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    Kyrie Irving Shows Why the Nets Would Make an Exception

    Kyrie Irving’s part-time status will be complicated — he still can’t play in home games — but his return drew praise from his team’s other stars.The Nets find themselves in a basketball paradox: They have championship aspirations, yet it might be in their best interests to lose a few more games on the way to the playoffs — and play their way into a lower seed once they arrive.What good is hosting a Game 7, after all, if one of your biggest stars can play only in road games?That was one of the questions swirling on Wednesday night when the Nets entered a new phase of their bizarre season by welcoming back Kyrie Irving — part time — after having exiled him for the first 35 games of the season because of his choice to remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus.That decision had ruled Irving out of games in Brooklyn’s home arena, in a city where players must be vaccinated, and for months the Nets had insisted they would not accept even a player of Irving’s talents in a part-time role. But last month, amid a coronavirus outbreak that had depleted the roster, the team relented. And in only four quarters on Wednesday in Indianapolis, Irving, a seven-time All-Star, made it easy to see why the Nets made that call.After a somewhat rusty start, Irving found his groove and began to look like the star the Nets had signed in free agency in 2019. He helped lead the Nets out of a 19-point deficit against the Indiana Pacers, on the way to a 129-121 victory, finishing with 22 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists. Ten of those points came in the fourth quarter, when the Nets overtook the Pacers.“I’ve had a lot of debuts, but nothing comes close to this one,” Irving said. “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.”It was certainly unusual. And to highlight its awkwardness, Irving will immediately head back to banishment: The Nets’ next two games are at home in New York City, where his vaccination status prevents him from playing as a result of a policy put in place by the city’s former mayor, Bill de Blasio, and that applies to public-facing places like gyms and restaurants.If Irving remains unvaccinated, he will be available — barring other injuries or absences — for 21 of the team’s 46 remaining regular-season games. (Local health restrictions mean that in addition to the games in Brooklyn, Irving also cannot play games against the Raptors in Toronto or the Knicks in Manhattan.)With rosters having become difficult to fill with wave after wave of players being ruled out because of coronavirus protocols, the Nets have chosen to treat Irving as a recurring guest star — someone they hope can make high-impact cameos on their quest to win a championship. Wednesday offered a glimpse of the obvious benefits of the on-again, off-again solution the Nets have chosen.“His game is just so beautiful,” the star forward Kevin Durant said of Irving. “Makes the game so much easier for everybody out there.”It took only one half for the rust to be shaken free. Irving showed off his court vision with a slick lookaway pass to Nicolas Claxton in the second quarter. He displayed his ability to create space for himself off the dribble, and provided an extra shooter on the floor. When the game was tight, Irving provided the final push for the Nets.The return of Irving should help create some flexibility in the Nets’ lineups, leading to more space, and more rest, for James Harden and Kevin Durant. Darron Cummings/Associated PressMost important — at least in the games he plays — Irving offers the Nets a reliable option to take the load off James Harden and Durant, who have frequently put the Nets’ offense on their shoulders. On the nights when Irving is available, Coach Steve Nash will have the ability to sit Harden and Durant at the same time, and allow Irving to run the offense with bench units. Irving’s presence alone draws defenders, which creates room for players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills to get open jumpers. He can also give Durant and Harden more freedom to move without the ball.In simple terms, the Nets have been a barely above average team offensively this season, with an offensive rating that ranks 12th among the N.B.A.’s 30 teams despite the presence of Durant and Harden. They will now have the ability to inject one of the best offensive players in the league into their team — sometimes.Asked about Irving’s performance in his return, Nash paused.“Looks like himself,” Nash said with a laugh. He added: “You can see the rhythm was there, but it’s still an adaptation. We’ve got to give him some space.”With that space, the team is gambling that having a star part-timer matters more than building continuity. It’s a grand experiment to shuffle a star in and out of a starting lineup. And this group of stars — Irving, Harden and Durant — has had minimal time to play together. Last season, when Durant returned from an injury and Harden was added in a trade, the three rarely took the floor together.“It’s going to take time just because we have to get used to him being on the road and not at home, things like that,” Harden said. “But this has been a resilient group all year.”The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to KnowCard 1 of 6The global surge. More

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    NBA Christmas Day Games 2021: What to Know

    A coronavirus outbreak across the league has cast a shadow over Saturday’s highlight slate of games, with several key players unavailable to compete.The N.B.A. has long looked to Christmas Day as a highlight of the young season, a made-for-TV spectacle that brings together many of the best teams and best players for a daylong extravaganza of basketball fireworks.This year? Not exactly.Dozens of players have been cycling through the N.B.A.’s coronavirus health and safety protocols in recent days, forcing teams to improvise by signing scores of replacement players to 10-day contracts. So if you’re expecting to see Kevin Durant lead the Nets into their game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, you’ll be disappointed: On Friday, Durant remained in the protocols. But fans should be able to catch the surprise return of Joe Johnson, whom the Boston Celtics signed on Wednesday to shore up their own battered roster — the same Joe Johnson who is now 40 and had last appeared on an N.B.A. court in 2018.The pandemic has wrought havoc on the holiday season, and the N.B.A. has not been immune. The league even issued a memo this week to the teams scheduled to play on Saturday that their tip times could be tweaked if any of the prime-time games are postponed. (The Nets, for example, have already had three games scuttled over the past week because of low roster numbers.)For now, and keep in mind that this is subject to change, here is a look at the five games penciled in for Saturday:All times Eastern.Atlanta Hawks (15-16) at Knicks (14-18), Noon, ESPNKnicks forward Julius Randle is having