After 13 years in the NBA, Stephen Curry finally knows the exhilaration of hitting a buzzer-beater.

He kicked out at a courtside chair in frustration at one point on Friday evening, but the two-time MVP saved a big shot for last, his stepback 20-footer giving the Golden State Warriors a 105-103 win over the Houston Rockets.

Curry, whose shooting from the field has fallen short of his usual high standard this season, finished the game with 22 points and 12 assists, with the wobbling Warriors bouncing back from a sorry 121-117 overtime defeat to a depleted Indiana Pacers the previous night.

In the Pacers game, Curry had scored 39 points, but against Houston he made just six of 21 shots from the field. Ultimately, it hardly mattered thanks to his last-ditch heroics.

"It's good to know what that feels like finally," Curry said of his special moment. "We know we dropped a ball last night, and for 30 minutes or so this game was all over the place.

"Throughout the course of the season you can go through different dry spells.

"We're second in the West, and we're fine. We obviously know we've got to play better if we're going to win a championship. But there are different ways to lose basketball games and last night didn't set well with any of us.

"We had a good talk in our pre-game meeting about what we needed to do. There's always that uneasiness of knowing what you've got to do and then going out and doing it and dealing with adversity in the game when you're trying to show up and trying to bounce back, and that's what tonight was."

 

Curry spoke of an improved mentality from the Pacers game.

"It reminds you to keep the big-picture perspective on what we're trying to do, realise what it takes to continue to try to win at this level," said 33-year-old Curry.

"I liked the way we fought. Everyone contributed down the stretch leading up to the shot to give us a chance. We needed it, obviously. We've got to try to build on it and bring some joy back."

Even as his radar appeared to be off, Curry never stopped going for his shots.

"The worst thing you could do is shy away from that next opportunity," he said.

"The fact I had a shot to win it was because everybody stayed locked in, stayed focused and competed. That's a great sign in terms of what we're trying to build on."

His field-goal shooting is down at 42 per cent this season, by far the lowest of any year in his career, bar 2019-20 when he played just five times. Curry's career average is 47.2 per cent, and he knows he can improve.

"Somebody told me my open shots were like six or seven per cent lower than they usually are. There's no reason other than you're just missing shots," Curry said. "I obsess over it, but I don't panic. If I did, I wouldn't be shooting as much as I am to try to get myself through it.

"I know I've got to shoot the ball better, and I want to shoot it better, and I'm going to shoot it better. Everything else I feel pretty good about.

"You want to be as efficient as possible, but you also want to win games, and whatever it takes to do that is the most important."

Doc Rivers gave a cold response when his coaching methods were questioned following the Philadelphia 76ers' loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Sixers slipped to 26-19 after giving up a 24-point lead on Friday, with Reggie Jackson's 19 points, including two free throws with a little over 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter, securing a 102-101 victory for Los Angeles.

The collapse drew comparisons with last season's Eastern Conference semifinals, when Philadelphia blew a 26-point advantage at home to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5. The Hawks went on to win the series 4-3.

With the Clippers missing Paul George and Kawhi Leonard for Friday's game, the defeat led to increased frustration on social media among a fan base that has never wholly warmed to Rivers since he took charge in 2020.

That the loss came against the team he spent seven years with from 2013, one sitting eighth in the East, only made matters worse.

However, Rivers took exception to a question suggesting his coaching was to blame, arguing Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs would never be asked the same.

 

"Would you ask Pop that question? No, you wouldn't," he said. "So don't ask me that question. I've earned that.

"It's a game we should have won, and we didn't."

Joel Embiid followed up his 50 points on Wednesday with 40 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, but his efforts proved in vain.

"We have a lot of guys out and that could contribute, but that's not an excuse," he said.

"We've got to be better prepared. We got to know our assignments. We just got to be focused."

Tobias Harris, who posted 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists, simply said: "Honestly, we just blew this one and we all know that in the locker room."

The Sixers are at the Spurs on Sunday.

Kyrie Irving revealed how some stern words from Brooklyn Nets team-mate James Harden provided the catalyst for his fourth-quarter blitz against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Nets moved into top spot in the Eastern Conference with a hard-fought 117-102 win over the Spurs on Friday.

While Harden put up 37 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists, Irving had only nine points heading into the final quarter and was scoreless in the third.

He put that right with a 15-point showing down the stretch and then offered an insight into what had inspired his late flurry.

"James kind of yelled at me," Irving said. "It's not a negative yell, but he yelled at me, 'Kai, get the f*****g ball!' in the third quarter after he scored [12 points] in the quarter.

"I kind of took that personal. I just wanted to come out in the fourth quarter in an aggressive mindset and just play within the flow of the offense."

It was a reaction that saw the shackles thrown off for the Nets, who are now 29-16, and Harden never doubted Irving's ability to turn it on.

"For sure, it was a breakthrough," said Harden. "He's capable of doing that at any moment and any point in the game.

"That's one of the reasons why we need him every single game, because he's able to do that, especially with everything that's going on with our team.

