- The NBA is finally returning from All-Star Weekend after a week-long hiatus, and with that in mind Sports Illustrated decided to take a look at the best games on Thursday night.
With All-Star Weekend in the rearview mirror, the NBA enters its homestretch with several teams jockeying to establish themselves as playoff contenders. When league action resumes on Thursday evening, we will inch a step closer toward determining which 16 teams will compete for a shot at the NBA crown in the postseason.
Here’s a look at some of the matchups that headline the NBA’s return after a week-long hiatus.
An East finals preview?
Nearly a year ago, the Celtics and Bucks battled in one of the most entertaining series of the 2018 NBA playoffs. The Celtics would go on to reach the Eastern Conference finals, coming within a game of reaching the championship. Entering the 2018-19, with both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward set to rejoin a promising young lineup, it looked as though Boston was destined to emerge as a Finals contender. But throughout the season, the Celtics haven’t been as good as expected, dealing with fits of youthful inexperience and inconsistency. At the All-Star break, Boston stood fourth in the Eastern standings at 37–21.
Perhaps the Celtics look at the Bucks and see a team lodged in the very position many expected Boston to be in at this point in the year. The Bucks have, somewhat surprisingly, been the toast of the league, boasting the NBA’s best record at 43–14. Milwaukee will match its regular-season win total from last season with just one more victory.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s leap from All-Star to top MVP candidate has been monumental, but the rest of the Bucks’s squad is a worthy collection in its own right—Khris Middleton has played at an All-Star level; Eric Bledsoe has shown up in big spots; Brook Lopez’s revamped offensive game has improved his offensive impact; Malcolm Brogdon has been effective on both sides of the ball. This group rather quietly added to its talented core, acquiring George Hill and Nikola Mirotic—expected to make his team debut Thursday—to what is already one of the most lethal scoring offenses in the NBA. Head coach Mike Budenholzer is unquestionably a leading candidate for Coach of the Year for his work this season.
Meanwhile Celtics coach Brad Stevens’s squad went into All-Star break having displayed its capability to compete with the league’s best—recent wins over the Raptors, Thunder and 76ers, plus a narrow defeat against the Warriors this month stand as proof. However, there are still moments where Boston has underwhelmed. (Recent back-to-back home loses to the Lakers and Clippers, for example.)
The matchup serves as an opportunity for the Bucks to quickly remind the NBA that they’re top team out of the East. For the Celtics, it could be a chance for them to capture a win against a conference heavyweight, a result that could build momentum for them to ride through the end of the season.
Cousins Faces the Kings
For the first time, the Kings will face DeMarcus Cousins since he joined the defending champions. The meeting will offer a glimpse into Sacramento’s futile past, ambitious present and hopeful future.
The upstart Kings could be on the way to ending their 12-year playoff drought. They are going for it. Ahead of the trade deadline, the Kings acquired forward Harrison Barnes, trading young forward Justin Jackson to the Mavericks in exchange. Sacramento went into the break ninth in the West, just one game back of the eighth-seeded Clippers.
Meanwhile, Cousins, who often served as Sacramento’s lone hopeful presence during his tenure, could be the difference maker for a Warriors squad that hasn’t appeared completely invincible through the first half of the year. He averaged 13.9 ppg and 6.8 rpg through his first 11 games with the club.
Perhaps the Kings have found their replacement for Cousins in Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 pick of the 2018 draft. Bagley has been great since returning from injury. Over the past 16 games, the rookie averaged 14.6 ppg and 8.2 rpg.
The matchup pits two franchises at different stages in their evolution. The two-time defending champion Warriors went into the All-Star break first in the West, two games ahead of the Nuggets. They’re expected to once again capture the NBA title. Sacramento boasts a young core hoping it can break through ahead of schedule. Could this be a preview of an opening-round playoff matchup?
Can James Harden Keep It Up?
The Lakers entered the All-Star break ninth in the Western Conference standings. Los Angeles is one game below .500 at 28–29. LeBron James, who’s reached the playoffs each of the past 13 years, said that his intensity for a playoff push has “been activated” but—perhaps for the first time in his career—it will not guarantee he makes the postseason.
The Lakers have a crucial stretch ahead of them. In addition to facing Houston on Thursday, Los Angeles has winnable matchups slated against the Pelicans (twice), Grizzlies, Suns, Clippers and Bulls. Sprinkled in are tougher contests against the Bucks, Nuggets, Celtics and Raptors. In the past, a declaration from James that he was investing his energy into getting a fringe playoff team into the postseason would seem feasible. But in the West, with this current Lakers squad and at this point in his career, it is not a given. Instead, a greater statement could be made by the Lakers earning a victory against the Rockets on Thursday night.
For Houston, the question is whether or not James Harden’s prolific offensive performance will continue to prove a successful formula. The Rockets dropped two of their final three games heading into the break, squandering a huge lead at home against the Thunder before allowing the Timberwolves to mount a second-half comeback.
Harden’s effort was enough to solidify Houston’s playoff chances, but whether or not the team’s overall success can be sustained with Chris Paul back in the fold remains to be seen.