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.

The Phoenix Suns enter Game 4 of the NBA Finals with a difficult question to answer: how can they contain Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo when Deandre Ayton is not on the court?

Milwaukee cut Phoenix's lead in the series to 2-1 with a 120-100 victory on their home floor in Game 3.

It came behind a scintillating 41-point performance from Antetokounmpo, the two-time league MVP delivering a performance few could have foreseen when he hyperextended his knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Antetokounmpo also had 13 rebounds in putting up a decisive double-double, taking advantage of another knee injury that could well prove a turning point in the series.

The Suns were without Dario Saric, the backup to starting center Ayton, in Game 3 because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in Game 2.

Coach Monty Williams initially went with Frank Kaminsky as Ayton's deputy, but also attempted to play small ball with Torrey Craig and Abdel Nader.

The plus-minus numbers for Kaminsky (-12), Craig (-12) and Nadel (-5) tell their own story. Milwaukee dominated when Ayton was not out there, outrebounding the Suns 47 to 36.

In this series, when Ayton has been on the court, the Bucks average 110.0 points per 100 possessions, compared to 125.3 with the former first overall pick off the floor.

Milwaukee's rebounds per 100 possessions with Ayton on the bench jump to 50.3 from 46.8 when he plays.

Similarly, the Bucks are substantially more effective from the three-point line without the presence of Ayton to deal with, converting 46.4 per cent of their shots from beyond the arc in the series compared to 34.7 when he is trying to stop them.

For all the attention lavished on Devin Booker and Chris Paul, Ayton arguably stands as the key player for the Suns if they are to claim a first NBA title.

Should there be a repeat performance in Game 4 on Wednesday when Ayton is forced to rest, then Antetokounmpo will have an excellent chance to improve his Finals average of 34.3 points per game and, more importantly, help the Bucks level the series.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks – Brook Lopez

Another player who can capitalise on the blow the Suns have suffered to their big man depth is Lopez, the Bucks center who is averaging 6.7 points in the paint per game in the series – behind only Antetokounmpo and Ayton.

Lopez has produced double-digit points in four of his past five outings in this postseason, including a 33-point effort against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals as the Bucks prevailed without the injured Antetokounmpo. Third in effective field goal percentage (60.9) among centers with 30 attempts or more this postseason, Lopez could compound the impact of Saric's absence for the Suns.

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

That his Finals numbers are inferior to those of Antetokounmpo is largely reflective of the point-scoring and creative burden taken on by Booker and Paul respectively. However, Ayton is the Suns player most should have their eyes on in Game 4.

He has averaged 35 minutes in this series compared to 37.7 for Antetokounmpo; will Williams up Ayton's time on the court in response to the events of Game 3 when he rested? Or will the Suns coach find a way to minimise the damage during Ayton's time on the bench? The answers could eventually decide the destination of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

An uncharacteristically speedy Phoenix Suns performance left a half-fit Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks chasing shadows in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Suns, who had 98 possessions per game in the regular season (ranking 24th), had 102 possessions on Tuesday as the usually more methodical Chris Paul picked up the pace.

Point guard Paul, 36, was the standout star as he belatedly made his Finals debut, finishing with 32 points and nine rebounds in a 118-105 Phoenix win.

Only Michael Jordan in 1991 had previously tallied 30 or more points and eight or more assists in a first career Finals game.

Even as the Suns attacked apace, Paul's steady hand limited the Western Conference outfit to nine turnovers – of which just two were his – to Milwaukee's 13.

The series is far from over ahead of Thursday's Game 2, but the Bucks need a response and will hope Antetokounmpo, their own elite performer, can provide it.

The 'Greek Freak' recovered from a hyperextended left knee sustained in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals to start the opener in Phoenix and initially impressed.

Antetokounmpo had eight points, five rebounds and two assists in a first quarter in which he played just over eight minutes, but he had only improved to 13 points by the end of the third.

"I wasn't nervous about my knee, I wasn't thinking about my knee," Antetokounmpo said on Wednesday.

"But hopefully, going into Game 2, I can feel more comfortable, more confident of going downhill, making more plays. We'll see. We'll see how it's going to be. Hopefully I can be in a position where I can make more plays."

Although the two-time MVP just about finished with a positive plus/minus, Milwaukee require more from their talisman – especially if the supporting cast continue to fluff their lines.

Khris Middleton had 29 points but five turnovers and just four assists; Jrue Holiday (10 points, eight rebounds, nine assists) was close to one of the most underwhelming triple-doubles in Finals history; Brook Lopez was a defensive liability, his -17 plus/minus a miserable game low.

Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday are on course to become the first trio of team-mates to each average at least 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists in the same postseason, but none of them reached that mark in Game 1.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday

The Bucks gave up two first-round draft picks and two potential pick swaps to get Holiday. With limited assets left, they need this to work. In Game 1, it did not. The All-Defensive First Team selection has been frustratingly inconsistent and his four steals in Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks were followed by none against the Suns.

As Milwaukee switched on defense, Paul – Holiday's direct opponent at point guard – found joy with 27 points across the second and third quarters combined before the former New Orleans Pelican took matters into his own hands. "I really just saw him being aggressive, so at that point I felt like I wanted to just annoy him, get him off rhythm, make him pass the ball and take tough shots," Holiday said. "That's something we're going to have to make an adjustment to in Game 2."

