The Milwaukee Bucks earned a commanding 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series after Giannis Antetokounmpo and his team-mates blew away the Miami Heat 132-98.

Only two points separated the Bucks and Heat in overtime on Saturday as the third seeds edged Jimmy Butler's Miami 109-107.

But the Heat were no match for the Bucks on Monday after Milwaukee used a 46-20 opening quarter to rout Miami in Game 2 of their NBA playoff clash.

Antetokounmpo – the two-time reigning MVP – fuelled the Bucks with a game-high 31 points in 31 minutes, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on home court in Milwaukee.

Jrue Holiday added a double-double of his own, while Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes made six three-pointers to contribute 22 points off the bench.

The Bucks set a franchise record for threes made in a playoff game after nailing 22 from beyond the arc.

Entering the second matchup, the Bucks and Heat had the NBA's two best records when making more three-pointers than their opponents this season – Milwaukee were 25-3 (89.3 per cent) in those games and Miami were 18-3 (85.7 per cent). But the Bucks won Game 1 while making only five of 31 three-point attempts, 16.1 percent, a season low.

The Heat had no answer on the road, where reserve Dewayne Dedmon was Miami's best performer with a team-high 19 points as Butler (10 points on four-for-10 shooting), Bam Adebayo (16 points), Duncan Robinson (10 points) and Kendrick Nunn (nine points) struggled to get going, while Trevor Ariza (0-for-three shooting) was scoreless.

In the day's only other game, the Denver Nuggets levelled their Western Conference matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers thanks to a 128-109 victory.

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic inspired the third-seeded Nuggets in Game 2, scoring 38 points on 15-for-20 shooting, while also tallying eight rebounds and five assists in Denver.

Not even Damian Lillard's monster performance was enough for the sixth-ranked Trail Blazers to take down the Nuggets for back-to-back wins.

Lillard finished with 42 points and 10 assists – the All-Star made eight three-pointers by half-time, tying Vince Carter's all-time playoff record in a half.

Damian Lillard is used to having the game in his hands, but the Portland Trail Blazers star found another level of control Saturday in a 123-109 playoff win over the Denver Nuggets. 

Lillard scored 34 points and had a career playoff high 13 assists to account for 54 per cent of Portland's points in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. 

That assist total was the most for a Portland player since Damon Stoudamire had 13 against the Phoenix Suns on May 13, 1999. 

The sixth-seeded Blazers set a franchise record for a playoff game in hitting 19 three-pointers, five of them by Lillard, as they opened with a critical road win to boost their chances of taking the series. 

"Any time you start a series on the road, you're going into it thinking we need to at least win one -- heading back home we've got to have one of those first two," Lillard told reporters.

"It's a major statement to be able to get the first one." 

The Blazers heaped praise on center Jusuf Nurkic, who spent most of the night defending Nuggets star Nikola Jokic. 

Though Jokic matched Lillard's scoring output with 34, he had only one assist -- a career playoff low. 

Lillard told reporters he believes Jokic is the NBA MVP this season, but said the Blazers' focus was on letting him do the work himself rather than distributing to his team-mates. 

That formula worked in the series opener, though Lillard expects the competition is "only going to get harder from here." 

Added Carmelo Anthony, "I've been here multiple times. We don't want to get too high -- it's just the first game.

"We'll take it, though. It's a big win. Any time you can get Game 1 on the road in the playoffs it's a major win. 

"We don't look at it as a steal -- we came in here and we earned this win tonight."

A strong second half sent the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers to a 123-109 victory over the third-seeded Denver Nuggets as the NBA playoffs began Saturday. 

Portland outscored Denver 65-48 after the break as Damian Lillard had 34 points and 13 assists for the visitors, who made 18 of 19 free throw attempts to just four of eight for the Nuggets. 

CJ McCollum added 21 points and Carmelo Anthony scored 18 in just 22 minutes off the bench for Portland, who beat the Los Angeles Lakers in their playoff opener last season only to lose the next four to the eventual champions. 

Their efforts overcame a 34-point, 15-rebound game from Nikola Jokic and 25 points from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter made all 11 of his two-point field goal attempts Saturday but was just one of 10 from three-point range. 

Game 2 is Monday in Denver. 

 

Brooklyn's big three carry Nets

Big games from the big three carried the Brooklyn Nets to a 104-93 series-opening win over the Boston Celtics. Kevin Durant had 32 points and 12 rebounds while Kyrie Irving added 29 points and James Harden 21 as the Nets stifled the Celtics, who got 22 points on just six of 20 shooting from Jayson Tatum in a losing effort. 

Luka Doncic had his third triple-double in seven career playoff games, scoring 31 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists as the Dallas Mavericks pulled out a 113-103 road win at the Los Angeles Clippers to open their series. Tim Hardaway Jr added 21 points on eight of 13 shooting for the fifth-seeded Mavericks, while Kawhi Leonard had 26 points and Paul George 23 to lead the Clippers. 

 

Butler cannot find the range

Jimmy Butler came close to recording a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the Miami Heat's 109-107 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, but the five-time All-Star made only four of 22 shots from the field. 

