One down, plenty more to go. While the opening round of the NBA playoffs has already produced plenty of drama, the Miami Heat's hopes of a repeat run have been extinguished.

The 2020 finalists fell at the first hurdle this time around, swept aside by a Milwaukee Bucks team now waiting to find out who they will face next. As for the defending champions, the Los Angeles Lakers are finding the going tough against the Phoenix Suns, that series one of three in the Western Conference delicately balanced at 2-2 through four games.

In the East, the picture looks somewhat clearer. Still, as the Denver Nuggets demonstrated last year in the NBA's Florida bubble, no 3-1 series lead is safe in the playoffs.

As the contests keep coming thick and fast, Stats Perform takes a brief pause to review those stepping up in the the playoffs, as well as the players who could do with finding some form again.


RUNNING HOT

Ja Morant

Having helped the Memphis Grizzlies come through the play-in tournament, Morant has continued to dazzle in the series against the Utah Jazz. After 26 points in the opener, the second-year point guard has dropped 47 and 28 in the next two meetings, albeit on neither occasion were his efforts enough to secure his team a victory.

Still, he is averaging 33.7 points per game against Utah, a huge upturn from 19.1 in the regular season. So, just how good has he been? Well, in reaching a century of points through his first three playoff games in the NBA, Morant matched a feat previously only achieved by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan.

Derrick Rose

Rose has claimed the starting point guard spot from Elfrid Payton for the New York Knicks as they go up against the Atlanta Hawks, a series the latter now leads 3-1 after a 113-96 triumph on Saturday.

Elevated off the bench, Rose has managed a combined total of 48 points in back-to-back losses on the road, during which he landed five of his nine attempts from deep. Payton, meanwhile, has scored one point in just 13 minutes of court time during the playoffs and did not get off the bench at all the past two games after averaging 10.1 points per game in the regular season.

Kawhi Leonard

"This is playoff basketball, we've just got to figure it out." Those were Leonard's words as the Los Angeles Clippers faced a 2-0 deficit as they headed to Dallas to continue their battle with the Mavericks.

It is safe to say the two-time NBA Finals MVP has done just that on his travels, helping his team fight back to level the series between the fourth and fifth seeds in the West. Across the past week, Leonard has averaged 35.7 points, aided by sinking 21 of his 23 attempts from the free-throw line, as well as contributing 24 rebounds. Playoff Kawhi means business this year.

GOING COLD

Shake Milton

Having averaged 13.0 points per outing in the regular season, Milton has endured a playoff slump for the Philadelphia 76ers as his minutes have been reduced. So far, the 24-year-old has managed nine points in a series that has seen his team hold control throughout.

Milton has managed to land only two of his 12 shot attempts, including missing all six in Game 2. In the following outing, head coach Doc Rivers opted to use Tyrese Maxey ahead of his team-mate off the bench, a move that may become a regular feature as the 76ers look set to move on to round two.

Enes Kanter

For the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular season, Kanter averaged 11.2 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. In the playoffs, however, it has been a different story for the veteran center.

After playing over 32 minutes across the first two games against the Denver Nuggets, Kanter has now figured in a little over nine in the following two. During his limited opportunities, there have been no points, two rebounds and a solitary blocked shot. Up against Nikola Jokic, the Blazers have opted to go with alternative options when starting center Jusuf Nurkic is taking a seat on the bench.

Montrezl Harrell

Make no mistake, the Lakers are locked in a battle with the Suns. Phoenix were impressive in taking Game 4 on the road on Saturday to draw level, during which the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year was finally called into action again by head coach Frank Vogel.

However, Harrell's appearance was fleeting. Having averaged 13.5 points during the regular season when playing just under 23 minutes per outing, he has been a non-factor in the playoffs. After not even making it onto the court in the previous two games, his brief cameo at the weekend saw him fail to muster a shot as LA lost at home. Across the past week, he has not scored a single point.

Joel Embiid heard the opposing fans jeering him when he missed a dunk in the second quarter Saturday, so the Philadelphia 76ers star made sure to savour the response that followed. 

