The Phoenix Suns extended their winning streak to 16 games on Saturday with a 113-107 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, who gave up 20 turnovers for the game.

The Nets coughed up 15 turnovers in the first half alone as the Suns claimed an early lead and were never headed, led by Devin Booker (30 points and four assists) and Chris Paul (22 points, eight rebounds and five assists).

James Harden managed a triple-double but it was far from his best game with seven turnovers while only scoring 12 points, going zero-of-four from beyond the arc. Harden also had 13 rebounds and 14 assists.

Kevin Durant top scored for the Nets with 39 points along with nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals but also had five turnovers.

The Suns can equal their franchise record winning streak when they face the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. Phoenix's 17-3 mark for the season is their best record through 20 games since 2004-05.

 

Embiid returns with a bang

Joel Embiid scored 42 points and had 14 rebounds on his return after nine games out due to COVID-19 protocols but could not lift the sliding Philadelphia 76ers to victory, going down 121-120 to the Minnesota Timberwolves in double over-time. Embiid had a shot to win the game but was blocked by Anthony Edwards on the buzzer.

Luka Doncic scored 33 points with 10 assists as the Dallas Mavericks were beaten 120-114 by the Washington Wizards with Bradley Beal hitting 26 points. The Wizards improve to 13-7.

Houston Rockets center Christian Wood had a huge game with 33 points and 16 rebounds as his side defeated the Charlotte Hornets 146-143 in over-time.

 

Randle loses his handle

Julius Randle only managed eight points, shooting three-of-14 from the field as the New York Knicks beat the Atlanta Hawks 99-90.

The recent history of the New York Knicks is littered with abysmal play, a never-ending coaching carousel and a general lack of excitement for a fanbase starved for a winner.

But all that can be forgotten now that Madison Square Garden is rocking again in support of a team on the rise with a chance to make noise in the NBA playoffs.

After ending a seven-year playoff drought in a surprising first season under head coach Tom Thibodeau in 2020-21, New York is eager for more and might have enough to warrant the newfound optimism surrounding the franchise.

While the Knicks' first postseason appearance since 2012-13 was a short one – a first-round loss to the Atlanta Hawks – it signalled a rebirth for a franchise that had a league-worst .330 winning percentage (184-374) during a run of seven consecutive seasons without playoffs from 2013-14 to 2019-20.

A 41-31 record last season was New York's best since they went 54-28 in 2012-13 and those 41 wins surpassed their total from the two previous campaigns combined (38-110). Maybe that record can be at least partly attributed to a fluky, COVID-19 riddled campaign where the Knicks caught opponents by surprise, but a 25-11 home record and a 25-17 mark against the Eastern Conference shouldn't be overlooked.

Thibodeau was clearly the main catalyst for the reversal, bringing his trademark defence to a team that ranked 17th in opponent scoring (106.1) the previous seven seasons before his arrival. In Thibodeau's first term at the helm, the Knicks led the NBA in that category (104.7) as well as opponent field goal percentage (44.0) and opponent three-point percentage (33.7). He was named NBA Coach of the Year for the second time (Chicago Bulls, 2011).

Besides the obvious difference in the on-court product, Thibodeau brought instant credibility to a franchise that employed six different coaches since the 2012-13 playoff appearance. His .587 career winning percentage (400-282) ranks seventh among active coaches (minimum 100 games).

While team defence and the superb play of Julius Randle carried the Knicks last season, an offensive injection was needed to take the next step.

Bringing in the starting backcourt of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier has made the Knicks a more dangerous perimeter shooting team after Atlanta exposed New York's glaring lack of scoring depth in the playoffs.

In the five-game loss to the Hawks, the Knicks failed to break 100 points in the final three games and shot just 39.8 percent from the field overall. That wasn't a surprise considering New York ranked 26th last season in scoring (107.0), 21st in field-goal percentage (45.6) and 21st in field goals made (847).

Walker is a four-time All-Star who has been one of the NBA's most consistent point producers over the past decade. The Charlotte Hornets' all-time leading scorer, Walker averaged at least 20 points in five straight seasons from 2015-16 to 2019-20 before slipping to 19.3 last season with Boston.

Fournier was acquired in a sign-and-trade with the Celtics after spending the bulk of his career with the Orlando Magic. He has shot at least 40 percent from three-point range in three separate seasons, including knocking down 41.3 percent last season with Orlando and Boston.

Fournier is averaging 13.8 points this season while connecting on 36.1 percent from downtown, starting all 12 games in the backcourt with Walker.

The three-point shot has become a much bigger part of the Knicks' arsenal compared to last season. After taking 30 three-point attempts per game last season, the Knicks have put up 38 threes per contest so far in 2021-22. That plus-eight increase is by far the biggest of any team this year with the Minnesota Timberwolves (6.8) coming next.

The volume of three-pointers has led to an offense that is averaging 110.8 points through 12 games this season, which is the seventh highest in the league. The last time New York averaged more than 110 points per game for a full season was the Patrick Ewing-led 1988-89 team (116.7).

Randle remains the leader and focal point for New York, emerging last season as an All-Star for the first time and winning the NBAs Most Improved Player award in a runaway. Randle set career highs last season in scoring (24.1), rebounding (10.2) and assists (6.0) and while his scoring has dipped to 21.9 this term, that is to be expected with more offensive options on the roster.

Still, Randle is one of five players this season leading their teams in points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game, along with Luka Doncic, Paul George, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Randle could become the first player in franchise history to lead the Knicks in points, rebounds and assists in two different seasons.

In just his third season with the Knicks, he already has 15 games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds. Only Ewing (148) and Carmelo Anthony (29) have more such games for the franchise since Ewing joined New York in 1985.

