Novak Djokovic's deportation from Australia was "unjust" and the world number one will need time to move on from the saga, according to his long-time coach Marian Vajda.

The 20-time grand slam winner was denied the chance to claim a record-extending 10th crown at the Australian Open after having his visa cancelled on public health grounds.

Despite being unvaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic had been given a medical exemption to travel to the country, only for that to be blocked by border officials.

He won his initial appeal to re-approve his visa, but immigration minister Alex Hawke used separate powers to revoke it again and a Federal Court upheld the decision.

The long-running case came to an end on Monday when Djokovic arrived back in Serbia, having reluctantly accepted the court's decision.

But Vajda, who has been part of Djokovic's coaching team for each of his grand slam titles, does not agree with the Australian government's handling of the situation.

"I still don't understand why they did it to him," Vajda told Slovakian outlet Aktuality. 

"It was an unhealthy and unjust decision, based on the assumption that Djokovic could do or influence something that had not yet happened.

"I can't imagine how he handled it. It must have been a huge suffering.

"He humbly endured all measures. But what they did to him must mark him. It is clear that it hit him mentally. 

"It will hurt him for a long time and it will be difficult to get it out of his head. However, I know him very well. Novak is strong, resolute and has not yet said his last word in tennis."

 

In a further blow for Djokovic, who has stood firm on his refusal to be vaccinated, it emerged this week that the Serbian may also miss the France Open later this year.

That is after stringent laws were passed in France ahead of May's tournament at Roland Garros that will make proof of vaccination status mandatory to enter sporting arenas.

"I don't understand this," Vajda added. "Why is it important for them to announce this now about the tournaments that will take place in May?

"The world doesn't even know what will happen to the pandemic in a month.

"I do not want to underestimate the whole situation. It is serious in the world. But what is the purpose of discussing it now in January? Is it still about sport?"

Defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka squandered two match points as she suffered a shock third-round exit at the hands of unseeded Amanda Anisimova on Friday.

Osaka eased past Camila Osorio and Madison Brengle in straight sets in the first two rounds but fell to a 4-6 6-3 7-6 (10-5) loss to Anisimova in a thrilling contest.

Anisimova, who won her second career title at Melbourne Summer Set 2 earlier this month and is now 8-0 for the season, will face top seed Ash Barty in the last 16.

Two-time Australian Open winner Osaka had won 24 of her past 25 matches in Melbourne and made a fast start against Anisimova by breaking her opponent in the first game.

She held serve to ease ahead on Margaret Court Arena, but Anisimova battled back well in the second set.

The world number 60 broke Osaka in the fourth game with a sublime disguised backhand drop and served out the set in a relatively straightforward manner.

Anisimova continued to dig in and saved two match points in the 10th game to help pave the way for a decisive first-to-10 tie-break.

Osaka had no response to her opponent's accurate hitting as she fell 3-0 behind and, while she did bring it back to 3-2 and 5-4, Anisimova took five of the next six points to advance in a big upset.

DATA SLAM: Osaka outgunned by Anisimova

Osaka had dropped just one set in her first five matches this season and looked in the mood as she raced ahead against Anisimova.

But the American youngster fired in 11 aces and hit more than twice the number of winners that Osaka managed (46 to 21) to pull off the victory.

With this defeat, Osaka has now failed to defend any of her four major crowns, with Victoria Azarenka the last women's player to do so at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013.

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Anisimova – 46/44
Osaka – 21/45

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Anisimova – 11/8
Osaka – 5/3

BREAK POINTS WON
Anisimova – 1/8
Osaka – 1/10

Defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka squandered two match points as she suffered a shock third-round exit at the hands of unseeded Amanda Anisimova on Friday.

Osaka eased past Camila Osorio and Madison Brengle in straight sets in the first two rounds but fell to a 4-6 6-3 7-6 (10-5) loss to Anisimova in a thrilling contest.

Anisimova, who won her second career title at Melbourne Summer Set 2 earlier this month and is now 8-0 for the season, will face top seed Ash Barty in the last 16.

Two-time Australian Open winner Osaka had won 24 of her past 25 matches in Melbourne and made a fast start against Anisimova by breaking her opponent in the first game.

She held serve to ease ahead on Margaret Court Arena, but Anisimova battled back well in the second set.

