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."

The Phoenix Suns soared to a 115-105 victory as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were condemned to back-to-back defeats to start the 2021-22 NBA season.

Chris Paul fuelled the Suns with 23 points and 14 rebounds in Los Angeles, where the Lakers were no match for last season's NBA Finals participants and fell to 0-2.

Paul became the first player in NBA history with 20,000 points and 10,000 assists.

Devin Booker (22 points) and Mikal Bridges (21 points) also impressed for the Suns, while double-doubles from Anthony Davis (22 points and 14 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (15 points and 11 rebounds) were not enough for the Lakers.

James finished with 25 points in front of the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Justin Bieber at Staples Center.

The Lakers' woes were compounded by a row between team-mates Davis and Dwight Howard on the bench during the second quarter as the pair had to be separated.

 

 

Durant's Nets spoil 76ers' opener

The Philadelphia 76ers looked in control and on track for victory but they were upstaged 114-109 by Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant posted a triple-double of 29 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists as the Nets used a 16-1 run to stun the 76ers in their first home game of the season in Philadelphia. James Harden had 20 points, while LaMarcus Aldridge added 23 points off the bench on 10-of-12 shooting. Seth Curry made all four of this three-pointers to finish with 23 points, the same amount as 76ers team-mate Tobias Harris.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic showed why he was crowned the league's best player last season, scoring 32 points, collecting 16 rebounds and supplying seven assists in a 102-96 win against the San Antonio Spurs. It was his eighth 30/15/5 game, doubling the rest of the Nuggets franchise history combined.

The Chicago Bulls' new-look team improved to 2-0 thanks to a 128-112 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans. Lonzo Ball inspired the win behind his triple-double (17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds), while Zach LaVine (32 points) and DeMar DeRozan (26 points) also came up big.

The Utah Jazz stayed unbeaten courtesy of dominant displays from All-Star duo Donovan Mitchell (27 points) and Rudy Gobert (17 points and 20 assists) in the 110-101 road win at the Sacramento Kings.

Myles turner joined James, Harden, Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady as the only players in NBA history to score 40 points, 10 rebounds, five three-pointers and three blocks in a game. The Indiana Pacers still lost 135-134 to the Washington Wizards in overtime.

 

Celtics lose again

The Boston Celtics were booed off the court at half-time and throughout the second half in their 115-83 defeat against the Toronto Raptors. Jaylen Brown was three-for-13 shooting for nine points and five turnovers, while Marcus Smart ended the game scoreless on 0-for-six shooting in 29 minutes as the Celtics fell to 0-2.

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.

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash was not happy with his team's performance after the NBA title-chasing franchise were blown away by defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks on opening night.

After unveiling their banner and championship rings in a pre-game ceremony, Giannis Antetokounmpo fuelled the Bucks to a 127-104 rout following his double-double on Tuesday.

Kevin Durant had 32 points and 11 rebounds and fellow Nets superstar James Harden put up 20 points, eight rebounds and eight rebounds as he flirted with a triple-double on the road, while 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.

But the Nets were no match for the Bucks in a repeat of last season's Eastern Conference semi-final after being outscored 37-25 in the opening period.

"We weren't very good," Nash said. "If you're not playing at a high level against the champs, you're not going to win."

It was a tough start to the season for Durant and Nets, who were without All-Star Kyrie Irving amid his absence because of not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

"We can’t give a team 20 more shots than us," Durant told reporters after the Bucks made 48 of 105 shots, while the Nets finished 37-84 from the field. "Imagine coming to a game and say 'here, take the ball 20 times on offense before we get an offensive position.

"This is one game out of 82 of them. We'll look at it that way. Every team will look at it that way. The Bucks won today, but they're still trying to fine-tune what they do, too.

"I think every team in the league is going to look at their first few games, first few weeks and see where their team is going and then make adjustments."

During preseason, Durant called the Bucks – spearheaded by Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday – a dynasty after they ended their 50-year wait for a championship in 2020-21.

But after Tuesday's showdown, the former MVP told reporters: "Maybe I was reaching a little bit.

"I just look at it as it's hard in the league for four or five guys to stay together as long as the Bucks did, through the ups and downs of losing in the first or second round, almost going to the Finals in 2019.

"They've been through a lot together. That's probably what I meant more than anything."

"They're just a team with some continuity," former Golden State Warriors forward Durant added. "I take that 'dynasty' thing back. I know it's a lot how that word gets thrown around. But they have some continuity a lot of teams don't have."

The Brooklyn Nets are itching for the opportunity to get revenge on the Milwaukee Bucks for last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals defeat, and Tuesday's ring celebration could be the ideal chance.

