NBA

Mavericks and Sixers look to extinguish Suns and Heat in Conference semi-finals

By Sports Desk April 30, 2022

Narratives are being readied all over the place to make this season's NBA playoffs potentially one of the most exciting of recent times.

The first round may not have provided quite as much drama as hoped, with none of the eight clashes going to a Game 7, but looking at the contests in prospect in the Conference semi-finals, we should not be far away from some.

The top four seeds in both Conferences ultimately made it through, though that's not to say some were not given a bit of a fright, and the semis were set after the Memphis Grizzlies eventually put away the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday in Game 6.

There are stories to be written when it comes to the star players in the league, though, with some excelling as they look lead their team to glory, while others are struggling to stay on the court and off the injured list.

This leads us into some potentially fascinating encounters in the final eight, and Stats Perform has taken a look at what we can expect over the next two weeks.

Eastern Conference

Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks

Frankly, these two should be perfectly fresh heading into this one.

The Celtics whitewashed the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, barely breaking a sweat in the process, while the Bucks dropped just one game in overcoming a depleted Chicago Bulls.

Jayson Tatum has unsurprisingly been the star so far for Boston in the postseason, averaging 29.5 points per game, including 39 in Game 3, as well as averaging 7.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game.

Equally unsurprisingly, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been leading the way for the defending NBA champions, averaging 28.6 points per game from five postseason outings so far for the Bucks, as well as 6.2 assists and 13.4 rebounds.

The continued absence of Khris Middleton will be a blow for Mike Budenholzer, with the swingman still recovering from a knee injury suffered in the first round, and reports suggesting he will miss the entirety of this round as well.

These two beat each other twice during the regular season, with the Bucks getting the final win just over three weeks ago at Fiserv Forum, so it promises to be a much tighter affair than either experienced in round one.

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers

The number one seeds in the East were barely inconvenienced by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, with the Heat winning 4-1.

Jimmy Butler is bringing it in the playoffs so far, averaging 30.5 points, with an additional 5.3 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game. He missed Game 5 against the Hawks with a knee inflammation, but it is hoped he will return for Game 1 against his former team.

Kyle Lowry's participation is more of a question mark, with the 36-year-old missing since suffering a hamstring injury in Game 3.

There is an arguably worse injury situation in Philadelphia, though, with Joel Embiid out "indefinitely" with a right orbital fracture and mild concussion. The Cameroonian was averaging 26.2 points across the 4-2 first round win over the Toronto Raptors.

Despite playing with an injured thumb, Embiid was dominant as the Sixers took out Game 6, putting up 33 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the floor and nine-of-10 from the free-throw line, as well as adding 10 rebounds and three blocks, but it is unclear when he will play a part in this round.

Tyrese Maxey, along with James Harden, will need to step up even more in the absence of Embiid if the Sixers are to dump out the top seeds.

Like the Celtics and the Bucks, these two traded two wins apiece in the regular-season meetings, with the Sixers winning 113-106 at Wells Fargo Center in March without Embiid, with Maxey top-scoring with 28 points.

 

Western Conference

Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies

Despite the best efforts of Nikola Jokic, the Warriors strolled past the Denver Nuggets 4-1 in the first round, but can expect a sterner test here from the Grizzlies.

Stephen Curry is on his game, averaging 28 points across those five outings, although only 3.8 three-pointers per game so far, being outshone in that metric by team-mate Klay Thompson, who has averaged 4.4.

Curry and Thompson combined to great effect in Game 5 against the Nuggets, scoring 33 and 32 points respectively.

Memphis probably struggled more than they thought they would against the Timberwolves, securing a 4-2 win in the end but being made to work for it.

Ja Morant recorded 30 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and three steals in Game 5. Only five players in the last 35 seasons have recorded such a stat line in a playoff game, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Morant himself.

Morant has continued his great form, but Desmond Bane is also shining in the postseason, with the top average point score for the Grizzlies of 23.5, and 4.5 three-pointers made per game.

The Grizzlies could have a psychological edge in this contest, having won all of their last three meetings in the regular season, with the 28-point difference in the 123-95 win at FedExForum in late March the largest defeat of the Warriors' season.

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks

Although ultimately through with a game to spare, it was surprising to see the Suns struggle as much as they did against the eighth-seed New Orleans Pelicans.

The outstanding Suns, who won 64 regular-season games, eventually prevailed 4-2 against the Pelicans, who by comparison won just 36 in the regular season, but that is what the playoffs bring, the threat of upsets.

