The Memphis Grizzlies did not follow the script in their shock 112-109 victory over the top-ranked Utah Jazz in the NBA playoffs, while the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns drew first blood in their first-round openers.

Utah secured sole possession of the best record in the NBA for the first time in franchise history, having topped the Western Conference with a 52-20 record.

But in the continued absence of All-Star Donovan Mitchell (ankle), the Jazz were upstaged by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in Sunday's opener on home court.

Dillon Brooks (31 points), Ja Morant (26 points) and Jonas Valanciunas (15 points and 13 rebounds) fuelled the visiting Grizzlies in Utah.

Brooks became the sixth player in the last 10 postseasons to score 30-plus points in his playoffs debut, joining Devin Booker (2021), Luka Doncic (2020), Kyrie Irving (2015), Anthony Davis (2015) and Damian Lillard (2014).

Kyle Anderson also registered a Grizzlies single-game playoff record with his six steals, surpassing the previous mark set by Mike Conley – who now plays for the Jazz – in 2013.

The Jazz were led by Bojan Bogdanovic (29 points), Conley (22 points and 11 assists) and Rudy Gobert (11 points and 15 rebounds).

 

Harris and Embiid flex muscles, Booker stars as Suns sizzle

Eastern Conference top seeds the 76ers overcame the Washington Wizards 125-118 in Game 1 of their first-round series. A playoff career-high 37 points from Tobias Harris set the tone, while MVP hopeful Joel Embiid had 30 points, six rebounds and three assists. Harris and Embiid became the first pair of 76ers to score 30-plus points in a playoff game in 31 years since Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins. All-Star team-mate Ben Simmons (six points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists) joined Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain as the only 76ers players ever with 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game. Double-doubles from Bradley Beal (33 points and 10 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (16 points and 14 assists) were not enough for the eighth-ranked Wizards.

The Suns trumped defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers 99-90 behind Booker (34 points) and Deandre Ayton (21 points and 16 rebounds). Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10, the Suns used a 32-25 opening quarter to see off the seventh seeds in the series opener in the west, despite Chris Paul's shoulder injury. LeBron James had 18 points and 10 assists in a double-double display for the Lakers.

 

Randle struggles

All eyes were on All-Star Julius Randle after leading the New York Knicks back to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. While he collected 12 rebounds, Randle was far from his usual best in the 107-105 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks. Randle finished six-for-23 shooting for 15 points in 36 minutes. The Knicks star made just two of his six three-pointers.

Anthony Davis was five-for-16 shooting in a team-high 39 minutes of action as the Lakers star recorded just 13 points against the Suns. He missed both of his attempts from beyond the arc. As a team, the Lakers were just 26.9 per cent from the three-point line after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made just one of his seven shots.

 

Ice Trae!

Trae Young was the hero for the Hawks, who edged the Knicks in their series opener at Madison Square Garden. Young nailed the game-winner with 0.9 seconds remaining to silence the New York crowd in a thriller between the fourth and fifth seeds in the east. The Hawks guard finished with 32 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. According to Stats Perform, Young is the first NBA player to make a game-winning field goal in the final five seconds in his playoff debut since Dwyane Wade in 2004.

 

Sunday's results

Philadelphia 76ers 125-118 Washington Wizards
Phoenix Suns 99-90 Los Angeles Lakers
Atlanta Hawks 107-105 New York Knicks
Memphis Grizzlies 112-109 Utah Jazz

 

Heat at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to extend their lead over the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first-round series on Monday.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers labelled Ben Simmons "special" after the Eastern Conference top seeds made a winning start in the NBA playoffs.

Simmons, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid starred as the 76ers topped the Washington Wizards 125-118 in Game 1 of the first-round series on Sunday.

While Simmons only finished with six points on three-for-nine shooting, the All-Star tallied 15 rebounds and 15 assists at home to the eighth-seeded Wizards in Philadelphia.

Simmons joined Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain as the only 76ers players ever with 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game, earning praise from Rivers.

"I thought he was special," said Rivers. "Whoever he guarded struggled scoring, he created so many points for us, off the glass to three, off transition to three, creating switches that they didn’t want to have.

