NBA

NBA Heat Check: Luka alight again but Bam bumbling in Bucks win

By Sports Desk May 24, 2021

The NBA playoffs got off to a thoroughly entertaining start over the weekend, with road wins for the lower seed in four of the eight series.

Game 1 followed hot on the heels of the similarly dramatic play-in tournament, in which Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors agonisingly lost twice to miss out on qualifying for the postseason.

Curry is a proven performer in both the regular season and the playoffs, but the same does not apply to every elite player.

Some stars seem to go missing when the season is on the line, while others thrive under pressure, as we discover in our latest NBA Heat Check – now comparing the performances of the past week to the entirety of the 2020-21 regular season.

RUNNING HOT...

Luka Doncic

For the second straight season, the Dallas Mavericks are playing the Los Angeles Clippers in round one. And for the second straight season, the series is providing Doncic with a platform to show off his extraordinary talents.

Dallas are too often a one-man show, but the Clippers struggled to contain Doncic last year as he averaged 31.0 points across a debut series that his Game 4 overtime buzzer-beating three-pointer memorably levelled.

The Mavs were beaten in Game 5 and Game 6 in 2020 to depart the tournament, yet this time they have a lead after Doncic's 31-point, triple-double effort on Saturday. Only Michael Jordan has played seven or more playoff games and averaged greater than his 31.0 points per game (33.4).

And it was again the Slovenian's accuracy from beyond the arc that hurt the Clippers, as he made five threes for the first time in the playoffs – up on his season average of 2.9.

Goran Dragic

The Miami Heat made the NBA Finals last season but were hamstrung by an injury to Dragic in Game 1 of the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

That proved a telling blow, but Dragic is back at the fore in this year's playoffs despite a middling regular season in which he averaged 13.4 points per game.

An opening effort of 25 points helped keep Miami in contention against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1. Duncan Robinson chipped in with 24, too, shooting 53.8 per cent from three.

Dragic ranked fourth in the league last week in terms of scoring improvement (up 11.6 points on the regular season), with Robinson fifth (up 10.9). Robinson topped the list when it came to an upturn in three-point shooting, while Dragic was just behind. The pair could not be blamed for the Bucks' win.

GOING COLD...

Bam Adebayo

Adebayo certainly could be held responsible for Miami's early deficit, contributing a measly nine points on four-for-15 shooting.

The fourth-year center contributed 17.8 points per game in last year's playoffs, including 17.2 in the Milwaukee series, but he never got going on Saturday.

The decrease from Adebayo's regular season 18.7 average was the sixth-worst in the NBA and, to make matters worse for the Heat, superstar team-mate Jimmy Butler also turned in a concerning performance.

Butler finished with 17 points, yet he made only four of 22 field goal attempts while using 30.0 per cent of Miami's plays.

Chris Paul

Paul's poor game this weekend was the most understandable but also the most concerning. The veteran point guard took a blow to his shoulder in the Phoenix Suns' win over the Lakers and clearly moved uneasily thereafter.

"I heard like a crack or whatever," said Paul, whose ball handling was uncharacteristically clumsy as he was limited to seven points, down from a season average of 16.4 per outing.

It did not cost the Suns, but they will surely need Paul back fit and firing to beat the defending champions over a seven-game series.

Julius Randle

The New York Knicks would not be back in the playoffs if not for Randle's outstanding season in which he played the most minutes in the entire league (2,667) and recorded 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

But his belated playoff debut at Madison Square Garden saw a significant step back as Randle's six-for-23 shooting from the field – or 26.1 per cent – allowed the Atlanta Hawks to steal a road game.

The Knicks are built on hard graft rather than superstar talent, but they cannot afford for their All-Star to misfire so drastically.

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  • Depay convinced he can form partnership with 'compatible' Messi and Aguero Depay convinced he can form partnership with 'compatible' Messi and Aguero

    Memphis Depay is confident he can form a balanced front three with Lionel Messi and fellow new signing Sergio Aguero at Barcelona.

    Netherlands attacker Depay joined Barca as a free agent when his Lyon contract expired on July 1 and scored a penalty on his debut in Saturday's 3-1 friendly win over Girona.

    The 27-year-old got his career back on track at Lyon following a disappointing spell with Manchester United, scoring 76 goals in 178 appearance for the Ligue 1 side.

    Depay played mainly as a centre-forward in the French top flight last season and scored 20 goals – only Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe (27) netted more.

