The Denver Nuggets are all but certain to be the number one seed in the West, but Michael Malone does not expect a deep playoff run if his team continue to play as they did on Tuesday.

The Nuggets had the opportunity to clinch the top seed with three games of the regular season remaining, yet instead they lost 124-103 at the Houston Rockets, who are last in the conference.

Denver had won the teams' past 10 meetings, including the previous four by at least 15 points, but struggled even with Nikola Jokic back in the lineup.

Although they are still on course to finish first, theirs is now on course to be the worst record by the number one seed in the West since the 1976-77 Los Angeles Lakers.

And this defeat did not do wonders for Malone's hopes of finally guiding the Nuggets to the NBA Finals.

No team across the United States' four major sports have made more playoff appearances without reaching the championship round. This will be their 29th postseason campaign.

"If that's how we're going to play, we'll be out in the first round," the coach said.

"When we don't do our jobs, there's accountability, and I speak the truth.

"I just called our team 'soft,' and I dared someone to challenge me. No one did, because we as a group were soft tonight.

"I'm not saying we are soft, but tonight, we were."

Indeed, the Nuggets were out-rebounded 55-47, although the Rockets lead the league in average rebound margin.

With the Memphis Grizzlies two games back, the Nuggets have three more opportunities to make sure of top spot, continuing their road trip against the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz before returning home to play the Sacramento Kings.

The Golden State Warriors "didn't deserve to win" against the Denver Nuggets, with coach Steve Kerr lamenting a loss of focus from his team.

Golden State lost 112-110 to Denver on Sunday, with Klay Thompson squandering two game-winning three-point opportunities in the final five seconds.

The Nuggets, who were without Nikola Jokic, had led by nine points heading into the final two minutes and ultimately held on.

Golden State led 36-26 at the end of the first quarter, but their lead had been cut to three points at half-time.

Kerr pointed to the second quarter as where it started to go wrong.

"Up until the middle of the second quarter, we had total control of the game," he said. "Then we stopped playing. We lost our focus on both ends.

"We had control of the game and just handed that back to them. We gave them life and they took advantage.

"We were mindless out there and weren't tough enough, disciplined enough and ultimately didn't deserve to win."

The Warriors sit sixth in the Western Conference with just games remaining in the regular season.

Two of those are on the road, with Golden State 9-30 outside of San Francisco this season. That is the worst record by a defending champion in the history of the NBA.

"Most of the questions when we lose are about what went wrong, and you try to point the finger, but if we obviously knew what to do about it, we would do it," said Stephen Curry, who finished with 21 points in Denver.

"There's a sense of urgency on these last three games, and not only just the wins but the vibe that you create going into a playoff series.

"That does matter. We've got to come to a realisation that if we're going to win or do anything in the playoffs, this kind of game can't happen."

Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday argued Giannis Antetokounmpo should be this season's MVP and has blamed voter fatigue for why he is not the favourite.

The MVP race appears a battle of two, between Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid, but Antetokounmpo reminded everyone of his quality with his 31st 30-point double-double in Sunday's 117-104 win over the Sixers.

The win boosted the Bucks' (56-22) chances of finishing in the one seed in the Eastern Conference, pulling two games clear of the Boston Celtics (54-24) in the two spot with four games to play.

In a match-up against Embiid, Antetokounmpo finished with 33 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks and is averaging 31.1 points, 11.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists this season. Embiid had 29 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

The Greek forward is fifth overall for points per game, led by Embiid (33.0), while he is third for rebounds, behind Domantas Sabonis (12.4) and Jokic (11.9).

Holiday argued that because 2019 and 2020 NBA MVP Antetokounmpo has been elite for a long period of time, voters take his quality for granted.

"[Giannis] has been MVP too much," Holiday told reporters when asked about the MVP race. "He's been doing this too much, I feel like people get bored of it.

"It's kind of like the Bron effect. LeBron has done it so many times that people think that it's normal now. And it's not.

"He makes it look so easy. The first couple years that he got it, it's like wow, nobody can do [that] and it's still, to this day, nobody can do what he does.

"He's on the number one team, not just in the East, but in the league."

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer echoed Holiday's sentiment, believing that Antetokounmpo is this season's rightful MVP, arguing "he does everything".

"We certainly feel like Giannis is the MVP," Budenholzer said. "Best player, best record, what he does on both ends of the court, the rebounding, the blocked shots, the defense, guarding on the perimeter.

