LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both named in the All-NBA First Team on Wednesday as the Los Angeles Lakers prepare to face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

The All-NBA selections were announced as the playoffs hot up in Orlando, although the Lakers duo were the only remaining members of the First Team.

James and Davis were joined by James Harden, whose Houston Rockets they beat in the second round, along with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic.

MVP candidates James and Antetokounmpo were both unanimous votes.

The Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and playoff nemesis Nikola Jokic headlined the Second Team. Jokic led the Nuggets past the Clippers on Tuesday to complete another remarkable series fightback.

Damian Lillard was also included after carrying the Portland Trail Blazers into the postseason, alongside veteran Chris Paul, who impressed following his trade from the Rockets to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Pascal Siakam - disappointing in the playoffs for defending champions the Toronto Raptors - made up the selection.

Meanwhile, in the Third Team, the Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum and the Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler are both still alive as Eastern Conference Finals opponents.

Russell Westbrook, part of the Paul trade, got recognition, too, and was joined by Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons, the latter ending the season injured.

The Los Angeles Lakers "elite" defense is the team's third superstar, according to head coach Frank Vogel.

Game 4 of the Western Conference semi-final series saw the Lakers seal a 110-100 victory over the Houston Rockets and move into a 3-1 lead.

They restricted the Rockets to 43.1 per cent shooting as a team, with All-Star guard James Harden 2-of-11 from the floor.

The Lakers missed out on free agent Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers last offseason, but Vogel feels their defense makes up for the absence of a third star alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Vogel said of his team's ability to get stops: "That's as powerful a weapon as there is in one of these playoff runs. It's as powerful as a superstar.

"If you have an elite defense, that can be your third star, so to speak.

"When you have the confidence that you can go four, five, six possessions where you're just squeezing the other team's offense, getting stops, and then with our ability to run the floor, with LeBron James being the quarterback of that action and being in attack mode, we have a strong belief in what we can accomplish as a group."

Harden still finished the game with 21 points by making 16 of his 20 free throw attempts, so Vogel acknowledged there is still room for improvement from the Lakers.

"We're happy with what we were doing on the defensive end," Vogel said. "It can always get better.

"Obviously, the fouls [can be cut down]. Plan A with guarding James Harden is don't put him on the free throw line and we gave him 20 free throw attempts. So, we've got to make sure we're doing a better job there, but overall, we're just trying to limit him and make him as uncomfortable as we can.

"He's seen every coverage there is in the world and he knows how to attack it. Like I said all along with this group and with him: We're not going to be comfortable because we know what he's capable of.

"So, we've just got to continue to watch film, get better, strengthen the plan each game that we play and hopefully get better in Game 5."

James contributed 16 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and two steals for the Lakers and explained how difficult it is for the team to defend against Harden.

"James is probably one of the best offensive players that we've ever seen in this league," the Lakers star said.

"I mean, he had 20 free throw attempts and we're trying to not put him to the free throw line. One of our game plans is to not put him to the free throw line and we're trying to not put him to the free throw line, and the guy is just so clever that he was still able to get 20 free throw attempts.

"We're just trying to eliminate anything that we can from him, because he can score from [anywhere]. He gets into the paint with his runners, with his floaters. Obviously, he's got the step-back. He's got the threes in transition. He has his catch-and-shoot threes when he's off the ball. And, like I said, he's very tricky with his moves in the paint, where he gets to the free throw line.

"So we're just trying to take away some things. We can't take away everything, because that's how great he is offensively. We try to follow the game plan and see what happens from there."

Anthony Davis and LeBron James starred as the Los Angeles Lakers topped the Houston Rockets 110-100 for a commanding lead in the Western Conference semi-finals.

Davis posted a double-double and James finished one assist shy of a triple-double to help the top-seeded Lakers move 3-1 clear in the NBA playoffs.

All-Star Davis put up 29 points and 12 rebounds in Game 4 at Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday, while James recorded 16 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.

The Lakers led by as many as 23 points midway through the fourth quarter and looked on track for a blowout victory before the Rockets rallied.

