NBA returns for a break-neck finish to regular season

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 on Thursday night, a few hours after the trade deadline expires, it will be a break-neck, 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' All-Star 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 defense and climb back into the hunt.

Down the ladder in the East, seventh-place Chicago, eighth-place Detroit and 11th-place Charlotte are teams to watch near the deadline. If the Bulls decide to trade Butler, a full-blown 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 favorites 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.

''We can wreak havoc on this league,'' Cousins said. ''Will it happen overnight? Probably not, but our potential is scary.''

There isn't much time to waste. New Orleans has only 26 games left before the playoffs start, giving the two former Kentucky stars less than two months to get on the same page.

It will be interesting to see how the other teams in the hunt with New Orleans react to that groundbreaking trade.

The 13th-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves have been in pursuit of veteran help for youngsters Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in an effort to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. But they could back off the throttle, hold tight and head for a 13th straight lottery.

Portland already made one move pointed toward the future when the Trail Blazers shipped Mason Plumlee to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic in an effort to get something for Plumlee before he left in free agency this summer and the Nuggets getting nothing in return. And Sacramento has clearly given up the postseason chase this year by moving Cousins for a package led by rookie Buddy Hield.

Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio has heard his name mentioned in deals, but he had some advice for anxious fans and players alike.

''Never stress,'' Rubio tweeted, ''over what you can't control.''

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AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this story.

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