NBA

NBA Heat Check: Clarkson shows his value, Payton's place under threat?

By Sports Desk May 17, 2021

The regular season is over. All teams have made it through 72 games in a campaign played out amid the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

For some, the focus now switches quickly to the playoffs. Those who missed out, however, get an early start to their offseason, a time for rest, reflection and perhaps a reset ahead of the NBA Draft in late July.

The contrasting situations for teams at this time in a campaign offers opportunities to those perhaps not used to being in the spotlight. It may be the final act in the show, but it allows some players to step in and take centre stage.

Powered by Stats Perform data, here is a look at some of those who have seized the moment in the latest edition of Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT...

Jordan Clarkson

Clarkson has excelled this season with the Utah Jazz and is the overwhelming favourite to be named Sixth Man of the Year in the NBA Awards. He has averaged 18.4 points across 68 games, of which he has started in just one. His final act in the regular season was a 33-point haul in a win over the Sacramento Kings, including landing half of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc.

Despite being without Mike Conley Jr and Donovan Mitchell down the stretch, the Jazz still finished strongly to end up as the top seeds in the Western Conference. Now they wait to find out who they will face first up in the playoffs, aiming to avoid an opening-round exit for a third successive campaign.

Kelan Martin

Martin is a prime case of a player capitalising on extended game time. Having gone undrafted, he had a spell in Germany before getting an NBA debut with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2019. However, he has looked right at home of late with the Indiana Pacers, including recording a career-high 25 points on May 10. During the past week, the 25-year-old has averaged 14.2 points per game and 2.6 successful three-point attempts.

Indiana have a play-in game to come against the Charlotte Hornets as they aim to keep their campaign alive – do not be surprised to see Martin remain involved in the rotation.

Malachi Flynn

Few teams have had it as tough as the Toronto Raptors. For starters, the Canadian franchise was relocated to Tampa due to travel restrictions in place during the global pandemic. Health and safety protocols have also taken a toll on player (and coach) availability and, with no hope of a top-10 finish in the Eastern Conference, several of their starters have been absent from duty.

That has offered further minutes for Malachi Flynn, though. The rookie guard rounded out his debut year with 26 and 27 points respectively in losses to the Dallas Mavericks and the Pacers. Across the past week, he averaged out at 3.25 successful attempts from three-point range, demonstrating his scoring touch from deep.

GOING COLD...

Elfrid Payton

To say Payton’s numbers are a concern is an understatement. The starting point guard for the playoff-bound New York Knicks has not reached double figures for points in his previous seven outings.

Indeed, across the past week, the former first-round pick by the Philadelphia 76ers has averaged 1.0ppg. One. Point. He made just two of 14 field goal attempts across four games. Considering the Knicks also have Frank Ntilikina and Derrick Rose on the roster, a change to the line-up would not be at all surprising.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic did not play on Sunday as the Chicago Bulls wrapped up their campaign with a win over the shorthanded Milwaukee Bucks. The center averaged 12.67 points in the three appearances across May 10-16, comfortably down on his mark of 23.9 entering the week. He struggled against the Brooklyn Nets in particular, landing just four of his 18 shots, including none of the eight attempts launched from three-point range.

Here is an example of how sometimes good intentions do not quite pan out as planned. Vucevic's arrival prior to the trade deadline was a show of intent by the Bulls to make the playoffs. Instead, they are left on the outside in the East, finishing up in 11th place in the standings for a second season in a row.

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    Inter Miami will again be without injured superstar Lionel Messi as they look to continue on their course for the Supporters' Shield on Saturday.

    Miami will host Chicago Fire with Messi absent, just as he was for the midweek home win over Toronto FC.

    "Leo will continue to be evaluated by our medical staff week to week," coach Tata Martino said.

    "We will see how he recuperates without taking any type of risk."

    Messi suffered an ankle injury while on Copa America duty with Argentina, winning that competition but appearing to hamper Inter's title hopes in the process.

    But Martino's men are still well placed to achieve their goals, starting with the regular-season championship.

    With victory over Toronto, in which Federico Redondo took centre stage with two goals, Miami became the first team to reach 50 points this season.

    They have achieved that feat within 24 games, joining esteemed company. The only six teams to previously tally 50 points inside 24 games have gone on to win the Supporters' Shield.

    Next opponents Chicago at least head into this encounter off the back of a win of their own, beating FC Cincinnati on the road on Wednesday.

    "When you come on the road and get a result like this, it's a great team effort," said Fire coach Frank Klopas.

    "Certain guys are playing really well at the moment, but I still feel that everyone can give more. There's a lot more potential in there with the group.

    "That's why this game on Saturday is so massive for us."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Inter Miami – Federico Redondo

    Miami may be missing Messi, but the supporting cast has consistently stepped up this season. They have had four different players score two or more goals in a match, tied for the most in MLS.

    The latest of those was Redondo, scoring his first goals in MLS against Toronto. With an assist in that game, too, he will hope that is the start of a strong run of game.

    Chicago Fire – Brian Gutierrez

    The Fire have had just three goals from substitutes in 2024, yet two of those have been among their past three goals. The latest, their winner against Cincy, saw Gutierrez emerge from the bench to score.

