NBA

NBA Heat Check: Clarkson shows his value, Payton's place under threat?

By Sports Desk May 17, 2021

The regular season is over. All teams have made it through 72 games in a campaign played out amid the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

For some, the focus now switches quickly to the playoffs. Those who missed out, however, get an early start to their offseason, a time for rest, reflection and perhaps a reset ahead of the NBA Draft in late July.

The contrasting situations for teams at this time in a campaign offers opportunities to those perhaps not used to being in the spotlight. It may be the final act in the show, but it allows some players to step in and take centre stage.

Powered by Stats Perform data, here is a look at some of those who have seized the moment in the latest edition of Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT...

Jordan Clarkson

Clarkson has excelled this season with the Utah Jazz and is the overwhelming favourite to be named Sixth Man of the Year in the NBA Awards. He has averaged 18.4 points across 68 games, of which he has started in just one. His final act in the regular season was a 33-point haul in a win over the Sacramento Kings, including landing half of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc.

Despite being without Mike Conley Jr and Donovan Mitchell down the stretch, the Jazz still finished strongly to end up as the top seeds in the Western Conference. Now they wait to find out who they will face first up in the playoffs, aiming to avoid an opening-round exit for a third successive campaign.

Kelan Martin

Martin is a prime case of a player capitalising on extended game time. Having gone undrafted, he had a spell in Germany before getting an NBA debut with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2019. However, he has looked right at home of late with the Indiana Pacers, including recording a career-high 25 points on May 10. During the past week, the 25-year-old has averaged 14.2 points per game and 2.6 successful three-point attempts.

Indiana have a play-in game to come against the Charlotte Hornets as they aim to keep their campaign alive – do not be surprised to see Martin remain involved in the rotation.

Malachi Flynn

Few teams have had it as tough as the Toronto Raptors. For starters, the Canadian franchise was relocated to Tampa due to travel restrictions in place during the global pandemic. Health and safety protocols have also taken a toll on player (and coach) availability and, with no hope of a top-10 finish in the Eastern Conference, several of their starters have been absent from duty.

That has offered further minutes for Malachi Flynn, though. The rookie guard rounded out his debut year with 26 and 27 points respectively in losses to the Dallas Mavericks and the Pacers. Across the past week, he averaged out at 3.25 successful attempts from three-point range, demonstrating his scoring touch from deep.

GOING COLD...

Elfrid Payton

To say Payton’s numbers are a concern is an understatement. The starting point guard for the playoff-bound New York Knicks has not reached double figures for points in his previous seven outings.

Indeed, across the past week, the former first-round pick by the Philadelphia 76ers has averaged 1.0ppg. One. Point. He made just two of 14 field goal attempts across four games. Considering the Knicks also have Frank Ntilikina and Derrick Rose on the roster, a change to the line-up would not be at all surprising.

Nikola Vucevic

Vucevic did not play on Sunday as the Chicago Bulls wrapped up their campaign with a win over the shorthanded Milwaukee Bucks. The center averaged 12.67 points in the three appearances across May 10-16, comfortably down on his mark of 23.9 entering the week. He struggled against the Brooklyn Nets in particular, landing just four of his 18 shots, including none of the eight attempts launched from three-point range.

Here is an example of how sometimes good intentions do not quite pan out as planned. Vucevic's arrival prior to the trade deadline was a show of intent by the Bulls to make the playoffs. Instead, they are left on the outside in the East, finishing up in 11th place in the standings for a second season in a row.

Related items

  • Ramos thrilled to be back in action after making PSG debut Ramos thrilled to be back in action after making PSG debut

    Paris Saint-Germain's Sergio Ramos reflected on "another learning experience" after finally making his long-awaited debut for his new club.

    Ramos signed for PSG as a free agent in July after ending a trophy-laden 16-year stint with Real Madrid.

    However, the 35-year-old was made to wait for his PSG bow, having to first overcome a calf issue that has plagued his year.

    After making the bench for Wednesday's Champions League defeat to Manchester City, Ramos started alongside Marquinhos in the heart of PSG's defence on Sunday, helping Mauricio Pochettino's team labour to a 3-1 win over 10-man Saint-Etienne in Ligue One.

    It was only the sixth appearance Ramos has made in all competitions across 2021 – the last time the centre-back played was in Madrid's defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals in May. There had even been talk PSG were considering terminating the defender's contract.

    Ramos' appearances have totalled just 485 minutes, and he looked understandably rusty at times in the snow against Saint-Etienne.

    He was at least partly at fault for Denis Bouanga's opener when he failed to attack Wahbi Khazri's cross, though PSG battled back through two Marquinhos goals and Angel Di Maria's strike – all three of their goals teed up by Lionel Messi.

    Looking back on his debut, Ramos tweeted: "A win and a return to the pitch. You have no idea how I have longed for this! It has been a difficult few months.

    "Lots of uncertainty, lots of changes and, worst of all, the pain of not being able to do what I love most: play football. But that's all behind me now.

    "Another learning experience. It's time now to look forward with optimism and ambition.

    "Thank you to everyone who has been there with kind words and encouragement, especially my family whose support has always been unconditional. On we go, there's more to come!"

    Ramos finished the match with 101 passes, the most of any player, with 95 reaching their target (an accuracy of 94.1 per cent). 

    Only Di Maria (113) had more touches than Ramos' 110, while the Spain international won five of his seven duels, made three tackles and a joint team-high two interceptions.

