Damian McKenzie's long-range extra-time penalty saw the Chiefs edge the Highlanders 26-23 to claim Super Rugby Aotearoa's first golden-point triumph.

It proved a moment of atonement for McKenize, who had punted wide from a similar opportunity at the end of regulation time.

In total, McKenzie kicked 16 of the Chief's 26 points, with Etene Nanai-Seturo and Angus Ta'avao scoring the visitors' tries in Dunedin.

Chasing a third straight win, the Chiefs led for much of the encounter, yet were pegged back late on by fly-half Josh Ioane, who converted his own try before drilling a penalty through the sticks to force extra-time.

James Lentjes and Aaron Smith had previously crossed for the hosts at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

It was McKenzie who struck the decisive blow, landing a penalty from just short of the halfway line to send the Chiefs into third place on 12 points, two shy of the Blues, who occupy the second semi-final berth, with table-topping Crusaders coming up next.

Marc Marquez is set to end his MotoGP injury nightmare with a long-awaited return to action in next week's Portuguese Grand Prix.

The six-time champion could not mount a defence to his title in 2020 after breaking the humerus bone in his right arm following a fall during the first race, staged at Jerez.

Marquez underwent three operations, the last of which was carried out in December following the discovery of an infection in the fracture.

He has been able to build up his training regime and is now poised to compete again after getting the go-ahead from medical experts.

Marquez's Repsol Honda team said in a statement on Saturday: "In the review carried out on Marc Marquez by the Hospital Ruber Internacional medical team, four months after surgery, led by doctors Samuel Antuna and Ignacio Roger de Ona, and made up of doctors De Miguel, Ibarzabal and García Villanueva, for an infected pseudoarthrosis of the right humerus, a very satisfactory clinical condition was found, with evident progress in the bone consolidation process.

"In the current situation, Marquez can return to competition, assuming the reasonable risk implicit in his sporting activity."

Marquez wrote on Twitter: "I'M VERY HAPPY! Yesterday I visited the doctors and they gave me the green light to return to competition. They have been 9 difficult months, with moments of uncertainties and ups and downs, and now, I will be able to enjoy my passion again! See you next week in Portimao!!"

He must still pass a further medical test before racing in Portugal, but Marquez and his team appear confident he is healthy enough to compete.

There is ground to make up for Marquez in the championship after he missed the opening two rounds of the season, both staged in Qatar.

Pramac Racing's Johann Zarco has made the early running in the riders' standings, with a pair of second-place finishes putting the Frenchman on 40 points.

Zion Williamson hailed the influence of Pelicans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon after he had a standout night against the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 20-year-old had a career-best 15 rebounds plus 37 points and eight assists as New Orleans turned to him in Lonzo Ball's absence, Williamson driving the team to a 101-94 win.

The 2019 number one draft pick and former Duke Blue Devils star said the Pelicans showed impressive resolve to bounce back from a mauling by the Brooklyn Nets in their previous game.

Usually a power forward, Williamson was deployed as a point guard throughout on Friday night, saying that thanks to stepfather Lee Anderson's training the role felt "normal", adding: "It was just having the opportunity to go and show it."

He gave much of the credit for his surge in form to Weatherspoon as he remarked on what differences he noticed in his game over the past couple of months.

"I would definitely say my confidence and going deeper into my arsenal. That's really a shout-out to two people, my stepfather and coach Teresa Weatherspoon," Williamson said.

"It's just the small things and she's like, 'Z, you do this, take your time and be you'. It's those small things that give me all the confidence I need to go out there and be me."

Williamson produced a pull-up jumper in his repertoire, saying: "I have it in my bag. Coach K [Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] said I want to be a perfectionist. All that means is I want to get the closest and easiest shot.

"T-Spoon [Weatherspoon] was the reason I shot that. She said, 'Z, just give me one, if you don't like it, you don't have to shoot it again'.

"When I shot it, it felt good. I liked the result to be honest. She tells me every game but tonight she was like, 'Z, just give me one'. I tried it and it worked."

Weatherspoon, 55, is a former WNBA star who has been a full-time assistant with the Pelicans since last November.

Although he missed out on a first career NBA triple-double, Williamson said what was most important was the team's reaction to their 139-111 thrashing by Brooklyn.

"I think when it comes to games like that, it's the character you show bouncing back in the next game that really defines you," Williamson said.

"As a team we bounced back great and got the win.

"I wasn't really watching [the triple-double possibility], but after every timeout everybody was like, 'Z, just get two more [assists]'.

"But in my mind I was like, 'Let's win the game'."

Homegrown Joe Musgrove tossed the first no-hitter in the San Diego Padres' franchise history in a 3-0 victory over the Texas Rangers in MLB on Friday night.

Musgrove blanked the Rangers across nine close-to-faultless innings with 10 strikeouts, which set off wild frenzied celebrations among the Padres.

"Everyone dreams of getting the chance to throw a no-hitter," Musgrove said post-game. "I've never even thrown a no-hitter in my life, so my first one came today on this field.

"It's awesome to have it be in a Padres uniform and for it to be the first one for the franchise. That's incredible."

It was only Musgrove's second start for the Padres and improves their season record to 5-3.

Shohei Ohtani may not be on the mound at the moment but he hit his third home run of the year in the Los Angeles Angels' 7-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Japanese star went 2-for-5 at the plate with a homer, double and four RBIs, with Mike Trout taking a backseat.

