Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas was like a new man after his team finally ended a 20-match losing streak in the NBA.

Silas was left distraught after Sunday's narrow 114-112 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but felt a huge weight lifted off his shoulders following a long-awaited victory over the Toronto Raptors the next day.

Houston were in the midst of a franchise-record drought – the Rockets' skid tied for the ninth-worst in NBA history and the longest since the Philadelphia 76ers' 28-game losing streak across the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns.

But the Rockets recorded an overdue victory on Monday, celebrating their first win since February 4 behind John Wall's 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a 117-99 triumph over the Toronto Raptors.

"It's like indescribable for a win in March of this crazy season," Silas said.

"I'm just so proud of the guys. When you're like going through it and fighting so hard and you just see the disappointment in the players' faces after loss after loss after loss.

"Then to go into the locker room after today's game and everybody's just happy and joyous, I mean, it's super cool and great.

"I was down and out yesterday. It seems like a week ago now. We regroup, we come together, and it feels a lot better just because I know it feels great for the players.

"Like, whatever for me, but I'm just so happy for those guys that they don't have to hear about it and deal with it."

The game saw Wall's first triple-double since March 2016 as the Raptors crashed to a ninth consecutive defeat – now the league's longest active losing run.

And Wall conceded it had been a tough spell to endure, one he was glad to see come to an end.

"Losing 20 straight, we haven't been healthy, but that's not an excuse because everybody's been going through health and safety protocols and injuries," he said. 

"We just went out there and competed, no matter what and what was going on."

Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry will miss Tuesday's clash against the Philadelphia 76ers as he struggles with a tailbone bruise.

Curry has been sidelined since hurting his back in the Warriors' win over the Houston Rockets in the NBA on Wednesday.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr – while optimistic Curry will return soon – said the former two-time MVP will sit out his third consecutive game.

"He's not going to play [Tuesday]," Kerr told reporters following Monday's practice. "He did not practice today.

"He's still pretty sore. And so we're going to continue to list him as day-to-day, but still sore today and went through some activities in the training room, strengthening, and movement-wise.

"And he's not ready to go ... I talked to him today, he just said 'It's still sore'."

Kerr, ahead of his team's showdown with the Eastern Conference leaders, added: "It's not something we're concerned about. But it's obviously going to take more time."

Curry is averaging 29.0 points (fifth best in the NBA), 6.2 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game for the Warriors this season.

The three-time NBA champion has made the most three-pointers in the league in 2020-21 (182), while his three-point average of 4.7 is the best in the NBA.

The Houston Rockets snapped their 20-game losing streak after John Wall posted his first triple-double since 2016 in a 117-99 win against the slumping Toronto Raptors.

Houston were in the midst of a franchise-record drought – the Rockets' skid tied for the ninth-worst in NBA history and the worst since the Philadelphia 76ers and their record-setting 28-game losing streak across the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns.

But the Rockets recorded an overdue victory on Monday, celebrating their first win since February 4 behind Wall's 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

It was Wall's first triple-double since March 2016 as the Raptors crashed to a ninth consecutive defeat – now the league's longest active losing streak.

Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out due to a sprained left knee, but the Milwaukee Bucks still routed the Indiana Pacers 140-113 in the absence of the two-time reigning MVP.

Jrue Holiday led the way with 28 points and 14 assists to guide the Bucks to a seventh consecutive victory at home to the Pacers.

 

Gobert enjoys career-high game

Rudy Gobert had 21 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high nine blocks as the NBA-leading Utah Jazz eased past the Chicago Bulls 120-95. The All-Star became the first Jazz player to record nine-plus blocks in a game since Andrei Kirilenko in 2006. Gobert fell just short of becoming the first Jazz player to post a triple-double since 2008. Donovan Mitchell added 30 points for the visiting Jazz.

Luke Kennard was flawless in the Los Angeles Clippers' 119-110 win against the Atlanta Hawks. He was eight-of-eight shooting, while he also made all four of his three-point attempts for 20 points off the bench in 18 minutes. Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and Terance Mann contributed a season-high 21 points as the Clippers rallied from a 22-point deficit in the second half, snapping Atlanta's eight-game winning streak.

