Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares has been discharged from hospital following a head injury suffered on Thursday that will see him out indefinitely.

Off balance following a collision, a prone Tavares was caught by the knee of passing Montreal Canadiens winger Corey Perry during the opening game of the playoff series.

Tavares initially rose to his knees before then slipping back down to the ice. He was taken from the rink on a stretcher, though did offer a thumbs-up upon his departure midway through the first period.

The Leafs announced on Friday that, following thorough checks, the 30-year-old was cleared to return home and rest. There is no timetable for his return to action, though.

"Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares has been discharged from hospital this morning," read a statement released by the team via social media.

"He was thoroughly examined and assessed by the neurosurgical team at St Michael’s Hospital and the club's medical director.

"He was kept overnight for observation and is now resting at home under the care and supervision of team physicians.

"Tavares will be out indefinitely."

The Maple Leafs lost 2-1 at the start of the best-of-seven series in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Game two takes place in Toronto on Saturday.

Tavares had 19 goals and 31 assists in the regular season, helping his team finish top of the North Division. He has 819 points in his NHL career, having previously played for the New York Islanders.

The Hurricanes made it two wins from two in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman as they scored five tries in a bonus-point defeat of the Rebels.

Julian Savea (two), Billy Proctor and Wes Goosen all crossed for the home side in Melbourne in a clinical 35-13 victory on Friday.

The Rebels, who lost prop Cabous Eloff to a 16th-minute yellow card, were only 11 points down at the break thanks to a Matt To'omua penalty sandwiched between tries from Savea and Proctor.

Michael Wells reduced the deficit further three minutes into the second half, the flanker touching down in the corner at the end of a clever passing move.

Savea scored his second of the match only for Campbell Magnay to give the visitors hope, but two further tries in seven minutes from Goosen and Asafo Aumua at last killed the contest as Jordie Barrett finished spotless with the boot.

The Highlanders also earned their second win in the Trans-Tasman competition as they won 25-15 against the Western Force in Perth.

There were 30 points scored in a frenetic first half, the Highlanders cruising ahead through tries from Jona Nareki, Ayden Johnstone and Scott Gregory before Tomas Cubelli reduced the arrears.

The second half proved a more attritional contest as the men from Dunedin showed real discipline in their defending. They won 63 of 63 rucks and 10 turnovers in the match, while only giving up nine penalties.

A second Gregory score 19 minutes from time put them firmly in control until replacement Angus Wagner went over in the dying moments for the Force, who lost narrowly to the Chiefs last week.

Simona Halep will miss this year's French Open due to a calf injury.

The 2018 champion at Roland Garros suffered a tear in her left calf while playing against Angelique Kerber at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome last week.

Halep posted a statement on Twitter on Friday confirming she will not recover in time to take part in the second grand slam of the season, which begins in Paris on May 24.

"It's with a heavy heart that I announce my withdrawal from Roland Garros this year,” the world number three said.

"Unfortunately the tear in my left calf muscle needs more time to recover and the timeline is just too short.

"Withdrawing from a grand slam goes against all my instincts and aspirations as an athlete, but it is the right and only decision to make.

"The thought of not being in Paris fills me with sadness, but I will focus my energy on recovery, staying positive and getting back on court as soon as it is safe to do so.

"Roland Garros 2022, I am coming for you! A bientot [see you soon!]"

Halep defeated Sloane Stephens to win the clay-court tournament three years ago, having previously lost finals in 2014 and 2017.

The 29-year-old Romanian – who also won Wimbledon in 2019 – made the quarter-finals at the Australian Open back in February, her run in Melbourne ended by Serena Williams.

Justin Burrowes overcame three bogeys to shoot a one-over-par 73 and assume the early lead at the Alliance National Golf Championships at the Caymanas Golf Club on Thursday.

Burrowes also had three birdies and an eagle on the day that gave him a one-shot lead over William Knibbs. Owen Samuda had a 75 while Zandre Roye shot a 76 to be tied with Mark Newnham. Sean Morris and Shamar Wilson are both tied on 78.

Burrowes said he was happy with his first-round score even though he bogeyed the last two holes to end the round a stroke above par.

"Today was pretty good.  I knew that I had to post a good number to keep myself in the tournament which I felt like I did today,” he said.

“Didn't putt as well as I wanted to but there are still a lot of positives to build on going into the next three days.  I feel like I played well and there is a lot to build on and with the conditions being tough, it's always good to hit the ball well which I feel like I did today and I look forward to the next couple of days."

Meanwhile, many-time women’s champion Jodi Munn-Barrow led juniors Samantha Azan and Winni Lau with an even-par 72.  She was also pleased with the day's play.

"(I am) very happy with today's round, didn't make a lot of mistakes which was good because the course was playing very tough.  Conditions were hard, so overall happy, still have two more days to go so I have to focus on day two and day three so and hopefully the outcome will be good," she said.

In the Ladies 13 - 24 category, Valerie Grant had a score of 101 while Suzan White shot 106.

In the Men Senior 0-12 category, Vikram Dhuman leads with an 80 and is followed by Tony Allison (82), Nigel Davy (84) and Dave Cameron (87).

In the Men 7-12, Thajae Richards shot 88 while Richard White had 97.