"He is just a treasure. He is something that you don't see a lot in this league and he has such a skill set that's so different. There's a lot of people that can't make what of him.

"All I see is his greatness and I just want him to keep doing what he's doing."

Simmons – as the 76ers eye their first championship since 1983 – added: "I just try to make winning plays and do what I can to help this team and be the point guard and run the team.

"Put guys in the right positions, run the right sets, if somebody’s feeling it, keep giving them the ball. I think overall today we did a good job of that."

Harris and MVP hopeful Embiid also flexed their muscles in front of a capped but vocal crowd at Wells Fargo Center.

A playoff career-high 37 points from Harris set the tone, while Embiid had 30 points, six rebounds and three assists.

Harris and Embiid became the first pair of 76ers to score 30-plus points in a playoff game in 31 years since Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins.

"Tobias, I have full faith in," Rivers said. "I said it early, I think he struggled the first couple of games, and just from the body of work, coaching them with the Clippers and knowing him and watching him what we are trying to do with him in the training camp, I just really believe it would take over at some point and it has."

Harris is bracing for a challenging playoff campaign, starting with Russel Westbrook, Bradley Beal and the in-form Wizards.

"Yesterday [Saturday] I was watching NBA games, and I was kind of surprised. I said, 'Man, all these games are really close.' It wasn't like a real big spread in any of them," Harris said. "And I think this whole playoffs, game in and game out, you're gonna see dogfights from all around the league.

"I mean, Washington, you know they've been one of the hottest teams after the All-Star break in the whole NBA, so for us, we know the power that they have and the guys that can make shots on the team. So that just adds to our focus as a group and knowing how locked in we need to be for this whole series, and that's only going to help us into where we're trying to go."

The 76ers, who were swept by the Boston Celtics in last season's first round, are dreaming big as they look to progress beyond the Conference semi-finals for the first time since 2001.

"You know we've been there," Embiid said. "And we also have a goal, and to get to that goal, we got to get through these guys. So you know, the mindset is just me, it doesn't matter if it's a week or two weeks off, it doesn't matter if we haven't played in a while. That should not be an excuse."

The NBA playoffs are here!

After some tense one-off play-in games, we can now look forward to thrilling back-and-forth series.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant and all the usual big names will be backed to deliver, but some of their contemporaries have previously found life a little tricky in the postseason.

For five players in particular, it may be do or die as they aim to bolster their reputations or secure their futures.

With the aid of Stats Perform data, we look at the issues this high-profile quartet have encountered in the past...
 

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

In consecutive seasons, Antetokounmpo won the MVP award on a Milwaukee Bucks team with the best record in the NBA. Then, in the playoffs, the 'Greak Freak' failed to inspire a suddenly one-dimensional side.

Those freakish regular season performances were back again in 2020-21, but Antetokounmpo and the Bucks might have run out of excuses if there is no evidence of postseason improvement.

Last year's approach evidently did not work. Antetokounmpo was on a strict minutes restriction across the campaign, averaging 30.4 minutes per game, but he was still unable to make the difference in the playoffs.

As in all but one of his playoff campaigns, the forward's points return was down on the rest of the season – 29.5 to 26.7 – while the Bucks superstar's shaky shooting came to the fore as he made just 58.0 per cent of his free throws, the worst rate of any of the 23 players to visit the foul line more than 50 times.

Now with additional support in the form of Jrue Holiday, Antetokounmpo simply must deliver this year – and Milwaukee start against the Miami Heat team that beat them in five in round two in 2020.
 

JAMES HARDEN

The man Antetokounmpo followed as MVP has too often had the same problem. Harden is a regular season great, but his career to date has been tarnished by playoff failings.

Although Harden had a big role from the bench as the Oklahoma City Thunder reached the 2012 NBA Finals, he averaged just 12.4 points on 37.5 per cent shooting in that 4-1 series defeat to the Heat.

The dominant scorer has never returned to that stage, subsequently joining the Houston Rockets and repeatedly finding the Golden State Warriors a step too far.

The closest Harden and the Rockets came was in 2018, up 3-2 against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before letting big leads slip in both Game 6 and Game 7 – the latter seeing Houston's star man shoot two-of-13 from beyond the arc as his team missed a record-breaking 27 consecutive threes.

