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. 

Mike Budenholzer accepted the Milwaukee Bucks "got our butts kicked" by the Miami Heat but insisted the NBA champions are just getting started.

Even accounting for the absence of Jrue Holiday (right heel), Brook Lopez (back) and Bobby Portis (left hamstring), the Bucks were wildly out of sorts in a 137-95 rout, which marked the Heat's season opener.

A 19-0 stretch early in the first had Miami 22-3 ahead. By the end of the first quarter, it was 40-17 and by half-time Milwaukee trailed 72-43.

Bucks coach Budenholzer made no excuses when addressing reporters after the game.

"We'll get some of the guys back and every team is going to deal with this at different points, most likely," he said. 

"It's a long journey and we're just getting started.

"We got our butts kicked. That happens in the NBA."

Tyler Herro had 27 points from the bench, which matched a record for any Heat player as a reserve playing 25 minutes or less.

The Heat's 137 points was a franchise benchmark for opening night, which was previously 128 against the Detroit Pistons in 1999, while it was their biggest margin of victory for a first game of a season, falling just short of the overall record of 43 points set against the Los Angeles Clippers in 1994.

It meant a measure of revenge given the Bucks routed the Heat 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs last season.

"Last year, we felt like we got embarrassed," Herro said.

"I mean, 137's a lot. Hopefully, we can see that a lot this season."

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Heat blow away Bucks

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

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

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

 

Young leads Hawks over Doncic's Mavs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Giannis fuels Bucks

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash was not happy with his team's performance after the NBA title-chasing franchise were blown away by defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks on opening night.

After unveiling their banner and championship rings in a pre-game ceremony, Giannis Antetokounmpo fuelled the Bucks to a 127-104 rout following his double-double on Tuesday.

Kevin Durant had 32 points and 11 rebounds and fellow Nets superstar James Harden put up 20 points, eight rebounds and eight rebounds as he flirted with a triple-double on the road, while Patty Mills (21 points on seven-for-seven shooting from beyond the arc) tied the NBA record for most made threes on debut for a new team.

But the Nets were no match for the Bucks in a repeat of last season's Eastern Conference semi-final after being outscored 37-25 in the opening period.

"We weren't very good," Nash said. "If you're not playing at a high level against the champs, you're not going to win."

It was a tough start to the season for Durant and Nets, who were without All-Star Kyrie Irving amid his absence because of not being vaccinated against COVID-19.

"We can’t give a team 20 more shots than us," Durant told reporters after the Bucks made 48 of 105 shots, while the Nets finished 37-84 from the field. "Imagine coming to a game and say 'here, take the ball 20 times on offense before we get an offensive position.

"This is one game out of 82 of them. We'll look at it that way. Every team will look at it that way. The Bucks won today, but they're still trying to fine-tune what they do, too.

"I think every team in the league is going to look at their first few games, first few weeks and see where their team is going and then make adjustments."

During preseason, Durant called the Bucks – spearheaded by Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday – a dynasty after they ended their 50-year wait for a championship in 2020-21.

But after Tuesday's showdown, the former MVP told reporters: "Maybe I was reaching a little bit.

"I just look at it as it's hard in the league for four or five guys to stay together as long as the Bucks did, through the ups and downs of losing in the first or second round, almost going to the Finals in 2019.

"They've been through a lot together. That's probably what I meant more than anything."

"They're just a team with some continuity," former Golden State Warriors forward Durant added. "I take that 'dynasty' thing back. I know it's a lot how that word gets thrown around. But they have some continuity a lot of teams don't have."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brooklyn Nets are itching for the opportunity to get revenge on the Milwaukee Bucks for last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals defeat, and Tuesday's ring celebration could be the ideal chance.

Their playoffs meeting earlier this year was something of a classic, with the series going to the wire as Milwaukee ultimately came good.

James Harden struggled with an injury, Kyrie Irving was out and Kevin Durant was denied what he thought was a winning three-pointer at the buzzer, but it turned out to only be a two-pointer and overtime beckoned.

The Bucks went on to win in OT and that sent them on their way to only a second NBA championship and a first since 1971.

It is fair to say the Nets have not forgotten what occurred in June and they will be highly motivated for their season opener against the Bucks, who will also be collecting their championship rings.

"It goes without saying we're definitely excited," said Nets shooting guard Joe Harris.

"We would've been excited no matter who we were playing against. This is going to be an awesome atmosphere.

"[There's a] sour taste in our mouth from the last time we played against Milwaukee, so obviously excited we get to start off with them to start the season.

"But nothing to discredit Milwaukee, they had an unbelievable season. Rightfully NBA champions.

"They're an unbelievable team with a lot of talent across the board. Right now, they're the team to beat.

"For us, it's not looking too far ahead, though. One game at a time. All of the focus is on Milwaukee and getting a good start to the season."

"We'll see how our group responds," coach Steve Nash added. "They may have extra motivation.