Phoenix Suns – Deandre Ayton

The Suns have a significant drop-off at center, with Dario Saric tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 1, meaning Frank Kaminsky may now have to be trusted with playoff minutes. Fortunately, starter Deandre Ayton has shown himself capable of more than making up the deficit during his time on the floor.

A breakout postseason continued against the Bucks as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds for a fourth consecutive double-double. It is tough to see how Milwaukee can live with the Phoenix big man, who shot eight-for-10 from the field and made all of his free throws – indeed, the Suns only missed once from the foul line.

Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton led the way as the Phoenix Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The Bucks welcomed back superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo from a knee injury after the two-time MVP had been sidelined since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, missing the final two contests of that series.

However, Antetokounmpo's presence on the floor and double-double was not enough as the Suns – eyeing a first championship – drew first blood in the Finals opener on Tuesday.

Paul – making the first Finals appearance of his stellar career – posted 32 points, nine assists and four three-pointers, while Booker added 27 points of his own as Ayton finished with 22 points and 19 rebounds at home.

Veteran Paul became the third player ever aged 36 or older to score 30-plus points in a Finals game, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan.

It was Ayton's 12th double-double in his first playoff series, second most in the franchise's postseason history – only Charles Barkley has more (22 in four playoffs).

Meanwhile, the Suns – who used a 35-27 third quarter to move clear – were almost impeccable from the free-throw line, missing just one of their 26 attempts.

The Bucks had been outscoring teams by 12.1 points per game in the paint this postseason, but they only edged the Suns 44-42 in Tuesday's encounter.

Antetokounmpo had 20 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and two blocks for the Bucks, who are eyeing their first championship since 1971, while Khris Middleton registered a team-high 29 points.

 

Bucks at Suns

The Bucks and Suns will do it all again in Thursday's Game 2 at Phoenix Suns Arena.

The Milwaukee Bucks have had better regular seasons recently.

This season's .639 winning percentage (46-26) pales in comparison to last year's .767 (56-17) or even the .732 (60-22) from 2018-19.

Yet it is this vintage of the Bucks that will be playing in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. While some will dismiss this year's champions as a beneficiary of a strange season and a postseason full of devastating injuries, the Bucks and Phoenix Suns will not be apologising for having beaten every team in front them so far.

It is also quite possible that, despite having a less accomplished regular season, this Bucks squad is better equipped to win in the playoffs, using the first 72 games on the schedule to learn how to best focus its strengths.

Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has developed a reputation as a stubborn tactician, clinging to his preferred strategy regardless of the opponent, especially on the defensive end.

Budenholzer has traditionally asked his players to guard their position and to fight through screens without switching assignments. This structure has allowed Milwaukee to utilise its size and has been formidable in the regular season with the Bucks allowing 101.9 points per 100 possessions across the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, best in the NBA.

But Milwaukee's defense faltered in decisive playoff series in each of the previous two seasons, with a defensive rating that rose to 106.9 in 2019 against the Toronto Raptors and ballooned to 112.1 last year against the Miami Heat.

Budenholzer responded by using the 2020-21 regular season to experiment with a more varied defensive approach. The results were not always the best, allowing opponents to score 109.1 points per 100 possessions.

That experience, however, has given Milwaukee the tools to employ a more diverse defense in the playoffs, with the Bucks boasting a 103.5 defensive rating this postseason.

Milwaukee still holds on to its big lineups and objects to switching all five defenders like some teams do while playing trendy small ball, but the growing pains have added another tool to the toolbox. Even if the switching itself proves not to be a strategic advantage, the Bucks are at least better prepared to throw different looks at Chris Paul, Devin Booker and the rest of the Suns.

Of course, scheme alone can only take a team so far, but this year's Bucks team appears to have improved personnel, as well.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-way monster who obviously takes top billing, but perhaps this postseason has shown that the Bucks are at their best when the two-time MVP takes a slightly reduced role on offense.

Antetokounmpo is averaging a playoff career-high 28.2 points this postseason, but the Bucks have lost three of his five highest-scoring games. When he has five or more assists, however, Milwaukee are 6-1.

His team has also fared much better when Antetokounmpo aggressively attacks the basket, going 6-0 this postseason when he attempts nine or more free throws, even though he is shooting just 53.7 percent from the line.

Perhaps the biggest question facing Antetokounmpo, however, is his health. After leaving Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals with a hyper-extended left knee, he was held out of the next two games of the series, both Milwaukee victories.

Although imaging has revealed no significant structural damage to his knee, Antetokounmpo is listed as doubtful to play in Tuesday’s NBA Finals opener. And while the Bucks were able to close out an Atlanta Hawks team that was missing Trae Young, they will likely need an impactful contribution from Antetokounmpo to beat a healthy and confident Suns team.

The Bucks and their supporters can take heart, however, in the supporting cast appearing to be much better than in previous playoff runs.

Last offseason, Milwaukee paid a heavy price to replace Eric Bledsoe with Jrue Holiday, trading away three first-round draft picks in a blockbuster four-team deal. And while the upgrade could appear trivial on paper – going from Bledsoe’s 14.9 points per game last season to Holiday's 17.7 this season – this postseason has revealed why Holiday was such a coveted piece on the trade market.

In the 2019 and 2020 playoffs, Bledsoe averaged 12.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.9 assists for the Bucks while shooting 40.3 percent from the field and 24.0 percent from 3-point range.

During Milwaukee's run to the Finals, Holiday has averaged 17.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 8.4 assists, all while playing two of his best career playoff games to close out the Hawks while Antetokounmpo was sidelined.

