LeBron James recorded his second double-double of the season and first since opening night as the streaking Los Angeles Lakers withstood the Houston Rockets 119-117 on Tuesday.

James, who was a game-time decision again with his niggling ankle issue, scored 30 points – including two-of-four shooting from three-point – range along with 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals. The four-time NBA MVP added 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter.

The Lakers had led by eight points in the final quarter but escaped with the win, improving their record to 5-3 on the back of three straight victories, as Kevin Porter Jr.'s three-point attempt to steal the game on the buzzer rimmed out.

Star trio James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook scored a collective 84 points in their most productive game together after the latter arrived from the Washington Wizards in the offseason.

Davis added 27 points, nine rebounds and three assists, while former MVP Westbrook had 27 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

 

Paul third for all-time assists

Chris Paul had 18 assists along with 14 points and seven rebounds to help the Phoenix Suns overcome a 20-point deficit in their rallying 112-100 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Paul moved past Mark Jackson and Steve Nash into third for all-time NBA assists. The Suns guard has 10,336 assists, behind only John Stockton (15,806) and Jason Kidd (12,091).

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 28 points, eight rebounds and nine assists as reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks ended their three-game skid with a 117-89 win against the struggling Detroit Pistons.

Kyle Lowry drained six three-pointers among his 22 points and nine assists as the red-hot Miami Heat beat the Dallas Mavericks 125-110. Luka Doncic scored 33 points for the Mavs.

 

Clarkson's three-point woes

Utah Jazz point guard Jordan Clarkson shot poorly, going one of 11 from beyond the arc, scoring only two points in their 119-113 victory over the Sacramento Kings.

James Harden recorded his first triple-double of the season as the Brooklyn Nets claimed back-to-back wins for the first time this NBA campaign in a 117-91 victory over the lowly Detroit Pistons on Sunday.

Harden finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists after three quarters, while Nets team-mate Kevin Durant top-scored with 23 points but was ejected in the third quarter for shoving his elbow into Kelly Olynyk's face.

Former MVP Harden has had a slow start to 2021-22, however, he backed up his season-high 29 points against the Indiana Pacers on Friday with another impressive showing which will encourage the championship-chasing Nets (4-3) that he is getting back to his best after an injury-impacted offseason.

Harden hit four three-pointers as the superstar guard – already Brooklyn's all-time triple-double leader with 13 – joined Hall of Famer Larry Bird for second on the NBA's all-time list with 59.

 

Mitchell leads Jazz past struggling champs

Donovan Mitchell starred with 28 points, including a treble of first-quarters three-pointers as the Utah Jazz hit their first five attempts from range in a 107-95 win against slumping champions the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists for the Bucks, who have lost three in a row.

Carmelo Anthony – who is shooting a career-high 50 per cent and 52.2 per cent from three this season – scored 23 points off the bench, while LeBron James had 15 points, seven rebounds and assists in the Los Angeles Lakers' 95-85 triumph over the Houston Rockets.

Luka Doncic led the way for the Dallas Mavericks with 23 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in a 105-99 victory against the Sacramento Kings.

 

Dame cold in Blazers loss

All-Star Damian Lillard's shooting was wayward as the Portland Trail Blazers were downed 125-113 by the Charlotte Hornets, hitting two from 14 from three-point range for a below-standard 14-point return.

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer is hopeful of getting key players Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton back soon after the NBA champions slumped to their third successive defeat.

The Bucks went down 107-95 to the Utah Jazz on Sunday, with two-time All-Star Middleton absent due to illness, which Budenholzer clarified after the game was not COVID-related.

The loss condemned Milwaukee to yet another loss, leaving the Bucks 3-4 in their title defence as they struggle without All-Star Holiday (ankle), Brook Lopez (back) and Rodney Hood (hand).

Milwaukee – who had averaged 91.5 points on Halloween since the 2000-01 season, second lowest in the NBA heading into the matchup – were again forced to come from behind against the Jazz, trailing by 17 points at the final change, with a late rally not enough.

"The group kept fighting tonight," Budenholzer said in a news conference. "The fight was good. We couldn't quite get there but the guys were working."

Giannis Antetokounmpo top-scored with 25 points, along with seven rebounds and six assists, but he lacked support with Holiday, Lopez and Middleton out.

