NBA

NBA Heat Check: Kyrie, Westbrook and Curry light it up as Kawhi continues to struggle

By Sports Desk May 10, 2021

The NBA is nearing the end of its regular season.

Soon the fight for playoff positioning will give way to the drama of the play-in round and the subsequent seven-game series that will decide the destination of the title.

In other words, it is time for the league's elite to find their best.

While several of those stars are hitting form at exactly the right time, there are others enduring worrying declines ahead of the postseason.

Here we examine the performances of those excelling going into the playoffs, and those who need to turn it around in this week's edition of Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT

Kyrie Irving - Brooklyn Nets

Irving went into last week having failed to score 30 points in three straight appearances, but he was back to his best over the past seven days.

Having previously averaged 26.7 points for the season, Irving put up 38 points per game across three outings last week, with a 45-point display against the Dallas Mavericks sandwiched by a 38-point effort in defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks and a 31-point showing versus the Denver Nuggets.

Only the game with the Nuggets ended in victory, but the Nets will be encouraged by Irving's form with the playoffs approaching. He was excellent from beyond the arc, hitting 5.67 threes per game having entered the week averaging 2.63.

Irving converted 17 of his 32 three-point attempts last week, a percentage of 53.1 that ranks 10th among players to have attempted at least 20 last week.

Russell Westbrook - Washington Wizards

Westbrook made history on Saturday as he tied Oscar Robertson's record for triple-doubles with the 181st of his career against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.

The way in which his athleticism has translated to success on the boards has been key to Westbrook's successful pursuit of Hall of Famer Robertson.

And his rebounding was nothing short of incredible over the past seven days. Having entered the week averaging 11.16 rebounds, Westbrook racked up 17.25 per game across his last three games, culminating with 19 in his record-equalling display in an overtime win over Indiana.

He'll hope for more success on the glass against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday to take him past Robertson.

Stephen Curry - Golden State Warriors

The best shooter in the game had another stunning week from beyond the arc as he continues to fuel the Warriors' push towards the playoffs.

Curry's 5.2 made threes per game was already the gold standard in the NBA this season but he was even more devastating from deep in four games last week.

Indeed, Curry averaged 8.25 threes per game, with that jump fuelled largely by him hitting 11 on Saturday as he scored 49 points in 29 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As long as he continues his excellent form, the Warriors should have a great chance of coming through the play-in round and making it to the postseason.

GOING COLD...

Andre Drummond - Los Angeles Lakers

It was a rough week for Lakers big Drummond, who endured the largest drop-off in the NBA in both points and rebounds per game.

Drummond entered last week putting up 15.89 points per game but saw his average over four games dip to 5.75.

He failed to score double-digit points in any of those outings and was similarly ineffective on the boards.

His rebounds per game dipped from 12.37 to 6.25, Drummond having started the week by failing to record a single rebound in a game for only the third time in his career in a win over the Nuggets.

Luka Doncic - Dallas Mavericks

It is pleasing for the Mavs that they can win without Doncic delivering his best every night, as they did not get it last week.

Doncic was far from terrible, as he topped 20 points in three of his four outings, but he saw his points per game average drop from 28.64 entering the week to 21.50 in those appearances.

The Mavs won each of those contests, with Doncic contributing double-doubles in two, though he had an underwhelming 15-point game to end the week against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

So, while he may be 'going cold' relative to his usual standard in scoring, Doncic is finding ways to help Dallas build momentum ahead of the playoffs.

Kawhi Leonard - Los Angeles Clippers

Leonard has been bothered by injury issues in recent weeks, with his best form eluding the two-time NBA Finals MVP.

For the season, Leonard was averaging 25.51 points per game going into the last week, but could only manage to put up 19 over the course of three games in the past seven days.

And that average was inflated by a 29-point effort in the Clippers' loss to the New York Knicks on Sunday.

Prior to that return to something like normal service, Leonard had failed to score 20 points in each of his last four games.