Houston – who overcame a 3-1 deficit in the second round of the 2015 playoffs – put together a 18-2 run to close within 103-96 but the Lakers managed to hold in in Orlando, Florida.

Russell Westbrook led the Rockets with 25 points, and All-Star team-mate James Harden contributed 21 of his own.

Game 5 between the Lakers and Rockets is on Saturday.

 

Celtics face Raptors

It is a winner-takes-all showdown on Friday as the Boston Celtics and defending champions Toronto Raptors meet in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semi-final series.

LeBron James lavished praise on Russell Westbrook and James Harden as the Los Angeles Lakers look for a way to stop the key Houston Rockets duo in the NBA playoffs.

The Lakers and Rockets meet in Game 1 of the Western Conference semi-finals on Friday, with James' team having overcome the Portland Trail Blazers in five games and Houston ousting the Oklahoma City Thunder in a series that went the distance.

Former Thunder pair Westbrook and Harden – both of whom have won league MVP awards during their careers – will clearly command the most attention from James and others on the Lakers defense.

Harden led the league when averaging 34.3 points in the regular season while Westbrook finished in the top 21 in the league for points, rebounds and assists.

"With James, it's how available he is to his team-mates - night in and night out," James told reporters.

"If you look at how many games he plays per year, and how many minutes he plays throughout the course of his career, pretty much he's always been available.

"He's always been in uniform and he's been doing this at a high level for a lot of years.

"That's what kind of gets lost in translation because everyone looks at Euro stepping and step-back threes, but when you're available to your team-mates, that's gigantic to any sport, any craft or anything that you're doing in life.

"If you're just available for someone they know they can always count on you. That's pretty much one of the best things that people don't recognise."

James has played with both Harden and Westbrook for the United States team and the three-time NBA champion admires the latter's approach when he is on the court.

"With Russ, he's just an assassin," James added.

"He's full-throttle and he could care less what anyone thinks about his game, he goes out and plays his way and he's been successful doing that.

"They're two great basketball players, two really good guys - great guys, more importantly. They just do what they do. They go out and they take care of their business and they pretty much don't care what anyone says about the way they play."

James Harden admitted he "was just doing everything that was not supposed to happen" before coming up with a vital series-winning block in Game 7 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Houston Rockets superstar Harden had just 17 points on Wednesday after also failing to have an impact late in Game 6.

The Thunder won on that occasion as Russell Westbrook was instead handed control of the team down the stretch and contributed costly clutch errors, prompting Chris Paul - Harden's ex-team-mate - to say: "Some people are built for it, some people shy away from it."

But just as it looked as though Harden would come up short again, a block on Lu Dort denied the OKC rookie the chance to win the first-round series from three-point range in the closing seconds.

"Physically, I felt like s*** - excuse my language," Harden told ESPN. "I couldn't make a shot, turned the ball over, was just doing everything that was not supposed to happen, but I just kept sticking with it.

"My team-mates give me confidence throughout the game. Defensively I had to make a play and I closed it out to him. Dort has been making some shots, so I wanted to get out to him."

Harden's defensive game has often been criticised but he said he had "been locked in all year long trying to be better" and "tried to find a way to impact the game".

For that reason, he ranked the play - with his team 103-102 ahead - among the best of his outstanding NBA career.

"It's one of the top ones, definitely," Harden, who reacted with a roar of delight, said afterwards to reporters.

"It's cool to get 40 or 50 points, shooting the ball, shooting the ball - obviously we all want to do that - but just to get recognition and for it to pay off when it counts on the defensive end, showing that I've been engaged and locked in, means a lot."

The final play was harsh on Dort, who went undrafted last year, only debuted in December and averaged just 6.8 points in the regular season but came up with a game-high 30 in the decider.

The 21-year-old made six three-pointers but could not find a way past Harden at the last and threw the ball out of bounds when his shot was blocked.

"I just kept my confidence. The way they were playing me, they were letting me shoot," Dort said. "Even though I had a couple of bad nights, I stepped up and shot it with confidence.

"On the last one, I just didn't think he was that close but he was and he got it. It felt good and I was confident enough to take that shot, but he was just there and it was a good play from him."

Harden said of his opponent: "I've known him since college, when I would go back to Arizona State, and he would work his butt off. It's showing.

