Harden return could bring Christmas cheer for Nets at Lakers

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  • Brooklyn Nets
    Brooklyn Nets
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  • Los Angeles Lakers
    Los Angeles Lakers
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  • James Harden
    James Harden
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  • LaMarcus Aldridge
    LaMarcus Aldridge
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A magical man with a big beard bringing joy to people on Christmas Day? Yes, James Harden is back from COVID-19 protocols as the Brooklyn Nets travel to the Los Angeles Lakers for a festive fixture.

Nets coach Steve Nash confirmed the news on Thursday, while Paul Millsap and Jevon Carter are also newly available, but Brooklyn still have 10 players in protocols.

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Day'Ron Sharpe, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre' Bembry, Bruce Brown and James Johnson have been joined by rookies Kessler Edwards, David Duke Jr. and Cameron Thomas.

The Nets have not played since a 100-93 defeat to the Orlando Magic on Saturday at Barclays Center. Their three games leading up to Christmas – at home against the Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards, then a trip to Portland – were all postponed.

Nonetheless, Nash's team sit top of the Eastern Conference on a 21-9 record, and have not lost back-to-back games this season, though that could be put to the test with a team likely to still be extremely shorthanded in California.

Durant will be a big miss, with the 33-year-old leading the league in points per game (29.7), as will Aldridge, who sits 11th in the league for field-goal percentage (.573).

The home team have been missing players of late too, with head coach Frank Vogel and five of his men being absent as a result of being under the NBA's health and safety protocols in the chastening 138-110 defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday.

Lakers v Spurs
Lakers v Spurs

The Lakers sit on a surprisingly poor record under .500 (16-17) having lost four on the spin – at Minnesota and Chicago, followed by home defeats to Phoenix and the Spurs.

Despite having LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo on the roster, Vogel has been unable to get a consistent tune out of his all-star line-up.

With the Nets shorthanded to an even greater degree, the opportunity to produce what would have to go down as a slight upset should the Lakers win, given their respective form and records, will surely never be higher.

Davis remains sidelined by an MCL sprain, but the Lakers should still be able to put out a team that looks as strong as any other on paper.

Whether it is the Lakers putting an end to their losing streak or the Nets pulling out a win with barely enough players to call on, someone may just be claiming the occurrence of a festive miracle in the first encounter at the newly-named Crypto.com Arena.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Los Angeles Lakers – LeBron James

Despite his team being thoroughly outplayed, James managed to score 36 points with nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks in Thursday's defeat to the Spurs, and he will need to pull out a similar effort if the Lakers are to end their losing streak.

The four-time NBA champion has put early-season injury issues behind him to play the last 10 games in a row, scoring 30 or more points in nine of his last 13 outings.

James has also improved his rebound numbers of late, getting double figures in five of his last 10 games, having only done so once in his previous 11.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

With Durant, Irving and Aldridge unavailable, all eyes will be on Harden to finally show the form that won him the 2018 NBA MVP award in Houston.

The 32-year-old is averaging just 20.8 points per game this season, his lowest since the 2011-12 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His 40.4 per cent success rate from the field is also the lowest since his rookie year.

However, Harden has proven in the past that he can rise to the occasion when he's the main man, and sitting just 20 career assists away from 6,000, he may just roll back the years and pull the strings in the arena now formerly known as the Staples Center.

KEY BATTLE – Can the Nets be as deadly in mid-range?

Brooklyn currently sit top of the table for mid-range points this season, averaging 49.1, well ahead of the Utah Jazz in second (45.3).

Harden is third in the league for most points per game created via assists (21.8), behind only Chris Paul (23.0) and Trae Young (21.9), while Harden (24.4 per cent) and fellow Nets star Patty Mills (29.7 per cent) claim the top two spots for highest percentage of assists for mid-range field goals made.

However, the Lakers have the fourth-best record in the league for lowest field goal percentage allowed from mid-range (38.0), and so it is an area to keep an eye out for, especially with Aldridge and Durant out, both sitting in the top 10 for highest field-goal percentage from mid-range.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Lakers prevailed 126-101 when these two last met in April, and the teams have enjoyed five wins each from their last 10 encounters.

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