The world number 60 broke Osaka in the fourth game with a sublime disguised backhand drop and served out the set in a relatively straightforward manner.

Anisimova continued to dig in and saved two match points in the 10th game to help pave the way for a decisive first-to-10 tie-break.

Osaka had no response to her opponent's accurate hitting as she fell 3-0 behind and, while she did bring it back to 3-2 and 5-4, Anisimova took five of the next six points to advance in a big upset.

Matteo Berrettini spoke glowingly on the potential of Carlos Alcaraz after battling past the Spaniard at the Australian Open on Friday.

The 2021 Wimbledon finalist managed to make it to the fourth round, despite squandering a two-set lead, as he edged to a 6-2 7-6 (7-3) 4-6 2-6 7-6 (10-5) victory.

Berrettini went down to the 18-year-old, who is the youngest man in the draw of the first grand slam of 2022, in a third-set tie-break loss in Vienna last year.

After securing victory on this occasion in Melbourne, the Italian heaped praise on Alcaraz following their marathon slog that lasted four hours and 10 minutes.

"He is unbelievable," seventh seed Berrettini said of his teenage opponent as he reflected that he did not have a single ATP point to his name at Alcaraz's age.

"He is impressive and will only improve playing matches like this, he has shown everyone his potential. Luckily today I won."

There was a slight concern for Berrettini during the deciding set after the 25-year-old rolled his ankle.

But he was pleased to have fought through his injury problems as he discussed how he almost relinquished his two-set advantage at Rod Laver Arena.

"I felt confident, and that momentum was on my side in the third set but then I got broken," he added during his on-court interview.

"My energy wasn't right in the fourth set and in the fifth I just started to think about fighting for every point. In every match something happens [like the ankle injury] but I fought through it."

Awaiting Berrettini in the next round will be Alcaraz's fellow Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, who defeated Sebastian Korda in four sets to win his third-round tie.

Ash Barty continued her rampant run at the Australian Open, brushing aside Camila Giorgi in straight sets on Friday.

The world number one has dominated during the opening week in Melbourne and quickly eased past Giorgi, the Italian 30th seed, 6-2 6-3 on Rod Laver Arena.

Barty has dropped just eight games in the first three rounds at her home grand slam, where she is eyeing her third major title.

The Australian is on track to face Naomi Osaka in a blockbuster fourth-round clash, although the Japanese star was involved in a tight contest with Amanda Anisimova.

Giorgi made a nervous start and back-to-back double faults handed Barty a break of serve in the second game.

Barty rolled into a 4-1 lead before digging herself out of a 15-40 hole to hold for 5-2.

Speaking after her second-round win, Barty was wary of Giorgi's ability to hit players off the court, but 16 unforced errors were costly for the Italian in the first set.

Giorgi tidied up the errors to begin the second set, but a double fault handed Barty two more break-point chances in the sixth game.

The reigning Wimbledon champion took the second of those when Giorgi pulled a backhand well wide.

That break proved to be enough for Barty, who closed out a fourth win in as many meetings with Giorgi.

DATA SLAM: Barty keeps up top-seed record

Top seeds have enjoyed good records at the Australian Open.

In the Open Era, the top seed has only once failed to make the last 16 at the Australian Open and that came in 1979 (Virginia Ruzici). Barty ensured she did not join the Romanian.

WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
Barty – 11/13
Giorgi – 8/24

ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
Barty – 4/2
Giorgi – 0/5

BREAK POINTS WON
Barty – 3/5
Giorgi – 0/4

Steve Kerr has accepted the blame for the Golden State Warriors' shock defeat to a depleted Indiana Pacers side, saying "this was my night to stink it up".

Stephen Curry's 39 points were not enough for the Warriors as they lost 121-117 in overtime on Thursday to go 32-13 for the season.

The Warriors gave away 21 turnovers against a Pacers side without Domantas Sabonis (ankle), Caris LeVert (calf) and Malcolm Brogdon (Achilles).

Kerr's side led by three points in regulation time, making the decision not to foul in the build-up to the Pacers' game-tying shot all the more surprising.

Speaking on the back of arguably the Warriors' worst defeat this season, Kerr said: "I'm normally a fouler, so I take the hit on that one. Tonight was my night to stink it up.

