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Lakers? Warriors? Nets? Ranking the top 10 most fun NBA teams to watch this season



Behold, the top 10 NBA teams in our 10th annual League Pass Rankings. Reminder: These are watchability scores, not power rankings!

We score teams, 1-10, in five categories:

ZEITGEIST: Do actual humans care about this team?

STAR/HIGHLIGHT POTENTIAL: Do you stick around games, at the expense of sleep and loved ones, because one player might do something spectacular?

STYLE: Are they tactically interesting?

LEAGUE PASS MINUTIA: Announcers, jerseys, court designs.

UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: Coaches making funny faces, passive-aggressive teammates, frequent bloopers, sneaky irritants.

See teams 30-11 in ESPN’s annual NBA League Rankings

Phoenix makes the most of the methodical Chris Paul experience. There is beauty in ruthless execution, and Phoenix added layers atop layers to its foundational pick-and-roll attack: flare screens, decoy movement, calculated drift cuts. It was elegant in an almost academic, formalist sense.

It just lacked the “holy crap!” factor. Phoenix is an average transition team, and it ranked 26th in dunks. The algorithm is torn between admiring the brazenness of Paul’s foul-baiting and punishing his hubris.

Mikal Bridges added a pogo stick midranger, perhaps a sign that he has more scoring in him. Driving into Bridges is like floating into a black hole:

Cameron Payne jolts Phoenix into chaos gear. Jae Crowder salsa danced the Los Angeles Lakers right out of the playoffs — embodying the hit-first bravado that drove Phoenix within two wins of the NBA title.

Deandre Ayton bought into everything, and the Suns have yet to extend him. With Suns governor Robert Sarver courtside, do we have potential for an awkward “pay me!” moment in the vein of Shaquille O’Neal screaming at the late Jerry Buss — or a boozy Chandler Parsons shouting, “Max or nothing, motherf—er!” at Mark Cuban out of a cab?

Devin Booker‘s bag is bottomless. The array of shots he busted out scoring 82 points over Games 4 and 5 of the Finals was straight-up ridiculous: isolation fadeaways; lefty floaters; catch-and-shoot jumpers launched after flying around picks.

The “Valley” court is back with its gorgeous color gradient and shaded desert landscape:

Kevin Ray and Eddie Johnson are an elite broadcast duo. We all need more miked up Monty Williams in our lives.

This is about one thing: Zion Williamson, an unprecedented melding of size and speed, has played 85 games in two seasons — leaving everyone wanting more.

(The algorithm is aware Williamson is recovering from foot surgery; it is wired to be optimistic.)

We have seen many Zions — Point Zion, post-up Zion, screening Zion, fast-break Zion, center Zion. He has only scratched the surface of each archetype.

There is no defense to keep Williamson from the rim. A ridiculous 81% of his shots came at the basket, and he converted 70% of them. Large bodies bounce off of Williamson, even when he is airborne. It is a matter of time until Williamson shatters a blackboard or brings the whole damn stanchion down. He jumps three times for offensive rebounds in the span most humans might complete one jump.

The passing vision is there, but Williamson is frenetic — prone to close-range fastballs and inaccurate kickouts. Reps will help; Williamson’s pick-and-roll partnerships with Brandon Ingram, Jonas Valanciunas and Devonte’ Graham each present dilemmas for defenses.

On defense, you wonder: Does Williamson care? Are his shoes made of cement? Is he tired already? New Orleans will go nowhere until they cobble together a good defense, and that’s easier when everyone sees the franchise player giving a damn.

There’s still something missing with Ingram — some combination of playmaking and defense. Ingram finding that balance is as central to the Pels’ future as anything but Williamson’s health and desire to stay.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Jaxson Hayes could break out as two-way players. (Hayes is a malevolent dunker hoisting 3s in preseason, Alexander-Walker a long-armed, audacious scorer.) Valanciunas grinding defenders to dust is one of the NBA’s unheralded delights.

Gimme the hot sauce! (If you’re too cool to appreciate Stacey King’s catchphrases, we can’t be friends.)

Lonzo Ball and Zach LaVine should be a perfect match: the league’s willingest hit-ahead passer bombing to the best open-court dunker since prime Vince Carter. Benny the Bull won’t be able to control himself during his popcorn fiendings.

Melding the Ball/LaVine show with the, umm, more patient stylings of DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic will be an ongoing challenge for Team Floor-Raiser. DeRozan has shown — including in the bubble with the San Antonio Spurs — that he is adaptable to run-and-gun pace. Chicago needed another closer anyway; the crunch time burden on LaVine was too big — even if he rose to it. More of LaVine off the ball — spotting up for 3s and cutting for dunks — is good for him and the Bulls.

Vucevic can trail for 3s and toggle in the half-court between post-ups and ball screens, depending on matchups. DeRozan likes the midrange too, and it will take time for these four to master their steps and settle a hierarchy. Watching that discovery process will be catnip for X’s and O’s nerds.

