Phoenix Suns top-scorer Devin Booker is reportedly unlikely to play in Game 3 or Game 4 of their first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Booker, 25, scored 31 points in the first half of Game 2, but tweaked his hamstring with five minutes remaining in the third quarter when trying to contest Jaxson Hayes at the rim, immediately leaving for the locker room.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski is reporting that while the injury is considered "mild" and Booker is not being ruled out for the series, "it appears unlikely he will be able to play in Games 3 and 4".

The injury could have seismic repercussions for the favourites to take out this year's NBA Championship, as what was once considered to be a likely sweep, may now become a case of the Suns being on upset-watch.

From the point Booker was substituted out of Game 2, the Suns were outscored 48-40 in just under 17 minutes, allowing 69 second-half points in the process. For the season, Phoenix only allows opposition teams to score an average of 54 in second-halves.

While the Suns are clearly not a one-man team, if there is one player they could not afford to lose, it is Booker.

In games this season where Booker has played, Phoenix have a record of 56-12 – and winning percentage of .824 – and were just 8-6 in games he missed.

In addition, the Pelicans are a much better side than their 36-46 record indicates.

After starting their season with just one win from their first 14 games, New Orleans went 32-30 from their last 62 contests, banking wins over playoff teams including the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors – and the Suns.

Since the All-Star break – around the time they added key starter C.J. McCollum through a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers – the Pelicans have been a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, with a net-rating of 4.7, only slightly behind Phoenix's 6.0 over the same time period.

New Orleans are a team playing their best basketball at the right point of the season, and have a young star looking poised to elevate himself into the conversation of the game's most elite offensive players.

In the Pelicans' four postseason games, including the two play-in fixtures, Brandon Ingram is averaging 28 points, 6.8 rebounds and six assists, including going off for 37 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in the Game 2 win to even the series.

Health and momentum are now on the Pelicans' side, as they head back to New Orleans for Game 3 and Game 4 in games Booker is unlikely to suit up for.

While the Suns have kept their head above water in games he has missed, they are just 2-5 on the road when Booker has not played, and they will need at least one more win before heading back to Phoenix for Game 5, or else it could shape up as an upset for the ages.

An eighth seed has only defeated a one seed on four occasions in NBA history: the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets defeated the Seattle Supersonics; the 1998-99 New York Knicks toppled the Miami Heat en route to the NBA Finals; the 2006-07 'We Believe' Golden State Warriors against the Dallas Mavericks; and the 2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies beating the San Antonio Spurs.

The Phoenix Suns are waiting to hear more on Devin Booker's hamstring injury, although coach Monty Williams insisted the NBA title favourites are ready for the "next man up".

After scoring 31 points in the first half of Tuesday's game against the New Orleans Pelicans, giving the Suns a 61-56 lead, Booker was held scoreless in the third quarter before going down injured.

The three-time All-Star, who has battled injury problems previously, left the floor and was unable to return.

"We'll have more information tomorrow," Williams told reporters. "We've played without Chris [Paul] and Book before. If we have to play without Book, next man up. We've done that all year long."

The Suns were 8-6 without Booker this year, 11-6 without Chris Paul and 3-3 when both were absent.

Paul continued on Tuesday to finish with 17 points and 14 assists but acknowledged the blow of Booker's injury.

"It is what it is, it's part of the game," he said. "He was killing, he was having a big-time game."

In Booker's absence, the Suns sensationally lost 125-114 as New Orleans levelled the first-round series at 1-1.

It was a historic win for the Pelicans, who became the first team in NBA history to beat 60-win opponents in the playoffs after themselves finishing the regular season at least 10 games under .500.

Brandon Ingram was the star of the show, with 37 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.

"This was one of his best [games] and it was on the big stage," Pelicans coach Willie Green said of Ingram. "I'm proud of that young man. He works his tail off."

Ingram added: "Throughout this year I had confidence that we would be here.

"I didn't know what it would look like, but we continued to get better every single day with Willie being positive every single day and helping guys and teaching guys every single day."

The Phoenix Suns lost Devin Booker to a hamstring injury as they were stunned 125-114 by the New Orleans Pelicans who squared up their first-round playoffs series.