"He does everything: play-makes, attacks, gets to the free throw line. We feel like he's in the conversation and he should be the guy."

Antetokounmpo's 31.1 points per game this season is a career best and comes at 55 per cent shooting across 62 games.

The NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks produced a statement win ahead of the playoffs led by Giannis Antetokounmpo as they defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 117-104 on Sunday.

Antetokounmpo scored 33 points with 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks, bringing up his 31st 30-point double-double this season, as they improved to 56-22 at Fiserv Forum.

The win moves Milwaukee closer to clinching the Eastern Conference, with the Boston Celtics (54-24) in the second spot ahead of the 76ers (51-27) in third with four games to play.

Boston, who routed the Bucks 140-99 three nights ago, have the head-to-head tiebreaker on Milwaukee.

The Bucks shot at 57.5 per cent from the field, led by Antetokounmpo's 13-of-17 shooting, while Khris Middleton started strong for 19 points. Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday and Bobby Portis contributed 21, 18 and 18 points respectively.

Middleton's hot start fuelled the Bucks' 41-26 first-quarter lead and they never looked back, with the 76ers closing to within four points in the third period, before the Bucks pulled away again as Antetokounmpo scored the final seven points of that quarter.

MVP candidate Joel Embiid scored 28 points on 11-of-25 shooting from the field with nine rebounds and five assists.

Tyrese Maxey added a team-high 29 points with six-of-seven from beyond the arc. James Harden was contained to 11 points with six assists.

Thompson spurns game-winning attempt

Klay Thompson missed two game-winning three-point attempts in the final five seconds as the fast-finishing Golden State Warriors lost 112-110 to the Denver Nuggets without Nikola Jokic.

The Warriors had rallied from nine points down in the final two minutes to earn Thompson a three-point shot for victory from Stephen Curry's pass, but his initial attempt rimmed out, before a follow-up was blocked by Aaron Gordon.

Michael Porter Jr (29 points and 11 rebounds) and Jamal Murray (26 points and eight assists) impressed in Jokic's absence.

Thompson and Curry finished with 25 and 21 points each, with the former making five-of-16 from three-point range as Golden State shot nine-of-42 from beyond the arc as a team. Golden State fall to sixth with a 41-38 record with the Los Angeles Lakers right behind them.

LeBron matches Kidd for triple-doubles

Anthony Davis scored 40 points and LeBron James recorded a triple-double as the Lakers claimed their third straight win to boost their playoff hopes, downing the Houston Rockets 134-109.

James finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists to draw level wit Jason Kidd in fourth overall (107) for most triple-doubles in NBA history. Russell Westbrook (198) has the most, ahead of Oscar Robertson (181) and Magic Johnson (138).

Davis scored 27 of his 40 points in the first half, with the Lakers improving their record to 40-38 to sit seventh in the West with four games to go. The fifth-placed Los Angeles Clippers (41-38) lost to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday, with the two LA sides to meet on Wednesday.

Nikola Jokic sat out the Denver Nuggets' loss to the New Orleans Pelicans as an "ultra cautious" step to protect the two-time MVP ahead of the NBA playoffs.

The Nuggets were beaten 107-88 and have lost their last four matches in which Jokic did not play. He missed this one with a calf injury that appears to be a minor problem.

On this occasion, Denver turned in a largely shabby display in the home loss, proving especially dire from three-point range where their 4-of-28 shooting pointed to a clear deficiency.

Sitting top of the Western Conference, three games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies, Denver could afford to let Thursday's game get away from them.

The playoffs are approaching, so it was a night where coach Michael Malone felt Jokic needed a rest.

When assessing afterwards how the game went so badly wrong for the Nuggets, Malone said: "Well, Nikola didn't play."

 

He expanded on his reasons, but it is clear Jokic's unavailability was a major factor behind the team's performance.

Once again, Jokic is a leading contender for MVP honours, chasing a hat-trick of consecutive individual accolades.

The 28-year-old Serbian is averaging 24.9 points per game, plus 11.9 rebounds and 9.9 assists, and it looks to be between him and Joel Embiid for MVP, albeit with Giannis Antetokounmpo a potential dark horse.

Malone, quoted in the Denver Post, said before the game began it was a smart move to give Jokic a rest, following his triple-double against the Philadelphia 76ers earlier in the week.

