NBA

Harden and Irving fuel Nets in Griffin's bow, Zion joins Shaq in history books as Rockets drop 20th straight

By Sports Desk March 22, 2021

James Harden and Kyrie Irving combined to lead the star-studded Brooklyn Nets to a 113-106 victory over the Washington Wizards as Blake Griffin made his bow.

Harden posted 26 points and eight assists, while Irving had 28 points and seven rebounds to fuel the Nets in the NBA on Sunday.

The Wizards, who trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and 12 in the second, closed to 103-102 three minutes from the end in Brooklyn, where former All-Star Griffin debuted after his arrival from the Detroit Pistons earlier this month.

But Nicolas Claxton (16 points) stepped up with two dunks and some big plays down the stretch to lift the Nets past the Wizards.

Russell Westbrook finished with 29 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists but the Wizards still lost on the road, where team-mate Rui Hachimura added 20 points and 10 rebounds.

Elsewhere, Zion Williamson joined Shaquille O'Neal (2000-01) as the only players in the shot-clock era to score 20-plus points on 50 per cent shooting or better in 20 consecutive games in a single season.

Williamson posted 30 points on nine-of-13 shooting from the field as the New Orleans Pelicans upstaged the Denver Nuggets 113-108.

Brandon Ingram also had 30 points for the Pelicans, while MVP candidate and Nuggets star Nikola Jokic (29 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists) registered his 52nd career triple-double and 11th of the season.

 

Paul reaches milestone

Chris Paul became the sixth player in NBA history to reach 10,000 career assists, joining John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson. Paul finished with 11 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds in the Phoenix Suns' 111-94 victory against the Los Angeles Lakers, who were without injured stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Montrezl Harrell had 23 points and 10 rebounds for defending champions the Lakers.

The Dallas Mavericks routed the Portland Trail Blazers 132-92 behind Luka Doncic's 37 points. His 117 points across a three-game span are the second most in franchise history, only behind his 118 in a three-game period last month.

Collin Sexton scored 23 of his 36 points in the second half and Jarrett Allen (17 points and 15 rebounds) contributed a double-double as the Cleveland Cavaliers topped the slumping Toronto Raptors 116-105, condemning their opponents to an eighth consecutive loss.

The Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers earned their 15th straight win over the New York Knicks – a narrow 101-100 overtime success, dating back to December 2017. It is the longest active winning streak in the NBA by one team over another and the fourth longest run over a single opponent in franchise history.

 

Rockets can't stop the rot

The Houston Rockets suffered a franchise-record 20th consecutive defeat after going down 114-112 at home to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets' skid is tied for the ninth-worst in NBA history and the worst since the 76ers and their record-setting 28-game losing streak across the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns.

The Pistons and Miami Heat both struggled from three-point range. Detroit were just 16 per cent (four of 25) in their 100-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls, while Miami were 24.3 per cent (nine of 37) in a 109-106 overtime defeat against the Indiana Pacers.

It was a forgettable night for Damian Lillard and the Blazers. All-Star Lillard (19 points) was just seven of 16 from the field, while he missed all seven of his three-point attempts. Portland team-mate C.J. McCollum (13 points) was not much better after going six-of-15 shooting and 0-of-five from beyond the arc in 24 minutes.

 

Griffin can still dunk

Much has been made about Griffin and his lack of dunks. Not since December 2019 had Griffin dunked in the NBA amid question marks over his troublesome knee and fitness. But that changed in his debut on Sunday. Griffin, who finished with two points in 15 minutes, dunked in the final quarter.

 

Sunday's results

Indiana Pacers 109-106 Miami Heat (OT)
Oklahoma City Thunder 114-112 Houston Rockets
New Orleans Pelicans 113-108 Denver Nuggets
Boston Celtics 112-96 Orlando Magic
Brooklyn Nets 113-106 Washington Wizards
Cleveland Cavaliers 116-105 Toronto Raptors
Chicago Bulls 100-86 Detroit Pistons
Philadelphia 76ers 101-1000 New York Knicks (OT)
Phoenix Suns 111-94 Los Angeles Lakers
Dallas Mavericks 132-92 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Pacers at Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks (27-14) will look to extend their winning streak to seven games when they host the Pacers (19-22) on Monday. Indiana have won back-to-back games.

