The NBA is nearing the end of its regular season.

Soon the fight for playoff positioning will give way to the drama of the play-in round and the subsequent seven-game series that will decide the destination of the title.

In other words, it is time for the league's elite to find their best.

While several of those stars are hitting form at exactly the right time, there are others enduring worrying declines ahead of the postseason.

Here we examine the performances of those excelling going into the playoffs, and those who need to turn it around in this week's edition of Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT

Kyrie Irving - Brooklyn Nets

Irving went into last week having failed to score 30 points in three straight appearances, but he was back to his best over the past seven days.

Having previously averaged 26.7 points for the season, Irving put up 38 points per game across three outings last week, with a 45-point display against the Dallas Mavericks sandwiched by a 38-point effort in defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks and a 31-point showing versus the Denver Nuggets.

Only the game with the Nuggets ended in victory, but the Nets will be encouraged by Irving's form with the playoffs approaching. He was excellent from beyond the arc, hitting 5.67 threes per game having entered the week averaging 2.63.

Irving converted 17 of his 32 three-point attempts last week, a percentage of 53.1 that ranks 10th among players to have attempted at least 20 last week.

Russell Westbrook - Washington Wizards

Westbrook made history on Saturday as he tied Oscar Robertson's record for triple-doubles with the 181st of his career against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

The way in which his athleticism has translated to success on the boards has been key to Westbrook's successful pursuit of Hall of Famer Robertson.

And his rebounding was nothing short of incredible over the past seven days. Having entered the week averaging 11.16 rebounds, Westbrook racked up 17.25 per game across his last three games, culminating with 19 in his record-equalling display in an overtime win over Indiana.

He'll hope for more success on the glass against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday to take him past Robertson.

Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors

The best shooter in the game had another stunning week from beyond the arc as he continues to fuel the Warriors' push towards the playoffs.

Curry's 5.2 made threes per game was already the gold standard in the NBA this season but he was even more devastating from deep in four games last week.

Indeed, Curry averaged 8.25 threes per game, with that jump fuelled largely by him hitting 11 on Saturday as he scored 49 points in 29 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As long as he continues his excellent form, the Warriors should have a great chance of coming through the play-in round and making it to the postseason.

GOING COLD...

Andre Drummond - Los Angeles Lakers

It was a rough week for Lakers big Drummond, who endured the largest drop-off in the NBA in both points and rebounds per game.

Drummond entered last week putting up 15.89 points per game but saw his average over four games dip to 5.75.

He failed to score double-digit points in any of those outings and was similarly ineffective on the boards.

His rebounds per game dipped from 12.37 to 6.25, Drummond having started the week by failing to record a single rebound in a game for only the third time in his career in a win over the Nuggets.

Luka Doncic - Dallas Mavericks

It is pleasing for the Mavs that they can win without Doncic delivering his best every night, as they did not get it last week.

Doncic was far from terrible, as he topped 20 points in three of his four outings, but he saw his points per game average drop from 28.64 entering the week to 21.50 in those appearances.

The Mavs won each of those contests, with Doncic contributing double-doubles in two, though he had an underwhelming 15-point game to end the week against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So, while he may be 'going cold' relative to his usual standard in scoring, Doncic is finding ways to help Dallas build momentum ahead of the playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard - Los Angeles Clippers

Leonard has been bothered by injury issues in recent weeks, with his best form eluding the two-time NBA Finals MVP.

For the season, Leonard was averaging 25.51 points per game going into the last week, but could only manage to put up 19 over the course of three games in the past seven days.

And that average was inflated by a 29-point effort in the Clippers' loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday.

Prior to that return to something like normal service, Leonard had failed to score 20 points in each of his last four games.

Even his effort against the Knicks came on an inefficient shooting performance where he went nine for 26, indicating Leonard is some way off the standard he will need for the Clippers to contend in the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook took another giant step towards an NBA record after teaming up with Bradley Beal to help the Washington Wizards push the Toronto Raptors to the verge of elimination from a spot the NBA play-in tournament with a 131-129 win in overtime. 

Westbrook posted 13 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists for his 180th career triple-double, leaving him one shy of equalling Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson's all-time record on Thursday.

Former MVP Westbrook because the first player with three consecutive 17-plus assist games since Steve Nash in 2007.

Wizards star Beal scored half of his 28 points in the fourth quarter and overtime as Washington outlasted Toronto.

Raul Neto added a career-high 25 points and Robin Lopez had a season-best 24 for the Wizards (31-36), who hold a four-game lead over the Raptors (27-40) for the final play-in spot with five games remaining for both teams. 

Pascal Siakam matched his career best with 44 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists but missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer in overtime that would have won it for Toronto. 

Siakam joined Kawhi Leonard and Vince Carter as the only players with a 40-point, 10-rebound and five-assist game in franchise history.

Fred VanVleet sent the game to OT by hitting a shot from beyond the arc with 1.3 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. He finished with 22 and Gary Trent Jr. contributed 25 for Toronto.