an up-and-down season, but his short-handed team will need him against the Hawks on Saturday.Mary Altaffer/Associated PressSurprising runs to the playoffs last season led to these teams meeting in the first round, spurring talk about the two franchises resurrecting. The Hawks easily dispatched the Knicks then, with the Hawks’ star player, Trae Young, delighting in quieting abrasive Knicks fans, while the Knicks’ top player, Julius Randle, had a terrible series.The matchup looked like it would start a rivalry between two up-and-coming teams on their way to the Eastern Conference’s elite.But this season, both teams, far from being resurrected, have been two of the more disappointing teams in the league. The Knicks’ new additions, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker, have been mostly underwhelming, though Walker, after being benched for several games, has been on a tear in a recent return to the lineup. And while Atlanta had one of the N.B.A.’s worst defenses, its stellar offense hasn’t been enough to compensate for it. Young, already one of the league’s best offensive players, is having the best year of his career, while Randle has struggled.The good news is that the same thing happened last season, and both teams had impressive second half turnarounds to make the playoffs.The Christmas game will undoubtedly lose some of its luster with several key players likely to miss the game as a result of the N.B.A.’s health and protocols, including Young, Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari from Atlanta, and Nerlens Noel from the Knicks. Derrick Rose, one of the Knicks’ lone bright spots against Atlanta in the playoffs, is slated to miss several weeks with an ankle injury.Boston Celtics (16-16) at Milwaukee Bucks (21-13), 2:30 p.m., ABCJayson Tatum’s shooting percentage is down slightly this season, but he is still Boston’s leading scorer with 25.6 points per game.Charles Krupa/Associated PressFresh off their first N.B.A. championship since 1971, the Bucks knew the early part of their schedule would pose some challenges. For starters, last season’s playoff run extended into late July. Then, two of the team’s best players, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, helped the United States men’s basketball team win gold at the Tokyo Olympics in August. The Bucks subsequently reconvened for the start of their season and lost eight of their first 15 games.Despite a shifting roster — Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo are among the players who have missed games after landing in the league’s health and safety protocols — the Bucks seem to be finding their footing as they eye another title. That’s no great stretch, thanks to the presence of Antetokounmpo, a two-time winner of the Most Valuable Player Award who still seems determined to expand his game. He is expected to play on Christmas after missing the past five games.The Celtics, meanwhile, are enduring growing pains under Ime Udoka, their first-year coach. From the start of training camp, Udoka has stressed the need for his players to pass more willingly around the perimeter. But too often, the ball still sticks — frequently in the hands of Jayson Tatum, a talented young player who has struggled with his shooting this season. The Celtics have also been hindered by injuries to Jaylen Brown.Boston needs to play a much more complete brand of basketball to have a shot of landing in the postseason, let alone to challenge the likes of the Bucks.Golden State Warriors (26-6) at Phoenix Suns (26-5), 5 p.m., ABCChris Paul leads the league in assists per game, which has helped his Phoenix Suns stay among the West’s best despite injuries.Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesThis game features the top two teams in the Western Conference. The Suns are hoping to improve upon their trip to the finals last year, while Golden State looks to continue its resurgence.In November, the N.B.A. began investigating Robert Sarver, the Suns’ owner, after ESPN published accusations of racism and sexism against him from what ESPN said were current and former Suns employees. If the specter of that investigation has affected the team, it hasn’t shown on the court.Phoenix has looked formidable in Coach Monty Williams’ third year with the franchise. After a 1-3 start to the season, the Suns went on an 18-game winning streak, which set a franchise record for consecutive wins. That included a win over Golden State and ended with a loss to Golden State. Aided by point guard Chris Paul’s steady veteran hand (he leads the league in assists per game), they’ve weathered injuries. Deandre Ayton missed eight games with a leg injury and illness, and Devin Booker missed seven games with a hamstring injury.Golden State awaits the return of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry’s sharpshooting counterpart, who has been absent for more than two years with two serious injuries. He could return soon, but not in time for this game. The team has rocketed to the top of the conference even without him.Curry set the N.B.A. record for career 3s last week and has been playing well enough to merit consideration for his third M.V.P. Award. Role players, such as Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II, have made major contributions as well.Nets (21-9) at Los Angeles Lakers (16-17), 8 p.m., ABC and ESPNThe Nets have been hit hard by the virus recently, with so many players, including James Harden, unavailable that three games were postponed.Carmen Mandato/Getty ImagesIdeally, this would be a matchup of the Nets’ Kevin Durant against his longtime elite contemporary, LeBron James of the Lakers. And in theory, there would be other stars, too, like Kyrie Irving for the Nets and Anthony Davis for the Lakers.But it’s not to be. Davis is out for several weeks because of a knee injury. And the Nets are missing so many players as a result of the league’s health and safety protocols — including Durant and Irving — that their last three games have been postponed. On Thursday, Nets Coach Steve Nash announced that James Harden had left protocols, making him available against the Lakers.For this matchup, the Nets, who are in first place in the Eastern Conference, are taking on a Lakers team fighting just to stay in the conversation to make the playoffs.The Lakers’ supporting cast around James and Davis, thus far, has proved to be ill-fitting, and the roster has dealt with a scourge of injuries. Russell Westbrook, the Lakers’ most high-profile off-season addition, has struggled at times. James is putting up exceptional numbers for a 36-year-old, but appears to be finally slowing down: He’s more reliant on his jumper than ever before, averaging a career high in 3-point attempts per game, and a career low in free-throw attempts per game. James is still one of the best players in the league, but it’s not apparent that he can carry an offense by himself like he used to.With the Nets slated to be without so many key players, this should have been marked as an easy win for a James-led team. But not this year. These Lakers, even at full strength, are mediocre and prone to coast through games. Right now, it’s a tossup.Dallas Mavericks (15-16) at Utah Jazz (22-9), 10:30 p.m., ESPNDonovan Mitchell, left, and the Utah Jazz will face a Mavericks team that has been dealing with injuries all season.Rick Bowmer/Associated PressWhat’s regular-season dominance without playoff success? The Utah Jazz found themselves confronting that question last season when they finished the regular season with the best record in the N.B.A., but only reached the second round of the playoffs.That’s meant so far this season their game-to-game focus is on not just their early wins and losses, but on what lessons they can take into the postseason.