The NBA playoffs are here!

After some tense one-off play-in games, we can now look forward to thrilling back-and-forth series.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant and all the usual big names will be backed to deliver, but some of their contemporaries have previously found life a little tricky in the postseason.

For five players in particular, it may be do or die as they aim to bolster their reputations or secure their futures.

With the aid of Stats Perform data, we look at the issues this high-profile quartet have encountered in the past...
 

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

In consecutive seasons, Antetokounmpo won the MVP award on a Milwaukee Bucks team with the best record in the NBA. Then, in the playoffs, the 'Greak Freak' failed to inspire a suddenly one-dimensional side.

Those freakish regular season performances were back again in 2020-21, but Antetokounmpo and the Bucks might have run out of excuses if there is no evidence of postseason improvement.

Last year's approach evidently did not work. Antetokounmpo was on a strict minutes restriction across the campaign, averaging 30.4 minutes per game, but he was still unable to make the difference in the playoffs.

As in all but one of his playoff campaigns, the forward's points return was down on the rest of the season – 29.5 to 26.7 – while the Bucks superstar's shaky shooting came to the fore as he made just 58.0 per cent of his free throws, the worst rate of any of the 23 players to visit the foul line more than 50 times.

Now with additional support in the form of Jrue Holiday, Antetokounmpo simply must deliver this year – and Milwaukee start against the Miami Heat team that beat them in five in round two in 2020.
 

JAMES HARDEN

The man Antetokounmpo followed as MVP has too often had the same problem. Harden is a regular season great, but his career to date has been tarnished by playoff failings.

Although Harden had a big role from the bench as the Oklahoma City Thunder reached the 2012 NBA Finals, he averaged just 12.4 points on 37.5 per cent shooting in that 4-1 series defeat to the Heat.

The dominant scorer has never returned to that stage, subsequently joining the Houston Rockets and repeatedly finding the Golden State Warriors a step too far.

The closest Harden and the Rockets came was in 2018, up 3-2 against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before letting big leads slip in both Game 6 and Game 7 – the latter seeing Houston's star man shoot two-of-13 from beyond the arc as his team missed a record-breaking 27 consecutive threes.

Now on the Brooklyn Nets, the 31-year-old will at least have former champions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to turn to if he needs help, although the guard – still battling a hamstring problem – will no doubt be determined to succeed himself and alter his legacy for the better.
 

PAUL GEORGE

Without ever coming close to a title, despite losing back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers, George has regularly put up impressive numbers in the postseason. There have also been occasions on which he has looked lost on the big stage, however.

George's career playoff average has been kept to 20.1 by some alarming single-digit displays, notably contributing only five points in 45 minutes on two-of-16 shooting in a decisive Game 6 defeat to the Utah Jazz while with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And despite joining a talented Los Angeles Clippers team, George's woes were only magnified in the 2020 'bubble', where he later revealed he was in a "dark place" and "checked out".

The forward shot 25 per cent or lower from the field in four of 11 games, including the Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Back on song and playing in something approaching normal conditions, George has the opportunity to answer his critics, starting against a Dallas Mavericks team he struggled to master last year. The Clippers will need him in a competitive West.
 

CHRIS PAUL

There has generally been little wrong with the level of Paul's performance in the playoffs, his points average climbing to 20.9 from a career regular season mark of 18.3.

However, his deepest run was on Harden's 2018 Houston team as a hamstring kept him out of those painful last two defeats. For Paul, team success this year outweighs any individual achievements.

In his 16th season, he is entering a 13th postseason campaign but still waiting on a first Finals appearance more than 4,000 minutes in.

One of the great point guards of the modern NBA, Paul will be acutely aware of what a title would do for his legacy. He has helped transform the Phoenix Suns into a real force.

The Lakers in round one represent a daunting start for the Suns – especially having secured the number two seed – but fitness issues throughout the West might make this Paul's best and last chance to get to the Finals.
 

BEN SIMMONS

The Philadelphia 76ers ended the season with the best-rated defense in the East (105.1), but will that be enough in the playoffs? It might have to be.

On offense, Joel Embiid led the team by far with 28.5 points, with Simmons, the Sixers' second superstar, only able to contribute 14.3 – low even by his modest standards at that end of the floor.

Those numbers are unlikely to be able to hang with the Nets' 'big three' or a high-scoring Bucks team unless Philly come up with some significant stops.

Embiid, Simmons and Matisse Thybulle were among five 76ers players counted in the 22 best individual defensive ratings this year, but the pressure will ramp up in the postseason.

Simmons, a former first overall pick and the subject of trade rumours this year, is therefore required to become a playoff difference-maker, whether through improvement on offense or series-turning defensive contributions.

As enjoyable and memorable as the NBA postseason can be, it rarely produces significant surprises.

Sure, an occasional first-round upset stands out – like MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks falling to the Golden State Warriors in 2007 – but almost never does an underdog hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as season's end.

Of course, that depends on your definition of an underdog.

