Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant has apologised after an argument with actor and comedian Michael Rapaport in which he used homophobic language was made public.

Rapaport posted screenshots of a private conversation on his Twitter account earlier this week.

"I receive threats and disgusting messages DAILY, but never in my wildest dreams did I think @KDTrey5 would be among them," he wrote.

"The [snake] himself is now threatening me, bringing up my wife and wants to fight. This is supposed to be America's sweetheart right?"

The dispute appeared to begin when Rapaport called Durant "super sensitive" following a post-game interview on TNT in December.

The pictures showed Durant respond with homophobic language and threats towards the True Romance and Deep Blue Sea star.

Rapaport also addressed the 2014 NBA MVP's comments on his podcast, saying: "That's not locker-room talk, we're not s***-talking.

"That's not how people talk, you're threatening me. You've done it three times."

An apologetic Durant said: "I'm sorry that people [have] seen the language that I used.

"That's not really what I want people to see and hear from me, but hopefully I can move past it and get back out on the floor."

Durant has been out of action with a hamstring injury since February 13, although the Nets have claimed first place in the East in his absence.

The 32-year-old forward missed the entirety of last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in the 2018-19 NBA Finals while playing for the Golden State Warriors.

He returned to average 29.0 points across 19 outings this year, leading Brooklyn in scoring, before his latest setback gave new signing James Harden the reins.

Harden, also now missing with a hamstring issue, has put together an MVP run, aided by Kyrie Irving.

Of his season, Durant said: "I was playing solid before I got injured and feel like we were just starting to figure each other out, James, Kyrie and myself, and different line-ups out there on the floor.

"I felt like we were starting to gain our rhythm and, even though I was out a week before that with [COVID-19] protocols, I felt like our team was gaining more chemistry then and that's moreso what I care about.

"How I play, I'll figure that out over time whenever I get out there."

Reports suggest Durant is nearing a return, but the player added he had to be "smart and cautious with this type of injury".

"I've been through this situation before so I just try to take myself back to that place," Durant said.

The Brooklyn Nets have made it 20 wins from their past 23 matches with a 111-89 victory over the Charlotte Hornets without injured star pair Kevin Durant and James Harden on Thursday.

LaMarcus Aldridge impressed in his Nets debut, as Brooklyn blew away the Hornets, who were without the injured LaMelo Ball, in the first quarter with a 32-11 start.

Kyrie Irving had 15 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists but it was Jeff Green who top scored with 21 points including five three-pointers.

The Nets may have been missing James Harden due to hamstring tightness but improved to a 34-15 record to sit top of the Eastern Conference.

The Philadephia 76ers are still right behind them, having overcome the Cleveland Cavaliers 114-94 on Thursday.

The 76ers were also without their star man Joel Embiid, who has now missed 10 games, but they shot 40 per cent from three-point range.

Shake Mitton was the leading exponent with five threes in his match-high 27 points as the 76ers tied with the Nets for most road wins in the East with 14.

 

Curry on fire, another Westbrook triple-double

Stephen Curry scored 36 points and had 11 rebounds in his second game back but it was not enough as the Golden State Warriors lost 116-109 to the Miami Heat.

The Heat, who had Victor Oladipo debut with six points and five assists, end their four-game home losing streak.

The Los Angeles Clippers suffered their second straight defeat, going down to the Denver Nuggets 101-94 with guard Jamal Murray impressing again with 23 points and eight rebounds.

Center Nikola Jokic scored 14 points along with seven rebounds and seven assists for Denver as the Clippers were always playing catch-up after a 20-31 opening quarter.

Kawhi Leonard was a lone hand with 24 points, 12 rebounds and four assists as the Clippers slipped to a 32-18.

The Orlando Magic got past the New Orleans Pelicans 115-110 in over-time, along with the Atlanta Hawks 134-129 against the San Antonio Spurs in OT.

Russell Westbrook got another triple-double as the Washington Wizards lost 120-91 to the Detroit Pistons.

 

Wayward Clippers

It was not a good night for the Clippers, losing back-to-back games and shooting less than 30 per cent from three-point range, including two-from-seven from guard Paul George, while Reggie Jackson went at 20 per cent from beyond the arc.

 

Aldridge's delightful debut

After missing the last two games with a sore foot since his recruitment from the San Antonio Spurs, veteran LaMarcus Aldridge did a bit of everything on his Brooklyn debut with 11 points, nine rebounds, two steals and six assists.

 

Thursday's results:

Philadelphia 76ers 114-94 Cleveland Cavaliers
Detroit Pistons 120-91 Washington Wizards
Brooklyn Nets 111-89 Charlotte Hornets
Orlando Magic 115-110 New Orleans Pelicans
Miami Heat 116-109 Golden State Warriors
Atlanta Hawks 134-129 San Antonio Spurs
Denver Nuggets 101-94 Los Angeles Clippers

 

Bucks in Portland

Damian Lillard's Portland Trail Blazers (29-18) play host to the Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks (30-17) in the highlight Friday fixture.

