Kevin Durant scored 29 points, Kyrie Irving had 25 and the two superstars carried the Brooklyn Nets after James Harden’s early injury in a 115-107 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Harden didn’t even make it through a minute before leaving with a right hamstring injury, an injury that forced him to miss two losses to the Bucks in May.
But the Nets beat Milwaukee when it mattered most without him, getting 19 points from Joe Harris and 18 points and 14 rebounds from Blake Griffin.
And they got a solid defensive effort despite giving up plenty of size, limiting the Bucks to 13 points below their NBA-leading average.
Durant grabbed 10 rebounds and Irving had eight assists, throwing some spectacular passes as the Nets moved the ball around quickly and had the Bucks a step or more behind all night.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 34 points and 11 rebounds, but the Bucks were just 6 for 30 from 3-point range and lost for the first time in the playoffs after storming past Miami in a first-round sweep.
Brook Lopez scored 19 points for the Bucks and Jrue Holiday had 17 points and nine rebounds. Khris Middleton finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds but was 6 for 23, missing all five 3-pointers.
Game 2 is Monday night.
Steve Clifford and Magic part ways
Steve Clifford and the Orlando Magic took some time after the season to rest, recover and contemplate the future.
And after a couple weeks, they decided the fit wasn’t right anymore.
Orlando’s rebuilding project will no longer include Clifford, after he and the Magic completed an agreement to end his three-year run with the club. Magic President Jeff Weltman stressed that it was a mutual decision and he respected Clifford for being able to “assess where he is in his career.”
“Obviously, we’ve repositioned our team,” Weltman said. “And so, there has to be alignment. There has to be alignment in everything you do in this league. And if there’s not alignment, it’ll undermine everything.”
That alignment clearly didn’t seem to be there. Weltman indicated that Clifford — who will turn 60 before next season starts — decided he wasn’t the right coach to lead the Magic through what may be serious growing pains with a young group.
Orlando becomes the third current coaching opening in the NBA, following Brad Stevens being promoted to president of the Celtics and Portland’s move Friday to seek a new coach after Terry Stotts held that role for nine seasons.
Clifford was 96-131 in those three seasons, though that record is a bit misleading given how many injuries the team dealt with this season. Orlando went to the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 under Clifford, its first postseason trips since a run of six straight ended in 2012.
But this season was trying in no shortage of ways. Injuries gutted the Magic, and then the team’s core — All-Star forward Nikola Vucevic, guard Evan Fournier and forward Aaron Gordon — were all moved at the trade deadline as Orlando went younger and stockpiled draft picks for the rebuild.
Orlando was 21-51 this season, and Clifford missed some games near the end of the season after testing positive for COVID-19. He had been vaccinated just as the positive test results came back, was asymptomatic and returned for the season’s final few days.
Joel Embiid’s status up in air
Sixers center Joel Embiid’s status remained unknown Saturday because of a cartilage tear in his right knee. The top-seeded Sixers could get past Trae Young and the Hawks even without a healthy Embiid. But the Sixers’ serious push for their first championship since 1983 starts and ends with the health of their MVP candidate.
The 27-year-old Embiid averaged 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds this season. He scored a postseason career-high 36 points in 28 minutes in a 29-point win for the 76ers in Game 3 over Washington. Embiid took a hard fall in Game 4 on Monday — he winced and put his hand on his lower right back — and missed the series clincher two days later. He’s been treated with physical therapy.
The Sixers may make the Hawks wait until the last moment to reveal Embiid’s status.
Wizards hire first woman to lead analytics
Katherine Evans is joining the Washington Wizards as the first woman to head the research or analytics department of an NBA franchise.
Monumental Basketball announced the hire, saying Evans would oversee its research department, supporting the Wizards, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, the G League’s Capital City Go-Go and Wizards District Gaming. Her new title is vice president of research and information systems.
Evans previously was director of strategic research for the Toronto Raptors. She oversaw data sources to build a draft prospects database and helped analyze methods and build models for player evaluation and on-court strategy.
Evans has a doctorate in biostatistics from Harvard. She spent two years as a data scientist with Verily Life Sciences.
Jrue Holiday wins sportsmanship award
Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday has won the Joe Dumars Trophy as the NBA player who best represents the ideals of sportsmanship on the court.
Each NBA team nominated a player for the award. After a panel of league executives chose one finalist from each of the NBA’s six divisions, 343 current players confidentially cast votes to select the winner.
Other finalists were Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, Minnesota’s Josh Okogie, Celtics’ Kemba Walker and San Antonio’s Derrick White.
Holiday received 130 first-place votes and 2,752 total points in the balloting. Walker, who won this award in 2017 and 2018, was second with 2,474 points.