LOS ANGELES: Nikola Jokic bagged his 21st triple-double of the season Wednesday as the Denver Nuggets maintained their grip on the top spot in the NBA´s Western Conference with a 118-109 victory over the Dallas Mavericks.
The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists to set up a third straight win for Denver, who now lead the standings by five games with 41 wins and 18 defeats.
The Mavericks were without new signing Kyrie Irving, who watched from the sidelines as Luka Doncic finished with 37 points in vain at Denver´s Ball Arena.
Irving was ruled out of what would have been only his fifth game for Dallas after complaining of lower back tightness.
Without Irving´s offensive firepower, Dallas struggled to get in the game.
Doncic was the only Mavs starter to finish in double digits — a stark contrast to Denver, which saw all of their starters make double figures.
Michael Porter Jr. backed Jokic with 22 points, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 14. Jeff Green scored 24 off the bench.
Elsewhere Wednesday, LeBron James returned from an injury absence to help the new-look Los Angeles Lakers rout the New Orleans Pelicans 120-102.
James had not played since breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar´s NBA all-time scoring record last week due to a niggling ankle problem.
But the 38-year-old star showed no sign of lingering fitness issues, scoring 21 points in the Lakers victory. Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points while newly acquired point guard D´Angelo Russell impressed with a 21-point haul.
In Boston, Jayson Tatum returned in style with 38 points as the Celtics trounced Detroit 127-109.
Tatum, who missed Tuesday´s loss to Milwaukee, shot 15-of-24 from the field including six from three-point range.
The Eastern Conference leaders improved to 42-17 with the victory and once more demonstrated their depth, with Malcolm Brogdon adding 25 off the bench.
Bojan Bogdanovic (28 points) led the Pistons scoring.
The win means Boston will remain the Eastern Conference´s No. 1 seed heading into the All-Star break later this week.
"All things considered, with everything we went through this season as a team — coaching changes, guys getting injured and missing games — overall it´s been a hell of a start," said Tatum.
In Philadelphia, Joel Embiid´s 29-point haul helped the 76ers claim a 118-112 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game that had threatened to go badly wrong for the Sixers during a lopsided second half.
The Sixers seemed to be cruising to a comfortable win after dominating the first half to lead 63-38 at half-time.
But Donovan Mitchell caught fire for Cleveland after the break with 25 second-half points, and a game that looked set for a Sixers blowout suddenly became a contest.
The Sixers led by 28 points in the third quarter but Cleveland´s comeback saw that lead shrink to just four points with under two minutes remaining.
Philadelphia, however, did just enough to hold on for the win, despite being outscored 42-31 in the final quarter.
"We played great in the first half, probably couldn´t have played any better," said Sixers coach Doc Rivers, adding that the looming mid-season All-Star break might have explained his team´s limp second-half display.
"Second half, I think the All-Star break started," Rivers said.
"I loved how we came out with the intensity, but we just couldn´t sustain it... Tonight was almost a case of finding a way not to win right at the end.
"But we´ll take the win."
In Brooklyn, Mikal Bridges erupted for a career-high 45 points to help the Nets sink the Miami Heat 116-105.
Bridges, who joined Brooklyn from Phoenix as part of the blockbuster trade that sent Kevin Durant to the Suns, went 17-for-24 from the field.
"My teammates just kept finding me," Bridges said.
"They felt like I had it going and just kept giving me the ball. They gave me the confidence to go out there and be aggressive.
"But I go out there to win, so it´s an empty stat for me if we lose. I´m just happy we got the dub."