Randle's value to the Knicks was on display in last Friday's stunning comeback win at defending champions the Milwaukee Bucks. Randle outplayed two-time NBA MVP Antetokounmpo in the second half and finished with 32 points and 12 rebounds as New York overcame a 21-point deficit for a 113-98 win.

That marked the first time in franchise history that the Knicks overcame a 20-point deficit to record a double-digit victory since the NBA began tracking play-by-play in boxscores during the 1997-98 season.

Another key to that win was the stellar play of veteran guard Derrick Rose, who matched a season high with 23 points to go with eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and zero turnovers. He finished with a plus-31 for one of the best marks in the league this season and not far behind his league best-tying plus-34, accomplished in a 121-96 victory over Orlando on October 22.

Rose has played the role of super substitute this season, averaging 13.3 points while shooting 48.9 percent (22 for 45) on three-pointers while amassing a plus-95 rating that is tied for ninth in the NBA.

The Knicks nearly did it to Milwaukee again on Wednesday, erasing a 24-point deficit before falling short in a 112-100 loss. Walker and Fournier combined for just four points, but Rose and Immanuel Quickley totalled 40 off the bench to spark the comeback.

Bench scoring has been another key to New York's early season rise on offense. The Knicks rank sixth in the NBA in scoring from reserves (39.6), with Rose, Alec Burks and Obi Toppin the main contributors.

Quickley has come alive recently, looking more like the player he was last season. The second-year guard has averaged 12.3 points on 48.5 shooting in his past four games after scoring 5.3 in his first eight contests.

Getting the best version of Quickley would help ease the pressure on Walker and Rose and would go a long way toward keeping the veteran duo fresh for the second half of the season.

RJ Barrett has been limited to 30 points in his last three games after he reeled off five consecutive games of at least 20 points, matching the longest streak of his young career. During that stretch, the 21-year-old averaged 25 points on 51.7 percent shooting (45 for 87) and 5.8 rebounds while knocking down half his three-point attempts (16 for 32).

Barrett's continued evolution as a scorer and complement to Randle's power game will be key for the Knicks and the early returns are promising. After shooting 49.1 and 51.1 percent at the rim in his first two seasons, Barrett has raised that number to 57.6 this season as he learns how to finish at the hoop and maximise his considerable physical tools.

As necessary as the improved offense was, it has come at a cost on the opposite end.

New York ranks 22nd in scoring defence (109.6) and that doesn't sit well with Thibodeau, judging by his recent postgame comments. That needs to be cleaned up if the Knicks are to compete against the best teams in the east for the long run.

The Eastern Conference appears to be much improved this season, with top contenders Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Miami leading the way. Cleveland, Chicago and Washington seem to have made huge strides and the Knicks are also in that mix of potential playoff teams.

Only the most diehard Knicks fan would dare dream of a championship this season but it's not a joke anymore to suggest that just maybe there could be one on the horizon.

Derrick Rose said he is "playing with joy" after helping to spark a superb New York Knicks revival in their 113-98 defeat of defending NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday.

The Knicks were slow out of the blocks at Fiserv Forum and trailed 38-19 by the end of the first quarter in Milwaukee.

But New York came roaring back, with Julius Randle scoring 32 points and finishing with 12 rebounds, while RJ Barrett had 20 points.

Rose was also influential off the bench, putting up 23 points including 10 in a second quarter in which the Knicks outscored the Bucks 37-25, while he drained a crucial three-pointer in the third shortly after a Barrett lay-up had put the visitors in front.

"I'm playing with joy. It ain't happiness, it's joy," Rose said. "I feel happiness is temporary. Joy is everlasting.

"I've been through a lot. I'm in a great place and I'm on a very talented team. I don't have to score, I don't have to score 30 points. 

"I don't have that burden. I can go out there and play the game and try to affect the game by passing or just pushing the ball. So, I'm in a great place."

After being drafted first by hometown team the Chicago Bulls in 2008, Rose became the youngest MVP in 2011 at the age of 22.

However, a series of serious knee injuries hampered his progress and he left Chicago for an unsuccessful first stint with the Knicks in 2016 before also representing the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons.

Rose returned to New York in February and was a key reason for their run to fourth in the Eastern Conference last season. Now 33, he contested suggestions his performance against Milwaukee was "vintage".

"What's vintage about it? I wasn't shooting threes, not pulling off shots like I am now, if you want to say it, it's whatever," he said.

Randle had 16 points and eight rebounds in the first half and he hailed the character in the team to complete such a resounding comeback.

"It showed a lot about the character of our team," he said. "NBA games are long. What's special about our team is we fight. We have a lot of high character guys."

Head coach Tom Thibodeau hopes his side do not find themselves in such precarious positions too often, though credited the team for their resilient fightback.

"Obviously, you don't want to get down like we did, but we did," he said. "It's a long game. You've got to keep fighting and get it to a manageable number. 

"Once we got going a little bit and we made a couple hustle plays, it galvanised us and gave us energy."

Undeterred by a dreadful first quarter, the New York Knicks stormed back for a 113-98 road win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. 

Trailing the defending NBA champions 38-19 after the opening period, the Knicks found their rhythm behind Julius Randle's game-high 32 points. 

Derrick Rose came off the bench to score 23 and RJ Barrett added 22 for the Knicks as they improved to 6-3 overall and 4-1 on the road.

"Obviously, you don't want to get down like we did, but we did," Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters. "It's a long game. You've got to keep fighting and get it to a manageable number. Once we got going a little bit and we made a couple hustle plays, it galvanized us and gave us energy."