Their playoffs meeting earlier this year was something of a classic, with the series going to the wire as Milwaukee ultimately came good.

James Harden struggled with an injury, Kyrie Irving was out and Kevin Durant was denied what he thought was a winning three-pointer at the buzzer, but it turned out to only be a two-pointer and overtime beckoned.

The Bucks went on to win in OT and that sent them on their way to only a second NBA championship and a first since 1971.

It is fair to say the Nets have not forgotten what occurred in June and they will be highly motivated for their season opener against the Bucks, who will also be collecting their championship rings.

"It goes without saying we're definitely excited," said Nets shooting guard Joe Harris.

"We would've been excited no matter who we were playing against. This is going to be an awesome atmosphere.

"[There's a] sour taste in our mouth from the last time we played against Milwaukee, so obviously excited we get to start off with them to start the season.

"But nothing to discredit Milwaukee, they had an unbelievable season. Rightfully NBA champions.

"They're an unbelievable team with a lot of talent across the board. Right now, they're the team to beat.

"For us, it's not looking too far ahead, though. One game at a time. All of the focus is on Milwaukee and getting a good start to the season."

"We'll see how our group responds," coach Steve Nash added. "They may have extra motivation.

"They may just be locked into what their jobs are. So, I'm not really sure how they'll respond to that, or if that'll have an impact on them.

"But more than anything, I just want our guys to be prepared to start fast and play well."

Of course, last season the Nets were many people's favourites for the championship prior to that series defeat to the Bucks.

And while Durant acknowledged the excitement ahead of the Nets' season opener, he is reminding his team-mates they need to begin with high standards and maintain them every game, not just against the best teams.

"No matter what we play, we've got to hold ourselves to a championship-level standard, and we're not exercising good habits if we only get up against teams like Milwaukee," Durant said.

"Everybody's excited for the first game, but we want to keep this energy, no matter where we play."

Giannis Antetokounmpo said "there's nobody in this world that can slow down" Kevin Durant as reigning NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks begin their title defence against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.

All eyes will be on Antetokounmpo and Durant when the two Eastern Conference rivals go head-to-head in Milwaukee on opening night.

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

As Antetokounmpo and Durant prepare to clash in a battle of the former MVPs, the Bucks superstar called for a team approach in trying to nullify the Nets forward.

"We have got to do it as a team," Antetokounmpo told reporters. "There's nobody in this world that can slow down KD.

"One of the best players in the world. Can score the ball from everywhere. We've got to do it as a team. If Khris [Middleton] is going to start on him, if I'm going to start on him, we don't know.

"But no matter what the assignment is, no matter what the game plan is, what coach tells us to do, we have to also do it."

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.

The Bucks will raise their 2021 title banner and receive their championship rings prior to tip-off against the star-studded Nets.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's brother Kostas won the 2020 NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I said let me keep it very, very simple," Giannis Antetokounmpo added in reference to the ring design. "I’m not competitive, guys. I said, I want my ring to be bigger than my brother’s.

"When Kostas, my brother, showed me his ring, it was huge. It was like an airpod case. I said at least, you know, you guys don’t sell us short, give us a big ring also."

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.

The NBA and its leading stars will hope the coming regular season is exactly that: regular.

The past two have not been. In 2019-20, the season was paused for the coronavirus pandemic and resumed in Orlando, in a bubble and without crowds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was at least able to put forward his claims for a second straight MVP honour prior to that point.

In 2020-21, a rapid turnaround from the playoffs appeared to catch some leading men out, before the brutal 72-game December-to-May calendar saw a number of top performers face spells on the sidelines.

As a result, Nikola Jokic was the clear MVP candidate, outstanding for the Denver Nuggets but crucially also one of just 11 players across the league to play in all 72 games. His 2,488 minutes trailed only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle (2,667) and RJ Barrett (2,511).

With a proper preseason to plan – and the Nuggets hurt by Jamal Murray's injury – it seems unlikely Jokic will defend his title.

But which players are most likely to follow his lead and move clear of the rest in the coming months? Stats Perform breaks down the chances of the MVP favourites.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Having claimed back-to-back MVP Awards, Antetokounmpo entered preseason last year as the favourite again and threatened for a time to contend, averaging 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. A six-game lay-off in April, immediately after scoring 47 points in Portland, put paid to those hopes.

However, it would have been tough for voters to justify again picking Antetokounmpo regardless. At that stage, he had won only three playoff series in his entire career. By contrast, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird – the three men previously honoured three years in a row – each celebrated at least one championship across the first two seasons of their respective runs.

