LeBron James says he was "seeing three rims" for his clutch shot which decided the Los Angeles Lakers 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors after a poke in the eye from Draymond Green.

James launched a long-range bomb as the shot clock counted down with just under a minute to go, spectacularly sinking it to put the Lakers up 103-100 on Wednesday in their play-in game.

The Lakers would not allow the Warriors to score again and held on for victory to book a playoffs spot against the Phoenix Suns.

James, who finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, was heroic after copping a poke to the eye in the final quarter from Green in a moment where split opinions on whether it was a flagrant foul.

The four-time MVP landed heavily and remained on the ground for some time, before picking himself while clutching his face with a towel.

Minutes later, the ball was passed to the 36-year-old for the crucial moment and he delivered, even with with blurred vision.

"After Draymond's finger to my eye, I was literally seeing three rims out there," James told ESPN post-game. "I just shot at the middle one. With grace of the man above, I was able to knock it down."

James said there was never thought in his mind to step off the court after the Green collision.

"I've been there before. I've been poked in the eye before in a collision like that," he said.

"I just tried to keep my composure. It's going to be pretty sore tonight. We've got a few days until we go to Phoenix.

"Big time win for us, I wasn’t going to leave the floor, even if I had to put a pirate patch on."

James was full of praise for their upcoming opponents Phoenix Suns who finished second in the Western Conference.

"They've played extremely well all year. They deserve to host a home court in the first round," he said.

"CP [Chris Paul] playing a MVP caliber year all year. [Deandre] Ayton has grown all year. They've given their guys a supporting cast all year.

"We know how great CP and Book [Devin Booker] is. They've done pretty extremely well all year."

Stephen Curry is embracing underdog status ahead of the Golden State Warriors' play-in game against defending NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Warriors finished eighth in the Western Conference and will have to work through the league's new play-in tournament to reach the NBA playoffs.

Led by two-time MVP Curry, Golden State won 18 of their final 25 games to surge into the postseason picture ahead of Wednesday's showdown against LeBron James and the seventh-seeded Lakers.

The winner between the Lakers and Warriors head into the playoffs as the seventh seed. The loser will meet the winner of the Memphis Grizzlies-San Antonio Spurs clash.

"I hope everybody hears the chatter," Curry said after Tuesday's practice. "Even at this point how we match up with LA or potentially with Phoenix or Utah if we get through this play-in tournament and all that.

"Nobody thought we were even going to be in this position. A lot of people had us way, way, way down the standings coming in after Klay [Thompson] got hurt, so there's a lot of things that we already flipped on its head to this point, so we might as well keep going."

Curry has played a crucial role in lifting the Warriors into contention down the stretch, earning his second NBA scoring title after ending the regular season averaging 32.0 points per game following his 46-point outburst against the Grizzlies on Sunday.

The three-time NBA champion became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

Curry also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

The Warriors guard has played 63 games this season, averaging 5.8 assists per game, a career-best 5.5 rebounds per game and 1.2 steals per game.

Earlier this season, Curry claimed top spots on the Warriors' all-time scoring and assists lists, while surpassing Reggie Miller for second position on the NBA's three-pointers made standings.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the hot favourite to win this season's MVP but Curry was endorsed by upcoming opponent James for candidacy too.

"Obviously, I'm appreciative," Curry said. "He knows when he says something people pay attention so for him to speak on my MVP candidacy is definitely, I respect him for it, I appreciate it.

"We all know as competitors though, when the lights are on, I can talk about how great he is till I'm blue in the face and he can do the same, it doesn't change how we approach that competition when we're out there.

"I won't be giving him a pass because he likes the way I played this year and vice versa."

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel declared LeBron James will be fit and available for Wednesday's NBA play-in game against the Golden State Warriors.

James played 27 minutes but exited Sunday's 110-98 win over the New Orleans Pelicans early with soreness in the right ankle which has kept him sidelined for most of the past two months.

The four-time MVP played back-to-back games on Saturday and Sunday upon his return from injury but is available for the midweek showdown with Stephen Curry's eighth-seeded Warriors.

"He had some minor soreness but he's good to go," Vogel said following practice on Tuesday.

"He was a full participant in practice today and is good to go."

Anthony Davis also confirmed his full fitness to face the Warriors after being listed as questionable with left adductor strain tightness on Sunday.