Holiday has not played since injuring his ankle in the Bucks' opening night win against Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets.

"Jrue, I think we'll see how he feels in the morning," Budenholzer said. "He actually got some basketball work in today and I think he's trending in a good direction."

On Lopez, he added: "There's not a new update and there never really has been a timeline. But he's doing good stuff in the weight room, doing good stuff to get better and he'll continue that."

Budenholzer also clarified the status of shooting guard Hood, who previously had a foot injury before undergoing scans on his hand.

"The X-rays the other day were inconclusive," Budenholzer said. "On examination we decided he couldn't play. We'll get another X-ray and look at it tomorrow and hope for the best."

The Bucks return to action on Tuesday against the lowly Detroit Pistons who are 1-5.

Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer begrudgingly applauded the San Antonio Spurs' effectiveness as they "made it hard" on Giannis Antetokounmpo in a surprise 102-93 win.

NBA champions the Bucks have now suffered consecutive defeats, with the loss to the Spurs coming on the back of a 113-108 reverse to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The Spurs (2-4) trumped the Bucks (3-3) on the road in Milwaukee partly thanks to point guard Dejounte Murray, who scored 16 of his 23 points in the final period.

Murray entered the contest having put up 44 points, 22 rebounds and 23 assists over his previous two games – the only Spurs player in the past 30 seasons to have had at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists over a two-game span, according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo top-scored for the Bucks, posting a double-double of 28 points and 13 rebounds, yet he and Khris Middleton accounted for 11 of their 19 turnovers, which converted to 21 points for the Spurs.

While Budenholzer was keen to emphasise the need for collective effectiveness, he expects better from two of his most-dependable stars.

"It's just a tough night," Budenholzer told reporters. "I think we turned it over too much. Both those guys [Antetokounmpo and Middleton] included. We probably didn't shoot it well enough.

 

"And credit to San Antonio. They found a way to get a win and they made it hard on Khris, they made it hard on Giannis, they contested our shooters. I think Giannis and Khris can both be better, but we've got to be better around them, too.

"It wasn't a pretty game. I think defensively, probably, that should be enough to hold them to 102 [points] and 41 [per cent shooting].

"The corner three that [Keldon] Johnson made, they found a way to make some timely baskets. We needed that timely stop.

"We probably needed one or two more stops in a timely moment and they made a couple of timely baskets and they were able to get the win."

But while Budenholzer seemed frustrated with his own team, Antetokounmpo preferred to simply acknowledge the great sharp-shooting on display from the Spurs, accepting that sometimes the other team is just better.

"They made some shots," he added. "They made some shots late. One from the corner, one from the wing on top of me.

"They made some big shots. You've just got to tip your hat. They played well."

NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks suffered consecutive defeats after being upstaged by the San Antonio Spurs 102-93.

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted a double-double of 28 points and 13 rebounds, but the Bucks still suffered back-to-back losses on Saturday.

The Spurs (2-4) trumped the Bucks (3-3) on the road in Milwaukee thanks to point guard Dejounte Murray, who scored 16 of his 23 points in the final period.

Murray entered the contest having put up 44 points, 22 rebounds and 23 assists over his previous two games – the only Spurs player in the last 30 seasons to have had at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists over a two-game span, according to Stats Perform.

"Obviously, it's a good win against the NBA champions," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said after the Bucks were again without Jrue Holiday due to an ankle injury. "They were missing a pretty big piece tonight but it happens to all of us."

 

 

76ers gain some revenge as Heat sizzle

Facing the Atlanta Hawks for the first time since being surprisingly eliminated in last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Philadelphia 76ers routed their rivals 122-94. Tobias Harris fuelled the 76ers with 22 points and 11 rebounds, joining Joel Embiid as the only 76ers players this season with 20-10 games.

The high-flying Miami Heat finished one short of setting a new franchise record after sinking 21 three-pointers in their 129-103 victory at the Memphis Grizzlies. Jimmy Butler led the way with 27 points.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic starred with 26 points and 19 rebounds as the Denver Nuggets outlasted the Minnesota Timberwolves 93-91.

Double-doubles from Deandre Ayton (17 points and 12 rebounds) and Chris Paul (16 points and 10 assists) helped last season's NBA Finals runners-up the Phoenix Suns beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 101-92.

