James Harden stole the headlines pre-game, but it was Kevin Durant who dazzled with a monster triple-double to inspire the Brooklyn Nets to a 114-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA playoffs.

Harden was cleared to return for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, which was deadlocked at 2-2 upon the former MVP's comeback from a hamstring injury on Tuesday.

However, Harden struggled badly as team-mate Durant stole the show with 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists – almost singlehandedly reclaiming Brooklyn's series lead following back-to-back losses.

Durant did not miss a minute of the clash at Barclays Center, where the second-seeded Nets withstood Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to move ahead 3-2 after being outscored 29-15 in the opening period.

According to Stats Perform, Durant became the first player to post 48-plus points while playing all 48 minutes in a regulation playoff game since Kobe Bryant in 2001.

Durant – a former MVP and two-time NBA champion – is the first player in NBA history with a 45/15/10 postseason game after moving the Nets within a win of the Conference Finals.

Back in the line-up, Harden played all but two minutes, however he was one-for-10 shooting for five points as Jeff Green (27) and Blake Griffin (17) were the only other Brooklyn players to finish with double-digit points.

Antetokounmpo put up a 34-point, 12-rebound double-double but it was not enough for the visiting Bucks.

Khris Middleton contributed 25 points for the third-seeded Bucks, who led 59-43 at half-time before the Nets rallied.

The series heads back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.

 

Hawks at 76ers

The top-ranked Philadelphia 76ers will look to bounce back at home to the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday. The second-round matchup in the east is level at 2-2.

Brooklyn Nets star James Harden has overcome a hamstring injury and will return for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Harden was initially ruled out alongside fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving (ankle) due to his troublesome hamstring, which had him sidelined after bowing out 43 seconds into the opening clash with the Bucks.

But Harden's status was upgraded to doubtful and then questionable on Tuesday, before being cleared to play less than an hour prior to tip-off at Barclays Center, where the series is tied at 2-2.

"I'm not sure the level of risk," Nets head coach Steve Nash said before the game. "I think it is James' decision. He wants to play. Ultimately, he wants to play. He's been pushing."

Harden – averaging 23.2 points, a postseason career-high 8.8 assists and 6.2 rebounds in the playoffs in 2020-21 – has been managing a hamstring injury since the start of April.

The former Houston Rockets guard, who had been making an MVP run prior to the initial setback, returned in the closing stages of the regular season.

Harden then averaged 27.8 points per game in the first-round series against the Boston Celtics but suffered an injury in Game 1 at home to Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks.

Having gone 2-0 up against Milwaukee without Harden, second-seeded Brooklyn lost both games on the road to level the series.

The Nets have won three of four Game 5's at home in best-of-seven series all-time after being tied 2-2. Their only such loss came in the 2003 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs (93-83).

Brooklyn are outscoring opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions when both Harden and Irving are on the court this season (regular and postseason). That differential drops to plus-2.8 when neither is in the game.

The Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks are locked together at 2-2 in the NBA playoffs as their battle to reach the Eastern Conference Finals continues on Wednesday.

After losing the opener at home, the 76ers appeared to assume control by taking the next two games to forge ahead.

However, with Joel Embiid enduring a second half to forget, the Hawks hit back on Monday, a 103-100 triumph leaving the situation delicately poised as the series switches back to Philadelphia for Game 5.

For a franchise linked with the catchphrase "trust the process", the key for the 76ers – who are the top seeds in the East – is believing in each other, according to head coach Doc Rivers.

Asked for the reason behind his team's loss in Atlanta, he said: "We stopped passing. I thought we started the game that way, then got back into ball movement, then went to hero basketball.

"Basically, everybody wanted to be the hero, rather than trusting the team and trusting each other.

"If you do that, you usually lose, especially when the other team outworks you the whole game, and that's what they did."

Embiid – a player who arrived via the draft amid a patient rebuild that prioritised long-term planning over immediate results – endured a difficult outing in Atalanta, going 4-for-20 as he missed all 12 of his shots in the second half. That run included an unsuccessful lay-up in the closing seconds that would have put his team ahead.

