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NBA story lines to unfold

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Can Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers continue their drive to a high seed in the NBA Western Conference playoffs, or will the All-Star point guard and Portland run into obstacles, like Indiana Pacers center Ian Mahinmi, as they run through the rest of the regular season?The NBA playoffs are only two months — two months! — away. Things to watch during the final eight weeks of the regular season ...

The Most Valuable Player race

It’s a two-man sprint to the finish — between Miami’s LeBron James, who has won it four times, and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, who has never won.

History suggests that if it’s close, voters favor the candidate who hasn’t won it before. Witness the 1992-93 season, when Charles Barkley won over Michael Jordan. And 1996-97, when Karl Malone took it instead of Jordan.

The award takes into account only the regular season, a feature that should be revisited. After all, what a player does for his team in the playoffs counts more than anything.

If first-half trends continue with both players and their teams, those casting ballots will opt for Durant, who has carried the Thunder to the league’s best record without injured sidekick Russell Westbrook.

And by the way: If you’re talking about the player who is most important to his team, Minnesota’s Kevin Love ought to gain consideration. The Lake Oswego High grad went into the All-Star break fourth in the league in scoring (25.8), second in rebounds (13.2) and third in efficiency rankings (behind James and Durant). Without him, the injury-plagued Timberwolves would be a mess.

The Eastern Conference race

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: PATRICK COTE - LeBron James and the Miami Heat are going for their third consecutive NBA title, but it may not be clear sailing for them.Again, it’s a two-headed monster — Indiana (40-12 at the All-Star break) and Miami (37-14 at the break).

The Pacers have the more difficult remaining schedule, with 17 of 30 games on the road and a ridiculously taxing March (11 road games). The Heat have 16 of 31 games left at home.

It could come down to a showdown between the contenders at Miami on April 11 in the third-to-last regular season contest. Each team will do what it can to assure homecourt advantage through the East finals.

The Western Conference race

Five teams entered the second half with a legitimate chance — OKC, San Antonio (38-15 at the All-Star break), Portland and Houston (both 36-17 through the break) and the L.A. Clippers (37-18 at All-Star time).

The Thunder are in the pole position and have 15 of their remaining 27 games at home. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will be most concerned with having stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and

Manu Ginobili (expected back by the end of the month from a hamstring injury) rested entering the playoffs, so there may be some fall-off there.

If the Clippers can get through a rugged five-game trip in late March and early April, they’ll be in good shape, with five of their last six at home.

The Rockets, who carried a seven-game roll into the All-Star break, have the most difficult path, with only 12 of their final 29 games at home.

The Trail Blazers’ chances could hinge on their play over the next two weeks, with seven of their first eight post-All-Star break contests at home. If they go 6-2 or 7-1 in those games, they’ll have a fighting chance going into the final five weeks of the regular season.

Portland’s second-half goal

It should be to finish among the top four in the West to earn homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. A year ago, that took 56 wins. That could be the case again. It would mean the Blazers going 20-9 in the stretch run, which won’t be easy.

Westbrook’s health

Westbrook is expected to return as soon as tonight against Miami after missing 30 games following Dec. 27 knee surgery — his third since April.

Durant — third in the NBA in minutes played at 38.2 per game — desperately needs help if the Thunder are to continue on course.There is no better point guard in the league than Westbrook when he is healthy, and no better duo in the NBA than Durant and Westbrook, Miami’s James and Dwyane Wade notwithstanding.

The biggest thing, though, is for Westbrook to gradually round into form, so that he is able to go full bore once the playoffs start. Coach Scotty Brooks will surely limit his minutes over the next few weeks, then increase them as the postseason nears.

Kobe Bryant’s return

The Los Angeles Lakers superstar, who played only six games after Achilles’ tendon surgery before suffering a fractured knee, wants to come back this season. Even if he’s ready, the Lakers have to be weighing the wisdom of letting Bryant, who turns 36 in August, return to competition.

The Lakers are hopelessly out of the playoff race, and Bryant’s presence could produce a win or two that might affect the number of ping-pong balls they get in the draft lottery. Also, the threat of further injury could impact Bryant’s future.

Bryant ranks fourth on the NBA career scoring list behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Malone (36,928) and Jordan (32,292) with 31,700 points. Bryant is going to catch Jordan, but the other two are out of reach, so playing a few games this season aren’t going to matter.

Kobe is a competitor, though, and he might want some game action to better prepare him for next season. It’s going to be his call, for sure.

What happens in Minnesota

The Timberwolves entered the season with veritable playoff aspirations. They entered the second half with a 25-28 record, in a virtual tie for 10th place with Denver, six games out of eighth.

Coach Rick Adelman, eighth on the NBA coaches’ career win list, turns 68 in June. With wife Mary Kay still dealing with health issues, Adelman may opt to retire. And the Wolves, who have Love under contract for one more season, may choose to trade their star forward in the summer to begin to rebuild for the future.

If they get hot through the second half and make the playoffs, though, all of this could change. It would take one heck of a turnaround.

Kyrie Irving

It has been a dismal season in Cleveland, and Irving has not had the banner campaign most experts envisioned. His Most Valuable Player performance in the All-Star Game gives hope that he’ll catch fire in the second half and lead the Cavaliers — who hit the All-Star break only three games out of eighth in the East despite a 20-33 record — to the playoffs.

Those in Cleveland are hoping it happens, and that Irving — who is contracted for one more season — can help lure James, a potential free agent this summer, back to the city where he began his NBA career.