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 25 points and Grayson Allen 22 for the Bucks, but Milwaukee's other three starters combined for just 15 points as the champs shot 40.2 per cent from the field and were out-rebounded 59-37. 

The Bucks (4-5) have lost four of their last five games and are 1-4 at home. 

 

Clippers fight back to down Timberwolves

The Los Angeles Clippers mounted an impressive comeback of their own, trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves by 21 at one point before rallying for a 104-84 victory. Paul George had 21 points, 11 rebounds and four assists to lead the Clippers (4-4), while Karl-Anthony Towns had 20 points and eight rebounds for Minnesota (3-5).

Kevin Durant's 29 points and 10 rebounds lifted the Brooklyn Nets (6-3) to a 96-90 road win against the Detroit Pistons (1-8). First overall draft pick Cade Cunningham's shooting woes continued as he went six-for-17 from the field but the rookie led the Pistons with 17. 

Stephen Curry made just five of 15 shots from the field, all but two of those attempts coming from three-point range, but the Golden State Warriors (7-1) still rolled to a 126-85 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans (1-9) thanks to 26 points from Jordan Poole. 

 

Morant misfires in loss to Wizards

Ja Morant has been one of the NBA's most effective scorers so far this season but the Washington Wizards (6-3) shut down the Memphis star in a 115-87 rout of the Grizzlies (5-4). Morant entered the game averaging 27.0 points and shooting 52.2 per cent from the field but made just four of 17 shots Friday on the way to an 11-point night. 

Julius Randle, the NBA's Most Improved Player, has been handed a four-year, $117million extension with the New York Knicks.

CAA Sports, the agency which represents Randle, told ESPN of the deal on Thursday.

Randle earned individual recognition in an outstanding 2020-21 regular season, acknowledged as the Most Improved Player and also named to the All-NBA Second Team.

The 26-year-old averaged career-highs of 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game to lead the Knicks back to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, showing the greatest year-to-year improvement in win percentage in franchise history.

Randle supplied 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – as his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau.

His most prominent area of progress was from three-point range, up from 27.7 per cent shooting to 41.1. The Knicks were the most improved team in the NBA from deep.

Although Randle then averaged only 18.0 points in the playoffs, with 33.3 per cent three-point shooting, as the Knicks were dumped out by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, he was well worth a lucrative new deal.

 

And in agreeing terms now, rather than at the end of his existing contract in 2022, the 6ft 8in forward has granted the Knicks greater flexibility to continue to build a team around him.

No team in the league had more cap space heading into free agency this year than the Knicks, whose early moves saw a number of last year's key men return alongside Evan Fournier, the France international coming off a short stint with the Boston Celtics.

Wednesday then brought news of a deal to bring in Kemba Walker, who agreed a buyout with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Walker appears primed to start at point guard in an area the Knicks badly needed to improve, with Elfrid Payton eventually losing the faith of Thibodeau in the postseason after 13 minutes, one point and one assist.

It did not end as they might have hoped, but the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one to remember for the New York Knicks.

Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, even if a typically passionate crowd could not carry their team beyond the first round. The subsequent show of strength from the Atlanta Hawks – the fifth seeds behind the Knicks – should cast a 4-1 series defeat in a slightly different light, though.

And New York's progress under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle, can only encourage optimism. The 25.1 improvement in win percentage from the previous campaign (31.8 to 56.9) was the largest in the franchise's history.

But Thibodeau and the front office have work to do this offseason if they are to ensure the Knicks do not fall short when it really matters again next year.

Time to assess the franchise's situation with the campaign now over...

Randle raises the level

Well established as a leading defensive coach in the NBA, it came as little surprise that Thibodeau's influence was most clearly seen on that end of the floor. The Knicks had given up 112.3 points per game in 2019-20, ranking 18th in scoring defense. That improved to a league-best 104.7 last season.

 

On offense, though, Randle's ascension to All-Star selection and the fringes of the MVP debate made all the difference. The former Kentucky forward joined New York for the 2019-20 season and contributed 19.5 points per game – his total of 1,248 making up a team-high 17.9 per cent of the Knicks' points. Marcus Morris Sr (12.0 per cent) was the next most influential Knick despite leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after 43 games.

Pessimism at that stage was understandable. Randle had also scored the most points on his previous teams across the prior two years – the pre-LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers and a New Orleans Pelicans outfit Anthony Davis decided was not worth sticking around for – and neither of those came close to making the playoffs. It was a miserable trend that seemed certain to continue.

However, Randle was determined not to let that happen and put in the work to improve his game heading into the new season, focusing particularly on his three-point shooting. "Obviously, the big thing was the three," Thibodeau said in May. "It stood out right away during the summer, but you're in the gym where there's no defenders. It looked a lot better coming off his hand, the arc was better, and he looked real comfortable with it." The Knicks' leading scorer went from shooting 27.7 per cent from three the previous year to 41.1.

Randle's free-throw percentage also improved by nearly eight points to 81.1 per cent. "I thought he would have a good year, but I didn't see this level," his coach added.

While Randle's increased output (24.1 points per game) saw him supply 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – and his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent, he also provoked better performances from his team-mates.

"That was a big concern, the three-point shooting for our team," said Thibodeau. "Not only for Julius, but that was huge for him and our team. All the other guys put in the extra time as well. Julius set the tone for that. You see him work on it every day. He's in early, he stays late. He comes back at night, and we have a number of guys that do that. If you put the time into it, usually you’ll get a good result."

No team improved their accuracy from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Knicks, up from 33.7 to 39.2 per cent.

