The Philadelphia 76ers are on track to advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals after easing past the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of their NBA playoff matchup.

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combined to guide the 76ers – eyeing a first championship since 1983 – to a 120-95 rout of the Wizards in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

All-Star pair Simmons and Embiid both posted 22 points apiece as the top-ranked 76ers claimed a 2-0 series lead midweek.

It was Simmons' fourth career 20-plus point playoff game and his first since 2019, while it was Embiid's seventh consecutive 20-plus point playoff performance, dating back to 2019 – the streak tied with Allen Iverson for the 10th longest in Philadelphia postseason history.

As for Philadelphia's Matisse Thybulle, he became the first player in NBA history with four steals and five blocks in 20 or fewer minutes of any game, regular season or playoffs.

The game was marred by an unruly fan showering popcorn on Wizards star Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook had to be restrained after a fan in Philadelphia dumped popcorn on the former MVP as he exited the court with a right ankle injury.

Washington's Westbrook – who finished with 10 points, 11 assists and six rebounds before appearing to roll his ankle inside the final 10 minutes – was left seething at Wells Fargo Center, where Bradley Beal led the Wizards with a game-high 33 points.

 

Morant makes history but Jazz bounce back

Ja Morant had 47 points – the most in franchise history – but the Memphis Grizzlies still lost 141-129 to the top-seeded Utah Jazz, who levelled the Western Conference opening-round series at 1-1. Morant's 47 points are the most in playoff history by a player aged under 22, while the Grizzlies sensation is the second youngest player in league history to score 45-plus points in a postseason contest (21 years and 289 days), only behind LeBron James (21 years and 124 days in 2006). Donovan Mitchell (25 points) fuelled the Jazz in his return from an ankle injury, while Mike Conley (20 points and 15 assists) and Rudy Gobert (21 points and 13 rebounds) contributed double-doubles.

The New York Knicks won their first playoff game since 2013 after rallying to beat the Atlanta Hawks 101-92 in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference battle. Julius Randle's 15 points and 12 rebounds helped the Knicks level the series, despite 30 points from Hawks star Trae Young. Derrick Rose led the Knicks with 26 points off the bench.

 

Milton in game to forget

Usually a reliable contributor, Shake Milton struggled in Philadelphia's victory. Milton ended the game scoreless on 0-for-six shooting. He also had two turnovers off the bench.

 

Gobert says no!

There was no way past Jazz All-Star Gobert, who produced a monster block to thwart the Grizzlies in the second quarter.

 

Wednesday's results

Philadelphia 76ers 120-95 Washington Wizards
New York Knicks 101-92 Atlanta Hawks
Utah Jazz 141-129 Memphis Grizzlies

 

Suns at Lakers

Defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers will welcome the Phoenix Suns to Staples Center in LA on Thursday, with the Western Conference series locked at 1-1.

Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons insisted he is "here to win" not to prove doubters wrong following his aggressive display as the Eastern Conference top seeds seized control against the Washington Wizards.

Simmons' shooting and scoring have been scrutinised since entering the league, but the NBA All-Star was influential in the 76ers' 120-95 rout of the Wizards in Game 2 on Wednesday.

In 29 minutes, Simmons posted 22 points – including 12 in the opening quarter – on 11-for-15 shooting, to go with nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals and one block in Philadelphia midweek.

It was Simmons' fourth career 20-plus point playoff game and his first since 2019 as the Australian dismissed his critics.

"I'm not trying to stick to anybody in Philly," Simmons said, with the 76ers on track to progress from the first-round series. "I thought it was pretty hard to get 15 assists and 15 rebounds in the NBA in the playoffs.

"I thought that was pretty impressive. And we won. What y'all want? You want to win? For me, I'm here to win and I'm doing what I need to do to help my team win whatever it is.

"I'm not trying to prove anybody wrong or anything like that. I'm trying to do my job to win. I want to win a championship."

Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers described Simmons as "special" following his Game 1 performance.

"It didn't motivate me because what I did in the first game, my guys are feeling it," Simmons added. "Tobias [Harris] was scoring, Joel's [Embiid] scoring. That's the point of basketball right? People who have it going, you got to give them the ball.

"I'm not surprised Doc said that because Doc knows the game. A lot of these people who are saying that have never even touched a basketball or never played the game at a high level."

MVP hopeful and 76ers team-mate Joel Embiid also had 22 points at home to the Wizards, who will host Game 3 on Saturday.

It was Embiid's seventh consecutive 20-plus point playoff performance, dating back to 2019. The streak is tied with Allen Iverson for the 10th longest in Philadelphia postseason history.

Embiid hailed Simmons, saying: "I told him 'you've got all the space and all the time in the world. Just attack. He's physical and he's athletic and he can make plays."

Rivers also heaped praise on Simmons as the 76ers eye their first championship since 1983.

"We scored 125 points the first game," said Rivers. "It's all about us scoring points and whichever way we do it, I'm good with that.

"If we had scored 130 and he had the same numbers as the first game, that would have meant he was great in doing something else. That's what I mean. His value to us is almost, you can't measure it."

