It has been a long two years for the Golden State Warriors since falling to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals, but head coach Steve Kerr is taking an optimistic view of what lies ahead. 

Kerr has been busy this summer as an assistant coach for the US Olympic team, but he told The Athletic in an interview at Team USA's camp last week there are positve developments around Klay Thompson and James Wiseman as the pair return from injuries, leaving him "really excited" to get going again.

Thompson has not played for the Warriors since tearing his ACL in the decisive Game 6 against the Raptors in June 2019, rehabbing from that injury only to tear his Achilles tendon in a pickup game last November. 

The five-time All-Star is not back to full speed yet, but he is getting close. 

"He’s still aways away from actually playing basketball in a 5-on-5 setting," Kerr said. "But there’s a big step with the Achilles when you can actually start running again. It’s a huge psychological boost. The rest of the body gets going, you start feeling the soreness and aches and pains that actually feel good when you’ve been out for a while. He’s at that point."

Wiseman, the second overall pick in last summer's NBA Draft, played in only 39 games as a rookie and saw his season end in mid-April due to a torn meniscus, but Kerr said the 20-year-old is "right on schedule" to be ready for the start of training camp.

Their injuries and other issues made last season a struggle for Golden State despite an MVP-caliber campaign from Stephen Curry, who set career highs with 32 points and 5.5 rebounds per game and willed the Warriors into a shot at the postseason.

After winning seven of their last nine regular-season games to make the play-in tournament, the Warriors dropped both games there and failed to advance, but plenty of positives have emerged heading toward next year -- not least of which is Golden State holding two of the top 14 picks in the upcoming draft. 

"I'm really excited. I feel like we got our mojo back at the end of the year," Kerr said. "The offseason has been productive in terms of Klay now breaking through. He’s on the court, he’s running, he’s feeling really good. I talked to him last week. He’s just in a completely different mindset. The light’s at the end of the tunnel.

"Steph (Curry) and Draymond (Green) are both in a great place after that close to the season, feeling like they are on top of their games.

"Andrew (Wiggins) had a really good season for us. Jordan Poole emerged. Juan (Toscano-Anderson) has turned himself into a rotation player, perfect for our style.

"Now we get a training camp with James, a whole season of development, plus seven and 14 in a deep draft."

James Harden has followed Brooklyn Nets team-mate Kevin Durant in committing to play for Team USA at the Tokyo Games, according to reports.

The United States team is taking shape as they prepare to defend their gold medal at the delayed 2021 Olympics.

Reports at the weekend detailed the expectation Durant would join the team after the Nets exited the NBA playoffs.

Durant was on the victorious USA teams in 2012 and 2016 and this year averaged 26.9 points per game in the regular season and 34.3 in the postseason – the 25th-best mark of all time.

The 2014 MVP will not be the only Brooklyn player on the Olympic team, according to The Athletic.

A hamstring injury limited Harden to 36 regular season games for the Nets following his trade from the Houston Rockets, before he played nine times in the playoffs, scoring an underwhelming 20.2 points per game.

Harden went to London in 2012 after his final season as a bench scorer for the Oklahoma City Thunder but not to Brazil four years later having established himself in Houston.

 

Golden State Warriors great Stephen Curry was involved on neither occasion – although he won the World Cup in 2010 and 2014 – and will not make his Olympic bow this year either, the report added.

Curry almost single-handedly carried the undermanned Warriors to the brink of the playoffs this year, taking the NBA scoring title with 32.0 points per game.

Donovan Mitchell, who struggled with an injury as the Utah Jazz lost to the Los Angeles Clippers, has also declined an invite, ESPN revealed.

Bam Adebayo, the Miami Heat center, will join the 12-man roster, though, aiming to bounce back from a playoff sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks in which he scored just nine points on four-of-15 shooting in Game 1.

Giannis Antetokounmpo made clear there is still work to do for the Milwaukee Bucks after they survived a Kevin Durant onslaught to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bucks came out on top 115-111 in Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets, albeit only after a dramatic finish in the fourth quarter that saw them escape by a matter of inches.

Durant hit a stunning turnaround jumper with one second remaining to tie the scores at 109-109, with Milwaukee relieved to see he had a foot on the three-point line as they narrowly avoided falling behind.

"Big, big shot," Antetokounmpo told the media about Durant's play that forced overtime. "That's KD – he makes shots like that."