Brandon Ingram scored 37 points, including 26 in the second half, with 11 rebounds and nine assists, while CJ McCollum added 23 points including six three-pointers.

But the hamstring injury to Suns All-Star guard Booker was the major talking point, leaving the Western Conference's top seed severely weakened if he is out for an extended period.

The Suns were leading 61-56 at half-time with Booker having scored 31 first-half points including shooting seven-of-11 from three-point range, before he left the game in the third quarter and did not return.

Chris Paul could not lift the Suns in Booker's absence, finishing with 17 points and 14 rebounds, while Mikal Bridges added 19 points.

 

Butler on fire as Heat win

Jimmy Butler scored 45 points with 15-of-25 shooting from the field as the Miami Heat claimed a 2-0 lead in their series against the Atlanta Hawks with a 115-105 win.

The Heat went on an 11-0 run the third quarter to open up the game-winning lead led by Butler while Tyler Herro (15 points) and Max Strus (14 points) contributed well.

Trae Young, coming off a playoff career-low display, managed 25 points for the Hawks with Bogdan Bogdanovic landing five triples in his 29-point haul.

 

Grizzlies claim franchise-best playoff win

The Memphis Grizzlies overcame a Ja Morant injury scare as they levelled their series against the Minnesota Timberwolves with a 124-96 victory.

Morant left the court in the third quarter after copping a knee to his left leg but returned, finishing with 23 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. That was Morant's third career playoffs double-double.

The victory was the Grizzlies' largest in their franchise playoff history, despite Anthony Edwards' best efforts with 20 points and six rebounds for the Timberwolves.

Chris Paul revealed he was spurred on by the New Orleans Pelicans' defensive strategy during the Phoenix Suns' 110-99 Game 1 win on Sunday.

The 36-year-old, who turns 37 next month, became the oldest player in NBA history to put up 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff game, including 19 points in a brilliant fourth quarter.

After the Pelicans rallied back from a 23-point deficit to make it a two-possession game, Paul took advantage of multiple instances where they went under on-ball screens against him.

Following the game, the 12-time All-Star said he wanted to make former team-mate and now Pelicans coach Willie Green pay for his strategy.

"That's like inviting me to shoot," Paul said. "I know Willie, that's my man. It's all a part of the game."

Paul, who only attempted 3.3 three-pointers per game in the playoffs last season and 3.1 this regular season, went four-of-six from beyond the arc, including three-of-four in the fourth quarter.

Team-mate Devin Booker said of Paul: "That man is a true competitor and a true winner.

"When he wants it that bad, you can see it in his demeanour and see it in his walk, so it shouldn't surprise anyone. He's built for these moments."

Meanwhile, on defense, the Suns kept C.J. McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas to a combined 22-of-63 from the floor.

"We were just connected," Paul said. "We were making it tough on C.J., same thing with BI [Ingram] and closing out to their shooters. We were just on a string.

"I think a lot of times people think about our offense and how we move the ball and stuff, but our defense is what we really sort of hang our hats on."

Late in the NBA season it appeared the Phoenix Suns may finish top-two in both offensive and defensive efficiency – a feat only accomplished twice in the 21st century.

Those two teams were the 2014-15 and 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, who both went on to win NBA Championships.

As Phoenix wrapped up the top overall seed with weeks to spare, their total efficiency took a dip in the final games as Aaron Holiday was gifted starts, and the duo of Ishmail Wainwright and Gabriel Lundberg were playing nearly a combined 50 minutes.

For the season, the Suns finished with the third-ranked defense, giving up 106.8 points per 100 possessions, and the fifth-placed offense, scoring 114.2 points per 100 possessions, giving them a net-rating of 7.5 (7.4 gap between offense and defense, rounded up to the closest decimal).

The 'per 100 possessions' qualifier is simply to provide an even playing field for teams that play at different paces – the Dallas Mavericks are the slowest team in the league, getting 95.6 possessions per game, while the run-and-gun Minnesota Timberwolves average 101.5 possessions per game.

Since, and including, the 1999-00 season, the 2021-22 Suns are the 13th team to finish top-five in both offense and defense.

