Kyrie Irving is a step closer to making his season debut.

The Eastern Conference-leading Brooklyn Nets announced Tuesday that Irving, along with Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, have cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols – a major step toward getting them back on the court.

Irving has not played this season, largely because of his decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and the Nets initially not being willing to have the perennial All-Star with them on a part-time basis. Irving has not been eligible to play home games because of a local rule in New York requiring vaccinations, and he and the Nets decided earlier this month that having him back – even if only for road games – will allow the team “to more optimally balance the physical demand on the entire roster.”

Durant hasn’t played since Dec. 16, but he has missed only three games so far because the Nets had three others postponed due to their virus issues. Aldridge has not played since Dec. 12, missing five games.

While the Nets were closer to becoming whole again – and it was not clear when any of the protocols-clearing players would actually be able to play again – other teams were still in the throes of serious virus-related depletion. Atlanta added three players to its list of those in the protocols, giving the Hawks 13 currently dealing with a virus-related issue.

And Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault became the latest NBA coach to enter health and safety protocols, joining the Los Angeles Lakers’ Frank Vogel, Chicago’s Billy Donovan, Portland’s Chauncey Billups and Phoenix’s Monty Williams.

Daigneault was ruled out from coaching the Thunder game Tuesday against Sacramento. Mike Wilks will be the acting coach for that game, the team said.

Another notable addition to the protocols: Miami’s Udonis Haslem, who has had to play far more than usual lately because the Heat have been without centers Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon because of injury. Haslem was ruled out of the Heat game Tuesday against Washington, a matchup where the Wizards were bracing to miss at least a half-dozen players for virus issues alone.

The league began Tuesday with about 120 players in the protocols. Numbers tend to change frequently as players test in and out over the course of each day, and the league updated its protocols Monday to allow shorter return-to-play procedures for players provided they meet certain criteria related to symptoms and test results.

That should mean some players who are on the current protocols list could be back on the floor quicker than first planned.

The surprising Cleveland Cavaliers, who have managed to win 7 of 8 while dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, got back rookie forward Evan Mobley while placing guard Darius Garland into protocols. But Washington – which was hoping to see Rui Hachimura make his season debut at Miami on Tuesday – will wait a bit longer, after he got added to the protocols.

With so many players in protocols this season, the NBA has allowed teams in need to sign players to hardship contracts in recent weeks without the burden of adding those unplanned salaries to salary cap and luxury tax totals. That is the biggest reason why the NBA has already seen more players appear in a game this season than in any other year in league history – 546 and counting, entering Tuesday, with the season not even to the midway point yet.

The previous record for players used in a full season was 540.

TUESDAY’S GAMES

BUCKS 127, MAGIC 110: Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, Bobby Portis scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half and Milwaukee won at Orlando, Florida.

Milwaukee has won four in a row and five of its last seven. Since starting the season 6-8, the Bucks have gone 17-5 to surge back near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

Khris Middleton scored 21 points for the Bucks, and Jrue Holiday chipped in 18 points and 10 assists. Antetokounmpo capped his 24th 20-point night in the fourth quarter by chucking Orlando’s Freddie Gillespie to the floor with a forearm before dunking with his left hand.

Orlando rookie forward Franz Wagner scored 27 of his career-best 38 points in the second half.

HEAT 119, WIZARDS 112: Tyler Herro scored 32 points off the Miami bench, Jimmy Butler finished with 25 points and a career-best 15 assists, and the depleted Heat held off depleted Washington.

Duncan Robinson added 26 points for Miami, making eight 3-pointers on a night the Heat got by with an eight-man rotation that might be facing a new challenge after Butler twisted his right ankle with 1:03 remaining.

Kyle Lowry is in the health and safety protocols, Bam Adebayo is out with a thumb injury and now the Heat will start a two-week trip Wednesday in San Antonio with Butler either missing or quite possibly ailing.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 24 points and Kyle Kuzma had 22 for Washington. Davis Bertans scored 19, Daniel Gafford finished with 16 and Corey Kispert added 14 for the Wizards.

Both teams were without eight players, mostly for virus-related reasons as the numbers remained high around the NBA.

76ERS 114, RAPTORS 109: Tobias Harris had 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists for his first career triple-double, Joel Embiid finished with 36 points and 11 rebounds, and Philadelphia won at Toronto.

Georges Niang scored 19 points, Seth Curry had 12 and Furkan Korkmaz 10 as the 76ers won their second straight.

Chris Boucher scored a season-high 28 points and matched his career high with 19 rebounds, but the depleted Raptors lost their second straight.

Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., and Malachi Flynn returned for Toronto after being among the 10 players to miss Sunday’s 144-99 loss at Cleveland because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Isaac Bonga, and Justin Champagnie remain in the protocols.

KNICKS 96, TIMBERWOLVES 88: Mitchell Robinson had 14 points and a season-high 18 rebounds, Julius Randle added 13 points and 15 boards, and New York won at Minneapolis.

Evan Fournier scored 13 points, and Quentin Grimes added 11 off the bench for the Knicks in their second straight win.

Malik Beasley had 20 points and Jaden McDaniels added a season-high 18 for Minnesota, which has lost 3 of 4.

With stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell all out due to COVID-19 protocols, Minnesota was able to knock off Boston on Monday. With all three still unavailable one day later, the Wolves couldn’t repeat that performance against the Knicks, thanks in large part to poor shooting.
Minnesota shot just 40% from the floor and a season-low 18.4% (7 for 38) from 3-point range.

PELICANS 108, CAVALIERS 104: Garrett Temple nailed four 3-pointers in a 3:50 span of the fourth quarter and rookie Herb Jones scored a career-high 26 points to lift New Orleans to a comeback victory over visiting Cleveland.

The Cavaliers led by as many as 23 points in the first quarter but could not ward off a strong three quarters by the Pelicans.

LAKERS 132, ROCKETS 123: LeBron James and Russell Westbrook both had triple-doubles and visiting Los Angeles snapped a season-high, five-game skid.

James had 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for his third triple-double this season. Westbrook scored 24 points with 12 rebounds and 10 assists for his seventh of the season.

Houston stuck around for most of the night, but James took over late to allow the Lakers to pull away and hand the Rockets their fifth consecutive loss.

Comments are not available on this story.