Five Story Lines For The Stretch Run

As All-Stars scurry back from New Orleans and everybody else from beaches near and far, we’ve reached the point when the 82-game trudge can no longer be pronounced a marathon.

The actual midpoint of the season passed weeks ago, but the annual All-Star break officially kick starts the so-called second half — or more like the stretch run. Most teams have only 30 or fewer games left to make their move. This is a sprint now.

With nine games scheduled for Tuesday night, we pull back the curtain on five second-half story lines (excluding Thursday’s trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET) to ponder:

1. Can any team in the disappointing East challenge the Heat and Pacers?


VIDEO: LeBron James and Paul George talk about the Heat-Pacers rivalry

“I don’t know,” Indiana big man Roy Hibbert said. “Toronto’s playing pretty well. Washington’s right there. Chicago’s been playing well even after trading Luol [Deng], so I’m not jumping forward to the second, third round or whatever. I’m just going to have to take care of business. We don’t want any surprises.”

It’s the Pacers’ and Heat’s world, with Indiana holding a tenuous, 2 1/2-game lead over the two-time champs. Circle March 26 and April 11 on the calendar. Those final two Heat-Pacers battles will be intense and could determine the top seed. Indiana dearly wants it for a potential East finals Game 7 against Miami in front of its home fans.

As for the rest of the bunch? Only Toronto and Chicago are above .500. Washington recently got there with some impressive wins only to slip below just before the break. Brooklyn, anyone?

It seems this will remain a two-team slugfest for the East crown.

“Right now that’s how it seems, but you never can know how the season can turn and the playoffs go,” Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall said. “If we figure out a way to play every game like we played against OKC, the Blazers and the Heat, I feel like we have a great chance to be a 3-seed or a 4-seed. But we have to do that for these last 30 games.”

2. Does Russell Westbrook’s imminent return make Oklahoma City the West (and overall) favorite?


VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks after his monster performance in the 2014 All-Star Game

Westbrook could play as soon as OKC’s first game back Thursday against the Heat. OKC was playing its best basketball of, arguably, the Thunder era in the weeks prior to Westbrook leaving the lineup in late December to undergo a third right knee surgery in less than a year.

Led by Kevin Durant, the Thunder surged in Westbrook’s absence and took over the West’s top seed, a spot they’re unlikely to surrender with Westbrook. Some suggest he’ll negatively alter the established on-court chemistry. Don’t bet on it. Some time will be needed for players, like Reggie Jackson, who stepped into larger roles and will now resume previous ones.

“I don’t think it will be too much of an adjustment,” Durant said. “He’s a dog, man, you just got to let him go out there and be him. He has great intentions, he’s a team-first guy, so it’s going to work.”

The league has been warned.

3. Will Kevin Durant win his first MVP award (and fourth scoring title)?


VIDEO: LeBron James and Kevin Durant put on a scoring show in the Thunder-Heat matchup

He’s certainly the leader starting the stretch run. But LeBron James‘ final performance before the break at Golden State reminded everybody that he’s not going to give anything away. That said, Durant’s numbers in the 26 games without Westbrook border on ridiculous: 35.0 points, 6.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds a game, with 52.7 percent shooting (including 39.9 percent beyond the arc). OKC went 19-7.

“As far as MVP, I have no control over votes,” Durant said. “I just go out there and play and I let the rest take care of itself. I always have confidence in myself. I never let anybody take that away from me. I just got to keep taking it a day at a time.”

MVP or not, it would take a near-miracle for Durant not to win a fourth scoring title in five seasons. He could have won it last year, too, but seemed to back off as Carmelo Anthony made a late charge. Durant is averaging 31.5 points a game this season; Anthony, in second place, is next at 27.3 ppg.

4. How will the rest of the season affect decisions facing Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett?


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks during All-Star weekend about his long-term future in New York

Anthony said all the right things during All-Star weekend: He’s focused on making a playoff push; he can attract other top players to New York; he’ll take less money in his next deal if it will help build a title contender.