"He played extremely well tonight; on the offensive end, he made a lot of shots. He just plays his butt off. He doesn't care about anything but playing hard.

"As a young guy, coming into this league, that's all you can ask for. Learning how to play and learning defensive schemes and offensive schemes, the total package of being an NBA player, that is going to come.

"But he has the right mindset of just playing hard and not caring what anybody thinks. He's going to have a great career."

The Houston Rockets "can't play much worse" than they did in Game 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, said Mike D'Antoni.

The Thunder triumphed 104-100 on Monday to force a decisive Game 7 in the Western Conference first-round playoff series, with the Rockets paying the price for committing 22 turnovers.

With the scores locked at 98-98 heading into the final two minutes, Russell Westbrook twice gave possession away, airballed a jump shot and sent Danilo Gallinari to the line for the final points of the game.

Westbrook missed the start of the series with a thigh injury and he confirmed he will remain on a minutes restriction in Game 7.

D'Antoni said: "It's tough to come back right in the middle of a series when you've been out for three weeks, and also the whole lay off. He's fine, we'll be fine.

"We played about as bad as we could play. We will have to do a better job the day after tomorrow.

"We are going to respond. We'll clean up some things. We can't play much worse, so we'll play better.

"We just weren't sharp, got a bit careless a few times and we paid for it.

"We had 22 turnovers. You can't have 22. You try to get less than 10 and 22 just sealed our fate.

"Then we had some fouls that weren't disciplined. We had reach-in fouls that put them to the line and let them score, so things we can correct and will."

Asked why turnovers became an issue for the Rockets when it had not been earlier in the series, Westbrook said: "That's just my fault, honestly. That's easy. Last game I had zero, tonight I had seven. As simple as that.

"We've gotta take care of it, starting with myself. Just trying to figure out rhythm and timing, but we'll figure it out next game."

James Harden accounted for five of Houston's turnovers, which he felt undid the strong defensive performance they put in.

"A lot of careless turnovers. Including myself. Just too many turnovers, especially in a playoff game – a closeout game – just gave them too many opportunities," said Harden.

"I think defensively we did a pretty good job with them only scoring 104 points. We just shot ourselves in the foot by turning the ball over and giving us less opportunities to score."

Jimmy Butler put on a show as the Miami Heat topped the Milwaukee Bucks 115-104 in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals in the NBA playoffs.

Butler posted a playoff career-high 40 points to lead the Heat past the top-seeded Bucks at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida on Monday.

A five-time All-Star, Butler scored 14 of his points in the final quarter as fifth seeds the Heat upstaged Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

Butler became just the third player in Miami's postseason history to have at least 40 points, following in the footsteps of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.

Heat team-mate Goran Dragic added 27 points for Miami, whose 5-0 start to the playoffs is tied for the best ever by a team seeded fifth or lower, per STATS. The Washington Wizards also started 5-0 as the fifth seeds in 2015.

Despite outscoring the Heat 40-29 in the opening quarter, the Bucks were unable to hold on as the Heat's defence starred.

Reigning MVP Antetokounmpo had 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists for the Bucks, who were led by Khris Middleton's 28 points.

The Heat and Bucks will meet again in Game 2 on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder forced a Game 7 against the Houston Rockets after prevailing 104-100.

Facing elimination in the Western Conference opening round, veteran Chris Paul came up big for the Thunder with 28 points and seven rebounds.

Trailing 98-92 with just over four minutes remaining, former Rockets guard Paul was clutch for the Thunder, nailing a pair of three-pointers down the stretch to lift his team.

James Harden recorded 32 points and eight rebounds for the beaten Rockets, who face the Thunder in Wednesday's decider, while Russell Westbrook had seven turnovers against his former team.

 

Jazz face Nuggets

The Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets will go head-to-head in Game 7 of their Western Conference first-round matchup on Tuesday. The Boston Celtics and defending champions the Toronto Raptors are also in action in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semi-final series.

James Harden lauded the Houston Rockets' display in Tuesday's 123-108 Western Conference first-round series-opening win against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Rockets were without injured star Russell Westbrook but still controlled proceedings in Orlando, where All-Star guard Harden contributed 37 points.

