10 storylines to monitor during final 10 days of season – NBA.com

The health and play of Anthony Davis (left) and LeBron James will affect the Lakers’ suddenly fading Play-In hopes.

When the NBA calendar flips to April, it’s the unofficial signal for teams to start making plans: For the playoffs, the Play-In Tournament or the beach.

Those are really the only three choices, although there is added drama in terms of races for the major individual awards and the last chance for players to leave a final impression for 2022 free agency and contract extensions. It’s the NBA home stretch, and the 2021-22 version is shaping up to be suspenseful on several fronts.

The pecking order in both conferences remains unsettled. Only the Suns have established themselves at No. 1 and Phoenix already has the best record in the league and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Otherwise, it’s a multiple-team tossup and a mad scramble to the regular season finish line.

This makes for good theater at a time when typically, most attention shifts to the postseason. That’s not the case right now, and lots of issues could require the final day — a week from Sunday — to be resolved.

Complicating matters is key players still mending from injuries and whether they can heal up in time to suit up this season, or simply rest up for next. Brook Lopez and Paul George are back in the fold for the Bucks and Clippers, but the injury roll call is still rather thick: Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Ben Simmons, Michael Porter Jr., Steph Curry, Robert Williams and Lonzo Ball, among others, are all playing the waiting game.

Here are 10 storylines to look for in the season’s final 10 days:

1. Will the Lakers make the Play-In Tournament?

Be truthful, now: Even the harshest critic of the Lakers and how this team was built never expected to see them teetering on the edge of not making the playoffs. Nobody saw this in the crystal ball, especially considering LeBron James is having a season that, if the Lakers were winning, would generate Kia MVP talk. The Lakers have three issues going against them: A very tough remaining schedule, LeBron’s vulnerability (from a physical standpoint) and Anthony Davis needing to shake off the rust of missing almost half a season. Their margin for error was gone a long time ago, and now, with the Spurs breathing down their neck for the final Play-In spot, the Lakers must finish strong, or else confront a cold reality and the embarrassment that comes with it.

2. The scoring title

The chase for the NBA’s scoring crown is heating up as the season nears its end.

This tight race between LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid could mimic some of the thrilling finishes of the past. Such as when David Robinson scored 71 points on the final day to claim the 1993-94 scoring title, beating Shaquille O’Neal by .5 points per game. And when David Thompson and George Gervin engaged in an amazing duel to the finish in 1978. After Thompson scored 73 points in an afternoon game, Gervin needed 59 points that night — and “the Iceman” got 63 to claim it. Here’s the schedule on the final day of this season: Giannis plays the Cavs, LeBron the Nuggets and Embiid the Pistons. Edge: Embiid.

3. The Kia MVP chase

The more important competition for an individual award is just as close, with Embiid, Giannis and Nikola Jokic seemingly the three front-runners — although a case can certainly be made for Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum, too. Most likely, the trophy will land in the hands of a big man, just as it did last season when the Joker snatched it. The most interesting situation is in Philly with Embiid. Will the Sixers keep Embiid on the floor, and dishing him heavy minutes, right until the very end, just to play it safe? Or will they rest him for the playoffs and therefore run the risk of losing pace in the MVP race?

4. The (unlikely?) debut of Ben Simmons

How would having Ben Simmons in the mix solve Brooklyn’s defensive problems?

Will he or won’t he get some regular-season reps in before the Play-In and playoffs? Even better: Will he debut for the Nets at all in 2021-22? Just when you thought the Simmons saga couldn’t get any stranger, he still hasn’t played a single minute this season, which means it’s now going on 10 months and counting since he stepped on the floor. Even if his lower back heals up, he still must go through a series of full-contact practices before he can play. Therefore, the chance of seeing Regular Season Ben seems small. The other challenge for a healthy Simmons is to become acclimated with his new teammates and also deal with the rigors of going from zero to 60 — from not playing at all, to playing for a title contender in the postseason. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.

