1. Who's Ready To Soar In Second Half?
With the 41-game halfway mark now in every team's rearview mirrors, we asked ESPN.com writers this:
Which team or player do you expect to see the greatest improvement in the second half of the season?
Here's what they had to say:
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Houston Rockets for a few reasons. A stockpile of assets and an aggressive front office mean they can make a big move at the deadline. They've also been the recipients of some bad luck in close games so I think their W-L record understates their ability to ball. And soon enough, someone will kindly return Aaron Brooks' shooting stroke to him.
Tim Legler, ESPN: The Clippers are a very talented team that underachieved in the first half primarily due to injuries, getting acclimated to a new coach, and the immense learning curve of their young players. They have played much better lately and are actually above .500 in games that Baron Davis starts. If they stay healthy I expect the Clippers to have a strong second half.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: I'll give you one of each. Playerwise, I have to go with Ron Artest simply because of how little he has produced for the Lakers statistically. We all know he has it in him to do more, and I'm not sure why this season-long slump has endured, but the guy is due for a breakout month in which he becomes a key contributor again. Teamwise, I'm going with Philly, the most snakebitten final-minute team in the NBA (1-7 in games decided by 3 or fewer points, 1-4 in overtime games).
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The scary-but-true answer is indeed the Bulls. Chicagoans must be salivating at the thought of actually seeing Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah on the floor at the same time alongside Derrick Rose for more than a few games ... and an upgrade at shooting guard before the trading deadline if we let them get greedy. But let me also throw out a stubborn vote for John Wall, who can't catch Blake Griffin in the Rookie of the Year race but still has 40 games left to build on his recent run of 15-and-10 ball and wow us more consistently with that ridiculous end-to-end speed if his health will finally cooperate. Things have to get better for Wall and the Wiz on the road ... unless you think they're going to lose their next 21 games outside of the nation's capital to clinch an 0-41 road record.
2. The Miller Heat Were Waiting For
He's proved to be too good of a shooter over his 10 NBA seasons.
He's worked too hard to establish a solid reputation as a versatile playmaker.
At some point in his return from that October thumb surgery that delayed and derailed his impact early in his first season with the Heat, Miami would eventually grasp what Miller Time is all about.
"We've been going to Mike Miller since he got back," teammate LeBron James said before Saturday's 120-103 victory against the Toronto Raptors. "We'd love for Mike to be aggressive. We need him to look for his shots. We can't afford for Mike not to be aggressive."
When it comes to Miller's shot, a season of struggles gave way to a Saturday night stroke of genius. The Heat signed Miller on July 16, 2010 to be the perfect stretch-the-floor complement to James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who were locked up a week earlier in free agency. But in many ways, Miller didn't arrive in true form as expected until Saturday night.
Miller made his first basket of the season in AmericanAirlines Arena six minutes into the game. Then, he made another. And another. By the time he was done, Miller scored a season-high 32 points, set a franchise record for second-quarter scoring with 22 points, shot 6-for-11 on 3-pointers, grabbed 10 boards and helped the short-handed Heat (31-13) end a season-long, four-game losing streak.
3. Lakers' Numbers Reflect Slippage
ESPN Los Angeles.com
From an efficiency standpoint, the Lakers are allowing relatively close to the same number of points per 100 possessions this season (101.7) as they did a season ago (101.1). Unfortunately, a figure good enough to tie for fifth last season, only .9 behind the league leader, leaves them ninth this season, almost five points worse than the league's top squad.
Good enough for then hasn't been good enough for now.
The relative lack of performance, along with providing a squad struggling with some of the fairly natural issues of focus popping up after three straight Finals runs and consecutive titles, prompted the coaching staff to make some adjustments on the defensive side of the ball a few weeks ago.
