LOS ANGELES • Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will be National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Game starters, but James Harden is proving that he is not the Brooklyn Nets' third wheel.
The guard excelled as scorer and facilitator in the Nets' statement 112-108 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.
He had 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists as Brooklyn recorded their longest single road trip without a loss in franchise history and extended their win streak to a season-high six games.
Their 5-0 West Coast swing included back-to-back victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers, two Western Conference high-rollers. And their last four wins have come without Durant, sidelined with a hamstring strain.
Irving scored 28 points with eight assists while Joe Harris, DeAndre Jordan and Bruce Brown scored 13 each for the Nets.
"We are a very confident team that continues to grow," Harden said after the Nets swept the season series, having defeated the Clippers 124-120 on Feb 2 in Brooklyn.
He noted the "night and day" difference in the side's toughness since joining them from the Houston Rockets in mid-January.
"We're playing hard and we're playing smart," added the three-time scoring champion.
"We've had time to go over things on both sides of the ball and that's why we're playing better."
An improving Nets - now the bookmakers' second favourites to win the title after reigning champions Lakers - spell trouble for the rest of the league.
As it is, the Nets are 12-4 against teams that are .500 or better this season - the best win rate (75 per cent) in the NBA.
And Harden's latest performance did not go unnoticed.
Lakers legend Magic Johnson tweeted: "James Harden is playing championship winning basketball because he's in total control of the Nets' offence."
Clippers guard Paul George had 34 points and seven rebounds but sat out the game's crucial minutes down the stretch because he was on a minutes restriction.
Kawhi Leonard had 29 points with five three-pointers and 13 rebounds, while Ivica Zubac finished with 13 points and eight rebounds.
The hosts erased the Nets' 15-point fourth-quarter lead and tied the game before DeAndre Jordan tipped in from Irving's missed three-point attempt with 11 seconds left. Harden then sealed the win with two free throws.
"A non-negotiable step in any team's aspirations is to have that resolve and toughness and connectivity," said Nets head coach Steve Nash.
"I've been saying that since day one and we're starting to see more consistent efforts. I just get a sense that our guys are coming together a little more off the floor as well."
At the other end of the standings, the Minnesota Timberwolves have a league-worst record of 7-24 following Sunday's 103-99 loss to the New York Knicks.
They fired head coach Ryan Saunders after the game at Madison Square Garden, adding that a replacement would be revealed within 24 hours.
Saunders, who had three seasons with the team, had a 43-94 record.
The Timberwolves face the Milwaukee Bucks today, with the Toronto Raptors' Chris Finch set to be named their new coach, according to multiple reports.
Sunday was just the 11th time two-time All-Star centre Karl-Anthony Towns played for the Timberwolves this season. He missed six games with a dislocated wrist and 13 due to a bout with the coronavirus. Minnesota also have D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards - last year's No. 1 draft pick - on the roster.