The tennis season has begun with Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, Paula Badosa and Thanasi Kokkinakis among the champions at small-scale events in Australia.

Yet there has been one dominant story in the sport and little else has had a look-in in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

Now that Novak Djokovic knows his fate, there is the welcome prospect of eyes turning to matters on the tennis court, rather than the Federal Court.

With the action getting under way in Melbourne on Monday, Stats Perform looks at the main protagonists and what the numbers tell us about another high-stakes grand slam.

Djokovic absence blows open men's draw

As defending champion Djokovic heads for home, it is worth a reminder of how he has dominated this tournament.

Nine of his grand slam titles have come in Melbourne, and he has taken the trophy in each of the last three years, helping him cosy up alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 majors, an all-time record they share. Of the 'Big Three', only Nadal is in the draw this year, with Federer currently on the injured list.

Djokovic has the highest win percentage in the Open Era (since 1969) at the Australian Open, among players with 20 or more wins (91.1 per cent – W82 L8). He was hoping to join Nadal (13 French Opens) and Margaret Court (11 Australian Opens) in the exclusive club of players to reach double figures for singles titles at one slam.

The Serb was also aspiring to become the first man in the Open Era to win four consecutive Australian Opens. It happened once before the tour turned professional, with Roy Emerson winning five in a row from 1963 to 1967. Djokovic has left Melbourne with the title every time that he has made it through to the semi-finals.

 

So who takes the title now?

Only Bjorn Borg (89.2 per cent) has a higher winning percentage in grand slam matches than Nadal (87.7 per cent) and Djokovic (87.5 per cent) in the Open Era, among players with 100 or more wins. So why not Nadal?

The 35-year-old and Djokovic have carved up 12 of the last 14 grand slam titles, Nadal winning four of those (three French Opens, one US Open). He is battling back from a foot injury lay-off and coronavirus, and might need to get the early rounds out of the way without undue stress to stand a chance at the business end.

The two exceptions in the Nadal-Djokovic sequence of slam dominance have come at the US Open, with Dominic Thiem winning in New York in 2020 and Daniil Medvedev triumphing at Djokovic's expense in last year's Flushing Meadows final. Thiem is not in Australia, but world number two Medvedev is, looking to become the third Russian man to win two slams, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.

The last man other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back slam singles title was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000), but that is Medvedev's objective now, and he has the game to pull it off.

Nadal has reached at least the quarter-final stage in 15 of his last 16 grand slam appearances, winning six of those majors (four French Opens and two US Opens), so he may well be a factor.

Who else is in the frame? Alexander Zverev probably, having reached the quarter-finals in Australia in the last two seasons (SF in 2020 and QF in 2021). He won the Olympic Games and ATP Finals titles last year, so a grand slam is an obvious next step. He might want to keep double faults in check though, having served a tour-high 113 in slams last season.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Australian semi-finals in 2019 and 2021, so throw him into the mix too, and Matteo Berrettini might be a threat. The Italian, a runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon in July, served more aces than any other player in grand slams last year (311 aces, 16.4 on average per match).

 

Others have more modest ambitions

Andy Murray is back at the Australian Open for the first time since 2019, when he lost in the first round against Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets and was more or less given his last rites as a tennis pro after the match, having indicated he was close to retirement.

The five-time Australian Open runner-up last won a match in this tournament in 2017, when he reached round four. A tough opener against Nikoloz Basilashvili awaits.

Spanish 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez will make his 80th appearance in a grand slam and become the second man in the Open Era with 80 or more appearances at the four majors, after Federer (81).

Do not expect an Australian to be men's champion, by the way. The last time an Australian reached the men's singles final was 2005, when Lleyton Hewitt lost against Safin, and the last home champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

Barty backed in stacked women's draw

For the first time since 1997, neither Serena nor Venus Williams will take part in the Australian Open. Yet the women's tour is in rude health, even without those great bastions.

Ash Barty is world number one and a standout pick for many, only enhancing her claims after winning an Adelaide International title in the run-up to this fortnight.

But there is staggering depth on the women's side at present, and Barty will face stiff competition.

Incredibly, the last five grand slam finals have featured 10 different women, and teenager Emma Raducanu's against-all-odds US Open triumph in September shows best of all that new stars are emerging.

Yet since 2000, only three non-seeded players have reached the women's singles final at the Australian Open: Serena Williams in 2007, Justine Henin in 2010 and Garbine Muguruza in 2020. 

Barty could become the first Australian to be women's champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978, and the first to reach the final since Wendy Turnbull lost to Hana Mandlikova in 1980.

The Queenslander is the top seed, and the last time the number one failed to reach at least the fourth round at Melbourne Park was in 1979, when Virginia Ruzici lost her opening match. Barty ended a long wait for an Australian winner of the women's title at Wimbledon last year, so why not closer to home as well?

 

Naomi Osaka is back, so what should we expect?

Truth be told, that's hard to know. Osaka took time out from tennis after the US Open to focus on her mental health and enjoyed hanging out with friends, before deciding she missed tennis enough to go back on tour.

She had three wins at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament recently before withdrawing from a fourth match, saying her body had "got a shock" from the intensity. As defending champion in the season's first major, she has a target on her back and will need to find a way to handle that.

Over the past six seasons, only Osaka has managed to win back-to-back grand slam singles titles among the women, and she has done so twice (US Open 2018 and Australian Open 2019, plus US Open 2020 and Australian Open 2021).

The last player to win back-to-back women's Australian Open singles titles was Victoria Azarenka (2012 and 2013), so it does not happen regularly.

Osaka has an 85 per cent win rate at this tournament: since 2000, only Jennifer Capriati (90 per cent) and Serena Williams (89 per cent) have had a higher win percentage in the main draw.

 

You want challengers to the big two? Try sticking a pin in the draw

The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which goes to the champion, is a trophy that upwards of a dozen women will seriously believe they can win.

Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semi-finals of the last two slams but is mired in some kind of hellish serving groove, having made 74 double faults in her last four matches and lost the last three in a row.

Anett Kontaveit won a tour-high 39 matches on hard courts last year but has only been to one grand slam quarter-final – last year in Australia, losing to Simona Halep.

What about Ons Jabeur, who matched Kontaveit for a tour-high 48 wins across all surfaces last year? The Tunisian is queen of the drop shot, making 147 successful such plays on tour last year, more than any other player, and recently reached the top 10 in the WTA rankings for the first time.

Maria Sakkari reached two slam semi-finals last year, the first of her career, and the form of Barbora Krejcikova and Badosa in the past week in Melbourne marks them out as contenders. Both are recent fast-risers, Krejcikova already with a French Open title to show.

WTA Finals champion Muguruza could be the second Spaniard to twice reach the Melbourne title match, after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (1994 v Steffi Graf and 1995 v Mary Pierce). Spain has never had an Australian Open women's singles winner: former French Open and Wimbledon champ Muguruza is an authentic contender.

Halep was runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018, a semi-finalist in 2020 and quarter-finalist last year, and a Melbourne Summer Set title was a handy warm-up for the Romanian. Consider her, too.

Monica Seles, in 1991, was the last player to triumph on her debut in the main draw, but she was already a grand slam winner (1990 French Open). Given the strength of the line-up, the prospect of a bolter coming through this field is unlikely, even if the example of Raducanu tells us anything is possible.

Chelsea already knew the odds were slim. No team that has been clear by at least 10 points at the top of the Premier League after 21 matches has ever failed to lift the trophy.

The Blues travelled to leaders Manchester City on Saturday exactly 10 adrift and desperate to improve on their showing against Pep Guardiola's men from earlier in the season.

But a familiar foe once again brought their downfall as City sealed a 1-0 win that further increases their lead at the summit and probably has them over the horizon in the title race – at least as far as Chelsea are concerned.

Thomas Tuchel spoke with great clarity and assuredness as he addressed the media on Friday, accepting Chelsea were far too negative in their 1-0 defeat to City at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season.

We say "defeat", but in reality it was as close to a 1-0 battering as they come. City tallied three times as many shots as Chelsea (15 to five), and it was a similar story in terms of touches in the opposition's box (34 to 11).

But there was little sign of a major improvement here. Tuchel flailed and flapped like a headless chicken on the touchline, his instructions ultimately powerless against a City side that smothered Chelsea with a high press that just seemed to suffocate them more as the game went on.

Initially, as much as anything, Chelsea just looked confused. Their bravery in playing out from the back was to be commended in some instances, but that mentality seemed to be completely at odds with almost everything else they did.

They would get into the midfield but then launch long balls out wide or to Christian Pulisic in the hole rather than for Romelu Lukaku to run onto. The moves would go nowhere.

 

There was no period of sustained pressure from Chelsea at all in the first half – in fact, they got to the interval without registering a single shot, the first time that's happened in a league game under Tuchel.

Lukaku, bar one early instance where he rolled John Stones before mucking up the final pass, cut a frustrated figure up top. While Chelsea's play in the build-up largely seemed unlikely to get the best out of him, his team-mates might have expected more attempts to run in behind the City defence.

The second half was just a few minutes old when such a situation did present itself, with Lukaku able to do what he's best at: running on to throughballs rather than acting as a target man.

Ederson produced a fine save to block Lukaku's effort, but it was the clearest evidence yet of how Chelsea were likely to hurt City – not that it was necessarily a sign of things to come for the visitors.

