LaMarcus Aldridge has agreed to join the star-studded Brooklyn Nets for the rest of the NBA season, according to his agent.

Aldridge – a seven-time All-Star – agreed to a contract buyout with the San Antonio Spurs earlier this month.

Now, the 35-year-old star will join forces with James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin in Brooklyn as the Nets eye their first NBA championship.

Aldridge's agent Jeff Schwartz confirmed the deal to ESPN on Saturday.

Averaging 19.4 points and 8.3 rebounds in his 15 NBA seasons, including nine with the Portland Trail Blazers, Aldridge has not played since March 1.

Aldridge is averaging 13.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 2020-21.

Steve Nash's Nets (31-15) are second in the Eastern Conference, one-and-a-half games behind the Philadelphia 76ers (32-13).

James Harden says he feels like the MVP of the NBA following his latest dominant display in the Brooklyn Nets' 113-111 win over the Detroit Pistons on Friday.

Harden returned from neck soreness to score 44 points for the Nets, his largest haul since joining Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets in January.

He also contributed 14 rebounds and eight assists in a decisive performance.

"I feel like I am the MVP," Harden said. "I don't want to speak individually on myself. I'm just going to leave it at that.

"I just try to go out there every single night and bring my team-mates everything I can."

The 31-year-old guard, who averages the most minutes per game in 2020-21, tops the statistics for assists per game this season, with 11.2. He is also averaging 25.3 points and 7.9 rebounds.

Denver's Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia's Joel Embiid, Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lakers star LeBron James are among the favourites to win the MVP along with Harden.

Harden added: "Tonight, Detroit's game plan and schemes were to take away the lob pass and not let our bigs get lobs and shooters to get shots.

"That allowed me to get to the basket and shoot layups all night. Games are different and I just take what the defense gives me. The next game we might get more lobs than shots.

"Just play the game the right way and try to be efficient in doing it."

James Harden returned from neck soreness with a 44-point haul to lead the Brooklyn Nets to a 113-111 win over the Detroit Pistons in the NBA on Friday.

As well as his personal Nets high 44 points, which included four three-pointers, Harden had 14 rebounds and eight assists.

Harden set up Blake Griffin for an alley-oop as the new recruit contributed 17 points against his former side.

Detroit had an 11-0 final-quarter stretch, led by back-to-back three-pointers from Frank Jackson, to ensure a tense finale.

But Cory Joseph missed a point-blank look to send the game to overtime on the buzzer, enabling Brooklyn to improve to 31-15.

The Los Angeles Lakers snapped their losing run without LeBron James, with a 100-86 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Montrezl Harrell starred off the bench with a double-double with 24 points and 10 rebounds as they steadied to 29-17 record.

Zion puts up career-best haul in defeat

Former number one draft pick Zion Williamson put in a huge display with a career-high 39 points, going 16-of-19 from the field, 10 rebounds and five assists, but it was not enough as the New Orleans Pelicans lost to the Denver Nuggets 113-108.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic underlined his MVP credentials with 37 points, six rebounds and nine assists. He scored 22 of his 37 in the second half.

The Milwaukee Bucks were toppled by the Boston Celtics 122-114, with forward Jayson Tatum scoring 34 points and guard Marcus Smart adding 23. Tatum had an injury scare but played on.

Reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was quiet by his standards with only 16 points, while he had eight rebounds and five assists. The Celtics stay in the playoffs hunt with a 22-23 record, while the Bucks slip to 29-15 in third in the East.

Donovan Mitchell had 35 points along with five rebounds and six assists as the top-of-the-table Utah Jazz defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 117-114 to secure their fourth straight win.

The Portland Trail Blazers edged the Orlando Magic 112-105 without Damian Lillard, with CJ McCollum starring with 22 points, five rebounds and seven assists.

Chris Paul got the edge over Kyle Lowry as the Phoenix Suns won 104-100 at the Toronto Raptors. Paul had 19 points, eight assists and six rebounds.

