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The stretch run of the NBA season has arrived. It's time for the playoff push

There’s no NBA player who is a bigger fan of harness racing than Denver’s Nikola Jokic. He owns horses, goes to tracks whenever he can and even accepted one of his MVP awards while riding around at his farm in Serbia.

He knows the stretch run often decides races.

And the same holds true in the NBA, which is entering its stretch run.

The All-Star break is over, games resume on Thursday and the defending champion Nuggets — along with a slew of other contenders — are hoping that this is the time when they can start hitting their best stride. Denver is coming out of the break in fourth place in the Western Conference, three games back of No. 1 Minnesota.

“We don’t try to listen to what people say,” Jokic said. “We know what we are capable of. And it’s working for us. So, I don’t know what people are saying, that we are not good. I don’t say that we are the best, but we are not bad.”

They were the best last season. This season, the best won’t be crowned until June, of course. The next couple of months are all about jostling for playoff position — or in some cases, fighting for playoff spots.

It’s not the second half — what people commonly call the period after the All-Star break — but rather the final third of the season. The league is exactly two-thirds of the way through the season, 820 games down, 410 games to go. It's the time of year when playbooks tend to get tweaked a little and things get a little more serious.

Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers knows the playoff push is underway. But as a veteran, he also knows that the most important game is always the next one.

“Can't look too far ahead,” George said. "Take it one game at a time. Because that’s what you tend to do, second half of the season, start to look ahead and look forward to playoffs and just trying to get to the playoffs. But we just got to take it one game at a time.”

Boston has the NBA’s best record and sits high atop the Eastern Conference, Minnesota and Oklahoma City — a pair of surprises — are first and second, respectively, in the West and some teams with championship pedigrees like Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers are hoping their pre-All-Star momentum carries over now.

The Warriors were 8-2 in their last 10 games before the break, the Lakers 7-3.

“The most important thing for me is definitely my health, where I’m at right now, where our team is leaning,” Lakers forward LeBron James said. “We’re trending in the right direction. Obviously, with our Laker team, it’s been about health all year. Trying to do what’s best for me for the betterment of the team.”

He’s been dealing with an ankle issue that limited him in the All-Star Game but didn’t prevent him from playing. Other teams have far bigger concerns — primarily the Philadelphia 76ers, who spent a bit of time in November atop the East but have dropped nine of their last 12 games with reigning MVP Joel Embiid out with a knee injury.

They're sliding and so are the Milwaukee Bucks, who have gone 3-7 since Doc Rivers took over as coach. Rivers said at All-Star weekend that he knew that taking over a team just before a long road trip would be a mistake; it seems like he was right. But he also believes there's time to figure things out.

"If you look statistically over the last 20 years, the same teams win it: the teams that are in the top five or 10 in offense and the teams that are in the top five or 10 in defense,” Rivers said. “That’s not going away. So you can score all you want. But you better be able to defend, too, if you want to win.”

Boston has a six-game lead over second-place Cleveland in the East; that would suggest it’s safe to go ahead and put the Celtics down for a 10th consecutive playoff berth, extending the longest current streak of postseason appearances in the league.

Detroit, Washington, Charlotte, San Antonio, Portland and Memphis all are alive mathematically but not realistically. Take them out of the mix, and it’s 24 teams left in the race for 20 spots when including the play-in tournament.

The Thunder had 100-1 odds to win the NBA title when the season started. They're at 25-1 now, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

“I think we’re starting to kind of see others take notice of us,” Thunder guard and MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We knew that was going to happen once we started winning games. It comes with the territory.”

Every team has between 26 and 29 games left to play. In terms of combined remaining opponent winning percentage, Orlando, Miami and Boston are among the teams with the easiest — on paper, anyway — schedules the rest of the way. Phoenix would have the toughest, including two games left to play against Boston and a 10-game stretch to end the season all against likely playoff teams.

“We respect every team regardless and try to focus on us as much as possible each night,” Suns forward Kevin Durant said. “It just about building our habits, getting better at what we’ve already established and pushing forward. I think playing against some of the teams that’s going to be there at the end of the season, it’s going to be a great test before we head to the playoffs.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press