The team from the Mile High City is rising again.

The Denver Nuggets are starting to resemble the team that put forth a thrilling and historic run to last season's Western Conference finals, the first in NBA history to win two series in a postseason when faced with a 3-1 deficit. They are 12-3 since February 27, tied with the Phoenix Suns for the league's best record over that period, and are the only team with three players (Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr.) averaging better than 20 points per game during that time frame.

So, what has changed? How have the Nuggets elevated themselves back to a legitimate contender after spending the season's first two months mostly languishing in mediocrity?

It is no secret that offense is Denver's calling card, consistently ranking among the league's most efficient teams on that end even when hovering around .500 for nearly all of January and February. Defense is the true key to the Nuggets' success, however, and will ultimately be the determining factor to whether Mike Malone's crew wind up as serious title contenders or early playoff flameouts. 

Simply put, the Nuggets are awfully hard to stop when they are able to stop opponents at a passable level. Denver is 24-1 this season when holding foes to a field goal percentage of 47.5 per cent or below, with only the NBA-leading Jazz (32-1) owning a superior winning percentage when keeping teams under that number. The Nuggets are 19-1 when limiting opponents to 106 points or fewer, just slightly behind Utah's 20-1 mark for the best in the league when doing so. 

HIGHEST WIN PERCENTAGE WHEN OPPONENT FG PCT. UNDER .475:

Jazz 32-1 .970  
Nuggets 24-1 .960 
Bucks 25-4 .862 
76ers 26-7 .788
Nets 22-6 .786
Suns 22-6 .786 

The Nuggets were able to squeak by the Clippers in large part due to Jerami Grant's incessant hounding of Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 37 per cent in LA's four losses and finished with a 6-for-22 dud in the deciding Game 7. But Grant's free-agent departure to Detroit and the since-traded Gary Harris' inability to stay healthy has frequently left Denver without its top two defenders from last season, and a void Malone has often had difficulty trying to fill.

Need more proof? Well, just harken back to last year's playoff bubble. The Nuggets put on a defensive clinic at times in their conference semi-final series with the Clippers, holding them to 42 per cent shooting or below in all four victories. The Jazz shot a combined 51.6 per cent from the field while taking a 3-1 lead on Denver in that opening-round classic. In the final three games, they shot 44.4 per cent as the Nuggets stormed back to take the series.

Denver had no answer for the Lakers' interior game and abundance of size in the West finals, in which the eventual champions shot nearly 59 per cent from inside the 3-point line to win in five games. 

Until now. 

Aaron Gordon was not the biggest name to change uniforms at the trade deadline, but the former Orlando Magic forward could very well wind up being the most impactful of all the moves. What the Nuggets needed most of all was another Grant, someone with the size and athleticism to capably guard multiple positions, effectively get to the rim and offer at least a mild threat of perimeter scoring.

Gordon is not as good from the outside as Grant, but he is shooting a career-best 37.1 per cent from 3-point range and at just 25, there is still room to expand his game further. He is a superior rebounder and finisher, however, having shot a strong 65.1 percent at the rim for his career. And now playing alongside the premier passing big man of this generation in Jokic, there's reason to suggest that number can go up as well.

The Nuggets did not acquire Gordon for his offense, however. The Magic allowed 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions this season with him on the court as opposed to him off it, and with a first-round matchup with either the Lakers or Clippers a real possibility, it was crucial that Denver added a player with the requisite size and skill to go head-to-head with Leonard or LeBron James.

It is an incredibly small sample size, but the returns have so far been smashingly successful. The Nuggets have opened the Gordon era with blowout wins over the Hawks and the admittedly depleted 76ers, and they are a plus-36 with their new acquisition on the floor over those two games.

With the defense seemingly upgraded and Porter's emergence as a legitimate third scoring option alongside the incomparable Jokic and the dynamic Murray, the Nuggets appear better equipped for an NBA Finals run after coming three wins short of getting there last season. 

Now, Gordon isn't the solution for all of Denver's issues. For all the great things Jokic does, rim protection will never be one of them. The Nuggets have allowed opponents to shoot 62.6 per cent at the rim, with only New Orleans having yielded a higher rate, and they were routinely manhandled inside by the Lakers' big lineups in the West finals. 

That looms as a potential problem again down the road, assuming the Lakers will have a healthy Anthony Davis for the playoffs, but one the Nuggets may have alleviated somewhat with the possibly under-the-radar deadline pickup of JaVale McGee. The veteran center provides the size and presence as an interior deterrent that Denver sorely lacked, though that benefit could come with a cost if it leads to Jokic playing less, or if he's alternatively moved to power forward, where his defensive limitations could be further exploited.

