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

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

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


RUNNING HOT

Reggie Jackson - Los Angeles Clippers

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

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

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

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

Deandre Ayton - Phoenix Suns

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

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

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

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

Trae Young - Atlanta Hawks

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

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

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

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

GOING COLD...

Bogdan Bogdanovic - Atlanta Hawks

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

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

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

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

Clint Capela - Atlanta Hawks

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

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

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

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

Paul George - Los Angeles Clippers

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

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

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

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

The 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."

The Philadelphia 76ers held off a late charge from the short-handed Brooklyn Nets 123-117 to take over top spot in the Eastern Conference on Wednesday. 

Joel Embiid had 39 points and 13 rebounds to lead the 76ers (38-17) past the visiting Nets, while Tobias Harris added 26 points and Ben Simmons 17 on home court midweek.

In the second game of a back-to-back, Brooklyn (37-18) played without Kevin Durant, James Harden, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, though Kyrie Irving returned and scored 37 points after missing Tuesday's game for personal reasons. 

Irving (23) and Embiid (21) both cleared 20 points in the first half, with the latter achieving the feat for the NBA-best 14th time this season.

Philadelphia led by 22 points in the fourth quarter before the Brooklyn reserves rallied to cut the deficit to three, but the 76ers held on to win after putting All-Star pair Embiid and Simmons back in the game. 

In Memphis, Luka Doncic helped the Dallas Mavericks expand their seeding advantage against the Grizzlies by hitting a buzzer-beating three-pointer for a dramatic 114-113 victory. 

Doncic posted 29 points and Kristaps Porzingis added 21 of his own for the Mavericks (30-24), who are seventh in the Western Conference with the Grizzlies (27-26) just behind. 

Grayson Allen scored 23 points for Memphis but missed two free throws with 2.2 seconds remaining to open the door for Doncic to win it. 

 

Curry maintains hot shooting hand

Stephen Curry scored 42 points, highlighted by a 25-point third quarter in which he did not miss a shot from the field, as the Golden State Warriors routed the Oklahoma City Thunder 147-109. Coming off a 53-point game on Monday, Curry made all eight of his shots from the floor, six of them three-pointers, as the Warriors blew open the game with a 50-point third quarter. In all, he made 11 three-pointers, the second time in his career with successive games of at least 10 three-pointers. The two-time MVP has hit 10-plus threes in back-to-back games for the second time in his career – he is the only player to do so multiple times.

MVP candidate Nikola Jokic's 15th triple-double of the season – 17 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds – guided the Denver Nuggets past the Miami Heat 123-106.

Despite the absence of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley, the Los Angeles Clippers recorded their seventh consecutive victory by topping the Detroit Pistons 100-98.

 

Jackson makes it hurt for Pistons

The Pistons fell to 16-39, the worst record in the Eastern Conference, when their former star Reggie Jackson hit a game-winning jumper with 2.3 seconds remaining. Detroit had led by five points inside the final minute before collapsing in the closing seconds. 

 

Westbrook does it all once again

Russell Westbrook continues to do it all for the Washington Wizards, posting his sixth triple double in succession with 25 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists in a 123-111 victory over the Sacramento Kings. It is the fourth six-game streak of his career. The rest of NBA history has three combined.

 

Wednesday's results

Brooklyn Nets 123-117 Philadelphia 76ers
Milwaukee Bucks 130-105 Minnesota Timberwolves
Cleveland Cavaliers 103-90 Charlotte Hornets
Toronto Raptors 117-112 San Antonio Spurs
Los Angeles Clippers 100-98 Detroit Pistons
Orlando Magic 115-106 Chicago Bulls
New York Knicks 116-106 New Orleans Pelicans
Indiana Pacers 132-124 Houston Rockets
Golden State Warriors 147-109 Oklahoma City Thunder
Dallas Mavericks 114-113 Memphis Grizzlies
Denver Nuggets 123-106 Miami Heat
Washington Wizards 123-111 Sacramento Kings

 

Celtics at Lakers

A classic NBA rivalry is renewed as the Boston Celtics (29-26) visit defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers (34-21) on Thursday. Jayson Tatum will be looking to lead the Celtics to a fifth successive win.

Jordan Clarkson and Ben Simmons were drawn into a high-scoring shoot-out as the NBA-leading Utah Jazz powered past the Philadelphia 76ers 134-123 in a mouth-watering showdown.

In a battle pitting the Western Conference-leading Jazz against Eastern Conference pacesetters, the Jazz came out on top thanks to Clarkson's 40 points.

Utah's Clarkson nailed a stunning eight three-pointers as he became first player to come off the bench and score 40 points in less than 30 minutes since 1991.

In response, 76ers All-Star Simmons fired up for a career-high 42 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and Tobias Harris put up a 36-point, 10-rebound double-double, but the 76ers could not keep up with the Jazz.

Simmons opened with a career-best quarter of 19 points to give the 76ers a seven-point lead at the first buzzer before Utah took over and claimed an eighth straight win, and a 19th win in 20 games.

Missing Joel Embiid to a back injury, the 76ers' third straight loss opened the door for the Brooklyn Nets to close the gap in the east and they obliged, posting a franchise-record 25 three-pointers in a 132-121 win over the Sacramento Kings.

Kyrie Irving put up 40 points and former MVP James Harden added a triple-double (29 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds) to lead the Nets to a third consecutive victory as the struggling Kings fell to a fourth straight defeat.

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