Team owners voted on Tuesday to approve the first expansion to the NFL's regular-season format since 1978.  

Beginning this year, teams will play 17 regular-season games, with the preseason reduced from four games to three. Contrary to some proposals in previous years, each team will still have just one bye week.  

Tuesday's approval came one year after owners expanded the playoff field from 12 to 14 games, resulting in two additional playoff games and an estimated $150 million in added annual revenue, according to ESPN.  

The players had already approved an added regular-season game as a part of the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, which gave ownership the ability to expand as early this season.  

Earlier this month, the NFL announced a new broadcast rights agreement that secured the league's media distribution through the 2033 season. Tuesday's deal allows for additional international games, with each team playing abroad at least once every eight seasons.  

"This is a monumental moment in NFL history," commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "The CBA with the players and the recently completed media agreements provide the foundation for us to enhance the quality of the NFL experience for our fans.  

"And one of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world."

The added game will match inter-conference foes, with AFC teams getting an extra home game in odd-numbered years and NFC teams in even-numbered years.

Some of the most anticipated matchups in the added game in 2021 include a showdown between Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Green Bay Packers, the Indianapolis Colts hosting the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and two former number one overall picks at quarterback squaring off when the Arizona Cardinals visit the Cleveland Browns.  

The season is scheduled to begin on September 9 and end on January 9, 2022.

Despite the NFL Players Association approving a schedule expansion in last year's collective bargaining negotiations, some players have been vocal about their disapproval of the change.  

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara took to social media to call the expansion "dumb…as hell," while Green Bay Packers safety Adrian Amos tweeted: "We really let this happen."

Players will not see an increase in salary in 2021, and their wages will be split over 18 weeks instead of 17 weeks.  

In future seasons, the added revenue from a 17th game will contribute to a rise in the salary cap, providing the possibility for additional compensation for players signing new contracts.  

Bradford Bulls hooker George Flanagan has been banned for 10 games after being found guilty of "attacking an opponent's testicles".

The incident occurred in the 32nd minute of the Challenge Cup clash with Featherstone Rovers on March 21.

Flanagan, who denied the charge, was issued with the ban and a £250 fine after the Rugby Football League's match review panel referred the matter to a tribunal.

The RFL described it as a "Grade F incident", the most serious grading.

Flanagan was given an eight-match suspension in 2019 for a similar incident involving Toronto Wolfpack's Hakim Miloudi.

Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers says Joel Embiid is "close" to a playing return after more than a fortnight on the sidelines with bone bruising in his knee.

Embiid, 27, has not played for the 76ers since their March 13 win over the Washington Wizards, when he went down injured.

The 76ers have remained top of the Eastern Conference in his absence but lost their second straight game on Tuesday, going down 104-95 to the Denver Nuggets.

"Whenever Joel comes back, we’re going to go back to our normal rotation, but I have no idea," Rivers said.

"He’s close. I can tell you that. He’s working every day, I get reports back daily, and he looks good. He’s doing well."

Given Philadelphia's position on the standings, the franchise is focusing on ensuring the Cameroonian forward is fully fit for the play-offs.

"He has to clear certain medical steps," Rivers said. "I don’t even know what those are, but he has to.

"Then the other thought with us, and the way I’ve always tried to do it, if you can come back and just keep playing, then you’re healthy, but if you can come back and play one game or two games and then have to sit, then you’re not ready yet. If you know what I’m saying.

"We want to make sure when Joel comes back, he’s back. Not in and out and I think that’s very important."

Russell Westbrook produced his third consecutive triple-double but it was not enough to inspire the Washington Wizards to victory as they went down 114-104 to the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.

Westbrook, who made NBA history with 35 points, 14 rebounds and 21 assists on Monday, was outstanding again with Bradley Beal out for the Wizards with 22 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists.

However, despite LaMelo Ball's absence, the Hornets got the edge after a strong first half which left the Wizards playing catch-up.

Gordon Hayward stepped up for Charlotte with 15 first-quarter points, to finish with 26 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, while Terry Rozier (27 points) was clutch at the business end.

76ers and Clippers downed

Eastern Conference leaders Philadelphia 76ers lost their second straight game as they were humbled 104-95 by the Denver Nuggets.

The 76ers are starting to feel the effects of missing Joel Embiid with a knee injury, as MVP candidate Nikola Jokic scored 21 points and had 10 rebounds for Denver.

Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr had 27 points, 12 rebounds and four assists while Jamal Murray scored 30 points.

The Phoenix Suns moved into second in the Western Conference with a 32-14 record after a 117-110 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.

Dario Saric scored 20 points off the bench for the Suns, while Deandre Ayton had 14 rebounds along with his 13 points.

The Los Angeles Clippers let slip a three-quarter-time lead to lose 103-96 to the lowly Orlando Magic.

Clippers collapse

The Clippers actually led 51-37 at half-time and by as many as 16 points against the Magic before an awful second-half showing as they were outscored 66-45.

 

Air Russ

There is lots of love for Westbrook right now and he produced a nice play, driving past two into the key and slamming over Hornets center Bismack Biyombo.

 

 

 

Top seed Daniil Medvedev powered his way into the Miami Open quarter-finals, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev on Tuesday.

Medvedev won in straight sets against unseeded American Frances Tiafoe, hitting 24 winners.

Second seed Stefanos Tsitsipas won in straight sets against 24th seed Lorenzo Sonego, although the second went to a tie-break which the Greek dominated.

World number eight Andrey Rublev got past Marin Cilic in straight sets to book his last-eight spot.

Fifth seed Diego Schwartzman was the major casualty on Tuesday, losing to unseeded American Sebastian Korda in three sets. Seeds Josh Isner, Milos Raonic and Taylor Fritz also exited.

 

TOP SEED EASES INTO LAST EIGHT

World number two Medvedev was too good for Tiafoe in a 6-4 6-3 victory.

