New York has long been starved of NBA success but now has two teams making strides in 2020-21.

The Brooklyn Nets have made plenty of noise as they have claimed a share of first place in the Eastern Conference, led by the 'big three' of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

But the New York Knicks, the city's favourite team, are also in playoff contention with a .500 record.

On Monday, the two teams go head-to-head at Barclays Center – and Durant, Irving and Harden could all feature for just the eighth time this season.

The Knicks will have their work cut out as they try to stop their star-studded neighbours.

TOP PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets - Kyrie Irving

Durant is likely to be seen as the Nets' difference-maker in the biggest games, while Harden, the third man in the 'big three', has established himself as an MVP contender. He cannot afford many more nights off.

But as both players recover from hamstring injury – Durant is "an outside possibility", Harden's absence is "just caution" - it will likely again be Irving's turn to carry the team, showing their remarkable depth.

The point guard leads Brooklyn in total points, scoring 27.7 per game – the best mark of his career and one which puts him eighth in the NBA among all players.

Irving had a game-high 34 points when these teams last met in March, a 117-112 Nets win.

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

First-time All-Star Randle has led the Knicks' improvement this season and he has been talking a big game ahead of this clash.

The forward responded to talk of Brooklyn's 'big three' by suggesting New York have a "big 15", of which he is undoubtedly the star, averaging 23.0 points and 10.7 rebounds this year.

Randle will certainly not be short of motivation.

He had 33 points in the game last month, just shy of Irving's total, and had to be held back from the officials after a late three-pointer was ruled out due to an incorrect traveling call.

KEY BATTLE - BROOKLYN BIGS TO BOSS BIG APPLE?

It is not just the Nets' superstar talent the Knicks have to worry about, as there is also a mismatch at center.

Third-year big man Mitchell Robinson was set for a breakout year in New York, seemingly contributing to the team's decision not to push harder for a buyout signing as Andre Drummond went to the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Robinson, posting 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals, fractured his right foot, leaving the Knicks with Nerlens Noel (4.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) and Taj Gibson (5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds) as their primary options at the five.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn have a whole array of possibilities at the position, led by buyout signings and former All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin but also including DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green and surprise performer Nicolas Claxton (7.9 points, 1.3 blocks).

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nets are 2-0 in this season's series, also beating the Knicks in January, and Monday's game could see a significant power swing.

The all-time record stands at 101-100 in the Knicks' favour, giving Brooklyn the opportunity to pull ahead for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

The Los Angeles Clippers made light work of their short-handed neighbours, crushing defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers 104-86.

Kawhi Leonard (19 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) fell just short of a triple-double as the Clippers snapped a two-game skid in the NBA on Sunday.

Marcus Morris posted 22 points and Paul George added 16 for the Clippers, who claimed bragging rights in Los Angeles, where superstar Lakers duo LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain sidelined.

Former Clippers star Montrezl Harrell led the Lakers with 19 points – Frank Vogel's team have dropped six of nine games.

 

Vucevic and LaVine sink Nets, Valanciunas' Grizzlies roar against 76ers

The Chicago Bulls ended a six-game losing streak after upstaging the Brooklyn Nets 115-107. Recruit Nikola Vucevic (22 points and 13 rebounds) and Zach LaVine (25 points) fuelled the Bulls, while Tomas Satoransky registered a season-high 19 points and 11 assists. The Nets – playing without James Harden and Kevin Durant – were led by Kyrie Irving's double-double of 24 points and 15 assists.

Jonas Valanciunas guided the Memphis Grizzlies to a surprise 116-100 win at the Philadelphia 76ers. Valanciunas had 16 points and 12 rebounds in a career-high tying 10th consecutive double-double – his longest streak ever within a single season. Memphis' 45 points in the third quarter marked the most in a single period in a road game in franchise history. Tobias Harris put up 21 points in the absence of star 76ers team-mate Joel Embiid, who was rested after returning from a 10-game injury lay-off on Saturday.

