A 'Pick Six' of NBA stories to watch at the break
The NBA season is half over - well, technically, much more than that but play along. The All-Star break has arrived, and the world's best players will be gathering in Houston over the weekend for the festivities.
When NBA play resumes next week there will be no shortage of things worth talking about. And here's a look at a half-dozen of those stories:
LEBRON'S WORLD: LeBron James already has three NBA MVP awards.
A fourth seems to be well on its way toward becoming reality.
The Miami Heat star was the game's most dominant player in the first half of the season, averaging 27.3 points. He has scored at least 30 in seven straight games, and saw his six-game streak of shooting at least 60 percent from the field end in the last Miami game before the break, when he missed that target by only one shot.
Miami has won 12 of its last 14 games, including seven straight. And James is on pace to shoot career bests in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage.
''Everyone wanted to know how he would get better,'' Miami teammate Chris Bosh said. ''Guess he showed everyone.''
SILENT SPURS: For a change, people were talking about the San Antonio Spurs during the first half of the season. Alas, it only seemed to be on the night when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich disappointed fans in Miami by sending four of his players home early at the end of a long trip - then nearly guiding his team to a win anyway.
Really, the best team in the NBA so far hasn't been the Heat, Thunder or Clippers.
It's the Spurs.
At 42-12 already, with the best record in the NBA so far, it would seem as though San Antonio is in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the West bracket. And after closer inspection, those odds might look even better.
San Antonio played five straight games on the road to close the pre-All-Star schedule, then resumes play with games at Sacramento, the Clippers, Golden State and Phoenix. After that, the Spurs can put the luggage away. They play a total - a total! - of seven road games in March and April, with no back-to-backs away from home until the final week of the season.
KNICKS SCHEDULE: Now things start to get tougher for the New York Knicks.
Sure, the Knicks were one of the feel-good stories of the first half of the season and the job coach Mike Woodson has done is nothing short of brilliant. But the Miami Heat - now four games clear in the Eastern Conference race - are starting to pull away, and the Knicks find themselves closer to sixth in the East right now (only 3 1/2 games ahead of Atlanta) than they are first.
And the finish to this season doesn't look to be a particularly easy one for the Knicks, either. They play 18 of their final 32 games on the road, and have a stretch in March where they play, in order, Oklahoma City and Utah at home, followed by a road trip to Golden State, Denver, Portland, the Clippers and then the Jazz again.
CELTICS CHANCES: When Rajon Rondo was lost for the season to a torn ACL plenty of people immediately started writing the Boston Celtics off as a playoff contender.
The Celtics still have two of the game's all-time competitors in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, not to mention a well-respected coach in Doc Rivers. They're hardly a lock for the postseason, but they hit the break with a five-game cushion in the loss column over Philadelphia, the team that's sitting in ninth and one spot off the playoff bubble in the Eastern Conference.
Boston is 8-1 since losing Rondo, and some of those wins over that stretch are against legit playoff teams like Miami, Denver, Chicago and both the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers.
L.A. STORY: Kobe Bryant grabbed the microphone at Staples Center before the Lakers-Clippers game on Thursday night and urged the crowd to get ready for a strong second-half playoff push.
His Lakers will need it.
With a losing record at the All-Star break, the Lakers are clearly in trouble. But all is not lost, and the schedule down the stretch might give the Lakers a lift.
If they can find a way to get a little bit of momentum going when the second half of the season gets started, April could be a big month for Bryant and his club. The Lakers play eight games between April 2 and April 17, and only one is outside of Los Angeles (though one is on the ''road'' against the Clippers). Maybe a stretch like that might be just enough to get them into the postseason.
Think anyone out in the West will want to see Kobe coming in a first-round matchup?
TEAMS TO WATCH: For obvious reasons, title frontrunners such as the Heat, Spurs, Clippers and Thunder will all be watched closely in the second half of the season.
But there are other key stories to watch over the final 30 games or so.
One that jumps out is the scenario in Portland, where a very talented team is currently sitting on the outside of the playoff picture. Another is in Philadelphia, where the 76ers are just one spot off the East potential playoff bracket, but play 19 of their final 31 away from home. Also in the East, maybe Indiana can emerge to challenge Miami? And in Chicago, not only are the Bulls squarely in the playoff mix again, but could really become a big factor if Derrick Rose comes back healthy.
In short, there might already be just 18 or 19 teams left with legitimate playoff hopes. And the real fun might be how the bottom halves of the East and West brackets come together.