CHICAGO — NBA All-Star 2020 concluded Sunday with one of the more riveting finishes in recent history.
Teams are now going back on grind for the playoff push that naturally accompanies the rest of the season.
Here, we look at 10 storylines worth watching after the All-Star break:
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1. Has Morant locked up Kia Rookie of the Year?
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant certainly appears to be on the way, as he’s averaging 17.6 points and 7.1 assists. At All-Star weekend, several of Morant’s NBA peers endorsed him for the award, including fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Kendrick Nunn of the Miami Heat and Jaren Jackson Jr., Morant’s teammate. New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (22.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 57.6% shooting) will certainly be considered among the favorites, but injuries kept him out of the season’s first 44 games — all while Morant kept showing up and showing out every night.
2. Is Houston’s new lineup sustainable?
Courtesy of the addition of 3-and-D specialist Robert Covington, the Rockets are now giving more spacing to two of the NBA’s most dangerous guards in James Harden and Russell Westbrook. That’s difficult to guard … even for the most athletic of NBA teams. Houston low-key became a more versatile squad with this new lineup, and you can’t forget the Rockets can still play a more traditional lineup when needed with centers Isaiah Hartenstein and Tyson Chandler in the fold.
3. Will the Bucks reach 70 wins?
Milwaukee needs to win 24 of its last 28 games to become the third team in NBA history to capture 70 victories in a season — a feat accomplished by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (who went 72-10) and the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9). It won’t be easy with the red-hot Toronto Raptors — winners of 15 of their last 16 entering the All-Star break — trying to catch them. Both teams face off three more times. Milwaukee plays 17 of its last 28 games against teams currently sitting in the top eight of their respective conference standings.
4. The chase for No. 8 in East, West
In the East, just five games separate the seventh-, eighth-and ninth-place teams. The ninth-place Wizards are just three games behind No. 8 Orlando, and the Magic trail seventh-place Brooklyn by just two games. Even the Chicago Bulls, currently at 10th in the East, are five games behind Orlando. In the West, eighth-place Memphis comes out of the All-Star break with a four-game lead on Portland. However, San Antonio and New Orleans are lurking behind the Blazers for that eighth spot. Memphis is hot, having won eight of its last 10, and it might be poised to put some distance between itself and the other teams vying for the final playoff berth.
5. Spurs’ playoff streak in jeopardy
San Antonio has advanced to the postseason for a record-tying 22 consecutive seasons, but its 23-31 mark at the All-Star break ranks as the worst at that juncture since the 1996-97 season. That was the season before San Antonio drafted franchise icon Tim Duncan No. 1 overall. The Spurs started their annual rodeo road trip by dropping five of six games, and they’ve lost seven of their last 10. San Antonio’s next three matchups come against teams likely to make the playoffs (Utah, Oklahoma City and Dallas).
6. Are the Raptors legitimate contenders?
It’s certainly looking that way for the defending champions, which ran off a 15-game winning streak before falling to the Nets going into All-Star weekend. Last season at this point, the Raptors sat at second in the East behind Milwaukee going into the All-Star break, and we all saw how that ended. It’s not quite the same situation as 2018-19, though, as Toronto is currently 6 1/2 games behind the Bucks. At the break in 2018-19 the separation was only one game. The Raptors are No. 12 in Offensive Rating, No. 2 in Defensive Rating, No. 3 in 3-point percentage (37.7%) and No. 5 in 3-pointers made per game (13.7). That’s legit.
7. The battle of L.A. continues
The Clippers defeated the Lakers twice in the first half of the season, and meeting No. 3 was postponed after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. The Clippers are currently third in the West, five games behind the Lakers. If the Clippers find a way to secure that No. 2 seed, they’ll essentially be playing at home throughout the entire postseason, which could make for a fun matchup in the West finals against the Lakers, provided they meet there and the Lakers remain No. 1 in the West. Two regular-season contests – March 8 (3:30 ET, ABC) and the make-up date (yet to be scheduled) — remain in this new rivalry.
8. Should Stephen Curry return this season?
Curry played in just four games before suffering a broken left hand, and he’s targeted early March for a return. With the Warriors owning the worst record in the league (12-43), Curry won’t be able to help much, and that naturally leads to concern about whether bringing him back this season is the smart play. Curry said he wants to end his season on a strong note, but the Warriors should tread carefully in exposing their best player to injury since the playoffs are out of reach.
9. Can the 76ers hold it together?
Philadelphia is 25-2 at home, but needs to start winning on the road, where it has struggled to a 9-19 record. Major tests await starting Saturday at Milwaukee (8:30 ET, ABC), before a West Coast trip for games on March 1 and 3 against the Clippers and the Lakers, respectively. After narrowly missing the East finals last year, the 76ers have regressed. Only one of the club’s road wins has come against a team over .500 (the Celtics on Dec. 12), which is a scary proposition for a team that could be starting the postseason on the road.
10. Will the Pelicans make a serious playoff push?
New Orleans is surging after a 6-22 start with Williamson out and other valuable players in and out of the lineup due to injuries. The Pelicans won six of their last nine games going into the All-Star break, and they’ve got the NBA’s easiest remaining schedule. Memphis – the current No. 8 seed in the West — has the most difficult remaining schedule. The Pelicans are 11th in the standings, but have six games left to play against the teams sitting between them and that eighth spot (Portland, Memphis and San Antonio). To date, New Orleans is a combined 5-1 against those squads.
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