Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul was all smiles after his side's crucial 114-111 road win against the New Orleans Pelicans, in a city that holds a special place in the heart of the 'Point God'.

With Devin Booker out for the game with a hamstring injury, Chris Paul assumed a greater offensive load on Friday and took it in stride.

He posted a gaudy playoff stat line of 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting, with 14 assists, while Deandre Ayton was superb, riding a hot start to a 28-point (13-of-20 shooting), 17-rebound showing.

Paul, who was drafted by the New Orleans Hornets back in 2005, dismissed a question in the post-game press conference about whether he heard fans in the arena chanting their displeasure for their former favourite son, and wrapped his arms around the city he once called home.

"These are my people, man. I grew up here," he said. "Six of the best years of my life I played for New Orleans.

"I know how I am with this city, that will never change. I have my parents here, my family here. 

"There's nothing like it, it will always be so much love between me and the city here."

Touching on the game, Paul was full of praise for both Suns centers who played key roles in Game 3.

"[Ayton's start] was huge, it was big-time," he said. "You can't replace everything that Devin [Booker] does for us, so it's going to be different spurts, where guys get going. 

"[Ayton] kept us in this game in order to bring it home down the stretch… he kept telling me he was going to get me loose, and to stop passing and just shoot the ball.

"JaVale [McGee] was amazing. We talked about it – this was the third game where Larry Nance came in and they started to switch everything – so we wanted to try and punish them on the inside. 

"JaVale's energy is contagious – him rebounding and getting those put-backs kept us in the game, too."

The Suns were a top-10 team in three-point percentage during the regular season, but shot just four-of-26 from downtown on Friday.

Paul went into detail about why he feels that stat bodes well for his side going forward in this series, and why he thinks they are built to handle adversity and win tough games.

"We got a lot of good looks," he said. "I was one-for-six, and I didn't realise we were four-of-26 [from three-point range] – but the thing about it is we got great looks.

"All season long we've been a really good shooting team, so to win this game without shooting well, that's a plus for us, because if we can get the same shots next game, hopefully we can knock them down.

"We've got a good group who have been together – we're sort of battle-tested when it comes to things. We went on an incredible run last year, and we're still building.

"I don't know the amount of playoff games our team has under our belts, so everything is still new to a certain extent, but guys know what to expect, and we know what we want to get to [offensively] down the stretch."

Late in the NBA season it appeared the Phoenix Suns may finish top-two in both offensive and defensive efficiency – a feat only accomplished twice in the 21st century.

Those two teams were the 2014-15 and 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, who both went on to win NBA Championships.

As Phoenix wrapped up the top overall seed with weeks to spare, their total efficiency took a dip in the final games as Aaron Holiday was gifted starts, and the duo of Ishmail Wainwright and Gabriel Lundberg were playing nearly a combined 50 minutes.

For the season, the Suns finished with the third-ranked defense, giving up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, and the fifth-placed offense, scoring 114.2 points per 100 possessions, giving them a net-rating of 7.5 (7.4 gap between offense and defense, rounded up to the closest decimal).

The 'per 100 possessions' qualifier is simply to provide an even playing field for teams that play at different paces – the Dallas Mavericks are the slowest team in the league, getting 95.6 possessions per game, while the run-and-gun Minnesota Timberwolves average 101.5 possessions per game.

Since, and including, the 1999-00 season, the 2021-22 Suns are the 13th team to finish top-five in both offense and defense.

The other teams are: 

1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers (fifth in offense, first in defense, 9.0 net-rating) 2001-02 Sacramento Kings (third in offense, fifth in defense, 8.1 net) 2005-06 Detroit Pistons (fourth in offense, fifth in defense, 7.6 net) 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (second in offense, fifth in defense, 7.6 net) 2007-08 Lakers (third in offense, fifth in defense, 7.3 net) 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (fourth offense, second defense, 9.6 net) 2009-10 Orlando Magic (fourth offense, fourth defense, 7.9 net) 2010-11 Miami Heat (second offense, fifth defense, 7.8 net) 2014-15 Warriors (second offense, first defense, 9.9 net) 2016-17 Warriors (first offense, second defense, 11.4 net) 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks (first defense, fourth offense, 8.6 net)

Of those teams – all of which won at least 57 regular season games – half made it to the NBA Finals, while the 1999-2000 Lakers, 2014-15 Warriors and 2016-17 Warriors are the three to win championships. The reigning champion 2008-09 Celtics were the only side to not make it to the Conference Finals.