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  • Root senses 'great opportunity' for England to end Gabba hoodoo in first Ashes Test Root senses 'great opportunity' for England to end Gabba hoodoo in first Ashes Test

    James Anderson and Stuart Broad were the only members of the England squad who were born when the tourists last won an Ashes Test at the Gabba.

    The hostile iconic Brisbane venue has been such a fortress for Australia that you have to go back to November 1986 for their previous Test defeat to England at the ground where the 2021-22 series starts on Wednesday.

    Yet India consigned Australia to a first Gabba loss in the longest format for over 32 years in January and England captain Joe Root is backing his side to end the hoodoo, despite a lack of match practice due to rain.

    The world's number one Test batter said: "[Victory] would absolutely set us up for the rest of the series and it's a great opportunity.

    "This group of players, not that long ago, went to Cape Town where we've not won a Test for a long period of time and off the back of a performance there won the series.

    "I feel like we have been able to do that around the world and this is an opportunity to do that here. Obviously conditions are slightly different to home, at this venue in particular with that extra bit of bounce, but we have prepared as well as we can for that. If we manage that well we should give a really good account of ourselves and start well."

    Ben Stokes' return gives England a massive lift as they attempt to wrestle back the urn, though they won't have the usual level of backing from the Barmy Army as usual due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

    The tourists were thrashed 4-0 in their last Ashes series Down Under in 2017-18 after the humiliation of a 2013-14 whitewash, so it is almost 10 years since their last Test win in Australia.

    Stats Perform looks at some of the key factors that will decide whether they can make it a miserable start to Pat Cummins' reign as Australia Test captain.

     

    Stoking the fires

    Stokes has not played for his country since July, but declared himself fit to face Australia after taking a break to prioritise his mental well-being and fully recover from a fractured finger.

    The all-rounder was England's player of the series in an Ashes series two years ago that ended in a 2-2 draw, scoring 441 runs at an average of 55.12 and producing one of the great innings at Headingley to pull off an unlikely victory.

    Vice-captain Stokes' return should add strength to the middle order they have been lacking and Root will be hoping he can do some damage in short, sharp bursts with the ball.

     

    Root must keep racking up the runs

    It has been an incredible 2021 for Root, who has scored six Test centuries - including one double-hundred in Sri Lanka and another in India.

    The skipper said this tour will define his captaincy and England will need him to keep racking up the runs if they are to return home with a surprise series win.

    Only five batsmen have scored more Test centuries in a year than Root's tally, with Mohammad Yousuf holding the record with a staggering nine in 2006.

     

    Lack of pace potency?

    Not for the first time in Ashes, a lack of pace could be a big issue for England and how they would love to have a fit Jofra Archer firing.

    Australian Troy Cooley was brought into the touring party as a consultant pace bowling coach and there is no doubting the quality in the England attack, led by James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

    Broad tormented Warner in the 2019 series, but the opener could be much more difficult to dismiss on home soil with a Kookaburra ball and returned to form in Australia's recent T20 World Cup triumph.

    Mark Wood is capable of doing damage but it remains to be seen how many Tests the injury-prone quick can play. Ollie Robinson could make a big impact in his first Ashes series and Chris Woakes can hit the sort of lengths to trouble batters in Australia.

  • 49ers' latest Seattle shocker should put quarterback change back on the table 49ers' latest Seattle shocker should put quarterback change back on the table

    The San Francisco 49ers were hoping to write a new chapter in their rivalry with the Seattle Seahawks.

    It ended up being the same old story.

    Riding a three-game winning streak that had propelled them into the thick of the NFC playoff race, the Niners were expected to prevail against a 3-8 Seahawks team at their lowest ebb.

    Instead, a mistake-strewn display allowed Seattle to launch what could prove the last stand of the Pete Carroll-Russell Wilson era, the Seahawks keeping the Niners out of the endzone at the end of a last-ditch 95-yard drive to preserve a 30-23 win, their 14th in 16 games against the 49ers since the beginning of the 2014 season.

    San Francisco could not have done more to help Seattle as the Niners missed a chance to move to 7-5 and cement their grip on a playoff berth.

