Nikola Vucevic was tasked with dominating the middle against the depleted Indiana Pacers and the Chicago Bulls center was up to the task.

Vucevic earned a 29th double-double of the season, scoring a season-high 36 points and adding 17 rebounds as the Bulls earned a 122-115 triumph on Friday.

DeMar DeRozan contributed 31 points to the cause against a Pacers side devoid of Goga Bitadze, Malcolm Brogdon, Isaiah Jackson, T.J. McConnell, Myles Turner and T.J. Warren due to injuries, while Domantas Sabonis is unavailable due to health and safety protocols.

The Bulls consequently remain top of the Eastern Conference after winning for the fourth time in six outings, with Vucevic going 16 of 21 from the field.

In credit to the Pacers, they were only trailing 65-62 at halftime and briefly led when Lance Stephenson landed a three-pointer with a little under three minutes of the third quarter remaining, but a 10-0 stretch in the fourth ensured the Bulls were in control.


Mitchell return inspires Jazz against out-of-sorts Nets

Donovan Mitchell missed eight straight games as a result of a concussion but made up for lost time as the Utah Jazz, fourth in the West, outclassed the out-of-form Brooklyn Nets 125-102.

Mitchell ended the game with 27 points on the back of eight-for-10 shooting, while he drained six three-pointers and added six assists in 22 minutes of action. His tally was a franchise record for most points scored under 22 minutes.

Bojan Bogdanovic was a valuable ally with 19 points and 11 rebounds, as the Nets were consigned to a seventh consecutive defeat.

James Harden (hamstring), Kevin Durant (knee), LaMarcus Aldridge (ankle) and Joe Harris (ankle) were all again absent for a Nets team who have plummeted to sixth in the East.


Doncic triple-double sparks Mavs comeback

Not for the first time in his career, Luka Doncic was the hero for the Dallas Mavericks as they overturned a 16-point second-quarter deficit to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers 107-98.

Doncic earned a 44th career triple-double, finishing with 33 points, 13 rebounds and 15 assists in a game that was paused for 44 minutes during the opening period after it was ruled one of the rims was crooked.

Reggie Bullock made a pair of big three-pointers down the stretch in a 20-point showing, while Jalen Brunson put up 19.

The Mavs snapped a two-game losing streak, while the 76ers - for who Joel Embiid had 27 points and 13 rebounds - have lost two on the spin for the first time since the middle of December.

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. 

Anthony Davis stepped up with a double-double in LeBron James' absence as the Los Angeles Lakers ended their three-game skid with a 99-94 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

James was absent for the fourth straight game with a knee issue but Davis took charge with 30 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks.

Russell Westbrook contributed with a double-double with nine points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists, while Carmelo Anthony added 24 points for the Lakers. Norman Powell landed five three-pointers in his 30-point haul for Portland.

The Lakers had raced to a 12-point quarter-time lead but the Blazers narrowed that to one point by half-time before seesawing second half which went down to the final moments.

The win means the Lakers improve to 25-27 but remain ninth in the Western Conference.

Embiid, LaMelo and Doncic star in defeats

Joel Embiid had 27 points and 14 rebounds but could not lift the Philadelphia 76ers as they went down 106-103 to the Washington Wizards. Spencer Dinwiddie (14 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) had a triple-double for the Wizards, while Kyle Kuzma added 24 points.

LaMelo Ball was excellent in a losing side as well, providing a career-high 38 points including four triples with six rebounds and nine assists as the Charlotte Hornets went down 113-107 to the Boston Celtics. Luka Doncic also had 40 points as the Dallas Mavericks lost 120-114 in overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Ja Morant had 23 points, four rebounds and nine assists as the Memphis Grizzlies won 120-108 over the New York Knicks, while the Utah Jazz snapped their five-game skid with a 108-104 win over the Denver Nuggets.

 

Nets skid extends to six games

The Brooklyn Nets slumped to their sixth straight defeat, their worst skid since January 2020, after a 112-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings. James Harden, nursing a sore hand, only managed four points shooting two-of-11 from the field, which was his lowest return since May 15 last year.

