Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard – Los Angeles Clippers superstars past and present – will both be absent as the team enter the Western Conference Finals for the first time.

The Clippers play Paul's Phoenix Suns in Game 1 on Sunday, having battled past the top-seeded Utah Jazz.

Leonard and Co became the first team in playoff history to overturn 2-0 deficits twice in the same postseason, having recovered first against the Dallas Mavericks and then against the Jazz.

The Game 6 win over Utah at Staples Center was the Clippers' eighth in this playoff campaign – a team record.

However, they were without two-time NBA Finals MVP Leonard for Game 5 and Game 6 due to a knee injury that is reportedly feared to be serious.

The five-time All-Star had been averaging 30.4 points per game in the postseason but remains out for the trip to Phoenix.

Paul is missing for the Suns, too, though, due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. As with Leonard, this means an indefinite spell on the sidelines.

Sixteen-year veteran Paul is considered among the Clippers' greatest ever players, having spent six seasons in LA.

In the regular season, he has the most assists in Clippers history (4,023), ranks sixth for points (7,674) and eighth for minutes (13,885).

 "Control what we can control," Suns team-mate Devin Booker said. "Obviously Chris is in the health and safety protocols and we don't know the timetable on that, so we just go with what we hear day to day. It's next man up."

The next man up would appear to be Cameron Payne, the backup point guard who has only one start across the regular season and playoffs since moving to Phoenix in 2019.

In 20.4 minutes per game in the postseason, Payne has averaged 10.2 points but just 2.9 assists, although he and Paul have been on the floor together for 54 of the 26-year-old's 204 playoff minutes this year.

For the Clippers, Paul George has come to the fore since Leonard's injury, scoring 37 points at Utah in Game 5 – his highest playoff output for LA and tied for the second-highest of his career.

He will have to continue to perform, as coach Ty Lue said of Leonard: "I know [he is out for] Game 1 for sure.

"Right now he's back home getting treatment. We're not sure about Game 2 yet.

"Until he gets back, we can't do hypotheticals if he's coming back, what game. We have to prepare like he's not playing, just kind of go from there."

Chris Paul crumpled to the floor of Phoenix Suns Arena, grimacing and twisting with pain while he grasped at his right shoulder.

For all his regular-season accolades – 11 All-Star Games, nine All-NBA teams, four assists titles and six steals titles – deep playoff runs have been hard to come by for Paul.

Whether due to fate or disappointing failure, the future Hall of Fame point guard has only played in one Conference Finals series. After suffering a hamstring injury in 2018, Paul watched from the sideline as his Houston Rockets lost Games 6 and 7 to the Golden State Warriors, extinguishing his best chance to date to win a title.

Three years later, as Paul left the floor with a right shoulder injury during Game 1 of the Suns' first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, it must have felt as if the fates were conspiring against him again. After leading Phoenix to the NBA's second-best record in 2020-21, Paul got to face LeBron James and the defending champions as a reward. Then an injury less than 15 minutes into the postseason?

What a hopeless feeling that must have been.

Paul didn't miss a game in the series but looked like a shell of himself through Game 3, averaging 6.7 points on 38.1 per cent shooting as the Suns trailed 2-1 in the series. The tide turned in Game 4, however, with Anthony Davis succumbing to injury and with Paul's shoulder beginning to steadily improve.

After ousting the Lakers in six games, Paul was nearly flawless in a sweep of the Denver Nuggets and MVP Nikola Jokic. He averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists over four games and rose to the occasion in the clutch, scoring 17.0 points per game in the second half on absurd 78.8 per cent shooting. In fourth quarters that series, Paul was 16 for 19 from the field (84.2 per cent), including a perfect mark on his four three-point attempts.

Paul totalled 41 assists, the most since 1984-85 in a playoff series while committing five or fewer turnovers. For the third time in his postseason career, he had 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2, a feat that has only been done seven times in a playoff game since 1984-85.

At 36 years old, Paul painted one of the most memorable masterpieces of his career.

Then came another devastating blow, when Paul was sidelined in accordance with the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols on Wednesday morning, keeping him in quarantine indefinitely. It has not been specified whether Paul has tested positive for the coronavirus, or exactly why he has entered the protocols.

