NBA

NBA Game of the Week: Tatum and the Celtics seek 10th consecutive win over Irving's Nets

By Sports Desk February 01, 2023

Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets will travel to Boston on Wednesday to take on the Celtics in a tantalising clash between Eastern Conference contenders.

The Celtics, at 36-15, currently boast the best record in the NBA, while the 31-19 Nets occupy the fourth seed. 

Fresh off a trip to the NBA Finals, Boston have looked like genuine contenders since the opening day, building an elite, championship-level statistical profile.

Almost without fail, the eventual champion will show signs of elite play on at least one side of the ball throughout the regular season. Last year's champions, the Golden State Warriors built their identity on a top-two defense; the 2021 Milwaukee Bucks had a top-five offense and top-10 defense; the 2020 Los Angeles Lakers owned the third-best defense.

This year's Celtics side are currently in the rare air of sitting top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency, guided by two no-brainer All-Stars on the wing with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and fellow All-Defensive selection Robert Williams III.

While games and series can often be decided by which team has the singular best player, the Celtics have been buoyed by the continued ascent of Tatum, who is now a legitimate MVP candidate.

This season the 24-year-old is averaging career-highs in points (31.1 per game), rebounds (8.7), assists (4.4), field goal makes (10.1) and attempts (21.8), three-point makes (3.3) and attempts (9.3), free throw makes (7.6) and attempts (8.8) – all while shooting his best field goal percentage (46.5) since his rookie season and a career-best 86.9 per cent from the free throw line.

The Celtics' elite record, profile and talent, combined with the fact they will be playing in front of their home fans will have them as favourites on Wednesday – but Irving and the Nets present a frisky opposition.

It is without question that the Nets have entered a mini tailspin since Kevin Durant suffered a knee injury against the Miami Heat on January 8. Brooklyn were 27-13 at the time but have won only four of their 10 games since.

Their ranks as the fifth-best offense and 10th-best defense for the season are both tumbling due to this past stretch, where both units have been the definition of mediocre, ranking 19th on offense and 18th defensively.

That is no fault of former Celtic Irving, who is enjoying a tremendous run of personal form. He has posted seven consecutive outings of at least 26 points and six assists, and after the Nets dropped their first four games of Durant's absence, they responded with four wins from their next six.

Also playing into Brooklyn's favour is the fact they are the NBA's second-best team away from home this season, while their 16-11 mark on the road is only bettered by the Celtics at 17-9.

Unfortunately for the Nets, Boston have also had little trouble at home. They own the fifth-best home record (19-6), and their overtime defeat against the New York Knicks on Thursday was their first loss at TD Garden since December 21.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Boston Celtics – Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White

Simply put, with Durant out of action, the Nets only have one superstar on the offensive end, and the Celtics have the perfect player to make Irving's life miserable. Or at least they normally would.

Smart became the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since 'The Glove' Gary Payton back in the 1995-96 season, and his impact on Irving has been evident in recent matchups – but he will miss this fixture as he recovers from an ankle injury.

Malcolm Brogdon – one of the favourites for Sixth Man of the Year – will take his place as the top defensive guard in the line-up, with help from Derrick White, and together they will aim to pick up where Smart left off.

In his past four games against the Celtics, Irving has only reached 20 points once, finishing with the following shooting performances: four-of-19, eight-of-18, seven-of-21 and nine-of-24.

Brooklyn Nets – Bench shooters

While Irving is the obvious focal point and the engine that will make the Nets run, they will likely need one of their shooters off the bench to get hot.

In their win against the Lakers on Monday, second-year spark plug Cam Thomas and veteran Patty Mills scored 21 points each while combining to shoot eight-of-11 from long range. The previous game, a rivalry victory against the New York Knicks, the trio of Thomas, Edmond Sumner and Yuta Watanabe combined to hit six-of-six three-pointers.

Watanabe in particular could be a game-changer, as he is shooting 49 per cent from deep – the best figure in the league among players averaging at least one attempt per game.

KEY BATTLE – How will Brooklyn slow down the Boston wings?

As previously discussed, the Nets have been a top-10 defense this season, but they will definitely be without the seven-foot Durant, and will likely also be missing six-foot-10 former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Ben Simmons and six-foot-eight T.J. Warren.

It leaves them woefully undermanned when it comes to defending the All-Star duo of Tatum and Brown, and while Tatum is the exact kind of matchup Brooklyn had in mind when they traded a first-round pick to Utah for Royce O'Neale, they will likely be stuck with Joe Harris on Brown.

