Coming off four straight losses heading into Monday's game against the Sacramento Kings, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knew something needed to change.

Ultimately, that change would be Markieff Morris and Victor Oladipo falling out of the rotation entirely, playing zero combined minutes.

The Heat looked great with their new line-ups, which featured Max Strus slotting into a starting role, winning each of the first three quarters comfortably on the way to a 123-100 victory.

Speaking to post-game media, Spoelstra made a point of protecting his benched players' feelings, and stressed that more tinkering would be ahead.

"These are tough decisions, and there are a lot of different things that could work, but we just felt like at this particular time that these moves may clean up some things with the rotation," he said.

"Those aren't easy decisions, and I think we all just have to have empathy and grace for some of these changes for the guys that didn't necessarily play tonight.

"It's about understanding that we have a roster full of proven, capable guys, and we're going to need everybody, particularly in this final push and in the playoffs.

"A lot of it will be matchup-based… we'll just keep an open mind about what we may need to do moving forward."

Spoelstra went on to say that the difference in this game was about far more than simply benching two solid players.

"This wasn't a 'one move' thing – we were very disappointed about the past four games, and this has been trending, really, even before that, when we were winning," he said.

"It's not an indictment on anybody – sometimes these things can be chemistry things, sometimes it's just the flow of certain guys playing off of each other.

"The ball and body movement was better – less holding [the ball], we're moving the ball, guys were able to play to their strengths. It was less stagnant for sure.

"We've seen what Jimmy [Butler] can do when he has open spaces to be able to be creative, and be able to attack, and be able to make plays. I know he hit three three-pointers tonight – I love that – but he was in a lot of places where he can be successful and effective.

"There were a lot of different layers to [today's moves] – again, it's just one game. Our roster is deep, and our roster checks a lot of different boxes, which we feel you need in the playoffs.

"Each series – if we're fortunate enough to play multiple series – they have totally different needs and complexions, and we feel like versatility and our depth is really one of the greatest strengths of this team."

Miami regained the Eastern Conference one seed with the result, but it will switch hands once again if they cannot defeat the surging Boston Celtics on Wednesday.

With the league MVP seemingly down to a two-horse race between Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets big man dominated yet again as his side beat the Charlotte Hornets 113-109.

Jokic, who is following up his MVP win last season with the greatest playmaking season of any centre in the 21st century, finished the contest with 26 points (nine-of-17 shooting), 19 rebounds and 11 assists.

All five Nuggets starters scored at least 14 points, with Jokic and Aaron Gordon both finishing with a plus-minus of at least plus 20, indicating that it was Denver's mediocre bench unit that struggled enough to keep things close.

Reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball was terrific for the Hornets, scoring 22 points (eight-of-21 shooting) with 11 assists and six rebounds.


Boston sits stars, lose one seed

Playing without star duo Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics pushed fellow Eastern Conference contenders Toronto Raptors all the way before ultimately losing 115-112 in overtime.

The star of the show was Raptor Pascal Siakam, who hit two clutch free throws to send the game to overtime on his way to final tallies of 40 points (17-of-29 shooting) and 13 rebounds to go with three steals and two blocks.

Despite the loss, which sent the Celtics from the one seed toppling down to the four seed, they are now 22-4 in their past 26 games dating back to the end of January.

 

Miami regain top spot, Barrett beats Bulls

With Boston falling out of the Eastern Conference's top seed, the Miami Heat have reclaimed it, beating the Sacramento Kings 123-100 after a recent rough stretch.

Jimmy Butler (27 points on 10-of-14 shooting) and Bam Adebayo (22 points on 10-of-16 shooting) starred for Miami, while Sixth Man of the Year lock Tyler Herro chipped in with 20 points off the bench.

Meanwhile, the flailing Chicago Bulls have now lost six of their past eight after another disappointing defeat at the hands of the New York Knicks 109-104.

R.J. Barrett continued his ascension, scoring 28 points on 10-of-24 shooting in 43 minutes.

Erik Spoelstra returned to the Miami Heat ahead of their game against the Sacramento Kings on Monday. 

Head coach Spoelstra missed Saturday's 110-95 loss to the Brooklyn Nets for personal reasons, with assistant coach Chris Quinn filling in. 

However, Miami confirmed that the 60-year-old was back with the team for the meeting with the Kings at FTX Arena. 

