De'Anthony Melton and the Memphis Grizzlies could not hide their delight after embarrassing the Oklahoma City Thunder by 73 points to set an NBA record.

The merciless Grizzlies broke the record for the largest margin of victory in league history thanks to Thursday's devastating 152-79 triumph.

Oklahoma City were without star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Rookie of the Year contender Josh Giddey away to the Grizzlies in Memphis.

The Grizzlies, who were without a star of their own in Ja Morant, took full advantage as they eclipsed the 1991 Cleveland Cavaliers (68 points) for the largest winning margin.

"Man, it feels great. It feels great to be in the history books, especially in front of our home crowd,'' said Melton, who put up 19 points for the Grizzlies.

"And we did it one through 15. Everybody contributed, everybody played hard and we all got to get in the game. So, it's always a blessing.

"We knew with [Morant] going down what we had to do. We had to step up.''

 

According to Stats Perform, 152 is the most points in NBA history by a team missing a player who was leading the team in total points and assists entering the game following Morant's absence.

Jaren Jackson Jr. picked up the slack with Morant sidelined, pouring in 27 points for the Grizzlies – who shot 62.5 per cent from the field.

Melton, Santi Aldama (18), John Konchar (17), Dillon Brooks (11), Jarrett Culver (11), Xavier Tillman (11), Brandon Clarke (11) and Tyus Jones (10) all had double-digit points for the Grizzlies.

Memphis, who have beaten the Thunder in four straight games for their best winning streak against the franchise since 2013-16, were also 52.8 per cent from three-point range as Jackson made six of his seven attempts from beyond the arc.

"Franchise records are obviously great. Obviously proud of our guys that they don't think about that,'' Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins said.

"We're just motivated by what are our standards every single night. Tonight was on pretty full display both offensively and defensively.''

Lu Dort was the pick of the Thunder players with 15 points on three-of-eight shooting in 25 minutes – Oklahoma City are now amid an eight-game losing streak.

The Thunder (6-16) – in the process of a rebuild – were just 32.9 per cent from the floor in a forgettable display.

"Tonight is not necessarily who we are,'' Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said. "I think we've definitely shown that from a competitive standpoint. This isn't indicative of who our team is.''

"Obviously, it was a combination of things,'' Daigneault said. "They played with great force and pace. They made some shots. We didn't shoot it well early and just really couldn't get a grip on the game. Any part of the game.''

Daigneault added: "When you compete, you have exposure to the highs and lows of competition. And competition comes with great joy, and it also comes with grief and frustration and anger. And when you step in that ring, that's what you expose yourself to is all of those things.

"It's why the joy feels so good, because when you get punched and you taste your own blood, it doesn't feel right.''

The Phoenix Suns celebrated a franchise-record 18th consecutive win after taking down the lowly Detroit Pistons 114-103 in the NBA on Thursday.

Phoenix – who reached last season's NBA Finals – eclipsed the 17-game record set during the 2006-07 campaign, despite the absence of All-Star Devin Booker.

Leading scorer Booker sat out for the first time this season after suffering a hamstring injury in Tuesday's win over the Golden State Warriors, however, the Suns were still too good for the Pistons.

The NBA-leading Suns – who improved to 19-3 – were fuelled by 19 points apiece from Cam Johnson and Cameron Payne, while Deandre Ayton had 17 points and 12 rebounds, and Chris Paul added 12 points and 12 assists.

Phoenix also celebrated back-to-back wins over Detroit for the first time since 2014.

Jerami Grant put up a game-high 34 points for the Pistons, who have lost eight straight games for their worst skid since 2017-18.

 

Grizzlies in historic humbling

The Memphis Grizzlies broke the record for the largest victory in NBA history after humiliating the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder 152-79. Memphis surpassed the 1991 Cleveland Cavaliers (68 points) for the largest winning margin thanks to their 73-point demolition. The Grizzlies were without star Ja Morant. According to Stats Perform, 152 is the most points in NBA history by a team missing a player who was leading the team in total points and assists entering the game.

