The NBA enters the second half of the regular season and, after a relatively casual first half, the first distant claps of postseason thunder are beginning to be heard.
In the East, the defending champion Boston Celtics are still the front runners but Cleveland and Orlando aren't far behind. Even in Atlanta, which took the Celtics to the brink last year, some are saying they need only time to mature into a championship-level team.
In the West, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared poised to break away from the pack but a healthy San Antonio Spurs team thinks otherwise. Another rising power is Greg Oden and the Portland Trail Blazers who are looking for an elite point guard for a second half run. If not the Lakers or Portland, perhaps New Orleans can make a run.
Three Buffalo News writers -- Jerry (Sully) Sullivan, Allen (Big Al) Wilson and Rodney (Rock) McKissic -- take a look at the season so far.
1. Who was first-half MVP?
Sully: It has to be LeBron James. He has taken his game to another level this season and lifted a modest Cavaliers supporting cast to elite status. I was watching that loss to the Lakers last Sunday. You have to be kidding me. I know Mo Williams is a solid point guard, but it's amazing to think a team with that front line could have been 23-0 at home.
Big Al: I agree that King James deserves it more at this point because he's doing more with less talent around him. But don't rule out Kobe Bryant winning his second straight MVP award once the entire season has played out. James puts up better overall numbers, but Kobe is the better defender and has improved greatly as a team player. And no one is more clutch with the game on the line.
Rock: It's King James. He's the only All-Star on the Cavs' roster -- though Mo Williams was added as an injury replacement -- yet Cleveland has the second-best record in the East. LeBron is not shooting as many jumpers and is simply overpowering opponents going to the rack. But the biggest part of his game that he's elevated is his defense. He didn't play much of it earlier in his career, but he always had the tools.
Defense is about desire and now LeBron understands that the Cavs are going to overtake the Celtics or anyone else, they're going to have to do it with defense.
2. Biggest surprise
Big Al: I thought the Orlando Magic was going to be good. I also expected the team to be the class of the Southeast Division. But I never imagined the Magic would have one of the four best records in the NBA. The Magic has done something the Celtics and Cavaliers couldn't -- beat the Lakers (twice) this season. Jameer Nelson's season-ending shoulder injury will hurt, but as long as Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedu Turkolu stay healthy, the Magic won't go away easily.
Sully: The biggest surprise for me has been the way Minnesota came alive after Christmas under Kevin McHale. The Timberwolves were 4-23 at Christmas, then went 13-7 over their next 20 games. Al Jefferson, who came from Boston in the Kevin Garnett deal, has blossomed into one of the top young men in the game, and rookie Kevin Love has been a beast on the boards. But Jefferson is gone for the year with an injury. So it won't be a surprise if the T-wolves go the other way.
Rock: Orlando is merely taking another step in its development toward an eventual championship. It's a shame they are losing Jameer Nelson for the season because I really believe they were capable of being one of the top teams in the East come playoff time. Dwight Howard is the top center in the game and he's only going to get better.
3. Biggest disappointment
Rock: The Houston Rockets. You have three All-Stars in Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest and you're barely a playoff team? One of the problems is a lack of a point guard. Rafer Alston is not a starter anymore and would be better served as a backup. But the biggest issue is the health of Tracy McGrady. I think his game is shot at 29.
Big Al: The Detroit Pistons trade for Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson was done for financial reasons, but the move shouldn't have caused this team to slide as badly as it has. While Billups has thrived for the Nuggets, the Pistons have barely played above .500 ball with A.I. Lacking team chemistry, they have fallen well behind the Cavs in the Central Division..
Sully: Since I picked Houston to make the Finals, it has to be the Rockets. Injuries have hurt, as Rock said, but I badly overestimated the impact of Artest, who is living on his reputation these days. This team simply doesn't defend well. The same goes for the Toronto Raptors, who finally gave up on the Jermaine O'Neal experiment Friday.
4. What's to come in the second half
Sully: It'll be interesting to see which of the big three contenders (Cavs, Celtics, Lakers) can sustain a high level of play and earn the best overall record and home-court advantage in the Finals. The trade deadline is looming, so any of them could strike a deal. I think Cleveland needs a big man (Marcus Camby, perhaps?) to fortify its interior defense for a long playoff run. Boston could use another scorer off the bench. Also keep an eye on the Utah Jazz, which could be a sleeper in the West if they get healthy.
Rock: With Nelson out in Orlando, I expect Atlanta to make a strong push for the Southeast title. If Kenyon Martin and Nene Hilario hold up, Denver should win the Northwest and I'm not ready to put San Antonio to bed just yet in the West. The Spurs, when healthy, can win the whole thing.
Big Al: Injuries have prevented the New Orleans Hornets from living up to the high expectations set after their strong postseason showing last year. But as Chris Paul and company get healthier, look for them make a big run after the All-Star break. Don't be surprised if the Hornets overtake San Antonio in the Southwest Division.
5. The NBA Finals and who wins it?
Big Al: A Lakers-Cavs Finals would be a ratings winner because of the hype surrounding the Kobe-LeBron matchup. I don't think the James gang is good enough to overtake the Celtics and their Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Lakers are driven by the embarrassment of last year's Finals loss. Whether center Andrew Bynum returns from a knee injury or not, Kobe will get enough help from Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom to put the Lakers over the top.
Sully: I'm with Al. I see another Lakers-Celtics final, with L.A. taking care of business this time, assuming Bynum comes back. The Celts will sorely miss James Posey and P.J. Brown in the postseason. Another caveat: If the Cavs trade for a quality interior defender, they'll be good enough to take out Boston in the playoffs.
Rock: I'm picking Cleveland and San Antonio in the Finals with Cleveland to win it all. The Celtics are still good enough to win, but they still haven't found a replacement for James Posey off the bench. The Lakers seem to be better than a year ago, but will Bynum be healthy for a long run? Williams is just the scorer Cleveland needed to take them over the top and San Antonio has the veteran experience.
For a video look at the NBA at the Break, go to buffalonews.com/sports
Rodney McKissic, Allen Wilson and Jerry Sullivan will host a live roundtable NBA chat on the Sports, Ink blog at 11 a.m. Monday.