NBA

NBA Heat Check: The Greek Freak on fire as Steph suffers three-point slump

By Sports Desk March 01, 2021

The past week in the NBA saw the Brooklyn Nets do something they hadn't previously done since February 9... lose a game.

Brooklyn's defeat to the Dallas Mavericks gave a boost to their rivals for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, headed by the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Milwaukee Bucks, another of those competitors, enjoyed a superb week with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo unsurprisingly coming to the fore.

Meanwhile, out west, Devin Booker strung together a series of performances that justified his place in the All-Star game.

By contrast, two players significantly more familiar with that contest suffered dips in form.

Here we take a look at some of the best and worst performers across the past week, aided by Stats Perform data.

 

RUNNING HOT...

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks are firmly back in contention for the top seed in the East after stretching their winning run to five games, with three of those victories coming in the past week.

Antetokounmpo was predictably pivotal to their success, tallying over 30 points in each matchup to extend his streak to four games in that regard.

He finished the week with back-to-back double-doubles against the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers, scoring 36 points in the latter game.

His points per game average jumped from 28.37 to 37, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks sending a message that they are still very much a contender for the title.

Devin Booker

The All-Star snub who was later added as a replacement showed why he deserves his place in the showcase this past week.

Booker averaged 33 points across the Phoenix Suns' three games, an impressive improvement on his previous season-long average of 24.28.

He capped it in stunning fashion, dropping 43 in the win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, which saw him go 15 for 26 from the field.

At 22-11, the Suns will loom as a dangerous playoff team should he continue that kind of form.

James Harden

Brooklyn may have finally seen their eight-game winning streak come to an end, but it was a positive week for Harden individually.

Absent the other two members of the Nets' big three, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Harden could not prevent them from falling to defeat to the Mavericks.

However, he was more prolific from beyond the arc this past week, averaging 4.67 made threes having entered the week putting up 3.08 per game.

Harden is converting threes at the highest rate of his career. He is shooting 39.7 per cent from beyond the arc and 41.8 per cent since his trade to Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets.

But he is attempting only 8.2 a game, the fewest since the 2015-16 season (8.0). If he continues to shoot more from deep and maintains his consistency in converting those attempts, a loaded Nets team will have yet another dimension.

GOING COLD...

Paul George

An up-and-down week for the Clippers started brilliantly for George, who racked up 30 points in a win over the Washington Wizards, going six of seven from three-point range.

But he tailed off thereafter, following up two 13-point efforts against the Memphis Grizzlies with a mediocre 16-point display in the loss to the Bucks.

His points per game average fell from 24.36 entering the week to 18 over the past seven days, and the Clippers will need a lot more from him if they are to earn a top-two seed in the West.

Terry Rozier

The man known as 'Scary Terry' did little to terrify opponents over the past week.

Rozier entered the week averaging a career-high 21.15 points per game but that dipped to 13.5 over the four games the Charlotte Hornets contested in the last seven days.

He put up 24 points in a loss to the Golden State Warriors but could not manage more than 12 in his other three outings.

Still averaging 20.2 a game for the season, the Hornets will want Rozier to deliver the kind of performance he did against Golden State consistently as they seek a first playoff berth since 2015-16.

Stephen Curry

Among the players to suffer the biggest decline in three-point shooting this past week was the man most consider the greatest shooter of all time.

Curry had been converting 5.03 three-pointers a game for the season but hit on an average of 3.25 a game as the Warriors won three of four last week.

He still enjoyed a 37-point outing against the New York Knicks, scoring seven triples in that triumph, but was one for 11 from deep versus the Indiana Pacers and two for seven in Sunday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, with Curry experiencing a season in which he is averaging his highest points per game tally (29.5) since his unanimous MVP season of 2015-16 (30.1), the smart money says he will soon return to form from beyond the arc.

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  • Premier League Fantasy Picks: Find final-day value in Eriksen and Antonio Premier League Fantasy Picks: Find final-day value in Eriksen and Antonio

    We are at the final gameweek of the Premier League fantasy football season, and the moment of truth has arrived – not for Manchester City and Liverpool, but for the fantasy players out there.

    Balancing between premium players and those who can provide particular value could be the difference at this time of the season, whether you need to consolidate or make up ground.