The Men Super Senior 0-12 is led by former JGA president Wayne Chai Chong (79) and is followed by Teddy Alexander (80), Robert Chin (81), Stephen Chang (81) and Bert Tomlinson (82).

 Desmond Brown scored a 97.

The golfers will take to the Caymanas Golf Course at 7:30 am today for the second day of the championship.

 

 

 

Albert Pujols is confident the Los Angeles Dodgers remain the best team in MLB and was happy to help the World Series champions with his first home run since signing.

City rivals the Los Angeles Angels designated Pujols for assignment this month, but the future Hall of Famer quickly found a new home.

The Dodgers have since gone 4-0 to improve to 26-18, although they are still only third in the NL West.

Injuries to Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager have not helped the team, but Pujols believes they are still the best around.

"Just because I'm here, that doesn't change anything," he said when asked about the recent upturn in form. "These guys are a heck of a ball club.

"Before I got here, this team is probably the best team in the major leagues.

"You look up and down the lineup, the bullpen, the starting pitcher, even though they've got a couple of guys hurt. The quality guys we have here, they know how to win.

"The young guys, the energy that they have, I'm just excited to be part of this group.

"Just because I'm here we have a winning streak? I don't believe in that. I believe this is a great team."

The Dodgers' wins with Pujols on the team have all come in a series sweep of the Arizona Diamondbacks, concluding with a 3-2 victory on Thursday.

Pujols set them on their way to that success with a two-run homer in the second inning.

It was his first for the Dodgers but 668th of his career, including five for the Angels this season.

The 41-year-old therefore became the first player in MLB history to homer for two different teams in the same metropolitan area before the end of May.

"Coming through here for 20 years-plus, I saw the energy that these guys have," said Pujols, who now has 3,256 hits, 13th on the all-time list.

"Whether with the Cardinals or the Angels, it always seemed like these guys were ready to play every day.

"I'm just glad to be on this side now and enjoying the energy and jumping on the wagon with some of these guys.

"I'm just excited to contribute and obviously to help this ball club continue to win."

Russell Westbrook has revealed how he inspired the Washington Wizards to turn their season around in a run to the playoffs that concluded with Thursday's play-in win over the Indiana Pacers.

The Wizards, who signed Westbrook in a trade from the Houston Rockets for John Wall last year, made a miserable 6-17 start to 2020-21.

However, that form was flipped on its head at the end of the campaign, with Washington 17-6 over their final 23 games to finish eighth in the East with a 34-38 record.

Westbrook and Co could not carry that momentum into the initial seven-eight play-in, going down 118-100 to the Boston Celtics, but the Wizards recovered to thrash the Pacers 142-115 and reach a first-round series against number one seed the Philadelphia 76ers.

It means Westbrook, who had 18 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds against Indiana, will appear in the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year, having missed the postseason only twice in a 13-season NBA career.

"We were struggling and everybody was doubting us on the outside and we had to figure out a way to knuckle up and make the playoffs," he said of Washington's regular season turnaround. "Simple as that.

"I didn't care what happened in the previous games. Moving forward, we had to figure ourselves out, look at ourselves in the mirror, starting with myself.

"I made it clear to the guys that we'll make it."

The Wizards still had work to do on Thursday, though, with Westbrook dismayed by his performance in the defeat to the Celtics.

Having averaged a triple-double this season – 22.2 points, 11.7 assists and 11.5 rebounds – to pass Oscar Robertson's record with 184 career triples, Westbrook felt he could have offered more than his 20 points, five assists and 14 rebounds in Boston.

Asked about his mood after that loss, he said: "You should ask my wife, my mom, my dad, my brother, everybody, they're so annoyed with me right now.

"I was so p***ed at my performance. I just wasn't feeling the best when my team needed me the most, but everything happens for a reason.

"I knuckled down and took care of my body and made sure that my mind was right coming into tonight and made sure that my energy and effort was there and my team could follow me."

Bradley Beal led Washington on Thursday with 25 points.

The ninth-year guard trailed only Stephen Curry with his 31.3 points this season, yet he had played only 40 career playoff games heading into this postseason.

Although Beal insists he was always happy on the Wizards – his only team – it is a relief to return.

"It feels that much better knowing that you're playing for something and you're winning," he said. "Obviously, you always want to be on the other side of that and win.

"So, in that regard, it definitely feels great to be back in a playoff position, but it doesn't change my happiness one way or another.

"You're obviously going to be happy to be in the playoffs and be happy to win games. When you're losing, you're not going to be that way. So, I'm definitely happy we are where we are."

The 76ers are next and Westbrook added: "They're the number one team in the East for a reason.

"They've been playing well all season long. They're a good team overall, with a lot of different talent on the team.

"We've got to make sure we prepare the right way and go and win the series, taking one game at a time."

Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols hit his first home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers as the World Series champions extended their winning streak in MLB.

Pujols – acquired on a one-year deal on Monday, having been designated for assignment by city rivals the Los Angeles Angels – launched a two-run homer in the second inning of the Dodgers' 3-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday.

It was Pujols' 668th career home run as the Dodgers celebrated their fourth consecutive victory.

Pujols – a two-time World Series champion, three-time MVP and 10-time All-Star – now has 3,256 hits, 13th on the all-time list.

