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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.

Report: Ball family has discussed shutting down Big Baller Brand

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I could write a thousand words about what seems to be happening with the Big Baller Brand — the shoe/apparel company that’s the brainchild of LaVar Ball and provides the shoes for the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball — but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Or, in this case, a social media message.

If you haven’t been following the saga — something maybe actually worthy of watching on Facebook Live from the Ball family — over the weekend it was reported Lonzo Ball cut ties with Alan Foster, a co-founder of the Big Baller Brand (BBB) who served as the business manager, over inappropriate use of funds. That was in addition to news the Lakers reached out to Lonzo to ask if his shoes were part of the reason for his ankle injury and slow recovery. This was followed by social media buzz (and some hints) Ball was going to switch over to Nike as a sponsor (since he is shut down for the season because of the ankle, we won’t see what shoes he wears on the court until summer at the earliest, when the inevitable “look how hard I’m working out” Instagram posts come out).

Now the entire thing is so tainted the Ball family may just shot Big Baller Brand down, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

If they did (no sure thing), the company could be re-formed under a new name. This is as much about cutting out Foster as anything.

What role Lonzo would play in any new Ball family business is up for discussion. Lonzo’s next season will be his third, after which the Lakers (or whatever team has his rights) can offer him an extension on his rookie contract, or choose instead to let him go into a fourth season followed by restricted free agency (an extension deal could be reached in the fourth season, too). This coming season is a huge one for Ball: Can he stay healthy (he has missed 65 games over two seasons) and can he prove he’s a key guy that a franchise would want to lock up and pay?

Ball has talked about finally being healthy during the summer and getting to work on his body and game. That would be good, but we’ll if he remains focused.

Report: Lakers not actually interested in Jason Kidd

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The Lakers hiring Jason Kidd as their next coach went from rumor shared by Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report to report by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Stephen A. Smith of ESPN:

I’ve been told there’s no way they’re really considering Jason Kidd. He’s not on their list. Now, that’s what I’m hearing. But I also want to emphasize I’m not covering the NBA like that. As much as I cover these games or what have you, I’m not on the phones with these executives every single day as intimately as the great Adrian Wojnarowski is. So, I’m certainly not trying to cast any aspersions on any of his reporting. Listen to this man, because he’s usually right on the money. He’s my friend. I respect the hell out of him. But in this particular story, the Lakers are saying, no, we’re not interested in Jason Kidd. And they want to make sure that that’s clear. I don’t know why, but they wanted to make sure that that was clear.

If the Lakers are spreading word they’re not interested in Kidd, I have one strong guess why: He’s a bad coach.

The latest Kidd rumors have caused panic among Lakers fans. Kidd really struggled guiding the Bucks, who’ve taken off since firing him.

Kidd is better at getting his name connected to openings – and even potential openings. Remember the Lakers haven’t fired Luke Walton, though that’s expected after the season. Kidd has been linked to the Suns, Pistons, Warriors, Knicks and Lakers. And that’s just since leaving Milwaukee. He also attempted a coup with the Nets then, when that failed, took a soft landing with the Bucks.

Magic Johnson’s decision-making with the Lakers has been suspect at best. Hiring Kidd, an old-school-style coach, would have been right in line with Johnson’s other failures. There are reasons Kidd-to-the-Lakers was at least believable.

There are also potential reasons the Lakers could have leaked interest in Kidd. Not all of this necessarily came from him.

Now, if the Lakers hire Mark Jackson, that will look far better by comparison. Tyronn Lue could look like an absolute steal by comparison.

DeMarcus Cousins: Fans have called me n-word a few times

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The NBA has fined DeMarcus Cousins for swearing at fans four separate times.

Cousins wants to call attention to the other side of interactions like those.

Cousins, via Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

“Oh, I’ve been called n—–,” he told Yahoo Sports in the latest Posted Up video podcast that will be released this week. “And it’s crazy because this has happened to me on a few occasions. I reported it to the league, and, you know, I may have said whatever I said back and I was still punished for it. But obviously it became a bigger issue when it was Russ [Westbrook], and he was still fined for it. I don’t really understand it. We’re the product. We push this league, so I don’t understand. When does our safety, when does it become important?”

When asked which cities he heard racial slurs, the nine-year veteran and four-time All-Star declined to answer. However, league sources told Yahoo Sports one of the incidents occurred in Sacramento.

“I don’t really want to [name cities or teams], because I’m not really trying to put a label on an entire fan base,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “There are ignorant individuals in every city. I’ll just put it like that. … [The league] tells you to ignore it, or whatever the case may be, but how many times am I supposed to ignore that. Me coming from where I come from [Mobile, Alabama], they lucky all they got was a response.”

Players would ignore out-of-line fans if the players believed teams were properly holding fans accountable. If teams removed fans who made racist and/or personal comments toward players, the players would let arena security handle it.

As is, players often feel they must take matters in their own hands to get a proper resolution.

This conversation is happening now only because Russell Westbrook got videoed vulgarly confronting a Jazz fan. Westbrook got fined for that, but overdue attention is being paid to fan-player interactions. The Jazz banned that fan from their arena, but they didn’t eject him from the game against the Thunder. Could they have investigated more quickly? They don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Jazz just banned a fan who called Westbrook “boy” last year! The incident received attention now only because of Westbrook’s recent squabble with a Utah fan.

Players too often face racist and personal taunts. There’s no way to eliminate that. But teams must do better at punishing fans who act inappropriately.

The NBA should fine players who swear at fans. That’s bad for business and should be discouraged.

The key difference: The league is already on top of punishing players. Punishing misbehaving fans hasn’t taken enough of a priority.

The NBA should pay more attention to the root of some of these incidents. This isn’t just happening in a vacuum.

Report: Spurs signing Donatas Motiejunas

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In 2016, both the Pistons (who agreed to trade for him) and the Rockets (who agreed to match his offer sheet from the Nets) failed Donatas Motiejunas on physicals. He finally signed a prorated minimum contract with the Pelicans for 2016-17. He has spent the last two seasons in China. It has been rough for him.

Now, Motiejunas is somewhat surprisingly returning to the NBA.

ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs have agreed to a deal with veteran Donatas Motiejunas, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

San Antonio needed another big man after buying out Pau Gasol, who signed with the Bucks. Motiejunas provides depth behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl.

The 7-foot Motiejunas is capable inside and out. But NBA centers have gotten so good at 3-point shooting so quickly. I’m not sure Motiejunas remains ahead of the curve on the perimeter.

Whatever his current ability, he should at least fit well with the Spurs. They maximize skilled bigs.