The star forward played 30 minutes against the Pelicans in the team's regular-season finale.

"I'm fine," Davis said. "The adductor feels good, the shoulder feels good."

Defending champions the Lakers – seeded seventh in the Western Conference – may finally have a full clean bill of health, having been without James, Davis or Dennis Schroder for most of the run into the postseason.

Schroder played the final two games of the regular season along with James and Davis after being subject to the league's health and safety protocols.

The German guard subsequently missed seven games in May, impacting his conditioning.

"I'm still not, conditioning-wise, all the way back," Schroder said. "I've been out 10 days. I didn't do nothing, I was at home.

"At the end of the day, I'm going to work my way into it, but it's not going to hurt my team-mates. I'm going to give everything I have, go out there and do the same things that I do during the season and truly to get a W."

The NBA's play-in tournament will stage a must-see heavyweight clash when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

While there are no concerns of suffering a season-ending knockout, the one-off contest at Staples Center will dictate the next step for two teams who know all about making title runs.

Few would have expected this scenario back at the start of a season played out amid the backdrop of an ongoing health pandemic.

As the defending champions, LeBron James and the Lakers were viewed as a front runner in the stacked Western Conference. Coming up against a Golden State roster so heavily reliant on Stephen Curry was always a possibility in the playoffs, just not necessarily in this type of scenario.

The winner will be slotted in as the seventh seed, meaning a best-of-seven series against the Phoenix Suns. The loser, however, will have to get past either the San Antonio Spurs or the Memphis Grizzlies – they meet on Thursday – just to get the eighth and final spot available.

If the play-in games were set up to add an extra layer of drama, a match-up that pits two of the sport's biggest superstars against each other is an early gift to start the playoff stretch.

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers

James was firmly in the MVP conversation until an ankle injury on March 20. His first attempt to return to action led to a setback, but the four-time NBA champion featured in the final two outings of the regular season, scoring a combined 49 points.

His fitness will be key to the Lakers' prospects of retaining their crown. They finished the regular season with a 42-30 record yet were 30-15 in games when their star turn featured. That kind of winning percentage across a full campaign would have made sure they did not have to worry about appearing in any play-in contests.

Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors

Having missed the majority of the previous season through injury, Curry certainly made up for lost time with a dazzling regular season.

He finished as the scoring champion, his 2,015 points coming in 63 games as he averaged 32.0 an outing. No one made (337) or attempted more three-pointers (801), while the point guard also shot 91.6 per cent from the free-throw line. MVP, perhaps?

KEY BATTLE – STOP CURRY GETTING HOT

The Warriors will sink or swim based on Curry, but he will need some assistance if they are to prosper in the playoffs. To that extent, as the Lakers focus on shutting down a player capable of catching fire in a hurry, Andrew Wiggins (18.6 points per game in the regular season) will need to step up, particularly as Golden State are still without the injured Kelly Oubre Jr.

Draymond Green can help, too, albeit his average of 7.0 points was his lowest mark since the 2013-14 season, his second in the league when he started in just 12 games. It may well be his primary focus is on defense, though, considering both James and Anthony Davis – confirmed fit to play on Tuesday – will demand plenty of attention.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers are a long way clear in the overall record (257 wins to 169), while they have also dominated in the playoffs – the Warriors have won just one series in seven attempts, with that success coming way back in 1967 when they were still playing under the San Francisco name.

In the 2020-21 regular season, the team from Los Angeles won two of the three meetings. They were dominant in the most recent clash as well, coming out 128-97 winners in March despite several key absences.

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.

LeBron James insists he will be fit for the Los Angeles Lakers' play-in tournament showdown with the Golden State Warriors and believes Stephen Curry should be named the NBA's MVP.

The Lakers rounded out an injury-hit regular-season campaign with a 110-98 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans, with James nailing 25 points at Smoothie King Center.

Despite a fifth straight win, the Portland Trail Blazers' 132-116 victory over the Denver Nuggets consigned the Lakers to seventh position in the Western Conference and having to go through the new play-in route involving the teams from seventh to 10th.

It means the Lakers have to win one of up to two games to make the playoffs, with their first opportunity to do so coming against the Warriors on Wednesday.

James' fitness for the fixture was shrouded in doubt when he appeared to aggravate the ankle injury that saw him miss 26 of the Lakers' final 30 regular-season games.

