NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: Durant returns to the Bay with Curry in MVP form

By Sports Desk February 13, 2021

Kevin Durant will make a long-awaited return to the Bay Area on Saturday as the Brooklyn Nets visit the Golden State Warriors in a mouth-watering NBA clash at Chase Center.

It is a game that pits the league's newest 'big three' (Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden) against a Warriors team led by Stephen Curry, whose incredible performances this season merit MVP votes.

But more significantly it is Durant's first road game against the Warriors since leaving them to join the Nets after the 2018-19 season that ended with Golden State losing the NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors in a series that saw the 2014 MVP suffer an Achilles injury.

Having missed the last three games because of coronavirus contact tracing protocols, Durant has been cleared and will face the team with whom he won two NBA titles and two Finals MVPs, though Curry does not expect his former team-mate to treat the contest any differently.

Reflecting on Durant's time with the Warriors, Curry told a media conference: "Two championships, an unfortunate ending with injuries and not getting it done in the 2019 Finals, but it was some of the best basketball the world has ever seen.

"The ability to put that much talent and experience together and make it work, there was no guarantee it was going to work, and we figured it out and it was an amazing run."

Asked about the emotions of his return, Curry added: "Honestly, I don't know how special it'll be because it's not at Oracle [Arena] and there's no fans, so it's kind of weird that whole vibe.

"We've got a tribute video which he deserves, and hopefully it'll be a moment that he'll appreciate. But outside of that it is kind of weird to be honest, in terms of all the things that have changed since 18-19.

"If you ask him how he feels he'll probably say it's another game and I'm sure that's how it will be once the ball drops on Saturday."

TOP PERFORMERS

Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors

Curry has bounced back from a 2019-20 season lost to injury in utterly remarkable form.

He is averaging 30 points a game, the only other season in which he has done so was in 2015-16, when he was named the league MVP in a unanimous vote.

Curry is shooting 43.5 per cent from beyond the arc, having made 10 threes in Thursday's win over the Orlando Magic, which he finished with 40 points.

That his tally against the Magic was not close to his season-high is indicative of the level at which he is playing.

The six-time All-Star has a 62-point game and a 57-point game this season, and has topped 30 points on 10 other occasions. Curry is back, and he's back to his best.

James Harden - Brooklyn Nets

Harden may not be scoring at the same level as Curry but his impact this season is undoubted.

The former Houston Rockets star is sixth in the NBA in PAR (Points + Assists + Rebounds) per game with 41.8, so far justifying the Nets' blockbuster trade for his services.

He started the month with his fourth triple-double of the season against the Los Angeles Clippers and has four successive double-doubles since.

Whether it's as a scorer, facilitator or rebounder, the Warriors will have to do all they can to limit Harden's influence.

KEY BATTLE: CAN DRAYMOND STOP DURANT?

With the Warriors still without rookie center James Wiseman because of a wrist injury and DeAndre Jordan out for the Nets, Durant may have to matchup with Draymond Green at center.

In the absence of Wiseman, the Warriors have had to turn to small ball and play Green at the five, and his clash with Durant promises to be a feisty one, given they weren't afraid to get in each other's faces as team-mates.

One of Green's tasks will be to stop Durant from getting into the paint consistently. That is no easy feat, but the Warriors have had success stopping teams in that regard this season.

Their 43.5 points in the paint allowed per game are the sixth-fewest in the NBA. If Green and the Warriors can limit Durant's opportunities to get to the hoop, they will have a much better shot of pulling off the upset.

HEAD TO HEAD

Durant and Irving inspired the Nets to a blowout win over the Warriors to start the new season.

The Nets emerged 125-99 victors, Durant scoring 22 points and leading Brooklyn with a plus-minus rating of plus 26.

That game was illustrative of the massive changes both teams have undergone. It was Brooklyn's second successive win over the Warriors but they had lost their previous eight meetings with one of most dominant teams in NBA history.

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  • Euro 2020 data dive: De Ligt's passing masterclass, Belgium keep winning run going Euro 2020 data dive: De Ligt's passing masterclass, Belgium keep winning run going

    Belgium and the Netherlands joined Italy in booking their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2020 with victories over Denmark and Austria respectively.

    The world's top-ranked side Belgium had to bounce back from a goal down to beat an inspired Denmark, with both teams paying tribute to Christian Eriksen after 10 minutes as the midfielder continues his recovery from a cardiac arrest.

