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Still, the East appears to be shaping up as a two-team race between the Heat and Bulls, who are a half-game back despite battling injuries to All-Stars Derrick Rose and Luol Deng and especially to Richard Hamilton. Hamilton, signed to upgrade the shooting guard position, was limited to only 11 games because of a groin injury.
Indiana and Philadelphia have been surprisingly strong, New York has recovered from a poor start behind Jeremy Lin and Boston hopes to bounce back from a disappointing first half, but a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals appears likely.
The playoff picture is less clear in the West. San Antonio surged into the break despite playing for much of the first half without Manu Ginobili; the Los Angeles Clippers have become quick contenders since acquiring Chris Paul; and Dallas may still be good enough for a long playoff run.
Then there's the Lakers, whose rocky road will have taken another bad turn if the broken nose Kobe Bryant sustained after a hard foul by Wade in the All-Star game forces him to miss time.
He recently expressed his frustration with team management for the way it has gone about deciding if it will or won't trade Pau Gasol. He'll be even grumpier if he has to watch the Clippers end their reign as Pacific Division champions.
Boston's Rajon Rondo has also been linked to trade rumors, potentially making another All-Star available. Howard's status also affects potential destinations such as the Nets and Mavericks, so business will get just as much attention as basketball next month.
"No question," the Nets' Deron Williams said. "The deadline's on the 15th and every year they move the deadline up."
With the lockout delaying the season and reducing it to 66 games, the All-Star break actually comes right at the midpoint of the season. Many teams were happy to have the break and eager for practice time after so little was available because of the frequency of games.
That hasn't affected the Heat or Thunder, who rank first and third in the NBA in scoring with 103.7 and 102.7 points, respectively. Miami has been as dominant as expected when it put its trio together, winning by nearly 10 points a game and even more during their win streak.
The Thunder were built more gradually, winning just 23 games three seasons ago. They reached the West finals last year and seem poised to go further now.
"We worked our way to the top," Westbrook said. "So it's not a bad thing to be on top and be where we want to be at at this halfway point."
And come June, Heat and Thunder could in the NBA's forecast.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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