However, the Nets were held to just two points in the extra period as the Bucks came through on the road, setting up a showdown with either the Philadelphia 76ers or the Atlanta Hawks – who meet in a Game 7 on Sunday – for a place in the NBA Finals.

Defeat was tough on Durant, who finished with 48 points – the most by any player in a Game 7 in NBA history – as he was on court for all 53 minutes. He went 0-for-6 in overtime, though, as the ailing Nets, minus the injured Kyrie Irving and with James Harden not at full fitness due to a hamstring issue, saw their season come to an end.

For the Bucks, however, the focus will have to quickly switch to their next assignment.

"We really wanted this as a team," said Antetokounmpo, who had 40 points and 13 rebounds.

"There were a lot of ups and downs during the series – there were a lot of ups and downs in just this game. We could have finished the game before overtime but weren't able to. We kept our composure."

He added: "At the end of the day, though, the job is not done. The job is not done. That's the message here and in the locker room, we’ve got to keep our heads in the game.

"We can't get too high, we can't get too low. It's a great step for our organisation and a great step for us, so we have got to enjoy this moment and then look at our next opponent.

"We've got to put this in the past and focus on the moment, focus on our next opponent."

Durant's performance drew praise from Stephen Curry, who simply tweeted at his former Golden State Warriors team-mate after the fourth-quarter shot: "That is insane."

Even P.J. Tucker – the player who attempted to cover Durant on the play – was suitably impressed.

"When I cut him off, I thought he would one-foot it, or step back. When he spun, he threw me off. That shot was incredible," Tucker said. "People don't really appreciate the level of difficulty with that shot, it was incredible.

"I laughed, I just laughed when he made it. I appreciated it, as a fan of the game, when someone makes that shot."

Durant was one of just 11 different players to score, the fewest in any regular season or postseason game since the merger.

Nikola Jokic is the NBA MVP for 2020-21 after earning 91 first-place votes and 971 total points.

Jokic had previously been confirmed as a finalist alongside Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry but was long considered the clear favourite.

During a season in which a number of other superstars faced stretches on the sidelines with injuries, Jokic started all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets.

Embiid sustained a knee injury in March and Los Angeles Lakers great LeBron James went down with a high ankle sprain just eight days later.

Fitness issues robbed Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden of an unlikely run, too, while Curry saw off a tailbone concern but could only lift the Warriors to ninth in the west, as they lost consecutive play-in games to the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies.

The Nuggets finished third and have since advanced to the Western Conference semi-finals, although they trail the Phoenix Suns after Game 1.

In the regular season, Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

The Denver center shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Jokic – the first MVP from Serbia – had only once previously scored more than 20 points per game in a campaign since he was selected 41st overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.

Behind the Serbian, Embiid came second with 586 points, as Curry received 453 points.

The NBA fined Daryl Morey and the Philadelphia 76ers $75,000 each for a tweet regarding Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry.

Philadelphia president of basketball operations Morey violated the league's anti-tampering rules following a tweet last week, while the 76ers were also fined for his conduct.

Morey tweeted "join 'em" with a picture of an Instagram post by Curry regarding his brother and 76ers guard Seth Curry.

Stephen Curry posted via social media after his brother scored a playoff career-high 30 points in Game 5 of Eastern Conference first-round series against Washington Wizards.

Golden State's Curry is not scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent until after next season having signed a then-record $201million, five-year contract in July 2017.

Curry would be 38 at the end of such a deal, but the two-time MVP has shown no signs of slowing down after averaging a career-high 32.0 points during the regular season to become the oldest NBA scoring champion since a 35-year-old Michael Jordan accomplished the feat in 1997-98.

Naomi Osaka's shock withdrawal from the French Open generated an outpouring of support across the tennis world and beyond. 

The four-time grand slam winner pulled out of Roland Garros on Monday, a day after tournament organisers said her continued refusal to attend mandatory press conferences could result in her being thrown out of the event.

Osaka said in a statement posted to social media that she has had bouts of depression since winning the US Open in 2018 and never intended for her stance to become a distraction. 

Monday's action in Paris had mostly been completed when the news broke, but Serena Williams shared her thoughts following an evening match. 

Williams acknowledged feeling anxious dealing with the press at times early in her career, but said she believed the experience made her stronger. 

Top of mind, however, was concern for Osaka. 

"The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it's like," Williams said.