"They may just be locked into what their jobs are. So, I'm not really sure how they'll respond to that, or if that'll have an impact on them.

"But more than anything, I just want our guys to be prepared to start fast and play well."

Of course, last season the Nets were many people's favourites for the championship prior to that series defeat to the Bucks.

And while Durant acknowledged the excitement ahead of the Nets' season opener, he is reminding his team-mates they need to begin with high standards and maintain them every game, not just against the best teams.

"No matter what we play, we've got to hold ourselves to a championship-level standard, and we're not exercising good habits if we only get up against teams like Milwaukee," Durant said.

"Everybody's excited for the first game, but we want to keep this energy, no matter where we play."

It's difficult to go back to back in any sport and, in the marathon that is an NBA season, that rings particularly true.

Seven franchises have achieved the feat, with the Golden State Warriors the last team to do so in 2018.

But the fact the 73-9 Warriors of 2016 proved unable to retain the title illustrates just how difficult a challenge it is to repeat and hold on to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Milwaukee Bucks will attempt to become the eighth franchise to successfully defend their crown, though they will face no shortage of competition.

With the 2021-22 season beginning on Tuesday, Stats Perform looks at some of the top contenders for the title in the coming campaign.

Milwaukee Bucks

Let's start with the obvious. The Bucks are the favourites because they have the best player on the planet, with all due respect to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was fourth in points per 75 possessions last regular season with 29.6 and dominated on the defensive glass. His defensive rebounding percentage of 28.9 was 12th in the league.

The main feather in his cap going into 2021-22 is his ability to elevate his game to another level. In leading the Bucks past the Phoenix Suns in last season's Finals, he racked up 211 points. That tied Bob Pettit for the third-most in a Finals debut behind Rick Barry (245) and Jerry West (218). Only West and Michael Jordan (both four) can better his tally of three games with 40 points or more in a single Finals.

Supported by Khris Middleton, who had five games of 30 points or more in the postseason, and an elite facilitator in Jrue Holiday, whose 10.5 assists per 48 minutes ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games, Antetokounmpo has a deep and dynamic surrounding cast, making the Bucks excellent candidates to go all the way again.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns may not be the first name on everyone's lips when it comes to title contenders but, having led 2-0 in the Finals before succumbing to Giannis and the Bucks, they are deserving of a place on the list.

In an offseason that could have seen much change, the Suns managed to keep the band together, the headline deal being an agreement that saw Chris Paul signed to a new contract.

While Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker are both the present and the future for the Suns, their title aspirations rest largely on the ageing shoulders of Paul. 

Paul was the only Finals player to finish above Holiday in assists per 48 minutes in the postseason (minimum 10 games), averaging 12.0 across the course of the playoffs.

He set up Ayton 143 times in the regular season and reached three figures in laying on buckets for Booker (118) and Mikal Bridges (106), living up to his moniker of 'Point God'.

However, with a combined plus/minus of -37 across the four successive losses to Milwaukee, he will have to raise his game when it matters most if he and the Suns are to end their respective waits for a title.

Los Angeles Lakers

Rarely has LeBron James not had a chance to win the NBA title over the course of his illustrious career.

However, injuries limited James to just 45 games and Anthony Davis to 36 in the regular season, forcing the Lakers into a play-in game.

James performed heroics to lead the Lakers past the Warriors in that game but they were subsequently bounced out of the playoffs by the Suns.

The Lakers' response was to add to their arsenal of stars by acquiring Russell Westbrook in a trade with the Washington Wizards.

 

Former MVP Westbrook tied Jokic for the league lead with 45.5 points/assists/rebounds per game in 2020-21 while breaking Oscar Robertson's record for career triple-doubles.

Such numbers will not be possible playing alongside James and Davis but, if he can thrive in a more supplementary role, the Lakers should be firmly in the mix to regain their 2019-20 title.

Brooklyn Nets

There is a case to be made that, had the Nets not been hit by injuries in their Eastern Conference semi-finals series with the Bucks, they would have been the ones lifting the trophy.

However, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were limited to only four games in that seven-game series, leaving the burden primarily on Kevin Durant.

For very different reasons, there will be a lot of strain on Durant in 2021-22.

The Nets are facing up to not having Irving for most of if not all of the campaign as the issue of his vaccination status casts a cloud over the start of their season, which begins against the Bucks.

Unable to play in home games or practice with the Nets due to being unvaccinated, the franchise has said Irving will not play until the matter is resolved.

That means the Nets face being without a player who averaged 51.7 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes last season.

Despite his absence, the Nets cannot be discounted as contenders due to the presence of Durant (57.5) and Harden (56.9), but that duo must stay healthy and must at least maintain if not exceed their 2020-21 levels for Brooklyn to have a legitimate shot.

Golden State Warriors

Once perennial favourites, the Warriors are perhaps more of an outside bet these days. However, when you have Stephen Curry, you cannot be taken lightly as a potential contender.

