The Association just celebrated its All-Star Weekend in Toronto headlined by Zach LaVine’s thrilling Slam Dunk Contest victory over Aaron Gordon in a duel reminiscent of great duels of yesteryear, with Klay Thompson getting the best of teammate Stephen Curry in the Three-Point Shootout–and the amazing Russell Westbrook repeating as All-Star MVP in a game long on scoring and completely devoid of defense. Now comes the second half, and the chase of history.
The 2015 world champion Golden State Warriors have thrown down the gauntlet, including 24 straight wins to start the season, an incomparable 48-4 at the break, and 24-0 at home. As great as they have been, and they have, they are only 3 1/2 games ahead of San Antonio who sit 45-8, 28-0 at home. The ’85-’86 Celtics went 40-1, and no team has ever gone 41-0 at home. The Warriors and the Spurs each travel once to each other the second half.
After them out West, the biggest story has been the L.A. Clippers. The Clippers sit 35-18 despite injury to Blake Griffin, and a team-imposed four-game suspension upcoming for his punching an equipment manager. The team between the Spurs and Clippers though is Oklahoma City, with 40-14 for first-year NBA coach Billy Donovan. While Kevin Durant has been his usual outstanding self, it has been Russell Westbrook who has been playing at the MVP level, the best point guard in basketball. OKC believes they can beat anyone, and they are right.
The rest of the West is a jumble. Memphis is currently fifth at 31-22, but has lost Marc Gasol for the season with a broken foot. The Grizzlies will not be able to overcome that. So that leaves Dallas, Portland, Utah and Houston to fight it out with Memphis for the four teams to lose in the first-round of the West playoffs. All of these teams are entertaining trades with the disappointing Rockets looking to deal Dwight Howard.
The East begins with Cleveland, but LeBron seems a step slower. Kyrie Irving is still rounding into shape, and Kevin Love has hurt his shoulder again and trade winds could be blowing. Still, the Cavs are 38-14, and anyone who wants a crack at Golden State or anyone else will have to go through Cleveland first. Streaking into second are the upstart Toronto Raptors, only three games behind Cleveland. The Raptors have an elite backcourt combination in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, each scoring more than 20 per night. The young Celtics are third, with 32-23, after a buzzer-beating win in Cleveland just before the break. Atlanta is fourth but just lost Tiago Splitter for the season to a hip injury. Splitter is a player whose impact cannot be measured merely by numbers.
The rest of the playoff positions are currently held by Miami, Indiana, Chicago and Charlotte with Detroit charging and Washington lurking. The Heat are hoping for an upward trajectory with Dwyane Wade trying to lead a young team featuring emerging star Hassan Whiteside. The Pacers and Bulls are next, each surprising for opposite reasons. It has been a renaissance year for Paul George punctuated by 41 in the All-Star Game. He has the Pacers primed to pull a first-round upset should they get into the playoffs. The Bulls are struggling, and with injuries to Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah, the continued inconsistency of Derrick Rose, and dissention in trying to adapt to new coach Fred Hoiberg–the prospects for the Bulls are not good. The Pistons figure to get into the mix somewhere behind Andre Drummond.