The other teams are: 

1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers (fifth in offense, first in defense, 9.0 net-rating) 2001-02 Sacramento Kings (third in offense, fifth in defense, 8.1 net) 2005-06 Detroit Pistons (fourth in offense, fifth in defense, 7.6 net) 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks (second in offense, fifth in defense, 7.6 net) 2007-08 Lakers (third in offense, fifth in defense, 7.3 net) 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers (fourth offense, second defense, 9.6 net) 2009-10 Orlando Magic (fourth offense, fourth defense, 7.9 net) 2010-11 Miami Heat (second offense, fifth defense, 7.8 net) 2014-15 Warriors (second offense, first defense, 9.9 net) 2016-17 Warriors (first offense, second defense, 11.4 net) 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks (first defense, fourth offense, 8.6 net)

Of those teams – all of which won at least 57 regular season games – half made it to the NBA Finals, while the 1999-2000 Lakers, 2014-15 Warriors and 2016-17 Warriors are the three to win championships. The reigning champion 2008-09 Celtics were the only side to not make it to the Conference Finals.

The 2005-06 Pistons were two seasons removed from their 2004 title; the 2006-07 Mavericks featured many of the pieces that would win the 2011 title; the 2007-08 Lakers stuck with it and won back-to-back in 2009 and 2010; the 2010-11 Heat won back-to-back in 2012 and 2013; and the 2018-19 Bucks just needed to add Jrue Holiday to push themselves over the line in 2021.

 

What this means is that while this specific Suns side may not be guaranteed to win this year's championship, they have a great chance to make the NBA Finals, and it shows that as an organisation, they have hit a sweet spot that very few sides ever reach, right in the heart of a true championship window.

However, none of those teams had their championship windows opened with the arrival of a 36-year-old. While the Suns are at a stage where they do not simply live and die with the health of Chris Paul, they are very clearly not the same team when he sits.

The Suns are 53-12 in the 65 games Paul has played this season, and are still an impressive 11-6 without him, showing that he has helped turn the franchise around in a real way.

Paul's biggest contribution to the Suns has been culturally, turning a perennial losing side into a team that expects to win every time it steps on the floor, no matter who is suiting up.

He has now been a member of the best regular season teams in the history of four franchises – the New Orleans Pelicans, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets and now the Suns.

However, it would be silly to discount the improvements Phoenix were making prior to Paul's arrival, including going 8-0 in 'the bubble' ahead of the 2020 Playoffs. Much of that credit also goes to head coach Monty Williams, who has the Suns playing a system that seems to work no matter who is on the floor, especially at the center position.

After being released by the Charlotte Hornets, Bismack Biyombo was picked up on a minimum contract and produced the most efficient scoring season of his career, registering 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds per-36 minutes.

Career backup JaVale McGee has also been terrific, scoring 20.9 points and grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds per-36 in his 14th season in the league. 

For the season, McGee leads the Phoenix center trio in player efficiency rating (PER, where league-average is always 15) with 22.5, while Deandre Ayton is at 22.0 and Biyombo at 17.3.

The success of Phoenix's backup bigs has added fuel to the fire regarding the impending contract extension of Ayton, who the Suns made the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Ayton was eligible for a big-money extension this past off-season, but the organisation opted to wait until after this season when his contract expires, where they can decide if they feel he is worth the max-contract he is expected to demand, or if they are better served cashing on his perceived value through a trade.

Phoenix are paying Paul and Devin Booker max-contract money, and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges signed a four-year, $90million extension in December, which was considered a bargain for a player of his two-way impact.

The Suns have likely built something sustainable, but they are set to become one of the more expensive teams in the league, with an owner, Robert Sarver, who has never shown the willingness to go deep into the luxury tax.

While Paul's days as a superstar are likely numbered with his advanced age, Booker and Bridges are both 25 and yet to hit their prime, while Ayton – whether he is viewed as a cornerstone of the future or as a premium trade asset – is just 23.

However, chemistry can be everything and this team, as is currently constructed, has it in spades.

It is easy to see how this could be the start of an incredible decade of Suns basketball – they are mostly young, and just set a franchise-record for wins in a season with 64.

But they are outliers this year, and outliers come back to earth at some stage – often sooner than we expect.

