Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis shouldered the blame for the NBA champions' Game 1 loss to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference first round.

Davis was far from his best as LeBron James and the Lakers went down 99-90 to the second-seeded Suns in Phoenix on Sunday.

Lakers big man Davis was five-for-16 shooting in a team-high 39 minutes of action as he recorded just 13 points against the Suns, while missing both of his attempts from three-point range.

As a team, the Lakers were just 26.9 per cent from beyond the arc after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made just one of his seven shots.

Afterwards, Davis scrutinised his performance as the Lakers – ranked seventh in the west – look to bounce back on Tuesday.

"There's no way we're winning a game, let alone the series, with me playing the way I played," Davis said.

"This is on me. I take whatever responsibility, for sure. I'll be ready for Game 2."

"I kind of got lost in the offense. But I still have to be assertive to get the ball," Davis added. "That's on me. I still have to find ways to make plays on that end of the floor offensively.

"It's on me. I'm not too worried about my performance. I know I'll be better. I know we'll be better in Game 2."

Superstar Lakers team-mate James, who finished with 18 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, added: "It's always AD being AD.

"Any time he comes to the press room and tells you we can't win without him or with him playing the way he played, he always responds. I'm looking forward to that."

"I love when AD puts that pressure on himself," James said. "We're a better team when he's aggressive and we're a better team when he demands the ball."

Davis had posted 42 points against the Suns in the absence of James on May 9, but Phoenix nullified his impact on Sunday.

"Phoenix brought a lot more attention obviously because of that game," Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said. "They did a great job. Give them credit.

"They did a good job limiting his touches and bringing double teams when he did get it and making things difficult for him. But there are ways we can be better to take advantage of that."

Vogel continued: "There's plenty we can do. I'm not going to get into details on what our adjustments are going to look like. But certainly we can do a better job in taking advantage of the attention that he's drawn."

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.

LeBron James has compared Chris Paul's basketball IQ with stars Rajon Rondo and Draymond Green ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers' playoffs series against the Phoenix Suns.

The Lakers won through their play-in game against the Golden State Warriors, earning seventh seed and the right to take on the second seed Suns, who are led by experienced point guard Paul.

Four-time NBA champion James has remarkably never faced 11-time NBA All-Star and high school friend Paul in the postseason.

Rondo and Green are widely known for their basketball intelligence and James identified Paul among those lofty standards.

"It's going to be comparable to playing against Rondo in a series, playing against Draymond in a series," James said during a video conference call on Friday.

"You have those out-of-this-world IQ type guys and fierce competitors, at the same time so it's the same thing.

"Every time I faced Rondo in the past, I knew I had to be not only on my A-game as far as my game, but also my mind as well and that's the same with Draymond, every time you go against those Warriors teams.

"I've had experiences with those two guys, so that will definitely help me in matching up with CP [Paul] because I know the competitor and I know the IQ of the basketball player that he is."

The Lakers may be the seventh seed but head into their series with the Suns as the bookmakers favourites, having been 2019-20 champions.

The Suns surprised a lot of people by ending their long playoffs wait and finishing as high as second in the Western Conference.

Suns coach Monty Williams insisted that being considered underdogs did not faze his side.

"We all hear it," Williams said on Friday. "Ultimately you got to get out there and compete for 48 minutes, and that's what we plan to do.

"Did anybody think we were going to win 51 games this year? In a shortened season? Don't think so. So why would we listen to those people now?"

On facing the reigning champions first up, he added: "Our guys aren't bitter. We're looking forward to competing against the Lakers.

"We're not upset or feel like anybody's done something to our Cheerios. We have to go play the Lakers."

The play-in tournament may be here to stay with NBA commissioner Adam Silver stating that his personal preference is for it to continue beyond this season.

Teams ranked seventh to 10th in both the Western and Eastern Conference have faced off in the play-in tournament for the seventh and eighth seeds in the 2020-21 season.

The additional spots available for the playoffs added intrigue late in the NBA season, with 24 of the 30 franchises maintaining the possibility of playing in the postseason in the final fortnight.

The play-in tournament has been criticized for being unfair, with Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James publicly vocal in his dislike of the concept.

