What to watch after All-Star break: Playoff races, LeBron James passing Michael Jordan and more

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MIAMI (AP) — Golden State is still the favorite for a fourth title in five years.

Milwaukee, Toronto, Indiana, Boston, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, Denver, can all go ahead and cancel those mid-April vacation plans if they were foolish enough to have made them in the first place.

For LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, some work awaits them.

The All-Star break ends Thursday, with about one-third of the season remaining for most clubs – and that means the playoff push now gets very serious. Nobody has officially clinched a spot yet, though it would take a highly improbable series of events for the current top teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences to miss the postseason.

“Every year is a new challenge, different circumstances,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said. “We are motivated. We understand what’s at stake.”

James has been to the NBA Finals in each of the last eight seasons, all out of the East – four with Miami, four with Cleveland. His Los Angeles Lakers currently are 10th in the West, three games behind the Clippers for the final playoff berth.

James has been to the playoffs in 13 consecutive seasons.

“I hope that first off, we all get healthy,” Lakers President Magic Johnson said. “This has been one of the worst seasons I’ve ever been around Laker basketball as far as injuries are concerned. When we were healthy, we were in fourth place. Now we’re like 10th place. But when you’ve got LeBron James, anything is possible.”

The Miami Heat are part of a six-team, three-spot race in the East, and Wade is hoping for one last postseason trip out of his 16th and final season. Heat President Pat Riley said he thinks the way the Heat ended its pre-All-Star schedule – with a 2-3 road trip, though one where Miami could have won four of the games – is a good sign.

“It looks as though there’s something happening here,” Riley said.

Sacramento is right in the race to end the NBA’s longest current playoff drought; the Kings haven’t been to the postseason since 2006. Phoenix’s drought will hit nine straight seasons, but Orlando – currently holders of the third-longest drought at six seasons – hit the break with a five-game winning streak and is in the East mix.

“I think we feel good about ourselves,” Magic All-Star forward Nikola Vucevic said. “I know we have good confidence.”

Here’s some other things to know going into the final third of the season:

LEBRON AND MICHAEL

LeBron James is finally going to pass Michael Jordan.

In scoring, at least.

While the debate will rage forever about which player is better, James will soon have scored more points than Jordan. James is 211 points shy of passing Jordan (32,292) for the No. 4 spot in NBA history. When he gets there, each of the top four spots on that list will be occupied by current or former Los Angeles Lakers – No. 1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,392), No. 2 Karl Malone (36,928), No. 3 Kobe Bryant (33,643), and James.

SCORING AND PACE

Unless every team drastically changes the way it plays over the next two months – which won’t happen – the league will finish this season with its highest scoring average and fastest pace in 30 years.

Teams are averaging 110.7 points and 100 possessions per game this season. That’s the best scoring number since 1984-85 (110.8 points per game) and fastest pace since 1988-89 (100.6 possessions per game).

All 30 teams are on pace to average at least 100 points per game this season. The last time every team in the league averaged 100 was 1986-87, when the NBA had 23 franchises.

3’S ARE WILD

The NBA is on pace to see records in 3-pointers made and 3-pointers attempted. If that sounds like an annual statement, it is: This will be the seventh consecutive season where both marks fall.

Houston’s James Harden has a shot at the record for 3s in a single season. He has 274 (which would be fifth-best for a season already), putting him on pace for 401 if he plays in all 25 of the Rockets’ remaining games. Golden State’s Stephen Curry holds the mark with 402 makes from deep in 2015-16.

Harden seems like a lock for the 3s-taken record – Curry took 886 in his record-setting year, Harden has 733 now and is on pace for 1,072.

MORE HARDEN

The Houston All-Star is in the throes of a historic offensive season.

Harden’s current scoring average – 36.6 points per game – would be eighth-best all-time, and the best mark since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1986-87. Jordan (once), Elgin Baylor (once) and Wilt Chamberlain (five times) are the only players to finish a season with a higher average than the one Harden is toting now.