Watanabe, at six-foot-eight, and perhaps even six-foot-nine veteran Markieff Morris will get a chance off the bench, but the rest of Brooklyn's perimeter options are simply too small.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Since the beginning of February 2022, the Celtics are undefeated in nine meetings against the Nets, including a clean 4-0 sweep in the first round of last season's playoffs.

Boston have won both head-to-head matchups this campaign by 11 points – one with Durant playing, and one with him out.

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  • Euro 2024: Can England bring football home, or will France reign supreme? Euro 2024: Can England bring football home, or will France reign supreme?

    Euro 2024 is almost upon us, with Europe's finest preparing to battle it out to be crowned continental champions in Germany.

    It all gets under way on Friday as Julian Nagelsmann's hosts face Scotland at the Allianz Arena. 

    It seems remarkable to think Die Nationalelf – the most successful national team in Europe – have gone eight years without a knockout win at a major tournament, and they will be desperately hoping home advantage inspires a better run this time around.

    England, meanwhile, will be looking to bring football home and end 58 years of hurt in the country their captain Harry Kane thrived in last season.

    The Three Lions' 2022 World Cup hopes were ended by France, who are again among the favourites. There is plenty more intrigue elsewhere, from defending champions Italy being drawn in a 'group of death' with Spain and Croatia to Cristiano Ronaldo leading Portugal into a sixth edition of the Euros.

    And who could forget Georgia's first tournament as an independent nation, or Scotland's attempts to upset the odds in Group A?

    As Euros fever grips the continent, we run through the main storylines and contenders, pick out some underdogs and breakout stars to watch and take a look at the Opta supercomputer's predictions.

    THE HOSTS

    This will be the first edition of the Euros to take place solely in a unified Germany, though the Allianz Arena hosted games at Euro 2020 and West Germany staged the 1988 tournament – won by the Netherlands as Marco van Basten scored one of the most iconic goals in history against the USSR in the final.

    This will be Germany's fourth major tournament as sole hosts overall, and they have always gone far on home soil, winning the 1974 World Cup and going out in the semi-finals at Euro 1988 and the 2006 World Cup.

    Hopes were not high for them in late 2023 as a dismal run of friendly results saw Hansi Flick become the first Germany coach to be sacked. However, Nagelsmann has restored optimism and has a supremely talented group of players to work with.

    Florian Wirtz's emergence as one of Europe's best attacking midfielders offers cause for excitement – the 21-year-old scored 11 goals and added 11 assists during Bayer Leverkusen's unbeaten Bundesliga title-winning campaign to claim Player of the Season honours.

    Wirtz, Jamal Musiala and Ilkay Gundogan will likely support Kai Havertz in a fluid attacking quartet, while Toni Kroos' presence in midfield will be a major boost to a team that averaged 59.3 per cent possession at Euro 2020 – second only to Spain (66.8 per cent).

    Kroos – who won his sixth Champions League with Real Madrid this month – played more line-breaking passes (214) and passes leading to final-third entries (69) than any other player in Europe's premier club competition in 2023-24.

    The major question mark could pertain to Kroos' partner, with Germany having lacked a true midfield enforcer for some time.

    They have conceded at least one goal in their last 12 major tournament games, last keeping a clean sheet against Slovakia in the last 16 at Euro 2016. Will that soft underbelly cost them again?

    THE FAVOURITES

    England

    England's Euro 2024 preparations have been far from perfect, with defensive mainstay Harry Maguire missing out through injury and their final friendly ending in defeat against Iceland. However, Gareth Southgate's side enter the tournament as the Opta supercomputer's favourites.

    It is not difficult to see why. In Kane, England have a striker whose tally of 44 goals in 2023-24 was only matched by Kylian Mbappe among players from Europe's top five leagues.

    In Jude Bellingham, they have the outstanding player from Madrid's double-winning side, recording 36 goal involvements (23 goals, 13 assists) in his debut season in Spain. 

    And in Phil Foden, Southgate can call upon the Premier League's Player of the Season, who produced talismanic performances against Manchester United, Aston Villa and West Ham to cap Manchester City's fourth straight title success. 

    With Southgate thought likely to depart whatever the outcome of England's campaign, this tournament must be the culmination of their development into genuine contenders. Penalty shoot-outs excluded, England have only lost one of their last 18 Euros games (10 wins, seven draws) – against Iceland in 2016. 