 

If anything, it served as a jolt for City, a reminder that, as good as they are, they weren't going to be able to sleepwalk to a win here.

City allowed Chelsea more of the ball, but Guardiola's men upped the intensity significantly with their pressing – the Blues started to find passing through the midfield rather trickier.

Eight of the nine times City won possession in the final third (Chelsea only did so once in the whole game) came in the second half, which was not only evidence of how they were able to impressively dig deep physically, but also highlighted how a team can take the game to an opponent even without the ball.

Of course, City relied on a moment of pure inspiration, which was somewhat predictably delivered by Kevin De Bruyne, who strode away from N'Golo Kante and saw his gorgeous curling effort find the bottom-right corner from 25 yards.

 

It was his fifth Premier League goal against Chelsea, making his old club his favourite opposition in that regard, and a figure bettered by no other former Blue in the competition.

In the context of the match, it also highlighted the differing fortunes of players with comparable pasts: both De Bruyne and Lukaku joined Chelsea as youngsters and ultimately failed to make an impression.

The midfielder now regularly lights up the Premier League, but his international colleague is back at Stamford Bridge and struggling again, albeit for different reasons.

But the fact of the matter is, Lukaku was brought back to turn Chelsea into title contenders – that now looks impossible thanks to another familiar face.

Novak Djokovic has won the last three Australian Open titles and lifted the trophy nine times in all, which means he arrived in Melbourne as a hot favourite to triumph again.

Yet even before the chaos of the last 10 days, this looked a tough Australian Open for Djokovic, given the likes of Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev have recently taken his scalp in major hard-court matches.

There was no doubt he was a worthy favourite, but Djokovic's dominance of the first half of last season was followed by a series of painful defeats, weakening his standing at the top of the game.

When the men's singles draw was made on Thursday, only two former champions featured: Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, the 2009 winner.

Here, Stats Perform assesses the contenders to follow Djokovic onto the Melbourne Park throne.

NEXT NUMBER ONE? DANIIL MEDVEDEV

Last year's runner-up, given a sound pasting by Djokovic in a final that came nowhere close to matching expectations, has come a long way since that crushing blow. Russian Medvedev was the only man to beat Djokovic in a grand slam last year, doing so at the final hurdle of the final major, without dropping a set in the US Open title match. That denied Djokovic a calendar year sweep of the majors, which would have been the first time the feat had been achieved by a man since Rod Laver's 1969 complete set.

He also took the first set off Djokovic in the Paris Masters final in November, only to lose the match. What is clear is that Medvedev is amassing experiences against Djokovic: some good and some bad, but all surely massively helpful. He lost in their first three encounters but has won four of the seven since.

Progress like this is what repeat champions are made of. Medvedev has a 9-9 win-loss record when dropping the first set of matches over the past year, which shows he is not easily beaten. Only Djokovic (14-6) has a better record in that respect.

Medvedev has a 54-9 record on hardcourts over the past 12 months, has gone mightily close to hitting number one in the rankings, and might see a lot of that top step in the months and years to come. On the 52-week rolling list, he holds a 16-8 win-loss record against top-10 opponents, which is second only to Djokovic (22-5).

Should Medvedev pull off a second consecutive grand slam win, it would make him just the third Russian man to win two or more grand slam singles titles, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov (French Open 1996 and Australian Open 1999) and Marat Safin (US Open 2000 and Australian Open 2005).

The last player other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back majors was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000).

 

OVERDUE SLAM INCOMING? ALEXANDER ZVEREV

The Olympic champion and ATP Finals winner is just lacking a grand slam title to confirm to the wider sporting world his status as one of the rising generation's preeminent performers. Zverev beat Djokovic in semi-finals en route to both of those big 2021 titles, and although he also lost three times to the 20-time major winner over the season, he took four sets off the man from Belgrade in those defeats.

Zverev is improving season on season, and if he avoids injuries or other tribulations in 2022 then he surely stands a strong chance of picking up that first slam before the year is out. He won six titles in all in 2021, more than any other singles player on the ATP Tour, and holds a 43-10 win-loss record on hardcourts on the 52-week rolling list.

When the draw was made, he and Djokovic were set on another semi-final collision course, and that prospect looked tantalising. Until recently so far apart, the gap has closed considerably, Zverev tallying victories that will have surely troubled the world number one.

NOT READY TO BE YESTERDAY'S MAN: RAFAEL NADAL

Because why the heck not? Nadal, at the age of 35, returned from a long foot injury lay-off with a title at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament this month, and if his record at the Australian Open is deemed unspectacular by some, the Spaniard himself takes great pride in his achievements.

Recently, in a Melbourne news conference, he was asked why he had not reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open since his title year, and Nadal swiftly put his questioner right.

"I am very sorry to tell you – I don't want to – but I have been in the final of 2012, '14, '17, '19," he said. "I got injured a couple of times here in my tennis career, so of course it's been a great tournament for me, and of course I had a lot of challenges in terms of injuries in this event. Sorry to correct you."

Polite as ever, but pointed. Nadal knows he has been successful in Australia and would surely not have returned this year if he felt there was no chance of another run to the final. He rightly takes issue with those who forget his feats. Remember, he, like Djokovic and Federer, sits on 20 grand slams.

Nadal reached the quarter-finals last year and lost from two sets up against Stefanos Tsitsipas, so he will want to banish that memory. There is little evidence of hard-court form beyond his win in a mediocre field last week in Melbourne, but he is Rafael Nadal and he wins tennis tournaments. At least one every year since 2004. A 6-8 record against rival top-10 players over the past 52 weeks is no great shakes, but you count out Nadal at your peril.

 

NEXTGEN OR NEXT NEW CHAMP? JANNIK SINNER

Tennis is such a generation game just now. The Big Three (Big Four, if you include Andy Murray) are in the twilight years of their careers, coming under long-awaited threat from the mid-twenties likes of Medvedev, Zverev, Dominic Thiem (absent from Australia), Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini.

Sinner is to the forefront of the pack of the next big group coming through (see also: Carlos Alcaraz, Lorenzo Musetti). At 20, the Italian is entering a big year in the context of his career. By the time Djokovic turned 20, he was sixth in the world, Federer was 14th on the day he left his teenage years behind, and Nadal was second. Progress comes at different rates.

Sinner was 15th in the rankings on his last birthday, in August, but has since dipped his toes into the top 10 and currently stands 11th. He won four ATP Tour titles in 2021, finished the year with a 49-22 record, and can reasonably be expected to kick on. The Italian has yet to majorly show up at the grand slams, with a Roland Garros quarter-final in 2020 his best run yet.

Expect that to change soon enough. Sinner is only 6-9 against top-10 players on the 52-week list, but he warmed up for the challenge that lies ahead in Melbourne with three straight-sets singles victories at the ATP Cup. His 42-14 record on hardcourts over the last year suggests the Australian Open should suit him as well as any slam.

In a season when players are prone to missing time due to COVID-19 protocols, injury maintenance and routine rest, any single regular-season game rarely feels meaningful.

The Brooklyn Nets’ 138-112 thumping of the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, however, seemed to make a statement about the pecking order at the top of the Eastern Conference.

The Bulls maintain the best record in the East at 27-12, two games ahead of the Nets, but Brooklyn used a dominant second-half surge to display how astronomically high the team’s ceiling is.

Playing in front of a frenzied crowd, the Bulls matched the Nets shot-for-shot for a while, and the game was tied at 71 early in the third quarter. Brooklyn responded by tightening its grip on the defensive end of the floor and playing the last 8:29 of the quarter on a 30-8 run.

Chicago opened the fourth quarter by turning the ball over four times in five possessions, and the Brooklyn lead grew to as much as 38 before both teams removed their marquee players – a scary reminder to rest of the NBA that a juggernaut is looming in the East.

Irving makes the difference

With Kyrie Irving declining to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the Nets opened the season without him and played well with either Kevin Durant or James Harden running the show. Part of the luxury of having three of the league’s top 15 players is that one injury – or one bizarre soap opera centered around medical choices and municipal rules – doesn’t derail the season.

The Nets’ trio of All-Stars has still played only 16 games together, including the playoffs, but the early returns show that having Durant, Harden and Irving all on the court at the same time makes for a historically great offense.

The Nets’ change of heart to allow Irving to be a road-only, part-time player may have vaulted them to the top of the NBA title conversation.

With Durant, Harden and Irving on the court together, the Nets are scoring 125.4 points per 100 possessions. For comparison, the Utah Jazz have the NBA’s most efficient offense over the course of this entire season at 114.2 points per 100 possessions.

In all other scenarios over the past two seasons, including those when Durant and Harden play together, the Nets have operated with an offensive efficiency of 113.1 – an impressive number but one that is noticeably less than 125.4.

Nets, With/Without Kevin Durant, James Harden & Kyrie Irving On Court - Since 2020-21 (reg & post)

  With All  All Other Lineups Points/100 125.4 113.1 Opp Points/100 110.2 108.3 Point Diff/100 +15.2 +4.8 FG Pct .535 .481 Opp FG Pct .450 .449 3-Pt Pct .418 .449 Opp 3-Pt Pct .350 .347

Due to New York regulations, Irving can’t play home games for the Nets, but he is permitted to participate in most road games. After scoring 22 points in each of his first two games of the season, Irving needed just nine points in Wednesday’s blowout of the Bulls. His impact, however, is not lost on head coach Steve Nash.

