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Top NBA storylines to watch as the season hurdles toward the postseason

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Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

In a little over a month, the playoffs begin. This has been a hell of a season.

We’ve seen the biggest mid-season trade in NBA history when Kevin Durant was traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Phoenix Suns. We’ve also seen two players hit 71 points, with Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell dropping historical games. And don’t look now, but the two former
laughingstocks of the NBA, the Sacramento Kings and the New York Knicks, are at the top of
their respective conferences as contenders.

Meanwhile, Nikola Jokić looks like he could be heading to his third straight NBA MVP award. On the negative end of the spectrum, Ja Morant is in the news for the wrong reasons, albeit for various levels of disgusting behavior. With the season winding down in preparation for the playoffs, we’ve pinpointed five storylines to keep an eye on heading into the postseason.

When will Ja Morant return?

ja morant
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Ja Morant went from being one of the young faces of the NBA to being suspended indefinitely for propagating gun violence on his personal Instagram account. The Grizzlies have dropped to No. 3 in the Western Conference, setting them up for home-court advantage in just the first round of the NBA playoffs.

And the Grizzlies have shown they can sustain Morant being out due to injury in the last two
seasons, but the term “indefinitely” has a deeper meaning. It’s not just about how long he will be
out but also what his absence will do to the team’s chemistry and continuity. The Grizzlies have
dropped three in a row and have a tough the rest of the way. Since January 20, they have been 7-12 and 2-8 in games where the game is close within the final five minutes. During those moments in the clutch, they have an 84.5 offensive rating and a 138.6 defensive rating. Yuck.

To make it worse, reports dropped that Steven Adams held a players-only meeting before the team lost to Denver on Friday. After the loss, Morant went to the strip club to film his infamous Instagram Live video where he waved a gun.

For the Grizzlies to save their regular season, they need Morant back and with his head on straight. As it stands, they are prepared to be upset in the first round of the playoffs. So much depends on how Morant handles this controversy, not just his present but his team’s future and career.

Can the Dallas Mavericks fix their defense?

dallas mavericks
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

First, let’s break down some stats. The Mavericks are the seventh worst in defensive rating (115.7), 28th in blocks, 26th in defensive rebounds, and 24th in steals. With a big man rotation of starting center Dwight Powell, Christian Wood, and Maxi Kleber, they leave a lay-up line to the basket and a paper-thin wall for post-ups. Kleber is the only athlete and above-average defensive big on the roster. And he has had to man more of a defensive responsibility since the team traded Dorian Finney-Smith to the Brooklyn Nets in the Kyrie Irving trade.

Their starting lineup of Irving, Luka Dončić, Reggie Bullock, Josh Green, and Powell isn’t stopping anyone. Green and Bullock are serviceable defenders but single-digit PPG scorers.

Even with a chaotic season, the Mavs have managed to maintain a fifth-place ranking in offense, thanks to Dončić and Irving’s superstar abilities. But they will need to solidify their defense to make any sort of noise in the Play-In Tournament (the Mavs are currently in seventh place).

But the question remains how? The Mavs are not awaiting any elite defensive persona from injury. Nor is there hidden defensive potential awaiting any of their personnel. For them to do so, it must be a team effort.

Can the Los Angeles Clippers turn it on?

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been four seasons since the Los Angeles Clippers mortgaged the farm to bring in Kawhi
Leonard and Paul George, and we are still waiting for them to kick it into “championship mode.”

They have historically been beset with injuries, emotional baggage, and coaching/roster turnover. Yet, this season, they have the deepest team in franchise history and throughout the league. They have the league’s top coach, Ty Lue, on the sidelines, and Leonard looks like he has returned to
Terminator form. Since Jan. 8, he’s played in 22 games and has an average of 28.4 points, with a conversion rate of 52.6% for his field goals, including 49.6% from three’s while only missing four games during that period.

Following recent losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Golden State Warriors, and Sacramento Kings — which led Lue and the Clippers players to acknowledge a lack of effort — they secured a win against the extremely short-handed Grizzlies on Sunday.

However, there still seems to be something keeping this Clippers team from kicking it into high gear. It starts with the leadership of Leonard. He has to assert himself through his play, leading the collective charge toward chemistry and dominance. Until they do, they will continue to fall in the standings, as they sit eighth among the mix of teams vying for the Play-In, an embarrassing mark for a team stuffed with star talent.

Will the New York Knicks shock the world?

new york knicks
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Some mainstream media members like Michael Wilbon and Nick Wright might not have gotten the
memo, but to hoop heads who have been paying attention since Leon Rose took over as
President of the Knicks, they’ve seen the incremental growth towards contender.

In the first three months of the season, the Knicks couldn’t stop blowing leads and losing close games. But starting in December, something clicked.

Part of it was Tom Thibodeau shortening the rotation to nine players, permanently benching former starting shooting guard Evan Fournier and Thibodeau favorite Derrick Rose. That move
solidified player’s roles, established pecking order, and committed those nine players to
Thibodeau’s defensive scheme. The other part was the emergence of Julius Randle as a
bonafide superstar.

Jalen Brunson has been the head of the snake, providing leadership and scoring to the Knicks’ 20-year hole at point guard. Immanuel Quickley is the favorite to win Sixth Man of the Year. But Randle has been unstoppable this season. Behind his power play of Randle, the Knicks no longer have to scratch back being down in the fourth quarter. And they sure as hell don’t blow leads. The Knicks, who had won nine straight before falling to the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday, are the No. 5 seed and could potentially jump to No. 4 and gain home-court advantage in the first round. Next stop? The Eastern Conference Finals?

Will Sam Presti Let the Oklahoma City Thunder Win?

oklahoma city thunder
BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

In January, the Oklahoma City Thunder were one game under .500. It was apparent the post- Russell Westbrook rebuild had been accelerated. The Thunder have slipped a bit in March, dropping to No. 11 in the Western Conference at 31-34. It was a refreshing thing seeing Thunder Executive Sam Presti abandon his perverse tank job to embrace the team’s emerging young core.

Presti has hit home runs in nearly every draft post-rebuild. He has hoped to replicate the early success of the Westbrook-Kevin Durant-Jame Harden era with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and rookie Jalen Williams. It can get even better when No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren returns from a foot injury in August that sidelined him for the season.

The Thunder have a top-three young core led by SGA, a true superstar, and a top-five guard in the league. He was awarded his first playoff berth this season and should also be on the All-NBA First Team.

To those who love basketball, when SGA recently sat out five games with injury, compounded with him entering Health and Safety Protocols, it felt like Presti might have returned to form, sitting SGA longer than needed to improve lottery odds. But this weekend, he returned, dropping 28 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. Presti must resist the tank and allow these young players to continue playing hard. They have become the “bad” team nobody wants to play. And if their core stays healthy and off the DNP list, they could, and should, shed that label in the Play-In.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo

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