"Yeah, I think it's just been something kind of brewing a little bit," said Malone.

"He was able to get through the Philadelphia game. In practice yesterday he didn't do a whole lot. Obviously, being ultra cautious with where we're at in the season. If there's any doubt, we're going to definitely err on the side of caution with seven games remaining in the regular season."

The Boston Celtics produced a stunning 140-99 blowout on the road against the full-strength Milwaukee Bucks in Thursday's potential Eastern Conference Finals preview.

Although the Bucks did roll out their full team, they were playing their third game in four days and were on the second leg of a back-to-back, and their fatigue showed in a horrible first half defensively.

The Celtics piled on 34 points in the first quarter, and added another 41 in the second to open up a commanding 75-47 lead at half-time. Instead of coming out of the locker room with extra intensity, the Bucks proceeded to give up another 39 in the third period to kill the game.

Boston's All-Star duo were nearly faultless, led by Jayson Tatum's 40 points on 12-of-18 shooting. He finished eight-of-10 from three-point range, and a perfect eight-of-eight from the free throw line while adding eight rebounds and zero turnovers.

Jaylen Brown was just as impressive as he made his way to 30 points on 13-of-20 shooting with five rebounds, five assists and just one turnover, while Sixth Man of the Year candidate Malcolm Brogdon chipped in 14 points (six-of-13), five assists and four steals off the bench.

Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo led his side with 24 points and seven rebounds through three quarters before sitting out the last, although he was a disappointing 11-of-27 from the field and missed all five of his three-point attempts.

The win pulled the Celtics (53-24) to within two games of the Bucks (55-22) in the race for the Eastern Conference's top seed, and for the best record in the league.

Ingram shows recent improvement is no fluke

New Orleans Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram has performed at an All-NBA level since the All-Star break and continued to shine in a 107-88 triumph over the Nikola Jokic-less Denver Nuggets.

Ingram, 25, posted the first triple-double of his career last Thursday and followed it with a career-high 13 assists on Saturday, and he now has his second triple-double after 31 points (13-of-22), 11 rebounds and 10 assists against the Nuggets.

Across his past eight games, Ingram is averaging 29.6 points, 8.3 assists and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 51.8 per cent from the field and 48 per cent from deep.

The result improved the Pelicans' record to 39-38, leapfrogging the Minnesota Timberwolves into the Western Conference's seventh seed, with Zion Williamson's return potentially imminent after working out on-court prior to Thursday's game.

Joel Embiid believes it would be a nonsense if his MVP hopes are affected by him missing this week's big showdown with Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

Philadelphia 76ers superstar Embiid is leading the way in the NBA with a 33.2-point scoring average per game, beating last season's career high of 30.6.

He is also averaging a healthy 10.2 rebounds, albeit that is his lowest season mark since 2016-17.

However, Embiid sat out Monday's clash with the Nuggets due a calf injury, and Jokic led Denver to a 116-111 victory, scoring 25 points alongside 17 rebounds and 12 assists.

The triple-double made Jokic just the third player in NBA history to produce 10 games of at least 20 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in the same season, sparking debate over whether it could be a key moment in the MVP race.

After that game, Jokic said the absent Embiid would be "remembered as one of the most dominant players in the league".

Whether Embiid can deny Jokic a third straight MVP award remains to be seen, and recency bias may help to tilt it the way of the Nuggets star, who is averaging 24.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and 9.9 assists.

Embiid's message was a simple one – "I don't care" – as he prioritises team success over individual glory.

The Nuggets head the Western Conference, with Philadelphia third in the East, so both main contenders for the MVP have done a lot of winning this season and will hope to do plenty more in the playoffs.

Embiid said: "If one game is going to hurt anybody's chances, then I guess everybody should be out of it. We all have bad games. Guys miss matchups.

"That's not the first time, and it's not really a matchup about me and Nikola. He's a great player, amazing player. He's one of the best players in the league, and I'm a huge fan.

"So not playing against him was a huge bummer. But there's a bigger goal in sight, and that's to make sure we're healthy for the playoffs."

Embiid had a standout game against the Nuggets on January 28, outshining Jokic with 47 points and 18 rebounds in a Sixers win, so he is adamant there was no desire to duck another clash with Denver's talisman.

He added on Wednesday, after returning to score 25 points in Philadelphia's 116-108 win over the Dallas Mavericks: "I've got nothing to prove. The last matchup, we won, and I had whatever I had.

