Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets will travel to Boston on Wednesday to take on the Celtics in a tantalising clash between Eastern Conference contenders.

The Celtics, at 36-15, currently boast the best record in the NBA, while the 31-19 Nets occupy the fourth seed. 

Fresh off a trip to the NBA Finals, Boston have looked like genuine contenders since the opening day, building an elite, championship-level statistical profile.

Almost without fail, the eventual champion will show signs of elite play on at least one side of the ball throughout the regular season. Last year's champions, the Golden State Warriors built their identity on a top-two defense; the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks had a top-five offense and top-10 defense; the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers owned the third-best defense.

This year's Celtics side are currently in the rare air of sitting top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, guided by two no-brainer All-Stars on the wing with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and fellow All-Defensive selection Robert Williams III.

While games and series can often be decided by which team has the singular best player, the Celtics have been buoyed by the continued ascent of Tatum, who is now a legitimate MVP candidate.

This season the 24-year-old is averaging career-highs in points (31.1 per game), rebounds (8.7), assists (4.4), field goal makes (10.1) and attempts (21.8), three-point makes (3.3) and attempts (9.3), free throw makes (7.6) and attempts (8.8) – all while shooting his best field goal percentage (46.5) since his rookie season and a career-best 86.9 per cent from the free throw line.

The Celtics' elite record, profile and talent, combined with the fact they will be playing in front of their home fans will have them as favourites on Wednesday – but Irving and the Nets present a frisky opposition.

It is without question that the Nets have entered a mini tailspin since Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury against the Miami Heat on January 8. Brooklyn were 27-13 at the time but have won only four of their 10 games since.

Their ranks as the fifth-best offense and 10th-best defense for the season are both tumbling due to this past stretch, where both units have been the definition of mediocre, ranking 19th on offense and 18th defensively.

That is no fault of former Celtic Irving, who is enjoying a tremendous run of personal form. He has posted seven consecutive outings of at least 26 points and six assists, and after the Nets dropped their first four games of Durant's absence, they responded with four wins from their next six.

Also playing into Brooklyn's favour is the fact they are the NBA's second-best team away from home this season, while their 16-11 mark on the road is only bettered by the Celtics at 17-9.

Unfortunately for the Nets, Boston have also had little trouble at home. They own the fifth-best home record (19-6), and their overtime defeat against the New York Knicks on Thursday was their first loss at TD Garden since December 21.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White

Simply put, with Durant out of action, the Nets only have one superstar on the offensive end, and the Celtics have the perfect player to make Irving's life miserable. Or at least they normally would.

Smart became the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since 'The Glove' Gary Payton back in the 1995-96 season, and his impact on Irving has been evident in recent matchups – but he will miss this fixture as he recovers from an ankle injury.

Malcolm Brogdon – one of the favourites for Sixth Man of the Year – will take his place as the top defensive guard in the line-up, with help from Derrick White, and together they will aim to pick up where Smart left off.

In his past four games against the Celtics, Irving has only reached 20 points once, finishing with the following shooting performances: four-of-19, eight-of-18, seven-of-21 and nine-of-24.

Brooklyn Nets – Bench shooters

While Irving is the obvious focal point and the engine that will make the Nets run, they will likely need one of their shooters off the bench to get hot.

In their win against the Lakers on Monday, second-year spark plug Cam Thomas and veteran Patty Mills scored 21 points each while combining to shoot eight-of-11 from long range. The previous game, a rivalry victory against the New York Knicks, the trio of Thomas, Edmond Sumner and Yuta Watanabe combined to hit six-of-six three-pointers.

Watanabe in particular could be a game-changer, as he is shooting 49 per cent from deep – the best figure in the league among players averaging at least one attempt per game.

KEY BATTLE – How will Brooklyn slow down the Boston wings?

As previously discussed, the Nets have been a top-10 defense this season, but they will definitely be without the seven-foot Durant, and will likely also be missing six-foot-10 former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Ben Simmons and six-foot-eight T.J. Warren.