 

Mavs withstand big night from Kyrie

Luka Doncic finished with 24 points and Tim Hardaway Jr. had 23 of his own as the Dallas Mavericks downed the slumping Brooklyn Nets 113-109, despite 45 points from Kyrie Irving. 

The Indiana Pacers inched closer to securing a spot in the play-in tournament with a 133-126 win over the Atlanta Hawks as Caris LeVert led the way with 31 points and Domantas Sabonis added 30 on 12-for-14 shooting from the field. Trae Young's double-double of 30 points and 10 assists was not enough for the Hawks. 

Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors rolled to a 118-87 victory at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-46). Curry scored 34 points. The two-time MVP has now scored at least 30 points 18 times in his last 20 games (35th time this season).

Paul George had 24 points as the Los Angeles Clippers (45-22) beat cross-town rivals and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers 118-94. 

 

LaMelo off target against Bulls

A day after his primary competitor for NBA Rookie of the Year, Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves, dropped 42 points, LaMelo Ball made only one of 10 shots from the field and scored just four points in the Charlotte Hornets' 120-99 loss to the Chicago Bulls. Ball had reached double digits in his previous three games after returning from a wrist injury. 

 

Caldwell-Pope strong to the hoop

Lakers fans did not have much to celebrate in Thursday's blowout loss to the Clippers, but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did provide one highlight with this slam in Ivica Zubac's face.

 

Thursday's results

Chicago Bulls 120-99 Charlotte Hornets
Dallas Mavericks 113-109 Brooklyn Nets
Washington Wizards 131-129 Toronto Raptors (OT)
Detroit Pistons 111-97 Memphis Grizzlies 
Indiana Pacers 133-126 Atlanta Hawks
Golden State Warriors 118-97 Oklahoma City Thunder
Los Angeles Clippers 118-94 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Pelicans at 76ers

Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans (30-36) are just outside the cut for the play-in tournament and will face imposing opposition on Friday as they attempt to gain ground in the form of the Philadelphia 76ers (45-21), winners of six in a row. 

Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets have each been fined $35,000 for violating league rules governing media interview access.

The NBA announced the sanction on Wednesday following Irving's repeated refusal to participate in post-game media availability.

It is not the first time Nets star and 2016 NBA champion Irving has been fined this season.

Irving and the Nets were fined $25,000 each by the NBA in December for violating the league's media access rules.

Brooklyn's Irving paid a high price for attending what reportedly was a family birthday in January.

The NBA imposed a $50,000 fine on Irving, who according to TMZ and widespread reports attended a large family birthday celebration while not wearing a mask – in contravention of the league's coronavirus protocols.

Irving was also forced to sacrifice his salary for the games he missed while quarantining, which reportedly amounted to $816,898.

In 2020-21, Irving has averaged 27.0 points, 6.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game, boasting a career-best field-goal percentage of 50.0.

The Nets (43-23) are second in the Eastern Conference, one-and-a-half games behind the Philadelphia 76ers (44-21).

Kevin Durant described his return as "like riding a bike" after the Brooklyn Nets superstar posted 33 points following a three-game NBA absence.

A thigh contusion had sidelined former MVP Durant, who only returned from a 23-game injury lay-off caused by a calf strain earlier this month.

Back in the line-up on Sunday, Durant starred in his 28-minute appearance off the bench as the Eastern Conference-leading Nets trumped the high-flying Phoenix Suns 128-119.

Reflecting on his return, Durant said: "It's like riding a bike. You get your footing right and just get your rhythm going, and I think my team-mates did a great job of looking for me all game, and I just wanted to resort back to that work I put in.

"The shots I work on at practice and shootaround, try to get to those as much as possible to gain my rhythm and then start to get a little more creative as the game progressed. It was a good start. Hopefully I build on this game and keep going."

Durant came off the bench for the third time this season, Nets head coach Steve Nash introducing the two-time NBA champion with eight minutes remaining in the second quarter.

He was 12-for-21 shooting, including two-for-three from three-point range, while tallying six rebounds, four assists and two steals at home to the Suns in Brooklyn.

"I just deal with it and adapt to the situation," Durant said. "Coach asked me today if I wanted to start or come off the bench, and I felt like it would be a bigger challenge for me to focus in and lock in if I came off the bench so I wanted to see how that worked.

"If I would've shot bad I probably would've been pissed I came off the bench, but I was able to knock down some shots. But it was solid exercise for me to ease back into the swing of things."

Nash added: "You think big picture. I'd rather fall behind and have Kevin in the back pocket than go up and have to say, 'OK, Kevin, you're done,' in the third quarter.

"I think that's kind of the give and take with it, and he's been on board with it, so props to Kevin to being willing to try something like this that I think gives us a chance to be as flexible as we can be under these circumstances."

"Kevin has shown his scoring doesn't seem to get affected by a long layoff, whether it was coming off the Achilles or coming off the hamstring," Nash said. "He seems to come right back and his rhythm and timing are excellent. It's very impressive, for sure."

Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, had 34 points (10-of-19 shooting) and 12 assists as the star-studded Nets – still without James Harden (hamstring) – improved to 41-20.

"It's more the norm than the extraordinary for those two," Nash said of Durant and Nash's efficiency.

