Billy Donovan says the Chicago Bulls' "margin for error is not great" after losing for a fourth straight game in the absence of several key players.

Without the likes of Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso, the Bulls were beaten 119-106 by the in-form Memphis Grizzlies on Monday.

Despite losing to the Grizzlies, the Boston Celtics, the Golden State Warriors and the Brooklyn Nets in successive games, Chicago are top of the Eastern Conference.

The Nets are now 27-15 for the season and have allowed an average of 127 points across those past four defeats, following a run of 14 wins from their previous 17.

And after committing 18 turnovers in an error-strewn performance against the Grizzlies, Donovan accepts an improvement is required.

"For us right now, our margin for error is not great," he said. "Turnovers here, offensive rebound, a couple easy transition points – we're going to have to eliminate those things.

"We've got to be really meticulous and good at taking care of the ball, defensive rebounding and getting back."

DeMar DeRozan led the Bulls with 24 points on 10 of 24 shooting, on top of his five assists, while Coby White finished with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists.

While the shorthanded Bulls are going through a rough patch, White believes there could be long-term gains for his side.

"I feel like this is a chance for us to grow," he said. "We're getting the opportunity now.

"I feel like we're just taking it day-by-day and trying to just grow and develop and get better for the team."

The Grizzlies have won 12 of their last 13 games and are third in the West ahead of a four-game road trip that begins against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.

"I thought our guys came out ready," Memphis interim coach Darko Rajakovic said. 

"I thought we did a really good job defensively. To be honest with you, I thought we were supposed to score even more. 

"We missed a couple of chippies, a couple of open looks that we usually make."

Kyrie Irving does not feel compelled to change his stance regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the Brooklyn Nets potentially being without Kevin Durant for six weeks.

The seven-time NBA All-Star has refused to be vaccinated against coronavirus and is therefore banned from playing in home games due to New York's vaccine mandate.

Irving was left off the Nets' initial roster for the 2021-22 season, but that decision was reversed last month when the 29-year-old was included as a part-time player.

He has been restricted to four road games so far and has averaged 20 points, which is down on his career average of 22.8.

The Nets could do with Irving more than ever after losing Durant to a knee injury that will keep him out for at least a month, but the point guard is staying rooted to his decision.

"That's what I think comes into a lot of this culture and basketball and sport and entertainment," he said. "You bring in teams and you bring in situations. 

"Kev's going to heal, Kev's going to be okay, and we're going to have to deal with that as his team-mates. 

"But in terms of where I am with my life outside of this, I stay rooted in my decision. And that's just what it is.

"It's not going to be swayed just because of one thing in this NBA life. That somehow it's brought to my attention as being more important than what's going on in the real world. 

"It's just not happening for me. I respect everyone else's decision. I'm not going to try to convince anyone of anything or any of that, I'm just standing rooted in what I believe in. 

"Though we're dealing with this right now with Kev, I know I'm protected by the organisation, by my team-mates, by all the doctors I've talked to. And I just stand rooted."

 

Irving was speaking after leading Brooklyn with 27 points in their 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday – his best tally since returning to action this month.

The Nets are once again denied the chance to partner star trio James Harden, Durant and Irving, but head coach Steve Nash is hopeful others can step up.

"It's a great opportunity for guys and our team to grow," he said. "We can't rely on Kevin in ways we could, and we have to find ways and solutions to be competitive without him."

The Nets' 'Big Three' have played only 16 games together, going 13-3 across that period.

"It's a great challenge for us," Nash added. "I don't spend time dwelling on it. It wouldn't do us any good. It wouldn't do me any good. 

"It wouldn't do the team any good if the leader of the team is sitting at home contemplating how many games they haven't played.

"That would take me away from being excited and positive to come in every day and try to affect the group positively for these guys to feel empowered and to grow."

LeBron James scored 25 points as the Los Angeles Lakers snapped their three-game losing streak by beating the Utah Jazz on Monday.

A superb late show from Stanley Johnson, who hit 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, saw the Lakers respond to their loss to the Denver Nuggets two days ago by winning 101-95.

Utah were hoping that size mattered, with Rudy Gobert playing his second game back following a positive coronavirus test and Anthony Davis still sidelined.

Gobert came up with 19 points and 16 rebounds, his second double-double in as many days despite not attempting a shot until the second quarter, but he could not prevent Johnson's clever layup move that put the Lakers 89-87 ahead.