In each of the last 25 seasons – and in 49 of the last 51 – the team that won the NBA Finals was a top three seed in their conference. The only exception to that rule since 1970 is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who finished sixth in the Western Conference despite being the reigning NBA champions.

The 2020-21 NBA season has already been an unprecedented one, with games played in empty arenas and players being held out of games due to league virus safety protocols. And why should the oddities end when the playoffs begin?

From 2015-18, the Warriors played the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals four straight seasons, making everything beforehand feel like a waste of time. The pattern was broken in 2019 because LeBron James switched conferences, but the Warriors represented the west for the fifth straight season. Last season, James played in the Finals for the ninth time in 10 campaigns, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title.

This season, however, is suspiciously devoid of a juggernaut. The top regular season teams are unproven in the playoffs, and the typical postseason performers must answer serious questions and navigate a difficult road to the Finals.

The Utah Jazz had the league's best record this season at 52-20, a .722 win percentage. That is the fifth-worst record by a league-leading team since the NBA-ABA merger and the worst in 20 years.

 

Lowest Win Pct by Team With NBA's Best Record in Season, Since 1976-77

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

With just 10 wins separating the top-seeded Jazz and seventh-seeded Lakers, the west could deviate from seeding by quite a bit.

Even in the often-predictable east, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were considered preseason favorites in the conference, only to finish with the sixth and seventh seeds.

The fact is that whoever wins their conference to play in the NBA Finals – and ultimately raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy – will have a unique story about their road there. Whether it is a team who are a proven commodity that flipped the switch after a sub-par regular season or a high-seeded team that overcame past postseason failures, the 2021 NBA champions – like the 2020-21 regular season itself – will be unlike any other.

 

Honourable Mentions: West number one Dallas Mavericks, West number six Portland Trail Blazers

Both teams lack the depth to make a serious championship run but have enough star power in the backcourt to scare any opponent.

Dallas will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and took two of three games this season against Los Angeles. Luka Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in those games. In nine career games against the Clippers, Doncic is attempting 9.9 free throws per game, his most against any Western Conference opponent.

The Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard takes them. When Portland made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers were 7-0 when Lillard had a plus-minus above zero and were 1-8 when he had a negative plus-minus.

 

The 'Not Your Year' Tier: West number three Denver Nuggets

The season-ending knee injury to Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray was a devastating blow to Denver's title chances and takes some fun out of a special season by Nikola Jokic.

Although Murray's injury solidified Jokic as the MVP favourite – leading the Nuggets to a 13-5 record since the injury – it is hard to envision Denver making a deep run without their star guard.

The knock on Jokic has been that he would generally rather pass than score, and Denver are 5-8 in postseason games when Jokic attempts 20 or more shots.

With Jokic scoring a career-high 26.4 points per game this season and with the continued blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., however, the Nuggets remain dangerous in the playoffs.

 

The 'Prove It' Tier: West number four Los Angeles Clippers, East number one Philadelphia 76ers, West number one Utah Jazz, East number three Milwaukee Bucks, West number two Phoenix Suns

On paper, each of these teams appear to be solid championship contenders, complete with star power and coming off an impressive regular season.

But each of these teams need to prove they can take another step forward, either because of a limited postseason history or a checkered one.

At the start of last year's playoffs, the Clippers were considered by many to be the favourites but blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Nuggets was a humbling experience. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have quietly had fantastic seasons, each averaging at least 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers and Bucks have been mainstays in the east playoffs for the past few seasons and are hoping that this year's vintage has the answers to take the next step.

Philadelphia, under new leadership with Doc Rivers and buoyed by the shooting of Danny Green and Seth Curry, have a scoring differential of plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together, the best mark in the history of the much-maligned duo.

Milwaukee won 11 of their last 15 games, including two wins each against Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Nets – the two teams seeded higher in the east.

A machine over the last few regular seasons, the Bucks have faltered in past playoff series as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to score in the clutch and his team-mates shrank from the moment. The costly acquisition of Jrue Holiday should help take some of the pressure off, and Antetokounmpo is shooting 73.3 percent (11 of 15) this season in the last two minutes of a game within five points.

Utah and Phoenix are fascinating prospects after stellar regular seasons but the consensus regarding both teams is that they have already maxed out their talent before the postseason starts.

Rudy Gobert is an All-Defensive Team mainstay for good reason, but Utah have been forced to sit him in the playoffs against smaller teams or when his free-throw shooting becomes a problem.

The Jazz are expecting leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to return from a sprained right ankle, but Utah are better operating as a five-man offense than a one-man show. When Mitchell attempts 20 or fewer field goals this season, the Jazz are 27-2. When he shoots more than 20 times, the Jazz are 12-12.

The Suns are 59-21 over their last 80 games, including in last year's bubble, and have become one of the best stories in the league. Chris Paul turns every team he is on into a winner, and he has a case to receive MVP votes scoring a modest 16.4 points per game.

For all of his career accomplishments, however, Paul has famously only advanced past the second round once in his career, and he now leads a core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that lacks playoff experience.

