Kevin Durant says James Harden's fresh hamstring injury "sucks" as the Brooklyn Nets brace to lose their star guard for an extended period of time during the NBA playoffs.

Harden was forced out of Saturday's 115-107 Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks after 43 seconds after re-injuring the same hamstring which kept him out of 21 games late in the regular season.

The 31-year-old former MVP was sent for scans on his right hamstring with the extent of the injury unclear at this stage, but Durant spoke like someone not expecting good news.

"It sucks. It sucks. I want him to be out there," Durant told the post-game news conference. "I know how much he cares. I know how much we wants to be in this moment. It sucks.

"I wish him a speedy recovery. We're going to keep him involved as much as possible. It's just a bad break."

The Nets rallied hard to bounce back from the early loss of Harden to overcome the Bucks, who had Giannis Antetokounmpo score 34 points.

Brooklyn's defense was a feature, applying pressure to force the Bucks to shoot at 20 per cent from beyond the arc, while Blake Griffin had 14 rebounds in a throwback game.

Offensively Durant and Irving starred with 29 and 25 points respectively, but the former admitted they had to overcome the emotional blow of Harden's injury.

"We try not to be too emotional out there but losing one of your leaders like that, the first play of the game, we had to re-group for a couple of minutes and figure out what was next," he said.

"The coaching staff did a great job of moving forward. Guys came in and tried to play extremely hard.

"We're going to be thinking about James. I'll definitely call him when I leave him. I hate that it had to happen right now."

Durant refused to look too far ahead about the prospect of a tough Conference semi-final series against the Bucks without Harden.

"I'm not even thinking like that," he said. "I'm taking it a day at a time, a second at a time. Get ready for practise tomorrow.

"We're not really thinking that far. We'll try take it a game at a time and see what happens."

Game 2 between the Nets and Bucks is on Monday.

The Brooklyn Nets overcame the early loss of James Harden to injury to win Game 1 of their Conference semi-final series against the Milwaukee Bucks 115-107 on Saturday.

Harden left the court after only 43 seconds after re-injuring his right hamstring, but Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving stepped up in his absence, along with Blake Griffin who had a throwback game.

Durant finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while Irving had 25 points and eight assists including 20 points in the first half but it was a collective effort on both defense and offense for the Nets.

Griffin made four three-pointers, totalling 18 points and 14 rebounds, the latter being a season-high for him since joining the Nets.

In contrast, the Bucks struggled from beyond the arc, shooting six from 30 with the main culprits being Jrue Holiday with two from seven and Khris Middleton who shot none from five.

At one stage in the first half, Milwaukee missed 11 consecutive three-point attempts to leave them playing catch up.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the Bucks' best with 34 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and four assists.

The Nets edged ahead in the first half where the Bucks rallied to finish the second quarter with a 14-3 stretch to trail by two points at the long break.

But Durant lifted Brooklyn in the third quarter, as the Nets piled on 35 points to open up a sizeable 14-point lead at the final change.

While the Bucks struggled from range, the Nets shot 15 from 40 beyond the arc, going at 37.5 per cent led by Joe Harris who made five from nine.

The series continues on Monday at Brooklyn's Barclays Center although the Nets will be sweating on Harden's status.

The Brooklyn Nets overcame the early loss of James Harden to injury to win Game 1 of their Conference semi-final series against the Milwaukee Bucks 115-107 on Saturday.

Harden left the court after only 43 seconds after re-injuring his right hamstring, but Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving stepped up in his absence, along with Blake Griffin who had a throwback game.

Durant finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while Irving had 25 points and eight assists including 20 points in the first half but it was a collective effort on both defense and offense for the Nets.

Griffin made four three-pointers, totalling 18 points and 14 rebounds, the latter being a season-high for him since joining the Nets.

In contrast, the Bucks struggled from beyond the arc, shooting six from 30 with the main culprits being Jrue Holiday with two from seven and Khris Middleton who shot none from five.

At one stage in the first half, Milwaukee missed 11 consecutive three-point attempts to leave them playing catch up.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the Bucks' best with 34 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and four assists.

The Nets edged ahead in the first half where the Bucks rallied to finish the second quarter with a 14-3 stretch to trail by two points at the long break.

But Durant lifted Brooklyn in the third quarter, as the Nets piled on 35 points to open up a sizeable 14-point lead at the final change.

While the Bucks struggled from range, the Nets shot 15 from 40 beyond the arc, going at 37.5 per cent led by Joe Harris who made five from nine.

The series continues on Monday at Brooklyn's Barclays Center although the Nets will be sweating on Harden's status.

James Harden has left the Brooklyn Nets' opening game of their Conference semi-final against the Milwaukee Bucks after re-injuring his right hamstring.

Harden was forced off the court after only 43 seconds in Saturday's clash at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

The Nets confirmed that the 31-year-old was out for the remainder of the game with a right hamstring injury.

Harden left the arena and went for an MRI scan on the same hamstring which kept him out for 21 games late in the regular season.

The shooting guard joined the Nets in January from the Houston Rockets, linking up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, making Brooklyn one of the NBA title favourites.

The former MVP returned from injury on May 13 against the San Antonio Spurs and played all five games in the Nets' 4-1 series win over the Boston Celtics.