Anthony Davis stepped up with a double-double in LeBron James' absence as the Los Angeles Lakers ended their three-game skid with a 99-94 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

James was absent for the fourth straight game with a knee issue but Davis took charge with 30 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks.

Russell Westbrook contributed with a double-double with nine points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists, while Carmelo Anthony added 24 points for the Lakers. Norman Powell landed five three-pointers in his 30-point haul for Portland.

The Lakers had raced to a 12-point quarter-time lead but the Blazers narrowed that to one point by half-time before seesawing second half which went down to the final moments.

The win means the Lakers improve to 25-27 but remain ninth in the Western Conference.

Embiid, LaMelo and Doncic star in defeats

Joel Embiid had 27 points and 14 rebounds but could not lift the Philadelphia 76ers as they went down 106-103 to the Washington Wizards. Spencer Dinwiddie (14 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) had a triple-double for the Wizards, while Kyle Kuzma added 24 points.

LaMelo Ball was excellent in a losing side as well, providing a career-high 38 points including four triples with six rebounds and nine assists as the Charlotte Hornets went down 113-107 to the Boston Celtics. Luka Doncic also had 40 points as the Dallas Mavericks lost 120-114 in overtime to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Ja Morant had 23 points, four rebounds and nine assists as the Memphis Grizzlies won 120-108 over the New York Knicks, while the Utah Jazz snapped their five-game skid with a 108-104 win over the Denver Nuggets.

 

Nets skid extends to six games

The Brooklyn Nets slumped to their sixth straight defeat, their worst skid since January 2020, after a 112-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings. James Harden, nursing a sore hand, only managed four points shooting two-of-11 from the field, which was his lowest return since May 15 last year.

Joel Embiid took to Twitter to revel in the Philadelphia 76ers' overtime victory against the Memphis Grizzlies.

The team's leading scorer was rested for Monday's clash and watched on as Doc Rivers' men made it five wins in a row.

In Embiid's absence, Andre Drummond, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris stepped up to get the job done despite a fine showing from Memphis' All-Star Ja Morant, who put up 37 points.

It was Maxey who snatched a 122-119 triumph in overtime with a driving layup.

And Embiid tweeted: "They hate the process but we will keep thriving. Great Dub!! Hell Yeaa."

Speaking about Embiid, man of the moment Maxey told reporters: "He's a great team-mate; he's our MVP."

Despite leading the way for the Grizzlies, Morant shouldered the blame for the team's loss.

"If there's anybody you want to be mad at, it can be me," he said. "If I made free throws, we probably wouldn't have even gone into overtime."

Drummond offered consolation to his beaten opponent with some warm words of praise for Morant.

He said: "He’s a great athlete, he's able to make spectacular plays, but at the end of the day it's still two points.

"You have to take your hat off to him, but we won the game."

The Golden State Warriors won a sixth straight game as Stephen Curry returned to form with a 40-point haul in Texas.

Golden State saw off the Houston Rockets 122-108 on Monday, with Curry finishing with 40 points, 21 of which came in the final quarter.

It marked the end of a below-par month for Curry, who had previously had over 30 points on just one occasion since the turn of the year.

Curry has now scored 40 points or more in six games this season. He made seven three-pointers to go along with nine assists and five rebounds.

He has scored 20 points or more in a quarter 37 times in his career, surpassing the late Kobe Bryant for the most by any NBA player since at least 1996-97.

Andrew Wiggins added 23 points for Golden State, while Kevon Looney had 14 rebounds.

Christian Wood offered some resistance for the Rockets with a double-double, but Houston are without a win at home in 11 games.

Sixers do the businesses without Embiid

With Joel Embiid rested, the Philadelphia 76ers nevertheless clinched a fifth straight win as Andre Drummond, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris stepped up against the Memphis Grizzlies.

All-Star Ja Morant had 37 points for Memphis, but it was Maxey (33 points) who snatched a 122-119 victory in overtime with a driving layup.

Drummond had 16 points but amassed a huge 23 rebounds, while Harris also had 31 points, with Desmond Bane's career-high 34 in vain for the Grizzlies.

Heat lose their flame

The Miami Heat lost a second straight game and gave up their place at the top of the Eastern Conference after a 122-92 defeat to the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown led Boston with 29 points, as the Celtics moved to 27-25 for the season after a fourth successive win.