Medvedev improved his 2021 record to 17-2, sending down 11 aces with a dominant first-serve display while taking three of his four break points.

The 2021 Australian Open runner-up will meet seventh seed Roberto Bautista Agut in his maiden Miami Open quarter-finals appearance.

"It was definitely a tough match," the Russian said in his post-match on-court interview. "I am just looking forward to tomorrow. Roberto is a hell of a player.

"I feel like sometimes, when I have practised with him and played against him, that his ranking should be higher. There are reasons why it is not and I am going to try to do something with it tomorrow."

STEFANOS SIZZLES PAST SONEGO

Tsitsipas kept up his good form after making last month's Australian Open semi-finals, by booking his first Miami Open quarter-final appearance.

The Greek world number five defeated Sonego 6-2 7-6 (7-2) with a clinical performance to keep alive his dream of a maiden ATP Masters title.

Tsitsipas won in just over an hour and a half, proving too good on serve, having not offered up one break point and winning 89 per cent of first-serve points.

He was also too good with his return for the Italian, winning 35 per cent of the points on Sonego's serve.

The Greek will take on Polish 26th seed Hubert Hurkacz in the last eight, after he knocked out 12th seed Raonic 4-6 6-3 7-6 (7-4).

 

FIFTH SEED TOPPLED BY KORDA

World number nine Schwartzman was knocked out in three sets by Korda 6-3 4-6 7-5 as he continues his super run.

Florida resident Korda, 20, reached his maiden ATP 1000 quarter-final, showing fight after the Argentinian raised his game in the second set, winning after an early break in the last.

Rublev made light work of former US Open champion Marin Cilic, triumphing 6-4 6-4.

Bautista Agut got past 18th seed Isner 6-3 4-6 7-6 (9-7), while Jannik Sinner defeated Alexander Zverev's conqueror Emil Ruusuvuori 6-3 6-2.

Alexander Bublik, seeded 32nd, sent down 23 aces as he beat Taylor Fritz 6-7 (5-7) 6-3 6-4.

 

Ash Barty's grip on the world number one ranking remains for now after winning in three sets against seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka in the Miami Open quarter-finals on Tuesday.

The 2019 Miami Open champion defeated Sabalenka 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-3 in humid conditions in South Florida to reach the last four, where the Australian will face fifth seed Elina Svitolina.

Svitolina won in the later match on Tuesday over Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova 6-3 6-2.

Barty, the 2019 French Open champion, did not drop her serve once against the Belarusian, saving seven break points throughout the match as she bids to retain her top ranking.

Barty is under threat from 2021 Australian Open winner Naomi Osaka for the number one ranking, with the Japanese also into the quarters.

The Australian will retain the top ranking by reaching the decider, regardless of second seed Osaka's results.

"It was a brilliant match today," Barty said in her on-court interview. "It was certainly the best level I’ve played for a long time and especially over a sustained period.

"Aryna really made me bring out my best stuff today. She’s an exceptional competitor."

Barty has now won 10 consecutive matches in Miami, dating back to her 2019 title with 2020's event cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ukraine's Svitolina, ranked fifth in the world, reached the Miami Open semi-finals for the first time with her win over the unseeded Sevastova.

"I've always wanted to play well here in Miami," said Svitolina, who made last year's French Open quarter-finals.

"It's one of the biggest tournaments and playing here is always amazing, so I'm really pleased with the performance tonight."

Wednesday's meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks should be one of the most mouth-watering contests of the NBA season.

But the allure of the matchup has been lost somewhat – the Lakers still without LeBron James because of an ankle injury and Anthony Davis due to a calf/Achilles issue that has kept him on the sideline since February.

As such, the Bucks, three games back of the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, will be the favourites against a Lakers team that stands as the fourth seed in the West.

However, the Lakers have shown fight in ending a four-game losing skid with back-to-back victories and recently added a two-time All-Star center to their roster.

Here, with the help of Stats Perform data, we look at the performers and the battles that will decide this marquee game.

TOP PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks - Giannis Antetokounmpo

The back-to-back MVP returned to something approaching his best in the Bucks' defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers last time out.

Coming off a nagging knee injury, Antetokounmpo dropped 32 points for Milwaukee, going 10 for 21 from the field and two of five from the three-point line.

It was his first 30-point game since the win over the Philadelphia 76ers on March 17 and served as an ominous warning to the under-strength Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers - Montrezl Harrell

Averaging 15.2 points for the season, Harrell has stepped it up in the absence of Davis and James.

He has put up 19.5 points per game across March. James (25) is the only Laker with a better average in that regard.

The former Clippers big man has produced seven 20-point games this month and may need an eighth to propel the Lakers to another victory without their two stars.

KEY BATTLE - CAN DRUMMOND BOOST LAKERS ON BOARDS

After reaching a buyout agreement with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Drummond signed with the Lakers with an eye on helping them retain the title by any means necessary.

"For me, I'm just here to help in any capacity," Drummond said on Monday. "I'm not here to do anything besides win."

"I'm just here to help in whatever capacity it may be. I'm not here to steal nobody's shine."

The center will primarily be asked to help the Lakers on the boards. Without LeBron and Davis, their rebounding has declined this month.

For the season, they are ninth in the NBA in rebounds per game with 45.2, but that number has tailed off to 43.5 in March, tied for 17th.

Frank Vogel has confirmed Drummond will start against Milwaukee, with the Lakers surely looking for the four-time rebounding leader to help them compete on the glass against a Bucks team second in the league with 48.2 rebounds per game.

HEAD TO HEAD

Having previously won six straight against the Lakers, the Bucks head into this potential Finals preview out to avoid a third consecutive defeat to Los Angeles, having come undone at the hands of James in their 113-106 loss back in January.