    The midfielder will not want that to develop into a consistent theme, however, surely preferring to play from the start. He had done so in each prior game going back to April.

    MATCH PREDICTION: INTER MIAMI WIN

    Chicago have actually won four of their six games against Miami, including the past three in a row.

    But New York City FC are the only team to further extend such a streak against Miami, and their run of five straight victories ended back in 2022. Miami are a very different prospect in 2024.

    Their stretch of scoring in 10 consecutive MLS matches is a club record, with their tally of 19 goals across those games showing the task that lies before Chicago – with or without Messi.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Inter Miami – 64.2%
    Chicago Fire – 16.7%
    Draw – 19.1%

  • Seattle Sounders v Los Angeles FC: Hosts 'flying' with win in 'massive game', says Schmetzer Seattle Sounders v Los Angeles FC: Hosts 'flying' with win in 'massive game', says Schmetzer

    The Seattle Sounders will be "flying" if they can beat Los Angeles FC on Saturday.

    That was the message from coach Brian Schmetzer, who is relishing a huge occasion at Lumen Field, where the Sounders have been outstanding.

    Seattle are on a five-game winning run in MLS, with four of those matches coming at home. They have lost in Seattle only once this year, back in April.

    After a slow start, there are now only five teams above them in the Western Conference, but one of those are LAFC.

    It was a defeat in Los Angeles that set in motion the Sounders' five-game winless run to start the campaign, while their 2023 season ended with a defeat to LAFC at Lumen Field.

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    "Saturday is such a big game against LAFC," Schmetzer said. "Everyone needs to come out and show up.

    "This is a massive game for us. We've only lost twice in 18 games. That's pretty darn good if you ask me.

    "We come out with a result on Saturday, and we're flying."

    A win would close the gap between sixth-placed Seattle and second-placed LAFC to just four points, with this weekend's visitors wobbling in recent weeks against elite opposition.

    The performance in the midweek draw with Real Salt Lake was merely "a little better" than in the prior humbling 5-1 defeat to the Columbus Crew, according to coach Steve Cherundolo.

    "No, I was not happy with the performance [against RSL]," he said.

    LAFC had won nine of their previous 10 ahead of the Columbus game.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Seattle Sounders – Albert Rusnak

    Rusnak assisted Jon Bell's first Seattle goal in the midweek win over St Louis City, continuing his fine form. That was his sixth consecutive home match in which he had registered a goal contribution.

    Obafemi Martins is the only Sounders player with a longer such streak in a single regular season, with a seven-game run in 2014.

    Los Angeles FC – Mateusz Bogusz

    Olivier Giroud officially became an LAFC player this week, but Bogusz has contributed handily while the team have waited for the World Cup winner to arrive.

    Bogusz has contributed to goals in each of his past five away matches, the longest active streak in MLS. Only Carlos Vela has had goal contributions in more consecutive road games in the regular season for LAFC (six matches in 2018).

    MATCH PREDICTION: LAFC WIN

    Across MLS and the US Open Cup, the Sounders have won six games in a row, their longest winning run since a streak of the same length ended in MLS Cup glory in 2019.

    But LAFC are the Sounders' bogey side right now. They have won three in a row against Seattle and are unbeaten in seven in this fixture.

    The Rave Green have not beaten LAFC since May 2021, and Saturday's visitors will hope to provide another reality check.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Seattle Sounders – 32.1%
    Los Angeles FC – 42.5%
    Draw – 25.4%

  • Clippers trading Westbrook to Jazz, clearing move for guard to join Nuggets Clippers trading Westbrook to Jazz, clearing move for guard to join Nuggets

    Russell Westbrook is on the move once again, but isn't yet at his final destination.

    The Los Angeles Clippers agreed to send Westbrook to the Utah Jazz on Thursday, as part of a sign-and-trade deal, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

    The Jazz are expected to reach a contract buyout agreement with Westbrook, opening the door for him to join the Denver Nuggets.

    Denver will be the sixth team Westbrook has played for in the last seven seasons.

    To complete the trade, Utah will also receive a swap of second-round draft picks and cash from Los Angeles, while shipping guard Kris Dunn to the Clippers.

    The 35-year-old Westbrook was named the NBA MVP in 2016-17, averaging a career-high 31.6 points, along with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists.

    In 2023-24 for the Clippers, he averaged career lows of 11.1 points and 4.5 assists with 5 boards. He came off the bench in 57 of the 68 games he played, shooting 27.3 per cent from 3-point range - the second-lowest mark among the 226 players with at least 150 attempts from beyond the arc.

    The Nuggets still believe he can provide depth off the bench and help them make another run at a title after being eliminated in the Western Conference semi-finals in May.

    The Clippers were ousted by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, with Westbrook averaging 6.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists in the six play-off games.

    In 1,162 games in a 16-year career, Westbrook has averages of 21.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.1 rebounds. His 199 career triple-doubles are the most in NBA history.

    Dunn has career averages of 7.9 points, 4.2 assists and 3.3 boards since being drafted fifth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2016.

    In starting 32 of 66 games for the Jazz last season, the 30-year-old Dunn averaged 5.4 points, 3.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds.

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