“If you’re perfect in November, no one’s going to care come playoff time,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said.Mitchell has led the Jazz offense with more than 25 points per game, while Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson, the league’s reigning sixth man of the year, have also been important pieces.Defensively they are led by Rudy Gobert, who is the league’s best with 15.1 rebounds per game and also contributes more than 2 blocks per game.They’ll face a Mavericks team that has dealt with injuries all season, including to guard Luka Doncic, their best player, who is expected to miss this game because of the league’s health protocols.Although Doncic leads the team with 25.6 points per game, the Mavericks are not dramatically different statistically when he’s on the court. But they are more fun to watch. If Doncic misses the Christmas Day game, a Dallas team ravaged by the virus and injuries will have a tough time making a game against the Jazz interesting. More

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    Kevin Durant Can Score From Anywhere. Defenses Don’t Know What to Do.

    The midrange game has largely fallen out of favor in the N.B.A., but not when Durant is on the court.Watching Kevin Durant play offense is a little bit like spending summers in the South. You know what to expect and you prepare for it, but you still find yourself saying to others, “Man, can you believe this heat?”Even the most casual N.B.A. fan knows that Durant is one of the best offensive players ever to take the floor. But this year, Durant is managing to outdo himself. Through 14 games, heading into Tuesday’s matchup with Golden State, Durant was on pace for one of the best seasons of his career. He had carried the Nets to a 10-4 record, despite not having Kyrie Irving as a playmaker next to him, and with James Harden off to a slower-than-expected start. Durant is making a serious run at a second Most Valuable Player Award.He is averaging 29.6 points a game to lead the N.B.A. — and doing so at what would be a career-best 58.6 percent field-goal percentage. Durant’s true shooting percentage — a measure of offensive efficiency that includes free throws and 3-point shooting — is .682, putting him among the league leaders.But beneath the hood, there is another eye-popping stat that makes this season different: Durant’s midrange game is humming at a ridiculous level unseen before from him.While midrange shots have generally fallen out of vogue in the N.B.A. over the last decade, Durant has long made them a calling card. The midrange is generally defined as the area outside of the free-throw lane but inside the 3-point line, which is a little less than 24 feet away from the basket and closer in the corners.Durant is shooting a whopping 70.3 percent between 16 feet away from the basket and the 3-point line. To put that in perspective, he has shot better than 50 percent from that range over a whole season just twice in his past 13 active seasons. About a fifth of his shots typically come from this distance, with another fifth coming from 10 to 16 feet away (some of these could have come from inside the free-throw lane).Teams have mostly gone away from creating offense in that area because modern analytics calculate the most efficient shots to be those at the basket or outside the 3-point line. But when you shoot as well as Durant does, those guidelines don’t apply to you. Occupying that in-between space on the court is a crucial part of Durant’s game — so much so that his typical warm-up routine features meticulous repetition of midrange shots.Durant’s most unstoppable weapon is the pull-up jumper, and given his height of 6-foot-10, it’s what allows him to be so dangerous from this range. Opposing defenders usually are not tall enough to properly challenge it, and the ones who are don’t have the foot speed to keep Durant from getting to his spot and rising up.On the Nets’ first offensive possession against Oklahoma City on Sunday, Durant grabbed the ball on the baseline and, in the blink of an eye, pulled up for an 18-foot jumper over the 6-foot-8 Thunder forward Darius Bazley. Players slower than Durant might have stepped back a few feet and shot a 3-pointer, and shorter players might have tried to drive. But Durant is quick enough to drive right or left and tall enough to shoot over Bazley or back him down in the post. Bazley was at a disadvantage the moment Durant caught the ball.Durant’s height and shooting skill make him difficult to guard, even for the best defensive players.Garett Fisbeck/Associated PressA secondary move Durant often turns to in the midrange is some variation of a fadeaway jumper, sometimes off one leg. One example: In the second quarter on Sunday, once again with Bazley matched up on him, Durant backed down his opponent in the post. The Thunder, realizing that Bazley was overmatched, sent a second defender to try to disrupt Durant. No dice. Durant simply turned around and went away from both defenders in the air and hit a jumper. Neither was tall enough to disrupt his view of the basket. In the third quarter, he hit a virtually identical shot.Defenders often try to gain advantages by anticipating the offense’s moves and being a split-second faster. But how can one prepare for Durant, who does all the usual things well, and is an eager threat from an area of the court defenders typically don’t have to worry about? And how does one properly contest a fadeaway when your opponent is already taller than you? Durant’s ability to dominate in an overlooked area opens up a world of options for the Nets, in that it forces defenses to game plan for guarding players all over the court, rather than just at the 3-point line or at the basket.Or as Durant put it in a post on Twitter in 2019: “I usually play off of feel though, if I’m hot from the 3 then I’m taking a lot of 3s, if my middy workin then that’s where I’m goin for dinner. If the lane open then I’m staying in the paint.”It’s unlikely that Durant will continue to shoot better than 70 percent from 16 feet out for the whole season. Chris Paul, the Suns guard who is one of the best midrange players in N.B.A. history, shot a career-best 55.7 percent from that range in 2017-18. The best for Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs cornerstone known for his midrange abilities, was 49.4 percent in his second of 19 seasons.With the Nets having an only average offense so far this season, they may need every bit of Durant’s otherworldly production to maintain their status as a championship contender. More