"To go out there and say that I'm scared after what I did the last time is kind of stupid. But, like I said, I don't care if I win it or not. I'm just focused on trying to win a championship, and whatever happens, happens."

Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers supported Embiid's stance, saying ahead of Wednesday's game: "Joel's body of work speaks for itself. You're not judged for one game. You're judged for the entire season of work and your team's record and how you perform, and he's been dominant all year."

Looking at whether missing out last time out could harm Embiid's MVP prospects, Rivers said it might have an impact, but he is baffled as to why that would be the case.

"Will that hurt him? I doubt it. But it could," Rivers said. "I don't know what people use for criteria. It seems like it changes weekly, what the real criteria is.

"Before, it was a bunch of numbers. Now, it's wins. I'm like, 'Well, it wasn't wins last year'. You know what I’m saying? It just feels like, every year, it keeps changing."

Jokic took MVP honours last season when the Nuggets finished sixth in the Western Conference.

Nikola Jokic believes his main rival for a third-straight NBA MVP award, Joel Embiid, will "be remembered as one of the most dominant players in the league."

The clash between the Denver Nuggets and the Philadelphia 76ers had been billed as the league's two leading players facing off, only for the Sixers to rest Embiid due to a calf injury.

Jokic led Denver to a 116-111 victory on Monday, scoring 25 points with 17 rebounds and 12 assists, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to produce 10 games of at least 20 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in the same season.

With James Harden also out, Tyrese Maxey led Philadelphia with 29 points, five assists, four rebounds and three steals, but the main talking point after the game remained Embiid, with Jokic reserving words of praise for his rival.

"I think he's a great player," he said. "I think he's gonna be remembered as one of the most dominant players in the league. The guy's a beast, and he's so talented.

"He can affect [the game] many ways on the floor. He can post up, he can face up, he can shoot threes. He can defend really well. He can, in some situations, guard one through five. So he's a really, really good player."

Embiid leads the league for points-per-game this season (33.3), ahead of Luka Doncic (32.9), Damian Lillard (32.2), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (31.3) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.1).

Sixers coach Doc Rivers said prior to the game he was tired of the animosity brought about by the debate around this year's MVP award, with Jokic having won it the last two seasons and having had another stellar year for the Nuggets.

"It's like we can't celebrate people," Rivers said. "The league is in a great place. It's in an amazing place.

"You've got Joel Embiid and Joker, two centers, in a non-center league, dominating the league. You've got Giannis, and I always put him as a whatever, because we don't know what [position] Giannis is, but he's one of the best players in the league. Jayson Tatum is playing unbelievable. Kevin Durant, if he wasn't hurt. You can just keep going.

"You can like them all, and you can actually not like one because you love the other one. But you don't have to hate on anybody. I think we just need to get back to judging whatever your flavour is, and I don't think you have to hate the other one, for sure."

Reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic joined elite company on Monday as he put together another spectacular performance in the Denver Nuggets' 116-111 home win against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Jokic put up a team-high 25 points on eight-of-11 shooting, while adding 17 rebounds and 12 assists. In the process, he joined Hall-of-Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to produce 10 games of at least 20 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in the same season.

The contest was meant to be a battle of the two top MVP candidates, but 76ers center and award favourite Joel Embiid was ruled out with calf soreness after suiting up for all 13 games this month.

With James Harden also out, Tyrese Maxey led the 76ers with 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting, five assists, four rebounds and three steals, while Paul Reed excelled off the bench with 16 points (seven-of-seven), nine rebounds, two steals and a block in just 17 minutes.

The win extends the Nuggets' lead atop the Western Conference to 3.5 games, while their 51-24 record trails only the Milwaukee Bucks (54-21) and the Boston Celtics (52-23) for the league's best. Their 32-6 record at home is the second-best in the league, behind the 32-5 Memphis Grizzlies.

Timberwolves win fourth straight in potential first-round preview

The Minnesota Timberwolves are getting hot at the right time, collecting their fourth win in a row by defeating the Sacramento Kings 119-115 away from home.

Karl-Anthony Towns was sitting out the second leg of the back-to-back after returning from a long-term injury on Sunday against the Golden State Warriors, but the Wolves had seven players score at least 14 points each in a well-rounded effort.