In reality, it was Johnson's day: having been re-signed to a 10-day contract earlier, he scored six consecutive points in the final quarter and tied the game at 83-83, making seven of his nine shots.

Russell Westbrook's 15 points also proved key, but it was his spectacular dunk over Gobert in the second quarter – called for a technical foul – that drew the biggest cheers.

 

Booker hits season-high 48 as Suns roll on

The Phoenix Suns moved to 34-9 with a fourth win in a row, defeating the San Antonio Spurs 121-107.

Devin Booker scored 48 points, his best return in a game this season, finishing 18-for-33 from the field and sinking five of 13 three-point attempts.

Double-doubles from Chris Paul and Bismack Biyombo helped the Phoenix to a dominant fourth-quarter display, outscoring the Spurs 34-16 as they made it five straight wins in San Antonio.

 

Adebayo back with a Bam, Doncic drags Mavs past Thunder

The Miami Heat edged out the Toronto Raptors 104-99 as All-Star center Bam Adebayo returned from six weeks out following thumb surgery.

Adebayo's 14 points and a triple-double from Jimmy Buttler of 19 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds helped the Heat move into a virtual tie for the lead in the Eastern Conference with the struggling Chicago Bulls.

The Dallas Mavericks made it three wins in a row, a triple-double from Luka Doncic helping them to hold off a second-half comeback from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a 104-102 victory.

CJ McCollum, back from a 17-game absence caused by a collapsed lung, scored 16 points as the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Orlando Magic 98-88 – their 10th straight victory over the East's bottom side.

 

Cade Cunningham insisted he was acknowledging his "people" and not taunting the opposition after he was ejected during the Detroit Pistons' loss to the Phoenix Suns.

The Pistons fell to a 135-108 reverse against the NBA-leading Suns on Sunday as they saw two of their players ejected in the second half.

Cunningham was the first to be dismissed in the third quarter, ending an enthralling battle with Devon Booker, for what referee Kevin Cutler later described as "a physical taunt for pointing at the defender".

Cutler was referring to Cunningham's gesture after he slammed past Jalen Smith and immediately pointed in the 21-year-old's direction, leading to his second technical foul.

But Cunningham – who had 21 points, one rebound and four assists before his ejection – provided a different view after the game as he justified his celebration.

"I had my people right behind the bench," said Cunningham, who finished on 9-for-15 shooting in 24 minutes. 

"I went baseline to dunk the ball, and he's right in between me and my people. I probably should've read that situation better. I don't really get into taunting too much. 

"Usually I'm chilling after a play. I realised the situation after he tech'ed me [technical fouled] up, but I didn't think I was going to get a tech. 

"I let coach Monty [Williams of the Suns] over there, let him know, 'Good game,' and stuff like that."

Detroit trailed by 20 at the time of Cunningham's removal, and that increased to 27 by the end of the game after Josh Jackson was also ejected with 41 seconds remaining.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey – whose side are 10-32, the second-worst record in the league – believes his team must manage their reputation by maintaining strong disciplinary levels.

"He [the referee] said Cade pointed at the guy that he dunked on," Casey said after the game. "I didn't see that part. I thought he was pointing towards his teammate. 

"That's why he said he got a technical for and got ejected for, he already had one. I've seen a lot worse things to get ejected for than that. 

"The Josh one, I haven't looked at it yet. He said Josh hit, or pushed, or whatever at [Ish] Wainright. I didn't see that part either, I have to look at that.

"We're not in a position as a team to complain. Let me be the bad guy to fight for us.

"As a young team, we shouldn't get that reputation of complaining to officials. Until we get to that level, we have to button up and zip up and play our butts off."

Despite Cunningham's dismissal, the 20-year-old has been in fine form recently – averaging 17.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds since November 30 (a span of 18 games).

With the Pistons looking to bounce back with a trip to the Golden States Warriors on Tuesday, Cunningham insisted that his team are heading in the right direction.

"We're still locked in," Cunningham added. "We feel ourselves getting better and growing together. 

"This is a big road trip that we got to go into. We're going to play some good teams. We're excited to take that challenge on and see what we got." 

The Golden State Warriors felt the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green as they fell to a 119-99 loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.