 

Jazz taste defeat

The Utah Jazz were the last unbeaten team remaining having opened their season 4-0, until the new-look Chicago Bulls spoiled the party with a 107-99 win.

The Brooklyn Nets' stuttering start to the season continued with their third defeat in five games as they went down 106-93 at home to the Miami Heat.

Jimmy Butler starred for the Heat with a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds as well as seven assists and four steals as Miami improved their record to 3-1.

Bam Adebayo stole the show in the final quarter as the Nets threatened to overtake them, landing three big dunks to finish with 24 points and nine rebounds.

James Harden had some bright moments but only managed 14 points with seven rebounds and seven assists, while Kevin Durant had 25 points and 11 rebounds.

All three Nets defeats this season have been by double-digit margins as they continue to miss Kyrie Irving who is absent due to his vaccination status.

 

Giannis hits 40 in Bucks defeat

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points but it was not enough as the Milwaukee Bucks suffered their second loss in their title defence 113-108 to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Antetokounmpo had 40 along with 16 rebounds and seven assists, while all five Timberwolves starters contributed strongly led by D'Angelo Russell (29 points, five rebounds and six assists) and Anthony Edwards (25 points, seven rebounds and three assists).

Harrison Barnes (22 points, nine rebounds and four assists) drained a turnaround triple on the buzzer to clinch the Sacramento Kings a 110-107 win over last season's the Phoenix Suns who had closed a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit late in the game, led by Devin Booker (31 points, six rebounds and eight assists).

The Cleveland Cavaliers added another impressive scalp to their list this season as they downed the Los Angeles Clippers 92-79 with Collin Sexton scoring 26 points.

 

Westbrook turnovers as Lakers lose

Russell Westbrook got his first Los Angeles Lakers triple-double but he also had 10 turnovers in their 123-115 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with LeBron James absent due to an ankle injury.

LaMelo Ball struggled with only seven points, shooting three-from-14 from the field and only one-from-five beyond the arc as the Charlotte Hornets won 120-111 over the Orlando Magic.

Khris Middleton's three-point radar was off in the Bucks loss to the Timberwolves, shooting one-from-eight and contributing only 16 points, leaving Antetokounmpo with too much to do.

The reigning NBA champions got back on track Saturday, as Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 121-111 defeat of the San Antonio Spurs. 

Two days after a 42-point blowout loss to the Miami Heat, the Bucks looked more like their usual selves in San Antonio, though the Spurs kept the game tight and pulled within four points with 4:24 to play. 

Middleton had 28 points to lead the Bucks, while Antetokounmpo added 21 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. 

Middleton, who is beginning his ninth season with the Bucks, passed Ray Allen to move into 10th on Milwaukee's all-time scoring list with 9,704 points for the team.

Doug McDermott scored 25 to lead Milwaukee, making seven of 11 from three-point range. 

 

Grizzlies hand Clippers another loss

Despite 41 points from Paul George, the Los Angeles Clippers lost their second straight game to open the season, falling 120-114 to the Memphis Grizzlies. While George poured in the points, a balanced Memphis attack led by Ja Morant's 28 points and eight assists secured another win for the visitors. 

In Portland, CJ McCollum scored 28 points and Damian Lillard had 19 as the Trail Blazers rolled past the Phoenix Suns 134-105. Devin Booker had 21 points, the only Phoenix player to score more than 14. 

Luka Doncic had a game-high 27 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds as the Dallas Mavericks rallied from a six-point half-time deficit to defeat the Raptors 103-95 in Toronto for their first victory under new head coach Jason Kidd. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 25 points and Kristaps Porzingis had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Mavericks, while OG Anunoby led Toronto with 23. 

Stephen Curry scored 45 points including two clutch three-pointers down the stretch as the Golden State Warriors won 115-113 over the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday.

Curry, who hit an equal career-high 25 points in the first quarter, was central to the Warriors win, which follows their opening night victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

After a wayward shooting display against Lakers that Curry described as "trash", the point guard nailed his first 10 field goal attempts for the game, finishing 16-from-25 including eight-from-13 from beyond the arc.

Curry also had 10 rebounds for the game, supported well by Andrew Wiggins with 17 points and six rebounds. Draymond Green battled throughout but had 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists.