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash hailed Kyrie Irving's gritty display as the injury-hit NBA title hopefuls topped the Boston Celtics without superstar duo James Harden and Kevin Durant.

With Harden (hamstring) and Durant (thigh) sidelined, Irving helped the Nets move top of the Eastern Conference by defeating the Boston Celtics 109-104 on Friday.

Despite a poor shooting performance against his former team, Irving fell just short of a triple-double after posting 15 points on four-of-19 from the field while missing all six three-pointers, 11 assists, nine rebounds and four steals.

Nash, though, praised Irving after the Nets (40-20) replaced rivals the Philadelphia 76ers (39-20) atop the east.

"Ky had some steals, assists," said Nash. "It was not his typical scoring night, but it's few and far between when he doesn't score the ball at a prolific rate.

"But he definitely disrupted the basketball game defensively, and overall, he draws a lot of attention. I thought he was great in a lot of different ways than we're accustomed to and I thought his team-mates really picked him up as well."

"As a competitor I was just trying to go out there and do the little things, the small details, picking guys up or just being in the right position," added Irving. "When you don't have your legs on the offensive end, I felt like I was getting to where I wanted to go.

"A few angles, right, left, short, this that, just continuing to play, just continuing to have that mentality, next play, and I can have an impact with my team-mates on both ends of the floor, just making the right play. It's a simple game when you've got team-mates that are out there that are in the right spots and they're fulfilling their roles too."

Joe Harris top-scored for the Nets with 20 points, while Jeff Green (19), Bruce Brown (15) and Blake Griffin (13) made solid contributions for battling Brooklyn.

"I think that's why we're in the position we're in because we've had, I think, 33 different starting line-ups and we've had different rotations and different combinations on the floor and guys have had to buy into the way we want to play and play for one another," said Nash.

"So every night, it's got to be someone else who steps up and has opportunities but also fits in with what we want to do. I think that speaks for the spirit of the group and the willingness to try to pick each other up and not worry about themselves but to worry about the group.

"That's been fantastic, so it was a good performance. I thought [DeAndre Jordan] was great, I thought Bruce [Brown], although he was in foul trouble, did a lot of great things for us as usual. Right down the line, guys made plays for us."

Former MVP Durant missed his third consecutive game due to a thigh contusion and pre-game, Nash told reporters: "I think he's close. But I don't think he's there.

"I think we'll see tomorrow [Saturday] and Sunday if that's a possibility, but it may not [be]. So it may bleed back into this road trip. I wish I could give you more. That's kind of all I know is that it's close but it's not quite there."

With each team down a superstar, Paul George lifted the Los Angeles Clippers to a 113-112 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday after a last-minute rally. 

The Clippers trailed by five entering the final minute of the game, but George hit two field goals and followed with two free throws to give the visiting side the lead with 4.8 seconds left. 

George finished with 33 points and 11 rebounds as Kawhi Leonard missed the game after returning from a sore foot two days earlier. 

The Blazers played without Damian Lillard, who missed his third consecutive game with a hamstring problem.

His absence left CJ McCollum to carry the load with 28 points, but he made only 11 of 26 shots from the floor and missed what would have been the game-winning shot at the buzzer. 

 

Irving lifts Nets past Pelicans

The Nets also continue to miss key players, but they too have enough stars on hand to get by. Tuesday it was Kyrie Irving stepping up for injury-wracked Brooklyn in a 134-129 win over the Pelicans in New Orleans. 

Irving scored 32 points and had eight assists and Joe Harris contributed 24 points as seven Brooklyn players scored in double figures. 

The Nets needed plenty of scoring to overcome a big night by Zion Williamson, who made 14 of 19 from the field to finish with 33 points and added seven rebounds. 

 

Fox's shooting touch disappears

After averaging 30.5 points in Sacramento's previous eight games, De'Aaron Fox managed only 14 in 28 minutes in the Kings' 134-120 home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The point guard made just five of 17 shots from the field, a 29.4 per cent shooting effort. It was his worst offensive showing since he scored 12 points on five of 20 shooting in a loss to the Lakers on April 2.  

 

The Ant Man soars

Fans of the Timberwolves (16-43) haven't had much to cheer about this season, but at least top draft pick and Rookie of the Year contender Anthony Edwards can fill up a highlight reel on his own. The 19-year-old had a game-high 28 points in the rare Minnesota win.

 

Tuesday's results

New York Knicks 109-97 Charlotte Hornets
Atlanta Hawks 112-96 Orlando Magic
Brooklyn Nets 134-129 New Orleans Pelicans
Los Angeles Clippers 113-112 Portland Trail Blazers
Minnesota Timberwolves 134-120 Sacramento Kings 

 

Suns at 76ers

The Phoenx Suns (41-16), second in the Western Conference, travel to face the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers (39-18) in a meeting of top NBA title contenders Wednesday.

Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash has praised Kyrie Irving and his side's team effort after their win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday as doubts grow around James Harden's return.

The Nets edged past the Pelicans 134-129 on Tuesday without key pair Kevin Durant and Harden, with the latter now unlikely to return prior to the play-offs with a hamstring setback.