The Cleveland Cavaliers posted a fifth straight home win as they overcame the New Orleans Pelicans 93-90, while Isaiah Jackson had a double-double for the Indiana Pacers in a 122-116 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson came to life in the final quarter as the Golden State Warriors edged the short-handed Brooklyn Nets 110-106 on Saturday.

Curry struggled with his shooting throughout, going five-of-18 from the field, but found his range late, scoring 14 of his 19 points in the final quarter to lead Golden State to victory despite Kyrie Irving's game-high 32 points for the Nets, who were without James Harden with a hand strain.

Thompson also had his issues shooting five-of-14 for the game, but scored nine fourth-quarter points including a clutch three-pointer to make it 107-103 with 12.1 seconds left.

Five-time All Star Thompson finished with 16 points, while Curry had 19 points, with seven rebounds and eight assists. First-time All-Star Andrew Wiggins led the Warriors' scoring with 24 points, including 17 in the first half.

Irving had seven rebounds and seven assists to go with his 32 points which included three triples, while Patty Mills hit six three-pointers in his 24 points.

The Warriors, who are 24-4 at home this season, improve to 37-13, while the Nets move to 29-20.

 

Embiid and Morant continue hot streaks

Joel Embiid led the Philadelphia 76ers' rally from a 17-point deficit as they won 103-101 over the Sacramento Kings. Embiid scored 25 or more points for the 17th consecutive game, finishing with 33 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, while Tyrese Haliburton had 38 points for the Kings.

First-time All-Star Ja Morant scored 34 points including four three-pointers as the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Washington Wizards 115-95, while Jayson Tatum starred with 38 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in the Boston Celtics' 107-97 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Jimmy Butler had a triple-double with 37 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists but the Miami Heat went down in triple overtime 124-120 to the Toronto Raptors. Gary Trent Jr had 33 points for Toronto who had blown a 10-point three-quarter time lead.

Pacers battle as Doncic stars for Mavs

The Indiana Pacers' road struggles continued with their 20th loss in 26 games away from home, with Luka Doncic dominant as the Dallas Mavericks blew them out 132-105 with 30 points, six rebounds and 12 assists. 

The NBA's Western Conference has dominated the East in recent memory, possessing most of the league's superstars for over two decades.

West teams have had a winning record head-to-head against East teams in each of the previous 12 full seasons, and the East has only had a winning record against the West once in the last 22 full seasons (2008-09).

Since 1999-00, the NBA champion has come from the Western Conference in 14 of 22 seasons.

The imbalance of power had grown significant enough by the 2013-14 season, when the West sported a .631 head-to-head win percentage, that some pundits called for a restructuring of the playoff system to stop giving postseason opportunities to below .500 East teams.

But the league appears to be finding its equilibrium again.

East teams have a .491 record in interconference games this season, the highest since 2008-09, and the playoff race at the top of the conference is as competitive as it has been in recent memory. Six teams sit within two games of the East’s top record, laying the groundwork for a captivating battle for postseason positioning in the second half of the season.

1. Miami Heat (32-17)

The 2020 Eastern Conference champions appear to have recaptured the form of a contender after a middling 2020-21 campaign that ended in a first-round sweep.

Battling through lengthy absences from both Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, the Heat have climbed their way to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, thanks largely to the growth of Tyler Herro.

Herro was a promising rookie two years ago when Miami made their run to the NBA Finals but has carried the Heat offensively at times this season. He is scoring 20.4 points per game this season, up from 15.1 last season, without a drop in efficiency. The result is an 11-2 record when Herro scores 25 or more points in a game.

Defensive issues, however, have led coach Erik Spoelstra to mostly leave Herro out of the starting lineup and use him to torch opposing benches. Miami ranks third in the NBA in bench scoring at 39.1 points per game while ranking tied for 19th in bench minutes per game.

Miami's starting units aren't nearly as imposing on the offensive end but are suffocating opponents on defense. With Butler, Adebayo and Kyle Lowry all on the court together, the Heat are allowing just 98.0 points per 100 possessions, and opponents are shooting 32.4 percent from three-point range.

