NBA

Jokic wins battle of the MVP candidates against Giannis, Hawks and Pelicans strengthen playoff chances

By Sports Desk March 26, 2023

In a highly anticipated clash between winners of the past four MVPs it was Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets comfortably handling Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks 129-106.

Played in Denver, the reigning back-to-back MVP winner put on a show for his home fans with 31 points (10-of-20 shooting), 11 assists and six rebounds. 

Jokic was supported in style by Jamal Murray, who chipped in 26 points (nine-of-19), nine assists and six rebounds, and kick-started the Nuggets with four triples in the first quarter.

Antetokounmpo, winner of the 2019 and 2020 MVP trophies, was far from the reason his side went down, posting a strong 31 points (13-of-22), nine rebounds, four assists and four steals. He led Milwaukee to a 66-63 half-time lead, before they put up just 40 points as a team in the second half.

After a mini-slump with four losses from of five games, the Nuggets have now rattled off three wins in a row, improving their home record to 31-6 in the process, which trails only the Memphis Grizzlies (32-5) for the league's best mark.

Despite the loss, Milwaukee (53-21) are still two games clear in the race for the league's best record, while the Nuggets are 3.5 games clear atop the West.

Hawks prevail despite Trae ejection

Atlanta Hawks franchise player Trae Young was ejected for throwing the ball at an official, but his side still came away with a 143-130 home win against the visiting Indiana Pacers.

Young was kicked out in the second quarter after the incident, but eight Hawks players ended up scoring double-figures to pick up the slack.

John Collins led the way with 21 points (nine-of-12 shooting), Dejounte Murray added 20 points (eight-of-20) and 12 assists, and Clint Capela snatched down 17 rebounds to go with his 17 points (five-of-five).

The win pulled the Hawks' record even at 37-37, now a game clear of the ninth-seeded Toronto Raptors (36-38) as they battle for play-in tournament positioning.

Pelicans muddy the waters in the West

The New Orleans Pelicans kept their season alive with a 131-110 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers, creating a logjam in the Western Conference's play-in placings.

Second-year Pelicans wing Trey Murphy was spectacular as he hit 10-of-12 three-pointers for an equal team-high 32 points. He was joined on 32 points by Brandon Ingram, and after Ingram's first career triple-double on Thursday, he followed it with a career-high 13 assists against the Clippers.

The win means the Pelicans are in a three-way tie for the seventh-best record in the West, joining the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers at 37-37 with eight games to play.

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    The Celtics won 126-110 on Thursday to move two games ahead in their Eastern Conference finals series against the Pacers.

    Indiana were also dealt a blow when star player Tyrese Haliburton suffered a hamstring injury, which the Pacers will wait agonisingly on.

    Yet with the Pacers having overturned a deficit to overcome the New York Knicks in the last round, Celtics coach Mazzulla knows the job is nowhere near done.

    "The only thing we should be thinking about is, they were down 2-0 a series Tago and brought it to Game 7," Mazzulla said.

    "They do a great job protecting their home court. They're undefeated at home. It's going to take a lot more than confidence to get the job done.

    "We have to focus on the details and the execution and the mindset, the things that go into playing against a team like this at home.

    "I know they're going to respond so it's up to us to do the same."

    Jaylen Brown starred again for the Celtics, finishing with 40 points on the day he missed out on an All-NBA selection.

    "We're two games from the Finals," he said when asked about that snub. "So, honestly, I don't have the time to give a f***."

    Indiana, meanwhile, face the prospect of having to fight back against the NBA's best team without their key player.

    "He does so many things for our team," T.J McConnell said of Haliburton.

    "I think everyone has to move the ball more, get in the paint more. The ball movement has to be at another level. He gets 10 assists in his sleep, so it's hard for another person on our team to replicate that. It's a group effort when he goes down."

    Pacers coach Rick Carlisle added: "We'll know more [on Friday] and then probably more Saturday."

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    The 45-year-old posted a regular season record of 170-159, with the youthful Cleveland winning at least 44 times in each of their last three campaigns.

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    After his 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left in regulation forced overtime in Game 1, Brown helped Boston turn a five-point deficit in the first quarter into a 15-point second-quarter lead.

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    The series shifts to Indiana for Game 3 on Saturday night.

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