Five storylines to watch down stretch of NBA season


While we instinctively call the rest of the NBA season the All-Star break, when in reality it’s around 23-25 games for teams and is more like turning for home and the stretch run of a horse race. This is when the best separate themselves from the pack and the tough questions are answered.

What questions are we watching most closely? Here are five NBA storylines to watch over the final couple of months of the season.

1) In wide-open NBA, which teams hit stride heading into playoffs?

“I think historically, or at least since I’ve been in the league, right, the team that has kind of clicked in this last stretch, has kind of peaked and played their best of the season going into the playoffs usually is the team that wins it all.”

That was Jayson Tatum, speaking just after he dropped 55 points in an otherwise unwatchable All-Star Game. While his sentiment is not universally true, it was last season when Tatum’s Celtics went 26-6 down the stretch and then carried that momentum over to a Finals run. The stretch run does matter this season, where nobody in the West has separated themselves. Trades are in the books, the buyout market is largely finished, rosters are set — now which ones of these teams come together? And who stays healthy?

Out West, can the Warriors get Stephen Curry back, flip the switch and look like a contender? Can Phoenix get Kevin Durant healthy and have enough time to build championship chemistry? Is Denver — finally with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. healthy around Nikola Jokić — ready to make good on the promise of that roster? What about the Grizzlies? Can the Clippers fit all their pieces together?

The East is a little clearer, but who is better between Boston and Milwaukee down the stretch? And is Philadelphia ready to make it a big three in the East?

We’ll get a better sense of those answers between now and the last week or so before the playoffs (when teams start resting players to have them fresh for the postseason).

2) Is Jokić going to win a third-straight MVP?

Going into the season, when asked about the chances of Nikola Jokić winning a third-straight MVP, I said it would be a long shot because of the weight of history. He was going to have to blow away the field. What has he done? Lead the Nuggets to the best record in the West while averaging a triple-double of 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists a game, shooting 63.2% overall and 39.1% on 3-pointers.

That hasn’t completely blown away a deep field, but it has him leading the race heading into the turn for home. He has been good enough to win, and while the argument against him starts with “what has he done in the playoffs” that is moot — this is a regular-season award. There already is a Finals MVP, the two are not linked.

We can safely say the MVP will come from a group of five: Jokić, the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, the 76ers’ Joel Embiid, and the Celtics’ Tatum. Antetokounmpo and Embiid, in particular, seem closest to knocking Jokić off the top of the mountain. Whoever out of that group can play best down the stretch has a real chance to win the award, but it’s Jokić with a lead as of today.

3) Does the arrival of Kevin Durant make these Suns best in the West?

On paper, adding Kevin Durant makes the Suns the best team in the Western Conference. Maybe the NBA.

In reality, they have three big questions to answer:

1) Can the Suns stay healthy, and that applies to Durant and Chris Paul in particular?
2) Can they develop enough chemistry, particularly on the defensive end, over the final 20 games of the season to be playoff ready?
3) Will Deandre Ayton willingly accept a smaller role with fewer post touches — he will be asked to defend, rebound and be more of a fourth option — and play at a high level? The Suns need elite Ayton to win it all.

Durant reportedly is targeting next Wednesday against the Hornets to make his return. That’s when we start to see if they are answering questions.

4) Will defending champion Warriors even escape the play-in?

The reality is the Warriors are a .500 team that will be without Stephen Curry for the next week at least, have the 20th-ranked defense in the league, and are sitting ninth in the West.

Right now, they are a play-in team. We’ve waited for them to flip the switch all season long, and it hasn’t happened.

“I don’t think it’s that. I don’t think it’s a championship hangover,” Draymond Green said before the break, talking specifically about their defense that was best in the NBA last season. “It’s a will to want to defend, and you’re not hungover at .500 60 games into the season. You’re loser if you’re still hungover at that point, so there’s no hangover it’s a will to defend and stop and guard a man, and sink when you can help, and trap the box, and rotate. A defense is about one to two steps extra. Am I gonna take that extra step to get there or not. And that’s all will. And we don’t have that as a team.”

They have to find that will fast because, as it is, they will be on the road through the playoffs, and they are 7-22 outside Chase Center this season.

5) Will LeBron James miss the playoffs for the second straight season?

LeBron called these final 23 games of the Lakers’ season the most important regular season games of his career.

“Because I want to make a push to make the playoffs. I don’t want to see myself not being part of the postseason for two years straight. It’s just not part of my DNA,” LeBron said. “We’re sitting up here talking about the [NBA all-time scoring] record and things of that nature, and that’s all cool, but I’m more passionate about trying to make the postseason and give ourselves a chance to compete for another Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The Lakers aren’t having a parade with Larry this year. The thing to watch is can they even make the playoffs? While it’s easy to say the Lakers are just two games back of the play-in and 3.5 out of the top six, the reality is they are 13th in the West and have a lot of good teams to climb over to make the postseason.