The Miami Heat are now just one win away from securing the Eastern Conference's top seed after they smashed the Charlotte Hornets 144-114 on Tuesday.

Having tied their franchise record for three-pointers in a game on three separate occasions this season, the Heat broke that record against the Hornets, connecting on 23 of 42 total attempts.

Tyler Herro contributed eight of those buckets beyond the arc from 14 attempts and in doing so, also tied the single-game franchise record for points off the bench with 35, previously held by Dwyane Wade.

On any other night, it would have been a satisfactory performance from the Hornets, but Heat were automatic, with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo only combining for 49 of the team's points with Kyle Lowry out.

The 49-30 Boston Celtics momentarily remain within touching distance, having played a game less than the 52-28 Heat.

Meanwhile, the Hornets have already wrapped up the Eastern Conference's last play-in spot.

Raptors secure playoffs in East

Pascal Siakam put up 31 points and 13 rebounds as the Toronto Raptors clinched a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, defeating the Atlanta Hawks 118-108.

This victory, coupled with the Cleveland Cavaliers' loss to the Orlando Magic, ensured the Raps will finish no lower than sixth in the East. They also rose to fifth after the Chicago Bulls lost to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Five other Raptors finished on double digit points as Scottie Barnes and Chris Boucher scored 19 and 18 points respectively, Gary Trent Jr. had 14, Fred VanVleet 12 and Precious Achiuwa 11.

Lakers knocked out of West's play-in race

The Los Angeles Lakers have been eliminated from Western Conference play-in calculations, losing 121-110 to the Phoenix Suns, whose 63rd win this season made for a new franchise record.

The desperate Lakers needed a win to stay in touching distance with the New Orleans Pelicans but had a mountain to climb against the Suns, who had won all three games head-to-head this season.

Devin Booker showed characteristic smoothness and composure, putting up 32 points on 12-of-22 shooting as well as four of five three-pointers when his team broke the game open.

If the season ended today, the Los Angeles Lakers would not even make the play-in tournament after a painful 114-111 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.

The loss moves the Lakers' record to 31-46, and 4-16 in their past 20 games.

The Lakers built this game up as a must-win, re-inserting Anthony Davis to the line-up from a lengthy absence and LeBron James from an ankle sprain, but ultimately could not get stops down the stretch.

James was terrific, scoring 38 points on 13-23 shooting, while Davis was also strong, scoring 23 points (eight-of-17 shooting) to go with 12 rebounds and six assists. During Davis' 37 minutes on the floor, the Lakers were plus four.

But the Pelicans' duo of C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram would not be denied, as McCollum led the way with 32 points (12-of-23 shooting), while Ingram chipped in with an efficient 29 on 10-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and seven assists.

The Lakers' five remaining games are at home against the Denver Nuggets, away at the Phoenix Suns, away at the Golden State Warriors, at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and away against the Nuggets.

The San Antonio Spurs currently lead the race for the 10 seed by one game.

 

Fill-in Grizzlies fill it up

Another game without Ja Morant, and another win for the Memphis Grizzlies as they got the better of the full-strength Phoenix Suns 122-114.

As well as Morant, Memphis was without center Steven Adams, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr and emerging shooting guard Desmond Bane, but in front of their home fans the replacement Grizzlies were up to the task.

Dillon Brooks top-scored for the Grizzlies with 30 points (11-of-28 shooting) and seven assists, while Devin Booker had 41 points on 17-of-28 shooting for the Suns.

Memphis are now 20-2 in games Morant has missed.

 

Celtics win a shootout, Covington goes bananas 

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both surpassed 30 points in the Boston Celtics' 128-123 win against the Indiana Pacers.

Tatum finished with 31 on 10-of-24 shooting, while Brown had 32 on 12-of-18, but the Celtics had to withstand a sharpshooting display from Tyrese Haliburton, who had 30 points on 10-of-11 shooting, including six-of-six from long range.

Meanwhile, Robert Covington played the game of his life as his Los Angeles Clippers beat an undermanned Milwaukee Bucks side 153-119.

Covington finished with 43 points, going 11-of-18 from three-point range, setting a new franchise record for threes made in a game, beating J.J. Redick and Caron Butler's previous joint-record of nine.

