Jayson Tatum grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds during the Boston Celtics' 121-118 overtime victory against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday.

It was a gritty all-round performance from Tatum as he also finished with 34 points, six assists and three steals, imposing his will on the game despite shooting an inefficient nine-of-27 from the field and committing seven turnovers.

Like Tatum, his All-Star team-mate Jaylen Brown also shot just 33 per cent from the field (six-of-18), but veteran center Al Horford picked up the slack, scoring 20 points on eight-of-13 shooting while adding 10 rebounds and three blocks.

As was a theme on the night, Warriors superstar Stephen Curry struggled from the field, shooting nine-of-25 for his 29 points, supplementing his outing with seven assists, four steals, four rebounds and two blocks. Klay Thompson (eight-of-16) and Jordan Poole (10-of-25) chipped in 24 points each.

With the win, the Celtics improved their league-leading record to 34-12, while the Warriors fell under .500 at 22-23, including a horrific 5-17 record on the road.

Russell leads late Timberwolves comeback

Minnesota Timberwolves guard D'Angelo Russell nearly scored as many points as the entire Toronto Raptors team in the fourth quarter of a 128-126 comeback win.

Russell had 16 in the last period – including 14 in a row for the Timberwolves – while the Raptors could only muster 17 points, allowing the home side to claw back from what was a 14-point margin with 10 minutes remaining.

The former All-Star finished with 25 points on eight-of-15 shooting, adding six assists and two steals, while role-player Kyle Anderson continued to flourish in his expanded minutes with 20 points (eight-of-nine), 10 rebounds and six assists.

Suns snap losing run with Nets win

In the battle of two short-handed teams, the Phoenix Suns ended their three-game losing streak in a nail-biting 117-112 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

The Suns were up by 24 at one point, but Kyrie Irving got hot in the fourth quarter to finish with 30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, for the Nets who were without Kevin Durant.

Deandre Ayton stepped up for Phoenix, missing Devin Booker and Chris Paul, with 24 points and 14 rebounds, while Mikal Bridges added 28. Cam Johnson added 19 points on his return from injury.

Joel Embiid posted another 50-point performance to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past the Charlotte Hornets 131-113 on Sunday.

Embiid scored 53 points with 11 rebounds for the Sixers, backing up his league season-best 59 points against the Utah Jazz on November 13.

The Sixers center joined Allen Iverson (2000-01 and 2004-05) and Wilt Chamberlain (1965-66 and 1967-68) to become the third player in franchise history to record multiple 50-point games in the same season.

Embiid also joined Chamberlin as the only Sixers in franchise history with at least 30 games of 40 points and 10 rebounds.

The big man's haul was built around 20-of-32 shooting along with making 11-of-11 free throws as the Sixers improved to 14-12.

James Harden made a solid contribution with 16 assists along with 19 points, including three-of-eight three-point shooting.

Pelicans soar into Western Conference lead

Zion Williamson scored 35 points to power the New Orleans Pelicans to a 129-124 overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns, who were missing Devin Booker again.

Williamson starred on 14-of-21 shooting with eight rebounds for the Pels, who beat the Suns twice in three days to surge into the Western Conference lead with a 18-8 record, fueled by seven straight wins.

Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton both fouled out for Phoenix, who were without Booker due to left hamstring tightness.

Griffin snatches remarkable OT Hawks win

A.J. Griffin sunk an overtime buzzer-beater to clinch the Atlanta Hawks a thrilling 123-122 win over the Chicago Bulls, after DeMar DeRozan hit three free throws with 0.5 seconds left to take the lead.

The Hawks snatched the win when Jalen Johnson's inbound alley-oop pass found Griffin, who hit a six-foot turnaround jumper. Trae Young had 19 points and 14 assists for Atlanta.

DeRozan scored a game-high 34 points for the Bulls, including 12 in the fourth quarter and three overtime free throws after being fouled by Bogdan Bogdanovic with less than a second left on a three-point attempt.

