NBA

NBA Heat Check: Sixers stars on song, LeBron's deep-ball decline

By Sports Desk February 22, 2021

The races for the top seeds in each conference in the NBA are getting more interesting.

It was a fascinating seven days of action in the NBA, which saw the Brooklyn Nets surge even with Kevin Durant on the sidelines.

They are on a six-game win streak and trail the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers by only half a game.

However, the Sixers can be encouraged by the form of their top two stars, who each enjoyed extremely productive weeks.

The Los Angeles Lakers are on a two-game losing streak and are two and a half games back of the Utah Jazz in the race for the top seed in the Western Conference.

They will be out to get back to their best this week, and an improvement in three-point shooting from the MVP frontrunner would be beneficial to them doing that.

Here we take a look at some of the best and worst performers across the past week, aided by Stats Perform data.

RUNNING HOT...

Ben Simmons

Simmons missed two games last week due to stomach flu but he was excellent in the pair of games in which he did feature for the Sixers.

He dropped 42 points in the loss to the Utah Jazz and, after a brief spell on the sidelines, was back with 28 in the defeat to the Toronto Raptors.

His points per game average for the week ballooned to 35, Simmons having entered the week putting up 14.13. Philadelphia will need more of the same the rest of the way if the Sixers are to clinch top spot in the East.

Jamal Murray

The Nuggets are in the thick of a crowded playoff race in the Western Conference, and their hopes of reaching the postseason will be boosted if Murray can maintain his form of the past week.

Having come into the week scoring 18.54 points per game, he averaged 35 last week, with that number inflated by a stunning 50-point game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which saw him shoot 84 per cent from the field and go eight of 10 from three-point range.

He went from putting up just over two triples per game to averaging five and, with a game against a Portland Trail Blazers team two and a half games ahead of them in the standings next up, Murray's success from deep will be pivotal.

Joel Embiid

Arguably the closest challenger to LeBron James for the league MVP award this season, Embiid was a monster on the boards for the Sixers this week.

His 50-point game in the win over the Chicago Bulls on Friday was also the first of two successive outings with 17 rebounds. 

Embiid's rebounds per game average jumped from 10.77 entering the week to 15 over the past seven days.

He will need to continue making that kind of all-round impact in scoring and rebounding if Embiid is to have any hope of denying LeBron the MVP.

GOING COLD...

Derrick Rose

Rose's second week as a New York Knick did not go to plan.

The 2011 MVP had come into the week registering 14.28 points per game, but that dropped to just 5.33 over the course of the last three games.

He endured a dismal week from the field, hitting just five of his 27 shots. Having gotten him out of a bad situation in Detroit, the Knicks will want a lot more from Rose in the coming weeks as they look to cement their grasp on a playoff spot.

Nikola Jokic

While Murray has been outstanding for the Nuggets, their MVP candidate had a down week in one key area of his game.

Denver lost three of their four games last week, and the Nuggets will look for improved play on the boards from Jokic as they target a reversal in fortunes. 

Jokic had been recording 11.5 rebounds per game but that dipped to 8.75 over his past four outings, failing to put up double-digit rebounds in back-to-back games against the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

He was back in double figures in each of Denver's last two games, and Jokic will aim to carry that momentum into this week and a key matchup with Portland.

LeBron James

This season has seen LeBron hit threes at his highest rate since joining the Los Angeles Lakers.

He has converted on 36.2 per cent of his attempts from beyond the arc but he suffered a decline from deep last week.

Having entered the week hitting 2.57 threes a game, he averaged just one over the course of the Lakers' last three matchups.

James has not made more than one three in a game since the second meeting in a back-to-back with the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 10.

With LeBron, though, drop-offs are only ever temporary. The MVP frontrunner should resume normal service from three-point range sooner rather than later.

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    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says Cristiano Ronaldo almost guarantees goals as Manchester United prepare to face Villarreal in the Champions League. 

    United have drawn their last five meetings with Villarreal, including the 2021 Europa League final which they went on to lose on penalties, while managing to score just once. 

    Therefore, the Premier League club will be hoping the 36-year-old, who is the Champions League's all-time leading scorer, can help them halt that barren run. 

    Ronaldo has never netted against Villarreal in four previous appearances against them for United in the competition, only facing Lille and Benfica as often without finding the net. 

    However, he scored 13 times against the Spanish side during his time with Real Madrid, a factor Solskjaer hopes will work in United's favour. 

    Ronaldo has four goals in as many games for United, though he failed to strike for the first time since re-joining the club in the Premier League defeat to Aston Villa last time out. 

    "Of course Cristiano, you can almost say when he starts it is one guaranteed goal," Solskjaer said at his pre-match news conference when asked if Ronaldo could be the difference. 

    "He has that record and he will score goals.  

    "It is not going to be easy for us, but it is not going to be easy [for Villarreal] to play against Cristiano.  

    "He has 13 goals in 15 against Villarreal [for Madrid] which means he enjoys playing against them.  

    "He knows Raul Albiol, Pau Torres, top defenders. He is determined to score every time he is on the pitch. We have to play well to create chances." 

    Ronaldo will break former Madrid team-mate Iker Casillas’ record for Champions League appearances if he plays, setting a new record of 178 games.  

    It will be the Portugal international's first Champions League game at Old Trafford for United since April 2009 against Arsenal. He was directly involved in 12 goals in his final 15 home games in his first spell for the Red Devils in the competition, netting seven and providing five assists. 