    He also showed his ability to create for others by laying on 12 assists and creating 94 chances, which were more than any other player managed in Ligue 1 in 2020-21.

    And the PSV academy product believes he is capable of playing with ex-Manchester City striker Aguero and Messi, who is expected to sign a new deal to remain at Camp Nou.

    "We are all attackers, but we are all different in my opinion," Depay told Sport. "I have different abilities and strengths than Aguero, for example, or any other player.

    "I think the three of us are compatible and different. But we will see how everything goes.

    "It would be amazing to play with Messi and I hope that is possible. He has a number of qualities that the team needs and it's important to build everything around that.

    "There is a lot of talent here. It would be great to play alongside him and win titles."

    Depay previously played under Barca head coach Ronald Koeman for the Netherlands national side and is glad to have reunited with his compatriot in Catalonia.

    "He has had a great impact on me," Depay said. "He changed the Netherlands team and counted on me, giving me confidence. 

    "Now he is counting on me for this adventure, so he has undoubtedly been an important figure in my career.

    "I know him and how he trains, so it's easier for me to adapt. I know what he expects of me after working together for a long time.

    "Even with him on the bench it will obviously not be easy, but without him it would have been different."

    Depay has been labelled a "rebellious" figure during his career to date but, citing comparisons to former Barca player Luis Suarez, is not fazed by that tag.

    "I think 'rebellious' is often used as a negative, but sometimes you can use it as a good thing," he said. 

    "Sometimes if you are rebellious on the field it can give you something extra and help you win the game. 

    "For example, Luis Suarez has won many games and scored many goals without being the nicest and sweetest person in the world. 

    "Maybe because of my appearance people may think that I am a rebellious boy. When you meet me, you see that I am a normal guy, like any other person. 

    "Maybe I'm a little different because of the way I express myself, how I make music. I may be more misunderstood for that. 

    "But boy, I don't mind being called a rebel. People have a feeling about me that may either be very good or they may not like. 

    "The truth is that everyone is free to create their own opinion, their image."

  • Lewandowski definitely staying at Bayern for next two seasons, says president Hainer Lewandowski definitely staying at Bayern for next two seasons, says president Hainer

    Robert Lewandowski will definitely not leave Bayern Munich in the next two years, according to the German champions' president Herbert Hainer.

    The prolific striker was crowned Germany’s Footballer of the Year for 2021 last week after scoring 41 Bundesliga goals to break Gerd Muller's long-standing single-season record.

    His 48 goals in all competitions were the most scored by any player in Europe's top five league in 2020-21, followed by Kylian Mbappe (42) and Erling Haaland (41).

    Lewandowski has netted 294 goals in 329 appearances overall for Bayern since joining from domestic rivals Borussia Dortmund in 2014, including 203 in 219 league games.

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    However, new boss Julian Nagelsmann recently said he is not bothered by the speculation and president Hainer has reiterated Lewandowski is going nowhere while under contract until 2023.

    "Firstly, in my opinion, Lewandowski is the best striker in the world. We are so happy that we have him in our team," he told Goal.

    "He still has two more years on his contract. He will definitely play those with Bayern Munch. I said it already a few weeks ago – I could imagine him staying with us for even longer. 

    "He will honour his contract. He will definitely play the next two seasons here at Bayern Munich."

    Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland has previously been touted as a possible replacement for Lewandowski, but Bayern are not currently in the market for a new striker.

    "As I said, Robert will definitely be here for the next two seasons with Bayern. Then we will look for a successor," Hainer said.

    Joshua Kimmich is another valuable Bayern player who has two years to run on his existing deal, while Manchester United-linked Leon Goretzka is set to become a free agent at the end of 2021-22.

    Both players returned to training this week after being given an extended break following their Euro 2020 exertions and talks over fresh terms will soon commence.

    "As you know, they went on holiday after the European Championship," Hainer said. "They were back yesterday in the training sessions.

    "Now we have time to talk to them. And hopefully, within the next week, we will find agreements with them."

    Bayern play their third friendly of pre-season on Wednesday with a home match against fellow Bundesliga side Borussia Monchengladbach.

    Nagelsmann's men then face Napoli before beginning their 2021-22 campaign with a DFB-Pokal tie against lower-league opposition Bremer SV on August 6.

  • Philadelphia 76ers: Blow it up or run it back? Same old questions persist as Simmons debate rumbles on Philadelphia 76ers: Blow it up or run it back? Same old questions persist as Simmons debate rumbles on

    "Trust the Process", but for how long?

