NBA MVP Nikola Jokic did not expect to be ejected as the Denver Nuggets were swept from the playoffs in a controversial decision that surprised head coach Michael Malone and Phoenix Suns counterpart Monty Williams.

Jokic was tossed in the third quarter of Denver's 125-118 defeat to the second-seeded Suns, who sealed a 4-0 series victory in the Western Conference semi-finals on Sunday.

Crowned MVP on Tuesday, Jokic was assessed a flagrant two foul following a lengthy review after taking a swing at Suns guard Cameron Payne in Game 4.

Jokic became the first MVP swept in a postseason series since Magic Johnson in 1989 and the Serbian star discussed the incident post-game.

"I wanted to change the rhythm of the game, I wanted to give us some energy, maybe change the whistle a little bit, so I wanted to make a hard foul," Jokic said.

"Did I hit him [Payne], did I not hit him? We don't know. So I say sorry if I did because I did not want to injure him or hit him in the head on purpose. I thought honestly they would not eject me."

"I shouldn't do that. Of course it was my bad. I'm sorry," Jokic said. "But I cannot change it now. It happens."

Already facing an uphill task to avoid elimination, Jokic's absence made life even tougher for the third-seeded Nuggets as Suns duo Chris Paul and Devin Booker dominated.

"I just didn't feel like it warranted a flagrant two ejection because he's making a play on the ball," said Malone.

"There's marginal contact to Cameron Payne's nose I believe. So I was shocked, I'm still a little bit shocked that they called a flagrant two and ejected the MVP on such a play."

"From my vantage point and watching the replay, I did not think it was a non-basketball play with malicious intent," Malone said.

"I think it was a frustration foul, Nikola probably felt the last couple plays when he had the ball he had not received a foul call. And he went over there to take a foul. Which he has done plenty of times. A lot of players do that."

"I didn't really think it was anything malicious," said Williams. "In those moments you have to regulate your emotions. That's what we've been talking about all season long.''

Jokic and Suns All-Star Booker were involved in a confrontation following the incident as a scuffle briefly broke out.

But Booker – whose Suns reached the Conference Finals for the first time since 2009-10 – said: "That's all I said, just 'What are you doing?' It's just an emotional play. I don't think he meant harm by it. Just a frustration foul. It's tough, just defending my team-mate, that was it.

"I've played against the Joker multiple times. I know he's not a malicious player."

Devin Booker insisted the Phoenix Suns are keeping their eye on the prize after tying a franchise record with a sixth successive playoff victory on Friday, pushing them a step closer to a series sweep over the Denver Nuggets.

Having won back-to-back outings at home already, the Suns travelled to Denver for Game 3, which saw Nuggets star Nikola Jokic presented with the NBA MVP award prior to tip-off.

However, the visitors ruined the celebrations with an impressive 116-102 triumph, putting them 3-0 up in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 takes place at the Ball Arena on Sunday.

Booker led the way with 28 points while back-court partner Chris Paul had 27, the duo helping the Suns win a fifth outing in row by a double-digit margin. No team in NBA history has managed such a feat having missed the playoffs in the previous season.

"We are having fun with it, playing for each other," Booker told the media.

"When things get tough, we come together even more. Just little things that we have worked on and talked about through the regular season are coming true right now.

"We are still sticking with it – we have a close-out game on Sunday that we are looking forward to. We keep our eyes on the prize."

Jokic scored 32 points in 40 minutes, as well having 20 rebounds and 10 assists. However, his stellar individual performance was not enough to help the Nuggets get back into the series, meaning they stand on the brink of elimination.

"We knew this was going to be an emotional game for them, what with Jokic being presented with the MVP trophy beforehand," Paul said in his post-game press conference.

"We just kept talking about trying to withstand their runs. That team plays hard the entire game, so it's a good win."

Paul landed nine of his 16 shot attempts, including two of three from deep. He was quick to praise the efforts of Deandre Ayton, though, as the center played his part in a road triumph that has a place in the Western Conference Finals within touching distance.

"All those jump shots I hit towards the end of the game don't happen without him, without him setting the screen, setting the pace with rebounds," Paul said of Ayton, who had 10 points and 15 rebounds. "He's so selfless, man. We owe him a lot."

MVP Nikola Jokic became the third player in playoffs history with a 30-20-10 performance but says he was not even at the top of his game as the Denver Nuggets lost 116-102 to the Phoenix Suns.

Jokic joined elite company with his performance in the defeat, scoring 32 points, with 20 rebounds and 10 assists.

Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1970 for the Milwaukee Bucks and Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 for the Philadelphia 76ers had achieved the feat before in a playoffs game.

Jokic, who received his MVP award pre-game, was downbeat about the result which leaves the Nuggets trailing 3-0 in the series but also his own display, paying credit to Deandre Ayton's defense.

"I'm frustrated with myself because I missed shots and I think I didn’t play on top of my game, especially shooting wise," Jokic said at his post-game video conference.

"I think it'll be much easier for us if I start making shots. Of course, they're making it tough to make those shots."

The Nuggets need to create history to reach the Western Conference final, with no team in NBA history having overcome a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs. Denver hosts Game 4 on Sunday.

"We need try to leave everything out there," he said. "The fourth game if we lose we're out, we go home. We need to go there and fight. That's the mindset."

Jokic added: "Just focus on Sunday. We need to do a much better job, shooting 50 per cent [from the field] and 40 from three.

"Getting to the free-throw line, they're making theirs. We're not getting there enough and we're not even making those."

The Nuggets shot at 41.1 per cent from the field and 34.1 per cent from three-point range in Friday's defeat.

Jokic also said accepting his MVP award pre-game was special moment but paid tribute to others.

"It was a special moment," he said. "This is my trophy but it's because of all of them. I have to thank them. My family, coaches, players, medical staff and the front office."

Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic showed MVP form once again, but the Phoenix Suns used a balanced attack to take a 123-98 victory and a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semi-final series. 

Jokic scored the first basket of the game Wednesday, but that was the only lead the Nuggets held as Phoenix took control and never let go in what became an easy win as their home crowd chanted "Suns in four" late in the game. 

Chris Paul controlled the game for the Suns, scoring 17 points and dishing out 15 assists without a turnover in his 30 minutes of play -- the third time he has had at least 15 assists with no turnovers in a playoff game.

The 36-year-old Paul now has 72 assists and just 10 turnovers in eight playoff games this season. 

Devin Booker added 18 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix, while Deandre Ayton had 15 points and 10 rebounds. 

Jokic left the game late in the third quarter with the Nuggets trailing by 20 and did not return, finishing with 24 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in 29 minutes. 

Denver did not give him much help, as the rest of their starting lineup made just nine of 32 shots from the field (28.1 per cent). 

Michael Porter Jr. was the only other starter to reach double figures, scoring 11 on three of 13 shooting -- including two of nine from three-point range. 

The Nuggets made only 14 of 43 (32.6 per cent) from beyond the arc overall, compared to 18 of 38 (47.4 per cent) for Phoenix. 

Game 3 of the series is Friday in Denver.

Nets at Bucks

The Brooklyn Nets look for a 3-0 lead on the Bucks as their Eastern Conference semi-final series shifts to Milwaukee on Thursday.  

Joel Embiid expressed his disappointment after losing out to Nikola Jokic in the MVP race, though the Philadelphia 76ers star insisted "if and when I'm holding that trophy, anything else won't matter" in pursuit of an NBA championship.

Denver Nuggets star Jokic was crowned the league's Most Valuable Player on Tuesday with 91 first-place votes and 971 total points, ahead of runner-up Embiid (586).

In response to the snub, Embiid posted 40 points and 13 rebounds to lead the 76ers past the Atlanta Hawks 118-102 as the top seeds levelled the Eastern Conference semi-final series at 1-1.

Embiid became the first 76ers player with 40 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game since Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham in 1970, while his postseason career-high points haul saw him become the first Philadelphia player with 40-plus points in a playoff contest since Hall of Famer Allen Iverson in 2003.

Reacting to Jokic's MVP victory, Embiid – who missed game time during the regular season due to a knee injury – told reporters following Game 2: "There's only some things I can control. Obviously, we as a team we had a good year and I was a part of it.

"It's disappointing because as a player, you worked hard for moments like this, but then again, it's out of my control. There's nothing I can do about it. I just got to come out every year, and just be ready and do my job."

Embiid, who has been dealing with a small meniscus tear as the 76ers chase their first NBA title since 1983, added: "I'm focused on the playoffs, focused on winning the championship.

"I've been saying all season we got a good chance, so I'm not worried about those awards and stuff. If and when I'm holding that trophy, anything else won't matter."

Tobias Harris chipped in with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists for the 76ers at Wells Fargo Center, where he had 16 first-quarter points on eight-for-nine shooting.

"We're not really worried about that," Harris said in response to Embiid missing out on MVP honours. "Jokic had a great year. Congrats on MVP for him.