Spoelstra may face challenges in the postseason in trying to decide between offense or defense-first lineups, but few coaches in the NBA are as qualified to find the correct balance.

As long as Butler is healthy and fresh, no team wants to face this rugged and experienced group in a playoff series, and a deep run is certainly possible.

2. Chicago Bulls (30-18), 1.5 games back

Chicago’s hot start was one of the league’s signature stories early in the season, but a recent swoon has some pundits wondering if a few of the roster’s flaws can be exploited.

From December 19 to January 7, the Bulls went on a season-high nine-game winning streak. They scored 120.2 points per game over that stretch and climbed to 16 games over .500.

The Bulls have gone just 4-8 since and have failed to reach 100 points in four of those 12 games.

Chicago went 1-5 during this lull playing without Zach LaVine, including a January 14 loss to the Golden State Warriors in which he played fewer than four minutes before leaving with a left knee injury.

The Bulls have won both their games since LaVine returned, soothing any burning concerns, but that stretch revealed Chicago's roster is too thin to absorb any major injuries.

Perhaps even more concerning is the Bulls' record against top teams, going just 3-7 so far this season against the other teams in the East's top six.

Billy Donovan will rightfully get plenty of buzz to win Coach of the Year, but the Bulls ultimately look like an excellent regular-season team that may not be properly equipped for playoff battles.

Power forward Patrick Williams played just five games before he underwent surgery on his left wrist, and he was initially considered lost for the season. While there has been some recent momentum towards him returning for a playoff run, the 20-year-old may still be too green to push the Bulls over the top.

Williams could fetch another playoff-ready piece if the Bulls decided to place all their bets on the current core of LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic – all in the prime of their careers between the ages of 26 and 32 – but such a move could jeopardise the team's future.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (30-19), 2 games back

Just a year after going 22-50, the Cavaliers have far surpassed last season's win total before the All-Star break, and the success has gone on too long to be considered a fluke.

Even after losing veteran point guard Ricky Rubio to a torn left anterior cruciate ligament, the young Cavaliers have continued to be one of the East's top teams, thanks largely to a stifling defense.

Cleveland is 6-7 this season in games when scoring less than 100 points, the best record in the league. The other top teams in the East are a combined 7-44 when held under the century mark.

The Cavaliers are allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions, best in the Eastern Conference, and that number drops to 102.2 when rookie big man Evan Mobley is on the court.

Mobley is third among rookies in scoring at 15.0 points per game, but it is his ability to play next to center Jarrett Allen that has made Cleveland's defense so imposing.

A seven-footer, Mobley could be slated as a center for almost any team in the league, but his quickness and ability to guard multiple positions allows him to be on the floor at the same time as Allen.

Mobley, Allen, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro are all 23 years old or younger, so a deep playoff run seems unlikely, especially with high-scoring guard Collin Sexton out for the year.

But Cleveland has the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, with a combined opponents’ winning percentage of .463.

4. Milwaukee Bucks (31-20), 2.0 games back

The reigning NBA champions have yet to live up to the sterling regular seasons of their recent past but remain in position for a run.

The Bucks are 6-7 over their last 12 games, including a 115-99 loss to the Cavaliers on Wednesday.

Milwaukee’s fortunes will be determined by its three biggest stars: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. With all three on the court together, the Bucks are outscoring their opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions. All configurations that have two or fewer stars on the court have a net rating of +2.6.

This heavy reliance on the Bucks' top trio is evident in Milwaukee’s 29th-ranked bench, which is scoring just 27 points per game.

This accomplished core will be competitive in any series they play, especially now that it has championship experience, but the road through the Eastern Conference playoffs could be a very challenging one.

5. Brooklyn Nets (29-19), 2.5 games back

With so many unknowns and moving pieces, the Nets are probably the most difficult team in the league to analyse. The trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving makes them an automatic title contender, but the availability of Brooklyn's stars will ultimately decide their fate.

Irving is infamously banned from playing home games but can play in most road games, essentially giving Steve Nash two separate teams to coach. Any day, either Irving could change his mind and get a COVID-19 vaccine, or New York could change its rules about workers being vaccinated, but the possibility looms of the Nets entering a playoff series with a part-time player.

