There was disappointment but no regret for the Los Angeles Clippers after their season came to an end Wednesday.

Though head coach Tyronn Lue acknowledged there was a sense of "shock" in his locker room following a 130-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, he and his players were proud of what they accomplished. 

After rallying from 0-2 deficits to win their first two series against the Dallas Mavericks and the Utah Jazz, the Clippers could not do the same against the Suns with injured star Kawhi Leonard sitting out the entire series. 

Despite falling short of winning their first championship, they took solace in completing the franchise's deepest postseason run. 

"I'm proud of our guys," Lue told reporters. "We've been through a lot this season, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of injuries, but our guys stayed the course. 

"We did something special this year. Even though we didn't complete what we wanted to complete, I thought we did a great job of doing something special, doing something this franchise has never done before.

"Like I told those guys in the locker room, I love those guys and I'd go to war with them any time. I'm just proud of them. Even though we came up short, it was a great run, despite everything we had to go through."

Atop that list in the playoffs was the loss of Leonard, the two-time NBA champion who was averaging 30.4 points per game in the playoffs when he went down with a knee injury in Game 4 of the Jazz series. 

Leonard missed all eight of the Clippers' remaining games, leaving the burden of carrying the team to Paul George. 

"I thought this team squeezed everything we could out of what we had," George said. "We squeezed everything out of one another and I thought we got stronger and better as the season went on." 

Proud as George was, the 31-year-old once again missed out on making his first trip to the NBA Finals. 

"It is what it is -- I came up short again," he said.

"I wasn't out to prove nothing to nobody, but to show up as a leader for this team, put us in a position to get to where we got to. Came up short. Our good wasn't enough." 

Though the odds certainly were stacked against them late given Leonard's absence, Lue said there was an air of disbelief their their season was actually finished. 

"I think it's a shock to a lot of guys in that locker room, and that tells you a lot about the team," he said.

"No matter who's playing, we still feel like every night we have a chance to win. I thought we ran out of gas."

Paul George says he "can't worry" about critics after his masterful Game 5 display against the Phoenix Suns kept the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA playoffs.

George was the star of the show in a resounding 116-102 victory at Phoenix Suns Arena on Monday.

The seven-time NBA All-Star scored a career postseason-high 41 points, including 30 in the second half, to reduce the Suns' lead to 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals.

George became the first player in NBA history to score 40 points or more with at least 75 per cent field goals, 50 per cent three-pointers and a perfect record with free-throws.

The shooting guard feels he has been harshly singled out, but will pay little attention to those who continue to point the finger at him.

Asked if he feels he has been criticised more than other NBA stars, he said: "I do. And it's the honest truth. It's a fact.

"But I can't worry about that. It comes with the job, I guess. I still try to go and dominate and so I'm beyond that, you know what I mean. I am who I am. I wish I could shoot 80 per cent, 75 per cent, on a nightly basis, but it's not realistic."

He added: "What I can do is do everything else. They can judge me on what they want to. That part don't matter to me. I'm going to go out there and hoop and give it everything I got."

 

George has put up at least 20 points in all 18 games he has played during this postseason. The only other players in NBA history to score at 20 or more points in their first 18 games of a single NBA playoffs are Michael Jordan (1992, 1997, 1998), Kobe Bryant (2008) and Kevin Durant (2012, 2018).

George becomes the third player since the 1996-97 season to score 30-plus points on 80 per cent shooting or better in the second half of a postseason game, joining Anthony Davis (2020) and Dwyane Wade (2010).

Clippers coach Ty Lue has been baffled by criticism of George.

"PG has been great for us all year and I just don't understand why it's magnified so much when he doesn't play well,” said Lue.

Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue does not understand the criticism of Paul George after the star helped the team avoid elimination from the NBA playoffs with a 116-102 win over the Phoenix Suns.

George scored a career postseason-high 41 points, including 30 in the second half, in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals as the Clippers stayed alive in the postseason series on Monday.

The 31-year-old stepped up when the Clippers were challenged in the third quarter, with second-seeded Phoenix hitting the lead briefly, as George hit back with 20 third-quarter points.

George became the first player in Clippers history to record 40-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists in a postseason game, while also becoming the first player in NBA history to have 40-plus points on at least 75 per cent field-goal shooting, 50 per cent three-point shooting and 100 free-throw shooting in a playoff contest.

HE is also the third player since the 1996-97 since to score 30-plus points on 80 per cent shooting or better in the second half of a postseason game, joining Anthony Davis (2020) and Dwyane Wade (2010).

