LeBron James had a trophy in his hands and a smile on his face.
That was Sunday at the All-Star Game, when James again rose above the NBA’s best in winning a game and MVP honors.
What he really wants is to be celebrating in the postseason, not midseason.
The NBA’s sprint to the finish begins Thursday with James riding high but starting again from back in the pack as Cleveland tries to catch Toronto and Boston in the Eastern Conference.
“We just added four new guys before the break, and we have a lot of work to do,” James said. “So I really don’t like to think that too far ahead. But obviously winning championships is what it’s all about. That’s what this league is all about and hopefully at the end of the road then I have the Cavs there to actually compete for one, to be in a finals representing the East.”
The Golden State Warriors are also in the unusual position of pursuers, after red-hot Houston passed them for the league’s best record with 10 straight wins leading into the All-Star break. But nobody would count out the Warriors, not with their star-studded group that has won two of the last three titles.
Cleveland is the unknown, even with James. The Cavaliers added new pieces around him earlier this month, and there’s not a lot of time left to build championship chemistry.
The Cavs went into the break with four straight wins, but they’re still just third in the conference and couldn’t gain any ground on the Raptors, who have won seven straight to pass the Celtics. Toronto is an NBA-best 24-4 at home and could make the Cavs’ NBA Finals plans difficult if they have to go through Canada.
“We would hope so, but we’ve got to get there,” Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said. “We’ve got to finish the season strong.”
Much of the work is already done, since the NBA’s earlier start to this season means teams are well beyond the midway point of their schedules. They will have about 25 games remaining, with so much to sort out in both conferences.
It’s a two-team race at the top of the West but things are tight well beyond that. San Antonio is just percentage points ahead of Minnesota for third while still hoping Kawhi Leonard returns from his thigh injury, and it’s a gap of only 4 1/2 games from there to 10th place, where the Utah Jazz have won 11 straight.
The East has a close race for fourth place and home-court advantage in the first round between Washington and Indiana, and positioning to be settled down the bottom of the bracket, where Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Miami hold the final three spots.
But the biggest question might be the Celtics, who slumped into the break with three straight losses after leading the conference most of the season, and now have one team ahead of them and another behind that has the momentum.
“The Raptors have been playing really well. Cleveland has been playing really well. But we’ve got to get back to playing really well, too,” the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown said. “So as the season moves forward, we’re looking forward to getting back to the top spot.”
Same with the Warriors, who were hurt by the longer-than-usual time it took to reach the break. They were just 6-4 in their last 10 games and at 44-14 already have more losses than they averaged over the last three seasons (13).
Coach Steve Kerr made it clear that his team needed a rest and now that the Warriors had it, they’re ready to try to reel in the Rockets.
“We’ve got 20-something games before the playoffs to chase another championship,” All-Star Stephen Curry said. “So, ready to hit the ground running when we get back.”