Giannis Antetokounmpo produced a remarkable individual performance to keep the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference top two hunt with a 142-133 win over the Indiana Pacers on Thursday.

Antetokounmpo scored 40 points, with 15 rebounds and six assists as the Bucks closed in on the second-placed Brooklyn Nets (46-24), improving their record to 45-25.

Milwaukee shot at 57 per cent on the night, boosted by the Greek forward whose 40 points came from 18 shots. Antetokounmpo shot 14-from-18 from the field, going at 77.8 per cent.

Antetokounmpo's display was the first since Charles Barkley in 1988 where a player had at least 40 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and shot at higher than 75 per cent.

At the top of the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers missed the chance to claim first seeding again, going down 106-94 to the surging Miami Heat.

The 76ers trailed by 19 at the half with Joel Embiid returning from illness, while Jimmy Butler had 16 points by the main break.

Butler finished with 21 points including four-from-four beyond the arc as the Heat claimed their sixth win from their past seven.

 

Blazers blow buzzer beater, Knicks still in top four hunt

The Portland Trail Blazers left the door open for the Los Angeles Lakers to usurp them in the playoffs race after going down on the buzzer 118-117 to the Phoenix Suns.

C.J. McCollum, who had 27 points, had a shot to win the game on the buzzer but missed, meaning the Blazers move to 41-30, marginally ahead of the Lakers on 40-30 and seventh in the West. Damian Lillard had 41 points for Portland.

The New York Knicks kept up their push for a top four spot in the East with a 102-98 win over the San Antonio Spurs, who qualify for the play-in tournament after the Sacramento Kings lost.

Julius Randle had 25 points with nine rebounds and nine assists for the Knicks, while R.J. Barrett scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half.

MVP favourite Nikola Jokic faced off against Rookie of the Year candidate Anthony Edwards as the Denver Nuggets won 114-103 over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Jokic dominated with 31 points and 14 rebounds, while Edwards had 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The Atlanta Hawks made it 10 consecutive home wins with a 116-93 victory over the Orlando Magic led by Clint Capela with 14 points and 14 rebounds.

 

Kings' long wait extends

The Sacramento Kings' 116-110 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies means they are mathematically out of post-season calculations, which means they long wait for playoffs basketball extends. The Kings have not made the playoffs since 2006.

 

Clippers on-song beyond the arc

The Los Angeles Clippers scored an outstanding 21 three-pointers as a team in their 113-90 win over the Charlotte Hornets. They went at 46.7 per cent from range with Reggie Jackson draining five after coming off the bench.

 

Thursday's results

Los Angeles Clippers 113-90 Charlotte Hornets
Milwaukee Bucks 142-133 Indiana Pacers
Miami Heat 106-94 Philadelphia 76ers
New York Knicks 102-98 San Antonio Spurs
Atlanta Hawks 116-93 Orlando Magic
Chicago Bulls 114-102 Toronto Raptors
Denver Nuggets 114-103 Minnesota Timberwolves
Memphis Grizzlies 116-110 Sacramento Kings
Phoenix Suns 118-117 Portland Trail Blazers

 

Magic at 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers, after back-to-back losses, will look to seal top seeding in the Eastern Conference when they host the lowly Orlando Magic.

Rafael Nadal was forced to work hard to avoid becoming the biggest scalp in the last 16 at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on Thursday.

Rival Novak Djokovic had already sealed his progress earlier in the day, beating Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in dominant fashion, but Nadal found life hard against Denis Shapovalov.

The Spaniard has already uncharacteristically lost twice on clay courts this season and was heading for a third as he trailed Shapovalov 3-6 0-3.

Even after Nadal recovered to take the second set, he faced two match points in the decider, battling bravely to a vital hold of serve that took the match well beyond the three-hour mark and into a tie-break.

There, Nadal finally took control, running out a 3-6 6-4 7-6 (7-3) winner to reach the last eight and gain some much-needed minutes on the court.

"It's an important victory for me [to] be able to win matches like today, three hours and 27, in the Barcelona final three hours and 38, long matches," said Nadal.

"To be able to win these kinds of matches against young players gives me confidence with my body."

There had been no such test for Djokovic in his 6-2 6-1 rout, although the world number one felt that was in part due to his improving form.

"I thought I played better, at least 20 or 30 per cent better, than I did against [Taylor] Fritz a few days ago," he said. "I am on a good trajectory and hopefully tomorrow will be even better."

Djokovic will face fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas next after his straight-sets defeat of Matteo Berrettini.

For Nadal, Alexander Zverev is a similarly tricky opponent having come through three sets against Kei Nishikori.

But not every seed made it through, as Dominic Thiem succumbed to the last remaining home hopeful in Lorenzo Sonego, a dramatic 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 7-6 (7-5) victor.

A meeting with Andrey Rublev is the Italian's reward, while there will be at least one unseeded player in the last four as Federico Delbonis prepares to take on Reilly Opelka.

Fitness athlete Deidre Lewis has characterized as unfair the decision of an Independent Anti-Doping Panel to impose a two-year ban on her after she tested positive for the banned substance Zeranol.

Lewis returned an adverse finding for Zeranol following an out of competition test on September 29, 2020, and was notified of the results in December that year. Zeranol is a synthetic, nonsteroidal estrogen found in fungi and is used mainly as an anabolic agent in veterinary medicine. It also may be found as a contaminant in fungus-infected crops.

Following hearings on February 11, March 18 and 31 and April 2, the panel of Kent Gammon, Denise Forrest and Dr Donovan Calder “did not find on the evidence presented that the athlete, Ms Denis Lewis, bears no fault or negligence whereby the applicable period of ineligibility can be eliminated.