It leaves them woefully undermanned when it comes to defending the All-Star duo of Tatum and Brown, and while Tatum is the exact kind of matchup Brooklyn had in mind when they traded a first-round pick to Utah for Royce O'Neale, they will likely be stuck with Joe Harris on Brown.

Watanabe, at six-foot-eight, and perhaps even six-foot-nine veteran Markieff Morris will get a chance off the bench, but the rest of Brooklyn's perimeter options are simply too small.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Since the beginning of February 2022, the Celtics are undefeated in nine meetings against the Nets, including a clean 4-0 sweep in the first round of last season's playoffs.

Boston have won both head-to-head matchups this campaign by 11 points – one with Durant playing, and one with him out.

Stephen Curry and Joel Embiid have both been fined $25,000 in separate on-court incidents from Wednesday's game, the NBA announced on Friday.

Reigning NBA Finals MVP Curry was fined for "throwing his mouthpiece into the spectator stands" during Wednesday's 122-120 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Curry was ejected for the act, which came out of frustration after not receiving a pass from Golden State Warriors team-mate Jordan Poole, occurring with 1:14 remaining in the fourth quarter.

It was the third ejection of Curry's career, all involving his mouthpiece, having thrown it at a referee in 2017.

"He knows he can't make that mistake again," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game.

Philadelphia 76ers center Embiid was fined for "making an obscene gesture on the playing court" during their 137-133 win over the Brooklyn Nets, where Ben Simmons returned to face his former side at a wound-up Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday.

The incident occurred when Embiid celebrated making a layup and earning a foul shot by emulating a gesture made by WWE wrestlers Shawn Michaels and Triple H.

Nets forward Kevin Durant, who was watching from afar due to an MCL sprain, described the act as a "trash celebration" on Twitter at the time.

LeBron James is set to tie the record for the most All-Star Game appearances in NBA history after being announced as one of the two team captains on Thursday.

James, who will match Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he suits up for his 19th All-Star Game in Salt Lake City next month, will be joined by Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo as the captains. 

In a league-first, the captains will draft their reserves live in the lead-up to tip-off, as opposed to previous years when the draft was conducted via a pre-recorded segment and aired weeks before the game.

While most of the expected names were announced as starters – including reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic and Golden State Warriors icon Stephen Curry – there were also some surprises.

The two head-scratchers were New Orleans Pelicans franchise player Zion Williamson and controversial Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving.

Williamson is averaging the highest points per game figure (26.0) for any player shooting at least 60 per cent from the field this season, but has only played in 29 of the Pelicans' 49 games so far. He is also scheduled to miss at least two more weeks, meaning he will have only played in roughly half of the possible games by the time All-Star Weekend arrives.

Meanwhile, Irving has a stronger case as he averages 26.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists, but his addition as a starter in the East means relegating reigning scoring champion and back-to-back MVP runner-up Joel Embiid to the bench.

After James' 19th appearance, the next-most among the starters belongs to Kevin Durant, who has missed some time with injury in his own right but was playing at an MVP level prior to earn his 13th All-Star nod. Curry will play in his ninth edition, while Irving now has eight and Antetokounmpo has made seven consecutive.

The full list of starters includes:

Western Conference 

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Eastern Conference

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

The Brooklyn Nets have received some good news on Kevin Durant's MCL sprain.

Brooklyn announced on Tuesday that Durant's right knee was evaluated on Monday by Dr. Riley Williams III and that he is pleased with the forward's progress.

Durant will begin running this week and participate in on-court training activities and will then be re-evaluated in another two weeks.

He sprained a ligament in his right knee in a January 8 win over Miami, when the Heat's Jimmy Butler fell backward onto him.

Durant was originally projected to miss about a month, so his recovery appears to be right on track with the initial timeline.

With the All-Star break beginning in just over three weeks, however, it is possible the Nets decide not to rush him back and give him some extra time to recover to have him return after the break.

An MVP candidate in his third season with Brooklyn, Durant ranks among the NBA leaders with 29.7 points per game while also averaging 6.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.49 blocks.

The Nets had won 14 of 15 prior to Durant's injury before losing their first four games without him in the lineup. They have since reeled off back-to-back wins over the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors to improve to 29-17.

