NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: LeBron and Lakers aim to stop Curry cooking for the Warriors

By Sports Desk May 18, 2021

The NBA's play-in tournament will stage a must-see heavyweight clash when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

While there are no concerns of suffering a season-ending knockout, the one-off contest at Staples Center will dictate the next step for two teams who know all about making title runs.

Few would have expected this scenario back at the start of a season played out amid the backdrop of an ongoing health pandemic.

As the defending champions, LeBron James and the Lakers were viewed as a front runner in the stacked Western Conference. Coming up against a Golden State roster so heavily reliant on Stephen Curry was always a possibility in the playoffs, just not necessarily in this type of scenario.

The winner will be slotted in as the seventh seed, meaning a best-of-seven series against the Phoenix Suns. The loser, however, will have to get past either the San Antonio Spurs or the Memphis Grizzlies – they meet on Thursday – just to get the eighth and final spot available.

If the play-in games were set up to add an extra layer of drama, a match-up that pits two of the sport's biggest superstars against each other is an early gift to start the playoff stretch.

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers

James was firmly in the MVP conversation until an ankle injury on March 20. His first attempt to return to action led to a setback, but the four-time NBA champion featured in the final two outings of the regular season, scoring a combined 49 points.

His fitness will be key to the Lakers' prospects of retaining their crown. They finished the regular season with a 42-30 record yet were 30-15 in games when their star turn featured. That kind of winning percentage across a full campaign would have made sure they did not have to worry about appearing in any play-in contests.

Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors

Having missed the majority of the previous season through injury, Curry certainly made up for lost time with a dazzling regular season.

He finished as the scoring champion, his 2,015 points coming in 63 games as he averaged 32.0 an outing. No one made (337) or attempted more three-pointers (801), while the point guard also shot 91.6 per cent from the free-throw line. MVP, perhaps?

KEY BATTLE – STOP CURRY GETTING HOT

The Warriors will sink or swim based on Curry, but he will need some assistance if they are to prosper in the playoffs. To that extent, as the Lakers focus on shutting down a player capable of catching fire in a hurry, Andrew Wiggins (18.6 points per game in the regular season) will need to step up, particularly as Golden State are still without the injured Kelly Oubre Jr.

Draymond Green can help, too, albeit his average of 7.0 points was his lowest mark since the 2013-14 season, his second in the league when he started in just 12 games. It may well be his primary focus is on defense, though, considering both James and Anthony Davis – confirmed fit to play on Tuesday – will demand plenty of attention.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers are a long way clear in the overall record (257 wins to 169), while they have also dominated in the playoffs – the Warriors have won just one series in seven attempts, with that success coming way back in 1967 when they were still playing under the San Francisco name.

In the 2020-21 regular season, the team from Los Angeles won two of the three meetings. They were dominant in the most recent clash as well, coming out 128-97 winners in March despite several key absences.

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  • NBA playoffs 2021: Nets pair Irving and Harden to miss Game 5 against Bucks NBA playoffs 2021: Nets pair Irving and Harden to miss Game 5 against Bucks

    Brooklyn Nets stars Kyrie Irving and James Harden will both miss Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Milwaukee Bucks due to injury.

    Irving sprained his right ankle in the Nets' 107-96 loss in Game 4 on Sunday and underwent an MRI which confirmed he would not be available for Tuesday's clash, with the NBA playoff series in tied at 2-2.

    Nets guard Irving joins former MVP Harden on the sidelines, with the latter still absence because of a hamstring he re-injured in Game 1.

    Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash said the length of Irving's absence remains unknown.

    "I have to wait and see how it progresses, I think," Nash said.

    "And then the experts would have to wait and see how it progresses and give you a clearer picture on what the window would be for his return."

    Nash added that Harden was "working out right now" but was unclear on his return to play timeframe.

    The second-seeded Nets – eyeing their maiden championship – have battled injuries throughout the 2020-21 campaign, with Harden missing 21 games late in the regular season due to his troublesome hamstring.

    "It's tough to lose great players but we've lost guys all season," Nash said. "If there's any silver linings, it's that we've continued to win games regardless of who's been available.

    "We've been able to adapt on the fly which is difficult to do sometimes. That's something we have some experience with. We should have some comfort and belief."

    The absence of two-thirds of the 'Big Three' puts a heavy burden on Kevin Durant, although Nash insisted it was not just about him.

    "This does not fall on Kevin, this falls on the Nets," Nash said. "We've got to find a way together to play great basketball on both ends of the floor. We've proven we can do it.

    "We try to stick to our principles and fundamentals, which is connectivity, competitive spirit, embracing the opportunity and playing together as a team."

  • Magical Messi served Chile pain again as Martinez misfires Magical Messi served Chile pain again as Martinez misfires

    It was a modest record for a player as magnificent as Lionel Messi: three games, two final defeats, one red card, no goals.

    But the Barcelona great's Copa America performances against Chile prior to Monday's curtain-raising clash were not entirely out of keeping with the rest of his Argentina career.

    There have been moments of magic, of course, but just 15 goals across 46 Copa America and World Cup appearances ahead of this game. Meanwhile, not since 2007-08 has Messi fallen short of averaging a goal every two games for Barca, let alone one every three.

    Even Messi himself could not reasonably argue his international displays have come close to the standard set at club level.

