NBA

NBA Game of the Week: Streaking Cavs aiming to buck trend in Milwaukee matchup

By Sports Desk December 20, 2022

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks have each contended for and won titles in the past 10 years, but they have very rarely both been good at the same time.

LeBron James led the Cavaliers to four straight NBA Finals between 2014-15 and 2017-18 as they enjoyed an epic rivalry with the Golden State Warriors.

But Cleveland were tied for the second-worst record in the league the following year, with James in Los Angeles, as Central Division rivals Milwaukee came to prominence with the NBA's best record in Giannis Antetokounmpo's first MVP year.

The Bucks have since had control of the division and again lead the Eastern Conference through 30 games at 22-8.

Yet now there is a challenge from the Cavs, who are a competitive 21-11 and have won four straight games ahead of hosting the Bucks on Wednesday.

Having already shown real signs of progress last year in reaching the play-in tournament, Cleveland have kicked on again after a trade for Donovan Mitchell that they hope will turn them into a serious player in the East.

So far, that looks to be the case, with Mitchell's career-high 29.3 points per game leading the team – and ranking eighth in the NBA – while he has produced in big games against the Boston Celtics.

The Cavs are 2-0 against the second-placed Celtics this season; however, they are 0-2 against the Bucks, who will be intent on batting away their division rivals ahead of Christmas.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Cleveland Cavaliers – Jarrett Allen

The Cavaliers will hope the physicality of Allen can be the missing piece against the Bucks. He has played only 12 minutes against Milwaukee so far this season, absent for the first game and withdrawn injured in the second having scored only a single point.

Since returning from that hip injury earlier this month, Allen has averaged 14.9 points and 9.3 rebounds, with 26 rebounds across his past two outings.

Milwaukee Bucks – Giannis Antetokounmpo

Nobody likes playing against Antetokounmpo, but only against the Brooklyn Nets and the Utah Jazz has he averaged more points per game across his career than against the Cavaliers.

Although the Cavs have spoken of Evan Mobley having the potential to become a player in the Giannis mould, neither he nor his team-mates have a fix for the 'Greek Freak' when he is in form – as he was in scoring 38 points in their last meeting.

KEY BATTLE – Can Cavs keep focus after halftime?

Two of the Cavaliers' three worst quarters this season in terms of points differential were the two third quarters they have played against the Bucks. They represented two of Milwaukee's four best quarters of the year.

The Cavs, again on a four-game winning run, had dominated the first half of the teams' most recent meeting, up by 11 before losing the third quarter 35-10 as they were blown away by the Bucks' title0calibre intensity.

Cleveland must show they are capable of going toe-to-toe with such opposition if they are to be a genuine threat this season.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Cavaliers may have struggled badly in Milwaukee this season, but they won their final two home games against the Bucks last year, providing hope of another win at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, where they are a league-leading 15-2 in 2022-23.

The Bucks have a 130-97 all-time lead in the series, although the Cavs have a 60-53 advantage in Cleveland.

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  • Haaland, Palmer, Watkins? Assessing the Premier League's Golden Boot candidates Haaland, Palmer, Watkins? Assessing the Premier League's Golden Boot candidates

    There is a thrilling three-horse race for the Premier League title as we approach the run-in, but there is also another tussle on the cards.

    The Golden Boot is up for grabs, with Erling Haaland having not quite hit the same heights as he did last season, when he broke the Premier League record for goals, with 36.

    Manchester City star Haaland is, as it stands, level with his former club-mate Cole Palmer at the top of the competition’s scoring charts, with 20 goals apiece.

    Palmer, who will go up against his old club in the FA Cup semi-finals this weekend, moved way up in the charts after he netted four times in Chelsea’s 6-0 rout of Everton on Monday.

    But with Palmer and Haaland in FA Cup action, there are plenty of other Golden Boot candidates looking to take advantage and nudge themselves to the front of the pack.

    Using Opta data, we assess the numbers behind the players vying for this individual accolade.

    Erling Haaland (20)

    Sure, Haaland might not quite have scaled the same heights as last season, but he has still scored 20 goals in 26 league games, scoring a goal every 109 minutes on average.

    However, the Norwegian has actually underperformed his expected goals (xG) of 23.7 – that 3.7 differential is actually the biggest xG underperformance of any player on this list.

    What about Haaland’s expected goals on target (xGOT)? That metric can be used to measure the quality of a player’s finishing, and Haaland’s xGOT of 20.3 suggests the 23-year-old is about on track based on where he has been placing his shots.

