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Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden breaks out with 16 free throws, 29 points in win

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NEW YORK — James Harden was in his bag Friday night, dribbling, creating space, draining 3s and letting everyone know that he was starting to feel more like himself as he yelled out during a timeout while clenching his fists and flexing his arms.

Harden also was finally back at a place he knows well — the free throw line. After going to the line a combined 15 times in his first five games, Harden went 16-for-19 from the stripe and scored a season-high 29 points to go with eight assists and eight rebounds to help the Nets take a 105-98 win over the Indiana Pacers at Barclays Center.

This was, by far, Harden’s best game of the season after getting off to a slow start and averaging 16.6 points entering Friday.

“It wasn’t 30, obviously,” said Harden, who admitted on Wednesday that his body and game aren’t quite at the point where he can score 30 or 40 points a night. “I keep saying it — every single game, I feel good, I feel better today, I continue to work on off days and non-game days, and on game days continue to get to the basket and shoot my shots.

“Nothing’s gonna change. Eventually things are gonna happen where it’s consistent and I’m out there playing [like] myself.”

Earlier this week, Nets coach Steve Nash said he thought Harden had unfairly become the “poster boy” for this season’s rules changes, with officials cracking down on “overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves” of ball handlers looking to draw fouls.

Before Friday night’s game, Harden had not gone to the line more than four times in a game this season. But against the Pacers, he went to the line nine times in the second quarter alone, when he scored 13 points.

This was the 72nd game in his career in which Harden made at least 15 free throws, the most in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“It was just me being aggressive,” Harden said. “The first couple of games I wasn’t aggressive. I was aggressive in spurts, but just trying to be aggressive for four quarters. I had that burst, that speed of getting to my spots, whether I was getting to the basket or shooting my shots. I felt pretty good out there for an entire game.”

While Harden scored 21 points in the first half, Kevin Durant had 18 of his 22 points by halftime. Their 39 combined points were the most they have scored as Nets teammates in the first half.

The Nets, though, were fortunate to have Durant available in the fourth quarter. After play was stopped with a foul while Durant was driving, he fired the basketball into the stands with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter.

Crew chief Sean Wright told a pool reporter after the game that in real time, the official who made the call didn’t think the ball entered the stands with force.

“After seeing the video postgame, we did see that the ball did go into the stands with force,” Wright said. “And Kevin Durant should’ve been ejected.”

Durant said he was trying to hit the backboard and shouldn’t have even done that.

“I don’t know, man, I thought I was at the gym by myself and in a pickup game, not an NBA game,” Durant said of his lapse. “And I can’t do that. I could have cost my team the game. But it won’t happen again — I hope so.”

Durant added: “I didn’t know you could get ejected over that. I’m glad I stayed in the game. I’m sure a hefty fine is coming, but I don’t mind giving.”

LaMarcus Aldridge helped pick up the slack for the Nets, scoring nine of his 21 points in the fourth quarter to help Brooklyn hold off a pesky Pacers team.

The 16-year veteran also became the 48th player to reach 20,000 career points and just the seventh active player to do so, joining Harden and Durant. It was a milestone that Aldridge didn’t think he would reach after he retired last April due to experiencing an irregular heartbeat. He was medically cleared to return this season.

“It feels good, man,” Aldridge said. “A true blessing. Definitely didn’t think it was going to happen after what happened last year. Stuck with it, fall back and definitely felt good to get it done and be back out there. Just feel blessed.”

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Coach Tom Thibodeau removes struggling Kemba Walker from New York Knicks’ rotation

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New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters Monday afternoon that he is removing guard Kemba Walker from not only the team’s starting lineup but also the rotation as a whole, beginning with Tuesday’s showdown with the crosstown-rival Nets in Brooklyn.

“It’s a tough decision to make, but you always have to do what you think is best for the team,” Thibodeau said after practice Monday in explaining his decision. “I view Kemba as a starter, and so it’d be tough to play three small guards together. I gave it consideration, and I’ve got great respect for who Kemba is as a person and all he’s accomplished in this league.

“But I have to do what I think is best for the team.”

In this case, Thibodeau decided that meant benching Walker in favor of Alec Burks. Walker, a four-time All-Star and New York City basketball legend, returned home this past summer on a two-year, $20 million deal after being bought out by the Oklahoma City Thunder following a trade from the Boston Celtics.

After seeing Burks go for 23 points in 39 minutes in Saturday’s win in Atlanta over the Hawks — a game Walker didn’t play in after scoring 17 points in New York’s loss to the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden the night before — Thibodeau has opted to put him in the starting five moving forward.

“I want to tighten the rotation. I liked the way the team functioned, so it will be similar to what we did in the Atlanta game.”

Walker, 31, is averaging career lows across the board, including points (11.1), rebounds (2.6), assists (3.1), field goal attempts per game (9.8) and minutes (24.5). After a hot start to the season, his numbers have tailed off dramatically, as he averaged 10 points on 39% shooting overall — and 29% from 3-point range — through 12 games in November.

