The Milwaukee Bucks have been the regular season pacesetters in the NBA's Eastern Conference in recent seasons, but they sit third heading into the closing stages of the 2020-21 campaign.

It is the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets who instead lead the way, tied with 39-20 records - 2.5 games clear of Milwaukee.

Yet the Sixers had first place outright prior to Thursday's game against the Bucks in which they failed to recover from a tough first quarter.

Philly do not have to wait long for revenge, though, with the two teams meeting once more at Fiserv Forum on Saturday.

MVP challenges are on the line as well as seedings in the East as two potential title contenders get prepared to go again.

TOP PERFORMERS

Joel Embiid - Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid was the MVP favourite until a knee injury at the start of March that forced him to miss almost a month of action.

He was averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and the 76ers had a 24-7 record with him on the floor. They were 2-5 in the seven games Embiid missed prior to his extended lay-off.

The center returned earlier this month, seemingly with enough time to wrestle the top individual award back from Nikola Jokic, and he has since averaged 30.1 points, missing only a single game.

But the Sixers have now lost three in a row and Embiid's hopes appear to be fading after he was outshone by the reigning MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo - Milwaukee Bucks

It does not appear there will be a third MVP win in a row for Antetokounmpo after his momentum was checked by sitting six straight games.

But the 'Greek Freak' was back to his best against the 76ers, scoring a game-high 27 points, and can focus instead on a first title triumph in the postseason.

And Antetokounmpo feels playing a fellow challenger again on Saturday "prepares you for the playoffs".

"Playing teams back to back is awesome," he said.

"On Saturday, they're going to come out and they're going to play harder, they're going to try to execute. We've got to do the same. We've got to do exactly the same."

KEY BATTLE - SLOW START CAN SINK SIXERS

For the 76ers, "playing harder" will have to start from the tip-off. Their 14-point first-quarter deficit proved too significant against such a talented team.

As the Sixers missed one of the best defensive players in the league in Ben Simmons due to illness, Milwaukee firmly had the upper hand early on.

Philadelphia had no answer as they allowed 40 points, their second-worst mark in a first quarter this year. This came as the Bucks shot at 73.7 per cent from the field through 12 minutes, the best rate among the Sixers' 2020-21 opponents.

Jrue Holiday, a star on both ends, had seven of his 12 points in the first three minutes alone.

"That first quarter, they get every shot they wanted," Doc Rivers said. "We didn't offer any resistance."

HEAD TO HEAD

Thursday's game was the teams' second this season and the second Milwaukee victory after they won in overtime in March, again led by Antetokounmpo (32 points, 15 rebounds).

Antetokounmpo has averaged 20.8 points for his career but 22.6 against the 76ers, against whom he boasts a 19-5 record and posted a career-high 52 in 2019.

The Bucks have a 113-102 lead over Philadelphia all-time in the regular season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo felt the Milwaukee Bucks were "locked in" from the start after recording a fourth successive win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Bucks scored 77 points in the first half before holding off a 76ers fightback to triumph 124-117 in a battle between two of the leading contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Antetokounmpo led the way with 27 points, though the two-time NBA MVP had plenty of help from his colleagues. Khris Middleton had 24 points while Bobby Portis contributed 23 off the bench.

Milwaukee landed 20 of their 40 three-point attempts as a team, though Antetokounmpo was just as impressed with their efforts when not in possession of the ball.

"Guys were finding open guys, getting downhill, knocking down shots. Everybody set the tone from the start," Antetokounmpo told the media.

"From the start, you could see that everyone was locked in. Defensively also, we really seemed locked in.

"Offensively, we found one another and knocked down shots."

Joel Embiid had 24 points for the 76ers, though he landed just nine of his 21 shot attempts - including going 0-for-4 from three-point range.

Antetokounmpo praised the work done by Milwaukee center Brook Lopez when going up against Embiid, with the Bucks happy to let the MVP candidate take jump shots rather than work closer to the basket.

"Embiid is a great player, he's been playing well all season long," Antetokounmpo said.

"You've got to live with that jump shot. You don't want to send him to the free-throw line and you don't want him to get downhill, with his right hook, and get an easy lay-up.

"The gameplan was good - he was going to shoot his jump shot all night. If he makes it all night? Great. But if you don't make it, it's good for us.