Harden leads Oklahoma City’s Paul George by 7.9 points per game in this year’s scoring race. That is an enormous number. To put that in perspective: If George stays at his current scoring rate, 28.7 per game, Harden would remain the NBA’s scoring leader even if he went scoreless in each of his next 14 games.

GOOD BUCKS

Already with 43 wins this season, it’s already safe to say this the best year for Milwaukee in a long time.

The Bucks won 44 games last season, and 46 in 2009-10. This will almost certainly be Milwaukee’s first 50-win year since 2000-01 (52-30), and the Bucks could flirt with their first 60-win year since 1980-81. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer says he joined Milwaukee at the perfect time.

“The fans there, the energy in our arena, it’s off the charts,” Budenholzer said. “New practice facility, a roster that’s in a great place, ownership, front office – everything is just really, really set up to have great success.”

BAD KNICKS

David Fizdale, the very likable and highly respected first-year Knicks coach is overseeing a team that’s on pace for 16 wins – which would be the worst record in franchise history. Obviously, it’s all about the draft and free agency for the Knicks, who are in position to be major players when the NBA’s annual superstar-shopping window opens on July 1.

Phoenix is also on pace to have its worst season ever. Chicago and Cleveland probably won’t hit all-time rock bottom, but look like they’ll come close. In all, four teams will likely finish the season with a winning percentage under .250 – the most since six teams were that bad in the 1997-98 season.

The draft lottery is May 14, and that’s when the Knicks, Suns, Bulls and Cavaliers could declare this season’s suffering worthwhile.

Kings active before trade deadline, looking to add defense

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings
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The Sacramento Kings will make their first playoff appearance since a Bush was in the White House (2006).

If the 29-22, third-seeded Kings will do damage in the postseason, their bottom 10 defense has to be better. The Kings are being active at the trade deadline with the focus being on a defensive upgrade, sources told NBC Sports. As bait, they are dangling their reserve bigs — Richaun Holmes and/or Alex Len — but the problem is the backup big market is busy at the trade deadline.

The Kings have been linked to the 76ers’ Matisse Thybulle, with Marc Stein confirming those talks are still ongoing (but the Hawks are chasing Thybulle, too). Stein added a new rumor, as well.

Sources say Sacramento has inquired about the availability of Charlotte’s Mason Plumlee.

Charlotte is selling and Plumlee would be an upgrade behind All-Star Domantas Sabonis.

One way or another, expect the Kings to try and make a move at the deadline.

Latest on Kyrie Irving trade request: He’d prefer to land with Lakers

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Kyrie Irving requesting a trade out of Brooklyn before the Feb. 9 trade deadline has the entire league buzzing.

That doesn’t mean it has the entire league leaping into action — the Lakers, Suns and Mavericks are interested, but beyond that the market is thin. And even those teams have some reservations. That said, this trade could come together fairly quickly so all the teams involved can make other moves before next Thursday’s deadline (there is no perfect deal out there).

A lot is going on, here is the latest on an Irving trade from reports around the league.

• As it was over the summer, Irving’s preferred landing spot is with the Lakers, according to multiple reports (Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports and Marc Stein most prominently).

• Unsurprisingly, sources tell NBC Sports that the Lakers are interested, with the core of the trade being Russell Westbrook and the Lakers’ two available first-round picks (2027 and 2029) going back to Brooklyn. From there, putting together a Lakers trade gets complex (which is why it didn’t get done over the summer when the sides talked): The Lakers want to put lottery protections on the 2027 pick; the Nets want to stay competitive and want players back, not just picks; Brooklyn wants to send out Joe Harris in the trade (reports Jovan Buha at The Athletic) and get back either Austin Reaves or Max Christie (the Lakers don’t want to include those players); and, if the Nets take on Westbrook they would add $58 million to their luxury tax bill (and they get worse in the process). There likely is a third team involved in any trade between the Lakers and Nets, Brooklyn wants to stay competitive and will need more considering the drop-off between where Irving and Westbrook are in their careers.