With increased options around him – including RJ Barrett shooting 44.1 per cent from the field and 40.1 per cent from three in his second year – Randle also had a career-high 6.0 assists per game. Of his 427 assists, 115 were for Barrett and 117 for Reggie Bullock. Considering he was assisted by Barrett on 68 occasions and then a further 55 from Elfrid Payton, Randle was involved in the Knicks' four most common assist-scorer combinations.

Following a narrow late-season defeat to the Lakers, Davis said of his former Pelicans team-mate: "I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while. He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

Julius just too important?

Of course, this reliance on Randle is all well and good so long as the former seventh overall pick is delivering. Worryingly, though, a debut postseason series prompted an apparent regression to the mean – or worse.

Although that three-point practice kept his shooting from dipping below 33.3 per cent from beyond the arc, Randle slumped to an alarming career low from the midrange, a miserable 14.7 per cent. He was also 44.4 per cent at the rim as the Knicks struggled to get points in the paint – Hawks center Clint Capela averaged a double-double for the series, his 13.4 rebounds including 10.4 on the defensive end – and ended up with just 18.0 points per game in 36.0 minutes, even as the usage rate ramped up even further to 31.8 per cent.

No team can afford for their superstar to go missing in the playoffs. Randle had posted 28, 44 and 40 in three wins over the Hawks in the regular season, but he was swiftly stifled in round one. Meanwhile, Trae Young, revelling in the role of villain in New York, established himself as one of the league's most exciting scorers.

Young's 29.2 points against the Knicks set the standard for his postseason as a whole, the Hawks beating the Philadelphia 76ers and only losing to the Milwaukee Bucks after their point guard was injured, having repeatedly risen to the occasion. The contrast with Randle was stark.

 

Randle had entered the playoffs all but certain to be the subject of a hefty contract offer from the Knicks one year out from unrestricted free agency. Now, that deal is not quite so secure, with the team perhaps pondering their options.

Big spenders or big savers

As in 2020-21, when Thibodeau and the front office chose not to gamble, the Knicks are set to have the most cap space in the NBA, projected at $51.3million. With money to spend in a big market, New York will – yet again – be the subject of speculation involving the league's top free agents heading into the new season, especially if a Randle deal is delayed.

This is a somewhat underwhelming free agency class, though, with two notable exceptions. Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul both have player options – the latter an interesting name given the Knicks' issues at point guard.

Thibodeau finally lost patience with Payton after 13 playoff minutes, one point and one assist, while Frank Ntilikina appeared fleetingly in three games. That meant Derrick Rose starting at the point; although he led the team with 19.4 points per game in the postseason, they lost all three of his starts and badly missed his consistent contributions from the bench. The trio are all on expiring contracts and only Rose is likely to be retained. It is a position that must be reinforced.

Despite their repeated attempts to strike a blockbuster deal, a move for Paul or similar would represent a step into the unknown. The Knicks are far more familiar with blooding draft picks and will hope Barrett (2019), Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (both 2020) will be boosted by getting a taste of the playoffs, albeit if the experience was brief.

Ideally, third-year center Mitchell Robinson would also have had that opportunity. He has the best career field-goal percentage on record among NBA players with 400 or more attempts all-time (70.5) but fractured his right hand in February and his right foot in March.

A rare watching brief

The free agency rumour mill might continue to churn, but Knicks fans have this year at least been spared the pain of sitting through another draft lottery.

While not be able to take Cade Cunningham, just as they were not able to select Zion Williamson in 2019, this time that is due to their own on-court achievements, rather than the luck of the draw. Two first-round picks – 19 and 21 – should still see New York able to bolster their roster.

Verdict: Evolution

Why would the Knicks do anything but build on the foundations of a popular, hard-working, fast-improving team? Whether Randle signs or not, whether a player like Paul can be tempted to MSG or otherwise, the bulk of this roster will remain the same. They have enough room under the cap to bring back a number of key pieces regardless of any expensive, eye-catching additional business.

A new man running point would allow Rose to return to leading the second unit. Another way to add scoring depth might see the arrival of a wing who can compete for minutes with Bullock, whose accuracy from the field, three-point range and the foul line tailed off in the postseason.

Up the middle, despite the team's struggles against Capela and Co, Robinson remains under a team option and both Nerlens Noel ($6m last year) and Taj Gibson ($1.7m) should be cheap and useful enough to return. In 1,547 regular season minutes, Noel had the third-best block percentage (8.7) and 23rd-best steal percentage (2.3) in the league.

New York may still be some way off contention, but this must be a patient process. Another playoff campaign should be regarded as a success, particularly if they can be more competitive. That will require tweaks, not a drastic overhaul.

Trae Young helped the Atlanta Hawks regain the advantage in their first-round series against the New York Knicks, who saw Julius Randle endure another playoff outing to forget in Game 3.

Point guard Young led his team with 21 points as all five of Atlanta's starters reached double figures in a 105-94 triumph on Friday.

His eight-for-19 shooting performance was supplemented by 14 assists, making the 22-year-old just the third player since the merger with 80 or more points and at least 30 assists in his first three career playoff games, a feat also achieved by Kevin Johnson and Chris Paul.  

"I feel like I've prepared my whole life for these days, these moments," Young said after helping his team go 2-1 up in the best-of-seven series in the Eastern Conference.

However, it was the defensive effort that was the bedrock for Atlanta's victory, including keeping the struggling Knicks to just 13 points in the second quarter.

The visitors were unable to claw back the deficit after trailing 58-44 at half-time, not aided by Randle remaining cold on offense.

The 26-year-old made just two of his 15 attempts in total, with both successes coming from beyond the arc. He became the first Knick to go 0-for-eight or worse on two-point shots in a playoff game since Patrick Ewing did so 27 years ago.