 

The 'Sleeping Giant' Tier: East number six Miami Heat, West number seven Los Angeles Lakers

Last year's finalists have endured brutal regular seasons filled with disappointment, injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Only Duncan Robinson played all 72 games this season for Miami, and while the Heat are healthier now than during their nightmare 11-17 start, serious questions remain about the health of veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, who both missed at least 20 games this season.

The Lakers remain the betting favourites coming out of the west, despite needing a 103-100 play-in win over the Golden State Warriors to clinch a playoff berth. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games this season, and the duo only played together in 27 games.

While the health of the Lakers' superstars remains a concern, Los Angeles were 19-8 when both James and Davis played. The defending champions had a scoring differential of plus-11.4 points per 100 possession when the duo were on the court together. For as long as James and Davis are playing, the Lakers remain a juggernaut.

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets are the first team to ever have three players average at least 24 points (minimum 35 games). Durant, Harden and Irving are the highest-scoring trio since the early 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were producing some of the best seasons in league history.

What makes Brooklyn such a strong contender, however, is that the supporting cast around their dynamic trio is a real asset.

The Nets' reserves scored 35.9 points per game this season, better than the bench of fellow contenders like the Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.

First-year head coach Steve Nash has consistently been able to field a competitive squad during a tumultuous year. As evidence of the change and adversity the Nets faced this season, they have used 38 different starting line-ups – only the lowly Rockets used more.

With veteran big men like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Nets can counter size but are also versatile enough to play small, with Jeff Green defending opposing centers.

The high-profile names make Brooklyn feel like an inevitability, but there is still plenty of uncertainty with this newly constructed super-team.

Durant, Harden and Irving have only played 202 minutes together, less than six percent of Brooklyn's season. The trio appear to blend well, scoring a torrid 117.8 points per 100 possessions, but any group of stars will face challenges in their first playoff test.

Returning Brooklyn Nets star James Harden says his impact should not be measured on the stats sheet ahead of the NBA playoffs.

Harden joined the Nets from the Houston Rockets in January but missed five weeks with a hamstring injury, before returning to action last week.

The 2018 NBA MVP came off the bench to play 26 minutes and add 18 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists in his return game last week in a 128-116 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

He offered a more modest return with five points, five rebounds and seven assists from 25 minutes in Saturday's win over the Chicago Bulls, before being rested for Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"I thought winning was all that matters?" Harden said on Wednesday. "When I was doing the stats and putting up the numbers, it wasn't good enough.

"At some point we've got to figure out what we're talking about. But it's all about winning.

"My impact doesn't have to show up on the stat sheet for us to win. I think my job as a leader is to make sure everybody's playing well. If I'm doing that, I can focus on myself last. That's not a problem at all."

The Nets are among the favourites to win the 2020-21 NBA title but first will take on the Boston Celtics in the playoffs first round starting Saturday.

Harden was wary of Celtics star Jayson Tatum who scored 50 points in their play-in game victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday.

"One thing we can’t have is let a guy score 30, 40 on us comfortably," Harden said.

"He scores in bunches and scores from all over the court."

It is that time of year again – the NBA playoffs.

Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

The Utah Jazz claimed the best record in the league for the first time in their history, while Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers and the star-studded Brooklyn Nets loom large.

With the play-in tournament due to get under way to determine the final eight teams from each conference set to feature in the playoffs, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers to find a worthy winner of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

 

Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

 

Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert experienced consecutive first-round exits in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but featuring in their first Conference semi-final since 2018, the Jazz prove too hot for the fourth-ranked Clippers and take a 4-2 series win. Utah, who beat Los Angeles in two of the three regular-season contests, win the opening three games of the second-round series and never look back as pressure mounts on Leonard, Paul George and the championship-chasing Clippers.

The standout teams in the east, the 76ers and Nets barely raise a sweat en route to the Conference Finals. In pursuit of a first championship since 1983, the 76ers sweep the Knicks 4-0, while the Nets end Miami's hopes with their own devastating 4-0 success.

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

A matchup many predicted when the 76ers appointed head coach Rivers and the Nets landed former MVP Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January. Philadelphia's cast of Embiid, fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, sharp-shooter Seth Curry and Danny Green come up against Durant, Harden, Irving and Blake Griffin, and it is Brooklyn who prevail in a thriller. The Nets and 76ers split the opening six games before a deciding seventh game. With a championship berth on the line, Steve Nash's Nets edge the 76ers 112-109 as question marks again emerge over whether the Philadelphia franchise can succeed with both Embiid and Simmons.

Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

 

Jazz make history

The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

Despite a frightening array of talent, the Nets go down 4-1 in the Finals as the Jazz make history, headlined by a resounding 121-102 win in Game 5.

After consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz finally break through for their first NBA title thanks to coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Co.

The results will not be confirmed until later in the postseason, but the NBA's MVP race has been run and there appears to be a clear winner.