"Brook did a great job on him, but he [Embiid] is a great player too."

Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers felt his team - still without Ben Simmons due to an unspecified illness - paid the price for a slow start, insisting his team were "soft" defensively to allow Milwaukee to open up a commanding lead.

The 76ers hit back as they held their opponents to just 16 points in the fourth quarter, though in the end the gap proved just too big.

"Everybody seemed fatigued, not just Joel, I would love to say Joel played better than most of our guys tonight," Rivers said.

"I just felt like we were late on everything. We were soft tonight defensively. That first quarter, they get every shot they wanted. We didn't offer any resistance."

Los Angeles Lakers superstar Anthony Davis made his long-awaited return but the reigning NBA champions lost 115-110 to the Dallas Mavericks.

Davis had been sidelined since February 14 due to tendinosis and a calf strain in his right leg – the eight-time All-Star missed 30 games, the longest injury absence of his nine-year career.

But Davis stepped back onto the court on Thursday, finishing with four points on just two-for-10 shooting, four rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal in 17 minutes.

The Lakers – still without superstar LeBron James (ankle) – were led by Dennis Schroder (25 points and 13 assists), Andre Drummond (14 points and 19 rebounds) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (29 points) but fell short in Dallas.

Luka Doncic fuelled the Mavericks with 30 points, nine rebounds and eight assists.

 

Giannis tops Embiid and 76ers

Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 27 points on eight-for-15 shooting, 16 rebounds and six assists as the Milwaukee Bucks took down the slumping Philadelphia 76ers 124-117. It was his 41st 25/15/5 game, the most by a Bucks player since the three-point era (1980). No other Buck has more than four in that span. Milwaukee used a 40-26 opening quarter to hand the Eastern Conference-leading 76ers a third consecutive defeat. Joel Embiid had 24 points for the visiting 76ers.

The Boston Celtics upstaged the high-flying Phoenix Suns 99-86. Kemba Walker was inspirational, shooting 11-for-17 from the field for a game-high 32 points. Boston have won seven of their last eight games, beating Phoenix, the Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, New York Knicks and Lakers.

Zion Williamson showcased his efficiency in the New Orleans Pelicans' 135-100 victory against the lowly Orlando Magic. The former number one pick had 23 points in 23 minutes on nine-for-12 shooting, while he made all five of his free-throw attempts.

 

Oh no, Okeke

It was a forgettable outing for Chuma Okeke and the Magic, who dropped their fourth straight game as they lost for the 23rd time in 28 appearances. In 29 minutes, Okeke made just one of his 12 field-goal attempts. He was 0-for-four from three-point range in a four-point performance.

Jalen McDaniels was just as bad for the Charlotte Hornets, tallying a mere three points on one-for-eight shooting as his team suffered a 106-91 defeat to the Chicago Bulls.

 

Satoransky slam!

There was no stopping Chicago's Tomas Satoransky as he powered his way to the rim emphatically in the fourth quarter.

 

Thursday's results:

Boston Celtics 99-86 Phoenix Suns
New Orleans Pelicans 135-110 Orlando Magic
Milwaukee Bucks 124-117 Philadelphia 76ers
San Antonio Spurs 106-91 Detroit Pistons
Chicago Bulls 106-91 Charlotte Hornets
Dallas Mavericks 115-110 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Celtics at Nets

The Celtics (32-27) will make the trip to face the Brooklyn Nets (39-20) on Friday. Brooklyn have the chance to reclaim the top seed in the Eastern Conference after Philadelphia's loss.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was listed as available for the Milwaukee Bucks' matchup with the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday after missing the previous six games.

The two-time NBA MVP has not played since matching his season high with 47 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 2.

Antetokounmpo's absence due to knee soreness appears to have ended his hopes of claiming the MVP award for a third straight year, with Nikola Jokic meanwhile continuing to impress and Joel Embiid returning from injury.

But the Bucks will be delighted to have their talisman back out on the floor when they face the in-form Hawks.

The 'Greek Freak', who had never previously missed more than two consecutive games in his NBA career, leads Milwaukee with 28.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists this season.

While Antetokounmpo was out, the Bucks went 3-3, although they remain third in the Eastern Conference with a 34-20 record.

Thursday's opponents Atlanta are now fourth after a run of seven wins in eight games.

