All eyes in the NBA will be trained on Houston on Wednesday as the Rockets host James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets.

Harden was an outstanding player with the Rockets, winning the 2018 MVP award and twice reaching the Western Conference Finals, but he is unlikely to receive a warm welcome.

The nine-time All-Star decided in the offseason he wanted to leave Houston and worked to force a trade.

Although the Rockets initially resisted, a blockbuster deal was eventually agreed with the Nets, who pipped the Philadelphia 76ers to the signing.

Harden, slow by his lofty standards in the first eight games of the season in Houston, has rediscovered his best form in the NBA's newest 'big three' with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

Both the player and his former team, struggling badly at 11-22, will be determined to come out on top in this first meeting since they parted ways.


TOP PERFORMERS

Houston Rockets - John Wall

Even with Harden's numbers declining at the start of 2020-21, no Houston player has been able to match the 24.8 points he scored on average across those eight games.

Christian Wood (22.0) has come closest, yet an ankle injury has limited him to just 17 games. The Rockets have lost 12 in a row since he went down a month ago.

So, Wall, who missed the entirety of the Washington Wizards' 2019-20 campaign with a torn ACL, has had to step into the breach.

Although Houston's form is awful, Wall at least comes into this clash on somewhat of a roll, playing 10 straight games and scoring 32 points last time out against the Cleveland Cavaliers, his best return since December 2018.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

Wall is not alone in being asked to do some heavy lifting, as Harden, the third man signed to the 'big three', has operated without either Irving or Durant due to injuries at times in the early stages of his Brooklyn career.

He has done so admirably, however, averaging 25.3 points, 11.3 assists and 8.7 rebounds since leaving the Rockets.

With Irving returning following a back issue against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, Harden scaled new heights, becoming the first player to post 30 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in a game without a single turnover since individual turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78.

It was his seventh triple-double of the season already, a mark he only once passed in Houston colours (22 in 2016-17).
 

KEY BATTLE - CAN HOUSTON GET TO HARDEN?

Irving claimed after the Spurs game there would be "no animosity" and "no tension" in Houston "on the court or about James in my presence or anybody else's presence". That seemed optimistic.

Harden's parting shot at the Rockets, where he claimed to "have done everything that I can", prompted angry responses from Wall and the since-waived DeMarcus Cousins.

Given Wall and Cousins had each been team-mates of Harden for only eight games, it stands to reason that some of his long-standing colleagues might have been even more frustrated.

With the Nets a far superior outfit to the Rockets, the conversation around Harden on the court might prove as interesting as any matchup. The Brooklyn man will have to handle the heat.
 

HEAD TO HEAD

The Rockets have had the better of this series, boasting a 64-32 regular-season record, most recently winning in December 2019 when lifted by 44 points from Harden.

The 31-year-old has a 14-15 record against the Oklahoma City Thunder, his only other former team, averaging 28.2 points.

In Harden's three years with OKC, he was 6-6 against Houston.

India will hope England fail another trial by spin at the Narendra Modi Stadium when Virat Kohli's side attempt to secure their place in the ICC World Test Championship final.

The tourists won the first match of the series, but back-to-back victories have ended their hopes of facing New Zealand in another final at Lord's.

In-form India only need to avoid defeat in a fourth and final match of the series, which starts in Ahmedabad on Thursday, with Australia hoping England salvage a 2-2 draw to set up a trans-Tasman showdown.

India won the third Test at the same venue by 10 wickets inside two days to take a 2-1 lead, as England were unable to contend with huge turn generated by the spinners on a much-discussed playing surface.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Axar Patel wrought havoc to put the side who sit second in the rankings on the verge of the final in London.

Root not thinking of Australia

Of course, the situation in the series leaves England in the unusual position of trying to do old rivals Australia a favour.

"I wouldn’t see it as that. I would see it as us ending the series as a draw and having done something special in India," captain Joe Root told reporters.

"Ultimately it is about not having any baggage going into this game. [Winning] would be a monumental effort from this group of players."

 

Rahane: India planning to turn the screw

England have kept quiet about the standard of the pitches in the second and third Tests, concentrating on trying to learn from their struggles in such tough conditions.

India vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane says the tourists can expect more of the same.

"The wicket will be similar to the third Test match and also the second Test in Chennai. Spinning track." the batsman said.

He added: "Talk [about the pitch] happening outside is not at all affecting Indian team. We are concentrating on what we have to do. When we tour we never complain about a pitch."

England to save their Bess for last?

The tourists went with just one frontline spinner in the third Test, with Jack Leach getting the nod ahead of Dom Bess.

Root showed he possibly ought to be more than just a part-time bowler, claiming a stunning maiden five-wicket Test haul with incredible figures of 5-8 as India collapsed to 145 in their first innings.

Bess could join Leach in the team for the last match of the series, having taken five wickets in a first Test that England won by 227 runs and impressed in Sri Lanka.

 

Key match facts

- India are yet to lose a Test at Narendra Modi Stadium versus England (W2, D1). They have only been beaten twice on the ground in the longest format, winning five and drawing six.

- England have failed to post totals of more than 178 in five of their six innings in the series. The 193 they made combined in two innings in the third Test is the fourth-fewest they have mustered in a Test match when they were bowled out in both knocks.

- Root has only been out twice when playing a conventional or reverse sweep since the start of the Sri Lanka Test tour, scoring 233 runs in the process. The other England batsmen have recorded 206 runs between them over the same period, being dismissed on 12 occasions when deploying those strokes.

- James Anderson has gone 454 deliveries without dismissing Virat Kohli in Test cricket; the India skipper has been dropped three times off his bowling in that time.

- Ashwin has dismissed Ben Stokes on 11 occasions in the longest format, almost twice the number of any other bowler The England all-rounder only averages 18 against the India spinner.

The Chicago Bears need a new quarterback.

One of the better all-round rosters in the NFL once again suffered frustration in 2020.

A second consecutive 8-8 season was enough to creep into the expanded playoffs, but a tame 21-9 Wild Card defeat to the New Orleans Saints soon followed.

Mitchell Trubisky started the season at QB, and later regained his place after being benched in place of trade arrival Nick Foles, who also underwhelmed.

Ultimately, despite a late flurry from Trubisky, neither QB could propel the Bears into contention in the NFC North, which was dominated by the Green Bay Packers. A meaningful postseason run never looked likely because of those limitations under center.

Head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace know their jobs likely hang in the balance based on how they fare in 2021, with their ability to find a solution at the game's most important position crucial to the Bears’ prospects of success next season.

Here we have looked at some of the best Stats Perform data from their 2020 season to determine whether taking that next step is possible.

