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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the numbers show it may not be that simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Marcus Smart

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

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

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

 

Milwaukee Bucks – Brook Lopez

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

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

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

The Miami Heat moved a step closer to claiming the Eastern Conference's first seed with a 114-109 win on the road against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday.

Kyle Lowry put up 16 points and 10 assists in an emotional return to the Air Canada Centre against his old team, while Victor Oladipo scored a season-high 21 points.

Lowry had not played in Toronto since February 2020, when he was still a member of the Raptors, weeks before that season was shut down and moved to a bubble due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Heat had a healthy spread of scorers as Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo scored 18 and 16 points respectively, on the way to winning their fourth consecutive game.

Miami remain two games clear of the Boston Celtics atop the standings in the East, while both teams have only three games remaining in the regular season.

Toronto now hold an equal record with the fifth-placed Chicago Bulls, but the Bulls hold the tiebreaker. However, they remain 2.5 games clear of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in spots.

Bucks no match for Luka magic 

Luka Doncic was unstoppable as his Dallas Mavericks defeated the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks 118-112.

Doncic had 32 points on nine-of-22 shooting, as well as 15 assists, eight rebounds and three steals in a game that saw both coaches cut their rotation down to nine players and extend the minutes of their stars.

Giannis Antetokounmpo top-scored for the Bucks with 28 points on 12-of-22 shooting, but was a costly 50 per cent from the free throw line, going four-of-eight.

Clippers clinch play-in double chance 

The Los Angeles Clippers secured eighth spot in the Western Conference on Sunday, defeating the New Orleans Pelicans 119-100.

Marcus Morris made four three-pointers on the way to 22 points, while the Clippers went 21-of-44 from total beyond the arc and connected on all eight attempts in the first quarter.

The Clips guaranteed the double chance in the play-in with the win, meaning if they lose to the seventh seed, they would face the winner between the ninth and 10th seed for an eventual play-off spot.

Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant vented his frustration over perceived dirty play by the Milwaukee Bucks in Thursday's defeat but begrudgingly acknowledged they did an effective job on him.

Durant missed a three-point shot on the buzzer that would have given his Nets the win, but they ultimately went down 120-119 in overtime.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 44 points (14-of-21 shooting) for the Bucks to go with 14 rebounds and six assists, while Jrue Holiday finished with a game-high six steals.

The hotly contested matchup between two teams that played out a seven-game series in last year's playoffs featured a contentious moment late in overtime as Durant was fouled on a three-point attempt by Wesley Matthews, which was reviewed as a potential flagrant.

Speaking to post-game media, Durant made a point of it being the second time in as many games that he feels he was targeted with a dangerous foul.

"We all thought that was reckless, right?" Durant asked the media in attendance.

"I think technically, I have to be in the air and come down on his foot, and that's the flagrant… but as soon as I hit the floor, here he comes running at my leg.

"It wasn't a [basketball play] – I thought it was supposed to be a flagrant. But I didn't make the correct play to get a flagrant, I was supposed to still be in the air while he's underneath me.

"I'm hurting. That's two games in a row where players have walked up underneath me while I'm trying to make a basketball play, so my ankle hurts."

After discussion moved to the game itself, Durant got frustrated when a reporter asked if the reason the Nets lost this game had anything to do with chemistry, a subject often brought up in reference to Durant's close friend Kyrie Irving.

"It was just basketball mistakes – we're not going to play a perfect basketball game," he said.

"It always sucks when you lose, and you tend to think back on the mistakes that you made, but we try to play mistake-free basketball – everyone in this league does.

"Giannis [Antetokounmpo] had eight turnovers, Jrue [Holiday] had six. They had 14 turnovers between their two best players – I'm sure they don't want that either, but that's just the game.

"They hit one more shot than we did. I don't think it's because of a lack of chemistry, or we didn't play hard. It's just one of those games that didn't fall our way at the end."

Durant then paid some respect to the reigning champions and gave some details about the way the Bucks defended against him.

"They did a good job – they know [who I am], they know what it is," he said.

"If I get the ball out top, I'm seeing the whole team looking at me. Kyrie got the same treatment.

"Brook Lopez, he's played against me in the playoffs before. This team knows how to prepare for me.

"If I get a drive, if I get a lane, I'm hearing guys coming over to help, and they're calling for more help. It's only going to make me better as a player to see those looks.

"We shot the ball pretty well [as a team] – I think that's because we were making the right plays."

When asked if his sore ankle could force him to miss any games, Durant said no chance.

"No, I'm good," he said. "It's a little sore, you know how it goes."

