The NBA All-Star Weekend kicks off next Friday, Feb. 24th, and while it's a party and a game on Sunday for some, it's a four-day weekend for the rest.
Then on Tuesday, Feb. 28th, it's back to work and the real business of NBA championship basketball. It's only a short stretch of games from here on in, and the playoffs are just around the corner. First-round games are scheduled to start at the beginning of May.
When the shortened NBA season started, it began with a whimper, and the games were mostly scrappy, forgettable affairs. Over the last couple of weeks, teams have sorted themselves out, and the quality of play has vastly improved.
The final leg of the season will be a sprint to the finish for all those involved, but none more so than in the exciting Atlantic division.
Three teams stand a very good chance of advancing out of the division and going deep into the playoffs. The other two teams don't stand a chance of doing much at all, but if every team were to use the All-Star break to regroup and focus, then it's possible that all five teams could enjoy strong finishes to the end of the year.
Each team should concentrate on three main areas of concern. If they can address these issues before the end of the 2011-2012 season, then the Atlantic Division could become the powerhouse of the East.
Score More Points
The 76ers are good enough to finish on top of the Atlantic Division and claim the No. 3 seed, but if they want to make it beyond the first round of the playoffs, they will need more production up front. The 76ers average 95.9 points per game, with most of that production coming from their perimeter players. That will need to change in the playoffs.
Work Out How to Stop Dwyane Wade
If the 76ers do make it to the playoffs, they would probably face a Miami Heat team loaded with scoring. While Philadelphia plays good defence and could close down LeBron James and Chris Bosh as well as any team, they don't seem able to handle all three kings at once. Wade will find ways to hurt them. The 76ers need to find answers.
The 76ers could use another big man to help at both ends of the court. Another big man also could be the answer to their Miami Heat problem.
Get a Forward
Nothing groundbreaking here, but the Celtics need someone who can get to the basket and score in the paint.
The C's will have to be able to go inside if they want to compete come playoff time. Boston has to find ways to help the outside shooters on those nights when the pick-and-roll play isn't working.
Someone like Wilson Chandler would be a good fit. If he doesn't return to the Denver Nuggets when he arrives back from China, Boston should take a serious look at signing him.
Find Ways to Rest the Big Three
If the Celtics are going to make it back to the finals, they need to find a way to get there without the Big Three running out of gas. If Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are playing on fumes,the Celtics are going to run out of steam in the fourth quarter and lose too many close games.
The Big Three needs rest and help from the bench. Doc Rivers has to sit the starters more and trust what he has on the sidelines. A healthy Rajon Rondo also will be important if the Celtics are planning to end the season with rings.
Get Miami in the First Round
If the Celtics aren't going to bother to try to get a high seeding in the playoffs, they would do well to focus on setting up a first-round meeting with the Heat instead.
Boston will no doubt face the Chicago Bulls, the Heat, or both, if they want to advance to the final. Catching the Heat early might be the best way to disrupt their rhythm and stop them from catching fire in the playoffs.
If the C's are reasonably fresh and can slow down LeBron—like they have in previous playoffs—they could advance to a probable Eastern Conference final against the Bulls.
Find an Identity
This is a good team that loses way too many games.
Earlier in the season, they lost a staggering nine out of 10 in a nasty streak of poor defeats.
They have suffered from injuries in this shortened NBA season. But any team that can put Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire on the floor has a chance to win, no matter what night of the week it is.
The Knicks need to hurry up and decide if they want to be a team, if they want to be winners and whether they want it badly enough.
Maybe one team that isn't looking forward to the All-Star break is the Knicks. The noise surrounding the team at the moment and the emergence of Lin from out of nowhere has put the Knicks on the front and back pages, and given them some much-needed wins.
If Lin can stay hot and the Knicks can continue to ride on the back of their high-scoring point guard, the Madison Square Garden team could overtake the Celtics in the race for playoff seeding.
The Knicks need to figure out a way to get the best out of Lin, 'Melo and Stoudemire at the same time. If Lin is the missing piece the Knicks have been searching for and this trio all gets on the same page, the Knicks will be a rival for any team in the East.
They need time to jell and find out if 'Melo can adapt his game to play more without the ball while still being a dominant scorer.. If 'Melo is committed to the plan and the team, don't be surprised to find the Knicks in the NBA Finals come May.
Keep Playing It Close: The Raptors, in their last two games, have lost by a total of five points.
A 94-92 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers was followed by a 90-87 loss to the New York Knicks.
In both games, the Raptors were only beaten in the last few seconds. Kobe Bryant scored a baseline jumper with 4.2 seconds left to give the purple and gold the win, while the unstoppable Jeremy Lin scored with less than a second to go to give the Knicks another famous victory.
If the Raptors can keep hanging around and continue to make things close, they eventually will win more of these tight contests than they lose.
Give Jose Calderon a Chance: The Spanish point guard is averaging 10.4 points and 8.7 assists a night. But in the recent defeat to the Lakers, he scored 30.
Calderon also holds the season record for highest free-throw percentage, making 98 percent of his 151 attempts in 2008-09. If Calderon can lead the Raptors to a few more wins and keep up with his near double-double production, maybe he can lead them into a brighter future.
Get What They Can In the Trade: If Toronto can't start winning and the players they have aren't getting it done, the Raptors might as well look at trading everyone they have.
DeMar DeRozan can look promising some nights, and Leandro Barbosa can play a bit on other nights. But if the offers start rolling in, the Raptors should snap them up quickly.
They need to make Howard forget about moving to Los Angeles. They need the Orlando Magic to trade with them before it's too late.
If Howard goes to free agency and the Lakers come calling, the Nets might end up empty-handed.
If that happened, not only would the Nets miss out on Howard, they also would probably lose Deron Williams as well. The 2012-2013 season would then consist of nothing more than trying to finish above the Charlotte Bobcats.
They might not even be able to do that.
Sort Deron Williams Out: The man has talent, but he's not performing as he should. Williams knows this, and so does everyone who's seen the 8-21 Nets this season.
He looks ready to leave New Jersey (if he hasn't checked out already). But if Howard does move to New Jersey and Williams gets interested again, they will form the nucleus of a very good team.
The Nets could land a good draft pick in the lottery, and with Howard and Williams on the same side, others are bound to follow.
The Nets are either about to get really good or even worse.
Keep the Fanbase Engaged: With the Nets due to relocate to Brooklyn for the 2012–13 season, the Brooklyn Nets are going to need someone to support them. If the Knicks keep winning, it's going to be hard to get New York fans to switch allegiances to the new guys in town.
Even if the Knicks start losing, their fanbase is pretty solid. The Nets are going to need to keep their New Jersey fans if they want to sell tickets and popcorn.
How many fans are going to cross the Hudson river to watch the current bunch of Nets is uncertain, but the Garden State team is going to need come up with some good ideas about how to keep them. Getting Howard, again, will help. But if they don't land any big names,that brand-new arena is going to go pretty empty for most of the new season.