Offense

Despite being a playoff team, only six teams had a worse yards per game total than the Bears on offense (331.4), while 23.3 points per game was better than just nine franchises.

The Bears’ rushing offense was 25th in the NFL (102.9 yards per game), while 228.4 net passing yards per game was good for the 22nd best mark and 5.62 yards per passing play had them ranked 26th.

Continuing the trend of bottom-half offensive statistics, Chicago averaged 27.4 yards in their big passing plays of 20+ yards – the worst in the NFL - and only seven teams produced fewer than their 42 in that category.

Any struggles in the passing game cannot really be put on the two quarterbacks’ supporting cast. Bears receivers only dropped 12 of 414 catchable passes this season, an impressive rate second only to the Arizona Cardinals (nine from 296) in the league.

Fifth-round draft pick Darnell Mooney looked a steal as he registered 61 catches in 631 yards in support of Allen Robinson, who passed 100 catches (102) for the first time in his NFL career.

But generally this was an offense lacking dynamism despite the past success of Nagy offenses.

Aside from their passing problems, more could have been expected from the rushing game and a once dominant offensive line.

Running back David Montgomery had the fourth-most rushing attempts in the NFL (247) but just the 14th-most rushes of 10+ yards (24) and the 46th highest yards per carry (4.33) average.

Montgomery had a steady but unspectacular 1.8 yards after first contact, 34th in the league among rushers who had at least 50 attempts.

He also had 11 broken tackles, breaking a tackle on 4.4 per cent of plays (the 15th highest percentage in the league), though he did add 54 catches through the air. 

As a team, the 40 rushes of 10+ yards was only 25th in the league, so not much was working on this side of the ball.

Defense

The Bears still had a strong defense, though the unit fell short of the peak play it has produced in years gone by.

They ranked 11th in yardage (344.9), 14th in points allowed (23.1) and 12th in scoring efficiency, allowing 68 scoring drives out of 179.

Opponents tallied 5.41 yards per play (11th), while 18 takeaways put them in a tie for 15th, so they were in the top half of the league in all key metrics.

A sack total of 35, though, was 17th in the NFL.

Khalil Mack posted below 10 sacks (9.0) and 15 QB hits (13) for a second straight year, having not done so in either category in four years between 2015 and 2018.

But that is a reflection of the Bears front seven looking like it needs an infusion of youth, rather than an alarming drop off from Mack. Robert Quinn (2.0 sacks, 6 QB hits) had a quiet year rushing the passer opposite Mack.

The secondary, led by Kyle Fuller, Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson, allowed 10 big play TDs (tied for 14th) and 59 total big plays (16th).

Offseason

Trubisky is out of contract and a return has not been ruled out, while Foles has two years left. But if either of those players are starting at QB then it is hard to see the Bears challenging.

Potential trade options Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz have already found new teams. With the Bears picking in the bottom half of the draft and the cupboard relatively bare in terms of remaining free agent options, Pace is going to have to pull something special out of the bag at QB.

Beyond that critical position, number one wide receiver Robinson is set to hit free agency and is among the NFL's most interesting names to watch after racking up 200 catches and 2,397 receiving yards over the past two years.

The Bears have the franchise tag at their disposal, so could get extra time to work out a long-term deal or consider a tag-and-trade if Robinson expresses a desire to depart.

Chicago enter the offseason approximately $2million over the estimated cap ($185m), putting them around the middle of the league.

They will likely have some room for manoeuvre without being able to embark on a significant free agency splurge.

Having not picked in the first round since 2018, several areas of the roster are in need of attention in addition to the drama at QB. Despite the stellar play of Mack, trading for him has not produced the desired results.

With those issues to overcome at a time when Aaron Rodgers' play is putting divisional rivals Green Bay up there with the NFC's best, the Bears find themselves in an undesirable position.

It was a memorable season for the Green Bay Packers, but one that ultimately ended similarly to the last.

The Packers went down to a frustrating NFC Championship Game defeat to eventual champions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one year on from losing at the same stage to the San Francisco 49ers.

In between those events, Aaron Rodgers put together a sensational season to be named NFL MVP for the third time.

Rodgers responded perfectly to the Packers trading up and drafting his potential replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round of the 2020 draft, puzzlingly eschewing the help at wide receiver he appeared to need.

Consecutive 13-3 seasons under Matt LaFleur are to be applauded.

But one Super Bowl ring seems an unfair return for a quarterback of Rodgers’ quality, so it is time for the Packers front office to do more to get him over the hump as his career enters its latter years.

We have used Stats Perform data to scrutinise how they might go about doing it on the evidence of their 2020 campaign.

Offense

Led by a remarkable season from Rodgers, who threw for a career-high 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions, the Green Bay offense was rolling.

There were calls ahead of the season for further receiving threats to be brought in to complement number one option Davante Adams.

While those did not arrive, passing to the first-team All-Pro was a cheat code in 2020, with Adams racking up 115 catches, 1,374 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdowns in 14 regular season games.

The Packers were ninth with 256.6 net passing yards per game, but that figure came with them having the least attempts (526) of any top-10 passing offense, suggesting they often had much more in the tank if it was needed.

Similar can be said for their 57 completions of 20+ yards, which ranked ninth in the league. When Rodgers did go deep, they were highly effective and the average yards gained on those throws was 33.1, third best in the NFL.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling emerged as an impressive deep threat, averaging 44.8 yards per catch on the 10 of those 20+ yard plays he accounted for. His overall record of 20.9 yards per reception from 33 catches was the NFL's best.

The Packers' run game was strong, with 134.2 yards per game good for eighth in the NFL, while they were 16th for runs of 10+ yards with 49 such plays. Running backs contributed in the pass game too, with only Adams and tight end Robert Tonyan having more catches for the team than Aaron Jones' 47.

There may still be calls for Rodgers to be handed a stronger supporting cast, but after such an impressive year they may not be as loud this offseason, with attention perhaps better focused on other areas of the roster.

Defense

The Packers' defense was better than average in 2020 and, with a rampant Rodgers leading the offense, a defensive unit like that is all you need to contend.

In terms of headline numbers, they were ninth in yards allowed (334) and 13th in points allowed (23.1). The pass defense was seventh in yards per game (221), while they were 13th against the run.

Green Bay registered 41 sacks (10th), allowed 5.49 yards per play (14th) and their opponents’ scoring efficiency was 16th in the NFL, so you need to dive deeper to before finding anything alarming.

One area for improvement is the need for more game-changing plays. The Packers had 18 takeaways, putting them in a tie for 25th, while they only forced 26 rushing plays to result in negative yardage (tied for 28th).