Monty Williams and his team will have hardly been panicking, though, even when they were tied at 2-2 after Game 4, with a Chris Paul-inspired win in New Orleans in Game 6 sealing their passage through.

Having Devin Booker back is a big boost for West's number one seeds, with the 25-year-old returning from a hamstring injury for Game 6 that ruled him out of Games 3-5, having registered a combined 56 points in Games 1 and 2.

The Mavericks made it through the first round for the first time since they won the championship in 2011, seeing off the Utah Jazz 4-2, in a series that was also previously tied at 2-2.

It was made all the more impressive considering Luka Doncic could only play in three games, though still averaging 29.0 points in those he did, as well as 5.7 assists and 10.7 rebounds.

That meant someone else stepping up, and that someone else was Jalen Brunson, who scored 41 in Game 2 and a further 31 in Game 3, averaging 27.8 across the six games.

Dallas will need to do something about their record against Phoenix, though, having lost their last nine meetings with them, including three this season. The Mavs have not recorded a win against the Suns since November 2019.

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    Joel Matip ensured the Premier League title race will go to the final day as Liverpool came from behind to win 2-1 at Southampton.

    A Reds team showing nine changes from the weekend's FA Cup final over Chelsea found themselves down early through a fine Nathan Redmond strike.

    However, Liverpool responded through a thunderous Takumi Minamino strike before the break and went on to secure the win in the second half as Matip headed home a corner in the 67th minute.

    Victory moved Jurgen Klopp's men to just a point behind Manchester City at the summit, meaning the teams' respective final-day showdowns with Wolves and Aston Villa will decide the destination of the title.

    Liverpool enjoyed plenty of the ball early on but were given a scare when Armando Broja escaped on the break before being denied by the trailing leg of Alisson.

    A failure to heed that warning was punished with just 13 minutes gone as another Southampton counter ended with Redmond cutting in off the left to thrash a curling effort into the top-right corner.

    Klopp was incensed by the failure to award a foul on Diogo Jota in the build-up to that goal, but that did not stop his team responding well to the setback.

    They were denied an equaliser when Roberto Firmino was flagged offside in heading home a free-kick, but restored parity after 27 minutes as Minamino smashed home a cute Diogo Jota pass at close range.

    That prompted a spell of Liverpool dominance, though they were unable to punish some lax Saints defending before a half-time break that saw Joe Gomez withdrawn due to injury. Jota poked the ball inches wide shortly after the restart following great work from Kostas Tsimikas.

    The chances kept coming, Harvey Elliott hitting the side-netting, Jota skewing wide, and Firmino sending in a weak shot from distance. As such, it was no real surprise when the goal eventually came and, in fact, neither was the method.

    Only Leicester City had conceded more headers than Southampton in the Premier League this term, while Liverpool had scored a league-high 15 goals in that manner and added another when Matip met Tsimikas' corner to loop one in.

    Southampton tried to rally from there, but struggled to see much of the ball as Liverpool ensured City still have work to do on the final day.

  • Support System: Which 2021 first-round quarterback is best positioned for a year-two leap? Support System: Which 2021 first-round quarterback is best positioned for a year-two leap?

    While quarterback-needy teams grappled with the decision over whether to bet on a member of an underwhelming 2022 draft class at the position, those teams who were astute enough to select a signal-caller from the loaded 2021 class spent their offseasons attempting to stack the deck around the player they handpicked as the future of the franchise.

    The 2022 season will be a significant one for Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones, with questions sure to be asked of the five first-round picks if they do not show signs of vindicating their respective franchises for selecting them last year.

    Jones arguably already proved himself as the most pro-ready QB of the quintet in an impressive rookie campaign, but 2022 may well reveal how high the ceiling is for the least physically gifted of the bunch. The rest are all aiming to prove they have the skill sets to join the league's expanding and increasingly youthful elite at the NFL's most important position. 

    Indeed, the first four quarterbacks off the board in 2021 were all regarded as players with the potential to elevate those around them and take their offenses to new heights. But a quarterback, regardless of his athletic and mental gifts, cannot do it all himself. So who among the 2021 first-rounders has the best supporting cast to help them excel?

    To help us answer that question, we at Stats Perform have gone back to look at our post-free agency positional unit baselines that inform our team rankings.

    The baselines were produced for seven different units: quarterback, pass blocking, run blocking, route runners/pass catchers, pass rush, run defense and pass defense. The units are comprised of projected playing time for players on the roster combined with the player baselines linked to each of those units.

    An individual player has a year-over-year baseline for a unit input (i.e. pass blocking for a team's projected left tackle). His baseline is combined with those of his team-mates and then adjusted for the importance of the position to that unit to produce an overall unit baseline.

