Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Sunday's 132-116 win over the Sacramento Kings.

Isaac dropped to the floor after driving between two defenders and was treated on court before being wheeled away accompanied by Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman.

In a statement released on Sunday, Magic confirmed an MRI scan showed the 22-year-old had torn the ACL in his left knee.

"Isaac will be out indefinitely and his return to the court will depend on how he responds to treatment and rehabilitation," the statement said.

Isaac had only recently recovered from a knee injury sustained on January 1 against the Washington Wizards, when he landed awkwardly and was diagnosed with a "posterior lateral corner injury and medial bone contusion".

It was expected he would miss the remainder of the season, but the delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic gave him the chance to recover in time for the restart in Orlando.

"That was tough, man," team-mate Aaron Gordon said, the Magic bench having been clearly downcast despite their resounding victory.

"That one brought me to tears, and instantly, just because I know how good of a guy J.I. is and how hard he works and how hard he has worked to get back since hurting himself in D.C. That was tough."

The Houston Rockets edged the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA on Sunday, while the Boston Celtics also claimed a narrow win.

The Rockets rallied past the Bucks 120-116 on the back of a standout performance from Russell Westbrook at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Westbrook finished with 31 points, eight assists and six rebounds, while James Harden had 24 points.

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 36 points, to go with 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The Celtics claimed their first win since the restart by overcoming the Portland Trail Blazers 128-124.

Jayson Tatum bounced back to form, going 11-of-22- from the field for 34 points.

 

Mavs clinch playoff spot, Morant marvellous

After the Memphis Grizzlies' loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks reached the playoffs for the first time since 2015-16.

They later fell to a 117-115 defeat to the Phoenix Suns despite 40 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds from star Luka Doncic.

Ja Morant had 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting, plus nine rebounds and nine assists, in the Grizzlies' 108-106 loss to the Spurs.

 

Johnson struggles

Tyler Johnson missed all seven of his field-goal attempts in the Brooklyn Nets' 118-110 win over the Washington Wizards

 

Markelle magic

Markelle Fultz hit a shot from three-quarter court in the Orlando Magic's win over the Sacramento Kings.

Sunday's results

Brooklyn Nets 118-110 Washington Wizards
Boston Celtics 128-124 Portland Trail Blazers
San Antonio Spurs 108-106 Memphis Grizzlies
Orlando Magic 132-116 Sacramento Kings
Houston Rockets 120-116 Milwaukee Bucks
Phoenix Suns 117-115 Dallas Mavericks

 

Raptors face Heat

Following a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, defending champions the Toronto Raptors (47-18) face another test when they take on Eastern Conference rivals the Miami Heat (42-24) on Monday.

Jonathan Isaac opted not to wear a 'Black Lives Matter' t-shirt or kneel for the anthem prior to the Orlando Magic's NBA game against the Brooklyn Nets, saying he did not think such acts were "the answer".

The 2019-20 NBA season resumed on Thursday in Florida and players have been wearing 'Black Lives Matter' t-shirts and taking a knee for the anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

However, while the rest of his Magic team-mates knelt and wore those t-shirts prior to tip-off against the Nets on Friday, Isaac remained standing in his Orlando jersey.

"I believe that black lives matter," the forward told reporters after Orlando's 128-111 win.

"A lot went into my decision and part of it is my thought that kneeling while wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt don't go hand in hand with supporting black lives.

"And so I felt like, just me personally and what it is that I believe in, standing on a stance that I do believe that black lives matter, but I just felt like it was a decision that I had to make and I didn't feel like putting that shirt on went hand in hand with supporting black lives."

Isaac, who became an ordained minister in March, added: "I don't think that kneeling or putting on a t-shirt for me, personally, is the answer.

"I feel like for me black lives are supported through the gospel. All lives are supported through the gospel. That we all have things that we do wrong and sometimes it gets into a place of pointing fingers about which wrong is worse."

Later on Friday, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and assistant Becky Hammon also stood for the anthem, though both were wearing the Black Lives Matter t-shirts.

Popovich has frequently spoken out about racial injustice in the past and Spurs star DeMar DeRozan urged others not to "vilify" those who did not kneel.

"Don't take away nothing from those guys," he said.

"You know Pop speaks out. When it comes to Becky, she's been [on the] front line, fighting for equality since I've been a fan of hers playing in the WNBA.

"So everybody has their own right of making a statement and you can't vilify nobody for not doing what the other group is doing. I'm all for it."

Asked why he had not knelt, Popovich replied: "I prefer to keep that to myself.

"Everybody has to make a personal decision. The league has been great about that. Everybody has the freedom to react any way that they want. For whatever reasons that I have, I reacted the way I wanted to."

Giannis Antetokounmpo starred in a win for the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA on Friday, while the Houston Rockets edged the Dallas Mavericks.