The best of the East against the best of the West.

No, this is not the NBA Finals yet, though it very well could be at the end of the season as the Boston Celtics head to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.

The Celtics have responded to losing last year's Finals to the Golden State Warriors in impressive fashion, made all the more notable given the situation around suspended head coach Ime Udoka.

With star performers Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown firing on all cylinders, the Celtics have raced out to win 20 of their first 25 (80.0 win percentage) games this season, topping the Eastern Conference by some distance (ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks with 73.9 per cent).

It has been quite the run since early November, with Boston on a record of 16-2 since their overtime defeat to the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

The Suns arguably had an even more anti-climactic end to their last campaign.

Phoenix ended the regular season with a fantastic record of 64-18, comfortably the best in the league, but were eliminated in the Western Conference semi-finals against the Dallas Mavericks, losing 4-3.

Like the Celtics, though, the Suns have mostly picked up where they left off this year, sitting on a record of 16-8 to narrowly top the West.

Monty Williams will be hoping his team can get back to their best after losing two of their last three games, with their last outing seeing them haunted by Luka Doncic and the Mavs again, but on Wednesday all they will have to deal with is the form team in the league, including Tatum and Brown.

Perhaps that defeat in Dallas will focus minds, but the Celtics will be looking to further cement their credentials.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Phoenix Suns - Deandre Ayton

Devin Booker may be the main point-getter for the Suns, recently scoring a total of 136 points across three games, but Deandre Ayton's importance in the big games can never be underestimated.

The Bahamian is actually slightly down on his usual rebound average, but his 9.6 per game is still comfortably the best on the Phoenix roster and will be crucial against a team as potent as Boston.

Booker struggled last time out against the Mavs, while Ayton top-scored for his team with 20 points, along with eight rebounds and three blocks.

Boston Celtics - Jayson Tatum

Tatum has been an absolute force of nature so far this season, averaging 30.8 points per game from his 24 appearances, the fourth-best in the league behind only Doncic (33.4), Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.9) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (31.3).

The 24-year-old has scored 29 or more points in six of his last seven games, while also averaging the most rebounds (8.3) and assists (4.2) for his team this season.

KEY BATTLE - Suns must halt the points at the source

If it were as easy as stopping the opposition from shooting, you would have basketball sussed.

That is basically what Williams' must encourage his team to try though, with only one team having a better field-goal percentage than the Celtics' 49.4 this season (Denver Nuggets, 50.0 per cent).

Perhaps more concerning will be from range, with Boston boasting the best three-point success so far, sinking 40.2 per cent of their attempts from beyond the arc. Either prevent shots or at the very least, do not allow the likes of Tatum and Brown to shoot the ball without pressure.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

This has been a tremendously even battle in recent seasons, with Boston and Phoenix clashing twice in each of the last four campaigns.

In every single season, they have both won one each, with the Celtics winning their last meeting at TD Garden 123-108 on December 31 last year.

Anthony Davis put up a sensational 55-point haul to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to their fourth straight road win, triumphing 130-119 over the Washington Wizards on Sunday.

Davis, who scored 44 points against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Lakers' previous game, could not eclipse his career-high 59 points from 2016 against the Detroit Pistons.

But Davis' 55 points, coming from 22-of-30 field shooting and nine-of-nine shooting from the line, were the second most in a single game this NBA season, behind only Joel Embiid's 59 against the Utah Jazz on November 13.

The eight-time All-Star scored 31 of his 55 points in the second half, adding 17 rebounds and three blocks. Davis is the first Laker with back-to-back 40-point games since Kobe Bryant in March 2013.

LeBron James, who had been listed as questionable due to an ankle issue, added 29 points on 12-of-26 field shooting with eight rebounds and six assists but committed five turnovers.

Russell Westbrook came off the bench to contribute a season-high 15 assists with seven rebounds, while guard Lonnie Walker IV added 20 points on four-of-four three-point shooting.