 

DeMar DeRozan (34 points), Zach LaVine (27 points) and Nikola Vucevic (27 points) combined to lead the Chicago Bulls past the New York Knicks 119-115. Julius Randle's double-double of 30 points and 12 rebounds was not enough for the Knicks.

 

Milwaukee's streak over as Giannis sits out

Giannis Antetokounmpo was held out by the Milwaukee Bucks due to a calf problem. In his absence, the defending champions lost 97-93 at the Toronto Raptors as their eight-game winning run was halted. Milwaukee shot just 37.6 per cent from the field.

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer remains hopeful the calf issue that kept Giannis Antetokounmpo out of Thursday's 97-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors is only a "short-term" issue.

Antetokounmpo was a surprise late withdrawal for the Bucks due to right calf soreness and the reigning NBA champions tasted defeat in his absence.

Milwaukee's eight-game winning streak was snapped by the Raptors, who were fuelled by Fred VanVleet's 29 points.

Following the warm-ups, the Bucks opted to bench NBA Finals MVP Antetokounmpo, with Pat Connaughton starting in his place.

"Hopefully it's something very short term," Budenholzer told reporters after the defeat. "A day or two and hopefully he'll be ready to go.

"We'll just see how the next 24-48 hours go."

Budenholzer added: "I think it's important but we're hopeful it's short term."

Antetokounmpo had scored 40 points with 12 rebounds and nine assists in Wednesday's 127-125 win over the Charlotte Hornets.

Greek superstar Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.6 points – only behind Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry entering Thursday's play, 11.8 rebounds and a career-high 6.0 assists per game this season.

The Memphis Grizzlies broke the record for the largest victory in NBA history after humiliating the shorthanded Oklahoma City Thunder 152-79.

Oklahoma City – in the process of a rebuild – were without star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Rookie of the Year contender Josh Giddey away to the Grizzlies in Memphis on Thursday.

The Grizzlies, who were without a star of their own in Ja Morant, showed no mercy as they eclipsed the 1991 Cleveland Cavaliers (68 points) for the largest margin of victory in the league.

Cleveland trounced the Miami Heat 148-80 – the Cavaliers went on to reach the Eastern Conference Finals before falling to Michael Jordan and eventual champions the Chicago Bulls.

 

The Grizzlies, who shot 62.5 per cent from the field while the Thunder managed just 32.9 per cent, were led by Jaren Jackson Jr. and his game-high 27 points.

De'anthony Melton (19), Santi Aldama (18), John Konchar (17), Dillon Brooks (11), Jarrett Culver (11), Xavier Tillman (11), Brandon Clarke (11) and Tyus Jones (10) all had double-digit points for the Grizzlies.

Memphis, who have beaten the Thunder in four straight games for their best winning streak against the franchise since 2013-16, were also 52.8 per cent from three-point range as Jackson made six of his seven attempts from beyond the arc.

Lu Dort was the pick of the Thunder players with 15 points on three-of-eight shooting in 25 minutes – Oklahoma City are now amid an eight-game losing streak.

Championship-winning Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez has undergone surgery to address the back injury that has kept him out since the opening game of this season.

The Bucks revealed that the 33-year-old underwent back surgery on Thursday in Los Angeles.

Milwaukee declined to offer a timetable on his potential return to play, but said he will " updates on his rehabilitation progress will be provided as appropriate".

The Bucks' title defence has been impacted by the absence of several players early this season, including Lopez along with Jrue Holiday (ankle) and Khris Middleton (COVID-19) who have missed stretches of games. Milwaukee are currently 14-8.

"He's basically been making very, very slow but little progress from the beginning," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters before Thursday's game at Toronto. "We hoped rest and rehab and things like that would solve it and it hasn't."

"We're not going to put a timeline on it, but we're also not going to say he's not going to play this season. We feel good about the surgery today, and he'll begin his rehab and do everything he can to put himself in a position to play for us."

Lopez averaged 12.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for the Bucks in their title-winning 2020-21 season.

