The reigning NBA champions got back on track Saturday, as Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Milwaukee Bucks to a 121-111 defeat of the San Antonio Spurs. 

Two days after a 42-point blowout loss to the Miami Heat, the Bucks looked more like their usual selves in San Antonio, though the Spurs kept the game tight and pulled within four points with 4:24 to play. 

Middleton had 28 points to lead the Bucks, while Antetokounmpo added 21 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. 

Middleton, who is beginning his ninth season with the Bucks, passed Ray Allen to move into 10th on Milwaukee's all-time scoring list with 9,704 points for the team.

Doug McDermott scored 25 to lead Milwaukee, making seven of 11 from three-point range. 

 

Grizzlies hand Clippers another loss

Despite 41 points from Paul George, the Los Angeles Clippers lost their second straight game to open the season, falling 120-114 to the Memphis Grizzlies. While George poured in the points, a balanced Memphis attack led by Ja Morant's 28 points and eight assists secured another win for the visitors. 

In Portland, CJ McCollum scored 28 points and Damian Lillard had 19 as the Trail Blazers rolled past the Phoenix Suns 134-105. Devin Booker had 21 points, the only Phoenix player to score more than 14. 

Luka Doncic had a game-high 27 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds as the Dallas Mavericks rallied from a six-point half-time deficit to defeat the Raptors 103-95 in Toronto for their first victory under new head coach Jason Kidd. Tim Hardaway Jr. added 25 points and Kristaps Porzingis had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Mavericks, while OG Anunoby led Toronto with 23. 

The Phoenix Suns soared to a 115-105 victory as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were condemned to back-to-back defeats to start the 2021-22 NBA season.

Chris Paul fuelled the Suns with 23 points and 14 rebounds in Los Angeles, where the Lakers were no match for last season's NBA Finals participants and fell to 0-2.

Paul became the first player in NBA history with 20,000 points and 10,000 assists.

Devin Booker (22 points) and Mikal Bridges (21 points) also impressed for the Suns, while double-doubles from Anthony Davis (22 points and 14 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (15 points and 11 rebounds) were not enough for the Lakers.

James finished with 25 points in front of the likes of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Justin Bieber at Staples Center.

The Lakers' woes were compounded by a row between team-mates Davis and Dwight Howard on the bench during the second quarter as the pair had to be separated.

 

 

Durant's Nets spoil 76ers' opener

The Philadelphia 76ers looked in control and on track for victory but they were upstaged 114-109 by Eastern Conference rivals the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Durant posted a triple-double of 29 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists as the Nets used a 16-1 run to stun the 76ers in their first home game of the season in Philadelphia. James Harden had 20 points, while LaMarcus Aldridge added 23 points off the bench on 10-of-12 shooting. Seth Curry made all four of this three-pointers to finish with 23 points, the same amount as 76ers team-mate Tobias Harris.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic showed why he was crowned the league's best player last season, scoring 32 points, collecting 16 rebounds and supplying seven assists in a 102-96 win against the San Antonio Spurs. It was his eighth 30/15/5 game, doubling the rest of the Nuggets franchise history combined.

The Chicago Bulls' new-look team improved to 2-0 thanks to a 128-112 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans. Lonzo Ball inspired the win behind his triple-double (17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds), while Zach LaVine (32 points) and DeMar DeRozan (26 points) also came up big.

The Utah Jazz stayed unbeaten courtesy of dominant displays from All-Star duo Donovan Mitchell (27 points) and Rudy Gobert (17 points and 20 assists) in the 110-101 road win at the Sacramento Kings.

Myles turner joined James, Harden, Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady as the only players in NBA history to score 40 points, 10 rebounds, five three-pointers and three blocks in a game. The Indiana Pacers still lost 135-134 to the Washington Wizards in overtime.

 

Celtics lose again

The Boston Celtics were booed off the court at half-time and throughout the second half in their 115-83 defeat against the Toronto Raptors. Jaylen Brown was three-for-13 shooting for nine points and five turnovers, while Marcus Smart ended the game scoreless on 0-for-six shooting in 29 minutes as the Celtics fell to 0-2.

The Philadelphia 76ers put aside the Ben Simmons drama for 48 minutes as the championship-chasing team opened their NBA season with a 117-97 win at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Simmons was nowhere to be seen in New Orleans after the disgruntled All-Star – demanding a trade – was suspended on Tuesday for "conduct detrimental to the team" following reports he was ejected from practice by head coach Doc Rivers.

