NBA

NBA Heat Check: Luka alight again but Bam bumbling in Bucks win

By Sports Desk May 24, 2021

The NBA playoffs got off to a thoroughly entertaining start over the weekend, with road wins for the lower seed in four of the eight series.

Game 1 followed hot on the heels of the similarly dramatic play-in tournament, in which Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors agonisingly lost twice to miss out on qualifying for the postseason.

Curry is a proven performer in both the regular season and the playoffs, but the same does not apply to every elite player.

Some stars seem to go missing when the season is on the line, while others thrive under pressure, as we discover in our latest NBA Heat Check – now comparing the performances of the past week to the entirety of the 2020-21 regular season.

RUNNING HOT...

Luka Doncic

For the second straight season, the Dallas Mavericks are playing the Los Angeles Clippers in round one. And for the second straight season, the series is providing Doncic with a platform to show off his extraordinary talents.

Dallas are too often a one-man show, but the Clippers struggled to contain Doncic last year as he averaged 31.0 points across a debut series that his Game 4 overtime buzzer-beating three-pointer memorably levelled.

The Mavs were beaten in Game 5 and Game 6 in 2020 to depart the tournament, yet this time they have a lead after Doncic's 31-point, triple-double effort on Saturday. Only Michael Jordan has played seven or more playoff games and averaged greater than his 31.0 points per game (33.4).

And it was again the Slovenian's accuracy from beyond the arc that hurt the Clippers, as he made five threes for the first time in the playoffs – up on his season average of 2.9.

Goran Dragic

The Miami Heat made the NBA Finals last season but were hamstrung by an injury to Dragic in Game 1 of the loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

That proved a telling blow, but Dragic is back at the fore in this year's playoffs despite a middling regular season in which he averaged 13.4 points per game.

An opening effort of 25 points helped keep Miami in contention against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1. Duncan Robinson chipped in with 24, too, shooting 53.8 per cent from three.

Dragic ranked fourth in the league last week in terms of scoring improvement (up 11.6 points on the regular season), with Robinson fifth (up 10.9). Robinson topped the list when it came to an upturn in three-point shooting, while Dragic was just behind. The pair could not be blamed for the Bucks' win.

GOING COLD...

Bam Adebayo

Adebayo certainly could be held responsible for Miami's early deficit, contributing a measly nine points on four-for-15 shooting.

The fourth-year center contributed 17.8 points per game in last year's playoffs, including 17.2 in the Milwaukee series, but he never got going on Saturday.

The decrease from Adebayo's regular season 18.7 average was the sixth-worst in the NBA and, to make matters worse for the Heat, superstar team-mate Jimmy Butler also turned in a concerning performance.

Butler finished with 17 points, yet he made only four of 22 field goal attempts while using 30.0 per cent of Miami's plays.

Chris Paul

Paul's poor game this weekend was the most understandable but also the most concerning. The veteran point guard took a blow to his shoulder in the Phoenix Suns' win over the Lakers and clearly moved uneasily thereafter.

"I heard like a crack or whatever," said Paul, whose ball handling was uncharacteristically clumsy as he was limited to seven points, down from a season average of 16.4 per outing.

It did not cost the Suns, but they will surely need Paul back fit and firing to beat the defending champions over a seven-game series.

Julius Randle

The New York Knicks would not be back in the playoffs if not for Randle's outstanding season in which he played the most minutes in the entire league (2,667) and recorded 24.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

But his belated playoff debut at Madison Square Garden saw a significant step back as Randle's six-for-23 shooting from the field – or 26.1 per cent – allowed the Atlanta Hawks to steal a road game.

The Knicks are built on hard graft rather than superstar talent, but they cannot afford for their All-Star to misfire so drastically.

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    Manchester United are confident change is coming and they will be "relentless" in attempts to bring long-term success back to Old Trafford, according to CEO Richard Arnold.

    United have become accustomed to not challenging for the Premier League title since Alex Ferguson's retirement in 2013, but the 2021-22 season saw them plumb new depths.

    Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, caretaker manager Michael Carrick and then interim manager Ralf Rangnick, United accumulated just 58 points, their worst record in a single Premier League campaign.

    But on top of that, champions Manchester City's haul of 93 points meant United finished the season 35 points adrift of the summit – that is comfortably the furthest off the top the Red Devils have ended a term in the Premier League era.

    It was also the first time since 1989-90 that United failed to finish a league season with a positive goal difference, as they scored and conceded 57 goals.

    United looked to get their preparations for next season started early by confirming the appointment of Erik ten Hag in April, and he has already taken up his role with a view to having a head-start when pre-season begins in late June.

    And CEO Arnold, now in charge following the departure of executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, insisted club chiefs share the fans' frustrations but was keen to emphasise the board's confidence in bringing success back to United with their long-term strategy.

    Speaking at an April fans' forum from which the minutes were released on Thursday, Arnold said: "Suffice to say, we are not happy with where we are in terms of performance on the pitch.

    "We understand fans are frustrated and want to see change and improvement. I can assure you that we share that frustration very intensely within the club.

    "But we also feel confident that change is coming because of the action being taken to drive long-term success. The appointment of Erik ten Hag was the most visible example of that action, and the most important. We're pleased to have got that done early and we can't wait for Erik to get started.

    "Success won't be achieved overnight but we are determined to get there, and we will be relentless in our efforts to achieve it. The support of fans will be crucial, and we accept that we have further work to do to strengthen that relationship, aided by the work of this forum."

    When things are not going well on the pitch for United, frustrated fans quickly turn their attention to the club's owners, the Glazer family.

