The Brooklyn Nets overcame the early loss of James Harden to injury to win Game 1 of their Conference semi-final series against the Milwaukee Bucks 115-107 on Saturday.

Harden left the court after only 43 seconds after re-injuring his right hamstring, but Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving stepped up in his absence, along with Blake Griffin who had a throwback game.

Durant finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while Irving had 25 points and eight assists including 20 points in the first half but it was a collective effort on both defense and offense for the Nets.

Griffin made four three-pointers, totalling 18 points and 14 rebounds, the latter being a season-high for him since joining the Nets.

In contrast, the Bucks struggled from beyond the arc, shooting six from 30 with the main culprits being Jrue Holiday with two from seven and Khris Middleton who shot none from five.

At one stage in the first half, Milwaukee missed 11 consecutive three-point attempts to leave them playing catch up.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the Bucks' best with 34 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and four assists.

The Nets edged ahead in the first half where the Bucks rallied to finish the second quarter with a 14-3 stretch to trail by two points at the long break.

But Durant lifted Brooklyn in the third quarter, as the Nets piled on 35 points to open up a sizeable 14-point lead at the final change.

While the Bucks struggled from range, the Nets shot 15 from 40 beyond the arc, going at 37.5 per cent led by Joe Harris who made five from nine.

The series continues on Monday at Brooklyn's Barclays Center although the Nets will be sweating on Harden's status.

The Brooklyn Nets overcame the early loss of James Harden to injury to win Game 1 of their Conference semi-final series against the Milwaukee Bucks 115-107 on Saturday.

Harden left the court after only 43 seconds after re-injuring his right hamstring, but Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving stepped up in his absence, along with Blake Griffin who had a throwback game.

Durant finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks while Irving had 25 points and eight assists including 20 points in the first half but it was a collective effort on both defense and offense for the Nets.

Griffin made four three-pointers, totalling 18 points and 14 rebounds, the latter being a season-high for him since joining the Nets.

In contrast, the Bucks struggled from beyond the arc, shooting six from 30 with the main culprits being Jrue Holiday with two from seven and Khris Middleton who shot none from five.

At one stage in the first half, Milwaukee missed 11 consecutive three-point attempts to leave them playing catch up.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the Bucks' best with 34 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and four assists.

The Nets edged ahead in the first half where the Bucks rallied to finish the second quarter with a 14-3 stretch to trail by two points at the long break.

But Durant lifted Brooklyn in the third quarter, as the Nets piled on 35 points to open up a sizeable 14-point lead at the final change.

While the Bucks struggled from range, the Nets shot 15 from 40 beyond the arc, going at 37.5 per cent led by Joe Harris who made five from nine.

The series continues on Monday at Brooklyn's Barclays Center although the Nets will be sweating on Harden's status.

James Harden has left the Brooklyn Nets' opening game of their Conference semi-final against the Milwaukee Bucks after re-injuring his right hamstring.

Harden was forced off the court after only 43 seconds in Saturday's clash at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.

The Nets confirmed that the 31-year-old was out for the remainder of the game with a right hamstring injury.

Harden left the arena and went for an MRI scan on the same hamstring which kept him out for 21 games late in the regular season.

The shooting guard joined the Nets in January from the Houston Rockets, linking up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, making Brooklyn one of the NBA title favourites.

The former MVP returned from injury on May 13 against the San Antonio Spurs and played all five games in the Nets' 4-1 series win over the Boston Celtics.

Harden scored 41 points in Game 3 and a triple-double in Game 5, averaging 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 10.6 assists per game in the series.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden believes this is his best chance to win an NBA championship as the star-studded franchise continue their quest against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will lead the second-seeded Nets in an Eastern Conference semi-final showdown with Giannis Antetokounmpo and third seeds the Bucks, starting Saturday.

Brooklyn's 'big three' have the Nets as favourites to win their maiden championship in a playoff campaign also featuring the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz.

Harden joined the Nets from the Houston Rockets via a blockbuster trade in January, with the former MVP's eyes on a much-coveted title.

During his time in Houston, Harden reached two Western Conference Finals as the franchise never advanced to the showpiece – Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors often standing in the way, while LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers also thwarted the Rockets in the semi-finals last season.

Now, Harden senses his best opportunity to add an NBA ring to his list of league honours.

"I ran into some very, very good teams which is one of the reasons I've been short [of winning a title]," Harden told reporters via a Zoom call on Friday.

"[But] you look at our roster, we're elite too. It's going to be a showdown but I'm more than confident going into this postseason just because of the roster and our schemes and the things that we can control and the versatility that we have."

