NBA

NBA Heat Check: Sixers stars on song, LeBron's deep-ball decline

By Sports Desk February 22, 2021

The races for the top seeds in each conference in the NBA are getting more interesting.

It was a fascinating seven days of action in the NBA, which saw the Brooklyn Nets surge even with Kevin Durant on the sidelines.

They are on a six-game win streak and trail the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers by only half a game.

However, the Sixers can be encouraged by the form of their top two stars, who each enjoyed extremely productive weeks.

The Los Angeles Lakers are on a two-game losing streak and are two and a half games back of the Utah Jazz in the race for the top seed in the Western Conference.

They will be out to get back to their best this week, and an improvement in three-point shooting from the MVP frontrunner would be beneficial to them doing that.

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

RUNNING HOT...

Ben Simmons

Simmons missed two games last week due to stomach flu but he was excellent in the pair of games in which he did feature for the Sixers.

He dropped 42 points in the loss to the Utah Jazz and, after a brief spell on the sidelines, was back with 28 in the defeat to the Toronto Raptors.

His points per game average for the week ballooned to 35, Simmons having entered the week putting up 14.13. Philadelphia will need more of the same the rest of the way if the Sixers are to clinch top spot in the East.

Jamal Murray

The Nuggets are in the thick of a crowded playoff race in the Western Conference, and their hopes of reaching the postseason will be boosted if Murray can maintain his form of the past week.

Having come into the week scoring 18.54 points per game, he averaged 35 last week, with that number inflated by a stunning 50-point game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which saw him shoot 84 per cent from the field and go eight of 10 from three-point range.

He went from putting up just over two triples per game to averaging five and, with a game against a Portland Trail Blazers team two and a half games ahead of them in the standings next up, Murray's success from deep will be pivotal.

Joel Embiid

Arguably the closest challenger to LeBron James for the league MVP award this season, Embiid was a monster on the boards for the Sixers this week.

His 50-point game in the win over the Chicago Bulls on Friday was also the first of two successive outings with 17 rebounds. 

Embiid's rebounds per game average jumped from 10.77 entering the week to 15 over the past seven days.

He will need to continue making that kind of all-round impact in scoring and rebounding if Embiid is to have any hope of denying LeBron the MVP.

GOING COLD...

Derrick Rose

Rose's second week as a New York Knick did not go to plan.

The 2011 MVP had come into the week registering 14.28 points per game, but that dropped to just 5.33 over the course of the last three games.

He endured a dismal week from the field, hitting just five of his 27 shots. Having gotten him out of a bad situation in Detroit, the Knicks will want a lot more from Rose in the coming weeks as they look to cement their grasp on a playoff spot.

Nikola Jokic

While Murray has been outstanding for the Nuggets, their MVP candidate had a down week in one key area of his game.

Denver lost three of their four games last week, and the Nuggets will look for improved play on the boards from Jokic as they target a reversal in fortunes. 

Jokic had been recording 11.5 rebounds per game but that dipped to 8.75 over his past four outings, failing to put up double-digit rebounds in back-to-back games against the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

He was back in double figures in each of Denver's last two games, and Jokic will aim to carry that momentum into this week and a key matchup with Portland.

LeBron James

This season has seen LeBron hit threes at his highest rate since joining the Los Angeles Lakers.

He has converted on 36.2 per cent of his attempts from beyond the arc but he suffered a decline from deep last week.

Having entered the week hitting 2.57 threes a game, he averaged just one over the course of the Lakers' last three matchups.

James has not made more than one three in a game since the second meeting in a back-to-back with the Oklahoma City Thunder on February 10.

With LeBron, though, drop-offs are only ever temporary. The MVP frontrunner should resume normal service from three-point range sooner rather than later.

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    LeBron James does not plan on halting his scoring run after he finished with 25 points or more for a 17th straight game.

    James had a double-double but it was not enough for the fast-finishing Los Angeles Lakers to overcome his former side the Miami Heat on Sunday.

    Miami turned up the heat on Lakers coach Frank Vogel, with Los Angeles having now lost five of their last seven games after the 113-107 reverse.

    There was at least one bright note for the Lakers, who charged home with 37-24 points down the stretch to reduce the deficit.

    James finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. The veteran is averaging 29.0 points per game this season for the Lakers, who sit eighth in the Western Conference with a 23-24 record. That ranks him second in the NBA, behind Kevin Durant (29.3).

    A knee injury for Anthony Davis earlier in the season meant James has had to deliver, and he has certainly held up his end of the bargain. Indeed, across the last 17 games, only Joel Embiid (33.9) has averaged more than the 37-year-old's 32.5 points.

    "I don't need to score 30 a night, but I'm in one of the best zones offensively I've been in, in my career," James told reporters. 

    "And I don't plan on stopping. That's just how I feel. I feel fantastic. Shooting the ball extremely well. I didn't shoot the three-ball well tonight, but all eight of them felt great.

    "I'm shooting efficiently from the free-throw line, shooting efficiently from the field. I was very efficient at the rim. So I don't go into the game saying you got to score 30 or you guys don't have a chance to win the game. I just play the game. The scoring has been happening organically."

    Russell Westbrook provided able support on Sunday with 24 points and nine rebounds, but Vogel is looking forward to welcoming Davis back from injury, having said before the game that it will help share the workload.