The Oklahoma City Thunder topped the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-103 thanks to 31 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Oklahoma City set a season high with 21 three-pointers in just 37 attempts (56.8 per cent).

 

George struggles

The Clippers won but star Paul George struggled. In 33 minutes, George had eight points on just three-of-12 shooting. He was also just two-of-seven from three-point range.

Chris Boucher had a forgettable outing for the out-of-form Raptors. He was one-of-seven shooting, while missing all four of his attempts from beyond the arc in a four-point display.

 

From inside his own half!

Danuel House Jr. nailed a stunning half-time buzzer-beater from beyond half court against the Raptors.

 

Monday's results

Sacramento Kings 119-105 Cleveland Cavaliers
Oklahoma City Thunder 112-103 Minnesota Timberwolves
Charlotte Hornets 100-97 San Antonio Spurs
Utah Jazz 120-95 Chicago Bulls
Houston Rockets 117-99 Toronto Raptors
Memphis Grizzlies 132-126 Boston Celtics (OT)
Milwaukee Bucks 140-113 Indiana Pacers
Los Angeles Clippers 119-110 Atlanta Hawks

 

76ers at Warriors

The Eastern Conference-leading 76ers (30-13) – riding back-to-back wins – travel to the Golden State Warriors (22-21) on Tuesday. Golden State will be without star Stephen Curry (back).

Brooklyn Nets star James Harden is questionable to face the Portland Trail Blazers due to neck soreness.

Harden appeared to hurt his neck during a collision with Garrison Mathews in Sunday's 113-106 NBA win over the Washington Wizards.

Now, Harden is in doubt for Tuesday's clash with the Trail Blazers in Portland, where the star-studded Nets will be without Kyrie Irving (personal matter) and Kevin Durant (hamstring).

After posting 26 points, eight assists and five rebounds, Harden told reporters: "I got hit in the jaw. My neck kind of twitched. I'll be all right.

"It's nothing. Get some treatment on it, get some rest and be ready to go the next game."

Harden was on the court for 39 minutes, the most for any Nets player. Prior to Sunday's win, the former Houston Rockets star had featured for 40-plus minutes in four of the franchise's previous eights outings either side of the All-Star break. 

This season, Harden is averaging the most minutes in the NBA with 37.9, with Julius Randle of the New York Knicks next on 37.

"I'm concerned about the minutes," Nets head coach Steve Nash said after beating the Wizards.

"I'm not sure what the answer is, though. He controls the game. He hasn't shot the ball well since the [All-Star] break, but he made three threes tonight.  

"He gets to the line. He makes assists, rebounds, steals. He's great around the basket. He had another great performance even if it wasn't necessarily a typical Harden game.  

"So it's hard to take him off the floor because he makes his team-mates better."

Harden is averaging 25.3 points, a league-best 11.1 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game for the Nets this season.

The former MVP tops the list for most assists in the league this season (410), while he ranks fifth for points/assists/rebounds averaged per game (44.4).

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo missed Monday's clash with the Indiana Pacers due to a left knee sprain.

Two-time reigning NBA MVP Antetokounmpo sustained the injury during Saturday's 120-113 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Antetokounmpo's status for Wednesday's showdown against Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics remains unknown.

"We'll see how he does this next day or two," said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer prior to the Pacers matchup.

"We'll see how the next couple days go and we'll just kind of make decisions that are best for him.

"And keeping him really healthy, but there's no decisions regarding Wednesday as of now."

Antetokounmpo has been averaging 29.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game this season for the streaking Bucks, who had won six straight games before Monday's fixture.

Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving will miss the next three NBA games due to a family matter, the team announced on Monday.

The Nets will be without Irving for their upcoming three-game road trip, which consists of matchups against the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons.

Brooklyn – second in the Eastern Conference behind the Philadelphia 76ers – are already without former MVP Kevin Durant, who has been sidelined since February 13 due to a hamstring strain.

Irving has already missed time this season – the 2016 NBA champion was sidelined for two weeks due to a personal absence in January.

The seven-time All-Star also broke the league's COVID-19 protocols, which delayed his return to the Nets line-up, with the NBA fining Irving $50,000.

Irving had to sacrifice his salary for the games he missed while quarantining, which reportedly amounted to $816,898 in addition to the fine.