Harden scored 41 points in Game 3 and a triple-double in Game 5, averaging 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game in the series.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden believes this is his best chance to win an NBA championship as the star-studded franchise continue their quest against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will lead the second-seeded Nets in an Eastern Conference semi-final showdown with Giannis Antetokounmpo and third seeds the Bucks, starting Saturday.

Brooklyn's 'big three' have the Nets as favourites to win their maiden championship in a playoff campaign also featuring the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.

Harden joined the Nets from the Houston Rockets via a blockbuster trade in January, with the former MVP's eyes on a much-coveted title.

During his time in Houston, Harden reached two Western Conference Finals as the franchise never advanced to the showpiece – Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors often standing in the way, while LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers also thwarted the Rockets in the semi-finals last season.

Now, Harden senses his best opportunity to add an NBA ring to his list of league honours.

"I ran into some very, very good teams which is one of the reasons I've been short [of winning a title]," Harden told reporters via a Zoom call on Friday.

"[But] you look at our roster, we're elite too. It's going to be a showdown but I'm more than confident going into this postseason just because of the roster and our schemes and the things that we can control and the versatility that we have."

Harden added: "Obviously, there's only a handful of teams that have an opportunity. And we're one of those teams this year.

"So, the excitement is there, but I think just the focus is the most important thing for myself. And just trying to rub that focus level and that engagement to detail into every one of my team-mates."

The Nets saw off the Boston Celtics 4-1 in the opening round but will face a stiffer test against two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee support cast, including Jrue Holiday.

With Brooklyn's Jeff Green ruled out of Game 1, Nets head coach Steve Nash said: "I think the strategy we'll probably start with is probably similar from a team-defending standpoint.

"It's also the type of thing we have to work our way through as the series goes on and have a better feel for it, have more and more of an understanding collectively, and also be able to adjust and adapt within our schemes, not just change our schemes. The team concepts will be the same regardless."

Few teams have ever entered the NBA playoffs with more uncertainty and intrigue than the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets.

On the surface, it's almost unfathomable to consider a team that finished just one game back of the conference's best record could have so many questions marks, but when their three star players appeared in just eight games together in the regular season – and only one (ONE!) contest since the middle of February – it's not difficult to see why there were so many unknowns.

During the regular season, the Nets' power trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving appeared on the court together for just over three and a half hours. By comparison, the last 'Big three' Durant was a part of – the 2018-19 Golden State Warriors – he, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson played over 23 hours together during the regular season. The Warriors' threesome reached the 200-minute mark before the calendar flipped to November, so the Durant-Harden-Irving trio are essentially in early season mode – and again, they only appeared in one game together over the season's final two months.

So with all eyes on Brooklyn in their first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, it took all of one game for the trio to find their chemistry.

The Nets got past a Celtics team playing without their second-leading scorer in Jaylen Brown in the playoff opener, though it wasn't exactly an offensive showcase. Brooklyn led by just three points five minutes into the fourth quarter before Durant, Harden and Irving scored 19 of the team's final 22 points to lead the Nets to a 104-93 win.

After passing their first test, the offense aced their last four in dispatching the Celtics in five games, with Boston needing an exceptional 50-point performance from Jayson Tatum in Game 3 to avoid being swept.

In the final four games of the series, the Nets averaged 143.3 points per 100 possessions when Durant, Irving and Harden were together on the court – a total of 105 minutes, 56 seconds. As a team, Brooklyn shot 56.8 per cent from the field and 52.1 from three-point range to go with an eFG percentage of 67.2 and a 28.7 assist rate when the three played together.

This came after their Game 1 tuneup as Brooklyn had an offensive rating of 113.4 in the 23 minutes 48 seconds the three were together on the court, shot 48.7 per cent from the floor, made five of 20 three-point attempts, had a 55.1 eFG percentage and 19.6 assist rate.

The offense has been playing on another level since then, averaging 128.3 points and a coveted 50-40-90 shooting percentage slash line – 51.6 per cent from the field, 47.4 from three-point range and 91.7 on free throws.

They are the first team since the advent of the three-pointer in the 1979-80 season to score at least 115 points, hit at least 15 3-point shots and make at least 20 free throws in four straight games. That's including the regular season, not just four straight games in a single playoff series or four games in a row in a single postseason – all games.

The Nets held an offensive clinic in a 141-126 Game 4 win on Sunday, shooting 57.8 per cent while making 17 of 27 shots from beyond the arc (59.3 per cent) and 29 of 30 foul shots (96.7). In the process, Durant scored 42 and made all 11 of his free throw attempts while Irving added 39 and converted all 11 of his foul shots, making them the first pair of team-mates in NBA history to score 35 or more points while going 10 of 10 or better from the free-throw line in a game – regular or postseason.

All Harden did in that one was dish out 18 assists – his most for any game, regular or postseason – and score 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

In the five games against Boston, Durant averaged 32.6 points, Harden 27.8 and Irving 24.8. Their combined average of 85.2 points is the most by any trio in any playoff series all-time – one more than Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Rudy LaRusso averaged for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1962 Western Division Finals.

With Durant, Harden and Irving together, Brooklyn is able to create scoring opportunities by spacing the floor, which is paying dividends for Harden.

In the last four playoff games, Harden made 51.5 per cent of the jump shots (17 of 33) he took from 15 feet or more from the hoop – the fifth highest rate in the league among the 35 players with a minimum of 25 such shots since May 25. He made just 37.1 per cent of such shots during the regular season to rank 125th out of 192 players with a minimum of 200 attempts..

