Things aren't always as they seem.

A tired old cliche it may be, but for Marcos Llorente such a notion is one that ultimately he believes "literally changed my life".

The date was March 11, 2020, back at a time when the world was changing, or about to change, for everyone due to the coronavirus pandemic. For Llorente things changed because of a Diego Simeone masterstroke.

Atletico Madrid were losing 1-0 to Liverpool at Anfield in the Champions League last-16 second leg, which left the teams locked at 1-1 on aggregate.

With 56 minutes gone, Llorente entered the fray for Diego Costa. To most observers this was Simeone trying to close the door, put on a defensive-minded midfielder, head to extra time, maybe sneak a goal on the counter or win on penalties.

But it was almost a butterfly-effect moment. Yes, the match did enter additional time, but Llorente – employed in a more attack-minded role – scored twice after Roberto Firmino put Liverpool in front. Alvaro Morata's late third secured Atleti's progression.

"The match at Anfield was a great turning point for my career, indeed it literally changed my life," Llorente said back in November.

"I always say, however, that in football you have to confirm yourself every day. I know that I had a good performance against Liverpool, but the important thing is to maintain this continuity of performance over time. I am succeeding and I am very happy with what I am doing."

Since that night, the forgotten man of Real Madrid has become one of the most important cogs in Simeone's tactical machine – one that stands a single victory away from being crowned champions of LaLiga for the first time since 2013-14, and for only the second since 1996.

A PLAYER TRANSFORMED

This season alone has highlighted Llorente's transformation. Among midfielders in LaLiga, only Jose Luis Morales (13) has managed more goals than Llorente (12). His 11 assists, the most of any LaLiga midfielder, puts him on 23 direct goal involvements in 2020-21 – again, the best return in the division in his position.

In creating chances from open play, Llorente (42) is behind only Lucas Vazquez (44) and Frenkie de Jong (48). Additionally, he is joint-fifth for total shots (47) and third for shots on target (22).

For a direct comparison, over the course of Llorente's final season at Real Madrid in 2018-19, he had two goals, zero assists, six chances created from open play, seven shots and four on target.

Llorente's passing success rate in the final third during that campaign at the Santiago Bernabeu is down from 86.17 per cent to 77.83. But he has had 351 successful passes in the opposition third this term compared to 40 in the whole of his last at Madrid – showing he is contributing much more frequently further up the pitch, where play is more congested. It's only natural for his pass completion to have suffered a little.

What truly sets Llorente apart is the fact his attacking output is surpassing expectations. This season, his 12 league goals have come from an expected goals (xG) of just 3.34, giving him a differential of 8.66. Across Europe's top-five leagues, only Robert Lewandowski – who has scored a record-equalling 40 Bundesliga goals in a single season with one game to go – has a better xG differential (9.83).

It's a similar story in setting up goals. Llorente's 11 LaLiga assists come from an expected assists (xA) of 5.34; his differential of 5.66 is the highest of any player in Spain's top flight this term.

Numbers such as these are not necessarily sustainable in the long term, but they do highlight Llorente's impact in the final third – and how important he has been in this title race.

THE INFLUENCER

A deeper dive into the numbers shows just how influential Llorente has become as an attacking force to Atleti.

His 132 involvements in a sequence ending in a shot is 10th in LaLiga among midfielders but the highest of any Atleti player, with Luis Suarez the nearest to him on 125. When looking at involvements in a sequence ending in a goal, Llorente's 29 is the third-best in the division, behind only Karim Benzema (33) and Lionel Messi (39).

Llorente has started 25 of those shot-ending sequences, the ninth-most among LaLiga midfielders and level with Luka Modric. He has started six sequences that have resulted in a goal for his team, a figure behind only Toni Kroos (seven) and Casemiro (eight).

Llorente has also created 16 goalscoring chances from carries, instances where a player moves the ball five metres or more. No midfielder has managed more in LaLiga this season. Added to that, three of his carries have led to him scoring – again, the joint-highest among midfielders.

Atleti head into Saturday with everything in their own hands: beat Real Valladolid, and the title is theirs.

It's the chance for Simeone to become just the third Atleti head coach to win two titles, after Ricardo Zamora (1940 and 1941) and the great Helenio Herrera (1950 and 1951).

And for Llorente, it is an opportunity to underline his evolution since that fateful night at Anfield.

It wasn't too long ago that the idea of Mason Greenwood getting into Gareth Southgate's England squad was farfetched.

After a stunning breakthrough campaign in 2019-20 that saw him score 10 times in the Premier League, 2020-21 got off to a difficult start for the teenager.

It took him until December to score his first league goal of the season, and it took him a little over four months to net again.

Although he was in England contention at the start of the season, such form had seemingly seen him fall well out of the reckoning. When he was unsurprisingly absent from the March selection, few eyebrows were raised.

After all, it was back in September when Greenwood – having just won his first senior cap against Iceland – was involved in controversy involving two local girls being brought to the team hotel. He and Phil Foden were subsequently sent home and left out of the next squad.

But Foden was swiftly recalled in November having impressed early on, and he looks set to take on a key role at the Euros such has been his influence at Premier League champions Manchester City.

It's a slightly different scenario for the similarly talented Greenwood, and the reality is he will probably miss out, but his return form has at least given him a chance.

Perseverance and focus

As previously mentioned, Greenwood's form really suffered in the first part of the season, and that seemed to linger well into this year.

When considering what went wrong, it's of course natural to look at his performances and on-pitch habits.

For example, shot map data earlier in the season suggested he has potentially been found out by defenders. He wreaked havoc in 2019-20 when cutting inside on to his left foot and shooting, but it looked as though opponents had become wise to this, forcing him outside more often.

That's one theory – another worth considering is the human side of football. Let's not forget, Greenwood – a teenager – went through a lot last year.

There was the death of a close friend, the controversy on England duty and subsequent vilification of him from certain sections of the British media. All of that would be difficult for anyone to contend with, let alone a kid of 18 or 19 years.

Perhaps then it was just a matter of time, patience and perseverance for him to get back to his best, which he appears to be on the evidence of the past six weeks or so.

The fact we are even talking about his chances of going to the Euros is a triumph for Greenwood in itself.

From drought to downpour

Greenwood went on a run of 15 appearances without a single goal from late January, but he ended that barren spell against Leicester City on March 21.

Life has been rather different for him since then, finding himself back among the goals in the Premier League on April 4, netting the late winner as United defeated Brighton and Hove Albion 2-1 with a diving header.

That's one of six league goals in a run of eight matches, more than any other English forward in that time, netting at a rate of once every 88 minutes – by comparison, Harry Kane's recent form has him scoring every 125.8 minutes in the league.

Greenwood is once again showing the kind of killer-instinct in front of goal that made him so feared in 2019-20, when he scored 17 goals across all competitions.

