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A year ago LeBron James and the Miami Heat were supposed to run away with the NBA title, but that ended badly for them. The Chicago Bulls and the Oklahoma City Thunder may be the only teams that can stop them this year. Photo by Jason Lewis
Kevin Durant (right) and the Oklahoma City Thunder are the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, but if the Lakers can make a trade to get Kobe Bryant some help, the Lakers could be in the mix. Photo by Jeff Lewis
Kevin Durant says it's too early to think about a potential Heat-Thunder NBA finals.
It seems hard to ignore at the season's midpoint.
The teams share the league's best record and both rolled into the All-Star break. With Durant and Russell Westbrook on one side and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh looking to avenge their finals disappointment, the series could be a thriller.
But Chicago is right on Miami's heels in the East, and a number of contenders could emerge for the Thunder out West.
The second half opens Tuesday, and the other big story is Dwight Howard's situation. Orlando has to decide by the March 15 deadline if it will keep or trade its franchise center.
LeBron James and the Heat burn for a second chance. Kevin Durant and the Thunder are storming toward their first opportunity.
An NBA finals matchup is easy to picture.
Durant isn't looking.
"It's too early for that," the All-Star game MVP said. "We're trying to take it a game at a time, a day at a time. I know in Oklahoma City, we look forward to getting better every day, and we'll see what happens."
If the All-Star game was an indication, the series would be a thriller.
Durant and Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook helped shoot the West to a big lead. James and Dwyane Wade almost brought the East all the way back before James' turnover in the final seconds allowed the West to escape with a 152-149 victory.
James endured plenty of similar late-game disappointments last June, when Miami fell to Dallas in its first finals with its Big Three. He vowed to be better and play looser this season, and he went into the break as the MVP favorite after a sensational first half for himself and his team.
"We've got a lot of season to go. I'm on the right path, back to playing basketball how I play, and that's back to having fun at a high level," James said. "The best thing about this season so far, we're playing some good basketball. Our team feels that we are one right now, especially with last year under our belt, so we're just going to try to get better every day."
Miami and Oklahoma City rolled into the break with a share of the NBA's best record at 27-7. The Heat have won eight in a row in overwhelming fashion; the Thunder have won five straight and are 15-1 at home.
The NBA's best headed out of Orlando on Monday, and soon Dwight Howard will learn if he's joining them. The Magic have until the March 15 trade deadline to decide whether they will honor his trade request or keep him until the end of the season and risk him leaving as a free agent in July.
The Magic have the East's fourth-best record and look good enough at times to be viewed as a contender. Still, they and everyone else in the East seem clearly behind Miami and Chicago, whether they keep their franchise center or not.
Howard said the Magic haven't hit their peak yet and have an opportunity to compete for the title.
"That says a lot about our team and about the growth of the team despite everything that's been going around," he said. "We've been able to stay focused on what we need to do, and we're only going to get better."
Still, the East appears to be shaping up as a two-team race between the Heat and Bulls, who are a half-game back despite battling injuries to All-Stars Derrick Rose and Luol Deng and especially to Richard Hamilton. Hamilton, signed to upgrade the shooting guard position, was limited to only 11 games because of a groin injury.
Indiana and Philadelphia have been surprisingly strong, New York has recovered from a poor start behind Jeremy Lin and Boston hopes to bounce back from a disappointing first half, but a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals appears likely.
The playoff picture is less clear in the West. San Antonio surged into the break despite playing for much of the first half without Manu Ginobili; the Los Angeles Clippers have become quick contenders since acquiring Chris Paul; and Dallas may still be good enough for a long playoff run.
Then there's the Lakers, whose rocky road will have taken another bad turn if the broken nose Kobe Bryant sustained after a hard foul by Wade in the All-Star game forces him to miss time.
He recently expressed his frustration with team management for the way it has gone about deciding if it will or won't trade Pau Gasol. He'll be even grumpier if he has to watch the Clippers end their reign as Pacific Division champions.
Boston's Rajon Rondo has also been linked to trade rumors, potentially making another All-Star available. Howard's status also affects potential destinations such as the Nets and Mavericks, so business will get just as much attention as basketball next month.
"No question," the Nets' Deron Williams said. "The deadline's on the 15th and every year they move the deadline up."
With the lockout delaying the season and reducing it to 66 games, the All-Star break actually comes right at the midpoint of the season. Many teams were happy to have the break and eager for practice time after so little was available because of the frequency of games.
That hasn't affected the Heat or Thunder, who rank first and third in the NBA in scoring with 103.7 and 102.7 points, respectively. Miami has been as dominant as expected when it put its trio together, winning by nearly 10 points a game and even more during their win streak.
The Thunder were built more gradually, winning just 23 games three seasons ago. They reached the West finals last year and seem poised to go further now.
"We worked our way to the top," Westbrook said. "So it's not a bad thing to be on top and be where we want to be at at this halfway point."
And come June, Heat and Thunder could in the NBA's forecast.
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