When play resumes on Thursday night, NBA teams will have roughly a quarter of their season remaining, and a lot of questions still have to be answered in that time. Here are five of the biggest ones, answered by CBS Sports' Brad Botkin:
1. When will the Warriors flip the switch?
Golden State is 44-14 entering Thursday, a half game behind Houston for the West's No. 1 seed and on pace for 62 wins. By any other team's standard, that's phenomenal. But you can't just look at the wins and losses, because Golden State is talented enough to sleepwalk through most games and still win. Steve Kerr talks often about his team "going through the motions," and that won't cut it in the deep playoff rounds. These terrible starts they keep getting off to in first quarters won't cut it in the deep playoff rounds. The inconsistent defense will not cut it in the deep playoff rounds.
And that hunger the Warriors used to have? That "us against the world" mentality that would bring them back from the depths of 20-point deficits on sheer defensive will and fourth-of-July shooting, that would allow them to just boat race a team that doesn't belong on the same court as them from start to finish? When will that kick in again?
Over All-Star weekend, I had a chance to sit down with a few other reporters and talk to TNT's Kenny Smith, who made, I thought, an astute observation as it pertains to the Warriors and their huge margin for error.
"Everybody else, their best player has to play great. [Golden State] is the only team that their best player doesn't have to play great to win [at a championship level]," Smith said. "That's a huge difference."
Problem is, the Warriors know that. They know how good they are. They know they can play 70 percent and still win. And when you can do that, you need extra motivation to get you to play 100 percent when your back isn't against the wall. And that's the other problem: A lot of Golden State's motivation has dried up.
Three years ago they were the team nobody believed in, back when it was still a logical stance to say a "jump-shooting team" couldn't win a title, and they played every night like they had something to prove. Last season they had the taste of blowing that 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavs in their mouth all year. This season they are out of external motivation, and internally, they were clearly exhausted heading into the All-Star break. Three straight Finals trips, and thus three straight seasons stretching into mid-June, will do that to a team collectively, and that's to say nothing of all the other obligations that stats like Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have off the court. They get paid a lot of money, yes, but they're human. Everyone gets worn out.
But now it's go time. The Warriors have someone to chase in the Rockets, and at some point, they have to kick it up not just one gear, but a few gears, not so much because they care about getting the No. 1 seed, but just to be peaking in terms of focus and execution and energy heading into the playoffs. Because if they stay the team that's been blown out twice by the Thunder, who are now one of those teams with all the motivation of having something to prove, it could be tough for the Warriors to just out-talent a team like Houston in a potential conference finals matchup. They need that edge. It's time to rediscover it.
2. How will the new-look Cavs come together?
Another good point TNT's Kenny Smith made when I sat with him was that this new Cavs team is going to face a lot tougher challenges moving forward, so let's settle down on all the hype that they're suddenly the best team in the East again and a viable championship contender.
"Right now, they're in the honeymoon period where nobody really has a game plan for them," Smith said of the Cavs. "We'll see what that looks like in March after they go around the league a little bit and everyone can say, 'OK, this is how they play.'"
I agree with this. How many times have we seen a September call-up to the big leagues tear the cover off the ball for a few weeks because nobody knows how to pitch to him yet, but then when they get some scouting on the guy and start pitching to his weaknesses, suddenly he's hitting .230 and taking a flight back to Triple-A.
That said, the LeBron factor is huge. He wasn't enough to overcome how terrible that defense was before they made theses trades, but now that they've gotten younger and more athletic and surrounded James with capable shooters to space the floor and take full advantage of LeBron's half-court vision and passing abilities out of double teams, yeah, the King's presence could well be the tie-breaker against a Toronto or Boston for an Eastern Conference title, as it has so often been in years past.
