The Los Angeles Clippers absorbed the best shot the Utah Jazz could give them and prevailed in what Paul George called their biggest game of the season, winning 119-111 Wednesday to take a 3-2 lead in their Western Conference semi-final series. 

Hours after learning star forward Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely with a knee injury, the Clippers turned to George to lead the way on the road against top-seeded Utah. 

George did everything he could, posting 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists to put Los Angeles one win away from advancing to the conference finals. 

"He's incredible. He's special. Paul's special," said Clippers guard Reggie Jackson.

"The way that he just handled himself, he seemed calm. Tough news to receive [about Leonard] but he seemed calm. He was ready to put the team on his back and carry extra weight."

George did not try and diminish the significance of the win afterward. 

"I thought this was our toughest matchup this postseason, this was the biggest game of our season, especially being down our best player," he told TNT afterward. 

"We wish Kawhi the best and a speedy recovery, but we knew coming into this we had to play together, we had to step up, but we didn't have to [overdo] it.

"I thought everybody played their roles, we did a great job, we played collectively. We limited our turnovers, and I thought that's what was the key tonight."

Los Angeles gave the ball away only 10 times, but just as positive for them was watching the Jazz come up one short of an NBA playoff record with 17 made three-pointers in the first half but only lead by five going into the break. 

"I thought a lot of their threes were tough ones," said George. "We didn't overreact. They came out hot. The good thing about it was we were able to weather the storm.

"We came down and we attacked them on offence as well. We just took their blows, we took their punches -- we just thought they couldn't sustain that over a full 48 minutes."

They could not, whether through the Clippers' defensive efforts or a lack of focus on both ends of the court. 

"I didn't feel like the sense of urgency was there defensively at the beginning of the game," said Jazz big man Rudy Gobert, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. 

Whatever the reason, the Clippers now control their own destiny in the series, even without having Leonard available for the immediate future. 

"We've been talking about it all year," said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. "We're not going to point the finger. We're not going to blame anyone.

"When things get tough, we come together. That's the kind of culture I wanted to establish here."

After trailing nearly the entire game, the Atlanta Hawks completed a staggering comeback to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers 109-106 and take a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference semi-final series. 

Hawks star Trae Young led all scorers with 39 points and added seven assists, making 17 of 19 from the free-throw line to offset a 10-of-23 showing from the field. 

Though Atlanta trailed by 22 with one minute remaining in the third quarter, the Hawks shot their way back into the game as just about every 76ers player but Seth Curry went cold in the final quarter. 

Philadelphia still led by 10 after Ben Simmons made a pair of free throws with 4:23 to play, but the 76ers made only one shot the rest of the game -- a meaningless jumper from Curry just before the buzzer. 

In between, they came up empty on all six attempts from the field and Simmons and Joel Embiid missed two free throws each. 

Embiid finished with 37 points and 13 rebounds, while Curry scored 36 as they were the only two 76ers to score from the field in the second half.

According to Stats Perform, this is the first time in the last 15 postseasons two players have made all of their team's baskets in one half. 

A second-half rally was also on the cards in Salt Lake City as the Los Angeles Clippers withstood an early onslaught of three-pointers from the Utah Jazz and returned home with a 119-111 victory and a 3-2 series lead. 

Bojan Bogdanovic made six three-pointers in the opening quarter and Utah had 17 threes in the first half, one shy of the NBA record for the most in any half of a playoff game, to give the Jazz a 65-60 advantage at the break. 

But the Clippers, playing without the injured Kawhi Leonard, out-scored the Jazz 32-18 in the third quarter and held on for the win as Paul George scored 37 points and grabbed 16 rebounds. 

Marcus Morris added 25 points and Reggie Jackson 22 for the Clippers, who can close out the series at home on Friday. 

Bogdanovic finished with 32 points and Donovan Mitchell 21 for Utah, though Mitchell made only six of 19 shots from the field.

Utah made just three of 24 three-pointers in the second half. 

 

Nets at Bucks

The Brooklyn Nets will look to close out their Eastern Conference semi-final series against the Milwaukee Bucks as they take a 3-2 lead into Game 6.

