Corey Conners savoured his "really special round" after defying windy conditions to set the early pace at the US PGA Championship.

Conners earned a two-shot lead on Thursday, the unheralded Canadian golfer upstaging a star-studded field with a five-under-par 67 in South Carolina.

Without a victory since his solitary PGA Tour triumph at the 2019 Texas Open, Conners was almost flawless in gusty conditions, holing six birdies with just one bogey.

Conners' lead marks his third career 18-hole lead/co-lead on the PGA Tour (0-for-two to date) and first at a major. Earlier this season, the 29-year-old was tied for the first-round lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished third – his best result of the season.

"It was a really special round. I did a lot of things really, really well. Like I said before, it's really nice to see some mid-range birdie putts fall in the hole," Conners said.

"Really gave me confidence and felt like I rolled it really well for the rest of the round. A lot of putts had chances to go in and I made some nice saves, as well."

Prior to Thursday's first round, Conners' best position after any round of a major was equal sixth through 54 holes at this year's Masters at Augusta, where he eventually finished tied for eighth.

Conners bettered that at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where he tops the leaderboard ahead of four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, Keegan Bradley, Viktor Hovland, Aaron Wise, Sam Horsfield and Cam Davis.

"I have a lot of belief in myself, and I've been playing well for quite a while," said Conners. "I'm excited for opportunity to play against the best players in the world and put my game to the test.

"I have a lot of confidence in my game and I'm excited for the rest of the weekend. Didn't try to force it to happen but definitely saw myself having a good day today and hopefully can keep that up the rest of the weekend."

As enjoyable and memorable as the NBA postseason can be, it rarely produces significant surprises.

Sure, an occasional first-round upset stands out – like MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks falling to the Golden State Warriors in 2007 – but almost never does an underdog hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy as season's end.

Of course, that depends on your definition of an underdog.

In each of the last 25 seasons – and in 49 of the last 51 – the team that won the NBA Finals was a top three seed in their conference. The only exception to that rule since 1970 is the 1995 Houston Rockets, who finished sixth in the Western Conference despite being the reigning NBA champions.

The 2020-21 NBA season has already been an unprecedented one, with games played in empty arenas and players being held out of games due to league virus safety protocols. And why should the oddities end when the playoffs begin?

From 2015-18, the Warriors played the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals four straight seasons, making everything beforehand feel like a waste of time. The pattern was broken in 2019 because LeBron James switched conferences, but the Warriors represented the west for the fifth straight season. Last season, James played in the Finals for the ninth time in 10 campaigns, leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a title.

This season, however, is suspiciously devoid of a juggernaut. The top regular season teams are unproven in the playoffs, and the typical postseason performers must answer serious questions and navigate a difficult road to the Finals.

The Utah Jazz had the league's best record this season at 52-20, a .722 win percentage. That is the fifth-worst record by a league-leading team since the NBA-ABA merger and the worst in 20 years.

 

Lowest Win Pct by Team With NBA's Best Record in Season, Since 1976-77

SEASON     TEAM                      WL        PCT

1976-77    Los Angeles Lakers         53-29      .646

1978-79    Washington Bullets         54-28      .659

1977-78    Portland Trail Blazers     58-24      .707

2000-01    San Antonio Spurs          58-24      .707

2020-21    Utah Jazz                  52-20      .722

 

With just 10 wins separating the top-seeded Jazz and seventh-seeded Lakers, the west could deviate from seeding by quite a bit.

Even in the often-predictable east, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics were considered preseason favorites in the conference, only to finish with the sixth and seventh seeds.

The fact is that whoever wins their conference to play in the NBA Finals – and ultimately raises the Larry O'Brien Trophy – will have a unique story about their road there. Whether it is a team who are a proven commodity that flipped the switch after a sub-par regular season or a high-seeded team that overcame past postseason failures, the 2021 NBA champions – like the 2020-21 regular season itself – will be unlike any other.

 

Honourable Mentions: West number one Dallas Mavericks, West number six Portland Trail Blazers

Both teams lack the depth to make a serious championship run but have enough star power in the backcourt to scare any opponent.

Dallas will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and took two of three games this season against Los Angeles. Luka Doncic averaged 30.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 11.0 assists in those games. In nine career games against the Clippers, Doncic is attempting 9.9 free throws per game, his most against any Western Conference opponent.

The Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard takes them. When Portland made their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019, the Blazers were 7-0 when Lillard had a plus-minus above zero and were 1-8 when he had a negative plus-minus.

 

The 'Not Your Year' Tier: West number three Denver Nuggets

The season-ending knee injury to Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray was a devastating blow to Denver's title chances and takes some fun out of a special season by Nikola Jokic.

Although Murray's injury solidified Jokic as the MVP favourite – leading the Nuggets to a 13-5 record since the injury – it is hard to envision Denver making a deep run without their star guard.

The knock on Jokic has been that he would generally rather pass than score, and Denver are 5-8 in postseason games when Jokic attempts 20 or more shots.

With Jokic scoring a career-high 26.4 points per game this season and with the continued blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., however, the Nuggets remain dangerous in the playoffs.

 

The 'Prove It' Tier: West number four Los Angeles Clippers, East number one Philadelphia 76ers, West number one Utah Jazz, East number three Milwaukee Bucks, West number two Phoenix Suns

On paper, each of these teams appear to be solid championship contenders, complete with star power and coming off an impressive regular season.

But each of these teams need to prove they can take another step forward, either because of a limited postseason history or a checkered one.