Brooklyn enter play on Tuesday in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and five games behind the Boston Celtics for the Atlantic Division lead.

Kyrie Irving is enjoying the extra responsibility bestowed upon him by coach Jacque Vaughn in the absence of Kevin Durant.

Irving starred as the Brooklyn Nets beat the Utah Jazz 117-106 on Friday, scoring 48 points with 11 rebounds and six assists at Vivint Arena.

The Nets have struggled since Durant was sidelined by an MCL injury earlier this month, losing four in a row prior to Friday, but Irving stepped up to lead his team to a win in Utah, and when asked about consistently shooting close to 50 points said: "I don't think it's an unrealistic expectation."

The 30-year-old is averaging 26.4 points this season, and following his first 40+ point contribution of the campaign, said: "Every night I try to put myself in that place, in that zone. Specifically in the fourth quarter when it's winning time.

"I have the trust through Jacque to be able to make plays down the stretch, and he comes to me and we talk about it. 

"I think we've been able to develop a dialogue, it continues to grow game-to-game so it gives me a lot of confidence in the fourth quarter to be able to perform that way.

"And my team-mates looking to me as well and when the ball's feeling good in my hands you just want to get a great shot, that's better for our team."

Vaughn – who has a record of 24-10 since being appointed head coach in November – was understandably pleased with Irving's efforts.

"I thought you saw from him throughout the course of the night just different segments of the game where he really put his imprint on what we were trying to do offensively," he said.

"And it paid dividends, especially in the fourth quarter."

Nic Claxton was Brooklyn's next-highest scorer with 20 points, and added his kudos for Irving, saying: "I'm really observing out there on the court and just watching him. It's like he's in a different world. He's locked in. He's in a different type of zone, and he makes those big shots time and time again.

"We just watch it and don't take it for granted, just having a guy that can create shots from all three levels the way he can."

LeBron James remained the overall leader in the third fan returns of NBA All-Star Game voting announced Thursday.

In the Eastern Conference, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo passed Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant for the top spot.

Los Angeles Lakers talisman James has received 6,506,682 votes and Antetokounmpo is now up to 5,970,196, which is 132,014 votes ahead of Durant in the East.

Durant’s status for the All-Star Game on February 19 in Salt Lake City, Utah is unknown as he’s currently sidelined with an MCL sprain in his right knee.

The top three frontcourt players along with the top two guards in the East and West will be the starters in the All-Star Game. The overall leading vote-getters from each conference will be named captains and then pick their teams.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (4,718,218) and the Lakers' Anthony Davis (3,838,171) are behind James in the West among frontcourt players. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors leads all West guards with 5,151,822 votes, 246,167 ahead of the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic.

In the East, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (4,521,414) trails Antetokounmpo and Durant among frontcourt players. Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving (3,968,041) and Donovan Mitchell of the Cleveland Cavaliers (3,851,233) lead in voting for guards.

Fan voting, which accounts for 50 percent in determining the starters, ends on Saturday. NBA players and a media ballot account for 25 percent each.

The captains and starters will be announced on January 26.

Kevin Durant's absence cannot be used as an excuse by the Brooklyn Nets, insists head coach Jacque Vaughn.

Durant sprained the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his right knee in the third quarter of the Nets' 102-101 win over the Miami Heat on Sunday, with reports suggesting he could be sidelined for around a month.

Brooklyn confirmed the result of scans a day later, saying the 12-time NBA All-Star would be "reevaluated in two weeks."

Durant is averaging 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists this season.

Vaughn does not want his players to dwell on being without their star player, though, as they look to build on a fine record of 27-13, including a run of 18 wins from their last 20 games that sees them sit second in the Eastern Conference.

"That's the biggest thing. I'm not giving this group a chance to make excuses," he said on Wednesday.

"Here to play. Here to win. Here to compete. It doesn't change. Love them."

Brooklyn host the only team in the league with a better record than them, the Boston Celtics, on Thursday.

