Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Marquee Matchups: Feb. 18-21

By Akshay Manwani

Even as Jeremy Lin mania gripped the league in the past week, the San Antonio Spurs quietly made their run with a nine-game winning streak to challenge the Oklahoma City Thunder for the numero uno spot in the Western Conference standings. Now, with about seven days to go before the 2012 All-Star celebrations begin in Orlando, most teams are hoping to finish the first half of the regular season with a strong performance.

With that perspective in mind, here is a quick look at the exciting contests to be played over the next few days:

February 18, 2012
Miami Heat v Cleveland Cavaliers:
When: February 18, 2012 – 6:00 AM (IST) -- Watch it LIVE on Sony Pix
Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland
Regular season records: Miami Heat (23-7), Cleveland Cavaliers (11-16)
Preview: Miami has already clinched the three-game regular season series, 2-0. While the first game between the two teams saw the Heat edge the Cavs by seven points, the second game was a blowout as Miami inflicted a 16-point hammering on Cleveland. That margin could get wider as the Cavs will be without big man Anderson Varejao (out with broken right wrist) for this game, even though Kyrie Irving, who missed three games due to a concussion, made an impressive return in Cleveland’s 98-87 win against Indiana on February 15. However, the biggest talking point in the lead up to this game is whether Cavaliers’ fans will reduce their animosity towards LeBron James in his first visit to the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland this season.

February 19, 2012
San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Clippers:
When: February 19, 2012 – 2:00 AM (IST) -- Watch it LIVE on Ten Sports
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
Regular season records: San Antonio Spurs (21-9), Los Angeles Clippers (18-9)
Preview: The Spurs handed the Clippers a 25-point thrashing in the last week of December 2011 to set the tone for the first of the three-game regular season series. In that game, San Antonio shot 45-for-80 from the floor, 10-for-19 from 3-point territory and went a perfect 15-for-15 from the foul line. The Spurs also had no trouble converting in transition. They outscored Los Angeles 20-14 on the fastbreak while converting eight of 10 opportunities. Now, with Manu Ginobili back on the Spurs’ roster, more of the same can be expected from San Antonio as it plays the sixth encounter of a nine-game road trip with this matchup against the Clippers.

Dallas Mavericks v New York Knicks:
When: February 19, 2012 – 11:30 PM (IST)
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
Regular season records: Dallas Mavericks (19-11), New York Knicks (15-15)
Preview: Both teams are in the midst of a terrific run with Dallas having won five and New York winning seven straight respectively. While Dallas has finally started gelling as a unit with Dirk Nowitzki providing his clutch heroics from the last season, like against Portland on February 11, the Knicks have found an unlikely star in Jeremy Lin. Adding to the buzz around this marquee game is that Carmelo Anthony (out with groin injury) is likely to make a return to the Knicks’ roster for this matchup, which would then make it interesting to see how Anthony adjusts to Linsanity. Nevertheless, irrespective of the Linsanity-Melo pairing, the first of two clashes between these two sides over the course of the next 19 days promises to be a high-octane affair.

February 20, 2012
Orlando Magic v Miami Heat:
When: February 20, 2012 – 2:00 AM (IST)
Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami
Regular season records: Orlando Magic (19-11), Miami Heat (23-7)
Preview: Although Miami has a clear four-game lead over Orlando at this point in time, the Magic beat the Heat by 13 points in the first of the four-game regular season series on February 8. In that game, seven Magic shooters combined for 17 3-pointers on a franchise-record 42 attempts to beat the Heat. Also, Orlando used its size advantage, with Dwight Howard grabbing 24 rebounds, to outrebound the Heat 48-38 that night. Now, as the action shifts to the American Airlines Arena, the question is whether the Magic can repeat that clinical performance from Orlando in Miami.

February 21, 2012
Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers:
When: February 22, 2012 – 9:00 AM (IST) -- Watch LIVE on NBA.com/india!
Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
Regular season records: Portland Trail Blazers (16-14), Los Angeles Lakers (17-12) Preview: It seems like a long time ago when Portland beat the Lakers 107-96 on January 5 in the first of three regular season clashes. After going 5-1 with that win over LA to begin their 2011-12 campaign, Portland has slumped to 11-13 in the last six weeks. Portland’s biggest problem is that it has been woeful on the road (5-10). And since the Trail Blazers travel to Los Angeles for this encounter, the odds are very much against them as they take on a Lakers outfit that is an impressive 12-2 at home.

All stats and regular season standings are after games played on February 16, 2012 (IST)