Antetokounmpo's double-double of 36 points and 15 rebounds helped the Bucks past the Boston Celtics 119-112.

The reigning NBA MVP went 14-of-20 from the field in the Bucks' victory.

Marcus Smart scored 23 points off the bench for Boston, while Jaylen Brown contributed 22 points.

James Harden starred with 49 points in the Rockets' 153-149 overtime win against the Dallas Mavericks.

Kristaps Porzingis (39 points and 16 rebounds) led the Mavericks, but they fell short.

 

Fantastic Fournier, Portland trio shine

Evan Fournier went 10-of-15 for 24 points in the Orlando Magic's 128-118 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

The Portland Trail Blazers overcame the Memphis Grizzlies 140-135 after overtime thanks to CJ McCollum (33 points), Damian Lillard (29) and Carmelo Anthony (21).

 

Terrible Tatum

Jayson Tatum struggled badly in the Celtics' loss. The forward went two-of-18 from the field for just five points in 32 minutes.

 

Harden's hot start

Harden made a fast start with 23 points in the first quarter for the Rockets.

Friday's results

Orlando Magic 128-118 Brooklyn Nets
Portland Trail Blazers 140-135 Memphis Grizzlies
Phoenix Suns 125-112 Washington Wizards
Milwaukee Bucks 119-112 Boston Celtics
San Antonio Spurs 129-120 Sacramento Kings
Houston Rockets 153-149 Dallas Mavericks

 

Lakers face Raptors

In another battle between two championship contenders, the Los Angeles Lakers (50-14) face the Toronto Raptors (46-18) on Saturday.

The NBA finally returns on Thursday and it's been a long-time coming.

Not since March 11 have players taken to the court and fans watched official games due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But, after months of waiting, the New Orleans Pelicans-Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers-Los Angeles Clippers clashes will headline the 2019-20 season restart in Orlando, Florida.

Inside the Walt Disney World Resort bubble, 22 teams will resume their regular seasons before the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Bucks topped the NBA standings at the time of the postponement, while the Los Angeles Lakers were flying in the Western Conference.

Using STATS data, we look at the best-performing players prior to the hiatus as LeBron James eyes a fourth championship ring and Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo chases a maiden title.

 

Red-hot LeBron

After a tough first season in Los Angeles, James has returned to his brilliant best in 2019-20. Before the coronavirus-enforced break, the four-time MVP catapulted himself into the mix for a fifth Most Valuable Player honour by leading the Lakers – who have played 63 of their 82-game regular season – to a Western Conference-best 49-14 record.

As the 35-year-old superstar prepares to resume his bid for another NBA crown, James leads the league in assists per game with 10.6. If he maintains his pace, James would be the third-oldest player to lead the NBA in assists per game behind two-time MVP and Phoenix Suns great Steve Nash – who did so in both 2009-10 (age 35-36) and 2010-11 (age 36-37). The former Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers forward has also been averaging 25.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game this season.

James, whose maiden campaign at Staples Center was cut short by a Christmas Day injury almost two years ago, was playing some of his best basketball alongside All-Star recruit Anthony Davis before the March suspension. In five games that month, James averaged 30.0 points and 10.6 assists per game, while shooting 55.7 per cent from the field. It is the only time in the last 30 years that any NBA player has averaged 30.0-plus points and 10.0-plus assists on 55.0-plus per cent shooting in a calendar month (minimum five games played).

 

Giannis – The Greek Freak

The Eastern Conference-leading Bucks (53-12) are on track for their first NBA title since 1971 thanks to superstar MVP Antetokounmpo after Mike Budenholzer's side lost in the Conference Finals last season.

Antetokounmpo – expected to go close to winning back-to-back MVPs – has not taken a backward step since being crowned the league's best in 2018-19, averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the high-flying Bucks this season.

The only players to average 25/13/5 in a season are Elgin Baylor (1960-61), Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64 and 1965-66) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1972-73 and 1975-76).

 

Harden firing Rockets

James Harden's standing among the greats is often debated but there is no doubting his quality and importance to the Houston Rockets.

Harden has established himself as a scoring machine in Houston since joining the Rockets from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012, especially from beyond the arc, and after averaging 36.1 points last season, the 2018 MVP is at it again.

In 2019-20, Harden – now partnered with fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook – is averaging 34.4 per game. The only players to average 34-plus points in back-to-back seasons are Wilt Chamberlain (six straight from 1959-60 to 1964-65), Baylor (three straight from 1960-61 to 1962-63) and Michael Jordan (1986-87 to 1987-88).

The Rockets – sixth in the west with a 40-24 record – are relying heavily on Harden to lead the two-time champions to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1995.