The Memphis Grizzlies did not follow the script in their shock 112-109 victory over the top-ranked Utah Jazz in the NBA playoffs, while the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns drew first blood in their first-round openers.

Utah secured sole possession of the best record in the NBA for the first time in franchise history, having topped the Western Conference with a 52-20 record.

But in the continued absence of All-Star Donovan Mitchell (ankle), the Jazz were upstaged by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in Sunday's opener on home court.

Dillon Brooks (31 points), Ja Morant (26 points) and Jonas Valanciunas (15 points and 13 rebounds) fuelled the visiting Grizzlies in Utah.

Brooks became the sixth player in the last 10 postseasons to score 30-plus points in his playoffs debut, joining Devin Booker (2021), Luka Doncic (2020), Kyrie Irving (2015), Anthony Davis (2015) and Damian Lillard (2014).

Kyle Anderson also registered a Grizzlies single-game playoff record with his six steals, surpassing the previous mark set by Mike Conley – who now plays for the Jazz – in 2013.

The Jazz were led by Bojan Bogdanovic (29 points), Conley (22 points and 11 assists) and Rudy Gobert (11 points and 15 rebounds).

 

Harris and Embiid flex muscles, Booker stars as Suns sizzle

Eastern Conference top seeds the 76ers overcame the Washington Wizards 125-118 in Game 1 of their first-round series. A playoff career-high 37 points from Tobias Harris set the tone, while MVP hopeful Joel Embiid had 30 points, six rebounds and three assists. Harris and Embiid became the first pair of 76ers to score 30-plus points in a playoff game in 31 years since Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins. All-Star team-mate Ben Simmons (six points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists) joined Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain as the only 76ers players ever with 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game. Double-doubles from Bradley Beal (33 points and 10 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (16 points and 14 assists) were not enough for the eighth-ranked Wizards.

The Suns trumped defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers 99-90 behind Booker (34 points) and Deandre Ayton (21 points and 16 rebounds). Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10, the Suns used a 32-25 opening quarter to see off the seventh seeds in the series opener in the west, despite Chris Paul's shoulder injury. LeBron James had 18 points and 10 assists in a double-double display for the Lakers.

 

Randle struggles

All eyes were on All-Star Julius Randle after leading the New York Knicks back to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. While he collected 12 rebounds, Randle was far from his usual best in the 107-105 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks. Randle finished six-for-23 shooting for 15 points in 36 minutes. The Knicks star made just two of his six three-pointers.

Anthony Davis was five-for-16 shooting in a team-high 39 minutes of action as the Lakers star recorded just 13 points against the Suns. He missed both of his attempts from beyond the arc. As a team, the Lakers were just 26.9 per cent from the three-point line after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made just one of his seven shots.

 

Ice Trae!

Trae Young was the hero for the Hawks, who edged the Knicks in their series opener at Madison Square Garden. Young nailed the game-winner with 0.9 seconds remaining to silence the New York crowd in a thriller between the fourth and fifth seeds in the east. The Hawks guard finished with 32 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. According to Stats Perform, Young is the first NBA player to make a game-winning field goal in the final five seconds in his playoff debut since Dwyane Wade in 2004.

 

Sunday's results

Philadelphia 76ers 125-118 Washington Wizards
Phoenix Suns 99-90 Los Angeles Lakers
Atlanta Hawks 107-105 New York Knicks
Memphis Grizzlies 112-109 Utah Jazz

 

Heat at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to extend their lead over the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first-round series on Monday.

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers labelled Ben Simmons "special" after the Eastern Conference top seeds made a winning start in the NBA playoffs.

Simmons, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid starred as the 76ers topped the Washington Wizards 125-118 in Game 1 of the first-round series on Sunday.

While Simmons only finished with six points on three-for-nine shooting, the All-Star tallied 15 rebounds and 15 assists at home to the eighth-seeded Wizards in Philadelphia.

Simmons joined Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain as the only 76ers players ever with 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game, earning praise from Rivers.

"I thought he was special," said Rivers. "Whoever he guarded struggled scoring, he created so many points for us, off the glass to three, off transition to three, creating switches that they didn’t want to have.

"He is just a treasure. He is something that you don't see a lot in this league and he has such a skill set that's so different. There's a lot of people that can't make what of him.

"All I see is his greatness and I just want him to keep doing what he's doing."

Simmons – as the 76ers eye their first championship since 1983 – added: "I just try to make winning plays and do what I can to help this team and be the point guard and run the team.

"Put guys in the right positions, run the right sets, if somebody’s feeling it, keep giving them the ball. I think overall today we did a good job of that."

Harris and MVP hopeful Embiid also flexed their muscles in front of a capped but vocal crowd at Wells Fargo Center.

A playoff career-high 37 points from Harris set the tone, while Embiid had 30 points, six rebounds and three assists.

Harris and Embiid became the first pair of 76ers to score 30-plus points in a playoff game in 31 years since Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins.

"Tobias, I have full faith in," Rivers said. "I said it early, I think he struggled the first couple of games, and just from the body of work, coaching them with the Clippers and knowing him and watching him what we are trying to do with him in the training camp, I just really believe it would take over at some point and it has."