There are certainly worse problems to have, however, and there is little question the Nuggets got better at the deadline while many of their other chief competitors largely stood pat.

Buckle up, folks. The West's road to the NBA Finals just got a little more rocky.  

James Harden will not play for the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday, but the Eastern Conference leaders could see LaMarcus Aldridge make his debut against the Charlotte Hornets.

Harden exited Brooklyn's 120-108 win over his former team the Houston Rockets on Wednesday due to tightness in his right hamstring.

The nine-time All-Star had contributed 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists before his departure with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

"I think he told the trainer when he was on the sideline, and they went back to look at it, and they just decided that it wasn't worth risking it," Nets head coach Steve Nash said after the game.

Harden, as well as Blake Griffin, have now been ruled out for the game with the Hornets.

However, having signed for the franchise on Sunday, Aldridge is available along with Landry Shamet, who has missed the previous five games due to a sprained ankle.

Aldridge has not played since March 1 when he was still with San Antonio. He agreed a contract buyout with the Spurs having averaged 13.7 points in 21 games, making him a free agent.

The 35-year-old joined Brooklyn on a deal for the remainder of the season, adding further depth to a star-studded roster.

Following their triumph over the Rockets, the Nets own a 33-15 record to sit atop the East. They have won eight of their previous 10 outings, despite the continued absence of Kevin Durant due to a hamstring injury that has kept him out since February 13.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams is retiring from college basketball, the university announced on Thursday.

Williams is a legendary figure in college basketball following spells with Kansas and North Carolina; he has coached 52 players who have gone on to play in the NBA.

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, he retires with a career record of 903–264, winning the NCAA title on three occasions with the Tar Heels, in 2005, 2009 and 2017.

Williams holds two records in the NCAA: he became the fastest to reach 900 victories and is the only head coach to record over 400 wins with two different schools.

His teams have won 18 regular-season conference championships, while he bows out with an impressive 77.4 win percentage.

The 70-year-old's 33rd and final season as a head coach came to an end when North Carolina lost to Wisconsin in the first round of this year's NCAA tournament.

Andre Drummond struggled to describe a gruesome toenail injury without laughing after the Los Angeles Lakers lost another star player.

LeBron James (ankle) and Anthony Davis (calf) both remain on the sidelines, meaning the signing of Drummond - bought out by the Cleveland Cavaliers - came as a big boost to the defending NBA champions.

But the center, playing for the first time since February 12, lasted just 14 minutes in a 112-97 debut defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.

Drummond was stepped on by Brook Lopez in the first quarter, he later revealed, and eventually succumbed to the injury in the second half after taking his sock off to assess the damage.

"In the first quarter when I came out, Brook stepped on my foot and I didn't really think anything of it," the two-time All-Star said.

"I came back in the second quarter and it was hurting a little bit more. After halftime, I finally took my sock off to look and my whole toenail was gone. It was all bad from there. I couldn't walk or run so I told coach to take me out."

X-rays returned negative results, meaning Drummond should avoid a lengthy lay-off, but the player was not entirely sure how to manage the injury.

He said: "What do you do for a toe? I don't know. I'm not really sure what to do. I'm just going to talk to the training staff and find out what's the best thing to do to get back as quick as possible.

"I've lost a toenail before, but this one was very painful.

"You see me looking down at it because I can't even put shoes on. I have flip-flops on right now. It's very, very painful."

Despite his limited minutes, Drummond showed what the Lakers might be able to expect when he can return to the court.

The 27-year-old had four points, two assists, a rebound and a block.

He also missed two free throws - Drummond's career percentage of 46.6 per cent is the worst of all players to attempt 1,000 or more - but felt he had a positive impact overall.

"If you saw the first couple of minutes of the game that I was out there, just the energy defensively that I brought, it kind of boosted everybody on both ends of the court," Drummond said, although his plus/minus was negative eight.

"It's just unfortunate to have this happen to me in my first game. It was a little deflating for me.

"But my head is high, I'm going to take it day by day and come back better than ever."

Coach Frank Vogel, eager not to mull on more fitness problems as the Lakers fell to 30-18, added: "We've got a 'next man up' mentality with this group.

"Obviously we were all excited to see Dre in a Lakers uniform and it didn't play out as long as we wanted."

The Brooklyn Nets are well and truly stacked for a championship run.

If superstars James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were not enough, the Nets turned to the buyout market and acquired former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Nets now boast a combined 41 All-Star appearances on their roster – Durant (11), Harden (nine), Aldridge (seven), Irving (seven), Griffin (six) and DeAndre Jordan (one). On the all-time list, only the Boston Celtics have managed more, across three different teams in 1977-78 (42), 2011-12 (43) and 2010-11 (56).

Jason Collins was part of the franchise, then known as the New Jersey Nets, that reached back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, and he told Stats Perform News: "I know KD and James have played together in the past [with the Oklahoma City Thunder]. Kyrie, at this point, realises this team is something special, especially when you're adding Blake and LaMarcus, and already have DeAndre Jordan.