Curry was ruled out with a hand injury and Green missed a fourth straight game with a calf issue as the Warriors lost for a fifth time in their last seven outings.

Jaylen Nowell scored 17 points for the Timberwolves and Malik Beasley added 16, which included five second-half 3-pointers in a one-sided conclusion to the game.

The travel-weary Warriors, playing on the road for a fourth successive time, are now 31-12 for the season and remain second in the Western Conference.


Gobert guides Utah past Denver

Returning from a five-game coronavirus-enforced absence, Rudy Gobert made up for lost time with a double-double in the Utah Jazz's 125-102 win over the Denver Nuggets.

The Jazz had lost four in a row in Gobert's absence, but the center's 18 points and 19 rebounds got his side back on track at the Ball Arena.

Gobert has now recorded 15 straight double-doubles either side of his spell on the sidelines, while Bojan Bogdanovic finished with 21 points.

Nikola Jokic top-scored for the Nuggets with 25 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists for his ninth triple-double of the season – no player has more.


Suns win again, Rockets looking up

The NBA-leading Phoenix Suns won for a sixth time in seven games with a 135-108 victory over the Detroit Pistons, with Devin Booker scoring 30 points.

JaVale McGee added 20 as the Pistons, who had Josh Jackson ejected in the fourth quarter, fell to a fourth defeat since New Year's Day, each of those by at least 27 points.

Elsewhere on Sunday, the Houston Rockets beat the Sacramento Kings 118-112 to exact some revenge two days on from losing to the same opponents.

Eric Gordon made a clutch bucket with 12.5 seconds left, adding to Christian Woods' 23 points and 14 rebounds as the Rockets won for a second time in three games.

Kevin Durant faces a spell out of action after the Brooklyn Nets confirmed the extent of the knee injury he suffered in Saturday's win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Coach Steve Nash was hopeful that Durant would avoid a layoff, but the news from his MRI scan was not what the Nets wanted to hear.

In a statement, the Nets said on Sunday: "Following an MRI this morning, Kevin Durant was diagnosed with a sprained medial collateral of the left knee.

"Durant is expected to return to full strength following a period of rehabilitation. Updates regarding his return will be provided as appropriate."

ESPN reported that Durant may be absent for the team for around four to six weeks.

The Nets' 120-105 win over the Pelicans improved their record this season to 27-15, but it came at the cost of losing Durant in the second quarter.

He had racked up 12 points in 12 minutes of action, before the injury occurred when Nets guard Bruce Brown fell backwards into the two-time NBA champion.

Durant is averaging 29.3 points per game this season, along with 7.4 total rebounds and 5.8 assists.

His absence will shift workload onto James Harden, with Kyrie Irving unable to play home games for the Nets due to his unvaccinated status conflicting with a New York City mandate affecting indoor arenas. Harden is averaging 22.7 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists.

The Nets, who sit 0.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls at the top of the Eastern Conference, are next in action on Monday when they face the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Russell Westbrook accepts Magic Johnson's damning assessment of the Los Angeles Lakers' form, but says the legendary figure does not know what is going on internally.

The Lakers slumped to a third defeat in a row with a heavy 133-96 loss at the hands of the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Frank Vogel's side, who were without injured Carmelo Anthony for a third straight game, now have a 21-22 record for the season and are seventh in the Western Conference.

The defeat to a Nikola Jokic-inspired Nuggets was the second biggest of LeBron James' 19-year career, and one fellow Lakers icon Johnson felt showed a lack of effort.

"After being blown out by the Nuggets, we as Lakers fans can accept being outplayed but we deserve more than a lack of effort and no sense of urgency," Johnson tweeted. 

"Owner Jeanie Buss, you deserve better."

Westbrook, who scored 19 points on 7-for-15 shooting, did not want to be drawn into a war of words with Johnson when asked for his reaction to the social media post.

"I do not have a reaction," he said. "Everybody is entitled, in this world, to their opinion – regardless of what that it is. 

"You can either take it and run with it or you can take it and put it in one ear and out the other or you cannot respond to it.

"Magic's entitled to his opinion. And he's not here every day. He's not around us every day. He's not aware of what's going on internally with us and trying to figure things out. 

"But I have no response to that. Like I said, everyone in this world is entitled to their opinion and that's that."

Reigning MVP Jokic recorded another triple-double as the Lakers slumped below .500 again in their defeat to the Nuggets.