 

Acuna does it all for Braves

Young gun Ronald Acuna Jr did it all for the Atlanta Braves in their 8-1 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

The 23-year-old Venezuelan hit a huge home run, added a duo of doubles and made a super outfield catch as he notched his fifth career four-hit game to lead the Braves to victory. 

"That just shows you the complete player he is and the skillset this kid has and what he brings," Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

Corey Kluber had a tough shift as the New York Yankees were battered by reigning American League champions the Tampa Bay Rays 10-5.

Rich Hill struck out seven for the Rays while Joey Wendle and Brandon Lowe combined to drive in five.

Justin Turner homered in the sixth inning to earn the Los Angeles Dodgers a 1-0 victory over the Washington Nationals.

After being beaten by the Houston Astros five times, the Oakland Athletics hit back with Matt Olson's three-run homer helping them to a 6-2 triumph.

 

Fowler felled in scary play

In a scary moment, Angels' right fielder Dexter Fowler was carted off with a left knee issue after an awkward fall on second base, although cmanager Joe Maddon later said "I don't think it's bad, fortunately".

 

Freddie finds his form

Acuna stole the show for the Braves but 2020 National League MVP Freddie Freeman would not be denied with a big home run of his own.

 

Friday's results

Tampa Bay Rays 10-5 New York Yankees
Los Angeles Dodgers 1-0 Washington Nationals
San Francisco Giants 3-1 Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Angels 7-1 Toronto Blue Jays
Cleveland Indians 4-1 Detroit Tigers
Atlanta Braves 8-1 Philadelphia Phillies
San Diego Padres 3-0 Texas Rangers
Oakland Athletics 6-2 Houston Astros
Cincinnati Reds 6-5 Arizona Diamondbacks 

 

Yankees at Tampa

There's a full 15-game fixture on Saturday with the Tampa Bay Rays series against the New York Yankees ongoing.

Zion Williamson underlined his status as the emerging star of the NBA with a dominant display in the New Orleans Pelicans' 101-94 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday.

The 2019 number one draft pick had a career-best 15 rebounds along with 37 points and eight assists as the Pels turned to him in Lonzo Ball's absence.

Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said: "We decided we'd play him at the point all night. He had the ball in his hands all the time and the ability to make plays.

"Had we shot decently he would have finished with double figure assists too. He played the game the way you're supposed to play the game. He was incredible tonight."

Joel Embiid was kept quiet by Steven Adams, managing only 14 points and nine rebounds for the 76ers who are behind the Brooklyn Nets in the East with a 35-17 record.

The Los Angeles Clippers blew the Houston Rockets away with a 41-10 second quarter in a 126-109 victory with Kawhi Leonard top scoring with 31 points, along with five rebounds and eight assists.

The win improves the in-form Clippers' record to 36-18 having now won four in a row and 10 of their past 12.

World number one Ash Barty has been knocked out of the Charleston Open after a straight-sets loss to unseeded Spaniard Paula Badosa in Friday's quarter-finals.

Badosa won 6-4 6-3 over the favoured Australian in one hour, 16 minutes to book a spot in the last four on the green clay and a meeting with 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova.

Kudermetova beat 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens 6-3 6-4 in her first win over a grand slam winner.

Former French Open junior champion Badosa, who beat fifth seed Belinda Bencic in the second round, claimed her second career victory over a top-20 player against Barty.

Barty may have hit 34 to 19 winners but she also made twice as many unforced errors, 24 to 12.

The Spaniard broke Barty's serve five times while she sent down seven aces and saved 12 of 14 break points.

"I was quite nervous today but I think I served very well and I think that was the key for the match," Badosa said in her on-court interview.

"It was a tough match but I was there until the last moment and I managed to win."

World number 71 Badosa becomes the lowest-ranked player to beat Barty since September 2019.

The Australian had won eight matches in a row after last week's triumph at the Miami Open.

Unseeded Montenegrin Danka Kovinic came from a set down to topple 11th seed Yulia Putintseva 6-7 (2-7) 7-5 6-1.

Kovinic, who knocked out Petra Kvitova in the third round, will play 12th seed Ons Jabeur in the semi-finals after she overcame Coco Gauff 6-3 6-3.

Meanwhile, at the Copa Colsanitas in Bogota, fifth Tamara Zidansek beat Italy's Sara Errani 6-3 6-4 to claim a spot in the semi-finals.

Viktoriya Tomova outlasted qualifier Nuria Parrizas-Diaz 5-7 6-2 6-4 in almost two and a half hours, while Harmony Tan and local wildcard Maria Camila Osorio Serrano also won.

Defending champion Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy all missed the cut at the Masters on Friday, while Justin Rose remains in the lead.

Johnson, who won the Masters for the first time in November, shot a three-over 75 on the second day to be five over overall and miss the cut by two strokes.

World number one Johnson made three bogeys on his final four holes to miss out, having previously impressed at Augusta, with top-10 finishes in his past five appearances.

He made four birdies on the front nine but also had two bogeys and a double bogey on the fifth.

Johnson becomes the third Masters champion in the past 15 years to miss the cut.

"Six three-putts in two rounds, you just can't do that," Johnson said. "Obviously didn't drive it great but drove it good enough.

"I never was really too bad out of position, just the three-putts killed me. You take all the three-putts away, I'm one under. That was kind of the difference."