"We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently.

"You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that's the only thing I can say. I think she's doing the best that she can."

Osaka's fellow players and others took to social media with encouraging messages for the 23-year-old. 

Venus Williams wrote on Instagram: "So proud of you. Take care of yourself and see you back winning soon!"

Young American star Coco Gauff responded to Osaka's tweet by writing "stay strong ... I admire your vulnerability." 

A pair of tennis legends also weighed in on Twitter. 

"I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be ok," Martina Navratilova wrote.

"As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift.

"This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi - we are all pulling for you!"

Billie Jean King added: "It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. We wish her well."

Mardy Fish, the former ATP player who reached number seven in the world, wrote to Osaka: "Mental health is nothing to criticise. Nothing to joke about. Pls [sic] take your mental health seriously. Without my support system, I truly believe I would not be here today. Here for you."

That public show of support extended beyond tennis, as prominent NFL and NBA players praised Osaka for her courage. 

"We are with you," said Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

NBA star Stephen Curry wrote: "You shouldn't ever have to make a decison like this - but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don't protect their own. Major respect."

After being eliminated with a pair of losses in the play-in tournament, the Golden State Warriors know they still have work to do if they want to get back to contending for NBA titles.

Arguably the most important step is to sign league scoring champion Stephen Curry to a contract extension – something Golden State general manager Bob Myers believes will happen this offseason.

Curry, 33, is not scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent until after next season having signed a then-record $201million, five-year contract in July 2017.

"I don't see any reason not to be optimistic," Myers said on Monday to the media. "He seems like he's motivated, we're motivated. I would say pretty confident we'll get something done."

Golden State can sign the two-time league MVP and three-time NBA champion to a four-year, $215.4m extension during the offseason. 

Curry would be 38 at the end of such a deal, but he has shown no signs of slowing down after averaging a career-high 32.0 points during the regular season to become the oldest NBA scoring champion since a 35-year-old Michael Jordan accomplished the feat in 1997-98.

Curry carried the Warriors in 2020-21 with Klay Thompson missing his second straight season due to an injury and No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman going down with a season-ending knee injury on April 10.

Myers admitted he is not sure if Thompson will be healthy by the start of next season. The five-time All-Star tore his right Achilles before training camp.

That came after Thompson missed the 2019-20 season with a torn ACL suffered in a Game 6 NBA Finals loss to Toronto in June 2019 that gave the Raptors their first NBA title.

"I don't know that it'll be the start of the year," Myers said. "We'll see more as camp gets closer. When I say start of the year, I mean Game 1. I don't know if that's realistic or not.

"What we're focused on is when do we expect Klay to be Klay, and I don't know if that'll be January, February, March. It's too early to say."

Myers did say Wiseman should be good to go for training camp following surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee.

He also said the center will be part of the team in 2021-22 despite having an up-and-down rookie season in which he averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds while appearing in just 39 games.

"We don't want to trade James Wiseman," Myers added. "I think he's a tremendous talent and he was put in a position where, again, the guy is taking hopefully all of his lumps early in his career, but I think he can be very helpful to us in the future. I think he can be helpful in the present."

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry are the three finalists for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award.

The NBA announced its finalists on Thursday, with Jokic the long-time frontrunner for the coveted individual honour.

Jokic has remained healthy this season, starting all 72 games for the Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference, while averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

The Nuggets big man shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Embiid has made no secret of his MVP aspirations and he flexed his muscles as the 76ers earned the Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001.

A knee injury derailed his MVP bid but Embiid ended the regular season with a career-high 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while his 51.3 field-goal percentage was a career best – the same with his three-point percentage (37.7).

Curry catapulted himself into contention for a third MVP award following his scoring outburst for the Warriors.

The three-time NBA champion added a second scoring crown to his collection thanks to his 46-point performance in last week's win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Curry pipped Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal to the scoring title, having averaged 32.0 points per game.

Golden State's Curry became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

Curry also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

Earlier this season, Curry claimed top spots on the Warriors' all-time scoring and assists lists, while surpassing Reggie Miller for second position on the NBA's three-pointers made standings.

 

Full list of award finalists:

NBA Coach of the Year

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

NBA Defensive Player of the Year

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Rookie of the Year

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

NBA Sixth Man

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Derrick Rose, New York Knicks

NBA Most Improved Player

Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Julius Randle, New York Knicks

Stephen Curry was delighted to be back in a big game for the Golden State Warriors, even if Wednesday's play-in defeat to the LeBron James-inspired Los Angeles Lakers was a painful one.