Ideally, they would have liked more of one of the NFL's most tortured fanbases in the stadium to see it, but the Cleveland Browns will forever reflect on 2020 as the year the drought finally ended.

Kevin Stefanski's first season as head coach resulted in a first playoff berth since the 2002 season, with long-awaited revenge for a Wild Card defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers 18 years earlier coming as the Browns trounced Pittsburgh in their own back yard to clinch their first postseason win since Bill Belichick was head coach.

Little went right for the Browns following their trip to the Divisional Round in the 1994 season, Belichick enduring a losing final year in charge before the team spent three years out of the league following a controversial relocation to Baltimore.

But every sign points to the Browns writing more positive chapters in the history books in the coming years after Stefanski helped a deep roster realise its potential.

What do the Browns need to do to take the next step towards Super Bowl contention? We used Stats Perform data to reflect on a memorable 2020 campaign, analyse their offseason moves so far and look at what should still be on their to-do list heading towards the draft.

Offense

Any doubts around Stefanski's ability to get consistent production out of the Browns' offense were put to bed in his first season at the helm.

The Browns narrowly missed out on finishing top 10 in yards per play in 2020, their average of 5.79 putting them 11th.

Unsurprisingly for a coach experienced in running the Shanahan-Kubiak type offense that is en vogue in the NFL, the Browns' success was built around an extremely efficient run game.

Cleveland's yards per rush average of 4.8 was fifth in the league, with the Browns' offensive line doing an excellent job in opening holes for two elite running back talents in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt.

Chubb (34) and Hunt (29), each finished in the top 10 in rushes of 10 or more yards, with each excelling at picking up yards after first contact by a defender.

Indeed, Chubb's average of 2.5 yards after contact per attempt was tied-second among running backs with at least 50 carries, just behind J.K. Dobbins of the Baltimore Ravens (2.6).

Hunt (2.2) was 10th in the same category, and they each ranked in the top three in broken tackles. Chubb was tied for first with Dalvin Cook on 14, just ahead of Hunt on 13.

The passing game ranked in the top half of the league in yards per play (11th with 6.72), with starting quarterback Baker Mayfield making obvious progress in protecting the football.

Having thrown 21 interceptions in 2019, Mayfield was picked off only eight times in 2020, his touchdown to interception ratio of 3.25 good enough for ninth in the NFL.

Yet the upside of Cleveland's passing game still appeared limited. Mayfield was a disappointing tied for 17th with 43 completions of 20 yards or more.

However, with the Browns' signal-caller ranking sixth in the NFL in passer rating (118.4) on throws of 21 air yards or more among quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts, there is reason to believe that Cleveland's offense could offer a significantly greater downfield threat if Mayfield and Stefankski are willing to be more aggressive in 2021.

That change in approach may only come if the offense gets better support from the defense.

Defense

A defense blessed with one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL should be better at stopping opposing aerial attacks.

Despite the best efforts of Myles Garrett, named a first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career, quarterbacks had it too easy against the Browns in 2021.

Garrett racked up 12 sacks, sixth-most in the NFL, 18 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles. He was fifth in combined knockdowns and hurries with a total of 70.

But the Browns failed to properly capitalise on the pressure he created across the course of the season.

They allowed 31 passing touchdowns, the eighth-most in the league, with 11 of those scores coming on throws of at least 20 yards. Only five teams gave up more passing touchdowns of that distance.

Injuries in the secondary did not help the Browns' cause - rookie safety Grant Delpit did not play a snap in his rookie year and a nerve injury in his shoulder robbed Greedy Williams of his 2020 campaign.

That meant a stellar season from former fourth overall pick Denzel Ward was somewhat undermined by the lack of talent around him in the secondary, Ward tied second in the NFL with 18 pass breakups.

Where the Browns did excel was in preventing big plays from opposing rushing attacks.

They were tied seventh for the fewest opponent running plays of 10 or more yards, giving up 43, with the average distance of those carries (14.8), the fourth-lowest in the league.

Even with their efforts in keeping running backs in check, the Browns were a lowly 26th in opponent touchdown efficiency, allowing teams to find the endzone on 48 of 165 defensive drives.

The Browns will not legitimately threaten the AFC's elite without an improvement in pass defense, and their offseason to this point suggests they recognise that.

Offseason

Cleveland made one of the best signings of free agency when they inked safety John Johnson to a three-year, $33.75milion deal.

The price may have been slightly rich in a safety market that was predictably slow, but Johnson certainly justified it over the course of his four years with the Rams.

Johnson had 32 pass breakups between 2017 and 2020, tied for the eighth-most among safeties, and that total would almost certainly have been higher had he not missed 10 games through injury in 2019.

Joining Johnson in Cleveland is former Rams team-mate Troy Hill, the cornerback arriving on a two-year deal, while the Browns also took a flier on edge rusher Takkarist McKinley on a one-year deal.

The secondary and the pass rush could still use reinforcement, especially with interior defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi leaving for the Cincinnati Bengals, but it is the middle of the defense that stands out as the most pressing area of concern for the Browns.

Signing Anthony Walker Jr. to a one-year deal and retaining Malcolm Smith and Elijah Lee should not prohibit the Browns from targeting a linebacker in the draft, with a lack of athleticism at that position coming to the fore as Chiefs backup Chad Henne's fourth-quarter scramble effectively sealed their playoff elimination.

Athletic linebackers who can excel in coverage and play sideline to sideline against the run are a must in the modern NFL. The Browns have a deficiency there but, beyond that position, they have few obvious holes and their performance in Kansas City was reflective of a team ready to become a consistent contender in the AFC.

Years of struggle and stockpiling draft picks are finally beginning to bear fruit and, if the Browns can add the final piece of the puzzle on defense and give Mayfield more licence to go downfield in 2021, there is no reason they cannot threaten to go deeper into the playoffs next season.