A bend but do not break defensive strategy appears to have largely fared well, but playmakers can change those one-off postseason games where the margins are so fine, and the Packers do not have too many of those.

On the plus side, the defense allowed just 48 big plays of 20+ yards (third in the NFL).

However, nine of those went for TDs and Green Bay fans will not forget cornerback Kevin King's struggles against the Bucs in a hurry.

Pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith was not as productive as last year but still registered team-leading figures of 12.5 sacks, 12 TFL and 23 QB hits.

He could do with improved support up front, while the spot opposite lockdown cornerback Jaire Alexander looks like one which could do with reinforcing.

On the whole, there is room for improvement but a solid base to build from.

Offseason

Green Bay are not flush with cash as they enter the offseason around $4.5million over the estimated cap ($185m).

On the plus side, they do not have too many top contributors hitting free agency.

Retaining or replacing one of the NFL's top centers, Corey Linsley, is a key priority.

Both running backs, Jones and Jamaal Williams, are also poised to hit the market, so it may be difficult to retain both of them, especially if they want to justify drafting AJ Dillon in round two a year ago. He only played 97 offensive snaps in the regular season.

King did his free agency hopes few favours in the playoffs, while offensive line may be an area of focus after the departure of tackle Rick Wagner, who played in every game and started nine.

In terms of incomings, with limited funds Green Bay will need to pick their spots but will know a star veteran could make all the difference.

With Rodgers in fine fettle and with LaFleur overseeing a team proven to be contenders, you can expect them to be connected with any high-profile free agents who hit the open market.

That has already been the case with recently released Houston Texans icon J. J. Watt, who ultimately joined the Arizona Cardinals.

After his heroics last year, Pack fans will think any impactful signings the front office can make will be a deserving reward for Rodgers, who is back at the top of his game.

Even in the wake of a devastating blowout loss on the biggest stage in football, there remains utmost confidence in the Kansas City Chiefs.

The 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV has not shaken faith in Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid and company.

Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to find many doubting their ability to get back to the same stage next season.

Their humbling defeat came as a combination of especially poorly timed bad luck on the injury front and the sheer dominance of a stacked Tampa Bay defense.

Being overwhelmed to that degree is not something the Chiefs have dealt with regularly.

But that does not mean they can ignore the lessons from their failure to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Kansas City's 2020 campaign was another in which they frequently produced the spectacular, yet their tumble at the final hurdle has left the Chiefs with some obvious holes to address in the offseason.

Offense

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That certainly was the case for Kansas City's explosive passing offense in 2020, the Chiefs continuing to shred teams through the air amid a backdrop of mostly empty stadiums.

Mahomes led the NFL in passing yards per game with 316.0, well clear of Deshaun Watson (301.4) in second.

Watson's Houston Texans were the only team in the league to produce more passing plays of 20 yards or more (70 to 69) and more touchdown throws of at least 20 yards (16 to 15).

Their efforts through the air were backed up by underrated production on the ground.

The Chiefs ranked 12th in rushing yards per attempt (4.46), but were in the top 10 for rushes of 10 yards or more with 57.

However, just 21 of those came from rookie first-round running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Edwards-Helaire did not quite live up to his billing, averaging only 1.7 yards after contact with a defender per attempt.

Evading defenders and attempted tackles was an area in which he was expected to excel.

Yet the fact the Chiefs still finished fifth in offensive scoring efficiency despite his underwhelming efforts in that regard suggests Kansas City has scope to be even more potent if he makes the leap in his second season.

Defense

Going into Super Bowl week, there was plenty of chatter about Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo putting together a gameplan to stop Tom Brady, as he did twice for the New York Giants to help capture the Lombardi with wins over the New England Patriots.

Any plan Spagnuolo had did not bear fruits, with a talented and opportunistic defense failing to slow down a well-balanced Buccaneers' attack.

The fact Kansas City did not succeed in slowing down Tampa Bay is not entirely surprising.

Though they were tied-10th in takeaways with 22 and ranked ninth in opponent scoring efficiency, the Chiefs were often generous to opposing offenses in the regular season.

Kansas City's finished the year 18th in yards per play allowed with 5.61, that average inflated by their vulnerability against the run.

The Chiefs gave up 122.1 yards per game on the ground, putting them 21st in the NFL. Excluding kneeldowns, Kansas City stopped 19 run plays for negative yardage, the fewest in the league.

Reid's team does not appear to put too much emphasis on defending the run, treating giving up yardage on the ground as an occupational hazard of focusing on the pass.

But the flaws of that strategy were laid bare in the Super Bowl as they gave up 145 rushing yards, with Leonard Fournette's 27-yard touchdown scamper in the third quarter the back-breaking play of the game.

Kansas City boasts talent on the defensive front and in the secondary but, for a team with few limitations, it may be prudent for those running the show to focus on minimising the factors that have held the Chiefs back in terms of shutting down the ground game.

Offseason

The elephant that made its presence in the room felt during the Super Bowl was the offensive line, which arguably stands as Kansas City's most pressing need going into the offseason.

Those looking to counter that suggestion will point to the absence of starting tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher against the Bucs and the Chiefs' insistence on sticking with five-man protection, the lack of help provided to the O-Line from running backs and tight ends helping doom them to a heavy defeat as Mahomes was left to try to evade 33 pressures.

There is a case to be made, therefore, that in 2021 a more flexible approach from the coaching staff is the key rather than personnel reinforcements up front.

But the interior of the line was just as much of a problem as the tackles in the Super Bowl and, with center Austin Reiter and guard Kelechi Osemele each set for unrestricted free agency, replacements may need to be found.

And, in a year where the Chiefs are scheduled to be $18million over the salary cap at the most optimistic estimate, those replacements may have to come in the draft rather than free agency, though the return of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from a year out fighting the pandemic in his native Canada will help fill the void.

Receivers Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson look unlikely to be re-signed, meaning younger weapons to supplement Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce may be on the way.

Linebacker Damien Wilson and strong safety Daniel Sorensen are also free agents, and the events of Super Bowl may lead to the Chiefs letting them go and attempting to find faster replacements who are less exploitable in coverage and whose speed can aid Kansas City's cause in run defense.

Whether it's improving the pass protection or adding more thump against the run, the offseason of one of the NFL's most expansive teams may be defined by them adding players who can restrict the space for their opponents.

The past week in the NBA saw the Brooklyn Nets do something they hadn't previously done since February 9... lose a game.

Brooklyn's defeat to the Dallas Mavericks gave a boost to their rivals for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, headed by the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Milwaukee Bucks, another of those competitors, enjoyed a superb week with reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo unsurprisingly coming to the fore.

Meanwhile, out west, Devin Booker strung together a series of performances that justified his place in the All-Star game.