Elite young defender Jaden McDaniels led Minnesota in scoring with 20 points (eight-of-15 shooting), Kyle Anderson dished a game-high 11 assists and Rudy Gobert controlled the paint with 16 points (five-of-nine), 16 rebounds and two blocks.

The win means the Timberwolves leapfrogged the Warriors into the Western Conference's sixth seed, and if the season ended today, they would have a first-round series against the Kings.

Mavericks keep postseason hopes alive

With the Dallas Mavericks' season hanging on by a thread, they took advantage of Luka Doncic's rescinded technical and rode him to a 127-104 away win against the Indiana Pacers.

Doncic was given his 16th technical of the season in Sunday's surprise loss to the Hornets, which would have resulted in a one-game suspension if the league did not overturn it.

But it did, and Doncic went on to lead the Mavericks with 25 points (eight-of-17), seven rebounds and six assists, while Kyrie Irving chipped in 16 points (seven-of-11), six assists, three blocks and two steals.

The result leaves Dallas (37-39) a half-game behind the Los Angeles Lakers (37-38) and Oklahoma City Thunder (37-38) as they battle it out for the last play-in spots.

Joel Embiid will not be playing for the Philadelphia 76ers against the Denver Nuggets, according to reports.

Monday's game had been billed as a showdown between two of the leading candidates in the NBA's MVP race.

However, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers are ruling out Embiid due to a calf issue.

According to Wojnarowski, Embiid attempted to train on Monday but the Sixers, who are already guaranteed a playoff berth, felt it was best to leave him out as a precaution.

The Sixers will hope James Harden manages to overcome an Achilles tendon problem. The 33-year-old has missed the last three games but participated in a shoot-around earlier on Monday.

Philadelphia sit third in the Eastern Conference with a 49-25 record, while the Nuggets top the West with 50 wins.

It will be interesting to see whether a passionate Denver Nuggets crowd follows coach Michael Malone's lead on Monday when Joel Embiid comes into town.

Embiid is Nikola Jokic's rival in an NBA MVP race that Malone believes has taken "a really ugly, nasty turn".

"It's like when I was a college coach, all the negative recruiting," Malone said last week, having described Embiid as "a great candidate".

"It's not promoting my guy. It's ripping down every other guy. And that's just ridiculous.

"Celebrate them; don't criticise, don't tear them down. Build them all up. And whoever wins it, good for them."

The Nuggets and Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers have been fighting for position in their respective conferences, but debate around the top individual award has continued to rage.

For his part, Jokic has tried to set it aside. "I don't think about it anymore," he said.

But it is easy for the two-time reigning MVP to take that stance. Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the periphery of the conversation – albeit perhaps less so after losing to the Nuggets at the weekend – and he won the two before Jokic.

Embiid has been a finalist the past two years but has never been named the MVP. He might have a different view of things.

For that reason, the 76ers superstar should relish the opportunity to go into Denver and upset the top seed in the West.

Embiid has already landed a big blow in one game against the Nuggets this season, finishing with 47 points and 18 rebounds in the Sixers' win back in January.

That was only the 15th instance of such a performance in the regular season since the NBA/ABA merger, with others to achieve that feat including Antetokounmpo, Michael Jordan and, on three occasions, Shaquille O'Neal.

Yet for all Embiid's dominance, that game also illustrated how he and Jokic are so different.

That is no secret, with Jokic a center like Embiid but possessing the playmaking skills of an elite point guard, but it has only become clearer this year.

Embiid has a usage rate of 37.4 per cent, nudging above last year's mark for a career high. It is little wonder then when he has games, as against the Nuggets, in which he attempts 31 field goals. He has twice attempted 32 field goals this season.

It is that volume shooting that allows Embiid to lead the league in scoring (33.3 points) despite ranking 'only' 23rd in field goal percentage (54.5). It also helps that he is the only player making more than 10 free throws per game (10.2) – albeit he made just seven of 10 against the Nuggets.

Meanwhile, Jokic is averaging 24.9 points, down on the previous two seasons. He scored 24 against the 76ers.

But this is in line with his usage rate shrinking considerably to 27.3 per cent after peaking at 31.8 per cent in 2021-22 – and Jokic could scarcely be more efficient with those possessions.

He leads the Nuggets in both points and assists (9.9), as well as rebounds (11.8), just as he did in the 76ers game (nine assists, eight rebounds). His turnover percentage is up slightly (16.6) – there were seven against Philly – but so is his assist rate (45.5 per cent) and his shooting from the field (63.3 per cent), three-point range (39.0 per cent) and the foul line (82.3 per cent).

