The Los Angeles Clippers absorbed the best shot the Utah Jazz could give them and prevailed in what Paul George called their biggest game of the season, winning 119-111 Wednesday to take a 3-2 lead in their Western Conference semi-final series. 

Hours after learning star forward Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely with a knee injury, the Clippers turned to George to lead the way on the road against top-seeded Utah. 

George did everything he could, posting 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists to put Los Angeles one win away from advancing to the conference finals. 

"He's incredible. He's special. Paul's special," said Clippers guard Reggie Jackson.

"The way that he just handled himself, he seemed calm. Tough news to receive [about Leonard] but he seemed calm. He was ready to put the team on his back and carry extra weight."

George did not try and diminish the significance of the win afterward. 

"I thought this was our toughest matchup this postseason, this was the biggest game of our season, especially being down our best player," he told TNT afterward. 

"We wish Kawhi the best and a speedy recovery, but we knew coming into this we had to play together, we had to step up, but we didn't have to [overdo] it.

"I thought everybody played their roles, we did a great job, we played collectively. We limited our turnovers, and I thought that's what was the key tonight."

Los Angeles gave the ball away only 10 times, but just as positive for them was watching the Jazz come up one short of an NBA playoff record with 17 made three-pointers in the first half but only lead by five going into the break. 

"I thought a lot of their threes were tough ones," said George. "We didn't overreact. They came out hot. The good thing about it was we were able to weather the storm.

"We came down and we attacked them on offence as well. We just took their blows, we took their punches -- we just thought they couldn't sustain that over a full 48 minutes."

They could not, whether through the Clippers' defensive efforts or a lack of focus on both ends of the court. 

"I didn't feel like the sense of urgency was there defensively at the beginning of the game," said Jazz big man Rudy Gobert, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. 

Whatever the reason, the Clippers now control their own destiny in the series, even without having Leonard available for the immediate future. 

"We've been talking about it all year," said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. "We're not going to point the finger. We're not going to blame anyone.

"When things get tough, we come together. That's the kind of culture I wanted to establish here."

Donovan Mitchell produced another monster performance as the top-seeded Utah Jazz took down the Los Angeles Clippers for a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semi-finals.

After going off for 45 points in the opener, All-Star Mitchell posted 37 points to lead the Jazz to a 117-111 victory at home to the Clippers in Game 2 in the NBA playoffs on Thursday.

Mitchell was supported by fellow All-Star and newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who put up 13 points, 20 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in Utah.

Utah's Mitchell is averaging 28.4 points in his playoff career, only behind LeBron James (28.7), Jerry West (29.1), Kevin Durant (29.2), Allen Iverson (29.7) and Michael Jordan (33.4).

The in-form Jazz extended their winning streak to six games – the team's longest unbeaten run in the playoffs since celebrating seven consecutive victories in 1998.

Kawhi Leonard and the fourth-ranked Clippers were looking to even the series by splitting Utah's homestand, but the visitors fell short in Game 2.

Reggie Jackson had a team-best 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting as Paul George (27 points and 10 rebounds) and Leonard (21 points) contributed.

In the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Milwaukee Bucks escaped with an 86-83 victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3.

The Bucks had their backs against the wall after falling into a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Nets, but responded on home court in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee surrendered a 21-point lead at home to the Nets before Jrue Holiday put the Bucks ahead for good with 11.4 seconds remaining.

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 33 points and 14 rebounds, while Khris Middleton top-scored with 35 points and 15 rebounds as Kevin Durant's buzzer-beating three-point attempt for the Nets bounced off the rim.

The Bucks are the only NBA team in the last 15 years to have two players (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) score 15-plus points in a quarter with no other team-mates posting a point (regular season or postseason), according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton combined for 68 points and 29 rebounds. Per Stats Perform, they are the first duo to combine for those numbers in a playoff game since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2001.

