Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr joked the franchise should trade superstar Stephen Curry amid his fourth-quarter struggles.

Curry scored 20 points in 27 minutes as the Warriors routed the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder 103-82 in the NBA on Saturday.

The two-time MVP entered the contest having not scored in the fourth quarter of his previous three games and Curry did not register a point in the final period again, though he did not have to as he was afforded rest.

After the Warriors improved to 5-1, Kerr jokingly told reporters: "We should trade him."

Warriors star Draymond Green almost put up a triple-double, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists at home to the Grizzlies.

Green was satisfied post-game thanks to the NBA's new rules, which go against offensive players initiating contact or flailing while trying to draw foul calls.

"Can I also say how satisfying it's been to watch the game of basketball without all those bulls*** calls," Green said. "I'm sorry, I'm not supposed to curse in interviews, right? Can I say how satisfying it is to watch the game without all those terrible calls. Guys cheating the game and grabbing guys and getting the foul. I've been really enjoying watching basketball this year.

"I kind of had stopped watching the NBA a bit because it was just too flailing and flopping and guys cheating the game and getting free throws. So I think that's been great. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that because I think that's been fantastic."

The new rules have particularly impacted Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden and Green mentioned him specifically.

"James is one of the best at it," Green said. "At driving and drawing fouls, drawing fouls from the three-point line, he's one of the best at it. So I definitely remember those games of him going 24-for-24 from the free-throw line.

"And when you got a guy that shifty, and the moment you touch him they can hook and you're called for a foul, it's impossible to guard. You started to see a lot of guys master it, but they all learned from James for sure because he was the master before anybody else ever picked it up."

Curry, who improved his career three-point tally against the Thunder to 156 – his best second tally against any opponent, added: "I've been watching around the league and for the most part, I'd say about 9 out of 10 calls that used to go the other way are not, for good reason.

"There's probably some that are still in that gray area where they'll get more consistent, but it's great for the game. I know a lot of fans are loving it. The defensive-minded players are loving it, for us to put the ball in the basket, focus on that. I've tried to my entire career so I don't think it's a huge adjustment, but I like it."

James Harden has reiterated patience is required for him to return to his point-scoring best despite a season-high 29 points in the Brooklyn Nets' 105-98 win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday.

Harden had only averaged 16.6 points across the first five games of the new season as he struggled in his recovery from a hamstring injury as well as adapting to the NBA's new officiating rules which have impacted his ability to draw fouls.

The 32-year-old guard had a season-high 20 points in those five games but he blew that out of the water with 21 by half-time in Friday's win over the Pacers.

Harden finished with 29 points, including three from six from beyond the arc and 16 points from the free-throw line.

"It wasn't 30, obviously," Harden said during a post-game news conference. "I keep saying it - every single game, I feel good, I feel better today, I continue to work on off days and non-game days, and on game days continue to be aggressive, get to the basket and shoot my shots.

"Nothing's gonna change. Eventually things are gonna happen where it's consistent and I'm up there playing like myself."

Harden's 19 free-throw attempts were the most he has had since moving to the Nets and usurped his season total in one game.

"It was just me being aggressive," Harden said. "The first couple of games I wasn't aggressive. I was aggressive in spurts, but just trying to be aggressive for four quarters.

"I had that burst, that speed of getting to my spots, whether I was getting to the basket or shooting my shots. I felt pretty good out there for an entire game."

Harden and Kevin Durant combined for 39 points in the first half, which is the most together since becoming team-mates after the former's trade from the Houston Rockets in January.

Durant finished with 22 points, along with 11 rebounds and seven assists, with LaMarcus Aldridge reached 20,000 career NBA points with his 21 off the bench.

Aldridge had joined the Nets in March but retired in April after citing health concerns from an irregular heartbeat before he received medical clearance to return this season.

"It feels good, man," Aldridge said. "A true blessing. Definitely didn't think it was going to happen after what happened last year.

"Stuck with it, fall back and definitely felt good to get it done and be back out there. Just feel blessed."