At the start of last year's playoffs, the Clippers were considered by many to be the favourites but blowing a 3-1 series lead in the second round to the Nuggets was a humbling experience. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have quietly had fantastic seasons, each averaging at least 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The 76ers and Bucks have been mainstays in the east playoffs for the past few seasons and are hoping that this year's vintage has the answers to take the next step.

Philadelphia, under new leadership with Doc Rivers and buoyed by the shooting of Danny Green and Seth Curry, have a scoring differential of plus-16.4 points per 100 possessions when Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are on the court together, the best mark in the history of the much-maligned duo.

Milwaukee won 11 of their last 15 games, including two wins each against Philadelphia and the Brooklyn Nets – the two teams seeded higher in the east.

A machine over the last few regular seasons, the Bucks have faltered in past playoff series as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to score in the clutch and his team-mates shrank from the moment. The costly acquisition of Jrue Holiday should help take some of the pressure off, and Antetokounmpo is shooting 73.3 percent (11 of 15) this season in the last two minutes of a game within five points.

Utah and Phoenix are fascinating prospects after stellar regular seasons but the consensus regarding both teams is that they have already maxed out their talent before the postseason starts.

Rudy Gobert is an All-Defensive Team mainstay for good reason, but Utah have been forced to sit him in the playoffs against smaller teams or when his free-throw shooting becomes a problem.

The Jazz are expecting leading scorer Donovan Mitchell to return from a sprained right ankle, but Utah are better operating as a five-man offense than a one-man show. When Mitchell attempts 20 or fewer field goals this season, the Jazz are 27-2. When he shoots more than 20 times, the Jazz are 12-12.

The Suns are 59-21 over their last 80 games, including in last year's bubble, and have become one of the best stories in the league. Chris Paul turns every team he is on into a winner, and he has a case to receive MVP votes scoring a modest 16.4 points per game.

For all of his career accomplishments, however, Paul has famously only advanced past the second round once in his career, and he now leads a core group of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges that lacks playoff experience.

 

The 'Sleeping Giant' Tier: East number six Miami Heat, West number seven Los Angeles Lakers

Last year's finalists have endured brutal regular seasons filled with disappointment, injuries and COVID-19 protocols.

Only Duncan Robinson played all 72 games this season for Miami, and while the Heat are healthier now than during their nightmare 11-17 start, serious questions remain about the health of veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, who both missed at least 20 games this season.

The Lakers remain the betting favourites coming out of the west, despite needing a 103-100 play-in win over the Golden State Warriors to clinch a playoff berth. LeBron James and Anthony Davis missed a combined 63 games this season, and the duo only played together in 27 games.

While the health of the Lakers' superstars remains a concern, Los Angeles were 19-8 when both James and Davis played. The defending champions had a scoring differential of plus-11.4 points per 100 possession when the duo were on the court together. For as long as James and Davis are playing, the Lakers remain a juggernaut.

 

The Favourites: East number two Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

The Nets are the first team to ever have three players average at least 24 points (minimum 35 games). Durant, Harden and Irving are the highest-scoring trio since the early 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were producing some of the best seasons in league history.

What makes Brooklyn such a strong contender, however, is that the supporting cast around their dynamic trio is a real asset.

The Nets' reserves scored 35.9 points per game this season, better than the bench of fellow contenders like the Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat and Nuggets.

First-year head coach Steve Nash has consistently been able to field a competitive squad during a tumultuous year. As evidence of the change and adversity the Nets faced this season, they have used 38 different starting line-ups – only the lowly Rockets used more.

With veteran big men like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Nets can counter size but are also versatile enough to play small, with Jeff Green defending opposing centers.

The high-profile names make Brooklyn feel like an inevitability, but there is still plenty of uncertainty with this newly constructed super-team.

Durant, Harden and Irving have only played 202 minutes together, less than six percent of Brooklyn's season. The trio appear to blend well, scoring a torrid 117.8 points per 100 possessions, but any group of stars will face challenges in their first playoff test.

Corey Conners withstood hammering winds to claim a two-stroke lead following the opening round at the US PGA Championship as Brooks Koepka impressed but Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson struggled.

Prior to Thursday's first round in South Carolina, Conners' best position after any round of a major was equal sixth through 54 holes at this year's Masters at Augusta.

Conners bettered that at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, where the Canadian defied the wind to set the early pace with a five-under-par 67.

Without a victory since his solitary PGA Tour triumph at the 2019 Texas Open, Conners was almost flawless in gusty conditions, holing six birdies with just one bogey.

Conners' lead marks his third career 18-hole lead/co-lead on the PGA Tour (0-for-two to date) and first at a major. Earlier this season, the 29-year-old was tied for the first-round lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished third – his best result of the season.

Koepka ended day one in a share of second position alongside Keegan Bradley, Viktor Hovland, Aaron Wise, Sam Horsfield and Cam Davis.

Koepka has been plagued by injuries since winning back-to-back PGA Championships in 2019 and a fourth major title in three years – the American star underwent knee surgery in March before missing the cut at last month's Masters.

But Koepka impressed on Thursday, overcoming a slow start to shoot a three-under-par 69.

Koepka double-bogeyed his opening hole on the back nine, however, the four-time major champion only dropped one shot after that as he tallied six birdies.

He has opened the PGA Championship with a score in the 60s in each of the last six years, the longest such streak at any major in the modern era (since 1934), eclipsing Jack Nicklaus (five – 1972-1976 Masters).

Defending champion Collin Morikawa is a stroke further back alongside the likes of five-time major winner Phil Mickelson.

