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NBA

What to watch post-All-Star break: East playoff seeding, LeBron James' playoffs streak and end of season awards

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LeBron James [NBA Getty Images]

The NBA All-Star break has come and gone, so we can shift our focus to the remaining 25-or-so games left in the regular season.

After an interesting start to the season and a hectic trade deadline, there are plenty of reasons to closely follow the rest of the games leading up to the playoffs.

From how things shake out at the top of the Eastern Conference to Pascal Siakam's run at being named the NBA's Most Improved Player, here are four things to keep an eye on for the remainder of the NBA season...

Eastern Conference Playoff seeding

With LeBron James now in the Western Conference, it's time for a new team to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

The top teams in the East are all loaded up after the trade deadline and many believe it is one of those top four teams that have the best chance of knocking off the Golden State Warriors this season.

As of now, it's the Milwaukee Bucks holding down first place with an NBA-best 43-14 record, but the Toronto Raptors are right on their tail.

The Raptors are 1.0 games behind the Bucks in the standings at 43-16 and are riding the league's hottest win streak of six games coming out of the All-Star break.

However, Toronto will have to surpass Milwaukee completely if they want the No. 1 overall seed since the Bucks hold the season series tiebreaker over the Raptors, winning three of their four matchups.

MORE: Kawhi Leonard says Raptors have "good chance" of making Finals

There's a solid gap between those two teams and the other contenders - the Indiana Pacers (38-20) are 5.5 games back and the Boston Celtics (37-21) and Philadelphia 76ers (37-21) are both 6.5 games back.

While the Victor Oladipo injury seemed it would derail the Pacers' season, they're 6-3 since the two-time All-Star went down. And while it seems evident that the four best teams are Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia, two of those teams would face off in the first round if the season ended today, paving the way for the Pacers to potentially make the second round.

So how essential is landing in the top four in the conference? Eastern Conference home teams went 31-10 in the playoffs last year. Seeding could be everything for the team that reaches the NBA Finals out of the East this season.

Could LeBron James really miss the playoffs?

It's been a long time since LeBron James has missed the playoffs - 14 years to be exact.

He missed the postseason in his first two seasons in the league but has yet to be eliminated prior to the second round since then.

Furthermore, James has made eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances. But he now finds his team battling to even give themselves a chance to get back there.

He had his young Los Angeles Lakers' squad in fourth place in the Western Conference before suffering a groin injury on Christmas Day. They went 6-11 in his absence, then went 2-4 following his return prior to the All-Star break, leaving L.A. in 10th place, 3.0 games out of the No. 8 seed.

While few are willing to count out James, he has 25 games to turn things around - and that might not be as easy as it sounds. The Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs have a four-game cushion on the Lakers and are two of the hottest teams in the league since the New Year.

The LA Clippers seemed to have sold out at the trade deadline when they sent their leading scorer in Tobias Harris to the 76ers but they currently hold the final playoff spot.

Then you have the Sacramento Kings, who are 1.0 games out of the playoff picture and 2.0 games ahead of the Lakers.

The Kings play hard every single night and added a player with postseason experience in Harrison Barnes at the trade deadline, furthering their commitment to ending their 13-year playoff drought.

I'm certainly not saying you should bet against LeBron, but he has his work cut out for him in the final stretch of the season.

Tight Most Valuable Player race

You could legitimately make a case for four different players to be the MVP right now - and you'd still be leaving players out.

In alphabetical order, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, James Harden and Nikola Jokic are all having MVP-worthy seasons.

If you draw the line there, it's completely understandable, yet you'd still be leaving out both Warriors' stars Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry and players like Joel Embiid or Kyrie Irving, who are all having fantastic seasons but are often left out of the conversation just because the previous four are playing that well.

Antetokounmpo is the only player in the league averaging over 25.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game - as impressive of a stat line as they come that has his squad boasting the best record in the entire league.

George is posting career-highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game on top of the most efficient shooting season of his nine years in the league. He's the current favourite to win Defensive Player of the Year, too.

Harden's season speaks for itself - he's doing something only Wilt Chamberlain has done in scoring 30 points in 31 consecutive games, leading the league in scoring by almost 8.0 points per game.

Jokic has carried a team that has been dealt more than a handful of injuries to the No. 2 seed in the West while posting over 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds to go with 7.7 assists, giving him 12 triple-doubles, trailing only Russell Westbrook's 24 triple-doubles for the most in the league.

This season's MVP race is nowhere near close to being decided and the remaining games will determine who takes home the hardware at the end of the year.

Pascal Siakam's Most Improved Player case

Siakam has played at such a high level that many believed he was a snub for this year's All-Star Game.

He has been the Raptors' most consistent player all season when you take into consideration availability and production. He's playing the best basketball of his young career and it's not even close - he's averaging career-highs in every major statistical category and has demolished any previous single-game records multiple times this season.

In the final game before the All-Star break, Siakam sent a message by dropping a career-high 44 points in a win without Kawhi Leonard. He started this season with a career-high of 20 points and has already topped that seven times.

Siakam seems to be running away with this award, but players like first-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell, De'Aaron Fox, John Collins, Zach LaVine, Domantas Sabonis and Buddy Hield are all doing their part to keep things close.

Each aforementioned player has shown out this season and the play of Russell, Fox, Sabonis and Hield has all of their teams battling for a playoff spot.

It's Siakam's award to lose but he'll have to keep things on par with his pre-All-Star performance to remain separated from the other young talented players contending with him.

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