LeBron James returned from injury with 26 points as the Los Angeles Lakers overcame a slow first half to defeat his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, 113-101 on Friday.

James had missed the Lakers' past two games with a sore ankle but marked his return by top scoring, adding eight assists and three rebounds.

The four-time MVP only shot 10 from 22 from the field and one from 10 from three-point range, draining a three-quarter time buzzer beater from almost halfway.

Carmelo Anthony added 24 points off the bench for the Lakers while Anthony Davis had 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists.

The Cavs, who have beaten contenders the Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers this season, led by as much as 11 points at one stage, including holding a one-point lead into the fourth quarter.

James played a lead role in steadying the ship for the Lakers, who scored 25-16 in the fourth quarter to win by 12 points and improve their record to 3-3.

 

Harden finds his scoring touch

James Harden re-discovered some form with a season-high 29 points, including 21 in the first half, in the Brooklyn Nets' 105-98 win over the Indiana Pacers. LaMarcus Aldridge added 21 points off the bench to reach 20,000 career NBA points, while Kevin Durant dominated with 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

Jimmy Butler starred with 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while Bam Adebayo added 26 points and 19 rebounds as the Miami Heat downed the in-form Charlotte Hornets 114-99.

Damian Lillard hit five from seven three-pointers, finishing with 25 points as the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 111-92. Paul George finished with 42 points for the Clippers, who are 1-3.

 

Doncic wayward as Mavs routed

Luka Doncic had an off-night, with 16 points, shooting five from 18 from the field as the Dallas Mavericks were brushed aside 106-75 by the Denver Nuggets.

Hornets guard LaMelo Ball's bright start to the season has stalled, managing only six points in their loss to the Heat, shooting none from five from beyond the arc.

Trae Young believes James Harden is merely one of "a couple of guys" being targeted by an NBA rule change that is seeing fewer fouls awarded.

More lax officiating early in the 2021-22 season has frustrated Brooklyn Nets superstar Harden, who has said he "for sure" feels like "the poster boy" for what the league described as "an interpretive change in the officiating of overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves by offensive players with the ball in an effort to draw fouls".

Harden has averaged 8.7 free throw attempts per game for his career. This includes more than 10.0 in seven separate seasons and six straight before last year. Only Wilt Chamberlain (11) and Shaquille O'Neal (10) have averaged double-figures for free throws in more seasons.

Since arriving in the NBA in 2009, no player comes within 1,000 of Harden's 7,674 total free throw attempts.

This year, though, following the rule change, Harden has visited the foul line just 15 times through five games – an average of 3.0 even lower than his rookie year.

"Sometimes I feel like coming into a game it's already predetermined," he said. "I already have that stigma of getting foul calls."

But Harden is not alone. Atlanta Hawks point guard Young has averaged 4.4 free throws per game this year, down from 8.7 in 2020-21 when his 546 for the year trailed only Giannis Antetokounmpo (581) and Joel Embiid (548).

And Young was keen to address the issue after taking only three shots from the foul line in Thursday's defeat to the Washington Wizards, in which he scored a season-low 15 points.

"It's not necessarily about stuff not going our way," he said. "It's simple basketball. Fouls should be fouls.

"The foul they gave me at the end of the game, I thought that was BS – they just gave it to me – but there's a lot of calls they missed.

"It's basketball. It feels like they're learning, and it's... I don't know. It's frustrating."

Young said he would have to "figure it out", but he indicated others are in the same boat as he and Harden.

Damian Lillard is down to 4.5 free throw attempts and 17.8 points per game, while Devin Booker has only had 3.5 free throw attempts and a slight slump to 21.5 points.

"I don't want to get fined too much, but this is frustrating," Young said. "I saw James said it's about him, but it's not targeted at one player. There's a couple of guys where you feel like refs are holding their whistle.

"You watch basketball. Damian Lillard's never averaged 17 points probably since his rookie year. There's a couple of guys. Book's averaging 18.

