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Gold Stars After All-Star

It’s hard not to like Durant and the Thunder, who hold steady at sixth in the West. But even if you’re not a fan, you can’t help but appreciate and respect what they’ve accomplished this season. After returning from the All-Star break not only did OKC extend their impressive winning streak to nine, but Kevin Durant also extended his streak of 25+ point games to 28 – the longest since Jordan’s 40 game run 23 years ago.

And Durant’s teammates are matching his effort if not his numbers, especially fellow starters Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. Following Durant’s lead, Westbrook walloped the Knicks with a whopping 31 points along with ten assists and nine rebounds while going 22/14/10 against the Wolves. Green scored 16+ points in all three wins last week while pulling down 11 rebounds against the Knicks and topping that with 14 against the Wolves on Sunday.

While the Thunder continue to defy expectations in the new decade, the Bulls have struggled to meet those of a city that hungers for the glory days of a past decade when Jordan and the Bulls dominated the league with double three-peats. Last week was a pivotal one for the Bulls, who managed a timely four-game sweep after the break thanks to a unified team effort. In aggressive pursuit of a playoff position, Del Negro and the Bulls have battled through early season losing streaks, persistent rumors of a coaching change and recent injuries to reach sixth in the East.

Photo by Nick Laham/Getty ImagesBesting their competition on the boards and in blocked shots while tied with the Thunder for leading field-goal percentage defense, the Bulls have kept their opponents at bay with aggressive D. But their offense has been a little more tenuous and with some changes to the lineup on trade day, Del Negro wasn’t sure what to expect. Out for much of February with Plantar Fasciitis, Noah remained sidelined despite his resolve to return to the bench after the break. Fortunately, Miller delivered four solid performances in his stead, including 21 points against the Knicks. And with Rose less than 100%, Gibson, Deng and Hinrich all delivered on the offensive end as well.

The Jazz also connected four wins in a row including two without starter Ronnie Brewer, who was traded to Memphis for a future first-round draft pick just before Thursday’s deadline. Fortunately the trade did not slow them down. Third in the West just behind the Nuggets, the Jazz have won 14 of their last 16 games. In his fifth season with the Jazz, Deron Williams has been a consistent factor in his team’s success and played true to form last week. Okur and Millsap took turns with standout performances and high scores in wins over the Rockets and Hornets early in the week, while Carlos Boozer took charge in Brewer and Okur’s absence on the tail end.  Boozer racked up 30 against the Warriors and grabbed a career-high 23 rebounds and added 22 points in an overtime win at Portland. Leading Utah to its seventh straight win on the road, Boozer garnered his second Player of the Week award this season.

All-Star Breaks Cavs’ Stride

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While the All-Star break and subsequent trade deadline signaled a fresh start for some teams, the shift threw others off-balance. The Cavs headed into All-Star on a 13-win tear, steadily gaining energy and momentum with each win. Seemingly unstoppable, their dominance issued a clear statement to would-be challengers for the NBA championship title. But after the seven-day lag and swapping cornerstone Z for the venerable Antawn Jamison, Cleveland lost that elusive edge and dropped three in a row to Denver, Charlotte and Orlando – their first three-game losing streak in three years.

Perhaps sensing their vulnerability, the Nuggets defied the number one team on their home turf and denied them win number 14 with an overtime upset at the Q. In a classic battle of the Titans, Carmelo and LeBron went head to head in legendary style – answering each other louder and louder each time down court as the game barreled towards its nail-biting close. LeBron finished with a triple double: 43 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds. But with his quick release, Carmelo hit the game winning jump shot in overtime to finish with 40 and a 2-point triumph.

What makes Melo one of the NBA’s greatest scorers, if not the greatest scorer, is that he’s a triple threat. He can get points on the inside and post you up because he has size; he can shoot from the baseline; and if you lay off of him he will knock down a three. I said a few years ago he’s the easiest scorer in the league.

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Green Days

The Celtics went 3-1 after the break, including a huge one-point win over the champs. Though the Lakers were without Kobe, the Celt’s victory was their most significant of late. Both teams put forth a tremendous defensive effort. Lakers dominated in the paint while Boston killed from the outside. This game boiled down to the front line and power of Lakers in the paint against the terrific shooting of the Celtics from the outside.