Russell Westbrook took an NBA record in his stride after landing a dazzling triple-double in the Washington Wizards' 132-124 win over the Indiana Pacers.

Former MVP Westbrook had 35 points, 14 rebounds and 21 assists, becoming the first player in NBA history with at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and 20 assists in the same game.

The 32-year-old said: "One thing I always cherish and enjoy about this game is that you get to go out and compete. One thing I always pride myself on is making sure I leave it out on the floor every single night.

"I've been blessed with an opportunity to be able to do that and I don't take it for granted. Along those lines, different records and different things may happen.

"But one thing I always do is stay humble, stay true to myself, and always continue to give everything I have and pride myself on being (able to) create some consistency for my team-mates."

Speaking about his rebounding ability, Westbrook said: "Being athletic helps me being able to get it, but I don't know if anybody's better at my size at rebounding the basketball consistently."

Scoring 20 or more points, grabbing 10-plus rebounds and at least 20 assists has been achieved only six times since 1963-64 in the NBA, and Westbrook has had four such games, with Magic Johnson and Rod Strickland the other two players on that list.

Earlier in March, Westbrook also became the first player in franchise history to record at least 35 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a game.

New team-mate Chandler Hutchison, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, was impressed with his first experience of having Westbrook on his side.

Hutchison scored 18 points, his second-highest haul in a game behind the 21 points he scored for the Bulls in January 2020 - which also came in a clash against the Pacers.

Hutchison said of Westbrook: "He just commands an energy that's extremely contagious. You see and you hear and you read all sorts of things about how he is as a player and as a person.

"I knew I was going to figure out who he really was, and just with being here a couple of days I already know the type of team-mate he is. He cares a bunch about his team-mates.

"It just shows with his ability to be unselfish and make the right plays. And obviously he's a heck of a talent to be able to go out there and put up a statline like he did tonight and carry us to a win."

Trevor Lawrence is heading for the Jacksonville Jaguars and will be the number one pick in the NFL Draft next month barring a late change of heart, coach Urban Meyer confirmed.

The quarterback shone in college football for Clemson and has been tipped as a prospective superstar in the professional game. He threw for 3,153 yards in 10 games for Clemson in 2020.

Meyer told NBC Sports that Lawrence is the player the Jaguars are focusing on as they look to reinforce a team that finished with a dismal 1-15 record last season, describing the 21-year-old as fitting the required bill of being a "competitive maniac".

The Jags have had a winning record just once since 2007, losing the AFC Championship Game to the New England Patriots in 2017 following a 10-6 regular season.

Asked about tying up a deal for Lawrence, Meyer said: "I'd have to say that's the direction we're going. I'll leave that up to the owner when we make that decision official. But I'm certainly not stepping out of line that that's certainly the direction we're headed."

Meyer's comments would appear to indicate owner Shahid Khan is in agreement that Lawrence is the standout choice for the Jaguars, ahead of the April 29 big decision.

"Trevor checks all the boxes," Meyer added in the NBC interview.

"The number one common quality of every great player, not just quarterback, is competitive maniac. He's 34-2. Won a national title as a true freshman. Is a winner. I've seen him up close and in person compete.

"And then character. I see him and I witness with my players, when the guys get drafted high, a lot of people ... they have influences in their life. Whether it be social media, whether it be other things that really don't pertain to winning. What I'm really pleased with and I don't want to say surprised, but him, his agent, his family, they're focused on one thing. He wants to become the best version of himself for the National Football League. It is somewhat refreshing."

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden produced a dominant performance to fuel a 112-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Harden posted 38 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds for a franchise record-tying 12th triple-double of the NBA season on Monday.

Kyrie Irving returned from a three-game absence to score 27 points for the Nets, who won for the 18th time in 21 games.

The Nets are only a half-game behind the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers.

Karl-Anthony Towns (31 points and 12 rebounds) and Anthony Edwards (23 points and 10 rebounds) both had double-doubles for the Timberwolves.

As for Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards star tallied his own triple-double to lead the team past the Indiana Pacers 132-124 in the absence of star team-mate Bradley Beal (hip).

Westbrook had 35 points, 14 rebounds and 21 assists, becoming the first player in NBA history with at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and 20 assists in the same game.

Domantas Sabonis' 35 points, 11 rebounds and six assists were not enough for the Pacers.

 

Clippers and Jazz roll on

The Los Angeles Clippers extended their winning streak to six games after defeating the slumping Milwaukee Bucks 129-105. Starters Kawhi Leonard (23 points), Marcus Morris Sr. (25 points), Luke Kennard (21 points) and Reggie Jackson (20 points) all had double-digit points for the Clippers as the Bucks lost their third straight game, despite 32 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The NBA-leading Utah Jazz are also in the midst of a six-game winning run after crushing the Cleveland Cavaliers 114-75. Utah have won 20 successive games at home.

Stephen Curry returned from a bruised tailbone to guide the Golden State Warriors to a 116-102 victory against the Chicago Bulls. Curry finished with 32 points as the Warriors snapped a four-game skid.

Jonas Valanciunas posted a season-high 30 points to go with 15 rebounds as the Memphis Grizzlies topped the lowly Houston Rockets 120-110.

 

Forgettable Fournier debut

A deadline-day acquisition from the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics recruit Evan Fournier struggled badly in a 115-109 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Fournier was scoreless on 0-for-10 shooting in 33 minutes, while he also missed all five three-point attempts. It was the most scoreless minutes by a Celtics player with 10-plus attempts since the three-point era (1980).

 

Draymond goes bang!

Curry is usually the Warriors player draining long-range threes, but team-mate Draymond Green nailed a half-court attempt against the Bulls.

