The NBA will reach the All-Star break with conference races that are too close to call.
In fact, they could be closer than ever at the league’s showcase event.
The Toronto Raptors take a one-game lead over Boston in the Eastern Conference into Wednesday, the last full night of play before a week off. In the West, the Golden State Warriors’ lead is down to a half-game over the surging Houston Rockets, who have won nine in a row.
Unless those leads grow after those four teams play Wednesday, it will be the first time in NBA history that both conference leaders are ahead by one game or less at the All-Star break, according to the league.
If Houston beats Sacramento and Golden State loses to Portland, it will also mean both All-Star coaches warrant their spots because of their records, instead of the rules.
Toronto’s Dwane Casey, who will coach Team LeBron, and Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, who will lead Team Stephen, clinched the coaching positions even though their teams didn’t lead the conferences at the cutoff date. Boston’s Brad Stevens and Golden State’s Steve Kerr were both ineligible because they coached last year.
But Casey isn’t celebrating as he heads off to his first time as the head coach of an All-Star team, knowing the tough road ahead.
“That’s not even in my thought process,” he said after a 115-112 victory over Miami on Tuesday.
“I’m upset even though we won because I know what’s coming around the corner. It’s like you’re going down a dark alley and here comes a group of guys with a baseball bat and you say, ‘Oh, hey, where’s the baseball game?’ at 12 o’clock at night. You know what’s coming around the corner.”
AND TOWARD THE BOTTOM OF THE BRACKET
It’s shaping up to be a wild West again.
Six teams are within 2 1/2 games of each other from fifth place, where Oklahoma City resides, to 10th. While New Orleans is holding the final spot, the two teams right behind the Pelicans look as if they’ll be tough to hold off down the stretch.
The Los Angeles Clippers are ninth, a half-game back of the final spot, and hard-charging Utah is another game back after 10 straight victories.
The Clippers have won 12 of 17, but realize they need to keep rolling after a nine-game losing streak in November forced them to play catch-up.
“For us, we have to try to win every game,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We dug ourselves a hole earlier, and it’s just, we’re in the West. You lose four in the West, you’re out. That’s just how it is. So we have to win games.”
The East is essentially down to nine teams for eight spots. Detroit is 2 1/2 games behind eighth-place Miami and nobody else is close.
PREVIEWING ALL-STAR WEEKEND IN LOS ANGELES
—All-Star Game: For the first time, it won’t be East vs. West on Sunday night. It’s Team LeBron vs. Team Stephen after captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry drafted teams from the pool of All-Stars, with the league hoping the new format leads to a more competitive game.
—Rising Stars Challenge: The NBA’s best rookies and second-year players meet, with a team of U.S. players facing a team from the rest of the world. The World Team has won two of three under this format, and will be led by Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Ben Simmons (Australia).
—Slam Dunk Contest: The field includes two rookies, one All-Star, and one son of slam dunk royalty. Larry Nance Jr.’s father won the NBA’s first slam dunk title in 1984. Rookies Donovan Mitchell of Utah and Dennis Smith Jr. of Dallas, and Pacers All-Star Victor Oladipo round out the field.
—3-point Shootout: Houston’s Eric Gordon defends his title against a field that includes All-Stars Klay Thompson, the 2016 champion, Paul George, Kyle Lowry and Bradley Beal. Also competing are Devin Booker of Phoenix, Tobias Harris of the Clippers and Wayne Ellington of Miami.
—Skills Challenge: The dribbling, passing and shooting event will have a new champion after New York’s Kristaps Porzingis had to pull out with a torn left ACL. Big men are 2 for 2 since joining what was previously an event for the little guys, with Karl-Anthony Towns winning in 2016. This year’s field: Embiid, Detroit’s Andre Drummond, Boston’s Al Horford, Chicago rookie Lauri Markkanen, Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie, Sacramento’s Buddy Hield and Denver’s Jamal Murray.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK
T.J. McConnell, 76ers: 10 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in a 108-92 victory over New York on Monday. A triple-double off the bench would have been impressive enough, but the undrafted guard added six steals as well.
AP freelance writer Ian Harrison in Toronto contributed to this report.
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