    That mantra – after tanking out and starting from the bottom eight years ago – has become synonymous with the team's culture and identity since former 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie started a drastic rebuild of Philadelphia's roster and psyche in 2013.

    The long-term vision, in pursuit of a first NBA championship since 1983, has delivered All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, however the 76ers have not progressed beyond the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

    Doc Rivers was brought in to replace Brett Brown and deliver the long-awaited title, yet the same old issues and questions remain after the top-seeded 76ers were sensationally eliminated by the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the second round.

    While Embiid narrowly missed out on the MVP award, Philadelphia's latest failure has only amplified pressure on shot-shy Simmons amid growing speculation over his future at Wells Fargo Center following a forgettable playoff campaign.

    With president of basketball operations Daryl Morey tasked with turning the contenders into champions, will he blow it all up or run it back in 2021-22

    Embiid excels but there's more to come from Philly's unofficial MVP

    His own harshest critic, Embiid sets the bar high, demanding the absolute best from himself and the 76ers in pursuit of a coveted championship. A cornerstone of the franchise, the 27-year-old soared to new heights in 2020-21, leading Philly to their first Eastern Conference title since 2000-01.

    A knee injury proved costly in the MVP race; he finished second to Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic. If he had featured in another 10-15 games, Embiid may have become the first 76ers player since Allen Iverson 20 years ago to be crowned Most Valuable Player. Accolade or not, there was no denying Embiid's impact on his team and the league last season.

    Embiid's improvement was evident as he went from averaging 23.0 points per game in 2019-20 to 28.5 this time around. His +5.5 increase ranks sixth all-time among All-Star centers for largest increase in points per game from one season to the next, only behind Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain (+12.0 with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962), Jokic (+6.5 in 2021), David Robinson (+6.4 with the San Antonio Spurs in 1994), Los Angeles Lakers great Shaquille O'Neal (+5.9 with the Orlando Magic in 1994) and Patrick Ewing (+5.9 with the New York Knicks in 1990).

    Embiid posted impressive numbers for field-goal percentage (51.3), three-point percentage (37.7 which increased to 39.0 in the playoffs) and free-throw percentage (85.9), as well averaging 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists (which improved to 3.4 in the postseason).

    Only scoring leader Stephen Curry (32.0), Bradley Beal (31.3) and Damian Lillard (28.8) – all guards – averaged more points per game than Embiid.

    The heart and soul of this Philly team, it is clear when Embiid steps onto the court. In 2020-21, the 76ers held a 45-17 win-loss record with their big man involved but that 72.6 winning percentage dropped to 50.0 without him as they slumped to 11-11.

    Philadelphia regressed in almost every single category in Embiid's absence – points per game (115.4 to 110.2), field-goal percentage (48.6 to 46.1), three-point percentage (38.7 to 34.9), assists per game (24.3 to 22.7), blocks per game (6.3 to 6.0) and fast-break points (15.6 to 13.4). At the other end of the floor, rival teams benefited as their points per game (107.6 to 109.8), field-goal percentage (44.7 to 46.9), three-point percentage (36.7), rebounds per game (42.8 to 43.3) and points in the paint (45.4 to 47.9) all rose.

    His exploits earned a fourth All-Star selection, with Embiid now eligible to sign a four-year, supermax extension after being selected to the All-NBA Second Team. While there has long been question marks over his health and fitness, his form merits a monster pay rise.

    Worryingly for the rest of the league, Embiid is not a player who rests on his laurels. The Cameroonian is determined to deliver a title to the city of Brotherly Love.

    "Losing, obviously, it's gonna take a toll on me, and it does and it's doing it, but it’s also on me," said Embiid after Philly's playoff exit. "I gotta be better. I gotta take another step when it comes to taking care of my body and my game as a whole, because I still feel like I have a lot of untapped potential that people haven't really seen."

    How do you solve a problem like Ben Simmons?

    "I love being in Philly. I love this organisation," Simmons said after he was subjected to boos by Philly fans after their Game 7 loss to the Hawks. "The fans are great, great people. I had a bad series. I expect that. It's Philly."

    Former number one pick Simmons, however, may not have a choice on the matter amid intensifying trade talk.

    The 24-year-old had no fourth-quarter field-goal attempts in his last four games of the playoffs. He is the only NBA player in the last 20 seasons to have four consecutive postseason games with no field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter during a season in which he was an All-Star.