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    Nets Fall to Bucks With Irving Nowhere in Sight

    Coach Steve Nash and the team’s other stars, Kevin Durant and James Harden, have had to re-envision a plan on the fly.It was difficult to ignore the Kyrie Irving-sized elephant not in the room as the Nets opened the season by getting pummeled, 127-104, by the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday night.It was only one game, but the Nets missed Irving in their starting lineup. They missed him on offense. They missed him as they struggled to work out rotations that kept one star on the floor at all times as they tried in vain to keep pace with the Bucks.And the Nets will continue to miss him for the foreseeable future, or at least until they lift his banishment from the team over his refusal to accept a coronavirus vaccine. That position has rendered Irving ineligible to play home games in Brooklyn, leading the Nets to temporarily bar him from playing at all and forcing Coach Steve Nash and the team’s other stars, Kevin Durant and James Harden, to re-envision a plan on the fly.After one night, at least, Durant was preaching patience.“It is one game out of 82 of them,” he said after collecting 32 points and 11 rebounds. “Every team feels that way.”The Bucks played like a team familiar with each other, starting mostly the same players that formed the core of the lineup that led the franchise to a championship last season. Three of their best players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez — are in their fourth year of starting together. The Nets, meanwhile, began with a lineup that had very little familiarity with each other, including in the preseason, and nearly every player who received significant minutes off the bench was a new addition to the team this season.“They’ve got some continuity that a lot of teams don’t have,” Durant said knowingly of the Bucks.The lineup the Nets expected to run out was supposed to feature a murderers’ row on offense, a wealth of options that would allow Nash more flexibility to manage Durant and Harden’s minutes. Instead, with Irving absent, the Nets kept one of either Durant or Harden on the floor at all times on Tuesday to generate offense. The Nets only sporadically looked fluid, something that surely would have been helped with the skills of an exceptional point guard and shooter like Irving.Without him, the mantra from the Nets afterward was that the loss to the Bucks was one game of many, and that cohesion will come. The Nets have to build chemistry almost from scratch, while Milwaukee’s mission is to maintain the already developed core.“We know what level we’ve got to get to,” said Harden, who finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. “We will get to that level. It’s Game 1 of a new season.”“Honestly, we’re excited about this season,” Harden added. “This might have made us even more excited just because we know that there’s a level that we’ve got to get to that we’re not even close.”One game or not: Last season, the Nets did not lose by 20 points or more until Game 45. .“One thing that disappointed me more than anything were loose balls and hustle plays — they seemed to win them all,” Nash said. “As we’re trying to find ourselves and explore different rotations and find that cohesion, we’ve got to make it more uncomfortable for people.”There was one positive for the Nets on Tuesday: Patty Mills, who came off the bench and made seven 3-pointers. Mills, 33, joined the Nets in free agency from the San Antonio Spurs and has been a reserve for almost his entire 13-year career. He is nowhere near as skilled as Irving, but showed on Tuesday that he had the ability to pick up some of the playmaking if needed.“We’re going to need that from Patty,” Durant said. “We talked the other day about him being aggressive. To be a scorer. To be a playmaker. Tonight was no different. He came out and gave us great energy to start.”The goal for the Nets is to be so good that the basketball world can stop discussing Irving’s vaccination status. On Tuesday, though, Irving remained a significant point of discussion.Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks started the new season with a win.Michael Mcloone/USA Today Sports, via ReutersBefore the game, Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, was asked on TNT what message he would send to Irving, if he could.“I would tell him to be vaccinated, first and foremost for himself and his family,” Silver said. “Next for his teammates and his community and also for the league that I know he cares so much about.“I understand that it’s not just Kyrie. There are people in this country who disagree with the notion of getting vaccinated, but at least from everything that I understand, science is firmly on the side of getting vaccinated.”It’s likely — given the Nets’ talent — that Tuesday night’s performance will end up being a blip on the radar. After all, in 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers lost by double digits on opening night to their crosstown rivals, the Clippers, and ended up winning the championship with a roster of mostly new players.But if it’s more than a blip, this is the reality for the Nets: Irving’s absence will hang over the team. If there are more games like Tuesday ahead, they will need to fill that Irving-sized hole at point guard. More

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    N.B.A. Eastern Conference Preview: The Bucks Aren't Finished Yet

    The Bucks might be better, while the Sixers and Nets are playing wait-and-see with key stars. The Eastern Conference could play out in several ways.Here lie the N.B.A.’s most compelling story lines.Potential contenders in the Eastern Conference scrambled during the off-season to assemble teams fit to knock off Giannis Antetokounmpo — now with a new, improved jump shot? — and the reigning N.B.A. champion Milwaukee Bucks. Even the conference’s perennial bottom feeders built rosters that will demand attention from basketball devotees. Some teams are just hoping that distractions don’t derail their seasons before they start.Many wonder how the Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia will end. The 76ers seemed locked in a stalemate with Simmons, a three-time All-Star, who has wanted to be traded for months. Simmons ended his holdout midway through the preseason and reported to the team but has not played. The 76ers have said they want him on their roster, but if they persuade him to stay, can they really go forward with business as usual?Meanwhile, the Nets have a bona fide championship roster. They know this, and even with the distraction of Kyrie Irving’s murky status because he’s not vaccinated, they expect to hoist the Larry O’Brien championship trophy at season’s end.Could the N.B.A.’s balance of power, which has long rested in the West, be shifting to the East? Here’s a look at how the Eastern