After a season in which Joel Embiid and LeBron James were each favourites at a time, and while a number of other contenders made impressive runs, Nikola Jokic is seemingly set to scoop the league's top individual award.

Jokic achieved what the others could not in remaining healthy, starting all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference.

But the 'Joker' was more than just the last man standing in a gruelling campaign, earning his recognition by averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

A worthy winner, the Nuggets center shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Stats Perform reflects on how Jokic ultimately outperformed his opponents to establish himself as the league's main man in 2020-21.
 

Month one: LeBron leaps above Luka

Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the preseason MVP favourites, while Los Angeles Lakers duo James and Anthony Davis appeared well set as both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant returned from injuries.

Doncic's hopes quickly took a hit once the campaign got under way, however, as the Dallas Mavericks slumped to 7-7 over the first month, the same middle-of-the-road record that ensured Jokic was not immediately thrust to the forefront of the conversation on a .500 Nuggets team.

Yet the Serbian quietly built the foundations for his awards challenge in that spell. He had five triple-doubles, including three in his first four games, and averaged 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.0 assists.

A 12-4 start for the Lakers meant the anticipated early James calls grew louder, the four-time winner an ever-present and averaging 24.4 points with an impressive 9.3 plus/minus rating.

Month two: Sixers star Embiid emerges

The PAR (points plus assists plus rebounds) chart Jokic topped in month one was led by Antetokounmpo in month two, with Jokic sliding to fourth behind Embiid and Doncic despite averaging 27.8 points over his next 16 games.

James was sixth, adding 27.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game to his totals between January 22 and February 21, but Embiid emerged as a serious contender.

As their star center put up a league-leading 33.9 points over the period, the Philadelphia 76ers improved to 20-11 to lead the East.

Missed games would ultimately cost Embiid, but they added to his case at this stage. He featured in 25 of the Sixers' first 31 outings, sitting out five defeats and only a single win.

Month three: Injuries interrupt favourites

Events in mid-March blew the MVP race wide open.

In the 76ers' win at the Washington Wizards on March 12, Embiid suffered a knee injury. However, James was the clear favourite for just eight days before he sustained a high ankle sprain as the Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks.

Curry could not capitalise as a tailbone issue kept him on the sidelines over the same stretch, instead allowing James Harden to improbably enter the reckoning.

A high-profile yet polarising trade to the Brooklyn Nets should have removed Harden from awards consideration, many argued, but his performances and stat line made a compelling argument.

Between his Nets debut on January 16 and March 21 – the end of the third month of the season – Harden became the key man in his new team's 'big three' and led the league in playmaking with 11.3 assists as Brooklyn went 22-7 with the 2018 MVP on the court.

Month four: Nuggets make their move

Although Harden, Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard – who has long led the league in 'clutch' points this year – all made runs, Jokic was the favourite at the time of James' injury, then with an even more impressive stat line, including 41.6 per cent shooting from three. Month four consolidated that position.

As Harden and Antetokounmpo each sustained injuries in early April, Jokic was boosted by the arrival of Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline.

The Nuggets got only five games (four wins) out of a Jamal Murray-Will Barton-Michael Porter Jr-Gordon-Jokic line-up, yet no five-man group in the league this season which played over 100 minutes averaged more than their 55.6 points per game.

Another injury disrupted Denver, but it was Murray rather than Jokic who went down, the guard tearing the ACL in his left knee.

The Nuggets were on a four-game winning run regardless by April 21 to improve to 38-20, giving Jokic a clear edge over Curry on a Golden State Warriors team hovering below .500.

Month five: Still in the thick of the action

As the playoff picture took shape over the final weeks of the season, a number of stars racked up DNPs to protect themselves for the challenges ahead. Jokic, despite repeatedly insisting he had no interest in the MVP award, did not.

The apparent winner finished the year having played 2,488 minutes, trailing only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.

Sunday's final-day defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers was the first time all year Jokic dipped below 26 minutes in a game, limiting the damage to his impressive numbers.

It meant he protected a healthy lead in the awards race, despite Curry's continued excellence in the final month. The scoring champion averaged an outstanding 35.6 points across his final 12 games to take the Warriors to eighth place.

Denver ended the year on a 13-5 run following Murray's injury, with Jokic putting up 26.9 points. Few can argue he is not a worthy MVP winner.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden will miss Sunday's regular-season finale against the Cleveland Cavaliers due to injury management.

Harden has played twice since returning from an 18-game injury lay-off caused by a hamstring strain – the star-studded Nets winning both games against the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls.

But the Nets, who are looking to lock up the second seed in the Eastern Conference in pursuit of a maiden NBA championship, are taking no risks ahead of the playoffs.

Harden – returning from the longest injury absence of his stellar career – posted 18 points, 11 assists, two steals and two blocks in his comeback game against the Spurs on Wednesday.

The former MVP had five points, seven assists and five rebounds in Saturday's 105-91 victory over the Bulls.

