The Golden State Warriors ended the Phoenix Suns' franchise-record 18-game winning streak with a 118-96 victory to re-claim top spot in the Western Conference on Friday.

Stephen Curry top scored for the Warriors with 23 points including six of 11 from three-point range, after managing only 12 points in the defeat to the Suns on Tuesday.

The defeat was Phoenix's first since October 27 against the Sacramento Kings, although they were without All-Star guard Devin Booker with a hamstring injury.

Curry had 15 points by half-time for the Warriors, who led by 27 points at one stage. Gary Payton II scored 19 points off the bench.

The Suns had few winners, with Deandre Ayton scoring 23 points with six assists, while veteran Chris Paul had 12 points with eight assists.

 

LeBron returns but Lakers lose

LeBron James returned after briefly entering COVID-19 protocols but was held to only seven points in the first half before finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in the Los Angeles Lakers' 119-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Lakers are now 12-12 for the season.

Kevin Durant also managed a double-double with 30 points, 10 rebounds and six assists as the Brooklyn Nets made it six victories in seven games as they won 110-105 over the Minnesota Timberwolves, while Donovan Mitchell scored 34 points as the Utah Jazz defeated the Boston Celtics 137-130.

Joel Embiid had a double-double as the Philadelphia 76ers shut down the Atlanta Hawks late to win 98-96. Embiid had 28 points, 12 rebounds and four assists as the 76ers won the fourth quarter 20-9 to claim a come-from-behind victory.

Kyle Lowry scored 26 points including six three-pointers with nine assists as the Miami Heat beat the Indiana Pacers 113-104, while Darius Garland starred with 32 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers won 116-101 over the Washington Wizards.

 

Doncic and George's shooting radar off

Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks were soundly beaten 107-91 by the New Orleans Pelicans with the Slovenian shooting none of six from beyond the arc, finishing 21 points and seven turnovers.

The Clippers may have won against the Lakers but Paul George's shooting was off, making zero of seven from three-point range, finishing the game with 19 points.

Defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks outlasted the Charlotte Hornets 127-125 thanks to superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA on Wednesday.

Antetokounmpo's monster double-double and late driving layup with 2.0 seconds remaining lifted the in-form Bucks (14-8) to their eighth consecutive victory midweek.

Milwaukee's Antetokounmpo had 40 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in a near triple-double performance at home to the Hornets.

The Bucks withstood LaMelo Ball, who posted 36 points, nine assists and five rebounds on the road for the Hornets (13-11).

 

Doncic flexes his muscles

Luka Doncic fuelled the Dallas Mavericks' 139-107 victory at the New Orleans Pelicans. He put up 28 points and 14 assists in just 27 minutes. According to Stats Perform, Doncic is the first player to reach those numbers while playing 27 minutes or less since Hall of Famer Magic Johnson in 1987.

Jae'Sean Tate's career-high 32 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks helped the Houston Rockets rally past the Oklahoma City Thunder 114-110. The Rockets are the first team in NBA history with four straight wins immediately after a 15-game losing streak, per Stats Perform. As for Tate, he joined Hakeem Olajuwon as the only Rockets players to record 30-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, five-plus assists and five-plus blocks in a game.

 

Embiid struggles as Philly's offensive woes continue

In the absence of wantaway All-Star Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers continue to endure a topsy-turvy campaign following their 88-87 defeat to the Boston Celtics. MVP runner-up Joel Embiid had a double-double of 13 points and 18 rebounds, but he was just three-of-17 shooting. Tobias Harris was four-of-11 shooting – missing all four of his three-point attempts – for only eight points.

Duncan Robinson had a game to forget as the shorthanded Miami Heat went down 111-85 to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Robinson went scoreless in 20 minutes on 0-of-seven shooting from the floor, having failed to make any of his six efforts from beyond the arc.

Nikola Jokic's return proved the perfect tonic for the slumping Denver Nuggets after the reigning MVP helped snap a six-game slide in a 120-111 victory over the Miami Heat.

All eyes were on Jokic, who had missed four straight games because of a wrist injury amid Denver's worst six-game stretch since the 2014-15 season.