Ahead of Monday's game, the Heat (47-28) had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference but sat below the Boston Celtics. The Milwaukee Bucks and the Philadelphia 76ers were half a game back in a tight top four. 

Playing a role in managing LeBron James' legacy has contributed to this being the toughest season Frank Vogel has experienced as an NBA coach. 

The Los Angeles Lakers have significantly underperformed in 2021-22 and sit 10th in the Western Conference – the final play-in spot – with eight regular season games to play. 

Injuries have limited Anthony Davis to just 37 appearances, while LeBron James has missed 19 games and they have only played together 21 times. Russell Westbrook has also struggled to show why LA paid such a high price to acquire him from the Washington Wizards. 

The Lakers were considered one of the favourites to win the championship this season but are in very real danger of missing out on the playoffs entirely. 

Although Davis, who has been out with a foot injury since February 16, was a full participant in Monday's practice, James sat out due to an ankle injury sustained in Sunday's defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans – a game in which the Lakers blew a 23-point lead. 

Vogel felt the injury situation was typical of the team's season and cited having a part to play in ensuring James enjoys a strong finish to his career as a factor in making it so tough for him to navigate. 

Asked if it had been his hardest year as a coach, Vogel replied: "I would say probably, just because of the expectations we've had. 

"We've had too many really difficult nights and I think there's an element of being a part of managing LeBron's legacy in these final years of his career. 

"You wanna just give him the best opportunity to have team success throughout that, so when we haven't won at the level that we wanted to it's been challenging. And the losses have been heavier. But we've been able to continue to mend and rebuild our team psyche and keep a belief in what we can be. Obviously this last injury [to James] hurts that. 

"But we had a good day today. We came in and we got really positive feedback and work on our film session, had a live practice session which we haven't had in quite some time, and hopefully we can still get a W tomorrow [Tuesday, against the Dallas Mavericks] and finish strong." 

Anthony Davis completed his first full practice since sustaining a foot injury last month and is listed as doubtful for Tuesday's game against the Dallas Mavericks. 

Lakers star Davis went down with three minutes remaining in the second quarter of the 106-101 victory over the Utah Jazz on February 16 and has not played since. 

Los Angeles have gone 4-12 in their 16 games since then but head coach Frank Vogel revealed Davis is nearing a return to the floor – though he expects it to take him some time to get back up to speed. 

"Positive sign. He went through full practice. Did all of our drill work and some live scrimmaging," said Vogel. 

"We're at a point now where it's really about how he responds to that and the level of soreness he has coming out of his first live work. He'll also be listed as doubtful for tomorrow. 

"He's got to get his legs under him – that's the biggest thing. When you have a foot injury like this it's not as easy to do all your running and stay in shape like if you had a wrist injury or something like that, so that's definitely going to take time. 

"And because of that you have to be more cautious with the return to play. Because if you throw him out there and he doesn't have his wind, then the injury becomes compromised or you overcompensate in some way and you don't want that. 

"So there's definitely going to be a stretch here when we get him back where he's still getting his legs under him." 

LeBron James, who was absent for two of the games Davis missed, is also doubtful to face the Mavericks due to a left ankle injury sustained in the 116-108 defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday, which saw the Lakers blow a 23-point lead. 

"He definitely has some swelling from the ankle sprain and we'll list him as doubtful tomorrow. He stayed back from practice today to get some treatment on it," said Vogel. 

Davis and James have only played together 21 times this season and Vogel said it was typical of the campaign that the wait to pair them may be prolonged by the latter's injury. 

"It's been that type of year. Definitely snakebitten with trying to get those guys on the floor together. I think it's 17 or 18 games for the season [that James has missed] and it looks like it could be more than that now," said Vogel. 

"It's out of our control. It's unfortunate, but we have to lock in and again, like we've done all season, shift our identity on the floor with regard to who's in and who's out." 

The Lakers are 31-43 on the season and occupy the final play-in spot in the Western Conference with eight regular-season games remaining.

Kyrie Irving believes his return to home games for the Brooklyn Nets transcends his status as a basketball player.

The unvaccinated Irving made his season debut in January, when a COVID-19 outbreak forced the Nets to field him on a part-time basis, having initially chosen not to.

New York City vaccine mandates still barred the 30-year-old from playing the Barclays Center, but last week's easing of those mandates allowed for a return to action on his home floor.

