Marathon to a sprint: NBA regular season enters final month
The marathon that is the NBA regular season is headed toward its final sprint.
With less than a month remaining until the final night of the season on April 12, the races for MVP and Rookie of the Year are wide open, and there is seemingly no clear-cut favorite to win the championship.
Much was already settled by this time last season. Stephen Curry had long since wrapped up what became the first unanimous MVP award in NBA history, and Karl-Anthony Towns had left Kristaps Porzingis behind in the Rookie of the Year chase.
There's far more intrigue now in a season that began with what seemed a forgone conclusion, that Golden State and Cleveland would meet in the NBA Finals for the third straight year.
And this time, the MVP race could be headed toward a narrow finish among the likes of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Joel Embiid's season-ending injury has put the rookie race up for grabs, with Philadelphia teammate Dario Saric and Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon perhaps emerging as the best of the leftover candidates - unless voters believe Embiid did enough to win in just 31 games.
Golden State was headed toward an eventual NBA record for wins last season; now the Warriors aren't winning at all. Their three-game skid and Curry's slump have left San Antonio just a half-game back for the NBA's best record.
Also still to be sorted out in the final month:
INJURY ISSUES: Kevin Durant's loss has left Golden State vulnerable and Kyle Lowry's absence has Toronto reeling. Both could return near the end of the regular season, which could give their teams enough time to mount serious playoff runs.
RACES FOR 8TH: Milwaukee has surged into playoff position in the Eastern Conference with six straight wins, with Miami and Chicago both within 1+ games of the Bucks' lead for the eighth and last postseason spot. Denver occupies No. 8 in the West, with Portland, Dallas and Minnesota close behind.
HOME-COURT HOPES: Toronto is clinging to a one-game lead over Atlanta for the No. 4 seed in the East and home-court advantage in the first round. Out West, Utah's lead over the fifth-place Los Angeles Clippers also is one game.
The only thing that seems settled is the race for the worst record. Brooklyn is eight games worse than anyone else, which will almost certainly give the Boston Celtics the best shot at the No. 1 overall pick, because they have the right to swap spots with Brooklyn.
What to watch this week:
WOBBLY WARRIORS: Golden State is on its first three-game losing streak in the regular season since Nov. 20-23, 2013, an NBA-record 297 consecutive games without three straight regular-season losses. The Warriors have a good chance to snap that Tuesday at home against Philadelphia.
WONDERFUL WIZARDS: Washington has won five in a row, the last two in overtime, and can wrap up a 5-0 road trip and a winning record for the season with a victory Monday in Minnesota.
BIG MONDAY MATCHUP: The Clippers visit the Jazz on Monday and certainly don't want to have to do it again in their playoff opener. A victory would tie them with Utah for the important No. 4 spot in the West.
WHAT GIVES, GRIZ? Memphis has dropped five straight games, falling all the way to seventh place in the West. The Grizzlies next play a team going in the opposite direction, hosting the surging Bucks on Monday.
SACRAMENTO-SAN ANTONIO SEQUEL: The Kings led by 28 points when they were in San Antonio last Wednesday with Kawhi Leonard sitting and ended up losing the game, part of their current eight-game skid. They get another chance to finish the job Sunday.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: Isaiah Thomas, Boston: 9-for-14 shooting, 22 points in a 100-80 victory over Chicago on Sunday. By sitting the entire fourth quarter, his average dropped to 29.2 points as he tries to become the first Celtics player to average 30 for a season. Larry Bird scored 29.9 per game in 1987-88.