The NBA All-Defensive teams were released on Friday, headlined by Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) Marcus Smart and reigning NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in the First Team.

Joining that pair on the First Team is Phoenix Suns wing and DPOY runner-up Mikal Bridges, the Utah Jazz's three-time DPOY-winning center Rudy Gobert, and the Memphis Grizzlies' league-leading shot-blocker Jaren Jackson Jr.

It is Gobert's sixth consecutive First Team appearance, and Antetokounmpo's fourth consecutive, while also having one Second Team selection in 2017.

Marcus Smart now has three First Team selections after making it in 2019 and 2020, and it was the first of what will likely be numerous defensive honours for both Bridges, aged 25, and Jackson, 22.

The Second Team is made up of Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, Boston Celtics big-man Robert Williams III, Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday and Philadelphia 76ers defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle.

It is Green's seventh All-Defensive honour since 2015, with four First Teams (2015, 2016, 2017 and 2021) and now three Second Teams (2018, 2019 and now 2022). 

For Holiday, it is his fourth All-Defensive selection overall, with First Teams in 2018 and 2021, and another Second Team in 2019.

Adebayo has now made the Second Team for three consecutive years, and is yet to break into the First Team, while Thybulle made his second straight Second Team, and it was Williams' first award after being drafted in 2018, 23 selections after Memphis' Jackson.

The Boston Celtics inched closer to sweeping the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, claiming a 3-0 series lead with a 109-103 victory at the Barclays Center.

Jayson Tatum notched up 39 points on 13-of-29 shooting, six assists, five rebounds and six steals in the win for the Celtics, who continued to lock down Kevin Durant.

Though Durant shot 54.5 per cent from the floor, moving him to 17-of-52 for the series, he did it on 11 shots on Saturday as the flexible and intense Celtics defensive scheme continued to force the ball out of his hands. Kyrie Irving also went six-of-17 from the floor.

Bruce Brown was the highest scorer for the Nets with 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting, but he and Durant contributed to 10 of the team's 20 turnovers, from which Boston scored 25 points.

The Celtics led for the whole of the second half and whenever the Nets would threaten with a scoring run, managed to make timely buckets and secure a big road win.

Gobert gets up for Jazz win

Luka Doncic's return from injury was not enough for the Dallas Mavericks as the Utah Jazz evened up their series at 2-2, earning a 100-99 win.

Rudy Gobert gave Utah the lead with an alley-oop dunk with 11 seconds remaining in Game 4, before Spencer Dinwiddie missed a three-ball at the buzzer for the Mavs.

While Doncic had 30 points in his first game back from a strained calf, Dallas were kept to just 18 points in the fourth quarter, shooting six-of-18 from the floor.  

Siakam sizzles as Raptors avoid sweep

Pascal Siakam scored 15 of his of 34 points in the fourth quarter as the Toronto Raptors avoided a series sweep, defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 110-102.

Despite a 19-point deficit in points off turnovers, Toronto continually managed to penetrate and get on the break, holding a combined 25-point advantage for points in the paint and fast-break points.

Nursing an injured thumb, Joel Embiid shot seven-of-16 from the floor for his 21 points to go with eight rebounds, but also coughed up five turnovers.

Timberwolves level series with Grizzlies

Karl-Anthony Towns bounced back from a disappointing Game 3 to help the Minnesota Timberwolves even their playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies, winning 119-118.

After going missing in Game 3, taking only four shots as the Grizzlies overcame a 26-point deficit, Towns was more assertive from the outset, adding 13 rebounds to 33 points.

Anthony Edwards' fingerprints were all over the game however, coming up with 24 points on seven-of-14 shooting, four rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks.

Darius Garland and Fred VanVleet have both been selected to the NBA All-Star Game for the first time as Eastern Conference reserves.

After the 2022 captains and starters were announced a week earlier, the rest of the pool of players was filled out on Thursday.

Garland, having led the Cleveland Cavaliers into fifth place in the East, was a popular pick.

Charles Barkley said on TNT: "I like it when they earn it. They don't just get the fan vote, like a lifetime achievement award. This kid deserves to be at the All-Star Game."

Third-year point guard Garland becomes the first Cav to be recognised since LeBron James left the team, rewarded for averaging 19.8 points and 8.2 assists this season.