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard led the way as the Los Angeles Clippers topped the Utah Jazz 118-104 in Game 4 to level the Western Conference semi-final series.

George and Leonard posted 31 points each to lead the fourth-seeded Clippers past the Jazz in Los Angeles on Monday.

Entering the contest, George and Leonard were the only pair of Clippers team-mates to score 30-plus points in the same playoff game more than once (Game 3 and Game 5 of the first round in 2020).

George and Leonard combined again to see off the top-ranked Jazz – a win fuelled by a 30-13 blowout in the opening quarter at Staples Center.

Marcus Morris Sr. was the only other Clippers player with double-digit points as the Phoenix Suns await the winner of this series in the Western Conference Finals.

The Jazz – who had their six-game winning streak snapped in Game 3, a run which tied the second longest in franchise history – were led by Donovan Mitchell's game-high 37 points on the road.

Game 5 of the series will be held in Utah on Wednesday, with the Jazz seeking to reclaim the lead.

Trae Young was the inspiration behind the Atlanta Hawks' series-tying 103-100 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

After a cold start, Young finished with 25 points to lead the Hawks' rally as Atlanta upstaged the top-seeded 76ers in Game 4 at home.

The 76ers blew an 18-point lead and the series advantage, with the matchup now deadlock at 2-2 following Young's performance.

Young became the first player to record at least 25 points and 18 assists in a playoff game since Tim Hardaway in 1991, while the all-Star is the youngest player in NBA history to have 18-plus assists in a postseason contest – surpassing Spud Webb (1986).

He also became the first Hawks player with 15-plus points and 15-plus assists in a playoff game since Doc Rivers – now head coach of the 76ers – tallied 16 points and 18 assists in 1988.

John Collins (14 points and 12 rebounds) and Clint Capela (12 points and 13 rebounds) added double-doubles, while Bogdan Bogdanovic contributed 22 points.

Joel Embiid – who looked far from his best after going 0-for-12 shooting in the second half – missed an open lay-up in the dying stages, before Seth Curry's unsuccessful buzzer-beating three-point attempt to force overtime.

Embiid, appearing to be hampered by his ongoing meniscus issue, had a playoff career-high 21 rebounds to go with 17 points.

The series heads back to Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for Game 5 midweek.

 

Bucks at Nets

The Brooklyn Nets will be without Kyrie Irving and James Harden for Tuesday's visit of the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, which is level at 2-2.

Paul George earned the praise of his coach Tyronn Lue as the Los Angeles Clippers hit back to beat the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of the Western Conference semi-finals.

Having lost the opening two games in Utah – with George, the subject of vitriol from the Jazz supporters, struggling to find his best form, although he did score 27 points in Game 2 – the Clippers struck back on their home court on Saturday in a 132-106 victory.

George was decisive, scoring 31 points, converting six three-pointers, while tallying five assists and three rebounds.

His 20 points in the first half set the standard for the Clippers, who also had fellow talisman Kawhi Leonard firing on all cylinders, putting up 34 points in 38 minutes.

"Oh, we're a different team," Lue said when asked to explain the impact of George getting into his stride early on.

"We know that. It's been like that all season long. He's been great. You know, he had one bad game, whatever, but people are going to have bad games."

The Clippers will aim to level the series in Game 4 on Monday, which again takes place at Staples Center, and with Leonard and George at their best, Lue was in a bullish mood.

"With our two guys, we know that they are two of the best in the league," Lue said.

"I don't go to Mastro's [restaurant] to order the ketchup. I go to order the steak. And tonight, our guys were steak. That's what we need."

While the Clippers' stars thrived, Utah guard Donovan Mitchell endured a difficult game, with an apparent recurrence of an ankle injury that kept him out for the final 16 games of the regular season forcing an early exit from the court, though he expects to be fighting fit for Game 4.

The Los Angeles Clippers' stars came through on their return home to drive a needed 132-106 win over the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of the Western Conference semi-finals on Saturday. 

Paul George posted 20 points in the first half and finished with 31, while Kawhi Leonard top-scored with 34 of his own as the Clippers led throughout and cut Utah's series lead to 2-1 in the NBA playoffs.