Kevin Durant went down injured before Royce O'Neale scored the game-winning two-pointer with 3.2 seconds left as the Brooklyn Nets edged the Miami Heat 102-101 on Sunday.

Durant exited late in the third quarter with a right knee issue after Jimmy Butler fell on him, but the Nets did enough without him to improve to 27-13 overall and second spot in the Eastern Conference. Brooklyn have won 18 of their last 20 games.

Butler put the Heat ahead 101-100 with a dunk with 1:12 remaining, but O'Neale had the final say with a putback after Kyrie Irving had missed a 30-foot three-point attempt.

Irving top scored for Brooklyn with 28 points, including six-of-15 from three-point range with six assists, while Nic Claxton contributed strongly again with 13 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks.

Durant managed 17 points on five-of-11 shooting from the field with five rebounds in his 30 minutes on the court.

Butler top-scored for the Heat with 26 points, but shot nine-of-21 from the field with two turnovers, while Tyler Herro finished with 24 points before limping off late.

Bam Adebayo was also limited by a right-hand contusion, scoring 10 points with eight rebounds.

Harden records triple-double in 76ers win

James Harden recorded a triple-double and became the 27th NBA player with 24,000 career points as the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Detroit Pistons 123-111.

Harden finished with 20 points on seven-of-14 shooting, including three-of-five from beyond the arc, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

Tyrese Maxey also came to the fore for the Joel Embiid-less 76ers, while Pistons guard Killian Hayes had a game-high 26 points, with four three-pointers.

Suns slump to sixth straight loss

The Cleveland Cavaliers consigned the short-handed Phoenix Suns to their sixth straight defeat with a 112-98 victory as Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland scored 22 points each.

Mitchell, who scored a season-high 71 points in last weeks' OT win over the Chicago Bulls, made seven-of-12 from the field, while Garland dished off seven assists in a fine display.

The Suns were missing their backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker but were within one point at three-quarter time before fading.

Duane Washington top scored for Phoenix in 25 minutes off the bench with 25 points including five triples.

Kevin Durant is set to undergo an MRI after exiting the Brooklyn Nets' 102-101 win over the Miami Heat on Sunday with a knee injury.

Durant sustained the injury with 1:05 remaining in the third quarter when Jimmy Butler fell back into the Nets forward after having his shot blocked by Ben Simmons.

The 2014 NBA MVP remained in the game initially but appeared concerned by the knock and headed for the locker room when the Nets called a timeout 30 seconds later.

"He didn’t finish the game," Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn told reporters. "Just right knee, he'll get evaluated tomorrow. Then hopefully we'll have some more info for you.

"Most likely it will include imaging just to make sure we're good."

Durant had injured the MCL in his left knee in January last year, missing approximately a month and half while rehabbing.

The 12-time NBA All-Star is averaging 30.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists this season for the Nets, who have rallied after a slow start to be 27-13 and second in the Eastern Conference.

"He's in good spirits as we all are," Nets team-mate Kyrie Irving said of Durant. "The strength of our team is us picking each other up.

"Just being ready for whatever's thrown at us... I think one of the greatest qualities of our team is our bench and the way we support each other, despite who's in the lineup.

"Now it's time to go out and exemplify that until we find out the timeline with K and when he could be available again. So we just got to be mature about it."

Kevin Durant hailed Kyrie Irving's ability to handle the pressure like a "walk in the park" after he stepped up when the Brooklyn Nets needed him in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Irving was 7-for-22 shooting at Smoothie King Center on Friday, but sunk a mammoth three-pointer with only 43 seconds to play as the Nets secured a 108-102 win on the road.

Star duo Irving and Durant missed 32 shots between them, but Brooklyn made it 13 wins out of 14 on the back of a loss to the Chicago Bulls.

Seven of Irving's 19 points came in the final 72 seconds of the contest and Durant, who scored a game-high 33 points, saluted his team-mate's composure when the game was in the balance.

"He approaches it like it's a minute into the game," Durant said. "That's how calm and relaxed he is.

"Even though the stakes are different at the beginning of the game and the end of the game, I still believe that he's the same regardless of what the time is on the clock.

