Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash is happy with the continued progress of their 'big three' after Tuesday's 130-108 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of their NBA playoffs first round series.

The Nets opened up a 2-0 lead with the comfortable victory, which comes after the 'big three' contributed 82 points in their 104-93 Game 1 win.

Kevin Durant starred with 26 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four blocks on Tuesday.

James Harden had 20 points, including four three-pointers along with five rebounds and seven assists, while Kyrie Irving added 15 points, six rebounds and six assists.

"It's about that time together on the floor, time together to understand, to gel, to make those connections that will afford us more down the line," Nash said post-game.

"It's the time and mindset we need to improve. I keep saying, we're not a team that's running this back three-four-five. We're trying to figure it out as we go.

"Each night is important, not only on the scoreboard but our development."

The Nets are 8-2 with the 'big three' in their line-up this season, but the contribution of Joe Harris, who had 22 points by half-time, to finish with 25 including seven three-pointers, cannot be underestimated.

"It's a nice luxury to have when he’s banging three balls like that and getting the crowd going," Nash said.

Boston lost star forward Jayson Tatum in the third quarter after copping a poke to the eye.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said they needed to be much better all over the court.

"We've got to be way better. We've go to get down the floor quicker, we've got to execute faster, we have to be more detailed and better in our defense," he said.

"I was disappointed in how we played versus the other night."

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash insisted his star-studded team must remain humble in their Eastern Conference first-round series against the Boston Celtics.

The second-seeded Nets drew first blood in the NBA playoff series, winning Game 1 104-93 on Saturday.

Boasting Kevin Durant (32 points and 12 rebounds), James Harden (21 points) and Kyrie Irving (29 points), the Nets starred offensively, but they were particularly impressive on defense against the Celtics.

The Celtics carried a six-point lead into half-time but the Nets – behind a strong defensive display – powered past the seventh-ranked Celtics in the second half in Brooklyn.

As the Nets – eyeing their maiden championship – prepare for Tuesday's Game 2, Nash warned against overconfidence on the defensive side.

"If we think that we're the greatest defensive team of all time we're probably asking for a butt-kicking in Game 2," said Nash following Monday's practice.

"If we're humble and hungry and try to stick to our details and our game plan maybe we have a chance to make it difficult for them."

Durant, Harden and Irving combined for 82 of Brooklyn's total points against Boston in Game 1 – 78.8 per cent of the scoring, including 28 of 31 in the third quarter and 48 of 57 in the second half.

"I think that's something that we have the luxury of having those guys that are so difficult to defend in iso situations," Nash added. "But that's not necessarily the way we want to go.

"We were probably more iso heavy the first game because it's all so new, and in default, and Boston switched a lot of stuff. I think that pushed us towards more isos. But it will be interesting to see, it's just all so new that we, like I don't know, if that's going to be something that we dominate the direction we go in or if we're going to be able to get away from that more so and run more action.

"We've got to figure this out as we go so it's hard to answer that question relative to small experience. The luxury is they all are incredible isolation players and it's not the worst thing in the world, but I would like us to get more to where we’re playing off one another."

James Harden said the Brooklyn Nets took "a huge step" by shaking off sketchy offensive form to overcome the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their playoff series.

Brookyln's big three scraped together sufficient points to make it comfortable enough in the end, the home team grabbing a 104-93 win, having trailed 53-47 at halftime.

Kevin Durant had 32 points and 12 rebounds, Kyrie Irving added 29 points and Harden weighed in with 21 as the Nets proved too strong for a Celtics side who had 22 points on six-of-20 shooting from Jayson Tatum.

Harden said: "We just engaged. Everybody that steps on the floor is engaged and pretty much knows what they have to do. So everybody had each other's back.

"No matter what happens offensively, defensively is where we show some improvement and tonight was a huge step for us."

With fans back in Barclays Center, Harden suggested their presence may have been a slight distraction, as might the pressure of starting a playoffs tilt.

But ultimately he settled on it being the players' failure to convert opportunities as the reason the Nets took so long to get going.

