These five NBA players returning from injury could make an impact on playoff race

The Boston Celtics had their four-game winning streak snapped Thursday when they opened the second half of the season against the Brooklyn Nets.

There was a silver lining in the 121-109 loss, though, with the return of Marcus Smart. The guard had missed Boston's previous 18 games with a strained calf. Smart played well with 19 points in 21 minutes (4-of-6 shooting overall, 3-of-5 on 3s, 8-of-9 on free throws), a promising sign for a Celtics team that missed his defense and ball-handling.

"It felt good to be back out there with those guys," Smart said. "Obviously first game back, a little jitters. But it’s like riding a bike."

“Our effort was there. I can live with a loss when our effort is there.”

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Smart's return should be a big boost for the Celtics, who are now tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference. An elite perimeter defender and one of the team's best passers, his presence back in the rotation can help the Celtics make a push into the top three in the East.

"Happy to see him back and healthy," said Jayson Tatum. "Obviously, we're a better team when everyone's there and healthy, and his presence on both ends is no secret."


Boston went 9-9 in the 18 games Marcus Smart missed with a calf injury. (Photo: Adam Hunger, AP)

Here are four more players whose return from injury in the second half could have a big impact on the playoff race:

1. C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers: McCollum (left foot fracture) was cleared for contact practice last week, and Nurkic might not be far behind. With a healthy and complete rotation, the Blazers are Western Conference finals contenders

2. Caris LeVert, Pacers: His debut with the Pacers appears imminent after a small mass was found on his kidney when he was acquired in a January trade. LeVert gives Indiana a needed third playmaker next to Malcolm Bragdon and Domantas Sabonis.

3. Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies: While his return from left meniscus surgery has been delayed, Jackson will re-evaluated later this month or early next month. The Grizzlies still hope he can return this season and potentially lift them to a top-sex seed.

4. De'Andre Hunter, Hawks: He's stepped up his rehab recently after right knee surgery in February and will be re-evaluated next week. Hunter was emerging as an elite defender with flexibility and should stabilize the Atlanta defense when he returns.

And here are four more things to know today in the NBA:

Kyrie puts on a show

Kyrie Irving tied his season high with 40 points to key the Nets' win over the Celtics, shooting 15-of-23 from the field and 5-of-8 from deep against his former team Thursday. Irving and the Nets have won 11 of their last 12 and are staking their claim as the team to beat in the East, even while Kevin Durant remains out with a hamstring injury.

? 40 POINTS on 23 SHOTS for KYRIE [email protected] and the @BrooklynNets have won 11 of 12.

Sixers roll without stars

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons missed Thursday's game due to contact tracing, but the Philadelphia 76ers still easily handled the Chicago Bulls 127-105. It's a nice win for the Sixers — shorthanded and without their stars — that could prove helpful down the stretch as they vie for East supremacy with the Nets and Bucks.

Tucker wants out of Houston

P.J. Tucker's time in Houston is done after he and the Rockets mutually agreed to part ways. He was a healthy scratch Thursday against the Sacramento Kings. After the game — the Rockets' 14th straight loss — coach Stephen Silas revealed Tucker would remain away from the team while it tries to orchestrate a trade.

Game of the night: Nuggets at Grizzlies

Denver opens the second half as a team on the rise, winner of four in a row and nine of 13. Nikola Jokic has been an MVP candidate as the Nuggets look to move into the top four in the West. Ja Morant and the Grizzlies are primed to make a second-half push up the standings, and a win over a playoff contender like the Nuggets could be the catalyst.

Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.

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