 

Middleton gives Bucks win

Khris Middleton's contested jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining in overtime gave the Bucks the Game 1 win at home. Middleton's 27 points led the Bucks, with Giannis Antetokounmpo adding 26 points and 18 rebounds. 

 

Saturday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 109-107 Miami Heat (OT)
Dallas Mavericks 113-103 Los Angeles Clippers
Brooklyn Nets 104-93 Boston Celtics
Portland Trail Blazers 123-109 Denver Nuggets

 

Lakers face Suns

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers got the win they needed in the play-in tournament and they will open the playoffs proper with Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against the second-seeded Suns in Phoenix. 

The results will not be confirmed until later in the postseason, but the NBA's MVP race has been run and there appears to be a clear winner.

After a season in which Joel Embiid and LeBron James were each favourites at a time, and while a number of other contenders made impressive runs, Nikola Jokic is seemingly set to scoop the league's top individual award.

Jokic achieved what the others could not in remaining healthy, starting all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference.

But the 'Joker' was more than just the last man standing in a gruelling campaign, earning his recognition by averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

A worthy winner, the Nuggets center shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Stats Perform reflects on how Jokic ultimately outperformed his opponents to establish himself as the league's main man in 2020-21.
 

Month one: LeBron leaps above Luka

Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the preseason MVP favourites, while Los Angeles Lakers duo James and Anthony Davis appeared well set as both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant returned from injuries.

Doncic's hopes quickly took a hit once the campaign got under way, however, as the Dallas Mavericks slumped to 7-7 over the first month, the same middle-of-the-road record that ensured Jokic was not immediately thrust to the forefront of the conversation on a .500 Nuggets team.

Yet the Serbian quietly built the foundations for his awards challenge in that spell. He had five triple-doubles, including three in his first four games, and averaged 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.0 assists.

A 12-4 start for the Lakers meant the anticipated early James calls grew louder, the four-time winner an ever-present and averaging 24.4 points with an impressive 9.3 plus/minus rating.

Month two: Sixers star Embiid emerges

The PAR (points plus assists plus rebounds) chart Jokic topped in month one was led by Antetokounmpo in month two, with Jokic sliding to fourth behind Embiid and Doncic despite averaging 27.8 points over his next 16 games.

James was sixth, adding 27.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game to his totals between January 22 and February 21, but Embiid emerged as a serious contender.

As their star center put up a league-leading 33.9 points over the period, the Philadelphia 76ers improved to 20-11 to lead the East.

Missed games would ultimately cost Embiid, but they added to his case at this stage. He featured in 25 of the Sixers' first 31 outings, sitting out five defeats and only a single win.

Month three: Injuries interrupt favourites

Events in mid-March blew the MVP race wide open.

In the 76ers' win at the Washington Wizards on March 12, Embiid suffered a knee injury. However, James was the clear favourite for just eight days before he sustained a high ankle sprain as the Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks.

Curry could not capitalise as a tailbone issue kept him on the sidelines over the same stretch, instead allowing James Harden to improbably enter the reckoning.

A high-profile yet polarising trade to the Brooklyn Nets should have removed Harden from awards consideration, many argued, but his performances and stat line made a compelling argument.

Between his Nets debut on January 16 and March 21 – the end of the third month of the season – Harden became the key man in his new team's 'big three' and led the league in playmaking with 11.3 assists as Brooklyn went 22-7 with the 2018 MVP on the court.

Month four: Nuggets make their move

Although Harden, Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard – who has long led the league in 'clutch' points this year – all made runs, Jokic was the favourite at the time of James' injury, then with an even more impressive stat line, including 41.6 per cent shooting from three. Month four consolidated that position.

As Harden and Antetokounmpo each sustained injuries in early April, Jokic was boosted by the arrival of Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline.

The Nuggets got only five games (four wins) out of a Jamal Murray-Will Barton-Michael Porter Jr-Gordon-Jokic line-up, yet no five-man group in the league this season which played over 100 minutes averaged more than their 55.6 points per game.

Another injury disrupted Denver, but it was Murray rather than Jokic who went down, the guard tearing the ACL in his left knee.

The Nuggets were on a four-game winning run regardless by April 21 to improve to 38-20, giving Jokic a clear edge over Curry on a Golden State Warriors team hovering below .500.

Month five: Still in the thick of the action

As the playoff picture took shape over the final weeks of the season, a number of stars racked up DNPs to protect themselves for the challenges ahead. Jokic, despite repeatedly insisting he had no interest in the MVP award, did not.

The apparent winner finished the year having played 2,488 minutes, trailing only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.

Sunday's final-day defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers was the first time all year Jokic dipped below 26 minutes in a game, limiting the damage to his impressive numbers.

It meant he protected a healthy lead in the awards race, despite Curry's continued excellence in the final month. The scoring champion averaged an outstanding 35.6 points across his final 12 games to take the Warriors to eighth place.

Denver ended the year on a 13-5 run following Murray's injury, with Jokic putting up 26.9 points. Few can argue he is not a worthy MVP winner.

The Portland Trail Blazers made NBA history as they overcame the Boston Celtics on Sunday to post a fourth successive win on the road.

