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2021 NBA playoffs – LeBron James ready for challenge if Anthony Davis’ injury keeps him out



The Los Angeles Lakers will get no sympathy from the Phoenix Suns or any of the remaining playoff teams after they lost star forward Anthony Davis to a groin injury during a 100-92 loss Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.

The Suns, after all, have been playing this first-round Western Conference playoff series with a very-limited version of Chris Paul (shoulder).

And the Lakers, of course, still have LeBron James. A 36-year-old still-working-his-way-back from an ankle injury that cost him more than a third of the season version of LeBron James.

But still, a LeBron James who has never lost in the first round of the playoffs.

“When I competed against the Miami Heat, and either [Dwyane] Wade or [Chris] Bosh was out, that meant more touches for Bron,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that wasn’t always a good thing for my Pacers teams.”

That version of James was in his late 20s, however. And he wasn’t coming off a serious ankle injury. The mid-30s version of James has thus far held off or counteracted the effects of age to remain one of the most dominant players in the NBA.

But the Lakers’ title defense now rides on whether this version of James can carry them through a Suns team that tied the series 2-2 as it heads back to Phoenix for Game 5 on Tuesday.

There will be talk from everyone else that James’ supporting cast will have to step up, too. That Dennis Schroder will have to do better than his dud in Game 4, when he scored 8 points on 3-for-13 shooting. That Kyle Kuzma will have to turn back into a scorer, after focusing on his all-around game throughout the season.

But that’s just everyone being polite.

“We’ll see,” James said, when first asked how his role might change throughout the series if Davis misses time with his latest injury. A source told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Davis’ status is day-to-day.

A few minutes later, however, James acknowledged the obvious.

“These shoulders were built for a reason,” he said. “So if it takes for me to put some more on top of it, then so be it. Win, lose or draw, I’m ready for the challenge.”



Anthony Davis lands awkwardly after a missed layup and comes up hobbling a little bit late in the first half.

James led the Lakers in points (25), rebounds (12) and assists (6) on Sunday, making him the oldest player in NBA postseason history to do so.

The Suns have been watching their own version of this movie the past week, starring Paul, their own age-defying 36-year-old. He had been a shell of himself since hurting his shoulder in the first half of last Sunday’s series opener, to the point that head coach Monty Williams wanted to sit him in Game 4.

During a 20-minute meeting with Williams and general manager James Jones before the game, Paul eventually persuaded the team to give him a chance to start.

“I have to trust his will and his experience and the things he’s done over the course of his career. He’s trained to be in these moments,” Williams said. “My final thought was, ‘I don’t want to be the one that takes that away from him. That was the lasting thing that I was thinking about, like, who am I to take that away from him? He’s worked his tail off for years to be in this moment, and I don’t want to be the doofus coach to take that away.'”

Paul backstopped his arrangement with Williams by talking to his brother, CJ, and teammates Devin Booker and Jae Crowder.

“I told the guys, ‘I don’t know how long it’s gonna be,'” Paul recalled. “‘If you all feel like I’m out here lookin’ like some trash, just tell me and I’ll get out.’

“But I at least had to see what I could do.”

Paul was able to do a lot more in Game 4 — 18 points, 9 assists, 3 steals — than he had been able to in the previous three games, when Williams had to remove him in the second half.



Chris Paul confidently knocks down the mid-range jumper over Andre Drummond and taunts he’s back as the Lakers call a timeout.

But perhaps most importantly, Paul had zero turnovers in nearly 32 minutes against the Lakers’ top-rated defense. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, it was the sixth career playoff game Paul has had more than nine assists and zero turnovers, passing Magic Johnson for the most such games in NBA history.

That is emblematic of the veteran influence Paul has had on this young Suns team, which surged to the second-best record in the league this season. And it was vital Sunday, in a tough road game against the defending champions, with the prospect of facing a 3-1 series deficit if they were to lose.

The Suns were poised Sunday, and they competed hard. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, Phoenix contested 58 of the Lakers’ 81 field goal attempts (72%), a far higher percentage than they contested Thursday (57%) in their Game 3 loss.

The Lakers, on the other hand, only contested 40 of the Suns’ 85 field goal attempts (47%), the lowest mark by the Lakers in the postseason since ESPN began tracking all postseason games in 2014.