All that said, New York’s heavy contract burden next season will prevent it from making significant upgrades this summer. The books clear in 2015 when players like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kyrie Irving (restricted) can hit the market, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. The Knicks looked to be turning a corner in early January, but it was fool’s gold. Could a frustrating end to this season sour Anthony, who turns 30 in May, enough to seriously consider a new address?

If he’s serious about contending now, he’ll have to consider options such as Chicago — even if wife LaLa prefers the Big Apple or Tinseltown over the Windy City.

As for Nash, 40, and Garnett, who turns 38 in May, this might be the end of the line. Nash has valiantly rehabbed for most of the last two seasons since joining the Lakers, and even in his recent return he’s continually dealing with pain. The Lakers aren’t likely contenders next season, and no team is likely to trade for Nash, who is still owed $9.7 million next season.

Garnett is averaging 6.8 points and 6.8 rebounds a game in a forgettable first season with Brooklyn. The Nets will likely make the playoffs in this underachieving Eastern Conference, but unless they put together an inspiring run, Garnett might not feel inspired to do it all over again.

Of course, the elephant in the room is that both players would walk away from a pile of cash. Garnett has $12 million left on his deal for next season. They won’t say it, but at this point both franchises would probably prefer these soon-to-be Hall of Famers hang ‘em up.

5. Will Kobe Bryant play this season and where will the Lakers finish?


VIDEO: At the All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant talks about his rehab work and more

On Sunday at the All-Star Game, Kobe said his recovery is “coming slowly,” but he did not suggest that his season is done.

“I am,” he said when asked if he’s hopeful he’ll play. “I just need to keep my blinders on and just focus on getting better myself and going from there.”

He’s played in only six games this season and fractured his knee after coming back from Achilles surgery last April. Is it wise to play? The Lakers are an impossible 13 games out of the final playoff spot and, at 18-35, are tied for last in the West with the Sacramento Kings.

If Kobe plays, it will have zero effect on the Lakers’ ability to creep toward a playoff berth, thought it might serve to satisfy his appetite to play. A few more meaningless wins will mean fewer ping-pong balls in the lottery. If Kobe sits it out, L.A. could finish dead last in the West. It currently has more wins than only three East teams.

29 Comments

  1. okc2014 says:

    Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett will not retire. However, I do think that Nash should be waived and Garnett should try another team, if possible. I hate to see him retire humiliated. No fair to him. I think most people have forgotten how lethal Westbrook is to other teams when he is on the floor. So I’m not gonna bother to comment on the haters who think he will “mess things up” by coming back. Westbrook can speak for himself!

  2. Erik B says:

    1) As an Indianapolis native, I’m still not sold that we have a safe path to the conference finals. Brooklyn could surprise a lot of people as a dark horse because that team has an insane amount of playoff experience. Washington and Toronto are up and coming and I think they could surprise someone and take them to a game 6 or 7 but ultimately they’re not heading to the ECF. Chicago shouldn’t be overlooked because great defense and tenacity become so vital in the playoffs and they always go hard. Miami should cruise to ECFs.

    2) Where OKC has failed in the past is living and dying with the mid-long range jumper. Nothing has changed on that front and even with Durant playing out of his mind I wouldn’t consider them the overall favorite. I don’t really see any clear-cut favorite out west. I imagine a lot of game 7′s on the left side of the bracket come playoff time.

    3)If the season ended today, Yes. Still over a third, nearly half, of the season left and I predict that he will still stay a consistent favorite, but you never know. Can’t predict injuries, a significant losing streak, or Lebron putting up Durant-like numbers down the stretch. Would love to see KD win it though.

    4) Not amazingly savvy with contract exceptions and the like, but I’d like to see Carmelo play it safe and sign a 1-year Dwight Howard-like contract and see what direction the organization takes during ’14-’15 and the summer. If he signs the deal they’re offering he’s basically committing the rest of his career (no team could afford to trade for a contract like that) and putting his championship hopes in the hands of an organization that hasn’t made winning decisions over an insane amount of time. That said, he talked about taking less money to bring in a sidekick star and taking the guaranteed money this offseason makes it more difficult to manipulate the funds in ’15. Always loved Melo and hope NY doesn’t mar a great career.
    Garnett and Nash both take the money because anything is possible with Kobe Bryant and Brooklyn has way too much talent and money to expect that they won’t be a contender next season.

