Paul George hailed the toughness of the Los Angeles Clippers as they celebrated their first ever win in the Western Conference Finals after overcoming the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3.

Making their first foray into the Conference Finals, the Clippers slumped to a 2-0 deficit against the second-seeded Suns heading into Thursday's clash in Los Angeles.

With Kawhi Leonard still sidelined by a knee injury, George took centre stage as he recorded a 27-point and 15-rebound double-double – which included a stunning half-court buzzer-beater in the third period.

"This team is tough," George told ESPN. "We do whatever it takes. We trust one another. We've got each other's backs, and we just play hard.

"If you're going to beat us, it's just got to be one of those nights if you beat us. I think we've just got great resilience.

"Ty Lue just does a great job making adjustments, counters. We come out and we play hard.

"We put so much into this season, we've invested so much in each other, and we're going to live with the results.

"We'll be ready for Game 4."

Entering the contest at Staples Center following back-to-back games on the road, George had scored at least 20 points in all 15 games this postseason.

The latest performance saw George eclipse LeBron James' run of 15 consecutive games (in 2016) with 20-plus points in the playoffs – Kevin Durant is the only other active player to achieve the feat in the postseason (20 straight in 2012 and 21 in a row in 2018).

The Clippers – who are the first team all-time to be down 2-0 three times in a single postseason – outscored the visiting Suns 34-21 in the third quarter to move clear.

Reggie Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, while Ivica Zubac (15 points and 16 rebounds) finished with a double-double of his own.

George and Zubac became the first set of team-mates to each tally 15-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a playoff showdown since James (28 points and 15 rebounds) and Kevin Love (15 points and 21 rebounds) in 2017.

The starting team, which featured George, Jackson, Zubac, Patrick Beverley and Terance Mann, was Lue's fifth change of line-up across the previous eight games, with the coach reaping the rewards of earning his players' trust.

"It means a lot just for those guys to trust me, to understand that whatever I'm doing is the best for the team, not for me," said Lue.

"I just want to win. Making adjustments, sometimes it's tough, because adjustments mean some guys can't play, some guys play more, and you've got to be able to accept that."

Paul George dominated as the Los Angeles Clippers celebrated their first ever win in the Western Conference Finals after overcoming the Phoenix Suns 106-92 in Game 3.

Featuring in the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, the Clippers found themselves in a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Suns heading into Thursday's clash in Los Angeles.

Even in the ongoing absence of superstar Kawhi Leonard (knee), George picked up the slack with a 27-point and 15-rebound double-double – which included a stunning half-court buzzer-beater in the third period – to lift the Clippers and help reduce the series deficit to 2-1.

Entering the contest at Staples Center following back-to-back games on the road, George had scored at least 20 points in all 15 games this postseason.

The latest performance saw George eclipse LeBron James' run of 15 consecutive games (in 2016) with 20-plus points in the playoffs – Kevin Durant is the only other active player to achieve the feat in the postseason (20 straight in 2012 and 21 in a row in 2018).

The Clippers – who are the first team all-time to be down 2-0 three times in a single postseason – outscored the visiting Suns 34-21 in the third quarter to move clear.

Reggie Jackson added 23 points for the Clippers, while Ivica Zubac (15 points and 16 rebounds) finished with a double-double of his own.

George and Zubac became the first set of team-mates to each tally 15-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a playoff showdown since James (28 points and 15 rebounds) and Kevin Love (15 points and 21 rebounds) in 2017.

Suns veteran Chris Paul returned from the league's health and safety protocol and posted 15 points and 12 assists.

Paul became the 13th player in NBA history with 1,000 playoff assists in the losing effort.

It was a tough outing for star team-mate Devin Booker, who was just five-for-21 shooting as he finished with 15 points in a team-high 40 minutes.

 

Hawks at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to bounce back against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Friday. Trae Young and the Hawks claimed the opener in Milwaukee.

Chris Paul has cleared the NBA's health and safety protocols and is available to lead the Phoenix Suns on the road to former team the Los Angeles Clippers.

As the Suns waited to learn the identity of their Western Conference Finals opponents, a COVID-19 complication saw veteran point guard Paul sidelined.

The Clippers rallied past the Utah Jazz but quickly fell 2-0 down to Phoenix even with Paul out of the lineup.

Against the Jazz, the Clippers became the first team in playoff history to recover from 2-0 behind in two series in the same postseason campaign, having also recovered against the Dallas Mavericks.

But a third straight such success seems highly unlikely as Kawhi Leonard remains out with a knee issue, and Paul's return only adds to their woes.

