ABOVE PHOTO: Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, right, goes up for a shot against Cleveland Cavaliers’ Jarrett Allen during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
By Tim Reynolds
Kevin Durant went to Phoenix. Russell Westbrook moved from Los Angeles to Los Angeles. Kevin Love did what once worked out nicely for LeBron James, taking his talents from Cleveland to Miami. And speaking of James, he says he’s about to play some of the biggest games of his career.
The All-Star break ends Thursday.
Let the playoff-push fireworks begin.
“It’s not the start of a new season,” Miami guard Tyler Herro said. “But I think this is when guys really raise their level of play.”
Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Denver, Cleveland and Memphis probably can go ahead and make playoff plans. Houston, Charlotte, San Antonio and Detroit probably can go ahead and start scheduling April vacations.
That leaves 20 teams for 10 playoff spots. Sacramento is in position to end the longest drought in NBA history — 16 years and counting — and Cleveland is in line to make the playoffs without someone named LeBron on the roster for the first time since 1998.
“We have a group that’s dedicated to winning, and there are certain things we have to learn about each other,” Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell said. “It’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows with us. We’re still a team that’s young, but we also are figuring each other out.”
The Cavaliers are five games behind Boston, 4 1/2 behind Milwaukee and two behind Philadelphia in the East. The rest of the race might get jumbled; 13th-place Orlando is only four games from a play-in berth.
“We’ve given ourselves a chance,” Magic rookie Paolo Banchero said.
Out West, it’s a mess.
“The West is loaded now,” Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. said. “I don’t know how that happened.”
Here’s how: Durant went to Phoenix. Durant’s trade to the Suns could make a team that looked vulnerable anything but vulnerable.
Denver is five games clear of Memphis for the West lead and eight games up on No. 3 Sacramento.
But starting with the Kings, there are 11 teams in the standings — Sacramento, the Los Angeles Clippers (who just got Westbrook, after he was bought out by Utah following a trade with the Lakers), Phoenix, Dallas (now with Kyrie Irving alongside Luka Doncic), New Orleans, Minnesota, Golden State, Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland and the Lakers — separated by just six games.
The seedings could flip every night out West.
“Must-see TV,” Morris said.
And James — who just passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA scoring record — says the 23 games the Lakers have left carry incredible significance.
He didn’t go to the playoffs last year. He can’t envision missing them again.
“I don’t want to see myself not being part of the postseason for two years straight. It’s just not part of my DNA,” James said.
Here’s some of what to know for the stretch run:
7 WITH 30
There are seven players — Dallas’ Doncic, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and James — averaging at least 30 points per game.
If that holds, it’ll be an NBA record.
There’s been only one season with more than three such players. That was 1961-62, with six — Wilt Chamberlain (50.4), Elgin Baylor (38.3 in 48 games, technically not enough to qualify as a scoring leader), Walt Bellamy (31.6), Bob Pettit (31.1), Oscar Robertson (30.8) and Jerry West (30.8).
IT’S THE FOURTH QUARTER
It’s not the second half of the season. It’s really the fourth quarter.
An NBA regular season has 1,230 games; 884, or 72%, have been played. So if the season was an NBA game clock, 1:30 would remain in the third quarter.
Teams have somewhere between 21 and 25 games left. Minnesota is down to a league-low eight home games remaining, while Indiana has nine. Washington has a league-high 15 home games left, while Atlanta and Charlotte each have 14.
Golden State will emerge from the All-Star break ninth in the Western Conference.
The defending NBA champion Warriors have some work to do.
No reigning champion has missed the following season’s playoffs since the Chicago Bulls didn’t get to the postseason in 1999. Before that, it was the Boston Celtics not making the playoffs in 1970.
Those Bulls lost Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Those Celtics lost Bill Russell and Sam Jones.
.590 AND IN
Over the last 20 seasons, there have been 173 teams that reached the All-Star break with a winning percentage of .590 or better.
And 171 of them made the playoffs, or 98.8%.
That’s good news for Boston (.712), Milwaukee (.707), Denver (.695), Philadelphia (.667), Cleveland (.623) and Memphis (.614).
The only teams that hit the break with that good of a winning percentage and missed the playoffs were the 2007-08 Warriors and last season’s Cavaliers.
The ’07-08 Warriors went 16-14 after the break and missed the playoffs by two games. Last season’s Cavs went 9-15 after the break, then lost two games in the play-in round.
Upcoming milestones of note:
— Miami coach Erik Spoelstra (692) is five wins from passing Red Holzman (696) for 20th place on the all-time list.
— Durant (26,684) is 27 points from passing Robertson (26,710) for 13th on the all-time scoring list. Durant is 263 points from passing Hakeem Olajuwon (26,946) for 12th.
— Westbrook (9,002) is 60 assists from passing Isiah Thomas (9,061) for ninth on the all-time list.
— Paul George of the Clippers is 18 3-pointers from 2,000. He’d be the 14th player to reach that number.
— Golden State’s home game Sunday against Minnesota will be the 6,000th regular-season contest in Warriors’ history.
Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles will be busy — the Lakers and Clippers both have 13 home games to play in the season’s final 46 days.
Not one, not two, but three NBA teams play three consecutive games in Los Angeles during March — the Lakers, the Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. They visit the Clippers on March 21 and 23, then visit the Lakers on March 24.
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