He is averaging a career-high 28.1 points, 5.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game for the star-studded Nets this season.

The 28-year-old's field-goal percentage this season (52.0) is also a career-high.

Irving ranks second for field goals made per game (10.8 – a career-high), only behind Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal (11.3).

This has not been a fun season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who remain at the foot of the Western Conference.

Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell have both missed extended periods and the team have a miserable 10-32 record, the worst in the entire NBA.

But three of those wins have come since the All-Star break, a period in which the T-Wolves are actually operating at .500.

They were 1-2 over the past week but faced a daunting schedule and appear to belatedly have some cause for optimism.

Rookie Anthony Edwards is finally cooking and leads our NBA Heat Check for March 15-21, powered by Stats Perform data.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns

If this young Minnesota team is to develop into a competitive NBA outfit, they need to have both guard Edwards and center Towns fit and firing. That was belatedly the case last week.

Edwards, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, hinted at what was to come at the end of the previous week when he put up 34 points in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers, a career-best tally at that stage.

The benchmark was swiftly raised higher, though, as he followed up 29 points against the Los Angeles Lakers with 42 in a victory at the Phoenix Suns. That was a new T-Wolves rookie record and made Edwards the third-youngest NBA player ever to put up 40 points, after LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

The 19-year-old was not alone in passing 40 either, with Towns contributing 41 in only the second ever Minnesota game to feature two 40-point performances.

Towns' weekly average of 31.3 points - up on his prior seasonal tally of 21.8 - provided a timely reminder of his talents, while Edwards - up from 15.6 to 27.3 - will hope he has set a new standard with Rookie of the Year honours perhaps now in his sights, the race blown open by LaMelo Ball's injury.

Luka Doncic

The ROTY chase followed the same trend as the MVP hunt, with Joel Embiid and LeBron James both facing spells on the sidelines and encouraging other contenders. Doncic is not among the frontrunners quite yet, but do not bet against the Dallas Mavericks sensation.

Doncic headed into last week having missed two of the Mavs' prior four games, scoring 22 and 21 points in two wins when he did feature. By the Slovenian's lofty standards, this was a lean spell.

The 22-year-old point guard was soon back to his best, though. He averaged 35.5 points across the subsequent four games, with 42 against the Los Angeles Clippers a clear high point.

Doncic made 5.5 threes per game from 11.5 attempts for 47.8 per cent, a mark that would across the whole season rank him fourth in the league.

Joe Ingles

One of the three players with a better three-point percentage is Utah Jazz forward Ingles, who is shooting 49 per cent from beyond the arc after a week in which that figure was boosted considerably.

Having made 2.4 threes across his first 34 games of the season, Ingles converted an outstanding 5.7 over the next three.

His weekly points per game return was a hugely impressive 22.3 - up 11 on his prior average - after a career-high 34 points against the Washington Wizards, the only game the Jazz have lost this season with Ingles in the lineup.
 

GOING COLD...

Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk

Ball's injury brought a miserable end to a tough week for the Charlotte Hornets, in which they started with a win over the Sacramento Kings before losing three straight.

And Ball will be an even bigger miss than already feared if Hayward and Monk perform as they did over those four games.

Hayward started strongly but scored seven on back-to-back nights and averaged 14 points for the week, while Monk saw his minutes cut and contributed just six points per game - including none at the Lakers - as he made only two of nine threes.

Stephen Curry

Curry is another who might not be a million miles away from the MVP race, but he is trending in the wrong direction.

The Golden State Warriors great has had 62- and 57-point games this season, yet his average for the year is down to 29 after scoring 22.5 per game in meetings with the Lakers and the Houston Rockets last week.

Curry, who made six of 18 threes, then missed consecutive games with a tailbone injury.

While a slight decline in scoring is not a huge concern for the Warriors, they certainly need their main man healthy.

Trae Young

The Atlanta Hawks are enjoying a superb eight-game winning streak, but their leading scorer actually endured a tougher week shooting the basketball.

With 34 assists across three games, Young averaged a double-double, yet he scored only 16.7 points and made 0.5 threes per game. His 9.7 points per game decline on his seasonal tally was the second-worst of the week across the NBA.

