Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid's 41 points in Saturday's 133-120 win over the Indiana Pacers has ensured he will average 30 points this season and he has already set his sights on his next goal.

Embiid becomes the first center to average 30 points in a season since 1981-82 when Moses Malone averaged 31.1 per game for the Houston Rockets.

The 76ers center's achievement further enhanced his credentials to be this season's MVP but he was already eyeing off Malone's mark.

"Well, that’s the challenge for next year," Embiid joked with reporters after the game. "So, next year, I gotta come out and average more than him.

"But it’s great. Obviously, he's a legend. Especially as a big in this era, it’s been a long time, 40 years it hasn’t been done. That’s something that I think is great.

"I hope guys coming up more, especially bigs coming up, are able to do even more. I think the biggest thing with me is that I feel comfortable with it because I feel like I didn’t force anything. I feel like I just played within the flow of the offense.

"Before we had James (Harden). Obviously, I had a much larger role in the offense whether it was playmaking or scoring and since we added him, I try to share the load which has been great. Great stats and I guess I’m happy about it."

Embiid's 30.4 points per game is a career-best for the 28-year-old, shooting at 49.5 per cent. He is also averaging 11.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists this season.

The All-Star also became the first player this season to have 40 or more points and 20 or more rebounds in a game against the Pacers.

"It's methodical and historical. Whatever the calls you want to put on it, it's what's he's been," 76ers head coach Doc Rivers said.

Embiid sits atop the NBA scoring charts this season, ahead of LeBron James (30.3) and Kevin Durant (30.1) for points per game and Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle added to the plaudits.

"We haven’t seen a guy like this in the history of the league who has this kind of power and skill,” Carlisle said about Embiid.

"He's able to score on all three levels effortlessly. He's an amazing player and it will be interesting to see what teams do in the playoffs to try to slow him down."

The 76ers are fourth in the east but can still finish above the third-placed Boston Celtics pending the final regular-season results.

Philadelphia will face either the Toronto Raptors or Chicago Bulls depending on where they finish but Embiid had no preference.

"I just want to win tomorrow [against the Detroit Pistons]," Embiid said. "I don’t really care who we play. I feel pretty confident about both match-ups."

Joel Embiid made his closing statement for the MVP award and all but wrapped up the NBA scoring title in the Philadelphia 76ers' 133-120 win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

Embiid put up monster numbers of 41 points, 20 rebounds and four assists, while going 14-of-17 from the floor and 11-of-15 from the free-throw line. It was the first time this NBA season that a player scored 40 points or more and had 20 or more rebounds in a game.

The 28-year-old is currently the league's scoring leader, averaging an astounding 30.6 points per game, just ahead of LeBron James' 30.3 and Kevin Durant's 30.1 points per game.

James Harden had 22 points and 14 assists for Philadelphia, who had a healthy spread of scorers with Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey both scoring 18 points, and Danny Green adding 15.

The Sixers remain in the hunt for the Eastern Conference's third seed with the win, moving to the same record as the Boston Celtics at 50-31, while the Milwaukee Bucks are second at 51-30.

A win over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday combined with a Boston loss to the Memphis Grizzlies would move the Sixers into the third seed.

Morant makes timely return for Grizzlies

Ja Morant returned to action after a nine-game absence on Saturday night, as the Memphis Grizzlies secured a comfortable 141-114 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Morant finished with 21 points off seven-of-14 shooting, along with nine assists and four rebounds, while Jaren Jackson Jr. contributed a solid 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.

The Grizzlies are set to finish second in the Western Conference, to face the winner of the 7-8 matchup in the play-in between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers.

Warriors continue winning run

The Golden State Warriors claimed their fourth consecutive victory despite an off shooting night from Jordan Poole, defeating the San Antonio Spurs on the road 100-94.

With Stephen Curry yet to return from injury and Klay Thompson rested, Poole had to take on more offensive responsibility and went three-of-19 from the floor in win.

A combined 30 points at nine-of-14 shooting off the bench from Jonathan Kuminga and Nemanja Bjelica was able to counteract it, along with 12 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists from Draymond Green.

All-Star guard Ja Morant was content with his return ahead of the playoffs after missing the past three weeks with knee soreness.