Big-hitting American and reigning U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau signed for an even-par 72 at the close of the first round, level with Jon Rahm and Justin Rose, while Masters holder Hideki Matsuyama, former world number one Jordan Spieth – eyeing a career Grand Slam – and Xander Schauffele shot 73s.

Jason Day and Patrick Reed were also further down the leaderboard as two-time PGA Championship winner McIlroy and world number one Johnson were powerless in the wind.

McIlroy – seeking a first major trophy since 2014 – recorded a three-over-par 75, which included six bogeys and just three birdies.

Justin Thomas also went three over for the day, while Johnson finished with two double-bogeys and a bogey in a forgettable four-over-par 76 display.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry are the three finalists for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award.

The NBA announced its finalists on Thursday, with Jokic the long-time frontrunner for the coveted individual honour.

Jokic has remained healthy this season, starting all 72 games for the Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference, while averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game – the combined total of 45.5 leading the NBA alongside triple-double king Russell Westbrook.

The Nuggets big man shot 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from beyond the arc and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. No player to attempt 30 or more field goals across a season in NBA history has topped Jokic in all three metrics.

Embiid has made no secret of his MVP aspirations and he flexed his muscles as the 76ers earned the Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001.

A knee injury derailed his MVP bid but Embiid ended the regular season with a career-high 28.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while his 51.3 field-goal percentage was a career best – the same with his three-point percentage (37.7).

Curry catapulted himself into contention for a third MVP award following his scoring outburst for the Warriors.

The three-time NBA champion added a second scoring crown to his collection thanks to his 46-point performance in last week's win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Curry pipped Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal to the scoring title, having averaged 32.0 points per game.

Golden State's Curry became the first player 33 years or older to lead the league in scoring since Hall of Famer Michael Jordan in 1997-98 (35 years at end of season and averaged 28.7ppg).

Curry also joined Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players with multiple scoring titles, MVPs and championships.

Earlier this season, Curry claimed top spots on the Warriors' all-time scoring and assists lists, while surpassing Reggie Miller for second position on the NBA's three-pointers made standings.

 

Full list of award finalists:

NBA Coach of the Year

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

NBA Defensive Player of the Year

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

NBA Rookie of the Year

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

NBA Sixth Man

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Derrick Rose, New York Knicks

NBA Most Improved Player

Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Julius Randle, New York Knicks

Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell is planning to play in Sunday's playoff opener after returning to practice following an ankle injury.

Mitchell has been sidelined since spraining his right ankle on April 16, sitting out the last 16 games of the regular season as the Jazz secured the NBA's best record (52-20) for the first time in their history.

Western Conference top seed the Jazz will host the winner of the play-in game between the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, and Mitchell expects to feature in Game 1 of the first-round matchup.

"That's the goal," Mitchell said on Thursday. "Barring any setbacks, God forbid - knock on wood - that's the goal.

"I'm just trying to go out there and be there for my team-mates and try to help to go out there and win a championship. That's the goal. It's been the goal all year."

Mitchell has been averaging career highs in points (26.4), assists (5.2) and three-point percentage (38.6) this season.

"Practice was good," Mitchell said. "I got out there and competed.

"You could definitely tell it was the first time in four or five weeks, but that's to be expected. I'm just trying to find ways to get back in a groove."

Rory McIlroy struggled on his return to Kiawah Island with a three-over-par 75 in the opening round at the US PGA Championship as playing partner Brooks Koepka impressed.

McIlroy won by eight shots the last time the PGA Championship was staged at Ocean Course in South Carolina in 2012 and was installed as the favourite of many after ending a winless streak of almost two years at the Wells Fargo Championship two weeks ago.

However, the four-time major champion – seeking a first major title since 2014 – landed his very first shot into the water on a windswept morning before recovering somewhat with back-to-back birdies on Thursday.

McIlroy – a two-time PGA Championship winner – was level par at the turn after dropping another shot on the par-five 16th, but he managed just one more birdie compared to five bogeys as he closed for 75, eight shots behind Corey Conners.

Koepka played down expectations heading into the tournament due to a knee injury and he started slowly with a double-bogey on his first hole, though the two-time PGA Championship winner recovered well with two birdies in the next three holes.

After turning in 36, Koepka picked up three shots in four holes on the front nine to complete an impressive turnaround that saw him earn a share of the lead before Conners soared to the summit as he aims to add to his successes in this event in 2018 and 2019.

"I felt like an idiot," he told Sky Sports Golf when reflecting on his cagey start. "It was probably a poor club choice off 10. I thought three-wood would have carried, but it didn't. I also didn't find the face, it barely hit the face!

"The first rule is, if you're in trouble, get the hell out. I couldn't reach the green and it was a bad lie, so I didn't know where I was going. I just tried to hit a sand-wedge up by the green instead of just chopping it out.

"So it was a mental mistake there, and I deserved every bit of that double-bogey. But it kind of helped me refocus. I can't play with any mistakes, maybe one a day, and that was my one, and I got it out of the way on the first hole."

Koepka is joined on three-under par by former champion Keegan Bradley, Viktor Hovland. Aaron Wise and Sam Horsfield.

Bradley's opening round included four birdies and just one dropped shot, coming on the par-four 13th, while Hovland bounced back from an opening bogey with four birdies.

Collin Morikawa is one shot further back after bogeying his final hole, the defending champion joined on a first-round 70 by Martin Laird, who was also let down by a couple of dropped shots on his final two holes.

Justin Thomas finds himself way down the standings, meanwhile, after carding a three over that included a double-bogey on the 18th, while US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau had a mixed first day as he posted a level-par 72.

