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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  • 'World-class' Alexander-Arnold 'judged by the one thing he's not as world class in' – Klopp 'World-class' Alexander-Arnold 'judged by the one thing he's not as world class in' – Klopp

    Jurgen Klopp does not understand why anybody would focus only on Trent Alexander-Arnold's defending when he has "world-class talent" on the ball.

    Liverpool right-back Alexander-Arnold has been the subject of much debate this week after being left out of England's matchday squad to face Germany on Monday.

    Reece James started the match and Kyle Walker came off the bench, while Kieran Trippier was among the substitutes.

    James appears to be Gareth Southgate's preferred option in that position, but Walker has made 50 appearances under the Three Lions manager. Trippier has turned out 37 times for Southgate, starting in both the 2018 World Cup semi-final and Euro 2020 final.

    That leaves Alexander-Arnold – often outstanding for Liverpool – as fourth-choice and looking highly unlikely to feature at the World Cup, even if selected in the 26-man squad.

    Southgate handed Alexander-Arnold his international debut in 2018, but he has since earned just 17 caps for his country.

    While the 23-year-old's creative abilities are unquestioned – he leads the England quartet in chances created (2.4) and expected assists (0.32) per 90 minutes in the Premier League in 2022 – there are doubts around his defending.

    Klopp has accepted Alexander-Arnold has room for improvement, but ahead of Saturday's game against Brighton and Hove Albion, he also suggested "nobody mentions" when the Liverpool man defends well.

    "It's like you have a list, bad defending and good defending, and bad defending [is] massive, and the good defending [list] is like you can't even see," he said.

    "That's what I see, because I'm not dumb."

    Klopp was also keen to point out some of Alexander-Arnold's shortcomings are due to Liverpool's approach, as they are "extremely brave" in their pressing and "the pitch is too big to be everywhere".

    Yet even when Alexander-Arnold is directly at fault, his club manager believes there is too much focus on those shortcomings.

    "There are other situations where he was not aware of the situation, where they pass the ball through him, where it was a challenge he should've won – true," Klopp said. "Every player in the league has these challenges.

    "With him, you pick it out, analyse so easy. All the experts sitting there, 'in this situation, you see it's a weakness'.

    "Honestly, I just don't get it, I just don't get that part of it – that we just accept that a world-class talent gets judged by the one thing he's not as world-class as in other things."

    And Klopp added: "If he would not be a good defender, he wouldn't play."

  • Walk-off win to end drought 'better than you can even dream', say Mariners Walk-off win to end drought 'better than you can even dream', say Mariners

    Cal Raleigh made MLB history to end the Seattle Mariners' 21-year playoff drought in fitting fashion – circumstances scarcely believable to manager Scott Servais.

    The Mariners entered Friday knowing either defeat for the Baltimore Orioles or a victory of their own at home to the Oakland Athletics would clinch a Wild Card place.

    Seattle were enduring the longest active postseason absence in any of the four major American sports.

    And a surprise win for the Orioles at the New York Yankees kept Mariners fans waiting just a little longer, with their team very rarely doing things the easy way even in this hugely successful season.

    But Raleigh, pinch-hitting for Luis Torrens, homered on a 3-2 pitch from Domingo Acevedo at the bottom of the ninth to clinch a sensational 2-1 walk-off win and a playoff series next weekend.

    Raleigh became the first player in MLB history to secure a postseason berth with a pinch-hit, walk-off home run.

    After only two as a rookie in 2021, this was also Raleigh's 26th homer of the year – a new single-season record for Mariners catchers.

    That it happened at T-Mobile Park put the icing on the cake for Servais, who had already been talking up his team's World Series chances after beating the Texas Rangers the previous night. 

    "The fact that we're in our ballpark and there's 40,000 people here tonight, it's better than maybe what you can even dream it could be," Servais said.

    "We have a lot of baseball yet ahead of us. We did end the drought tonight, which is a very special feeling.

    "There's so many kids that grew up in the Pacific Northwest that don't know anything about the Mariners being in the playoffs, and now we get to show them."

    Servais is not alone in outlining title ambitions in Seattle, where the Mariners remain the only MLB team never to have been to a World Series, let alone won one.

    But president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto believes the adversity has only made the franchise stronger.

    "It wasn’t fluid. It wasn't a linear road for us," he said. "We stumbled, and we fell, and I think that made us stronger.

    "And along the way, we found stars, we found leaders, and we found we found a team that came together.

    "I think what you see out there right now is a group of guys who believe that they can beat anybody."