The 76ers – last season's Eastern Conference top seeds – played without Simmons on Wednesday and made light work of the Zion Williamson-less Pelicans behind Joel Embiid (22 points), Furkan Korkmaz (22 points), Tobias Harris (20 points and 12 rebounds) and new starting point guard Tyrese Maxey (20 points, seven rebounds and five) for their first season-opening road win since 2004.

Korkmaz sizzled in the fourth quarter, scoring 18 points on four-for-four shooting from three-point range – the most points in a quarter by a Sixers bench player since Lou Williams in 2011.

 

 

LaMelo leads Hornets rally, Brown has career night

LaMelo Ball put on a show as he helped the Charlotte Hornets come back to pip the Indiana Pacers 123-122. The reigning Rookie of the Year put up 31 points, including seven three-pointers – tying a career high, nine rebounds and seven assists to fuel Charlotte's rally. The Hornets used a 24-0 run – in which Ball scored 12 points – in the third period to the stun the Pacers. Chris Duarte (27 points, six three-pointers and five rebounds) became the first Pacers rookie with 25-plus points, five-plus rebounds and five-plus threes in a game since Jamaal Tinsley in 2002.

A career-high 46 points from Jaylen Brown was not enough as the Boston Celtics lost a wild showdown with the New York Knicks 138-134 after double overtime. Brown's tally was the most points ever by a Celtics player in a season opener. The Knicks withstood the Celtics thanks to Julius Randle (35 points) and debutant Evan Fournier, whose 32 points were the most by a player on debut in franchise history.

Jo Morant had 37 points – the second most on opening night in franchise history, behind only his 44-point haul last season – in the Memphis Grizzlies' 132-121 win at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Memphis posted 73 points by half-time – tying the fifth-highest first-half scoring total in their history.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic's 27 points and 13 rebounds guided the Denver Nuggets past last season's NBA Finals participants the Phoenix Suns 110-98.

CJ McCollum (34 points), Damian Lillard (20 points and 11 assists) and Jusuf Nurkic (20 points and 14 rebounds) combined for 74 points but the Portland Trail Blazers still lost 124-121 to the Sacramento Kings, who were led by Harrison Barnes' 36 points and eight three-pointers.

 

Forgettable debut for Rockets rookie

The second pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Jalen Green endured a baptism of fire midweek. The Houston Rockets rookie finished with nine points on four-of-14 shooting from the field, while he made just one of six three-pointers. His minus-37 was the worst plus-minus by a Rockets rookie in a game in the last 20 seasons – tied for the fourth worst by any Rocket in that span. The Rockets were taken down 124-106 by Minnesota Timberwolves trio Karl-Anthony Towns (30 points and 10 rebounds), Anthony Edwards (29 points) and D'Angelo Russell (22 points).

Back on home court for the first time since February 2020, the Toronto Raptors' long-awaited return to Canada ended in a disappointing 98-83 loss to the Washington Wizards. Toronto missed 19 of their first 21 three-pointers, finishing seven of 34 from beyond the card. They were just 30.9 per cent from the field overall.

Suns star Devin Booker was far from his best against the Nuggets, finishing three-of-15 shooting for 12 points in 30 minutes of action.

It's difficult to go back to back in any sport and, in the marathon that is an NBA season, that rings particularly true.

Seven franchises have achieved the feat, with the Golden State Warriors the last team to do so in 2018.

But the fact the 73-9 Warriors of 2016 proved unable to retain the title illustrates just how difficult a challenge it is to repeat and hold on to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Milwaukee Bucks will attempt to become the eighth franchise to successfully defend their crown, though they will face no shortage of competition.

With the 2021-22 season beginning on Tuesday, Stats Perform looks at some of the top contenders for the title in the coming campaign.

Milwaukee Bucks

Let's start with the obvious. The Bucks are the favourites because they have the best player on the planet, with all due respect to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was fourth in points per 75 possessions last regular season with 29.6 and dominated on the defensive glass. His defensive rebounding percentage of 28.9 was 12th in the league.

The main feather in his cap going into 2021-22 is his ability to elevate his game to another level. In leading the Bucks past the Phoenix Suns in last season's Finals, he racked up 211 points. That tied Bob Pettit for the third-most in a Finals debut behind Rick Barry (245) and Jerry West (218). Only West and Michael Jordan (both four) can better his tally of three games with 40 points or more in a single Finals.