Zion Williamson underlined his status as the emerging star of the NBA with a dominant display in the New Orleans Pelicans' 101-94 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday.

The 2019 number one draft pick had a career-best 15 rebounds along with 37 points and eight assists as the Pels turned to him in Lonzo Ball's absence.

Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said: "We decided we'd play him at the point all night. He had the ball in his hands all the time and the ability to make plays.

"Had we shot decently he would have finished with double figure assists too. He played the game the way you're supposed to play the game. He was incredible tonight."

Joel Embiid was kept quiet by Steven Adams, managing only 14 points and nine rebounds for the 76ers who are behind the Brooklyn Nets in the East with a 35-17 record.

The Los Angeles Clippers blew the Houston Rockets away with a 41-10 second quarter in a 126-109 victory with Kawhi Leonard top scoring with 31 points, along with five rebounds and eight assists.

The win improves the in-form Clippers' record to 36-18 having now won four in a row and 10 of their past 12.

The Milwaukee Bucks lost again without Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday, but coach Mike Budenholzer believes the two-time MVP's absence can benefit his team.

The Bucks completed a six-game road trip against the Dallas Mavericks, going down 116-101 at American Airlines Center.

Antetokounmpo featured in the first three of those games, yet he missed the next three after scoring a season-high 47 points against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The 'Greek Freak' leads Milwaukee in points (28.8), assists (6.2) and rebounds (11.4) per game, while also contributing 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals.

Knee soreness is impacting Antetokounmpo's bid for a third straight MVP triumph, but it is also hindering the Bucks. The team are 29-16 when their superstar plays but just 3-3 without him.

Milwaukee were not helped against the Mavs by poor shooting displays from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, their second and third men.

Middleton was an alarming 6-for-27 from the field for 14 points – 22.2 per cent, his second-worst outing of the year – as Holiday, who signed a lucrative contract extension last week, was 6-for-16 for 13 points.

Budenholzer acknowledged both players must perform better as he suggested the Bucks needed to adapt to playing when Antetokounmpo is not on the floor.

The 26-year-old forward played just 30.4 minutes per game last season when Milwaukee led the East, but he has been relied on for 34.0 minutes in 2020-21.

"The guys are getting more opportunities," Budenholzer said. "There's a little bit more of a load on both Jrue and Khris. I think they're learning to take that.

"We didn't make enough shots tonight; Khris, Jrue didn't make enough shots. We're getting better. We'll learn from these things.

"Playing without Giannis, he can't play 48 minutes, so I think there's going to be good stretches for us when Giannis doesn't play and we'll grow from these experiences playing without him."

While the Bucks struggled without their big name, Dallas got 27 points, nine assists and nine rebounds from Luka Doncic.

But the Slovenian also earned his 12th technical foul of the season. That tally has steadily increased over his NBA career – five in his rookie year, nine last year – and he is now just four shy of a one-game suspension.

"He's aware," coach Rick Carlisle said. "My level of concern is there. But look, he's an emotional competitor. It all comes from the right place.

"He's smart, he knows where the count is. If he's going to get his 16th, he'll get it in a situation where it's time for a day of rest anyway. I'm not really that worried about it."

It was a big win for the Mavs, who returned to winning ways after a shock defeat to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday ended a run of five successive victories since Doncic returned from a short lay-off due to illness.

"This was a playoff-type game [against the Bucks], playoff-calibre in terms of intensity and competitiveness and the talent on the floor," Carlisle said. "We did a much, much better job, top to bottom, than we did last night."

Dallas also got 26 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks out of Kristaps Porzingis. Eleven of his points came in the fourth quarter on 4-for-4 shooting after failing to attempt a single field goal in the final 12 minutes against the Rockets.

Porzingis said of his relationship with Doncic: "We're trying to play together and help each other. We want to win – at the end, we all want to win here.

"We have to keep playing, keep playing together, playing well and helping each other."

The Milwaukee Bucks dropped their second game without Giannis Antetokounmpo going down 116-101 to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA on Thursday night.

Mavs center Kristaps Porzingis dominated with 26 points including four three-pointers, along with 17 rebounds, with Slovenian guard Luka Doncic top scoring with 27 points.

The Bucks were without two-time MVP Giannis due to knee soreness, missing his third straight game as Milwaukee slipped to 32-19.

