With another NBA All-Star weekend in the books, Thursday sees the league back in regular season action, with one of the more intriguing games taking place at Barclays Center when the Brooklyn Nets entertain the Boston Celtics.

They played in the same venue earlier this month, with Boston easing to a 126-91 victory, which the Nets will be eager to avenge this time.

Somewhat surprisingly given the strength of their respective rosters, Celtics star Jayson Tatum was the only player representing either team to play in the All-Star game, scoring eight points during his 20 minutes on court for Team Durant.

Kevin Durant missed the game in Cleveland with a knee injury and is likely to be out of this clash as well. 

Nets general manager Sean Marks recently said Durant and new arrival Ben Simmons could be ready to play in the coming weeks, but the visit of the Celtics is likely to come too soon for both.

Steve Nash's team currently sit eighth in the Eastern Conference on 31-28, having fallen away dramatically in the last month, losing 11 games in a row until beating the Sacramento Kings on Valentine's Day.

Injuries have played a big part in the dip in form, but back-to-back wins against the Kings and the New York Knicks suggested they could be about to turn things around, even with a defeat to the Washington Wizards in their last game before the All-Star break.

The Celtics, meanwhile, have been going in the other direction, winning nine games in a row before a loss to the Detroit Pistons ahead of the break, and they find themselves sixth in the East on 34-26.

Coach Ime Udoka has led his team to a five-game winning streak on the road and will be looking to make it six in Brooklyn.

He will be reliant on Tatum and Jaylen Brown to pick up where they left off. The Celtics' star duo combined for 57 points and 20 rebounds in the recent 135-87 thrashing of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The impact of guard Derrick White could also be crucial after his recent arrival from the San Antonio Spurs. He has made a respectable start to life with Boston, averaging 12.3 points per game in his four outings.

The restart of the league signals the beginning of what will no doubt be a tense run in a tightly contested Eastern Conference, and both these teams will be looking to get off to a perfect start on Thursday.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets – Patty Mills

It's a home game, so Kyrie Irving (vaccination status) cannot play, and with James Harden gone and no Durant or Simmons yet, the pressure will once again fall on Mills to be his team's main man.

The Australian narrowly missed out on the three-point finals at All-Star weekend but is enjoying a career-best season for points (13.4 average per game) in Brooklyn after moving from San Antonio last year.

His three-point shooting is what has been letting him down in recent times, going five games in a row scoring single figures for points, before hitting 22 in the loss to Washington before the All-Star break, including five of seven from beyond the arc.

Boston Celtics – Jayson Tatum

Tatum has been his team's standout player this season, and the momentum from featuring in the All-Star game could see him raise that level even higher.

Only three players in the league have scored more than his 1,439 points this season (DeMar DeRozan - 1,547, Trae Young - 1,475, Giannis Antetokounmpo - 1,443), while only DeRozan (566) and Nikola Jokic (516) have hit more than his 500 field goals.

Interestingly, Tatum took more of a back seat when Boston beat Brooklyn earlier this month, with Brown and Marcus Smart (both 22) scoring more than his 19 points.

KEY BATTLES – Make a better start, Brooklyn

The recent game between these two saw the Celtics race out to a 35-16 lead after the first quarter. It was always a big ask for the Nets to do anything from there.

Where Brooklyn will likely look for success is in mid-range, where no team in the league has a higher percentage of field goals from (48.7). However, only four teams have a lower percentage of mid-range field goals allowed than Boston (39.9 per cent).

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Although the Celtics won at Barclays Center earlier this month, the Nets had won the previous four meetings between the two, including at TD Garden in November, and all three encounters last season.

The Philadelphia 76ers had to "send a message" against the Milwaukee Bucks, according to Joel Embiid, who is excited about what the future might hold.

Embiid was on top form on Thursday, scoring 42 points and adding 14 rebounds and five assists in a supreme display.

Fittingly, he nudged the 76ers ahead for the final time in the fourth quarter, with Philadelphia holding firm to seal a 123-120 victory and snap a six-game losing streak against the Bucks, despite the efforts of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The reigning NBA Finals MVP fell just short of a triple-double, finishing on 32 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.

It was a much-needed win for the 76ers heading into the All-Star break, however, with Philadelphia having been thrashed 135-87 by the Boston Celtics on Tuesday.

"Man, it sucked, but then again, look at the big picture, they were making everything," Embiid told ESPN when asked how important a response to that defeat was.

"We learned a lot from it, we had to get back to our game and send a message."

Philadelphia beat the Bucks without new arrival James Harden, who is out with a hamstring injury he sustained earlier in February while still playing for the Brooklyn Nets.

