After 17 Attempts, a Second-Half Look

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006; 12:40 PM

This goes out to New York Knicks rookie Nate Robinson, who needed only 15 attempts to complete his game-winning dunk in the Slam Dunk competition on Saturday night. Robinson gives hope to everybody, and not just because the 5-foot-8 chunk of dynamite showed ridiculous hops while climbing 1986 Slam Dunk Champion Spud Webb and making a 360-degree dunk but because he proved that you should never give up.

No matter how long it takes -- no matter how many times you toss the ball against the glass and it bounds over the backboard or rolls into the stands; no matter how many people you bore along the way; no matter how many boos you may hear -- keep going until somebody makes you stop. Robinson is truly an inspiration to us all -- and he knows it. "It's a great honor, a great privilege to be in my shoes right now," Robinson said after the victory.

With that said, this article was submitted 17 times before it received approval to go online.

The All-Star Weekend in Houston truly had its highs: Philadelphia guard Andre Iguodala's behind-the-backboard dunk, Destiny's Child singing the national anthem, pre-game dance routines, the Detroit Pistons besting the Western Conference in the All-Star Game, LeBron James winning MVP and Tracy McGrady having the fifth-best scoring total in the history of the game with 36 points.

And it had its lows: Robinson's excruciating final dunk attempt; whatever that competition was with NBA stars, WNBA players and NBA legends; the first half of the All-Star Game; and Tracy McGrady's mental state for most of the weekend).

But none of that matters anymore. With about 30 games left for every team in the league, here are the top six story lines to keep an eye on in the second half of the season.

1. The Showdown for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference

The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs are at the center of the most important divisional race in the NBA, with the team earning more than just one of the top three seeds. More importantly, the winner of the Southwest Division will have homecourt advantage in the second round against the other, should Dallas and San Antonio advance. Because of the league's realignment, the three division winners will earn the top three seeds in the playoff, with the fourth and eighth seeds going to the next best records in the conference. The Mavericks (42-11) currently lead the Southwest Division by one game over Spurs (41-12), who have the second-best record in the conference but would be the fourth seed if they don't win the division. "Usually, the regular season is not that important, because eight teams from each conference make the playoffs," Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki said. "If you lose a game here or there it doesn't really matter that much, but if you look at it this year, every loss can really come back at the end to hurt you. You have to bring your A-game every night, and you have to compete on the highest level every night, and try to win every night."

Dallas has been slept on most of the season, but they have been winning in 3D -- Dirk, defense and depth. Nowitzki is one of five legitimate candidates for the league's most valuable player award -- with Phoenix's Steve Nash, Detroit's Chauncey Billups, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland's LeBron James -- but Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson has helped Nowitzki by turning a team that was allergic to defense into one of the more feared defensive teams in the league. Yes, Dallas let Kobe get 62 points in three quarters, but in its past 28 games, only five opponents have topped 100 points. The Mavericks also have arguably the best bench in the NBA with Erick Dampier, Jerry Stackhouse, Marquis Daniels, Keith Van Horn and Devin Harris.

The Spurs haven't been the dominant team many expected because of injuries that have slowed both Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. Ginobili has missed 12 games this season because of problems with his thigh, right foot and right ankle, and Duncan's production has declined each month this season because of plantar fasciitis (who knew he'd play better with the Afro?). But with Tony Parker playing the best basketball of his career, Duncan doesn't exactly have to return to the form that earned him back-to-back league's most valuable player awards but if he comes close, the defending champions can still claim the top seed in the West. The Mavericks and Spurs have split both games this season and will meet two more times. "We need to play better and we can't waste games the way we did the last two seasons," Spurs point guard Tony Parker said. "We have to understand that Dallas is for real. Avery is a good coach and he knows our playbook by heart. It's going to be a tough race . . . We just have to understand we have to play better starting right now."

2. The Miami Heat try to join the league's elite teams

You created this mess, Pat Riley. It's time to clean it up. The Miami Heat has gone 22-10 since Riley replaced Stan Van Gundy, who stepped down to spend more time with his family. Having the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and winning 69 percent of your games would be respectable for most teams but this has been considered a championship-or-bust season and few consider the Heat a serious threat to the Pistons -- even after Dwyane Wade single-handedly carried the Heat with 17 consecutive points in a win on Feb. 12. The Heat has the fifth-best record in the league, but they aren't in the 'in crowd" just yet. It has just two wins against division leaders and are 1-7 against Detroit, Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix, the teams with the four best records in the league. Miami is 33-20 overall and would need to go 26-3 the rest of the season to match the record Van Gundy posted last year with Damon Jones, Eddie Jones and a healthy Shaquille O'Neal. Riley didn't believe that team was good enough to beat Detroit in the playoffs, so he completely revamped the roster last season, bringing in Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Jason Williams and James Posey. So far, none has become a reliable third option and they appear to fit like a circular peg in a square hole with Wade and O'Neal. Riley will have to dig deep into his record collection for more songs from Curtis Mayfield and the Doobie Brothers to get this team clicking. The league is waiting to see if it ever will come together. The Heat has a chance to make a serious push with 14 of their next 17 games against teams with losing records.


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