Embiid was dominant in a 132-103 Sixers rout of the Washington Wizards that gave Philadelphia a 3-0 series lead. 

His signature play in a 36-point night was an emphatic dunk with 1:10 to play in the first half, after which he cupped his hands to his ears to taunt the Washington crowd that had let him have it after he missed a dunk two possessions earlier. 

"They started booing, they started cheering just because I missed a dunk, and I had another opportunity where I actually made a dunk, so that's why I went over to them," Embiid told reporters afterward.

"I wanted to hear more boos because it gets me going. I like it. 

"I just love playing on the road. I love playing up to the boos or fans talking trash. It gets me going."

Wizards fans did not have much to cheer about when it came to their own team, as Embiid scored 25 in the first half on the way to setting a new career playoff scoring high even though he sat out the fourth quarter.  

After a while, the Philadephia fans in attendance won out, and "MVP!" chants echoed through the arena as the Sixers pushed Washington to the brink of elimination. 

Embiid was 14 of 18 from the field, attempting -- and making -- six more shot than he had in the equally comfortable Game 2 win in Philadelphia. 

He said he feels like the game has slowed down and he does not have to force anything, leaving him comfortable no matter how the Wizards choose to defend him. 

"I always want the ball because I feel like it is hard to stop me, whether you send a double-team or not," he said. 

"And if you do send a double-team I'm going to make the right play."

More often than not Saturday, the right play ended up being Embiid handling matters himself. 

Now the Eastern Conference's top seed is on the verge of advancing, though Embiid was not ready to discuss the possibility. 

"There's nothing to be happy about," he said. "The job's not done.

"We've got to close out the series. We've got to get one more win and then worry about the rest later."

Joel Embiid's career night led the Philadelphia 76ers to a 132-103 rout of the Washington Wizards, pushing the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the brink of a series sweep. 

Embiid established a new playoff career high with 36 points in just 28 minutes, making 14 of 18 shots from the floor and adding eight rebounds. 

Embiid had 25 points and seven rebounds at the interval as Philadelphia built a comfortable lead before pulling away in the second half. 

Embiid's previous playoff career high was 34 against the Boston Celtics last season. 

Tobias Harris added 20 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, while Ben Simmons had 14 points and nine assists for the Sixers. 

Philadelphia made an impressive 58.6 per cent of their shots from the field (51 of 87) while limiting Washington to 38 of 96 shooting (39.6 per cent). 

Russell Westbrook led the Wizards with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while Bradley Beal scored 25. 

Game 4 is Monday in Washington. 

 

Giannis, Bucks sweep out Heat

The Milwaukee Bucks avenged last season's loss to Miami in the conference semi-finals by completing a four-game sweep of the Heat with a 120-103 victory. Milwaukee outscored Miami 64-39 in the second half to wrap up the series and will next face the winner of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics series. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his first playoff triple-double for the Bucks with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 15 assists, while Jimmy Butler turned in a quieter triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a losing effort. It was the first playoff series since 2014 in which Butler failed to reach 20 points in at least one game. 

Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley paced the top-seeded Utah Jazz to a 121-111 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, holding off a second-half surge from the underdogs. Mitchell scored 29 points and Conley had 27 points, six rebounds and eight assists for Utah as they took a 2-1 series lead. 

Norman Powell's 29 points led the Portland Trail Blazers past the Denver Nuggets 115-95 to level their series at 2-2. 

 

Nuggets' shooters nowhere to be found

The Nuggets had a rough shooting night all the way around in their loss to Portland. Denver made only 32 of 94 shots from the field (34 per cent), including just 13 of 44 (29.5 per cent) from three-point range, and Nikola Jokic led the scoring with just 16 points on seven of 18 shooting. 

 

Morant spins it in

Ja Morant put on a show in a losing effort for the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 28 points to give him 101 in the series. Morant is the fourth player in NBA history to score at least 100 points over his first three playoff appearances and the first since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1970. Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan are the other two. 