But Harden's focus was on the team performance as the Rockets issued an early statement of intent in the 2020 NBA playoffs.

"Our ball movement was excellent," he said. "We were just playing off the catch.

"Guys were just very confident in their shots. I think we had a lot of opportunities that we missed that were really good shots.

"We did a really good job of not turning the basketball over, which would've given them opportunities to get out in transition."

Jeff Green was also influential for Mike D'Antoni's team, scoring 22 points in his 32 minutes off the bench, during which the Rockets were +28.

Harden reserved special praise for Green and his ball-handling skills in particular.

"It's huge for us," said Harden. "Now I don't have to just dribble the basketball up. Those guards can kind of pressure me.

"He's able to dribble the ball up and get us in our offense."

Green added: "I'm just trying to find ways to impact the game, be that defensively or offensively.

"On the offensive end, we're playing together, and we're playing for each other. That's what's important, and that's how we're going to succeed."

With the regular season over, it's time for business in the Orlando bubble.

The Portland Trail Blazers completed the NBA's playoff bracket with their play-in win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday.

Now, Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks, the LeBron-James led Los Angeles Lakers and Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers are among the teams vying for supremacy at Walt Disney World Resort.

With the postseason scheduled to start on Monday, we use STATS data to preview the first-round series.

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks (1) v Orlando Magic (8)

Eyeing their first NBA championship since 1971, the Bucks head into the opening-round series struggling for form.

The Bucks, who went 52-8 from their first 60 games, recorded a 4-9 win-loss ratio from their last 13 fixtures – becoming the first team in NBA history to have more losses in their final 13 regular-season games than they did in the entire season prior to that.

Inside the bubble but in familiar surroundings, the Magic have the chance to snap a playoff drought, despite the odds being stacked against them.

Not since 2010 have the Magic won a playoff series. Orlando swept the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks en route to the Conference finals, before losing to the Boston Celtics. The Magic have since suffered first-round exits at the hands of the Hawks (2011), Indiana Pacers (2012) and Toronto Raptors (2019).

Toronto Raptors (2) v Brooklyn Nets (7)

Defending champions the Raptors have form on their side in pursuit of back-to-back championships.

Toronto went 27-5 over their last 32 games, easily the best record in the NBA during that period – ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder (21-10), Los Angeles Clippers (20-10), Bucks (20-11) and Celtics (21-13).

Nets star Spencer Dinwiddie has been one of the most clutch players this season, making an NBA-high seven go-ahead baskets in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.

Dinwiddie's seven for 13 is better than the Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic (five), Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray of the Nuggets (both four).

Boston Celtics (3) v Philadelphia 76ers (6)

The Celtics renew hostilities with rivals the 76ers, having won the past four series between the two teams – Philadelphia have not claimed a series against Boston in the playoffs since 1982.

Philadelphia's hopes will rest on Joel Embiid in the absence of injured fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, who is the only player in NBA history to average 8.0-plus rebounds and 8.0-plus assists per game for his career.

The 76ers are 35-22 (.614 per cent) with Simmons in the team, while they are just 7-8 (.467 per cent) without the Australian star on the court. Philadelphia also allow more opposition points per game in his absence – 113.6 compared to 107.2.

Indiana Pacers (4) v Miami Heat (5)

All eyes will be on Indiana's T.J. Warren, who averaged 31.0 points per game with a .664 effective field-goal percentage this month following the restart.

Since 1985-86, the players with 30.0-plus points and a .650-plus effective field-goal percentage in a month (minimum five game played) are Charles Barkley (1990), Stephen Curry (2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019), Antetokounmpo (2017 and 2019) and Karl Anthony-Towns (2019).

With Heat pair Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, Miami are the first NBA team to have two undrafted players averaging 13.0-plus points per game in the same season – minimum 70 per cent of team games played – since the Philadelphia Warriors in 1956-57 (Joe Graboski and Neil Johnston).

 

Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers (1) v Portland Trail Blazers (8)

Making their first postseason appearance since 2013, the Lakers – who have a 74.6 per cent chance of winning this series using Stats Perform's advanced simulation tool – are one of the favourites to go all the way thanks to James and Anthony Davis.