Fortunately, Danilo Gallinari and John Collins stepped up, so the Hawks will now hope they can get all their stars firing at once.

The Los Angeles Lakers will need a little time to adjust to life without LeBron James, according to head coach Frank Vogel, though their sidelined star was present for Sunday's loss to the Phoenix Suns. 

James is out indefinitely due to an ankle injury but still travelled to Phoenix to support his team, along with Anthony Davis, who is also currently out. 

The duo watched on as the Lakers slipped to a 111-94 defeat on the road, despite 23 points from Montrezl Harrell on 10-of-13 shooting. Dennis Schroder, meanwhile, contributed 22 points. 

Vogel explained afterwards how point guard Schroder is set to become the "head of the snake" in the absence of the team's two leading names, with the reigning NBA champions now 0-2 when playing without LeBron this season. 

"I think our guys really fought tonight," Vogel said. "We didn't shoot the ball that well, but I thought we competed at a very high level. 

"It is going to take a little time as we adjust, figure out where the shots are coming from and what our new identity is going to look like." 

He added in his post-game news conference: "Obviously, Dennis Schroder is going to be the head of the snake with the ball in his hands the most, dictating some of the action. 

"But we've got a lot of veteran guys on this team that can lead, and we encourage our guys to lead from every chair in the room." 


Schroder felt the presence of James – wearing a boot to protect the high ankle sprain he suffered in Saturday's game with the Atlanta Hawks – on the bench demonstrated the four-time MVP's commitment to the cause. 

"In my career, I've seen people getting hurt and don't come on the road trip; and for him, being the best - one of the best who ever played this game - that you see him on the bench being there even if he's hurt, means a lot to me and all the other [players on this team] too," Schroder said. 

It still remains unclear how long James will be sidelined; the 36-year-old was having an outstanding season prior to the injury, averaging 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists, putting him firmly in the MVP conversation. 

As for Davis, he has not played since February 14 due to a calf issue.

Steve Nash is concerned by the amount of minutes James Harden is playing for the Brooklyn Nets but says it is difficult to limit his game time due to the way he lifts his team-mates. 

The Nets rebounded from a surprise defeat to the Orlando Magic with a 113-106 triumph over the Washington Wizards, Harden putting up 26 points, eight assists and five rebounds as Blake Griffin made his Brooklyn debut. 

Harden was on court for 39 minutes, the most for any Nets player. Prior to Sunday's win, the former Houston Rockets star had featured for 40-plus minutes in four of the franchise's previous eights outings either side of the All-Star break. 

This season, Harden is averaging the most minutes in the NBA with 37.9, with Julius Randle of the New York Knicks next on 37. 

Asked about Harden's time spent on court, head coach Nash said: "I'm concerned about the minutes.  

"I'm not sure what the answer is, though. He controls the game. He hasn't shot the ball well since the [All-Star] break, but he made three threes tonight.  

"He gets to the line. He makes assists, rebounds, steals. He's great around the basket. He had another great performance even if it wasn't necessarily a typical Harden game.  

"So it's hard to take him off the floor because he makes his team-mates better."

The Nets trailed by as many as 14 points during the first quarter and were down by five at the end of the period, yet Harden scored the opening nine points of the second as Brooklyn seized a lead they would never relinquish. 

There was a scary moment towards the end of the first half where Harden appeared to hurt his neck during a collision with Garrison Mathews. 

Harden insisted after the game he was fine following the incident. 

"I got hit in the jaw. My neck kind of twitched. I'll be all right. It's nothing. Get some treatment on it, get some rest and be ready to go the next game," Harden said. 

The Nets now hit the road for three successive games and Harden urged the team never to look beyond the next opponent. 

"I think every game is a test for us. We're not allowed to take anyone lightly. We don't have the luxury of that," he added.  

"We saw that last game. Every night we prepare for our opponent to the best of our ability, and the coaches do a really good job of that to prepare us, and we go out there and try to execute.  

"Our next opponent is Portland, who have been playing pretty well. We've just got to take it one game at a time, and that's the most important thing.  

"We can't look further down the line. I think if we have that mindset – one game at a time, one possession at a time – good things happen for us."