Donovan Mitchell had 30 points on 11-of-24 shooting from the field to lead the top-seeded Jazz, but by the time he found his offensive rhythm the game was largely out of hand in Los Angeles.

Mitchell did not score his first point until almost halfway through the second quarter. The last time he went scoreless in any quarter of a playoff game was April 14, 2019 against the Houston Rockets – a 32-point Utah loss. 

Utah kept this one a bit closer, cutting the Clippers' lead to eight points late in the third quarter, but George answered with a three-pointer and the Jazz could not get the margin below 10 from that point on. 

Among the key issues for Utah was Bojan Bogdanovic's worst performance in months. The Croatian made just two of 10 shots from the field and had nine points in the game – the first time he has been held to single digits since scoring seven in a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on April 26. 

Meanwhile, the Clippers' supporting cast turned in an impressive showing, with Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson combining to make nine of their 12 three-point attempts and scoring 17 points each. 

Game 4 is scheduled for Monday in Los Angeles. 

 

Nets at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks can level their Eastern Conference semi-final series with the star-studded Brooklyn Nets in Game 4 on Sunday.

Donovan Mitchell produced another monster performance as the top-seeded Utah Jazz took down the Los Angeles Clippers for a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semi-finals.

After going off for 45 points in the opener, All-Star Mitchell posted 37 points to lead the Jazz to a 117-111 victory at home to the Clippers in Game 2 in the NBA playoffs on Thursday.

Mitchell was supported by fellow All-Star and newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who put up 13 points, 20 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in Utah.

Utah's Mitchell is averaging 28.4 points in his playoff career, only behind LeBron James (28.7), Jerry West (29.1), Kevin Durant (29.2), Allen Iverson (29.7) and Michael Jordan (33.4).

The in-form Jazz extended their winning streak to six games – the team's longest unbeaten run in the playoffs since celebrating seven consecutive victories in 1998.

Kawhi Leonard and the fourth-ranked Clippers were looking to even the series by splitting Utah's homestand, but the visitors fell short in Game 2.

Reggie Jackson had a team-best 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting as Paul George (27 points and 10 rebounds) and Leonard (21 points) contributed.

In the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Milwaukee Bucks escaped with an 86-83 victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3.

The Bucks had their backs against the wall after falling into a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Nets, but responded on home court in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee surrendered a 21-point lead at home to the Nets before Jrue Holiday put the Bucks ahead for good with 11.4 seconds remaining.

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 33 points and 14 rebounds, while Khris Middleton top-scored with 35 points and 15 rebounds as Kevin Durant's buzzer-beating three-point attempt for the Nets bounced off the rim.

The Bucks are the only NBA team in the last 15 years to have two players (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) score 15-plus points in a quarter with no other team-mates posting a point (regular season or postseason), according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton combined for 68 points and 29 rebounds. Per Stats Perform, they are the first duo to combine for those numbers in a playoff game since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2001.

Durant's 30 points and 11 rebounds were not enough for the Nets, who were again without injured superstar James Harden (hamstring).

 

76ers at Hawks

The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers will visit the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup on Friday. The series is level at 1-1.

Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George was the subject of harsh treatment from the Utah Jazz fans on Tuesday, though he very nearly took the game to overtime.

The Jazz won Game 1 of the playoff series 112-109 in Salt Lake City, as George – in inspired form in the fourth quarter – almost propelled the visitors to a comeback.

All-Star guard George was wasteful in the earlier stages of the encounter, missing 12 of his first 14 shots, but found his aim in the final quarter, converting 13 points.

His fourth-quarter tally included seven points in the last three minutes, despite the Jazz supporters' "overrated" jeers – George had previously played for Utah's rivals Oklahoma City Thunder.

Yet with fans only just starting to come back in full capacity following the coronavirus pandemic, George had no issues with the chants, but did concede he needs to improve to help the Clippers level the series in Game 2.

"I like it," George said, as reported by ESPN. "That part doesn't get to me. It's all respect. I've had good games here and I've had bad games here.

