Luka Doncic refused to blame his injury for what he described as a "terrible" performance in the Dallas Mavericks' 106-81 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Mavs were pegged back to 2-2 in the series, having led 2-0, with Kawhi Leonard's efficient double-double of 29 points (on 11-for-15 shooting) and 10 rebounds inspiring 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.

Doncic was cleared to play despite a neck strain and put up 19 points, but the Mavs star was just nine-for-24 shooting in Dallas, where he frequently showed signs of pain as he grimaced his way through proceedings.

He did not want to use it as an excuse, though.

"I don't think that matters right now," Doncic said. "We lost. Injuries are part of basketball, but I was 100 per cent. I played terrible, so we've just got to move on to the next one.

"The pain is like neck and then the nerve down. I don't really know how to explain that. It felt way better today morning than yesterday.

"I'll just keep doing massages, ice it down and then be ready for Wednesday."

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle is hopeful Doncic will be free of the symptoms of his injury by Game 5.

"He's in pain," he said. "It appeared to me that he couldn't turn left, couldn't look to his left. He couldn't turn his neck to his left, and that's difficult for a guy that relies on peripheral vision and basically has played his whole life with his head on a swivel.

"We've got to hope in the next couple of days that he can get better, hopefully substantially better. There is a two-day break between games, which is a positive in this case."

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.

The Los Angeles Clippers have their backs against the wall but head coach Tyronn Lue is confident the championship-chasing franchise will show their true colours in Game 3 of the Western Conference first round.

Expectations are high with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George leading the way in Los Angeles, however the Clippers trail the Dallas Mavericks 2-0 heading into Friday's showdown in the NBA playoffs after back-to-back defeats on home court.

The fourth-seeded Clippers are looking to banish the demons of last season, which saw the team sensationally surrender a 3-1 series lead in a 4-3 defeat to the Denver Nuggets in the Conference semi-finals under former coach Doc Rivers.

"I think when you're down 2-0 and you're coming into another team's arena, it shows what you're made of," Lue said on Thursday.

"Our toughness all year, just trust, sticking together, this is going to show us tomorrow who we are and what we are made of. So I'm excited to see [it]."

Lue added: "Urgency is the right word. Pressure or panic, I don't believe in that. ... [The Clippers have to] understand the urgency and understand what we are trying to do and basically everybody get on the same page.

"That's the biggest thing for me. But like I said, we are urgent and we are ready to go. We cleaned up some things we need to clean up."

The Clippers have lost five consecutive playoffs games since last winning in the postseason – Game 4 against the Nuggets in 2019-20.

"You can't hit back if you don't swing ... We've got to bring physicality to the game," Lue, who won the championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, said. "They've definitely been the more physical team, and I don't know why that is because we talk about that. So in order to throw a punch, you've got to swing."

"We have got to be more physical, we've got to swing and we have to come out punching and we can't keep getting behind the 8-ball in the first quarter. We have to be better defensively to start the game. We are well aware of that, and now we have to go out and execute it."

Paul George may have insisted it is not time to worry just yet but the Los Angeles Clippers face a critical Game 3 on the road against the Dallas Mavericks.

Dallas returned home from LA with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series that is a repeat of a first-round playoff clash in the NBA bubble from last season. On that occasion, the teams were locked together at 2-2 before the Clippers pulled clear to prevail.

This time around, the favoured team - though admittedly it is a meeting of the fourth and fifth seeds in the Western Conference - has plenty of work to do if they are to progress again.

Luka Doncic starred once more in a 127-121 triumph on Tuesday to help the Mavericks double their advantage, though George made clear in the aftermath that the Clippers can still dig themselves out of the early hole.

"It's a competition. We've got to rise to the occasion. The fact of the matter is if we don't, we're done for," he told the media.

"But it's no level of concern. We've just got to play our game. We've got to play through this. We've got to incorporate our defense.

"Luka's going to get his touches. We've just got to do a better job defensively of just quieting everybody else."

Doncic is certainly getting touches - the Slovenian has scored 70 points so far in the series, as well as contributing 18 assists. Now with home-court advantage, he has the chance to push Dallas' much-fancied opponents to the brink of an early elimination that will raise serious questions over their future.

With George and Kawhi Leonard paired together, the Clippers were tipped to contend in the 2019-20 season. A dramatic collapse when 3-1 up against the Denver Nuggets in the West semi-finals put paid to any title hopes, but an even earlier exit this year would be just as surprising.