James and Davis have combined well in LA, where the former has supplied 184 assists for the All-Star recruit this season – the most to one player in 2019-20, ahead of Damian Lillard to Hassan Whiteside (132). Three-time champion and four-time MVP James is also the second-oldest player to average 10 assists or more in a season in NBA history, with Steve Nash averaging 10.0-plus assists in each of his final three campaigns.

This will be the second playoff meeting between James and Carmelo Anthony. James and the Heat eliminated Anthony and the New York Knicks in the first round in 2012. Both averaged 27.8 points in the series. James was the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, while Anthony was the third pick. Their matchups date back to high school, when LeBron was at St. Vincent St. Mary's and Carmelo at Oak Hill Academy.

Portland's go-to man Lillard leads the NBA in scoring inside the bubble at 37.6 per game, including the play-in clash. The Trail Blazers star is averaging 46.3 points in his past four games following a career-high 61 against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month. He has contributed to Portland averaging a league-high 126.0 points per game at Walt Disney World Resort, while the Lakers have only managed 106.4 points per game – the second worst behind the Washington Wizards.

How about most points per game by team-mate duos? Lillard and CJ McCollum (52.2) are second to James Harden and Russell Westbrook (61.5) but ahead of third-placed James and Davis (51.4).

Los Angeles Clippers (2) v Dallas Mavericks (7)

Can Leonard claim consecutive NBA titles after leading the Raptors to their first champion last season? Well it all begins against the Mavericks.

Leonard – the 2019 Finals MVP – averaged a career-high 27.1 points per game this season, while he averaged 30.5 during last year's playoffs. The four-time All-Star has also averaged 31.0 points per game in three games against the Mavericks this term, with the Clippers sweeping the season series.

Led by Luka Doncic, the Mavericks boast the second-highest offensive rating ever – 113.7 – behind last year's Golden State Warriors (113.9). The Clippers have a 111.1 rating, tied with the Trail Blazers for second this season.

Doncic is averaging 30.0 points, 10.1 assists and 9.7 rebounds in the bubble. The reigning Rookie of the Year also has three triple-doubles, including a 20-rebound triple-double.

Denver Nuggets (3) v Utah Jazz (6)

A Jazz team boasting the likes of Joe Ingles and Mitchell are the best three-point shooting team at 38.0 per cent, though Utah went 2-5 in their last seven regular-season games – allowing 110-plus points per game.

Rudy Gobert is also one shy of 250 career double-doubles as the Jazz look to avenge their season sweep at the hands of the Nuggets, though each game was decided by six or fewer points.

The Nuggets made the Conference semi-finals last season, snapping a five-year playoff drought. Jovic will be key for Denver, having averaged 7.0 assists per game for a second successive season – the most by any center in the NBA.

Houston Rockets (4) v Oklahoma City Thunder (5)

It will be a reunion as Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul face their former teams.

The Rockets have advanced to at least the second round of the playoffs in three straight seasons and their hopes will depend on the team's starting five – their starters are averaging 89.1 points per game, the most in the league.

Former Thunder star Harden is also coming off his third consecutive season averaging 30 or more points per game (34.3 in 2019-20). He is the franchise's all-time leader in postseason assists (510) and second in points (2,061) behind Hakeem Olajuwon (3,727).

Westbrook, who arrived from the Thunder in a blockbuster trade at the start of the season, is second all-time for Oklahoma City in playoff points (2,489), behind Kevin Durant's 2,620, third in rebounds (686), first in assists (778) and first in steals (184).

The Thunder, boasting ex-Rockets guard Paul, have not progressed beyond the first round of the postseason since 2016 after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Warriors in the Conference Finals.

James Harden scored 49 points in a 153-149 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks, but it was the Houston Rockets' defensive effort that the former MVP wanted to highlight. 

Another fine offensive night from Harden saw him move past Calvin Murphy to become the player with the second-most points in the franchise's history, behind only Hakeem Olajuwon. 