    5) I think Kobe plays for a couple weeks at the end of the year as a formality. He doesn’t play it safe and he’s not D Rose, but Lakers still finish near the bottom of the barrel. Unfortunately the East is so bad the lottery pick might not even be top 5.

  3. AG says:

    1) Durant wins the MVP & Scoring Title
    2) The Heat will NOT 3 Peat
    3) Melo should leave the Knicks
    4) Garnet & Pierce both should retire
    5) Joe Dumars will be fired after the season

  4. Rhedz says:

    Heat, Pacers or Toronto for the East and Okc, Spurs, Rockets and Portland for the west…

    But would really want Heat vs. Okc rematch…Im a heat fan but I guess this time okc can knock the heat down if Durant continue his evolution and westbrook doesn’t go down again. It’s a tough match up for both of this team. Ofcourse Lbj wont hand it to Durant that easy..I say Game 7 would be interesting.

    Heat and spurs rematch would be okey too but heat would come out again and get 3peat if this scenario happens. Spurs are a good team but if they bring the same stuff again then the heat will burn them to ashes…Game 5 or 6 and its a wrap.

    Heat Portland would be interesting, Portland brings energy and youth on the table but they don’t have any finals experience like Okc 2 seasons ago. So I guess heat will clean them up with in 4-5 games max

    Heat and rockets .. No brainer…Heat will burn this rocket down in 5-6 games…I don’t see anyone from the rockets who can contain Lbj aside from howard and that leaves Oden hammering the baseline alone. Don’t forget about bosh who can hurt them from the outside and perimeter…And wade who can slash and come from anywhere…Parson, Harden are the only threat I see from inside out…But the heat can contain them with birdman, battier.

  5. Sean says:

    1: There are no teams capable of catching either the heat or the pacers, at least this season. A few teams there have potential but not enough consistency. A wild outside bet at the wizards if the step up a bit more but its a 2 horse race for that top spot.

    2: I think OKC are already favorites for the west but its such a competitive conference anything could happen in the playoffs. If Durant can keep up his current numbers, and if westbrook returns and just adds to that they can definitely go all the way. Three way toss up between Heat/Pacers/Thunder as favorites.

    3: i would love to see both, and so far the answer would be yes. James is still producing MVP numbers but Durant is going off the charts. The scoring title is wrapped up i think. The only thing stopping the MVP title is if OKC suffer a shock loss in the playoffs and the heat go on to win…then its gonna go to James. But No one can deny Durant has indeed been the leagues most valuable player right until now.

    4: Melo is talking cool now because the knicks need some sort of positivity this season. If they dont make the playoffs or go in the first round there will be different actions compared to his words (although he does seem genuine). Garnett? maybe a new change of scenery after this year…rethink how he will end his career..be a role model and a great supporting role man (like vince carter or ray allen) and join a club where he will be respected. Steve Nash has to bow out..or at least leave the lakers.

    5: A good point is if the lakers dont look likely to make the playoffs (which they dont) why rush coming back and doing more damage for the sake of a few games? If he gets back and comes back stronger next year he can breathe life into the lakers team again, rebuild and restrucure, again around kobe coz he still has 2 or 3 seasons left in him.

    • LebronFan says:

      the mvp title for the regular season is given out before the playoffs begin, so a playoff exit would not be a factor as the award would already have been awarded.

      • kboogy says:

        The MVP award is given out after the first round of the playoffs but it is a regular season award so regardless of whether OKC looses in the first round or not, it shouldn’t affect the voting.

  6. Jimmy says:

    I am honestly nervous for the NBA as a big fan. All-star game was competitive for about 5 minutes. Team concept of all star saturday failed. Sleeved jerseys do not look good and they are going to have ads on the jerseys in the future. Come on, PLEASE fix it. Especially the all star events and the ads. It seems the league is more concerned with making money than growing the popularity of the sport.