 

Dallas' dazzling Doncic

If you thought Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic was a one-season wonder, think again.

The reigning Rookie of the Year continues to take the NBA by storm, elevating the Mavericks (40-27) into a legitimate playoff threat after Dallas missed the postseason for a third consecutive year last term.

A first-time All-Star this season, Doncic is averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game for the much-improved Mavs in 2019-20.

The 21-year-old Slovenian sensation – who is forming a formidable combination with fellow international star Kristaps Porzingis – is looking to join Oscar Robertson (five times), Jordan (1988-89), Harden (2016-17) and Westbrook (2016-17) as the only players to average 28/8/8 in a season.

 

Williamson following in MJ's footsteps

When it comes to number one draft pick Zion Williamson, believe the hype.

The Pelicans rookie has not missed a beat since debuting in January, quickly making his presence known around the NBA competition.

Likened to James during his college days with Duke, Williamson has averaged 23.6 points per game in his first 19 games – the most by any player through 19 career games since Chicago Bulls and NBA legend Jordan (25.6).

Williamson has helped fill the void left by Davis in New Orleans and the Pelicans – 10th in the Western Conference with a 28-36 record – will be hoping the 20-year-old can lead the organisation to just their second playoff appearance in five seasons.

 

Keep an eye on Nets' LeVert

The Nets will be far from full strength in the NBA bubble. Superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are both sidelined through injury, while DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler and Taurean Prince have opted out.

Step up Caris LeVert.

LeVert has been much improved since re-joining the starting line-up with the playoff-chasing Nets. In his first 14 games off the bench, he was only averaging 11.1 points, 2.7 assists and 2.6 rebounds as Brooklyn went 5-9.

Since returning to the starting five, the 25-year-old is averaging 24.1 points, 5.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds through his last 16 games. More importantly, the Nets (30-34) boasted a 9-7 record to be seventh in a congested Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Clippers overcame the Orlando Magic in a scrimmage game as the NBA resumed on Wednesday.

The Clippers, one of the contenders for the title when the season restarts, beat the Magic 99-90.

Ahead of the NBA season officially restarting in Florida later this month, teams are playing scrimmage games.

Lou Williams led the Clippers with 22 points off the bench, while Paul George finished with 18.

Aaron Gordon, who had 13 points for Orlando, said it was unusual playing behind closed doors.

"It was really quiet, so you've got to bring your own energy," Gordon said, via the NBA website.

"You can hear everything that's being said on the floor.”

The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat beat the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings respectively.

The New Orleans Pelicans, meanwhile, thrashed the Brooklyn Nets 99-68.

An unidentified Orlando Magic player tested positive for coronavirus, while guard Markelle Fultz did not travel with the team for the NBA's season restart due to a personal issue. 

The 2019-20 NBA season is set to resume via a 22-team format at the Disney World complex in Orlando, Florida on July 30 after the campaign was halted due to the COVID-19 crisis in March.

Magic general manger Jeff Weltman said an unnamed player that contracted coronavirus during the NBA's final round of mandatory testing on June 23 is going through the league's quarantine protocols.  

"That player, I'm not at liberty to speak about it, is following protocol and we're hoping he can join us shortly," Weltman said on a videoconference call on Tuesday.

Fultz, meanwhile, was excused from the Magic and is expected to join the team when he can while adhering to the NBA's re-entry rules.   

Former number one pick Fultz ranked fifth on the Magic with an average of 12.1 points and first with 5.2 assists per game when the NBA season was suspended on March 12.  

No team have a shorter distance to travel than the Magic for the season restart at the Walt Disney complex in Orlando, where the franchise will recommence their campaign against the Brooklyn Nets on July 31.

"I think guys are excited," Weltman said. "They are optimistic. As the details become more apparent to everyone, I think the comfort level with the ability to maintain the health and safety of everyone involved has risen to a very high level.

"Today [Tuesday] everyone was in good spirits and they are looking forward to getting back to work."

The Magic are eighth in the Eastern Conference, half a game behind the Nets and five and a half games ahead of the ninth-placed Washington Wizards. 

The NBA announced the schedule for scrimmage games to take place before the season restarts following the coronavirus-enforced break.

Basketball came to a halt in the United States and Canada due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, but the 2019-20 NBA campaign is set to resume on July 30.

Orlando's Disney World complex will host 22 teams, with the Los Angeles Lakers headlining the league's comeback against rivals the Los Angeles Clippers on July 30 after the New Orleans Pelicans face the Utah Jazz on the same day.

Prior to the NBA returning, all 22 teams in Orlando will play three inter-squad scrimmages between July 22 and July 28.

Kawhi Leonard's Clippers will play the Orlando Magic on July 22, with the Washington Wizards-Denver Nuggets, Pelicans-Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings-Miami Heat scrimmages also taking place that day.