Conference shapes up this season.Miami HeatIn some ways, it seems so long ago. But little more than a year has passed since the Heat plowed their way to the 2020 finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. Was it a fluke, aided by playing under the unusual conditions of a bubble environment, with no fans? The Heat were up and down last season before the Milwaukee Bucks ejected them from the 2021 playoffs in a lopsided first-round series.Jimmy Butler needs to be efficient. Duncan Robinson needs to be consistent. Tyler Herro needs to recapture his assertiveness. And Bam Adebayo needs to keep making the sort of strides that have pushed him toward becoming a perennial All-Star.The team should benefit from two additions: Kyle Lowry, who at 35 left the Raptors after nine seasons, and P.J. Tucker, who helped the Bucks win the championship last season.Philadelphia 76ersThe Sixers don’t need Ben Simmons to be competitive (they do have Joel Embiid, pictured), but they are better with him.Matt Slocum/Associated PressBen Simmons is, for now, back in the City of Brotherly Love.Simmons, who reportedly demanded a trade in late August and missed training camp, reported to the 76ers ahead of their third preseason game but did not play. Simmons’s future in Philadelphia remains unclear, though. He still has four years left on his maximum contract.With or without him, Philadelphia is antsy to win now. Joel Embiid is coming off the best season of his career, when he finished second in the voting for the Most Valuable Player Award. The 76ers were the No. 1 seed in last season’s Eastern Conference playoffs but collapsed in the semifinals, continuing their inability to turn regular-season wins into deep postseason success.Philadelphia is a better team with Simmons, 25, despite his offensive shortcomings. But even if he doesn’t play anytime soon, Embiid, Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tobias Harris should be experienced enough to keep the Sixers in contention.New York KnicksThe Knicks doubled down on last season’s roster, which unexpectedly made the playoffs then flamed out — albeit after a brilliant flare — in the first round. The veterans Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson are back, but Elfrid Payton, who triggered an influx of gray hairs for fans, is not. The additions of Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker are significant, and should help take the offensive load off RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, who signed a four-year contract extension in the off-season.This feels like a make-or-break year for the 23-year-old Mitchell Robinson, the center who is up for an extension and can jump through the roof. At his best, he protects the rim and is an excellent roll man. But he has had difficulty staying healthy. Look for bigger roles for Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin, who each showed promise off the bench as rookies last season.The Knicks should easily make the playoffs, but their bench depth is a question mark.Milwaukee BucksThe Bucks kept the band together. Same coach. Same star. Same core — mostly. And why not? Fresh off their first championship since 1971, the Bucks seem poised for a title defense.The challenge could be fatigue. Because of the pandemic, their postseason run stretched into July, and two starters — Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — helped the U.S. Olympic team win gold in August. The Bucks also lost P.J. Tucker, invaluable in the late stages of last season, to the Heat in free agency.But Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time M.V.P., is still the face of the franchise and the proud owner of a newly minted championship ring. And he may be better than ever, showing off an improved jump shot in the preseason. With a contract that runs through the 2025-26 season, he is not going anywhere anytime soon.Atlanta HawksAtlanta guard Trae Young led the Hawks on a surprising run through the first two rounds of the playoffs last season.Brett Davis/USA Today Sports, via ReutersAfter a surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals last year, the Hawks enter the season with the burden of expectations and the benefit of continuity. This team is deep and should compete to be one of the best in the East.Most of the key players are back. The Hawks locked in their two best players, Trae Young and John Collins, with long-term extensions. Coach Nate McMillan will be running the team from opening night, as opposed to being thrust into the job midseason as he was during the last campaign after Lloyd Pierce was fired.Atlanta almost pulled off a miracle run to the N.B.A. finals last season, after taking down the Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers, but were bedeviled by injuries against the eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. Players who were unavailable or not 100 percent, like De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bogdan Bogdanovic, are expected to start the season with clean bills of health. The Hawks also added some quality veteran bench pieces in Gorgui Dieng and Delon Wright, and an intriguing rookie they drafted late in this year’s first round, Jalen Johnson.Charlotte HornetsLaMelo Ball, last season’s rookie of the year, highlights Charlotte’s promising young core. He’ll likely be the Hornets’ primary facilitator and already has great court vision and playmaking ability, and he is continuing to improve his jump shot.Ball and forward Miles Bridges in the pick-and-roll were elite last season, with Bridges’s power at the basket and Ball’s precise lob placement on display. That pairing should only be better this season.The Hornets already had solid veterans in Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, and they added Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee. Oubre is an inconsistent shooter, but could be impactful in transition. Plumlee is a versatile big man.This group won’t be knocking at the door of the N.B.A. finals this season, but the Hornets will be a fun team to watch, and have a real chance at a playoff berth.Brooklyn NetsWith the addition of Patty Mills and Paul Millsap, as well as the return of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Nets, on paper, are one of the best teams in N.B.A. history. In normal circumstances, they would be title favorites, given their Big Three of Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant. But that was the case last year too, and the Nets bowed out in the second round of the playoffs.Health will be the principle factor for determining how far the Nets go. All of the Nets’ top players have significant miles on their legs and have missed substantial time in recent years.If there is a potentially weak point for other teams to exploit, it is defensively, where the Nets struggled last season, and their off-season additions didn’t seriously address that. This could come back to bite them in the postseason, particularly in the frontcourt against players like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored at will during last