Harris is bracing for a challenging playoff campaign, starting with Russel Westbrook, Bradley Beal and the in-form Wizards.

"Yesterday [Saturday] I was watching NBA games, and I was kind of surprised. I said, 'Man, all these games are really close.' It wasn't like a real big spread in any of them," Harris said. "And I think this whole playoffs, game in and game out, you're gonna see dogfights from all around the league.

"I mean, Washington, you know they've been one of the hottest teams after the All-Star break in the whole NBA, so for us, we know the power that they have and the guys that can make shots on the team. So that just adds to our focus as a group and knowing how locked in we need to be for this whole series, and that's only going to help us into where we're trying to go."

The 76ers, who were swept by the Boston Celtics in last season's first round, are dreaming big as they look to progress beyond the Conference semi-finals for the first time since 2001.

"You know we've been there," Embiid said. "And we also have a goal, and to get to that goal, we got to get through these guys. So you know, the mindset is just me, it doesn't matter if it's a week or two weeks off, it doesn't matter if we haven't played in a while. That should not be an excuse."

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.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry are the three finalists for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award.

The NBA announced its finalists on Thursday, with Jokic the long-time frontrunner for the coveted individual honour.

Jokic has remained healthy this season, starting all 72 games for the Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference, while 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.

The Nuggets big man 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.

Embiid has made no secret of his MVP aspirations and he flexed his muscles as the 76ers earned the Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001.

A knee injury derailed his MVP bid but Embiid ended the regular season with a career-high 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while his 51.3 field-goal percentage was a career best – the same with his three-point percentage (37.7).

Curry catapulted himself into contention for a third MVP award following his scoring outburst for the Warriors.

The three-time NBA champion added a second scoring crown to his collection thanks to his 46-point performance in last week's win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Curry pipped Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal to the scoring title, having averaged 32.0 points per game.

Golden State's Curry became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

Curry also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

Earlier this season, Curry claimed top spots on the Warriors' all-time scoring and assists lists, while surpassing Reggie Miller for second position on the NBA's three-pointers made standings.

 

Full list of award finalists:

NBA Coach of the Year

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

NBA Defensive Player of the Year

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Rookie of the Year

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

NBA Sixth Man

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Derrick Rose, New York Knicks

NBA Most Improved Player

Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Julius Randle, New York Knicks

It is that time of year again – the NBA playoffs.

Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

The Utah Jazz claimed the best record in the league for the first time in their history, while Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers and the star-studded Brooklyn Nets loom large.

With the play-in tournament due to get under way to determine the final eight teams from each conference set to feature in the playoffs, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers to find a worthy winner of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

 

Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

 

Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert experienced consecutive first-round exits in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but featuring in their first Conference semi-final since 2018, the Jazz prove too hot for the fourth-ranked Clippers and take a 4-2 series win. Utah, who beat Los Angeles in two of the three regular-season contests, win the opening three games of the second-round series and never look back as pressure mounts on Leonard, Paul George and the championship-chasing Clippers.

The standout teams in the east, the 76ers and Nets barely raise a sweat en route to the Conference Finals. In pursuit of a first championship since 1983, the 76ers sweep the Knicks 4-0, while the Nets end Miami's hopes with their own devastating 4-0 success.

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

A matchup many predicted when the 76ers appointed head coach Rivers and the Nets landed former MVP Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January. Philadelphia's cast of Embiid, fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, sharp-shooter Seth Curry and Danny Green come up against Durant, Harden, Irving and Blake Griffin, and it is Brooklyn who prevail in a thriller. The Nets and 76ers split the opening six games before a deciding seventh game. With a championship berth on the line, Steve Nash's Nets edge the 76ers 112-109 as question marks again emerge over whether the Philadelphia franchise can succeed with both Embiid and Simmons.

Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

 

Jazz make history

The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

Despite a frightening array of talent, the Nets go down 4-1 in the Finals as the Jazz make history, headlined by a resounding 121-102 win in Game 5.

After consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz finally break through for their first NBA title thanks to coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Co.

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.

Ben Simmons said he does not care who the Philadelphia 76ers meet in the opening round of the NBA playoffs after clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The 76ers claimed the best record in the east for the first time since 2000-01 thanks to Friday's 122-97 rout of the lowly Orlando Magic.

Seth Curry posted 20 points, while Joel Embiid had 13 points and 11 rebounds as the 76ers earned home-court advantage for the playoffs.

The 76ers will begin their quest for a first NBA championship since 1983 on May 22, starting against the eighth seed from the play-in tournament.

But All-Star Simmons, who put up 13 points, nine assists and four rebounds, said: "I don't care who we play.

"That's the point of being the number one seed, you feel like you can beat anybody.

"If we were scared, we shouldn't be in this position.

"We want to get ready for the playoffs. We put ourselves in a good position, but we want to win a championship."

The last time the 76ers topped the Eastern Conference ahead of the postseason, Philadelphia – led by MVP Allen Iverson – went on to reach the NBA Finals, though they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1.