Durant's 30 points and 11 rebounds were not enough for the Nets, who were again without injured superstar James Harden (hamstring).

 

76ers at Hawks

The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers will visit the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup on Friday. The series is level at 1-1.

Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert has been voted the NBA Defensive Player of the Year for the third time, the league announced Wednesday. 

The France native received 84 first-place votes from a global media panel, easily outdistancing Ben Simmons of the Philadephia 76ers for top honours. 

Gobert previously won the award in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and is the fourth player to win the award at least three times, joining Dikembe Mutombo (four), Ben Wallace (four) and Dwight Howard (three).

Gobert's Jazz team-mates surprised him with the award, putting the trophy on his chair in the locker room and erupting in cheers when he walked in. 

A 7-foot-1 presence in the middle, the Frenchman led the NBA with 10.1 defensive rebounds per game and his 13.5 total rebounds per game were second only to Clint Capela of the Atlanta Hawks (14.3). Gobert also finished second in the league with 2.7 blocked shots per game.

Gobert earned 464 points in the voting, while Simmons had 287 with 15 first-place votes. Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors was third with 76 points, Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat was next with 31 points, including one first-place vote, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks placed fifth with 12 points. 

 

Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George was the subject of harsh treatment from the Utah Jazz fans on Tuesday, though he very nearly took the game to overtime.

The Jazz won Game 1 of the playoff series 112-109 in Salt Lake City, as George – in inspired form in the fourth quarter – almost propelled the visitors to a comeback.

All-Star guard George was wasteful in the earlier stages of the encounter, missing 12 of his first 14 shots, but found his aim in the final quarter, converting 13 points.

His fourth-quarter tally included seven points in the last three minutes, despite the Jazz supporters' "overrated" jeers – George had previously played for Utah's rivals Oklahoma City Thunder.

Yet with fans only just starting to come back in full capacity following the coronavirus pandemic, George had no issues with the chants, but did concede he needs to improve to help the Clippers level the series in Game 2.

"I like it," George said, as reported by ESPN. "That part doesn't get to me. It's all respect. I've had good games here and I've had bad games here.

 "That's part of this game, to be honest. The crowd's going to be involved. You want that. As an opposing player, you kind of want that.

"Fact of the matter is, I didn't shoot the ball well. I thought I was indecisive on my approach. But I will be a little bit better on taking the shots that I want."

George finished the game with 20 points in total, 10 rebounds and two assists, and acknowledged that Jazz star Rudy Gobert made life difficult for the Clippers.

"The big fella is really good at just clogging the paint up and just sitting at the rim," George said of Gobert.

"A lot of plays I was just forcing myself trying to get to the basket where he's there waiting for me. So I think just being decisive on the approach of setting up, getting the shots that I want while he's in those coverages."

Donovan Mitchell starred and Rudy Gobert produced a game-clinching block as the Utah Jazz drew first blood against the Los Angeles Lakers in their Western Conference semi-final opener.

Mitchell dropped 32 of his 45 points in the second half to guide the top-seeded Jazz to a thrilling 112-109 win at home to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 on Tuesday.

Fellow All-Star Gobert – who finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds – came up big at the death, denying Marcus Morris Sr. and his potential game-winning three-pointer.

Kawhi Leonard (23 points) and Paul George (20 points and 10 rebounds) were unable to lift the fourth-seeded Clippers in Utah.

Earlier in the day, a disappointed Joel Embiid had a point to prove as he fuelled the Philadelphia 76ers' 118-102 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2.

Embiid's MVP hopes were dashed by Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, who was crowned the league's Most Valuable Player on Tuesday.

Already frustrated following a shock loss to the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semi-final opener, Embiid came out and scored 40 points with 13 rebounds to help level the series.

Embiid became the first 76ers player with 40 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game since Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham in 1970, while his postseason career-high points haul saw him become the first Philadelphia player with 40-plus points in a playoff contest since Hall of Famer Allen Iverson in 2003.

