NBA

NBA Game of the Week: Mavericks looking to arrest slide against the Suns

By Sports Desk January 25, 2023

Normally, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks visiting the Phoenix Suns would feel like a battle for supremacy near the top of the league.

However, going into their clash at Footprint Center on Thursday, it threatens to be the latest in a poor run of form for Dallas, who not only have a bad recent record in Phoenix, but whose form has fallen off a cliff in 2023.

Their win at the Houston Rockets in their first game of the year was their seventh in a row, but since then they have a record of 3-8, including back-to-back home defeats to the Los Angeles Clippers and Washington Wizards in their last two outings.

Head coach Jason Kidd recently called for an improvement from his defense, whose standards have slipped this season.

Following defeat to the Atlanta Hawks last week in which they conceded 130 points, Kidd said: "In this league, if you do that, no matter if you have Luka or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] or LeBron [James], you're going to lose. It doesn't matter how many points you score, you're always going to be short.

"So until we put a better effort into playing defense and understanding what we have to do, we're going to score 120, but we're going to give up 130, 140. One night we might give up 150, but we'll be fine because we scored, so it doesn't look too bad."

The Suns are recovering from their own bad run, though.

Last year's runaway Western Conference winners started the season with 15 victories in their first 21 games, before only succeeding in six of their next 24.

Four wins on the bounce since then have sparked hope of a resurgence in Phoenix, though, and they will be hoping to take advantage of a vulnerable Mavericks side.

After his impressive performance in the 128-97 win against the Charlotte Hornets, Cameron Johnson said: "It's life – you weather storms. Things don't always go your way. We've found that out the past couple years. That doesn't mean you tuck tail, run, sell the farm, hide away forever.

"We have a lot of confidence in our group. Top to bottom."

Monty Williams' men will look to call on that confidence when they welcome the Mavs to Arizona.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS 

Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul

The experienced Paul was absolutely central to the recent 112-110 win against the Memphis Grizzlies, scoring 22 points with 11 assists, before putting up another 11 assists against the Hornets.

With Devin Booker out, Phoenix have had to share the wealth when it comes to scoring points, and Paul has been key when available in enabling others to find those points.

If Deandre Ayton (illness) is missing again, it will likely come down to the 37-year-old to step up once more.

Dallas Mavericks – Luka Doncic

The Suns are 20th in the league for points scored this season, but the Mavs are a place lower. That seems pretty crazy when you think they have one of the best players in the league in their ranks, and he is again having a productive season.

From 44 games, Doncic has led the way with an average of 33.8 points per game, the most in the league, with 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists.

The Slovenian will need help from his team-mates in Phoenix, and a lot more than he had when his 41 points against the Wizards wasn't enough for the win.

KEY BATTLE – Can the Mavs defense finally thrive with no obvious Suns threat?

As mentioned, Dallas have struggled to stop the opposition from racking up the points this season, going from the second-best defense in the regular season last year to 12th so far this.

One factor they could rely on here, though, is the Suns being without Booker and therefore without anyone averaging more than 17.5 points per game (Ayton). 

HEAD-TO-HEAD

Prior to Dallas beating Phoenix 130-111 in early December, the Suns had won 10 in a row against them, while they have gone 9-1 in their last 10 home games against the Mavs.

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    Outside of the World Cup and the Olympic Games, no sporting event commands attention quite like the Super Bowl. 

    The build-up to an opening kick-off witnessed by a cavalcade of television and smartphone cameras is a week-long celebration of North America's dominant professional sport, a seven-day period in which talking heads agonise over every storyline in the only game of the year that doubles as a de-facto national holiday in the United States.

    On occasion, such storylines may be contrived in a bid to create excitement for a matchup that does not instantly capture the imagination. Yet the modern NFL is one spoilt by the number of captivating contenders that reside in the league, and commissioner Roger Goodell could not have asked for a more enticing Super Bowl clash than the one that will take place in Arizona on Sunday.