Now on the Brooklyn Nets, the 31-year-old will at least have former champions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to turn to if he needs help, although the guard – still battling a hamstring problem – will no doubt be determined to succeed himself and alter his legacy for the better.
 

PAUL GEORGE

Without ever coming close to a title, despite losing back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers, George has regularly put up impressive numbers in the postseason. There have also been occasions on which he has looked lost on the big stage, however.

George's career playoff average has been kept to 20.1 by some alarming single-digit displays, notably contributing only five points in 45 minutes on two-of-16 shooting in a decisive Game 6 defeat to the Utah Jazz while with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And despite joining a talented Los Angeles Clippers team, George's woes were only magnified in the 2020 'bubble', where he later revealed he was in a "dark place" and "checked out".

The forward shot 25 per cent or lower from the field in four of 11 games, including the Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Back on song and playing in something approaching normal conditions, George has the opportunity to answer his critics, starting against a Dallas Mavericks team he struggled to master last year. The Clippers will need him in a competitive West.
 

CHRIS PAUL

There has generally been little wrong with the level of Paul's performance in the playoffs, his points average climbing to 20.9 from a career regular season mark of 18.3.

However, his deepest run was on Harden's 2018 Houston team as a hamstring kept him out of those painful last two defeats. For Paul, team success this year outweighs any individual achievements.

In his 16th season, he is entering a 13th postseason campaign but still waiting on a first Finals appearance more than 4,000 minutes in.

One of the great point guards of the modern NBA, Paul will be acutely aware of what a title would do for his legacy. He has helped transform the Phoenix Suns into a real force.

The Lakers in round one represent a daunting start for the Suns – especially having secured the number two seed – but fitness issues throughout the West might make this Paul's best and last chance to get to the Finals.
 

BEN SIMMONS

The Philadelphia 76ers ended the season with the best-rated defense in the East (105.1), but will that be enough in the playoffs? It might have to be.

On offense, Joel Embiid led the team by far with 28.5 points, with Simmons, the Sixers' second superstar, only able to contribute 14.3 – low even by his modest standards at that end of the floor.

Those numbers are unlikely to be able to hang with the Nets' 'big three' or a high-scoring Bucks team unless Philly come up with some significant stops.

Embiid, Simmons and Matisse Thybulle were among five 76ers players counted in the 22 best individual defensive ratings this year, but the pressure will ramp up in the postseason.

Simmons, a former first overall pick and the subject of trade rumours this year, is therefore required to become a playoff difference-maker, whether through improvement on offense or series-turning defensive contributions.

As enjoyable and memorable as the NBA postseason can be, it rarely produces significant surprises.

Sure, an occasional first-round upset stands out – like MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks falling to the Golden State Warriors in 2007 – but almost never does an underdog hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as season's end.

Of course, that depends on your definition of an underdog.

In each of the last 25 seasons – and in 49 of the last 51 – the team that won the NBA Finals was a top three seed in their conference. The only exception to that rule since 1970 is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who finished sixth in the Western Conference despite being the reigning NBA champions.

The 2020-21 NBA season has already been an unprecedented one, with games played in empty arenas and players being held out of games due to league virus safety protocols. And why should the oddities end when the playoffs begin?

From 2015-18, the Warriors played the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals four straight seasons, making everything beforehand feel like a waste of time. The pattern was broken in 2019 because LeBron James switched conferences, but the Warriors represented the west for the fifth straight season. Last season, James played in the Finals for the ninth time in 10 campaigns, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title.

This season, however, is suspiciously devoid of a juggernaut. The top regular season teams are unproven in the playoffs, and the typical postseason performers must answer serious questions and navigate a difficult road to the Finals.

The Utah Jazz had the league's best record this season at 52-20, a .722 win percentage. That is the fifth-worst record by a league-leading team since the NBA-ABA merger and the worst in 20 years.

 

Lowest Win Pct by Team With NBA's Best Record in Season, Since 1976-77

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

With just 10 wins separating the top-seeded Jazz and seventh-seeded Lakers, the west could deviate from seeding by quite a bit.

Even in the often-predictable east, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were considered preseason favorites in the conference, only to finish with the sixth and seventh seeds.

