Zion Williamson scored 10 of his 16 points in the first quarter and Brandon Ingram had 18 to lead the New Orleans Pelicans a 104-92 preseason victory over the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night.

Williamson finished the opening quarter with 10 points, four steals, two assists and a rebound and shot 6 of 8 in 16 minutes overall before exiting for good.

Franz Wagner led the Magic with 19 points and brother Moritz Wagner added 16. The brothers combined to shoot 15 of 21 while the rest of the team shot 20 of 63.

 

 

Elsewhere in the NBA, Jayson Tatum poured in 28 points with five of his team’s 23 3-pointers and Kristaps Porzingis had 20 points in the Boston Celtics’ 123-110 win over the New York Knicks.

Jaylen Brown scored 17 points for Boston, which connected on 23 of 52 from long range.

Quentin Grimes paced the Knicks with 22 points, including 7 of 12 on 3-pointers. 

In Oklahoma City, Josh Giddey scored 19 points and Chet Holmgren had 18 to propel the hot-shooting Thunder to a 124-101 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Giddey was 9 of 12 from the field and Holmgren was 7 of 8 as part of the Thunder’s 56.5 percent (48 of 85) shooting effort that included 18 of 39 from 3-point range.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 18 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes, while Damian Lillard scored just five points on 2-of-11 shooting in his second game with Milwaukee.

Zion Williamson made his first appearance in an NBA game since January with 12 points in 16 minutes in the New Orleans’ Pelicans’ 122-105 loss to the Orlando Magic.

Williamson sat out the final four months of the season after he injured his right hamstring in Philadelphia last Jan. 2.

The Pelicans star missed his first two shots before throwing down a crowd-pleasing, two-handed dunk. He later added a 13-foot running floater, a short turnaround, and a layup to go with four free throws.

Williamson added five rebounds and five assists in the preseason opener for both teams.

Wendell Carter Jr. had 18 points in 19 minutes for Orlando and Paolo Banchero scored 12 points, highlighted by his driving, one-handed dunk between Williamson and New Orleans center Jonas Valanciunas.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander believes the Oklahoma City Thunder reaped the rewards of being "battle-tested" as they kept their season alive by beating the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Thunder, the youngest team in the NBA, ended the Pelicans' season with a 123-118 victory at Smoothie King Center on Wednesday.

Oklahoma City's win in the Western Conference play-in tournament ensure they will face a trip to play the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, with a place in the NBA playoffs at stake.

A meeting with the number-one seeded Denver Nuggets will be the reward for the team that comes out on top in that showdown.

Gilgeous-Alexander stepped up to deliver 32 points, while Josh Giddey finished with 31 point, 10 assists and nine rebounds for Oklahoma City in that win over the Pelicans.

New Orleans led 69-62 early in the third quarter, but the Thunder stormed back and Gilgeous-Alexander felt the showed their strength of character. 

"We've been battle-tested. We've played in a lot of close games all year, for the past couple of years,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.

"Even when the season wasn't going our way, we played in a lot of close games and we have good habits and we know what gets it done down the stretch."

Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault said: "Great 48-minute effort out of the team.

"Great poise. New Orleans made a couple of big runs at the end of the second and then the beginning of the fourth and I thought our guys just had a great temperament in the huddles and got back to our stuff.

"We weren't perfect tonight, but we got back to our habits and it was a great effort out of the team.

Brandon Ingram scored 30 points, 20 of which came in the second half, but the Pelicans were unable to stay in the hunt for the playoffs.

Zach LaVine scored 30 second-half points as the Chicago Bulls rallied from a 19-point deficit to eliminate the Toronto Raptors 109-105 in Wednesday's play-in tournament game.

The Bulls' victory sees them advance to the final play-in game against the Miami Heat on Friday, with the winner to take the eight seed and a playoffs first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Chicago became the first 10th-place team to win a play-in game, but they did it the hard way, trailing by 16 with 2:42 left in the third quarter.