Giannis Antetokounmpo saved some veiled censure for James Harden, as he surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the Milwaukee Bucks' all-time leading scorer on Thursday.

With 44 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to a big 120-119 overtime win against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets.

Drilling a step-back three to tie the game at the end of regulation, the 27-year-old broke the Bucks franchise record in the process.

Responding to prior criticism from James Harden that he only "runs and dunks" as a consequence of his height and mobility, the Greek forward was evidently pleased to have broken the record with elite skill on the step-back triple.

"I did not know about it, but it's good," he said post-game. "It's good because I'm changing the narrative. You know, I don't want to be the guy that only dunks and runs. I can make a three," Antetokounmpo said.

For the two-time MVP, his priorities remain based in team success.

"It doesn't really matter, because at the end of the day, if you don't have a successful season and if you don't try to keep getting better, and staying humble, and staying hungry to play all the way until May and June, nobody is going to remember this," Antetokounmpo added.

"So I just want to stay humble, I want us to stay humble. I feel like the more humble I get, and the more hungry I stay, the more things I can accomplish, the more art I can create... I just gotta keep staying humble, make my teammates great, win games, and good things like tonight are going to happen."

After a hard-fought seven-game series in last year's NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets added another chapter to their recent rivalry with an overtime thriller.

The Bucks ended up coming out on top 120-119 thanks to a mammoth performance from two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, finishing with 44 points on 14-of-21 shooting to go with 14 rebounds and six assists.

It was not just the raw numbers for Antetokounmpo, but the situations where he delivered, hitting a crucial step-back three to tie the game at 110-110 with less than 20 seconds remaining in regulation.

Down 118-119 with three seconds left in overtime, Antetokounmpo was fouled, and connected on both free throws to give the Bucks the lead and the win.

Jrue Holiday was crucial for the reigning champions, claiming six steals to go with his 19 points (six-of-18 shooting), eight rebounds and four assists.

Kevin Durant was terrific for the Nets, scoring 26 points on 10-of-21 from the field (three-of-six from long range) and also dishing out 11 assists, while Kyrie Irving chipped in with 25 points (nine-of-22 from the field) with five assists.


DeRozan's 50-piece leads comeback

The Chicago Bulls came back from an 11-point deficit with 4:58 remaining in regulation to beat the Los Angeles Clippers 135-130 in overtime.

After DeMar DeRozan hit three free throws in the final five seconds to tie the game and force overtime, the Clippers were forced to contest the extra period without star Paul George, who had hit his minutes restriction as he returns from a long-term elbow injury.

DeRozan went on to score 50 points on 17-of-26 shooting, while highly-regarded second-year forward Patrick Williams caught the eye coming off the bench, scoring 10 points without missing a shot while adding 12 rebounds and two blocks.

Cunningham shows class

Number one pick from this year's rookie class, Cade Cunningham, showed why he is viewed as a future star in this league as he led his Detroit Pistons to a 102-94 upset against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Cunningham was Detroit's best player, finishing with 27 points (12-of-20 shooting) to go with six assists and four steals and the Pistons out-scored the 76ers 29-15 in the final frame.

Joel Embiid was not to blame for the 76ers struggles, scoring 37 points on 11-of-19 shooting with 15 rebounds.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says his game-winning block was all about trusting his instincts as the Milwaukee Bucks claimed an important 118-116 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

The reigning NBA Finals MVP made a crucial block to deny Joel Embiid a lay-up to tie the game up with under two seconds left on the clock after James Harden's three-point attempt rimmed out.

Antetokounmpo had already scored 40 points with 14 rebounds and six assists, with his third block proving a decisive intervention.

"Just let my instincts play," Antetokounmpo told reporters. "The ball went to Embiid and I just tried to jump as high as I can and try to make a play.

"I knew it was going to be a quick one. I felt it. When you get in that position and you're down one, with the clock running, you get it and go quick. I tried to time it.

"It worked out, sometimes it doesn’t work out. This time it worked out in our favour."

The play was reviewed after it was initially seen as a goal tend which was cleared, forcing a jump ball which allowed the clock to wind down.

Embiid said: "I thought it was close. I probably should’ve gone up harder. In that situation I didn’t know how much time was left.

"I was just trying to get the ball off quickly. I thought it was close. I didn’t know if it was a goal tend or not."

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said it was "just a special block", while 76ers counterpart Doc Rivers labelled it "spectacular".

The result means the Bucks move into second spot in the Eastern Conference with a 47-28 record, behind the Miami Heat (48-28), with the Boston Celtics (47-29) in third and the 76ers (46-29) in fourth.

