NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: New York Knicks aim to bridge the gap to Brooklyn Nets

By Sports Desk March 15, 2021

The NBA's top-ranked defense will be aiming to slow down the leading offense when the New York Knicks make the short trip to play the Brooklyn Nets. 

The in-form Nets have won 12 of their previous 13 games to rise up the Eastern Conference, the impressive run of form leaving them just a game back of the Philadelphia 76ers, who lead the way in the standings. 

But while they were always expected to be near the summit, particularly following the arrival of James Harden from the Houston Rockets, the Knicks have been one of the surprise packages so far. 

A first playoff appearance since 2013 is a distinct possibility, with coach Tom Thibodeau building solid foundations for a franchise that has chopped and changed in the hope of finding success.

TOP PERFORMERS

New York Knicks - Julius Randle

Randle has excelled since moving to the Big Apple, leading to a first All-Star appearance this year. The seventh overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2014 averages 22.9 points and 11 rebounds through 39 games, as well as 5.7 assists.  

His 375 defensive rebounds puts him inside the top three in the league, while he has also contributed 31 steals as the Knicks have tightened up under Thibodeau.  

Having registered a season-low seven points as the Knicks returned from the All-Star break with a lopsided loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Randle bounced back with 26 in a resounding triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Since joining the Nets, Harden has recorded nine triple-doubles, the latest of them coming in a 100-95 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Saturday that saw him score his team's final 10 points of the contest.  

While he was the focal point for Houston, the two-time MVP no longer has to carry the offensive burden in the same way for star-studded Brooklyn. He is shooting at a career-high 48.9 per cent from the field though, while his improved success from deep (39.7 per cent) has been noticeable.  

Harden has also demonstrated his ability as a passer too, his tally of 363 assists comfortably the most by any player, averaging out at a whopping 11 a game.

KEY BATTLE - A CASE FOR THE DEFENSE

The continued absence of Kevin Durant has not prevented the Nets from putting up points. They average 120.6 a game, while their combined field goal percentage of 49.9 is also the best by any team in the NBA.  

However, the Knicks have given up a league-low 105 points per outing. Randle and his fellow big men will look to dominate when it comes to rebounding, while the visitors will hope to get better at capitalising on turnovers – their average of 14 points when gaining possession in such circumstances ranks them 29th out of 30 teams.  

"It starts with our effort, our defense, those are the most important things," Immanuel Quickley, who has impressed in his rookie season, averaging 12.5 points, said ahead of the game. 

"We try to have that defensive mindset coming into games, then let everything take care of itself. The little things – defense, rebounding, energy, effort – give you a chance to win every night." 

HEAD TO HEAD 

These neighbours have met in 200 regular-season games, the Knicks narrowly leading 101-99 overall. 

Last season's four-game series was split 2-2, while the Nets prevailed 116-10 in January of this year, Durant – who has missed Brooklyn's last 11 games due to a heal issue – leading the way with 26 points in the absence of Kyrie Irving and with the Harden trade yet to be completed.  

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  • Tottenham must improve to catch Chelsea, says Conte after ill-tempered London derby Tottenham must improve to catch Chelsea, says Conte after ill-tempered London derby

    Antonio Conte says Tottenham need to improve further if they are to reach Chelsea's level after a fiery 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

    Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg cancelled out Kalidou Koulibaly's superb opener for the Blues, but Thomas Tuchel's men restored their lead when Reece James burst through to score.

    A dramatic conclusion followed though, as Harry Kane was on hand to head home in the 96th minute and spark wild celebrations from Conte, before both he and Tuchel were promptly sent off amid a touchline clash.

    That followed an earlier argument between the pair after Hojbjerg's strike, with Tuchel furious the goal had not been ruled out for offside against Richarlison.

    The result meant Tottenham have won just one of their last 38 away matches against Chelsea in all competitions (D13 L24), a 3-1 win in April 2018 in the Premier League.