"There are a lot of things where guys are driving straight, they're getting knocked off balance, it's still a foul.

"There were a lot of things they took out that were necessary – veering back and jumping into guys – that's different. There are certain things that I agree with the rule changes, but then there's things that are still fouls.

"Guys are going to get hurt, and that's why, especially a smaller guy like me, who's going up against bigger and stronger defenders, they're using their body and they're using their legs and their hands to stop me.

"I know they're looking for a guy getting knocked off balance. So, if I'm going straight and I get my balance knocked off, that's a foul. If they slow down my speed, that's a foul.

"I know the rules, so the ref can't come to me and tell me what happened and what didn't if I know exactly what they're looking for."

Kevin Durant has admitted the Brooklyn Nets are missing absent star Kyrie Irving following their third defeat in the new NBA season but is bullish they can turn around their stuttering form.

The Nets were beaten 106-93 by the Miami Heat on Wednesday, their third double-digit defeat leaving them with a 2-3 record.

Durant top scored for the Nets with 25 points along with 11 rebounds, while James Harden continues to work into the season, with 14 points.

Irving's absence, due to his vaccination status, has been a major talking point for the Nets and with limited contributions from guards Joe Harris (15 points and three reounds) and Patty Mills (four points, three rebounds and five assists) on Wednesday, Durant conceded he was being missed.

"I know what you want me to say," Durant told reporters after the game. "Yeah, we do miss Kyrie. We do. He's a part of our team.

"For the most part we've been generating great shots. We've been getting into the paint. It's a matter of knocking it down. I think it'll come."

Harden's form is another concern for the Nets as he re-discovers his touch after rehabbing from a hamstring injury.

The 2018 NBA MVP, who joined the Nets from the Houston Rockets in January, is averaging 16.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game this season.

Harden has scored 15 or fewer points for the past three games, the first time that has happened since the 2011-12 season.

"I had no opportunities to play pickup or nothing this summer," Harden told reporters. "Everything was rehab for three months, from a Grade 2 injury that happened three times in one season.

"This is my fifth game of trying to just play with competition against somebody else and as much as I want to rush the process and be back to hooping and killing, [you need to] take your time."

Harden shot four-for-12 from the field and hit three-for-eight from beyond the arc against the Heat.

"[I'm] Just getting more confident, being aggressive," Harden said. "It's getting better every single game.

"As much as I want to get back to just [scoring] 30s and 40 points, I can't do that. As much as I want to, obviously I would love to."

The Brooklyn Nets' stuttering start to the season continued with their third defeat in five games as they went down 106-93 at home to the Miami Heat.

Jimmy Butler starred for the Heat with a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds as well as seven assists and four steals as Miami improved their record to 3-1.

Bam Adebayo stole the show in the final quarter as the Nets threatened to overtake them, landing three big dunks to finish with 24 points and nine rebounds.

James Harden had some bright moments but only managed 14 points with seven rebounds and seven assists, while Kevin Durant had 25 points and 11 rebounds.

All three Nets defeats this season have been by double-digit margins as they continue to miss Kyrie Irving who is absent due to his vaccination status.

 

Giannis hits 40 in Bucks defeat

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points but it was not enough as the Milwaukee Bucks suffered their second loss in their title defence 113-108 to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Antetokounmpo had 40 along with 16 rebounds and seven assists, while all five Timberwolves starters contributed strongly led by D'Angelo Russell (29 points, five rebounds and six assists) and Anthony Edwards (25 points, seven rebounds and three assists).

Harrison Barnes (22 points, nine rebounds and four assists) drained a turnaround triple on the buzzer to clinch the Sacramento Kings a 110-107 win over last season's the Phoenix Suns who had closed a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit late in the game, led by Devin Booker (31 points, six rebounds and eight assists).

The Cleveland Cavaliers added another impressive scalp to their list this season as they downed the Los Angeles Clippers 92-79 with Collin Sexton scoring 26 points.