The 36-year-old spent six seasons in LA and is widely considered among the Clippers' greatest ever players.

In the regular season, Paul has the most assists in Clippers history (4,023), ranks sixth for points (7,674) and eighth for minutes (13,885).

 

With 15.7 points, 8.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game in the playoffs, Paul boosts the Suns, although Cam Payne has filled in admirably in his absence.

Payne, who had one Phoenix start across the regular season and postseason prior to this series, was outstanding in Game 2.

He set career highs in points (29), field goals made (12) and field-goal attempts (24).

Payne's 29 points were the most ever in the playoffs by a Suns player who averaged fewer than 10 points per game during the regular season (8.4).

Even with Paul back, Payne likely has a role to play as Phoenix pursue a 10th straight victory. Ten other teams have won nine or more in a row in the playoffs and six went on to claim the title.

The Phoenix Suns have listed Chris Paul as "probable" for Game 3 of their Western Conference Finals series against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, while Kawhi Leonard has been ruled out.

Paul has missed the opening two games of the Conference Finals series, which the second-seeded Suns claimed in Arizona, having been placed in the NBA's health and safety protocols.

Suns star Paul, 36, entered the protocols last Wednesday and is understood to be asymptomatic, having previously tested positive for coronavirus.

Paul has averaged 15.7 points, 8.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game this postseason.

Meanwhile, the Clippers confirmed star forward Kawhi Leonard will not play in Game 3 due to a sprained right knee sustained on June 14.

Leonard will miss his fifth consecutive game because of the injury.

In the Western Conference semi-finals, the Clippers won both Game 5 and 6 against top seeds the Utah Jazz without Leonard after suffering the injury late in Game 4.

Leonard has averaged 30.4 points, 4.4 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game in this season's NBA playoffs.

Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard – Los Angeles Clippers superstars past and present – will both be absent as the team enter the Western Conference Finals for the first time.

The Clippers play Paul's Phoenix Suns in Game 1 on Sunday, having battled past the top-seeded Utah Jazz.

Leonard and Co became the first team in playoff history to overturn 2-0 deficits twice in the same postseason, having recovered first against the Dallas Mavericks and then against the Jazz.

The Game 6 win over Utah at Staples Center was the Clippers' eighth in this playoff campaign – a team record.

However, they were without two-time NBA Finals MVP Leonard for Game 5 and Game 6 due to a knee injury that is reportedly feared to be serious.

The five-time All-Star had been averaging 30.4 points per game in the postseason but remains out for the trip to Phoenix.

Paul is missing for the Suns, too, though, due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. As with Leonard, this means an indefinite spell on the sidelines.

Sixteen-year veteran Paul is considered among the Clippers' greatest ever players, having spent six seasons in LA.

In the regular season, he has the most assists in Clippers history (4,023), ranks sixth for points (7,674) and eighth for minutes (13,885).

 "Control what we can control," Suns team-mate Devin Booker said. "Obviously Chris is in the health and safety protocols and we don't know the timetable on that, so we just go with what we hear day to day. It's next man up."

The next man up would appear to be Cameron Payne, the backup point guard who has only one start across the regular season and playoffs since moving to Phoenix in 2019.

In 20.4 minutes per game in the postseason, Payne has averaged 10.2 points but just 2.9 assists, although he and Paul have been on the floor together for 54 of the 26-year-old's 204 playoff minutes this year.

For the Clippers, Paul George has come to the fore since Leonard's injury, scoring 37 points at Utah in Game 5 – his highest playoff output for LA and tied for the second-highest of his career.

He will have to continue to perform, as coach Ty Lue said of Leonard: "I know [he is out for] Game 1 for sure.

"Right now he's back home getting treatment. We're not sure about Game 2 yet.

"Until he gets back, we can't do hypotheticals if he's coming back, what game. We have to prepare like he's not playing, just kind of go from there."

Chris Paul crumpled to the floor of Phoenix Suns Arena, grimacing and twisting with pain while he grasped at his right shoulder.

For all his regular-season accolades – 11 All-Star Games, nine All-NBA teams, four assists titles and six steals titles – deep playoff runs have been hard to come by for Paul.

Whether due to fate or disappointing failure, the future Hall of Fame point guard has only played in one Conference Finals series. After suffering a hamstring injury in 2018, Paul watched from the sideline as his Houston Rockets lost Games 6 and 7 to the Golden State Warriors, extinguishing his best chance to date to win a title.