The Wizards were not helped by a game-ending first-quarter injury to All-Star Bradley Beal. Kristaps Porzingis top scored for the Wizards with 27 points on 11-of-25 shooting, while ex-Laker Kyle Kuzma added 26 points with seven rebounds before fouling out.

The victory improved the Lakers to 10-12, having won three games in a row, but they remain 12th in the Western Conference.

Brown helps Celtics snap Nets' streaks

The NBA-best Boston Celtics ended the Brooklyn Nets' four-game winning streak and six-game winning home stand on 34 points from Jaylen Brown as they triumphed 103-92.

Brown led the way for the Celtics with 20 of his 34 points in the first quarter, finishing also with 10 rebounds, while Jayson Tatum scored 29 points on 10-of-19 field shooting with 11 rebounds.

Kyrie Irving struggled against his former franchise, shooting seven-of-21 from the field for 18 points with eight rebounds and five assists. Kevin Durant top scored for the Nets with 31 points but gave up eight turnovers.

Suns extend struggling Spurs' skid

The Western Conference-leading Phoenix Suns condemned the San Antonio Spurs to 11 straight losses with a 133-95 blowout win led by Deandre Ayton's double-double.

Suns center Ayton finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Devin Booker added 20 points on seven-of-16 field shooting, with Mikal Bridges making six-of-seven triples in his 20 points.

The struggling Spurs were blown away in a 36-11 second quarter, seeing them close within two defeats of a franchise-worst losing streak, set in 1989.

Devin Booker continued his hot scoring run with a season-high 51 points in only 31 minutes as the Phoenix Suns won 132-113 over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.

Booker, who scored 44 points against the Sacramento Kings on Monday, added 26 of his 51 points in the third quarter, including making five-of-five from three-point range.

It was the fourth 25-point quarter in Booker's career, tied with Kobe Bryant for second most in the past 25 years.

Booker shot at 80 per cent from the field, making six-of-seven from three-point range, while he also added four rebounds and six assists before sitting out most of the final quarter.

It marked Booker's fourth career 50-point game, which is the most in franchise history.

Suns center Deandre Ayton contributed 30 points with 14 rebounds and two blocks as Phoenix improved to 15-6.

The Bulls fall to 9-12, with DeMar DeRozan top scoring with 29 points with seven rebounds.

Tatum stars in front of royals with 49-point haul

Jayson Tatum scored a season-high 49 points as the Boston Celtics maintained their perfect home record in November with a 134-121 victory over the Miami Heat.

The Celtics small forward scored 28 of his points in the first half, which is the most in any half this season, while he also had 11 rebounds, three assists and two assists. Jaylen Brown added 26 points with seven rebounds in a game attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales, who sat courtside.

Tatum brought up his fifth 45-point game, which is second behind Larry Bird (19) in Celtics history, having moved ahead of Paul Pierce (four).

Hot Nets above .500 for first time this season

The Brooklyn Nets claimed their fifth straight home win as Kevin Durant scored 39 points in a 113-107 victory over the Washington Wizards.

Durant managed a game-high 39 points on 13-of-20 shooting with five rebounds and five assists, while Kyrie Irving added 15 of his 27 points in the final quarter.

The win improved the Nets to 12-11, moving above .500 for the first time this season on the back of three straight wins.

LeBron James scored a season-high 39 points with seven three-pointers to lift the Los Angeles Lakers to their fifth win from their past six games, beating the San Antonio Spurs 143-138 on Saturday.

James, in his second game back from a groin injury, scored 23 of his 39 points in the second half, shooting seven-of-12 from beyond the arc along with having 11 rebounds and three assists. The four-time MVP's seven three-pointers was a joint career high.

The Lakers were without Anthony Davis due to a minor calf contusion, with guard Dennis Schroder contributing 21 points and six assists.

Russell Westbrook also came off the bench to add 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists, linking up with James to set up a one-handed dunk just before half-time.