Durant remains a marvel, averaging 29.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists in his second season back from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He suffered a sprained knee on January 15, however, and could be out until the end of February.

The Nets are just 5-7 this season without Durant, and his extended absence could cause them to lose ground in the race for a top seed in the East. Then again, Brooklyn might not care about playing extra postseason road games, allowing Irving to join in the fun and saving Durant for when the games count most.

The Athletic's Shams Charania surprised many fans this week by reporting that Harden's name remains involved in trade talks. While these rumors would likely be more relevant to a deal in the coming offseason, the reports added another layer of uncertainty to a bumpy season.

6. Philadelphia 76ers (29-19), 2.5 games back

The Sixers have the NBA's second-best record since Christmas Day at 13-3, and Joel Embiid has built a strong case as an MVP candidate.

The overpowering center has scored at least 25 points in 16 straight games, a run that includes single-game scoring performances of 50, 42 and 40 points.

Perhaps almost as significant as his gaudy production is the fact that Embiid has played in 20 consecutive games for Philadelphia, the second-longest run of his career after a 26-game stretch during the 2018-19 season.

Embiid has always been a monster when he's on the court, and if his current run of health continues, the 76ers will be a difficult playoff matchup for anyone.

Hanging over the whole season, of course, is the standoff with Ben Simmons, who has yet to report this season and is losing game paychecks every time his team-mates take the court. Simmons' camp maintains the position that he wants to be traded after being publicly blamed for last season's playoff failures, but the Philly front office insists on getting a star in return.

A possible Simmons trade might be the most pivotal move out there for any possible championship contender, but the deal has been difficult to find for a unique 25-year-old guard who refuses to shoot and has yet to play this season.

With the conference loaded six-deep with imposing teams, only the top two seeds will be heavy favourites in the first round. Gone, it appears, are the days when one or two teams could cruise to a conference championship in the East without sweating.

Los Angeles Lakers' All-Star Anthony Davis underwent an X-ray on a troublesome wrist but insists there is nothing structurally wrong with it.

Davis had a first-quarter scare in Thursday's 105-87 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers when he landed on the wrist in his second game back after an MCL sprain kept him out for 17 games.

The 28-year-old power forward seemed troubled by the wrist complaint at times, yet still scored a game-high 31 points along with 12 rebounds and four blocks in an entertaining battle with Joel Embiid.

Davis left the court and had the wrist re-taped before playing on, confirming he had undergone an X-ray which was clear when asked.

"On a play on a back cut, I dunked it and Joel tried to block it," Davis said at the post-game news conference. "Body contact, went to the ground and tried to catch myself and landed on my wrist.

"[I'm] a little sore. Nothing wrong with it. No fracture or nothing. Just a soft tissue injury, soreness and stiffness."

Davis added: “My wrist was bothering me toward the end so I was trying to shoot the ball. [To] follow through and stuff and see if I could shoot, to be honest."

The game may have been Davis' second game back but it was not alongside All-Star teammate LeBron James who was absent with knee soreness.

The pair have struggled to regularly play together, much to the frustration of Davis who admitted he did not know James was out until shortly prior to tip-off.

"I found out when I literally got to the arena when I was changing to go on to court," Davis said.

"Someone said 'you know Bron's not playing?', 'I didn’t know that'. It's been a thing all year. Even last year, we were flopping in and out of the line-up."

Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said James would be "day-to-day" with the knee soreness, with a game against the Charlotte Hornets to come on Saturday.

"He's a big part of what we're trying to do," Davis added. "He was playing out of his mind. I don't know his status for tomorrow but we've got to be able to win ball games until he gets back."

Joel Embiid scored 26 points as the Philadelphia 76ers continued their hot form with a 105-87 win over the Los Angeles Lakers without LeBron James on Thursday.

James missed the game with left knee soreness but Anthony Davis, in his second game back after an MCL sprain, scored a game-high 31 points with 12 rebounds in his absence.

But the 76ers were too good, clinching their 13th win from their past 16 games, to improve to 29-19 and fifth in the Eastern Conference.