    With Marc Guehi now likely to partner John Stones following injury-disrupted campaigns for both players, the key may be Southgate's ability to protect his backline. 

    Across the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and Euro 2020, England conceded just 0.59 goals per game and allowed opponents a paltry 0.72 expected goals (xG) per match – a figure only bettered by France (0.67) among the leading European teams to make each tournament. Reproducing that kind of solidity will be crucial. 

    France

    Didier Deschamps is eyeing history in Germany, where he could become the first person to win the World Cup and the Euros as both a player and a manager. 

    Having reached the final at three of their last four major tournaments, Les Bleus are right up there among the favourites again.

    The likes of Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Paul Pogba and Karim Benzema may be gone, but France still boast an incredible depth of talent, with Mbappe leading from the front as captain.

    Mbappe endured a terrible tournament at Euro 2020, failing to score from chances amounting to 1.7 xG in four games, before missing the vital penalty as France were beaten by Switzerland in a last-16 shoot-out. 

    Coming into this tournament on the back of a 44-goal season with Paris Saint-Germain and with his long-term future decided, few expect a repeat from Madrid's newest Galactico. 

    Among the more interesting selections from Deschamps is a recall for N'Golo Kante, who was missed at the 2022 World Cup but failed to prevent Al-Ittihad from finishing a lowly fifth in the Saudi Pro League in 2023-24. With Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni also included, opposing midfielders are in for a tough time. 

    A difficult group-stage draw means France will be tested from the very off, though. If they can top a pool containing the Netherlands, Austria and Poland, they could be on course to meet England in a titanic semi-final. 

    Spain

    Spain are the only nation to win back-to-back editions of the Euros, bookending their golden era by triumphing in 2008 and 2012. Since then, La Roja have won just two knockout ties at five major tournaments, with a 2022 World Cup exit to Morocco their nadir.  

    Luis de la Fuente is the man tasked with bringing back the good times, and victory in the 2022-23 edition of the Nations League represented a decent start.

    However, La Roja have been drawn into what is surely the toughest group at the Euros, with Croatia and Italy their first two opponents before they face Albania.

    Spain's attractive, possession-based brand of football won them plenty of plaudits at Euro 2020 and the Qatar World Cup, but it did not win them enough games, with Italy, Japan and Morocco all keeping them at arm's length at those tournaments.

    As well as averaging the most passes per sequence during Euro 2024 qualifying (six), Spain averaged the most sequences of 10+ passes per game (28.5). Adding an end product is now the aim of the game.

    Alvaro Morata must step up after missing a tournament-high six big chances at Euro 2020. He did score 15 goals in LaLiga last term, though, and exciting wide duo Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams should provide him with plenty of service.

    Spain's key men in midfield will be Pedri and Rodri.

    Man City star Rodri saw his 18-month unbeaten run ended by Manchester United in last month's FA Cup final, but he developed into more than a midfield enforcer in 2023-24, scoring nine goals and adding 14 assists. 

    Pedri, meanwhile, netted twice in a dominant 5-1 win over Northern Ireland last week, and is back to form after an stop-start season with Barcelona. His Blaugrana team-mate Gavi will be absent through injury, however.

    If La Roja are to add punch to their possession play, this pair may need to be the driving force. 

    Portugal

    Portugal are the fifth team to be given more than a nine per cent chance of glory by the Opta supercomputer, as Cristiano Ronaldo heads into his 11th – and potentially final – tournament. 

    Injury limited Ronaldo to the role of cheerleader when Portugal won Euro 2016, but he has already written his name into the competition's record books and can underline his legacy further in Germany.

    Ronaldo holds the records for most games (25), most goals (14), joint-most assists on record (six – since 1972) and most editions with at least one goal (five) at the Euros. 

    His place was called into question at the Qatar World Cup, but Roberto Martinez has built around him since taking over last year, with the Selecao plundering 36 goals in 10 qualifiers and conceding just two.

    With the likes of Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Rafael Leao, Joao Felix, Diogo Jota and Pedro Neto all making their squad, Portugal have one of the most exciting attacking line-ups at the tournament. 

    A kind group-stage draw – pitting them against Czechia, Turkiye and tournament debutants Georgia also plays into their hands – and the Selecao also know topping Group F would put them on the opposite side of the draw to England and France, should they also win their groups.