George has been criticised in the past and has missed some key free-throws against the Suns, but he has been the Clippers' top scorer in all five games this series in the absence of Kawhi Leonard (knee), while he led all three categories – points, rebounds and assists, for the second successive game for the fourth seeds.

"I just don't understand why it's magnified so much when he has a bad game, when he doesn't play well," Lue said during his post-game news conference.

"A lot of people play bad. Like I said, I'm just happy he came back, played a great game, we needed every bit of it."

George has put up at least 20 points in all 18 games he has played this season. The only other players in NBA history to have at least 20 points in their first 18 games of a single playoff campaign are Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

Lue added: "That's what great players do. You always bounce back, if you have a rough game.

"Our team needed it… We fed off Marcus' [Morris Snr] momentum in the first half. Every time they made a run, we responded."

The Clippers have already come from behind to win two series this postseason, triumphing 4-3 over the Dallas Mavericks after trailing 2-0, while they won four straight games against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, having been down 2-0.

Lue and the Clippers would need to win three straight games to overcome the Suns, having trailed 3-1 but they can level the series in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

A championship-winning coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lue moved to a 10-2 coaching record when his side is facing elimination, but preferred to focus on his players who he labelled "resilient".

"It's been all season long," Lue said. "Guys have been out, different guys are stepping up and playing well.

"I keep saying the same word resilient but this group is. We got a gritty win without three starters, we gotta do it again two more times."

He added: "It is fun. I was just talking to our team about not winning three games but winning each quarter. The journey is too long if you think about three games, six days. I thought our guys came out with that mindset, we won three of four quarters."

Paul George posted a playoff career-high 41 points as the Los Angeles Clippers avoided elimination with a 116-102 win over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.

George flexed his muscles away from home on Monday and in the absence of star team-mate Kawhi Leonard, scoring 30 second-half points to keep the series alive against the second-seeded Suns.

The win means the Clippers, who have come from behind to triumph in their past two playoffs series, trail the Suns 3-2 in the matchup ahead of Game 6 back in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

George and the Clippers had led at half-time for the first time in the series, up 59-52, but the Suns earned a 62-61 lead before the visitors launched a 10-0 run and never looked back.

Clippers star George entered the must-win game as the fourth player in NBA history to score 20-plus points in each of his first 17 games of a single postseason, joining Michael Jordan (1991, 1992, 1997, 1998), Kobe Bryant (2008) and Kevin Durant (2012 and 2018).

George also had 13 rebounds and six assists, dominating for the fourth-seeded Clippers, who were without injured pair Leonard and Ivica Zubac.

The Clippers continued their resilient playoff campaign, having trailed 2-0 against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round before winning 4-3, while they won four games in a row against the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semi-finals, having fallen 2-0 behind.

The Suns refused to surrender, with Devin Booker scoring 31 points and Chris Paul contributing 22 of his own, but the Clippers always had an answer to silence the home crowd.

George, who shot 15-from-20 from the field for the game, had good support from Reggie Jackson (23 points, including four three-pointers), while Marcus Morris Sr. finished with 22 points after scoring 20 in the first half.

The Clippers dominated with 34-8 first-half points in the paint and 58-32 for the game.

Suns center Deandre Ayton could not capitalise on Zubac's absence, only managing 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Paul missed all six three-point attempts for Phoenix, while he had eight assists.

 

Bucks at Hawks

The Milwaukee Bucks can claim a 3-1 lead over the Atlanta Hawks when they visit State Farm Arena for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday.

We could soon know who will be fighting it out for the NBA title, with both Conference Finals in danger of being decided emphatically.

The Phoenix Suns have surged into a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers, while title favourites the Milwaukee Bucks have recovered from a Game 1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks to lead 2-1.

The coming week will decide who will face off for the Larry O'Brien Trophy and, in this edition of Heat Check, Stats Perform looks at which players are on form heading into the decisive matchups, as well as those who need to step up.


RUNNING HOT

Reggie Jackson - Los Angeles Clippers

With Kawhi Leonard showing no sign of making a return from a knee injury that has kept him out for the past six games, the Clippers need players to improve if they are to save their season.

Los Angeles face an elimination game on Monday in the Western Conference Finals, but they can take heart from what Jackson has done in Leonard's absence.

Jackson has scored at least 20 points in five of the last six games, including a 27-point performance in the Game 7 win over the Utah Jazz.