Tobias Harris chipped in with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists for the 76ers at Wells Fargo Center, where he had 16 first-quarter points on eight-for-nine shooting.

It was not all smooth sailing after a fast start as Philadelphia squandered a 21-point advantage – Trae Young's pair of free throws giving Atlanta their first lead in the third quarter, 80-79.

But Shake Milton – who did not play in the first half – stepped up to the plate, scoring 14 points to help withstand Young (21 points and 11 assists) and visiting the Hawks.

 

Nuggets at Suns

In the only game on Wednesday, the second-seeded Phoenix Suns will look to claim a 2-0 lead over the Nuggets in the Western Conference second round.

Rudy Gobert admits he was 'thrown off' by the Utah Jazz's decision not to play Donovan Mitchell in Sunday's 112-109 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their NBA playoffs first round series.

Following Utah's morning shootaround on Sunday, Mitchell had declared himself ready to return from an ankle injury which had kept him out since April 17.

However, the Jazz confirmed in their official injury report pre-game that he would miss out again with a "right ankle sprain", much to the surprise of Gobert and team-mate Bojan Bogdanovic.

!It was a big surprise," Gobert said post-game. "I try to stay out of all this because it's just going to give me a headache.

"When you wake up, you get ready for a game and you find out that your star player is not going to play, it throws you off a little bit."

Bogdanovic, who top-scored with 29 points for the Jazz including a series of last quarter three-pointers, added: "Of course we miss him, especially in the playoffs. We all know how good he is.

"I mean, I don't know what happened, honestly, with the decision for him and the medical staff to keep him out. You should ask him."

Jazz coach Quin Snyder admitted pre-game that Mitchell did not agree with the medical staff's decision.

"It's reflective of what a competitor he is and how bad he wants to be out there and is looking forward to being out there," Snyder said.

Speaking about the defeat, Snyder added: "I thought we competed, I didn't think we executed on the level that we need to in this moment in the playoffs. I think our guys know that. We know the things we need to do better."

Dillon Brooks had a game-high 31 points for the Grizzlies, while Ja Morant added 26 in the pair's playoffs debuts.

"For us to be able to come out and get a win on the road in the first game in that environment is big time for us," Morant said. "We can't wait to go back to Memphis to return the favour with our fans."

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.

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.

There are just two weeks of the NBA regular season remaining and the race for the playoffs is really hotting up.

The top teams in the East are jostling for the first seed, while the Washington Wizards' form has taken them into a play-in place.

The West is even more open, with the top seven in flux and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers falling into the play-in game as things stand.

Lakers superstar LeBron James even suggested the individual responsible for this format "needs to be fired".

There is still time for James and Co, but players with momentum – identified by our NBA Heat Check, powered by Stats Perform data – will be key.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

The Boston Celtics are down in seventh in the East, meaning they are set to go through the play-in, but their 1.0-game deficit to the teams above them would undoubtedly be greater if not for Tatum.

Although the team went 2-2 last week, one of their wins – against the San Antonio Spurs – was particularly memorable.

Tatum put up 60 points in the overtime win, where the Celtics trailed by 32 at one stage. That performance matched Larry Bird's single-game Boston scoring record and ensured he averaged 42.7 over the three games he featured in, up from his prior seasonal mark of 25.7 for the biggest increase of the week.

Aaron Nesmith

Tatum also had some help from the bench as rookie Nesmith found his feet at this level. Last year's first-round pick averaged 3.4 points per game through April 25 and continued this unimpressive form with two points as Tatum sat out against the Orlando Magic. Then he hit form.

Displays of 15, 16 and 16 points meant an average of 8.9 for the week, including 85.7 per cent shooting against the Portland Trail Blazers, making all four attempts from beyond the arc.

It was a timely improvement as fellow wing Evan Fournier, dealing with long-term COVID-19 effects, scored just 10.5 points per game, down from 17.5 for the league's eighth-largest decline last week.

