Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash has praised Kyrie Irving and his side's team effort after their win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday as doubts grow around James Harden's return.

The Nets edged past the Pelicans 134-129 on Tuesday without key pair Kevin Durant and Harden, with the latter now unlikely to return prior to the play-offs with a hamstring setback.

Brooklyn have only managed to field the 'big three' - Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving – at the same on only seven occasions due to injuries.

But the Nets improved to 39-19, keeping the pressure on the Philadelphia 76ers at the top in the Eastern Conference.

Irving scored 32 points and had eight assists, while forward Joe Harris hit 24 points with Jeff Green contributing 15 along with nine rebounds and six assists.

Guard Landry Shamet was one of three players to have six or more assists, with eight along with 18 points.

Blake Griffin added 16 points and eight rebounds off the bench, along with Bruce Brown Jr with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

"When Ky was out of the game I thought we played very well," Nash said.

"When we're going into a game with nine men, you're a couple superstars down, you've got guys playing with more responsibility and minutes and if they don’t play well, you can find yourself in a big hole.

"They played really well. Really proud of the way the guys played. I think we started slow because it was nice, new line-up, new combination."

Nash did reserve special praise for Irving who was clutch down the final stretch with some key buckets along with a late steal off Zion Williamson in a tight game.

"He made some really difficult shots," Nash said. "There wasn’t a ton of movement on the last three possessions.

"Tip your hat to your star player who makes the shots but our guys were terrific all night."

James Harden might not return to the court before the NBA playoffs after suffering a setback in his return from a hamstring injury. 

The Brooklyn Nets said the former MVP will remain sidelined indefinitely following an undisclosed issue during an on-court rehab session on Monday. 

Harden has played only four minutes since leaving a March 31 game against his former team, the Houston Rockets, with the initial injury. 

He sat out the Nets' next two games, then returned for a brief appearance on April 5 against the New York Knicks before missing the last six games. 

"We're back to square one... he will be back when he's back," Nets head coach Steve Nash told reporters. "It might be the playoffs. It might be sooner."

The NBA playoffs begin May 22. Brooklyn (38-19) were second in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans. 

Harden is averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds in 42 games between Houston and Brooklyn this season. 

 

Kevin Durant will sit out the Brooklyn Nets' clash with the New Orleans Pelicans due to a left thigh contusion.

Durant played just four minutes before exiting in Brooklyn's buzzer-beating 109-107 loss at the Miami Heat on Sunday.

Nets superstar Durant missed 23 games because of a hamstring injury before returning on April 7.

In total, former MVP Durant has missed 24 of Brooklyn's 57 games this season and will now watch from the sidelines for Tuesday's matchup with the Pelicans.

Durant has been averaging 27.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game this season.

The star-studded Nets will also be without James Harden against Zion Williamson and the Pelicans in New Orleans.

Harden – another former MVP in Brooklyn – has not played since April 5 due to a hamstring strain, missing six successive games.

The All-Star guard, who is one of the frontrunners for MVP honours this season, has been averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game in 2020-21 after arriving from the Houston Rockets via January's blockbuster trade.

The Nets (38-19) are second in the Eastern Conference, behind the Philadelphia 76ers.

Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks said former NBA MVP James Harden is "progressing well" from a hamstring strain.

Harden has missed five consecutive games since exiting Brooklyn's win over the New York Knicks on April 5.

The All-Star guard – one of the frontrunners for MVP honours this season having been averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game – sat out Friday's 130-115 victory against the Charlotte Hornets.

Marks provided an update on Harden, telling reporters: "I can tell you that James is progressing well. He's looking forward to having at least one or two more play days -- which means he'll play four on four, five on five with the group in practice.

"And hopefully, if things go smoothly like that, he'll be out and joining the guys in a game. But he's progressed well, he's met his markers up to this point and we'll just continue to progress him along.

"Hopefully, it's not too much longer. But at this point, I can't put a timetable on if it's two days, five days or so forth."

Nets head coach Steve Nash was also asked about Harden after star-studded Brooklyn improved to 38-18 behind Kevin Durant's 25 points and 11 assists.

