NBA

NBA Heat Check: Tatum keeps Celtics in chase but MVP race is settled

By Sports Desk May 03, 2021

There are just two weeks of the NBA regular season remaining and the race for the playoffs is really hotting up.

The top teams in the East are jostling for the first seed, while the Washington Wizards' form has taken them into a play-in place.

The West is even more open, with the top seven in flux and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers falling into the play-in game as things stand.

Lakers superstar LeBron James even suggested the individual responsible for this format "needs to be fired".

There is still time for James and Co, but players with momentum – identified by our NBA Heat Check, powered by Stats Perform data – will be key.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Jayson Tatum

The Boston Celtics are down in seventh in the East, meaning they are set to go through the play-in, but their 1.0-game deficit to the teams above them would undoubtedly be greater if not for Tatum.

Although the team went 2-2 last week, one of their wins – against the San Antonio Spurs – was particularly memorable.

Tatum put up 60 points in the overtime win, where the Celtics trailed by 32 at one stage. That performance matched Larry Bird's single-game Boston scoring record and ensured he averaged 42.7 over the three games he featured in, up from his prior seasonal mark of 25.7 for the biggest increase of the week.

Aaron Nesmith

Tatum also had some help from the bench as rookie Nesmith found his feet at this level. Last year's first-round pick averaged 3.4 points per game through April 25 and continued this unimpressive form with two points as Tatum sat out against the Orlando Magic. Then he hit form.

Displays of 15, 16 and 16 points meant an average of 8.9 for the week, including 85.7 per cent shooting against the Portland Trail Blazers, making all four attempts from beyond the arc.

It was a timely improvement as fellow wing Evan Fournier, dealing with long-term COVID-19 effects, scored just 10.5 points per game, down from 17.5 for the league's eighth-largest decline last week.

Michael Porter Jr

Nikola Jokic will win the NBA MVP award, but injuries to Jamal Murray and Will Barton appeared to have hit his hopes of team success with the Denver Nuggets until they won four straight last week.

Porter is the Nuggets' third-best scorer but looked better than that as he led the team in points in two of those victories.

Enjoying his first year as a regular starter, Porter had boosted his average to 18.2 points per game with a career-high 39 in the final game of the previous week yet raised those standards even further with 26.8 over four outings.
 

GOING COLD...

Joel Embiid

Jokic's impending individual recognition is in part due to the failure of his MVP rivals to stay fit. Joel Embiid was the frontrunner until he missed 10 games in a row.

The Philadelphia 76ers center might still have returned in time to wrestle back the top honour, but limited minutes last week – even in four Sixers wins – look to have put paid to those hopes.

Only appearing for more than 25 minutes when he contributed 34 points against the Spurs, Embiid averaged 22.5ppg, a significant decrease on his prior 30.0 for 2020-21.

James in LA, another early contender, certainly will not trouble Jokic after he returned for two games, scored 35 points in total and then went down again.

Malcolm Brogdon

The 76ers can afford to give Embiid a light schedule as they focus on an NBA title, but the Indiana Pacers would be happy simply making the playoffs from ninth in the East.

Their hopes were hit by a tough week for Brogdon, who played only 12 minutes in their second game against the Brooklyn Nets before succumbing to a hamstring issue that kept him out of a trip to Oklahoma City.

Brogdon, previously scoring 21.6 points for the year, could only partially be excused by injury, though, having shot five-of-14 against Portland then none-of-five in a brief Brooklyn outing.

Rudy Gobert

The Utah Jazz are wobbling at the top of the West, where they have been joined on 46-18 by the Phoenix Suns following a 2-2 week that included a defeat to their rivals for the first seed.

Phoenix and Deandre Ayton continue to prove tricky opponents for presumed Defensive Player of the Year Gobert, who could not carry the load in Donovan Mitchell's absence.

With 10 rebounds against the Suns – relatively poor by his dominant standards – Gobert averaged 10.3 for the week, down from 13.6, and Utah have now lost four straight against their co-leaders. That is a worry heading into the postseason.

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  • Klopp suggests Salah wants to end his career at Liverpool after 'insane' Man Utd thrashing Klopp suggests Salah wants to end his career at Liverpool after 'insane' Man Utd thrashing

    Jurgen Klopp has suggested star forward Mohamed Salah wants to end his career at Liverpool following the Reds' 5-0 thrashing of rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford.