Michael Porter Jr

Nikola Jokic will win the NBA MVP award, but injuries to Jamal Murray and Will Barton appeared to have hit his hopes of team success with the Denver Nuggets until they won four straight last week.

Porter is the Nuggets' third-best scorer but looked better than that as he led the team in points in two of those victories.

Enjoying his first year as a regular starter, Porter had boosted his average to 18.2 points per game with a career-high 39 in the final game of the previous week yet raised those standards even further with 26.8 over four outings.
 

GOING COLD...

Joel Embiid

Jokic's impending individual recognition is in part due to the failure of his MVP rivals to stay fit. Joel Embiid was the frontrunner until he missed 10 games in a row.

The Philadelphia 76ers center might still have returned in time to wrestle back the top honour, but limited minutes last week – even in four Sixers wins – look to have put paid to those hopes.

Only appearing for more than 25 minutes when he contributed 34 points against the Spurs, Embiid averaged 22.5ppg, a significant decrease on his prior 30.0 for 2020-21.

James in LA, another early contender, certainly will not trouble Jokic after he returned for two games, scored 35 points in total and then went down again.

Malcolm Brogdon

The 76ers can afford to give Embiid a light schedule as they focus on an NBA title, but the Indiana Pacers would be happy simply making the playoffs from ninth in the East.

Their hopes were hit by a tough week for Brogdon, who played only 12 minutes in their second game against the Brooklyn Nets before succumbing to a hamstring issue that kept him out of a trip to Oklahoma City.

Brogdon, previously scoring 21.6 points for the year, could only partially be excused by injury, though, having shot five-of-14 against Portland then none-of-five in a brief Brooklyn outing.

Rudy Gobert

The Utah Jazz are wobbling at the top of the West, where they have been joined on 46-18 by the Phoenix Suns following a 2-2 week that included a defeat to their rivals for the first seed.

Phoenix and Deandre Ayton continue to prove tricky opponents for presumed Defensive Player of the Year Gobert, who could not carry the load in Donovan Mitchell's absence.

With 10 rebounds against the Suns – relatively poor by his dominant standards – Gobert averaged 10.3 for the week, down from 13.6, and Utah have now lost four straight against their co-leaders. That is a worry heading into the postseason.

The race for top spot in the Western Conference is hotting up with only 10 games of the season remaining.

The Utah Jazz looked certain to secure the first seed earlier in the campaign, but damaging injuries and the form of the Phoenix Suns have closed the gap.

Utah could yet pull clear again but surely must win on Friday when they visit Phoenix.

The Suns are just a single game back and coming off a win over the Los Angeles Clippers that secured a playoff spot and should make second place the floor of their ambitions.

The Jazz also enjoyed a big victory on Wednesday, though, and are unlikely to go down without a fight.

 

TOP PERFORMERS

Jordan Clarkson – Utah Jazz

With 17.5 points over 58 games, but only one start, Clarkson is a shoo-in for Sixth Man of the Year.

When Donovan Mitchell, the team's leading scorer, went down injured this month, Clarkson was installed into the starting five in the next game. Although he played 46 minutes and tallied 27 points, the Jazz lost.

The 28-year-old point guard has since returned to the bench and, despite quiet nights in surprise consecutive defeats to the Minnesota Timberwolves, put up 23 points in a record-breaking midweek win at the Sacramento Kings.

The 154-105 victory made Utah the first road team to score as many as 154 points while winning by as many as 49.

With 988 bench points this year, Clarkson is set to pass 1,000 against the Suns – only Thurl Bailey, in three seasons, has previously reached that mark with the Jazz.

Chris Paul – Phoenix Suns

Veteran Paul, who turns 36 next week, will certainly be capable of handling the heat in high-stakes games such as these.