It is very different now, though. Although Antetokounmpo would become only the ninth player to take the Maurice Podoloff Trophy on three occasions, there is less daunting historical precedent with the lean year in between. Crucially, too, the 'Greek Freak' is now himself a champion.

 

Antetokounmpo was the Milwaukee Bucks' Finals MVP as they won their first title in 50 years. Rather than regress in the playoffs – his points average had dipped from the regular season in four of his five prior postseason campaigns – the 26-year-old forward scaled new heights, taking more responsibility with a career-high 20.9 field goal attempts per game and being rewarded with 30.2 points.

Now embracing his strengths, taking only 3.3 shots from three-point range in the postseason and shooting 73.6 per cent at the rim, Antetokounmpo should have the confidence to kick on again.

Luka Doncic

It is Doncic, not Antetokounmpo, who has been installed as the early favourite this year. The Slovenian is only entering his fourth season, but it feels about time he truly established himself as a future great.

Doncic was one of those who acknowledged he was "not in my best shape" as the 2020-21 season promptly got under way, and the Dallas Mavericks were an underwhelming 8-12 at the end of January, although the point forward still averaged 27.4 points over that slow early period. He then weighed in with 30.3 points across 12 games in February.

Only four players bettered Doncic's 1,830 points come the end of the year, yet he could still be a little more consistent in pursuit of a regular-season award. The 22-year-old has set an astonishing standard on the biggest stage. While waiting on a first series win, his 33.5 playoff points are the most by any player to feature in at least 13 career games. Doncic's 143 points at the Tokyo Olympics led the tournament.

If Dallas can be competitive from the outset, Doncic's game is certainly a good fit for individual recognition, his 2020-21 usage rate of 36.0 per cent the highest among players with 500 or more possessions. Similarly dominant for Slovenia, his 57 assists and 196 minutes also topped the charts at the Olympics.

New coach Jason Kidd will ask "young Picasso" Doncic to share the ball around a little more this year, though, saying: "As a coach, I don't know if anybody told Picasso that he had to use all the paints. But I just want to remind Luka that he can rely on his team-mates, and his team-mates are going to be there to help him."

He added: "We know that it's easy to get the ball to Luka, but the one thing we do want to get accomplished is other guys as playmakers so come the fourth quarter Luka is fresh and is ready to deliver." Some more big moments – Luka's 93 clutch points ranked 21st last year – would certainly help Doncic's cause.

Stephen Curry

The Los Angeles Lakers' new 'big three' – we will come to the Brooklyn Nets shortly – is likely to help title hopes but hinder MVP bids. Russell Westbrook's relentless regular-season efforts, averaging 34.4 per cent usage over the past seven seasons, might take some of the shine away from LeBron James. Curry does not have that problem.

As last year, when he had the next-most first-place votes after Jokic (albeit just five to 91), the Golden State Warriors are set to be hugely reliant on Curry – at least until fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson is back from injury.

In his first full season since Kevin Durant left and Thompson went down, Curry set his stall out early with 62 points against the Portland Trail Blazers but saved his best for the end of the year, averaging 36.9 points after a tailbone injury in March to take a second scoring title. The two-time MVP could not quite do enough to carry the Warriors through the play-in round.

A young supporting cast is now another year older, however, meaning Golden State should be competitive enough to keep Curry in the limelight without having enough talent to distract from his displays.

Only Thompson's return is likely to alter the pattern of play after Curry set career highs in points (32.0), rebounds (5.5), field goal attempts (21.7), three-point attempts (12.7), foul line visits (6.3) and usage rate (34.7). He scored a league-high 24.6 per cent of the Warriors' points.

 

Kevin Durant

Durant, like James, was set to merely be the biggest star on a team of stars until the complications around Kyrie Irving's status arose. As it stands, Irving will not feature for the Nets due to his refusal to get a coronavirus vaccine that would allow him to play home games.

Of course, Brooklyn also have James Harden, who briefly flirted with the MVP picture last year prior to a hamstring injury, but Durant will be the team's go-to as long as he stays on the court.

Although Durant made only 32 starts in 35 games in 2020-21, he led the Nets in points per game (26.9) and usage rate (31.1). Irving ranked second in both categories (also 26.9 points per game, 30.5 per cent usage).

The former Warrior is now another year on from his awful Achilles injury and gave an indication in the playoffs of the player he can still be. Playing in all 12 games, unlike Harden and Irving, Durant scored an outstanding 34.3 points – a league best among those to play 10 or more games. Only a borderline call on a Durant shot in Game 7 against the Bucks ended Brooklyn's campaign.

