What to Watch For After the NBA All-Star Break

It's All-Star Break time in the NBA, and we can truly say it if we couldn't already for the past few years: we're in a golden era for professional basketball. Scoring and pace of play are at levels not seen since the '80s and offensive efficiency has never been higher. Even overall field goal percentage is at nearly 20-year highs, despite the surge in three-point attempts. Heck, even the sneakers on players' feet look cooler than ever.

But despite the level of play and the bevy of stars performing across the league every night, we still have a league with a very clear title favorite (guess who!), a very clear MVP favorite (the guy who's merely outscoring everyone else by almost 8 points a game), and a Rookie of the Year race that's been locked up since about New Year's.

But after the break, in the regular season's final third, there will be plenty on the line. Here are the biggest storylines to watch before the playoffs get underway in mid-April.

How long will Harden's streak last?

It's been surprising to me to see how many league observers have picked Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP at the break. I love watching Giannis as much as anyone, but this feels unnecessarily contrarian to me.

Regardless of what you think of his style of play or foul-drawing prowess, Harden has absolutely carried the Rockets during a stretch where Houston's second through fourth scoring options, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela, have all missed extended periods of time.

And while the ESPN hype machine behind his 30-point streak has gone into overdrive, racking up the second-longest streak of scoring 30 points or more in league history means that very few fans have seen anything like this, and no one's ever seen it in the modern, post-merger NBA. That's worth appreciating, as is the fact that The Beard is on target to average more points per game in a season than anyone not named Jordan or Chamberlain.

The irony in Harden's current run is that with Capela reportedly coming back from a thumb injury shortly after the break, Harden will get his rim-running, pick-and-roll safety valve back on the offensive end. So, when the streak ends, it very well could be a sign of a well-rounded Houston team and not a bad night from Harden.

Personally, I'd be surprised if the streak makes it past 38 games and nationally-televised games at Boston and Toronto at the beginning of March.

Is LeBron actually going to miss the playoffs?

You can't count out LeBron James at any time. It's a cliché statement and full of generic sports talk pablum, but it's also true. But it's also true that the Lakers are running out of games to tack this ship onto the right course.

Right now, the Lakers are below .500 and need to pass two teams and make up three games on the 8 seed (currently the Clippers) to get in the playoffs. It'll probably take 42 to 45 wins to qualify. Even if you go on the lower side of that range, which could be a decent assumption considering the Clippers punting on the season with the Tobias Harris trade and Sacramento's youth, that means the Lakers need to go 15-10 or so in their final 25 games to feel good about getting in. Yet, the Lakers have the third-worst net rating in the West, which makes a 60 percent winning clip from here somewhat improbable.

The key to me will be when Lonzo Ball returns from an ankle injury and how he plays upon his return. In the few weeks after LeBron's groin injury on Christmas Day vs. the Warriors, but before Ball went down in January, the Lakers were playing respectably in King James' absence. But after Lonzo's injury the Lakers have frankly been turnstiles on defense, and the Anthony Davis trade saga didn't help morale.

Can the Pacers continue to defy the odds?

The season-ending injury Victor Oladipo suffered on Jan. 23, along with the Raptors, Sixers, and Bucks all making big acquisitions near or at the trade deadline, led most people to believe the East's top four playoff seedings would soon shake out, pushing the Pacers out of the spots they've had for most of the season. Then, we'd be left with a four-team battle royale throughout May between the Bucks, Raptors, Sixers, and Celtics to see who makes the Finals.

It hasn't (yet) worked out like that. At the break, Indiana remains third in the East, a game ahead of Philadelphia and Boston. If that holds, one team that has a legitimate Finals shot will be going out in round one.

San Antonio is currently thought of as championing the old-school style of slowing the game down and taking mid-range two-pointers amidst a sea of pace-and-space teams that put up 30 or more three-pointers a game. But Indy has been nearly as good at that offensive profile this season and has the league's second-best defense to boot.

Myles Turner continues to be a rock in the middle and has a fun face-up shooting game in addition to finishing prowess at the rim. Thad Young is habitually underrated and Bojan Bogdanovic has developed into one of the league's premier shooters.

Make no mistake, though, the odds are against them to maintain home-court in the playoffs, as the level of top-end talent just isn't there in Oladipo's absence when compared to the four East favorites. Two stretches loom very large for the Pacers in the last two months of the regular season: a period of seven games right after the break against teams under .500 in which they could rack up wins and create space in the standings, and a two-week, eight-game run in mid-to-late March when Indiana will play nothing but teams currently in playoff positions, with six of the eight on the road.

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