    It was another frustrating day in an up-and-down campaign for a team that two seasons ago was the unquestioned elite of the NFC and, while the defeat was the product of a multitude of failures, the 49ers' rollercoaster 2021 is emblematic of a quarterback akin to a thrill ride many are eager to escape from.

    Talent across the board

    Examine the 49ers' roster and you will find top-level talent in almost every area.

    George Kittle's monstrous performance in Seattle was yet another illustration of the playmaking capability at their disposal.

    Racking up 189 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches, Kittle produced a big play on five of his 12 targets against the Seahawks, thriving as the focal point of the Niners' offense with Deebo Samuel out with a groin injury.

    It is Samuel who was the catalyst of that three-game winning run, the 2019 second-round pick compiling an Offensive Player of the Year resume with his exploits as both a wide receiver and a running back.

    With two rushing touchdowns in Week 12 against the Minnesota Vikings, Samuel became the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era to score on the ground in three straight games. He is tied for the league lead with 14.9 scrimmage yards per touch and has 10 total touchdowns to his name.

    The first Niners wideout to surpass 1,000 receiving yards since 2014, Samuel leads all players at his position with 9.5 yards after catch per reception. Kittle is sixth among tight ends with 222 yards after catch, a tally padded by his incredible 48-yard catch and run for his second touchdown on Sunday.

    Between that duo and the resurgent Brandon Aiyuk, whose big-play rate of 39.7 per cent is ninth among wideouts with at least 25 targets, the 49ers possess three significant passing-game threats whose versatility is a constant problem for defenses.

    In addition to Samuel's exploits as a runner, the Niners' rushing attack also features arguably the top rookie running back in the league in Elijah Mitchell, whose 84.3 yards per game on the ground are the most among first-year tailbacks.

    That ground game is aided significantly by the play of the man most consider the league's elite left tackle in 2021. Trent Williams headed into Week 13 with a run-block win rate of 84.91 per cent and a pass-block win rate of 89.32 per cent that are both a long way above the respective league averages of 73.16 per cent and 78.60 per cent for the tackle position.

    On the other side of the trenches, defensive end Nick Bosa is third in the league in sacks with 12 and tied for the NFL lead with 16 tackles for loss, serving as the undoubted star of a defense that held Seattle to 4.8 yards per play and forced three turnovers despite the absence of All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.

    Even without Samuel, the 49ers objectively had enough talent at their disposal to prevail and improve to 7-5, especially with a strong effort from the defense. Their failure to stretch the winning run to four games was not down to the injury to Samuel, but an infuriating lack of execution that has been a recurring problem in 2021.

    Turnovers, penalties a continuing plague

    While sections of the box score reflect the dominance the Niners enjoyed for long periods against Seattle, it is easy to identify the areas where it went wrong.

    They committed three turnovers, were called for 10 penalties and went three for 10 on third down, losing the time of possession battle against a team that ranks last in that category.

    It was a frustratingly familiar tale for the Niners, who lost to Seattle in Week 4 in strikingly similar fashion and have frequently been plagued by turnovers and penalties this season.

    The Niners are 23rd in the NFL with a turnover differential of minus 4, while they have given up the fourth-most penalty yardage per game in the NFL (65.25).

    Miscues on defense and on their special teams, which gave up a fake punt touchdown and lost a fumble as Travis Benjamin dropped the opening kickoff of the second half, contributed to the Niners continually gifting free plays and extra possessions to the Seahawks.

    Yet, beyond the obvious poor discipline in other areas, the 49ers' latest Seattle horror show was an encapsulation of the pitfalls of trusting your offense to a quarterback as volatile as Jimmy Garoppolo.

    Garoppolo's limitations again laid bare

    The Niners' winning streak had quieted most of the questions surrounding when Kyle Shanahan would bench Garoppolo for rookie third overall pick Trey Lance, San Francisco's starter having largely played well across each of those victories.

    And Garoppolo was, for the most part, accurate against the Seahawks. He delivered a well-thrown ball on 90 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Derek Carr and Gardner Minshew for Week 13.

    However, two of the Niners' three turnovers came as a result of brutal interceptions from Garoppolo. San Francisco's defense prevented the first, on which Garoppolo failed to spot the underneath coverage of Bobby Wagner and threw the ball right to the Seattle linebacker, from resulting in points.

