Kyrie Irving has been fined $50,000 by the NBA after appearing to raise his middle finger to fans on two separate occasions during Game 1 of the Brooklyn Nets' playoffs opener against the Boston Celtics.

Irving defended his actions during the Nets' 115-114 loss to the Celtics on Sunday.

The 30-year-old, who played for Boston for two turbulent seasons before a sour exit in 2019, has been regularly booed by fans at the TD Garden, and the ill-feeling has only intensified with each meeting.

Irving scored a game-high 39 points in Sunday's loss, and insisted he was only reciprocating the feedback from the Celtics fans.

"Look, where I'm from, I'm used to all these antics and people being close nearby," Irving said post-game. "It's the same energy, and I'm going to have the same energy for them.

"And it's not every fan. I don't want to attack every fan, every Boston fan, but when people start yelling 'p****' or 'b****' or 'f*** you' and all this stuff, there's only but so much you take as a competitor.

"We're the ones expected to be docile and humble, take a humble approach. F*** that, it's the playoffs. It is what it is."

On Tuesday it was confirmed by the NBA that Irving would be fined for his actions, with a statement released by NBA Communications saying: "Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving has been fined $50,000 for making obscene gestures on the playing court and directing profane language toward the spectator stands, it was announced today by Byron Spruell, President, League Operations.

"Irving made the gestures and his comments to the spectators during the Nets' 115-114 loss to the Boston Celtics on April 17 at TD Garden."

Game 2 will take place at TD Garden on Wednesday.

Jayson Tatum clinched a memorable playoff win over the Brooklyn Nets with a Game 1 buzzer-beater and felt that moment was evidence of the Boston Celtics' progress this season.

The Celtics finished in the two seed in the East, meaning a daunting matchup with the Nets in round one after they progressed through the play-in tournament.

Game 1 was every bit as tricky as Boston might have feared, but they came through in dramatic fashion thanks to Tatum's last-gasp intervention.

It was Tatum who contested a Kevin Durant three after dogged Celtics defense, allowing Al Horford to grab the rebound and set in motion a flowing move in the final seconds.

Horford moved the ball on to Derrick White and then Jaylen Brown, who picked out Marcus Smart for what looked to be a make-or-break three-point attempt with the Nets still a point ahead.

Instead, Smart picked out a cutting Tatum for a spinning layup at the buzzer to claim a stunning 115-114 win at The Garden.

"I think we all thought Smart was going to shoot it," Tatum said. "Last-second shot, just crash the glass. If it doesn't go in, try to make a play.

"But when he took that dribble, we just kind of made eye contact and he made a great pass. I just had to make the layup.

"It doesn't get any better than that. A buzzer-beater in a playoff game at home."

Celtics coach Ime Udoka could have called a timeout when Durant missed but instead trusted his players to get the job done.

"You've got to give credit to Ime for trusting us in that situation with one timeout to just go," Smart said. "That's a big confidence builder for us.

"The coach trusted us to go out there and make a play and be basketball players."

The Celtics have come a long way from their start to the season, having been 17-19 at the turn of the year but 34-12 through to the end of the regular season – their .739 winning percentage third behind the Phoenix Suns (.787) and the Dallas Mavericks (.745) in 2022.

Reflecting on a win in which he scored a team-high 31 points – his ninth career 30-point playoff game and fourth against Brooklyn – Tatum said: "I think it just shows the progression of our team, how far we've come.

"In those first two months, obviously we were average and we were struggling. And we've just been playing the right way these last couple of months.

"And that's a reason why we've been so successful, especially in big moments. It's all about just trying to make the right play."

Smart added: "It was fulfilling for us, especially because of the way we started this year off; those types of games, we lost.

"We were probably crumbling, and for a moment there, it kind of looked like that was the direction it was going.

"But the resilience that we have, the approach we have, and the work we put in to make sure that doesn't happen – you just learn."

Kyrie Irving defended his actions during the Brooklyn Nets' 115-114 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, where he appeared to raise his middle finger to fans on two separate occasions during Game 1 of their playoffs opener.

Irving, who played for Boston for two turbulent seasons before a sour exit in 2019, has been regularly booed by fans at the TD Garden, and the ill-feeling has only intensified with each meeting.

