Chicago Bulls star DeMar DeRozan surpassed the great Michael Jordan with a 40-point haul against the San Antonio Spurs, and took heed from another sporting legend.

DeRozan has been in sensational form for the Bulls this season and was their key player as they ran out 120-109 winners over the Spurs on Monday.

The 32-year-old finished witih 40 points, three rebounds and seven assists. He has the most points in the NBA this season, having amassed 1,509 across 54 appearances at an average of 27.9 per game (the fourth best in the NBA).

Trae Young, of the Atlanta Hawks, ranks second for points on 1,412 – 97 behind DeRozan.

The Bulls talisman has now put himself into the team record books, too, with his showing against the Spurs marking his sixth consecutive 35-point game.

That passes the previous record of five, set by Jordan, who achieved that feat four times across his illustrious career, last doing so in the 1996-97 season.

After writing his name into Bulls folklore, DeRozan revealed he channelled the advice of boxing great Floyd Mayweather Jr.

"I'm not a knockout puncher. I want to wear you down because I know I can go the length, however long I need to go," DeRozan said, recalling a conversation he had with Mayweather several years ago. 

"Every shot that I take is a shot that I work on. I'm just not shooting a shot just to be shooting it. I just try to lock in every time it's time to score."

 

The Bulls needed DeRozan to be at his best, with Chicago trailing by six points heading into the final quarter.

DeRozan scored 13 of the Bulls' next 15 points to inspire the comeback.

"It's not only the scoring piece, which is absolutely incredible what he does, the other piece of it is just his basketball IQ, his experience, how savvy he is," Bulls coach Billy Donovan told reporters.

The Bulls (37-21) are second in the Eastern Conference with a 63.8 win percentage. 

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich bemoaned mistakes from his team, but conceded DeRozan was just too good.

"The combination of him being super and us not executing very well was a big contributor to losing the game," he said.

Seth Curry's 23-point arrival helped the Brooklyn Nets snap their 11-game skid in a 109-85 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Monday.

Curry landed four three-pointers with seven rebounds and five assists while fellow debutant Andre Drummond added 11 points, with Ben Simmons still out despite being present for the pre-game shootaround.

The Nets led from start to finish but were propelled by a 54-37 second half with LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 19 points with eight rebounds off the bench.

Bruce Brown had season-high returns with 19 points, six assists and five steals for the new-look Nets who improved to 30-27.

De'Andre Fox had a game-high 26 points for the Kings who were limited to 34.4 per cent shooting (31-of-90) overall.

 

Steph stars but Warriors lose

Stephen Curry made eight three-pointers in a 33-point haul but it was not enough to get the Golden State Warriors past the Los Angeles Clippers who won 119-104. Terance Mann scored 25 points with seven rebounds and six assists for the triumphant Clippers.

Julius Randle had a triple-double with 30 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists but he was overshadowed by Rookie of the Year contender Josh Giddey as the Oklahoma City Thunder won 127-123 in overtime. Giddey also had a triple-double with 28 points including three triples along with 11 rebounds and 12 assists.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic starred with 26 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Denver Nuggets brushed aside the Orlando Magic 121-111, while Donovan Mitchell had 30 points with six rebounds and seven assists in the Utah Jazz's 135-101 victory over the Houston Rockets.

 

Middleton loses radar as Bucks go down

Khris Middleton almost had a triple-double but shot poorly, going three-of-15 from the field and one-of-eight from beyond the arc as the Milwaukee Bucks went down 122-107 to the Portland Trail Blazers. Anfernee Simons scored 31 points for the Blazers, while Middleton had 16 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists as the Bucks lost in Giannis Antetokounmpo's absence due to a sore ankle.

The Philadelphia 76ers made a statement as Joel Embiid piled on a 40-point triple-double as they won 103-93 over the Cleveland Cavaliers without new acquisition James Harden on Saturday.

Embiid scored 40 points with 14 rebounds and 10 assists for the Sixers, who improve to 34-22. It was only Embiid's fourth career triple-double.

The Cameroonian center's points haul included a highlight-reel dunk, a one-handed throw-down over Jarrett Allen late in the first half.

Embiid also made four of five three-pointers, going at 50 per cent from the field, while he added three steals in an outstanding game as they wait on Harden to be cleared medically to debut.