However, he insists it was just a "tweak" and fully expects to feature, saying: "I'll be fine.

"I'll be in the line-up on Wednesday. The time is now and I'm ready for it."

Having to go through the play-in may not be the ideal situation for the defending champions, who have been decimated by injury this term with both James and Anthony Davis missing significant periods of time.

But James says the team are feeling confident having begun to hit their stride at the end of the regular season.

"I don't look at our seeding. It doesn't matter," he added. "Obviously we know we wanted to play a lot better this season, but injuries took a toll on our team. 

"We're finally starting to get whole, starting to feel a little bit better about our situation."

In Golden State, James and the Lakers come up against a red-hot Curry, who scored 46 points in the Warriors' 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies to secure the NBA's scoring title.

Curry finished the regular season with a scoring average of 32.0 and became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

He also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

James has no doubt that Curry should be awarded with another individual honour.

"I mean, just look at what he's done this year. I don't know anything else if you're looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State's team, what are we looking at?" James asked.

"We get caught up in the records sometimes. We get caught up in the, okay, who has the best record instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year."

NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 110-98 but they did not avoid the play-in tournament.

LeBron James – who appeared to tweak his ankle – posted 25 points for the streaking Lakers, who claimed their fifth consecutive victory, however they did not end the regular season high enough in the Western Conference to bypass the NBA's new play-in format involving the seventh through 10th seeds in pursuit of the playoffs.

The Lakers needed help from the Denver Nuggets but the latter lost 132-116 to the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving the Los Angeles franchise seventh in the west and set to face Stephen Curry's eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors for a playoff berth.

Andre Drummond had a double-double for the Lakers, while Anthony Davis finished with 14 points for the Lakers, who will have to win one of up to two play-in games to clinch a regular playoff position.

Portland locked up the sixth seed and their eighth straight playoff berth, meaning they will go head-to-head with the third-seeded Nuggets in the opening round.

The Utah Jazz, meanwhile, clinched the NBA's best record (50-20) for the first time in their history.

Jordan Clarkson finished with 33 points and All-Star Rudy Gobert contributed 13 points and 16 rebounds for the Jazz, who eased past the Sacramento Kings 121-99.

The Jazz edged the Phoenix Suns (51-21), who pipped the San Antonio Spurs 123-121, for top spot in the NBA – the first time they have finished with sole possession of the league's best record.

 

Curry crowned scoring champ

Curry earned his second scoring title after posting 46 points in the Warriors' 113-101 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Curry pipped Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal to the award, having finished the regular season with a 32.0 points per game average. Two-time MVP and three-time NBA champion Curry became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg). The 33-year-old also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

James Harden was absent due to injury management, but the Brooklyn Nets still secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a 123-109 win at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kevin Durant put up 23 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds. Irving added 17 points as he joined an elite list of shooters. Irving finished the regular season with a 50.6 field-goal percentage, 40.2 three-point percentage and 92.2 free-throw percentage – becoming the ninth member of the 50/40/90 club. He also joined Larry Bird, Curry and Durant as the only players to average at least 25 points per game during a 50/40/90 season.

The New York Knicks secured fourth position in the east via a 96-92 win over the Boston Celtics. The Knicks – back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13 – will have home-court advantage for their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, who routed the Houston Rockets 124-95.

The Wizards' season appeared dead and buried following an horrendous start, having acquired Russell Westbrook to team up with Beal. But the Wizards will face the Celtics as the eighth seed in the play-in tournament thanks to their 115-110 victory against the Charlotte Hornets. Westbrook recorded 23 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, while Beal had 20 of his 25 points after half-time.

Tyrese Maxey flexed his muscles as Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers rested their stars in a 128-117 victory over the Orlando Magic. In the absence of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry and Danny Green, rookie Maxey had 30 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He became the only rookie this season with multiple 30/5/5 games – LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edward only had one such game.

Precious Achiuwa's career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds helped the shorthanded Miami Heat rout the Detroit Pistons 120-107. Tyler Herro (16 points and 11 assists) and Gabe Vincent also had double-doubles as the sixth-seeded Heat prepare to face third seed the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round in the east.

 

Houston's woeful season comes to an end

After a blockbuster trade sent wantaway superstar Harden to the Nets in January, the rebuilding Rockets crumbled. A crushing loss to the Hawks left the Rockets with a 17-55 win-loss record – their worst campaign since going 14-68 in 1982-83.

