NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: Durant and Harden back in the mix as Nets host Knicks

By Sports Desk April 05, 2021

New York has long been starved of NBA success but now has two teams making strides in 2020-21.

The Brooklyn Nets have made plenty of noise as they have claimed a share of first place in the Eastern Conference, led by the 'big three' of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

But the New York Knicks, the city's favourite team, are also in playoff contention with a .500 record.

On Monday, the two teams go head-to-head at Barclays Center – and Durant, Irving and Harden could all feature for just the eighth time this season.

The Knicks will have their work cut out as they try to stop their star-studded neighbours.

TOP PERFORMERS

Brooklyn Nets - Kyrie Irving

Durant is likely to be seen as the Nets' difference-maker in the biggest games, while Harden, the third man in the 'big three', has established himself as an MVP contender. He cannot afford many more nights off.

But as both players recover from hamstring injury – Durant is "an outside possibility", Harden's absence is "just caution" - it will likely again be Irving's turn to carry the team, showing their remarkable depth.

The point guard leads Brooklyn in total points, scoring 27.7 per game – the best mark of his career and one which puts him eighth in the NBA among all players.

Irving had a game-high 34 points when these teams last met in March, a 117-112 Nets win.

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

First-time All-Star Randle has led the Knicks' improvement this season and he has been talking a big game ahead of this clash.

The forward responded to talk of Brooklyn's 'big three' by suggesting New York have a "big 15", of which he is undoubtedly the star, averaging 23.0 points and 10.7 rebounds this year.

Randle will certainly not be short of motivation.

He had 33 points in the game last month, just shy of Irving's total, and had to be held back from the officials after a late three-pointer was ruled out due to an incorrect traveling call.

KEY BATTLE - BROOKLYN BIGS TO BOSS BIG APPLE?

It is not just the Nets' superstar talent the Knicks have to worry about, as there is also a mismatch at center.

Third-year big man Mitchell Robinson was set for a breakout year in New York, seemingly contributing to the team's decision not to push harder for a buyout signing as Andre Drummond went to the Los Angeles Lakers.

But Robinson, posting 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals, fractured his right foot, leaving the Knicks with Nerlens Noel (4.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks) and Taj Gibson (5.0 points, 5.0 rebounds) as their primary options at the five.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn have a whole array of possibilities at the position, led by buyout signings and former All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin but also including DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green and surprise performer Nicolas Claxton (7.9 points, 1.3 blocks).

HEAD TO HEAD

The Nets are 2-0 in this season's series, also beating the Knicks in January, and Monday's game could see a significant power swing.

The all-time record stands at 101-100 in the Knicks' favour, giving Brooklyn the opportunity to pull ahead for the first time since the 2010-11 season.

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  • Haaland unaffected by rumours ahead of City clash as Terzic confirms Sancho won't face former club Haaland unaffected by rumours ahead of City clash as Terzic confirms Sancho won't face former club

    Erling Haaland has not been impacted by the transfer rumours amid Borussia Dortmund's Champions League quarter-final with Manchester City, according to Edin Terzic, who also ruled Jadon Sancho out of Wednesday's second leg.

    Dortmund host City having lost 2-1 in Manchester last week and the omens are not bad for BVB, as in the Champions League the team that won the first leg 2-1 at home has been eliminated more often (15) than they have progressed (12).

    Terzic's side will also be confident that Haaland will not have such a quiet evening in front of goal again, as he only managed one shot in Manchester – it was a wonderful opportunity as well with an xG value of 0.4, meaning the average player would be expected to take it 40 per cent of the time.

    By Haaland's standards – he has nine open-play Champions League goals from an xG value of just 5.7 in 2020-21 – it was a brilliant chance to hammer home why he has received so much praise and attention this season, although he did manage the assist for Marco Reus' goal at the Etihad Stadium.

    Some of that attention has developed into incessant transfer speculation, with his agent Mino Raiola spending part of the recent international break talking to potential suitors.

    City, whom his dad Alf-Inge played for, have been suggested as being among those keen and Terzic is convinced all the chatter has not impacted him, despite Haaland being without a goal for club or country since March 20.

    "I didn't notice anything and it wasn't even an issue for us," Terzic said of the rumours during the international break.

    "He was very happy to come back from the national team. He was happy to see all the faces and they were happy to see him.

    "He did very well last time [against City]. He is known for making good runs from deep, but he also gave us a few seconds of possession. He often secured the ball well; he is a very important part of our team."

    Terzic – who is only in charge until the end of the season when Marco Rose will take over – was not about to get drawn into the debate around Haaland's future by putting a valuation on him, however.

    "As a coach, I have to get the best out of him, that's my job. It's not my job to put a price tag on him," he said. "I have to get the best out of the team and want to advance to the next round."

    Just as he missed the first leg, Sancho will also be unavailable against his former team on Wednesday – and he could yet be joined by others in missing out.

    "We have a few ailing players where we have to wait and see," Terzic added. "Mats Hummels and Marco Reus had to be replaced last time. It won't be enough [time] for Jadon, otherwise we'll have to see."

  • Guardiola trusts players to take 'next step' in Champions League: 'If not, I'd be crazy' Guardiola trusts players to take 'next step' in Champions League: 'If not, I'd be crazy'

    Pep Guardiola insists he trusts Manchester City to take the next step in the Champions League, adamant he would be "crazy" not to have that belief ahead of Wednesday's quarter-final second leg.

    City go to Borussia Dortmund with a 2-1 lead from last week's home leg, meaning the Germans will be quietly confident of pulling off an upset given they managed an away goal.

    While City have progressed from 13 of their 15 knockout ties in European competition when winning the first leg, in the Champions League the side that won the first leg 2-1 at home has been eliminated more often (15) than they have progressed (12).