    Thousands of supporters protested the Glazers' ownership during United's last three home matches of the season, but Arnold is convinced the club is doing more than most to engage with and listen to fans.

    Additionally, he is hopeful an improvement in on-field matters next season will breed wider positivity.

    "As stated earlier, everyone at the club, from the owners down, accepts that performances this season have been well below what we expect," he continued. "We are taking decisive action to improve things and there is huge commitment and passion across the club to return to where we think we belong: challenging for, and winning, titles.

    "We are very aware of how fans are feeling and understand their concerns and frustration. Football is a game of passion and we fully respect fans' right to make their feelings known, as long as this remains legal and peaceful at all times. We have a duty of care to the fans who come to enjoy games, and to our staff who enable games to go ahead, and their safety will always be our priority.

    "I would very much hope that all fans within Old Trafford approach next season with renewed optimism and confidence as we look forward to a fresh start under Erik ten Hag.

    "We have the best fans in the world and when Old Trafford is at its loudest we have a significant advantage against our opponents. I hope this unrivalled passion will be used to support the team and the new manager as we start this exciting new chapter together.

    "As a club we are doing more than ever before – and more than most of our peers – to engage with fans and listen to your views. We have strengthened and expanded this fans' forum, set up our new fans' advisory board, and continue to engage directly with [fan] groups. We are committed to listening to our fans and working collaboratively to improve the fan experience and keep the club strong and healthy. We need fans to keep engaging with us to be able to do this."

  • French Open: 'I stopped playing for years but never gave up' – rookie Jeanjean revels in Pliskova upset French Open: 'I stopped playing for years but never gave up' – rookie Jeanjean revels in Pliskova upset

    Leolia Jeanjean became the lowest-ranked woman to beat a top-10 player at the French Open since 1988 as the world number 227 stunned Karolina Pliskova on Thursday.

    French player Jeanjean was a promising youngster whose career looked to have been scuppered by knee trouble, but at the age of 26 she is making her grand slam debut in Paris and is through to the third round.

    On Court Simonne-Mathieu, she crushed last year's Wimbledon runner-up Pliskova 6-2 6-2, surprising herself with the way she brushed off the eighth-seeded Czech.

    It made Jeanjean the lowest-ranked woman to beat a top-10 opponent at Roland Garros since a 16-year-old Conchita Martinez upset ninth seed Lori McNeil at the 1988 tournament.

    The then little-known Martinez would go on to win Wimbledon in 1994 and reach number two in the world.

    As a teenager, Jeanjean reached 676th in the world in 2013, but she had slumped to 1,180th by November 2020. A once-promising career looked set to end with Jeanjean sliding into obscurity, but she thrilled the Roland Garros crowds with her dismantling of Pliskova.

    Mixing her studies in finance with college tennis at Lynn University and the University of Arkansas has helped Jeanjean climb inside the top 250 on the WTA Tour, and her big-stage breakthrough has finally arrived in her homeland.

    "I'm very, very happy," she said. "What's happening right now is something I never imagined before. When I stopped playing for four to five years I never imagined I'd be in the third round of a grand slam.

    "The fact I never gave up and always believed in myself is probably why I'm here today. Now I'm 26, and it's my first grand slam. I thought I would have lost in the first round in two sets and I find myself beating a top-10 player.

    "I don't know how it's possible that it's happening."

    It was after Jeanjean sustained her knee injury that she chose to go down the US college route with her career, knowing many tennis stars have come through the system.

    "I wanted to give myself another chance," she said.

    Pliskova lost on clay to a player from outside the WTA top 200 for the first time since going down to Arina Rodionova in qualifiers for a tournament in Fes, Morocco, more than 10 years ago. Irina-Camelia Begu awaits Jeanjean in the third round.

    Pliskova's exit was the latest in a string of shocks which have meant that for the first time at Roland Garros, six or more of the top 10 seeds have been eliminated in the first two rounds. She joined Barbora Krejcikova, Maria Sakkari, Anett Kontaveit, Ons Jabeur and Garbine Muguruza on that list of casualties.

    The 30-year-old Pliskova said Jeanjean's variety made her an awkward opponent, and suggested the courts played slowly.

    "I think this court is a bit too brutal,," Pliskova said during a news conference. "My serve was not working. I don't have a horrible feeling but, of course, like you lose, so of course I'm not happy about it, but I just want to give credit to her, I think she played a great match."

  • Butler confident of Miami Heat revival Butler confident of Miami Heat revival

    Jimmy Butler is confident the Miami Heat can turn things around after falling 3-2 behind to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Miami must now win back-to-back games after slumping to a 93-80 loss on Wednesday, despite having taken a 42-37 half-time lead.

    Boston can seal the series on home court on Friday, but Butler is determined to take it to a Game 7 decider on Sunday.

    "Besides the fact that anything is possible, we know what we are capable of," he said.

    "We know we can play some really good basketball, and we know that we are going to play some really good basketball.

    "It's going to have to start in this next game up in Boston. But I just think that we know that we can win."

    Butler left Game 3 early with a knee problem and has since been 7-of-32 from the field in consecutive losses.

    However, he was in no mood to make excuses for his poor showing.

    "It doesn't matter; if I'm out there, I've got to do better," he said. "I've got to find a way to help us win, and I haven't been doing that.

    "I'm fine. My knee is okay. I've just got to do better. It's no excuse."

    Team-mate Kyle Lowry struck a similarly defiant tone as he sought to issue a rallying call ahead of a crunch clash in Boston.

    "We have to continue to just keep working," Lowry said.

    "It's the first to four, so we have to go into a hostile environment, and it will be amped up, but I like what our team can do.

    "I like the opportunity that we have, and we've got to go in there and fight."

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