World number one Dustin is among the late starters, along with Jordan Spieth, Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not got their hands on the Stanley Cup since 1967.

A member of the "Original Six", Punch Imlach's Maple Leafs conquered their Canadian rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, for their 13th Stanley Cup 54 years ago.

It was Toronto's fourth championship in the 1960s, which formed the second of two recognised dynasties from 1947 to 1951 and from 1962 to 1967.

The celebrations then stopped for the Leafs, leading to the longest active title drought in the NHL – 52 consecutive seasons (not including the 2004-05 lockout).

But, after years of pain and false hope, are Sheldon Keefe's Leafs – spearheaded by Auston Matthews and a supporting cast that includes Mitch Marner – finally on the cusp of ending their long-standing drought?

It has been more than four decades since the Leafs and Canadiens faced off in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As the Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004, prepare for the mouth-watering first-round showdown, we look at the team's rise from pretenders to genuine contenders, using Stats Perform data.

 

Leafs find their way under Keefe

There were high hopes when the Leafs and Ontario native Mike Babcock came together in 2015. Toronto made the Stanley Cup-winning head coach the highest paid in NHL history following his success with the Detroit Red Wings.

One of the most coveted coaches at the time, the championship-chasing Leafs viewed Babcock as the perfect man to oversee the culmination of rebuild in pursuit of the ultimate prize. Despite a talented roster, the franchise's vision did not materialise – Toronto never made it out of the first round of the playoffs following three consecutive postseason appearances. Babcock's style did not go down well at Scotiabank Arena.

The Leafs eventually fired Babcock in November 2019 and Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe was promoted to the top job.

At the time of Babcock's departure, the Leafs led a league-low 21.1 per cent of the time. This season, Toronto rank second for the highest percentage of time leading (45.4), just behind the Colorado Avalanche (45.5).

This season's percentage of time leading is the highest mark in Leafs history, eclipsing the 43.1 per cent recorded in 1924-25.

The Leafs have long been judged by the Babcock era, but the 40-year-old Keefe is finally utilising this highly skilled squad, while helping John Tavares rediscover his best form.  

Toronto also appear to finally have the kind of physicality it needs for the demands of playoff hockey. Complementing their exciting roster with the experience of premier top-line center and former San Jose Sharks All-Star Joe Thornton also bodes well as the Leafs enter the postseason as one of the heaviest teams in the league – 201.1 pounds, only behind the Vegas Golden Knights (207), Dallas Stars (203.1), Washington Capitals (202.9), Anaheim Ducks (202.6) and Tampa Bay Lightning (202.4).

 

Matthews in a league of his own

The Leafs wasted no time selecting Matthews in 2016 when he was widely considered the top prospect of the NHL draft.

Matthews hit the ground running, becoming the first player in modern NHL history to score four goals in his debut. He also set a Leafs record with 40 goals in his first season, while becoming just the second rookie since the 2004-05 lockout to achieve the milestone.

The centerpiece of the franchise has taken his game to another level this season.

Matthews, who has developed into arguably the best goal-scorer of his generation, tallied a remarkable league-high 41 goals in just 52 games in 2020-21. He managed 47 in 70 regular-season appearances last year. The last Leafs player to lead the NHL in goals was Gaye Stewart in 1945-46.

Matthews' performance led to the best goals-per-game average (0.79) in franchise history, topping Charlie Conacher's record of 0.77 that had stood since 1931-32. The 23-year-old Matthews already has 199 goals and 351 points in his career.

He ranks 14th all time for the most goals before age 24, but he finds himself in good company on a list that is topped by Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky (405) and includes Mario Lemieux (300), Steven Stamkos (222), Alex Ovechkin (219), Sidney Crosby (215) and Jaromir Jagr (202).

 

Toronto's dynamic duo

While Matthews is the star, Marner is the other half of Toronto's terrific duo.

A much-loved figure in Toronto, Marner has always been a great young player with loads of potential. The 24-year-old right wing took a step forward this season as a model of consistency for the North Division champions.

Marner, who was a fourth-round pick a year before the Leafs brought in Matthews, ranks fourth in the NHL in points (67) and assists this season (47). And with the Ontario-born winger on ice, the Leafs have scored 89 goals and conceded 57 this season – a differential of plus-32. That differential shrinks to just plus-6.0 without him.

Keefe paired Matthews and Marner together midway through last season and it is a move that continues to pay dividends. Marner has assisted on 25 Matthews goals this year, ahead of Edmonton Oilers duo Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (22) for the most in the league.

Marner and Matthews are also the first pair of team-mates in NHL history to have five 60-point seasons together before turning 24. (This is based on their age when they reached 60 points. Marner achieved the feat before celebrating his 24th birthday.)

With Matthews and Marner leading the way, the Maple Leafs have a real shot of not only beating their rivals in the first round but in ending one of the longest active title droughts in North American sports.

Lyon Open top seed Dominic Thiem was stunned in straight sets by Cameron Norrie in the last 16 on Thursday for the "biggest win" of the Briton's career.

Thiem was handed a bye to this stage and fell at the first hurdle on a day of upsets, the world number four sending down four double faults and losing serve three times as he lost 6-3 6-2.

Norrie now has 10 victories on clay in 2021, compared to seven before this year, and will face qualifier Arthur Rinderknech – a surprise 6-7(7) 6-2 7-5 winner against Jannik Sinner – in the quarters.

"I'm so pleased to win. It's the biggest win of my career and my highest-ranked win," Norrie, who had never previously beaten a top-five opponent, said in his on-court interview. 