It was a milestone result for Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan, who moved up to 20th on the all-time coaching wins (673) list after his team topped the Golden State Warriors 117-111. Double-doubles from Clint Capela (24 points and 18 rebounds) and Danilo Gallinari (25 points and 10 rebounds) inspired the Hawks. The Warriors lost despite Stephen Curry's game-high 37 points, and double-doubles from Kelly Oubre Jr. (20 points and 11 rebounds) and Draymond Green (11 points and 11 assists).

 

Simmons and Curry headline Philly woes

It was a frustrating game for the 76ers, who were 41.6 per cent from the field and 23.5 from three-point territory. Ben Simmons endured a forgettable outing, the All-Star finishing two-of-six shooting for seven points in 26 minutes. Seth Curry was one-of-six shooting, while he made just one of five attempts from three-point range for three points. Fellow starters Danny Green (six points on two-of-seven shooting) and Mike Scott (nine points on three-of-10 shooting) all struggled.

P.J. Washington made one of six shots from the field – nailing just one of his three efforts from beyond the arc – as he finished with three points in the Charlotte Hornets' 116-86 defeat away to the Boston Celtics.

The Houston Rockets went down 122-115 to the New Orleans Pelicans, with Avery Bradley ending the game two-for-nine shooting and five points in 26 minutes.

A championship winner with the Lakers, Rajon Rondo made his Clippers debut. But the veteran did not have the greatest game. Rondo made one of three field goals and committed four turnovers in 13 minutes.

 

The Joker does it all

Nikola Jokic showcased his MVP credentials and playmaking abilities with another impressive performance. He recorded 17 points and 16 assists to lead the Denver Nuggets to a 119-109 win over the lowly Orlando Magic.

 

Sunday's results

Chicago Bulls 115-107 Brooklyn Nets
Los Angeles Clippers 104-86 Los Angeles Lakers
Boston Celtics 116-86 Charlotte Hornets
Memphis Grizzlies 116-100 Philadelphia 76ers
Atlanta Hawks 117-111 Golden State Warriors
New Orleans Pelicans 122-115 Houston Rockets
Denver Nuggets 119-109 Orlando Magic

 

Knicks at Nets

It will be another rivalry clash on Monday with bragging rights on the line between the New York Knicks (25-25) and the Nets (34-16). The Nets could welcome back both Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash said "of course" James Harden's absence was a factor as the NBA championship hopefuls lost to the Chicago Bulls.

The Nets – already missing Kevin Durant (hamstring) – were without MVP candidate Harden due to right hamstring tightness for Sunday's 115-107 defeat against the Bulls.

Kyrie Irving led the way with 24 points and 15 assists for the short-handed Nets, who had won five consecutive games and 10 of their last 12.

Harden has been averaging 25.9 points, 11.1 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game this season and Nash told reporters: "Of course it's a factor [playing without Harden].

"I mean, you're losing an MVP candidate, you're not as potent. But we still have found a way to win a lot of games this year to win without guys in the line-up.

"So tonight I just thought we weren't quite sharp enough, we didn't move the ball enough, make quick enough decisions, get downhill and really stretch em out, so credit to them.

"They played well. We didn't play our best. I don't want to make any excuses about who wasn't here. We could have played a little bit better, a little bit sharper, a little more thrust of pace, and we'll learn from it."

The Nets used a bigger line-up against the Bulls, with former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge both in the starting five.

Griffin had 10 points, eight rebounds and two assists in 22 minutes, while Aldridge finished with 11 points, three rebounds and three assists.

"We'll see how they come out of this. But we experimented with a big line-up. It was very unlike us in one respect. I don't love it for us," added Nash.

"Having said that, it's hard to judge it on one performance. I think some of it we experimented with because of the availability and matchups, but going forward, that's not something I think we'll see a ton of."

On many a Sunday, I realize that people have looked at the stories they have seen throughout the week with different lenses. I have my own personal take on some of these trending issues and I will share them with you. Welcome to #INCASEYOUMISSEDIT the 2021 edition with Mariah.

 

 Positive signs for Windies batting

West Indies batting has been a matter of concern, especially in the Test format for some time.