“Kyrie definitely is another huge threat on the floor, whether he scores nine points or 29,” Nash told reporters. “Clearly you lose a generational talent when he’s not in the lineup.

“But there’s a level we reached (on Wednesday night) – with the purpose, the pace, the spirit, the resolve – that I thought was really important for our group to see how successful they can be when they do that.

“Even without Kyrie, can we bring that same level more often than not? If we do, we’ll get back to a top-10 defense like we were for most of the year and get back to pushing for the top spot in the East. But it’s hard work. It’s not easy, and you’ve got to do it day-in and day-out.”

Nash’s point rang true just a day later, when the Nets were beat 130-109 at home on Thursday by the Oklahoma City Thunder, albeit without Irving and Durant.

Brooklyn’s title hopes very well could come down to finding a way around the local regulations that prevent unvaccinated players like Irving from playing in New York, since the trio has already proven to be lethal.

Harden back in form

One powerful force allowing the Nets to climb toward the top of the East has been the re-emergence of Harden.

The league’s officials opened the season determined to stop rewarding offensive players for flailing and flopping in ways that aren’t natural to basketball, and some of the league’s brightest stars saw a sharp decline in free throw attempts, Harden included.

It is fair to say he has since adjusted.

Through the first 12 games of the season, Harden was averaging just 18.2 points per game and was attempting an average of just 4.7 free throws per game.

Since Nov. 12, Harden is scoring 24.8 points per game and attempting 9.8 free throws per contest.

The nine-time All-Star still isn’t shooting as efficiently as he typically does but has continued to thrive as one of the league’s best distributors. Harden’s 9.9 assists per game trail only Chris Paul’s 10.1 in the league this season. Harden is averaging 3.0 assists in both the first and third quarters, when he mostly plays with Durant and the rest of the starting unit.

His numbers will never again be as impressive as they were in Houston, where Harden was essentially a one-man offense, but he has adapted very well to playing alongside other stars and focusing a bit more on distribution – something that many critics doubted after he spent so long as the lone focal point with the Rockets.

Durant No. 1?

Durant remains the most reliable and lethal scorer in the league today, and his overall game puts him in the discussion for the best player in the world. He has played so well that it is easy to forget that he was rehabilitating from a ruptured Achilles tendon just 13 months ago.

Durant carried an incredible load in the last year’s playoffs, playing over 40 minutes per game, averaging 34.3 points and getting within a toe’s length of knocking out the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the only other player with a claim to be the best in the world right now after winning two MVPs and a championship over the past three seasons.

But Durant’s ball-handling and outside shooting make him feel like a more traditional creator of offense, and his playoff resume credentials speak for themselves after he won back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs with the Golden State Warriors.

The bench brings the right blend

Lost in the excitement over Durant, Harden and Irving playing together Wednesday in Chicago was how well the supporting cast played, even with Joe Harris, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Claxton missing the game.

Rookies Day’Ron Sharpe and Kessler Edwards were forced into starting roles and heavy minutes against the Bulls and met the challenge head-on. Sharpe was especially productive, totaling 20 points and seven rebounds in by far the best game of his young career.

The shooting of 13th-year guard Patty Mills has proven to be a crucial part of Brooklyn’s offense, and his 6-for-8 performance from behind the 3-point line against the Bulls indicates he will remain vital in the postseason.

This blend of youth and experience bodes very well for the Nets down the stretch. Sharpe, Edwards, Cameron Thomas and David Duke Jr. have all had impressive moments this season and have plenty of room to grow.

Mills, Aldridge, Harris, Blake Griffin and even Paul Millsap bring plenty of experience that will be appreciated this spring. And while at least a few of Brooklyn’s depth players will be cut from the playoff rotation, the roster appears to have the flexibility to account for unique playoff matchups.

The bottom line

While depth will play a role, the Nets will only go as far as their three stars take them this season.

The regular season will likely continue to be a roller coaster ride, full of ups and downs. Brooklyn has used 20 different starting lineups in 41 games this season, second most in the league, and that is a recipe for inconsistent results.

But this team made a statement in Wednesday’s road rout of the Bulls, showing what the whole league has feared since last season: Durant, Harden and Irving have the talent and chemistry to be one of the most potent NBA trios ever, and the Nets should be considered title favorites as long as all three can take the floor.

Thursday's clash between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors was already an enticing one, but will arguably now be even more intriguing with two of the NBA's best heading into it on the back of defeats.

Reigning champions Milwaukee sit fourth in the Eastern Conference on 26-17 after back-to-back defeats on the road to the Charlotte Hornets, while the 30-10 Warriors were beaten at the Memphis Grizzlies last time out.

The star duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry will be the main attraction, as both usually are wherever they go, sitting fourth (966 points) and second (993 points) respectively in the league for points scored this season.

Golden State, currently second in the Western Conference, will be the favourites on Thursday, and despite their setback in Tennessee on Tuesday, Steve Kerr's men have been boosted by the timely return to action of Klay Thompson.

The 31-year-old tore an anterior cruciate ligament in 2019 before tearing his Achilles tendon during his recovery, but came back in style as he played his first game in over 940 days in style as he shot 17 points from just 20 minutes in the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, before managing another 14 in similar court time in Memphis.

Curry will, as ever, be the Warriors go-to man. He managed a triple-double of 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the defeat to the Grizzlies, though surprisingly, hit just two of his nine three-point attempts at FedExForum.

He recently broke the all-time three-point record in the NBA and still leads the league by a distance in successful shots from downtown, with 186 to his name this season, well clear of Buddy Hield (154) and Fred VanVleet (134), having even played six fewer games than Hield.

The Warriors are expected to be without Draymond Green, who played just seven seconds of Sunday's win against the Cavaliers before withdrawing with a calf issue he apparently sustained in the warm-up and then missing the defeat in Memphis.

Green has the highest number of defensive rebounds for the Warriors this season (219) and is 22nd in the league overall.

The Bucks could also still be missing a key player in Jrue Holiday, who was sidelined from Monday's loss to the Hornets with an ankle injury.

Holiday has missed the last three games, but when he has been able to take to the court this season has often shone, averaging 18.4 points per game, including shooting 40 in the December defeat at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Despite Curry so often catching the eye with threes, where Golden State often win games is in the paint and in the restricted area, currently leading the league for highest team field goal percentage in both (60.1 and 64.4). The Bucks are eighth and seventh in the league in the respective areas, with percentages of 56.8 and 61.0.

However, in Antetokounmpo, the Bucks boast a player who leads the league in field goals made in the paint (266) and in the restricted area (228), so if they can get it to the Greek often and in space, he could just beat the Warriors at their own game.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks – Khris Middleton

Middleton is in a solid run of form, which is a good thing for a player who has clustered his best work throughout this season. The 30-year-old began the season by scoring 20 or more points in three of his first four games, before a period out through illness.

He returned and took eight games to manage over 20 points again, before doing so for seven in a row. After missing three more games with a knee issue, Middleton has come back to score 20 or more in eight of his last 10 outings, and will back himself to do so again here.

Middleton got the most points and assists for his team last time out (27 and 11), and is third in the league for most field goals made from the baseline (37) behind only Kevin Durant (64) and DeMar DeRozan (45).

Golden State Warriors – Klay Thompson

Although it was technically a work event, there was a party atmosphere as the Warriors welcomed Thompson back to the court on Sunday against the Cavaliers, and while his numbers were impressive enough for someone who has spent the best part of three years sidelined, it is the less tangible positive vibes his return has brought that could be the difference-maker for Golden State.

Prior to his comeback on Sunday, Thompson boasted a career average of 19.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, while shooting at 45.9 per cent from the field and 41.9 from three-point range.

He may only get 20 minutes, as he has done in his two games back so far, but his sheer presence on the court could be enough to inspire his team-mates, such is the obvious delight among his fellow Warriors that he is finally fit and playing again.

 

KEY BATTLE – Rebounds to give Bucks an edge?

Milwaukee leads the Eastern Conference in rebounding, averaging 47.1, while Antetokounmpo boasts the third-highest number of defensive rebounds in the East this season with 325.

Golden State are fourth in the Western Conference for rebounds at 46.1, but as mentioned, look set to be without their stats leader in defensive rebounds in Green. The best offensive rebounders in both teams are Bobby Portis and Kevon Looney, who both have 97 to their name this season.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

This is their first meeting since April 2021, which the Warriors won 122-121, but the Bucks have won four of the previous six games between the two dating back to March 2018.

Kingsley Coman signed a new long-term deal with Bayern Munich on Wednesday, keeping the winger at the Allianz Arena until the end of the 2026-27 campaign.

The France international has been one of Bayern's most consistent performers across his six-and-a-half years with the club, during which time he has made 217 appearances, even though he has struggled with injuries.

Coman wrote his name in club folklore with the winner in the 2019-20 Champions League final against former side Paris Saint-Germain, one of 17 trophies he has won with Bayern.

Following confirmation of Coman's new contract, Stats Perform picks out some of the standout numbers from the 25-year-old's time in Bavaria.

