The stretch run

NBA re­turns tonight for a break-neck fin­ish to reg­u­lar sea­son

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY JON KRAWCZYN­SKI

LeBron James, Steph Curry and the rest of the NBA have had a chance to catch their col­lec­tive breath, kick their feet up for a few days and rest up af­ter a fre­netic first three-and-a-half months of the sea­son.

The big stars had their fun in New Or­leans. Those who weren’t cho­sen for the All-Star game got away for some beach time. Coaches and ex­ec­u­tives took the time to en­gage in self-scout­ing and trade talks to fig­ure out how they want to ap­proach the last two months of the reg­u­lar sea­son.

When play re­sumes tonight, a few hours af­ter the trade dead­line ex­pires, it will be a break­neck, six-week sprint to the fin­ish.

The eight seed in the Western Con­fer­ence is up for grabs as well as pretty much ev­ery seed in the East. The jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion could turn the fi­nal hours be­fore the dead­line into a frenzy.

And though the league has been idle for a week, it will not look the same when the games re­turn.

DeMar­cus Cousins moved from Sacra­mento to New Or­leans in a stun­ning trade. Jeanie Buss and Magic John­son cleaned house with the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers. The Hous­ton Rock­ets have for­ti­fied their bench by adding Lou Wil­liams and big-name stars like Jimmy But­ler, Paul Ge­orge and Der­rick Rose are wait­ing to see if they will be on the move as well.

And let’s not for­get Carmelo An­thony, though the Knicks’ Al­lS­tar has fi­nal say-so in a move.

With all the chaos and un­cer­tainty fly­ing around, James said there is no rea­son to panic in Cleve­land.

He as­sured Cava­liers fans be­fore the break that the team was go­ing to be just fine even if it wasn’t able to make any more moves, but in­juries to Kevin Love and J.R. Smith have given other teams in the East con­fi­dence that the No. 1 seed can be had.

“As long as I’m in the lineup, we’ve got a chance,” James said af­ter it was an­nounced that Love would miss six to eight weeks to re­cover from knee surgery. “We’re good. Kev is out for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. JR’s been out. But I’m in the lineup, ob­vi­ously we’ve got a chance against any­body.”

Hard to ar­gue with the logic, con­sid­er­ing James has ap­peared in six straight NBA Fi­nals. But that won’t stop the Celtics, Wizards and Rap­tors from giv­ing chase. Bos­ton is in sec­ond place, just two wins be­hind Cleve­land, the surg­ing Wizards have rock­eted up the stand­ings and are in third and the fourth-place Rap­tors just ac­quired Serge Ibaka to bol­ster their de­fence and climb back into the hunt.

Down the lad­der in the East, sev­enth-place Chicago, eighth­place Detroit and 11th-place Char­lotte are teams to watch near the dead­line. If the Bulls de­cide to trade But­ler, a full­blown re­build would be started in Chicago. The Pis­tons have floun­dered af­ter a promis­ing start to the sea­son and could look to move strug­gling point guard Reg­gie Jack­son while the Hor­nets could try to ac­quire some help for Kemba Walker to jump back into the chase.

In the West, the top of the stand­ings look a lit­tle more sta­ble with the Golden State War­riors the clear favourites and third-seeded Hous­ton with five more vic­to­ries than the fourth-seeded Clip­pers. But five teams are within three wins of eight-seeded Den­ver, though the Pel­i­cans cer­tainly pushed them­selves to the forefront by land­ing Cousins.

Sud­denly the 11th-seeded Pel­i­cans ar­guably have two of the top 10 play­ers in the league in Cousins and An­thony Davis, giv­ing New Or­leans an enor­mous front­court that should be cause for con­cern all the way to the Bay Area.

AP PHOTO

Golden State War­riors’ Steph Curry (left) drives past Chicago Bulls for­ward Taj Gib­son dur­ing NBA ac­tion Feb. 8 in Oak­land, Calif.

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