Brooklyn have only managed to field the 'big three' - Durant, Harden and Kyrie Irving – at the same on only seven occasions due to injuries.

But the Nets improved to 39-19, keeping the pressure on the Philadelphia 76ers at the top in the Eastern Conference.

Irving scored 32 points and had eight assists, while forward Joe Harris hit 24 points with Jeff Green contributing 15 along with nine rebounds and six assists.

Guard Landry Shamet was one of three players to have six or more assists, with eight along with 18 points.

Blake Griffin added 16 points and eight rebounds off the bench, along with Bruce Brown Jr with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

"When Ky was out of the game I thought we played very well," Nash said.

"When we're going into a game with nine men, you're a couple superstars down, you've got guys playing with more responsibility and minutes and if they don’t play well, you can find yourself in a big hole.

"They played really well. Really proud of the way the guys played. I think we started slow because it was nice, new line-up, new combination."

Nash did reserve special praise for Irving who was clutch down the final stretch with some key buckets along with a late steal off Zion Williamson in a tight game.

"He made some really difficult shots," Nash said. "There wasn’t a ton of movement on the last three possessions.

"Tip your hat to your star player who makes the shots but our guys were terrific all night."

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash said the NBA title hopefuls are waiting to discover the severity of Kevin Durant's latest injury after the superstar was ruled out early in the loss to the Miami Heat.

The Nets endured a forgettable trip to Miami, suffering a buzzer-beating 109-107 defeat against the Heat, having seen Durant exit in the opening quarter due to a left thigh contusion on Sunday.

Durant missed 23 games because of a hamstring injury before returning this month and the Nets – eyeing their maiden championship – are hoping they are not without the former MVP for another sustained period.

"He's sore but we don't know how severe," first-year coach Nash told reporters post-game.

"We'll see tomorrow how he wakes up and go from there but right now nothing’s been determined."

Durant was hurt during the first quarter, appearing to tangle legs with Trevor Ariza on a drive to the basket during the first quarter.

The 11-time All-Star had played for just four minutes, going three-for-three shooting – including two successful attempts from beyond the arc – to finish with eight points.

Durant was out for nearly two months of the season due to a hamstring injury, making his return against the New Orleans Pelicans on April 7 with 17 points in just under 19 minutes.

The two-time NBA champion did not dress for the defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers (39-17) on Thursday, a result that means they hold the tie-breaker over the Nets (38-19) in the Eastern Conference, but was back in action on Saturday, scoring 25 in the victory over the Charlotte Hornets.

"The timing of everything this year has just been a tell-tale sign of what life is right now in terms of the uncertainty of a lot going on," said Nets star Kyrie Irving, who posted 20 points in the continued absence of superstar James Harden (hamstring).

"Anything could happen at any moment, so we don't want to take anything for granted. But anytime one of our team-mates goes down, anytime something like that happens, it's definitely going to take a hit for us. And he's just gotten back. We just pray that it's not too serious and he's able to recover, but it definitely has a hit on our continuity at times. But we're not making any excuses for each other.

"We're all professionals, the guys that are getting minutes right now, we need them. So it's going to turn eventually, but we've just got to find that continuity, that connectivity from the start of the game to the end."

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash said securing the Eastern Conference's number one seed would be "valuable" but not at the expense of losing players to injury as his short-handed team lost the top spot to rivals the Philadelphia 76ers.

The star-studded Nets (37-18) were without Kevin Durant, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin for Wednesday's 123-117 defeat away to fellow NBA championship hopefuls the 76ers (38-17).

After posting 31 points in 27 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday – just his third appearance since a 23-game injury absence – the Nets opted to sit former MVP Durant and avoid back-to-back outings.

Despite missing most of their stars, though Kyrie Irving (37 points) returned, the Nets almost upstaged the 76ers in the highly anticipated showdown, rallying from 22 points down to close within 118-115 with just over one minute remaining.

"It'd be great to have the number one seed. I think it means a lot, it's valuable," Nash said afterwards. "But not at the expense of losing players or prolonging our injury situation.

"So I think we have to be very careful and make sure that our guys get to the finish line as whole as possible."

Durant has been averaging 28.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game this season.

He is also shooting a career-high 44.8 per cent from three-point range, while the two-time NBA champion (53.5) only boasted a better field-goal percentage in 2016-17 (53.7).

On Durant's absence, Nash responded to suggestions the two-time NBA champion was held out to keep Philadelphia guessing to how Brooklyn – eyeing a maiden title – might operate as a full and healthy unit in the playoffs.

"I think when you start to really try to be cute, it backfires most of the time," Nash said. "It wasn't strategic. It was, this is what this is the availability we have."

Irving – who returned from a personal issue after sitting out the Timberwolves matchup – starred for the Nets, but he watched from the sidelines as Brooklyn's reserves rallied down the stretch.

"Just played their hearts out," Irving said. "That's all you can ask coming out here to play the game that we all love. Just to go out there and compete. You know I'm sure they were chomping at the bit.

"Especially to get that win down the stretch for us and I feel like they grew as a group, we grew as a team and they learned some things out there playing against a high level playoff team that we can potentially see down the line. So it was a fun game overall."