year’s playoffs, or Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.But the offensive firepower is top notch. It’s hard to see the Nets being beaten in a seven-game series if they’re healthy.Chicago BullsDeMar DeRozan gives the new-look Chicago Bulls a threat from the mid-range.Kamil Krzaczynski/USA Today Sports, via ReutersChicago could be a sneaky-good team this season.Arturas Karnisovas, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, voiced displeasure with the team’s 31-41 record shortly after last season. Since then, he’s added DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Tony Bradley to a roster with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, whom Chicago acquired from Orlando at the March trade deadline.DeRozan is lethal in the midrange, but some have questioned how he’ll fit with LaVine, as both players are most effective with the ball in their hands. Chicago will have an upgrade at point guard with Ball, who is a deft passer. And Caruso will add a rugged spark off the bench. Coach Billy Donovan will have to figure out how they all fit on the court.In any event, Michael Jordan said that with the changes the Bulls made, they could compete in the East. How long has it been since those words were last spoken?Toronto RaptorsIt’s a new era in Toronto basketball. Kyle Lowry, perhaps the most lauded Raptor in franchise history, has gone to Miami. Without him, the Raptors are likely stuck between being too talented to get a top draft pick and not being so good that they’ll contend for a top seed in the conference.But there may be an opening for Toronto in the turbulent East: Scottie Barnes, whom the team surprisingly drafted at No. 4 this year, showed potential in the preseason. And the Raptors’ frontcourt, helmed by Chris Boucher and the newly acquired Precious Achiuwa, will be a force.There are lots of questions for the Raptors entering the season: Is Pascal Siakam, who is expected to miss the start of the season as he recovers from shoulder surgery, a true franchise cornerstone? Will Lowry’s replacement at guard, the 35-year-old Goran Dragic, last the season in Toronto? Or will Masai Ujiri, the Raptors head of basketball operations, flip Dragic’s expiring contract?Detroit PistonsYou’d be hard pressed to find any Pistons fans who haven’t already crowned the rookie guard Cade Cunningham as their Magic Johnson. Johnson, of course, won an N.B.A. title as a rookie after the Lakers drafted him No. 1 overall in 1979.Detroit drafted Cunningham, a savvy scorer and shot creator, No. 1 overall earlier this year to hopefully lift itself out of years of irrelevancy. An ankle injury sidelined him in the preseason, and the team is being cautious.Detroit’s young group showed promise last season, despite finishing with the worst record in the East, but the Pistons are another team in rebuilding mode. Coach Dwane Casey has said that this season’s goal is to earn a spot in the postseason play-in tournament.Cleveland CavaliersOnly someone like LeBron James could render an entire franchise into an afterthought. But that was what he effectively did when he departed the Cavaliers for the glamour of Hollywood in 2018, leaving them to rummage through the wilderness without him. The Cavaliers instantly went from title contender to lightweight, though the team has some up-and-comers — highlighted by Collin Sexton and Darius Garland in the backcourt — who are cause for cautious optimism.None of this is to suggest that the Cavaliers will come anywhere close to sniffing the playoffs. But a slow, steady rebuild — augmented by smart draft picks — is the way back to respectability. And there is more good news: Kevin Love (remember him?) has just two seasons remaining on his gargantuan deal, which could make him a more appealing target on the trade market.Boston CelticsJayson Tatum has shown promise with Boston, but postseason success has so far eluded him.Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports, via ReutersFrom the start of training camp, Ime Udoka, the Celtics’ first-year coach, has had a particular emphasis: ball movement. He does not want the ball to stick. He wants his players to work together to generate the best shots.This must have been welcome news to fans who got tired of watching the Celtics’ offense devolve into isolation sets last season. Jayson Tatum, 23, and Jaylen Brown, who will turn 25 this month, form one of the most talented young tandems in the league, but fulfilling their promise in the postseason has so far eluded them.Perhaps Udoka can help them deliver. He replaced Brad Stevens, who moved to the front office after a posting .500 record and losing in the first round of the playoffs in his eighth season as the team’s coach.Washington WizardsWes Unseld Jr., Washington’s new head coach, has a tall task ahead of him.The Wizards are not a championship-caliber team, even after adding solid veterans like Spencer Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell. So this season will be mostly about persuading Bradley Beal, who can become a free agent next summer, to make a long-term commitment to the franchise.It’s hard to win without multiple elite playmakers, and the Wizards have just one in Beal after trading Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers. But even in a yet another bridge year, the Wizards should, at the very least, have a playoff team. They’ll have the promising center Thomas Bryant back from injury, and the team can hope for some growth from its last two lottery picks, Deni Avdija (2020) and Rui Hachimura (2019).Orlando MagicThe Magic have a young team with a first-year head coach in Jamahl Mosley. They’ve made just two playoff appearances in the past nine seasons, and traded away their best players, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, in the middle of last season. Then they landed Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs at No. 5 in this year’s draft.Suggs joined a roster that is crowded at guard, with Markelle Fultz, who will return from a knee injury, RJ Hampton, Terrence Ross, Cole Anthony and Gary Harris. Suggs probably has the highest ceiling of those players, though, and he was solid in the summer league before injuring his thumb.The Magic will not be legitimate contenders for a while, so they have plenty of time to sort out their roster.Indiana PacersRick Carlisle, back for his second stint with the Pacers, is the team’s third coach in three seasons. Indiana could use some stability to help develop a young core that includes Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, already a two-time All-Star at 25.But the Pacers, who have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2014, are coming off a 34-38 season, and Caris LeVert is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his back.Carlisle coached the Pacers for four seasons, from 2003 to 2007, while guiding them to three postseason appearances. It will take some hard work to get them there again. More

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    The Nets Had a Chance to Win Over New York. Now, They’ll Try Again.