 

– Only Manuel Neuer (255), David Alaba (259), Joshua Kimmich (280), Thomas Muller (304) and Robert Lewandowski (306) have made more appearances in all competition's than Coman's 217 since he joined Bayern in 2015.

– The PSG academy product has been directly involved in 88 goals across that period – 46 of his own and 42 assists – a tally bettered by only Kimmich (102), Muller (215) and Lewandowski (346) among Bayern players.

– The 37 chances created by Coman following a take-on since the start of 2015-16 is more than twice as many as any other player in Bundesliga. Julian Brandt ranks second with 18.

– Coman equalled the Bundesliga record by assisting five successive goals for his side in December 2020, something previously only achieved by RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku earlier the same year, since Opta began recording such data.

– That included three assists in a single game against Leipzig, which he also managed in 2016 against Werder Bremen. Only Franck Ribery has recorded three assists in a single game on more occasions for Bayern (four).

– Coman provided at least one assist in four straight Bundesliga matches – six assists in total – between November and December 2020. Only team-mate Muller has ever had a longer-such run for Bayern (seven games this season).

Mikel Arteta was unable to provide excuses on Sunday, after Arsenal crashed out of the FA Cup with a 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest.

"We are out of the competition and we have to apologise."

Arsenal have won the FA Cup a record 14 times, with their last triumph coming in Arteta's first half-season in charge. But while they will lament being on the end of a giant-killing, they have the chance to bounce back from only their second third-round exit in the past 26 seasons when they face Liverpool at Anfield on Thursday in the first leg of a semi-final in England's other major domestic cup competition.

Initially, the Anfield fixture of this EFL Cup tie was due to be played second but Liverpool's coronavirus crisis, which Jurgen Klopp revealed was ultimately down to several false-positives within the squad, led to the postponement of the first leg at Emirates Stadium, originally set to be played on January 6.

The Gunners lost 4-0 at the home of the Reds in November's Premier League meeting, as Arteta's men were dealt a harsh dose of reality after a 10-match unbeaten run across all competitions.

A further 10 games have passed since then, with Arsenal losing four and winning six.

With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang having been stripped of the captaincy and ostracised before travelling away for the Africa Cup of Nations, Arteta has once again turned mostly to youth as he looks to continue to grow a new "culture" at Arsenal, who sit fourth in the league.

Claiming some measure of revenge at Anfield could just prove Arteta's plan is the solution for long-term success, and four players seem crucial to that blueprint.

Super-sub Smith Rowe

Aubameyang's omission for a breach of club rules brought unnecessary noise in December, though results were not immediately impacted. With the 32-year-old not playing since December 6, Alexandre Lacazette has stepped in to spearhead Arsenal's attack, but behind him Arteta has an abundance of talent to choose from.

Emile Smith Rowe started the season brilliantly, though has only started one league game since November. That has not stopped the 21-year-old from being effective, however, with three of his eight league goals this season coming from the bench in recent wins over West Ham, Leeds United and Norwich City.

Smith Rowe has only played 63 league minutes since featuring for 70 in the December 2 loss to Manchester United, meaning he averages a goal every 21 minutes in that period. 

Asked about Smith Rowe's game time before the defeat to Forest, which the midfielder missed altogether, Arteta explained he had been carrying an injury, one which also means he is a doubt for Thursday's clash.

"The only reason that changed the dynamic was that [injury], and obviously now there are others who are doing well and have been performing well. That changed the situation, but I am very happy with him," Arteta told reporters, before adding that competition for places can only be positive.

"This is why we need that, we raise the level. Each player raises the level of the player next to him, and this is how you evolve as a team, how you create a culture around the team."

Few could say Smith Rowe isn't embracing that "culture", with his recent hot streak off the bench reflecting a commendable attitude.

 

Martin the maestro

One of the "others" Arteta was referring to will surely be Martin Odegaard, who signed permanently from Real Madrid following a bright loan spell last season. Given the Norway international burst onto the scene at the age of 15 in 2014, becoming the youngest footballer ever to play in his homeland's top tier, it would be easy to forget he has only just turned 23.

Only Bukayo Saka (38) has created more chances than Odegaard (34) in Arsenal's squad in all competitions this season, with the midfielder topping that metric per 90 minutes when it comes to players to have featured over two times, producing 2.1 opportunities on average.

His eight direct goal contributions ranks him fifth in the squad while his shot conversion rate of 18.2 is good for a midfielder. Indeed, only the outstanding Smith Rowe, who has converted 32.1 per cent (nine goals) of his 28 attempts can boast better among Arsenal's midfield contingent.

Yet with Smith Rowe's recent spell as an impact player, Odegaard has started behind the striker in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1, his eye for a pass and knack of finding space on the edge of the area a key facet to some slick attacking play.

That playmaking ability was on show in the 5-0 thrashing of Norwich on Boxing Day, with Odegaard providing the assists for Arsenal's opening two goals and a key role in their final strike.

While Odegaard (33) has had fewer touches in the opposition box than left-back Nuno Tavares (35) and completed just 10 dribbles compared to Smith Rowe's 23 and the team-leading Saka's 27, no Arsenal player has attempted more passes in the opposition half than Odegaard (523), with 80.9 per cent (423) proving successful.

Odegaard's ability to keep Arsenal in possession with neat and incisive passing has been crucial for the Gunners. Indeed, only centre-backs Ben White (933) and Gabriel Magalhaes (822) have found a team-mate on more occasions than the playmaker (703).

 

Wing wizards

Flanking Odegaard (or Smith Rowe), Saka and Gabriel Martinelli both head to Anfield in superb form. While Saka scored the opener in the 2-1 defeat to City on New Year's Day, Martinelli has directly contributed to six goals from 18 appearances.

Martinelli's devastating turn of pace was on show in a 4-1 rout of Leeds United last month, though the Brazilian flyer missed a golden chance to put Arsenal back in front in their defeat to City, slicing wide of an open goal – if we're being generous, perhaps he was put off by the referee. Still, he should have scored.

Nevertheless, his four goals have come from an xG value of 4.2, putting him just about on par based on the quality of chances he has been provided with, though that is in contrast to Saka.

The England winger's tally of seven goals is second only to Smith Rowe (nine), yet they have come from 4.6 xG, suggesting the 20-year-old is finishing chances the average player wouldn't ordinarily be expected to convert.

For example, his swept effort low into the corner against City was only the seventh-best chance of the game, while a wonderful solo strike at Norwich (his second goal of the game) registered an xG of just 0.03 – essentially, this translates to a three per cent likelihood of scoring.

 

Saka also leads the way for big chances created (defined by Opta as an opportunity from which a player would reasonably be expected to score) with eight, three more than any of his club-mates, and only Nicolas Pepe has provided more assists (five to four).

Not only is Saka already a proven creator of opportunities, but he is now putting them away with unerring accuracy.

Arsenal were dealt a harsh lesson on their last visit to Anfield, but with a second leg at home to look forward to and with Liverpool missing key duo Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, Thursday could see Arteta's counter-attacking youngsters thrive, with a north London derby against Tottenham up after that.

Even if it again proves a step too far, there's no doubt the future is bright.

Twelve months ago, Dani Alves was in training with Sao Paulo in between a disappointing draw with Athletico Paranaense and 1-0 home defeat in the San-Sao derby to Santos.

At the same time, Vinicius was in the midst of a Real Madrid goal drought that began in late October and didn't end until March 1.

Now, they are preparing to face each other in the Supercopa de Espana semi-final, with Alves astonishingly back at Barca and – perhaps even more surprising – Vinicius probably one of the two best players in LaLiga.

It's fair to say that, at this point last year, there were growing concerns Vinicius simply wasn't going to be the player many had hoped or predicted.

While he was still only 20, he didn't seem to have developed a great deal since joining from Flamengo in 2018. If anything, he looked as though he was in reverse, and rumours were beginning to swirl regarding his future.

 

It was a little like when Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu in Star Wars doubts the prophecy that Anakin Skywalker is 'the One' to destroy the Sith.

Yet, Vinicius (SPOILER ALERT) succeeded where Anakin failed, the Brazilian managing to get himself back on the right path. In terms of decisiveness, he looks unrecognisable now, so ruthless that you'd suggest he was more machine than man – just without the helmet and Darth Vader's asthmatic problems.

First and foremost, Vinicius' haul of 12 goals is already three times his previous best in a single LaLiga season, and he's still got almost half a campaign left.

Undoubtedly Carlo Ancelotti's trust will be playing a part. Zinedine Zidane never quite gave the impression he had absolute faith in Vinicius, but the Italian has been unwavering in that regard practically ever since he got the job for a second time.

But Vinicius deserves the most credit.

He's showing much more maturity in his game. He's gone from being the most frustrating player on the pitch to very often being the most decisive.

His expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes is up to 0.49 from 0.3, which suggests he's generally getting into better positions than before – but perhaps even more importantly, though connected to that, is the fact he's averaging 0.67 goals over the same period.

Last season that figure was just 0.14, roughly half his xG, evidence that his decision-making and composure were at a pretty low level.

Vinicius is creating chances more frequently as well (1.9 per 90 mins, up from 1.5), but his biggest improvement is definitely in his decisions in front of goal.

 

Of course, outperforming xG can be a sign of good fortune, so some might suggest his form isn't sustainable – we won't know whether that's the case for a while yet.