Following the 119-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Irving wanted to bring matters into perspective.

"I was just trying to ground myself as much as possible today and just prepare for the warm reception from a lot of supporters of the organisation, of me, just the journey thus far," he said post-game.

"So I don't take it for granted what happened tonight, it was historic. I'm grateful I got a chance to be out there with my brothers and just leave it all out there."

Irving received a hearty reception from the home crowd as he was introduced in the starting lineup, in what was the Nets' second game of a back-to-back.

The former All-Star struggled to find rhythm despite his 16 points and 11 assists, going six-of-22 from the field and making one out of nine attempts from the perimeter.

But Irving spoke afterwards about how his stance against the vaccine meant his return was not simply about him or the game of basketball.

"Tonight my presence out there was just bigger than the basketball game," Irving said. "I was just representing a lot of individuals that are out there in a similar situation as me.

"And now that I can play, I think we should be opened up for everybody.

"I made it very clear it was never just about me. I think for my legacy, that's to be written by all those that I impact and all those that impact me, and it's far bigger than just a basketball game.

"But when I'm in this locker room, I get a chance to perform with a bunch of guys that are selfless and are sacrificing just as much as I am. It makes it worthwhile."

After scoring 11 points in the first quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers' 116-108 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, LeBron James suffered an ankle injury early in the second term that he called "horrible".

James ended up staying in the game, and went on to score 39 points on 14-of-27 shooting, but he admitted after the game that it was more serious than he hoped.

After scoring 69 points in the first half, the Lakers were a different side after the break, scoring just 39 points over the final two quarters while the Pelicans scored 41 in the third quarter alone.

Speaking to post-game media, James said he would have "probably not" finished the game if he did not feel it was a crucial fixture for his side.

"I have no idea how I finished the game after watching the replay, it was pretty nasty," he said.

"I lost all explosiveness… a lot of my game was on the perimeter after that. It's horrible right now.

"From the time that I turned my ankle I felt a sharp pain run up my leg and get hot, and I've been there with ankle sprains before, but I didn't want to come out of the game.

"I understood how big of a game it was for us."

James was blunt when describing how it felt to come up short in a game that was built up as a near must-win internally.

"It feels like sh** – excuse my language, but that's what it feels like," he said.

"I came in with the mindset understanding that it was a playoff-type atmosphere with playoff implications.

"We also have a lot of guys in our ball club who haven't played in playoff games as well… [New Orleans] have guys who have been in the postseason.

"It feels like a wasted opportunity."

Also speaking with post-game media, head coach Frank Vogel preached urgency as the playoffs rapidly approach.

"Time's running out on us – we came out with the proper urgency for this game, but weren't able to close it," he said.

"It's over, this game is over, and we have to turn the page to the next one.

"It's not good – it hurts, this was a big game – but we have to regroup and find a way to beat Dallas and get some wins down the stretch here."

On James' injury, Vogel said it was a brave effort to stick it out until the end.

"It's tough – it has been that kind of season, and [James] was in an incredible groove when it happened," he said.

"Credit to him for toughing it out – you could see that he was limited on it somewhat the rest of the way, but he battled through it."

After some results fell their way, the new Eastern Conference one seed Philadelphia 76ers went head-to-head with the Western Conference one seed Phoenix Suns in a potential NBA Finals preview.

Unfortunately for the 76ers, their time on top was short-lived as the Suns' 114-104 home win sent the away side toppling down to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings.

MVP favourite Joel Embiid was enormous for the 76ers, scoring 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting to go with 15 rebounds, three steals and two blocks, but it was not enough to beat a Phoenix team that has now won 61 games this season – one short of their franchise record of 62 set in 1992-93 and 2004-05.

For the Suns, Devin Booker was the star, scoring an efficient 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting (three-of-five from long range), while Chris Paul dished out 14 assists to go with his 19 points.

As a team, Phoenix shot over 51 per cent from the field, and 48 per cent from three-point range.

 

Boston takes the one seed – for now

As Philadelphia fell from the top spot, the Boston Celtics took the opportunity to assume the position atop the Eastern Conference musical chairs, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 134-112.

Boston's two centrepieces were both at the top of their game, with Jayson Tatum scoring 34 points on 12-of-21 shooting and dishing six assists, while Jaylen Brown had 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting with his 10 rebounds.

Boston, Philadelphia, the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks are all separated by just a half-game in a four-way race for the one seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs.

