NBA

Jamal Murray: Nuggets should be up 2-1 over Lakers

By Sports Desk September 23, 2020

Denver Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray believes his team should be 2-1 up in their best-of-seven series with Los Angeles Lakers after a devastating Game 2 defeat.

Murray starred with 28 points, 12 assists and two late three-pointers to earn the Nuggets a 114-106 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals in Florida.

That hard-fought victory came on the back of a buzzer-beating loss in Game 2, which saw Anthony Davis hit a last-gasp three-pointer to win it for the Lakers.

But having also showed real character to outlast the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semi-finals, Murray is determined to peg back the Lakers at 2-2 on Thursday.

"We had Game 2. I thought we played great in Game 2, we just had a couple of moments that really hurt us," he told reporters. "So we feel like we should be up 2-1 right now." 

"We have to move on to Game 4 now. In the Clippers series we dropped Game 3, so we have to take care of stuff that we can control. We've got to do that if we want to win."  

The Lakers entered the game on a six-game winning run and closed to within three points of Denver in the final quarter, only for their opponents to pull away.

"We're in this series," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the vital win.

"We let them know we're not going anywhere. That's what you guys have done this whole post-season.

"That's why everybody is rooting for us. Keep on showing that grit and resilience and playing for each other."

James led the Lakers with a 26th career triple-double, which included 30 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, but the Lakers star conceded the better team won on the day.

"We turned the ball over too much and we put them on the free-throw line," he said.

"I give credit where credit is due. They played better than us. They were more aggressive than us for three quarters."

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  • El Clasico: Barcelona treading new ground with Koeman's 4-2-3-1 El Clasico: Barcelona treading new ground with Koeman's 4-2-3-1

    Ronald Koeman will get his first taste of El Clasico from a dugout when Barcelona host Real Madrid on Saturday.

    The LaLiga champions head to Camp Nou after a pretty rotten week in which back-to-back home defeats to Cadiz and Shakhtar Donetsk have left fans and pundits alike thoroughly disillusioned with Zinedine Zidane's current approach.

    Barca also lost 1-0 in their previous league game, away to Getafe, but a 5-1 thumping of Ferencvaros in the Champions League was a tonic and, in truth, that defeat at Coliseum Alfonso Perez felt more like an aberration during what has mostly been an encouraging start under Koeman.

    The Clasico is always the acid test, though – and Barca, barring a dramatic change in system, will line up for this one in a 4-2-3-1 formation, something they have not done for at least the previous 46 meetings.

    BREAKING THE WHEEL

    Nobody need tell Koeman about Barca's traditional adherence to 4-3-3. He had enough experience as a player for the Netherlands and the Blaugrana to know such a system like the back of his hand, even if Johan Cruyff's peak 'Dream Team' – such as the one that won the 1992 European Cup final through a Koeman extra-time goal – thrived instead in a 3-4-3.

    The fact is, though, that Barca have doubled down on 4-3-3 since Frank Rijkaard took charge in 2003. He, Pep Guardiola, Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Martino, Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde and, eventually, Quique Setien – all have either stuck religiously to the system or at least made good use of it.

    That rings true in the Clasico, too. Since the 2005-06 season, there have been 46 matches between Barca and Madrid in all competitions, and Barca have started in a 4-3-3 in 39 of them. Four games have seen them set up in a 4-4-2, and one each in 3-4-3, 3-5-2 and 4-3-1-2.

    It's yielded mixed success, as you might expect. Barca won 17 of those 39 games in 4-3-3 – a 43.6 per cent winning rate – and lost 12. They scored 71 goals and conceded 53.

    In 4-4-2, they won twice, drew once and lost once, scoring eight goals and conceding four. The 3-4-3 was, fittingly, a 3-3 LaLiga draw in October 2007; the 4-3-1-2 was that famous 3-2 win for Barca at the Santiago Bernabeu under Luis Enrique in 2017, when Lionel Messi scored his 500th club goal; and the 3-5-2 was used by Valverde when they lost 2-0 in the Supercopa de Espana second leg in the capital three years ago.

    Koeman's set-up, then, is a big departure from the norm. But will it work against Madrid?

    FATI AND FRENKIE ON FIRE

    Koeman explained this month that 4-2-3-1 was preferable because of Barca's lack of wingers. "Looking at the quality that we have, this formation is perfect for the team," he told Barca TV.

    Fans may not have warmed to the idea at first, but Koeman's approach makes sense – and there are certain players thriving in this formation.

    For one thing, it gets Ansu Fati involved closer to goal. In four league games, the young Spain star has attempted 15 dribbles, created three chances and scored three goals. The freedom to cut inside from the left has also liberated Jordi Alba and Sergino Dest at left-back, each of whom have also created three goalscoring chances. Given Madrid presently have no fully fit right-backs, that should worry Zidane.