With or without Irving, the Nets are expected to contend for the title this time. Durant was Finals MVP in his two championship triumphs in 2017 and 2018 but has only a single regular season award, back in 2013-14. If he is back to his best, as would appear to be the case, the 33-year-old could dominate the coming season from start to finish.

Joel Embiid

Should, as this list suggests, voters look for players who are capable of putting their teams on their backs, Embiid's case has only got stronger.

The big man was already the Philadelphia 76ers' key performer, evidenced by their 39-12 record with him in the team last year compared to 10-11 when he was missing. Indeed, had Embiid not been absent for such a number of games, he might well have pipped Jokic to the top individual award.

Jokic clearly had the edge as a creator, his 8.3 assists per game allowing him to tally 16 triple-doubles, Embiid actually averaged more points (28.5 to 26.4) and his prowess on defense (including 1.4 blocks per game) contributed to far superior numbers in terms of plus/minus (7.9 to 5.3) and defensive rating (103.1 to 109.2).

 

Ben Simmons, the Sixers' second man, was already underwhelming last year, and Embiid's responsibilities on both ends of the floor are set to increase due to the uncertainty surrounding his team-mate.

Even if Simmons sticks around, as is now a possibility, this is clearly Embiid's team. He felt it had not been previously, responding to reports Simmons was unhappy with the dynamic by saying: "I feel like our teams have always been built around his needs." Those claims were "disappointing" and "borderline kind of disrespectful", Embiid added.

He will certainly not be lacking motivation now to put his injury woes behind him, enjoy another outstanding season and claim the MVP award that evaded him last year.

Kevin Durant is confident a resolution can be found amid Kyrie Irving's refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 that is preventing him practising or playing with the Brooklyn Nets.

New York City has a mandate in place, which states NBA players must have had a jab to protect against coronavirus.

Irving stated this week he is neither pro nor anti-vaccination and has respect for both sides of the argument, but as yet he has not had at least one shot, which is the minimum required for him to play home games at the Barclays Center and in fixtures at Madison Square Garden where the New York Knicks play.

The Nets decided Irving will have no involvement with the team until he complies with the rules, but Durant – who joined alongside his team-mate as a free agent in 2019 – is optimistic a resolution will be found.

Speaking after the Nets completed their pre-season duties with a 107-101 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Durant said: "I definitely want Kyrie to be around.

"I wish none of this stuff would happen, but this is the situation that we are in. Kyrie made his decision on what he wanted to do and he chose to do what he wanted to do, and the team did the same.

"It's on me to just focus on me, and do my job, and let those two parties handle that situation. I want our whole team together, and I want us to be at full strength, but sometimes it don't work out that way. But I am still positive that things will work out the best for both parties."

Durant is not upset over Irving's decision, though he acknowledged the situation is not ideal for a star-studded Nets team with championship aspirations.

"We still get to do [what] we love to do every day. This is not the ideal situation coming into the season but some of this, it's out of our control," he added.

"So, what we can do is come in and focus on our jobs every single day. What is being mad going to do?

"We are not going to change his mind, know what I'm saying? We'll let him figure out what he needs to do and the team figure out what they need to do.

"I can't be too mad at somebody making a decision for themselves.

"Who am I to get upset at that? Just focus on what we got in this locker room. When [Irving] is ready, I am sure he will talk to [team owner] Joe [Tsai] and [general manager] Sean [Marks] and they'll figure it out and they'll tell us. Until then we are going to keep grinding."

Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant envisions Kyrie Irving being part of the NBA championship contenders this season but admitted if he misses games his quality will be hard to "duplicate".

Irving has not trained with the Nets in New York this week as part of the city's COVID-19 protocols that only allows players with at least one vaccination shot to practice and play.

Nets star Irving faces missing all of Brooklyn's home matches in the 2021-22 season, which gets underway against reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks on October 19, if his vaccination status does not change.

The drawn-out situation has created a major distraction for title favourites the Nets, who bowed out to eventual champions the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals last season.

"I'm envisioning Kyrie being a part of our team," Durant told reporters after Wednesday's practice. "Maybe I'm just naive, but that is just how I feel.

"But I think everybody here has that confidence in themselves, in our group, that if we keep building, we can do something special."

Irving averaged 26.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in the 2020-21 season where he played 54 times.

The Nets struggled to find continuity with their big three, Irving, Durant and James Harden, who joined from the Houston Rockets in January, on the court due to injuries but that seemed set to change after injury-free pre-seasons ahead of the new campaign.

"I mean he's a special player so it is going to be hard to duplicate what he brings," former MVP Durant said.