 

Klay hits season-high

Klay Thompson scored a season-high 33 points, marking a major milestone in his recovery from long-term injury, as the Golden State Warriors won 117-115 over the Los Angeles Lakers. Thompson shot five-of-nine from beyond the arc, with Stephen Curry (24 points, five rebounds, eight assists) taking a backseat. LeBron James had 26 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists for the Lakers.

The Chicago Bulls, sitting second in the Eastern Conference, overcame a sluggish start as DeMar DeRozan scored 38 points with six rebounds and five assists, while Nikola Vucevic added 31 points and 15 rebounds in a 106-101 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Luka Doncic scored 45 points with 15 rebounds and eight rebounds in a losing cause as the Dallas Mavericks went down 99-97 to the Los Angeles Clippers, while the table-topping Phoenix Suns won their fourth straight with a 132-105 win over the Orlando Magic led by Devin Booker's 26 points and Chris Paul's 15 assists.

 

Nets slump to 11th straight loss

Kyrie Irving led a late Brooklyn Nets charge that fell short as they went down 115-111 to the Miami Heat. Irving scored 29 points, including 20 in the final quarter, with five rebounds and five assists as the Nets slumped to their 11th straight defeat. Bam Adebayo had 19 points and 14 rebounds for the Heat who have won five in a row.

Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan threw his support behind Zach LaVine after the shooting guard let the Minnesota Timberwolves off lightly.

Facing his old team, LaVine was not at his sharpest and there were post-game suggestions he might be struggling physically.

LaVine, who joined Minnesota in the 2014 draft before moving to the Bulls three years later, managed just 12 points and six assists in almost 37 minutes on court.

Ultimately, it hardly mattered that he fell well short of his season's average of 24.6 points, as the Bulls pulled off a 134-122 win.

They are now 35-21 for the season and will tackle the Oklahoma City Thunder – Donovan's old team – on Saturday.

Coby White scored 22 points, Javonte Green bagged 23 and Nikola Vucevic's 26 points proved important as the Bulls were led by DeMar DeRozan's 35-point game.

It was a fifth successive 30-point game for DeRozan and Donovan saluted his "unbelievable" performance.

After quarters of 27-27, 33-32 and 32-32, the Bulls stretched clear in the fourth, which they took 42-31 to swat away the Timberwolves (29-27).

Asked afterwards about LaVine's condition, Donovan said: "I just think at this time of the year, I don't think anybody's feeling probably great.

"He's had to deal with his knee, he's had to deal with his back. It's a lot right now, and I'm sure he's not quite where he wants to be physically, but I give him a lot of credit, he's going out there and competing and playing and trying to do what he can do to help the team.

"We're going to have to work through this with him a little bit. He's trying to do everything he can to help us."

Donovan said the Bulls would "take his pulse – [see] how's he feeling, what's he going through, what's he experiencing" before finalising plans for Saturday's game.

"Zach's an elite scorer in this league and has been for quite some time," Donovan said, "but if he has a game like that you've got to try to generate good shots.

"It was great to see Javonte and Coby step up and have the offensive nights they had. DeMar's been doing it pretty consistently all year long.

"Zach tried to play the right way. I think the guys are trying to help each other and complement each other, and they're very, very unselfish based on who's going well and who's playing well."

Joel Embiid extended his scoring run as the Philadelphia 76ers won their first game since trading for James Harden on Friday.

The 76ers have been busy in trade action this week, finally moving on Ben Simmons to the Brooklyn Nets and receiving Harden in exchange, but focus returned to the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Former MVP Harden is yet to make his 76ers bow, but Embiid – perhaps the best performer of this NBA season – continued to perform without him.

The Cameroonian center had 25 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks in the 76ers' 100-87 win, which also saw Tyrese Maxey score 24.

This was Embiid's 22nd straight game with 25 or more points in a sequence only three players – Kevin Durant (twice), new 76er Harden and former 76er Allen Iverson – have topped this century.

Embiid, who shows no sign of slowing, had already secured the best streak by a foreign-born player of the past 50 years when Giannis Antetokounmpo's 20-game run ended against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday.