The 2005-06 Pistons were two seasons removed from their 2004 title; the 2006-07 Mavericks featured many of the pieces that would win the 2011 title; the 2007-08 Lakers stuck with it and won back-to-back in 2009 and 2010; the 2010-11 Heat won back-to-back in 2012 and 2013; and the 2018-19 Bucks just needed to add Jrue Holiday to push themselves over the line in 2021.

 

What this means is that while this specific Suns side may not be guaranteed to win this year's championship, they have a great chance to make the NBA Finals, and it shows that as an organisation, they have hit a sweet spot that very few sides ever reach, right in the heart of a true championship window.

However, none of those teams had their championship windows opened with the arrival of a 36-year-old. While the Suns are at a stage where they do not simply live and die with the health of Chris Paul, they are very clearly not the same team when he sits.

The Suns are 53-12 in the 65 games Paul has played this season, and are still an impressive 11-6 without him, showing that he has helped turn the franchise around in a real way.

Paul's biggest contribution to the Suns has been culturally, turning a perennial losing side into a team that expects to win every time it steps on the floor, no matter who is suiting up.

He has now been a member of the best regular season teams in the history of four franchises – the New Orleans Pelicans, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets and now the Suns.

However, it would be silly to discount the improvements Phoenix were making prior to Paul's arrival, including going 8-0 in 'the bubble' ahead of the 2020 Playoffs. Much of that credit also goes to head coach Monty Williams, who has the Suns playing a system that seems to work no matter who is on the floor, especially at the center position.

After being released by the Charlotte Hornets, Bismack Biyombo was picked up on a minimum contract and produced the most efficient scoring season of his career, registering 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds per-36 minutes.

Career backup JaVale McGee has also been terrific, scoring 20.9 points and grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds per-36 in his 14th season in the league. 

For the season, McGee leads the Phoenix center trio in player efficiency rating (PER, where league-average is always 15) with 22.5, while Deandre Ayton is at 22.0 and Biyombo at 17.3.

The success of Phoenix's backup bigs has added fuel to the fire regarding the impending contract extension of Ayton, who the Suns made the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Ayton was eligible for a big-money extension this past off-season, but the organisation opted to wait until after this season when his contract expires, where they can decide if they feel he is worth the max-contract he is expected to demand, or if they are better served cashing on his perceived value through a trade.

Phoenix are paying Paul and Devin Booker max-contract money, and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges signed a four-year, $90million extension in December, which was considered a bargain for a player of his two-way impact.

The Suns have likely built something sustainable, but they are set to become one of the more expensive teams in the league, with an owner, Robert Sarver, who has never shown the willingness to go deep into the luxury tax.

While Paul's days as a superstar are likely numbered with his advanced age, Booker and Bridges are both 25 and yet to hit their prime, while Ayton – whether he is viewed as a cornerstone of the future or as a premium trade asset – is just 23.

However, chemistry can be everything and this team, as is currently constructed, has it in spades.

It is easy to see how this could be the start of an incredible decade of Suns basketball – they are mostly young, and just set a franchise-record for wins in a season with 64.

But they are outliers this year, and outliers come back to earth at some stage – often sooner than we expect.

In what may be a preview of this year's Western Conference Finals, the top-seeded Phoenix Suns make the trip to San Francisco to take on the three seed Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

While these are undoubtedly two of the premier teams in the West, the real story is about how the Suns have been in a class of their own this season, eight games clear of the second-best record in the league.

In the 21st century, only two teams have finished the regular season with a top-two ranking in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency: the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, and the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.

Both of those Warriors juggernauts went on to win the NBA Championship, and if the season were to end today, Phoenix would become the third team to achieve those marks.

Phoenix's net-rating – which illustrates how many more points a team is scoring than their opposition per 100 possessions – is plus 8.5, which is nearly two points clear of the second-placed Boston Celtics at plus 6.8.

The Suns have not just been the best team in basketball this season, they have been historically good in a way that compares the peak of the Warriors' run, and ranks better than any of LeBron James' Miami Heat teams, or the three-peat Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-02.

The Warriors, on the other hand, have been sputtering since Stephen Curry was sidelined with an injury that is expected to keep him out of action until the playoffs.

After three consecutive losses, can the Warriors pose any real threat to such a great Suns team? Stylistically, they may have some factors working in their favour, and as the saying goes, styles make fights.