There was also plenty of interest as the Nuggets and Heat renewed hostilities for the first time since Jokic and Miami's Markieff Morris were involved in a dustup on November 8.

Jokic received a one-game ban after shoving Morris in the back as tempers flared – the Nuggets star reacting angrily after the Heat veteran came in with a hard foul, catching his opponent with a left elbow to the chest.

While the Heat were shorthanded in the absence of Morris – who has missed 11 consecutive games since the incident, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, Miami fans let their feelings known, booing Jokic every time he touched the ball.

Jokic, with his two brothers behind the Denver bench, was not fussed as he posted 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.

Double-doubles from Bam Adebayo (24 points and 13 rebounds) and Kyle Lowry (17 points and 14 assists) were not enough for the Heat.

 

Doncic matches Robertson

Luka Doncic had 25 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in the Dallas Mavericks' 114-96 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He tied Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles (38) before turning 23. Mavericks star Doncic celebrates his 23rd birthday in February.

Lonzo Ball earned family bragging rights after the Chicago Bulls outlasted the Charlotte Hornets 133-119. Up against brother LaMelo and the Hornets, Lonzo's Balls prevailed thanks to Nikola Vucevic (30 points and 14 rebounds), DeMar DeRozan (28 points) and Zach LaVine (25 points). According to Stats Perform, Chicago are the first team to have a starting guard (LaVine), starting forward (DeRozan) and starting center (Vucevic) have 25-plus points, five-plus rebounds and five-plus assists in the same game since the Orlando Magic in January 1994. LaMelo Ball's 18 points and 13 assists were not enough for the Hornets.

Seth Curry put up 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting as the Philadelphia 76ers held on to beat the Magic 101-96 at home. The 76ers are riding a five-game winning streak against the Magic – their longest such streak against Orlando.

Jonas Valanciunas nailed seven of his three-point attempts as he torched the Los Angeles Clippers in a 39-point and 15-rebound performance, the New Orleans Pelicans triumphing 123-104.

 

Lillard struggles in Blazers loss

Much was said about All-Star Damian Lillard heading into the season amid question marks over his future with the Portland Trail Blazers. Had he outgrown the smalltown market? Well, his topsy-turvy campaign continued after scoring just 11 points on four-of-12 shooting from the floor in the 129-107 defeat at the Utah Jazz.

Rookie of the Year candidate Josh Giddey had a game to forget as fellow strugglers the Houston Rockets eased past the Oklahoma City Thunder 102-89. In 25 minutes, Giddey made only one of his nine shots from the field, missing his five three-point attempts for two points in total.

The Phoenix Suns extended their winning streak to 16 games on Saturday with a 113-107 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, who gave up 20 turnovers for the game.

The Nets coughed up 15 turnovers in the first half alone as the Suns claimed an early lead and were never headed, led by Devin Booker (30 points and four assists) and Chris Paul (22 points, eight rebounds and five assists).

James Harden managed a triple-double but it was far from his best game with seven turnovers while only scoring 12 points, going zero-of-four from beyond the arc. Harden also had 13 rebounds and 14 assists.

Kevin Durant top scored for the Nets with 39 points along with nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals but also had five turnovers.

The Suns can equal their franchise record winning streak when they face the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. Phoenix's 17-3 mark for the season is their best record through 20 games since 2004-05.

 

Embiid returns with a bang

Joel Embiid scored 42 points and had 14 rebounds on his return after nine games out due to COVID-19 protocols but could not lift the sliding Philadelphia 76ers to victory, going down 121-120 to the Minnesota Timberwolves in double over-time. Embiid had a shot to win the game but was blocked by Anthony Edwards on the buzzer.

Luka Doncic scored 33 points with 10 assists as the Dallas Mavericks were beaten 120-114 by the Washington Wizards with Bradley Beal hitting 26 points. The Wizards improve to 13-7.

Houston Rockets center Christian Wood had a huge game with 33 points and 16 rebounds as his side defeated the Charlotte Hornets 146-143 in over-time.

