The Portland Trail Blazers dramatically set up a Western Conference play-in showdown against the Memphis Grizzlies as the red-hot Phoenix Suns missed out on the NBA playoffs.

Portland clinched the eighth seed in the west thanks to a nail-biting 134-133 win over the Brooklyn Nets in Orlando, Florida on Thursday.

The Suns improved to 8-0 at Walt Disney World Resort with a 128-102 victory against the Dallas Mavericks, and needed a Nets win to secure a play-in spot.

However, Damian Lillard's heroics of 42 points and 12 assists ensured the Trail Blazers clinched a play-in date against the Grizzlies – who trumped the Milwaukee Bucks 119-106 earlier in the day.

The Trail Blazers finished with a 35-39 record, ahead of the Grizzlies (34-39). Portland will only have to beat Memphis once in order to secure a playoff berth against the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, while the Grizzlies require two wins against the Trail Blazers.

Phoenix (34-39) are the first team in NBA history to end the regular season on an eight-plus game winning streak and still miss the playoffs. The last team to do that in any of the four major sports were NHL's the Philadelphia Flyers in 1992-93, per STATS.

 

LeBron ends regular season as assist king

The Lakers lost 136-122 to the Sacramento Kings but LeBron James was still crowned the assist king in 2019-20. James had 17 points in 15 minutes, all in the first half. The three-time NBA champion and four-time MVP ends the regular season averaging a league-best 10.2 assists per game, ahead of the Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young (9.3). The 35-year-old also reached double figures in points in his 995th consecutive game.

Lillard has 154 points across his past three games, the second most by any player in a three-game span this season – behind himself in January (158). Per STATS, the last player with 150-plus points in two separate three-game spans in a season was Wilt Chamberlain in 1964-65.

Devin Booker put up 27 points as the Suns stayed unbeaten since the NBA's restart following the coronavirus pandemic, but it was not enough.

Dillon Brooks' 31 points led the way for the Grizzlies, while he was aided by team-mates Jonas Valanciunas (26 points, 19 rebounds, 12 assists) and Ja Morant (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Jusuf Nurkic scored 22 points and 10 rebounds, while CJ McCollum had 25 points for the Trail Blazers. Caris LeVert finished with 37 points for the Nets.

 

Spurs' record-tying playoff streak over

The Spurs will not feature in the NBA playoffs for the first time in 23 years. San Antonio's absence from the postseason for the first time since 1996-97 was confirmed prior to their 118-112 loss to the Utah Jazz.

 

Dame from the arc

Lillard continues to prove his worth for the Blazers. Instrumental to Portland's play-in berth, Lillard highlighted his quality with a flurry of threes.

 

Thursday's results

Washington Wizards 96-90 Boston Celtics
Sacramento Kings 136-122 Los Angeles Lakers
Memphis Grizzlies 119-106 Milwaukee Bucks
Phoenix Suns 128-102 Dallas Mavericks
Utah Jazz 118-112 San Antonio Spurs
Portland Trail Blazers 134-133 Brooklyn Nets
Orlando Magic 133-127 New Orleans Pelicans

 

Regular season concludes

Friday will see teams play their final regular-season games before the playoffs start on August 17. The Denver Nuggets face the Toronto Raptors, the Miami Heat meet the Indiana Pacers, the Oklahoma City Thunder take on the Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets play the Philadelphia 76ers.

Devin Booker was willing the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday and send the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference play-in game.

The Suns have sensationally ended the seeding games in the 'bubble' with an 8-0 record after beating the Dallas Mavericks 128-102.

Phoenix had looked to be all but out of the running for the playoffs heading to Orlando, but star guard Booker has been in inspirational form.

He put up 27 points, seven rebounds and five assists against the Mavs, although the Memphis Grizzlies' win over the Milwaukee Bucks meant the Suns will be eliminated unless Portland lose later in the day.

Speaking to TNT after beating Dallas, Booker said: "I am aware of the Memphis score.

"I'm a big Brooklyn Nets fan. I'm going to call my guy Tyler Johnson and make sure they give it their all.

"But either way, I'm proud of this team."

He added: "We had one objective, and that was to get better. We did that."

Damian Lillard produced an incredible performance to lift the Portland Trail Blazers, while Giannis Antetokounmpo was ejected in the NBA on Tuesday.

Lillard scored 61 points to guide the Trail Blazers past the Dallas Mavericks 134-131 and into eighth place in the Western Conference.