The fact is that whoever wins their conference to play in the NBA Finals – and ultimately raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy – will have a unique story about their road there. Whether it is a team who are a proven commodity that flipped the switch after a sub-par regular season or a high-seeded team that overcame past postseason failures, the 2021 NBA champions – like the 2020-21 regular season itself – will be unlike any other.

 

Honourable Mentions: West number one Dallas Mavericks, West number six Portland Trail Blazers

Both teams lack the depth to make a serious championship run but have enough star power in the backcourt to scare any opponent.

Dallas will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and took two of three games this season against Los Angeles. Luka Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in those games. In nine career games against the Clippers, Doncic is attempting 9.9 free throws per game, his most against any Western Conference opponent.

The Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard takes them. When Portland made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers were 7-0 when Lillard had a plus-minus above zero and were 1-8 when he had a negative plus-minus.

 

The 'Not Your Year' Tier: West number three Denver Nuggets

The season-ending knee injury to Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray was a devastating blow to Denver's title chances and takes some fun out of a special season by Nikola Jokic.

Although Murray's injury solidified Jokic as the MVP favourite – leading the Nuggets to a 13-5 record since the injury – it is hard to envision Denver making a deep run without their star guard.

The knock on Jokic has been that he would generally rather pass than score, and Denver are 5-8 in postseason games when Jokic attempts 20 or more shots.

With Jokic scoring a career-high 26.4 points per game this season and with the continued blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., however, the Nuggets remain dangerous in the playoffs.

 

The 'Prove It' Tier: West number four Los Angeles Clippers, East number one Philadelphia 76ers, West number one Utah Jazz, East number three Milwaukee Bucks, West number two Phoenix Suns

On paper, each of these teams appear to be solid championship contenders, complete with star power and coming off an impressive regular season.

But each of these teams need to prove they can take another step forward, either because of a limited postseason history or a checkered one.

At the start of last year's playoffs, the Clippers were considered by many to be the favourites but blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Nuggets was a humbling experience. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have quietly had fantastic seasons, each averaging at least 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers and Bucks have been mainstays in the east playoffs for the past few seasons and are hoping that this year's vintage has the answers to take the next step.

Philadelphia, under new leadership with Doc Rivers and buoyed by the shooting of Danny Green and Seth Curry, have a scoring differential of plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together, the best mark in the history of the much-maligned duo.

Milwaukee won 11 of their last 15 games, including two wins each against Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Nets – the two teams seeded higher in the east.

A machine over the last few regular seasons, the Bucks have faltered in past playoff series as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to score in the clutch and his team-mates shrank from the moment. The costly acquisition of Jrue Holiday should help take some of the pressure off, and Antetokounmpo is shooting 73.3 percent (11 of 15) this season in the last two minutes of a game within five points.

Utah and Phoenix are fascinating prospects after stellar regular seasons but the consensus regarding both teams is that they have already maxed out their talent before the postseason starts.

Rudy Gobert is an All-Defensive Team mainstay for good reason, but Utah have been forced to sit him in the playoffs against smaller teams or when his free-throw shooting becomes a problem.

The Jazz are expecting leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to return from a sprained right ankle, but Utah are better operating as a five-man offense than a one-man show. When Mitchell attempts 20 or fewer field goals this season, the Jazz are 27-2. When he shoots more than 20 times, the Jazz are 12-12.

The Suns are 59-21 over their last 80 games, including in last year's bubble, and have become one of the best stories in the league. Chris Paul turns every team he is on into a winner, and he has a case to receive MVP votes scoring a modest 16.4 points per game.

For all of his career accomplishments, however, Paul has famously only advanced past the second round once in his career, and he now leads a core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that lacks playoff experience.

 

The 'Sleeping Giant' Tier: East number six Miami Heat, West number seven Los Angeles Lakers

Last year's finalists have endured brutal regular seasons filled with disappointment, injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Only Duncan Robinson played all 72 games this season for Miami, and while the Heat are healthier now than during their nightmare 11-17 start, serious questions remain about the health of veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, who both missed at least 20 games this season.

The Lakers remain the betting favourites coming out of the west, despite needing a 103-100 play-in win over the Golden State Warriors to clinch a playoff berth. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games this season, and the duo only played together in 27 games.