"But professional sports are about the next man up mentality so we are looking forward to guys stepping up and filling in that role as best as they can."

Durant and the Nets have tried to insist the Irving situation is not a distraction, although the 33-year-old forward said he would not get involved in his team-mate's decision-making.

The Golden State Warriors faced a similar situation last week with Andrew Wiggins under the San Francisco city laws, although he opted to get his first vaccination ending the discussion.

"He is dealing with something personal right now and while he is dealing with that, we are going to focus on us here in the gym and keep working," Durant said. "When they are ready to figure that out, he'll figure it out."

Durant added: "I want him a part of this group. He's a special player. We want him a part of this group. But a lot of stuff is out of our control and we will let him figure that out for himself.

"It doesn't mean that I will say that I don't want him on the team. He's a huge part of what we do but guys got to step up in his absence and be who they are and move forward.

"I'm not really trying to get too involved in it. It's far bigger than myself and each one of us individually. This is one man's personal decision on his wellbeing."

Kevin Durant and Draymond Green blamed Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr and the franchise's management for mishandling the pair's infamous on-court spat, which led to the former leaving the team.

Durant and Green were involved in a heated verbal exchange against the Los Angeles Clippers in November 2018, with the argument reportedly continuing in the locker room post-game.

Green was suspended for one game by the Warriors as a result.

Durant eventually departed the Warriors via free agency at the end of the season, joining the Brooklyn Nets.

Warriors team-mates from 2016 to 2019 – winning two NBA championships, Durant and Green spoke about the incident.

"It wasn't the argument," Durant said on Bleacher Report show 'Chips' when asked how much the argument contributed in his decision to leave Golden State.

"It was the way that everybody -- Steve Kerr -- acted like it didn't happen. [General manager] Bob Myers tried to just discipline you [Green] and think that would put the mask over everything."

Green recalled: "'Y'all are about to f*** this up. I said, 'The only person that can make this right is me and K [Durant]. And there is nothing that y'all can do, and y'all are going to f*** this up.' And in my opinion, they f***** it up."

"I think so too," responded Durant, who averaged 26.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists with the Warriors in 2018-19 before suffering an Achilles injury in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Durant added: "I remember watching 'The Last Dance,' and when Scottie [Pippen] didn't go into the game, the whole team in the locker room said, 'Scottie, that was f***** up that you did that.'

"We needed that. We just needed to throw all of that s*** on the table and say, 'Yo Dray, K, that was f***** up that we even had to go through that.'

"Let's just wipe our hands with that and go finish the task. ... I didn't think we did that. We just tried to dance around it. I just didn't like, just the vibe between all of that, it just made s*** weird to me."

Brooklyn Nets forward Blake Griffin says there is a sense of "unfinished business" within the roster ahead of the 2021-22 NBA season.

The star-studded Nets bowed out of the NBA playoffs to eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, in the Eastern Conference semi-finals 4-3.

Brooklyn were not helped by injuries to two, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, of their 'Big Three' down the stretch.

The Nets had been earmarked as title favourites following the acquisition of Harden from the Houston Rockets in January, with six-time NBA All-Star Griffin joining for the Detroit Pistons in March, and the latter said there was unfinished business after falling short.

"We obviously didn’t accomplish what we wanted," Griffin said during a video news conference. "You can say injuries, but every team had injuries.

"We feel like there’s definitely unfinished business. There’s something bigger that we want to achieve, and I still want to be a part of that."

Griffin, who became the first player in free agency to re-sign earlier this week, was confident the Nets can claim the NBA championship.

“Yeah, I think so. I think so," he said. "Obviously there’s a lot of work to do, a lot of work to be done.

"Can’t take anything for granted. But I like our team. I like the guys we have, I like our coaching staff, I like everything we’ve put together. I believe in us."

Star forward Kevin Durant re-committed to the Nets earlier this week on a bumper four-year extension believed to be worth $198million.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year Griffin, who is now 32, added that Durant's extension helped him decide to ink a minimum one-year deal.

"I mean, obviously, it’s comforting to know that the guy of that caliber is locked in," Griffin said. "KD’s kind of like that piece that brought everything together."

Brooklyn have also added guard Patty Mills from the San Antonio Spurs, fresh from leading Australia to a breakthrough bronze medal at Tokyo 2020.

"Patty adds just dynamic shooting," Griffin said. "That’s always a need for us, but also just a veteran point guard who playing against him, it seems like he’s always like that guy that comes up with a big play, - defense, offense, whatever - hits a big shot.

"He’s also a guy that can facilitate and you know, get in the teeth of defense makes the right decisions. Just a really good basketball player."

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