Meanwhile, New York’s starting lineup has simply not worked. Entering Monday night’s action, the team’s typical starting lineup — Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — is the NBA’s most-used five-man lineup, logging 287 minutes. It has also been outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, and has what would be the NBA’s worst defensive rating (118.9). Individually, the Knicks are being outscored when Walker is on the court by 13 points per 100 possessions, and are outscoring teams by 11 points per 100 possessions when he isn’t.

Walker spent the past two seasons in Boston after the Celtics signed him to a four-year max contract in 2019 to replace Kyrie Irving once the latter left to sign his own max deal with the Nets. After making the All-Star team his first season and helping Boston reach the Eastern Conference finals with strong play in series victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors along the way, Walker struggled with knee issues last season, missing 29 games in the regular season and the final two games of Boston’s five-game loss to Brooklyn in the first round.

In his first significant move as president of the franchise, former coach Brad Stevens chose to trade Walker to the Thunder, along with the No. 16 pick in July’s NBA draft, to bring center Al Horford back to Boston. Horford has seamlessly fit right into Boston’s lineup, particularly with starting center Robert Williams missing chunks of multiple games with various injuries early on this season.

Walker, on the other hand, eventually agreed to a buyout with the Thunder, allowing him to return home to New York to play a smaller role with his hometown team. But after being benched down the stretch repeatedly over the past several weeks, along with other members of the starting lineup, as New York’s bench has consistently outperformed it, Thibodeau decided Monday to take things a step further.

The Knicks are currently 11-9, putting them in the middle of the tightly bunched Eastern Conference standings. New York is three games behind the East-leading Nets and one ahead of the 76ers in 11th.

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Blake Griffin, out of Brooklyn Nets’ rotation, preaches patience, knows ‘that’s not my decision’

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NEW YORK — Falling completely out of the Brooklyn Nets‘ rotation was not something Blake Griffin saw coming.

After starting 17 games this season, Griffin has sat the past two games after Steve Nash inserted LaMarcus Aldridge into the starting lineup.

“No, I mean listen, [Aldridge] has been playing unbelievable,” Griffin said. “So, I totally get starting him, especially Joe [Harris] has been out, and I totally get that.

“Being completely out of it, though, I didn’t necessarily see that coming. But that’s not my decision. As players it’s our job to do whatever coaches see best, so at this point that’s what it is.”

Griffin, a six-time All-Star, was averaging a career-low 5.5 points to go with 4.9 rebounds while shooting just 16.1% from behind the 3-point arc. The power forward is shooting a career-low 31.8% overall from the field. Last season with the Pistons and Nets, Griffin averaged 11 points, 4.9 rebounds, 42.3% shooting overall and 34.1% 3-point shooting.

“Well, I feel for him,” Nash said. “That’s not easy. You know it’s tough when you go through a rough stretch of play and the world kind of caves in on you a little bit. I’ve been there and understand it. We have to give other guys an opportunity at this point, but Blake’s had a great attitude. I really admire him for being positive through this and keeping himself ready so if his opportunity comes back, he can have an impact.”

With Harris out for potentially four to eight weeks after he will undergo ankle surgery, the Nets need more shooting around Kevin Durant and James Harden. Aldridge has been one of the Nets’ best players this season, averaging 13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 58% shooting from the field in just 22.1 minutes per game.

Griffin said he has been in touch with some of his former teammates, including DeAndre Jordan, since Nash’s decision. Jordan started the season as a starter before losing his spot in the starting five early last season.

“I have seen [and] have had great examples,” Griffin said. “DeAndre last year, he is a guy that I talked to that reached out. A lot of the guys from last year reached out. He did a really great job with it. I told him that. That is how I am going to try to do it as well.

“Just be a professional and do exactly what you are supposed to do,” Griffin added of what message his former teammates told him. “It may sound like not good advice, but in this situation, everybody always needs to hear the right thing.”

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Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris to undergo ankle surgery, out 4-8 weeks, agent says

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NEW YORK — Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris will undergo surgery on his injured left ankle and is expected to miss four to eight weeks, with optimism he can return on the shorter end of that timeline, Harris’ agent Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Nets head coach Steve Nash said Harris’ surgery will address “a little bone particle” in the ankle and hopefully allow the shooter to move forward from the injury. Harris has missed the last six games since injuring his ankle in a win at Oklahoma City on Nov. 14.

“He is going to have a scope and then we’ll see what that means once they’ve had the procedure,” Nash said after Nets practice. “We think this is a really positive thing that can put this situation behind him long term rather than risking reoccurrences or uncertainty with the injury.”

Harris is averaging 11.3 points and shooting 46.6% from behind the 3-point arc this season.

“There’s a little bone particle in there,” Nash said. “Just the uncertainty of it, just better to take it out. We thought that it would potentially sort itself out because it’s been there but it’s not. Hopefully that’s the end of it.”

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