Heat slide to sixth straight loss

The Miami Heat may have got busy on NBA trade deadline with the addition of Victor Oladipo but he did not play as they lost their sixth straight, going down 110-105 to the Charlotte Hornets.

 

Timberwolves' 22-0 hot streak

The Minnesota Timberwolves' 22-0 run to secure their 107-101 win over the struggling Houston Rockets was the first 22-0 (or better) game-ending run since the Los Angeles Clippers in the 1998-99 season.

 

Friday's results

Brooklyn Nets 113-111 Detroit Pistons
Boston Celtics 122-114 Milwaukee Bucks
Phoenix Suns 104-100 Toronto Raptors
Denver Nuggets 113-108 New Orleans Pelicans
Minnesota Timberwolves 107-101 Houston Rockets
Portland Trail Blazers 112-105 Orlando Magic
Charlotte Hornets 110-105 Miami Heat
Indiana Pacers 109-94 Dallas Mavericks
Utah Jazz 117-114 Memphis Grizzlies
Atlanta Hawks 124-108 Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Lakers 100-86 Cleveland Cavaliers

 

76ers at Clippers

Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia 76ers (32-13) visit the Los Angeles Clippers (30-16), who are third in the West, on Saturday.

James Harden has been declared fit to return for the Brooklyn Nets against the Detroit Pistons on Friday.

The nine-time All-Star missed the Nets' previous game at the league-leading Utah Jazz earlier this week due to neck soreness.

Coach Steve Nash said: "It was the smartest and safest decision to protect him from himself and take him out of the lineup, because he's struggling."

Harden was initially listed as questionable for the game in Detroit, but he was later upgraded to available.

The Jazz game was only the second Harden has missed since arriving in Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets, both of which have been lost. He has a 23-7 record in 30 starts for the Nets.

With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the other members of the team's 'big three', enduring extended spells on the sidelines, Harden has been Nash's key man.

He has averaged 25.4 points in 38.5 minutes per game since his trade, as well as 11.5 assists and 8.7 rebounds for 11 triple-doubles.

Brooklyn are 30-15 on the year, third in the East behind the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers did little to disguise his irritation after Dwight Howard was ejected on his return to the Staples Center.

Howard and fellow former Los Angeles Laker Danny Green were presented with their 2020 championship rings before Thursday's encounter, which the Sixers won 109-101.

That was little thanks to Howard, who was dismissed by referee Jane Fitzgerald between the first and second quarters after intentionally walking into the Lakers' Montrezl Harrell.

Howard and Harrell had already been called for double technical fouls and the former's punishment as the altercation resumed meant an automatic disqualification

"Clowns. Guys just joking around. It's ridiculous on both parts. I didn't like, it, bottom line," Rivers said in an immediate reaction on the court and victory over the slumping Lakers did not soften his view too much.

"I just thought it was a very selfish play," he said, per ESPN.

"You got one tech, you can't get another one. We just have to have better discipline.

"I get it. I know there's a lot of emotion. But we had one center on our team, and he got thrown out.

"I was not very happy with that one. I know it's an emotional game. But he's a veteran. We got to have better discipline."

Harrell joined the Lakers in the immediate aftermath of Howard's surprise switch to Philadelphia.

Although the source of their bad blood remains unclear, Harrell was unrepentant afterwards, having theatrically waved Howard off the court as he remonstrated with Fitzgerald.

"I'm not backing down from nobody, man. I don't take that lightly. I don't take none of that disrespect," he said.

"You're not gonna push me all around the court and just feel like you're gonna big-boy me and just attack me or whatever.

"It's not in my blood, it will never be in my blood. I don't care what nobody feels about it, I don't care who don't like me. It is what it is."

Rajon Rondo has joined the Los Angeles Clippers from the Atlanta Hawks, with Lou Williams moving in the other direction.