"Whoever came up with that needs to be fired," James said earlier this month.

But Silver defended the play-in tournament, insisting it added vital viewership interest to the season, given the incentives for teams to compete.

"I haven't made any secret that I want it to be [around long term]," Silver told ESPN Radio.

"I have two constituencies I need to convince of that. One is the 30 teams, and I think for the most part they've supported it. I understand the sentiment if I were a team - a seven-seed in particular - the notion [that] after a long season, you could potentially play out of the playoffs. I understand those feelings.

"I think at the same time, the teams recognize the amount of additional interest we've created over the last month of the season plus those play-in games make it worth it.

"Of course, the other constituency is the players. For example, one player, who is on the executive committee of the union, said to me yesterday that he really likes the play-in tournament but he felt it could potentially be a bit unfair.

"For example, if you were the seventh seed and you were a significant number of games ahead of the eight-seed, the notion that you could somehow lose two games and be out of the playoffs seems unfair."

The sides who finished seventh in both conferences won their play-in games to claim seventh seed, while the Washington Wizards eventually took the eighth seed in the East with victory over the Indiana Pacers after finishing eighth.

The Golden State Warriors, who finished eighth on the Western Conference standings, play the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the last play-in game on Friday.

Silver said it is possible that the league will tinker with the current play-in format.

He added: "I'm going to wait only because I know there's people on both sides of it.

"Beyond the individual ratings, and some games have been pretty good and some haven't been as close, but putting aside those games and adding those games to our schedule and the amount of interest in them is where I think the play-in tournament had an impact.

"[It] was causing teams who frankly otherwise may have thrown in the towel some number of weeks back to fight for those last playoff spots."

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.

Stephen Curry was delighted to be back in a big game for the Golden State Warriors, even if Wednesday's play-in defeat to the LeBron James-inspired Los Angeles Lakers was a painful one.

Curry led the game in scoring with 37 points, but an early Warriors advantage – 13 points by halftime – was wiped out by the opening stages of the fourth quarter.

It left Curry in a shootout with James which the reigning NBA Finals MVP won with a sublime 30-foot three-pointer over the Golden State point guard as the shot clock expired.

The Warriors could not respond, as Curry rued a third quarter in which his team had eight turnovers "that changed the dynamic of the game", as the Lakers also visited the foul line eight times – making all eight shots.

Victory takes LA through as the seventh seed in the West to a first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, while Golden State must now prepare for a one-off game against the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed.

"We'll be ready," Curry said. "Right now, it sucks. We played pretty well tonight.

"We've missed this type of environment, it was a lot of fun, high intensity, high, competitive level. I'm proud of everyone who stepped on the floor tonight, how they played.

"They made a run in the third quarter, we turned the ball over and it changed the game, but we still gave ourselves a chance to win.

"That's all we've worried about for the last 48 hours. Walking in the locker room, guys were upset, angry, frustrated we didn't get the job done.

"But we'll be ready for Friday, treating it like a regular season where you have to move on very quickly to a different team that we just beat, knowing they're going to come in with the same desperation we're going to have. It's the biggest game of the year."

A play-in debut was Curry's 113th postseason appearance but his first since the 2019 NBA Finals.

"It was awesome," he said. "I don't know how many fans were here, but the prep leading into the game, the film study, the walkthroughs, our practice, the level of focus and intensity, it was amazing.

"I was telling Jordan Bell on the bench in the middle of the third quarter: 'I miss this.'

"It's been almost two years since the Finals that we were here in a game that had those type of consequences. It's what you live for, it's what you work so hard for.

"It brings out the best in you in terms of your competitiveness and energy and all that. I love it, so we have to run it back Friday and hopefully all next week."

This was the first time Curry had played the Lakers in such a game, with LA failing to make a Finals series between their title wins in 2010 and 2020 as the Warriors played in five straight.

"It'd be nice if we could make it back here round two or whatever it shapes out to be," Curry said.

James is a familiar foe, however, with his Cleveland Cavaliers the opponent for Golden State in four of those years, winning in 2016.

His brilliant make – his second of the night from three-point land – came as no surprise to Curry.