Now it’s a best-of-three series with a pair of 36-year-old future Hall of Famers — who happen to be great friends — dueling for a chance to keep their season and championship hopes alive.

“The best teacher in life is experience,” James said. “Me, personally, I look forward to the challenge. However the hand is dealt, I’ll be ready to play.”

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Sources — Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden hopeful to return for Game 5 against Milwaukee Bucks



Brooklyn Nets star James Harden is hopeful to play Game 5 against Milwaukee and will test his right hamstring prior to tip on Tuesday night, sources told ESPN.

Harden, pushing for a chance to play, participated in the Nets shootaround on Tuesday morning with improvement in his right hamstring and that prompted the team to upgrade his status from doubtful to questionable for Game 5 tonight, sources said.

The Nets are tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Bucks, and are preparing to be without guard Kyrie Irving (right ankle sprain) for the rest of the series, sources said. The Nets haven’t ruled Irving out beyond Game 5, but Harden is clearly much closer to a return for the Nets.

Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said Sunday that the team would try to approach the injuries as isolated incidents and not let Irving’s ankle sprain rush Harden back to the floor before his hamstring is fully healed. Harden was injured in the first minute of Game 1 of the Nets’ series against the Bucks on June 5.

Irving was injured midway through the second quarter of Sunday’s Game 4 in Milwaukee when he landed awkwardly on Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s foot after making a layup over Jrue Holiday. Antetokounmpo crashed the paint in what appeared to be an attempt to help Holiday, who was the primary defender.

Irving remained on the ground for several minutes as Nash and the team’s athletic trainers attended to him. Eventually, Irving walked to the locker room without assistance but was limping. He left the arena in a walking boot and on crutches. An MRI on Monday confirmed Irving’s ankle sprain.

The Nets have battled injuries all season. The Big 3 of Harden, Irving and Kevin Durant played just eight games together in the regular season and six games together in the playoffs — including the game when Harden was injured. Harden missed 18 games in the regular season with a hamstring strain and before that, he missed two with hamstring tightness.

ESPN’s Malika Andrews contributed to this report.

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Brooklyn Nets upgrade James Harden (hamstring) from out to doubtful for Game 5 against Milwaukee Bucks



The Brooklyn Nets have upgraded James Harden to doubtful for Tuesday night’s Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Harden is expected to test his injured hamstring in shootaround and has been determined to find a way to get cleared to play in Game 5, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Nets initially ruled Harden out for the game on Monday.

Before Sunday’s Game 4 loss, Nets head coach Steve Nash said Harden was doing on-court work, shooting and rehabilitation.

Harden suffered what the team has called “right hamstring tightness” 43 seconds into Game 1 of the series. His push to return comes after the Bucks have won two straight games to tie up the series 2-2.

Brooklyn’s effort to reach the Eastern Conference finals took another hit in Game 4 when Kyrie Irving exited with a sprained right ankle. He has been ruled out for Tuesday’s Game 5.

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2021 NBA playoffs – What’s real and what’s not in the conference semifinals



While the Phoenix Suns put their feet up after an impressive sweep of MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, six teams continue to fight for the three remaining spots in the NBA conference finals.

No matchup has more storylines than Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks, which is locked at 2-2 heading into Tuesday’s Game 5. Should the Nets still be considered NBA title contenders after Kyrie Irving‘s ankle sprain added to Brooklyn’s injury woes?

The Atlanta Hawks held Joel Embiid in check to tie their series at 2-2 with the Philadelphia 76ers. Can the Hawks continue to limit the Sixers’ ailing big man for the rest of the series?

The Utah Jazz fell to the LA Clippers in Game 4 to tie their series at 2-2, but Donovan Mitchell continues to rack up points. Is he playing the best basketball of any guard remaining in the playoffs?

Our panel of NBA experts is breaking down the biggest trends we’re seeing so far in the conference semifinals.

MORE: Matchups, schedules and news for every series

Real or not: The Nets’ title chances after Kyrie Irving’s ankle injury

NOT REAL. An essential part of any path to an NBA championship is luck. Sometimes it comes in the form of a favorable bounce; other times it simply means a team avoids running into an untimely injury over the course of trying to win 16 postseason games.