"It's such a beautiful day in Lyon. I couldn't be happier to get the win today and to get another match on the clay before Roland Garros."

Third seed Diego Schwartzman also exited the competition on Thursday with a 6-3 7-5 defeat to Richard Gasquet, who eased over the line despite letting two match points slip.

Stefanos Tsitsipas is now the strong favourite to triumph in France after starting his campaign with a convincing 6-1 6-4 victory over Tommy Paul.

Yoshihito Nishioka upset Gael Monfils 4-6 6-3 7-6(2) in an impressive comeback victory and now awaits Tsitsipas in the last eight.

At the Geneva Open, rising star Casper Ruud kept his momentum going with a 2-6 6-1 6-4 win over Dominik Koepfer to make it 12-4 on clay this season.

Ruud recovered from a sloppy first set by holding his serve in the following two sets to reach his fourth successive clay court semi-final on the ATP Tour.

Next up for the third seed is a meeting with Pablo Andujar, who beat youngster Dominic Stephan Stricker 4-6 6-4 6-4.

Elsewhere, Laslo Djere overcame Fabio Fognini 6-3 6-7(2) 6-1 to reach the quarter-finals and will face Denis Shapovalov later on Thursday after the Canadian recovered from a set down to beat Marco Cecchinato 6-7 7-5 6-1.

The winner of that match will meet Pablo Cuevas, the Uruguayan having ended Grigor Dimitrov's run with a battling 7-6 6-3 win.

Coco Gauff continued her fine form with a 6-3 6-3 quarter-final triumph over fellow American Amanda Anisimova at the Emilia-Romagna Open.

In a contest between two teenage stars, it was 17-year-old Gauff who sealed her second semi-final spot in as many weeks, having made the last four at the Internazionali d'Italia.

Third seed Gauff will face Katerina Siniakova next, after the Czech followed up her win over Serena Williams with a 7-5 6-1 defeat of Caroline Garcia.

"I was pretty satisfied with the way I played," Gauff said, after fending off Anisimova.

"I do think I could have served a little bit better, but other than that, I was pretty happy with the way I played."

Despite her valid concerns, Gauff won 72 per cent of points after landing her first serve and forced six breaks to win in style, reeling off six games on the trot from 3-0 behind in the second set.

The other semi-final will see second seed Wang Qiang take on Sloane Stephens.

Wang prevailed 7-6 (7-4) 3-6 7-5 against Petra Martic, while Stephens saw off Sara Errani 6-3 6-0.

It was another rain-affected day at the Serbia Open, where Maria Camila Osorio Serrano managed to get past Kamilla Rakhimova 4-6 6-3 6-4.

Anna Kalinskaya and Reka Luca Jani were locked at one set apiece in the only other match to get started before the weather halted play.

Andrea Vendrame edged out Chris Hamilton in a two-man sprint finish to claim his maiden stage win at a Grand Tour on Thursday.

The Italian took the honours at the end of the Giro d'Italia's 212-kilometre 12th stage from Siena to Bagno di Romagna, during which riders contended with hellish climbs and drastic changes in the weather.

INEOS Grenadiers' Egan Bernal still leads the way by 45 seconds in the fight for the maglia rosa, safely navigating through mountain passes and peaks reached via gradients of up to 15 per cent, while sporadic downpours made the sharp descents a white-knuckle ride.

Gianluca Brambilla crossed the line third but was relegated a place, with George Bennett promoted to the podium position following a "jury decision", according to Bennett's Jumbo-Visma team.

There might have been a better outcome for Brambilla had he and fellow breakaway rider Bennett decided to work together rather than against one another, with some apparent bickering between the two effectively ending the hopes of both.

There were no major changes in the GC standings, but Trek-Segafredo veteran Vincenzo Nibali did get seven seconds back thanks to a typically bold ride to keep his slim hopes alive.

Ahead of him at the front of the pack it was compatriot Vendrame who tasted success on home soil, the AG2R Citroen Team rider getting the better of Hamilton to finally win a stage on what is his fourth appearance at the Giro.

 

STAGE RESULT  
 
1. Andrea Vendrame (AG2R Citroene Team) 5:43:48
2. Chris Hamilton (Team DSM) +0.00
3. George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) +0.15
4. Gianluca Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) +0.15
5. Giovanni Visconti (Bardiani CSF Faizane) +1.12

CLASSIFICATION STANDINGS
 
General Classification
 
1. Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) 48:29:23
2. Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) +0.45
3. Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious) +1.12

Points Classification
 
1. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) 108
2. Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) 91
3. Davide Cimolai (Israel Start-Up Nation) 91

King of the Mountains

1. Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroen Team) 96
2. Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) 48
3. Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix) 24

Tim Tebow expressed his gratitude to the Jacksonville Jaguars after being given the chance to reboot his NFL career.

Reports that the Jaguars had signed the former Denver Broncos quarterback surfaced last week and were confirmed on Thursday.

Tebow is set to play tight end as he seeks to prove he has what it takes to make it at the top.

"I want to thank the Jaguars for the opportunity to compete and earn the chance to be part of this team," the 33-year-old said.

"I know it will be a challenge, but it is a challenge I embrace.

"I am dedicated to taking the direction of our coaching staff and learning from my team-mates.

"I appreciate everyone's support as I embark on this new journey."

An ill-advised first-round pick of the Broncos, Tebow took his last NFL snap on December 30, 2012 for the New York Jets.

Since that game Tebow has spent the bulk of his time as a college football analyst and playing minor league baseball for the New York Mets organisation.