Steve Nash added: "I haven't seen James. So he worked out [Thursday]. We had an off day. He worked out when we were on the road.

"But I think he was going to work out this evening. So I haven't seen him. all I can go off is what I heard and I know, speaking to James and speaking to people who were on the court with him -- he is improving and he is on the right track and hopefully won't be long before he's back.

"But there are still markers. And you know there's James -- he wants to play tonight -- and there's performance that wants to lean on science and be safe.

"There are two kind of despaired opinions and that's what we're here for is to try to find the middle ground and make sure he returns safely but also as soon as he possibly can."

The Nets are set for a three-game road trip against the Miami Heat (Sunday), New Orleans Pelicans (Tuesday) and Toronto Raptors (Wednesday).

"I mean, again, I hope I'm not speaking out of term," Nash said. "But I think typically, at this stage of the rehab, it's about high-intensity play. So can get out there and play one on one, three on three, four on four, five on five and can he do it consistently over two or three times in a row?

"Not necessarily back-to-back days, but two or three bouts of high-intensity play in a row and you recover, do it again and prove that he can meet the demands and intensity and have no ill effects the next day or the next performance. So that's kind of the way it works, in a very general way."

The Brooklyn Nets will be undermanned for Wednesday's blockbuster NBA matchup with Eastern Conference rivals the Philadelphia 76ers after Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin were ruled out.

Brooklyn and Philadelphia are set to do battle in a first-place showdown midweek – the two championship hopefuls share 37-17 win-loss records atop the east.

But the Nets will be without superstar Durant (hamstring – injury management) and former All-Stars Aldridge (illness – non-covid related) and Griffin (knee – injury management) as the trio join James Harden (hamstring) on the sidelines.

The star-studded Nets, however, do welcome back Kyrie Irving after he missed Tuesday's 127-97 rout of the Minnesota Timberwolves due to personal reasons.

Former MVP Durant was in doubt for the 76ers clash after playing 27 minutes against the Timberwolves.

Durant posted 31 points on 11-for-15 shooting in his third appearance following a 23-game injury absence.

The Nets-Timberwolves matchup was initially scheduled for Monday, but it was pushed back in the aftermath of Daunte Wright being shot and killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

It meant Durant faced the prospect of back-to-back games, which the Nets opted to avoid as they eye their maiden NBA title.

Durant is averaging 28.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists for the star-studded Nets this season.

He is also shooting a career-high 44.8 per cent from three-point range, while the two-time NBA champion (53.5) only boasted a better field-goal percentage in 2016-17 (53.7).

The Brooklyn Nets will be without star Kyrie Irving for Monday's NBA game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Irving is set to sit out the Timberwolves clash due to personal reasons, the Nets announced on Sunday.

The 2016 champion and seven-time All-Star missed three games last month because of a family matter, with Irving playing in 38 of Brooklyn's 53 games this season.

Irving – who was ejected from Saturday's 126-101 loss to defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers – is averaging 27.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in 2020-21.

The star-studded Nets – already missing superstar James Harden (hamstring) – will also be without LaMarcus Aldridge against the Timberwolves.

Seven-time All-Star Aldridge is listed as out for a non-coronavirus-related illness.

The Nets and Philadelphia 76ers both share 36-17 win-loss records atop the Eastern Conference.

James Harden will miss over a week due to a hamstring strain, but superstar Brooklyn Nets team-mate Kevin Durant is likely to make his long-awaited NBA return against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Harden was forced out of Monday's 114-112 win over the New York Knicks after just four minutes, with an MRI revealing a strained right hamstring, the Nets announced on Tuesday.

MVP hopeful Harden – who has been averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game this season – will be re-evaluated by the star-studded Nets in approximately 10 days.

While Harden is set for a stint on the sidelines, fellow former MVP Durant is poised to make a comeback.

Durant has not played since February 13 but is listed as probable for Wednesday's clash with the Pelicans.

A hamstring strain has plagued Durant, who was also forced to sit out last month's All-Star Game in Atlanta.