Going forward, the Suns' road only gets tougher, facing either the top-seeded Utah Jazz or Paul's former team – the Los Angeles Clippers – in the Western Conference Finals, and Phoenix could be forced to start the series without their star point guard.

Despite the challenge ahead, it is tempting to consider what a first career NBA Finals appearance – or first career title – would do for the legacy of one of the most underrated players of his era.

Paul's brilliance can sometimes go unnoticed, especially in a league full of talented scorers who appear ready to drop 50 in any given game. His career high is 43 points, and the last time he hit 40 was in 2016.

But what's set Paul apart since the day he entered the league are his abilities to command an offense and distribute to team-mates. He is one of six players with over 10,000 career assists and, all things being equal, will move into third on the all-time helpers list next season, trailing only John Stockton and Jason Kidd.

Among the five players with the most assists in NBA history, Paul's 18.3 points per game is the highest mark, out-pacing Steve Nash's 14.3 by a healthy margin.

Paul is also fifth all-time with 2,332 career steals and could move up a spot or two on that list in two years' time.

But Paul's true impact defies traditional box score statistics. This postseason, the Suns have a scoring differential of plus 13.0 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court, and Phoenix are shooting nearly 50 per cent from the floor with their conductor in the game.

Moreover, Paul's teams simply win.

His teams have a record of 698-392 when he plays, or an average of 53-29 over an 82-game season. Paul has played for five teams in his career, and each have improved their record in Paul's first year over the previous season. On average, a team adding Paul to the roster increase their win percentage by .168, the equivalent of 14 added wins over an 82-game season.

If Paul never played another game, he would still be a guaranteed Hall of Famer. And after this latest disruption, perhaps the 2021 playoffs will be yet another chapter in a book of postseasons gone wrong for an otherwise legendary player.

But almost every team remaining in this year’s playoffs is dealing with attrition, including both the Suns' potential opponents in the next round. Phoenix are rated by bookmakers as the second favourites for the championship, trailing only the Brooklyn Nets.

Paul's legacy should be able to stand alone, with or without a title. But adding a championship ring would go a long way towards forcing his detractors to finally acknowledge his consistent brilliance.

The Phoenix Suns are waiting.

A series sweep over the Denver Nuggets means Monty Williams' team are through to the Western Conference Finals, where they will meet either the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the East, meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are serving up a prime example of how a seven-game series can ebb and flow throughout. At 2-2 and with injuries taking a toll, it is tough to predict who will progress.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks also locked in a battle in the East, it is time to take a look at those players who have seized the chance to shine across the past week in the NBA playoffs, as well as those struggling in the shade.

RUNNING HOT...

Chris Paul

Paul set an unusual record as the Suns completed a 4-0 sweep of the Nuggets on Sunday. In contributing 37 points, the 36-year-old became the oldest guard in NBA history to outscore his age in a playoff game.

It capped a memorable week for the 11-time All-Star, who averaged 25.5 points per game in the series. Since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, Phoenix are the only team to knock out both the previous year's conference finalists in the first two rounds, having also accounted for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Donovan Mitchell

Through three games against the Clippers, Mitchell has been an offensive juggernaut for the Jazz. He has scored a combined total of 112 points to average out for the week at 37.33 per outing.

His output has been aided by getting hot from long range, the guard landing 5.67 three-point attempts per game. Yes, that is correct: Per. Game. An ankle issue could slow him down in the remainder of the series, having already missed the end of the regular season and Utah's first game in the playoffs.

Bruce Brown

With James Harden out due to a hamstring injury, Brown has taken on a greater offensive role for the ailing Nets. In three games across the past week, the 24-year-old has taken 22 shots – he had tallied 31 in the previous six playoff outings – and made his first three-pointer in the playoffs as Brooklyn won Game 2.

His production could be set to further increase if Kyrie Irving joins Harden on the sidelines, the point guard having twisted his right ankle as his team lost Game 4 in Milwaukee on Sunday.

GOING COLD...

Joe Harris

Having been pivotal at the start of the Nets-Bucks series, Harris has cooled off since the teams travelled to Milwaukee. His opening two outings saw him manage 19 and 13 points, but since then just 11 combined in back-to-back defeats.

Harris landed only one of his 11 field goal attempts in Game 3 before fouling out, while Sunday’s Game 4 performance was only marginally better. Perhaps a return to Brooklyn for Game 5 will help him find his scoring touch again.