Holiday leads the Bucks this postseason in plus-minus per game at +7.2, and the team is 4-1 when he attempts at least 20 shots.

Perhaps the key to the 2021 Finals is the performance of unsung star Khris Middleton, who will be the crunch-time focal point for the Bucks.

With Antetokounmpo's struggles from the free throw line, Milwaukee is forced to look elsewhere to create offense in the waning minutes of close games. Middleton has attempted a team-high 14 shots in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter during this playoff run and is 10 for 10 from the free throw line in clutch situations. Antetokounmpo is just 7 for 15.

Middleton has also shown the ability to carry the team when Antetokounmpo is off the floor, a valuable stopgap if the Bucks are forced to play a game or more without Antetokounmpo.

He has averaged 29.0 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists in the final two games of the East finals, all while shooting above his playoff career average from the floor.

Middleton has done some of his best work this postseason while Antetokounmpo has been on the bench, either due to injury or routine substitution. Not only has Middleton scored more when Milwaukee’s Greek superstar is off the floor – 37.9 points per 100 possessions compared to 25.1 with Antetokounmpo on the floor – his efficiency also improves when he is the primary option.

With Middleton shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from 3-point range when Antetokounmpo is off the court this postseason, that compares to 41.1 percent overall and 33.3 percent from deep when he plays alongside the two-time MVP.

The Suns will undoubtedly present an enormous challenge for the Bucks in an NBA Finals between two teams desperate for a championship parade. And the Bucks, just like the Suns, have benefitted from some measure of good luck this postseason, facing an injury-riddled Brooklyn squad and avoiding East top seed Philadelphia.

But this Milwaukee team is also better equipped to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy than in the previous two seasons, despite a less impressive regular season.

With some added schematic versatility and a better supporting cast, the Bucks might only need a bit of healing in Antetokounmpo's left knee to be crowned NBA champions for the first time since 1971.

Two years ago, the Phoenix Suns compiled the second-worst record in franchise history behind only the 1968-69 expansion team.

A year later, they were the darling of the NBA's restart – going a perfect 8-0 at the Walt Disney Complex in Florida amid the coronavirus pandemic, yet still missing out on the playoffs.

And now, a mere 11 months later, they are just four wins away from capturing the franchise's first NBA title.

Led by a future Hall of Famer running the point, a dynamic scorer and one of the most explosive young bigs in the league, Phoenix have the chance to join the 2007-08 Boston Celtics and last season's Los Angeles Lakers as the only teams in the last 40 years to win the NBA title after missing the playoffs in the previous season.

The last stage of their incredible turnaround begins at home to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday.

The Suns reached their first NBA Finals since losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1993 after dispatching defending champions the Lakers in five games in the first round, sweeping the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals and ousting the Los Angeles Clippers in six in the Conference Finals.

All of those teams were a bit banged-up – the Lakers without Anthony Davis, the Nuggets minus Jamal Murray and a Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers squad – but the Suns themselves had to overcome their own setbacks. Chris Paul injured his shoulder against the Lakers and then missed two games following a positive COVID-19 test, Devin Booker played through a broken nose and Cameron Johnson was sidelined with an illness.

Despite their issues, Phoenix have taken care of business against the league's best just like it did all season – their .711 winning percentage (27-11) against teams .500 or better in the regular season ranked first in the NBA – with an offense running through Paul and Booker.

In the Finals for the first time in his 16-year-career, the 36-year-old Paul is one of the most captivating storylines of this series and with good reason – he is playing with a rejuvenated fervour and is the engine that runs Phoenix's high-powered offense.

Paul has tallied at least 15 points and five assists in each of his last eight games – the longest streak by any player 36 years or older in postseason history – and he punctuated the Suns' Finals berth with a playoff career-high-tying 41 points on seven-of-eight shooting on three-pointers and eight assists in last Wednesday's 130-103 Game 6 win over the Clippers. It marked just the fourth time in playoff history a player had 40 or more points with at least seven three-pointers while shooting 80 per cent or better from three-point range. (Booker had one in Phoenix's ouster against the Lakers on June 3 and Paul had another one for the Houston Rockets in 2018.)

Although he got hot from three-point range the last time the Suns took the court, inside the perimeter has been Paul, as well as Booker's, calling card this season.

Paul and Booker were first and second in mid-range field goals made in the regular season with 211 and 188, respectively, as Phoenix shot a league-leading 47.2 per cent from mid-range.

Including the postseason, Paul is shooting 50.4 per cent on baseline jumpers (60 of 119) and 52.2 per cent on shots from the elbow (194 of 372), while Booker is shooting 47.6 per cent (81 of 170) and 47.5 per cent (154 of 324) on such shots. Paul's 163 made hoops from the elbow in the regular season were the most in the NBA, while Booker ranked third with 119.

The mid-range game has somewhat fallen by the wayside as teams focus more on the increased weight of the three-pointer, and although Phoenix is finding success from mid-range, they have not forgotten about the importance of the three.

While 19.1 per cent of the Suns' shots in the regular season were from mid-range compared to the league average of 13.6 per cent, Phoenix's 39.2 per cent of shots from three-point range was the exact league average. The Suns attempted fewer shots in the paint – 41.7 per cent compared to the NBA average of 47.2 per cent – but when they do feed the ball down low, they are converting baskets at a higher rate than anyone.

Including the postseason, Phoenix are shooting 60.3 per cent in the paint and 65.9 per cent in the restricted area – both ranking first in the league.

Deandre Ayton has been the driving force behind the Suns' proficiency in the paint and has upped his game in the playoffs.

