The NBA is back, which means excitement for most fanbases – but anxiety for others.

The new season should ensure a clean slate for everyone, but some situations have been allowed to fester in recent months without the distraction of on-court action.

Now, even with basketball returning, developments around Kevin Durant's future might prove every bit as intriguing to the neutral as anything that happens in the regular season.

And Durant and the Brooklyn Nets are not the only player-team combo in a tricky spot heading into the year...

Everyone at the Lakers

Before considering the wide-ranging implications of Durant's trade request, let's check in on last year's team in crisis.

Plenty of outsiders could have forecast difficulties for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2021-22, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis joined in a 'big three' by Russell Westbrook – at this stage in his career, consistent only in using up a huge number of possessions.

Westbrook had averaged a usage rate above 30 per cent in every season between 2014-15 and 2020-21, with his average over the seven seasons (34.6 per cent) only narrowly trailing James Harden's league-leading 34.7 per cent (minimum 500 possessions). A ball-dominant player on often mediocre teams, Westbrook's winning percentage of 59.2 ranked 109th over this period among those to play 100 or more games. Harden (66.2) was a far more respectable 29th.

Although his usage dipped to 27.5 per cent around better players in LA, Westbrook remained every bit as erratic as expected and, unfortunately for the Lakers, played more than 500 more minutes than any team-mate – comfortably ahead of an ageing James and bulkier Davis.

The three superstars started just 21 games together and even then only scraped a winning record at 11-10.

Having missed the playoffs – and even the play-in – in 11th in the West, the Lakers fired coach Frank Vogel, perhaps optimistically hoping he alone was the problem, and brought back each of James, Davis and Westbrook.

Seemingly determined to further upset a team who won the title just two years ago, the Lakers were also linked with a move for Kyrie Irving before settling instead on Patrick Beverley, who might prove only marginally less disruptive.

Westbrook and Beverley have repeatedly clashed in the past, although the new Lakers signing has described his team-mate as "someone I always wanted to play with", praising his "competitive spirit, that fire, that will, that dog, that nastiness, that grit".

New coach Darvin Ham thinks the pair can work together, but the potential for fireworks is considerable even before taking into account James' own "competitive spirit".

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at the Nets

The 2019 free agency moves for Durant and Irving certainly made the Nets relevant. But they haven't yet made them successful. And right now, Brooklyn might be the most explosive environment in the NBA.

Durant missed their first year together with an Achilles injury sustained playing for the Golden State Warriors, yet the Nets have still only won seven playoff games in the past three postseasons – all seven of those wins coming in a short-lived 2020-21 run.

Last season, as they had been in their first season with Durant and Irving, Brooklyn were swept in the first round. It concluded a miserable campaign that was not about to get better in the offseason.

With Irving unvaccinated and so unable to play in New York City until March, he and Durant started only 17 games together in the regular season. The Nets had started the season with their own 'big three', but Harden – much to his frustration – appeared just twice alongside the star pairing before he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons came in the other direction and did not play once.

Far from a happy camp, when Irving then opted in to the final year of his contract in late June, the Nets were vulnerable to a trade request from Durant, which quickly followed.

However, with four years remaining on his own deal and Brooklyn asking for a huge price in trade talks, it was reported Durant had returned to the Nets and promised to stay if head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks were replaced.

Ultimately, Durant "agreed to move forward with our partnership" – as Marks phrased it – regardless, with Nash saying in September his relationship with the superstar was "good".

"I love the guy," added Nash, who understood Durant being "seething" at the end of the season. "Families have issues. We had a moment, and it's behind us. That's what happens."

In theory – especially if Simmons can return to his two-time All-Defensive First Team best – the Nets could have a great team in 2022-23.

Yet based on how this project has gone so far, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which Brooklyn endure another desperately disappointing season and are again left attempting to convince Durant to stay.

James Harden at the 76ers

The 76ers moved one miserable superstar in Simmons for another in Harden, which was only enough to take them as far as the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year.

And en route to that unsatisfactory conclusion, team-mate Joel Embiid was not shy in criticising Harden, repeatedly calling on him to be more aggressive while recognising he is no longer "the Houston James Harden".

It was an understandable complaint; Harden attempted only 13.6 field goals per game for the Sixers in the regular season – little more than half the number of shots he was taking in 2018-19 for the Houston Rockets (24.5), when he scored a career-high 36.1 points per game. He was also only making 40.2 per cent of his field goal attempts in Philly, down on every other season in his career.

So far, it is fair to say this has not worked. Doc Rivers, in a training camp clip published by the NBA, told Harden he and Embiid needed to "listen to each other" and acknowledged the partnership needed work as it was "unnatural".

Echoing some of Embiid's complaints, coach Rivers said: "You can't just say you're a facilitator. I need you to be a scorer and a facilitator."

