NBA at the Midway Point

Many writers use the All Star break as their midway point of the regular season, but many NBA teams have played the 33 games that mark the actual halfway point, and after yesterday’s outstanding day of NBA action, I’m in a great basketball mood. With so much to discuss (Linsanity, midseason awards, state of Sixers), I’m breaking this into two columns: one general NBA column, followed by one on my beloved Sixers.

Sundays have been quite the lazy days in my humble abode, and yesterday was no different. But yesterday was my first lazy Sunday without my daughter OR the NFL to keep me company. So I was excited to see a great slate of NBA games on the menu, including my first look at Jeremy Lin in action as the Knicks hosted the Mavericks. (WARNING: there will be no bad puns here. I’ve had enough) Of course I’ve seen all the Lin highlights and have followed his incredible story like everyone else. And his story, despite the typical media hysteria and hype of our times, IS truly incredible. There has NEVER been a player quite like Lin in NBA history. Period. NO ONE has done this whether they be black, white, or any other ethnicity. The fact that Lin is Asian, and that he is doing this on the world’s largest basketball stage, only adds to the story; it is not the story itself. But I was reserving judgment on Lin until I had actually seen him play a game, as I would any other player. A player is not simply a sum of his Sportscenter highlights; there’s so much more to the game of basketball than the last two minutes, despite what the naysayers may claim.

The thing that strikes me the most about Lin isn’t anything quantifiable like his assists or turnovers, or his shooting percentage, or even the Knicks’ winning percentage since he stepped on the floor. It’s his confidence. Jeremy Lin wasn’t given a scholarship out of high school, averaged 13 points per game in the Ivy League, and was rightfully undrafted. Before being inserted into the Nets game and going berserk around the time I stopped writing, Lin averaged less than 10 minutes a game for a bad Warriors team last year, and had played 55 minutes TOTAL this year for the Knicks, with 20 of them coming in garbage time in one game. He has never shot over 40% from 3 point range, even in college with the shorter line, and shoots just 32% from long-range currently despite his recent accuracy.  Yet despite having literally NO real reason to have that much confidence in his game, Lin has more, or as much, confidence as any player I’ve ever seen. It’s in his eyes,in his game – the man oozes confidence despite it being completely irrational.

That confidence is what allows him to step into the mecca of basketball, where the lights shine the brightest and the harshest, and drop 38 points on the Lakers on national TV, attacking the rim despite the presence of two 7 footers. It allows him to have the nerve to look at his coach to see if he can isolate his man before taking a step back three pointer that no one in his right mind thought he would take including the astonished defender, Jose Calderon, to beat the Raptors. It allows him to stare down Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion before draining back-breaking three pointers in yesterday’s fourth quarter. No matter how the Lin story progresses and ultimately ends, that unbelievable confidence is the one thing I will remember. It’s a trait few players possess, and if you can see it on TV, there’s no doubt that his teammates can feel it and are feeding off it as well – Steve Novak (STEVE NOVAK!)  made 4 threes and scored 14 points in the fourth quarter yesterday.

The Knicks, despite Amare Stoudemire being a shell of his former self, are suddenly very dangerous because, along with Lin, they are adding two more crazy confidence guys in the recently signed J.R. Smith, and the injured Carmelo Anthony. Suddenly the Knicks have a ton of firepower; if teams can’t keep Lin out of the lane, they will pay the price with the likes of Anthony and Smith on the wings, and two excellent finishers inside in Tyson Chandler and Stoudemire. Thursday’s game with Miami will reach epic proportions of hype for a regular season game, and could be a first round playoff preview. Ironically, New York’s biggest potential weak link is Lin; he had to play 46 minutes yesterday because the Knicks’ other point guard options are so abysmal that he literally can’t come out of the game. The potential of running Lin into the ground is very real, especially during this season’s compressed schedule.  After watching Lin and his effect on the Knicks firsthand, I can say I love Lin and the type of player he is but unfortunately I just can’t root for the guy; come on, I’m a diehard Sixers fan. What’s next, rooting for Eli Manning?

Other items of note from yesterday’s action:

The Heat are really, really good. I’ll give you a preview of my midseason Finals prediction: I think the Heat are going to win the title this year, as much as it pains me to admit. They are the best team I’ve seen this season with little to no weaknesses. They have two of the best 5 players in the game, complementary shooters in Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, and James Jones, a floor stretching 4 in Chris Bosh, and tough interior players in Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem. They play outstanding defense, and are deep, big, and talented. Even with all their flaws, this team was very close to winning a title last season. Now they shed the dead wood that kept the Sixers close in every game of their series (Mike Bibby and Zydrunas Ilgauskas), are more comfortable playing together, and seem so much more relaxed without the huge target on their backs from last season. Maybe most importantly of all, they look like they’re having fun, which was not the case last season, and is scary for the rest of the league. They still have to prove they can make the proper plays during crunch time of crucial games, but I wouldn’t bet against them figuring it out. As a Sixers fan, I may be biased, but I firmly believe that the Sixers can play with and beat ANY team in the league – except Miami. They’re that much better than everyone else.