Harden added: "Obviously, there's only a handful of teams that have an opportunity. And we're one of those teams this year.

"So, the excitement is there, but I think just the focus is the most important thing for myself. And just trying to rub that focus level and that engagement to detail into every one of my team-mates."

The Nets saw off the Boston Celtics 4-1 in the opening round but will face a stiffer test against two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee support cast, including Jrue Holiday.

With Brooklyn's Jeff Green ruled out of Game 1, Nets head coach Steve Nash said: "I think the strategy we'll probably start with is probably similar from a team-defending standpoint.

"It's also the type of thing we have to work our way through as the series goes on and have a better feel for it, have more and more of an understanding collectively, and also be able to adjust and adapt within our schemes, not just change our schemes. The team concepts will be the same regardless."

Joel Embiid's career night led the Philadelphia 76ers to a 132-103 rout of the Washington Wizards, pushing the top seed in the Eastern Conference to the brink of a series sweep. 

Embiid established a new playoff career high with 36 points in just 28 minutes, making 14 of 18 shots from the floor and adding eight rebounds. 

Embiid had 25 points and seven rebounds at the interval as Philadelphia built a comfortable lead before pulling away in the second half. 

Embiid's previous playoff career high was 34 against the Boston Celtics last season. 

Tobias Harris added 20 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, while Ben Simmons had 14 points and nine assists for the Sixers. 

Philadelphia made an impressive 58.6 per cent of their shots from the field (51 of 87) while limiting Washington to 38 of 96 shooting (39.6 per cent). 

Russell Westbrook led the Wizards with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists while Bradley Beal scored 25. 

Game 4 is Monday in Washington. 

 

Giannis, Bucks sweep out Heat

The Milwaukee Bucks avenged last season's loss to Miami in the conference semi-finals by completing a four-game sweep of the Heat with a 120-103 victory. Milwaukee outscored Miami 64-39 in the second half to wrap up the series and will next face the winner of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics series. Giannis Antetokounmpo had his first playoff triple-double for the Bucks with 20 points, 12 rebounds and 15 assists, while Jimmy Butler turned in a quieter triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a losing effort. It was the first playoff series since 2014 in which Butler failed to reach 20 points in at least one game. 

Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley paced the top-seeded Utah Jazz to a 121-111 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, holding off a second-half surge from the underdogs. Mitchell scored 29 points and Conley had 27 points, six rebounds and eight assists for Utah as they took a 2-1 series lead. 

Norman Powell's 29 points led the Portland Trail Blazers past the Denver Nuggets 115-95 to level their series at 2-2. 

 

Nuggets' shooters nowhere to be found

The Nuggets had a rough shooting night all the way around in their loss to Portland. Denver made only 32 of 94 shots from the field (34 per cent), including just 13 of 44 (29.5 per cent) from three-point range, and Nikola Jokic led the scoring with just 16 points on seven of 18 shooting. 

 

Morant spins it in

Ja Morant put on a show in a losing effort for the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 28 points to give him 101 in the series. Morant is the fourth player in NBA history to score at least 100 points over his first three playoff appearances and the first since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1970. Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan are the other two. 

 

Saturday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 120-103 Miami Heat
Portland Trail Blazers 115-95 Denver Nuggets
Philadelphia 76ers 132-103 Washington Wizards
Utah Jazz 121-111 Memphis Grizzlies

 

Suns at Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers look for a commanding 3-1 lead in their series against the Phoenix Suns after winning the last two games. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo knows the Milwaukee Bucks can beat the teams a variety of ways, and they had to take the hard road Saturday. 

The Miami Heat held the Bucks' top two scorers without a field goal in the first quarter of Game 4, but Milwaukee pushed through that early adversity and prevailed 120-103 to sweep the first-round NBA playoff series. 

Khris Middleton finally got on the board early in the second quarter and the Greek star went without a basket from the field until a dunk with one minute to play in the second quarter, but Antetokounmpo said his team never lost patience even when their shots failed to fall. 

"At the end of the day, nothing's going to be easy. It's a game that's win or go home for them," he said.

"Obviously they're going to play extremely hard, they're going to try to be physical, they're going to try to get us out of our spots.

"But at the end of the day, as players you're going to have games that you're going to come, you're going to score the ball right off the bat. There's going to be days that you're not going to do that.

"Today was one of those days that we couldn't score the ball right off the bat but at the end of the day we keep finding one another, keep facilitating, keep playing the right way. For me and for Khris, that's what we both did.

