NEW ORLEANS -- LeBron James won’t assume the playoffs date with the Indiana Pacers that so many others expect.
He definitely has another one with Kevin Durant — in just a few days.
The NBA’s two best players went their separate ways after the East’s 163-155 victory over the West in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, but only temporarily. They will be back on the same floor on Thursday in Oklahoma City, perhaps even joined by Russell Westbrook.
Less than two months remained in the regular season when play resumed on Tuesday, with so much still to sort out in the loaded Western Conference.
Things seem so much simpler in the East, where a Miami-Indiana matchup in the Eastern Conference finals has seemed a certainty since the opening weeks of the season — except to James.
“This is more than a two-team race. There’s a lot of good teams in the Eastern Conference,” he said. “It’s been a slow start for us as a whole, but there’s so many good teams, you can’t just count on us and one other team. I respect every team we go against.”
The Miami Heat went into the break 2 ½ games behind Indiana, with the third-place Toronto Raptors having 10 more losses than the Heat. The Pacers lost Game 7 of the East finals in Miami last June, and they want home-court advantage if — when? — the teams meet again this spring.
The Heat are interested in it, too, though only to a point.
“What matters more is that we’re healthy. We’re going to compete for first place, of course, but we’re not going to make it this huge thing,” Chris Bosh said.
“We’re within striking distance, 2 ½ back. We like our chances.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder finally opened a little cushion atop
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the West with their strong finish to the first half, winning their final three games to take a four-game lead over injury-plagued San Antonio, the defending conference champion. Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland are all six games behind.
Durant is the NBA’s leading scorer and has a good chance to end James’ reign as the league’s MVP. The Thunder could get even stronger when Westbrook returns from knee surgery, perhaps even on Thursday in their first game after the break.
Durant scored 38 points in the All-Star Game and has been unstoppable even in games where there is defense, averaging 31.5 points. He had 33 in the 112-95 victory in Miami last month, but scoring is only part of what he’s done to help Oklahoma City to a league-best 43-12 record even with only 25 games from Westbrook.
“KD is a great player. He’s a great teammate. He does all the things that we have asked,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
“He doesn’t want to be just a scorer. He wants to be a playmaker, a defender and that’s what he’s done all season for us.”
The trade deadline also is Thursday. The Heat and Pacers have perhaps already made their moves with the signings of centers Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum, but other contenders may seek the opportunity to make a deal they feel could position themselves to end the Heat’s quest for a third straight championship.
The Pacers believe they can do it. Paul George isn’t far from the James-Durant level, and a title would help him inch even closer.
“I want to be one of the best players to ever play in this league and be the best player in this league,” George said, “so it’s just taking every day to get better, every year to get better, and you know, I’m going to be at the top at some point.”
So many others have a chance. The Clippers (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin), Rockets (Dwight Howard and James Harden) and Trail Blazers (LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard) all have All-Star duos, and don’t forget the Spurs, who were less than a half-minute from finishing off the Heat last June.
“We definitely have the tools, we definitely have the team,” Tony Parker said of his Spurs, who have been playing without Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. “We’ll be in the mix as long as we stay healthy.”