NBA: A Sprint to the Finish

FOX Sports News' Editor Mike Rosenhouse examines the NBA picture at the All-Star break.

LeBron James; Kobe Bryant.

By Mike Rosenhouse, FOX Sports

All-Star Weekend is done. Time to get back to business as the 2012-13 NBA Season enters into its final stage.

The Royal Heat

It wasn't too long ago that LeBron James had to deal with the aftermath of saying things like "Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven." Well, he's got one at the moment, and he's on course to get title number two.

‘King James' has taken his game to a new level this season. The reigning MVP is averaging 27 points, 8 rebounds and almost 7 assists per game, leading the champions to the Eastern Conference's best record.

Having the weight of the first championship off his shoulders, it's easy to see why LeBron is playing with a free and fun style. His shooting percentages are up this year, and the scoring threat he poses at any time means more open looks for team-mates.

The Heat appear set for a third straight trip to the NBA Finals, but the likes of New York, Indiana, Chicago and even the rag-tag Boston Celtics might have something to say about that.

Bringing the Thunder

Out West, the Oklahoma City Thunder have stayed as one of the premier teams in the conference, despite trading away major scorer James Harden. The two biggest reasons for that are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Durant is leading the league in scoring and could become just the 10th player in NBA history to join the "50-40-90 Club" (make 50% on shots from the field, 40% on three-point attempts, and 90% from the foul line). Harden's absence means the ball is almost always in Durant's hands at the end of games.

Meanwhile, Westbrook has improved this season as well. He's scoring 22 points and a career high 8 assists a game.

Going forward, it's pretty clear what the Thunder will get from Durant come playoff time, but in order for them to win the title, Westbrook will be the key.

Old Western Conference Shoot-out

First place in the West is currently owned by the San Antonio Spurs. Just like last year when they ended the regular season as the top seed, the veteran Spurs aren't making much flashy headlines.

They have the NBA's best record and it comes down to an effective style of basketball. Tony Parker leads an offence that is best in the league in assists, while on the other end of the court, they're in the top 10 in defence.

The Los Angeles Clippers have stolen ‘Showtime' from the cross-town Lakers, and they have to be grouped with San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the discussion of the Western Conference's elite teams.

Chris Paul's second season in California has been MVP-caliber. That's especially true when you see how much the Clippers have struggled when he's been out injured.

His ‘Lob-City' partner, Blake Griffin, has become more than a ferocious dunker this season, clearly adding to his offensive arsenal. In order for the Clippers to go far in the playoffs, they will need him to score inside consistently.

One player to watch out for come playoff time is Jamal Crawford. He provides instant offence off the Clippers bench, scoring almost 17 points a game this season. Crawford is easily capable of changing the course of a game and a series.

Surprise, Surprise

The three biggest surprise teams for me this season, whether for good or bad have to be the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks.

The Lakers have had a horrific season by their lofty standards. The big off-season captures of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash haven't quite worked out as expected.

While this can be blamed on a handful of reasons, the key for me is their lack of consistency. Injuries haven't allowed this team to be whole for a significant period of time at any point. While Kobe Bryant has done his best to keep the Lakers relevant, they're on the outside of the playoff picture and will need to do something special in their remaining games to get in.

Meanwhile, the Houston Rockets are in the hunt for the playoffs, something that looked extremely unlikely until, October 28, 2012. That's the day they traded for James Harden. It was a big risk, but so far it's paid off. The former Thunder sixth man has excelled in a starting role.

Harden and fellow off-season addition, Jeremy Lin, have helped turn the Rockets into the NBA's highest scoring offence. However, they've struggled on the defensive end, where they've given up the second most points per game in the league.

Finally, the New York Knicks have become a real threat in the Eastern Conference. Carmelo Anthony knows that his team will go as far as he takes them, but he's also admitted this season, that it has to be about more than just him.

When the Knicks are at their best, their ball movement allows for open shots and three-point attempts, the ball doesn't just start and stop with Anthony.

New York are currently in the second spot in the East and will do their best to chase down the Heat in the NBA's second half.

Make sure to catch highlights from all the big games from the NBA on FOX Sports Central, Score Tonight and FOX Sports News!

Follow Mike on twitter at @mikerosenhouse.



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