Crafting a workable defense will be tougher. Patrick Williams is one of the league’s most important players, given how few young guys acquired directly via Chicago’s lottery picks and the Jimmy Butler trade remain on this roster — and the picks Chicago now owes the Spurs and the Orlando Magic. (Coby White‘s long-term role is uncertain too.)

Williams is built for switchy defense, and his stop-on-a-dime midranger is pure silk — launched so high, the ball drops through without generating much more than a ripple.

Derrick Jones Jr. is one of LaVine’s only true dunking rivals. DeRozan is the king of high-fiving phantom teammates between free throws if no one approaches — or while attempting technical foul shots. It’s a subtle bit, and DeRozan is supercommitted.

Hypothesis: Billy Donovan is the least funny coach in the NBA.

Prediction: The crackdown on bogus fouls won’t affect Trae Young as much critics hope. He’s too good, too smart, and his habit of slowing down in traffic — the gambit that often draws contact — is a (mostly) legitimate basketball play designed to survey the defense or coax it into some false step. (Young jumping sideways is another story.)

Young ran more pick-and-rolls than anyone, but the repetitiveness did not detract from Atlanta’s entertainment value. The Hawks ranked No. 2 in dunks, with oodles coming via Young’s lobs to Clint Capela and John Collins. Capela usurped Collins as Young’s primary screen setter, but Collins found ways to stay involved — and channeled more energy into dirty work.

(Not enough was made of Collins dunking on Joel Embiid‘s head in Game 6 of the conference semifinals, and then showing up to the news conference after Atlanta’s Game 7 win wearing a T-shirt showing that same dunk. That is even colder than Young shushing the New York Knicks crowd. You have to enjoy a team embracing villainy this hard.)

Young can see and make passes, including crosscourt slingshots with both hands, that are off-limits to most guys his size. Late last season, Young started getting off the ball earlier — making easy reads, and letting his supporting cast cook.

Kevin Huerter is fearless, with cagey playmaking skills. De’Andre Hunter showed a burgeoning all-around game, and should become an all-court wrecker on defense; he went chest to chest with Julius Randle in the playoffs. Cam Reddish is itching to do more.

Bogdan Bogdanovic is a gunslinger coming for your throat. We haven’t even mentioned Lou Williams or Danilo Gallinari (and his hair).

The broadcast is fun, the art pleasing. I wish the Hawks would bring back the stained glass-style court honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

With Jamal Murray, the Nuggets might have challenged for No. 1 after finishing second last season.

Nikola Jokic is the league’s most entertaining player — to these eyes — but Murray hasn’t gotten enough appreciation for his part in building the NBA’s most sophisticated and indefensible two-man game. Each star can score against the league’s tentpole pick-and-roll defenses: drop-back schemes and switching. Murray can solve both by heaving 3s or driving.

But it is in those in-between spaces where Murray and Jokic make high art. We know what Jokic is — the greatest big man passer ever, and one of the most inventive passers of all time for any position — but Murray brings guile to the dance. Murray freezes defenses with hesitation moves, and he is a master at taking one extra prodding dribble — the bounce that draws Jokic’s defender closer to Murray, unlocking an easy drop-off.

Jokic, though — Jokic is the freaking show. He leaves you cackling like an idiot at least three times per game. These one-handed. rebound-into-outlet heaves are absurd:

He whips no-look passes where it’s unclear when — or even if — he spotted his target:

In the post, he is a ground-bound tornado of twisting pivots and upfakes that get defenders leaping at ghosts. If he misses, no matter: Jokic volleyballs rebounds with either hand, from distances outside typical tip-in range.

There are nights when the game looks so casual for Jokic — when mismatches down low are overwhelming, when the pictures come to him so early and so clearly — that he seems to try high-wire passes just to entertain himself.

Michael Porter Jr. has one of the league’s sweetest unreachable jumpers, and he’ll expand his off-the-bounce game. Michael Malone gets a full season to experiment with Aaron Gordon‘s defense. Facundo Campazzo is a threat to nutmeg someone at all times, and he is one of the league’s peskiest irritants.

The jerseys and courts are solid; the royal blue “Mile High” uniforms have been a nice addition.

The algorithm might be as overenthusiastic about the bouncy bugs as Eric Collins, Charlotte’s charmingly bombastic play-by-play man, is in screaming about a LaMelo Ball long 2 as if Ball has discovered the cure for the coronavirus.

Charlotte was 33-39 last season with the league’s seventh-worst point differential. If everything goes right, they probably top out around .500, and you know what, I don’t care, because Ball is going to toss alley-oops to Miles Bridges, and Bridges is going to detonate and Michael Jordan will be grinning while wearing some hat that is a little bit funny if you are being honest with yourself.

Whew. Sorry.