“In the circumstances of this case, the athlete is ineligible for a period of two years.”

The two years began in December 2020, when the athlete was first notified of the adverse finding.

Lewis, who maintains that she did not intentionally ingest Zeranol, feels she was unfairly punished.

“I feel it was a bit unfair although they were doing their jobs,” she told Sportsmax TV in reaction to the ruling that was handed down earlier this week.

She said her diet is about 80 per cent plant-based and because of that she has to consume large amounts of grains and nuts to get the amount of nutrients her body requires for her to achieve the desired results. However, she was unable to pinpoint what food she might have consumed that was contaminated with the banned substance.

Lewis, who won the Ms Jamaica Bikini Fitness Short Class Champion and the Overall Bikini Fitness Champion in 2019, said she has always been compliant with the measures imposed not only by the JABBFA but also the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission. “I have remained complainant and transparent with my whereabouts reporting and have always been available for random tests during and outside of my sixty-minute testing times,” she said in her witness statement.

“In total, I have been subjected to six tests, the first of which was in 2017 at the National Championships. A majority of my tests were done between 2019 and 2020. I was tested at the national championship on September 8, 2019, and at the Central America and Caribbean Championships (CAC) on October 13, 2019,” she said.

“In 2020 I was tested on February 25, July 15, and on September 29. All of the tests conducted in 2020 were out-of-competition tests. I have never resisted any test that I have ever been subjected to and I am always easy to locate, even outside of my allotted sixty-minutes timeslot for testing. All of my test results have come back negative, except for the adverse findings in this instance, which has caused me significant emotional distress and financial strain.”

During the hearing the panel heard testimony from Professor Dr Wayne McLaughlin who said that based on the amount of Zeranol found in Lewis’ urine, he concluded that it occurred from ‘natural intake’, suggesting that the athlete did not deliberately take the substance to enhance performance.

“From these findings of very low levels of α-zeranol (0.04nh/ml) and β-zeranol (0.16ng/ml) in the athlete’s sample would imply natural intake. It is, therefore, our opinion that the substances found in the athlete’s urine sample support the assumption that mycotoxin contamination caused the findings in the doping control specimens rather than a misuse of the anabolic agent.”

However, Professor McLaughlin did concede that there were few studies on humans with Zeranol.

“This is disheartening,” Lewis said, “because there is limited research. I don’t feel it’s fair but I have to live with it. I would like to appeal but I don’t have the money.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When has a player averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season but failed to win the NBA MVP award?

Here's a hint: the internet was in its infancy, Hootie and the Blowfish were selling albums by the millions and the Orlando Magic, of all teams, were the league's biggest thing.

Not since Shaquille O'Neal in 1994-95 has a player reached those numbers without taking away the NBA's most cherished piece of individual hardware. Shaq actually did it twice without winning an MVP, losing out to Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94 and David Robinson the following year. O'Neal did average 29 and 10 while winning an MVP with the Lakers in 1999-2000, and the two players who have hit those marks since (Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019-20) each came home with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

Joel Embiid appears destined to buck that recent trend.

If money talks, it's given an emphatic answer as to who will seize the honour in 2020-21. Nikola Jokic has emerged as an overwhelming favourite in betting markets across the globe to claim his first MVP, with Embiid holding the second-shortest odds and a rising Stephen Curry emerging as a clear third in the public's mind.

Jokic's credentials are unquestionably worthy. The Denver Nuggets big man is closing out an unprecedented season for a player who spends his time predominately in the post, having posted averages of 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists heading into Denver's final three regular-season outings.

Only two players in league history have averaged 25-10-8 in a season, and neither was a frontcourt player. The great Oscar Robertson did it three consecutive times across 1960-63, and Westbrook had two straight across 2016-18.

Jokic's immense value to a Nuggets team who have successfully withstood the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray to secure a top-four seed in the Western Conference is perhaps best illustrated by his share of the team's combined points, rebound and assists. No player this season has accumulated a higher percentage than his 24.5, with the Mavericks' Luka Doncic and the Knicks' Julius Randle tied in second at 22.8 per cent.

Embiid is well down on the list, ranking 16th overall due to the 20 games the somewhat fragile seven-footer has missed this season. His dominance and importance to the Eastern Conference front-running Philadelphia 76ers would show, however, if the chart were adjusted to exclude games in which a particular player was absent.

Using that criteria, Embiid has accounted for 23.2 percent of the 76ers' points, rebounds and assists in games that he's taken the floor. That number is right in line with that of the defending two-time MVP Antetokounmpo and would put him in the top five. For the record, Doncic would move ahead of Jokic for the top spot at 24.8 percent.

Embiid's scattered availability is no doubt detrimental to his case, more so when factoring in that Jokic hasn't sat out a game all season. Just once has a player missed 13 or more games in a season and been named MVP, when Bill Walton earned the award in 1977-78 despite playing in only 58 of the Trail Blazers' 82 games.

On the flip side, it's hard to find anyone who's been more instrumental to his team's success than Philly's All-Star center. The Sixers are 9-11 when Embiid has missed a game and 38-11 when he plays, a .776 winning percentage that would tower over the rest of the NBA this season.

Embiid's importance becomes even more apparent when viewing the 76ers' performance when he's been on the court as opposed to off.

Their points per 100 possessions drop to 105.1 from 117.2, while opponents' points climb slightly from 103.9 to 105.8. That means a point differential of +13.3 falls dramatically to -0.7. Their shooting from the field (50.5 per cent to 45.4 per cent) and from three-point range (40.4 per cent to 34.7 per cent) also decreases.