 "That's part of this game, to be honest. The crowd's going to be involved. You want that. As an opposing player, you kind of want that.

"Fact of the matter is, I didn't shoot the ball well. I thought I was indecisive on my approach. But I will be a little bit better on taking the shots that I want."

George finished the game with 20 points in total, 10 rebounds and two assists, and acknowledged that Jazz star Rudy Gobert made life difficult for the Clippers.

"The big fella is really good at just clogging the paint up and just sitting at the rim," George said of Gobert.

"A lot of plays I was just forcing myself trying to get to the basket where he's there waiting for me. So I think just being decisive on the approach of setting up, getting the shots that I want while he's in those coverages."

Donovan Mitchell starred and Rudy Gobert produced a game-clinching block as the Utah Jazz drew first blood against the Los Angeles Lakers in their Western Conference semi-final opener.

Mitchell dropped 32 of his 45 points in the second half to guide the top-seeded Jazz to a thrilling 112-109 win at home to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 on Tuesday.

Fellow All-Star Gobert – who finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds – came up big at the death, denying Marcus Morris Sr. and his potential game-winning three-pointer.

Kawhi Leonard (23 points) and Paul George (20 points and 10 rebounds) were unable to lift the fourth-seeded Clippers in Utah.

Earlier in the day, a disappointed Joel Embiid had a point to prove as he fuelled the Philadelphia 76ers' 118-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2.

Embiid's MVP hopes were dashed by Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, who was crowned the league's Most Valuable Player on Tuesday.

Already frustrated following a shock loss to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semi-final opener, Embiid came out and scored 40 points with 13 rebounds to help level the series.

Embiid became the first 76ers player with 40 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game since Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham in 1970, while his postseason career-high points haul saw him become the first Philadelphia player with 40-plus points in a playoff contest since Hall of Famer Allen Iverson in 2003.

Tobias Harris chipped in with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists for the 76ers at Wells Fargo Center, where he had 16 first-quarter points on eight-for-nine shooting.

It was not all smooth sailing after a fast start as Philadelphia squandered a 21-point advantage – Trae Young's pair of free throws giving Atlanta their first lead in the third quarter, 80-79.

But Shake Milton – who did not play in the first half – stepped up to the plate, scoring 14 points to help withstand Young (21 points and 11 assists) and visiting the Hawks.

 

Nuggets at Suns

In the only game on Wednesday, the second-seeded Phoenix Suns will look to claim a 2-0 lead over the Nuggets in the Western Conference second round.

Paul George may have insisted it is not time to worry just yet but the Los Angeles Clippers face a critical Game 3 on the road against the Dallas Mavericks.

Dallas returned home from LA with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that is a repeat of a first-round playoff clash in the NBA bubble from last season. On that occasion, the teams were locked together at 2-2 before the Clippers pulled clear to prevail.

This time around, the favoured team - though admittedly it is a meeting of the fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference - has plenty of work to do if they are to progress again.

Luka Doncic starred once more in a 127-121 triumph on Tuesday to help the Mavericks double their advantage, though George made clear in the aftermath that the Clippers can still dig themselves out of the early hole.

"It's a competition. We've got to rise to the occasion. The fact of the matter is if we don't, we're done for," he told the media.

"But it's no level of concern. We've just got to play our game. We've got to play through this. We've got to incorporate our defense.

"Luka's going to get his touches. We've just got to do a better job defensively of just quieting everybody else."

Doncic is certainly getting touches - the Slovenian has scored 70 points so far in the series, as well as contributing 18 assists. Now with home-court advantage, he has the chance to push Dallas' much-fancied opponents to the brink of an early elimination that will raise serious questions over their future.

With George and Kawhi Leonard paired together, the Clippers were tipped to contend in the 2019-20 season. A dramatic collapse when 3-1 up against the Denver Nuggets in the West semi-finals put paid to any title hopes, but an even earlier exit this year would be just as surprising.

"This is playoff basketball, we've just got to figure it out," Leonard told the media. "Just like the regular season, you might lose two in a row and then go on a winning streak, so just having that same mentality.