"I'm just excited for us to be healthy, for us all to be together," continued Embiid.

"I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing and I'm sure my team-mates will follow. We're pretty excited about what we can accomplish."

Embiid came out on top in the battle of two of the NBA's finest performers. He leads the way in the league for points per game (29.6), just ahead of Antetokounmpo (29.4).

"You know, Finals MVP, an MVP of the regular season, so I live for this type of matchup, it's always fun battling against him, a great player, just glad we got the win," Embiid added.

Antetokounmpo told reporters: "We had a lot of open looks, good shots that did not fall, shots that we usually make down the stretch."

Philadelphia's talisman only managed 19 points against Boston, which ended a run of 23 straight games in which he had at least 25 points.

However, he has now had nine games this season with at least 40 points and 10 rebounds. That is the second-most in a season by a Philadelphia player, behind Wilt Chamberlain's 18 in 1965-66, according to the 76ers' official data.

The 76ers are third in the Eastern Conference with a 35-23 record for the season.

"The one thing the later All-Star break does, when you come out, it's a sprint," 76ers coach Doc Rivers told reporters.

"It's no longer the midway point, where you can ease back from the break. It's a full sprint when you come back."

Joel Embiid had 42 points as he inspired the Philadelphia 76ers to a 123-120 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.

With James Harden having arrived to bolster the 76ers' championship bid, but still missing due to a hamstring injury, Embiid served up a reminder of just how crucial he is with another supreme display on Thursday.

This time, it was reigning NBA champions the Bucks who were on the receiving end of a masterful showing from the 27-year-old, who also tallied up 14 rebounds and five assists.

The Bucks came close, though, and had their own MVP to thank for that – Giannis Antetokounmpo helping himself to a double-double of 32 points and 11 rebounds, while also contributing nine assists.

Embiid, fittingly, put Philadelphia ahead for good with a 10-foot shot in the final quarter. 

It marked a valuable return to form for the 76ers, who can enter the All-Star break on a high despite Tuesday's dismal 135-87 defeat to the Boston Celtics. They are third in the Eastern Conference with a 35-23 record, while the Bucks sit fifth (36-24).

Doncic downs Pelicans

Anything Embiid or Antetokounmpo can do, Luka Doncic is out to do it better.

The Dallas Mavericks star had 49 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in a 125-118 defeat of the New Orleans Pelicans.

Doncic has now had 45 points or more in three of his last four games for Dallas, who enter the break in fifth place in the West.

Nets back to losing ways

After snapping an 11-game losing streak with victories over the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks, the Brooklyn Nets fell to a 117-103 reverse in Washington.

Rui Hachimura led the way for the Wizards with 20 points, as they moved to 2-2 for their series against the Nets this season.

The Los Angeles Clippers beat the Houston Rockets to win for a third time in their last four games, while the Miami Heat were overtime winners over the Charlotte Hornets.

The Eastern Conference feels like a closer contest than the west at the moment, which should be on show when the Milwaukee Bucks host the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.

It will be Giannis Antetokounmpo versus Joel Embiid at Fiserv Forum, the players with the two best points-per-game averages in the league this season (29.4 and 29.3 respectively), which perhaps indicates how close this game could end up being.

The defending champions in Milwaukee are currently third in the East on 36-23, while the Sixers sit fifth on 34-23.

The Bucks ended a two-game losing streak with a 128-119 victory against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday, with an ominous 50-point performance from Giannis.

It is the first time the Greek has scored 50 points this season, while Khris Middleton (19 points) and Jrue Holiday (14 points) also played their part, and they will be key again against the Sixers.

Embiid also managed 50 points last month in Philadelphia's win against Orlando Magic and has hit 40+ points in four other games since then.

Doc Rivers will be looking for a response after his team were crushed by the Boston Celtics 135-87 on Tuesday, where Embiid (19) and Tyrese Maxey (11) were the only Sixers to hit double figures.

There is still no James Harden following his blockbuster trade from the Nets, with his debut apparently coming against Minnesota on February 25, but the other arrival in that deal, Paul Millsap, made a good impression in his first game against the Celtics.

"He looked good," said Rivers. "After the game, he said he felt pretty good. I was surprised… He will add some toughness to us, there's no doubt about that, he'll be able to step out and make threes for us at the five spot. That'll be something we work on."

A victory for Philadelphia will open up the Eastern Conference even more, but with Giannis in such form, getting a win in Milwaukee will very much be easier said than done.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo

It is a team sport, but the Greek sensation will always be vital to the Bucks, particularly in big games like this one.

Having gone 23 games in a row scoring at least 20 points, Giannis only managed 18 in last week's defeat to the Phoenix Suns, only to follow it up with his best scoring performance of the season against the Pacers.