Rivers for now believes it can still be fixed. "When it clicks, James, we're going to be unbeatable," he told a player who, for his part, agreed to a restructured contract that allowed Philly to bolster their roster in the offseason.

But this team – and certainly Embiid – might argue more help would not be required if Harden played in the manner he is capable.

"We've got to establish Joel and you – it's a pecking order," added Rivers. "This ain't a democracy."

Embiid may not believe this is "the Houston James Harden", but the team and Harden himself seemingly do, with the former Rocket announcing: "If my conditioning can be level with my skill set and my IQ and the work that I put in, it's MVP – and I feel like my conditioning is where it needs to be."

Harden needs to start showing that, or this time his team might tire of him, rather than the other way around.

Jaylen Brown at the Celtics

Little has gone to plan for the Boston Celtics since winning Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Finals, as they lost the next three to the Warriors and then saw preparations for a bounce-back season in 2022-23 rocked by a number of key absences.

Boston will begin the year without new signing Danilo Gallinari, who tore his ACL playing for Italy, Robert Williams, who has also undergone knee surgery, and, crucially, coach Ime Udoka.

Udoka had turned around his first season as a head coach spectacularly, with the Celtics tied for ninth in the East at the turn of the year after a 17-19 start before leading the conference the rest of the way (34-12) to take the second seed.

But a year-long suspension for Udoka "for violations of team policies" was announced by the team last month.

And even between the ultimately disappointing postseason and repeatedly disrupted preseason, not everything was rosy, with Boston also impacted by the Durant saga.

When Durant looked to be on the move, reports claimed the Celtics had offered the Nets a package that included Jaylen Brown. That trade did not materialise, of course, but it is difficult to imagine Brown was too impressed.

In recent seasons, Brown has been hugely valuable to the Celtics – not least because he is being paid below his value.

Brown is one of only 11 players who has scored at least 1,400 points at an average of at least 23.5 per game in each of the past two seasons. Of the other 10, four have current or future contracts with an average annual value of more than $50m, another four are being paid over $40m per year, and the final two are bringing in a salary in excess of $30m a season.

Brown's deal, which ranks outside the top 50 contracts in the NBA in both total value and average annual value, earns him $26.6m each year.

And the rules around NBA extensions will prevent Brown being paid on par with his contemporaries unless he makes All-NBA in one of the two seasons remaining on his contract.

In theory, that carrot should encourage Brown to enjoy another big season, but at a franchise as fractured as the Celtics have suddenly become, focus could understandably drift instead towards free agency in 2024.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the Thunder

Unlike the other teams on this list, the Oklahoma City Thunder do not have the pressure of needing to win now – but that is part of the problem.

OKC moved on their ageing stars, loaded up on draft picks and put together a young core that includes Chet Holmgren, Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. That is all very exciting... or at least it will be.

Rookie Holmgren is down for the year, seemingly making this another season in which the Thunder will lose games and then see what they can do in the draft.

That is no great issue for 20-year-old Holmgren or 19-year-old Giddey, but it does not suit Gilgeous-Alexander, now 24 and entering his fifth year, quite so much – even if he also starts the year injured.

Among the 63 players to score 2,000 or more points across the past two seasons combined, Gilgeous-Alexander ranked 18th for points per game (24.2). He ranked 61st for wins (32).

This is not a case of an average player stat-padding on a bad team; he is simply too good to be in this situation.

And having agreed a five-year extension in August ahead of Holmgren's injury, it appeared Gilgeous-Alexander had unknowingly signed up for more of the same.

He disagrees, insisting: "I know what I signed up for when I signed a five-year extension. I don't think we're going to be losing for much longer. It's not like I signed up to lose."

But lose they will, if they have any sense – and past experience suggests they do.

Without Holmgren, the Thunder are not going to be in any position to seriously compete, which opens up the possibility to pick high in a draft that includes a potentially generational talent in Victor Wembanyama.

At some stage, OKC will be ready, but that is not now, and Gilgeous-Alexander could be forgiven for finding his patience waning.

The NBA has begun an investigation into a potential tampering violation by the Philadelphia 76ers and their signings of James Harden, P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 

The league is interested in the circumstances surrounding Harden declining his $47million player option to sign a two-year, $68m contract that includes a player option for the second year of the deal.  

Questions have been raised about whether there was a handshake agreement in place on a future contract – which would be in violation of collective bargaining rules. 

Harden’s decision to decline his option gave Philadelphia more flexibility to sign Tucker and House. 

"Taking less money this year to sign as many players as we needed to help us contend and be the last team standing was very, very important to me," Harden said in an interview this month. "I wanted to show the organisation, the Sixers fans and everybody else who supports what we're trying to accomplish, what I'm trying to accomplish individually, that this is what I'm about."