"All of these guys recognise they are playing for a championship. They might only get one shot, these newer guys who haven't already won. This team reminds of me of the Houston Rockets from a few years ago when they had Chris Paul, who was clicking on all cylinders, and Harden. Then Chris got injured. They had a shot to beat the Golden [State] Warriors that season.

"Now, you see with the Nets – you have these tremendous playmakers. If one goes down or has an off night, oh by the way, you have two other guys who can make plays and for team-mates who are former All-Stars. They have a squad right now. I know Space Jam is coming out soon, maybe we're getting a glimpse at the Monstars."

The foundations were set last season, when Durant – recovering from an Achilles injury that meant he sat out the entire 2019-20 campaign – and Irving made the move to Brooklyn via the Golden State Warriors and Celtics respectively. But the Nets cemented 'superteam' status after trading for former MVP Harden in January.

There were question marks when first-year head coach Steve Nash and the Nets acquired Harden from the Rockets, with the three-time NBA scoring champion, Durant and Irving predominately ballhandlers.

Harden, Durant and Irving, however, have managed to make it work in the small time spent on court together – Durant has been absent since February due to a hamstring injury, having also sat out because of health and safety protocols, while Irving has also missed time this season.

Per 100 possessions, Harden – who has a franchise record-equalling 12 triple-doubles this season – has been averaging 21.1 points, 15.1 assists, 9.4 rebounds and 13.9 field-goal attempts when sharing the court with Durant and Irving.

Durant's numbers read 32.8, 3.5, 9.2 and 23.8, while Irving is averaging 31.3, 5.5, 6.7 and 21.3 at the same time.

Despite the continued absence of former MVP and two-time NBA champion Durant, the Nets have won 19 of their past 22 games to top the Eastern Conference.

Prior to Wednesday's win over the Houston Rockets, the Nets have been leading the NBA in points per game and field goal percentage this season – only the Stephen Curry-led Warriors (2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018) and the Nash-led Suns (2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010) have managed to do that in the last 30 years. As of March 30, the Nets were also leading the league in points.

In terms of effective field-goal percentage, the Nets (57.6 as of March 30) are on pace to set an NBA record, which would eclipse the 2017-18 Warriors (56.9).

"For all the injuries and the games that have been missed by one or all of those superstars, they have been doing great. Especially when you have new talent coming in, new pieces," said Collins, who spent his first seven years in the NBA with the Nets before leaving in 2008 and returning briefly in 2014. "It takes a while. Sometimes it can take half a season and in this shortened season, they're doing great. You have to tip your cap to the players, but the coaches, they are doing an excellent job making sure all the pieces are fitting.

"You're still adding the mix with LaMarcus and Blake. It seems he has found his ability to jump and dunk, it's glad to see his body is responding well. It's pretty obvious to see with this team that they're not necessarily playing for positioning in the regular season, this team is built for the postseason. That is why I think they're being so cautious with KD and his return. My hats off to Kyrie Irving for recognising that he needs to step away from time to time.

"With Harden, in his mind he is the MVP. A lot of people who follow the NBA are recognising the James Harden who started the season with the Houston Rockets, that guy is no longer in the building. The guy in the building in Brooklyn is the guy we have seen for the past several years, who is an MVP candidate."

Harden's 11.2 assists per game this season is on pace to be the most by a player averaging 25.0-plus points since Tiny Archibald averaged 11.4 in 1972-73 (as of March 30). He, Irving and Durant dominate the headlines, but the likes of Joe Harris, Nicolas Claxton, Bruce Brown and Landry Shamet have proved to be an effective support cast in a further sign of frightening depth.

"When you're going to go up against them [Durant, Harden and Irving], you're going to have to leave someone open and it's going to be those other guys. I think Shamet will be huge in the playoffs, Harris also," Collins, the 42-year-old former center, said.

"Just because of reputation, you're going to be hesitant to leave DeAndre Jordan, if you're the center, you know you can't let him get behind because you know it will be a dunk. So, you're afraid to step up and help. With those big three, you're not going to leave them either so it's going to be the others on the guard – a shooter or somebody who is going to get a lot of good looks."

Eyebrows were raised when the Nets appointed two-time MVP Nash to replace Kenny Atkinson ahead of the season, despite his lack of coaching experience.

The Nets were coming off a first-round playoff exit inside the Orlando bubble last season when they handed Hall of Famer Nash his first head coaching role.

But Nash – supported by veteran Mike D'Antoni in Brooklyn – has impressed from the outset, juggling a superstar trio, injuries and the coronavirus pandemic in the pursuit of NBA glory.

An NBA ring eluded Nash during his stellar playing career, but a championship in his first season as head coach would see him follow in the footsteps of Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse (2019), Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016), Warriors counterpart Steve Kerr (2015), Pat Riley (Los Angeles Lakers in 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers in 1980) – who are the last five men since 1977 to achieve the feat.