The 36-year-old was joined by four-time major winner Koepka with a similar round to miss the cut, along with 2017 Masters winner Garcia, who shot an even round of 72 to finish at four over.

Four-time major winner McIlroy (74) and two-time Masters runner-up Lee Westwood (71) also failed to make the cut, with both unable to recover after poor first days at Augusta.

At the other end of the leaderboard, Rose sits one shot clear of Will Zalatoris and Brian Harman after a second-round 72, having led by four shots on the opening day.

Rose bogeyed four of his first seven holes on Friday, before steadying with three birdies on the back nine to salvage his lead.

"I think it was just a classic day at Augusta National when you're just slightly off," Rose said.

"You can be a foot or two out on certain occasions and you end up struggling. I think maybe off the back of yesterday, it starts to feel pretty different pretty quickly. But I told myself going up the eighth hole, you're leading the Masters, your frame of reference is a little bit different to yesterday. Four ahead is something, but you're still leading so like just enjoy it and keep going."

On his Masters debut, 24-year-old Zalatoris moved up the leaderboard swiftly, aided by five birdies on his back nine, including three straight to finish his round as he carded a four-under 68.

Harman also moved into contention after three birdies on his final six holes to finish with a three-under 69.

Australian Marc Leishman and last week's Texas Open winner Jordan Spieth are tied for fourth after both enjoyed strong rounds on Friday.

Bernd Wiesberger and Tony Finau both shot 66s on Friday to storm up the leaderboard into joint sixth alongside four other players, including world number two Justin Thomas.

Brooks Koepka is unsure if he will play again before the US PGA Championship after missing the cut at the Masters on Friday.

Playing for the first time since February after undergoing knee surgery, Koepka carded rounds of 74 and 75 to miss the cut at Augusta.

After back-to-back top-10 finishes at the Masters, it marked the first time the four-time major winner had failed to reach the weekend at the tournament.

With the US PGA due to start at Kiawah Island on May 20, Koepka is unsure if that will be his next competitive event.

"It's tough to say right now. That's, what, five weeks ahead, I think? It's kind of tough to say that," he told a news conference.

"I won't miss it, I know that, but tough to say if I'll play anything before that just for how it feels, how rehab goes and everything."

He added: "I wouldn't have been playing for another month if it wasn't this week. So I'll take a nice long break after this.

"Way I look at it, I have two more days to do rehab that I probably wouldn't get if I was out here, and I'll get ready for the PGA."

Koepka, who was playing just his sixth tournament of the year, lamented his putting performance at the Masters.

"Putter was ice cold, didn't make any putts. I don't want to say the speed was off, maybe the reads a little bit. Maybe the start line. I'm not quite sure," he said.

"A lot of them felt like good putts, and they weren't even hitting the hole. I don't know. It could be any one of those things. They felt good coming off the face, but they didn't even sniff it."

Justin Rose felt having words with himself and taking a match-play approach was the turning point as he recovered from a poor start to regain the Masters lead on Friday.

Rose started his second round with a four-shot advantage courtesy of a sublime seven-under 65 at Augusta on Thursday.

The Englishman remained on seven under at the end of his second round following a level-par 72, leading Masters debutant Will Zalatoris and Brian Harman by just a solitary stroke.

Rose bogeyed four of his first seven holes on Friday, but three birdies on the back nine returned the former world number to the top of the leaderboard in his pursuit of a first green jacket.

The 2013 U.S. Open champion was content after turning the tide and revealed he gave himself a talking to on the eighth following a shaky start.

He said: "I had a little talk with myself on eight and said 'you're still leading the Masters', and I just changed my mindset a little bit and started to play match play against the golf course.

"I scratched a line on my scorecard and told myself I was three down and could I go ahead and beat the golf course from that point on. I had a putt on 18 to win my match one-up, but unfortunately it just slipped by. But an honourable draw."

He added: "I felt like the turning point for me, a good two-putt on number nine just to stop the rot and just to feel like could then just walk onto the back nine and try to build something fresh and something new. I actually started to play pretty well from that point onwards."

Birdies proved to be easier to come by for the field than during the first round, with Jordan Spieth and Marc Leishman among those to make strides as they moved into a share of fourth on five under.

Despite seeing his lead reduced, Rose - who has been troubled by a back injury this year - believes he "grew" during a mixed day.

He said: "I think it was a worthwhile day for me. And not having played for a month, and to suddenly find yourself in the situation I was yesterday, I'm not kind of brimming with confidence right now in that sense, so today was always going to be a challenging day.

"I felt like in the end, I felt like I grew a little bit from today, which is good."

Top seed Pablo Carreno Busta led a clean sweep for home players to head up an all-Spanish semi-final slate at the Andalucia Open, where teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz made history.

Carreno Busta demolished seventh seed Soonwoo Kwon 6-4 6-0, while Casper Ruud was stunned in straight sets by wildcard Alcaraz.

The 17-year-old backed up his victory over the veteran Feliciano Lopez in style, becoming the youngest ATP Tour semi-finalist since Alexander Zverev at Hamburg in 2014 with a 6-2 6-4 win.

Albert Ramos-Vinolas will face Carreno Busta after beating Norbert Gombos 6-7 (4-7) 7-5 6-4, while Alcarez is next on the agenda for compatriot Jaume Munar, who was taken the distance by Ilya Ivashka having overcome second seed Fabio Fognini on Thursday.

Taylor Fritz continued his solid form this season with a straight sets victory over Aljaz Bedene to reach the semi-finals of Sardegna Open.