Though the Sixers have remained an elite defensive team without Embiid, all of those off-court offensive splits would rank near the bottom of the NBA. It's not hyperbole to summarise that without their franchise player, Philadelphia would be scrapping for a spot in the play-in round instead of being on the verge of claiming a conference regular-season title.

Embiid is far from the only star whose team perform at a significantly lower level when he's not around, though. The Warriors have won just one of the eight games Curry has missed, while defending champions the Lakers are a mediocre 12-15 when LeBron James has been injured or rested and have been 11.6 points per 100 possessions better when 'The King' has taken the court compared to off it.

Like Embiid, the slew of missed games is going to be hard for James to justify in the minds of voters, and he's not playing for a team set for the top playoff seed in his conference. And the Lakers' descent into the West's middle tier can't all be attributed to James' absences – they also were without Anthony Davis in two-thirds of the games LeBron hasn't played.

Curry also represents an interesting case, and if there were an MVP for only the season's final month-plus, he'd be a hands-down winner. The veteran sharpshooter has averaged an insane 36.7 points per game since April 10, a stretch in which the Warriors have gone 13-5 to elevate themselves from a postseason question mark to a lock for the play-in round.

The two-time MVP also has the on/off split factor working in his favour, as the Warriors are +4.0 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when he's on the court and a lottery-level -4.9 differential when he's not. Another potential feather in Curry's cap would be if he can hold off Washington's Bradley Beal for the league's scoring title, as four of the past seven MVPs led the NBA in points per game.

Curry has rightfully received the most credit for Golden State's late-season surge, but a closer look shows it hasn't been a one-man show. Andrew Wiggins is finally at least bearing some resemblance to the player the Minnesota Timberwolves thought they were getting back in 2014, one teams build franchises around, and the Warriors have posted a league-low 105.1 defensive rating since their hot streak began.

For all his heroics on the offensive end, Curry hasn't been a primary contributor to the Warriors' recent stretch of lockdown defense. Since April 10, opponents score fewer points (98.6 per 100 possessions, down from 107.6) when Curry is off the court and are less accurate from the field (41.9 per cent, down from 44.9), beyond the arc (27.9 per cent, down from 35.4) and in their effective field goal percentage (47.6, down from 51.9).

Jokic also won't be adding any All-Defensive Team mentions to his expanding resume, and it is a bit harder to quantify exactly where the Nuggets would be without him simply because he hasn't missed a game.

One thing's for certain, however – no player this season has had a larger impact on his team's offensive performance than the Serbian star. Their points climb to 118.2 per 100 possessions when he is involved, meaning a +6.0 point differential versus -0.7 when he is absent – despite the team allowing more points with Jokic on the court. The field goal percentage improves to 50.4, while their assists per 100 (28.4, from 22.1) are up and their turnovers (12.7, from 15.7) are down.

The Nuggets are arguably the league's most efficient offensive team with Jokic on the floor. Combine that with a unicorn quality of being the best passing big man of the digital age and a consistency edge on his main rivals, and you've got a recipe for a likely MVP winner. Curry and Doncic's otherwise strong candidacies take a hit by their teams currently standing eighth and sixth, respectively, in the West. Antetokounmpo likely gets hurt by recency bias (no one wants to vote for the same player three straight years) and his own team's success (the Bucks have still played at a relatively high level when he's missed games or not been on the court).

In reality, though, the race shouldn't be as lopsided as the betting odds suggest, provided voters can overlook Embiid's spotty attendance record. History shows, however, that will be a factor that ultimately works in Jokic's favour.

Ash Barty will meet Coco Gauff in the quarter-finals of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia after an impressive defeat of Veronika Kudermetova.

The world number one claimed her 27th Tour-level win of this year, seeing off Kudermetova 6-3 6-3 in 81 minutes to reach the last eight in Rome for the first time.

Barty admitted it took some time to get used to the "wow factor" of centre court in the Italian capital, but she rarely looked under threat as she moved to 13-2 on clay in 2021.

The Australian would have faced Aryna Sabalenka for the third tournament in a row had it not been for a sterling performance from Gauff, who won 7-5 6-3 to secure a fourth quarter-final this year.

"Coco has shown that she loves to bring her best tennis against the players that challenge her the most," said Barty, who has never played against the American teenager. "She's played an exceptional tournament thus far. She's got the ability to take the game on. She's aggressive, she can run, she can trust her legs.

"I think it's going to be important for me to try to get the match back on my terms as often as possible. I know when they're in her patterns, the way she likes to play, she's extremely dangerous and very good at what she does. I think it's going to be a new challenge, a clean slate for both of us."

Matters were more difficult for reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek, who saved two match points before beating Barbora Krejcikova 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 7-5 in a contest lasting nearly three hours.

Powerful serving from Krejcikova and some errant shots from Swiatek gifted the Czech the chance to serve out a straight-sets win, but Swiatek held firm before taking the tie-break.

Swiatek persisted with a drop shot that seemed to cause difficulties for her and her opponent before Krejcikova's aim went awry at the end of the decider.

"I had fun when I played drop shots because today I felt them really good," said Swiatek, who will now face fifth seed Elina Svitolina after her 6-4 6-2 beating of Garbine Muguruza.

"I asked myself a question, what would annoy me in that situation? So, I tried to do that. So, yeah, sometimes it didn't look pretty, but I'm happy that I could do that. One year ago I wouldn't even come up with a solution like that. That's a progress."

Jessica Pegula followed up her shock win over Naomi Osaka by defeating Ekaterina Alexandrova in straight sets. She will now face Petra Martic, who came from a set down to defeat world number 44 Nadia Podoroska – conqueror of Serena Williams on Wednesday.