Curry led the game in scoring with 37 points, but an early Warriors advantage – 13 points by halftime – was wiped out by the opening stages of the fourth quarter.

It left Curry in a shootout with James which the reigning NBA Finals MVP won with a sublime 30-foot three-pointer over the Golden State point guard as the shot clock expired.

The Warriors could not respond, as Curry rued a third quarter in which his team had eight turnovers "that changed the dynamic of the game", as the Lakers also visited the foul line eight times – making all eight shots.

Victory takes LA through as the seventh seed in the West to a first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, while Golden State must now prepare for a one-off game against the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed.

"We'll be ready," Curry said. "Right now, it sucks. We played pretty well tonight.

"We've missed this type of environment, it was a lot of fun, high intensity, high, competitive level. I'm proud of everyone who stepped on the floor tonight, how they played.

"They made a run in the third quarter, we turned the ball over and it changed the game, but we still gave ourselves a chance to win.

"That's all we've worried about for the last 48 hours. Walking in the locker room, guys were upset, angry, frustrated we didn't get the job done.

"But we'll be ready for Friday, treating it like a regular season where you have to move on very quickly to a different team that we just beat, knowing they're going to come in with the same desperation we're going to have. It's the biggest game of the year."

A play-in debut was Curry's 113th postseason appearance but his first since the 2019 NBA Finals.

"It was awesome," he said. "I don't know how many fans were here, but the prep leading into the game, the film study, the walkthroughs, our practice, the level of focus and intensity, it was amazing.

"I was telling Jordan Bell on the bench in the middle of the third quarter: 'I miss this.'

"It's been almost two years since the Finals that we were here in a game that had those type of consequences. It's what you live for, it's what you work so hard for.

"It brings out the best in you in terms of your competitiveness and energy and all that. I love it, so we have to run it back Friday and hopefully all next week."

This was the first time Curry had played the Lakers in such a game, with LA failing to make a Finals series between their title wins in 2010 and 2020 as the Warriors played in five straight.

"It'd be nice if we could make it back here round two or whatever it shapes out to be," Curry said.

James is a familiar foe, however, with his Cleveland Cavaliers the opponent for Golden State in four of those years, winning in 2016.

His brilliant make – his second of the night from three-point land – came as no surprise to Curry.

"It was a great shot, a broken play, I snuck in thinking he was out of play," he said. "They found him, he got his balance just in time and knocked the shot down.

"That was a tough one because you don't really expect it to go in. You expect us to get the rebound, come down in transition and have a possession to take the lead.

"But everything changes when it goes in. All-time great players make great shots, that's what happens. It's no different tonight, but that's a tough one."

But Curry appeared to compare the shot to a three from James' former Cavs team-mate Kyrie Irving, who sunk the decisive effort in Game 7 five years ago.

"This one I was a little further away, so I don't feel too bad about it," Curry said.

The Warriors can ill afford to mull over James' heroics any longer, though, as they face a Grizzlies team they beat as recently as Sunday to reach the seven-eight game.

That victory concluded a 15-5 run to finish the regular season, so Curry, who called for Golden State to "just have fun with it" and "come out swinging", is confident they can recover swiftly.

"We've had to do it the last 20 games, so it's no different," he said.

"It is a win or go home scenario, but we've had high confidence, had a string of wins and then had a tough loss and had to bounce back. We've been there."

Five years ago, Stephen Curry made history by being named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.

With his phenomenal shooting range and deadly accuracy from beyond the arc, Curry fuelled the greatest NBA regular season ever as the Golden State Warriors went 73-9 in the 2015-16 campaign.

Curry joined the select group of players in the 50-40-90 club and became the first person to do so while averaging over 30 points a game. 

It was a year that Curry seemed unlikely to ever top and certainly not in 2020-21, a season that followed a 2019-20 campaign essentially lost to a hand injury and one in which he did not have the benefit of playing with Kevin Durant or the injured Klay Thompson, with the core of the Warriors' dynasty that dominated the league largely gone.

Instead, this was supposed to be the year in which the rest of the NBA exacted a measure of revenge on Curry for torching them so devastatingly and so often.