Pacers new boys beaten

The 76ers next play the Cleveland Cavaliers, who will be on a high after a dramatic late show against the new-look Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers, fired by debutants Tyrese Haliburton (23 points) and Buddy Hield (16 points, nine rebounds, eight assists), did not trail at any point until late in the fourth quarter at home to the Cavs.

But Rajon Rondo's three-pointer swung momentum in the Cavs' favour, and their own recent signing Caris LeVert had a key role late on as he finished with 22 points in a 120-113 win.

More debutants deliver

Haliburton and Hield were not alone in making an instant impression.

Montrezl Harrell had 15 points as the Charlotte Hornets routed the Detroit Pistons 141-119, also boosted by 31 from LaMelo Ball and a triple-double for Terry Rozier. Meanwhile, Derrick White's 15 from the bench helped the Boston Celtics see off the Denver Nuggets despite Nikola Jokic's triple-double.

It was not all about those who have been on the move this week, though, as Jokic showed.

Dejounte Murray had a 32-point triple in the San Antonio Spurs' defeat of the Atlanta Hawks, while DeMar DeRozan's remarkable season continued with his fifth straight 30-point game.

DeRozan reached 35 as a blistering fourth quarter took the Chicago Bulls past the Minnesota Timberwolves 134-122.

Russell Westbrook played no part as the Los Angeles Lakers fell to a 107-105 defeat against the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.

A day after hinting at his unhappiness at coach Frank Vogel, and with lingering doubts over his future ahead of Thursday's trade deadline, Westbrook watched from the bench.

It is the first game the nine-time All-Star has missed all season, though Vogel could at least still call upon the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis from the beginning.

James scored 30 points for the Lakers, who led 54-47 at half-time, only for the depleted Trail Blazers to slowly turn things around before rallying in the fourth quarter.

Anfernee Simons led the scoring for Portland with 29 points, while Jusuf Nurkic added 19 points and 12 rebounds as the hosts held on to snap a six-game losing streak.

 


Bogdanovic and Mitchell inspire Jazz to victory

The Golden State Warriors' nine-game winning streak was ended in emphatic style as they fell to a 111-85 defeat to the Utah Jazz.

Without the injured Rudy Gobert for an eighth game, the Jazz were inspired to victory by 23-point Bojan Bogdanovic and Donovan Mitchell, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds.

The Warriors, without Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and James Wiseman, finished with a shooting percentage of 36 per cent in what was their heaviest defeat of the season.

DeRozan stars again

Five-time NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan was serenaded by "MVP!" chants after scoring 36 points in the Chicago Bulls' 121-109 victory over the out-of-form Charlotte Hornets.

DeRozan hit 30 points for a fourth game running, during which time he has averaged 37.5 points, while Nikola Vucevic finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, Darius Garland's 27 points on his return from a back injury helped the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 105-92 win against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Toronto Raptors beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 117-98 for their seventh straight win and the Sacramento Kings were 132-119 victors against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Devin Booker top scored with 38 points as the table-topping Phoenix Suns withstood the Chicago Bulls' late charge to win 127-124 on Monday.

Booker shot 14 of 23 from the field including five three-pointers with four rebounds and five assists, while veteran guard Chris Paul contributed 19 points and 11 assists.

The Suns guard reached 30 points for the third time in the past four games as Phoenix won their 13th game from their past 14.

The Bulls charged into contention with a 41-25 fourth-quarter run after the Suns had led by 27 points in the third.

DeMar DeRozan top scored for Chicago with 38 points along with five rebounds and four assists and Zach LaVine returned from injury with 32 points, with six rebounds and eight assists.

 

Clutch Klay leads Warriors past OKC

Klay Thompson top scored for the Golden State Warriors with 21 points including some clutch three-pointers and Stephen Curry had a near triple-double with 18 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists in a 110-98 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Donovan Mitchell scored 32 points with seven rebounds, six assists and four steals as the Utah Jazz won 113-104 over the New York Knicks, while seven Miami Heat players scored double figures in a 121-100 win over the Washington Wizards.

 

New All-Star Ball struggles

On the same day he received his debut All-Star call, LaMelo Ball struggled as the Charlotte Hornets went down 116-101 to the Toronto Raptors. Ball shot five-of-19 from the field and one-of-six from beyond the arc for his 15 points, while he also had seven turnovers.