    Roberto Martinez's side need a point in their final Group B match to make certain of top spot, but the Netherlands are already through as Group C winners after seeing off Austria.

    Ukraine also picked up all three points against North Macedonia in Thursday's action – just their second-ever victory at the European Championships.

    Using Opta data, we take a look at some of the best facts from across the day's action.

    Ukraine 2-1 North Macedonia: Shevchenko's men end losing Euros streak

    Andriy Yarmolenko and Roman Yaremchuk were on target for the second match running to end Ukraine's six-game losing streak at the European Championships.

    With Yarmolenko and Yaremchuk's first-half goals, Ukraine became the first nation to have the same two players score in their first two games at a single Euros.

    Ezgjan Alioski pulled one back at the second attempt after his penalty was saved, making it two goals in three games – as many as in his previous 17 for North Macedonia.

    His penalty was given after a foul on Goran Pandev, who – at at 37 years and 325 days – is the oldest player to win a spot-kick in the Euros since data was first recorded in 1980.

    Ruslan Malinovskyi failed to convert from 12 yards late on in a game which saw both sides win a penalty in the competition for the first time since England v France in 2004.

    It means four of the six penalties taken at Euro 2020 have not been converted. The last tournament with more was Euro 2000 (five).

    Denmark 1-2 Belgium: Red Devils bounce back from early setback

    Belgium showed why they are ranked number one in the world as they recovered from an early setback to make it 11 wins from their last 12 group games at major competitions.

    However, they had to do things the hard way after Yussuf Poulsen struck early on in Copenhagen.

    Poulsen opened the scoring after 99 seconds – the second-earliest goal ever in the tournament, behind only Dmitry Kirichenko for Russia against Greece in 2004 (65 seconds).

    The one shot on target Belgium managed in the first half came via Dries Mertens, who was earning his 100th cap for his country – the fifth Belgian to reach that landmark.

    But the half-time introduction of Kevin De Bruyne for Mertens transformed the Red Devils, the playmaker setting up Thorgan Hazard's leveller and then drilling in the winner.

    De Bruyne's fantastic strike was teed up by Eden Hazard, who joins the Manchester City star as the two European players to assist a goal at each of the last four major tournaments.

    Belgium survived a nervy finish as they won their first two European Championship matches for the first time, while Denmark have lost their first two for the first time since 2000.

    Netherlands 2-0 Austria: Faultless Oranje ease through

    The Netherlands followed up their opening-game win against Ukraine with a routine victory against Austria in Amsterdam.

    It is the third time the Oranje have won their opening two Euros matches, having previously done so in 2000 and 2008, when they exited the competition at the semi-final and quarter-final stage respectively.

    Frank de Boer's men are now unbeaten in their last nine matches at major tournaments, which is the longest run by a European nation since Portugal went 12 without defeat between 2014 and 2018.

    Memphis Depay opened the scoring for the Netherlands from the penalty spot, the Lyon forward's eighth goal for his country since De Boer took charge last September, with only Belgium's Romelu Lukaku scoring more (10) across all competitions for a European side over that period.

    Denzel Dumfries added the second goal and is just the second Netherlands player to net in his first two appearances at the Euros after Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2004, this after the right-back failed to score in his first 19 senior caps.

    One of the unsung stars for the hosts was Dumfries' fellow defender Matthijs de Ligt, who completed 100 per cent of his 40 passes – a record for a Netherlands player in a European Championship match since records began in 1980.

  • Denmark inspired by recovering Eriksen but De Bruyne quality shines through Denmark inspired by recovering Eriksen but De Bruyne quality shines through

    Belgium planned to kick the ball out of play after 10 minutes against Denmark to pay their own mark of respect to Christian Eriksen. The world's top-ranked football nation were perhaps not anticipating, however, that they would be chasing the game – and indeed Danish shadows – at that early stage in the match.

    In the end the referee, Bjorn Kuipers, seemingly had to remind the Belgium players to bring the contest to a temporary halt, sparking emotional scenes as supporters and players - Eriksen's current and former club-mates Romelu Lukaku, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld among them – applauded in unison.