"This is playoff basketball, we've just got to figure it out," Leonard told the media. "Just like the regular season, you might lose two in a row and then go on a winning streak, so just having that same mentality.

"We're playing the same team; we know what they're doing. We've just got to stay focused and make sure we are keeping our eye on the prize."

A defeat in Dallas, however, and the Clippers should be seriously concerned about their predicament.

TOP PERFORMERS

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks

In the previous series between these teams, Doncic dazzled in defeat. He averaged 31.0 points per game back then – but he is already up at 35 this time around. That number is helped by him shooting 41.7 per cent from deep, while the team itself are averaging a spectacular 50.0 per cent on their attempts from three-point range.

Paul George - Los Angeles Clippers

After averaging 23.3 points per game in the regular season, George has raised that number up to 25.5 at the start of the playoffs, despite landing just three of his 15 shots from beyond the arc. That level of production is pivotal for the Clippers, but so too is his ability to help get stops as they aim to slow Dallas' offensive production.

KEY BATTLE – TAKING AIM FROM DISTANCE

Can the Mavs remain hot from long range? Doncic was always likely to get points in the series, but the supporting cast have done an excellent job helping their star turn. Tim Hardaway Jr has been particularly impressive, averaging 24.5 points thanks to 11 made three-pointers. 

In contrast, LA have not lived up to their team average of 41.1 per cent on three in the regular season, which was the best in the league. It is not due to a lack of opportunities either, as they have had 10 more field-goal attempts than their rivals through the opening two games. 

HEAD TO HEAD

The franchises are locked together at four wins apiece when it comes to previous playoff meetings, but Dallas dominates the record in the regular season at 95-67. They won two out of three earlier in this campaign, but the solitary defeat did come at home.

Dirk Nowitzki was a "lucky charm" for the Dallas Mavericks as he watched their Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, according to head coach Rick Carlisle.

Nowitzki, a 14-time All-Star, spent his entire NBA career in Dallas, winning a championship under Carlisle in 2011 when he was Finals MVP.

But the 2007 MVP retired in 2019 and so was restricted to the role of spectator as the Mavs looked to build on a Game 1 first-round playoff win on Tuesday.

His presence was enough to inspire his former team, too, with the German pictured with current Mavs superstar Luka Doncic following the game.

Doncic led the way with 39 points in an impressive 127-121 win, improving his postseason average to 32.0 points per game. That is the highest mark of any Dallas player regardless of games played, with the top spot previously belonging to Nowitzki as he scored 25.3 points across 145 playoff appearances.

There is a long way to go before Doncic can think about repeating Nowitzki's Finals run – a Miami Heat series in which he averaged 26.0 points – but the support of the team's greatest ever player is a boost.

"I saw him and [wife] Jessica in the hotel yesterday," said Carlisle, Mavs coach since 2008.

"It gives you a profound lift when you're in between the first two games of the playoffs and you see that playoff warrior who we've been through so many battles with.

"He said that he was going to be coming to the game, which was great news.

"And I certainly believe that him being there tonight was a lucky charm for us. It never hurts, never hurts."

Although Doncic was the obvious star once again, there was also a big performance from Tim Hardaway Jr, who contributed 28 points and made six attempts from beyond the arc. Both were career playoff highs.

Hardaway said: "[It was] 2-0 when Dirk gets in the building, I'll tell you that.

"Yeah, Dirk, we saw 'Dirky' earlier in the day, we knew he was there and we were happy we were able to pull out a victory.

"It's still a long series and the job is not done at all. It's just creeping into what we can become and we've just got to keep on focusing in and locking in."

Paul George insists the Los Angeles Clippers are not concerned despite falling 2-0 behind to the Dallas Mavericks in their first-round series.

The Clippers have had home advantage so far but now head to Dallas with a significant deficit.

Tuesday's Game 2 saw the Mavs run out 127-121 winners, again led by Luka Doncic.

The Slovenian had a 31-point triple-double on Saturday and added another 39 points this time, maintaining a remarkably high standard in the postseason.

Doncic's eight career playoff games have all come against the Clippers – this year and last – and he has tallied 32.0 points per game on average.

His total of 256 points is the sixth-most for any player across their first eight playoff games from 1963-64 onwards, trailing only Anthony Davis, Bob McAdoo, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored a league-high 287 in 1970.

The Clippers appear to have no answer for the 22-year-old, as George himself acknowledged.