However, he retired from baseball in February and is now back in the NFL, where he is poised to reunite with the coach with whom he enjoyed a remarkably successful college career at Florida, Urban Meyer.

Meyer became the Jaguars' head coach in January. He won two of his three National Championships in college with Florida, with Tebow helping them to glory in 2006 and leading the Gators to the title in 2008 having won the coveted Heisman Trophy in 2007.

But Tebow's success in college did not translate to the NFL.

Picked 25th overall in the 2010 draft, his limited arm strength proved a significant hindrance to his hopes of becoming Denver's long-term starting quarterback.

He replaced Kyle Orton as the starter in 2011 and led Denver to a playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, throwing for 316 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime in a 29-23 Wild Card round triumph.

Yet he finished that season with a completion percentage of 46.5 that was the lowest of any quarterback to attempt at least 100 passes and was released by the Broncos in 2012 following their trade for Peyton Manning.

Fruitless spells with the Jets, New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles followed but, after failing to make the grade as a quarterback, Tebow will hope his athleticism can allow him to enjoy a prolonged second act as a tight end.

Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and defending champion Collin Morikawa will tee off within the first two hours of the US PGA Championship, which got underway on Thursday at 07:00 local time.

Patrick Rada, Cameron Triangle, Adam Long were the first three players to tee off on Thursday at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course.

Matt Jones highlighted the second group, which teed off 11 minutes later. The Australian won this year's Honda Championship – the same competition which Rory McIlory won before dominating on this course in the PGA Championship in 2012.

McIlroy, who comes into the tournament on the back of a one-stroke victory at the Wells Fargo Championship, is in the hunt for a fifth major title.

His last win in the PGA Championship, in 2014, is his most recent of those major victories, and the Northern Irishman, currently ranked at seventh in the world, is one of the favourites.

McIlroy's average drive of 318 yards across the season so far puts him, in theory, in good stead to handle the Ocean Course, which at 7,878 yards, is the longest major track.

He is set to tee off at 08:33 local time from the first, and is paired with fellow US PGA champions Justin Thomas (2017) and Brooks Koepka (2018, 2019).

Shortly after that trio start, another big hitter in the form of 2020 US Open champion DeChambeau takes to the field. He averages 322 yards per drive this season, topping the PGA tour, though his accuracy is down at 172nd out of 215 players. That accuracy is however better than McIlroy, who ranks at 175th.

Teeing off alongside De Chambeau is Morikawa, who became the third-youngest player to win the major since it became a stroke-play event in 1958 – after McIlroy and the legendary Jack Nicklaus – when he triumphed in California last year.

The Masters champion, Hideki Matsuyama, completes a fearsome trio.

Three more previous US PGA champions will head out together later in the day, with Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and Padraig Harrington taking to the course at 13:14 in South Carolina.

They will be followed from the first by Tommy Fleetwood, world number three Jon Rahm and Patrick Reed, at approximately 13:25.

Jordan Spieth heads into the major as the only player in the field capable of completing a career grand slam this week. He starts at 13:58. 

Xander Schauffele is the first top-five player due out at 08:22, while world number on Dustin Johnson is one of the later starters.

One player who will not be featuring is Francesco Molinari, who withdrew on Thursday due to a back injury.

Lance Stroll acknowledged Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has proven his talent in tussles with team-mate Valtteri Bottas, even if his Mercedes gives him an advantage over the rest of the grid.

Hamilton has won a record-equalling seven drivers' championships, including six of the past seven with Mercedes.

Former team-mate Nico Rosberg won the title in 2016 when Hamilton faltered, meaning the Silver Arrows have accounted for seven straight triumphs, matching that streak in the constructors' championship.

Mercedes' advantage with a consistently excellent car is clear, as Stroll highlighted this season when he said: "If you put Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren, he won't win the race."

However, speaking to Stats Perform, the Aston Martin driver explained there is still no doubting Hamilton's ability.

Besides Rosberg's five-point 2016 triumph, the Briton has beaten his Mercedes team-mate in every season since he joined the team in 2013.

"You still have to beat your team-mate," Stroll told Stats Perform. "For example, in Mercedes, Lewis has Valtteri and he managed to win the title for so many years.

"You've still got to deliver every weekend and fight up in the front. He has been able to do that.

"But there is no doubt that having a good car makes the difference in the way you finish. This is the story of F1, that's how it has been for a long time and it still is."

Aston Martin, backed by Stroll's father Lawrence, earned only five points in the first four races in 2021 – none of them supplied by new signing Sebastian Vettel – following changes to car regulations that Hamilton has suggested were "done to peg [Mercedes] back".

Stroll, whose low-rake car uses a Mercedes power unit, said: "Last year, at the beginning, we were more competitive, but now, with new regulations, things are a bit different."

He does, however, enjoy being paired with four-time champion Vettel, adding: "It is great working with Seb.

"He is an incredible talent with great experience. He is a great team-mate I and look forward to working with him for the rest of the season."

Stephen Curry was delighted to be back in a big game for the Golden State Warriors, even if Wednesday's play-in defeat to the LeBron James-inspired Los Angeles Lakers was a painful one.

Curry led the game in scoring with 37 points, but an early Warriors advantage – 13 points by halftime – was wiped out by the opening stages of the fourth quarter.

It left Curry in a shootout with James which the reigning NBA Finals MVP won with a sublime 30-foot three-pointer over the Golden State point guard as the shot clock expired.

