Biggest Storylines of NBA's Stretch Run

Marshall ZweigContributor IIApril 13, 2013

Biggest Storylines of NBA's Stretch Run

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    With the NBA playoffs looming, most teams are either playing for seeding, playing for pride or playing for ping pong balls. Star players are generally getting rest, and everyone else is hoping not to get hurt. After all, the Larry O'Brien Trophy is the only award with real meaning.

    There are, however, a handful of intriguing storylines yet to be played out in the season's final days—intriguing enough to keep us watching and ruminating.

    Will the Los Angeles Lakers be taking an early vacation? Is Derrick Rose already taking his? Who's the surprising front-runner for the scoring title? And will the stars and seedings align for a player once deemed expendable to exact his revenge against the team which expended him?

Derrick Rose: Only Rose Knows

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    I'll be the first to admit that this is not playing out at all as I thought it would. If anything, I thought Derrick Rose would be fighting management to get back in while the suits within the Chicago Bulls would have the anxiety.

    Instead, it appears to be just the reverse.

    It's been almost a year since Rose tore his ACL on April 28, 2012. He was cleared to play by doctors on March 9 of this year. But since then, the closest Rose has gotten to in-game action are scrimmages. Rose's coach, Tom Thibodeau, was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as saying "only (Rose) knows" when—or if—he'll make his return.

    If the Bulls' first-round playoff opponent turns out to be the Brooklyn Nets, I have good bulletin-board fodder to incite Rose to play, the way Vin Scully incited Kirk Gibson in 1988.

    Scully told a national audience before Game 1 of the World Series that Gibson, the Dodgers' clubhouse leader, "will not be there for them tonight." Gibson, in the trainer's room, was lit up by the presumptuous nature of Scully's pronouncement. He limped onto the field, and the rest is history: one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history.

    Well, Derrick, feast your eyes on this New York Daily News piece. Remember, the Daily News caters to the Brooklyn area. On April 12, the paper published an article with this headline: Report: "Nobody expects" Derrick Rose to return for the playoffs.

    Nobody expects it, Derrick. That means everybody thinks you're done for the year. Finished. Out.

    I say, summon your inner Willis Reed and let them know just what "they" can do with their expectations.

Lakers: The Playoffs, or All That Jazz

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    The last time the Lakers missed the playoffs, in 2005, YouTube had just debuted. Lance Armstrong was an unparalleled sports hero after winning his seventh Tour de France. And Tiger Woods was still considered a model husband.

    In other words, it's been a long time.

    Since 1976, the Lakers have only missed the playoffs an incredible two times. But with a roster crammed full of the league's premier talent, no one thought this might be the third.

    Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant, plus Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison—on paper, this almost constitutes an All-Star squad. But injuries, squabbles, incompatible skill sets and defensive issues have riddled this team with problems.

    Now, with Kobe sadly going down with a torn Achilles tendon, their one-game lead may not be enough.

    If the Lakers fail to qualify for the postseason, it would have to go down as one of single most stunning reversals of fortune in NBA history. It might well sound a death knell for this roster as well. Only eight players have guaranteed contracts or player options for next year, and only one (Steve Nash) is on the books for 2014-2015.

    With savvy trades—like the one that netted Kobe Bryant in the 1996 draft—the Lakers have ridden a nearly unbroken string of competitiveness for over 35 years. But unless general manager Mitch Kupchak can make the past repeat itself, Lakers faithful may be looking at the beginning of the end.

The Scoring Title: 'Melo Is Anything but Mellow

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    They say April showers bring May flowers.

    Well, Carmelo Anthony's recent shower of points may well bring him victory flowers when it comes to the scoring title.

    When April dawned, 'Melo flipped a switch. He started by scoring 50 against the Miami Heat. He followed that up with two 40-plus-point games and three straight games with 36 points.

    It goes beyond points too. Anthony is averaging 6.9 rebounds per game. In the last five contests, he's hauled in 14, 12, eight, 19 and 12 boards, respectively.

    Anthony has never won a scoring title, and this is his 10th year in the league, so perhaps he hears his physiological clock ticking.

    Or maybe he's just sharpening his blade in pursuit of the other prize he's never won: an NBA championship.

    Can the Knicks beat the Heat in a seven-game playoff series? With Anthony scoring as he has been, it would be a matchup not to be missed.

Rockets vs. Thunder: Revenge of the Beard?

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    The Houston Rockets could wind up with the sixth seed. That might lead to a series with the red-hot Denver Nuggets, who incredibly have barely missed a beat since Danilo Gallinari's injury.

    The Nuggets also seem to have Houston's number, having bested them in all four duels this season.

    If they wind up with the seventh seed, though, and the San Antonio Spurs retake first place in the Western Conference, the Rockets will be matched up against the Oklahoma City Thunder—the team that judged James Harden as expendable before the 2012-13 season started.

    As a starter in Houston, Harden immediately made his presence felt and has elevated his game to star status. He's emerged as a remarkably prolific offensive player, a leading candidate for Most Improved Player and arguably the best scoring guard in the league.

    Earlier this year, the Thunder ganged up on Harden, beating the Rockets by 22 points. He had one of his worst games in the red and white, with 17 points on 3-of-16 shooting. In their next matchup, Harden fared only slightly better, netting 25 on 6-of-17 shooting, but his team was still blown out of the gym as the Thunder romped by 30.

    But Harden and the Rockets got the better of their last clash. The Beard filled it up for 46 points on 14-of-19 shooting as Houston eked out a three-point win.

    The league's most visible emerging superstar going up against the team that cast him off would make for a great media story—and possibly a great playoff series.