After shooting 75.2 per cent from the restricted area in the regular season to rank sixth in the league (min. 150 FGA) and 68.3 per cent in the paint to rank ninth (200 FGA), the 22-year-old is shooting 79.4 per cent in the restricted area (85 of 107) and 74.7 per cent in the paint (112 of 150) in the playoffs.

The top pick of the 2018 draft put together a phenomenal series against the Clippers, highlighted by an alley-oop dunk at the buzzer in an exhilarating 114-113 win in Game 2. Ayton averaged 17.8 points and 13.7 rebounds while shooting 69.3 per cent to become just the fourth player since 1983-84 to average at least 17 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 65 per cent or better in a single postseason series.

Johnson was also instrumental to Phoenix's success against the Clippers and is fit to play in the Finals after missing Wednesday's closeout win with a non-COVID illness.

After averaging 6.7 points on 37.8 per cent shooting and 41.2 per cent from beyond the arc (14 of 34) in the first two rounds, Johnson averaged 10.8 points on 70.0 per cent shooting and 52.9 per cent on three-pointers (9 of 17) in the Clippers series.

While Johnson finally found his shooting touch in the last round to help the Suns advance, much of their success this postseason hinges on shoulders of veteran three-point specialist Jae Crowder.

Phoenix are 7-0 in the playoffs when Crowder scores at least 10 points and 5-4 when he fails to reach double figures. His scoring success boils down to how well he is shooting from deep, as he is knocking down 51.9 per cent of his three-pointers (27 of 52) in those seven double-digit scoring games compared to just 21.6 per cent (11 of 51) in those other nine contests.

He has been a bit more effective from the corner in the playoffs, shooting 48.1 per cent from there (13 of 27) after making 38.8 per cent of his corner threes in the regular season (40 of 103). Booker, meanwhile, has been steady from the corner all season, connecting on 51.2 per cent of his 41 attempts from there.

Cameron Payne was one of the league's most effective shooters on wing three-pointers during the regular season, connecting on 46.2 per cent of his 119 shots – the third-highest field goal percentage in the NBA among those with at least 100 attempts. He has not been quite as deadly in the postseason, shooting 38.1 per cent on his 42 shots from the wing, but Paul has been more accurate from there since the playoffs began, shooting 51.9 per cent (14 of 27) after shooting 37.4 per cent from the wing in the regular season (58 of 155).

Although Phoenix's strength all season has been their high-powered offense – their 114.9 offensive rating in the regular season was tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for fourth – the Suns are proving they are able to grind out wins in the playoffs even when their offense is not firing on all cylinders. Phoenix are averaging 108.9 points in the playoffs – down 6.4 points from their regular-season average – but are 4-4 when scoring 105 or fewer after going 3-9 in such games in the regular season.

Behind Paul, Booker and company, the Suns have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, joining the 2007-08 Celtics as the only teams in the last 40 seasons to go from having one of the NBA's two worst records to one of its two best in a two-year span. In fact, over the past five seasons from 2015-16 to 2019-20, Phoenix's .302 winning percentage was the worst in the NBA.

Their run to the playoffs was unprecedented – their 51-21 regular-season record was the best in NBA history among teams that entered a season with a postseason drought of at least 10 seasons – and after all the years of disappointment in the desert, a championship is now within reach.

Both the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks have had to wait a while to get back to the NBA Finals.

Milwaukee have not made it this far since 1974, when a team containing Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lost out to the Boston Celtics in Game 7.

The Bucks had been champions three years earlier, but Phoenix have never been crowned. The franchise fell at the last hurdle in both 1976 and 1993, when their campaign ended in a 4-2 series defeat to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

So, will it be third time lucky for the Suns, or can the Bucks reign once again?

Ahead of the best-of-seven battle getting underway, Stats Perform looks at the players who have risen to the occasion during the playoffs this year for both franchises, as well as a candidate from each who could make a greater impact.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Khris Middleton

Milwaukee made it out of the Eastern Conference despite being without Giannis Antetokounmpo for the end of the series against the Atlanta Hawks. His hyperextended knee remains the biggest talking point ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday, but at least his colleagues have demonstrated they can prosper without him.

Middleton certainly stepped up. After 26 points in Game 5 at home, he followed up with 32 on the road in Atlanta to help his team seal a 4-2 series triumph. The two-time All-Star lifted his playoff average to 23.4 points per game, in comparison to 20.4 during the regular season. He has also upped his rebounds (8.0 from 6.0) and is landing 2.6 three-pointers per outing.

Brook Lopez

While not perhaps too surprising for a center, Lopez came up big for the Bucks in Game 5 last week. His 33-point haul saw him successful with 77.8 per cent of his shots, as well as deliver four blocks and two steals. He is the only NBA player to reach all of those numbers in a playoff game since blocks and steals became official stats in 1973-74 (Milwaukee's last trip to the NBA Finals, of course).

Lopez's extended minutes helped the 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft rise to 13.5 points per game in these playoffs (he finished at 12.3 in the regular season), as well as seeing him claim a greater number of rebounds (6.0 per game). His upcoming battle with Deandre Ayton should be fascinating, too, as they both aim to make a sizeable impact.

Bryn Forbes

A useful contributor on the roster, Forbes averaged 10.0 points while shooting 45.2 per cent from deep during a regular season that saw the Bucks finish as the third seeds in the East, behind the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets, who they then knocked out in the second round of the playoffs.