    The six non-quarterback baselines, plus a look at some of the moves made in the draft by each quarterback's respective team, provide a picture that reveals which of the second-year signal-callers have the talent around them to thrive.

    5. Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

    Even though the numbers are not impressive, there were clear flashes of promise in Fields' rookie season with the Bears.

    While he only finished with a 70.9 well-thrown percentage – seven percentage points below the average for quarterbacks with at least 50 throws – and had a pickable pass rate of 5.36 per cent that was the eighth-worst among that group, Fields did display the upside that led the Bears to trade up for him.

    Only two quarterbacks averaged more air yards per attempt than Fields' 10.02 and his three passing plays of 50 yards or more were the most of all rookie quarterbacks and as many as Josh Allen and Justin Herbert managed all season.

    You would think, therefore, that the Bears' focus this offseason would be on giving Fields the weapons to produce further explosive plays in 2022. Not so, the Bears waited until the third round to add a wide receiver in the draft – 25-year-old return specialist Velus Jones Jr.

    The Bears' reluctance to add to a group of pass-catchers that prior to the draft had the sixth-lowest unit baseline in the NFL hardly suggests at a sophomore surge for Fields in 2022.

    And with Chicago's offensive line among the worst in the league for pass protection and run-blocking baseline and its defense in the bottom six for pass defense and bottom three for pass rush, it appears likely to be another year when Fields is swimming against a tide engineered by his own franchise.

    4. Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Simply having an adult in the room with experience of winning at the NFL level should help Lawrence's cause, with Doug Pederson a substantial improvement on Urban Meyer as head coach.

    As is the case with Fields in Chicago, Pederson will hope Lwrence can build on last season's flashes of the talent that led some to label him as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. Lawrence's well-thrown percentage of 76.3 was significantly better than that of Fields, but his 26 pickable passes were the fourth-most in the league.

    Unlike the Bears, the Jags invested heavily in getting Lawrence receiving help, doing so in a bemusing manner as they threw eye-watering amounts of money at players who fit best as secondary targets rather than as the leading receiver for a player dubbed a 'generational' quarterback prospect.

    Indeed, the lucrative deals handed out to the likes of Christian Kirk and Zay Jones only put them 20th in pass-catching unit baseline prior to the draft. The hope will be that Kirk, who was seventh among receivers with at least 100 targets with a big-play rate of 35.6 per cent last year, can help Lawrence generate more explosives in year two.

    And while much of the Jags' roster still reeks of mediocrity, an offensive line that ranked fourth in pass-block win rate in 2021 may give him the time to help justify the Jags' belief in Kirk and Lawrence's other new weapons.

    3. Zach Wilson, New York Jets

    The Jets received almost universal praise for their draft, acquiring cornerback Sauce Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson and edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II in the first round before then adding the consensus top running back in the class – Iowa State's Breece Hall – in the second.

    Their roster looks in significantly better shape than it did at the end of the 2021 campaign, but the Jets were working from a pretty low starting point.

    Coming out of free agency, only six teams had a lower unit baseline among their pass-catchers than the Jets, whose offensive line was in the bottom half of the league in pass protection baseline and in the run-blocking baseline.

    Johnson's arrival and the return of fellow edge rusher Carl Lawson from injury should provide a clear boost to a pass rush that was fourth in unit baseline last year while a secondary that exited free agency just outside the top 10 in pass defense baseline appears much better equipped to provide support to Wilson and the offense.

    However, Wilson had the worst well-thrown percentage (66.6) of any rookie quarterback last season, with Fields (5.36) and fellow rookie Davis Mills (5.56) the only two quarterbacks with at least 200 attempts to have a higher pickable pass rate than Wilson's 5.21 per cent.

    The Jets are relying on Mekhi Becton to get healthy and play a full season at left tackle and, though they have some more established options at tight end and receiver, are also putting a lot on a rookie receiver in likely leaning heavily on Garrett Wilson to elevate his second-year quarterback.

    It has been a successful offseason for the Jets, but a lot needs to happen for their hopes of a second-year leap for team and quarterback to come to fruition.

    2. Mac Jones, New England Patriots

    Were it not for the outstanding season enjoyed by Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Jones may well have won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    The outstanding accuracy Jones demonstrated at Alabama translated to the pros, Jones producing a well-thrown ball on 80.1 per cent of attempts. He achieved that feat while averaging more air yards per attempt (8.11) than both Lawrence and Wilson, yet there is reason for trepidation around thoughts of him progressing significantly in his second year.

