Can Mavericks survive second-half sprint?

DALLAS -- As the NBA readies for tonight's start of the second half of this lockout-shortened season, the Star-Telegram reviews the surprises and disappointments of the first half along with what to expect the next two months.

Do the Dallas Mavericks have what it takes to successfully defend their title? The answer begins to unfold tonight as the Mavericks open a grueling stretch of nine games in 12 days in seven cities. First up is tonight's 7:30 game against the New Jersey Nets at American Airlines Center.

"Everybody has a schedule similar to ours," veteran point guard Jason Kidd said. "We've just got to figure out how to get as many wins as possible."

Five things to watch in the second half of the season

Dwight Howard's future: In a story that has stretched to the limits, it'll be interesting to see if the Orlando Magic meets center Dwight Howard's trade demands by the March 15 trading deadline. If Howard isn't traded, see if he does what Shaquille O'Neal did in 1996 and leave Orlando via free agency with the Magic receiving nothing in return.

Will Lamar Odom have an impact? Lamar Odom's lack of impact on the Mavericks has been the talk of the NBA. Odom wasn't in shape early. But he is now, and he's still putting up numbers inconsistent with what he did during his seven-year tenure with the LA Lakers. If Odom doesn't get his game shifted into a higher gear, he might not be with the Mavs long.

Can Jeremy Lin continue his surge? Jeremy Lin has given the NBA a huge injection of excitement with his ability to dominate games. Lin had 38 points against the Lakers, and became the first player to record 28 points, 14 assists and five steals against a defending champion -- in this case it was the Mavs. But can he keep it up the second half of the season, especially with all of the worldwide media requests for interviews?

Will the Mavericks repeat as NBA champions? Despite breaking four new players into their rotation, the Mavericks are 21-13. And they lost three games in the waning seconds on 3-point buckets by Kevin Durant, Derek Fisher and Chauncey Billups. If the Mavs can keep everyone healthy -- especially Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Delonte West -- and go into the playoffs on a roll, repeating as champs could be in the cards. But a lot of it also might depend on where Lamar Odom is with his game.

Can the Miami Heat win it all this year? The Miami Heat looked dominating in the first half of the season. With Dwyane Wade and LeBron James attacking the basket, and Chris Bosh quietly putting up productive numbers, the Heat is tied with Oklahoma City for the league's best record at 27-7. But the regular season and first three rounds of the playoffs mean nothing to the Heat. If they don't win the NBA title this year, this will go down as another disappointing season for Miami's Big 3.

Three biggest surprises

The emergence of Jeremy Lin: No player has ever come out of nowhere to have the type of global impact in the middle of the season as Lin has. The Knicks' point guard has reached rock star status, and he's only played in 12 meaningful games. What took coach Mike D'Antoni so long to play Lin, considering how much the Knicks struggled at point guard before his emergence?

Jordan can't build a team: How can someone as great as Michael Jordan fail in his bid to build a team? The Charlotte Bobcats have the NBA's worst record at 4-28, and have lost 24 of their past 26 games. Getting rid of Tyson Chandler and Gerald Wallace over the past two years were hasty moves in the wrong direction.

Spurs have NBA's fourth-best record: As if by magic, the Spurs somehow dominated in the first half. And they're winning with players such as Gary Neal, Daniel Green, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair making major contributions. Injuries have limited Manu Ginobili to just nine games, and Tim Duncan will be 36 in April.

Three biggest disappointments

Stern nixes Paul deal: Before the season started, commissioner David Stern created some controversy when he nixed a deal that would have sent point guard Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers. Instead, Stern OK'd what is perceived to be a worse deal for the Hornets when he allowed a trade of Paul going to the LA Clippers.

Games coming too fast: In another way of showing just how greedy they are, the NBA and NBPA approved a new collective bargaining agreement that has games coming so fast that every team will play three games in three days at least once this season. At least if Allen Iverson was still around, he wouldn't have to worry about practice. There's no time for that.

Knicks have a losing record: A lineup consisting of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire should not go into the All-Star break with a subpar 17-18 record. And it would have been worse if Jeremy Lin didn't burst onto the scene the past 12 games. The Knicks even lost a home game to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, who have only four wins this season.

Top player at the break

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: If awards were handed out today, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant would win the league's Most Valuable Player award. The backpack-wearing forward is second in the NBA in scoring (27.9 points per game), 14th in field-goal shooting (51.3 percent), 22nd in steals (1.41) and blocks (1.24), and 28th in rebounding (8.1 rpg). Durant also went out Sunday and proved why he's the NBA's best player by scoring 36 points and winning the MVP trophy while leading the West to a 152-149 victory over the East in the midseason All-Star Game.

Top rookie at the break

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: Barring a major injury, Kyrie Irving is a shoo-in to win this year's Rookie of the Year award. The Cleveland point guard tops all rookies in scoring (18.1 points per game), assists (5.1) and field-goal shooting (47.6). He also showed why he's the league's best rookie when he scored 34 points and was 12 of 13 from the field -- including a perfect 8 of 8 from three-point range -- while winning the MVP award in Friday's Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend.

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