 

Westbrook turnovers as Lakers lose

Russell Westbrook got his first Los Angeles Lakers triple-double but he also had 10 turnovers in their 123-115 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with LeBron James absent due to an ankle injury.

LaMelo Ball struggled with only seven points, shooting three-from-14 from the field and only one-from-five beyond the arc as the Charlotte Hornets won 120-111 over the Orlando Magic.

Khris Middleton's three-point radar was off in the Bucks loss to the Timberwolves, shooting one-from-eight and contributing only 16 points, leaving Antetokounmpo with too much to do.

Kevin Durant believes the Brooklyn Nets' chemistry has "grown pretty fast" after the NBA championship-chasing franchise improved to 2-2 for the season with Monday's 104-90 win over the Washington Wizards.

Durant led the way with 25 points along with eight rebounds and four assists for the Nets, while Patty Mills came off the bench to contribute 21 points in Kyrie Irving's ongoing absence.

Brooklyn have relied on Durant, who has top scored in all four games this season, while James Harden's shooting has been errant, and fellow star Irving absent due to his vaccination status 

The Nets bowed out of last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals against eventual champions the Milwaukee Bucks, with injuries to their big three Durant, Harden and Irving taking their toll.

Durant and Harden only played 11 games together last season following the latter's January trade from the Houston Rockets, but they have played all four alongside each other this campaign.

Harden managed 14 points with five-from-17 shooting from the field though he only made one of his eight three-pointers on Monday, but Durant was bullish about their improving chemistry in offense.

The Nets shared around the points with Harden also having nine assists, while starters Bruce Brown (14 points and three rebounds) and Joe Harris (11 points, eight rebounds and two assists) contributed.

"It felt like we always had that unselfish energy around our team," Durant told reporters after the game.

"I felt like our chemistry has grown pretty fast, learning how to play with one another. This was a good step in the right direction.

"It's always good to get a W, it's good for the morale of the team. We want to build on it and keep growing.

"It's a long season. It's still the first few weeks of the season so we want to keep finetuning."

Brooklyn's victory was aided by a strong defensive display, keeping Wizards guard Bradley Beal quiet, led by Durant.

Beal finished with 19 points after shooting 36.4 per cent from the field, making only three from 13 from three-point range.

Nets head coach Steve Nash said: "It's a huge aspect of Kevin's game that he can be an incredible defender and impact the game at that end of the floor at an elite level.

"We know what he can do offensively but we're reminded here that defensively he's incredible at times as well."

The Los Angeles Lakers claimed their first win of the season after outlasting Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies 121-118 in the NBA on Sunday.

LeBron James and the Lakers had lost back-to-back games to open the 2021-22 campaign but finally had something to celebrate at home to the Grizzlies.

Anthony Davis posted 22 points and eight rebounds, while team-mate James finished with 19 points, six rebounds and six assists for the Lakers (1-2).

But it was Lakers veteran Carmelo Anthony who led the way with 28 points (on 10-of-15 shooting) from the bench.

Anthony passed Moses Malone for ninth place on the all-time NBA leading scorers list.

Morant excelled with 40 points and 10 assists, but it was not enough for the Grizzlies (2-1), who lost for the first time.

 

 

Curry brothers star as Steph makes history

Stephen Curry was at it again to lead the Golden State Warriors to their first 3-0 start to a season since 2015 after a 119-107 victory against the Sacramento Kings. The two-time MVP put up 27 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and three steals to fuel the unbeaten Warriors. With his fifth assist, Curry became the first player in franchise history to dish out 5,000 career assists.

The Philadelphia 76ers topped the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder 115-103. Seth Curry maintained his red-hot form, going seven-of-10 from three-point range for a team-high 28 points. Curry was six of seven from beyond the arc for 23 points in the opening quarter – a new career-high for a single period. He is the fourth 76ers player with at least 20 points in a quarter since 2010, joining Joel Embiid (four times), Jodie Meeks and Lou Williams. Embiid had 22 points, nine rebounds and six assists against the Thunder.