Morant had not played since March 18 for the Memphis Grizzlies but returned with 21 points, four rebounds and nine assists in a 141-114 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

The 56-25 Grizzlies are locked into the second seed in the Western Conference, with Morant's return coming with the playoffs around the corner.

"[I] felt like I needed a game or two to get my legs back under me," Morant told reporters.

"Get the game-type feel, nothing compares to a game, whether its practice or whatever. Just wanted to be ready to go.

"Obviously been in and out of the line-up, my teammates were playing a lot of basketball without me. I was just going out there to adapt."

Despite his All-Star status, the Grizzlies have a remarkable 20-4 record without Morant this season.

The 22-year-old point guard said it was important he developed synergy with his teammates, likely with two games fielding their preferred starting line-up ahead of the playoffs of Morant, Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr and Steven Adams.

Morant has only played 12 games alongside Brooks this season, while he has had limited opportunities alongside Steven Adams who moved to Memphis from the Pelicans in the off-season.

"One hundred per cent," Morant said about the significance of developing connection among the starting five. "Obviously I've played with Dillon since I've been here and most of the other guys I've played with before, so I know their game.

"Being out there at the same time as Steveo [Adams] to get that chemistry, it's basically the starting line-up I felt like we did a very good job tonight."

Morant continued: "Tonight I felt like we looked damn good. Look at that third quarter [55-33 points]. Obviously there's some stuff we've still got to correct."

The 2019 NBA Draft second pick added that he had no preference on second seed Memphis' playoffs opponents, with the side to face either the Los Angeles Clippers or Minnesota Timberwolves via the play-in tournament.

"I really don’t care who we play," he said. "I'm focused on us getting better and being ready to play. No matter who it is, we go out in the games the same way."

The Brooklyn Nets showed how they plan to approach their playoff rotation in a 118-107 home win against the Cleveland Cavaliers to leapfrog into the seven seed with one more game to play. 

In a game considered a must-win for the Nets to avoid the much more difficult Play-In Tournament setup for teams who finish ninth and 10th, Brooklyn cut their rotation down to eight players while Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Bruce Brown all played at least 39 minutes.

Seth Curry and Andre Drummond filled out the starting five, while Kessler Edwards, Patty Mills and Nic Claxton came off the bench, with LaMarcus Aldrige, Blake Griffin and rookie Cam Thomas out of the mix.

Durant went on to finish with a game-high 36 points on 11-of-20 shooting (four-of-six from long range, 10-of-10 from the free throw line) to go with five assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block, while Brown had 10 rebounds, eight assists and four blocks to go with his 18 points (six-of-12 shooting).

With the win, Brooklyn is now in position to host their first Play-In Tournament game – likely against the Cavaliers – with the winner entering the playoffs as the seven seed, while the loser gets another chance to play for the eight seed.

Most Improved Player contender Darius Garland was spectacular for the Cavs, scoring 31 points on 12-of-24 shooting, but the loss means his side has now lost eight of their past 10, and have been sputtering without injured center Jarrett Allen.

Overall, the Cavaliers are 43-38 this season, but just 8-17 in games Allen has missed.

No stoppin' Obi Toppin

It was a career night for New York Knicks cult figure Obi Toppin as he scored a career-high 35 points in his side's 114-92 away win against the Washington Wizards.

In only his eighth start of the season, the former first-round pick shot 14-of-22 from the field, including six-of-nine from deep, while fellow fan-favorite Immanuel Quickley was terrific off the bench, scoring 23 points (nine-of-18 shooting) with 10 assists.

 

Siakam shines, Heat hang on

Pascal Siakam seems destined to receive All-NBA honors this season after another great performance lifted his Toronto Raptors to a 117-115 win against the Houston Rockets.

In his past 10 games, Siakam is averaging 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists while shooting 53 per cent from the field, and improved those numbers with 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists against the Rockets.

Meanwhile, the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks played their shortened playoff rotations, and Trae Young's 35 points and eight assists was not enough as the top-seeded Heat prevailed 113-109 at home.

LeBron James' season is over, the Los Angeles Lakers have confirmed.