Bothered by a knee injury suffered in the opening round against the Washington Wizards, Embiid saw his offensive production drop dramatically.

A temporary blip or a greater cause for concern? Only time will tell, but the 76ers will not want to fall behind knowing they have to travel to Atlanta for Game 6.


PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Tobias Harris – Philadelphia 76ers

Harris is averaging 23.2 points per game in the playoffs, easily a career high. He is shooting at 40 per cent from deep too, becoming a consistent contributor for his team on offense. However, with Embiid not at full power, the 28-year-old may have to ease the strain on his ailing team-mate by taking on an even greater workload.

Trae Young – Atlanta Hawks

Young created NBA history in Game 4, becoming the youngest player to have 18 or more assists in a postseason game. He also scored 25 points, with his fifth double-double of the playoffs demonstrating his importance to this Hawks outfit. No individual had managed both 25 points and 18 assists in a playoff outing since Tim Hardaway back in May 1991.

KEY BATTLE – Embiid against his ailing knee

"I'm just trying to do the best I can," Embiid said when talking to the media after Game 4. The center – runner-up to fellow big Nikola Jokic in the MVP race – is having to deal with a partially torn meniscus at just the wrong time in the season.

He sat out Game 5 against the Wizards as the 76ers sealed a semi-final spot, but with this series so delicately balanced there is little time to take a break.

The Hawks, who have won only three of 24 best-of-seven series in which they found themselves 2-1 down – will sense the chance to strike on the road as they aim to reach the Conference Finals for the first time since 2015.

HEAD TO HEAD

This is the third playoff series between the teams, with the 76ers progressing in both 1980 and 1982. They also won two of the three meeting in the regular season, though the Hawks have already prevailed once in this series in Philadelphia.

The Brooklyn Nets could yet be boosted by the return of James Harden on Tuesday after he was upgraded to doubtful.

Harden had initially been ruled out of Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The former Houston Rockets star has been managing a hamstring injury since the start of April.

Harden, who had been making an MVP run prior to the initial setback, returned in the closing stages of the regular season.

He then averaged 27.8 points per game in the first-round series against the Boston Celtics but bowed out 43 seconds into Game 1 at home to the Bucks.

 

The potential for Harden to feature in Game 5 lifts the Nets, who have also now lost Kyrie Irving to an ankle issue.

Having gone 2-0 up against Milwaukee without Harden, Brooklyn lost both games on the road to level the series.

Kevin Durant has led the team with 29.8 points per game in the series but was limited to nine-of-25 shooting in Game 4.

Kawhi Leonard's huge dunk in the Los Angeles Clippers' series-levelling win over the Utah Jazz sent ripples through the NBA, stopping Joel Embiid in his tracks.

Embiid was undertaking post-game media duties after the Philadelphia 76ers were beaten by the Atlanta Hawks, when his attention was diverted by seeing Leonard in full flow.

"Oh my god. See that dunk, see that Kawhi dunk?" said Embiid.

Unlike Embiid, Leonard finished on the winning side in Monday’s playoff games, his 31 points helping the Clippers post a 118-104 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 4 of their Western Conference semi-final.

Leonard's masterpiece came near the end of the second quarter.

"I don't get to see the reaction of what's on the web or social media or whatever, but Zu [Ivica Zubac] showed me a clip of Embiid talking, and yeah that's the only thing I got from it. During the game in the heat of the moment I know it's a big play, but you've got to have the next-play mentality because right after I think Joe Ingles came down and hit a three pretty wide open in that corner, so we've still got room for improvement," Leonard said.

Leonard sat out the closing minutes after appearing to hurt his knee, but when asked about the blow after the game he said the knee was "good", eager to move on to the next question.

When asked about the team's prospects of reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time, Leonard almost scoffed at that being his ambition.

He said: "I don't care about the Western Conference Finals. I'm trying to win a championship.

"Obviously that's the next step but I'm not even looking at that."