He is not the only new face, however, as VanVleet also made the cut in a career year. The 2019 champion is leading the Toronto Raptors in scoring with his 21.5 points.

Fellow pick in the East James Harden is far more familiar with this stage, included for a 10th consecutive season. Only James (18) is on a longer active streak.

Jimmy Butler, Zach LaVine, Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum all also return.

LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, Tyler Herro and Jarrett Allen were among the players to narrowly miss out in a hugely talented Eastern Conference.

In the West, Chris Paul makes his 12th appearance, and Luka Doncic is also included.

Paul is joined by Phoenix Suns team-mate Devin Booker, while Draymond Green boosts the number of Golden State Warriors to three, alongside starters Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins.

Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Karl-Anthony Towns complete the roster.

Injured Warriors forward Green, speaking in his role as a pundit, said he hoped the San Antonio Spurs' Dejounte Murray would be called up in his place.

Earlier on Thursday, the NBA unveiled new designs for the trophies to be handed out across All-Star Weekend – including the Kobe Bryant Trophy, awarded to the All-Star Game MVP.

The Golden State Warriors felt the absence of Steph Curry and Draymond Green as they fell to a 119-99 loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.

Curry was ruled out with a hand injury and Green missed a fourth straight game with a calf issue as the Warriors lost for a fifth time in their last seven outings.

Jaylen Nowell scored 17 points for the Timberwolves and Malik Beasley added 16, which included five second-half 3-pointers in a one-sided conclusion to the game.

The travel-weary Warriors, playing on the road for a fourth successive time, are now 31-12 for the season and remain second in the Western Conference.


Gobert guides Utah past Denver

Returning from a five-game coronavirus-enforced absence, Rudy Gobert made up for lost time with a double-double in the Utah Jazz's 125-102 win over the Denver Nuggets.

The Jazz had lost four in a row in Gobert's absence, but the center's 18 points and 19 rebounds got his side back on track at the Ball Arena.

Gobert has now recorded 15 straight double-doubles either side of his spell on the sidelines, while Bojan Bogdanovic finished with 21 points.

Nikola Jokic top-scored for the Nuggets with 25 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists for his ninth triple-double of the season – no player has more.


Suns win again, Rockets looking up

The NBA-leading Phoenix Suns won for a sixth time in seven games with a 135-108 victory over the Detroit Pistons, with Devin Booker scoring 30 points.

JaVale McGee added 20 as the Pistons, who had Josh Jackson ejected in the fourth quarter, fell to a fourth defeat since New Year's Day, each of those by at least 27 points.

Elsewhere on Sunday, the Houston Rockets beat the Sacramento Kings 118-112 to exact some revenge two days on from losing to the same opponents.

Eric Gordon made a clutch bucket with 12.5 seconds left, adding to Christian Woods' 23 points and 14 rebounds as the Rockets won for a second time in three games.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert has tested positive for COVID-19 once again after his diagnosis prompted the NBA to shut down for four months in March last year.

Gobert has entered the league's health and safety protocols and will miss Friday's game against the Toronto Raptors.

The three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year had missed the Jazz's win at the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday for an unspecified illness.

The Jazz said Gobert returned two negative results for two rapid tests on the day of that game but the result of a PCR test returned on Thursday is positive.

Utah, who are 28-10, had managed to avoid having any players enter protocols this season until Joe Inglis entered earlier this week, with Gobert the second Jazz player to test positive.

The Golden State Warriors stormed home with a strong final quarter led by Stephen Curry to halt the Utah Jazz's winning run with a 123-116 victory on Saturday.

The Warriors fought back from a 16-point deficit in the third quarter with a 37-25 final period, going 13 of 18 from the field.

Curry finished the game with 28 points including six three-pointers with six rebounds and nine assists, while Andrew Wiggins contributed with 25 points.

Donovan Mitchell scored 20 points with nine assists, Rudy Gobert had 20 points and 19 rebounds while Bojan Bogdanovic netted 20 points including four triples for the Jazz who had won six in a row.

The result improves the Warriors to 28-7 while the Jazz are 26-10 in the Western Conference.

