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  • From questioning whether either the Bucks or the Wizards can earn a statement win to taking a look at the Warriors' Death Lineup, we take a look at all the NBA action on MLK Day.
By Rohan Nadkarni
January 14, 2018

After Christmas, Martin Luther King Day is arguably the best day on the NBA schedule. There are 11 games Monday, including a spicy matchup between the Warriors and the Cavaliers. The action tips off at 12:30 p.m. ET with the Hornets and Pistons and the final game between the Rockets and Clippers starts 10 hours later. With so much basketball happening, here are five storylines to focus on during MLK Day.

1. Can the 76ers start to put together a run?

Philly was winners of four straight before losing to the Celtics on Thursday. After a hot start to the season, the Sixers actually sit outside of the playoff race in the East at 19–20. At this point in the season, it’s obvious what Philly is: An awesome team with Joel Embiid on the court, and a young team learning how to win when he’s off. It’s not so much that the Sixers have to prove themselves, but they can recreate some of their early-season magic if they string together some wins starting Monday. Philly will get Toronto at home on MLK Day and then will face Boston and Milwaukee to close out the week. Those are three Eastern Conference foes ahead of the Sixers in the standings, and three opportunities for Philly to show it can be a formidable matchup for anyone in a potential playoff series. Of course, as Embiid goes so do the Sixers, but a win over Toronto on Monday could be a nice springboard for the weeks ahead.

2. Will the Bucks or Wizards finally step up?

Milwaukee and Washington will face off on Monday with both teams seemingly experiencing boredom during the January doldrums. The Bucks have lost three of their last four, and their defense (with world-class length) is dumbfoundingly still in the bottom third of the league. The Wizards have been up-and-down in January, with no good wins and a bunch of uncomfortably close games against bad teams. Thanks to the packed nature of the East, one solid streak of good play from either of these teams would likely catapult them up in the standings—the Wiz enter MLK Day only two behind Cleveland in the loss column. But it’s surprising neither of these teams has separated themselves despite some mediocre competition. Milwaukee was a powerhouse in the making after acquiring Eric Bledsoe, but the Bucks have the same record as the accidentally-not-tanking Pacers. The Wizards aren’t even leaders in their own division, behind the no-star Heat, who’ve been dealing with injury after injury. Milwaukee won the most recent matchup between these teams earlier this month, but it would be nice if one of these clubs made a statement Monday. The Bucks and Wizards fashion themselves contenders in the East, but they look decidedly second tier (at best) even as the conference’s heavy hitters deal with their own issues. I’m expecting some intensity between these two teams Monday, and hopefully it’s the type of game that forces both of them to get their acts together.

3. Are the Heat for real?

Erik Spoelstra has his rag-tag group of youngsters and cast-offs in fourth place in the East, only one game behind Cleveland in spite of an ever-changing rotation and slow start to the season. The Heat have won seven straight, thanks in large part to insanely crisp (but perhaps unsustainable) execution in close games. The Heat have a negative net rating, but they’ve won seven straight, and they have wins over Boston, Washington, Milwaukee, Indiana and Detroit so far this season. Miami will face Chicago on the second game of a back-to-back Monday. If the Heat are serious, they’ll put away a frisky Bulls team early. If Miami continues to play close games against everyone (a blowout over Milwaukee on Sunday notwithstanding), it will continue to invite skepticism over its current success. For now, as long as the Heat keep rolling, Spoelstra is proving last season’s 30–11 finish was far from a fluke. But Spo also knows better than anyone how fickle a first-half run (or swoon) can be.

4. Will the Thunder find their focus?

OKC is 3–3 in January after putting together its best month of the season in December. They play the Kings on Monday, which seems like a win on paper, but nothing is ever that simple with the Thunder. One night they’re blowing out the Lakers, another night Russell Westbrook is blowing off reporters after a bad loss. One thing (or player) this team absolutely needs is Andre Roberson. The Thunder’s much-maligned starting lineup had finally found its rhythm until Roberson exited the lineup with knee tendinitis. After a shockingly bad offensive start to the season, the Thunder’s lineup of Russ, PG, Melo, Roberson and Steven Adams now has a net rating of 11.3—fifth-best among all lineups that have played more than 250 minutes together. But the defensive stopper has missed seven straight games, and OKC is 3–4 in those contests. With Terrance Ferguson in place of Roberson, that net rating bombs to –11.8. Roberson is a great defender, and (raising my very guilty hand here) he’s often unfairly criticized for his production on offense. But OKC should also have enough star power to overcome his absence. The Thunder put to rest some of the outside noise when they finally started winning close games. Now OKC needs to prove it’s Big Three can make up for the loss of a rotation player.

5. Will the Warriors’ Death Lineup get back on track?

Our Rob Mahoney vividly detailed the evolution of the Warriors earlier this month, who due to injury and a host of other factors, haven’t seen the same success from their vaunted small-ball lineup as in previous seasons. Can Golden State re-heat the Death Lineup? Cleveland is probably the best opponent for the Warriors to see if they can get the Steph-Klay-Iggy-KD-Dray unit back on track. Cleveland’s best lineups put LeBron at center or power forward, and James neutralizing Draymond’s all-around effect is probably the Cavs’ best route at beating the Warriors. The Death Lineup has a –8.6 net rating this season, but it should get some decent run as Cleveland goes small to try to keep enough shooting on the court. Realistically, that lineup is potent enough that it should eventually blitz opponents as the sample size grows larger. And regular season games between the Cavs and Warriors haven’t really meant anything come the Finals over the last three years. But as the Warriors slog their way through what’s clearly been an inconvenient regular season, a positive showing from their most-feared group against Cleveland could be a nice way to create some excitement.

Bonus: How will Isaiah Thomas look against the Warriors?

Golden State clearly had issues with Kyrie Irving during stretches of the last three Finals matchups. Will Thomas pose the same problems? IT isn’t fully back from his hip injury, but he’s shown flashes of the MVP-caliber performance he put together last season. Thomas can still fill it up. How he holds up defensively will be probably more important to watch than anything else Monday. The Cavs—losers of three straight—have been putrid on defense recently, maybe a matchup against the Warriors will wake them up a bit.

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