 

Lakers lose again despite LeBron heroics

As has become a theme this season, a terrific LeBron James performance was not enough to carry the Los Angeles Lakers to victory, going down 116-108 to the New Orleans Pelicans.

James had 39 points on 14-of-27 shooting, including seven-of-13 from long range, to go with nine rebounds and five assists in the loss.

In his first game back from a 10-match absence due to injury, Brandon Ingram was the man for the Pelicans, scoring 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting with seven rebounds and five assists, while rookie sensation Herb Jones claimed six steals.

North Carolina have set up a tantalising Final Four matchup with historic rivals Duke after ending the 'Cinderella' run of the 15-seed Saint Peter's Peacocks.

The Peacocks assumed the role of this year's loveable underdogs of March Madness when they became the first 15 seed to make it through to the Elite Eight, but they were no match for North Carolina, going down 69-49 in a game that was never close.

Armando Bacot was the star of the show for the Tar Heels, finishing with 20 points on eight-of-15 shooting to go with a monstrous 22 rebounds.

With the win, North Carolina booked their spot against Duke in the Final Four as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski searches for his sixth national title in his 42nd and final year in charge.

One of the fiercest rivalries in American sports, North Carolina and Duke have played 256 times since their first meeting in 1920, but incredibly have never met in the NCAA Tournament.

Earlier in the day, it was a tale of two halves as one-seed Kansas took on 10-seed Miami, with the higher-ranked Jayhawks struggling out of the gate to trail 35-29 at half-time.

Kansas shot zero-for-five from long range and three-for-nine from the free throw line in the first half but flipped a switch in the second half, showing why they are considered one of the favourites to win the tournament.

The second half was total domination, out-scoring the Hurricanes 47-15 in the 20 minutes to pull away for an easy 76-50 win.

The top performance in the game came from the top NBA prospect, Kansas' Ochai Agbaji, who finished with 18 points on eight-of-12 shooting, including two-from-two from long range. He also registered five rebounds, four assists and four steals as he continues to build his case as a potential lottery pick in this year's NBA Draft.

Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins explained how his team are sticking to their identity in the continued absence of talisman Ja Morant.

Grizzlies' top scorer Morant has not featured since playing in a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks earlier in March and is expected to miss much of the remainder of the regular season due to a knee problem.

However, the Grizzlies improved to 17-2 without their main man in the team as they claimed a mightily impressing 127-102 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

That means they have now won their last four games since Morant was out of the team, as they sit second in the Western Conference with a 52-23 record for the season.

"We're just sticking with our identity," Jenkins told reporters after the game, as quoted by ESPN.

"It doesn't matter if you're a starter, bench, mixed lineups. Whatever we do, we do to the best of our abilities."

A player to start on the bench, De'Anthony Melton, ultimately finished as Memphis' leading scorer on 24 points, while Desmond Bane added 20.

"I'm just trying to go out there and hoop," Melton said. "Have fun with it. Play with confidence and do what the team needs me to do."

Contributions of 19 and 16 from Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. respectively helped the Grizzlies fend off Milwaukee, whose attempted fightback was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo's double-double of 30 points and 11 rebounds.

"They just do a lot of things that are about winning basketball," said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer of the Grizzlies.

"Credit to their players, to the coaching staff. They just keep playing no matter who's in.

"It felt like (Antetokounmpo) tried to will us back into the game. It felt like we had some momentum for some small stretches there in the third quarter, where I felt like we might get back in it, but we weren't able to sustain it."

The Miami Heat's slide continued on Saturday, with a disappointing 110-95 home defeat against the Brooklyn Nets making it four losses on the trot.

Miami entered the week multiple games clear of the chasing pack, but after the loss against the Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers usurped the Heat as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The race for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs is far from over, as the top four teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, are only separated by a half-game.

Things were ugly early for the Heat, with its once-feared defence giving up 40 points in just the second quarter to hand the Nets a 67-46 half-time lead, which was never threatened.

Kevin Durant led a balanced offensive performance from the Nets, finishing with a team-high 23 points on seven-of-14 shooting, while seven of his teammates scored at least eight points each.

The win was Brooklyn's seventh from their past nine games, with Kyrie Irving set to make his home debut the next time out against the Charlotte Hornets.