According to Stats Perform, the 41-year-old Pujols became the first player in MLB history to homer for two different teams in the same metro area before the end of May.

Elsewhere, the San Francisco Giants showed no mercy in a 19-4 demolition of the Cincinnati Reds, who suffered a four-game sweep.

Steven Duggar hit his first career grand slam in a nine-run third inning, while Brandon Crawford drove in six runs for the Giants.

The Giants, who had season highs of 19 runs and 16 hits, now own the best record in the majors amid a five-game winning streak.

 

Cubs roar as Happ homers

A pair of Ian Happ home runs helped the Chicago Cubs beat the Washington Nationals 5-2. Happ also drove in three runs at Wrigley Field.

The Tampa Bay Rays routed the Baltimore Orioles 10-1, extending their winning streak to seven games, thanks to Joey Wendle's two homers.

Sandy Alcantara produced a two-hit performance of six innings as the Miami Marlins shut out the Philadelphia Phillies 6-0.

 

Mahle struggles

It was a game to forget for Tyler Mahle and the Reds. Cincinnati pitcher Mahle allowed seven runs, seven hits and two walks in just two innings. His ERA rose from 2.93 to 4.20.

 

Martinez the hero in Dunedin

J.D. Martinez hit a go-ahead, two-run homer in a three-run ninth inning as the Boston Red Sox rallied past the Toronto Blue Jays 8-7. Martinez's 250th career home run snapped a 12-game streak without a homer as the Red Sox held onto the American League (AL) East lead.

 

Thursday's results

San Francisco Giants 19-4 Cincinnati Reds
Tampa Bay Rays 10-1 Baltimore Orioles
New York Yankees 2-0 Texas Rangers
Chicago Cubs 5-2 Washington Nationals
Houston Astros 8-4 Oakland Athletics
Los Angeles Angles 7-1 Minnesota Twins
Minnesota Twins 6-3 Los Angeles Angels
Miami Marlins 6-0 Philadelphia Phillies
Pittsburgh Pirates 6-4 Atlanta Braves
Boston Red Sox 8-7 Toronto Blue Jays
Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 Arizona Diamondbacks

 

White Sox at Yankees

AL Central leaders the Chicago White Sox (26-16) will visit the streaking Yankees (25-19) on Friday. The Yankees have won three straight games following a slow start to the season. White Sox ace Carlos Rodon takes to the mound at Yankee Stadium, where the hosts counter with Jordan Montgomery.

Brooks Koepka dismissed concerns over his knee, insisting he does not have to be "100 per cent" after impressing on day one of the US PGA Championship.

Koepka ended the opening round two strokes behind leader Corey Conners and tied for second position following his three-under-par 69 on Thursday.

American star Koepka has been plagued by injuries since winning back-to-back PGA Championships in 2019 and a fourth major title in three years, undergoing knee surgery in March before missing the cut at last month's Masters.

Koepka overcame a slow start after double-bogeying his opening hole in windy conditions as he made history in South Carolina.

The four-time major champion has opened the PGA Championship with a score in the 60s in each of the last six years, the longest such streak at any major in the modern era (since 1934), eclipsing Jack Nicklaus (five – 1972-1976 Masters).

"It's a major. I'm going to show up," Koepka said when asked about his fitness and whether it was the best he has felt since returning from injury. "I'm ready to play. I've been itching to do this since Augusta.

"I mean, I feel so much better now. I don't need to be a hundred percent to be able to play good."

"I love it when it's difficult," said Koepka. "I think that's why I do so well in the majors. I just know mentally I can grind it out. Like when it's windy like this, it's not so much putting, it's more about ball striking, and I felt like I struck it really well today. I feel like that's why I've done really well.

"You've got to understand that sometimes par is a good score. You've got to understand that 30, 35 feet is a great shot sometimes, and you've just got to accept it and move on."

Defending champion Collin Morikawa closed out day one a shot further back at two under.

Morikawa mixed five birdies with three bogeys to end the round three strokes off the pace at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

He played alongside big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau (72) and praised the reigning U.S. Open champion.  

"I think people need to give him credit, starting today, that he's actually picking up the pace," Morikawa said. "It was amazing how fast he actually played. I'm not going to say fast, but he wasn't slow. You weren't just waiting on him to figure out whatever.

"Kudos to him because it was windy and he had to figure out some stuff for sure. But I enjoy it. He's a character. He's his own person. That's what makes Bryson, Bryson. I think that's why people love him. I enjoy playing with someone like that. It's not going to faze me that he hits it a hundred past me. I know I can still hit it and play golf."

DeChambeau, who heads into the second round tied for 31st, added: "The wind just kicked my butt. It's hot. Just grinding out there, it takes a lot out of you. Working really, really hard to hit every shot the exact way I want to, and then it doesn't happen, and you've got to be comfortable with it and going, okay, how do I get up-and-down.

"It's windy and you're over a four-footer. Wind is blowing really hard, and you think it's going to break. When the wind stops, it's not going to break. It's all just a really difficult thing that you've got to control out there. It's a lot of work."

The Washington Wizards will face Eastern Conference top seeds the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the NBA playoffs after crushing the Indiana Pacers in the play-in tournament.

Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook combined as the Wizards eased past the Pacers 142-115 on Thursday to earn the eighth seed in the east.

