The two “halves” of an NBA season aren’t really halves at all.
The first 41 games are played well before January ends, but the All-Star break doesn’t arrive until the second week of February, when more than 50 contests have come and gone. The season is better framed as a two-thirds marathon, followed by the one-third middle-distance run to the 82-game finish line, capped by the sprint through the playoffs. Nevertheless, it’s awkward to frame the season in concepts other than halves: what happened before the All-Star break, and what will happen after it.
In this down period before the resumption of play — with trade rumors beginning to fill the air — let’s review the most significant games for every team in the NBA. Teams which have pleasantly surprised will be assigned a positive game; accordingly, disappointing teams will be given a negative game. Teams that had initially surprised the league (or generated optimism) but then suffered downturns will be linked to the games which marked their descents.
We’ll start in the Southeast Division.
ATLANTA HAWKS: Saturday, January 23 at Phoenix — L, 98-95
What makes this loss particularly emblematic of the Hawks’ frustrating season is that it came after losing at Sacramento two nights before. Losing to Orlando on back-to-back days just before the All-Star break isn’t quite the same, though it does reflect a similar pattern of getting into ruts and not being able to shake free of them until a lot of damage has been done. It’s understandable when a good team has a bad night at the office. Losing to the Suns — a team which had been in a state of freefall — could be excused if it was part of a back-to-back or if it was surrounded by wins. The loss in Sacramento makes this stumble a hard-to-accept moment for the organization which won 60 games a season ago.
CHARLOTTE HORNETS: Thursday, December 17 vs. Toronto — W, 109-99 (OT)
The Hornets, considering the prolonged absence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, have greatly exceeded expectations this season. Being able to beat Toronto in overtime one night after losing by 15 at Orlando is a feat of resilience as well as a display of quality. For a win on Feb. 3 versus Cleveland, the Hornets had two full days of rest. This was actually the more impressive conquest authored by Charlotte over the past three and a half months. It speaks to the Hornets’ ability to overcome all sorts of obstacles and stay in the playoff hunt.
MIAMI HEAT: Monday, December 28 vs. Brooklyn — L, 111-105
The Heat’s first half wasn’t a disaster. The team rebounded in late January to arrest a significant downward slide and remain in the hunt for the No. 3 seed in the East. Nevertheless, the past three and a half months represented more of a failure than an achievement in what is a balanced but not that imposing Eastern Conference. Therefore, the defining game of the Heat’s first half should be a negative one more than a positive one.
The best selection here is a late-December home loss to Brooklyn. It fits the bill mor than a January 19 home loss to Milwaukee for a few reasons. First, the Heat played a large cluster of road games in January, and that home date with the Bucks was a one-game interruption, a very odd schedule twist which can be hard to handle (and apparently was for the Heat). Second, the Heat have struggled most profoundly in terms of perimeter shooting. Their loss to the Bucks was a 91-79 decision. Not being able to hit shots has been a normal part of the Heat’s losses. Giving up 111 points, on the other hand, represents an appalling lack of defensive effort, something the Heat should never accept. On balance, the Heat have given away far too many home games to inferior opponents. If they fall into the 4-5 playoff matchup and have to deal with Cleveland in the second round (instead of getting the Cavs in the East Finals), the Heat will rue their inability to take care of business against weaker competition.
ORLANDO MAGIC: Monday, February 8 at Atlanta — W, 117-110 (2OT)
The Magic have profoundly struggled in the 2016 portion of the 2015-2016 season, but they still rate as a team which has put together an encouraging season. The future of this organization appears to be promising. Tomorrows are becoming brighter than yesterdays in Orlando. Therefore, the defining game of the first half should be a positive one.
The choice: a win over Atlanta in double overtime on Monday. The Hawks were in another universe compared to the Magic last season. Orlando’s ability to beat Atlanta in the second half of a head-to-head, home-and-home back-to-back was — and is — an eye-popper. The Magic won at home on Feb. 7, so it was easy to think the Hawks would even the score the next night, but Orlando’s young pups thought otherwise. Beating Utah on the road on Dec. 3 in the midst of a long Western swing raised some eyebrows, but the back-end win over Atlanta remains a more substantial feat.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS — Monday, January 18 vs. Portland — L, 108-98
Yes, the Wizards have been ravaged by injuries. That’s no secret. Yet, they still have a fair amount of high-end talent, such that a record several games under .500 still paints a picture of underachievement. No game fit into this portrait more than a bizarrely non-competitive loss to Portland on MLK Day. The Wizards had won four straight heading into that weekend but then lost to Boston, 119-117, on Saturday, January 16. Fine — the Wizards stumbled. It happens. Surely, though, Washington was going to right the ship on the following holiday afternoon. The Wizards had every reason to come back firing against a Portland team which had just been demolished by the Philadelphia 76ers. Instead, Randy Wittman’s team had nothing to offer. Washington fell behind by 18 points after three quarters and meekly submitted to an ordinary opponent at home. That was — and is — the epitome of a frustrating team.