He averaged 20.67 points per game last week, exactly 10 points more than he did in the regular season. The Clippers must have another big effort from him in Game 5.

Deandre Ayton - Phoenix Suns

Ayton enjoyed one of the defining moments of these playoffs with his game-winning alley-oop in Game 2 of the Conference Finals. He is blossoming into the star center the Suns thought they were getting when Phoenix selected him first overall in 2018.

His dramatic final basket in the second game capped a superb performance in which he produced 24 points and 14 rebounds.

Not content with just one double-double, Ayton produced another in Game 4, putting up 19 points and tallying 22 rebounds.

Over the course of the three matchups last week, Ayton recorded 20.33 points and 15 rebounds per game, both significant increases on his averages of 14.15 points and 10.54 rebounds in the regular season. No wonder Ayton has received such effusive praise from team-mate Chris Paul.

Trae Young - Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks' hopes of upsetting the odds once more against the Bucks hang in the balance with star point guard Trae Young having been diagnosed with a bone bruise, making him questionable for Game 4.

If he is ruled out, it will be a great shame as Young has played phenomenally in the playoffs, including making a superb start to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He began the series last week by scoring an astonishing 48 points as the Hawks took Game 1 in Milwaukee.

Young was held to 15 in Game 2 but bounced back with 35 in the third game, going six for 14 from three-point range, taking his points per game for the week to 32.67, way up on his already impressive average of 25.3 from the regular season.

GOING COLD...

Bogdan Bogdanovic - Atlanta Hawks

Young's presence is even more important given one of Atlanta's secondary scoring threats is having to fight through a knee injury.

Bogdanovic has continued to battle knee soreness and the impact on his play has been obvious.

He averaged over 16 points a game in the regular season, but has put up only 6.67 so far in this series.

The Hawks may need him to produce more amid the pain to improve their odds of stunning the Bucks.

Clint Capela - Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks also haven't quite got the desired production they desire from center Capela.

That may be a slightly unfair statement given that Capela has tallied double-digit rebounds in two of the three games in the series, including a double-double in the Hawks' opening win.

Yet in terms of putting up points, his output has disappointed in comparison with his regular-season numbers. Tallies of 12, two and eight give him a per-game average of 7.33 that is in stark contrast to the 15.17 he delivered in helping the Hawks clinch the fifth seed in the East.

In a series with a Bucks team whose leading lights are firing on all cylinders, that isn't going to cut it.

Paul George - Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers competing in a place in their first Finals without Leonard, it is a bad time for George to go cold from deep.

Having made 3.17 threes per game in the regular season, George was off the mark from beyond the arc in three games against the Suns last week.

He made an average of 1.67 threes per game, hitting on one triple in two contests, including the Game 4 loss that has put the Clippers on the brink of elimination.

George simply must rediscover his aim to keep their season alive.

The Phoenix Suns have claimed a hard-fought road win to go 3-1 up in the Western Conference finals with an 84-80 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday.

DeAndre Ayton was dominant in the paint with 19 points, 22 rebounds and four blocks as the Suns triumphed, leading the whole way but having to withstand a late Clippers challenge.

Devin Booker, who took his protective face mask off in the second half, led all scorers for Phoenix with 25 points but fouled out with 1:05 to go, leaving veteran guard Chris Paul (18 points and seven assists) to finish the job with a series of late free throws.

The Clippers, once again without the injured Kawhi Leonard, got within one point in the final quarter, including with 13.2 seconds to go, but never took the lead.

The result means Phoenix are one win away from qualifying for their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993. It would also be the first Finals appearance for 11-time All-Star Paul.

Phoenix had led by 14 points at half-time, but the Clippers stormed back into the game with a 30-19 third quarter.

Paul George fought hard for the Clippers with 23 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, while Reggie Jackson scored 20 points. Ivica Zubac was admirable with 13 points and 14 rebounds.

But the Clippers struggled from beyond the arc, shooting five from 31 (16.1 per cent), with Jackson hitting two-of-nine from three-point range, while George made one-from-nine.

The Suns did not fare much better from range, with Booker missing all five three-point attempts and Paul all three.

Phoenix's 84 points was the fewest in a win this season, regular or postseason.

The series returns to Phoenix on Monday, with the Suns chasing a close-out win.

Paul George hailed the toughness of the Los Angeles Clippers as they celebrated their first ever win in the Western Conference Finals after overcoming the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3.