Ten of those came in the league from an expected goals (xG) value of just 2.9, meaning he scored 7.1 goals more than expected. No player in the division could match that xG overperformance.

This would generally indicate elite-level finishing or a player getting lucky. Greenwood's form earlier this season suggested it was the latter, but since April 4 his xG overperformance in the league is 2.6 – the next best in this regard is Danny Ings (1.9 overperformance).

However, the caveat is that Greenwood's expected goals on target (xGOT) of 2.7 is lower than his xG of 3.4, suggesting that he's actually been a little fortunate, benefiting from goalkeeping errors, for instance.

For example, against Burnley his goal took a deflection en route to goal, while his effort against Aston Villa went in off the hand of Emiliano Martinez.

In terms of the difference between his xG and xGOT, Greenwood actually ranks poorly when compared to his rivals for a place in the England squad since April 4, with Ollie Watkins' 3.95 xGOT better than his 3.0 xG, which suggests his four goals have come about via good finishing because he has outperformed the underlying quality of his chances.

Ings, Kane and Marcus Rashford have also done better than Greenwood in this area of late, however the counter-argument would be that the teenager perhaps creates his own luck with unpredictable play on the ball and his comfort with either foot.

Southgate will make his decision regarding the squad on Tuesday, and Greenwood is likely still seen as an outsider, but there's no question he has given the manager food for thought.

One round remaining, two teams involved, and just two points separate them.

LaLiga's title race has been at its most gripping in years this term, arguably capturing the imagination more than any since 2006-07.

Back then, there were three teams in with a chance of taking home the title on the final day of the season: Real Madrid and Barcelona, of course, plus Juande Ramos' Sevilla.

As it was, Madrid and Barca won on the last day whereas Sevilla – who needed a win and for the other two to lose – lost at home to Villarreal.

Madrid finished top by virtue of a better head-to-head record over Barca, who were essentially denied the title by their local rivals Espanyol, slumping to a 2-2 draw with them on the penultimate day to hand Los Blancos the initiative.

This time there are only two teams left in the hunt on the final day, with Sevilla and Barcelona bowing out of what was, for a while, a four-way tussle at the summit.

Now it's between Atletico and Madrid, the two city rivals hoping to leave the other wallowing in misery.

Diego Simeone's side looked certainties for the title not too long ago: at the start of February, they were 11 points clear, but their form in the second half of the season has been a little underwhelming.

Having accumulated 50 points in their first 19 league matches, that haul has plummeted to 33 in the 18 matches since, hence why as many as three other teams have threatened to overtake them.

There have been thrills and spills, particularly in the past few weeks, with Atletico securing a dramatic 2-1 win over Osasuna last weekend despite falling behind in the 75th minute. Any result other than a win would have allowed Madrid to go into the final weekend top.

Yet, remarkably, the title is still in Atletico's hands thanks to Luis Suarez's 88th-minute winner on that occasion, meaning they hold the advantage heading into the final weekend.

Atletico go to relegation-threatened Real Valladolid, while Madrid host Villarreal. Who will prevail?

 

How does the predictor work?

First of all, here's how we got the data...

The data model estimates the probability of each match outcome – either a win, draw or loss – based on each team's attacking and defensive quality. Those ratings are allocated based on four years' worth of comprehensive historic data points and results, with more weighting given to recent matches to account for improvements or declines in form and performance trends.

The AI simulation takes into account the quality of the opposition that a team scores or concedes goals against and rewards them accordingly. All that data is used to simulate upcoming matches using goal predictions from the Poisson distribution – a detailed mathematical model – with the two teams' attacking and defending ratings used as inputs.

The outcome of the season is then simulated on 10,000 different occasions in order to generate the most accurate possible percentage chance of each team finishing in their ultimate league position.

Let's see how the model now predicts the final league table will look...

 

Atletico take the crown

All signs point to Atletico sealing the title, their second league crown under the guidance of Simeone and first since 2014, when they also clinched it on the final day.

Our model gives Atletico a 73.9 per cent chance of finishing top – after all, they have won 89 per cent (8/9) of their league meetings with Pucela under Simeone, a record they can only better against Elche, Las Palmas (both 100 per cent) and Osasuna (91 per cent).

Our predictor does expect Madrid to beat Villarreal, as its most likely outcome sees Los Blancos finishing with 83 points, but Atletico know their rivals' result will be irrelevant if they go to Valladolid and win.

Nevertheless, Madrid do still have a 26.1 per cent chance of successfully defending their crown, no doubt helped by the fact they boast a better head-to-head record against Atletico.

If they are ultimately successful, it will be Madrid's 35th league title and their first successive LaLiga crowns since 2006-07 and 2007-08, while Zinedine Zidane would be the first Blancos coach since Leo Beenhakker (three – 1987, 1988 and 1989) to win consecutive titles.

The omens are good for Madrid in terms of them fulfilling their end of the bargain, as Yellow Submarine coach Unai Emery has lost eight of his nine LaLiga matches away to them.

Atletico's result will also help finalise matters near the bottom of the table as well, as Valladolid need to win to avoid the drop, though even that may not be enough to save them.

The predicted table has Valladolid and Huesca – due to their inferior head-to-head record against Elche – following Eibar into La Segunda.

Paris Saint-Germain have won seven of the past eight Ligue 1 titles. This weekend, they might make it eight out of nine.

But this time, the odds are against them.

In the Qatari Sports Investment era, PSG have turned Ligue 1 into their own personal playground, away from the heartache that Champions League tilts tend the bring.

In 2016-17, they missed out to Monaco, whose lavishly gifted young squad came together at the perfect time.

Kylian Mbappe's supernova emergence inconvenienced PSG so much they decided they had to sign him once the campaign ended, but the France sensation had quite the supporting cast.

Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar, Fabinho, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Benjamin Mendy all went on to rake in hundreds of millions of euros collectively as Europe's elite embarked upon a feeding frenzy.

Monaco's triumph spoke of the improbability of PSG being unseated again any time soon, given the extent to which numerous stars would have to align at just the right moment and for long enough before being ripped apart.

However, something feels different as leaders Lille head into Sunday's final matchday needing to match PSG's result at Brest when they travel to face Angers.

Once again, a vibrant youthful core are seeking to take down the kings of France, but if Christophe Galtier's fearless insurgents pull off their heist, it is unlikely their star attacker will have Parisian eyelashes fluttered in his direction.

That is because he is a 35-year-old veteran Turkey striker who, before this season, had never played anywhere outside his home country in Europe.

A free transfer to replace the €70m man

If there was a parallel to Burak Yilmaz in that shimmering Monaco team, it was Radamel Falcao, whose goalscoring nous and experience proved invaluable to Leonardo Jardim's side.

But the Colombia international was enjoying a resurgence, having established himself as one of the most lethal strikers in the world at Atletico Madrid before falling on hard times, initially at Monaco and then during fruitless loan stints at Manchester United and Chelsea.