The Brooklyn Nets will be without star Kyrie Irving for Monday's NBA game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Irving is set to sit out the Timberwolves clash due to personal reasons, the Nets announced on Sunday.

The 2016 champion and seven-time All-Star missed three games last month because of a family matter, with Irving playing in 38 of Brooklyn's 53 games this season.

Irving – who was ejected from Saturday's 126-101 loss to defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers – is averaging 27.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in 2020-21.

The star-studded Nets – already missing superstar James Harden (hamstring) – will also be without LaMarcus Aldridge against the Timberwolves.

Seven-time All-Star Aldridge is listed as out for a non-coronavirus-related illness.

The Nets and Philadelphia 76ers both share 36-17 win-loss records atop the Eastern Conference.

Kyrie Irving's ejection proved costly as the high-flying Brooklyn Nets were humbled 126-101 by reigning NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers.

Nets star Irving (18 points) and Lakers guard Dennis Schroder (19 points) were both ejected in the third quarter at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the pair were jawing with each other before the officials stepped in.

Leading 66-62 at the time, the injury-hit Lakers surged clear – using a 15-2 burst to extend their advantage to 88-71 away to the Nets, who had their nine-game home winning streak snapped.

In the absence of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma, Lakers recruit Andre Drummond had 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Talen Horton-Tucker (14 points and 11 assists) also put up a double-double.

Nets star Kevin Durant posted 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his second game back following a 23-game absence.

The Utah Jazz extended their franchise-record home winning streak to 24 games after topping the Sacramento Kings 128-112.

Donovan Mitchell led the way with a season-high 42 points – the All-Star tallying his 18th 30-point game of the season.

Mitchell became the fourth Jazz player to score 35-plus points in three consecutive games, joining Karl Malone, Adrian Dantley and Pete Maravich.

Mike Conley (26 points) and Joe Ingles (20) made contributions for the Jazz, while Kings pair De'Aaron Fox (30 points) and Richaun Holmes (25 points and 10 rebounds) impressed.

 

Curry sizzles, Trent has game to remember

Stephen Curry scored 23 of his 38 points in the third quarter to lead the Golden State Warriors past the Houston Rockets 125-109. Curry had his sixth consecutive 30-point game, the longest streak of his career. The two-time MVP is the first Warrior to score at least 30 points in six straight games since Ricky Barry in 1974.

The Toronto Raptors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 135-115 behind Gary Trent Jr., who went off for a new career-high 44 points on 17-for-19 shooting. He joined Chris Bosh (40 points on 14-16 field goals made in 2008) as the only Raptors players to have 40-plus points on 80 per cent shooting or better in a game. Trent's 89.5 field goal percentage marked the second highest figure for any player with 44-plus points in a game during the shot-clock era (1954-55), trailing only Mike Woodson (48 points on 91.7 field goal percentage) in 1983.

The Phoenix Suns maintained their solid form by easing past the Washington Wizards 134-106. Phoenix have won 17 of their last 21 games after Devin Booker posted 27 points and Deandre Ayton had 14 points and 10 rebounds. The Suns only tallied three turnovers against the Wizards to tie the franchise record. Wizards star Russell Westbrook (17 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds) recorded his NBA-leading 22nd triple-double of the season.

Enes Kanter's 24 points and franchise-record 30 rebounds fuelled the Portland Trail Blazers' 118-103 win over the lowly Detroit Pistons. Team-mate Damian Lillard had 27 points and 10 assists.

 

Porter struggles

Kevin Porter Jr. was four-for-13 shooting from the field, while he made just one of six three-point attempts for nine points in 33 minutes as the Rockets went down to the Warriors.

Detroit's Cory Joseph finished with just four points after going two-of-seven from the field.

 

Korkmaz enjoys career night

Furkan Korkmaz put on a show at both ends of the floor as the Philadelphia 76ers returned to the top of the east alongside the Nets following a 117-93 win at the Oklahoma City Thunder. Korkmaz put up a season-high 20 points and a career-high five steals.

 

Saturday's results

Utah Jazz 128-112 Sacramento Kings
Toronto Raptors 135-115 Cleveland Cavaliers
Los Angeles Lakers 126-101 Brooklyn Nets
Philadelphia 76ers 117-93 Oklahoma City Thunder
Golden State Warriors 125-109 Houston Rockets
Phoenix Suns 134-106 Washington Wizards
Portland Trail Blazers 118-103 Detroit Pistons

 

Celtics at Nuggets

On Sunday, the Boston Celtics (27-26) will face the streaking Denver Nuggets (34-18), who have won eight straight games.

Kyrie Irving stepped up with 40 points after James Harden went off injured early in the Brooklyn Nets' 114-112 victory over the New York Knicks on Monday.

In his first game back following hamstring tightness, Harden left the court after four minutes with an issue with the same hamstring and did not return.

The Nets were already without Kevin Durant, Tyler Johnson, Landry Shamet and Blake Griffin but their star point guard lifted when his side needed him, improving Brooklyn's record to 35-16 and moving them top in the East.