Philadelphia have not advanced to the NBA Finals since, with the 76ers failing to make it beyond the conference semi-finals in 2003, 2012, 2018 and 2019, while they were swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics last season.

MVP hopeful Embiid insisted: "I'm happy about what we accomplished, but we have a long way to go. Now's the time to lock in and go get the whole thing."

"Home-court advantage helps a lot," Embiid said. "We've been dominant at home; we barely lose here. It means a lot to have the number one seed."

Embiid – who has flourished under head coach Doc Rivers, who replaced Brett Brown at the start of the season – added: "We did it as a group, felt like everybody contributed. Great coaching staff, great front office, the group we've had this year has been exceptional.

"As good as we were in the regular season, I think we're going to be even better in the playoffs."

Giannis Antetokounmpo produced a remarkable individual performance to keep the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference top two hunt with a 142-133 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday.

Antetokounmpo scored 40 points, with 15 rebounds and six assists as the Bucks closed in on the second-placed Brooklyn Nets (46-24), improving their record to 45-25.

Milwaukee shot at 57 per cent on the night, boosted by the Greek forward who shot 14-from-18 from the field, going at 77.8 per cent.

Antetokounmpo's display was the first since Charles Barkley in 1988 where a player had at least 40 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and shot at higher than 75 per cent.

At the top of the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers missed the chance to claim first seeding again, going down 106-94 to the surging Miami Heat.

The 76ers trailed by 19 at the half with Joel Embiid returning from illness, while Jimmy Butler had 16 points by the main break.

Butler finished with 21 points including four-from-four beyond the arc as the Heat claimed their sixth win from their past seven.

 

Blazers blow buzzer beater, Knicks still in top four hunt

The Portland Trail Blazers left the door open for the Los Angeles Lakers to usurp them in the playoffs race after going down on the buzzer 118-117 to the Phoenix Suns.

C.J. McCollum, who had 27 points, had a shot to win the game on the buzzer but missed, meaning the Blazers move to 41-30, marginally ahead of the Lakers on 40-30 and seventh in the West. Damian Lillard had 41 points for Portland.

The New York Knicks kept up their push for a top four spot in the East with a 102-98 win over the San Antonio Spurs, who qualify for the play-in tournament after the Sacramento Kings lost.

Julius Randle had 25 points with nine rebounds and nine assists for the Knicks, while R.J. Barrett scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half.

MVP favourite Nikola Jokic faced off against Rookie of the Year candidate Anthony Edwards as the Denver Nuggets won 114-103 over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Jokic dominated with 31 points and 14 rebounds, while Edwards had 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The Atlanta Hawks made it 10 consecutive home wins with a 116-93 victory over the Orlando Magic led by Clint Capela with 14 points and 14 rebounds.

 

Kings' long wait extends

The Sacramento Kings' 116-110 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies means they are mathematically out of post-season calculations, which also means they long wait for playoffs basketball extends. The Kings have not made the playoffs since 2006.

 

Clippers on-song beyond the arc

The Los Angeles Clippers scored an outstanding 21 three-pointers as a team in their 113-90 win over the Charlotte Hornets. They went at 46.7 per cent from range with Reggie Jackson draining five after coming off the bench.

 

Thursday's results

Los Angeles Clippers 113-90 Charlotte Hornets
Milwaukee Bucks 142-133 Indiana Pacers
Miami Heat 106-94 Philadelphia 76ers
New York Knicks 102-98 San Antonio Spurs
Atlanta Hawks 116-93 Orlando Magic
Chicago Bulls 114-102 Toronto Raptors
Denver Nuggets 114-103 Minnesota Timberwolves
Memphis Grizzlies 116-110 Sacramento Kings
Phoenix Suns 118-117 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Magic at 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers, after back-to-back losses, will look to seal top seeding in the Eastern Conference when they host the lowly Orlando Magic.

Giannis Antetokounmpo produced a remarkable individual performance to keep the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference top two hunt with a 142-133 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday.

Antetokounmpo scored 40 points, with 15 rebounds and six assists as the Bucks closed in on the second-placed Brooklyn Nets (46-24), improving their record to 45-25.

Milwaukee shot at 57 per cent on the night, boosted by the Greek forward whose 40 points came from 18 shots. Antetokounmpo shot 14-from-18 from the field, going at 77.8 per cent.

Antetokounmpo's display was the first since Charles Barkley in 1988 where a player had at least 40 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and shot at higher than 75 per cent.

At the top of the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers missed the chance to claim first seeding again, going down 106-94 to the surging Miami Heat.

The 76ers trailed by 19 at the half with Joel Embiid returning from illness, while Jimmy Butler had 16 points by the main break.

Butler finished with 21 points including four-from-four beyond the arc as the Heat claimed their sixth win from their past seven.

 

Blazers blow buzzer beater, Knicks still in top four hunt

The Portland Trail Blazers left the door open for the Los Angeles Lakers to usurp them in the playoffs race after going down on the buzzer 118-117 to the Phoenix Suns.