The danger for Philadelphia is if their concentration on Giannis allows the likes of Middleton and Holiday to do damage, but coach Rivers is experienced enough to know that and plan accordingly.

Philadelphia 76ers – Joel Embiid

As predictable as it is, it's difficult to go with anyone else for the Sixers right now. If they want to win in Milwaukee, Embiid has to thrive.

While his 19 against Boston was comfortably his team's highest score, it also saw a streak of 23 straight games with at least 25 points come to an end, and he'll likely want to begin a new streak right away.

Although he's slightly behind Giannis for points-per-game, the Cameroonian does have the edge in free-throws made, leading the league on 410 ahead of Giannis in second on 389.

KEY BATTLE – Will it be three and easy for the winner?

The Bucks enjoy a shot from downtown and are currently third in the league for three-pointers made (835), behind only the Golden State Warriors (846) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (841), while only the Washington Wizards (560) have fewer threes than the Sixers (620).

Having said that, only the Wizards and the Dallas Mavericks (both 613) have conceded fewer threes than Philadelphia (641) while no team has conceded more than the Bucks (833).

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Bucks have enjoyed an excellent recent record against the Sixers, winning the past six meetings, including a 118-109 win in Philadelphia in November. The last Sixers victory came on Christmas Day 2019 (121-109).

Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer hailed Giannis Antetokounmpo's "special" achievement of scoring 50 points on 17-of-21 shooting in Tuesday's win over the Indiana Pacers.

Antetokounmpo's 21 attempts were the fourth-fewest in a 50-point game in NBA history as the two-time MVP registered 50 points in the regular season for the first time since November 2019.

The 27-year-old also took 14 rebounds and provided four assists in the 128-119 victory – the Suns' sixth in a row – to become the third player in NBA history to have 50 points, 10 rebounds and shoot 80 per cent from the field.

After producing another standout display for the NBA leaders, Budenholzer lavished yet more praise on Antetokounmpo.

"The efficiency... that's Giannis," he said. "He's special. It's hard to fathom scoring 50 on 21."

Bucks forward Jordan Nwora echoed those sentiments, adding: "It's special seeing it in person.

"What's really crazy about it is that he makes it look so easy. I think I looked at him when he scored his 50th point, crowd cheering, and it's like, 'Man, he's barely sweating.' 

"He's still full of energy in the locker room after he does it. It's just part of being one of the greatest ever to play."

 

Antetokounmpo now has 1,411 points for the season, while his average of 29.4 across 48 games is the best record of any player, followed by the Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid (29.3).

That 29.4 average is also marginally behind Antetokounmpo's career-best of 29.5 from 2019-20, putting him in strong contention to claim a third MVP award in four years.

Twenty-six of Antetokounmpo's 50 points against the Pacers arrived from inside the paint, but the Greek forward was more impressed by his return of 14-of-18 from the free-throw line.

"I get upset when I miss free throws," he said. "I work too hard. I love when I make my free throws. It gives me rhythm, it makes me feel good. 

"I can miss every three, I can miss a layup, but when I make my free throws it's like my dopamine hit because I work extremely hard to make them.

"It just makes the game easier, it makes me able to drive the ball all the time. I'm excited to go to the free throw line, and I don't second-guess myself anymore."

Antetokounmpo fell two points short of setting a new career-high tally of 52, but team honours remain his top priority.

"Obviously it's a nice feeling to have 50, you always remember it, but I care about winning," he said. "I want to win games. Fifties, 40s, 30s all those things, accolades are going to come.

"But they only come with winning. If your main focus, your number one thing is winning, you do whatever it takes to finish the game. Sometimes it's, shoot more. Sometimes you've got to defend more. 

"Everything else comes, but if you're thinking about let me get 50, let me get mine, it doesn't work that way. You've always got to focus on winning."

All-Star pair Devin Booker and Chris Paul led the way as the Phoenix Suns beat the Los Angeles Clippers 103-96 to make it six wins in a row.

Booker scored 26 points and Paul added 17 and 14 assists for the NBA-leading Suns, who have now won 17 of their past 18 games and are 47-10 for the season.

The Clippers had defeated the Golden State Warriors in their previous game and led the Suns 90-88 with six minutes to play at Footprint Center.

But Booker and Paul took control to give the hosts a slender lead and restricted their opponents to just one point in the final 2:53 to put another victory on the board.

Reflecting on a hard-fought win, Suns head coach Monty Williams said: "Our past experiences are helping us now, even the hurt that we felt last year is helping us now."

 


Giannis guides Bucks past Pacers

The Milwaukee Bucks snapped a two-game losing run with a 128-119 victory over the Indiana Pacers thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo's latest impressive showing.