 

Monday's results

Washington Wizards 132-124 Indiana Pacers
New Orleans Pelicans 115-109 Boston Celtics
Brooklyn Nets 112-107 Minnesota Timberwolves
Miami Heat 98-88 New York Knicks
Detroit Pistons 118-104 Toronto Raptors
Memphis Grizzlies 120-110 Houston Rockets
Dallas Mavericks 127-106 Oklahoma City Thunder
Sacramento Kings 132-115 San Antonio Spurs
Utah Jazz 114-75 Cleveland Cavaliers
Los Angeles Clippers 129-105 Milwaukee Bucks
Golden State Warriors 116-102 Chicago Bulls

 

76ers at Nuggets

The 76ers (32-14) will look to preserve their lead atop the east when they visit the Denver Nuggets (28-18) on Tuesday.

World number two Naomi Osaka and defending champion Ash Barty advanced to the quarter-finals of the Miami Open.

Osaka reached the last eight at the WTA Premier event for the first time in her career thanks to Monday's straight-sets win over Elise Mertens.

World number one Barty overcame two-time grand slam champion Victoria Azarenka in a tough three-set battle in Miami.

 

THERE'S NO STOPPING OSAKA

Australian Open champion Osaka extended her winning streak to a remarkable 23 matches.

Osaka defeated 16th seed Mertens 6-3 6-3 to stay hot – Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Justine Henin and Azarenka are the only other players with winning streaks of 23 or more matches since 2000.

"It definitely feels very special," four-time major winner Osaka said. "This is one of my favourite tournaments to play, and of course I'm sad I hadn't been able to get to the second week the last times that I have played this tournament. But I'm here now, and hopefully it will go well this time."

Maria Sakkari is next for Osaka after the 23rd seed saved six match points in her 6-4 2-6 7-6 (8-6) win over Jessica Pegula.

 

BARTY WINS BATTLE OF PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER ONES

In a rollercoaster battle, top seed Barty prevailed 6-1 1-6 6-2 against 14th seed Azarenka.

Barty extended her winning streak in Miami to nine matches after coming out on top against the former world number one.

"Playing against Vika you have to be ready right from the first point," Barty said. "I felt like I did that well in the first set and she gave me a few cheap errors. Then through the second she lifted her intensity.

"I probably wasn't sharp enough in those first couple of games to be able to go with her, particularly with new balls. When Vika is ahead and she's a front runner, she's the very best in the world."

Aryna Sabalenka stands in the way of Barty and the semi-finals after the seventh seed trounced Marketa Vondrousova 6-1 6-2.

 

SVITOLINA WINS THRILLER, ANDREESCU RALLIES

Fifth seed Elina Svitolina rallied past two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova 2-6 7-5 7-5.

Svitolina made a slow start against the red-hot ninth seed, but the 2018 WTA Finals champion finished strongly to progress.

Anastasija Sevastova took down Ana Konjuh 6-1 7-5 to set up a clash with Svitolina.

Meanwhile, eighth seed and 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu came from behind to defeat two-time slam winner Garbine Muguruza 3-6 6-3 6-2.

Kyrie Irving said the Brooklyn Nets are supporting superstar James Harden in his bid to win a second NBA MVP award.

Harden was crowned the league's Most Valuable Player in 2018 and he has thrust himself into this season's mix following his exploits for the Nets.

The nine-time All-Star has been a dominant force since joining the Nets in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January, Harden continuing his red-hot run with a triple-double in Monday's 112-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Harden posted 38 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds for a franchise record-tying 12th triple-double of the season.

Asked about Harden's MVP case, fellow star Irving – who returned from a three-game absence to score 27 points – said: "He's self-motivated which makes him great. You've got to have some type of self-motivation to get yourself up for these games and consistently show up.

"He's done a great job all season for us [of] being consistent and just kind of leading our team, whether I am out of the line-up or [Kevin Durant] is out of the line-up, you know different guys are playing with him and he's been able to adjust and adapt quickly. And when you throw some great pieces around a great player that is able to play point guard out there and just kind of be who he is – it is our job out there to be responsible for our roles, play at a high level and complement him and visa versa.

"We support him and it's a team effort. It's team basketball out there. You know, our record is a reflection of how great we are as a team, but in this league individuals are very special and you have got to give credit when credit is due. And so, us as a team, we just want to continue to support him."

Harden has been averaging 26.1 points, a league-best 11.2 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game for the Nets, who are second and only a half-game adrift of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

Brooklyn's Harden – who is averaging the most minutes per game (38.1) in the NBA this season – has led the way for the Nets, with Kevin Durant (hamstring) sidelined since February and Irving missing time throughout 2020-21.

"I think we have a target on our back, teams are coming in and playing well and I think that's pretty much it," said Harden, whose Nets have acquired former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

"Every team goes through ups and down throughout the course of a year. I'm just happy that it's not even a tough time for us because we've been having to deal with injuries and things like that throughout the course of the season.

"I think we're in a fog right now because we have to find some energy. And I know once KD and LaMarcus and Landry get back, they're going to bring that, so we just gotta continue to find ways to win however they come which we've seen these last few games and keep pushing. That's the NBA season for you."

Stefanos Tsitsipas battled through to the Miami Open round of 16 and he was joined by Andrey Rublev on Monday.

Greek star and second seed Tsitsipas got the better of 2014 US Open runner-up Kei Nishikori in Miami.

Rublev continued his fine 2021 with a straight-sets demolition of Marton Fucsovics at the ATP 1000 tournament.

In-form Aslan Karatsev, however, bowed out following a surprise loss to Sebastian Korda.

 

TSITSIPAS HALTS NISHIKORI

Despite a mid-match wobble, Tsitsipas overcame Nishikori 6-3 3-6 6-1 to reach the fourth round.

Former world number four Nishikori forced a deciding set but Tsitsipas withstood the Japanese's comeback.

Tsitsipas, who hit 32 winners, will meet Lorenzo Sonego for a place in the quarter-finals after the 24th seed defeated Daniel Elahi Galan 7-6 (8-6) 6-3.