    For his part, however, James has his eye on another milestone. The big one, in fact – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time points record of 38,387.

    "As I've continued to climb the ranks, it's natural, human to look at it and see where you are and see if it's even possible. See if you're capable," added James, who is 2,006 points behind the record.

    "Obviously health plays the most important part and then just continuing to give your everything to the game. I've never cheated the game. I've never wanted to feel like I was content.

    "I wanted to continue to get better and like you said, I will be within 2,000 points, when did you say? Soon? Well, listen, we'll see what happens. I've never chased a record in my life."

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    Only once this season, against the Phoenix Suns in November (12), has Harden – who shot four-of-13 – ended a game with fewer points.

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    "I don't know. I don't even want to talk about it," he told reporters. "But it's definitely – when I get to the basket, it's the same calls the guys are getting. 

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    Asked what explanation he has had regarding certain calls going against him, Harden said: "Nothing. Honestly, nothing. 

    "Like [officials say], 'I didn't see it,' or 'I didn't think it was a foul.' But it's clear. It's extremely clear. I don't want to talk about it. I just got to keep going. It's not going to stop me. 

    "I'll keep on going to the basket, keep being aggressive and keep making plays for my team."

    The Timberwolves were awarded 31 free throw attempts compared to 15 for the Nets, who had 29 personal fouls called against them compared to 17 for their opponents.

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    "I think there's nights where it's fair, and even including the points of emphasis this year," Nash said. "Then there's other nights where it feels like he gets targeted a little bit. 

    "It just automatically gets lumped into that point of emphasis where he is creating the foul, which is not always the case at all."

    NBA officials have clamped down on offensive players who attempt to create contact and draw fouls from opponents, which Nash claims Harden has become the biggest victim of.

    "I think it's been well-documented that he's a poster child," Nash said. "I think the start of the year was rough – they were really trying to correct the point of emphasis. 

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    The Nets allowed 30 points in every quarter for the second time in 10 days, when losing 130-109 to Oklahoma City, as they fell behind the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference.

    Harden's treatment was the big talking point from the Timberwolves loss, but Kyrie Irving backed his team-mate to adapt.

    "I think teams have made adjustments, the referees have made adjustments, and now we have to make adjustments," said Irving, who led the Nets with 30 points.

    "He goes to the paint aggressively and we want him to continue doing that. He's going to be James. We know who James is – we know he's going to be himself.

    "But the whistle can go either way night to night. And depending on the [officiating] crew we have, I think that also has an effect on it.

    "We just want to start off the game with a consistent whistle. And when he's going in there and he's creating some contact, we feel like he deserves that respect."

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    Cornet, who celebrated her 32nd birthday on Saturday, battled to a 6-4 3-6 6-4 victory in stifling conditions on Rod Laver Arena to set up a last-eight showdown with Danielle Collins, who beat Elise Mertens in three sets.

    The Frenchwoman has now defeated two in-form former number ones in Halep and Garbine Muguruza, having also recovered from a set and 1-4 down to overcome Tamara Zidansek.

    She is through to her first quarter-final in what is her 63rd grand slam appearance and is the first Frenchwoman to reach this stage at Melbourne Park since Marion Bartoli in 2009.

    Cornet is playing in her 60th straight major, and should she compete in the main draws at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, will set a new record for consecutive appearances in grand slams.

    "It feels amazing," Cornet said in her on-court interview with Jelena Dokic. "It was a battle with Simona today. In this heat after 30 minutes we were both dying on the court.

    "We kept going for two and a half hours with all our heart. Congrats to Simona because I know she struggled a lot and I admire this player so much. 

    "She's such a fighter and an example to me. To beat her today to go to my first quarter-final is a dream come true. I don't know what to say. It's just magic. It's never too late to try again.

    "This is why I keep playing tennis, for this moment where I can share all these emotions on the court with you."

    Cornet had reached the last 16 at majors on five occasions prior to her victory over Halep in a run dating back 13 years when narrowly missing out on the Australian Open quarter-finals.

    She was pegged back from a set and break up against Halep, losing 16 straight points at one point, and was clearly struggling with the heat as the match dragged into a decider.

    But Cornet, who recently suggested this might be her final season playing professional tennis, showed incredible resolve to break Halep in the seventh game and hold her own serve to break her quarter-final hoodoo.

    Halep congratulated Cornet, posting to her official Instagram account: "You have been stronger today! All the respect for you, Alize. Enjoy. I'll keep working to get better for another three-hour match when we meet again."

    In her post-match media duties, Halep said: "I have only nice words about her, because I like her on court, how she's fighting.

    "She deserves what is happening to her now. She works hard all the time, and I wish her good luck. I really want her to make this dream coming true."

    There was to be another emotional moment for Cornet at the end of her victory speech as she praised 2009 Australian Open quarter-finalist Dokic for her work off the court since retiring eight years ago.

    "I want to thank my box, but also I want to tell you something... how you moved on in your life, I think we can all congratulate you. You were an amazing player and now an amazing commentator," Cornet said as the pair embraced on court.

    Dokic, who last week called out social media trolls for body-shaming her, responded: "You just made me cry. I can’t believe I'm crying. Thank you. Alize Cornet."

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