By contrast, two players significantly more familiar with that contest suffered dips in form.

Here we take a look at some of the best and worst performers across the past week, aided by Stats Perform data.

 

RUNNING HOT...

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Bucks are firmly back in contention for the top seed in the East after stretching their winning run to five games, with three of those victories coming in the past week.

Antetokounmpo was predictably pivotal to their success, tallying over 30 points in each matchup to extend his streak to four games in that regard.

He finished the week with back-to-back double-doubles against the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Clippers, scoring 36 points in the latter game.

His points per game average jumped from 28.37 to 37, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks sending a message that they are still very much a contender for the title.

Devin Booker

The All-Star snub who was later added as a replacement showed why he deserves his place in the showcase this past week.

Booker averaged 33 points across the Phoenix Suns' three games, an impressive improvement on his previous season-long average of 24.28.

He capped it in stunning fashion, dropping 43 in the win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, which saw him go 15 for 26 from the field.

At 22-11, the Suns will loom as a dangerous playoff team should he continue that kind of form.

James Harden

Brooklyn may have finally seen their eight-game winning streak come to an end, but it was a positive week for Harden individually.

Absent the other two members of the Nets' big three, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Harden could not prevent them from falling to defeat to the Mavericks.

However, he was more prolific from beyond the arc this past week, averaging 4.67 made threes having entered the week putting up 3.08 per game.

Harden is converting threes at the highest rate of his career. He is shooting 39.7 per cent from beyond the arc and 41.8 per cent since his trade to Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets.

But he is attempting only 8.2 a game, the fewest since the 2015-16 season (8.0). If he continues to shoot more from deep and maintains his consistency in converting those attempts, a loaded Nets team will have yet another dimension.

GOING COLD...

Paul George

An up-and-down week for the Clippers started brilliantly for George, who racked up 30 points in a win over the Washington Wizards, going six of seven from three-point range.

But he tailed off thereafter, following up two 13-point efforts against the Memphis Grizzlies with a mediocre 16-point display in the loss to the Bucks.

His points per game average fell from 24.36 entering the week to 18 over the past seven days, and the Clippers will need a lot more from him if they are to earn a top-two seed in the West.

Terry Rozier

The man known as 'Scary Terry' did little to terrify opponents over the past week.

Rozier entered the week averaging a career-high 21.15 points per game but that dipped to 13.5 over the four games the Charlotte Hornets contested in the last seven days.

He put up 24 points in a loss to the Golden State Warriors but could not manage more than 12 in his other three outings.

Still averaging 20.2 a game for the season, the Hornets will want Rozier to deliver the kind of performance he did against Golden State consistently as they seek a first playoff berth since 2015-16.

Stephen Curry

Among the players to suffer the biggest decline in three-point shooting this past week was the man most consider the greatest shooter of all time.

Curry had been converting 5.03 three-pointers a game for the season but hit on an average of 3.25 a game as the Warriors won three of four last week.

He still enjoyed a 37-point outing against the New York Knicks, scoring seven triples in that triumph, but was one for 11 from deep versus the Indiana Pacers and two for seven in Sunday's loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

However, with Curry experiencing a season in which he is averaging his highest points per game tally (29.5) since his unanimous MVP season of 2015-16 (30.1), the smart money says he will soon return to form from beyond the arc.

Another one bites the dust, as Queen once sang, with the latest weekend of Premier League action coming and going in the seeming blink of an eye.

There was controversy involving Brighton and Hove Albion's goal that never was thanks to referee Lee Mason in West Brom's win against the Seagulls – the Baggies' past five home wins have now been overseen by five different managers (Sam Allardyce, Slaven Bilic, Darren Moore, Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis).

Liverpool finally returned to winning ways in the Premier League by triumphing 2-0 at Sheffield United, becoming just the second side to rack up 7,000 top-flight goals in English football along the way (Merseyside rivals Everton being the other team to reach such a landmark).

And there were convincing wins for Tottenham and Arsenal against Burnley and Leicester City respectively.

But here are a few of the quirkier bits you might not have spotted, with a little help from the folks at Opta.
 

Raise your bat, Pep – 200 not out for Guardiola

For those of you not paying attention at the back, Manchester City are looking pretty unstoppable right now.

Saturday's 2-1 triumph over a West Ham side in decent nick themselves means the runaway Premier League leaders have racked up a mind-boggling 20 straight wins in all competitions.

For boss Pep Guardiola, it represented a 200th victory across all comps in only his 273rd match in charge of the Citizens, comfortably the best record by a manager of an English top-flight side to reach that landmark.

Jose Mourinho (Chelsea - 309 games), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool - 333), Don Revie (Leeds United - 344), Bob Paisley (Liverpool - 351) make up the top five.

Fewer clean sheets than a one-star hotel in Newcastle-Wolves

Once upon a time, Newcastle United were the great entertainers of the Premier League – particularly in the revered 'Keegan years'. 

Nowadays, the goals don't flow quite as freely under Steve Bruce but their 1-1 draw against Wolves produced a fact more in keeping with the history of those Halcyon days. 

Both teams have scored in each of the 12 Premier League games they have played against each other - the most played fixture in the competition with neither side keeping a clean sheet.

Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo also oversaw his 102nd Premier League game at Wolves, overtaking Mick McCarthy (101) as the most matches in charge of the club in the competition.

Rare blanks in Chelsea-Man Utd but Red Devils' away-day joy continues

Chelsea' goalless draw at home to Manchester United on Sunday wasn't exactly one to remember.

The reverse clash also finished without a goal, marking only the second time this fixture had produced two 0-0 draws in a campaign – the other coming way back in 1921-22.

For the Red Devils, though, the draw means they are unbeaten in 20 away league matches (W13 D7), a run that coincidentally started in the corresponding fixture last term.

It is the joint-fifth longest run without an away defeat in top-flight history. Arsenal (27 and 23), Liverpool (21) and Nottingham Forest (21) have all boasted longer streaks.

Manchester United lost further ground to Premier League leaders Manchester City as they played out a 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. 

The Red Devils are now 12 points behind Pep Guardiola's seemingly unstoppable side, who are well on their way to a third title in four seasons. 

Elsewhere, Liverpool returned to winning ways against Sheffield United and Arsenal came from behind to beat Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. 

A Gareth Bale-inspired Tottenham cruised past Burnley 4-0, while Crystal Palace and Fulham played out a dour 0-0 draw.

Chelsea 0-0 Manchester United: Red Devils' 'big six' struggles continue

While this result stretched United's unbeaten away run in the league to a whopping 20 matches – the joint-fifth-longest run in top-flight history – there was still a sense of disappointment at full-time. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have now failed to score in their last six league meetings with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City or Tottenham, with each of their last four such matches finishing goalless. 

