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Kevin Durant returns, scores 33 points off bench in Brooklyn Nets’ win over Phoenix Suns

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After missing the past three games because of a bruised thigh, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant returned on Sunday and erupted for 33 points in 28 minutes in a 128-119 victory over the visiting Phoenix Suns.

“It’s like riding a bike,” Durant said. “You get your footing right and just get your rhythm going; and I think my teammates 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.”

For the third time this season, Durant came off the bench for the Nets, checking in with 8 minutes left in the second quarter. The Nets wanted to backload Durant’s minutes, playing him more in the second half, during which he spent 20 of the final 24 minutes on the floor.

“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.”

Coach Steve Nash said in consultation with the performance staff that the plan was to keep Durant at around 28 minutes of playing time. Choosing how to best allocate the minutes led to the option of bringing Durant off the bench.

“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,” Nash said. “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.”

Durant seamlessly fit back into the Brooklyn offense, playing off Kyrie Irving, who cooked from tipoff, scoring 34 points on 10-of-19 shooting, including 5-of-7 from 3, to go with 12 assists.

“It’s more the norm than the extraordinary for those two,” Nash said of the two stars’ combined efficiency.

One of Durant’s many rare talents is an ability to find an instant rhythm and withstand any possible rust from a long layoff. Durant has had to deal with a run of injuries and other issues over the past two years, starting with his Achilles tendon injury two years ago, then league COVID-19 protocols requiring him to sit this season, followed by a hamstring injury that forced him to miss multiple weeks.

“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.”

The Nets took control of the game late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, as Durant heated up with a flurry of buckets. Even without James Harden, who continues to recover from a strained hamstring, the Nets handled the Suns, who had just gone on a tour against Eastern Conference peers, including the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.

“It’s just another game. I think they look at us as a measuring stick,” Durant said of the Suns. “They’re fresh on the scene as an elite team, so this is pretty new to them. So we wanted to gauge and take that physicality they bring, the toughness and quickness they bring, but that’s all it was. Another day at the office.”

As the Nets plod through the remainder of the schedule, the focus is on recapturing chemistry and rhythm for their primary rotation players, while also keeping an eye toward health and wellness. With the win, the Nets have taken a 1.5-game lead for the East’s top seed over the 76ers.

“Right now, especially this point of the season, it’s about working on us,” Brooklyn forward Blake Griffin said. “We haven’t all been on the floor together, and we’re coming down the stretch here where we really need to tighten things up.”

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Texas Tech guard Mac McClung to sign with agent, remain in NBA draft

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Big 12 newcomer of the year Mac McClung has elected to forgo his remaining college eligibility and keep his name in the 2021 NBA draft, he told ESPN on Monday.

“I just felt the timing was right for me to go all-in,” McClung said. “I looked at multiple factors and decided the best time for me to take this step was now. I feel the NBA game and spacing is suited for my play style and I can’t wait to start this chapter of my life. I’m very blessed to be able to chase my dreams.”

McClung was named to the AP All-Big 12 first team after a strong season in which he averaged 15.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists, helping lead Texas Tech to the NCAA tournament, where it fell to Arkansas in the round of 32. He spent his first two collegiate seasons at Georgetown, electing to transfer to Lubbock last summer. He had two years of eligibility remaining but will sign with agent Dan Poneman of Beyond Athlete Management in hopes of accelerating his leap to the professional ranks.

“I decided to go all-in now, rather than just testing the waters, so teams know that I’m fully committed to staying in the draft and that I am not just one foot in, one foot out.”

McClung has one of the largest followings of any player in the college game, with more than 730,000 followers on Instagram alone. He achieved online celebrity in high school by eclipsing Allen Iverson’s career scoring record in the state of Virginia, as well as from several highlight-reel finishes that went viral.

McClung is coming off his most efficient season in a winning campaign at Texas Tech, rounding out his offensive game while showcasing impressive toughness on the defensive end.

“I can’t wait to show teams how much I’ve improved my playmaking ability and how hard I have been working on making the right reads in the pick-and-roll. Also I’m looking forward to showing teams my determination and will to win. I’m really looking forward to pre-draft workouts, going head-to-head with other guards in the draft, and showing teams what I’m made of.”

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Broadcaster Marv Albert retiring after NBA Eastern Conference finals

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NEW YORK — Marv Albert is retiring after the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, ending a broadcasting career spanning nearly 60 years.

Albert will call the series for TNT. He has been with Turner Sports for 22 years, 19 as an NBA play-by-play announcer.

Albert, known for his signature “Yes!” call, turns 80 next month. He has covered everything from football and boxing to hockey, baseball and tennis.

But he is linked most to basketball, having called 13 NBA Finals and 25 All-Star Games for NBC and Turner, along with the Dream Team’s romp to the gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

“There is no voice more closely associated with NBA basketball than Marv Albert’s,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement released Monday by Turner Sports.