The Milwaukee Bucks led the NBA with a 53-12 record prior to the coronavirus crisis, ahead of the Lakers (49-14), defending champions the Toronto Raptors (46-18) and Clippers.

 

Scrimmage schedule:

Wednesday, July 22

Orlando Magic v Los Angeles Clippers
Washington Wizards v Denver Nuggets
New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets
Sacramento Kings v Miami Heat

Thursday, July 23

San Antonio Spurs v Milwaukee Bucks
Portland Trail Blazers v Indiana Pacers
Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Lakers
Phoenix Suns v Utah Jazz

Friday, July 24

Memphis Grizzlies v Philadelphia 76ers
Oklahoma City Thunder v Boston Celtics
Houston Rockets v Toronto Raptors

Saturday, July 25

Los Angeles Lakers v Orlando Magic
Milwaukee Bucks v Sacramento Kings
Miami Heat v Utah Jazz
Brooklyn Nets v San Antonio Spurs
Los Angeles Clippers v Washington Wizards
Denver Nuggets v New Orleans Pelicans

Sunday, July 26

Philadelphia 76ers v Oklahoma City Thunder
Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics
Indiana Pacers v Dallas Mavericks
Portland Trail Blazers v Toronto Raptors
Houston Rockets v Memphis Grizzlies

Monday, July 27

Washington Wizards v Los Angeles Lakers
Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Clippers
Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets
Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets
New Orleans Pelicans v Milwaukee Bucks

Tuesdays, July 28 

Memphis Grizzlies v Miami Heat
Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns
San Antonio Spurs v Indiana Pacers
Oklahoma City Thunder v Portland Trail Blazers
Boston Celtics v Houston Rockets
Dallas Mavericks v Philadelphia 76ers

A trip to Orlando, Florida is overwhelmingly a more popular travel destination than Milwaukee, Wisconsin for most American families.

NBA teams share that sentiment.

The NBA has approved its return-to-play plan, which will send 22 teams to the Walt Disney Resort near Orlando. All the games and practices will take place at the Disney complex after the NBA's Board of Governors approved proposals for a restart from the coronavirus-enforced break.

The teams invited to Florida are the 16 that held playoff spots when the season was halted on March 11, plus the six teams within six games of eighth place in both the Eastern and Western Conferences.

While having all the games at one location terminates travel and should cut down on some fatigue, it will provide a new challenge – likely playing games in empty gyms without the noise of the crowd.

A lack of crowd noise may be the biggest obstacle for the players, challenging their mettle. They will have to take part in crucial games and within these games, face critical possessions without getting any adrenaline rush from either the roar of the fans they would experience at their home arena or the chorus of boos from a hostile crowd when they are on the road.

For the teams, they are now pretty much all on equal footing. Those that had been dominating for the right to earn home-court advantage for the playoffs no longer have such an advantage.

When the season went on pause nearly three months ago, the Milwaukee Bucks owned the NBA's best record at 53-12. The Bucks are obviously an excellent team, boasting the league's highest-scoring offense behind reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but some of their success stems from their ability to easily dispatch of foes when they visited Milwaukee.

The Bucks have only lost two of their 30 games at Fiserv Forum since the calendar flipped to November. And both of those defeats came at the hands of West clubs – the Dallas Mavericks on December 16 and Denver Nuggets on January 31. They have gone 18-1 in Milwaukee against the East this season with the lone blemish coming in overtime to the Miami Heat in their home opener on October 26.

By continuing to defend home court against East teams, the Bucks appeared to have a relatively clear path to reach the NBA Finals, but now their opponents will no longer be making that dreaded trip to Milwaukee. 

Miami, meanwhile, is a hotter destination than Milwaukee – both literally and figuratively – and the Heat climbed to the top of the Southeast Division behind the strength of a 27-5 record in Miami – the third-best home record in the NBA.

The Heat, however, no longer will have the luxury of welcoming visitors to South Beach and its nightlife, instead playing the rest of their games in the more family-friendly environment provided by Mickey Mouse.

Only one team has compiled a better home record than the Bucks and Heat this season, and that has been perhaps one of the most perplexing teams of all time.

The Philadelphia 76ers have gone 29-2 at home, but if the playoffs started today they would not be hosting a first-round series. Thanks to an inability to win on the road where they have gone 10-24, the Sixers are in sixth place in the East. 

Philly has a .935 winning percentage at home and a .294 winning percentage on the road. That decrease of .641 in winning percentage from home to road is the largest difference since the NBA expanded to 14 teams in 1968-69. 

Seeing as there has been no rational explanation as to how a team can play so well at home and so poorly on the road, it is anyone's guess how the Sixers will fare in Orlando.