The Warriors led by as much as 19 points but the Clippers clawed it back to a one-point game by half-time with Paul George excelling with 29 points along with 11 rebounds and six assists.

The game came down to the final minutes, with the Clippers leading by two points with less than two-and-a-half minutes to go after Marcus Morris Sr's three-pointer before Curry responded with two of his own.

 

Heat blow away Bucks

Reigning champions the Milwaukee Bucks were humbled 137-95 by the Miami Heat in Kyle Lowry's debut for his new team, although he only managed five points and six assists as he laboured with an ankle issue.

The Heat blew the Bucks apart early, opening up a 22-3 lead, with Tyler Herro top scoring with 27 points including a first-quarter buzzer beater from range after Max Strus' block.

Giannis Antetokounmpo top scored for the Bucks, who were without Jrue Holiday, with 15 points and 10 rebounds, shooting at 36.4 per cent from the field. Bucks forward Khris Middleton shot only four-from-14 from the field.

 

Young leads Hawks over Doncic's Mavs

Trae Young got the better of Luka Doncic as the Atlanta Hawks won 113-87 over the Dallas Mavericks.

Young finished the game with 19 points and 14 assists, which was the most by a Hawks player in a season opener since Mookie Blaylock in 1993. Clint Capela was excellent in the paint with 12 points and 13 rebounds, while Cam Reddish top scored off the bench with 20 points.

Doncic had his radar off, shooting six-from-17 for 18 points, along with 11 rebounds and seven assists. The Slovenian also gave up five turnovers.

Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors spoiled the party as they stunned LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers 121-114 on the opening night of the 2021-22 NBA season, while defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks started with a bang.

A star-studded crowd was in attendance to watch Curry and James go head-to-head in the season opener at Staples Center, with likes of Justin Bieber, Kevin Hart and Usher watching courtside.

Looking to bounce back from last season's first-round playoff exit as they were eventually dethroned by the Bucks, James and the Lakers were outlasted in Los Angeles, where Russell Westbrook endured a rough debut.

Despite double-doubles from James (34 points and 11 rebounds) and Anthony Davis (33 points and 11 rebounds), the Lakers were no match for the Warriors and Curry – who put up a triple-double of 21 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.

It was Curry's eighth career triple-double, while Jordan Poole added 20 points as the visiting Warriors and their bench outscored the Lakers' role players 55-29.

 

Giannis fuels Bucks

The Bucks unveiled their championship banner, rings and crushed Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets 127-104 behind Giannis Antetokounmpo's 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in the league's season-opening matchup. Khris Middleton contributed 20 points and nine rebounds on a memorable night in Milwaukee, where the Bucks won the Eastern Conference semi-final rematch.

While the Nets were blown away on the road, Kevin Durant produced again with 32 points and 11 rebounds. The former MVP has scored at least 25 points in 11 consecutive games against the Bucks, equalling the feat achieved by James (from 2011 to 2013).

Nets recruit Patty Mills (21 points on seven-for-seven shooting from beyond the arc) tied the NBA record for most made threes on debut for a new team, while James Harden (20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists) flirted with a triple-double.

 

Westbrook's woes, Harris behind Brooklyn's struggles?

All eyes were on Westbrook following his return to California and move to the Lakers. But the former MVP failed to impress, however. In 35 minutes, Westbrook was only four-for-13 shooting for eight points, while he had five rebounds and four assists to go with four turnovers.

The Nets went 24-4 (85.7) last season when Joe Harris scored at least 15 points – best in the NBA (minimum 25 games). Harris had the fourth-most games in the NBA with a positive plus/minus, behind only Rudy Gobert, MVP Nikola Jokic and Royce O'Neale. So based on that pre-game fact, it is no surprise the Nets lost after Harris was far from his best in Milwaukee. The 2019 NBA Three-Point Contest champion finished with just nine points on three-for-nine shooting in 31 minutes.

Giannis Antetokounmpo hailed the Milwaukee Bucks for putting aside the excitement of receiving their NBA championship rings prior to Tuesday's dominant 127-104 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

The Bucks reminded the star-studded Nets who runs the Eastern Conference in their emphatic season-opening victory at Fiserv Forum, where Antetokounmpo led the defending champions with 32 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks.