Randle is now shooting 20.6 per cent on two-pointers across the series, making just seven of his 34 tries. It is the lowest success rate in a three-game span by any player with that many attempts in the past 30 postseasons.

His meagre offensive output is in stark contrast to his efforts in the regular season: Randle averaged a career-high 24.1 points per game to help the franchise end an eight-year playoff drought, while he became an All-Star for the first time.

For Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, the key is reacting to the situation on each possession, particularly as Atlanta's ploy of sending two and three players at Randle is leaving others open elsewhere.

"They loaded up on him pretty good. When a team does that, when they put two or three guys on you, you've got to make the play," Thibodeau said in his post-game media conference.

"You've either got to get easy buckets in transition, or off drive-and-kick, you've got to keep moving around.

"He's seen a lot of that this year, but when you have a second and a third guy, that can make it tough. But that should lead to rebounding and open threes on the back side, so we've got to trust the pass."

He added: "The big thing is to get rid of the ball and make plays early. When you do that, you can usually get high-percentage shots. When you get the second defender on the ball, their responsibility is to get rid of it and make plays for their team-mates."

Game 4 of the series takes place in Atlanta on Sunday.

Trae Young helped the Atlanta Hawks regain the advantage in their first-round series against the New York Knicks, who saw Julius Randle endure another playoff outing to forget in Game 3.

Point guard Young led his team with 21 points as all five of Atlanta's starters reached double figures in a 105-94 triumph on Friday.

His eight-for-19 shooting performance was supplemented by 14 assists, making the 22-year-old just the third player since the merger with 80 or more points and at least 30 assists in his first three career playoff games, a feat also achieved by Kevin Johnson and Chris Paul.  

"I feel like I've prepared my whole life for these days, these moments," Young said after helping his team go 2-1 up in the best-of-seven series in the Eastern Conference.

However, it was the defensive effort that was the bedrock for Atlanta's victory, including keeping the struggling Knicks to just 13 points in the second quarter.

The visitors were unable to claw back the deficit after trailing 58-44 at half-time, not aided by Randle remaining cold on offense.

The 26-year-old made just two of his 15 attempts in total, with both successes coming from beyond the arc. He became the first Knick to go 0-for-eight or worse on two-point shots in a playoff game since Patrick Ewing did so 27 years ago.

Randle is now shooting 20.6 per cent on two-pointers across the series, making just seven of his 34 tries. It is the lowest success rate in a three-game span by any player with that many attempts in the past 30 postseasons.

His meagre offensive output is in stark contrast to his efforts in the regular season: Randle averaged a career-high 24.1 points per game to help the franchise end an eight-year playoff drought, while he became an All-Star for the first time.

For Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, the key is reacting to the situation on each possession, particularly as Atlanta's ploy of sending two and three players at Randle is leaving others open elsewhere.

"They loaded up on him pretty good. When a team does that, when they put two or three guys on you, you've got to make the play," Thibodeau said in his post-game media conference.

"You've either got to get easy buckets in transition, or off drive-and-kick, you've got to keep moving around.

"He's seen a lot of that this year, but when you have a second and a third guy, that can make it tough. But that should lead to rebounding and open threes on the back side, so we've got to trust the pass."

He added: "The big thing is to get rid of the ball and make plays early. When you do that, you can usually get high-percentage shots. When you get the second defender on the ball, their responsibility is to get rid of it and make plays for their team-mates."

Game 4 of the series takes place in Atlanta on Sunday.

The Philadelphia 76ers are on track to advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals after easing past the Washington Wizards in Game 2 of their NBA playoff matchup.

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid combined to guide the 76ers – eyeing a first championship since 1983 – to a 120-95 rout of the Wizards in Philadelphia on Wednesday.

All-Star pair Simmons and Embiid both posted 22 points apiece as the top-ranked 76ers claimed a 2-0 series lead midweek.

It was Simmons' fourth career 20-plus point playoff game and his first since 2019, while it was Embiid's seventh consecutive 20-plus point playoff performance, dating back to 2019 – the streak tied with Allen Iverson for the 10th longest in Philadelphia postseason history.

As for Philadelphia's Matisse Thybulle, he became the first player in NBA history with four steals and five blocks in 20 or fewer minutes of any game, regular season or playoffs.

The game was marred by an unruly fan showering popcorn on Wizards star Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook had to be restrained after a fan in Philadelphia dumped popcorn on the former MVP as he exited the court with a right ankle injury.

Washington's Westbrook – who finished with 10 points, 11 assists and six rebounds before appearing to roll his ankle inside the final 10 minutes – was left seething at Wells Fargo Center, where Bradley Beal led the Wizards with a game-high 33 points.

 

Morant makes history but Jazz bounce back

Ja Morant had 47 points – the most in franchise history – but the Memphis Grizzlies still lost 141-129 to the top-seeded Utah Jazz, who levelled the Western Conference opening-round series at 1-1. Morant's 47 points are the most in playoff history by a player aged under 22, while the Grizzlies sensation is the second youngest player in league history to score 45-plus points in a postseason contest (21 years and 289 days), only behind LeBron James (21 years and 124 days in 2006). Donovan Mitchell (25 points) fuelled the Jazz in his return from an ankle injury, while Mike Conley (20 points and 15 assists) and Rudy Gobert (21 points and 13 rebounds) contributed double-doubles.

The New York Knicks won their first playoff game since 2013 after rallying to beat the Atlanta Hawks 101-92 in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference battle. Julius Randle's 15 points and 12 rebounds helped the Knicks level the series, despite 30 points from Hawks star Trae Young. Derrick Rose led the Knicks with 26 points off the bench.