Yet Curry, like all the greats, takes tremendous joy in subverting expectations, and he has done that to remarkable effect, surpassing his career-high average of 30.1 points per game from 2015-16 by racking up an incredible 32 per game to win the scoring title. The only other player to do so after turning 33 is Michael Jordan.

His consistently talismanic displays have pushed a Warriors team that would otherwise be watching the postseason from home into a mouth-watering play-in game with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Even if the Warriors lose, they will have another chance to reach the first round with victory over the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs.

Despite his remarkable efforts in extending the Warriors' season, Curry will almost certainly not win the MVP award for the third time, with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic an apparent lock to claim the honour.

But, after a year in which Curry shattered record after record, there is no doubt he is deserving of receiving the Maurice Podoloff Trophy once again.

 

A history-making year

Curry's scoring title, which he held off Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards to claim, was the crowning achievement of a regular season that saw him write a host of new pages into an NBA record book in which he already dominates several chapters.

He set a league record with 5.3 three-pointers made per game in what was his third season averaging at least 5.0, no other player in NBA history has achieved that feat once.

Curry racked up seven games with 40 or more points and at least 10 threes in 2020-21, his status as the greatest shooter and one of the greatest scorers of all-time illustrated by the fact no other NBA player has more than three such games in their entire career.

Excluding rookies, he is the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game having played fewer than 10 games in the previous season, with Curry breaking new ground at a time when many athletes begin to see signs of their bodies breaking down.

Indeed, Curry became the first player to have three 50-point games in a season at age 32 or older, while his points per game average was the highest in league history by a player of that age.

And, in a season where the late Kobe Bryant was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, it was only fitting that Curry emulated The Black Mamba. His performance in the January 3 against the Portland Trail Blazers, in which he exploded for 62 points, saw Curry join Bryant in becoming only the second player to score 18-plus points on three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws, Kobe doing so in his 81-point display on January 22, 2006.

As Bryant did so often during his career, Curry continues to find ways to set new boundaries for what is possible on an NBA court and, in 2020-21, he has done so while clearly elevating the play of a supporting cast well below the standard he has gotten used to in the Bay Area.

The impact of Curry's 'gravity'

To say that Curry makes the Warriors better is taking stating the obvious to the extreme, but not since the pre-Durant era has his influence been more readily apparent than a season in which he battled a tailbone injury and missed nine games over the course of the campaign.

The Warriors averaged 112.8 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court compared to 101.9 when he was off the floor. Their field goal percentage improved from 44.1 per cent to 48.4 with Curry in action while their three-point success jumped from 36.1 to 38.3.

Golden State's effective field goal percentage was 57.1 per cent when Curry played, up from 51.6 when he was absent, and he also improved the Warriors' ability to facilitate.

Their assists per 100 possessions jumped from 24.4 without Curry to 27.6, with the difference in point differential painting a clear picture of his overall impact.

The Warriors' point differential per 100 possessions without Curry was minus 4.5. When he did play, it was plus 4.3.

In other words, in the regular season, Curry was worth 8.8 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors, who benefited from several players raising their games with him on the court.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the player most positively affected by Curry's presence was Draymond Green. With Thompson suffering rotten injury luck, Curry and Green are the remaining pillars of the Warriors' original big three and their chemistry remains excellent.

This regular season, Green averaged 10.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 13.2 assists and 2.5 steals per 100 possessions with Curry on the court. Without him, those numbers dipped to 5.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 1.7 steals.

Andrew Wiggins averaged more points (30.4 to 23.6) per 100 possessions when Curry was out, a fact owing to the increased opportunities he gets when No. 30 is unavailable. However, Curry's presence made Wiggins a more efficient shooter.

Wiggins was good on 48.8 per cent of his attempts from the field with Curry compared to 45.9 without him. It was a similar tale with Kelly Oubre Jr, whom the Warriors hope to get back should they make it through the play-in tournament, as Oubre connected on 44.7 per cent of field goals when playing with Curry versus 42.4 the rest of the time.

That increased efficiency is likely a product of Curry's gravity - the extra attention he draws from defenders because of his threat from well beyond the three-point line that creates space for his team-mates.

Unfortunately, the biggest beneficiary of that gravity, center James Wiseman, won't be available in the postseason. A meniscus injury ended the second overall pick's season but the difference Curry made to his game was obvious.