These are two teams that play in similar ways. Both teams are bottom-five in percentage of their total points coming from the free throw line, both teams are top-five in percentage of two-point baskets coming from assists, and both are top-three in fewest blocked shots.

What this means is when these teams go inside to score, they are playing a finesse game focused around passing, movement, and creating open shots, as opposed to a bully-ball style which focuses on creating contact and forcing a way to the free throw line.

For a team like the Warriors that gives up free throws at the fifth-highest rate in the league, having a team that is willing to match their style and be a willing dance partner will hide some deficiencies and allow the home side to lean into what it does well.

Golden State also attempts the second-highest percentage of three-pointers – nearly 46 per cent of all of their shots come from long range – while Phoenix is way down at 27th in the league, taking 65 per cent of their shots from two-point range.

Despite that stat implying Phoenix is dominant in the paint, they actually are 16th in paint scoring, but third in mid-range scoring thanks to the efforts of Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

It is well-established at this point that mid-range jump shots are the least efficient shots in all of basketball, while an open three-pointer is the best shot a team can take other than a dunk, layup or free throw.

Phoenix has been great on a diet of difficult shots this season, but if the Warriors can get hot from three-point range at the volume they get them up, the Suns may simply lose the math equation.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

Of every player in the NBA this season averaging at least 20 minutes per appearance, only two – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar Derozan – score a higher percentage of their points from the mid-range than Paul.

As discussed, Phoenix will need to score consistently and efficiently from the mid-range to counter how many three-pointers the Warriors will get up, and Paul is at the center of that.

Add into the equation that Paul leads the league in assists per game, while coming in at second in steals per game, and it's clear why he is so important at both ends of the floor.

 

Golden State Warriors – Klay Thompson

Simply put, the Warriors need to get hot from long range to win this game, and few players in the history of basketball can get hotter than Klay Thompson.

Thompson holds the NBA record for most threes in a single game, hitting 14 of them against the Chicago Bulls in 2018, and has made at least nine in a game on 10 different occasions.

While he is still working himself back into full form after returning from a two-year absence this season, over his past 10 games Thompson is averaging 24 points per game and is hitting a strong 40 per cent of his long range attempts.

 

KEY BATTLES – Can the Warriors compete with the Suns' size?

Golden State have only one player on their roster taller than six-foot-nine Kevon Looney, and it is James Wiseman, who will not play a single game this season due to lingering injuries.

Suns center Deandre Ayton measures in at seven-foot-one, and less than a week ago he physically dominated All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns en route to 35 points and 14 rebounds.

Towns is bigger than anyone Golden State can throw at Ayton, and while Looney is an above-average defender, basketball is a game where size matters, and the Warriors are small.

 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

These two sides met on three separate occasions in December, with Golden State winning twice.

Curry top-scored for the Warriors in both wins, while Ayton out-scored his season average in all three meetings.

The ascending Boston Celtics added another scalp to their resume, holding reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to his season-worst shooting percentage in a 124-104 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

In a stunning year-on-year improvement, the Celtics have been the best defence in the NBA this season after finishing 17th in that department this past season.

With new coach Ime Udoka going all-in on a switching defensive system, it was theoretically going to be tested against the best passing big man in league history, and arguably the league's most dominant offensive force.

However, Jokic was bottled up similarly to everyone else the Celtics have played in 2022, going 8-of-23 (34.7 per cent) from the field in the blowout loss.

Jokic, who is shooting 57 per cent from the field for the season, had previously had his worst shooting performance when he went 6-of-17 (35.3 per cent) in an early-December loss against the Chicago Bulls.

Boston's two superstar wings combined for 60 points, as Jayson Tatum posted 30 points (11-of-17 shooting, 6-of-10 from three) with seven assists, while Jaylen Brown had 30 points (12-of-19 shooting, 3-of-6 from three) with six rebounds.

The ascending Boston Celtics added another scalp to their resume, holding reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to his season-worst shooting percentage in a 124-104 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

In a stunning year-on-year improvement, the Celtics have been the best defence in the NBA this season after finishing 17th in that department this past season.

With new coach Ime Udoka going all-in on a switching defensive system, it was theoretically going to be tested against the best passing big man in league history, and arguably the league's most dominant offensive force.

However, Jokic was bottled up similarly to everyone else the Celtics have played in 2022, going 8-of-23 (34.7 per cent) from the field in the blowout loss.