Zion Williamson's long-awaited New Orleans Pelicans return has been delayed due to foot soreness, the NBA franchise announced on Thursday.

Williamson is yet to feature for the Pelicans (6-18) in 2021-22 after undergoing surgery on a right foot fracture in the offseason.

The 2019 number one draft pick had been cleared to participate in full team activities, though he was held out from Thursday's session due to soreness.

"It's a part of the process," Pelicans head coach Willie Green said. "When you're dealing with injuries and you ramp up some, there's a possibility you can deal with a little bit of soreness which he's dealing with now.

Williamson is in his third year as a professional, however the 21-year-old has so far seen his hugely promising career hindered by injury.

The power forward did not make his NBA debut until January in the 2019-20 campaign after tearing his meniscus in his rookie preseason, while relatively minor issues limited Williamson to 61 games in 2020-21.

"We're very optimistic in that sense," Green added. "Hopefully the soreness goes away in a few days and he can get back to work."

"It's more important to be patient," Green said. "We're talking about somebody's career. Anytime you're dealing with that aspect of professional sports, that is important to remember.

"That's how we're looking at this. It's being diligent about getting him back on the floor. And that's a part of what we're dealing with right now."

Despite concerns about the forward's durability, Williamson has excelled against NBA opposition.

After 22.5 points per game in his rookie year, he improved to 27.0 last season and will return on a streak of scoring 20 in 15 straight games.

"I think that's the biggest part of us wanting to dial back and re-evaluate where we are," Green said. "We don't want to put our guys on the floor and put their careers at stake or in jeopardy. All of our guys are too important to do something like that."

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has been cleared to play by the NBA after returning two negative COVID-19 tests.

James entered the NBA's health and safety protocols on Tuesday, sitting out the 117-92 win over the Sacramento Kings due to a positive coronavirus test.

But James cleared the league's COVID protocols after additional testing confirmed the four-time champion and MVP was not a positive case.

"Following two negative PCR tests conducted more than 24 hours apart, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James has cleared the NBA's Health and Safety Protocols," the league said in a statement on Thursday.

"James was originally placed in the Protocols on Tuesday, November 30 after a series of tests delivered conflicting results, including an initial positive test that was collected on November 29. Additional testing confirmed that he is not a positive case.

"In accordance with the Protocols, and the consistent testing practice that has been in place since the 2019-20 Season Restart in Orlando, the sample that produced the initial positive test was re-run twice and returned one negative and one positive result on two different PCR instruments.

"As a result, James underwent additional testing on November 30, with one test returning a negative result and a second test resulting in a clinically inconclusive result."

It is a boost for the Lakers (12-11) ahead of Friday's showdown with crosstown rivals the Los Angeles Clippers (11-11).

James has been averaging 25.8 points, 6.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game for the Lakers, while shooting 48.4 per cent from the field and 34.4 from three-point range.

The NBA season is heating up nicely.

The Phoenix Suns are on fire, the Golden State Warriors are hanging on their coattails, while defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks are fighting back after a slow start to their season.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons and Oklahoma City Thunder cannot buy a win.

Those are the teams, but which players have been impressing, and which are struggling to make an impact? Stats Perform delves into the numbers with the latest edition of NBA Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT...

Luguentz Dort

It is a team game, which Luguentz Dort knows only too well as his increasingly impressive individual numbers are doing little to turn around the fortunes of the Thunder.

The shooting guard failed to score more than 17 points in any of October's games, but came back from missing the defeat to the LA Clippers on the first day of November determined to do something about his team's form.

Dort set about trying to help the Thunder recover from a slow start and managed seven games of over 20 points, including 34 in the win against the Houston Rockets. Unfortunately for him and his teammates, there have been no wins in seven since then, despite the Canadian's best efforts.

His increased total points per game of 11.7 in October to 19.2 in November is the most in the league, while he was fourth for increase in three-pointers made per game (1.2 to 2.8).

Without that leap in form from the 22-year-old, you wonder how much worse Oklahoma City's record would be right now.

Jarrett Allen

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been a streaky team so far this season, but in Allen they have someone who is showing himself to be a real difference maker.