As recently, as of July 2020 when West Indies faced England in three Tests, the Jamaica Observer newspaper blared the headline “West Indies bowlers undermined by batting woes” a sentiment shared by many newspapers in cricket-loving nations around the world.

After winning the first Test against England, the West Indies only survived 70.1 overs in the second innings of the second Test. It was even worse in the second innings of the third Test when they lasted a mere 37.1 overs as England completed a 269-run win in Manchester.

However, against Bangladesh and in the just concluded test series against Sri Lanka, the Windies have shown signs of improvement.

Generally speaking, West Indies batsmen do not face enough balls and hence give their wickets away cheaply. Against Sri Lanka, there was a refreshing change in attitude and application.

In the final Test, Captain Kraigg Brathwaite made 126 in the first innings- his ninth Test century, his first as captain and 85 in the second. In all, the skipper batted 813 minutes, the most in a Test for the Windies. In that time, he faced 507 balls, the joint-most by a West Indian in a Test match since Brian Lara's 400* off 582 balls against England in 2004.

Similarly, Kyle Mayers and Jason Holder each spent time at the crease while setting a 377-run target for Sri Lanka. Mayers faced 76 balls for his 55 while Holder scored 71 not out off 88 balls.

In the first Test, Nkrumah Bonner’s maiden century of 113* was an exercise in patience and determination. Batting at number three, the 32-year-old Jamaican faced 274 balls in more than seven hours at the crease.

 There is still a lot of work to be done but the early evidence suggests that the West Indies batsman might finally be on the right path.

 

 Sergio Aguero still has value

 It has been confirmed by Premier League club Manchester City that Sergio Aguero will leave when his contract expires at the end of the season.

However, this does not mean that his career has come to an end.

This season has been a challenging one for the striker, who has had to endure injury, Covid-19, and lack of game time. In his 14 appearances, he has started nine games and scored three goals.

Despite his struggles, he is arguably the best non-English striker to grace the Premier League and the numbers speak for themselves. Aguero is the fourth highest goal scorer in the Premier League history with 181 goals. He also leads the statistics in the rate of scoring in English top-flight football since 1992.

Aguero’s famous goal in injury time against QPR in 2012 when he clinched the club’s first English title in 44 years, is one for the books. Overall, he has helped The Citizens to four Premier League titles, one FA Cup and five League Cups.

Though slowed by age and injury, in Saturday’s game against Leicester City, he worked hard off the ball and contributed to his side’s win, something he has done constantly during his incredible career at Manchester City.

His boots will not be easily filled as was made clear by Pep Guardiola.

“I want to be clear. Maybe we'll find a new player to replace Sergio. In terms of numbers, he might be replaced, but in terms of what he means to the club, it is impossible.” 

 

Why are super teams an issue for some in the NBA?

The news of LaMarcus Aldridge joining the Brooklyn Nets did not sit well with many Los Angeles Lakers fans with many saying the Nets are so desperate for a championship they are buying one. Lakers superstar Le Bron James’ son Bronny also weighed in tweeting, “All this to stop a 36-year-old man in Year 18.”

LA Lakers CEO and owner Jeanie Buss, who sees the move as making the NBA a more compelling product said, “So, bring it on.”   

Personally, I see nothing wrong with the Nets creating a super team because LeBron has done the same many times in the past.

In fact, LeBron created his own super team with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami Heat in 2010-2011. He also helped assemble Kevin Love Kyrie Irving for the championship-winning Cleveland Cavaliers.

 And while the Nets signed the talented LeMarcus Aldridge it is important to note that the Lakers also recently signed two-time all-star centre Andre Drummond, who is averaging 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds this season despite having not played since February 12.

 

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash said there is a "high probability" that Kevin Durant will make his long-awaited return this coming week.

Durant has been sidelined since February 13 due to a hamstring strain, which forced him to sit out last month's NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta.

The star-studded Nets have moved to the top of the Eastern Conference in the former MVP's absence – a half-game clear of the Philadelphia 76ers.

