The NBA's top-ranked defense will be aiming to slow down the leading offense when the New York Knicks make the short trip to play the Brooklyn Nets. 

The in-form Nets have won 12 of their previous 13 games to rise up the Eastern Conference, the impressive run of form leaving them just a game back of the Philadelphia 76ers, who lead the way in the standings. 

But while they were always expected to be near the summit, particularly following the arrival of James Harden from the Houston Rockets, the Knicks have been one of the surprise packages so far. 

A first playoff appearance since 2013 is a distinct possibility, with coach Tom Thibodeau building solid foundations for a franchise that has chopped and changed in the hope of finding success.

TOP PERFORMERS

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

Randle has excelled since moving to the Big Apple, leading to a first All-Star appearance this year. The seventh overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014 averages 22.9 points and 11 rebounds through 39 games, as well as 5.7 assists.  

His 375 defensive rebounds puts him inside the top three in the league, while he has also contributed 31 steals as the Knicks have tightened up under Thibodeau.  

Having registered a season-low seven points as the Knicks returned from the All-Star break with a lopsided loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Randle bounced back with 26 in a resounding triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Since joining the Nets, Harden has recorded nine triple-doubles, the latest of them coming in a 100-95 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday that saw him score his team's final 10 points of the contest.  

While he was the focal point for Houston, the two-time MVP no longer has to carry the offensive burden in the same way for star-studded Brooklyn. He is shooting at a career-high 48.9 per cent from the field though, while his improved success from deep (39.7 per cent) has been noticeable.  

Harden has also demonstrated his ability as a passer too, his tally of 363 assists comfortably the most by any player, averaging out at a whopping 11 a game.

KEY BATTLE - A CASE FOR THE DEFENSE

The continued absence of Kevin Durant has not prevented the Nets from putting up points. They average 120.6 a game, while their combined field goal percentage of 49.9 is also the best by any team in the NBA.  

However, the Knicks have given up a league-low 105 points per outing. Randle and his fellow big men will look to dominate when it comes to rebounding, while the visitors will hope to get better at capitalising on turnovers – their average of 14 points when gaining possession in such circumstances ranks them 29th out of 30 teams.  

"It starts with our effort, our defense, those are the most important things," Immanuel Quickley, who has impressed in his rookie season, averaging 12.5 points, said ahead of the game. 

"We try to have that defensive mindset coming into games, then let everything take care of itself. The little things – defense, rebounding, energy, effort – give you a chance to win every night." 

HEAD TO HEAD 

These neighbours have met in 200 regular-season games, the Knicks narrowly leading 101-99 overall. 

Last season's four-game series was split 2-2, while the Nets prevailed 116-10 in January of this year, Durant – who has missed Brooklyn's last 11 games due to a heal issue – leading the way with 26 points in the absence of Kyrie Irving and with the Harden trade yet to be completed.  

Caris LeVert was "just happy to be on court again" after finally getting the chance to make his debut for the Indiana Pacers.

LeVert joined the franchise via a trade in January, a move that dramatically changed his life before he even made an appearance for the Pacers.

A small, cancerous mass was discovered on his left kidney during a team physical and medical test prior to the deal going through, with the 26-year-old undergoing surgery to have it removed.

Having now fully recovered, he was able to return to action on Saturday, contributing 13 points and seven rebounds as Indiana defeated the Phoenix Suns 122-111, just their second win in eight outings.

While admitting to having "heavy legs", LeVert was just grateful to be back, particularly as he had no idea after his operation when exactly he would be cleared to return.

"The main thing for me was trying to contribute to a win," LeVert, who played 27 minutes, told the media.

"This was maybe my second time going five-on-five since everything happened - there was a little bit of heavy legs due to my conditioning, but that will come back. I'm just glad we got the win."

He added: "I think a month and a half ago, two months ago, I didn't even know if I was going to be out here, especially this soon with everything that happened.

"There is definitely a level of gratefulness - I'm just happy to be on the court again."

Asked if his presence made a difference for the Pacers, he replied: "I just tried to come out and give great energy, contribute in any way that I could."

LeVert was averaging 18.5 points per game for the Nets before being involved in a blockbuster four-team trade that was headlined by James Harden ending up with Brooklyn.

Indiana actually drafted the shooting guard 20th overall in 2016, though they traded his rights to the Nets before he had played a game.

Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren is glad to have LeVert on his roster now, praising his attitude as he waited to make a comeback.

"He energised our team, and his character level is so high," Bjorkgren said.

"He's such a good person. He's been a great team-mate throughout this entire time that he's been out, so our guys were very happy to have him back out there on the court."

James Harden produced another triple-double as the in-form Brooklyn Nets won 100-95 over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday.

The Nets moved to 12-1 from their past 13 games, improving their overall record to 26-13 with their fourth consecutive victory.

Harden led the way with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, although he was 0-for-six from three-point range, inviting Detroit into the game.

Kyrie Irving (18 points) also struggled to find his radar, but Landry Shamet lifted from range, with 15 points including a trio of three-pointers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook starred but the Greek forward's Milwaukee Bucks came out on top in a 125-119 win over the Washington Wizards.

Antetokounmpo finished with a sensational 33 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a thrilling win, receiving good support from guard Jrue Holiday (18 points and eight rebounds) and center Donte DiVincenzo (10 points and 13 rebounds).

Westbrook scored 42 points for the Wizards along with 12 assists and 10 rebounds, while Rui Hachimura had 29 points and 11 boards.

In a tight match where only one point split the sides at half-time, Westbrook tied the game with a three-pointer with 41 seconds to go.

But Westbrook missed a chance to draw level again with 25 seconds to go at 121-119, allowing the Bucks to run away with it.

LaMelo shines, Charlotte's franchise record

LaMelo Ball impressed again with 23 points, six assists and nine rebounds in the Charlotte Hornets' 114-104 win over the Toronto Raptors.

The 2020 third pick helped Charlotte find their range as they shot a franchise record 11 three-pointers in the opening quarter, with Ball finishing the game with six of his own.

Kristaps Porzingis (25 points and six rebounds) and Luka Doncic (21 points and 12 assists) guided the Dallas Mavericks to a 116-103 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Malcolm Brogdon scored 25 points and Domantas Sabonis had a triple-double as the Indiana Pacers enjoyed a 122-111 win against the Phoenix Suns.

Trae Young had 28 points as the Atlanta Hawks collected their fourth straight win, beating the Sacramento Kings 121-106.

 

Triple-doubles galore

There were five triple-double in one day, which is a new NBA record, produced by Harden, Antetokounmpo, Westbrook, Sabonis and New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (26 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds against the Oklahoma City Thunder).

Hornet stung

Hornets guard Terry Rozier was forced out of his side's win over Toronto with a "left leg contusion" which will be a worry moving forward. He initially tried to play through it but eventually limped out of the game with 17 points to his name.

 

Saturday's results

New York Knicks 119-97 Oklahoma City Thunder
Charlotte Hornets 114-104 Toronto Raptors
Brooklyn Nets 100-95 Detroit Pistons
Milwaukee Bucks 125-119 Washington Wizards
Atlanta Hawks 121-106 Sacramento Kings
Portland Trail Blazers 125-121 Minnesota Timberwolves
Dallas Mavericks 116-103 Denver Nuggets
Indiana Pacers 122-111 Phoenix Suns

 

Pistons at Nets

Another bumper Sunday with nine games to come, including the Philadelphia 76ers taking on the San Antonio Spurs with Joel Embiid out, while the Utah Jazz face the out-of-sorts Golden State Warriors.

Kyrie Irving has his eyes on the prize after starring for the Brooklyn Nets in a Thursday's 121-109 victory over his former team the Boston Celtics.

Irving put up 40 points in the Nets' first game back since the NBA All-Star break, reminding the Celtics what they have been missing out on since he left in 2019.

His efforts laid the foundations for a 12th win in 13 games for the Nets, who were without Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin as former MVP James Harden posted 22 points and 10 rebounds.

While Irving clearly enjoyed his night's work, he is looking ahead to the playoffs after snapping the Celtics' four-game winning run.

"I'm just waiting for the main stage," he said. "Playing in front of millions of people and it actually mattering in terms of win or lose or go home.

"I'm looking forward to that, but games like this in the middle of the season against guys that you know well, that's always a blessing."

Irving hugged his old team-mates at the end of the contest, apparently making a mockery of the notion he has a frosty relationship with his erstwhile colleagues.

"Big surprise to a lot of people," he joked. "All that s*** talking about me and all the relationships I have with every former team-mate of mine."

Harden was full of praise for Irving, suggesting it was the 28-year-old's mental toughness that elevated him above the crowd.