Allen's numbers have increased almost identically to Dort's, with an average of points scored per game going up from 11.7 to 19.0 from October to November.

The 23-year-old also tops the charts for largest increase in total rebounds per game, going from 9.0 in October to 12.8 in November.

The Cavs won six of their first seven games in November, only to then lose their next five, the first three of which against the Celtics, the Nets and the Warriors they were without Allen through illness.

His return has eventually seen form turn back around, with wins against the Magic and the Mavericks followed up by another at the Heat to kick off December.

Jordan Poole

Three-pointers are an increasingly important part of the modern game, and there is little more satisfying than seeing the ball sunk all the way from downtown.

Golden State Warriors fans may be the only ones getting a little bored of them given how many they see these days, with Steph Curry still the king of three-points, but Poole has been more than holding his own with his 51 total this season seeing him only behind Curry (77), Buddy Hield (61) and Lonzo Ball (52) in the standings.

It is Poole's improvement that gets him onto this list, though, having averaged just 1.5 successful three-point attempts per game in October, he upped that to 3.4 in November, the joint-highest league increase with Luka Doncic.

He was also fifth most improved for points scored, going from 14.0 per game in October to 20.3 in November.

This has helped the Warriors to a strong 18-3 record so far, but he even managed to stand out in the recent defeat to the Phoenix Suns, sinking six three-point attempts in a total contribution of 28 points on the night.

GOING COLD...

Kemba Walker

It was all set up to be a feel-good story before the season began as Walker, born in the Bronx, returned to New York to play for the Knicks after years of success with the Charlotte Hornets and Boston Celtics.

The four-time All-Star got off to a promising start, with eight defensive rebounds against his former Celtics in a debut win, and scoring double figures in all six of his October games.

However, November was not so kind to the 31-year-old, with his average of 3.7 three-pointers per game going down to just 1.3, the largest decrease in the league, and only managing double figures in four of his 12 outings.

Walker has never averaged less than his current 11.7 points per game across a season, with a career average of 19.7.

Such has been the drop in form for Walker, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau took the difficult decision to remove him from rotation ahead of the game at the Nets at the end of the month. 

Spencer Dinwiddie

The Washington Wizards point guard started the season with some impressive outings after his arrival from the Brooklyn Nets, including contributing 34 points in his second game against the Indiana Pacers, and scoring 20 or more in three of his five games in October. 

During November, Dinwiddie managed to score 20 or more just twice in 13 games, including failing to add anything to the scoreboard in defeat at the Charlotte Hornets.

His has been the largest decrease in points scored per game across the two months, going from an average of 19.8 in October to 12.8 in November.

The Wizards have not been too inconvenienced by this downturn in form from Dinwiddie, sitting second in the Eastern Conference on 14-8, but coach Wes Unseld Jr would surely love to see the 28-year-old return to his early season showings before too long.

Bam Adebayo

The Miami Heat center is averaging a career-best 18.7 points, along with 10.2 rebounds per game.

However, that number of rebounds has decreased from an average of 14.0 per game in October to 8.7 in November. Still respectable but the second-highest decrease of the month in the league behind only Gorgui Dieng (7.2 to 1.8). 

After registering double figures for rebounds in four of his five October performances, Adebayo only managed to do so in five of his 13 games in November, and unfortunately for him is set to miss the entirety of December after picking up a thumb injury.

The Heat won six of their first seven games, and Adebayo's electric form was a large part of that strong start, but having taken just two victories from their last six outings, will be hoping that when the Olympic gold medallist returns in the New Year, he can rediscover those elite levels.

Giannis Antetokounmpo took a "sneaky" route to the winning shot as the Milwaukee Bucks pinched a 127-125 win over the Charlotte Hornets – then expressed frustration at being denied a post-game jersey swap.

The Bucks superstar powered in for a late driving layup with 2.0 seconds remaining as the in-form Bucks (14-8) landed their eighth consecutive victory.

It capped a game that saw him rack up 40 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and the finesse Antetokounmpo showed from close range at the death reflected his mastery of the craft.