"It was a great shot, a broken play, I snuck in thinking he was out of play," he said. "They found him, he got his balance just in time and knocked the shot down.

"That was a tough one because you don't really expect it to go in. You expect us to get the rebound, come down in transition and have a possession to take the lead.

"But everything changes when it goes in. All-time great players make great shots, that's what happens. It's no different tonight, but that's a tough one."

But Curry appeared to compare the shot to a three from James' former Cavs team-mate Kyrie Irving, who sunk the decisive effort in Game 7 five years ago.

"This one I was a little further away, so I don't feel too bad about it," Curry said.

The Warriors can ill afford to mull over James' heroics any longer, though, as they face a Grizzlies team they beat as recently as Sunday to reach the seven-eight game.

That victory concluded a 15-5 run to finish the regular season, so Curry, who called for Golden State to "just have fun with it" and "come out swinging", is confident they can recover swiftly.

"We've had to do it the last 20 games, so it's no different," he said.

"It is a win or go home scenario, but we've had high confidence, had a string of wins and then had a tough loss and had to bounce back. We've been there."

LeBron James says he was "seeing three rims" for his clutch shot which decided the Los Angeles Lakers 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors after a poke in the eye from Draymond Green.

James launched a long-range bomb as the shot clock counted down with just under a minute to go, spectacularly sinking it to put the Lakers up 103-100 on Wednesday in their play-in game.

The Lakers would not allow the Warriors to score again and held on for victory to book a playoffs spot against the Phoenix Suns.

James, who finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, was heroic after copping a poke to the eye in the final quarter from Green in a moment where split opinions on whether it was a flagrant foul.

The four-time MVP landed heavily and remained on the ground for some time, before picking himself while clutching his face with a towel.

Minutes later, the ball was passed to the 36-year-old for the crucial moment and he delivered, even with with blurred vision.

"After Draymond's finger to my eye, I was literally seeing three rims out there," James told ESPN post-game. "I just shot at the middle one. With grace of the man above, I was able to knock it down."

James said there was never thought in his mind to step off the court after the Green collision.

"I've been there before. I've been poked in the eye before in a collision like that," he said.

"I just tried to keep my composure. It's going to be pretty sore tonight. We've got a few days until we go to Phoenix.

"Big time win for us, I wasn’t going to leave the floor, even if I had to put a pirate patch on."

James was full of praise for their upcoming opponents Phoenix Suns who finished second in the Western Conference.

"They've played extremely well all year. They deserve to host a home court in the first round," he said.

"CP [Chris Paul] playing a MVP caliber year all year. [Deandre] Ayton has grown all year. They've given their guys a supporting cast all year.

"We know how great CP and Book [Devin Booker] is. They've done pretty extremely well all year."

LeBron James scored a clutch three-pointer with less than a minute to go to book the Los Angeles Lakers place in the NBA playoffs with a 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

Shortly after copping a Draymond Green finger to the eye and with the shot clock elapsing, James was out of rhythm when he received a pass but drained a huge three with 58 seconds left in their play-in game.

The shot put the Lakers up 103-100 and they would not surrender that lead, as Stephen Curry lost a late inbound pass with 2.1 seconds on the clock.

The result means the Lakers claim seventh seed and will take on the second seed Phoenix Suns, while the Warriors will face the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday to earn eighth seed to face the Utah Jazz in the playoffs.

James had a triple-double, finishing with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for the Lakers.

Anthony Davis was crucial defensively, closing down Curry in the final play, and ending the game with 25 points and 12 rebounds.

Curry had 37 points, seven rebounds and three assists for the Warriors, who had led by 13 points at the main break, after the point guard scored 15 in the second.

The Grizzlies withstood the San Antonio Spurs' late charge to progress to the eighth seed play-in game against Golden State with a 100-96 victory.

Memphis led by 21 points at one stage but were headed by the Spurs in the final quarter, before rallying to take the win.

The Memphis Grizzlies withstood the San Antonio Spurs' late charge to progress to the eighth seed play-in game with a 100-96 victory.

The Grizzlies led by 21 points at one stage but were headed by the Spurs in the final quarter, before rallying to take the win.