"We just didn't make shots. I'm sure if we made shots it would be a different conversation," he said.

Asked about Tatum, Harden said: "He's going to be better in Game 2 and we will too."

Durant reached a similar conclusion to Harden.

"We couldn't make shots, I felt like," Durant said. "When we tried to bust the game open seven or eight points, we got open threes we didn't make. We got our scorers in position, but I know I missed a lot of bunnies that felt good leaving my hand.

"But we stuck with our defense. We didn't let that get in the way of what we wanted to do out there. We helped each other and boxed out well. We've got to keep that same effort going into Game 2."

From 82-79 up, the Nets went on a scoring surge and pulled 99-82 ahead in the fourth quarter, before easing to victory.

Irving, prominent in that dominant run, said: "I just think we needed a little separation, just to settle in for the rest of the game. Fourth quarter, we've had the tendency of taking our foot off the gas pedal, of stopping attacking the rim or settling for jump shots or just not swinging the ball around and making easy plays for one another.

"Obviously we know we have all-world one-on-one players, but we make it a little easy when teams can just load up and our one-on-one game isn't working. You can see anything can happen at the end of the game. Kemba [Walker] hits two big threes, we get a flagrant foul. Anything can happen, especially against the Celtics.

"That lucky Irishman is always around the Celtics, so we've just got to be aware of anything against the Celtics. And I think we did a good job of kind of withstanding their runs down the stretch."

A strong second half sent the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers to a 123-109 victory over the third-seeded Denver Nuggets as the NBA playoffs began Saturday. 

Portland outscored Denver 65-48 after the break as Damian Lillard had 34 points and 13 assists for the visitors, who made 18 of 19 free throw attempts to just four of eight for the Nuggets. 

CJ McCollum added 21 points and Carmelo Anthony scored 18 in just 22 minutes off the bench for Portland, who beat the Los Angeles Lakers in their playoff opener last season only to lose the next four to the eventual champions. 

Their efforts overcame a 34-point, 15-rebound game from Nikola Jokic and 25 points from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter made all 11 of his two-point field goal attempts Saturday but was just one of 10 from three-point range. 

Game 2 is Monday in Denver. 

 

Brooklyn's big three carry Nets

Big games from the big three carried the Brooklyn Nets to a 104-93 series-opening win over the Boston Celtics. Kevin Durant had 32 points and 12 rebounds while Kyrie Irving added 29 points and James Harden 21 as the Nets stifled the Celtics, who got 22 points on just six of 20 shooting from Jayson Tatum in a losing effort. 

Luka Doncic had his third triple-double in seven career playoff games, scoring 31 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists as the Dallas Mavericks pulled out a 113-103 road win at the Los Angeles Clippers to open their series. Tim Hardaway Jr added 21 points on eight of 13 shooting for the fifth-seeded Mavericks, while Kawhi Leonard had 26 points and Paul George 23 to lead the Clippers. 

 

Butler cannot find the range

Jimmy Butler came close to recording a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the Miami Heat's 109-107 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, but the five-time All-Star made only four of 22 shots from the field. 

 

Middleton gives Bucks win

Khris Middleton's contested jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining in overtime gave the Bucks the Game 1 win at home. Middleton's 27 points led the Bucks, with Giannis Antetokounmpo adding 26 points and 18 rebounds. 

 

Saturday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 109-107 Miami Heat (OT)
Dallas Mavericks 113-103 Los Angeles Clippers
Brooklyn Nets 104-93 Boston Celtics
Portland Trail Blazers 123-109 Denver Nuggets

 

Lakers face Suns

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers got the win they needed in the play-in tournament and they will open the playoffs proper with Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against the second-seeded Suns in Phoenix. 

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.

Returning Brooklyn Nets star James Harden says his impact should not be measured on the stats sheet ahead of the NBA playoffs.

Harden joined the Nets from the Houston Rockets in January but missed five weeks with a hamstring injury, before returning to action last week.