The NBA great has had the second most productive campaign of his storied career in terms of points per game, though the Lakers have had a year to forget, failing to reach the playoffs or even next week's play-in tournament.

LeBron sprained his ankle in a defeat at the New Orleans Pelicans in late March, and the Lakers confirmed on Friday that he will not play in either of their final two games against the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Denver Nuggets.

The Lakers' tweeted: "LeBron James' left ankle was recently reassessed by the team's medical staff, and it was determined that due to the ankle sprain James suffered in a game on March 27th, he will miss the remainder of the 2021-22 NBA season to allow for continued healing and an expected full recovery."

 

The 37-year-old ends the campaign having played 56 games overall, averaging 30.3 points per game, only the second time he has averaged over 30 in a season (31.4 PPG for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005-06). Only Joel Embiid (30.4) averages more in the league this season.

LeBron averaged 8.2 rebounds per game, 6.2 assists and brought three-pointers into his arsenal more than ever, hitting a career-high season average of 2.9 successes and 8.0 attempts per game.

He also became the first player in NBA history to record more than 10,000 career points, rebounds and assists.

MVP favorite Nikola Jokic became the first player in NBA history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a season in the Denver Nuggets' 122-109 home win against the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday, 

He had 35 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and five steals in his game-winning performance.

For the season, Jokic is eighth in the league in points per game (27.0), second in rebounds per game (13.7) and eighth in assists (7.9).

Out of players who average at least 20 minutes per appearance, Jokic is 12th in usage (30.9), which measures the percentage of his team's possessions that end with him shooting or turning the ball over while he is on the court.

Of the league's top 100 players in usage rate, none are shooting better than Jokic's 66.1 True Shooting percentage, which weights three-point shots, two-point shots and free throws to produce a single number.

Only 12 players have a better True Shooting percentage than Jokic, and of those players, Montrezl Harrell has the highest usage, at a role-player number of 19.8.

The Denver big man is also the only non-guard in the top 15 in assist percentage, coming in at sixth (38.8) and trailing only Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Chris Paul, James Harden and Dejounte Murray.

As Nuggets teammate Bones Hyland put it: "Dude is really great at basketball."

Hyland was not the only Nuggets representative to shower Jokic with praise when talking with the media after their win, with coach Michael Malone highlighting that he believes the MVP race has been decided.

"The MVP isn't even a competition," he said.

"There's other great players. I'm not saying they're not great players. But what Nikola Jokic has done this year – with this team – everything we've had to go through, is just incredible.

"He was good last year, and he's even better this year."

Even Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins was at a loss for how to deal with the threat he poses.

"We threw a lot at him,'' he said. "He's the MVP for a reason. He's nearly impossible to guard. 

"He's going to beat you from inside, outside, playmaking. He played at a really high level tonight.''

Meanwhile, Jokic said he was content to let his play do the talking, saying "if that's enough [to win MVP], it's enough… if not, you cannot control that.''

The Miami Heat clinched the first seed in the Eastern Conference, as the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Boston Celtics 127-121 on Thursday.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday each scored 29 points in the win, while the former also added 11 rebounds and five assists. Khris Middleton was close to a triple-double with 22 points on nine-of-18 shooting, along with eight rebounds and nine assists.

On the second night of a back-to-back after their win in Chicago, the Celtics rested Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, and only just lost on the road against a fellow contender in the East.

Marcus Smart shot seven-of-12 from beyond the arc and was the Celtics' leading scorer with a season-high 29 points. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown came up with a triple-double of 22 points, a career-high 11 assists, along with 10 rebounds.

With the win, however, the Bucks moved past the Celtics into second spot in the East, effectively clinching home court for Miami in the playoffs.

Raps edge past short-handed Sixers

Pascal Siakam put up a triple-double in the Toronto Raptors' 119-114 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Matisse Thybulle missed the game, raising speculation over whether he is vaccinated against coronavirus, with unvaccinated foreign nationals prohibited from entering Canada.

Siakam's consequent ability to get into the paint counteracted his one-of-seven from the perimeter, putting up 37 points on 14-of-28 shooting, along with 12 assists and 11 rebounds.