Westbrook was left bloodied after he suffered a deep cut to his forehead in the third quarter after an elbow from Zach Collins but played on.

The win improved the Lakers' record to 7-11, while it consigned the Spurs to their eighth-straight defeat, slumping to 6-15 overall.

The Spurs' losing streak is their equal fourth worst in franchise history. Their worst is 13 straight from 1989.

Keldon Johnson top scored for San Antonio with 26 points and 10 rebounds, while Tre Jones added 23 points with 13 assists.

DA and Booker lift Suns past Jazz

Deandre Ayton scored 29 points with 21 rebounds as the Phoenix Suns held off the Utah Jazz 123-122 for their fourth consecutive victory to improve to 13-6.

Devin Booker contributed 27 points on eight-of-27 field shooting, scoring 10-of-11 from the free-throw line, with 11 rebounds and seven assists for the Suns, who trailed by 10 at quarter-time. Nine of Ayton's 21 rebounds were offensive as he brought up a rare 20/20 double-double.

The Suns only managed six-of-22 from beyond the arc but the Jazz could not capitalise, giving up 12 turnovers. Jordan Clarkson top scored for Utah with 22 points.

Doncic's Mavs beaten by Raptors

The Dallas Mavericks lost their third straight game as Luka Doncic was kept to 24 points in a 105-100 loss to the Toronto Raptors.

Raptors small forward O.G. Anunoby scored 12 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, top scoring alongside Fred VanVleet with 26, while Chris Boucher added a season-high 22 points with 13 rebounds.

NBA leading scorer Doncic shot eight-of-15 from the field and two-of-four from beyond the arc for the Mavs, with seven rebounds, nine assists and two steals.

Patrick Beverley has been suspended for the Los Angeles Lakers' next three games after shoving Deandre Ayton in their 115-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

With just under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Beverley pushed an oblivious Ayton while the Suns' center was stood over a grounded Austin Reaves, following a flagrant foul by Devin Booker.

Beverley received a technical foul and was then ejected, but the Lakers guard has now received further punishment in the form of a three-game suspension without pay.

The sanction will see Beverley miss out on a reported $268,965 in salary and will rule him out of the Lakers' back-to-back road games at the San Antonio Spurs on Friday and Saturday, as well as Monday's home showdown with the Indiana Pacers.

An NBA statement read: "Los Angeles Lakers guard Patrick Beverley has been suspended three games without pay for forcefully shoving Suns center Deandre Ayton from behind and knocking him to the court.

"The suspension was based in part on Beverley's history of unsportsmanlike acts."

Over his 14 starts this season, Beverley has averaged 4.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game.

Devin Booker continued his prolific start to the season as the Phoenix Suns flexed their offensive muscle with a 134-105 win over Western Conference rivals Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.

Booker, who turns 26 on Sunday, became the first player in franchise history to have three 30-point games in the first four of a season, finishing with 34 on 10-of-19 shooting from the field with seven assists and three steals.

Deandre Ayton added 16 points with 14 rebounds, including 11 in the first half, while Chris Paul had 16 points with seven rebounds and nine assists.

The Suns, who improved to 3-1, shot at 41 per cent from the field, making 12-of-29 three-pointers, with Paul draining four-of-five from beyond the arc. Phoenix outscored the Warriors 62-39 in the second half.

The reigning champions, who moved to 2-2, continued their worrying defensive start to the season, having conceded 109 or more points in all four of their games this season, averaging 124 points against per game.

Stephen Curry managed 21 points to end his 30-point run to start the season, shooting seven-of-17 from the field and four triples.

Jordan Poole was productive off the bench with 17 points, including 14 in the first half. Klay Thompson was ordinary again with two points, shooting none-of-five from three-point range.

Pels triumph over Doncic's Mavs despite key outs

The New Orleans Pelicans overcame the absence of Zion Williamson (hip) and Brandon Ingram (concussion) along with a Luka Doncic masterclass to win 113-111 over the Dallas Mavericks.