The jump shot, meanwhile, has long been a friend of Durant, and he has been knocking down his jumpers at an astounding clip since Game 1.

Among those with a minimum of 25 jump shots attempted from 15 feet or more from the hoop since May 25, Durant leads all shooters by connecting on 61.4 per cent of his shots (27 of 44). His 6.8 made jump shots from 15 or more feet out are only just behind the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic at 7.0 for tops in the league since May 25. This came after Durant shot 46.9 per cent on these same jumpers and averaged 4.1 makes per game during the regular season.

With Harden proving to be a more efficient scorer away from the basket, defences now must respect his jump shot. The problem is, he's still as dangerous as ever to drive and either dish it out – his 17 assists to Durant are the second most by any one player to a team-mate this postseason behind Denver Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo's 18 assists to Nickola Jokic – or finish at the rim.

Harden is connecting on 73.7 per cent of his 19 layup attempts this postseason after converting 58.4 per cent of them in the regular season. Like Harden, Irving is also successfully finishing at the hoop, making 60.9 per cent of his 23 layup attempts.

Brooklyn's Big three has quickly established a cohesiveness on the court and looks every bit of the offensive juggernaut many envisioned was possible when the team acquired Harden back in January.

One criticism against the Nets all season has been their defense – or lack thereof. The counterpoint to that is that it doesn't matter how many points you give up as long as you score more. And with Durant, Harden, Irving and the Brooklyn offense firing on all cylinders, the Nets certainly have the capability to pile up more points than anyone.

This theory will be put to the test Saturday when Brooklyn open their Eastern Conference semi-final series against the Milwaukee Bucks – the only team to outscore the Nets in the regular season with a 120.1 scoring average.

Few teams have ever entered the NBA playoffs with more uncertainty and intrigue than the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets.

On the surface, it's almost unfathomable to consider a team that finished just one game back of the conference's best record could have so many questions marks, but when its three star players appeared in just eight games together in the regular season – and only one (ONE!) contest since the middle of February – it's not difficult to see why there were so many unknowns.

During the regular season, the Nets' power trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving appeared on the court together for just over three and a half hours. By comparison, the last 'Big 3' Durant was a part of – the 2018-19 Golden State Warriors – he, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson played over 23 hours together during the regular season. The Warriors' threesome reached the 200-minute mark before the calendar flipped to November, so the Durant-Harden-Irving trio are essentially in early season mode – and again, they only appeared in one game together over the season's final two months.

So with all eyes on Brooklyn in its first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, it took all of one game for the trio to find their chemistry.

The Nets got past a Celtics team playing without its second-leading scorer in Jaylen Brown in the playoff opener, though it wasn't exactly an offensive showcase. Brooklyn led by just three points five minutes into the fourth quarter before Durant, Harden and Irving scored 19 of the team's final 22 points to lead the Nets to a 104-93 win.

After passing their first test, the offense aced its last four in dispatching the Celtics in five games, with Boston needing an exceptional 50-point performance from Jayson Tatum in Game 3 to avoid being swept.

In the final four games of the series, the Nets averaged 143.3 points per 100 possessions when Durant, Irving and Harden were together on the court – a total of 105 minutes, 56 seconds. As a team, Brooklyn shot 56.8 per cent from the field and 52.1 from 3-point range to go with an eFG percentage of 67.2 and a 28.7 assist rate when the three played together.

This came after their Game 1 tuneup as Brooklyn had an offensive rating of 113.4 in the 23 minutes 48 seconds the three were together on the court, shot 48.7 per cent from the floor, made five of 20 3-point attempts, had a 55.1 eFG percentage and 19.6 assist rate.

The offense has been playing on another level since then, averaging 128.3 points and a coveted 50-40-90 shooting percentage slash line – 51.6 per cent from the field, 47.4 from 3-point range and 91.7 on free throws.

They are the first team since the advent of the 3-pointer in the 1979-80 season to score at least 115 points, hit at least 15 3-point shots and make at least 20 free throws in four straight games. That's including the regular season, not just four straight games in a single playoff series or four games in a row in a single postseason – all games.

The Nets held an offensive clinic in a 141-126 Game 4 win on Sunday, shooting 57.8 per cent while making 17 of 27 shots from beyond the arc (59.3 per cent) and 29 of 30 foul shots (96.7). In the process, Durant scored 42 and made all 11 of his free throw attempts while Irving added 39 and converted all 11 of his foul shots, making them the first pair of team-mates in NBA history to score 35 or more points while going 10 of 10 or better from the free-throw line in a game – regular or postseason.

All Harden did in that one was dish out 18 assists – his most for any game, regular or postseason – and score 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting.

In the five games against Boston, Durant averaged 32.6 points, Harden 27.8 and Irving 24.8. Their combined average of 85.2 points is the most by any trio in any playoff series all-time – one more than Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Rudy LaRusso averaged for the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1962 Western Division Finals.

With Durant, Harden and Irving together, Brooklyn is able to create scoring opportunities by spacing the floor, which is paying dividends for Harden.

In the last four playoff games, Harden made 51.5 per cent of the jump shots (17 of 33) he took from 15 feet or more from the hoop – the fifth highest rate in the league among the 35 players with a minimum of 25 such shots since May 25. He made just 37.1 per cent of such shots during the regular season to rank 125th out of 192 players with a minimum of 200 attempts..