The 30-year-old has not hidden his feelings towards the organisation either, stomping on the Celtics logo at mid-court of the Garden following Brooklyn's win in Game 4 of last season's playoffs series between the two.

Scoring a game-high 39 points during his running battle with the crowd in Sunday's loss, Irving asserted he is only reciprocating the ill-sentiment.

"Look, where I'm from, I'm used to all these antics and people being close nearby," Irving said post-game. "It's the same energy, and I'm gonna have the same energy for them.

"And it's not every fan. I don't want to attack every fan, every Boston fan, but when people start yelling 'p****' or 'b****' or 'f*** you' and all this stuff, there's only but so much you take as a competitor.

"We're the ones expected to be docile and humble, take a humble approach. F*** that, it's the playoffs. It is what it is."


The seven-time All-Star relentlessly attacked on Sunday, playing with notable vigour on his way to 39 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals in just over 42 minutes.

He also shot 60 per cent from the floor in both total and three-point categories, hinting that he was driven by the crowd.

"Embrace it," Irving said. "Embrace it. It's the dark side. Embrace it.

"I know what to expect in here, and it's the same energy I'm giving back to them. This isn't my first time at TD Garden so what you guys saw, what you guys think is entertainment, or the fans think is entertainment, all is fair in competition."

Jayson Tatum's buzzer-beating layup gave the Boston Celtics a dramatic 115-114 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in their series opener on Sunday.

Tatum scored 16 of his 31 points in the second half, along with adding eight assists, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal. His final two points came in the frenetic final seconds, cutting towards the basket off Kevin Durant for Marcus Smart, spinning past Kyrie Irving and finishing with as time expired.

Smart particularly showed poise, forcing the closeout from Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton before dishing, along with adding 20 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

While Irving scored a game-high 39 points for the Nets, Durant put up 23 points but went nine-of-24 from the floor, including some open, trailing looks in transition. One miss at 102-98 would have made it a three-possession game in Brooklyn's favour midway through the fourth quarter, but a miss leading to a Jaylen Brown dunk brought it back to one.

It was also at that point where Boston were zero-for-seven for the quarter from the floor, and momentum suddenly shifted.

Giannis yields Bucks win in opener

Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 26 points and 17 rebounds as the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Chicago Bulls 93-86.

The defending NBA champions blew a 16-point lead, but recovered with a Jrue Holiday triple that triggered an 8-0 run.

The Bulls still had their chances, with Zach LaVine missing a game-tying three-pointer with 29 seconds remaining in what was a rough shooting night. LaVine and DeMar DeRozan shot a combined 12-of-44 as the team connected on only 32.3 per cent of field goal attempts.

Red-hot Robinson gives Heat opening victory

Duncan Robinson set a franchise playoff record with eight three-pointers in a catch-and-shoot clinic, leading the Miami Heat to a 115-91 win against the Atlanta Hawks in their series opener.

Robinson scored 27 points on nine-of-10 shooting for the Eastern Conference's first seed, who had three players see over 20 minutes of game time off the bench.

Trae Young had his worst-ever shooting night for the Hawks, making one field goal out of 12 attempts, as well as committing six turnovers.

CP3 takes over for Suns

Chris Paul scored 19 points in a brilliant fourth quarter, as the Phoenix Suns secured a 110-99 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

As the Pelicans cut a 23-point deficit to single digits to two possessions, the Suns needed the 36-year-old, who eventually finish with 30 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and three steals.

Despite 25 points from CJ McCollum, the Pelicans finished with the unusual statistic of a better three-point field goal percentage (39.1) than total field goal percentage (37.9).

It is looking increasingly likely that Ben Simmons will play for the Brooklyn Nets this season after reports that he is targeting a return during his side's first-round series against the Boston Celtics.

Shams Charania from The Athletic – who is also represented by Simmons' agency, Klutch Sports Group – said the Nets are hoping the return comes around April 25-29, which coincides with Game 4, Game 5 and Game 6 of the series.

Simmons is yet to play at all this season after sitting out of the early portion of the season with the Philadelphia 76ers due to mental health reasons, and has been sidelined with a back injury since arriving with the Nets via trade.

