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The Five: Everything to know for Week 21

Scoring title race heats up, key developments in the Western Conference playoff race, marquee matchups and more.

Damian Lillard is leading a late season charge to the top of the scoring chart.

Every Monday we will tell you what you need to know heading into a new week of NBA action.

1. Lillard joins Embiid, Doncic in scoring title race

While the 2022-23 season is on pace to set the NBA record for most players averaging at least 30 points per game with six, there is a bit of separation at the top of the scoring title race.

Entering Week 21, Luka Doncic (33.4 ppg) leads last year’s scoring champ Joel Embiid (33.0) by less than half a point per game. As the chart below illustrates, these two have been going back and forth at the top of the leaderboard for most of the season.

But don’t sleep on Damian Lillard, who is making a strong push up the scoring ranks in recent weeks. After a quick start, he settled to an average in the mid-to-high 20s for most of the season.

But when Week 13 hit in early January, Lillard really began to cook: 

In his last 25 games (beginning Jan. 8 at Toronto), Lillard has averaged a league-best 38.1 points per game; followed by Embiid at 32.4 and Doncic at 32.1. During this 25-game run, Lillard has just five games below 30 points and none below 24. He has 11 games with at least 40 points, including a 50-point game, a 60-point game and his 71-point gem from Feb. 26 against Houston.

Over the past eight weeks, Lillard’s scoring average has climbed from 27.3 ppg to 32.5 ppg as he sits 0.5 ppg behind Embiid and 0.9 ppg behind Doncic for the league lead. The question is: can he maintain this scoring pace and surpass both Embiid and Doncic? If so, he would claim his first career scoring title in his 11th NBA season.

2. What does Durant’s addition and Morant’s absence mean for West playoff race?

Kevin Durant made his highly-anticipated debut with the Suns this past week and it could not have gone any better for Phoenix as the Suns posted a perfect 3-0 week with Durant fitting seamlessly into the Suns offense, averaging 26.7 points on 69% shooting from the field and 54% from 3-point range.

The early returns on the Durant/Devin Booker pairing looks like a home run. As great as Durant has been, Booker has averaged 36 points on 56% shooting from the field and 50% from 3-point range in the three games alongside KD. The fact that things are clicking so quickly in Phoenix should have other Western Conference contenders nervous.

The Suns (36-29) enter Week 21 in fourth place in the West, trailing Sacramento (37-26) by three games in the loss column for third place and trailing Memphis by four games in the loss column for second place. The Suns lead the season series with the Kings, 2-0, and can wrap up the head-to-head tiebreaker when the teams meet for the third time on Saturday in Phoenix. The Suns and Grizzlies split their four-game series 2-2, but hold a three-game lead in conference record should that tiebreaker be needed at season’s end.

With Grizzlies star Ja Morant stepping away from the team for at least 2 games, an opportunity to restart lies ahead.

While the Grizzlies have a four-game advantage in the loss column, there is a great amount of uncertainty in Memphis. The team announced Saturday that All-Star guard Ja Morant will be away from the team for at least two games (the first was Sunday, a loss to the Clippers) while the NBA investigates a social media post in which Morant appeared to be holding a gun. 

Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins spoke with the media on Sunday and said there is no timetable for Morant’s return. While basketball is secondary to the issues currently facing Morant, his absence does have basketball implications for the Grizzlies as they try to maintain their playoff position without him.

They will also be without Brandon Clarke, who is out for the remainder of the season due to a torn Achilles. Memphis was also without Dillon Brooks in Sunday’s loss as he served a one-game suspension after earning his 16th technical foul of the season. He should be back with the team as they open the week Tuesday against the Lakers.

3. Heat Check: How long can the Knicks push this win streak?

There is one team remaining that is undefeated since the All-Star break – the New York Knicks, who enter Week 21 riding a nine-game win streak that dates back to Feb. 11, a week before the break.

This run has seen the Knicks go from seventh place in the Eastern Conference at 30-27 to fifth place in the conference at 39-27 and just a game back of Cleveland for fourth place.

The stars have led the way for the Knicks with Julius Randle averaging 29.6 points, 7.7 rebound and 3.8 assists during the streak, and Jalen Brunson adding 27.5 points, 5.8 assist and 3.9 rebounds per game. The Knicks are also getting double-digit scoring from Immanuel Quickley (18.8 ppg), RJ Barrett (16.8 ppg) and Josh Hart (11.3). It must be noted that the Knicks’ nine-game win streak coincides with acquiring Hart at the trade deadline.

The ninth win of the streak came against Boston on Sunday in double overtime, with Quickley scoring a career-best 38 points while starting in place of Brunson, who missed the game with foot soreness. In addition to Quickly, the Knicks got a combined 60 points from Randle and Barrett to help offset 69 combined points from Boston’s Jayson Tatum (40) and Jaylen Brown.

Now the question is how long can the Knicks keep this win streak going? New York’s last double-digit win streak came in 2013 when they won 13 in a row, and also coincides with the last time the Knicks advanced past the first round of the playoffs.