However, the guard – who previously played for the San Antonio Spurs after going undrafted – has not had the same impact in limited opportunities of late, landing 30 of his 80 attempts from deep for a shooting percentage of 37.5 from beyond the arc. Forbes twice had 22-point outings during the first-round series against the Miami Heat, but he has reached double figures in just two outings since.

PHOENIX SUNS

Deandre Ayton

It has been quite the first playoff experience for Deandre Ayton, the center selected by the Suns with the top pick in 2018. His dramatic dunk in the last second to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 will be replayed for years to come, as he slammed the ball in from an inbound pass right at the death to clinch victory.

Ayton heads into the Milwaukee series on a 10-game streak of reaching double figures for points, while he had double-double outings in four of the six games against the Clippers. He averaged 10.5 rebounds in the regular season but has raised the bar in the postseason, going up to 11.8 per outing.

Chris Paul

Devin Booker leads the way in terms of scoring for the Suns – he is averaging 27.0 points a game in the postseason – but Paul is unquestionably the leader of this Phoenix team. The veteran point guard finally gets to play in an NBA Finals at the age of 36. Father Time is not slowing him down, though health and safety protocols amid the coronavirus pandemic did briefly pause his efforts.

However, the 11-time All-Star made up for lost time after missing the opening two games of the Clippers series, scoring a combined total of 96 points in the next four outings, including 41 in Game 6 as Phoenix were crowned in the West.

Dario Saric

Saric played a part in helping the Suns rise to the top of the conference in the regular season, finishing it with an average of 8.7 points per game. The Croatian's impact on the offensive end has been reduced since, as have his minutes. Having attempted 342 shots prior to the playoffs, he has managed just 44 in his past 13 outings, while he did not feature at all in three games.

Yet the need to give valuable rest to Ayton – and the possibility of Giannis returning at some stage during the series – could increase the need to play Saric, who is averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in the postseason so far.

We could soon know who will be fighting it out for the NBA title, with both Conference Finals in danger of being decided emphatically.

The Phoenix Suns have surged into a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers, while title favourites the Milwaukee Bucks have recovered from a Game 1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks to lead 2-1.

The coming week will decide who will face off for the Larry O'Brien Trophy and, in this edition of Heat Check, Stats Perform looks at which players are on form heading into the decisive matchups, as well as those who need to step up.


RUNNING HOT

Reggie Jackson - Los Angeles Clippers

With Kawhi Leonard showing no sign of making a return from a knee injury that has kept him out for the past six games, the Clippers need players to improve if they are to save their season.

Los Angeles face an elimination game on Monday in the Western Conference Finals, but they can take heart from what Jackson has done in Leonard's absence.

Jackson has scored at least 20 points in five of the last six games, including a 27-point performance in the Game 7 win over the Utah Jazz.

He averaged 20.67 points per game last week, exactly 10 points more than he did in the regular season. The Clippers must have another big effort from him in Game 5.

Deandre Ayton - Phoenix Suns

Ayton enjoyed one of the defining moments of these playoffs with his game-winning alley-oop in Game 2 of the Conference Finals. He is blossoming into the star center the Suns thought they were getting when Phoenix selected him first overall in 2018.

His dramatic final basket in the second game capped a superb performance in which he produced 24 points and 14 rebounds.

Not content with just one double-double, Ayton produced another in Game 4, putting up 19 points and tallying 22 rebounds.

Over the course of the three matchups last week, Ayton recorded 20.33 points and 15 rebounds per game, both significant increases on his averages of 14.15 points and 10.54 rebounds in the regular season. No wonder Ayton has received such effusive praise from team-mate Chris Paul.

Trae Young - Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks' hopes of upsetting the odds once more against the Bucks hang in the balance with star point guard Trae Young having been diagnosed with a bone bruise, making him questionable for Game 4.

If he is ruled out, it will be a great shame as Young has played phenomenally in the playoffs, including making a superb start to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He began the series last week by scoring an astonishing 48 points as the Hawks took Game 1 in Milwaukee.

Young was held to 15 in Game 2 but bounced back with 35 in the third game, going six for 14 from three-point range, taking his points per game for the week to 32.67, way up on his already impressive average of 25.3 from the regular season.

GOING COLD...

Bogdan Bogdanovic - Atlanta Hawks

Young's presence is even more important given one of Atlanta's secondary scoring threats is having to fight through a knee injury.

Bogdanovic has continued to battle knee soreness and the impact on his play has been obvious.

He averaged over 16 points a game in the regular season, but has put up only 6.67 so far in this series.

The Hawks may need him to produce more amid the pain to improve their odds of stunning the Bucks.

Clint Capela - Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks also haven't quite got the desired production they desire from center Capela.

That may be a slightly unfair statement given that Capela has tallied double-digit rebounds in two of the three games in the series, including a double-double in the Hawks' opening win.

Yet in terms of putting up points, his output has disappointed in comparison with his regular-season numbers. Tallies of 12, two and eight give him a per-game average of 7.33 that is in stark contrast to the 15.17 he delivered in helping the Hawks clinch the fifth seed in the East.

In a series with a Bucks team whose leading lights are firing on all cylinders, that isn't going to cut it.

Paul George - Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers competing in a place in their first Finals without Leonard, it is a bad time for George to go cold from deep.

Having made 3.17 threes per game in the regular season, George was off the mark from beyond the arc in three games against the Suns last week.

He made an average of 1.67 threes per game, hitting on one triple in two contests, including the Game 4 loss that has put the Clippers on the brink of elimination.