Harden is averaging 24.6 points, 10.8 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game this season, having joined the Nets in a blockbuster trade from the Houston Rockets in January.

Steve Nash's Nets (47-24) are second in the east, behind the Philadelphia 76ers (48-23) – who also secured the number one seed.

LeBron James returned to the court after his latest injury as the Los Angeles Lakers boosted their hopes of avoiding the play-in tournament with a 122-115 win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

James had missed 26 of the Lakers' past 28 matches due to an ankle injury sustained on March 20 but played 28 minutes in his return against the Pacers.

The four-time MVP scored 24 points and had seven rebounds and eight assists, while Anthony Davis added 28 points with 10 rebounds.

Dennis Schroder also returned to the Lakers side, contributing 14 points in a positive sign ahead of the post-season.

The Lakers still have work to do to make the top six, needing to win their final game on Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans and hope that the Portland Trail Blazers lose to the Denver Nuggets.

If the Lakers miss the top six, they will compete in the play-in tournament in the West, between sides finishing seventh to 10th.

 

Nets' big three reunited but rusty

The Brooklyn Nets also enjoyed a return of their own, with James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving hitting the court together for the first time since February 13 in their 105-91 win over the Chicago Bulls.

The Nets' big three have only played together eight times, improving that record to 6-2 ahead of the playoffs where they are likely to be second seed in the East.

Harden, who has had a hamstring injury, only managed five points, five rebounds and seven assists, while Kyrie Irving added 22 points.

Durant had 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists, although he was 4-for-17 from the field in a rusty display.

Valuable contributions from reserves Nicolas Claxton (10 points and eight rebounds) and Jeff Green (19 points) aided Brooklyn's cause.

The Milwaukee Bucks kept the pressure on the Nets for second seeding in the East with a 122-108 win over the Miami Heat.

Jrue Holiday (20 points, five rebounds and 10 assists), Khris Middleton (21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (15 points, nine rebounds and four assists) all made key contributions.

The result means the Bucks can still move above the Nets into second if they win against the Bulls and the Nets lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Sunday's final regular season matches.

Jayson Tatum stepped up in Jaylen Brown's absence with 26 points and 11 rebounds in the Boston Celtics' 124-108 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The win ends the Celtics' four-game losing run.

 

Hornets stung again

The Charlotte Hornets are destined for the Eastern Conference play-in tournament but they have now worryingly lost four in a row ahead of the post-season, going down 118-109 to the New York Knicks in overtime. Charlotte have had a tough run of fixtures, losing to the Knicks, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Denver Nuggets and the New Orleans Pelicans.

 

Suns burning bright

The Phoenix Suns' 140-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs keeps alive their hopes of clinching top seed in the West. But it was also the Suns' 50th win for the season, representing the first time they have achieved that feat since the 2009-2010 season which was the last time they made the playoffs.

 

Saturday's results

Brooklyn Nets 105-91 Chicago Bulls
New York Knicks 118-109 Charlotte Hornets (OT)
Los Angeles Lakers 122-115 Indiana Pacers
Boston Celtics 124-108 Minnesota Timberwolves
Phoenix Suns 140-103 San Antonio Spurs
Milwaukee Bucks 122-108 Miami Heat

 

Nuggets at Trail Blazers

The fine margin between sixth and seventh, thus a playoff and play-in tournament spot, is on the line when the Portland Trail Blazers host the Denver Nuggets, with the Los Angeles Lakers hoping for a Portland defeat whilst needing to win at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Kevin Durant says the Brooklyn Nets are just going to keep building after their big three played together for the first time since February 13 in Saturday's 105-91 win over the Chicago Bulls.

Durant along with Kyrie Irving and James Harden finally hit the court together following a series of injuries, with the NBA playoffs around the corner.

It was only the eighth time the trio have played together since Harden joined the team in January, with Brooklyn improving to a 6-2 record with all three in the side.

Prior to Saturday's game, Durant, Irving and Harden had only played 186 minutes together and while there was some rustiness, they all contributed.

Durant had 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists, while Irving added 22 points with Harden managing only five points, five rebounds and seven assists.

"It's been a long season full of ups and down when it comes to lineups, and having all our guys on the same page," Durant said post-game.

"It's good to get everybody healthy, it's good to get some minutes with everybody. We're going to keep building from here."

Nets coach Steve Nash added that cohesion among the trio would take time but he was happy with a step forward.

"It's not like 'what do I expect?' They've just got to be out there and feel each other, play together, and hopefully that little bit of time today will help move that process forward more quickly than not having that time today," Nash said.

"It wasn't a great game, we weren't very sharp, but we got the job done and we move on to tomorrow, one last game. We can hopefully have a good performance and be ready for the nice week of practice."

The 47-24 Nets, who are destined for the second spot in the East pending the Milwaukee Bucks' final two results, take on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday in their final game ahead of the playoffs.

"Yeah we'll consider it," Nash said, when asked if he will play the big three again.

"It's just a matter of how they come through, how do they feel in the morning and are they available. But if we need that win tomorrow, we're not averse to those guys playing again tomorrow as well."