Milwaukee produced a 14-0 run in the third with Donte DiVincenzo scoring 22 points and Bobby Portis pulling down 14 rebounds but Dallas dominated the last quarter to take out the win.

The Los Angeles Lakers dropped another game without LeBron James and Anthony Davis as Jimmy Butler dazzled for the Miami Heat in a 110-104 victory.

Butler scored 28 points, with seven rebounds and five assists for Miami who trailed at the main break.

The Lakers have lost six of their past 10 matches with a 32-20 record and are fifth in the West.

 

Clippers blanket Suns, Jazz blow away Blazers

In a crucial clash in the West, the Los Angeles Clippers finished strong to edge the in-form Phoenix Suns 113-103 led by Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

George had 33 points including seven three-pointers, seven rebounds and three assists, while Leonard scored 27 points, with five rebounds and five assists.

New Clippers recruit Rajon Rondo added 15 points and nine assists off the bench too, as they improved to 35-18, with the Suns 36-15 after their eight-game winning run ended.

Donovan Mitchell scored 37 points as the ladder leading Utah Jazz blew away the Portland Trail Blazers with a 40-19 third quarter to win 122-103.

Jazz center Rudy Gobert had 20 rebounds along with his 18 points while Damian Lillard scored 23 points and had five rebounds and six assists for the Blazers.

The Chicago Bulls were too good for the undermanned Toronto Raptors 122-113 with Deadline Day additions Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis starring.

 

New Heat recruit hurt

Heat guard Victor Oladipo played 25 minutes and scored 18 points in their win over the Lakers but he went off late with an apparent left knee injury which will have Miami sweating on their new recruit.

 

 

Kawhi dunks on Suns

The commentators were left staggered when Leonard drove into the key and produced a massive right-hand dunk in the third of the Clippers win over the Suns.

 

Thursday's results

Chicago Bulls 122-113 Toronto Raptors
Miami Heat 110-104 Los Angeles Lakers
Cleveland Cavaliers 129-102 Oklahoma City Thunder
Dallas Mavericks 116-101 Milwaukee Bucks
Los Angeles Clippers 113-103 Phoenix Suns
Detroit Pistons 113-101 Sacramento Kings
Utah Jazz 122-103 Portland Trail Blazers

 

76ers in The Big Easy

Joel Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers (35-16) go to Zion Williamson's New Orleans Pelicans (22-29) looking to re-claim top spot in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo will miss another match for the Milwaukee Bucks after being ruled out of Thursday's game against the Dallas Mavericks with knee soreness.

The 26-year-old two-time NBA MVP has missed Milwaukee's past two games since scoring 47 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in Friday's win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

In Antetokounmpo's absence, the Bucks suffered a surprise loss to the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday and beat the Sacramento Kings by one point on Saturday.

The Bucks confirmed his absence for Thursday's game an hour ahead of tip-off as they look to improve from 32-18.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said on Tuesday: "He was warming up tonight and just felt it a little bit. Just made the decision that tonight was not a good night, it was a night he should be out."

Antetokounmpo has had an outstanding NBA season for the Bucks, averaging 28.8 points per game with a field goal percentage of 56.5.

He also has 6.2 assists per game and 11.4 rebounds per game this season.

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo will miss Tuesday's game against the Golden State Warriors due to knee soreness.

Antetokounmpo was initially listed as probable for the Warriors showdown after being ruled out of Saturday's one-point win over the Sacramento Kings.

But two-time reigning NBA MVP Antetokounmpo will sit out back-to-back games, the Bucks announced prior to tip-off.

Antetokounmpo has been averaging 28.8 points, 11.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game this season.

The Bucks (32-17) – eyeing their first championship since 1971 – have won three consecutive games to sit third in the Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks star Jrue Holiday has signed a lucrative four-year contract extension worth up to $160million with the NBA franchise.

The Bucks confirmed the deal on Sunday, with All-Star Holiday declining his player option for the 2021-22 season as part of the agreement.

Holiday's agent Jason Glushon told ESPN that the deal includes a player option for the fourth year in 2024-25 as the Bucks – chasing their first championship since 1971 – solidify their core of two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the former.

The Bucks acquired guard Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans via a four-team trade in November.

"I'm a Buck for life," Holiday said in a video via Milwaukee's Twitter account. "Just know that I'm glad to be a part of Bucks Nation. Let's do some big things, man. I'm really excited."