 

Sit back and enjoy!

The Nets produced a stunning piece of offense against the Cavaliers in the second quarter. After dispossessing Cleveland, Blake Griffin played a behind-the-back pass to Irving, who passed the ball ahead to Mike James. James tossed the ball off the backboard for Durant to slam down.

 

Sunday's results

New York Knicks 96-92 Boston Celtics
Indiana Pacers 125-113 Toronto Raptors
Washington Wizards 115-110 Charlotte Hornets
Phoenix Suns 123-121 San Antonio Spurs
Golden State Warriors 113-101 Memphis Grizzlies
Atlanta Hawks 124-95 Houston Rockets
Brooklyn Nets 123-109 Cleveland Cavaliers
Philadelphia 76ers 128-117 Orlando Magic
Miami Heat 120-107 Detroit Pistons
Chicago Bulls 118-112 Milwaukee Bucks
Minnesota Timberwolves 136-121 Dallas Mavericks
Los Angeles Lakers 110-98 New Orleans Pelicans
Oklahoma City Thunder 117-112 Los Angeles Clippers
Portland Trail Blazers 132-116 Denver Nuggets
Utah Jazz 121-99 Sacramento Kings

 

Play-in tournament

After a day off, the Eastern Conference play-in tournament gets underway on Tuesday. The Wizards will meet the Celtics in a seventh vs eighth battle, while the ninth-seeded Hornets face the 10th-seeded Pacers for a spot in the playoffs.

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.

After missing the better part of two months following an ankle injury, LeBron James sounded a positive note following his return to the Los Angeles Lakers lineup Saturday. 

James played 28 minutes in the Lakers' 122-115 win over the Indiana Pacers, scoring 24 points and adding eight assists and seven rebounds. 

He had missed 26 of the Lakers' previous 28 games after hurting his ankle on March 20, but said he felt much better on Saturday than he had in his brief return to play two weeks ago. 

"I felt pretty good -- a lot better than I did last time I suited up," James said. 

"Just been putting in a lot of work, obviously off the floor, just getting my ankle right, getting my foot right, but I felt pretty good going into the game. 

"I think every game I'll get better and better, but it was a good first test for me."

Lakers head coach George Vogel was pleased with what he saw, though he did not indicate how much James might play in Sunday's regular-season finale. 

"I think he looked really good," Vogel said. "Obviously it's still going to take time before he gets to a 100 per cent but I thought most of the game he was in control and looked like his old self."

The key indicator for James was the way he felt in the second half.

The last time he played, May 2 against the Toronto Raptors, his leg and ankle grew noticeably stiff at halftime. There were no such issues Saturday. 

"Being in the Toronto game just gave me a sense of where I was as far as my ankle, physically, but I needed that. I needed that test to see where I was then to know where I needed to go," James added.

"Today was another opportunity to see where I'm at and how far I can go, too. I've still got some more room for improvement as far as my ankle, my mobility and my strength, but I'm 10 times better than I was in that Toronto game and I believe I can get five to 10 times better in the future.

"The more games that we have, the more opportunity I have to continue to strengthen it, strengthen everything around it, and continue to get better. 

"We've got a great team. I've got a great team around me. My trainer's on me every single day, and I'm on myself about doing what I can do to be available to this team and controlling what I can control. That's all I can worry about." 

The Lakers enter Sunday level with the Portland Trail Blazers at 41-30, with the final spot in the Western Conference top six on the line. 

Los Angeles will play at the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland face the Denver Nuggets on Sunday, with both games starting at the same time. The Lakers need to win and have Portland lose to avoid the play-in tournament, as the Blazers own the tie-breaker between the two. 

James said it does not matter to him or the team which seed the Lakers end up getting. 

"Let the chips fall where they may. Simple as that," he said. "We're ready to go." 

LeBron James is to return to action on Saturday for the Los Angeles Lakers, while Anthony Davis and Dennis Schroder are also set to play against the Indiana Pacers.

James has missed the previous six games for the defending NBA champions due to a high ankle sprain.

However, head coach Frank Vogel confirmed to the media that the four-time MVP will be involved against the Pacers in the Lakers' penultimate game in the regular season.