 

DeRozan does it again

DeMar DeRozan became the first player to hit a game-winning buzzer beater in successive games since 1997-98 as the Chicago Bulls won 120-119 over the Washington Wizards. DeRozan finished with 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists, while Zach LaVine had 35 points for the Bulls. Bradley Beal had 27 points and 17 assists for the Wizards.

Giannis Antetokounmpo started the year with a triple-double as the Milwaukee Bucks claimed their sixth straight win, beating the New Orleans Pelicans 136-113. Antetokounmpo scored 35 points with 16 rebounds and 10 assists.

Nikola Jokic scored 34 points with 11 rebounds and Facundo Campazzo delivered 22 points and 12 assists as the Denver Nuggets won 124-111 over the Houston Rockets.

 

Nets beaten as stars shooting off

The Brooklyn Nets stars were back together but they were humbled by the depleted Los Angeles Clippers 120-116. Kevin Durant shot 11 of 24 from the field for his 28 points while James Harden went nine of 22 from the field. Harden did have 34 points with 12 rebounds and 13 assists.

Ja Morant's 41 points overshadowed LeBron James as the Memphis Grizzlies won 104-99 to inflict a sixth defeat in seven games for the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday.

Morant was excellent for the Grizzlies, draining six of seven three-pointers in his 41-point haul along with 10 rebounds and two assists.

James, who turns 38 on Friday, tried his best for the slumping Lakers with 37 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, while Russell Westbrook had another triple-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.

But the four-time MVP came up short in the final 30 seconds, missing a three-point attempt to tie the game before an aimless pass turned the ball over.

Morant skilfully tipped in two to make it 102-97 with 1:15 to go and scored 25 of his 41 points in the second half.

Booker stars as Suns silence Thunder

Devin Booker landed six triples in his 38-point haul as the Phoenix Suns defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 115-97 to improve to a 27-7, putting them joint-top with the Golden State Warriors. Along with his 38 points, Booker also had seven rebounds and five assists.

The Chicago Bulls had a full team performance in their 131-117 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, with contributions from Zach LaVine (25 points), Coby White (17 points, 12 assists), Nikola Vucevic (16 points, 20 rebounds) and DeMar DeRozan (20 points, eight assists).

Rudy Gobert starred with 22 points and 14 rebounds as the Utah Jazz recorded their eighth straight road win, beating the depleted Portland Trail Blazers 120-105 despite Damian Lillard's 32 points.

Brown struggles from beyond the arc

Jaylen Brown has been in top form lately but hit one of 13 from beyond the arc as the Boston Celtics went down 91-82 to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Joel Embiid inspired the Philadelphia 76ers to a thrilling 108-103 road win over the Boston Celtics with 41 points including 17 in the fourth quarter on Monday.

Embiid's remarkable final period also included a steal from a last-ditch Celtics inbound with 3.9 seconds on the clock and the 76ers leading 106-103.

The 76ers center made 14 of 27 shots from the field (52 percent) and collected 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and four blocks.

Tobias Harris (25 points, seven rebounds and three assists) and Seth Curry (26 points, four rebounds and seven assists) provided good support for Embiid.

Jayson Tatum had a down game for the Celtics, only managing 17 points, while Jaylen Brown scored 30 points with five rebounds and four assists.

 

Draymond's season-first triple-double

Stephen Curry scored 30 points including four three-pointers but Draymond Green (16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) stole the show with his first triple-double of the season as the Golden State Warriors beat the Sacramento Kings 113-98. Green also had two blocks and two steals.

Dejounte Murray became the first player in San Antonio Spurs history to reach six triple-doubles in one season, with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists as they won 116-92 over the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul George returned from an elbow injury with 25 points, six rebounds and six assists for the Clippers.

Rudy Gobert dominated with 23 points and 21 rebounds as the Utah Jazz improved to 21-9 with a 112-102 win over the Charlotte Hornets. LaMelo Ball (21 points, 11 assists and six rebounds) and Miles Bridges (21 points and 11 rebounds) were good for the Hornets.

 

Grizzlies cannot win with Morant

Ja Morant could not lift the Memphis Grizzlies upon his return from injury, managing only 16 points in a 102-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had rookie Josh Giddey (19 points and 11 assists) impress. The Grizzlies bizarrely went 10-2 without Morant during his three-week absence, having been 9-10.

