Top NBA storylines headed into final games of regular season

The final 6½ weeks of the NBA season are set up for a wild, exciting ride with so much at stake.

Coming out of the All-Star break with the resumption of action on Thursday, teams have 21-24 games remaining on their schedule. 

Denver is trying to hold off Memphis for the top seed in the Western Conference. Boston has enjoyed and earned a view from the top of the East for most of the season. But Milwaukee and Philadelphia are right behind. And the three teams have multiple head-to-head matchups: Philadelphia plays both Boston and Milwaukee twice, and Milwaukee and Boston play each other once.

Not only are top seeds at stake, playoff seeds and spots are up for grabs. Twenty-six teams (13 in the East, 13 in the West) are in the postseason mix. Just six games separate third place from 13th place in the West, and nine game separate fifth place from 12th place in the East.

Get ready.

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Here are the top storylines headed into the stretch run:

Who will win NBA MVP?

Once again, it’s a fantastic group headlining the NBA MVP race (in alphabetical order): Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Boston’s Jayson Tatum.

Jokic is trying to become the fourth player to win three consecutive MVP awards, joining Larry Bird (1984-86), Wilt Chamberlain (1966-68) and Bill Russell (1961-63). Bird is the only one to win three in a row in a vote determined by media. Players voted when Russell and Chamberlain won.

If the Nuggets finish as the top seed in the West (they’re five games ahead of second-place Mem), it’s going to be difficult to ignore Jokic’s case, especially if he finishes with a triple-double average. He is at 24.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists and shooting 63.2% from the field and 39.1% on 3-pointers.

Will the Lakers reach the playoffs?

The theory is that no one wants to play LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. But can the Lakers even get there?

LeBron James hasn’t missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons since his first two in the league – nearly two decades of regular playoff appearances, including 10 trips to the Finals. Will he miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year again?

James just called the Lakers’ remaining games the most important 23 regular-season games of his career. The Lakers are in 13th place at 27-32 but just two games behind Oklahoma City for a spot in the play-in games. They have a lot of work to do and not much time to do it. James is banking on Anthony Davis and trade-deadline acquisitions D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to push the Lakers into the postseason. The Lakers have the 25th easiest remaining schedule, according to tankathon.com.

The impact of Durant and Irving

Phoenix trading for Kevin Durant and Dallas getting Kyrie Irving at the trade deadline reshaped the balance of the league and made it that much more difficult to win the West.

The Suns reached the NBA Finals in 2021, lost in the conference finals last season after setting a franchise record with 64 regular-season victories and are in fifth place  coming out of the break. With Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton, the Suns have an explosive offense. But they also lost depth in the trade.

Doncic and Irving make the Mavs even more dangerous offensively, and while Dallas and Phoenix will be able to outscore teams in most games, they will need stops eventually on defense, and that is the biggest issue facing both teams.

Don’t forget about Denver and Memphis

The Nuggets have been in first place since Dec. 20 and are 22-7 since then. With Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and a deep roster that has the Nuggets with the No. 1 offense and No. 13 defense, the Nuggets are for real.

Memphis has been right there with Denver near the top of the West standings. The Grizzlies are ascending – first-round loss in 2021, conference semifinals loss in 2022 – and ready to take the next step with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. The depth in the West provides a strong challenge, and how the Grizzlies respond will be watched.

Battle for the East

Philadelphia hasn’t been to the Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals since Allen Iverson’s days in 2000-01. With Joel Embiid and James Harden and the way the 76ers have played since December, they are a contender.

Yet the top of the East is loaded. Boston, the defending conference champion, is 42-17, and Milwaukee, the 2021 NBA champ, is 41-17. Celtics forward Tatum and Bucks forward Antetokounmpo are MVP candidates along with Embiid.

Boston and Philadelphia are No. 3 and No. 6 offensively, and the Bucks are No. 2 defensively and improving offensively in the last month, winning 12 consecutive games headed into the All-Star break.

Don’t sleep on Cleveland either. The Cavs have an All-NBA candidate in Donovan Mitchell and have a top-10 offense (No. 10) and defense (No. 1).

* Bonus: Collective bargaining between NBA, players

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association (players union) extended their deadline to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement until March 31. Speaking at All-Star Weekend, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Tamika Tremaglio expressed interest in agreeing to the framework of a deal by then, and Silver said he was hopeful that would happen.

With basketball-related income rising and the league setting sights on a new TV deal that will benefit both owners and players, both sides want to get a deal done. The split of money isn’t the big issue, so that helps as the league and union discuss other issues such as curbing teams’ luxury tax bills, age-limit and load management. There shouldn’t be the kind of disagreement that leads to a lockout.

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

This post appeared first on USA TODAY