Bobby Portis

Just like Harris on the opposing roster, Portis is in a slump. The 29-year-old has averaged just 2.0 points per game across the past week, a major drop from his regular-season average of 11.42. He is also contributing less in terms of rebounding too, dipping down to 3.0 per outing.

Fellow big Brook Lopez is another role player to see the points dry up (6.33ppg), leaving Milwaukee to lean heavily on All-Star duo Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as they bid to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Marcus Morris Sr and Patrick Beverley

For the second successive series, the Clippers are having to dig themselves out of an early hole. An emphatic Game 3 victory over the Jazz halved the deficit, thanks mainly to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George managing a combined total of 65 points.

The role players will need to help out too if they are to set up a clash with the Suns. Morris Sr has averaged 7.67 points across the past week, not aided by landing just one of his 16 attempts from deep. Team-mate Beverley is also struggling from long range while managing just 10 points in total in his past three games.

Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams is grateful to have shared a career highlight with Chris Paul after securing a place in the Western Conference Finals.

Second-seeded Suns beat the Denver Nuggets 125-118 on Sunday to seal a 4-0 series win in the Western Conference semi-finals, with newly crowned MVP Nikola Jokic ejected for a flagrant 2 foul in the third quarter.

Vital for the Suns were the contributions of Paul and Devin Booker, who accounted for 71 of their total points – the former top-scoring with 37.

Williams wrapped Paul in a warm hug at the end, the two sharing a bond from their days working together at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Paul was also there for Williams when the coach lost his wife in 2016, and for the latter, the current successes mean that much more when shared with someone so important.

"The emotions are happy, grateful, tired, relieved," Williams said. "It's one of those moments for me that quite frankly I never thought I'd have a chance to experience. For me, I have a level of gratitude I can't even explain."

He added: "Chris has meant so much to my career, he's meant so much to my life. The darkest moment of my life Chris was right there and one of the highlights of my career, he's right there.

"That's where it is right now. I'm not really good at waxing eloquent about how I feel other than just telling you I just feel grateful for this opportunity and to be on this team and in this moment and have a chance to move forward."

The feeling was mutual for Paul, who was similarly delighted to be on such a road with Williams given their close bond.

"Monty has been through things in his life that a lot of people don't necessarily come back from," Paul said.

"Basketball aside, he means so much to me and my family. So, to be on this journey with him and to see it paying off is nice.

"We're a lot alike. We stay locked in. I don't feel good until the buzzer sounds. Monty's the same way. When the series is over, and the game is over, it's nice to share those moments."

NBA MVP Nikola Jokic did not expect to be ejected as the Denver Nuggets were swept from the playoffs in a controversial decision that surprised head coach Michael Malone and Phoenix Suns counterpart Monty Williams.

Jokic was tossed in the third quarter of Denver's 125-118 defeat to the second-seeded Suns, who sealed a 4-0 series victory in the Western Conference semi-finals on Sunday.

Crowned MVP on Tuesday, Jokic was assessed a flagrant two foul following a lengthy review after taking a swing at Suns guard Cameron Payne in Game 4.

Jokic became the first MVP swept in a postseason series since Magic Johnson in 1989 and the Serbian star discussed the incident post-game.

"I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy, maybe change the whistle a little bit, so I wanted to make a hard foul," Jokic said.

"Did I hit him [Payne], did I not hit him? We don't know. So I say sorry if I did because I did not want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose. I thought honestly they would not eject me."

"I shouldn't do that. Of course it was my bad. I'm sorry," Jokic said. "But I cannot change it now. It happens."

Already facing an uphill task to avoid elimination, Jokic's absence made life even tougher for the third-seeded Nuggets as Suns duo Chris Paul and Devin Booker dominated.

"I just didn't feel like it warranted a flagrant two ejection because he's making a play on the ball," said Malone.

"There's marginal contact to Cameron Payne's nose I believe. So I was shocked, I'm still a little bit shocked that they called a flagrant two and ejected the MVP on such a play."

"From my vantage point and watching the replay, I did not think it was a non-basketball play with malicious intent," Malone said.

"I think it was a frustration foul, Nikola probably felt the last couple plays when he had the ball he had not received a foul call. And he went over there to take a foul. Which he has done plenty of times. A lot of players do that."