Along with acquiring former Sixth Man of the Year Williams, the Hawks will also gain two future second-round draft picks.

The deal means the 35-year-old Rondo makes a swift return to Los Angeles, where he won his second NBA championship with the Lakers last season.

He joined the Hawks on a two-year, $15million deal, but the lure of a reunion with Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who built a close relationship with Rondo as an assistant at the Boston Celtics between 2011 and 2013, proved significant.

"He's fiery, that's what we need," Lue said after the Clippers beat the San Antonio Spurs 98-85 on Thursday, as quoted by ESPN.

"He's tough. He understands the game. And he respects people as a straight shooter and will tell them the truth.

"That was my biggest thing in Boston, was being honest with him and telling him the truth and keeping it real with him."

Lue said he was "not sure right now" whether Rondo would start or come off the bench.

Williams, 34, is certainly a masterful exponent when cast in the latter role, having won three of the past six Sixth Man of the Year awards, which recognises the best performing substitute in the league.

"He's going to be missed for everything he brought and not just basketball," Lue said of the point guard, who passed 15,000 career points during the Clippers' game with the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.

"I just think he was a great person. That's what I love the most.

"We all knew he was a great basketball player, but just him as a human being and what he stood for and how he always boosted the morale of the team with everyone around him. That's what we are going to miss the most.''

Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said he is happy with the team's position after they opted to keep in-demand star Kyle Lowry.

Lowry was tipped to leave the Raptors for either the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers or Los Angeles Lakers on the NBA's trade deadline but a move did not materialise.

Now, Lowry – a championship winner in Toronto and widely considered the greatest player in Raptors history – remains part of the franchise, who are outside of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference at 18-26.

Asked about the 35-year-old guard after the dust settled as Norman Powell was traded away, Ujiri told reporters: "Honestly, we didn't know which way it was going to go.

"Because we've really talked about looking at this team in every direction that it could go.

"We came to a point where we were comfortable with any direction that it went."

Six-time All-Star Lowry is on an expiring contract but will now see that deal out before heading for free agency, having been with the Raptors since a 2012 trade from the Houston Rockets.

Lowry has averaged 17.6 points, 7.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals in that time and started all 24 playoff games in 2018-19, scoring 15.0 points, as Toronto won their first NBA title.

"We'll talk about it then," Ujiri said. "I think we'll talk about them when the time comes at the end of the season. But I think we all know the respect and the sentiment about Kyle and this ball club, and what he's done not only for the city, the team, the country, the league.

"Honestly, our team can go in many different directions. I keep saying it. We are comfortable with whatever direction we go. Maybe we lost a chance here, but we also think we gained a chance in some other things going forward.

"This team, especially with what we've gone through this year, could pivot in many different directions. This is where we find ourselves now."

As for Powell, he left for the Portland Trail Blazers in the middle of his most prolific season in the NBA.

Powell is shooting 43.9 per cent from three-point range, ranking 10th in the NBA and third among those with 200 or more attempts from beyond the arc.

Gary Trent Jr, moving in the opposite direction, is also enjoying a career year in his third campaign, making the most of increased opportunities amid C.J. McCollum's injury woes for the Blazers to score 15.0 points in 30.8 minutes.

"Gary Trent is I think a 23-year-old player with lots of upside, shooter, defender, fits our core team," Ujiri said. "That's what we're excited about."

The Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers heaped further misery on the short-handed Los Angeles Lakers following a 109-101 win in the NBA on Thursday.

Defending champions the Lakers lost their fourth consecutive game in the absence of injured stars LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf) as the 76ers stayed hot.

Danny Green haunted his former team in Los Angeles to guide the in-form 76ers to their fourth successive victory.

Green and Dwight Howard – who tasted success with the Lakers last season before both joined the 76ers – received their championship rings pre-game at Staples Center.

