaged 16.0 points and 9.0 rebounds on 12-of-18 (.667) shooting.

First score on a new team: Rudy Gay, who came off the bench for the Raptors on Friday, his first game with the team since being traded from Memphis. Gay scored his first two points on an alley-oop pass from DeMar DeRozan, and Toronto has to hope that it’s only a hint of what’s to come.

Worst of the week

Team: The Magic, who have lost nine straight dating back to Jan. 18. Their streak includes losses to Charlotte, Detroit, Toronto and a very injured Boston team; it’s hardly been a cadre of contenders that’s done the damage.

Player: The Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph, who shot 26.7 percent on the week, averaging 6.7 points. That’s a long way from the 17.2 points he’s averaging on the season and his overall 47.3 shooting mark.

Injury: The Celtics’ announcement that rookie Jared Sullinger would be forced to have back surgery and miss the remainder of that season. It came Friday, just five days after the team confirmed that Rajon Rondo had torn his right ACL and would also miss the rest of 2012-13.

Telling stats of the week

43 of 44 games, 20-plus points: LeBron James, averaging 26.6 points this season, has scored 20 or more points in 43 of the 44 games in which he’s played. Since 1985-86, Michael Jordan holds the mark for most 20-plus point games in a season, with 79 in both 1987-88 and 1986-87. Wilt Chamberlain had 20-plus points in all 80 games in the 1961-62 season.

5,672 assists: Of the NBA’s top five all-time scorers, Kobe Bryant now has the most assists, with 5,672. He passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5,664 career assists) Wednesday night. Bryant is fifth overall in scoring, with 30,795 career points, and he’s 35th all-time in assists.

60 years: If he keeps up his current numbers for the rest of the season, Timberwolves rookie guard Alexey Shved will become the first undrafted rookie to average at least 10 points and four assists since the Philadelphia Warriors’ Danny Finn did so in 1952-53.

What we heard

“What I do on the floor shows my value. At the end of the day, I don’t think my value on the floor can really be compensated for, anyways, because of the (collective bargaining agreement).”

“If you want the truth. If this was baseball, it’d be up, I mean way up there.”

 — LeBron James to ESPN.com on the financial “sacrifice” inherent in being as talented as he is. (I hear ya, LeBron, I hear ya. Oh, wait.)

“When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget.”

“It’s almost like a sick relative and when they finally pass on, it’s a shock but you knew it was coming.”

 — Memphis coach Lionel Hollins on the Grizzlies trading Rudy Gay in a three-way deal that brought them Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince from Detroit, Ed Davis from Toronto and a second-round pick.

What’s ahead

Golden State at Memphis, 8 p.m. ET Friday: This is an intriguing battle of the two fringe contenders in the West, currently in the four and five spots in the conference and with real chances to make playoff runs. Memphis will be focused on redefining itself in the post-Rudy Gay world  that is, if it hasn’t dumped someone else by Friday  whereas Golden State is continuing to play at the clip that surprised many at the beginning of the season.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.