The NBA All-Star break is behind us as the unofficial second half of the season is set to resume tonight.
As play begins to ramp up with teams jockeying for seeding or making a final push for a playoff spot, some of the league's best players will have to take their games to another level for their teams to have an ideal finish.
Our NBA.com staff each gave one player that they're most looking forward to watching down the home stretch of the season.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I'll be keeping a close eye on Pascal Siakam because the Toronto Raptors have some big games coming up in the next couple of months.
The matchups I'm most interested in seeing: Siakam against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis. Not only are they four of the better defenders in the league, there's a good chance Siakam will face them in the playoffs - Antetokounmpo, Simmons and Embiid moreso than Davis unless, of course, the Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers make the Finals.
Siakam has already played each of them once this season and the results haven't been great. According to NBA.com, he has combined to score 28 points on 12-for-42 shooting from the field with Antetokounmpo, Simmons, Embiid and Davis guarding him.
He struggled the most against Simmons and Davis, but he had one of his worst games of the season against the Milwaukee Bucks and Embiid gave Siakam trouble in the second round of last season's playoffs.
In other words, they've each had some success against him, whether it's this season or last.
Since Siakam is best suited to fill the closer void left by Kawhi Leonard, I'll feel much better about Toronto's ability to make some noise in the playoffs if he can hold his own in those matchups.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Because of his potential to alter the landscape of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture, I've got my eye on Victor Oladipo.
The major headline surrounding Oladipo out of the break is that he will no longer be under a minutes restriction once he and the Pacers return to action. That he was able to get through his first seven games back from injury without any major roadblocks is a positive to build on.
The green flag drops on @VicOladipo's regular season on Friday. The same could be said for the entire Pacers team in fact, now that it's - finally - fully assembled and ready to run without restrictor plates.- Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) February 20, 2020
Story from @MarkMontieth ⤵️https://t.co/2PgGqoKNWu
Now, the expectation is that he begins to get his rhythm back.
Since he returned to action on Jan. 29, Oladipo has averaged 11.1 points while shooting 32.9% from the field and 24.4% from 3-point range. He was 2-for-10 in clutch time but that does include a HUGE shot he hit in his first game back.
Victor Oladipo from deep to tie it for the @Pacers in his return to action. pic.twitter.com/hShG72sxCN- NBA (@NBA) January 30, 2020
He'll be much better than that as time goes on.
How does that impact the rest of the East? Indiana can be a dangerous team, as evidenced by its most recent win over Milwaukee in which TJ Warren exploded for 35 points (on 16-for-19 shooting).
Warren, along with Malcolm Brogdon and All-Star Domantas Sabonis are three players that have shown the ability to take over a game offensively, while Myles Turner anchors a solid defence.
Oladipo could be that fourth dangerous offensive weapon.
We won't see the 2018 version Oladipo this year but if he can get to around 75% of that level, the Pacers will be a team that no one wants to see in the first round
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): All eyes on are on Zion Williamson which in turn makes Brandon Ingram one of the most interesting players to watch over the final two months of the regular season.
We all assumed that eventually this would be Williamson's team. His prolonged absence to begin the season coupled with Ingram's rise as an All-Star introduced the possibility that it might not truly become Zion's team until 2020-21.
Well guess what... it's Zion's team right now.
That complicates Ingram's role as he's forced to adapt into a secondary role midway through a breakout season in which he's routinely scoring 25 points a night. Since Williamson's debut on January 22, Ingram is averaging 21.3 points per game which ranks second on the team behind the all-world rookie. He's also gone from first on the team in frontcourt touches per game to fourth, trailing not only Williamson, but also Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday.
|Before Zion Debut||Since Zion Debut|
|Time of poss||4.1||3.1|
How will Ingram handle that adjustment?
If he's able to adjust on the fly as a potent second option without sacrificing the efficiency or aggression that earned him a trip to the All-Star Game, the Pelicans could not only make a run for the playoffs, but could prove a difficult out once there.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I'm going with Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis.
It's not like Porzingis got out to a ridiculously slow start or has played noticeably poor at any stretch of the season, there were just times that he didn't look like the No. 2 star the Mavericks needed him to be next to Luka Doncic. And that was to be expected.
The 7'3 forward had just missed the entire 2018-19 season rehabilitating an ACL injury and it's obviously going to take some time to get comfortable on the court again following a major leg injury; just look at Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward as an example.
However, Porzingis has played just well enough for the Mavericks to have a strong (unofficial) first half of the season, owning a 33-22 record heading into the back end. Dallas has been extremely precautious with one half of their franchise's cornerstone, as Porzingis missed 13 games with different variations of knee soreness, but the former All-Star looked like he was really starting to get back into the swing of things just before the All-Star break.
When Doncic was forced to miss time after rolling his ankle for the second time this year, Porzingis hit his stride averaging 28.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 1.0 assists and 1.0 blocks per game. He was also more efficient than he has been all season, shooting 48.8% from the field, 39.5% from 3 and 87.8% from the free throw line.
If the Mavericks can get that version of Porzingis playing alongside a healthy Doncic in the second half of the season, they should have no trouble covering the current 3.5 game deficit that would convey home court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
I'd even go as far as saying Porzingis is one of the biggest X factors for the remainder of the NBA season, bearing the weight of Dallas advancing in the playoffs or facing an early exit.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I'm going with Jayson Tatum. As it sits right now the Boston Celtics are quietly in third in the Eastern Conference and just 1.5 games behind the Raptors for the second seed.
The C's have one game in hand, and still have one more game against Toronto - they can certainly catch the Raptors if they slip down the stretch.
Tatum has been terrific all season long and is finally showing glimpses of living up to the potential he showed in his first playoff run. He's averaging 22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds shooting 38.2% from 3 point range.
Aside from that when you watch the Celtics play, they've become Tatum's team. When the chips are down and they need a bucket it's Tatum, not Kemba Walker who's been the most impactful player when the game is on the line.
In the clutch, this season, Tatum and Walker's scoring average is almost identical, but Tatum has been a far more efficient player in the last five minutes of a close game.
Tatum is shooting 53.2% from the field in the clutch, while Walker is down to 37.5%. Walker's free throw percentage even takes a drop down to 76.5%, while Tatum has been more reliable at the stripe shooting 88.2%.
*Clutch stats through Feb. 20, 2020
Tatum's 39 points against the Clippers before the All-Star break was a great moment many will remember because it came on the national stage in the U.S.
During our 141-133 win over the Clippers, Jayson Tatum delivered another All-Star-caliber performance as he dropped 39 points. pic.twitter.com/IbqRHUalfX- Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 14, 2020
He's been doing it all season - on both ends of the court - which is why he was selected to his first All-Star game. And why I believe he won't be far off an All-NBA appearance soon.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.