Three reasons for the new mood

Derek Fisher declared, "It gets tougher towards the end."

Adam Silver said "we remain apart on both" systems and economic issues. "So from that standpoint," he added, "we're disappointed."

But who will remember one more dose of gloom when, for the first time in a long time, it came with some sunshine.

David Stern and Billy Hunter started cracking smiles Thursday night.

Stern invaded Hunter's news conference and literally yukked it up from the back row.

Hunter spied him there and called him out with a grin. Their back-and-forth included each proclaiming to the other, "Tomorrow!"

It's the first time either side has been this jolly and the first time either side has declared a day as the day. Friday is the day, and no one's afraid to say it.

"There are no guarantees that we'll get it done," Stern said, "but we're going to give it one heck of a shot tomorrow. I think that Billy and the union's negotiators feel the same way." He later added, in a notable softening of earlier public tones: "We're prepared to negotiate over everything. We're looking forward to it."

We're looking forward to it? That does not sound one bit like war. What is the source of all this?

One part of the story is that federal mediator George Cohen was effective. While he was not able to inspire final consensus last week, he did force meaningful progress on several of the trickier issues.

Also, having blown through chances to prevent the lockout, the cancellation of the preseason and missing the first weeks of the regular season, both sides appear to be genuinely motivated to meet the next deadline, coming any day now, which is the latest possible day to make a deal while preserving the chance of an 82-game season.

A third contributing factor, according to multiple sources, has been the absence this week of one of the union's most feared negotiators, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler.

Owners make no bones of the fact that Kessler, the first name in American sports law, is a bear in the bargaining room.

Some point out that the NFL players got a deal only after Kessler left the room. (Kessler might point out that the NFL players didn't get the best deal.)

Much was made of Portland owner Paul Allen's appearance in last week's mediated session. The suggestion was that he was there to send a message that owners were holding a hard line.

NBA sources, however, say it was nothing of the sort. In fact, they say, he was there at the invitation of the NBA's negotiators to watch Kessler. Allen was one of several owners who thought Stern and Silver had made players an overly generous offer of 50 percent of basketball-related income. The league's lead negotiators essentially replied: Go see for yourself. You think you can get Kessler to go for 47 percent? Good luck to you.

In the ongoing dance between Hunter and NBA agents -- many of whom feel Hunter is soft, risk-averse or ineffective -- Kessler has been seen as something of a shield for Hunter. If a tough lawyer such as that will go for Hunter's deal, who are the agents to complain?

But that shield has been out of action and not, sources insist, because he is in the doghouse.

Kessler is a partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf, where he handles many kinds of complex litigation beyond sports and chairs the global litigation department. That work has taken him to Russia for a few days, a period that happens to coincide with Stern and Hunter remembering how to laugh.

The joke making the rounds is that politically connected Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov ought to have Kessler detained there.

What's not a joke, however, is that Kessler has been absent just two days, and for better or for worse, as far as the players are concerned, already there's anticipation of the announcement NBA fans have been craving for four months.