But the seven-time All-Star, who has averaged 20.3 points across the same eight games against the Mavs, says his team are not worried.

Although the Clippers are now on a five-game losing run in the postseason dating back to last year's series against the Denver Nuggets, George said of their "level of concern": "I mean, there is none.

"It's a competition. We've got to rise to the occasion. The fact of the matter is if we don't, we're done for.

"But it's no level of concern. We've just got to play our game. We've got to play through this. We've got to incorporate our defense.

"Luka's going to get his touches. We've just got to do a better job defensively of just quieting everybody else."

The Clippers lost their final two games of the regular season to the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the bottom two teams in the Western Conference.

They therefore finished on the same record as Denver and slipped into the fourth seed, seemingly to ensure they would avoid the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending champions who they now cannot meet until the West Finals.

However, playing into a series with Dallas, who they defeated last year, only served to motivate the Mavs.

Doncic said: "I didn't know they were doing that. Somebody told me that in the first game.

"But if you want to win the championship, at the end of the day, you've got to win against everybody. So, I don't think that makes a big statement. You just go out there and play."

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said: "This time of year you shouldn't need extra motivation. NBA playoff basketball is a self-explanatory adjective.

"It is raw passion. It's all about the team. It's all about one thing. And that is a group of guys getting together and making a stand on every possession.

"If you can't get excited for that, you know, you should be in some other line of work, because they're not pulling people off the street to do these jobs."

However, George added of the Mavs: "That's the team that's the most dangerous, the team [where] I'm pretty sure everyone expected to us win this.

"They were the underdogs, and when you're a lower seed, you really don't have high expectations, so they're playing free, they're playing with confidence.

"I think we were giving them a little too much confidence, so that's on us to shut that down.

"But they're playing with it. They're playing their game. They're playing with confidence. They're making shots.

"The supporting cast for Luka is being aggressive and they're doing their job."

Anthony Davis responded after his poor Game 1 by leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a 109-102 win over the Phoenix Suns to square their NBA playoffs first round series on Tuesday.

Davis was self-critical after their Game 1 loss, stating "this is on me", and responded with a double-double with 34 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and seven assists.

LeBron James was brilliant with 23 points, including a final quarter threein the final minute which was the nail in the coffin. James also had nine assists and four rebounds.

The Lakers led by seven at the final change but Phoenix came hard at them, albeit largely without Chris Paul who played limited minutes in the last quarter due to a shoulder issue which hampered him all game.

But the reigning champions rallied, with a Davis block followed by a three-pointer pressing them ahead in the final minutes.

For the Lakers, Dennis Schroder had 24 points, while Andre Drummond had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Paul only managed six points from 23 minutes in a major worry for the Suns moving forward, while Devin Booker impressed with 31 points.

 

KD gets it done, Mavs down Clippers

Kevin Durant got it done at both ends as the Brooklyn Nets claimed a 2-0 series lead against the Boston Celtics with a 130-108 win.

Durant was dominant with a game-high 26 points as well as five assists, eight rebounds and four blocks for the Nets who led by 24 points at half-time.

Joe Harris shot a playoffs career-high seven three-pointers among his 25 points, including 22 in the first half, while James Harden added an impressive 20 points, five rebounds and seven assists for the Nets.

Blake Griffin made two big dunks for the Nets, having not attempted one in his final 25 games for the Detroit Pistons before his move.

Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard traded blows with massive individual performances but the Dallas Mavericks claimed a 2-0 lead in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers with a 127-121 win on the road.

Doncic scored 39 points with seven rebounds and seven assists, with able assistance from Tim Hardaway Jr who made six three-pointers among his 28 points, with Dallas moving ahead in a 30-19 third quarter.

Leonard had 41 points, six rebounds, two steals and four assists, while Paul George scored 28 points with 12 rebounds and six assists for the Clippers, who face an uphill task to turn around the series in Texas.

 

CP3 and Tatum injuries

Injuries to both Paul and Celtics forward Jason Tatum denied spectators the best contest possible, with the former barely entering the court in the last with his shoulder issue which remains an issue for the rest of the series. Tatum left the game in the third quarter after a poke to the eye from Durant. He only managed nine points from 21 minutes, shooting at 25 per cent from the field.

 

Harden's three-point playoffs feat

Harden went past Reggie Miller into sixth on the all-time NBA playoffs three-pointers made list, scoring four-from-eight beyond the arc in the Nets' win over the Celtics. The 31-year-old has 321 playoffs three-pointers, behind Stephen Curry (470), LeBron James (417), Ray Allen (385), Klay Thompson (374) and Manu Ginobili (324).