If the season ended today, the Los Angeles Lakers would not even make the play-in tournament after a painful 114-111 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.

The loss moves the Lakers' record to 31-46, and 4-16 in their past 20 games.

The Lakers built this game up as a must-win, re-inserting Anthony Davis to the line-up from a lengthy absence and LeBron James from an ankle sprain, but ultimately could not get stops down the stretch.

James was terrific, scoring 38 points on 13-23 shooting, while Davis was also strong, scoring 23 points (eight-of-17 shooting) to go with 12 rebounds and six assists. During Davis' 37 minutes on the floor, the Lakers were plus four.

But the Pelicans duo of C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram would not be denied, as McCollum led the way with 32 points (12-of-23 shooting), while Ingram chipped in with an efficient 29 on 10-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and seven assists.

The Lakers' five remaining games are at home against the Denver Nuggets, away at the Phoenix Suns, away at the Golden State Warriors, at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and away against the Nuggets.

The San Antonio Spurs currently lead the race for the 10 seed by one game.

 

Fill-in Grizzlies fill it up

Another game without Ja Morant, and another win for the Memphis Grizzlies as they got the better of the full-strength Phoenix Suns 122-114.

As well as Morant, Memphis was without center Steven Adams, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jaren Jackson Jr and emerging shooting guard Desmond Bane, but in front of their home fans the replacement Grizzlies were up to the task.

Dillon Brooks top-scored for the Grizzlies with 30 points (11-of-28 shooting) and seven assists, while Devin Booker had 41 points on 17-of-28 shooting for the Suns.

Memphis are now 20-2 in games Morant has missed.

 

Celtics win a shoot-out, Covington goes bananas 

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both surpassed 30 points in the Boston Celtics' 128-123 win against the Indiana Pacers.

Tatum finished with 31 on 10-of-24 shooting, while Brown had 32 on 12-of-18, but the Celtics had to withstand a sharpshooting display from Tyrese Haliburton, who had 30 points on 10-of-11 shooting, including six-of-six from long range.

Meanwhile, Robert Covington played the game of his life as his Los Angeles Clippers beat an undermanned Milwaukee Bucks side 153-119.

Covington finished with 43 points, going 11-of-18 from three-point range, setting a new franchise record for threes made in a game, beating J.J. Redick and Caron Butler's previous joint-record of nine.

In what may be a preview of this year's Western Conference Finals, the top-seeded Phoenix Suns make the trip to San Francisco to take on the three seed Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

While these are undoubtedly two of the premier teams in the West, the real story is about how the Suns have been in a class of their own this season, eight games clear of the second-best record in the league.

In the 21st century, only two teams have finished the regular season with a top-two ranking in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency: the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, and the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors.

Both of those Warriors juggernauts went on to win the NBA Championship, and if the season were to end today, Phoenix would become the third team to achieve those marks.

Phoenix's net-rating – which illustrates how many more points a team is scoring than their opposition per 100 possessions – is plus 8.5, which is nearly two points clear of the second-placed Boston Celtics at plus 6.8.

The Suns have not just been the best team in basketball this season, they have been historically good in a way that compares the peak of the Warriors' run, and ranks better than any of LeBron James' Miami Heat teams, or the three-peat Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-02.

The Warriors, on the other hand, have been sputtering since Stephen Curry was sidelined with an injury that is expected to keep him out of action until the playoffs.

After three consecutive losses, can the Warriors pose any real threat to such a great Suns team? Stylistically, they may have some factors working in their favour, and as the saying goes, styles make fights.

These are two teams that play in similar ways. Both teams are bottom-five in percentage of their total points coming from the free throw line, both teams are top-five in percentage of two-point baskets coming from assists, and both are top-three in fewest blocked shots.

What this means is when these teams go inside to score, they are playing a finesse game focused around passing, movement, and creating open shots, as opposed to a bully-ball style which focuses on creating contact and forcing a way to the free throw line.

For a team like the Warriors that gives up free throws at the fifth-highest rate in the league, having a team that is willing to match their style and be a willing dance partner will hide some deficiencies and allow the home side to lean into what it does well.