"He's a different breed," Harden said. "He has that killer mentality in a sense of, no matter who we play or where we're playing, he is going to go out there and try to destroy the opponent, and that's something that you'd want on your team at all times.

"That mentality is what sets him apart from a lot of guys in this league."

Kyrie Irving posted 40 points to lead the Brooklyn Nets past former team the Boston Celtics 121-109.

In the team's first game back since the NBA All-Star break, Irving – who left the Celtics in 2019 – starred as the Nets recorded their 12th win in 13 outings.

Former MVP James Harden had 22 points and 10 rebounds on Thursday, in the absence of star team-mate Kevin Durant (hamstring) and recruit Blake Griffin.

The Celtics were fuelled by Jayson Tatum's 31 points, but still had their four-game winning streak snapped.

Two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo guided the Milwaukee Bucks to a comprehensive 134-101 victory over the New York Knicks.

Antetokounmpo – named All-Star Game MVP after starring for Team LeBron in Atlanta on Sunday – continued where he left off for the Bucks.

He had 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in 29 minutes for his fifth triple-double of the season.

Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes (21 points) nailed the most threes without missing in Bucks history after going seven of seven from beyond the arc.

 

Young stars as Hawks soar

Trae Young put up 37 points as the Atlanta Hawks topped the Toronto Raptors 121-120. Atlanta trailed by 15-plus points in the fourth quarter in each of their last two games but came back to win both. According to Stats Perform, they are the only team in the past 15 years to overcome a 15-plus point fourth-quarter deficit to win back-to-back games. Norman Powell's 33 points and double-doubles from Kyle Lowry (17 points and 12 assists) and Aron Baynes (11 points and 15 rebounds) were not enough for the Raptors.

The Miami Heat defeated the Orlando Magic 111-103 behind Jimmy Butler's 27 points and 11 assists. All-Star Nikola Vucevic's double-double of 24 points and 17 rebounds was not enough for the Magic.

No Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? No worries for the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers. Tobias Harris scored 24 points to lift the 76ers to a third consecutive win – a 127-105 success against the Chicago Bulls.

Devin Booker's 35 points inspired the Phoenix Suns to a 127-121 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers, who had 30 points from All-Star Damian Lillard.

All of the Sacramento Kings' starters were in double figures for points) as they took down the Houston Rockets 125-105 – De'Aaron Fox (30), Richaun Holmes (20 and 11 rebounds), Harrison Barnes (20 and 11 rebounds), Buddy Hield (20) and Marvin Bagley III (11).

 

Ball struggles

The Charlotte Hornets beat the Detroit Pistons 105-102, but it was a rough night for rookie LaMelo Ball. In 29 minutes, Ball made just three of 11 from the field and nailed only one of five three-point attempts for seven points.

After his All-Star appearance, Knicks forward Julius Randle finished three-of-12 shooting for seven points.

Stephen Curry won the All-Star Three-Point Contest, but he was far from convincing in the Golden State Warriors' 130-104 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. He made just one of eight three-pointers, finishing with 14 points on six-of-16 shooting.

 

Snell with the buzzer-beating three

With the Hawks trailing 120-118, Tony Snell called game after sinking a three as time expired.

 

Thursday's results

Brooklyn Nets 121-109 Boston Celtics
Atlanta Hawks 121-120 Toronto Raptors
Miami Heat 111-103 Orlando Magic
Philadelphia 76ers 127-105 Chicago Bulls
Milwaukee Bucks 134-101 New York Knicks
Minnesota Timberwolves 135-105 New Orleans Pelicans
Oklahoma City Thunder 116-108 Dallas Mavericks
Charlotte Hornets 105-102 Detroit Pistons
Los Angeles Clippers 130-104 Golden State Warriors
Phoenix Suns 127-121 Portland Trail Blazers
Sacramento Kings 125-105 Houston Rockets

 

Pacers at Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers (24-13) will return to action following the All-Star break, hosting the Indiana Pacers (16-19) on Friday. LeBron James' Lakers have lost back-to-back games.

Kevin Durant's return to play from a hamstring injury remains uncertain with Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash revealing he will undergo further scans.

Durant has not played for Brooklyn since the February 13 game against former team the Golden State Warriors due to the left hamstring injury.

Thursday's game with the Boston Celtics is set to be the 10th straight he has missed due to the injury.