Tucker signed a three-year, $30m contract, and House signed for $8.4m over two years. The 76ers were able to sign Tucker to the full mid-level exception and sign House to the bi-annual exception only because Harden declined his option. 

According to the report, 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey has already begun answering questions from league attorneys.  

With tampering often a potential issue, the NBA approved stiffer penalties in 2019 and stripped a draft pick from the Chicago Bulls for early contact with Lonzo Ball in 2019, and the Miami Heat for doing the same with Kyle Lowry last summer. 

James Harden has officially finalised his deal to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers, agreeing to a two-year, $68.6million contract on Wednesday.

Harden will make $33m for the 2022-23 season and then has the player option for $35.6m in 2023-24. He can decline the option and become a free agent again ahead of the 2023-24 and sign a new deal. 

Harden had previously declined his $47.4m player option for this upcoming season from the 76ers, but was set to return to them all along while taking a pay-cut to help the team sign other players with the hopes of building a championship roster. 

Thanks in part to his pay-cut, the 76ers have been able to add P.J. Tucker and Danuel House this offseason, and are expected to contend amongst the best teams in the Eastern Conference with MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and Harden leading the way. 

Philadelphia acquired Harden from the Brooklyn Nets in February, and he averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds in 21 games with the Sixers, but the team suffered the same fate as three of the previous four seasons, again losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

The 76ers have not been past the conference semis since losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 NBA Finals, and the 32-year-old Harden has never won a title, only reaching the NBA Finals once, in 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

A 10-time All-Star and the 2017-18 NBA MVP, Harden averaged 22 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds in 65 total regular-season games for the 76ers and Nets, missing time due to hamstring issues. 

James Harden made it clear this offseason that at this point in his career he cares more about having an opportunity to win an NBA championship than money. 

While his deal with the Philadelphia 76ers has yet to be finalised, Harden is expected to sign a two-year contract that will pay him $32million next season and includes a player option for 2023-24. That $32m salary is a steep discount after he declined his $47.4m player option for 2022-23. 

"I had conversations with [76ers president of basketball operation Daryl Morey], and it was explained how we could get better and what the market value was for certain players," Harden told Yahoo Sports. "I told Daryl to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over. 

"This is how bad I want to win. I want to compete for a championship. That's all that matters to me at this stage. I'm willing to take less to put us in position to accomplish that." 

The 32-year-old Harden has racked up plenty of personal accolades – NBA MVP, 10-time All-Star, three-time league scoring champion and NBA Sixth Man of the Year, to name a few. However, he has never won a title and only reached the NBA Finals once, in 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

Following that NBA Finals appearance, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets and became a superstar in the league. He was then dealt to the Brooklyn Nets in January 2021 to play alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but that experiment failed, and Harden was sent to Philadelphia last February. 

Harden averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 7.1 rebounds in 21 games after joining the 76ers. He then put up 18.6 points, 8.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game in the playoffs, where the 76ers lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

Harden wound up appearing in 65 regular-season games overall in 2021-22, mostly due to hamstring issues. He averaged 22 points, 10.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds in those 65 contests. 

"I don't really listen to what people are saying. I wasn't right last season and I still almost averaged a triple-double," Harden said. "If anybody else had those numbers, we'd be talking about them getting the max. 

"People were used to seeing me averaging 40, 30 points, and so they viewed it as a down year. I was in Philadelphia for a couple of months and I had to learn on the fly. That's just what it was. I'm in a good space physically and mentally right now, and I'm just looking forward to next season."

With a full season ahead of playing alongside perennial NBA MVP contender Joel Embiid, and with the additions of P.J. Tucker and Danuel House (thanks in part to Harden's paycut), the 76ers are expected to be a favourite in the East. They also added De'Anthony Melton in a trade with the Memphis Grizzlies. 

"I think we have a much deeper team," Harden said. "That's something we wanted to address. If you look at our team now, we're positioned to go a lot further. I like how we stack up with the rest of the top teams."

James Harden has declined his player option – which would have paid him $47.4million for the upcoming season – to become an unrestricted free agent, although all signs point to an extension with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Since arriving with the 76ers this past season in the trade that sent Ben Simmons to the Brooklyn Nets, Harden's production was up-and-down.

He averaged 21 points, 10.5 assists and 6.5 rebounds in his 21 regular season games with his new team, but he also shot a career low 40 per cent from the field while attempting his fewest shots per game (13.6) since coming off the bench with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011-12.

His numbers in the playoffs dipped even further, averaging 18.6 points, 8.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds while no-showing in the second half of some crucial defeats in their six-game series loss to the Miami Heat.

The report about Harden declining his player option, broken by The Athletic's Shams Charania, states his reasoning for declining the option is to extend with the 76ers at a more team-friendly salary that would allow the team to spend the savings on additional talent.