    Stats Perform has you covered with some Opta-powered recommendations below, so here are our suggestions for this week's picks.

    HUGO LLORIS (Norwich City v Tottenham)

    A good start at this point of the season is determining which teams have something to play for, and with Champions League qualification on the line, Tottenham are one of the more relevant examples this weekend.

    Sitting on 15 for the season so far, Hugo Lloris is one clean sheet away from recording his most in a single Premier League campaign, with only Alisson and Ederson ahead of him on 20.

    The 35-year-old has made a solid 2.65 saves per 90 on the way to his 15 clean sheets, holding that bit of extra motivation coming into the final round.

    ANDREW ROBERTSON (Liverpool v Wolves)

    Liverpool need to win to keep their Premier League hopes alive, and they will likely have the majority of the ball against Wolves on Sunday. Expect crosses and dead balls.

    As a result, expect as ever for Liverpool's full-backs to be prominent, and Andrew Robinson is just one shy of recording 50 assists in the Premier League. He would become only the second defender to do so, after Leighton Baines.

    He is averaging more assists per 90 (0.37) and chances created per 90 (2.02) for Liverpool this season than in any of his previous campaigns.

    CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN (Brentford v Leeds United)

    Granted, Brentford have little to play for aside from professional pride, but Christian Eriksen's return to the Premier League has reinforced his transformative quality as a footballer. They're also playing Leeds.

    The 30-year-old has either scored or assisted in five of his nine Premier League starts this season, while only Kevin de Bruyne has created more chances than him per 90 this term. 

    While Eriksen also trails De Bruyne for assists since the 2013-14 season on 66, this season has seen him create a chance every 32 minutes on average.

    MICHAIL ANTONIO (Brighton and Hove Albion v West Ham)

    Despite West Ham's elimination in the Europa League at the hands of eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt, the season is not over. The Hammers still need a win to stand a chance of taking that last Europa League spot from Manchester United.

    Another goal for Michail Antonio would see him score at least 10 goals in three consecutive seasons, which would also make him the first West Ham player to do so in the Premier League. 

    He also has 17 goal involvements for the season, his most in the competition.

  • How Kevin De Bruyne's worst Premier League season became his best How Kevin De Bruyne's worst Premier League season became his best

    Three of Manchester City's five previous Premier League triumphs have gone right to the wire, where margins are so fine the title battle can be settled by a single man in a single moment.

    Sergio Aguero of course set the standard in 2011-12 with surely the most iconic goal of the Premier League era, defeating QPR at the death and clinching a first City championship in 44 years.

    Then, in 2018-19, it was Vincent Kompany's turn. Although the departing City captain made only 17 league appearances that year, he will forever be associated with the title win after his thunderous strike secured a vital late-season victory over Leicester City.

    "Where do you want your statue, Vincent Kompany?" asked Sky Sports' Gary Neville. Both Aguero and Kompany – and those celebrations – have since been committed to steel structures outside the Etihad Stadium.

    The City hero was perhaps not quite so clear-cut in 2013-14, when Liverpool's collapse took centre stage, but Yaya Toure's 20 goals from midfield kept his side in touch. While City spent only 15 days of the season at the summit, the win that put them there in the final week perhaps provided the defining image of the champions' campaign, as Toure charged through the Aston Villa defence to score a goal that BBC Sport's Alan Shearer considered "like watching a 15-year-old against under-12s".

    Three City legends have had seasons to call their own. Kevin De Bruyne, until now, had not.

    De Bruyne was the PFA Players' Player of the Year in consecutive years, but the 2019-20 campaign in which he equalled Thierry Henry's 20-assist, single-season record ended with Liverpool on top. The 2020-21 season played out largely without fans and ultimately without a serious challenge to City, robbing their leading man of his platform.

    Consistent excellence had for so long characterised the midfielder's career rather than any particular peak.

    Now, however, 2021-22 might be remembered as the De Bruyne season – a most unexpected conclusion given how the campaign started, as perhaps his worst in a City shirt.

    'Difficult physically and mentally'

    The player of the year he may have been, but De Bruyne's 2020-21 season did not finish in the manner he would have wished.

    The former Chelsea man lasted only an hour of City's Champions League final defeat to the Blues last May, suffering facial fractures that impacted his preparation for Euro 2020. De Bruyne found form again at the finals, only to hobble out of Belgium's last-16 win over Portugal with an ankle issue.