Nash said Durant will undergo further scans which will dictate the next steps in his recovery.

"He hasn't played in a month," Nash said on Wednesday. "No matter what the scan says, there will still be an appropriate ramp-up time to make sure we put him in a position to finish the season strong.

"He's doing really well right now, and we all feel really positive about the direction he is going but we just need to be very cautious because he's a really important player for us."

Durant did not head to Atlanta for the All-Star break, instead remaining in Brooklyn to work with his physiotherapist.

The 32-year-old forward has participated in light on-court workouts but not high-speed running or drills with his team-mates.

Nash denied that the Achilles injury that Durant suffered in 2019 was related to his current problem.

"Through his history, through medical history and assessment, we don't feel like these two are related at all," Nash said.

Blake Griffin has cleared free agency waivers and is set to join Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets, according to reports.

The Athletic reported six-time All-Star Griffin was expected to link up with the NBA's latest 'big three' after leaving the lowly Detroit Pistons.

The 31-year-old, whose deal in Detroit was set to run until 2022, agreed a contract buyout with the Pistons earlier this week.

Griffin was tipped to join a contender, with the Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers mentioned alongside the Nets in initial reports.

But the star-studded Nets will seemingly get their man as they boost a roster that already includes three 2021 All-Stars.

The 24-13 Nets – second behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference – had been expected to add size after Jarrett Allen left in January as part of the blockbuster three-team trade that saw former MVP Harden arrive from the Houston Rockets.

Allen is now playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, where Andre Drummond – one mooted option – has sat out of action ahead of a potential move.

But Brooklyn are instead making Griffin their newest recruit, hoping he can stay fit for an extended period having played just 38 games since the start of last season.

Griffin has averaged 12.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 20 games this season for the Pistons (10-26), bottom in the east and only behind the Minnesota Timberwolves (7-29) for the worst record in the league.

Those numbers are down on his career average, including 8.7 boards per game, the same mark that Harden has reached for the Nets this season – a team-high among those still on the roster.

Brooklyn rank 14th in the league with 44.3 rebounds per game in 2020-21.

Blake Griffin could be set to swap the team sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings for a potential title contender after agreeing a contract buyout with the Detroit Pistons. 

Stories on Friday of a parting of the ways between the Pistons and Griffin hardly came as a surprise, considering he had not featured for the team in their previous 10 games prior to the All-Star break. 

Both parties agreed for the 31-year-old to be held off the active roster as the franchise worked towards a solution over his playing future.

With no trade able to be worked out, a settlement has instead been reached with Griffin – whose contract was due to run until the end of the 2021-22 season – that will see him become a much-coveted free agent. 

"Blake has been a great representative for our franchise and for the city of Detroit," Pistons owner Tom Gores said in a statement.

"His work ethic and his approach to the game contributed a lot to our culture. He has been a consummate pro and we wish him continued success. I'm grateful for everything he did for our team and for our community."

Now the six-time All-Star waits to see what offers come his way. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers are among those interested.

Griffin had averaged 12.3 points per game while shooting 36.5 per cent in his 20 outings for Detroit, who have found wins hard to come by in the 2020-21 campaign. 

Those figures are well down on his career numbers, though. After 642 games, he averages 21.4ppg, as well as 8.7 rebounds and a field goal percentage of 49.5 per cent. The only area of improvement this season has been free-throw success, landing 71 per cent compared to 69.5 per cent overall.

Selected with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, Griffin spent his first eight seasons in the league with the Los Angeles Clippers, though his debut campaign was a write-off due to injury. 

However, he was named Rookie of the Year in 2011 after playing in all 82 games, making his first All-Star appearance and also winning the dunk contest. Further injury issues hampered his progress, yet the Clippers still gave him a five-year, $173million contract in July 2017. 

Just six months later, he was traded to the Pistons. Griffin was the leading piece in a six-player deal that also saw Detroit give up protected draft picks to acquire the power forward. 

Blake Griffin could be set to swap the team sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings for a potential title contender after reportedly agreeing a contract buyout with the Detroit Pistons. 

Stories on Friday of a parting of the ways between the Pistons and Griffin hardly came as a surprise, considering he had not featured for the team in their previous 10 games prior to the All-Star break. 

Both parties had agreed for the 31-year-old to be held off the active roster as the franchise worked towards a solution over his playing future.