C.J. McCollum, who had 27 points, had a shot to win the game on the buzzer but missed, meaning the Blazers move to 41-30, marginally ahead of the Lakers on 40-30 and seventh in the West. Damian Lillard had 41 points for Portland.

The New York Knicks kept up their push for a top four spot in the East with a 102-98 win over the San Antonio Spurs, who qualify for the play-in tournament after the Sacramento Kings lost.

Julius Randle had 25 points with nine rebounds and nine assists for the Knicks, while R.J. Barrett scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half.

MVP favourite Nikola Jokic faced off against Rookie of the Year candidate Anthony Edwards as the Denver Nuggets won 114-103 over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Jokic dominated with 31 points and 14 rebounds, while Edwards had 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The Atlanta Hawks made it 10 consecutive home wins with a 116-93 victory over the Orlando Magic led by Clint Capela with 14 points and 14 rebounds.

 

Kings' long wait extends

The Sacramento Kings' 116-110 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies means they are mathematically out of post-season calculations, which means they long wait for playoffs basketball extends. The Kings have not made the playoffs since 2006.

 

Clippers on-song beyond the arc

The Los Angeles Clippers scored an outstanding 21 three-pointers as a team in their 113-90 win over the Charlotte Hornets. They went at 46.7 per cent from range with Reggie Jackson draining five after coming off the bench.

 

Thursday's results

Los Angeles Clippers 113-90 Charlotte Hornets
Milwaukee Bucks 142-133 Indiana Pacers
Miami Heat 106-94 Philadelphia 76ers
New York Knicks 102-98 San Antonio Spurs
Atlanta Hawks 116-93 Orlando Magic
Chicago Bulls 114-102 Toronto Raptors
Denver Nuggets 114-103 Minnesota Timberwolves
Memphis Grizzlies 116-110 Sacramento Kings
Phoenix Suns 118-117 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Magic at 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers, after back-to-back losses, will look to seal top seeding in the Eastern Conference when they host the lowly Orlando Magic.

When has a player averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season but failed to win the NBA MVP award?

Here's a hint: the internet was in its infancy, Hootie and the Blowfish were selling albums by the millions and the Orlando Magic, of all teams, were the league's biggest thing.

Not since Shaquille O'Neal in 1994-95 has a player reached those numbers without taking away the NBA's most cherished piece of individual hardware. Shaq actually did it twice without winning an MVP, losing out to Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94 and David Robinson the following year. O'Neal did average 29 and 10 while winning an MVP with the Lakers in 1999-2000, and the two players who have hit those marks since (Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019-20) each came home with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Joel Embiid appears destined to buck that recent trend.

If money talks, it's given an emphatic answer as to who will seize the honour in 2020-21. Nikola Jokic has emerged as an overwhelming favourite in betting markets across the globe to claim his first MVP, with Embiid holding the second-shortest odds and a rising Stephen Curry emerging as a clear third in the public's mind.

Jokic's credentials are unquestionably worthy. The Denver Nuggets big man is closing out an unprecedented season for a player who spends his time predominately in the post, having posted averages of 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists heading into Denver's final three regular-season outings.

Only two players in league history have averaged 25-10-8 in a season, and neither was a frontcourt player. The great Oscar Robertson did it three consecutive times across 1960-63, and Westbrook had two straight across 2016-18.

Jokic's immense value to a Nuggets team who have successfully withstood the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray to secure a top-four seed in the Western Conference is perhaps best illustrated by his share of the team's combined points, rebound and assists. No player this season has accumulated a higher percentage than his 24.5, with the Mavericks' Luka Doncic and the Knicks' Julius Randle tied in second at 22.8 per cent.

Embiid is well down on the list, ranking 16th overall due to the 20 games the somewhat fragile seven-footer has missed this season. His dominance and importance to the Eastern Conference front-running Philadelphia 76ers would show, however, if the chart were adjusted to exclude games in which a particular player was absent.

Using that criteria, Embiid has accounted for 23.2 percent of the 76ers' points, rebounds and assists in games that he's taken the floor. That number is right in line with that of the defending two-time MVP Antetokounmpo and would put him in the top five. For the record, Doncic would move ahead of Jokic for the top spot at 24.8 percent.

Embiid's scattered availability is no doubt detrimental to his case, more so when factoring in that Jokic hasn't sat out a game all season. Just once has a player missed 13 or more games in a season and been named MVP, when Bill Walton earned the award in 1977-78 despite playing in only 58 of the Trail Blazers' 82 games.

On the flip side, it's hard to find anyone who's been more instrumental to his team's success than Philly's All-Star center. The Sixers are 9-11 when Embiid has missed a game and 38-11 when he plays, a .776 winning percentage that would tower over the rest of the NBA this season.

Embiid's importance becomes even more apparent when viewing the 76ers' performance when he's been on the court as opposed to off.

Their points per 100 possessions drop to 105.1 from 117.2, while opponents' points climb slightly from 103.9 to 105.8. That means a point differential of +13.3 falls dramatically to -0.7. Their shooting from the field (50.5 per cent to 45.4 per cent) and from three-point range (40.4 per cent to 34.7 per cent) also decreases.

