First half of NBA season awards, second half predictions

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So much for the little rest stop in Orlando. It was fun.

The breakneck pace of the NBA’s condensed post-lockout season picks up again Tuesday night. The pedal goes to the metal and we head for the playoffs.

Before the engines fully rev up again, we’re going to take stock. But rather than just give you some midseason awards, we’ll give you some thoughts on if these players and teams can keep it up.

MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat
In the second half: LeBron should be able to keep up his pace because what he’s done — 27.1 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting with 8 rebounds and 6 assists per game — is not happening just because he’s simply on a hot streak. He’s matured his game, he’s getting better looks in transition with the Heat’s up-tempo offense and because he’s traded in some threes for shots in the post. If he does falter a little, Kevin Durant is there to scoop up the pieces, with Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose lurking.

Top Team in East: Miami Heat
In the second half: The East is a two team race, Miami and Chicago. The Bulls may have the better record right now but the Heat have been the better side of late. If both teams are fully healthy, I think the Heat are the better squad, but the gap is so narrow that nagging little injuries, a hot bench player, just about anything can swing that series. The Eastern Conference Finals are going to be epic.

Top Team in West: Oklahoma City Thunder
In the second half: The Thunder are one of the true elite teams, one of the NBA’s contenders. Yet, there are moments you wonder about OKC and their end-of-game execution, their play that seems to go a bit too isolation, there is a feeling among some scouts in the league they can be stopped. Except nobody has really done it. Who in the West can really best them? San Antonio? Dallas? The Lakers? None of them without making a trade. The Clippers may be the most likely, but they strike me as OKC a year ago, a team learning to win. The Thunder likely will come out of the West and they will push anyone in the East in the finals.

Most Disappointing Team: Boston Celtics
In the second half: You knew that the condensed schedule would be hard on the Celtics older legs (as we expected and have seen with the Lakers and for stretches the Mavericks and Spurs). But in Boston, it’s not just the losses (or 15-16 record), it’s how the losses are happening that gives you feeling they held on too long and there is no way to salvage this short term. Rajon Rondo seems more testy than normal (throwing the ball at the ref? Really?). The defense is still good but come the playoffs will that be enough? Danny Ainge may make a big move, if he can find one he likes.

Biggest surprise player: Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks
In the second half: Lin may not keep dropping 20 a night consistently, but he doesn’t have to — he has to learn to mesh with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and now J.R. Smith. If he can, the Knicks could be the third best team in the NBA entering the playoffs (not by record, but by how they are playing). But Deron Williams said over the weekend that other point guards are seeing the hype around Lin and they are gearing up for him. It’s something to watch.

Coach of the year: Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers
In the second half: The Sixers started out playing fantastic team ball — good defense and a balanced offense. But that has fallen off since Spencer Hawes got hurt, he is the guy who made their offense work because he moved the ball side-to-side quickly. The ball gets stuck now and they are easier to defend. And Hawes is going to be out at least another couple of weeks. My guess is the Sixers slip and we can move Gregg Popovich into the coach of the year spot — he has the Spurs playing fantastic ball this season, as he did last year. He deserves it.

Watch Harrison Barnes nab a game-saving steal to put Mavericks past Clippers, 97-95

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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes thrived in a new position on Thursday night, and so did the Mavericks.

Barnes made the go-ahead basket, then stole the ball from Blake Griffin with 3.9 seconds left as Dallas beat the Los Angeles Clippers 97-95.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle started a big lineup, with Barnes moving from power forward to small forward.

“I have a little bit more energy from not banging with as many bigs,” Barnes said.

Barnes made a 14-foot jumper with 1:06 remaining for the game’s 11th lead change, making it 96-95. After he stripped Griffin, Wesley Matthews made a free throw with 0.9 seconds to play before J.J. Redick missed a 3-point attempt that would have won it at the buzzer. His shot bounced off the far side of the rim.

“We had a great shot on the last play,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “That was great execution, and it was a 3, would have been a game-winner. Make, miss, we will live with that.”

Griffin scored 21 points, including nine in a row in the fourth quarter, but he missed his last three shots and turned the ball over four times in the game.

“I got to take care of the ball on the last play of the game,” Griffin said, “if you trust me with the last play of the game.”

Dallas expected Griffin to have the ball.

“I have to give credit to our coaching staff,” Barnes said. “They scouted that play well before the game. We knew it was coming to Blake. I just tried to play good defense, and I was in the right spot and the right time.”

The Clippers had their three-game winning streak snapped. Dallas, battling from behind for a playoff berth, had lost four of six.

“I don’t care about the race,” Rivers said. “I care about how we play.”

Seth Curry led Dallas with 23 points. Barnes finished with 21 and Dirk Nowitzki had 14.

The new lineup had Nerlens Noel starting at center and point guard Yogi Ferrell on the bench.

Curry started at point guard and had four assists.

“We’re going to give this a look,” Carlisle said. “It may be the rest of the year, it may not.”

Noel finished with 12 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals, including one in the final minute.

DeAndre Jordan had 14 points and 18 rebounds for the Clippers. Chris Paul scored 15 points and Austin Rivers had 13.

The Mavericks led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. But after trailing 44-32, Los Angeles finished the first half on a 22-4 run for a 54-48 halftime lead.

Paul had 13 points in the first half, and Jordan already had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Nowitzki and Curry each had 10 points for the Mavericks.

Dallas started the third quarter with a 13-2 run to regain the lead at 61-56. The Mavericks took a 79-77 lead into the fourth quarter.