In the report, it is said that Harden has also returned to the 76ers' practice facility to begin his off-season program early, with his "sole focus" being to win a title in Philadelphia in this coming season.

By signing a deal more in the range of three years, $100m, the 76ers would have slightly more wiggle room to sign additional talent, but if they have plans on totally revamping the landscape, it would require trading Tobias Harris ahead of a season where he will be paid $37.6m – more than star Joel Embiid ($33.6m).

Michael Jordan has company at last.

The Chicago Bulls legend was for a long time the only player to average more than 30 points per game in the NBA playoffs, yet Luka Doncic is now writing his own name into the history books in Dallas.

The Mavericks superstar has a long way to go before he can come anywhere close to matching Jordan's achievements, but he has been spectacular in scoring 32.7 points per game through his first four postseason series.

Not only is Jordan (33.4 points per game) the sole player to top Doncic's mark across a playoff career, he alone since 1963-64 joins the former EuroLeague sensation in scoring more than 750 points over his first 23 postseason games (823 for Jordan, 751 for Doncic).

These look to be early steps in a truly great NBA career for Doncic, and he could yet end this season as a champion.

The Slovenian was outgunned taking on the Los Angeles Clippers on his own in the first round in consecutive years, but the Mavericks made bold moves this year – most notably appointing Jason Kidd and trading away Kristaps Porzingis – and are now in the Western Conference Finals.

Although Doncic averaged 32.6 points as the Mavericks beat the Phoenix Suns in the second round, he crucially had help, now surrounded with defense and shooting.

Dallas held the Suns to their three lowest points totals of the season (94 in Game 3, 90 in Game 7, 86 in Game 6), while Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie became the first team-mates to each score 30 points in a Game 7 since Los Angeles Lakers greats Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal against the Sacramento Kings in 2002.

As the tournament heats up, Doncic will need all the assistance he can get – but any Mavericks title run surely depends on their main man being the best player in every series.

That becomes a little tougher when Dallas are faced next with playoff veterans the Golden State Warriors.

This is the 10th year of the Steph-Klay-Draymond Warriors, in which time they have been to five NBA Finals, won three championships and seen off a whole host of superstars.

There are plenty of examples for Doncic to learn from then as he prepares to take on the greatest team of the past decade.

LeBron James (33.0 points per game, 7-15 record)

Ja Morant, who scored 35 points against Golden State in last year's play-in tournament, averaged 38.3 points across three games in the 2022 second round until a knee injury ended his series and, ultimately, the Memphis Grizzlies' season. That is the highest mark posted against the Warriors in the past 10 years, albeit with a limited sample size.

Among those to play 10 or more games, James (33.0 points per game) leads the way. Equally as impressive, the four-time MVP has the most total playoff points versus the Warriors since 2012 (727) – despite spending the bulk of his career in the Eastern Conference.

 

James did score 22 in a Lakers play-in win over the Warriors in 2021, but all of their 22 postseason encounters have come across four Finals series. Unfortunately, while James has excelled, his teams have not fared quite so well.

Prior to Morant's explosion, James accounted for three of the four highest series averages against the Warriors over this period – 35.8 in 2015, 34.0 in 2018 and 33.6 in 2017 – but the Cleveland Cavaliers lost on each occasion. Their one Finals win came in 2016, when James scored 29.7 points per game.

James had a little more help in 2016 – we'll come on to that – and the Cavaliers' various failures perhaps best illustrate the folly of Doncic attempting to take on a super-team alone.

The 51 points James scored in Game 1 in 2018 were the most against the Warriors in a single playoff game in the past 10 years, but he was let down by his team-mates – we're looking at you, J.R. Smith – and Cleveland not only lost that series opener but were then swept.

James Harden (29.8 points per game, 7-16 record)

Harden's playoff career is best known for his repeated failures to get the better of the Warriors, losing all of his four series against Golden State while on the Houston Rockets, yet only James has scored more points in such matchups since 2012 (685).

Counted among Harden's 23 postseason games against the Warriors in the past 10 years – only Iman Shumpert (24) has played more – are three 41-plus-point performances. James alone can top that (five games).

However, Harden has also failed to reach 20 points on five occasions, twice shooting worse than 20 per cent from the field in 2015. Consistency is the key at this time of year, and Harden has not had that.

The Rockets blew their biggest opportunity to make a first Finals since 1995 in 2018, when they led the Warriors 3-2 in the Conference Finals before Chris Paul went down injured. Houston lost Game 6 and Game 7, collapsing dramatically in the first of the two defeats as Harden did not contribute a single fourth-quarter point.

Doncic, unsurprisingly, has never shot worse than 20 per cent in the playoffs, while his best shooting performance (63.2 per cent) came in Game 7 against the Suns and his career-high points total came in Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers (46).