Two-time NBA MVP Antetokounmpo scored 50 points on 17-of-21 shooting, with those 21 attempts the fourth-fewest in a 50-point game in NBA history.

It is the first time the 27-year-old, returning from an ankle injury that kept him out of the loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, has hit 50 in the regular season since November 2019.

The Bucks improve to 36-23 for the season, with a winning percentage of .610, while the Pacers have now lost seven successive games.

Celtics continue strong form

The Boston Celtics eased to a 135-87 win over the Philadelphia 76ers for their ninth win in a row, with Jaylen Brown scoring 26 of his 29 points in the first half.

They are now 11-1 across their last 12 games and have outscored opponents by 253 points – only the 1970-71 Bucks (+260) have a larger point differential over a 12-game span in NBA history.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Luka Doncic scored 21 points in the Dallas Mavericks' 107-99 win against the Miami Heat, while the Atlanta Hawks held off the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-116.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Memphis Grizzlies recorded 126-120 and 121-109 victories over the Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Pelicans respectively.

Giannis Antetokounmpo produced another eye-catching display to help the Milwaukee Bucks to victory over the Los Angeles Lakers and was hailed by team-mate Khris Middleton for "making it look easy".

The two-time NBA MVP scored 44 points on 17-for-20 shooting, while registering eight assists and 14 rebounds as the Bucks earned a 131-116 victory in Tuesday's contest at the Crypto.com Arena.

In doing so, Antetokounmpo joined legendary figures Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as only the third person with 40+ points, 10+ rebounds and five-or-more assists on 85-per-cent-plus shooting in a game.

Indeed, the 27-year-old has now had three games with 40+ points, 10+ rebounds, five-plus assists and no turnovers. Over the past 30 years, only David Robinson and Dirk Nowitzki have achieved that feat, doing so once each.

Middleton, who scored all 21 of his points in the first half, was blown away by the ease in which Antetokounmpo took apart the lacklustre Lakers, who had LeBron James and Anthony Davis in their line-up.

"He made it look easy, honestly," Middleton said. "That just shows the level of how he's playing. 

"He was knocking down his jump shot. He's got guys going for his pump fake. Just the way he let the game come to him and stay patient, it was pretty fun to watch."

 

The 44 points registered by Antetokounmpo was his second-highest tally of the season, behind only the 47 he managed against the same opponents on November 17.

He is third in terms of points scorers in NBA this season with 1,343, behind DeMar DeRozan (1,360) and Trae Young (1,364), while only Joel Embiid (29.4) averages more points per game than his 29.2.

Reflecting on another good day both personally and for the Bucks, who have now won four in a row to move to 35-21 for the campaign, Antetokounmpo said: "Obviously when you make shots, the game is a lot easier, looks a lot better.

"I know I'm going to try to get my team-mates involved and look for the best way to help the team, but sometimes when you start making shots, you feel better about yourself, you defend better. Today was one of those games."

The victory was perhaps not as straightforward in the end as it might have been for the Bucks, who led by 30 points midway through the third quarter, only to let the Lakers back into the game.

But the hosts could only claw back to within 10 points of their opponents and have now lost five of their last seven games, seeing them fall back to three games below .500.

"We played a terrible defensive half," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "Disposition, competition, the level of competitive spirit we showed for a big game was very disappointing. 

"Two straight games we started with a terrible defensive half. We've got to get that right."

The Lakers will get that opportunity to put it right when they take on the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, while the Bucks are next in action on Thursday with a showdown against the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 44 points as the Milwaukee Bucks beat a lacklustre Los Angeles Lakers 131-116 to close in on Eastern Conference leaders the Miami Heat.

The defending NBA champions were 24 points ahead in the first half at the Crypto.com Arena and extended that lead to 30 points midway through the third quarter.

A strong rally from the Lakers, who had LeBron James and Anthony Davis in their line-up, made things interesting but the Bucks stood firm to win for a fourth straight game.

Antetokounmpo's game-high tally came from 17-for-20 shooting, while adding 14 rebounds and eight assists to inflict a fifth defeat in seven on LA, who fall back to three games below .500.

With his latest standout display, Antetokounmpo joins Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as only the third person with 40+ points, 10+ rebounds and five-or-more assists on 85-per-cent-plus shooting in a game.


Suns continue to shine

The NBA-leading Phoenix Suns rallied from 14 points down to overcome the Philadelphia 76ers 114-109 and record their 14th win in 15 games.

Devin Booker scored 35 points and Chris Paul added 16 points and 12 assists as the Suns improved to 44-10 for the season.

