The Boston Celtics have emerged as the favourites to make it through the Eastern Conference after a 116-112 win against the Brooklyn Nets confirmed a 4-0 series sweep.

In what was billed as arguably the most competitive first round series in recent memory, the Celtics were simply too good on the defensive end to let the frightening Nets offense find any rhythm or flow.

Boston's Jayson Tatum scored a team-high 29 points on nine-of-16 shooting (four-of-six from distance) before getting fouled out late in the fourth quarter, while Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart showed his offensive skills with 20 points and 11 assists.

Grant Williams did a superb job for the Celtics, coming off the bench to hit four of his six three point attempts, while also playing smothering defense on Kevin Durant and swatting away three shots.

Despite Williams' best efforts, Durant was still a force offensively, scoring a game-high 39 points on 13-of-31 shooting while adding nine assists and seven rebounds in 47 minutes.

Kyrie Irving played 45 minutes, and finished with a respectable line of 20 points, five rebounds and five assists, but he went missing for long stretches of the must-win game. Irving attempted just 13 shots, which was the same number as Seth Curry, who outscored him with 23 points.

An early storyline in the game, and ultimately one of the deciding factors, was Brooklyn's reserve center Nic Claxton missing the first 10 free throws he attempted, finishing the game one-for-11.

Raptors make things interesting

The Toronto Raptors refuse to lay down against the Philadelphia 76ers, winning Game 5 103-88 on the road to pull the series back to 3-2, with Game 6 heading back to Canada.

Toronto trailed 3-0 after three games, but have won back-to-back fixtures with their season on the line to put the pressure back on Philadelphia.

Game 5 was won on the defensive end, as the Raptors took control of the contest with a 25-14 second quarter.

Toronto forced 16 Philadelphia turnovers while only committing nine themselves, and they held the home side to 38 per cent shooting (31-of-81), with the visitors shooting 51 per cent (42-of-82).

With Fred VanVleet out of action, Pascal Siakam assumed point guard duties for Toronto, finishing with 23 points (10-of-17 shooting) with 10 rebounds and seven assists, while Precious Achiuwa added 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes off the bench.

Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes showed his talent in his return to the starting line up, scoring 12 points, grabbing eight rebounds, dishing four assists and snatching a game-high three steals.

For the 76ers, Joel Embiid was kept quiet by his standards with 20 points and 11 rebounds from just 15 field goal attempts as the Raptors consistently double-teamed him and forced Philadelphia's role players to hit shots.

James Harden was disappointing, with just 15 points and seven assists to go with five turnovers.

No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit.

 

Dallas' defense hits new heights

The last game of the night was also the least competitive, as the Dallas Mavericks flashed some unbelievable defensive upside in a 102-77 win against the Utah Jazz.

Prior to the game, Utah's lowest score of the season was a 124-90 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in March, with the 77-point figure being their lowest score since November 2018 – in a 118-68 loss to the Mavericks.

Dallas now leads the series 3-2, with Game 6 to be played in Utah, and while the Mavs' defense stole the show, Luka Doncic was the best player on the floor.

Doncic had 33 points (11-of-22 shooting) in 33 minutes, with 13 rebounds and five assists, while partner-in-crime Jalen Brunson chipped in with 24 points on nine-of-20 shooting with four assists and just one turnover.

Utah only scored more than 19 points in one quarter – the last, when the game was sealed – as the Mavericks won the first three frames by margins of 24-18, 28-18 and 29-19.

It was the lowest-scoring game of Donovan Mitchell's playoff career, finishing with just nine points on four-of-15 shooting. Of Mitchell's four career playoff games with 12 points or fewer, this was the first since April 2019.

The Brooklyn Nets are listing Ben Simmons as out for Game 4 against the Boston Celtics.

Simmons has yet to play a game this season, with a back injury keeping him on the sideline since being traded to Brooklyn at the deadline.

Indications had been that the three-time All-Star was trending towards his Nets debut in Game 4 of the series, but the inevitability of the outcome may be leading to some extra caution.

The Nets trail the series 3-0, a deficit no NBA team has come back from in the seven-game series format.

Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant believes "thinking too much" is partly to blame for his struggles in the NBA playoffs against the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics extended their series lead in the Eastern Conference first round to 3-0 after a 109-103 victory at Barclays Center, and Durant was again unable to do much about it.

Despite averaging 29.9 points per game during the regular season, Durant is averaging just 22.0 in three postseason games and only scored 16 in his latest outing on Saturday.

Bruce Brown was the highest scorer for the Nets with 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting, but he and Durant contributed to 10 of the team's 18 turnovers.

"I was just thinking too much to be honest, this whole series," Durant said after the game. "Like how I approach the game. We got another game to play, another opportunity, and I'm looking forward to that.

"I feel like the first two games I was trying to be too aggressive. A team that's loading up on me, that's trying to take me out of all my actions."

A starring role from Jayson Tatum was the difference for Boston as the 24-year-old scored 39 points, with six assists and five rebounds, while Robert Williams returned from injury to play 15 minutes and help stifle Durant and Kyrie Irving, who himself also managed just 16 points.

"Every team I've been on, you're just trying to figure out the best way to play," Durant added. "When you got good team-mates around you as well, you're trying to figure out, I try to figure out how I can be the best version of myself and also not getting in my teammates' way.

"Sometimes I think too much about it. Sometimes I need to go out there and just [have] no thoughts in my head and just play.

"I feel like I prepared myself the right way. It's a matter of the small decisions in the game that may not go in my favour. I thought I found my teammates better than I did the last two games. I just need to score more."

The Nets must win Game 4, which takes place at Barclays Center on Monday, to keep the series alive.

The Boston Celtics inched closer to sweeping the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, claiming a 3-0 series lead with a 109-103 victory at the Barclays Center.

Jayson Tatum notched up 39 points on 13-of-29 shooting, six assists, five rebounds and six steals in the win for the Celtics, who continued to lock down Kevin Durant.

Though Durant shot 54.5 per cent from the floor, moving him to 17-of-52 for the series, he did it on 11 shots on Saturday as the flexible and intense Celtics defensive scheme continued to force the ball out of his hands. Kyrie Irving also went six-of-17 from the floor.

Bruce Brown was the highest scorer for the Nets with 26 points on 10-of-19 shooting, but he and Durant contributed to 10 of the team's 20 turnovers, from which Boston scored 25 points.

The Celtics led for the whole of the second half and whenever the Nets would threaten with a scoring run, managed to make timely buckets and secure a big road win.

Gobert gets up for Jazz win

Luka Doncic's return from injury was not enough for the Dallas Mavericks as the Utah Jazz evened up their series at 2-2, earning a 100-99 win.

Rudy Gobert gave Utah the lead with an alley-oop dunk with 11 seconds remaining in Game 4, before Spencer Dinwiddie missed a three-ball at the buzzer for the Mavs.

While Doncic had 30 points in his first game back from a strained calf, Dallas were kept to just 18 points in the fourth quarter, shooting six-of-18 from the floor.  

Siakam sizzles as Raptors avoid sweep

Pascal Siakam scored 15 of his of 34 points in the fourth quarter as the Toronto Raptors avoided a series sweep, defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 110-102.

Despite a 19-point deficit in points off turnovers, Toronto continually managed to penetrate and get on the break, holding a combined 25-point advantage for points in the paint and fast-break points.

Nursing an injured thumb, Joel Embiid shot seven-of-16 from the floor for his 21 points to go with eight rebounds, but also coughed up five turnovers.

Timberwolves level series with Grizzlies

Karl-Anthony Towns bounced back from a disappointing Game 3 to help the Minnesota Timberwolves even their playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies, winning 119-118.

After going missing in Game 3, taking only four shots as the Grizzlies overcame a 26-point deficit, Towns was more assertive from the outset, adding 13 rebounds to 33 points.

Anthony Edwards' fingerprints were all over the game however, coming up with 24 points on seven-of-14 shooting, four rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks.

Robert Williams is hoping to play some part in Game 3 of the Boston Celtics' playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, according to reports.

The center has been one of the standout players for Boston this season, but has not played since 27 March after undergoing knee surgery.

However, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Friday that Williams intends to play "limited minutes" at the Barclays Center, with the Celtics 2-0 up in the series.