Though the Sixers have remained an elite defensive team without Embiid, all of those off-court offensive splits would rank near the bottom of the NBA. It's not hyperbole to summarise that without their franchise player, Philadelphia would be scrapping for a spot in the play-in round instead of being on the verge of claiming a conference regular-season title.

Embiid is far from the only star whose team perform at a significantly lower level when he's not around, though. The Warriors have won just one of the eight games Curry has missed, while defending champions the Lakers are a mediocre 12-15 when LeBron James has been injured or rested and have been 11.6 points per 100 possessions better when 'The King' has taken the court compared to off it.

Like Embiid, the slew of missed games is going to be hard for James to justify in the minds of voters, and he's not playing for a team set for the top playoff seed in his conference. And the Lakers' descent into the West's middle tier can't all be attributed to James' absences – they also were without Anthony Davis in two-thirds of the games LeBron hasn't played.

Curry also represents an interesting case, and if there were an MVP for only the season's final month-plus, he'd be a hands-down winner. The veteran sharpshooter has averaged an insane 36.7 points per game since April 10, a stretch in which the Warriors have gone 13-5 to elevate themselves from a postseason question mark to a lock for the play-in round.

The two-time MVP also has the on/off split factor working in his favour, as the Warriors are +4.0 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when he's on the court and a lottery-level -4.9 differential when he's not. Another potential feather in Curry's cap would be if he can hold off Washington's Bradley Beal for the league's scoring title, as four of the past seven MVPs led the NBA in points per game.

Curry has rightfully received the most credit for Golden State's late-season surge, but a closer look shows it hasn't been a one-man show. Andrew Wiggins is finally at least bearing some resemblance to the player the Minnesota Timberwolves thought they were getting back in 2014, one teams build franchises around, and the Warriors have posted a league-low 105.1 defensive rating since their hot streak began.

For all his heroics on the offensive end, Curry hasn't been a primary contributor to the Warriors' recent stretch of lockdown defense. Since April 10, opponents score fewer points (98.6 per 100 possessions, down from 107.6) when Curry is off the court and are less accurate from the field (41.9 per cent, down from 44.9), beyond the arc (27.9 per cent, down from 35.4) and in their effective field goal percentage (47.6, down from 51.9).

Jokic also won't be adding any All-Defensive Team mentions to his expanding resume, and it is a bit harder to quantify exactly where the Nuggets would be without him simply because he hasn't missed a game.

One thing's for certain, however – no player this season has had a larger impact on his team's offensive performance than the Serbian star. Their points climb to 118.2 per 100 possessions when he is involved, meaning a +6.0 point differential versus -0.7 when he is absent – despite the team allowing more points with Jokic on the court. The field goal percentage improves to 50.4, while their assists per 100 (28.4, from 22.1) are up and their turnovers (12.7, from 15.7) are down.

The Nuggets are arguably the league's most efficient offensive team with Jokic on the floor. Combine that with a unicorn quality of being the best passing big man of the digital age and a consistency edge on his main rivals, and you've got a recipe for a likely MVP winner. Curry and Doncic's otherwise strong candidacies take a hit by their teams currently standing eighth and sixth, respectively, in the West. Antetokounmpo likely gets hurt by recency bias (no one wants to vote for the same player three straight years) and his own team's success (the Bucks have still played at a relatively high level when he's missed games or not been on the court).

In reality, though, the race shouldn't be as lopsided as the betting odds suggest, provided voters can overlook Embiid's spotty attendance record. History shows, however, that will be a factor that ultimately works in Jokic's favour.

The Los Angeles Lakers kept alive their aspirations to avoid the Play-In Tournament with a 101-91 over-time victory over the New York Knicks on Tuesday.

With LeBron James still absent with an ankle problem, the Lakers were pushed all the way by the in-form Knicks who had the chance to win the match in normal time when Julius Randle missed a good two-point look on the buzzer.

With James and Dennis Schroder unavailable and Alex Caruso exiting early with foot soreness, Talen Horton-Tucker played a key role with 13 points and 10 assists, including a vital over-time three-pointer after a costly turnover moments earlier.

In a team effort, Anthony Davis finished with 20 points, four assists and six rebounds, Andre Drummond had 16 points and 18 rebounds and Kyle Kuzma added 23 points off the bench.

The win improves the Lakers to 39-30, holding seventh spot in the Western Conference, behind the Dallas Mavericks (40-29) who lost to the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday.

Ja Morant (24 points) won the battle against Luka Doncic in a game where the Mavericks could have ensured they would avoid the Play-In Tournament.

 

76ers miss chance and miss Embiid

The Philadelphia 76ers missed the chance to seal top seeding in the East with a 103-94 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

Pacers center Domantas Sabonis had a busy night with 16 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists.

Joel Embiid missed for the 76ers with illness with Tobias Harris scoring 27 points in his absence as Philadelphia leave the door open at 47-22.

The 76ers are 8-11 without Embiid this season, while they are 38-11 with him in the side.