But even when you disregard that, the improvement he's shown is massive. He's gone from wasting chances he shouldn't, to scoring chances he shouldn't.

His first goal in the recent 4-1 win over Valencia was an interesting exhibition of his new-found striker's instinct. Not only did he continue his run after offloading to Karim Benzema, he then made his own luck when bundling the ball through a crowd before nonchalantly passing into the bottom corner.

While maybe not an astounding goal in isolation, it's difficult to imagine that passage going the same way last season. Confidence breeds confidence, and he looks almost unstoppable.

With that in mind, the man he'll come up against on Wednesday will presumably be getting himself pumped up for a real challenge.

Of course, Alves has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore the hat. If we go back to the bad Star Wars analogies, Alves is Obi-Wan Kenobi. You thought he was gone for good but returns when you need him most.

 

This will of course be his first Clasico since returning to the club in November, answering Barca's call when all they could afford were free signings.

As much as anything, Wednesday's game should provide Xavi with understanding as to what the 38-year-old's ceiling is.

It's unlikely he'll be fazed about the prospect of tussling with Vinicius, though he'll be aware of the standard his compatriot is now playing at.

If Vinicius can be kept quiet, Barca's chances of success will increase exponentially, and it's by no means outlandish to suggest this game could be a turning point in their season, as Xavi noted in his pre-match news conference.

With a recent bank loan allowing them to sign Ferran Torres and president Joan Laporta declaring Barca are "back", all of a sudden the outlook isn't so gloomy, particularly now they're through the worst (they hope) of an injury and coronavirus outbreak crisis.

Xavi's brought through several talented young players already, and then there were injured 'wonderkids' Ansu Fati and Pedri waiting in the wings. They look set for important roles over the rest of the season and beyond – you might even suggest there's plenty of cause for optimism at Camp Nou.

The Supercopa offers a chance to really consolidate the growing positivity, and success in the Clasico might indicate Barca are genuinely back.

We may only be a week into 2022, but the first major international football tournament of the year is on the horizon, with the Africa Cup of Nations kicking off on Sunday.

It's been a long time coming as well – it was initially due to take place in June and July 2021 but was brought forward to January 2021 due to concerns about the weather. It then had to be pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Of course, fans and teams have had to put up with the usual posturing from those at certain clubs regarding the inconvenience of relinquishing players in the middle of the season, but despite that there remains a healthy selection of big names.

In fact, given the standard the likes of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and Achraf Hakimi usually play at, some might even argue this is one of the highest-quality groups of players to feature at a single AFCON.

But the beauty of every international tournament is that there's more to them than the big names – there are plenty of promising younger players looking to impress for a global audience.

Kamaldeen Sulemana, 19, winger – Ghana

Hold on to your seats! Kamaldeen is sure to ramp up the excitement at AFCON, such is his rather chaotic approach to attacking – and acrobatic celebration. The teenage winger is immensely tricky and agile, with his 246 take-on attempts in the 2020-21 Danish Superliga nearly twice as many as anyone else – to put that into context, only Lionel Messi managed more (261) in the top five leagues. He's carried that into Ligue 1 following his move to Rennes, with his average of one shot involvements from a ball carry every 43 minutes being the second best in Ligue 1 (min. 900 minutes played) after Kylian Mbappe – that's obviously pretty good.

 

Ibrahim Sangare, 24, defensive midfielder – Ivory Coast

While good performances at AFCON alone may not be enough for players to convince big clubs they're worth a punt on, showing promise might just get a few more eyes on them. Sangare is definitely one of those who could put himself 'in the shop window'. The PSV midfielder has a lot about him, particularly when it comes to defending. In this season's Eredivisie, only three players (at least 500 minutes played) have averaged more than his 3.4 tackles per 90 minutes, while he ranks fifth for interceptions frequency (2.5) and third for middle-third recoveries (5.7). He's also technically proficient and happy on the ball, with only three players attempting more passes (81.1) on a per-90-minute basis than him.

Hannibal Mejbri, 18, attacking midfielder – Tunisia

A former France youth international, Mejbri may have only declared for Tunisia in 2021 but this will already be his second international tournament. The Manchester United midfielder started all six of Tunisia's games as they reached the final of the Arab Cup in December, eventually losing to Algeria in the final. Hannibal may not feature quite as prominently in a full-strength squad, but the midfielder possesses the kind of off-the-cuff abilities that endear him to fans – if not opponents. He is known to be targeted for fouls when playing for United's second team, such is his natural talent.

Ilaix Moriba, 18, central midfielder – Guinea

2021-22 hasn't quite gone as Moriba presumably thought it would. He left Barcelona after failing to agree a new contract, despite having broken into the first-team setup at Camp Nou. The midfielder had shown exceptional promise, particularly on the ball – he averaged 3.2 dribbles per 90 minutes, a total bettered by only four team-mates, and boasted a success rate of 89.3 per cent, with only Miralem Pjanic bettering him. The €16million signing has played just twice in the Bundesliga since the move to Leipzig and will surely be relishing some competitive action.

Edmond Tapsoba, 22, centre-back – Burkina Faso

If Burkina Faso go on to have a good tournament, Tapsoba will almost certainly have had something to do with it. The centre-back is an extremely elegant player for someone roughly the size of a small building and whose name sounds like a hipster bar, and at club level he performs a vital function in getting Leverkusen on the front foot, with his 13.5 progressive ball carries in the Bundesliga this term second only to Alphonso Davies. If he can translate that to the international stage, Burkina Faso will have a real weapon in the middle – even if he doesn't, he'll still give them aerial threat at set-pieces.

 

Abdul Fatawu Issahaku, 17, forward – Ghana

The case of Issahaku is a rather intriguing one. Transfer rumours in 2021 suggested Liverpool had signed him for £1.5million, but that soon turned out to be false. He remains in his native Ghana, but the exciting attacker has seemingly done enough to earn a shot at international level despite being just 17 – he's the second-youngest player at the tournament. But he's used to that sort of situation. After all, before he'd even turned 17 in March he was named Player of the Tournament at the Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations. While that Liverpool move never materialised, he's got himself another opportunity to shine.

If Thomas Tuchel is after any advice on how to deal with the Romelu Lukaku issue, the Chelsea head coach could do worse than to have a brief word with the man he will come face-to-face with on Wednesday.

Under now-Tottenham boss Antonio Conte across two seasons with Inter, Lukaku enjoyed the best form of his career, scoring and assisting a combined 81 goals in 95 appearances.

Lukaku has not been as prolific since returning to Stamford Bridge in August, finding the net seven times in 18 games, and already his future at Chelsea has been called into question following an explosive interview in the Italian press that was published last week.

The Belgium international was subsequently dropped for Chelsea's crucial clash with Liverpool on Sunday but is in line return for the EFL Cup semi-final first leg with Spurs after holding clear-the-air talks with his manager, meaning a possible reunion with Conte.

Here, Stats Perform looks at how Conte got Lukaku out of the "deep hole" he found himself in at Manchester United, as the striker himself put it, and explores how Tuchel can go about getting the most out of Chelsea's all-time record purchase.


ROM AMONG EUROPE'S ELITE

As well as declaring an unhappiness with his role at Chelsea and expressing a desire to return to Inter as part of his 30-minute chat with Sky Sport Italia, Lukaku also opened up on the "hurt" he felt when Conte departed San Siro.

That is no surprise given the Belgian's form between arriving at Inter in August 2019 and departing two years later. 

The 47 Serie A goals scored by Lukaku in 72 games under Conte is his best return under any of the 11 managers he has played for at club level, followed by the 43 netted in 103 Premier League games when working with now-national team coach Roberto Martinez at Everton.

That includes a return of 24 goals in 2020-21 alone, on top of 11 assists, as he became the first player to score 20-plus goals and set up 10 or more in a single Serie A season since Opta started to record such data in 2004-05.

Indeed, only Cristiano Ronaldo (83), Kylian Mbappe (97), Lionel Messi (106) and Robert Lewandowski (121) were directly involved in more goals in all competitions among players from Europe's top five leagues than Lukaku's 81 across the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons.

 

FLOPPED IN FAVOURED FORMATION

That impressive form helped Inter end their 11-year wait for Scudetto success last time out, a year on from falling just short in the Europa League with defeat in the final, but Lukaku was not alone in inspiring the Nerazzurri to glory.

Alongside him was Lautaro Martinez, who was very much the perfect foil in Conte's preferred 3-5-2 formation, which the Italian used 31 times in 38 league matches last season.

It is a formation Tuchel has used on only two occasions in the Premier League this term – in September's 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City and the 1-0 victory at Brentford three weeks later. 

Lukaku started both games alongside Timo Werner and Chelsea's tally of five shots against City and five against Brentford are the fewest the Blues have managed in any league game this term – Lukaku responsible for just one of those – as were the four and two chances created respectively.

While City's quality and dominance of the ball must be factored in, Lukaku's minimal involvement against Brentford was surprising – and surely no coincidence.

That west London derby blank came in the midst of a 10-game run without a goal for Lukaku, not helped by niggling injuries and a COVID lay-off, which he has since put an end to with three goals in four matches.

Chelsea's formation in those three most recent games Lukaku has scored in, incidentally, came with three attackers spread across the frontline. And there was one other common denominator, too: Mason Mount being on the field.