Three years later, as Paul left the floor with a right shoulder injury during Game 1 of the Suns' first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, it must have felt as if the fates were conspiring against him again. After leading Phoenix to the NBA's second-best record in 2020-21, Paul got to face LeBron James and the defending champions as a reward. Then an injury less than 15 minutes into the postseason?

What a hopeless feeling that must have been.

Paul didn't miss a game in the series but looked like a shell of himself through Game 3, averaging 6.7 points on 38.1 per cent shooting as the Suns trailed 2-1 in the series. The tide turned in Game 4, however, with Anthony Davis succumbing to injury and with Paul's shoulder beginning to steadily improve.

After ousting the Lakers in six games, Paul was nearly flawless in a sweep of the Denver Nuggets and MVP Nikola Jokic. He averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists over four games and rose to the occasion in the clutch, scoring 17.0 points per game in the second half on absurd 78.8 per cent shooting. In fourth quarters that series, Paul was 16 for 19 from the field (84.2 per cent), including a perfect mark on his four three-point attempts.

Paul totalled 41 assists, the most since 1984-85 in a playoff series while committing five or fewer turnovers. For the third time in his postseason career, he had 15 assists and no turnovers in Game 2, a feat that has only been done seven times in a playoff game since 1984-85.

At 36 years old, Paul painted one of the most memorable masterpieces of his career.

Then came another devastating blow, when Paul was sidelined in accordance with the NBA's COVID-19 health and safety protocols on Wednesday morning, keeping him in quarantine indefinitely. It has not been specified whether Paul has tested positive for the coronavirus, or exactly why he has entered the protocols.

Going forward, the Suns' road only gets tougher, facing either the top-seeded Utah Jazz or Paul's former team – the Los Angeles Clippers – in the Western Conference Finals, and Phoenix could be forced to start the series without their star point guard.

Despite the challenge ahead, it is tempting to consider what a first career NBA Finals appearance – or first career title – would do for the legacy of one of the most underrated players of his era.

Paul's brilliance can sometimes go unnoticed, especially in a league full of talented scorers who appear ready to drop 50 in any given game. His career high is 43 points, and the last time he hit 40 was in 2016.

But what's set Paul apart since the day he entered the league are his abilities to command an offense and distribute to team-mates. He is one of six players with over 10,000 career assists and, all things being equal, will move into third on the all-time helpers list next season, trailing only John Stockton and Jason Kidd.

Among the five players with the most assists in NBA history, Paul's 18.3 points per game is the highest mark, out-pacing Steve Nash's 14.3 by a healthy margin.

Paul is also fifth all-time with 2,332 career steals and could move up a spot or two on that list in two years' time.

But Paul's true impact defies traditional box score statistics. This postseason, the Suns have a scoring differential of plus 13.0 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court, and Phoenix are shooting nearly 50 per cent from the floor with their conductor in the game.

Moreover, Paul's teams simply win.

His teams have a record of 698-392 when he plays, or an average of 53-29 over an 82-game season. Paul has played for five teams in his career, and each have improved their record in Paul's first year over the previous season. On average, a team adding Paul to the roster increase their win percentage by .168, the equivalent of 14 added wins over an 82-game season.

If Paul never played another game, he would still be a guaranteed Hall of Famer. And after this latest disruption, perhaps the 2021 playoffs will be yet another chapter in a book of postseasons gone wrong for an otherwise legendary player.

But almost every team remaining in this year’s playoffs is dealing with attrition, including both the Suns' potential opponents in the next round. Phoenix are rated by bookmakers as the second favourites for the championship, trailing only the Brooklyn Nets.

Paul's legacy should be able to stand alone, with or without a title. But adding a championship ring would go a long way towards forcing his detractors to finally acknowledge his consistent brilliance.

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."

Devin Booker insisted the Phoenix Suns are keeping their eye on the prize after tying a franchise record with a sixth successive playoff victory on Friday, pushing them a step closer to a series sweep over the Denver Nuggets.

Having won back-to-back outings at home already, the Suns travelled to Denver for Game 3, which saw Nuggets star Nikola Jokic presented with the NBA MVP award prior to tip-off.

However, the visitors ruined the celebrations with an impressive 116-102 triumph, putting them 3-0 up in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 takes place at the Ball Arena on Sunday.

Booker led the way with 28 points while back-court partner Chris Paul had 27, the duo helping the Suns win a fifth outing in row by a double-digit margin. No team in NBA history has managed such a feat having missed the playoffs in the previous season.

"We are having fun with it, playing for each other," Booker told the media.