Antetokounmpo and his Bucks team-mates received their championship rings in a glittering pre-game ceremony in front of a sell-out crowd in Milwaukee before blowing out Kevin Durant and the Nets in a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference semi-final.

"It was hard. Obviously very excited for the ring and seeing our banner," Antetokounmpo told ESPN after his double-double display.

"It's been hard to balance that, going from that excitement and that emotional state, going to get ready to play the game.

"I think we did a great job. When the ceremony was over, we were able to focus on our gameplan and ourselves. We were able to get the win."

The Bucks raced to a 37-25 first-quarter lead and led by as much as 23 points as they were never headed by a Nets side missing Kyrie Irving due to his absence related to not being vaccinated against coronavirus.

Milwaukee had issues of their own, with Donte DiVincenzo and Bobby Portis unavailable, while Jrue Holiday only played 18 minutes after succumbing to a right heel contusion.

Antetokounmpo had good support from Khris Middleton who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists, as well as Pat Connaughton (20 points)

Young small forward Jordan Nwora also contributed 15 points and six rebounds from 26 minutes off the bench.

"We've got a deep team," added Antetokounmpo, who had averaged at least 25.0 points and 10.0 rebounds over the past four seasons heading into the opener – the first player to accomplish the feat since Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal (1993-94 to 2002-03).

"Everybody is ready to step up, everybody is ready to play. We play hard and we play together. We try to play good basketball which is what we did tonight."

The 26-year-old Greek power forward also said it was a "compliment" to be named pre-game in the top-75 greatest players in NBA history to mark the competition's 75th anniversary.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said "there's nobody in this world that can slow down" Kevin Durant as reigning NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks begin their title defence against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.

All eyes will be on Antetokounmpo and Durant when the two Eastern Conference rivals go head-to-head in Milwaukee on opening night.

Milwaukee defeated Brooklyn in a seven-game Eastern Conference semi-finals series en route to their first NBA title in 50 years last term.

As Antetokounmpo and Durant prepare to clash in a battle of the former MVPs, the Bucks superstar called for a team approach in trying to nullify the Nets forward.

"We have got to do it as a team," Antetokounmpo told reporters. "There's nobody in this world that can slow down KD.

"One of the best players in the world. Can score the ball from everywhere. We've got to do it as a team. If Khris [Middleton] is going to start on him, if I'm going to start on him, we don't know.

"But no matter what the assignment is, no matter what the game plan is, what coach tells us to do, we have to also do it."

In 10 games against the Nets across the regular season and postseason, Antetokounmpo only once scored fewer than 30 points. He averaged 61.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and had an effective field-goal percentage of 57.9.

In three of those games, Durant went over 40 points, with the two-time Finals MVP averaging 58.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and posting an effective field-goal percentage of 55.6.

However, Durant's plus-minus across all meetings with the Bucks was minus 18 compared to plus 26 for Antetokounmpo, perhaps speaking to his lack of support in the postseason.

The Bucks will raise their 2021 title banner and receive their championship rings prior to tip-off against the star-studded Nets.

Giannis Antetokounmpo's brother Kostas won the 2020 NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I said let me keep it very, very simple," Giannis Antetokounmpo added in reference to the ring design. "I’m not competitive, guys. I said, I want my ring to be bigger than my brother’s.

"When Kostas, my brother, showed me his ring, it was huge. It was like an airpod case. I said at least, you know, you guys don’t sell us short, give us a big ring also."

The Milwaukee Bucks will raise their 2021 title banner and receive their championship rings on Tuesday, just before a season opener against a Brooklyn Nets team missing a star player they hoped would deliver silverware to their franchise.

Milwaukee defeated Brooklyn in a seven-game Eastern Conference semi-finals series en route to their first NBA title in 50 years last term.

It was an engrossing series in which Milwaukee prevailed largely due to their superior health, the Nets' cause hindered by injury struggles for James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

And they will again be minus Irving for the season opener in Wisconsin, though for a markedly different reason.

Irving's refusal to receive a coronavirus vaccine, and the fluctuations in his ability that would cause with mandates in major cities preventing unvaccinated individuals from entering public spaces, led the Nets to decide he will not play for the team until the issue is resolved.