Ninth seed Karolina Pliskova, who beat Vera Zvonareva 7-5 6-3, will face Jelena Ostapenko following her three-set defeat of Angelique Kerber.

Calum Hill dropped into a share of the lead with Robert MacIntyre and Richard Bland by bogeying the last hole in his second round at the British Masters.

Hill held a one-shot advantage when he teed off at the 18th at The Belfry on Thursday, but moved to back seven under in a disappointing finish.

The 26-year-old Kirkcaldy native was a shot back from overnight leader Matthias Schwab at the start of the day and a two-under 70 kept him firmly in the mix.

Hill birdied the third and chipped in from thick greenside rough to go seven under at the fourth, going out in 35 after a first bogey of the day at the par-four eighth.

Back-to-back gains followed straight after the turn, but he was unable to stay out on his own, bogeying the final hole after reeling off six consecutive pars.

MacIntyre made his move with a brilliant six-under 66, starting with five birdies in a row and picking up another three shots on the back nine after bogeys at the sixth and 12th.

The left-hander, tied for 12th in The Masters last month, had started the tournament with a 71, but surged up the leaderboard with a magnificent second round.

Bland backed up his opening 68 with a three-under 69 and the Englishman is bogey-free through his opening two rounds.

Frenchman Julien Guerrier signed for a sublime 66 to stand well poised just a shot off the leading trio along with Justin Harding and Eddie Pepperell.

Gino Mader climbed to the first professional victory of his career on stage six of the Giro d'Italia and Attila Valter took over as the race leader on Thursday.

Mader gave Bahrain Victorious a much-needed lift a day after their team leader Mikel Landa crashed out of the race.

The 24-year-old Swiss was among six riders who made a breakaway on the 160-kilometre route from Grotte di Frasassi on a miserable rainy day.

That group was increased to eight, but there was one man who went on his own up the 15km final ascent to the finish in Ascoli and it was Mader who went away to take the win.

Mader attacked with 3.3km to go in grim weather conditions and there was no catching him as he finished 12 seconds ahead of Egan Bernal, also taking over as the leader of king of the mountains.

His victory ensured for the first time in Giro history riders from different countries have won the opening six stages of the race.

Groupama-FDJ rider Valter took the maglia rosa from Alessandro De Marchi, becoming the first Hungarian to have that honour.

Valter leads Remco Evenepoel by 11 seconds, while 2019 Tour de France champion Bernal is only 16 seconds adrift of the new leader in third place.

Bernal showed no sign of the back problem that has troubled him, making a late attack to drop some of his general classification rivals after receiving great backing from his INEOS Grenadiers team-mates a day after Pavel Sivakov was forced to abandon the race.

 

STAGE RESULT  

1. Gino Mader (Bahrain Victorious) 4:17:52
2. Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) +0.12
3. Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) +0.12
4. Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck–Quick-Step) +0.12
5. Giulio Ciccone (Trek–Segafredo) +0.14

CLASSIFICATION STANDINGS

General Classification

1. Attila Valter (Groupama-FDJ) 22:17:06
2. Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck–Quick-Step +0.11
3. Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) +0.16

Points Classification        

1. Giacomo Nizzolo (Team Qhubeka Assos) 72
2. Elia Viviani (Cofidis) 68
3. Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) 58

King of the Mountains

1. Gino Mader (Bahrain Victorious) 26
2. Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroen Team) 18
3. Vincenzo Albanese (Eolo–Kometa) 18

The 2021 NFL season may still be months away, but fans can begin eagerly circling their calendars in anticipation of some truly mouth-watering fixtures after Wednesday's schedule release.

There are some obvious standouts. The Week 4 meeting of Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots should capture the entire league's attention as Brady returns to Foxborough for the first time since saying a shock farewell to his home of 20 seasons last offseason, and then going on to win a seventh Super Bowl ring in his maiden season with the Bucs.

A potential duel between Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Week 9 hinges on Rodgers blinking in his staring contest with the Packers' brass and returning for the season.

Should he do so, it will pit the reigning MVP against the 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP in a matchup of two quarterbacks who have each recently finished in the top five in well-thrown ball percentage. Rodgers was third in the NFL with 82.4 per cent last season while Mahomes was fourth with 81.1 per cent in 2019 as he led the Chiefs to the Lombardi Trophy.

But the games with the best narratives on the surface do not always produce the best matchups. Here, using Stats Perform data, we look at five other games on the schedule that are in the mix to be among the most exciting games of the 2021 campaign.

 

Packers @ 49ers - Week 3

The Packers trounced a 49ers team decimated by injuries last season, though that was probably hollow revenge for Green Bay's NFC Championship Game humbling at the hands of San Francisco in the 2019 season.

Typically, when Rodgers has visited the team he idolised in his youth, things have gone poorly for the Packers. He has won two of his four regular-season meetings with the Niners in the Bay Area but has lost to San Francisco on each of the three occasions he has faced them in the playoffs, with two of those defeats on the road.

Still, if Rodgers acquiesces in his stand-off with Packers management and plays for Green Bay in 2021, it promises to be a fascinating duel of NFC contenders, with the Niners potentially starting a rookie quarterback in dual-threat Trey Lance.

Should Rodgers remain with the Packers, the key matchup in this one could well be the reigning MVP against a Niners defensive line that should get back edge rusher Nick Bosa after he missed most of the 2020 season with a torn ACL.

Rodgers' well-thrown percentage under pressure was 71.0 per cent in 2020, the ninth-best in the NFL, and he will likely have to maintain that accuracy under duress if Bosa is back to his best. The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year had a pressure rate of 28.3 per cent in his first season in the league, trailing only Adrian Clayborn and elder brother Joey, and sacked Rodgers in the regular season and the NFC title game.