The Brooklyn Nets' losing skid extended to eight games as reigning MVP Nikola Jokic recorded a league-high 14th triple-double in the Denver Nuggets' 124-104 win on Sunday.

Jokic finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, including scoring 23 points in the second and third quarters when the Nuggets reversed a deficit into a 21-point lead.

Brooklyn were without James Harden for the second straight game due to hamstring tightness, with Kyrie Irving scoring 27 points with 11 assists.

The Nets, who are also playing without the injured Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, have surpassed their longest losing streak since losing seven in a row in late 2019 and early 2020.

Brooklyn are 29-24 and have dropped down to seventh in the Eastern Conference.

 

Double-doubles for Bucks trio

The Milwaukee Bucks won their third straight to improve to third in the east with a 34-21 record after a 137-113 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while Jrue Holiday added 27 points and 13 assists. Bobby Portis also had a double-double with 24 points and 11 rebounds.

Joel Embiid and DeMar Rozan put on scoring masterclasses but the Philadelphia 76ers got up after a fast start 119-108 over the Chicago Bulls. Embiid finished with 40 points with 10 rebounds, while DeRozan had a season-high 45 points along with nine rebounds and seven assists.

Luka Doncic had a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists despite foul trouble as the Dallas Mavericks won 103-94 over the Atlanta Hawks.

 

No shooting magic for Orlando

The struggling Orlando Magic managed five-of-25 from three-point range and 35.8 per cent shooting from the floor in their 116-83 loss to the Boston Celtics. The Magic are last in the east with a 12-43 record.

Nikola Vucevic was tasked with dominating the middle against the depleted Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls center was up to the task.

Vucevic earned a 29th double-double of the season, scoring a season-high 36 points and adding 17 rebounds as the Bulls earned a 122-115 triumph on Friday.

DeMar DeRozan contributed 31 points to the cause against a Pacers side devoid of Goga Bitadze, Malcolm Brogdon, Isaiah Jackson, T.J. McConnell, Myles Turner and T.J. Warren due to injuries, while Domantas Sabonis is unavailable due to health and safety protocols.

The Bulls consequently remain top of the Eastern Conference after winning for the fourth time in six outings, with Vucevic going 16 of 21 from the field.

In credit to the Pacers, they were only trailing 65-62 at halftime and briefly led when Lance Stephenson landed a three-pointer with a little under three minutes of the third quarter remaining, but a 10-0 stretch in the fourth ensured the Bulls were in control.


Mitchell return inspires Jazz against out-of-sorts Nets

Donovan Mitchell missed eight straight games as a result of a concussion but made up for lost time as the Utah Jazz, fourth in the West, outclassed the out-of-form Brooklyn Nets 125-102.

Mitchell ended the game with 27 points on the back of eight-for-10 shooting, while he drained six three-pointers and added six assists in 22 minutes of action. His tally was a franchise record for most points scored under 22 minutes.

Bojan Bogdanovic was a valuable ally with 19 points and 11 rebounds, as the Nets were consigned to a seventh consecutive defeat.

James Harden (hamstring), Kevin Durant (knee), LaMarcus Aldridge (ankle) and Joe Harris (ankle) were all again absent for a Nets team who have plummeted to sixth in the East.


Doncic triple-double sparks Mavs comeback

Not for the first time in his career, Luka Doncic was the hero for the Dallas Mavericks as they overturned a 16-point second-quarter deficit to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers 107-98.

Doncic earned a 44th career triple-double, finishing with 33 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists in a game that was paused for 44 minutes during the opening period after it was ruled one of the rims was crooked.

Reggie Bullock made a pair of big three-pointers down the stretch in a 20-point showing, while Jalen Brunson put up 19.

The Mavs snapped a two-game losing streak, while the 76ers - for who Joel Embiid had 27 points and 13 rebounds - have lost two on the spin for the first time since the middle of December.

Reggie Jackson proved the hero for the Los Angeles Clippers as they edged Los Angeles Lakers 111-110 in a thrilling conclusion to Thursday's contest.

The lead changed hands five times in the final 63 seconds, but it was 25-point Jackson's driving layup with four seconds remaining that proved decisive.