A win over Indiana, as well as in Sunday’s clash with the New Orleans Pelicans, and Los Angeles can rise to sixth in the Western Conference, provided the Portland Trail Blazers lose to the Denver Nuggets.

If they finish as the seventh seed, though, then they will have to go through the play-in tournament to have a chance of defending their title.

James initially missed 20 games earlier in the campaign with the injury to his right ankle that he suffered against the Atlanta Hawks on March 20.

He briefly made a comeback earlier this month, only to be sidelined again after feeling pain in his second outing back.

In the 2020-21 season, James has averaged 25 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists.

Davis sat out Wednesday's win over the Houston Rockets due to a groin issue but is available again, while Schroder has cleared the NBA's health and safety protocols put in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said "there's a chance" superstar LeBron James will return to face the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

James returned from a six-week absence due to a right ankle sprain only to re-aggravate the injury after just two appearances for injury-hit NBA champions the Lakers.

There had been hopes that James would make his comeback against the New York Knicks on Tuesday or the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, but the four-time MVP missed both games.

The Lakers – who are seventh in the Western Conference and currently occupy a play-in position ahead of the playoffs – only have two regular-season matchups remaining and James is listed as questionable for the clash with the Pacers.

"We want to see how he feels in response to today's work, like always," Vogel told reporters on Friday. "But there's a chance that he plays if things go well."

James has been averaging 25.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game for the Lakers this season.

Through 43 games in 2020-21, James boasts a field-goal percentage of 51.3 – his best since 2017-18 and it is the same story regarding his three-point percentage of 36.6, which is his highest since that season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"Anytime you've had guys that have been out for extended absences and they're returning to play, it's always going to be a little bit imperfect," Vogel said.

"So the more minutes you can get those guys, the better off it's going to be for us, in terms of the readjustment period. So if we're able to do that, that would be great."

The Lakers could also be boosted by the return of fellow star Anthony Davis for the Pacers showdown.

Davis, who did not practice on Friday, sat out the 124-122 win over the lowly Rockets midweek due to groin tightness.

"I feel fine. I feel great," Davis said. "Went through some things during practice, not everything, but got some work going on, got some work in on the side. So felt great, felt great today."

When has a player averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season but failed to win the NBA MVP award?

Here's a hint: the internet was in its infancy, Hootie and the Blowfish were selling albums by the millions and the Orlando Magic, of all teams, were the league's biggest thing.

Not since Shaquille O'Neal in 1994-95 has a player reached those numbers without taking away the NBA's most cherished piece of individual hardware. Shaq actually did it twice without winning an MVP, losing out to Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94 and David Robinson the following year. O'Neal did average 29 and 10 while winning an MVP with the Lakers in 1999-2000, and the two players who have hit those marks since (Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019-20) each came home with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Joel Embiid appears destined to buck that recent trend.

If money talks, it's given an emphatic answer as to who will seize the honour in 2020-21. Nikola Jokic has emerged as an overwhelming favourite in betting markets across the globe to claim his first MVP, with Embiid holding the second-shortest odds and a rising Stephen Curry emerging as a clear third in the public's mind.

Jokic's credentials are unquestionably worthy. The Denver Nuggets big man is closing out an unprecedented season for a player who spends his time predominately in the post, having posted averages of 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists heading into Denver's final three regular-season outings.

Only two players in league history have averaged 25-10-8 in a season, and neither was a frontcourt player. The great Oscar Robertson did it three consecutive times across 1960-63, and Westbrook had two straight across 2016-18.

Jokic's immense value to a Nuggets team who have successfully withstood the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray to secure a top-four seed in the Western Conference is perhaps best illustrated by his share of the team's combined points, rebound and assists. No player this season has accumulated a higher percentage than his 24.5, with the Mavericks' Luka Doncic and the Knicks' Julius Randle tied in second at 22.8 per cent.

Embiid is well down on the list, ranking 16th overall due to the 20 games the somewhat fragile seven-footer has missed this season. His dominance and importance to the Eastern Conference front-running Philadelphia 76ers would show, however, if the chart were adjusted to exclude games in which a particular player was absent.

Using that criteria, Embiid has accounted for 23.2 percent of the 76ers' points, rebounds and assists in games that he's taken the floor. That number is right in line with that of the defending two-time MVP Antetokounmpo and would put him in the top five. For the record, Doncic would move ahead of Jokic for the top spot at 24.8 percent.