He said: "I knew in the position that I was, there were two different routes: throw a floater up or try to sneak it in. And when you try to sneak it in, you've got to put spin.

"If you just go normal, most likely you're going to get blocked. So you've got to be sneaky with it."

Antetokounmpo scored 40 or more points in a game for the third time this season, and he said of his late heroics: "You've got to take them. You've got to be in the situation and learn from them.

"If you play a long time you're going to be in this situation at least 100, 200, 300 times. Sometimes you're going to miss, sometimes you're going to make some shots.

"You've got to be able to have the guts and the edge to be able to be in the situation, because you only learn from them."

He made a beeline for LaMelo Ball's jersey at the end of the game. Antetokounmpo had admired the Hornets star throughout the game as the 20-year-old, in his second year with the Hornets, scored an NBA career-high 36 points.

But asked after the game about that moment, Antetokounmpo revealed the jersey was not in his possession for long.

"They took the jersey from me," Antetokounmpo said. "I think the NBA wanted the jersey back, somebody wanted the jersey back.

"It's okay, I'll get another one next time. I was excited for it too, he had a great game."

The game saw DeMarcus Cousins make his Bucks debut, having arrived as a free agent. The former All-Star played just under 15 minutes and scored seven points, in his season debut, having spent last year with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers.

"I was very excited for DeMarcus Cousins," Antetokounmpo said. "Obviously he was trying to feel more comfortable out there. He hasn't played in a long time.

"I think it was kind of weird for him that people didn't double-team him. He was just basically playing one on one down there. He played good, and we're going to need him a lot moving forward.

"He's so big out there in the paint, and he's a threat out there when he's with us."

Joel Embiid admitted his shooting was way off where it should be as the Philadelphia 76ers star warned his COVID-19 road to recovery could be a long one.

Coach Doc Rivers is braced for the possibility there could be more tough nights to come for Embiid after he struggled in an 88-87 defeat to the Boston Celtics.

MVP runner-up Embiid had a double-double of 13 points and 18 rebounds, but he was just three-of-17 shooting.

His points tally was his lowest in a game this season, and Embiid's average of 22.0 points is way down on last term, when he averaged 28.5 over 51 games.

He has plenty of time to get that figure up, but Embiid is working his way back from a nine-game coronavirus lay-off, and despite scoring 42 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves in his comeback game, he has followed 16 against the Orlando Magic with another disappointing performance.

"I would never use it as an excuse, but obviously I think it's going to take me a while to get back, especially legs and cardio and all that stuff," said Embiid.

"But every single day I've got to keep working hard, and keep getting better. I can't be playing the way I've played in these last two games, especially when it comes to shot-making.

"If teams are going to double me and I'm not going to get easy baskets, I have to create for myself and my team-mates, and I've got to make those shots."

The Sixers (11-11) head to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday and then travel to tackle the Charlotte Hornets in two games early next week.

Rivers can see Embiid is not quite himself on the court, but the coach sees no other way through the situation that continuing to play and support his Cameroonian star.

"We've got to get Joel going – number one," Rivers said. "We get him going, the whole team gets going. That's the number one thing.

"But that's two games in a row I thought the offense was lacklustre. Execution is really bad right now. But, again, I'm not concerned by it. We're going to get through it. It's just that we're dropping games while we're getting through it."

The Sixers shot just 8-of-31 from three-point range and were 33-for-89 overall, Seth Curry leading scorers with 17 points.

Rivers appreciates Embiid is lacking rhythm, but the coach cannot put a finger on quite why it is the case.

"Everybody with COVID, I just don't know those answers," Rivers said. "Some guys come back quickly and play pretty well, a lot of guys have played the one great game when they're back and then they've gone into a little fog.

"You could tell he's definitely struggling getting going. We've just got to keep playing him and let him play through it."

Defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks outlasted the Charlotte Hornets 127-125 thanks to superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA on Wednesday.

Antetokounmpo's monster double-double and late driving layup with 2.0 seconds remaining lifted the in-form Bucks (14-8) to their eighth consecutive victory midweek.