This fixture has now finished 0-0 in both matches in a single league campaign for just the second time, the other occasion coming back in 1921-22. 

It marked the first time Chelsea have drawn 0-0 against an opponent home and away in the Premier League in the same season for the first time since 2008-09 against Everton, while United last did so against Aston Villa in 1996-97.

Thomas Tuchel can at least toast becoming just the second coach to not concede a single goal in his first four home matches in the Premier League after Brendan Rodgers in 2011-12 with Swansea City. Including his final two such matches in charge of Paris Saint-Germain, Tuchel has gone six games without conceding at home in league competition.

Sheffield United 0-2 Liverpool: Klopp's men get back on track

After four consecutive top-flight defeats champions Liverpool got their top-four bid back on track at Bramall Lane. 

Curtis Jones opened the scoring with his second goal for the Reds. In doing so, he became the youngest Liverpool player (20 years and 29 days) to score an away Premier League goal since Raheem Sterling in December 2014 against Burnley (20y 18d).

Their second – an own goal by Kean Bryan – was their 7,000th in the English top-flight, becoming only the second team to reach that tally after Merseyside rivals Everton (7,108).

Adrian was in goal for Jurgen Klopp's men and the Spaniard has now been on the winning side in 10 of his 12 Premier League starts for the club, although this was only his third clean sheet. 

The Blades, meanwhile, have now lost 21 games this season. They are the first side since Newport County in the fourth tier in 1970-71 to lose as many as 21 of their first 26 matches in an English Football League season.

Tottenham 4-0 Burnley: Brilliant Bale torments sorry Clarets

Bale was at his best as Tottenham registered their biggest Premier League home win since they thumped the Clarets 5-0 in December 2019. 

His first came after just 68 seconds, which was the fastest goal Burnley have ever conceded in a Premier League match. The previous quickest was a Yerry Mina effort after 99 seconds for Everton in December 2018.

Harry Kane doubled Spurs' advantage to continue his fine run against Sean Dyche's side. No player has scored more Premier League goals against Burnley than Kane (eight, level with Riyad Mahrez), with the England striker involved in 10 goals in his last six league appearances against them (seven goals, three assists).

Lucas Moura added a third before Bale wrapped up the scoring to take his goal involvements to seven in his last four appearances in all competitions. 

At the back, Hugo Lloris celebrated his 100th clean sheet in the competition. He became the 16th goalkeeper to reach that landmark, while he is the ninth quickest to reach it (285 games).

Burnley, meanwhile, have now lost 12 of their last 15 away top-flight matches against Spurs, shipping 48 goals and conceding at least four goals in seven games.

Leicester City 1-3 Arsenal: Gunners storm back to end 'top three' hoodoo

Arsenal ended a four-game winless run against the Foxes in the Premier League, securing their first victory against them in the competition since October 2018. 

It started poorly for Mikel Arteta's side, though, with Youri Tielemans scoring his sixth goal of the season early on. That is as many as he had scored in his first two seasons at the club combined. 

David Luiz pulled the Gunners level before Alexandre Lacazette put them ahead from the penalty spot. The France international has converted all five of his penalties for Arsenal across all competitions, while only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (13) has now netted more goals for the Gunners than Lacazette (11) this term.

Nicolas Pepe sealed the three points and has now equalled his Premier League goal tally from last season, scoring five this campaign in 13 fewer appearances (18 this term, 31 last season).

The result marked Arsenal's first away victory against a team starting the day in the top three of the Premier League since January 2015 (2-0 v Manchester City) – they were winless in their last 14 such games ahead of this clash (D3 L11).

Crystal Palace 0-0 Fulham: Lucky Eagles escape with a point

It should come as no surprise that this game ended goalless given Fulham's penchant for draws this season. 

Just one of the Cottagers' first 21 Premier League games under Scott Parker ended level, but the stalemate at Selhurst Park was their 10th draw in their last 15 top-flight matches. 

They were comfortably the better side and attempted 16 shots. Fourteen of those came in the second period – the most they have had in the final 45 minutes of a Premier League away game since 2003-04 without scoring.

Palace, meanwhile, have somehow managed to pick up four points from their last two league games despite attempting just six shots (facing 41), having only nine touches in the opposition box (compared to 70 by their opponents), and completing just 442 passes (compared to their opponents' 1065).

Indeed, they managed just 33 attempts in their five Premier League matches in February – the lowest recorded by a team in a single month of at least five games since the start of the 2003-04 campaign.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could not hide his frustration at Manchester United's forwards after Sunday's 0-0 draw at Chelsea saw the club's disappointing run against the Premier League's other so-called "big six" sides continued.

The match was overshadowed by the controversial decision of referee Stuart Attwell not to award United a first-half penalty when Callum Hudson-Odoi handled in the area – the official sticking to his decision despite looking at the incident on the pitchside monitor.

While Solskjaer and Luke Shaw vented their anger at the situation in post-match interviews, the manager's news conference eventually turned to the other major talking point; United's inability to score against the league's better teams.

"We're not scoring enough goals, that's for sure," Solskjaer told reporters.

He is not wrong – the draw at Stamford Bridge was the fourth successive 0-0 draw United have played out against other "big six" opposition, while they have not scored in any of their past six meetings with teams of this calibre.

"We've come away with another good clean sheet, but as I said before this game, the next step for this team is to win these games, get the goal we need to get three points," he added.

"Of course, we should have got a penalty and I'd back Bruno [Fernandes] any day of the week, but we didn't have the right quality at the end in the four or five good breakaways in the second half."

While United did have 11 shots on Sunday, their xG (expected goals) rating was a poor 0.4 – Chelsea's was 1.16. While this suggests Thomas Tuchel's men were more wasteful, it also highlights the visitors struggled to craft quality chances.

This is by no means a new phenomenon in games of such magnitude either – United's overall xG in the matches in question is just 4.9, by no means a huge figure, yet they're still underperforming significantly in this area given their actual record of none scored.

"We haven't had the quality, fine margins or luck," Solskjaer said when asked to explain United's issues in these games.

"Today, it was mostly about the lack of quality in the last third. We had some moments when we were close, had some great counter opportunities, [but the] last pass or cross wasn't good enough.

"[We had] some near moments of course, Fred and Mason [Greenwood] had a few decent attempts, but we didn't have enough. That's the next step for us, and we will improve.

"Last season we had some great results but in a different manner. At the moment we try to develop this style and develop ourselves to win these games. Everything was really good defensively."

And that is perhaps the salient point – United have improved defensively in these games, with the solitary goal conceded in this run being a penalty against Arsenal.

