CLEVELAND – When the All-Star break ends, the stretch run begins.
There isn’t much time left in the NBA season. The All-Star weekend came at about the 60-game mark for teams, far beyond the midpoint of the 82-game schedule. It’s a sprint to the finish now, and the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers have to prove they have the legs to make a run.
The Nets could have Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons on the floor soon to spark a surge. But the Lakers might be without Anthony Davis for more than a month because of a foot injury, putting a heavy burden on LeBron James.
Injured and inconsistent, neither team is a sure thing to even make the postseason. Both have performed far below expectations, with the Lakers only 27-31. But poor play in the winter is quickly forgotten if a team warms up come springtime, just as the Milwaukee Bucks did last year.
“As a team, we started playing good basketball towards the end,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “Maybe we can do it again. Who knows? We’re in a good place. We have a hell of a team.”
The Bucks are actually only in fifth place, but that means little in the tightly packed Eastern Conference. Miami and Chicago are tied at the top, surprising Cleveland and Philadelphia are 2 1/2 games back and Milwaukee is just percentage points behind them.
There’s more separation out West, where Phoenix has pulled away to a 6 1/2-game lead over Golden State by winning seven straight to run its record to 48-10.
Even those teams have concerns, with Phoenix bracing for a lengthy absence for Chris Paul and Golden State still going without Draymond Green because of a back injury.
The Nets hope their injury issues are almost over. Durant is nearing a return after missing a month with a sprained left knee ligament, though coach Steve Nash said he isn't expecting the All-Star forward to be ready when they resume their season Thursday against Boston.
Injuries are a part of every season, but the usual problems this season were compounded for some teams by the coronavirus. An outbreak within the Nets contributed to them deciding to bring the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving back part time even though he still can’t play in home games. The Atlanta Hawks lost nine of 12 games during one rough stretch in December, having to sign multiple players just to field a team while their regulars were out.
They have been trying to climb out of that hole and are 10th in the East a year after reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
“At one point it was crazy. Like, just going out there and not knowing any of your teammates besides two of them,” All-Star Trae Young said. “It was different, but like the world might not always, always see that and see the struggle early on and understand that’s the reason. So now that we’re here, we’re starting to pick things up and guys are getting healthy. It’s going to be good for us if we keep it going.”
The play-in helps them. For the second straight year, the teams in the Nos. 7-10 spots will play for the final two postseason spots in each conference. Right now, both the eighth-place Nets and ninth-place Lakers would find themselves there.
There's still time to climb, but not much.
Some other things to watch down the stretch:
The All-Star point guard injured his right thumb in the Suns' final game before the break and had a soft cast covering it this weekend. He could miss the rest of the regular season.
“We have to figure it out,” fellow All-Star Devin Booker said. “Everybody has to give a little bit more. I look at the beauty in it. He gets to rest his legs. He gets to get ready for a long postseason that we’re trying to make happen. So we got to hold it down without him. We got to hold the fort down.”
Denver's Nikola Jokic has a strong case to win a second straight MVP award and Antetokounmpo could win his third. They both might be chasing 76ers center Joel Embiid, the league's leading scorer with 29.6 points per game who gets an All-Star sidekick this week when James Harden debuts after being swapped for Simmons.
“Well, I don’t really want to push for the whole thing, but the way I’ve been playing speaks for itself,” Embiid said, “especially with everything we went through, the drama this whole year, and obviously missing a big piece, and everything we added to our team and the way our team is set up.”
SURPRISES OF THE SEASON
All-Star Ja Morant has fueled Memphis to a 41-19 record and third place in the West, while Cleveland is an unexpected 35-23. They don't have any postseason polish, but Green doesn't think that will hurt the young teams.
“We won a championship my third year,” he said, referring to the Warriors' 2015 title. “The majority of us were going into that playoffs 15 to 20 playoff games in our career and we were able it win a championship. So I don’t view the inexperience as a problem.”
IN THE EAST
Miami made a run to four straight NBA titles from 2011-14 when James was there, but the conference wasn't nearly as deep as it appears this season.
“It's compelling in the East right now. If you have real competitors, that's what you want,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You want to be challenged, you want to be pushed and see how your team stacks up against the other best teams. That's what it's all about and there's some great teams in the East.”
AND IN THE WEST
Is it as wide open in the other conference?
"No, we’re going to win it," Green said. "Seriously.”
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