Holiday is averaging 17.0 points, 5.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.82 steals (second in the NBA) in 31.7 minutes per game this season.

In Holiday's 35 starts, the Bucks have tallied a 25-10 record. He is shooting a career-high 50.9 per cent from the field to go with 39.0 per cent from three-point range.

Holiday is one of four players in the NBA (Jimmy Butler, Nikola Jokic, Fred VanVleet) to be averaging at least 16.0 points, 5.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game in 2020-21.

"We are grateful for the time we've been able to spend learning about the Bucks organisation, our team and the greater Milwaukee community," said Jrue and Lauren Holiday.

"We appreciate how Jon [Horst], Coach Bud [Mike Budenholzer] and the entire staff, along with our team-mates and fans, have supported us since the trade to Milwaukee. We have a special group that wants to put in the work and compete for a championship every year.
 
"We look forward to working closely with our fans and the community, as well as continue to provide more opportunities and resources with our JLH Fund throughout Milwaukee. We're incredibly blessed to stay here, and we believe Milwaukee will be home for our family for many years to come."

Holiday holds career averages of 15.9 points, 6.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.5 steals in 751 career games (675 starts).

"Jrue is one of the top guards in the NBA and we are thrilled to sign him to this extension," said Bucks general manager Jon Horst. "Adding him to our team has made us better on both ends of the floor.

"He's an elite defender and an impactful offensive player with the ability to score, shoot and facilitate. Beyond basketball, Jrue and his wife Lauren have already demonstrated the real impact they're willing to make in our community through the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Fund."

The Golden State Warriors suffered a season-worst 53-point defeat at the hands of a rampant Toronto Raptors in the NBA on Friday night.

The Raptors led by as much as 61 points in the last quarter, threatening the NBA's all-time record win of 68 points when the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Miami Heat in 1991.

Pascal Siakam, on his 27th birthday, did plenty of damage with 36 points, seven rebounds and five assists as Toronto won the second and third quarters with a cumulative 81-30.

Toronto dominated Golden State without injured point guard Kyle Lowry with a foot infection too.

The Warriors' franchise record defeat is also 63 points, so some late points ensured they avoided further ignominy as they lined up without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.

"Without Steph and Draymond out there, I think we were a little bit rudderless when things went south," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

The Phoenix Suns also handed out a hiding, beating the Oklahoma City Thunder 140-103, with guard Devin Booker scoring another haul of 32 points.

The Suns have won five in a row and are firm in second in the West with a 34-14 record.

 

Giannis dominates the Blazers, Jazz on song

Giannis Antetokounmpo produced a massive 47-point performance as the Milwaukee Bucks flexed their muscle with a 127-109 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers, who have been in good form led by Damian Lillard, were humbled by the title contenders but Giannis played a major role.

The Greek forward scored 47 points and had 12 rebounds, while guard Jrue Halliday added 22 points and 10 assists to improve their record to 31-17.

Kyle Kuzma got 30 points as the Los Angeles Lakers claimed another win without LeBron James, getting past the Sacramento Kings 115-94.

The ladder leaders Utah Jazz made it eight wins in a row with a 113-106 victory over the Chicago Bulls led by Donovan Mitchell's 26 points, while Rudy Gobert had a double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds.

Jaylen Brown had 22 points and 11 rebounds in the Boston Celtics' 118-102 triumph over the Houston Rockets while Luka Doncic starred as the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 99-86.

 

Hornets stung by injury again

Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward suffered a foot sprain which will likely sideline him for a period in his side's win over the Indiana Pacers. He'd shot 13 points, had eight rebounds and six assists before being forced out of the game, joining LaMelo Ball in the Hornets injury ward.

 

Giannis joins Wilt in exclusive club

It's hard to go past Giannis, with his 47-point display making him the second player in league history to score 45-plus points while shooting 85 per cent or better from the field along with having 10 or more rebounds. Wilt Chamberlain is the other. Exclusive company.