James Harden and Kyrie Irving combined to lead the star-studded Brooklyn Nets to a 113-106 victory over the Washington Wizards as Blake Griffin made his bow.

Harden posted 26 points and eight assists, while Irving had 28 points and seven rebounds to fuel the Nets in the NBA on Sunday.

The Wizards, who trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and 12 in the second, closed to 103-102 three minutes from the end in Brooklyn, where former All-Star Griffin debuted after his arrival from the Detroit Pistons earlier this month.

But Nicolas Claxton (16 points) stepped up with two dunks and some big plays down the stretch to lift the Nets past the Wizards.

Russell Westbrook finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists but the Wizards still lost on the road, where team-mate Rui Hachimura added 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Elsewhere, Zion Williamson joined Shaquille O'Neal (2000-01) as the only players in the shot-clock era to score 20-plus points on 50 per cent shooting or better in 20 consecutive games in a single season.

Williamson posted 30 points on nine-of-13 shooting from the field as the New Orleans Pelicans upstaged the Denver Nuggets 113-108.

Brandon Ingram also had 30 points for the Pelicans, while MVP candidate and Nuggets star Nikola Jokic (29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) registered his 52nd career triple-double and 11th of the season.

 

Paul reaches milestone

Chris Paul became the sixth player in NBA history to reach 10,000 career assists, joining John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson. Paul finished with 11 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds in the Phoenix Suns' 111-94 victory against the Los Angeles Lakers, who were without injured stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Montrezl Harrell had 23 points and 10 rebounds for defending champions the Lakers.

The Dallas Mavericks routed the Portland Trail Blazers 132-92 behind Luka Doncic's 37 points. His 117 points across a three-game span are the second most in franchise history, only behind his 118 in a three-game period last month.

Collin Sexton scored 23 of his 36 points in the second half and Jarrett Allen (17 points and 15 rebounds) contributed a double-double as the Cleveland Cavaliers topped the slumping Toronto Raptors 116-105, condemning their opponents to an eighth consecutive loss.

The Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers earned their 15th straight win over the New York Knicks – a narrow 101-100 overtime success, dating back to December 2017. It is the longest active winning streak in the NBA by one team over another and the fourth longest run over a single opponent in franchise history.

 

Rockets can't stop the rot

The Houston Rockets suffered a franchise-record 20th consecutive defeat after going down 114-112 at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets' skid is tied for the ninth-worst in NBA history and the worst since the 76ers and their record-setting 28-game losing streak across the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns.

The Pistons and Miami Heat both struggled from three-point range. Detroit were just 16 per cent (four of 25) in their 100-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls, while Miami were 24.3 per cent (nine of 37) in a 109-106 overtime defeat against the Indiana Pacers.

It was a forgettable night for Damian Lillard and the Blazers. All-Star Lillard (19 points) was just seven of 16 from the field, while he missed all seven of his three-point attempts. Portland team-mate C.J. McCollum (13 points) was not much better after going six-of-15 shooting and 0-of-five from beyond the arc in 24 minutes.

 

Griffin can still dunk

Much has been made about Griffin and his lack of dunks. Not since December 2019 had Griffin dunked in the NBA amid question marks over his troublesome knee and fitness. But that changed in his debut on Sunday. Griffin, who finished with two points in 15 minutes, dunked in the final quarter.

 

Sunday's results

Indiana Pacers 109-106 Miami Heat (OT)
Oklahoma City Thunder 114-112 Houston Rockets
New Orleans Pelicans 113-108 Denver Nuggets
Boston Celtics 112-96 Orlando Magic
Brooklyn Nets 113-106 Washington Wizards
Cleveland Cavaliers 116-105 Toronto Raptors
Chicago Bulls 100-86 Detroit Pistons
Philadelphia 76ers 101-1000 New York Knicks (OT)
Phoenix Suns 111-94 Los Angeles Lakers
Dallas Mavericks 132-92 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Pacers at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks (27-14) will look to extend their winning streak to seven games when they host the Pacers (19-22) on Monday. Indiana have won back-to-back games.

Blake Griffin showed he can still dunk in the NBA after capping his Brooklyn Nets debut with his first slam since 2019.

Not since December 2019 had Griffin dunked in the league – the six-time All-Star enduring a 25-game drought amid knee problems.