LaVine starred as they stormed home with a 37-24 fourth quarter, after the Bulls guard added 17 points in the third to cut the margin to nine points at the final change.

LaVine finished with a game-high 39 points on 12-of-22 shooting with six rebounds and three assists, while DeMar DeRozan added 23 points with seven rebounds and two blocks.

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam scored points with nine rebounds and six assists, with Fred VanVleet adding 26 points with seven three-pointers along with 12 rebounds and eight assists. VanVleet's 26 points included a half-time buzzer-beater from half court.

The Raptors were not helped by 50 per cent free-throw shooting, having to endure persistent and timed screams from DeRozan's daughter Diar upon each attempt throughout the game.

After trailing for most of the game, the Bulls went ahead on Patrick Beverley's three-pointer with 5:07 remaining.

Toronto's free-throw woes haunted them when Siakam spurned the chance to square the game up with 12.0 seconds left after Alex Caruso's foul when he missed two of three attempts.

Siakam had made it a one-point game with a driving dunk with 19.1 seconds remaining before the composed LaVine drained two free-throws.

Giddey and SGA lift OKC past Pels

A youthful Oklahoma City Thunder line-up showed maturity to progress past the New Orleans Pelicans 123-118 led by Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who rebounded after a quiet first half.

OKC advanced to face the Minnesota Timberwolves in Friday's play-in tournament game with the winner to take on the Denver Nuggets, while the Pelicans' season is over.

Gilgeous-Alexander only had seven first-half points but finished with a game-high 32 on 11-of-22 shooting, making eight-of-eight free-throws including a series down the stretch.

Australian guard Giddey had a near triple-double with 31 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Lu Dort added 27 points with four three-pointers.

Brandon Ingram top scored with 30 points, including a three-pointer to make it 119-118 with 4.1 seconds remaining, along with six rebounds and seven assists.

Herb Jones threw an out-of-bounds pass for CJ McCollum when the Pels were set for a three-point attempt to tie the game with 2.8 seconds left, allowing OKC to insure the win from the free-throw line.

OKC became the second 10th-place team to win a play-in game, following on from the Bulls achieving that earlier on Wednesday.

Zion Williamson is waiting to "feel like Zion" before he returns for the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans have qualified for the play-in tournament despite being without superstar Williamson since January 2.

A hamstring injury has kept the former first overall pick on the sideline, with setbacks frustrating both the player and his team.

His return date is still unknown on the eve of Wednesday's nine-10 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the Pelicans still two wins from the playoffs.

But Williamson was at least back at practice and appearing before reporters on Tuesday to say: "Physically, I'm fine.

"Now, it's just a matter of when I feel like Zion. I know the atmosphere I'd be entering based off the playoff experience. So, now, it's just a matter of when I feel like Zion."

Williamson, who described the past three months as "very frustrating", said "things have got a lot better".

Yet he still could not outline exactly what was required to "feel like Zion" and get back on the court for a team who at one stage before his injury threatened to contend.

"I don't feel like there are any specific benchmarks for being Zion," Williamson said.

"It's just a matter of when I feel like myself – just feeling like myself and knowing that I can go out there and have a big impact for my team."

"It's a little bit of a mental battle, because you know when I re-aggravated back in February, it was tough.

"So, when I go to make certain moves, there is that hesitation. Sometimes there's not and sometimes there is.

"And I understand the magnitude of these games coming up, and I don't want to be out there hesitating or doing something that may affect my team in a bad way."

The NBA regular season has come to a close, which means the postseason is on the horizon to excite fans with its unpredictability and drama.

First, though, the play-in format returns for its third season and promises to once again add all sorts of further intrigue to the playoff picture.

The mini tournament takes place over April 11-14, with the teams that finished seventh and eighth playing one another to determine the seventh playoff seed from their respective conference, while the loser of that game gets a chance to secure the eighth seed when they host the winner of a game between the ninth and 10th seeds.