 

Friday's results

Toronto Raptors 130-77 Golden State Warriors
Dallas Mavericks 99-86 New York Knicks
Boston Celtics 118-102 Houston Rockets
Charlotte Hornets 114-97 Indiana Pacers
Memphis Grizzlies 120-108 Minnesota Timberwolves
Atlanta Hawks 126-103 New Orleans Pelicans
Utah Jazz 113-106 Chicago Bulls
Milwaukee Bucks 127-109 Portland Trail Blazers
Los Angeles Lakers 115-94 Sacramento Kings
Phoenix Suns 140-103 Oklahoma City Thunder
 

 

Jazz and Magic

Several top sides are in action on Saturday including the leaders Utah Jazz (37-11) against the up-and-down Orlando Magic (17-31).

Wednesday's meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks should be one of the most mouth-watering contests of the NBA season.

But the allure of the matchup has been lost somewhat – the Lakers still without LeBron James because of an ankle injury and Anthony Davis due to a calf/Achilles issue that has kept him on the sideline since February.

As such, the Bucks, three games back of the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, will be the favourites against a Lakers team that stands as the fourth seed in the West.

However, the Lakers have shown fight in ending a four-game losing skid with back-to-back victories and recently added a two-time All-Star center to their roster.

Here, with the help of Stats Perform data, we look at the performers and the battles that will decide this marquee game.

TOP PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks - Giannis Antetokounmpo

The back-to-back MVP returned to something approaching his best in the Bucks' defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers last time out.

Coming off a nagging knee injury, Antetokounmpo dropped 32 points for Milwaukee, going 10 for 21 from the field and two of five from the three-point line.

It was his first 30-point game since the win over the Philadelphia 76ers on March 17 and served as an ominous warning to the under-strength Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers - Montrezl Harrell

Averaging 15.2 points for the season, Harrell has stepped it up in the absence of Davis and James.

He has put up 19.5 points per game across March. James (25) is the only Laker with a better average in that regard.

The former Clippers big man has produced seven 20-point games this month and may need an eighth to propel the Lakers to another victory without their two stars.

KEY BATTLE - CAN DRUMMOND BOOST LAKERS ON BOARDS

After reaching a buyout agreement with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Drummond signed with the Lakers with an eye on helping them retain the title by any means necessary.

"For me, I'm just here to help in any capacity," Drummond said on Monday. "I'm not here to do anything besides win."

"I'm just here to help in whatever capacity it may be. I'm not here to steal nobody's shine."

The center will primarily be asked to help the Lakers on the boards. Without LeBron and Davis, their rebounding has declined this month.

For the season, they are ninth in the NBA in rebounds per game with 45.2, but that number has tailed off to 43.5 in March, tied for 17th.

Frank Vogel has confirmed Drummond will start against Milwaukee, with the Lakers surely looking for the four-time rebounding leader to help them compete on the glass against a Bucks team second in the league with 48.2 rebounds per game.

HEAD TO HEAD

Having previously won six straight against the Lakers, the Bucks head into this potential Finals preview out to avoid a third consecutive defeat to Los Angeles, having come undone at the hands of James in their 113-106 loss back in January.

Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo missed Monday's clash with the Indiana Pacers due to a left knee sprain.

Two-time reigning NBA MVP Antetokounmpo sustained the injury during Saturday's 120-113 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

Antetokounmpo's status for Wednesday's showdown against Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics remains unknown.

"We'll see how he does this next day or two," said Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer prior to the Pacers matchup.

"We'll see how the next couple days go and we'll just kind of make decisions that are best for him.

"And keeping him really healthy, but there's no decisions regarding Wednesday as of now."

Antetokounmpo has been averaging 29.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game this season for the streaking Bucks, who had won six straight games before Monday's fixture.

Joel Embiid's injury last week appeared to clear a path for LeBron James to collect his fifth NBA MVP award.

Philadelphia 76ers big man Embiid - averaging 29.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, as well as 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals - had already missed seven games this season before he went down with a knee injury against the Washington Wizards.

But Los Angeles Lakers superstar James did not see his clear run at the league's top individual honour last long.

James, who has 25.9 points, 7.9 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game, has carried the Lakers in Anthony Davis' absence but faces his own spell on the sidelines after an ankle sprain on Saturday.

That setback, in a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, means this year's two leading MVP contenders face an uphill task to remain in contention as they sit out a key stretch of the regular season.

Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets center, appears the man most likely to profit and has quickly been installed as the bookmakers' favourite.

But with several twists already in the race to succeed back-to-back winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic's standing is not yet safe.

With the help of Stats Perform data, we run through four potential winners ahead of Sunday's action - including Denver's 'Joker'.
 