The 2018 NBA MVP came off the bench to play 26 minutes and add 18 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists in his return game last week in a 128-116 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

He offered a more modest return with five points, five rebounds and seven assists from 25 minutes in Saturday's win over the Chicago Bulls, before being rested for Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"I thought winning was all that matters?" Harden said on Wednesday. "When I was doing the stats and putting up the numbers, it wasn't good enough.

"At some point we've got to figure out what we're talking about. But it's all about winning.

"My impact doesn't have to show up on the stat sheet for us to win. I think my job as a leader is to make sure everybody's playing well. If I'm doing that, I can focus on myself last. That's not a problem at all."

The Nets are among the favourites to win the 2020-21 NBA title but first will take on the Boston Celtics in the playoffs first round starting Saturday.

Harden was wary of Celtics star Jayson Tatum who scored 50 points in their play-in game victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday.

"One thing we can’t have is let a guy score 30, 40 on us comfortably," Harden said.

"He scores in bunches and scores from all over the court."

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens has labelled their upcoming playoffs opponents, the Brooklyn Nets, as "the most-talented team that's been assembled" in his time in the NBA.

The Celtics earned seventh seed and the right to face the second-seeded Nets in the NBA playoffs from Saturday with a 118-100 win over the Washington Wizards.

The Nets have endured injuries to stars players over the past few months but have reunited their big three, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, at the right time for the postseason.

"To have to play tonight to get into the playoffs to earn the right to play probably the most-talented team that's been assembled since I've been in the NBA, takes a lot of effort and togetherness," Stevens said.

"We'll get ready for Brooklyn starting on Thursday when we get back together.

"Those guys are the best of the best and, going into that, if I'm a fan and just a general fan of the NBA, I have a hard time seeing them lose.

"We're going to have to play great, we're going to have to play great together, and we're going to have to be really, really sound on both ends of the floor."

He added: "It'll be a fun challenge to go up against the best."

Jayson Tatum scored 50 points for the Celtics in Tuesday's win, prompting Wizards coach Scott Brooks to label him a "future MVP".

"He's a great player. He's not [just] a great young player, he's a great player," Brooks said. "He's going to be an MVP in this league soon."

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.

Kevin Durant led the tributes for Kyrie Irving after the Brooklyn Nets guard helped his side to victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers to join an elite list of shooters.

Irving shot 8-of-10 from the field in Sunday's 123-109 win, was 1-of-2 from three-point range and a perfect 6-of-6 at the free throw line as the Nets secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

In doing so, the 29-year-old finished the regular season with a 50.6 field-goal percentage, 40.2 three-point percentage and 92.2 free-throw percentage, making him the ninth member of the 50/40/90 club.

He also joined Larry Bird, Stephen Curry and Durant as the only players to average at least 25 points per game during a 50/40/90 season.

Durant put up 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds against the Cavaliers, but he was more impressed by the achievement of Irving - one that he can see his team-mate repeating in the future.

"It's been a phenomenal season from Ky," Durant said in his post-game interview. "He's a guy who can get it from anywhere on the floor at any time at that size is remarkable. 

"Point guards that get 50/40/90 is just so much more impressive to me. I'm very happy for Kyrie, and I'm sure this won't be his last time."

Irving's coach Steven Nash, himself a four-time member of the 50-40-90 club, echoed the views of Durant.

"Kyrie has been incredible this year," he said. "So efficient, such a talented player who just makes incredible shots every night. 

"So, to be able to make those shots to create the space to take those shots, to convert at such an efficient rate, is incredible. He's a remarkable player and it's a remarkable accomplishment. I'm really proud that I can see it first hand."

The Nets were again without James Harden due to injury management, while Joe Harris missed a third straight game with a left gluteal strain. 

Nash is unsure if Harris will be available for his side's first-round playoff series against either the Boston Celtics or Washington Wizards, but Harden is expected to be available.

"I think James will be fine, but Joe might need a few days - I'm not really sure," Nash said. "I think it's about monitoring the situation. But there's a case where he may not practice the whole week - that's OK.

"He's played a lot of minutes this year and we want him to heal up as best he possibly can and kind of not have to chase this thing through the playoffs and have it linger. 

