It’s a misnomer that the NBA’s All-Star break is the halfway point of the season. The NBA blew by that a month ago. Teams have played at least 53 games of an 82-game season.
Just one-third of the season remains – two months before the playoffs begin on April 18. In the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks and MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo are running away with the top seed. Milwaukee is 46-8 and 6½ games ahead of second-place Toronto.
In the West, the Los Angeles Lakers have a solid four-game lead over Denver and five-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers for the top seed.
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But there are still several topics worth following. Let’s take a look at the top-five story lines to watch in the final two months of the regular season.
Can LeBron James and Anthony Davis stay healthy?
The Lakers’ All-Star duo has mostly stayed away from the trainer’s room. After missing a combined 27 games last season because of a strained left groin, James has only sat for two games this season. After sitting out 26 games last year because of various ailments, Davis has only missed a combined seven games because of mild soreness on his right shoulder and lower back. The Lakers’ success depends on their health.
Can the Clippers become more consistent?
The Clippers entered the NBA season as championship favorites because of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and a strong bench. They have underachieved, though, amid overlapping injuries to their stars and role players. The Clippers have often played with the same apathy that most teams do after winning an NBA title the previous season. The only problem? While Leonard is the lone player to come off an NBA championship season, the Clippers only appeared in the first round.
Is there a definitive Western Conference dark horse?
The Lakers and Clippers are considered the only teams in the West to have a shot at the NBA title. But the Houston Rockets could give the Lakers or Clippers fits with a heavy dose of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and countless small-ball lineups. The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz could earn top playoff seeds. But neither team seems threatening to either L.A. team because of the talent discrepancy.
Who will earn the second seed in the East?
Toronto’s season is underappreciated, just because of how great Milwaukee has been. But consider this: The Raptors were 43-16 at last year’s All-Star break and are 40-15 this season – without Kawhi Leonard. It is a testament to the talent on the floor (Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, Terence Davis) and coach Nick Nurse, who is a top coach of the year candidate. The Raptors should hold off Boston and Miami for the second seed.
What’s the deal with the 76ers?
This hasn’t been the season the Sixers or anyone else expected – 34-21 and in fifth place in the East. The loss of Jimmy Butler and outside shooting has hurt, and they have been horrible on the road at 9-19, as bad as the 17-38 New York Knicks on the road. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are phenomenal talents, but it hasn’t translated into the success many thought was coming after last season. As it stands, the Sixers likely will need to win three series on the road just to reach the Finals. Not sure there’s enough time for the Sixers to figure it out and make a deep run.