While everything is trending positively for Simmons' Nets debut to come in this year's playoffs, superstar teammate Kevin Durant said he would believe it when he sees it.

"I'm not expecting him to play," he said after practice on Thursday. 

"That's easier for me. I'm not putting any pressure on Ben to come out there and hoop. 

"So I'm not expecting him to do anything but just to get his body right and get healthy as fast as he can – in my mind, I'm preparing as if we're playing with the team we have."

Head coach Steve Nash was non-committal when asked about Simmons' chances.

"It's up to Ben's back," he said. 

"It's not up to me, any of us, other than his back… there's a chance Ben comes back, there's a chance he doesn't come back. 

"So I think for us, we got to focus on the group; support Ben and his journey to get back on the floor, but at the same time we don't have time to lose focus on the group that's playing.

"Ben's a franchise cornerstone – but right now it's about supporting him physically and mentally to get back on the floor, and coaching the group to put its best foot forward in the first few games of the series at least. 

"Internally, we're not sitting here saying 'Ben's returning in this series' – we'll see what happens."

So here it is. That time of year again where we separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the champions from the... rest.

The NBA playoffs get underway on Saturday with plenty of stories to be written and legacies to be cemented.

Can the Phoenix Suns turn their dominance in the regular season into a championship? Will the Milwaukee Bucks be able to retain their crown? Could someone from the play-in tournament sneak in the back door and go all the way?

These questions and plenty more will keep us glued to our screens as we watch the action unfold over the next two months.

But what of the individual stories? There are plenty of players who have made names for themselves in the business end of the season down the years, with lots of big names who will particularly want to make an impression this time around as well.

Stats Perform has selected five such players to focus on, explaining why they may just have a bit more to prove over the next few weeks than others.

James Harden – Philadelphia 76ers

It may feel slightly like shooting fish in a barrel to start with a player who is known for not being able to get over the line in the postseason, but we are not above easy wins here.

Harden has been to the NBA Finals just once in 12 postseason appearances, and that came 10 years ago with Oklahoma City Thunder.

Strictly speaking, his playoff averages have been impressive. While with the Houston Rockets, he averaged at least 26.3 points per game (PPG) in the playoffs, including an impressive 31.6 in the 2018-19 season.

However, it has more been one-off performances, invariably at crucial moments, that have let him down. This was summarised perfectly last year in Game 7 for the Brooklyn Nets against the Bucks, when he sank only five of 17 field goal attempts.

Now at the Sixers after a huge trade earlier in the season, and with the league's top scorer Joel Embiid on his side, Harden will surely be determined to silence his doubters and reach the second NBA Finals of his career. 

Chris Paul – Phoenix Suns

This is likely the best chance the Suns will ever have to win an NBA championship, and ditto Paul.

An incredible regular season record of 64-18 saw them finish atop the Western Conference with a win percentage of 78.0, almost 10 per cent more than the second-place Memphis Grizzlies (68.3 per cent).

For Paul, this, therefore, is almost certainly his strongest chance to finally win a championship ring, especially having come so close last year.

The 12-time All-Star has the most assists per game in the league this season (10.8), and only Trae Young (737) has more overall assists than his 702, though the Atlanta Hawks star has played 11 more games.

At 36 years of age, Paul will not have many more opportunities, and will want to make this one count.

 

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks

It has been another memorable season for the young Slovenian, averaging 28.4 PPG as well as 8.7 assists and 9.1 rebounds.

In his two previous playoff campaigns, Doncic has stepped his game up even more, averaging 31.0 PPG in 2019-20 and a remarkable 35.7 PPG last year. However, on both occasions, the Mavericks still could not make it past the first round.

Dallas ended the regular season with a record of 52-30, winning seven of their last eight games, and will go up against the Utah Jazz in the first round, a team they have beaten twice in the last six weeks.

It is not so much that Doncic himself has a point to prove, but he will be looking for more help from his team-mates as he looks to get to the latter stages, where a player of his talent surely belongs.

Tyler Herro – Miami Heat

Another young player who has already put in some strong postseason showings in his short career so far.