Green hit eight of 12 three-pointers – more than any Lakers player has made this season – for a game-high 28 points, while Howard was ejected at the end of the opening quarter.

Kyle Kuzma (25 points) and Dennis Schroder (20 points and 11 assists) led the slumping the Lakers, who suffered their sixth straight home defeat to the 76ers.

 

Fox has night to remember

De'Aaron Fox posted a career-high 44 points to lead the Sacramento Kings to a crushing 141-119 win against the Golden State Warriors. He was 16-of-22 from the field, to go with seven assists and three steals against the Stephen Curry-less Warriors. Tyrese Haliburton added 21 points with a career-high six three-pointers as Richaun Holmes contributed a double-double of 25 points and 11 rebounds.

Paul George's double-double (24 points and 13 rebounds) helped the Los Angeles Clippers top the San Antonio Spurs 98-85 in the absence of injured star Kawhi Leonard (foot). Ivica Zubac (10 points and 13 rebounds) and Terance Mann (10 points and 12 rebounds) also had double-doubles, while Reggie Jackson top-scored with 28 points.

The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Miami Heat 125-122 behind C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard. McCollum put up 35 points, while Lillard had 22 of his own away to the Heat. Enes Kanter also finished with 18 points and 16 rebounds as veteran Carmelo Anthony scored 20 points off the bench.

 

Westbrook struggles from the field

Russell Westbrook might have finished just shy of a triple-double (13 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists) but he was far from his best shooting. The former MVP was just three-of-15 from the field. Westbrook also missed all five of his attempts from beyond the arc, while tallying eight turnovers as the New York Knicks stormed back to trump the Washington Wizards 106-102.

 

The windmill!

There was not much to celebrate for the Warriors on Thursday. But Juan Toscano-Anderson's slam after stealing the ball provided a highlight on the road in Sacramento.

 

Thursday's results

Philadelphia 76ers 109-101 Los Angeles Lakers
Portland Trail Blazers 125-122 Miami Heat
New York Knicks 106-102 Washington Wizards
Los Angeles Clippers 98-85 San Antonio Spurs
Sacramento Kings 141-119 Golden State Warriors

 

Nets at Pistons

The Brooklyn Nets (30-15) will look to keep pace with the 76ers in the east when they visit the lowly Detroit Pistons (12-31) on Friday.

Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said he is feeling "very good" about the team's championship chances after the Eastern Conference leaders acquired George Hill.

The 76ers were active on Thursday's NBA trade deadline, dealing for veteran guard Hill from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a three-team deal.

Ignas Brazdeikis also arrived from the New York Knicks as the 76ers sent Tony Bradley and two second-round picks (2025 and 2026) to Oklahoma City and Terrance Ferguson, Vincent Poirier, the rights to Emir Preldzic, a 2021 second-round pick and the Miami Heat's 2024 second-round pick to New York.

The 76ers have not won the NBA Finals since 1983, but Doc Rivers' Philadelphia top the Eastern Conference this season in their pursuit of a drought-ending championship.

"I think we feel very good about the roster we have and about our chances to win the championship," Morey told the media after acquiring Hill.

"I think Doc had some comments recently about looking for a two-way guard and it was one of very few needs for us, and that’s what we got with George. A veteran two-way guard who can shoot at a very high level, who can defend at a high level."

Hill – in his 13th NBA season – has appeared in 14 games (all starts) with the Thunder in 2020-21, averaging 11.8 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 26.3 minutes per game.

The 34-year-old has shot 50.8 per cent from the field, 38.6 per cent from three-point range since joining the Thunder from the Milwaukee Bucks at the start of the season.

Hill has a career average of 11.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 27.7 minutes per contest as he prepares to join forces with All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia.

However, Hill – who has also played for the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Utah Jazz, Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers – has been sidelined since January after undergoing a surgical procedure on his right thumb.

"I don't want to give a timeline, it's not long," Morey said. "He had an issue where he chose to have surgery on it so that it'll never be an issue again.