With Russell Westbrook adding 31 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists too, it was a fine outing for Houston's leading duo, though Harden was quick to defer praise to the collective performance at the other end of the court. 

"It's not even about the points," Harden told ESPN on court after the game. 

"Our effort was there continuously throughout the course of the night against one of the best offenses in this league.

"They were going to be tough from the beginning of the game and we had to stay with it, even when we were down by double digits. We kept fighting, especially on the defensive end and forced overtime. 

"We wanted to stay with it and give ourselves a chance at the end of the game. We did that. Our confidence defensively was building, especially in that fourth quarter. We kept pushing the tempo, kept fighting." 

Luka Doncic had a triple-double for the Mavs - his NBA-leading 15th of the season - but went just one-for-nine from three-point range, while Trey Burke added 31 points from the bench having drained eight of his 10 attempts from beyond the arc. 

"We are a young team. We have got a lot to learn," Doncic said.  

"We will get better, for sure. I know we are going to get together when it matters most, so I'm not worried about that."

The NBA finally returns on Thursday and it's been a long-time coming.

Not since March 11 have players taken to the court and fans watched official games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But, after months of waiting, the New Orleans Pelicans-Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers-Los Angeles Clippers clashes will headline the 2019-20 season restart in Orlando, Florida.

Inside the Walt Disney World Resort bubble, 22 teams will resume their regular seasons before the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Bucks topped the NBA standings at the time of the postponement, while the Los Angeles Lakers were flying in the Western Conference.

Using STATS data, we look at the best-performing players prior to the hiatus as LeBron James eyes a fourth championship ring and Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo chases a maiden title.

 

Red-hot LeBron

After a tough first season in Los Angeles, James has returned to his brilliant best in 2019-20. Before the coronavirus-enforced break, the four-time MVP catapulted himself into the mix for a fifth Most Valuable Player honour by leading the Lakers – who have played 63 of their 82-game regular season – to a Western Conference-best 49-14 record.

As the 35-year-old superstar prepares to resume his bid for another NBA crown, James leads the league in assists per game with 10.6. If he maintains his pace, James would be the third-oldest player to lead the NBA in assists per game behind two-time MVP and Phoenix Suns great Steve Nash – who did so in both 2009-10 (age 35-36) and 2010-11 (age 36-37). The former Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers forward has also been averaging 25.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game this season.

James, whose maiden campaign at Staples Center was cut short by a Christmas Day injury almost two years ago, was playing some of his best basketball alongside All-Star recruit Anthony Davis before the March suspension. In five games that month, James averaged 30.0 points and 10.6 assists per game, while shooting 55.7 per cent from the field. It is the only time in the last 30 years that any NBA player has averaged 30.0-plus points and 10.0-plus assists on 55.0-plus per cent shooting in a calendar month (minimum five games played).

 

Giannis – The Greek Freak

The Eastern Conference-leading Bucks (53-12) are on track for their first NBA title since 1971 thanks to superstar MVP Antetokounmpo after Mike Budenholzer's side lost in the Conference Finals last season.

Antetokounmpo – expected to go close to winning back-to-back MVPs – has not taken a backward step since being crowned the league's best in 2018-19, averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the high-flying Bucks this season.

The only players to average 25/13/5 in a season are Elgin Baylor (1960-61), Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64 and 1965-66) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1972-73 and 1975-76).

 

Harden firing Rockets

James Harden's standing among the greats is often debated but there is no doubting his quality and importance to the Houston Rockets.

Harden has established himself as a scoring machine in Houston since joining the Rockets from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012, especially from beyond the arc, and after averaging 36.1 points last season, the 2018 MVP is at it again.

In 2019-20, Harden – now partnered with fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook – is averaging 34.4 per game. The only players to average 34-plus points in back-to-back seasons are Wilt Chamberlain (six straight from 1959-60 to 1964-65), Baylor (three straight from 1960-61 to 1962-63) and Michael Jordan (1986-87 to 1987-88).

The Rockets – sixth in the west with a 40-24 record – are relying heavily on Harden to lead the two-time champions to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1995.

 

Dallas' dazzling Doncic

If you thought Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic was a one-season wonder, think again.