    And while World Cup failures will always remain at the forefront of any such discussion – his achievements in contrast to Diego Maradona's one-man show in 1986 – the Copa America has provided its fair share of pain.

    The final defeats to Chile in 2015 and 2016 were among three for Messi and four for Argentina since their 14th and most recent title in 1993.

    Those two in consecutive years both came courtesy of penalty shoot-outs. Messi scored his spot-kick in the first match but missed the following year, setting his side on their way to another sore setback.

    It was fitting then, it seemed, that this latest campaign – surely one of Messi's last – would start against Chile and initially start in much more encouraging fashion.

    Neymar had set the standard against Venezuela the previous day.

    In front of empty, hushed stands that make it impossible to ignore the influence of politics in football – a popular topic of debate in 2021 – the pace was ponderous until the world's most expensive footballer got to work.

    Neymar scored one and created another in a 3-0 Brazil win. Along with five shots, he created seven chances – the most of any Selecao player in a Copa America match since his debut.

    It took 33 minutes, in which the absence of an atmosphere again jarred, but Messi rose to that challenge when presented with a free-kick in a central position, dipped over the wall and beyond the grasp of Claudio Bravo.

    That was one of seven Messi shots and he played four key passes, too. On paper, this ranked alongside Neymar's efforts.

    By full-time, though, it was a frustratingly familiar tale, as the supporting cast proved unable to suitably assist their superstar.

    Messi's excellence has excused a whole generation of Argentina internationals, absolved of blame because their great number 10 should have been able to win major tournaments alone.

    Too many hugely talented players have misfired on the big stage; Lionel Scaloni sent out some past and present examples.

    Lautaro Martinez is supposed to be the face of a young, new team. He had 11 goals in 23 prior internationals and should have added to that tally more than once in Rio de Janeiro.

    The Inter forward failed to hit the target with any of his three attempts and optimistically appealed for a foul following two of them when he inexplicably missed from point-blank range.

    And Martinez's frustration unfortunately came to the fore after 62 minutes when he lunged into an awful challenge on Charles Aranguiz under the nose of the referee and escaped with a booking.

    The 23-year-old's evening might have ended early with a red card. Instead, it was cut short by the introduction of Sergio Aguero.

    Chile had equalised five minutes prior to Martinez's moment of madness, one of a series of rash attempted tackles punished as a VAR review found Nicolas Tagliafico had made contact with Arturo Vidal in the area.

    Vidal took the penalty and Emiliano Martinez turned it onto the crossbar, but Eduardo Vargas was on hand to nod in his 13th Copa America goal – staying three clear of Messi and climbing into the top 10 all-time.

    Aguero followed Angel Di Maria onto the pitch as Argentina sought a response. Both players were not so long ago out of the picture under Scaloni, having previously been part of the Messi-led team that repeatedly came up short.

    In each Chile final, Di Maria started. Aguero was introduced from the bench in one and in the XI for the other.

    As on those occasions, there were no heroics from either on Monday. Di Maria, now 33, had two shots but neither troubled Bravo. Aguero, also 33, was caught offside once.

    Messi will be the story if Argentina do not deliver silverware in the coming weeks, just as he will be should they finally get over the hump.

    But the same problems persist. When Messi's free-kick set the stage, it was Martinez who could not step up, underwhelming again like too many past Argentina attackers.

    If this is to be the tournament in which Messi reaches his promised land, he is going to need some help.

  • Argentina 1-1 Chile: Vargas salvages a point after Messi moment of magic Argentina 1-1 Chile: Vargas salvages a point after Messi moment of magic

    A sublime Lionel Messi free-kick was not enough for Argentina to start the Copa America with a victory as Chile striker Eduardo Vargas salvaged a 1-1 draw.

    Argentina had much the better of the first half and mercurial captain Messi put them in front with a brilliant free-kick in the Group B encounter at Estadio Nilton Santos.

    Vargas came to Chile's rescue after the break, heading home the rebound after Emiliano Martinez saved Arturo Vidal's penalty.

    Nicolas Gonzalez was particularly wasteful as Argentina were unable to secure what would have been a deserved victory in Rio de Janeiro on Monday.

    Messi is yet to win a trophy with Argentina following back-to-back runners-up performances at the Copa America in 2015 and 2016, having also fallen short in the 2007 final against Brazil.

    Giovani Lo Celso was Chile's chief tormentor in a promising start from the Albiceleste, setting up chances that Lautaro Martinez and Gonzalez were unable to take.

    Gonzalez headed over the crossbar after his shot was palmed away by Claudio Bravo and the forward also failed to beat the Chile goalkeeper with a tame finish when the lively Lo Celso sent him clear with an incisive pass.

    Messi produced yet another moment of magic to put Argentina in front, though, bending a brilliant free-kick into the top-right corner after 33 minutes.

    An unmarked Martinez spurned a glorious chance to add a second when he scuffed a shot wide and Lionel Scaloni's side were made to pay for their profligacy when Chile levelled 12 minutes into the second half.

    Vidal was awarded a spot-kick for a rash challenge from Nicolas Tagliafico after referee Wilmar Roldan checked the pitchside monitor and although the midfielder's penalty was brilliantly tipped against the crossbar by Martinez, Vargas nodded in following up.

    Bravo palmed away Messi's drive 20 minutes from time and Gonzalez headed over the bar when his skipper presented him with another golden opportunity in a frustrating start for Argentina.

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