Anthony Davis wasted the chance to add to his team-high 30 points and 17 rebounds by missing a running floater as time expired, meaning a fourth defeat in five for the Lakers.

The eventful finale to the game could have been avoided from the Clippers' perspective, though, as they led by 17 with four minutes left of the third quarter.

The Lakers recovered, scoring eight straight points to move in front with just over a minute left, but after plenty of toing and froing it was Tyronn Lue's men who came out on top.

 

Suns' winning streak halted

Western Conference leaders the Phoenix Suns saw their 11-game winning run ended as they lost an eighth straight game at the Atlanta Hawks for the first time in their history, going down 124-115.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker had been confirmed as All-Star reserves shortly before tip-off, but it was starter Trae Young who stole the show with 43 points.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference leaders also lost. The Chicago Bulls paid for a sloppy turnover late in overtime in their 125-120 reverse at the hands of the Toronto Raptors.

In second place in the East, Tyler Herro set aside his disappointment at missing out on an All-Star selection by scoring 24 points from the bench in the Miami Heat's 112-95 win at the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs had scored at least 100 in each of their prior 18 home games before this defeat, last enjoying a longer single-season run in 1992-93.

 

Klay dazzles as Warriors see off Kings

The Golden State Warriors made it eight wins in a row thanks to a 126-114 victory against the Sacramento Kings, with Klay Thompson hitting his first seven shots on his way to 23 points and seven assists.

Steph Curry added 20 points and now has 71 assists and 24 turnovers in his last nine games for the Warriors, who improved to 40-13 for the season in the Western Conference.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drove the Milwaukee Bucks home with a triple-double as they bounced back with a 112-98 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo finished the game with 33 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists, including 13 points in the fourth quarter as the Bucks closed it out on a 17-4 run. The Greek forward was scoreless in the first quarter.

The Wizards, missing Bradley Beal to a wrist injury, had rallied from a 17-point deficit to be within contention in the final period but the reigning champions pulled away.

The Bucks had lost 136-100 to the Denver Nuggets in their last game and Antetokounmpo was delighted to put that behind them as they improved to 32-21.

Jrue Holiday provided good support with 22 points, five rebounds and two assists and Khris Middleton caught fire late to add 13 points and five rebounds.

 

Warriors win without All-Stars

The Golden State Warriors put aside the absence of All-Stars Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson as they beat the San Antonio Spurs 124-120. Jordan Poole starred with 31 points, six rebounds and five assists as Golden State won after a 35-16 fourth quarter rally.

The Chicago Bulls reinforced top spot in the east with a 126-115 victory over the Orlando Magic led by DeMar DeRozan with 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Zach LaVine chipped in with 26 points.

Karl-Anthony Towns (24 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) got the better of Nikola Jokic (21 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists)) as the Minnesota Timberwolves won 130-115 over the Denver Nuggets.

 

Harden shooting cools down

James Harden returned from a hand injury but went six-of-19 from the field and four turnovers as the Brooklyn Nets went down 121-111 to the streaking Phoenix Suns. Harden had 22 points and 10 assists while Kyrie Irving hit 26 points. Devin Booker scored 35 points while Chris Paul added 20 points with 14 assists.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic triumphed against Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Denver Nuggets routed the reigning champions Milwaukee Bucks 136-100 on Sunday.

Jokic almost recorded his 13th triple-double of the season, while he matched his season-high for assists with 13.

The Serbian had 18 points, nine rebounds and 15 assists for the Nuggets, while Aaron Gordon contributed a team-high 24 points including four triples as Denver dominated the second half 71-43 after leading by eight points at the long break.

Antetokounmpo, who won the 2019 and 2020 MVP awards, finished with 29 points but only managed seven in the second half. The Greek forward also had nine rebounds and two assists.

Khris Middleton was kept quiet offensively with nine points, five rebounds and seven assists while Jrue Holiday added 14 points, five rebounds and eight assists.

The Nuggets improve to 28-21 overall aided by a five-game win streak, including four on the road, while the Bucks slip to 31-21.

 

Suns fight back for 10 straight

The table topping-Phoenix Suns overturned a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to clinch their 10th straight win, beating the San Antonio Spurs 115-110. Devin Booker top scored with 28 points including four three-pointers, while Chris Paul was exceptional with 20 points, eight rebounds and a season-high 19 assists.