Fred VanVleet starred as the Toronto Raptors won 119-100 over the Golden State Warriors who rested star guard Stephen Curry on Saturday.

VanVleet finished with 27 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists as the Raptors blew the Warriors away in the first half, leading 63-42.

Curry (rest), Draymond Green (right hip), Andre Iguodala (right knee), Otto Porter Jr. (left foot) and Andrew Wiggins (left knee) were all absent for Golden State and returned to California to avoid potential COVID-19 exposure and quarantine in Canada.

The Raptors made their absence count, shooting 45 of 90 from the field, becoming the first side the Warriors have allowed this season to shoot at 50 percent or better.

The Warriors' sixth defeat of the season leaves them second in the Western Conference with a 24-6 record.

 

Wizards end Jazz run

Bradley Beal scored a season-high 37 points and had seven assists and five rebounds as the Washington Wizards ended the Utah Jazz's eight-game winning streak 109-103. Donovan Mitchell scored 32 points for the Jazz, while Rudy Gobert had 19 rebounds with 11 points.

Cedi Osman came off the bench to top score for the Cleveland Cavaliers with 23 points as they won 119-90 over the Milwaukee Bucks, who were missing Giannis Antetokounmpo due to COVID protocols.

Luke Kennard's (27 points, seven rebounds) heroics could not lift the Los Angeles Clippers to victory, going down 104-103 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were led by rookie Josh Giddey (eight points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists).

 

Weakened Nets lose to struggling Magic

The depleted Brooklyn Nets, missing star trio Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden due to COVID protocols, were beaten 100-93 by the lowly Orlando Magic for their sixth win of the season. The loss was the Nets' ninth.

Stephen Curry had a wayward shooting game but moved closer to Ray Allen's all-time record as the Golden State Warriors were humbled 102-93 by the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

Joel Embiid scored a game-high 26 points along with nine rebounds and four assists for the 76ers, who ended the game with a 41-20 run to improve their record to 15-12.

Curry, who started the game 10 triples away from Allen's all-time NBA record for most three-point attempts made, finished with 18 points including three triples.

As a result, two-time MVP Curry is seven three-pointers away from breaking Allen's mark of 2,973 career triples.

Curry drained two three-pointers late in the second quarter but did not add to his tally until the fourth quarter, shooting a disappointing three-of-14 from beyond the arc. The guard finished the game shooting 30 percent from the field.

 

Jokic stars but triple-double run ends

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic's run of three straight triple-doubles ended but he still managed a double-double with 35 points and 17 rebounds in the Denver Nuggets' 127-112 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Reggie Jackson hit a late two-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to lead the Los Angeles Clippers past the Orlando Magic 106-104, finishing the game with 25 points in Paul George's absence.

The Utah Jazz extended their winning streak to seven games as Donovan Mitchell had 28 points with Ruby Gobert grabbing another double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds in their 123-98 win over the Washington Wizards.

 

Turnovers cost Bulls vs Heat

Point guard Lonzo Ball committed five turnovers and only managed 15 points as the Chicago Bulls lost 118-92 to the Miami Heat. Zach LaVine was also guilty of four turnovers, although he finished with 33 points including seven three-pointers.

The Los Angeles Lakers have been beaten again going down 108-95 to the impressive Memphis Grizzlies despite LeBron James' 100th career triple-double.

James finished with 20 points along with 10 rebounds and 11 assists, bringing up his 100th career triple-double, but the Lakers could not stop the Grizzlies, still missing the injured Ja Morant, from scoring offensively.

Jaren Jackson Jr had 25 points for Memphis, while guard Desmond Bane finished with 23 points including five three-pointers.

Anthony Davis top scored with 22 points for the Lakers, who led at quarter-time, but Russell Westbrook struggled for impact, finishing with nine points, six rebounds and seven assists.

The result leaves the Lakers with a 13-13 record while the Grizzlies are 15-11.

Rudy Gobert suggested he was willing to take any fights out of the NBA spotlight after a tussle with Myles Turner that saw the two big men ejected.