The 16-year point guard, averaging 16.2 for the year, scored 28 points in the win over the Clippers. Only five times this season has he topped that tally – most recently in the previous meeting with the Jazz earlier in April.

Of Paul's 29 points on that occasion, 11 came in the fourth quarter and five in overtime.

"Down the stretch, you might not find anybody better than Chris Paul," coach Monty Williams said that night.

Paul now ranks third for clutch points in 2020-21 with 133.

 

KEY BATTLE – GOBERT HAS A POINT TO PROVE

Along with Paul's heroics and 35 points from Devin Booker, the performance of Deandre Ayton drew particular praise the last time these teams met.

The big man had 18 points and 12 rebounds as Utah allowed 61 boards – still by far a season high among their opponents.

Ayton said afterwards he had brought his "A-game" in order to match up against presumed Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Gobert will not want to be outfought again, and with Mitchell still out, he cannot afford to be.

 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Suns' overtime success was their second win against the Jazz this season and their third in a row, although they had lost 15 of the team's 16 matchups immediately prior to this run.

Phoenix's recent form in this series has given them a narrow 95-93 all-time lead.

The Brooklyn Nets warmed up for Wednesday's showdown with the Philadelphia 76ers with a comfortable 30-point victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Tuesday's postponed game.

Kevin Durant top scored for the Nets with 31 points along with four rebounds, with guard Joe Harris adding 23 points in the 127-97 win.

Brooklyn improved to a 37-17 record, equal with the 76ers, in the absence of James Harden (hamstring) and Kyrie Irving (personal reasons).

The Utah Jazz regained some form after losing three of their past five games, triumphing 106-96 over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert put on a show with 13 points, 14 rebounds and a staggering seven blocks, while Croatian forward Bojan Bogdanovic top scored with 23.

 

No Kawhi but Clippers keep on winning

The Los Angeles Clippers extended their winning streak to six games despite missing Kawhi Leonard in a 126-115 victory over the Indiana Pacers.

Leonard was out with a sore right foot but Paul George was up to the task, with 36 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. That's the fourth straight game he's reached 30 points.

The Clippers have now won 12 of their past 14 matches and move to a 38-18 record, equating to third in the West.

The Los Angeles Lakers managed a 101-93 win over the Charlotte Hornets to move to 34-21 in the West.

With LeBron James and Anthony Davis still out injured, the Lakers relied on Kyle Kuzma with 24 points including four threes while center Andre Drummond had 12 rebounds.

The Phoenix Suns remain firm in second in the West with a 106-86 win over the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics edged the Portland Trail Blazers in a final quarter thriller 116-115 as the jostle for play-offs seedings continues.

 

Thunder crashing down

Guard Luguentz Dort may have scored a career-high 42 points but he was not able to celebrate as the Oklahoma City Thunder slumped to their seventh straight loss against the Jazz. The Thunder are now 20-34 and practically out of playoffs contention.

 

LeBron loves Kuz sledgehammer

Kyle Kuzma got LeBron James on his feet with a massive one-handed dunk on the transition late in the second in the Lakers' win.

 

Tuesday's results

Brooklyn Nets 127-97 Minnesota Timberwolves
Los Angeles Clippers 126-115 Indiana Pacers
Atlanta Hawks 108-103 Toronto Raptors
Los Angeles Lakers 101-93 Charlotte Hornets
Utah Jazz 106-96 Oklahoma City Thunder
Phoenix Suns 106-86 Miami Heat
Boston Celtics 116-115 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Nets in Philly

The top two in the East will face off when the Philadelphia 76ers host the Brooklyn Nets (both 37-17) with Joel Embiid and Kevin Durant available to play although James Harden will likely miss due to injury.

Ben Simmons insisted the Philadelphia 76ers can win the NBA title this season ahead of their Eastern Conference top-of-the-table clash with the Brooklyn Nets.

The 76ers and the star-studded Nets share 37-17 win-loss records atop the east heading into Wednesday's blockbuster match, with both franchises having strong claims for championship favouritism.

