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Devin Booker drops 47 points as Phoenix Suns end Los Angeles Lakers’ reign in first round

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LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis could barely move and the Los Angeles Lakers could not move on, seeing their repeat NBA title hopes cut short with a 113-100 loss in Game 6 of their first-round series with the Phoenix Suns.

Davis, cleared by L.A.’s medical staff and starting on Thursday after being sidelined since halftime of Game 4 with a strained groin, never looked right. He tweaked the injury mere minutes into the first quarter and was forced to exit early.

Even if he had been healthy, it might not have mattered with the way the Suns, led by star guard Devin Booker‘s 47 points, shot the ball.

Phoenix, after winning Game 5 by 30 points, went up by as many as 29 in the first half, picking apart a Los Angeles defense that ranked No. 1 in the league in efficiency before the playoffs.

The second-seeded Suns, who according to oddsmakers entered the first round as the underdogs against the seventh-seeded Lakers, took it to L.A. from the tip. Jae Crowder connected on a 3 on the Suns’ first possession and lifted his index finger to his lips, suggesting the crowd pipe down.

From there, Phoenix kept making noise on the offensive end, hitting its next three 3s — two more by Crowder and another by Booker — to go up by nine in the blink of an eye.

While the Suns got hot, Davis looked shot. On an early cut to the hoop, with Dennis Schroder finding him with an entry pass, the big man winced, shook his head and grabbed at the inside of his left leg after catching the ball.

Not long after, his night was finished after he contested a Booker drive to the hoop just 5 minutes, 8 seconds into the game and was unable to get back down the floor on offense, hunching over in pain. He made his way toward the Lakers’ bench and, after a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope foul 27 seconds later, took himself out, plopped down on the sideline and dropped his head, his season over.

The Suns were up 36-14 after the first quarter, shooting 13-for-19 as a team (10-for-13 from 3), compared with L.A.’s 6-for-21 mark (2-for-8 from 3).

The defending champs, led by LeBron James — who finished with 29 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists in 41 minutes — still managed to make it interesting.

When Caldwell-Pope scored a putback to cut it to 10 with 8:11 left in the fourth quarter, it was the closest the Lakers had been since there were 4:51 remaining in the first.

Phoenix followed with a 7-0 run, capped by a Chris Paul jumper, prompting the Phoenix point guard to talk trash, sensing the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2010 was in hand.

L.A. once again cut it to 11 with a Schroder 3 with 4 minutes on the clock, but it never was able to get within single digits.

In a way, the Suns series — in which the Lakers went up 2-1, only to lose the next three games — mirrored how the regular season went for L.A. The Lakers raced off to a 21-6 start before Davis, already struggling with Achilles tendinosis in his right leg, suffered a calf cramp against Denver on Valentine’s Day. He’d go on to miss the Lakers’ next 30 games.

In the playoffs, it was Davis’ left leg that let him down, first suffering a knee sprain in Game 3 and then a groin strain in Game 4 that cost him the rest of the series.

James, who pulled off something unprecedented in league history last season — becoming the first player ever to win a Finals MVP with three different franchises — ended his 2020-21 season with some personal history.

It was the first time in his career, in 15 trips to the first round, that he lost.

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Michael Malone on Denver Nuggets’ 0-3 hole

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Even after seeing his team fall into an 0-3 hole during a 116-102 Game 3 loss to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals on Friday night, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone remains hopeful that his team will not have its season ended by a sweep on Sunday.

“I know for myself, I can’t speak for anyone else, the last thing I want to see is the Phoenix Suns pushing a broom across our court after Game 4,” Malone said. “We have had a tremendous season, tremendous. I said going into this year you can’t judge a season by the end result. We got to the Western Conference finals last year, certain things can happen, but we can have a better season this year but not get as far.

“But the one thing I don’t want is for us to go out just quietly into that good night. I hope we show some real fight and resolve and force that series to go back to Phoenix for a Game 5.”

Malone garnered attention after Denver’s Game 2 loss when he said he felt his team “quit” while getting manhandled by the Suns in the second half for the second game in a row.

He seemed more pleased with his team’s effort after Game 3, taking solace in the fact that his young group dug itself out of a 3-1 hole twice during last season’s bubble playoffs.

“As far as the 3-0 deficit, yes, history is not on our side,” Malone said. “But you know what? We have re-written history the last couple of years. When we were down 3-1 twice last year, it was never about trying to win three more games. It was about winning the next game, winning the first quarter, winning the second quarter and that’s got to be our mindset.”

The Nuggets also need to find a stronger resolve as it pertains to guarding All-Star Chris Paul, who has been torching the Nuggets all series. That continued Friday, when Paul had 27 points, eight assists and six rebounds in 37 minutes.

Paul’s stabilizing presence has been a huge reason why the Suns are a game away from ending Denver’s season. He has scored 30 points on 12-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-4 from 3-point range, with eight assists and no turnovers combined in the three fourth quarters in this series, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

“We just got to make it more difficult on him,” Nuggets guard Monte Morris said. “He’s a Hall of Fame point guard, top five easily, still playing in the NBA. … He’s getting everybody involved. CP is a tough cover for anybody, but we have to just stick to our game plan and try to execute it the best way we can.