Wiseman had 25.3 points per 100 possessions with Curry and 22.3 when he was missing. His field goal percentage (56.0 to 44.9) and three-point percentage (38.1 to 23.5) were also substantially better when Curry played.

The rookie experienced a similar jump in fast break points, which improved to 3.2 from 0.9 per 100, while he was significantly more effective near the rim with Curry commanding defenses' attention as Wiseman produced more points in the paint (17.9 to 13 per 100) and second-chance points (3.1 to 1.9.)

Curry has made a career out of making opposing big men look silly. Now, after seeing his evident influence on the Warriors' center curtailed, he will likely have to watch another of the game's giants take the top individual prize despite his own stupendous exploits.

Chef Curry vs. The Joker

Jokic has certainly done enough to merit being a frontrunner for MVP. The regular season saw him shoot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line.

No player with at least 30 field goals in a season in NBA history can claim to have topped Jokic in all three of those measures.

Finishing the year with a minutes total of 2,488 that only New York Knicks duo Julius Randle and RJ Barrett topped, Jokic's points, assists and rebounds average of 45.5 per game was the joint-best mark in the NBA alongside Russell Westbrook.

Yet Curry was close behind in fifth with 43.2, with his success in making the disparity between him and Jokic relatively meagre an impressive feat given the advantage the seven-foot Serb has in terms of rebounding.

Curry played nine fewer games than Jokic and, while their minutes per game were comparable (Curry 34.2 and Jokic 34.6), there was a vast difference in points totals.

Jokic finished with 26.4 per game, well adrift of Curry's league-leading mark of 32, which was the most in a season in NBA history by a player averaging fewer than 35.0 minutes per game.

The edge in terms of all-round impact goes to Jokic, but Curry has arguably outstripped a season that ended with him taking every first-place MVP vote in a year where rust and a lack of weapons around him had led some to expect a year of comparative struggle.

This was a season in which Curry unexpectedly redefined what is possible and dragged the Warriors to the cusp of a first-round playoff berth. Jokic's role as chief architect for a Nuggets team much better placed to contend is worthy of the acclaim he has received but, after Curry's stunning show of endurance and consistency in producing the spectacular to keep the Warriors in the running, it should not be a one-horse race for MVP.

Stephen Curry is embracing underdog status ahead of the Golden State Warriors' play-in game against defending NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Warriors finished eighth in the Western Conference and will have to work through the league's new play-in tournament to reach the NBA playoffs.

Led by two-time MVP Curry, Golden State won 18 of their final 25 games to surge into the postseason picture ahead of Wednesday's showdown against LeBron James and the seventh-seeded Lakers.

The winner between the Lakers and Warriors head into the playoffs as the seventh seed. The loser will meet the winner of the Memphis Grizzlies-San Antonio Spurs clash.

"I hope everybody hears the chatter," Curry said after Tuesday's practice. "Even at this point how we match up with LA or potentially with Phoenix or Utah if we get through this play-in tournament and all that.

"Nobody thought we were even going to be in this position. A lot of people had us way, way, way down the standings coming in after Klay [Thompson] got hurt, so there's a lot of things that we already flipped on its head to this point, so we might as well keep going."

Curry has played a crucial role in lifting the Warriors into contention down the stretch, earning his second NBA scoring title after ending the regular season averaging 32.0 points per game following his 46-point outburst against the Grizzlies on Sunday.

The three-time NBA champion became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

Curry also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

The Warriors guard has played 63 games this season, averaging 5.8 assists per game, a career-best 5.5 rebounds per game and 1.2 steals per game.

Earlier this season, Curry claimed top spots on the Warriors' all-time scoring and assists lists, while surpassing Reggie Miller for second position on the NBA's three-pointers made standings.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the hot favourite to win this season's MVP but Curry was endorsed by upcoming opponent James for candidacy too.

"Obviously, I'm appreciative," Curry said. "He knows when he says something people pay attention so for him to speak on my MVP candidacy is definitely, I respect him for it, I appreciate it.

"We all know as competitors though, when the lights are on, I can talk about how great he is till I'm blue in the face and he can do the same, it doesn't change how we approach that competition when we're out there.

"I won't be giving him a pass because he likes the way I played this year and vice versa."

The NBA's play-in tournament will stage a must-see heavyweight clash when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

While there are no concerns of suffering a season-ending knockout, the one-off contest at Staples Center will dictate the next step for two teams who know all about making title runs.