The jump shot, meanwhile, has long been a friend of Durant, and he has been knocking down his jumpers at an astounding clip since Game 1.

Among those with a minimum of 25 jump shots attempted from 15 feet or more from the hoop since May 25, Durant leads all shooters by connecting on 61.4 per cent of his shots (27 of 44). His 6.8 made jump shots from 15 or more feet out are only just behind the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic at 7.0 for tops in the league since May 25. This came after Durant shot 46.9 per cent on these same jumpers and averaged 4.1 makes per game during the regular season.

With Harden proving to be a more efficient scorer away from the basket, defences now must respect his jump shot. The problem is, he's still as dangerous as ever to drive and either dish it out – his 17 assists to Durant are the second most by any one player to a team-mate this postseason behind Denver Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo's 18 assists to Nickola Jokic – or finish at the rim.

Harden is connecting on 73.7 per cent of his 19 layup attempts this postseason after converting 58.4 per cent of them in the regular season. Like Harden, Irving is also successfully finishing at the hoop, making 60.9 per cent of his 23 layup attempts.

Brooklyn's Big 3 has quickly established a cohesiveness on the court and looks every bit of the offensive juggernaut many envisioned was possible when the team acquired Harden back in January.

One criticism against the Nets all season has been their defense – or lack thereof. The counterpoint to that is that it doesn't matter how many points you give up as long as you score more. And with Durant, Harden, Irving and the Brooklyn offense firing on all cylinders, the Nets certainly have the capability to pile up more points than anyone.

This theory will be put to the test Saturday when Brooklyn opens its Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks – the only team to outscore the Nets in the regular season with a 120.1 scoring average.

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.

James Harden says the Brooklyn Nets are a "very, very special group" after securing a 4-1 NBA first round playoffs series win over the Boston Celtics with a 123-109 win on Tuesday.

The Nets progress to the Eastern Conference semi-finals where they will face Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks who swept the Miami Heat 4-0.

Harden had a 34-point triple-double as the Nets' 'big three' got more game-time together, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving having 24 and 25 points respectively.

"We're a special group especially when we lock in defensively," Harden told ESPN post-game.

"When we can get three-four stops in a row, we're a very, very special group. Offensively we can get it going, we've got that much firepower."

Harden was also delighted to get more minutes alongside Durant and Irving, having missed 18 games late in the season with a hamstring injury.

"We've had so much adversity, injuries, COVID protocol, whatever it may be, we've dealt with a lot of adversity throughout the regular season so it felt good to get some meaningful games in," Harden said about the Boston series.

"Obviously in playoffs you don’t want to lose. It helped us out in the sense that it's time to lock in now.

"Tonight was a really good job. They're a really good ball team. They were down a few players but they kept fighting."

Kyrie Irving called out "underlying racism" and a "human zoo" environment in the NBA after a Boston Celtics fan threw a water bottle in the direction of the Brooklyn Nets star.

The Nets topped the Celtics 141-126 in Game 4 on Sunday for a commanding 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series, but it was overshadowed by another unruly incident.

Ex-Celtics star Irving posted 39 points and 11 rebounds to help fuel the Nets at TD Garden in Boston, where a fan appeared to throw a bottle at the 2016 NBA champion as he left the court.

It comes after former MVP and Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook was showered in popcorn during a defeat away to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 2, while a New York Knicks fan spat on Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young in Game 1.

Following the latest incident in a worrying trend of fan behaviour across the league, Irving – who spent two years with the Celtics from 2017 to 2019 – told reporters: "You're seeing a lot of old ways come up.

"It has been that way in history in terms of entertainment, performers and sports for a long period of time and just underlying racism and just treating people like they're in a human zoo.

"Throwing stuff at people, saying things. There is a certain point where it gets to be too much."

Irving added: "You can see that people just feel very entitled out here. They paid for their tickets -- great, I'm grateful that they're coming in to watch a great performance.

"But we're not at the theatre. We're not throwing tomatoes and other random stuff at the people that are performing."

"Fans got to grow up at some point," Durant said. "I know that being in the house for a year and a half with the pandemic got a lot of people on edge, got a lot of people stressed out, but when you come to these games, you have to realise these men are human.

"We are not animals; we are not in the circus. You coming to the game is not all about you as a fan. So, have some respect for the game. Have some respect for the human beings, and have some respect for yourself. Your mother wouldn't be proud of you throwing water bottles at basketball players or spitting on players or tossing popcorn. So, grow the f*** up, and enjoy the game. It's bigger than you."

On the court, the second-seeded Nets flexed their muscles to move within one win of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

A game-high 42 points from Durant, and double-doubles from Irving and Harden (23 points and a playoff career-high 18 assists) inspired the Nets.

Durant, Irving and Harden tied the playoffs record for most points scored by three team-mates (104), after John Havlicek (54), Jo Jo White (34), Dave Cowens (16) in 1973 and Dominique Wilkins (50), Randy Wittman (35), Spud Webb (19) in 1986.

Brooklyn duo Durant and Irving also became the first pair of team-mates in NBA history to each score 35-plus points while going 10-for-10 shooting or better from the free-throw line in the same game, according to Stats Perform.