Embiid, matched up on Davis, was not at his best but still had 26 points with nine rebounds and seven assists. The 76ers center's haul marked 16 straight games with 25 or more points.

Tobias Harris scored 23 points for Philadelphia who were always in control, while second-season guard Tyrese Maxey contributed 14 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.

 

Curry and Klay lead Warriors second-half rally

Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 11 three-pointers as the Golden State Warriors clinched their fourth straight win, triumphing 124-115 over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Curry finished with 29 points including six triples, eight rebounds and six assists, while Thompson added 23 points, five rebounds and four assists as the Warriors rallied from a three-point half-time deficit with a 38-20 third quarter to improve to 36-13, with the best home record (23-4) in the NBA.

Former Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins, on the same night he was named an All-Star for the first time, contributed 19 points, five rebounds and four assists.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 31 points, 12 rebounds and six assists and Anthony Edwards added 27 points with six rebounds and six assists.

Joel Embiid brushed off questions about being driven to win the MVP this season after leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 105-87 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday.

Embiid was named on Thursday as a starter in the All-Star Game, as he scored 26 points with nine rebounds and seven assists in the 76ers' win.

The 27-year-old center's haul extended his run to 16 straight games scoring 25 points or more, while it also helped the 76ers to 13 wins from their past 16 games.

Embiid missed out on last season's MVP award with an untimely late season knee injury not helping, finishing third behind Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry, but he brushed off questions about being driven to win that accolade.

"To be the MVP, you need to win games and that's been my main focus," Embiid told ESPN after the win over the Lakers.

"We've got to continue to do, what we've been doing. We've been playing great of late.

"Obviously we started the year pretty well, then COVID hit us and I missed a couple of games and we lost a couple of them but now we've started to get back in the rhythm and get some guys back.

"To be the MVP, my focus is on winning."

Embiid was critical of his own performance on Thursday as he matched up with Anthony Davis, who scored a game-high 31 points and also had 12 rebounds.

"I'm p****d off I had a bad night tonight," Embiid said. "I'm glad we got the win. That's a big win in our quest to be the number one seed."

Embiid also praised second-season guard Tyrese Maxey who added 14 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists and continues to ably fill Ben Simmons' void.

"Maxey has been great," Embiid said. "He needs to continue to keep doing whatever he's been doing."

LeBron James has been ruled out of the Los Angeles Lakers' clash with the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday due to left knee soreness.

Lakers head coach Frank Vogel revealed pre-game that the 37-year-old four-time MVP had woken up with soreness and would not face the in-form 76ers, who are 28-19.

James has been in excellent scoring form lately, averaging 29.1 points, shooting 52.2 per cent from the field and 35.2 per cent beyond the arc across the season.

The veteran superstar has scored 25 points or more in each of the Lakers' past 18 games, dating back to mid-December. Only once – in 21 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008 – has he enjoyed a longer such streak.

James has averaged an astonishing 32.5 points over this period, although the Lakers have gone 8-10.

"He’s out tonight," Vogel said of his star man on Thursday. "Just woke up with some soreness that was enough to hold him out. He’ll be day-to-day."

James had only just reunited with Anthony Davis on the court, with the All-Star forward returning from an MCL sprain in Tuesday's 106-96 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

Besides scoring 29.1 points per game, up on his career average of 27.1, James is averaging 6.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds this season.

Joel Embiid has no plans to let up after putting on another dominating performance as the Philadelphia 76ers defeated a depleted New Orleans Pelicans side on Tuesday.

Embiid had 42 points alongside 14 rebounds and four assists for the 76ers, who ran out 117-107 victors at the Wells Fargo Center.

Having been criticised in the past for missing games, Embiid recently revealed he has altered his diet in order to compete more regularly.

It certainly seems to have done the trick. Tuesday's game was his 19th in a row, helping Philly to a 13-6 run in that time, during which he is averaging 33.3 points to enhance his MVP credentials having finished runner-up last season.

"That was one of my goals, just to be available. I don't plan on stopping," said Embiid, whose 76ers side are now 28-19 and sixth in the East.

The Pelicans actually led 58-50 at the break despite missing starters Devonte Graham, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram with ankle injuries, while Jonas Valanciunas was rested. Zion Williamson is also still out with the foot injury that has kept him out all season.