Few would have expected this scenario back at the start of a season played out amid the backdrop of an ongoing health pandemic.

As the defending champions, LeBron James and the Lakers were viewed as a front runner in the stacked Western Conference. Coming up against a Golden State roster so heavily reliant on Stephen Curry was always a possibility in the playoffs, just not necessarily in this type of scenario.

The winner will be slotted in as the seventh seed, meaning a best-of-seven series against the Phoenix Suns. The loser, however, will have to get past either the San Antonio Spurs or the Memphis Grizzlies – they meet on Thursday – just to get the eighth and final spot available.

If the play-in games were set up to add an extra layer of drama, a match-up that pits two of the sport's biggest superstars against each other is an early gift to start the playoff stretch.

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers

James was firmly in the MVP conversation until an ankle injury on March 20. His first attempt to return to action led to a setback, but the four-time NBA champion featured in the final two outings of the regular season, scoring a combined 49 points.

His fitness will be key to the Lakers' prospects of retaining their crown. They finished the regular season with a 42-30 record yet were 30-15 in games when their star turn featured. That kind of winning percentage across a full campaign would have made sure they did not have to worry about appearing in any play-in contests.

Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors

Having missed the majority of the previous season through injury, Curry certainly made up for lost time with a dazzling regular season.

He finished as the scoring champion, his 2,015 points coming in 63 games as he averaged 32.0 an outing. No one made (337) or attempted more three-pointers (801), while the point guard also shot 91.6 per cent from the free-throw line. MVP, perhaps?

KEY BATTLE – STOP CURRY GETTING HOT

The Warriors will sink or swim based on Curry, but he will need some assistance if they are to prosper in the playoffs. To that extent, as the Lakers focus on shutting down a player capable of catching fire in a hurry, Andrew Wiggins (18.6 points per game in the regular season) will need to step up, particularly as Golden State are still without the injured Kelly Oubre Jr.

Draymond Green can help, too, albeit his average of 7.0 points was his lowest mark since the 2013-14 season, his second in the league when he started in just 12 games. It may well be his primary focus is on defense, though, considering both James and Anthony Davis – confirmed fit to play on Tuesday – will demand plenty of attention.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers are a long way clear in the overall record (257 wins to 169), while they have also dominated in the playoffs – the Warriors have won just one series in seven attempts, with that success coming way back in 1967 when they were still playing under the San Francisco name.

In the 2020-21 regular season, the team from Los Angeles won two of the three meetings. They were dominant in the most recent clash as well, coming out 128-97 winners in March despite several key absences.

It is that time of year again – the NBA playoffs.

Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

The Utah Jazz claimed the best record in the league for the first time in their history, while Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers and the star-studded Brooklyn Nets loom large.

With the play-in tournament due to get under way to determine the final eight teams from each conference set to feature in the playoffs, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers to find a worthy winner of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

 

Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

 

Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert experienced consecutive first-round exits in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but featuring in their first Conference semi-final since 2018, the Jazz prove too hot for the fourth-ranked Clippers and take a 4-2 series win. Utah, who beat Los Angeles in two of the three regular-season contests, win the opening three games of the second-round series and never look back as pressure mounts on Leonard, Paul George and the championship-chasing Clippers.

The standout teams in the east, the 76ers and Nets barely raise a sweat en route to the Conference Finals. In pursuit of a first championship since 1983, the 76ers sweep the Knicks 4-0, while the Nets end Miami's hopes with their own devastating 4-0 success.

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

A matchup many predicted when the 76ers appointed head coach Rivers and the Nets landed former MVP Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January. Philadelphia's cast of Embiid, fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, sharp-shooter Seth Curry and Danny Green come up against Durant, Harden, Irving and Blake Griffin, and it is Brooklyn who prevail in a thriller. The Nets and 76ers split the opening six games before a deciding seventh game. With a championship berth on the line, Steve Nash's Nets edge the 76ers 112-109 as question marks again emerge over whether the Philadelphia franchise can succeed with both Embiid and Simmons.

Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

 

Jazz make history

The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

Despite a frightening array of talent, the Nets go down 4-1 in the Finals as the Jazz make history, headlined by a resounding 121-102 win in Game 5.

After consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz finally break through for their first NBA title thanks to coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Co.

The results will not be confirmed until later in the postseason, but the NBA's MVP race has been run and there appears to be a clear winner.