"When things get tough, we come together even more. Just little things that we have worked on and talked about through the regular season are coming true right now.

"We are still sticking with it – we have a close-out game on Sunday that we are looking forward to. We keep our eyes on the prize."

Jokic scored 32 points in 40 minutes, as well having 20 rebounds and 10 assists. However, his stellar individual performance was not enough to help the Nuggets get back into the series, meaning they stand on the brink of elimination.

"We knew this was going to be an emotional game for them, what with Jokic being presented with the MVP trophy beforehand," Paul said in his post-game press conference.

"We just kept talking about trying to withstand their runs. That team plays hard the entire game, so it's a good win."

Paul landed nine of his 16 shot attempts, including two of three from deep. He was quick to praise the efforts of Deandre Ayton, though, as the center played his part in a road triumph that has a place in the Western Conference Finals within touching distance.

"All those jump shots I hit towards the end of the game don't happen without him, without him setting the screen, setting the pace with rebounds," Paul said of Ayton, who had 10 points and 15 rebounds. "He's so selfless, man. We owe him a lot."

The NBA is a star-driven league, but the Phoenix Suns have found a different formula that works in the playoffs. 

The Suns' balanced attack drove another dominant win on Wednesday, a 123-98 triumph over the Denver Nuggets that gave Phoenix a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semi-final series. 

Phoenix had six players score in double figures, with Devin Booker leading the way at a modest 18 points followed by Chris Paul (17), Mikal Bridges (16) and Deandre Ayton (15). 

"I think it's an unselfish group. They're willing to make plays for one another. We share the ball – that's part of our DNA," Suns head coach Monty Williams told reporters. 

"We don't have the experience that a lot of the playoff teams have, but we've had this year to gel and we've had a lot of close games at home and on the road, so that helps."

Wednesday's game was not close, as Phoenix took the lead early in the first quarter and never looked back, pulling away from Denver in the second half. 

After a 51-21 regular season, the Suns have learned they do not have to rely on one or two players for their scoring, and that helps ease the pressure on everyone. 

"It's a natural chemistry," said veteran point guard Chris Paul, who had 15 assists and no turnovers. 

"I really haven't been on a team like this where everybody shoots it the way that they do, so you don't have to try to find a certain guy."

The 36-year-old floor leader is a big reason for that peace of mind, his coach noted. 

"He manages games better than anybody that I've ever been around," Williams said. 

"Once he gets an idea of the offence and the guys he's playing with, he has the ability to use his talents to make everybody else better, and then he knows when to take over in moments.

"Guys have to make shots, but Chris is one of the rare guards that can put passes right where they need to be so guys are more effective when they catch the ball. And his ability to take care of the ball, even when he has it a lot, is not something I take for granted.

"That's why he's been successful everywhere he's been." 

Coming off their first playoff series win since 2010, the Suns are full of confidence as they head to Denver.

The plan for Friday's Game 3? More of the same, they hope. 

"We've got so many great shooters on our team, and guys that can not only shoot it but put it on the floor," Paul said. "We just played the way we've been playing all season long and that's as a team."

Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic showed MVP form once again, but the Phoenix Suns used a balanced attack to take a 123-98 victory and a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semi-final series. 

Jokic scored the first basket of the game Wednesday, but that was the only lead the Nuggets held as Phoenix took control and never let go in what became an easy win as their home crowd chanted "Suns in four" late in the game. 

Chris Paul controlled the game for the Suns, scoring 17 points and dishing out 15 assists without a turnover in his 30 minutes of play -- the third time he has had at least 15 assists with no turnovers in a playoff game.

The 36-year-old Paul now has 72 assists and just 10 turnovers in eight playoff games this season. 

Devin Booker added 18 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix, while Deandre Ayton had 15 points and 10 rebounds. 

Jokic left the game late in the third quarter with the Nuggets trailing by 20 and did not return, finishing with 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in 29 minutes. 

Denver did not give him much help, as the rest of their starting lineup made just nine of 32 shots from the field (28.1 per cent). 

Michael Porter Jr. was the only other starter to reach double figures, scoring 11 on three of 13 shooting -- including two of nine from three-point range. 

The Nuggets made only 14 of 43 (32.6 per cent) from beyond the arc overall, compared to 18 of 38 (47.4 per cent) for Phoenix. 

Game 3 of the series is Friday in Denver.

Nets at Bucks

The Brooklyn Nets look for a 3-0 lead on the Bucks as their Eastern Conference semi-final series shifts to Milwaukee on Thursday.  