The Hornets move the ball, and use superfun centerless lineups. Those groups ran really small last season with both Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier, and Charlotte compensated by playing way more zone than anyone — a nice strategic changeup.

With Graham out and both Gordon Hayward and Kelly Oubre Jr. available, the Hornets have access to bigger and switchier small-ball groups. How about: Ball, Oubre, Hayward, Bridges, and P.J. Washington? Even Rozier — a crunch time god last season — has a 6-foot-8 wingspan.

James Borrego faces a testy decision: Either start games centerless, or use one of Hayward, Bridges, and Washington as sixth man. Bridges drained 40% from deep last season, even dabbling in pull-ups, and made huge strides as a playmaker. I can’t wait to see how much more he has, especially on defense, and if Washington shows similar all-around growth.

Oubre is always flexing, doing pushups, and punching up in his trash talk. The honeycombed court and striped uniforms stand out, and strike the right balance between Charlotte’s classic 1990s look and modern tastes.

The biggest question: How polished of a scorer can Ball become in the half court?

A full season of Klay Thompson might have pushed Golden State to No. 1 — a perch they held over their dynastic apex. Alas, we don’t know when Thompson will return, or how rusty he’ll be.

What Stephen Curry and Draymond Green share is why we play and love team sports. It is the kind of unspoken chemistry you dream about finding one season, in one pickup game, for one damned day. It is what happens when two ultra-smart, ultra-skilled players with complementary strengths — including the greatest shooter ever by a nontrivial margin — bond for a decade. It is rare, rarer even today than it once was, and we should cherish it.

Curry is the league’s premier highlight factory. A Curry hot streak from deep looks, sounds, feels like nothing else in sports history. Curry is always bobbing and weaving, a lurking danger that attracts panicked eyeballs at all times. He is one of most creative little guy paint finishers ever, with touch so gentle, the ball seems to melt into the backboard and drip down.

But Curry and Green working together elevate the two-man game to a higher plane. They outmaneuver defenses with such precision and speed, you barely notice what they have done — how many decisions they crammed into two seconds, how many alternatives they sifted through, how far ahead they were of everyone else.

This play — one of my favorite Curry-Green joints — looks so simple, but it only emerges from years of shared problem-solving:

They call it the “hand-back,” and they use it to wrong-foot blitzing defenses. Green has told me they barely discuss reads like this anymore; they just see them and make them.

Golden State last season ranked third in pace, second in passes, and first in dunks. Fun! They looked like themselves once they fell back on the familiar: starting Kevon Looney over James Wiseman, and playing more with Green at center.

They discovered Juan Toscano-Anderson fits their pass-and-cut style. They know Andre Iguodala does, and Iguodala’s return scores nostalgia points. Every Iguodala appearance will remind of how it felt in 2015 and 2016 — murmurs in the crowd, dread spreading across the opposing bench — when he strode to the scorer’s table: Enter the Death Lineup.

Jordan Poole is ready for his moment. New additions young and old bring intrigue.

The champs should play with new freedom after exorcising postseason demons and working toward the right mix of roles on offense for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton.

The regular season is a playoff-optimization lab now for Milwaukee. Last season’s focus was diversifying the defense. This season is about honing a half-court offense that cratered for most of Milwaukee’s second-round bloodbath against the Brooklyn Nets. A major subplot is Antetokounmpo carrying over the improvements he showed from the midrange: steadier footwork, jump hooks, floaters, more refined post moves.

As he becomes equal part fast-break marauder, one-on-one brute, and lob-catching screen setter, Antetokounmpo is chiseling his own player archetype — transforming into a 6-foot-11 mix of skills we’ve never seen.

He is the force behind the league’s most devastating transition attack, gobbling up huge chunks of space with each dribble — and either dropping thunder at the rim, or kicking to one of Milwaukee’s spot-up shooters. (Brook Lopez ambles into trailing 3s with the ease and familiarity of an old man plopping into a recliner.)

Donte DiVincenzo adds hoppy rebounding and canny pass-and-cut playmaking. Pat Connaughton is a superathlete. Thanasis Antetokounmpo is a bumper car playing his own hybrid of rugby and basketball. Whatever it is, you can’t take your eyes off of it. Keep an eye on Jordan Nwora.

It is downright frightening when Holiday decides to put someone in jail — to lock them up full court.

Marques Johnson is as good as it gets as an analyst; Steve Novak is tremendous too. I’m excited to hear Lisa Byington on play-by-play duties.

This is one of the best courts in the NBA:

This might be a case of anticipation outstripping reality: Thinking about how Russell Westbrook fits might be more interesting than watching the Lakers figure it out.

Regardless, the Westbrook fit is perhaps the biggest on-court question in the league — the variable that will determine whether the Lakers can gut through the West and upend the East juggernauts. Every possession will offer clues: What is Westbrook doing when LeBron James has the ball? Is he cutting? Is he setting picks for James? Can he weaponize his rebounding without compromising L.A.’s transition defense? Will we ever catch James forgetting cameras are always on him, and rolling his eyes as Westbrook misses his 13th consecutive jumper?