The guard was in stunning form, going nine-of-17 from three-point range at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Carmelo Anthony (26 points) provided some support for Lillard as Portland boosted their playoff chances.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 36 points for the Mavericks, while Luka Doncic had a double-double of 25 points and 10 assists.

Antetokounmpo was ejected in the second quarter of the Bucks' 126-113 win over the Washington Wizards.

The reigning NBA MVP head-butted Moritz Wagner, having scored 12 points and had nine rebounds in 10 minutes.

Brook Lopez finished with 24 points for the Bucks.

 

Booker leads in-form Suns, Tatum shines

Devin Booker had 35 points and nine rebounds as the Phoenix Suns beat the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 for a seventh straight win.

Jayson Tatum helped the Boston Celtics past the Memphis Grizzlies 122-107 thanks to 29 points.

In the same game, Ja Morant had 26 points and 13 assists for the Grizzlies.

Harrison Barnes' 25 points and eight rebounds helped the Sacramento Kings edge the New Orleans Pelicans 112-106.

 

Awful Augustin

D.J. Augustin struggled from the field, going one-of-eight for just six points in the Orlando Magic's 108-96 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

 

Amazing Lillard

Lillard had his third game this season with 60-plus points and five-plus assists and no player has had more than two such games in their career since the merger, according to STATS.

Tuesday's results

Brooklyn Nets 108-96 Orlando Magic
San Antonio Spurs 123-105 Houston Rockets
Phoenix Suns 130-117 Philadelphia 76ers
Boston Celtics 122-107 Memphis Grizzlies
Portland Trail Blazers 134-131 Dallas Mavericks
Sacramento Kings 112-106 New Orleans Pelicans
Milwaukee Bucks 126-113 Washington Wizards

 

Clippers face Nuggets

Coming off a loss to the Nets, the Los Angeles Clippers (47-23) take on the Denver Nuggets (46-25) on Wednesday.

Kyle Kuzma was the hero as the Los Angeles Lakers trumped the Denver Nuggets 124-121 in the NBA on Monday.

Kuzma nailed a three-pointer with 0.4 seconds remaining to see the Lakers past Western Conference rivals the Nuggets at Walt Disney World Resort.

The Lakers forward finished with 25 points in Orlando, while LeBron James put up a double-double of 29 points and 12 assists as Anthony Davis contributed 27 points.

The Milwaukee Bucks were missing key players, but the Eastern Conference's top seed still made unwanted NBA history.

In the absence of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee went down 114-106 to defending champions the Toronto Raptors, who were also without Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet.

With the loss, the Bucks – who went 52-8 in their first 60 games of the season – fell to 3-8 from their past 13 outings.

The Bucks became the first team in NBA history to have as many or more losses over their final 13 games as they did the entire season prior to that, per STATS.

 

 

Booker stars again as Suns stay perfect

The Phoenix Suns improved to 6-0 inside the Orlando bubble since the league's restart after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder 128-101. Devin Booker led the way again with 35 points, including 14-for-14 from the free throw line.

Jimmy Butler (19 points and 11 rebounds) posted a double-double in his return from a foot injury as the Miami Heat closed in on the Eastern Conference fourth seed by topping the Indiana Pacers 114-92.

 

O'Neale headlines Jazz's woes

Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale was scoreless in a 122-114 loss at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. O'Neale was 0 of four from the field, while he missed all three of his attempts from beyond the arc in 14 minutes. Jordan Clarkson (18) was the only Jazz starter to shoot double-digit points.

It was a tough outing for the Thunder, who were held to just 17 points in the third quarter against the Suns. Oklahoma City managed just 37 points in the second half.

 

CP3 the architect

Chris Paul provided the lob for Thunder team-mate Darius Bazley to dunk emphatically.

 

Monday's results

Phoenix Suns 128-101 Oklahoma City Thunder
Dallas Mavericks 122-114 Utah Jazz
Toronto Raptors 114-106 Milwaukee Bucks
Miami Heat 114-92 Indiana Pacers
Los Angeles Lakers 124-121 Denver Nuggets

 

Suns face 76ers

The Suns will look to stay hot when they take on the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. The 76ers will be without All-Star pair Joel Embiid (ankle) and Ben Simmons (knee).

Draymond Green has been fined $50,000 by the NBA for comments made about Devin Booker's situation with the Phoenix Suns.

Appearing as an analyst on TNT, Golden State Warriors forward Green praised Booker for his performances since the NBA season restarted, before adding it was "not good for him" to be in Phoenix.