While the health of the Lakers' superstars remains a concern, Los Angeles were 19-8 when both James and Davis played. The defending champions had a scoring differential of plus-11.4 points per 100 possession when the duo were on the court together. For as long as James and Davis are playing, the Lakers remain a juggernaut.

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets are the first team to ever have three players average at least 24 points (minimum 35 games). Durant, Harden and Irving are the highest-scoring trio since the early 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were producing some of the best seasons in league history.

What makes Brooklyn such a strong contender, however, is that the supporting cast around their dynamic trio is a real asset.

The Nets' reserves scored 35.9 points per game this season, better than the bench of fellow contenders like the Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.

First-year head coach Steve Nash has consistently been able to field a competitive squad during a tumultuous year. As evidence of the change and adversity the Nets faced this season, they have used 38 different starting line-ups – only the lowly Rockets used more.

With veteran big men like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Nets can counter size but are also versatile enough to play small, with Jeff Green defending opposing centers.

The high-profile names make Brooklyn feel like an inevitability, but there is still plenty of uncertainty with this newly constructed super-team.

Durant, Harden and Irving have only played 202 minutes together, less than six percent of Brooklyn's season. The trio appear to blend well, scoring a torrid 117.8 points per 100 possessions, but any group of stars will face challenges in their first playoff test.

It is that time of year again – the NBA playoffs.

Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

The Utah Jazz claimed the best record in the league for the first time in their history, while Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers and the star-studded Brooklyn Nets loom large.

With the play-in tournament due to get under way to determine the final eight teams from each conference set to feature in the playoffs, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers to find a worthy winner of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

 

Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

 

Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert experienced consecutive first-round exits in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but featuring in their first Conference semi-final since 2018, the Jazz prove too hot for the fourth-ranked Clippers and take a 4-2 series win. Utah, who beat Los Angeles in two of the three regular-season contests, win the opening three games of the second-round series and never look back as pressure mounts on Leonard, Paul George and the championship-chasing Clippers.

The standout teams in the east, the 76ers and Nets barely raise a sweat en route to the Conference Finals. In pursuit of a first championship since 1983, the 76ers sweep the Knicks 4-0, while the Nets end Miami's hopes with their own devastating 4-0 success.

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

A matchup many predicted when the 76ers appointed head coach Rivers and the Nets landed former MVP Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January. Philadelphia's cast of Embiid, fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, sharp-shooter Seth Curry and Danny Green come up against Durant, Harden, Irving and Blake Griffin, and it is Brooklyn who prevail in a thriller. The Nets and 76ers split the opening six games before a deciding seventh game. With a championship berth on the line, Steve Nash's Nets edge the 76ers 112-109 as question marks again emerge over whether the Philadelphia franchise can succeed with both Embiid and Simmons.

Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

 

Jazz make history

The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

Despite a frightening array of talent, the Nets go down 4-1 in the Finals as the Jazz make history, headlined by a resounding 121-102 win in Game 5.

After consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz finally break through for their first NBA title thanks to coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Co.

Ben Simmons said he does not care who the Philadelphia 76ers meet in the opening round of the NBA playoffs after clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The 76ers claimed the best record in the east for the first time since 2000-01 thanks to Friday's 122-97 rout of the lowly Orlando Magic.

Seth Curry posted 20 points, while Joel Embiid had 13 points and 11 rebounds as the 76ers earned home-court advantage for the playoffs.

The 76ers will begin their quest for a first NBA championship since 1983 on May 22, starting against the eighth seed from the play-in tournament.

But All-Star Simmons, who put up 13 points, nine assists and four rebounds, said: "I don't care who we play.

"That's the point of being the number one seed, you feel like you can beat anybody.

"If we were scared, we shouldn't be in this position.

"We want to get ready for the playoffs. We put ourselves in a good position, but we want to win a championship."

The last time the 76ers topped the Eastern Conference ahead of the postseason, Philadelphia – led by MVP Allen Iverson – went on to reach the NBA Finals, though they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1.

Philadelphia have not advanced to the NBA Finals since, with the 76ers failing to make it beyond the conference semi-finals in 2003, 2012, 2018 and 2019, while they were swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics last season.

