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.

James Harden is excited by what could be as he along with team-mates Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined to score 61 points in the Brooklyn Nets' 138-112 victory against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.

Harden managed a double-double of 25 points and a season-high 16 assists, while Durant scored a game-high 27 points to lead the Nets to a comfortable victory at United Center.

Kyrie Irving, who can only play on the road due to COVID-19 vaccine laws in New York, added nine points in his third game back for the Nets.

Speaking after the victory, which took the Nets to a 26-14 record for the season, Harden was asked about his on-court relationship with Durant and Irving.

"We're that good," Harden emphasised. "We have a chance to be that good. We just haven't had enough of it. Last year I think we had 15 games maybe together, and this year only two.

"It felt good tonight on both ends of the ball, to be locked in on the same page and, offensively, sharing the basketball and making each other better."

Durant also faced the media after another stellar showing, having now scored at least 25 points in 12 straight games, and the 11-time NBA All-Star made clear that he is not concerned with what people on the outside think of his team.

"We're trying to make no statements to the league," Durant said. "I mean, who cares what they think? We know what we bring to the table, and it's all about us. But I'm sure people were watching the game tonight."

Meanwhile, the Bulls became the first team in NBA history to win by 45+ points one day and then lose by 25+ the next, having beaten the Detroit Pistons 133-87 on Tuesday.

Coach Billy Donovan praised his team for a run that has seen them reach a 27-12 record so far, acknowledging that they were second best on the day, particularly in the third quarter when the Nets scored more than twice the number of points managed by the Bulls (39-19).

"I think you own it," Donovan said. "I think our guys have worked hard up to this point to be where we are in the standings, and with that there's a greater responsibility."

James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined to score 61 points as the Brooklyn Nets beat the Chicago Bulls 138-112 in a table-topping Eastern Conference clash.

Durant's game-high 27 and Harden's double-double of 25 points and a season-high 16 assists inspired the Nets to a routine victory at United Center.

Kyrie Irving, who is barred from playing home games, added nine points in his third game back for the Nets, but it was Durant who stole the show with 17 points in the third.

The 11-time NBA All-Star has now scored at least 25 points in 12 straight games and in the process denied the Bulls a first regular-season sweep of the Nets since 1997-98.

After seeing off the Detroit Pistons 133-87 on Tuesday, the Bulls become the first team in NBA history to win by 45+ points one day and then lost by 25+ the next.

Kings snap losing streak against Lakers

LeBron James' 34 points were not enough as the Los Angeles Lakers fell 125-116 to the Sacramento Kings, who snapped a five-game losing streak in the process.

On their worst run of the season, the Kings regularly found themselves trailing and were six down at half-time before taking control in the third quarter.

Russell Westbrook's missed 3-pointer paved the way for Chimezie Metu to make a clutch 3-pointer with 46.7 seconds remaining and Tyrese Haliburton rounded off the scoring.

The Lakers, who saw James score 31 or more for the 11th time in 12 games in the injury absence of Carmelo Anthony, have now lost two in a row and are 21-21 for the season.

Heat's run goes on

The Miami Heat may have six players on their inactive list, but they won for a third game running with a 115-91 victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

Tyler Herro had a game-high 21 points and added 11 assists as the Heat, now 26-15 for the season, kept within touching distance of the Eastern Conference leaders.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, the Dallas Mavericks' six-game winning streak was brought to an end with a 108-85 loss to the New York Knicks.

RJ Barrett's 32 made him the youngest player in franchise history with consecutive 30-point games as the Knicks won for a fourth time in five games.

Kyrie Irving impressed in only his second game of the season but insisted he still has to get up to speed after the Brooklyn Nets were surprisingly beaten at the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday.

A dominant third quarter from Portland, in which they bettered the visitors by 13 points, ended up being crucial as they ran out 114-108 winners, despite being short-handed going into the game.

Anfernee Simons starred with 23 points, six rebounds and 11 assists for the Blazers, who were missing Damian Lillard (abdomen) as well as Norman Powell (COVID-19 protocol), Larry Nance Jr (knee) and CJ McCollum, who is expected to return soon after recovering from a collapsed lung.

The Nets were themselves without James Harden (knee) but did have Kevin Durant (28 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) on court. The 33-year-old's points return marked 19 straight games with 20 or more points, the second-longest streak of 20-point games in Nets history.

Irving has refused to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and is therefore barred from playing in New York due to the city's vaccine mandate, but was playing just his second game on the road for the Nets this season and managed 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

"It felt like I made a few good moves, but now it's just getting back in that NBA action of that athleticism and catching up to that speed. That's really what it is at this point, I feel," Irving said after the loss.