Kyrie Irving (27.7 points per game, 5-8 record)

Given Irving was the Cavaliers' second man behind James, it is difficult to draw a direct comparison with Doncic. But the point guard's performances show the sort of levels Dinwiddie or Jalen Brunson may have to reach to beat the Warriors if they are at the top of their game.

Irving's 2015 Finals debut ended in Game 1 when he sustained a fractured kneecap, but he returned in 2016 and played a huge role in the Cavaliers' historic win.

Cleveland were trailing 3-1 heading into Game 5 – a deficit that had never previously been overturned – only for Irving and James each to score 41 points, becoming the first team-mates to both top 40 in a Finals game. Irving shot 70.8 per cent from the field.

As the Cavaliers recovered to win 4-3, with Irving shooting a decisive three late in Game 7, his usage rate was a lofty 30.7 per cent for the series, taking responsibility off James' shoulders. Brunson is the Mavericks' second man, although his usage rate of 29.7 per cent was boosted a little by playing three games without the ball-dominant Doncic.

Damian Lillard (27.6 points per game, 1-12 record)

If nothing else, Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers provide an example of how not to play the Warriors. Only former Blazers team-mate Rodney Hood (0-12) has a worse record in playoff games against Golden State in the past 10 years.

A 43.7 per cent career shooter, Lillard has averaged 38.7 per cent from the field against the Warriors in the postseason. Sure, he has scored 27.6 points, but it has taken him 22.1 field goal attempts per game.

When Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are on the other side of the floor, you cannot afford to be so inefficient. Lillard's sole victory in 2016 came courtesy of his one 40-point performance – while Curry was out injured.

Only Allen Iverson (26.5) and Jordan (25.1) have attempted more field goals per playoff game than Doncic (24.3), so there is definitely scope for the Warriors to profit if he cools off – not that there has been a great deal of evidence to suggest that is likely.

Kawhi Leonard (21.9 points per game, 8-5 record)

The man who has occupied Doncic's playoff nightmares in the previous two seasons surely provides the blueprint for how to enjoy postseason success against the Warriors.

Leonard has played on two of the four teams to eliminate Golden State from the playoffs in the past 10 years; he has not lost a series to the Warriors – missing the entirety of their 4-1 defeat of the San Antonio Spurs in 2018 – and boasts the best winning percentage of any player to face Steve Kerr's winning machine on more than 10 occasions over this period.

The 2019 Finals showed the sort of standard that has been required to get the better of the Warriors in the past decade, with Leonard dominant as the outstanding player on the Toronto Raptors. He led the Raptors in points (171), rebounds (59) and steals (12) versus the Warriors, ranking second in assists (25) and blocks (seven).

 

Doncic made strides on defense over the course of the Suns series, but whether he is capable of such an all-round display is very much up for debate.

James Harden cannot be expected to consistently dominate NBA games but could have shown more aggression as the Philadelphia 76ers were knocked out of the playoffs, team-mate Joel Embiid said.

According to Embiid, a team-wide lack of aggression cost the 76ers as a 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat spelled the end for their season.

After being bounced out of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, much of the attention turned to Harden's quiet game.

He had just nine shots and scored only 11 points in almost 43 minutes on court, taking a mere two shots in the second half.

Embiid, who had a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds, said the 32-year-old Harden cannot be compared to the player who averaged above 30 points for three consecutive seasons with the Houston Rockets from 2017-18 to 2019-20.

Harden was the NBA MVP in 2018, but his points on the board have begun to tail off in the past two seasons.

Since joining Philadelphia in February 2022, after a stint with the Brooklyn Nets, Harden has averaged 21.0 points over 21 regular season games, and just 18.6 points per game in the postseason.

Harden's field-goal shooting record of 40.5 per cent over the Sixers' 12 playoff games was his lowest in the postseason since the 2013-14 season.

"Since we got him, everybody expected the Houston James Harden," said Embiid. "But that's not who he is anymore. He's more of a playmaker. I thought, at times, he could have been, as all of us could have been, more aggressive. All of us, whether it was Tyrese [Maxey] or Tobias [Harris] or guys coming off the bench.

"And I'm not just talking about offensively. I'm talking about as a whole, offensively and defensively. I didn't think we were good defensively as a team.

"They took advantage of a lot of stuff that we tried to do defensively. And then offensively just really everybody being on the same page, obviously, only having probably three or four months to all work together and try to figure it out. Maybe it wasn't a lot of time. I don't think we played our best basketball."

Lakers legend Magic Johnson was among those to question Harden's display, saying such a player "can't have a performance like that".

The 76ers won the last of their three NBA titles in 1983 and have not landed a conference title since 2001.

Asked how he and Harden could forge a stronger understanding, Embiid told a news conference: "Everybody's got to get better. It's not just about me and him."