    • Yep, agree with most of that…

    • LebronFan says:

      all star games are about showcasing the offensive side of basketball, the flashy stuff. if you want team concept go watch the regular season games involving good teams. the all star players arent trying to go all out in the all star game and risk getting injured. but i agree with the failure on the sleeved jerseys. butt ugly.
      even the fans don’t like them so i dont know why the league’s pushing it so much…

      • dd def says:

        yeah except they just ran and shot three’s all damn day. that’s not flashy, or entertaining. and they can be flashy and still compete. the dunk contest format was confusing and complete garbage. the change to the 3 ball contest was stupid and lead to the worst shooting performance to come out victorious. it’s just a joke.

    • Kunjaymaster says:

      I could rebuke every single point you’ve given, and give you plenty of reasons why they are changing and why the game evolves; but just remember at the end of the day is just a matter of perspective. I don’t see those things as something that needs fixing. The jersey i like the most is my Real Madrid Jersey and it has a big FLY EMIRATES in front and still doesn’t bother me.

  7. NBA Fan says:

    Kobe should focus on getting 110% healthy and then make a return. If he is healthy enough to make a return this season, he should play the rest of the season as if they were pre-season games and focus on getting his touch back and making the needed adjustments to play at an elite level.

  8. jake s. says:

    kd and russ are dangerous. the will both get at least 2 rings together

  9. DERICK ROSE says:

    MELO TO DALLAS =) for a change!

  10. rr mmbreve says:

    mark the spark caguioa will bounce back. that is what am i thinking. you better go to the Philippines and scout this guy.

  11. Arky says:

    1. Not even close.
    2. Favourite in the West. No-one deserves to be overall favourite ahead of back-to-back champions until the back-to-back champions are out of the playoffs.
    3. Yeah, even if he fades off and LeBron steps it up. People had LeBron MVP fatigue last year but there was simply no excuse for voting for anyone else. This year people will take the opportunity to finally vote for someone different (and at least to this stage KD deserves to be in the lead for MVP).
    4. If New York makes moves it might make Melo happy or it may cause him to decide that NY will be hopeless for the rest of his prime… depends on the moves. Nothing short of medical advice that they must retire immediately will cause Nash and KG to give up on getting them cheques.
    5. Yes and second last in the West.

  12. hammar says:

    Indiana to the finals finishing off Oklahoma!

    • dd def says:

      even though i’d rather see my blazers pull a miracle, anyone beating OKC is a team i root for. and i happen to like this pacers team a lot. they OUTPLAYED miami last postseason, now they’re even better. westbrook will loose games for okc with that giant ego of his, which has happened a lot in the past years.

  13. lol says:

    Kobe making a comeback right now,Lakers make it to the playoffs and win the championship ez.

  14. dustydreamnz says:

    1. Maybe the Raptors but I’ll go for no. Wizards are good but they’re too inconsistent.
    2. Probably but I still like the Spurs a lot.
    3. Should win both, Westbrook’s injury has helped.
    4. Nash should give up, Garnett like his team have been better lately so I’m undecided, Melo seems to like New York so I think he will stay.
    5. I think Kobe will play this season but I think the Lakers will be last in the West.

    • kek says:

      If you were Nash, would you give up 9 million dollars? I dont think so, Thats alot of money, Unless he gets forced to retire by the league doctors, I dont think Nash will give up that kind of money, same goes for garnett.

      • DRAGONFORMVP says:

        Nash played through a nasty broken nose, i don’t doubt his ability to play, and he’s been payed alot of mpney in the past. I think he wants that ring… should play with the king…

  15. standard says:

    kobe should sit the rest the season

  16. out there says:

    it was an intriguing idea from a few years back but imagine if garnett’s pride didn’t get in the way and agree to sign with san antonio… duncan was open to it. they would’ve been a handful up front, old as they are. they both could’ve won another title. it’s a bit too late for that now.

    • Charlie says:

      I’m not sure I agreed its too late for a Duncan/Garnett pairing. Garnett would become a role played and the only real contribution he would need to make would to simply become a “presence” on defense and attack the boards. Any scoring would just be a benefit