"We're playing the same team; we know what they're doing. We've just got to stay focused and make sure we are keeping our eye on the prize."

A defeat in Dallas, however, and the Clippers should be seriously concerned about their predicament.

TOP PERFORMERS

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks

In the previous series between these teams, Doncic dazzled in defeat. He averaged 31.0 points per game back then – but he is already up at 35 this time around. That number is helped by him shooting 41.7 per cent from deep, while the team itself are averaging a spectacular 50.0 per cent on their attempts from three-point range.

Paul George - Los Angeles Clippers

After averaging 23.3 points per game in the regular season, George has raised that number up to 25.5 at the start of the playoffs, despite landing just three of his 15 shots from beyond the arc. That level of production is pivotal for the Clippers, but so too is his ability to help get stops as they aim to slow Dallas' offensive production.

KEY BATTLE – TAKING AIM FROM DISTANCE

Can the Mavs remain hot from long range? Doncic was always likely to get points in the series, but the supporting cast have done an excellent job helping their star turn. Tim Hardaway Jr has been particularly impressive, averaging 24.5 points thanks to 11 made three-pointers. 

In contrast, LA have not lived up to their team average of 41.1 per cent on three in the regular season, which was the best in the league. It is not due to a lack of opportunities either, as they have had 10 more field-goal attempts than their rivals through the opening two games. 

HEAD TO HEAD

The franchises are locked together at four wins apiece when it comes to previous playoff meetings, but Dallas dominates the record in the regular season at 95-67. They won two out of three earlier in this campaign, but the solitary defeat did come at home.

Paul George insists the Los Angeles Clippers are not concerned despite falling 2-0 behind to the Dallas Mavericks in their first-round series.

The Clippers have had home advantage so far but now head to Dallas with a significant deficit.

Tuesday's Game 2 saw the Mavs run out 127-121 winners, again led by Luka Doncic.

The Slovenian had a 31-point triple-double on Saturday and added another 39 points this time, maintaining a remarkably high standard in the postseason.

Doncic's eight career playoff games have all come against the Clippers – this year and last – and he has tallied 32.0 points per game on average.

His total of 256 points is the sixth-most for any player across their first eight playoff games from 1963-64 onwards, trailing only Anthony Davis, Bob McAdoo, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored a league-high 287 in 1970.

The Clippers appear to have no answer for the 22-year-old, as George himself acknowledged.

But the seven-time All-Star, who has averaged 20.3 points across the same eight games against the Mavs, says his team are not worried.

Although the Clippers are now on a five-game losing run in the postseason dating back to last year's series against the Denver Nuggets, George said of their "level of concern": "I mean, there is none.

"It's a competition. We've got to rise to the occasion. The fact of the matter is if we don't, we're done for.

"But it's no level of concern. We've just got to play our game. We've got to play through this. We've got to incorporate our defense.

"Luka's going to get his touches. We've just got to do a better job defensively of just quieting everybody else."

The Clippers lost their final two games of the regular season to the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the bottom two teams in the Western Conference.

They therefore finished on the same record as Denver and slipped into the fourth seed, seemingly to ensure they would avoid the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champions who they now cannot meet until the West Finals.

However, playing into a series with Dallas, who they defeated last year, only served to motivate the Mavs.

Doncic said: "I didn't know they were doing that. Somebody told me that in the first game.

"But if you want to win the championship, at the end of the day, you've got to win against everybody. So, I don't think that makes a big statement. You just go out there and play."

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said: "This time of year you shouldn't need extra motivation. NBA playoff basketball is a self-explanatory adjective.

"It is raw passion. It's all about the team. It's all about one thing. And that is a group of guys getting together and making a stand on every possession.

"If you can't get excited for that, you know, you should be in some other line of work, because they're not pulling people off the street to do these jobs."

However, George added of the Mavs: "That's the team that's the most dangerous, the team [where] I'm pretty sure everyone expected to us win this.

"They were the underdogs, and when you're a lower seed, you really don't have high expectations, so they're playing free, they're playing with confidence.

"I think we were giving them a little too much confidence, so that's on us to shut that down.

