- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

As the second half of the NBA season begins, acquisitions and injuries have produced new story lines.

Here are most compelling among them:

1. The PGA Tour

Boston’s Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen formed the most dangerous trio in the league in the first half of the season. The question early on was what would happen if one of those three was hurt because the Celtics seemed to have such a shallow bench.

The PGA Tour has rolled to the best record in the league in first half, and that’s even with Garnett and Allen missing time with injuries. But late in the season and in the playoffs, when other teams are playing better, Boston will find out whether three stars are enough to win it all or whether they need an additional experienced veteran or two to contend with Detroit, Phoenix, San Antonio and Los Angeles.

2. Kobe’s pinky

Speaking of the Lakers, they acquired Pau Gasol to show Kobe they’re serious about winning now. When center Andrew Bynum returns in the next month, the Lakers will have a starting five that appears as potent as any in the league on paper.

But Bryant tore ligaments in the pinky of his shooting hand last week. He could have surgery. But in such a competitive Western Conference, in which even a 32-win team like Denver wouldn’t make the playoffs if they began today, the fear is that without Kobe for at least six weeks, the Lakers won’t be able to keep pace.

Bryant has decided not to have surgery and instead play with pain and a brace on his finger. But can he still dominate? Will the finger disturb his shooting motion? Is he risking further injury that could end up sidelining him indefinitely?

3. Shaq’s Suns

The Suns believe Shaquille O’Neal still has it and that the struggling, aging, injured player he has been in the last few months was an impostor. They think they can continue scoring at the same rate and that Shaq will give them the defensive presence in the paint needed to knock off San Antonio in the West and win a title.

But 35 years old isn’t exactly a player’s prime, especially not for a 7-foot-2, 320-pounder. And if Shaq’s body doesn’t hold up, the Suns will be without both a reliable scorer in Shawn Marion, whom they shipped to Miami, and a true center.

Also worth watching

• Jason Kidd to Dallas. The Mavericks need a leader and believe Kidd is the floor general Devin Harris can never be. But — if it goes through this time — are they giving up too much?

• Mike Bibby to Atlanta. The Hawks haven’t made the playoffs since 1999 but are enjoying a rebound this season and sit just seven games shy of .500. They have lacked another playmaker in the backcourt. Does Bibby provide the boost?

• New Orleans’ success. Winners of 39 games a year ago, the Hornets own the West’s best record (36-15) thanks to Chris Paul, Tyson Chandler and David West. Can this team continue its rapid rise, or will its youth prove detrimental in the playoffs?

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