Herro impressed in the 2020 playoffs, but last year the Heat were whitewashed by the Bucks in the first round. As the number one seeds in the East this year, all eyes will be on them to do much better.

While Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo will of course be important, Herro could well be the difference-maker.

The 22-year-old point guard has comfortably produced his best regular season so far, averaging 20.7 PPG, as well as 4.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds.

Many expect it to be Miami v Phoenix in a battle of two number one seeds in the Finals this year, in which case Herro will be looking to repeat his second-best scoring performance of the season when he came away with 33 points in the Footprint Center in January's 123-100 win against the Suns.

Ben Simmons – Brooklyn Nets

It has been a nervous wait for Simmons, not just to return to fitness, but to see if he would even have the chance to turn out for the Nets this season.

While it has not been suggested the 25-year-old will return from back problems imminently, it has been reported the Nets are looking to use the player they traded Harden for in February sparingly towards the end of the first round.

Thankfully for him, his team-mates made it through their play-in game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday and so take their place in the playoffs, where they will start off in a fascinating encounter against the Boston Celtics.

Simmons has not played a single minute of basketball this season, not since his notorious performances in last year's postseason with the Sixers that saw him draw the ire of Joel Embiid and coach Doc Rivers.

Although Embiid accused Simmons of wanting to be a star more than wanting to win, that he won't necessarily need to fire from the off could help him, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in excellent form for Brooklyn.

Simmons will want to discover the sort of form he showed in the 2018-19 campaign, when he averaged 16.9 PPG, as well as 7.7 assists and 8.8 rebounds.

Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant believes Joel Embiid should win this season's NBA MVP award.

The Philadelphia 76ers center and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic are the clear favourites for this season's award, with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the running, too.

Durant, who was the MVP in 2014, pointed to Embiid's scoring when he said he deserved the nod marginally ahead of Denver Nuggets big man Jokic.

"If I had to choose, I would go Joel Embiid," Durant told reporters.

"He led the league in scoring, double-doubles, his team won 50 games this year. His numbers were incredible. It's a great year.

"But you can just close your eyes and just pick any one of the guys out of the top six or seven, and you can have a good MVP this year.

"That shows how great our league is right now and how talented our league is from top to bottom, but I would go with Embiid if I had to choose."

Embiid finished the regular season with the scoring title, averaging 30.6 points per game, along with 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists. He also had 46 double-doubles.

Jokic was second in the NBA across the regular season for rebounds, averaging 13.8. The Serbian center also contributed 27.1 points and 7.9 assists, with 66 double-doubles and 19 triple-doubles – two league highs.

The 76ers finished with a 51-31 record to claim fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Nuggets were sixth in the West with a 48-34 record.

Durant was also critical of MVP voting, claiming a player's narrative or story too often fed into the results.

"It's unfortunate," Durant said. "There's a lot of players that have been controlled by their narrative.

"Some of it has been because of the player, some of it just has been because of the perception of other people about that player.

"In Joel's case, more people just like Giannis and Jokic. It's as simple as that. They just prefer them more than Embiid's personality or his story, I guess."

Embiid was the runner-up for last season's MVP behind Jokic, with Stephen Curry in third.

The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 115-108 in the first game of the NBA Play-In Tournament on Tuesday.

The Nets are now the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, confirming a playoff matchup with the second seed Boston Celtics.

Kyrie Irving made 10 straight attempts on the way to 34 points and 12 assists, but Kevin Durant took over in the second half with 25 points and 11 assists, as well as two steals and three blocks.

The Nets led by as much as 22 points at one stage, but it was on the back of Durant and Irving starting off hot. The Cavs managed to hang in there and cut it down to single digits with Darius Garland's free-throws and triple following Goran Dragic's flagrant foul.

Garland finished with 34 points on 13-of-24 shooting, but Caris LeVert and Lauri Markkanen experienced a poor shooting night, combining for 25 points but on nine-of-26 attempts from the floor.

The Cavs will play the winner of Wednesday's matchup between the Charlotte Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks, for a chance to take on the Miami Heat in a seven-game series.

Timberwolves win through to face Grizzlies

The Minnesota Timberwolves reached the playoffs for the second time since 2004 with a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Timberwolves, who lost All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns who fouled out early in the fourth quarter, finished with a 26-11 run to secure victory, which means they will face the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.