"He plays that way, calm and cool, under control under pressure in the tight moments. It feels like just a walk in the park for him.

"The great ones understand that each possession is important and if you stay even keeled throughout the whole game, you're usually in solid shape in the fourth."

Irving feels his ability to focus on the job in hand is crucial.

"Basketball's just a very simple art form," Irving said. "So if I don't bring all my extra distractions or anything that I'm going through mentally into the game, then I feel like we have a great chance of winning every ballgame."

The Nets are second in the Eastern Conference at 26-13 behind the 27-12 Boston Celtics.

Kevin Durant was philosophical after the Brooklyn Nets saw their 12-match winning streak ended, saying the team ran into "special players" against a hot Chicago Bulls side.

The Nets headed into Wednesday's contest as the in-form team but fell to a 121-112 defeat in Chicago, where six Bulls players finished with double figures for points.

DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Williams put up 22 apiece, while Nikola Vucevic scored 21 to go with 13 rebounds and Ayo Dosunmu and Zach Lavine finished with 17 and 13 points respectively.

Durant acknowledged the Bulls have "three elite scorers, from all angles of the floor" in reference to DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic, and added: "Their top two guys [DeRozan and LaVine] were 12 for 31 for 35 points. 

"We can live with that. But Pat Williams made some shots and easy rolls to the rim. Ayo is playing great this year and put pressure on the rim.

"I felt like a lot of times we chased them a bit, and that was just consistent throughout the whole game, us just playing from behind.

"I think we definitely put our foot on the gas in spurts but they made shots. They're talented players, special players. When you've got your whole five in double figures, it's tough to stop that."

Defeat leaves the Nets third in the Eastern Conference but with an identical 25-13 record with the Milwaukee Bucks and just a game back from the table-topping Boston Celtics, who own the best record in the NBA.

For Durant, there were still plenty of good things to take out of the defeat.

"We understand how we want to play every night," he said. "I feel like the league is always on notice with the talent we have on our team. 

"I don't think anybody takes us for granted when they're preparing for us each night. I think we found some things that were good for us on both ends of the floor and want to be consistent with executing those things as we move forward."

The Bulls, who are 10th in the conference, had lost their past two games prior to halting the Nets' charge.

Curiously, their record against the top three in the East this season stands at 6-1, but against teams who are under .500 they are 4-8.

"To come out here after those two tough losses and beat one of the hottest teams in the NBA, it's good," LaVine said. "I think we came out with the right attention to detail. We withstood their run at the end, and we beat them collectively.

"Because you know if you don't come in here and you don't have your A-game you're going to get blown out.

"I think that's the difference in our record. We come out here with the same attention to detail like we've all talked about I think that will flip around a lot of things."

Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded his second triple-double of the season as the Milwaukee Bucks blew a 21-point second-half lead before rallying for a 104-101 overtime win over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.

Antetokounmpo finished the game with 30 points on seven-of-18 shooting, making 15-of-21 from the free-throw line, along with a season-high 21 rebounds and 10 assists with one block.

The dominant display came in the second game of a back-to-back after his 55-point performance against the Washington Wizards on Tuesday. Antetokounmpo is the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972 to drop 200-plus points, 80-plus rebounds and 30-plus assists over a five-game span.

The Greek forward drove to the basket and laid off a crucial assist for Grayson Allen's go-ahead triple with 11.6 seconds remaining in OT.

Allen had earlier given up a flagrant 1 foul on a four-point play as Gary Trent Jr shot a three-pointer to make it 97-92 with 29.1 seconds remaining. Trent also nailed a 27-foot three-point jumpshot to tie the game at 97-97 sending it to OT.

The Raptors were plagued by poor OT shooting as Antetokounmpo set up Allen twice to clinch the game.

Milwaukee had led 90-69 with 3:50 remaining in the fourth quarter, before Toronto's 28-7 run was sparked by Fred VanVleet, who finished with 28 points and 12 assists along with Trent Jr with 22 points for the game. Scottie Barnes had 19 points for the game, all after three-quarter time.

