In actuality, the second half has been under way for a while.
Most teams have about 30 games left on the 82-game schedule — so it’s crunch time, and given the way the races are shaping up it’s not too soon to start scoreboard-watching.
Here’s a breakdown of how the race to the playoffs might look:
In: Cleveland, Toronto, Boston, Atlanta. The Cavaliers have been atop the East for most of the season, and even though the Raptors are playing well the race to the No. 1 seed still goes through Cleveland. The Celtics went into the break with 10 wins in their last 12 games, so the long layoff might not have helped them from a momentum standpoint. And the Hawks seem a bit vulnerable, but it’s almost inconceivable to see them outside the playoff mix.
Out: New York, Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia. The Knicks are five games back of the No. 8 spot, fired their coach and Carmelo Anthony’s knee is problematic. Milwaukee is tough at home (15-8) but horrid on the road (7-24). Brooklyn and Philadelphia are lottery-bound.
So that leaves: Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit, Washington and Orlando, in a seven-team race for four spots. Charlotte won seven of 10 going into the break. Miami is waiting to see how badly hurt Chris Bosh’s calf is, and either way the Heat seem as though they’re in trade-for-someone mode. Indiana and Chicago would figure to be probable playoff teams, depending on health.
The picks: Miami, Indiana, Chicago and Detroit get into the field.
In: Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles Clippers. With the first three teams, no explanation is necessary. The Clippers have gotten better without Blake Griffin, somehow.
Out: Denver, New Orleans, Minnesota, Phoenix, Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets are only five games out, but it’s just so hard to envision them making that strong a run. The Pelicans’ season was snake-bitten from the beginning, and the others know continued rebuilding modes await.
So that leaves: Memphis, Dallas, Portland, Utah, Houston and Sacramento, in a six-team race for four spots. Marc Gasol’s injury leaves the Grizzlies in some trouble, obviously. The job coach Quin Snyder has done with the Jazz has been fantastic, and the league seems to be taking notice. And Portland is hanging on in its first season without LaMarcus Aldridge.
The picks: Memphis, Dallas, Utah and Houston round out the West bracket.
WHAT TO WATCH
College games on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday will have to suffice for those who need a nightly hoops fix on television. The NBA returns on Thursday, and here are some of the games to note this coming week:
— Chicago at Cleveland, Thursday: The Bulls will come out of the break holding only seventh place in the East, and Jimmy Butler’s absence won’t help.
— San Antonio at L.A. Clippers, Thursday: The Spurs won their first meeting this season, but visit the Clippers for the first time since last year’s Game 7 loss.
— Miami at Atlanta, Friday: The Heat will be without suspended center Hassan Whiteside, and Bosh’s availability is unknown because of a calf issue.
— New York at Minnesota, Saturday: The Timberwolves get to welcome home All-Star Skills Challenge winner Karl-Anthony Towns and dunk champ Zach LaVine.
— Memphis at Toronto, Sunday: Notable because the Raptors get their “normal” arena back, after Air Canada Centre was transformed for All-Star weekend.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK
Given there were so few games, we’ll go a different route this week and offer just one number instead: 6.
In Toronto, the city now often referred to as “The 6” — a nod to a lyric in a hit song from native son Drake — it took six dunks over the course of the evening for LaVine to defend his slam-dunk title. He beat Orlando’s Aaron Gordon in that won’t-be-forgotten-soon final round.