"I blame myself, number one. I don't think I prepared my team to be ready to play. I did not do a good job of preparing the group."

Curry's 39 points are the most he has managed in a game since before Christmas, with his season average of 26.4 down on last term's career-high 32.0.

The 33-year-old failed to score in overtime, while Klay Thompson missed all seven of his 3-point tries in a day to forget for the Warriors.

"It wasn't a great game in terms of our execution," Kerr said. "It just felt like we were scattered out there and in a rush for sure."

Thursday's defeat was a chastening one for the Warriors and leaves them second in the Western Conference with a .711 win percentage.

And like coach Kerr, Curry felt he could have done more to get his side over the line in regulation time by fouling Justin Holiday or Isaiah Jackson for the shot that tied the game.

"I looked at the ball for like two seconds," Curry said. "Holiday made a good cut and made a shot. I know there's that conversation, should we have fouled and all. 

"I was just a step slow and that one gave him too wide-open of a look. Trying to guard the inbounds and I got caught looking."

The shorthanded Pacers have moved to 17-29 for the season after beating LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers and Curry's Warriors in successive games.

In doing so, they become the second side in NBA history to beat different multi-time former MVPs on the road in back-to-back games.

Chris Duarte, who led the way for the Pacers with 27 points and seven rebounds to tie his career-best return, hailed the significance of his side's surprise victory.

"Golden State is a great, great team," he said. 

"They got two of the best players – two of the best shooters that you've ever seen in this game – so I think us coming out with the win, it's a huge, huge win for us."

Gael Monfils admitted it felt "different" not to have Novak Djokovic in his draw at the Australian Open after reaching the fourth round.

Monfils, 35, moved into the last 16 at Melbourne Park with a 7-6 (7-4) 6-1 6-3 win over fellow seed Cristian Garin on Friday.

The Frenchman reached the fourth round of a major for the 20th time in his career, holding a 9-10 win-loss record in such matches, including losing five of his past six.

As he would have expected, a Serbian awaits him on Sunday – but it will be Miomir Kecmanovic and not Djokovic, who was removed from the draw after being deported from Australia prior to the start of the tournament.

Monfils has losing head-to-head records against Djokovic (0-17), Rafael Nadal (2-14) and Roger Federer (4-10).

"To be honest, for sure Novak is the world number one, and he always beat me, I never beat him. I lose to him, I lose to Roger, I lose to Rafa," he said after his win on Friday.

"When you go no matter what in a slam, for many years I've been losing to those big guys. Whoever is in the forefront, he's there for a reason, so it's going to be a big match no matter what.

"I think at that stage you don't really think about it, you're just like, okay, it's different, but different is not easier."

Monfils bowed out in the Australian Open first round last year, but enjoyed a strong finish to 2021 and started 2022 by winning the Adelaide International 1 event.

A winner of 11 ATP Tour titles, Monfils said he had put his early exit in Melbourne last year behind him.

"To be honest I tried to not even remember last year. I can just say that I'm here, I'm good," he said.

"I feel good, as I say. I worked, well, a lot harder, and I've just been playing great tennis for many months now since America last year. So I'm just me."

Luka Doncic is hopeful of playing against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday despite suffering a neck injury in Thursday's defeat to the Phoenix Suns.

Doncic, star man for the Dallas Mavericks, sustained the injury when he fell to the court after contact with Suns center Bismack Biyombo in the third quarter of the 109-101 loss.

The two-time NBA All-Star was seen clutching the back of his neck after the fall and had to apply a heat pack to the area.

The 22-year-old Slovenian made his way back onto the court to play out the final seven minutes, though he could not inspire the Mavs to victory as a four-game winning streak was snapped.

Doncic is confident he will be fine to return against the Grizzlies, however. 

"It's my neck. It's the spine," Doncic explained to reporters after the game. "When I fell down, I hit my back. It's pretty sore right now.

"I think it's a little worse because it's the spine. But it'll be OK in a couple of days."

Doncic, who registered 28 points against the Suns, played with a neck injury in last season's playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

He has averaged 25.2 points per game this season, 5.1 more than any other Mavs player, while he also leads the team for rebounds (8.8) and assists (8.7).

