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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    The Boston Celtics have lost Al Horford and Marcus Smart for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat.

    Horford will miss out after entering the NBA's health and safety protocols, while Smart has a right mid-foot sprain, the team said.

    Losing center Horford and point guard Smart just hours before the series opener is a major blow to head coach Ime Udoka.

    It remains to be seen how long the pair must stay sidelined. Both played significant roles in Boston edging out the Milwaukee Bucks in a semi-final series that went to a Game 7 decider on Sunday.

    Speaking before the twin absences were announced, Udoka said the Celtics would look to make a strong start against Miami, despite lacking time for a breather between series.

    Udoka said: "We didn’t get a ton of rest, as opposed to Miami, who had a few days off. But we're riding some momentum and staying sharp and there's benefits to that as well. Miami got [four] days off, but as far as what we did against Milwaukee, some carryover could be good."

    Boston are not alone in being without key personnel. It had previously been announced Miami guard Kyle Lowry will miss Game 1 with a hamstring injury.

  • Liverpool squad stars 'like Ferraris in the garage' – Klopp Liverpool squad stars 'like Ferraris in the garage' – Klopp

    Liverpool's squad players were describes as "Ferraris in the garage" by Jurgen Klopp after the title chasers came from behind to beat Southampton.

    Klopp made nine changes to his line-up for the trip to St Mary's on Tuesday, where Liverpool realistically had to win to keep hopes of winning the Premier League title alive.

    Although the Reds fell behind to Nathan Redmond's opener, Takumi Minamino pulled them level before half-time and Joel Matip's header secured a huge three points.

    Minamino also scored in his most recent previous Premier League start for Liverpool – a 7-0 win over Crystal Palace in December 2020. That gap of 514 days between scoring in consecutive starts for a top-flight club is the longest since Duncan Ferguson's 533 days for Everton from April 2002 until September 2003.

    Klopp was proud of the result and said any further success that EFL Cup and FA Cup winners Liverpool experience this season is down to the strength in depth they possess.

    "I'm so happy about the performance, it was a bit touching, to be honest," Klopp told a post-match news conference.

    "These boys, it's like having Ferraris in the garage. Harvey [Elliott], I'm not sure when he played last. Curtis [Jones], no rhythm, he played from time to time. Takumi Minamino, it's a crime he's not playing more often. Oxlade [Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain] didn't even play and he's in outstanding shape.

    "It's really tough for the boys, but whatever happens this year happened because of this group. It's exceptional, and tonight they showed that again."

    Klopp added to Sky Sports: "I've never had a group like this. Because we win most of the time there are not a lot of things you can really argue about. But there are two opportunities how you can deal with it: you give up, or you play your role in the group, and this group push each other constantly.

    "In the end it's absolutely outstanding. We came here and had to do what we did, and it worked out because of the boys." 

    Joe Gomez hobbled off injured at half-time and did not return for the second half. Klopp was hopeful the defender had avoided a serious injury, though he reportedly left the stadium on crutches.

    "I hope we are lucky. Joe himself has pain but not too much, but it was really like a shock to the system,” Klopp said.

    “He was sitting in the dressing room, when I spoke to him he was in a good mood so I think we were probably lucky, but we have to figure that out."

    Liverpool are one point behind leaders Manchester City, and will have to beat Wolves at Anfield on Sunday to stand any chance of winning the Premier League.

    City will be entertaining Aston Villa at the same time, but Klopp is not planning to chat to Steven Gerrard before he takes his side to the Etihad Stadium.

    "No, of course not … There's no reason to talk to him [Gerrard]. We all know Villa wants to win because Villa wants to win," said Klopp.

    "We have to first win our game, we can't talk about Wolves as if they will not be there. It's difficult enough.

    "Imagine we went there with one ear in Manchester and [Raul] Jimenez headed in the ball. We will be 100 per cent focused.

    "So many things happened in this second half of the season. If we become champions it would be deserved as well, but for that we have to win."

  • Southampton 1-2 Liverpool: Reds take Premier League title bid to last day Southampton 1-2 Liverpool: Reds take Premier League title bid to last day

    Joel Matip ensured the Premier League title race will go to the final day as Liverpool came from behind to win 2-1 at Southampton.

    A Reds team showing nine changes from the weekend's FA Cup final over Chelsea found themselves down early through a fine Nathan Redmond strike.

    However, Liverpool responded through a thunderous Takumi Minamino strike before the break and went on to secure the win in the second half as Matip headed home a corner in the 67th minute.

    Victory moved Jurgen Klopp's men to just a point behind Manchester City at the summit, meaning the teams' respective final-day showdowns with Wolves and Aston Villa will decide the destination of the title.

    Liverpool enjoyed plenty of the ball early on but were given a scare when Armando Broja escaped on the break before being denied by the trailing leg of Alisson.

    A failure to heed that warning was punished with just 13 minutes gone as another Southampton counter ended with Redmond cutting in off the left to thrash a curling effort into the top-right corner.

    Klopp was incensed by the failure to award a foul on Diogo Jota in the build-up to that goal, but that did not stop his team responding well to the setback.

    They were denied an equaliser when Roberto Firmino was flagged offside in heading home a free-kick, but restored parity after 27 minutes as Minamino smashed home a cute Diogo Jota pass at close range.

    That prompted a spell of Liverpool dominance, though they were unable to punish some lax Saints defending before a half-time break that saw Joe Gomez withdrawn due to injury. Jota poked the ball inches wide shortly after the restart following great work from Kostas Tsimikas.

    The chances kept coming, Harvey Elliott hitting the side-netting, Jota skewing wide, and Firmino sending in a weak shot from distance. As such, it was no real surprise when the goal eventually came and, in fact, neither was the method.

    Only Leicester City had conceded more headers than Southampton in the Premier League this term, while Liverpool had scored a league-high 15 goals in that manner and added another when Matip met Tsimikas' corner to loop one in.

    Southampton tried to rally from there, but struggled to see much of the ball as Liverpool ensured City still have work to do on the final day.

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