We’ll see how much Anthony Davis plays center, and how the Lakers manufacture points with Westbrook, James, Davis, and one of Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan on the floor. (Those lineups will inhale offensive rebounds.)

Westbrook will push the pace for a team that blitzed everyone in transition two seasons ago.

Freight train James still appears every game. Sometimes an opponent — someone James considers beneath him — draws it out by getting too physical or chirpy; James sighs and takes that victim to the weight room down low. Backpedaling defenders still have no shot when James accelerates into that bowling ball left-to-right spin; they bounce away, and he extends that right arm sideways for a hammer dunk.

The passing will always be there — the crosscourt lasers, always released with defenders leaning the wrong way, always landing in the shooting pocket.

Twenty years later, James and Carmelo Anthony are finally teammates. The entire roster is like a reunion of your favorite TV cast from 10 years ago. Oh, hey, that’s what Rajon Rondo looks like now?

Howard elbows people in the face and feigns astonishment at the resulting technical foul. Heat check Malik Monk is fun. Talen Horton-Tucker‘s surgery is a bummer; he looms as an important potential two-way wing.

The Lakers have the league’s best court, and sleek jerseys. One quibble: I don’t like the wide, black stripe running down their purple uniforms:

Kyrie Irving broke the algorithm. The supercomputer housed in my garage to compile these rankings exploded the moment on Tuesday when the Nets announced they were banishing Irving until he gets vaccinated.

The algorithm is divided. Does it punish the Nets for this fiasco, and deduct entertainment points for the absence of one of the NBA’s great showmen — coming off a 50/40/90 scorcher that was probably the best season of his career?

Or should it assume Irving will return, and that the NBA’s grating franchise soap opera foists another unbearable yet irresistible melodrama onto the world?

The safest assumption is that we are living in a simulation. The second safest is Irving relents. The Nets topped these rankings before Tuesday’s announcement, and we decided to leave them here.

If you can train your mind to ignore the noise — and it’s getting harder given the moral and public health issues underlying this latest round of Nets theater — there is no denying the jaw-dropping spectacle of watching them play.

Alongside two co-stars, James Harden ditched the thudding isolations and became more of a point guard — searching out passes earlier in the shot clock. Kevin Durant has long been happy to start possessions off the ball, working as connector or finisher.

Playing next to two stars conjured the best version of Irving: off-ball scoring menace who seizes the offense as secondary ball handler, or whenever it is convenient. Irving hit an absolutely outrageous 54% on pull-up 2s, and he revved Brooklyn’s pace when he played as solo star.

Irving even began flashing into open spaces, triggering beautiful sequences of quick-hitting touch passes — the kind of selfless, semi-egalitarian basketball you would not expect from a top-heavy team. (Having great shooters everywhere helps push the Nets to that style, since they have so much space within which to flit about.)

Of course, they can win ugly too. Harden might be the most efficient off-the-bounce isolation player ever. Durant reminded everyone during a majestic playoff run that he is maybe the greatest player today — and one of the dozen greatest ever. Even without Irving, they are a scoring bonanza.

The supporting cast is loaded with characters. Blake Griffin can still dunk! Who knew? After last season’s health scare, you have to be excited to watch LaMarcus Aldridge burrow into his office on the left block. Bruce Brown created a whole new position — rover — and James Johnson plays a similar screen-and-dive style. Jevon Carter defends every millimeter of the court as if his career rides on each possession. Patty Mills never stops moving; he will sprint his way into more open 3s than he imagined possible.

The minimalist, black-and-white jerseys and one-of-a-kind (in the NBA) gray court work — both in pure style terms, and to set the Nets apart visually. The broadcast is the best in the league.

Look: I’m not happy, either, but the Nets repeat as League Pass champions.

The real games begin in five days.

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Sources — DeMarcus Cousins to sign 10-day contract with Denver Nuggets



Free agent center DeMarcus Cousins will sign a 10-day contract with the Denver Nuggets on Friday, sources told ESPN.

Cousins has been in conversations with the Nuggets for two weeks and will be eligible for six games in the stretch beginning with Friday’s against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Cousins, 31, averaged 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in 17 games for the Milwaukee Bucks this season. He had 15 points, 10 rebounds and three steals in his final game on Jan. 6 before Milwaukee decided against guaranteeing his contract for the rest of the season.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get through this difficult stretch of the season as successfully as we did without DeMarcus,” Horst told ESPN at the time. “At the end of the day, we made a strategic decision to have an open roster spot, but there’s nothing that would prevent us from partnering with DeMarcus again down the road. He was so good for us, and hopefully we helped him, too.”

