NBA

NBA Heat Check: Booker shines for Suns but Luka's one-man Mavs cannot eclipse Clippers

By Sports Desk June 07, 2021

A new generation of NBA superstars established themselves as the playoffs continued last week.

The first round concluded as a talented, young (with the exception of Chris Paul) Phoenix Suns team defeated LeBron James and defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Atlanta Hawks quickly gained an upper hand against the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, too.

And although Kawhi Leonard led the Los Angeles Clippers through to round two, they also suffered at the hand of an emerging talent, as Stats Perform's NBA Heat Check shows.
 

RUNNING HOT...

Devin Booker

Booker was dominant across the board for the Suns, earning praise from James after getting the better of the reigning NBA Finals MVP.

When comparing last week's performances with regular season returns, Booker ranked third for scoring improvement, second for rebounding improvement and second for three-point makes improvement. This was a staggering show of strength.

Playing in his sixth year, it is easy to forget this was a debut postseason series for Booker, who finished with 47 points at Staples Center and will back himself to deliver again against the Denver Nuggets.

Trae Young

The biggest potential upset of the second round is already under way after the Hawks took Game 1 against the 76ers in Philly despite Joel Embiid's return to fitness.

Young – another playoff debutant – was predictably at the centre of their success, following up 36 points in Game 5 against the New York Knicks with 35 in this opener.

He had 25 in the first half on Sunday on eight-of-13 shooting as Atlanta scored 74, the most ever by a road team in a Game 1. Considering the way the Sixers battled back to make the encounter close, Young might have to be similarly outstanding again in the forthcoming meetings.

Luka Doncic

Young was traded to the Hawks as part of the deal that saw Doncic go the other way to the Dallas Mavericks on draft night in 2018. But the Slovenian will play no further part in the playoffs after Sunday's Game 7 defeat to the Clippers.

Doncic has undoubtedly proven his class in the postseason, though, even if he is yet to win a series. Already one of the league's outstanding offensive stars, his career playoff average of 33.5 points per game is the best of any player to appear in 13 or more games – surpassing Michael Jordan's 33.4.

The Mavs ace reached that mark thanks to an outstanding week that included two 40-point performances despite Dallas' eventual series defeat.

Doncic's performances through 13 career playoff games are a match for the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Only Rick Barry, Bob McAdoo and Jordan have topped his 436 total points at this stage since 1963-64. He was certainly not to blame on Sunday...
 

GOING COLD...

Kristaps Porzingis

Expensive team-mate Porzingis may well have to take some responsibility for the Mavs' failings, although he was not alone. Among the players with the largest declines in scoring over the past week from their regular season outputs, three Dallas players were in the top seven.

Josh Richardson and Jalen Brunson were also in there, but Porzingis' presence should be of the most concern.

Although the big man put up 16 points and 11 rebounds – his second-most in a postseason game – on Sunday, his failure to make a single one of his five three-point attempts left Doncic short of help.

Enes Kanter

Doncic was not the only superstar left high and dry as he exited the first round. Damian Lillard did all he could to try to carry the Portland Trail Blazers past the Nuggets last week, averaging 41.5 points, but could not advance alone.

CJ McCollum underwhelmed, despite contributing 20.7 points across the series, yet it was the absence of effective defense that meant Nikola Jokic was always able to match Lillard.

Jusuf Nurkic had a combined plus/minus of 45 but fouled out of three of the six games, meaning poor Kanter had to guard Jokic on occasion and ended the series with a -34 plus/minus across only 56 minutes.

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    Thomas Tuchel declared himself "absolutely happy" with Chelsea's performance against Manchester United and promised to "steal back" the points they dropped in a 1-1 draw.

    Premier League leaders Chelsea moved only a point clear of Manchester City after they were held at home on Sunday.

    Jadon Sancho pounced on a Jorginho error to score his first Premier League goal, before the Chelsea midfielder responded by converting an equalising penalty.

    This was a second consecutive home game in which Chelsea have failed to deliver maximum points, also drawing 1-1 with Burnley.