No Morant, no problem

The Memphis Grizzlies passed another real test when the Milwaukee Bucks came to town, sending the reigning champions home with their tails between their legs after a 127-102 result.

In one of the more unlikely storylines of this season, the Grizzlies are now 17-2 in games where their best player and MVP candidate Ja Morant has not played.

Emerging franchise centrepiece Desmond Bane rose to the occasion, scoring 20 points on nine-of-19 shooting to go with five assists, while Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr blocked two shots and snatched one steal to go with his 16 points and six rebounds.

Kings rookie continues to break out, Bulls finally beat a good team

With De'Aaron Fox missing yet again, Sacramento Kings rookie Davion Mitchell had his third consecutive game with at least 22 points and seven assists in his side's 114-110 overtime win against the Orlando Magic.

Mitchell's line of 22 points (10-of-23 from the field) with seven rebounds and nine assists comes after games of 25 points and seven assists against the Indiana Pacers, and 28 points with nine assists against the Phoenix Suns.

Meanwhile, after entering the game with a sputtering record of 3-10 in their past 13 games, the Chicago Bulls collected a much-needed 98-94 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Since February 12, Chicago have only beaten two teams who currently occupy playoff spots – the Cavaliers, and the Toronto Raptors.

Kevin Durant said his Brooklyn Nets were expecting a tough, physical performance from the Miami Heat on Saturday night, but they had all the answers in the 110-95 win.

Brooklyn used a 40-point second quarter to open up a 67-46 half-time lead, extending the margin to 37 points when Seth Curry's three-pointer made it 94-57 with 4:02 to play in the third period.

Durant scored a team-high 23 points on seven-of-14 shooting, while seven of his teammates scored at least eight points each in one of the Nets' most balanced offensive performances of the season.

Speaking at a post-game news conference, Durant said the key to playing well in Miami is being prepared to bring the physicality.

"[Miami] has been struggling lately – they'd lost their last three – so we assumed they'd come out with a lot of firepower," he said.

"They did – we were down 15-7 early – but we weathered the storm. We took their punch and were able to keep going. 

"[Miami] is a physical basketball team, so if you match their physicality you can make it an even game, and we have a lot of shot-makers on our team.

"They normally blitz a lot of teams [in Miami] by just being more physical, and getting out in transition and knocking down threes, but they had to take the ball out of the basket a lot and play against a set defense."

Kevin Durant said his Brooklyn Nets were expecting a tough, physical performance from the Miami Heat on Saturday night, but they had all the answers in the 110-95 win.

Brooklyn used a 40-point second quarter to open up a 67-46 half-time lead, extending the margin to 37 points when Seth Curry's three-pointer made it 94-57 with 4:02 to play in the third period.

Durant scored a team-high 23 points on seven-of-14 shooting, while seven of his teammates scored at least eight points each in one of the Nets' most balanced offensive performances of the season.

Speaking at a post-game news conderence, Durant said the key to playing well in Miami is being prepared to bring the physicality.

"[Miami] has been struggling lately – they'd lost their last three – so we assumed they'd come out with a lot of firepower," he said.

"They did – we were down 15-7 early – but we weathered the storm. We took their punch and were able to keep going. 

"[Miami] is a physical basketball team, so if you match their physicality you can make it an even game, and we have a lot of shot-makers on our team.

"They normally blitz a lot of teams [in Miami] by just being more physical, and getting out in transition and knocking down threes, but they had to take the ball out of the basket a lot and play against a set defense."

The fairytale ending for legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is still alive after a stylish 78-69 win against Arkansas in Saturday night's Elite Eight.

Krzyzewski – affectionately known as 'Coach K' – is in his 42nd and final season in Duke's top job, and is in search of his sixth National Championship.

While his strategy and coaching style has seen Coach K earn stints as the head coach of USA's national team, he is buoyed this season by the presence of three likely first round picks in this year's NBA Draft. All three came to play on the big stage against Arkansas.

Number one pick candidate Paolo Banchero was strong, finishing with 16 points (four-of-11 shooting, seven-of-eight free throws), seven rebounds and a team-high three assists, top-10 pick A.J. Griffin scored an efficient 18 points on seven-of-nine shooting (two-of-three from long range), and late-first round center Mark Williams was a perfect six-of-six from the field to finish with 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks.

Duke will play the winner of the clash between Saint Peter's and North Carolina, with the former trying to become the first 15 seed to ever make it to the Final Four.

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