While teams will be missing out on having games at their own arenas and players will no longer have the creature comforts that come with home games, a handful of teams that are heading to Orlando had slightly better records on the road than at home before the season paused.

Playing these games on neutral courts, likely without fans, in Orlando does not exactly correlate to playing road games in intense visiting arenas in front of raucous playoff crowds, but the Dallas Mavericks (plus-.077 winning percentage from road to home games), Los Angeles Lakers (plus-.071), New Orleans Pelicans (plus-.063), Phoenix Suns (plus-.062) and Oklahoma City Thunder (plus-.039) all have higher winning percentages on the road than at home.

Of those five teams, only the Mavericks, Lakers and Thunder posted winning records both on the road and at home. 

When the season went on pause, the only teams with road winning percentages over .700 were perhaps the three favourites to win the title – the Lakers (.813 road winning percentage), the Bucks (.735) and defending champions the Toronto Raptors (.719). 

No big surprise, but the ability to win on the road and perform under pressure in adverse conditions bodes well for a team's championship aspirations. 

While these will not be road games, they will certainly be adverse conditions. Likely the most obscure these players have ever experienced.

After four NBA championships, an MVP award, two scoring titles, 15 selections to the All-Star Game and All-NBA First Team honours on eight occasions, Shaquille O'Neal called time on his illustrious career on June 1, 2011.

Nine years on and the Hall of Famer remains one of the most dominant centers the league has ever seen.

After being drafted first overall in 1992 by the Orlando Magic, O'Neal was named Rookie of the Year and went on to provide the focal point of a team that reached the NBA Finals in 1995.

The Magic failed to go one better the following year and lost him to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he teamed up with Kobe Bryant and three-peated under Phil Jackson.

He was traded to the Miami Heat and won one more NBA championship there, before stints at the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and, finally, the Boston Celtics.

O'Neal had his jersey numbers retired by the Heat and the Lakers, while the latter also erected a statue of him outside of Staples Center.

Using Stats Perform data, we look at some of the most notable aspects of O'Neal's career.

 

Controlling the paint

From his first year in the league until 2004-05, O'Neal averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in each of those seasons. That is 13 straight and is more than anyone else in NBA history. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon each accumulated 12 in succession.

During that run, there were 10 consecutive seasons (from 1993-94 until 2002-03) in which O'Neal averaged at least 25 points and 10 rebounds per game. Abdul Jabbar's run of nine from 1969-70 until 1977-78 is the next best.

He is one of just four players in NBA history to score more than 25,000 points and block over 2,500 shots.

A man for the big occasions

While he shared the spotlight with Bryant at the Lakers, O'Neal showed how important he was to the team when needed.

He was named the NBA Finals MVP in 2000, 2001 and 2002. The only other player to win the award in three straight years is Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.

O'Neal also holds the record for the most offensive rebounds in postseason history, with his 866 comfortably outstripping second-placed Tim Duncan's 778.

 

Struggles from the stripe

While he may have had the beating of most opponents in the paint, O'Neal found life much harder from the free-throw line.

He was often subjected to intentional fouls, with opposing coaches looking to manage the game clock and limit his team's scoring by sending him to the stripe. The strategy was dubbed the Hack-a-Shaq.

O'Neal missed 5,317 free throws across his entire career, the second-most all time in the NBA; only Chamberlain (5,805) missed more.

Of players to have made at least 1,200 free throws in the NBA, O'Neal has the fourth-worst percentage (52.7). Chamberlain is third with a 51.1 per cent success rate, with DeAndre Jordan (47.4) second only to Andre Drummond (46.1 per cent).

O'Neal also holds the single-game record for the most free-throw attempts without making one, failing to hit any of his 11 against the Seattle SuperSonics in December 2000. He still finished the game with 26 points.

Florida followed in the footsteps of Arizona by announcing it is open to professional sports teams amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Arizona governor Doug Ducey opened the door for sport to return to the state without fans on Saturday following the COVID-19 outbreak, which has wreaked havoc globally.

The NBA, NHL and MLS seasons have been postponed, while the start of the 2020 MLB campaign has been delayed.

But Florida's Ron DeSantis became the second governor to clear the way for sport to resume on Wednesday.

"All these professional sports are going to be welcomed in Florida," DeSantis said in a news conference midweek. "That may not be the case in every other state in this country, as we've seen.

"So what I would tell commissioners of leagues is, if you have a team in an area where they just won't let them operate, we'll find a place for you here in the state of Florida. Because we think it's important and we know that it can be done safely."

The United States has been the hardest country hit, with more than 1.4 million confirmed cases and over 85,000 deaths.

Last week's UFC 249 event was held behind closed doors in Jacksonville, Florida, while WrestleMania 36 took place in Orlando.

"Our people are starved to have some of this back in their lives," DeSantis said Wednesday. "It's an important part of people's lives."