Beal posted a game-high 25 points, while Westbrook added 18 points and 15 assists in a double-double display to end Indiana's season.

A triple-double from Domantas Sabonis (19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) and Malcolm Brogdon's 24 points were not enough for the Pacers, who had won their opening play-in game against the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.

After a tense first quarter, the Wizards moved clear as they carried a 14-point lead into half-time and never looked back, outscoring the Pacers 48-31 in the third period.

The Wizards will open their first-round series against the 76ers in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Washington are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2017-18, when they were beaten in the opening round by the Toronto Raptors.

Corey Conners savoured his "really special round" after defying windy conditions to set the early pace at the US PGA Championship.

Conners earned a two-shot lead on Thursday, the unheralded Canadian golfer upstaging a star-studded field with a five-under-par 67 in South Carolina.

Without a victory since his solitary PGA Tour triumph at the 2019 Texas Open, Conners was almost flawless in gusty conditions, holing six birdies with just one bogey.

Conners' lead marks his third career 18-hole lead/co-lead on the PGA Tour (0-for-two to date) and first at a major. Earlier this season, the 29-year-old was tied for the first-round lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished third – his best result of the season.

"It was a really special round. I did a lot of things really, really well. Like I said before, it's really nice to see some mid-range birdie putts fall in the hole," Conners said.

"Really gave me confidence and felt like I rolled it really well for the rest of the round. A lot of putts had chances to go in and I made some nice saves, as well."

Prior to Thursday's first round, Conners' best position after any round of a major was equal sixth through 54 holes at this year's Masters at Augusta, where he eventually finished tied for eighth.

Conners bettered that at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where he tops the leaderboard ahead of four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, Keegan Bradley, Viktor Hovland, Aaron Wise, Sam Horsfield and Cam Davis.

"I have a lot of belief in myself, and I've been playing well for quite a while," said Conners. "I'm excited for opportunity to play against the best players in the world and put my game to the test.

"I have a lot of confidence in my game and I'm excited for the rest of the weekend. Didn't try to force it to happen but definitely saw myself having a good day today and hopefully can keep that up the rest of the weekend."

As enjoyable and memorable as the NBA postseason can be, it rarely produces significant surprises.

Sure, an occasional first-round upset stands out – like MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks falling to the Golden State Warriors in 2007 – but almost never does an underdog hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as season's end.

Of course, that depends on your definition of an underdog.

In each of the last 25 seasons – and in 49 of the last 51 – the team that won the NBA Finals was a top three seed in their conference. The only exception to that rule since 1970 is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who finished sixth in the Western Conference despite being the reigning NBA champions.

The 2020-21 NBA season has already been an unprecedented one, with games played in empty arenas and players being held out of games due to league virus safety protocols. And why should the oddities end when the playoffs begin?

From 2015-18, the Warriors played the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals four straight seasons, making everything beforehand feel like a waste of time. The pattern was broken in 2019 because LeBron James switched conferences, but the Warriors represented the west for the fifth straight season. Last season, James played in the Finals for the ninth time in 10 campaigns, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title.

This season, however, is suspiciously devoid of a juggernaut. The top regular season teams are unproven in the playoffs, and the typical postseason performers must answer serious questions and navigate a difficult road to the Finals.

The Utah Jazz had the league's best record this season at 52-20, a .722 win percentage. That is the fifth-worst record by a league-leading team since the NBA-ABA merger and the worst in 20 years.

 

Lowest Win Pct by Team With NBA's Best Record in Season, Since 1976-77

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

With just 10 wins separating the top-seeded Jazz and seventh-seeded Lakers, the west could deviate from seeding by quite a bit.

Even in the often-predictable east, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were considered preseason favorites in the conference, only to finish with the sixth and seventh seeds.

The fact is that whoever wins their conference to play in the NBA Finals – and ultimately raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy – will have a unique story about their road there. Whether it is a team who are a proven commodity that flipped the switch after a sub-par regular season or a high-seeded team that overcame past postseason failures, the 2021 NBA champions – like the 2020-21 regular season itself – will be unlike any other.

 

Honourable Mentions: West number one Dallas Mavericks, West number six Portland Trail Blazers

Both teams lack the depth to make a serious championship run but have enough star power in the backcourt to scare any opponent.

Dallas will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and took two of three games this season against Los Angeles. Luka Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in those games. In nine career games against the Clippers, Doncic is attempting 9.9 free throws per game, his most against any Western Conference opponent.

The Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard takes them. When Portland made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers were 7-0 when Lillard had a plus-minus above zero and were 1-8 when he had a negative plus-minus.

 

The 'Not Your Year' Tier: West number three Denver Nuggets

The season-ending knee injury to Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray was a devastating blow to Denver's title chances and takes some fun out of a special season by Nikola Jokic.

Although Murray's injury solidified Jokic as the MVP favourite – leading the Nuggets to a 13-5 record since the injury – it is hard to envision Denver making a deep run without their star guard.

The knock on Jokic has been that he would generally rather pass than score, and Denver are 5-8 in postseason games when Jokic attempts 20 or more shots.

With Jokic scoring a career-high 26.4 points per game this season and with the continued blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., however, the Nuggets remain dangerous in the playoffs.