Questions will be asked of Doc Rivers and the 76ers coaching staff, but Embiid said the players must look at themselves.

"I believe that we have the right people, but at some point you have to stop looking at coaching and you have to look at the players. Maybe you are just not good enough," Embiid said.

"I'm not trying to blame anybody, but the players have also got to do their jobs. It doesn't matter how much a coach or a GM talks to you or tries to motivate you, if you still go out there and don't do your job and the other team is more physical than you, that's on the players."

James Harden insisted he intends to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers next season after delivering a flat performance in the defeat that killed off the team's playoffs dream.

After posting just 11 points on four-of-nine shooting, NBA veteran Harden said he hoped the 76ers could realise their ambition to win a championship, and stressed he wanted to be a part of that.

Harden did not put any points on the board in the second half on a 99-90 defeat at home to the Miami Heat, who advanced 4-2 to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The 32-year-old guard spoke about his lack of impact, saying: "I feel like the ball moved, it just didn't get back to me."

The Heat dominated the third quarter 25-15 to open up an 11-point lead, including a 16-2 run, and Harden said: "We didn't score. They got some easy buckets in transition, and hit some big shots, and kind of broke the game open."

Acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in a February trade, Harden was asked whether he saw his future in Philadelphia.

"I'll be here," he said. "Whatever allows this team to continue to grow and get better, and do the things necessary to win and compete at the highest level."

He explained: "For me, it's been a long year, but since I've been here it's been great. We tried to build something so fast – tried to build a championship-contending team so fast – which I still think we are, but we're just missing a few pieces. Other than that, we tried to go for it right away, and we just came up a little short. It doesn't stop, we've still got to put work in and keep going.

"We're trying to win a championship, man. That's the goal. We'll continue to build, us individually, and continue to get better, us as a unit, and continue to get to know each other. We'll find out what works, what doesn't work, and things like that."

Harden has battled hamstring trouble in recent times, and he believes there is a pathway back to full fitness, where he would not feel impeded at all next season.

"I'm finally starting to feel okay again, so it will be a great summer for me to get my body right and get ready to go for next year. This last two years have been a whirlwind though," he said.

"I've been trying to get right throughout the course of a basketball season for two years straight, and that's not it. All last summer I was rehabbing, and it was a little frustrating because I'm not used to going through something like that. It is what it is, and I'm just happy to be healthy now, and I have a full summer to be straight and do the things necessary to come back even better next year."

Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers criticised his side for their toughness and playing too slow in Tuesday's blowout 120-85 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 5.

The defeat leaves the 76ers down 3-2 in the Conference semi-finals series with games in both Philadelphia and, if required, Miami to come.

The 76ers were never a threat in Game 5, trailing by 12 points at quarter time, with Miami eventually winning by 35 points; the equal biggest margin in the 2021-22 playoffs so far.

"They were just more physical. We didn't run our stuff very well," Rivers told reporters after the game.

"We played at a snail's pace. We had 85 shots, turned the ball over, everything they did tonight was harder and better.

"Their stuff was better than what we ran, their energy was better, their toughness was better, I haven't said that very often about us, and that's on all of us.

"That's on me to make sure they're ready and that's on them to be ready. Tonight, we were not."

The 76ers had squared up the series after being down 2-0 but Rivers was left bemused by their lack of effort in Game 5.

"Obviously, they just were so much more engaged, more physical, took us out of stuff, there was a lot of disappointment from all of us tonight," Rivers said.

Embiid had played in both Games 3 and 4 after a concussion and a fractured orbital bone, but struggled for impact in Game 5, managing only 17 points, five rebounds and two assists.

"We didn’t play defense," Embiid said. "We weren’t physical enough, we weren't locked in from the beginning, and they took advantage of it."

James Harden was kept to 14 points, six rebounds and four assists for Philadelphia.

"They got off to a good start," Harden said. "Being down 12 in the first quarter on the road against a really good team is difficult.

"We cannot allow that to happen. Especially, Game 5 and the two games where we just came off our home court playing well. It is difficult to come back and fight your way back and we just never got our pop."

The Dallas Mavericks tied up their playoff series in spite of a poor shooting night from Luka Doncic on Sunday, winning Game 4 against the Phoenix Suns 111-101.

The Slovenian went one-of-10 from beyond the arc and converted on a total of nine-of-25 from the floor, but the Mavs were otherwise automatic from long-range and Doncic was the facilitator in that regard.

He ended up with 11 assists while the rest of the Dallas team went 19-of-34 from deep, with Dorian Finney-Smith scoring a career playoff-high with 24 points on eight-of-12 from the perimeter.

While Devin Booker scored 35 points, Phoenix lacked a reference point late in the game with Chris Paul fouled out early.

The first-seeded Suns went three-of-nine from the perimeter in the fourth quarter, while Booker critically turned the ball over three times.