The Brooklyn Nets put together back-to-back wins to keep the pressure on the 76ers, triumphing 115-107 over the Chicago Bulls.

There was an injury scare for the Nets with Kyrie Irivng leaving the game with a facial contusion and undergoing testing for a possible concussion after a stray elbow from Nikola Vucevic early in the third.

Kevin Durant top scored for the Nets with 21 points and Bruce Brown Jr had 15 points to half-time and finished with 10 rebounds too, while Zach LaVine had a game-high 41 points for the Bulls.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 27 points, had 12 rebounds and five assists in the Milwaukee Bucks'  114-102 win over the Orlando Magic to improve their record to 43-25.

Stephen Curry was not his usual self, kept to only four points until half-time in the Golden State Warriors' 122-116 victory over the Phoenix Suns.

Curry finished with 21, while Andrew Wiggins had 38 points and Draymond Green got a triple-double as the Warriors stay in the hunt at 37-33 and eighth in the West.

The Miami Heat clinched a top six berth with a 129-121 win over the Boston Celtics with Tyler Herro starring off the bench with 24 points and 11 rebounds.

 

Thunder come crashing down

Oklahoma City Thunder have fallen away drastically this season and their 122-106 ot the Sacramento Kings made it eight consecutive defeats for Mark Daigneault's side. They have won once in their past 23, having been 20-26 at one point.

 

Jokic's defense splitting assist

Prime MVP candidate Nikola Jokic showcased his all-rounder game with an unbelievable pass for Austin Rivers in the Denver Nuggets' 117-112 win over the Charlotte Hornets. Jokic finished with six assists, along with 30 points and 11 rebounds.

 

Tuesday's results

Denver Nuggets 117-112 Charlotte Hornets
Minnesota Timberwolves 119-100 Detroit Pistons
Los Angeles Clippers 115-96 Toronto Raptors
Miami Heat 129-121 Boston Celtics
Memphis Grizzlies 133-104 Dallas Mavericks
Indiana Pacers 103-94 Philadelphia 76ers
Brooklyn Nets 115-107 Chicago Bulls
Milwaukee Bucks 114-102 Orlando Magic
Golden State Warriors 122-116 Phoenix Suns
Los Angeles Lakers 101-99 (OT) New York Knicks
Sacramento Kings 122-106 Oklahoma City Thunder

 

Spurs at Nets

The San Antonio Spurs are looking to seal their Play-In Tournament position while the Brooklyn Nets are out to reinforce their top two seeding.

The Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to six games thanks to another dominant performance from MVP hopeful Joel Embiid.

Embiid posted 34 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes as the streaking 76ers (45-21) eased past the lowly Houston Rockets 135-115 in NBA action on Wednesday.

The All-Star became the first 76ers player in franchise history with a 30/10 game in 25 minutes or less, while Embiid earned his 15th 30-point, 10-rebound game of the season – only two-time reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has more such games (16).

Kelly Olynyk scored 27 points and Rockets rookie KJ Martin had a career-high 23 points with 10 rebounds and six assists for Houston (16-50), who own the worst record in the league.

 

History beckons for Westbrook

Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook posted another triple-double of 29 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds in an agonising 135-134 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks. Westbrook (179) is now within three triple-doubles of surpassing Oscar Robertson (181) for the all-time record. With 42 points against the Bucks, Wizards team-mate Bradley Beal tallied his 29th career 40-point game, passing Gilbert Arenas for the most in Washington franchise history. Antetokounmpo fell just short of a triple-double – 23 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

The Utah Jazz reclaimed the number one seed in the west behind Jordan Clarkson, who was 12-for-16 shooting for 30 points in a 126-94 defeat of the San Antonio Spurs.

The Boston Celtics routed the Orlando Magic 132-96 and the Portland Trail Blazers crushed the Cleveland Cavaliers 141-105. According to Stats Perform, it is the second day in NBA history with two road teams winning by 35-plus points after November 10, 1971.

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic's 32 points and 12 rebounds inspired the Denver Nuggets to a 113-97 victory at home to the New York Knicks.

The Memphis Grizzlies held on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 139-135 after Ja Morant had 37 points and 10 assists. It was Morant's fifth 30-point, 10-assist game – the most in Grizzlies history. No other player has more than two. Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards tied a career high with 42 points.

 

CP3 struggles as sun sets on Phoenix

The Phoenix Suns were upstaged 135-103 by the Atlanta Hawks. Second in the west, the Suns slipped a game off the pace after star Chris Paul finished just three-for-11 shooting for nine points in 24 minutes. Phoenix team-mate Cameron Johnson was only one-of-nine shooting, missing all six of his three-point attempts for a measly two points in 19 minutes off the bench.

Amid uncertainty over head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Indiana Pacers lost 104-93 to the Sacramento Kings. Aaron Holiday was two-for-nine shooting, including one-for-three from beyond the arc in a five-point display in the starting five.

The Trail Blazers made light work of the Cavaliers thanks to Damian Lillard's 32 points, but C.J. McCollum was far from his best. In 31 minutes, McCollum was three-for-14 shooting, making one of five attempts from three-point range for 10 points.