 

Randle loses his handle

Julius Randle only managed eight points, shooting three-of-14 from the field as the New York Knicks beat the Atlanta Hawks 99-90.

Luka Doncic has travelled with the Dallas Mavericks for their upcoming road trip despite an ankle injury.

Mavs superstar Doncic injured his left ankle in the closing stages of Monday's win over the Denver Nuggets, in which he had 23 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

Losing Doncic for an extended period would represent a significant blow to Dallas, who have relied on the Slovenian for 23.7 per cent of their points this season – the sixth-highest share of any individual in the league.

But reports on Tuesday brought positive news for fans of Jason Kidd's 9-4 team.

ESPN said Doncic's injury was considered "not too serious", while it was reported the player was part of the Mavericks' travelling party as they embark on a four-game road trip.

Doncic would appear unlikely then to feature against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, but Dallas play the same team again on Friday ahead of a double-header at the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Clippers have eliminated Doncic and the Mavericks from the playoffs in the first round in each of the past two seasons.

However, Doncic has scored an outstanding 33.5 points per game across those two series, contributing to a career average against the Clippers of 31.4 points (regular season and playoffs).

He has contributed 24.9 points, 7.9 assists, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals through 13 games so far this year.

DeMar DeRozan was at his brilliant best again as the Chicago Bulls routed the Los Angeles Lakers 121-103 in the NBA on Monday.

DeRozan is the face of the new-look Bulls and the four-time All-Star maintained his MVP-calibre start to the season with a game-high 38 points at Staples Center.

The 32-year-old, who joined the Bulls ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, had his fourth 35-plus point game of the month – tying a career high.

Chicago have won four of their past five games, having also trumped the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, on the back of Lonzo Ball's seven three-pointers in his 27-point display against former team the Lakers.

Zach LaVine added 26 points for the Bulls, who improved to 10-4 in the Eastern Conference after beating the Lakers for the first time since 2016, snapping an eight-game drought.

Without superstar LeBron James, Talen Horton-Tucker (28 points), Russell Westbrook (25 points) and Anthony Davis (20 points) led the stuttering Lakers (8-7).

 

 

Streaking Suns sizzle

Last season's NBA Finals runners-up the Phoenix Suns celebrated their ninth successive victory after outlasting the Minnesota Timberwolves 99-96. Devin Booker (29 points), Deandre Ayton (22 points and 12 rebounds) and Chris Paul (21 points) all starred on the road. Ayton is the only player this season to be averaging 15-plus points and 10-plus rebounds while shooting at least 60 per cent from the field.

Cade Cunningham joined Stephen Curry (twice), Trae Young and Jason Kidd as the only rookies in NBA history with 25 points, five three-pointers, eight rebounds and eight assists in a game. The number one draft pick, however, was unable to prevent the lowly Detroit Pistons falling 129-107 to the Sacramento Kings.

 

Doncic limps off court

The Dallas Mavericks took down reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets 111-101, but it appeared to have come at a cost. Mavericks star Luka Doncic limped off the court after rolling his ankle in the final minute of the game. Doncic had posted 23 points and 11 assists to help fuel the Mavericks. Jokic's 35-point and 16-rebound double-double was not enough for Denver.

Stephen Curry reached 40 points or more for the third time this season as the Golden State Warriors' electric start to the season continued with a 119-93 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Friday.

Curry finished with 40 points, including nine-for-17 three-pointers, along with five assists and four rebounds as the Warriors improved to 11-1.

The two-time MVP starred with 15 points in the third quarter alone, almost outscoring the Bulls as the Warriors piled on 35-17 points. Curry also passed Ray Allen's 3,358 all-time NBA mark for the most three-pointers made in regular season and playoffs games.

The result marks the Warriors' second-best ever start in franchise history, with their only loss coming in overtime against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Golden State are one of nine teams in NBA history to start the season without a regulation-time loss in their first 12 games, the best being the 2015-16 Warriors with 24 games.