Golden State also attempts the second-highest percentage of three-pointers – nearly 46 per cent of all of their shots come from long range – while Phoenix is way down at 27th in the league, taking 65 per cent of their shots from two-point range.

Despite that stat implying Phoenix is dominant in the paint, they actually are 16th in paint scoring, but third in mid-range scoring thanks to the efforts of Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

It is well-established at this point that mid-range jump shots are the least efficient shots in all of basketball, while an open three-pointer is the best shot a team can take other than a dunk, layup or free throw.

Phoenix has been great on a diet of difficult shots this season, but if the Warriors can get hot from three-point range at the volume they get them up, the Suns may simply lose the math equation.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

Of every player in the NBA this season averaging at least 20 minutes per appearance, only two – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar Derozan – score a higher percentage of their points from the mid-range than Paul.

As discussed, Phoenix will need to score consistently and efficiently from the mid-range to counter how many three-pointers the Warriors will get up, and Paul is at the center of that.

Add into the equation that Paul leads the league in assists per game, while coming in at second in steals per game, and it's clear why he is so important at both ends of the floor.

 

Golden State Warriors – Klay Thompson

Simply put, the Warriors need to get hot from long range to win this game, and few players in the history of basketball can get hotter than Klay Thompson.

Thompson holds the NBA record for most threes in a single game, hitting 14 of them against the Chicago Bulls in 2018, and has made at least nine in a game on 10 different occasions.

While he is still working himself back into full form after returning from a two-year absence this season, over his past 10 games Thompson is averaging 24 points per game and is hitting a strong 40 per cent of his long range attempts.

 

KEY BATTLES – Can the Warriors compete with the Suns' size?

Golden State have only one player on their roster taller than six-foot-nine Kevon Looney, and it is James Wiseman, who will not play a single game this season due to lingering injuries.

Suns center Deandre Ayton measures in at seven-foot-one, and less than a week ago he physically dominated All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns en route to 35 points and 14 rebounds.

Towns is bigger than anyone Golden State can throw at Ayton, and while Looney is an above-average defender, basketball is a game where size matters, and the Warriors are small.

 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

These two sides met on three separate occasions in December, with Golden State winning twice.

Curry top-scored for the Warriors in both wins, while Ayton out-scored his season average in all three meetings.

After some results fell their way, the new Eastern Conference one seed Philadelphia 76ers went head-to-head with the Western Conference one seed Phoenix Suns in a potential NBA Finals preview.

Unfortunately for the 76ers, their time on top was short-lived as the Suns' 114-104 home win sent the away side toppling down to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings.

MVP favourite Joel Embiid was enormous for the 76ers, scoring 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting to go with 15 rebounds, three steals and two blocks, but it was not enough to beat a Phoenix team that has now won 61 games this season – one short of their franchise record of 62 set in 1992-93 and 2004-05.

For the Suns, Devin Booker was the star, scoring an efficient 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting (three-of-five from long range), while Chris Paul dished out 14 assists to go with his 19 points.

As a team, Phoenix shot over 51 per cent from the field, and 48 per cent from three-point range.

 

Boston takes the one seed – for now

As Philadelphia fell from the top spot, the Boston Celtics took the opportunity to assume the position atop the Eastern Conference musical chairs, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 134-112.

Boston's two centrepieces were both at the top of their game, with Jayson Tatum scoring 34 points on 12-of-21 shooting and dishing six assists, while Jaylen Brown had 31 points on 12-of-20 shooting with his 10 rebounds.

Boston, Philadelphia, the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks are all separated by just a half-game in a four-way race for the one seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs.

 

Lakers lose again despite LeBron heroics

As has become a theme this season, a terrific LeBron James performance was not enough to carry the Los Angeles Lakers to victory, going down 116-108 to the New Orleans Pelicans.

James had 39 points on 14-of-27 shooting, including seven-of-13 from long range, to go with nine rebounds and five assists in the loss.

In his first game back from a 10-match absence due to injury, Brandon Ingram was the man for the Pelicans, scoring 26 points on 10-of-17 shooting with seven rebounds and five assists, while rookie sensation Herb Jones claimed six steals.

Devin Booker demanded respect and the recognition he considers overdue as the Phoenix Suns clinched top spot in the Western Conference.