The Warriors missed out on the postseason in 2020-21 following consecutive defeats to the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in tournament, Curry having willed Golden State to an eighth-placed finish in the Western Conference.

Curry averaged a career-high 32.0 points per game and his scoring average of 32.1 points per 75 possessions was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9).

 

Converting a league record 5.3 threes per game, last season was the third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He is the only player to achieve the feat even once.

And with fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson due back at some point, having missed the past two seasons through injury, and Andre Iguodala returning to likely finish his career with Golden State, Curry should have much more help this time around.

He still has his main facilitator Draymond Green, who led the league in setting up Curry 194 times last term, while the onus will be on 2020 first-round pick James Wiseman to develop into the floor-stretching big man the Warriors drafted him to be after an injury-curtailed rookie year.

Andrew Wiggins' vaccination status is cleared up, ensuring the Warriors will have a former number one overall pick who shot a career-high 47.7 per cent from the field in the previous campaign.

Jordan Poole's 18 points in 19 minutes in preseason against the Lakers gave further rise to hopes he can emerge as a valuable piece for the Warriors, whose two rookie first-round picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody add to an intriguing blend of experience and youth that could help Golden State get back among the elite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday 

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

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

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

Brooklyn Nets – James Harden

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

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

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

 

KEY BATTLE – Giannis vs. KD

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

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

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

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

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

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

HEAD TO HEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giannis Antetokounmpo

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

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

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

 

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

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

Luka Doncic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Curry

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

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

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

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

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

 

Kevin Durant

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

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

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

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

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

Joel Embiid

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milwaukee Bucks superstar and NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo purchased a stake in the Milwaukee Brewers, the MLB franchise announced on Friday.

After leading the Bucks to their first NBA title in 50 years, Finals MVP Antetokounmpo is now part of the Brewers' ownership group in Milwaukee.

Antetokounmpo follows in the footsteps of star Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes by buying into the city's baseball team – the 2018 NFL MVP invested in MLB outfit the Kansas City Royals in 2020 before joining the ownership group of MLS side Sporting Kansas City this year.

"The city of Milwaukee means so much to me," two-time NBA MVP Antetokounmpo said.

"I am honoured to be joining the Brewers ownership group to further my commitment and dedication to this great community.

"I take great pride in my city and I'm excited about what we can build together."

Antetokounmpo finished the NBA Finals averaging 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 (35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists) is the only other player to average 35, 10 and five in a Finals series.

After Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, Antetokounmpo is the third player to win a regular season MVP award, Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP across his career.

Antetokounmpo added during Friday's news conference: "Man, this is unbelievable.

"This is a dream come true for a kid from Sepolia, Athens, Greece, born from immigrant parents. I could have never imagined I would be in this position.''

Antetokounmpo is the first new individual investor added to the Brewers ownership group since chairman Mark Attanasio purchased controlling interest in 2005.

"We are honoured to have Giannis join our team of Milwaukee Brewers investors," Attanasio said. "Giannis is a great athlete, a world champion, and a true local hero with international renown."

The Brewers – NL Central champions in 2011 and 2018 – are eyeing their first National League pennant and World Series title.

After waiting half a century for a title, Milwaukee Bucks fans turned out by the thousands on Thursday to celebrate their team's NBA championship. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and the rest of Milwaukee's players and staff received a hero's welcome as they paraded through the city atop busses and trucks.

Two days after closing out the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the NBA Finals for their first championship since 1971, the Bucks and their fans did not appear to have returned to earth. 

"Milwaukee, we did it, baby! We did it!" Antetokounmpo told the adoring crowd. "This is our city, man. We did it. It's unbelievable." 

Earlier, Antetokounmpo looked overwhelmed as thousands chanted "MVP!" while his bus rolled down the parade route.

"I'm proud of my team-mates, proud of the whole organisation for everything we did all year," Antetokounmpo said.

"We put in extremely unbelievable work, we believed in ourselves, we went out there ready to compete, and right now I'm extremely happy. I still can't believe this is happening, but I'm trying to be in the moment, trying to enjoy it as much as possible with you guys, with my team-mates, and with everybody." 

While Milwaukee's fans had waited a lifetime for a title, the players realised lifelong dreams as well.

None of them had previously won an NBA championship, and some, like Middleton, had lived the other end of the spectrum. 

His first season with the Bucks was 2013-14, when they went a league-worst 15-67. 

"It's just been a long time coming," Middleton said. "I've been here eight years, struggled, been through a lot of ups and downs, but we finally got the job done, for sure." 

That they did, despite losing the first two games of the Finals to the Suns - just as they had to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semi-finals before rallying to win in seven games. 

"Each time we were down 0-2, all we did was get closer," Middleton said. "Some teams separate, some teams point fingers. We never pointed fingers, we never quit on each other. All we did was come closer and find a way to try and figure it out." 

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