Warriors win builds pre-playoff confidence

The Golden State Warriors continued to build momentum without the injured Stephen Curry, securing a 128-112 victory at home to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Having already been eliminated from play-in contention, the Lakers were without LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook. Talen Horton-Tucker scored a career-high 40 points on 15-of-28 shooting.

It was the Dubs' third consecutive win and their last game in the Bay Area before the playoffs, heading on the road to San Antonio and New Orleans to close out the regular season.

Los Angeles Clippers wing Norman Powell feels his team are a threat in this year's playoffs – and Kawhi Leonard is looking strong.

Powell returned in style from two months on the sideline, scoring 24 points off the bench in the Clippers' 113-109 home win against the Phoenix Suns.

The 2019 champion with the Toronto Raptors suffered a broken foot in an early-February matchup against the Dallas Mavericks but showed no ill effects as he scored six-of-10 field-goal attempts, including going three-of-four from long range, and nine-of-10 from the free throw line.

Despite Clippers star Leonard missing the entire season so far with his recovery from a torn ACL and co-star Paul George only playing 29 games, Los Angeles are somehow 40-40 through 80 games and locked into the Western Conference eight seed.

Speaking with ESPN, Powell said it was a successful return from injury.

"The foot has been feeling good," he said. "The medical staff wanted to give me a few test games, stay-ready games leading up to the game tonight, seeing how it would respond to the extra workload. 

"It was feeling great. Tonight it feels great... I thought it was a good first game after being out for two months."

Powell went on to speak about the threat his side poses in a postseason setting.

"I think we can be really dangerous," he said. "Paul George drives a lot of attention on the floor, and when me and him and [Marcus Morris Sr.] and Reggie [Jackson] are all on the floor, we've got so many weapons.

"I just think we have weapons at every position, and I can take the pressure off those guys if need be, being a ball-handler as well. 

"It reminds me of that 2019 [Raptors] team. We were able to do that with Pascal [Siakam], with Marc [Gasol], with Serge [Ibaka], Kawhi, Danny [Green], Kyle [Lowry], me, Fred [VanVleet]. 

"What we had, we were able to give them different lineups throughout the course of the game, whatever the game is dictating, to go big, defense, with length."

While George's return from a long-term elbow injury has already given the Clippers a punchers' chance, Powell gave an update on Leonard, who would completely change the team's expectations if he was to declare himself fit for the playoffs.

"I've just [been] asking [Leonard] how he feels, where his head is at," he said.

"He feels good. Seeing him being able to work out, put some shots up, things like that, I think his rehab is trending in the right direction. 

"As you know, and everybody else, you are not going to get too much information out of Kawhi. They keep everything [under] wraps, but I know he is feeling good and his rehab is progressing."

There will be plenty to play for when the Boston Celtics arrive at Fiserv Forum to take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday.

Heading into the game, the Celtics (50-30) occupy the Eastern Conference two seed, while the Bucks (49-30) are a half-game back in third, holding the tie-breaker over the Philadelphia 76ers (49-30) in fourth.

Since the All-Star break, no team has a better winning percentage than the Celtics (16-4), while Milwaukee are fifth over that period (13-6); but while the reigning champion Bucks find their feet, Boston have gone to a new level.

For the season, the Celtics are number one in defensive efficiency, as new head coach Ime Udoka's switching system has maximised the physical gifts of defensive stalwarts Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III.

At this point, Boston's defense is a given, but post-All-Star break, they have also had the number one offense in the league, and are putting a gap on the rest of the field. Over that time period, the closest team to Boston's 122.2 points per 100 possessions have been the Minnesota Timberwolves, 2.7 points per 100 possessions behind at 119.5.

For context, that 2.7-point gap is greater than the 2.6-point margin between the Timberwolves and the 11th-placed 76ers (116.9) for the same period, and Boston's 12.9 net-rating since All-Star weekend is a number generally reserved for some of the greatest regular season teams in league history.

However, the team right behind the Timberwolves on the list, in third place, are the Bucks, and it is no hot streak as they boast the fifth-best offensive efficiency over the whole year.

These teams are both serious contenders to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – but they go about it in very different ways.

Primarily, that has a lot to do with the Celtics' switching defensive system.

