5 key storylines to watch down the stretch as NBA basketball returns

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Between the trade deadline and All-Star Weekend, it has been an exciting and frantic few weeks in the NBA.

And it’s only going to ramp up now as the contenders, wannabe contenders and pretenders all feel the pressure down the stretch heading towards the NBA Playoffs.

The action recommences on Thursday night live on Sky Sports as the post-All-Star run begins.

Here are some of the key storylines to watch as the season heads towards the crunch:

1. James Harden’s fit in Philly

James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers, NBA (AP)
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James Harden introduced as a player for the Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid and James Harden are the new star duo in Philadelphia as the 76ers look to win their first title since 1983 and the Sixers are finally drama-free. Their long, confusing and fatal relationship with Ben Simmons is finally over, and now their championship aspirations will rest with Harden and how he fits with his third team in less than two years.

The Sixers (35-23) are suddenly on the clock here. They want, and perhaps need, to seize advantage of an epic season so far from Embiid, one of the clear favourites for league MVP. The Cameroonian is playing at a beastly level, is a chore for any and all opposing teams in the paint, and has proved to be quite capable of being the centerpiece for a title team. Even before Harden’s arrival and without Simmons, Embiid has the Sixers 10 games over .500, just an elevator floor down from the penthouse in the East. That’s a credit to his hunger and desire to be the best.

That said, Embiid has a rather rich and troublesome injury history, and he’ll be asked to burn plenty of minutes once the postseason begins. That’s because the Sixers forked over Andre Drummond in the Simmons deal. Drummond was having a solid stretch as Philly’s backup center, especially as a rebounder. Unless the Sixers find a reasonably decent big man on the buyout market, the lack of front-line depth could prove costly down the stretch purely from a workload standpoint with Embiid.

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Check out 2021-22 NBA All-Star James Harden’s midseason highlights

Also, the Sixers surrendered Seth Curry as well, which cost them a valuable deep shooter. That puts more weight on Tyrese Maxey to continue his impressive season and maintain that same level throughout the playoffs if only because Curry was so important to their backcourt rotation.

The last point to consider is: can Harden lift his own game? His scoring average (22.5 points per game) is the lowest since his final season in Oklahoma City, when he came off the bench; and his 3-point efficiency at 33 per cent is the lowest of his career.

2. When does Ben Simmons return and how will he cope in Brooklyn?

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Charles Barkley says that when they are fully fit and available, the Brooklyn Nets are the scariest team in the NBA

What we saw over the past three months was one of the few documented cases of a superstar NBA player refusing to report for reasons other than money. It was downright bizarre, actually, how Simmons stood his ground with the Sixers and gladly lost millions of dollars based on principle. He seemed to indicate that, from a desire standpoint, any return to Philly was non-negotiable.

OK, then. None of that matters now, because in Brooklyn, Simmons will feel all the love. Even if he struggles with his outside shot – let’s assume his jumper wasn’t fixed overnight while he was sitting at home – that flaw is minimised with the Nets for a variety of reasons. Brooklyn brings plenty of shooters, with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Joe Harris (ankle surgery) when he returns, Patty Mills and Seth Curry. Therefore, Simmons’ biggest, and really his only serious weakness, will be a non-issue for the most part.

The Nets (31-28) need him to do what he does best: Shut down the other team’s bucket-getter, create shots for his own scorers, rebound and score off the dribble near the rim.

A real argument can be made that Simmons left Philly for a better team. If he can whip himself into game shape in a reasonable time, and more importantly get his head right and prepared to play and deal with the potential of heckling on the road, Simmons could be more useful to Brooklyn than Harden was.

3. Can the Lakers fix things?

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Can LeBron James take a struggling Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals? The Sky Sports Heatcheck crew give their views

Nobody was thrilled to see the All-Star break more than the 27-31 Lakers, who clearly needed the moment to take a deep breath, reset, and wipe away the grime of a depressing first half of the season. It’s still shocking and startling to see LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis locked in a Play-In Tournament position. Was it all a bad dream?

No, actually, it was bad basketball, stemming from an awkward mixture of mildly impactful supporting players and a steep fall from Westbrook. His prime appears over and irreversible, and now, it’s all about him finding that middle and humbling middle ground as a secondary option most nights.