Even his effort against the Knicks came on an inefficient shooting performance where he went nine for 26, indicating Leonard is some way off the standard he will need for the Clippers to contend in the playoffs.

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    The Phoenix Suns are keeping their eyes on the prize as they target NBA glory, with Chris Paul and Devin Booker playing down the team's winning streak.

    Phoenix made it 15 consecutive wins thanks to Friday's 118-97 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

    Paul's 14 points and 10 assists, and Booker's 32 points fuelled the Suns to within two wins of equalling their franchise record for consecutive victories – 17 in 2006-07.

    But after falling short in last season's NBA Finals, Paul and the Suns are solely focused on the business end of the campaign.

    "This ain't a playoff game tomorrow [Sunday]," Paul said post-game in New York, where the Suns improved to 16-3 – a record only bettered by Western Conference rivals the Golden State Warriors (17-2) this season.

    "It's good for us to go out there and compete, and we're probably gonna see different coverages and all that, but we're just trying to build, build.

    "It's not about winning a game in November."

    "We just wanted to get it going," said All-Star Booker. "It's no secret we have a streak going, and we're going to get every team's best shot.

    "The whole NBA knows about that, so we just tried to set the tone early. Come out, play team basketball ... we did our job tonight."

    Booker added: "We do one at a time. We know we have a tough opponent tomorrow that's been waiting on us, well-rested.

    "So we just have to come in with the same mentality, play the type of basketball that we do, defend at a high level and put ourselves in good shape to get it done."

  • Man Utd 'didn't need' to sign Sancho, claims former striker Yorke Man Utd 'didn't need' to sign Sancho, claims former striker Yorke

    Dwight Yorke has claimed Manchester United did not need to sign Jadon Sancho due to the emergence of Mason Greenwood at the time.

    Sancho joined from Borussia Dortmund in a big-money move in the last transfer window, though the winger's arrival was somewhat overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo's sensational return to Old Trafford.

    The 21-year-old has struggled for form since the transfer and was dropped by England after disappointing in his initial showings for United.

    However, Sancho – who has accumulated 744 minutes across all competitions for his new club – finally found the net against Villarreal on Tuesday after previously going 14 appearances and 10 shots without finding the net.

    His Champions League strike was his first goal for the club, having failed to score before United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer parted ways with the Red Devils sat eighth in the league.

    But Yorke expressed his confusion as to why United signed Sancho when they have Greenwood, who stormed onto the scene in 2019-20 before he became only the second teenager to find the net in the opening three matches of a Premier League season this term.

    "I think people forget these are young men that come in with huge expectations," Yorke, who finished as United's top league goal scorer in 1998-99, told Stats Perform. 

    "He hasn't had the best of campaigns with England. We've seen that missed penalty, that can have a knock-on effect as well. All those little things, things that young players have to deal with. 

    "I am a fan; I just probably think it would have been a little bit too early for us to bring him in. 

    "I think we didn't need Sancho at the point in time with the emergence of Greenwood. I just think that was a position that we didn't really need to go for."

    United are reportedly edging closer to appointing Ralf Rangnick on an interim basis, with a permanent solution set to be found at the end of the season.

    The 63-year-old will no doubt know about Sancho, who is the only player from Europe's top five leagues to have scored 10 goals or more and had at least 15 assists across all competitions in each of the previous three seasons.

    Despite questioning whether his arrival was necessary, Yorke added how exciting Sancho's potential can be for United, who travel to Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday.

    "However, you still cannot underestimate the talent the boy does possess," he continued.

    "He's definitely one for the future. Again, we have an English product and we want to make sure that we continue to pick up the English players. 

    "But sometimes that can get a little bit overwhelming at times and people get ahead of themselves a little bit. But there’s no question in my mind that he's a very talented young man and will be a great asset to the football club going forward."

  • Julen Lopetegui: Once the butt of all jokes, now aiming to be Real Madrid's biggest threat Julen Lopetegui: Once the butt of all jokes, now aiming to be Real Madrid's biggest threat

    Julen Lopetegui has come a long way. Very little highlights that more than the fact he has been mentioned as a potential long-term successor to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United.