Supported by Khris Middleton, who had five games of 30 points or more in the postseason, and an elite facilitator in Jrue Holiday, whose 10.5 assists per 48 minutes ranked fifth among players to play in at least 10 playoff games, Antetokounmpo has a deep and dynamic surrounding cast, making the Bucks excellent candidates to go all the way again.

Phoenix Suns

The Suns may not be the first name on everyone's lips when it comes to title contenders but, having led 2-0 in the Finals before succumbing to Giannis and the Bucks, they are deserving of a place on the list.

In an offseason that could have seen much change, the Suns managed to keep the band together, the headline deal being an agreement that saw Chris Paul signed to a new contract.

While Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker are both the present and the future for the Suns, their title aspirations rest largely on the ageing shoulders of Paul. 

Paul was the only Finals player to finish above Holiday in assists per 48 minutes in the postseason (minimum 10 games), averaging 12.0 across the course of the playoffs.

He set up Ayton 143 times in the regular season and reached three figures in laying on buckets for Booker (118) and Mikal Bridges (106), living up to his moniker of 'Point God'.

However, with a combined plus/minus of -37 across the four successive losses to Milwaukee, he will have to raise his game when it matters most if he and the Suns are to end their respective waits for a title.

Los Angeles Lakers

Rarely has LeBron James not had a chance to win the NBA title over the course of his illustrious career.

However, injuries limited James to just 45 games and Anthony Davis to 36 in the regular season, forcing the Lakers into a play-in game.

James performed heroics to lead the Lakers past the Warriors in that game but they were subsequently bounced out of the playoffs by the Suns.

The Lakers' response was to add to their arsenal of stars by acquiring Russell Westbrook in a trade with the Washington Wizards.

 

Former MVP Westbrook tied Jokic for the league lead with 45.5 points/assists/rebounds per game in 2020-21 while breaking Oscar Robertson's record for career triple-doubles.

Such numbers will not be possible playing alongside James and Davis but, if he can thrive in a more supplementary role, the Lakers should be firmly in the mix to regain their 2019-20 title.

Brooklyn Nets

There is a case to be made that, had the Nets not been hit by injuries in their Eastern Conference semi-finals series with the Bucks, they would have been the ones lifting the trophy.

However, Kyrie Irving and James Harden were limited to only four games in that seven-game series, leaving the burden primarily on Kevin Durant.

For very different reasons, there will be a lot of strain on Durant in 2021-22.

The Nets are facing up to not having Irving for most of if not all of the campaign as the issue of his vaccination status casts a cloud over the start of their season, which begins against the Bucks.

Unable to play in home games or practice with the Nets due to being unvaccinated, the franchise has said Irving will not play until the matter is resolved.

That means the Nets face being without a player who averaged 51.7 points/assists/rebounds per 48 minutes last season.

Despite his absence, the Nets cannot be discounted as contenders due to the presence of Durant (57.5) and Harden (56.9), but that duo must stay healthy and must at least maintain if not exceed their 2020-21 levels for Brooklyn to have a legitimate shot.

Golden State Warriors

Once perennial favourites, the Warriors are perhaps more of an outside bet these days. However, when you have Stephen Curry, you cannot be taken lightly as a potential contender.

The Warriors missed out on the postseason in 2020-21 following consecutive defeats to the Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in tournament, Curry having willed Golden State to an eighth-placed finish in the Western Conference.

Curry averaged a career-high 32.0 points per game and his scoring average of 32.1 points per 75 possessions was second only to Joel Embiid (32.9).

 

Converting a league record 5.3 threes per game, last season was the third in which he averaged at least 5.0. He is the only player to achieve the feat even once.

And with fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson due back at some point, having missed the past two seasons through injury, and Andre Iguodala returning to likely finish his career with Golden State, Curry should have much more help this time around.

He still has his main facilitator Draymond Green, who led the league in setting up Curry 194 times last term, while the onus will be on 2020 first-round pick James Wiseman to develop into the floor-stretching big man the Warriors drafted him to be after an injury-curtailed rookie year.

Andrew Wiggins' vaccination status is cleared up, ensuring the Warriors will have a former number one overall pick who shot a career-high 47.7 per cent from the field in the previous campaign.