Across 31 games so far in 2021-22, Doncic's points average is down on last season (27.7 across 61 appearances).

The Mavs sit fifth in the Western Conference with 26-20 record and .565 win percentage. 

Thursday's defeat was only their second in 12 games, but the Suns simply had too much. Phoenix hold the NBA's best record so far this season, sitting on 35-9 with a .795 win rate.

Devin Booker led the Suns with 28 points, five rebounds and six assists, and claimed trust within the Phoenix roster has been crucial to their success so far.

"We all trust each other," Booker told reporters.

"We had a lot of learning curves last year, but having that time and that experience together, I know put us in a situation where we never hit the panic button.

"We never get flustered or out of whack. We just stick with what we do."

Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar says there were signs of fatigue among his players despite extending their hot streak with a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday.

The Avalanche have won five straight and are 10-0-1 from their past 11 games to sit atop the Western Conference's Central Division.

Mikko Rantanen, Kiefer Sherwood, Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Devon Toews all scored for Colorado while Darcy Kuemper made 40 saves to them to back-to-back wins.

Anze Kopitar scored a power-play goal for the Kings in the second period to make it 2-1, but third period goals from Aube-Kubel and Toews – an empty-netter with 1:35 remaining – sealed the win.

“We were not good through two periods, even just the simplest of tasks, plays, breakouts, regroups,” Bednar told reporters. “We were not moving the puck efficiently. We were beating it up.  To me, that’s a sign of fatigue.

“To finish the game the way we did with the stretch that we’ve been on, we’ll take the two points. It is what it is. We needed our goaltender tonight again, just like last night in Anaheim. We got the job done.

“I’m pretty proud of our group, especially after the way they played in the third period after what was a pretty rough night for two periods.”

Stephen Curry scored 39 points but it was not enough as the Golden State Warriors were shocked by a depleted Indiana Pacers 121-117 in over-time on Thursday.

The Pacers were without Domantas Sabonis (ankle), Caris LeVert (calf) and Malcolm Brogdon (Achilles) yet found a way to win led by Chris Duarte with 27 points and seven rebounds.

Curry hit six three-pointers in his 39-point haul with five rebounds and eight assists while Kevin Looney had 13 points and 15 rebounds.

The two-time MVP shot 12 of 27 from the field, while Klay Thompson shot six of 17 from the field and zero of seven from beyond the arc.

The Warriors gave away 21 turnovers for the game which was costly as the Pacers claimed rare back-to-back road wins.

 

Suns clinch fifth straight win

The table-topping Phoenix Suns stormed home with a 35-19 fourth quarter to knock off Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks 109-101.

Devin Booker finished with 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, while Chris Paul had 20 points and 11 assists. The Suns enjoyed a 22-6 run to finish the game, with Paul underlining their clutch status with a late three-pointer.

Phoenix improve to 35-9 on the back of a five-game winning run. Doncic, who nursed a minor neck issue, had 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the Mavs.

 

Knicks clipped by Pelicans

Julius Randle shot one-of-nine from the field as the New York Knicks were humbled 102-91 by the New Orleans Pelicans. Randle only managed four points, while Kemba Walker also struggled with only five points.

Brooklyn Nets All-Star Kyrie Irving has been fined $25,000 by the NBA for directing obscene language toward a fan.

The NBA announced the fine on Thursday with the incident occurring in the second quarter of Monday's 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Irving responded with obscene language to a fan who could be heard heckling the 29-year-old former Cavaliers point guard. He said: “Got y’all a championship and m***********s still ungrateful.”

Nets teammate Kevin Durant along with New York Knicks' Julius Randle have also been fined for obscene language this season as the NBA attempts to crack down on the use of profanity.

Irving was making his fifth appearance in the NBA this season, due to his vaccination status which meant he could not play home games in New York City, with the Nets not wanting him on a part-time basis. The Nets reversed that decision last month, allowing him to play in road games.

Irving has averaged 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists since his return this season.

Brooklyn Nets assistant coach David Vanterpool has been fined $10,000 and the franchise penalised $25,000 after bizarrely interfering with play in Wednesday's 119-118 win over the Washington Wizards.

The incident, which occurred with the Nets leading 109-103 with 5:42 remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter, went unnoticed at the time by officials but led to a turnover of opposition by the Wizards.