Philadelphia – swept in the first round of last season's playoffs, having reached back-to-back Eastern Conference semi-finals under former head coach Brett Brown – have not won the title since 1983, while the Nets are searching for their maiden championship.

Simmons, playing alongside fellow All-Star Joel Embiid in Philadelphia – told ESPN on Tuesday: "I think we can win it all".

Simmons and the 76ers will come up against a strong Nets side with Kevin Durant back in their ranks following a 23-game injury absence.

Brooklyn will be without former MVP James Harden with a hamstring strain but Kyrie Irving is expected back after missing Tuesday's 127-97 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves for personal reasons.

"There's one ball, there's one ball and you have to play defence still," Simmons said of the Nets.

"I take pride in defence. I know if I'm able to get stops and give guys a hard time doing their job then we're going to be able to go further.

"They have a lot of talent, but at the same time you've got to be able to play together as a team."

Australian star Simmons was forthright in pushing his credentials for this season's NBA Defensive Player of the Year award too, despite stiff opposition from Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert.

Simmons is averaging 14.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game for Doc Rivers' 76ers this season.

"I'm one of those guys who can guard one to five," the 24-year-old Simmons said.

"Obviously, there's a lot of respect for Rudy. I know what he's capable of. I know he's great down there in the paint, but he's not guarding everybody and that's just what it is.

"He guarded me in Utah… I had 42 [points] and apparently I'm not a scorer. It is what it is, but I have a lot of respect for him. At the same time, I think it's mine this year."

The Houston Rockets snapped their 20-game losing streak after John Wall posted his first triple-double since 2016 in a 117-99 win against the slumping Toronto Raptors.

Houston were in the midst of a franchise-record drought – the Rockets' skid tied for the ninth-worst in NBA history and the worst since the Philadelphia 76ers and their record-setting 28-game losing streak across the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns.

But the Rockets recorded an overdue victory on Monday, celebrating their first win since February 4 behind Wall's 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

It was Wall's first triple-double since March 2016 as the Raptors crashed to a ninth consecutive defeat – now the league's longest active losing streak.

Giannis Antetokounmpo sat out due to a sprained left knee, but the Milwaukee Bucks still routed the Indiana Pacers 140-113 in the absence of the two-time reigning MVP.

Jrue Holiday led the way with 28 points and 14 assists to guide the Bucks to a seventh consecutive victory at home to the Pacers.

 

Gobert enjoys career-high game

Rudy Gobert had 21 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high nine blocks as the NBA-leading Utah Jazz eased past the Chicago Bulls 120-95. The All-Star became the first Jazz player to record nine-plus blocks in a game since Andrei Kirilenko in 2006. Gobert fell just short of becoming the first Jazz player to post a triple-double since 2008. Donovan Mitchell added 30 points for the visiting Jazz.

Luke Kennard was flawless in the Los Angeles Clippers' 119-110 win against the Atlanta Hawks. He was eight-of-eight shooting, while he also made all four of his three-point attempts for 20 points off the bench in 18 minutes. Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and Terance Mann contributed a season-high 21 points as the Clippers rallied from a 22-point deficit in the second half, snapping Atlanta's eight-game winning streak.

The Oklahoma City Thunder topped the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-103 thanks to 31 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Oklahoma City set a season high with 21 three-pointers in just 37 attempts (56.8 per cent).

 

George struggles

The Clippers won but star Paul George struggled. In 33 minutes, George had eight points on just three-of-12 shooting. He was also just two-of-seven from three-point range.

Chris Boucher had a forgettable outing for the out-of-form Raptors. He was one-of-seven shooting, while missing all four of his attempts from beyond the arc in a four-point display.

 

From inside his own half!

Danuel House Jr. nailed a stunning half-time buzzer-beater from beyond half court against the Raptors.