"Once he's back, it's something that will never bother him again. So we're very optimistic about him for the future."

The 76ers, meanwhile, were reportedly in the mix to deal for Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry on Thursday.

Lowry was linked with the 76ers, Heat and champions the Los Angeles Lakers before Toronto opted to retain the franchise favourite.

Asked about NBA champion Lowry, Morey told reporters: "I can't specifically address a player on another team. Obviously at the trade deadline you have lots of options that were out there.

"All I can say is we're very excited about the option we ended up with. I think we did the deal about two hours before the deadline and we took an option that we thought really upgraded our team this year on both ends and at the same time kept all our optionality in the future."

Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard will miss Thursday's clash against former team the San Antonio Spurs due to foot soreness.

Leonard starred in the Clippers' 134-101 win over the Spurs on Wednesday, scoring 25 points and seven rebounds.

But Leonard – who helped the Spurs to the NBA championship in 2014 – will sit out the second of the back-to-back games with a right foot issue.

"[It is] something that just came up. [We] want to be cautious," Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said pre-game.

Leonard spent seven years in San Antonio, where he made his debut in 2011 before leaving the Spurs for the Toronto Raptors in 2018.

The five-time All-Star won NBA titles with both the Spurs and Raptors prior to joining the Clippers in 2019.

Leonard – a two-time Finals MVP – has been averaging 25.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game for the Clippers this season.

The Clippers (29-16) are third in the Western Conference, behind the NBA-leading Utah Jazz (32-11) and Phoenix Suns (29-14).

Perhaps the biggest development at the NBA's trade deadline on Thursday saw a big player staying put as Kyle Lowry remained with the Toronto Raptors.

Veteran point guard Lowry, on an expiring contract, was seen as a potentially key pick-up for either the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat as they chase the title.

But the Raptors did not get a deal that appealed to them and will allow their greatest ever player to reach free agency.

There were significant moves elsewhere, though, as teams seized the last opportunity to agree trades.
 

ONE OUT IN TORONTO

Toronto, playing the season in Tampa, may have held on to Lowry, but they do not appear in contention this year at 18-26 and did deal Norman Powell.

The Portland Trail Blazers brought in the wing, one of the league's best three-point shooters in 2020-21, as Gary Trent Jr and Rodney Hood moved in the opposite direction.

Rather than one of the Raptors' shooters, the Heat will rely on Victor Oladipo, recruited from the Houston Rockets, over the coming months.

Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a draft swap was enough to do a deal with the Rockets.

Nemanja Bjelica also went to Miami from the Sacramento Kings for Maurice Harkless and Chris Silva.

And the Heat are said to be favourites for LaMarcus Aldridge after he was bought out by the San Antonio Spurs. Andre Drummond, another potential buyout, was not traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

THREE GO IN ORLANDO

As Toronto resisted the urge to take whatever they could get, the Orlando Magic did the opposite and cashed in.

All-Star Nikola Vucevic was a surprising early exit on Thursday as he went to the Chicago Bulls, along with Al-Farouq Aminu, in return for Otto Porter Jr, Wendell Carter Jr and two first-round picks.

Chicago added Daniel Theis from the Boston Celtics, but Lonzo Ball stayed put at the New Orleans Pelicans, while it was far from Orlando's only outgoing.

Evan Fournier headed to the Celtics, and the Denver Nuggets won the race for Aaron Gordon. His signing, along with Gary Clark, cost the Nuggets a first-round pick as well as Gary Harris and RJ Hampton.

Denver also added JaVale McGee in a deal with the Cavs.

RONDO RETURNS TO LA

Rajon Rondo, a team-mate of McGee's on the title-winning Lakers last season, has moved back to LA to join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Rondo played a big role in the playoffs for the Lakers and his signing cost the Clippers three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, sent to the Atlanta Hawks.