 

RUBLEV STAYS HOT

Russian fourth seed Rublev made light work of Fucsovics 6-2 6-1 in just 52 minutes.

Rublev leads the ATP Tour with 18 victories this season after eliminating the in-form Hungarian, ahead of top seed Daniil Medvedev (16-2).

The result secured a third win for Rublev over 29th seed Fucsovics this month.

"I was laughing, because of [the] situation and plus Marton also told me, 'I don't want to see you. I don't want to see you'," Rublev said, cracking a laugh. "[It was] just a situation that [was] fun, and I feel sorry."

Awaiting Rublev is 2014 US Open champion and former world number three Marin Cilic, who beat Lorenzo Musetti 6-3 6-4.

 

KARATSEV CONQUERED

For only the third time this year, Australian Open semi-finalist and Dubai Tennis Championships winner Karatsev tasted defeat following a 6-3 6-0 loss at the hands of Korda.

American sensation Korda became the first player outside the top five to beat Karatsev this year, with the latter's previous two losses coming against world number one Novak Djokovic and world number four Dominic Thiem.

"It is super special [to reach the Round of 16], especially playing a guy who was as hot as he was," said Korda. "I just took the tactics that I used [against him] at Roland Garros and it worked out really well today."

Diego Schwartzman stands in the way of Korda and the quarters after the fifth seed accounted for Adrian Mannarino 6-1 6-4.

Elsewhere, Denis Shapovalov – the sixth seed – was upstaged by Hubert Hurkacz 6-3 7-6 (8-6).

Another Canadian awaits Hurkacz after 12th seed Milos Raonic was a 6-4 7-5 winner against Ugo Humbert.

Los Angeles Lakers CEO and president Jeanie Buss has told the Brooklyn Nets to "bring it on", insisting the star-studded franchise are bringing out the best in the NBA champions.

The Nets have emerged as the NBA's newest superteam after former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge joined Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn.

While the Nets have made moves in the Eastern Conference, Buss and the Lakers are unfazed in the west.

"It brings out the best in us," Buss, whose Lakers are fourth in the Western Conference in the absence of injured superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, told ESPN+ on Monday.

"When teams identify us as the team to beat and they gear up to go at us head-to-head, that makes us work harder.

"So, bring it on."

The Lakers added two-time All-Star Andre Drummond to the roster on Sunday after he cleared waivers.

Drummond – who has not played since February 12 – agreed to a contract buyout with the Cleveland Cavaliers last week.

"The addition of Andre Drummond, who we picked up in the buyout market, will certainly fortify a season where we've had to deal with injuries and COVID," Buss said.

"Having Marc Gasol, who is our starting center, was out for several weeks with COVID and a really tough case where he was on a minutes restriction even though he's back in the line-up."

James (ankle) and Davis (calf) remain sidelined, and Buss added: "That's what's important, is they get back healthy -- 100 percent healthy -- before they come back so that they stay healthy for the playoffs."

Brooklyn Nets head coach Steve Nash dismissed criticism of the team's roster moves, insisting "it's not like we did anything illegal".

The star-studded Nets have built an NBA super team, with Brooklyn now boasting former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge alongside James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Griffin and Aldridge were both acquired after the pair reached contract buyouts with the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs respectively.

Amid criticism as the Nets eye their maiden championship, first-year coach Nash told reporters on Monday: "I don't hear it. I live in my Nets bubble.

"I don't know what anyone says about us, to be honest with you. … It's not like we did anything illegal. I don't know what we're supposed to do, not try to add to our roster and just sit pat?"

The Nets – who reached back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003 – are second in the Eastern Conference, behind the Philadelphia 76ers this season.

Nash added: "That's the idea of this league is to try and put together the best team you can put together, and that doesn't guarantee you anything. … Nothing is set in stone.

"You got to try to put together the best team you can, and then you gotta build that team. ... We're hoping that we have all the pieces and that it's just a matter of how hard we work and how hard we care and the investment we put into this."

 

Los Angeles Lakers recruit Andre Drummond said he is ready to help the NBA champions in pursuit of back-to-back titles, while he highlighted the prospect of a "crazy" defensive trio alongside superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Drummond joined the Lakers on Sunday after clearing waivers, having agreed to a contract buyout with the Cleveland Cavaliers last week.

The two-time All-Star, however, has not played since February 12 after he and the Cavaliers agreed he would be shut down until a trade or buyout was completed, following the arrival of younger center Jarrett Allen.

Drummond, though, insisted he is ready to play for the Lakers.

"I'm not here to steal nobody's shine," Drummond told reporters on Monday.

"I'm here to help this team win as many games as possible."

Drummond is one of 20 players in league history to record more than 9,000 career points, 8,500 rebounds, 850 steals and 950 blocks.

He is also the NBA's all-time leader in seasons with at least 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 100 steals and 100 blocks, having accomplished the feat four times.

"It's been almost a month [and] 10-plus days since I last played. You can imagine the hunger and excitement I have to play and step on the court," he said.

"I had an incredible month of work where I'm ready to play today."

Drummond's arrival is a boost for the Lakers (30-17), who are fourth in the Western Conference as superstar duo James (ankle) and Davis (calf) are sidelined.

The Lakers have only once scored above their seasonal average of 110.7 points since James went down, missing their leading two scorers (James 25.4 points per game, Davis 22.5).

But Drummond had 17.5 points up until February 12, when Cleveland agreed he would be shut down, which would put him third on that list.

"I think our defense is going to be really crazy when those guys come back. And I'm looking forward to it," Drummond added.

"My defensive game is going to help this team out a lot with my quick feet, quick hands," he continued. "Going to be able to recover and play one through five.

"I think for me coming here, AD could slide to the four and play his true position and be very good at it without taking all the bumps and bruises I do at the five."

Opening Day.