 

Milton in game to forget

Usually a reliable contributor, Shake Milton struggled in Philadelphia's victory. Milton ended the game scoreless on 0-for-six shooting. He also had two turnovers off the bench.

 

Gobert says no!

There was no way past Jazz All-Star Gobert, who produced a monster block to thwart the Grizzlies in the second quarter.

 

Wednesday's results

Philadelphia 76ers 120-95 Washington Wizards
New York Knicks 101-92 Atlanta Hawks
Utah Jazz 141-129 Memphis Grizzlies

 

Suns at Lakers

Defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers will welcome the Phoenix Suns to Staples Center in LA on Thursday, with the Western Conference series locked at 1-1.

Julius Randle's breakout season has been recognized after winning the NBA's 2020-21 Most Improved Player which was announced on Tuesday.

The 26-year-old power forward has played a key role in lifting the New York Knicks into the playoffs, with few expecting the franchise to reach the postseason, let alone claim fourth seed in the East.

Randle averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and six assists across 71 games this NBA season, ranking in the top 20 in all three categories. He set career highs in points and assists, equalling his career high for rebounds too.

In his second season with the Knicks, after earlier stints with the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angeles Lakers, he made a career-high 160 three-pointers, shooting at 40.1 per cent. He'd previously only made 168 three-pointers at 29.5 per cent across six seasons.

Randle, who was selected for the 2021 NBA All-Star Game for the first time, received 98 first-place votes and 493 total points from the panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters.

The NBA playoffs got off to a thoroughly entertaining start over the weekend, with road wins for the lower seed in four of the eight series.

Game 1 followed hot on the heels of the similarly dramatic play-in tournament, in which Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors agonisingly lost twice to miss out on qualifying for the postseason.

Curry is a proven performer in both the regular season and the playoffs, but the same does not apply to every elite player.

Some stars seem to go missing when the season is on the line, while others thrive under pressure, as we discover in our latest NBA Heat Check – now comparing the performances of the past week to the entirety of the 2020-21 regular season.

RUNNING HOT...

Luka Doncic

For the second straight season, the Dallas Mavericks are playing the Los Angeles Clippers in round one. And for the second straight season, the series is providing Doncic with a platform to show off his extraordinary talents.

Dallas are too often a one-man show, but the Clippers struggled to contain Doncic last year as he averaged 31.0 points across a debut series that his Game 4 overtime buzzer-beating three-pointer memorably levelled.

The Mavs were beaten in Game 5 and Game 6 in 2020 to depart the tournament, yet this time they have a lead after Doncic's 31-point, triple-double effort on Saturday. Only Michael Jordan has played seven or more playoff games and averaged greater than his 31.0 points per game (33.4).

And it was again the Slovenian's accuracy from beyond the arc that hurt the Clippers, as he made five threes for the first time in the playoffs – up on his season average of 2.9.

Goran Dragic

The Miami Heat made the NBA Finals last season but were hamstrung by an injury to Dragic in Game 1 of the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

That proved a telling blow, but Dragic is back at the fore in this year's playoffs despite a middling regular season in which he averaged 13.4 points per game.

An opening effort of 25 points helped keep Miami in contention against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1. Duncan Robinson chipped in with 24, too, shooting 53.8 per cent from three.

Dragic ranked fourth in the league last week in terms of scoring improvement (up 11.6 points on the regular season), with Robinson fifth (up 10.9). Robinson topped the list when it came to an upturn in three-point shooting, while Dragic was just behind. The pair could not be blamed for the Bucks' win.

GOING COLD...

Bam Adebayo

Adebayo certainly could be held responsible for Miami's early deficit, contributing a measly nine points on four-for-15 shooting.

The fourth-year center contributed 17.8 points per game in last year's playoffs, including 17.2 in the Milwaukee series, but he never got going on Saturday.

The decrease from Adebayo's regular season 18.7 average was the sixth-worst in the NBA and, to make matters worse for the Heat, superstar team-mate Jimmy Butler also turned in a concerning performance.

Butler finished with 17 points, yet he made only four of 22 field goal attempts while using 30.0 per cent of Miami's plays.

Chris Paul

Paul's poor game this weekend was the most understandable but also the most concerning. The veteran point guard took a blow to his shoulder in the Phoenix Suns' win over the Lakers and clearly moved uneasily thereafter.

"I heard like a crack or whatever," said Paul, whose ball handling was uncharacteristically clumsy as he was limited to seven points, down from a season average of 16.4 per outing.

It did not cost the Suns, but they will surely need Paul back fit and firing to beat the defending champions over a seven-game series.

Julius Randle

The New York Knicks would not be back in the playoffs if not for Randle's outstanding season in which he played the most minutes in the entire league (2,667) and recorded 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

But his belated playoff debut at Madison Square Garden saw a significant step back as Randle's six-for-23 shooting from the field – or 26.1 per cent – allowed the Atlanta Hawks to steal a road game.

The Knicks are built on hard graft rather than superstar talent, but they cannot afford for their All-Star to misfire so drastically.

Anthony Davis revealed he was dealing with groin tightness as the Los Angeles Lakers scraped past the New York Knicks for a big overtime win on Tuesday.

Davis missed more than two months with an Achilles issue but has crucially featured in all 11 games since his return last month, helping a Lakers team hit by a number of injuries.

LeBron James remained out – instead an active cheerleader on the sidelines – as the defending champions defeated the Knicks 101-99 at Staples Center.

Davis had 20 points but was clearly moving uneasily in the closing stages. He stayed in the game, though, with 43 minutes his most since early February.