MVP hopeful Embiid insisted: "I'm happy about what we accomplished, but we have a long way to go. Now's the time to lock in and go get the whole thing."

"Home-court advantage helps a lot," Embiid said. "We've been dominant at home; we barely lose here. It means a lot to have the number one seed."

Embiid – who has flourished under head coach Doc Rivers, who replaced Brett Brown at the start of the season – added: "We did it as a group, felt like everybody contributed. Great coaching staff, great front office, the group we've had this year has been exceptional.

"As good as we were in the regular season, I think we're going to be even better in the playoffs."

The Philadelphia 76ers got back to winning ways as Doc Rivers hailed the returning Ben Simmons and his defensive combination with Matisse Thybulle.

After losing four in a row, Philadelphia were more like their old selves in a 121-90 drubbing of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday.

Simmons missed the string of losses due to what he described as "a viral thing", but he returned with six-of-eight shooting, four assists, three rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

Rivers is convinced Simmons and Thybulle have a big role to play in paving the way for success this season.

"I don't think I've ever had that," Rivers said of the wing defence strength.

"I've had an incredibly great defensive team... but not at those positions. It's pretty awesome to watch. Those two guys, their closing ability on shots is excellent, absolutely remarkable to watch."

Simmons looked as good as new, according to Rivers.

"He had great energy, great pace. It was Ben being Ben," said the coach. "We lose a lot of pace when he's not on the floor, that's for sure."

As for Simmons, the 24-year-old All-Star welcomed his coach's words, saying: "That means a lot. [Thybulle] has got a high IQ on the floor and it's tough for teams to score when there's two guys like that on the floor."

Simmons added: "I'm just glad to be back. I missed being with the fellas. The energy was great tonight."

The Sixers sit second in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Brooklyn Nets.

"It's going to be on us to take care of business down the stretch," Simmons said. "We've got a lot of games that are going to be all-important at this stage.

"We're looking forward to the challenge and obviously we need to get in the playoffs. I'm glad I'm back now and we have a few games left to really get that first seeding and I think we can do it.

"If everyone's healthy and able to play, I think we're able to get that. Looking forward, we've got to take control and get that first seeding."

Joel Embiid was backed for MVP honours by teammate Ben Simmons after a stellar display led the Philadelphia 76ers to a 106-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Embiid posted 36 points and 14 rebounds as the 76ers extended their winning streak to four games, while ending the Clippers' seven-game run.

It made him the first 76ers player with at least 36 points and seven rebounds in three consecutive games since Charles Barkley in 1990, while Embiid is also the first Philadelphia player with at least 35 points in three straight games since Allen Iverson in 2006.

According to Simmons, rival players are becoming clueless about how to handle the 76ers star.

"I don't think teams really know what to do when guarding him," Simmons said. "I think he's clearly the MVP this season.

"He's been so dominant and consistent this whole year and he's been healthy which has been great for us. So I don't know how to stop him!"

With Philadelphia (39-17) leading the way in the Eastern Conference, the admiration is mutual between Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid, who spoke about having two or three men on his case each time he had the ball, suggested Simmons also merits award consideration.

"We've got someone in Ben who should be defensive player of the year," Embiid said in his post-game news conference.

"He's been dominant all season on that end of the floor. That's something he wants so much and he deserves it.

"That's an award, when I got to the league, that I always wanted to win. At some point in my career that's something I want to win, but this year he's been a master, he deserves it.

"The way he guards every player on the floor. He's been bringing it, so I really do think he should be the defensive player of the year."

The Philadelphia 76ers are back on top in the Eastern Conference and All-Star Ben Simmons said the NBA championship hopefuls intend to stay there.

Simmons scored 17 points to complement MVP candidate Joel Embiid, who led the way with 39 points and 13 rebounds in Wednesday's 123-117 victory over short-handed rivals the Brooklyn Nets.

The 76ers almost surrendered a 22-point lead before holding to improve to 38-17 at the top of the east, ahead of the star-studded Nets (37-18), who were without Kevin Durant, James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.

"We want that one seed," Simmons told reporters post-game.

"We have a pretty tough schedule coming up with Milwaukee and the Clippers, but I believe we're more than capable of it."