CJ McCollum scored 33 points and Damian Lillard contributed 26 – as well as 13 assists – as Portland prevailed 129-119 in Boston, meaning they have a 20-12 away record in the regular season.

However, Terry Stotts' team have had less success at home – they are surprisingly 16-16 at the Moda Center – but became the first NBA team to follow up four straight losses on their own court with a four-run win on their travels, per Stats Perform.

The impressive streak has seen them rise up to sixth in the Western Conference, putting them on course to qualify for the postseason without needing to go through the play-in tournament.

"When we were losing games, we were losing close games. It's a make-or-miss league," McCollum told the media after starring against the Celtics.

"We understand how many games are left, what needs to be accomplished and how we can accomplish it. It starts on both ends.

"There's a better sense of urgency, I think. We know what needs to be done and have got a lot of guys who have played in big games, have played in the playoffs.

"You want to be playing your best basketball heading there – and be as healthy as possible. Both of those things are ringing true for us."

McCollum made four of his eight attempts from deep, while the Trail Blazers shot 50 per cent as a team from three-point range in Boston.

Jayson Tatum had 33 points in a losing cause for the Celtics, who pulled within two points at one stage late in the fourth quarter.

Portland are back in action on Monday, this time in Atlanta as they take on the Hawks in what will be the penultimate outing in a six-game road trip.

Damian Lillard lauded the Portland Trail Blazers' willingness to "get our hands dirty" after snapping a losing streak in Tuesday's defeat of the Indiana Pacers.

Lillard brought up a major landmark in a 133-112 win that ended a five-game losing streak, the guard becoming the 10th player in NBA history to hit 2,000 three-pointers.

Team-mate Anfernee Simons was incredibly accurate from beyond the arc as he nailed his first nine attempts, making him the first player in the league to achieve that feat since Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors hit 10 straight back in January 2019.

Speaking after what was his 670th career game, Lillard praised the Blazers' desire to dig deep.

"We've got to be willing to get our hands dirty," he said. "What we did tonight is something that can translate to any game.

"Being committed on the defensive end and just wanting to get that done and wanting to do whatever we got to do to win, I think that's something that we can carry from this game.

"There's no guarantee that it's going to always happen. We've just got to have that same mentality going into this stretch of games. This is what it takes.

"When you do this, you give yourself a much better chance than we have over the last few weeks.

"However, it gets done, get it done. I think it was important for us to set the tone in that way on the first game of a big trip."

The 33-28 Blazers sit seventh in the Western Conference, with all still to play for in what has been an inconsistent season.

With the playoffs in their sights despite a significant wobble in form, Lillard recognises the value of a team hitting their stride at just the right time.

"I've been in the league long enough to know that the teams that are playing the best at the right time are the teams that you worry about," he said.

The star-studded Brooklyn Nets clinched a place in the NBA playoffs after rallying past the lowly Toronto Raptors 116-103.

Nets superstar Kevin Durant posted 17 points – including seven in the fourth quarter – and 10 rebounds, while team-mate Jeff Green had 22 points as Brooklyn became the first team in the Eastern Conference to secure a postseason berth on Tuesday.

The Nets trailed 90-84 early in the final period but used a 16-2 run to seize control, with Durant sealing the result with a three-pointer less than two minutes from the end in Tampa, Florida.

Brooklyn (42-20) – riding a three-game winning streak – are one and a half games clear of the Philadelphia 76ers (40-21) in the east.

Damian Lillard reached a career milestone and Anfernee Simons made his first nine three-point attempts as the Portland Trail Blazers snapped a five-game losing streak with a 133-112 rout of the Indiana Pacers.

Simons became the first NBA player to open with nine in a row from beyond the arc since Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors hit 10 straight to start a January 2019 game. 

Portland's Simons did miss his final three-point attempt but still led the Trail Blazers (33-28) with 27 points off the bench as the team made 20 three-pointers overall. 

Lillard (23 points) hit only six of 14 from the field, but one of those shots was significant. His third of four three-pointers gave him 2,000 for his career, making him the 10th player in history to hit that mark. 

The All-Star achieved the feat in his 670th career game, second only to Stephen Curry's 597 among that group.

 

Doncic, Mavericks run away from Warriors

A meeting of NBA superstars fizzled as Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks roared past Curry and the Warriors in the first half on the way to a 133-103 blowout. Doncic had 39 points in only 28 minutes, adding eight assists and six rebounds to outplay Curry (27 points, two assists). Golden State led 12-11 early in the game, but Dallas scored the next 28 points to put it out of reach early. The Mavericks' 28-0 run was the longest since the New York Knicks did the same to the Raptors in November 2017. 

Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo did it all for the Milwaukee Bucks, posting 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in a 114-104 win against the Charlotte Hornets.

The Oklahoma City Thunder avoided unwanted history, snapping a 14-game skid by upstaging the Boston Celtics 119-115. A 15th consecutive loss would have set a franchise record for the Thunder, who were led by Luguentz Dort (24 points) and Darius Bazley (21 points and 10 rebounds). Jaylen Brown had 39 points and 11 rebounds for the Celtics.