"Joel Embiid has had a great year, he's been the MVP for our team. Obviously, there was a period of time where he didn't play X amount of games. I think that played a factor into it, but we get to the Finals and that's the goal for our team. Go get the MVP there so that's just our mentality. We don't only focus on those things anymore."

Nikola Jokic admitted "I didn't even think I would be in the NBA" after being crowned the league's MVP in historic fashion on Tuesday.

Denver Nuggets star Jokic became the first player in franchise history to be named the Most Valuable Player and the lowest draft pick ever to receive the individual honour.

Jokic – the 41st overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft – beat Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid (586) and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry (453) to the award with 91 first-place votes and 971 total points.

In the regular season, Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

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

"To be honest, I didn't even think I would be in the NBA," said Jokic, who became the first player from Serbia to be named MVP, joining Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) as European winners.

"My goal when I started to play basketball back home, it was playing in Euroleague because that was kind of the closest top league to my country."

Jokic is the first center to win the MVP since Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 and just the sixth center to claim the award since the three-point line was introduced in 1979-80.

"The Denver Nuggets drafted me, it was an opportunity for me to become an NBA player," Jokic said. "I think I did a good job of using that opportunity."

During a season in which a number of other superstars faced stretches on the sidelines with injuries, Jokic started all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets.

The Nuggets finished third and have since advanced to the Western Conference semi-finals, although they trail the Phoenix Suns after Game 1.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said: "I'm so happy and respect so much the hard work and dedication that he’s put in to reach this point.

"I've been lucky enough to coach Nikola his entire career, and to see his growth from a second-round pick trying to learn the NBA to a perennial All-Star and now the MVP is truly extraordinary. He deserves this honour and I don't take for granted getting to coach a player, and more importantly a person like Nikola."

"Nikola's journey from the 41st pick in the draft to MVP is one of the most remarkable individual stories we have witnessed in sports," said Nuggets chairman Stanley Kroenke.

"His hard work, commitment and dedication to his craft, team and community are second to none. We couldn’t be more proud and fortunate to have him with us in Denver."

Nikola Jokic is the NBA MVP for 2020-21 after earning 91 first-place votes and 971 total points.

Jokic had previously been confirmed as a finalist alongside Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry but was long considered the clear favourite.

During a season in which a number of other superstars faced stretches on the sidelines with injuries, Jokic started all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets.

Embiid sustained a knee injury in March and Los Angeles Lakers great LeBron James went down with a high ankle sprain just eight days later.

Fitness issues robbed Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden of an unlikely run, too, while Curry saw off a tailbone concern but could only lift the Warriors to ninth in the west, as they lost consecutive play-in games to the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies.

The Nuggets finished third and have since advanced to the Western Conference semi-finals, although they trail the Phoenix Suns after Game 1.

In the regular season, Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

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

Jokic – the first MVP from Serbia – had only once previously scored more than 20 points per game in a campaign since he was selected 41st overall in the 2014 NBA Draft.

Behind the Serbian, Embiid came second with 586 points, as Curry received 453 points.

Damian Lillard believes Nikola Jokic can lead the Denver Nuggets to NBA glory after they eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday.

Jokic scored 36 points, provided six assists and grabbed eight rebounds as the Nuggets secured a 126-115 victory in Game 6 to win the series 4-2.

Trail Blazers star Lillard thinks the Nuggets can go all the way with Jokic at his brilliant best.

Lillard said of the Serbia center: "He's everything for them. I think if it was any year a guy like him, what he does for that team, could lead his team to a championship, it would be this year because of how open it is.

"There's no favourite. In my eyes at least, I feel like anybody can get beat and anybody can go get it done.

"That's why it's even more disappointing for me because I felt like if there's any year you can shoulder the load and go get one, it was this one. I definitely think he's capable of it."

Nuggets coach Michael Malone also lavished praise on Jokic.

He said: "That's why he's the clear-cut MVP, because you can take anybody away from our team, if we have Nikola, you could put me, Wes Unseld, Ryan Bowen, Charles Klask, whoever you want out there, we're going to find a way to compete because that's how great he is."

Malone says the Nuggets are aiming high after advancing from the first round of the playoffs.

"I just told our team this, hell of a win to come in here and win a Game 6 on the road is great. But we're not satisfied," said Malone. 

"Our goal coming into the season was not to get out of the first round. We have much bigger goals."

Devin Booker put on a show as the Phoenix Suns eliminated LeBron James and NBA champions the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs en route to the Western Conference semi-finals.

The sun set on the Lakers' season and their title defence in the opening round after Booker's playoff career-high 47 points and 11 rebounds guided Phoenix to a 113-100 win in Game 6 on Thursday.