Portland first-year coach Chauncey Billups had been effusive in his praise of Irving before the game, stating his belief that 29-year-old was the "most skilled point guard in history".

After the victory for his team, Billups praised his own players, saying that nobody thought this result was possible.

"Certainly nobody in the world thought that we would win this game with the guys that we have missing, even though they're missing some important players too," Billups said. "I'm more happy than anything for our team, to be honest. We've suffered a lot of losses in this building, a lot of bad losses."

The result means the Nets are 25-14 and second in the east while the Blazers improve to 16-24.

Kyrie Irving finished with 22 points in his second game back but could not inspire the Brooklyn Nets to victory as they went down to a depleted Portland Trail Blazers 114-108 on Monday.

Anfernee Simons starred with 23 points, six rebounds and 11 assists for the Blazers who were missing Damian Lillard (abdomen).

The Nets were also without James Harden (knee), but had Kevin Durant (28 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) and Irving (22 points, eight rebounds, four assists) on court.

Durant's points return marks 19 straight games with 20 or more points, which is the second-longest streak of 20-point games in franchise history.

The defeat means the Nets are 25-14 and second in the east while the Blazers improve to 16-24.

 

Giannis cannot lift Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 26 points with 13 rebounds and eight assists but it was not enough as the Milwaukee Bucks lost their second straight game, going down 103-99 to the Charlotte Hornets. Khris Middleton had 27 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists for the Bucks.

First draft pick Cade Cunningham scored a career-high 29 points to lead the Detroit Pistons to an upset 126-116 win over the Utah Jazz, who were without Rudy Gobert again.

Joel Embiid scored 31 points with eight rebounds and six assists for the Philadelphia 76ers who beat the Houston Rockets 111-91.

 

Tatum cool as Celtics win in OT

Jayson Tatum went zero-of-seven from beyond the arc and shot at 33 percent from the field for his 24 points as the Boston Celtics edged the Indiana Pacers 101-98 in over-time. Domantas Sabonis had a triple-double for the Pacers.

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash allayed fears of a serious knee injury for 2018 MVP James Harden who was left out of the side to play the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday.

Harden, who is averaging 22.4 points, 8.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists this season, missed the game due to a left knee hyperextension.

Nash revealed Harden did not require an MRI on the knee and that the Nets were taking precaution.

"I think we're being overly cautious," Nash told reporters prior to Monday's game.

"A heavy stretch of games. Expect him to play Wednesday [against the Chicago Bulls]."

Kyrie Irving, who is only eligible for road games due to his vaccination status, will play in the game away to the Trail Blazers.

"It would be great if we didn't have to get him up to 40 [minutes] tonight," Nash said. "But at the same time, I think he's got the bulk of his preparation and his legs and is ready to play as much as needed ... you don't want to play him 44 minutes tonight, then he's got to turn around and play a big game on Wednesday.

"So we'll play him more minutes, but we would love for it to be gradual and a strategic allocation of minutes, not just like, 'All right great, we got a new Ferrari and we're going to rack up the miles.'"

Kevin Durant hopes to use the Brooklyn Nets' upcoming road games with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Chicago Bulls as a chance to "build chemistry" with Kyrie Irving.

Irving was left off the Nets' initial roster for the 2021-22 season due to electing against receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Seven-time NBA All-Star Irving is not eligible to play in home games due to New York City's vaccine mandate, but he would have been available for most road games.

The Nets reversed course last month by including the 29-year-old as a part-time player and named him in their line-up for Wednesday's win over the Indiana Pacers.

Still unable to play in home games, Irving will have a chance to get minutes under his belt when the Nets head to Portland and Chicago on Monday and Wednesday respectively.

And Durant, who scored 28 points in Sunday's 121-119 win against the San Antonio Spurs, is glad to have the chance to reignite his partnership with Irving.

"We're definitely a better team, a way better team with Irving," Durant said. "He's definitely going to give us a lift. 

"I'm looking forward to it – a couple games on the road, an opportunity for us to build our chemistry. I'm looking forward to it."

Nets coach Steve Nash has previously said he is reluctant to overuse Irving on his return to the side, but the point guard is set to feature against Portland.

"We'll see," Nash said when asked about Irving's availability. "Typically, with a game under his belt he could play a little more [Monday], so that's definitely possible."

Irving played 32 minutes against the Pacers and scored 22 points – he averaged 26.9 from across 54 games in 2020-21.

The Nets' overtime win against San Antonio, having blown the lead late in regulation, was their first at Barclays Center in six games since December 16 and moved them to 25-13 for the season.