"I think he was thrown into the deep end but as athletes and competitors, you kind of like being thrown into the deep end because that's what you work hard for," Collins said. "He isn't alone, he has great staff and players who have played at the highest level. It's definitely a group effort.

"I have to add, nothing would be possible without ownership. Ownership in the NBA is so important. Joe Lacob has done a phenomenal job with the Golden State Warriors. Also now Joseph Tsai with the Brooklyn Nets. He has told [general manager] Sean Marks, do what you need to do to create this culture and you'll have support. It's just great to see when an organisation, from ownership, to general manager, to team president, head coach, assistant coach and it all falls in line. You're setting yourself up for success."

The Nets have never won a championship since their first NBA season in 1976-77 – a run of 44 consecutive seasons. Byron Scott's team – featuring Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Collins – came close in the early 2000s, but in two appearances in the Finals they were swept by the Lakers and beaten 4-2 by the San Antonio Spurs.

Among active streaks in the league, the Nets have the eighth-longest drought alongside the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers, behind the Sacramento Kings (69). Their rivals, the New York Knicks, have been waiting 47 years.

"The elephant in the room that we're all dealing with [the pandemic]," Collins said. "I can't think of any other part of our country hit harder than New York City. To end this year in the pandemic, if they were to win a championship, it would give so much hope to a lot of people. I lost one of my uncles to COVID recently and he lives in New York. People are still being affected and dying. It would mean a lot just to see the Nets win a championship for the city of New York.

"I think it will be huge if the Nets are able to win. It's all set up because they now have the target on their back with all the All-Stars on their team. Even if they don't get the number one seed, even if they finish at number three or four, which I doubt they will, they will still have the target on their back because they have all those names.

"If they are playing at all cylinders, they have the best chance out of the east. I love what Doc Rivers is doing in Philadelphia and I love the season Joel Embiid was having before injury.

"I'm really looking forward to that Eastern Conference championship between the Nets and 76ers, no disrespect to the others. I think the Nets just have more horses than the other squads."

Steve Nash was "optimistic" NBA MVP candidate James Harden did not suffer a long-term setback as the Brooklyn Nets went top of the Eastern Conference with a win that gave Kyrie Irving cause for concern.

Playing the Houston Rockets, his former team, Harden played only 27 minutes - registering 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists - before succumbing to hamstring tightness.

Irving led the way in his stead, as 31 points and a season-high 12 assists secured a 120-108 victory that moved the Nets ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers at 33-15 in the East.

But with Kevin Durant still out, having played just 19 games this season, Harden's injury prompted some concern.

The nine-time All-Star has averaged 26.1 points, 11.2 assists, 8.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals since moving to Brooklyn in January.

Harden's 11.1 assists on the year, including an initial stretch with the Rockets, lead the league, while an assist rate of 46.2 per cent trails only Russell Westbrook.

The superstar guard has taken an unselfish approach as the Nets aim for a championship, attempting 17.6 field goals per game in 2020-21 - his lowest rate since 2013-14 - and seeing his usage drop to 29.3 per cent, its lowest since the statistic was first tracked.

But Harden has still carried Brooklyn for long stretches while Irving and Durant have sat out, meaning head coach Nash was relieved to relay a major issue was not anticipated.

"We're going to monitor it. We'll see how he feels in the morning," Nash said. "I don't have a lot to tell you.

"We feel optimistic it's not a long-term thing and we'll just monitor it. I haven't spoken to him yet. I came in, addressed the team and then came to speak to you guys.

"I think he told the trainer when he was on the sideline and they went back to look at it and decided that it wasn't worth risking it. We'll just see how he feels in the morning and go from there.

"They just decided it wasn't worth risking him going back out there, but we haven't done any scans. We'll see how he feels in the morning and decide what the next step is."

Harden's problem could mean another reshuffle for a Nets team who, through injuries and trade, have had nine different starting fives this season.

That makes their achievement in reaching the top of the conference even more impressive, according to Nash.

"We're first and foremost really proud of our guys," he said. "They've had a lot thrown at them this year, we've had a lot of different lineups, a tough schedule and a new group - three new groups, in a sense.

"For them to stick together, to continue to pursue what we're asking them to pursue, big picture and in the short term with the details, it's impressive."

But Irving saw cause for concern in the Rockets win as Houston ran out to a 42-29 first-quarter lead before the point guard helped reel them back in.

Slow starts are a theme for Brooklyn, who led only one game through three minutes in the whole of March.

"We're going to get every team's best shot, so that's something that we've come to accept," Irving said.

"We know the game plan that we need to execute and it's up to us to go out and do it at a very high level.

"Sometimes we don't make that choice in the first four minutes or the first five minutes where we get down 18-6 or 18-4 and we're just digging ourselves out of holes on the scoreboard.

