NBA

NBA Heat Check: George and Middleton make moves but half-fit Harden hinders Nets

By Sports Desk June 21, 2021

The matchups are set for the NBA's Conference Finals – and few would have predicted these four teams would still be in the running at the start of the year.

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets' superstars fell to the Milwaukee Bucks while the Atlanta Hawks stunned the Philadelphia 76ers.

Western Conference leaders the Utah Jazz became the latest team to give up a lead to the Los Angeles Clippers.

However, the Clippers on Sunday lost Game 1 of their series with the Phoenix Suns, who had been resting since sweeping the Denver Nuggets.

So, which big names were key to deciding these unpredictable battles? Stats Perform takes a look in the latest edition of NBA Heat Check...
 

RUNNING HOT...

Paul George

Clippers superstar George understandably took a lot of criticism for his playoff performances last season, when he shot 39.8 per cent from the field and scored 10 points or fewer as many times as he reached 30.

But just as Kawhi Leonard went down against the Jazz with a knee injury, for which he has no return date, George found his scoring touch again.

Across four straight wins over Utah – three were last week – George contributed 31, 31, 37 and 28 points. His 37, along with 16 rebounds, came on the road in Game 5, putting the Clippers up for the first time in the series while Leonard sat out.

Even as a surely tired LA team lost to Phoenix on Sunday, George kept them in contention with 34 points to end the week averaging 32.5 per outing, as well as 9.5 rebounds (up from 23.3 and 6.7 respectively in the regular season).

Khris Middleton

Middleton is another impressive regular season performer who has been scrutinised for his postseason displays – and far more recently than last season.

Across the first five games of the Nets series, the wildly inconsistent Bucks forward shot 38.1 per cent from the field. He had 35 points and 15 rebounds in Game 3 but had gone six-for-23 in Game 1, making none of his five three-point attempts.

Yet Middleton's 38 points won Game 6, as he and Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as the only team-mates in NBA history to each have 30 points and 10 rebounds in the same game twice in the same playoff campaign.

With a key role again in the series decider, Middleton became the first player to record at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in consecutive postseason games since steals were first tracked in 1973-74.

Devin Booker

Booker played just once last week but put in a performance that cannot go unmentioned. Without veteran Chris Paul to help him, the sixth-year guard weighed in with a 40-point triple-double against the Clippers (also 13 rebounds and 11 assists).

Only Luka Doncic and Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson have achieved the feat at a younger age in the playoffs than the 24-year-old, while Steve Nash – another Hall of Famer – was the previous Suns player to score a postseason triple of any kind back in 2005.

Kevin Durant

Another player whose contributions must be highlighted, even with his team now out of the playoffs, is Durant. With 43.0 points per game last week, he showed the greatest improvement in the league from his regular season performances – up 16.1 on 26.9.

His 12.3 rebounds per game put the two-time Finals MVP second in improvement in that regard, too, but it was not quite enough.

A toe on the three-point line meant Durant's late leveller in Game 7 against the Bucks was not a game-winner, before the Nets lost in overtime despite his 48 points – one short of a heroic Game 5 tally and two shy of his career postseason best.
 

GOING COLD...

James Harden

That Durant was asked to do so much was due to injuries to both the other members of Brooklyn's 'Big Three'. Kyrie Irving did not play after Game 4 against the Bucks due to an ankle sprain, while Harden returned in Game 5 after missing the previous three.

To anyone watching, though, it was clear Harden was not healthy.

One of the league's great scorers, he made one of 10 field goals in his first game back, with five points in 45 minutes. Harden had never previously scored as few as five in half an hour of play or more.

His form did improve slightly with returns of 16 and 22 points, but Milwaukee won both, with Harden shooting 29.4 per cent from the field as he proved more of a hindrance than a help to Durant with their season on the line.

Ben Simmons

When Harden moved to Brooklyn, Philadelphia was seen as the potential alternative destination, although that would likely have meant the 76ers reluctantly giving up Simmons. After the defeat to Atlanta, Simmons may now leave regardless.

An outstanding defender, the guard's offense has long been a concern and so it proved again as he averaged 7.5 points last week, significantly down on his modest regular season (14.3).

Simmons made single figures in three straight games, twice shooting only four times from the field despite being on the floor for 38 and 35 minutes respectively.

His eight-point effort on Wednesday included going four-of-14 when shooting from the foul line.