Doncic scored 37 points on 16-of-30 shooting, with 11 rebounds and seven assists for the Mavs, but the undermanned Pels triumphed, led by Trey Murphy with a team-high 22 points with 100 per cent shooting. 

C.J. McCollum struggled to find his range, shooting six-of-20 for 14 points but eight Pels players reached double-figure scoring as they improved to 3-1 to start the season. 

Doncic became the first Mav to ever open a season with three straight 30-point games. The Slovenian is also only the second player in NBA history with 100-plus points, 25-plus rebounds and 20-plus assists through the first three games of a season.

SGA's OKC down short-handed Clippers

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander produced a dominant all-round display with 33 points as the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised past the short-handed Los Angeles Clippers 108-94.

The Clippers were without former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard due to knee soreness along with seven-time All-Star Paul George with illness, with the defeat seeing them slip to 1-3.

Gilgeous-Alexander went at 50 per cent from the field, making two-of-two from beyond the arc, with five rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and three steals in a masterful display, while Tre Mann scored 16 of his 25 points in the first half.

Deandre Ayton called it "a blessing" to return to the Phoenix Suns on his new four-year, $133million contract extension.

Ayton, 23, averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game this past regular season, making it four consecutive seasons he has tallied at least 14.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest since entering the league in the 2018 NBA Draft.

The former first overall pick finished fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage (63.4 per cent), while also demonstrating he has the defensive versatility to close playoff games – a rare trait for a modern centre in the era of 'small-ball'.

Instead of paying their top pick his max contract a year early to take the pressure off – as the Dallas Mavericks did with Ayton's draft classmate Luka Doncic – the Suns decided against that route, forcing their seven-foot youngster to prove himself again a season after helping the franchise to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993.

After waiting to see what price Ayton would command on the open market, the Suns did not hesitate to match the Indiana Pacers' max offer sheet, as it was one year and $42m less than the Suns could have offered as the team that drafted him.

Speaking to ESPN in his first interview since making his extension with Phoenix official, Ayton said while he is grateful, the process has opened his eyes to the business side of the NBA.

"This is a blessing," he said. "This contract not only has generational impact for my family, but also with the way we are able to work in the Phoenix community and home in the Bahamas. 

"I've come to understand that this is a business. So, I was more anxious to know the end of the result so I could focus, move on and just get back to work. The shift in free agency brought a lot of uncertainty through the whole process. 

"I got to give a lot of respect to the Pacers organisation – they were aggressive from the start and showing a lot of love – and we agreed to a max offer sheet. The Suns matched, now, I'm back in Phoenix as a Sun.

"I'm happy the process is over. I can put all this behind me and focus on chasing a championship this upcoming season with my brothers."

Suns general manager James Jones told ESPN that the plan was always to bring Ayton back, although he called the decision to play things out through restricted free agency "negotiations", without going into it any further.

"We wanted Deandre here," he said. "He's vital to what we do, at the core of everything that we do. 

"Throughout this whole process it was, it rang true. We wanted to keep him here, and the moment we can come to an agreement, we would. 

"So, waiting 24 hours, 48 hours [to match the Pacers' offer], that wasn't something we needed to do because going into it, we knew this is where he wanted to be and where we wanted him to be.

"If there's any doubt from anyone that we wanted him, I think that the matching did that. It was urgent for us. It was important. It was critical for us. So, we just wanted to make sure that we handled our business quickly."

Phoenix head coach Monty Williams also said he was ecstatic to have his starting center back, despite an incident in the Suns' Game 7 elimination against the Golden State Warriors where Ayton allegedly refused to re-enter the game during the blowout loss, which Williams called an "internal" matter at the time.

"James [Jones] and myself, we talk a lot and he'll let me know what's going on with the contract and ask for my opinion," Williams said. 