76ers head coach Doc Rivers attempted to rest his two stars in the fourth quarter against a depleted Brooklyn team, but All-Star duo Simmons and Embiid had to return late and close out the win. 

"They should not have had to come back in," Rivers said. 

Philadelphia were not about to risk letting the game slip away considering the stakes.

The 76ers are now 21-5 at home and remaining on top in the east would keep them there throughout the early rounds of the playoffs. 

Embiid had his 11th game this season with 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds. It is tied with Denver Nuggets star and fellow MVP contender Nikola Jokic for the second most in the NBA, only behind Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"That fourth quarter, that come back, it was just weird," Embiid said. "I will say, I felt like I sat too long and I kinda lost my rhythm. Them fronting and trapping had nothing to do with how our play in that stretch when I came back.

"We just didn't have the same physicality that we had for the first three quarters."

Should the 76ers meet the Nets in the playoffs, Philadelphia know they will see a far different team than they did Wednesday, but he is not concerned. 

"We know exactly who they are and they know exactly who we are," Rivers told reporters.

"When the playoffs start, it's a whole new beast. We'll be ready for them and I'm sure they'll be ready for us."

Ben Simmons insisted the Philadelphia 76ers can win the NBA title this season ahead of their Eastern Conference top-of-the-table clash with the Brooklyn Nets.

The 76ers and the star-studded Nets share 37-17 win-loss records atop the east heading into Wednesday's blockbuster match, with both franchises having strong claims for championship favouritism.

Philadelphia – swept in the first round of last season's playoffs, having reached back-to-back Eastern Conference semi-finals under former head coach Brett Brown – have not won the title since 1983, while the Nets are searching for their maiden championship.

Simmons, playing alongside fellow All-Star Joel Embiid in Philadelphia – told ESPN on Tuesday: "I think we can win it all".

Simmons and the 76ers will come up against a strong Nets side with Kevin Durant back in their ranks following a 23-game injury absence.

Brooklyn will be without former MVP James Harden with a hamstring strain but Kyrie Irving is expected back after missing Tuesday's 127-97 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves for personal reasons.

"There's one ball, there's one ball and you have to play defence still," Simmons said of the Nets.

"I take pride in defence. I know if I'm able to get stops and give guys a hard time doing their job then we're going to be able to go further.

"They have a lot of talent, but at the same time you've got to be able to play together as a team."

Australian star Simmons was forthright in pushing his credentials for this season's NBA Defensive Player of the Year award too, despite stiff opposition from Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert.

Simmons is averaging 14.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game for Doc Rivers' 76ers this season.

"I'm one of those guys who can guard one to five," the 24-year-old Simmons said.

"Obviously, there's a lot of respect for Rudy. I know what he's capable of. I know he's great down there in the paint, but he's not guarding everybody and that's just what it is.

"He guarded me in Utah… I had 42 [points] and apparently I'm not a scorer. It is what it is, but I have a lot of respect for him. At the same time, I think it's mine this year."

The Philadelphia 76ers' trip to the Los Angeles Lakers is not quite the blockbuster clash it might have been, but Thursday's game should prove no less intriguing.

Rather than seeing MVP candidates Joel Embiid and LeBron James battle it out at Staples Center, the Sixers and the Lakers will attempt to show how they can cope without their leading men.

Embiid has been on the sidelines since March 12, over which time Philly have gone 5-1, but they crucially have the benefit of Ben Simmons, their second All-Star now fit and firing.

LA do not have the same luxury, as Anthony Davis is also out, with the team beaten by the Atlanta Hawks as James went down and again in his absence in Tuesday's game with the New Orleans Pelicans.

This could still be an NBA Finals preview, though, and the matchup will undoubtedly draw plenty of interested eyes...
 

TOP PERFORMERS

Los Angeles Lakers - Dennis Schroder

Schroder was a Sixth Man of the Year contender last year - missing out to now team-mate Montrezl Harrell - but now finds himself as the most important player in the champions' team with both James and Davis out.

The point guard has started all but four of LA's games this season, his absence coinciding with a four-game losing streak.

Defeat on Thursday would mean another stretch of four straight defeats and it will be up to Schroder to ensure that does not happen.