Referee Ben Taylor said none of the officials saw the deflection, as Vanterpool raised his hand and touched a pass for Kyle Kuzma.

Kuzma along with Spencer Dinwiddie, who passed the ball, both demonstratively protested the lack of a decision after Vanterpool interfered with the live play.

"You asked me if he may have touched it, there is no may have, he did," Wizards acting head coach Joseph Blair told reporters after Wednesday's game.

"My reaction was utter disbelief. I've never seen in my very long time in basketball something happen like that that the referees didn't see."

Jimmy Garoppolo appears set to be available for Saturday's NFC divisional round clash with the Green Bay Packers despite an injury scare, according to San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

The 49ers quarterback was not listed on the franchise's injury report on Thursday and is expected to play through a sprained right shoulder and thumb.

San Francisco had more good news with linebacker Fred Warner also not on the injury report after a sprained right ankle while defensive end Nick Bosa is close to clearing concussion protocols to mark his return.

"He threw the ball great. He's looked as good as he did the week before," Shanahan said about Garoppolo.

"Jimmy's been playing through some things. But that's why he's full go because he's good enough to go and we don't treat it any differently."

Garoppolo had been added to the 49ers injury report on Monday with Shanahan revealing he had a "slightly" sprained throwing shoulder from the 23-17 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

The QB offered no guarantees on Tuesday and was limited in practice that day but was listed as a full participant on Wednesday and Thursday.

"It's playoff football," Garoppolo said earlier in the week. "We know what time it is and there ain't no time to rest right now."

World number four Patrick Cantlay holds a share of the lead alongside Lee Hodges after both carded 10-under rounds of 62 on the opening day of the American Express in California on Thursday.

Cantlay, who was last season's PFA Tour Player of the Year, birdied five of his first seven holes along with an eagle on the par-five sixth in good conditions.

The 29-year-old American birdied the 11th, 12th and 13th holes before pars to round out a strong start.

Hodges, who played the back nine first, had a similar run on his event debut although he landed an eagle on the par-five fifth hole as part of a strong finish.

“I got off to a roll at the start and kind of made a bunch of putts and then I kind of lagged on the way coming in,” Cantlay said.

“I was happy with everything. I thought I did everything well and it’s a golf course I really like. It’s in perfect shape and so, if you get the ball rolling on line, it should go in.”

Both Cantlay and Hodges started on the La Quinta course but Nicklaus Tournament Course on Friday and the adjacent Stadium Course on the weekend.

Cameron Young and KH Lee are tied for second after carding eight-under rounds of 64, with the Korean missing out on a share of the lead due to two bogeys.

Young shot five-under on his back nine to move up the leaderboard, highlighted by an eagle on the 13th hole.

Joseph Bramlett, Sam Ryder, Brandt Snedeker, Danny Lee, Tom Hoge, Seamus Power, Wyndham Clark and Greyson Sigg were all seven under.

World number one Jon Rahm had a steady round on La Quinta with four birdies on his back nine to finish his round with a six-under-66.

Brooklyn Nets' All-Star Kyrie Irving has been fined $25,000 by the NBA for directing obscene language toward a fan.

The NBA announced the fine on Thursday with the incident occurring in the second quarter of Monday's 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Irving responded with obscene language to a fan who could be heard heckling the 29-year-old former Cavaliers point guard. He said: “Got y’all a championship and m***********s still ungrateful.”

Nets teammate Kevin Durant along with New York Knicks' Julius Randle have also been fined for obscene language this season as the NBA attempts to crack down on the use of profanity.

Irving was making his fifth appearance in the NBA this season, due to his vaccination status which meant he could not play home games in New York City, with the Nets not wanting him on a part-time basis. The Nets reversed that decision last month, allowing him to play in road games.

Irving has averaged 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists since his return this season.

Professional sports are usually cyclical with teams rising and falling at one point or another. Some franchises, however, seem to be stuck in a never-ending loop of nothingness.

That is where the Sacramento Kings have resided for far too long. 

The Kings own the NBA's longest active playoff drought at 15 seasons with the next closest team (Charlotte Hornets) at just five years. At 18-29 and 11th in the Western Conference, it doesn't appear likely that Sacramento will end that run of futility this year with the 16-season drought becoming the longest in NBA history. The Clippers went 15 seasons without a playoff appearance from 1977-1992.