Fritz is playing as the US number one for the first time in Cagliari this week and he made light work of Bedene, prevailing 6-3 6-4 to book a showdown with third seed Lorenzo Sonego, who beat Yannick Hanfmann 3-6 7-6 (8-6) 6-3 despite being 3-5 down in the second.

Seeded second and ranked 30 in the world, Fitz improved his 2021 record to 11-5 and will look to avenge a defeat in his only other meeting with Sonego on clay, when he lost at Roland Garros last year.

Lorenzo Musetti thrilled as he saved four match points to sink top seed Dan Evans on Thursday but bowed out after another epic, losing to Serbia's Laslo Djere 6-4 4-6 6-2 in two hours and 21 minutes.

Djere, who beat sixth seen John Millman en route to the quarter-finals, will face Nikoloz Basilashvili after the battle between seeds four and five ended 7-5 4-6 6-3 in the Georgian's favour.

Justin Rose mounted a back-nine recovery to finish his second round with a two-shot lead over Jordan Spieth and Marc Leishman.

Rose shot a sublime opening round of 65 at Augusta, but relinquished his four-shot advantage on Friday before returning to the top of the leaderboard with three birdies in his space of four holes.

The Englishman was the man to catch on seven under when he signed for a level-par 72, rallying after bogeying four of the first seven holes in his second round.

Gains at the 13th, 14th and 16th holes gave Rose momentum heading into the weekend as he bids to don the green jacket for the first time.

The in-form Spieth surged into a share of second place with Australian Leishman by carding a four-under 68, with birdies proving easier to come by for the field than on the opening day.

Three-time major champion Spieth, on a high after ending a title drought stretching back to 2017 at the Texas Open last weekend, made four of his five birdies after the turn and only dropped one shot at the 12th.

Leishman also made a significant move, setting the tone by starting with three birdies in row and going on to shoot a five-under 67.

Scintillating six-under rounds of 66 from Bernd Wiesberger and Tony Finau put them just three shots adrift of Rose along with Justin Thomas, who shot a 67.

Will Zalatoris, Brian Harman and Si Woo Kim were also well poised on four under, with their rounds still in progress. Defending champion Dustin Johnson had work to do back on three over through 10.

Bryson DeChambeau responded to a poor opening round with a 67 of his own to sit at one over, while Brooks Koepka (+5) and Rory McIlroy (+6) were facing a battle to make the cut 10 and eight holes into their rounds respectively.

Lee Westwood was a couple of shots below the projected cut mark on five over midway through his round.

Overnight leader Justin Rose was faltering through nine holes of his second round at the Masters on Friday.

The Englishman made light of tricky scoring conditions to shoot a stunning seven-under-par 65 in round one, during which he picked up nine strokes from the eighth hole having played the first seven at two over.

But after starting bogey-birdie on Friday, Rose dropped three more shots before the turn and was at four under for the tournament midway through his second round.

Bernd Wiesberger was only one shot back having gone through 14 holes at five under for the day, while Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman were the same score but yet to begin round two.

Jordan Spieth was only two behind through four holes of his second round, with Marc Leishman among a cluster of players also at -2.

Tommy Fleetwood, Tony Finau and Cameron Smith were all playing the round at three under as the leaderboard bunched up early on Friday, while Justin Thomas was back at level par overall.

The likes of Jon Rahm (E), Dustin Johnson (+2) and Rory McIlroy (+4) are scheduled to tee off later on Friday.

Mike Elliott will replace James Allison as technical director in a reshuffle for Formula One constructors' champions Mercedes.

Allison has led the Silver Arrows' technical operations since early in 2017, but will step back from day-to-day management to become chief technical officer on July 1.

Elliott, who started his career with McLaren 21 years ago and also worked for Renault, will be promoted to replace Allison.

He joined Mercedes as head of aerodynamics in 2012 before being appointed as the team's technology director four years ago and will switch jobs again in another reshuffle.

Mercedes said in a statement on Friday: "The transition to the new organisation will take place across the coming months as we continue the 2021 championship battle on track and prepare for the significant challenge of the 2022 technical and sporting regulations in our development programmes back at base."

Elliott said: "It has been a great pleasure and privilege to work for James earlier in my career at Renault, and for the past four years at Mercedes. His track record in the sport speaks for itself, and he has been a fantastic team-mate and leader for me during that time.

"They are big shoes to fill and I am delighted that we will be able to call on his expertise in his new role as CTO. On a personal level, it is an amazing opportunity to become Technical Director of a team like Mercedes, and I must thank Toto [Wolff] and our company for trusting me to make the step up to this new role.

"It is an incredible privilege to be part of this team and I know that the leadership strength at every level through the company will be vital to our future success.

"I can't wait to get started and to tackle the many exciting technical challenges ahead of us in the next months and years."

The Silver Arrows have won seven consecutive constructors' titles and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton won the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix last month.

The Western Force snatched a dramatic 16-15 victory over the Rebels on Friday as the home side failed to capitalise on their dominance at AAMI Park.

Despite enjoying 65 per cent of the possession and more than twice as many passes and carries, the Rebels were thwarted by their own lack of cutting edge against a rigid rearguard.

Force then made them pay with the only try of the contest in the 78th minute, Tim Anstee touching down after a rolling maul and Domingo Miotti adding the extras.