Rockets veteran Avery Bradley made just one of his six field goals, missing all three of his three-point attempts for two points.

 

The 'Greek freak'

Antetokounmpo was doing Antetokounmpo things for the Bucks, who won their fourth straight game. The Bucks superstar showcased his physicality with a powerful dunk against the Wizards.

 

Wednesday's results

Boston Celtics 132-96 Orlando Magic
Portland Trail Blazers 141-105 Cleveland Cavaliers
Atlanta Hawks 135-103 Phoenix Suns
Sacramento Kings 104-93 Indiana Pacers
Philadelphia 76ers 135-115 Houston Rockets
Milwaukee Bucks 135-134 Washington Wizards
Memphis Grizzlies 139-135 Minnesota Timberwolves
Utah Jazz 126-94 San Antonio Spurs
Denver Nuggets 113-97 New York Knicks

 

Lakers at Clippers

Bragging rights and playoff positioning will be on the line when the Los Angeles Lakers (37-28) face the Los Angeles Clippers (44-22) on Thursday. Defending champions the Lakers are sixth in the Western Conference, just a half-game above the play-in spot, while the Clippers are third and already assured a postseason berth.

There are just two weeks of the NBA regular season remaining and the race for the playoffs is really hotting up.

The top teams in the East are jostling for the first seed, while the Washington Wizards' form has taken them into a play-in place.

The West is even more open, with the top seven in flux and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers falling into the play-in game as things stand.

Lakers superstar LeBron James even suggested the individual responsible for this format "needs to be fired".

There is still time for James and Co, but players with momentum – identified by our NBA Heat Check, powered by Stats Perform data – will be key.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

The Boston Celtics are down in seventh in the East, meaning they are set to go through the play-in, but their 1.0-game deficit to the teams above them would undoubtedly be greater if not for Tatum.

Although the team went 2-2 last week, one of their wins – against the San Antonio Spurs – was particularly memorable.

Tatum put up 60 points in the overtime win, where the Celtics trailed by 32 at one stage. That performance matched Larry Bird's single-game Boston scoring record and ensured he averaged 42.7 over the three games he featured in, up from his prior seasonal mark of 25.7 for the biggest increase of the week.

Aaron Nesmith

Tatum also had some help from the bench as rookie Nesmith found his feet at this level. Last year's first-round pick averaged 3.4 points per game through April 25 and continued this unimpressive form with two points as Tatum sat out against the Orlando Magic. Then he hit form.

Displays of 15, 16 and 16 points meant an average of 8.9 for the week, including 85.7 per cent shooting against the Portland Trail Blazers, making all four attempts from beyond the arc.

It was a timely improvement as fellow wing Evan Fournier, dealing with long-term COVID-19 effects, scored just 10.5 points per game, down from 17.5 for the league's eighth-largest decline last week.

Michael Porter Jr

Nikola Jokic will win the NBA MVP award, but injuries to Jamal Murray and Will Barton appeared to have hit his hopes of team success with the Denver Nuggets until they won four straight last week.

Porter is the Nuggets' third-best scorer but looked better than that as he led the team in points in two of those victories.

Enjoying his first year as a regular starter, Porter had boosted his average to 18.2 points per game with a career-high 39 in the final game of the previous week yet raised those standards even further with 26.8 over four outings.
 

GOING COLD...

Joel Embiid

Jokic's impending individual recognition is in part due to the failure of his MVP rivals to stay fit. Joel Embiid was the frontrunner until he missed 10 games in a row.

The Philadelphia 76ers center might still have returned in time to wrestle back the top honour, but limited minutes last week – even in four Sixers wins – look to have put paid to those hopes.

Only appearing for more than 25 minutes when he contributed 34 points against the Spurs, Embiid averaged 22.5ppg, a significant decrease on his prior 30.0 for 2020-21.

James in LA, another early contender, certainly will not trouble Jokic after he returned for two games, scored 35 points in total and then went down again.

Malcolm Brogdon

The 76ers can afford to give Embiid a light schedule as they focus on an NBA title, but the Indiana Pacers would be happy simply making the playoffs from ninth in the East.

Their hopes were hit by a tough week for Brogdon, who played only 12 minutes in their second game against the Brooklyn Nets before succumbing to a hamstring issue that kept him out of a trip to Oklahoma City.

Brogdon, previously scoring 21.6 points for the year, could only partially be excused by injury, though, having shot five-of-14 against Portland then none-of-five in a brief Brooklyn outing.

Rudy Gobert

The Utah Jazz are wobbling at the top of the West, where they have been joined on 46-18 by the Phoenix Suns following a 2-2 week that included a defeat to their rivals for the first seed.

Phoenix and Deandre Ayton continue to prove tricky opponents for presumed Defensive Player of the Year Gobert, who could not carry the load in Donovan Mitchell's absence.

With 10 rebounds against the Suns – relatively poor by his dominant standards – Gobert averaged 10.3 for the week, down from 13.6, and Utah have now lost four straight against their co-leaders. That is a worry heading into the postseason.

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