 

Celtics crumble again

The Celtics fell to their third successive defeat as they try to avoid the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. Boston made only 19 of 55 shots from the field (34.5 per cent). The home loss dropped the Celtics (32-30) into a tie with the Miami Heat for sixth place. While Boston hold the tie-breaker advantage for now, the teams will face each other twice in the final five games of the season.

While the Nets clinched, Kyrie Irving struggled. The All-Star was just three-for-13 shooting, making just one of five three-pointers for nine points in 35 minutes.

 

Towns gets style points for Timberwolves

Karl-Anthony Towns led the Minnesota Timberwolves to their third win in a row with 31 points in a 114-107 victory over the Houston Rockets highlighted by a breakaway jam.

 

Tuesday's results

Oklahoma City Thunder 119-115 Boston Celtics
Milwaukee Bucks 114-104 Charlotte Hornets
Portland Trail Blazers 133-112 Indiana Pacers
Brooklyn Nets 116-103 Toronto Raptors
Minnesota Timberwolves 114-107 Houston Rockets
Dallas Mavericks 133-103 Golden State Warriors

 

Clippers at Suns

Two of the top three teams in the Western Conference meet on Wednesday as Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers (43-20) face Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns (43-18).

Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. combined to lead the Los Angeles Clippers past the Detroit Pistons 131-124 in NBA action on Sunday.

Clippers star George posted 32 points – his third consecutive game of 30-plus points – as the Los Angeles franchise rallied for their fifth successive victory.

Morris put up a season-high 33 points for the Clippers, who capped a nine-game homestand against the lowly Pistons.

Veteran Morris nailed six three-pointers and surpassed 1,000 for his career as star Kawhi Leonard was rested.

Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets had their eight-game winning streak snapped by the Boston Celtics in a 105-87 defeat.

The Celtics used a remarkable 31-3 run to take down the Nuggets on the road in Denver, where Jayson Tatum (illness) and Jaylen Brown (knee) battled to inspire Boston.

Denver led 79-65 late in the third quarter before capitulating, outscored 31-8 in the final period.

Nikola Jokic's triple-double of 17 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds were not enough for the Nuggets.

 

Zion flexes muscles

Zion Williamson had 38 points as the New Orleans Pelicans rallied past the Cleveland Cavaliers 116-109. Williamson, who scored 25 points in the first half and fell one shy of his career best, made 16 of 22 shots, while collecting nine rebounds and tallying four assists.

Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard (1,983) passed Dirk Nowitzki (1,982) for 11th on the NBA's all-time list for threes. The Trail Blazers lost 107-98 at home to the Miami Heat.

Jonas Valanciunas produced a big performance, but the Memphis Grizzlies went down 132-125 to the Indiana Pacers. He recorded a career-high tying 34 points and 22 rebounds. Valanciunas posted his second career game with 30-plus points and 20-plus rebounds and is the second player in Grizzlies history with multiple 30-20 regular-season games after Zach Randolph (three).

Bogdan Bogdanovic finished with 32 points on a career-high eight three-pointers as the high-flying Atlanta Hawks defeated the Charlotte Hornets 105-101. Clint Capela added 20 points and 15 rebounds for the Hawks, who are fourth in the Eastern Conference.

DeMar DeRozan registered 33 points, including the tie-breaking jump shot with 0.5 seconds remaining, to lift the San Antonio Spurs to a 119-117 win against the Dallas Mavericks.

 

Game to forget for Magic

The Orlando Magic have not had much to celebrate this season and they had a tough time against the Milwaukee Bucks, who won 124-87. All five of Orlando's starters did not reach double-digit points. James Innis III was two-for-seven shooting, while missing all three attempts from beyond the arc for six points in 25 minutes. In total, the Magic were just 22.2 per cent from three-point range.

 

Space Jam?

In a scene reminiscent of iconic 1990s movie Space Jam, Hornets star Miles Bridges channelled his inner Michael Jordan with a thunderous slam against the Hawks.

 

Sunday's results

Atlanta Hawks 105-101 Charlotte Hornets
Boston Celtics 105-87 Denver Nuggets
New Orleans Pelicans 116-109 Cleveland Cavaliers
Milwaukee Bucks 124-87 Orlando Magic
New York Knicks 102-96 Toronto Raptors
San Antonio Spurs 119-117 Dallas Mavericks
Indiana Pacers 132-125 Memphis Grizzlies
Minnesota Timberwolves 121-117 Chicago Bulls
Los Angeles Clippers 131-124 Detroit Pistons
Miami Heat 107-98 Portland Trail Blazers

 

76ers at Mavericks

The Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers (36-17) will be eyeing back-to-back wins when they face Luka Doncic's Mavericks (29-23) on Monday.

The deadline is closed. Trade season is over in the NBA, with the buyout market now the focus for contending teams as they look to add to their rosters.

Meanwhile, amid the constant rumours and rumblings off the court, the 2020-21 season has continued at a pace, with the playoff battle heating up.

The Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings have all been helped over the past week by the form of key players, as they aim to make sure they squeeze into a postseason spot in the ever-competitive Western Conference.