Jordan Poole's 18 points in 19 minutes in preseason against the Lakers gave further rise to hopes he can emerge as a valuable piece for the Warriors, whose two rookie first-round picks Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody add to an intriguing blend of experience and youth that could help Golden State get back among the elite.

Phoenix Suns star and former number one draft pick Deandre Ayton was among a number of players who did not sign rookie contract extensions before the deadline.

Monday was the deadline for the 2018 draft class to pen new deals with their respective teams in the NBA.

Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers (two-year, $45million), Memphis Grizzlies star Jaren Jackson Jr. (four year, $105m), Kevin Huerter of the Atlanta Hawks (four-year, $65m), Suns guard Landry Shamet (four-year, $43m) and the Milwaukee Bucks' Grayson Allen (two-year, $20m) all extended their contracts.

However, there were some notable names missing, including Ayton – who can enter restricted free agency next year, according to ESPN and Adrian Wojnarowski.

Ayton played a key role in Phoenix's run to the NBA Finals last season, however, the Suns did not come to the table as the 23-year-old center eyed a five-year max contract.

In 2020-21, Ayton averaged 14.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, while he boasted a career-best 62.6 field-goal percentage and career-high 76.9 percentage from the free-throw line.

Ayton's numbers elevated in his first playoff campaign – 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, though his future in Phoenix is now uncertain.

Cleveland Cavaliers star Collin Sexton also failed to reach a contract extension agreement with the Eastern Conference strugglers.

Sexton did not land a new deal, despite career highs in points (24.3), assists (4.4), rebounds (3.1) and field-goal percentage (47.5).

The other players without contract extensions are Miles Brides of the Charlotte Hornets, the Orlando Magic's Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley III of the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox.

Mikal Bridges has agreed a four-year, $90million rookie contract extension with the Phoenix Suns following their run to last season's NBA Finals.

Bridges established himself among the most versatile and young two-way players in the league after averaging career highs in points (13.5), rebounds (4.3) and assists (2.1) during the Suns' remarkable run to the Finals.

As the Suns – who lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in the showpiece – prepare for Wednesday's season opener against Western Conference rivals the Denver Nuggets, they have locked their talented guard/forward to a new deal.

Confirmed by agents Sam Goldfeder and Jordan Gertler to ESPN on Sunday ahead of Monday's deadline for the 2018 draft class, the contract is fully guaranteed and will come into effect in 2022-23.

"Wherever he has gone, he has won," Goldfeder said "It's no accident. He is the player who buys into a culture as well as sets a culture."

"Mikal has worked tirelessly to bring winning basketball back to the Phoenix Suns," Gertler added. "This is the culmination of his hard work."

Bridges was drafted out of Villanova in 2018 – the 25-year-old initially selected by hometown team the Philadelphia 76ers with the 10th pick before he was later traded to the Suns in exchange for 16th pick Zhaire Smith.

As well as career highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, Bridges also finished 2020-21 with a career-best 54.3 field-goal percentage, while shooting a career-high 42.5 from three-point range.

In the playoffs, Bridges averaged 11.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game for the Suns – who finished second in the Western Conference before eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers prior to their 4-2 Finals defeat at the hands of the Bucks.

Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard are expected to decline player options for next season ahead of the NBA free agency period opening on Monday, but the veteran stars may stay with their teams.

After leading the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals, Paul will not exercise his $44million option for the 2021-22 season, The Athletic reported. ESPN added that the Suns are optimistic they will be able to re-sign the 36-year-old. 

Yahoo Sports first reported Leonard would decline his $36m option with the Los Angeles Clippers and become an unrestricted free agent, but ESPN reports he is expected to remain with the Clippers on a new deal after suffering a season-ending knee injury during the playoffs. 

Even if they end up staying where they are, those two will be the two biggest names on the open market beginning on Monday, but others figure to be available in trades. 

Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors may top that list as he is expected to move on from Toronto. ESPN reported that the Miami Heat's move to pick up Goran Dragic's $19.4m team option might have been designed to facilitate a sign-and-trade deal for Lowry. 

Ben Simmons also could be on the move from the Philadelphia 76ers, but Bradley Beal now seems set to stay with the Washington Wizards after they sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers in a draft-night trade. 

The term "positionless" has been all the buzz in the NBA the last few years, and the first round of the 2021 draft followed that trend as the Detroit Pistons took Cade Cunningham with the first overall pick and players with similar skill sets went off the board soon after. 