 

The 'Prove It' Tier: West number four Los Angeles Clippers, East number one Philadelphia 76ers, West number one Utah Jazz, East number three Milwaukee Bucks, West number two Phoenix Suns

On paper, each of these teams appear to be solid championship contenders, complete with star power and coming off an impressive regular season.

But each of these teams need to prove they can take another step forward, either because of a limited postseason history or a checkered one.

At the start of last year's playoffs, the Clippers were considered by many to be the favourites but blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Nuggets was a humbling experience. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have quietly had fantastic seasons, each averaging at least 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers and Bucks have been mainstays in the east playoffs for the past few seasons and are hoping that this year's vintage has the answers to take the next step.

Philadelphia, under new leadership with Doc Rivers and buoyed by the shooting of Danny Green and Seth Curry, have a scoring differential of plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together, the best mark in the history of the much-maligned duo.

Milwaukee won 11 of their last 15 games, including two wins each against Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Nets – the two teams seeded higher in the east.

A machine over the last few regular seasons, the Bucks have faltered in past playoff series as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to score in the clutch and his team-mates shrank from the moment. The costly acquisition of Jrue Holiday should help take some of the pressure off, and Antetokounmpo is shooting 73.3 percent (11 of 15) this season in the last two minutes of a game within five points.

Utah and Phoenix are fascinating prospects after stellar regular seasons but the consensus regarding both teams is that they have already maxed out their talent before the postseason starts.

Rudy Gobert is an All-Defensive Team mainstay for good reason, but Utah have been forced to sit him in the playoffs against smaller teams or when his free-throw shooting becomes a problem.

The Jazz are expecting leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to return from a sprained right ankle, but Utah are better operating as a five-man offense than a one-man show. When Mitchell attempts 20 or fewer field goals this season, the Jazz are 27-2. When he shoots more than 20 times, the Jazz are 12-12.

The Suns are 59-21 over their last 80 games, including in last year's bubble, and have become one of the best stories in the league. Chris Paul turns every team he is on into a winner, and he has a case to receive MVP votes scoring a modest 16.4 points per game.

For all of his career accomplishments, however, Paul has famously only advanced past the second round once in his career, and he now leads a core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that lacks playoff experience.

 

The 'Sleeping Giant' Tier: East number six Miami Heat, West number seven Los Angeles Lakers

Last year's finalists have endured brutal regular seasons filled with disappointment, injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Only Duncan Robinson played all 72 games this season for Miami, and while the Heat are healthier now than during their nightmare 11-17 start, serious questions remain about the health of veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, who both missed at least 20 games this season.

The Lakers remain the betting favourites coming out of the west, despite needing a 103-100 play-in win over the Golden State Warriors to clinch a playoff berth. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games this season, and the duo only played together in 27 games.

While the health of the Lakers' superstars remains a concern, Los Angeles were 19-8 when both James and Davis played. The defending champions had a scoring differential of plus-11.4 points per 100 possession when the duo were on the court together. For as long as James and Davis are playing, the Lakers remain a juggernaut.

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets are the first team to ever have three players average at least 24 points (minimum 35 games). Durant, Harden and Irving are the highest-scoring trio since the early 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were producing some of the best seasons in league history.

What makes Brooklyn such a strong contender, however, is that the supporting cast around their dynamic trio is a real asset.

The Nets' reserves scored 35.9 points per game this season, better than the bench of fellow contenders like the Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.

First-year head coach Steve Nash has consistently been able to field a competitive squad during a tumultuous year. As evidence of the change and adversity the Nets faced this season, they have used 38 different starting line-ups – only the lowly Rockets used more.

With veteran big men like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Nets can counter size but are also versatile enough to play small, with Jeff Green defending opposing centers.

The high-profile names make Brooklyn feel like an inevitability, but there is still plenty of uncertainty with this newly constructed super-team.

Durant, Harden and Irving have only played 202 minutes together, less than six percent of Brooklyn's season. The trio appear to blend well, scoring a torrid 117.8 points per 100 possessions, but any group of stars will face challenges in their first playoff test.

Corey Conners withstood hammering winds to claim a two-stroke lead following the opening round at the US PGA Championship as Brooks Koepka impressed but Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson struggled.

Prior to Thursday's first round in South Carolina, Conners' best position after any round of a major was equal sixth through 54 holes at this year's Masters at Augusta.

Conners bettered that at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where the Canadian defied the wind to set the early pace with a five-under-par 67.

Without a victory since his solitary PGA Tour triumph at the 2019 Texas Open, Conners was almost flawless in gusty conditions, holing six birdies with just one bogey.

Conners' lead marks his third career 18-hole lead/co-lead on the PGA Tour (0-for-two to date) and first at a major. Earlier this season, the 29-year-old was tied for the first-round lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished third – his best result of the season.

Koepka ended day one in a share of second position alongside Keegan Bradley, Viktor Hovland, Aaron Wise, Sam Horsfield and Cam Davis.

Koepka has been plagued by injuries since winning back-to-back PGA Championships in 2019 and a fourth major title in three years – the American star underwent knee surgery in March before missing the cut at last month's Masters.

But Koepka impressed on Thursday, overcoming a slow start to shoot a three-under-par 69.