"I try to stay out of persuading him when it comes to him making decisions, but we knew any offer that he got, we were going to match.

"I'm happy for Deandre just because I know this is what he wanted. He wants to be in that class of players that's regarded in this way. From that standpoint, I think as a competitor, that's what you want. When you see a guy working for that, that part is pretty cool."

In his first comments about the Game 7 situation, Ayton said any issues are now "in the past" and that his relationship with Williams is "calm".

When Williams was asked about the situation, he simply described it as "a bad day".

"I didn't feel like I had to say anything. I was just doing my job," he said. "We had a bad day, but we had an unbelievable season. 

"Unfortunately, in sports and even in society, we focus on the one bad thing. It hurt like crazy, and it still hurts. It was embarrassing to play that way, but as the dust settles and I look at the season from a holistic perspective, I look at all the good stuff that happened."

The Phoenix Suns have immediately matched the four-year, $133million offer sheet that the Indiana Pacers presented center Deandre Ayton in restricted free agency.

With Ayton being a restricted free agent, it meant the Suns would reserve the right to match any offer Ayton agreed to with another team, and it appears it was their plan all along to test if the market would actually view the former number one draft pick as a max contract player.

Ayton's representatives believed all along that they would be able to get a max offer sheet in restricted free agency, and they were proven right as the Suns tried to call their bluff. The Pacers' offer was the largest in the history of restricted free agency negotiations, trumping Otto Porter Jr's four-year, $107m deal in 2017.

It is unknown if the Suns could have signed him for a cheaper price, as ESPN's report claims the franchise made no offer to Ayton in the interim, likely in the hope that the limited amount of teams with cap space would mean they could match a more palatable offer sheet.

The Suns center is one of just nine players to average at least 15 points and 10 rebounds since he entered the league four seasons ago, while shooting just a hair under 60 per cent from the field for his career.

He will make $30m in the upcoming season, slightly escalating each year to eventually reach $35m in 2025-26.

Since the Suns opted to play out the process through restricted free agency, it now means Ayton will have significantly more control of any potential trades he could be involved in for the next year.

He is unable to be traded before January 15, and even after that he will have veto powers until the end of the season. Due to the Pacers presenting an offer sheet, they will be unable to trade for Ayton for at least one year.

Restricted free agent (RFA) center Deandre Ayton has agreed to a maximum four-year, $133million offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday.

Ayton’s current team, the Phoenix Suns, will have 48 hours to decide whether to match the offer – the largest RFA offer in league history – or allow him to leave without compensation.

The top overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, Ayton has developed into a core player on a Suns team that reached the 2021 NBA Finals and led the league with 64 wins this past season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old is one of nine players to average 15 points and 10 rebounds per game over the last four seasons (minimum 200 games played over that span).

Ayton’s future in Phoenix had come into question, however, after he was benched for much of the second half of the Suns’ Game 7 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals. Reports also surfaced that the Suns were reluctant to offer the Arizona product a maximum extension after just giving All-Star Devin Booker a four-year, $224 million supermax deal.

By agreeing to the offer sheet, Ayton has greatly restricted the possible avenues in which he could have left the Suns. He is now unable to be included in sign-and-trade deals this off-season, and if Phoenix decide to match – which they are expected to do – they will not be able to trade Ayton until January 15.

The Suns would also not be allowed to trade Ayton to the Pacers for at least a year, and Ayton would have the ability to veto any trade in the first year of the contract.

The previous largest offer sheet in NBA history was a four-year, $107m deal offered to former Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. by the Brooklyn Nets in 2017. The Wizards ultimately matched the offer.

In 236 career regular-season games, Ayton has averaged 16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.0 blocks while shooting 59.9 percent from the field. 

For comparison, the Dallas Mavericks selected Luka Doncic two picks after the Suns selected Ayton in the 2018 draft, and have since rewarded him with a five-year, $215m max extension.

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.

Page 1 of 3
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.