NBA

NBA Big Game Focus: Suns can reach West summit by sinking Jazz

By Sports Desk April 29, 2021

The race for top spot in the Western Conference is hotting up with only 10 games of the season remaining.

The Utah Jazz looked certain to secure the first seed earlier in the campaign, but damaging injuries and the form of the Phoenix Suns have closed the gap.

Utah could yet pull clear again but surely must win on Friday when they visit Phoenix.

The Suns are just a single game back and coming off a win over the Los Angeles Clippers that secured a playoff spot and should make second place the floor of their ambitions.

The Jazz also enjoyed a big victory on Wednesday, though, and are unlikely to go down without a fight.

 

TOP PERFORMERS

Jordan Clarkson – Utah Jazz

With 17.5 points over 58 games, but only one start, Clarkson is a shoo-in for Sixth Man of the Year.

When Donovan Mitchell, the team's leading scorer, went down injured this month, Clarkson was installed into the starting five in the next game. Although he played 46 minutes and tallied 27 points, the Jazz lost.

The 28-year-old point guard has since returned to the bench and, despite quiet nights in surprise consecutive defeats to the Minnesota Timberwolves, put up 23 points in a record-breaking midweek win at the Sacramento Kings.

The 154-105 victory made Utah the first road team to score as many as 154 points while winning by as many as 49.

With 988 bench points this year, Clarkson is set to pass 1,000 against the Suns – only Thurl Bailey, in three seasons, has previously reached that mark with the Jazz.

Chris Paul – Phoenix Suns

Veteran Paul, who turns 36 next week, will certainly be capable of handling the heat in high-stakes games such as these.

The 16-year point guard, averaging 16.2 for the year, scored 28 points in the win over the Clippers. Only five times this season has he topped that tally – most recently in the previous meeting with the Jazz earlier in April.

Of Paul's 29 points on that occasion, 11 came in the fourth quarter and five in overtime.

"Down the stretch, you might not find anybody better than Chris Paul," coach Monty Williams said that night.

Paul now ranks third for clutch points in 2020-21 with 133.

 

KEY BATTLE – GOBERT HAS A POINT TO PROVE

Along with Paul's heroics and 35 points from Devin Booker, the performance of Deandre Ayton drew particular praise the last time these teams met.

The big man had 18 points and 12 rebounds as Utah allowed 61 boards – still by far a season high among their opponents.

Ayton said afterwards he had brought his "A-game" in order to match up against presumed Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Gobert will not want to be outfought again, and with Mitchell still out, he cannot afford to be.

 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Suns' overtime success was their second win against the Jazz this season and their third in a row, although they had lost 15 of the team's 16 matchups immediately prior to this run.

Phoenix's recent form in this series has given them a narrow 95-93 all-time lead.

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    Milan's comeback saw them leapfrog Napoli, who play Torino on Sunday, and go top of the table by a single point.

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    Olivier takes centre stage

    Giroud has made a career out of being a penalty-box menace and it was no surprise to see him drag Milan back into the contest.

    He is the fifth Rossonero since 1994-95 to score three goals in his first two Serie A home games, after Oliver Bierhoff, Alexandre Pato, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Bacca.

    Maldini goes missing

    Daniel Maldini completed just seven passes before being hooked at half-time as Pioli rang the changes to good effect.

    By contrast, replacement Rade Krunic completed twice as many in the opposition half alone while creating four goalscoring chances.

    What's next?

    Milan head to Porto in the Champions League on Tuesday before facing Bologna away on October 23.

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