Chris Paul compared the Phoenix Suns to a wrestling tag team after they beat the Denver Nuggets 122-105 in their NBA playoffs semi-final opener.

In front of what Paul described as "crazy" home support, the Suns bossed the second half 65-47 to take first blood in the Western Conference last-four series.

Paul (21 points and 11 assists) and Deandre Ayton (20 points and 10 rebounds) fuelled the second-seeded Suns, who saw all of their starters finish with double-digit points – Devin Booker (21), Mikal Bridges (23) and Jae Crowder (14) making priceless contributions.

With the likes of Cameron Payne and Torrey Craig coming off the bench – the latter having nine points and eight rebounds in under 18 minutes on court – there are good grounds for optimism in the Suns ranks.

Paul said the key to the Suns second-half surge, after slipping 70-60 behind at one point, was "just playing with pace", and a vibrant home atmosphere, with Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps among the crowd.

"They got a nice little lead on us there in the third quarter," he said. "This crowd is crazy. It's crazy. To have the fans in there, the energy, there's nothing like it.

"I told the guys this is why we fought so hard during the regular season to get home-court advantage. I think we truly have that with our fanbase here."

For Denver, MVP favourite Nikola Jokic was limited to 22 points on 10-for-23 shooting, nine rebounds and three assists on the road.

Paul said the Suns have real character as a unit.

"It's fun to be on the team," he said. "It's almost like wrestling and you're tagging in.

"You go out of the game and there's no drop-off, there's just another unit coming in and keeping pressure on you.

"I think that's the benefit of having the team like we have."

The second game in the series takes place on Wednesday, again at the Phoenix Suns Arena.

While Paul praised others, Booker hailed Paul's contribution.

"We felt that energy. We felt that passion behind it," Booker said.

"He just made plays. Not only his scoring ability but getting everybody else involved. That's been the story of the season for us, following him in that regard."

The Los Angeles Lakers face the prospect of a first-round playoff exit as they head into a must-win Game 6 of their series against the Phoenix Suns.

Back-to-back defeats have left the defending champions with no more wiggle room if they hope to have a chance of making the last four in the Western Conference.

The Lakers progressing past this point seemed highly likely when they went 2-1 up. However, since then they have slipped up at home and then suffered a blow-out loss on the road.

LeBron James did not hang around to watch the end of Tuesday's 115-85 loss in Phoenix, heading to the locker room late during the fourth quarter.

James scored 24 points but the absence of the injured Anthony Davis left the four-time MVP fighting a lone hand, albeit the contest looked over by half-time with the Suns well clear after holding their opponents to just 10 points in the second quarter.

The final margin of victory marked the first time in NBA history that the reigning champions had lost by 30 or more points in the opening round.

The only concern for Phoenix was Chris Paul's  shoulder, the point guard aggravating the injury he suffered back in Game 1. They will hope he is fit to feature on Thursday, though the second seeds in the West have two opportunities to close the series out.

As for the Lakers, they will hope Davis' groin issue is cleared up to a point that he can at least be involved at the Staples Center.

James, however, is focusing on the prospect of being without his team-mate once more, making sure he is ready for the worst-case scenario of knowing he will once more have to carry the majority of the offensive workload without the eight-time All-Star in the line-up.

"My mindset is that he's not going be able to play in Game 6. That's my mindset," James told the media after Game 5. "And if something changes, then we go from there. But I'm preparing as if he's not."

Something needs to change for the Lakers, or else their 2020-21 season is over far earlier than they hoped.

TOP PERFORMERS

Devin Booker - Phoenix Suns

After two quiet games by his usual standards, Booker burst back into life with 30 points in Game 5. The shooting guard is at a lowly 28.2 per cent success rate from three-point range in the series but is still averaging 26.2 points per outing. With Paul potentially out or at best still not fully fit, Booker's role becomes even more crucial.

Dennis Schroder - Los Angeles Lakers

James needs help or else the Lakers' hopes of a repeat are over. Schroder went 0-for-9 shooting last time out, as well as failing to have an attempt from the free-throw line. After 58 points combined through the first three meetings with the Suns, he has managed eight points in the past two.

KEY BATTLE - A case for the defense, perhaps?

The Lakers finished the regular season with the best defense in the NBA. That honour came despite both Davis and James missing considerable time, while several members of the supporting cast also sat out games due to injuries and the NBA's health and safety protocols during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the recent lack of offense is obviously a concern for Vogel and his staff, so too will be the manner in which Phoenix were allowed to score with ease to pull clear in the first half on Tuesday.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers hold a 40-27 lead in playoffs in meetings with the Suns. Still, the only number that concerns Phoenix is one, as that is how many wins they now require to seal a place in round two.