Buccaneers @ Rams - Week 3

Yes, Brady v Belichick is the game everybody in Tampa will be most excited for, and the season opener between the Super Bowl champions and the Dallas Cowboys will be a primetime ratings monster, but perhaps the best duel involving the only player with seven Super Bowl rings will take place when Tampa head west.

The Rams edged the Buccaneers 27-24 in Tampa last season and should provide a stern test again at SoFi Stadium with Matthew Stafford set to be under center for Los Angeles.

But Stafford is not the person Brady will be concerned with when it comes to the Rams. Instead, it will be three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.

Brady was phenomenal when it came to avoiding interceptable passes last season.

He threw a pickable pass on just 13 of 590 pass attempts in 2020, a percentage of 2.20 that only Alex Smith (2.12) could better. When under pressure, it increased to 3.45 per cent, but that was still the fourth-lowest pickable pass rate in the NFL under duress.

But no defender in the league strikes fear into the heart of quarterbacks quite like Donald, who led all defensive tackles in 2020 with a pressure rate of 27.7 per cent and an adjusted sack rate of 5.5 per cent.

Donald can destroy the best-laid plans of any offense, and surviving the challenge he and the Rams will pose will be one of the biggest tests for Brady and the Bucs in their bid to repeat as champions

Bills @ Chiefs - Week 5

This is a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game in which the Bills did not produce an effort reflective of their outstanding 2020, and Buffalo look like the team best placed to challenge Kansas City again in the AFC in 2021.

The headline act of this clash is the battle of the quarterbacks, with Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the revolution of athletic, cannon-armed quarterbacks who have taken the league by storm.

But an underrated aspect of this game will be Stefon Diggs' performance against a Chiefs secondary that does not get the credit it deserves.

Diggs was held to six catches for 77 yards in the playoff matchup but recently revealed he played through the postseason with an oblique tear.

When healthy, Diggs has the ability to do significantly greater damage. He led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in his first season in Buffalo and trailed only Davante Adams (3.9) in burn yards per route as he averaged 3.6.

However, the Chiefs' projected starting cornerbacks have the means to slow him down. L'Jarius Sneed was fifth among all corners in preventing big plays, allowing a play of 20 yards or more on just 14.5 per cent of his targets. 

Meanwhile, Charvarius Ward was fourth among corners in burns allowed, giving up a burn on 32.7 per cent of his targets.

Bears @ Seahawks - Week 16

The Bears have rarely been high on the list of teams to look out for when it comes to intrigue in recent years, but that all changed when they traded up to draft Justin Fields 11th overall.

Once Chicago ends the charade of committing to Andy Dalton as starting quarterback and goes with the high-upside rookie, the Bears have the potential to be an extremely interesting watch.

That will certainly be the case if Fields is under center when they travel to Seattle's Lumen Field, with the Bears set to face the quarterback they reportedly pursued before picking Fields, Seahawks star Russell Wilson.

A quarterback battle between Fields and Wilson has the potential to be an absorbing encounter featuring two signal-callers who each excel with their accuracy throwing the deep ball.

Of quarterbacks with at least 25 throws of 25 or more air yards, only three players (Ryan Tannehill, Philip Rivers and Derek Carr) had a higher well-thrown percentage than Wilson's 63.0 per cent on those attempts last season.

Fields was similarly proficient attacking downfield in his final year for Ohio State, posting a well-thrown percentage of 76.47 per cent on throws of 15 or more air yards that was superior to that of Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones.

If his success in that regard quickly translates to the NFL, the Bears' trip to the Pacific Northwest could turn into a scintillating showcase of the deep passing game. For the first time in a while, the Bears have the potential to be must-see TV.

Ravens @ Browns - Week 14

The balance of power in the AFC North is shifting towards the Ravens and Browns and their Monday Night game in Cleveland last year was among the most entertaining of the 2020 campaign.

In the end, the Browns' inability to stop Lamar Jackson, even after his apparent 'comfort break', from making the big plays in Baltimore's thrilling comeback was the decisive factor in the Ravens' 47-42 triumph.

Cleveland took steps to stop such a scenario from playing out again, using their first-round pick on a cornerback in Greg Newsome II who allowed a big play on just 4.2 per cent of his 36 targets in an abbreviated final season at Northwestern.

His addition, and that of versatile second-round linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who allowed a big-play percentage of 11.0 when covering from the slot and had an overall pressure rate of 25.0 per cent, should help the Browns do a better job of slowing down opponents.

But whether those arrivals are enough to make the difference against Jackson and the Ravens is another matter.

An underrated downfield thrower whose well-thrown percentage of 60.0 on throws of 25 or more air yards was seventh in the NFL last year, Jackson has another dynamic weapon to target in the form of first-round receiver Rashod Bateman.

Sixth among Power 5 wideouts with at least 50 targets in burn yards per target (16.15) in his stellar 2019 season, Bateman can be the number one receiver Jackson has long since lacked.

Bateman excelled at creating separation two years ago while having an average depth of target of 16.2. With him and speedster Marquise Brown in the mix, Jackson does not lack big-play weapons, and Cleveland's ability to keep them under wraps could be critical in deciding an ultra-competitive division in 2021.

Serena Williams will play in the Emilia-Romagna Open next week following her early exit in Rome, Patrick Mouratoglou has confirmed.

The legendary American was beaten 7-6 (8-6) 7-5 by Nadia Podoroska in the 1,000th match of her incredible career at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia on Wednesday.