Trae Young starred with 36 points and 12 assists as the Atlanta Hawks extended their winning streak to seven games with a 129-121 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, who were without LeBron James for the third straight game with a knee soreness. Malik Monk scored 33 points for the Lakers.

Luka Doncic recorded a triple-double with 34 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists but the Dallas Mavericks lost 110-108 to the Orlando Magic, while 2021 top draft pick Cade Cunningham claimed a second career triple-double in the Detroit Pistons' 115-105 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

 

Jazz starter suffers worrying injury

Utah Jazz swingman Joe Ingles went down with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter of their 126-106 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz confirmed Ingles will undergo an MRI in Salt Lake City on Monday.

The NBA's Western Conference has dominated the East in recent memory, possessing most of the league's superstars for over two decades.

West teams have had a winning record head-to-head against East teams in each of the previous 12 full seasons, and the East has only had a winning record against the West once in the last 22 full seasons (2008-09).

Since 1999-00, the NBA champion has come from the Western Conference in 14 of 22 seasons.

The imbalance of power had grown significant enough by the 2013-14 season, when the West sported a .631 head-to-head win percentage, that some pundits called for a restructuring of the playoff system to stop giving postseason opportunities to below .500 East teams.

But the league appears to be finding its equilibrium again.

East teams have a .491 record in interconference games this season, the highest since 2008-09, and the playoff race at the top of the conference is as competitive as it has been in recent memory. Six teams sit within two games of the East’s top record, laying the groundwork for a captivating battle for postseason positioning in the second half of the season.

1. Miami Heat (32-17)

The 2020 Eastern Conference champions appear to have recaptured the form of a contender after a middling 2020-21 campaign that ended in a first-round sweep.

Battling through lengthy absences from both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat have climbed their way to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, thanks largely to the growth of Tyler Herro.

Herro was a promising rookie two years ago when Miami made their run to the NBA Finals but has carried the Heat offensively at times this season. He is scoring 20.4 points per game this season, up from 15.1 last season, without a drop in efficiency. The result is an 11-2 record when Herro scores 25 or more points in a game.

Defensive issues, however, have led coach Erik Spoelstra to mostly leave Herro out of the starting lineup and use him to torch opposing benches. Miami ranks third in the NBA in bench scoring at 39.1 points per game while ranking tied for 19th in bench minutes per game.

Miami's starting units aren't nearly as imposing on the offensive end but are suffocating opponents on defense. With Butler, Adebayo and Kyle Lowry all on the court together, the Heat are allowing just 98.0 points per 100 possessions, and opponents are shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range.

Spoelstra may face challenges in the postseason in trying to decide between offense or defense-first lineups, but few coaches in the NBA are as qualified to find the correct balance.

As long as Butler is healthy and fresh, no team wants to face this rugged and experienced group in a playoff series, and a deep run is certainly possible.

2. Chicago Bulls (30-18), 1.5 games back

Chicago’s hot start was one of the league’s signature stories early in the season, but a recent swoon has some pundits wondering if a few of the roster’s flaws can be exploited.

From December 19 to January 7, the Bulls went on a season-high nine-game winning streak. They scored 120.2 points per game over that stretch and climbed to 16 games over .500.

The Bulls have gone just 4-8 since and have failed to reach 100 points in four of those 12 games.

Chicago went 1-5 during this lull playing without Zach LaVine, including a January 14 loss to the Golden State Warriors in which he played fewer than four minutes before leaving with a left knee injury.

The Bulls have won both their games since LaVine returned, soothing any burning concerns, but that stretch revealed Chicago's roster is too thin to absorb any major injuries.

Perhaps even more concerning is the Bulls' record against top teams, going just 3-7 so far this season against the other teams in the East's top six.

Billy Donovan will rightfully get plenty of buzz to win Coach of the Year, but the Bulls ultimately look like an excellent regular-season team that may not be properly equipped for playoff battles.

Power forward Patrick Williams played just five games before he underwent surgery on his left wrist, and he was initially considered lost for the season. While there has been some recent momentum towards him returning for a playoff run, the 20-year-old may still be too green to push the Bulls over the top.