    Frustratingly for Tuchel, the United match followed the pattern of the Burnley game in that Chelsea dominated; across those games, the Blues have attempted 49 shots and faced just eight while taking 100 touches in the opposition penalty area.

    "We cannot be surprised. Things like this happen," the coach told Sky Sports.

    "It's happened now twice to us that we invest so much and we play such good games against Burnley and Man United and feel a bit disappointed, because we feel we did by far enough and pushed the limits and pushed the standards to win these games.

    "Over a long season, you drop points and you dig in and you try to steal them back if somebody steals points from you. This is what we do.

    "We don't count the points, when we are four up or one down or whatever. We are in the middle of the race, and this is where we want to be. From there, we go."

    Tuchel said he could "not at all" see the influence of Ralf Rangnick – his mentor, set to be appointed at Old Trafford – in United's play and was also "not at all" surprised by the visitors' performance.

    Of his own side, he said: "I'm happy, absolutely happy. I was happy to coach the team, I saw a huge effort, big intensity.

    "We had so many ball recoveries in the opponents' half, put the pressure up high. We controlled the counter-attacks before they started. We were brave and courageous.

    "They defended deep and you need maybe the first goal to open it a bit and to gain the last per cent of maybe freedom and confidence to have follow-ups and goals and big chances.

    "If you don't score, you always run a bit behind, because you feel that you're the stronger team, you play in the opponents' half.

    "We had two or three big chances that we should have maybe used, but in general I'm very happy, because I like the way we played."

    Chelsea are now winless in eight against United in the Premier League, their second-longest such league sequence in this fixture.

    It was the fifth time the Blues have hosted United as the Premier League leaders, winning three and losing one of the previous four. The three victories were followed by title triumphs.

  • Cadiz 1-4 Atletico Madrid: Second-half rout keeps the pressure on Los Blancos Cadiz 1-4 Atletico Madrid: Second-half rout keeps the pressure on Los Blancos

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    Diego Simeone's team lost to Milan in midweek but made it seven games unbeaten in LaLiga thanks to second-half goals from Thomas Lemar, Antoine Griezmann, Angel Correa and Matheus Cunha.

    Atleti's goals were rare moments of quality in a match previously lacking much invention, with Lemar heading home from close range in the 56th minute before Griezmann drilled in from Marcos Llorente's cross.

    A slick team move saw Lemar's replacement Correa net a third, with Cunha doubling his tally of league goals for the season after Jan Oblak's own goal gave Cadiz a consolation.

    Heading into Sunday's encounter aiming to end a 12-match winless streak against Atleti in LaLiga, Cadiz very nearly had the lead inside the opening minute, but Llorente denied Ruben Sobrino a tap-in.

    Atleti lost Jose Gimenez to injury and Alfonso Espino dragged wide prior to the break, with Cadiz starting the second half brightly.

    But it was Atleti who struck first – Lemar getting above his marker to nod in from Yannick Carrasco's inviting left-wing cross, his first headed goal in Europe's top-five leagues.

    Carrasco and Lemar combined again six minutes later, only for the latter's heavy touch giving Ledesma chance to smother the shot.

    Where Lemar's first touch let him down, Griezmann showed no such lack of quality, sweeping in from Llorente's cut-back after neat interplay down the right flank.

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    Anthony Lozano's deflected cross bizarrely looped in over the bemused Oblak, though Cunha raced through to restore the three-goal cushion straight from kick-off.

  • Man Utd no lost cause but Rangnick has work cut out as he inherits mishmash of philosophies Man Utd no lost cause but Rangnick has work cut out as he inherits mishmash of philosophies

    When Manchester United sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and announced a caretaker manager would then be followed by an interim manager to be replaced by a third coach at the end of the season, confusion would have been written over the faces of many supporters.

    It seemed an unnecessarily convoluted process to just appointing someone better than Solskjaer, but perceptions are already starting to change.

    Michael Carrick had a pretty daunting introduction to life at the helm, with a crucial Champions League match followed by a trip to imperious Premier League leaders Chelsea.