The Celtics 'switch' screens – meaning instead of fighting over or under the screening player to recover back to your assignment, the player guarding the screener takes on the assignment of guarding the ball-handler, while the ball-handler's defender takes responsibility for the screener and his next movements.

The Bucks, on the other hand, play 'drop coverage', which means their on-ball defender tries to force the ball-handler on a predictable path around the screen, while the screener's defender peels off into a help position, with the aim of forcing the ball-handler to pull up for a mid-range shot with their defender contesting from behind.

Both systems are formed on sound logic. In switching schemes, the idea is to eliminate as much dribble penetration as possible by keeping the ball-handler in front on the perimeter, while trusting the smaller guard to be able to deny the screener an easy catch in the paint.

Drop coverage, on the other hand, forces teams to consistently attempt mid-range jump shots, which are statistically the least valuable shot in the game.

In theory, Boston's switching defense should perform well against Giannis Antetokounmpo, as the Bucks' two-time MVP thrives at attacking the rim, while Milwaukee should be able to bait Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown into mid-range jump shots that can go cold for extended stretches.

But the numbers show it may not be that simple.

Boston allow the second-fewest amount of points in the paint per game, and while Antetokounmpo lives at the rim, the Bucks actually come in last in the league with their percentage of points scored in the paint.

While that may indicate that the Celtics' defense is playing right into how the Bucks like to play, Boston also allow the second-lowest three-point percentage in the league.

It poses an interesting question about Boston – is their defense truly so good that teams can not score inside the key or from long range, or is their defense the top-ranked in the league because their opponents just keep missing threes?

Opposing three-point percentage can be a messy stat due to general shooting luck, and Boston allow opponents to get up a league-average amount of attempts, so if they are due for some regression to the mean, it means they are due to be on the wrong end of some hot shooting nights.

Boston's defense also allows the lowest amount of opposition assists per game, but Milwaukee are third-last in assist percentage, so how much are the Bucks actually trying to do the things the Celtics are built to stop?

Milwaukee play at the fifth-highest pace in the league, while Boston play at the fifth-lowest – all signs point to the fact that something has to give, and whoever can play the game at their tempo may just hold the keys.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Marcus Smart

Marcus Smart is not the best scorer on the Celtics, or the best ball-handler, but he excels in the areas that have made this Boston team great during the second half of this season.

He is the bookmakers' favourite to win Defensive Player of the Year due to his ability to switch off of point guards and bang bodies down low against the bigs, unlocking the true upside of a switching system as post players regularly fail to take advantage of their significant height advantage.

The Bucks are a big team, so for the Celtics defense to rise to the occasion once again against a true contender, Smart will need to hang with Jrue Holiday on the perimeter, as well as keep Antetokounmpo out of the lane.

 

Milwaukee Bucks – Brook Lopez

Antetokounmpo is Milwaukee's best and most valuable player. However, the centrepiece of the Bucks' drop coverage is Brook Lopez.

Lopez will be the biggest player, with the longest arms, for either team, and Milwaukee's entire defensive scheme will revolve around forcing players to take and make shots over his outstretched arms.

He also has the size, and the underrated post game, to make life miserable for whichever undersized guard gets caught in screening actions and needs to switch onto the seven-footer.

Smart will be able to hold up if he establishes good early position, but if the Bucks can get Derrick White or Payton Pritchard involved in the switch, it could be a long night inside for Boston's defense.

 

KEY BATTLES – Who can get the most 'easy' points?

In a game that will likely resemble a playoff atmosphere, the winning team may simply be the side who make life easiest on themselves.

Fast-break points and free throws limit the amount of possessions a team needs to grind their way through a set half-court defense, and provide the easiest avenues to uncontested points.

Milwaukee rank as the eighth-best team at getting to the free-throw line, and fourth-best at denying their opposition free throws, while Boston are 21st at getting to the line.

As mentioned, Boston like to play at a methodical pace, ranking 20th in fast-break points, while Milwaukee have the fifth-best transition defense in the league.

 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

These two sides have met three times this season – all before the All-Star break.

Boston won the first two home fixtures – including an overtime win where Dennis Schroeder scored a game-high 38 points, before being traded to the Houston Rockets – while Milwaukee won the last meeting, and the only one at Fiserv Forum, 117-113.