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are set to play together against the Chicago Bulls, according to Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash.

The Nets built a 'Big Three' in 2020-21 after Harden arrived from the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster trade in January, but the trio have only played seven games together this season.

Injuries have hampered the star-studded Nets, with former MVP Harden only returning from a hamstring strain on Wednesday following an 18-game absence.

Not since February have Durant, Harden and Irving shared the court together but that is expected to change on Saturday.

"If everything stays the same," Nash told reporters following Friday's practice, with Brooklyn (46-24) preparing for the final two regular-season games of the season ahead of the playoffs. "Those three will play tomorrow."

Durant, Harden and Irving won five of the seven games they played together between January 20 and February 13.

The Nets – looking to lock up the second seed in the Eastern Conference in pursuit of a maiden NBA championship – have outscored their opponents by 39 points in the trio's 186 minutes together.

"I just expect them to play hard, play together, and experience some moments together on the floor," said Nash. "It's been few and far between.

"I don't necessarily have any expectations other than it gives us an opportunity to jell and play together and feel what it's like to be out there again."

Durant is averaging 27.5 points – his highest number since 2015-16 – 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game this season, while he boasts career highs in field-goal percentage (54.2) and three-point percentage (45.9).

Harden is averaging 25.1 points, 10.9 assists and a career-high 8.0 rebounds, while Irving has been averaging 27.2 points, 6.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 2020-21.

Nets team-mate Jeff Green added: "I'm just happy they are on the floor. We're getting to finally try to create a rhythm with all guys healthy. We'll see what happens from there.

"We have a long week to prepare for whomever we play. For those guys, it will be good. For us, it will be good to get a look and see where we are at when everybody is healthy."

The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks both secured spots in the NBA's postseason on Wednesday.

Trae Young fuelled the rallying Hawks to a 120-116 win over Russell Westbrook's Washington Wizards midweek.

Young posted 33 points and John Collins hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 24.4 seconds remaining as the Hawks (39-31) – fourth in the Eastern Conference – clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2017.

The Knicks (38-31), who are sixth in the east, were not in action but they still reached the playoffs thanks to some help from elsewhere.

For the first time since 2012-13, playoff basketball will return to Madison Square Garden after the Boston Celtics were upstaged 102-94 by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Celtics (35-35) were consigned to a play-in berth following a fourth straight defeat.

The play-in tournament will include teams with the seventh through to the 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference, taking place between May 18-21, in pursuit of the playoffs.

 

Westbrook joins exclusive club

After making history for the most triple-doubles in the NBA on Tuesday, Westbrook was at it again. The Wizards star scored 34 points and dished out 15 assists. He has recorded 15-plus assists in six consecutive games. Westbrook is the fifth player in league history to record 15-plus assists in six or more straight games, joining John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Kevin Porter.

James Harden returned from an 18-game absence to help the Brooklyn Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-116. Back following a hamstring strain, Harden put up 18 points and 11 assists off the bench in Brooklyn.

Double-doubles from Talen Horton-Tucker (23 points and 10 assists), Andre Drummond (20 points and 10 rebounds) and Kyle Kuzma (19 points and 10 rebounds) helped defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers outlast the lowly Houston Rockets 124-122. The result ensured the Lakers – playing without LeBron James and Anthony Davis – stayed within a game of sixth place in the Western Conference.

Luka Doncic's 33 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a near-triple-double display inspired the Dallas Mavericks to a 125-107 win at home to the New Orleans Pelicans, staying sixth in the west.

The usual suspects – Damian Lillard (30 points), CJ McCollum (26 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (11 points and 15 rebounds) – starred as the Portland Trail Blazers upstaged the NBA-leading Utah Jazz 105-98.

 

Jazz lose again

The NBA-leading Jazz suffered another defeat. Usually efficient from three-point range, Utah were just 30 per cent from beyond the arc, making 12 of 40 shots. Bojan Bogdanovic missed all five of his attempts, while he was five-for-14 shooting throughout the clash.

The Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention after going down to the Mavs.

Durant had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Nets but he was far from his best. The former MVP was four-for-10 shooting in 29 minutes, missing all four of his three-point shots.

 

Kuzma comes up big

With the Lakers trailing 122-121, Kuzma drove to the rim and made the game-winning shot 6.9 seconds from the end in Los Angeles, where the franchise unveiled their 2020 championship banner.

 

Wednesday's results

Los Angeles Lakers 124-122 Houston Rockets
Atlanta Hawks 120-116 Washington Wizards
Brooklyn Nets 128-116 San Antonio Spurs
Cleveland Cavaliers 102-94 Boston Celtics
Dallas Mavericks 125-107 New Orleans Pelicans
Portland Trail Blazers 105-98 Utah Jazz

 

76ers at Heat

Eastern Conference leaders the Philadelphia 76ers (47-22) can clinch the number one seed with victory at the Miami Heat (38-31) on Thursday.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden was left unsurprised by how quickly he adjusted on his return to the NBA, saying "not to brag or anything, but I'm really good at this game".