The Phoenix Suns are hopeful but unsure about Chris Paul's availability for Game 6 after he injured his shoulder again in Tuesday's 115-85 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Suns took a 3-2 series lead over the Lakers with a victory that was soured by Paul's injury, which leaves his availability for Game 6 on Thursday in doubt.

The 36-year-old went down in pain, clutching his right shoulder halfway through the third quarter after a minor collision with Laker Wesley Matthews.

Paul left the court and did not return to action, although he sat on the bench in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, with coach Monty Williams revealing he said he still had strength in the shoulder which has troubled him all series.

Williams preferred not to offer any official update, instead stating the Suns medical staff will assess Paul on Wednesday.

"He went in the back and got some treatment," Williams said. "When I talked with him when he came back out, he said he still had his strength.

"He seems to be okay but we want to wait until tomorrow after he wakes up and our medical team can make an assessment."

Paul, who played almost 23 minutes and scored nine points to go with six assists, said that the injury felt "very uncomfortable", leaving him "helpless".

"It scared me," Paul said during his post-match video conference. "It was just a very uncomfortable feeling. I felt helpless. When it happened, I was looking up and didn’t know what happened with Wes.

"But after I'd seen it I came back out on the court and I told Wes it was a clean play and it was unfortunate my neck and arm snapped again like it did."

The Lakers were missing their own star, with forward Anthony Davis absent due to a left groin strain.

Four-time NBA MVP LeBron James said he was preparing for Game 6 without Davis being available.

"My mindset is as if AD won't be in the game in Game 6, if something changes we go from there," James said post-match. "I'm preparing as if he's not."

The Phoenix Suns moved 3-2 ahead in their NBA first round playoffs series against the Los Angeles Lakers with a 115-85 victory but star guard Chris Paul went down after re-injuring his shoulder.

Devin Booker top scored for the Suns with 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists as the Suns move within one win of knocking out the reigning champions.

The Suns, however, will be sweating on Paul's fitness ahead of Game 6 after going down clutching his sore right shoulder, having played 23 minutes, with nine points and six assists.

Phoenix blew the game open with a remarkable 32-10 second quarter, opening up a 32-point half-time lead which the Lakers, who were without Anthony Davis, never threatened in the second half.

LeBron James top scored with 24 points including six three-pointers along with five rebounds and seven assists, while Andre Drummond had seven points and 13 rebounds.

The series returns to Los Angeles for Game 6, before the final match in Arizona if required.

 

Nugs win in double over-time, Nets progress

Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard traded blows as the Denver Nuggets edged the Portland Trail Blazers 147-140 in a double over-time thriller.

Jokic finished with 38 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, while Michael Porter Jr had 26 points, including a clutch late three-pointer along with 12 rebounds and three assists.

Lillard remarkably scored 55 points for the defeated Blazers, along with six rebounds and 10 assists, although he may regret passing to CJ McCollum with nine seconds left at 143-140 down. McCollum mis-controlled and stepped out of play, forcing the decisive turnover.

In a back-and-forth encounter, McCollum had earlier drained a three-pointer to send the game into over-time.

The Brooklyn Nets finished the job in their first round series against the Boston Celtics with James Harden starring in a 123-109 win which completed a 4-1 victory.

Harden produced a triple-double, scoring 34 points with 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the Nets.

Kyrie Irving added 25 points, while Kevin Durant contributed 24, including four three-pointers shooting at 66 per cent from beyond the arc.

The Nets will next face the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

 

Wayward Tatum's radar off

Jayson Tatum was a lone hand for the Celtics, managing 32 points, although he shot poorly, albeit regularly under intense heat, at 12-from-27 from the field and 36.4 per cent from beyond the arc.

 

History-making haul in losing cause

Lillard's 55 points came in a losing cause, making history as the third most in a defeat in NBA playoffs history behind Michael Jordan's 63 against the Celtics in 1986 and Donovan Mitchell's 57 against the Nuggets in 2020. He also had a record 12 threes.

 

Tuesday's results

Brooklyn Nets 123-109 Boston Celtics
Denver Nuggets 147-140 (OT) Portland Trail Blazers
Phoenix Suns 115-85 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Hawks at Knicks

The New York Knicks will look to stay alive as their first round playoffs series returns to Madison Square Garden against the Atlanta Hawks trailing 3-1.

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