"But they're playing with it. They're playing their game. They're playing with confidence. They're making shots.

"The supporting cast for Luka is being aggressive and they're doing their job."

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.

For the second season in a row, the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks meet in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

It is the same, only different.

A year ago, when the league moved en masse to Florida to finish a season badly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Mavs went up against a team expected to not only make it beyond the first round, but several more after that.

The Clippers were tested, eventually prevailing by a 4-2 scoreline. However, they fell at the next hurdle, letting slip a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semi-finals against the Denver Nuggets. That defeat, and particularly the nature of it, has loomed over them since. Their attempts to bury the memory of such a dramatic collapse begin on Saturday against familiar foes.

Dallas ended the regular season as the fifth seeds in the West, though their 42-30 record was not a huge improvement on a year ago, when a 43-32 finish was good enough to only get seventh spot.

However, since the All-Star break, they have gone 24-14. In Luka Doncic, they have a superstar who has shown little interest in sticking to the schedule, developing at such a rate that, despite averaging 27.7 points per game in his third season, it is perhaps a little surprising he did not force himself more into the MVP conversation.

Doncic had to carry much of the burden against the Clippers a year ago. Kristaps Porzingis' impact diminished due to a knee injury that eventually forced him to miss the final three games. He had also managed to get thrown out in the opener too, having taken umbrage at the attention his young team-mate was receiving to get a second technical foul.

Still, even with a healthy Porzingis available this time around, Dallas will ride or die on the performances of Doncic, whose first playoff experience saw him finish up averaging 31.0 points and 8.7 assists.

Looking back, it seems astonishing that two teams passed up the opportunity to select the dynamic, do-it-all guard in 2018, while a third – the Atlanta Hawks – opted to trade him away to get Trae Young.

At 22, the Slovenian has scored 5,115 points through 199 regular-season games. To put that number into context, LeBron James had 5,097 to his name when he reached the milestone of 200 outings.

Indeed, since 1985-86, the only player to manage 4,000 points, 100 or more assists and hit at least 500 three-pointers though their first 200 games is Damian Lillard – and Doncic is well ahead in all three categories.

His buzzer-beating shot at the end of overtime in the fourth game against the Clippers tied the series at 2-2 in 2020, but that was as good as it got for Dallas. This time around, they hope to make sure the outcome is different.

For that to happen, though, they will have to find a way of keeping quiet a superstar coming off a career year – and whose name is not Kawhi Leonard.

Paul George admitted to finding life difficult in the bubble. "I was just in a dark place," he said after helping the Clippers edge ahead 3-2 in the Dallas series. "I'd checked out. These past couple of games it was just difficult but shout out to the people who stood behind me and were in my corner."

While averaging 18.5 points in the end, he was successful with only 20 of his 69 attempts through the opening four games against the Mavs, including going 2-of-15 from deep in the third and fourth meeting.

This season, however, he has looked far more at home, in more ways than one.

The seven-time All-Star finished the regular season averaging 23.3 points, including shooting an impressive 41.1 per cent from beyond the arc (up on his overall mark of 38.4 per cent). Under Ty Lue, the team as a whole averaged 41.1 per cent from beyond the arc, ranking them first in the entire league.

Leonard remains the number one for the Clippers – he was the only player to average at least 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game in the regular season – but George will be pivotal to his team's hopes of making a deep run, in the process exorcising their playoff ghosts.

Forget familiarity breeding contempt: these teams getting acquainted again in a seven-game series offers up an absorbing clash where both have a point to prove.

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.

There is light at the end of the NBA tunnel. A difficult regular season played out amid the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic is drawing towards a conclusion.

However, there is still plenty to play for in the closing weeks. For some teams it is about jostling for position as a play-off seed, while others are just frantically trying to make it into the postseason.

For those who have found the pace too tough, there comes the chance to give players opportunities to prove their worth. A strong finish can make all the difference to your career prospects.

Following a busy week that has seen some big names return to action, Stats Perform highlights those who have starred – as well as a few who have struggled – between April 19-25.


RUNNING HOT...