Yilmaz's CV provides a who's who of Turkish football, counting Besiktas, Fenerbahce, Trabzonspor and Galatasaray among his former employers. While Monaco were getting to work in 2016-17, he enjoyed a hop aboard the fleeting Chinese Super League gravy train at Beijing Guoan.

He arrived at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on a free transfer last August with 224 league goals to his name over the course of a career impressive in its consistency. Nevertheless, it was impossible for the man brought in following Victor Osimhen's €70million departure to Napoli not to feel like an underwhelming replacement.

"During my career, I played in big clubs with a lot of pressure," Yilmaz said during his presentation to the media at Lille.

"I realised that this pressure was an advantage, something positive for me. It continues here in another way, with other objectives. I want to write a new page with LOSC."

Even calling upon all that experience, all that title pedigree from his homeland, Yilmaz surely could not have imagined the fairy tale to which he now only needs to apply the final pieces of punctuation and a definitive full-stop on Sunday.

Bearing teeth for Les Dogues

He went without a goal in Lille's opening four games, but the solid foundation that has become the bedrock of their title change ensured Galtier's men went unbeaten and picked up eight points.

In their fifth match, a late Yilmaz penalty sealed a 2-0 win over Nantes and, next time out, he crowned a fluid team move by outmuscling his marker and sliding home in a supreme piece of centre-forward play. Strasbourg were beaten 3-0 and Lille's attacking fulcrum was off and running, not to look back.

He has 15 goals and five assists in Ligue 1 this season, more goal involvements than any of his team-mates. Jonathan David has two assists alongside his 12 goals and Jonathan Bamba has six goals having laid on nine others.

 

Yilmaz has equalled the most goals scored in France's top-flight in a single season by a Turkish player, level with Melvut Erdinc's haul for PSG in 2009-10.

In terms of goals alone, his is the best debut season for Lille in Ligue 1 since Moussa Sow fired 25 in 2010-11 – the club's previous title success.

Golden autumns and heavy goals

It feels like a good time to be an experienced hitman in Europe right now and Yilmaz is among the most prolific.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo, with 29 despite Juventus' Serie A woes, has more goals across the top five leagues among players aged 35 and over.

Yilmaz is level with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on 15, with Sampdoria's evergreen Fabio Quagliarella up next on 12.

Like Ibrahimovic, Yilmaz has been forced to spend some time on the sidelines since the turn of the year and it is tempting to wonder whether Lille might already have the title in the bag were it not for a calf injury that ruled their talisman out for two months.

Yilmaz was on a run of three in three games before being forced to watch on for nine Ligue 1 rounds. His team-mates ploughed on, winning seven and drawing two of those games and he returned as a man on a mission.

Lille were 2-0 down at Lyon when he thundered home a magnificent 25-yard free-kick. Yilmaz crossed for David to equalise with an hour played and he then charged through to dink in an 85th-minute winner.

 

That was a truly bravura performance, with the calmness under pressure he boldly highlighted eight months earlier proving unshakable. An astonishing 30-yarder as part of a brace in a 3-0 win at Lens was his 15th and best of the campaign, taking Lille to the brink of glory.

Lille's 12 strikes from outside the box are the most in Ligue 1 in 2020-21 and goals of such quality mean Yilmaz is performing well in excess of his expected goals (xG) figure of 9.2. A positive differential of 5.8 is the sixth-best in the elite divisions behind Robert Lewandowski, Marcos Llorente, Son Heung-min, Luis Muriel and Lionel Messi.

Don't look back in Angers

Yilmaz was unable to whip up another dose of magic last weekend, with a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Saint-Etienne meaning Lille's advantage heading into Sunday's decisive fixtures is down to a point.

Their 80 points is already the club's record tally and is built as much on a watertight defence as it is on Yilmaz's attacking fireworks.

Only PSG in 2015-16 (19) have conceded fewer after 37 games than Les Dogues' 22. During the second half of the season, they have kept things improbably tight – letting in just six goals, eight fewer than any other team in the top five leagues over this time. Atletico Madrid, also on the verge of an unforgettable triumph this weekend, are up next with a typically miserly 14.

Lille's Mike Maignan closed out a 21st clean sheet of the campaign against Saint-Etienne, a continental best that puts him three clear of Atleti's Jan Oblak and Manchester City's Premier League Golden Glove winner Ederson.

 

Alongside his clean sheet percentage of 56.8, another leading mark in the elite competitions, he has saved 79.1 per cent of shots faced, which can only be bettered by Oblak (80.2) and Keylor Navas (79.3) of PSG.

Obviously, this makes Lille very hard to beat. They have only lost three Ligue 1 games, although one of those was against Angers in January.

That might set nerves jangling when it comes to the crunch this weekend, but they need only look towards Yilmaz and his air of a man who will not be denied.

It all comes down to this.

Whether you're flying high at the top of your local leagues, battling for the top 100 nationally or just desperate not to lose face with friends, matchday 38 of the Premier League is a decisive moment for fantasy football players the world over.

Amid last-minute transfers, wildcards and triple-captaincies, it can be difficult to find true value in selections that could give you the edge over your rivals.

That's where we come in.

Using Opta data, we have compiled a final selection of seven recommended players to draft in for this most dramatic of weekends...

 

MARTIN DUBRAVKA

If you were considering a Newcastle United goalkeeper but just didn't have the guts previously, now is the time to be bold.

Martin Dubravka kept his first clean sheet of the season last time out as the Magpies beat Sheffield United 1-0.

Next up, they face another relegated side in Fulham, who have scored a league-low nine goals at home in the whole of 2020-21 – and only one since February.

 

AARON CRESSWELL

West Ham's unlikely quest for Europe looks set to end in success, and Aaron Cresswell has played no small part.

The full-back has recorded eight assists this season, the most of any defender in the division. The last time a West Ham player assisted more was when Dimitri Payet set up 12 goals in 2015-16.

The Hammers conclude their campaign at home to Southampton, who haven't beaten David Moyes' side in their most recent six attempts.

STUART DALLAS

Only Patrick Bamford (16) has scored more league goals for Leeds United this season than Stuart Dallas (eight).

On Sunday, Marcelo Bielsa's men host West Brom, who have the leakiest defence in the whole of the division, conceding 73 times in 37 matches.

Leeds are also unbeaten in four against the Baggies, winning three of those games by 10-0 on aggregate, while they have not lost a league game at home to this weekend's visitors since January 2007.

JESSE LINGARD

Part of the reason Jesse Lingard found getting regular football tricky at Manchester United was the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, so it's fitting he should be chasing a record held by the Portugal star.

Last season, Fernandes set a Premier League best by registering 15 goal involvements (eight scored, seven assisted) despite not appearing in the competition until as late as February.