Western Conference rivals the Dallas Mavericks got two shooters from the Pelicans in the form of JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli, parting with James Johnson, Wes Iwundu and a second-round pick.

The Sixers landed George Hill in a three-team trade involving the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New York Knicks, while the Charlotte Hornets brought in Brad Wanamaker.

A late trade for Toronto Raptors great Kyle Lowry did not materialise on Thursday for either the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat, who signed Victor Oladipo.

The trade deadline passed with Lowry, widely considered the greatest player in Toronto's history, still on the Raptors.

The point guard, who turned 35 on Thursday, said it felt "weird" walking off the court on Wednesday knowing it might be his last appearance for the team.

Lowry played a part in the Raptors snapping a nine-game losing run against the Denver Nuggets, but links to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Lakers and the Heat had persisted in the days leading up to the deadline.

Reports on Thursday continued to detail interest from defending champions LA, in need of reinforcements amid injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James, and their 2020 Finals opponents Miami.

But The Athletic's Shams Charania said Toronto were struggling to agree terms with either team as they demanded a young guard in return.

The Lakers reportedly offered Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope but withheld Talen Horton-Tucker, while the Heat included Duncan Robinson but not Tyler Herro.

It meant the deadline ticked by before ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Lowry would not be moving.

Six-time All-Star Lowry is on an expiring contract but will now see that deal out before heading for free agency, having been with the Raptors since a 2012 trade from the Houston Rockets.

He has averaged 17.6 points, 7.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals in that time and started all 24 playoff games in 2018-19, scoring 15.0 points, as Toronto won their first NBA title.

The failure to secure a trade for Lowry meant Toronto lost only one key man on Thursday as sixth-year wing Norman Powell left for the Portland Trail Blazers in the middle of his most prolific season in the NBA.

The 27-year-old, who has a career 9.9 points, has averaged 19.6 per game in 2020-21 despite the team's struggles, establishing himself as a regular starter for the first time.

Powell is shooting 43.9 per cent from three, ranking 10th in the NBA and third among those with 200 or more attempts from beyond the arc.

Gary Trent Jr, moving in the opposite direction, is also enjoying a career year in his third campaign, making the most of increased opportunities amid CJ McCollum's injury woes for the Blazers to score 15.0 points in 30.8 minutes.

Meanwhile, Miami focused their attention on Oladipo, who found a third team of the season.

The 28-year-old guard started the year with the Indiana Pacers before he was moved to the Rockets as they dealt James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

With Houston loading up on draft picks and setting themselves up for a lottery selection in a difficult year, though, Oladipo - scoring 21.2 points per game - was traded again.

The Heat secured support for Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in another title push and in return offered Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a draft swap to the Rockets, The Athletic said.

It's been some time since the Phoenix Suns finished a season above .500, and even longer since they last appeared in the playoffs. While both droughts will end this season, the question remains whether they are a legitimate title contender in a stacked Western Conference. 

Ask around as to which teams are most likely to win a championship and the Lakers, Clippers, Nets and maybe the Jazz, Bucks and 76ers would garner the most responses. That is somewhat curious since only Utah and Philadelphia currently have better records than Phoenix, who are an NBA-best 21-6 since January 28. 

The Suns showed signs of what they could become when they went 8-0 in the seeding games in the NBA 'bubble' last season, though they still missed out on the play-in in the West. The biggest reason behind that success was the otherworldly play of Devin Booker, who averaged 30.5 points on 50.3 per cent from the field with 6.0 assists and 4.9 rebounds. 

Sensing the Suns were on the verge of reversing their recent fortunes, general manager James Jones made the offseason move to acquire Chris Paul from Oklahoma City in the hopes of building on that success. Paul, an 11-time All-Star who recently became the sixth player to reach 10,000 assists, has accumulated all kinds of accolades during his 16-year career but, most importantly, is still playing at a very high level.  