Anthony Edwards (30 points with five three-pointers and five rebounds) and D'Angelo Russell (29 points and six assists) starred offensively, while the relentless Patrick Beverley was excellent against his former side with 11 rebounds.

Paul George kept the Clippers in the contest with 34 points including six three-pointers with seven rebounds and five assists.

The Clippers will next face the winner of the New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs' play-in game for a shot at the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Kevin Durant admits it will be tough to stop Jayson Tatum after the Brooklyn Nets progressed to the playoffs where they will face the Boston Celtics in a blockbuster first round series.

The Nets got past the Cleveland Cavaliers 115-108 in the play-in tournament on Tuesday to clinch the seventh seed, meaning they will face the second-seeded Celtics.

Durant scored 25 points with five rebounds and 11 assists, while ex-Celtics guard Kyrie Irving had 34 points with 12 assists.

The last time the two sides met, the Nets were beaten 126-120 by the Celtics on March 7 with Tatum scoring 54 points.

Tatum is seventh overall this season for points per game, averaging 26.9 shooting at 45.3 per cent from the field and 35.3 from three-point range.

"That's a tough question," Durant told reporters, when asked how to stop Tatum. "He's one of those players you've got to play hard and see what happens.

"He's just so talented, skilled and efficient at what he does. We've just got to play hard and I expect us to."

Irving added that keeping Tatum quiet would go a long way towards winning the series.

"It starts with really slowing JT down," Irving said. "He has a great feel playing against us. Everyone else around is very complementary to that attack."

Durant added: "[It's about] staying disciplined, playing together and playing with passion. I don’t have the schemes or the strategy to break it down to you. That's what every team needs to bring to win in the postseason."

The Celtics are one of the form teams in the NBA, going 35-12 since the turn of the year to finish the regular season with a 51-31 record.

Nets head coach Steve Nash said: "I'm really impressed with the Celtics, the job Ime [Udoka] has done. They've been able to build on that continuity.

"That group has been together for quite a while. They've made some tweaks and adjustments that have really improved their team both ends of the floor.  

"It'll be a great challenge for us. For a new group to go and play a team like that that's terrific at both ends is going to be something that hopefully brings the best out of us."

Steve Nash called the potential inclusion of Ben Simmons in the playoffs "another challenge" that he and the Brooklyn Nets would welcome.

Simmons, a three-time All-Star, is yet to play a game this season after his relationship with the Philadelphia 76ers broke down and he opted to sit out for mental health reasons until his trade could be organized.

The 2021 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up has also been dealing with a back injury since arriving in Brooklyn, which has kept him out of action since the All-Star break.

A recent report indicated it was unlikely that Simmons would play at all in the playoffs, but with an updated and upgraded prognosis, the Nets believe his return this year is not out of the question.

When asked about possibly integrating Simmons into the playoff rotation, Nash called it a good problem to have.

"Another challenge, but one that we'd welcome, clearly," Nash said of the 25-year-old.

"So, we'll see – if he's able to play at some point it would be great to incorporate him, and to try and learn as we go and see how he can help our team without having much history, or any history, with our group.

"The bottom line is we'd be adding a substantial talent to our team, so we really welcome him.

"He fits and he helps in a number of ways. We're in need of help, so we would welcome that challenge of trying to incorporate him in a playoff situation where he has no history with our team."

However, long-time teammate Seth Curry, who came over with Simmons in the trade that brought James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers, was not willing to look ahead to a potential return for the big Aussie.

"We're worried about the Play-In game right now," Curry said. 

"If Ben comes in, we'll try and integrate him as much as possible, but we feel like we're locked into this Play-In situation right now.

"If Ben does become available, we'll deal with that then, but we have to worry about who we have out there and focus on Cleveland. 

"I don't think anybody's going to be thinking about if Ben can come back, as a team. Maybe the coaches and front office – but as players, we're locked into the task at hand."

Whatever you think about the sporting merit of the introduction of the Play-In tournament to last year's NBA season, there is no doubt it made things more interesting for the neutral.