Paul George 

With team-mate Kawhi Leonard sidelined due to a foot injury, George has picked up the slack. The seven-time All-Star sat out a win for the Los Angeles Clippers over the Memphis Grizzlies, but scored 33 points against both the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets last week.

He also recorded double-digit rebound totals in those outings, helping the Clippers remain firmly in the hunt to finish as the top seeds in the Western Conference. For the season, George is averaging career highs in points per game (24.0), rebounds (6.5) and assists (5.4). He is also shooting 89.1 per cent from the free-throw line.

OG Anunoby

A see-saw season for the Toronto Raptors still may yet wind up with a postseason appearance, though the 2019 champions have some work to do if they are to get inside the top 10 in the East.

Anunoby looks to be set for a strong finish to his campaign, having scored 52 points in his previous two outings following a short spell out of action - the London-born forward had averaged 14.78ppg going into the week. His six three-pointers made against the New York Knicks was a career high, though the landmark came in a losing cause.

Oshae Brissett

Brissett has seized the opportunity to impress for the Indiana Pacers while making four consecutive starts. He reached double figures for points in all of them, including posting a career-high 23 against the Oklahoma City Thunder to celebrate signing a long-term deal with the franchise.

The second-year prospect out of Syracuse played a total of 135 minutes in his rookie season with the Raptors, but nearly matched that number in a week that saw the Pacers win three out of four. Brissett also contributed when it came to rebounds, averaging 9.25 per outing.

GOING COLD...

Anthony Davis

Davis admitted it felt like the Lakers were "starting from zero" after the second outing on his return from an Achilles issue. Prior to his two-month absence, he was averaging 22.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the season.

However, unsurprisingly considering the amount of time spent off the court, the eight-time All-Star has struggled upon his return (albeit on a minutes restriction). Having shot 2-for-10 from the floor in the first of back-to-back meetings with the Dallas Mavericks, Davis followed up by going 5-for-19 in the second game between the teams.

Gary Trent Jr.

After a ridiculously hot start to life with Toronto following his involvement in a deadline-day trade, Trent Jr. has cooled off in recent outings. That is in part due to a drop in his minutes following the return of some of the regular starters for the Raptors, including back-court duo Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet.

The former Portland Trail Blazer still had 23 points against Oklahoma, but then dipped to a combined total of nine in limited action against the Brooklyn Nets and the Knicks. The three-point shooting is also a reason for a dip in points, as he made just one of his nine attempts from the beyond the arc during the past week.

Tobias Harris

Harris' drop in production in recent times has had less to do with him going cold and more to do with injury management. A bothersome right knee kept him out of games against the Golden State Warriors and the Phoenix Suns, both of which the Philadelphia 76ers lost.

His return in a double-header against the Milwaukee Bucks - one of Philadelphia's major rivals in the East - failed to help his team get back to winning ways. Harris had 18 points in the opening game but then just nine in the second, the first time he had recorded a single-digit outing in a game since February 25.

Ty Lue lauded a "complete game" from Paul George after the seven-time NBA All-Star inspired the Los Angeles Clippers to a 113-112 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

George scored a game-high 33 points, claimed 11 rebounds and provided three assists in the Clippers' win at Moda Center on Tuesday.

Clippers coach Lue was full of praise for shooting guard George, who sparkled in the absence of the injured Kawhi Leonard.

"He's been carrying us," Lue said. "He's really stepped up by making his team-mates better but also scoring the basketball.

"He's just doing everything. It was a complete game tonight and we needed every bit of it."

George was on target with two free throws with 4.8 seconds to play, moving the third-placed Clippers to 41-19 in the Western Conference.

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts took the positives out of a narrow defeat.

"I liked the way we played tonight," Stotts said. "I liked the way we played in some of these other games.

"We came up short, but I thought tonight we competed really well against a really good team. We had some opportunities in the last minute that we weren't able to capitalise on."

Leonard will be out until next week due to a foot injury.

Lue said of the two-time NBA champion: "He wants to get out there. But right now, it's not the smartest thing to do with him feeling it and trying to manage it for the most part for a while now.

"We just got to be smart about it. Sometimes you got to protect the player from themselves, and right now that is what we are doing."

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