Utah Jazz center Gobert was involved in a scuffle with Indiana Pacers counterpart Turner on Thursday.

With Jazz team-mates Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles then entering the fray and also getting ejected, the Pacers closed out a 111-110 win.

"I don't think I did anything wrong," Turner said, but Gobert appeared to disagree as he criticised NBA officials for putting him in such situations.

"We know we aren't going to fight," said the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

"Guys need to stop acting like they're going to fight, because they know that in two seconds there's going to be like 20 security guards in between us. Okay, it's cool for the cameras, but they know we aren't going to fight.

"Guys that are not about that life need to stop acting like they are, because at some point I might have to stand up for myself – also if the officials keep doing like they've been doing over this season.

"There are a lot of guys who do way too much s***, and I have to keep my head cool. I do a lot of self-control.

"It's actually funny, because my boxing coach was at the game. That's the only time in a year that he came to the game. That's funny.

"But they teach you how to keep your calm. If I don't feel threatened, I'm not going to throw a punch and get suspended and hurt my team. I didn't feel a threat at all, and I'm not going to fight on a basketball court.

"But if somebody wants to fight, I'm easy to reach, I'm really easy to reach. I'm just not going to do it on social media. If anyone's got a problem, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, easy."

Asked about Mitchell and Ingles also being ejected, Gobert replied with a smile: "I was surprised when I heard it, but then when I watched the video and saw what happened..."

Rudy Gobert and France may have beaten the United States at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, but the Utah Jazz center is not disputing their Olympics opponents' status as Games favourites.

France face Team USA in their opening preliminary round Group A game at Tokyo 2020 on Sunday.

Both teams are expected to advance, but the fixture will bring back painful memories for the United States, who lost 89-79 to Les Bleus in the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup.

Gobert had a game-high 16 rebounds for France in that clash and will likely be a threat up the middle again this weekend, having led the NBA in boards (980) and blocks (190) as well as field-goal percentage (67.5) in 2020-21.

Only Jayson Tatum and Khris Middleton are still on the Team USA roster – Gobert is among seven who featured in both France squads – yet the Defensive Player of the Year expects the reigning Olympic champions to have added motivation for this match.

"I think there is more and more respect for international players in the United States," Gobert said.

"But Team USA think they are the favourites and they are right. On paper, they are the team with the most strength and the most talent.

"I think they respect everyone. But at the same time, they know they are the favourites.

"I know the Americans, I think they are confident. Being first is not something they just hope for. If they don't finish first, it will be a failure for them.

"I think that's their spirit, especially after what happened in the 2019 World Cup. They are the favourites and they know it."

For France, Gobert says, the game against a team containing three of the five leading postseason points-per-game scorers – Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant and Tatum – can be a yardstick.

"We know that [USA] have exceptional players," Gobert said. "They are very proud, so they will try to do something big against us.

"For us, it's a great opportunity to see where we are as a team. Of course we want to win. But if we lose, we will still have two other games to qualify [for the] quarter-finals.

"It's our main goal. We hope we will see USA again, later in the competition.

"We had a short preparation, we didn't have many games to get ready. We want to use every game to improve ourselves."

Zach LaVine did not feature in the playoffs but is another threat to France, having improved his points average for a third straight NBA season.

The Chicago Bulls guard had 27.4 per game in 2020-21 and is relishing his Olympic bow after watching past Games triumphs as a young American fan.

"I remember watching Kobe Bryant and LeBron James on the court in 2008 when I was a little kid in the sixth grade, yelling their names, and now I'm in the same position," LaVine said.

"Just to see the smiles on people's faces, how you affect them [with] what you do.

"It's a big thing and I take pride in that. I just want to set the right example of who I am and what I represent."

The United States are always favourites at the Olympic Games – and rightly so. In 18 entries to the men's basketball event, Team USA have collected 18 medals, 15 of them gold.

But those three defeats serve as a warning for Gregg Popovich's side.

And any remaining complacency heading to Tokyo 2020 – in pursuit of a fourth straight title – should have been shifted by their initial pre-tournament exhibitions.

The United States lost to Nigeria last Saturday and then to Australia two days later, their third and fourth defeats in exhibitions since first fielding NBA players with the formation of the 'Dream Team' in 1992.