    Conte did not want to discuss the specifics of his clash with Tuchel, instead choosing to highlight that his side needs to improve if they are to enjoy the kind of success Chelsea have in recent seasons.

    "It's not so important [the clash with Tuchel]," he said in a press conference.

    "The most important thing is football and to speak about football. It was an intensive game. This game was really tough for us. You know that they are a really good team here.

    "I have to be honest, today Chelsea were better than us. Compared to last season we did better, but if we want to create problems for Chelsea [in the table] we have to be better.

    "We can do better, but at the same time we scored twice. In the last three games [against Chelsea] we didn't score.

    "We got a point and we showed, in my opinion, character and personality and my players wanted to stay in the game. We can do better."

    Tuchel and Conte have both received a card in three different Premier League games since the start of last season, the most of any two managers in the competition.

    The Italian, however, rejected suggestions that he can go overboard on the touchline, and believes Spurs fans want to see that he cares.

    "You have to show passion every time because the result can be positive or negative but you have to love your job and your work and show your passion," he added.

    "If the fans see this, it's good. You can take big achievements if you have a big passion in your job.

    "You can understand the situation. I think this game is an important game for both clubs."

  • 'We are emotional coaches' – Tuchel explains Conte clash after Chelsea and Tottenham bosses see red 'We are emotional coaches' – Tuchel explains Conte clash after Chelsea and Tottenham bosses see red

    Thomas Tuchel has played down his clash with opposite number Antonio Conte at the end of Chelsea's thrilling 2-2 draw with Tottenham, describing the melee as natural at the end of an "emotional" match.

    Chelsea twice led Spurs in an absorbing London derby on Sunday, opening the scoring through Kalidou Koulibaly's stunning volley and responding to Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's equaliser by going 2-1 ahead through Reece James.

    But Harry Kane's 96th-minute header saw Conte snatch a point on his return to Stamford Bridge, causing chaotic scenes on the touchline as the two coaches were given red cards after clashing over a post-match handshake.

    Tuchel and Conte have now both received a card in three separate Premier League games since the start of last season, more than any other managers in the competition. 

    But Tuchel told Sky Sports such incidents are to be expected between top competitors, saying: "When you shake hands I thought we look into each others' eyes but Antonio had a different opinion… it was emotional.

    "He was happy when they equalised and then it got a bit heated but nothing big. We both got a red card? I think it was not necessary. But a lot of things were not necessary, so that's another poor decision from the referee today.

    "It's emotional. You like it. We don't need comments now, and it being heated up and heated up.

    "Just look at it. It's the Premier League, it's the game. You love it, no? We love it. We are emotional coaches."

    Asked whether he would seek Conte out to apologise for his role in the confrontation, Tuchel was non-committal, adding: "If we meet, we meet, If not, then not. It's not a problem, it's over a football match.

    "Come on guys, it's between two competitors and nothing bad happened."

    Tuchel celebrated by racing down the touchline in jubilant fashion when James re-established Chelsea's lead with 13 minutes remaining, and admits his actions may have played some role in causing the scenes witnessed at full-time.

    "In the middle of it I thought I should not do this but sometimes a match gets you totally, this match sucked me in," he smiled. 

    "It was a brilliant effort after an undeserved equaliser. It was pure joy, and it may offend the opposition but they did the same when they equalised."

  • Battle of the Bridge, the sequel – Boehly treated to rollercoaster of emotions on welcome to Chelsea's 'House of Fun' Battle of the Bridge, the sequel – Boehly treated to rollercoaster of emotions on welcome to Chelsea's 'House of Fun'

    London derbies between Chelsea and Tottenham hold special reverence in the eyes of many neutrals because it's so synonymous with controversy, drama and – arguably above all else – aggro.

    If Todd Boehly never attends another match at Stamford Bridge, he'll be safe in the knowledge that this contest had more than enough drama than 99 per cent of other Chelsea games.

    Chelsea's new owner was attending his first home game since the pre-season takeover, and he was treated to an absolute thriller – though he'll ultimately have been frustrated by the Blues' inability to claim all three points as Spurs somehow stole a draw.