Center Jonas Valanciunas was huge for Memphis with 23 points and 23 rebounds, while Ja Morant chipped in with 20 points, six assists and six rebounds and Dillon Brooks had a game-high 24 points.

Spurs forward DeMar DeRozan had a game to forget, shooting five-from-21 from the field to finish with 20 points, while Dejounte Murray shot from-from-17 from the field, with neither making a three.

The defeat means Spurs miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.

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."

Stephen Curry is embracing underdog status ahead of the Golden State Warriors' play-in game against defending NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Warriors finished eighth in the Western Conference and will have to work through the league's new play-in tournament to reach the NBA playoffs.

Led by two-time MVP Curry, Golden State won 18 of their final 25 games to surge into the postseason picture ahead of Wednesday's showdown against LeBron James and the seventh-seeded Lakers.

The winner between the Lakers and Warriors head into the playoffs as the seventh seed. The loser will meet the winner of the Memphis Grizzlies-San Antonio Spurs clash.

"I hope everybody hears the chatter," Curry said after Tuesday's practice. "Even at this point how we match up with LA or potentially with Phoenix or Utah if we get through this play-in tournament and all that.

"Nobody thought we were even going to be in this position. A lot of people had us way, way, way down the standings coming in after Klay [Thompson] got hurt, so there's a lot of things that we already flipped on its head to this point, so we might as well keep going."

Curry has played a crucial role in lifting the Warriors into contention down the stretch, earning his second NBA scoring title after ending the regular season averaging 32.0 points per game following his 46-point outburst against the Grizzlies on Sunday.

The three-time NBA champion 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.

The Warriors guard has played 63 games this season, averaging 5.8 assists per game, a career-best 5.5 rebounds per game and 1.2 steals per game.

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.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the hot favourite to win this season's MVP but Curry was endorsed by upcoming opponent James for candidacy too.

"Obviously, I'm appreciative," Curry said. "He knows when he says something people pay attention so for him to speak on my MVP candidacy is definitely, I respect him for it, I appreciate it.

"We all know as competitors though, when the lights are on, I can talk about how great he is till I'm blue in the face and he can do the same, it doesn't change how we approach that competition when we're out there.

"I won't be giving him a pass because he likes the way I played this year and vice versa."

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel declared LeBron James will be fit and available for Wednesday's NBA play-in game against the Golden State Warriors.

James played 27 minutes but exited Sunday's 110-98 win over the New Orleans Pelicans early with soreness in the right ankle which has kept him sidelined for most of the past two months.

The four-time MVP played back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday upon his return from injury but is available for the midweek showdown with Stephen Curry's eighth-seeded Warriors.

"He had some minor soreness but he's good to go," Vogel said following practice on Tuesday.

"He was a full participant in practice today and is good to go."

Anthony Davis also confirmed his full fitness to face the Warriors after being listed as questionable with left adductor strain tightness on Sunday.

The star forward played 30 minutes against the Pelicans in the team's regular-season finale.

"I'm fine," Davis said. "The adductor feels good, the shoulder feels good."

Defending champions the Lakers – seeded seventh in the Western Conference – may finally have a full clean bill of health, having been without James, Davis or Dennis Schroder for most of the run into the postseason.

Schroder played the final two games of the regular season along with James and Davis after being subject to the league's health and safety protocols.

The German guard subsequently missed seven games in May, impacting his conditioning.

"I'm still not, conditioning-wise, all the way back," Schroder said. "I've been out 10 days. I didn't do nothing, I was at home.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to work my way into it, but it's not going to hurt my team-mates. I'm going to give everything I have, go out there and do the same things that I do during the season and truly to get a W."

The NBA's play-in tournament will stage a must-see heavyweight clash when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

While there are no concerns of suffering a season-ending knockout, the one-off contest at Staples Center will dictate the next step for two teams who know all about making title runs.

Few would have expected this scenario back at the start of a season played out amid the backdrop of an ongoing health pandemic.

As the defending champions, LeBron James and the Lakers were viewed as a front runner in the stacked Western Conference. Coming up against a Golden State roster so heavily reliant on Stephen Curry was always a possibility in the playoffs, just not necessarily in this type of scenario.