    Liverpool romped to a big win in Manchester with Salah hitting a hat-trick and grabbing an assist for Naby Keita, with Diogo Jota also getting on the scoresheet.

    Liverpool head coach Klopp was full of praise for Salah, who became the first away player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford since Ronaldo did so for Real Madrid in the Champions League in April 2003, while he is only the second player to do so while playing for Liverpool after Fred Howe in November 1936. 

    "The fifth goal, Mo was there to get the goals and he deals with the fuss that everyone makes around him," Klopp said to Sky Sports. "He enjoys his football and long, long, long, may it continue. I knew already (he wants to end his career here), I know the situation."

    Klopp was also stunned by the manner of his side's win and hailed their clinical performance after the Reds recorded their largest margin of victory against United since October 1895, winning 7-1 at Anfield. It was also Liverpool's greatest margin of victory in the fixture away from home. 

    The German also explained that the Reds intentionally eased off at 5-0 to lower the risk of further injuries after James Milner was forced off early and Keita was carried off on a stretcher after a two-footed tackle from Paul Pogba that saw the Frenchman sent off.

    "What can I say? Did I expect that? No," Klopp continued. "What we did in the last third was insane. Pressing high, winning balls, scoring wonderful goals. I told them at half-time to play better.

    "We started incredibly well and stopped playing football. We controlled the game after the fifth, it was not about scoring more, just trying to get out without more injuries.

    "The result is insane, I asked if there was one like this in history and if there isn't then it will take a while. The players put a nice piece in the book. It is special but we don't celebrate like crazy, we have respect for the opponents. We were lucky in some moments, United are not in their best moment.

    "Three points against a real opponent but you have to understand these games right. We got lost against Aston Villa and you have to learn off it. We smashed Crystal Palace once and the results are not interesting. I analyse the games, we can play better football and have to concentrate more.

    "I couldn't be happier, it is exceptional. Absolutely outstanding. I have a few defeats in my mind which was not necessary but we won today so we drink beer on the way home.

    "James Milner has a hamstring, he showed me something was not right. Naby Keita we have to see, a full-throttle [tackle] on the shin."

    Salah spoke of the Reds' title ambitions after becoming the top-scoring African player in Premier League history, his 107 goals taking him clear of Didier Drogba's 104, while also becoming the first-ever Liverpool player to score in three consecutive away games against United in all competitions.

    "I think it is great to win 5-0 here, we knew before the game it would be tough if we did not play our game," Salah said to Sky Sports. "We knew they will come and try to give everything so we had to give 100 per cent.

    "As long as the team keep winning I am happy and to give my best to the team to win. We know what it takes to win the Premier League, we did it two years ago. A big win here but still only three points.

    "We try to win each game and try to win the title. We need to play to win everything. From our heads from pre-season, we need to win the Premier League and hopefully, we go for that."

  • Solskjaer reflects on 'darkest day' as he shoulders responsibility for Man Utd's 5-0 defeat Solskjaer reflects on 'darkest day' as he shoulders responsibility for Man Utd's 5-0 defeat

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer labelled Manchester United's 5-0 defeat at the hands of Liverpool as his "darkest day" as manager of the club.

    United's poor start to the season hit a potential nadir on Sunday as Liverpool ran riot at Old Trafford.

    Mohamed Salah became the first Premier League player to score an away hat-trick against United, with Naby Keita and Diogo Jota having put Jurgen Klopp's team in control inside the opening 15 minutes.

    Paul Pogba came on from the bench for a calamitous 15-minute cameo in which he conceded possession for Salah's hat-trick goal before seeing red for a lunge on Keita, though United at least managed to keep the Reds out while down to 10.

    Having seen their team go into half-time 4-0 down for the first time in a Premier League game, United's fans let their feelings known as the players and Solskjaer walked off, and the atmosphere hardly improved after the final whistle.

    Solskjaer appears to be under mounting pressure, with United relying on last-minute winners to see off Villarreal and Atalanta in the Champions League in recent weeks, while they have lost three of their last four top-flight matches, conceding 11 times and scoring just three in return.

    "It is not easy to say something apart from it is the darkest day I have had leading these players," a dejected Solskjaer told Sky Sports.

    "We were not good enough individually and as a team, can't give a team like Liverpool those chances but unfortunately we did.

    "The whole performance was not good enough. We created openings, they had chances and they have been clinical. The third goal decided the game."

    Asked who had to take responsibility, Solskjaer replied: "It is mine, that is it. The coaching staff are very, very good, brilliant.

