NBA

NBA Heat Check: Tatum keeps Celtics in chase

There were mixed fortunes for the Boston Celtics last week, even as Jayson Tatum and a rookie team-mate excelled.

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NBA Heat Check: Tatum keeps Celtics in chase but MVP race is settled

There are just two weeks of the NBA regular season remaining and the race for the playoffs is really hotting up.

The top teams in the East are jostling for the first seed, while the Washington Wizards' form has taken them into a play-in place.

The West is even more open, with the top seven in flux and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers falling into the play-in game as things stand.

Lakers superstar LeBron James even suggested the individual responsible for this format "needs to be fired".

There is still time for James and Co, but players with momentum – identified by our NBA Heat Check, powered by Stats Perform data – will be key.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

The Boston Celtics are down in seventh in the East, meaning they are set to go through the play-in, but their 1.0-game deficit to the teams above them would undoubtedly be greater if not for Tatum.

Although the team went 2-2 last week, one of their wins – against the San Antonio Spurs – was particularly memorable.

Tatum put up 60 points in the overtime win, where the Celtics trailed by 32 at one stage. That performance matched Larry Bird's single-game Boston scoring record and ensured he averaged 42.7 over the three games he featured in, up from his prior seasonal mark of 25.7 for the biggest increase of the week.

Aaron Nesmith

Tatum also had some help from the bench as rookie Nesmith found his feet at this level. Last year's first-round pick averaged 3.4 points per game through April 25 and continued this unimpressive form with two points as Tatum sat out against the Orlando Magic. Then he hit form.

Displays of 15, 16 and 16 points meant an average of 8.9 for the week, including 85.7 per cent shooting against the Portland Trail Blazers, making all four attempts from beyond the arc.

It was a timely improvement as fellow wing Evan Fournier, dealing with long-term covid-19 effects, scored just 10.5 points per game, down from 17.5 for the league's eighth-largest decline last week.

Michael Porter Jr

Nikola Jokic will win the NBA MVP award, but injuries to Jamal Murray and Will Barton appeared to have hit his hopes of team success with the Denver Nuggets until they won four straight last week.

Porter is the Nuggets' third-best scorer but looked better than that as he led the team in points in two of those victories.

Enjoying his first year as a regular starter, Porter had boosted his average to 18.2 points per game with a career-high 39 in the final game of the previous week yet raised those standards even further with 26.8 over four outings.
 

GOING COLD...

Joel Embiid

Jokic's impending individual recognition is in part due to the failure of his MVP rivals to stay fit. Joel Embiid was the frontrunner until he missed 10 games in a row.

The Philadelphia 76ers center might still have returned in time to wrestle back the top honour, but limited minutes last week – even in four Sixers wins – look to have put paid to those hopes.

Only appearing for more than 25 minutes when he contributed 34 points against the Spurs, Embiid averaged 22.5ppg, a significant decrease on his prior 30.0 for 2020-21.

James in LA, another early contender, certainly will not trouble Jokic after he returned for two games, scored 35 points in total and then went down again.

Malcolm Brogdon

The 76ers can afford to give Embiid a light schedule as they focus on an NBA title, but the Indiana Pacers would be happy simply making the playoffs from ninth in the East.

Their hopes were hit by a tough week for Brogdon, who played only 12 minutes in their second game against the Brooklyn Nets before succumbing to a hamstring issue that kept him out of a trip to Oklahoma City.

Brogdon, previously scoring 21.6 points for the year, could only partially be excused by injury, though, having shot five-of-14 against Portland then none-of-five in a brief Brooklyn outing.

Rudy Gobert

The Utah Jazz are wobbling at the top of the West, where they have been joined on 46-18 by the Phoenix Suns following a 2-2 week that included a defeat to their rivals for the first seed.

Phoenix and Deandre Ayton continue to prove tricky opponents for presumed Defensive Player of the Year Gobert, who could not carry the load in Donovan Mitchell's absence.

With 10 rebounds against the Suns – relatively poor by his dominant standards – Gobert averaged 10.3 for the week, down from 13.6, and Utah have now lost four straight against their co-leaders. That is a worry heading into the postseason.