Jokic, who is shooting 57 per cent from the field for the season, had previously had his worst shooting performance when he went 6-of-17 (35.3 per cent) in an early-December loss against the Chicago Bulls.

Boston's two superstar wings combined for 60 points, as Jayson Tatum posted 30 points (11-of-17 shooting, 6-of-10 from three) with seven assists, while Jaylen Brown had 30 points (12-of-19 shooting, 3-of-6 from three) with six rebounds.

The Los Angeles Lakers are awaiting news on the injury sustained by Anthony Davis in Wednesday's 106-101 victory over the Utah Jazz.

Davis had 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting when being forced to exit the game after turning his ankle and clutching his right leg in pain.

The 28-year-old was helped to the locker room by his team-mates and initial X-rays revealed no fracture, but he will be re-evaluated after the All-Star break.

In the absence of Davis, who had only recently returned after missing 17 games with a sprained knee, the Lakers stepped up to snap a three-game losing run.

Frank Vogel's side trailed the Jazz by 12 points midway through the fourth quarter, but they went on a 19-4 run – LeBron James scoring the last 10 of those points – to hit back.

James finished with a team-high 33 points, 15 of those coming in the final quarter, meaning he has now scored 25 points or more in a career-best 23 straight games.

The Lakers are now 27-31 for the season but are still down in ninth in the Western Conference, while the 36-22 Jazz are in fourth after suffering a first loss in seven outings.

 


Knicks blow 28-point lead against Nets

Rookie Cam Thomas impressed in the absence of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to help the Brooklyn Nets match their biggest comeback in franchise history.

The Nets trailed the New York Knicks by 28 points before going on to win 111-106, with 16 of Thomas' 21 points arriving in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer to clinch the win with 7.7 seconds to go.

Julius Randle had seemingly put the Knicks in control with 31 points and 10 rebounds, but they were unable to hold on and suffered a third successive loss to stumble to 25-34 for the season.


DeRozan eclipses Chamberlain's streak

DeMar DeRozan scored 38 points in the Chicago Bulls' 125-118 victory over the Sacramento Kings to create some NBA history.

The five-time NBA All-Star became the first player to score 35 or more points and shoot 50 per cent or better in seven straight games, usurping Wilt Chamberlain's previous record of six.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, the Golden State Warriors lost 117-116 to the Denver Nuggets through Monte Morris' 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.

Nikola Jokic had 35 points and 17 rebounds for the Nuggets, who have now won three in a row and five of their last six.

The NBA-leading Phoenix Suns beat the Houston Rockets 124-121 for a seventh successive win thanks to 24 points for Devin Booker and 23 for Deandre Ayton.

LeBron James returned from a five-game injury-enforced absence with a triple-double as the Los Angeles Lakers won 122-115 over the New York Knicks in overtime.

James had missed five games with swelling in his left knee but returned in style, contributing 29 points with 13 rebounds and 10 assists as they rallied from a 21-point second-quarter deficit.

The Lakers had gone 1-4 in James' absence but the four-time MVP was pivotal with his fourth triple-double of the season.

Anthony Davis was excellent for the Lakers with 28 points and 17 rebounds, while Malik Monk added 29 points too.

RJ Barrett netted a career-high 36 points and Julius Randle added 32 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists for the Knicks.

 

Suns bounce back, Morant stars

The table-topping Phoenix Suns bounced back from their loss to the Atlanta Hawks with a 95-80 win over the Washington Wizards led by Deandre Ayton's 20 points and 16 rebounds. Chris Paul added 14 points and nine assists, while Devin Booker was quiet with only 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Jimmy Butler dropped 27 points shooting 10-of-13 while Bam Adebayo added 20 points and 12 rebounds as the Miami Heat won 104-86 over the Charlotte Hornets.

Ja Morant scored 33 points in three quarters as the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their fifth win in six games, routing the Orlando Magic 135-115.

 

Blazers skid extended by Bucks

The Portland Trail Blazers slumped to their fifth straight defeat, leaving them with a 21-33 record as Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 points with nine rebounds and six assists in the Milwaukee Bucks' 137-108 win. Bobby Portis also scored 30 points for the Bucks.

Two teams in the NBA are on league-leading four-game winning streaks heading into Thursday's schedule. The pair face one another at American Airlines Center.