    But the result, a 2-2 tie, only tells half the story of a gripping contest.

    Of course, reminders of the respective situations of the clubs over the past few months was difficult to avoid in the build-up, with even Thomas Tuchel alluding to it in his pre-match press conference on Friday.

    While Spurs made some key signings in January, finished the season well and then quickly went about more impressive transfer business in pre-season, Chelsea have had to contend with rather more uncertainty.

    After being impacted by the United Kingdom's sanctions against Russian individuals and companies, which of course included then-owner Roman Abramovich, Chelsea couldn't even sell club merchandise to fans.

    The £4.25billion takeover by the consortium led by Boehly ushered in a new era, but even then it's difficult to say it's all been plain-sailing since – the American and his partners have ripped up the club's hierarchy and he's made himself interim sporting director, and his movements in the market have attracted ridicule.

    From missing out on a host of key targets to spending £62million on Marc Cucurella, they've hardly emitted an aura stability.

    Fitting, then, that Chelsea fans welcomed Boehly to the Bridge on Sunday with a Madness-inspired tifo. An adapted display of the band's iconic One Step Beyond album cover – of which the title song is widely associated with the Blues – was unfurled depicting Boehly and his counterparts, and below it a second banner read 'Welcome to the House of Fun'.

    Its message rang true as well. While Chelsea may not have beaten their visitors, there was a lot to like about the Blues' performance, and fun it certainly was.

    Chelsea were particularly dominant in a first half that saw their intensity and fluidity suffocate Spurs at times. Mason Mount's roaming caused no end of problems, while the movement of Raheem Sterling and Kai Havertz helped ensure the visitors' midfield was forced to sit especially deep.

    Then, behind them, Jorginho was at the top of his game, pulling the strings and helping to keep the hosts on the front foot with his expertise in such controlling roles.

    As a result, Spurs struggled to gain a foothold in midfield and the front three were anonymous, which proved particularly problematic after Chelsea took a 19th-minute lead.

    As if it was written, in front of the man responsible for buying them, two new signings combined for the first Stamford Bridge goal of the new era – and what a goal it was.

    Cucurella's outswinging corner picked out Kalidou Koulibaly in space at the back of the area and the centre-back met it with an outrageous volley that spun off his foot and flew past the helpless Hugo Lloris.

    Chelsea's issue was building on that lead. Dominant they remained until the second half, but another goal proved elusive and Spurs grew in prominence.

    First, Edouard Mendy denied Son Heung-min just after the break, and then Harry Kane – without a goal in his previous five Premier League clashes with Chelsea – missed the target with only the goalkeeper to beat.

    A pot shot from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg proved just the ticket, however. Jorginho, who until then was exceptional, was guilty of over-playing in his own box, and within seconds Spurs' Danish midfielder drilled into the bottom-left corner from 25 yards.

    That seemed to bring everything to life. Immediately Conte's roaring celebration towards the Chelsea bench sparked a furious clash between the two sets of staff, with the Italian and Tuchel – who was angry with the failure to award the Blues a free-kick in the build-up – grappling with each other.

    The spirit of the famous 2016 Battle of the Bridge had been mostly absent, but that moment showed it was merely looming in the shadows, waiting, and it made what Chelsea thought was the winner even sweeter for Tuchel.

    Evoking memories of Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford while in charge of Porto, Tuchel hurtled down the touchline – right past Conte – after Reece James beat Lloris for his strike in the 77th minute.

    Chelsea were in control again and seemed to be heading for the win, but right at the end of stoppage time a glancing Kane header was diverted in by James, rescuing a well-earned – if fortuitous – point.

    While the football ceased with the full-time whistle, the action did not. Tuchel refused to let go of Conte as they shook hands, sparking another melee as both bosses were ultimately shown red cards.

    This occasion may not have had the 12 yellow cards of the first Battle of the Bridge, but the amusing petulance and antagonising went some way to filling that void, with Boehly truly given a fitting welcome to the House of Fun.

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