NBA

NBA Heat Check: Luka alight again but Bam bumbling in Bucks win

By Sports Desk May 24, 2021

The NBA playoffs got off to a thoroughly entertaining start over the weekend, with road wins for the lower seed in four of the eight series.

Game 1 followed hot on the heels of the similarly dramatic play-in tournament, in which Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors agonisingly lost twice to miss out on qualifying for the postseason.

Curry is a proven performer in both the regular season and the playoffs, but the same does not apply to every elite player.

Some stars seem to go missing when the season is on the line, while others thrive under pressure, as we discover in our latest NBA Heat Check – now comparing the performances of the past week to the entirety of the 2020-21 regular season.

RUNNING HOT...

Luka Doncic

For the second straight season, the Dallas Mavericks are playing the Los Angeles Clippers in round one. And for the second straight season, the series is providing Doncic with a platform to show off his extraordinary talents.

Dallas are too often a one-man show, but the Clippers struggled to contain Doncic last year as he averaged 31.0 points across a debut series that his Game 4 overtime buzzer-beating three-pointer memorably levelled.

The Mavs were beaten in Game 5 and Game 6 in 2020 to depart the tournament, yet this time they have a lead after Doncic's 31-point, triple-double effort on Saturday. Only Michael Jordan has played seven or more playoff games and averaged greater than his 31.0 points per game (33.4).

And it was again the Slovenian's accuracy from beyond the arc that hurt the Clippers, as he made five threes for the first time in the playoffs – up on his season average of 2.9.

Goran Dragic

The Miami Heat made the NBA Finals last season but were hamstrung by an injury to Dragic in Game 1 of the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

That proved a telling blow, but Dragic is back at the fore in this year's playoffs despite a middling regular season in which he averaged 13.4 points per game.

An opening effort of 25 points helped keep Miami in contention against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1. Duncan Robinson chipped in with 24, too, shooting 53.8 per cent from three.

Dragic ranked fourth in the league last week in terms of scoring improvement (up 11.6 points on the regular season), with Robinson fifth (up 10.9). Robinson topped the list when it came to an upturn in three-point shooting, while Dragic was just behind. The pair could not be blamed for the Bucks' win.

GOING COLD...

Bam Adebayo

Adebayo certainly could be held responsible for Miami's early deficit, contributing a measly nine points on four-for-15 shooting.

The fourth-year center contributed 17.8 points per game in last year's playoffs, including 17.2 in the Milwaukee series, but he never got going on Saturday.

The decrease from Adebayo's regular season 18.7 average was the sixth-worst in the NBA and, to make matters worse for the Heat, superstar team-mate Jimmy Butler also turned in a concerning performance.

Butler finished with 17 points, yet he made only four of 22 field goal attempts while using 30.0 per cent of Miami's plays.

Chris Paul

Paul's poor game this weekend was the most understandable but also the most concerning. The veteran point guard took a blow to his shoulder in the Phoenix Suns' win over the Lakers and clearly moved uneasily thereafter.

"I heard like a crack or whatever," said Paul, whose ball handling was uncharacteristically clumsy as he was limited to seven points, down from a season average of 16.4 per outing.

It did not cost the Suns, but they will surely need Paul back fit and firing to beat the defending champions over a seven-game series.

Julius Randle

The New York Knicks would not be back in the playoffs if not for Randle's outstanding season in which he played the most minutes in the entire league (2,667) and recorded 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

But his belated playoff debut at Madison Square Garden saw a significant step back as Randle's six-for-23 shooting from the field – or 26.1 per cent – allowed the Atlanta Hawks to steal a road game.

The Knicks are built on hard graft rather than superstar talent, but they cannot afford for their All-Star to misfire so drastically.

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    Stefano Pioli has called for Milan to respond to Wednesday's demoralising defeat at Chelsea when they host Juventus in a huge Serie A clash on Saturday.

    Goals from Wesley Fofana, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Reece James condemned Milan to their heaviest ever Champions League group-stage loss last time out, ensuring the Rossoneri remain third in Group E.

    Milan have fared better on the domestic front, however, and sit four points clear of the under-fire Bianconeri in the early-season Serie A table.

    Speaking at Friday's pre-match news conference, Pioli called for Milan to set their chastening defeat at Stamford Bridge aside as he demanded defensive improvements.  

    "We put the game in London behind us straight away and we'll revisit it from Sunday onwards," Pioli said. "The players are eager to react. 

    "This doesn't necessarily mean we'll win because the opponents exist too, but we won't be lacking in desire, motivation and determination.

    "We've conceded a few too many goals. We can do better, and Chelsea did well to make the most of our mistakes the other night. 

    "When there are simple situations, a team of our quality needs to be more attentive. We're a bit more of an attacking side than last year, but I don't think that it can be put down to this.

    "Often, we have the numerical superiority, and we can interpret certain situations better."

    Milan's last home outing saw them lose to Serie A leaders Napoli, ending a six-match winning streak at San Siro in the competition. The Rossoneri have never lost successive home league games under Pioli.

    Meanwhile, Pioli has defended young forward Charles De Ketelaere, who has yet to score since joining from Club Brugge, comparing his early struggles to those of Rafael Leao and Sandro Tonali.

    "He's on the right path, and I'm happy with what he's doing. I remember Rafa three years ago and Tonali in his first year," Pioli said.