Paul George also scored 31 points as the Clippers edged out the Jazz at Staples Center, teeing up Game 5 in Utah on Wednesday.

Having been 2-0 down in this series, the Clippers have set aside criticism of their slow start to look sharp again.

Leonard indicated he was impervious to external discussion surrounding the team's performance.

"I don't even know we took criticism," he said. "I don't know what's going on in the outside world."

Donovan Mitchell said Kawhi Leonard "destroyed" the Utah Jazz in Game 4's 118-104 defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers, but he is bullish the top seeds can get back to winning ways.

Leonard scored 31 points with seven rebounds and three assists for the Clippers, well supported by Paul George with 31 points and nine rebounds as they levelled up the series at 2-2.

Mitchell put up 37 points for the Jazz but it was not enough, after his side trailed by 24 points at half-time following the Clippers' first-half blitz.

"He destroyed us, he had a hell of a game," Mitchell said about Leonard, who finished the game on the bench after a knock to his knee from a collision with Joe Ingles.

Leonard refused to be drawn on the potential injury, declining to address it in-depth in his post-game video conference and saying on court: "Nah, I'll be good."

Mitchell said that the Clippers were on a "different level" but was buoyed by his side's second-half display.

"They had three guys with 20 points or more, they got going," Mitchell said. "We can't let a team like that get going because they're lethal."

He added: "They just were at a different level. We couldn’t buy a bucket.

"Sometimes that's the case but we've got to continue to guard. I think we found a few things that will give us an advantage. We started being aggressive and that's how we cut it to 10-12.

"If we can continue to play like we did in the second half… come out in Game 5 and be ready, I think we'll be in good shape but we've also got to guard too."

On Wednesday the series returns to Salt Lake City where the Jazz won the opening two games, before the Clippers won the next two in Los Angeles.

"We've got to take care of home court," Mitchell said. "They came out and punched us in the face two times. We've got to be ready for it."

Joel Embiid said he was bothered by his knee problem after struggling on the floor as the Philadelphia 76ers squandered a lead in their 103-100 loss against the Atlanta Hawks.

Embiid appeared to be hampered by the meniscus strain he sustained in the Eastern Conference first-round win over the Washington Wizards, missing a close-range layup 8.8 seconds from the end with the 76ers trailing the Hawks 101-100 on Monday.

NBA MVP runner-up Embiid went 0-for-12 shooting the second half, having spent some time in the locker room, as the Hawks – overturning an 18-point lead – rallied past the top-seeded 76ers to level the Eastern Conference semi-final matchup.

Embiid, who finished with 17 points and a playoff career-high 21 rebounds, told reporters post-game: "Great look. Great look. I just didn't have the lift.

"Thought I got fouled, too. But usually I would go up, especially for a bucket like that, try to dunk it.

"Try to get fouled and get an and-one. But ... not being able to jump for obvious reasons. ... It's tough."

Philadelphia's Embiid sustained a small meniscus tear in Game 4 of the first-round series against the Wizards, returning for the semi-final opener with the fifth-seeded Hawks.

"I guess it's already known," Embiid – the first Sixers player to have 20 or more rebounds in a postseason game since Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo in 2001 – said. "Don't need to explain ... I'm just trying to do the best I can.

"I thought in the beginning of the game, when I went back to the locker room, I just felt like I didn't have it tonight," added Embiid, who became the eighth 76ers player ever with at least 20 career double-doubles in the playoffs.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bucks at Nets

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

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers slammed his side for playing "hero basketball" as the Eastern Conference top seeds surrendered their lead against the Atlanta Hawks in the semi-finals.

The 76ers squandered a 13-point advantage in Atlanta, where the Hawks rallied to a 103-100 victory in Game 4 in the NBA playoffs on Monday.

Atlanta levelled the second-round matchup at 2-2 after 76ers All-Star and MVP finalist Joel Embiid missed an open lay-up in the dying stages, before Seth Curry's unsuccessful buzzer-beating three-point attempt to force overtime.