The 76ers have suffered successive losses to last season's NBA Finalists, the Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, in a wake-up call to their title credentials.

"We've got to do a better job," Embiid said. "Against Phoenix we were right there. Tonight we had a lead, just like against Phoenix.

"It's a game of runs. Every team is going to make their runs. We just need to stay calm and know what we need to do. Last game showed why those two teams went to the finals."

Giannis Antetokounmpo came up with a game-winning block on Joel Embiid after scoring 40 points in the Milwaukee Bucks' crucial 118-116 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo rose to block Embiid's attempt to level the scores with less than two seconds left on the clock, with head coach Mike Budenholzer labelling it "special".

The Greek superstar finished with 40 points on 66 per cent shooting with 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks.

The Bucks win is significant in the race for Eastern Conference seeds, moving Milwaukee (47-28) into second behind the Miami Heat (48-28), while the 76ers (46-29) slip to fourth.

Khris Middleton added 22 points, nine rebounds and seven assists and Jrue Holiday contributed 18 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists.

Embiid finished with 29 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, while James Harden had 32 points making four-of-10 from beyond the arc, with five rebounds and nine assists.

 

George returns in Clippers comeback win

Paul George marked his first game since December 22 with 34 points including six three-pointers as the Los Angeles Clippers fought back from 25 points down to win 121-115 over the Utah Jazz who have lost five in a row. The Clippers finished the game on a 34-12 run.

Kevin Durant scored 41 points with 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocks while Kyrie Irving managed 24 points in his second home appearance as the Brooklyn Nets won 130-123 over the Detroit Pistons.

The Chicago Bulls found some form after winning only four of their past 15 games with an important 107-94 win over the Washington Wizards led by DeMar DeRozan with 32 points, seven rebounds and two steals.

 

Lakers slide continues

The Los Angeles Lakers' struggles continued with a heavy 128-110 loss to the Dallas Mavericks as Luka Doncic recorded a triple-double with 34 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. The Mavs led by as much as 37 points. The Lakers, who were without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are 31-44 and slip to 11th out of the west's play-in spots.

Memphis Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins explained how his team are sticking to their identity in the continued absence of talisman Ja Morant.

Grizzlies' top scorer Morant has not featured since playing in a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks earlier in March and is expected to miss much of the remainder of the regular season due to a knee problem.

However, the Grizzlies improved to 17-2 without their main man in the team as they claimed a mightily impressing 127-102 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

That means they have now won their last four games since Morant was out of the team, as they sit second in the Western Conference with a 52-23 record for the season.

"We're just sticking with our identity," Jenkins told reporters after the game, as quoted by ESPN.

"It doesn't matter if you're a starter, bench, mixed lineups. Whatever we do, we do to the best of our abilities."

A player to start on the bench, De'Anthony Melton, ultimately finished as Memphis' leading scorer on 24 points, while Desmond Bane added 20.

"I'm just trying to go out there and hoop," Melton said. "Have fun with it. Play with confidence and do what the team needs me to do."

Contributions of 19 and 16 from Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. respectively helped the Grizzlies fend off Milwaukee, whose attempted fightback was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo's double-double of 30 points and 11 rebounds.

"They just do a lot of things that are about winning basketball," said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer of the Grizzlies.

"Credit to their players, to the coaching staff. They just keep playing no matter who's in.

"It felt like (Antetokounmpo) tried to will us back into the game. It felt like we had some momentum for some small stretches there in the third quarter, where I felt like we might get back in it, but we weren't able to sustain it."

The Miami Heat's slide continued on Saturday, with a disappointing 110-95 home defeat against the Brooklyn Nets making it four losses on the trot.

Miami entered the week multiple games clear of the chasing pack, but after the loss against the Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers usurped the Heat as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The race for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs is far from over, as the top four teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, are only separated by a half-game.

Things were ugly early for the Heat, with its once-feared defence giving up 40 points in just the second quarter to hand the Nets a 67-46 half-time lead, which was never threatened.

Kevin Durant led a balanced offensive performance from the Nets, finishing with a team-high 23 points on seven-of-14 shooting, while seven of his teammates scored at least eight points each.

The win was Brooklyn's seventh from their past nine games, with Kyrie Irving set to make his home debut the next time out against the Charlotte Hornets.

No Morant, no problem

The Memphis Grizzlies passed another real test when the Milwaukee Bucks came to town, sending the reigning champions home with their tails between their legs after a 127-102 result.

In one of the more unlikely storylines of this season, the Grizzlies are now 17-2 in games where their best player and MVP candidate Ja Morant has not played.