The Nets, unfortunately, haven’t been lucky. They spent all year dealing with injuries to their Big Three of James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Including the playoffs, they’ve played only 15 games together.

And, with Harden suffering a recurrence of the hamstring injury that cost him virtually all of the final several weeks of the regular season just 47 seconds into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee, and Irving spraining his right ankle Sunday — both have been ruled out for Game 5 in Brooklyn — they might not play together again this season.



Kendrick Perkins says Kevin Durant will have to show he is the best player in the world for the Nets to beat the Bucks without James Harden or Kyrie Irving.

The beauty in having three stars of this caliber on one team is that an injury to one of them isn’t enough to sink your team. Brooklyn showed that by eviscerating Milwaukee without Harden in Games 1 and 2. But even for Durant, arguably the greatest scorer this game has ever seen, trying to beat Milwaukee two out of three times without both of his running mates is a very tall task.

It’s unlikely that P.J. Tucker will be able to remain quite as physical as he was guarding Durant in Games 3 and 4, when Durant shot an uncharacteristic 20-for-53 from the field. But even if that normalizes moving forward, replacing Harden and Irving with some combination of Mike James, Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown simply isn’t going to cut it.

Now, if either Harden or Irving — or both — can return before this series is over, the Nets will suddenly be a legitimate title threat once again. But if Durant remains on his own against the Bucks for the rest of this series, what seemed like a clear path to the NBA Finals a few days ago could instead become a rapid departure from the postseason.

— Tim Bontemps

Real or not: The Suns as the favorites to win the West

REAL. At least for now. The biggest advantage Phoenix has is already securing a spot in the Western Conference finals while the Clippers and Jazz battle for the other one — at least through Game 6 — while the Suns get to rest at home.

The other edge for Phoenix is one that proved crucial in a second-round sweep of the Nuggets: health. No rotation Suns player has missed a game due to injury in the playoffs, making them the outlier in a postseason defined by injuries to key contributors.



Chris Paul and Devin Booker combine for 71 points to help the Suns steamroll their way into the Western Conference finals for the first time in 11 years.

Paul was limited by a shoulder contusion in the first round, but looked good as ever against the Nuggets, torching them for 25.5 PPG and 10.3 APG. Paul’s 63% shooting was his best in any playoff series and his 8.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio his best in a series since 2008.

Meanwhile, Utah is still without starting point guard Mike Conley due to a hamstring strain and has fellow All-Star guard Mitchell playing through an ankle injury. And while the Clippers are missing only center Serge Ibaka, their stars are logging huge minutes; Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have already played more than any Phoenix player has entering the conference finals.

At the same time, we should be careful not to read too much into the Suns’ dominance over Denver. The Nuggets were ill-equipped to deal with Phoenix’s spread pick-and-roll tactics, detailed last week by ESPN’s Zach Lowe, and the absence of guard Jamal Murray made it difficult for Denver to keep up offensively. Either the Jazz or Clippers should be more capable of challenging the elbow jumpers on which Paul feasted against the Nuggets, and both teams are more complete offensively.

A matchup with Utah would be interesting, because the Jazz were the stronger team over the course of the regular season and would have home-court advantage, but the Suns won all three head-to-head meetings. Phoenix had less success against the Clippers, losing the first two meetings before winning April 28 with Kawhi sidelined.

I’m not sure yet whom I’d pick depending on the conference finals matchup, but before it’s set, Phoenix is the most likely team to win the West.

— Kevin Pelton

Real or not: Atlanta’s chances at slowing down Joel Embiid for the rest of the series

REAL. It has to be real, because the Hawks were the opponent when Embiid just had one of the worst halves in recent playoff history. In the defining moment of Monday’s Game 4, when a layup could’ve put his team ahead in the final seconds, Embiid admitted he didn’t have enough lift. It was obvious if you watched him repeatedly clang jumpers on the front of the rim.

Because Embiid hasn’t missed any games in this series, it is easy to forget how serious of an injury he is dealing with. Playing through a minor meniscus injury isn’t unheard of, but for a player with Embiid’s injury history and the type of game he plays, it’s truly remarkable. The guy hits the deck numerous times a game, and even if he is guilty of a few embellishments, there’s a natural inclination to wonder if he’ll get up every time.