"I didn't really think it was anything malicious," said Williams. "In those moments you have to regulate your emotions. That's what we've been talking about all season long.''

Jokic and Suns All-Star Booker were involved in a confrontation following the incident as a scuffle briefly broke out.

But Booker – whose Suns reached the Conference Finals for the first time since 2009-10 – said: "That's all I said, just 'What are you doing?' It's just an emotional play. I don't think he meant harm by it. Just a frustration foul. It's tough, just defending my team-mate, that was it.

"I've played against the Joker multiple times. I know he's not a malicious player."

The Phoenix Suns advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009-10 after sweeping Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets 4-0 in the NBA playoffs.

Suns duo Devin Booker and Chris Paul flexed their muscles in a 125-118 victory over the Nuggets in Game 4 as MVP Jokic was ejected on Sunday.

Jokic (22 points and 11 rebounds), who earned his first MVP accolade on Tuesday, was assessed a flagrant two foul after his foul on Phoenix's Cameron Payne in the third quarter.

That made life difficult for the third-seeded Nuggets – already missing star Jamal Murray due to injury – as the Suns rolled into the Conference Finals for the first time in more than a decade.

Paul produced a vintage performance with a game-high 37 points, while Booker put up 34 points and 11 rebounds for the second-seeded Suns, who are the only team to knock out both the previous season's conference finalists in the opening two rounds since the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984 per Stats Perform.

The Eastern Conference semi-final matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets is deadlocked at 2-2 after Giannis Antetokounmpo starred.

Antetokounmpo posted a double-double to lead the Bucks past the second-seeded Nets 107-96 in Game 4.

Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo had a game-high 34 points and 12 rebounds as the Bucks topped the Nets, who lost All-Star Kyrie Irving to injury.

Irving – who had 11 points, five rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes of action – twisted his right ankle after coming down on Antetokounmpo's foot, having scored from close range in the second quarter.

The seven-time All-Star received treatment on the court before walking to the locker room. The Nets later ruled him out for the remainder of the contest as the third-ranked Bucks took advantage.

Kevin Durant led the way for the Nets with 28 points but was stifled by the Bucks' physical defensive play.

 

76ers at Hawks

The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers visit the Atlanta Hawks for Game 4 on Monday, leading the Eastern Conference semi-final series 2-1. Utah Jazz – the top seed in the west – are also in action against the Los Angeles Clippers in their Western Conference second-round Game 4.

The Phoenix Suns moved 3-0 up in their Conference semi-final series with a 116-102 victory over the Denver Nuggets despite MVP Nikola Jokic's triple-double on Friday.

Veteran Suns guard Chris Paul was exceptional with 27 points, eight assists, six rebounds and three steals to spark Monty Williams' side.

Young shooting guard Devin Booker scored a team-high 28 points, while center Deandre Ayton had 15 rebounds along with his 10 points.

Jae Crowder shot four-from-six beyond the arc, adding 14 points for the Suns, who opened up a 10-point lead at quarter-time and were never headed.

Denver center Jokic finished with 32 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists, while Monte Morris came off the bench to add 21 points. But they lacked support with Jamal Murray out with long-term injury.

Michael Porter Jr was below his best with 15 points for the game, shooting at 38.3 per cent from the field.

The Suns are one win away from securing their spot in the Western Conference finals where they will face either the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers.

Joel Embiid starred as the Philadelphia 76ers claimed a 2-1 lead in their Conference semi-final series with a road win over the Atlanta Hawks 127-111.

Embiid finished with 27 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, helping the Sixers run away with the game in the third quarter when they outscored the Hawks by 15.

Atlanta's Trae Young scored 28 points and had eight assists but was quelled by the Philadelphia defence led by Ben Simmons, with the Hawks guard shooting at 52.9 per cent from the field.

Simmons scored 18 points, with four rebounds, one steal and seven assists - including a spectacular lobbed pass for an Embiid dunk - while Tobias Harris added 22 points shooting at 62.5 per cent from the field, with eight rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers led by five points at half-time but blew away the Hawks with a 34-19 third quarter and controlled the better part of the second half.

The NBA is a star-driven league, but the Phoenix Suns have found a different formula that works in the playoffs. 

The Suns' balanced attack drove another dominant win on Wednesday, a 123-98 triumph over the Denver Nuggets that gave Phoenix a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semi-final series. 