Joel Embiid led the way for the Sixers with 34 points and 12 rebounds – his fifth straight 25-point, 10-rebound game, which is the longest streak in the competition over the past two seasons.

Nets claim unwanted record

Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart helped themselves to 22 points each as the Boston Celtics made light work of the Brooklyn Nets in a 126-91 victory.

The Nets become the only side in the last 30 years to have every starter score six points or fewer with none of them getting to the line.

Elsewhere in Tuesday's action, the Los Angeles Clippers had forward Marcus Morris Sr. ejected in their 135-109 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers for a flagrant foul 2 on Ja Morant.

Morant was able to continue and ended the game with 30 points on 12 of 19 shooting from the field, making it the ninth time in 10 games the All-Star guard has reached 30 points.

The past two NBA champions meet on Tuesday, but they head into the game amid contrasting seasons to this point.

Defending champs the Milwaukee Bucks took a little time to get going but are now just half a game back in third in the highly competitive Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers, whose title Milwaukee took, also took a little time to get going, yet they remain firmly in that rut.

A team led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis are always likely to be a threat if they can make it to the playoffs – ninth place is still good enough for a play-in – but the Lakers' remote title credentials should be given a firm examination at Crypto.com Arena.

For while the Bucks have kept together their championship-winning team, albeit Brook Lopez is out with injury, the Lakers are unrecognisable from their 2020 run.

In a bid to extend James' title window, LA's promising young players have been traded away for veterans in a series of moves that simply have not worked – Russell Westbrook's expensive arrival from the Washington Wizards chief among their missteps.

With little room for further movement ahead of Thursday's trade deadline and with the Bucks visiting having so far made light work of a tough west coast road trip, the Lakers really have their work cut out.

Los Angeles Lakers – LeBron James

James is likely to be the main man on every team he plays for until he retires, but that is particularly true of this Lakers team in this season.

The Lakers are 26-28 but 20-17 with James involved. Injuries have limited the four-time MVP's involvement, yet he is dazzling when on the floor, with 29.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.

After missing five straight games with knee swelling, James returned last time out against the New York Knicks and put up a triple-double in an overtime win.

That included 29 points in a 19th straight game of scoring at least 25. Only Joel Embiid (20 games, also active) has had a better such run this season, while just once in James' whole career – 21 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008 – has he enjoyed a longer sequence. Reminder: LeBron is 37 years old.

The Bucks may be able to beat the Lakers, but the notion of any team stopping James right now feels a little far-fetched.

Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Tied on a live 19-game streak of 25 or more points, Antetokounmpo is performing on a par with James but without the repeated injury lay-offs. For that reason, he is among the MVP favourites once again, looking for his third award in four seasons.

For all the hype around Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, Antetokounmpo – still only 27 – remains the man most likely to take the mantle from James as the face of the NBA.

The 'Greek Freak' is averaging 28.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.4 blocks and will surely relish the opportunity to come up against LeBron.

When James was missing back in November, Antetokounmpo scored 47 points (a season high) to lead the Bucks to victory. Do not rule out a repeat, even with his veteran opponent also in top form.

KEY BATTLE – AD and Portis to fight at the five?

Davis continues to switch positions on an almost nightly basis, but he is likely to line up as a center against the Bucks, who have Bobby Portis – another power forward standing at six feet, 10 inches – playing the five.

But the Lakers superstar is set to have his work cut out in what has been a tricky season so far. While he has recovered some form over the past week, so has Portis.

The Bucks man had a season-high 30 points at the Portland Trail Blazers to start this road trip and added 24 against the Los Angeles Clippers, shooting 19 for 25 across those games.

"Bobby's found a good rhythm," Mike Budenholzer said after the Clippers game. "The past two nights he's shooting it so good. He's getting some baskets around the paint, too, and doing lots of different things, the rebounding."

Whether Portis can continue to be effective on the glass, where he averages 9.1 rebounds per game to Davis' 10.2, could be vital.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers have an 83-53 lead in the all-time regular season series, but Milwaukee have made a significant dent in that deficit in recent seasons.

Since the Lakers won six straight between January 2008 and November 2010, the Bucks are 15-6, most recently winning the only meeting of this season so far 109-102 in November.

The Brooklyn Nets' losing skid extended to eight games as reigning MVP Nikola Jokic recorded a league-high 14th triple-double in the Denver Nuggets' 124-104 win on Sunday.

Jokic finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, including scoring 23 points in the second and third quarters when the Nuggets reversed a deficit into a 21-point lead.

Brooklyn were without James Harden for the second straight game due to hamstring tightness, with Kyrie Irving scoring 27 points with 11 assists.

The Nets, who are also playing without the injured Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, have surpassed their longest losing streak since losing seven in a row in late 2019 and early 2020.