Lingard, who made his Hammers debut on February 3, has recorded nine goals and four assists for Moyes' men, a tally bettered only by Kelechi Iheanacho (12 goals, two assists) over the same time frame. Two more direct goal involvements against Southampton would see Lingard match Fernandes' exploits in 2020.

 

JOE WILLOCK

With his midweek winner for Newcastle against Sheffield United, Joe Willock became the youngest player to score in six consecutive Premier League appearances.

Remarkably, the Arsenal loanee – who is being tipped for a permanent move to the Magpies – has the best minutes-per-goal rate (127) of any Newcastle player in the league this season with at least three goals.

Should he net against Fulham, Willock will become only the second player for the club to score in seven Premier League games in a row, after Alan Shearer in 1996.

HARRY KANE

Whether he stays at Tottenham or not, Harry Kane will be eager to get on the scoresheet at Leicester and boost his chances of claiming the Golden Boot.

His record against the Foxes is promising. Kane has managed 14 goals in 11 Premier League meetings with the team now bossed by Brendan Rodgers, more than he has scored against any other opposition. Those goals have come at an average of one every 65 minutes.

He has hit seven of those at the King Power Stadium, including four in one game in May 2017.

 

CHRISTIAN BENTEKE

Could Liverpool's top-four hopes be dashed by a former Reds player?

Christian Benteke has scored 10 league goals this term, his first double-figure return since he got 15 in 2016-17.

That season's haul included a double away to Liverpool in April and, throughout his career, Benteke has enjoyed facing his old employers: only Andy Cole (eight) has scored more Premier League goals as a visiting player at Anfield than Benteke (five in four games).

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.

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.

Liverpool took a huge step towards a top-four finish on an action-packed Wednesday in the Premier League.

Jurgen Klopp's men beat Burnley 3-0 and, with every team in the division now having played 37 games, they head into the final weekend in fourth – ahead of FA Cup winners Leicester City on goal difference.

There were also away wins for Arsenal and West Ham as two former England managers bade farewell, while the current Three Lions captain saw Tottenham's season take another turn for the worst.

Joe Willock also claimed a piece of history for himself and here we look at that and some of the other best facts as the last midweek round of a condensed campaign came to a close.

Burnley 0-3 Liverpool: Klopp's men go fourth and prosper

Liverpool needed goalkeeper Alisson to head home an improbable last-gasp winner at West Brom last weekend, although this latest victory was more comfortable and arrived via conventional means.

Roberto Firmino became the second player to score in three consecutive Premier League games at Turf Moor after Anthony Martial. Following a difficult season, the Brazil forward's past three league appearances have yielded as many goals (three) as the 19 before.

Three days after Alisson, Nat Phillips also headed his first goal for Liverpool, while Andy Robertson claimed his second assist of the game when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wrapped up the points two minutes from time.

Scotland left-back Robertson has 35 assists since the start of the 2017-18 season. Only Kevin De Bruyne (49) has more in that period.

Crystal Palace 1-3 Arsenal: Gunners late show ruins Roy's farewell

Roy Hodgson was given a guard of honour and a rapturous reception for his final home game in charge of Palace and Christian Benteke continued his recent hot streak to keep hopes of a memorable victory alive.

The Belgium striker cancelled out Nicolas Pepe's opener after the hour, meaning he has scored in four consecutive Premier League appearances for the first time since April 2013.

Benteke is also on to double figures for the first time since he netted 15 times in 2016-17, although stoppage-time goals from Gabriel Martinelli and Pepe stole the points.

The strike from the 19-year-old Martinelli means the Gunners are now 60 matches unbeaten (W50 D10) in Premier League games where a teenager has scored.

West Brom 1-3 West Ham: Moyes sends Allardyce through exit door

Arsenal will not finish in the top six, though, as West Ham's brilliant season continued with a 3-1 win over relegated West Brom – after which Sam Allardyce announced he will leave the Hawthorns.

West Ham's 31 points away from home are their most in a top-flight season since they compiled the same amount in 1985-86, even if victory did not necessarily look likely when Declan Rice recorded the earliest penalty miss in Premier League history after two minutes and four seconds.

Matheus Pereira put the Baggies ahead. His 17 goal involvements (11 goals, six assists) are the most in a single campaign since Romelu Lukaku in 2012-13 (21).

Tomas Soucek's 10th goals of the season levelled matters and Angelo Ogbonna headed in from an Aaron Cresswell corner – the full-back's eighth assist of the season – before Michail Antonio made sure David Moyes enjoyed his eighth consecutive win over the departing Allardyce.

 

Tottenham 1-2 Aston Villa: Spurs slide again

Harry Kane was warmly applauded by the Spurs faithful despite reports of his desire to leave, something a sixth home loss – their most since 2014-15 – did plenty to explain.

All four of Steve Bergwijn's Tottenham goals have arrived as opening goals on home turf, but Sergio Reguilon's own goal brought Villa level.

It was the 1,000th own goal in Premier League history, 41 of which Spurs have been responsible for.

A familiar face proved to be Villa's matchwinner. Ollie Watkins' 14th goal of the season means he has the most by an Englishman in a Premier League debut year since Charlie Austin for QPR in 2014-15 – something that is unlikely to have escaped Gareth Southgate's attention.

Newcastle United 1-0 Sheffield United: Six of the best for Willock

Willock headed the only goal in first-half stoppage time for Newcastle, becoming the youngest player in Premier League history to score in six consecutive games at 21 years and 272 days.

The Arsenal loanee is the third player to complete the feat for Newcastle in the division after Papiss Cisse in 2012 and Alan Shearer in 1996.

It was not for the wont of trying on the part of Allan Saint-Maximin that Steve Bruce's men were unable to add to their advantage. The winger completed 15 dribbles, the joint-most by a player in the top five European leagues this season alongside Lionel Messi against Celta Vigo.

Sheffield United will hope to avoid an unwanted record of their own when they host Burnley on Sunday. This was their 29th defeat of the season, matching the hauls suffered by Derby County (2007-08), Sunderland (2005-06) and Ipswich Town (1994-95). No side has ever lost 30 games in a Premier League campaign.

Everton 1-0 Wolves: Richarlison lifts Goodison Park blues

Richarlison's winner ended a poor home season on a high for Everton.

Their 22 points amassed at Goodison Park in 2020-21 is their lowest in any league campaign in their history when converting to three points for a win.

Gylfi Sigurdsson was a familiar provider from the corner. Since his debut in the competition in January 2012, only Chris Brunt (25) and Christian Eriksen (24) have managed more set-piece assists.

Everton's 14 headed goals are the most of any Premier League side this term.

Five years ago, Stephen Curry made history by being named the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.

With his phenomenal shooting range and deadly accuracy from beyond the arc, Curry fuelled the greatest NBA regular season ever as the Golden State Warriors went 73-9 in the 2015-16 campaign.