Sixers tie it up on home court

In the Eastern Conference, the first-seeded Miami Heat find themselves in a series, with the Philadelphia 76ers claiming a 116-108 win in Game 4.

Joel Embiid's second game back from injury gave the Sixers a boost to tie up the series, finishing with 24 points on seven-of-13 shooting and 11 rebounds.

James Harden was the star of the show, however, coming up with 31 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, including some big buckets down the stretch.

The Heat were able to generate open looks, and at timely moments in the game, but were simply not able to capitalise, going seven-of-35 from the perimeter.

Victor Oladipo and Tyler Herro were particularly unable to provide Miami with a scoring boost off the bench, combining for 26 points but off two-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc.

Ben Simmons will have surgery to help treat the pain caused by a herniated disc, with the Brooklyn Nets expecting his recovery to take at least three months.

Simmons, the 2020-21 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up, did not play a game in the 2021-22 season, encountering more back pain as he tried to ramp up to a return in the playoffs.

A statement released by the Nets highlighted that the surgery he will receive is called a microdiscectomy. 

It was a disappointing season for the Nets, who began the year as the favourites to win the Eastern Conference, but struggled throughout as Kyrie Irving was absent for the first portion of the season, and James Harden was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for a package around Simmons.

In the playoffs, the Nets were swept in the first round by the Boston Celtics, who are now the Eastern Conference favourites.

While Kyrie Irving highlighted in his last post-game press conference of the playoffs that there will be plenty of roster turnover as he and Kevin Durant "co-manage" the offseason along with the front office, he indicated Simmons was seen as a core building block.

On a night where star Jimmy Butler did not have his best showing, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was full of praise for his supporting cast in their 106-92 Game 1 win against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Butler finished five-of-16 from the field for his 15 points, and did not play at all in the fourth quarter as the Heat extended their lead without him.

Young duo Bam Adebayo (24 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) and Tyler Herro (25 points and seven assists) picked up the slack, while P.J. Tucker grinded out 29 tough minutes for 10 points and seven rebounds while spending long stretches on Philadelphia's James Harden.

Speaking with post-game media, Spoelstra said he was not shaken by the 76ers leading at half-time, and he knew Herro's next big performance was just around the corner.

"First of all, 48-minute games are long, and they're a very good team, even without Embiid," he said. "You get a double-digit lead in this league, and in the playoffs, they can disappear like that.

"I think it was just a matter of time before [Herro] was going to get into his rhythm. He's a great player, and he's so skilled. 

"It is just a matter of time, and sometimes you miss shots, [but] I thought in the Atlanta series he was playing good basketball. He just wasn't making some of the shots we're used to seeing him make, then everyone jumps to conclusions about that – but he was playing winning basketball.

"The plays in between – they weren't necessarily play-calls – but it was the plays in between that he was able to be super efficient in. He's a big-time 'X-factor' for us offensively when he's in that rhythm."

Spoelstra then shifted his attention to his starting big-men.

"Those inspiring offensive rebounds, and extra possessions, and extra efforts kind of ignited the whole team," he said. "That was P.J. [Tucker] and Bam [Adebayo] – both of those guys were terrific.

"Defensively we really picked up the intensity, but we did it with a bit more thought and discipline. 

"On both ends of the court, [Adebayo] was so critical. In that second half, whether it was zone or man [defence], he was able to find those open gaps in the paint.

"It wasn't as if we were running specific plays for him, it was just his activity, and his relentlessness, and his assertiveness. Our guys were finding him in the paint, and when the ball was up there he was going after it.

"You can't put an analytic to it – I literally don't know what [Tucker's] stats were – but he has those momentum-shifting plays. These timely, winning plays – and he has a way of doing things that just inspires your whole team. 

"[Tucker] was tremendous on both ends of the court, and that's what winning basketball is meant to look like. He's our best communicator… and he's such an underrated, high-IQ offensive player."

The Heat looked to figure out their opponents in the second half, outscoring the 76ers 56-41 over the last two quarters, but Spoelstra said he knows there is a long series ahead, with plenty of adjustments coming from both sides.

"Doc [Rivers] is a great coach, a brilliant mind," he said. "He'll come up with something, and we'll try to make our adjustments. 

"Even without Embiid, they have some great firepower. Harden creates a lot of things you have to be ultra on-edge about, Maxey has just continued to improve, and Harris was killing us tonight."

Jalen Brunson scored a career-high 41 points to carry the Dallas Mavericks to a 110-104 home victory, tying their series against the Utah Jazz at 1-1.

With the Mavs missing Luka Doncic for the second straight game due to injury, Brunson scored 15 of their first 18 points as the two sides went into quarter-time tied at 24. It stayed neck-and-neck until a 7-0 run late in the second quarter gave Utah a seven-point lead at the long break.

