ORLANDO, Florida (AP) _ 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 their finals disappointment, the series could be a thriller.
But the Chicago Bulls are right on Miami's heels in the Eastern Conference, and a number of contenders could emerge for the Thunder out West.
The second half opens on Tuesday, and the other big story is Dwight Howard's situation at the Orlando Magic, who have to decide by the March 15 deadline if it will keep or trade its franchise center.
Durant didn't want to talk about 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,'' Durant said.
James and the Heat seem headed toward a second shot at the finals, 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,'' 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 went to the break with a share of the NBA's best win-loss 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 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.
“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 Los Angeles 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 New Jersey and Dallas, so business will get just as much attention as basketball next month.