But Griffin ended the wait in his bow for the Nets in Sunday's 113-106 win over the Washington Wizards, scoring his first points on a dunk at the start of the fourth quarter.

"I knew once it happened, I know it would be a thing," Griffin said of his dunk, having finished with two points and two rebounds in 15 minutes as he works his way back to full fitness.

"It felt good to get that out of the way and move on."

Griffin joined James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the star-studded Nets after agreeing a contract buyout with the Detroit Pistons earlier in March.

The 32-year-old had last played on February 12 while he was still a member of the Pistons organisation.

Griffin played in 20 games for Detroit this season and averaged 12.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

Charlotte Hornets star and NBA Rookie of the Year favourite LaMelo Ball will spend an indefinite spell on the sidelines after fracturing his right wrist.

Ball is reportedly set to miss the remainder of his first season in the league following an MRI scan on Sunday, which revealed a fractured bone.

The 19-year-old rookie sensation will be further evaluated after hurting his wrist in Saturday's 125-98 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Ball has taken the NBA by storm since being drafted by the Hornets with the third pick last year.

He has been averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.59 steals (seventh in the NBA) per game this season.

Among rookie leaders, Ball ranks first in assists and steals, second in scoring and is tied for second in rebounds.

Ball is the only player over the last 60 years to lead all rookies in total points, rebounds, assists and steals at the All-Star Break.

Last month, Ball joined Stephen Curry (2010) and Jason Kidd (1995) as the only rookies with seven-plus threes and 10-plus assists in a game and is the youngest to do so.

Ball also became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double in January.

Joel Embiid's injury last week appeared to clear a path for LeBron James to collect his fifth NBA MVP award.

Philadelphia 76ers big man Embiid - averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, as well as 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals - had already missed seven games this season before he went down with a knee injury against the Washington Wizards.

But Los Angeles Lakers superstar James did not see his clear run at the league's top individual honour last long.

James, who has 25.9 points, 7.9 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game, has carried the Lakers in Anthony Davis' absence but faces his own spell on the sidelines after an ankle sprain on Saturday.

That setback, in a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, means this year's two leading MVP contenders face an uphill task to remain in contention as they sit out a key stretch of the regular season.

Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets center, appears the man most likely to profit and has quickly been installed as the bookmakers' favourite.

But with several twists already in the race to succeed back-to-back winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic's standing is not yet safe.

With the help of Stats Perform data, we run through four potential winners ahead of Sunday's action - including Denver's 'Joker'.
 

NIKOLA JOKIC

The case against Jokic earlier in the season was his displays had not been able to lift the Nuggets into serious contention in the West. With 13 wins in their past 18 games to improve to 25-16, that is no longer the case.

While team-mate Jamal Murray has not been able to consistently perform at the standard he set in the 2019-20 playoffs - averaging 26.5 points in the 'bubble' but 21.1 this season - Jokic has taken his game to another level.

The Serbian's stat line for the year - 27.0 points, 8.6 assists, 11.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals - has never previously been achieved in league history, nor has any player in the past attempted at least 30 field goals across a season while shooting 56.6 per cent from the field, 41.6 per cent from three and 86.6 per cent of free throws.

This is an unprecedented campaign.

DAMIAN LILLARD

Tied with Denver at 25-16 in the West are the Portland Trail Blazers. Considering CJ McCollum has only played 16 games and Jusuf Nurkic 12, that is a quite remarkable achievement, led, of course, by Lillard.

Understandably, Lillard's usage rate is at a career-high 33 per cent, but he is making the most of those extra touches. Only Bradley Beal (32.5) has outperformed his 30.6 points per game - another career benchmark - and the Blazers star leads the league with 1,225 total points. Of those, 136 have come in 'clutch' situations, again putting Lillard at the top of the standings.

Taking a break from Portland's playoff push, Lillard even preserved enough energy to score 32 points in the All-Star Game, just ahead of Team LeBron team-mate and rival Stephen Curry (28). An MVP triumph would certainly see Portland's finest emerge from the shadow of the Golden State Warriors great.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

Antetokounmpo beat James Harden to this award in 2018-19 and then LA's James last season, so a case of voter fatigue was always set to make him an unlikely winner for a third straight year, regardless of performances.