    Indeed, the meeting between AFC Champions the Kansas City Chiefs and NFC Champions the Philadelphia Eagles is one positively teeming with storylines that make Super Bowl LVII a game worthy of the ceaseless hype it will receive before Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts and Co. settle matters on the field in their fight to secure the Vince Lombardi Trophy. 

    Mahomes and Hurts are poised to make history with their duel at State Farm Stadium. Their matchup is the first in the Super Bowl between two black starting quarterbacks and, by the time the Chiefs and Eagles have taken the field, one of them will likely have been crowned as MVP — both are finalists for the league’s most prestigious individual honour, which will be announced at a ceremony in Phoenix on Thursday.

    Theirs is a battle between a signal-caller who is by this point established as the gold standard of his generation, with a prospective second MVP for Mahomes just reward for a campaign in which he threw for 50 passing touchdowns and over 5,000 yards in the same season for the second time in his career, and a quarterback who seems to be in the midst of an unexpected rise to the elite after startling growth in his second full season as a starter.

    Yet both head into the game with plenty to prove. Mahomes will consider it past time to end his wait for a second Super Bowl title after breaking the hearts of the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, while there will be many still questioning whether Hurts can excel against this calibre of opposition. The Eagles went 14-1 with him as the starter in the regular season but faced only six teams who finished the year with a winning record. So far in the postseason, they have blown out an overachieving New York Giants team and seen a mouth-watering NFC Championship Game with the 49ers reduced to a no-contest after injuries left San Francisco with no healthy quarterbacks.

    But questions about the opposition Hurts has faced do nothing to detract from the quality of his overall play. He has performed extremely impressively as a deep-ball thrower, with his passer rating of 112.1 on passes of 21 air yards or more the fourth-best among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts. The Eagles have utilised Hurts’ running ability to devastating effect as he has rushed for 13 touchdowns, while the Philadelphia quarterback ranks fourth in yards over expected in true passing situations (among quarterbacks with at least 100 such throws).

    Mahomes is second by the same measure, illustrating this game’s status as a legitimate matchup between two of the very best at the game’s most important position.

    Both Mahomes and Hurts will depend heavily on a man named Kelce as they look to guide their team to glory, with Travis and Jason becoming the first brothers to play against each other in the Super Bowl. Tight end Travis Kelce became the undisputed top option in the Kansas City offense in the wake of the Tyreek Hill trade and added another hugely impressive season to a Hall of Fame resume. 

    His campaign featured 1,338 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns with his 19 receptions of at least 20 yards the most of any tight end and the seventh-most in the NFL. The impact of an offensive lineman can sometimes be less tangible, but no center in the league makes their presence as obvious as Jason Kelce, the engine to an Eagles line that ranks first in pass block win rate and second in run block win rate, according to Stats Perform data.

    Both Kelce brothers were drafted by Andy Reid, Jason picked in 2011 when the 64-year-old was Eagles head coach, with Travis then selected in his first year in Kansas City in 2013, a tenure in Philadelphia defined by frustrating near-misses coming to an end in 2012.

    Reid lost three successive NFC Championship Games with the Eagles between the 2001 and 2003 seasons before finally getting them to the Super Bowl in the 2004 campaign, with his time management skills vehemently criticised in a loss to the New England Patriots.

    He got back to the NFC Championship Game one more time with Philadelphia in the 2008 season, but never did so again following a loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Though his triumph with the Chiefs four years ago will obviously have softened the pain of seeing the Eagles get over the hump without him in the 2017 campaign, a contest between a man who could never quite get job done in Philadelphia and a coach in Nick Sirianni who is a game away from winning the Super Bowl in his second season is a fascinating plot point in a heavyweight encounter. 

    Such will be the attention on messrs Mahomes, Hurts, Reid and the brothers Kelce that some of the critical battles on which the destination of the Lombardi could hinge may well fly under the radar.