    Right after the final buzzer sounded on Game 7 between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Nets during the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference semifinals last spring, Giovannie Cruz had to leave his house in Elizabeth, N.J., and go to a nearby park. Cruz, an avowed Nets fan for most of his 39 years, had watched the game with his 4-year-old son and “acted like a lunatic” until the end, when the Nets lost in heartbreaking fashion.“I literally walked around that park for almost an hour from the sheer disappointment,” Cruz said. “I didn’t want my son to see me too animated and use too much colorful language.”Last season was supposed to be the year, the season when the Nets and their fans — both the long suffering and the newcomers — would no longer be an afterthought in the N.B.A. The last time a pro sports team from Brooklyn won a championship, Jackie Robinson was wearing a uniform for the Dodgers in Major League Baseball. It was 1955.But there was more at stake for the Nets last season than simply winning a championship. In a city dominated by Knicks fans, a title could have allowed the Nets to plant a basketball-shaped flag (and raise a banner) in their efforts to shift the balance of power away from Madison Square Garden and put Knicks fans in their place. Just ask one of the Nets’ most prominent backers, the mayor of New York.Giovannie Cruz was so overwhelmed by the Nets’ elimination in the playoffs last season that he left his home in Elizabeth, N.J., to take a walk.Brittainy Newman for The New York Times“I really feel like this is the final act in the renaissance of Brooklyn and giving Brooklyn its rightful place in the world, and that has tremendous importance for the city going forward,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime Brooklyn resident before his 2014 inauguration, said in an interview before Game 3 of the semifinals series, when the Nets were up 2-0 and a championship run seemed inevitable.The renaissance will have to wait. This summer, the Nets retooled their roster, somehow managing to add talent to one of the best on-paper assemblies in N.B.A. history. With veterans like Patty Mills and Paul Millsap now coming off the bench and healthy versions of Kevin Durant and James Harden ready to take the floor, the expectations for the Nets will be sky high. That’s true even if Kyrie Irving, barred from games until he gets vaccinated, doesn’t play for a while. But if the Nets don’t win at least one ring, this era most likely will be considered one of the biggest flops ever — and the Nets will have blown their best chance to cut into the suddenly resurgent Knicks’ hold on the city.“We don’t want to be just the most popular N.B.A. team in New York City,” John Abbamondi, the chief executive of the Nets, said in an interview at Barclays before that Game 7. “We want to be a global sporting icon on the level of a Real Madrid or Barcelona. That’s our aspiration.”Nine years ago, the Nets played their first season in Brooklyn, after being in New Jersey since 1977 following the merger with the A.B.A. The team had some success with the fast-paced teams of Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin in the early 2000s, but it spent most of its history in the basketball wilderness, rarely attracting stars or playing in important games.“It was kind of rough at that time,” said Trenton Hassell, a guard who ended his career with the Nets in New Jersey from 2008 to 2010. “We had true fans still coming, but we were doing a lot of losing so that was tough.”The Nets have drawn increasing numbers of fans to home games, helped by the recent addition of three marquee players: Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for The New York TimesMoving to Brooklyn was a new start on many levels. They had a shiny new arena, new branding and a spotlight-grabbing minority owner in Jay-Z, who was often on the sidelines with his megastar wife, Beyoncé.Old and new Nets fans are blending and forging a new collective identity. The cheers at Barclays Center are often most prominent from 96 or so fans who sit in Section 114. The die-hards there, called the Brooklyn Brigades, are sponsored by the team and are known for their creative chants. That’s a far cry from the early days in Brooklyn, when rival fans often outnumbered those of the Nets and Barclays had middling attendance overall.Richard Bearak has been a Nets fan since the 1970s and was at the championship in 1976. He’s the director of land use for Eric Adams, who is the Brooklyn borough president and the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City. When Barclays first opened to the public, Bearak said, the arena was a “tourist attraction” that drew fans of winning, opposing teams.“A third of the crowd could have been supporting Golden State,” Bearak, 63, said. “At Madison Square Garden, it’s really hard to be a fan of another team and expect to be there in droves.”When the Nets first arrived from the Meadowlands in 2012, they did so as an interloper in some eyes. First, there were the fans in New Jersey who resented losing their team. And in Brooklyn, there were those who believed Barclays, which was part of a $6 billion commercial and residential redevelopment, would do more harm to the area than good — particularly with concerns about gentrification and congestion.A 2014 study by The New York Times based on Facebook data showed that after two seasons in Brooklyn, the Knicks were the more popular team in every New York City ZIP code, except the neighborhoods surrounding Barclays — in part because of the new residents who had moved to the remade downtown area. In response, the Village Voice referred to the Nets as “Gentrification’s Team.”Durant, who wears No. 7 for the Nets, Harden and Irving had three of the top-10 selling jerseys in each half of last season.Brittainy Newman for The New York Times“We didn’t have a fan base for New York or Brooklyn at all,” said Irina Pavlova, then a top executive with the company of the team’s owner at the time, Mikhail Prokhorov. “It was zero. It was starting from scratch, especially in a city like New York, where the Knicks are such an institution.”Pavlova said the franchise focused on using “Brooklyn” as the main calling card to recruit new fans instead of the team name, as other franchises do. The fruits of that marketing effort can still be seen today, when the most common team chant is a drawn out “Broooooklyn!”