Brooklyn are 29-24 and have dropped down to seventh in the Eastern Conference.

 

Double-doubles for Bucks trio

The Milwaukee Bucks won their third straight to improve to third in the east with a 34-21 record after a 137-113 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while Jrue Holiday added 27 points and 13 assists. Bobby Portis also had a double-double with 24 points and 11 rebounds.

Joel Embiid and DeMar Rozan put on scoring masterclasses but the Philadelphia 76ers got up after a fast start 119-108 over the Chicago Bulls. Embiid finished with 40 points with 10 rebounds, while DeRozan had a season-high 45 points along with nine rebounds and seven assists.

Luka Doncic had a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists despite foul trouble as the Dallas Mavericks won 103-94 over the Atlanta Hawks.

 

No shooting magic for Orlando

The struggling Orlando Magic managed five-of-25 from three-point range and 35.8 per cent shooting from the floor in their 116-83 loss to the Boston Celtics. The Magic are last in the east with a 12-43 record.

LeBron James returned from a five-game injury-enforced absence with a triple-double as the Los Angeles Lakers won 122-115 over the New York Knicks in overtime.

James had missed five games with swelling in his left knee but returned in style, contributing 29 points with 13 rebounds and 10 assists as they rallied from a 21-point second-quarter deficit.

The Lakers had gone 1-4 in James' absence but the four-time MVP was pivotal with his fourth triple-double of the season.

Anthony Davis was excellent for the Lakers with 28 points and 17 rebounds, while Malik Monk added 29 points too.

RJ Barrett netted a career-high 36 points and Julius Randle added 32 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists for the Knicks.

 

Suns bounce back, Morant stars

The table-topping Phoenix Suns bounced back from their loss to the Atlanta Hawks with a 95-80 win over the Washington Wizards led by Deandre Ayton's 20 points and 16 rebounds. Chris Paul added 14 points and nine assists, while Devin Booker was quiet with only 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Jimmy Butler dropped 27 points shooting 10-of-13 while Bam Adebayo added 20 points and 12 rebounds as the Miami Heat won 104-86 over the Charlotte Hornets.

Ja Morant scored 33 points in three quarters as the Memphis Grizzlies claimed their fifth win in six games, routing the Orlando Magic 135-115.

 

Blazers skid extended by Bucks

The Portland Trail Blazers slumped to their fifth straight defeat, leaving them with a 21-33 record as Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 points with nine rebounds and six assists in the Milwaukee Bucks' 137-108 win. Bobby Portis also scored 30 points for the Bucks.

As the NBA All-Star break approaches, three players look to have established themselves as this season's MVP frontrunners – and they all happen to be big men born outside the United States.

That is surprising with the league trending towards teams hoisting up insane amounts of three-pointers and the idea of the big man in the middle becoming almost obsolete.

While this race will undoubtedly come down to the 11th hour, these three players have clearly separated themselves from the pack by playing some otherworldly basketball this season. 

JOEL EMBIID, Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid is the only one of the top three who has never won an MVP and that could end up working in his favour. The Philadelphia center was the runner-up to winner Nikola Jokic last season, and some wondered whether that was his best chance to win the award, but he has been better in nearly every area of the game while single-handedly carrying the 76ers to the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference.

Embiid's points (29.1), rebounds (10.8) and assists (4.4) have all ticked up slightly this season, though his field goal percentage has dropped. Maybe the most important stat that puts a fine point on just how valuable Embiid has been is Philadelphia's 27-12 record when he plays and 4-8 mark when he doesn't.

Embiid has had issues with durability throughout his career, never playing more than 64 games in any season. He has mostly put those issues to rest this season and played in 21 straight games before he had a scheduled maintenance day and missed Monday's win over Memphis. 

Because he hasn't had Ben Simmons playing alongside him this season, Embiid has taken on an even bigger role in the team's offense. He's maintained his scoring rate and his assists have jumped from 2.8 to 4.4 as he has assumed greater playmaking responsibility in both the half-court and transition, all while lowering his turnovers. 

Embiid's defence hasn't suffered even with his increased burden on the opposite end. His blocks have increased (1.35 to 1.44) and he is the biggest reason the 76ers have improved their scoring defence from last season (108.1 to 105.5).

Since Christmas, Embiid leads the league in scoring (33.8) while pulling down 10.9 rebounds per game. His stretch of eight consecutive games with at least 30 points from December 26 to January 12 is the longest in the NBA this season and is tied for the longest by any 76ers player (Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain) since at least 1963-64. 

Philadelphia have won 15 of 19 during that span for a .789 winning percentage that ranks behind only the Grizzlies, moving the Sixers up to third in the Eastern Conference.