"I'm hurting," he said afterwards. "There's nothing worse on my body, just my groin got tight. That was really it, I'm not sure where it came from, but my groin got a little tight.

"There was no way I was coming out of the game. It was a big game for us. The team was playing real hard, the situation that we're in, trying to battle for the six.

"It was a big game for them, trying to battle for fourth, trying to keep that fourth seed – I think they might be sixth now after the loss, I'm not sure.

"It was a huge game for us and I didn't want to come out, no matter injury, and finish the game and make sure we secure the win."

The Lakers are quickly back in action against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday and in need of another victory, still sitting seventh in the West – in an unwanted play-in place – but now just 1.0 games back from fifth.

"I'm not sure about tomorrow. I'm going to get treatment and see how I feel," Davis said. "I want to say I'm going to play, but it was really bothering me tonight.

"We'll see how I feel tomorrow and then later on in the day.

"There's a very strong possibility that I fight through it and play since the next day's an off day, but also I don't want to have it lagging and then I'm out for a couple of games. We'll see how I feel."

Regardless of Davis' status, there is the possibility James returns against the Rockets.

Having won back-to-back games for the first time since late March, the Lakers could now have some momentum heading into the postseason.

"It's good. It's a confidence booster for us," Davis said. "We've been playing well as of late.

"If [James] comes back tomorrow, we can get him back acclimated with the team and get him back in the rhythm. If he doesn't then he doesn't, but we want him to get healthy first and foremost, get ready for the playoffs.

"I'm not sure what he's going to do – that's none of my business, I just want him to get health – but my job is just to come out here and help this team.

"If he is able to come back tomorrow, it's our job to get him back into a rhythm to get him ready for playoff mode, which we know he'll be ready for."

Talen Horton-Tucker hit the game-winning three among eight overtime points, but the Lakers only reached that stage thanks to Davis' suffocating defense.

The Knicks had the lead and the ball in the final 30 seconds of regulation, only for Davis to brilliantly stop All-Star Julius Randle (31 points) and force a shot-clock violation.

"Julius, that's my guy," said the Lakers superstar, who guarded Randle throughout the closing stages. "I played with him in New Orleans and he's definitely developed his game, with his shooting ability and off the dribble.

"That last possession, I just had to lock in defensively and make sure that he wasn't going to score to help the team.

"I feel like I made him hit the three with my contest at the end [in overtime] – he shot it a little higher than normal.

"He's been playing like this all year. I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while.

"He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

Julius Randle is proud of the way he has followed Kobe Bryant's example with his work ethic to help lead the New York Knicks to fourth in the Eastern Conference.

The Knicks beat the Toronto Raptors 120-103 on Saturday to stretch their winning run to nine in a row.

The team have had seven straight losing seasons, missing the playoffs every year since 2012-13, but are now 34-27 and firmly back in contention to make the postseason.

As all season, Randle was the Knicks' standout performer against the Raptors, scoring 31 points to improve his average for the year to 24.0. He also has 10.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in 2020-21.

This form earned All-Star recognition and could yet see Randle selected to an All-NBA team.

Such a turnaround could hardly have been expected for a player who had averaged 16.1 points per game for his career since he was selected seventh overall in 2014 by Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers superstar's late-career industry rubbed off on Randle, though, with the forward improving this year under Tom Thibodeau, who compared Randle to Knicks great Patrick Ewing.

"That's amazing," Randle said of Thibodeau's comments. "I've actually asked him to talk about that before. He gave me an insight because he saw it first-hand.

"I'm proud of myself for my work ethic. The greats have done it before.

"The guy that I idolised the most and looked up to - which is Kobe - his work ethic was top notch. Nobody was better at putting the time in.

"So, like I say, I'm proud of myself for my work ethic in terms of how I prepare myself to get ready for a season, how I prepare myself to get ready for games."

Thibodeau said: "It always starts with your best players. If they work like that, it sets the tone for the team.

"[Randle] is relentless. It's not an accident that he's having the type of season that he’s having.

"His commitment, I could see it from the first day I met him, just looking at the type of conditioning he had, how committed he was to turning this thing around.

"I can recall back in the '90s, when I first arrived here as an assistant, the thing that blew me away was Patrick Ewing, every morning in the offseason, he was the first guy in the building, worked like crazy, got himself ready, and the rest of the team did the same.

"I think that's leadership. It's not what you say, it's what you do. When you see an example like that, it gives you confidence and gives the team confidence."

This is now the Knicks' longest sequence of wins since 13 straight across March and April 2013, yet Randle is not content.

"We're peaking, but we can still get a lot better," he said.

"Offensively we're playing well, but defensively, for a full 48 minutes, I feel like we can be a lot better."

Joel Embiid almost pulled off a miracle on the buzzer as the Philadelphia 76ers went down 116-113 to the Phoenix Suns in the NBA on Wednesday night.

The 76ers, top of the East, hosted the Suns, second in the West, and Phoenix appeared home when up by six points with 13 seconds to play.

But Philadelphia stayed alive after Furkan Korkmaz's three-pointer, before Chris Paul missed a free-throw, with Embiid grabbing rebound and firing off a long-range shot immediately which came remarkably close only to rim out.

Earlier, Embiid had scored 38 points and collected 17 rebounds for the 76ers, while Suns guard Paul had 28 points and eight assists.

The Suns improve to 41-16 while the 76ers are 39-18 but remain top in the Eastern Conference after the Brooklyn Nets lost 114-103 to the Toronto Raptors.

Still missing their star pair Kevin Durant and James Harden, the Nets relied on Kyrie Irving with 28 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.