    "I choose the way we approach the game, we were not clinical enough and gave too much space and when you give good players space they score."

    United decided to try and press Liverpool from the off, a tactic that swiftly proved naive, though Solskjaer did not regret his approach. 

    "We are at home, playing against Liverpool, we have gone here over the last two and half years and had a similar approach to high press but today they scored on their chances I think as United we should always try to stamp our authority on the game," he said.

    "That fourth goal is when you go into half time with having to score one every 15 minutes. I know these boys are capable of it. The fourth, that was probably game over.

    "You can look at last season we lose to Spurs 6-1 this is worse, miles worse. This is miles worse for me as a Manchester lad. I've just got to say we have to get over this as quickly as we can."

    Solskjaer knows questions over his future will only increase, but he insisted he is in no mood to give in.

    He added: "I have come too far, we have come too far as a group. We are too close to give up now.

    "It is going to be a difficult one. The players will be low but there's loads of characters there. We know we are rock bottom, we can't feel any worse than this. Let's see where we take it."

  • Klopp closes in on 200th win and Salah sets more records as Man Utd suffer historic Liverpool defeat Klopp closes in on 200th win and Salah sets more records as Man Utd suffer historic Liverpool defeat

    Jurgen Klopp closed in on a milestone win in sensational style as Mohamed Salah's hat-trick inspired Liverpool to a 5-0 rout of Manchester United.

    Matters look bleak for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with the pressure mounting on the United manager, who saw his team torn to shreds on Sunday.

    Salah scored the Reds' final three goals, having teed up Naby Keita's opener, while Diogo Jota grabbed Liverpool's second. Paul Pogba's red card merely compounded United's misery.

    It was a momentous day for Liverpool and a dismal one for United. Stats Perform looks at the records that tumbled in an historic result.

     

    Klopp closes in on double century

    Taking charge of his 229th match as Liverpool manager in the Premier League, Klopp claimed his 198th victory as Reds boss in all competitions. 

    If including shoot-out victories, which Opta do not, Klopp has in fact already hit that mark.

    He has also overtaken Rafael Benitez and Gerard Houllier (including matches as co-manager with Roy Evans) as the manager to have taken charge of the most games for the club in the top flight.

    Klopp's team look well set for a title tilt. They have scored 19 goals in their first five away matches in the Premier League this season.

    In English top-flight history only two sides have scored more after five away games – Manchester City in 2011-12 (20) and United in 1907-08 (20).

    Salah in dreamland

    It has been some season so far for Salah, as he moved onto 10 Premier League goals with a gift-wrapped hat-trick.

    He is the first away player to net a hat-trick at Old Trafford since Ronaldo Nazario did so for Real Madrid in April 2003, while he is only the second player to do so for Liverpool, after Fred Howe in 1936.

    Salah's goal tally in the Premier League now stands at 107, three clear of Didier Drogba as the highest-scoring African player in the competition's history.

    The 29-year-old has scored in 10 consecutive appearances for the Reds in all competitions. Since he joined the club prior to the 2017-18 campaign, he is the only Premier League player to score in 10 successive matches.

     

    Solemn times for Solskjaer

    United were 2-0 down inside 15 minutes for the first time, and 4-0 down at half-time for the first time in any Premier League game.

    The Red Devils have only lost by a larger margin in this fixture in October 1895 when Liverpool beat them 7-1 at Anfield. It is their largest margin of defeat in this fixture when playing at home.

    Liverpool are only the second team in English top-flight history to win consecutive away games by a margin of five or more goals without conceding themselves, after United in February-March 1960.

    It is the first time United have lost by a margin of at least five goals at Old Trafford without scoring since they slumped to a 5-0 defeat to Man City in 1955.

    Pogba's calamitous cameo 

    Pogba had a 15-minute cameo to forget. He replaced Mason Greenwood at half-time, but was trudging down the tunnel on the hour mark after lunging in on Keita, who had to be taken off on a stretcher.

    He had 20 touches, made 16 passes and was robbed of possession in the build-up to Salah's hat-trick goal. It was one of five occasions he gave the ball away.

    The France midfielder's red card was the 17th in Premier League matches between Manchester United and Liverpool – the only fixture with more red cards in the competition is Everton vs Liverpool (22).

    Cristiano Ronaldo also struggled to have an impact, despite a disallowed goal. The 36-year-old previously featured in a 5-0 defeat during his time at Real Madrid, to Barcelona in November 2010.

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