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Heat runaway? Not so fast

Last modified: 1/30/2011 12:00:00 AM
After 'The Decision,' the fearful viewed Miami as basketball's new Yankees, destroyers of competitive balance. They worried LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had formed a super team that would render the NBA's regular season a bore and the playoffs a mere coronation ceremony.

That roundball apocalypse may yet happen, but the first half of the season has been anything but a bore. Instead of one team lording over the rest, eight teams have emerged as legitimate contenders, four in each conference - San Antonio, New Orleans, Oklahoma City and the Lakers in the West; Boston, Orlando, Chicago and Miami in the East. Not to mention deadly depth out West with Dallas (a serious contender if healthy), Utah, Denver and Portland, and a pair of dark horses in the East in New York and Atlanta.

The result has been a full-scale power grab with compelling playbills on a nightly basis. Just look at this week's schedule. Today the Celtics face the Lakers in L.A. for the first time since Game 7 of the

NBA Finals and the Heat travel to Oklahoma City to face the league's top scorer, Kevin Durant. Matt Bonner and the Spurs (he's the biggest name for San Antonio, right?) travel to Portland on Tuesday.

The Hornets go to OKC on Wednesday in a rematch of last week's 91-89 buzzer-beating New Orleans win. Thursday has a double dip of Miami at Orlando and San Antonio at the Lakers. On Friday, the Celtics host the Mavericks. And the Lakers cap the week by traveling to New Orleans on Saturday.

If the daily high-end matchups haven't been enough, the season has provided more. The Knicks have revitalized basketball ... wait, what, you've heard this? Yes, the story has been overcooked, but it is good for the NBA if the team in New York isn't a laughingstock.

Blake Griffin is showing us the game's next evolutionary step and running away with the Rookie of the Year award in the process. Like Durant last season, Derrick Rose has ascended to superstar this year. The pair of 22-year-olds are just two of the posse of candidates in a free-for-all MVP race.

Young teams like the Bulls and Thunder are staring down the old warriors like the Celtics and Lakers. Historic rivalries like San Antonio-L.A. and Boston-L.A. remain relevant. We had a blockbuster move that relocated a handful of impact player and reshaped a contender in Orlando. We're waiting on another blockbuster with Carmelo Anthony.

All the drama figures to crescendo in the second half. The Southeast and Northwest Division races will likely come down to the last week, as will the final playoff spots. The second round of the playoffs will assuredly have matchups worthy of the conference finals. The eventual champion will have survived a brutal gauntlet.

So, which teams will survive until the end of the show? Let's process through elimination. New Orleans doesn't have enough talent surrounding Chris Paul to make a full playoff push, and Paul's balky knees might not hold up under all that weight anyway. The Bulls have a better supporting cast, but they have the same problem and put too many eggs in the basket of Rose, who remains a touch young to carry such a load.

Russell Westbrook has emerged as a second Thunder star to complement Durant, putting up numbers that might surprise you - 22.7 points, 8.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds per game. The problem in Oklahoma is a complete lack of experience and a major drop-off in offensive talent after their big two. Orlando clearly has benefited from its December trade, but teams that undergo that much transition during the year rarely make a dent in the playoffs, let alone wade through competition like this to win it all. The Hornets, Bulls, Thunder and Magic will have to wait until next year.

The two-time defending champion Lakers are certainly favored to reach the Western Conference Finals, but it's hard to pick them beyond that. The wear of 14 seasons and three straight trips to the Finals are beginning to show on Kobe Bryant. Ron Artest's game has vanished. Jerry West blasted the team's defense and age and both Kobe and Phil Jackson let him. They had one of the easiest schedules in the league in the first half, but trail the Spurs by 7 games in the standings, meaning it will be very tough for them to earn home court throughout the playoffs. The Lakers are the champs until someone beats them, but that beating is waiting right around the corner in San Antonio.

Greg Popovich is practically suffocating in praise, but the Spurs coach deserves it. He's helped Tim Duncan age gracefully with fewer minutes and a reworked role. He's found hidden talent in young players like George Hill, DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal and maximized production in veterans like Bonner, Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. And he's blended it all with the talents of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in a more up-tempo offense. It adds up to the best record in the NBA and the distinction as Western favorites.

Like it was to start the season, Miami remains the most intriguing team. The Heat has ranged from shocking letdown to rampaging power during the season. As expected, the team has jelled as the season has progressed, but can Miami's players jell enough? Can they win it all with little frontcourt talent and less depth? Will they be able to fast break in the playoffs, where half-court offense reigns? These remain the biggest wild cards at the table, x-factors that could make the Heat champions or get them run out of the second round. It's too hard to pick such a fickle team as the one to beat, which leaves us with Boston.

The Celtics have the best record against winning teams among the East's elite teams - through Friday, Boston is 13-6 against teams over .500 while Miami is 12-10, Orlando 11-11 and Chicago 11-8. The Celtics have the second best scoring defense in the league (allowing 91.5 points per game) and are by far the best shooting team in the league at 49.9 percent (league average is 45.6).

More than stats, the Celtics pass the eyeball test. Kevin Garnett looks like his old self. Rajon Rondo looks like a star. The entire team looks hungry and has played with a consistent focus, effort and production unmatched in the entire league.

Of course, the first half taught us that favorites can, and will, change on a weekly basis. And that's just one of the many reasons to watch.

(Tim O'Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com.)


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