Irving finished with 40 points, including five three-pointers and seven assists, while Jeff Green contributed 23 points.

The Utah Jazz's nine-game winning run was halted by Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in a 111-103 win.

Doncic went close to a triple-double, finishing with 31 points along with nine rebounds and eight assists for the Mavs.

Booker on fire, Westbrook dominates in defeat

Devin Booker dominated again with 36 points for the Phoenix Suns, who won 133-130 over the Houston Rockets to move to 35-14.

Booker has had a hot hand lately and delivered when it mattered, with 18 final-quarter points getting the Suns past the Rockets.

Chris Paul had 11 assists for Phoenix, becoming the fifth player in NBA history to reach 10 or more assists 500 times.

Russell Westbrook had another triple-double with 23 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists but the Washington Wizards lost 103-101 to the Toronto Raptors after Gary Trent Jr's buzzer-beater.

Darius Garland scored a career-high 37 points as the Cleveland Cavaliers won 125-101 over the San Antonio Spurs.

 

Harden hurt again

Brooklyn's MVP candidate Harden did not last long in his return game after hamstring tightness, failing to score before being benched and tested in the locker room for a re-injury. Nets coach Steve Nash said: "Very similar to last time. He's got an awareness that something isn't right in his hammy."

 

Trent's buzzer-beater

Trent hit a clutch three-point buzzer-beater to earn the Toronto Raptors a dramatic victory over the Washington Wizards, completing a 19-point comeback.

Monday's results

Minnesota Timberwolves 116-106 Sacramento Kings 
Detroit Pistons 132-108 Oklahoma City Thunder
Cleveland Cavaliers 125-101 San Antonio Spurs
Toronto Raptors 103-101 Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks 111-103 Utah Jazz
Brooklyn Nets 114-112 New York Knicks
Phoenix Suns 133-130 Houston Rockets

 

76ers at Celtics

There are a bunch of big match-ups on Tuesday but the biggest is in the East when the Boston Celtics (25-25) host the Philadelphia 76ers (34-16), who have Joel Embiid back from injury.

New York has long been starved of NBA success but now has two teams making strides in 2020-21.

The Brooklyn Nets have made plenty of noise as they have claimed a share of first place in the Eastern Conference, led by the 'big three' of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

But the New York Knicks, the city's favourite team, are also in playoff contention with a .500 record.

On Monday, the two teams go head-to-head at Barclays Center – and Durant, Irving and Harden could all feature for just the eighth time this season.

The Knicks will have their work cut out as they try to stop their star-studded neighbours.

TOP PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets - Kyrie Irving

Durant is likely to be seen as the Nets' difference-maker in the biggest games, while Harden, the third man in the 'big three', has established himself as an MVP contender. He cannot afford many more nights off.

But as both players recover from hamstring injury – Durant is "an outside possibility", Harden's absence is "just caution" - it will likely again be Irving's turn to carry the team, showing their remarkable depth.

The point guard leads Brooklyn in total points, scoring 27.7 per game – the best mark of his career and one which puts him eighth in the NBA among all players.

Irving had a game-high 34 points when these teams last met in March, a 117-112 Nets win.

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

First-time All-Star Randle has led the Knicks' improvement this season and he has been talking a big game ahead of this clash.

The forward responded to talk of Brooklyn's 'big three' by suggesting New York have a "big 15", of which he is undoubtedly the star, averaging 23.0 points and 10.7 rebounds this year.

Randle will certainly not be short of motivation.

He had 33 points in the game last month, just shy of Irving's total, and had to be held back from the officials after a late three-pointer was ruled out due to an incorrect traveling call.

KEY BATTLE - BROOKLYN BIGS TO BOSS BIG APPLE?

It is not just the Nets' superstar talent the Knicks have to worry about, as there is also a mismatch at center.

Third-year big man Mitchell Robinson was set for a breakout year in New York, seemingly contributing to the team's decision not to push harder for a buyout signing as Andre Drummond went to the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Robinson, posting 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals, fractured his right foot, leaving the Knicks with Nerlens Noel (4.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) and Taj Gibson (5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds) as their primary options at the five.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn have a whole array of possibilities at the position, led by buyout signings and former All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin but also including DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green and surprise performer Nicolas Claxton (7.9 points, 1.3 blocks).

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nets are 2-0 in this season's series, also beating the Knicks in January, and Monday's game could see a significant power swing.

The all-time record stands at 101-100 in the Knicks' favour, giving Brooklyn the opportunity to pull ahead for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

The Brooklyn Nets are well and truly stacked for a championship run.

If superstars James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were not enough, the Nets turned to the buyout market and acquired former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Nets now boast a combined 41 All-Star appearances on their roster – Durant (11), Harden (nine), Aldridge (seven), Irving (seven), Griffin (six) and DeAndre Jordan (one). On the all-time list, only the Boston Celtics have managed more, across three different teams in 1977-78 (42), 2011-12 (43) and 2010-11 (56).

Jason Collins was part of the franchise, then known as the New Jersey Nets, that reached back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, and he told Stats Perform News: "I know KD and James have played together in the past [with the Oklahoma City Thunder]. Kyrie, at this point, realises this team is something special, especially when you're adding Blake and LaMarcus, and already have DeAndre Jordan.

