SALT LAKE CITY: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz passes the ball during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. – AFP

LOS ANGELES: Donovan Mitchell scored 28 points to lead the Utah Jazz to a sixth straight NBA victory on Tuesday, a 118-102 triumph over Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. Mitchell piled up 15 points in the first quarter on an efficient six-of-seven shooting from the field. “I was just doing my job and trying to find was to provide a spark,” said Mitchell, who finished with seven rebounds and four assists.

“Tonight it was getting to the rim early and trying to be aggressive and score.” French center Rudy Gobert added 13 points, 18 rebounds and three blocked shots. Jordan Clarkson added 18 points off the bench and reserve Joe Ingles, returning from a three-game absence due to an Achilles tendon injury, chipped in 15 for the Jazz who improved to 10-4 to match the Los Angeles Clippers for second place in the Western Conference behind the 11-4 Los Angeles Lakers.

The Pelicans had the edge in the paint, where they out-scored the Jazz 64-42. But Utah drained 21 three-pointers to New Orleans’ six. Williamson, the 20-year-old taken first overall in the 2019 draft, led the Pels with 32 points and five rebounds. He was five-for-five from the field in the first quarter and his layup capped a 7-0 scoring run that put New Orleans up 20-18 with 4:09 left in the first period. Brandon Ingram added 17 points for New Orleans. But Lonzo Ball — back after missing three games with a knee injury — had just seven and Steven Adams scored six and the Pelicans never led in the second half.

Nuggets win big
It was similarly lopsided in the night’s only other contest, with Nuggets guard Nikola Jokic scoring 27 points and pulling down 12 rebounds in a 119-101 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Denver. Jokic also handed out six assists and with the game well in hand sat out the fourth quarter along with the rest of Denver’s starters.

Monte Morris added 15 points off the bench and Paul Millsap and Will Barton scored 13 points apiece for the Nuggets. Denver, who reached the Western Conference finals last season but have been off to a slow start in this campaign, improved to 7-7. Luguentz Dort led the Thunder with 20 points, 15 of them in the first half. But Denver took control in the second quarter and never trailed after halftime, pushing their lead to as many as 29 points in the fourth quarter.

The Thunder were coming off an unexpectedly long break since a victory over the Chicago Bulls on Friday. Their game against the Philadelphia 76ers scheduled for Sunday was postponed because the 76ers didn’t have the required eight available players because of COVID-19 health protocols.

Broken foot
Portland guard CJ McCollum, averaging a career-best 26.7 points for the Trail Blazers this NBA season, has a broken left foot and will be sidelined at least four weeks, the team said. “It’s just some bad timing, terrible timing,” McCollum said Tuesday, a day after the team confirmed that tests had revealed the hairline fracture.

It had initially been thought he suffered only a left foot sprain in Portland’s victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday and would miss about a week. Instead he will wear a walking boot and be re-evaluated in four weeks. “There’s nothing I can really do about it,” McCollum said. “I work hard and take care of myself, I put a lot of time in, I put a lot of effort into my body and this is one of those situations where there’s not much I could have done.”

The Blazers said the injury occurred in the first quarter of Saturday’s game, when Hawks center Clint Capela stepped on McCollum’s foot as he tried to contest an attempt at the rim. McCollum left the game briefly but returned, scoring 16 points in 19 minutes before departing for good at halftime. McCollum’s injury is another blow for the Blazers. Center Jusuf Nurkic broke his wrist in a game last week and will require surgery. The team said he would be re-evaluated in six weeks.

Focus on health
NBA guard Caris LeVert says the trade that sent him from the Brooklyn Nets to the Indiana Pacers last week might just have saved his life. LeVert arrived in Indiana feeling fine and eager to join his new teammates. He was shocked when the medical exam needed to confirm the deal found a small mass on his left kidney. “I’m definitely humbled to know that this trade could have possibly saved me in the long run,” the 26-year-old said during a video conference with reporters on Tuesday.

“It’s definitely been some trying times for sure, for myself and my family,” said LeVert, who arrived at Indiana as part of the blockbuster deal that sent James Harden from Houston to the Nets and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo to the Rockets. “I’m very grateful for such support I’ve received from not only the Pacers players, but the front office and the fans and everybody associated with this program,” he said.

LeVert said on Tuesday that he does not yet know if the mass is cancerous. He is waiting for the results of additional tests before determining any potential next steps, including possible surgery. For now he is sidelined indefinitely. “Obviously I want to play as soon as possible. I’m a competitor, I love the game, but for me I think making sure I’m good health-wise is most important right now.”

LeVert said he hadn’t experienced any pain or symptoms and felt “100 percent healthy” playing for the Nets this season. “A lot of things creeped through my mind,” LeVert said. “I didn’t really know what was going on, I didn’t know the next steps, I didn’t know if the trade was going to go through. But obviously it did and I think that’s a testament to this organization,” he said.

Irving returns
Kyrie Irving returned to the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday after missing the NBA club’s past seven games, saying he “just needed a pause” due to personal issues. The 28-year-old American guard spoke generally about family matters and mental health issues in his first comments since the layoff that began after he played January 5.

“Happy to be back. Happy to be around these guys,” Irving said. “We got some great pieces and we just move on and I let my actions and my game speak for itself like I planned on doing. Just needed a pause.” Since his departure, he was fined $50,000 for violating NBA COVID-19 health and safety protocols after being seen in a video attending what appeared to be a family birthday party, also losing more than $800,000 in salary for missing two games while serving an NBA quarantine.

Irving’s absence, five games for personal reasons and two more for conditioning, began the day of an invasion of the US Capitol in Washington that led to five deaths and increased security for Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony for President Joe Biden. Irving said he needed to separate being an NBA player from major social issues such as politics or the Black Lives Matter movement. While Irving was gone, Brooklyn obtained three-time NBA scoring champion James Harden in a huge four-team trade deal.

The Nets, 9-6, are 2-0 since Harden’s arrival as he joined forces with fellow former NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant to make a formidable inside-outside combination despite little practice time together. Irving — averaging 27.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists a game — could return to form a ‘Big Three’ on the same Cleveland court where he was part of another powerful trio on the Cavaliers alongside LeBron James and Kevin Love that produced an NBA title in 2016. – AFP