And so the most pressing issue is: How can the Lakers reinvent Westbrook or, at least, hide as many of his season-long flaws as possible? It’s one thing for him to be inconsistent; the Lakers can live with that. The problem is when Westbrook hurts the team with 3-for-15 shooting nights, passing up open shots when his confidence dies, and most of all his momentum-killing turnovers, lack of defense and poor decision-making.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) controls the ball during an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks in Los Angeles, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
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Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook in action against the Atlanta Hawks

Westbrook still has his speed off the dribble and an attack mentality near the rim. Those remain his strengths. Now, how does coach Frank Vogel manage his minutes without bruising Westbrook’s ego, and put Westbrook in situations where the former MVP can thrive?

Meanwhile, the Lakers must deal once again with Davis’ brittle body – he’s currently dealing with a foot sprain that will cost him at least four weeks – and not overwork LeBron to the point where he, too, develops physical issues before the playoffs.

4. When Draymond Green returns, how good are the Warriors?

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green against the Miami Heat in January 2022
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Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green in action against the Miami Heat in January

That’s the question being asked from San Francisco to Phoenix. There’s the logical assumption that the Warriors, once whole, can finally tap the accelerator and rise to the level of the league-leading Suns, who are 6.5 games ahead of Golden State in the West. It’s easy to say, though not automatic to visualise.

With only 23 regular-season games remaining, it’s quite possible the Warriors won’t hit their stride until the playoffs beckon, which is obviously not a bad thing. Coach Steve Kerr has good problems; there is enviable depth on this team with a mixture of championship-tested veterans as well as young and athletic players filling out the rotation but Draymond Green’s absence has been extended, which could spell trouble for the suddenly sliding Warriors.

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Jonathan Kuminga slams home a huge dunk for the Golden State Warriors against the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Warriors’ defense has suffered lately, but that, too, can be fixed. Green is the obvious solution to the problem. Then there’s Klay Thompson. Before suffering his injury setbacks of the last few years, Thompson was a top-level defender and took the toughest backcourt assignments over Steph Curry. But any player returning from major surgery – and Thompson has had a pair – has a hard time sticking defensively against quicker and athletic scorers at least initially. Thompson may not be ready to reclaim those chops until next season, if at all.

The challenge for the Warriors is to lean on their proven winners – Curry, Dray and Klay – while getting solid results from teammates who haven’t earned any playoff stripes. For example, is Andrew Wiggins ready for that hot spotlight? What about Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II?

5. Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and the sleeping Nuggets

Jamal Murray, left, and Michael Porter Jr. pictured on the sidelines watching the Denver Nuggets
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Jamal Murray, left, and Michael Porter Jr. pictured on the sidelines watching the Denver Nuggets

When the Nuggets floated word that Murray and Porter might return to the lineup this season after all, Denver became the most intriguing team in the league, if not the sneakiest. The Nuggets are sitting decently at sixth in the West, just above the Play-In cutoff line, and this has much to do with Nikola Jokic, who’s actually playing better than his MVP season of a year ago.

Jokic is the embodiment of a franchise player, showcasing the multiple skills that enable him to impact positive outcomes in various ways and not just scoring. Seriously, how good is this guy? And how many players are capable of averaging 26 points, almost 14 rebounds, nearly eight assists and 1.5 steals a night for a winning team?

Therefore, one can rightly assume the Nuggets will only get better with Murray and Porter, and that the piano Jokic is carrying on his back will get lighter.

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Nikola Jokic produces a dominant performance against the New Orleans Pelicans for his 12th triple-double of the season in Week 15 of the NBA

Murray hasn’t played since last April following knee surgery and Porter since November following surgery to correct a nerve issue in his back. There’s the chance neither returns, or only one of them, or both of them.

Taking the best-case scenario here, the Nuggets would, on paper, mirror the team that reached the Western Conference finals in the 2020 bubble. Murray was on fire during those playoffs and Porter experienced a coming-of-age. Their combined scoring, coupled with Jokic, coupled with what Will Barton and Aaron Gordon contribute, would instantly make the Nuggets a major player in the West.

A more realistic view is both players, and especially Murray, might need reps before recapturing any impact they had before their injuries. And so: Can they revive the Nuggets this year and so soon, or are the Nuggets more of a 2022-23 contender?



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