    Lionel Messi's triumph at the last World Cup will only have heightened Ronaldo's desire for more international silverware. With a strong supporting cast behind him, he should not be written off.

    THE UNDERDOGS

    Scotland

    Scotland fell flat on their first tournament appearance of the century at Euro 2020, but there are reasons to suggest the Tartan Army might have more to cheer this time around. 

    Steve Clarke's side were promoted to the top tier of the Nations League in 2022-23, while a famous 2-0 win over Spain at Hampden Park – courtesy of a Scott McTominay double – set the tone for their successful qualification campaign.

    Having lost Aaron Hickey, Nathan Patterson and Lewis Ferguson to injury, Clarke's men face a difficult first test against Germany. However, one win could be enough to qualify under the 24-team format, and they might just fancy their chances of upsetting Hungary or Switzerland. 

    Austria

    Looking to bloody the noses of France and the Netherlands in Group D are Austria, tipped by many to be something of a surprise package under Ralf Rangnick.

    Austria finished just one point behind Belgium in qualifying, Rangnick needing little time to implement his high-pressing style. They allowed opponents just 8.3 passes per defensive action (PPDA) in qualifying – the fewest of any team.

    Austria also attacked with the highest direct speed (2.03 metres per second), and if their Group D opponents do not match their intensity, they could spring a surprise.

    Georgia

    One of the stories of the tournament can be found in Group F, with Georgia featuring at a major tournament for the first time as an independent nation – they are the only Euros debutants in Germany.

    They failed to qualify directly - their Nations League performance teeing up a penalty shoot-out victory over Greece in the play-offs. They were the only team to reach the tournament while posting a negative goal difference (-6) in their qualifying group.

    When it comes to one-off games, though, they do have match-winners. Napoli's Khvicha Kvaratskhelia completed the joint-most dribbles of any player in qualifying (44), alongside Jeremy Doku, also scoring four goals and providing one assist.

    Georgia also have international pedigree in the dugout, with Willy Sagnol their head coach. The former France right-back only lost one of his 12 games at major tournaments as a player (six wins, five draws).

    THE BREAKOUT STARS

    All eyes may be on Kane, Mbappe and Ronaldo, but major tournaments are often defined by breakout stars, those players who earn big-money moves or become household names within a matter of days.

    Slovenia's Benjamin Sesko could be a candidate, having attracted interest from several of Europe's biggest clubs, though he has now signed a new deal with RB Leipzig. Bellingham (19) was the only player aged 21 or younger to better his 14 goals in Europe's big five leagues last term. 

    The Netherlands, who are shorn of Frenkie de Jong, may need to spread the goals around in the absence of a top-class number nine, and Feyenoord's Lutsharel Geertruida – who has played at centre-back, right-back or in midfield – had 13 goal involvements in the Eredivisie last term (eight goals, five assists).

    Defending champions Italy are being overlooked by many as Luciano Spalletti oversees a period of transition. Inter midfielder Davide Frattesi could emerge as a star for the Azzurri, having scored five goals in 15 caps – more than any team-mate since his debut in 2022.

    This tournament has been touted as something of a last dance for Belgium's 'Golden Generation', and PSV winger Johan Bakayoko is the Red Devils' next big hope. Only seven players bettered his 164 opposition-half take-ons in Europe's top six leagues last term, with fellow Belgium wide-man Doku (171) among them.

    The supercomputer's prediction

    According to the Opta supercomputer, football may finally arrive home on July 14. 

    England emerged triumphant in 19.9 per cent of Opta's 10,000 tournament simulations, making them favourites ahead of France (19.1 per cent).

    There is then a significant gap to the third favourites, with Germany victorious on home soil in 12.4 per cent of projections, ahead of Spain (9.6 per cent) and Portugal (9.2 per cent). 

    The Netherlands (5.1 per cent) and Italy (5.0 per cent) are next, with tough group-stage draws working against them. Belgium (4.7 per cent), Denmark (2.2 per cent) and Croatia (2 per cent) round out the top 10.

  • Irving will do 'whatever it takes' after accepting blame for Mavs' 2-0 deficit Irving will do 'whatever it takes' after accepting blame for Mavs' 2-0 deficit

    Kyrie Irving accepted the blame for the Dallas Mavericks being 2-0 down to the Boston Celtics and vowed to do "whatever it takes" to turn things around.

    The Mavs lost 107-89 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and followed that up with a 105-98 defeat on Sunday to leave themselves with a mountain to climb.