    Chief among them will be the fight in the trenches. Defensive Player of the Year contender Chris Jones has led the way for a Kansas City defensive line that has tallied 18 quarterback hits in the postseason, tied for the most among 2022 playoff teams. However, he and his team-mates up front will be tested not only in defeating the blocks of the Philadelphia offensive line but in tempering the aggressiveness by which Steve Spagnuolo's defense has come to be defined against a diverse Philadelphia ground game that is well-equipped to use it against Kansas City.

    In comparison to Jones, Kansas City’s young secondary is an underrated aspect of the Chiefs’ roster. The Chiefs' defense ranks 11th in open percentage allowed, though the prospective return of cornerback L'Jarius Sneed from a head injury will be key to their hopes of limiting the impact of the Eagles' star receiver duo of A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, who rank 11th and 13th respectively in combined open percentage across man and zone coverage. 

    Sneed has lost just 22 of his 76-man coverage matchups. Only four players to have faced 75 such matchups have allowed a receiver to get open less often.

    Stopping the Eagles is of course only half the battle for Kansas City and, for as frequently as 'Mahomes magic' has rescued the Chiefs, he cannot do it alone.

    Encouragingly, the Chiefs rank ninth in rushing offense in Stats Perform's Efficiency Versus Expected metric and are going against an Eagles defense 21st by the same metric against the run.

    The Eagles largely shut down the 49er run game in the NFC Championship Game, but that was primarily due to the fact the Philadelphia defense could focus solely on stopping the ground attack with the threat of the passing game removed.

    With Philadelphia having played an offense that was reduced solely to running the ball, the Chiefs will have received an in-depth look at how the Eagles fit their defense to stop the rush, potentially improving their odds of finding weaknesses in that area and taking advantage of them.

    Mahomes remains the primary weapon and most will expect and want to see a bewitching duel between and the top two MVP candidates. Yet the Super Bowl can throw up unexpected heroes and, though there are bonafide stars and storylines aplenty, the post-game tales could well be of the job the Eagles did on Jones, how rookie Isiah Pacheco gashed Philadelphia’s run defense or how Sneed and Jaylen Watson kept Brown and Smith at bay. There's plenty of intrigue beneath the surface in a potential all-time classic.

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    At the end of February 2022, Leeds United bosses had seen enough.

    "This has been the toughest decision I have had to make," said chairman Andrea Radrizzani at the time.

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    Leeds have taken just three points from their past seven games, leaving them level on points with Everton in the final relegation spot, albeit having played a game fewer than the three teams below them.

    Unlike Bielsa, who ended the club's long wait to get back into the Premier League and then guided them to a ninth-placed finish in their first season back, Marsch never truly won over the fanbase.

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    Bielsa is also reportedly among the contenders to succeed the man who succeeded him, while Mauricio Pochettino, Ange Postecoglou and Ralph Hasenhuttl have been touted as other options.

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    Pulling the plug on Marsch's tenure was a big call by Leeds chiefs, coming in the same week they face Manchester United in back-to-back Premier League games.

    It will be only the second time in the competition's history that the same two teams have met in successive games, following Arsenal's 2-0 and 4-2 wins over Bolton Wanderers in January 2010.

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    The 15 goals they have conceded against United in 6-2 5-1 and 4-2 defeats are second only to the 16 shipped against Manchester City over that same period.

    Furthermore, since the start of last season, Leeds have taken just one point from their eight games against sides starting the day in the top three.

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    That is the Red Devils' best run since a record 20 wins in a row between December 2010 and September 2011.

    Plenty to play for

    Ending that barren run will go a long way to boosting Leeds' survival hopes, although ultimately whoever comes in will have 16 matches after this week's unique double-header to steer the Whites to safety.

    Without a win in seven Premier League games, with that the longest ongoing run of any side, it hardly came as a big surprise to see Marsch given his marching orders on the back of 1-0 loss at Nottingham Forest.

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    Whether that can be achieved remains to be seen. But if we have learned anything about Leeds throughout the Premier League era, it is that it will certainly make for entertaining viewing either way.

  • Durant, Lakers, Warriors – Big questions ahead of NBA trade deadline Durant, Lakers, Warriors – Big questions ahead of NBA trade deadline

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