Durant is averaging 29.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game for the Nets in 2020-21.

Steve Nash's Nets (35-16) top the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers (34-16).

Kyrie Irving stepped up with 40 points after James Harden went off injured early in the Brooklyn Nets' 114-112 victory over the New York Knicks on Monday.

In his first game back following hamstring tightness, Harden left the court after four minutes with an issue with the same hamstring and did not return.

The Nets were already without Kevin Durant, Tyler Johnson, Landry Shamet and Blake Griffin but their star point guard lifted when his side needed him, improving Brooklyn's record to 35-16 and moving them top in the East.

Irving finished with 40 points, including five three-pointers and seven assists, while Jeff Green contributed 23 points.

The Utah Jazz's nine-game winning run was halted by Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in a 111-103 win.

Doncic went close to a triple-double, finishing with 31 points along with nine rebounds and eight assists for the Mavs.

Booker on fire, Westbrook dominates in defeat

Devin Booker dominated again with 36 points for the Phoenix Suns, who won 133-130 over the Houston Rockets to move to 35-14.

Booker has had a hot hand lately and delivered when it mattered, with 18 final-quarter points getting the Suns past the Rockets.

Chris Paul had 11 assists for Phoenix, becoming the fifth player in NBA history to reach 10 or more assists 500 times.

Russell Westbrook had another triple-double with 23 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists but the Washington Wizards lost 103-101 to the Toronto Raptors after Gary Trent Jr's buzzer-beater.

Darius Garland scored a career-high 37 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers won 125-101 over the San Antonio Spurs.

 

Harden hurt again

Brooklyn's MVP candidate Harden did not last long in his return game after hamstring tightness, failing to score before being benched and tested in the locker room for a re-injury. Nets coach Steve Nash said: "Very similar to last time. He's got an awareness that something isn't right in his hammy."

 

Trent's buzzer-beater

Trent hit a clutch three-point buzzer-beater to earn the Toronto Raptors a dramatic victory over the Washington Wizards, completing a 19-point comeback.

Monday's results

Minnesota Timberwolves 116-106 Sacramento Kings 
Detroit Pistons 132-108 Oklahoma City Thunder
Cleveland Cavaliers 125-101 San Antonio Spurs
Toronto Raptors 103-101 Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks 111-103 Utah Jazz
Brooklyn Nets 114-112 New York Knicks
Phoenix Suns 133-130 Houston Rockets

 

76ers at Celtics

There are a bunch of big match-ups on Tuesday but the biggest is in the East when the Boston Celtics (25-25) host the Philadelphia 76ers (34-16), who have Joel Embiid back from injury.

Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash concedes James Harden's hamstring issue which forced him out of Monday's 114-112 win over the New York Knicks may linger.

Harden only played four minutes for the Nets before being benched in his first game back after missing the previous two with right hamstring tightness.

The latest issue was to the same hamstring, with Nash clarifying that they could not yet identify the problem.

"Very similar to last time. He's got an awareness that something isn't right in his hammy," Nash said post-game.

"His scan was clean as we reported. His strength tests when he came back in the locker room were normal.

"It's something where we have to protect him. We have to trust him. It's very frustrating for James.

"We can't risk it if we can afford not to. That depends on trust between us and James and making sure he feels comfortable in the decision. I thought tonight the right decision was to not take any risk with him.

"Who knows? This may linger. It may be all behind us like we thought it was before the game.

"It's one of those things where the scan is clean, his strength tests are clean but he feels something so we're going to err on the side of caution."

Nash added that Harden underwent further strength tests in the locker room during Monday's game.

"When he went back, they tested his strength," he said. "The report was that they couldn’t declare there was anything.

"He's feeling something. We believe him. It's frustrating. We don't have any indicator that this is a long-term thing or he's done any damage.

"We just have to proceed day by day and monitor it and hopefully it's a very short-term thing."

Kyrie Irving stepped up with 40 points and seven assists, while Jeff Green had 23 in Harden's absence as the Nets improved to 35-16.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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