"Obviously they did a great job guarding us and just making it tough for us, but it did not really test our patience, because what we do, we keep playing the right way, we keep finding one another."

Antetokounmpo turned in a career-best 15 assists on the way to his first playoff triple-double, adding 20 points and 12 rebounds as the Bucks out-scored the Heat 64-39 in the second half. 

But he left most of the scoring load to others this time, as Brook Lopez led the way with 25 points, Middleton had 20, and Bryn Forbes scored 22 off the bench. 

"I try to affect the game in any way I can," Antetokounmpo said.

"I'm blessed enough that I can affect the game defensively, I can pass the ball.

"There's days I'm going to be dominant, and I'm mature enough to understand that there's days I'm going to be able to do it and there's days I'm not going to be able to do it."

Thanks to their first-round sweep, Milwaukee will have a week off before the next round, where they were eliminated 4-1 by the Bucks last season. 

Antetokounmpo and his teammates want more this year, and they know this was just the start. 

"We've got to keep getting better. We have a week now to recover and rest our bodies and get better," he said.

Obviously we don't know who we're playing yet. We're going to try to focus on ourselves as much as possible. 

"Not trying to take anything away from this moment -- obviously it's a great moment for us, winning 4-0 and beating the team that beat us last year. It feels good. But at the end of the day, we've got a long way to go. Gotta stay humble."

Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo will miss the remainder of the NBA playoffs due to an ankle injury, the franchise announced on Friday.

In a blow for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the championship-chasing Bucks, DiVincenzo suffered a torn ligament in his left ankle.

DiVincenzo sustained the injury in the second quarter of Thursday's 113-84 rout of the Miami Heat as the Bucks claimed a commanding 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.

"It's a tough blow, but you have to kind of process and understand it's an unfortunate thing, but we have to prepare and get ready," said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. "Other guys will have opportunities."

In three playoff games (all starts), DiVincenzo averaged 2.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.0 steal in 23.3 minutes per game.

In 66 regular-season games (all starts), the 24-year-old averaged 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 27.5 minutes per game – all career-high totals.

"On an individual, personal level for Donte, it's really, really tough," added Budenholzer.

"But his mentality, his approach, any time Donte is thrown some adversity or thrown something that's difficult for himself or for everybody, the way he handles it just continues to be impressive."

The Los Angeles Lakers issued a reminder of their quality as the reigning NBA champions outclassed the Phoenix Suns 109-95 to seize control in the Western Conference first-round series.

Injuries crippled the Lakers for most of the season as they slipped down to the play-in tournament and the seventh seed, but Anthony Davis and LeBron James starred at Staples Center on Thursday.

Davis posted a dominant double-double of 34 points and 11 rebounds and James put up 21 points as the Lakers claimed a 2-1 series lead following back-to-back victories against the second seeds in the playoffs.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are poised to sweep the Miami Heat after easing to a 113-84 win.

Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo posted 17 points and 17 rebounds to go with five assists, while Khris Middleton (team-high 22 points) and Jrue Holiday (19 points and 12 assists) contributed en route to a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The Bucks – who are eyeing their first championship since 1971 – can seal a sweep on Saturday.

 

Jokic inspires Nuggets

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic was at his brilliant best as the Denver Nuggets outlasted the Portland Trail Blazers 120-115 on the road. Jokic scored 36 points and collected 10 rebounds to guide the third-seeded Nuggets to a 2-1 series lead in the west. Damian Lillard's 37 points and Jusuf Nurkic's 13-point, 13-rebound double-double were not enough for the Trail Blazers.

Milwaukee's Holiday produced another impressive display against the Heat following his 15-assist performance in Game 2 as he became the first Bucks player with back-to-back 10-plus assist games in the playoffs since Sam Cassell in 2001. The 2013 All-Star was plus-37 in Game 2 and plus-42 in Game 3. According to Stats Perform, Holiday became the first NBA player to have a plus-minus of plus-37 or better in back-to-back games since Kobe Bryant in 2003.

 

Miami's shooting woes

The less said about the Heat's shooting on Thursday, the better. As a team, Miami were just 37.6 per cent from the field – making 32 of their 85 shots. From three-point range, the Heat were only 28.1 per cent (nine of 32). Goran Dragic (eight points) finished three-for-14 shooting in 29 minutes, while Duncan Robinson (two points) was one of six from the field, having missed all four three-pointers.