    It was that type of occasion and that type of start for Denmark as they produced a fitting tribute to stricken team-mate Eriksen, who was likely to have been watching on from his hospital bed barely 400 yards away, where he continues to recover from a cardiac arrest.

    Football was put into perspective the moment Eriksen went to ground in the Danes' opening Group B defeat to Finland – he was "gone", in the words of team doctor Morten Boesen – but thankfully updates in the five days since the incident have been largely positive.

    Whether we will see the Inter playmaker on a field again remains to be seen; that he is able to smile and laugh once more with his colleagues is a huge victory in its own right. A bigger victory, indeed, than Denmark were on course for against Belgium until the Kevin De Bruyne show ensued.

     

    Long before the Manchester City playmaker's half-time arrival, just 99 seconds into the game at a raucous Parken Stadium, Yussuf Poulsen finished expertly into the bottom-left corner for the second-quickest goal in European Championship history.

    Poulsen profited from a Jason Denayer error, the Lyon defender looking rusty in the early stages after returning to the side in place of Dedryck Boyata at the back following a rare day off in the 3-0 win over Russia.

    Roberto Martinez's Belgian charges lived up to their tag as the world's number one side in their previous match against Russia, and the professionalism of this performance – as bad as they were in the first half – will arguably heighten expectations that they can go all the way when at full strength.

    Belgium mustered just one attempt in the first half – a flicked effort from Dries Mertens on his 100th cap.

    The last time they managed only one effort in the opening 45 minutes was in a 2-0 loss to Spain in September 2016, Martinez's first at the helm, which preceded a run of just three defeats in their next 56 matches.

    Denmark could not quite add their name to that rare list of nations to have conquered the Red Devils over the last five years, with the visitors' quality eventually shining through. Make that De Bruyne's quality.

    Still recovering from a facial injury sustained in Manchester City's Champions League loss to Chelsea last month, the playmaker was introduced for the start of the second half and made an instant impact.

    Against the run of play, Lukaku turned his marker and pulled the ball back for De Bruyne to tee up the unmarked Thorgan Hazard. The finish from six yards was simple, the build-up to it anything but.

    That assist made De Bruyne the only European player to set up a goal in each of the last four major international tournaments and he added his own name to the scoresheet 16 minutes later.

    Another flowing team move culminated in De Bruyne driving a low shot past Kasper Schmeichel. A broken nose and a broken eye socket for De Bruyne; broken dreams for Denmark as their tournament hopes are now perhaps as good as over.

    This game was never solely about the result, though – one that ensures safe passage through to the knockout stages for Belgium with a game, against Finland, to spare.

    The defining moment was not Denayer's error, De Bruyne's match-changing introduction or Martin Braithwaite skimming the crossbar at the end, but rather the moment when all within the stadium united to pay respect to the popular Eriksen.

    "All of Denmark is with you, Christian," a banner in one of the stands read. And boy did Denmark's players show that as they gave Belgium's hugely talented squad a run for their money.

  • Buffon, Robben, Riquelme and the stars who went back to retire at their first club Buffon, Robben, Riquelme and the stars who went back to retire at their first club

    In a move that football purists, romanticists and aficionados of 1990s Serie A will be excited by, Gianluigi Buffon is returning to Parma after 20 years away.

    Buffon came through the club's academy in the early '90s and made 220 appearances for them in all competitions, winning the Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana and UEFA Cup during a six-year spell in the first-team.

    Juventus made Buffon the world's most-expensive goalkeeper at the time when they paid €52million for him in 2001 and he played 685 times for them across two spells, 20 short of Alessandro Del Piero's club record.

    Nevertheless, Buffon's longevity has ensured he is the record holder for the most Serie A appearances (657) and titles (10) in the league's history.

    After leaving Juve at the end of the 2020-21 season, it was unclear what would be next for Buffon, but links with Parma began to stir despite their relegation to Serie B.

    And on Thursday the club confirmed Buffon is back. While the days of challenging for major honours are long gone for Parma, the goalkeeping great represents a coup and the kind of transfer that tugs at heartstrings.

    In honour of Buffon's momentous return, Stats Perform takes a look at other greats who've gone back to their spiritual home to close out their career.