Morris added: “S—, it’s 3-0. We got to all lay it out there. We ain’t got nothing to lose. But we’re definitely not trying to get swept going into the offseason on our home court. That feeling wouldn’t sit well.”

About the only feeling that did sit well for the Nuggets centered around center Nikola Jokic, who received his MVP trophy before Friday’s game and then went out and scored 32 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and dished out 10 assists. Jokic joined Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to ever have 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a playoff game, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

“It was a special moment,” Jokic said. “I enjoyed the moment. I wish that my wife could be here and my parents. I had my teammates behind me because — this is my trophy but it’s because of all of them. So I need to thank them.”

If Jokic and the Nuggets were to lose Sunday’s Game 4, he would become just the fifth MVP in league history to be swept out of a playoff series, joining Magic Johnson (1989 finals), Moses Malone (1979 first round), Abdul-Jabbar (1977 conference finals), Wes Unseld (1969 conference semifinals), according to ESPN Stats and Information.

“We’ve experienced one [closeout game] already,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “Knowing those guys aren’t going to give up. They’ve got the MVP of the league over there, they’re well coached by Mike Malone and they’ve got some players that play very hard. Nobody ever wants their season to end, so we know they’re going to give it their shot and we’re prepared for that.”

Malone said he is hoping against hope that his team will be able to right itself before it’s too late.

“My only hope is that we haven’t let go of the rope because of what history tells us,” Malone said. “My only hope is that come Sunday afternoon/evening, whenever that game is, our guys show up and fight. I think they deserve it, their teammates deserve that, and our fans deserve that, to go out there and leave it all on the line and you can walk off the floor with your head held high.”

ESPN’s Royce Young contributed to this report.

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2021 NBA playoffs – Joel Embiid and Philadelphia 76ers show how far they’ve come in win over Atlanta Hawks

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The Atlanta Hawks‘ double-teams came early and often, with help defenders behind them lying in wait. Such is the attention that Philadelphia 76ers center and MVP finalist Joel Embiid demands when he’s working down low.

With less room to operate in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid was limited to 14 field goal attempts, along with six shots that resulted in a trip to the free throw line — a drastic reduction from his 21 shots in Game 1 and 25 in Game 2. Despite the smaller diet, Embiid maintained his dominance and efficiency in the Sixers’ 127-111 win.

Embiid’s production was vital to Philadelphia’s attack on Friday night, but his versatility as an offensive player paced the Sixers to arguably their most impressive performance this postseason. A primary reason Embiid didn’t equal his output of attempts in Game 3? He was finding teammates out of the Hawks’ double-teams. On three occasions, he hit the Sixers’ perimeter players for clean 3-pointers. Embiid racked up eight assists, his most since an April 19 regular-season loss to the Golden State Warriors.

“I’ve come a long way,” Embiid said. “But, I feel like this year the game just slowed down for me. The way I see the floor is completely different than previous years … I just try to make the best play possible. Even if I got to get a shot up myself, there’s so many ways I can do it.”

As the biggest body on the floor, Embiid provided the screens and rubs that fueled the Sixers’ aggressive attack. All night long, the Hawks found themselves pancaked by picks from Embiid. As a result, the Atlanta defense spent much of the night scrambling.

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Joel Embiid denies Onyeka Okongwu on one end, then comes back and grabs the offensive rebound for the dunk on the other.

“It was like a downhill game tonight for us, where they were turning the corner on those screens with Embiid and [Ben] Simmons, and basically just playing in our paint,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We’ve got to do a better job of giving help, being up on the screens — but the guards have to get through those screens.”

Remarkably, Embiid has done it all with a meniscus tear in his right knee, an injury he suffered in Game 4 of Philadelphia’s first-round series against the Washington Wizards. Embiid is receiving steady treatment on the knee, as he forges ahead in the postseason.

“Playing with a torn meniscus is not easy,” Embiid said. “Pain is going to be there. You just got to manage it. Tonight, rolling on my ankle, and falling on my back, it’s tough. But, it’s the playoffs, I can’t complain. I’m here to play. I’ve said in the past, whatever I can do, I’m gonna give it the best I got. Even if I’m playing injured, I still got to do my job. That’s why they pay me, and I want to win the championship.”

As heavy a load as Embiid carries for the Sixers, he received some welcome help from the supporting cast on Friday night.

The Sixers’ starting lineup has posted an eye-popping net rating of 39 per 100 possessions better than the competition. Outside of that unit, Philadelphia has struggled — a minus-1.9 in 231 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. In Game 3, the Sixers’ reserves shined. Backup shooting guard Furkan Korkmaz drained a trio of 3-pointers — two of them courtesy of kickouts from Embiid. Korkmaz finished with 14 points in 27 minutes, and a game-high plus-24.