The 24-year-old was second in the league during the regular season for blocked shots per game (2.20), behind only Jaren Jackson Jr of the Memphis Grizzlies (2.27), and third for offensive rebounds per game (3.9), behind only Steven Adams of the Grizzlies (4.6) and Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks (4.1).

Williams also shot a field goal percentage of 73.6 from an average of six attempts per game in his 61 regular-season appearances.

The report went on to claim that Williams hopes to play more minutes on Game 4 on Monday, should he avoid any setbacks, and that he has competed in consecutive five-on-five practices.

Kevin Durant accepts it is down to him to step up and rescue the Brooklyn Nets' playoff series after struggling once again as his side fell 2-0 down to the Boston Celtics.

The 12-time NBA All-Star went zero-of-10 from the field in the second half, which is the most field attempts without a make in any half during his career.

While Durant did manage to score 12 points in the second half, it was not enough as the Celtics overturned a 17-point deficit to prevail 114-107 on Wednesday.

He is now 13-for-40 from the field in the series, having also struggled in the Nets' 115-114 loss in Game 1.

"It's on me to just finish it and figure it out," Durant said when asked about his latest underwhelming display. 

"I'm not expecting my team-mates or the defense to give me anything. I've just got to go out there and play."

Despite being targeted by multiple players, Durant still led the scoring with 27 points at TD Garden as he finished 18-of-20 from the free throw line.

 

Rather than complain about opposition tactics, though, the 33-year-old hopes to find a solution in time for Game 3 in Brooklyn on Saturday.

"They're playing two, three guys off me sometimes on me when I'm off the ball," Durant said. "They're mucking up actions when I run off stuff.

"I see [Al] Horford leaving his man to come over and hit me sometimes. Two or three guys hit me wherever I go. And that's just the nature of the beast in the playoffs. 

"I feel like I got a couple good shots there in the fourth that just didn't go down, but I see a few of their guys around me every time I get the ball.

"So I got to be more patient, but also play fast sometimes, too."

Kyrie Irving, who added 10 points for the Nets, believes the blame should be shared on the back of successive defeats.

"We're going against the No. 1 team in defense in the league. They've proven it, so it's not going to be easy, but it can be done," he said.

"I've got to get [Durant] to his spots and make the game a lot easier, and I believe I can do that with the assistance of the coaches and having a game plan to attack this defense."

The Boston Celtics overturned a 17-point deficit to go 2-0 up over the Brooklyn Nets in their playoff series, winning 114-107 on Wednesday.

The Nets' lack of off-ball movement eventually told against the NBA's best defensive team, as Kevin Durant scored 12 points in the second half but went zero-of-10 from the open floor and the Nets went 11-of-36 collectively.

Kyrie Irving shot one-of-seven after the main break and the Nets' iso-ball provided such a net loss, the second-half collapse came despite the Nets holding advantages in team rebounding, fast-break points and points off turnovers for the game.

Derrick White was the only Celtic not to score in double digits as Ime Udoka went with the eight-man rotation. Even with the relatively low 27 assists for the team, the Celtics still had a +11 margin over the Nets in that category.

Jayson Tatum was the only player on the floor with a double-double, putting up 19 points, 10 assists and six rebounds as the Celtics protected home court.

Sixers inch closer to series sweep

The Philadelphia 76ers took a commanding 3-0 lead in their series with the Toronto Raptors, claiming a 104-101 win in overtime on the road.

After protecting home court, the Sixers also fought their way back from a 17-point deficit to take a huge step towards claiming the first-round series.

With the game tied at 101, Joel Embiid scored the game-winning basket with 0.8 seconds remaining, evading Precious Achiuwa and receiving the inbound to bury a turnaround three-pointer off the catch.

The MVP candidate finished with 33 points on 12-of-20 shooting and 12 rebounds, while James Harden and Tyrese Maxey contributed 19 points each.

It was yet another poor shooting night for Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr, combining for 36 points but off 12-of-32 shooting from the floor, with VanVleet's two-of-10 from beyond the arc particularly damaging.