On the flip side, the team I WANT to root for, the OKC Thunder, has serious flaws. I watched the Thunder play the Kings last week and was alarmed, not just because OKC lost the game to an inferior team; things like that happen in the NBA. I was more disturbed by the OKC defense, or lack thereof. At one point during the second half, TNT flashed a graphic that showed the Kings had over 5o points in the paint. The final number must’ve been much higher and this in a game in which Thunder big man Serge Ibaka had 11 blocked shots, most of them on what would’ve been layups. The Thunder played a wildly entertaining overtime game with the Nuggets last night in which they displayed their individual brilliance – Kevin Durant had 51 points, Russell Westbrook went for 40, and Ibaka posted a triple double with 14 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 blocks (side note: I LOVE the idea of Ibaka in a Sixers uniform and hope OKC can’t pay both he and James Harden). But the entertaining nature of the game and the Thunder’s stars masked the same problems they had against the Kings. Denver was playing without key players Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, and big man Nene, yet still scored 72 points in the paint and shot almost 50% from the field. Without Ibaka’s defensive presence, Denver would’ve likely score close to 100 points in the paint, which should be nearly impossible. Simply put, the Thunder don’t play defense, and also don’t run much set offense, instead simply relying on Durant and Westbrook (and Harden to a lesser extent) to be offensively brilliant, which they usually are. But I question whether that over reliance on their stars will be the Thunder’s downfall in the playoffs.

Midseason awards

MVP: Lebron James. Yes, he has Dwayne Wade, but Wade has actually missed quite a few games due to injury, and all James has done is put up one of the most impressive single season statistical performances of all time: averaging nearly 28 points, over 8 rebounds, and nearly 7 assists a game while shooting nearly 55% from the field. He’s clearly the most talented player in the league, and one of the most talented ever – whether he will be the best player will be determined in May and June. Sorry, Bron, that’s just the way it is.

Honorable mention: Chris Paul, Kevin Durant

Defensive Player of the Year – Andre Iguodala. Once again I’m biased but Iguodala, for all his flaws, has always been one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and has finally gained national attention for his defensive prowess with the Sixers team success. It’s a travesty he has never been named to the league’s All Defensive team but that should end this year.

Honorable mention: Dwight Howard, Tony Allen

Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden. Even with Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder would be in trouble without the scoring of Harden, as he presents their only real scoring threat besides the dynamic duo. Will be interesting to see what it costs OKC to keep Harden and if they’re willing to pay the price.

Honorable mention: Lou Williams, Jason Terry

Rookie of Year: Kyrie Irving. Yes, I know Ricky Rubio has been great and especially fun to watch (other than last night against my Sixers), but the Spaniard has a star in Kevin Love to help lessen the load, while Irving has somehow led this roster to 12 wins…at the age of 19.

Honorable mention: Rubio

Coach of the Year: Doug Collins. Collins has the Sixers 8 games over .500(even with current 3 game slide) despite having no player average more than 16 points a game, and missing starting center Spencer Hawes for much of the season. The Sixers play hard, play defense, and don’t turn over the basketball – all signs of Collins’ work.

Honorable mention: George Karl, Rick Carlisle

Dwight Howard prediction: Howard gets moved to Lakers for Andrew Bynum. He’s going to walk. Orlando cannot risk losing him for nothing. If Bynum is healthy, he’s a better offensive player than Howard, and enough of a force inside that I don’t think the Magic would lose much in this deal. A lot of Sports Guy’s Ewing theory potential here.

Other random trade prediction: the Lakers use Pau Gasol to land Deron Williams. Williams is another guy that is leaving in the offseason. Not sure if this would be a three-way deal with Houston getting involved to try to acquire Gasol again, but the dreadful Nets need to move Williams so the package they gave Utah for the star point guard won’t be a waste of assets. A three-way trade in which the Nets land Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, and draft picks would be a good haul for a player they could lose for nothing.

Finals prediction: Miami over San Antonio. If Manu Ginobili can stay healthy (a big if), the Spurs are the best coached team in the league, and have infused their lineup with young talent (Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Danny Green) to complement the veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Ginobili. The Western Conference playoffs will be a bloodbath and I think the Spurs’ experience could make them a surprise Finals team.

Most Improved Player: Jeremy Lin. I’ll end this post where it started – with the best story in the league. Hard to make more of a jump than Lin has – he might be the most improved player in NBA history.

As if 2000 words wasn’t enough NBA, I’ll discuss the Sixers at the halfway point later today.

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