    With Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka out, and Luke Shaw's status uncertain, United are poised for a defensive reshuffle, so Solskjaer will hope Ronaldo and the attack can carry the load with his team under pressure after losing the Group F opener to Young Boys. 

    The United manager added: "It is a group stage, there are only six games and you need 10 or maybe 12 points to go through. 

    "We lost three points last time. If you end up with zero or one point after two games you need to win the last four games probably, so not a must-win game but it is a very important one." 

  • Kante ruled out of Juventus match after testing positive for coronavirus Kante ruled out of Juventus match after testing positive for coronavirus

    Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel has revealed N'Golo Kante will miss Wednesday's Champions League clash with Juventus after testing positive for coronavirus.

    The France international made his sixth appearance of the season on Saturday when playing an hour of Chelsea's 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in the Premier League.

    However, Kante has since contracted COVID-19 and will serve a period of isolation, ruling him out of the Blues' European tie with Juve and league clash with Southampton ahead of the international break.

    Speaking at a pre-match news conference on Tuesday, Tuchel also confirmed Christian Pulisic, Reece James and Mason Mount will not make the trip to Turin because of injury problems.

    Juventus will also be without some key players at the Allianz Stadium as Paulo Dybala and former Chelsea striker Alvaro Morata have been ruled out.

    The Turin giants were in the relegation zone after picking up just two points from their first four Serie A matches, but back-to-back wins have lifted them up to 10th.

    Massimiliano Allegri's side also saw off Malmo 3-0 in their opening Champions League match two weeks ago to make it 11 wins in their past 12 group-stage matches.

    Despite losing Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United last month, Tuchel is still expecting a big test when Chelsea travel to Turin.

    "They are so experienced and such a big club with so much Champions League experience," he said.

    "They will enjoy the different competition. They have had a bit of a rough start according to their results in Serie A, but they were convincing in the Champions League.

    "You never know with players that are missing. The guys who come in want to show they are reliable. We play Juventus at Juventus.

    "It's a no-brainer that demands respect to the quality and tradition of the club. 

    "We need to refocus and regroup and face a tough challenge with positive energy and determination to bounce back from our defeat to Manchester City."

    Ronaldo scored 101 goals in 134 appearances for Juve across his three seasons at the club before returning to United, 14 of those goals coming in the Champions League.

    Only six other players scored more goals in the competition than Ronaldo over that period, but Tuchel does not believe the Portuguese's surprise exit hinders Juve's chances of European success, even if they are now a weaker side.

    "Time will tell, but every team without Cristiano is weaker. He shows it every time he is on the pitch, in the Premier League and in the Champions League," Tuchel said. 

    "They have lost a great champion, a great personality, but you can be a great team and win things, too, even without him. 

    "And they are. They have experience, talent, depth and a quality coach. They have winning DNA, the winning mentality.

    "This is the first time I've played against Juventus. I will face a team of our level and these challenges make us a better team. "

    Chelsea have lost each of their past four away games against Italian teams in the Champions League, with each defeat coming against a different side – including Juve in 2012-13.

    The Blues scraped past Zenit 1-0 in their opening Group H match but, as reigning European champions, Tuchel accepts his side no longer enter any game as underdogs.

    "It is difficult for that to be the case when you've won the title," the German coach said. "We won this competition last season when we weren't favourites.

    "Now it's easy to consider ourselves as favourites and to accept that. We've won it before. We have showed all of our abilities.

    "We need to play with freedom but also be realistic. The standards are high for us and hopefully the performances and results arrive step by step."

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    Manchester United captain Harry Maguire has been ruled out for Wednesday's Champions League match against Villarreal and could miss "a few weeks" of action with a calf injury.

    Maguire and fellow defender Luke Shaw both suffered injuries in the disappointing 1-0 Premier League defeat to Aston Villa last time out.

    And manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer revealed the centre-back is set for a spell on the sidelines.

    But he had more positive news on Shaw, who is in contention to face the Spanish side and does not look poised for a long spell out regardless of whether he is able to start the match at Old Trafford.

    "Luke has been in on Tuesday, so I will give him a chance to be involved," Solskjaer said at his pre-match news conference.

    "He did not train with the team [but] hopefully Luke can be involved.

    "Harry is more or less definitely out, it doesn't look good. It is his calf, that might take a few weeks.

    "Let's see how quickly he recovers. He wanted to play against Villarreal, he missed the last game [against them in the Europa League final]." 

    With Aaron Wan-Bissaka already suspended after a red card in the opening Group F defeat against Young Boys, United could be forced to change three members of their regular back four alongside Raphael Varane.

    Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Diogo Dalot and Alex Telles are among the candidates to come into the starting XI.

    Solskjaer added: "We will have to make a few changes. You always look at the opposition and sometimes you need to make adjustments.

    "But we look at ourselves mostly. The more injuries you get, you might need to do tactical changes. I have got Eric, Rapha, Victor. Alex and Diogo 100 per cent fit." 

    The last five meetings in European competition between United and Villarreal have all ended in draws.

    Four of those encounters were goalless, the exception being the 2021 Europa League final, which Villarreal won 11-10 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

    "You expect what you have learned in the last few seasons," added Solskjaer. "We have played each other five times, every time has been a draw. 

    "They are very well organised, technically very good. They can play from the back. It is hard to press against them, which I thought we did well in the final.

    "Difficult to create chances against and we have to be better to create chances. It was an even final."

    United go into the key game looking to end an unwelcome trend.

    They are winless in their last seven matches against Spanish teams in the Champions League (D3 L4), with their last such victory coming against Real Sociedad back in October 2013 (1-0).

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