    Although De Bruyne played in the next round, as Belgium lost to Italy, he continued to be hampered by the injury at the start of this season, appearing in City's Premier League opener but then not again for almost four weeks.

    "It's been a bit difficult physically and mentally," the 30-year-old told the MIDMID podcast in November, revealing he had played through "some serious pain".

    "It's going to be a little more difficult this year than usual," De Bruyne suggested, and that seemed a fair prediction.

    The City superstar, who also missed time with COVID-19, made his 10th league appearance of the season in a 1-0 home win over Wolves on December 11. At that stage, he had scored only twice in the competition and failed to provide a single assist – averaging a goal involvement every 246 minutes.

    The only comparable De Bruyne season in a City shirt was in 2018-19, when two knee ligament injuries meant his 10th league appearance did not come until early February. Over 465 minutes up to that point, he scored once.

    That is the sole other example of De Bruyne not contributing an assist through his first 10 league outings in a season for City; in fact, he had tallied at least four assists and six goal involvements by that point in each of his other five campaigns prior to 2021-22.

    A week before De Bruyne's podcast appearance last year, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was also asked to address his star man's form, acknowledging the "scrutiny" he faced while underperforming in a team as talented as City's.

    "I'm not worried at all," Martinez said. "We feel that his best football is coming back."

    De Bruyne added: "I just needed more time than expected."

    'Now he scores a lot'

    De Bruyne's 11th game of this campaign was very different. In a 7-0 City win over Leeds United, the team's talisman doubled his seasonal tally by scoring twice, including a thunderous 25-yard drive for his second.

    "For the whole team, it's a booster," De Bruyne told NBC Sports – although that surely applied more to the two-goal star than his team-mates, with City moving four points clear at the top of the table with the victory.

    "There's been a lot happening this year, a little bit out of my control, so the only thing I can do is try to work hard and come back as quick as possible," he said.

    It was clearly a turning point for De Bruyne, who has scored 13 goals and provided seven assists in 19 matches from the Leeds game onwards. A goal involvement every 81 minutes over this period just beats his single-season best from 2019-20 (85 minutes per goal involvement).

    Yet De Bruyne's role has altered in the past two years. He will not match his outstanding 33 goal involvements from the year Liverpool won the title, but 15 goals already represent a career high with one game still to play on Sunday.

    The reason for that change perhaps has more to do with De Bruyne's City team-mates than the player himself.

    In 2019-20, six of De Bruyne's 20 assists were for record goalscorer Aguero – more than for any other player. Of course, Aguero has since departed.

    The retired striker was City's leading marksman in six of his 10 league campaigns in Manchester, including each of his first four playing alongside De Bruyne.

    With Aguero gone and Erling Haaland not arriving until next term, City needed someone to fill the void in front of goal. De Bruyne, whether used in midfield or attack, has done that in the second half of the season.

    Despite the slow start, City's top scorer has scored with 20.3 per cent of his shots in 2021-22; his previous high, in his debut 2015-16 season, saw a shot conversion rate of 14.3 per cent.

    "I like it a lot," Pep Guardiola said in April after De Bruyne had netted four in four games – including two against Manchester United and one against Liverpool.

    "He is not just a player to make assists – now he scores a lot of goals. I've said to him many times, 'I know you enjoy making a lot of assists, for you and your team-mates, but you have to score goals to reach another stage'. Now he is doing that, a lot of goals and chances."

    'We have to move on'

    De Bruyne has either scored or assisted in 13 of his past 19 games, but he saved his best performances for when it mattered most – at least in the league.

    There were suspicions City's season might fall apart when Real Madrid's remarkable semi-final recovery eliminated Guardiola's side from the Champions League at the start of May. With Liverpool in hot pursuit in the Premier League, the leaders were afforded little time to regroup as they headed straight into matches against Newcastle United at home and Wolves away.

    "We are going to play against Newcastle thinking about [the Madrid defeat], for sure," said Guardiola in an enthralling news conference, revealing two days before the Newcastle match: "We didn't speak. No words can help what all of us feel. It's just a question of time."

    Time, and Tottenham drawing at Liverpool, as it turned out.

    A rare slip-up at Anfield on the eve of City's game against Newcastle eased the pressure on the champions. Then De Bruyne got to work.