Bulls split series in Milwaukee

The Chicago Bulls have managed to split the opening two games and can potentially gain home-court advantage in the series after their 114-109 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

There was a sense the Bulls could take at least one game from Milwaukee after the opener, which saw them almost claim the win despite a horrible shooting night from Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine.

After a combined 21-of-71 in Game 1, the three Bulls bounced back with a combined 33-of-62 from the floor, while Alex Caruso gave them a reference point with primary ball-handling duties.

The Bucks just could not stop DeRozan getting to his mid-range spots and the five-time All-Star finished with 41 points. Caruso did a bit of everything on both ends with nine points and 10 assists as well as two blocks and two steals.

While Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 33 points, Milwaukee ultimately could not work their way back from a poor first half that opened up an 18-point deficit.

Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving has been fined $50,000 for flipping off Boston Celtics fans twice during Sunday's Game 1.

Irving, who was with the Celtics from 2017 and 2019, scored 39 points as the Brooklyn Nets lost 115-114 to the Celtics after Jayson Tatum's buzzer-beating game-winner.

The NBA announced the sanction on Tuesday in a release, where president of league operations Byron Spruell said Irving was fined for "making obscene gestures on the playing court and directing profane language toward the spectator stands."

The 30-year-old was open after Sunday's defeat about his response to the Boston fans.

"When people start yelling 'p---y' or 'b----' and 'f--- you' and all this stuff, there's only but so much you take as a competitor," Irving said.

"We're the ones expected to be docile and be humble, take a humble approach, f--- that, it's the playoffs. This is what it is."

Ben Simmons is making progress towards a return in the NBA playoffs after being cleared for contact says to Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash.

Simmons, who was traded to the Nets from the Philadelphia 76ers in February, has not played in the NBA all season after a fallout at his former franchise.

The 25-year-old three-time All-Star had struggled initially with him reconditioning after joining the Nets, before being plagued by a back problem which he is slowly overcoming.

"He's making progress," Nash told reporters after Tuesday's practice. "We'll just see how he responds and see if he's able to do more contact [on Wednesday]."

Simmons had joined in a 4-on-4 with teammates at a Monday workout with contact.

"So far, so good," Nash said. "I think he managed yesterday's activity well."

The Nets are currently 1-0 down in their seven-game first round playoffs series against the Boston Celtics.

Nash confirmed Simmons would not play in Game 2 on Wednesday but there is growing hope he will participate in the series in some capacity.

"I wouldn't be able to say anything about that because I'm not even sure how he's going to get through these weeks," Nash said.

"We have to also consider it's a nine-month absence or whatever it is, so it's not just like he had a six-week absence, so I think this is a pretty unique scenario. It's not as linear as maybe the other kind of in-season injuries."

Kyrie Irving has been fined $50,000 by the NBA after appearing to raise his middle finger to fans on two separate occasions during Game 1 of the Brooklyn Nets' playoffs opener against the Boston Celtics.

Irving defended his actions during the Nets' 115-114 loss to the Celtics on Sunday.

The 30-year-old, who played for Boston for two turbulent seasons before a sour exit in 2019, has been regularly booed by fans at the TD Garden, and the ill-feeling has only intensified with each meeting.

Irving scored a game-high 39 points in Sunday's loss, and insisted he was only reciprocating the feedback from the Celtics fans.

"Look, where I'm from, I'm used to all these antics and people being close nearby," Irving said post-game. "It's the same energy, and I'm going to have the same energy for them.

"And it's not every fan. I don't want to attack every fan, every Boston fan, but when people start yelling 'p****' or 'b****' or 'f*** you' and all this stuff, there's only but so much you take as a competitor.

"We're the ones expected to be docile and humble, take a humble approach. F*** that, it's the playoffs. It is what it is."

On Tuesday it was confirmed by the NBA that Irving would be fined for his actions, with a statement released by NBA Communications saying: "Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving has been fined $50,000 for making obscene gestures on the playing court and directing profane language toward the spectator stands, it was announced today by Byron Spruell, President, League Operations.

"Irving made the gestures and his comments to the spectators during the Nets' 115-114 loss to the Boston Celtics on April 17 at TD Garden."

Game 2 will take place at TD Garden on Wednesday.