Jokic finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists as Denver piled on 73 first-half points before restricting the Lakers to only 36 points in the second half.

And on the back of a humiliating loss, Westbrook concedes his side have to step up ahead of back-to-back home games with the Utah Jazz and the Indiana Pacers. 

"We just got to play hard," he said. "Sometimes, the schemes and how you play doesn't really matter. 

"You got to just play hard sometimes. Teams are playing harder than us, simple as that."

Dwight Howard, whose average of 5.4 points-per-game through 33 outings this season is the lowest of his career, echoed the thoughts of Westbrook.

"It's not too much I can really say about it. We've been saying it all year. I shouldn't have to keep saying. But, you know, he's right," Howard said.

"You can't stop believing that you're gonna win and just say, 'Ah, f**** it, let's give up.

"We know we've put ourselves in a pretty tough predicament, but all it takes is a couple games and some good energy and some positivity. We've just got to stay positive."

The Lakers' 37-point loss to Denver was their largest ever in this fixture and follows defeats to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Sacramento Kings in the past week.

"We've got to get back to the drawing board and get our defense right," head coach Vogel said. "We haven't performed well enough in the last two games on that side of the ball."

Kevin Durant missing time to injury would be "tough" for the Brooklyn Nets to take and James Harden would be set for an increased workload as a result, admits coach Steve Nash.

The Nets earned a comfortable 120-105 win at home to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday, improving their record to 27-15.

Harden starred with 27 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds but the win was marred by a second-quarter injury to Durant.

Durant suffered what the team described as a sprain to his left knee and will undergo an MRI scan on Sunday.

He had racked up 12 points in 12 minutes of action before the injury, which occurred when Nets guard Bruce Brown fell backwards into the two-time NBA champion.

Durant leads the NBA in scoring this season and had come into the game fresh after being rested against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, on Thursday.

"Of course it would be tough to lose him," Nash said, per ESPN, about Durant after the win. 

"No one wants to see that and we'll obviously hope for the best outcome.

"But regardless of the outcome we have to continue to work, build and grow and get better and compete."

Harden played for 40 minutes against the Pelicans and Nash acknowledged the former Houston Rockets guard can expect more of the same over the short-term.

Nash added: "It's tough – no Kyrie [Irving], no Kevin, no Joe [Harris]; he [Harden] is going to have to play a lot.

"So we obviously will have to be careful as to how many games he plays and what number of minutes, but we definitely are going to need him out there."

Irving is not allowed to play in home games due to COVID-19 vaccination rules in New York City while there are other key absentees for the Eastern Conference contenders.

Harden agreed the Nets had been snake bitten for much of this season, saying: "Yes, with what happened with K and then [Irving] being able to play road games only and Joe, Nic [Claxton], LaMarcus [Aldridge].

"But we have been a resilient group all year since I've been here. We just got to keep going. Keep pushing, keep pushing. Guys got to step up. It's simple.

"Obviously, we know how great of a player KD is and what he brings to the table each and every night consistently. So guys got to step up and fill that role and just continue to compete our butts off."

Durant leads the league with 29.3 points per game, while Harden is in a tie with Chris Paul atop the assists charts with 10.0.

The Nets are now just 0.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls in the East despite winning just four of their last 10.

They are back in action on Monday with a trip to play the Cleveland Cavaliers (26-18), a contest which starts a run of four straight road games.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic recorded another triple-double as the Los Angeles Lakers slumped below .500 again following a 133-96 humiliation at the hands of the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Nuggets center Jokic finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists and brought up his triple-double in the third quarter, as Denver piled on 73 first-half points before restricting the Lakers to only 36 points in the second half.

LeBron James scored 25 points with nine rebounds and two blocks for the Lakers, while Russell Westbrook had 19 points, five rebounds and three assists.

The defeat means the Lakers, who are still without Anthony Davis due to injury, move to a 21-22 record after losing three games in a row.

Bones Hyland was brilliant off the bench for Denver, who improve to 22-19, with a career-high 27 points including six triples and 10 rebounds.

 

Durant injured as Nets win

Kevin Durant limped out with a knee sprain as James Harden had 27 points, eight rebounds and 15 assists while Patty Mills scored 21 points as the Brooklyn Nets won 120-105 over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Pascal Siakam over-shadowed Giannis Antetokounmpo with a triple-double with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists as the Toronto Raptors won 103-96 over the Milwaukee Bucks. Antetokounmpo scored 30 points with six rebounds and four assists.