With 50.8 points, 16.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists per 48 minutes in January, Embiid became the first player in league history to average 50-15-5 per 48 in a calendar month. 

Embiid also isn't shrinking in the big moments, topping the league in points (127), field goals (40) and blocks (nine) in clutch situations.

All the ingredients necessary for an MVP are in place for Embiid, who has the production, the team success and even the narrative that he has put the team on his back in the absence of a fellow star player. Winning the top seed in the conference would certainly help Embiid's cause, and his play has that well within reach for the 76ers.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, Milwaukee Bucks

In the same that way that Embiid could be helped by having never won an MVP, Antetokounmpo could be hindered by having won back-to-back awards before Jokic took home the hardware last season. Only eight players have won three or more MVPs, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leading the way with six and LeBron James the only active player with more than two (four). 

The Greek Freak has overcome a slow start following a short offseason and is putting up remarkably similar numbers to his last few campaigns, so there is no denying that he is having another MVP-worthy season. As impressive as Antetokounmpo's numbers are, he may not be getting the attention he deserves because this level of production has become the norm for a player who is arguably an all-time great at just 27 years old. 

Antetokounmpo is the only player who had almost as good a January as Embiid, averaging 31.7 points, 10.9 points and 6.3 assists. His nine 30-point games in the month trailed only Embiid (12).

Milwaukee are jockeying with Cleveland and Chicago for the Central Division lead despite dealing with a revolving door of availability from their roster all season. Just like Embiid's chances at the MVP are boosted with a top seed, team success can only help Antetokounmpo's case. The Bucks were the number one seed in the East in both of his MVP seasons. 

Antetokounmpo's ability to affect a game in a myriad of ways was on display in a win over Golden State on January 13, when he had 30 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and three blocks. All that production came in under 30 minutes of play and made him the first player with multiple 30-point triple-doubles in 30 minutes or less in the last 40 seasons. His other such outing came October 24, 2019, at Houston.

The Bucks superstar is one of only two players (also Jokic) currently averaging at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. 

If Milwaukee finish with the best record in the East and Antetokounmpo averages near 30 points per game, 11 rebounds and six assists, it might be difficult to deny him a third MVP award. 

NIKOLA JOKIC, Denver Nuggets

After winning the MVP last season, Jokic has replicated his numbers in 2021-22, if not exceeded many of them. He's done all that while leading the Nuggets to a 28-23 record despite the long-term absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., Denver's second and third-leading scorers last season. 

His performance this season has only reinforced his place among the league's elite and proven for the last time that he is not dependent on any player for his success, instead driving it for himself and his team-mates.

Jokic's scoring is basically equal to last season (25.9 to 26.4 in 2020-21), but his rebounds have jumped from 10.8 to 13.8 to put him second in the league behind Utah's Rudy Gobert as he has picked up the slack with Porter sidelined since early November. 

Jokic's assists (7.8), blocks (0.73), steals (1.42) and shooting percentage (57.2) are similar to last season, and he's again racking up the triple-doubles with a league-best 13 in 45 games after he had 16 in 72 last season. In only his seventh season, he is already fourth all-time in triple-doubles (70).

While Jokic's scoring in January (26.6) wasn't as robust as Embiid and Antetokounmpo, he did lead the league in total rebounds (212), ranked second in assists (144) and third in field goals made (158). He had a stretch of four consecutive triple-doubles from January 15 to 21 where he averaged 29.3 points, 13.0 rebounds and 12.3 assists, astonishing totals from any player, let alone a seven-footer. 

With 49 points in a win over the Clippers on January 19, Jokic became just the third center (also Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975 and Alvan Adams in 1977) since 1970-71 to record a triple-double with 45 points or more. 

While each player faces a separate set of circumstances from year to year, Jokic has been as good or better than his MVP season and has done so with much less around him. That itself won't guarantee him another MVP, but he's right there with the other candidates and has the rest of the season to prove himself worthy of becoming a back-to-back winner. 

The Milwaukee Bucks have to realise that they are now the team to beat in the NBA, so says Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee hit back from their 136-100 home loss to the Denver Nuggets with a 112-98 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo was their inspiration, as he so often is, with the reigning NBA Finals MVP finishing with a triple-double of 33 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists, including 13 points in the fourth quarter as the Bucks closed it out on a 17-4 run.

The Bucks are fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 32-21 record, but Antetokounmpo believes the team have not yet fully adjusted to the added weight of expectation that comes with being reigning champions.

"That wasn't us as a team," Antetokounmpo told reporters after the win over the Wizards when asked what went wrong against Denver.