Rudy Gobert

This is the first time since 1994 that both top seeds have failed to make the Conference Finals. The Jazz, just like the Sixers, needed more from their second star.

Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year but looked a liability as the Clippers went small in Game 6, when his plus/minus was a dismal -24.

The Frenchman's output was down in all three defeats last week as he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, having put up 13.5 in the regular season.

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    St. Louis City will be desperate to snap a record six-game winless run in MLS when they host Colorado Rapids at CityPark Stadium on Thursday.

    The Missouri-based side have just three wins from their 17 league matches this term, falling down to 11th in the Western Conference standings.

    Bradley Carnell's men have not triumphed in MLS action since a 3-1 win over Chicago Fire in the middle of May, and were defeated 2-0 by FC Dallas last time out.

    St. Louis coach Carnell referenced injury struggles, however, as his side continue to battle through a troubling period.

    "Obviously, it doesn’t take a genius to look at the roster and see where we are. We're not the first team to struggle with this.

    "Now we get challenged and now get to prove what we are as a group, team, organisation and unit – sticking together.

    "We have a plethora of young players who are performing [for our academy] and we will keep some of those guys with us through the week."

    The Rapids have enjoyed a better season, sitting sixth in the West table after returning to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over Austin FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

    That ended a four-game winless streak for Colorado, who secured a much-needed victory after a rocketed finish from Cole Bassett before Rafael Navarro netted his 10th goal of the season.

    The next challenge for the Rapids is to secure back-to-back victories for the first time since April, though they have lost three straight on the road.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    St. Louis City – Jared Stroud

    Jared Stroud was involved in a goal in both matches (one goal, one assist) against the Rapids last season.

    The St. Louis man has eight assists to his name in MLS this season, too, and will hope to deliver once more when Colorado come to town.

    Colorado Rapids – Djordje Mihailovic

    Djordje Mihailovic has scored in each of the Rapids' last three away matches.

    He is the first Rapids player to score in three straight away from home in a single regular season since Shkelzen Gashi scored in five straight on the road from June-October 2016.

    MATCH PREDICTION – ST. LOUIS CITY WIN

    St. Louis are the heavy favourites for victory in this encounter, considering their record against the Rapids.

    Carnell's side collected four points from their two matches against Colorado last season, including a 2-0 win at home last July.

    Colorado have lost their last three road matches, conceding 10 goals in those games, and that run of form comes as no surprise.

    Indeed, the Rapids have lost 15 of their last 21 away from home in all competitions (W3 D3), dating back to last May.

    Yet a home win is by no means a foregone conclusion.

    St. Louis are winless in six straight matches (D2 L4) for the first time in club history. They have just three wins so far, tied for the fewest in MLS this season, though all three have come at home.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    St. Louis City win – 48.8%

    Colorado Rapids win – 25.5%

    Draw – 25.7%

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    Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player in the European Championship's 64-year history to appear in six editions, but his landmark moment was overshadowed by a glimpse into Portugal's future.

    Conceicao was introduced after 90 minutes and scored just two minutes later, capitalising on a loose ball to send Portugal level on points with leaders Turkiye, who beat Georgia 3-1 earlier on Tuesday in Group F.

    Robin Hranac's unavoidable own-goal had earlier cancelled out Lukas Provod's rocketed second-half opener before Conceicao announced himself on the international stage at the Leipzig Stadium.

    Roberto Martinez's team were the only side to win every qualifying game for this tournament, with a perfect 10 wins from as many matches, and dominated the first half of their opener without reward.

    Ronaldo almost marked his landmark appearance with a goal just eight minutes in but rushed an unmarked header in uncharacteristic fashion from Rafael Leao's whipped cross.

    Bruno Fernandes angled a deflected long-range effort narrowly over as the one-way traffic persisted, before the Manchester United midfielder's teasing ball just evaded the lunging Leao.

    Fernandes was again the architect when his delicate throughball found Ronaldo, who was denied by Jindrich Stanek's fantastic stop from point-blank range.

    The Czechia goalkeeper was on hand once more before the interval, parrying away another fizzing Ronaldo strike as these two sides were the first to be goalless at half-time at Euro 2024.

    Portugal completed 368 passes in that first-half onslaught, their most on record in a single half at the European Championships since records began in 1980, and little changed after the break.

    Ronaldo tested the hands of Stanek with a dipping free-kick just before the hour, though Portugal were stunned soon after when Provod cannoned into the top-left corner from the perimeter of Diogo Costa's area.