Williams could fetch another playoff-ready piece if the Bulls decided to place all their bets on the current core of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic – all in the prime of their careers between the ages of 26 and 32 – but such a move could jeopardise the team's future.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (30-19), 2 games back

Just a year after going 22-50, the Cavaliers have far surpassed last season's win total before the All-Star break, and the success has gone on too long to be considered a fluke.

Even after losing veteran point guard Ricky Rubio to a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, the young Cavaliers have continued to be one of the East's top teams, thanks largely to a stifling defense.

Cleveland is 6-7 this season in games when scoring less than 100 points, the best record in the league. The other top teams in the East are a combined 7-44 when held under the century mark.

The Cavaliers are allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions, best in the Eastern Conference, and that number drops to 102.2 when rookie big man Evan Mobley is on the court.

Mobley is third among rookies in scoring at 15.0 points per game, but it is his ability to play next to center Jarrett Allen that has made Cleveland's defense so imposing.

A seven-footer, Mobley could be slated as a center for almost any team in the league, but his quickness and ability to guard multiple positions allows him to be on the floor at the same time as Allen.

Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro are all 23 years old or younger, so a deep playoff run seems unlikely, especially with high-scoring guard Collin Sexton out for the year.

But Cleveland has the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, with a combined opponents’ winning percentage of .463.

4. Milwaukee Bucks (31-20), 2.0 games back

The reigning NBA champions have yet to live up to the sterling regular seasons of their recent past but remain in position for a run.

The Bucks are 6-7 over their last 12 games, including a 115-99 loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday.

Milwaukee’s fortunes will be determined by its three biggest stars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. With all three on the court together, the Bucks are outscoring their opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions. All configurations that have two or fewer stars on the court have a net rating of +2.6.

This heavy reliance on the Bucks' top trio is evident in Milwaukee’s 29th-ranked bench, which is scoring just 27 points per game.

This accomplished core will be competitive in any series they play, especially now that it has championship experience, but the road through the Eastern Conference playoffs could be a very challenging one.

5. Brooklyn Nets (29-19), 2.5 games back

With so many unknowns and moving pieces, the Nets are probably the most difficult team in the league to analyse. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving makes them an automatic title contender, but the availability of Brooklyn's stars will ultimately decide their fate.

Irving is infamously banned from playing home games but can play in most road games, essentially giving Steve Nash two separate teams to coach. Any day, either Irving could change his mind and get a COVID-19 vaccine, or New York could change its rules about workers being vaccinated, but the possibility looms of the Nets entering a playoff series with a part-time player.

Durant remains a marvel, averaging 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists in his second season back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He suffered a sprained knee on January 15, however, and could be out until the end of February.

The Nets are just 5-7 this season without Durant, and his extended absence could cause them to lose ground in the race for a top seed in the East. Then again, Brooklyn might not care about playing extra postseason road games, allowing Irving to join in the fun and saving Durant for when the games count most.

The Athletic's Shams Charania surprised many fans this week by reporting that Harden's name remains involved in trade talks. While these rumors would likely be more relevant to a deal in the coming offseason, the reports added another layer of uncertainty to a bumpy season.

6. Philadelphia 76ers (29-19), 2.5 games back

The Sixers have the NBA's second-best record since Christmas Day at 13-3, and Joel Embiid has built a strong case as an MVP candidate.

The overpowering center has scored at least 25 points in 16 straight games, a run that includes single-game scoring performances of 50, 42 and 40 points.

Perhaps almost as significant as his gaudy production is the fact that Embiid has played in 20 consecutive games for Philadelphia, the second-longest run of his career after a 26-game stretch during the 2018-19 season.

Embiid has always been a monster when he's on the court, and if his current run of health continues, the 76ers will be a difficult playoff matchup for anyone.

Hanging over the whole season, of course, is the standoff with Ben Simmons, who has yet to report this season and is losing game paychecks every time his team-mates take the court. Simmons' camp maintains the position that he wants to be traded after being publicly blamed for last season's playoff failures, but the Philly front office insists on getting a star in return.

A possible Simmons trade might be the most pivotal move out there for any possible championship contender, but the deal has been difficult to find for a unique 25-year-old guard who refuses to shoot and has yet to play this season.