George simply must rediscover his aim to keep their season alive.

Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue urged his team to "take care of business" by capitalising on home-court advantage as they seek to overturn a 2-0 deficit to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals.

Deandre Ayton's dunk with less than one second to play gave the Suns a stunning 104-103 victory on Tuesday, leaving the Clippers to play catch-up.

Ayton caught a lobbed inbounds pass from Jae Crowder over the rim and slammed it home to seal the triumph, with Paul George failing to get off a buzzer-beating shot as the Clippers endured an agonising loss.

However, Lue refused to be downbeat as he was left to lament fine margins, with the Clippers coach now looking to put things right back in LA on Thursday.

"We fought well, we played well," said Lue.

"We had a chance to win the game. They won a tip-in and now we've got to go home and take care of business.

"They won two games on their home floor. We understand that. We've been in this position before, even though we hate it.

"Like I said, our guys fought and competed, but they made a big play at the end."

The initial reaction to Deandre Ayton's remarkable last-second dunk that gave the Phoenix Suns a 104-103 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday was disbelief, even from the man who made the shot. 

But Devin Booker knew Jae Crowder's inbounds lob to Booker that led to the game-winning basket with 0.7 seconds left was legal. 

He had seen Phoenix execute a similar play against the Memphis Grizzlies with 0.6 seconds remaining in a regular-season game in December 2017. 

"I think it's something that a lot of people don't know," Booker said. "Even talking to [the Clippers' Rajon] Rondo at half court after the game, he was like, 'It don't count,' and I was like, 'I've seen this movie before. It counts.'

"It's an incredible play, incredible execution on all ends, but Jae Crowder, that's a tough pass."

For his part in the drama, Ayton said he was just following instructions.

"I just trust my team-mates and my coaches," said the 22-year-old. "I just listened to what they told me to do and Jae made a great pass and I just finished. 

"I'm glad it counted. I didn't even know it counted. I wanted to hold in my celebration but my team-mates told me it counted and we just wanted to finish the game off strong." 

The Suns needed to defend one final attempt by the Clippers, and did so when Paul George could not get off a shot after a long inbounds pass. 

Now Phoenix will take a 2-0 series lead to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Thursday. 

"Hats off to the Clippers, they're a tough team, but once we stay together and we do what we have to do, we're a real strong unit, and that's what we did today," Ayton said. 

Deandre Ayton's dunk with less than one second to play gave the Phoenix Suns a stunning 104-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers and a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals. 

Ayton was the Suns' most reliable player throughout a back-and-forth affair and came up huge in the end, soaring to catch an inbounds pass from Jae Crowder over the rim and slam it home for the final margin. 

After the last in a series of lengthy video reviews in the final two minutes, the officials put 0.7 seconds on the clock for the Clippers, but Paul George could not get off a shot before the buzzer expired. 

With the Suns missing team leader Chris Paul due to COVID-19 protocols and their star Devin Booker having a difficult night, it was Ayton who came up huge Tuesday. 

The big man scored 12 points in the first quarter on the way to a 24-point night on 12-of-15 shooting in addition to grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. 

On a night that saw Booker make only five of 16 shots from the field and turn the ball over seven times, Paul's replacement Cam Payne was a huge factor for Phoenix. 

Payne, whose previous career playoff scoring high was 19 points, scored 29 in 37 minutes on a memorable night in Phoenix. 

The Clippers were also missing a star as Kawhi Leonard sat out a fourth consecutive game with a knee injury, and George could not lift Los Angeles to victory by himself. 

The veteran led the Clippers with 26 points but made just 10 of 23 shots and missed two critical free throws in the closing seconds to give the Suns a chance to win it. 

The series shifts to Los Angeles on Thursday with the Clippers looking to bounce back at home. 

The Memphis Grizzlies did not follow the script in their shock 112-109 victory over the top-ranked Utah Jazz in the NBA playoffs, while the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns drew first blood in their first-round openers.

Utah secured sole possession of the best record in the NBA for the first time in franchise history, having topped the Western Conference with a 52-20 record.

But in the continued absence of All-Star Donovan Mitchell (ankle), the Jazz were upstaged by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies in Sunday's opener on home court.

Dillon Brooks (31 points), Ja Morant (26 points) and Jonas Valanciunas (15 points and 13 rebounds) fuelled the visiting Grizzlies in Utah.

Brooks became the sixth player in the last 10 postseasons to score 30-plus points in his playoffs debut, joining Devin Booker (2021), Luka Doncic (2020), Kyrie Irving (2015), Anthony Davis (2015) and Damian Lillard (2014).

Kyle Anderson also registered a Grizzlies single-game playoff record with his six steals, surpassing the previous mark set by Mike Conley – who now plays for the Jazz – in 2013.

The Jazz were led by Bojan Bogdanovic (29 points), Conley (22 points and 11 assists) and Rudy Gobert (11 points and 15 rebounds).

 

Harris and Embiid flex muscles, Booker stars as Suns sizzle

Eastern Conference top seeds the 76ers overcame the Washington Wizards 125-118 in Game 1 of their first-round series. A playoff career-high 37 points from Tobias Harris set the tone, while MVP hopeful Joel Embiid had 30 points, six rebounds and three assists. Harris and Embiid became the first pair of 76ers to score 30-plus points in a playoff game in 31 years since Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins. All-Star team-mate Ben Simmons (six points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists) joined Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain as the only 76ers players ever with 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game. Double-doubles from Bradley Beal (33 points and 10 rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (16 points and 14 assists) were not enough for the eighth-ranked Wizards.