Milwaukee's Antetokounmpo had 40 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in a near triple-double performance at home to the Hornets.

The Bucks withstood LaMelo Ball, who posted 36 points, nine assists and five rebounds on the road for the Hornets (13-11).

 

Doncic flexes his muscles

Luka Doncic fuelled the Dallas Mavericks' 139-107 victory at the New Orleans Pelicans. He put up 28 points and 14 assists in just 27 minutes. According to Stats Perform, Doncic is the first player to reach those numbers while playing 27 minutes or less since Hall of Famer Magic Johnson in 1987.

Jae'Sean Tate's career-high 32 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks helped the Houston Rockets rally past the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-110. The Rockets are the first team in NBA history with four straight wins immediately after a 15-game losing streak, per Stats Perform. As for Tate, he joined Hakeem Olajuwon as the only Rockets players to record 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, five-plus assists and five-plus blocks in a game.

 

Embiid struggles as Philly's offensive woes continue

In the absence of wantaway All-Star Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers continue to endure a topsy-turvy campaign following their 88-87 defeat to the Boston Celtics. MVP runner-up Joel Embiid had a double-double of 13 points and 18 rebounds, but he was just three-of-17 shooting. Tobias Harris was four-of-11 shooting – missing all four of his three-point attempts – for only eight points.

Duncan Robinson had a game to forget as the shorthanded Miami Heat went down 111-85 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Robinson went scoreless in 20 minutes on 0-of-seven shooting from the floor, having failed to make any of his six efforts from beyond the arc.

The Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls lost draft picks for early free-agent discussions that led to recruiting Kyle Lowry and Lonzo Ball respectively, the NBA announced on Wednesday.

Lowry swapped the Toronto Raptors for the Heat, who acquired the NBA champion in a sign-and-trade three-year, $85million deal that sent Goran Dragic and Precious Achiuwa the other way.

Ball – a restricted free agent – was traded to the Bulls by the New Orleans Pelicans on a four-year, $80m contract for Garrett Temple and Toms Satoransky.

The NBA investigated the moves and punished the Heat and Bulls with the loss of second-round drafts picks because of premature discussions.

Miami and Chicago were found to have violated league rules governing the timing of this season's free-agency discussions.

"While we disagree, we accept the league's decision," the Heat said in a statement.

The Bulls added: "We are glad this process has concluded and look forward to the rest of our season."

In his first season with the Heat (13-8), six-time All-Star Lowry has been averaging 12.5 points, 7.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game, while shooting at 42.6 per cent and 31.0 from the three-point range.

Ball has starred for the new-look Bulls (14-8) in 2021-22, averaging 12.5 points, 4.8 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game – he has been shooting a career-high 42.6 per cent from the floor and a career-best 44.4 per cent from beyond the arc.

Damian Lillard has been ruled out for at least 10 days with an abdominal injury, the Portland Trail Blazers confirmed on Wednesday. 

The All-Star point guard has been managing the injury all season and sat out Tuesday's 110-92 win over the Detroit Pistons. 

An MRI scan confirmed Lillard was suffering from lower abdominal tendinopathy. He will be evaluated again in 10 days, ruling him out of games against the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors. 

The Blazers star is averaging 21.5 points per game this season – his worst record since the 2015-16 campaign – while shooting 39.7 per cent from the floor and just 30.2 per cent from three-point range. They would both represent career lows for a season. 

Portland also confirmed that Nasir Little would miss a week of action with a left ankle sprain. 

The Milwaukee Bucks looked out of sorts as they limped into November having lost three in a row with two of the defending champions' top scorers sidelined.

Thirty days later at the season's quarter-mark, they are healthier and look capable of repeating as champs as they enter December riding an impressive seven-game winning streak.

A mere 91 days after winning the franchise's first NBA title since 1971, Milwaukee raised its championship banner and then emphatically beat a Brooklyn Nets team expected to contend for this season's title by 23 points. In that convincing win, the starting five of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and Brook Lopez combined for 82 points.