The Warriors could not respond, as Curry rued a third quarter in which his team had eight turnovers "that changed the dynamic of the game", as the Lakers also visited the foul line eight times – making all eight shots.

Victory takes LA through as the seventh seed in the West to a first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, while Golden State must now prepare for a one-off game against the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed.

"We'll be ready," Curry said. "Right now, it sucks. We played pretty well tonight.

"We've missed this type of environment, it was a lot of fun, high intensity, high, competitive level. I'm proud of everyone who stepped on the floor tonight, how they played.

"They made a run in the third quarter, we turned the ball over and it changed the game, but we still gave ourselves a chance to win.

"That's all we've worried about for the last 48 hours. Walking in the locker room, guys were upset, angry, frustrated we didn't get the job done.

"But we'll be ready for Friday, treating it like a regular season where you have to move on very quickly to a different team that we just beat, knowing they're going to come in with the same desperation we're going to have. It's the biggest game of the year."

A play-in debut was Curry's 113th postseason appearance but his first since the 2019 NBA Finals.

"It was awesome," he said. "I don't know how many fans were here, but the prep leading into the game, the film study, the walkthroughs, our practice, the level of focus and intensity, it was amazing.

"I was telling Jordan Bell on the bench in the middle of the third quarter: 'I miss this.'

"It's been almost two years since the Finals that we were here in a game that had those type of consequences. It's what you live for, it's what you work so hard for.

"It brings out the best in you in terms of your competitiveness and energy and all that. I love it, so we have to run it back Friday and hopefully all next week."

This was the first time Curry had played the Lakers in such a game, with LA failing to make a Finals series between their title wins in 2010 and 2020 as the Warriors played in five straight.

"It'd be nice if we could make it back here round two or whatever it shapes out to be," Curry said.

James is a familiar foe, however, with his Cleveland Cavaliers the opponent for Golden State in four of those years, winning in 2016.

His brilliant make – his second of the night from three-point land – came as no surprise to Curry.

"It was a great shot, a broken play, I snuck in thinking he was out of play," he said. "They found him, he got his balance just in time and knocked the shot down.

"That was a tough one because you don't really expect it to go in. You expect us to get the rebound, come down in transition and have a possession to take the lead.

"But everything changes when it goes in. All-time great players make great shots, that's what happens. It's no different tonight, but that's a tough one."

But Curry appeared to compare the shot to a three from James' former Cavs team-mate Kyrie Irving, who sunk the decisive effort in Game 7 five years ago.

"This one I was a little further away, so I don't feel too bad about it," Curry said.

The Warriors can ill afford to mull over James' heroics any longer, though, as they face a Grizzlies team they beat as recently as Sunday to reach the seven-eight game.

That victory concluded a 15-5 run to finish the regular season, so Curry, who called for Golden State to "just have fun with it" and "come out swinging", is confident they can recover swiftly.

"We've had to do it the last 20 games, so it's no different," he said.

"It is a win or go home scenario, but we've had high confidence, had a string of wins and then had a tough loss and had to bounce back. We've been there."

Fernando Tatis Jr returned for the first time since May 9 with a bang as the San Diego Padres won 3-0 against the Colorado Rockies in MLB on Wednesday.

Tatis had been absent following a positive coronavirus test earlier in the month but picked up where he left off with four hits including a home run.

The 22-year-old hit a single down the middle with his first bat back, before showing off a little yoga after stealing second base.

At the bottom of the fourth with two outs, Tatis hit a homer from Chi Chi Gonzalez to put the Padres up 1-0.

He almost completed the cycle, needing a triple in the eighth, but he had to settle for a base hit.

San Diego also welcomed back Eric Hosmer, while Wil Myers is expected to return this weekend.

The win means the Padres have won six in a row and nine of their past 10 games.

 

The year of the no-hitter

Corey Kluber tossed down his career-first no-hitter as the New York Yankees eclipsed the Texas Rangers 2-0.

Kluber, who moved from the Rangers to the Yankees in the off-season, struck out nine batters across nine innings in a remarkable display.

Willie Calhoun hit a ground ball to Gleyber Torres at second who threw to first to complete Kluber's maiden no-no.

The no-hitter comes only 24 hours after Spencer Turnbull's for the Detroit Tigers, marking the first time no-hitters have occurred on consecutive days since 1969. The 35-year-old right-hander, who has battled injury over the past two years, becomes the first Yankee to toss down a no-hitter since David Cone in 1999.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone said: "We're excited for him and his story and what he's been through. Tonight we celebate Corey Kluber and a masterful performance."

Kluber's feat continues a trend in the season dubbed 'The Year of the No-No' as the sixth no-hitter in MLB this year. The season record is seven no-hitters.

Shohei Ohtani was pulled as the Los Angeles Angels slipped to 18-24 with a 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians.

Ohtani, who was hitting and pitching in the same game for the fourth time, started well but was pulled after Jake Bauers homered in the fifth.

Randy Arozarena pulled off a spectacular outfield catch in the Tampa Bay Rays' 9-7 victory at the Baltimore Orioles, which improves their record to 25-19.

Juan Soto hit a spectacular home run with a moon shot on one knee in the Washington Nationals' 4-3 win at the Chicago Cubs.

 

More Twins woes

After conceding 16 runs a few days earlier to the Chicago White Sox, the Minnesota Twins hit back with a win in their series on Tuesday, before a 2-1 loss on Wednesday. The Twins tidied things up, only giving up one run, but still suffered their 11th loss from their past 14.

 

Acuna's walk-off home run

Ronald Acuna keeps on producing heroics with a walk-off home run, his 13th homer of the 2021 MLB season, clinching the Atlanta Braves a 5-4 win over the New York Mets.