Curry joined the select group of players in the 50-40-90 club and became the first person to do so while averaging over 30 points a game. 

It was a year that Curry seemed unlikely to ever top and certainly not in 2020-21, a season that followed a 2019-20 campaign essentially lost to a hand injury and one in which he did not have the benefit of playing with Kevin Durant or the injured Klay Thompson, with the core of the Warriors' dynasty that dominated the league largely gone.

Instead, this was supposed to be the year in which the rest of the NBA exacted a measure of revenge on Curry for torching them so devastatingly and so often.

Yet Curry, like all the greats, takes tremendous joy in subverting expectations, and he has done that to remarkable effect, surpassing his career-high average of 30.1 points per game from 2015-16 by racking up an incredible 32 per game to win the scoring title. The only other player to do so after turning 33 is Michael Jordan.

His consistently talismanic displays have pushed a Warriors team that would otherwise be watching the postseason from home into a mouth-watering play-in game with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. Even if the Warriors lose, they will have another chance to reach the first round with victory over the Memphis Grizzlies or San Antonio Spurs.

Despite his remarkable efforts in extending the Warriors' season, Curry will almost certainly not win the MVP award for the third time, with Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic an apparent lock to claim the honour.

But, after a year in which Curry shattered record after record, there is no doubt he is deserving of receiving the Maurice Podoloff Trophy once again.

 

A history-making year

Curry's scoring title, which he held off Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards to claim, was the crowning achievement of a regular season that saw him write a host of new pages into an NBA record book in which he already dominates several chapters.

He set a league record with 5.3 three-pointers made per game in what was his third season averaging at least 5.0, no other player in NBA history has achieved that feat once.

Curry racked up seven games with 40 or more points and at least 10 threes in 2020-21, his status as the greatest shooter and one of the greatest scorers of all-time illustrated by the fact no other NBA player has more than three such games in their entire career.

Excluding rookies, he is the first player in NBA history to average 30 points per game having played fewer than 10 games in the previous season, with Curry breaking new ground at a time when many athletes begin to see signs of their bodies breaking down.

Indeed, Curry became the first player to have three 50-point games in a season at age 32 or older, while his points per game average was the highest in league history by a player of that age.

And, in a season where the late Kobe Bryant was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, it was only fitting that Curry emulated The Black Mamba. His performance in the January 3 against the Portland Trail Blazers, in which he exploded for 62 points, saw Curry join Bryant in becoming only the second player to score 18-plus points on three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws, Kobe doing so in his 81-point display on January 22, 2006.

As Bryant did so often during his career, Curry continues to find ways to set new boundaries for what is possible on an NBA court and, in 2020-21, he has done so while clearly elevating the play of a supporting cast well below the standard he has gotten used to in the Bay Area.

The impact of Curry's 'gravity'

To say that Curry makes the Warriors better is taking stating the obvious to the extreme, but not since the pre-Durant era has his influence been more readily apparent than a season in which he battled a tailbone injury and missed nine games over the course of the campaign.

The Warriors averaged 112.8 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the court compared to 101.9 when he was off the floor. Their field goal percentage improved from 44.1 per cent to 48.4 with Curry in action while their three-point success jumped from 36.1 to 38.3.

Golden State's effective field goal percentage was 57.1 per cent when Curry played, up from 51.6 when he was absent, and he also improved the Warriors' ability to facilitate.

Their assists per 100 possessions jumped from 24.4 without Curry to 27.6, with the difference in point differential painting a clear picture of his overall impact.

The Warriors' point differential per 100 possessions without Curry was minus 4.5. When he did play, it was plus 4.3.

In other words, in the regular season, Curry was worth 8.8 points per 100 possessions to the Warriors, who benefited from several players raising their games with him on the court.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the player most positively affected by Curry's presence was Draymond Green. With Thompson suffering rotten injury luck, Curry and Green are the remaining pillars of the Warriors' original big three and their chemistry remains excellent.

This regular season, Green averaged 10.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 13.2 assists and 2.5 steals per 100 possessions with Curry on the court. Without him, those numbers dipped to 5.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists and 1.7 steals.

Andrew Wiggins averaged more points (30.4 to 23.6) per 100 possessions when Curry was out, a fact owing to the increased opportunities he gets when No. 30 is unavailable. However, Curry's presence made Wiggins a more efficient shooter.

Wiggins was good on 48.8 per cent of his attempts from the field with Curry compared to 45.9 without him. It was a similar tale with Kelly Oubre Jr, whom the Warriors hope to get back should they make it through the play-in tournament, as Oubre connected on 44.7 per cent of field goals when playing with Curry versus 42.4 the rest of the time.

That increased efficiency is likely a product of Curry's gravity - the extra attention he draws from defenders because of his threat from well beyond the three-point line that creates space for his team-mates.

Unfortunately, the biggest beneficiary of that gravity, center James Wiseman, won't be available in the postseason. A meniscus injury ended the second overall pick's season but the difference Curry made to his game was obvious.

Wiseman had 25.3 points per 100 possessions with Curry and 22.3 when he was missing. His field goal percentage (56.0 to 44.9) and three-point percentage (38.1 to 23.5) were also substantially better when Curry played.

The rookie experienced a similar jump in fast break points, which improved to 3.2 from 0.9 per 100, while he was significantly more effective near the rim with Curry commanding defenses' attention as Wiseman produced more points in the paint (17.9 to 13 per 100) and second-chance points (3.1 to 1.9.)

Curry has made a career out of making opposing big men look silly. Now, after seeing his evident influence on the Warriors' center curtailed, he will likely have to watch another of the game's giants take the top individual prize despite his own stupendous exploits.

Chef Curry vs. The Joker

Jokic has certainly done enough to merit being a frontrunner for MVP. The regular season saw him shoot 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 with at least 30 field goals in a season in NBA history can claim to have topped Jokic in all three of those measures.

Finishing the year with a minutes total of 2,488 that only New York Knicks duo Julius Randle and RJ Barrett topped, Jokic's points, assists and rebounds average of 45.5 per game was the joint-best mark in the NBA alongside Russell Westbrook.

Yet Curry was close behind in fifth with 43.2, with his success in making the disparity between him and Jokic relatively meagre an impressive feat given the advantage the seven-foot Serb has in terms of rebounding.

Curry played nine fewer games than Jokic and, while their minutes per game were comparable (Curry 34.2 and Jokic 34.6), there was a vast difference in points totals.

Jokic finished with 26.4 per game, well adrift of Curry's league-leading mark of 32, which was the most in a season in NBA history by a player averaging fewer than 35.0 minutes per game.

The edge in terms of all-round impact goes to Jokic, but Curry has arguably outstripped a season that ended with him taking every first-place MVP vote in a year where rust and a lack of weapons around him had led some to expect a year of comparative struggle.