With the conference loaded six-deep with imposing teams, only the top two seeds will be heavy favourites in the first round. Gone, it appears, are the days when one or two teams could cruise to a conference championship in the East without sweating.

The absences of LeBron James and Anthony Davis were felt as the Los Angeles Lakers suffered a second successive defeat.

Davis registered 31 points, 12 rebounds in Thursday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, but like James missed out through injury on Friday against the Charlotte Hornets.

That meant the onus was on Russell Westbrook to step up, and though he had 35 points, he ultimately missed a crucial, game-clinching three-pointer, having decided to go for the win rather than try for overtime.

P.J. Washington secured the rebound after Westbrook's attempt hit the rim, and added further insult with a free throw with 0.2 seconds left on the clock to seal a 117-114 win for Charlotte.

Since a four-game winning streak was snapped by the Memphis Grizzlies on January 9, Los Angeles has won just three of their nine games.

The Hornets, meanwhile, gained revenge for their overtime loss to the Lakers back in November in the only previous meeting this season, ending a six-game losing streak against Los Angeles in the process.

Suns in red-hot form

It is now nine wins in a row for the Phoenix Suns, who lead the NBA with 39 victories in 2021-22 after overcoming the Minnesota Timberwolves 134-124.

Devin Booker led the game with 29 points, while Chris Paul had a triple-double of 21 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists and Cam Johnson's tally of 23 points included crucial back-to-back three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

The Suns' record of 39-9 is the best in franchise history at this stage of a season, and have now won the 30 games in which they have led after three quarters.

While the Suns top the Western Conference, the Miami Heat continued their run at the top of the East by holding off a late push from the Los Angeles Clippers in a 121-114 success.

Miami has now won 10 of their last 12 games and snapped a six-game losing streak against the Clippers, who fought back to within four points but fell short of another comeback after their record-setting efforts against the Washington Wizards on Tuesday.

All-Star Morant sets franchise record

Ja Morant proved why he has been named an All-Star starter as he delivered a triple-double of 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 119-109 win for the Grizzlies over the Utah Jazz.

It was the highest-scoring triple-double in franchise history and the fourth overall for Morant, who has scored at least 30 points for five straight games as Memphis moved to 34-17.

DeMar DeRozan's return to San Antonio ended in defeat for the Chicago Bulls, who went down 131-122 to the Spurs.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic recorded a triple-double in the Denver Nuggets' victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, while Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 38 points in an emphatic win for the Milwaukee Bucks over the New York Knicks.

The Phoenix Suns recorded their eighth consecutive victory as they defeated the Utah Jazz 105-97 with Devin Booker producing another 40-point game on Wednesday.

Booker had 43 points, 12 rebounds and four assists after a first-quarter scoring blitz as the Suns opened up an early 39-18 lead.

Chris Paul (21 points) added some key points down the stretch as the Jazz rallied in the last quarter.

The 25-year-old shooting guard recorded his 16th career 40-point game, moving past Amar'e Stoudemire for most in Suns franchise history, sitting ahead of Tom Chambers and Walter Davis too.

The victory means the table-topping Suns improve to 38-9 overall and 8-0 on the road this calendar year.

 

Hornets break records in Pacers rout

The Charlotte Hornets set a franchise record for single game scoring and produced the highest points total this season as they downed the Indiana Pacers 158-126. The Hornets hit 24 three-pointers, with LaMelo Ball (29 points, 10 rebounds, 13 assists) and Kelly Oubre Jr (39 points) starring.

The Cleveland Cavaliers underlined their credentials as contenders with a 115-99 win over the champions Milwaukee Bucks. The Cavs moved above the Bucks with their eighth win in their past nine games, with Kevin Love scoring 25 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 26 points and nine rebounds for the Bucks.

Ja Morant was exceptional with 41 points, five rebounds and eight assists as the Memphis Grizzlies won 118-110 over the San Antonio Spurs, while Nikola Jokic (26 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) led the Denver Nuggets past the depleted Brooklyn Nets 124-118. James Harden was out with hamstring tightness.

 

Bulls wayward but winners

The Chicago Bulls only managed seven three-pointers, shooting at 26.9 percent from beyond the arc yet they won 111-105 over the Toronto Raptors. The Bulls had lost six of seven but have steadied to win their past two, with DeMar DeRozan having 29 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

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