  • Master meets apprentice as Guardiola and Ten Hag face off in Manchester derby Master meets apprentice as Guardiola and Ten Hag face off in Manchester derby

    Manchester City and Manchester United face off for the 188th time this weekend, yet for respective managers Pep Guardiola and Erik ten Hag the contest at the Etihad Stadium will be their first ever meeting.

    That is not to say the pair are unacquainted with one another, though. In fact, that could not be further from the truth, with the two men sharing very similar philosophies and having previously worked closely at Bayern Munich.

    While Ten Hag may be a year older than his counterpart at 52, the Dutchman was the apprentice and Guardiola the master during that overlapping period in Bavaria between 2013 and 2015.

    "That time was enormously valuable for me. I remember it well," Ten Hag told Bild in 2018. "Many people in Holland shook their heads when I left the Eredivisie for the Regionalliga."

    No wonder. Ten Hag was a burgeoning head coach after guiding Go Ahead Eagles to their first promotion in 17 years in his only season at the club.

    The decision to then take charge of Bayern Munich II, the reserve side of a Bayern team that were enjoying a period of sustained success under Guardiola at the time, was a big surprise.

    For Ten Hag, the sideways move – at best – was considered an opportunity to learn from Guardiola and a better path for his long-term career. The past decade suggests that was the correct call.

    Ten Hag went on to manage Ajax for four-and-a-half years following success with fellow Eredivisie club Utrecht, before being handpicked by United as the man to bring trophies back to Old Trafford – or so they hope.

    "I never regretted the decision," Ten Hag recalled in that interview with the German outlet. "Working for a club as big as Bayern with such formative personalities as Pep Guardiola and also Matthias Sammer was like winning the lottery."

    Ten Hag's possession-based style – though adaptable as we have come to see in his first two months at United – has drawn natural comparisons to compatriot Johan Cruyff, a man Guardiola himself took a great deal of inspiration from.

    Rather than the 'Total Football' that was developed and famed by Cruyff, though, Ten Hag looked to do things the 'Guardiola Way' across his four full seasons with Ajax, during which time he won three Eredivisie titles and took the Dutch giants within seconds of a Champions League final.

    "His philosophy is sensational," Ten Hag said of Guardiola in 2019. "What he did in Barcelona, Bayern and now with Manchester City, that attacking and attractive style sees him win a lot. It's this structure I've tried to implement with Ajax."

    Implement it he did, and so impressed were United they not only went all out to land the Dutchman, despite it being apparent that Mauricio Pochettino would be available, they allowed him to also have a huge say in transfer activity ahead of his first season at the helm.

    Of the five senior players signed, two joined directly from Ajax (Lisandro Martinez and Antony), one had previously played for the Eredivisie side and came through their youth ranks (Christian Eriksen), and another had spent his entire career to date playing in the Dutch top flight (Tyrell Malacia).

    With that level of turnover both on the field and in the dugout, patience was always likely to be required among United fans. Two games in, the Red Devils found themselves bottom of the division after losing by an aggregate 6-1 scoreline against Brighton and Hove Albion and Brentford.

    Not so much 'Total Football', but 'Total Rubbish' in the view of many. While not as extreme, Ten Hag also made slow starts at previous clubs, including first side Go Ahead Eagles when drawing two and losing one of his first three games, and also at Utrecht with a record of two wins, two draws and two defeats.

    With four wins from four since the Brentford debacle, it is fair to say Ten Hag has slowly won supporters over ahead of his first taste of the Manchester derby. Not that it has come as any surprise to Guardiola, the man seeking a fifth Premier League title in the past six seasons with City.

    "He is a top-class manager and his teams are a joy to watch. Watch his Ajax team and you see his qualities," Guardiola said upon confirmation of Ten Hag's appointment at United in April. 

    "To define a manager you just have to take a look at his teams for a long time and this is a team where their manager makes them play. There's no doubt about that. But the relationship we had was incredibly good."

    In an alternate universe, Ten Hag would have spent another season or two in the Dutch capital before succeeding Guardiola in the Etihad Stadium dugout. Indeed, Guardiola said as much earlier this year.

    "Are you asking me if Erik ten Hag could be here? Definitely," Guardiola said at a news conference when asked if the then-Ajax coach was the right sort of candidate to replace him one day.

    Instead, it will be Guardiola versus Ten Hag, City against United this weekend on a day when any sort of friendship or respect will take a back seat.

    For Guardiola, it is another opportunity to prove why he remains a true master; for Ten Hag, a chance to show that his apprenticeship has been put to good use.

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