Paul has twice helped guide a team to their most wins in a season in franchise history, doing so with the Hornets/Pelicans in 2007 and the Rockets in 2017-18. Though they won't reach that lofty standard in this abbreviated season, the Suns' current .674 winning percentage (29-14) would be their best since 2006-07. 

Paul's acquisition instantly made Phoenix better both on and off court and gave the franchise a measure of respect that only players of his calibre can bring. His ability to run an offense combined with Booker's continued ascent to stardom has the Suns in unfamiliar territory. 

Phoenix haven't had a winning season since going 48-34 in 2013-14 and only Sacramento (14) and New York (seven) have longer active stretches without finishing over .500. The Suns last reached the postseason in 2009-10, when current Nets coach Steve Nash was manning the point. The 10-season drought is the league's second-longest, trailing only Sacramento (14).  

Where that improvement has come from is maybe the most surprising aspect of Phoenix's success.  

Long known as a free-wheeling, offensive-minded team, the Suns are winning mainly with defense this season. Phoenix have finished 20th or worse in scoring defense in each of the last 17 seasons and ranked dead-last as recently as 2017-18.  

That’s no longer the case as Phoenix are allowing 107.4 points per game, third-best in the NBA. It's been nearly 40 years since the Suns finished a season in the top five of that category (102.0 in 1982-83, ranking third).

That's quite a turnaround from last season, when the Suns ranked 20th in the league in scoring defence, an improvement of 6.0 points.

There's no denying that strong defensive teams are geared for postseason success, and the Suns' depth should also be an advantage in the playoffs. While Booker is Phoenix's undisputed star and focus of the offense, there are plenty of other pieces capable of driving the offense.  

The Suns have seven players averaging in double figures, which is tied for the league lead (minimum 20 games played). They also have four players with at least 100 assists, a total bettered only by the Hornets, Nuggets, Kings and Bucks. 

Phoenix also have proven to be a stellar road team with a league-best 14-6 mark. That bodes well if they need to win playoff games at Utah, Los Angeles or Denver.  

After Booker and Paul, Phoenix’s third-leading scorer is DeAndre Ayton. The third-year center hasn't put up monster offensive numbers (14.7 ppg) that often are expected of a number one overall pick, but he ranks among the league leaders in rebounding (11.0) and his defensive versatility is a huge reason for the Suns' success.  

Ayton has also shown a knack for raising his play in the second half, shooting 65.1 per cent from the field after half-time - the third-best such rate among players with 150 attempts. 

Mikal Bridges (13.5), Jae Crowder (10.3), Cameron Johnson (10.3) and Dario Saric (10.0) also are scoring in double figures for the Suns. Bridges has made a huge leap this season, going from 9.1 points and 3.1 rebounds last season to 13.5 and 4.8 this season. He's also shooting 52.6 per cent from the field and ranks second on the team with 79 three-pointers.  

After Paul (10 straight playoff appearances) and Crowder (eight straight), this group does not boast extensive playoff experience and that includes coach Monty Williams. But Paul is among the game's great leaders and will be counted on heavily to guide the Suns through the postseason. 

Unlike several other top contenders, Phoenix have been extremely fortunate with injuries. The team's top six rotation players (Booker, Paul, Ayton, Bridges, Crowder and Johnson) have combined to miss only 19 games and Phoenix have used just five different starting lineups. Only Utah have used fewer (three).  

The Suns have fared well against some of the league's best teams with a 5-2 mark against the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, Nets, Bucks and 76ers, but some of those wins have come against clubs missing top players due to injuries.  

That makes it difficult to get a read on how the Suns might perform in the postseason but considering the franchise has never won a championship in its 53-year history or even been in the playoffs for over a decade, the time for accomplishment is certainly now. 

Two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic is being traded from the Orlando Magic to the Chicago Bulls in Thursday's first big deal ahead of the deadline.

The Magic were expected to be involved in developments prior to the trade deadline – at 15:00 ET (19:00 GMT) – as numerous teams reportedly show an interest in Aaron Gordon.