Booker's monster double-double – which included eight three-pointers – sealed a 4-2 series victory for the second-seeded Suns in the Western Conference as they moved through to the semi-finals.

Suns All-Star Booker became the first Phoenix player with a 40/10 playoff game since Amar'e Stoudemire in 2010, though he is the first to do it with five-plus threes.

The Lakers welcomed the Suns to Staples Center for the must-win showdown in Los Angeles, where star Anthony Davis had been cleared to return from a groin injury.

According to Stats Perform, the Lakers were 8-2 in home games when facing playoff elimination since 2000 but their hopes were dealt a blow when Davis' comeback lasted just five minutes.

The Suns – who were 8-1 in potential series-clinching games since 2000, with their only loss coming against the Clippers in Game 6 in 2006 – blew away the Lakers with a 36-14 opening quarter on the road.

Phoenix carried a 60-41 advantage into half-time and while James tried to spark a Lakers rally with 29 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and two blocks, it was not enough.

A four-time NBA champion and MVP, it is the first time James has been eliminated in the opening round of the postseason in his illustrious 15-year playoff career.

Next up for the Suns are the Denver Nuggets, who claimed their series 4-2 following a 126-115 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers.

MVP favourite Nikola Jokic fuelled the third-seeded Nuggets with 36 points in Portland, where Michael Porter Jr. had 22 of his 26 points in the opening quarter.

The Nuggets reached the Western Conference semis for the third consecutive season, while Damian Lillard put up 28 points and 13 assists for the Trail Blazers – who led by 14 points in the third quarter but could not hold on.

 

Clippers at Mavericks

Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks can secure a semi-final date with the top-ranked Utah Jazz in the Western Conference by beating the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday. The Mavericks lead the series 3-2.

Michael Malone described Damian Lillard's staggering record-breaking performance as "superhuman" in the Portland Trail Blazers' dramatic playoffs defeat to the Denver Nuggets.

The Nuggets took a 3-2 series lead at Ball Arena on Tuesday after edging a double-overtime thriller 147-140.

That was despite an incredible display from Lillard, who scored 55 points – including a playoffs-record 12 three-pointers – from only 24 shots.

Lillard's points haul was his best in the post-season and the third-highest in a defeat in playoff history behind Michael Jordan's 63 against the Boston Celtics in 1986 and Donovan Mitchell's 57 versus the Nuggets last year.

The point guard also provided 10 assists and Nuggets coach Malone saluted his exploits.

Malone said: "Damian Lillard was superhuman tonight."

Nikola Jokic led the way for the Nuggets with 38 points as they got their noses in front in the series.

The center was full of admiration for Lillard and warned the Nuggets must try and find a way to stop the six-time NBA All-Star from making such an impact.

Jokic said: "He was incredible. He made some top shots, he put his team on his back and he was just carrying in.

"We tried, but we need to be better just to take the ball off his hands, especially later in the game, but it was kind of a pleasure to be on the court to witness that."

The Phoenix Suns moved 3-2 ahead in their NBA first round playoffs series against the Los Angeles Lakers with a 115-85 victory but star guard Chris Paul went down after re-injuring his shoulder.

Devin Booker top scored for the Suns with 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists as the Suns move within one win of knocking out the reigning champions.

The Suns, however, will be sweating on Paul's fitness ahead of Game 6 after going down clutching his sore right shoulder, having played 23 minutes, with nine points and six assists.

Phoenix blew the game open with a remarkable 32-10 second quarter, opening up a 32-point half-time lead which the Lakers, who were without Anthony Davis, never threatened in the second half.

LeBron James top scored with 24 points including six three-pointers along with five rebounds and seven assists, while Andre Drummond had seven points and 13 rebounds.

The series returns to Los Angeles for Game 6, before the final match in Arizona if required.

 

Nugs win in double over-time, Nets progress

Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard traded blows as the Denver Nuggets edged the Portland Trail Blazers 147-140 in a double over-time thriller.

Jokic finished with 38 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, while Michael Porter Jr had 26 points, including a clutch late three-pointer along with 12 rebounds and three assists.

Lillard remarkably scored 55 points for the defeated Blazers, along with six rebounds and 10 assists, although he may regret passing to CJ McCollum with nine seconds left at 143-140 down. McCollum mis-controlled and stepped out of play, forcing the decisive turnover.

In a back-and-forth encounter, McCollum had earlier drained a three-pointer to send the game into over-time.

The Brooklyn Nets finished the job in their first round series against the Boston Celtics with James Harden starring in a 123-109 win which completed a 4-1 victory.