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Nine games, 8,000 miles and Kyrie Irving’s return



As Kyrie Irving stayed away from his Brooklyn Nets teammates the past three months, he wondered what it would be like to venture out and watch a game like a fan.

“I can’t really go out and watch at a local bar or anything like that,” Irving, who is still not vaccinated against COVID-19, said recently. “I would love to be, ‘OK, [Kevin Durant] hit a shot, let’s [take a shot]’; I’m joking, but just having fun watching it. Sometimes I get to watch it alone and sometimes I get to watch with my family.”

The Nets are in the midst of finding their own balance amid a chaotic time, including Irving’s return for road games after the front office reversed course following a teamwide coronavirus outbreak and Durant’s MCL sprain that has him sidelined for four to six weeks. The slate of games over that period covered nearly 8,000 miles, a rescheduled contest against the Portland Trail Blazers and a glimpse of the best and worst parts of a Nets team that has had its Big Three All-Stars start only one game together this season.

As the Nets (28-16) prepare to face the San Antonio Spurs (8:30 p.m. ET) on Friday, here’s a look back at a wild two-plus weeks for a Steve Nash-coached team searching for its championship chemistry:

Wednesday, Jan. 5 | Indianapolis, Gainbridge Fieldhouse

Before the game, Nets general manager Sean Marks and several staffers watched from the sidelines as Irving took shots from all over the floor. The group looked like nervous yet excited parents, hoping for the best in an unprecedented situation. Irving worked through his pregame routine, unaffected by the surrounding hoopla.

Irving’s cool confidence led the Nets out of a malaise to a 129-121 Brooklyn victory. Irving scored 22 points in 32 minutes, spoiling an unexpected scene-stealing show from Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, who scored 20 points in just six first-quarter minutes.

“Honestly, it was funny,” James Harden said after the game. “Just ’cause it would happen to us. They had 37 [first-quarter] points and he had 20.”

While Harden spoke in a makeshift press room, Durant and Irving shared a quiet moment in the back. The All-Stars, who celebrated on the floor with a personal handshake after the game, hugged for a moment, enjoying a few minutes of solitude away from the cameras as Irving waited his turn to speak.

“I’ve had a lot of debuts,” Irving said. “But nothing comes close to this one. It meant a little bit more just because at this stage, taking off eight months, or being out of the game for eight months and coming back in, there’s so much uncertainty. … So I went in with just an open mindset just to ground myself, be present and do whatever it takes to win.”

Friday, Jan. 7 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center

Giannis Antetokounmpo and some of his Milwaukee Bucks teammates strolled through the entryway near the floor inside Barclays Center for shootaround while Nets rookie David Duke Jr. discussed his time with Irving so far.

The 22-year-old out of Providence is part of what Nash calls the “stay ready” group — a mixture of young or two-way players who are available for a pickup game at all times. With a veteran-laden roster, the Nets don’t have many formal practices during the season, so this group has been tasked with getting Irving prepared for his return.

That has given Duke an up-close look at what the Nets can be with Irving.

“Each and every single day we played pickup,” Duke told ESPN, “you definitely would walk away with a couple moments throughout the day like, ‘Damn, that was tough. Only he can do that.'”

The perception that Irving doesn’t care about the team because of his decision to not get vaccinated doesn’t match what the young Nets players have seen.

“You can just tell, once he was back that everybody had a different type of confidence or different type of spirit about them knowing that he’s around,” Duke said.

A return to Brooklyn meant Irving’s return to the inactive list, one game after making his season debut. “It’s a mental adjustment more than anything,” Nets veteran Patty Mills said.

Before the Nets’ 121-109 loss to the Bucks, Nash was asked what Brooklyn missed most without Irving. His word proved prescient as the game unfolded.

“His talent,” Nash said. “He adds things that we’re thin at: Penetration, shot creation, shooting, the spacing, and all those things he brings to the table … we wish we had him all the time, but we’re happy that we have him half the time.”

Sunday, Jan. 9 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center

In what had become a familiar scene over the past two weeks, the Nets blew a late lead to an inferior opponent in the San Antonio Spurs. After a Harden layup with 4:59 left in regulation put the Nets up 111-99, they couldn’t close and the Spurs sent the game into overtime.

With Irving unable to participate at home, the Nets turned to Cam Thomas. The 2021 first-round pick had logged 30 minutes through the first four quarters but hadn’t seen the floor in overtime — until Nash sent him back in with 16.1 seconds left. With many in the announced crowd of 15,606 on their feet, Durant was double-teamed and passed to Thomas, who caught the ball on the right, just beyond the 3-point line. The young guard took two quick dribbles and then hit a running floater with 1.4 seconds left, clinching a 121-119 OT win.

Nobody in the Nets organization seemed surprised at Thomas’ moment.

“He just showcased his brilliance,” Durant said. “Making a tough runner, that’s his shot, so glad he knocked that down.”