But whose production has dipped during the games staged between March 22 and 28? Time to take a look at the numbers, provided by Stats Perform, to find out...


RUNNING HOT…

Kristaps Porzingis

Porzingis set season highs for minutes played (37) and shots attempted (28) against the Indiana Pacers, scoring 31 points, though the Dallas Mavericks still slipped to defeat at home. The Latvian had also recorded 29 points in his team's previous outing, while he averaged 13.50 rebounds (up from 8.58 entering the week) across the two games.

While he did not feature on Saturday - the Mavs opted to rest him against the New Orleans Pelicans, rather than put him out on the court in the second game of a back-to-back run – Porzingis has undoubtedly become a bigger factor at both ends of the court for Dallas since the resumption of the regular season after the All-Star break.

Zion Williamson

Like Shaquille O'Neal, but with skills comparable to a point guard. That was Mavs coach Rick Carlisle's assessment after he had watched Williamson dominate down the stretch against his Dallas team. The first overall pick in the 2019 draft either scored or assisted on the final 14 points for the Pelicans, who sensibly turned the offense over to their All-Star with the result on the line.

Williamson had posted a career-high 39 points while going 16-for-19 from the field in a defeat to the Denver Nuggets beforehand, too. It was his fifth game this season with at least 15 field goals attempted and an 80 per cent success rate, the most by any NBA player since Charles Barkley also had five in the 1988-89 campaign.

De'Aaron Fox

Fox is on an impressive scoring run, managing 147 points in his past four outings for the Sacramento Kings, an average of 36.75 per game. The guard had 44 – a new career best, no less – in a big win over the Golden State Warriors, helping streaking Sacramento close the gap to their opponents in the West standings.

There was also a demonstration of his passing skills – albeit perhaps more usually seen on a football field than the basketball court – when Fox aired the ball out to set up Harrison Barnes' dramatic game-winning shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers. "QB1," Fox tweeted about the assist... is it too late for him to enter the NFL Draft?


GOING COLD…

Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls did trade a big man before the deadline – but it was not Markkanen who they moved. Despite the rumours the Finn could be involved in a deal, instead it was Wendell Carter who was part of the package that led to center Nikola Vucevic arriving in Chicago.

So what next for Markkanen? He had averaged 18.19 points per game heading into the previous week, but his production dipped to 11.67. His issues with outside shooting did not help, making just two of his 13 three-point attempts as the Bulls suffered three straight defeats. Even with those recent struggles, though, he is making a career-high 38.2 per cent from deep in 2020-21.

Damian Lillard

Lillard scored 22 points in each of his three outings over the past week, while the six-time All-Star sat out Portland's road win over the Orlando Magic due to a knee issue. His dip in points is, in part, down to some struggles from long range. Lillard has averaged just 2.33 three-pointers made during the recent stretch, down from his 4.29 successful attempts from beyond the arc beforehand.

Still, there has been a slight rise in terms of his assists, including 11 against the Toronto Raptors upon his return to action on Sunday. The Trail Blazers won, too, improving to 7-3 through their past 10 outings.

Bradley Beal

Make no mistake, Beal is having an outstanding season for the Washington Wizards, averaging 31.3 points despite a downturn in his long-range production (33.8 per cent, compared to 37.7 per cent for his career).

Yet the 27-year-old has cooled off a touch. He managed a combined total of 48 points in successive games against the New York Knicks this past week, while his outing against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday was cut short at 17 points and six assists due to a hip injury. It meant his average for the week still sat at a respectable 21.67, though comfortably below his usual lofty standards.

Joel Embiid's injury last week appeared to clear a path for LeBron James to collect his fifth NBA MVP award.

Philadelphia 76ers big man Embiid - averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, as well as 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals - had already missed seven games this season before he went down with a knee injury against the Washington Wizards.

But Los Angeles Lakers superstar James did not see his clear run at the league's top individual honour last long.

James, who has 25.9 points, 7.9 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game, has carried the Lakers in Anthony Davis' absence but faces his own spell on the sidelines after an ankle sprain on Saturday.

That setback, in a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, means this year's two leading MVP contenders face an uphill task to remain in contention as they sit out a key stretch of the regular season.

Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets center, appears the man most likely to profit and has quickly been installed as the bookmakers' favourite.

But with several twists already in the race to succeed back-to-back winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic's standing is not yet safe.

With the help of Stats Perform data, we run through four potential winners ahead of Sunday's action - including Denver's 'Joker'.
 

NIKOLA JOKIC

The case against Jokic earlier in the season was his displays had not been able to lift the Nuggets into serious contention in the West. With 13 wins in their past 18 games to improve to 25-16, that is no longer the case.

While team-mate Jamal Murray has not been able to consistently perform at the standard he set in the 2019-20 playoffs - averaging 26.5 points in the 'bubble' but 21.1 this season - Jokic has taken his game to another level.

The Serbian's stat line for the year - 27.0 points, 8.6 assists, 11.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals - has never previously been achieved in league history, nor has any player in the past attempted at least 30 field goals across a season while shooting 56.6 per cent from the field, 41.6 per cent from three and 86.6 per cent of free throws.