 

Monday's results

Sacramento Kings 119-105 Cleveland Cavaliers
Oklahoma City Thunder 112-103 Minnesota Timberwolves
Charlotte Hornets 100-97 San Antonio Spurs
Utah Jazz 120-95 Chicago Bulls
Houston Rockets 117-99 Toronto Raptors
Memphis Grizzlies 132-126 Boston Celtics (OT)
Milwaukee Bucks 140-113 Indiana Pacers
Los Angeles Clippers 119-110 Atlanta Hawks

 

76ers at Warriors

The Eastern Conference-leading 76ers (30-13) – riding back-to-back wins – travel to the Golden State Warriors (22-21) on Tuesday. Golden State will be without star Stephen Curry (back).

Damian Lillard scored a season-high 50 points, including 20 in the last quarter, as the Portland Trail Blazers produced a remarkable comeback to snatch a last-gasp 125-124 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday.

The Pelicans led by 17 points late in the third term and Brandon Ingram had the chance to ice the game late on, before missing two free-throws as Portland snatched victory.

Lillard was the catalyst with his 20 final-quarter points, totalling 50 for the game, along with 10 assists and six rebounds. He also finished with six three-pointers and 18 of 18 free-throws.

He coolly scored two free-throws after Nickeil Alexander-Walker's costly fumble turned over possession. Zion Williamson had one last chance to steal victory but missed from a good close look.

The result improved Portland's record to 23-16 as they stay firmly in playoff contention while the Pelicans slipped to 17-23, despite Lonzo Ball's career-high 17 assists.

Lillard is now tied with LeBron James in seventh for all-time most 50-point NBA games.

Meanwhile, James had the 99th triple-double of his career with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, while Montrezl Harrell was equal top scorer for the Los Angeles Lakers in a 137-121 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Smooth Jazz back among winners

Rudy Gobert scored 11 of his 16 points in the final period as the Utah Jazz bounced back from their loss to the Golden State Warriors with a 117-109 win over the Boston Celtics.

Gobert, who also had 12 rebounds, was well supported by Donovan Mitchell (21 points and five assists) and impressive sixth man Jordan Clarkson (20 points and three assists) as the Jazz stormed home to edge past Boston.

Without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris stepped up for the Philadelphia 76ers with 30 points in a thrilling 99-96 triumph over the New York Knicks.

Ben Simmons had 16 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists for the 76ers, who trailed by nine at the final change before a dominant fourth quarter.

Jimmy Butler starred with 28 points, 12 rebounds and four assists as the in-form Miami Heat made it five wins in a row with a 113-98 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Miami center Bam Adebayo also returned from injury with 14 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

Nate McMillan is yet to lose as head coach at the resurgent Atlanta Hawks, who claimed their sixth consecutive win, beating the Houston Rockets 119-107, led by Danilo Gallinari with 29 points.

 

No lift-off as Rockets grounded

While Atlanta have turned their season around with a coaching change, Houston have now lost 17 in a row. Stephen Silas is left scratching his head, with his side going from 11-10 to 11-27.

 

Big blocks

There were some huge blocks on Tuesday but 76ers veteran Dwight Howard stole the show early in the fourth, putting Julius Randle on the floor with an emphatic swat.

 

Tuesday's results

Utah Jazz 117-109 Boston Celtics
Miami Heat 113-98 Cleveland Cavaliers
Chicago Bulls 123-102 Oklahoma City Thunder
Atlanta Hawks 119-107 Houston Rockets
Philadelphia 76ers 99-96 New York Knicks
Portland Trail Blazers 125-124 New Orleans Pelicans
Los Angeles Lakers 137-121 Minnesota Timberwolves

 

Bucks at 76ers

The 76ers, without the injured Embiid, take on Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks in a blockbuster clash on Wednesday.

Draymond Green posted his 26th career triple-double and Stephen Curry scored 32 points as the Golden State Warriors took down the NBA-leading Utah Jazz 131-119.