On Irving's performance, Nets head coach Steve Nash said: "It's Kyrie Irving. He didn't have a great game last time out. My money's on him any time after a performance he had. I loved his will, to take some of this adversity and have a great game."

Harden – on what was most satisfying about the victory – added: "Defensively. That's going to be our key every single game. Offensively, that should be the last thing we're worried about because we have so many weapons, so many guys that can get it going.

"Defensively, we have to be engaged, to be locked in possession by possession. I think in Game 3 we weren't consistently locked in on the defensive effort and it showed. Tonight was a lot better and obviously offensively we're wrecking when we come down, the ball moves, and we play with pace.

"Defensively, our effort, and then our rebounding was great too. Ky did an unbelievable job with 11 rebounds. That's elite right there. That's winning basketball."

The star-studded Brooklyn Nets are on the cusp of the Eastern Conference semi-finals after Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden helped take down the Boston Celtics 141-126 in Game 4.

Durant, Irving and Harden led the way to silence the Celtics crowd in Boston, where the second-seeded Nets claimed a commanding 3-1 lead in the opening-round series following a franchise playoff scoring record.

A game-high 42 points from Durant, and double-doubles from Irving (39 points and 11 rebounds) and Harden (23 points and 18 assists) fuelled the Nets at TD Garden on Sunday.

Durant, Irving and Harden tied the playoffs record for most points scored by three team-mates (104), after John Havlicek (54), Jo Jo White (34), Dave Cowens (16) in 1973 and Dominique Wilkins (50), Randy Wittman (35), Spud Webb (19) in 1986.

Brooklyn duo Durant and Irving also became the first pair of team-mates in NBA history to each score 35-plus points while going 10-for-10 shooting or better from the free-throw line in the same game, according to Stats Perform.

After his mammoth 50-point haul in Game 3, Jayson Tatum followed up with 40 points, seven rebounds and five assists but it was not enough for the Celtics, who are facing elimination.

 

Clippers fightback

After dropping the opening two games, the Los Angeles Clippers are now level with the Dallas Mavericks at 2-2 in the west following their 106-81 rout. Kawhi Leonard's efficient double-double of 29 points (on 11-for-15 shooting) and 10 rebounds inspired the Clippers on the road. Paul George added 20 points as the Clippers became the first team in league history to lose the first two games of a playoff series at home and then win the next two on the road by a combined 35-plus points, per Stats Perform.

The Atlanta Hawks relied on their usual stars to get past the New York Knicks 113-96 and move within one win of the second round of the playoffs. Trae Young had 27 points and John Collins chipped in with 22 of his own as the Hawks earned a 3-1 advantage.

 

Davis injury caps Lakers loss

The Los Angeles Lakers lost 100-92 to the Phoenix Suns, who levelled the matchup in the west. Anthony Davis' injury headlined the defeat as the Suns capitalised on his second-half absence. Davis suffered a groin injury late in the second quarter and did not return for reigning champions the Lakers in Los Angeles. 

Luka Doncic was cleared to play against the Clippers, despite a neck strain. While he put up 19 points, the Mavs star was just nine-for-24 shooting in Dallas. Doncic also had little support on the court after starters Tim Hardaway Jr. (four points on one-for-eight shooting), Dorian Finney-Smith (eight points on three-for-nine shooting) and Maxi Kleber (0 points on 0-for-three shooting) struggled.

 

Caruso-LeBron combo

The Lakers lost but Alex Caruso and LeBron James still produced a highlight moment in the second quarter. Caruso lobbed the ball to James off the backboard and the latter finished emphatically. James registered 25 points and 12 rebounds.

 

Sunday's results

Atlanta Hawks 113-96 New York Knicks
Phoenix Suns 100-92 Los Angeles Lakers
Brooklyn Nets 141-126 Boston Celtics
Los Angeles Clippers 106-81 Dallas Mavericks

 

76ers at Wizards

Eastern Conference top seeds the Philadelphia 76ers can seal a 4-0 series sweep of the Washington Wizards in DC on Monday.

Jayson Tatum was the hero as the Boston Celtics bounced back against the star-studded Brooklyn Nets, winning 125-119 in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference opening-round matchup.

Tatum posted a playoff career-high 50 points to thwart James Harden, Kevin Durant and the high-flying Nets in Boston on Friday.

The second-seeded Nets had seized control of the NBA playoff series following back-to-back wins in Brooklyn, but Tatum and the Celtics hit back on home court to cut the deficit to 2-1.

Tatum became the third Celtics player with 50-plus points in a regular playoff game, according to Stats Perform. The All-Star joined John Havlicek (54 in 1973) and Sam Jones (51 in 1967).

The 23-year-old Tatum also became the third youngest player in NBA history to post 50 or more points in a postseason contest. Ricky Barry (55 in 1967) and Michael Jordan (63 in 1986) are the only other players.

Big performances from former MVPs Harden (41 points and 10 assists) and Durant (39 points and nine rebounds) were not enough for the Nets.

Harden and Durant became the first pair of team-mates with 30-plus points in a playoff game since Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson in 2006.

 

Kawhi and George deliver in much-needed win

With their backs against the wall, the Los Angeles Clippers topped the Dallas Mavericks 118-108. Kawhi Leonard (36 points in 13-for-17 shooting) and Paul George (29 points) fuelled the fourth-ranked Clippers, who closed within 2-1 of the Mavericks in the Western Conference series. The Clippers spoiled the party in Dallas, where Luka Doncic produced a playoff career-high 44 points as the Mavs raced out to a 30-11 lead before the visitors rallied in front of 17,705 fans.