The Phoenix Suns have pulled clear of the Golden State Warriors at the top of the West, their league-best record improving to 34-9 while Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Co are .500 across their past 10 games.

But this latest Suns run has been matched by the Dallas Mavericks, who are again recovering from a slow start.

The Mavs have won 10 of their past 11 outings after a 16-18 start. In 2020-21, Dallas recovered from an early 8-13 record to take the fifth seed – the same position they again occupy.

Dallas' problems prior to these recoveries have undoubtedly been linked to Luka Doncic, their sensational superstar who has tended to end seasons in more impressive fashion than he begins them.

Doncic has been the preseason MVP favourite in consecutive years but each time showed up looking a little out of shape.

The Slovenian is not denying that, saying in December: "I had a long summer. I had the Olympics, took three weeks off and I relaxed a little bit. Maybe too much. I've just got to get back on track."

But there are signs now that Doncic is delivering as promised. Having returned from an ankle injury to feature in nine of the Mavs' past 10 games, he had a year-high 41 points last time out against the Toronto Raptors. Three of his five triple-doubles for the year have come in this period, too.

Will this improvement continue against Phoenix, though?

The Suns are 5-0 against Dallas across the past two seasons, albeit all five meetings (three last year, two this year) have come during those tricky starts for the Mavs.

Since themselves returning to contention, Phoenix have not yet played a Mavs team in their groove.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Dallas Mavericks – Kristaps Porzingis

The Suns have a wealth of talent, while Dallas too often have only had Doncic. The need for a second man to step up and help the two-time All-NBA First Team selection is evident. Porzingis is the obvious candidate.

While the Mavs struggled while Doncic was out, Porzingis has shown that he can play the role of leading man when required.

His usage rate of 28.6 per cent this year is the highest it has been since he moved to Dallas – explained by Doncic's lay-off – and the knock-on effect is an increased offensive output when the simple option of passing the ball to his team-mate is removed.

Porzingis has scored 22.8 points per game Doncic has missed this season, versus 18.6 when he has played. Even including those the pair have played together, Porzingis' offense improves from 29.8 points per 100 possessions with Doncic to 35.4 without.

Doncic's high usage (36.3 per cent, the highest in the NBA among those involved in 250 or more possessions) reduces Porzingis' role significantly at times, but Dallas need both to fire against a team like the Suns.

Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

Nominally a point guard, Doncic is more of a point forward, hogging most of the shots himself. In truth, there are few genuine point guards remaining in the NBA. Paul is one of them.

Even at 36, Paul has started all 43 games – ranking 21st in the league for minutes (1,383) – and leads the NBA in assists (429), well clear of second-placed James Harden (390). Not since 2015-16 has he averaged this rate of 10.0 assists per game.

Given the frequency with which Paul is creating shots for team-mates, his assist-to-turnover ratio is even more impressive, ranking second with 4.38 dimes per turnover.

With Curry and the Warriors slightly on the wane, Paul could soon be in serious consideration for the MVP award. A big performance in a big game such as this one would aid his cause.

KEY BATTLE – Doncic to deliver in Ayton's absence?

The Suns will be without center Deandre Ayton, the player they selected first overall in 2018 before Doncic went two picks later.

Ayton, who has an ankle injury, was a little slower than Doncic to truly establish himself but has never struggled against the Mavs, enjoying a 10-1 record in such matchups.

Doncic missed Phoenix's first two wins against Dallas this season and has only three victories in the 11 games he has played versus the Suns.

With Ayton's role in Phoenix's recent success starting to alter the narrative around the 2018 draft, in which Doncic was quickly considered the most talented young player, the Dallas man may see this as an opportunity to send a message.

HEAD TO HEAD

This had been a closely fought rivalry until the Suns' dominance in the Ayton-Doncic years. Now, Phoenix boast a 93-74 record against the Mavs and will hope to improve that further on the road.

Dallas are a more impressive 47-36 in home games against the Suns.

LeBron James hurt his ankle but played on as the Los Angeles Lakers were humbled by the in-form Phoenix Suns 108-88 led by Devin Booker with 24 points on Tuesday.

The Lakers had a major injury scare, with All-Star forward Anthony Davis already sidelined, after James rolled his left ankle driving to the basket in the third quarter, leaving him punching the floor.

The four-time MVP soldiered on, finishing with 34 points and seven rebounds, but spent the final few minutes on the bench as the Lakers were brushed aside by the Suns who improve to 25-5.