Chris Paul and Devin Booker were not at their usual high standards for the Suns. Paul, who hurt his shoulder in Game 2, was three-for-eight shooting for just seven points. All-Star team-mate Booker had 19 points, but it was on six-for-19 shooting from the field in 41 minutes. He only made one of four attempts from beyond the arc.

 

Rivers lights up fourth quarter

Denver's Austin Rivers was in red-hot form in the final period against the Blazers. Rivers scored 16 of his 21 points in the fourth to help the Nuggets to victory.

 

Thursday's results

Los Angeles Lakers 109-95 Phoenix Suns
Milwaukee Bucks 113-84 Miami Heat
Denver Nuggets 120-115 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Nets at Celtics

The star-studded Brooklyn Nets visit the Boston Celtics on Friday, leading the Eastern Conference first-round series 2-0.

The Milwaukee Bucks are on the cusp of advancing to the Eastern Conference semi-finals but Giannis Antetokounmpo warned "our job is not done" against the Miami Heat.

Milwaukee are one win away from sweeping reigning Eastern Conference champions Miami in the opening round of the NBA playoffs following Thursday's 113-84 rout in Game 3.

Bucks superstar Antetokounmpo posted 17 points and 17 rebounds to go with five assists, while Khris Middleton (team-high 22 points) and Jrue Holiday (19 points and 12 assists) contributed en route to a commanding 3-0 series lead.

The Bucks – who were eliminated by the Heat in last season's Conference semi-finals 4-1 – can seal a sweep on Saturday but two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo is taking nothing for granted.

"We are going to stay focused," Antetokounmpo told reporters as the Bucks attempt to win their first championship since 1971. "Our job is not done here."

"The last two games haven't been easy," Antetokounmpo said. "Obviously, we were up 30, but it's not easy.

"I'll say this: I'll say by us doing our job, I'm not surprised that we're able to win a game because once we focus on ourselves, play together, have fun and be tough, good things are going to happen. And in these three games, good things have happened for us."

Holiday – an All-Star in 2013 – was acquired from the New Orleans Pelicans in November as part of Milwaukee's title pursuit.

The 30-year-old produced another impressive display against the Heat following his 15-assist performance in Game 2 as he became the first Bucks player with back-to-back 10-plus assist games in the playoffs since Sam Cassell in 2001.

"We got better from last year," Antetokounmpo said. "We've had great additions to the team that help us do that."

PJ Tucker – another recruit after he was traded to the Bucks by the Houston Rockets in March – added: "We dogs. That's all we talk about. That's all I ever talk about.

"We gotta be dogs. People's perceptions of us and what people think in the past, we're erasing all of that."

Giannis Antetokounmpo revealed his love for football after leading the Milwaukee Bucks past the Miami Heat in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference matchup in the NBA playoffs.

Antetokounmpo led the way as the Bucks routed the Heat 132-98 on Monday for a commanding 2-0 lead in the first-round series.

Two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo posted 31 points in 31 minutes, while also tallying 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on home court in Milwaukee.

A superstar with the basketball, Antetokounmpo also demonstrated his football skills after juggling the ball during a break in play against the Heat.

Afterwards, Greece international Antetokounmpo told reporters: "I can do probably like 300 of those.

"I used to play soccer when I was young. My dad used to be a soccer player. I love soccer.

"I wanted to play soccer. I didn't want to play basketball growing up."

Milwaukee – seeded third in the east – used a 46-20 opening quarter to crush Miami in Game 2 of their NBA playoff clash.

Jrue Holiday (11 points and 15 assists) added a double-double of his own, while Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes made six three-pointers to contribute 22 points off the bench.

The Bucks set a franchise record for threes made in a playoff game after nailing 22 from beyond the arc.

Forbes, who joined the Bucks in November following four seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, said: "That was a huge part in me coming here. You know that there would be these opportunities and we would be in the playoffs. ... It's just great to be in this position, be in the playoffs again and have an opportunity and stage."

"It's just how the game goes," Forbes added. "It's ebbs and flows. Some games you're open a lot more. Some games you aren't. Tonight I think we moved the ball great and had a lot of open shots."

Bucks star Holiday hailed Forbes, saying: "If my man got the hot hand, I'm going to him. And he wasn't missing, so at that point we were running everything to him just to -- really just to see what happens."

It was an impressive shooting display from the Bucks as head coach Mike Budenholzer added: "Guys have got to shoot it with confidence. They've got to let it fly. They've got to know they’re going to get threes.

"I think the activity offensively, the attack, can create good looks for us. We've just got to continue to let it fly when you're open."