As a result, much of the burden will again fall on Kevin Durant, though he will at least have the assistance of Harden, as the Nets aim to get a measure of revenge on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

Even with Irving out of the picture, the Nets look set to contend with the Bucks for superiority in the East, and this encounter may provide an early indication of which team has the upper hand in 2021-22.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday 

While Antetokounmpo is the man around whom everything revolves for the Bucks, he receives substantial support from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

It is the latter who is the chief facilitator for Milwaukee. Holiday's 10.5 assists per 48 minutes last postseason ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games.

The Bucks will look for him to have a similar influence on their title defence, starting with the visit of the Nets.

Brooklyn Nets – James Harden

Harden was in the MVP conversation last season until a hamstring issue derailed his campaign.

His one full regular-season appearance against the Bucks saw him post a double-double with 34 points and 12 assists.

With Irving unavailable, getting that kind of performance from Harden would be critical to the Nets' hopes of opening the season on a high.

 

KEY BATTLE – Giannis vs. KD

Though both teams have plenty of depth at their disposal, the unquestioned headline act of the season opener will be the heavyweight matchup between Antetokounmpo and Durant.

Last season, the All-Star duo definitely brought out the best in each other.

In 10 games against the Nets across the regular season and postseason, Antetokounmpo only once scored fewer than 30 points. He averaged 61.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and had an effective field goal percentage of 57.9.

In three of those games, Durant went over 40 points, with the two-time Finals MVP averaging 58.5 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes and posting an effective field goal percentage of 55.6.

However, Durant's plus-minus across all meetings with the Bucks was minus 18 compared to plus 26 for Antetokounmpo, perhaps speaking to his lack of support in the postseason.

With Harden in his corner for this contest, Durant will hope to flip the script in that regard and spoil the Bucks' celebration.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Bucks will be confident they have the edge after their postseason defeat of the Nets and also won each of their home games against Brooklyn last season. A momentous night of celebration for Milwaukee is not the time to let their advantage slip.

The NBA and its leading stars will hope the coming regular season is exactly that: regular.

The past two have not been. In 2019-20, the season was paused for the coronavirus pandemic and resumed in Orlando, in a bubble and without crowds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was at least able to put forward his claims for a second straight MVP honour prior to that point.

In 2020-21, a rapid turnaround from the playoffs appeared to catch some leading men out, before the brutal 72-game December-to-May calendar saw a number of top performers face spells on the sidelines.

As a result, Nikola Jokic was the clear MVP candidate, outstanding for the Denver Nuggets but crucially also one of just 11 players across the league to play in all 72 games. His 2,488 minutes trailed only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle (2,667) and RJ Barrett (2,511).

With a proper preseason to plan – and the Nuggets hurt by Jamal Murray's injury – it seems unlikely Jokic will defend his title.

But which players are most likely to follow his lead and move clear of the rest in the coming months? Stats Perform breaks down the chances of the MVP favourites.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Having claimed back-to-back MVP Awards, Antetokounmpo entered preseason last year as the favourite again and threatened for a time to contend, averaging 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. A six-game lay-off in April, immediately after scoring 47 points in Portland, put paid to those hopes.

However, it would have been tough for voters to justify again picking Antetokounmpo regardless. At that stage, he had won only three playoff series in his entire career. By contrast, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird – the three men previously honoured three years in a row – each celebrated at least one championship across the first two seasons of their respective runs.

It is very different now, though. Although Antetokounmpo would become only the ninth player to take the Maurice Podoloff Trophy on three occasions, there is less daunting historical precedent with the lean year in between. Crucially, too, the 'Greek Freak' is now himself a champion.

 

Antetokounmpo was the Milwaukee Bucks' Finals MVP as they won their first title in 50 years. Rather than regress in the playoffs – his points average had dipped from the regular season in four of his five prior postseason campaigns – the 26-year-old forward scaled new heights, taking more responsibility with a career-high 20.9 field goal attempts per game and being rewarded with 30.2 points.

Now embracing his strengths, taking only 3.3 shots from three-point range in the postseason and shooting 73.6 per cent at the rim, Antetokounmpo should have the confidence to kick on again.

Luka Doncic

It is Doncic, not Antetokounmpo, who has been installed as the early favourite this year. The Slovenian is only entering his fourth season, but it feels about time he truly established himself as a future great.