Green dominated in San Francisco, where the three-time NBA champion had 11 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists to help the Warriors snap their four-game losing streak on Sunday.

The Warriors are 25-1 when Green has a triple-double – the 96.2 win percentage is the highest by any player in NBA history with 10-plus triple-doubles.

Birthday boy Curry nailed six three-pointers to go with nine assists at home to the Jazz, while Andrew Wiggins added a season-high 28 points.

The Warriors triumphed despite Rudy Gobert's 24 points and career-high 28 rebounds (also a franchise high) as fellow All-Stars Donovan Mitchell (24 points) and Mike Conley (23 points) made solid contributions.

Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, meanwhile, combined to lead the New Orleans Pelicans past the Los Angeles Clippers 135-115.

The Pelicans stunned the Clippers behind Williamson (27 points) and Ingram (23 points) in New Orleans, where Kawhi Leonard had 23 points for the visitors.

 

Perfect Thybulle

No Joel Embiid? No worries for the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, who crushed the San Antonio Spurs 134-99. While Ben Simmons returned from an enforced absence due to coronavirus tracing, Matisse Thybulle dazzled in Philadelphia. He was four-of-four shooting from the field, while he made both of his three-point attempts for 10 points in 17 minutes off the bench. Tobias Harris posted a team-high 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Seth Curry had 21 points, including three triples, while Danny Green made four of seven shots from beyond the arc. The 76ers won their fifth straight game as they welcomed a limited number of fans back to Wells Fargo Center.

It was a career-high night for Anthony Edwards, who registered 34 points to help the Minnesota Timberwolves top the Portland Trail Blazers 114-112. Portland lost despite a game-high 38 points from All-Star Damian Lillard.

Norman Powell had 32 points, but the Toronto Raptors still lost 118-95 away to the Chicago Bulls, who were fuelled by a career-best 23 points from rookie Patrick Williams.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (30 points) and Aleksej Pokusevski (23 points and 10 rebounds) inspired the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 128-122 win against the Memphis Grizzlies. The 19-year-old Pokusevski became the youngest player in Thunder history to score 20-plus points. He also became the second youngest player in league history to score five three-pointers, behind only LeBron James.

 

No magic for free-falling Orlando

All-Star center Nikola Vucevic put up 38 points, including 17 in the third quarter, and 10 rebounds for his 26th double-double but not even that was enough for the slumping Orlando Magic. They lost 102-97 – their eighth consecutive defeat.

Zach LaVine has been red-hot for the Bulls this season, but the All-Star was far from his best in the team's win. He was just four-of-10 shooting, while making just one of his five three-point attempts for 15 points in 34 minutes.

The less said about San Antonio's performance, the better. Gregg Popovich's Spurs were just four-of-21 from beyond the arc – shooting at 19 per cent against the 76ers, who were 51.7 per cent when it came to three-pointers.

 

Tomahawk slam!

Jaxson Hayes produced a memorable moment for the Pelicans. His season-high 17 points included a powerful dunk over Reggie Jackson in the third quarter.

 

Sunday's results

Oklahoma City Thunder 128-122 Memphis Grizzlies
Golden State Warriors 131-119 Utah Jazz
Philadelphia 76ers 134-99 San Antonio Spurs
Miami Heat 102-97 Orlando Magic
Atlanta Hawks 100-82 Cleveland Cavaliers
Boston Celtics 134-107 Houston Rockets
Minnesota Timberwolves 114-112 Portland Trail Blazers
New Orleans Pelicans XXX-XXX Los Angeles Clippers
Chicago Bulls XX-XX Toronto Raptors

 

Knicks at Nets

Bragging rights will be on the line when the star-studded Brooklyn Nets (26-13) host city rivals the New York Knicks (20-19) on Monday. James' Los Angeles Lakers (25-13) are also in action against the Warriors (20-19).

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