Phoenix had six players score in double figures, with Devin Booker leading the way at a modest 18 points followed by Chris Paul (17), Mikal Bridges (16) and Deandre Ayton (15). 

"I think it's an unselfish group. They're willing to make plays for one another. We share the ball – that's part of our DNA," Suns head coach Monty Williams told reporters. 

"We don't have the experience that a lot of the playoff teams have, but we've had this year to gel and we've had a lot of close games at home and on the road, so that helps."

Wednesday's game was not close, as Phoenix took the lead early in the first quarter and never looked back, pulling away from Denver in the second half. 

After a 51-21 regular season, the Suns have learned they do not have to rely on one or two players for their scoring, and that helps ease the pressure on everyone. 

"It's a natural chemistry," said veteran point guard Chris Paul, who had 15 assists and no turnovers. 

"I really haven't been on a team like this where everybody shoots it the way that they do, so you don't have to try to find a certain guy."

The 36-year-old floor leader is a big reason for that peace of mind, his coach noted. 

"He manages games better than anybody that I've ever been around," Williams said. 

"Once he gets an idea of the offence and the guys he's playing with, he has the ability to use his talents to make everybody else better, and then he knows when to take over in moments.

"Guys have to make shots, but Chris is one of the rare guards that can put passes right where they need to be so guys are more effective when they catch the ball. And his ability to take care of the ball, even when he has it a lot, is not something I take for granted.

"That's why he's been successful everywhere he's been." 

Coming off their first playoff series win since 2010, the Suns are full of confidence as they head to Denver.

The plan for Friday's Game 3? More of the same, they hope. 

"We've got so many great shooters on our team, and guys that can not only shoot it but put it on the floor," Paul said. "We just played the way we've been playing all season long and that's as a team."

Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic showed MVP form once again, but the Phoenix Suns used a balanced attack to take a 123-98 victory and a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semi-final series. 

Jokic scored the first basket of the game Wednesday, but that was the only lead the Nuggets held as Phoenix took control and never let go in what became an easy win as their home crowd chanted "Suns in four" late in the game. 

Chris Paul controlled the game for the Suns, scoring 17 points and dishing out 15 assists without a turnover in his 30 minutes of play -- the third time he has had at least 15 assists with no turnovers in a playoff game.

The 36-year-old Paul now has 72 assists and just 10 turnovers in eight playoff games this season. 

Devin Booker added 18 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix, while Deandre Ayton had 15 points and 10 rebounds. 

Jokic left the game late in the third quarter with the Nuggets trailing by 20 and did not return, finishing with 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in 29 minutes. 

Denver did not give him much help, as the rest of their starting lineup made just nine of 32 shots from the field (28.1 per cent). 

Michael Porter Jr. was the only other starter to reach double figures, scoring 11 on three of 13 shooting -- including two of nine from three-point range. 

The Nuggets made only 14 of 43 (32.6 per cent) from beyond the arc overall, compared to 18 of 38 (47.4 per cent) for Phoenix. 

Game 3 of the series is Friday in Denver.

Nets at Bucks

The Brooklyn Nets look for a 3-0 lead on the Bucks as their Eastern Conference semi-final series shifts to Milwaukee on Thursday.  

Chris Paul compared the Phoenix Suns to a wrestling tag team after they beat the Denver Nuggets 122-105 in their NBA playoffs semi-final opener.

In front of what Paul described as "crazy" home support, the Suns bossed the second half 65-47 to take first blood in the Western Conference last-four series.

Paul (21 points and 11 assists) and Deandre Ayton (20 points and 10 rebounds) fuelled the second-seeded Suns, who saw all of their starters finish with double-digit points – Devin Booker (21), Mikal Bridges (23) and Jae Crowder (14) making priceless contributions.

With the likes of Cameron Payne and Torrey Craig coming off the bench – the latter having nine points and eight rebounds in under 18 minutes on court – there are good grounds for optimism in the Suns ranks.

Paul said the key to the Suns second-half surge, after slipping 70-60 behind at one point, was "just playing with pace", and a vibrant home atmosphere, with Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps among the crowd.

"They got a nice little lead on us there in the third quarter," he said. "This crowd is crazy. It's crazy. To have the fans in there, the energy, there's nothing like it.

"I told the guys this is why we fought so hard during the regular season to get home-court advantage. I think we truly have that with our fanbase here."