Doncic was one of those who acknowledged he was "not in my best shape" as the 2020-21 season promptly got under way, and the Dallas Mavericks were an underwhelming 8-12 at the end of January, although the point forward still averaged 27.4 points over that slow early period. He then weighed in with 30.3 points across 12 games in February.

Only four players bettered Doncic's 1,830 points come the end of the year, yet he could still be a little more consistent in pursuit of a regular-season award. The 22-year-old has set an astonishing standard on the biggest stage. While waiting on a first series win, his 33.5 playoff points are the most by any player to feature in at least 13 career games. Doncic's 143 points at the Tokyo Olympics led the tournament.

If Dallas can be competitive from the outset, Doncic's game is certainly a good fit for individual recognition, his 2020-21 usage rate of 36.0 per cent the highest among players with 500 or more possessions. Similarly dominant for Slovenia, his 57 assists and 196 minutes also topped the charts at the Olympics.

New coach Jason Kidd will ask "young Picasso" Doncic to share the ball around a little more this year, though, saying: "As a coach, I don't know if anybody told Picasso that he had to use all the paints. But I just want to remind Luka that he can rely on his team-mates, and his team-mates are going to be there to help him."

He added: "We know that it's easy to get the ball to Luka, but the one thing we do want to get accomplished is other guys as playmakers so come the fourth quarter Luka is fresh and is ready to deliver." Some more big moments – Luka's 93 clutch points ranked 21st last year – would certainly help Doncic's cause.

Stephen Curry

The Los Angeles Lakers' new 'big three' – we will come to the Brooklyn Nets shortly – is likely to help title hopes but hinder MVP bids. Russell Westbrook's relentless regular-season efforts, averaging 34.4 per cent usage over the past seven seasons, might take some of the shine away from LeBron James. Curry does not have that problem.

As last year, when he had the next-most first-place votes after Jokic (albeit just five to 91), the Golden State Warriors are set to be hugely reliant on Curry – at least until fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson is back from injury.

In his first full season since Kevin Durant left and Thompson went down, Curry set his stall out early with 62 points against the Portland Trail Blazers but saved his best for the end of the year, averaging 36.9 points after a tailbone injury in March to take a second scoring title. The two-time MVP could not quite do enough to carry the Warriors through the play-in round.

A young supporting cast is now another year older, however, meaning Golden State should be competitive enough to keep Curry in the limelight without having enough talent to distract from his displays.

Only Thompson's return is likely to alter the pattern of play after Curry set career highs in points (32.0), rebounds (5.5), field goal attempts (21.7), three-point attempts (12.7), foul line visits (6.3) and usage rate (34.7). He scored a league-high 24.6 per cent of the Warriors' points.

 

Kevin Durant

Durant, like James, was set to merely be the biggest star on a team of stars until the complications around Kyrie Irving's status arose. As it stands, Irving will not feature for the Nets due to his refusal to get a coronavirus vaccine that would allow him to play home games.

Of course, Brooklyn also have James Harden, who briefly flirted with the MVP picture last year prior to a hamstring injury, but Durant will be the team's go-to as long as he stays on the court.

Although Durant made only 32 starts in 35 games in 2020-21, he led the Nets in points per game (26.9) and usage rate (31.1). Irving ranked second in both categories (also 26.9 points per game, 30.5 per cent usage).

The former Warrior is now another year on from his awful Achilles injury and gave an indication in the playoffs of the player he can still be. Playing in all 12 games, unlike Harden and Irving, Durant scored an outstanding 34.3 points – a league best among those to play 10 or more games. Only a borderline call on a Durant shot in Game 7 against the Bucks ended Brooklyn's campaign.

With or without Irving, the Nets are expected to contend for the title this time. Durant was Finals MVP in his two championship triumphs in 2017 and 2018 but has only a single regular season award, back in 2013-14. If he is back to his best, as would appear to be the case, the 33-year-old could dominate the coming season from start to finish.

Joel Embiid

Should, as this list suggests, voters look for players who are capable of putting their teams on their backs, Embiid's case has only got stronger.

The big man was already the Philadelphia 76ers' key performer, evidenced by their 39-12 record with him in the team last year compared to 10-11 when he was missing. Indeed, had Embiid not been absent for such a number of games, he might well have pipped Jokic to the top individual award.