 

Tuesday's results

Brooklyn Nets 130-108 Boston Celtics
Los Angeles Lakers 109-102 Phoenix Suns
Dallas Mavericks 127-121 Los Angeles Clippers

 

Grizzlies at Jazz

Western Conference top seed Utah Jazz will look to square their series against the Memphis Grizzlies after their upset defeat in Game 1.

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

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

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

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

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

Game 2 is Monday in Denver. 

 

Brooklyn's big three carry Nets

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

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

 

Butler cannot find the range

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

 

Middleton gives Bucks win

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

 

Saturday's results

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

 

Lakers face Suns

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

The 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.

For the second season in a row, the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks meet in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

It is the same, only different.

A year ago, when the league moved en masse to Florida to finish a season badly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Mavs went up against a team expected to not only make it beyond the first round, but several more after that.

The Clippers were tested, eventually prevailing by a 4-2 scoreline. However, they fell at the next hurdle, letting slip a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semi-finals against the Denver Nuggets. That defeat, and particularly the nature of it, has loomed over them since. Their attempts to bury the memory of such a dramatic collapse begin on Saturday against familiar foes.

Dallas ended the regular season as the fifth seeds in the West, though their 42-30 record was not a huge improvement on a year ago, when a 43-32 finish was good enough to only get seventh spot.

However, since the All-Star break, they have gone 24-14. In Luka Doncic, they have a superstar who has shown little interest in sticking to the schedule, developing at such a rate that, despite averaging 27.7 points per game in his third season, it is perhaps a little surprising he did not force himself more into the MVP conversation.

Doncic had to carry much of the burden against the Clippers a year ago. Kristaps Porzingis' impact diminished due to a knee injury that eventually forced him to miss the final three games. He had also managed to get thrown out in the opener too, having taken umbrage at the attention his young team-mate was receiving to get a second technical foul.

Still, even with a healthy Porzingis available this time around, Dallas will ride or die on the performances of Doncic, whose first playoff experience saw him finish up averaging 31.0 points and 8.7 assists.

Looking back, it seems astonishing that two teams passed up the opportunity to select the dynamic, do-it-all guard in 2018, while a third – the Atlanta Hawks – opted to trade him away to get Trae Young.

At 22, the Slovenian has scored 5,115 points through 199 regular-season games. To put that number into context, LeBron James had 5,097 to his name when he reached the milestone of 200 outings.

Indeed, since 1985-86, the only player to manage 4,000 points, 100 or more assists and hit at least 500 three-pointers though their first 200 games is Damian Lillard – and Doncic is well ahead in all three categories.

His buzzer-beating shot at the end of overtime in the fourth game against the Clippers tied the series at 2-2 in 2020, but that was as good as it got for Dallas. This time around, they hope to make sure the outcome is different.

For that to happen, though, they will have to find a way of keeping quiet a superstar coming off a career year – and whose name is not Kawhi Leonard.

Paul George admitted to finding life difficult in the bubble. "I was just in a dark place," he said after helping the Clippers edge ahead 3-2 in the Dallas series. "I'd checked out. These past couple of games it was just difficult but shout out to the people who stood behind me and were in my corner."

While averaging 18.5 points in the end, he was successful with only 20 of his 69 attempts through the opening four games against the Mavs, including going 2-of-15 from deep in the third and fourth meeting.

This season, however, he has looked far more at home, in more ways than one.

The seven-time All-Star finished the regular season averaging 23.3 points, including shooting an impressive 41.1 per cent from beyond the arc (up on his overall mark of 38.4 per cent). Under Ty Lue, the team as a whole averaged 41.1 per cent from beyond the arc, ranking them first in the entire league.

Leonard remains the number one for the Clippers – he was the only player to average at least 24.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game in the regular season – but George will be pivotal to his team's hopes of making a deep run, in the process exorcising their playoff ghosts.

Forget familiarity breeding contempt: these teams getting acquainted again in a seven-game series offers up an absorbing clash where both have a point to prove.

Los Angeles Clippers coach Ty Lue is paying no attention to those who have accused his team of tanking their final regular-season games to avoid facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs, adamant he is prioritising health.