    They could not do the same following the second, however, Garoppolo inexplicably trying to force a ball to Kittle despite double coverage when he had Trent Sherfield open on a corner route, with that pick followed by the ultimately decisive touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett.

    Intercepted eight times in 2021, Garoppolo has thrown a pickable pass on 14 of his 300 attempts, that ratio of 4.67 per cent inferior to the league average of 3.78 per cent.

    With a passer rating of 83.2 on passes of 21 air yards or more that is 23rd among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts of that distance, the book on Garoppolo remains the same. At his best, he can execute Kyle Shanahan's offense to a high level, but he consistently limits its potential by struggling to push the ball downfield, committing mind-boggling interceptions and failing to create outside the pocket.

    Exacerbating the frustration around Garoppolo's consistent inconsistency is that Lance, an athletic dual-threat quarterback and a more gifted downfield thrower, would theoretically remove those two limiting factors with which his more experienced team-mate continues to shackle the offense.

    The 49ers are not short of their problems elsewhere on the roster. The right side of the offensive line is a major issue and the lack of depth at cornerback has been frequently exposed.

    Yet those concerns are exacerbated when a team has a quarterback who cannot create for himself when the pocket breaks down and who regularly puts the defense under pressure with ill-advised throws that are all too often a part of his repertoire.

    Though the penalties and mistakes from his team-mates have been too common to simply label Sunday's performance in Seattle as an aberration, the more common thread in losses for the 49ers this season has concerned Garoppolo and the limitations to his game that have long since been apparent.

    With the stars they have on both sides of the ball, the 49ers should be much more than a 6-6 team scrapping for a Wild Card and coming up short against the worst Seahawks team of the Carroll-Wilson era. The likelihood is San Francisco will make the playoffs but, for them to have hope of and making any noise in the postseason, it would require a switch to a quarterback with the potential to be much more than Garoppolo.

  • Guardiola hails 'fantastic' Olmo while discussing RB Leipzig philosophy Guardiola hails 'fantastic' Olmo while discussing RB Leipzig philosophy

    Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola labelled Dani Olmo a "fantastic player" ahead of Tuesday's Champions League meeting with RB Leipzig.

    City have breezed through Group A as they prepare to head to Leipzig, having previously gone 14 games unbeaten against German opposition in the competition.

    The Bundesliga outfit can only make the Europa League after a disappointing group-stage showing, are still without a home win in Europe this term and parted ways with head coach Jesse Marsch on Sunday amid a poor run of form.

    Guardiola, though, heaped praise on Leipzig as he hailed Olmo as a standout star, although he dismissed any speculation of a reported move for the Spain international.

    Asked about a potential transfer for forward Olmo, Guardiola responded: "[The] answer is no. He is a Leipzig player.

    "If we are interested, I'm sure City will contact Leipzig. Saying that, he is a fantastic, fantastic player.

    "I'm happy he had the courage to leave Barcelona to develop his skills and then arrive at Leipzig."

     

    Olmo caught the headlines at Euro 2020 as he became just the third player – after Cesc Fabregas (2008) and Dejan Kulusevski (2021) – to assist two goals after being substituted on at the European Championship.

    But the former Barcelona man has made only three starts this season across all competitions, assisting just one goal, and he is yet to find the net after struggling with a muscle injury.

    Leipzig have felt the absence of one of their key players and are down in 11th in the Bundesliga, 16 points behind reigning champions Bayern Munich at the top.

    While speculation persists over who will succeed Marsch, Guardiola took the opportunity to praise the environment that has been developed at Leipzig.

    "Leipzig has a culture, they won't sign a manager who doesn't want to play their way," he added. "They want to play a specific way, pressing, gegenpressing, attacking, live, sleep, eat. 

    "This is the culture, and the new manager will be similar like that. The impact of a new manager is clear, players open their eyes and play for the Europa League, an incredible competition, the money from UEFA. 

    "We won at home, it was difficult, what they did in Bruges [a 5-0 win over Club Brugge]. There are highs and lows this season but the philosophy, the way they play versus Paris Saint-Germain, they should win 2-0,3-0. 

    "They play their style. We have to be careful, impose our game. Play to improve. We don't play for the points, we play to improve. It's a perfect training game for us. We go to Leipzig [and then] do a good dinner tonight to celebrate our qualification."

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