However, the Raptors all contributed led by Pascal Siakam with 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists, as they reeled in a 36-23 quarter-time deficit to win by 11.

 

Curry streak ends, Knicks streak extends

Stephen Curry's 11-game streak of 30-plus points came to an end at the hands of the Washington Wizards who won over the Golden State Warriors 118-114.

Russell Westbrook produced another triple-double with 14 points, 10 assists and an outstanding 20 rebounds, while Bradley Beal had 29 points. Curry could only manage 18 points for GSW.

On the topic of streaks, the New York Knicks extended their winning run to seven games with a 137-127 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks after Bogdan Bogdanovic forced over-time with a clutch three.

Julius Randle was exceptional with 40 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, including six three-pointers, while the Hawks lost Trae Young to a sprained left ankle.

The Utah Jazz reinforced top spot in the Western Conference with a comfortable 112-89 win over the Houston Rockets with Rudy Gobert having 19 points and 18 rebounds.

The Los Angeles Clippers kept up the pressure with a 117-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, with shooting guard Luke Kennard adding 28 points and seven rebounds.

 

 

Curry covered at every turn

Curry was not afforded any time or space against the Washington Wizards and subsequently shot two-from-14 beyond the arc.

 

OMG from OG

Up by two in the third, OG Anunoby made a big statement for the Toronto Raptors with a block down one end and then a monster right-hand dunk over Joe Harris after Fred VanVleet's assist down the other in the same play.

 

Wednesday's results:

Toronto Raptors 114-103 Brooklyn Nets
Indiana Pacers 122-116 Oklahoma City Thunder
Washington Wizards 118-114 Golden State Warriors
Phoenix Suns 116-113 Philadelphia 76ers
Cleveland Cavaliers 121-105 Chicago Bulls
Utah Jazz 112-89 Houston Rockets
New York Knicks 137-127 Atlanta Hawks
Miami Heat 107-87 San Antonio Spurs
Dallas Mavericks 127-107 Detroit Pistons
Denver Nuggets 106-105 Portland Trail Blazers
Sacramento Kings 128-125 Minnesota Timberwolves
Los Angeles Clippers 117-105 Memphis Grizzlies

 

76ers at Bucks

Joel Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers (39-18) will look to bounce back from Wednesday's loss to the Phoenix Suns when they travel to Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks (35-22) in a bumper East clash.

Julius Randle produced another inspiring performance as the streaking New York Knicks topped the New Orleans Pelicans 122-112 in overtime.

Knicks All-Star Randle posted 33 points and 10 assists to lead the New York franchise to their sixth successive NBA win on Sunday.

Randle recorded his fourth consecutive game with at least 30 points, becoming the first Knicks player since Carmelo Anthony in 2014 to accomplish the feat.

Reggie Bullock nailed a three-pointer for the Knicks with 2.3 seconds remaining in regulation before the home team outscored Zion Williamson's Pelicans 19-9 in OT at Madison Square Garden.

Derrick Rose scored a season-high 23 points for the Knicks, who are in the midst of their longest winning streak since 2013-14 as they eye their first playoff appearance since 2013.

Williamson's 34 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals were not enough for the visiting Pelicans.

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant suffered a left thigh contusion in the Brooklyn Nets' 109-107 loss away to the Miami Heat.

Durant – who only returned from a 23-game injury absence this month – left the game in the opening quarter, having gone three-for-three shooting to finish with eight points in four minutes.

Bam Adebayo (21 points and 15 rebounds) lifted the Heat with his buzzer-beating jump shot.

 

Hawks soar past Pacers

Clint Capela (25 points and 24 rebounds) and Trae Young (34 points and 11 assists) helped the Atlanta Hawks power to a 129-117 victory against the Indiana Pacers. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter contributed 23 points each for the Hawks, who have won eight of 10 games and are 17-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillan.

Kawhi Leonard returned from a four-game absence, tallying 15 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Los Angeles Clippers' 124-105 success at home to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Chris Boucher put up 31 points and 11 rebounds for the Toronto Raptors, who downed the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder 112-106 for a third consecutive win. Oklahoma City's Aleksej Pokusevski (six) became the first Thunder rookie with five-plus blocks in a game since Serge Ibaka in 2010.

The Charlotte Hornets snapped a four-game skid behind Terry Rozier as his 34 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds saw off the Portland Trail Blazers 109-101.

De'Aaron Fox's 30 points and 12 assists guided the Sacramento Kings to a 121-107 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas All-Star Luka Doncic finished with a game-high 37 points.

 

Thunder continue to be silenced

The Thunder are now in the midst of a season-worst losing streak of 10 games after losing to the Raptors.

Josh Richardson struggled again for the Mavericks. He was just three-for-nine shooting, while making only one of his five three-point attempts for seven pints. Mavericks team-mate Tim Hardaway Jr. (eight points) finishing two-for-10 shooting.

 

Bridges goes bang!

Miles Bridges is becoming known for his slam dunks. The Hornets star produced another memorable dunk in the second quarter.

 

Sunday's results

Atlanta Hawks 129-117 Indiana Pacers
New York Knicks 122-112 New Orleans Pelicans (OT)
Miami Heat 109-107 Brooklyn Nets
Charlotte Hornets 109-101 Portland Trail Blazers
Houston Rockets 114-110 Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors 112-106 Oklahoma City Thunder
Los Angeles Clippers 124-105 Minnesota Timberwolves
Sacramento Kings 121-107 Dallas Mavericks

 

Warriors at 76ers

Red-hot Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors (28-29) visit the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers (39-17) on Monday. The 76ers have won four straight games.

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