The 76ers saw their lead whittled away as the Hawks overpowered the visitors, irritating Rivers post-game.

"We stopped passing. I thought we started the game off that way," Rivers told reporters. "Then we got back into the ball movement and went back to hero basketball. Basically everybody wanted to be the hero instead of trusting the team, trusting each other.

"When you do that you usually lose especially when the other team outworks you the whole f****** game and that's what they did today."

Embiid, who has been battling knee issues during the playoffs, finished with 17 points and a playoff career-high 21 rebounds, yet appeared hampered.

Philadelphia's Embiid sustained a small meniscus tear in Game 4 of the first-round series against the Washington Wizards, returning for the semi-final opener with the fifth-seeded Hawks.

Rivers was unable to provide an update on Embiid's injury status.

"I don't know. He went in the back [to the locker room]," Rivers said. "I know something was bothering him but I'm not sure what it was."

Rivers refused to criticise Embiid for his late miss at 101-100, nor his side's final play for Curry's tough shot on the buzzer.

"To me the game should never have come to that point," Rivers said. "We missed so many opportunities. My eyes told me we blew a golden opportunity tonight."

On the final play, Rivers added: "It's seven seconds, you've got to go the length of the floor.

"That's what we drew up but anybody could have been open. We got a decent shot, Seth had a decent look, thought he'd made it."

Rivers felt the Hawks were the "more physical and tougher team".

The two sides meet again in Game 5 in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

Brooklyn Nets stars Kyrie Irving and James Harden will both miss Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Milwaukee Bucks due to injury.

Irving sprained his right ankle in the Nets' 107-96 loss in Game 4 on Sunday and underwent an MRI which confirmed he would not be available for Tuesday's clash, with the NBA playoff series in tied at 2-2.

Nets guard Irving joins former MVP Harden on the sidelines, with the latter still absence because of a hamstring he re-injured in Game 1.

Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash said the length of Irving's absence remains unknown.

"I have to wait and see how it progresses, I think," Nash said.

"And then the experts would have to wait and see how it progresses and give you a clearer picture on what the window would be for his return."

Nash added that Harden was "working out right now" but was unclear on his return to play timeframe.

The second-seeded Nets – eyeing their maiden championship – have battled injuries throughout the 2020-21 campaign, with Harden missing 21 games late in the regular season due to his troublesome hamstring.

"It's tough to lose great players but we've lost guys all season," Nash said. "If there's any silver linings, it's that we've continued to win games regardless of who's been available.

"We've been able to adapt on the fly which is difficult to do sometimes. That's something we have some experience with. We should have some comfort and belief."

The absence of two-thirds of the 'Big Three' puts a heavy burden on Kevin Durant, although Nash insisted it was not just about him.

"This does not fall on Kevin, this falls on the Nets," Nash said. "We've got to find a way together to play great basketball on both ends of the floor. We've proven we can do it.

"We try to stick to our principles and fundamentals, which is connectivity, competitive spirit, embracing the opportunity and playing together as a team."

LeBron James will move away from his famous number 23 jersey in 2020-21 to again wear the number six, as he did with the Miami Heat.

NBA great James has long been synonymous with the number 23, wearing the jersey in two spells with the Cleveland Cavaliers and now with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But he was the Heat's number six between 2010 and 2014, a hugely successful stretch.

James was a two-time champion, two-time MVP and two-time Finals MVP in Miami, averaging 26.9 points per game over this period – second only to Kevin Durant (29.0).

Notably, James will also wear six for the 'Tune Squad' in upcoming film 'Space Jam: A New Legacy'.

The 36-year-old reportedly intended to change shirts when Anthony Davis – 23 with the New Orleans Pelicans – moved to the team in 2019 but ran into complications. Davis is set to keep his new three jersey.

James was restricted to 45 games – the fewest of his career – in 2020-21 due to injury, while Davis played only 36 games in another career low.

Former Heat superstar James has ruled himself out of the Tokyo Olympics, preferring instead to promote his film after a gruelling season.

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.

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