There's only about a month left in the 72-game, pandemic-shortened 2020-21 regular season, which concludes on May 16. Between end-of-season awards races, battles at the top of both conferences and all the teams trying to avoid or sneak into the play-in, a lot is still up in the air. Below are five predictions as we enter the stretch run.
1. Curry will win his second scoring title
Stephen Curry went for 53 points Monday night, passing Wilt Chamberlain to become the Golden State Warriors' all-time leading scorer. It was Curry's seventh consecutive game with at least 30 points, the longest streak of his career and in the league this season.
Since he returned from his tailbone injury, Curry is averaging 38.4 points on 54/46/91 shooting splits over seven games. Since the beginning of April, he's averaging 39.5 on 55/46/92 splits. Since the start of March, he's averaging 34.9 on 52/44/92 splits. Across the board, all those marks lead the league by a wide margin.
Do not expect this scoring surge to stop. The Warriors are scrapping for a playoff spot, and Steve Kerr is putting the ball in Curry's hands more aggressively via various mechanisms. As of Tuesday, Curry is the league's No. 2 scorer at 30.4 points per game, sixth-tenths of a point per game behind Bradley Beal, who leads at 31.0 per game.
If Beal stays exactly put, Curry has to average 32.8 points over the Warriors' final 18 games. That feels likely given his recent stretch coupled with how much the Warriors need him to score in order to make the playoffs. And I also think Beal will drop a little. Since the start of March, he's averaging under 27 points a night and has only crested the 30-point mark four times in 14 games. The Wizards aren't playing for anything. Don't be surprised to see a minutes reduction. Maybe even a phantom injury. Curry is going to get this title.
There are a handful of ways this can happen, and I'm betting it comes to fruition one way or another. Entering play on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers are No. 5 in the West and the Los Angeles Clippers are No. 3, meaning the Lakers can fall to No. 6 and the Clippers can stay put, or the Clippers can fall to No. 4 and the Lakers can stay put.
Prior to Jamal Murray's season-ending ACL tear (an absolute gut punch), I was of the belief that the Denver Nuggets would ultimately jump the Clippers. My confidence level has obviously changed, but I still think Denver is going to play well down the stretch on the back of Nikola Jokic, who I believe will completely solidify his MVP case in the absence of his co-star. Also, Aaron Gordon is able to step up. Murray kills the Nuggets' title chances, but for the remainder of the regular season, they can still be very good.
That said, even if the Clippers hold firm at No. 3, the Lakers falling to No. 6 isn't exactly a reach. Anthony Davis is likely out another two weeks at least, and LeBron James could be out for three more. The Lakers will put the pedal down when they get back, and the schedule is soft over the last few weeks, but they could lose a lot of ground between now and then.
Entering play on Tuesday, the Lakers lead the No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers by just one game in the loss column, and don't put it past the No. 7 Dallas Mavericks to make a run and pass both the Lakers and Blazers.
At present, the Lakers own a four-game lead over No. 7 Dallas in the loss column with a two-game baseball series against the Mavs on April 22 and 24, when LeBron and Davis will both likely still be out. This is the opportunity for the Mavs to make their move, and if they get both those head-to-heads, Dallas could make a run with the second-easiest remaining schedule.
One way or another, I think it's going to be Lakers-Clippers as either a 4-5 or 3-6 first-round matchup, which would be perhaps the greatest first-round series in history.
3. Sixers will be East's top seed
Entering play on Tuesday, the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets are tied in the loss column. This is going to be a photo finish, and Wednesday's Brooklyn-Philly matchup could end up being the difference. Brooklyn's game on Monday in Minnesota was postponed, so now they're playing Tuesday afternoon, making the Wednesday tilt at Philly an unexpected back-to-back.
Throw in the fact that James Harden is out, and Kyrie Irving could be, too, and you have to believe that favors the Sixers. This game is doubly pivotal because the winner will claim the tiebreaker title via the head-to-head season series, which is currently tied 1-1 -- which is to say, this game is effectively worth two games in the standings.
The Sixers have a slightly softer schedule the rest of the way, they are healthy and they are highly motivated to claim the top seed and the home-court advantage that comes with it. The Sixers are 20-5 at home so far this season and surely want every advantage they can muster in case they meet the Nets down the line in the conference finals.
Also, claiming the No. 1 seed is going to be the difference between playing the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round and, at present, the Atlanta Hawks. Whoever ends up in the No. 4 spot is going to be a preferred second-round matchup to Milwaukee.
4. Jokic will run off with the MVP
Nikola Jokic owns pretty much every advanced stat, the Nuggets are winning, and perhaps equally importantly, Damian Lillard and the Blazers have fallen off pretty considerably. Lillard is averaging just 20 points on 38 percent shooting in April, and Portland has slipped to No. 6 in the West, two games back of No. 4 Denver in the loss column.
This award has realistically been Jokic's to lose for a bit, but I've argued it would be tough to justify Jokic over Lillard if the Blazers were to finish ahead of Denver. The reason? Lillard has played a worse hand to nearly the same success. His second- and third-best player in CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have missed 60-plus combined games.
But now Jokic gets his chance to show what he can do absent his second-best player in Jamal Murray, who tore his ACL on Monday night. It's a massive blow to Denver's playoff prospects, but for the remainder of the regular season I think Denver is going to rally behind Jokic, and it will be the final stamp on his MVP case.
5. Irving will join the 50-40-90 club
Entering Tuesday, Kyrie Irving is shooting 51.4 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from 3 and 90.7 from the free-throw line. We don't know when, exactly, he'll be back playing for the Nets, but when he does he'll have the added benefit of Kevin Durant drawing attention, on top of Harden. He'll have more than enough open looks to raise that 3-point percentage the slight amount necessary to join the exclusive club, which currently includes just eight NBA names: Larry Bird, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Malcolm Brogdon.
Irving has been a headache again this season, missing games for unidentified reasons, more or less needing a break, stating a media boycott before the season, you know, everything that comes with Kyrie. But he has been off the charts on the court, and this will be a fitting achievement for what has probably been the best season of his career.