    Another to benefit is Frenkie de Jong, a player who admitted to underwhelming in his first season after joining from Ajax for an initial €75million. He has performed positively in a central axis, usually alongside Sergio Busquets, asserting himself in games far more even though Barca's average possession figure has dropped to 59.2 per cent, lower than in any of the past 11 seasons.

    He, too, has created three goalscoring chances and has a remarkable 100 per cent success rate from 11 attempted dribbles. He has also completed 216 passes, behind only the more possession-focused Gerard Pique (255) and Busquets (261). He is a player with renewed confidence in breaking lines in transition and getting the ball into threatening areas, and Madrid's midfield three will have a real test on their hands to cover the space of Barca's four forwards while keeping De Jong quiet.

    And Messi? Koeman said before the Ferencvaros game that his captain's form "could be better", and he had a point – one goal (a penalty) and zero assists from four league games is an unusually modest return. He is also averaging 3.9 shots per game, his lowest rate since 2007-08.

    Still, Messi has created more chances (six), attempted more dribbles (19) and more shots (15) than any other Barca player in the league this season, and he may be about to face a Madrid defence without Sergio Ramos.

  • Ex-Man Utd players don't know what they're talking about – Solskjaer defends 'fantastic' Greenwood Ex-Man Utd players don't know what they're talking about – Solskjaer defends 'fantastic' Greenwood

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has denied reports that young forward Mason Greenwood has been overlooked for selection recently after repeatedly turning up late for training.

    Greenwood was not part of the squad for United's victories over Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain, owing to what Solskjaer put down to a "niggle".

    The 19-year-old was sent home from England duty last month for breaching coronavirus protocols and subsequently dropped by Gareth Southgate for this month's triple-header.

    Reports suggested Solskjaer had grown frustrated with the teenage academy product and warned the youngster about his punctuality.

    However, speaking ahead of Saturday's clash with Chelsea, the United boss dismissed those claims and took aim at the media.

    "I'm not concerned at all with Mason making a target for himself," Solskjaer said. "He came in, played fantastic, played in the league for the first time against Tottenham and was brilliant. 

    "He kicked on and he makes a mistake for England and suddenly the English press go after him. He's never ever late for training. I've seen some ex-United players talking about him and they don't know what they're talking about. 

    "He's got a good family behind him and he's a good trainer. I cannot believe all these stories about him not being professional. That's something we have to deal with many players, many other players at United have had that."

    Greenwood has made 37 Premier League appearances for United since his debut in March 2019, scoring 10 times, assisting one and laying on 10 chances for his team-mates.

    Solskjaer confirmed the youngster is back in contention to face Chelsea this weekend, while new signing Edinson Cavani is in line to make his debut and Harry Maguire is also fit again after missing the trip to PSG.

    "I hope and expect all three of them to be available," he said. "We've got a training session this morning which is the last chance of preparation. They've all got a chance.

    "Edinson needs to tick all the boxes that he's gone through in his programme to be ready and make an impact. I'll have a discussion with him, Mason and Harry today."

    United are playing at Old Trafford for the first time since losing 6-1 to Tottenham three weeks ago – their joint heaviest defeat in the Premier League.

    They have since beaten Newcastle and PSG in back-to-back away games, but Solskjaer admitted nothing will exorcise the demons from the humiliating loss to Spurs.

    "I don't think anything will erase that memory – it'll always be in the history books and we have always got to live with having that result," he said. 

    "You can look back at different reasons why we had that result but we have got to move forward.

    "It's happened so many times at this club that you have results out of the blue or setbacks, so far we have bounced back well.

    "It's very important for players that if you lose games you're determined to win, to bounce back, and I saw that focus at Newcastle and PSG.

    "It gives you more belief and confidence, two good performances and results but the next game is what we're focused on."

    United are unbeaten in their last seven league meetings with Chelsea and won this corresponding fixture 4-0 on the opening weekend of last season, but Solskjaer is anticipating a difficult game.

    "We know it’s gonna be tough against Chelsea – two teams that know each other really well," Solskjaer said.

    "Addressing our home form is key. The whole lockdown period has made us do things differently at home so we may need to find a different way to beat them."

  • El Clasico: Messi's long goodbye to the world's greatest club match El Clasico: Messi's long goodbye to the world's greatest club match

    A Clasico showdown against Real Madrid, or West Ham away?

    Before Lionel Messi steps out onto the Camp Nou pitch on Saturday, remember this: he had made up his mind, and he had chosen West Ham away.

    Playing for Manchester City was Messi's plan for 2020-21, it is believed, and if that meant sacrificing leading Barcelona against their greatest rivals, shucks to it.

    Messi must have thought he had nothing left to prove in this fixture, being already the top scorer in Clasico history with 26 goals across all competitions, way ahead of names such as Alfredo di Stefano, Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul and Cesar Rodriguez.