    "Many were quick to criticise them and question their qualities. Charles is talented and needs time to adapt and learn about certain situations, but he's on the right path."

    Although Juventus have made an underwhelming start to the new campaign, they have lost just four Serie A games in 2022, and Pioli expects a stern test.

    "During a season, there are two or three games that carry more weight, and going up against Juventus is of particular importance for many reasons," Pioli said.

    "We're all responsible for the performance in London, and we're determined to show that we're a different team compared to the one that showed up on Wednesday."

  • The Numbers Game: Dortmund plotting to end miserable Klassiker run, could Hummels halt free-scoring Bayern? The Numbers Game: Dortmund plotting to end miserable Klassiker run, could Hummels halt free-scoring Bayern?

    It is a long time since the winners of a Klassiker may not be sitting pretty at the top of the Bundesliga at the end of the game.

    But even a ninth successive victory for Bayern Munich over Borussia Dortmund at Signal Iduna Park on Saturday may not be enough for the champions to be at the summit.

    Bayern head into the first showdown with Dortmund this season in third place, level on points with Edin Terzic's fourth-place side as Union Berlin surprisingly lead the way ahead of Freiburg after eight matches.

    It is the first time in 13 years that neither side have been in the top two when this fixture has kicked off.

    Dortmund have already suffered three Bundesliga defeats this season, but they come into the game buoyed by a 4-1 Champions League victory at Sevilla.

    Bayern hammered Viktoria Plzen in midweek after a 4-0 rout of Bayer Leverkusen, so there could be goals aplenty this weekend.

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    Dortmund desperate to end dismal Klassiker run

    The last time Dortmund got the better of Bayern was back in August 2019, when they 2-0 winners in the German Super Cup.

    Their two goalscorers in that game are no longer at the club, with Jadon Sancho at Manchester United and Paco Alcacer with Sharjah.

    Dortmund have not beaten Bayern in the Bundesliga since winning a classic 3-2 in November 2018, Marco Reus – who is missing this weekend due to an ankle injury – claiming a double.

    Only against Hamburg between 1982 and 1985 have Dortmund lost eight competitive games in a row, so another defeat this weekend would set an unwanted record.

     

    Hummels could make timely return

    Mats Hummels has missed the two games since the international break due to illness, but could return against his former club.

    Nine of the 10 goals Dortmund have conceded in the Bundesliga this season have been when Hummels was not on the pitch.

    They have shipped only goal in 512 minutes while the vastly experienced centre-back has been on the field, but let in one every 23 minutes without him.

    Terzic said ahead of the match: "We would be very happy if he were an option. It's a case of seeing how he feels and how his body reacts to the workload."

     

    Sane and Musiala firing for free-scoring Bayern

    Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala have made great starts to the campaign for Julian Nagelsmann's side.

    Sane endured a difficult start to life at Bayern after his move from Manchester City, but the winger has scored nine goals this season – four of those coming in the Champions League.

    Only Gerd Muller has scored more than Musiala's five goals in eight matches at the start of a Bundesliga season as a teenager, the Bayern and Germany legend striking seven times at the start of the 1965-66 campaign.

    Falling behind may not be a problem for free-scoring champions

    The importance of starting strongly is stressed so often, but Bayern may not be too concerned if they go behind.

    That is because Dortmund are the only team this Bundesliga campaign to lose twice after leading in games (3-2 v Werder Bremen and 3-2 at Cologne). 

    Not that Bayern have been slow to get going, as they have scored 16 goals in the first half of Bundesliga games this season, with no other team scoring more than nine.

  • Much more to come from Bellingham, says Dortmund boss Terzic Much more to come from Bellingham, says Dortmund boss Terzic

    There is "much more to come" from Jude Bellingham, according to Borussia Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic.

    Bellingham captained the Bundesliga side during Wednesday's 4-1 win at Sevilla, where he became just the second teenager to score in the first three games of a Champions League campaign.

    The only other player to achieve that feat is his former Dortmund team-mate Erling Haaland, who did so with Salzburg in the 2019-20 season.

    Bellingham's tally of three Champions League goals this season is already a joint-high among English teenagers for a single campaign, along with Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, back in 2004-05.

    The 19-year-old England international has been in good form for club and country, and Terzic believes he can get even better.

     

    "[Bellingham] has been playing very consistently, getting more control and balance in his game," he said at a press conference ahead of Dortmund's Der Klassiker clash with Bayern Munich.

    "We are very happy with the way he presents himself here every day. But this is not the end, there is much more to come."

    Dortmund and Bayern head into Saturday's contest level on points in the Bundesliga, both two points behind surprise leaders Union Berlin and second-placed Freiburg.

    Terzic is hopeful his team can produce a similar performance to the one in Seville, rather than their last league outing, where they lost 3-2 at Koln.

    "We will not only need a good and disciplined tactical performance; we will need courage too," he said. "Courage to keep the ball, courage in one-on-ones and to get shots away.

    "Not only against Bayern, but especially against Bayern."

    The 39-year-old confirmed Marco Reus will not return for the game, having already been out with an ankle injury before illness halted his rehabilitation this week.

    However, Mats Hummels could be back after his own illness, with a hopeful Terzic saying: "We would be very happy if he were an option. It's a case of seeing how he feels and how his body reacts to the workload." 

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