NBA

NBA Heat Check: Mitchell calls the tune for Jazz, Paul powers Suns in the West

By Sports Desk June 14, 2021

The Phoenix Suns are waiting.

A series sweep over the Denver Nuggets means Monty Williams' team are through to the Western Conference Finals, where they will meet either the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the East, meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are serving up a prime example of how a seven-game series can ebb and flow throughout. At 2-2 and with injuries taking a toll, it is tough to predict who will progress.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks also locked in a battle in the East, it is time to take a look at those players who have seized the chance to shine across the past week in the NBA playoffs, as well as those struggling in the shade.

RUNNING HOT...

Chris Paul

Paul set an unusual record as the Suns completed a 4-0 sweep of the Nuggets on Sunday. In contributing 37 points, the 36-year-old became the oldest guard in NBA history to outscore his age in a playoff game.

It capped a memorable week for the 11-time All-Star, who averaged 25.5 points per game in the series. Since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, Phoenix are the only team to knock out both the previous year's conference finalists in the first two rounds, having also accounted for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Donovan Mitchell

Through three games against the Clippers, Mitchell has been an offensive juggernaut for the Jazz. He has scored a combined total of 112 points to average out for the week at 37.33 per outing.

His output has been aided by getting hot from long range, the guard landing 5.67 three-point attempts per game. Yes, that is correct: Per. Game. An ankle issue could slow him down in the remainder of the series, having already missed the end of the regular season and Utah's first game in the playoffs.

Bruce Brown

With James Harden out due to a hamstring injury, Brown has taken on a greater offensive role for the ailing Nets. In three games across the past week, the 24-year-old has taken 22 shots – he had tallied 31 in the previous six playoff outings – and made his first three-pointer in the playoffs as Brooklyn won Game 2.

His production could be set to further increase if Kyrie Irving joins Harden on the sidelines, the point guard having twisted his right ankle as his team lost Game 4 in Milwaukee on Sunday.

GOING COLD...

Joe Harris

Having been pivotal at the start of the Nets-Bucks series, Harris has cooled off since the teams travelled to Milwaukee. His opening two outings saw him manage 19 and 13 points, but since then just 11 combined in back-to-back defeats.

Harris landed only one of his 11 field goal attempts in Game 3 before fouling out, while Sunday’s Game 4 performance was only marginally better. Perhaps a return to Brooklyn for Game 5 will help him find his scoring touch again.

Bobby Portis

Just like Harris on the opposing roster, Portis is in a slump. The 29-year-old has averaged just 2.0 points per game across the past week, a major drop from his regular-season average of 11.42. He is also contributing less in terms of rebounding too, dipping down to 3.0 per outing.

Fellow big Brook Lopez is another role player to see the points dry up (6.33ppg), leaving Milwaukee to lean heavily on All-Star duo Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as they bid to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Marcus Morris Sr and Patrick Beverley

For the second successive series, the Clippers are having to dig themselves out of an early hole. An emphatic Game 3 victory over the Jazz halved the deficit, thanks mainly to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George managing a combined total of 65 points.

The role players will need to help out too if they are to set up a clash with the Suns. Morris Sr has averaged 7.67 points across the past week, not aided by landing just one of his 16 attempts from deep. Team-mate Beverley is also struggling from long range while managing just 10 points in total in his past three games.

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  • 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.

    But the 32-year-old has been linked with a move away from the Allianz Arena this transfer window, with Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City all reportedly interested in striking a deal.

    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.

  • Dolphins cornerback Howard requests trade Dolphins cornerback Howard requests trade

    Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard has requested a trade, saying he does not feel "valued or respected" by the team.

    Two-time Pro Bowler Howard reported to training camp on Tuesday but is unhappy that his contract has not been reworked.

    The 28-year-old is just two years into the five-year, $75million extension that he signed in 2019. 

    At the time that made him the highest-paid NFL corner but he is due a salary of $12m this year, $2m less than his fellow Miami corner Byron Jones.

    Jones was signed in a big free agent deal last year, agreeing terms on a five-year, $82.5m pact to lure him from the Dallas Cowboys.

    Howard does not feel the difference is fair after his recent performances which included a fine 2020 season.

    Last year he was named a first-team All-Pro after recording 10 interceptions for the improving Dolphins, who finished 10-6 for their joint-best record since they last won the AFC East in 2008.

    While Howard is not seeking a new deal, he has requested changes to the existing contract that he says have not been agreed by Miami.

    "I don't feel valued, or respected, by the Dolphins," Howard, who has recently changed agents, said in a statement. 

    "I've played on that deal for two seasons and didn't complain, but everyone knows I completely outperformed that deal.

    "I'm one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, and the tape backs up that claim. Yet, I'm the second highest paid cornerback on my own team, and it's not even close.

    "We wanted to work things out with the Dolphins and brought solutions to the table – like guaranteeing more money – that we felt were win-wins for both sides.

    "But the Dolphins refused everything we proposed.

    "Just like they can take a business-first approach, so can I. That's why I want to make it clear I'm not happy and have requested a trade.

    "Until that trade happens I am just here so I don't get fined, and will handle myself like professionals do."

    Howard has spent his whole career with Miami since being drafted in the second round back in 2016.

    He was a second-team All Pro in 2018, which was a year where – like in 2020 – he led the NFL in interceptions and made the Pro Bowl.

    A memorable season

    With 10 interceptions and 20 passes defended, Howard recorded two career highs in those headline statistics.

    Per Stats Perform advanced data, Howard's adjusted open percentage – which measures how frequently an opponent got open against a defender's coverage, adjusted for position – was 25.19, almost a full percentage point better than that of Jones (26.16) in 2020.

    When it comes to burns – when a receiver wins his matchup on a play where he is targeted regardless of whether the pass is catchable – Howard also had a significant edge in burn yards per target.

    Though Howard was not exactly impressive in that category either, giving up an average of 11.12 while playing on the outside, that number is likely more reflective of how often the Dolphins left him in single coverage.

    Indeed, Howard's average depth of target of 14.5 yards speaks to the frequency with which he was given the task of staying in tight coverage with a receiver downfield.

    The Dolphins are not flush with cap room but, in a year where the team will be expected to make a year-three leap under head coach Brian Flores, Howard was expected to be key.

    With a league-leading 18 interceptions over the past three seasons, Howard is a playmaker the Dolphins need on the field and motivated if they are to challenge in the AFC, so the team's response will be closely watched.

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