Jayson Tatum clinched a memorable playoff win over the Brooklyn Nets with a Game 1 buzzer-beater and felt that moment was evidence of the Boston Celtics' progress this season.

The Celtics finished in the two seed in the East, meaning a daunting matchup with the Nets in round one after they progressed through the play-in tournament.

Game 1 was every bit as tricky as Boston might have feared, but they came through in dramatic fashion thanks to Tatum's last-gasp intervention.

It was Tatum who contested a Kevin Durant three after dogged Celtics defense, allowing Al Horford to grab the rebound and set in motion a flowing move in the final seconds.

Horford moved the ball on to Derrick White and then Jaylen Brown, who picked out Marcus Smart for what looked to be a make-or-break three-point attempt with the Nets still a point ahead.

Instead, Smart picked out a cutting Tatum for a spinning layup at the buzzer to claim a stunning 115-114 win at The Garden.

"I think we all thought Smart was going to shoot it," Tatum said. "Last-second shot, just crash the glass. If it doesn't go in, try to make a play.

"But when he took that dribble, we just kind of made eye contact and he made a great pass. I just had to make the layup.

"It doesn't get any better than that. A buzzer-beater in a playoff game at home."

Celtics coach Ime Udoka could have called a timeout when Durant missed but instead trusted his players to get the job done.

"You've got to give credit to Ime for trusting us in that situation with one timeout to just go," Smart said. "That's a big confidence builder for us.

"The coach trusted us to go out there and make a play and be basketball players."

The Celtics have come a long way from their start to the season, having been 17-19 at the turn of the year but 34-12 through to the end of the regular season – their .739 winning percentage third behind the Phoenix Suns (.787) and the Dallas Mavericks (.745) in 2022.

Reflecting on a win in which he scored a team-high 31 points – his ninth career 30-point playoff game and fourth against Brooklyn – Tatum said: "I think it just shows the progression of our team, how far we've come.

"In those first two months, obviously we were average and we were struggling. And we've just been playing the right way these last couple of months.

"And that's a reason why we've been so successful, especially in big moments. It's all about just trying to make the right play."

Smart added: "It was fulfilling for us, especially because of the way we started this year off; those types of games, we lost.

"We were probably crumbling, and for a moment there, it kind of looked like that was the direction it was going.

"But the resilience that we have, the approach we have, and the work we put in to make sure that doesn't happen – you just learn."

Kyrie Irving defended his actions during the Brooklyn Nets' 115-114 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday, where he appeared to raise his middle finger to fans on two separate occasions during Game 1 of their playoffs opener.

Irving, who played for Boston for two turbulent seasons before a sour exit in 2019, has been regularly booed by fans at the TD Garden, and the ill-feeling has only intensified with each meeting.

The 30-year-old has not hidden his feelings towards the organisation either, stomping on the Celtics logo at mid-court of the Garden following Brooklyn's win in Game 4 of last season's playoffs series between the two.

Scoring a game-high 39 points during his running battle with the crowd in Sunday's loss, Irving asserted he is only reciprocating the ill-sentiment.

"Look, where I'm from, I'm used to all these antics and people being close nearby," Irving said post-game. "It's the same energy, and I'm gonna have the same energy for them.

"And it's not every fan. I don't want to attack every fan, every Boston fan, but when people start yelling 'p****' or 'b****' or 'f*** you' and all this stuff, there's only but so much you take as a competitor.

"We're the ones expected to be docile and humble, take a humble approach. F*** that, it's the playoffs. It is what it is."


The seven-time All-Star relentlessly attacked on Sunday, playing with notable vigour on his way to 39 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals in just over 42 minutes.

He also shot 60 per cent from the floor in both total and three-point categories, hinting that he was driven by the crowd.

"Embrace it," Irving said. "Embrace it. It's the dark side. Embrace it.

"I know what to expect in here, and it's the same energy I'm giving back to them. This isn't my first time at TD Garden so what you guys saw, what you guys think is entertainment, or the fans think is entertainment, all is fair in competition."

Jayson Tatum's buzzer-beating layup gave the Boston Celtics a dramatic 115-114 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in their series opener on Sunday.