This is an unprecedented campaign.

DAMIAN LILLARD

Tied with Denver at 25-16 in the West are the Portland Trail Blazers. Considering CJ McCollum has only played 16 games and Jusuf Nurkic 12, that is a quite remarkable achievement, led, of course, by Lillard.

Understandably, Lillard's usage rate is at a career-high 33 per cent, but he is making the most of those extra touches. Only Bradley Beal (32.5) has outperformed his 30.6 points per game - another career benchmark - and the Blazers star leads the league with 1,225 total points. Of those, 136 have come in 'clutch' situations, again putting Lillard at the top of the standings.

Taking a break from Portland's playoff push, Lillard even preserved enough energy to score 32 points in the All-Star Game, just ahead of Team LeBron team-mate and rival Stephen Curry (28). An MVP triumph would certainly see Portland's finest emerge from the shadow of the Golden State Warriors great.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

Antetokounmpo beat James Harden to this award in 2018-19 and then LA's James last season, so a case of voter fatigue was always set to make him an unlikely winner for a third straight year, regardless of performances.

But with Embiid and James both hit by injuries, the 'Greek Freak' surely has to come into consideration. Once again, his numbers are seriously impressive.

The only man to outscore Lillard at the All-Star Game, putting up 35, Antetokounmpo is slightly down on last year's points (29.0 versus 29.5) and rebounds per game (11.7 versus 13.6) but has improved in all of the other key metrics with 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks.

The Milwaukee Bucks forward should be in the picture to retain both his MVP and Defensive Player of the Year titles.

JAMES HARDEN

Surely voters will not reward Harden in the year he forced his way out of the Houston Rockets? On performances alone, though, he deserves to be in the conversation.

The 2017-18 winner is not contributing the same number of points for the Brooklyn Nets as he was in Houston, but then his usage is down to 28.7 per cent for the year (28.1 in Brooklyn), by far the lowest it has been since the statistic was first tracked in 2014-15.

And Harden, still scoring an impressive 25.4 points since joining the Nets, is more than making up for this slight decline elsewhere.

So far the most prominent member of the team's 'big three', with Kevin Durant too often injured and Kyrie Irving absent for a spell, Harden leads the league in 2020-21 for assists (11.2) and is second for triple-doubles (11), making him an unpopular but worthy candidate.

Damian Lillard described the process required to become a lethal shooter after scoring a season-high 50 points, with the Portland Trail Blazers star lauding Stephen Curry as the greatest in the NBA.

Lillard's haul included 20 in the final quarter as Portland secured a stunning 125-124 comeback victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, having been 17 points behind in the fourth.

The Pelicans were inspired by Lillard's glorious display as he added 10 assists and six rebounds, finishing 18 of 18 from free-throws.

Lillard is now tied with LeBron James in seventh for all-time most 50-point NBA games, while he became only the fourth player to have racked up at least 16,000 points and dished out at least 4,000 assists in their first nine seasons.

Asked by the TNT post-match team how he became such a brilliant shooter, Lillard emphasised the work ethic needed and singled out Golden State Warriors hero Curry as the best in the business.

"It's just putting a lot of time into it," he said.

"We got some great shooters in our league. Obviously we think of Steph Curry first when we think of shooters, the greatest shooter to ever play in our league.

"He'll tell you the same thing, that it's a lot of reps. Whether people are watching or whether you get credit for it or not, you put the time in and you do it at a game pace, you do it with focus, you do it where you hold yourself to a certain standard.

"You make 10 in a row at each spot at the end of your workout when you're tired and you probably don't want to do it, it's things like that over and over again over the years.

"You get better from the reps, but more so than physically you get better mentally and more confident in it because you've done it so often and you've done it when you're tired, you've done it when you didn't want to.

"Then in the moments – whether it's first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, a tough shot, an easy shot – you've got the ultimate confidence that it's going to go in.  

"I think confidence is the biggest thing for shooters, right next to just getting the reps in and knowing in your heart that you didn't cheat it, you put the time in and you deserved to make those shots and you expect that result."

The win improved Portland's record to 23-16 as they remain firmly in playoff contention, while the Pelicans slipped to 17-23, despite Lonzo Ball's career-high 17 assists.

Giannis Antetokounmpo added another MVP award to his growing collection as the Milwaukee Bucks superstar guided Team LeBron to a 170-150 victory over Team Durant in Sunday's All-Star Game.

The previous three All-Star contests had pitted LeBron James against Antetokounmpo in a mouth-watering Team LeBron versus Team Giannis matchup.

But James and Antetokounmpo joined forces for this year's 70th All-Star Game as the later fuelled Team LeBron to a comprehensive win in Atlanta.

Two-time reigning NBA MVP Antetokounmpo – drafted first by Los Angeles Lakers superstar James – led Team LeBron to a fourth consecutive All-Star triumph behind his game-high 35 points on 16-for-16 shooting.

Antetokounmpo joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to go 16-for-16 or better from the field in any game (regular season, playoffs or All-Star Game), per Stats Perform. Chamberlain accomplished the feat twice in the regular season in 1966-67 (18-for-18 and 16-for-16).