 

Harden hits season high

James Harden backed up Wednesday's triple-double with a season-high 39 points including six three-pointers for the Brooklyn Nets in a 120-112 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Harden got a double-double, with 12 assists along with five rebounds, while Kevin Durant added 28 points. Joe Harris shot six-for-six from three-point range in the first half, becoming the first player this season to achieve the feat.

Nikola Jokic returned from his one-game ban with a triple-double as the Denver Nuggets got past the Atlanta Hawks 105-96, with 22 points, 10 assists and 19 rebounds. Luka Doncic also registered a triple-double with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 15 assists as the Dallas Mavericks defeated the San Antonio Spurs 123-109.

Denis Schroder had a season-high 38 points as the Boston Celtics won 122-113 in overtime over the Milwaukee Bucks, who were without Giannis Antetokounmpo (ankle) and Khris Middleton (COVID-19).

 

LeBron-less Lakers floored

Carmelo Anthony scored one-for-12 from the field while starter Kent Bazemore finished with zero points as the Los Angeles Lakers, missing LeBron James, lost 107-83 to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Emerging point guard Ja Morant had five turnovers and shot 10-for-19 from the field as the Memphis Grizzlies were beaten by the Phoenix Suns 119-94.

Luka Doncic cannot always be "superhuman", Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd insists, after the preseason MVP favourite continued a mixed start to the campaign with an "average" night against the Chicago Bulls.

Mavericks superstar Doncic, now in his fourth year in the NBA, was expecting to be among the league's leading players in 2021-22.

Dallas are a competitive 7-4 through 11 games and their point forward has 24.5 points per game, but that is a considerable drop on last year's 27.7 or his 2019-20 peak of 28.8.

And Doncic, despite a sensational game-winning buzzer-beater against the Boston Celtics last week, is not helping the Mavs in the way his team would hope.

Only eight qualifying players – seven of them on teams with .250 records or worse – have a lower plus/minus per game than Doncic's -8.7.

That was -20 in Wednesday's 117-107 defeat to the Bulls despite the 22-year-old averaging close to his first triple-double of the season with 20 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds.

Doncic had four steals for only the sixth time in his career but also gave up four turnovers and is averaging 4.4 for the year, a new high.

"Luka was just average tonight," Kidd said. "We always expect him to be superhuman, but there's going to be nights in this season where he's going to be average.

"His average is really good, but he again had some great looks that didn't go down for him."

Indeed, Doncic made just six of 18 shots from the field and one of six from three-point range.

Although he is attempting more field goals than ever before (21.2 per game), his shooting is down to 43.3 per cent, including a career-low 28.6 per cent from three.

Kidd praised much-maligned team-mate Kristaps Porzingis, who "stepped up" with 22 points and 12 rebounds, but the Mavs clearly cannot afford a player, in Doncic, with a team-high 35.9 per cent usage rate to be missing both shots and passes.

"I think that's a question for him," Kidd said of Doncic's shooting woes. "When you look at the shots that he's taking, he's getting a lot of great looks.

"I think in the game of basketball, some go in, some don't. He still has to continue to be aggressive and take those looks. The ones that he's missing right now will fall for him – he just has to stay with it."

One tweak could be to get Doncic closer to the basket, with his shooting at the rim way up to 75.6 per cent. He has scored 40.1 per cent of his points in the paint this year (only marginally up on 40.0 per cent).

"His strength is being able to create on the perimeter for others and for himself, so that's something that we can definitely do, put him in the post to try to take some of the stress away from him having to work so hard," Kidd said. "That will come in due time as the season goes on."

Luka Doncic was compared to Dirk Nowitzki by Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd after netting a buzzer-beating three-pointer in Saturday's win over the Boston Celtics.

The 22-year-old finished with 33 points as the Mavericks edged out the Celtics 107-104 to move to 6-3 for the season and climb into third in the Western Conference.

With his latest last-gasp heroics, Doncic matched German legend Nowitzki for the most game-winning buzzer-beaters in Dallas' history with three.

Kidd featured in the same side as Nowitzki in his playing days and is enjoying seeing Doncic – widely regarded as Nowitzki's successor – continue to blossom.