    Fresh off elimination, Rivers was asked if he thought Simmons could be a guard on a championship team, and he told reporters post-game: "I don't know the answer to that right now."

    Since then, Rivers has said he wants the player to remain as the 76ers have a plan for the Australian star, who will skip the Olympic Games in Tokyo to focus on his skillset.

    But after four seasons in the league, there has been no improvement from three-time All-Star Simmons in one fundamental area – shooting.

    An elite defender and creator, debate around Simmons centres on his offence or lack thereof, with the 76ers handicapped by his unwillingness to shoot.

    Simmons' field-goal percentage has regressed, dropping from 58.0 in 2019-20 to 55.7 this season – he only managed worse in his 2017-18 rookie campaign (54.5).

    He averaged just 10.1 field-goal attempts in 2020-21 – a career low, which dropped to 7.9 in the playoffs. It is the same story with his scoring as it dropped to a career worst 14.3 points per game and 11.9 in the postseason – both career lows.

    Then there is Simmons and free throws. He was exposed by rival teams as they regularly sent him to the line, with the Melbourne-born guard making just 25 of 73 shots in the 2020-21 playoffs. His 34.2 free-throw percentage is the lowest ever in a single postseason.

    Simmons' unwillingness to shoot – he passed on a wide-open dunk during the closing stages against the Hawks, instead passing to Matisse Thybulle – who was fouled and made just one of the two free throws, irked Embiid.

    "I'll be honest," Embiid said after the game. "I thought the turning point was when we - I don't know how to say it - but I thought the turning point was just we had an open shot and we made one free throw.

    "We didn't get a good possession on the other end and Trae [Young] came back and he made a three and then from there down four, it's on me. I turned the ball over and tried to make something happen from the perimeter. But I thought that was the turning point."

    Having reportedly considered the idea of using Simmons as part of a deal to prise James Harden from the Houston Rockets in January before the former MVP eventually joined the Brooklyn Nets, Morey has a decision to make with the 76ers in the win-now window.

    Doc's Game 7 woes continue

    Is Rivers the man to complete the process for the 76ers?

    A proven winner with Eastern Conference rivals the Boston Celtics, Rivers landed on his feet following his exit from the Los Angeles Clippers, named All-Star coach after guiding the 76ers to a 49-23 record atop the east, ahead of the star-studded Nets and Milwaukee Bucks.

    With Doc on the sidelines, Embiid vaulted himself to within a whisker of the MVP as the 76ers clinched the easiest path to the Conference Finals. After a humiliating series sweep to the Celtics in the opening round inside the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort the previous year, things looked on the up for Philly.

    However, it was an all too familiar story for Rivers. His team collapsed.

    Rivers suffered a fourth consecutive Game 7 defeat to tie the longest streak ever by an NBA head coach, after former Sacramento Kings and Rockets coach Rick Adelman also lost four in a row from 2002 to 2009.

    The 76ers blew an 18-point lead in Game 4 against the Hawks before surrendering a 26-point advantage at home to Atlanta in Game 5. That came after Doc's Clippers somehow squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in 2020.

    "Listen, this team last year got swept in the first round. We had a chance to go to the Eastern finals. I'm not gonna make this into a negative year,” Rivers said.

    Rivers has 29 losses with a chance to clinch a playoff series – the most defeats by a coach in NBA history. His 34.1 win percentage is the worst ever among coaches with 20-plus games.

    The 59-year-old is under the microscope on the back of this latest failure, having not progressed past the second round of the playoffs since the 2012 postseason in Boston.

    Verdict: Revolution

    Morey and general manager Elton Brand have their work cut out this offseason, with Simmons' future at the top of the list.

    Despite a horrendous playoff series, there is still plenty of value around Simmons. A host of teams are already reportedly circling, and there is a general consensus that it is time for player and franchise to go their separate ways.

    Simmons could do with a change of scenery and the 76ers could use a legitimate shooter/scorer. Now it is up to Morey to weave his magic and supplement Embiid's MVP-calibre ability. Damian Lillard, perhaps? What about Bradley Beal?

    Then there is Philadelphia's bench and depth. The 76ers ranked 13th in the NBA for points per game from their reserves (37.3). It remains to be seen whether the likes for Furkan Korkmaz will still be around come tip-off in 2021-22, so boosting the team's bench and three-point shooting is paramount if Philly are to get beyond the second round and complete the process.

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