Adam Silver is concerned by what he sees as "a trend" of the NBA's best players spending too much time on the sideline.

NBA commissioner Silver was speaking at a news conference following a two-day meeting with the league's board of governors.

Last year's NBA MVP Nikola Jokic was one of 11 players to play every game in the shortened 72-game 2020-21 regular season.

But only five players are on course to complete the full 82 games this year – and none of them could be considered superstars.

While Jokic has still played a good number in 73, MVP rivals Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been limited to 66 and 65 games respectively.

Stephen Curry has played in 64, Luka Doncic and James Harden in 63, LeBron James in 56, Kevin Durant in 53 and Kyrie Irving, chiefly due to the vaccine protocol that was in place in New York for much of the season, in 27.

Harden (37.2 minutes), James (also 37.2), Irving (37.5) and Durant (37.1) have at least seen plenty of time on the floor when they have been available, although the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers have spent much of the season hovering around the play-in line.

While Silver acknowledged injuries were a factor, he suggested this sort of motivation was key to seeing the best of the league's stars.

Antetokounmpo (32.9 this year) has long played limited minutes in the regular season, while Kawhi Leonard – prior to the injury that has kept him out of this season – was allowed regular periods of rest with the Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Clippers in order to prepare for the playoffs.

"The greater concern to me is a trend of star players not participating in a full complement of games," Silver said.

"I think that's something we, together with the Players Association, need to address. I'm not standing here saying I have a great solution.

"Part of the issue is injuries. One of the things we have focused on at the league office and we had begun to spend a lot of time on pre-pandemic [is]: are there things we can do in terms of sharing information, resources around the league to improve best practices, rehabilitation?

"The other way we can get at it, in terms of player participation, is creating other incentives.

"The play-in tournament, I thought, was a beginning of creating renewed incentives for teams to remain competitive and be fighting for playoff position. It might be through in-season tournaments and changes in format where we can get at it."

Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant was excited about the state of his club's local rivalry against the New York Knicks after going into Madison Square Garden and leaving with a 110-98 comeback win.

After conceding 67 points in the first half, the Nets clamped things down defensively after the break, giving up just 31 points in the last two quarters, including a dominant 38-16 final period.

Durant was spectacular, scoring 32 points (11-of-22 shooting) with 10 rebounds and 11 assists, while Patty Mills caught fire off the bench, hitting five three-pointers after struggling recently with his shot.

R.J. Barrett was the main man for the Knicks, scoring 23 points with seven rebounds and seven assists, but shot just seven-of-27 from the field as he struggled down the stretch.

Speaking to post-game media, Durant said he felt the animosity in the building towards himself and his team, and that he knows why.

"We know how much Knicks fans don't like us," he said. "Especially now, in this era of the Nets, with [Kyrie and I] not choosing the Knicks [in free agency]. 

"It definitely adds something to the rivalry… imagine the tweets I've been getting since I decided to come to the Nets, from Knicks fans. They're still pi**** off about the stuff I say, and the little jabs here and there.

"But like I said, it's always love in the streets when I see Knicks fans, it's always love at the games, but it's a good rivalry to be a part of.

"Everybody who steps in our building will realize how big these games are – it felt like a home game to us the last two times in [Madison Square] Garden, and it feels like a home game for the Knicks when they come to Barclays.

"It's good to be a part of this, it's a fun rivalry, and hopefully it continues to build, and we get more and more animosity between the fan bases. It will be good for the game."

The Brooklyn Nets came back from a 21-point deficit to storm home in the second half, defeating the New York Knicks 

The Nets' defense struggled early on, conceding 38 points in just the second quarter on the way to trailing 67-50 at half-time.

Knicks' R.J. Barrett was the best player in the first half, and went on to finish with 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, but after his side peaked at a 71-50 lead one minute into the third period, it was all downhill from there.

Brooklyn would hold New York to just 31 points in the entire second half, snatching the lead in the fourth quarter and riding a hot shooting performance from Patty Mills in his return to form.

Mills hit five-of-seven from long range off the bench, including a deep contested step-back with the shot clock winding down late in the fourth quarter, while superstar Kevin Durant was spectacular throughout.