Longstanding positional terms like guard, forward and center have gone out the window as athletic players like NBA MVP Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets have taken over the league, and Cunningham leads the latest crop of versatile options. 

Checking in at 6-foot-8, Cunningham often plays like a point guard, leading his team down the floor – exactly the kind of headache-inducing matchup teams are seeking these days. 

After the Houston Rockets took guard Jalen Green second overall and the Cleveland Cavaliers used the third pick on big man Evan Mobley, the Toronto Raptors surprised many prognosticators by taking another of those positionless players at number four with Scottie Barnes. 

At 6-foot-9, his role at Florida State was similar to Cunningham's at Oklahoma State, running the offence while defending across multiple positions. 

"He's a multi-faceted, multi-positional two-way player," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told reporters. "We like guys that can handle, pass, score, defend, rebound a little bit and just kind of come at you in waves with that." 

Most had expected Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs to be Toronto's pick after US fans fell in love with him during the NCAA Tournament, but he fell to the Orlando Magic at number five. 

The Okahoma City Thunder then took yet another 6-8 talent in Australia's Josh Giddey at number six in a move that caught many off guard. 

It was more of the same with the following pick as the Golden State Warriors took Jonathan Kuminga, a player who can defend anyone and is unafraid to launch from three-point range. 

It was that kind of night as NBA teams added young talent while trading players and picks in this and future drafts.

Because most transactions cannot become official until August 6, teams selected players they know they will not keep due to deals made ahead of and during the draft. 

Those types of moves prevailed in the latter half of the first round, with numerous reported trades on the cards. 

Among them, yet another versatile big man in Turkey's Alperen Sengun, who was drafted at number 16 by the Oklahoma City Thunder but reportedly will play for Houston. 

The 6-foot-10 Sengun told reporters he believes his passing abilities will help him excel as other European imports have done before him. 

"With my new team, Houston, I will bring something different on the court," he said. "I will do whatever it takes and whatever is needed." 

As the lines between positions and roles continue to blur in the NBA, that approach has increasingly become the default setting across the board. 

 

2021 NBA Draft first-round picks

1. Detroit Pistons – Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
2. Houston Rockets – Jalen Green, USA
3. Cleveland Cavaliers – Evan Mobley, USC
4. Toronto Raptors – Scottie Barnes, Florida State
5. Orlando Magic – Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
6. Oklahoma City Thunder – Josh Giddey, Australia
7. Golden State Warriors – Jonathan Kuminga, Congo
8. Orlando Magic – Franz Wagner, Michigan
9. Sacramento Kings – Davion Mitchell, Baylor
10. New Orleans Pelicans – Ziaire Williams, Stanford (traded to Grizzlies)
11. Charlotte Hornets – James Bouknight, Connecticut
12. San Antonio Spurs – Josh Primo, Alabama
13. Indiana Pacers – Chris Duarte, Oregon
14. Golden State Warriors – Moses Moody, Arkansas 
15. Washington Wizards – Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
16. Oklahoma City Thunder – Alperen Sengun, Turkey (reportedly traded to Rockets)
17. Memphis Grizzlies – Trey Murphy III, Virginia (traded to Pelicans)
18. Oklahoma City Thunder – Tre Mann, Florida
19. New York Knicks – Kai Jones, Texas (reportedly traded to Hornets)
20. Atlanta Hawks –Jalen Johnson, Duke
21. New York Knicks – Keon Johnson, Tennessee
22. Los Angeles Lakers – Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky (traded to Pacers via Wizards)
23. Houston Rockets – Usman Garuba, Spain
24. Houston Rockets – Josh Christopher, Arizona State
25. Los Angeles Clippers – Quentin Grimes, Houston (reportedly traded to Knicks)
26. Denver Nuggets – Nah'Shon Hyland, VCU
27. Brooklyn Nets – Cam Thomas, LSU
28. Philadelphia 76ers – Jaden Springer, Tennessee
29. Phoenix Suns – Day'Ron Sharpe, North Carolina (reportedly traded to Nets)
30. Utah Jazz – Santi Aldama, Loyola (reportedly traded to Grizzlies)

The New Orleans Pelicans have appointed former Phoenix Suns assistant Willie Green as their new head coach.

Green's appointment was delayed due to his commitments with Phoenix, who made it to the NBA Finals before Giannis Antetokounmpo ended their hopes to claim Milwaukee Bucks' first title since 1971.

