NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: Durant returns to the Bay with Curry in MVP form

By Sports Desk February 13, 2021

Kevin Durant will make a long-awaited return to the Bay Area on Saturday as the Brooklyn Nets visit the Golden State Warriors in a mouth-watering NBA clash at Chase Center.

It is a game that pits the league's newest 'big three' (Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden) against a Warriors team led by Stephen Curry, whose incredible performances this season merit MVP votes.

But more significantly it is Durant's first road game against the Warriors since leaving them to join the Nets after the 2018-19 season that ended with Golden State losing the NBA Finals to the Toronto Raptors in a series that saw the 2014 MVP suffer an Achilles injury.

Having missed the last three games because of coronavirus contact tracing protocols, Durant has been cleared and will face the team with whom he won two NBA titles and two Finals MVPs, though Curry does not expect his former team-mate to treat the contest any differently.

Reflecting on Durant's time with the Warriors, Curry told a media conference: "Two championships, an unfortunate ending with injuries and not getting it done in the 2019 Finals, but it was some of the best basketball the world has ever seen.

"The ability to put that much talent and experience together and make it work, there was no guarantee it was going to work, and we figured it out and it was an amazing run."

Asked about the emotions of his return, Curry added: "Honestly, I don't know how special it'll be because it's not at Oracle [Arena] and there's no fans, so it's kind of weird that whole vibe.

"We've got a tribute video which he deserves, and hopefully it'll be a moment that he'll appreciate. But outside of that it is kind of weird to be honest, in terms of all the things that have changed since 18-19.

"If you ask him how he feels he'll probably say it's another game and I'm sure that's how it will be once the ball drops on Saturday."

TOP PERFORMERS

Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors

Curry has bounced back from a 2019-20 season lost to injury in utterly remarkable form.

He is averaging 30 points a game, the only other season in which he has done so was in 2015-16, when he was named the league MVP in a unanimous vote.

Curry is shooting 43.5 per cent from beyond the arc, having made 10 threes in Thursday's win over the Orlando Magic, which he finished with 40 points.

That his tally against the Magic was not close to his season-high is indicative of the level at which he is playing.

The six-time All-Star has a 62-point game and a 57-point game this season, and has topped 30 points on 10 other occasions. Curry is back, and he's back to his best.

James Harden - Brooklyn Nets

Harden may not be scoring at the same level as Curry but his impact this season is undoubted.

The former Houston Rockets star is sixth in the NBA in PAR (Points + Assists + Rebounds) per game with 41.8, so far justifying the Nets' blockbuster trade for his services.

He started the month with his fourth triple-double of the season against the Los Angeles Clippers and has four successive double-doubles since.

Whether it's as a scorer, facilitator or rebounder, the Warriors will have to do all they can to limit Harden's influence.

KEY BATTLE: CAN DRAYMOND STOP DURANT?

With the Warriors still without rookie center James Wiseman because of a wrist injury and DeAndre Jordan out for the Nets, Durant may have to matchup with Draymond Green at center.

In the absence of Wiseman, the Warriors have had to turn to small ball and play Green at the five, and his clash with Durant promises to be a feisty one, given they weren't afraid to get in each other's faces as team-mates.

One of Green's tasks will be to stop Durant from getting into the paint consistently. That is no easy feat, but the Warriors have had success stopping teams in that regard this season.

Their 43.5 points in the paint allowed per game are the sixth-fewest in the NBA. If Green and the Warriors can limit Durant's opportunities to get to the hoop, they will have a much better shot of pulling off the upset.

HEAD TO HEAD

Durant and Irving inspired the Nets to a blowout win over the Warriors to start the new season.

The Nets emerged 125-99 victors, Durant scoring 22 points and leading Brooklyn with a plus-minus rating of plus 26.

That game was illustrative of the massive changes both teams have undergone. It was Brooklyn's second successive win over the Warriors but they had lost their previous eight meetings with one of most dominant teams in NBA history.

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    James Tavernier's first Europa League run appeared likely to be his last.

    The right-back finally got his chance at Newcastle United in 2012-13 as Alan Pardew's first-team squad was stretched to breaking point.

    However, Tavernier's chance equated to just eight appearances and five starts in all competitions, utilised right across the defence. He played 301 minutes in Europe (including qualifiers) but looked a little out of his depth.

    By the time Newcastle reached the quarter-finals of the competition, Tavernier had played his last game for the club.

    The following season brought the fifth and sixth loan moves of his career – all to League One or below. A permanent transfer to Wigan Athletic followed, but Tavernier was soon back out on loan again – to League One again.

    This underwhelming sequence of temporary moves to the third tier for a player once seen as a potential Premier League starter was interrupted then by Rangers. Heading to the Scottish Championship, it would have taken incredible foresight to even imagine how Tavernier's career might be transformed.

    Newcastle may not have had another European campaign in the past nine years, but Tavernier has enjoyed five – and now, in Seville, a final.

    The right-back goal machine

    Rangers hoped for goals when they struck a deal with Wigan to bring Martyn Waghorn and Tavernier to Ibrox in 2015. Waghorn delivered in the club's promotion campaign, scoring 28 times in all competitions, but Rangers surely could not have anticipated Tavernier would also chip in with 15.