The Suns trumped defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers 99-90 behind Booker (34 points) and Deandre Ayton (21 points and 16 rebounds). Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10, the Suns used a 32-25 opening quarter to see off the seventh seeds in the series opener in the west, despite Chris Paul's shoulder injury. LeBron James had 18 points and 10 assists in a double-double display for the Lakers.

 

Randle struggles

All eyes were on All-Star Julius Randle after leading the New York Knicks back to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. While he collected 12 rebounds, Randle was far from his usual best in the 107-105 defeat to the Atlanta Hawks. Randle finished six-for-23 shooting for 15 points in 36 minutes. The Knicks star made just two of his six three-pointers.

Anthony Davis was five-for-16 shooting in a team-high 39 minutes of action as the Lakers star recorded just 13 points against the Suns. He missed both of his attempts from beyond the arc. As a team, the Lakers were just 26.9 per cent from the three-point line after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made just one of his seven shots.

 

Ice Trae!

Trae Young was the hero for the Hawks, who edged the Knicks in their series opener at Madison Square Garden. Young nailed the game-winner with 0.9 seconds remaining to silence the New York crowd in a thriller between the fourth and fifth seeds in the east. The Hawks guard finished with 32 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. According to Stats Perform, Young is the first NBA player to make a game-winning field goal in the final five seconds in his playoff debut since Dwyane Wade in 2004.

 

Sunday's results

Philadelphia 76ers 125-118 Washington Wizards
Phoenix Suns 99-90 Los Angeles Lakers
Atlanta Hawks 107-105 New York Knicks
Memphis Grizzlies 112-109 Utah Jazz

 

Heat at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks will look to extend their lead over the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first-round series on Monday.

Bojan Bogdanovic had a career night, scoring 48 points to help the Utah Jazz maintain their hold on the top spot in the Western Conference with a 127-120 win over the Denver Nuggets. 

In making 16 of 23 shots from the field, including eight of 11 three-point tries, Bogdanovic became the first player in Jazz history with at least 45 points and eight three-pointers in a game. His previous career high of 44 points came five years ago when he was with the Brooklyn Nets. 

The Jazz needed all the offense they could get from Bogdanovic, who was averaging 16.3 points per game, on a day when they learned top scorer Donovan Mitchell will miss at least one more week with an ankle injury. 

Jordan Clarkson added 21 points and eight assists off the bench for Utah, who improved to 49-18 with five games to play, while Nicola Jokic had 24 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds for Denver. 

Utah's rivals for the top spot in the west, the Phoenix Suns, kept pace at one game back with a 128-105 comeback win over the New York Knicks. Phoenix trailed by 10 early in the third quarter before outscoring the visitors 72-39 the rest of the way. 

Deandre Ayton had 26 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Suns (48-19), who also got 17 points and 11 assists from Chris Paul, while Julius Randle led the Knicks (37-30) with 24 points and 11 rebounds. 

 

Doncic crosses 5,000 points in Mavericks win

Luka Doncic became the fourth-youngest player in NBA history to reach 5,000 points, scoring 24 to lead the Dallas Mavericks past the Cleveland Cavaliers 110-90. Doncic hit the milestone at 22 years, 68 days old. Only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony were younger when they reached 5,000 points. The win was the 833rd of Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle's career, moving him into 15th place all-time. 

Joel Embiid had his way inside against the New Orleans Pelicans, scoring 37 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a 109-107 Philadelphia 76ers win as Zion Williamson missed the game through injury. Ben Simmons added 10 assists for Philadelphia (46-21), the 10th time in 54 appearances this season he has reached double-digit assists. 

The Milwaukee Bucks (43-24) used a balanced attack to put away the Houston Rockets 141-133, as Brook Lopez scored 24, Khris Middleton had 23, Jrue Holiday added 20 and Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 17 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. 

Nikola Vucevic posted a triple-double with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists as the Chicago Bulls defeated the Boston Celtics 121-99 to keep alive their slim hopes of reaching the play-in tournament. Zach LaVine and Coby White had 25 points each to lead the scoring for Chicago (28-39), while Kemba Walker had 33 for the Celtics (35-32). 

 

Davis one-man show in Lakers loss

Anthony Davis showed no ill effects from the back spasms that forced him to leave Thursday's game in the first quarter, scoring 36 points and grabbing 12 rebounds Friday, but he did not get much help as the Los Angeles Lakers fell 106-101 to the Portland Trail Blazers. Besides Davis, only Alex Caruso (18) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17) reached double digits on the scoresheet. 

A night after scoring 25, Kyle Kuzma had just four points for Los Angeles on two of 11 shooting, missing all six of his three-point attempts.

 

Martin leaves Brook Lopez shook

KJ Martin led the Houston Rockets with 26 points as they hung with the heavily favored Milwaukee Bucks in a 141-133 loss, highlighted by this aerial duel against Brook Lopez. 

 

Friday's results

Philadelphia 76ers 109-107 New Orleans Pelicans
Chicago Bulls 121-99 Boston Celtics
Charlotte Hornets 122-112 Orlando Magic
Miami Heat 121-112 Minnesota Timberwolves
Milwaukee Bucks 141-133 Houston Rockets
Dallas Mavericks 110-90 Cleveland Cavaliers
Utah Jazz 127-120 Denver Nuggets
Phoenix Suns 128-105 New York Knicks
Portland Trail Blazers 106-101 Los Angeles Lakers
San Antonio Spurs 113-104 Sacramento Kings

 

Spurs at Trail Blazers

In a key game for both teams, the San Antonio Spurs (32-34) are trying to hold on to a play-in tournament spot while the Portland Trail Blazers (38-29) are hoping to avoid it altogether by finishing in the top six. 