Embiid's scattered availability is no doubt detrimental to his case, more so when factoring in that Jokic hasn't sat out a game all season. Just once has a player missed 13 or more games in a season and been named MVP, when Bill Walton earned the award in 1977-78 despite playing in only 58 of the Trail Blazers' 82 games.

On the flip side, it's hard to find anyone who's been more instrumental to his team's success than Philly's All-Star center. The Sixers are 9-11 when Embiid has missed a game and 38-11 when he plays, a .776 winning percentage that would tower over the rest of the NBA this season.

Embiid's importance becomes even more apparent when viewing the 76ers' performance when he's been on the court as opposed to off.

Their points per 100 possessions drop to 105.1 from 117.2, while opponents' points climb slightly from 103.9 to 105.8. That means a point differential of +13.3 falls dramatically to -0.7. Their shooting from the field (50.5 per cent to 45.4 per cent) and from three-point range (40.4 per cent to 34.7 per cent) also decreases.

Though the Sixers have remained an elite defensive team without Embiid, all of those off-court offensive splits would rank near the bottom of the NBA. It's not hyperbole to summarise that without their franchise player, Philadelphia would be scrapping for a spot in the play-in round instead of being on the verge of claiming a conference regular-season title.

Embiid is far from the only star whose team perform at a significantly lower level when he's not around, though. The Warriors have won just one of the eight games Curry has missed, while defending champions the Lakers are a mediocre 12-15 when LeBron James has been injured or rested and have been 11.6 points per 100 possessions better when 'The King' has taken the court compared to off it.

Like Embiid, the slew of missed games is going to be hard for James to justify in the minds of voters, and he's not playing for a team set for the top playoff seed in his conference. And the Lakers' descent into the West's middle tier can't all be attributed to James' absences – they also were without Anthony Davis in two-thirds of the games LeBron hasn't played.

Curry also represents an interesting case, and if there were an MVP for only the season's final month-plus, he'd be a hands-down winner. The veteran sharpshooter has averaged an insane 36.7 points per game since April 10, a stretch in which the Warriors have gone 13-5 to elevate themselves from a postseason question mark to a lock for the play-in round.

The two-time MVP also has the on/off split factor working in his favour, as the Warriors are +4.0 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when he's on the court and a lottery-level -4.9 differential when he's not. Another potential feather in Curry's cap would be if he can hold off Washington's Bradley Beal for the league's scoring title, as four of the past seven MVPs led the NBA in points per game.

Curry has rightfully received the most credit for Golden State's late-season surge, but a closer look shows it hasn't been a one-man show. Andrew Wiggins is finally at least bearing some resemblance to the player the Minnesota Timberwolves thought they were getting back in 2014, one teams build franchises around, and the Warriors have posted a league-low 105.1 defensive rating since their hot streak began.

For all his heroics on the offensive end, Curry hasn't been a primary contributor to the Warriors' recent stretch of lockdown defense. Since April 10, opponents score fewer points (98.6 per 100 possessions, down from 107.6) when Curry is off the court and are less accurate from the field (41.9 per cent, down from 44.9), beyond the arc (27.9 per cent, down from 35.4) and in their effective field goal percentage (47.6, down from 51.9).

Jokic also won't be adding any All-Defensive Team mentions to his expanding resume, and it is a bit harder to quantify exactly where the Nuggets would be without him simply because he hasn't missed a game.

One thing's for certain, however – no player this season has had a larger impact on his team's offensive performance than the Serbian star. Their points climb to 118.2 per 100 possessions when he is involved, meaning a +6.0 point differential versus -0.7 when he is absent – despite the team allowing more points with Jokic on the court. The field goal percentage improves to 50.4, while their assists per 100 (28.4, from 22.1) are up and their turnovers (12.7, from 15.7) are down.

The Nuggets are arguably the league's most efficient offensive team with Jokic on the floor. Combine that with a unicorn quality of being the best passing big man of the digital age and a consistency edge on his main rivals, and you've got a recipe for a likely MVP winner. Curry and Doncic's otherwise strong candidacies take a hit by their teams currently standing eighth and sixth, respectively, in the West. Antetokounmpo likely gets hurt by recency bias (no one wants to vote for the same player three straight years) and his own team's success (the Bucks have still played at a relatively high level when he's missed games or not been on the court).