Brook Lopez had 19 rebounds with nine points for the Bucks, who were missing Jrue Holiday (non-COVID illness) and Khris Middleton (knee).

The result improves the Bucks' record to 25-13 and second in the Eastern Conference, while the Raptors are 12th with a 16-22 record.

Nets winning run ended by Bulls

The Brooklyn Nets' 12-game winning streak was ended by the Chicago Bulls 121-112 despite Kevin Durant's 44 points.

Durant shot 15-of-22 from the field, including five-of-10 from three-point range, but the Bulls had a rounded team effort with all five starters reaching double digits, led by Patrick Williams and DeMar DeRozan, who both scored 22 points with seven rebounds.

Center Nikola Vucevic had 21 points with 13 rebounds, helping the Bulls go on an 8-0 fourth-quarter run when Durant was rested, with Ayo Dosunmu laying down a big dunk for 106-95 with 6:46 left.

Schroder leads short-handed Lakers to victory

Dennis Schroder led the short-handed Los Angeles Lakers past the Miami Heat 112-109 with 14 of his season-high 32 points coming in the fourth quarter.

The Lakers, without LeBron James (non-COVID illness) and Anthony Davis (foot), were also helped by Russell Westbrook with 21 points, nine assists and eight rebounds off the bench. Thomas Bryant also scored 21 points.

LA fought back from a six-point fourth-quarter deficit, despite Bam Adebayo's 30 points and 13 rebounds, along with Jimmy Butler contributing 27 points.

Kevin Durant believes the trials and tribulations the Brooklyn Nets went through in 2022 have brought the team closer together.

The Nets finished the calendar year with an 11th straight win, with Durant putting up 23 points and Kyrie Irving 28 in a 123-106 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.

It leaves the Nets heading in 2023 second in the Eastern Conference but the past year has been one of ups and downs for the franchise.

Irving endured a turbulent year, missing several games having opted not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, only returning full time when New York changed its protocols for playing.

Later in the year, Irving was also suspended for eight games when he posted on social media about a book and a movie with Antisemitic tropes.

Throw in James Harden forcing a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers and Ben Simmons' arrival the other way, a change in coach from Steve Nash to Jacque Vaughn in November, and Durant himself requesting a trade back in August, the Nets have been at the centre of blockbuster headlines.

But Durant feels the team can now look forward to establishing themselves as a major force.

"It was one of those years you reflect on and you see the turning points in the organisation," Durant said. 

"We've seen different moments that brought us together as a group. You see, at this point now towards the end of the year, you start to see us come together and perform what we've been looking to do these last couple of years, which was a solid team that plays hard every night. 

"So, we went through a lot in this calendar year, but we're looking for bigger and better things in 2023.

"When we came back for this season, the start of the season, there was a lot of talk in the summertime, but for us to bring the group back together and start the year was cool. 

"And then once Jacque became the coach and we started to move forward then, obviously that was a turning point for us. Then we had some stuff that wasn't ideal.

"Guys out the lineup, Kyrie out the lineup, James Harden demanded a trade, there was a lot of stuff that we went through. How we started from an outside perspective, the noise around our team, it's good that we can be about ball going into this new year. We're playing a solid brand right now, so that's the most important thing."

It was a sentiment echoed by Simmons, who is still attempting to hit top form after well documented injury issues.

"A lot of ups and downs," Simmons said. "I don't know. I don't know how to even sum it up. Basketball-wise I think it's been great. 

"Start of the year we had some different expectations, a lot of noise, a lot of different things going on, but I think we had a lot of poise with this season and with all the different things going on so it's been an eventful year."

The preseason uncertainty with the Nets centred on whether Irving would pick up the player option in his contract. When he eventually did so, Durant opted to stay put.

A disappointing start to the season, which followed a first-round sweep to the Boston Celtic's in the 2021-22 playoffs, signalled the end for Nash in November, though.

But Irving credits the arrival of Vaughn as the catalyst for the Nets hitting their stride.

"He gives you an ease. When you come into the locker room nothing's forced, he's not too high or too low," Irving said.