"Nothing is really different. It's just, we're just trying instead of letting instinctually some of the things we expect for them to just naturally pick up and expect for them to do, they're not really getting it," Brian Shaw told me recently. "So we're just clarifying it, and just trying to tighten it up so we don't have as much slippage on it. And in the process maybe some of the terminology seems new or different to them, but we're still pretty much doing the same thing."
There are changes, though, from a greater emphasis on utilizing the length of Andrew Bynum near the basket to funneling penetration toward the baseline (and out of the paint).
To get a better feel for what the Lakers are doing -- right, wrong and in between -- we hit up coach Dave Miller, 710 ESPN's basketball analyst and longtime assistant at the college and NBA level for a chalk talk. He breaks down exactly what the Lakers are trying to do with their revised defensive scheme -- like Shaw, he says it's not all that different -- and some of the practical points of execution going along with it. The Lakers, Miller says, are improving, but haven't yet built in consistency.
"Basketball is a game of habits," he says. "You either do it all of the time, some of the time, or never, and two of those three aren't good enough to win a championship."
4. Mavs Aiming To Emerge From Rough Stretch
Trade scenarios are also being explored as the Feb. 24 deadline looms. But the Mavs prefer to remain patient, eager to see Dirk Nowitzki return to full strength and for the eventual return of flashy guard Roddy Beaubois before pulling the trigger on a deal that could net a solid contributor, but also a hefty contract.
The pivotal piece to long-term success, of course, is Nowitzki and his right knee. Although he continues to feel as though he's on the cusp of regaining full strength, it hasn't happened through five games back. After Saturday's win, Nowitzki said he felt like he was "running in quicksand."
"The chemistry is there," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said. "Dirk's just got to get healthy and we're trying to get him there. We want to stay healthy just like anybody else. Any player comes back after missing for a while, especially somebody who you depend on so much, it's a challenge. He'll get back. Like I say every year, you just want to be healthy and playing well at the end of the year."
5. Extreme Behavior
Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets: If a guy's shooting 25 percent from 3, it's probably a good idea to leave him open. Well, Mr. Twenty-Five Percent sank 6 of 8 3-pointers in the win over the Pacers, finishing with 36 points in a 121-107 win.
Danny Granger, Pacers: On the second night of a back-to-back at altitude, Granger posted only his third single-digit scoring night of the season. Granger made just 2 of 10 shots en route to eight points.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"He had some open looks and made the shots. He is Carmelo Anthony and he's going to make shots."
-- Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough, on Melo's aim
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Boozer Shakes Off Rust
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bulls forward Carlos Boozer knows he can play better, but after missing a week with a sprained left ankle, he was satisfied with his performance in Saturday's 92-79 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I was a little rusty," he said. "I didn't have the lift I wanted to have. Couldn't rebound the way I wanted to, but I pushed through it. [I'm] looking forward to the next one."
Boozer called the pain in his ankle "more of a soreness than a sharp pain" and said he could deal with it.
"Some good, some bad," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau summed up Boozer's performance. "Mostly what I expected. He had a week off without doing anything. He still had 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. He had one practice. He will get better and better."
8. The Return Of Perkins
Special to ESPNBoston.com
Seldom has there been so much anticipation and out-and-out fuss over the return of a career 6.4 points-per-game scorer who doesn't make his free throws and has an uncanny ability to draw offensive fouls 20 feet from the basket.
But we all know how truly valuable Kendrick Perkins can be on this team with his defensive presence, shot-blocking ability and the occasional double-figure rebound game. He and Kevin Garnett form an excellent one-two punch anchoring the Celtics' defense, and the team legitimately feels that the only way it will raise another flag is if the defense returns to somewhere near the heady level of 2007-08. Perk helps in that area.
The one caveat in all this is that while Perkins may be medically cleared to play, that doesn't necessarily mean we will see the old, snarling, physical presence. Celtics team physician Brian McKeon cautioned that it takes a player 18 months to really get over an injury like Perkins had. He will be six-plus months out from the surgery when he does return, so realism will have to trump expectations for a while.