 

Saturday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 120-103 Miami Heat
Portland Trail Blazers 115-95 Denver Nuggets
Philadelphia 76ers 132-103 Washington Wizards
Utah Jazz 121-111 Memphis Grizzlies

 

Suns at Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers look for a commanding 3-1 lead in their series against the Phoenix Suns after winning the last two games. 

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers insisted the team "have accomplished nothing" as they eye the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

The top-seeded 76ers lead the Washington Wizards 2-0 in the opening round of their NBA playoff series following Wednesday's 120-95 rout.

Philadelphia – eyeing their first championship since 1983 – are in a commanding position as they head to Washington for Game 3 on Saturday.

The 76ers have not advanced to the NBA Finals since 2001, with Philadelphia failing to make it beyond the Conference semi-finals in 2003, 2012, 2018 and 2019, while they were swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics last season.

Rivers – a championship winner during his time in charge of the Celtics – is taking nothing for granted, with the 76ers desperate to end their title drought this season.

"We have done nothing," Rivers told reporters after Friday's practice.

"We have won two games, you don't get anything until you win four, so we have accomplished nothing as far as we're concerned."

The 76ers are featuring in the playoffs for the fourth successive season – the franchise's longest streak since making the postseason in five straight campaigns from 1999-2003.

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid (22 points apiece) combined to guide the 76ers past the Wizards in Philadelphia midweek.

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

Tobias Harris has also been a key contributor for the 76ers against the Wizards after backing up his playoff career-high 37 points in Game 1 with 19 points and nine assists on Wednesday.

"They have grown and that’s key for us," said Rivers. "I think, through the year, you just see so many different coverages on how they're going to defend Ben. Every night, they're going to defend Ben in a different way."

Rivers also attempted to allay fitness concerns over Harris and Seth Curry.

"Tobias, I think he'll be good," added Rivers. "He went through most of the stuff today. Seth didn't go through anything, but we think he'll be good, but we just don't know."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Morant makes history but Jazz bounce back

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

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

 

Milton in game to forget

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

 

Gobert says no!

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

 

Wednesday's results

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

 

Suns at Lakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Westbrook said he is eagerly awaiting the NBA's response after the Washington Wizards star was showered in popcorn by an unruly fan during Wednesday's playoff clash against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Westbrook had to be restrained after a fan in Philadelphia dumped popcorn on the former MVP as he exited the court with a right ankle injury in the 120-95 Game 2 defeat to the top-seeded 76ers.

Washington's Westbrook – who finished with 10 points, 11 assists and six rebounds before appearing to roll his ankle inside the final 10 minutes – was left seething at Wells Fargo Center.

"To be completely honest, man, this s*** is getting out of hand, especially for me. The amount of disrespect, the amount of fans just doing whatever the f*** they want to do, it's [wrong]," Westbrook said after the Wizards fell 2-0 behind in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

"Any other setting, I'm all for the fans enjoying the game and having fun. It's part of sports, I get it. But there are certain things that cross the line. Any other setting, I know for a fact they wouldn't come up, a guy wouldn't come up on the street and pour popcorn on my head because they know what would happen.

"A guy wouldn't come up to me talking about my family and my kids on the street because the response would be different.

"The arena's have gotta start protecting the players. We'll see what the NBA does, but there's a huge problem for us as players, and for me, where fans they say whatever and the consequences for me are a lot more [detrimental] for me than the fans in the stands because they're untouchable.

"They can say what they want at a sporting event and they enjoy the game. But what a lot of fans don't realise is this is my job. I don't just play, this is something I love to do, it's something I compete at. So, to get food thrown on top of me, it's just bulls***, really."

Wells Fargo Center president of business operations Valeria Camillio said in a statement: "This was classless, unacceptable behaviour, and we're not going to tolerate it at Wells Fargo Center.

"We're proud to have the most passionate fans in the country and the best home-court and home-ice advantage around, but this type of behaviour has no place in our arena."

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James also weighed in via Twitter.

James wrote: "By the way WE AS THE PLAYERS wanna see who threw that popcorn on Russ while he was leaving the game tonight with an injury!! There's cameras all over arenas so there's no excuse! Cause if the [shoe] was on the other [foot]."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Harris and Embiid flex muscles, Booker stars as Suns sizzle

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

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

 

Randle struggles

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

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

 

Ice Trae!