But with Embiid and James both hit by injuries, the 'Greek Freak' surely has to come into consideration. Once again, his numbers are seriously impressive.

The only man to outscore Lillard at the All-Star Game, putting up 35, Antetokounmpo is slightly down on last year's points (29.0 versus 29.5) and rebounds per game (11.7 versus 13.6) but has improved in all of the other key metrics with 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks.

The Milwaukee Bucks forward should be in the picture to retain both his MVP and Defensive Player of the Year titles.

JAMES HARDEN

Surely voters will not reward Harden in the year he forced his way out of the Houston Rockets? On performances alone, though, he deserves to be in the conversation.

The 2017-18 winner is not contributing the same number of points for the Brooklyn Nets as he was in Houston, but then his usage is down to 28.7 per cent for the year (28.1 in Brooklyn), by far the lowest it has been since the statistic was first tracked in 2014-15.

And Harden, still scoring an impressive 25.4 points since joining the Nets, is more than making up for this slight decline elsewhere.

So far the most prominent member of the team's 'big three', with Kevin Durant too often injured and Kyrie Irving absent for a spell, Harden leads the league in 2020-21 for assists (11.2) and is second for triple-doubles (11), making him an unpopular but worthy candidate.

Tobias Harris was inspired to prove the Philadelphia 76ers can compete without Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons after leading his team to a 129-105 victory over the Sacramento Kings.

Embiid missed a fourth straight game with a bruised left knee, while Simmons was a late omission after experiencing knee soreness on Saturday morning.

With fellow starter Seth Curry (ankle) also missing, the 76ers were heavily depleted but managed to chalk up the win with Harris in supreme form – falling just shy of a triple double with 29 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

Shake Milton tallied 28 points and Danny Green chipped in with 18 as the 76ers rallied in the absence of their key men.

For Harris, it was about making a point about the strength in depth of the roster.

"Are we willing to fall into the distraction of, 'hey, we don't have two of our top dogs?', or are we willing to embrace it?" Harris said.

"I take that stuff personal when people believe we can't win without those guys, because I know how much talent we have as a group and I know how well we play together as a team as a whole.

"We have a culture and a system here that works. When we trust it and do what is asked of us, we're a hell of a team."

Philadelphia's stats sheet was impressive. In the first quarter alone, they went 16-of-26 shooting and made six of their eight three-pointers to race into a 42-21 lead.

Late in the third they led by as much as 26 points and by the end of the game were 48 of 86 on shooting, making 11 of 23 from downtown.

Coach Doc Rivers said of Harris: "He really set the tone tonight with his attitude and then obviously his play. His total play was phenomenal.

"With all those guys out, what we did was execute well."

The 76ers are top of the Eastern Conference and now have a 29-13 record. They have a short road trip on Sunday to face the New York Knicks, seventh in the division, at Madison Square Garden.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he is happy the streaking Milwaukee Bucks are flying under the radar this season following their win over the San Antonio Spurs.

The Bucks extended their winning streak to six games after topping the Spurs 120-113 behind superstar Antetokounmpo's 26 points and joint career-high 15 assists on Saturday.

Milwaukee – Eastern Conference semi-finalists last season having fallen just short of the NBA Finals in 2018-19 – have won 11 of their last 12 games to be third in the standings this term.

Unlike the two previous seasons, the Bucks (27-14) have not dominated headlines, instead taking a backseat to the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers (29-13) and star-studded Brooklyn Nets (28-14) but that is the way Antetokounmpo likes it.

"We don't play for people to talk about us," two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo said after the game.

"I kind of like it. I just want to be left alone. I never liked bright lights. I never liked people talking about us. It just adds pressure to me and my teammates to come in and do what we do.

"I kind of like to be under the radar and we just come in, enjoy one another, enjoy playing basketball and we're just getting the job done.

"There's gonna be times they're gonna talk about us, there's gonna be times they're not gonna talk about us, but personally, as I said, I just like being under the radar."

Not since 1971 have the Bucks won the championship as Antetokounmpo added: "We're just gonna keep doing what we're doing. We just keep enjoying each other and keep playing to win games and playing the right way."

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