"Lots of times, there's just so much talent in the league and so many good teams, sometimes you get the early lead and things just happen and it becomes a close game," Budenholzer said. "Today we were able to keep the focus."

The Milwaukee Bucks earned a commanding 2-0 lead in their Eastern Conference first-round series after Giannis Antetokounmpo and his team-mates blew away the Miami Heat 132-98.

Only two points separated the Bucks and Heat in overtime on Saturday as the third seeds edged Jimmy Butler's Miami 109-107.

But the Heat were no match for the Bucks on Monday after Milwaukee used a 46-20 opening quarter to rout Miami in Game 2 of their NBA playoff clash.

Antetokounmpo – the two-time reigning MVP – fuelled the Bucks with a game-high 31 points in 31 minutes, 13 rebounds, six assists and three steals on home court in Milwaukee.

Jrue Holiday added a double-double of his own, while Bucks team-mate Bryn Forbes made six three-pointers to contribute 22 points off the bench.

The Bucks set a franchise record for threes made in a playoff game after nailing 22 from beyond the arc.

Entering the second matchup, the Bucks and Heat had the NBA's two best records when making more three-pointers than their opponents this season – Milwaukee were 25-3 (89.3 per cent) in those games and Miami were 18-3 (85.7 per cent). But the Bucks won Game 1 while making only five of 31 three-point attempts, 16.1 percent, a season low.

The Heat had no answer on the road, where reserve Dewayne Dedmon was Miami's best performer with a team-high 19 points as Butler (10 points on four-for-10 shooting), Bam Adebayo (16 points), Duncan Robinson (10 points) and Kendrick Nunn (nine points) struggled to get going, while Trevor Ariza (0-for-three shooting) was scoreless.

In the day's only other game, the Denver Nuggets levelled their Western Conference matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers thanks to a 128-109 victory.

MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic inspired the third-seeded Nuggets in Game 2, scoring 38 points on 15-for-20 shooting, while also tallying eight rebounds and five assists in Denver.

Not even Damian Lillard's monster performance was enough for the sixth-ranked Trail Blazers to take down the Nuggets for back-to-back wins.

Lillard finished with 42 points and 10 assists – the All-Star made eight three-pointers by half-time, tying Vince Carter's all-time playoff record in a half.

A strong second half sent the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers to a 123-109 victory over the third-seeded Denver Nuggets as the NBA playoffs began Saturday. 

Portland outscored Denver 65-48 after the break as Damian Lillard had 34 points and 13 assists for the visitors, who made 18 of 19 free throw attempts to just four of eight for the Nuggets. 

CJ McCollum added 21 points and Carmelo Anthony scored 18 in just 22 minutes off the bench for Portland, who beat the Los Angeles Lakers in their playoff opener last season only to lose the next four to the eventual champions. 

Their efforts overcame a 34-point, 15-rebound game from Nikola Jokic and 25 points from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter made all 11 of his two-point field goal attempts Saturday but was just one of 10 from three-point range. 

Game 2 is Monday in Denver. 

 

Brooklyn's big three carry Nets

Big games from the big three carried the Brooklyn Nets to a 104-93 series-opening win over the Boston Celtics. Kevin Durant had 32 points and 12 rebounds while Kyrie Irving added 29 points and James Harden 21 as the Nets stifled the Celtics, who got 22 points on just six of 20 shooting from Jayson Tatum in a losing effort. 

Luka Doncic had his third triple-double in seven career playoff games, scoring 31 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists as the Dallas Mavericks pulled out a 113-103 road win at the Los Angeles Clippers to open their series. Tim Hardaway Jr added 21 points on eight of 13 shooting for the fifth-seeded Mavericks, while Kawhi Leonard had 26 points and Paul George 23 to lead the Clippers. 

 

Butler cannot find the range

Jimmy Butler came close to recording a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the Miami Heat's 109-107 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, but the five-time All-Star made only four of 22 shots from the field. 

 

Middleton gives Bucks win

Khris Middleton's contested jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining in overtime gave the Bucks the Game 1 win at home. Middleton's 27 points led the Bucks, with Giannis Antetokounmpo adding 26 points and 18 rebounds. 

 

Saturday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 109-107 Miami Heat (OT)
Dallas Mavericks 113-103 Los Angeles Clippers
Brooklyn Nets 104-93 Boston Celtics
Portland Trail Blazers 123-109 Denver Nuggets

 

Lakers face Suns

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers got the win they needed in the play-in tournament and they will open the playoffs proper with Game 1 of their best-of-seven series against the second-seeded Suns in Phoenix. 