"So, if we can resolve it I'd rather he resolves it than practice this week. He can follow along and rehab and that would make me happy. But if he's able to practice I'm sure he will."

NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 110-98 but they did not avoid the play-in tournament.

LeBron James – who appeared to tweak his ankle – posted 25 points for the streaking Lakers, who claimed their fifth consecutive victory, however they did not end the regular season high enough in the Western Conference to bypass the NBA's new play-in format involving the seventh through 10th seeds in pursuit of the playoffs.

The Lakers needed help from the Denver Nuggets but the latter lost 132-116 to the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving the Los Angeles franchise seventh in the west and set to face Stephen Curry's eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors for a playoff berth.

Andre Drummond had a double-double for the Lakers, while Anthony Davis finished with 14 points for the Lakers, who will have to win one of up to two play-in games to clinch a regular playoff position.

Portland locked up the sixth seed and their eighth straight playoff berth, meaning they will go head-to-head with the third-seeded Nuggets in the opening round.

The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, clinched the NBA's best record (50-20) for the first time in their history.

Jordan Clarkson finished with 33 points and All-Star Rudy Gobert contributed 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Jazz, who eased past the Sacramento Kings 121-99.

The Jazz edged the Phoenix Suns (51-21), who pipped the San Antonio Spurs 123-121, for top spot in the NBA – the first time they have finished with sole possession of the league's best record.

 

Curry crowned scoring champ

Curry earned his second scoring title after posting 46 points in the Warriors' 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Curry pipped Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal to the award, having finished the regular season with a 32.0 points per game average. Two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion Curry became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg). The 33-year-old also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

James Harden was absent due to injury management, but the Brooklyn Nets still secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a 123-109 win at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kevin Durant put up 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds. Irving added 17 points as he joined an elite list of shooters. Irving finished the regular season with a 50.6 field-goal percentage, 40.2 three-point percentage and 92.2 free-throw percentage – becoming the ninth member of the 50/40/90 club. He also joined Larry Bird, Curry and Durant as the only players to average at least 25 points per game during a 50/40/90 season.

The New York Knicks secured fourth position in the east via a 96-92 win over the Boston Celtics. The Knicks – back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13 – will have home-court advantage for their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, who routed the Houston Rockets 124-95.

The Wizards' season appeared dead and buried following an horrendous start, having acquired Russell Westbrook to team up with Beal. But the Wizards will face the Celtics as the eighth seed in the play-in tournament thanks to their 115-110 victory against the Charlotte Hornets. Westbrook recorded 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, while Beal had 20 of his 25 points after half-time.

Tyrese Maxey flexed his muscles as Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers rested their stars in a 128-117 victory over the Orlando Magic. In the absence of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green, rookie Maxey had 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He became the only rookie this season with multiple 30/5/5 games – LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edward only had one such game.

Precious Achiuwa's career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds helped the shorthanded Miami Heat rout the Detroit Pistons 120-107. Tyler Herro (16 points and 11 assists) and Gabe Vincent also had double-doubles as the sixth-seeded Heat prepare to face third seed the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round in the east.

 

Houston's woeful season comes to an end

After a blockbuster trade sent wantaway superstar Harden to the Nets in January, the rebuilding Rockets crumbled. A crushing loss to the Hawks left the Rockets with a 17-55 win-loss record – their worst campaign since going 14-68 in 1982-83.

 

Sit back and enjoy!

The Nets produced a stunning piece of offense against the Cavaliers in the second quarter. After dispossessing Cleveland, Blake Griffin played a behind-the-back pass to Irving, who passed the ball ahead to Mike James. James tossed the ball off the backboard for Durant to slam down.