 

MOUNT TO PLAY THE MARTINEZ ROLE?

Mount assisted Lukaku's most recent goal in a 1-1 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion from a corner and the pair have combined to create nine chances in total for one another in the league this term, making it easily Chelsea's most dangerous partnership.

No Chelsea player has combined more regularly with Lukaku than Mount, with the pair linking up 10.06 times per 90 minutes so far this season. While that may not appear a huge amount on the face of it, next on that list is Mateo Kovacic with 6.45 combined passes between himself and Lukaku per 90.

However, Mount still has some way to go if he is to match the 54 combined chances created for each other in Serie A by Lukaku and Martinez in their two seasons used in tandem at Inter, which equated to nine assists.

Lukaku's relationship with Mount does provide some promise, though, as does the Anderlecht academy product's goalscoring performances in his most recent two outings prior to being dropped against Liverpool, showing Chelsea do not necessarily have to replicate Inter's system to help their main man thrive.

 

TUCHEL WILL NOT SHIFT

Lukaku is averaging fewer passes, overall touches and touches in the opposition box this season compared to last, while also shooting less frequently, dribbling less and creating fewer chances for others.

Yet instead of attempting to find the perfect formula and personnel for Lukaku, Tuchel will not shift from his own way of thinking.

"We cannot just play like Inter in the hope that will bring the most out of Lukaku. The system they played not only suited Romelu but also Lautaro Martinez and others. If you don't have five players you can't play five defenders," Tuchel said on the eve of the Tottenham tie.

"It works both ways. It is more about principles of how we play. I feel he is more impatient than anything else. He wants to be involved more, wants more big chances. 

"Like with every transfer, you have to accept there is a change of environment, culture, team-mates, playing style, belief. He's not the first player to take time, but even while doing it he was scoring goals."

And maybe Tuchel has a point. After all, for all the talk of Lukaku's struggles and unhappiness, he is scoring at an almost identical rate to Cristiano Ronaldo (0.54 goals per 90 minutes compared to 0.56), and remains one of Europe's most prolific strikers of the past decade.

Now back from injury and a team exile brought on by his own actions, only Lukaku can ensure he avoids falling down another deep hole that he may this time be unable to escape.

Moreso than any other team in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers have lived at opposite ends of the league over the last two decades. 

Since 2002-03, Cleveland has finished with 25 or fewer wins in seven different seasons, tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the most in basketball.

But those seven dreadful seasons have also yielded some generational talents in the NBA Draft, most notably LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, leading to eight seasons with 50 or more wins over that span, the most in the Eastern Conference and the fourth most in the NBA. 

In the three full campaigns since James left Cleveland for the second time, the Cavs have gone an NBA-worst 60-159, but fans in Ohio are hopeful that this season's 20-15 start is evidence that those lean years have produced enough talent to fuel a franchise turnaround yet again.

Last season the Cavs accrued 34 losses before earning their 20th win, but their improvement runs even deeper. 

Cleveland has improved in almost every significant statistical category, but the growth on defense has been dramatic. Last year's squad had one of the league's five worst defenses, allowing 112.1 points per 100 possessions. This year, the Cavaliers are allowing 102.2 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the league and the top in the East.

When combined with an offense that has shown incremental improvement, the Cavaliers have a net rating of +5.2 per 100 possessions, the fourth best in the NBA and ahead of fellow Eastern contenders like the Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks.

All of this has come with Cleveland facing the NBA's third-toughest schedule so far, with an average opponents' win percentage of .526. 

While some predicted that the Cavs' hot start would fizzle out into another losing season, the team has maintained its wining ways through nearly half the season and looks to be in position to continue.

Despite playing in a division with the Bucks and surprisingly good Chicago Bulls, Cleveland's remaining schedule is the easiest in the NBA by opponents’ average win percentage, with a majority of the upcoming being played at home.

Rookie Evan Mobley, selected with the third overall pick in July's draft, has been the catalyst for Cleveland's transformation this season. The 20-year-old big man is fourth in rookie scoring at 14.3 points per game but has made an all-around impact more typical of a veteran than a player who was in high school two years ago.

 

The Cavs' selection of the seven-footer Mobley was criticized by some pundits as redundant after the franchise had just re-signed center Jarrett Allen to a contract worth $100million earlier last offseason. 

Mobley and Allen have answered critics by forging one of the most formidable frontcourt defenses in the NBA. When Mobley and Allen are on the court together, the Cavaliers have a preposterous 95.3 defensive rating and opponents are shooting just 40.7 percent from the floor.

In a league that continues to downsize, Mobley has started most of his games at power forward, but the Cavs have found they do not sacrifice much offensively because their young star is so skilled and versatile.

While Allen has thrived around the rim this season, Mobley has the skill and athleticism to play everywhere, spacing the floor and keeping the ball moving on offense while smothering all sizes of players on defense.

Credit is due to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who identified early on that his frontcourt players were talented enough that he could buck the league's small-ball trend by starting his twin towers lineup.

Bickerstaff also had the courage to tell Kevin Love, the team's highest-paid player, that he would be coming off the bench. Love, who has been openly disgruntled about Cleveland's losing records in previous years, has embraced his new role and has seen a resurgence in both enthusiasm and efficiency.

The Cavaliers have been so pleased with Bickerstaff's leadership, in fact, that the parties agreed to a multiyear extension last week that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season.

Bickerstaff, Mobley and Allen – who is still just 23 years old – form a foundation that Cleveland intends to build upon for the next several years.

The Cavs' other unquestioned franchise staple is point guard Darius Garland, who has continued to improve in his third year. Garland is on pace for career-highs with 19.5 points per game, 7.3 assists per game and 47.9-percent shooting from the field. 

 

Garland has been forced to shoulder a heavy offensive burden and will be an even more vital player as the Cavs entered the second half of the season.

Backcourt mate and last year's leading scorer Collin Sexton was lost for the season after tearing cartilage in his left knee on Nov. 7.

Sexton's injury forced veteran guard Ricky Rubio into a more prominent role, a combination that worked very well for several weeks until Rubio suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on Tuesday, ending his season as well.

The thinning of their backcourt led to the Cavs trading for the 16th-year veteran as an experienced floor general just before the calendar flipped to 2022.

It looks as if the 2021-22 season will be one of attrition, and a lack of depth may ultimately prevent the Cavaliers from maintaining an elite point differential in the East. But with a team so young, the franchise would have to be pleased just to play in the postseason again.

Going forward, however, Cleveland faces a crossroads decision in the coming offseason with Sexton's contract. The fourth-year guard is in the final year of his rookie deal, and the front office must decide if the Garland-Sexton backcourt combination is the best long-term option.

Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game last season, making it seem like offering him an extension would be the obvious solution. But high-scoring numbers like that typically demand a maximum contract – in this case, $173million over five years.

Garland and Sexton both stand just 6ft1, creating some flexibility issues. Since the latter was drafted in 2018, the Cavaliers have been wiling to live with a defensive liability in the backcourt as they focused on collecting talent and developing young players.

But now that Cleveland appears ready to make a run at the playoffs, more serious questions must be answered.

During Sexton's four-season tenure, the Cavs have allowed a staggering 115.5 points per 100 possessions while he is on the court versus 107.2 when he sits.

And despite Sexton's impressive scoring numbers, Cleveland's offensive numbers while he his on and off the court are virtually identical – over a sample size of over 12,000 minutes.

Paying Sexton long-term could lock in a future where the Cavs have the league's smallest backcourt and largest frontcourt, making them vulnerable to perimeter shot creators with size, the kind that has proven to be invaluable in postseason play.

All of that said, any team would be foolish to surrender a talented scorer like Sexton for nothing. A small-market team like Cleveland would be outright negligent. He is likely to get his extension, especially with the entire core being so young.

Garland, Sexton, Mobley and Allen have played less than 120 minutes on the floor together, and Cleveland's brass is likely to want to see them grow a bit more together.

Plus, teams in markets that are not free agency destinations simply do not have the luxury of being so choosy about trying to construct the ideal roster.

Although this Cavs team has some quirks that might project into a playoff ceiling in the future, Cleveland's front office has organically built a fun team – and one that appears to be a winner.

That is something the Cavs haven't done without LeBron James since last century.

You would surely have got good odds on Barcelona being the first club to splash the cash in the January transfer window, what with them reportedly not having any.

However, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola confirmed at a news conference on Thursday that Ferran Torres is on the verge of leaving the Etihad Stadium for Camp Nou, with the deal worth up to a reported £55million.

It may seem curious for Barca to be spending such amounts of money given the financial issues that meant they struggled to register new players at the start of the season until they had eased the wage bill, even leading to Lionel Messi having to leave for Paris Saint-Germain.

A recent bank loan has apparently enabled the deal, and Torres appears like the kind of forward-thinking signing the club should have been making in recent years instead of some of the more ill-thought-out moves that have been made.

New Barca boss Xavi is aiming to spearhead a new era with a club that has lost its way of late, with the nadir arguably being the humbling Champions League exit at the group stage.

With all that being said, is this actually a deal that would make sense for all parties? Stats Perform takes a closer look at what appears to be the first big deal of the upcoming January transfer window.

Why Barcelona want the player

When he joined City from his hometown club Valencia in August last year, Torres was considered to be one of the more promising youngsters to come out of Spain as a pacey wide forward.