The Golden State Warriors were surprisingly eliminated after defeats to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Memphis Grizzlies, while the Indiana Pacers were denied a playoff place by the Washington Wizards in 2021.

The format has returned for this season, and again, it promises to add all sorts of further intrigue to the playoff picture.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the mini tournament will take place from April 12-16. The teams that finished seventh and eighth play one another to determine the seventh playoff seed from their respective conference, while the loser of that game gets a chance to secure the eighth seed when they host the winner of a game between the ninth and 10th seeds.

Therefore, the teams that finish seventh or eighth only need to win one game to advance to the playoffs, while those in ninth and 10th must win two.

Whoever clinches the seventh seed in the east will face the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, while the eighth seed will take on the Miami Heat. In the west, the seventh seed will go up against the Memphis Grizzlies, and the eighth seed will be paired with the Phoenix Suns.

With the regular season over after Sunday's final games, Stats Perform takes a look at the eight teams with one last chance to secure their place in the 2022 NBA playoffs.

Eastern Conference

Tuesday, April 12 – Brooklyn Nets (7th) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (8th) 

It has felt like a season of distractions in Brooklyn this season, be it James Harden's struggles, Kevin Durant's fitness or Kyrie Irving's vaccination status, and now the debut of Ben Simmons, which it seems may come in the playoffs, if they make it that is.

The Nets will be favourites, having won 12 of their last 17 and with Durant and Irving both in excellent form. KD is averaging 29.9 points per game (PPG), while Irving sits at 27.4.

The Cavaliers do not arrive in great form, losing eight of their last 11 games. Though they were victorious in their last outing against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, the Bucks rested their starters, and Jrue Holiday only started to earn a foul and trigger a financial clause in his contract.

Darius Garland will be key if Cleveland are to stand a chance at Barclays Center, with the 22-year-old averaging 21.7 PPG.

Brooklyn have won three of their four meetings this season, including a 118-107 win at Barclays on Friday.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 13 – Atlanta Hawks (9th) vs Charlotte Hornets (10th)

All eyes will be on Trae Young as the 23-year-old looks to drag the Hawks into the playoffs, though it will take two big performances, even by his high standards.

Young averages 28.4 PPG this season, the joint-fifth highest in the league along with Luka Doncic, as well as 9.7 assists per game.

Atlanta have won seven of their last nine, including a 130-114 success at the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

For Charlotte, they will look to trio Miles Bridges, LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier for inspiration, and have had a good end to the season themselves, winning 11 of their last 15.

They also beat the Hawks last month 116-106 in Charlotte, though each team has won two apiece of their four meetings through the campaign.

Western Conference:

Tuesday, April 12 – Minnesota Timberwolves (7th) vs Los Angeles Clippers (8th)

Despite the Timberwolves going into this one with home advantage, you would have to make the Clippers the favourites based on form and previous meetings.

Minnesota have lost six of their last 10, while the visitors arrive having won five of their last six.

The form of Karl-Anthony Towns, who is averaging 24.6 PPG this season, will be key for the hosts, as will that of Anthony Edwards, who scored a career-high 49 points in the recent win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Unsurprisingly, the Clippers have been a different prospect since the return of Paul George at the end of March, having lost eight of their previous 10 games before the 31-year-old came back, and winning six of seven since, albeit George only played in five of those games.

The Clippers have won three of their four meetings in the regular season, but the Timberwolves did win their last encounter in January. It should be noted that the team from Los Angeles won both games in Minnesota, though.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 13 – New Orleans Pelicans (9th) vs San Antonio Spurs (10th)

No team shows just how much the introduction of the Play-In tournament keeps seasons alive for a longer period than the Pelicans, who somehow have a shot at the postseason despite a disastrous start to their campaign.

Having lost 12 of their first 13 games, they are just two wins away from booking their place in the playoffs, and come into this one having won five of their last eight. 

Coach Willie Green will need CJ McCollum in top form, with the 30-year-old impressing since arriving from Portland earlier in the season, averaging 24.3 PPG since becoming a Pelican.

San Antonio recently won seven of eight games, but a slight wobble from the Spurs in the last few, losing their last three, may have thrown them off course at precisely the wrong time.