    While such a move probably won't occur, with Mauricio Pochettino seemingly the likeliest to walk through the door at Old Trafford at the end of the season, the speculation is at least a vindication of the work Lopetegui has done at Sevilla over the past two and a half years.

    Of course, it wasn't long before his hiring by Sevilla that Lopetegui seemed to be the butt of all jokes in Spanish football, with the situation surrounding his Spain departure attracting criticism before he was swiftly shown the exit by Real Madrid.

    But he is a coach who really has put in the hard graft, having quickly lost his first ever job in management before then opting to refine his skills in youth coaching, steadily working his way up to prominence.

    His football may not be universally popular, but Lopetegui has restored his reputation in an emphatic way.

    Julen's gambit

    Lopetegui saw the writing was on the wall.

    "I know the culture of the club. I am identified with [the club] and with its fans. I am not surprised by a dismissal because football depends on results and we are not achieving them," he said.

    While you'd think that might sound like what Lopetegui would have said after getting dismissed by Madrid, it was actually a frank response to being ditched by Rayo Vallecano back in 2003.

    Rayo, whom Lopetegui finished his playing career with, were in the second tier and won just one of their first 10 league matches under their new, inexperienced coach. They went on to suffer a second successive relegation.

    Although getting sacked wasn't a surprise for Lopetegui, it seemed to shock him into something of a rethink – he returned to his first professional club as a player, Real Madrid, in 2006 as their head of international scouting, and two years later he was in charge of the 'B' team, Castilla.

    That was the first of several roles focused on youth coaching, which would see him looking after Spain's Under-19s, Under-20s and Under-21s over the following six years. Two seasons with Porto reintroduced him to senior club football, before Spain came calling again.

    This time it wasn't an age-group role, it was the real deal. Lopetegui took over from Vicente del Bosque in 2016 and set about establishing a new dynasty for La Roja.

    It was a largely positive two years. Ahead of the World Cup, he had presided over 20 matches for Spain, winning 14 of them and losing none.

    That made him the Spain coach to have overseen the most games without losing, while his 70 per cent winning record is second only to Del Bosque (76 per cent) among those to preside over at least 15 games.

    Goals weren't hard to come by either. Sure, World Cup qualification in Europe can bring about some lopsided results that boost averages, but still, Spain's 3.1 goals per game under Lopetegui remains the best of any Spain coach (min. 15 matches).

    However, his decision to enter a post-World Cup agreement with Real Madrid, which was announced just a few days before Spain's campaign was due to begin, did not go down well with the Royal Spanish Football Federation. He was sacked and Fernando Hierro was brought in at short notice to preside over an ultimately disappointing Russia 2018.

    Many criticised Lopetegui; some understood why he'd accepted the Madrid opportunity, others suspected it to be a poisoned chalice.

    Predictable Perez

    Given what he said after being sacked by Rayo some 15 years earlier, why Lopetegui saw Florentino Perez as the patient type was mystifying.

    "Real Madrid is still alive. This is still October, we have done some good things, made a lot of chances, and we will try and improve and be more effective. We are ready to play a game of this size and these demands," he said prior to what proved to be his final match in charge.

    After the game, that appraisal turned to: "I feel sad, but I want to remain in charge. It's a big blow, but I'm strong enough to know everything can be turned around. I have a lot of faith in this group of players."

    Only, Lopetegui wasn't given the chance to turn it around, as we all know, for a 5-1 demolition by Barcelona in El Clasico brought an abrupt end to his brief 14-match stint at the helm. In football terms, there was surely no greater humiliation for a Madrid coach.

    It was only the third time this century Madrid have conceded five times to Barca in LaLiga, and it meant Los Blancos had lost three league games on the bounce – again, this has only happened on two other occasions since January 2000.