Jokic is right there for a season averaging a triple-double. That has only been done – four times – by one player in the modern NBA. In those seasons, Russell Westbrook's usage rate never dipped below 30 per cent. He also averaged at least 4.5 turnovers per game in each year, with Jokic back on 3.5.

Embiid, who likewise has 3.5 turnovers, carries the 76ers' burden in scoring and rebounding, but James Harden is the team's creative force. He had 13 assists against the Nuggets.

What the 76ers big man lacks in eye-catching passes, however, he makes up for on the defensive end. Defensive metrics do not really do justice to the gap between Embiid and Jokic.

But that is not to denigrate Jokic. In truth, given their extraordinary seasons, there are no shortage of numbers that would support the case for one man or the other – perhaps contributing to the nastiness Malone bemoaned.

Maybe it is best then that it comes down to a matchup on the court, two weeks out from the end of the regular season.

Might we see another 40-point Embiid night to clinch a first MVP? Or Jokic's latest triple-double that pushes him towards three in a row? Whoever wins it, as the Nuggets coach said, good for them.

The Milwaukee Bucks were "grumpy" in Saturday's loss to the Denver Nuggets, but Michael Malone lauded his players for their work in frustrating Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co.

A battle between the top seeds in the Eastern and Western Conferences ended in a big 129-106 win for the Nuggets in Denver.

It was the second night of a back-to-back for the Bucks, having scored 144 in beating the Utah Jazz on Friday.

Although Antetokounmpo insisted he did not want to make excuses for the defeat, he acknowledged "legs were heavy" and "shots were short".

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer added: "It was a night where we were grumpy. It happens.

"I've got to give credit to Denver. They played well, we weren't our best.

"You always want some things to be a little bit different, but it didn't happen. We'll take it and get ready for the next game."

Antetokounmpo still scored 31 points, but 24 came in the first half. His shooting went cold in the second half, as did Milwaukee's from three-point range, making three of 17 from deep across the third and fourth quarters.

Nuggets coach Malone felt his team – and two players in particular – deserved credit for that turnaround.

"You can't guard Giannis one-on-one, nobody can. He's a great player," Malone said.

"But I felt that Aaron Gordon did everything he could to stifle him – especially in that second half. Giannis was two-for-eight, seven points in the second half.

"Aaron took the challenge head on, but I felt the four guys around Aaron gave the necessary and appropriate help.

"Take Aaron out to start the fourth quarter, I felt Jeff Green picked up right where Aaron left off. Had some great possessions, you have to be into him [Giannis], you have to be physical, and when he drives and spins, you want to be there to clamp down on that drive.

"When we out-rebound our opponent, we win; when we value the ball, we usually win; it's a hell of a performance.

"The three-point line I was worried about most – they were nine-of-36, 25 per cent. So, I thought the defense overall was just outstanding."

In a highly anticipated clash between winners of the past four MVPs it was Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets comfortably handling Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks 129-106.

Played in Denver, the reigning back-to-back MVP winner put on a show for his home fans with 31 points (10-of-20 shooting), 11 assists and six rebounds. 

Jokic was supported in style by Jamal Murray, who chipped in 26 points (nine-of-19), nine assists and six rebounds, and kick-started the Nuggets with four triples in the first quarter.

Antetokounmpo, winner of the 2019 and 2020 MVP trophies, was far from the reason his side went down, posting a strong 31 points (13-of-22), nine rebounds, four assists and four steals. He led Milwaukee to a 66-63 half-time lead, before they put up just 40 points as a team in the second half.

After a mini-slump with four losses from of five games, the Nuggets have now rattled off three wins in a row, improving their home record to 31-6 in the process, which trails only the Memphis Grizzlies (32-5) for the league's best mark.

Despite the loss, Milwaukee (53-21) are still two games clear in the race for the league's best record, while the Nuggets are 3.5 games clear atop the West.

Hawks prevail despite Trae ejection

Atlanta Hawks franchise player Trae Young was ejected for throwing the ball at an official, but his side still came away with a 143-130 home win against the visiting Indiana Pacers.

Young was kicked out in the second quarter after the incident, but eight Hawks players ended up scoring double-figures to pick up the slack.