Jokic clearly had the edge as a creator, his 8.3 assists per game allowing him to tally 16 triple-doubles, Embiid actually averaged more points (28.5 to 26.4) and his prowess on defense (including 1.4 blocks per game) contributed to far superior numbers in terms of plus/minus (7.9 to 5.3) and defensive rating (103.1 to 109.2).

 

Ben Simmons, the Sixers' second man, was already underwhelming last year, and Embiid's responsibilities on both ends of the floor are set to increase due to the uncertainty surrounding his team-mate.

Even if Simmons sticks around, as is now a possibility, this is clearly Embiid's team. He felt it had not been previously, responding to reports Simmons was unhappy with the dynamic by saying: "I feel like our teams have always been built around his needs." Those claims were "disappointing" and "borderline kind of disrespectful", Embiid added.

He will certainly not be lacking motivation now to put his injury woes behind him, enjoy another outstanding season and claim the MVP award that evaded him last year.

After a 50-year gap between the franchise's first and second NBA titles, the Milwaukee Bucks plan on a much shorter wait for the third. 

That was the overall message Monday as the champions reconvened for the team's pre-season media day. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the charge for that mindset, looking forward rather than back at last season's triumph. 

"I'm not satisfied. I'm not even close to being satisfied," the Greek star told reporters. 

 "As the leader of this team, that's the tone I'm going to set. We understand that teams are coming for us, but we're going to be ready." 

While acknowledging that inevitable target on the team's back, Antetokounmpo sought to maintain the underdog mentality that drove the Bucks last season. 

"We know we were the 2021 NBA champs, but right now we're just the Milwaukee Bucks again that nobody believes in us," he said. "And nobody believes that we can do it again."

Their hopes of repeating will of course rest largely on Antetokounmpo's shoulders, and there were questions about his health Monday. 

He and head coach Mike Budenholzer indicated they will take it easy on the NBA Finals MVP, who is still recovering from the knee injury he suffered in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks. 

"I think Giannis’ health and Giannis being at 100 or as close to 100 per cent for as much of the season is important to us," Budenholzer told reporters.

"I think now is the time when you can err on the side [of caution]. We’re always on the side of caution but whatever the other side of that is and just get him strong and physically ready for an 82-game season and a playoff run.

"But it’s the whole group. I think there’s a real awareness that we need to be very conscientious of just trying to do things that make sense given where we are and coming off the season that we had."

Antetokounmpo is on board with that plan, emphasising that the playoffs were a time to play through pain, but the situation is different now. 

"I'm good to go," Antetokounmpo said. "But if I feel like I'm in pain again or whatever the case might be, I have to listen to my body. When you feel pain, it’s your body telling you that it’s protecting you, that you can’t go anymore.

"I've played through pain. I don't think now is the time to risk that. It's too early in the season."

Mike Budenholzer has signed a new multi-year contract extension to remain head coach of 2021 NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks announced the deal on Tuesday, with ESPN reporting Budenholzer has committed to a new three-year extension.

The 52-year-old joined the Bucks in 2018 from the Atlanta Hawks and guided the franchise to their first NBA title in 50 years in his third season in charge.

"Bud is a great coach and a fantastic partner to work with every day as we build a team that consistently competes for championships," Bucks general manager Jon Horst said.

"We’re extremely grateful for the leadership Bud provides and we look forward to building on the success we’ve had over the last three years and congratulate Bud on this well-deserved extension."

Under Budenholzer's guidance, the Bucks have topped the NBA in scoring in each of the past three seasons, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee averaged a league-high 120.1 points per game, which is also a franchise-best, in the 2020-21 season.

"The appreciation I have for being a part of the Bucks organization is hard to express," Budenholzer said.

"The players make the success happen on and off the court. We have the best players and to them I am grateful. They’ve grown and we’ve grown together during the last three seasons.

"We’ve had success along the way, finishing with an NBA Championship this season!

"We all can’t wait to get back to work and face the great challenge of competing again for an NBA Championship... Let’s keep getting better and building great teams and doing great work on and off the court."

Budenholzer won the NBA Coach of the Year in his first season at Bucks in 2018-19, before being one of three finalists for the award in 2019-20. He also won the award in 2015 at the Hawks.

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