Jeremy Lin's success, Celtics' struggles among biggest NBA first half ... -

Doesn't seem like long ago that the epicenter of the NBA was located in hotel conference rooms around Manhattan, where league officials and union reps were grappling over BRI and so-called system issues. The lockout ended, thankfully, but what we have been left with is a very bizarre and unpredictable regular season that is, suddenly, halfway over. Here's what's stood out so far:

Three first-half surprises

1. Jeremy Lin can play. The emergence of Lin has become a story that has extended well beyond the NBA. We can parse the state of the Knicks all we want, comment on whether Lin saved Mike D'Antoni's job, debate whether Carmelo Anthony can fit into the offense or even put Lin into a wider cultural context, but we should not lose sight of the sheer unlikelihood of Lin's story—undrafted signee out of Harvard, cut by the Warriors, cut by the Rockets, nearly cut by the floundering Knicks. And of course, given an opportunity out of New York's desperation, he became one of the NBA's most recognizable players over a two-week span.

"What else can you say?" guard Landry Fields said. "He is doing a phenomenal job."

2. The Spurs are still relevant. After last season's first-round playoff ouster by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, it looked like the aging Spurs were heading into the sunset. The early January injury to Manu Ginobili seemed to reinforce that. But, credit general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich—they just have a way of identifying players who can help them, guys like Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner.

"I don't think anyone could have predicted they would be where they are," TNT analyst Steve Kerr said. "It is just a testament to how strong that organization is."

3. Dwight Howard is still in Orlando. Shortly after the Hornets shipped Chris Paul to the Clippers in December, it seemed only a matter of days until the Magic found a trade for their own disgruntled star. But Howard has not gone anywhere, and the Magic now are holding out the possibility of keeping him, especially with the team playing better lately and looking like one of the top three teams in the East.

Three first-half disappointments

1. The Celtics. Given their age and the preseason news that forward Jeff Green would require heart surgery, the Celtics were expected to take a step backward. But they've taken more than one step backward and, at times, have simply looked awful. The defense has been inconsistent, and the offense has been disjointed and plagued by turnovers.

This puts team president Danny Ainge in a tough predicament. It may be time to ship out some combination of the Celtics' Big Three—Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce—but Ainge wants to protect the team's cap space and probably would not get much of a return for his aging veterans. He would get a return on point guard Rajon Rondo, but Rondo is an All-Star caliber point guard around whom the Celtics would like to build.

The team is suffering in the short term, and the long term is not looking much better.

2. Lockoutball. Scoring is down significantly. Shooting is down, too. Injuries are up.

When the league announced its compressed 66-game schedule in the wake of the resolution of the lockout, it was clear that coaches would have to reach deep into their benches and that the stress of the schedule would put pressure on players, mentally and physically. But the level of play has been far worse than expected, and several star players—Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Manu Ginobili, Derrick Rose, Zach Randolph—have missed significant time for health reasons.

3. Brooklynites-to-be. The Nets are ramping up for their long-awaited move from New Jersey to Brooklyn, backed by billionaire Russian Mikhail Prokhorov and music mogul Jay-Z. Everything is in place for a franchise revitalization—except, of course, a decent roster.

The Nets hoped to begin building up to their move by pairing another star player (Howard being the obvious preference) with point guard Deron Williams. But Brook Lopez, expected to be one of the lynchpins to a Howard deal, got hurt, Howard has been taken off the trade block, and Williams is heading toward free agency with a team that is 10-24 and bound for the lottery.

The Nets need someone to put on their Brooklyn billboards. It might wind up being Anthony Morrow.

Three contenders update

1. Miami. The Heat had a few early blips. First was health, but by sitting Dwyane Wade for two weeks in January, they got themselves back to full strength. Second was zone defenses, but the more Miami has seen teams take this tack, the better they've become at attacking it.

2. Oklahoma City. The Thunder have had a pretty consistent problem—their interior defenders are very good individually but have struggled to play team defense, and the big guys offer very little offensively. Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed average fewer than 20 points per game combined, and the Thunder allow 42.6 points in the paint per game, 25th in the league.

3. Chicago. Coach Tom Thibodeau remains among the best at ensuring that his entire roster is ready no matter what injuries come up. But the Bulls have had some important ones—Rose, who has dealt with toe and back issues, and shooting guard Richard Hamilton, who has played just 11 games because of a groin injury. Getting some chemistry together with Hamilton, who could be the key to the Bulls' title hopes, is an issue for Thibodeau.

24 Feb, 2012

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