NBA

NBA playoffs 2021: No Giannis? No Trae? What could possibly go wrong in the East?

By Sports Desk July 01, 2021

The Eastern Conference Finals took a titanic turn in Game 3 when the Atlanta Hawks' star point guard suffered a freak injury.

An unfortunate injury to the 'Greek Freak' in Game 4 presented yet another massive twist in this series.

With Trae Young considered questionable and Giannis Antetokounmpo listed as doubtful for Thursday's Game 5, the path to the NBA Finals got significantly more challenging for the Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.

Knotted at 2-2 in the East, the question now becomes which team is better equipped to overcome the loss of its superstar.

The first major injury setback of this series occurred with the Hawks up by three points in the final minute of the third quarter on Sunday, when Young accidently stepped back onto the foot of an official after passing the ball. He went down and stayed on the court until the next whistle before heading to the locker room.

While able to return in the fourth quarter, Young was not his normal explosive self. He hobbled his way to just three fourth-quarter points on four shots and Atlanta was outscored by 15 when he was on the court as Milwaukee pulled away for a 113-102 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.

A day after the game, an MRI revealed a bone bruise in his right ankle and although he was able to go through morning shootaround prior to Tuesday's Game 4, he was ultimately ruled out shortly before tipoff.

 

The second enormous injury in the series arose a few hours after Young was scratched.

Midway through the third quarter of Game 4, Antetokounmpo jumped to try to defend a Lou Williams alley-oop pass to Clint Capela and his left knee buckled awkwardly while landing. After remaining on the floor in pain for several minutes, he made his way to the locker room and was diagnosed with a hyperextension. An MRI the following day showed no structural damage.

The Bucks fell behind by 10 on Capela's dunk on the play Antetokounmpo was hurt and shortly after he exited Atlanta went on a 15-0 run to put the game away in a 110-88 win.

That run was fuelled by a trio of 3-pointers by Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finally looked he has overcome his own injury.

Bogdanovic has been saddled by right knee soreness that Hawks coach Nate McMillan said began to crop up in Game 5 of Atlanta's Eastern Conference series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the Hawks' five-game first-round series against the New York Knicks and their first four games against the 76ers, Bogdanovic averaged 16.4 points on 41.4 per cent shooting and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. His 27 3-pointers led the team and Young was the only Hawk to average more points at 28.3 per game.

In those first nine playoff contests, Bogdanovic also played more minutes than any Hawk, averaging more than 37 a game.

Over the next six games, however, he averaged 6.2 points on 26.8 per cent shooting and 16.7 per cent on 30 3-point tries in a little over 25 minutes per game.

In need of a spark with Young sidelined in Game 4, Bogdanovic shook off any lingering ailments and poured in 20 points while draining six 3-pointers – one more than he made in his previous six games combined. He once again found his shooting stroke on wing 3-pointers, connecting on 5-of-6 shots from there after misfiring on 18-of-20 attempts in the previous six contests.

Not only is his production invaluable for the Hawks, Bogdanovic also excelled when teamed with Young's replacement.

Bogdanovic played 28:55 minutes with Williams and made 7 of 15 shots and half of his 12 3-point attempts when they were together. In just under five minutes without him, Bogdanovic missed all four of his shot attempts – including a pair of 3-point tries.

This entire postseason, Bogdanovic has shot better from 3-point range when teamed with Williams, connecting on 41.9 per cent (13 of 31) with him compared to 27.5 per cent (25 of 91) without him.

While Bogdanovic stepped up, so did the man who was inserted in the starting lineup in place of Young.

In his first career playoff start in his 87th postseason contest, Williams made an immediate impact. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year had 13 points by half-time – the same number of points he had in the first three games of the East Finals – and finished with a game-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

In 35 minutes, the 16-year veteran had just one turnover while assisting on eight baskets, with three going to Capela as the two worked the pick-and-roll.