For Denver, MVP favourite Nikola Jokic was limited to 22 points on 10-for-23 shooting, nine rebounds and three assists on the road.

Paul said the Suns have real character as a unit.

"It's fun to be on the team," he said. "It's almost like wrestling and you're tagging in.

"You go out of the game and there's no drop-off, there's just another unit coming in and keeping pressure on you.

"I think that's the benefit of having the team like we have."

The second game in the series takes place on Wednesday, again at the Phoenix Suns Arena.

While Paul praised others, Booker hailed Paul's contribution.

"We felt that energy. We felt that passion behind it," Booker said.

"He just made plays. Not only his scoring ability but getting everybody else involved. That's been the story of the season for us, following him in that regard."

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks had no answers as Kevin Durant guided the Brooklyn Nets to a brutal 125-186 victory in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Harden sat out due to hamstring tightness, but the star-studded Nets still made light work of the Bucks in Monday's blow-out win for a commanding 2-0 lead in the NBA playoffs.

Durant put on a show against two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo and the visiting Bucks, posting 32 points in three quarters while Kyrie Irving added 22 points.

The second-seeded Nets – who defeated Milwaukee in three consecutive home games for the first time since 2006-09 – led by as much as 49 points in their most lopsided postseason victory in franchise history.

Brooklyn, eyeing a maiden championship, became the first team since the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers to score at least 115 points in each of their last six playoff games.

The Nets – who set a franchise postseason record with 21 three-pointers – became the first team in playoff history to have an MVP winner (Harden) miss the game and yet still win by 35-plus points, according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo had a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds for Milwaukee, but the Bucks superstar was far from efficient.

Milwaukee's Antetokounmpo was eight-for-15 shooting, while he missed all three of his attempts from beyond the arc and had three turnovers.

Khris Middleton finished with 17 points, however, he was seven-for-20 shooting from the field, having made only three of his eight three-pointers.

In the west, the Phoenix Suns opened their semi-final matchup with a 122-105 win at home to the Denver Nuggets.

Chris Paul (21 points and 11 assists) and Deandre Ayton (20 points and 10 rebounds) fuelled the second-seeded Suns, who saw all of their starters finish with double-digit points – Devin Booker (21), Mikal Bridges (23) and Jae Crowder (14).

The Suns took control in the second half, outscoring the third-ranked Nuggets 65-47 in Game 1.

MVP favourite and Nuggets star Nikola Jokic was limited to just 22 points on 10-for-23 shooting, nine rebounds and three assists on the road.

 

Clippers at Jazz

The Los Angeles Clippers and top-ranked Utah Jazz will open their Western Conference second-round series on Tuesday. In the east, the Philadelphia 76ers will be looking to bounce back in Game 2 at home to the Atlanta Hawks.

A new generation of NBA superstars established themselves as the playoffs continued last week.

The first round concluded as a talented, young (with the exception of Chris Paul) Phoenix Suns team defeated LeBron James and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Atlanta Hawks quickly gained an upper hand against the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, too.

And although Kawhi Leonard led the Los Angeles Clippers through to round two, they also suffered at the hand of an emerging talent, as Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check shows.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Devin Booker

Booker was dominant across the board for the Suns, earning praise from James after getting the better of the reigning NBA Finals MVP.

When comparing last week's performances with regular season returns, Booker ranked third for scoring improvement, second for rebounding improvement and second for three-point makes improvement. This was a staggering show of strength.

Playing in his sixth year, it is easy to forget this was a debut postseason series for Booker, who finished with 47 points at Staples Center and will back himself to deliver again against the Denver Nuggets.

Trae Young

The biggest potential upset of the second round is already under way after the Hawks took Game 1 against the 76ers in Philly despite Joel Embiid's return to fitness.

Young – another playoff debutant – was predictably at the centre of their success, following up 36 points in Game 5 against the New York Knicks with 35 in this opener.

He had 25 in the first half on Sunday on eight-of-13 shooting as Atlanta scored 74, the most ever by a road team in a Game 1. Considering the way the Sixers battled back to make the encounter close, Young might have to be similarly outstanding again in the forthcoming meetings.

Luka Doncic

Young was traded to the Hawks as part of the deal that saw Doncic go the other way to the Dallas Mavericks on draft night in 2018. But the Slovenian will play no further part in the playoffs after Sunday's Game 7 defeat to the Clippers.

