Midway through the NBA Season
We’re halfway through the NBA season and fans can sense the excitement: the two top players are on pace to clash in the NBA Finals. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers marched through the first half of the season with confidence and swagger, building a 5 game lead going into the All-Star break. In the east, a player with never before seen athleticism has powered the Cavs to a 6 game lead.
However, the Lakers have lost 7 of their last 20 games, and are playing at a significantly lower level than they were during their championship run last spring. Kobe and Gasol have been plagued with injuries and the offense is currently ranked 6th in scoring compared to 3rd last season. Fisher’s shooting is considerably worse compared to years past, and his susceptibility to quick point guards is showing. The Lakers are a combined 0-4 against perennial powerhouses Denver and Cleveland, with an average loss differential of 15 points. Lamar Odom seems more interested in smiling for the camera and Phil seems to be waiting for the playoffs instead of actually coaching. The Nuggets are big and talented, but they lack the mental toughness to beat the Lakers in a seven game series. Let’s face it, the Lakers may seem lazy and uninterested now, but they are a playoff team.
The Cavaliers, on the other hand, are off to a franchise record start and have held the number one rank in Mark Stein’s Power Rankings since December 28th. Even though I can’t stand watching Lebron lower his shoulder and cover twenty feet after picking up his dribble, I've found a new respect for his game with his honed perimeter shooting. Did you see his first quarter against the Clippers last week? Those threes were unheard of! But it’s not just Lebron-- as a team the Cavs are shooting over 40% from beyond the arc this season, a significant improvement from the long range bricks of the 2009 playoffs. (33.6%, 12th out of the 16 playoff teams)
While the Cavs have held court thus far, they will have no easy road to the finals.
The Magic, Celtics, and Hawks are eminently talented teams, and it’s easy to see the Magic doing exactly what they did to the Cavs during last year's playoffs when they killed the Cavs from the perimeter; this year the Magic lead the league in 3 point differential. On the other hand, although I'm a huge Bibby fan, I still believe that the high flying Hawks will be lucky to make it into the Conference Championship game unless they can improve their 11th ranked defense.
The wheels are coming off for the Boston Celtics, having lost 13 of their last 22 games. Rajon Rondo has declared there are serious locker room problems, and that it doesn’t “feel like it's the same continuity and camaraderie in the locker room as it was the first year.” (2007-2008) Whatever the case, the Celtics will have to tighten up their defense which has given up at least 28 points in a single quarter in each of their last four games and work through any attitude problems. I bet Rasheed can’t wait for that.
The first half of the NBA season is complete, and signs are pointing to a finals involving the once most dominant big man, the most talented scorer ever, and the most physically athletic player to ever play the game. Sound a little better than the soporific Super Bowl? I think so.