 

Randle fails to fire again

All-Star Julius Randle struggled as the New York Knicks lost 105-94 to the Atlanta Hawks, who claimed a 2-1 series lead in the east. Randle finished with a double-double of 14 points and 11 assists, but he was just two-for-15 shooting. Per Stats Perform, Randle became the first Knick to go 0 of eight or worse on two-pointers in a playoff game since Patrick Ewing (0 for 10) did so 27 years ago. Randle's 20.6 two-point percentage in the series is the lowest in a three-game span by any player with that many attempts in the last 30 postseasons.

While the Celtics won, Kemba Walker underwhelmed. He was just three-for-14 shooting as he finished with six points in 34 minutes.

 

Trae stars as Hawks soar

Trae Young was hot again for the Hawks after posting 21 points and 14 assists. The Hawks star joined Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Kevin Johnson, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only players to record more than 30 assists in their first three career playoff games. Young recorded 10 assists in the first half – the first player to achieve the feat in a half of a playoff clash in their first postseason since Rajon Rondo in 2008. According to Stats Perform, Young is the third player since the merger with 80-plus points and 30-plus assists in his first three career playoff games, joining Johnson and Paul.

 

Friday's results

Atlanta Hawks 105-94 New York Knicks
Boston Celtics 125-119 Brooklyn Nets
Los Angeles Clippers 118-108 Dallas Mavericks

 

Bucks at Heat

The Milwaukee Bucks can seal a series sweep of the Miami Heat on Saturday. Eastern Conference rivals and top seeds the Philadelphia 76ers are also in action against the Washington Wizards, leading 2-0.

James Harden said the Brooklyn Nets took "a huge step" by shaking off sketchy offensive form to overcome the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their playoff series.

Brookyln's big three scraped together sufficient points to make it comfortable enough in the end, the home team grabbing a 104-93 win, having trailed 53-47 at halftime.

Kevin Durant had 32 points and 12 rebounds, Kyrie Irving added 29 points and Harden weighed in with 21 as the Nets proved too strong for a Celtics side who had 22 points on six-of-20 shooting from Jayson Tatum.

Harden said: "We just engaged. Everybody that steps on the floor is engaged and pretty much knows what they have to do. So everybody had each other's back.

"No matter what happens offensively, defensively is where we show some improvement and tonight was a huge step for us."

With fans back in Barclays Center, Harden suggested their presence may have been a slight distraction, as might the pressure of starting a playoffs tilt.

But ultimately he settled on it being the players' failure to convert opportunities as the reason the Nets took so long to get going.

"We just didn't make shots. I'm sure if we made shots it would be a different conversation," he said.

Asked about Tatum, Harden said: "He's going to be better in Game 2 and we will too."

Durant reached a similar conclusion to Harden.

"We couldn't make shots, I felt like," Durant said. "When we tried to bust the game open seven or eight points, we got open threes we didn't make. We got our scorers in position, but I know I missed a lot of bunnies that felt good leaving my hand.

"But we stuck with our defense. We didn't let that get in the way of what we wanted to do out there. We helped each other and boxed out well. We've got to keep that same effort going into Game 2."

From 82-79 up, the Nets went on a scoring surge and pulled 99-82 ahead in the fourth quarter, before easing to victory.

Irving, prominent in that dominant run, said: "I just think we needed a little separation, just to settle in for the rest of the game. Fourth quarter, we've had the tendency of taking our foot off the gas pedal, of stopping attacking the rim or settling for jump shots or just not swinging the ball around and making easy plays for one another.

"Obviously we know we have all-world one-on-one players, but we make it a little easy when teams can just load up and our one-on-one game isn't working. You can see anything can happen at the end of the game. Kemba [Walker] hits two big threes, we get a flagrant foul. Anything can happen, especially against the Celtics.

"That lucky Irishman is always around the Celtics, so we've just got to be aware of anything against the Celtics. And I think we did a good job of kind of withstanding their runs down the stretch."

The NBA playoffs are here!

After some tense one-off play-in games, we can now look forward to thrilling back-and-forth series.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant and all the usual big names will be backed to deliver, but some of their contemporaries have previously found life a little tricky in the postseason.

For five players in particular, it may be do or die as they aim to bolster their reputations or secure their futures.

With the aid of Stats Perform data, we look at the issues this high-profile quartet have encountered in the past...
 

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

In consecutive seasons, Antetokounmpo won the MVP award on a Milwaukee Bucks team with the best record in the NBA. Then, in the playoffs, the 'Greak Freak' failed to inspire a suddenly one-dimensional side.

Those freakish regular season performances were back again in 2020-21, but Antetokounmpo and the Bucks might have run out of excuses if there is no evidence of postseason improvement.

Last year's approach evidently did not work. Antetokounmpo was on a strict minutes restriction across the campaign, averaging 30.4 minutes per game, but he was still unable to make the difference in the playoffs.

As in all but one of his playoff campaigns, the forward's points return was down on the rest of the season – 29.5 to 26.7 – while the Bucks superstar's shaky shooting came to the fore as he made just 58.0 per cent of his free throws, the worst rate of any of the 23 players to visit the foul line more than 50 times.