    Eighteen of those goals have come in LaLiga, from 27 appearances, and he has averaged one goal involvement per game in the league thanks to nine assists.

    However, he has failed to score in his last five Clasico games - three in the league and two in the Copa del Rey.

    This weekend, with the world watching, Barcelona need the real Messi to stand up.


    Still the same player?

    Before the king of the Clasico faces Los Blancos one more time, team-mate Ansu Fati was moved to comment this week that "Messi is still Messi".

    The 17-year-old spoke after Messi's early penalty helped Barcelona to a 5-1 Champions League win over Ferencvaros.

    Yet heading into that game, Barcelona's new head coach Ronald Koeman said Messi's form "could be better", cosseting that in sufficient pleasantries to avoid any blowback.

    As for who is right - Fati or Koeman - it is hard to dispute the experienced Dutchman's verdict.

    Doubtless Fati loves playing with 33-year-old Messi, because what teenager wouldn't relish every minute playing with an all-time great?

    But Messi's numbers are down in the early weeks of this LaLiga season, with his average attempted dribbles per game down from 8.58 in 2019-20 to just 4.75, and his shots on target per game at a relatively meagre 1.75 when he has averaged 2.15 or higher in each campaign over the past decade.

    One goal in four LaLiga matches in 2020-21 equates to his slowest start to a season since 2005-06, when the teenage Messi failed to score in his first four games.

    The Clasico drought

    Those five goalless games in Spain's biggest match have consisted of four starts and one appearance off the bench, amounting to 425 minutes of football without a goal, his second longest run without netting in the Clasico - behind a six-game sequence from April 2014 to December 2016.

    He has failed to score with his last 16 shots in the fixture and has not been on the winning side in a LaLiga Clasico at Camp Nou since Barcelona's 2-1 victory in March 2015, having missed the 5-1 success in October 2018 because of a fractured arm.

    He has not had a goal involvement - scoring or assisting - in the last three Clasico league games, putting him one away from what from that statistical perspective would be the worst run of his career.

    And the goal return from Messi in Barcelona's biggest home league match of the season has been modest - albeit only by his extraordinary standards - for some time.

    He scored twice in a 2-2 draw in October 2012 and netted once when the team played out the same result in May 2018, but those are the only goals he has scored in this LaLiga game since a late strike sealed a 2-0 win in 2008.

    Nobody has scored more Clasico league goals at Camp Nou than Messi's haul of seven, which he launched with a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw back in March 2007.

    But the big-game returns are diminishing with time, or at least that is how it seems.

    Has Messi become a flat-track bully?

    The instinctive response is to challenge the use of such a reductive term to describe a footballer so eminent.

    The transition happens time and again though, from sport to sport. The ageing superstars who once routinely tormented elite rivals serve up reminders of their most glorious days in flashes, often against more limited opposition than before. Case in point: Messi looked sublime at times against Ferencvaros.

    In tennis, Roger Federer can still toy with low-ranked tennis players to the point of doling out early-round humiliations, but will he win another grand slam title, having recently turned 39? No, probably not. Will Messi win another Champions League? No, probably not. It is hard to see it happening at a crisis-hit Barcelona, anyway.

    Messi's haul of 25 LaLiga goals last season was his lowest since he scored 23 in the 2008-09 treble-winning campaign, when Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry were also scavenging for chances.

    But if he is not scoring consistently against Real Madrid, and if he was powerless to prevent Bayern Munich's rout of Barcelona in the Champions League back in August, then where is Messi making his big difference heading into his mid-thirties?

    Since the start of August 2018, in LaLiga he has scored eight goals against Eibar, five each against Real Betis, Levante, Alaves and Sevilla, and four apiece against Real Mallorca, Celta Vigo and Espanyol.

    Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao are the two teams who have defied him throughout that time.

    A leaving present

    If this is to be Messi's sign-off stretch with Barcelona - and given his recent state of vexation that seems highly possible - then it is to be assumed he wants to depart with a swagger rather than a shrug of a season.

    Had Barcelona's board acquiesced to Messi's departure at the end of last term, this weekend's kick-off in El Clasico would have coincided with the Argentinian winding down at the London Stadium after a lunchtime outing for Pep Guardiola's City against David Moyes' Hammers.

    Perhaps Messi would have tuned in for El Clasico on the team coach; perhaps not.

    Messi was prepared to sacrifice the Clasico - the hysteria and the history that surrounds it - and that summed up the schism that had developed between him and the club's leadership.

    He has since lost good friends Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal, offloaded to Atletico Madrid and Inter, and lost some of his sparkle at the same time.

    Suarez and Vidal won't be coming back, but the sparkle still might. There were flashes against Ferencvaros - again, take the opposition into account - but a Clasico against a wobbling Madrid side seems as good an occasion as any for Messi to serve up a reminder of his greatness.

    If he can lift himself for any game, it must be this one.

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