But star five Vucevic will be the first to depart as Orlando appear to acknowledge they are now focusing on a rebuild, with Evan Fournier following to the Boston Celtics.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said the Magic were sending Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu to Chicago for Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and first-round picks in 2021 and 2023.

The Celtics sent two second-round selections for Fournier, the report said.

Orlando are 14th in the East with a 15-26 record while the Bulls occupy 10th, the final play-in spot, at 19-24.

Vucevic was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2011 draft but was traded to the Magic after his first season in the NBA, having scored just 5.5 points per game in only 15.9 minutes.

The center has since turned into a reliable performer in the league, though, averaging 16.7 points and 10.3 rebounds across his career.

Vucevic was selected for the All-Star Game in 2019, when he passed 20 points per game for the first time over a season (20.8), and again this year.

The 30-year-old leads Orlando with 24.5 points and 11.8 rebounds, starting all 44 of their games.

He ranks 17th in the league for scoring, but none of the players above him in that list can match the Montenegrin for boards.

With wing Fournier also departing, having chipped in with 19.7 points, the Magic are losing their two leading scorers.

Forward Aminu had also been starting for the team, averaging 5.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 21.6 minutes in 2020-21.

Meanwhile, former Washington Wizards forward Porter leaves Chicago having played the same number of minutes per game this year, contributing 9.9 points and 5.5 boards.

Third-year center Carter had 25 starts in 32 appearances for the Bulls this season and was the team's leading rebounder (7.8) and fifth-highest scorer (10.9).

Chicago may not yet be done, with ESPN's report adding details of their continued interest in the New Orleans Pelicans' Lonzo Ball.

Kyle Lowry admitted it was "weird" to walk off the court for potentially the last time as a Toronto Raptor as the point guard waits to see if he will be on the move before the trade deadline.

Lowry scored only eight points but had nine assists and five rebounds in his 33 minutes on court, helping Toronto snap a nine-game losing streak by beating the Denver Nuggets 135-111 in Tampa.

Viewed by many as the greatest player in the Canadian franchise's history, the six-time All-Star is on an expiring contract, making him a leading candidate to be on the move on Thursday - which just so happens to be his 35th birthday.

Toronto has an 18-26 record in a season that has seen them forced to relocate away from their home due to travel restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a post-game media conference that was briefly interrupted by a call from rapper Drake, a global ambassador for the team who offered his services to work as a translator, Lowry admitted there was a different feeling at the end of the game, potentially knowing it was his last for the Raptors.

"It was kind of weird tonight, not knowing what the next step will be, understanding that there are things that could be possibly be done, with me and other guys on the team," he said prior to Drake's cameo appearance.

"It was great to get a win, it felt good to be out there. It would have been crazier if it was in Toronto, I think, but it was different tonight, for sure.

"Who knows what's going to happen? No one knows, but it was definitely different." 

Lowry arrived at Toronto in July 2012 and is the franchise leader for assists, three-pointers made and steals. He also sits second on the list for games played and was a key part of the roster that won the NBA title in 2019.

"Whenever the time comes, I'll think about that stuff," Lowry replied when asked about his legacy with the team. "The story is not complete, put it that way. My career isn't complete and my time in Toronto isn't essentially over.

"No decisions have been made, nothing has been done. With that being said, I don't know. I've given a lot and I'll continue to give it all, no matter what."

Raptors coach Nick Nurse was full of praise for Lowry, who helped build a 24-point half-time lead as they emphatically put an end to the Nuggets' six-game winning run on the road.

"He plays harder than anybody I've ever seen, and I can't give him a higher compliment than that," Nurse said. 

"He'll go down as maybe the greatest Raptor ever to date."

Norman Powell – another member of Toronto's team who could be on the move before the 15:00 ET (19:00 GMT) deadline – had 22 points.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.