 

At 34 years old, Williams obviously is not as dynamic as the 22-year-old Young, whose averaging 29.8 points and 9.5 assists in the playoffs, but he proved to be plenty capable of leading Atlanta's offense, as he either scored or assisted on more than a third of the team's 43 made baskets.

Similarly to Young on the Hawks, it’s impossible for the Bucks to replace Antetokounmpo, who was averaging 29.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists in the 14 games before his injury.

Good news for Milwaukee, however, is it has not had that big of a drop-off in production without him this postseason. The Bucks are averaging 108.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the playoffs compared to 103.2 without him. By comparison, the Hawks are averaging 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Young on the court in the playoffs and 97.5 without him.

Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez are expected to handle more minutes with the backcourt tandem of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday shouldering more of the offensive load, and all four have shot the ball a bit better this postseason when not on the court with the two-time league MVP. (Middleton 47.9 per cent without Antetokounmpo/41.1 per cent with him, Holiday 45.5 per cent without/40.4 per cent with, Lopez 58.8 per cent without/53.9 per cent with and Portis 54.3 per cent without/45.8 per cent with.)

Middleton, meanwhile, has also already proven he can pick up the scoring slack.

He had eight of Milwaukee's first 10 points after Antetokounmpo left on Tuesday, and has three games this postseason with 35 points or more. In Bucks franchise history, only one player has more 35-point games in a single postseason and that just happens to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had six in 1973-74 and five in 1969-70.

Ultimately for Milwaukee, it could simply come down to Middleton's ability to make shots as the biggest difference between the team winning or losing. This postseason, the Bucks are 9-0 in games when Middleton shoots 40 per cent or better and 1-5 in games when he fails to reach that mark.

It is obviously not an ideal situation to be in, but Antetokounmpo and Young could still end up playing, though if they do suit up neither will likely be at full strength.

Both teams have also found some success navigating their way without their best players – the Bucks were 6-5 in the regular season without Antetokounmpo and the Hawks improved to 6-4 this season without Young on Tuesday.

Thursday's game is unlike any of those previous contests, however, with the winner moving one victory away from a berth in the NBA Finals.

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  • False promises and falling outs – the inevitable fall of Rafael Benitez False promises and falling outs – the inevitable fall of Rafael Benitez

    The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

    Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

    Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

    That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

    But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

    Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

    An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

    As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

    False promises

    From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

    "You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

    Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

    After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

    Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

    Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

    It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

    However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

    But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

    In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

    From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

    Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

    The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

    Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

    Falling outs

    With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

    He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

    Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

    Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

    Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

    Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

    Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

    Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

    With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

    Moshiri mayhem

    Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

    But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

    Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

    Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

    Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

    Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

    For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

    Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

    With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

  • Milan 1-2 Spezia: Wasteful Rossoneri miss chance to go top in dramatic defeat Milan 1-2 Spezia: Wasteful Rossoneri miss chance to go top in dramatic defeat

    Milan slumped to a shock 2-1 defeat to Spezia as Emmanuel Gyasi scored with almost the final kick of a thriller at San Siro.

    Title rivals Inter drew 0-0 with Atalanta on Sunday, but Milan could not take advantage the following day as Spezia came from behind in incredible fashion.

    Rafael Leao put Milan ahead after Theo Hernandez's penalty miss, but Kevin Agudelo levelled midway through the second half.

    Milan were furious when Junior Messias' fine late effort was struck off due to a premature whistle from the referee, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic then hitting the crossbar.

    And Gyasi had the final say, slotting home in the 96th minute to sensationally earn Spezia's first league win at San Siro.

  • AFCON matchday preview: Ghana getting desperate, Morocco and Senegal out to win groups AFCON matchday preview: Ghana getting desperate, Morocco and Senegal out to win groups

    Three of the pre-tournament Africa Cup of Nations favourites conclude their group stage fixtures on Tuesday, though one of them is in a tricky situation.