Antetokounmpo's performance earned All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP honours for the first time in his career.

Team LeBron – without Joel Embiid as he joined Philadelphia 76ers team-mate and Team Durant's Ben Simmons in sitting out due to COVID-19 contact tracing – entered the fourth quarter requiring only 24 points to seal victory under the Elam Ending rule.

Each of the first three quarters started with the score at 0-0 and lasted the standard 12 minutes, with the game clock turned off for the final period and a final target score set.

Team LeBron's Damian Lillard sealed the victory with a three-pointer – the Portland Trail Blazers guard posting 32 points.

Stephen Curry, who won the Three-Point Contest as All-Star proceedings were condensed into one day amid the coronavirus pandemic – had 28 points for Team LeBron, including eight three-pointers in 22 minutes.

Jaylen Brown was next best for Team LeBron, while James tallied four points, four assists, two rebounds and a block in 13 minutes of action and Chris Paul posted six points and 16 assists.

Bradley Beal (26), Kyrie Irving (24 and 12 assists), James Harden (21), Jayson Tatum (21), Donovan Mitchell (15), Zach Lavine (13) and Zion Williamson (10) all had double-digit points for Team Durant.

Damian Lillard posted 44 points for the Portland Trail Blazers in a 123-119 win over the Sacramento Kings before the NBA All-Star break.

Lillard shot eight three-pointers in a dominant display, while he scored 10 straight points down the stretch to help take down the Kings on Thursday.

Portland's Lillard is the first NBA player to hit a game-winning field goal while trailing in the final 15 seconds one day and then follow that up with a 40-point game the next day since Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant did it on January 31 and February 1 in 2010, according to Stats Perform.

Trail Blazers team-mate Enes Kanter provided support with 22 points and 21 rebounds in a dominant double-double display.

According to Stats Perform, it is the first time in franchise history the Trail Blazers have had a player with 40-plus points and another with 20-plus points and 20-plus rebounds in the same game.

Elsewhere, Ja Morant and Jrue Holiday traded clutch buckets in the final 10 seconds, with the latter earning the Milwaukee Bucks a game-winning lead with two seconds remaining in their thrilling112-111 win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was the first pick by Team LeBron for Sunday's All-Star Game in Atlanta, fuelled the Bucks by scoring 26 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

 

Lowry ties Raptors record

The depleted Toronto Raptors lost 132-125 to the Boston Celtics, but Kyle Lowry impressed. The veteran guard finished with 14 points and 19 assists. He tied a franchise record with his 19 assists, matching Damon Stoudamire (1996) and Jose Calderon (twice). Chris Boucher led the way with 30 points in the absence of stars Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, as well as head coach Nick Nurse and other players and stuff due to the league's health and safety protocols. Boston's Jayson Tatum starred with 27 points, 12 rebounds and five assists as the Celtics claimed their fourth win a row.

Bradley Beal (33 points and seven rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (27 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds) were exceptional as the Washington Wizards produced a big second-half performance to knock off the Los Angeles Clippers 119-117. The Clippers were without Paul George.

MVP candidate Nikola Jokic put up 20 points and 12 rebounds in the Denver Nuggets' 113-103 win at the Indiana Pacers.

The New York Knicks topped the Detroit Pistons 114-104 behind Julius Randle's double-double of 27 points and 16 rebounds, while he also tallied seven assists.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's 33 points and eight assists inspired the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 107-102 win against the San Antonio Spurs.

 

Brogd-off day

Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon had a night to forget in his side's loss to the Nuggets, which leaves Indiana 16-19 and slipping from playoffs contention in the Eastern Conference. Brogdon finished with 10 points from 34 minutes on court, shooting at four-of-14 from the field, while he missed all five of his three-point attempts.

 

Hart's half-courter

LeBron James selected two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo with his number one pick for the NBA All-Star Game, while Kevin Durant drafted Brooklyn Nets team-mate Kyrie Irving.

On Thursday, team captains James and Durant filled out their rosters for Sunday's All-Star contest in Atlanta.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar James and Milwaukee Bucks forward Antetokounmpo often go head-to-head in the All-Star Games as respective captains, but that is not the case this year.

Antetokounmpo will team up with James, who also selected Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic and the Denver Nuggets' MVP candidate Nikola Jokic as starters.

Team LeBron's reserves are Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Chris Paul (Phoenix Suns), Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics), Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers), Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers) and Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz).

Durant – sidelined as he nurses a hamstring injury – turned to Brooklyn star Irving with the second overall pick in the All-Star draft.

MVP candidate and 76ers star Joel Embiid, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Washington Wizards sharpshooter Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics are the other starters for Team Durant.

The reserves drafted by Durant are James Harden (Nets), Devin Booker (Suns), Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans), Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls), Julius Randle (New York Knicks), Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic) and Donovan Mitchell (Jazz).

Team LeBron have won the past three All-Star Games after topping Team Giannis 157-155 in Chicago last year.

Of all the hotly debated topics of the sports world, perhaps none is harder to reach a conclusion on than what exactly constitutes an MVP.

Whether discussing NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, there has never been a definitive answer on what someone needs to do to win a sport's most coveted individual award.  