Williams, who was given a bye into the second round at Foro Italico, was playing her first match since losing to Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals of the Australia Open three months ago.

With the French Open getting under way on May 30, Williams has taken a wildcard to get more time on clay under her belt in Parma.

Mouratoglou, the former world number one's coach, tweeted: "Change of plans: Serena hasn't been competing for a while, and we want to get as many matches under our belt as possible before Roland-Garros - so we're adding the Emilia-Romagna Open to our schedule.

"We'll be back in action next week."

Williams will head to Paris for the second major of the year in her latest attempt at matching Margaret Court's record tally of 24 grand slam singles titles.

Novak Djokovic cruised into the quarter-finals of the Internazionali d'Italia with a straight-sets demolition of Alejandro Davidovich Fokina on Thursday.

The world number one took just an hour and 10 minutes to wrap up an emphatic 6-2 6-1 victory at the Foro Italico.

Davidovich Fokina broke the top seed's serve in the first game of the match, but that proved to be a false dawn for the Spanish qualifier.

Djokovic put the 21-year-old under huge pressure with another returning masterclass, breaking back immediately and on two more occasions to seal the first set.

The 18-time grand slam champion was relentless in the second set, forcing Davidovich Fokina's unforced error count up to 30 as he breezed into the last eight.

Djokovic, who has reached at least the quarter-final stage in each of his 15 appearances at the prestigious tournament in Rome, was waiting to learn whether he would face Stefanos Tsitsipas or Matteo Berrettini for a place in the semi-finals.

The Serbian said: "I thought I played well. He started well and broke my serve in the first game. I made some errors, but I managed to break back right away and establish the control and consistency on the court.

"I think from the back of the court I was just a bit more solid than him.

"He made some unforced errors and double faults in key moments, which obviously helped me get that necessary break forward.

"I thought I played better, at least 20 or 30 per cent better, than I did against [Taylor] Fritz a few days ago. I am on a good trajectory and hopefully tomorrow will be even better."

New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole starred in the team's 1-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays in MLB action on Wednesday.

Cole put on a show in St Petersburg, where the Yankees pitcher struck out 12 batters over eight innings against the team's American League (AL) East rivals midweek.

The three-time All-Star surpassed 1,500 career strikeouts as a result of his performance for the streaking Yankees, who have won four successive games.

Cole (212 games) is the second fastest pitcher to reach the mark, behind Randy Johnson (206 games).

It was Cole's fifth game this season with 10-plus strikeouts and 0 walks, already the most in a single season in Yankees history, per Stats Perform. The most by any player in a season in the modern era is seven by Cole in 2019.

 

White Sox roll on, Cabrera makes history

World Series hopefuls the Chicago White Sox beat the Minnesota Twins 13-8 for their fifth straight victory. Jose Abreu drove in three runs as he became the sixth Cuban-born player to have 200-plus home runs and 700-plus RBI. White Sox rookie Andrew Vaughn hit the first home run of his career.

Miguel Cabrera became the Venezuelan hit king after the Detroit Tigers defeated the slumping Kansas City Royals 4-2. Cabrera drove in two runs as he surpassed Omar Vizquel for the most major league hits by a Venezuelan player.

The Los Angeles Angels were routed 9-1 by the Houston Astros but it was a memorable day for two-way star Shohei Ohtani. The Japanese sensation became the first player to start as a pitcher and then hit leadoff the following game since 1916.

World Series champions the Los Angeles Dodgers eased past the Seattle Mariners 7-1. Max Muncy homered for the second straight game, while Julio Urias retired Seattle's first 13 batters and gave up only two singles and a walk as he struck out six.

 

Kansas City's woes continue

The Royals cannot buy a win at the moment. Kansas City are in the midst of a 10-game losing streak – the franchise's longest skid since dropping 10 in succession in 2019.

 

Contreras clubs Ryu

William Contreras hit a moon shot, a 463-foot home run of Toronto Blue Jays ace Ryu Hyun-jin in the fifth inning. The Atlanta Braves still lost 4-1.

 

Wednesday's results

New York Mets 7-1 Baltimore Orioles
Cincinnati Reds 5-1 Pittsburgh Pirates
Cleveland Indians 2-1 Chicago Cubs
San Diego Padres 5-3 Colorado Rockies
Colorado Rockies 3-2 San Diego Padres
Philadelphia Phillies 5-2 Washington Nationals
Detroit Tigers 4-2 Kansas City Royals
New York Yankees 1-0 Tampa Bay Rays
Oakland Athletics 4-1 Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays 4-1 Atlanta Braves
Milwaukee Brewers 4-1 St Louis Cardinals
Houston Astros 9-1 Los Angeles Angels
Chicago White Sox 13-8 Minnesota Twins
Miami Marlins 3-1 Arizona Diamondbacks
Los Angeles Dodgers 7-1 Seattle Mariners

 

Yankees at Rays

The in-form Yankees (20-16) can claim a series sweep of the Rays (19-19) on Thursday. Jameson Taillon starts for the Yankees, while the Rays counter with Rich Hill on the mound.

The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks both secured spots in the NBA's postseason on Wednesday.

Trae Young fuelled the rallying Hawks to a 120-116 win over Russell Westbrook's Washington Wizards midweek.

Young posted 33 points and John Collins hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 24.4 seconds remaining as the Hawks (39-31) – fourth in the Eastern Conference – clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2017.

The Knicks (38-31), who are sixth in the east, were not in action but they still reached the playoffs thanks to some help from elsewhere.

For the first time since 2012-13, playoff basketball will return to Madison Square Garden after the Boston Celtics were upstaged 102-94 by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Celtics (35-35) were consigned to a play-in berth following a fourth straight defeat.