The NBA playoffs are here!

After some tense one-off play-in games, we can now look forward to thrilling back-and-forth series.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant and all the usual big names will be backed to deliver, but some of their contemporaries have previously found life a little tricky in the postseason.

For five players in particular, it may be do or die as they aim to bolster their reputations or secure their futures.

With the aid of Stats Perform data, we look at the issues this high-profile quartet have encountered in the past...
 

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

In consecutive seasons, Antetokounmpo won the MVP award on a Milwaukee Bucks team with the best record in the NBA. Then, in the playoffs, the 'Greak Freak' failed to inspire a suddenly one-dimensional side.

Those freakish regular season performances were back again in 2020-21, but Antetokounmpo and the Bucks might have run out of excuses if there is no evidence of postseason improvement.

Last year's approach evidently did not work. Antetokounmpo was on a strict minutes restriction across the campaign, averaging 30.4 minutes per game, but he was still unable to make the difference in the playoffs.

As in all but one of his playoff campaigns, the forward's points return was down on the rest of the season – 29.5 to 26.7 – while the Bucks superstar's shaky shooting came to the fore as he made just 58.0 per cent of his free throws, the worst rate of any of the 23 players to visit the foul line more than 50 times.

Now with additional support in the form of Jrue Holiday, Antetokounmpo simply must deliver this year – and Milwaukee start against the Miami Heat team that beat them in five in round two in 2020.
 

JAMES HARDEN

The man Antetokounmpo followed as MVP has too often had the same problem. Harden is a regular season great, but his career to date has been tarnished by playoff failings.

Although Harden had a big role from the bench as the Oklahoma City Thunder reached the 2012 NBA Finals, he averaged just 12.4 points on 37.5 per cent shooting in that 4-1 series defeat to the Heat.

The dominant scorer has never returned to that stage, subsequently joining the Houston Rockets and repeatedly finding the Golden State Warriors a step too far.

The closest Harden and the Rockets came was in 2018, up 3-2 against the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before letting big leads slip in both Game 6 and Game 7 – the latter seeing Houston's star man shoot two-of-13 from beyond the arc as his team missed a record-breaking 27 consecutive threes.

Now on the Brooklyn Nets, the 31-year-old will at least have former champions Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to turn to if he needs help, although the guard – still battling a hamstring problem – will no doubt be determined to succeed himself and alter his legacy for the better.
 

PAUL GEORGE

Without ever coming close to a title, despite losing back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers, George has regularly put up impressive numbers in the postseason. There have also been occasions on which he has looked lost on the big stage, however.

George's career playoff average has been kept to 20.1 by some alarming single-digit displays, notably contributing only five points in 45 minutes on two-of-16 shooting in a decisive Game 6 defeat to the Utah Jazz while with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

And despite joining a talented Los Angeles Clippers team, George's woes were only magnified in the 2020 'bubble', where he later revealed he was in a "dark place" and "checked out".

The forward shot 25 per cent or lower from the field in four of 11 games, including the Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Back on song and playing in something approaching normal conditions, George has the opportunity to answer his critics, starting against a Dallas Mavericks team he struggled to master last year. The Clippers will need him in a competitive West.
 

CHRIS PAUL

There has generally been little wrong with the level of Paul's performance in the playoffs, his points average climbing to 20.9 from a career regular season mark of 18.3.

However, his deepest run was on Harden's 2018 Houston team as a hamstring kept him out of those painful last two defeats. For Paul, team success this year outweighs any individual achievements.

In his 16th season, he is entering a 13th postseason campaign but still waiting on a first Finals appearance more than 4,000 minutes in.

One of the great point guards of the modern NBA, Paul will be acutely aware of what a title would do for his legacy. He has helped transform the Phoenix Suns into a real force.

The Lakers in round one represent a daunting start for the Suns – especially having secured the number two seed – but fitness issues throughout the West might make this Paul's best and last chance to get to the Finals.
 

BEN SIMMONS

The Philadelphia 76ers ended the season with the best-rated defense in the East (105.1), but will that be enough in the playoffs? It might have to be.

On offense, Joel Embiid led the team by far with 28.5 points, with Simmons, the Sixers' second superstar, only able to contribute 14.3 – low even by his modest standards at that end of the floor.

Those numbers are unlikely to be able to hang with the Nets' 'big three' or a high-scoring Bucks team unless Philly come up with some significant stops.

Embiid, Simmons and Matisse Thybulle were among five 76ers players counted in the 22 best individual defensive ratings this year, but the pressure will ramp up in the postseason.