Therefore, the teams that finish seventh or eighth only need to win one game to advance to the playoffs, while those in ninth and 10th must win two.

Whoever clinches the seventh seed in the East will face the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, while the eighth seed will take on the Milwaukee Bucks. In the West, the seventh seed will go up against the Memphis Grizzlies, and the eighth seed will be paired with the Denver Nuggets.

Stats Perform previews the eight teams looking to secure their place in the 2023 NBA playoffs.

Eastern Conference

Tuesday, April 11 – Miami Heat (7th) vs Atlanta Hawks (8th) 

One of these teams has made the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the last three seasons, although that trend appears unlikely to continue this year.

After starting the season 2-5, the Heat soon recovered some sort of form without threatening to repeat the performances that saw them clinch the top seed in the East the previous year. They at least strung together a solid run over December and January, going 19-11, to boost their playoff hopes.

The Heat will be favourites in this matchup, having gone 4-1 in April and 3-1 against the Hawks this season, including winning back-to-back games in Miami in early March.

The trio of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro will be key, with all three scoring over 20 points per game in the regular season.

Opponents Atlanta went 7-3 to start the season, but their form dipped towards the end of 2022, before picking up again in January.

Trae Young, the star of their 2021 run, will be hoping to lead his team back to the playoffs, having averaged 26.2 points and 10.2 assists in the regular season, and the Heat's ability to stop him could be the key in this one.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 12 – Toronto Raptors (9th) vs Chicago Bulls (10th)

The Raptors have done well to reach this stage after a poor first half to the campaign, starting 16-23, but an improvement in 2023 saw them end level with the Hawks with an even .500 record.

Pascal Siakam averaged 24.2 points from his 71 games in the regular season, while Fred VanVleet (19.3) will also be required to lend a hand.

Chicago, who ended with a 40-42 record, will look to the pairing of Zach LaVine (24.8) and DeMar DeRozan (24.5) for inspiration after a promising end to the regular season on an 11-6 run.

The Raptors were 2-1 against the Bulls this season, including winning their most recent meeting in Toronto in late February on the back of a fourth-quarter fightback.

This promises to be another intriguing encounter.

Western Conference:

Tuesday, April 11 – Los Angeles Lakers (7th) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (8th)

This has been a fascinating season for the Lakers, who looked down and out but recovered to such an extent they ended up disappointed they had to settle for a play-in spot.

LeBron James and co. started 0-5 and then 2-10 as the word "crisis" was tossed about by all and sundry.

However, a subsequent run of 8-2 propelled them into a season few could have imagined in early November, while they also finished the year strongly on a 9-2 run.

James (28.9 points) and Anthony Davis (25.9) have each had injury issues, playing just 55 and 56 games respectively, but they have crucially found form and fitness at this crucial stage in the season.

 

The Timberwolves also have talent but come into this with a bit of a cloud over them after the fracas between big-trade flop Rudy Gobert and Kyle Anderson in their final game against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Minnesota started 2-0 against the Lakers this season, but Davis had 38 points and 17 rebounds in a big win when the teams met less than two weeks ago.

The loser will host the winner of...

Wednesday, April 12 – New Orleans Pelicans (9th) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (10th)

The biggest story around this one centres on who will not be there, as Zion Williamson continues to sit on the sideline with a hamstring injury.

The Pelicans' star man averaged 26.0 points this season but played only 29 games and none since January 2.

Updates from New Orleans have remained vague, although Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin has spoken of a "best possible outcome" that would "maybe" see Williamson in practice around the first round. Again, "if everything lined up perfectly".

That means Brandon Ingram will be required to carry the scoring burden for now, a task he warmed up for in fine style with a 42-point return against the Timberwolves on Sunday.

The Thunder will look to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to lead them into the postseason, with the 24-year-old averaging 31.4 points this year, the fourth-most in the league.