"I'm listening to the chatter from other teams on the court and they just continue to say, attack us, attack us, attack us, and I'm here on the court as well with all my team-mates just saying, it'll turn over for us.

"We've just got to be resilient, persevere through this, and we'll start making shots, but more or less it just comes with our effort.

"We've got to bring it from the first five minutes. In the last few games, we've failed to do so, so we played catch-up and we got away with this one, but against the great teams we know we've got to bring it from minute one."

Kyrie Irving was the hero for the Brooklyn Nets after James Harden exited due to hamstring tightness as he inspired a 120-108 win over the lowly Houston Rockets.

The Nets trailed by as many as 18 points, while NBA MVP hopeful Harden sat out the fourth quarter against his former team the Rockets with right hamstring tightness.

Harden finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 27 minutes on Wednesday.

But star team-mate Irving picked up the slack, posting 31 points and a season-high 12 assists to guide the Nets to the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Nets, who have won 19 of their past 22 games, are a half-game clear of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Meanwhile, the NBA-leading Utah Jazz feared 'the end" before their 111-107 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Utah's charter flight was forced into an emergency landing after the plane collided with a flock of birds, causing an engine fire and failure.

After scoring 26 points to lift the Jazz, All-Star Mike Conley told reporters: "For a good 10 or 15 minutes, I think all of us on that flight were questioning if we were going to be here today.

"That's how serious it was for us. I can't speak for everybody, but I know that guys were trying to text family just in case, you know? It was that kind of situation."

"It got to that point where we were all on the plane like, 'This might be really the end'," Utah's Jordan Clarkson added in the absence of Donovan Mitchell. "I mean, it was a crazy situation. I understand fully why Don didn't come."

 

Giannis and Bucks take down Lakers, Booker has Suns sizzling

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 25 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the injury-hit Los Angeles Lakers 112-97. Jrue Holiday top-scored with 28 points for the Bucks, who snapped a three-game losing run.

Devin Booker put up a season-high 45 points in the Phoenix Sun's 121-116 victory against the Chicago Bulls. Chris Paul added 19 points and 14 assists.

Luka Doncic had a game-high 36 points as the Dallas Mavericks held on to defeat the Boston Celtics 113-108. Doncic is now tied with Nikola Jokic for the most NBA games with 30-plus points, five-plus rebounds and five-plus assists this season – 15.

The Portland Trail Blazers were 124-101 winners over the Detroit Pistons thanks to a double-double of 33 points and 10 assists from Damian Lillard.

 

Painful debut for Drummond

Andre Drummond's Lakers debut did not go according to plan. Acquired by the defending champions after clearing waivers on Sunday, the two-time All-Star hobbled off the court with a toe injury. Drummond was two-for-six shooting, while he missed both of his free throws prior to exiting after 14 minutes.

 

Family time

It was a special moment as the three Antetokounmpo brothers took to the court in Los Angeles. Two-time reigning MVP Giannis was joined by brother and team-mate Thanasis and Lakers forward Kostas post-game.

 

Wednesday's results:

Portland Trail Blazers 124-101 Detroit Pistons
Miami Heat 92-87 Indiana Pacers
Dallas Mavericks 113-108 Boston Celtics
Brooklyn Nets 120-108 Houston Rockets
Utah Jazz 111-107 Memphis Grizzlies
Minnesota Timberwolves 102-101 New York Knicks
Oklahoma City Thunder 113-103 Toronto Raptors
San Antonio Spurs 120-106 Sacramento Kings
Phoenix Suns 121-111 Chicago Bulls
Milwaukee Bucks 112-97 Los Angeles Lakers

 

76ers at Cavaliers

The 76ers (32-15) will look to snap a two-game losing streak and keep up with the Nets when they visit the Cleveland Cavaliers (17-30) on Thursday.

Victor Oladipo is expected to make his Miami Heat debut against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday, according to head coach Erik Spoelstra.

The Heat – who reached the 2020 Finals – acquired two-time All-Star Oladipo from the Houston Rockets at last week's NBA trade deadline in exchange for Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley.

Oladipo started the year with the Indiana Pacers before he was moved to the Rockets as they dealt James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets.

Now, Oladipo – who is averaging 21.2 points per game in 2020-21 – is preparing to make his second bow of the season.

"He's ready to go," Spoelstra said ahead of Wednesday's clash with the Pacers.

"We’ve had several Zoom sessions just to review and try to fast track our system. But he's a savvy, high-IQ veteran player. He's going to pick up things very quickly.

"He's been able to work out the last couple of days with Caron at the Arena, so they've been able to review some things, as well. I've talked him and we’ll see him when we get to Miami.

"All these circumstances are different than in a normal season, and these are just another example of how you have to adapt."