Like the Clippers, the Spurs could still be favourites despite being the away side, as they have won three of the four meetings between the two teams this season, including the most recent one in late March (107-103 in New Orleans).

The Brooklyn Nets showed how they plan to approach their playoff rotation in a 118-107 home win against the Cleveland Cavaliers to leapfrog into the seven seed with one more game to play. 

In a game considered a must-win for the Nets to avoid the much more difficult Play-In Tournament setup for teams who finish ninth and 10th, Brooklyn cut their rotation down to eight players while Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Bruce Brown all played at least 39 minutes.

Seth Curry and Andre Drummond filled out the starting five, while Kessler Edwards, Patty Mills and Nic Claxton came off the bench, with LaMarcus Aldrige, Blake Griffin and rookie Cam Thomas out of the mix.

Durant went on to finish with a game-high 36 points on 11-of-20 shooting (four-of-six from long range, 10-of-10 from the free throw line) to go with five assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block, while Brown had 10 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks to go with his 18 points (six-of-12 shooting).

With the win, Brooklyn is now in position to host their first Play-In Tournament game – likely against the Cavaliers – with the winner entering the playoffs as the seven seed, while the loser gets another chance to play for the eight seed.

Most Improved Player contender Darius Garland was spectacular for the Cavs, scoring 31 points on 12-of-24 shooting, but the loss means his side has now lost eight of their past 10, and have been sputtering without injured center Jarrett Allen.

Overall, the Cavaliers are 43-38 this season, but just 8-17 in games Allen has missed.

No stoppin' Obi Toppin

It was a career night for New York Knicks cult figure Obi Toppin as he scored a career-high 35 points in his side's 114-92 away win against the Washington Wizards.

In only his eighth start of the season, the former first-round pick shot 14-of-22 from the field, including six-of-nine from deep, while fellow fan-favorite Immanuel Quickley was terrific off the bench, scoring 23 points (nine-of-18 shooting) with 10 assists.

 

Siakam shines, Heat hang on

Pascal Siakam seems destined to receive All-NBA honors this season after another great performance lifted his Toronto Raptors to a 117-115 win against the Houston Rockets.

In his past 10 games, Siakam is averaging 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists while shooting 53 per cent from the field, and improved those numbers with 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against the Rockets.

Meanwhile, the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks played their shortened playoff rotations, and Trae Young's 35 points and eight assists was not enough as the top-seeded Heat prevailed 113-109 at home.

Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant was excited about the state of his club's local rivalry against the New York Knicks after going into Madison Square Garden and leaving with a 110-98 comeback win.

After conceding 67 points in the first half, the Nets clamped things down defensively after the break, giving up just 31 points in the last two quarters, including a dominant 38-16 final period.

Durant was spectacular, scoring 32 points (11-of-22 shooting) with 10 rebounds and 11 assists, while Patty Mills caught fire off the bench, hitting five three-pointers after struggling recently with his shot.

R.J. Barrett was the main man for the Knicks, scoring 23 points with seven rebounds and seven assists, but shot just seven-of-27 from the field as he struggled down the stretch.

Speaking to post-game media, Durant said he felt the animosity in the building towards himself and his team, and that he knows why.

"We know how much Knicks fans don't like us," he said. "Especially now, in this era of the Nets, with [Kyrie and I] not choosing the Knicks [in free agency]. 

"It definitely adds something to the rivalry… imagine the tweets I've been getting since I decided to come to the Nets, from Knicks fans. They're still pi**** off about the stuff I say, and the little jabs here and there.

"But like I said, it's always love in the streets when I see Knicks fans, it's always love at the games, but it's a good rivalry to be a part of.

"Everybody who steps in our building will realize how big these games are – it felt like a home game to us the last two times in [Madison Square] Garden, and it feels like a home game for the Knicks when they come to Barclays.

"It's good to be a part of this, it's a fun rivalry, and hopefully it continues to build, and we get more and more animosity between the fan bases. It will be good for the game."

The Brooklyn Nets came back from a 21-point deficit to storm home in the second half, defeating the New York Knicks 

The Nets' defense struggled early on, conceding 38 points in just the second quarter on the way to trailing 67-50 at half-time.