Koepka double-bogeyed his opening hole on the back nine, however, the four-time major champion only dropped one shot after that as he tallied six birdies.

He has opened the PGA Championship with a score in the 60s in each of the last six years, the longest such streak at any major in the modern era (since 1934), eclipsing Jack Nicklaus (five – 1972-1976 Masters).

Defending champion Collin Morikawa is a stroke further back alongside the likes of five-time major winner Phil Mickelson.

Big-hitting American and reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau signed for an even-par 72 at the close of the first round, level with Jon Rahm and Justin Rose, while Masters holder Hideki Matsuyama, former world number one Jordan Spieth – eyeing a career Grand Slam – and Xander Schauffele shot 73s.

Jason Day and Patrick Reed were also further down the leaderboard as two-time PGA Championship winner McIlroy and world number one Johnson were powerless in the wind.

McIlroy – seeking a first major trophy since 2014 – recorded a three-over-par 75, which included six bogeys and just three birdies.

Justin Thomas also went three over for the day, while Johnson finished with two double-bogeys and a bogey in a forgettable four-over-par 76 display.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry are the three finalists for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award.

The NBA announced its finalists on Thursday, with Jokic the long-time frontrunner for the coveted individual honour.

Jokic has remained healthy this season, starting all 72 games for the Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference, while averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

The Nuggets big man shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Embiid has made no secret of his MVP aspirations and he flexed his muscles as the 76ers earned the Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001.

A knee injury derailed his MVP bid but Embiid ended the regular season with a career-high 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while his 51.3 field-goal percentage was a career best – the same with his three-point percentage (37.7).

Curry catapulted himself into contention for a third MVP award following his scoring outburst for the Warriors.

The three-time NBA champion added a second scoring crown to his collection thanks to his 46-point performance in last week's win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Curry pipped Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal to the scoring title, having averaged 32.0 points per game.

Golden State's Curry became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

Curry also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

Earlier this season, Curry claimed top spots on the Warriors' all-time scoring and assists lists, while surpassing Reggie Miller for second position on the NBA's three-pointers made standings.

 

Full list of award finalists:

NBA Coach of the Year

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

NBA Defensive Player of the Year

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Rookie of the Year

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

NBA Sixth Man

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Derrick Rose, New York Knicks

NBA Most Improved Player

Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Julius Randle, New York Knicks

Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell is planning to play in Sunday's playoff opener after returning to practice following an ankle injury.

Mitchell has been sidelined since spraining his right ankle on April 16, sitting out the last 16 games of the regular season as the Jazz secured the NBA's best record (52-20) for the first time in their history.

Western Conference top seed the Jazz will host the winner of the play-in game between the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, and Mitchell expects to feature in Game 1 of the first-round matchup.

"That's the goal," Mitchell said on Thursday. "Barring any setbacks, God forbid - knock on wood - that's the goal.

"I'm just trying to go out there and be there for my team-mates and try to help to go out there and win a championship. That's the goal. It's been the goal all year."

Mitchell has been averaging career highs in points (26.4), assists (5.2) and three-point percentage (38.6) this season.

"Practice was good," Mitchell said. "I got out there and competed.

"You could definitely tell it was the first time in four or five weeks, but that's to be expected. I'm just trying to find ways to get back in a groove."

Rory McIlroy struggled on his return to Kiawah Island with a three-over-par 75 in the opening round at the US PGA Championship as playing partner Brooks Koepka impressed.

McIlroy won by eight shots the last time the PGA Championship was staged at Ocean Course in South Carolina in 2012 and was installed as the favourite of many after ending a winless streak of almost two years at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago.

However, the four-time major champion – seeking a first major title since 2014 – landed his very first shot into the water on a windswept morning before recovering somewhat with back-to-back birdies on Thursday.

McIlroy – a two-time PGA Championship winner – was level par at the turn after dropping another shot on the par-five 16th, but he managed just one more birdie compared to five bogeys as he closed for 75, eight shots behind Corey Conners.

Koepka played down expectations heading into the tournament due to a knee injury and he started slowly with a double-bogey on his first hole, though the two-time PGA Championship winner recovered well with two birdies in the next three holes.

After turning in 36, Koepka picked up three shots in four holes on the front nine to complete an impressive turnaround that saw him earn a share of the lead before Conners soared to the summit as he aims to add to his successes in this event in 2018 and 2019.

"I felt like an idiot," he told Sky Sports Golf when reflecting on his cagey start. "It was probably a poor club choice off 10. I thought three-wood would have carried, but it didn't. I also didn't find the face, it barely hit the face!

"The first rule is, if you're in trouble, get the hell out. I couldn't reach the green and it was a bad lie, so I didn't know where I was going. I just tried to hit a sand-wedge up by the green instead of just chopping it out.

"So it was a mental mistake there, and I deserved every bit of that double-bogey. But it kind of helped me refocus. I can't play with any mistakes, maybe one a day, and that was my one, and I got it out of the way on the first hole."

Koepka is joined on three-under par by former champion Keegan Bradley, Viktor Hovland. Aaron Wise and Sam Horsfield.

Bradley's opening round included four birdies and just one dropped shot, coming on the par-four 13th, while Hovland bounced back from an opening bogey with four birdies.