Jalen Green enjoyed a breakout game, despite the Houston Rockets going down 107-97 to the Boston Celtics. Green became the first rookie in Rockets history with 30-plus points and eight three-pointers in a game after finishing with 30 points – including eight threes, four rebounds and three assists.

The Charlotte Hornets are off to their first 3-0 start to the season thanks to a 111-95 win over the Brooklyn Nets behind Miles Bridges' 32 points. Kevin Durant led the Nets with 38 points in Brooklyn.

 

Harden struggles from the floor in Nets loss

James Harden was far from his best against Hornets, going just six-of-16 shooting from the field for 15 points in 33 minutes, while he also finished with eight turnovers.

Evan Fournier was three-of-11 shooting from the field – making just two of seven three-pointers – as the New York Knicks were stunned 110-104 by the Orlando Magic.

Kevin Durant said nobody is hoping Kyrie Irving will return to "save us" after the Brooklyn Nets were beaten by the Charlotte Hornets amid protests in support of the absent NBA All-Star.

Irving is yet to play this season due to his refusal to be vaccinated against coronavirus, which is preventing him from practicing or playing with the Nets – New York has a mandate in place that states players must have had a COVID-19 jab.

Demonstrators gathered outside Barclays Center prior to Sunday's 111-95 defeat at home to the Hornets, showing their support of Irving.

After the Nets dropped to 1-2 for the season, Durant was asked about team-mate Irving and him being away from the championship-chasing franchise.

"It's three games in. Of course, we've got enough," Durant told reporters post-game after posting 38 points.

"We definitely want Kyrie Irving out here on the floor and he's a huge part of what we do, but it's not happening right now. So we've got to figure it out.

"But nobody's going to lose confidence while we're playing and hope Kyrie comes and saves us during the game. No, you've got to play."

James Harden was far from his best against the Hornets, going just six-of-16 shooting from the field for 15 points in 33 minutes, while he also tallied eight turnovers.

 

The former MVP endured an injury-hit first season with the Nets following his blockbuster trade from the Houston Rockets.

"I'm just getting my confidence back," Harden said. "I'm a little hesitant. You guys can see it. Just making sure my confidence continues to build, and that's all that matters.

"We're at game three and hopefully my confidence -- not hopefully -- but my confidence will rise and will continue to get better as games go on, and I feel more confident and get that burst of speed like I'm normally used to. No worries at all."

Harden has also found himself drawing fewer fouls this season after the NBA introduced a rule change, aimed specifically at players who make "abnormal movements" to get to the free-throw line.

He only went to the line once against the Hornets, having averaged 4.0 attempts heading into the contest – his lowest average since the 2010-11 season (4.2).

"I feel like he's unfairly become the poster boy of not calling these fouls," Nets head coach Steve Nash said. "Some of them are definitely fouls still."

Nash added: "I think he’s got to stick with it. But they're just so alert and aware, and he's the poster child of these new decisions.  I get it, there's a line, but some of them are still fouls.

"So, he's just got to stick with it, he’s got to keep going to the basket, and he's got to do what he does because a large portion of them are still fouls, and if he doesn't get fouls, he can still make plays.

"He can still finish them, and pass and do all the things that he does. So he's just got to continue as he finds his rhythm again after very little basketball for half a year. Keep attacking, keep attacking, and they're gonna respect his skill level and his ability to get guys on his shoulder and get to the basket."

Steve Nash said "it's not going to be pretty for a little while" after the Brooklyn Nets rallied past the Philadelphia 76ers 114-109 for their first win of the season.

The Nets had never led or tied the 76ers until LaMarcus Aldridge's dunk levelled Friday's NBA clash at 108-108 with 48 seconds remaining in Philadelphia.

Brooklyn, who were blown out by reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks in their season opener, relied on superstars Kevin Durant and James Harden to eventually see off Eastern Conference rivals the 76ers.

