NBA playoff pressure: Kevin Durant suits up for Phoenix and nine other things worth watching down the stretch

Whether you enjoyed All-Star weekend (Jayson Tatum, McClung’s son) or not (Paul George, Mike Malone), it’s time to transition back to in-game dunks, hard fouls, instant replays and something we haven’t seen on the NBA hardwood in about a week — defense.

With the playoffs starting in early April, the next six weeks will determine which teams will get an early start to the 2023-24 season and which will be involved in the playoffs. The trade deadline (and fall from it) provided a bounty of storylines, especially in the Western Conference after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, and the enigmatic Russell Westbrook “left” and “joined” Los Angeles. .

And, don’t worry, we’re not leaving the Eastern Conference out of the party. The top three teams, Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers will meet for five games down the stretch. The Ben Simmons Experience returns to Brooklyn. With Nate McMillan being fired, all eyes will be on Trae Young for any indication of how the Atlanta Hawks will move forward with a permanent head coach.

So, as the NBA schedule resumes Thursday night, here are 10 storylines worth watching.

1. Durant fits in Phoenix

How will Kevin Durant and Devin Booker play off each other? Which version of Chris Paul will Phoenix get? How will Deandre Ayton adjust to the arrival of Durant? What about Phoenix’s defense without Mikal Bridges? What will the depth look like? These are the questions the Sun will have to solve in 22 games. This team has enough talent to win the title this season, but there is little time for the Suns to build meaningful chemistry. Durant’s superstardom instantly puts Phoenix at the top of the title favorites list, but just because this team is built to win now doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

2. Lakers in pursuit of the playoffs

During the All-Star break LeBron James said that the remaining games on the Lakers schedule are “23 of the most important games of my career for the regular season.” A bit dramatic, but James knows what it will look like if he and the Lakers can’t make the playoffs for the second straight season. LA should earn a playoff spot based on their roster improvements from the trade, chief among which was the combo move of offloading Russell Westbrook and the return of D’Angelo Russell. In the one game that Russell, James and Anthony Davis played together before the All-Star break, the trio combined for 70 points in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans. A small sample size, sure, but it showed that the Lakers can be a dynamic force on offense. They still have the sixth easiest schedule in the league and play 13 of 23 games at home, so LA is in a great position to clinch a playoff spot in the West.

3. The Irving-Doncic experiment

Well, you certainly can’t say the Mavericks didn’t get help from Luka Doncic at the trade deadline, although the cost could be too high if Kyrie Irving doesn’t re-sign in the summer. But that’s a topic for another day. Right now, the focus is on getting the Irving-Doncic duo to work. We got a small glimpse of what it would look like before the All-Star events, when Doncic and Irving combined for 69 points in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Talent-wise, they might be the two worst backcourts in the NBA, but Dallas has to figure out how to showcase both stars without getting into a cycle of “you go, I go.” There is also a real question about the Mavericks defense which is ranked 24th in the league.

4. Atlanta after McMillan

The departure of Nate McMillan gives a fresh start to an Atlanta team that has been very disappointed after the trade for Dejounte Murray last summer. A 29-30 record isn’t the most expected of a backcourt featuring Murray and Trae Young, but here we are. Head coach Joe Prunty has 23 games to try to do what McMillan couldn’t do in 59 games – harness the talents of Young and Murray into a successful offensive attack. If the Hawks get bounced in the first round again, the newly installed front office will have some important questions to ask during the offseason that go far beyond who will be the next head coach.

5. Jokic chases MVP history

Nikola Jokic has the potential to do something that has only been done three other times in NBA history, and not since Larry Bird did it in 1986 — three-peat as league MVP. At the start of the season that was a crazy possibility to realize, as voter fatigue usually keeps players from winning the award three times in a row. But Jokic is performing at a level above his previous MVP seasons, and is leading a Nuggets team that sits atop the West. His scoring dropped by just over three points a night, but he’s as efficient as ever shooting a career-high 63.2 percent from the field while averaging a triple-double (24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists) . Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum may have the best cases against Jokic, but while both players have had their ups and downs this season, the Joker remains a constant force. dominant.

6. The expected return of some stars

Durant’s return is certainly the most anticipated, and it has already been reported that he He plans to make his Suns debut on March 1 against the Charlotte Hornets. But there are many other stars around the league who are expected to make a comeback that could affect the playoff picture. The return of Zion Williamson may have the biggest impact on playoff seeding, as the Pelicans looked like world beaters when he was healthy at the start of the season. He has not played since early January with a hamstring injury, but could return sometime in March just in time for a final playoff push. Stephen Curry is another player sidelined before the All-Star break who could return soon. He will be back at least a week, however, as the Warriors recently announced that he is done “good progress” but will be reassessed again in a week.

7. Cruise Westbrook to anywhere

Russell Westbrook’s time with the Lakers was not going well, and after being traded at the deadline to the Utah Jazz, and then agreeing to a buyout contract, he decided to stay in Los Angeles and signed with the Clippers. Paul George – who went 0 for 9 from 3 in Sunday night’s “shoot around” – publicly lobbied hard to sign Westbrook with the Clippers, despite LA’s impressive success with Terrance Mann at point guard this season . He could be seen as a low-risk option for the Clippers, as Westbrook will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. But for a team that hasn’t been able to meet their championship aspirations mainly due to injuries, there is a chance that Westbrook could hinder the Clippers in a season where they could make a deep run in the postseason. That is, if Kawhi Leonard and George stay healthy.

8. Kings to end 16-year playoff drought

It’s strange how the Kings have managed to miss the playoffs 16 years in a row in a league where more than 50 percent of the teams make the postseason every year. While Sacramento has long been in the limelight for their lack of success over the past decade and more, this season seems to be the one where the laughing stops. Sacramento is third (!!) in the Western Conference, and owns the second-best offense with a roster that includes two All-Stars in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, as well as pitcher Kevin Huerter and the rookie Keegan Murray. The only concern is that Sacramento has the fourth-toughest schedule the rest of the season, and in a crowded West that’s only 4.5 games out of the 11th spot, things could be even tougher. quickly down the stretch.

9. All eyes on Simmons

With no more superstars on the Nets, and much less pressure on the team to do much of anything, Ben Simmons is able to rebuild some of his value. After being dealt to the Nets from Philadelphia at last season’s trade deadline, Simmons looked nothing like the All-Star, All-Defensive guard he once was. It has been pointed out that Brooklyn is planning to measure his trade value this summer. That’s no surprise since Simmons is averaging a career-high 6.9 points per game and was pushed to a bench role the last four games before the All-Star break. But the final 24 games of the season are an opportunity for Simmons to prove he can return to being the floor general and lockdown defender he once was.

10. Battle of the Eastern Peak

The Celtics have maintained control of the Eastern Conference for most of the season, but the Bucks are lurking at just a half-game back and the Sixers are also within striking distance. But every team has challenges. All three of Boston’s games against Philadelphia and Milwaukee will be on the road. Milwaukee is on a 12-game winning streak, despite Giannis Antetokounmpo you will probably miss some time with a wrist injury. And Philadelphia, though just three games out of first place, will have to jump over Milwaukee at some point to continue the city’s streak of seeing its teams reach the series finale because the inside by whoever has home court advantage in the East. track to reach the NBA Finals.

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