Doncic has undoubtedly proven his class in the postseason, though, even if he is yet to win a series. Already one of the league's outstanding offensive stars, his career playoff average of 33.5 points per game is the best of any player to appear in 13 or more games – surpassing Michael Jordan's 33.4.

The Mavs ace reached that mark thanks to an outstanding week that included two 40-point performances despite Dallas' eventual series defeat.

Doncic's performances through 13 career playoff games are a match for the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Only Rick Barry, Bob McAdoo and Jordan have topped his 436 total points at this stage since 1963-64. He was certainly not to blame on Sunday...
 

GOING COLD...

Kristaps Porzingis

Expensive team-mate Porzingis may well have to take some responsibility for the Mavs' failings, although he was not alone. Among the players with the largest declines in scoring over the past week from their regular season outputs, three Dallas players were in the top seven.

Josh Richardson and Jalen Brunson were also in there, but Porzingis' presence should be of the most concern.

Although the big man put up 16 points and 11 rebounds – his second-most in a postseason game – on Sunday, his failure to make a single one of his five three-point attempts left Doncic short of help.

Enes Kanter

Doncic was not the only superstar left high and dry as he exited the first round. Damian Lillard did all he could to try to carry the Portland Trail Blazers past the Nuggets last week, averaging 41.5 points, but could not advance alone.

CJ McCollum underwhelmed, despite contributing 20.7 points across the series, yet it was the absence of effective defense that meant Nikola Jokic was always able to match Lillard.

Jusuf Nurkic had a combined plus/minus of 45 but fouled out of three of the six games, meaning poor Kanter had to guard Jokic on occasion and ended the series with a -34 plus/minus across only 56 minutes.

The Los Angeles Lakers will strive to keep the core of their roster together for next season after fluffing their lines in this year's playoffs. 

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka pledged the team would come back ready to fight for the championship after suffering a 4-2 series loss to the Phoenix Suns.

Thursday's 113-100 home defeat sealed the Lakers' fate, with their hopes dealt a blow when Anthony Davis' comeback from a groin injury lasted only five minutes.

The Lakers were 8-2 in home games when facing playoff elimination since 2000 but the Suns blew them away with a 36-14 opening quarter on the road.

Phoenix carried a 60-41 advantage into half-time and while LeBron James tried to spark a Lakers rally with 29 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two blocks, it was not enough.

However, far from going back to the drawing board, the 17-time NBA champions want next season to be business as usual, with a largely familiar-looking roster to call upon.

"I think when you fall short of the goal that you set, it has to drive you," said Pelinka.

"It has to be the fuel that drives your passion, and I think us falling short as a team, that in some sense is going to be part of our motivation and putting in the work to getting back at it, and start training camp next year with a strong roster.

"I'm convinced that, again, without some of the unforeseen circumstances this year, the challenges that we had to face, that we'd be a championship-calibre team.

"So the goal is to try to keep that core group together."

The franchise already has over $100 million earmarked for James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma next season, but Pelinka is confident that other star talents will be retained.

"Jeanie [Buss] and the ownership group has empowered the front office to do one thing and that's to smartly build a roster to win championships," he said.

"I think next year, of course, hopefully, with all of our fans being able to come back and be a part of the building, we owe them the work to start the process of retooling and have a championship-calibre team that can do special things next year.

"That's the driving passion and there's alignment there between Jeanie, the front office, the coaches. That will always be the goal.

"We have an insatiable desire and passion to bring banner number 18 here."

LeBron James paid tribute to the improvement and maturity shown by Devin Booker after he was beaten in a first-round playoff series for the first time in his NBA career.

The Los Angeles Lakers saw their hopes of repeating as NBA champions ended as they lost 113-100 in Game 6 to the Phoenix Suns, who progress with a 4-2 triumph.

Anthony Davis had to leave the court after only five minutes of his return from a groin injury as Booker produced a stunning performance to finish with 47 points for the Suns.

By the end of the first quarter, Booker had 22 points and had converted all six of his three-pointers, eventually finishing 8-of-10 from behind the arc.

His 47 points, recorded in 46 minutes, were the most to eliminate a defending champion team on their home court in NBA postseason history. 