Phoenix have four straight and won six of their past seven games, having started the season 1-3. The Suns had seven different players in double figures on Tuesday.

Booker starred in his second game back after a hamstring injury with 24 points including six three-pointers, along with nine rebounds and seven assists. Suns center Deandre Ayton had 19 points and 11 rebounds.

Talen Horton-Tucker had a nightmare game for the Lakers, shooting one of 13 from the field and none of eight from beyond the arc, while Russell Westbrook had 22 points and 10 rebounds but also seven turnovers.

 

Lillard's heroics in vain as Blazers lose

Damian Lillard's 39 points, including six triples, were not enough to lift the Portland Trail Blazers past the New Orleans Pelicans, going down 111-97. Brandon Ingram finished with 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, while Jonas Valanciunas had 10 points with 16 rebounds.

Jalen Brunson stepped up in Luka Doncic's absence with 28 points including three triples in the Dallas Mavericks' 114-102 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Karl-Anthony Towns scored 26 points with 12 rebounds and seven assists for the Wolves.

Julius Randle had 21 points and 11 rebounds as the New York Knicks overcame the Detroit Pistons 105-91.

 

Brogdon injured as Pacers burnt by Heat

The Indiana Pacers' starting five combined for a measly 46 points in their 125-96 defeat to the Miami Heat. The Pacers were not helped by a sore right Achilles to Malcolm Brogdon which forced him off after eight minutes.

The Phoenix Suns have tied their franchise record 17 consecutive wins and moved level with the Golden State Warriors at the top of the table by beating them in a 104-96 win on Tuesday.

The Suns' record-equalling win came without Devin Booker who suffered a left hamstring injury in the second quarter and did not return.

Deandre Ayton top scored with 24 points along with 11 rebounds while veteran guard Chris Paul had 15 points and 11 assists, but Phoenix's defense was critical to the win.

The Warriors only managed 61 points after quarter-time, with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green finishing the game with only 12 and eight points respectively.

Golden State had a season-high 22 turnovers, with Paul having five steals and Mikal Bridges also registering four steals.

The result means the Suns and Warriors both have 18-3 records across the season and will meet again on Friday.

 

Harden finds his groove

James Harden had his third 30-point game for the season, finishing with 34 points as the Brooklyn Nets won 112-110 over the New York Knicks. Harden had a double-double with 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals, while Kevin Durant contributed 27 points and nine assists.

Top draft pick Cade Cunningham registered a career-high 26 points including five three-pointers as the Detroit Pistons lost to the Portland Trail Blazers 110-92.

In the absence of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr and Desmond Bane scored 25 and 23 points respectively  to lead the Memphis Grizzlies past the Toronto Raptors 98-91.

 

Kings struggle from range

The Sacramento Kings only managed six triples for the entire game as they were beaten by the Los Angeles Lakers, without LeBron James, 117-92. Shooting guard Terence Davis went zero-for-four from beyond the arc. Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook had 25 and 23 points respectively in James' absence, after he entered the NBA's health and safety protocols prior to tip-off.

The Phoenix Suns have tied their franchise record 17 consecutive wins and moved level with the Golden State Warriors at the top of the table by beating them in a 104-96 win on Tuesday.

The Suns' record-equalling win came without Devin Booker who suffered a left hamstring injury in the second quarter and did not return.

Deandre Ayton top scored with 24 points along with 11 rebounds while veteran guard Chris Paul had 15 points and 11 assists, but Phoenix's defense was critical to the win.

The Warriors only managed 61 points after quarter-time, with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green finishing the game with only 12 and eight points respectively.

Golden State had a season-high 22 turnovers, with Paul having five steals and Mikal Bridges also registering four steals.

The result means the Suns and Warriors both have 18-3 records across the season and will meet again on Friday.

 

Harden finds his groove

James Harden had his third 30-point game for the season, finishing with 34 points as the Brooklyn Nets won 112-110 over the New York Knicks. Harden had a double-double with 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals, while Kevin Durant contributed 27 points and nine assists.

Top draft pick Cade Cunningham registered a career-high 26 points including five three-pointers as the Detroit Pistons lost to the Portland Trail Blazers 110-92.

In the absence of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr and Desmond Bane scored 25 and 23 points respectively  to lead the Memphis Grizzlies past the Toronto Raptors 98-91.