    At 35 years and 243 days, Ramos became the oldest outfield player to make his first appearance for PSG in Ligue 1 since David Beckham (37 years and 298 days against Marseille in February 2013).

    While Ramos appears to have put his injury troubles behind him, PSG were dealt a blow late on, with Neymar having to be taken off on a stretcher.

    Replays showed the Brazil forward going over painfully on his left ankle, and he could be facing a long spell on the sidelines.

  • 'I disagree with everything he said' – Keane questions Carrick pride in Man Utd players 'I disagree with everything he said' – Keane questions Carrick pride in Man Utd players

    Roy Keane could not understand Michael Carrick's praise for his Manchester United players after a 1-1 draw at Chelsea on Sunday.

    United battled to a point away at the Premier League leaders, following up a 2-0 win at Villarreal in Carrick's first game as interim manager.

    The former midfielder is set to be replaced by Ralf Rangnick – another interim appointment – but was encouraged by their display, even as they attempted just three shots. United last had as few as three attempts against Manchester City in April 2017.

    There was certainly a shift in United's approach from their previous league game at Watford, the 4-1 defeat that spelled the end for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seeing only three high turnovers in an extremely passive performance.

    Starting on the path to the more aggressive set-up Rangnick is likely to employ, United had a season-high 14 high turnovers at Stamford Bridge.

    But ex-United captain Keane was irked by the change under Carrick, who previously formed part of Solskjaer's staff.

    Following a Sky Sports interview in which Carrick took issue with the penalty awarded against Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the pundit was asked for his opinion.

    "I disagree with everything he said in that interview," Keane said. "Everything he said – he's talking about a plan, he's talking about the penalty.

    "Of course it was a penalty. We've all looked at it, it's a penalty.

    "He's talking about the players' efforts, he's proud of them... He's been working with the players for the last few months. He was working alongside Ole, he was in the dugout with Ole, and now all of a sudden he's proud of them this week and they had a plan?

    "What about all the other games they had? Why aren't they making effort in the other games? Why aren't they closing down people in the other games?

    "He's talking about the high press – we've seen all the stats before the match, and they're the worst in the league at closing people down, winning the ball back.

    "He's praising players, praising players for doing their jobs. He mentioned the three midfielders... It's ridiculous.

    "He was sitting in the dugout for the last few months with Ole, the last few years – he was sitting with Mourinho, as well. Now, all of a sudden, he's proud of the players this week? He's working with the same players."

  • Carrick dismisses theory Rangnick influenced Man Utd set-up in Chelsea draw Carrick dismisses theory Rangnick influenced Man Utd set-up in Chelsea draw

    Manchester United caretaker manager Michael Carrick insisted his team's set-up in Sunday's 1-1 draw at Chelsea was not influenced by Ralf Rangnick, the man expected to be appointed until the end of the season.

    Carrick was put in charge after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's sacking last weekend and has overseen a win and a draw in his two matches at the helm.

    The tussle with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge came amid reports suggesting United have agreed a deal to appoint Rangnick as interim manager until the end of the season, at which point he will move into a consultancy role.

    Rangnick has a fine reputation both as a coach and director, with the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel considering him an inspiration, while he helped transform German clubs Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig.

    While no announcement has been made yet by United, it was widely speculated that Rangnick's famed style of play – based on aggressive pressing and attacking – was being looked to by Carrick at Stamford Bridge.

    Cristiano Ronaldo, criticised in some quarters for his off-the-ball work ethic, was dropped to the bench and United appeared to press with much greater purpose than they generally did under Solskjaer, though Carrick seemed to suggest it was a mere coincidence rather than a plan hatched by Rangnick.

    Asked by BBC Sport if Rangnick had influenced their set-up, Carrick said: "No, that's not the case."

    Instead, the approach was based on an acceptance that United would have to graft for any form of positive result.

    "To come away disappointed and to feel like you have left something out there is a positive," Carrick said. "That intent and that hunger summed us up today. We knew it wasn't going to be free-flowing football at times, but we were prepared to dig in."

    United took the lead early in the second half with one of just three shots they had over the match – Jadon Sancho seized on a Jorginho error before beating Edouard Mendy, though the Italy midfielder later made amends from the penalty spot.

    "I don't think it was a penalty at all," Carrick said. "They have had a lot of shots, David [De Gea] had [some] saves, which we knew before the game he would have to make one or two.

    "Other than that, I have felt quite comfortable in the game. Of course, we want to be better. I'm not getting carried away, but I thought we defended well. I cannot fault the boys one bit."

    While Carrick might have felt Chelsea did not offer much, expected goals (xG) data suggests the Blues would have been worthy winners, creating chances worth 2.54 xG to United's 0.82.

    This was not lost on De Gea, who made four of his five saves in the first half, though the in-form Spanish goalkeeper considered the bigger picture.

    "On the pitch, in the goal, I was feeling danger for nearly the whole game," De Gea told Sky Sports. "We defended well, they missed big chances as well, and then once they gave us a chance and we score.

    "It is not enough to draw but, at the moment, with the way we are, it is a big point. The last games before, we were conceding three or four goals.

    "Now we concede one from a penalty, and a clean sheet against Villarreal. We are improving, but this is just two games. We need to show it in the games that are coming.

    "We were playing very poor. At least now we are defending well. We are fighting for every ball. I think that's good. Like I say, I'm proud of the team, we are fighting for every ball, but that's the minimum for Manchester United players."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.