Although it was a slow start in England for the then 20-year-old, a hat-trick for Spain in the 6-0 Nations League demolition of Germany was soon followed by his first Premier League goal in a 5-0 win against Burnley, before Torres went on to score a further six in the league last season, including an impressive treble in a 4-3 win at Newcastle.

It may well be his form for the Spanish national side that caught the eye of the power brokers at Camp Nou, though, with that hat-trick against Germany contributing to the 12 goals he has bagged for La Roja, including two at the re-arranged Euro 2020 tournament against Slovakia and Croatia.

A brace in the 2-1 Nations League win against Italy in October illustrated his quality, but a foot injury has kept Torres from playing since the final defeat to France in that competition.

Meanwhile, Barca headed into the winter break in seventh place in LaLiga, just two points off the top four but a whopping 18 behind leaders Real Madrid, albeit with a game in hand.

Despite their struggles without Messi, the Blaugrana are joint-third for goals scored (29), behind only Madrid (41) and Real Betis (32).

However, only Memphis Depay (eight) has scored more than three league goals, with second top scorer Ansu Fati managing to play just five games so far.

The loss of Messi was a huge blow, but it could be argued that Barca have actually missed Luis Suarez more since the Uruguayan was inexplicably allowed to move to Atletico Madrid after the 2019-20 season.

Martin Braithwaite was never likely to replace Suarez's goals, scoring 10 in 56 appearances (22 starts) since signing from Leganes in February 2020, and Luuk de Jong has managed just one in 12 appearances (six starts) since arriving on loan from Sevilla in September, with the Dutchman appearing to be heading out the door soon in any case.

Although he started life as a wide player, Torres seems to have been permanently reinvented as a central striker, which could be exactly what Xavi is after given his best attackers in Depay, Fati and Ousmane Dembele all prefer playing out wide.

Torres has bagged 16 goals in all competitions for Manchester City, as well as 12 for his country in less than 18 months.

It might not quite be the old 'MSN' attack of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, but if Xavi has Torres along with Dembele, Fati and Depay to call on, he will still boast one of the strongest looking forward lines in Spain.

Why Manchester City are happy to let the player go

It feels like a similar situation to the one that saw Leroy Sane move back to Germany with Bayern Munich last year.

Firstly, it seems clear that the move is happening because the player wants it rather than the selling club, but City will still be happy with the eventual deal should it go through.

"If he wants to leave, absolutely no disappointment," Guardiola said on Thursday.

"It's his desire. I'm happy for him. If you want to leave because you're not happy here, you believe you'll be happy in another place, you have to go. The career is short."

Torres has looked impressive for most of his short City career, but more than doubling their approximate £21million outlay on the player in less than 18 months represents a good deal in anyone's book.

He ended last season looking like he was about to become a breakout star at the Etihad, but with the arrival of Jack Grealish and return to form of Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling, it is difficult to see where Torres would get regular games away from the centre forward position, where he began this campaign.

City's failed efforts to sign Harry Kane in the summer suggested that Pep wanted more from his ultimate replacement for Sergio Aguero.

Torres boasts the best goals per 90 minutes record of any City player since he arrived in August 2020 (0.55), but his chances created total (29) was only marginally better than defensive midfielder Fernandinho (26), and well behind all other main attacking players.

It seems like the player is now more of a goal getter than a goal provider, but Guardiola probably feels he can still bring in a super elite player like Kane or Erling Haaland in the next couple of windows to fulfil that role, which would further leave Torres as a fringe player.

 

Why Torres wants the move

On the face of it, one can assume it is a simple desire to return to his home country. Torres joined City as a 20-year-old, and it would be no surprise, particularly given the way of the world since then, if he is feeling a tad homesick.

However, from a football perspective, it looks like a curious one. He will be leaving the champions of England, top of the league again and one of the favourites for the Champions League, to join a Barca side who now reside in the Europa League and who might struggle to even finish in the top four in LaLiga.

As well as returning to more familiar surroundings and much nicer weather, perhaps Torres is intrigued by the idea of leading the next era of Barcelona, obviously still a club with a huge history and reputation, now under the leadership of the legendary Xavi.

At City, Torres has been one of many, more than playing his part but ultimately not being someone Guardiola has relied on in the biggest games. He was an unused substitute in last season's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea.

Torres made 36 appearances in all competitions last term, and started the first six games of this campaign, but due to injury and simply not being selected, has not played in the Premier League since the 1-0 win at Leicester City on September 11.

The prospect of potentially becoming one of the faces of the resurrection of Barcelona will no doubt be a tempting one, even if it is certainly far easier said than done.

As with Sane and Bayern, it seems a simple case of a very talented player being wanted and needed more by the buying club than the selling one, and the deal itself does seem to leave everyone with a reason to be cheerful.

With so much going for it, this might even be one that Barcelona's accountants can stomach.

A magical man with a big beard bringing joy to people on Christmas Day? Yes, James Harden is back from COVID-19 protocols as the Brooklyn Nets travel to the Los Angeles Lakers for a festive fixture.

Nets coach Steve Nash confirmed the news on Thursday, while Paul Millsap and Jevon Carter are also newly available, but Brooklyn still have 10 players in protocols.

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Day'Ron Sharpe, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre' Bembry, Bruce Brown and James Johnson have been joined by rookies Kessler Edwards, David Duke Jr. and Cameron Thomas.

The Nets have not played since a 100-93 defeat to the Orlando Magic on Saturday at Barclays Center. Their three games leading up to Christmas – at home against the Denver Nuggets and Washington Wizards, then a trip to Portland – were all postponed.

Nonetheless, Nash's team sit top of the Eastern Conference on a 21-9 record, and have not lost back-to-back games this season, though that could be put to the test with a team likely to still be extremely shorthanded in California.

Durant will be a big miss, with the 33-year-old leading the league in points per game (29.7), as will Aldridge, who sits 11th in the league for field-goal percentage (.573).

The home team have been missing players of late too, with head coach Frank Vogel and five of his men being absent as a result of being under the NBA's health and safety protocols in the chastening 138-110 defeat to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday.

 

The Lakers sit on a surprisingly poor record under .500 (16-17) having lost four on the spin – at Minnesota and Chicago, followed by home defeats to Phoenix and the Spurs.

Despite having LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo on the roster, Vogel has been unable to get a consistent tune out of his all-star line-up.

With the Nets shorthanded to an even greater degree, the opportunity to produce what would have to go down as a slight upset should the Lakers win, given their respective form and records, will surely never be higher.

Davis remains sidelined by an MCL sprain, but the Lakers should still be able to put out a team that looks as strong as any other on paper.

Whether it is the Lakers putting an end to their losing streak or the Nets pulling out a win with barely enough players to call on, someone may just be claiming the occurrence of a festive miracle in the first encounter at the newly-named Crypto.com Arena.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Los Angeles Lakers – LeBron James

Despite his team being thoroughly outplayed, James managed to score 36 points with nine rebounds, six assists and two blocks in Thursday's defeat to the Spurs, and he will need to pull out a similar effort if the Lakers are to end their losing streak.

The four-time NBA champion has put early-season injury issues behind him to play the last 10 games in a row, scoring 30 or more points in nine of his last 13 outings.

James has also improved his rebound numbers of late, getting double figures in five of his last 10 games, having only done so once in his previous 11.

Brooklyn Nets - James Harden

With Durant, Irving and Aldridge unavailable, all eyes will be on Harden to finally show the form that won him the 2018 NBA MVP award in Houston.

The 32-year-old is averaging just 20.8 points per game this season, his lowest since the 2011-12 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His 40.4 per cent success rate from the field is also the lowest since his rookie year.

However, Harden has proven in the past that he can rise to the occasion when he's the main man, and sitting just 20 career assists away from 6,000, he may just roll back the years and pull the strings in the arena now formerly known as the Staples Center.

KEY BATTLE – Can the Nets be as deadly in mid-range?

Brooklyn currently sit top of the table for mid-range points this season, averaging 49.1, well ahead of the Utah Jazz in second (45.3).

Harden is third in the league for most points per game created via assists (21.8), behind only Chris Paul (23.0) and Trae Young (21.9), while Harden (24.4 per cent) and fellow Nets star Patty Mills (29.7 per cent) claim the top two spots for highest percentage of assists for mid-range field goals made.

However, the Lakers have the fourth-best record in the league for lowest field goal percentage allowed from mid-range (38.0), and so it is an area to keep an eye out for, especially with Aldridge and Durant out, both sitting in the top 10 for highest field-goal percentage from mid-range.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Lakers prevailed 126-101 when these two last met in April, and the teams have enjoyed five wins each from their last 10 encounters.

As one of only two NBA teams that have never won a division title, the Memphis Grizzlies are in prime position to cut that number in half this season.

Since joining the NBA as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995-96, Memphis have finished second five times but have never captured a division crown. The Charlotte Hornets are the only other franchise never to win a division title, though they did finish in a three-way tie for first place in the Southeast in 2015-16 but lost the title to the Miami Heat on a tie-breaker.

Roughly two months into this season and Memphis sit atop a weak Southwest Division with the franchise's first division title a distinct possibility.