There were bags scattered all over the Nets’ press conference room. Staffers walked in and out of the area as the team prepared for its flight to Oregon, where the Nets would once again have Irving available.

Monday, Jan. 10 | Portland, Oregon, Moda Center

The oddity of playing on the second night of a cross-country back-to-back, a 3,000-mile travel feat that left many of the Nets players and personnel haggard, was not lost on Brooklyn’s coach or team.

Rookie center Day’Ron Sharpe described the Nets’ itinerary over the past 24 hours.

“Flying to Portland was the longest flight I’ve ever been on,” he said. “I was on the plane going crazy, man. I was like when is this plane ride going to end? But I ain’t never done that, fly from the East Coast to the West Coast, play a back-to-back.”

While the Nets got Irving back for the unusual back-to-back, they did not have Harden, who was a late scratch because of a hyperextended knee and was spotted in the media room during halftime eating popcorn and catching some of the College Football Playoff National Championship on TV.

Nash had not wanted to use the long back-to-back as an excuse for his team’s performance, but the coach acknowledged the schedule issues took a toll.

“Guys were gassed tonight, really,” Nash said.

In just his second game of the year, a relatively fresh Irving scored 22 points in 40 minutes. But with Harden already out, Irving had an injury scare of his own. With 5:54 left in regulation, Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little dived for a loose ball and knocked over Irving in the process. Irving stayed on the floor for a few moments after twisting his left ankle, retying his left shoe for more support. After the game, Irving said he would be ready for Wednesday’s game in Chicago, but delivered a message to Little in the process.

“I tried to get out of the way, but I just felt like that was unnecessary, like for him to dive that far away from the ball, I was just trying to get out of the way, but just an unnecessary play,” Irving said.

For his part, Durant wasn’t blaming injuries or the schedule for the 114-108 loss to an also-undermanned Trail Blazers squad. He wanted no part of any excuses for why his team lost.

“It’s a part of the game,” he said. “It’s a part of who we are … I’m not making no excuses about no flights or our schedule. Everyone’s schedule is f—ed up.”

As Durant got up from the podium, he recalled some of the long trips he had as a rookie with the Seattle SuperSonics (2007-08). He offered an honest assessment about the past day and a half — which also could have summed up his and Irving’s tenure with the Nets nicely.

“That was a crazy one,” he said.



Kendrick Perkins goes off on the Brooklyn Nets, particularly James Harden and Kevin Durant, for being “soft” in their treatment of Kyrie Irving this season.

Wednesday, Jan. 12 | Chicago, United Center

The Nets completed their shootaround in advance of the 9 p.m. local start time against the Chicago Bulls, the first tip at that time in the history of the United Center. When asked how Irving and Harden looked during the team’s workout, Nash’s black face mask could not cover his dry sense of humor.

“I thought they were really handsome,” Nash said. “Clothes fit.”

Both players were activated for the game, making it the 15th out of a possible 114 games the Nets’ Big Three would take the court together. Still, Nash wasn’t using the game against the East-leading Bulls as a measuring stick. Brooklyn had entered the game with an 0-8 record against the top four teams in both conferences.

“Our goal is to be ready to beat elite teams in April and May, so we got so much thrown at us, so many guys in and out of the lineup — I think I said before, we’re not in that category yet,” he said. “We got to get there by the end of the season.”

As he had done many times over the years, Drederick Irving was courtside a day after his 56th birthday to watch his son play basketball, sitting alongside a couple of his son’s friends.

When Kyrie knocked down his first basket late in the second quarter after he started the game 0-for-4, Drederick stood up and clapped.

“My dad plays an important role, not just as a father, but just as a mentor in helping me and guiding me through as a man growing up in this society,” Kyrie said after the game. “So basketball is something that we talk about, but it’s not the main thing that we share as two people that are bonded, beyond just father and son. … So seeing him be supportive and the guys recognizing it as well in the locker room, like, ‘Yo, I saw pops sitting courtside’ means a lot to me.”

Durant, Harden and Irving found themselves in the most unlikely of positions as the final minutes ticked off the clock in what was supposed to be a showdown between the East’s two best teams: The bench.

The Nets outscored the Bulls 39-19 in the third quarter, allowing Brooklyn’s Big Three to sit the remainder of the 138-112 victory.

“We talked about that,” Durant said with a chuckle. “You’ve seen me there, but we’re taking an L, we’re down 20, you know what I’m saying? But it was good to get a win and be on the bench cheering the guys on as you’re winning a game. It’s been a rough five, six games for us, but one of these games, it’s good for just the team in general.”

The happiness outside the Nets locker room after their biggest win to date was palpable. But Durant scoffed at the idea the team had paid attention to what the outside world thought.

“We know what we bring to the table and it’s all about us,” Durant said. “But I’m sure people were watching the game tonight.”

The 2014 MVP got up to leave and was reminded that many people around the league watched the Nets’ performance.

