Story lines for the NBA season’s second half

February 21

Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook made his return Thursday night against Mario Chalmers and the Heat. (Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports)

With two months remaining in the NBA season, the questions surrounding teams and players for the first half of the year will start to gain answers as the playoffs loom closer.

Plenty has been said about the MVP race, with Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Miami’s LeBron James taking turns as the award’s front-runner, but there are three other story lines that should prove equally intriguing during the second half of the season.

Will the return of Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook from injury help or hinder their teams?
The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder were successful with point guards Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, respectively, in the lineup. The Clippers were 23-12 prior to Paul going down on January 3 with a shoulder injury while the Thunder tallied a 21-4 mark with Westbrook in uniform.

But it was in their absence that star teammates Blake Griffin of the Clippers and Kevin Durant of the Thunder experienced arguably the best stretches of play in their careers. Griffin’s scoring spiked to 27.5 points per game, including a 43-point outburst, while Durant has averaged 35.0 points in 26 games without Westbrook, including 12 straight games of 30 or more points.

While Durant’s usage percentage rose from 29.7 to 35.5 during Westbrook’s absence, according to NBA.com/stats, his production hasn’t necessarily suffered with his all-star teammate on the floor. Durant has won three scoring titles with Westbrook and the two have proven they can coexist as offensive focal points. For instance, in a Feb. 20 contest last season, Durant scored 51 points while Westbrook recorded 40 points and nine assists.

For Griffin, who has become known for his alley-oop dunks and is still improving his post moves, having Paul back at point guard should benefit his ability to create. Though Paul can dominate the ball at times — he ranks third in the league with 83 front-court touches per game and fifth overall with an average time of possession of 7.3 minutes per game – the all-star guard also leads the NBA in assists per game (11.1) and average points created by assists (24.9).

Are the San Antonio Spurs a true contender?
The obvious answer would be “yes.” The defending Western Conference champions have the league’s fourth-best record at 40-15 entering Thursday’s games and boast three future Hall of Fame candidates in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

But the Spurs are just 2-8 against teams with records above . 600 and their health remains an issue. Ginobili and Parker are sidelined with injuries, Kawhi Leonard returned this week after missing 12 games with a fractured hand, and the lineup of Duncan, Leonard, Parker, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter that played the majority of last year’s NBA Finals has been on the floor for just 137 minutes this season.

Still, San Antonio has shown signs of success that are critical to deep playoff runs. The Spurs are 21-7 in road games and have only lost twice to teams with losing records. And although their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is up to 100.5 from last year’s 99.2, the Spurs are still outscoring opponents by an average of 7.1 points per 100 possessions. What’s more, San Antonio’s remaining schedule is favorable with just seven of its 27 games coming against teams with a record above .600.

Do the Indiana Pacers pose a legitimate threat to Miami winning its third straight title?
At 41-13 entering Thursday’s games, the Pacers possessed the best record in the Eastern Conference, three wins ahead of Miami. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Indiana is, statistically, the best defensive team since the league started counting turnovers in 1977, posting a league-best defensive rating of 93.8.

Problem is, the Pacers have struggled to find the same success on offense. Their offensive rating of 102.4 ranks just 18th overall and they are tied for sixth-most with a turnover rating of 16.0. Paul George, who had propelled himself into the MVP discussion during the first two months of the season, has seen his field goal percentage (40.1), three-point percentage (34.5) and points per game (20.9) all drop since the turn of the calendar year.

Aiding Indiana’s push to dethrone Miami are the Heat’s defensive deficiencies. Entering Thursday’s games, the Heat were allowing an effective field goal percentage (adding extra value to three-pointers) of 51.3. This stat stands to improve should Dwyane Wade’s health become more stable, but no team has won a NBA title after allowing an effective field goal percentage of at least 50 percent during the season.

BY THE NUMBERS
3
Games in which Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love has recorded at least 40 points and 15 rebounds. That’s one more game than all other NBA players combined this season.

2
Days that Kevin Grow, a high school senior with Down syndrome, was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. The teenager, who serves as team manager for his Bensalem High School’s (Pa.) basketball team, signed the ceremonial two-day contract on Monday after scoring 14 points over the final two games of the season.

QUOTABLE
“I don’t look at it as tanking. I look at it as ‘I don’t want to be at this level here. I may have to get worse to be good.’ It’s definitely a strategy and more and more teams are looking at it.”

- NBA President of Basketball Operations Rod Thorn during an interview with TrueHoop TV on Feb. 14.

“People think it’s so far-fetched that I would stay in Minnesota…but we have the better team, the better foundation. I’m having fun.” 

- Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love to GQ magazine, comparing his current team to the Los Angeles Lakers, who are reportedly interested in acquiring the all-star and UCLA alum.

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