Those Clippers at least had a winning season during their dearth of postseason basketball, going 43-39 in 1978-79. The Kings' best record in their sad stretch was 39-43 in 2018-19. Sacramento's last winning season came in 2005-06 (44-38), at the end of a streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances that included the league's best record in 2001-02 (61-21). 

That success must seem like a century ago to the Kings' beaten-down fanbase.

The Kings have been something of a vagabond franchise throughout their history, starting as the Rochester Royals in 1948 and winning their only championship two seasons later. 

The team moved to Cincinnati in 1957-58 and then was shifted to Kansas City-Omaha in 1972, when they were renamed the Kings. Finally, they became the fourth NBA team in the state of California with the move to Sacramento in 1985. 

Over the last five seasons, including the current one, the Kings rank 24th in winning percentage (.411). Trailing them are Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York and Orlando, all teams that have experienced the playoffs in that span except for the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls who are headed there this season. 

That Sacramento have only been moderately awful lately is one of the franchise's biggest problems. While other teams have bottomed out and rebuilt (Cavaliers, Hawks and Bulls), the Kings have wallowed near the bottom without much of a plan to lead them back to their long-forgotten glory days.

There is a myriad of reasons why the Kings have been unable to reach the playoffs since George Walker Bush was in the White House, but chief among them is an 11-man coaching carousel.

David Joerger (2016-17-2018-19) coached the most games in that span (246) and had the most wins (98), recently fired Luke Walton had the best winning percentage (.422) and Kenny Natt had the worst (.190).

Walton was fired on November 21, 2021, after a 6-11 start and a 68-93 record, and replaced on an interim basis by Alvin Gentry. That move hasn't provided much of a spark with Sacramento going 12-18 under Gentry.

While coaching, of course, plays a major role in any team's fortunes, players are truly what defines a franchise. Because impact free agents aren't flocking to Sacramento the way they do to Los Angeles or Miami, the Kings must hit on their draft picks, and they simply have had too many misses. 

It can be unfair to look at a specific team's drafts and pick apart what they should or shouldn't have done in hindsight, but in Sacramento's case, the misses have contributed to a lack of stars and therefore success.

The most egregious mistake came in 2018, when the Kings picked Marvin Bagley III second right before Dallas selected Luka Doncic and three picks before Trae Young went to Atlanta. While Bagley is a decent player, he's never averaged more than 14.9 points and is down to 9.4 this season as a part-time starter.

Doncic, meanwhile, was a star right from the jump and has ascended into one of the greatest players of his generation, while Young's career has followed a similar path. 

 

Other big blunders were taking Thomas Robinson fifth overall in 2012, one spot ahead of Damian Lillard, choosing Nick Stauskas eighth in 2014 instead of Zach LaVine, who went 14th to Minnesota, and picking Willie Cauley-Stein sixth the following year while Devin Booker lasted until pick number 13. 

Scoring points hasn't been a big problem for the Kings over the years, ranking 10th in points per game (103.5) since 2006-07. The opposite end of the court is where they have failed. During that span, Sacramento is last in defensive scoring (107.6), 29th in opponent field-goal percentage (47.0) and 29th in opponent three-point percentage (36.5).

Even more so than the defensive failures, the Kings have lacked an identity for what seems like forever. It's impossible to say what exactly is Kings basketball and what is it supposed to look like. The lack of star power, draft misses and a never-ending run of coaches has largely been responsible for that.

The franchise's best player over the past decade and a half was DeMarcus Cousins, selected fifth overall in 2010. Cousins wasn't only the Kings' best player for several years but was among the league's elite for a while, particularly from 2014-17 before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans in July 2017.

From 2014-2017, over a 196-game span, Cousins ranked fifth in the NBA in both scoring (26.1) and rebounding (11.7) while also adding 3.9 assists and 1.47 blocks with five triple-doubles. He was named to the All-NBA Second Team in consecutive seasons (2014-15, 2015-16) and was an All-Star in three straight years. 

Cousins, though, had several incidents with the Kings, including being suspended from the team for unprofessional behaviour and conduct detrimental to the team in 2012. By 2017, the relationship had run its course and he was traded to the Pelicans for three players and two draft picks. Buddy Hield remains from that deal and the 2017 first-round pick turned into Zach Collins, who was dealt to Portland. 