That has still been the only game this season coach Mike Budenholzer has been able to use that starting five, as Holiday, Middleton and Lopez have all missed significant time.

With Lopez still sidelined since the season opener with a sore back, the Bucks signed veteran big man DeMarcus Cousins on Tuesday to provide frontcourt depth.

A four-time All-Star, Cousins isn't the same player he was in 2015 and 2016 when he earned second-team all-NBA honours, but the 31-year-old should be able to step in and provide size off the bench.

Milwaukee got Holiday back in early November after he sat out one game with a right heel contusion and another five with a sprained left ankle, but by the time he returned Middleton was already out with COVID-19.

The Bucks finished up October with a 3-4 record and were 4-6 on November 7, scoring fewer than 100 points in exactly half of their 10 games – this after failing to reach triple digits in just four regular-season games all last season.

In 11 games since then, they've only dipped below the century mark once and their current win streak has coincided with the return of Middleton from his eight-game absence.

It should be noted, though, that a 12-11 Los Angeles Lakers team playing without LeBron James is the only team the Bucks beat in their last seven games currently holding a winning record and the collective .325 winning percentage by their opponents from November 17-30 was the worst in the league for any team's opponents in that time span.

With that said, they still have thoroughly annihilated some overmatched opponents, holding leads of 20, 29, 51, 24, 20 and 22 in their last six games and now stand within a half-game of the Chicago Bulls for the Central Division lead.

Antetokounmpo posted a plus-38 plus-minus rating in Milwaukee's 123-92 beatdown of the Orlando Magic last Monday, a game in which the Bucks had a 77-36 advantage at the half for the largest half-time lead in franchise history, while Holiday had a plus-37 rating – kicking off a historic stretch for the veteran point guard.

In the last four games, Holiday has compiled a plus-117 rating – the highest for any player over a single-season four-game stretch since Stats Perform began tracking plus-minus rating in 2002-03. In that time, only two other players have registered a rating of plus-115 or better and that was Stephen Curry with a plus-115 in his 2015-16 MVP season and Mike Conley with a plus-116 last season.

Holiday is averaging 19.8 points on 55.7 per cent shooting with a 61.5 eFG percentage in the last four contests following a three-game stretch in which he averaged 9.7 points on 30.6 per cent shooting with a 36.1 eFG percentage. In the four games since November 22, he's connecting on 69.2 per cent of 39 2-point tries and has made 8-of-9 jump shots from 10-15 feet.

Holiday still hasn't found his touch from the perimeter, shooting 25.5 per cent on 51 3-point attempts in the last nine games, but that hasn't been much of a deterrent for Milwaukee as the team is getting outside help from an unlikely source.

Bobby Portis has drained 19-of-32 shots from 3-point range (59.4 per cent) in the last six games, twice going 6-for-7 from beyond the arc. This is after he made 13-of-40 3-point tries (32.5 per cent) in his first 10 contests, only making more than one 3-pointer in a game on two occasions.

Since his tear began on November 19, Portis and the Charlotte Hornets' LaMelo Ball are the only players in the league with 100-plus points, 60-plus rebounds and 15-plus 3-pointers made – and Ball has played one more game and made the same number of 3-pointers on 19 more tries.

While Holiday and Portis have been putting up gaudy MVP-type number over the last week, the actual two-time league MVP continues to be his same outstanding self in the season's early going.

Antetokounmpo has recorded 12 double-doubles in 20 games played and has a pair of 40-point games – only Curry has more with four. He leads all players with 127 field goals made in the restricted area, but defences simply can’t converge on him because he's adept at kicking the ball out to a teammate to knock down a 3-ponter – his 73 assists on made 3s are the most in the NBA.

The trio of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court has always been a boon for Milwaukee but lately it's been utterly dominant. The Bucks averaged a stellar 113.9 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton together on the court in their first 17 games before averaging 133.0 points per 100 possessions with that threesome in the last four.