With no trade able to be worked out, a settlement has instead been reached with Griffin – whose contract was due to run until the end of the 2021-22 season – that will see him become a much-coveted free agent. 

Now the six-time All-Star waits to see what offers come his way. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers are among those interested.

Griffin had averaged 12.3 points per game while shooting 36.5 per cent in his 20 outings for Detroit, who have found wins hard to come by in the 2020-21 campaign. 

Those figures are well down on his career numbers, though. After 642 games, he averages 21.4ppg, as well as 8.7 rebounds and a field goal percentage of 49.5 per cent. The only area of improvement this season has been free-throw success, landing 71 per cent compared to 69.5 per cent overall.

Selected with the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, Griffin spent his first eight seasons in the league with the Los Angeles Clippers, though his debut campaign was a write-off due to injury. 

However, he was named Rookie of the Year in 2011 after playing in all 82 games, making his first All-Star appearance and also winning the dunk contest. Further injury issues hampered his progress, yet the Clippers still gave him a five-year, $173million contract in July 2017. 

Just six months later, he was traded to the Pistons. Griffin was the leading piece in a six-player deal that also saw Detroit give up protected draft picks to acquire the power forward. 

LeBron James selected two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo with his number one pick for the NBA All-Star Game, while Kevin Durant drafted Brooklyn Nets team-mate Kyrie Irving.

On Thursday, team captains James and Durant filled out their rosters for Sunday's All-Star contest in Atlanta.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar James and Milwaukee Bucks forward Antetokounmpo often go head-to-head in the All-Star Games as respective captains, but that is not the case this year.

Antetokounmpo will team up with James, who also selected Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and the Denver Nuggets' MVP candidate Nikola Jokic as starters.

Team LeBron's reserves are Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Chris Paul (Phoenix Suns), Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics), Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers), Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers) and Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz).

Durant – sidelined as he nurses a hamstring injury – turned to Brooklyn star Irving with the second overall pick in the All-Star draft.

MVP candidate and 76ers star Joel Embiid, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Washington Wizards sharpshooter Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics are the other starters for Team Durant.

The reserves drafted by Durant are James Harden (Nets), Devin Booker (Suns), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls), Julius Randle (New York Knicks), Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic) and Donovan Mitchell (Jazz).

Team LeBron have won the past three All-Star Games after topping Team Giannis 157-155 in Chicago last year.

Joel Embiid enhanced his MVP credentials with a monster double-double as the Philadelphia 76ers trumped the NBA-leading Utah Jazz in a thrilling battle, 131-123 after overtime.

Embiid hit a game-tying three-pointer with 5.3 seconds remaining to force OT – Eastern Conference leaders the 76ers outscoring the Jazz 13-5 in the additional period to reign supreme in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

MVP candidate Embiid finished with 40 points and 19 rebounds to fuel the 76ers to back-to-back wins heading into the break, with the All-Star Game scheduled for Sunday.

Sixers team-mate Tobias Harris scored 11 of his 22 points in overtime as the 76ers improved to 24-12.

Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, who was ejected with 30.8 seconds remaining in OT, recorded 33 points in the road loss – Utah (27-9) suffering back-to-back losses.

James Harden showed no mercy in his first game against the Houston Rockets since January's blockbuster trade to the Brooklyn Nets.

Former MVP Harden had 29 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds for his eighth triple-double since joining the Nets, who downed the injury-hit Rockets 132-114.

 

McConnell makes history

T.J. McConnell put up 16 points on eight of eight shooting, 13 assists and 10 steals off the bench in the Indiana Pacers' 114-111 win at the Cleveland Cavaliers. McConnell became the first player in NBA history to record 10-plus steals and make 100 per cent of his field-goal attempts in a game, per Stats Perform. He also became only the 10th player with a 10-plus steal triple-double since steals began being tracked in 1973-74.

Trae Young ended the game with 32 points as the Atlanta Hawks edged the Orlando Magic 115-112.

The Chicago Bulls trumped the New Orleans Pelicans 128-124 behind Zach LaVine's 36 points.

Triple-doubles from Mason Plumlee (14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) and Dennis Smith Jr. (10 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists) inspired the Detroit Pistons to a 129-105 win over the Toronto Raptors. Norman Powell had a game-high 36 points for the Raptors.