The best player on the current Kings is De'Aaron Fox, who is in his fifth season with the team after he was drafted five picks before Collins. 

Fox had a breakout campaign in 2020-21 with 25.2 points and 7.2 assists but has dropped off to 21.0 points and 5.2 assists this season while his three-point percentage is down to a career-worst 24.8.

Fox has a world of talent but has been plagued by inconsistency, and his disappointing play surely played a role in Walton's firing. The idea of trading him for a package of picks and players can't be completely dismissed anymore.

Trading Fox would signal that the Kings are ready to do a complete rebuild, and if that was the case, why not also deal Bagley, Harrison Barnes and others?

Second-year point guard Tyrese Haliburton has a very bright future and rookie guard Davion Mitchell has elite defensive skills, but neither is ready to lead a team without ample veteran help. Hield is a terrific shooter but doesn’t offer a whole lot more so likely has more value on a contending team. 

The Kings are at a crossroads right now because they aren't competing for championships anytime soon and even making the playoffs soon seems unlikely. It could be time for a total rebuild similar to what Detroit and Houston are doing now, but that could be a hard sell for a fanbase that hasn't seen a playoff game in forever. 

With the franchise teetering on the edge of basketball irrelevance, the worst thing the Kings could do now is nothing. Continuing down the same path would be foolish, and general manager Monte McNair, who has only held the position since September 2020, needs to go in a discernible direction to end the perennial losing.

Lonzo Ball will be out for up to eight weeks after he undergoes knee surgery this week, the Chicago Bulls announced on Thursday. 

After sitting out the past three games, the decision has been made for Ball to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee – reportedly to repair a torn meniscus. 

A statement from the Bulls read: "Following an initial period of rest and targeted intervention, Bulls guard Lonzo Ball will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and is expected to return in 6-8 weeks." 

Ball is averaging 13 points, 5.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds for the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls this season. 

Chicago were 6-2 in the eight games Ball has missed this campaign, all of which have come since Boxing Day. 

The Bulls ended a four-game losing streak against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday and take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. 

Two teams in the NBA are on league-leading four-game winning streaks heading into Thursday's schedule. The pair face one another at American Airlines Center.

The Phoenix Suns have pulled clear of the Golden State Warriors at the top of the West, their league-best record improving to 34-9 while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Co are .500 across their past 10 games.

But this latest Suns run has been matched by the Dallas Mavericks, who are again recovering from a slow start.

The Mavs have won 10 of their past 11 outings after a 16-18 start. In 2020-21, Dallas recovered from an early 8-13 record to take the fifth seed – the same position they again occupy.

Dallas' problems prior to these recoveries have undoubtedly been linked to Luka Doncic, their sensational superstar who has tended to end seasons in more impressive fashion than he begins them.

Doncic has been the preseason MVP favourite in consecutive years but each time showed up looking a little out of shape.

The Slovenian is not denying that, saying in December: "I had a long summer. I had the Olympics, took three weeks off and I relaxed a little bit. Maybe too much. I've just got to get back on track."

But there are signs now that Doncic is delivering as promised. Having returned from an ankle injury to feature in nine of the Mavs' past 10 games, he had a year-high 41 points last time out against the Toronto Raptors. Three of his five triple-doubles for the year have come in this period, too.

Will this improvement continue against Phoenix, though?

The Suns are 5-0 against Dallas across the past two seasons, albeit all five meetings (three last year, two this year) have come during those tricky starts for the Mavs.

Since themselves returning to contention, Phoenix have not yet played a Mavs team in their groove.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Dallas Mavericks – Kristaps Porzingis

The Suns have a wealth of talent, while Dallas too often have only had Doncic. The need for a second man to step up and help the two-time All-NBA First Team selection is evident. Porzingis is the obvious candidate.

While the Mavs struggled while Doncic was out, Porzingis has shown that he can play the role of leading man when required.

His usage rate of 28.6 per cent this year is the highest it has been since he moved to Dallas – explained by Doncic's lay-off – and the knock-on effect is an increased offensive output when the simple option of passing the ball to his team-mate is removed.