Shaquille O'Neal was instantly a dominant force when he entered the NBA in 1992.

After being taken by the Orlando Magic with the first overall pick in the draft, 7ft 1in center O'Neal averaged 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game in his first season in the league.

On May 6, 1993, the Magic sensation, who joined a select group of players to be selected for the All-Star Game in their debut campaign, was unsurprisingly named Rookie of the Year.

The NBA is a very different place now, though, with three-point shooting an increasing requirement from every player on the floor. It is the age of the so-called 'unicorn'.

We use Stats Perform data to look at how the role of the big man has changed since O'Neal's incredible rookie season. For the below, a 'tall player' is anyone in the league that is 6ft 10in or above.

 

A rarer sight

To start with, tall players are less common in the NBA.

The percentage of them with at least one appearance in a season was around 30 per cent from 2000-01 until 2004-05 - the high in that period was 32 per cent in 2002-03.

This season the percentage of tall players is just 19.1, which is the first time the number has dropped below 20 since 1979-80 (17.1 per cent)

Lower usage

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising there has been a clear decrease in the percentage of league-wide minutes from tall players.

At the turn of the millennium, they claimed just over a quarter of the minutes (25.8 per cent) across the NBA. Their share over the following five seasons ranged from a high of 27.9 per cent in 2004-05 to 27.2 per cent in 2001-02.

It dipped below 22 per cent in 2017-18 and this season their overall share stands at just 18.8 per cent.

It would be the first campaign in which taller players played less than 20 per cent of the league's minute since 1979-80 (17.1 per cent).

Sharing the boards

Tall players accounted for upwards of 36 per cent of the total rebounds in the league between 2000 and 2010. The peak during that period was 39.6 in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

The ratio has fluctuated since, going down to 33.5 per cent in 2012-13, up to 36.3 per cent in 2014-15, and back to 34.3 in 2018-19.

This season, however, they have claimed just 30.2 per cent of the boards.

Less prolific

There has been a decrease in the percentage of points scored and field goals attempted by tall players.

Between 2000 and 2010 their share of points scored only dropped below a quarter in 2006-07 (24 per cent). It went as low as 22 per cent in 2012-13 and this season stands at 19.8.

It would be the first time since 1980-81 (19.5 per cent) that tall players accounted for less than 20 per cent of the league's points.

From averaging over a quarter of all field-goal attempts between 2001 and 2006, they are now contributing less and less.

This season tall players have attempted just 18.1 per cent of all field goals – a decrease of 3.1 per cent from the previous season and 8.1 since 2004-05.

Finding range

It's not just the number of tall players scoring that has changed, but the way they are doing it too.

Between 1979-80 and 1984-85, three-point attempts accounted for just 0.5 per cent of field-goal attempts by tall players.

That share jumped to 3.5 for the period from 1990-91 until 1994-95 – when O'Neal entered the league – and up again to 6.1 over the next five-season stretch.

We have now reached a point whereby, since 2015-16, big men have attempted 18.3 per cent of their field goals from beyond the arc.

Sticking with the times

That coincides with a league-wide trend of increased success with the three-point shot.

Before 2013-14, no more than four of the 10 players in points per game in a given season averaged at least two three-pointers made from range per game. Since then, at least five of the top 10 have done so in six of the seven seasons, with 2019-20 boasting seven players fitting the criteria.

When expanded to the 25 scorers in a given season, the number for 2019-20 increases to 18. Between 2007-08 and 2014-15 the number of players only went above five once (nine in 2013-14).

Roger Bannister produced a feat most thought impossible on May 6 many years ago, while more recently Shaquille O'Neal was rewarded for a memorable debut season in the NBA

Bannister laid to rest the demons of Olympics heartbreak to produce a moment that would stand the test of history in 1954.

Almost 40 years later, NBA legend O'Neal was receiving one of countless prizes he earned during a sensational career.

Here are the best sporting moments from this day down the years…


1954 – Bannister breaks through the barrier

It was described as "sport's greatest goal" and there were warnings from physiologists that running a sub four-minute mile was impossible and dangerous to attempt.

Yet Bannister, a medical student who had suffered disappointment when finishing fourth in the 1500 metres at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, achieved what was deemed unthinkable.

Helped by two pacers, Bannister managed to do a mile in three minutes and 59.4 seconds at Oxford University's Iffley Road track.

The record stood for just 46 days before John Landy of Australia shaved almost a second off that time, but it was Bannister who broke the barrier.


1970 – Feyenoord's Dutch courage downs Celtic

Just three years previously, Celtic's 'Lisbon Lions' had become the first British team to win the European Cup in a famous triumph over Inter.

On this occasion, the Bhoys were favourites at Milan's San Siro stadium for European football's showpiece.