    Arjen Robben - Groningen

    Arjen Robben's retirement lasted just a single season, as the Netherlands and Bayern Munich great announced last year that he was returning to his boyhood club Groningen for the 2020-21 campaign. Robben, now 37, initially brought an illustrious playing career to an end in July 2019 shortly after his 10-year spell with Bayern finished. Although at the time he was linked with a potential return to the team that gave him his professional debut, Robben – who suffered with numerous injury problems throughout his career – opted to retire. He then caused something of a shock as he finally went back to the place where it all began, but once again injuries blighted his season, restricting him to just seven Eredivisie appearances. It's unclear if he'll play on into 2021-22, though either way it's safe to assume Groningen will be where he retires once and for all.

    Juan Roman Riquelme - Argentinos Juniors

    Perhaps more synonymous with Boca Juniors, where he made his professional debut and also spent most of his final years, Riquelme also had a strong affinity with Argentinos Juniors. He came through the club's academy in the early-to-mid 1990s, before then finishing his immense career at Estadio Diego Maradona in 2014, having also played for Barcelona, Villarreal and Argentina. Although the iconic attacking midfielder appeared close to joining Paraguay's Cerro Porteno the following year, the move never materialised.

    Dirk Kuyt - Quick Boys

    Kuyt briefly came out of retirement three years ago to help Quick Boys, with whom he spent 13 years as a youth. Playing in the Derde Divisie Saturday league, Kuyt was already working as assistant at the time, but made himself available for selection during a striker shortage and he made three appearances. The former Netherlands and Liverpool forward had retired the year before following a second spell with Feyenoord, where he had made his initial breakthrough in the mid-2000s, his form at the time earning a move to Anfield.

    Rafael Marquez - Atlas

    One of Mexico's greatest players, Marquez's longevity at such a high level was nothing short of incredible, as he accumulated 147 international caps. After breaking into the Atlas team as a teenager having come through their academy, the elegant centre-back enjoyed a sparkling career in Europe, winning 14 titles across spells with Monaco and Barcelona. Time with New York Red Bulls, Leon and Hellas Verona followed, before a final two-year stint back at the Jalisco ended in 2018. Although plagued by off-field allegations towards the end of his career, Marquez went on to become the club's sporting president, before standing down last in 2019 to focus on other areas of the sport. He is expected to be taking up a youth coaching role at Barca next season.

    Juan Pablo Angel - Atletico Nacional

    Angel perhaps never quite lived up to the expectations he set during his early days as part of River Plate's so-called 'Fantastic Four' with Javier Saviola, Ariel Ortega and Pablo Aimar, having joined from Colombia's Nacional. Nevertheless, he became a fan favourite at Aston Villa in the Premier League, before spending six years in MLS with New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA. In 2013 he returned to Nacional for two seasons, having left them in 1997. He called it quits in late 2014, just a few days after losing to his former club River in the final of the Copa Sudamericana. "I am ending my career with a final between the two clubs I love the most," he said.

    Henrik Larsson - Hogaborgs

    While the Swedish club most may associate with Larsson is Helsingborgs, he actually made the breakthrough at a smaller side – Hogaborgs. It was here where he trained from the age of six, before eventually becoming a regular in the senior side and earning a move to Helsingborgs. A trophy-laden career followed, taking him to Feyenoord, Celtic, Barcelona and Manchester United. Although he retired in 2009, he returned to the pitch for Raa in the Swedish third tier three years later, before then finding himself back in the team at Hogaborgs in 2013, helping out due to an injury crisis despite him only previously being registered to a casual team for 'seniors'. This gave him the chance to play alongside his son, Jordan.

    Carlos Tevez - Boca Juniors

    The Tevez-Boca love affair has dominated most of the striker's successful and complex career. After coming through their youth ranks, the feisty forward was seen as the heir to Maradona. A brief stint in Brazil with Corinthians followed, but Europe had long since beckoned, even if West Ham was by no means the expected destination. He went on to play for Manchester United and Manchester City, increasing tension between the clubs, before then going to Juventus, but throughout this time Tevez seemed to long for a return to Boca. He went back to La Bombonera in 2015, his homecoming interrupted by a brief spell with Shanghai Shenhua in 2017 in the Chinese Super League, though even Tevez acknowledged he saw his time in China as a "holiday". "He filled Santa's sack with dollars and now he has returned to Boca" was Maradona's assessment upon 'El Apache's' return from the CSL. His third spell with Boca ended in June 2021, though it remains to be seen if he ever plays for another club.

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