Before joining the 2021 Western Conference champions, Green enjoyed a three-year spell at the Golden State Warriors, where he worked as an assistant coach under Steve Kerr as they won back-to-back NBA Championships in 2017 and 2018.

Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin praised Green for his "tireless work ethic and authenticity of character" as he announced the new head coach on Thursday.

"He brings a vast amount of basketball knowledge and experience to our team as both a coach and former player, along with exceptional leadership qualities and an innate ability to connect with players, staff and fans alike," Griffin said.

"We could not be more excited to welcome Willie and his family to New Orleans."

Green spent 12 years as a player in the NBA and appeared in 731 regular season games between 2003-15, reaching the playoffs seven times.

In his previous role with Phoenix, the Suns' defensive coordinator oversaw the NBA's sixth-best defensive rating, while he worked as head coach for the NBA Summer League in 2019, where he managed a 3-1 record in Las Vegas.

"I want to thank Mrs. Benson [Pelicans governor], David Griffin and the entire Pelicans organisation for having faith in me to lead this talented group of players moving forward," Green added.

"It's a blessing and an honour to get this opportunity in a special place like New Orleans. I look forward to getting to work and immersing myself and my family into the local community."

Green takes over from Stan Van Gundy, who mutually agreed to leave the Pelicans despite spending just the one year in charge.

Van Gundy's side disappointed last campaign as they went 31-41 to quash any playoffs hopes they may have had at the start of the year.

Green, who becomes the third-youngest coach in the NBA, may now look to build his team around first-round NBA 2019 Draft pick Zion Williamson, who has endured a tumultuous start to life in New Orleans.

 

There were raucous celebrations in Milwaukee on Wednesday as the Bucks ended a 50-year NBA title drought.

The Bucks clinched their first championship since 1971 with a 105-98 Game 6 victory over the Phoenix Suns.

While there was ecstasy for the Bucks, it was agony for the Suns, who let a 2-0 Finals lead and the chance to win the title for the first time slip through their fingers.

They were undone by arguably the premier player in the NBA, with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo reaching what now stands as the zenith of his career to date with a Finals performance that ranks among the best of all time.

Antetokounmpo rose to the occasion in the most emphatic fashion and a closer examination of his dominance in the Finals is the only place to start in Stats Perform's look at who thrived on the grandest stage and who shrunk under the spotlight in the final edition of Heat Check for the 2020-21 season.

WHO GOT HOT

Giannis Antetokounmpo -  Bucks

Though the depth the Bucks have assembled helped them survive Antetokounmpo's knee injury and get past the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, it was the performance of the Greek Freak that was always going to determine the destination of the title.

And when it mattered most, Antetokounmpo - fittingly for a man of his tremendous stature - reached heights few can match in putting together a Finals display for the ages.

In the first three rounds of the postseason, Antetokounmpo averaged 28.2 points per game, a slight improvement on his 28.1 ppg in the regular season despite the injury that forced him to miss the final two games of the Hawks series.

He upped the ante substantially in the Finals, though, racking up 35.17 points per game in a series he capped with a stunning 50-point effort to seal a historic crown for Milwaukee.

In ending Milwaukee's half-century wait, Antetokounmpo wrote his name into several pages of the record books.

Registering 14 rebounds and five blocks in Game 6, Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history with at least 40 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Finals game.

He joined LeBron James (2015) as the second player to average at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a Finals series and followed in the footsteps of Shaquille O'Neal (2000) by recording three games with 40 plus points and 10 plus rebounds in a Finals series.

Antetokounmpo finished the Finals with a field goal percentage (61.8), surpassing O'Neal for the best shooting performance ever from the field in a Finals series.

When the pressure was at its highest, no player was hotter than Antetokounmpo.

 

Pat Connaughton - Bucks

For all the heroics of Antetokounmpo, the Finals was not a one-man show.

Indeed, Antetokounmpo received his fair share of help. The Bucks scored 528 points with his key supporting actors, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, on the court together.

But beyond that pair there were a number of lesser heralded performances, not least from shooting guard Connaughton.

He upped his points per game average from 6.06 in the first three rounds to 9.17 in the Finals. Connaughton also improved in rebounds per game (5.83) having posted 3.88 in the opening three series and made a significant impact from beyond the arc.

Connaughton averaged 2.5 made threes per game in the Finals and trailed only Jae Crowder and Middleton (both 2.67) in that regard.