5. Can the Celtics complete the climb?

Raise your hand if, back when the calendar flipped to 2022, you had the Celtics angling for the No. 1 seed in the East. What the Celtics have done — and are doing — certainly ranks as one of the more impressive feats this season. It wasn’t too long ago when the sentiment in Boston seemed split between keeping Tatum and Jaylen Brown together, or trading one of them by the February deadline. That would’ve been a colossal mistake. Tatum seems sure to get some MVP love based on the superb way he’s finishing the season and the same is true for Marcus Smart and the Defensive Player of the Year. It’s just a shame that Robert Williams is mending from a meniscus tear and might not be seen again for weeks. The young center was having a breakout season defensively and his absence could be the difference for Boston in the playoffs.

6. Paul George’s comeback

Paul George scores 34 points in his first game back from injury to help rally the Clippers past the Jazz.

The Clippers star, after sitting since Dec. 22 with an elbow injury, returned earlier this week to rescue a club that sits precariously in Play-In Tournament territory and led a stirring comeback win over Utah. This will provide a lift for the Clippers, who haven’t had an A-list player for most of the season. Remember, Leonard has yet to resume practice after knee surgery last summer. Given his history of stretching out his recovery from injuries far less serious than this, it would be a big surprise if he returns at all, even if the Clippers make the playoffs and survive a round. George will at least supply the impact at both ends LA needs to salvage a season that’s been marred by a pair of massive absences.

7. The Nuggets’ reintroduction

They spent almost the entire season missing their second- and third-best players and yet the Nuggets remain in the thick of the hunt in the West. Of course, this is due to Jokic following up his MVP season with one that’s on the same level if not better. There’s also Nuggets coach Michael Malone getting the most out of a lineup mainly comprised of role players. But if the Nuggets plan to go deep in the playoffs, or even get out of the first round, they’ll need Porter and Murray to return. There’s still no clarity on the status of either player besides Porter reportedly suffering a setback, and it’s hard to go from being inactive for so many months to suddenly being thrown into the intensity of the postseason.

8. Steph Curry’s recovery

The Warriors are hoping Stephen Curry will be fully healthy once the playoffs begin.

The Warriors haven’t been whole for almost three years now. Klay Thompson missed two-plus years, Draymond Green was out for a stretch this season and now Curry is dealing with injury issues. The trick for the Warriors is to get all three on the floor for an extended period of time and re-establish themselves as a team to be respected in the playoffs. But the problem is the Warriors have looked shabby as of late and no longer seem to be on the same level as the Suns. It’s all about Curry’s recovery, and Thompson regaining his mojo, and the Warriors blending their proven winners with their young core to make us believers again.

9. The joy of sixth

The Eastern Conference’s top 10 teams are locked in, but the matchups and advantages are all up for grabs.

There’s a cutoff line created by the Play-In Tournament, and it’s the sixth spot. The team that occupies that space at season’s end will be safe from the tournament, so there will be a bit of intrigue and intensity in that musical-chairs race. In the East: The Raptors, Bulls and Cavaliers are angling to “stay safe” and avoid seventh place. Right now, momentum favors Toronto, one of the league’s hottest teams since the All-Star break. Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes are finishing strong and making a convincing case for the Raptors. In the West, the Nuggets and Jazz appear to have the upper hand for fifth and sixth by virtue of holding a slim lead over the Timberwolves. Much like the Raptors, Minnesota is pushing hard for either spot. It might be a case where the Wolves will need to go unbeaten the rest of the way, or lose only once or twice to eliminate all doubt.

10. The race at the bottom

The days of “battling” for the No. 1 pick are well in the rearview mirror because of the changes in the lottery format. Still, the team with the worst record does have a slight advantage at gaining the best percentage in the Draft lottery. The Rockets, Thunder, Pistons and Magic are in the mix, but with OKC’s key players all but assured to sit the remaining games, the Thunder may have the slight edge — as if OKC needed more Draft capital after stockpiling so many future first-round picks.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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