Coach Frank Vogel talked up Schroder's importance after the Hawks game and his 15 points against the Pelicans maintained his seasonal average at the same mark, third-most for the Lakers behind their big two.

Philadelphia 76ers - Ben Simmons

As the only remaining All-Star in this clash between two of the league's top teams, Simmons will be expected to make the difference.

The former first overall pick has previously been tasked with guarding James but should be freed in the absence of superstar opponents, perhaps able to focus his efforts instead on scoring and creating shots for others.

In a strange quirk, Simmons' four best scoring games this season have come in defeats. Fifth on that list, however, is the win against the Golden State Warriors last time out when he put up 22.

One of his four triple-doubles this season came in the previous game against the Lakers.
 

KEY BATTLE - CAN LAKERS HALT HARRIS?

That sole other matchup between the teams this season was settled by Tobias Harris' 15-footer with three seconds remaining as he switched onto the more diminutive Alex Caruso.

Harris' 10-for-16 shooting in that game was vital and the Lakers, without their best defender in Davis, must more effectively guard the forward.

While Simmons is the star name in this encounter, Harris is second only to Embiid on the Sixers with a career-high 20.8 points per game this year.

The Lakers will at least know to pay attention to Harris in 'clutch' moments, his two points in February among 71 this season that have him 18th in the league in such situations.
 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers have the slight edge in the teams' all-time regular season record with 146 wins to the Sixers' 138 going back to their respective beginnings in Minneapolis and Syracuse.

Philly's dramatic 107-106 success earlier this year was their fifth meeting with LA since James moved to the Western Conference outfit, in which time the Sixers are 4-1 - albeit the four-time MVP missed the first defeat.

Embiid has only faced the Lakers six times, with a 4-2 record. LA are 4-3 in the seven Philly's main man has missed in his time in the league.

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.

Philadelphia 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have both been ruled out of Thursday's game against the Chicago Bulls due to coronavirus contact tracing.

Embiid and Simmons did not play in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta, the duo late withdrawals after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The pair will now miss the first game back following the All-Star break, though Simmons will also sit out Friday's clash with the Washington Wizards.

MVP candidate Embiid is eligible to return for Eastern Conference leaders the 76ers against the Wizards, while Simmons will be able to make his way back to the court at home to the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.

Embiid has been averaging 30.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the 76ers this season.

76ers team-mate Simmons, meanwhile, is averaging 16.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists.

The 76ers (24-12) are half a game clear of the star-studded Brooklyn Nets (24-13) atop the east.

Philadelphia 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will not play in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.

The NBA confirmed the duo had been exposed to the individual in Philadelphia prior to travelling to the event in Atlanta.

It will keep the Sixers pair out of the annual game, although it will have no impact on the rest of the players, a statement said.

ESPN reported Zion Williamson would take Embiid's place in the starting five for Team Durant. Simmons had been set to appear from the bench for Team LeBron.

The Sixers are 24-12 this season at the top of the East, led by Embiid, who is in the running for the MVP award.

The fifth-year center is averaging 30.2 points and 11.6 rebounds in 2020-21.

LeBron James selected two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo with his number one pick for the NBA All-Star Game, while Kevin Durant drafted Brooklyn Nets team-mate Kyrie Irving.

On Thursday, team captains James and Durant filled out their rosters for Sunday's All-Star contest in Atlanta.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar James and Milwaukee Bucks forward Antetokounmpo often go head-to-head in the All-Star Games as respective captains, but that is not the case this year.

Antetokounmpo will team up with James, who also selected Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and the Denver Nuggets' MVP candidate Nikola Jokic as starters.

Team LeBron's reserves are Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Chris Paul (Phoenix Suns), Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics), Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers), Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers) and Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz).

Durant – sidelined as he nurses a hamstring injury – turned to Brooklyn star Irving with the second overall pick in the All-Star draft.

MVP candidate and 76ers star Joel Embiid, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Washington Wizards sharpshooter Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics are the other starters for Team Durant.

The reserves drafted by Durant are James Harden (Nets), Devin Booker (Suns), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls), Julius Randle (New York Knicks), Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic) and Donovan Mitchell (Jazz).

Team LeBron have won the past three All-Star Games after topping Team Giannis 157-155 in Chicago last year.

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