John Collins led the way with 21 points (nine-of-12 shooting), Dejounte Murray added 20 points (eight-of-20) and 12 assists, and Clint Capela snatched down 17 rebounds to go with his 17 points (five-of-five).

The win pulled the Hawks' record even at 37-37, now a game clear of the ninth-seeded Toronto Raptors (36-38) as they battle for play-in tournament positioning.

Pelicans muddy the waters in the West

The New Orleans Pelicans kept their season alive with a 131-110 road win over the Los Angeles Clippers, creating a logjam in the Western Conference's play-in placings.

Second-year Pelicans wing Trey Murphy was spectacular as he hit 10-of-12 three-pointers for an equal team-high 32 points. He was joined on 32 points by Brandon Ingram, and after Ingram's first career triple-double on Thursday, he followed it with a career-high 13 assists against the Clippers.

The win means the Pelicans are in a three-way tie for the seventh-best record in the West, joining the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers at 37-37 with eight games to play.

Nikola Jokic recorded his 28th triple-double of the season as the Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets rediscovered some form with a 108-102 road victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday.

The Nuggets had lost five of their past six games, but improved to 48-24 with the triumph, maintaining a sizeable buffer at the top of the West from the second-placed Sacramento Kings (43-27).

Serbian center Jokic starred with 22 points on nine-of-12 shooting with 17 rebounds and 10 assists, while Michael Porter scored a team-high 28 points with five-of-nine three-point attempts.

Jamal Murray added 25 points, nailing all four of his attempts from beyond the arc, and he posted 20 of his haul in the opening quarter as Denver got a fast start to lead 33-21 at the first break.

The Nuggets were coasting to victory with a 91-71 lead at three-quarter time before the Nets rallied in the fourth, with Porter settling the game with one of his five triples.

The defeat dents Brooklyn's aspirations to claim a top-six seed in the Eastern Conference, falling to 39-32, marginally ahead of the seventh-placed Miami Heat (39-34).

Mikal Bridges top scored for the home side with 23 points on eight-of-18 shooting from the field, while Nic Claxton chipped in 19 points and eight rebounds.

Giannis records triple-double in Bucks win

The Milwaukee Bucks stormed past the Toronto Raptors 118-111 on a 29-16 fourth-quarter charge as Giannis Antetokounmpo brought up his 33d career triple-double.

Antetokounmpo finished with 22 points on 100 per cent shooting from the field with 13 rebounds and 10 assists, while Brook Lopez added a team-high 26 points with Khris Middleton scoring 20.

Lopez scored 17 of his 26 points in the final period, including the first eight of the quarter, with the Bucks going on a game-changing 15-2 run. The NBA-best Bucks are now 51-20.

SGA leads OKC past Suns

Shai Gilgeous-Alezander scored 40 points, came up clutch down the stretch and garnered M-V-P chants as the Oklahoma City Thunder boosted their play-in hopes with a 124-120 win over the Phoenix Suns.

Gilgeous-Thunder hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to hold off the Suns, who had Devin Booker score 46 points, including 30 in the second half, having led 69-57 at half-time. Chris Paul scored 14 points with 13 assists.

OKC (35-36) have four wins from their past five games to stay in the play-in hunt, thanks in large part to Gilgeous-Alexander's perfect 11-of-11 free throws in the second half, while Luguentz Dort added 20 points.

Nikola Jokic admitted the Denver Nuggets need to be concerned following defeat against the New York Knicks.

A 116-110 reverse at Madison Square Garden condemned the Nuggets to a fifth loss in six games, reducing their lead at the summit of the Western Conference.

The Nuggets now stand four wins ahead of the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies, with their form dwindling at a crucial stage of the season.

Despite that, Denver are still poised for the number one seed and home court advantage throughout the playoffs – though Jokic remains worried about their form.

"It is what it is. We need to be concerned. We need to try to win the next one," he said.

"Me first, and then everybody collectively, needs to do a better job of rebounding the ball, because even when we made a couple of stops, we didn't rebound and they just got easy ones.

"They had like 15 offensive rebounds, so that's a lot. That's 15 chances to score again."

Nuggets coach Michael Malone also highlighted rebounding as a problem for his side, particularly late in the game.

"It was the rebounding, and our inability to defend without fouling. Now you're playing against a set defense for 12 minutes, and then you couple that on top of turnovers. I think those are three areas that stood out to me," he told reporters.

The Nuggets will aim to stop the rot in their second consecutive game in New York against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday.

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