    The tie is in the balance and Guardiola knows too well to take anything for granted given City have been eliminated at this stage of the competition in each of the previous three seasons.

    In 2019-20 they were dumped out at the hands of Lyon, a defeat that led to serious questions being asked of Guardiola and his management of such games, with some suggesting he overcomplicates life for himself.

    Ahead of the second leg, the focus was more on the players rather than the Catalan's preparations, and Guardiola was unequivocal when asked about trusting the team.

    "After 27 victories in 29 games, if I don't trust the players we have a big problem – I would be crazy," he said in his pre-game news conference on Tuesday.

    "Tomorrow we can win or lose. What we have done so far, we deserve to be where we are now. We know if we win we go through or lose we are out. In the Premier League we need three wins and a draw to be champions because we expect United to win seven in a row.

    "If we go out, we will be disappointed but we have another chance. Life is like this. If you fight you get another opportunity. We are going to try.

    "We lose against Lyon, we were better, but we were out. We are fighting for four competitions, especially the Premier League. We are already qualified for the Champions League, 11 years in a row, which has never happened before [for City]. That is fantastic.

    "Now is the time for another step, the players want it. They were sad when we didn't get to the semi-finals [in 2019-20] but nobody will give it to us, we have to do it.

    "Nobody gives you the semi-finals, we have to do it in 90 minutes if we don't do mistakes like against Lyon when we give them three goals. I'm so excited to travel to Germany, to try to do it."

    City midfielder Ilkay Gundogan struck a similar chord when he addressed the media prior to Guardiola, as the former Dortmund star suggested they gifted Lyon the 3-1 win in August.

    "For me it's important to take the next step, not just the experiences we had in the last few years, but also I have expectations of myself and team-mates and I know we have a great team and are capable of going into the semi-finals," he said. "We should have been there earlier in the last few seasons but we were lacking something, individual mistakes which led to goals - and it's tough.

    "I feel we are much more stable at the moment this season, especially defensively, the more you proceed in this competition the more important it gets. It gives you a safe feeling when you know your defence and goalkeeper are working very well. Combined with the feeling we know we're always able to score it's a great potential."

    While he accepts there has been progress, Gundogan feels they have to show that improvement extends to their character, having appeared emotionally fragile at times over the past few years.

    "I feel sometimes this is the case, we need to learn it's normal to struggle," he continued. "On that stage, playing against the best teams in Europe, it's normal, everyone has quality.

    "It's normal to concede a goal, we're not used to running behind a goal. Conceding or struggling, we're used to dominating games and having possession, but it's normal in Champions League and Premier League there are games it might not be that easy. Mistakes are normal.

    "Learning to deal with it is the only thing that was missing when we speak of those Tottenham games [in 2018-19]. Just dealing with those situations is something we might need to learn still, these stages will show it now. It's something we need to accept."

  • Klopp accepts empty Anfield is a 'problem' but challenges Liverpool to believe Klopp accepts empty Anfield is a 'problem' but challenges Liverpool to believe

    Liverpool's hopes of producing another famous European comeback at Anfield will be reduced due to the lack of fans, manager Jurgen Klopp has conceded.

    The Reds lost 3-1 to Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie in the Spanish capital, leaving them with an arduous task to reach the last four.

    Liverpool have only progressed twice in the previous 13 European knockout ties in which they lost the first leg by at least two goals, the most recent example coming two years ago when they stunned Barcelona with a 4-0 win at Anfield after losing the first game 3-0.

    Anfield has become much less of a fortress this season while games have been played behind closed doors, with last weekend's 2-1 win over Aston Villa ending a six-game losing streak at home in the Premier League for the English champions.

    Klopp accepts it is a blow to play without the backing of the crowd but he hopes his players still believe in their chances.

    "When you're 3-1 down, it looks like you're already out," he said on Tuesday. "That means you have not a lot to lose, so we will give it a try. It's exactly how we'll go for it.

    "It's a result of the performances of the night: they were better than us and we were not as good as we could have been, or should have been. But it's the first leg.

    "It's just one extra problem: no supporters in the stadium. The result is a problem, the quality of the opponent is a problem, and obviously that the stadium is empty is a problem as well.

    "It's always about winning football games and that is the target. If that will end up in a comeback, I have no idea.

    "We have to be in a mood to start believing again and, if that happens and we can see that it's possible, then we have a chance, but it's still incredibly difficult."

    Real Madrid have scored in each of their previous 23 Champions League knockout matches and an away goal would put them in a commanding position to progress.

    While Klopp would love to keep a clean sheet, he is not certain any side can keep Madrid at bay if they are at their best.

    "The clean sheet is very important but that's not too different to other games – you never want to concede goals," he said.

    "I have no idea [if there is] anyone in the world who can deny Real Madrid having any chances.

    "They beat us and then they beat Barcelona in a very important game so they are obviously in a good moment. We have to be 100 per cent on our top level if we want to make it.

    "With the quality that Real Madrid has you have to defend on your absolutely highest level and that is what we didn't do in the first leg."

    Vinicius Junior produced arguably his best performance for Madrid in the first leg, scoring either side of Marco Asensio's goal to give Zinedine Zidane's side men the advantage.

    Klopp, who was not surprised by the Brazilian's display, wants his team to control the passing threat of Toni Kroos better in order to prevent a repeat.

    "He is an outstanding talent, everybody knew it before Real Madrid signed him [from Flamengo in 2018]," he said.

    "The one goal we could have defended but the other was just a great long ball and then a great first touch and finish.

    "We have to try to avoid the passes in his direction, which is a big task. [I was] impressed yes, surprised no."

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