 

Lakers' poor form continues

Playing without LeBron James for the first time this season and with Anthony Davis already sidelined, defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers went down 123-120 to the Sacramento Kings. The Lakers have lost six of their last eight games, falling into a tie for third place in the Western Conference heading into the All-Star weekend.

The Rockets have lost 13 games in a row – the franchise's longest skid since dropping 15 straight in 2001.

 

Lillard sinks Warriors

Damian Lillard (22 points) scored the final eight points for the Portland Trail Blazers, including the game-winning three with 13.7 seconds remaining, in a 108-106 win against the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry's 35 points were not enough for the Warriors.

 

Wednesday's results

Indiana Pacers 114-111 Cleveland Cavaliers
Philadelphia 76ers 131-123 Utah Jazz (OT)
Detroit Pistons 129-105 Toronto Raptors
Brooklyn Nets 132-114 Houston Rockets
Atlanta Hawks 115-112 Orlando Magic
Charlotte Hornets 135-102 Minnesota Timberwolves
Chicago Bulls 128-124 New Orleans Pelicans
Dallas Mavericks 87-78 Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trail Blazers 108-106 Golden State Warriors
Sacramento Kings 123-120 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Clippers at Wizards

The Los Angeles Clippers (24-13) will look to snap a run of back-to-back defeats before the All-Star break when they visit the lowly Washington Wizards (13-20) on Thursday.

James Harden said he was not trying to show off after his triple-double fuelled the high-flying Brooklyn Nets in the former NBA MVP's first game against the Houston Rockets since his blockbuster trade.

Harden showed no mercy on Wednesday, his 29 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds guiding the Nets to a 132-114 victory over the Rockets in Houston.

The former Rockets star received a mixed response from fans at Toyota Center midweek following the "drama" surrounding his January exit, having demanded a trade after more than eight seasons.

After condemning the struggling and injury-hit Rockets to a 13th consecutive defeat, Harden reflected on his return to Houston.

"I'm excited," Harden said. "We got a win. We've been playing very, very good basketball, and to finish out strong like this to in the All-Star break means a lot to us. Hopefully we can get guys healthy; KD [Kevin Durant], Jeff [Green], TLC [Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot], and after the break just keep rolling.

"As far as playing in Houston, a lot of mixed emotions from the fans, but knew that was gonna happen. I just wanted to come out here and give them a show."

Led by Harden, the Rockets reached two Western Conference Finals, while Houston earned three semi-final appearances after the nine-time All-Star was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012.

The Rockets are planning to retire Harden's number 13 jersey in Houston.

"Hopefully I did something right," Harden said. "Obviously I came up short of a championship, but the work on and off the court that I put in over the past eight years was elite you know.

"I think that's the only thing I didn't do, or didn't accomplish is a championship, which is difficult to attain, but as far as bringing excitement to this city, taking care of the fans on and off the court is something that I try to contribute, so hopefully that outweighs that."

Harden has starred since joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, where he has already tallied eight triple-doubles in a Nets uniform – second in franchise history behind Jason Kidd.

On Wednesday, Harden ensured the Nets closed out the first half of the NBA season with their 10th win in 11 games heading into the All-Star break.

The Nets, who have recorded seven straight road wins, are 24-13 ahead of Sunday's All-Star Game in Atlanta – only half a game behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

"So far, so good. Everything that I signed up for," added Harden. "Top to bottom, it's been great. Adversity has hit us as far as not missing any games, so we've been playing every other day schedule wise and then we're affected by injuries, guys in and out of the line-ups, crazy, weird things happening, but I think we've fought through adversity and we're in a really good position.

"Now we know each other a little bit better. Now it's time to get some rest, take care of your body and be ready to go. Second half is gonna be huge for us in the sense of how fast we can get off to a great start. Everybody goes through the same thing. There’' no excuses, and we're not here to make any."

All eyes in the NBA will be trained on Houston on Wednesday as the Rockets host James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets.

Harden was an outstanding player with the Rockets, winning the 2018 MVP award and twice reaching the Western Conference Finals, but he is unlikely to receive a warm welcome.

The nine-time All-Star decided in the offseason he wanted to leave Houston and worked to force a trade.

Although the Rockets initially resisted, a blockbuster deal was eventually agreed with the Nets, who pipped the Philadelphia 76ers to the signing.

Harden, slow by his lofty standards in the first eight games of the season in Houston, has rediscovered his best form in the NBA's newest 'big three' with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Both the player and his former team, struggling badly at 11-22, will be determined to come out on top in this first meeting since they parted ways.