    Haaland has also chipped in with five assists, giving him an overall goal contributions tally of 25. He has created 28 goalscoring chances for team-mates across the campaign.

    Of course, Haaland is a penalty box poacher – 16 of his goals have come from inside the area, while 14 of them have come with his stronger left foot.

     

    Cole Palmer (20)

    Palmer has stolen the show this season for Chelsea, and is arguably the Blues’ driving force behind their push for European football.

    Having signed from City last summer, Palmer has made an instant impact despite only playing 27 times – he averages a goal every 103 minutes, which is better than any of the other candidates featured here.

    He scored a perfect hat-trick in the first half of the demolition of Everton, before adding a fourth from the penalty spot after the break – that was Palmer’s ninth successfully converted spot-kick in the league this term.

    Unlike Haaland, Palmer has overperformed his xG (15), with his non-penalty xG coming in at 7.9, while also proving his creative talents with nine assists from 53 chances created, which ranks behind only Mohamed Salah (60) of players featured here.

    Those 29 goal contributions are matched by only one other Premier League player…

    Ollie Watkins (19)

    One goal behind Palmer and Haaland, and someone who will be looking to get ahead when Aston Villa face Bournemouth on Sunday, is England international Watkins.

    A deft chip in Villa’s brilliant 2-0 win over Arsenal last time out brought up Watkins’ 19th top-flight goal of the campaign – he is now the club’s joint-leading scorer in a single season in the Premier League, matching Christian Benteke (2012-13).

     

    What separates Watkins from Palmer and Haaland is his minutes per goal ratio – Watkins has netted every 147 minutes on average, which is 44 minutes worse off than Palmer and 38 than Haaland.

    However, with 10 assists, the former Brentford forward leads the goal contributions charts along with Palmer. Interestingly, however, Watkins’ assists have come from an expected assists (xA) of just 3.6, suggesting he has been the benefactor of some particularly excellent finishing from his Villa team-mates.

    A goal against Bournemouth on Sunday would see Watkins become just the third English player to score 20+ goals and assist 10+ goals in a 38-game season, along with Frank Lampard in 2009-10 (22 goals, 14 assists) and Harry Kane in 2020-21 (23 goals, 14 assists)

    Watkins has proved to be a deadly finisher under Unai Emery, though the trick for opposing defences could be to prevent him getting space in the area to begin with, given that all 19 of his goals have come from inside the box. Obviously, that is easier said than done.

    Mohamed Salah (17)

    Liverpool will be hoping to bounce back from their damaging defeat to Crystal Palace last week when they take on Fulham on Sunday, and key to the Reds’ clinching success in Jurgen Klopp’s farewell tour will surely be the form of Salah.

    Since sustaining an injury at the Africa Cup of Nations, Salah has not quite hit top form, but he has still netted 17 goals across 26 league appearances this term, though five of those have been penalties.

     

    With an xGOT of 18.4, Salah can point to some above average goalkeeping as a reason for a small underperformance.

    Creatively, Salah has been excellent, providing nine assists and crafting 60 opportunities, but the Reds will need him at his very best in the run-in.

    Alexander Isak (17)

    Isak was at the double in Newcastle United’s 4-0 thrashing of Tottenham last time out. He has now scored 12 goals in as many Premier League appearances at St James’ Park this season.

    His opener against Spurs saw him become the fourth player to score in six consecutive Premier League home matches for Newcastle, with only Andrew Cole (eight) and Alan Shearer (15) having longer such runs, with Isak now level with Les Ferdinand’s best such run. The only other Swede to have netted as many Premier League goals in a single campaign as Isak has this term is the great Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored 17 times for Manchester United in 2016-17.

    Only Palmer has a better minutes per goal ratio than Isak (104) of the players on this list, while he has overperformed his xG by 1.1.

    Isak has not provided quite as much creatively as others on this list, providing just one assist, but his 28.3 per cent shot conversion rate tops this list by some distance, with Palmer (24.4) next best.

    Dominic Solanke (17)

    Another player on 17 goals, and the final selection here, is Bournemouth talisman Solanke.

    His 18.1 per cent shot conversion rate may short fall of the other stars on this list, but Solanke is having a fantastic season, having become Bournemouth’s top Premier League goalscorer in a single campaign, surpassing Joshua King’s tally of 16 from the 2016-17 season.