Jayson Tatum had 23 points with 12 rebounds as the Boston Celtics won 114-112 to condemn the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls to three straight losses, while Darius Garland had 27 points and a career-high 18 assists in the Cleveland Cavaliers' comeback 107-102 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

 

Butler struggles as Heat go cold

Jimmy Butler struggled from the field, making one of 11 for his eight points as the Miami Heat's four-game winning streak was ended by the in-form Philadelphia 76ers 109-98. Joel Embiid had 32 points with 12 rebounds for the 76ers.

The Chicago Bulls have received good news with All-Star guard Zach LaVine not expected to miss significant time after an MRI showed no structural damage to his left knee.

LaVine had limped out of the Bulls' 138-96 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday and underwent an MRI on Saturday morning.

The Bulls confirmed that LaVine will be re-evaluated early next week but that the MRI was positive albeit they were unable to provide a timeline on his return to play.

"Obviously very optimistic and very grateful that it wasn't something more," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said.

"That's why they wanted to do the MRI, so he'll continue to get therapy and we'll re-evaluate him after a period of time. I don't think it's something that's long-term, which is a good thing.

"The biggest thing is how does he respond to therapy, treatment, those kinds of things. I think once they see how he responds to the therapy there will be a clearer view of when a return date will be possible."

LaVine is averaging 24.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field across 38 games this season for the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls.

All-Star Kevin Durant has been forced out of Saturday's Brooklyn Nets game against the New Orleans Pelicans due to a left knee sprain.

Durant is expected to undergo an MRI on the injury which he sustained with just under six minutes remaining in the second quarter.

The 33-year-old two-time NBA champion was ruled out by the Nets for the remainder of the game, after teammate Bruce Brown fell on his left knee upon a drive from Pels guard Herb Jones.

Durant was making his return after he sat out Thursday's 130-109 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The 2014 MVP had been averaging 29.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists prior to Saturday's game.

Stephen Curry was "a little concerned" about a hand injury he sustained in the Golden State Warriors' thrashing of the Chicago Bulls on Friday but declared: "I'll be all right."

Curry fell on his right hand during the Warriors' 138-96 rout of the Bulls at United Center – their 10th consecutive victory over Chicago.

The seven-time NBA All-Star, who scored 19 points, was initially worried about the damage he may have done, but says the pain did not last for long.

He said: "Anything that involves the hands, especially the right one, you're a little concerned. But the feeling came back, the strength came back. It hurts, but I'll be all right."

Curry added: "I have some PTSD from [a hand injury sustained] two years ago. When I landed, it felt kind of the same, but we'll get it looked at and figure it out. Should be all right."

Rookie forward Jonathan Kuminga top-scored with 25 points in 26 minutes for Golden State, with Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins finishing with 22 and 21 points respectively.

Klay Thompson was rested as he eases his way back from a long injury lay-off, while Draymond Green could return from a calf injury against the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday.

The Warriors' demolition of Eastern Conference leaders Chicago (27-13) was only their second win in six games and moved them to 31-11, sitting second in the Western Conference behind the 32-9 Phoenix Suns.

 

The Golden State Warriors showed off their newfound depth and flexed their muscle with a 138-96 rout over the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls on Friday.

Three Warriors scored more points than Stephen Curry, who finished with 19 points including four three-pointers in the win without Draymond Green (calf) and Klay Thompson (rest).

Top 10 draft pick Jonathan Kuminga top scored with 25 points, while Jordan Poole added 22 including five triples and Andrew Wiggins contributed 21.

Golden State piled on 78 points in the first half, leading by 31 at the main break and never looked back after the Bulls lost Zach LaVine to a knee injury early in the first quarter.

DeMar DeRozan was kept quiet with 17 points, two rebounds and seven assists, while Nikola Vucevic top scored for the Bulls with 19 points along with 14 rebounds.

Chicago, who were humbled 138-112 by the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, slip to a 27-13 record but remain top of the Eastern Conference.

 

Suns and Heat continue stellar records

Devin Booker scored 35 points including five three-pointers while Deandre Ayton had 27 points with 12 rebounds as the ladder-leading phoenix Suns won 112-94 over the Indiana Pacers. The Suns are 32-9 at the halfway mark, which is their second-best record in franchise history after 41 games.