Making their first foray into the Conference Finals, the Clippers slumped to a 2-0 deficit against the second-seeded Suns heading into Thursday's clash in Los Angeles.

With Kawhi Leonard still sidelined by a knee injury, George took centre stage as he recorded a 27-point and 15-rebound double-double – which included a stunning half-court buzzer-beater in the third period.

"This team is tough," George told ESPN. "We do whatever it takes. We trust one another. We've got each other's backs, and we just play hard.

"If you're going to beat us, it's just got to be one of those nights if you beat us. I think we've just got great resilience.

"Ty Lue just does a great job making adjustments, counters. We come out and we play hard.

"We put so much into this season, we've invested so much in each other, and we're going to live with the results.

"We'll be ready for Game 4."

Entering the contest at Staples Center following back-to-back games on the road, George had scored at least 20 points in all 15 games this postseason.

The latest performance saw George eclipse LeBron James' run of 15 consecutive games (in 2016) with 20-plus points in the playoffs – Kevin Durant is the only other active player to achieve the feat in the postseason (20 straight in 2012 and 21 in a row in 2018).

The Clippers – who are the first team all-time to be down 2-0 three times in a single postseason – outscored the visiting Suns 34-21 in the third quarter to move clear.

Reggie Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, while Ivica Zubac (15 points and 16 rebounds) finished with a double-double of his own.

George and Zubac became the first set of team-mates to each tally 15-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a playoff showdown since James (28 points and 15 rebounds) and Kevin Love (15 points and 21 rebounds) in 2017.

The starting team, which featured George, Jackson, Zubac, Patrick Beverley and Terance Mann, was Lue's fifth change of line-up across the previous eight games, with the coach reaping the rewards of earning his players' trust.

"It means a lot just for those guys to trust me, to understand that whatever I'm doing is the best for the team, not for me," said Lue.

"I just want to win. Making adjustments, sometimes it's tough, because adjustments mean some guys can't play, some guys play more, and you've got to be able to accept that."

Paul George dominated as the Los Angeles Clippers celebrated their first ever win in the Western Conference Finals after overcoming the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3.

Featuring in the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, the Clippers found themselves in a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Suns heading into Thursday's clash in Los Angeles.

Even in the ongoing absence of superstar Kawhi Leonard (knee), George picked up the slack with a 27-point and 15-rebound double-double – which included a stunning half-court buzzer-beater in the third period – to lift the Clippers and help reduce the series deficit to 2-1.

Entering the contest at Staples Center following back-to-back games on the road, George had scored at least 20 points in all 15 games this postseason.

The latest performance saw George eclipse LeBron James' run of 15 consecutive games (in 2016) with 20-plus points in the playoffs – Kevin Durant is the only other active player to achieve the feat in the postseason (20 straight in 2012 and 21 in a row in 2018).

The Clippers – who are the first team all-time to be down 2-0 three times in a single postseason – outscored the visiting Suns 34-21 in the third quarter to move clear.

Reggie Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, while Ivica Zubac (15 points and 16 rebounds) finished with a double-double of his own.

George and Zubac became the first set of team-mates to each tally 15-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a playoff showdown since James (28 points and 15 rebounds) and Kevin Love (15 points and 21 rebounds) in 2017.

Suns veteran Chris Paul returned from the league's health and safety protocol and posted 15 points and 12 assists.

Paul became the 13th player in NBA history with 1,000 playoff assists in the losing effort.

It was a tough outing for star team-mate Devin Booker, who was just five-for-21 shooting as he finished with 15 points in a team-high 40 minutes.

 

Hawks at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to bounce back against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday. Trae Young and the Hawks claimed the opener in Milwaukee.

While his overall numbers were far from terrible, Paul George's performance in the 2019-20 playoffs was not what he or the Los Angeles Clippers envisioned when they paired him with Kawhi Leonard.

This postseason has provided an ample opportunity for atonement and George has mostly answered the call to push the Clippers into uncharted territory.

There are parts of the previous playoff campaign that clearly George would rather forget, namely his outings in Games 2, 3 and 4 against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. After scoring 27 points on 10-of-22 shooting in a series-opening victory, George averaged just 11.3 points on 10-of-47 shooting (21.3 percent) from the field, including 4 of 25 from 3-point range, in the next three games as Dallas knotted the series at two games apiece.

In the process, George made some unwanted history as he became the first player in NBA history to shoot under 25 percent from the floor in three consecutive playoff games since Bob Cousy in 1960 (minimum of 10 attempts in each game).