The Clippers have been beaten by the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder recently having rested star players such as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Those losses saw the Clippers drop from third to fourth in Western Conference seeding for the playoffs, leading to critics suggesting they were purposely trying to engineer a scenario whereby they did not face defending champions the Lakers in the first round.

As it happened, the Lakers ultimately finished seventh in the West to set up a play-in game against the Golden State Warriors, while the Clippers are due to meet the Dallas Mavericks first up for the second year in succession.

But Lue was defiant in his response when questioned about his selection choices on Tuesday.

"I don't give a damn what anybody else thinks on the outside," he said. "We decided to go health over anything else.

"We finally got our team healthy, and that is what we focused on. Whatever people say on the outside, I don't care.

"I don't read Twitter, have Twitter and Insta-twit, all that. I don't care about all that. I am my own man and I do what I want to do, that's how I live my life.

"If you look at our Cleveland [Cavaliers] days, none of our starters played the last two games of the season.

"We took health, and that is the most important thing to me."

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.

NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 110-98 but they did not avoid the play-in tournament.

LeBron James – who appeared to tweak his ankle – posted 25 points for the streaking Lakers, who claimed their fifth consecutive victory, however they did not end the regular season high enough in the Western Conference to bypass the NBA's new play-in format involving the seventh through 10th seeds in pursuit of the playoffs.

The Lakers needed help from the Denver Nuggets but the latter lost 132-116 to the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving the Los Angeles franchise seventh in the west and set to face Stephen Curry's eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors for a playoff berth.

Andre Drummond had a double-double for the Lakers, while Anthony Davis finished with 14 points for the Lakers, who will have to win one of up to two play-in games to clinch a regular playoff position.

Portland locked up the sixth seed and their eighth straight playoff berth, meaning they will go head-to-head with the third-seeded Nuggets in the opening round.

The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, clinched the NBA's best record (50-20) for the first time in their history.

Jordan Clarkson finished with 33 points and All-Star Rudy Gobert contributed 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Jazz, who eased past the Sacramento Kings 121-99.

The Jazz edged the Phoenix Suns (51-21), who pipped the San Antonio Spurs 123-121, for top spot in the NBA – the first time they have finished with sole possession of the league's best record.

 

Curry crowned scoring champ

Curry earned his second scoring title after posting 46 points in the Warriors' 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Curry pipped Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal to the award, having finished the regular season with a 32.0 points per game average. Two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion 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). The 33-year-old also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

James Harden was absent due to injury management, but the Brooklyn Nets still secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a 123-109 win at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kevin Durant put up 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds. Irving added 17 points as he joined an elite list of shooters. Irving finished the regular season with a 50.6 field-goal percentage, 40.2 three-point percentage and 92.2 free-throw percentage – becoming the ninth member of the 50/40/90 club. He also joined Larry Bird, Curry and Durant as the only players to average at least 25 points per game during a 50/40/90 season.

The New York Knicks secured fourth position in the east via a 96-92 win over the Boston Celtics. The Knicks – back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13 – will have home-court advantage for their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, who routed the Houston Rockets 124-95.

The Wizards' season appeared dead and buried following an horrendous start, having acquired Russell Westbrook to team up with Beal. But the Wizards will face the Celtics as the eighth seed in the play-in tournament thanks to their 115-110 victory against the Charlotte Hornets. Westbrook recorded 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, while Beal had 20 of his 25 points after half-time.

Tyrese Maxey flexed his muscles as Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers rested their stars in a 128-117 victory over the Orlando Magic. In the absence of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green, rookie Maxey had 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He became the only rookie this season with multiple 30/5/5 games – LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edward only had one such game.

Precious Achiuwa's career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds helped the shorthanded Miami Heat rout the Detroit Pistons 120-107. Tyler Herro (16 points and 11 assists) and Gabe Vincent also had double-doubles as the sixth-seeded Heat prepare to face third seed the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round in the east.

 

Houston's woeful season comes to an end

After a blockbuster trade sent wantaway superstar Harden to the Nets in January, the rebuilding Rockets crumbled. A crushing loss to the Hawks left the Rockets with a 17-55 win-loss record – their worst campaign since going 14-68 in 1982-83.

 

Sit back and enjoy!

The Nets produced a stunning piece of offense against the Cavaliers in the second quarter. After dispossessing Cleveland, Blake Griffin played a behind-the-back pass to Irving, who passed the ball ahead to Mike James. James tossed the ball off the backboard for Durant to slam down.