This was a season in which Curry unexpectedly redefined what is possible and dragged the Warriors to the cusp of a first-round playoff berth. Jokic's role as chief architect for a Nuggets team much better placed to contend is worthy of the acclaim he has received but, after Curry's stunning show of endurance and consistency in producing the spectacular to keep the Warriors in the running, it should not be a one-horse race for MVP.

Chelsea edged towards Champions League football for next season, but Leicester City's fate is now out of their hands.

The Blues gained swift vengeance for their FA Cup final defeat, running out 2-1 winners over Leicester at Stamford Bridge, meaning the Foxes are now reliant on results elsewhere as Liverpool have a game in hand to play.

Champions Manchester City surrendered a two-goal lead against Brighton and Hove Albion, meanwhile, and Edinson Cavani's stunning goal was not enough for Manchester United. Elsewhere, Leeds United defeated Southampton.

We take a look at the best facts, courtesy of Opta, from across Tuesday's Premier League games.

Manchester United 1-1 Fulham: Cavani delights Old Trafford crowd, but Cottagers hit back

United have now dropped 10 points from winning positions at Old Trafford this season – their highest ever such total at home in a Premier League season – after Joe Bryan cancelled out Cavani's sensational opener.

Cavani became only the third United player over the age of 33 to reach 10 goals in a single Premier League season, after Teddy Sheringham in 2000-01 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2016-17, with a sublime 36.4-yard effort in the first half.

The Uruguay forward is the 25th different United player to reach double figures in a Premier League campaign, but it was not enough for the Red Devils as relegated Fulham gained a point from a losing position at Old Trafford for only the second time in their history in the competition, previously doing so in February 2014.

United have conceded 28 home goals in the Premier League this season – they last conceded more at Old Trafford in a single league campaign back in 1962-63 (38) – with Bryan's first top-flight goal, in his 43rd such appearance, snatching a share of the spoils.

Southampton 0-2 Leeds United: Bielsa's charge continues

There could feasibly still be a European place for Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds, who are just three points behind seventh-placed West Ham heading into the final game of the season after a 2-0 win over Southampton.

It was Leeds' 10th league win on the road this season, their best effort in a top-flight campaign since 1973-74, when they won 12 on the way to winning the title.

Southampton are without a clean sheet in their past 10 home league games (15 goals conceded) after keeping shutouts in six of the eight before that.

Patrick Bamford netted his 16th goal of the season, which is the most by a player from a promoted side since Charlie Austin scored 18 for Queens Park Rangers in 2014-15, with Tyler Roberts' maiden Premier League goal rounding off the success.

Leeds are only the second team in Premier League history to finish a campaign without a single away draw (W10 L9), after Tottenham in 2018-19.

Brighton and Hove Albion 3-2 Manchester City: Seagulls seal famous comeback

Brighton picked up their first ever Premier League victory over City, and their first in the league since 1989, as they came from two goals down to win 3-2 at the Amex Stadium.

Graham Potter's side fell behind to Ilkay Gundogan's early goal – the 10th City have scored in the opening two minutes under Pep Guardiola in the Premier League – but were buoyed by Joao Cancelo's red card.

Timed at 09:03, Cancelo's dismissal was City's second-earliest from the start of a Premier League game, after Dedryck Boyata was sent off after 04:28 against Arsenal in October 2010.

This was just the second time in Premier League history a team starting the day top of the table has led by two goals and lost, after City themselves did so against Man Utd in April 2018.

Their possession figure in this match was just 37 per cent – the lowest recorded by a side managed by Guardiola in a single top-flight match.

Phil Foden has scored 15 goals in all competitions this season. Among players in the top five European leagues currently aged under 21, only Erling Haaland (39) has scored more, but his stunning effort was not enough.

Leandro Trossard and Adam Webster pegged City back, before Dan Burn's first Brighton goal, and his first in the league for any team since April 2018, completed the turnaround.

Chelsea 2-1 Leicester City: Tuchel's team clinch Champions League qualification

After their FA Cup disappointment, Chelsea took a step towards Champions League football, getting revenge in the process.

Jorginho's penalty sealed the win, with Kelechi Iheanacho's goal ultimately proving a consolation, though the Leicester striker is the first player in Premier League history to score a goal on all seven weekdays within a single season. 

No player has scored more Premier League goals in a single campaign with 100 per cent of them coming from the penalty spot than Jorginho's seven this season (level with James Milner in 2016-17). 

Leicester have won just two of their past 30 away league games against Chelsea (D11 L17), winning 1-0 in December 2018 and 2-0 in September 2000.

And the win for Thomas Tuchel's men means that City, United and Leicester, the top three teams starting the day, all failed to win. It is the first time it has happened since January 2017 (Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea).

The NBA's play-in tournament will stage a must-see heavyweight clash when the Los Angeles Lakers host the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday.

While there are no concerns of suffering a season-ending knockout, the one-off contest at Staples Center will dictate the next step for two teams who know all about making title runs.

Few would have expected this scenario back at the start of a season played out amid the backdrop of an ongoing health pandemic.

As the defending champions, LeBron James and the Lakers were viewed as a front runner in the stacked Western Conference. Coming up against a Golden State roster so heavily reliant on Stephen Curry was always a possibility in the playoffs, just not necessarily in this type of scenario.

The winner will be slotted in as the seventh seed, meaning a best-of-seven series against the Phoenix Suns. The loser, however, will have to get past either the San Antonio Spurs or the Memphis Grizzlies – they meet on Thursday – just to get the eighth and final spot available.

If the play-in games were set up to add an extra layer of drama, a match-up that pits two of the sport's biggest superstars against each other is an early gift to start the playoff stretch.

TOP PERFORMERS

LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers

James was firmly in the MVP conversation until an ankle injury on March 20. His first attempt to return to action led to a setback, but the four-time NBA champion featured in the final two outings of the regular season, scoring a combined 49 points.

His fitness will be key to the Lakers' prospects of retaining their crown. They finished the regular season with a 42-30 record yet were 30-15 in games when their star turn featured. That kind of winning percentage across a full campaign would have made sure they did not have to worry about appearing in any play-in contests.

Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors

Having missed the majority of the previous season through injury, Curry certainly made up for lost time with a dazzling regular season.

He finished as the scoring champion, his 2,015 points coming in 63 games as he averaged 32.0 an outing. No one made (337) or attempted more three-pointers (801), while the point guard also shot 91.6 per cent from the free-throw line. MVP, perhaps?

KEY BATTLE – STOP CURRY GETTING HOT

The Warriors will sink or swim based on Curry, but he will need some assistance if they are to prosper in the playoffs. To that extent, as the Lakers focus on shutting down a player capable of catching fire in a hurry, Andrew Wiggins (18.6 points per game in the regular season) will need to step up, particularly as Golden State are still without the injured Kelly Oubre Jr.