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

 

Sunday's results

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

 

Heat at Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Russell Westbrook has revealed how he inspired the Washington Wizards to turn their season around in a run to the playoffs that concluded with Thursday's play-in win over the Indiana Pacers.

The Wizards, who signed Westbrook in a trade from the Houston Rockets for John Wall last year, made a miserable 6-17 start to 2020-21.

However, that form was flipped on its head at the end of the campaign, with Washington 17-6 over their final 23 games to finish eighth in the East with a 34-38 record.

Westbrook and Co could not carry that momentum into the initial seven-eight play-in, going down 118-100 to the Boston Celtics, but the Wizards recovered to thrash the Pacers 142-115 and reach a first-round series against number one seed the Philadelphia 76ers.

It means Westbrook, who had 18 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds against Indiana, will appear in the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year, having missed the postseason only twice in a 13-season NBA career.

"We were struggling and everybody was doubting us on the outside and we had to figure out a way to knuckle up and make the playoffs," he said of Washington's regular season turnaround. "Simple as that.

"I didn't care what happened in the previous games. Moving forward, we had to figure ourselves out, look at ourselves in the mirror, starting with myself.

"I made it clear to the guys that we'll make it."

The Wizards still had work to do on Thursday, though, with Westbrook dismayed by his performance in the defeat to the Celtics.

Having averaged a triple-double this season – 22.2 points, 11.7 assists and 11.5 rebounds – to pass Oscar Robertson's record with 184 career triples, Westbrook felt he could have offered more than his 20 points, five assists and 14 rebounds in Boston.

Asked about his mood after that loss, he said: "You should ask my wife, my mom, my dad, my brother, everybody, they're so annoyed with me right now.

"I was so p***ed at my performance. I just wasn't feeling the best when my team needed me the most, but everything happens for a reason.

"I knuckled down and took care of my body and made sure that my mind was right coming into tonight and made sure that my energy and effort was there and my team could follow me."

Bradley Beal led Washington on Thursday with 25 points.

The ninth-year guard trailed only Stephen Curry with his 31.3 points this season, yet he had played only 40 career playoff games heading into this postseason.

Although Beal insists he was always happy on the Wizards – his only team – it is a relief to return.

"It feels that much better knowing that you're playing for something and you're winning," he said. "Obviously, you always want to be on the other side of that and win.

"So, in that regard, it definitely feels great to be back in a playoff position, but it doesn't change my happiness one way or another.

"You're obviously going to be happy to be in the playoffs and be happy to win games. When you're losing, you're not going to be that way. So, I'm definitely happy we are where we are."

The 76ers are next and Westbrook added: "They're the number one team in the East for a reason.

"They've been playing well all season long. They're a good team overall, with a lot of different talent on the team.

"We've got to make sure we prepare the right way and go and win the series, taking one game at a time."

The Washington Wizards will face Eastern Conference top seeds the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the NBA playoffs after crushing the Indiana Pacers in the play-in tournament.

Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook combined as the Wizards eased past the Pacers 142-115 on Thursday to earn the eighth seed in the east.

Beal posted a game-high 25 points, while Westbrook added 18 points and 15 assists in a double-double display to end Indiana's season.

A triple-double from Domantas Sabonis (19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) and Malcolm Brogdon's 24 points were not enough for the Pacers, who had won their opening play-in game against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.

After a tense first quarter, the Wizards moved clear as they carried a 14-point lead into half-time and never looked back, outscoring the Pacers 48-31 in the third period.

The Wizards will open their first-round series against the 76ers in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Washington are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18, when they were beaten in the opening round by the Toronto Raptors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jokic has remained healthy this season, starting all 72 games for the Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference, while averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

The Nuggets big man shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Full list of award finalists:

NBA Coach of the Year

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

NBA Defensive Player of the Year

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

NBA Rookie of the Year

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

NBA Sixth Man

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

NBA Most Improved Player

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

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

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

 

Jazz make history

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

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

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

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