The surging Suns also won Game 5 by 30 points and led this one by 29 in the first half before James - who had 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists - helped to make the score more respectable.

But his amazing 14-0 steak in the first round of the playoffs was brought to an emphatic halt and all the plaudits went to Booker.

"I love everything about D-Book," said James. "I've had numerous conversations with him in the past. He continues to make the jump.

"When you want to be great in this league, and as Kobe told him, if you want to be legendary in this game you've got to continue to improve, not only your game but you as a man.

"You have to improve everything, both on and off the floor. And all the conversations we have had over the years, I can tell he's soaked them up and is using them to his advantage.

"Everyone sees what he's able to do on the floor right now, but I think his maturity, him as a young man, is what I'm most impressed about. So I love everything about Book."

Getting himself and the rest of the Lakers team back to full fitness was a bigger concern to James than the end of his playoff streak.

Reflecting on the Lakers' exit, he added: "The season started so fast after leaving the bubble, obviously. 

"I was talking to [Wes Matthews] in the locker room just a few minutes ago, and I said the one thing that bothers me more than anything - we never really got an opportunity to see our full team at full strength, either because of injury or COVID.

"We could never fully get into a rhythm and never really kinda see the full potential of what we're capable of. Listen, as I tell you all throughout the season, every season is different, every challenge is different.

"But they [the Suns] were excellent throughout the series, all of them. Much respect.

"To be able to put myself where I can even have accomplishments – to either be broken or to be able to continue it – it's all though the grace of the man above and me just putting a lot of hard work in, having great team-mates, having great coaching staff, things of that nature.

"So records – if that's a record – they’re always meant to be broken.

"So in that fashion it doesn’t matter to me in so far as not making it out of the first round, what matters to me is getting this team back healthy.

"Me not being able to be at my full strength throughout this series, that’s my main focus. But time to readjust and think about what the off-season has in store."

Past discussions between Booker and late Lakers great Kobe Bryant - also referenced by James - were firmly on the mind of the Suns' star guard after his impressive display.

"Honestly, I was thinking about Kobe and the conversations we had," Booker said.

"About what we went through, and the postseason, and being legendary and taking the steps to get there.

"Seeing that 8 and 24 up there, with the lighting Staples has, it's like it was shining down on you. I know he was here and I know he was proud."

Devin Booker put on a show as the Phoenix Suns eliminated LeBron James and NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs en route to the Western Conference semi-finals.

The sun set on the Lakers' season and their title defence in the opening round after Booker's playoff career-high 47 points and 11 rebounds guided Phoenix to a 113-100 win in Game 6 on Thursday.

Booker's monster double-double – which included eight three-pointers – sealed a 4-2 series victory for the second-seeded Suns in the Western Conference as they moved through to the semi-finals.

Suns All-Star Booker became the first Phoenix player with a 40/10 playoff game since Amar'e Stoudemire in 2010, though he is the first to do it with five-plus threes.

The Lakers welcomed the Suns to Staples Center for the must-win showdown in Los Angeles, where star Anthony Davis had been cleared to return from a groin injury.

According to Stats Perform, the Lakers were 8-2 in home games when facing playoff elimination since 2000 but their hopes were dealt a blow when Davis' comeback lasted just five minutes.

The Suns – who were 8-1 in potential series-clinching games since 2000, with their only loss coming against the Clippers in Game 6 in 2006 – blew away the Lakers with a 36-14 opening quarter on the road.

Phoenix carried a 60-41 advantage into half-time and while James tried to spark a Lakers rally with 29 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two blocks, it was not enough.

A four-time NBA champion and MVP, it is the first time James has been eliminated in the opening round of the postseason in his illustrious 15-year playoff career.

Next up for the Suns are the Denver Nuggets, who claimed their series 4-2 following a 126-115 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers.

MVP favourite Nikola Jokic fuelled the third-seeded Nuggets with 36 points in Portland, where Michael Porter Jr. had 22 of his 26 points in the opening quarter.

The Nuggets reached the Western Conference semis for the third consecutive season, while Damian Lillard put up 28 points and 13 assists for the Trail Blazers – who led by 14 points in the third quarter but could not hold on.

 

Clippers at Mavericks

Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks can secure a semi-final date with the top-ranked Utah Jazz in the Western Conference by beating the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday. The Mavericks lead the series 3-2.

Page 1 of 9
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.