With a 60-14 record so far, the Suns will finish the regular season with the NBA's best win-loss record, and now they can start to think about chasing the franchise's first championship.

Defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks in last season's NBA Finals has only served to galvanise Monty Williams' Phoenix team this time around, and Booker made his appeal after scoring a season-high 49 points in a 140-130 win over the Denver Nuggets.

Booker was annoyed when at the pre-game arena team announcement on Thursday, his face was not shown on screen. Booker said that, instead, the screen showed Clippers guard Amir Coffey.

"That was disrespectful. I was laughing. I know that was purposefully done," he said.

"It's all fun and games, but we got the last laugh and every other laugh for the last few games against them. It's a good team they've got over there to put that up there because it got me going for sure."

The Arizona Republic newspaper said a Nuggets official had denied that error was deliberate.

 

Booker said the Suns would continue to talk themselves up, even if they consider there is insufficient attention on their achievements from elsewhere.

The Suns have secured the NBA's best record for the third time in franchise history, following on from 1992-93 and 2004-05.

"The vibes are there, man," he said. "Everybody's proud of each other.

"We're not the type of team to act like we haven't done nothing. We always talk about celebrating everything, and 60 wins is something I never even thought of."

Booker spoke of "day-to-day grind" and the hunger to keep improving and progressing.

"It's turned into something really nice," he said. "Now we have the one seed locked up, been winning basketball games for two years straight now.

"This team needs some flowers. Coach Monty should have been coach of the year last year. There's so much that I feel doesn't get talked about in this team.

"We've done a good job of not worrying about what people say about us, but it needs some recognition."

Devin Booker put on a show with 49 points as Chris Paul returned from a broken wrist as the Phoenix Suns clinched top spot in the Western Conference with a 140-130 win over the Denver Nuggets.

Booker's 49 points was a season-high, while 36-year-old Paul returned for the first time since February 20 with 17 points, including 15 in the first half, and 13 assists as the Suns secured their sixth straight win.

Three-time All-Star Booker shot 16-of-25 from the field and also had 10 assists, with Mikal Bridges contributing 22 points from eight-of-nine shooting.

The win means the Suns have secured the NBA's best record for the third time in franchise history, following on from 1992-93 and 2004-05.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic had 28 points with six rebounds and six assists for the Nuggets, who are 43-31 and holding on to sixth spot in the Western Conference.

 

Grizzlies and Bucks win without stars

The Memphis Grizzlies won again without Ja Morant with a 133-103 victory over the Indiana Pacers. Desmond Bane scored 30 points with five assists and five rebounds as the Grizzlies improved to 16-2 without Morant.

The Milwaukee Bucks triumphed without Khris Middleton (wrist) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (knee) with Jrue Holiday starring with 24 points and 10 assists in a 114-102 win over the Washington Wizards.

Pascal Siakam equalled his season-high 35 points as the Toronto Raptors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers 117-104 in a crucial game in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

 

DeRozan out as Bulls slide continues

The Chicago Bulls slipped to their fifth defeat from their past six games, going down 126-109 to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls are fifth in the east with a 42-31 record, just ahead of the Cavs and Raptors (both 41-32).

The Bulls, who were without DeMar DeRozan due to a left groin issue, were dominated 40-24 by the Pels in the fourth quarter, led by Devonte' Graham (30 points including five three-pointers) and Jonas Valanciunas (16 points and 19 rebounds).

Zach LaVine was Chicago's best with 39 points in DeRozan's absence, going 12-of-23 from the field, while Coby White added 23 points off the bench including five triples.

The ascending Boston Celtics added another scalp to their resume, holding reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to his season-worst shooting percentage in a 124-104 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

In a stunning year-on-year improvement, the Celtics have been the best defence in the NBA this season after finishing 17th in that department this past season.

With new coach Ime Udoka going all-in on a switching defensive system, it was theoretically going to be tested against the best passing big man in league history, and arguably the league's most dominant offensive force.

However, Jokic was bottled up similarly to everyone else the Celtics have played in 2022, going 8-of-23 (34.7 per cent) from the field in the blowout loss.

Jokic, who is shooting 57 per cent from the field for the season, had previously had his worst shooting performance when he went 6-of-17 (35.3 per cent) in an early-December loss against the Chicago Bulls.