    Jones' passer rating on throws of 21 or more air yards was 65.4 – 31st among the 41 quarterbacks to attempt at least 10, illustrating the limited ceiling of a quarterback whose arm is not on the level of his fellow 2021 first-rounders.

    Yet Jones does have the benefit of one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. After free agency, the Patriots' O-Line was tied for sixth in pass protection unit baseline and fifth in run blocking baseline.

    They replaced guard Shaq Mason, who was surprisingly traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, by making the similarly eyebrow-raising move of selecting Chattanooga guard Cole Strange in the first round of the draft. Strange's arrival should solidify the interior of the line and allow the Patriots to stick to a formula of leaning on the run game to take the pressure off Jones.

    New England's receiving corps is at best uninspiring and the Patriots' failure to address a depleted secondary may prohibit playoff aspirations, but the strength in the trenches means Jones is in a better position to achieve short-term success than most of his second-year contemporaries.

    1. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers are set to step into the unknown in 2021, with all signs pointing to Lance playing his first full season since his lone campaign as the starting quarterback at North Dakota State in 2019 despite Jimmy Garoppolo's continued presence on the roster.

    Handing the keys to an offense that was in the NFC championship Game over to a quarterback with only two career starts to his name represents a substantial risk, but it is a risk the Niners are in an excellent position to take.

    While there remains no sign of the impasse between San Francisco and All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel coming to an end, the Niners left free agency with a group of pass-catchers ranked sixth in the league in unit baseline. They added to that group in the draft by selecting SMU speedster Danny Gray in the third round.

    San Francisco's pass defense was also in the top half of the league in that regard going into the draft, while its pass rush was third in unit baseline and could have an even higher ceiling in 2022 if Drake Jackson adapts quickly to the pros. The Niners' second-round pick registered a pressure rate of 24.2 that was the fifth-best among edge rushers in this draft class in 2021.

    The Niners ranked in the top 10 in pass block win rate and seventh in run block win rate last season, yet their biggest issue may be maintaining that standard after losing left guard Laken Tomlinson to the Jets amid doubts over whether center Alex Mack would retire.

    Lance could, therefore, be playing behind a largely inexperienced O-Line this coming season. However, the data from his small sample size last year hinted at him having what it takes to elevate those around him. He averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt – the second-most in the NFL – and no player to average at least 9.0 air yards had a better well-thrown percentage than Lance's 77.1.

    His challenge will be to maintain that combination of aggression and accuracy over the course of a full season.

    If the Niners can come to an understanding with Samuel, Lance will have one of the most versatile weapons in the NFL to help him build on those encouraging flashes. He'll also benefit from the support of a stout defense built on the strength of its front and a diverse running game that will likely grow even more varied with him under center.

    The trump card for Lance is head coach Kyle Shanahan, who is arguably the pre-eminent offensive mind of the modern NFL. Between the talent on both sides of the ball and Shanahan's ability to draw up a running game and put receivers in space, the Niners are a high-floor, high ceiling team.

    There may be doubts about Lance, but there should be no doubt he is the quarterback in the best situation to silence those concerns.

  • Mbappe to Liverpool? Klopp rules Reds out of move for PSG star Mbappe to Liverpool? Klopp rules Reds out of move for PSG star

    Jurgen Klopp is interested in signing Kylian Mbappe, but accepts Liverpool are not able to compete with Real Madrid for the Paris Saint-Germain forward's signature.

    Mbappe is due to be out of contract with PSG next month and revealed last week he is close to making a decision over his future.

    Madrid are the strong favourites to sign the France international, while a number of other clubs – Liverpool among them – have also been linked in the past.

    According to reports from Spain this week, Liverpool made a late attempt to persuade Mbappe to make the switch to Anfield, rather than the Santiago Bernabeu.

    But while Klopp is a fan of Mbappe, he insists Liverpool have no intention of attempting to sign the 23-year-old in the next window.

    "Of course we're interested in Kylian. We're not blind," he said ahead of Tuesday's crucial Premier League clash with Southampton.

    "I have nothing to say about [the reported contact] between Kylian and Liverpool... it's all fine.

    "We like him and if you don’t like him then you have to question yourself. But we cannot be part of these battles; there must be other clubs. He's still a great player."

     

    Mbappe has scored 36 goals and provided 21 assists for PSG this season, firing the Parisians to the 10th Ligue 1 title in the club's history.

    His total of 57 goal contributions this season can only be bettered by international team-mate Karim Benzema (59) among players in the top-five European leagues this season.

    He has been involved in 245 goals in all competitions since his PSG debut in September 2017, which is at least 98 more than any other player for the club over that period.

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