Forget about the top six — fifth and sixth belong to Dallas and Phoenix, teams that got a lot better at the trade deadline and are not coming back to the pack. The Lakers can climb over teams in the play-in such as the Thunder, Timberwolves (still without Karl-Anthony Towns) and Pelicans (still without Zion Williamson). The Lakers have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, if their new starting five (with D'Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt next to LeBron and Anthony Davis) can click, they can get into the play-in, make the playoffs that way, then be a real problem for whoever they face in the first round.

But it will take elite LeBron and Davis the rest of the way to get there. Can they stay healthy and be up to that task?

Four Bonus Things to Watch: Seeding in the Eastern Conference (getting the No. 1 seed matters because the second-round matchup of No.2 and No.3 seeds of the Celtics, Bucks and 76ers will be brutal); Who does Atlanta hire as coach; What does the arrival of Kyrie Irving mean for Dallas in the playoffs; Do the owners and players union get a new CBA hammered out by March 31 or are we headed to a summer lockout?

Watch Tatum score 40, Brown 30, Celtics blow out Bucks (again) 140-99


MILWAUKEE (AP) — Jayson Tatum scored 40 points, Jaylen Brown added 30 and the Boston Celtics steamrolled the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks 140-99 on Thursday night.

The Celtics (53-24) shot 22 of 43 from 3-point range and moved within two games of the Bucks (55-22) in the Eastern Conference standings. The Celtics won the season series with the Bucks 2-1, which would give Boston the tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same record.

Boston’s performance in those three games with Milwaukee should give the Celtics plenty of confidence they could knock out the Bucks again if they meet in the postseason. The Celtics beat the Bucks in seven games in last season’s East semifinals.

The Celtics beat the Bucks 139-118 in Boston on Christmas Day and lost 131-125 in overtime on Feb. 14. The Celtics didn’t play Brown, Tatum, Marcus Smart or Al Horford in that overtime loss.

Milwaukee took a hit on the floor as well as in the standings. Bucks forward Khris Middleton left the game midway through the third quarter after taking an elbow to the face from Brown. The play resulted in a charging foul on Brown and caused Middleton to receive stitches on his upper lip.

Boston built a 114-74 lead through three periods, causing most of the starters for both teams to sit out the entire fourth quarter.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 24 points.

This matched the Bucks’ most lopsided loss of the season. They fell 142-101 at Memphis on Dec. 15.

The Bucks were playing one night after a 149-136 victory at Indiana in which they shot a season-high 62.4% from the floor with Jrue Holiday scoring 51 points and Antetokounmpo having 38 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists. This marked the first time an NBA team had one player score at least 50 points and another have a triple-double with at least 35 points in the same game.

Milwaukee found the going quite a bit tougher Thursday.

Antetokounmpo shot just 11 of 27, including 0 for 5 from 3-point range. Holiday started his night by sinking a 3-pointer, but went 1 of 7 the rest of the way and finished with just six points.

After the first 8½ minutes of the game featured nine lead changes and five ties, the Celtics seized control by going on a 29-9 over the last seven-plus minutes. Boston capped that spurt by scoring 13 straight points.

Boston didn’t let up the rest of the night.

Milwaukee’s Thanasis Antetokounmpo was ejected with 1:25 left for head-butting Boston’s Blake Griffin. The head-butting came after Griffin committed a flagrant-1 foul against Antetokounmpo.

Knicks’ Julius Randle out at least two weeks with sprained ankle

Miami Heat v New York Knicks
Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

In just a little more than two weeks, April 15 or 16, the New York Knicks will open the playoffs, likely on the road in Cleveland.

They hope to have Julius Randle back for that game.

The Knicks’ All-Star forward and leading scorer, Randle suffered a sprained ankle against the Heat on Wednesday night and will be re-evaluated in two weeks, the team announced.

That timeline has him re-evaluated days before the playoffs tip-off. He will not play again this regular season.

Randle rolled his ankle leaping for a rebound and landing on Bam Adebayo‘s foot in the second quarter, and he left the game not to return. Friday night against those Cavaliers (in Cleveland) will be the first game Randle has missed all season.

Randle is playing at an All-NBA level again this season, averaging 25.1 points and 10 rebounds a game. The Knicks have five games remaining in the season and are almost locked in as the No.5 seed, four games back of the No. 4 Cavaliers and 2.5 games up on the No.6 seed (and stumbling) Nets.


Kevin Durant: ‘I don’t care about legacy… I used to… Nowadays, I truly, truly don’t care’

Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the neverending debate around sports, we become obsessed with a player’s legacy. What is LeBron James‘ legacy and does he need another ring in his GOAT battle with Michael Jordan? What will Damian Lillard‘s legacy be if he chooses to spend his entire career in Portland and doesn’t jump teams to chase a ring? What will Kevin Durant‘s legacy be with him getting ripped by some fans for going to Golden State and joining forces with Stephen Curry in the first place, then other fans ripping him for leaving that situation?

Durant doesn’t care.