But there's a chance this altered approach is impacting United's effectiveness going forward, with Solskjaer's men potentially preferring to play out a draw instead of going for it and risking defeat.

After all, United's shot count of 66 in the past six clashes with "big six" opposition is less than the 74 they've faced. While they may not be constantly sitting back, they're also not as threatening as the opponents.

The key to understanding this shift may lie with the game directly before the aforementioned run – it was the remarkable 6-1 defeat to Tottenham.

Only Solskjaer knows if that battering – which was obviously not helped by a sending off – has been playing on the minds of himself and his players, but it's also a thought former United captain Roy Keane has had.

"Maybe they are scarred from the Spurs game. I don't know the scoop, we're just guessing," Keane said. "But maybe their mindset is [impacted] going into these games. We've seen poor games.

"Sometimes you have a 0-0 and it's a fantastic game, the keepers are fantastic, missed penalties or whatever. But some of these games we've watched and covered have been really boring, considering there's some really good attacking players in the team."

For better or worse, United don't have to wait long for another opportunity to put this run right – the Manchester derby is less than a week away.

Diego Simeone earned a place in the Atletico Madrid history books with Sunday's win over Villarreal.

The Argentine coach enjoyed his 308th victory in charge of the club in Atletico's 2-0 LaLiga triumph.

An own goal from Alfonso Pedraza and a fine strike from Joao Felix secured the win, sending Atletico five points clear at the top of the table.

In so doing, Simeone matched the esteemed Luis Aragones as the Atletico head coach with the highest number of victories in all competitions.

Simeone's latest win came in his 512th match in charge. Aragones, the only man to take charge of more games, reached 308 wins in 612 matches at a rate of 50.3 per cent.

Atletico have drawn 120 times and lost only 84 games under Simeone, who took over on December 23 in 2011 and has since become the club's most successful coach.

TROPHIES

Aragones, a star for Atletico as a player, also won six trophies as head coach. Simeone, with seven, is the only man with more.

In a little over nine years in charge, the former Argentina midfielder has led Atletico to two UEFA Super Cups, two Europa Leagues, one Supercopa de Espana, one Copa del Rey and, most famously, their only LaLiga title in the past 25 years back in 2013-14.

Simeone has helped to tip the balance of power somewhat in Spain's capital. He is the only coach to have won three finals against Real Madrid in three different competitions: the Copa del Rey (2013), the Supercopa de Espana (2014) and the UEFA Super Cup (2018).

He has twice faced them in the Champions League final, too, losing after extra time in 2014 and on penalties two years later.

 

TRAILBLAZING

Among South American coaches, only Helenio Herrera (359) has taken charge of more LaLiga matches than Simeone (351).

All of those have been with Atletico, of course. There are just two coaches to oversee more LaLiga games at a single club: Aragones at Atletico (407) and Miguel Munoz at Real Madrid (424).

Munoz won 357 of his 605 games in charge of Los Blancos in all competitions, so Simeone has a little way to go to surpass that tally. Still, he has already won more games than Barcelona record-holder Johan Cruyff, who won 244 times out of 421 matches.

 

TITANS

Antoine Griezmann is the player to score the most goals under Simeone at Atletico, with 133 in all competitions.

The rest of the top five includes Diego Costa (75), Radamel Falcao (58), Koke (44) and Saul Niguez (43).

Koke leads the way for assists, with 95, comfortably clear of Griezmann (46), Gabi (44), Angel Correa (43) and Juanfran (32).

There was an enticing Italian appetiser to Chelsea and Manchester United's lukewarm main course on Sunday.

Antonio Conte's Inter stretched their lead at the top of Serie A to seven points, beating Genoa 3-0 at San Siro thanks to goals from three former United players. They've now won 14 of their previous 17 league games and failed to score just once in that run. They will more than likely become champions for the first time since 2010 under Jose Mourinho, the last manager to deliver trophies at United and the most successful modern coach Chelsea have had.

Assessing the match at Stamford Bridge through the lens of another game in another country probably tells you enough about the quality of the contest.

With Leicester City having lost to Arsenal and Manchester City beating West Ham, this was a chance for United to consolidate second place in the table, and just maybe keep their title hopes from sputtering into ash. For Chelsea, earlier results meant this represented an opening into the top four and a means to close the gap to the Red Devils to three points, all while prolonging the Thomas Tuchel unbeaten streak to nine games.

They may not sound like the loftiest of ambitions, but this was not a game of ambition, or excitement, or precision. It was the coronavirus football calendar made flesh: frenetic, apprehensive, with a permeating feeling that things would, eventually, get better.

That Inter reference was not meant as a 'what if'. Conte's time at Chelsea was a success but the relationship had soured long before they parted ways. As for United, nobody could honestly claim they should have kept Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez, scorers of Inter's second and third goals. And while Romelu Lukaku continues to rampage through Serie A defences, United have become leading goalscorers in the Premier League this season without their old number nine, who had wanted to leave anyway.

Still, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, United have swapped potency for pragmatism when it comes to facing the 'big six'. It's made for soporific viewing: 0-0 twice against Chelsea, 0-1 and 0-0 against Arsenal, 0-0 against Liverpool, 0-0 and 0-2 (in the EFL Cup) against City. All their previous four such games have ended goalless. At least that 6-1 battering at home to Tottenham in October saw them score a penalty.

Solskjaer highlighted the need for more in "tighter games" in the build-up, but his message – and Tuchel's – was still contain first and attack later. Marcus Rashford's whirligig of a free-kick was as close to a goal as they came in the first half, beyond a penalty shout for a Callum Hudson-Odoi handball. Chelsea were scarcely more enterprising, but at least Olivier Giroud was a centimetre or two of scalp from heading a Hudson-Odoi cross on target.

There were flashes after the break. Mason Greenwood cracked a shot narrowly over, Scott McTominay planted one in Edouard Mendy's midriff, a curling right-foot shot from Fred drew an amused thumbs-up from his manager. At least he was smiling; even a grin seems beyond Anthony Martial at the moment, the striker touching the ball six times in his 11 minutes on the pitch.

Perhaps a goalless draw really was Solskjaer's plan all along: perhaps even the baby-faced assassin accepts City have long since killed the title competition. In that sense, moving a point above Leicester, maintaining the gap to Chelsea and stretching the club-record unbeaten away run to 20 league games is no disaster.

But is this the way to win titles again? The way to get at City at the Etihad Stadium next week? The so-called United Way?

Those Chelsea fans who reacted angrily to Frank Lampard's sacking appeared to settle upon a conclusion when it came to what the problem was at Stamford Bridge.

