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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    Brooklyn Nets star James Harden has overcome a hamstring injury and will return for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

    Harden was initially ruled out alongside fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving (ankle) due to his troublesome hamstring, which had him sidelined after bowing out 43 seconds into the opening clash with the Bucks.

    But Harden's status was upgraded to doubtful and then questionable on Tuesday, before being cleared to play less than an hour prior to tip-off at Barclays Center, where the series is tied at 2-2.

    "I'm not sure the level of risk," Nets head coach Steve Nash said before the game. "I think it is James' decision. He wants to play. Ultimately, he wants to play. He's been pushing."

    Harden – averaging 23.2 points, a postseason career-high 8.8 assists and 6.2 rebounds in the playoffs in 2020-21 – has been managing a hamstring injury since the start of April.

    The former Houston Rockets guard, who had been making an MVP run prior to the initial setback, returned in the closing stages of the regular season.

    Harden then averaged 27.8 points per game in the first-round series against the Boston Celtics but suffered an injury in Game 1 at home to Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks.

    Having gone 2-0 up against Milwaukee without Harden, second-seeded Brooklyn lost both games on the road to level the series.

    The Nets have won three of four Game 5's at home in best-of-seven series all-time after being tied 2-2. Their only such loss came in the 2003 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs (93-83).

    Brooklyn are outscoring opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions when both Harden and Irving are on the court this season (regular and postseason). That differential drops to plus-2.8 when neither is in the game.

  • Rodgers jokes about 'quiet offseason' amid Packers uncertainty Rodgers jokes about 'quiet offseason' amid Packers uncertainty

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    Reports of Rodgers' unhappiness first emerged on draft day this year, though Green Bay are unwilling to trade the veteran.

    Amid the ongoing speculation, Rodgers showed his sense of humour in a promotional video ahead of the July 6 golf exhibition match, involving Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Tom Brady.

    "It's been one of those quiet offseasons you dream about, where you can kind of just go through your process on your own, quietly," Rodgers said.

    "And that's all you can ask for as an older player in the league and someone who's been around for a long time and just enjoys that time to yourself, just relax, to not be bothered, to not have any obligations or anything going on.

    "I think that's what this offseason has been about. It's been about really enjoying my time and spending it where I want to spend it, not feeling like I have to go anywhere but still be an NFL player at the same time. It's been great."

    Rodgers amassed 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a completion rate of 70.7 per cent for the Packers – who lost to eventual Super Bowl champions the Buccaneers.

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    Rodgers is level with Buccaneers quarterback Brady, Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown with three MVP honours – only Peyton Manning (five) has more in NFL history.

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    Paul Pogba insisted France must deal with being labelled as favourites to win Euro 2020 after he led the way with a supreme performance against Germany.

    Mats Hummels' own goal gifted Euro 2016 runners-up France a 1-0 win over Germany in their opening Group F encounter in Munich on Tuesday, putting Les Bleus well on their way to progressing to the last 16.

    France – who finished with just one attempt on target – had opportunities to add to their lead, with Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema having goals disallowed for offside, though Joachim Low's Germany ultimately failed to make their luck count as they lost their opening game of a European Championship for the first time.

    The winner came in fortuitous circumstances, with Hummels turning in from Lucas Hernandez's cross.

    Pogba's exceptional pass played in France's left-back, however, and the Manchester United midfielder was on top form, attempting more passes (52) and more in Germany's half (31) than any Les Bleus player.

    He also amassed a team-high 78 touches – albeit that total was 50 less than game-leader Toni Kroos (128) – and went in for 20 duels, the most of any player.

    With the world champions having been tipped to lift the trophy they missed out on against Portugal on home soil five years ago, Pogba is adamant France must live up to the billing.

    "The performance of the team is the most important. Without them, I would not have been so efficient," Pogba, who was also involved in a flashpoint with Antonio Rudiger when he appeared to complain that the Germany defender had bitten him, told M6.

    "They helped me, they have everyone made the effort. This victory is for everyone, those who are also on the bench and in the stands to support us.

    "Everyone was talking about our status as favourite, our attack, the group of death. We must assume our status with humility."

    Didier Deschamps is aiming to become the first person to win the European Championship and World Cup as both a player and coach, and was delighted with a resilient display.

    "We had a big match against a very good opponent," Deschamps told M6.

    "I knew that my players were going to be ready, we were fighting for everything, even if in the first half we could have got the ball out a little better. We did not suffer that much in the second period. It's a tough game.

    "This is our first game. In our group, taking these three points is important. We were at the level, this victory is good for us."

    Deschamps' counterpart Low said he could not have asked for any more effort from his Germany side, who mustered 10 attempts to France's four, albeit only one of them hit the target.

    "We really gave everything. We fought until the end, for 90 minutes," Low told beIN Sports.

    "What we missed was a goal. We conceded a goal that we could have avoided, but otherwise I have no criticism to make. We lost a match, but we continue."

    Germany next host defending champions Portugal, while France travel to Budapest to face Hungary.

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