"LeBron is happy, because he has guys now that want to be led, not guys who have already led [and still expect to lead], or guys who don't want to be led, but guys who are at a point in their careers where they need to be led," Smith said. "I think LeBron is at his best when he has guys like this around him, guys who are on the verge but they're not there yet. When J.R. Smith first got to Cleveland. When Iman Shumpert first got there. LeBron led them, and they were so eager to follow his lead, they were salivating to play with LeBron, and that's what LeBron has now [with this new roster]."
Indeed, the pieces are in place for the Cavs.
They have two months to bring it all together.
3. Can Boston get back to being elite?
After Gordon Hayward went down, I don't think the Celtics ever deserved to be mentioned with the likes of the Rockets or Warriors, even if their record suggested otherwise. I think the defense was always going to regress to the mean a bit, and their offense is too often solely dependent on Kyrie Irving to create for everyone else. What we're really asking here is if the Celtics can stop this slide they're on and get back to place of stability, where they have a puncher's chance against the league's elite because of their established ability to lock down for stretches defensively and close games with one of the league's true killers in Irving.
I think the answer to that is yes.
Because of that game in London against the Sixers, Boston had a really front-loaded schedule. The Celtics were tired after that 16-game win streak and naturally started to fade, and as it has happened, some of these flaws that have always existed started to bleed through. This All-Star rest will help them, though five of their first seven games coming out of the break are on the road. The Celtics still have two games remaining against the Raptors, who they currently trail by two games for the No. 1 seed, and over half of their 23 remaining games are against current non-playoff teams. Yes, Boston can get back to being a really good team with an outside shot against the league's elite in a seven-game series, but let's not hold them to an elite standard. Once Hayward went down, that was never a fair bar.
4. Will OKC become a threat to win West?
This is interesting, because first they have to actually make the playoffs, which is far from a lock at this point. Entering Thursday, the Thunder are one two-game losing streak from the lottery. They're also two games from the No. 3 seed. When the Thunder are clicking, they can clearly play with anyone in the league. They've got two wins over Golden State this year by a combined 37 points. They beat the Rockets. They beat the Raptors by 17. Record-wise, those are the three best teams in the league, and OKC is 4-0 against them.
Problem is, they've lost 11 games to teams currently out of the playoffs. Coming out of the break, four of OKC's first five games are against Sacramento, Orlando, Dallas and Phoenix. It needs to sweep those games to establish some kind of playoff fusion and start turning its focus to a top-four seed.
We know OKC is a threat because of its defensive length and star-power scoring, and when they're clicking, they can beat anyone. But consistency is the key for them over these final two months. If they can take care of business against the teams they should beat handily on talent alone, we can start to consider them a dependable team come playoff time not just for a game or two, but for a whole series.
5. Will a current non-playoff team make postseason?
Right now the Pistons, Clippers and Jazz are all on the outside looking in, and they're all pretty good teams. Utah is the hottest, having won 11 straight coming into the All-Star break, the Clips held onto Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan at the trade deadline and the Pistons, of course, made a move for Blake Griffin. So they're all focused on making the playoffs, no question.
Personally, I think the All-Star break came at a terrific time for the Jazz. The law of averages was about to hit them with that 11-game win streak, as three of their next four games are against Portland, Houston and Minnesota. That was going to be tough to keep up that win streak against those teams, but with this break now, they get to start fresh and go at those teams with a renewed focus rather than simply trying to ride the wave. I like Utah. I think they get into the playoffs. I think New Orleans falls out and the Clippers fall short in the West.
As for Detroit out East, its going to be close with 13 of their final 25 games coming against current playoff teams, including games against Boston, Houston and Cleveland, and two game against Toronto. The excitement around the Griffin deal carried them for a minute, but this is still a flawed team without much shooting, and we've seen with the Pelicans that putting two All-Star-level bigs together has its challenges in today's game, particularly without a lot of shooting around them. I just don't see how Detroit replaces in the playoff field. I think Philly and Miami, who are the last two in at the moment, are both better. I think Detroit is lottery bound.
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