Matt Toomua's penalty had given the Rebels a 15-6 lead midway through the second half but a further kick that struck the upright proved a costly miss in an error-strewn contest.

Miotti also missed a kick prior to the visitors' critical try, before a last-gasp wayward drop goal attempt from Reece Hodge brought the contest to a frustrating end for the Rebels.

It was a 10th successive Super Rugby meeting between the sides decided by a single-digit margin.

And the Rebels are now just a point ahead in the Super Rugby AU standings as the battle for semi-final places hots up.

Joe Burrow showcased enough in his Ohio homecoming to suggest he has a chance to be the Cincinnati Bengals' saviour at quarterback.

But, after the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft saw a promising rookie season snuffed out by a serious knee injury, there is as much tension as there is excitement surrounding the Bengals.

Burrow tore his ACL and his MCL in a Week 11 meeting with the Washington Football Team, the Bengals losing four of their six games with him on the sideline to finish 4-11-1.

The relatively smooth transition Burrow made to the pros should raise hopes he can be the man to eventually bring success to a franchise that has not won a playoff game since the 1990 season.

Yet recoveries from injuries as severe as that of Burrow's are far from guaranteed and the holes on a roster that still looks some way from legitimate contention could mean another year of struggle for Cincinnati.

That may spell trouble for head coach Zac Taylor, who heads into year three as head coach with just six wins to his name.

What do the Bengals need to do to produce more tangible signs of progress in 2021? 

We used Stats Perform data to look back on their 2020 and their offseason moves so far to identify areas of focus for the coming year.

Offense

The set-up in Cincinnati was not conducive to success for a rookie quarterback, and the numbers bore that out in 2020.

Cincinnati ranked 30th in yards per play with an average of 4.92 while they were 28th in yards per pass play (5.48).

Yet Burrow's individual numbers from his 10 games suggest he was the right pick for a team that has been nothing short of moribund since their trip to the postseason in 2015.

Burrow ranked seventh in the NFL in yards per game (268.8) across his 10 appearances for Bengals from Week 1 to 11, with his average impacted by his injury against Washington.

He had five 300-yard passing games and averaged a poor throw every 13.1 attempts, a better rate than Josh Allen (11.4), Deshaun Watson (11.9) and Lamar Jackson (12.5).

However, Burrow's numbers as a deep-ball passer were very disappointing. His 23 pass completions of 20 yards or more were two fewer than Dak Prescott, who played only five games, and he completed just eight of his 42 attempts of at least 21 air yards.

Burrow's passer rating on those throws was 53.9, 26th of 28 quarterbacks with at least 25 such passes.

He likely would have fared better going downfield had he benefited from greater protection. Burrow was sacked on 7.34 per cent of his dropbacks, the 10th-highest rate among quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks.

But Burrow can have confidence in his receivers. Tee Higgins' 908 receiving yards were the third-most among rookies in 2020 and both he and Tyler Boyd, who had 841 yards, proved dependable options on third down.

Twelve of Higgins' 14 third-down receptions went for a first down, while Boyd moved the chains on 15 of his 19 third-down catches.

Cincinnati's rushing attack was just as inefficient as the passing game, the Bengals ranking 27th with 4.06 yards per attempt.

Only four teams had fewer runs of 10 yards or more than the Bengals' 37, with Joe Mixon averaging only 3.6 yards per rush across his six games after signing a contract extension, his year prematurely ended by a foot injury.

Burrow and Mixon having their seasons curtailed cut short any intrigue surrounding the Bengals in 2020, and they won't be interesting in 2021 unless their signal-caller receives better assistance from the offensive line and a defense that ranked among the league's most porous last season.

Defense

The most complimentary thing you could say about the Bengals' defense last year was that it showed some signs of developing into a 'bend but don't break' unit.

Cincinnati allowed 6.10 yards per play in 2020, ranking 28th, yet they were closer to the middle of the pack in terms of points conceded.

The Bengals were 22nd in offensive points allowed (410), and 21st in opponent scoring efficiency, allowing a touchdown or field on 78 of 180 opponent drives.

While those numbers were far from the worst in the NFL, the Bengals defense still bent and broke far too often for Cincinnati to compete on a week-to-week basis.

Simply put, the Bengals did not do enough to put opposing offenses in difficult situations.

Cincinnati's tally of 67 negative plays forced was 30th in the NFL, with the negative play yardage of minus 208 yards the lowest in the league.

Only four teams produced fewer takeaways than their 17 turnovers, which produced a total of 47 points that ranked tied for 25th.

An anaemic pass rush was a critical reason for their inability to take the ball away. Cincinnati had the fewest sacks in the NFL (17) and the fourth-fewest quarterback knockdowns (66).

As was the case on offense, the running game provided little relief for Cincinnati, the Bengals continually gashed by opposing ground games.

Only the Houston Texans (5.20), allowed a higher yards per carry average than the 5.11 yards per attempt the Bengals gave up.

Additionally, opponents racked up 73 runs of 10 yards or more against the Bengals defense, 22 more than the league average of 51.

Despite a busy free agency, there isn't much to suggest Cincinnati will be drastically improved on that side of the ball in 2021.

Offseason

The Bengals lost their most disruptive pass rusher from last season as edge rusher Carl Lawson departed for the New York Jets in free agency.

Lawson had only 5.5 sacks but racked up 32 quarterback hits, with his combined hurries and knockdowns tally of 65.5 tied for ninth in the NFL.