The winner will be slotted in as the seventh seed, meaning a best-of-seven series against the Phoenix Suns. The loser, however, will have to get past either the San Antonio Spurs or the Memphis Grizzlies – they meet on Thursday – just to get the eighth and final spot available.

If the play-in games were set up to add an extra layer of drama, a match-up that pits two of the sport's biggest superstars against each other is an early gift to start the playoff stretch.

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers

James was firmly in the MVP conversation until an ankle injury on March 20. His first attempt to return to action led to a setback, but the four-time NBA champion featured in the final two outings of the regular season, scoring a combined 49 points.

His fitness will be key to the Lakers' prospects of retaining their crown. They finished the regular season with a 42-30 record yet were 30-15 in games when their star turn featured. That kind of winning percentage across a full campaign would have made sure they did not have to worry about appearing in any play-in contests.

Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors

Having missed the majority of the previous season through injury, Curry certainly made up for lost time with a dazzling regular season.

He finished as the scoring champion, his 2,015 points coming in 63 games as he averaged 32.0 an outing. No one made (337) or attempted more three-pointers (801), while the point guard also shot 91.6 per cent from the free-throw line. MVP, perhaps?

KEY BATTLE – STOP CURRY GETTING HOT

The Warriors will sink or swim based on Curry, but he will need some assistance if they are to prosper in the playoffs. To that extent, as the Lakers focus on shutting down a player capable of catching fire in a hurry, Andrew Wiggins (18.6 points per game in the regular season) will need to step up, particularly as Golden State are still without the injured Kelly Oubre Jr.

Draymond Green can help, too, albeit his average of 7.0 points was his lowest mark since the 2013-14 season, his second in the league when he started in just 12 games. It may well be his primary focus is on defense, though, considering both James and Anthony Davis – confirmed fit to play on Tuesday – will demand plenty of attention.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers are a long way clear in the overall record (257 wins to 169), while they have also dominated in the playoffs – the Warriors have won just one series in seven attempts, with that success coming way back in 1967 when they were still playing under the San Francisco name.

In the 2020-21 regular season, the team from Los Angeles won two of the three meetings. They were dominant in the most recent clash as well, coming out 128-97 winners in March despite several key absences.

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.

LeBron James insists he will be fit for the Los Angeles Lakers' play-in tournament showdown with the Golden State Warriors and believes Stephen Curry should be named the NBA's MVP.

The Lakers rounded out an injury-hit regular-season campaign with a 110-98 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans, with James nailing 25 points at Smoothie King Center.

Despite a fifth straight win, the Portland Trail Blazers' 132-116 victory over the Denver Nuggets consigned the Lakers to seventh position in the Western Conference and having to go through the new play-in route involving the teams from seventh to 10th.

It means the Lakers have to win one of up to two games to make the playoffs, with their first opportunity to do so coming against the Warriors on Wednesday.

James' fitness for the fixture was shrouded in doubt when he appeared to aggravate the ankle injury that saw him miss 26 of the Lakers' final 30 regular-season games.

However, he insists it was just a "tweak" and fully expects to feature, saying: "I'll be fine.

"I'll be in the line-up on Wednesday. The time is now and I'm ready for it."

Having to go through the play-in may not be the ideal situation for the defending champions, who have been decimated by injury this term with both James and Anthony Davis missing significant periods of time.

But James says the team are feeling confident having begun to hit their stride at the end of the regular season.

"I don't look at our seeding. It doesn't matter," he added. "Obviously we know we wanted to play a lot better this season, but injuries took a toll on our team. 

"We're finally starting to get whole, starting to feel a little bit better about our situation."

In Golden State, James and the Lakers come up against a red-hot Curry, who scored 46 points in the Warriors' 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies to secure the NBA's scoring title.

Curry finished the regular season with a scoring average of 32.0 and 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).

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

James has no doubt that Curry should be awarded with another individual honour.

"I mean, just look at what he's done this year. I don't know anything else if you're looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State's team, what are we looking at?" James asked.

"We get caught up in the records sometimes. We get caught up in the, okay, who has the best record instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year."

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.

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