The youth products given the opportunity to shine in the Chelsea first team by the club's all-time leading goalscorer were not the problem. They were giving supporters a bright vision of the future and a recognisable identity.

Players acquired at great expense from abroad who seemed to fill no role in particular and clogged up the numbers in the squad, there was the problem.

You might say, in this analysis, the problem was players like Mateo Kovacic.

However, the former Real Madrid midfielder has been a mainstay since Thomas Tuchel replaced Lampard at the helm.

A coach who has gained a reputation for being standoffish with players over the course of his career has admittedly fallen head over heels.

"I love him,” Tuchel said after the win over Newcastle United earlier this month. "It is very easy [to love Kovacic].

"You can wake the guy up at 3am and he will be at Cobham [Chelsea's training ground] at 3.15 ready to give everything."

Previously, Chelsea fans might have taken this to mean Kovacic was being selected because he is a light sleeper who lives locally.

The Croatia international lacks the range of passing with which Jorginho is blessed, nor does he have N'Golo Kante's combative streak or the creative zest of Mason Mount.

However, his quality in tight spaces and underrated dribbling ability is something Kovacic uses to fine effect. Tuchel, a tactician who places a primacy upon his team's positional play, has quickly identified his key man when it comes to shifting Chelsea up the field.

Among players in the Premier League to have attempted 40 or more dribbles this season, Kovacic has the highest success rate of 81 per cent, having rounded out 34 of his 42.

Across Europe's top five leagues, only Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti is able to boast a better return of 41 out of 49 for 83.7 per cent.

Of players to have featured frequently in central midfield this season, only Manchester City duo Rodri and Bernardo Silva can better Kovacic's 368 carries – defined by Opta as a player moving the ball five metres or more – and 3,821.2 metres carry distance.

For carries ending with a completed pass, Kovacic is second on 309, behind Rodri (352) and a shade ahead of Silva (306).

Although he is yet to score in 31 appearances this season heading into a crunch weekend clash against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, Kovacic is certainly eager to involve himself at the business end of the field when the opportunity arises – further underlining his credentials when it comes to progressing play.

No player in the Premier League this season has taken a shot having been involved in a build-up move more frequently than Kovacic (10).

If a few of those attempts fly in before the season is out to secure a top-four place and maybe even some silverware, Kovacic's popularity will surely reach far beyond the confines of Cobham and his not-so-secret admirer Tuchel.

Manchester City will be looking to stretch their record winning run to 20 matches when they welcome fellow in-form side West Ham to the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League this weekend.

Pep Guardiola's men are 10 points clear at the summit and two of their players feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks, along with a couple of Everton men on the back of last week's long-awaited derby win at Liverpool.

Manchester United, Tottenham and Leicester City players are also selected ahead of games against Chelsea, Burnley and Arsenal respectively.

 

EDERSON

There are many factors behind the leaders' winning run - not least an incredible defensive record, with goalkeeper Ederson more than playing his part.

The Brazil international has kept 15 clean sheets from 24 Premier League games this term, averaging one every 1.6 matches.

Only two keepers to have played at least 10 times have averaged fewer games per clean sheet across an entire season - Chelsea's Petr Cech (24 in 35 apps in 2004-05) and former Manchester United stopper Edwin van der Sar (21 in 33 apps in 2008-09).

JOAO CANCELO

Simply keeping out the opposition is not enough in the life of a modern day full-back, best epitomised by Cancelo at Man City.

On top of helping City to that formidable defensive record, he has also created the most chances (34) from open play among fellow Premier League defenders this season.

Cancelo may only have set up two goals in the top flight this season, but he has the highest number of expected assists (4.28) among defenders, just ahead of Manchester United's Luke Shaw (4.04).

 

LUCAS DIGNE

Carlo Ancelotti was delighted with the news Digne had signed a new long-term deal with Everton this week and little wonder given the full-back's impact on the side.

No Premier League defender has more assists than the 27-year-old's six this season - level with West Ham's Aaron Cresswell and one more than Andy Robertson and Shaw.

Since Digne's debut for Everton in August 2018, only Liverpool pair Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (28) have assisted more goals than the Frenchman (17).

GYLFI SIGURDSSON

There was a point when Sigurdsson's time at Everton appeared to be up not so long ago, but the creative midfielder has more than proved his worth to the side of late.

He was been involved in six Premier League goals in 23 appearances this term - four goals and two assists - which is one more than he managed in 35 games last season.

That is a tally he will be confident of building on this gameweek, as the Iceland international has only scored more Premier League goals against Chelsea (six) than he has versus opponents Southampton (five).

 

MARCUS RASHFORD

In the week he celebrates the five-year anniversary since scoring twice on his United debut, Rashford takes on his favourite opponents in Chelsea.

The United academy product has scored five times against the Blues in all competitions and registered a couple of assists.

Only against Leicester City has he found the net as many times, while only against Newcastle United and West Ham (both seven) has he been directly involved in more goals.

HARRY KANE

If Rashford enjoys playing against Chelsea, the same is true of Kane against Tottenham's next opponents Burnley.

The England skipper has been directly involved in 10 goals in nine Premier League appearances against the Clarets, finding the net seven times and laying on three assists.

Burnley's defenders will not look forward to coming up against Kane, with Riyad Mahrez the only player to score against them more often (eight times) in their Premier League history.

 

JAMIE VARDY

Vardy's scoring record against the division's traditional top four is well known by now, particularly when it comes to facing Arsenal.

The Leicester striker has scored 11 goals in 12 previous Premier League appearances against the Gunners, including a late winner in the reverse fixture.

Those 11 strikes place Vardy behind only Wayne Rooney for goals scored against Arsenal in the competition, the United legend netting 12 times against the London club in his career.

It was another special day for Ravichandran Ashwin as the India all-rounder claimed his 400th Test wicket at the stunning Narendra Modi Stadium. 

Ashwin dismissed Jofra Archer during a short-lived day-night match against England in Ahmedabad, in the process becoming only the fourth India bowler to reach the landmark. 

The spinner joins compatriots Anil Kumble, Kapil Dev and Harbhajan Singh in the 400 club, while he is the 16th player to achieve the feat in the longest format. 

Ashwin brought up the milestone in only his 77th match; there will surely be plenty more to come for the 34-year-old, too. 

His standout numbers with the ball in the Test arena since making his debut versus West Indies in November 2011 make for impressive reading.


A five-star performer

Ashwin has taken 29 five-wicket Test hauls, a tally only six players have bettered: Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Richard Hadlee, Kumble, Rangana Herath and James Anderson. 

The in-form Ashwin is just one shy of England seamer Anderson's total of 30, having taken 6-61 in the second innings of the first Test and 5-43 in the first innings of a second match India won emphatically to level the series. 