    Briefly restored to his 2019-20 vintage, De Bruyne attempted only a single shot at the Etihad but created six chances in a 5-0 win – his most in a single game this season – including an assist for Rodri's goal.

    That performance prompted Jamie Carragher in the Sky Sports studio to declare De Bruyne "the greatest player to ever play for Manchester City", "the best midfield player in the world right now" and "the best player in the Premier League for the past three or four years".

    Yet better was still to come at Wolves, where City became the first team in English top-flight history to win five consecutive league games by a margin of at least three goals. De Bruyne alone outscored Wolves by three, netting four in a 5-1 victory.

    The first hat-trick of his City career was completed inside 24 minutes – the third-fastest in Premier League history – to blow away a Wolves team who had briefly threatened to cause their visitors some problems.

    "It should have been five, to be honest," De Bruyne told Sky Sports, before conversation turned back to the Madrid match.

    "It's very difficult to explain because it was just a mad five minutes," he said. "It's not that we played bad or something, it was just five minutes that you can't explain as a player. I don't know what happened. I was out of control on the bench anyway, so you feel a little bit in shock. It's not nice and the feeling is still not nice.

    "But you need to move on. We're trying now to win the title and whatever happened unfortunately happened. We have to move on."

    The Wolves display would have been fresh in Carragher's mind on Monday when he named De Bruyne his personal player of the season. Whether established individual end-of-season honours beckon for De Bruyne is another matter, though. He was nominated for the official Premier League prize, but many such awards are voted on well in advance of the final weeks of the campaign – before De Bruyne had done his best work.

    Mohamed Salah is the FWA Footballer of the Year; he has scored three goals in his past 10 games – fewer than De Bruyne managed on one night in Wolverhampton.

    A Premier League title, defined by his clutch performances, would not be a bad consolation.

  • 'They tried to embarrass us' – Jimmy Butler on the Boston Celtics' statement-making Game 2 blowout 'They tried to embarrass us' – Jimmy Butler on the Boston Celtics' statement-making Game 2 blowout

    Jimmy Butler said the Boston Celtics "whipped our tail on our home floor" in their 127-102 beatdown of the Miami Heat in Game 2.

    The return of Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart from a foot injury ignited the Celtics on the offensive end just as much as defensively, with the team hitting a red-hot 20-of-40 from three-point range.

    Boston's five that played at least 30 minutes – Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams, Al Horford and Smart – shot 17-of-29 from long-range, and combined for 23 assists, which was two more than Miami had as a team.

    Speaking to post-game media, Butler said the Celtics "tried to embarrass us", but pointed out that they were always going to be facing an uphill battle against such an outlier shooting performance.

    "You do have to move on, but I don't like to move on from this. It has to hurt," he said.

    "They tried to embarrass us – they did embarrass us. I think we got to realise that, or use it as fuel, but realise that the game can get out of hand when you're playing against a really good team like them that can score the ball and get stops.

    "They made shots that they missed last game. That's just what it is.

    "It's going to be hard to beat anybody when they shoot 50 per cent from the field and 50 per cent from three. They were the more physical team overall, and they got one on the road.

    "Overall, we just have to be better. We've got a tough job to do to go over there and win, but if they did it, we can do it as well."

    He added: "I look at it as 'it can't get too much worse'. They whipped our tail on our home floor.

    "I guess if they do it on their home floor it's supposed to happen, but I don't see us doing that again. 

    "The first half has been brutal for us in both of these games, we just got to come out and play harder from the jump and be ready, because they be throwing some haymakers in the first half."

    Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he did not feel like his side played poorly – but that it felt like the Celtics wanted revenge for Game 1.

    "You definitely have to credit Boston," he said. "It's not just that they came in with great urgency and physicality – they did have that, for sure – they also played well. They played really well on both ends.

    "We know what they're capable of defensively – they've done this to some very good offenses. I'm sure they were not happy with us putting up 118 in Game 1, and they came out very disruptive. 

    "They got us out of our normal rhythm and flow, and the shot-making on the other end was very tough to overcome.

    "You get to this point – in the Conference Finals – you just have very good teams. Teams without many weaknesses, it's great competition.

    "This only counts as one, and that's what the experiences players and staff in the locker room understand. We don't like it, but they played extremely well."

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