6 things to watch for when the NBA returns

Steve Kerr Stephen Curry
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry stands on the court as coach Steve Kerr gestures during the second half of the team's NBA game against the Brooklyn Nets in New York. –The Associated Press

The Golden State Warriors have never lost more than 15 games in a season under Steve Kerr.

They could reach that total in the first night after the All-Star break.

The Warriors who return Thursday night aren’t the same ones who dominated the NBA for the last three seasons. The defending champions sputtered into their week off with four losses in their final eight games, falling into second place in the Western Conference behind Houston — ending a three-year run of taking the league’s best record into the break.

At 44-14 and loaded with four All-Stars, the Warriors are still very good, but not as good they’ve been.

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“This year we’ve had a pretty solid season, but feel that we can play a lot better,” Stephen Curry said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do this next 20 games before another championship run.”

Their performances against their first two opponents out of the break show how different things have been for these Warriors. The Los Angeles Clippers, who visit Golden State on Thursday, won in Oakland last month after losing the previous 12 meetings in the series.

And the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State’s opponent Saturday in a nationally televised game, have defeated the Warriors by 17 and 20 points already this season. They can become the first team to beat Golden State three times in a season since San Antonio went 4-0 against the Warriors in 2013-14 — the season before Kerr’s arrival.

Their spotty play thus far makes Curry appreciate their time at the top even more.

“We’ve kind of set a standard of excellence in the league,” he said. “That’s pretty cool to think about sustaining that high level of play for so long.”

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Some other things to watch when play resumes Thursday with six games:

Race to the bottom: While the NBA fined Dallas owner Mark Cuban $600,000 on Wednesday for his public comments about tanking, the Mavericks have plenty of company near the bottom of the standings. Phoenix has lost seven straight to share the worst record in the league with Atlanta at 18-41, and six other teams, including the Mavs, have 20 or fewer victories. The team who finishes last has the best chance to win the draft lottery, though if it’s Brooklyn (19-40), that makes a winner out of Cleveland, which has the Nets’ pick that belonged to Boston after acquiring it in the Kyrie Irving trade.

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Dominant Davis: Anthony Davis scored 44, 38 and 42 points in his last three games before the All-Star break, leading New Orleans to victories in all of them. He leads the league with 22 games of 30 points or more and the Pelicans might need him to keep it up, as they are just a half-game ahead of the Clippers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Men of mystery: Two of the NBA’s strange absences could be cleared up after the break — or could last through the rest of the season. Spurs star Kawhi Leonard continues to rehabilitate a right thigh injury — the team lists his reason for not playing as “return from injury management” — after he was shut down after appearing in just nine games. Philadelphia guard Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 draft pick, remains sidelined with a right shoulder injury after playing in just four games. Neither player has been ruled out for the season, though there’s not much time left if they’re going to come back.

Rising rookies: Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, who won the Slam Dunk contest at the All-Star Game, and Ben Simmons of Philadelphia could be locked in tight race for Rookie of the Year. Both have their teams on the rise, as the Jazz have won 11 straight games to pull within 1 ½ games of eighth place in the West, while the 76ers have won five in a row and are seventh in the East.

Lonzo and the Lakers: Lonzo Ball is set to return to the Lakers after missing the last 15 games with a sore left knee. While the No. 2 pick was out, the Lakers have used Brandon Ingram in the point guard role and also acquired Isaiah Thomas from Cleveland, so coach Luke Walton will have to figure out how to fit in his prized rookie.

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