    Luka Doncic felt his performance cost his side in the most recent of those encounters, despite finishing with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

    By comparison, fellow superstar Irving registered 16 points, two rebounds and six assists in almost the exact same number of minutes on the court.

    And Irving admits it is now on him to step up in Game 3 at American Airlines Center on Wednesday if the Mavs are to drag themselves back into the series.

    Asked about a conversation he was seen having with Doncic, Irving said: "It started with me just telling my [brother] I got to play better for him, alongside him.

    "In order for us to accomplish our goal, we both have to be playing well and we both have to be doing the little things, doing whatever it takes to win.

    "It was an easy conversation. But it started with me reaching out, just letting him know it's my fault, taking accountability for not playing particularly well."

    Irving has so far averaged 14 points in the two games with the Celtics, which is down on the 22.8 points he averaged per game in the playoffs.

    "First thing of that is just accepting that I haven't played well or up to my standards, as well as I would have liked," Irving said.

    "Being back in Boston, there's such a level of desire that I have inside of me to play well. I wanted to be there for my teammates. As a competitor, it's frustrating. 

    "But I don't want to let that seep in or spill over to any other decisions I have to make there as a player."

    Irving has lost 12 straight games against the Celtics, whom he left in 2019, but Boston coach Joe Mazzulla is aware of what the eight-time NBA All-Star is capable of.

    "It's not about shutting him down," Mazzulla said ahead of Game 3. "It's about making it difficult for him because of his ability to impact plays. We just have to fight for that. 

    "He's got some good looks. I think we have to guard him better. I think he's definitely going to be more aggressive."

  • Ronaldo as hungry as ever as Portugal set sights on second European crown Ronaldo as hungry as ever as Portugal set sights on second European crown

    Cristiano Ronaldo will head into his record sixth European Championship as hungry as his first as he targets a dream second title with Portugal.

    The 39-year-old scored 10 goals in Euro 2024 qualifying - only Belgium's Romelu Lukaku (14) had more - as Portugal cruised to the finals.

    Ronaldo is no longer a guaranteed starter under Roberto Martinez, but he continues to show his importance for his country when called upon.

    The five-time Ballon d'Or winner struck twice in Tuesday's 3-0 friendly win over Republic of Ireland - his 34th brace at international level.

    And heading into what could be his final major tournament for 2016 winners Portugal, Ronaldo is relishing the chance to go out on a high.

    "For me, playing for the national team is a passion, a love," Ronaldo is quoted as saying by Record. 

    "Any game is special. A European Championship is special. It will be my sixth, which is also a record. 

    "Playing in 2004, when I made my debut, or playing today, the feeling is always one of pride and passion. It doesn't get any better than this.

    "The thought has to be [winning the tournament]. We have to be positive and take it step by step. 

    "Dreaming is free and this team has the talent to dream. Nothing can be achieved without work. We have to work and fight."

    Ronaldo has found the net for Portugal in all 21 calendar years since making his senior debut in 2004, scoring 130 goals in 270 appearances.

    The first of his double against Ireland was an unstoppable effort into the top corner, which he rates as one of his finest with his left foot.

    "I need to rewind, but with the left foot it must be at the top," he said. "The most important thing is that the team played well.

    "The objective was to win to give confidence. Whoever came on gave a good response, so I'm very happy with the result."

    Portugal have won five of their last nine meetings with managerless Republic of Ireland, losing just once and drawing three times.

    The Selecao head into their Group F opener with Czech Republic on a run of mixed form, having won three and lost two games in 2024.

    Ronaldo played no part in the 2-1 loss to Croatia last week, while his place in the starting line-up against Czech Republic is far from certain.

    However, the five-time Ballon d'Or winner is happy to put the team first and respect whatever decision Martinez makes.

    "I knew I was going to rest against Croatia. I only started training on the sixth and I was preparing for today's game," he said.

    "The most important is the game on the 18th [vs Czech Republic] - we want to start the Euros in the best possible way.

    "I'm prepared in the best way. I'm 100 per cent a professional - this is my life. I dedicate myself to giving 100 per cent, not 80 or 90.

    "I'm prepared to help the country. It's about respecting the decisions - play or don't play. Those who play give a good response."

    Joao Felix was also on target in the win over Republic of Ireland - his first goal in his last five appearances for Portugal and his eighth overall.

    Martinez's men follow up their clash with Czech Republic in Leipzig with games against Turkiye and Georgia.

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