The race for top spot in the Western Conference is hotting up with only 10 games of the season remaining.

The Utah Jazz looked certain to secure the first seed earlier in the campaign, but damaging injuries and the form of the Phoenix Suns have closed the gap.

Utah could yet pull clear again but surely must win on Friday when they visit Phoenix.

The Suns are just a single game back and coming off a win over the Los Angeles Clippers that secured a playoff spot and should make second place the floor of their ambitions.

The Jazz also enjoyed a big victory on Wednesday, though, and are unlikely to go down without a fight.

 

TOP PERFORMERS

Jordan Clarkson – Utah Jazz

With 17.5 points over 58 games, but only one start, Clarkson is a shoo-in for Sixth Man of the Year.

When Donovan Mitchell, the team's leading scorer, went down injured this month, Clarkson was installed into the starting five in the next game. Although he played 46 minutes and tallied 27 points, the Jazz lost.

The 28-year-old point guard has since returned to the bench and, despite quiet nights in surprise consecutive defeats to the Minnesota Timberwolves, put up 23 points in a record-breaking midweek win at the Sacramento Kings.

The 154-105 victory made Utah the first road team to score as many as 154 points while winning by as many as 49.

With 988 bench points this year, Clarkson is set to pass 1,000 against the Suns – only Thurl Bailey, in three seasons, has previously reached that mark with the Jazz.

Chris Paul – Phoenix Suns

Veteran Paul, who turns 36 next week, will certainly be capable of handling the heat in high-stakes games such as these.

The 16-year point guard, averaging 16.2 for the year, scored 28 points in the win over the Clippers. Only five times this season has he topped that tally – most recently in the previous meeting with the Jazz earlier in April.

Of Paul's 29 points on that occasion, 11 came in the fourth quarter and five in overtime.

"Down the stretch, you might not find anybody better than Chris Paul," coach Monty Williams said that night.

Paul now ranks third for clutch points in 2020-21 with 133.

 

KEY BATTLE – GOBERT HAS A POINT TO PROVE

Along with Paul's heroics and 35 points from Devin Booker, the performance of Deandre Ayton drew particular praise the last time these teams met.

The big man had 18 points and 12 rebounds as Utah allowed 61 boards – still by far a season high among their opponents.

Ayton said afterwards he had brought his "A-game" in order to match up against presumed Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Gobert will not want to be outfought again, and with Mitchell still out, he cannot afford to be.

 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Suns' overtime success was their second win against the Jazz this season and their third in a row, although they had lost 15 of the team's 16 matchups immediately prior to this run.

Phoenix's recent form in this series has given them a narrow 95-93 all-time lead.

The Phoenix Suns defeated the Utah Jazz on Wednesday to close the gap at the top of the Western Conference, but coach Monty Williams insisted first place was not on his mind.

Williams has led a remarkable turnaround this season, with the Suns having a 34-39 record last year that was boosted significantly by an eight-game winning run in the seeding games in the 'bubble'.

However, Phoenix is 36-14 in the 2020-21 campaign and, following a 117-113 overtime defeat of the Jazz, they are breathing down Utah's necks.

"We just don't focus on any of that stuff," Williams said.

"I hear it, and I hope we do, but our goal has always been to win every game, improve every month - I've said that since I've been here. This team has to go through these types of experiences to win big.

"Being number one in the West would be a huge accomplishment for us, but it's just not our focus.

"We just want to win every game we can. If it means we're number one in the West, then great."

The Suns have not played in the postseason since 2009-10, but this game served as playoff preparation.

"We've always said we want to approach every game the same way - that way we don't have to change when we get where we want to go - but the intensity, the physicality, the officiating certainly felt like a playoff game," Williams said. "And going into overtime, it felt just like that."

Chris Paul added: "We needed a game like that, where guys had to play heavy minutes, the intensity of it, the crowd was great, just that energy. We haven't played too many games like that."

Veteran Paul played 43 minutes and contributed 29 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter and five in overtime.

He now ranks fifth in the league for clutch points (115), and Williams said: "Down the stretch, you might not find anybody better than Chris Paul."

The coach also praised the Suns' work in disrupting Utah's shooting from three-point range, where they were 11-for-44, down on a season average of 39.2 per cent.

And Deandre Ayton was singled out after finishing with 12 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive end.

The Jazz, led by Defensive Player of the Year favourite Rudy Gobert, allowed a season-high 61 rebounds, while only three times have opponents managed more than 16 offensive boards against them.

"We put [Ayton] in a lot of tough positions. Not many guys his size have to do as much as he does," Williams said. "The only other guy, maybe, is Gobert, and he's Defensive Player of the Year.

"We put DA in coverages where he's got to rim-protect but we also switch out with him at times where he's got to guard smaller guys. When they make shots, it's usually a tough shot."

It was the first time in Ayton's career he reached double figures for rebounds against Gobert and the Jazz.

"Everybody's got a job on this team, man," Ayton said, adding: "Competing with Gobert, that's the Defensive Player of our league.

"Him being a presence on both ends of the floor, you're going to have to bring your 'A-game'. He's a strong, physical dude, he knows the game, and I learned a lot, too."

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