WASHINGTON: LeBron James resumes his bid for a seventh consecutive NBA Finals appearance Thursday while the Golden State Warriors plan their third consecutive finals trip and Russell Westbrook takes aim at history.
And with the NBA trade deadline Thursday along with the resumption of play following the mid-season NBA All-Star Game break, the championship chase swings into high gear.
Only six players have reached the finals more consecutive years than James, who led the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Warriors last year in the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history after the Cavs lost to Golden State in 2015.
James, who also guided Miami to two NBA crowns in four finals appearances, says being the player others measure themselves against feeds the hunger for more success.
"It's motivating. It's great. To know that everyone is trying to build their team or wanting to get their team to try to get to where you are and try to knock you off, it's a motivating factor," said James.
"It's also a humbling factor that to know that I've been in this position for so long. I want to continue to work my habits, train my body, train my mind, and work on my game every day to put me in a position to be successful."
The Cavaliers are 39-16, three games ahead of Boston atop the Eastern Conference with Washington five back.
James is playing nearly 38 minutes a night and starters JR Smith and Kevin Love are sidelined by injuries, but James has faith the team can keep improving even without trade deadline moves.
"As the leader of the team, I'm fine with what we have, and we'll continue to push forward," said James. "I'm comfortable with whatever coach wants me to do out on the floor. Whatever he gives me to do, I can figure it out.
"We haven't been healthy pretty much all season, but I feel like if I'm in the line-up and I'm healthy, I'm feeling good, then we're going to have a chance."
The Warriors like their chances as well after adding superstar Kevin Durant to the core of a squad that went an NBA-record 73-9 last season. Golden State is off to a 47-9 start this season, four games ahead of San Antonio atop the Western Conference.
"Win a championship. That's it. That's why we play, to realize that dream," said two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry. "We know, having won before, exactly what it takes. Having been on the losing side, we know how thin the line is between winning and losing. That's what it's all about."
Curry has had to share a scoring spotlight with fellow 3-point sharpshooter Klay Thompson and forward Durant, but after early struggles the combination has come together in devastating fashion.
"Whether we shoot a lot of jumpers or find other ways to score, everybody is just focused on winning. It doesn't matter how you characterize it," said Curry.
Durant has adapted to his new teammates and the results have been impressive and at times overpowering.
"It has been fun," said Durant. "It has been a great season. We're winning games. Chemistry is good. City is nice. Coaches are cool. It's pretty simple."
And Golden State's defense, sparked by forward Draymond Green, has found top form despite losing key players in order to find salary cap money to sign Durant.
"I wouldn't necessarily say anything really surprised me other than how fast this team has really come together," said Green. "We just play within the flow of the game and let everything figure itself out."
When it comes to winning a title, Golden State is mindful that Cleveland might be the last obstacle once again.
"I know who's at the top of their game and who you potentially have to go through to win a championship," said Curry. "We've had two good battles against Cleveland the last two years. Who knows how this year will play out. It's a different year.
"[LeBron] is playing well. There are guys in the Western Conference that are playing well that we know we're going to have to beat to get back the finals. The way I approach it, worry about our team and getting back to the finals and whoever we play, we will be ready for them."
Oklahoma City star Westbrook could become only the second NBA player to average a triple double for an entire season after 1960s legend Oscar Robertson. He is averaging an NBA-best 31.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists over 57 games.
"Finish the All-Star break right and come back and do good things," said Westbrook of his plans for the final 25 games of the campaign.