"It was better," as Popovich said, in Tuesday's win over Argentina – "bit by bit, every day, I hope," the coach added – but the pressure is still on, as consistent results must follow when the real action begins.

 

TOUGH START FOR TEAM USA SUPERSTARS

Of course, Team USA have never failed to advance from the preliminary round and that spotless record is highly unlikely to change this year. A kind draw has thrown up only one true test, but it comes first up: against France.

Indeed, Les Bleus dealt the United States their humiliating quarter-final exit at the FIBA Basketball World Cup two years ago.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert – the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year – put up a game-high 16 rebounds in that France victory and his size is a real problem for familiar opponents.

Gobert led the league with 2.7 blocks and 10.1 defensive rebounds per game in 2020-21, snaring 33.5 per cent of defensive boards while on the floor for the third-best mark in the NBA.

Bam Adebayo and Draymond Green might be versatile but, as the two preferred American options at the five, finding joy in the middle seems unlikely, while Team USA might also struggle to stop 7ft 1in Gobert on defense. His 67.5 per cent shooting was another benchmark.

However, the talent elsewhere in the Team USA lineup should ensure they have enough to win most matchups.

Kevin Durant shot 52.3 per cent from the midrange and 45.0 per cent from beyond the arc in the regular season; only two players made more threes than Damian Lillard (275), who then broke Klay Thompson's record with 12 makes from deep in a single playoff game against the Denver Nuggets.

The opener could either see Durant and Co lay down a marker for the rest of the tournament or provide other contenders with a blueprint for beating the United States.

 

BOOMERS BANG UP FOR MEDAL PURSUIT

Australia are far from the biggest team at the Games, but they have already shown the joy that can be found in the paint against Team USA, scoring 44 points from inside the key in their exhibition win.

The Boomers' effective, well-executed gameplan was all the more impressive given the unsettled nature of their team.

They have changed coach three times since the World Cup, and star name Ben Simmons is absent – working to "develop that skill package and improve in a couple of areas", Brian Goorjian said, after averaging an awful 9.9 points per game in the playoff series defeat to the Atlanta Hawks.

But Philadelphia 76ers team-mate Matisse Thybulle is still on hand to provide defensive energy, having led the NBA in steal percentage (3.9), while Patty Mills remains more reliable at international level than for Popovich's San Antonio Spurs.

Four times beaten in the bronze medal game, Australia will expect to finally secure some hardware, yet Group B also contains a dark horse in the form of Nigeria, who followed up their own victory against the United States by dominating Argentina.

Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent had 21 points against the country of his birth, a total he has only once topped in his NBA career to date.

Nigeria have chemistry, talent and, in Golden State Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown, coaching experience. They have also played so far like they have a point to prove.

 

DONCIC DRAWN INTO GROUP OF DEATH

Second and third pool games against Iran and the Czech Republic respectively should see that there is no jeopardy for the United States early on, but Group C shows how tough this tournament can be.

There will be a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final between Spain and Argentina, while hosts Japan will hope to make some noise. Then there is Slovenia, led of course by Luka Doncic.

One of the most exciting young talents in the world, Doncic has already shown himself capable of dragging a team to against-the-odds victories single-handedly.

The 22-year-old, whose 36.0 per cent usage rate led the NBA this year, was unsurprisingly named the MVP at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Kaunas just three weeks after forcing the Los Angeles Clippers to go to a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

Doncic has averaged 33.5 points across his 13 career postseason games – all of which have come against the Clippers. No player in NBA history has played 13 playoff games or more and averaged more, with Michael Jordan second on 33.4.

But Doncic has lost both of those series to date and is now faced with some hugely experienced players at this level. Argentina's Luis Scola and Spain's Pau Gasol – who moved to Barcelona specifically to prepare for the Games – are both in their 40s.

Should Doncic guide his country into the knockout stage, though, Team USA would undoubtedly be wary of taking on the two-time All-NBA First Team selection.

The matchups are set for the NBA's Conference Finals – and few would have predicted these four teams would still be in the running at the start of the year.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets' superstars fell to the Milwaukee Bucks while the Atlanta Hawks stunned the Philadelphia 76ers.

Western Conference leaders the Utah Jazz became the latest team to give up a lead to the Los Angeles Clippers.