• Irving is playing the long game and wants to get paid, something Brooklyn was hesitant to do. However, does that change in a new setting? Both the Lakers and Mavericks are reportedly reluctant to give Irving the four-year, $198.5 million max extension he wants, Adrian Wojnarowski reports at ESPN

• A Dallas trade with the Nets would involve Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith heading to Brooklyn, but the Mavericks may also want to unload other contracts in there. However, it’s not unanimous in the Nets front office that they should add Irving, some have concerns about how Luka Dončić and Irving would mesh off the court, reports Tim Cato of The Athletic.

• Don’t bet on the Clippers getting involved, despite their need for a point guard and to make things work with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, something sources told NBC Sports and was reported by ESPN’s Zach Lowe on his podcast.

• Irving’s trade demand caught the Nets and Kevin Durant off-guard, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on his podcast.

• Irving was set off and demanded a trade after the Nets extension offer had incentives tied to the Nets winning a championship to get all four years, reports Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report. Now Irving will not accept any offer from Brooklyn — including the full max — and wants out.

• The max extension any team that trades for Irving can offer is two years, $78.6 million. To get Irving the four-year max he wants, a team would have to use its Bird rights this offseason to re-sign him.

• A number of teams — hello Miami! — are more interested in how the Irving demand impacts Kevin Durant’s future in Brooklyn than acquiring Irving.

Mo Bamba comes off bench to fight Austin Rivers, five players ejected

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Well, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.

Friday night saw a rare true punches-thrown brawl in the NBA. The Timberwolves Austin Rivers — who was in the game — had missed a corner 3 in front of the Magic bench a few possessions previously and there had been a lot of trash talk. He came over and confronted the Magic’s Mo Bamba and the fight started when Bamba came off the bench and threw punches at Rivers. And then it was on, with other players jumping in.

After the officials watched the tape, five players were ejected: Rivers, Jaden McDaniels and Taurean Prince from the Timberwolves; Bamba and Jalen Suggs from the Magic.

Before the media, Rivers took a conciliatory tone postgame, at least at first.

“This isn’t like a cool moment for me,” Rivers said, via the Associated Press. “I feel embarrassed. I’m the oldest on the team. I consider myself the leader of the team, or one of the leaders of the team. It was a weird game, and I don’t think that helped at all. If anything right now, I’m just (ticked off) that we lost, and that I had (something) to do with that. It doesn’t make me feel good.”

However, on social media the punches continued.

All this comes a couple of days after Dillon Brooks and Donovan Mitchell got into a fight (Brooks was suspended for a game). Maybe guys need the All-Star break to get away from it all for a few days.

Expect suspensions (plural) and fines to be handed down over the weekend by the league.

The Magic went on to win the game 127-120.

Five teams most likely to trade for Kyrie Irving before deadline

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Kyrie Irving wants a trade out of Brooklyn. Now. Before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

It’s no sure thing a massive trade like this comes together in less than a week, but it has spiced up what was a relatively flavorless trade deadline to this point (with all due respect to Rui Hachimura).

Irving’s trade request asks some tough questions of the team’s interested in him. The incentive to make a deal is obvious — landing one of the game’s biggest names and an elite shot creator averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 37.4% from 3. On the other hand is the long list of disruptions he has caused the Nets and other teams he’s been on, combined with the fact he is asking out in Brooklyn partly because they would not give him a four-year max contract extension. Does a team trading for Irving look at his track record and want to lock him up for that long? (To be clear, a team that trades for him is limited two a two-year, $78.6 million extension; he might want to re-sign with the team as a free agent, a risk for the team acquiring him.)

What may best sum up the trade market for Irving: Teams calling are more interested in what this means for Kevin Durant than Irving (according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN).

Still, teams will be interested. Here are the top five worth watching.

1) Los Angeles Lakers

When reaching out to league sources in the wake of the Irving bombshell, the Lakers were the first name off everyone’s lips. Which makes sense because the sides discussed the idea last summer but never pulled off the trade. Now, more than halfway through the season, with the Lakers three games below .500 and sitting outside even the play-in tournament, there is a sense of desperation to do something so as not to squander an All-NBA season from LeBron James. Is that enough to get a deal done?

LeBron is trying to add some pressure.