As the Nets prepare to face the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Nash provided an update on Durant.

"I am not certain on Monday [against the New York Knicks]," Nash said. "I think it's an outside possibility, but I also couldn't say he's in any stretch probable for Monday.

"I think it's just wait and see. But it does look positive that this week sometime, there's a high probability he can return."

Durant is averaging 29.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game for the Nets this season.

"I think a lot of first-year teams struggle to compete for a championship if for no other reason than that collective history and experience," Nash added. "So, that's something we have to accept and have to overcome."

Nets team-mate James Harden, meanwhile, remains on the sidelines with right hamstring tightness.

Harden will miss Sunday's clash with the Bulls, having sat out Thursday's win over the Charlotte Hornets.

Another former MVP, Harden has been averaging 25.9 points, 11.1 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game this season.

Kevin Durant has been fined $50,000 for using "offensive and derogatory language on social media" in his recent exchange with actor Michael Rapoport.

The sanction was announced by the NBA in a statement on Friday with the 32-year-old Brooklyn Nets forward acknowledging his actions were inappropriate.

Earlier in the week, Rapoport revealed expletive-laden private messages that Durant had sent him which included threatening language, as well as anti-gay and misogynistic slurs.

"I'm sorry that people [have] seen that language I used," said Durant, who is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury.

"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 there on the floor."

Nets coach Steve Nash said he had spoken to Durant about the exchange and that the former Golden State Warriors man was apologetic.

Rapoport revealed the direct messages which were sent by Durant on Instagram after the actor had criticized his post-game conduct in an interview.

"I receive threats and disgusting messages DAILY, but never in my wildest dreams did I think @KDTrey5 (Durant) would be among them," Rapaport wrote in a Twitter post with screenshots of the exchange.

"The Snake himself is now threatening me, bringing up my wife and wants to fight."

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.

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.

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.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden produced a dominant performance to fuel a 112-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Harden posted 38 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds for a franchise record-tying 12th triple-double of the NBA season on Monday.

Kyrie Irving returned from a three-game absence to score 27 points for the Nets, who won for the 18th time in 21 games.

The Nets are only a half-game behind the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers.

Karl-Anthony Towns (31 points and 12 rebounds) and Anthony Edwards (23 points and 10 rebounds) both had double-doubles for the Timberwolves.

As for Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards star tallied his own triple-double to lead the team past the Indiana Pacers 132-124 in the absence of star team-mate Bradley Beal (hip).

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.

Domantas Sabonis' 35 points, 11 rebounds and six assists were not enough for the Pacers.

 

Clippers and Jazz roll on

The Los Angeles Clippers extended their winning streak to six games after defeating the slumping Milwaukee Bucks 129-105. Starters Kawhi Leonard (23 points), Marcus Morris Sr. (25 points), Luke Kennard (21 points) and Reggie Jackson (20 points) all had double-digit points for the Clippers as the Bucks lost their third straight game, despite 32 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The NBA-leading Utah Jazz are also in the midst of a six-game winning run after crushing the Cleveland Cavaliers 114-75. Utah have won 20 successive games at home.

Stephen Curry returned from a bruised tailbone to guide the Golden State Warriors to a 116-102 victory against the Chicago Bulls. Curry finished with 32 points as the Warriors snapped a four-game skid.

Jonas Valanciunas posted a season-high 30 points to go with 15 rebounds as the Memphis Grizzlies topped the lowly Houston Rockets 120-110.

 

Forgettable Fournier debut

A deadline-day acquisition from the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics recruit Evan Fournier struggled badly in a 115-109 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Fournier was scoreless on 0-for-10 shooting in 33 minutes, while he also missed all five three-point attempts. It was the most scoreless minutes by a Celtics player with 10-plus attempts since the three-point era (1980).

 

Draymond goes bang!

Curry is usually the Warriors player draining long-range threes, but team-mate Draymond Green nailed a half-court attempt against the Bulls.