Albert began his Hall of Fame career in 1963 in radio, becoming the voice of the New York Rangers in 1965 and the Knicks two years later. He began doing Knicks games on TV for MSG Network in 1986.

Albert also called eight Super Bowls and eight Stanley Cup Finals.

“My 55 years of broadcasting the NBA has just flown by and I’ve been fortunate to work with so many wonderful and talented people,” Albert said. “Now, I’ll have the opportunity to hone my gardening skills and work on my ballroom dancing.”

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LeBron James makes MVP case for Stephen Curry as Lakers ready for play-in showdown with Warriors

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The Los Angeles Lakers‘ repeat title bid will commence with LeBron James facing a familiar foe in the Golden State Warriors during the play-in tournament, led by James’ pick for MVP, Stephen Curry.

“I mean, just look at what he’s done this year,” James said after L.A.’s 110-98 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, coupled with a Denver Nuggets loss on Sunday, locked the Lakers into the No. 7 spot. “I don’t know anything else if you’re looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State’s team, what are we looking at?

“We get caught up in the records sometimes. We get caught up in the, OK, who has the best record instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”

And now the fate of the Lakers’ postseason seeding will come down to Curry, the league’s leading scorer, and the No. 8 Warriors coming to Staples Center on Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) with a first-round berth against the No. 2 Phoenix Suns on the line.

The loser will go on to face the winner of the No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies and No. 10 San Antonio Spurs‘ play-in game, with the winner of that game earning the No. 8 seed and a first-round date with the No. 1 Utah Jazz.

While L.A. finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak — with James averaging 24.5 points on 50% shooting, 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.5 steals in his past two games after missing 26 of the Lakers’ previous 28 games with a high right ankle sprain — James’ teams had never entered the playoffs seeded lower than No. 4 in his previous 14 appearances.

“I don’t look at our seeding. It doesn’t matter. Obviously we know we wanted to play a lot better this season, but the injuries took a toll on our team,” James said, alluding to his ankle and Anthony Davis‘ nine-week absence because of a calf strain and Achilles tendinosis in his right leg. “But I look forward to the challenge. It’s another challenge for me in the postseason. I’m looking forward to it.”

If L.A. is to repeat as champions — earning James his fifth ring and the franchise its 18th to pass the Boston Celtics for the most all time — it will have to pull off something unprecedented. The 1995 Houston Rockets were the lowest-seeded team in league history to win it all, entering the postseason in the No. 6 spot.

“It will be the hardest challenge any team has ever had in NBA history,” Lakers reserve Jared Dudley said when asked about the path ahead. “We’re up for it. We’re the defending champs. They’ve got to worry about us. We’re getting healthy at the right time and no one wants to see a healthy Laker team.”

Dudley, when asked, questioned the strategy of the LA Clippers, who could have faced the Lakers in a first-round series if the Clippers finished No. 3 and the Lakers ended up No. 6, but avoided that scenario by resting their stars and dropping their final two games to cellar dwellers in Houston and Oklahoma City, to end up as the No. 4 seed.

“If I was another team, I would want to play us early,” he said. “I would want to play when LeBron James is coming off of an ankle injury. We’re trying to find our chemistry. You think that we’re going to be better later or better now? I mean, the more chemistry and the more games, the stronger we get.”

Indeed, the Lakers appeared mighty ripe for a potential early playoff exit when James stepped on the foot of the Pelicans’ Nickeil Alexander-Walker in the fourth quarter on Sunday and tweaked his ankle.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel said James would have “no issues,” from the tweak. “I’ll be fine,” James added.

Davis, who sat out a game earlier in the week with tightness in his groin and was a game-time decision on Sunday because of shoulder discomfort, also sounded optimistic about his and the team’s health.

“We feel good,” Davis said. “We feel confident about our team.”

That wasn’t the case just 14 days ago when L.A. was beaten by an undermanned Toronto Raptors team to lose for the sixth time in seven games.

“Coach told us after that game, he said, ‘Stay together. Just imagine where we’ll be in two weeks,'” Davis said. “And it’s been two weeks to the day. So, we’re a much better team. We’re a much healthier team — which is most important. We’re finding our rhythm on both ends of the floor.”

Vogel said he never felt like things were “unraveling,” even with the late-season swoon.

“The message was: ‘Remain together, let’s not anybody overreact,'” Vogel said. “No one’s happy that we’ve lost these games but we’re going to be OK if we stay the course, keep grinding, keep having a growth mindset each day.”

In a few days the Lakers will get their first test in a postseason that will require 17 wins to reach the Larry O’Brien Trophy — one more than any previous champion has ever had to earn.

“We won’t call this (season) successful until we raise a banner, but we’re in position to do something special no matter what seed we’re in,” Davis said. “It’s only successful if we’re going to win it all.”

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