Harden made his long-awaited comeback from a hamstring injury that sidelined him since April 5, the former MVP posting a double-double as the Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-116 on Wednesday.

Coming off the bench, Harden finished with 18 points on two-for-eight shooting, 11 assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes against the Spurs midweek.

"Not really," Harden replied when asked whether he was surprised by his performance. "Not to brag or anything, but I'm really good at this game. I study the game, I'm very unselfish.

"I take the game and I play it the right way every single night. I don't try to do anything I can't do or anything that doesn't benefit our team. That mindset keeps me in a really good place."

Harden returned from the longest injury lay-off of his stellar career, having missed 18 games for the star-studded Nets, who are eyeing their maiden NBA championship.

It was the first time Harden came off the bench in an NBA game since the 2011-12 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, winning the Six Man of the Year Award that campaign.

"That sixth man role, I've mastered that as well. You know, I've got an award for that role. That role is easy, coming out and impacting the game. Doing whatever it takes to win -- whether its offensively or defensively," Harden said as the Nets moved to 46-24 for the season to remain second behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

"But that's my role no matter what. Especially on this team -- not necessarily scoring all the time when I don't need to. Communicating, being the leader on the floor, making sure guys are in their right positions defensively. And these last few games, we've been better."

After the Nets improved to 28-7 when Harden plays, the nine-time All-Star said: "I know I can score the basketball, but I take pride in getting guys involved and letting guys be involved in the offense. That way, defensively, they'll all be locked in and it's a lot easier.

"I want everybody to get their shots whether they're close to the rim or three-point shots or whatever the case may be, or just get an opportunity to get a shot. That's something I've been doing throughout the course of my career, especially when I was in Houston. Obviously, Kevin [Durant] and Ky [Kyrie Irving] get their shots however they want. But my job is to get everybody else on this roster easy opportunities.

"When I was sitting out, I had multiple conversations with Steve [Nash] on our offense and kind of putting myself in position to be successful and that means getting guys better shots. It's something that we still continue to work on and these next two days that we have between games and the week after our last regular-season game is very vital to our success in the sense of offensively and defensively getting on the same page."

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden will make his long-awaited return against the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA franchise announced.

Harden has not played since April 5 due to a hamstring injury, though the former MVP had been "very confident" that he would return before the playoffs.

After missing more than a month of action, Harden will suit up to face the Spurs at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday.

The Nets, however, will not be with their 'big three' after star Kyrie Irving was ruled out with a facial contusion.

Harden – who arrived from the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster trade in January – is averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game this season.

Harden's assists per game – second only to Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook (11.6) in 2020-21 – is his best mark since averaging 11.2 in 2015-16, while he only averaged more rebounds in 2016-17 (8.1).

The star-studded Nets (45-24) – eyeing their maiden championship – are second in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Philadelphia 76ers (47-22) following back-to-back victories.

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash said the return of superstar James Harden will "change everything" after the NBA championship hopefuls slumped to a fourth consecutive defeat.

The star-studded Nets – playing without former MVP Harden again due to a hamstring injury – fell to the Dallas Mavericks 113-109 on Thursday.

A game-high 45 points from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant's 20 points were not enough for the Nets, who are two and a half games behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the race of the Eastern Conference top seed ahead of the playoffs.

Harden has not played since April 5 but is "very confident" he will return to action before the postseason gets underway.

Reflecting on the result, Nash – whose Nets are eyeing their maiden title – told reporters: "We're just trying to get better every day. We can't really control the injuries. We're getting healthy bodies back, we've got the most guys I think we've had all year right now that are available; so that's positive. Trying to figure out some rotations and combinations.

"Obviously, James comes back at some point and changes everything again. But we're trying to just get better. We're trying to get more familiar with what we're trying to do, trying to get better at our principles and get a better understanding between one another.

"As I said, a lot of these teams have been in the last two, three, four years in a row. We're just getting to know each other; a lot of our guys have missed a lot of season. So trying to gain that understanding, that continuity is what we're after right now. We're going through a tough stretch, we're not playing really well, we're not playing really sharp. We were right in it today, we had our chances for sure; we've had our chances in the last three games.

"So what is it that can get us over the hump? I think the first thing is for us to continue to stay strong mentally, to pick each other up, to realise we got a lot of work to do. We keep working, we don't let this take the wind out of our sails and we'll improve and get better."

While Irving starred, Durant was below his best against the Mavericks as he finished seven-for-21 shooting, having missed all four of his three-point attempts on the road.

"Kevin didn't have a great rhythm tonight, especially in the second half. He normally can get to his spots and convert. He just wasn't in a great rhythm. Some nights it's just going to happen," said Nash.

"We're all going to have poor shooting performances or nights where we don't quite have a rhythm. And then the defense, we made some mistakes. I thought the third-quarter defense was really good. In the fourth quarter, we made a few mistakes and they made a few plays, but I think there's a lot to build on. We can look at the tape, continue to build, continue to grow."