"But he's able and more than capable of doing things like that whenever he wants. I think he just tries to get us involved a little bit more, but he's a special talent.

"We have a decent rhythm between one another of just getting out of each other's way but also demanding each other to play at that level.

"When it's us going together and us doing it as a tandem or a duo, it opens up the space for everyone. When we're playing with the unbelievable pace like we were in the fourth quarter, I don't see too many teams that can keep up with that."

James Harden and Dejounte Murray both had triple-doubles as the Brooklyn Nets got past the San Antonio Spurs 117-102 on Friday.

Harden scored 37 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists with Kevin Durant out with a sprained left MCL as the Nets rallied from a 51-50 half-time deficit to improve to 29-16.

Kyrie Irving contributed 24 points with three rebounds and four assists for the Nets, who are top of the Eastern Conference.

Harden's triple-double was the 66th of his career, moving him to eighth on the all-time list, while Murray – who had 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists – recorded his ninth triple-double of the season and 13th of his career.

 

LeBron leads Lakers past Magic

LeBron James led the Los Angeles Lakers' second-half response as they fought back from an eight-point half-time deficit to win 116-105 over the Orlando Magic. James finished with 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists, playing the second half at center, while Russell Westbrook contributed 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

The Milwaukee Bucks edged the Chicago Bulls 94-90 in an important game in the Eastern Conference standings. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 30 points with 12 rebounds and three assists as the Bucks overcame Grayson Allen's ejection.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic recorded another triple-double with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists but Ja Morant overshadowed him with 38 points as the Memphis Grizzlies won 122-118 over the Denver Nuggets, while Stephen Curry had 22 points including a game-winning buzzer beater in the Golden State Warriors' 105-103 win over the Houston Rockets.

 

Sixers fluff 24-point lead

The Philadelphia 76ers blew a 24-point lead to lose 102-101 to the Los Angeles Clippers despite Joel Embiid scoring 40 points with 13 rebounds. Reggie Jackson finishing with 19 points and nine assists for the Clippers.

LeBron James has been hailed by Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel as "the most unique player in the history of the game" after his second-half performance at center on Friday.

James finished with 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists after playing exclusively at center in the second half of Friday's 116-105 win over the Orlando Magic.

The four-time MVP was moved into Dwight Howard's role after half-time with the Lakers immediately going on a decisive 20-2 to overcome their 62-54 deficit.

"He's the most unique player in the history of the game," Vogel told reporters about James.

"We won a championship with him playing point guard two years ago, he's been a ball-handling wing throughout his career and he's been playing center for us.

"It's pretty remarkable, and for him to be doing it at this stage of his career, it's even more remarkable."

Vogel also praised Russell Westbrook who was benched in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's 111-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

Westbrook, who joined the Lakers from the Washington Wizards in the off-season, has been the subject of much criticism this season.

The 33-year-old Lakers point guard had 18 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists against the Magic.

“He’s all-in on doing whatever is necessary to get the Lakers in position to win a championship, for sure," Vogel said.

Westbrook added: “I was upset about [being benched on Wednesday] and I was more upset that we didn’t win the game.

"I’ve been here doing my job since day one and doing everything asked of me. I want to continue to do that for the betterment of the team."

Vogel also added that there was no firm timeframe on All-Star forward Anthony Davis' return from a knee injury.

James has scored 25 or more points in 16 consecutive games, which have all coincided with Davis' stint on the sidelines.

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."

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."

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."

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.

Kyrie Irving says he is enjoying the pressure placed on him due to the absence of Kevin Durant after delivering a match-winning display for the Brooklyn Nets.

Irving had 30 points, three rebounds and seven assists in a 119-118 win over the Washington Wizards on Wednesday.

The All-Star guard is only able to play road games, due to a vaccination mandate in place in New York City. Irving is unvaccinated against COVID-19.

He made his return two weeks ago and is averaging 20.0 points per game.

The onus was very much on Irving in Washington, with Durant missing the game due to a knee injury sustained against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week.

It has been reported that Durant will be out for between four and six weeks and Irving knows he has to step up in his absence.

"I like the pressure," he told reporters. "I love pressure. It brings out the best in me personally.

"Then also I'm able to carry that energy with the team whether it be communicating with guys in short conversations on the floor or off the floor.

"Just trying to demand responsibility from all of us, from myself first, but from all of us, that this isn't going to be perfect. It's not going to ever look perfect.

"This is just what we have, and we can't replace anybody that's out, but what we can do is fill up the stat sheet with the little things that may show up and things that may not show up.

"We'll see where we are at the end of the game when we leave it all out there playing hard."

Irving had initially been left out of the Nets' roster for the season due to his decision not to get vaccinated, though he was recalled when injuries and COVID-19 cases took their toll.

"It feels incredible [to be back]," Irving said. "I don't take one day for granted.

"I know it's difficult at times, not only for just me, but for everyone else, just the monotony coming in every single day working on [our games], but this is what we signed up for when we were playing in fifth grade, fourth grade, this was the dream right here. Just getting on the road and trying to win some ballgames and play at a high level."

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