Ray Allen came up with the 24 big ones. Rondo put up 14 points and 11 assists. He has grown and matured over the last five years to become one of the best point guards in the NBA. He also helps his teammates get easy baskets by grabbing steals so the Celts can rack up points in transition. Each of Boston’s starting five pulled his weight and they were able to close in a playoff level fourth quarter, something they have not been able to do on a consistent basis this season.

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Mavs Look Bigger and Better

It looks as though the Mavericks may already be reaping the benefits of a package deal announced during the All-Star break which brought Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson to Dallas. Following a recent slump, the new and improved Mavs returned from the break to take three of four games.

The trio made a rapid debut against OKC on Tuesday without so much as a full practice under their belts. The new roster stumbled out of the gates with a loss to the Thunder, but the team was quick to adjust and followed up with a three-win streak to close the week.

I think it was a great trade for Dallas because they get a quality big man in Haywood. Now they have one more big guy to help match up size-wise with the Lakers. And two-time NBA All-Star Caron Butler is tough, can defend and can put the ball on the floor. Butler appears to be jiving with his new teammates. Fast improving game by game, Butler capped off an impressive opening run with a 20-point performance in Saturday’s win over the Miami Heat.

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Fratello’s Fantasy Pick: Jarrett Jack

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Raptor Jarrett Jack’s statistics can be deceiving. He’s capable of startling his opponents with numbers well above the 10.7 ppg and 2.7 rebounds he’s averaging this season. He’ll crouch in the single digits and low doubles, then pop up like a Jack-out-the-box with one of those big games you wouldn’t normally expect.

Taking up the slack for sidelined star Chris Bosh, Jack surged against the Wizards on Saturday to help seize a 109-104 victory with 23 points, eight assists and four rebounds. And the previous night he put up 18, dished ten and grabbed five to take down the Nets.

Picked up from the Pacers, Jarrett Jack is one of the new factors responsible for turning around last season’s disappointing finish and this season’s tenuous start. Jack can make shots and get to the rim so he’ll get you some points with his reliable 48.5% field goal percentage. He’s also averaging a career high five assists per game. Jack’s a solid decision maker with the ball in his hands and a solid defender when it’s in his opponent’s. Though he won’t up the pot with steals or blocks, he won’t hurt you with a lot of personal fouls.

Jack is sharing minutes with Calderon – so if Calderon returns to the starting lineup that could cut into Jack’s productivity. But Jack has played well since he’s taken over as a starter. And as long as his team continues to play well coach Triano will likely stick with the formula that’s getting him wins. Jack knows how crucial every single game is down the backstretch. And he’s energized to spring into action to help his team secure a playoff position in the East. Jarrett Jack and the Raptors will be back on the attack Wednesday against the Blazers.

On the Road with Mike: Toronto at New Jersey

After a disappointing run landed Toronto near the bottom of the heap last season, they’ve returned to form and are on track to reach the playoffs this year. No doubt Jay Triano and his coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for the turnaround. I caught up with Raptors’ assistant coaches Marc Iavaroni and Alex English during the shootaround prior to Friday’s Nets vs. Raptors matchup. Marc was one of my assistants with the Cavaliers for a couple years before joining Pat Riley and the Heat down in Miami. A veteran of the NBA himself, Marc did an excellent job developing our young, big men Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Vitaly Potapenko.

In addition to boasting an incredible NBA career, Alex English remains one of the great personalities in the league and a genuinely nice person. I spent some time with the Hall-of-Famer in Italy during the mid-eighties when we had the opportunity to participate in the country’s biggest youth basketball camp, which was hosted in the quaint resort town Salsomaggiore Terme. We had a terrific time over there. The camp was well-run and well-organized; the kids were super; and from the just baked breads to zabaglione prepared tableside every meal we sat down to at the Grand Hotel was a real treat. I found an old article about the camp and the evolution of Italian basketball in the SI Vault – you can read it here.

Mike’s Take: Turkoglu’s Impact on the Raptors

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Fratello Telestrator: 2010 All-Star Game

The Czar breaks down the end of the 2010 All-Star Game with 12.7 seconds on the clock and the East up by two.

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