“That was done to appeal to the residents of the borough since they didn’t have a team to root for,” Pavlova said.The people cheering for the Nets these days can generally be placed in four boxes. 1. Fans since the Nets were in the A.B.A. and playing in Long Island, like Bearak. 2. New Jersey-era fans like Cruz. 3. New, Brooklyn-era fans. 4. Those who root for specific stars, no matter their team.That last group is the hardest to track and may be the most crucial for the future of the Nets in the N.B.A., where star players are more influential than in other team sports. Irving, Durant and Harden brought in an uncertain number of transient fans. In the first and second halves of last season, the A-list trio had three of the league’s 10 highest selling jerseys.Dawn Risueno, 53, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, became a Nets fan in 1990 because her ex-boyfriend preferred them over the Knicks.Nets fans Justin Messier and Dawn Risueno.Brittainy Newman for The New York TimesBrittainy Newman for The New York TimesShe has spent several years following the team across the country as part of an annual road trip. She converted her sports-agnostic husband of 18 years to the cause, and brought along her two children and seven grandchildren.“They didn’t have a choice in the matter,” Risueno said of her children and grandchildren. “Since they came literally out of the womb, I’ve had them in Nets outfits.”Bobby Edemeka, 46, a portfolio manager who was born and raised in Brooklyn, said he used to follow players instead of teams. But the Nets’ relocation to his hometown instilled pride, and Edemeka founded the Brooklyn Brigades group, which was unofficial until the Nets began sponsoring it in 2018. (Edemeka used to buy bundles of tickets and offer them for free to prospective Nets fans.)“You can travel the whole world and you’re not going to find people more proud of where they’re from than New Yorkers, and I think that goes especially so for people from Brooklyn,” Edemeka said.For pre-Brooklyn fans like Cruz, loving the team means “waiting for the bottom to fall out at all times.” Cruz lived through the 2009-10 season, when the team went 12-70. Still, Cruz was upset to see the Nets leave New Jersey two years later. He kept rooting for the team nonetheless. Many New Jerseyans didn’t.For newer fans like Edemeka, their Nets memories are mostly highlights. The team has made the playoffs in six of its nine seasons at Barclays. There have been two playoff series wins. There hasn’t actually been much suffering, all things considered.Judy and Bruce Rezmick — ‘Mr. and Mrs. Whammy’ — try to throw off the Minnesota Timberwolves with hand symbols.Brittainy Newman for The New York Times“I don’t have any of that emotional baggage,” said Edemeka, a season-ticket holder for all of the Nets seasons. “I didn’t live through 12 and 70. I’m unburdened by that legacy.”Old Nets fans and all but the newest Knicks fans know a thing or two about emotional baggage. And yet the relative success of the Nets in Brooklyn, alongside the mostly dreary days at Madison Square Garden during the same period, has not broken the city’s devotion to the Knicks.There is, in theory, a concrete way to close that gap. Fans go further to associate themselves with winners, as documented in a landmark fan behavior study by Robert B. Cialdini in 1976 — a psychological concept known as “basking in reflected glory.” The opposite — disassociating from losing teams — is known as “cutting off reflected failure.” The study found that fans are likely to say “we” in reference to their favorite team’s winning but “they” if the team loses.Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said that if the Knicks remained the more inept team, younger generations in the city not yet dug in on team allegiances may precipitate a cultural shift.“The Knicks could rule almost by default,” Burton said of the Knicks before 2012. “But with social media, 500 television channels, a million websites, Brooklyn is not that far from any of the other boroughs, suddenly we have to talk about the fact that the Nets appear to have much more of a cachet than the Knicks.”But the flip side to that is, of course, not winning, which the Nets are intimately familiar with. The promising, but ultimately deflating, semifinal series last season showed that.“It’s always been so hard to be a Nets fan,” Cruz said.Brittainy Newman for The New York Times More

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    The Nets Don’t Need More Stars. A Little Help Will Do.

    The team’s top-level talents have their roles. But it’s around the edges, in rim protection and bench scoring, where some growth is needed.It seems nice to be the Nets.Yes, their season ended prematurely after a disappointing second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs. But the defeat could easily be chalked up to injuries to their star guards, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. And even then, the Nets almost won the series, thanks to the heroics of Kevin Durant. More