Durant had a triple-double of 29 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists, while Harden finished with 20 points for the Nets, who closed out the contest on a 16-1 run.

"It's not going to be pretty for a little while here," said Nets head coach Nash in the continued absence of Kyrie Irving (unvaccinated).

"We just got to continue to fight, play for each other and figure out ways to compete and stay engaged while we figure out rotations and combinations and what we are all about."

 

On Durant and Harden, Nash added: "I think they are excited for their new team-mates. But it takes time to find that rhythm and combinations. And also we lost a big piece [Irving].

"It is not just the new pieces, it's the void that we are used to playing with. It is, it is a lot for us to take on at this moment in time. But hopefully in the weeks coming, we start to clear some of the debris so to speak and figure out how we can best play together."

Nets recruit Patty Mills (three-of-three shooting from beyond the arc) became the first player in NBA history to open a season 10-10 from three.

Durant recorded his 13th career triple-double and the former MVP said of playing without Irving: "We wasn't planning on having to do this, but you know, it's good for us to make adjustments.

"It's good for guys who wasn't expecting to play bigger roles to step into those roles and see who we are. This is the situation we were in, and I think a lot of guys have taken advantage of it.

"For James and myself, it feels like each game may be different and we may have to do different things than we thought coming into the season. But it's all good. It's always gonna help us get better."

Harden added: "We're the best at what we do, we'll figure it out. Me personally, I've been through a lot where I had different team-mates, different line-ups and playing small ball, so I'm used to trying to figure it out and just go with the flow and making it work. We have a really good team and we'll figure it out.

"Kevin is the same way and one of the best to ever touch a basketball. So we just got to go out there and do what we do and things will work out."

James Harden said he is "not planning on leaving" the Brooklyn Nets, despite the contract deadline passing without a new deal.

Harden and the championship-chasing Nets did not reach an agreement over a contract extension prior to Monday's deadline in the NBA.

The former MVP – entering the third season of a four-year, $171.1million deal signed with the Houston Rockets before his blockbuster trade to the Nets last season – is now set to enter unrestricted free agency at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.

But the 32-year-old superstar dismissed the possibility of leaving Brooklyn after the Nets lost 127-104 to reigning NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks in Tuesday's season opener.

"The contract, the money is going to be there. I'm not planning on leaving this organisation and the situation that we have," Harden said, having scored 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in Milwaukee.

"So my focus, honestly, is just focus on the season and then winning the championship. The contract and all that stuff will work itself out, but my focus is going to be locked on this season."

Harden added: "Last year was a whirlwind for me individually, as far as my health and playing. So this year I feel like I need to come back and show I am one of those ones. So I've got a lot to prove myself and that's all I'm worried about and focused on.

"I love it here. Myself and [Nets owner Joe Tsai, Clara Wu-Tsai, general manager Sean Marks and head coach Steve Nash].

"From top to bottom the communication has been unbelievable, it's been amazing. I feel at home. It's nothing to worry about. For me individually I just want to focus on this year and that's it."

Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors spoiled the party as they stunned LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers 121-114 on the opening night of the 2021-22 NBA season, while defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks started with a bang.

A star-studded crowd was in attendance to watch Curry and James go head-to-head in the season opener at Staples Center, with likes of Justin Bieber, Kevin Hart and Usher watching courtside.

Looking to bounce back from last season's first-round playoff exit as they were eventually dethroned by the Bucks, James and the Lakers were outlasted in Los Angeles, where Russell Westbrook endured a rough debut.

Despite double-doubles from James (34 points and 11 rebounds) and Anthony Davis (33 points and 11 rebounds), the Lakers were no match for the Warriors and Curry – who put up a triple-double of 21 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.

It was Curry's eighth career triple-double, while Jordan Poole added 20 points as the visiting Warriors and their bench outscored the Lakers' role players 55-29.