Now with additional support in the form of Jrue Holiday, Antetokounmpo simply must deliver this year – and Milwaukee start against the Miami Heat team that beat them in five in round two in 2020.
 

JAMES HARDEN

The man Antetokounmpo followed as MVP has too often had the same problem. Harden is a regular season great, but his career to date has been tarnished by playoff failings.

Although Harden had a big role from the bench as the Oklahoma City Thunder reached the 2012 NBA Finals, he averaged just 12.4 points on 37.5 per cent shooting in that 4-1 series defeat to the Heat.

The dominant scorer has never returned to that stage, subsequently joining the Houston Rockets and repeatedly finding the Golden State Warriors a step too far.

The closest Harden and the Rockets came was in 2018, up 3-2 against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before letting big leads slip in both Game 6 and Game 7 – the latter seeing Houston's star man shoot two-of-13 from beyond the arc as his team missed a record-breaking 27 consecutive threes.

Now on the Brooklyn Nets, the 31-year-old will at least have former champions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to turn to if he needs help, although the guard – still battling a hamstring problem – will no doubt be determined to succeed himself and alter his legacy for the better.
 

PAUL GEORGE

Without ever coming close to a title, despite losing back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers, George has regularly put up impressive numbers in the postseason. There have also been occasions on which he has looked lost on the big stage, however.

George's career playoff average has been kept to 20.1 by some alarming single-digit displays, notably contributing only five points in 45 minutes on two-of-16 shooting in a decisive Game 6 defeat to the Utah Jazz while with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And despite joining a talented Los Angeles Clippers team, George's woes were only magnified in the 2020 'bubble', where he later revealed he was in a "dark place" and "checked out".

The forward shot 25 per cent or lower from the field in four of 11 games, including the Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Back on song and playing in something approaching normal conditions, George has the opportunity to answer his critics, starting against a Dallas Mavericks team he struggled to master last year. The Clippers will need him in a competitive West.
 

CHRIS PAUL

There has generally been little wrong with the level of Paul's performance in the playoffs, his points average climbing to 20.9 from a career regular season mark of 18.3.

However, his deepest run was on Harden's 2018 Houston team as a hamstring kept him out of those painful last two defeats. For Paul, team success this year outweighs any individual achievements.

In his 16th season, he is entering a 13th postseason campaign but still waiting on a first Finals appearance more than 4,000 minutes in.

One of the great point guards of the modern NBA, Paul will be acutely aware of what a title would do for his legacy. He has helped transform the Phoenix Suns into a real force.

The Lakers in round one represent a daunting start for the Suns – especially having secured the number two seed – but fitness issues throughout the West might make this Paul's best and last chance to get to the Finals.
 

BEN SIMMONS

The Philadelphia 76ers ended the season with the best-rated defense in the East (105.1), but will that be enough in the playoffs? It might have to be.

On offense, Joel Embiid led the team by far with 28.5 points, with Simmons, the Sixers' second superstar, only able to contribute 14.3 – low even by his modest standards at that end of the floor.

Those numbers are unlikely to be able to hang with the Nets' 'big three' or a high-scoring Bucks team unless Philly come up with some significant stops.

Embiid, Simmons and Matisse Thybulle were among five 76ers players counted in the 22 best individual defensive ratings this year, but the pressure will ramp up in the postseason.

Simmons, a former first overall pick and the subject of trade rumours this year, is therefore required to become a playoff difference-maker, whether through improvement on offense or series-turning defensive contributions.

As enjoyable and memorable as the NBA postseason can be, it rarely produces significant surprises.

Sure, an occasional first-round upset stands out – like MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks falling to the Golden State Warriors in 2007 – but almost never does an underdog hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as season's end.

Of course, that depends on your definition of an underdog.

In each of the last 25 seasons – and in 49 of the last 51 – the team that won the NBA Finals was a top three seed in their conference. The only exception to that rule since 1970 is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who finished sixth in the Western Conference despite being the reigning NBA champions.

The 2020-21 NBA season has already been an unprecedented one, with games played in empty arenas and players being held out of games due to league virus safety protocols. And why should the oddities end when the playoffs begin?

From 2015-18, the Warriors played the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals four straight seasons, making everything beforehand feel like a waste of time. The pattern was broken in 2019 because LeBron James switched conferences, but the Warriors represented the west for the fifth straight season. Last season, James played in the Finals for the ninth time in 10 campaigns, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title.

This season, however, is suspiciously devoid of a juggernaut. The top regular season teams are unproven in the playoffs, and the typical postseason performers must answer serious questions and navigate a difficult road to the Finals.

The Utah Jazz had the league's best record this season at 52-20, a .722 win percentage. That is the fifth-worst record by a league-leading team since the NBA-ABA merger and the worst in 20 years.

 

Lowest Win Pct by Team With NBA's Best Record in Season, Since 1976-77

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

With just 10 wins separating the top-seeded Jazz and seventh-seeded Lakers, the west could deviate from seeding by quite a bit.

Even in the often-predictable east, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were considered preseason favorites in the conference, only to finish with the sixth and seventh seeds.

The fact is that whoever wins their conference to play in the NBA Finals – and ultimately raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy – will have a unique story about their road there. Whether it is a team who are a proven commodity that flipped the switch after a sub-par regular season or a high-seeded team that overcame past postseason failures, the 2021 NBA champions – like the 2020-21 regular season itself – will be unlike any other.