TOP PERFORMERS

Houston Rockets - John Wall

Even with Harden's numbers declining at the start of 2020-21, no Houston player has been able to match the 24.8 points he scored on average across those eight games.

Christian Wood (22.0) has come closest, yet an ankle injury has limited him to just 17 games. The Rockets have lost 12 in a row since he went down a month ago.

So, Wall, who missed the entirety of the Washington Wizards' 2019-20 campaign with a torn ACL, has had to step into the breach.

Although Houston's form is awful, Wall at least comes into this clash on somewhat of a roll, playing 10 straight games and scoring 32 points last time out against the Cleveland Cavaliers, his best return since December 2018.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Wall is not alone in being asked to do some heavy lifting, as Harden, the third man signed to the 'big three', has operated without either Irving or Durant due to injuries at times in the early stages of his Brooklyn career.

He has done so admirably, however, averaging 25.3 points, 11.3 assists and 8.7 rebounds since leaving the Rockets.

With Irving returning following a back issue against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, Harden scaled new heights, becoming the first player to post 30 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in a game without a single turnover since individual turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.

It was his seventh triple-double of the season already, a mark he only once passed in Houston colours (22 in 2016-17).
 

KEY BATTLE - CAN HOUSTON GET TO HARDEN?

Irving claimed after the Spurs game there would be "no animosity" and "no tension" in Houston "on the court or about James in my presence or anybody else's presence". That seemed optimistic.

Harden's parting shot at the Rockets, where he claimed to "have done everything that I can", prompted angry responses from Wall and the since-waived DeMarcus Cousins.

Given Wall and Cousins had each been team-mates of Harden for only eight games, it stands to reason that some of his long-standing colleagues might have been even more frustrated.

With the Nets a far superior outfit to the Rockets, the conversation around Harden on the court might prove as interesting as any matchup. The Brooklyn man will have to handle the heat.
 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Rockets have had the better of this series, boasting a 64-32 regular-season record, most recently winning in December 2019 when lifted by 44 points from Harden.

The 31-year-old has a 14-15 record against the Oklahoma City Thunder, his only other former team, averaging 28.2 points.

In Harden's three years with OKC, he was 6-6 against Houston.

James Harden is hopeful he will feel the love on his return to face the Houston Rockets for the first time with the Brooklyn Nets.

The Rockets (11-22) host Harden and the Nets at Toyota Center on Wednesday as they attempt to halt a miserable 12-game losing streak.

Last month Harden apologised for the "drama" surrounding his exit from the Rockets and wished his trade to the Nets could have been a smoother process.

Former NBA MVP Harden moved to the Nets after playing more than eight seasons with Houston and still feels part of the community, which he has been helping in the aftermath of the recent devastating storm in Texas.

"The love and the appreciation that I've given to that city and that I still give to that city, I'm hoping that the favour can be returned," Harden, who rejected a new contract with the Rockets last year, told ESPN.

"[I hope I will be] received with love.

"I thought I would never leave that franchise. I thought I was going to be in Houston, obviously, for the rest of my career. 

"Things happened. I've got different goals, and I've seen a different vision for myself and my career and my family.

"It doesn't change the fact of how I feel about the city. But it just didn't go as well - as smooth - as I planned." 

Perhaps reflecting on J.J. Watt's recent exit from the Houston Texans in the NFL, Harden added: "The communication between myself and the front office got a little shaky. 

"And now I look back at it and I see these other scenarios, other situations that are happening, specifically around other players that are in Houston, in different sports. 

"Their transition is going very smooth and I would've hoped for mine to go that smooth, but it didn't. I am where I am now.

"I feel like I'm a part of the community. Me now being in Brooklyn, it hasn't changed the way I feel about that city and everything it's done for me. 

"So whether it's trying to feed as many people as I can, get water, as much water as I can to the people that need it."

As Houston struggle, the Nets are at 23-13 after winning nine of their last 10, with Harden recording 30 points, 15 assists and 14 rebounds in a dramatic overtime win over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday.

Star trio Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have only played seven games together so far.

"I'm just excited for us, as a whole, to be able to play as many games as we can together because the potential that we have is very, very scary," Harden added.

"We're still just doing whatever it takes to come away with wins. The potential is going to be scarier when [Durant] gets back. But for right now, we're holding it down, and we're coming together as a team."

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