 

Kings struggle from range

The Sacramento Kings only managed six triples for the entire game as they were beaten by the Los Angeles Lakers, without LeBron James, 117-92. Shooting guard Terence Davis went zero-for-four from beyond the arc. Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook had 25 and 23 points respectively in James' absence, after he entered the NBA's health and safety protocols prior to tip-off.

Phoenix Suns star and former number one draft pick Deandre Ayton was among a number of players who did not sign rookie contract extensions before the deadline.

Monday was the deadline for the 2018 draft class to pen new deals with their respective teams in the NBA.

Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers (two-year, $45million), Memphis Grizzlies star Jaren Jackson Jr. (four year, $105m), Kevin Huerter of the Atlanta Hawks (four-year, $65m), Suns guard Landry Shamet (four-year, $43m) and the Milwaukee Bucks' Grayson Allen (two-year, $20m) all extended their contracts.

However, there were some notable names missing, including Ayton – who can enter restricted free agency next year, according to ESPN and Adrian Wojnarowski.

Ayton played a key role in Phoenix's run to the NBA Finals last season, however, the Suns did not come to the table as the 23-year-old center eyed a five-year max contract.

In 2020-21, Ayton averaged 14.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, while he boasted a career-best 62.6 field-goal percentage and career-high 76.9 percentage from the free-throw line.

Ayton's numbers elevated in his first playoff campaign – 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, though his future in Phoenix is now uncertain.

Cleveland Cavaliers star Collin Sexton also failed to reach a contract extension agreement with the Eastern Conference strugglers.

Sexton did not land a new deal, despite career highs in points (24.3), assists (4.4), rebounds (3.1) and field-goal percentage (47.5).

The other players without contract extensions are Miles Brides of the Charlotte Hornets, the Orlando Magic's Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley III of the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox.

The Phoenix Suns enter Game 4 of the NBA Finals with a difficult question to answer: how can they contain Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo when Deandre Ayton is not on the court?

Milwaukee cut Phoenix's lead in the series to 2-1 with a 120-100 victory on their home floor in Game 3.

It came behind a scintillating 41-point performance from Antetokounmpo, the two-time league MVP delivering a performance few could have foreseen when he hyperextended his knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Antetokounmpo also had 13 rebounds in putting up a decisive double-double, taking advantage of another knee injury that could well prove a turning point in the series.

The Suns were without Dario Saric, the backup to starting center Ayton, in Game 3 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in Game 2.

Coach Monty Williams initially went with Frank Kaminsky as Ayton's deputy, but also attempted to play small ball with Torrey Craig and Abdel Nader.

The plus-minus numbers for Kaminsky (-12), Craig (-12) and Nadel (-5) tell their own story. Milwaukee dominated when Ayton was not out there, outrebounding the Suns 47 to 36.

In this series, when Ayton has been on the court, the Bucks average 110.0 points per 100 possessions, compared to 125.3 with the former first overall pick off the floor.

Milwaukee's rebounds per 100 possessions with Ayton on the bench jump to 50.3 from 46.8 when he plays.

Similarly, the Bucks are substantially more effective from the three-point line without the presence of Ayton to deal with, converting 46.4 per cent of their shots from beyond the arc in the series compared to 34.7 when he is trying to stop them.

For all the attention lavished on Devin Booker and Chris Paul, Ayton arguably stands as the key player for the Suns if they are to claim a first NBA title.

Should there be a repeat performance in Game 4 on Wednesday when Ayton is forced to rest, then Antetokounmpo will have an excellent chance to improve his Finals average of 34.3 points per game and, more importantly, help the Bucks level the series.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks – Brook Lopez

Another player who can capitalise on the blow the Suns have suffered to their big man depth is Lopez, the Bucks center who is averaging 6.7 points in the paint per game in the series – behind only Antetokounmpo and Ayton.

Lopez has produced double-digit points in four of his past five outings in this postseason, including a 33-point effort against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals as the Bucks prevailed without the injured Antetokounmpo. Third in effective field goal percentage (60.9) among centers with 30 attempts or more this postseason, Lopez could compound the impact of Saric's absence for the Suns.

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

That his Finals numbers are inferior to those of Antetokounmpo is largely reflective of the point-scoring and creative burden taken on by Booker and Paul respectively. However, Ayton is the Suns player most should have their eyes on in Game 4.

