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Five storylines to watch down stretch of NBA season

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Kurt Helin joins Michael Smith and Natalie to review the top five NBA storylines to watch down the stretch of the regular season, involving both the playoff and MVP races, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and more.

While we instinctively call the rest of the NBA season the All-Star break, when in reality it’s around 23-25 games for teams and is more like turning for home and the stretch run of a horse race. This is when the best separate themselves from the pack and the tough questions are answered.

What questions are we watching most closely? Here are five NBA storylines to watch over the final couple of months of the season.

1) In wide-open NBA, which teams hit stride heading into playoffs?

“I think historically, or at least since I’ve been in the league, right, the team that has kind of clicked in this last stretch, has kind of peaked and played their best of the season going into the playoffs usually is the team that wins it all.”

That was Jayson Tatum, speaking just after he dropped 55 points in an otherwise unwatchable All-Star Game. While his sentiment is not universally true, it was last season when Tatum’s Celtics went 26-6 down the stretch and then carried that momentum over to a Finals run. The stretch run does matter this season, where nobody in the West has separated themselves. Trades are in the books, the buyout market is largely finished, rosters are set — now which ones of these teams come together? And who stays healthy?

Out West, can the Warriors get Stephen Curry back, flip the switch and look like a contender? Can Phoenix get Kevin Durant healthy and have enough time to build championship chemistry? Is Denver — finally with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. healthy around Nikola Jokić — ready to make good on the promise of that roster? What about the Grizzlies? Can the Clippers fit all their pieces together?

The East is a little clearer, but who is better between Boston and Milwaukee down the stretch? And is Philadelphia ready to make it a big three in the East?

We’ll get a better sense of those answers between now and the last week or so before the playoffs (when teams start resting players to have them fresh for the postseason).

2) Is Jokić going to win a third-straight MVP?

Going into the season, when asked about the chances of Nikola Jokić winning a third-straight MVP, I said it would be a long shot because of the weight of history. He was going to have to blow away the field. What has he done? Lead the Nuggets to the best record in the West while averaging a triple-double of 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists a game, shooting 63.2% overall and 39.1% on 3-pointers.

That hasn’t completely blown away a deep field, but it has him leading the race heading into the turn for home. He has been good enough to win, and while the argument against him starts with “what has he done in the playoffs” that is moot — this is a regular-season award. There already is a Finals MVP, the two are not linked.

We can safely say the MVP will come from a group of five: Jokić, the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, the 76ers’ Joel Embiid, and the Celtics’ Tatum. Antetokounmpo and Embiid, in particular, seem closest to knocking Jokić off the top of the mountain. Whoever out of that group can play best down the stretch has a real chance to win the award, but it’s Jokić with a lead as of today.

3) Does the arrival of Kevin Durant make these Suns best in the West?

On paper, adding Kevin Durant makes the Suns the best team in the Western Conference. Maybe the NBA.

In reality, they have three big questions to answer:

1) Can the Suns stay healthy, and that applies to Durant and Chris Paul in particular?
2) Can they develop enough chemistry, particularly on the defensive end, over the final 20 games of the season to be playoff ready?
3) Will Deandre Ayton willingly accept a smaller role with fewer post touches — he will be asked to defend, rebound and be more of a fourth option — and play at a high level? The Suns need elite Ayton to win it all.

Durant reportedly is targeting next Wednesday against the Hornets to make his return. That’s when we start to see if they are answering questions.

4) Will defending champion Warriors even escape the play-in?

The reality is the Warriors are a .500 team that will be without Stephen Curry for the next week at least, have the 20th-ranked defense in the league, and are sitting ninth in the West.

Right now, they are a play-in team. We’ve waited for them to flip the switch all season long, and it hasn’t happened.

“I don’t think it’s that. I don’t think it’s a championship hangover,” Draymond Green said before the break, talking specifically about their defense that was best in the NBA last season. “It’s a will to want to defend, and you’re not hungover at .500 60 games into the season. You’re loser if you’re still hungover at that point, so there’s no hangover it’s a will to defend and stop and guard a man, and sink when you can help, and trap the box, and rotate. A defense is about one to two steps extra. Am I gonna take that extra step to get there or not. And that’s all will. And we don’t have that as a team.”

They have to find that will fast because, as it is, they will be on the road through the playoffs, and they are 7-22 outside Chase Center this season.

5) Will LeBron James miss the playoffs for the second straight season?

LeBron called these final 23 games of the Lakers’ season the most important regular season games of his career.

“Because I want to make a push to make the playoffs. I don’t want to see myself not being part of the postseason for two years straight. It’s just not part of my DNA,” LeBron said. “We’re sitting up here talking about the [NBA all-time scoring] record and things of that nature, and that’s all cool, but I’m more passionate about trying to make the postseason and give ourselves a chance to compete for another Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The Lakers aren’t having a parade with Larry this year. The thing to watch is can they even make the playoffs? While it’s easy to say the Lakers are just two games back of the play-in and 3.5 out of the top six, the reality is they are 13th in the West and have a lot of good teams to climb over to make the postseason.

Forget about the top six — fifth and sixth belong to Dallas and Phoenix, teams that got a lot better at the trade deadline and are not coming back to the pack. The Lakers can climb over teams in the play-in such as the Thunder, Timberwolves (still without Karl-Anthony Towns) and Pelicans (still without Zion Williamson). The Lakers have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way, if their new starting five (with D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt next to LeBron and Anthony Davis) can click, they can get into the play-in, make the playoffs that way, then be a real problem for whoever they face in the first round.

But it will take elite LeBron and Davis the rest of the way to get there. Can they stay healthy and be up to that task?

Four Bonus Things to Watch: Seeding in the Eastern Conference (getting the No. 1 seed matters because the second-round matchup of No.2 and No.3 seeds of the Celtics, Bucks and 76ers will be brutal); Who does Atlanta hire as coach; What does the arrival of Kyrie Irving mean for Dallas in the playoffs; Do the owners and players union get a new CBA hammered out by March 31 or are we headed to a summer lockout?