Durant added: "It's trust my work and most of the times a mentality switch on what I need to do to be more effective and more efficient. Tonight I tried shots that I shouldn't have tried. I shot over a double-team in the fourth quarter. I shot a runner going to the left, just trying to get into the game scoring-wise, and sometimes that pushes me out of the game when I try those tough ones, but it's all a learning experience.

"I'm glad it's happening now for us instead of in a couple weeks, and hopefully we build off of this and keep growing, and I hope we feel this pain, I guess, from losing, feeling like we're not where we want to be. I like this position for us, and I think it's gonna make us better as we continue to keep watching film, going through practice, going through shootarounds and then playing in games."

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden is "very, very confident" he will return from injury before the NBA playoffs.

Harden has not played since leaving the matchup against the New York Knicks on April 5, with the star-studded Nets slipping two games behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

Former MVP Harden – who arrived from the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster trade in January – is averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game this season.

Harden's assists per game – second only to Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook (11.3) in 2020-21 – is his best mark since averaging 11.2 in 2015-16, while he only averaged more rebounds in 2016-17 (8.1).

"Very, very confident," Harden told reporters when asked about being ready for the playoffs. "I guess I have to hit the marks in the work I did today. Have a couple of those without any feeling. That's pretty much the mark. I'm very confident I'll be back before the postseason.

"The plan is to hopefully get an opportunity to play a couple games before the postseason. We're just taking one day at a time.

"So far, so good. Today was really good, and we've just got to keep building on that."

"We wanted to be patient," Harden said. "As much as I love to hoop, I want to be out there, but you've got to be smart. And for me, it was just, 'Let's knock this thing out, let's get this thing healthy so we can make a push.'"

Harden added: "At this point in my career, going to postseasons basically since I've been in Houston, I've been playing heavy minutes, just carrying the load.

"And this was an opportunity for me to keep my body right going into the postseason with a clear mind and a clear body. You've got 16 games to win. That's the ultimate goal. That's the reason why I came to Brooklyn."

The Nets boast Harden, former MVP Kevin Durant and fellow superstar Kyrie Irving but Brooklyn's big three have only played together seven times this season due to injuries and absences.

Brooklyn (43-23) have lost three consecutive games, while they own a 5-5 record in their last 10 games as Steve Nash's Nets eye their maiden championship.

Harden does not believe injuries have damaged the Nets' title charge, saying: "No, no. No. I just... no. We're sitting right now at this point [in the] second spot and we've had so many different line-ups; that right there tells you how great, good, or whatever-you-wanna-call-it this team is.

"The most important thing for us going into the postseason is health. This season has been so condensed — you see a lot of guys are going down because of the amount of games. So I think for us our mindset is, alright, if we can come to the postseason healthy, we are right there and we got a chance.

"Finish these last six games out strong, focus on the things that we need to focus on, the things we can control, and go out there and have fun and we live with the results."

Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant said he and his team-mates are focused in pursuit of the Eastern Conference top seed as head coach Steve Nash awaits the return of former MVP James Harden.

Durant posted 42 points and 10 rebounds while matching a career high with seven three-pointers, but the star-studded Nets still lost on Sunday, upstaged 117-114 by Eastern Conference rivals the Milwaukee Bucks, who were fuelled by Giannis Antetokounmpo's 49 points.

The Nets – eyeing their maiden NBA championship – dropped down to second in the east, behind the Philadelphia 76ers but the two title contenders are set to continue going head-to-head for the number one seed ahead of the playoffs.

After falling short against two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in Milwaukee, two-time champion Durant – who scored 42 points in back-to-back games – told reporters: "Every day you wake up, it should be about your craft. I think that's how everybody approaches this thing.

"We try to take it a day at a time, a possession at a time. We can't control what's going to happen at the end of the season or what other teams are going to do.

"I think we've just got to take advantage of each one and that's what we're doing. Guys are locked in. We're talking the game when we're at practice, on the bus, we talk about it on the plane.

"So I think that helps as well. We're staying locked in mentally too when we do it."

The Nets were once again without superstar Harden, who remains sidelined due to a hamstring injury.

Harden has not played since leaving the matchup against the New York Knicks on April 5, missing 16 of the Nets' last 17 games.

This season, Harden – who arrived in a blockbuster trade from the Houston Rockets in January – is averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game.

The Nets and Bucks will clash again on Tuesday, and coach Nash said: "I'm not so much worried about what they know. For us, we have the luxury of talent. We have great players. We don't have the luxury of time. That's OK. We understand that and we'll work around that.

"James will give us a totally different dimension, but we don't sit here and say, 'well, wait 'til James gets back'. We try to solve the puzzle now. James will give us obviously something great to build on, but we can look at all the things that we did wrong today and there were a lot of things where I thought we just weren't sharp tonight. We clean some of those things up, I think we give ourselves a better chance."

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