Heat, Bulls in tight East race at midway point

There will be three really big games in the East in the

second half of the NBA season … and Jeremy Lin won’t be playing in any of them.

Actually, all three games will involve the same teams, the Heat and the Bulls.

They meet March 14 and April 12 in Chicago and April 19 in Miami.

In case you haven’t noticed, while following every move surrounding Lin and his

Knicks, it’s a two-team race in the East. Entering the All-Star break, Miami

(27-7) has a half-game lead over Chicago (27-8), while the next closest team,

Indiana, is five games back.

Expect the Heat and the Bulls to continue to pull away from the pack during the

second half of the season. Indiana (21-12) and Philadelphia (20-14) are still

too raw to make serious runs. Orlando (22-13) is still dealing with the

uncertainty of how long Dwight Howard will be around. As for the Celtics

(15-17), they just wish this was pro golf, and a senior tour was awaiting them.

“I know our goals,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “We’re trying

to get that first seed (in the East). We want the best overall record in the

whole NBA because home-court advantage is the most important thing for us. … In

order to do that, yes, we do have to have some separation.”

Also in the mix for the best overall record is Oklahoma City (27-7). But Miami and

Chicago don’t have to worry about the Thunder for a while.

While the Heat enter the All-Star break as the NBA’s hottest team, having won

eight in a row, the Bulls have more issues. Point guard Derrick Rose, the NBA’s

reigning MVP, recently missed five consecutive games with a back problem.

“Overall, we’re happy with the record,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said

of his team at the break. “But we feel like a lot of games that we lost,

we could have played better.”

One of those was a 97-93 loss at Miami on Jan. 29, the first of four games this

season between the two. But there will be plenty of chances for the Bulls to

make up for the four-point loss.

Here’s an overall look at how the East shapes up entering the second half:

Midseason favorite

 

How can anybody pick against the Heat the way they’re playing entering the

break?

 

Thursday’s 102-88 wipeout of the Knicks was the Heat’s eighth consecutive win, all

by double digits. The Heat are outscoring foes by an average of 16.5 during the

stretch.

 

Bosh was calling the Heat the best team in the NBA even when they were 8-5.

Now, few are doubting him.

 

Biggest surprise team

Even though they have a losing mark, you’ve got to put the 17-18 Knicks here simply

because of the past three weeks.

Entering a Feb. 4 game against New Jersey, they were 8-15 and going nowhere.

Then coach Mike D’Antoni inserted Lin for big minutes at point guard, and a

legend was born.

Over 11 games, Lin averaged 23.9 points and 9.2 assists as the Knicks went 9-2.

In his 12th start, Linsanity did slow down when he shot 1-of-11 for

eight points and had eight turnovers at Miami, but that merely assures he won’t

be on the cover of Sports Illustrated for a third week in a row.

Biggest disappointment

The Celtics have been trying to squeeze just one more year out of their aging

bodies for several years. The tube finally seems to be empty.

The lockout season, with games coming at a furious pace, has doomed Boston. The

Celtics have dropped five in a row and seven of eight entering the break.

The biggest news for Boston during the second half is whether the Big Three of

Paul Pierce, 34, Kevin Garnett, 35, and Ray Allen, 36, will be broken up due to

a trade by the March 15 deadline. Pierce, still an All-Star, has the most

value, but also would be the toughest to deal considering he’s played his

entire 14-year career with Gang Green.

Bubble team

It looks as if the Cleveland isn’t just treading water while waiting for LeBron

James to return, if you really believe there’s any chance of that.

After last season’s disastrous 19-63 campaign, which included a record 26-game

losing streak, the Cavaliers are dusting themselves off in their second year

since the King abdicated. They’re a reasonable 13-18 at the break as No. 1 pick

Kyrie Irving has emerged as a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year.

The Cavaliers don’t have enough firepower or experience to make the playoffs.

But they can come close, and then maybe get lucky yet again in the lottery.

East midseason MVP

James should have the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award renamed in

his honor. The Heat star already has won four this season.

James is averaging a career-low 36.7 minutes because Miami is wiping out foes

so easily. But he’s been filling up the stat sheet to the tune of 27.4 points,

8.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game while shooting an awesome 54.7 percent

from the field.

James is the favorite to win his third MVP. If he does that, he will join

legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five), Bill Russell (five),

Wilt Chamberlain (four), Larry Bird (three), Moses Malone (three) and Magic

Johnson (three) as the only players with three or more.

Coach of the half-season

Not long ago, it would have been Philadelphia’s Doug Collins. But his 76ers

have dropped five in a row entering the All-Star break.

So the award goes to Indiana’s Frank Vogel, who is making team president Larry

Bird one happy guy for taking a chance on him. Vogel has gotten the most out of

center Roy Hibbert, who has become an All-Star, while meshing in newcomer David

West at forward alongside forward Danny Granger, an Indiana staple.

The unfortunate part is all of this still hasn’t brought crowds back. Indiana

is inexplicably averaging a meager 13,789 fans, next-to-last in the league.

Most significant injury

 

Atlanta center Al Horford was looking this season to make his third consecutive

All-Star Game. But he was lost in January with a shoulder injury that could

keep him out the rest of the regular season.

Horford went down when the Hawks were 7-4. They actually have done a reasonable

job of staying in a good playoff position with a 20-14 mark at the break.

Horford could be back for the playoffs. Then again, it’s not as if the Hawks,

who last won more than one postseason series in 1958 when the team won the NBA

title in St. Louis, have done anything in the playoffs during the lifetimes of

many of us.

Three second-half storylines

— How many Sports Illustrated covers will Lin get up to? His rise from Harvard

to being undrafted to being cut twice is a story so unbelievable that even the

Disney studios would have thrown it out for being too far-fetched.

Will it continue? Or did the Heat give other NBA teams some valuable game film

to watch, and Lin will end up being exposed?

— How healthy will Rose be? When he missed his five games, the Bulls went 3-2,

including an ugly home loss to New Jersey.

The talent-rich Heat are in better position to withstand an injury to a key

player. They actually thrived when Dwyane Wade missed nine games, going 8-1. Miami

probably could hold up better for while without James than if the Bulls didn’t

have Rose.

— Where will Howard end up? The Magic might want to thank Lin for keeping the

Howard drama from being the NBA’s lead story throughout February.

But it could be different when March rolls around. The trade deadline is March

15, and the Magic must decide by then whether to deal Howard or risk him leaving

as a free agent this summer.

 

Predicted order of finish

 

1. Miami

2. Chicago

3. Indiana

4. Philadelphia

5. New York

6. Atlanta

7. Boston

8. Orlando

Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com

or on Twitter @christomasson