 

Sunday's results

New York Knicks 96-92 Boston Celtics
Indiana Pacers 125-113 Toronto Raptors
Washington Wizards 115-110 Charlotte Hornets
Phoenix Suns 123-121 San Antonio Spurs
Golden State Warriors 113-101 Memphis Grizzlies
Atlanta Hawks 124-95 Houston Rockets
Brooklyn Nets 123-109 Cleveland Cavaliers
Philadelphia 76ers 128-117 Orlando Magic
Miami Heat 120-107 Detroit Pistons
Chicago Bulls 118-112 Milwaukee Bucks
Minnesota Timberwolves 136-121 Dallas Mavericks
Los Angeles Lakers 110-98 New Orleans Pelicans
Oklahoma City Thunder 117-112 Los Angeles Clippers
Portland Trail Blazers 132-116 Denver Nuggets
Utah Jazz 121-99 Sacramento Kings

 

Play-in tournament

After a day off, the Eastern Conference play-in tournament gets underway on Tuesday. The Wizards will meet the Celtics in a seventh vs eighth battle, while the ninth-seeded Hornets face the 10th-seeded Pacers for a spot in the playoffs.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden will miss Sunday's regular-season finale against the Cleveland Cavaliers due to injury management.

Harden has played twice since returning from an 18-game injury lay-off caused by a hamstring strain – the star-studded Nets winning both games against the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls.

But the Nets, who are looking to lock up the second seed in the Eastern Conference in pursuit of a maiden NBA championship, are taking no risks ahead of the playoffs.

Harden – returning from the longest injury absence of his stellar career – posted 18 points, 11 assists, two steals and two blocks in his comeback game against the Spurs on Wednesday.

The former MVP had five points, seven assists and five rebounds in Saturday's 105-91 victory over the Bulls.

Harden is averaging 24.6 points, 10.8 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game this season, having joined the Nets in a blockbuster trade from the Houston Rockets in January.

Steve Nash's Nets (47-24) are second in the east, behind the Philadelphia 76ers (48-23) – who also secured the number one seed.

LeBron James returned to the court after his latest injury as the Los Angeles Lakers boosted their hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament with a 122-115 win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

James had missed 26 of the Lakers' past 28 matches due to an ankle injury sustained on March 20 but played 28 minutes in his return against the Pacers.

The four-time MVP scored 24 points and had seven rebounds and eight assists, while Anthony Davis added 28 points with 10 rebounds.

Dennis Schroder also returned to the Lakers side, contributing 14 points in a positive sign ahead of the post-season.

The Lakers still have work to do to make the top six, needing to win their final game on Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans and hope that the Portland Trail Blazers lose to the Denver Nuggets.

If the Lakers miss the top six, they will compete in the play-in tournament in the West, between sides finishing seventh to 10th.

 

Nets' big three reunited but rusty

The Brooklyn Nets also enjoyed a return of their own, with James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving hitting the court together for the first time since February 13 in their 105-91 win over the Chicago Bulls.

The Nets' big three have only played together eight times, improving that record to 6-2 ahead of the playoffs where they are likely to be second seed in the East.

Harden, who has had a hamstring injury, only managed five points, five rebounds and seven assists, while Kyrie Irving added 22 points.

Durant had 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists, although he was 4-for-17 from the field in a rusty display.

Valuable contributions from reserves Nicolas Claxton (10 points and eight rebounds) and Jeff Green (19 points) aided Brooklyn's cause.

The Milwaukee Bucks kept the pressure on the Nets for second seeding in the East with a 122-108 win over the Miami Heat.

Jrue Holiday (20 points, five rebounds and 10 assists), Khris Middleton (21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (15 points, nine rebounds and four assists) all made key contributions.

The result means the Bucks can still move above the Nets into second if they win against the Bulls and the Nets lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Sunday's final regular season matches.

Jayson Tatum stepped up in Jaylen Brown's absence with 26 points and 11 rebounds in the Boston Celtics' 124-108 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The win ends the Celtics' four-game losing run.

 

Hornets stung again

The Charlotte Hornets are destined for the Eastern Conference play-in tournament but they have now worryingly lost four in a row ahead of the post-season, going down 118-109 to the New York Knicks in overtime. Charlotte have had a tough run of fixtures, losing to the Knicks, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Nuggets and the New Orleans Pelicans.

 

Suns burning bright

The Phoenix Suns' 140-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs keeps alive their hopes of clinching top seed in the West. But it was also the Suns' 50th win for the season, representing the first time they have achieved that feat since the 2009-2010 season which was the last time they made the playoffs.