The reigning Rookie of the Year continues to take the NBA by storm, elevating the Mavericks (40-27) into a legitimate playoff threat after Dallas missed the postseason for a third consecutive year last term.

A first-time All-Star this season, Doncic is averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game for the much-improved Mavs in 2019-20.

The 21-year-old Slovenian sensation – who is forming a formidable combination with fellow international star Kristaps Porzingis – is looking to join Oscar Robertson (five times), Jordan (1988-89), Harden (2016-17) and Westbrook (2016-17) as the only players to average 28/8/8 in a season.

 

Williamson following in MJ's footsteps

When it comes to number one draft pick Zion Williamson, believe the hype.

The Pelicans rookie has not missed a beat since debuting in January, quickly making his presence known around the NBA competition.

Likened to James during his college days with Duke, Williamson has averaged 23.6 points per game in his first 19 games – the most by any player through 19 career games since Chicago Bulls and NBA legend Jordan (25.6).

Williamson has helped fill the void left by Davis in New Orleans and the Pelicans – 10th in the Western Conference with a 28-36 record – will be hoping the 20-year-old can lead the organisation to just their second playoff appearance in five seasons.

 

Keep an eye on Nets' LeVert

The Nets will be far from full strength in the NBA bubble. Superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are both sidelined through injury, while DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler and Taurean Prince have opted out.

Step up Caris LeVert.

LeVert has been much improved since re-joining the starting line-up with the playoff-chasing Nets. In his first 14 games off the bench, he was only averaging 11.1 points, 2.7 assists and 2.6 rebounds as Brooklyn went 5-9.

Since returning to the starting five, the 25-year-old is averaging 24.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds through his last 16 games. More importantly, the Nets (30-34) boasted a 9-7 record to be seventh in a congested Eastern Conference.

Houston Rockets star guard James Harden arrived in Orlando, Florida on Tuesday for the NBA's season restart five days after the rest of the team.

The Rockets, who did not disclose a reason for Harden's absence, posted a video on their Twitter feed of Harden arriving at the league's campus-like environment.

The six-time All-NBA selection and 2018 MVP will have to isolate and register multiple negatives tests for COVID-19 before he will be cleared to join his team-mates.

Harden's arrival comes one day after team-mate Russell Westbrook announced that he tested positive for COVID-19. Westbrook said he is "currently feeling well, quarantined, and looking forward to rejoining my team-mates when I am cleared".

Harden led the NBA with 34.4 points per game when the NBA season was paused on March 12.

Houston have clinched a playoff spot and are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth place in the Western Conference, one game behind the Utah Jazz and 1.5 games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks.

The Rockets are scheduled to resume their season on July 31 against Dallas.

Live sport is proving difficult to come by amid the coronavirus pandemic, so we looked back through sporting history to identify major events or news to occur on this day.

March 19 certainly wasn't short of options, though we managed to nail it down to five occasions that were particularly notable.

They include the indictment of one former baseball player and another returning to the basketball court where he made his name.

Below, take yourself on a trip down memory lane… Or just get a little sporting education.

 

1978 – Nicklaus wins his third Players Championship

Jack Nicklaus enjoyed many a famous victory during his sparkling golfing career, but his win at the 1978 Players Championship was a peculiar one. In demanding weather conditions, with wind wreaking havoc, Nicklaus won his third Players title, beating Lou Graham by a single shot. No one finished the tournament below par, with Nicklaus' one-over 289 incredibly enough to secure him the title.

1984 – Former MLB pitcher McLain indicted

Regarded as a great during his time as a professional pitcher in baseball, Denny McLain's life away from the sport was rather more chaotic. Having gone off the rails after his career ran its course, McLain was charged with racketeering and narcotics violations on March 19, 1984, before being sentenced to 23 years in prison. He served two-and-a-half years, before an appeals court threw out the verdict and set McLain free. He went back to prison in 1996 on charges of embezzlement, money laundering, mail fraud and conspiracy.