The Eastern Conference's second-placed side are playing catch-up owing to a run of rescheduled games, meaning a long flight from Portland to Chicago and back to New York again before Thursday.

Asked about the uniqueness of the situation, Nash said: "I can't remember all the back-to-backs I ever played in but I don't remember any six-hour flights in between.

"So it's different, but we've got to take it as an opportunity, an opportunity to succeed under adversity and this moment where we're trying to find ourselves again.

"We have a tough back-to-back, so let's embrace it. Let's see if we can win both, and if we can win both, or at least play well in both, maybe that gives us a spark."

Kevin Durant has reiterated that he will not try and force or persuade Kyrie Irving to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Irving had been left off the Brooklyn Nets' initial roster for the 2021-22 season, as he had elected against receiving a vaccine.

New York City's vaccine mandate means the seven-time All-Star cannot play home games unless he gets vaccinated.

Irving would have been available to play most road games, though the Nets elected not to include him at all.

That changed when, due to a depleted roster caused by a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, Irving was recalled, and the point guard returned with a 22-point display in Wednesday's win over the Indiana Pacers.

Yet Irving could not feature on Friday as the Nets went down 121-109 at home to the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Durant insisted the Nets must accept Irving's decision.

"I told him how important he is, how much I want him to play, play every game," Durant told reporters.

"But I'm not about to force somebody to get a vaccine, like that's not my thing. So he can play basketball? Nah, I'm not about to do that.

"We've had conversations about wanting him to be a part of the team and conversations about him being here full-time, but that's on his time. Whatever decision he want to make, he's going to make.

"It's on us to be professionals no matter what and do our jobs. All of us, from the owner down to the equipment manager, so whenever he ready, he'll be ready."

In Irving's absence, Durant and fellow star man James Harden delivered 29 and 16 points respectively for the Nets, but Milwaukee, inspired by Giannis Antetokounmpo's 31 points, had too much.

"I haven't even asked for an explanation," Durant continued. "It ain't my place I don't think. So I'm ready for whatever, that's been my whole mentality. 

"It's a weird situation, who knows? I don't understand most of this s***. COVID, all of this stuff has been crazy."

Harden added: "It felt good honestly to have him back [on Wednesday]. It felt good. It felt like an extra life that we had. 

"But we got to live with what we're dealt with, and that's home games we've got to figure ways and even road games.

"Just because Ky's on the road with us doesn't mean it's going to be easy for us as well. So we've got to mesh, we've got to find ways to win games."

Bucks talisman Antetokounmpo was asked whether his approach would be different.

"When it comes to basketball, I feel like I can talk to them," he replied. "I've got to let them make their decision. They're grown men and every situation is different.

"I cannot pressure somebody to do something that he doesn't feel comfortable doing. I can tell you why I did it. Why I felt comfortable doing it. To protect my family, to protect my mom and stuff, stay safe, and you just hope he understands that. But if he doesn't want to do it, I can't keep pressuring him."

Kyrie Irving made his return to the Brooklyn Nets side for the first time in seven months but you would not know that according to head coach Steve Nash and teammate Kevin Durant.

The pair were full of praise for 29-year-old Irving who had not played all season due to his vaccination status which meant he would be unavailable for home games in New York City, with the Nets not wanting him on a part-time basis.

The franchise changed their tune a fortnight ago, permitting him for road games, amid a COVID-19 outbreak which depleted their playing stocks. Irving had returned to practice and found his fitness before he played for the first time this season in Wednesday's 129-121 win over the Indiana Pacers.

Irving was on court for 32 minutes, scoring 22 points making nine-of-17 from the field along with three rebounds, four assists and three steals. The win also halted the Nets' three-game skid.

"He looks like himself," Nash said at the post-game news conference. "Not a big surprise watching him play in practice, he's so gifted and talented, you could see the rhythm was there.

"But it's still an adaptation. We've got to give him some space as he transitions back to playing but tonight he was big."

Durant scored 39 points with eight rebounds and seven assists as the Nets improved to 24-12 to sit second in the east behind the Chicago Bulls (25-10).

"It was amazing to have him out there," Durant told reporters. "I missed his presence around the locker room, his energy and his vibe around the team.

"On top of that, his game is just so beautiful. He makes the game so much easier for everybody out there.

"I'm sure he was a bit nervous but he got comfortable. He made some athletic plays. It looked like he'd be around for a while."

Kyrie Irving scored 22 points upon his return to the Brooklyn Nets side for the first time this season as they came from behind to beat the Indiana Pacers 129-121 and snap a three-game skid on Wednesday.