A term synonymous with baseball across the United States and the globe. For fans, it is nothing short of a national holiday.

The highly anticipated start to the season on April 1 is an occasion steeped in history, with tradition front and centre.

This year's Opening Day means more than most. It is the latest signal of American life and sport returning to normal amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic led to an enforced break and a reduced 60-game regular season schedule behind closed doors, with a limited number of fans allowed to attend the playoffs as the Los Angeles Dodgers went on to end their 32-year World Series drought.

But 2021 will see the return of the usual 162-game calendar and more importantly, spectators in the stands. All but one of the 30 teams will start at reduced capacity – the Texas Rangers hosting a full house for their home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.

As America's pastime begins anew, we preview the upcoming season, in which the Dodgers look to defend their World Series crown, using Stats Perform data.
 

Kershaw gears up for a franchise-record start

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw – entering the final season of his three-year, $93million deal – will be on the mound when the Dodgers open their title defence against the Colorado Rockies.

It will be Kershaw's ninth Opening Day start – the most in franchise history – after injuries prevented him from beginning the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, the eight-time All-Star getting the nod ahead of Walker Buehler and high-profile recruit Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League (NL) Cy Young winner.

Future Hall of Famer Kershaw boasts a 5-1 record on Opening Day, with a 1.05 ERA (6/51.2), 59 strikeouts and eight walks. The 2014 NL MVP's only loss came in his previous start in 2018 as he allowed eight hits and one earned run, while tallying seven strikeouts in six innings against the San Francisco Giants.

Since 1913, when ERA became an official stat, Kershaw has managed the lowest Opening Day figure among pitchers with six starts – 1.05. The 32-year-old's ERA is ahead of Bob Feller (1.21), Jim Palmer (1.40), Hal Newhouser (1.41) and Walter Johnson (1.51).

As for the star-studded Dodgers, they are 74-62 (.544) all-time on Opening Day, winning nine of their 10 season openers since 2011, losing only in 2018.

Their 9-1 (.900) Opening Day record over this stretch is the best in the league, ahead of the Houston Astros (8-2), Baltimore Orioles (8-2), Seattle Mariners (7-3), Detroit Tigers (7-3) and New York Mets (7-3).
 

All eyes on Tatis and Padres

Fernando Tatis Jr. heads into the 2021 season fresh off signing his eye-popping 14-year, $340m contract with the San Diego Padres.

The Padres – winners of two NL pennants – are pinning their hopes on MLB's new poster boy delivering a first World Series to San Diego.

Tatis won a Silver Slugger award last year, having hit .277 with 17 home runs and 45 RBIs in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season.

The powerful 22-year-old is the first player in MLB history to have at least 35 home runs and 25 stolen bases within the first 150 games of his career.

Tatis – the youngest Padres player to debut on Opening Day (20 years and 85 days) in 2019 – became the fastest player in franchise history (24 team games) to reach the double-digit home run mark in a season in 2020 after hitting his 10th and 11th homers in August.

In the postseason, Tatis homered twice against the St Louis Cardinals in October, becoming the youngest Padre to ever homer in a playoff game (21 years and 273 days) and the third-youngest player in MLB history to homer twice in a postseason match, behind Carlos Correa (21 and 20 days old) and Andruw Jones (19 years, 180 days old).

When it comes to on-base plus slugging, Tatis stacks up well. Since 1920, Tatis (150.8) is only behind Juan Soto (153.9 – 2018-20), Albert Pujols (159.3 – 2001), Jimmie Foxx (160.0 – 1925-29), Ted Williams (161.5 – 1939-40) and Trout (165.0 – 2011-13) for highest OPS-plus up until the age of 21.

Across his two Opening Day appearances, Tatis has three hits in seven at-bats and two runs while slugging at .571. The Padres will be hoping he can improve on that when they host face the Arizona Diamondbacks.

By comparison, Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper and New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton love Opening Day.

Harper – the 2015 NL MVP and six-time All-Star – has nine hits, five homers and six runs in eight appearances, while 2017 NL MVP Stanton has 13 hits, four homers, 10 runs and 12 RBIs through 10 games.

Blue Jays recruit George Springer, a World Series winner with the Astros, has also impressed on Opening Day following five hits, three homers and six RBIs in six games.
 

Can Abreu and Freeman go back-to-back?

Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu was crowned the American League's best in 2020.

Becoming the 28th player to win both the MVP and Rookie of the Year in his career, Abreu beat Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians and Yankees star DJ LeMahieu.

Abreu – the fourth White Sox player to win the award – was second in MLB with 19 home runs and fourth in the AL with a .317 batting average.

Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves trumped Dodgers star Mookie Betts and Padres sensation Manny Machado to the NL honour.

Freeman's 1.102 OPS was the second highest in MLB, trailing only Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, while he led the majors with 51 runs scored and was second in the NL in batting average (.341), on-base percentage (.462) and slugging percentage (.640).

Does it bode well for the pair in 2020?

In a season after winning the MVP award, a player averages 135.9 hits, 21.5 homers, 80.5 runs and 79.5 RBIs with a slugging percentage of .516.

There have been 13 players to win back-to-back MVPs; 11-time All-Star Miguel Cabrera (AL) was the last to do so in 2012 and 2013. The most recent player in the NL was Albert Pujols (2008-09).
 

The end of Cleveland as we know them

After 106 years, this will be the last season the franchise will be known as the Indians, following the example of the NFL's Washington Football Team, who dropped their Redskins nickname in 2020 amid a long-time controversy.

Since 1915, Cleveland have won two World Series – in 1920 and 1948 – with their current streak of 71 seasons without a World Series title the longest active run in the majors.

In 1954, Cleveland went 111-43 (.721) in the regular season, before being swept in the World Series by the Giants. It stands as the highest single-season win percentage in AL history, and the best by any MLB team in the past 100 years.