Jimmy Butler returned from a three-game absence due to an ankle injury with 23 points, 10 assists and two steals as the Miami Heat rallied late to win 124-118 over the Atlanta Hawks. The Heat improve to 27-15 and sit second in the east.

Joel Embiid had 25 points, 13 rebounds and six assists as the Philadelphia 76ers got past the Boston Celtics 111-99. Embiid fell five points short of breaking the 76ers franchise record for 30 points or more in nine straight games.

 

Grizzlies winning run ended

The Memphis Grizzlies' 11-game winning streak came to a halt at the hands of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 112-85. The Grizzlies struggled from beyond the arc, making seven-of-31 (22.6 percent) from three-point range with Jaren Jackson Jr missing all six of his three-point attempts. Doncic had a triple-double with 27 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.

Chicago Bulls' All-Star Zach LaVine will undergo an MRI on his left knee after limping out of the side's 138-96 loss to the Golden State Warriors.

LaVine left the court early on Friday with the Bulls suffering their worst loss of the season in his absence, days after a disappointing defeat to the Brooklyn Nets.

The Bulls are top of the Eastern Conference with a 27-13 record with LaVine averaging 25.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.

Bulls head Billy Donovan refused to be drawn on the extent of the injury but conceded the 26-year-old will miss Saturday's game against the Boston Celtics.

"I don't want to sit there and speculate that they've got more concern or not," Donovan told reporters after the game.

"I think they're just looking at it, he came down a bit funny. He's got some discomfort right now and they want to take a look. He didn’t feel like he could return."

He added: "I just don’t know until he gets an MRI. That's all it is right now. We leave tonight to go to Boston and he won't be going with us. We'll know a bit more detail tomorrow."

LaVine suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in 2017 playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

In a season when players are prone to missing time due to COVID-19 protocols, injury maintenance and routine rest, any single regular-season game rarely feels meaningful.

The Brooklyn Nets’ 138-112 thumping of the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, however, seemed to make a statement about the pecking order at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls maintain the best record in the East at 27-12, two games ahead of the Nets, but Brooklyn used a dominant second-half surge to display how astronomically high the team’s ceiling is.

Playing in front of a frenzied crowd, the Bulls matched the Nets shot-for-shot for a while, and the game was tied at 71 early in the third quarter. Brooklyn responded by tightening its grip on the defensive end of the floor and playing the last 8:29 of the quarter on a 30-8 run.

Chicago opened the fourth quarter by turning the ball over four times in five possessions, and the Brooklyn lead grew to as much as 38 before both teams removed their marquee players – a scary reminder to rest of the NBA that a juggernaut is looming in the East.

Irving makes the difference

With Kyrie Irving declining to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the Nets opened the season without him and played well with either Kevin Durant or James Harden running the show. Part of the luxury of having three of the league’s top 15 players is that one injury – or one bizarre soap opera centered around medical choices and municipal rules – doesn’t derail the season.

The Nets’ trio of All-Stars has still played only 16 games together, including the playoffs, but the early returns show that having Durant, Harden and Irving all on the court at the same time makes for a historically great offense.

The Nets’ change of heart to allow Irving to be a road-only, part-time player may have vaulted them to the top of the NBA title conversation.

With Durant, Harden and Irving on the court together, the Nets are scoring 125.4 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Utah Jazz have the NBA’s most efficient offense over the course of this entire season at 114.2 points per 100 possessions.

In all other scenarios over the past two seasons, including those when Durant and Harden play together, the Nets have operated with an offensive efficiency of 113.1 – an impressive number but one that is noticeably less than 125.4.

Nets, With/Without Kevin Durant, James Harden & Kyrie Irving On Court - Since 2020-21 (reg & post)

  With All  All Other Lineups Points/100 125.4 113.1 Opp Points/100 110.2 108.3 Point Diff/100 +15.2 +4.8 FG Pct .535 .481 Opp FG Pct .450 .449 3-Pt Pct .418 .449 Opp 3-Pt Pct .350 .347

Due to New York regulations, Irving can’t play home games for the Nets, but he is permitted to participate in most road games. After scoring 22 points in each of his first two games of the season, Irving needed just nine points in Wednesday’s blowout of the Bulls. His impact, however, is not lost on head coach Steve Nash.