No big surprise, with all the Bucks' opening-night starters back with the exception of Lopez, the offence has found its rhythm. Since its win streak begin on November 17, Milwaukee's starters are averaging a league-leading 84.9 points. The starters averaged 77.6 points in their first 14 games.

While Milwaukee's offence is rolling, the defence has keyed the team's turnaround – setting the tone from the get-go.

During their 2020-21 championship season, the Bucks jumped out on their opponents, leading by an average of 2.6 points after one quarter – the fourth-largest margin in the league. Through the first month of this season, though, they often found themselves trailing early.

Aside from leading the Nets by 12 points after 12 minutes in the opener with the starting five intact, the Bucks only had four other leads after one quarter in the first 15 games, recording a minus-0.9 scoring differential through one period in those contests. It's been a completely different story lately, as they’ve been putting away teams early, outscoring opponents by an average of 9.8 in the first quarter in the last six games.

The offence has been slightly better in the last six – averaging 31.8 first-quarter points after averaging 29.0 in the first 15 – but the biggest improvement has been on the defensive end.

Facing their opponents' starting five, Milwaukee is holding teams to 37.4 per cet shooting – including 32.8 per cent from beyond the arc – in the first quarter in the last six games after opponents shot 50.4 per cent from the field and 44.1 per cent from 3-point range in the first quarter in the first 15.

Overall since November 17, the Bucks lead the league in opponent field goal percentage at 39.1 and only the Warriors are allowing fewer points than Milwaukee’s 99.0 per game at 98.3. This comes after the Bucks allowed an average of 109.8 points on 45.1 per cent shooting in their first 14 games.

The Bucks have yet to lose this season with Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton in the lineup, and while they won't have the luxury of playing teams like the Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Detroit Pistons every night, they will play each of those three teams again over the next four and a half weeks.

Beginning with the Hornets and running through a date with the Pistons on January 3, Milwaukee's opponents' winning percentage of .400 is the worst in the league. It's probably a lot to ask for the Bucks to continue to play at their current pace over this next stretch, but the opportunity is there for them to build a lead atop the Central come the new year.

Stephen Curry believes the Phoenix Suns showed why they are Western Conference champions after the Golden State Warriors were defeated on Tuesday.

Phoenix (18-3) moved level with the Warriors at the top of the table with a 104-96 triumph, their record-equalling 17th straight win, matching the previous franchise-best set in 2006-07.

The Suns' defence proved vital for the win, limiting Golden State to just 61 points after quarter-time as Curry and Draymond Green finished with only 12 and eight points respectively.

Curry, who converted a meagre 4-for-21 from the field, insisted post-game that Monty Williams' side showed their championship credentials as the pair now sit with identical 18-3 records at the top of the Western Conference.

"Losses definitely jolt the system a bit," Curry told reporters at the post-game news conference. "Credit to their length and multiple efforts. 

"We'd rather win, but they're the Western Conference reigning champions for a reason. They're good.

"With all of the mistakes we did have and how terrible I shot the ball, it was a close game down the stretch. I know [Devin] Booker got hurt, but yes, it was a good learning lesson for us. Understanding the intensity and the focus we need to beat a team like that.'' 

The Warriors were held below the 100-point mark for the first time this season and it was also the first time they have not managed a century in 43 games.

The Suns had veteran guard Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges to thank for a large portion of Golden State's season-high 22 turnovers and losing coach Steve Kerr appreciated the defensive job the opposition produced.

"They frustrated us with the pick-and-roll," Steve Kerr said to reporters. "They did a really good job on Steph and Draymond in the pick-and-roll. 

"It just didn't feel like we executed some of the other stuff. Then it felt to me like we were in a rush constantly. Teams are going to commit people to Steph the way that Phoenix did.

"There are going to be openings. There are going to be openings for Jordan [Poole], openings for Otto [Porter Jr.]. 

"There are going to be openings for Klay Thompson. That's going to be fun. [There is] a lot to look forward to, but the main thing we need to take from this is that we must get better. 

"We played the Western Conference champions. They were the better team. We play them again in a few days. Let's see if we can make some improvements and carry that forward."

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