Collin Morikawa is one shot further back after bogeying his final hole, the defending champion joined on a first-round 70 by Martin Laird, who was also let down by a couple of dropped shots on his final two holes.

Justin Thomas finds himself way down the standings, meanwhile, after carding a three over that included a double-bogey on the 18th, while US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau had a mixed first day as he posted a level-par 72.

World number one Dustin is among the late starters, along with Jordan Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not got their hands on the Stanley Cup since 1967.

A member of the "Original Six", Punch Imlach's Maple Leafs conquered their Canadian rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, for their 13th Stanley Cup 54 years ago.

It was Toronto's fourth championship in the 1960s, which formed the second of two recognised dynasties from 1947 to 1951 and from 1962 to 1967.

The celebrations then stopped for the Leafs, leading to the longest active title drought in the NHL – 52 consecutive seasons (not including the 2004-05 lockout).

But, after years of pain and false hope, are Sheldon Keefe's Leafs – spearheaded by Auston Matthews and a supporting cast that includes Mitch Marner – finally on the cusp of ending their long-standing drought?

It has been more than four decades since the Leafs and Canadiens faced off in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As the Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004, prepare for the mouth-watering first-round showdown, we look at the team's rise from pretenders to genuine contenders, using Stats Perform data.

 

Leafs find their way under Keefe

There were high hopes when the Leafs and Ontario native Mike Babcock came together in 2015. Toronto made the Stanley Cup-winning head coach the highest paid in NHL history following his success with the Detroit Red Wings.

One of the most coveted coaches at the time, the championship-chasing Leafs viewed Babcock as the perfect man to oversee the culmination of rebuild in pursuit of the ultimate prize. Despite a talented roster, the franchise's vision did not materialise – Toronto never made it out of the first round of the playoffs following three consecutive postseason appearances. Babcock's style did not go down well at Scotiabank Arena.

The Leafs eventually fired Babcock in November 2019 and Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe was promoted to the top job.

At the time of Babcock's departure, the Leafs led a league-low 21.1 per cent of the time. This season, Toronto rank second for the highest percentage of time leading (45.4), just behind the Colorado Avalanche (45.5).

This season's percentage of time leading is the highest mark in Leafs history, eclipsing the 43.1 per cent recorded in 1924-25.

The Leafs have long been judged by the Babcock era, but the 40-year-old Keefe is finally utilising this highly skilled squad, while helping John Tavares rediscover his best form.  

Toronto also appear to finally have the kind of physicality it needs for the demands of playoff hockey. Complementing their exciting roster with the experience of premier top-line center and former San Jose Sharks All-Star Joe Thornton also bodes well as the Leafs enter the postseason as one of the heaviest teams in the league – 201.1 pounds, only behind the Vegas Golden Knights (207), Dallas Stars (203.1), Washington Capitals (202.9), Anaheim Ducks (202.6) and Tampa Bay Lightning (202.4).

 

Matthews in a league of his own

The Leafs wasted no time selecting Matthews in 2016 when he was widely considered the top prospect of the NHL draft.

Matthews hit the ground running, becoming the first player in modern NHL history to score four goals in his debut. He also set a Leafs record with 40 goals in his first season, while becoming just the second rookie since the 2004-05 lockout to achieve the milestone.

The centerpiece of the franchise has taken his game to another level this season.

Matthews, who has developed into arguably the best goal-scorer of his generation, tallied a remarkable league-high 41 goals in just 52 games in 2020-21. He managed 47 in 70 regular-season appearances last year. The last Leafs player to lead the NHL in goals was Gaye Stewart in 1945-46.

Matthews' performance led to the best goals-per-game average (0.79) in franchise history, topping Charlie Conacher's record of 0.77 that had stood since 1931-32. The 23-year-old Matthews already has 199 goals and 351 points in his career.

He ranks 14th all time for the most goals before age 24, but he finds himself in good company on a list that is topped by Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky (405) and includes Mario Lemieux (300), Steven Stamkos (222), Alex Ovechkin (219), Sidney Crosby (215) and Jaromir Jagr (202).

 

Toronto's dynamic duo

While Matthews is the star, Marner is the other half of Toronto's terrific duo.

A much-loved figure in Toronto, Marner has always been a great young player with loads of potential. The 24-year-old right wing took a step forward this season as a model of consistency for the North Division champions.

Marner, who was a fourth-round pick a year before the Leafs brought in Matthews, ranks fourth in the NHL in points (67) and assists this season (47). And with the Ontario-born winger on ice, the Leafs have scored 89 goals and conceded 57 this season – a differential of plus-32. That differential shrinks to just plus-6.0 without him.

Keefe paired Matthews and Marner together midway through last season and it is a move that continues to pay dividends. Marner has assisted on 25 Matthews goals this year, ahead of Edmonton Oilers duo Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (22) for the most in the league.

Marner and Matthews are also the first pair of team-mates in NHL history to have five 60-point seasons together before turning 24. (This is based on their age when they reached 60 points. Marner achieved the feat before celebrating his 24th birthday.)

With Matthews and Marner leading the way, the Maple Leafs have a real shot of not only beating their rivals in the first round but in ending one of the longest active title droughts in North American sports.

Lyon Open top seed Dominic Thiem was stunned in straight sets by Cameron Norrie in the last 16 on Thursday for the "biggest win" of the Briton's career.