New Orleans were 3-1 against OKC this season, but the Thunder won their last game in March with Gilgeous-Alexander scoring 35 – albeit the Pelicans were without Ingram as well as Williamson.

Rudy Gobert apologised to Kyle Anderson, his other Minnesota Timberwolves team-mates and supporters after punching Anderson during a chaotic win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Timberwolves triumphed 113-108 on Sunday but the victory was marred by an inexplicable confrontation between Gobert and Anderson.

After an animated discussion on the sidelines in the second quarter, Gobert aimed a jab at the chest of Anderson and was removed from the team for the remainder of the game.

Gobert was taken to the locker room and the Timberwolves were quick to inform their center had been sent home for his "unacceptable" actions, which Minnesota said will be handled "internally".

The 30-year-old took to Twitter after the game to smooth things over with Anderson and express his apologies to those involved with the Timberwolves.

"Emotions got the best of me today. I should not have reacted the way I did regardless of what was said," Gobert wrote. 

"I want to apologise to the fans, the organisation and particularly to Kyle, who is someone that I truly love and respect as a team-mate."

The Minnesota embarrassment was compounded as Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels reportedly also suffered a broken right hand after punching a wall at half-time.

The Timberwolves will travel to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of the Western Conference play-in tournament.

If they lose, Minnesota will have another chance to qualify for the playoffs by beating the winner of the nine versus 10 matchup between the Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Los Angeles Clippers secured the five seed in the Western Conference after rallying from a 10-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Phoenix Suns 119-114 on Sunday.

Norman Powell, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook scored 29, 25 and 25 points respectively for the Clippers, who held off the Golden State Warriors for the five seed, meaning LA will take on the Suns again in the playoffs first round.

Leonard scored the Clippers' final eight points of the game among 12 in the fourth quarter, shooting 11-of-21 from the field, with 15 rebounds and six assists.

Powell continued his fine form off the bench, shooting 12-of-22 for his 29 points with five rebounds, while Westbrook made two three-pointers in his 25 points with seven rebounds and nine assists.

Phoenix sat starters Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton for the game.

Despite that, the Suns put up a good fight, with guard Saben Lee having 25 points with 10 assists, shooting three-of-eight from beyond the arc.

Warriors hit NBA record, LeBron lifts Lakers

Stephen Curry made five three-pointers and shot nine-of-15 for 26 points as the Golden State Warriors routed the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 157-101.

The Warriors could have jumped the Clippers into the five seed if LA lost, but the reigning champions will settle for the six seed, meaning they will take on the Sacramento Kings in the first round.

Curry only played 22 minutes along with Klay Thompson, who scored 20 points, with Golden State piling on an NBA record 55 first-quarter points. Jordan Poole added 21 points including four-of-five triples in 17 minutes and Moses Moody contributed 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting in 29 minutes.

That meant the Los Angeles Lakers finished seventh in the West despite LeBron James scoring eight three-pointers among 36 points in a 128-117 win over the Utah Jazz.

The Lakers will face the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in tournament, with the winner to face the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs first round.

Wolves win amid Gobert and McDaniels drama

The Timberwolves jumped the New Orleans Pelicans in the play-in seeding for eighth with a 113-108 victory, but it was a game full of drama with Rudy Gobert throwing a punch at teammate Kyle Anderson during a timeout.

Gobert was dismissed for the rest of the game after the second-quarter incident, while top perimeter defender Jaden McDaniels broke his right hand after hitting a wall in frustration.

Despite all that, Anthony Edwards led the Wolves to victory with 26 points, 13 rebounds, four steals and four blocks, while Karl-Anthony Towns had 30 points with eight rebounds.

Brandon Ingram scored 42 points for the Pelicans, who could have finished as high as fifth, but will instead face the Oklahoma City Thunder in a play-in tournament elimination game.

Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert was sent home after punching teammate Kyle Anderson in a timeout during Sunday's chaotic 113-108 win against the New Orleans Pelicans.

After an animated discussion on the sidelines in the second quarter, Gobert aimed a jab at the chest of Anderson and was removed from the team for the remainder of the game.

Gobert was taken to the locker room and it was swiftly made public that his involvement was over.

In a statement, Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said after the game: "We made the decision to send Rudy Gobert home after the incident in the second quarter.

"His behaviour on the bench was unacceptable and we will continue handling the situation internally."

Gobert's teammate Jaden McDaniels also failed to last the distance in Sunday's game, with reports claiming he broke his right hand when punching a wall at half-time.

The Timberwolves will travel to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of the Western Conference play-in tournament, and if they lose, they will have another chance to qualify for the playoffs by beating the winner of the nine versus 10 matchup between the Pelicans and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The New Orleans Pelicans are still unable to give a timeline for Zion Williamson's return from injury with the playoffs fast approaching.

Williamson has not played for the Pelicans since injuring his right hamstring against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 2.

The 22-year-old withdrew from February's All-Star game after failing to recover from the injury, before then aggravating the damage to prolong his time on the sidelines.

Providing another update-of-sorts on Williamson on Thursday, Pelicans vice-president of basketball operations David Griffin confirmed there is still no return date set, even with the team having now clinched a play-in berth.

"After further evaluation, it has been determined that Zion Williamson will continue his rehabilitation and conditioning regimen," Griffin said. 

"We will continue to monitor his progression and updates will be provided as warranted."

Injury-plagued Williamson has struggled to remain fit since being taken with the first overall pick by New Orleans in 2019, missing the entire 2021-22 season with a broken foot.

He has played just 29 times this season, averaging 26.0 points and 7.0 rebounds.

Barring a late rally, the Pelicans will have to go through next week's play-in tournament to make the postseason, which begins on April 15.

Kyrie Irving led the Dallas Mavericks' second-half rally from a 13 point third-quarter deficit to boost their play-in hopes with a 123-119 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday.

Irving scored 25 of his 31 points in the second half as the Mavs claimed an important win to improve to 38-42, having trailed 71-60 at half-time at American Airlines Center.

The win sees the Mavs draw level with the 10th-placed Oklahoma City Thunder in the fourth and final play-in tournament spot in the West with two games to play. OKC have the tiebreaker edge.

Dallas play the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs in their final two games, while the Thunder take on the Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies.

Mavs point guard Irving shot 12-of-23 from the field with six-of-10 from beyond the arc along with four rebounds, eight assists and two steals.

Luka Doncic was outstanding on Dallas' backcourt too, with 29 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, while Tim Hardaway Jr scored 24 points including five triples.

Irving led Dallas' third-quarter 12-0 run, flipping the game on its head, ending their own three-game losing skid.

De'Aaron Fox scored 28 points with eight assists for the Kings, with Domantas Sabonis recording a triple-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. All five Kings starter scored double-digit points.

Sacramento also had a season-high 22 offensive rebounds, recording 30-14 second chance points.

Clippers claim crunch win over Lakers

The Los Angeles Clippers claimed a critical 125-118 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the race to avoid the play-in tournament, while extending their recent winning run in the Battle of LA to 11-0.

Norman Powell scored a team-high 27 points off the bench, while Kawhi Leonard added 25 points and seven rebounds. The Lakers, playing the second game of a back-to-back, had LeBron James score 33 points with eight rebounds and seven assists.

The Clippers snapped their two-game losing run and ended the Lakers' four-game winning streak, improving to a 42-38 record to sit fifth ahead of the Golden State Warriors (42-38).

The Lakers are 41-39 in seventh alongside the New Orleans Pelicans (41-39), who won 138-131 over the Memphis Grizzlies despite Jaren Jackson Jr's 40 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.