 

Monday's results

Washington Wizards 132-124 Indiana Pacers
New Orleans Pelicans 115-109 Boston Celtics
Brooklyn Nets 112-107 Minnesota Timberwolves
Miami Heat 98-88 New York Knicks
Detroit Pistons 118-104 Toronto Raptors
Memphis Grizzlies 120-110 Houston Rockets
Dallas Mavericks 127-106 Oklahoma City Thunder
Sacramento Kings 132-115 San Antonio Spurs
Utah Jazz 114-75 Cleveland Cavaliers
Los Angeles Clippers 129-105 Milwaukee Bucks
Golden State Warriors 116-102 Chicago Bulls

 

76ers at Nuggets

The 76ers (32-14) will look to preserve their lead atop the east when they visit the Denver Nuggets (28-18) on Tuesday.

Kyrie Irving said the Brooklyn Nets are supporting superstar James Harden in his bid to win a second NBA MVP award.

Harden was crowned the league's Most Valuable Player in 2018 and he has thrust himself into this season's mix following his exploits for the Nets.

The nine-time All-Star has been a dominant force since joining the Nets in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January, Harden continuing his red-hot run with a triple-double in Monday's 112-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Harden posted 38 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds for a franchise record-tying 12th triple-double of the season.

Asked about Harden's MVP case, fellow star Irving – who returned from a three-game absence to score 27 points – said: "He's self-motivated which makes him great. You've got to have some type of self-motivation to get yourself up for these games and consistently show up.

"He's done a great job all season for us [of] being consistent and just kind of leading our team, whether I am out of the line-up or [Kevin Durant] is out of the line-up, you know different guys are playing with him and he's been able to adjust and adapt quickly. And when you throw some great pieces around a great player that is able to play point guard out there and just kind of be who he is – it is our job out there to be responsible for our roles, play at a high level and complement him and visa versa.

"We support him and it's a team effort. It's team basketball out there. You know, our record is a reflection of how great we are as a team, but in this league individuals are very special and you have got to give credit when credit is due. And so, us as a team, we just want to continue to support him."

Harden has been averaging 26.1 points, a league-best 11.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game for the Nets, who are second and only a half-game adrift of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

Brooklyn's Harden – who is averaging the most minutes per game (38.1) in the NBA this season – has led the way for the Nets, with Kevin Durant (hamstring) sidelined since February and Irving missing time throughout 2020-21.

"I think we have a target on our back, teams are coming in and playing well and I think that's pretty much it," said Harden, whose Nets have acquired former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

"Every team goes through ups and down throughout the course of a year. I'm just happy that it's not even a tough time for us because we've been having to deal with injuries and things like that throughout the course of the season.

"I think we're in a fog right now because we have to find some energy. And I know once KD and LaMarcus and Landry get back, they're going to bring that, so we just gotta continue to find ways to win however they come which we've seen these last few games and keep pushing. That's the NBA season for you."

Los Angeles Lakers CEO and president Jeanie Buss has told the Brooklyn Nets to "bring it on", insisting the star-studded franchise are bringing out the best in the NBA champions.

The Nets have emerged as the NBA's newest superteam after former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge joined Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn.

While the Nets have made moves in the Eastern Conference, Buss and the Lakers are unfazed in the west.

"It brings out the best in us," Buss, whose Lakers are fourth in the Western Conference in the absence of injured superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, told ESPN+ on Monday.

"When teams identify us as the team to beat and they gear up to go at us head-to-head, that makes us work harder.

"So, bring it on."

The Lakers added two-time All-Star Andre Drummond to the roster on Sunday after he cleared waivers.

Drummond – who has not played since February 12 – agreed to a contract buyout with the Cleveland Cavaliers last week.

"The addition of Andre Drummond, who we picked up in the buyout market, will certainly fortify a season where we've had to deal with injuries and COVID," Buss said.

"Having Marc Gasol, who is our starting center, was out for several weeks with COVID and a really tough case where he was on a minutes restriction even though he's back in the line-up."

James (ankle) and Davis (calf) remain sidelined, and Buss added: "That's what's important, is they get back healthy -- 100 percent healthy -- before they come back so that they stay healthy for the playoffs."

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