He has averaged 35 minutes in this series compared to 37.7 for Antetokounmpo; will Williams up Ayton's time on the court in response to the events of Game 3 when he rested? Or will the Suns coach find a way to minimise the damage during Ayton's time on the bench? The answers could eventually decide the destination of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

An uncharacteristically speedy Phoenix Suns performance left a half-fit Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks chasing shadows in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Suns, who had 98 possessions per game in the regular season (ranking 24th), had 102 possessions on Tuesday as the usually more methodical Chris Paul picked up the pace.

Point guard Paul, 36, was the standout star as he belatedly made his Finals debut, finishing with 32 points and nine rebounds in a 118-105 Phoenix win.

Only Michael Jordan in 1991 had previously tallied 30 or more points and eight or more assists in a first career Finals game.

Even as the Suns attacked apace, Paul's steady hand limited the Western Conference outfit to nine turnovers – of which just two were his – to Milwaukee's 13.

The series is far from over ahead of Thursday's Game 2, but the Bucks need a response and will hope Antetokounmpo, their own elite performer, can provide it.

The 'Greek Freak' recovered from a hyperextended left knee sustained in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals to start the opener in Phoenix and initially impressed.

Antetokounmpo had eight points, five rebounds and two assists in a first quarter in which he played just over eight minutes, but he had only improved to 13 points by the end of the third.

"I wasn't nervous about my knee, I wasn't thinking about my knee," Antetokounmpo said on Wednesday.

"But hopefully, going into Game 2, I can feel more comfortable, more confident of going downhill, making more plays. We'll see. We'll see how it's going to be. Hopefully I can be in a position where I can make more plays."

Although the two-time MVP just about finished with a positive plus/minus, Milwaukee require more from their talisman – especially if the supporting cast continue to fluff their lines.

Khris Middleton had 29 points but five turnovers and just four assists; Jrue Holiday (10 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) was close to one of the most underwhelming triple-doubles in Finals history; Brook Lopez was a defensive liability, his -17 plus/minus a miserable game low.

Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday are on course to become the first trio of team-mates to each average at least 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the same postseason, but none of them reached that mark in Game 1.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday

The Bucks gave up two first-round draft picks and two potential pick swaps to get Holiday. With limited assets left, they need this to work. In Game 1, it did not. The All-Defensive First Team selection has been frustratingly inconsistent and his four steals in Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks were followed by none against the Suns.

As Milwaukee switched on defense, Paul – Holiday's direct opponent at point guard – found joy with 27 points across the second and third quarters combined before the former New Orleans Pelican took matters into his own hands. "I really just saw him being aggressive, so at that point I felt like I wanted to just annoy him, get him off rhythm, make him pass the ball and take tough shots," Holiday said. "That's something we're going to have to make an adjustment to in Game 2."

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

The Suns have a significant drop-off at center, with Dario Saric tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 1, meaning Frank Kaminsky may now have to be trusted with playoff minutes. Fortunately, starter Deandre Ayton has shown himself capable of more than making up the deficit during his time on the floor.

A breakout postseason continued against the Bucks as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds for a fourth consecutive double-double. It is tough to see how Milwaukee can live with the Phoenix big man, who shot eight-for-10 from the field and made all of his free throws – indeed, the Suns only missed once from the foul line.

Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton led the way as the Phoenix Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Bucks welcomed back superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo from a knee injury after the two-time MVP had been sidelined since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, missing the final two contests of that series.

However, Antetokounmpo's presence on the floor and double-double was not enough as the Suns – eyeing a first championship – drew first blood in the Finals opener on Tuesday.

Paul – making the first Finals appearance of his stellar career – posted 32 points, nine assists and four three-pointers, while Booker added 27 points of his own as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds at home.

Veteran Paul became the third player ever aged 36 or older to score 30-plus points in a Finals game, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.

It was Ayton's 12th double-double in his first playoff series, second most in the franchise's postseason history – only Charles Barkley has more (22 in four playoffs).

Meanwhile, the Suns – who used a 35-27 third quarter to move clear – were almost impeccable from the free-throw line, missing just one of their 26 attempts.

The Bucks had been outscoring teams by 12.1 points per game in the paint this postseason, but they only edged the Suns 44-42 in Tuesday's encounter.

Antetokounmpo had 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and two blocks for the Bucks, who are eyeing their first championship since 1971, while Khris Middleton registered a team-high 29 points.

 

Bucks at Suns

The Bucks and Suns will do it all again in Thursday's Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena.

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