Bucks and Celtics clinch No.1 and No.2 seeds

The Milwaukee Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo and lost Khris Middleton midgame both due to knee soreness but triumphed 105-92 over the Chicago Bulls to secure the East's number one seed.

The Bucks flexed their muscle without the star duo with Bobby Portis scoring 27 points with 13 rebounds, Brook Lopez adding 26 points and seven rebounds and Jrue Holiday contributing 20 points with eight rebounds and 15 assists.

Milwaukee have locked in top spot with a 58-22 record, while the Boston Celtics won 97-93 over the Toronto Raptors to confirm the East's number two seed with a 55-25 record.

Malcolm Brogdon came off the bench to score 29 points from 35 minutes, while Jaylen Brown managed 25 points and 11 rebounds with Jayson Tatum out with a bruised left hip.

Brandon Ingram said the New Orleans Pelicans proved they can contend with the best in the NBA as he continued his hot streak to earn a huge win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Ingram scored 25 points or more for the ninth straight outing, putting up 36 in a 122-114 victory that leaves the Pelicans just one game back of the sixth-placed Clippers in the West.

Getting into the top six would mean the Pelicans avoid the play-in tournament in the playoffs.

"If you want to be the best, you've got to go against the best and you've got to beat them," Ingram said. 

"That's one of the things that was in my head tonight, just trying to get this win."

Asked about his impressive form, Ingram said: "It's just manoeuvring a little bit, seeing what's open, seeing what spot I can get to on the floor, not forcing the game.

"That’s the biggest thing – seeing what's the best shot for the team, but also making sure that I stay aggressive."

Team-mates CJ McCollum and Trey Murphy III put up 19 apiece, and the former paid tribute to Ingram's ability to make the clutch shots in key moments.

"Those are I'm-just-better-than-you shots," McCollum said. 

"He's relying on his skill set and his comfort level. Regardless of analytics and what's considered a good shot, that's a great shot for him."

Kawhi Leonard put up 40 points for the Clippers, who have now lost back-to-back games.

"We just have to give credit to them as they played amazing. Ingram played great," Leonard said.

Luka Doncic scored 42 points with 10 rebounds but it was not enough for the Dallas Mavericks who suffered their sixth loss from their past seven games 129-122 to the Miami Heat on Saturday.

The win was much needed for Miami, who improved to 41-37 to be seventh in the East, with Jimmy Butler top scoring with 35 points and 12 assists at FTX Arena.

The Heat snapped their three-game skid but it left the Mavs' perilous playoff hopes worse off, falling to a 37-41 record, remaining 11th in the West.

Dallas are a game back from Oklahoma City (38-40) in the race for the final play-in spot, with the Thunder owning the head-to-head tiebreaker too.

Doncic tried his best with 42 points on 17-of-25 shooting with two triples along with 10 rebounds, eight assists and two steals. That was the Slovenian's 14th 40-point game this season.

Kyrie Irving added 23 points and eight assists, while Tim Hardaway Jr drained six three-pointers in his 31 points with six rebound and seven assists.

Yet all that was not enough for Dallas who shot at 61 per cent as a team, after Miami piled on 44 first-quarter points, leaving the Mavs to lament their defense. Miami's 76 first-half points was the third most in franchise history.

Center Cody Zeller offered good support to Butler with 20 points and eight rebounds, while Kevin Love and Max Strus both added 18 points and Tyler Herro contributed 15.

Ingram stars as Pels continue playoffs push

The New Orleans Pelicans moved above the Los Angeles Lakers and into the seven spot in the Western Conference with a crucial 122-114 over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Kawhi Leonard scored 40 points for the Clippers, who fall to sixth in the West, but Brandon Ingram maintained his fine form with a game-winning display.

Ingram scored 36 points on 13-of-23 shooting with four rebounds and eight assists, while Jonas Valanciunas added 23 points with 12 rebounds.

Leonard shot 15-of-28 from the field with four-of-eight from beyond the arc with eight rebounds and four assists, while Russell Westbrook contributed 24 points with nine assists.