"I played with a player like that before here; everybody knows the ball's going to 41 and he delivers," Kidd said.

"I think everyone knew the ball was going to 77 and he delivered.

"Luka did what he's done in the past by getting a shot off. He's done it so many times. It's a beautiful thing to watch in person."

The Mavericks have now won back-to-back games and return to action on Monday against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Joel Embiid starred as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to six games by topping Eastern Conference hopefuls the Chicago Bulls 114-105 in the NBA on Saturday.

Embiid – last season's MVP runner-up – posted 30 points, 15 rebounds, three assists and two blocks to fuel the in-form 76ers on the road in Chicago.

He also made four of five three-pointers as the 76ers finished 50 per cent from beyond the arc, while Furkan Korkmaz (25 points) matched a career high with seven made threes.

It was a memorable night for 76ers head coach Doc Rivers, who celebrated his 1,000th career victory – the 10th NBA coach to achieve the feat.

 

Eastern Conference leaders the 76ers (8-2) have won eight of their first 10 games for the first time since a 10-0 start in 2000-01.

 

Doncic on the buzzer

Luka Doncic hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer as the Dallas Mavericks topped the Boston Celtics 107-104. Doncic finished with 33 points.

The Denver Nuggets edged the lowly Houston Rockets 95-94 behind reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Along with 28 points and 14 rebounds, Jokic also made the crucial block on Jae'Sean Tate's drive to the basket as time expired.

Kyle Lowry put up a triple-double of 20 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists – the 19th of his career – to key the high-flying Miami Heat's 118-115 victory at home to the Utah Jazz. Donovan Mitchell's 37 points were not enough for the Jazz.

 

Westbrook headlines Lakers' woes

Without LeBron James (abdominal strain) and Anthony Davis (two points) only managing seven minutes, Russell Westbrook struggled in the 105-90 loss away to the Portland Trail Blazers. Westbrook made just one of 13 shots for eight points, while he turned the ball over on six occasions.

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

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

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

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

 

Mitchell leads Jazz past struggling champs

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

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

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

 

Dame cold in Blazers loss

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

LeBron James returned from injury with 26 points as the Los Angeles Lakers overcame a slow first half to defeat his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, 113-101 on Friday.

James had missed the Lakers' past two games with a sore ankle but marked his return by top scoring, adding eight assists and three rebounds.

The four-time MVP only shot 10 from 22 from the field and one from 10 from three-point range, draining a three-quarter time buzzer beater from almost halfway.

Carmelo Anthony added 24 points off the bench for the Lakers while Anthony Davis had 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists.

The Cavs, who have beaten contenders the Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers this season, led by as much as 11 points at one stage, including holding a one-point lead into the fourth quarter.

James played a lead role in steadying the ship for the Lakers, who scored 25-16 in the fourth quarter to win by 12 points and improve their record to 3-3.

 

Harden finds his scoring touch

James Harden re-discovered some form with a season-high 29 points, including 21 in the first half, in the Brooklyn Nets' 105-98 win over the Indiana Pacers. LaMarcus Aldridge added 21 points off the bench to reach 20,000 career NBA points, while Kevin Durant dominated with 22 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

Jimmy Butler starred with 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while Bam Adebayo added 26 points and 19 rebounds as the Miami Heat downed the in-form Charlotte Hornets 114-99.

Damian Lillard hit five from seven three-pointers, finishing with 25 points as the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 111-92. Paul George finished with 42 points for the Clippers, who are 1-3.

 

Doncic wayward as Mavs routed

Luka Doncic had an off-night, with 16 points, shooting five from 18 from the field as the Dallas Mavericks were brushed aside 106-75 by the Denver Nuggets.

Hornets guard LaMelo Ball's bright start to the season has stalled, managing only six points in their loss to the Heat, shooting none from five from beyond the arc.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grizzlies hand Clippers another loss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heat blow away Bucks

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

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

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

 

Young leads Hawks over Doncic's Mavs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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

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

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

 

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

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

Luka Doncic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Curry

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kevin Durant

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

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

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

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

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

Joel Embiid

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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