    Only one of Solanke’s strikes has come from the spot, with the 26-year-old outperforming his 15.7 non-penalty xG, though his minutes per goal ratio of 167 is quite a stark drop-off from most of his Golden Boot rivals.

    The Chasing Pack

    Former Golden Boot winner Son Heung-min (15), Jarrod Bowen (15), Bukayo Saka (14) and Phil Foden (14) are all well in the hunt.

    The fact that 10 players are within six goals of each other shows just how tight this Golden Boot race is shaping up to be, though the chasing pack are running out of time if they are to make a late push for the award.

  • Premier League relegation battle: Crucial weekend in the scrap for survival Premier League relegation battle: Crucial weekend in the scrap for survival

    While the Premier League title race unfolds, there is another tussle playing out at the bottom.

    And this weekend, six of the teams at the wrong end of the table fight it out against each other.

    On Saturday, Luton Town will hope to propel themselves out of the relegation zone by overcoming Brentford at Kenilworth Road, though the 15th-placed Bees will know that another win could all but end their worries of dropping down to the Championship.

    At the same time, the two bottom clubs go head-to-head at Bramall Lane, with Sheffield United hosting Burnley. Both the Blades and the Clarets look likely to go down, though if either are to survive, then taking three points from this one is a must.

    Sunday’s early game is a huge one at Goodison Park, as Everton and Nottingham Forest – both impacted by points deductions for breaches of Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR) – face off. The Toffees are 16th, a point better off than the Tricky Trees, but Sean Dyche’s team are on a dismal run of just one win in 15 league matches.

    Crystal Palace are perhaps not out of the woods just yet, though after their stunning win at Anfield last time out, the Eagles will hope to carry on the momentum when they face West Ham.

    And using Opta data, we can assess the likelihood of the Premier League relegation scrap, as well as the underlying metrics behind each of these teams.

     

    Let’s work from the top down.

    Palace, after that shock 1-0 win over Liverpool, are now not considered to be relegation candidates by Opta’s predictive model, which gives them a 46.5 per cent chance of staying right where they are in 14th.

    The Eagles are six points clear of Everton in 17th, and while not mathematically safe, Oliver Glasner’s team are certainly within touching distance.

    It is worth noting, though, that according to the Opta power rankings, Palace have the most difficult run-in of all these seven teams, with the average rating of their remaining opponents coming in at 87.9. Like the Toffees and Sheffield United, Palace have six matches left to play, though they do not play any of the teams below them in that run.

    Next come Brentford. The Bees have five games remaining but, with 33 points, are likely just a win away from tying up their safety, and they will be hoping that comes against Luton (as well Everton and Forest fans).

    According to Opta’s model, Brentford have the second-easiest fixture list of any team in the league, with their average opponent rating of 85.1 higher only than Newcastle United’s (84.1).

    The Bees do, though, face a trip to Everton after they head to Luton, so should the worst occur and they lose those matches, then Thomas Frank’s team could find themselves firmly back in danger. As it stands, Brentford’s chances of going down are a meagre 0.3 per cent.

    Brentford are the second-worst expected goals underperformers in the competition this season, having scored six fewer goals than would have been anticipated based on the quality of opportunities they have created, suggesting that with better finishing, and a bit more luck, they would likely be clear of danger already.

    And if that can be said for Brentford, then it can be emphatically repeated for 16th-placed Everton.

     

    Even factoring in the eight points that have been taken off them this term, Everton – who were thrashed 6-0 by Chelsea on Monday – could have been out of danger had they simply come close to matching their xG. They are by far the Premier League’s biggest underperformers when it comes to that metric – Dyche’s side have scored 32 goals (which ranks 19th in the league) from an xG of 48, a whopping underperformance of 16.

    Sunday’s clash with Forest kick-starts a huge week of home games for the Toffees, with a Merseyside derby against Liverpool following on April 24, before Brentford then visit Goodison Park.

    With Forest, Brentford, Luton and Sheffield United among their final four fixtures, Everton should still have some confidence – they have taken seven points off those sides already this term, and a repeat of that could be enough, though a final-day away outing at Arsenal is ominous, given the Toffees have shipped nine goals in their last two visits to Emirates Stadium. Opta predicts they will stay up, but Everton do have an 8.9 per cent chance of slipping out of the top tier for the first time in over 70 years.