Spoelstra added: "I feel like I know Vic. I did reach out to Dwyane [Wade]. They've been working out together for years. And Dwyane, Vic and Coach Crean would always do like a weeklong training camp during the summer and get together. And I was always aware about what was going on during that week.

"So we're very familiar with him. We feel comfortable with guys that have been coached by Coach Crean, because you're going to get developed the right way and held accountable to the details. And I think you see that in his play. He's an IQ player that sees the game."

Before facing the Pacers midweek, the Heat (23-24) were eighth in the Eastern Conference.

Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group (FSG) have announced a "significant investment" into the company by the firm co-owned by LeBron James, RedBird Capital Partners.

The investment, which sees James become part of FSG's ownership group along with his business partners Maverick Carter and Paul Wachter, will help Liverpool address an estimated £120million loss in revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.

FSG said in a statement that the deal, which is part of an ongoing alliance between FSG and RedBird, would help the group pursue growth opportunities, while underlining a focus on "winning".

"Over the years, Fenway Sports Group has been able to attract a dedicated group of executives and partnerships seeking to compete for titles in the most challenging and rewarding landscapes," read the statement.

"Our strategic partnership with Gerry and the entire team at RedBird will enhance our ability to pursue future growth opportunities in a more accelerated way but with the same selectiveness that has served us so well.

"We are also pleased to welcome to our ownership group LeBron, Maverick and Paul, with whom we have enjoyed a successful collaboration for well over a decade. Their addition is an important milestone for FSG and expands and deepens a longtime friendship and relationship that began in 2010.

"To our fans and supporters: winning continues to be the driving force for all of us. The growth of FSG as an organisation allows us to further strengthen our resources and commitment to the communities we serve, and we look forward to having these talented new partners join us in the next chapter of FSG’s evolution."

FSG, which is valued and $7.4bn and whose leadership is comprised of principal owner John W. Henry, chairman Tom Werner and president Mike Gordon, took control of Liverpool in 2010.

The investment from RedBird, which is reported to be a 10 per cent minority holding, will help the club achieve its ambition of redeveloping the Anfield Road Stand.

Gerry Cardinale, founder and managing partner of RedBird, said, "Fenway Sports Group is unique not only for the quality of its sports properties and assets, but for the highly disciplined, results-oriented organisation that John, Tom, Mike and the FSG team have built over the past 20 years.

"RedBird shares the same passion for performance-driven investing, business operations, fan experience and service to the community. We look forward to contributing our experience growing premier sports properties and working alongside this tremendous leadership team, including our fellow new owners LeBron, Maverick and Paul."

Maverick Carter added: "Working with Fenway Sports Group for the past decade has taught LeBron and me so much about the business on a global scale, and we’ve always believed it would lead to something bigger.

"We are proud to be part of this iconic ownership group and are excited about the opportunities that come with that to continue creating change and empowering people of every race, gender and background to be part of the process."

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers says Joel Embiid is "close" to a playing return after more than a fortnight on the sidelines with bone bruising in his knee.

Embiid, 27, has not played for the 76ers since their March 13 win over the Washington Wizards, when he went down injured.

The 76ers have remained top of the Eastern Conference in his absence but lost their second straight game on Tuesday, going down 104-95 to the Denver Nuggets.

"Whenever Joel comes back, we’re going to go back to our normal rotation, but I have no idea," Rivers said.

"He’s close. I can tell you that. He’s working every day, I get reports back daily, and he looks good. He’s doing well."

Given Philadelphia's position on the standings, the franchise is focusing on ensuring the Cameroonian forward is fully fit for the play-offs.

"He has to clear certain medical steps," Rivers said. "I don’t even know what those are, but he has to.

"Then the other thought with us, and the way I’ve always tried to do it, if you can come back and just keep playing, then you’re healthy, but if you can come back and play one game or two games and then have to sit, then you’re not ready yet. If you know what I’m saying.

"We want to make sure when Joel comes back, he’s back. Not in and out and I think that’s very important."

Russell Westbrook produced his third consecutive triple-double but it was not enough to inspire the Washington Wizards to victory as they went down 114-104 to the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.

Westbrook, who made NBA history with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 21 assists on Monday, was outstanding again with Bradley Beal out for the Wizards with 22 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists.

However, despite LaMelo Ball's absence, the Hornets got the edge after a strong first half which left the Wizards playing catch-up.

Gordon Hayward stepped up for Charlotte with 15 first-quarter points, to finish with 26 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, while Terry Rozier (27 points) was clutch at the business end.

76ers and Clippers downed

Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia 76ers lost their second straight game as they were humbled 104-95 by the Denver Nuggets.

The 76ers are starting to feel the effects of missing Joel Embiid with a knee injury, as MVP candidate Nikola Jokic scored 21 points and had 10 rebounds for Denver.

Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr had 27 points, 12 rebounds and four assists while Jamal Murray scored 30 points.