Harden produced a triple-double, scoring 34 points with 10 rebounds and 10 assists for the Nets.

Kyrie Irving added 25 points, while Kevin Durant contributed 24, including four three-pointers shooting at 66 per cent from beyond the arc.

The Nets will next face the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

 

Wayward Tatum's radar off

Jayson Tatum was a lone hand for the Celtics, managing 32 points, although he shot poorly, albeit regularly under intense heat, at 12-from-27 from the field and 36.4 per cent from beyond the arc.

 

History-making haul in losing cause

Lillard's 55 points came in a losing cause, making history as the third most in a defeat in NBA playoffs history behind Michael Jordan's 63 against the Celtics in 1986 and Donovan Mitchell's 57 against the Nuggets in 2020. He also had a record 12 threes.

 

Tuesday's results

Brooklyn Nets 123-109 Boston Celtics
Denver Nuggets 147-140 (OT) Portland Trail Blazers
Phoenix Suns 115-85 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Hawks at Knicks

The New York Knicks will look to stay alive as their first round playoffs series returns to Madison Square Garden against the Atlanta Hawks trailing 3-1.

The Milwaukee Bucks earned a commanding 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series after Giannis Antetokounmpo and his team-mates blew away the Miami Heat 132-98.

Only two points separated the Bucks and Heat in overtime on Saturday as the third seeds edged Jimmy Butler's Miami 109-107.

But the Heat were no match for the Bucks on Monday after Milwaukee used a 46-20 opening quarter to rout Miami in Game 2 of their NBA playoff clash.

Antetokounmpo – the two-time reigning MVP – fuelled the Bucks with a game-high 31 points in 31 minutes, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on home court in Milwaukee.

Jrue Holiday added a double-double of his own, while Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes made six three-pointers to contribute 22 points off the bench.

The Bucks set a franchise record for threes made in a playoff game after nailing 22 from beyond the arc.

Entering the second matchup, the Bucks and Heat had the NBA's two best records when making more three-pointers than their opponents this season – Milwaukee were 25-3 (89.3 per cent) in those games and Miami were 18-3 (85.7 per cent). But the Bucks won Game 1 while making only five of 31 three-point attempts, 16.1 percent, a season low.

The Heat had no answer on the road, where reserve Dewayne Dedmon was Miami's best performer with a team-high 19 points as Butler (10 points on four-for-10 shooting), Bam Adebayo (16 points), Duncan Robinson (10 points) and Kendrick Nunn (nine points) struggled to get going, while Trevor Ariza (0-for-three shooting) was scoreless.

In the day's only other game, the Denver Nuggets levelled their Western Conference matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers thanks to a 128-109 victory.

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic inspired the third-seeded Nuggets in Game 2, scoring 38 points on 15-for-20 shooting, while also tallying eight rebounds and five assists in Denver.

Not even Damian Lillard's monster performance was enough for the sixth-ranked Trail Blazers to take down the Nuggets for back-to-back wins.

Lillard finished with 42 points and 10 assists – the All-Star made eight three-pointers by half-time, tying Vince Carter's all-time playoff record in a half.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry are the three finalists for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award.

The NBA announced its finalists on Thursday, with Jokic the long-time frontrunner for the coveted individual honour.

Jokic has remained healthy this season, starting all 72 games for the Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference, while averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

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

Embiid has made no secret of his MVP aspirations and he flexed his muscles as the 76ers earned the Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001.

A knee injury derailed his MVP bid but Embiid ended the regular season with a career-high 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while his 51.3 field-goal percentage was a career best – the same with his three-point percentage (37.7).

Curry catapulted himself into contention for a third MVP award following his scoring outburst for the Warriors.

The three-time NBA champion added a second scoring crown to his collection thanks to his 46-point performance in last week's win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Curry pipped Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal to the scoring title, having averaged 32.0 points per game.

Golden State's Curry became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

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

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

 

Full list of award finalists:

NBA Coach of the Year

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

NBA Defensive Player of the Year

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Rookie of the Year

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

NBA Sixth Man

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Derrick Rose, New York Knicks

NBA Most Improved Player

Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Julius Randle, New York Knicks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

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

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

 

Jazz make history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Month one: LeBron leaps above Luka

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

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

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

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

Month two: Sixers star Embiid emerges

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

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

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

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

Month three: Injuries interrupt favourites

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

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

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

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

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

Month four: Nuggets make their move

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

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

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

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

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

Month five: Still in the thick of the action

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

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

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

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

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

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