During Game 4, Embiid went to the locker room before halftime with trainers. No one was willing to publicly admit what was going on, but the results in the second half — when Embiid was 0-of-12 shooting — spoke enough.



Trae Young does it again as he records a 25-point, 18-assist double-double to elevate the Hawks to a 103-100 Game 4 win over the 76ers to tie the series at 2-2.

With games every other day the rest of the series, the game-time spring in Embiid’s legs is likely more important than any defensive scheme the Hawks can deploy. Embiid’s activity level during Games 1 and 2 — when he routinely beat double-teams and Clint Capela even when Atlanta’s center was in great defensive position — was hard to comprehend considering Embiid had just been diagnosed with such an injury. Reality seems to be biting.

The issue is the 76ers will have a tough time reducing his load. Knowing that Embiid was laboring, and with Seth Curry and Tobias Harris having good offensive games and a recent history of being a good pick-and-roll tandem, Philly coach Doc Rivers still went to his center for the final shot.

The play worked, with the Hawks failing to handle it, but Embiid couldn’t execute. That was a microcosm of Game 4, and it could end up being that way the rest of this series.

— Brian Windhorst

Real or not: Reggie Jackson as the No. 3 for the Clippers

NOT REAL. Jackson saved the Clippers in the first round against the Mavericks. But this team was constructed with Marcus Morris Sr. as the No. 3 option behind Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Clippers are at their best when Morris is playing at that level. Morris is known for his toughness and frontcourt play, but he was fourth in the NBA in 3-point percentage this year at 45.1%. When he is rolling, defenders have to respect his shot from behind the arc, and it completely opens up the spacing for the rest of the offense.



Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both score 31 points to propel the Clippers to their second straight win vs. the Jazz.

Everything Jackson has given the Clippers in these playoffs has been a bonus. He was one of the last guys added to the roster and wasn’t even promised a spot in the rotation. But he is healthy now and comfortable in his role, and he has always had a penchant for big games in the postseason. Assistant coach Chauncey Billups has been working with Jackson on his game this season, and Billups said he has “completely reinvented himself.”

Jackson has always had the talent to have a run like this. He just hasn’t been healthy enough or been on a team as good as this one. It’s fun to see veteran players like this find such a good fit. But Morris needs to be the Clippers’ No. 3 option if they’re going to live up to the high expectations set for this team.

— Ramona Shelburne

Real or not: Donovan Mitchell is the best guard in the conference semis

NOT REAL. We can stop the debate about whether Mitchell deserves to be considered a superstar. He has eliminated any doubt, proving again that he’s capable of frequently taking over playoff games. Mitchell is averaging an efficient 32.9 PPG this postseason, causing the Clippers to scramble to find schematic solutions despite being stocked with guards and wings with reputations as defensive stoppers.

But the best guard still playing — and available — in these playoffs has already wrapped up his Western Conference semifinal series. He’s resting his 36-year-old body, waiting on the Jazz-Clippers winner. And Chris Paul just reminded the world of how great he still is, conducting a point guard clinic in the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets.



Patrick Beverley and Donovan Mitchell refuse to give up on the loose ball and have to be separated by referees.

Paul, whose arrival in Phoenix turned the Suns from a bubble success story with a promising young core to a real contender, controlled that series from start to finish. He averaged 25.5 points on shooting splits (.627/.750/1.000) that are absolutely ridiculous. He made 10.3 assists per game and committed a total of only five turnovers in the series.

That 8.2 assists-to-turnover ratio is the second best in a series since turnovers became an official stat, behind only Paul’s 10.0-to-1 ratio from his first playoff series way back in 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

And that isn’t even the most impressive CP3 stat from the series. Take a gander at his numbers from the four fourth quarters: 43 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers on 84% shooting from the floor.

Devin Booker, Paul’s 24-year-old co-star, also belongs in this conversation. He certainly has hushed any talk about his lack of playoff experience, scoring a total of 81 points in his first two closeout games, pretty solid proof of killer instinct.

But Booker rode shotgun in this series, with Paul steering the Suns into the conference finals, a destination Mitchell and the Jazz are still trying to reach.

— Tim MacMahon

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