Irving had been ruled out of the entire regular season by the Nets due to his vaccination status but the franchise changed their stance a fortnight ago, permitting him to play road games.

The 29-year-old point guard played 32 minutes, making nine-of-17 from the field along with three rebounds, four assists and three steals.

Irving's return reunited the 'big three' alongside Kevin Durant (39 points, eight rebounds and seven assists) and James Harden (18 points, five rebounds and six assists).

The Pacers had led 73-60 at half-time with a biggest lead of 19 points before Brooklyn rallied with an 8-0 run to end the third quarter, before Patty Mills put them ahead with a fourth-quarter three-pointer.

Domantas Sabonis recorded a triple-double for the Pacers with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.

 

Popovich brings up 2,000th in style

Gregg Popovich coached the San Antonio Spurs for the 2,000th time, recording his 1,325th win in charge as they beat the Boston Celtics 97-95 with Jaylen Brown's lay-up buzzer beater rimming out. Brown scored 30 points with six rebounds, while Dejounte Murray had 22 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists for the Spurs.

Bojan Bogdanovic (36 points, 13 rebounds and four assists) won the battle of the Balkan stars against Nikola Jokic as the Utah Jazz edged the Denver Nuggets 115-109. The reigning MVP was exceptional for the Nugs with 26 points, 21 rebounds and 11 assists.

Joel Embiid scored 31 points as the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Orlando Magic 116-106, while Giannis Antetokounmpo was absent with a non-COVID-related illness as the Milwaukee Bucks lost 117-111 to the Toronto Raptors with Pascal Siakam netting 33 points.

 

Curry goes cold for Warriors

Stephen Curry had an ordinary shooting night, going five-of-24 from the field and one-of-nine from beyond the arc as the Golden State Warriors lost 99-82 to the Dallas Mavericks. Curry finished with 14 points with nine rebounds while Mavs All-Star Luka Doncic had 26 points with seven rebounds and eight assists.

James Harden felt "carelessness" on rebounds proved costly for the Brooklyn Nets as they were beaten by the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.

Despite the return from COVID-19 protocols of Kevin Durant, who put up 33 points, the Eastern Conference Leaders lost 110-102 at Barclays Center.

The Nets responded to falling behind in a high-scoring first quarter to lead by seven points in the third, Harden assisting Durant for two three-point jumpers in the space of 23 seconds.

However, Philadelphia mounted a late comeback before easing to a win that saw them improve to 19-16 for the season.

Harden tied Durant as top scorer for the Nets as he recorded a triple-double of 33 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists. It was his sixth of the season, a tally surpassed only by the Los Angeles Lakers' Russell Westbrook (eight).

Still, he was frustrated that they let their third-quarter lead slip by giving up too many opportunities.

 

"They've got more than enough talent to have a really good game after a really good first quarter," he said.

"We climbed back into the game, did a really good job locking down defensively and just doing what we were supposed to do. Obviously, 16 points in that second quarter, we got a chance in that third quarter, went up by eight or something, but we allowed them to get offensive rebounds and more shots in general.

"The rebounds were] a little bit of carelessness, a little bit of decision-making. I had a couple I wish I could have got back. That's the game right there. You talk about it in training camp, not allowing the opposing team to get so many more shots than us. Tonight was a case of that."

Next up for the Nets is a home game with the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday before they head to the Indiana Pacers next Wednesday, when Kryie Irving could make his first appearance of the season.

Irving, who was back on the practice court this week, is unvaccinated against COVID-19 and so is only able to play in road games due to New York City regulations.

Harden said of his team-mate: "He looked like Kyrie: elite. The same Kyrie. We're happy to have him back and we've got to get him on the court."

Kyrie Irving admitted it has been tough to watch the Brooklyn Nets from the sidelines as he marked his return to the practice court on Wednesday.

Irving returned to Nets' practice for the first time since preseason after the franchise decided in October to make him unavailable due to New York City's vaccine mandate and his unvaccinated status.

The Nets reversed that decision a fortnight ago when they announced the 29-year-old would return on a part-time basis for away games, despite remaining unvaccinated, with the side short on numbers following a surge of players in the NBA's health and safety protocols.

Irving's return to the practice court was delayed by him entering protocols a day after the Nets' announcement earlier this month, but he has now been cleared.

"I'm incredibly grateful just to be back in the building," Irving told reporters speaking for the first time publicly since mid-October. "Welcomed back with open arms [from] my teammates, the whole organisation.

"I'm not going to lie, it has been relatively tough to watch from the sidelines with everything going on in the world. I know everybody is feeling it. Just praying for everybody to be healthy during these times."