The former Fresno State product bounced back by scoring 35 points on 12-of-18 shooting in a Game 5 win against Dallas, but that is easily forgotten because the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the semi-finals. George averaged 23.7 points on 46.5 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds in the first six games of that series, yet that was overshadowed by his dismal 10-point, 4-of-16 shooting display and five turnovers in a Game 7 loss.

This postseason did not get off to a great start for the Clippers, who lost the first two games at home to the Mavericks before George, Leonard and company rebounded to win the next two games in Dallas.

That series came down to Game 7 in Los Angeles and George had 22 points and 10 assists in a 126-111 victory. There were not eye-popping numbers in that first-round series for George, but he scored at least 20 points in each game, a trend he has continued in every postseason contest in 2020-21.

 

George's streak of 15 consecutive games with at least 20 points is the longest in the league this season, and only Kevin Durant (21 straight in 2018) has a longer such run since 2017-18.

George really elevated his play in the second-round win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz, averaging 29 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists in six games. After Los Angeles again found itself in an 0-2 hole, George delivered 31.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while connecting on 15 of 34 from long range in the Clippers' run of four straight wins.

He may have had the best playoff game of his career in a pivotal Game 5 win on the road with Leonard sidelined due to a knee injury, tallying 37 points, 16 boards and five assists. It was the first-ever 35-15-5 postseason game by a Clipper and George joined Durant as the only two players this postseason to have at least 35 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a game.

George also became just the fourth player in franchise history with three straight 30-point playoff games, along with Bob McAdoo (9), Leonard (5) and Elton Brand (4). George's seven 30-point postseason games since joining the Clippers are tied with Blake Griffin for third most in franchise history, trailing McAdoo (14) and Leonard (12).

The Clippers advanced to the franchise's first-ever Western Conference Finals by overcoming a 25-point deficit in Game 6, the largest comeback by any team to clinch a series in the last 25 seasons. Teams were 2-265 in the 2020-21 regular season when trailing by 25 or more. With that comeback, Los Angeles became the first team to erase an 0-2 deficit twice in one postseason.

That's a hole the Clippers will have to climb out again after a wild 104-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 on Tuesday. George shook off a slow start to score 10 fourth-quarter points and finished with 26, but he missed two free throws with eight seconds left and the Suns capitalised, Deandre Ayton's final-second alley-oop dunk securing a stunning win. It was the franchise-record ninth straight victory in the playoffs for Phoenix, a team which is finding ways to win even without floor leader Chris Paul.

It was an extremely disheartening loss for the Clippers, who overcame terrific games from Cameron Payne and Ayton to have a golden opportunity to steal a road win despite trailing most of the night.

George has done his part to keep the Clippers afloat in Leonard's absence, averaging 30 points in the first two games of this series. However, he is 20 for 49 from the field, did not make a 3-pointer in Game 2 until 2:41 remaining and those two missed free throws ended up proving to be extremely costly, especially coming from a career 85 per cent shooter from the line.

Fatigue certainly played a role for George, who has played at least 40 minutes three times in the past four games, including a 45-plus minute stint in Game 6 against the Jazz. Still, those misses could end up haunting George and the Clippers unless he and his teammates can render them meaningless going forward.

It would be foolish to think Los Angeles is not capable of still winning this series after it survived this scenario twice already. Still, overcoming the Suns will be a tall task since Leonard was still healthy when they lost the first two games to both Dallas and Utah.

While it is unclear if Leonard will return, Paul is expected to return from the league's health and safety protocols soon, perhaps as early as Game 3.

Deandre Ayton's dunk with less than one second to play gave the Phoenix Suns a stunning 104-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers and a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals. 

Ayton was the Suns' most reliable player throughout a back-and-forth affair and came up huge in the end, soaring to catch an inbounds pass from Jae Crowder over the rim and slam it home for the final margin. 

After the last in a series of lengthy video reviews in the final two minutes, the officials put 0.7 seconds on the clock for the Clippers, but Paul George could not get off a shot before the buzzer expired. 

With the Suns missing team leader Chris Paul due to COVID-19 protocols and their star Devin Booker having a difficult night, it was Ayton who came up huge Tuesday. 

The big man scored 12 points in the first quarter on the way to a 24-point night on 12-of-15 shooting in addition to grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. 

On a night that saw Booker make only five of 16 shots from the field and turn the ball over seven times, Paul's replacement Cam Payne was a huge factor for Phoenix. 