 

Wednesday's results

Chicago White Sox 2-1 Minnesota Twins
San Diego Padres 3-0 Colorado Rockies
San Francisco Giants 4-0 Cincinnati Reds
Miami Marlins 3-1 Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays 9-7 Baltimore Orioles
Atlanta Braves 5-4 New York Mets
Boston Red Sox 7-3 Toronto Blue Jays
Washington Nationals 4-3 Chicago Cubs
St Louis Cardinals 8-5 Pittsburgh Pirates
New York Yankees 2-0 Texas Rangers
Cleveland Indians 3-2 Los Angeles Angels
Kansas City Royals 6-4 Milwaukee Brewers
Houston Astros 8-1 Oakland Athletics
Los Angeles Dodgers 4-2 Arizona Diamondbacks
Detroit Tigers 6-2 Seattle Mariners

 

Red Sox at Blue Jays

American League East leaders the Boston Red Sox (26-18) will continue their series away to the Toronto Blue Jays (23-18) in Dunedin.

LeBron James says he was "seeing three rims" for his clutch shot which decided the Los Angeles Lakers 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors after a poke in the eye from Draymond Green.

James launched a long-range bomb as the shot clock counted down with just under a minute to go, spectacularly sinking it to put the Lakers up 103-100 on Wednesday in their play-in game.

The Lakers would not allow the Warriors to score again and held on for victory to book a playoffs spot against the Phoenix Suns.

James, who finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, was heroic after copping a poke to the eye in the final quarter from Green in a moment where split opinions on whether it was a flagrant foul.

The four-time MVP landed heavily and remained on the ground for some time, before picking himself while clutching his face with a towel.

Minutes later, the ball was passed to the 36-year-old for the crucial moment and he delivered, even with with blurred vision.

"After Draymond's finger to my eye, I was literally seeing three rims out there," James told ESPN post-game. "I just shot at the middle one. With grace of the man above, I was able to knock it down."

James said there was never thought in his mind to step off the court after the Green collision.

"I've been there before. I've been poked in the eye before in a collision like that," he said.

"I just tried to keep my composure. It's going to be pretty sore tonight. We've got a few days until we go to Phoenix.

"Big time win for us, I wasn’t going to leave the floor, even if I had to put a pirate patch on."

James was full of praise for their upcoming opponents Phoenix Suns who finished second in the Western Conference.

"They've played extremely well all year. They deserve to host a home court in the first round," he said.

"CP [Chris Paul] playing a MVP caliber year all year. [Deandre] Ayton has grown all year. They've given their guys a supporting cast all year.

"We know how great CP and Book [Devin Booker] is. They've done pretty extremely well all year."

LeBron James scored a clutch three-pointer with less than a minute to go to book the Los Angeles Lakers place in the NBA playoffs with a 103-100 win over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

Shortly after copping a Draymond Green finger to the eye and with the shot clock elapsing, James was out of rhythm when he received a pass but drained a huge three with 58 seconds left in their play-in game.

The shot put the Lakers up 103-100 and they would not surrender that lead, as Stephen Curry lost a late inbound pass with 2.1 seconds on the clock.

The result means the Lakers claim seventh seed and will take on the second seed Phoenix Suns, while the Warriors will face the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday to earn eighth seed to face the Utah Jazz in the playoffs.

James had a triple-double, finishing with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists for the Lakers.

Anthony Davis was crucial defensively, closing down Curry in the final play, and ending the game with 25 points and 12 rebounds.

Curry had 37 points, seven rebounds and three assists for the Warriors, who had led by 13 points at the main break, after the point guard scored 15 in the second.

The Grizzlies withstood the San Antonio Spurs' late charge to progress to the eighth seed play-in game against Golden State with a 100-96 victory.

Memphis led by 21 points at one stage but were headed by the Spurs in the final quarter, before rallying to take the win.

The Memphis Grizzlies withstood the San Antonio Spurs' late charge to progress to the eighth seed play-in game with a 100-96 victory.

The Grizzlies led by 21 points at one stage but were headed by the Spurs in the final quarter, before rallying to take the win.

Center Jonas Valanciunas was huge for Memphis with 23 points and 23 rebounds, while Ja Morant chipped in with 20 points, six assists and six rebounds and Dillon Brooks had a game-high 24 points.

Spurs forward DeMar DeRozan had a game to forget, shooting five-from-21 from the field to finish with 20 points, while Dejounte Murray shot from-from-17 from the field, with neither making a three.

The defeat means Spurs miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history.

New York Yankees pitcher Corey Kluber has thrown the sixth no-hitter of the 2021 MLB season and the second on consecutive days.

The 35-year-old right-hander tossed down nine strikeouts across nine innings in the Yankees' 2-0 win over his former franchise Texas Rangers on Wednesday.

Kluber moved from the Rangers in the off-season and becomes the first Yankee to throw a no-hitter since David Cone in 1999.

It is the two-time CY Young award winner's first career no-hitter and marked his return after two years battling injury, pitching only one inning for the Rangers last season.

"It's all kind of emotions. It's excitement but also relief because it's over," Kluber said post-game on YES Network. "We were fortunate in that they hit them right at people."

Kluber's 101-pitch feat follows on from Spencer Turnbull's no-hitter for the Detroit Tigers against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday.

Joe Musgrove, Carlos Rodon, John Means and Wade Miley have also thrown no-nos this season.

The record for the most no-hitters in a single MLB season is seven.

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