Irving will only be permitted to play away games and head coach Steve Nash said he would need a couple of weeks to get into NBA-ready condition.

"If I get the opportunity to get on the court and play with my teammates, even if it is just on the road for away games, I am grateful for the opportunity," Irving said.

"I've missed so much time. It's my first day back around the block with the guys and it felt like it's been a long time.

"It's only been, what, three months or so, but it has felt like the days have been slowly crossed off the calendar while I am sitting at home. When I thought about [returning to practice] last night, I could barely sleep.

"I understood their [the Nets'] decision and respected it. I really had to sit back and think and try not to become too emotionally attached to what they were deciding to do. I had to really evaluate things and see it from their perspective, meaning the organisation, my teammates.

"I really empathised, and I understood their choice to say if you are not going to be fully vaccinated, then you can't be a full [participant]."

The Nets are currently top of the Eastern Conference with a 23-9 record and play the Philadelphia 76ers at the Barclays Center on Thursday, which Irving will be unavailable for.

Five of the Nets' next six games are at home.

The Brooklyn Nets can count on Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge again after they were cleared to return from NBA health and safety protocols.

Durant, who was in a rich vein of form, has sat out the Nets' previous three games, while Aldridge has not featured in the past five.

They could be back on court for Thursday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers at Barclays Center, the first of a run of three at home for the Nets.

Kyrie Irving has also been released from the shackles of the same COVID-19 protocols, the NBA said on its official website.

Because Irving is unvaccinated and cannot play home games due to local restrictions in New York City, his return to action must wait.

Irving has not played all season but could be in the frame to be involved in the trip to the Indiana Pacers on January 5 or at the Chicago Bulls a week later.

The Nets lead the way in the Eastern Conference with a 23-9 record, after following up a Christmas Day win over the Los Angeles Lakers by beating the Clippers on Monday.

 

James Harden, freshly out of protocols, played lead roles in both those wins with hauls of 36 and 39 points, and now he is set to have elite support.

Durant leads the Nets in scoring this season with an average of 29.7 points per game, alongside 7.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists. 

The Nets have had three recent games postponed due to their roster being hard hit by absentees.

There is a "good chance" Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant will leave the NBA's coronavirus protocols this week, according to head coach Steve Nash.

The 11-time All-Star entered the health and safety protocols on December 18, but he could be out and ready to face the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.

Kyrie Irving, who went into protocols on the same day as Durant, is further away from a return to action.

"I think there's a good chance Kevin will be [fit for Thursday]," Nash told reporters.

"With Kyrie, I'm not so sure but it's coming. He's already been in protocols since December 18; he's got to be getting close."

Brooklyn earlier stated that Irving will re-join the NBA championship-chasing franchise for road games outside of New York and Toronto.

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

At the start of the season, the Nets announced they would not accept Irving playing on a part-time basis and thus overlooked him for selection until he is vaccinated.

But due to injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak, Brooklyn have opted to bring Irving back.

Fred VanVleet starred as the Toronto Raptors won 119-100 over the Golden State Warriors who rested star guard Stephen Curry on Saturday.

VanVleet finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists as the Raptors blew the Warriors away in the first half, leading 63-42.

Curry (rest), Draymond Green (right hip), Andre Iguodala (right knee), Otto Porter Jr. (left foot) and Andrew Wiggins (left knee) were all absent for Golden State and returned to California to avoid potential COVID-19 exposure and quarantine in Canada.

The Raptors made their absence count, shooting 45 of 90 from the field, becoming the first side the Warriors have allowed this season to shoot at 50 percent or better.

The Warriors' sixth defeat of the season leaves them second in the Western Conference with a 24-6 record.

 

Wizards end Jazz run

Bradley Beal scored a season-high 37 points and had seven assists and five rebounds as the Washington Wizards ended the Utah Jazz's eight-game winning streak 109-103. Donovan Mitchell scored 32 points for the Jazz, while Rudy Gobert had 19 rebounds with 11 points.

Cedi Osman came off the bench to top score for the Cleveland Cavaliers with 23 points as they won 119-90 over the Milwaukee Bucks, who were missing Giannis Antetokounmpo due to COVID protocols.

Luke Kennard's (27 points, seven rebounds) heroics could not lift the Los Angeles Clippers to victory, going down 104-103 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were led by rookie Josh Giddey (eight points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists).

 

Weakened Nets lose to struggling Magic

The depleted Brooklyn Nets, missing star trio Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden due to COVID protocols, were beaten 100-93 by the lowly Orlando Magic for their sixth win of the season. The loss was the Nets' ninth.

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