The Pels have won seven of their past eight games to shoot into playoffs contention in the West with a 40-38 record, while the Clippers are 41-38.

Nikola Jokic sat out the Denver Nuggets' loss to the New Orleans Pelicans as an "ultra cautious" step to protect the two-time MVP ahead of the NBA playoffs.

The Nuggets were beaten 107-88 and have lost their last four matches in which Jokic did not play. He missed this one with a calf injury that appears to be a minor problem.

On this occasion, Denver turned in a largely shabby display in the home loss, proving especially dire from three-point range where their 4-of-28 shooting pointed to a clear deficiency.

Sitting top of the Western Conference, three games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, Denver could afford to let Thursday's game get away from them.

The playoffs are approaching, so it was a night where coach Michael Malone felt Jokic needed a rest.

When assessing afterwards how the game went so badly wrong for the Nuggets, Malone said: "Well, Nikola didn't play."

 

He expanded on his reasons, but it is clear Jokic's unavailability was a major factor behind the team's performance.

Once again, Jokic is a leading contender for MVP honours, chasing a hat-trick of consecutive individual accolades.

The 28-year-old Serbian is averaging 24.9 points per game, plus 11.9 rebounds and 9.9 assists, and it looks to be between him and Joel Embiid for MVP, albeit with Giannis Antetokounmpo a potential dark horse.

Malone, quoted in the Denver Post, said before the game began it was a smart move to give Jokic a rest, following his triple-double against the Philadelphia 76ers earlier in the week.

"Yeah, I think it's just been something kind of brewing a little bit," said Malone.

"He was able to get through the Philadelphia game. In practice yesterday he didn't do a whole lot. Obviously, being ultra cautious with where we're at in the season. If there's any doubt, we're going to definitely err on the side of caution with seven games remaining in the regular season."

The Boston Celtics produced a stunning 140-99 blowout on the road against the full-strength Milwaukee Bucks in Thursday's potential Eastern Conference Finals preview.

Although the Bucks did roll out their full team, they were playing their third game in four days and were on the second leg of a back-to-back, and their fatigue showed in a horrible first half defensively.

The Celtics piled on 34 points in the first quarter, and added another 41 in the second to open up a commanding 75-47 lead at half-time. Instead of coming out of the locker room with extra intensity, the Bucks proceeded to give up another 39 in the third period to kill the game.

Boston's All-Star duo were nearly faultless, led by Jayson Tatum's 40 points on 12-of-18 shooting. He finished eight-of-10 from three-point range, and a perfect eight-of-eight from the free throw line while adding eight rebounds and zero turnovers.

Jaylen Brown was just as impressive as he made his way to 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting with five rebounds, five assists and just one turnover, while Sixth Man of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon chipped in 14 points (six-of-13), five assists and four steals off the bench.

Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo led his side with 24 points and seven rebounds through three quarters before sitting out the last, although he was a disappointing 11-of-27 from the field and missed all five of his three-point attempts.

The win pulled the Celtics (53-24) to within two games of the Bucks (55-22) in the race for the Eastern Conference's top seed, and for the best record in the league.

Ingram shows recent improvement is no fluke

New Orleans Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram has performed at an All-NBA level since the All-Star break and continued to shine in a 107-88 triumph over the Nikola Jokic-less Denver Nuggets.

Ingram, 25, posted the first triple-double of his career last Thursday and followed it with a career-high 13 assists on Saturday, and he now has his second triple-double after 31 points (13-of-22), 11 rebounds and 10 assists against the Nuggets.

Across his past eight games, Ingram is averaging 29.6 points, 8.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 51.8 per cent from the field and 48 per cent from deep.

The result improved the Pelicans' record to 39-38, leapfrogging the Minnesota Timberwolves into the Western Conference's seventh seed, with Zion Williamson's return potentially imminent after working out on-court prior to Thursday's game.

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