Orlando, Florida. Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant says it’s too early to think about a potential NBA Finals matchup with the Miami Heat.
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 last season’s Finals disappointment, a series between them could be a thriller.
But the Chicago Bulls are right on Miami’s heels in the Eastern Conference, and contenders could emerge for the Thunder out West.
The second half of the season opened on Tuesday, and the other big story is Dwight Howard’s situation on the Orlando Magic, which has to decide by the March 15 trade deadline if it will keep its franchise center or deal him.
Durant didn’t want to talk about a potential NBA Finals after his All-Star Game MVP performance, and the truth is there’s still a long way to go even in this short season.
“I know in Oklahoma City, we look forward to getting better every day, and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
James and the Heat seem headed toward a second shot at the championship, after falling to Dallas last June. He vowed to be better and play looser this season, and he went into the break as the league 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,” he 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 went 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 Magic have the East’s fourth-best record and look good enough at times to be viewed as a title contender. Still, they and everyone else in the East seem clearly behind Miami and Chicago, and the team must choose soon whether to honor Howard’s trade request or keep him until the end of the season and risk him leaving as a free agent in July.
Howard said the Magic haven’t hit their peak yet and have an opportunity to compete for the title. “We’ve been able to stay focused on what we need to do, and we’re only going to get better,” he said.
Still, the East appears to be shaping up as a two-team race between the Heat and Bulls, who are tied at the top after Chicago beat New Orleans 99-95 on Tuesday. All-Star Derrick Rose was back to full fitness, pouring in 32 points, while Richard Hamilton was in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 4.
“We have to knock some of the rust off,” Rose said.
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 out 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 Los Angeles Lakers, whose rocky road will have taken another bad turn if the broken nose Kobe Bryant sustained in the All-Star Game forces him to miss time.