After a season in which Joel Embiid and LeBron James were each favourites at a time, and while a number of other contenders made impressive runs, Nikola Jokic is seemingly set to scoop the league's top individual award.

Jokic achieved what the others could not in remaining healthy, starting all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference.

But the 'Joker' was more than just the last man standing in a gruelling campaign, earning his recognition by averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

A worthy winner, the Nuggets center shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Stats Perform reflects on how Jokic ultimately outperformed his opponents to establish himself as the league's main man in 2020-21.
 

Month one: LeBron leaps above Luka

Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the preseason MVP favourites, while Los Angeles Lakers duo James and Anthony Davis appeared well set as both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant returned from injuries.

Doncic's hopes quickly took a hit once the campaign got under way, however, as the Dallas Mavericks slumped to 7-7 over the first month, the same middle-of-the-road record that ensured Jokic was not immediately thrust to the forefront of the conversation on a .500 Nuggets team.

Yet the Serbian quietly built the foundations for his awards challenge in that spell. He had five triple-doubles, including three in his first four games, and averaged 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.0 assists.

A 12-4 start for the Lakers meant the anticipated early James calls grew louder, the four-time winner an ever-present and averaging 24.4 points with an impressive 9.3 plus/minus rating.

Month two: Sixers star Embiid emerges

The PAR (points plus assists plus rebounds) chart Jokic topped in month one was led by Antetokounmpo in month two, with Jokic sliding to fourth behind Embiid and Doncic despite averaging 27.8 points over his next 16 games.

James was sixth, adding 27.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game to his totals between January 22 and February 21, but Embiid emerged as a serious contender.

As their star center put up a league-leading 33.9 points over the period, the Philadelphia 76ers improved to 20-11 to lead the East.

Missed games would ultimately cost Embiid, but they added to his case at this stage. He featured in 25 of the Sixers' first 31 outings, sitting out five defeats and only a single win.

Month three: Injuries interrupt favourites

Events in mid-March blew the MVP race wide open.

In the 76ers' win at the Washington Wizards on March 12, Embiid suffered a knee injury. However, James was the clear favourite for just eight days before he sustained a high ankle sprain as the Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks.

Curry could not capitalise as a tailbone issue kept him on the sidelines over the same stretch, instead allowing James Harden to improbably enter the reckoning.

A high-profile yet polarising trade to the Brooklyn Nets should have removed Harden from awards consideration, many argued, but his performances and stat line made a compelling argument.

Between his Nets debut on January 16 and March 21 – the end of the third month of the season – Harden became the key man in his new team's 'big three' and led the league in playmaking with 11.3 assists as Brooklyn went 22-7 with the 2018 MVP on the court.

Month four: Nuggets make their move

Although Harden, Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard – who has long led the league in 'clutch' points this year – all made runs, Jokic was the favourite at the time of James' injury, then with an even more impressive stat line, including 41.6 per cent shooting from three. Month four consolidated that position.

As Harden and Antetokounmpo each sustained injuries in early April, Jokic was boosted by the arrival of Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline.

The Nuggets got only five games (four wins) out of a Jamal Murray-Will Barton-Michael Porter Jr-Gordon-Jokic line-up, yet no five-man group in the league this season which played over 100 minutes averaged more than their 55.6 points per game.

Another injury disrupted Denver, but it was Murray rather than Jokic who went down, the guard tearing the ACL in his left knee.

The Nuggets were on a four-game winning run regardless by April 21 to improve to 38-20, giving Jokic a clear edge over Curry on a Golden State Warriors team hovering below .500.

Month five: Still in the thick of the action

As the playoff picture took shape over the final weeks of the season, a number of stars racked up DNPs to protect themselves for the challenges ahead. Jokic, despite repeatedly insisting he had no interest in the MVP award, did not.

The apparent winner finished the year having played 2,488 minutes, trailing only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.

Sunday's final-day defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers was the first time all year Jokic dipped below 26 minutes in a game, limiting the damage to his impressive numbers.

It meant he protected a healthy lead in the awards race, despite Curry's continued excellence in the final month. The scoring champion averaged an outstanding 35.6 points across his final 12 games to take the Warriors to eighth place.

Denver ended the year on a 13-5 run following Murray's injury, with Jokic putting up 26.9 points. Few can argue he is not a worthy MVP winner.

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