Draymond Green can help, too, albeit his average of 7.0 points was his lowest mark since the 2013-14 season, his second in the league when he started in just 12 games. It may well be his primary focus is on defense, though, considering both James and Anthony Davis – confirmed fit to play on Tuesday – will demand plenty of attention.

HEAD TO HEAD

The Lakers are a long way clear in the overall record (257 wins to 169), while they have also dominated in the playoffs – the Warriors have won just one series in seven attempts, with that success coming way back in 1967 when they were still playing under the San Francisco name.

In the 2020-21 regular season, the team from Los Angeles won two of the three meetings. They were dominant in the most recent clash as well, coming out 128-97 winners in March despite several key absences.

It is that time of year again – the NBA playoffs.

Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

The Utah Jazz claimed the best record in the league for the first time in their history, while Eastern Conference top seed the Philadelphia 76ers and the star-studded Brooklyn Nets loom large.

With the play-in tournament due to get under way to determine the final eight teams from each conference set to feature in the playoffs, the Stats Perform AI team have been crunching the numbers to find a worthy winner of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

 

Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

 

Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert experienced consecutive first-round exits in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but featuring in their first Conference semi-final since 2018, the Jazz prove too hot for the fourth-ranked Clippers and take a 4-2 series win. Utah, who beat Los Angeles in two of the three regular-season contests, win the opening three games of the second-round series and never look back as pressure mounts on Leonard, Paul George and the championship-chasing Clippers.

The standout teams in the east, the 76ers and Nets barely raise a sweat en route to the Conference Finals. In pursuit of a first championship since 1983, the 76ers sweep the Knicks 4-0, while the Nets end Miami's hopes with their own devastating 4-0 success.

 

Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

A matchup many predicted when the 76ers appointed head coach Rivers and the Nets landed former MVP Harden in a blockbuster trade with the Houston Rockets in January. Philadelphia's cast of Embiid, fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, sharp-shooter Seth Curry and Danny Green come up against Durant, Harden, Irving and Blake Griffin, and it is Brooklyn who prevail in a thriller. The Nets and 76ers split the opening six games before a deciding seventh game. With a championship berth on the line, Steve Nash's Nets edge the 76ers 112-109 as question marks again emerge over whether the Philadelphia franchise can succeed with both Embiid and Simmons.

Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

 

Jazz make history

The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

Despite a frightening array of talent, the Nets go down 4-1 in the Finals as the Jazz make history, headlined by a resounding 121-102 win in Game 5.

After consecutive Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998, the Jazz finally break through for their first NBA title thanks to coach Quin Snyder, Mitchell, Gobert, Mike Conley and Co.

The results will not be confirmed until later in the postseason, but the NBA's MVP race has been run and there appears to be a clear winner.

After a season in which Joel Embiid and LeBron James were each favourites at a time, and while a number of other contenders made impressive runs, Nikola Jokic is seemingly set to scoop the league's top individual award.

Jokic achieved what the others could not in remaining healthy, starting all 72 games for the Denver Nuggets as they finished third in the Western Conference.

But the 'Joker' was more than just the last man standing in a gruelling campaign, earning his recognition by 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.

A worthy winner, the Nuggets center 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.

Stats Perform reflects on how Jokic ultimately outperformed his opponents to establish himself as the league's main man in 2020-21.
 

Month one: LeBron leaps above Luka

Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo were the preseason MVP favourites, while Los Angeles Lakers duo James and Anthony Davis appeared well set as both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant returned from injuries.

Doncic's hopes quickly took a hit once the campaign got under way, however, as the Dallas Mavericks slumped to 7-7 over the first month, the same middle-of-the-road record that ensured Jokic was not immediately thrust to the forefront of the conversation on a .500 Nuggets team.

Yet the Serbian quietly built the foundations for his awards challenge in that spell. He had five triple-doubles, including three in his first four games, and averaged 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.0 assists.

A 12-4 start for the Lakers meant the anticipated early James calls grew louder, the four-time winner an ever-present and averaging 24.4 points with an impressive 9.3 plus/minus rating.

Month two: Sixers star Embiid emerges

The PAR (points plus assists plus rebounds) chart Jokic topped in month one was led by Antetokounmpo in month two, with Jokic sliding to fourth behind Embiid and Doncic despite averaging 27.8 points over his next 16 games.

James was sixth, adding 27.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game to his totals between January 22 and February 21, but Embiid emerged as a serious contender.

As their star center put up a league-leading 33.9 points over the period, the Philadelphia 76ers improved to 20-11 to lead the East.

Missed games would ultimately cost Embiid, but they added to his case at this stage. He featured in 25 of the Sixers' first 31 outings, sitting out five defeats and only a single win.

Month three: Injuries interrupt favourites

Events in mid-March blew the MVP race wide open.

In the 76ers' win at the Washington Wizards on March 12, Embiid suffered a knee injury. However, James was the clear favourite for just eight days before he sustained a high ankle sprain as the Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks.

Curry could not capitalise as a tailbone issue kept him on the sidelines over the same stretch, instead allowing James Harden to improbably enter the reckoning.

A high-profile yet polarising trade to the Brooklyn Nets should have removed Harden from awards consideration, many argued, but his performances and stat line made a compelling argument.

Between his Nets debut on January 16 and March 21 – the end of the third month of the season – Harden became the key man in his new team's 'big three' and led the league in playmaking with 11.3 assists as Brooklyn went 22-7 with the 2018 MVP on the court.

Month four: Nuggets make their move

Although Harden, Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard – who has long led the league in 'clutch' points this year – all made runs, Jokic was the favourite at the time of James' injury, then with an even more impressive stat line, including 41.6 per cent shooting from three. Month four consolidated that position.

As Harden and Antetokounmpo each sustained injuries in early April, Jokic was boosted by the arrival of Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline.

The Nuggets got only five games (four wins) out of a Jamal Murray-Will Barton-Michael Porter Jr-Gordon-Jokic line-up, yet no five-man group in the league this season which played over 100 minutes averaged more than their 55.6 points per game.

Another injury disrupted Denver, but it was Murray rather than Jokic who went down, the guard tearing the ACL in his left knee.

The Nuggets were on a four-game winning run regardless by April 21 to improve to 38-20, giving Jokic a clear edge over Curry on a Golden State Warriors team hovering below .500.

Month five: Still in the thick of the action

As the playoff picture took shape over the final weeks of the season, a number of stars racked up DNPs to protect themselves for the challenges ahead. Jokic, despite repeatedly insisting he had no interest in the MVP award, did not.

The apparent winner finished the year having played 2,488 minutes, trailing only New York Knicks pair Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.

Sunday's final-day defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers was the first time all year Jokic dipped below 26 minutes in a game, limiting the damage to his impressive numbers.

It meant he protected a healthy lead in the awards race, despite Curry's continued excellence in the final month. The scoring champion averaged an outstanding 35.6 points across his final 12 games to take the Warriors to eighth place.