That’s what he told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

“I don’t care about legacy,” Durant told The Athletic. “I used to. I used to want to carve out a lane or space in this game for myself that people can remember, but it’s become too much of a thing now. It just becomes too much of a focus on other people. What’s he done, what’s he done? Comparisons. Before, when we wasn’t doing all this debating, I cared about it … I’m about to be in the same breath as these top guys. It was big.

“Nowadays, I truly, truly don’t care. I truly just want to go out there and produce, be the best that I could be, go home, hang with my family, that’s it.”

Durant’s legacy as one of the great pure scorers the game has ever seen is unquestioned. If he walks away from the game right now, he goes down as likely a top 15 player of all-time (that may be low) and a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. His ability to create a shot for himself, or just hit a jumper over his defender even if there isn’t a good look, may be unparalleled in league history.

Beyond that, it’s the eye of the beholder. Durant is back on the court in Phoenix trying to extend that legacy, however people choose to define it.

What you say about Durant’s years in Golden State — with a couple of rings and a couple of Finals MVPs — says more about what you want and expect from a superstar than it does Durant. He told Charania he saw no logic in what people said about him as he left Golden State, so he stopped worrying about it. He went to Brooklyn, which went worse than just about everyone expected, so he moved on and said he is ignoring the critics again. (Except the occasional foray into Twitter may suggest he cares more than he lets on.)

Durant has cast himself as a guy who just wants to hoop because, at his core, that’s who he is. This is a guy who loves the grind, the competition, he’s an ultimate process-over-results guy. He’s embraced that about himself, he sees that as his legacy even if others will pile more on top of it.

Durant can’t end the legacy debate around him. But he doesn’t have to care about it, either.


Rudy Gobert latest to rip referees, claims conspiracy against Wolves ‘It’s just so obvious’

Minnesota Timberwolves v Golden State Warriors
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Devin Booker‘s 15 free throw attempts in the Suns’ win Wednesday was more than the 12 the entire Timberwolves team took.

That set Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert off on a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory that the referees wanted to help the Suns win. And the Kings the game before that. And the Warriors the game before that. Here’s the full quote (via Chris Hine) that will earn Gobert a healthy fine from the league:

“It’s bulls***. Bulls***. It’s really not fair. Every night. I’ve been in this league for 10 years and I try to always give the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard for me to think [the referees] are not trying to help [Phoenix] win tonight. It’s hard for me to think they didn’t try to help the Warriors win the other night, or the Sacramento Kings the other night.

“It’s just so obvious. As a basketball player that’s been in this league for so long, it’s disrespectful, and it sucks, to be honest. We work so hard to be in a position to compete with the best, and we just get manipulated into those situations where it just impacts the game for the other team too much. They know how to do it. They do it a lot of different ways. Tonight was another way of doing it.

“But it’s all good. We understand that it’s also a business. Unfortunately. It’s sad, but it’s good also. It’s really good. But it’s true. We understand that we’re not the biggest of the markets, and we’re a team that … I think you want to see [Kevin Durant] in the playoffs, Steph [Curry] in the playoffs, you want to see LeBron [James] in the playoffs. The Timberwolves are not there yet. We got to keep putting our head down, keep playing through that, and it’s frustrating for sure, especially for me.”

For the record, the Timberwolves and Kings were very close in free throws attempted — 34 to 32 — in that Minnesota win. The Timberwolves had 25 free throws to the Warriors’ 17 in that Golden State win. Also, Sacramento fans will have a good laugh at the idea that they are lumped in with the big market, star-driven franchises that allegedly get all the breaks from the league.

It’s also amusing that Gobert is complaining about all the calls the Suns got when Phoenix coach Monty Williams was fined $20,000 after going off last week on how the referees are conspiring against the Suns. Maybe this is just Gobert taking a page out of Williams’ book? Gobert’s frustration is understandable on one level, Booker can be a frustrating player for defenders to go against. The Suns’ guard is a master of drawing contact (often initiating it) then getting the ball up looking for a shooting foul.

Two other quick thoughts. Suggesting that the number of free throws teams take in a game should be roughly even is flawed logic — aggressive teams attacking the rim get the calls. That is not always going to be even. Giannis Antetokounmpo gets calls because he is relentless in driving the lane, and nobody has another answer to stop him, and that is true of Joel Embiid, Luka Dončić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the other guys who get to the line a lot.

Is the NBA a star-driven league? Duh. It has been since David Stern started selling Magic vs. Bird instead of the Lakers vs. Celtics. Do the game’s biggest stars get special treatment from the referees? It does feel like it, but those are also the players with the ball in their hands the most, attacking and creating shots for themselves and others, so they were naturally going to draw more fouls anyway.

Gobert is frustrated and I get that. But the Timberwolves have been one of the best teams in the NBA over the few weeks, and that driving their chance to make the top six and avoid the play-in should be the focus. This Minnesota team is finding its stride, and the referees will not take that away. Unless the Wolves let them.