“I know,” Durant said with a smirk.

Thursday, Jan. 13 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center

As the Nets’ fourth game in five nights approached against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the lack of sleep had caught up with Nash. He shook his head after he failed to locate a familiar reporter during his pregame conference.

“I know how I feel,” Nash said. “I’m exhausted.

“But these guys are a resilient group — they found a way to give maybe their best performance of the year [in Chicago] after a tough back-to-back and a lot of travel. So we appreciate that they’ve stuck with this and we’ve had a tough time.”

But without Durant and Irving, the Nets lost 130-109 to a Thunder squad that entered the night with a 13-27 record.

As Harden walked to the podium, he proclaimed to everyone within earshot: “Don’t call me tomorrow,” chuckling at the logistical absurdity of the Nets’ past week.

“Tired,” Harden said. “Exhausted. It’s been crazy just ’cause of the COVID … we played so well last night, so we wanted to have some kind of carryover but it just didn’t happen.”

“It’s been a journey. Literally,” Nash added. “This is what we’re dealing with. We’re in a pandemic. We missed some games. We threw a cross country back-to-back in and then come back to a 10 o’clock game in Chicago and fly back to Brooklyn. That’s just the way it is. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us and we recognize what it is, we’re glad to get it behind us and we’re fortunate we won two of the games.”

Harden shook his head and offered his own assessment.

“We go beat San Antonio, we go on the road [to Portland], I don’t play, we lose. We all go to Chicago, we all play, we play like we’re supposed to — tonight [Durant] and Kyrie don’t play, so it’s like I don’t know. I don’t know.”

For the time being, the road will be the best place for the Nets because that means Irving can play.

“Gotta find a way to love it and we’ll persevere and we’ll learn something about ourselves and we’ll grow from it,” Nash said.

Saturday, Jan. 15 | Brooklyn, Barclays Center

Wearing a fan-giveaway Blake Griffin T-shirt from earlier in the season, Nash was asked how he could get his team focused on playing at a high level without Irving.

“My message would be it should be the opposite,” Nash said before the team’s fifth game in seven days. “You have an opportunity at home to play, to play more, to have more responsibility and to prove that we can win when he’s not available. That’s an approach we have to have.”

After resting in Thursday’s loss to the Thunder, Durant looked spry to start Saturday’s game — he racked up 12 points in 12 first-quarter minutes. But with just under six minutes left in the first half, Pelicans forward Herb Jones drove to the basket and collided with Nets guard Bruce Brown, who fell into Durant’s knee, sending Durant to the locker room.

Midway through the fourth quarter, Durant slowly made his way out of the Nets locker room and limped to a waiting car in the bowels of the arena. He didn’t think the injury was too serious but wanted to see what the MRI would show Sunday morning. When asked if he would travel to the team’s next game in Cleveland, Durant unfurled his long arms into a shrug, the universal pose for “I don’t know.”

The Nets, led by Harden’s 27 points, escaped with a 120-105 win.

The test results revealed an MCL sprain in Durant’s left knee and Nash said a couple of days later there wasn’t an exact timeline for his return. Sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Sunday that the franchise expected a four-to six-week rehabilitation, likely leaving Brooklyn down another one of its stars through the February All-Star break.

Monday, Jan. 17 | Cleveland, Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse

The Nets were hopeful they could build chemistry with Irving over the next week as their four-game road trip began. Especially since 11 of their next 13 games would be on the road.

“It’s not straightforward where I get the chance to give him a call every day,” Nash said before Monday’s game. “You can’t replicate NBA games. It’s a process we also have to be aware of, that he’s still adapting to the demands. And also adapting to a new cadence. … So it’s different, and it’s something that we have to give him time to adapt to and to get to his best.”

One year and one day after trading for Harden, the Nets have had their star trio together for exactly 16 games. That number will not grow for at least another month, something Irving addressed after a 114-107 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Everyone’s going to feel it, but for me personally, I’m just like, ‘Man, we just got back into the swing of things and here we are,'” Irving said. “One of our guys is out for a long period of time so we just got to face the reality, man. Just move forward.”

The Nets struggled to move forward without Durant in Monday’s loss. As players made their way off the court, they were given positive words from assorted team personnel, but their mood remained quiet as the group faced its reality for the foreseeable future: no Durant and no Irving at home, as the star guard made it clear he would not change his stance on getting vaccinated even with Durant out.

Nash put into context the opportunity ahead of the Nets.

“This is nothing new for us, unfortunately,” Nash said before the game began. “Losing Kevin Durant is a huge deal, but if it’s ever been minimalized it’s in this situation because we’re used to having all sorts of guys in and out and different things occur.”

Wednesday, Jan. 19 | Washington, Capital One Arena

The more Kessler Edwards played alongside Irving, the more the Nets rookie forward picked up on how closely Irving had been watching the team from afar.