NIKOLA JOKIC

The case against Jokic earlier in the season was his displays had not been able to lift the Nuggets into serious contention in the West. With 13 wins in their past 18 games to improve to 25-16, that is no longer the case.

While team-mate Jamal Murray has not been able to consistently perform at the standard he set in the 2019-20 playoffs - averaging 26.5 points in the 'bubble' but 21.1 this season - Jokic has taken his game to another level.

The Serbian's stat line for the year - 27.0 points, 8.6 assists, 11.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals - has never previously been achieved in league history, nor has any player in the past attempted at least 30 field goals across a season while shooting 56.6 per cent from the field, 41.6 per cent from three and 86.6 per cent of free throws.

This is an unprecedented campaign.

DAMIAN LILLARD

Tied with Denver at 25-16 in the West are the Portland Trail Blazers. Considering CJ McCollum has only played 16 games and Jusuf Nurkic 12, that is a quite remarkable achievement, led, of course, by Lillard.

Understandably, Lillard's usage rate is at a career-high 33 per cent, but he is making the most of those extra touches. Only Bradley Beal (32.5) has outperformed his 30.6 points per game - another career benchmark - and the Blazers star leads the league with 1,225 total points. Of those, 136 have come in 'clutch' situations, again putting Lillard at the top of the standings.

Taking a break from Portland's playoff push, Lillard even preserved enough energy to score 32 points in the All-Star Game, just ahead of Team LeBron team-mate and rival Stephen Curry (28). An MVP triumph would certainly see Portland's finest emerge from the shadow of the Golden State Warriors great.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

Antetokounmpo beat James Harden to this award in 2018-19 and then LA's James last season, so a case of voter fatigue was always set to make him an unlikely winner for a third straight year, regardless of performances.

But with Embiid and James both hit by injuries, the 'Greek Freak' surely has to come into consideration. Once again, his numbers are seriously impressive.

The only man to outscore Lillard at the All-Star Game, putting up 35, Antetokounmpo is slightly down on last year's points (29.0 versus 29.5) and rebounds per game (11.7 versus 13.6) but has improved in all of the other key metrics with 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks.

The Milwaukee Bucks forward should be in the picture to retain both his MVP and Defensive Player of the Year titles.

JAMES HARDEN

Surely voters will not reward Harden in the year he forced his way out of the Houston Rockets? On performances alone, though, he deserves to be in the conversation.

The 2017-18 winner is not contributing the same number of points for the Brooklyn Nets as he was in Houston, but then his usage is down to 28.7 per cent for the year (28.1 in Brooklyn), by far the lowest it has been since the statistic was first tracked in 2014-15.

And Harden, still scoring an impressive 25.4 points since joining the Nets, is more than making up for this slight decline elsewhere.

So far the most prominent member of the team's 'big three', with Kevin Durant too often injured and Kyrie Irving absent for a spell, Harden leads the league in 2020-21 for assists (11.2) and is second for triple-doubles (11), making him an unpopular but worthy candidate.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he is happy the streaking Milwaukee Bucks are flying under the radar this season following their win over the San Antonio Spurs.

The Bucks extended their winning streak to six games after topping the Spurs 120-113 behind superstar Antetokounmpo's 26 points and joint career-high 15 assists on Saturday.

Milwaukee – Eastern Conference semi-finalists last season having fallen just short of the NBA Finals in 2018-19 – have won 11 of their last 12 games to be third in the standings this term.

Unlike the two previous seasons, the Bucks (27-14) have not dominated headlines, instead taking a backseat to the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers (29-13) and star-studded Brooklyn Nets (28-14) but that is the way Antetokounmpo likes it.

"We don't play for people to talk about us," two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo said after the game.

"I kind of like it. I just want to be left alone. I never liked bright lights. I never liked people talking about us. It just adds pressure to me and my teammates to come in and do what we do.

"I kind of like to be under the radar and we just come in, enjoy one another, enjoy playing basketball and we're just getting the job done.

"There's gonna be times they're gonna talk about us, there's gonna be times they're not gonna talk about us, but personally, as I said, I just like being under the radar."

Not since 1971 have the Bucks won the championship as Antetokounmpo added: "We're just gonna keep doing what we're doing. We just keep enjoying each other and keep playing to win games and playing the right way."

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