 

Giannis fuels Bucks

The Bucks unveiled their championship banner, rings and crushed Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets 127-104 behind Giannis Antetokounmpo's 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in the league's season-opening matchup. Khris Middleton contributed 20 points and nine rebounds on a memorable night in Milwaukee, where the Bucks won the Eastern Conference semi-final rematch.

While the Nets were blown away on the road, Kevin Durant produced again with 32 points and 11 rebounds. The former MVP has scored at least 25 points in 11 consecutive games against the Bucks, equalling the feat achieved by James (from 2011 to 2013).

Nets recruit Patty Mills (21 points on seven-for-seven shooting from beyond the arc) tied the NBA record for most made threes on debut for a new team, while James Harden (20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists) flirted with a triple-double.

 

Westbrook's woes, Harris behind Brooklyn's struggles?

All eyes were on Westbrook following his return to California and move to the Lakers. But the former MVP failed to impress, however. In 35 minutes, Westbrook was only four-for-13 shooting for eight points, while he had five rebounds and four assists to go with four turnovers.

The Nets went 24-4 (85.7) last season when Joe Harris scored at least 15 points – best in the NBA (minimum 25 games). Harris had the fourth-most games in the NBA with a positive plus/minus, behind only Rudy Gobert, MVP Nikola Jokic and Royce O'Neale. So based on that pre-game fact, it is no surprise the Nets lost after Harris was far from his best in Milwaukee. The 2019 NBA Three-Point Contest champion finished with just nine points on three-for-nine shooting in 31 minutes.

The Milwaukee Bucks will raise their 2021 title banner and receive their championship rings on Tuesday, just before a season opener against a Brooklyn Nets team missing a star player they hoped would deliver silverware to their franchise.

Milwaukee defeated Brooklyn in a seven-game Eastern Conference semi-finals series en route to their first NBA title in 50 years last term.

It was an engrossing series in which Milwaukee prevailed largely due to their superior health, the Nets' cause hindered by injury struggles for James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

And they will again be minus Irving for the season opener in Wisconsin, though for a markedly different reason.

Irving's refusal to receive a coronavirus vaccine, and the fluctuations in his ability that would cause with mandates in major cities preventing unvaccinated individuals from entering public spaces, led the Nets to decide he will not play for the team until the issue is resolved.

As a result, much of the burden will again fall on Kevin Durant, though he will at least have the assistance of Harden, as the Nets aim to get a measure of revenge on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

Even with Irving out of the picture, the Nets look set to contend with the Bucks for superiority in the East, and this encounter may provide an early indication of which team has the upper hand in 2021-22.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday 

While Antetokounmpo is the man around whom everything revolves for the Bucks, he receives substantial support from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

It is the latter who is the chief facilitator for Milwaukee. Holiday's 10.5 assists per 48 minutes last postseason ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games.

The Bucks will look for him to have a similar influence on their title defence, starting with the visit of the Nets.

Brooklyn Nets – James Harden

Harden was in the MVP conversation last season until a hamstring issue derailed his campaign.

His one full regular-season appearance against the Bucks saw him post a double-double with 34 points and 12 assists.

With Irving unavailable, getting that kind of performance from Harden would be critical to the Nets' hopes of opening the season on a high.

 

KEY BATTLE – Giannis vs. KD

Though both teams have plenty of depth at their disposal, the unquestioned headline act of the season opener will be the heavyweight matchup between Antetokounmpo and Durant.

Last season, the All-Star duo definitely brought out the best in each other.

In 10 games against the Nets across the regular season and postseason, Antetokounmpo only once scored fewer than 30 points. He averaged 61.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage of 57.9.

In three of those games, Durant went over 40 points, with the two-time Finals MVP averaging 58.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and posting an effective field goal percentage of 55.6.

However, Durant's plus-minus across all meetings with the Bucks was minus 18 compared to plus 26 for Antetokounmpo, perhaps speaking to his lack of support in the postseason.

With Harden in his corner for this contest, Durant will hope to flip the script in that regard and spoil the Bucks' celebration.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Bucks will be confident they have the edge after their postseason defeat of the Nets and also won each of their home games against Brooklyn last season. A momentous night of celebration for Milwaukee is not the time to let their advantage slip.