Emerging franchise centrepiece Desmond Bane rose to the occasion, scoring 20 points on nine-of-19 shooting to go with five assists, while Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr blocked two shots and snatched one steal to go with his 16 points and six rebounds.

Kings rookie continues to break out, Bulls finally beat a good team

With De'Aaron Fox missing yet again, Sacramento Kings rookie Davion Mitchell had his third consecutive game with at least 22 points and seven assists in his side's 114-110 overtime win against the Orlando Magic.

Mitchell's line of 22 points (10-of-23 from the field) with seven rebounds and nine assists comes after games of 25 points and seven assists against the Indiana Pacers, and 28 points with nine assists against the Phoenix Suns.

Meanwhile, after entering the game with a sputtering record of 3-10 in their past 13 games, the Chicago Bulls collected a much-needed 98-94 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Since February 12, Chicago have only beaten two teams who currently occupy playoff spots – the Cavaliers, and the Toronto Raptors.

The Miami Heat's slide continued on Saturday night, with a disappointing 110-95 home defeat against the Brooklyn Nets making it four losses on the trot.

Miami entered the week multiple games clear of the chasing pack, but after the loss against the Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers usurped the Heat as the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The race for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs is far from over, as the top four teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, are only separated by a half-game.

Things were ugly early for the Heat, with its once-feared defence giving up 40 points in just the second quarter to hand the Nets a 67-46 half-time lead, which was never threatened.

Kevin Durant led a balanced offensive performance from the Nets, finishing with a team-high 23 points on seven-of-14 shooting, while seven of his teammates scored at least eight points each.

The win was Brooklyn's seventh from their past nine games, with Kyrie Irving set to make his home debut the next time out against the Charlotte Hornets.

No Morant, no problem

The Memphis Grizzlies passed another real test when the Milwaukee Bucks came to town, sending the reigning champions home with their tails between their legs after a 127-102 result.

In one of the more unlikely storylines of this season, the Grizzlies are now 17-2 in games where their best player and MVP candidate Ja Morant has not played.

Emerging franchise centrepiece Desmond Bane rose to the occasion, scoring 20 points on nine-of-19 shooting to go with five assists, while Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr blocked two shots and snatched one steal to go with his 16 points and six rebounds.

Kings rookie continues to break out, Bulls finally beat a good team

With De'Aaron Fox missing yet again, Sacramento Kings rookie Davion Mitchell had his third consecutive game with at least 22 points and seven assists in his side's 114-110 overtime win against the Orlando Magic.

Mitchell's line of 22 points (10-of-23 from the field) with seven rebounds and nine assists comes after games of 25 points and seven assists against the Indiana Pacers, and 28 points with nine assists against the Phoenix Suns.

Meanwhile, after entering the game with a sputtering record of 3-10 in their past 13 games, the Chicago Bulls collected a much-needed 98-94 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Since February 12, Chicago have only beaten two teams who currently occupy playoff spots – the Cavaliers, and the Toronto Raptors.

MVP contender Joel Embiid insists the Philadelphia 76ers are not focusing on the race for top seed in the east after Friday's 122-97 win over the Los Angeles Clippers moved them within one game of top spot.

Embiid scored 27 points with 10 rebounds, with team-mate James Harden adding 29 points with four three-pointers along with a season-high 15 rebounds and seven assists.

The victory improved the 76ers to a 46-27 record and second in the east, moving within one game of Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat (47-27) who lost 111-103 to the New York Knicks.

Reigning champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, are third in the Eastern Conference with a 46-27 record, with the Boston Celtics in fourth with a 46-28 record.

"Our focus is just on getting better every single day," Embiid told reporters after the win. "Whether it's offensively or defensively, we're not worried about the standings.

"We just want to get to the point where we know what we're doing at all the times on the court, especially on the offensive side.

"That's what we've been working on. That's what coach has been on to us about focusing on the details, so we can get there."

Harden joined the 76ers last month in a blockbuster trade that saw Ben Simmons headed the other way to the Brooklyn Nets.

Friday's win marked the first time since the move that the pair had both recorded double-doubles in the same game together.

The 76ers have improved with Harden playing alongside Embiid, but the duo's synergy remains a work in progress.

"We're getting better. The one-two has to be there first. It is. The rest will follow," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said.

Harden, who is averaging 23 points and 7.6 rebounds since moving to the 76ers, added: "Things are headed in the right direction, but every single day we are focusing on execution and details.

"There are going to be different ways we are going to have to win in the playoffs, and we have to be prepared for that."

The 76ers' next two games are against last season's NBA Finals sides, the Phoenix Suns and the Bucks.