The Phoenix Suns moved into second in the Western Conference with a 32-14 record after a 117-110 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

Dario Saric scored 20 points off the bench for the Suns, while Deandre Ayton had 14 rebounds along with his 13 points.

The Los Angeles Clippers let slip a three-quarter-time lead to lose 103-96 to the lowly Orlando Magic.

Clippers collapse

The Clippers actually led 51-37 at half-time and by as many as 16 points against the Magic before an awful second-half showing as they were outscored 66-45.

 

Air Russ

There is lots of love for Westbrook right now and he produced a nice play, driving past two into the key and slamming over Hornets center Bismack Biyombo.

 

 

 

Wednesday's meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks should be one of the most mouth-watering contests of the NBA season.

But the allure of the matchup has been lost somewhat – the Lakers still without LeBron James because of an ankle injury and Anthony Davis due to a calf/Achilles issue that has kept him on the sideline since February.

As such, the Bucks, three games back of the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, will be the favourites against a Lakers team that stands as the fourth seed in the West.

However, the Lakers have shown fight in ending a four-game losing skid with back-to-back victories and recently added a two-time All-Star center to their roster.

Here, with the help of Stats Perform data, we look at the performers and the battles that will decide this marquee game.

TOP PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks - Giannis Antetokounmpo

The back-to-back MVP returned to something approaching his best in the Bucks' defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers last time out.

Coming off a nagging knee injury, Antetokounmpo dropped 32 points for Milwaukee, going 10 for 21 from the field and two of five from the three-point line.

It was his first 30-point game since the win over the Philadelphia 76ers on March 17 and served as an ominous warning to the under-strength Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers - Montrezl Harrell

Averaging 15.2 points for the season, Harrell has stepped it up in the absence of Davis and James.

He has put up 19.5 points per game across March. James (25) is the only Laker with a better average in that regard.

The former Clippers big man has produced seven 20-point games this month and may need an eighth to propel the Lakers to another victory without their two stars.

KEY BATTLE - CAN DRUMMOND BOOST LAKERS ON BOARDS

After reaching a buyout agreement with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Drummond signed with the Lakers with an eye on helping them retain the title by any means necessary.

"For me, I'm just here to help in any capacity," Drummond said on Monday. "I'm not here to do anything besides win."

"I'm just here to help in whatever capacity it may be. I'm not here to steal nobody's shine."

The center will primarily be asked to help the Lakers on the boards. Without LeBron and Davis, their rebounding has declined this month.

For the season, they are ninth in the NBA in rebounds per game with 45.2, but that number has tailed off to 43.5 in March, tied for 17th.

Frank Vogel has confirmed Drummond will start against Milwaukee, with the Lakers surely looking for the four-time rebounding leader to help them compete on the glass against a Bucks team second in the league with 48.2 rebounds per game.

HEAD TO HEAD

Having previously won six straight against the Lakers, the Bucks head into this potential Finals preview out to avoid a third consecutive defeat to Los Angeles, having come undone at the hands of James in their 113-106 loss back in January.

Russell Westbrook took an NBA record in his stride after landing a dazzling triple-double in the Washington Wizards' 132-124 win over the Indiana Pacers.

Former MVP Westbrook had 35 points, 14 rebounds and 21 assists, becoming the first player in NBA history with at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and 20 assists in the same game.

The 32-year-old said: "One thing I always cherish and enjoy about this game is that you get to go out and compete. One thing I always pride myself on is making sure I leave it out on the floor every single night.

"I've been blessed with an opportunity to be able to do that and I don't take it for granted. Along those lines, different records and different things may happen.

"But one thing I always do is stay humble, stay true to myself, and always continue to give everything I have and pride myself on being (able to) create some consistency for my team-mates."

Speaking about his rebounding ability, Westbrook said: "Being athletic helps me being able to get it, but I don't know if anybody's better at my size at rebounding the basketball consistently."

Scoring 20 or more points, grabbing 10-plus rebounds and at least 20 assists has been achieved only six times since 1963-64 in the NBA, and Westbrook has had four such games, with Magic Johnson and Rod Strickland the other two players on that list.

Earlier in March, Westbrook also became the first player in franchise history to record at least 35 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a game.

New team-mate Chandler Hutchison, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, was impressed with his first experience of having Westbrook on his side.

Hutchison scored 18 points, his second-highest haul in a game behind the 21 points he scored for the Bulls in January 2020 - which also came in a clash against the Pacers.

Hutchison said of Westbrook: "He just commands an energy that's extremely contagious. You see and you hear and you read all sorts of things about how he is as a player and as a person.

"I knew I was going to figure out who he really was, and just with being here a couple of days I already know the type of team-mate he is. He cares a bunch about his team-mates.

"It just shows with his ability to be unselfish and make the right plays. And obviously he's a heck of a talent to be able to go out there and put up a statline like he did tonight and carry us to a win."

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