Tatum scored 16 of his 31 points in the second half, along with adding eight assists, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal. His final two points came in the frenetic final seconds, cutting towards the basket off Kevin Durant for Marcus Smart, spinning past Kyrie Irving and finishing with as time expired.

Smart particularly showed poise, forcing the closeout from Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton before dishing, along with adding 20 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

While Irving scored a game-high 39 points for the Nets, Durant put up 23 points but went nine-of-24 from the floor, including some open, trailing looks in transition. One miss at 102-98 would have made it a three-possession game in Brooklyn's favour midway through the fourth quarter, but a miss leading to a Jaylen Brown dunk brought it back to one.

It was also at that point where Boston were zero-for-seven for the quarter from the floor, and momentum suddenly shifted.

Giannis yields Bucks win in opener

Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 26 points and 17 rebounds as the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Chicago Bulls 93-86.

The defending NBA champions blew a 16-point lead, but recovered with a Jrue Holiday triple that triggered an 8-0 run.

The Bulls still had their chances, with Zach LaVine missing a game-tying three-pointer with 29 seconds remaining in what was a rough shooting night. LaVine and DeMar DeRozan shot a combined 12-of-44 as the team connected on only 32.3 per cent of field goal attempts.

Red-hot Robinson gives Heat opening victory

Duncan Robinson set a franchise playoff record with eight three-pointers in a catch-and-shoot clinic, leading the Miami Heat to a 115-91 win against the Atlanta Hawks in their series opener.

Robinson scored 27 points on nine-of-10 shooting for the Eastern Conference's first seed, who had three players see over 20 minutes of game time off the bench.

Trae Young had his worst-ever shooting night for the Hawks, making one field goal out of 12 attempts, as well as committing six turnovers.

CP3 takes over for Suns

Chris Paul scored 19 points in a brilliant fourth quarter, as the Phoenix Suns secured a 110-99 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

As the Pelicans cut a 23-point deficit to single digits to two possessions, the Suns needed the 36-year-old, who eventually finish with 30 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and three steals.

Despite 25 points from CJ McCollum, the Pelicans finished with the unusual statistic of a better three-point field goal percentage (39.1) than total field goal percentage (37.9).

It is looking increasingly likely that Ben Simmons will play for the Brooklyn Nets this season after reports that he is targeting a return during his side's first-round series against the Boston Celtics.

Shams Charania from The Athletic – who is also represented by Simmons' agency, Klutch Sports Group – said the Nets are hoping the return comes around April 25-29, which coincides with Game 4, Game 5 and Game 6 of the series.

Simmons is yet to play at all this season after sitting out of the early portion of the season with the Philadelphia 76ers due to mental health reasons, and has been sidelined with a back injury since arriving with the Nets via trade.

While everything is trending positively for Simmons' Nets debut to come in this year's playoffs, superstar teammate Kevin Durant said he would believe it when he sees it.

"I'm not expecting him to play," he said after practice on Thursday. 

"That's easier for me. I'm not putting any pressure on Ben to come out there and hoop. 

"So I'm not expecting him to do anything but just to get his body right and get healthy as fast as he can – in my mind, I'm preparing as if we're playing with the team we have."

Head coach Steve Nash was non-committal when asked about Simmons' chances.

"It's up to Ben's back," he said. 

"It's not up to me, any of us, other than his back… there's a chance Ben comes back, there's a chance he doesn't come back. 

"So I think for us, we got to focus on the group; support Ben and his journey to get back on the floor, but at the same time we don't have time to lose focus on the group that's playing.

"Ben's a franchise cornerstone – but right now it's about supporting him physically and mentally to get back on the floor, and coaching the group to put its best foot forward in the first few games of the series at least. 

"Internally, we're not sitting here saying 'Ben's returning in this series' – we'll see what happens."

So here it is. That time of year again where we separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the champions from the... rest.

The NBA playoffs get underway on Saturday with plenty of stories to be written and legacies to be cemented.

Can the Phoenix Suns turn their dominance in the regular season into a championship? Will the Milwaukee Bucks be able to retain their crown? Could someone from the play-in tournament sneak in the back door and go all the way?

These questions and plenty more will keep us glued to our screens as we watch the action unfold over the next two months.