But it was Feyenoord's turn to make history in a 2-1 triumph over Celtic, who had overcome the heavily fancied Leeds United in the semis.

Tommy Gemmell's 30th-minute opener proved a false dawn as Rinus Israel equalised. Swede Ove Kindvall then scored an extra-time winner three minutes from the end as Feyenoord became the first Dutch team to win Europe's top prize.

 

1993 – Shaq's rookie reward

Big things were expected of the gigantic O'Neal when he was selected first in the 1992 draft by the Orlando Magic - and he did not disappoint.

The center averaged 23.4 points (eighth in the NBA), 13.9 rebounds (second) and 3.53 blocks per game (second) as the Magic finished 41-41 to improve by 20 wins, though they still missed out on the playoffs.

O'Neal was named Rookie of the Year and went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career.

He won three NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and another with the Miami Heat, while he was named Finals MVP three years running between 2000 and 2002.

Things were looking up for the Chicago Bulls when Derrick Rose was named NBA MVP on May 3, 2011.

At 22 years old, Rose became the youngest player – and only the second for the Bulls after Michael Jordan – to win the award.

However, that proved to be the pinnacle of his fledgling career, as a serious knee injury denied him the chance to maximise his incredible potential.

Using data from Stats Perform, we look at five NBA careers that were ruined by injuries.

 

Derrick Rose

After being drafted first overall by the Bulls in 2008, Rose was tipped as a talent capable of leading them to their first NBA championship since the Jordan era.

He was named Rookie of the Year and earned MVP honours in the 2010-11 season after averaging 25 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game.

Rose led the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat that year, but they were unable to deny LeBron James a first appearance in the NBA Finals and lost in five games.

However, an ACL tear in the first round of the playoffs the following season proved to be the first in a string of knee injuries that derailed what looked set to be a Hall of Fame career.

Rose's production has dropped across the board since that blow against the Philadelphia 76ers, the most notable of which is his points per game dipping from 21 beforehand to 16.8.

He managed 46 double-doubles and 41 30-point games prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, but since then he has managed just 12 and 15 respectively.

 

Penny Hardaway

Shaquille O'Neal encouraged the Orlando Magic to trade 1993 first overall draft pick Chris Webber to the Golden State Warriors for Hardaway and the pair quickly developed a formidable partnership that made the team championship contenders.

The Magic went all the way to the NBA Finals in 1995 but the youthful team were swept by the more experienced Houston Rockets and, after they lost to Jordan's Bulls in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals, O'Neal left for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Hardaway appeared ready to become the leading man in Orlando but a knee injury sustained in December 1997 forced him to miss much of the remainder of the campaign.

He went from averaging 19.7 points and 6.3 assists per game to just 11.5 and 3.8 respectively.

Over half of the four-time All-Star's 313 games played prior to his injury saw him score 20 points or more. In his 391 appearances afterwards that ratio slipped to just 14.8 per cent.

 

Grant Hill

Two-time NCAA champion Hill entered the NBA surrounded by plenty of hype and he quickly established himself as a force in the league after being taken third overall by the Detroit Pistons in 1994.

He joined a select group of players to make the All-Star Game in their debut season and no one else in the league had as many votes as him – he ended up sharing Rookie of the Year honours with Jason Kidd.

Hill was a five-time All-Star and was the headline name heading into free agency in 2000, but he sustained a broken ankle – which he claims was mismanaged by the Pistons – during a first-round playoff game against the Heat and it altered the trajectory of his career.

The small forward landed with the Magic but was unable to continue delivering at his previous rates – his averages for points per game and assists per game fell from 21.6 and 6.3 to 13.1 and 2.6.

Hill managed just 31 double-doubles in the remaining 591 games of his career – just under a fifth of the amount he had accumulated in his first 435 appearances in the league.

His field-goal percentage may have increased from 47.6 per cent to 49.2 per cent, but just five of the 71 30-point games in his career came after his ankle injury.

 

Brandon Roy

Just one vote stopped Roy being a unanimous decision as Rookie of the Year in 2007, having averaged 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game during his first regular season with the Portland Trail Blazers.

He earned a four-year, maximum-salary contract in August 2009 and made his third All-Star appearance that season, but following surgery on a meniscus tear in his right knee – he had also previously had a procedure for a cartilage issue in his left knee – in April 2010 his career went south.

Roy, who had an operation on both knees in January 2011, would only play 52 more games in the NBA, five of which came in a bid to return from retirement with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2012-13 season.

In that period his points, assists and rebounds per game almost halved (points: 20.2 to 11.6, assists: 5.0 to 2.9, rebounds: 4.6 to 2.6).

Roy managed just one more double-double and 10 20-point games, having had 18 and 153 prior to the start of the 2010-11 season.