No division has a worse composite record than the Southwest with Memphis (17-11), the Dallas Mavericks (14-13), San Antonio Spurs (10-16), Houston Rockets (9-18) and New Orleans Pelicans (8-21) combining for a 58-79 record (42.3). Weaker division opponents certainly will not hurt the Grizzlies' cause, but they appear more than capable of beating just about any team, evidenced by their 13-6 record against the Western Conference.

While Ja Morant has established himself as one of the game's young superstars in his third season, what is most impressive about the Grizzlies is how they have performed without him.

Morant has not played since November 26 due to a sprained left knee and he then entered the NBA's health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19 on December 8.

Somehow, Memphis have been even better with their leading scorer on the shelf, going an inspired 8-1. Prior to this stretch, Memphis were 6-9 in Morant's career when he missed a game.

It has been a dominant run for the Grizzlies, who have outscored opponents by 176 points in those nine games. Since November 28 in their first game without Morant, the Grizzlies rank fifth in the NBA in points per game (113.7), ninth in three-pointers made (112) and lead the league in total rebounds (449) and total steals (108).

Clearly, Memphis are much more than just Morant.

During a five-game winning streak – all without Morant – the Grizzlies led every game from wire-to-wire before the run ended with a 104-96 loss to visiting Dallas on December 8. Included in that five-game surge was a stunning 152-79 thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the largest margin of victory in league history.

Memphis only rank 20th this season in opponent points per game (109.2) but something has clicked with the defence allowing a league-best 94.1 points during this 8-1 stretch. In the first 19 games this season, Memphis held foes to 101 points or fewer just twice but have done that seven times in the past nine contests.

Memphis are 13-1 (92.9) this season when holding opponents under 110 points. Only the Phoenix Suns (18-0), Charlotte (7-0) and Brooklyn Nets (15-1) have a better winning percentage in such games.

Maybe it was Morant's absence that forced the rest of the team to turn up the defensive pressure, but whatever the reason Taylor Jenkins' team now know they can win either with offense as they rank sixth in the league in scoring (111.0) as well as at the opposite end of the court.

Perhaps no victory was more indicative of what the Grizzlies can do than last Thursday's 108-95 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite missing Morant and starting guard Dillon Brooks (health and safety protocols), Memphis set a franchise record with nine steals in the second quarter en route to a season-high 18 and became just the second team in the past 13 games to hold star-laden Los Angeles under 100 points.

Several players have stepped up to fill the void left by Morant and none bigger than second-year guard Desmond Bane. A serious contender for the Most Improved Player award, Bane has taken a huge step forward in his sophomore season to become much more than a shooter with his usage rate going from 16.1 to 22.3 per cent.

In the nine games without Morant, Bane has averaged 17.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and shot 44.8 per cent from three-point range (26 for 58). He averaged 15.5 points and 3.8 rebounds while connecting on 37.4 per cent (46 for 123) from deep in the season's first 19 games. His points per game average has risen from 9.2 in 2020-21 to 16.0 this season – his plus-6.8 improvement only bettered by Reggie Jackson (+6.9), Miles Bridges (+7.1) and Tyrese Maxey (+8.7) among players to have played in 70 per cent of team games in both campaigns.

When a team's leading scorer misses time, the second-leading scorer is asked to pick up most of the slack and Jaren Jackson Jr. has answered that call.

During the 8-1 stretch, Jackson is scoring 21.1 per game on 50.4 per cent shooting, including 38.5 per cent (20 for 52) from beyond the arc. In 19 games played with Morant this term, Jackson averaged 14.8 points on 39.7 per cent from the field and 33.7 per cent from long range.

Jackson has scored 25 points or more in four of his last seven games after having only one such game through his first 20 this season.

With 25 points and five blocks in a win over the Toronto Raptors late last month, Jackson became just the third Grizzlies player to reach both those totals in a game since the team moved to Memphis. Pau Gasol (six games) and Marc Gasol (four games) are the only others.

Memphis' defensive improvement is clearly a team-wide concept, but Dillon Brooks may be the player most responsible. Brooks did not make his season debut until November 10 due to a broken left hand and the team clearly missed his intensity and leadership.

In 14 games this season with Brooks in the line-up, Memphis have surrendered 103.6 points per game and held opponents to 44.0 per cent shooting. In the 14 games he has missed, the Grizzlies have given up 114.9 points with opponents making 48.3 per cent of their shots.

Taking over at the point in Morant's place has been Tyus Jones, who had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league each of the last three seasons and is on his way to doing it again with 119 assists to 21 turnovers (5.67).

The biggest improvement in Jones' game has been his three-point shooting, making 40 percent of his first 65 attempts after he hit on just 32.1 per cent last season.

One area where Memphis have excelled all season is on the boards.

The Grizzlies rank third in the NBA in total rebounds (1,323) and tied for second in offensive rebounding (358). Steven Adams leads the way with 8.6 per game but gets plenty of help as Memphis are tied for second in the league with seven players averaging at least four boards per contest.

Those rebounds play a role in helping Memphis top the NBA in both second-chance points (479) and points in the paint (1,504).

With Phoenix and the Golden State Warriors looking like world beaters right now and the Utah Jazz not far behind, Memphis have been able to fly under the radar in the Western Conference.

While there is no telling how Morant's return will affect the Grizzlies, the team have done all the little things in his absence and that can only help them in their quest to finally hang a division championship banner at FedEx Forum.

The Eastern Conference clash between the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls on Saturday would have been a fascinating contest regardless, but as we are all learning to live with, matters have been complicated by COVID-19.

The Bulls have seen their options depleted, with several players entering the NBA's health and safety protocols in recent days, including star man DeMar DeRozan.

Coming off a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago will be determined to get back to winning ways in Miami, but it is unclear at this stage who will even be taking to the court for Billy Donovan's team.

The Bulls (17-9) are second in the Eastern Conference as they travel to Florida to face the fourth-placed Heat (15-11), but have seen DeRozan, Derrick Jones Jr, Coby White, Matt Thomas and Javonte Green all sidelined by the health and safety protocols.

The Bulls' form has been one of the stories of the season in the NBA, with those who delighted in the Netflix documentary 'The Last Dance' dreaming of a first championship for Chicago since 1998.

Miami have been impressing as well, though. Having disappointingly followed up their run to the NBA Finals in 2019-20 with a first round playoff exit in a whitewash 0-4 defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks last season, they appeared to be back to previous levels after winning six of their first seven games of this campaign.

That form has evened out in recent times, but with a home record of 7-4, including an impressive win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, the Heat will be confident of taking advantage of a depleted Bulls team, who they beat only a couple of weeks ago in Chicago.

One key area could well be how often the Bulls get into the paint, with Miami highest in the league for field goal percentage allowed in the paint (59.9), while Chicago have the second lowest (52.1).

Expect a strong start from Chicago, who boast the second most points per game from starters in the league (82.5) compared to Miami who have fifth fewest (68.2), although things may well turn as the Heat have the fifth-highest average points from the bench (39.1) while the Bulls have the second fewest (26.4).

DeRozan would undoubtedly be a huge miss for the Bulls. The 32-year-old has found life a breeze in the Windy City, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of his 24 appearances so far, sitting fourth in the league for average points per game (26.4).

Another possible absentee in the game is former Bull Jimmy Butler, who is 16th in the league for average points per game (22.8) but has missed the last few outings for the Heat with a tailbone injury, while Bam Adebayo will definitely be out after requiring thumb surgery.

Caleb Martin posted career-highs in points (28) and triples (six) as the Heat beat the Bucks 113-104, and along with Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Tyler Herro, will be hoping to go big again and take advantage of the shorthanded Bulls.

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Chicago Bulls – Zach LaVine

If DeRozan is unable to play, the onus will fall on Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball to carry the Bulls to victory in Miami, with LaVine in particular almost certainly required to post a big score.

That should not be too much of a problem for the top point scorer in the NBA right now (670) who has played all 26 games for the Bulls so far this season, only failing to score more than 20 points on three occasions.

The shooting guard is also third in the league for dunks on a fast break with 17, which could come in handy when up against one of the older rosters in the NBA. Miami has the third-oldest active roster (28 years and 291 days) compared to the tenth-youngest Chicago (25 years and 112 days).

Miami Heat – Tyler Herro

The man announced as the best dressed athlete at Sports Illustrated's SI Awards on Tuesday will be hoping to look as impressive on the court when the Bulls come to town.

Herro scored 20+ points in 12 of his first 17 games this season, but has managed it just twice in his last six outings, including only scoring nine in the win against the Bucks.

The 21-year-old in his third season is increasingly becoming the Heat's key player, averaging 20.8 points per game, the 23rd most in the league, and will hope to impress more than judges of his attire with a big showing on Saturday.

KEY BATTLE – Will Bulls be able to find their mid-range?

The topic of mid-range shots and their usefulness seems to divide basketball fans, but it is an area that the Bulls in particular like to utilise as the team with the third-highest field-goal percentage from mid-range this season (45.1), behind only the Brooklyn Nets (49.0) and Portland Trail Blazers (46.7).

However, the Heat tops the table for lowest percentage of field-goals allowed from mid-range (34.7).

With DeRozan – who has the most field-goals made from the elbow this season (79) – likely to be missing, it could be that Chicago has to adjust their method of attack in Miami.

HEAD-TO-HEAD

The Heat prevailed 107-104 when these two met in November, and have won five of the last six meetings between the teams.

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