TIP-INS

Clippers: Redick’s four-point play in the second quarter was the 31st of his career. … The Clippers outrebounded Dallas 25-15 in the first half, but only 20-19 in the second.

Mavericks: Barnes has scored 20-plus points 35 times this season. He totaled 19 games of 20-plus in his first four NBA seasons with Golden State. … Dallas scored 21 points off 17 turnovers, nine in the second half. The Mavericks committed only nine turnovers for eight points.

THE LINEUP

Carlisle seemed pleased with the lineup change.

“We got to look at Curry at point with a really conventional team out there. We got a look at Noel with Dirk and Barnes. We got to see how things would shake out with Barnes at 3.”

THE MIGHTY FALL

Dallas’ J.J. Barea – listed at 6 feet, 185 pounds – was ejected with 5:29 to play in the third quarter after pushing the 6-10, 251-pound Griffin to the floor.

Crew chief Bill Spooner explained the call.

“The contact, in our judgment, was deemed unnecessary and excessive. The contact was to the shoulders and above to the throat. That is deemed as a flagrant penalty two.”

UP NEXT

Clippers: Begin a three-game homestand on Saturday afternoon against Utah.

Mavericks: Play the third game of a four-game homestand vs. Toronto on Saturday.

Marquese Chriss gets up for huge alley-oop off no-look pass vs. Nets (VIDEO)

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Phoenix Suns rookie Marquese Chriss is an athletic big man. During Thursday night’s matchup against the Brooklyn Nets, Chriss got loose behind the defense for an alley-oop off a no-look pass from Tyler Ulis.

The play came about halfway through the first quarter. Ulis was out in transition, and four Nets players committed to the arc with nobody back to guard the rim.

That allowed Chriss to slip past everyone down the left side of the floor for the monster dunk.

Brooklyn beat Phoenix, 126-98. The win was the Nets’ first consecutive win of the season.

Watch DeMar DeRozan score 40 as Raptors beat Heat, 101-84 (VIDEO)

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MIAMI (AP) DeMar DeRozan scored 40 points, marking the first time he’s had that many in consecutive games, and the Toronto Raptors pulled off their 19th double-digit comeback of the season to beat the Miami Heat 101-84 on Thursday night.

DeRozan shot 14 for 25 from the field and 12 for 13 from the line. He needed 38 shots to score 42 against Chicago on Tuesday.

Norman Powell scored 14 and Delon Wright added 13 for Toronto, which never led until midway through the third quarter. The Raptors allowed 33 points in the first quarter, then held Miami to 35 points over the next 27 minutes.

Playing with 13 stitches in his right hand, Hassan Whiteside scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for Miami. Rodney McGruder and Goran Dragic each had 13 points for the Heat, with Dragic shooting just 5 for 18.

He wasn’t the only Miami player to struggle. The Heat shot only 39 percent, 26 percent from 3-point range. The 84 points tied for Miami’s second-lowest total of the season, and was the first time the Heat failed to reach 90 at home.

The Raptors trailed by 15 points early and eventually led by as many as 17 – a 32-point turnaround. No one in the NBA has been better at pulling off big comebacks than the Raptors, who have come from behind six times since the All-Star break alone.

“It talks about toughness, heart,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Our give-a-crap level is pretty high, and it’s one of those things where when you count us out, we find a way. My thing is just find five men who are going to play hard.”

Neither team moved in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Toronto (43-29) remained in the No. 4 spot, pulling within a half-game of No. 3 Washington. Miami (35-37) stayed No. 8, now just a game ahead of No. 9 Chicago and No. 10 Detroit.

TIP-INS

Raptors: DeRozan has two 20-plus-point halves against Miami this season. He had 22 in the second half on Nov. 4, and 24 in the first half of this one. … P.J. Tucker started for Serge Ibaka, who served his one-game suspension for fighting Chicago’s Robin Lopez on Tuesday. … Toronto outrebounded Miami 51-36.

Heat: Wayne Ellington played, one day after the birth of his son. Wayne Ellington III arrived Monday afternoon. … Miami’s three second-quarter field goals were a season-low for any quarter. The previous low was four, done four times. … McGruder reached double figures for only the second time in his last 14 games.

DEROZAN HISTORY

DeRozan became the second player in Toronto history to have a season where he scored 32 or more points at least 20 times. He was an 11-year-old when it last happened – Vince Carter had 28 of those games in 2000-01.

WAITERS UPDATE

Heat guard Dion Waiters missed his third game with a sprained left ankle, and remains in a walking boot. There’s still no timetable for his return, but the Heat said the swelling in his ankle continues to decrease.

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Dallas on Saturday. It’s the second time this month Toronto faces Miami and Dallas consecutively.

Heat: Visit Boston on Sunday. Miami is 0-3 against Boston this season, losing by eight, 10 and three points.

JJ Barea goes after Blake Griffin, earns Flagrant 2 and ejection (VIDEO)

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Dallas Mavericks guard JJ Barea didn’t like that Los Angeles Clippers big man was coming to set a screen on him, so he slapped his hand away. Griffin then retaliated with an elbow — which may or may not have connected — and that kicked off a row between the two players that resulted in Barea claiming a Flagrant 2 and an ejection.

It came during the third quarter with Barea at the top of the key and both Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on either side of him.

Here’s how the play looked from multiple angles:

Curious that Griffin wasn’t assessed a foul at all given his own handsy nature. After the game referee Bill Spooner responded to pool reporters by saying that Barea was ejected for his contract above the throat. Meanwhile, Spooner also said that whether Griffin flopped or not was irrelevant.

“It has nothing to do with the merits of the play,” said Spooner.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks beat the Clippers, 97-95.