Knicks' R.J. Barrett was the best player in the first half, and went on to finish with 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, but after his side peaked at a 71-50 lead one minute into the third period, it was all downhill from there.

Brooklyn would hold New York to just 31 points in the entire second half, snatching the lead in the fourth quarter and riding a hot shooting performance from Patty Mills in his return to form.

Mills hit five-of-seven from long range off the bench, including a deep contested step-back with the shot clock winding down late in the fourth quarter, while superstar Kevin Durant was spectacular throughout.

Durant scored 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds to go with his 11 assists, while Barrett's shooting tailed off badly, finishing with figures of seven-of-27 from the field and two-of-11 from deep.

The win moves Brooklyn's record to 42-38, which is the same record as the Atlanta Hawks, but the Nets hold the tie-breaker and would finish in the eight seed if the season ended today.

 

Trae Young leads his Hawks in style

Atlanta has been arguably one of the league's most disappointing teams this year, but last season's Eastern Conference Finalists have found some form heading into the play-in tournament, beating the Washington Wizards 118-103 behind another spectacular showing from All-NBA point guard Trae Young.

Young, who in his past 10 games is averaging 29.7 points and 11.1 assists on shooting splits of 48/40/91, was again the best player on the floor against the Wizards, racking up an efficient 30 points (eight-of-17 shooting, 11-of-12 from the free throw line) to go with 11 assists.

Washington's Kristaps Porzingis also deserves a mention for his 26 points (eight-of-16 shooting) and 18 rebounds as the Wizards nearly broke even (minus three) in his 32 minutes played.

 

Celtics stifle struggling Bulls

The Boston Celtics have been the best defensive team in the NBA this season, and made life miserable for the Chicago Bulls for a 117-94 road win.

Both teams will make the playoffs, but while the Celtics have thrived in the second half of the season and look like a contender, the Bulls have stumbled, with no Chicago player scoring more than DeMar DeRozan's 16 points on six-of-16 shooting on Wednesday.

On a down night for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown picked up the scoring load, finishing with 25 points on 10-of-21 shooting to go with four assists and four steals.

Kevin Durant believes his knee injury near the midway point of the NBA season "derailed" the Brooklyn Nets' campaign.

The Nets are sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference, occupying the last of the Play-In Tournament spots.

Durant did not play a game between January 17 and March 3 as a result of his injury, with the Nets going 3-10 in February.

If the season were to end now, the Nets would need to win on the road against the Charlotte Hornets, and then triumph again on their travels against the winner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks' matchup in their clash for the seventh seed.

Brooklyn have a winning percentage of .513 (40-38) for the season, but that jumps to .627 in games Durant has played (32-19), and plummets to .296 (8-19) when he has been absent.

"So I'm not looking at it like we're just not a good basketball team. There wasn't a lot of continuity with me and Kyrie [Irving] out of the line-up, that's just what it is. 

"When we're all on the floor together, I like what we got."

Reflecting on what has been a hectic season off the court, the two-time Finals MVP made it clear what it takes to be in the upper echelon of such a competitive league.

"You can talk about expectations and what you see this team on paper – I always said this, but everyday matters," he said. 

"You want to be a champion every second that you step on the floor, not just when we play a good team or the playoffs coming up. 

"I think being a champion is in the habits and the work ethic, the care that you have for the game. [There's] a lot of champions out here that never won a ring, but they approach their work that way.

"So that's how I felt our team needed to approach this season – and guys have – but some stuff that's out of individuals' control is the reason why we're in certain positions. 

"That doesn't stop you from having the championship mentality every day as an individual."

Durant was emphatic when asked if he spends time thinking about all the different scenarios the Nets could be faced with due to playoff seeding.

"Who cares?" he asked reporters.

"Whoever we play, we play. I don't care who we play. I don't care that we're in the play-in. 

"Just tip the ball up, see what happens. That's all you can control. 

"It's too stressful thinking about trying to dodge a team, just play the game. We'll see what happens."

Despite Durant's knee injury, he has still played in 51 games, while Irving has played in just 25 as New York previously had a mandate preventing players unvaccinated against COVID-19 featuring in matches in the city.

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