But what of the individual stories? There are plenty of players who have made names for themselves in the business end of the season down the years, with lots of big names who will particularly want to make an impression this time around as well.

Stats Perform has selected five such players to focus on, explaining why they may just have a bit more to prove over the next few weeks than others.

James Harden – Philadelphia 76ers

It may feel slightly like shooting fish in a barrel to start with a player who is known for not being able to get over the line in the postseason, but we are not above easy wins here.

Harden has been to the NBA Finals just once in 12 postseason appearances, and that came 10 years ago with Oklahoma City Thunder.

Strictly speaking, his playoff averages have been impressive. While with the Houston Rockets, he averaged at least 26.3 points per game (PPG) in the playoffs, including an impressive 31.6 in the 2018-19 season.

However, it has more been one-off performances, invariably at crucial moments, that have let him down. This was summarised perfectly last year in Game 7 for the Brooklyn Nets against the Bucks, when he sank only five of 17 field goal attempts.

Now at the Sixers after a huge trade earlier in the season, and with the league's top scorer Joel Embiid on his side, Harden will surely be determined to silence his doubters and reach the second NBA Finals of his career. 

Chris Paul – Phoenix Suns

This is likely the best chance the Suns will ever have to win an NBA championship, and ditto Paul.

An incredible regular season record of 64-18 saw them finish atop the Western Conference with a win percentage of 78.0, almost 10 per cent more than the second-place Memphis Grizzlies (68.3 per cent).

For Paul, this, therefore, is almost certainly his strongest chance to finally win a championship ring, especially having come so close last year.

The 12-time All-Star has the most assists per game in the league this season (10.8), and only Trae Young (737) has more overall assists than his 702, though the Atlanta Hawks star has played 11 more games.

At 36 years of age, Paul will not have many more opportunities, and will want to make this one count.

 

Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks

It has been another memorable season for the young Slovenian, averaging 28.4 PPG as well as 8.7 assists and 9.1 rebounds.

In his two previous playoff campaigns, Doncic has stepped his game up even more, averaging 31.0 PPG in 2019-20 and a remarkable 35.7 PPG last year. However, on both occasions, the Mavericks still could not make it past the first round.

Dallas ended the regular season with a record of 52-30, winning seven of their last eight games, and will go up against the Utah Jazz in the first round, a team they have beaten twice in the last six weeks.

It is not so much that Doncic himself has a point to prove, but he will be looking for more help from his team-mates as he looks to get to the latter stages, where a player of his talent surely belongs.

Tyler Herro – Miami Heat

Another young player who has already put in some strong postseason showings in his short career so far.

Herro impressed in the 2020 playoffs, but last year the Heat were whitewashed by the Bucks in the first round. As the number one seeds in the East this year, all eyes will be on them to do much better.

While Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo will of course be important, Herro could well be the difference-maker.

The 22-year-old point guard has comfortably produced his best regular season so far, averaging 20.7 PPG, as well as 4.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds.

Many expect it to be Miami v Phoenix in a battle of two number one seeds in the Finals this year, in which case Herro will be looking to repeat his second-best scoring performance of the season when he came away with 33 points in the Footprint Center in January's 123-100 win against the Suns.

Ben Simmons – Brooklyn Nets

It has been a nervous wait for Simmons, not just to return to fitness, but to see if he would even have the chance to turn out for the Nets this season.

While it has not been suggested the 25-year-old will return from back problems imminently, it has been reported the Nets are looking to use the player they traded Harden for in February sparingly towards the end of the first round.

Thankfully for him, his team-mates made it through their play-in game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday and so take their place in the playoffs, where they will start off in a fascinating encounter against the Boston Celtics.

Simmons has not played a single minute of basketball this season, not since his notorious performances in last year's postseason with the Sixers that saw him draw the ire of Joel Embiid and coach Doc Rivers.

Although Embiid accused Simmons of wanting to be a star more than wanting to win, that he won't necessarily need to fire from the off could help him, with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in excellent form for Brooklyn.

Simmons will want to discover the sort of form he showed in the 2018-19 campaign, when he averaged 16.9 PPG, as well as 7.7 assists and 8.8 rebounds.

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