The Knicks will look for their 10th straight win on Tuesday when they host the Hornets (7:30 ET, League Pass)  before hitting the road for a West Coast swing as they face the Kings (37-26), Clippers (34-33), Lakers (31-34) and Blazers (30-34) in a six-day span.

4. National TV Spotlight: Five must-see matchups

Film Room: How Quin Snyder could quickly improve Hawks' defense.

• Monday: Atlanta at Miami, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV

If the season ended today, this would be the 7/8 game in the Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament with No. 7 Miami hosting No. 8 Atlanta. Of course, both teams are looking to climb out of the play-in field and grab one of the six guaranteed playoff berths, but both have work to do to catch Brooklyn in sixth place. The Nets have three fewer losses than Miami and four fewer than Atlanta and Brooklyn leads both season series if it comes down to tiebreakers.

• Tuesday: Philadelphia at Minnesota, 7:30 p.m. ET, TNT

The Sixers are coming off an impressive win over Milwaukee on Saturday to snap the Bucks’ 16-game win streak and move Philadelphia a bit closer in the race at the top of the East standings with Milwaukee and Boston. This is the final game in a five-game road trip for the Sixers. The Wolves won the first meeting back in November, 112-109, behind a 25-point effort from Anthony Edwards against a short-handed Sixers team without James Harden or Tyrese Maxey.

• Thursday: Golden State at Memphis, 7:30 p.m. ET, TNT

There’s a reason this matchup was featured in the NBA’s debut of Rivals Week earlier this season. There was last year’s six-game series in the Western Conference semifinals, plenty of trash talk and taunting during their regular season matchups, and just a few days ago, Memphis’ Dillon Brooks reiterated his dislike for both the Warriors as a group and Draymond Green individually. This all adds up to a must-see matchup, even if Morant is not available to play as he is away from the team for an indefinite amount of time. 

• Saturday: Golden State at Milwaukee, 8:30 p.m., ABC

This ABC primetime matchup features the last two NBA champions – the Milwaukee Bucks from 2020-21 and the Golden State Warriors from 2021-22. This is the second meeting of the season between these teams as the Bucks won the first back in December behind Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 30 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Giannis has 14 30-10-5 games so far this season, second only to Dallas’ Luka Doncic.

• Sunday: New York at Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

Close out the week with a matchup between the premier teams in the league’s top two markets – New York and Los Angeles. While the Knicks have climbed to fifth in the East and have their eyes set on passing Cleveland for fourth, the Lakers are still on the outside looking in on the play-in field in the West. Los Angeles is tied with Utah at 31-34, but the Jazz hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

5. League Pass games to watch: Five more to check out

The Cavaliers and Celtics meet for their 4th and final regular-season matchup Monday night.

• Monday Boston at Cleveland, 7 p.m. ET, League Pass

The Celtics have sat atop the Eastern Conference standings for much of the season, but have lost three of their past four games – including two in a row entering Week 21. They will look to turn things around against Cleveland in this No. 2 vs. No. 4 matchup. However, the Cavaliers are one of five teams with multiple wins against the Celtics already this season as they lead the season series 2-1 entering this final regular-season meeting.

• Tuesday: Utah at Dallas, 8:30 p.m. ET, League Pass

This is a matchup of two teams currently on opposite ends of the Western Conference play-in field – Dallas at No. 7 and Utah at No. 10. On Sunday, the Mavericks fell to 2-5 in games that Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving play together. IF the Mavs hope to climb out of the play-in and earn a guaranteed playoff berth, that All-Star duo will be the catalyst. In their most recent win together, they each scored at least 40 points against the Sixers. The Jazz enter the week having lost three in a row and have a precarious hold on the No. 10 seed via the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Lakers.

• Wednesday: Portland at Boston, 7:30 p.m., League Pass

We opened this edition of The Five looking at the scoring boom that Damian Lillard has been on the past two months. Can he keep it going against Boston, the team that has held Lillard to his lowest career scoring average at 21.1 ppg over 17 games? While Lillard and the Blazers look to climb into the West play-in, the Celtics are trying to get back on track and challenge for the top seed in the East once again.

• Saturday: Sacramento at Phoenix, 9 p.m. ET, League Pass

This is an important game for both teams in the Western Conference playoff race. The Kings enter the week with a three-game edge over Phoenix in the loss column, but trail the season series with the Suns 2-0. A Phoenix win would wrap up the head-to-head tiebreaker for the Suns and pull them close to the Kings for the No. 3 spot in the West.

• Sunday: Brooklyn at Denver, 3:30 p.m. ET, League Pass

Many assumed that Brooklyn would tumble out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture following the departures of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The Nets started just 2-6 since trading Durant at the trade deadline, but have bounced back to win two straight to close last week, including an impressive win over the Celtics on Friday as they rallied back from a 28-point deficit and eventually won by 10 in Boston. The Nets may no longer be title contenders, but don’t expect them to roll over down the stretch as they look to hold onto that sixth and final guaranteed playoff spot. They have a tough test to close out Week 21 against the West-leading Nuggets and triple-double machine Nikola Jokic.