"I don't remember the last time I lost by 36 in Milwaukee. Obviously that was kind of embarrassing, but at the end of the night, those nights are going to happen. But we were able to come out tonight, play hard and play together, try to set the tone.

"We have to realize that in order for us to be great, we've got to play hard. We cannot expect that people are just going to hand us the game when we go out there.

"People are coming for us. People are hunting us right now. They get excited when they see, 'Milwaukee Bucks, world champs.' We've got to play every single night hard and build that habit."

Only Trae Young (1,248) and Jayson Tatum (1,250) have accumulated more points than Antetokounmpo (1,242) this season, while the Greek forward's points per game average of 28.9 ranks him fourth in the NBA.

Tuesday's haul was his fourth triple-double of the season and a 29th of his career, but no other Bucks player has yet managed one in 2021-22.

In each of his last three triple-doubles, Antetokounmpo has scored at least 30 points.

Jrue Holiday provided good support with 22 points, five rebounds and two assists and Khris Middleton impressed late, though George Hill missed out due to a neck problem.

"I think he's going to miss a few games here," Bucks coach Budenholzer said of Hill.

"We're going to have to give him a little bit of time and see how he responds to some treatment, to some time off."

Giannis Antetokounmpo drove the Milwaukee Bucks home with a triple-double as they bounced back with a 112-98 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday.

Antetokounmpo finished the game with 33 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists, including 13 points in the fourth quarter as the Bucks closed it out on a 17-4 run. The Greek forward was scoreless in the first quarter.

The Wizards, missing Bradley Beal to a wrist injury, had rallied from a 17-point deficit to be within contention in the final period but the reigning champions pulled away.

The Bucks had lost 136-100 to the Denver Nuggets in their last game and Antetokounmpo was delighted to put that behind them as they improved to 32-21.

Jrue Holiday provided good support with 22 points, five rebounds and two assists and Khris Middleton caught fire late to add 13 points and five rebounds.

 

Warriors win without All-Stars

The Golden State Warriors put aside the absence of All-Stars Stephen Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson as they beat the San Antonio Spurs 124-120. Jordan Poole starred with 31 points, six rebounds and five assists as Golden State won after a 35-16 fourth quarter rally.

The Chicago Bulls reinforced top spot in the east with a 126-115 victory over the Orlando Magic led by DeMar DeRozan with 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, while Zach LaVine chipped in with 26 points.

Karl-Anthony Towns (24 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) got the better of Nikola Jokic (21 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists)) as the Minnesota Timberwolves won 130-115 over the Denver Nuggets.

 

Harden shooting cools down

James Harden returned from a hand injury but went six-of-19 from the field and four turnovers as the Brooklyn Nets went down 121-111 to the streaking Phoenix Suns. Harden had 22 points and 10 assists while Kyrie Irving hit 26 points. Devin Booker scored 35 points while Chris Paul added 20 points with 14 assists.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic triumphed against Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Denver Nuggets routed the reigning champions Milwaukee Bucks 136-100 on Sunday.

Jokic almost recorded his 13th triple-double of the season, while he matched his season-high for assists with 13.

The Serbian had 18 points, nine rebounds and 15 assists for the Nuggets, while Aaron Gordon contributed a team-high 24 points including four triples as Denver dominated the second half 71-43 after leading by eight points at the long break.

Antetokounmpo, who won the 2019 and 2020 MVP awards, finished with 29 points but only managed seven in the second half. The Greek forward also had nine rebounds and two assists.

Khris Middleton was kept quiet offensively with nine points, five rebounds and seven assists while Jrue Holiday added 14 points, five rebounds and eight assists.

The Nuggets improve to 28-21 overall aided by a five-game win streak, including four on the road, while the Bucks slip to 31-21.

 

Suns fight back for 10 straight

The table topping-Phoenix Suns overturned a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to clinch their 10th straight win, beating the San Antonio Spurs 115-110. Devin Booker top scored with 28 points including four three-pointers, while Chris Paul was exceptional with 20 points, eight rebounds and a season-high 19 assists.

Trae Young starred with 36 points and 12 assists as the Atlanta Hawks extended their winning streak to seven games with a 129-121 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, who were without LeBron James for the third straight game with a knee soreness. Malik Monk scored 33 points for the Lakers.

Luka Doncic recorded a triple-double with 34 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists but the Dallas Mavericks lost 110-108 to the Orlando Magic, while 2021 top draft pick Cade Cunningham claimed a second career triple-double in the Detroit Pistons' 115-105 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

 

Jazz starter suffers worrying injury

Utah Jazz swingman Joe Ingles went down with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter of their 126-106 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz confirmed Ingles will undergo an MRI in Salt Lake City on Monday.

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