Asked what the thought process was for the second half, Embiid said: "Just win.

"Just being aggressive because in the first half everything was easy for them."

Embiid was not the only player to go off on Tuesday, with Nikola Jokic leading the Denver Nuggets in their 110-105 defeat of the Detroit Pistons, which leaves them sixth in the West with a 25-21 record.

Jokic had 28 points, 21 rebounds and nine assists but was uninterested in re-watching the film to try and find an extra assist that would have given him a triple-double.

"I'm not worried about that," he said. 

"It was a good game for me and a huge win for our team. I knew I was having a big night, but I wasn't thinking about the stats."

During the game, Jokic chalked up a 3,000th career NBA assist. He is now the only Denver player to record 3,000 assists and 5,000 rebounds in the NBA.

"It's hard to keep track of all the milestones he's passing," head coach Michael Malone said. 

"He just won Western Conference Player of the Week, and then he has 28, 21 and nine tonight."

Team-mate Jeff Green, who had 20 points himself, added of Jokic: "It's incredible to play with Jokic – he's one of the best players I've ever been on the floor with. 

"When you are out there with him, you know that if you do your job, you're going to get open shots. The defense has to focus on him."

Tobias Harris is in awe of team-mate Joel Embiid, who continues to scale new heights for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Embiid, a four-time NBA All-Star, is having an MVP-worthy season and finished with a double-double of 38 points and 12 rebounds in the 76ers' 115-109 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.

The 27-year-old has now surpassed 1,000 points for the season, becoming the 10th player to do so in the NBA this campaign.

Only LeBron James (29.0) and Kevin Durant (29.3) are averaging more points per game than Embiid (28.7) across the league.

After his efforts on Sunday, when he shot 16 for 32 from the field in 32 minutes, Embiid has now scored 25 points or more in 14 successive games, earning the high praise of Harris.

"What he's doing is special," Harris told reporters.

"We rely on him night in and night out. He's the anchor for our team. The anchor for our offensive flow out there.

"I thought tonight he just did a great job of picking the game apart. Really getting everyone involved out there in their spots and still being able to get the shots that he wanted."

Harris also contributed 18 points as the 76ers claimed a seventh straight win over the Spurs.

Jakob Poeltl was San Antonio's standout performer with 25 points and 10 rebounds, and Harris acknowledged the 76ers still gave up too many opportunities defensively.

"We still had too many defensive mistakes in the fourth quarter," Harris added.

"We've got to clean that up. We've got to be able to really make a stand and hold our ground there."

LeBron James had a double-double but it was not enough for the fast-finishing Los Angeles Lakers to overcome his former side the Miami Heat who won 113-107 on Sunday.

The Heat led by 23 points but the Lakers charged home with 37-24 points down the stretch.

James finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists for the Lakers, while Russell Westbrook had 24 points and nine rebounds.

Jimmy Butler starred for the Heat, breaking James' franchise record for triple-doubles with his 22 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.

The Heat are top of the Eastern Conference with a 30-17 record, while the Lakers drop below .500 with a 23-24 record.

 

Embiid continues scoring streak

Joel Embiid continued his hot streak with a double-double as the Philadelphia 76ers beat the San Antonio Spurs 115-109. Embiid had 38 points, 12 rebounds and six assists, extending his 14-game run of 25 points or more.

Luka Doncic had a double-double with 37 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists as the Dallas Mavericks won 104-91 over the Memphis Grizzlies, for whom Ja Morant had 35 points and 13 rebounds, while the Golden State Warriors won 94-92 over the Utah Jazz, despite only 11 fourth-quarter points.

Jayson Tatum scored 51 points, including 48 in the first three quarters, as the Boston Celtics won 116- 87 over the Washington Wizards, while DeMar DeRozan had 41 points as the short-handed Chicago Bulls' slide continued with a 114-95 loss to the lowly Orlando Magic.

 

Harden subdued as Nets cut down

James Harden shot four-of-13 for the game as the Brooklyn Nets were downed 136-125 by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Harden only managed 13 points, while Kyrie Irving had 30 points with six rebounds and five assists.

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