“Obviously when we have Ky here for these away games, it’s a different dynamic,” Edwards said before Nets’ ninth game in 15 days since Irving returned. “I can tell he’s been watching the game and he kind of, like, understands even what I do.”

How can Edwards tell?

“Just like certain passes he’d make and stuff,” the 21-year-old said.



Kyrie Irving gets hot early and finishes with 30 points as the Nets go on to win 119-118 over the Wizards.

A few hours later, Irving tallied a season-high 30 points and seven assists in a narrow 119-118 win against the Washington Wizards.

Irving, in his fifth game of the season, acknowledged how happy he was to be back on the floor with his teammates, and also explained in greater detail what he did during the time he wasn’t with the team.

“I was playing 24 with a bunch of friends. I was playing with some high school kids. I was training high school kids,” Irving said. “Having open dialogue — boys and girls from high school. Boys and girls from college as well. Got guys in the NBA, girls in the WNBA. And that’s what kept me connected. I’m not too far away from the game, I’m able to still watch, I’m able to still observe. … But really it was just I got a chance to see the game from another viewpoint, how much impact we really make in the world on this.”

When told Wednesday’s game marked the two-week anniversary of Irving’s return, even Nash had to take a moment to process all the things that had happened since Irving’s first game in Indianapolis.

“Is that it?” Nash said. “Two weeks? Crazy.”

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Russell Westbrook disagrees with benching, remains undeterred about helping Los Angeles Lakers win in long run



Los Angeles Lakers star Russell Westbrook told ESPN that he didn’t agree with his fourth quarter benching in Wednesday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers, but remains undeterred about how to “figure s— out and do what’s best for our team to win in the long run.”

Asked if he was surprised that coach Frank Vogel substituted him out of the final four minutes of LA’s fourth loss in five games, Westbrook told ESPN: “Surprised, yes. I was disappointed I didn’t go back in, but I’m more disappointed that we lost the damn game.

“I want to be able to be on the floor to help my teammates and be able to help our team win in games like that — but that was a decision that was made.”

ESPN reported on Thursday that the coaching staff had management authorization to bench Westbrook in the telltale minutes of the game, and Vogel told reporters that he played “the guys that I thought were going to win the game.”

In an interview with ESPN upon the Lakers’ arrival in Orlando to start a six-game Eastern Conference trip, Westbrook wanted to make clear his commitment to finding his footing on his fourth team in four seasons and called for patience to give him and the Lakers a chance to get back a healthy All-NBA forward Anthony Davis and find a way to shape into a championship contender. The Lakers, 21-22 and eighth in the Western Conference, are considered one of the league’s most disappointing teams.

“Ultimately, you have to be OK when s— doesn’t go well and I’m OK,” Westbrook told ESPN. “I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me here, and I’ll continue to do so and ride this out as long as we can toward our ultimate goal — and that’s to win a championship.

“We obviously haven’t been fully healthy, but I’m committed to making this thing work. The communication is there with everybody in the organization to make this thing work, to make this team we all want it to be in the future.

“I have accepted everything that has been asked of me and tried to do it to the best of my ability. I’m not the ultimate decision-maker of if it’s working — or if it’s not working. I’m OK with sacrificing some of the things that I’ve been able to do in this game to win, because that’s the most important part of this game. I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do to this point.”

Westbrook was unhappy with characterizations that he stormed out of the Arena locker room without meeting with reporters in a postgame news conference. Both Westbrook and team officials said on Thursday that the organization requested that he skip the interview session.

Westbrook, 33, insists that he’s trying to carry out Vogel’s wishes amid a slew of injuries and inconsistent lineups.

“I think the communication of what (Vogel) wants and how he wants it kind of changes because guys have been in and out of the lineup,” Westbrook told ESPN. “Everybody is trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. I try to put my head down and do the best that I can do for our team, and whatever is asked of me I try to do it to the best of my ability. That’s all I’ve been trying to do since I got here.”

Westbrook, a nine-team All-Star and 2017 NBA MVP, arrived on he Lakers in a July trade with the Washington Wizards. The Lakers are his fourth stop in four years, including Houston and Oklahoma City. Westbrook described the process of learning to play with former Rocket James Harden and the Wizards’ Bradley Beal as preparation for what awaited him with LeBron James and Davis on these Lakers.

“I think it’s important to know that part of the process of being on a new team is that there are going to be a lot of ups and downs and struggles throughout a season,” Westbrook told ESPN. “It’s been a challenge for the last three years — just trying to figure things out. I lean on a lot of my faith to be able to stay locked in on my craft and work my a– off and find ways to make situations work. The challenge is how to be the version of myself for this team, that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

“I want to get better as the season goes on, and I’ve got to take responsibility for the things I’m doing and how I’m making those around me better. We have a legitimate chance to be able to win it all, and to do that, I’ll have to better — and I know that I will be.”

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