"He's just holding himself to a high standard, exemplifying what a leader should look like. So as our head coach, as our leader, I've been able to learn some things from him.

"And that's just being able to have relationships with everybody and being able to get the best out of everybody. 

"And that's been a lesson for me; I felt like this year was just learning how to get the best out of everybody instead of trying to do it all yourself or trying to overthink the game. 

"We've got good pieces in that locker room, a good coaching staff. The level of play should raise and it should get easier."

Luka Doncic scored more than 50 points for the third time in his past five games to carry the Dallas Mavericks to a 126-125 victory against the San Antonio Spurs on New Year's Eve.

It was the sixth consecutive win for the Mavericks, which has coincided with a scintillating stretch of play from their Slovenian superstar.

Doncic scored 51 points against the Spurs on 18-of-29 shooting, adding nine assists, six rebounds and four steals. It came just four days after Doncic became the first player in NBA history to post a 60-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist game in a dramatic comeback against the New York Knicks.

The 23-year-old, who has a Rookie of the Year and three All-NBA First Team selections from his first four seasons, is mounting a charge for his first MVP, and has put together arguably the best five-game stretch of his career.

In his past five games, Doncic is averaging 45.6 points, 11.2 rebounds and 10.2 assists, and in the process he has overtaken Joel Embiid in the race for the scoring title, now at 34.2 points per game for the season.

Christian Wood was strong in a supporting role against the Spurs, scoring 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting. In his eight appearances since finally being injected into the starting line-up, Wood is averaging 19.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting 50.5 per cent from the field and 38.2 per cent from deep.

The Mavericks are now 21-16 and have jumped up to fourth place in the Western Conference.

Nets make it 11 in a row

The Brooklyn Nets remain the hottest team in the league after rattling off their 11th consecutive win, defeating the Charlotte Hornets 123-106.

Kyrie Irving led the way offensively with 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting, while Kevin Durant was similarly efficient for his 23 points (nine-of-15). Defensively, Nic Claxton was the anchor, blocking six shots while also hitting six of his seven field goal attempts.

After starting the season 1-5, the Nets are now 24-12, and trail only the Boston Celtics (26-10) in the Eastern Conference.

Morant takes bragging rights in 2019 Draft showdown

The New Orleans Pelicans selected Zion Williamson over Ja Morant in the 2019 NBA Draft, and they received a glimpse at what could have been as Morant guided the Memphis Grizzlies to a 116-101 triumph.

Morant scored a game-high 32 points on 13-of-22 shooting, adding eight assists and two steals, while Wiliamson could only muster 20 points on six-of-16 shooting and a career-high nine turnovers.

Having only played in 18 of the Grizzlies' 34 games, Jaren Jackson Jr does not qualify for the official league leaderboards, but his six blocks against the Pelicans raised his average to 3.0, comfortably clear of league-leader Brook Lopez (2.6).

Kyrie Irving said stepping up in "winning time" is "all I really know" after he played a big part in the Brooklyn Nets' 108-107 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

Irving scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter as the Nets extended their winning streak to 10 games at State Farm Arena on Wednesday.

The influential Irving also provided eight assists as Brooklyn recorded the longest run of victories in the NBA this season.

Irving said: "For me specifically, when the fourth quarter hits, it's winning time.

"That's all I really know. When I'm out there with that group to start the fourth, I know KD [Kevin Durant] is resting a little bit, so I just have to raise my aggression level and raise my efficiency up, and I'm grateful to have the trust of my team-mates and coaching staff.'"

Durant weighed in with 26 points and claimed a season-high 16 rebounds as the Nets continued their charge.

"I think the whole second half we were there for each other,'" Durant said. '"We made a couple of adjustments on a couple of guys and we were able to execute that.

"We were able to slow them down just a little bit."

Hawks coach Nate McMillan could not fault his players after they suffered back-to-back defeats to slip to 17-18.

"I saw fight from our guys tonight," McMillan said. "You can live with that. I thought from start to finish we stepped up and played.

"We didn't think about the guys that were out. The guys that were playing came out and played to win."

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