The trade would, at its core, involve Russell Westbrook and the Lakers’ two available first-round picks (2027 and 2029), likely unprotected (although Wojnarowski reports the Lakers “privately expressing limitations on offering significant trade assets for Irving”).

That doesn’t mean Westbrook is headed to Brooklyn, the sides likely will engage a third team in the deal (San Antonio has cap space, and the Lakers have talked to the Jazz) to take on Westbrook in exchange for draft compensation. However, putting together a trade that works for everyone gets difficult, which is why one never happened this summer.

It’s obvious why the Lakers want to do this trade. Irving playing next to Lebron and Anthony Davis makes the Lakers potential contenders in a West where nobody has run away with the conference (even if Denver is trying).

It’s less obvious why this is the best option for the Nets.

In a direct swap, Westbrook — even with the added depth of a quality young role player — is a dramatic drop-off from All-Star starter Irving. Plus, in a straight-up Westbrook for Irving deal the Nets take on more salary, adding $56 million to a luxury tax bill already at $109 million (numbers via Bobby Marks of ESPN). Whether the Nets would be more enticed by a three-team trade depends on the other team and players involved, but if the Nets are going to hold on to Durant they need to find a way to stay a contender, and that won’t be easy to do in any trade with the Lakers.

2) Phoenix Suns

The Suns can make a trade work in a couple of different ways, but they all center around Chris Paul heading to Brooklyn — a big name but a player whose game has fallen off this season at age 37. The trade likely would involve either Jae Crowder or Cameron Johnson — both of whom need to be paid after this season — plus some picks headed to Brooklyn.

The Suns need half-court scoring, and an Irving and Devin Booker backcourt would be a force that could get Phoenix back in the mix at the top of the West. Would soon-to-be new owner Matt Ishbia be willing to pay big and go into the tax for Irving in future years? Would the Nets consider CP3 and some depth at the four enough to pull the trigger?

3) Dallas Mavericks

It’s no secret the Mavericks are desperate to find a second star and shot creator to go next to Luka Dončić, who is wearing himself out carrying this team. It’s also no secret that coach Jason Kidd and former Nike executive turned Mavericks GM Nico Harrison have strong relationships with Irving. Is that enough?

A trade can be constructed by sending former Net Spencer Dinwiddie back to Brooklyn along with just made available Dorian Finney-Smith, plus draft picks (there are reports the Mavericks are also hesitant to go heavy on draft picks in an Irving trade). Marc Stein reports that Dallas might want to unload one of its longer contracts in a trade, such as Tim Hardaway Jr. or Dāvis Bertāns.

Would some combination of those players plus a few picks be enough to interest Brooklyn? Is Dallas interested in signing Irving for the long-term, a four-year deal this offseason? Those questions could hold up the deal.

4) Miami Heat

Miami was on Irving’s leaked “places I would be willing to be traded” list last summer. Considering the Heat have struggled this season (despite the better play of late) and their struggles at point guard, it’s easy to see Miami’s interest.

However, it’s difficult to make a trade work. The Heat would want to send back Kyle Lowry, but there likely is little interest from Brooklyn in taking him on (he has a fully guaranteed $29.7 million on the books for next season). The Nets might want Tyler Herro, but he is in the poison pill year between signing his extension and it kicking in (the trade numbers going out and coming back are different for Herro under the CBA, making a trade very difficult to pull off).

Would the Heat want to sign Irving long-term? Is he a fit with the Heat culture? What makes more sense for Miami is to wait to see if Irving’s actions push Kevin Durant to again ask for a trade out of Brooklyn after the season, then jump into those trade talks.

You know Pat Riley will make the call, he’s always aggressive and wants to win now. But he’s not putting a player over the franchise, and he won’t give up too much to get a deal done.

5) Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are always aggressive as a front office, they need point guard help (someone who can create in the backcourt), and the owner is more than happy to spend if it means winning. The Clippers are loaded with mid-level salaries — Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Nicholas Batum — who can be packaged to make a deal work. They also have good young players to temp the Nets, such as Terance Mann and Brandon Boston Jr.

Is another high-priced mercurial star prone to missing time what the Clippers need right now? They will make calls, but it feels like a long shot.