    Below them, Forest will no doubt have been buoyed by Everton’s sorry performance at Stamford Bridge. However, Nuno Espirito Santo’s team do have a rather sizeable 29.9 per cent chance of going down, so a victory at Goodison Park could be vital.

    Especially considering Forest’s next fixture comes against Manchester City, albeit it is at home, where they also face Chelsea in between away clashes with Sheffield United and Burnley.

    Perhaps worrying for Forest, however, is that in their three matches against Everton, the Blades and Burnley this term, they have taken only four points. Interestingly, while Forest have shipped 58 goals – a figure which betters only the bottom three, they have been unfortunate to concede so many based on their expected goals against (xGA), which is actually the sixth best in the league at 47.4.

    Then we have Luton. The Hatters have been one of the stories of the season, and despite their small budget have a brilliant chance of survival.

    That being said, Opta’s predictive model does anticipate they will go down, with Rob Edwards’ side having a 54.3 per cent chance of finishing where they are in 18th, with their chances of finishing in 17th being 29.6 per cent.

    Victory over Brentford, who beat them 3-1 earlier in the campaign, would see Luton move out of the bottom three, though, and with five games left, they do have what is considered a relatively easy run-in when it comes to the average rating of those teams they are going up against, at 85.4.

    That being said, Luton’s defensive record this season is awful. The Hatters have shipped 70 goals from an xGA of 69.7. They will need to tighten up if they are to complete the great escape.

     

    What about the bottom two?

    Well, they are perhaps down and out. After visiting South Yorkshire on Saturday, Vincent Kompany’s Burnley team have to go to Old Trafford and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium either side of hosting Newcastle, and Opta’s predictive model suggests they will go down – they have just a 1.6 per cent chance of survival.

    There is an even smaller chance of the Blades, who are 20th, staying up, at just 0.2 per cent.

    Chris Wilder’s team are the team with the fewest goals scored in the top flight, at 30, while they have conceded 84 – the worst in the division, and while victory over the Clarets would provide a morale-boost, the Blades seemed destined for the Championship.

  • Hart highlights Madison Square Garden factor as Knicks battle Bucks for second seed Hart highlights Madison Square Garden factor as Knicks battle Bucks for second seed

    The New York Knicks are under no illusions as to the importance of securing home-court advantage for the Eastern Conference playoffs, with Friday's win over the Brooklyn Nets keeping them in the hunt for the second seed.

    The Knicks drew level with the Milwaukee Bucks at 49-32 with their 111-107 win at Madison Square Garden, boosting their chances of playing at the iconic venue through the postseason.

    Jalen Brunson put up 30 points and added 11 assists as the Knicks made it four straight victories, with Josh Hart adding 16 and Mitchell Robinson tacking on 15.

    The result saw New York secure a top-four seed, with the Bucks' subsequent 125-107 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder keeping their chances of finishing second in the East alive.

    With the Bucks possessing the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Knicks must beat the Chicago Bulls in their season finale on Sunday and hope Milwaukee lose on the road against the Orlando Magic. If both teams lose, the Cleveland Cavaliers could yet usurp them.

    Asked about the importance of playing at home, Hart said: "I heard the lights are really bright at MSG during that time, so it's really big for us."

    Coach Tom Thibodeau, though, said the team cannot control anything other than their own results, saying: "We want to go through the finish line so that's the way we're looking at it. We want to improve and play our best."

    With Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined by a left calf injury and Damian Lillard missing out due to pain in his left adductor, the short-handed Bucks let the Knicks into the race with their loss at Paycom Center.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 23 points and Chet Holmgren added 22 as the Thunder eased to victory, establishing a 17-point halftime lead which they never looked likely to surrender.

    Asked about Milwaukee's failure to wrap up second place, Bucks coach Doc Rivers said: "I don't have much of a reaction. We've got to run to the finish line.

    "The good news is, no matter what, we'll be at home for game one. That we do know."

    That result was also an important one in the race to top the Western Conference, with the Thunder now locked in a three-way tie with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets.

    It's in Oklahoma City's hands going into their season finale against the Dallas Mavericks, with Mark Daigneault's team edging the three-way tiebreaker.

    "I think the big exponential jumps come from small incremental steps," Daigneault said after Friday's game. "I talk all the time about stacking and we really are trying to live that out. 

    "We just try to have a good day in the day that's in front of us, have a good possession in the possession that's in front of us, a good game in the game that's in front of us and just be very present in the process of improving and competing."

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