 

Tracy McGrady

The Rockets could have been championship contenders had McGrady and Yao Ming not both proved so injury-prone during their six years together on the team.

Despite an impressive start to life with the Rockets in 2004-05, back spasms sidelined McGrady for extended spells in the following two seasons.

The seven-time All-Star had painkilling injections to help ease knee and shoulder ailments ahead of the 2007-08 playoffs, but for the second straight season he was unable to guide Houston past the Utah Jazz in the first round.

McGrady's production fell off a cliff from the start of the following campaign. From scoring an impressive 22.4 points per game he slipped to just 8.7 – he only had one more 30-point game in the rest of his career, having had 205 beforehand.

As his career petered out at the New York Knicks, Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs – a short stint with the latter coming after a spell in China – McGrady went from a ratio of scoring 20 points every other game to doing so once in every 10 appearances.

However, he still earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.

After a gruelling 82-game regular season, April is usually an exciting time for NBA players and fans.

This time of year is typically headlined by playoff basketball, but the coronavirus pandemic has brought the NBA and sport to a standstill globally.

The NBA has been suspended since March 11 – halting the regular season and putting the playoffs on ice amid COVID-19 as the high-flying Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers vie for supremacy.

 

As the NBA waits for the threat of COVID-19 to subside, and for normal life to return, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers behind the scenes.

Having simulated the rest of the regular season to produce projected final standings, the goal was to see how the postseason would pan out too.

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 adjusts it for each team's pace. In addition, the home team gets 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 results…

 

BUCKS, LAKERS CRUISE INTO SECOND ROUND

Like last season, the Bucks earned the best regular-season record heading into the postseason. Milwaukee swept the Detroit Pistons in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2019 and the Bucks match that feat this year, albeit against the Orlando Magic. After one-point wins in the first two games, Milwaukee cruise into the Conference semi-finals – winning 112-106 and 113-93.

Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13, Western Conference pacesetters the Lakers blitz the Memphis Grizzlies 4-0 – highlighted by a 118-89 blowout in Game 2. The Los Angeles Clippers faded at the end of the regular season as they dropped down into the fourth seed, but the Lakers' neighbours prove too good for the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook had one foot in the second round but the Houston Rockets – who ended the regular season on a 15-3 run to claim the third seed – lose four straight games to the Utah Jazz in the west. Luka Doncic's Dallas Mavericks – back in the playoffs following a three-season absence – win three games in a row to take down the second-seeded Denver Nuggets 4-2.

For the second time in three years, the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat meet in the east's first round and the latter prevail 4-2 as Jimmy Butler has the last laugh against his former team. The Boston Celtics also see off the Indiana Pacers by the same scoreline.

No Kawhi Leonard, no worries for defending champions the Toronto Raptors, who only drop one game in a comprehensive 4-1 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

LEBRON MATCHES EARLIEST PLAYOFF EXIT

Hopes were high for LeBron James but the Lakers are upstaged by cross-town rivals the Clippers in six games. The Lakers level the series at 2-2 but the Clippers reel off back-to-back victories in a matchup where the margin does not drop below 10 points. It equals the earliest exit of James' playoff career, having reached the Finals in each of his past eight trips to the postseason.

Staying in the Western Conference and the Mavericks advance to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2011 – when they won the title – by rallying past the Utah Jazz. After dropping the first two games, Dallas win four on the bounce. The Mavericks' run, however, ends at the hands of the Clippers just shy of the NBA Finals, edged 4-3.

The Bucks fell short of a trip to the big dance last season, but Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee get the job done this time around by topping the Heat and Raptors in the east. A 130-96 Game 1 rout sets the tone for the Bucks, who beat Miami inside six games.

The Raptors are no match for the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, losing 4-1. Toronto's exit snaps a streak of four straight seasons in which the defending champions returned to the Finals the following year. The last team to win the title and then not reach the showpiece series the following season were the San Antonio Spurs, who claimed the championship in 2014.

 

CLIPPERS MAKE HISTORY BUT FALL TO BUCKS

It is a landmark moment for the Clippers, who feature in the NBA Finals for the first time in their history. In the four major US sports – NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL – the Clippers are the oldest franchise that have never progressed to the championship round, having played their first NBA game in 1970.

However, the Bucks spoil the party as they end the longest title drought in the NBA courtesy of a 4-2 triumph on the biggest stage. The Golden State Warriors held the record for the longest gap between championships – 40 years – but Milwaukee reign supreme for the first time since 1971, ending their 49-year wait.

Milwaukee and Los Angeles split the opening two games before the Bucks win two on the bounce to eventually claim a second NBA crown. Milwaukee's success also continues a common theme in the league, with five of the past eight champions having boasted the best regular-season record and won the title in the same year.

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