    Yet a response swiftly followed as Stanek parried Leao's downwards back-post header against Hranac, who could only deflect into his own net to level proceedings.

    Diogo Jota had a late finish ruled out by VAR after Ronaldo was adjudged offside before his rebounded strike, though Conceicao pounced from Pedro Neto's half-cleared left-wing cross to snatch all three points.

    Substitute heroics save Ronaldo's landmark appearance

    Ronaldo already holds the record for the most appearances in European Championship history (26), though this outing marked another historic moment for the 39-year-old.

    Having featured at every Euros since his 2004 debut, Ronaldo is the first to go to six editions of the tournament, where his 14 goals make him the leading scorer in history.

    The former Manchester United attacker could not add to his tally here, and it was a familiar tale at the Euros for Ronaldo, who missed the 2016 final victory over France after his gut-wrenching injury.

    Eder stepped up as the extra-time hero on that occasion, and he was the last Portugal substitute to score at the Euros before Conceicao did so here.

    Conceicao's goal came just 111 seconds after being introduced and marks the fastest such goal since Ferran Torres for Spain against Slovakia in June 2021 (41 seconds) – what an introduction for the Porto man.

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    Considering his record at the Euros and the 2023-24 trophy-winning campaign, Czechia may want more from their star striker – who was withdrawn on the hour after being cautioned and failing to manage a single shot.

    Yet with or without Schick, Czechia could have never prepared for Conceicao's late intervention. Ivan Hasek's side have now lost five straight games against Portugal and must bounce back when they face Georgia on Saturday.

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    Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player in the European Championship's 64-year history to appear in six editions, but his landmark moment was overshadowed by a glimpse into Portugal's future.

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    Robin Hranac's unavoidable own-goal had earlier cancelled out Lukas Provod's rocketed second-half opener before Conceicao announced himself on the international stage at the Leipzig Stadium.

    Roberto Martinez's team were the only side to win every qualifying game for this tournament, with a perfect 10 wins from as many matches, and dominated the first half of their opener without reward.

    Ronaldo almost marked his landmark appearance with a goal just eight minutes in but rushed an unmarked header in uncharacteristic fashion from Rafael Leao's whipped cross.

    Bruno Fernandes angled a deflected long-range effort narrowly over as the one-way traffic persisted, before the Manchester United midfielder's teasing ball just evaded the lunging Leao.

    Fernandes was again the architect when his delicate throughball found Ronaldo, who was denied by Jindrich Stanek's fantastic stop from point-blank range.

    The Czechia goalkeeper was on hand once more before the interval, parrying away another fizzing Ronaldo strike as these two sides were the first to be goalless at half-time at Euro 2024.

    Portugal completed 368 passes in that first-half onslaught, their most on record in a single half at the European Championships since records began in 1980, and little changed after the break.

    Ronaldo tested the hands of Stanek with a dipping free-kick just before the hour, though Portugal were stunned soon after when Provod cannoned into the top-left corner from the perimeter of Diogo Costa's area.

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    Diogo Jota had a late finish ruled out by VAR after Ronaldo was adjudged offside before his rebounded finish, though Conceicao pounced from Pedro Neto's left-wing cross to snatch all three points.

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    Ronaldo already holds the record for the most appearances in European Championship history (26), though this outing marked another historic moment for the 39-year-old.

    Having featured at every Euros since his 2004 debut, Ronaldo is the first to go to six editions of the tournament, where his 14 goals make him the leading scorer in history.

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    Eder stepped up as the extra-time hero on that occasion, and he was the last Portugal substitute to score at the Euros before Conceicao did so here.

    Conceicao's goal came just 111 seconds after being introduced and marks the fastest such goal since Ferran Torres for Spain against Slovakia in June 2021 (41 seconds) – what an introduction for the Porto man.

    Czech need more from Schick

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    The forward has since lifted the Bundesliga title with Bayer Leverkusen last term, helping Xabi Alonso's side to an unbeaten league season with seven top-flight goals.

    Considering his record at the Euros and the 2023-24 trophy-winning campaign, Czechia may want more from their star striker – who was withdrawn on the hour after being cautioned and failing to manage a single shot.

    Yet with or without Schick, Czechia could have never prepared for Conceicao's late intervention. Ivan Hasek's side have now lost five straight games against Portugal and must bounce back when they face Georgia on Saturday.

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