Boston's two superstar wings combined for 60 points, as Jayson Tatum posted 30 points (11-of-17 shooting, 6-of-10 from three) with seven assists, while Jaylen Brown had 30 points (12-of-19 shooting, 3-of-6 from three) with six rebounds.

The ascending Boston Celtics added another scalp to their resume, holding reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to his season-worst shooting percentage in a 124-104 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

In a stunning year-on-year improvement, the Celtics have been the best defence in the NBA this season after finishing 17th in that department this past season.

With new coach Ime Udoka going all-in on a switching defensive system, it was theoretically going to be tested against the best passing big man in league history, and arguably the league's most dominant offensive force.

However, Jokic was bottled up similarly to everyone else the Celtics have played in 2022, going 8-of-23 (34.7 per cent) from the field in the blowout loss.

Jokic, who is shooting 57 per cent from the field for the season, had previously had his worst shooting performance when he went 6-of-17 (35.3 per cent) in an early-December loss against the Chicago Bulls.

Boston's two superstar wings combined for 60 points, as Jayson Tatum posted 30 points (11-of-17 shooting, 6-of-10 from three) with seven assists, while Jaylen Brown had 30 points (12-of-19 shooting, 3-of-6 from three) with six rebounds.

The Phoenix Suns have been dominant in the NBA this season, but go up against this year's leading scorer in the NBA, DeMar DeRozan, when the Chicago Bulls come to town on Friday.

Phoenix sit way out on top of the Western Conference at 56-14 and have won seven of their last nine games.

However, the Bulls – fifth in the Eastern Conference at 41-28 – will take solace in the fact the Suns have lost three of their last six home games, though Chicago themselves have lost two straight on the road, winning just two of their last nine overall.

If Billy Donovan's team is to have any chance of pulling off a win in Arizona, they will surely be reliant on DeRozan having another big game.

The 32-year-old has a league-high 1,814 points to his name this season, averaging 27.9 points per game. He has scored at least 21 points in each of his last seven outings, and has only once not managed that many in a game in his last 28 (when he scored 18 vs the Miami Heat).

It would be harsh to say the Bulls are a one-man team, but with Zach LaVine – averaging 24.8 points per game – Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams all reportedly out injured again, DeRozan will be heavily leaned on once more.

The quality is spread right throughout Monty Williams' Suns though, hence their relentless ability to win games this season.

Devin Booker is their point-scoring leader with an average of 25.8 per game (10th best in the league), ably supported by Deandre Ayton (17.0) and five other players all averaging more than 10 per game.

These two teams have already met once this season when the Suns edged an exciting encounter 127-124 in Chicago in February.

The Bulls will be after revenge at Footprint Center but as with any team that comes up against Phoenix, that is very much easier said than done.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Phoenix Suns – Devin Booker

Against the high-scoring Bulls it will be important to respond in kind, which is exactly what Booker did in their February meeting, matching DeRozan by scoring 38 points, which was immensely helpful given the late comeback from Chicago (41-25 in the fourth quarter).

The 25-year-old has scored at least 30 points in four of his last seven games.

Chicago Bulls – Nikola Vucevic

I mean, strictly speaking it should be DeRozan, but we've covered him (which is also what the Suns are likely to try and do) and so the pressure will come onto Vucevic to step up, particularly in LaVine's absence.

The Montenegrin averages 18.0 points per game this season, third-best at the Bulls, and also averages 11.5 rebounds. His total of 699 rebounds is the sixth-highest in the league.

KEY BATTLES – Watch the threes

Only the Miami Heat (37.4 per cent) have better success from beyond the arc than the Bulls (37.3 per cent) in the league this season.

The Suns (36.6 per cent) are sixth best from downtown, though, and so both will need to be careful not to give too much space for three-point attempts, even though the temptation will be there considering how dangerous both are all over the court.

These two teams are the two best in the NBA this season for field goal percentage (Suns - 48.5, Bulls 48.2).

HEAD-TO-HEAD

As mentioned, the Suns beat the Bulls in February, and have actually won the last four meetings between the two. The last Chicago win came in March 2019 (116-101 in Phoenix).

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