 

Honourable Mentions: West number one Dallas Mavericks, West number six Portland Trail Blazers

Both teams lack the depth to make a serious championship run but have enough star power in the backcourt to scare any opponent.

Dallas will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and took two of three games this season against Los Angeles. Luka Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in those games. In nine career games against the Clippers, Doncic is attempting 9.9 free throws per game, his most against any Western Conference opponent.

The Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard takes them. When Portland made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers were 7-0 when Lillard had a plus-minus above zero and were 1-8 when he had a negative plus-minus.

 

The 'Not Your Year' Tier: West number three Denver Nuggets

The season-ending knee injury to Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray was a devastating blow to Denver's title chances and takes some fun out of a special season by Nikola Jokic.

Although Murray's injury solidified Jokic as the MVP favourite – leading the Nuggets to a 13-5 record since the injury – it is hard to envision Denver making a deep run without their star guard.

The knock on Jokic has been that he would generally rather pass than score, and Denver are 5-8 in postseason games when Jokic attempts 20 or more shots.

With Jokic scoring a career-high 26.4 points per game this season and with the continued blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., however, the Nuggets remain dangerous in the playoffs.

 

The 'Prove It' Tier: West number four Los Angeles Clippers, East number one Philadelphia 76ers, West number one Utah Jazz, East number three Milwaukee Bucks, West number two Phoenix Suns

On paper, each of these teams appear to be solid championship contenders, complete with star power and coming off an impressive regular season.

But each of these teams need to prove they can take another step forward, either because of a limited postseason history or a checkered one.

At the start of last year's playoffs, the Clippers were considered by many to be the favourites but blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Nuggets was a humbling experience. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have quietly had fantastic seasons, each averaging at least 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers and Bucks have been mainstays in the east playoffs for the past few seasons and are hoping that this year's vintage has the answers to take the next step.

Philadelphia, under new leadership with Doc Rivers and buoyed by the shooting of Danny Green and Seth Curry, have a scoring differential of plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together, the best mark in the history of the much-maligned duo.

Milwaukee won 11 of their last 15 games, including two wins each against Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Nets – the two teams seeded higher in the east.

A machine over the last few regular seasons, the Bucks have faltered in past playoff series as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to score in the clutch and his team-mates shrank from the moment. The costly acquisition of Jrue Holiday should help take some of the pressure off, and Antetokounmpo is shooting 73.3 percent (11 of 15) this season in the last two minutes of a game within five points.

Utah and Phoenix are fascinating prospects after stellar regular seasons but the consensus regarding both teams is that they have already maxed out their talent before the postseason starts.

Rudy Gobert is an All-Defensive Team mainstay for good reason, but Utah have been forced to sit him in the playoffs against smaller teams or when his free-throw shooting becomes a problem.

The Jazz are expecting leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to return from a sprained right ankle, but Utah are better operating as a five-man offense than a one-man show. When Mitchell attempts 20 or fewer field goals this season, the Jazz are 27-2. When he shoots more than 20 times, the Jazz are 12-12.

The Suns are 59-21 over their last 80 games, including in last year's bubble, and have become one of the best stories in the league. Chris Paul turns every team he is on into a winner, and he has a case to receive MVP votes scoring a modest 16.4 points per game.

For all of his career accomplishments, however, Paul has famously only advanced past the second round once in his career, and he now leads a core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that lacks playoff experience.

 

The 'Sleeping Giant' Tier: East number six Miami Heat, West number seven Los Angeles Lakers

Last year's finalists have endured brutal regular seasons filled with disappointment, injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Only Duncan Robinson played all 72 games this season for Miami, and while the Heat are healthier now than during their nightmare 11-17 start, serious questions remain about the health of veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, who both missed at least 20 games this season.

The Lakers remain the betting favourites coming out of the west, despite needing a 103-100 play-in win over the Golden State Warriors to clinch a playoff berth. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games this season, and the duo only played together in 27 games.

While the health of the Lakers' superstars remains a concern, Los Angeles were 19-8 when both James and Davis played. The defending champions had a scoring differential of plus-11.4 points per 100 possession when the duo were on the court together. For as long as James and Davis are playing, the Lakers remain a juggernaut.

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets are the first team to ever have three players average at least 24 points (minimum 35 games). Durant, Harden and Irving are the highest-scoring trio since the early 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were producing some of the best seasons in league history.

What makes Brooklyn such a strong contender, however, is that the supporting cast around their dynamic trio is a real asset.

The Nets' reserves scored 35.9 points per game this season, better than the bench of fellow contenders like the Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.

First-year head coach Steve Nash has consistently been able to field a competitive squad during a tumultuous year. As evidence of the change and adversity the Nets faced this season, they have used 38 different starting line-ups – only the lowly Rockets used more.

With veteran big men like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Nets can counter size but are also versatile enough to play small, with Jeff Green defending opposing centers.

The high-profile names make Brooklyn feel like an inevitability, but there is still plenty of uncertainty with this newly constructed super-team.

Durant, Harden and Irving have only played 202 minutes together, less than six percent of Brooklyn's season. The trio appear to blend well, scoring a torrid 117.8 points per 100 possessions, but any group of stars will face challenges in their first playoff test.

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