“Tonight, Furk was balling,” Sixers forward Tobias Harris said. “That’s the thing with the playoffs and the beauty of the playoffs, being on a team like ours — it could be a different guy every night who brings that added effort. You saw in the first half Furk got hot out there, got his swag and his confidence shooting the 3 out there and made a big 3 in the fourth quarter. You love to see it.”

Korkmaz wasn’t alone. The Sixers ran 11 deep in Game 3, each member of the bench contributing key minutes. In just his second season, Matisse Thybulle has emerged as a premier defensive stopper, and took on the task of guarding Trae Young for significant stretches. Shake Milton, who as recently as Game 1 fell out of coach Doc Rivers’ rotation, has been reborn as a microwave off the bench. Dwight Howard mans the inside and patrols the glass for the Sixers when Embiid is off the floor, while George Hill offers a steady veteran hand to the second unit.

This is a welcome development, because depth hasn’t been a strong suit of the Sixers in recent seasons. Their bench’s shooting has been erratic, the defense a measurable fall-off from the starting unit’s stalwart half-court and transition effort, and the flow has often been gummy. The consequence has been added pressure on Embiid.

The deeper the Sixers advance into summer, the more essential reliable production from the reserves will be. With Danny Green’s prognosis uncertain, the Sixers will have to tap the second unit for a stand-in.

This incarnation of the Sixers is one of the more unorthodox contenders remaining. In an NBA dominated by the high pick-and-roll and 3-pointers, they rely on the league’s most dominant post player and a unicorn of a 6-foot-10 point guard who doesn’t shoot. Their supporting cast is an assortment of imperfect players who have a speciality or two, yet are far from complete.

Yet, here are the Sixers, working their strengths and filling their roles. As Embiid says, they’ve come a long way — which is encouraging, because they still have a long way to go.

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Ben Simmons goes on attack after half to lead Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 rout

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Philadelphia 76ers wing Ben Simmons had his hands full on defense in the first half of Friday’s eventual 127-111 win over the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Trying to keep up with Hawks star Trae Young is no simple assignment.

But with the Sixers clinging to a five-point lead at the break, and Simmons scoring just four points up to that point — matching his point total from Game 2 — Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers challenged him to do more.

“We just thought he passed up too many opportunities — in the fastbreak, at the post. And so we told him we were going to come out and feature him on the post,” Rivers said of Simmons. “And he was great for us. It’s exactly what we need. With his pace and power, it was great.”

Simmons scored 11 of his 18 points in the third and added three of his seven assists. Philadelphia, playing on the road, outscored Atlanta by 15 in the quarter, starting off 8-for-8 as a team after halftime. Simmons and fellow Sixers star Joel Embiid scored or assisted on 30 of Philly’s 34 points in the period.

“That was definitely the quarter they were able to get their momentum and get separation,” said Young, who still scored a game-high 28 points on 9-for-17 shooting and dished eight assists.

According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, Simmons ended the possession guarding Young 42 out of 85 plays.

“It’s exhausting when you think about what we’re asking Ben to do: follow Trae Young around, follow him around screens and push the ball up the floor with pace,” Rivers said. “That’s all we talked about at halftime when one of my coaches reminded me that he was guarding Trae when I was yelling at him about pace.

“He said, ‘He is guarding Trae, too.’ So, it’s tough. But he’s young, he has endurance, so it’s been good for us.”

When asked afterward about Rivers’ halftime directive, Simmons tried to stifle a satisfied smile.

“I was just trying to push the pace, get in the lanes, find my guys and stay aggressive. Get to the rim,” he said. “I think I did a good job of that, that second half.”

It was Simmons’ first game since Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz was named Defensive Player of the Year, but he seemed to shrug off his second-place finish, much the same way Embiid breezed past coming in second for MVP.

“Congrats to Rudy. I mean, it is what it is,” Simmons said. “I’m not really concerned about individual awards. I want the championship. So that’s my goal. Honestly, the goal is never Defensive Player of the Year. It’s just to go out there and do my job and try to be the best defender in the league, regardless of the awards.

“But the ultimate goal is a championship. And that’s why I got to do my job at a high level.”

Embiid finished with 27 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, becoming just the second 76ers player in franchise history to average 35 points and 10 rebounds over a three-game playoff span, after Wilt Chamberlain, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Much like Rivers, Embiid encouraged Simmons to take over because of the way Atlanta was shadowing him with Clint Capela all the way up the floor and then frequently sending double teams in his direction.

“I just told him, ‘You need to be aggressive and you need to attack, because there’s a lot of space. Especially with the way they’re guarding me,'” Embiid said. “So I told him to just be aggressive and just go out there and just dominate.”

Simmons made sure Embiid stayed in the mix, of course, finding the All-Star big man with the prettiest play of the night: an over-the-shoulder alley-oop he threw to a cutting Embiid midway through the third quarter to put Philly up 16.

“We’ve been playing together for so long that we know each other,” Embiid said. “He knows me, he knows where I need the ball and I also know how I can get him open. So it was a good pass, and I just did my best to finish it.”

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