Simmons, a former first overall pick and the subject of trade rumours this year, is therefore required to become a playoff difference-maker, whether through improvement on offense or series-turning defensive contributions.

As enjoyable and memorable as the NBA postseason can be, it rarely produces significant surprises.

Sure, an occasional first-round upset stands out – like MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks falling to the Golden State Warriors in 2007 – but almost never does an underdog hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as season's end.

Of course, that depends on your definition of an underdog.

In each of the last 25 seasons – and in 49 of the last 51 – the team that won the NBA Finals was a top three seed in their conference. The only exception to that rule since 1970 is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who finished sixth in the Western Conference despite being the reigning NBA champions.

The 2020-21 NBA season has already been an unprecedented one, with games played in empty arenas and players being held out of games due to league virus safety protocols. And why should the oddities end when the playoffs begin?

From 2015-18, the Warriors played the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals four straight seasons, making everything beforehand feel like a waste of time. The pattern was broken in 2019 because LeBron James switched conferences, but the Warriors represented the west for the fifth straight season. Last season, James played in the Finals for the ninth time in 10 campaigns, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title.

This season, however, is suspiciously devoid of a juggernaut. The top regular season teams are unproven in the playoffs, and the typical postseason performers must answer serious questions and navigate a difficult road to the Finals.

The Utah Jazz had the league's best record this season at 52-20, a .722 win percentage. That is the fifth-worst record by a league-leading team since the NBA-ABA merger and the worst in 20 years.

 

Lowest Win Pct by Team With NBA's Best Record in Season, Since 1976-77

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

With just 10 wins separating the top-seeded Jazz and seventh-seeded Lakers, the west could deviate from seeding by quite a bit.

Even in the often-predictable east, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were considered preseason favorites in the conference, only to finish with the sixth and seventh seeds.

The fact is that whoever wins their conference to play in the NBA Finals – and ultimately raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy – will have a unique story about their road there. Whether it is a team who are a proven commodity that flipped the switch after a sub-par regular season or a high-seeded team that overcame past postseason failures, the 2021 NBA champions – like the 2020-21 regular season itself – will be unlike any other.

 

Honourable Mentions: West number one Dallas Mavericks, West number six Portland Trail Blazers

Both teams lack the depth to make a serious championship run but have enough star power in the backcourt to scare any opponent.

Dallas will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and took two of three games this season against Los Angeles. Luka Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in those games. In nine career games against the Clippers, Doncic is attempting 9.9 free throws per game, his most against any Western Conference opponent.

The Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard takes them. When Portland made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers were 7-0 when Lillard had a plus-minus above zero and were 1-8 when he had a negative plus-minus.

 

The 'Not Your Year' Tier: West number three Denver Nuggets

The season-ending knee injury to Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray was a devastating blow to Denver's title chances and takes some fun out of a special season by Nikola Jokic.

Although Murray's injury solidified Jokic as the MVP favourite – leading the Nuggets to a 13-5 record since the injury – it is hard to envision Denver making a deep run without their star guard.

The knock on Jokic has been that he would generally rather pass than score, and Denver are 5-8 in postseason games when Jokic attempts 20 or more shots.

With Jokic scoring a career-high 26.4 points per game this season and with the continued blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., however, the Nuggets remain dangerous in the playoffs.

 

The 'Prove It' Tier: West number four Los Angeles Clippers, East number one Philadelphia 76ers, West number one Utah Jazz, East number three Milwaukee Bucks, West number two Phoenix Suns

On paper, each of these teams appear to be solid championship contenders, complete with star power and coming off an impressive regular season.

But each of these teams need to prove they can take another step forward, either because of a limited postseason history or a checkered one.

At the start of last year's playoffs, the Clippers were considered by many to be the favourites but blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Nuggets was a humbling experience. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have quietly had fantastic seasons, each averaging at least 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers and Bucks have been mainstays in the east playoffs for the past few seasons and are hoping that this year's vintage has the answers to take the next step.

Philadelphia, under new leadership with Doc Rivers and buoyed by the shooting of Danny Green and Seth Curry, have a scoring differential of plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together, the best mark in the history of the much-maligned duo.

Milwaukee won 11 of their last 15 games, including two wins each against Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Nets – the two teams seeded higher in the east.

A machine over the last few regular seasons, the Bucks have faltered in past playoff series as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to score in the clutch and his team-mates shrank from the moment. The costly acquisition of Jrue Holiday should help take some of the pressure off, and Antetokounmpo is shooting 73.3 percent (11 of 15) this season in the last two minutes of a game within five points.