Cleveland have had a winning record in each of the past eight seasons (2013-20), making them one of four MLB teams with an active streak of eight-plus (also Yankees 28, Cardinals 13, Dodgers 10). It is tied for the second-longest streak of winning seasons in franchise history (10 straight 1947-56; eight in a row 1994-2001).

Three Cleveland players have won the AL MVP Award – George Burns (1926), Lou Boudreau (1948) and Al Rosen (1953) – while five have claimed the AL Cy Young Award: Gaylord Perry (1972), C.C. Sabathia (2007), Cliff Lee (2008), Corey Kluber (2014 and 2017) and Shane Bieber (2020).

The Buffalo Bills will look back on the 2020 season as one in which the 2018 gamble they took on Josh Allen began paying the dividends they expected.

After signs of improvement in 2019, one of the most volatile quarterbacks in the NFL took a gigantic third-year leap, the Bills' faith in his remarkable athletic gifts paying off as he blossomed into one of the most prolific and devastating signal-callers in the league.

But Allen's jump to the league's elite at the game's most important position was still not enough to propel the Bills to their first Super Bowl title.

The Bills, like so many teams before them, were undone by the brilliance of the Kansas City Chiefs, losing 38-24 at Arrowhead Stadium as their quest for the Lombardi Trophy ended in an AFC Championship Game defeat.

What do the Bills need to do to finally get over the hump in 2021? We look at the key Stats Perform data from the 2020 campaign and their offseason moves to this point to determine what Buffalo's next steps should be ahead of another run at a maiden title.

Offense

The impact of Allen's development on Buffalo's offense is illustrated by the efficiency the Bills demonstrated in 2020.

Having finished 22nd in yards per play in 2019 with an average of 5.19, they improved to sixth with a jump to 6.13.

They were fourth in yards per passing play (7.42), while only the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up more touchdowns through the air than Buffalo's 40.

Buffalo's surge as a passing attack was fuelled by a huge uptick in accuracy from Allen.

Going into the 2020 season, Allen's highest completion percentage in his NFL career was 58.8, set in 2019.

Last year, Allen completed 69.2 per cent of his pass attempts, trailing only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Deshaun Watson.

He was sixth in the league in touchdown to interception ratio, throwing 37 scores to 10 picks, and was fourth in completions of 20 yards or more with 62.

His passer rating of 107.4 on pass attempts of 21 air yards or more was ninth among quarterbacks to have at least 25 such attempts, with Allen's success on deep balls aided by the trade acquisition of Stefon Diggs.

Diggs led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards after arriving from the Minnesota Vikings, becoming Allen's go-to target as he caught 73 receptions for a first down, a tally bettered by only Travis Kelce (79) and DeAndre Hopkins (75).

What the Bills offense lacked was balance. The running game struggled to get going throughout the year, with Buffalo finishing the year ranked 20th in yards per rush with 4.19.

Devin Singletary's 18 rushes for negative yards was the joint-ninth-highest number in the league, and while the Bills were 13th with 53 rushes of 10 yards or more, 16 of those came from Allen, with rookie third-round pick Zack Moss contributing only 12.

The Bills would have been in the league's bottom five in that category if not for Allen's contributions. While the emphasis was more on what their dual-threat signal-caller can do with his arm in 2020, he also did his best to elevate a running game that will hope to be much more efficient in 2021.

Defense

The Bills were far from the first team to fail to stop the Chiefs and they will not be the last.

But the porous nature of their defensive performance was reflective of a mediocre year on that side of the ball for Buffalo.

The Bills ranked 15th in opponent yards per play allowed (5.5). They were ninth against the pass (6.1) but a lowly 26th versus the run (4.62).

Opponents ran successful plays against the Bills' defense 51.8 per cent of the time, putting them 22nd in the NFL, while Buffalo were middle of the road (15th) in terms of opponent scoring efficiency, giving up either a field goal or a touchdown on 67 of 170 opponent drives.

Tied for 15th in sacks with 38, the Bills were underwhelming in converting their pressures. They had 163 quarterback hurries (17th) and 90 knockdowns (tied for 13th), indicating a need to find a pass rusher who can consistently finish his pass rushes in the offseason.

Where the Bills did excel was in taking the ball away. Their 26 turnovers ranked tied for third while they scored 90 points off takeaways, good for seventh in the NFL.

Cornerback Tre'Davious White led the way for Buffalo with five of those takeaways, three of which were interceptions, in another stellar season for the two-time Pro Bowler.

Buffalo possess talent at every level of the defense and, even though the Bills fell short at Arrowhead Stadium, there is plenty of reason to believe the addition of a game-changer up front can spark an upturn in defensive fortunes and put them over the top in 2021.

Offseason

The Bills have quietly enjoyed a productive and impressive offseason. Matt Milano signed a four-year, $41.5million contract that will likely look a bargain if and when Fred Warner signs his extension with the San Francisco 49ers later in the year.

Wide receiver John Brown and tight end Tyler Kroft both departed in free agency but were replaced by Emmanuel Sanders and Jacob Hollister respectively. 

Sanders should provide Allen with a dependable third-down option, as he moved the chains on 61.1 per cent of his third-down targets for the New Orleans Saints last year, putting him 10th among receivers with at least 10 such targets.

Buffalo also landed a capable backup for Allen at a palatable price, former second overall pick Mitchell Trubisky arriving on a one-year deal worth $2.5m.

Yet they head into the draft still with obvious needs to address.

The Bills brought back cornerback Levi Wallace on a one-year deal. However, he has been burnt for eight touchdowns over the last two seasons, meaning Buffalo could certainly benefit from an infusion of competition at the starting spot across from White.

However, secondary play is not what limited the ceiling of the Bills' defense in 2020. A lack of a dominant presence at edge rusher is what held Leslie Frazier's group back last year, and adding one should be their priority with the 30th pick in the first round.

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