By Brian Riley
Assistant News Editor
All-Star weekend has come and gone and the final leg of the season-long race has commenced. With less than half of the season to go, this is when the true contenders emerge and roll their momentum into the playoffs. Unlike last year, when the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs were destined to meet again in the finals, there are several legitimate teams from each conference who have a chance to make it to the finals this year.
• It might be a little early to say for sure, but recently Derrick Rose has begun to show flashes of his old self. Over his last two games, Rose has scored 53 points on over 50% shooting, while only recording two turnovers. The Chicago Bulls are a contender even if Rose doesn’t play like this, but when he does, Chicago has an opportunity to come out of the Eastern Conference.
• Since their 19-game winning-streak ended against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Atlanta Hawks finished 3-2 headed to the All- Star break. It is obvious that Jeff Teague, the first-time All-Star, is driving the train with his aggressive style of play along with a great group of supporting players such has Mike Scott, Dennis Schroder, and Kyle Korver. With Atlanta’s great record, the only thing left to prove is, will this unselfish strategy continue in the playoffs?
• Last, but not least, the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James have finally began to look like the offense that many people believed they could have over the last couple of weeks. LeBron and Kyrie Irving have seemed to develop a chemistry that allows the offense to run smoothly without impeding each other’s space. On the other hand, Kevin Love has taken a backseat, but who doesn’t when LeBron James is on your team?
• Although the Memphis Grizzlies don’t hold the top spot in the western conference, they appear to be the most legitimate contender. The core with Michael Conley, Zach Randolph, and Mark Gasol have been through several deep playoff runs over the years and are likely to make another one this year. The addition of Jeff Green goes a long way in adding athleticism, but is still not the scorer or the athlete that Rudy Gay was.
• Don’t look now, but the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder have finally crept into striking distance of the 8th seed. The Thunder have won three straight games going into the break, and are only a half game back of the Phoenix Suns. Three of their next four opponents have losing records, which keeps the window for their playoff chances wide open.
• The San Antonio Spurs are not done yet; they have won seven of their last ten games heading into the break. Despite the Spurs winning games, Kawhi Leonard has struggled over his last three games, going 11-for-41 from the field. The Spurs are arguably the best coached team in the league and have a lot of veterans and, as history tells us, you can never count them out.
The season is far from over and higher seeds are still up for grabs. It will be interesting to see if Cleveland can begin to show signs on the defensive side of the ball as they have on offense. While in the west it is almost a guarantee that the standings will continue to shuffle until the season’s final days.