Utah and Phoenix are fascinating prospects after stellar regular seasons but the consensus regarding both teams is that they have already maxed out their talent before the postseason starts.

Rudy Gobert is an All-Defensive Team mainstay for good reason, but Utah have been forced to sit him in the playoffs against smaller teams or when his free-throw shooting becomes a problem.

The Jazz are expecting leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to return from a sprained right ankle, but Utah are better operating as a five-man offense than a one-man show. When Mitchell attempts 20 or fewer field goals this season, the Jazz are 27-2. When he shoots more than 20 times, the Jazz are 12-12.

The Suns are 59-21 over their last 80 games, including in last year's bubble, and have become one of the best stories in the league. Chris Paul turns every team he is on into a winner, and he has a case to receive MVP votes scoring a modest 16.4 points per game.

For all of his career accomplishments, however, Paul has famously only advanced past the second round once in his career, and he now leads a core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that lacks playoff experience.

 

The 'Sleeping Giant' Tier: East number six Miami Heat, West number seven Los Angeles Lakers

Last year's finalists have endured brutal regular seasons filled with disappointment, injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Only Duncan Robinson played all 72 games this season for Miami, and while the Heat are healthier now than during their nightmare 11-17 start, serious questions remain about the health of veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, who both missed at least 20 games this season.

The Lakers remain the betting favourites coming out of the west, despite needing a 103-100 play-in win over the Golden State Warriors to clinch a playoff berth. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games this season, and the duo only played together in 27 games.

While the health of the Lakers' superstars remains a concern, Los Angeles were 19-8 when both James and Davis played. The defending champions had a scoring differential of plus-11.4 points per 100 possession when the duo were on the court together. For as long as James and Davis are playing, the Lakers remain a juggernaut.

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets are the first team to ever have three players average at least 24 points (minimum 35 games). Durant, Harden and Irving are the highest-scoring trio since the early 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were producing some of the best seasons in league history.

What makes Brooklyn such a strong contender, however, is that the supporting cast around their dynamic trio is a real asset.

The Nets' reserves scored 35.9 points per game this season, better than the bench of fellow contenders like the Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.

First-year head coach Steve Nash has consistently been able to field a competitive squad during a tumultuous year. As evidence of the change and adversity the Nets faced this season, they have used 38 different starting line-ups – only the lowly Rockets used more.

With veteran big men like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Nets can counter size but are also versatile enough to play small, with Jeff Green defending opposing centers.

The high-profile names make Brooklyn feel like an inevitability, but there is still plenty of uncertainty with this newly constructed super-team.

Durant, Harden and Irving have only played 202 minutes together, less than six percent of Brooklyn's season. The trio appear to blend well, scoring a torrid 117.8 points per 100 possessions, but any group of stars will face challenges in their first playoff test.

It is that time of year again – the NBA playoffs.

Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

The Utah Jazz claimed the best record in the league for the first time in their history, while Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers and the star-studded Brooklyn Nets loom large.

With the play-in tournament due to get under way to determine the final eight teams from each conference set to feature in the playoffs, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers to find a worthy winner of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

 

Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

 

Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert experienced consecutive first-round exits in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but featuring in their first Conference semi-final since 2018, the Jazz prove too hot for the fourth-ranked Clippers and take a 4-2 series win. Utah, who beat Los Angeles in two of the three regular-season contests, win the opening three games of the second-round series and never look back as pressure mounts on Leonard, Paul George and the championship-chasing Clippers.

The standout teams in the east, the 76ers and Nets barely raise a sweat en route to the Conference Finals. In pursuit of a first championship since 1983, the 76ers sweep the Knicks 4-0, while the Nets end Miami's hopes with their own devastating 4-0 success.

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

A matchup many predicted when the 76ers appointed head coach Rivers and the Nets landed former MVP Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January. Philadelphia's cast of Embiid, fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, sharp-shooter Seth Curry and Danny Green come up against Durant, Harden, Irving and Blake Griffin, and it is Brooklyn who prevail in a thriller. The Nets and 76ers split the opening six games before a deciding seventh game. With a championship berth on the line, Steve Nash's Nets edge the 76ers 112-109 as question marks again emerge over whether the Philadelphia franchise can succeed with both Embiid and Simmons.

Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

 

Jazz make history

The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

Despite a frightening array of talent, the Nets go down 4-1 in the Finals as the Jazz make history, headlined by a resounding 121-102 win in Game 5.

After consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz finally break through for their first NBA title thanks to coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Co.

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