Dallas' Maxi Kleber hit one three-pointer in each of the first two quarters, but caught fire in the second half, going three-for-four from long range in the third term and repeating that effort in the fourth quarter to finish with 25 points off the bench.

Kleber's biggest shots were back-to-back bombs to turn a 98-96 deficit into a 102-98 lead, which Dallas never relinquished, on the way to finishing eight-of-11 from three, while not attempting a single a two-point field goal.

Brunson finished an incredible 15-of-25 from the field and six-of-10 from three, and added eight rebounds, five assists and two turnovers.

For Utah, Donovan Mitchell top-scored with 34 points on 13-of-30 shooting, while Rudy Gobert grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked two shots.

The series heads to Utah next for Game 3 and Game 4.

 

76ers too much for Toronto

Despite strong first and fourth quarters for the Toronto Raptors, they went down 112-97 against the Philadelphia 76ers to fall down 2-0 in the series.

In an up-tempo first quarter where both sides were making shots, Fred VanVleet was the early standout, hitting four of his seven three-point attempts to head into quarter time with 14 points and his Raptors leading 33-32.

For the next two quarters, it would be all Philadelphia, out-scoring the Raptors 63-38 over the second and third frames to take full command of the contest, peaking at a 95-66 lead with 30 seconds remaining in the third.

The 76ers' intensity dropped in the last as the game was essentially won, which allowed Toronto to pull the margin back to 11 points with 6:30 to play, but that would be as close as things got as a Tyrese Maxey three and a string of free throws kept Philly's lead in the teens as the clock winded down.

Joel Embiid was the best player on the floor, scoring 31 points on nine-of-16 shooting (12-of-14 free throws) with 11 rebounds, while Maxey was unstoppable for the second game in a row, scoring an efficient 23 points on eight-of-11 shooting and adding nine rebounds with eight assists.

Tobias Harris also earned a mention with his 20 points and 10 rebounds, while O.G. Anunoby was the lone bright spot for the Raptors, scoring 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting and flashing some intriguing ability as a primary scoring option.

Toronto will host Game 3 and Game 4 of the series, with unvaccinated players unable to enter Canada, which means Matisse Thybulle will not travel with the 76ers.

 

Poole party for the Splash Brothers

After scoring a team-high 30 points in Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets, Jordan Poole was at it again in the Golden State Warriors' 126-106 win in Game 2.

While he did not top-score this time around, Poole was arguably the Warriors' best player through the first three quarters, racking up 27 of his 29 points up to three-quarter time as his side led 101-81 heading into the last.

Poole has emerged as the third 'Splash Brother' this postseason, with the original two also enjoying big games on Monday, as Stephen Curry scored a game-high 34 points in 23 minutes off the bench, while Klay Thompson chipped in with 21.

For Denver, MVP favourite Nikola Jokic was ejected in the fourth quarter for his second technical foul after accumulating 26 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes.

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.

Joel Embiid made his closing statement for the MVP award and all but wrapped up the NBA scoring title in the Philadelphia 76ers' 133-120 win over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

Embiid put up monster numbers of 41 points, 20 rebounds and four assists, while going 14-of-17 from the floor and 11-of-15 from the free-throw line. It was the first time this NBA season that a player scored 40 points or more and had 20 or more rebounds in a game.

The 28-year-old is currently the league's scoring leader, averaging an astounding 30.6 points per game, just ahead of LeBron James' 30.3 and Kevin Durant's 30.1 points per game.

James Harden had 22 points and 14 assists for Philadelphia, who had a healthy spread of scorers with Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey both scoring 18 points, and Danny Green adding 15.

The Sixers remain in the hunt for the Eastern Conference's third seed with the win, moving to the same record as the Boston Celtics at 50-31, while the Milwaukee Bucks are second at 51-30.

A win over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday combined with a Boston loss to the Memphis Grizzlies would move the Sixers into the third seed.

Morant makes timely return for Grizzlies

Ja Morant returned to action after a nine-game absence on Saturday night, as the Memphis Grizzlies secured a comfortable 141-114 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Morant finished with 21 points off seven-of-14 shooting, along with nine assists and four rebounds, while Jaren Jackson Jr. contributed a solid 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.

The Grizzlies are set to finish second in the Western Conference, to face the winner of the 7-8 matchup in the play-in between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers.

Warriors continue winning run

The Golden State Warriors claimed their fourth consecutive victory despite an off shooting night from Jordan Poole, defeating the San Antonio Spurs on the road 100-94.

With Stephen Curry yet to return from injury and Klay Thompson rested, Poole had to take on more offensive responsibility and went three-of-19 from the floor in win.

A combined 30 points at nine-of-14 shooting off the bench from Jonathan Kuminga and Nemanja Bjelica was able to counteract it, along with 12 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists from Draymond Green.

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