"All of these guys recognise they are playing for a championship. They might only get one shot, these newer guys who haven't already won. This team reminds of me of the Houston Rockets from a few years ago when they had Chris Paul, who was clicking on all cylinders, and Harden. Then Chris got injured. They had a shot to beat the Golden [State] Warriors that season.

"Now, you see with the Nets – you have these tremendous playmakers. If one goes down or has an off night, oh by the way, you have two other guys who can make plays and for team-mates who are former All-Stars. They have a squad right now. I know Space Jam is coming out soon, maybe we're getting a glimpse at the Monstars."

The foundations were set last season, when Durant – recovering from an Achilles injury that meant he sat out the entire 2019-20 campaign – and Irving made the move to Brooklyn via the Golden State Warriors and Celtics respectively. But the Nets cemented 'superteam' status after trading for former MVP Harden in January.

There were question marks when first-year head coach Steve Nash and the Nets acquired Harden from the Rockets, with the three-time NBA scoring champion, Durant and Irving predominately ballhandlers.

Harden, Durant and Irving, however, have managed to make it work in the small time spent on court together – Durant has been absent since February due to a hamstring injury, having also sat out because of health and safety protocols, while Irving has also missed time this season.

Per 100 possessions, Harden – who has a franchise record-equalling 12 triple-doubles this season – has been averaging 21.1 points, 15.1 assists, 9.4 rebounds and 13.9 field-goal attempts when sharing the court with Durant and Irving.

Durant's numbers read 32.8, 3.5, 9.2 and 23.8, while Irving is averaging 31.3, 5.5, 6.7 and 21.3 at the same time.

Despite the continued absence of former MVP and two-time NBA champion Durant, the Nets have won 19 of their past 22 games to top the Eastern Conference.

Prior to Wednesday's win over the Houston Rockets, the Nets have been leading the NBA in points per game and field goal percentage this season – only the Stephen Curry-led Warriors (2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018) and the Nash-led Suns (2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010) have managed to do that in the last 30 years. As of March 30, the Nets were also leading the league in points.

In terms of effective field-goal percentage, the Nets (57.6 as of March 30) are on pace to set an NBA record, which would eclipse the 2017-18 Warriors (56.9).

"For all the injuries and the games that have been missed by one or all of those superstars, they have been doing great. Especially when you have new talent coming in, new pieces," said Collins, who spent his first seven years in the NBA with the Nets before leaving in 2008 and returning briefly in 2014. "It takes a while. Sometimes it can take half a season and in this shortened season, they're doing great. You have to tip your cap to the players, but the coaches, they are doing an excellent job making sure all the pieces are fitting.

"You're still adding the mix with LaMarcus and Blake. It seems he has found his ability to jump and dunk, it's glad to see his body is responding well. It's pretty obvious to see with this team that they're not necessarily playing for positioning in the regular season, this team is built for the postseason. That is why I think they're being so cautious with KD and his return. My hats off to Kyrie Irving for recognising that he needs to step away from time to time.

"With Harden, in his mind he is the MVP. A lot of people who follow the NBA are recognising the James Harden who started the season with the Houston Rockets, that guy is no longer in the building. The guy in the building in Brooklyn is the guy we have seen for the past several years, who is an MVP candidate."

Harden's 11.2 assists per game this season is on pace to be the most by a player averaging 25.0-plus points since Tiny Archibald averaged 11.4 in 1972-73 (as of March 30). He, Irving and Durant dominate the headlines, but the likes of Joe Harris, Nicolas Claxton, Bruce Brown and Landry Shamet have proved to be an effective support cast in a further sign of frightening depth.

"When you're going to go up against them [Durant, Harden and Irving], you're going to have to leave someone open and it's going to be those other guys. I think Shamet will be huge in the playoffs, Harris also," Collins, the 42-year-old former center, said.

"Just because of reputation, you're going to be hesitant to leave DeAndre Jordan, if you're the center, you know you can't let him get behind because you know it will be a dunk. So, you're afraid to step up and help. With those big three, you're not going to leave them either so it's going to be the others on the guard – a shooter or somebody who is going to get a lot of good looks."

Eyebrows were raised when the Nets appointed two-time MVP Nash to replace Kenny Atkinson ahead of the season, despite his lack of coaching experience.

The Nets were coming off a first-round playoff exit inside the Orlando bubble last season when they handed Hall of Famer Nash his first head coaching role.

But Nash – supported by veteran Mike D'Antoni in Brooklyn – has impressed from the outset, juggling a superstar trio, injuries and the coronavirus pandemic in the pursuit of NBA glory.

An NBA ring eluded Nash during his stellar playing career, but a championship in his first season as head coach would see him follow in the footsteps of Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse (2019), Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016), Warriors counterpart Steve Kerr (2015), Pat Riley (Los Angeles Lakers in 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers in 1980) – who are the last five men since 1977 to achieve the feat.