1991 – Phoenix stripped of 1993 Super Bowl

The 1993 Super Bowl was due to be held in Phoenix, Arizona. However, the state's lack of recognition for Martin Luther King Jr. Day saw them stripped of the event. President Ronald Reagan had declared Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday eight years earlier and, at the time, Arizona adhered to the legislature. It wasn't until 1987 when Republican governor Evan Mecham took office that the MLK celebration was cancelled. The holiday returned to Arizona in 1993 following a vote the year before.

1995 – Michael Jordan returns

After 17 months away from basketball, during which time he had a spell in baseball, Michael Jordan was back on this day in 1995. Twenty-four hours after Jordan had announced "I'm back", he was playing once again for his beloved Chicago Bulls, scoring 19 points in an overtime 103-96 defeat to the Indiana Pacers.

2019 – Harden makes NBA history

Just last year, Houston Rockets guard James Harden made history when he became the first NBA player to score at least 30 points against every opponent in the league. He accomplished the feat with a haul of 31 in a win over the Atlanta Hawks. Just the game before, Harden had seen his 32-game streak of scoring 30 points or more end – that remains the second-longest such run in NBA history.

James Harden is convinced RJ Barrett will have the opportunity to become an NBA great after the rookie inspired the New York Knicks to a surprise win over his Houston Rockets side.

Barrett put up 27 points, his joint-season high, as the Knicks ended the Rockets' six-match winning streak in a 125-123 success at Madison Square Garden on Monday.

Rockets superstar Harden, who top-scored with 35 points, is impressed by what he has seen from the Knicks guard.

"Aggressive," Harden said of Barrett's performance in quotes reported by ESPN. 

"I like that, especially for a rookie. Not timid at all, and when you're aggressive and confident in your game, you look good out there. 

"Want him to continue to build his confidence and keep being aggressive and have the opportunity, which he will, to be great."

The Rockets fell to a 21-point deficit in a slow start and were 10 down by the end of the third quarter.

Harden, who was perfect with 16 of 16 from the free-throw line, and Russell Westbrook (24 points, nine rebounds) did their level best to drag the Rockets back into contention.

But Barrett, a right-hander, produced a moment of magic with just under eight seconds remaining with a left-handed lay-up on the drive over P.J. Tucker.

"I just took the shot that came," Barrett said. "I like going left. That was kind of, in that situation, you're not really thinking about it. You're kind of just playing."

Westbrook lamented the Rockets' slow start, saying: "We should've never put ourselves in that position because it takes a lot of energy to fight back. Especially on the road.

"We can't take games like this lightly. This is the NBA, everybody is going to go out and compete and we have to be ready to play."

Harden added: "We weren't consistent with our defensive principles throughout the course of the game and we paid for it. Simple."

The Rockets are fourth in the Western Conference with a 39-21 record, while the Knicks (19-42) remain a lowly 13th in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo insisted he was not looking for a "back-and-forth" with James Harden but defended his style of play after the Houston Rockets star suggested his power game "takes no skill at all".

The reigning NBA MVP mocked Harden's high usage rate and lax defensive game during the All-Star break, prompting a response this week.

Seemingly referring to Antetokounmpo, Harden told ESPN: "I wish I was seven feet and could just run and dunk. That takes no skill at all."

Antetokounmpo, the clear favourite to be named MVP again, put up 32 points and 13 rebounds as his Milwaukee Bucks improved to 51-8 on Friday with a 133-86 thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Greek was asked about Harden's comments after the game, but he told ESPN: "There's not a back-and-forth. [I have] never tried to take shots at somebody."

Antetokounmpo was more open in discussing his style in an indirect question following Harden's criticisms, though.

"My game is not just power, for sure," he said. "I came in when I was 18, I was 180 pounds, so to power through big guys was kind of tough.

"But obviously, there are going to be times where you've got to power through guys. Like one of the best players, LeBron, Michael Jordan, Kobe and all those guys, Shaq, all those guys, they were extremely physical with their play.

"They made their presence felt in the paint, but obviously I try to work on my game, mid-range shots, threes, being able to screen and roll faster and make the right pass. It's hard to drive full speed and try to make the right pass to the corner.

"I try to get my passes more accurate and it's a lot of things I'm still adding, and hopefully, when I add all those things in my game, I'm a more complete player and I'm better and can help my team win and the game is easier."

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