"It's great to see Book playing well, and Phoenix playing well, but get my man out of Phoenix. It's not good for him, it's not good for his career," Green said.

"They've got to get Book out of Phoenix. I need my man to go somewhere where he can play great basketball all the time and win, because he's that type of player."

In a statement released on Sunday, the NBA announced the comments violated the league's anti-tampering rule.

Green was indeed jokingly asked on the show if he was tampering, to which he replied: "Maybe."

"The NBA announced today that it has fined Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors $50,000 for violating the league's anti-tampering rule," the statement read.

"The fine is in response to statements Green made as an analyst on TNT on August 7 regarding the Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker.

"As announced prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, the NBA has adopted a stricter enforcement approach for conduct relating to tampering, salary cap circumvention and free agency timing rules, including with respect to the rule prohibiting player-to-player tampering."

The Suns defeated the Miami Heat on Saturday to stretch their winning streak to five games. They have a 31-39 record and sit 10th in the Western Conference as they aim to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

TJ Warren overshadowed LeBron James' return as the Los Angeles Lakers slumped to a third successive NBA loss, while Luka Doncic dazzled on Saturday.

Back after a groin injury, Lakers star James had 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 35 minutes but could not stop the Indiana Pacers and their thriving small forward from claiming a 116-111 victory.

Warren, a revelation since entering the NBA bubble, continued his incredible scoring run with 39 points on 15-of-22 shooting.

In the final minute, he hit a floater, a pull-up jumper and a clutch three-pointer over Anthony Davis to earn the Pacers a fourth win from five games at Walt Disney World Resort.

All-Star guard Doncic and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo did not disappoint in their duel, sharing 70 points between them as the Dallas Mavericks outlasted the Milwaukee Bucks 136-132 in overtime.

Doncic did the business for Dallas, delivering a decisive triple-double with 36 points, 19 assists and 14 rebounds.

 

Pain for Mitchell, better for Booker

Donovan Mitchell's nerveless 35-point performance was not enough to help the Utah Jazz avoid a 134-132 defeat to the Denver Nuggets in double overtime, a thrilling game that included 30 points and 11 rebounds from Nikola Jokic.

Devin Booker's 35 points proved more valuable for the Phoenix Suns, who beat the Miami Heat 119-112 to stay undefeated since the restart.

 

Lillard's let down

After trading taunts with the Los Angeles Clippers, Damian Lillard let his opponents have the last laugh when he wasted two clutch free throws and missed a three-point attempt late in the Portland Trail Blazers' 122-117 loss.

 

Doncic's delicious dime

The Mavericks' main man went between the legs for one of his 19 assists.

Saturday's results

Los Angeles Clippers 122-117 Portland Trail Blazers
Denver Nuggets 134-132 Utah Jazz (2OT)
Indiana Pacers 116-111 Los Angeles Lakers
Phoenix Suns 119-112 Miami Heat
Dallas Mavericks 136-132 Milwaukee Bucks (OT)

 

Trail Blazers face 76ers

Lillard and the Trail Blazers (32-39), ranked ninth in the Western Conference, know they cannot afford any errors when they face the Philadelphia 76ers (42-27) on Sunday.

The LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers fell to another NBA loss, while Giannis Antetokounmpo starred again on Thursday.

Without James (groin), the Lakers suffered a second straight loss, beaten by the Houston Rockets 113-97.

James Harden led the way for the Rockets with 39 points on 11-of-19 shooting, while the guard also had 12 assists and eight rebounds at the Walt Disney World Resort.

In James' absence, Anthony Davis had a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Lakers.

Coming off back-to-back losses, the Milwaukee Bucks clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference by beating the Miami Heat 130-116.

The Bucks recovered from a 23-point deficit to bounce back, with Antetokounmpo finishing with 33 points and 12 rebounds.

Khris Middleton also posted 33 points for Milwaukee.

Leonard, Lillard in form

Kawhi Leonard had 29 points as the Los Angeles Clippers eased past the Dallas Mavericks 126-111.

Damian Lillard hit 11 three-pointers in a 45-point haul to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 125-115 win over the Denver Nuggets.

A career-high 35 points from Bogdan Bogdanovic guided the Sacramento Kings to a 140-125 success against the New Orleans Pelicans.

 

Cook can't take chance

Quinn Cook was unable to make the most of his start for the Lakers. The guard went two-of-12 from the field for just six points in 29 minutes.

 

Amazing Lillard

Lillard went 11-of-18 from three-point range in an incredible performance.

