Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Tim Duncan will be teammates in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, but when the regular season resumes next week, the trio and their regular teammates will continue fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference standings. In the East, the defending champion Miami Heat continue to hold court, boasting a four-game lead over the second-place Knicks. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard joined Bill Littlefield to preview the second half of the season.
BL: The San Antonio Spurs under head coach Gregg Popovich have more wins this season than anybody else in the NBA. The last time the Spurs won fewer than 50 games was 1998-99 when they only played 50 games cause there was a lockout that season. But San Antonio hasn’t reached the NBA finals since 2007. Are they too old to get over the top?
CB: It’s tough. Now, you look at that team, and you look at what Pop has done. The system works, obviously. Pop’s never been afraid to take a small term-loss for a bigger term gain down the road. What he did last year was he played Kawhi Leonard, their wingman, extended minutes for a guy that age, and it didn’t always work out for the best last year, but what’s that meant is that this season, Kawhi has become a much better player. And what they see is, when it comes down to the playoffs, they need a wing defender. They see, OK, Kawhi Leonard can now guard those guys the way that Stephen Jackson used to. I think that Tim Duncan sort of hit a fountain of youth here. [Manu] Ginobili needs to be healthy, but if it all clicks right, I think they’ve got a shot.
BL: Nipping at San Antonio’s spurs, so to speak, in the Western Conference standings are the LA Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. Both of those teams are young, and they still have something to prove. Which one do you expect more from down the stretch?
CB: The Thunder with no question. With the experience they’ve had now, it’s that very classic: advance one level in the playoffs, come back the next year, advance one more. [Kevin] Durant is other worldly. I don’t think we’ve seen a guy with his height and length who plays like that, ever. The Clipper … they’re still figuring it out. Chris Paul is a transcendent player, but I don’t think Blake Griffin is necessarily ready to lead a team in the playoffs yet.
BL: LeBron James comes into the All-Star break having scored 30 or more points in seven straight games for Miami. However, on Thursday night James’s shooting percentage dipped below 60 percent for the first time during that streak. So, safe to say that the Heat are now in full panic mode?
CB: Yeah, it’s a slump, right? [laughs]
BL: [Laughing] This obviously is the defending champions. They look very strong.
CB: If there’s a weakness, it’s a lack of big men. But LeBron is so strong that you figure, if they really need it, he can probably guard opposing centers. But you know this is a team with a history of injuries. Come the playoffs, if [Dwyane] Wade gets hurt again, if [Chris] Bosh gets hurt, it’s still an awfully short bench they’ve got.
BL: The Boston Celtics have lost All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, they’ve lost backup guard Leandro Barbosa, rookie forward Jared Sullinger — all these guys to injuries. Not exactly the typical formula for going 8-2 heading into the All-Star break, is it?
CB: No, but I love Paul Pierce. He reminds me of that guy in the pickup game who gets saddled with like four guys, two of whom are over 50 years old, and he’s like, “Let’s just do this, guys,” and he still ends up winning the game. You can see he loves this. He’s out there — he’s enjoying the chance to say, “Ok, let’s do this.” Now, I don’t know if Pierce can keep this up or if his body can keep it up, but I love watching guys like that.