Cincinnati immediately replaced Lawson by signing Trey Hendrickson to a four-year, $60million deal after his breakout season with the New Orleans Saints.

The Bengals are banking on Hendrickson being able to consistently replicate a 2020 season that saw him record 13.5 sacks, though that may be a more difficult task playing in front of a secondary that lost arguably its best player with William Jackson III leaving for Washington.

Jackson had double-digit pass deflections in three of his four seasons with Cincinnati and is coming off a year in which he had a burn percentage in coverage of 46.5, his lowest since his rookie campaign (34.7).

They filled the void he left by gambling on the athleticism of former Dallas Cowboy cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, whose burn percentage of 59.5 for his career is significantly worse than Jackson's 48.2.

Cincinnati can afford to have more confidence in Mike Hilton's reliability as a nickel cornerback. Hilton comes across from the Pittsburgh Steelers having posted a career-high three interceptions in just six starts last season.

The Bengals demonstrated their understanding of the need to better protect Burrow by signing left tackle Riley Reiff to a one-year deal after he allowed only two sacks and was penalised just once in 15 games for the Minnesota Vikings in 2020.

But Reiff is entering the latter half of his career at 32, meaning his arrival certainly should not prohibit the Bengals from targeting a top-tier offensive line prospect like Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater with the fifth overall pick in the first round.

With wide receiver A.J. Green ending his long association with Cincinnati by signing with the Arizona Cardinals, there may be a temptation to give Burrow, who has already endorsed the potential selection of former LSU team-mate Ja'Marr Chase, a dynamic third option to go with Higgins and Boyd.

However, after their failure to protect Burrow left him facing a lengthy recovery process to get back to the field, the Bengals must prioritise players who can give him a clean pocket from which he can put the franchise back on the road to prominence.

Paul George enjoyed leading the Los Angeles Clippers to a 113-103 win over the Phoenix Suns, who he again accused of "chirping" in a heated encounter.

The Clippers and the Suns are each in contention in the West, but Phoenix's hopes of reeling in leaders the Utah Jazz were hit by Thursday's defeat.

This was the teams' second meeting of the season and the Clippers' second win, with George influential in both.

The seven-time All-Star had a season-high 39 points back in January, after he which he claimed the game had seen "a lot of chirping and people just living in the past".

And the same phrase came up again on Thursday after 33 points on 12-for-19 shooting.

It was a third straight Clippers win against a team in the playoff places in the West, with George also scoring 39 against the Portland Trail Blazers, but the in-form forward was especially motivated for this game.

"We focused on us," George said. "I don't know what that chirp is about. We focused on us.

"I don't care what they're doing over there. I don't care who they are or what they're doing.

"I'm locked in. They can do the chirping, I let them have it tonight. I just stayed in my zone, stayed in my place, I don't know.

"I don't care what they're doing. We're focused on us over here. We're focused on getting better. Tonight was a fun matchup, and we appreciate the challenge."

Suns star Devin Booker had both a flagrant foul and a technical foul on Thursday, while Patrick Beverley (one flagrant) and Marcus Morris Sr (two technicals) were both ejected for the Clippers.

Booker and George each had technicals in the first game – one of only two for the latter all season.

Clippers coach Ty Lue said: "I don't have any concerns. I love it.

"When you are competing at a high level against one of the best teams in the league, do what you've go to do to win. And I thought our guys were physical. We competed, we fought.

"There are going to be games like this where it is going to be chippy. They are fighting for something, we are fighting for something, so it is going to happen and I am okay with it."

Mike Trout continued his prolific start to the new Major League Baseball season with a homer in a third straight game as the Los Angeles Angels won 7-5 against the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday.

With the game tied at 3-3 at the top of the fifth, Trout creamed Blue Jays right-hander Ross Stripling a projected 444 feet for a solo home run.

"That one definitely had some flight attendants working on it," Angels manager Joe Maddon joked.

In the first of their four-game series in Dunedin, Florida, Trout starred with 3-for-5 but fell a triple short of the cycle in the victory.

On Trout's form, Maddon added: "There's no surprise element to any of this. He's not doing anything new, it's actually a lot of old stuff."

Yermin Mercedes endeared himself to the Chicago White Sox fans in their home opener with a monster 485-foot home run.

The home run in their 6-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals was Mercedes' second of the season and goes down as the third-longest hit by a White Sox player in Guaranteed Rate Field history.

 

Mets walk-off controversy, Jose lift off for Astros

The New York Mets' 3-2 walk-off victory over the Miami Marlins ended in controversy and the winners admitted they got lucky.

After Jeff McNeil tied the game at 2-2 in the ninth with a home run, the Mets had bases loaded as Michael Conforto stepped up.

After two strikes, a pitch grazed Conforto's elbow pad and home-plate umpire Ron Kulpa initially appeared set to call a third strike before changing mid-motion to say the pitch hit the batter, earning the Mets the run they needed.

"Not the way I wanted to win the ballgame," Conforto said post-game. "I wanted to go up there and drive the ball somewhere.

"From my point of view, it was a slider. I felt it was coming back toward me and I turned. There may have been a little lift of my elbow just out of habit, out of reaction, and it barely skimmed the edge of my elbow guard."

Marlins manager Don Mattingly was left frustrated that they could not review the call.

"You'd think with all the replay we do that you could say, 'That ball's a strike'," he said.

The Houston Astros improved to a 6-1 record with a 6-2 triumph over the struggling Oakland Athletics, with Jose Altuve delivering a home run in their home opener after a long wait.