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden says he has never felt better heading into the new NBA season after enduring an injury-ravaged 2020-21 season.

Harden missed 23 games in the 2020-21 season due to a hamstring injury, which he aggravated during the Nets' playoffs campaign.

The 32-year-old, who had joined the Nets in January, played through pain as Brooklyn bowed out of the postseason in the Eastern Conference semifinals to eventual champions the Milwaukee Bucks.

Harden's teammate Kyrie Irving also had injury problems derail the Nets in the playoffs, leaving plenty on the shoulders Kevin Durant, the final member of 'the big three'.

"I've had two and a half months to recover, and I feel very, very good," Harden told ESPN. "I get an entire year, training camp included, with the guys."

He added: "I've tried to get my mind and my body right. That's all I've tried to focus on this summer. I've come back even better, bigger, stronger and quicker. I feel better than I probably have ever felt before.

"[I'm] just more confident knowing we have a legit chance to be the last team standing."

Harden, who won the 2018 NBA MVP award, also offered an update on his contract status with title favourites Brooklyn, having not yet extended his deal, which has a player option for $47million at the end of the coming season and expires the following year.

"Over the course of my career, I've never been a free agent before," Harden said.

"I've always been loyal, signing contract extensions and being there, being there, being there. I want to take my time with it.

"It's going to be very difficult to leave here or leave Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. I want this season to focus on winning the championship. Everything else will work itself out."

Harden played 36 times for the Nets during the 2020-21 season, averaging 24.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 10.9 assists per game.

His 24.6 points per game for the year, including eight games with the Houston Rockets, represented his lowest average since his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011-12, when he started just twice.

However, playing alongside Durant and Irving, Harden's usage rate fell to 29.0 per cent, having been as high as 40.5 per cent in 2018-19.

Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks says he expects to have James Harden and Kyrie Irving join Kevin Durant in re-signing with the franchise ahead of their training camp.

The Nets, who were beaten 4-3 by eventual NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks in the Conference semi-finals last season, will be hold their pre-season training camp next month.

Durant, who last Saturday won gold at Tokyo 2020, recently re-committed to Brooklyn on a four-year deal.

Marks confirmed the Nets are in talks to extend the contracts of Irving and Harden, as they look to lock down their 'Big Three'.

“I feel very confident that first day of training camp we’ll be looking at those three in particular being signed, sealed and delivered and being part of the Brooklyn Nets for a long time to come,” Marks said in Wednesday's video conference.

"We're having those conversations with them. I think there's no immediate hurry to get any of these guys done in terms of the first day of free agency. These are opportunities for us to sit down, break bread together, meet with Joe Tsai [Nets owner] and really get on the same page."

Marks said that Durant's extension was "straight-forward", labelling the forward's decision to extend as "franchise changing".

“Kevin was honestly extremely straightforward, and very upfront about ‘I want to be here, this is it, get it done, and I want to get it done immediately.’ I don't blame him," Marks said.

"It was obviously very important for us. I can't tell you how important it was, and this is franchise changing when you can lock a person like Kevin up and he wants to commit to being here for the foreseeable future."

Marks also offered updates on both Irving and Harden who missed periods of the playoffs with injuries.

Harden, 31, battled a hamstring injury in the regular season which recurred during the playoffs, while Irving suffered an ankle sprain in Game 4 of the Bucks series and did not return.

“I've James working out, I've seen some videos of him and he's really trending in the right direction," Marks said. "Looks great, has really devoted himself this summer to rehabbing one the hamstring and just getting himself into top basketball shape.

"I was with Kyrie yesterday... It was a bad ankle sprain, there's no question there, so that set him back, but he's recovering and he's progressing well and is back in the gym and I have no doubt by the time training camp rolls around and even prior to that the guys will be together and be live on the court together playing and working out.

"But from a health standpoint no reason to be concerned about either one.”

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