    Yet, after what was presumably his second and final game in charge, he's seen United take an entirely respectable four points – Ralf Rangnick waits in the wings, and there were even hallmarks of the German on display as Carrick presided over Sunday's 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

    There could be no mistaking what was going through Carrick's mind before the game. While he shrugged off Cristiano Ronaldo's benching as just simple squad selection, one of the main focuses on the Portugal star this season has been a lack of work rate off the ball.

    Given Rangnick's reputation and renown as the so-called 'Godfather of Gegenpressing', it can't have been a coincidence that Carrick opted to start a front three who would ordinarily be expected to get through a little more work when not in possession.

    Getting in Chelsea faces appeared to be the objective, and to United's credit, there certainly seemed to be a greater desire to press with intensity during the early stages of the match.

    While that may have been a sign of things to expect in future for United, it would also be fair to say they have much work to do as well – their urgency out of possession may have looked better, but it didn't seem to upset Chelsea massively.

    The Blues still created a raft of opportunities, two of which were crafted inside the first three minutes and 10 seconds, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Victor Lindelof unconvincing on both occasions.

    Those accounted for two of the four saves David de Gea was forced into before the break, the Spaniard also tipping a long-range Antonio Rudiger strike onto the crossbar.

    Chelsea reached half-time with no goals from 0.86 expected goals (xG), showing United (0.02 xG) were benefiting from a mixture of wasteful finishing and De Gea's excellence – so while Carrick's set-up technically worked to a certain extent, keeping the hosts out in the first half, the Red Devils offered nothing in attack themselves.

    Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford were sloppy, Bruno Fernandes – deployed as a 'false 9' – seemed to be playing by his own rules, going rogue as he often popped up in the full-back areas. Nobody was leading the line and therefore United had no out-ball.

    As a result, they managed just two touches in the Chelsea box and 21 passes in the final third – Thomas Tuchel's men had 16 and 81, respectively. United's mid-game tweet of "leading from the front" accompanied by a photo of Fernandes almost seemed sarcastic when Sancho was their only player whose average position was in the attacking half during the first 45.

    But early in the second half, the game changed in an instant. Fernandes leathered a bouncing ball up the pitch with the kind of kick that would be followed by a shout of "have it!" in your average Sunday League game.

    Jorginho's first touch was similarly Sunday League, the ball squirming off his foot and right to Sancho, who charged forward with only Rashford for company. A little swivel of the hips, suggesting he'd square the ball, deceived Edouard Mendy and the forward slotted home his first Premier League goal.

    Of course, it was hardly a goal indicative of some new-found philosophy – it was a Jorginho error. Yet, had United not been pressing in anticipation of a mistake, they wouldn't have scored.

    United suddenly started to look a threat on the counter-attack with Sancho and Rashford, who was far livelier than he had been in the first half – though Carrick might have wanted to see his team use their countering as a weapon a little more often.

    As it was, they soon fell back into their set-up from the first half for the most part, sitting back in their own area and inviting pressure. It brought their downfall, as Wan-Bissaka's rash penalty concession allowed Jorginho to atone for his error at the other end.

    United were fortunate, with Rudiger's late volley going high and wide when he looked destined to score, though they at least showed the kind of urgency and spirit that was lacking in recent embarrassments at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester City.

    Rangnick's main concerns will likely lie in the tactical mishmash he stands to inherit, and in some ways this game showcased it perfectly. One minute their priority was pressing, the next it wasn't. They began to set up for counter-attacking, then they weren't.

    Let's not forget, this is a squad assembled by several different coaches all with hugely varying ideas – from Louis van Gaal's possession-based approach and Jose Mourinho's pragmatism, to Solskjaer's counter-attacking (not that he stuck with that throughout his time in charge) and now Rangnick's 'Gegenpressing'.

    The draw at Chelsea certainly shows Rangnick will have a lot to work with. The off-the-ball performances of Fred and Scott McTominay would have been particularly encouraging. But it also highlighted he has a lot of work to do.

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