Porzingis has scored 22.8 points per game Doncic has missed this season, versus 18.6 when he has played. Even including those the pair have played together, Porzingis' offense improves from 29.8 points per 100 possessions with Doncic to 35.4 without.

Doncic's high usage (36.3 per cent, the highest in the NBA among those involved in 250 or more possessions) reduces Porzingis' role significantly at times, but Dallas need both to fire against a team like the Suns.

Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

Nominally a point guard, Doncic is more of a point forward, hogging most of the shots himself. In truth, there are few genuine point guards remaining in the NBA. Paul is one of them.

Even at 36, Paul has started all 43 games – ranking 21st in the league for minutes (1,383) – and leads the NBA in assists (429), well clear of second-placed James Harden (390). Not since 2015-16 has he averaged this rate of 10.0 assists per game.

Given the frequency with which Paul is creating shots for team-mates, his assist-to-turnover ratio is even more impressive, ranking second with 4.38 dimes per turnover.

With Curry and the Warriors slightly on the wane, Paul could soon be in serious consideration for the MVP award. A big performance in a big game such as this one would aid his cause.

KEY BATTLE – Doncic to deliver in Ayton's absence?

The Suns will be without center Deandre Ayton, the player they selected first overall in 2018 before Doncic went two picks later.

Ayton, who has an ankle injury, was a little slower than Doncic to truly establish himself but has never struggled against the Mavs, enjoying a 10-1 record in such matchups.

Doncic missed Phoenix's first two wins against Dallas this season and has only three victories in the 11 games he has played versus the Suns.

With Ayton's role in Phoenix's recent success starting to alter the narrative around the 2018 draft, in which Doncic was quickly considered the most talented young player, the Dallas man may see this as an opportunity to send a message.

HEAD TO HEAD

This had been a closely fought rivalry until the Suns' dominance in the Ayton-Doncic years. Now, Phoenix boast a 93-74 record against the Mavs and will hope to improve that further on the road.

Dallas are a more impressive 47-36 in home games against the Suns.

Emma Raducanu revealed members of her support team proposed she should abandon her Australian Open campaign before Thursday's defeat to Danka Kovinic.

The 19-year-old US Open champion was badly affected by a blister on her right hand as she slid to a 6-4 4-6 6-3 defeat on Margaret Court Arena.

Raducanu made a strong start in the opening set before the pain began to kick in, and she said she won the second set "with basically one shot" after being unable to consistently club heavy ground strokes.

But Raducanu could not maintain that level into the decider, suffering her first grand slam defeat in a completed match, having previously pulled out injured during a Wimbledon fourth-round clash with Ajla Tomljanovic before streaking to a sensational first major in New York.

Raducanu did not specify who exactly had suggested she ought not take to the court, but said: "There were some people in my team that maybe didn't want me to play."

A recent case of COVID-19 interrupted Raducanu's preparation for her first major since teaming up with new coach Torben Beltz.

"Because of 21 days, no tennis, my hands got pretty soft," Raducanu said.

She explained blisters had begun to form on her hand in training soon after arriving in Australia, with the current problem – "right in the crease" – having been affecting her since just prior to the Australian Open beginning.

The problem has been getting worse rather than better and Raducanu said the blister had become "pretty deep".

"It's a bit annoying," she said, "because I know it's something that will heal in a few days. It's just unfortunate timing. I have had blisters before but never this bad. It's quite deep, and it's just in a very awkward position that is so difficult to tape."

She said every shot was taking a toll on the blister, with the friction meaning each impact was "very painful".

The forehand slice became a big shot for Raducanu, and it was to her credit that she almost eked a win out of such difficult circumstances.

In the end, world number 98 Kovinic found ways to overcome a hampered opponent, setting up a daunting third-round clash with Simona Halep.

Raducanu said: "I thought it was a pretty good learning experience for me. I discovered tools about myself and my game that I didn't know I had before. That slice forehand is not so bad, and I have some sort of hand skills. That was a positive surprise.

"To get that second set with basically one shot, I can't believe it really.

"Because I'm still young, I feel like I can learn a backhand, I can learn some sort of tactics, but it's quite hard to learn or teach someone that fight and grittiness to hang in there when things are pretty much all against you. So, I'm quite proud of that."

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