"I think he was thrown into the deep end but as athletes and competitors, you kind of like being thrown into the deep end because that's what you work hard for," Collins said. "He isn't alone, he has great staff and players who have played at the highest level. It's definitely a group effort.

"I have to add, nothing would be possible without ownership. Ownership in the NBA is so important. Joe Lacob has done a phenomenal job with the Golden State Warriors. Also now Joseph Tsai with the Brooklyn Nets. He has told [general manager] Sean Marks, do what you need to do to create this culture and you'll have support. It's just great to see when an organisation, from ownership, to general manager, to team president, head coach, assistant coach and it all falls in line. You're setting yourself up for success."

The Nets have never won a championship since their first NBA season in 1976-77 – a run of 44 consecutive seasons. Byron Scott's team – featuring Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Collins – came close in the early 2000s, but in two appearances in the Finals they were swept by the Lakers and beaten 4-2 by the San Antonio Spurs.

Among active streaks in the league, the Nets have the eighth-longest drought alongside the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers, behind the Sacramento Kings (69). Their rivals, the New York Knicks, have been waiting 47 years.

"The elephant in the room that we're all dealing with [the pandemic]," Collins said. "I can't think of any other part of our country hit harder than New York City. To end this year in the pandemic, if they were to win a championship, it would give so much hope to a lot of people. I lost one of my uncles to COVID recently and he lives in New York. People are still being affected and dying. It would mean a lot just to see the Nets win a championship for the city of New York.

"I think it will be huge if the Nets are able to win. It's all set up because they now have the target on their back with all the All-Stars on their team. Even if they don't get the number one seed, even if they finish at number three or four, which I doubt they will, they will still have the target on their back because they have all those names.

"If they are playing at all cylinders, they have the best chance out of the east. I love what Doc Rivers is doing in Philadelphia and I love the season Joel Embiid was having before injury.

"I'm really looking forward to that Eastern Conference championship between the Nets and 76ers, no disrespect to the others. I think the Nets just have more horses than the other squads."

Steve Nash was "optimistic" NBA MVP candidate James Harden did not suffer a long-term setback as the Brooklyn Nets went top of the Eastern Conference with a win that gave Kyrie Irving cause for concern.

Playing the Houston Rockets, his former team, Harden played only 27 minutes - registering 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists - before succumbing to hamstring tightness.

Irving led the way in his stead, as 31 points and a season-high 12 assists secured a 120-108 victory that moved the Nets ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers at 33-15 in the East.

But with Kevin Durant still out, having played just 19 games this season, Harden's injury prompted some concern.

The nine-time All-Star has averaged 26.1 points, 11.2 assists, 8.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals since moving to Brooklyn in January.

Harden's 11.1 assists on the year, including an initial stretch with the Rockets, lead the league, while an assist rate of 46.2 per cent trails only Russell Westbrook.

The superstar guard has taken an unselfish approach as the Nets aim for a championship, attempting 17.6 field goals per game in 2020-21 - his lowest rate since 2013-14 - and seeing his usage drop to 29.3 per cent, its lowest since the statistic was first tracked.

But Harden has still carried Brooklyn for long stretches while Irving and Durant have sat out, meaning head coach Nash was relieved to relay a major issue was not anticipated.

"We're going to monitor it. We'll see how he feels in the morning," Nash said. "I don't have a lot to tell you.

"We feel optimistic it's not a long-term thing and we'll just monitor it. I haven't spoken to him yet. I came in, addressed the team and then came to speak to you guys.

"I think he told the trainer when he was on the sideline and they went back to look at it and decided that it wasn't worth risking it. We'll just see how he feels in the morning and go from there.

"They just decided it wasn't worth risking him going back out there, but we haven't done any scans. We'll see how he feels in the morning and decide what the next step is."

Harden's problem could mean another reshuffle for a Nets team who, through injuries and trade, have had nine different starting fives this season.

That makes their achievement in reaching the top of the conference even more impressive, according to Nash.

"We're first and foremost really proud of our guys," he said. "They've had a lot thrown at them this year, we've had a lot of different lineups, a tough schedule and a new group - three new groups, in a sense.

"For them to stick together, to continue to pursue what we're asking them to pursue, big picture and in the short term with the details, it's impressive."

But Irving saw cause for concern in the Rockets win as Houston ran out to a 42-29 first-quarter lead before the point guard helped reel them back in.

Slow starts are a theme for Brooklyn, who led only one game through three minutes in the whole of March.

"We're going to get every team's best shot, so that's something that we've come to accept," Irving said.

"We know the game plan that we need to execute and it's up to us to go out and do it at a very high level.

"Sometimes we don't make that choice in the first four minutes or the first five minutes where we get down 18-6 or 18-4 and we're just digging ourselves out of holes on the scoreboard.

"I'm listening to the chatter from other teams on the court and they just continue to say, attack us, attack us, attack us, and I'm here on the court as well with all my team-mates just saying, it'll turn over for us.

"We've just got to be resilient, persevere through this, and we'll start making shots, but more or less it just comes with our effort.

"We've got to bring it from the first five minutes. In the last few games, we've failed to do so, so we played catch-up and we got away with this one, but against the great teams we know we've got to bring it from minute one."

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