Payne, whose previous career playoff scoring high was 19 points, scored 29 in 37 minutes on a memorable night in Phoenix. 

The Clippers were also missing a star as Kawhi Leonard sat out a fourth consecutive game with a knee injury, and George could not lift Los Angeles to victory by himself. 

The veteran led the Clippers with 26 points but made just 10 of 23 shots and missed two critical free throws in the closing seconds to give the Suns a chance to win it. 

The series shifts to Los Angeles on Thursday with the Clippers looking to bounce back at home. 

The matchups are set for the NBA's Conference Finals – and few would have predicted these four teams would still be in the running at the start of the year.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets' superstars fell to the Milwaukee Bucks while the Atlanta Hawks stunned the Philadelphia 76ers.

Western Conference leaders the Utah Jazz became the latest team to give up a lead to the Los Angeles Clippers.

However, the Clippers on Sunday lost Game 1 of their series with the Phoenix Suns, who had been resting since sweeping the Denver Nuggets.

So, which big names were key to deciding these unpredictable battles? Stats Perform takes a look in the latest edition of NBA Heat Check...
 

RUNNING HOT...

Paul George

Clippers superstar George understandably took a lot of criticism for his playoff performances last season, when he shot 39.8 per cent from the field and scored 10 points or fewer as many times as he reached 30.

But just as Kawhi Leonard went down against the Jazz with a knee injury, for which he has no return date, George found his scoring touch again.

Across four straight wins over Utah – three were last week – George contributed 31, 31, 37 and 28 points. His 37, along with 16 rebounds, came on the road in Game 5, putting the Clippers up for the first time in the series while Leonard sat out.

Even as a surely tired LA team lost to Phoenix on Sunday, George kept them in contention with 34 points to end the week averaging 32.5 per outing, as well as 9.5 rebounds (up from 23.3 and 6.7 respectively in the regular season).

Khris Middleton

Middleton is another impressive regular season performer who has been scrutinised for his postseason displays – and far more recently than last season.

Across the first five games of the Nets series, the wildly inconsistent Bucks forward shot 38.1 per cent from the field. He had 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3 but had gone six-for-23 in Game 1, making none of his five three-point attempts.

Yet Middleton's 38 points won Game 6, as he and Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as the only team-mates in NBA history to each have 30 points and 10 rebounds in the same game twice in the same playoff campaign.

With a key role again in the series decider, Middleton became the first player to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in consecutive postseason games since steals were first tracked in 1973-74.

Devin Booker

Booker played just once last week but put in a performance that cannot go unmentioned. Without veteran Chris Paul to help him, the sixth-year guard weighed in with a 40-point triple-double against the Clippers (also 13 rebounds and 11 assists).

Only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age in the playoffs than the 24-year-old, while Steve Nash – another Hall of Famer – was the previous Suns player to score a postseason triple of any kind back in 2005.

Kevin Durant

Another player whose contributions must be highlighted, even with his team now out of the playoffs, is Durant. With 43.0 points per game last week, he showed the greatest improvement in the league from his regular season performances – up 16.1 on 26.9.

His 12.3 rebounds per game put the two-time Finals MVP second in improvement in that regard, too, but it was not quite enough.

A toe on the three-point line meant Durant's late leveller in Game 7 against the Bucks was not a game-winner, before the Nets lost in overtime despite his 48 points – one short of a heroic Game 5 tally and two shy of his career postseason best.
 

GOING COLD...

James Harden

That Durant was asked to do so much was due to injuries to both the other members of Brooklyn's 'Big Three'. Kyrie Irving did not play after Game 4 against the Bucks due to an ankle sprain, while Harden returned in Game 5 after missing the previous three.

To anyone watching, though, it was clear Harden was not healthy.

One of the league's great scorers, he made one of 10 field goals in his first game back, with five points in 45 minutes. Harden had never previously scored as few as five in half an hour of play or more.

His form did improve slightly with returns of 16 and 22 points, but Milwaukee won both, with Harden shooting 29.4 per cent from the field as he proved more of a hindrance than a help to Durant with their season on the line.

Ben Simmons

When Harden moved to Brooklyn, Philadelphia was seen as the potential alternative destination, although that would likely have meant the 76ers reluctantly giving up Simmons. After the defeat to Atlanta, Simmons may now leave regardless.

An outstanding defender, the guard's offense has long been a concern and so it proved again as he averaged 7.5 points last week, significantly down on his modest regular season (14.3).