 

Sunday's results

New York Knicks 96-92 Boston Celtics
Indiana Pacers 125-113 Toronto Raptors
Washington Wizards 115-110 Charlotte Hornets
Phoenix Suns 123-121 San Antonio Spurs
Golden State Warriors 113-101 Memphis Grizzlies
Atlanta Hawks 124-95 Houston Rockets
Brooklyn Nets 123-109 Cleveland Cavaliers
Philadelphia 76ers 128-117 Orlando Magic
Miami Heat 120-107 Detroit Pistons
Chicago Bulls 118-112 Milwaukee Bucks
Minnesota Timberwolves 136-121 Dallas Mavericks
Los Angeles Lakers 110-98 New Orleans Pelicans
Oklahoma City Thunder 117-112 Los Angeles Clippers
Portland Trail Blazers 132-116 Denver Nuggets
Utah Jazz 121-99 Sacramento Kings

 

Play-in tournament

After a day off, the Eastern Conference play-in tournament gets underway on Tuesday. The Wizards will meet the Celtics in a seventh vs eighth battle, while the ninth-seeded Hornets face the 10th-seeded Pacers for a spot in the playoffs.

The Philadelphia 76ers secured the top seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference after a crushing 122-97 victory over the Orlando Magic that saw their key players take an early seat on the bench. 

Seth Curry led the 76ers with 20 points in just 23 minutes of court time on Friday, while Joel Embiid had 13 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes and Ben Simmons added 13 points and nine assists in 26 minutes. 

Philadelphia (48-23) – Eastern Conference champions for the first time since 2000-01 – will open the playoffs against the number eight seed that emerges from next week's play-in tournament. 

Two teams will emerge from the Eastern Conference side, which will include the Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and the Washington Wizards.

The Wizards clinched their play-in spot with a 120-105 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers as Russell Westbrook recorded yet another triple-double following 21 points, 17 assists and 12 rebounds. 

Westbrook's triple-double was his 37th in 63 appearances this season, and he had at least 15 assists for the seventh consecutive game. Only John Stockton and Isiah Thomas have had seven such games in a row, with Stockton doing it three times.

 

Mavericks avoid play-in with win over Raptors

Luka Doncic tallied 20 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds and Kristaps Porzingis added 21 points and 10 rebounds as the Dallas Mavericks (42-29) held off the Toronto Raptors for a 114-110 win that clinched a spot in the Western Conference's top six.

The Denver Nuggets beat the Detroit Pistons 104-91 to draw even with the Los Angeles Clippers, who fell 122-115 to the lowly Houston Rockets. Denver (47-24) got 20 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists from MVP candidate Nikola Jokic in the win, the Nuggets' third in a row. The Clippers' loss gave the idle Phoenix Suns (49-21) the Pacific Division title. 

The NBA-leading Utah Jazz won 109-93 at the Oklahoma City Thunder behind 22 points from Bojan Bogdanovic. Utah (51-20) can clinch the top seed in the west with a win against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday or a Suns loss against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday or Sunday. 

The Golden State Warriors downed the New Orleans Pelicans 125-122 behind Jordan Poole's 38 points for their fifth consecutive victory. The Memphis Grizzlies also won their fifth straight game, 107-106 over the Kings, while resting most of their key players. Golden State and Memphis share 38-33 records and will meet on Sunday with the number eight seed on the line as they head into the play-in tournament. 

 

Bulls miss out again

The Wizards' win ended the idle Chicago Bulls' hopes of making the play-in tournament, marking the fourth consecutive season the storied franchise will miss the playoffs. 

 

Hometown kid Harris posts career night

The Raptors played without their top seven scorers in Friday's loss to the Mavericks, but Dallas native Jalen Harris did his part in a losing effort with a career-high 31 points. 

 

Friday's results

Washington Wizards 120-105 Cleveland Cavaliers
Denver Nuggets 104-91 Detroit Pistons
Philadelphia 76ers 122-97 Orlando Magic
Utah Jazz 109-93 Oklahoma City Thunder
Dallas Mavericks 114-110 Toronto Raptors
Houston Rockets 122-115 Los Angeles Clippers
Memphis Grizzlies 107-106 Sacramento Kings
Golden State Warriors 125-122 New Orleans Pelicans

 

Lakers at Pacers

The Los Angeles Lakers need a win to pull even with the Portland Trail Blazers for the sixth spot in the Western Conference, and the reigning champions are hoping to have LeBron James back in the line-up as they face the Pacers. 

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