Devin Booker put on a show with 49 points as Chris Paul returned from a broken wrist as the Phoenix Suns clinched top spot in the Western Conference with a 140-130 win over the Denver Nuggets.

Booker's 49 points was a season-high, while 36-year-old Paul returned for the first time since February 20 with 17 points, including 15 in the first half, and 13 assists as the Suns secured their sixth straight win.

Three-time All-Star Booker shot 16-of-25 from the field and also had 10 assists, with Mikal Bridges contributing 22 points from eight-of-nine shooting.

The win means the Suns have secured the NBA's best record for the third time in franchise history, following on from 1992-93 and 2004-05.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic had 28 points with six rebounds and six assists for the Nuggets, who are 43-31 and holding on to sixth spot in the Western Conference.

 

Grizzlies and Bucks win without stars

The Memphis Grizzlies won again without Ja Morant with a 133-103 victory over the Indiana Pacers. Desmond Bane scored 30 points with five assists and five rebounds as the Grizzlies improved to 16-2 without Morant.

The Milwaukee Bucks triumphed without Khris Middleton (wrist) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (knee) with Jrue Holiday starring with 24 points and 10 assists in a 114-102 win over the Washington Wizards.

Pascal Siakam equalled his season-high 35 points as the Toronto Raptors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 117-104 in a crucial game in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

 

DeRozan out as Bulls slide continues

The Chicago Bulls slipped to their fifth defeat from their past six games, going down 126-109 to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls are fifth in the east with a 42-31 record, just ahead of the Cavs and Raptors (both 41-32).

The Bulls, who were without DeMar DeRozan due to a left groin issue, were dominated 40-24 by the Pels in the fourth quarter, led by Devonte' Graham (30 points including five three-pointers) and Jonas Valanciunas (16 points and 19 rebounds).

Zach LaVine was Chicago's best with 39 points in DeRozan's absence, going 12-of-23 from the field, while Coby White added 23 points off the bench including five triples.

Trae Young's return to Madison Square Garden was like a recurring nightmare for New York Knicks fans as the Atlanta Hawks prevailed 117-111.

Young, who became public enemy number one in New York when he erupted in the playoffs, eliminating the Knicks in the process, was spectacular again on Tuesday night.

He finished with a game-high 45 points (13-of-25 shooting, seven-of-15 from three) to go with eight assists, and was supported by a season-high 32 points (11-of-20 shooting, four-of-10 from three) from Bogdan Bogdanovic off the bench.

New York's R.J. Barrett played hard, but was ultimately inefficient, scoring 30 points on nine-of-25 shooting, going one-of-seven from long range and 11-of-17 from the free throw line.

The win pulls the Hawks' record even at 36-36, with last year's Eastern Conference finalists set for a play-in battle as they occupy the 10 seed.

Demar DeRozan was a man looking for answers after his Chicago Bulls were handed a demoralising 126-98 defeat at the hands of the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks.

DeRozan, who at one stage this season was considered a real MVP candidate, had a sub-par 23 points on 23 field goal attempts in the loss, which moved the Bulls to a record of 3-9 in their past 12 games.

Three of the Bulls' past four games have now resulted in losses of at least 15 points against strong playoff contenders in the Utah Jazz (125-110) and the Phoenix Suns (129-102) before Tuesday's loss to Milwaukee.

Speaking to post-match media, DeRozan said it was evident what makes the Bucks a great team.

"Playing against the defending champs – seeing, feeling, understanding how hard they compete, and how well they execute," he said.

"Their physicality, everything that comes with it, it's how they got what they deserved last year, so that's what I take away from [this game].

"It's definitely not a talent issue at all – we've proven we are a great team – it's just execution, especially when you're playing against top-notch teams that understand the value of executing on both ends, and understand their assignments every time they stop out on the court.

"Those teams are always on a string, and we show it through spurts through a game, but the good teams that go far do it as close to 48 minutes as possible – not just a quarter, or half a quarter.

"You need to be as close to perfect through a 48-minute game as possible."

Once again, the Los Angeles Lakers were unable to get the job done on a night where LeBron James made history.

With James expected to pass Karl Malone for second place on the all-time regular season scoring list, the Lakers suffered a fourth-quarter collapse to lose 127-119 against the Washington Wizards.

James trailed the Utah Jazz Hall of Famer by 20 points coming into the night, passing him with 5:20 left in the second quarter on his way to 38 points (16-of-29 from the field, four-of-10 from three) with 10 rebounds and six assists.

The 37-year-old now is behind only former Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time NBA scoring list with 38,387 points. James now has 36,947 career points.

The Lakers led 97-83 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, before getting out-scored 44-22 the rest of the way.

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