If he can maintain that level of performance next season, Connaughton will again be a key role player as the Bucks try to defend their crown.

Chris Paul - Suns

Though he was heartbreakingly denied the first NBA title of a Hall of Fame career, Paul can look back on his performance in the postseason and in the Finals with pride.

Only Antetokounmpo improved his points per game average from the opening three rounds of the postseason by a greater margin in the Finals.

Paul put up 18.07 per game as the Suns saw off the Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers.

That average leaped to 21.83 in the Finals, while he also made strides as a deep shooter by converting two threes per game, up from 1.21 in the first three rounds.

Paul may look to the fact he had a negative plus-minus in each of the Suns' four losses as evidence of him not performing to a high enough standard.

Yet the reality is nobody did more to help the Suns' cause, but Antetokounmpo ensured his efforts were in vain.

WHO WENT COLD...

Cameron Payne - Suns

One of the stars of the Suns' surge in the NBA bubble last season, Payne has proven an astute acquisition by Phoenix.

He had a significant impact on their success in the playoffs this term, averaging 10.06 points per game across the first three rounds and putting up 29 and nine assists in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers.

But his influence waned in the Finals, which saw him average 7.33 points per game.

Only twice did Payne register double figures in the Finals, in which he scored 44 points in over 93 minutes on the court, finishing with a plus-minus of -21.

Having played a sizeable role off the bench in the Suns getting to the Finals, Payne was arguably more of a hindrance when it came to the season-ending showpiece.

Devin Booker - Suns

Booker was outstanding throughout the postseason for the Suns but he dropped off in two aspects of his game in the Finals.

The Suns were beaten consistently on the boards by the Bucks, who averaged 46.3 rebounds per game to Phoenix's 39.

And part of that disparity was Booker's decline on the glass.

He had put up 6.44 rebounds per game in the first three rounds but saw that tally dip to 3.5 in the Finals.

Additionally, Booker faded as a force beyond the arc, making 1.83 threes per game in the Finals, down from 2.06 in the rest of the playoffs.

Booker has established himself as a bonafide star, but he may spend the offseason examining how he can avoid that kind of decline should he get another shot in the Finals.

 

P.J. Tucker - Bucks

He is unlikely to care given the Bucks emerged victorious, but Tucker's numbers from the Finals do not make for pretty reading.

His rebounds per game average tailed off from 5.18 in the rest of the playoffs to 3.83 in the Finals, while he scored only 24 points in nearly 188 minutes of play.

Tucker had two games where he did not score a point, the second of those coming in Game 6.

However, his plus-minus in the decisive encounter was +13, with Tucker serving as proof that raw numbers are not always the best measure of a player's performance.

An emotional Mike Budenholzer struggled to sum up Giannis Antetokounmpo's incredible impact for the Milwaukee Bucks as the NBA Finals MVP looked on.

Antetokounmpo scored 50 points for the Bucks in Game 6 on Tuesday, inspiring a 105-98 win against the Phoenix Suns that clinched the team's first title in 50 years.

Coach Budenholzer was close to tears as he described his post-game celebrations with the team and was not entirely comfortable discussing Antetokounmpo's performance as the 'Greek Freak' himself waited for his own media duties.

But Budeholzer was keen to highlight the two-time MVP's display from the foul line, so often criticised in recent seasons.

A 50-point showing was the best of Antetokounmpo's playoff career – and the joint-best in the clinching game of a Finals series – and was boosted by a remarkable 17 made free throws from just 19 attempts.

Only three times in Antetokounmpo's career – regular season or playoffs – has he previously made more shots from the foul line.

This was his best return in a playoff game, ahead of the 16 made from 22 attempts against the Boston Celtics in 2019.

Antetokounmpo's 89.5 per cent free-throw shooting in Game 6 was way up on his playoff career average of 61.3, but Budenholzer insisted he had no doubts the 26-year-old would deliver.

"It's hard to find more words to describe what Giannis does," the coach said as Antetokounmpo waited in the room.

"But the way he made his free throws, the way he did everything, stepped up, the poise, the confidence, the leadership... he has been working on it.

"We say we want Giannis to get to the free throw line. We believe. We talked about it this past summer.

"To win a championship, you've got to make free throws and you've got to make shots. He's made shots throughout the playoffs. He's made free throws throughout the playoffs.

"[Five] blocked shots, however many points. He's off the charts. He's the MVP of the NBA Finals."