Thiem was handed a bye to this stage and fell at the first hurdle on a day of upsets, the world number four sending down four double faults and losing serve three times as he lost 6-3 6-2.

Norrie now has 10 victories on clay in 2021, compared to seven before this year, and will face qualifier Arthur Rinderknech – a surprise 6-7(7) 6-2 7-5 winner against Jannik Sinner – in the quarters.

"I'm so pleased to win. It's the biggest win of my career and my highest-ranked win," Norrie, who had never previously beaten a top-five opponent, said in his on-court interview. 

"It's such a beautiful day in Lyon. I couldn't be happier to get the win today and to get another match on the clay before Roland Garros."

Third seed Diego Schwartzman also exited the competition on Thursday with a 6-3 7-5 defeat to Richard Gasquet, who eased over the line despite letting two match points slip.

Stefanos Tsitsipas is now the strong favourite to triumph in France after starting his campaign with a convincing 6-1 6-4 victory over Tommy Paul.

Yoshihito Nishioka upset Gael Monfils 4-6 6-3 7-6(2) in an impressive comeback victory and now awaits Tsitsipas in the last eight.

At the Geneva Open, rising star Casper Ruud kept his momentum going with a 2-6 6-1 6-4 win over Dominik Koepfer to make it 12-4 on clay this season.

Ruud recovered from a sloppy first set by holding his serve in the following two sets to reach his fourth successive clay court semi-final on the ATP Tour.

Next up for the third seed is a meeting with Pablo Andujar, who beat youngster Dominic Stephan Stricker 4-6 6-4 6-4.

Elsewhere, Laslo Djere overcame Fabio Fognini 6-3 6-7(2) 6-1 to reach the quarter-finals and will face Denis Shapovalov later on Thursday after the Canadian recovered from a set down to beat Marco Cecchinato 6-7 7-5 6-1.

The winner of that match will meet Pablo Cuevas, the Uruguayan having ended Grigor Dimitrov's run with a battling 7-6 6-3 win.

Coco Gauff continued her fine form with a 6-3 6-3 quarter-final triumph over fellow American Amanda Anisimova at the Emilia-Romagna Open.

In a contest between two teenage stars, it was 17-year-old Gauff who sealed her second semi-final spot in as many weeks, having made the last four at the Internazionali d'Italia.

Third seed Gauff will face Katerina Siniakova next, after the Czech followed up her win over Serena Williams with a 7-5 6-1 defeat of Caroline Garcia.

"I was pretty satisfied with the way I played," Gauff said, after fending off Anisimova.

"I do think I could have served a little bit better, but other than that, I was pretty happy with the way I played."

Despite her valid concerns, Gauff won 72 per cent of points after landing her first serve and forced six breaks to win in style, reeling off six games on the trot from 3-0 behind in the second set.

The other semi-final will see second seed Wang Qiang take on Sloane Stephens.

Wang prevailed 7-6 (7-4) 3-6 7-5 against Petra Martic, while Stephens saw off Sara Errani 6-3 6-0.

It was another rain-affected day at the Serbia Open, where Maria Camila Osorio Serrano managed to get past Kamilla Rakhimova 4-6 6-3 6-4.

Anna Kalinskaya and Reka Luca Jani were locked at one set apiece in the only other match to get started before the weather halted play.

Andrea Vendrame edged out Chris Hamilton in a two-man sprint finish to claim his maiden stage win at a Grand Tour on Thursday.

The Italian took the honours at the end of the Giro d'Italia's 212-kilometre 12th stage from Siena to Bagno di Romagna, during which riders contended with hellish climbs and drastic changes in the weather.

INEOS Grenadiers' Egan Bernal still leads the way by 45 seconds in the fight for the maglia rosa, safely navigating through mountain passes and peaks reached via gradients of up to 15 per cent, while sporadic downpours made the sharp descents a white-knuckle ride.

Gianluca Brambilla crossed the line third but was relegated a place, with George Bennett promoted to the podium position following a "jury decision", according to Bennett's Jumbo-Visma team.

There might have been a better outcome for Brambilla had he and fellow breakaway rider Bennett decided to work together rather than against one another, with some apparent bickering between the two effectively ending the hopes of both.

There were no major changes in the GC standings, but Trek-Segafredo veteran Vincenzo Nibali did get seven seconds back thanks to a typically bold ride to keep his slim hopes alive.

Ahead of him at the front of the pack it was compatriot Vendrame who tasted success on home soil, the AG2R Citroen Team rider getting the better of Hamilton to finally win a stage on what is his fourth appearance at the Giro.

 

STAGE RESULT  
 
1. Andrea Vendrame (AG2R Citroene Team) 5:43:48
2. Chris Hamilton (Team DSM) +0.00
3. George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) +0.15
4. Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) +0.15
5. Giovanni Visconti (Bardiani CSF Faizane) +1.12

CLASSIFICATION STANDINGS
 
General Classification
 
1. Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) 48:29:23
2. Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) +0.45
3. Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) +1.12

Points Classification
 
1. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) 108
2. Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) 91
3. Davide Cimolai (Israel Start-Up Nation) 91

King of the Mountains

1. Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroen Team) 96
2. Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) 48
3. Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix) 24

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.