Denver ended the year on a 13-5 run following Murray's injury, with Jokic putting up 26.9 points. Few can argue he is not a worthy MVP winner.

It's always nice to start with a "thank you".

If you're in the business of picking out some of the most noteworthy and unusual statistics from a Premier League weekend, a goalkeeper scoring the winning goal in stoppage time for one of the most famous clubs in world football does much of the job for you.

Alisson, we salute you.

However, Jarrod Bowen might not be saluting David Moyes, while the current incumbents at Goodison Park have few reasons to be cheerful.

All you need is glove

There was no doubt over the moment of the weekend or, for that matter, the moment of Liverpool's lacklustre season in defence of their Premier League title.

Alisson trotting up from his own half to head home a stunning winner for the ages at West Brom is sure to be replayed countless times over the coming years.

Brazil's number one became the first goalkeeper in Liverpool's 129-year history to score a competitive goal for the club.

He is the sixth goalkeeper to score in the Premier League, joining Peter Schmeichel, Brad Friedel, Paul Robinson, Tim Howard and Asmir Begovic on an exclusive list.

Remarkably, Alisson is the first keeper in the competition to score with his head.

Jurgie time?

The identity of the goalscorer was absurd and, at 94:18, it was Liverpool's latest away winner since Christian Benteke struck against his current employers Crystal Palace in March 2016.

However, Liverpool have made last-gasp winners something of a forte in the Premier League, despite such acts typically being associated with their most bitter rivals.

The Reds have scored 38 winners in second-half stoppage time, 13 more than any other club. Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham all have 25.

This sense of a never-say-die attitude has found fresh impetus under Klopp. Since his appointment in October 2015, Liverpool have recovered 94 points from losing positions – more than any other Premier League club during this time.

Teenage kicking for Carlo

Another game involving a Merseyside club and another unlikely goalscorer, but it was tale of woe for the hosts at Goodison Park.

Relegated Sheffield United beat Everton 1-0 thanks to an early goal from debutant Daniel Jebbison. At 17 years and 309 days, Jebbison became the youngest player to score a match-winning goal since Federico Macheda (17 years and 232 days) did so for Manchester United against Sunderland in April 2009.

There are not too many home comforts for Toffees boss Carlo Ancelotti right now. Only Fulham (four) – who, like the Blades, will be playing Championship football next season – have claimed fewer than their six home points in 2021.

Nine home defeats overall is the joint-most Everton have suffered in a league campaign, alongside similarly slim returns in 1912-13, 1947-48, 1950-51 and 1993-94.

Bowen on the board

Jarrod Bowen has enjoyed a productive season at West Ham, scoring eight goals and laying on five assists for David Moyes' men.

The former Hull City favourite might argue he would have been even more use with a few more minutes on the field.

Before the late drama in Saturday's 1-1 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion, Bowen was substituted – the 23rd time this season he has been withdrawn during a match this term.

Aston Villa's Bertrand Traore didn't see the final whistle in the 3-2 weekend loss to Crystal Palace and has made way 22 times – the same amount as Tottenham midfielder Tanguy Ndombele.

Daniel Podence (19), Leandro Trossard (16), Alexandre Lacazette, Roberto Firmino and Miguel Almiron (15) are the other men in the division who must most dread the sight of the fourth official's board.

Ferran Torres is reaping the benefits of relocating a positive outlook at Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola stating the Spain forward was "upset with the world, with many situations".

Torres netted a fine hat-trick, which began with a spectacular improvised volley, when the Premier League champions won 4-3 at Newcastle United last Friday.

Those goals moved Torres onto 19 for club and country this season, although his form tailed off considerably during the middle of the campaign – a situation that was compromised by a bout of coronavirus.

Speaking ahead of Tuesday's match at Brighton and Hove Albion, Guardiola reiterated the value he places upon players remaining upbeat when form and selection are not going their way, suggesting Torres has fallen short in this regard at times since joining from Valencia for £21.2million last August.

"The players, like teams, are not a stable situation. There is up and down with all players," Guardiola said.

"Ferran was in an incredible mood when he arrived, [then] in one period sad, upset with the world, with many situations and that's why he didn't play good. When he changed his mind and he was open and he started to smile again, always he played good.

"And the football depends on the mood, the confidence of the players. We try to help them but it depends on them. You can complain or you can move forward all the time. And the guys who move forward and they are positive, always football rewards you.

"When you start to complain all the time, then the train comes over you and other guys will take your position.

"Football doesn’t wait. If you're not in the right moment, there will be another guy who will take your position. When you are positive, the guys are always playing good."

Torres has scored 13 times for City in all competitions this season, putting him level with Gabriel Jesus. Only Ilkay Gundogan (16), Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling (all 14) have scored more.

The 21-year-old's minutes-per-goal rate of 159.85 is comfortably the best in Guardiola's squad, with no other player who has scored five or more times below 200 minutes.

Nevertheless, his season can be split into three fairly clear sections.

From the start of the campaign up to and including a goalscoring contribution to a home win over Newcastle on Boxing Day, Torres scored seven times for his club and also hit a hat-trick in Spain's 6-0 Nations League thrashing of Germany.

For City, he averaged 0.56 goals per 90 minutes and boasted a shot conversion rate of 20 per cent, out-performing an expected goals (xG) figure of 5.75 and vindicating Guardiola's decision to frequently deploy a natural winger at the centre of his attack.

"We used him in that position because for quite a long period of the season Gabriel and Sergio [Aguero] were injured," he said.

"We have players that can play in different positions and Ferran is one of them."

Then, COVID-19 struck and Torres became a more marginal figure, featuring 10 times between the turn of the year and the March international break and netting a solitary goal against League Two Cheltenham in the FA Cup.

That paltry return came from 15 shots over this period, amounting to a conversion rate of 6.67 per cent and an xG under-performance (2.24).

It means the stint of low mood that Guardiola mentioned is not too hard to pick out, although back-to-back goals in Spain's World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Kosovo appear to sparkTorres once more.

In six appearances and five starts for City since, he has five goals at a rate of one every 83.2 minutes, far exceeding his 1.77 xG.

Torres' conversion rate during this most recent spell is up at 41.67 per cent and the poaching instincts that were to the fore in his second and third goals against Newcastle are borne out in the fact he has scored three of his past four "big chances", according to Opta.

His opener does not fall into that category, but such an ingenious move coming off is perhaps indicative of a player back in form and giving his manager a useful problem ahead of this month's Champions League final.

"The goal was so nice, difficult execution. An absolutely talented action," Guardiola added.

"In training sessions he always has the ability in front of goal. He is a good finisher. He has pace, quality and good decision-making."

As City continue to be linked with mega-money moves for a new striker and Aguero prepares to leave the Etihad Stadium after a record-breaking decade, maybe they have a very useful solution in-house.

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