“Kyrie definitely is another huge threat on the floor, whether he scores nine points or 29,” Nash told reporters. “Clearly you lose a generational talent when he’s not in the lineup.

“But there’s a level we reached (on Wednesday night) – with the purpose, the pace, the spirit, the resolve – that I thought was really important for our group to see how successful they can be when they do that.

“Even without Kyrie, can we bring that same level more often than not? If we do, we’ll get back to a top-10 defense like we were for most of the year and get back to pushing for the top spot in the East. But it’s hard work. It’s not easy, and you’ve got to do it day-in and day-out.”

Nash’s point rang true just a day later, when the Nets were beat 130-109 at home on Thursday by the Oklahoma City Thunder, albeit without Irving and Durant.

Brooklyn’s title hopes very well could come down to finding a way around the local regulations that prevent unvaccinated players like Irving from playing in New York, since the trio has already proven to be lethal.

Harden back in form

One powerful force allowing the Nets to climb toward the top of the East has been the re-emergence of Harden.

The league’s officials opened the season determined to stop rewarding offensive players for flailing and flopping in ways that aren’t natural to basketball, and some of the league’s brightest stars saw a sharp decline in free throw attempts, Harden included.

It is fair to say he has since adjusted.

Through the first 12 games of the season, Harden was averaging just 18.2 points per game and was attempting an average of just 4.7 free throws per game.

Since Nov. 12, Harden is scoring 24.8 points per game and attempting 9.8 free throws per contest.

The nine-time All-Star still isn’t shooting as efficiently as he typically does but has continued to thrive as one of the league’s best distributors. Harden’s 9.9 assists per game trail only Chris Paul’s 10.1 in the league this season. Harden is averaging 3.0 assists in both the first and third quarters, when he mostly plays with Durant and the rest of the starting unit.

His numbers will never again be as impressive as they were in Houston, where Harden was essentially a one-man offense, but he has adapted very well to playing alongside other stars and focusing a bit more on distribution – something that many critics doubted after he spent so long as the lone focal point with the Rockets.

Durant No. 1?

Durant remains the most reliable and lethal scorer in the league today, and his overall game puts him in the discussion for the best player in the world. He has played so well that it is easy to forget that he was rehabilitating from a ruptured Achilles tendon just 13 months ago.

Durant carried an incredible load in the last year’s playoffs, playing over 40 minutes per game, averaging 34.3 points and getting within a toe’s length of knocking out the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the only other player with a claim to be the best in the world right now after winning two MVPs and a championship over the past three seasons.

But Durant’s ball-handling and outside shooting make him feel like a more traditional creator of offense, and his playoff resume credentials speak for themselves after he won back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs with the Golden State Warriors.

The bench brings the right blend

Lost in the excitement over Durant, Harden and Irving playing together Wednesday in Chicago was how well the supporting cast played, even with Joe Harris, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Claxton missing the game.

Rookies Day’Ron Sharpe and Kessler Edwards were forced into starting roles and heavy minutes against the Bulls and met the challenge head-on. Sharpe was especially productive, totaling 20 points and seven rebounds in by far the best game of his young career.

The shooting of 13th-year guard Patty Mills has proven to be a crucial part of Brooklyn’s offense, and his 6-for-8 performance from behind the 3-point line against the Bulls indicates he will remain vital in the postseason.

This blend of youth and experience bodes very well for the Nets down the stretch. Sharpe, Edwards, Cameron Thomas and David Duke Jr. have all had impressive moments this season and have plenty of room to grow.

Mills, Aldridge, Harris, Blake Griffin and even Paul Millsap bring plenty of experience that will be appreciated this spring. And while at least a few of Brooklyn’s depth players will be cut from the playoff rotation, the roster appears to have the flexibility to account for unique playoff matchups.

The bottom line

While depth will play a role, the Nets will only go as far as their three stars take them this season.

The regular season will likely continue to be a roller coaster ride, full of ups and downs. Brooklyn has used 20 different starting lineups in 41 games this season, second most in the league, and that is a recipe for inconsistent results.

But this team made a statement in Wednesday’s road rout of the Bulls, showing what the whole league has feared since last season: Durant, Harden and Irving have the talent and chemistry to be one of the most potent NBA trios ever, and the Nets should be considered title favorites as long as all three can take the floor.

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