    Of course, there's lots to be said for why Lopetegui failed at Madrid. For one, his first-choice full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo were in and out of the team, and such positions carry great importance for Lopetegui.

    Additionally, let's not forget this was a Madrid very much in transition after the departure – and failed replacement – of Cristiano Ronaldo. It was seemingly expected that Karim Benzema would instantly pick up Ronaldo's slack, despite only passing 20 league goals in two of his previous nine LaLiga seasons. The Portugal star never went below 25 in his nine campaigns in Spain.

    While Benzema did ultimately score 21 times in the league, only four of those (one via the penalty spot) – split across two games – came during Lopetegui's 10 games. Decisiveness in the final third was a real issue for the team, demonstrated by the fact they failed to beat Levante despite having 34 shots and set a new club record of 481 minutes without a league goal.

    But Zinedine Zidane, Lopetegui's predecessor, saw this coming. As he bade farewell to the club alongside Perez just 15 days after winning a third successive Champions League title, the Frenchman spoke persistently about "change" and openly acknowledged he thought "it would be difficult to keep winning if I stayed".

    Whether that was down to insufficient investment in the first team, the likelihood of retaining such high standards in the Champions League or a combination of both is unclear, but it would seem his successor was always on a hiding to nothing.

    From rock-bottom to redemption

    Lopetegui left Madrid with the second-worst win percentage (42.9 per cent) across all competitions in the club's history (min. two games), better only than Amancio (40.9).

    But his record and impact at Sevilla couldn't realistically be much more of a contrast. Over his first 100 matches in charge in Nervion in all competitions, Lopetegui's 59 wins were a joint-record for the club.

    It's almost fitting that his 100th career LaLiga match as a coach will come against his former team this weekend – it would be an even sweeter occasion were he to mastermind his first ever victory over Madrid, as success for Sevilla on Sunday will move them above Los Blancos and potentially put them top.

    LaLiga is shaping up to be the closest it's been in years. Whether that's down to a dip in quality across Spain's top flight or not is a debate for another time, but Sevilla certainly looked well-placed to mount a challenge for the title having ultimately fallen just short in the final weeks of 2020-21.

    At the very least, they are surely on track to finish in the top four in three successive seasons for only the second time since the Spanish Civil War, and it's this kind of consistency that's undoubtedly caught the attention of Man United, whom he defeated en route to 2019-20 Europa League success.

    There are reasons to suggest he could be the sort of 'system coach' United need, as well. He's turned Sevilla into a side who dominate the ball, with their 64.4 per cent average possession for the season second only to Barcelona (65.8), while only the Catalans and Madrid have attempted and completed more passes.

    But where many teams who like to dominate possession tend to press high, Sevilla do much more of their pressing in the middle third of the pitch – working with a striker like Ronaldo, who's engaged in just 113 pressures in the Premier League this season, ranking 30th at his position, may not be such an issue.

    For example, Sevilla's 61 high turnovers are 10 fewer than any other LaLiga team this season, yet they have allowed opponents to have just four build-ups (sequences of 10 or more passes) that resulted in a shot or touch in the box. The next best record here is 10 (Barca and Villarreal).

    This theoretically then gives Sevilla the chance to showcase their strength in picking through a counter-press, which is demonstrated by their 73 high turnovers against being the third-lowest in the division – none have led to a goal.

    After getting by on individual quality and a helping of nostalgia for nearly three years, United need a coach who has proven he can mould a team to his philosophy – Sevilla may not be the most exhilarating team to watch, but they are effective and Lopetegui got results very quickly.

    Certainly, Lopetegui ending up at Old Trafford any time soon isn't likely, but if Sevilla continue to churn out results in LaLiga and make themselves a genuine silverware rival to Los Blancos and Atletico Madrid, it's only a matter of time before Europe's biggest clubs come poking around. 

    Where Lopetegui once saw Madrid as his greatest opportunity, he hopefully now just sees them as a mere obstacle in his quest for a crowning achievement: winning Sevilla their first title since the 1940s.

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