    While Waghorn is long gone, having not performed at quite the same level on Rangers' return to the top tier, Tavernier has since maintained his staggering standard. In 345 Rangers appearances, the defender has scored 83 goals.

    This season, Tavernier has scored 18 goals and assisted a further 16 for 34 goal involvements.

    Having either scored or assisted every 147 minutes on average in 2021-22, Tavernier is operating in the same sort of range as Rafael Leao (141), Dejan Kulusevski (144), Luis Suarez (153) and, incredibly, Sadio Mane (157).

    Nahuel Molina, the highest-scoring defender in Europe's top five leagues, has scored just eight times, while even Trent Alexander-Arnold's leading goal involvements tally of 20 is dwarfed by the man playing north of the border.

    Tavernier's status as Rangers' penalty taker boosts his numbers, of course, but he still has six goals and 22 goal involvements discounting his dozen efforts from 12 yards.

    The standard of the competition in Scotland might also be counted against Tavernier, yet his 16 European appearances alone have yielded seven goals (three non-penalty goals), three assists and 10 goal involvements – again at a rate of one every 147 minutes.

    Top marksman with Morelos missing

    Tavernier's first goal involvement of this European campaign saw the Rangers captain lift a pass in behind the Alashkert defence for Alfredo Morelos to score what proved to be the decisive goal of their Europa League play-off, getting the then Scottish champions back on track after Champions League qualifying heartbreak.

    Wednesday's final against Eintracht Frankfurt would not have been possible without that August example of this most effective assister-scorer combination.

    Unfortunately, Rangers will not be able to rely on that link-up again this week, with Morelos ruled out for the season when he underwent thigh surgery last month, seemingly dealing a sizeable blow to his side's hopes of European glory.

    Morelos, with 29 goals, is Rangers' all-time leading European marksman, while he this season also became their top scorer discounting qualifiers as he brought his total to 15.

    "It is a big blow to us, because he is our striker and we now don't have him any more this season, so we are disappointed," manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst said.

    "But we know what the problem is, how long he's out, and we have to move on. That's the only thing we have to do now."

    Tavernier has since ensured the talismanic forward has not been missed. His seven goals are the most ever by a Rangers player in a European campaign (excluding qualifiers) – Morelos in 2019-20 had a share of the previous record of six – and remarkably make him the leading scorer in this season's Europa League.

    The man for the big occasion, each of Tavernier's goals have come in the knockout stage, including opening the scoring in each of Rangers' four home legs.

    When Kemar Roofe joined Morelos on the sidelines against RB Leipzig in the semi-finals, it was Tavernier who appeared in the centre-forward position to level the tie in Glasgow with his 15th European goal (10 excluding qualifiers).

    Trent of the Europa League

    The first of Tavernier's European goals came back in July 2018, by which point Alexander-Arnold had already played in a Champions League final for Liverpool.

    Alexander-Arnold might be seven years Tavernier's junior, but he has been a source of inspiration in recent seasons for the Rangers skipper, who named him alongside Liverpool team-mate Andy Robertson and Brazil greats Dani Alves, Marcelo and Cafu in October 2020 as a standard-bearer in the full-back role.

    And comparisons between the pair, both of whom are preparing for European finals, come easily.

    Alexander-Arnold has created 19 chances in the Champions League this season, just behind Tavernier's 20 in the Europa League, with the pair each highly influential both in open play and from set-pieces.

    Tavernier makes a long list of English right-backs who remain uncapped at international level due to the incredible competition in Gareth Southgate's Three Lions squad, and former Rangers captain Lorenzo Amoruso tells Stats Perform: "I showcased him in Italy, but nobody cared because, of course, it happened to me, too: the best player in Scotland, thanks to some unbelievable performances, but never a call for the national team.

    "I think I deserved it – at least as a reward or out of curiosity. This Amoruso, as a defender, becomes the best player in Scotland... it is not something that happens every day. The same applies to Tavernier."

    Yet even Alexander-Arnold has only turned out 16 times for England, clearly behind Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and now Reece James in the pecking order.

    The explanations for Alexander-Arnold's limited opportunities often focus on his defensive shortcomings – the same attributes for which Tavernier has come under scrutiny.

    However, neither have committed an error leading to a shot, let alone a goal, in the Champions League or Europa League this season, and Tavernier actually measures favourably next to Alexander-Arnold by several defensive metrics.

    Alexander-Arnold has made 1.9 tackles and 0.9 interceptions per 90 minutes to Tavernier's 1.6 tackles and 1.2 interceptions, but the Liverpool man has been dribbled past every 54 minutes on average and won only 48.2 per cent of his duels. Tavernier has been dribbled past every 150 minutes and won 56.3 per cent of his duels.

    Those numbers will perhaps regress a little next season if Tavernier is playing in the Champions League, but he has to get there first by beating Frankfurt. And Rangers will likely be more concerned by their right-back's attacking output on Wednesday than his work going the other way.

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