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Celtics soar to top, Suns beat Sixers as Irving loses debut

NEW YORK (AFP) – Boston seized a share of the Eastern Conference lead, Phoenix dumped Philadelphia in a possible NBA Finals preview and Kyrie Irving’s home season debut was spoiled on Sunday by the Charlotte Hornets.

Jayson Tatum scored 34 points and Jaylen Brown contributed 31 points and 10 rebounds to ignite the Boston Celtics to their sixth consecutive victory, a 134-112 home triumph over Minnesota.

The Celtics scored their most points in a half all season to grab a 72-49 half-time lead and improved to 47-28, matching Miami for the best record in the East.

“Seeding matters. We definitely want to take advantage of that,” Brown said. “But at the

same time, we’re going to have to play who we’re going to have to play.
“The East is going to be a dogfight so we’re not running from nobody.”

Defending champion Milwaukee and the Philadelphia 76ers are third on 46-28 while Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland are within five games.

Boston Celtics centre Robert Williams III sinks the ball as Minnesota Timberwolves centre Karl-Anthony Towns tries to defend. PHOTO: AP

Brown cited Boston’s roster healing from a season of injury setbacks for the late-season charge.

“We done got healthy,” he said. “I missed about 15 games. My hamstring was bothering me a lot. I feel a little bit healthier. Our guys feel a little bit healthier. We’ve just got our feet under us a little more and now we’re here.”

The medical report got some bad news with Celtics centre Robert Williams suffering a sprained left knee. He played only 24 minutes with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Philadelphia had moved atop the East but lost 114-104 at Western Conference leader Phoenix, which improved the league’s best record to 61-14 with an eighth straight victory.

Both teams’ NBA Most Valuable Player candidates delivered virtuoso efforts with Phoenix’s Devin Booker scoring 35 points while Chris Paul added 19 points and 14 assists and Deandre Ayton added 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid scored 37 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while Tyrese Maxey had 18 points and Tobias Harris had 17.

But James Harden scored only 14 points on two-of-11 shooting, hitting only two-of-five from three-point range.

At Brooklyn, unvaccinated Kyrie Irving played his first home game of the season thanks to a change in New York City Covid-19 safety rules that had previously banned him from the court.

But Charlotte dampened the debut with a 119-110 victory.

Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball sparked the Hornets with 33 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.

Kevin Durant led the Nets with 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists while Andre Drummond added 20 points and 17 rebounds for Brooklyn.

Irving had 16 points on six-of-22 shooting and contributed 11 assists.

With the victory, the Hornets seized a tie-breaker edge over Brooklyn and matched them at 39-36 on the season, dropping the Nets to ninth in the East.

Despite 39 points, nine rebounds and five assists from LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers lost 116-108 at New Orleans, which moved ahead of the Lakers for ninth in the Western Conference, trading the last two play-in spots for the post-season.

Brandon Ingram, back from a 10-game absence, scored 26 points and Jonas Valanciunas added 19 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Pelicans (32-43), who rallied from 23 points down to beat the Lakers (31-43), who fell to one game above San Antonio (30-44) for the last play-in berth.

Corey Kispert scored 25 points, Kristaps Porzingis added 23 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 22 to power the Washington Wizards over visiting Golden State 123-115.

Jordan Poole scored a game-high 26 points while Klay Thompson added 25 for the Warriors, whose lead over Dallas for third in the Western Conference was trimmed to two games.