Simmons made single figures in three straight games, twice shooting only four times from the field despite being on the floor for 38 and 35 minutes respectively.

His eight-point effort on Wednesday included going four-of-14 when shooting from the foul line.

Rudy Gobert

This is the first time since 1994 that both top seeds have failed to make the Conference Finals. The Jazz, just like the Sixers, needed more from their second star.

Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year but looked a liability as the Clippers went small in Game 6, when his plus/minus was a dismal -24.

The Frenchman's output was down in all three defeats last week as he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, having put up 13.5 in the regular season.

The Philadelphia 76ers' crashed out of the NBA playoffs amid a chorus of boos after the top seeds were sensationally upstaged by the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Back on home court for the series decider, the 76ers were tipped to close out the matchup at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday, but the fifth-seeded Hawks had other ideas following a stunning 103-96 victory.

Despite Trae Young's off night (21 points on just five-for-23 shooting), the Hawks still managed to conquer Joel Embiid and the 76ers thanks to unheralded guard Kevin Huerter.

Huerter had a team-high 27 points, seven rebounds and three assists as the Hawks returned to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2015, setting up a showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks.

It was a topsy-turvy battle in Philadelphia, where the 76ers trailed 76-71 at the start of the fourth quarter before rallying to lead by as many as four points in the final period.

However, the Hawks refused to surrender and pounced on the sloppy 76ers, who finished with 17 turnovers en route to bowing out of the postseason.

Double-doubles from MVP runner-up Embiid (31 points and 11 rebounds) and Tobias Harris (24 points and 14 rebounds) were not enough for the 76ers, with Ben Simmons (five points, 13 assists and eight rebounds) the subject of boos in his home arena after attempting just four shots throughout.

With Atlanta's victory, it is the first time since 1994 both number one seeds in the playoffs failed to make the Conference Finals after the Utah Jazz were ousted by the Los Angeles Clippers, according to Stats Perform.

Earlier in the day, the Phoenix Suns were 120-114 winners over the Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Devin Booker recorded his first career triple-double, posting 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists for the second-seeded Suns in the absence of Chris Paul (COVID-19 health and safety protocols).

Booker – in the midst of his maiden NBA playoffs campaign – became the first Suns player to register a triple-double in the postseason since Hall of Famer Steve Nash in 2005.

The 24-year-old also became the third youngest player in NBA history to record a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs – only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age.

The Clippers – featuring in the Conference Finals for the first time in their history – were without star Kawhi Leonard for a third consecutive game due to a knee injury.

Paul George (34 points) and Reggie Jackson (24 points) tried to inspire the fourth seeds on the road in the series opener.

 

Clippers at Suns

After a day off, the playoffs resume with the Suns hosting the Clippers in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday.

Devin Booker recorded his first career triple-double but the Phoenix Suns All-Star insisted he is purely focused on winning after guiding the franchise past the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Booker was the star of the show with 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists as the second-seeded Suns drew first blood against the Clippers 120-114 in Phoenix on Sunday.

With star team-mate Chris Paul (COVID-19 health and safety protocols) sidelined, Booker – in the midst of his first NBA playoffs campaign – became the first Suns player to register a triple-double in the postseason since Hall of Famer Steve Nash in 2005.

Booker also became the third youngest player in NBA history to record a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs – only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age.

"I'll let you guys do the rankings," Booker said. "I'm just going out there to win every game possible.

"I've been saying this since the start of the playoffs — every next game is the biggest game."

Suns team-mate Jae Crowder said: "I don't understand why everyone's acting surprised at this point.

"This is his first time on this stage but he's capable. He's more than capable. He's more than ready. He prepares like no other."

The Clippers – featuring in the Conference Finals for the first time in their history – were without star Kawhi Leonard for a third consecutive game due to a knee injury.

Paul George (34 points) and Reggie Jackson (24 points) tried to inspire the fourth seeds on the road in the series opener.

"I have no excuse," Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said. "I thought we played hard and competed. A little credit — they were making shots and we didn't. But I loved our fight. I loved what I saw."

George added: "We got to figure out how to counter, which we will, figure out another game plan. I think this was a good feel-out game to see adjustments. We have been great at adjusting."

Terance Mann says he is "not surprised" after helping the Los Angeles Clippers overturn a 25-point deficit to eliminate the Utah Jazz en route to reaching their first Western Conference Final.

Second-year forward Mann, drafted number 46 overall in the 2019 NBA draft, posted a career-high 39 points with seven-from-10 three-pointers – five of those in the second half –  in Friday's remarkable 131-119 victory.