Antetokounmpo made seven of seven from the line and six of 10 from the field in the third quarter as he put up 20 points.

Having also scored 20 in the third quarter of Game 2, Antetokounmpo became the first player in the past 50 seasons to have multiple 20-point quarters in a Finals series.

"Mostly in halftime, we were talking about defense. We had 47 points against us and we think we can be better," Budenholzer said.

"But I think he embraces us being great defensively – Giannis does, the whole team [does].

"When we get stops and get out and run and get Giannis in space, get our team in space, I think he's special.

"He was able to put his stamp on the game in the third quarter and flip the score. And then some big plays in the fourth quarter – big plays, big blocks. It's hard to keep finding words for Giannis."

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul insists he is not retiring and is determined to go one better after losing the NBA Finals with a 105-98 Game 6 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday.

Paul, 36, made his maiden NBA Finals appearance in his 16th season in the competition but missed out on the ultimate glory, as the Suns let slip a 2-0 series lead.

The veteran was visibly devastated at the defeat but vowed to return to the NBA Finals having waited so long for his shot at the title.

"It'll take a while to process this," Paul said at the post-game news conference. "Same mentality, get back to work. I ain't retiring. Back to work."

The Bucks became only the fifth side in NBA Finals history to come back from 2-0 down to take the title.

Scores had been level through three quarters in Game 6, but Paul acknowledged the Bucks were better down the stretch, offering lessons for his side.

"Right now, you've just got to try to figure out what you could've done more," he said.

"It's tough. Great group of guys, hell of a season but this one is going to hurt for a while."

Phoenix's run to the postseason snapped an 11-year playoff wait, while they had not made the NBA Finals since 1993, but Paul took little comfort in that.

"For me, it means back to work. Nothing more, nothing less," he said. "There ain't no moral victories.

"We saw what it takes to get there. Hopefully we saw what it takes to get past that."

Suns team-mate Devin Booker scored 19 points on eight-for-22 shooting in Game 6.

The 24-year-old had an outstanding season but was not able to perform at his best consistently throughout the Finals.

"This isn't something you want to feel," Booker said. "I haven't felt hurt like this in my life.

"That's what I say, we have a base and a foundation. Championship basketball at all times."

Suns head coach Monty Williams, who entered the Bucks locker room to congratulate them on their victory, fought back tears at his news conference.

"I think it's going to take me a minute. I just don’t take it for granted," he said. "It's hard to get here. I wanted it so bad. It's hard to process right now. it's hard."

The Suns, who were founded in 1968, are still chasing their first NBA title in franchise history.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says it means everything to him to win the NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks who drafted him in 2013.

Antetokounmpo starred with 50 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as the Bucks won the NBA Finals in six with a 105-98 Game 6 win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

The Bucks' triumph ends their half-century wait for an NBA title and comes after losing in the Conference semi-finals in 2020 and the Conference finals in 2019 when Antetokounmpo was MVP on both occasions.

"It means a lot," Antetokounmpo, who was pick 15 in the 2013 NBA Draft, said post-game about winning the title with the Bucks.

"I want to thank Milwaukee for believing in me. I want to thank my team-mates, they played hard every single game.

"I wanted to do it in this city, I wanted to do it with these guys. I'm so happy we were able to get it done."

Antetokounmpo was full of praise for team-mate Khris Middleton who came up with some key late shots to finish with 17 points and get the Bucks home.

The pair have been team-mates at Milwaukee since Antetokounmpo was drafted by the Bucks and Middleton was traded from the Detroit Pistons in 2013.

"This guy doesn’t really know how much he pushes me," 26-year-old Antetokounmpo said about Middleton. "He pushes me every day to be great.

"I'm happy that I can step on the floor with this guy. We've been together for eight years.

"I'm happy I was able to do it with him, with these guys and as coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] says, we've got to do it again."

Veteran guard Jrue Holiday arrived from the New Orleans Pelicans ahead of this season, seen as one of the missing pieces in the Bucks' jigsaw.

Holiday only contributed 12 points and 11 assists offensively, but he played a key role defensively, blanketed Devin Booker, who finished with 19 points.

"They embraced me," Holiday said post-game about the Bucks after being traded from the Pelicans.

"They told me what to do from the beginning. I've seen all the work they've been doing and how close they've gotten. They believed in me.

"Coming here was obviously the greatest thing in my career."

Page 1 of 14
© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.