Biggest second-half storylines
More than 11 weeks since the launch of training camps and already the NBA has celebrated midseason with the All-Star break. In any other year, the 11th week would find most teams having played 25 games of an 82-game schedule -- and 30 percent of the season is usually too early to draw conclusions.
But this is an odd year and we do the best we can. Here are the questions that need answering as the NBA launches its breakneck second half.
This is not to denigrate a contender like the Bulls, who have been the class of the NBA so far. The extended absences of MVP Derrick Rose, All-Star Luol Deng and starting guard Richard Hamilton -- three of their four leading per-game scorers -- haven't knocked the Bulls off stride. They play to a high level and usually win regardless of injuries or schedule. Clearly they've been the toughest team in what has been an extremely demanding season.
In the later rounds of the playoffs, will they be able to raise their level of play? That's the issue they'll have to prove, because we know Miami's stars can and will play to a higher standard as the playoffs move along. It's entirely fair to recall LeBron James' fourth-quarter collapses during the last NBA Finals, but it's also unfair to forget that in the previous rounds he was the best player in the NBA and performing across all phases to the highest level of his career.
At the same time, opponents must account for Dwyane Wade, an NBA champion who has earned his reputation as a big-game performer, and All-Star Chris Bosh, who is capable of big games despite serving as the No. 3 option. Put them together and the Heat become a well-performing stock with high upside. As well as they're playing today, they figure to be much better during the playoffs.
Oklahoma City has two stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but can Westbrook be counted on to play at the highest level during the playoffs? And even if he does, will it be enough to offset the Heat?
The 76ers, Pacers and Clippers are examples of young teams that have played harder and more efficiently than the Mavericks, Lakers and Celtics, all of whom have relied on older players who in many cases have struggled with their conditioning or health. The question going forward is whether the older stars have caught their breath and are ready to make a run over the second half of the season, at the expense of the younger teams. The most promising of these contenders is Dallas, which has been able to renew Dirk Nowitzki's health while re-establishing itself as one of the NBA's best defensive teams despite the departure of Tyson Chandler.