 

Saturday's results

Brooklyn Nets 105-91 Chicago Bulls
New York Knicks 118-109 Charlotte Hornets (OT)
Los Angeles Lakers 122-115 Indiana Pacers
Boston Celtics 124-108 Minnesota Timberwolves
Phoenix Suns 140-103 San Antonio Spurs
Milwaukee Bucks 122-108 Miami Heat

 

Nuggets at Trail Blazers

The fine margin between sixth and seventh, thus a playoff and play-in tournament spot, is on the line when the Portland Trail Blazers host the Denver Nuggets, with the Los Angeles Lakers hoping for a Portland defeat whilst needing to win at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Kevin Durant says the Brooklyn Nets are just going to keep building after their big three played together for the first time since February 13 in Saturday's 105-91 win over the Chicago Bulls.

Durant along with Kyrie Irving and James Harden finally hit the court together following a series of injuries, with the NBA playoffs around the corner.

It was only the eighth time the trio have played together since Harden joined the team in January, with Brooklyn improving to a 6-2 record with all three in the side.

Prior to Saturday's game, Durant, Irving and Harden had only played 186 minutes together and while there was some rustiness, they all contributed.

Durant had 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists, while Irving added 22 points with Harden managing only five points, five rebounds and seven assists.

"It's been a long season full of ups and down when it comes to lineups, and having all our guys on the same page," Durant said post-game.

"It's good to get everybody healthy, it's good to get some minutes with everybody. We're going to keep building from here."

Nets coach Steve Nash added that cohesion among the trio would take time but he was happy with a step forward.

"It's not like 'what do I expect?' They've just got to be out there and feel each other, play together, and hopefully that little bit of time today will help move that process forward more quickly than not having that time today," Nash said.

"It wasn't a great game, we weren't very sharp, but we got the job done and we move on to tomorrow, one last game. We can hopefully have a good performance and be ready for the nice week of practice."

The 47-24 Nets, who are destined for the second spot in the East pending the Milwaukee Bucks' final two results, take on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday in their final game ahead of the playoffs.

"Yeah we'll consider it," Nash said, when asked if he will play the big three again.

"It's just a matter of how they come through, how do they feel in the morning and are they available. But if we need that win tomorrow, we're not averse to those guys playing again tomorrow as well."

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are set to play together against the Chicago Bulls, according to Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash.

The Nets built a 'Big Three' in 2020-21 after Harden arrived from the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster trade in January, but the trio have only played seven games together this season.

Injuries have hampered the star-studded Nets, with former MVP Harden only returning from a hamstring strain on Wednesday following an 18-game absence.

Not since February have Durant, Harden and Irving shared the court together but that is expected to change on Saturday.

"If everything stays the same," Nash told reporters following Friday's practice, with Brooklyn (46-24) preparing for the final two regular-season games of the season ahead of the playoffs. "Those three will play tomorrow."

Durant, Harden and Irving won five of the seven games they played together between January 20 and February 13.

The Nets – looking to lock up the second seed in the Eastern Conference in pursuit of a maiden NBA championship – have outscored their opponents by 39 points in the trio's 186 minutes together.

"I just expect them to play hard, play together, and experience some moments together on the floor," said Nash. "It's been few and far between.

"I don't necessarily have any expectations other than it gives us an opportunity to jell and play together and feel what it's like to be out there again."

Durant is averaging 27.5 points – his highest number since 2015-16 – 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game this season, while he boasts career highs in field-goal percentage (54.2) and three-point percentage (45.9).

Harden is averaging 25.1 points, 10.9 assists and a career-high 8.0 rebounds, while Irving has been averaging 27.2 points, 6.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 2020-21.

Nets team-mate Jeff Green added: "I'm just happy they are on the floor. We're getting to finally try to create a rhythm with all guys healthy. We'll see what happens from there.

"We have a long week to prepare for whomever we play. For those guys, it will be good. For us, it will be good to get a look and see where we are at when everybody is healthy."

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