While not quite able to add to the collection in Ahmedabad, he still finished the game with impressive match figures of 7-74. 

Ashwin has taken six five-wicket hauls in as many Tests against New Zealand - more than any other side.  He has claimed 10 scalps in a Test on seven occasions and seven in an innings five times.


A thorn in Australia's side

Ashwin has racked up 89 of his wickets against Australia, more than any other side.

They were taken in 18 matches at an average of 31.5, while he has also thrived against England over the years - taking 73 wickets at 32.2 apiece.

Ashwin has 39 Test wickets in Australia, more than any nation other than his homeland.

His best performance came in October 2016 against New Zealand in Indore, helping himself to match figures of 13-140 - including 7-59 in the second innings of a crushing 321-run win.


A liking for left-handers

Ashwin has had great success bowling at left-handers over the years. 

He has dismissed a left-hander on 205 occasions, with his average against them at 19.5 compared to 31.2 against right-handers before play began in the third Test.

Ben Stokes is among the batsmen who has suffered at the hands of Ashwin the most; he has dismissed the England all-rounder 11 times in total.

Only Muralitharan managed to make it to 400 in fewer Tests and while Kumble's final total of 619 may be an ambitious target, it seems certain that by the time Ashwin decides to retire, India's newest member of the prestigious club will occupy at least second place on their all-time list for wickets.

Of all the hotly debated topics of the sports world, perhaps none is harder to reach a conclusion on than what exactly constitutes an MVP.

Whether discussing NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, there has never been a definitive answer on what someone needs to do to win a sport's most coveted individual award.  

Clearly, putting up impressive numbers is a must, that much is obvious. But can a player truly be an MVP for example if his team doesn't reach the playoffs? Or what if that player, regardless of statistics, is surrounded by all kinds of talent, should his chances then be diminished? And where does leadership come in? Shouldn't a candidate judged to be the best in the league be not only a scoring or offensive leader, but also a motivational force for his teammates to follow?  

This NBA season is bringing that debate back around, as several players have legitimate cases to take home the award.   

LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry are all worthy of being named MVP, but another player is doing even more with less and is truly defining what it means to be most valuable: Damian Lillard.  

Lillard is a seven-time All-Star and has been voted first or second All-NBA four times but has never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting. Lillard is having the best of his nine NBA seasons while almost single-handedly pushing the Trail Blazers to the upper reaches of the Western Conference.  

It's far from just scoring a bunch of points, though the Blazers star is doing plenty of that. He ranks fourth in the NBA with 29.6 points per game and is eighth with 8.0 assists. His 124 three-pointers trail only Curry, and he is fourth in free throws made (211). Lillard is tied with Bradley Beal (18) for the most 30-point games this season and is tied for the league lead (Curry) with 14 games of 30 points and five three-pointers. 

Where Lillard really separates himself from the pack is his continued performances in late and close situations (defined as the last two minutes of games separated by four points or fewer).   

Lillard has always been electric in high-stakes spots but he has taken it to a new level this season. He leads the NBA in points (52), is tied for the lead in field goals made (15) and hasn't missed a free throw (17 for 17) in late and close situations. He's also 15 for 20 (62.5 percent) from the field and five for eight from three-point range.   

The only other players in double figures in field goals made in late and close situations are James and Zach LaVine. James, however, is 14 for 31 (45.2 percent) from the floor and LaVine is 15 for 35 (42.9). 

To further illustrate Lillard’s clutch play, he's made nine of 13 shots (69.2 percent) in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within four points. LaVine is the only other player with as many as nine field goals in that situation but he's nine for 23 (39.1 percent).  

During Portland's 6-1 surge from February 9-20, Lillard was sensational. He averaged 32.7 points and 9.6 assists while shooting 38.8 percent (33 for 85) from three-point range.  

He tallied at least 30 points and 10 assists in four consecutive games during that stretch, the second straight season he's done that. The only other players to accomplish that since 1985-86 are Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Doncic.  

In a 126-124 win at New Orleans on February 17, Lillard became just the third player since at least 1985-86 to record 43 points and 16 assists in a game, joining Harden (twice) and Trae Young. Lillard had 11 fourth-quarter points in that win, including a go-ahead three-point play with 16.5 seconds remaining.  

Three nights earlier in a 121-118 win at Dallas, Lillard drilled a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 32 seconds remaining for the last of his 34 points.  

It should be mentioned that the other starters in those games for Portland were Robert Covington (waived, traded three times), Derrick Jones Jr (undrafted, waived), Enes Kanter (waived, traded three times) and Gary Trent Jr. (second-round draft pick).   

Sure, the Blazers also had the promising Anfernee Simons in that game, and 54-year-old Carmelo Anthony (not his real age but he's been around a while).  

Lillard is without question doing remarkable things with a very pedestrian supporting cast. And Portland (18-13) is doing far more than just getting by, winning eight of 12 to move up to second in the Northwest Division and fifth in the super competitive Western Conference.  

One big reason for Portland's success is its record in close games and Lillard has everything to do with that. After going 18-21 last season in games decided by nine points or fewer, the Blazers are 11-5 (.688) this season. Only Philadelphia (.765) has a better winning percentage. 

Portland's rise is remarkably coming without starting guard CJ McCollum, who has been out since January 16 with a broken foot, and starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a broken wrist two days earlier.  

Since January 18, when the Blazers began playing without McCollum and Nurkic, Lillard ranks third in the NBA in points per game (31.2) and fifth in assists (9.0). He's also third in 3-pointers made (196) and sixth in free throws made (119).  

With McCollum and his 26.7 points per game on the sidelines, Lillard has needed to carry perhaps the greatest offensive load of any player, and that can be a challenging proposition for any point guard.   

Curry, for example, while also a point guard, has Draymond Green to facilitate the offense, leaving him free to look for ways to score. James for all his incredible exploits isn't solely responsible for making sure Anthony Davis (when healthy) gets his touches and Embiid has Ben Simmons to distribute and score. Even the mega-talented Doncic has 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis to attract attention from opposing defenses.  

No team playing Portland this season has been too concerned with anyone on the floor other than Lillard, particularly now with McCollum out. Covington, Jones and Kanter are solid players but no team has ever installed a game plan designed to keep the ball out of their hands.  

Portland are 12.3 points per 100 possessions better when Lillard is on the floor. By comparison, the Lakers are 8.3 points better with James on the court and the Warriors score 9.9 more when Curry is in the game. 

While there clearly are other factors at play in these numbers, it's not difficult to make a case that no other player in the league is more valuable to their team than Lillard to the Blazers right now.  

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