In reality, though, the race shouldn't be as lopsided as the betting odds suggest, provided voters can overlook Embiid's spotty attendance record. History shows, however, that will be a factor that ultimately works in Jokic's favour.

LeBron James announced he will not be in the line-up to face the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, though the Los Angeles Lakers superstar said he is "getting close" to returning from an ankle injury.

James returned from a six-week absence due to a right ankle sprain only to re-aggravate the injury after just two appearances for injury-hit NBA champions the Lakers.

There had been hopes that James would make his comeback against the New York Knicks on Tuesday or the Rockets midweek, but the four-time MVP is still sidelined following his update via social media.

James, who sat out the 101-99 overtime win against the Knicks, wrote on Twitter: "Getting close but I won't be in the line-up tonight but more importantly I will be there to put that CHAMPIONSHIP banner in the rafters at Staples Center in front of our fans!!"

Star team-mate Anthony Davis is also reportedly set to miss the clash with the lowly Rockets due to tightness in his groin as the Lakers prepare to raise their championship banner.

A full participant in Monday's practice, James has been averaging 25.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game for the Lakers this season.

Through 43 games in 2020-21, James boasts a field-goal percentage of 51.3 – his best since 2017-18 and it is the same story regarding his three-point percentage of 36.6, which is his highest since that season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Anthony Davis revealed he was dealing with groin tightness as the Los Angeles Lakers scraped past the New York Knicks for a big overtime win on Tuesday.

Davis missed more than two months with an Achilles issue but has crucially featured in all 11 games since his return last month, helping a Lakers team hit by a number of injuries.

LeBron James remained out – instead an active cheerleader on the sidelines – as the defending champions defeated the Knicks 101-99 at Staples Center.

Davis had 20 points but was clearly moving uneasily in the closing stages. He stayed in the game, though, with 43 minutes his most since early February.

"I'm hurting," he said afterwards. "There's nothing worse on my body, just my groin got tight. That was really it, I'm not sure where it came from, but my groin got a little tight.

"There was no way I was coming out of the game. It was a big game for us. The team was playing real hard, the situation that we're in, trying to battle for the six.

"It was a big game for them, trying to battle for fourth, trying to keep that fourth seed – I think they might be sixth now after the loss, I'm not sure.

"It was a huge game for us and I didn't want to come out, no matter injury, and finish the game and make sure we secure the win."

The Lakers are quickly back in action against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday and in need of another victory, still sitting seventh in the West – in an unwanted play-in place – but now just 1.0 games back from fifth.

"I'm not sure about tomorrow. I'm going to get treatment and see how I feel," Davis said. "I want to say I'm going to play, but it was really bothering me tonight.

"We'll see how I feel tomorrow and then later on in the day.

"There's a very strong possibility that I fight through it and play since the next day's an off day, but also I don't want to have it lagging and then I'm out for a couple of games. We'll see how I feel."

Regardless of Davis' status, there is the possibility James returns against the Rockets.

Having won back-to-back games for the first time since late March, the Lakers could now have some momentum heading into the postseason.

"It's good. It's a confidence booster for us," Davis said. "We've been playing well as of late.

"If [James] comes back tomorrow, we can get him back acclimated with the team and get him back in the rhythm. If he doesn't then he doesn't, but we want him to get healthy first and foremost, get ready for the playoffs.

"I'm not sure what he's going to do – that's none of my business, I just want him to get health – but my job is just to come out here and help this team.

"If he is able to come back tomorrow, it's our job to get him back into a rhythm to get him ready for playoff mode, which we know he'll be ready for."

Talen Horton-Tucker hit the game-winning three among eight overtime points, but the Lakers only reached that stage thanks to Davis' suffocating defense.

The Knicks had the lead and the ball in the final 30 seconds of regulation, only for Davis to brilliantly stop All-Star Julius Randle (31 points) and force a shot-clock violation.

"Julius, that's my guy," said the Lakers superstar, who guarded Randle throughout the closing stages. "I played with him in New Orleans and he's definitely developed his game, with his shooting ability and off the dribble.

"That last possession, I just had to lock in defensively and make sure that he wasn't going to score to help the team.

"I feel like I made him hit the three with my contest at the end [in overtime] – he shot it a little higher than normal.

"He's been playing like this all year. I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while.

"He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

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