Clearly, putting up impressive numbers is a must, that much is obvious. But can a player truly be an MVP for example if his team doesn't reach the playoffs? Or what if that player, regardless of statistics, is surrounded by all kinds of talent, should his chances then be diminished? And where does leadership come in? Shouldn't a candidate judged to be the best in the league be not only a scoring or offensive leader, but also a motivational force for his teammates to follow?  

This NBA season is bringing that debate back around, as several players have legitimate cases to take home the award.   

LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry are all worthy of being named MVP, but another player is doing even more with less and is truly defining what it means to be most valuable: Damian Lillard.  

Lillard is a seven-time All-Star and has been voted first or second All-NBA four times but has never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting. Lillard is having the best of his nine NBA seasons while almost single-handedly pushing the Trail Blazers to the upper reaches of the Western Conference.  

It's far from just scoring a bunch of points, though the Blazers star is doing plenty of that. He ranks fourth in the NBA with 29.6 points per game and is eighth with 8.0 assists. His 124 three-pointers trail only Curry, and he is fourth in free throws made (211). Lillard is tied with Bradley Beal (18) for the most 30-point games this season and is tied for the league lead (Curry) with 14 games of 30 points and five three-pointers. 

Where Lillard really separates himself from the pack is his continued performances in late and close situations (defined as the last two minutes of games separated by four points or fewer).   

Lillard has always been electric in high-stakes spots but he has taken it to a new level this season. He leads the NBA in points (52), is tied for the lead in field goals made (15) and hasn't missed a free throw (17 for 17) in late and close situations. He's also 15 for 20 (62.5 percent) from the field and five for eight from three-point range.   

The only other players in double figures in field goals made in late and close situations are James and Zach LaVine. James, however, is 14 for 31 (45.2 percent) from the floor and LaVine is 15 for 35 (42.9). 

To further illustrate Lillard’s clutch play, he's made nine of 13 shots (69.2 percent) in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within four points. LaVine is the only other player with as many as nine field goals in that situation but he's nine for 23 (39.1 percent).  

During Portland's 6-1 surge from February 9-20, Lillard was sensational. He averaged 32.7 points and 9.6 assists while shooting 38.8 percent (33 for 85) from three-point range.  

He tallied at least 30 points and 10 assists in four consecutive games during that stretch, the second straight season he's done that. The only other players to accomplish that since 1985-86 are Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Doncic.  

In a 126-124 win at New Orleans on February 17, Lillard became just the third player since at least 1985-86 to record 43 points and 16 assists in a game, joining Harden (twice) and Trae Young. Lillard had 11 fourth-quarter points in that win, including a go-ahead three-point play with 16.5 seconds remaining.  

Three nights earlier in a 121-118 win at Dallas, Lillard drilled a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 32 seconds remaining for the last of his 34 points.  

It should be mentioned that the other starters in those games for Portland were Robert Covington (waived, traded three times), Derrick Jones Jr (undrafted, waived), Enes Kanter (waived, traded three times) and Gary Trent Jr. (second-round draft pick).   

Sure, the Blazers also had the promising Anfernee Simons in that game, and 54-year-old Carmelo Anthony (not his real age but he's been around a while).  

Lillard is without question doing remarkable things with a very pedestrian supporting cast. And Portland (18-13) is doing far more than just getting by, winning eight of 12 to move up to second in the Northwest Division and fifth in the super competitive Western Conference.  

One big reason for Portland's success is its record in close games and Lillard has everything to do with that. After going 18-21 last season in games decided by nine points or fewer, the Blazers are 11-5 (.688) this season. Only Philadelphia (.765) has a better winning percentage. 

Portland's rise is remarkably coming without starting guard CJ McCollum, who has been out since January 16 with a broken foot, and starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a broken wrist two days earlier.  

Since January 18, when the Blazers began playing without McCollum and Nurkic, Lillard ranks third in the NBA in points per game (31.2) and fifth in assists (9.0). He's also third in 3-pointers made (196) and sixth in free throws made (119).  

With McCollum and his 26.7 points per game on the sidelines, Lillard has needed to carry perhaps the greatest offensive load of any player, and that can be a challenging proposition for any point guard.   

Curry, for example, while also a point guard, has Draymond Green to facilitate the offense, leaving him free to look for ways to score. James for all his incredible exploits isn't solely responsible for making sure Anthony Davis (when healthy) gets his touches and Embiid has Ben Simmons to distribute and score. Even the mega-talented Doncic has 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis to attract attention from opposing defenses.  

No team playing Portland this season has been too concerned with anyone on the floor other than Lillard, particularly now with McCollum out. Covington, Jones and Kanter are solid players but no team has ever installed a game plan designed to keep the ball out of their hands.  

Portland are 12.3 points per 100 possessions better when Lillard is on the floor. By comparison, the Lakers are 8.3 points better with James on the court and the Warriors score 9.9 more when Curry is in the game. 

While there clearly are other factors at play in these numbers, it's not difficult to make a case that no other player in the league is more valuable to their team than Lillard to the Blazers right now.  

Page 2 of 3
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.