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Fran Blinebury

With an MVP candidate in Derrick Rose, the Bulls could be the darkhorse favorite for The Finals.
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Stretch run of season presents 10 must-watch storylines

Posted Feb 22 2011 10:43AM

Now that Rihanna has stopped bumping, Kanye has stopped grinding and Kobe Bryant has stopped emphatically hammering home the point that his time has not yet passed with yet another display of brilliance that eclipsed anything a gaudy Hollywood-style All-Star Weekend could offer, it is time for the real fireworks.

Though the unofficial "second half" of the regular season that follows the All-Star break has actually shrunk to the final third of the 82-game schedule, there is much intrigue on the table and plenty left to settle before the playoffs begin:

End of the 'Melo Drama: It was the story that hovered over the first four months of the season like the shadow of that bomb-laden blimp in the 1970s thriller Black Sunday. In the end, evidently bidding against themselves, the Knicks pushed enough chips into the middle of the table to put Carmelo Anthony in their lineup next to Amar'e Stoudemire. Now the question is whether, with the addition of veteran point guard Chauncey Billups, New York can become more than just an offensive curiosity item by the time April and the playoffs arrive. The Nuggets can finally get on with the next stage of their lives, likely after making additional deals with the pieces they acquired from the Knicks. And if New Jersey -- which forced the Knicks to up the ante -- eventually winds up with Timofey Mozgov and/or Danilo Gallinari, it could be laughing last.

Whither the Lakers: It's so easy to forget that they are still the two-time defending champions until somebody throws them out of the throne room. But they help ring the alarm bells of panic with their displays of ennui capped off by that inglorious three-game pre-All-Star swan dive that began in Orlando and Charlotte and concluded with the face-first splat in Cleveland. Can Andrew Bynum stay healthy? Can Derek Fisher and Steve Blake contribute anything at the point? Can Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom deliver consistency? Can Ron Artest even pretend that he's interested? Can those aching knees let Kobe play every night through June like it's the All-Star Game?

Turning up the Heat: It's almost comical to think back now to the catcalls, the second-guessing and the speculation about coach Erik Spoelstra's job security when the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn't zoom out of the starting gate. But The Heatles have dealt with the hype, learned to sing in harmony and have been cranking out a steady stream of hits with a 32-7 record since Nov. 27 that has them in a virtual tie for the No. 1 seed in the East. However, they still have to figure out how to execute a half-court offense in late game situations and, oh yes, find a way to beat that huge Boston lineup if they're going to play for the rings in June.

Remembering the Alamo: With never-satisfied coach Gregg Popovich constantly harping on problems with their defense, the Spurs have been able to run away and almost lap the field in the race for the best record in the league without getting the trumpet-blaring headlines. They're playing a more up-tempo offense that gets transition hoops and also takes the first open 3-point shot. Richard Jefferson has had a bounce back season. Manu Ginobili has to be in the MVP conversation. They're keeping Tim Duncan's minutes down and saving him for the playoffs. So maybe the best is yet to come.

Running of the Bulls Redux: Echoes of the Jordan Era can be heard in the United Center as the Bulls have stampeded their way into the East's elite class, already passing Orlando with their sights set on Miami and Boston. Rookie Tom Thibodeau might already be a runaway winner for the Coach of the Year Award with what he's done injecting defense. Derrick Rose is getting MVP talk. And with Carlos Boozer missing the start of the season and Joakim Noah currently on the shelf, Chicago has not yet played with its best lineup. If there's a darkhorse candidate for the Finals, the Bulls are looking like it.

Green With Envy: Ever since losing Game 7 of the Finals without an injured Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics have been playing focused, angry and with a plain and simple attitude that the 2011 title belongs to them. If Kevin Garnett stays healthy as the linchpin in the middle of the lineup, after what they did last spring, is there a real season to doubt them?

Mardi Gras: While much of the first-half focus was on the ability to put enough fans in the seats to reach attendance goals and keep the team in New Orleans, a healthy and rejuvenated Chris Paul and first-year coach Monty Williams have come together to put the jazz beat back on Bourbon Street. The Hornets are having an outstanding season, are back in the thick of the West playoff race and need a strong finish and good playoff showing. That's because after his comments -- even if they were joking -- at Carmelo's wedding last summer, everyone knows the clock is ticking on Paul's free agency in 2012.

Poof! Where's the Magic?: It was less than two years ago that the Magic were battling the Lakers in the Finals as a team on the rise for the next decade. Since that time general manager Otis Smith has turned over the roster. Twice. Orlando is tentative, less potent on offense, less interested on defense and is bumping along as a middle-of-the-pack East playoff team. The time to get it in gear is right now, because their franchise center will become a free agent in 2012 and Magic fans can't be happy to hear that Kobe Bryant was helping Dwight Howard do some L.A. house hunting over All-Star Weekend.

Pieces of 8: The race for final Western Conference playoff spot could wind up looking like one of those multi-car crashes heading to the checkered flag in a NASCAR race, where the trick is to steer through the wreckage and just survive. There could be no fewer than seven teams -- Memphis, Phoenix, Portland, Denver, Utah, Houston, Golden State -- jockeying down the stretch for the right to take on the Spurs in the first round. The Grizzlies are always in turmoil, the Suns have been wildly swinging up and down all season, the Blazers are always one more injury away from suiting up coach Nate McMillan, the Nuggets could be trading away their franchise player, the Jazz lost its legendary coach, the Rockets are trying to trade their way back into the picture without Yao Ming and the Warriors perennially dream.

MVP! MVP!: Despite his persecution complex and stated belief that he and Dwayne Wade will split the Miami vote, the two-time reigning MVP LeBron James is having the kind off season that could make him the only three-in-a-row winner outside of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. You can make arguments for others -- Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, tno name a few. But it seems that LeBron's only current real competition -- and it is real -- comes from Derrick Rose, who's bloomed into an American Beauty even faster than anyone expected. In the current Era of the Great Point Guards, Rose has met and exceeded the challenges from Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and all the rest. He's become not just the Bulls extraordinarily best player, but the leader who makes them a contender right now.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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