The play-in tournament will include teams with the seventh through to the 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference, taking place between May 18-21, in pursuit of the playoffs.

 

Westbrook joins exclusive club

After making history for the most triple-doubles in the NBA on Tuesday, Westbrook was at it again. The Wizards star scored 34 points and dished out 15 assists. He has recorded 15-plus assists in six consecutive games. Westbrook is the fifth player in league history to record 15-plus assists in six or more straight games, joining John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Kevin Porter.

James Harden returned from an 18-game absence to help the Brooklyn Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-116. Back following a hamstring strain, Harden put up 18 points and 11 assists off the bench in Brooklyn.

Double-doubles from Talen Horton-Tucker (23 points and 10 assists), Andre Drummond (20 points and 10 rebounds) and Kyle Kuzma (19 points and 10 rebounds) helped defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers outlast the lowly Houston Rockets 124-122. The result ensured the Lakers – playing without LeBron James and Anthony Davis – stayed within a game of sixth place in the Western Conference.

Luka Doncic's 33 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a near-triple-double display inspired the Dallas Mavericks to a 125-107 win at home to the New Orleans Pelicans, staying sixth in the west.

The usual suspects – Damian Lillard (30 points), CJ McCollum (26 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (11 points and 15 rebounds) – starred as the Portland Trail Blazers upstaged the NBA-leading Utah Jazz 105-98.

 

Jazz lose again

The NBA-leading Jazz suffered another defeat. Usually efficient from three-point range, Utah were just 30 per cent from beyond the arc, making 12 of 40 shots. Bojan Bogdanovic missed all five of his attempts, while he was five-for-14 shooting throughout the clash.

The Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention after going down to the Mavs.

Durant had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Nets but he was far from his best. The former MVP was four-for-10 shooting in 29 minutes, missing all four of his three-point shots.

 

Kuzma comes up big

With the Lakers trailing 122-121, Kuzma drove to the rim and made the game-winning shot 6.9 seconds from the end in Los Angeles, where the franchise unveiled their 2020 championship banner.

 

Wednesday's results

Los Angeles Lakers 124-122 Houston Rockets
Atlanta Hawks 120-116 Washington Wizards
Brooklyn Nets 128-116 San Antonio Spurs
Cleveland Cavaliers 102-94 Boston Celtics
Dallas Mavericks 125-107 New Orleans Pelicans
Portland Trail Blazers 105-98 Utah Jazz

 

76ers at Heat

Eastern Conference leaders the Philadelphia 76ers (47-22) can clinch the number one seed with victory at the Miami Heat (38-31) on Thursday.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden was left unsurprised by how quickly he adjusted on his return to the NBA, saying "not to brag or anything, but I'm really good at this game".

Harden made his long-awaited comeback from a hamstring injury that sidelined him since April 5, the former MVP posting a double-double as the Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-116 on Wednesday.

Coming off the bench, Harden finished with 18 points on two-for-eight shooting, 11 assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes against the Spurs midweek.

"Not really," Harden replied when asked whether he was surprised by his performance. "Not to brag or anything, but I'm really good at this game. I study the game, I'm very unselfish.

"I take the game and I play it the right way every single night. I don't try to do anything I can't do or anything that doesn't benefit our team. That mindset keeps me in a really good place."

Harden returned from the longest injury lay-off of his stellar career, having missed 18 games for the star-studded Nets, who are eyeing their maiden NBA championship.

It was the first time Harden came off the bench in an NBA game since the 2011-12 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, winning the Six Man of the Year Award that campaign.

"That sixth man role, I've mastered that as well. You know, I've got an award for that role. That role is easy, coming out and impacting the game. Doing whatever it takes to win -- whether its offensively or defensively," Harden said as the Nets moved to 46-24 for the season to remain second behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

"But that's my role no matter what. Especially on this team -- not necessarily scoring all the time when I don't need to. Communicating, being the leader on the floor, making sure guys are in their right positions defensively. And these last few games, we've been better."

After the Nets improved to 28-7 when Harden plays, the nine-time All-Star said: "I know I can score the basketball, but I take pride in getting guys involved and letting guys be involved in the offense. That way, defensively, they'll all be locked in and it's a lot easier.

"I want everybody to get their shots whether they're close to the rim or three-point shots or whatever the case may be, or just get an opportunity to get a shot. That's something I've been doing throughout the course of my career, especially when I was in Houston. Obviously, Kevin [Durant] and Ky [Kyrie Irving] get their shots however they want. But my job is to get everybody else on this roster easy opportunities.

"When I was sitting out, I had multiple conversations with Steve [Nash] on our offense and kind of putting myself in position to be successful and that means getting guys better shots. It's something that we still continue to work on and these next two days that we have between games and the week after our last regular-season game is very vital to our success in the sense of offensively and defensively getting on the same page."

Jamaica Rugby League operations director, Jason Robinson, has tipped the team to make a big statement both on and off the field at the Rugby League World Cup this October.

The Reggae Warriors beat Canada and the United States to qualify for the tournament in 2018 and will face New Zealand, Lebanon, and Ireland in the group stages of the event.

While admitting that the task facing the first-timers will be a daunting one, Robinson remains confident the team has enough ability and experience to make a mark on the competition.

“There’s jokes around Cool Runnings but I’ve played in three World Cup finals and I know the demands,” Robinson said.

“We want to be as competitive as possible,” he added.

“We’ve got a real mixture of guys, playing at all different levels. There will be some guys coming over from Jamaica and it’s going to be great for seasoned campaigners like Michael Lawrence and Ashton Golding, while we’ve Dom Young over in the NRL.