The Minnesota Twins won 10-2 against the Seattle Mariners, while the Boston Red Sox won 7-3 on the road to the Baltimore Orioles.

Fails for the A's

The A's slumped to a 1-7 record with their loss to the Astros, where it took them until the ninth inning to get on the board.

Grichuk grasps Trout hit

Trout's day may have been a little bit better for the Angels if not for Randal Grichuk's sensational diving catch in center in the ninth.

Thursday's results

New York Mets 3-2 Miami Marlins
Chicago Cubs 4-2 Pittsburgh Pirates
Boston Red Sox 7-3 Baltimore Orioles
Colorado Rockies 7-3 Arizona Diamondbacks
Chicago White Sox 6-0 Kansas City Royals
Minnesota Twins 10-2 Seattle Mariners
St Louis Cardinals 3-1 Milwaukee Brewers
Los Angeles Angels 7-5 Toronto Blue Jays
Houston Astros 6-2 Oakland Athletics

Rays against Yankees

Last year's American League champions the Tampa Bay Rays have had a slow start at 2-4 and they take on the New York Yankees (3-3).

The Milwaukee Bucks lost again without Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday, but coach Mike Budenholzer believes the two-time MVP's absence can benefit his team.

The Bucks completed a six-game road trip against the Dallas Mavericks, going down 116-101 at American Airlines Center.

Antetokounmpo featured in the first three of those games, yet he missed the next three after scoring a season-high 47 points against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The 'Greek Freak' leads Milwaukee in points (28.8), assists (6.2) and rebounds (11.4) per game, while also contributing 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals.

Knee soreness is impacting Antetokounmpo's bid for a third straight MVP triumph, but it is also hindering the Bucks. The team are 29-16 when their superstar plays but just 3-3 without him.

Milwaukee were not helped against the Mavs by poor shooting displays from Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, their second and third men.

Middleton was an alarming 6-for-27 from the field for 14 points – 22.2 per cent, his second-worst outing of the year – as Holiday, who signed a lucrative contract extension last week, was 6-for-16 for 13 points.

Budenholzer acknowledged both players must perform better as he suggested the Bucks needed to adapt to playing when Antetokounmpo is not on the floor.

The 26-year-old forward played just 30.4 minutes per game last season when Milwaukee led the East, but he has been relied on for 34.0 minutes in 2020-21.

"The guys are getting more opportunities," Budenholzer said. "There's a little bit more of a load on both Jrue and Khris. I think they're learning to take that.

"We didn't make enough shots tonight; Khris, Jrue didn't make enough shots. We're getting better. We'll learn from these things.

"Playing without Giannis, he can't play 48 minutes, so I think there's going to be good stretches for us when Giannis doesn't play and we'll grow from these experiences playing without him."

While the Bucks struggled without their big name, Dallas got 27 points, nine assists and nine rebounds from Luka Doncic.

But the Slovenian also earned his 12th technical foul of the season. That tally has steadily increased over his NBA career – five in his rookie year, nine last year – and he is now just four shy of a one-game suspension.

"He's aware," coach Rick Carlisle said. "My level of concern is there. But look, he's an emotional competitor. It all comes from the right place.

"He's smart, he knows where the count is. If he's going to get his 16th, he'll get it in a situation where it's time for a day of rest anyway. I'm not really that worried about it."

It was a big win for the Mavs, who returned to winning ways after a shock defeat to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday ended a run of five successive victories since Doncic returned from a short lay-off due to illness.

"This was a playoff-type game [against the Bucks], playoff-calibre in terms of intensity and competitiveness and the talent on the floor," Carlisle said. "We did a much, much better job, top to bottom, than we did last night."

Dallas also got 26 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks out of Kristaps Porzingis. Eleven of his points came in the fourth quarter on 4-for-4 shooting after failing to attempt a single field goal in the final 12 minutes against the Rockets.

Porzingis said of his relationship with Doncic: "We're trying to play together and help each other. We want to win – at the end, we all want to win here.

"We have to keep playing, keep playing together, playing well and helping each other."

At the onset of the season, the Atlanta Hawks were a trendy pick to be a team that could fight their way into the playoffs and be tough to eliminate in a postseason series. 

Sure, they finished mere percentage points ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season, but with the returning core of All-Star Trae Young, John Collins and De'Andre Hunter, plus the offseason additions of Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo, there was plenty of reason to believe the Hawks could capture their first playoff berth since 2017 in a top-heavy yet mostly mediocre Eastern Conference.

Injuries to Hunter, Gallinari and Bogdanovic, however, stunted Atlanta's growth, and the team sputtered over the season's first two months. And with another blown fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Southeast Division rivals the Miami Heat on February 28, the Hawks' record dropped to 14-20 as they slid into 11th place in the East, prompting team president Travis Schlenk to fire coach Lloyd Pierce less than halfway into his third season at the helm.

Schlenk believed the season could be salvaged and needed a new voice, promoting assistant Nate McMillan to interim coach.

The Hawks have responded.

They've since compiled a 13-5 record – behind only the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers among East clubs – to move into a virtual tie for the Southeast lead with the Charlotte Hornets, and into fifth place in the conference. They have also navigated around a recent injury to Collins, going 4-1 since he sprained his left ankle.

There are several reasons for Atlanta's surge, but it's no coincidence the turnaround under McMillan has coincided with the return of Bogdanovic.