He had never scored more than 25 points in an NBA game. According to Stats Perform, the last player to have 14-plus points more in a playoff game than his previous career high was Michael Jordan in his NBA-record 63-point game in 1986.

The Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard and trailed the Jazz by 25 points early in the third quarter, before going on a 75-40 run to set up a showdown with the second-seeded Phoenix Suns for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Mann averaged 7.0 points per game this season but proved the star of the show in the Clippers' famous win to earn the acclaim of his colleagues.

"You saw a complete game from a second-year player," said Paul George, who had 28 points. 

"Honestly, he single-handedly willed us back through that stretch where he just, you know, 3 after 3 to downhill attacks to defending. You know, he did it all."

Mann made five of his seven threes over a 23:36 stretch, but the game-winning performance did not come as a surprise to the 24-year-old, who was given a standing ovation by the Staples Center crowd.

"I just had to lock in and do what I had to do," he said. "They were leaving me open.

"I trust my work. When you trust your work, you trust in yourself, you're not surprised when any of this happens."

The Clippers had trailed 2-0 in the NBA playoff series but rallied to close out the second-round matchup 4-2 against the side with the best regular-season record in 2020-21.

A first Conference Final in their 51-year franchise history now awaits and coach Tyronn Lue wants crosstown Los Angeles Lakers to get behind the Clippers when they face the Phoenix Suns, starting this Sunday.

"Just seeing our fans and how they stayed to the end and how they were cheering, it just felt good," Lue said. "The team has been starving for success, and the fan base has been doing the same thing.

"I know the Lakers are out and there's a lot of Lakers fans here. But once the Lakers are gone, if we're not playing them, you should be cheering for the Clippers because it's all in one city. I can feel the love, and I'm very happy and proud of our guys."

The Los Angeles Clippers overturned a 25-point deficit to sensationally eliminate the Utah Jazz en route to their first Western Conference Final, stunning the top seeds 131-119 on Friday.

Despite the absence of star Kawhi Leonard and a large third-quarter deficit against the Jazz, the Clipper produced a miraculous comeback to advance to a Conference Final for the first time in the franchise's 51-year history.

The Clippers had trailed 2-0 in the NBA playoff series but rallied to close out the second-round matchup 4-2 against the side with the best regular-season record in 2020-21 as the Phoenix Suns await, starting on Sunday.

Seeded fourth, the Clippers – who also rallied from 2-0 down against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, having squandered a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets' in last season's Western Conference semi-finals, were fuelled by Terance Mann.

Terance Mann posted a career-high 39 points with seven-from-10 three-pointers, including five in the second half.

Mann had never scored more than 25 points in an NBA game previously. According to Stats Perform, the last player to have 14-plus points in a playoff game than his previous career high was Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in his NBA-record 63-point game in 1986.

Paul George was outstanding with 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while Reggie Jackson finished with 27 points and 10 assists to guide the Clippers.

It was a disappointing end for the Jazz, who were excellent throughout the regular season and had started strongly in Game 6, leading 72-50 at half-time.

Donovan Mitchell scored 39 points, with nine rebounds and nine assists for Utah as the Jazz became the first team in NBA history to win a postseason clash by double digits after trailing by 20-plus points at half-time, per Stats Perform.

Earlier on Friday, the Philadelphia 76ers responded after letting big leads slip in Game 4 and 5 to force an Eastern Conference semi-final decider with a 104-99 win away to the Atlanta Hawks.

Seth Curry, who made six of his nine three-point attempts, and Tobias Harris both scored 24 points for the top-seeded 76ers – who levelled the second-round series at 3-3, forcing a Game 7 in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Atlanta had started strong to compound the pressure on the 76ers, but Philadelphia withstood the early storm, with a 12-0 run after half-time before holding their nerve in the last quarter.

All-Star and MVP runner-up Joel Embiid finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds, while rookie Tyrese Maxey had an influential final quarter, scoring 16 points for the game, after Ben Simmons was benched plagued by his shooting woes.

Hawks All-Star Trae Young had a game-high 34 points, shooting five-from-10 from three-point range, along with 12 assists, five rebounds and three steals.

 

Bucks at Nets

The gripping Eastern Conference semi-final series between the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks will be decided at Barclays Center on Saturday. Hosts the Nets will be missing Kyrie Irving due to an ankle injury as James Harden battles for mobility after re-injuring his hamstring in Game 1.

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