    Senegal are on track to qualify from Group B, while Morocco have so far handled the potentially difficult Group C rather well – the same cannot be said for Ghana.

    Luckily for the Black Stars, they have arguably – on paper at least – their easiest game of the group stage to look forward to as they bid to avoid falling at the first hurdle for only the second time this century.

    Malawi v Senegal (16:00 GMT)

    Just by beating Zimbabwe 2-1 thanks to a brace from the excellent Gabadinho Mhango, Malawi have arguably already compounded expectations at this year's tournament.

    That was only their second ever win at the AFCON and it ensured they go into Tuesday with a real chance of qualification, either automatically or as one of the four best third-placed teams.

    But Senegal still have a lot to play for themselves, with Aliou Cisse's men tied on four points with Guinea.

    While that could be enough to take them through anyway, failing to top this group will not be a good look for the team many considered favourites to lift the trophy.

    One to watch: Gabadinho Mhango (Malawi)

    While Senegal undoubtedly possess the stronger squad, Orlando Pirates striker Mhango really caught the eye last time out with a couple of well-taken goals. One more will make him Malawi's all-time top scorer in the AFCON.

    Zimbabwe v Guinea (16:00 GMT)

    A wonderful opportunity awaits Guinea here, with the Syli Nationale knowing they will win the group as long as they better Senegal's result.

    Their 0-0 draw with the Teranga Lions was a decent outcome and means they are one of just three teams still to concede a goal – though goalkeeper Aly Keita's tournament-best record of 2.4 goals prevented may have something to do with that.

    They face a Zimbabwe side with only pride to play for having lost each of their first two games, though the omens are not great for Guinea: the Warriors' only previous AFCON wins have been in their final group matches (in 2004 and 2006).

    One to watch: Mohamed Bayo (Guinea)

    Despite their chances being worth 2.98 in terms of expected goals (xG), Guinea have only netted once. That 1.98 non-penalty xG underperformance is the second-worst at the tournament. Bayo arrived in Cameroon in good form – they will hope he can inspire an improvement where it matters most.

     

    Gabon v Morocco (19:00 GMT)

    As one of only three teams to win both of their first two games this year, Morocco are already assured of a place in the next round – they just need to seal top spot now.

    The Atlas Lions are already on their longest unbeaten run at the AFCON (six matches) since going 11 without defeat in the 1970s, and they also boast the best xG (5.3) and xGA (0.5) records of the teams to play twice, evidence of how effective they have been at both ends of the pitch.

    But Gabon, who confirmed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mario Lemina have returned to their clubs for medical reasons, are aiming to go unbeaten in a second success group stage campaign for the first time, with a point likely good enough to send them through.

    One to watch: Youssef En-Nesyri (Morocco)

    It has been a frustrating season so far for Sevilla striker En-Nesyri, who has missed prolonged periods through injury and then saw his penalty saved against Comoros. His 25-minute cameo then was his first appearance in the tournament. With qualification already assured, they might opt to build up his fitness for the knockouts with a start against Gabon.

    Ghana v Comoros (19:00 GMT)

    Ghana were held to a 1-1 draw by Gabon last time out, a match that was marred by ugly scenes at full-time after a late equaliser denied them victory. It culminated in a red card for Benjamin Tetteh after he punched an opponent in the face.

    Having also lost to Morocco on matchday one, Ghana now need a win to have any hope of progressing – even then, it may not be enough.

    If Ghana do not win, it will be the first time they have ever failed to win a single group game in 22 appearances at the tournament.

    It would also be their first failure to get out of the group since 2006. Much is at stake.

    One to watch: Andre Ayew (Ghana)

    While Ghana have some very talented young players in their squad, their qualification hopes are looking a little desperate – they need their experienced stars to take the lead here. Andre Ayew and his brother Jordan are obviously the focus here, given that nine (70 per cent) of Ghana's previous 13 AFCON goals have been scored by the siblings (Andre is on five, Jordan on four).

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