Lured away from the Sacramento Kings on a four-year, $72million deal, Bogdanovic looked like a bust early, averaging 9.9 points on 38.5 per cent shooting and 36.2 per cent on three-point attempts in his first nine games, before missing the next 25 through the end of February with a sprained knee.

After working out the rust over a few games upon returning, Bogdanovic has found his shot and is thriving.

Since March 24, his 66.4 eFG (effective field goal) percentage ranks third in the NBA among the 99 players with a minimum of 75 attempts, while his 53.3 per cent shooting from beyond the arc ranks fifth among the 92 shooters with at least 35 three-point tries.

He was inserted into the starting lineup on March 26, and with Bogdanovic and Young together on the court, the Hawks have been lethal, averaging 117.1 points per 100 possessions, 49.4 per cent shooting and 45.7 per cent on three-pointers. Without them, they are averaging 102.7 points per 100 possessions, 41.7 per cent on field goals and 33.3 per cent on threes.

Bogdanovic has been especially deadly from the wing since McMillan tabbed him as a starter. Since March 26, his 21 three-pointers from the wing is just one fewer than Miami's Duncan Robinson for the league lead, while his 46.7 per cent shooting from the wing ranks fourth among the 47 players with a minimum of 25 attempts.

Young's scoring has dropped since Bogdanovic cracked the starting five (20.9 ppg since March 26 after previously averaging 25.8 ppg), but he's been distributing the ball to his teammates a little more (10.4 assists per game since March 26 after previously averaging 9.4 apg).

Since March 26, Young has assisted on 20 made baskets by Bogdanovic – the most by a guard to a single teammate – and 16 by Capela.

The Young-to-Capela show is nothing new, however, as Young has fed Capela on 99 made baskets on the season – fourth-most by any player to a teammate. Atop that list is Young’s 121 assists to Collins, and the Hawks are hopeful the two can add to this number as early as next week with Collins back practising.

Capela has had more opportunities inside with Collins sidelined, but really, he's been a beast in the paint all season.

The league's top offensive rebounder at 4.8 per game, Capela is third in the NBA in second-chance scoring at 4.6 points per game (minimum 20 games played).

His production in the interior has also increased with Bogdanovic starting, as he has been averaging 6.7 dunks and layups per game since March 26 – second in the league behind Zion Williamson's average of 10.6 per game. Prior to March 26, Capela averaged 5.5 dunks and layups per game.

Like Bogdanovic, Gallinari also got off to a sluggish start to the season and also dealt with an ailment, missing 12 games with multiple foot injuries. But also, similarly to Bogdanovic, he's found his stroke.

After averaging 11.2 points on 38.6 per cent shooting from the floor and 37.8 per cent from beyond the arc in his first 23 games, Gallinari is averaging 16.3 points on 47.6 per cent shooting – including 43.5 per cent on threes in his last 15. He's been one of the league's best at connecting on three-pointers from the wing since March 1, draining 47.1 per cent – the fourth-highest rate in the league among the 77 players with 50 or more attempts.

Gallinari hasn't been the only contributor off the bench for the Hawks over the last week.

At the trade deadline, the Hawks shipped Rondo to the Los Angeles Clippers for 16-year veteran Lou Williams to provide another scorer off the bench. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year Award winner is averaging 13.2 points and 3.4 assists in four games, rejuvenating the reserves since making his Hawks debut on April 1.

With Williams on board, Atlanta's bench ranks fifth in scoring (43.6 ppg), ninth in shooting (46.8 per cent) and second in three-point shooting (53.8 per cent) since the start of April. Prior to April, the bench ranked 27th in scoring (31.7 ppg), 30th in shooting (40.3 per cent) and 16th in three-point shooting (35.9 per cent).

While the Hawks have become healthier – despite the recent injury to Collins – and are getting more production from their bench, they are also showing a proficiency at closing out games. Instead of wilting late, they are now flourishing.

The loss to the Heat on February 28 marked the 11th setback of the season for Atlanta in a game in which they led in the fourth quarter, and only league-worst Minnesota had more through the end of February with 12. Since the beginning of March, however, the Hawks are 13-2 when holding a fourth-quarter lead, and only the Denver Nuggets (15), Brooklyn Nets (14) and Phoenix Suns (14) have more such victories.

The Hawks' recent fourth-quarter figures are startling. Their PPG average has been 27.7 since March 1 after being 27.1 previously, representing a small improvement. Yet in that same period their opponents have averaged just 24.3 fourth-quarter points compared to 29.0 in the first 34 games of the season, Atlanta's three-point percentage has switched from 34.8 per cent before March to 41.9 per cent during the games since, and their PPG differential has switched up from being minus 1.9 prior to the upturn to plus 3.4 in their subsequent outings.

That means in terms of fourth-quarter progression they have gone from being 15th in PPG in games before March to eighth since, from 29th to second in opposition PPG, from 19th to second in three-point percentage, and from 29th to first place in PPG/difference.

Atlanta have played their way into a playoff position, and now the trick is staying there. One advantage the Hawks have going for them, though, is they have a relatively easy path the rest of the way.

Through the end of February when the team fired Pierce, Atlanta had the eighth-toughest strength of schedule (.512 opponents' winning percentage). The Hawks then made their push since the beginning of March with a schedule that was the eighth easiest (.478), and now they have the sixth-easiest schedule through the rest of the season (.480).

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