Durant scored 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds to go with his 11 assists, while Barrett's shooting tailed off badly, finishing with figures of seven-of-27 from the field and two-of-11 from deep.

The win moves Brooklyn's record to 42-38, which is the same record as the Atlanta Hawks, but the Nets hold the tie-breaker and would finish in the eight seed if the season ended today.

 

Trae Young leads his Hawks in style

Atlanta has been arguably one of the league's most disappointing teams this year, but last season's Eastern Conference Finalists have found some form heading into the play-in tournament, beating the Washington Wizards 118-103 behind another spectacular showing from All-NBA point guard Trae Young.

Young, who in his past 10 games is averaging 29.7 points and 11.1 assists on shooting splits of 48/40/91, was again the best player on the floor against the Wizards, racking up an efficient 30 points (eight-of-17 shooting, 11-of-12 from the free throw line) to go with 11 assists.

Washington's Kristaps Porzingis also deserves a mention for his 26 points (eight-of-16 shooting) and 18 rebounds as the Wizards nearly broke even (minus three) in his 32 minutes played.

 

Celtics stifle struggling Bulls

The Boston Celtics have been the best defensive team in the NBA this season, and made life miserable for the Chicago Bulls for a 117-94 road win.

Both teams will make the playoffs, but while the Celtics have thrived in the second half of the season and look like a contender, the Bulls have stumbled, with no Chicago player scoring more than DeMar DeRozan's 16 points on six-of-16 shooting on Wednesday.

On a down night for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown picked up the scoring load, finishing with 25 points on 10-of-21 shooting to go with four assists and four steals.

Chicago Bulls guard Lonzo Ball has been ruled out for the rest of the NBA season as he recovers from knee surgery.

The 24-year-old underwent an operation on his left knee in Los Angeles on January 28.

Chicago on Wednesday stated that Ball "continues to experience pain with high-level physical activity" and will not play again this season.

Ball will undergo treatment and rehabilitation on a daily basis to ensure he is ready for the start of the 2022-23 campaign.

The former Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans player was expected to return in six to eight weeks after going under the knife over two months ago.

He averaged 13 points, 5.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds for the Bulls this season.

The Bulls are sixth in the Eastern Conference and guaranteed a playoff place despite losing back-to-back games against the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

Russell Westbrook hopes he will get the chance to play an 82-game season alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis next year, but he added: "Nothing is promised."

Westbrook signed for the Los Angeles Lakers at the start of this season in a trade with the Washington Wizards that has since been widely criticised.

The Lakers traded away three key players in exchange for Westbrook and his huge contract, which contains a staggering $47.1million player option for 2022-23.

Having also given up their draft picks for the coming seasons in acquiring Davis, the Lakers may have little option but to run it back with the core of a team who have missed out on the postseason this year.

For all the Lakers' problems – their elimination confirmed by Tuesday's defeat to the Phoenix Suns – Westbrook hopes that will be the case.

He has played only 21 games alongside both James and Davis this season, with each suffering from injury troubles.

"That's the plan, but nothing is promised," Westbrook said. "You've got to take one thing at a time each day and play the cards you're dealt.

"Yes, we want to be able to see what that looks like, what that entails over the course of an 82-game season.

"But we're not sure if that's guaranteed, either. I just hope that we have a chance to be able to do something in the future."

Westbrook described the season as "obviously disappointing on many levels" and said "so many different things" had gone wrong.

However, he added: "It's a situation that I was just blessed to be able to be in.

"I learned a lot about a lot of different things within myself. I was able to just stay real faithful and true to what I believe in, regardless of what was ever thrown our way, my way. We continued to fight through it regardless of results.

"I'm covered. What I mean by that is I am super blessed and grateful. Regardless of whatever is thrown my way, I'm covered by the protection of faith. Whatever is thrown my way, I can always prevail and get through it."

Head coach Frank Vogel added: "I'm extremely disappointed, disappointed for our fan base, disappointed for the Buss family, who gave us all this opportunity.

"We want to play our part in bringing success to Laker basketball, and we fell short.