However, the Clippers on Sunday lost Game 1 of their series with the Phoenix Suns, who had been resting since sweeping the Denver Nuggets.

So, which big names were key to deciding these unpredictable battles? Stats Perform takes a look in the latest edition of NBA Heat Check...
 

RUNNING HOT...

Paul George

Clippers superstar George understandably took a lot of criticism for his playoff performances last season, when he shot 39.8 per cent from the field and scored 10 points or fewer as many times as he reached 30.

But just as Kawhi Leonard went down against the Jazz with a knee injury, for which he has no return date, George found his scoring touch again.

Across four straight wins over Utah – three were last week – George contributed 31, 31, 37 and 28 points. His 37, along with 16 rebounds, came on the road in Game 5, putting the Clippers up for the first time in the series while Leonard sat out.

Even as a surely tired LA team lost to Phoenix on Sunday, George kept them in contention with 34 points to end the week averaging 32.5 per outing, as well as 9.5 rebounds (up from 23.3 and 6.7 respectively in the regular season).

Khris Middleton

Middleton is another impressive regular season performer who has been scrutinised for his postseason displays – and far more recently than last season.

Across the first five games of the Nets series, the wildly inconsistent Bucks forward shot 38.1 per cent from the field. He had 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3 but had gone six-for-23 in Game 1, making none of his five three-point attempts.

Yet Middleton's 38 points won Game 6, as he and Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as the only team-mates in NBA history to each have 30 points and 10 rebounds in the same game twice in the same playoff campaign.

With a key role again in the series decider, Middleton became the first player to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in consecutive postseason games since steals were first tracked in 1973-74.

Devin Booker

Booker played just once last week but put in a performance that cannot go unmentioned. Without veteran Chris Paul to help him, the sixth-year guard weighed in with a 40-point triple-double against the Clippers (also 13 rebounds and 11 assists).

Only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age in the playoffs than the 24-year-old, while Steve Nash – another Hall of Famer – was the previous Suns player to score a postseason triple of any kind back in 2005.

Kevin Durant

Another player whose contributions must be highlighted, even with his team now out of the playoffs, is Durant. With 43.0 points per game last week, he showed the greatest improvement in the league from his regular season performances – up 16.1 on 26.9.

His 12.3 rebounds per game put the two-time Finals MVP second in improvement in that regard, too, but it was not quite enough.

A toe on the three-point line meant Durant's late leveller in Game 7 against the Bucks was not a game-winner, before the Nets lost in overtime despite his 48 points – one short of a heroic Game 5 tally and two shy of his career postseason best.
 

GOING COLD...

James Harden

That Durant was asked to do so much was due to injuries to both the other members of Brooklyn's 'Big Three'. Kyrie Irving did not play after Game 4 against the Bucks due to an ankle sprain, while Harden returned in Game 5 after missing the previous three.

To anyone watching, though, it was clear Harden was not healthy.

One of the league's great scorers, he made one of 10 field goals in his first game back, with five points in 45 minutes. Harden had never previously scored as few as five in half an hour of play or more.

His form did improve slightly with returns of 16 and 22 points, but Milwaukee won both, with Harden shooting 29.4 per cent from the field as he proved more of a hindrance than a help to Durant with their season on the line.

Ben Simmons

When Harden moved to Brooklyn, Philadelphia was seen as the potential alternative destination, although that would likely have meant the 76ers reluctantly giving up Simmons. After the defeat to Atlanta, Simmons may now leave regardless.

An outstanding defender, the guard's offense has long been a concern and so it proved again as he averaged 7.5 points last week, significantly down on his modest regular season (14.3).

Simmons made single figures in three straight games, twice shooting only four times from the field despite being on the floor for 38 and 35 minutes respectively.

His eight-point effort on Wednesday included going four-of-14 when shooting from the foul line.

Rudy Gobert

This is the first time since 1994 that both top seeds have failed to make the Conference Finals. The Jazz, just like the Sixers, needed more from their second star.

Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year but looked a liability as the Clippers went small in Game 6, when his plus/minus was a dismal -24.

The Frenchman's output was down in all three defeats last week as he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, having put up 13.5 in the regular season.

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