Thursday's results

Sacramento Kings 140-125 New Orleans Pelicans
Milwaukee Bucks 130-116 Miami Heat
Phoenix Suns 114-99 Indiana Pacers
Los Angeles Clippers 126-111 Dallas Mavericks
Portland Trail Blazers 125-115 Denver Nuggets
Houston Rockets 113-97 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Celtics face Raptors

The Boston Celtics (45-23) and Toronto Raptors (49-18) go head-to-head in another blockbuster battle on Friday.

The NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks crashed to a 119-116 defeat against the Brooklyn Nets, while the Phoenix Suns upstaged the Los Angeles Clippers at the buzzer.

Back-to-back three-pointers from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot put the Nets ahead during the closing stages as the Bucks suffered a surprise loss in Orlando, Florida on Tuesday.

Luwawu-Cabarrot posted a career-high 26 points for the Nets (32-25), while reigning MVP and Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 16 points before sitting out the entire second half.

The Bucks (54-14) are yet to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference following consecutive defeats at the Walt Disney World Resort.

There was another upset in the Orlando bubble as the Clippers went down 117-115 to the Suns following Devin Booker's buzzer-beating shot.

Booker nailed a turnaround jumper over Clippers star Paul George as time expired in a 35-point performance for the Suns, after Kawhi Leonard had tied the game with 31.1 seconds remaining.

The playoff-chasing Suns (29-39) claimed their third consecutive victory since the NBA resumed following the coronavirus-enforced break.

Leonard led the Clippers (45-22) with 27 points, while team-mate George contributed 23 of his own.

 

Doncic's historic triple-double leads Mavs

Luka Doncic's 34 points, career-high 20 rebounds and 12 assists helped the Dallas Mavericks top the Sacramento Kings 114-110 in overtime. At 21 years and 158 days, Doncic became the youngest player to finish a game with 30 or more points, 20 or more rebounds and 10 or more assists.

T.J. Warren enjoyed another fine outing with 32 points as the Indiana Pacers beat the Orlando Magic 120-109.

A 21-point and 19-rebound Jusuf Nurkic double-double fuelled the Portland Trail Blazers' 110-102 victory over the Houston Rockets.

 

Bogdanovic struggles

In the Kings' loss to the Mavericks, Bogdan Bogdanovic was just one for 15 from the field in 21 minutes. The Kings shooting guard only made one of eight three-pointers for three points.

 

Harden inspires quick basket

A perfectly weighted inbound pass from Houston Rockets star James Harden caught the Portland Trail Blazers napping as Russell Westbrook made the catch before teeing up Ben McLemore in a swift move.

 

Tuesday's results

Brooklyn Nets 119-116 Milwaukee Bucks
Dallas Mavericks 114-110 Sacramento Kings (OT)
Phoenix Suns 117-115 Los Angeles Clippers
Miami Heat 112-106 Boston Celtics
Indiana Pacers 120-109 Orlando Magic
Portland Trail Blazers 110-102 Houston Rockets

 

Thunder face Lakers

The Oklahoma City Thunder will meet the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday. The Thunder are coming off a loss, while the Lakers clinched the top seed in the west on Monday.

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.

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.

A pair of Phoenix Suns revealed on Wednesday they had contracted coronavirus, and while Ricky Rubio has joined the team at the NBA bubble in Florida, Aron Baynes is still in quarantine.

After clearing the league’s protocol following his positive test, Rubio began practising with the Suns on Tuesday, though he is uncertain how much he will play in their exhibition games.

Baynes’ status is far murkier.

Still in Phoenix, the center said he has not touched a basketball in 30 days and coronavirus took a toll on him.

"It actually put me on my butt for a good week," he said in a video interview with Stadium on Wednesday. "I slept for four days straight."

Baynes said his wife and two kids also tested positive but had mild symptoms.

The 33-year-old is back to training, admitting that Wednesday's workout was the first one since he contracted the virus that he felt normal afterwards.

The goal for Baynes is to join the Suns, but he still needs two consecutive negative tests before he can arrive at the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort complex.

"I'm still not [testing negative]," he said. "I'm in protocol where I have the antibodies that we've tested, I have antibodies so I'm not contagious, but I still need those negatives because, end of the day, that's the criteria the NBA has set up."

In his first season with Phoenix, the eight-year veteran is averaging career bests of 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds in 42 games for a Suns team that resume their season against the Washington Wizards on July 31.

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.

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