“The key is to prepare well and, come the World Cup, give a good account of ourselves.”

The team on Tuesday revealed that British sportswear manufacturer PlayerLayer would be the team’s official kit supplier.  The company’s fabrics are made from coffee and bamboo.

Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden will make his long-awaited return against the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA franchise announced.

Harden has not played since April 5 due to a hamstring injury, though the former MVP had been "very confident" that he would return before the playoffs.

After missing more than a month of action, Harden will suit up to face the Spurs at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Wednesday.

The Nets, however, will not be with their 'big three' after star Kyrie Irving was ruled out with a facial contusion.

Harden – who arrived from the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster trade in January – is averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game this season.

Harden's assists per game – second only to Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook (11.6) in 2020-21 – is his best mark since averaging 11.2 in 2015-16, while he only averaged more rebounds in 2016-17 (8.1).

The star-studded Nets (45-24) – eyeing their maiden championship – are second in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Philadelphia 76ers (47-22) following back-to-back victories.

LeBron James announced he will not be in the line-up to face the Houston Rockets on Wednesday, though the Los Angeles Lakers superstar said he is "getting close" to returning from an ankle injury.

James returned from a six-week absence due to a right ankle sprain only to re-aggravate the injury after just two appearances for injury-hit NBA champions the Lakers.

There had been hopes that James would make his comeback against the New York Knicks on Tuesday or the Rockets midweek, but the four-time MVP is still sidelined following his update via social media.

James, who sat out the 101-99 overtime win against the Knicks, wrote on Twitter: "Getting close but I won't be in the line-up tonight but more importantly I will be there to put that CHAMPIONSHIP banner in the rafters at Staples Center in front of our fans!!"

Star team-mate Anthony Davis is also reportedly set to miss the clash with the lowly Rockets due to tightness in his groin as the Lakers prepare to raise their championship banner.

A full participant in Monday's practice, James has been averaging 25.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game for the Lakers this season.

Through 43 games in 2020-21, James boasts a field-goal percentage of 51.3 – his best since 2017-18 and it is the same story regarding his three-point percentage of 36.6, which is his highest since that season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Rafael Nadal defeated home favourite Jannik Sinner at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia, but Daniil Medvedev crashed out of the competition on Wednesday.

Rising star Sinner gave Nadal a stern test, but the veteran emerged triumphant with a 7-5 6-4 triumph in two hours and 12 minutes.

Nadal will face Denis Shapovalov – who also beat an Italian in the shape of Stefano Travaglia – in the last 16.

The hard-fought victory is a welcome one for Nadal after he lost to Alexander Zverev in the Madrid Open quarter-finals last time out.

However, there was a big star who fell with world number two Medvedev, who continues to struggle on clay, eliminated by his compatriot Aslan Karatsev.

Karatsev impressively triumphed 6-2 6-4 in 78 minutes, winning 26 of his 29 first-serve points and not being broken in the match.

"I'm super happy," said Karatsev, who also beat world number one Novak Djokovic last month and will face Reilly Opelka next. 

"It was a really tough match. Against Medvedev you never know, he's a big server. It's tough to return, but I managed it well."

Dominic Thiem almost went the same way as Medvedev, coming within two points of going out in his first match in Rome, which has also happened in his previous two appearances.

However, the Austrian battled back to defeat Marton Fucsovics 3-6 7-6 (7-5) 6-0 in a match lasting two hours and 33 minutes, booking a last-16 clash with Lorenzo Sonego.

"It was such a close match, especially in the second set,” said Thiem, a semi-finalist in Madrid last week.

"I knew he'd be a super-tough opponent, particularly coming from different conditions in Madrid. I was fighting all the match and stayed in there. 

"At the end, I got the reward for fighting. I had difficulties with my timing and my serve. 

"I have to hurt my opponent more with my shots. I still won a great match and I will try to improve."

There were smoother victories for Madrid champion Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Zverev cruised past qualifier Hugo Dellien in a 6-2 6-2 success, while Tsitsipas saw off Marin Cilic 7-5 6-2.

Andrey Rublev defeated Jan-Lennard Struff in three sets, while Matteo Berrettini also progressed, beating John Millman in straight sets to book a clash with Tsitsipas which looks like the pick of the last-16 draw.

In her daily practice and play, Shanae Gordon is used to clutching a ball and outsprinting rivals. In the classroom, the national rugby player is proving how much those qualities are part of her educational habits, by grabbing a scholarship provided by the Jamaica Olympic Association (JOA) and run with it to now earn an academic scholarship.

Matthias Schwab set the early pace at the British Masters by posting an impressive opening-round 66, with tournament host Danny Willett among the chasing pack at the Belfry.

In-form Schwab, who has three top 10s in his last four events but is yet to win on the European Tour, had seven birdies and just one dropped shot.

The Austrian picked up strokes at 16, 17 and 18 in a fast finish to take the tournament lead at six under par.

Schwab is one shot clear of Calum Hill and two ahead of a nine-man group at four under which includes his compatriot and seven-time European Tour winner Bernd Wiesberger, who had an eagle at 17.

Wiesberger is in contention despite finding the water twice.

Assessing conditions, second-placed Hill said: "You have to drive it quite well, there are a lot of demanding tee shots.

"There are a few bits that you can catch yourself out going to the greens but it is a good test of golf."

Willett is among those at three under, though he will rue a costly bogey at the 18th that stopped him from being two adrift overnight.

Pre-tournament favourite Robert Macintyre is at one under after a quiet first round, while defending champion Renato Paratore is at one over.

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