"We were eliminated tonight, but I can say it's not been due to a lack of effort. We have all put in the work, our guys stayed fighting right until the end, we brought integrity to the process; we just fell short through a disjointed season."

Vogel also pointed to the Lakers' injuries, suggesting they were the main difference between this season and the team's title-winning campaign of 2019-20.

"It's just a different team," he said. "Without getting into a lot of the details why, that was a very different team than we have this year.

"I would say if LeBron and AD played 15 games together that year, we would have had a similar year to what we're having right now."

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will be missing from the NBA playoffs.

Defeat to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday combined with a win elsewhere for the San Antonio Spurs meant the Lakers can no longer reach even the play-in tournament.

It is less than two years since the Lakers won the title in the 'bubble', but that championship was followed by one mishap after another, leading to this painful season.

Stats Perform seeks to break down where it all went wrong.

Ageing LeBron limited

This could and perhaps should have been remembered as a great year for James, who has scored 30.3 points per game. At 37, he is on course to become the oldest player ever to win the scoring title – a mantle he will take from the great Michael Jordan.

However, for a second straight year, injuries have limited James' involvement.

Already with more than 63,000 minutes in his legs across the regular season and playoffs, James has continued to push himself to try to save the Lakers' season. He has played 37.2 minutes per game – his most in five years, the most of any Laker and the third-most in the entire league. Again, he is 37. Ultimately, unsurprisingly, this has meant more wear and tear, with James playing in just 56 games.

Although James has scored more than 35 points in each of his past five games – a streak bettered only by DeMar DeRozan (eight) this season – he has also missed five games in that span. The Lakers have lost all five.

AD also absent again

Given James' age, it was to be expected his body might start to let him down. That he needed to play so many minutes when he was available, though, was due to injury issues for Anthony Davis – eight years his junior.

Davis was outstanding in helping James to win a title in their first season together in 2019-20 but has played only 76 games since across two regular seasons. After an Achilles strain hampered his 2020-21 campaign, Davis has missed time this year with knee and foot injuries. He played on Tuesday but revealed his foot was "a little more sore than normal" and had "swollen up a bit".

Whether Davis can ever get back to playing a full 82-game season remains to be seen, for he has appeared more cumbersome than in years past even when he has been available, having bulked up coming into this year. That is evident in the numbers, too, with Davis shooting a career-high 73.5 per cent at the rim but just 18.6 per cent from three-point range.

Derailed by Russ trade

Of course, even with James and Davis kept on the sideline for periods of the 2020-21 season, the Lakers still made the play-in tournament and then the playoffs. However, the Lakers then allowed almost their entire supporting cast to leave.

Their four most-used players in terms of minutes in 2020-21 departed, including three of them in an ill-fated trade for Russell Westbrook. On his fourth team in four years, there was hope Westbrook could form a 'big three' with James and Davis – "our goal was to win a championship," Davis said on Tuesday – yet the trio have played just 21 games together.

And Westbrook has been far less effective than the men he replaced in carrying the team in the absence of the Lakers' superstar duo. LA are 6-17 when Westbrook plays but James does not.

Having averaged a triple-double in four of his prior five seasons, Westbrook is down to 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists. One of 10 triples this year came in perhaps the worst individual performance of the campaign, in which Westbrook also had a league-high 10 turnovers and was ejected against former team the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What next?

"Who knows?" That was Davis' response after the Suns loss. The Lakers have very little room to manoeuvre in this coming offseason, even if James, Davis and Westbrook can each rediscover form and fitness – highly unlikely in itself.

As part of the deal with the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis, the Lakers traded away an unprotected first-round pick in 2022, a potential first-round pick swap in 2023 and either their 2024 or 2025 first-round pick. The 2022 pick is sure to be a big loss following this season, while the Lakers would have to turn their fortunes around dramatically for the subsequent picks not to also represent significant assets.

And yet the Lakers' cap situation is arguably even worse, headlined by Westbrook's player option for a staggering $47.1million in 2022-23. Only a league-low seven players are signed for next year, yet the team are already above the luxury tax threshold.

It is no secret James and Davis were hugely influential in constructing this roster, but whether the extortionate cost was worth it for a single title is up for debate. Another championship surely will not follow for some time.

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